Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What is rest?

I've been thinking about what it means to let the mind rest, which is what we do in zazen (sitting meditation). This comes with the realization that I don't really know how to do this (even after 9 years of practicing). I realize that I tend to dream a lot (as many of us do), replaying snippets from the past, speculating on the future, planning, making lists, etc. When I try to let all of that go, I tend to get sleepy. One thing that this tells me is that I'm escaping in two primary ways: working on something, or sleeping.

I'm not being all that judgmental here, though it sounds like it. I think many people are in this situation without really seeing that. I'm trying to see what's really going on here. My lifetime M.O. has been to distract myself from difficult emotions or situations either by working or by sleeping (or otherwise shutting down, if actual sleeping is not possible). Work can be defined pretty broadly, including that planning, strategizing, speculating, etc., that I can do endlessly on the cushion if I don't stop myself.

The problem is that when I do manage to stop myself, I get sleepy. And what I realize about that is that this is another attempt to escape the present.

So, what does it mean to let the mind rest? Just to sit still? To notice what is happening around me, to appreciate the morning, the sounds of birds, the light on the carpet in front of me, the comfort (or lack of it) of my body sitting. I've been trying to bring this mind of zazen gently to noticing how much I try to work, sleep, or otherwise escape, while I'm on the cushion. Just to notice, not to judge.

This is still not easy for me. I will keep working on it, though. Once in a while I find myself in equanimity, just resting, just sitting still. It's a nice place to be.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Long update

I decided to share a long journal entry with you all today. The context is that my teacher has finally recommended that I consider counseling outside the Center, and I have an appointment tomorrow (Wednesday). I've never done any extended counseling before, though there was a short bout of couples counseling with one of my earlier relationships, and one or two sessions with various people over the years. I have a better sense of what I need to work on now, though, as a result of the work I've been doing the last 2-1/2 years.

Yesterday I decided I wanted just to write a bunch, without trying to keep it to one page, and I then put that together with what I had written the day before. Here's the result.

--- 5/31/08. Anxiety about this counseling thing. I just identified some of it -- expectations. The whole goal-oriented, quantified outcomes thing totally smacks of expectations and judgement, both of which I've been working hard to let go of. I have an hour and half every day (of zazen, sitting meditation) when I can sit and do nothing, when I can drop all of that. It's a treasure, and I'll be taking advantage of that for a while yet, even in the summer when it's not on the schedule.

I was thinking of "M." She was a student who we labeled "difficult" in some ways. Her resistance came out in interesting ways, criticism, sometimes going to anger, general complaining and bitching. She didn't cooperate in some ways, but she kept coming to class in the face of formidable obstacles -- most notably the fact that she lived a 35-minute drive away, outside of our bus range, and so she had to get herself and her children to our program on her own. She had a 5th grade education in her home country, and was barely literate. She had left two older children behind with her mother in order to pursue survival in the United States.

She kept working on it all. She gradually learned enough English to function. She got a work permit and got a job. She negotiated getting her car fixed, in English.

One of the things she "refused" to do was to write in her dialog journal. We figured it was because she didn't want to write about anything personal, that she wanted to stay private. After a couple of years she began to turn in journals with some English phrases that I recognized as being from an ESL text (by this time she was taking community college classes in English). I responded by trying to turn it into her own experience, to make it more meaningful. For example, she would write about going to the bank, and I would ask where she went to a bank, which bank, did she drive to the bank, etc. She didn't respond at first, just wrote more phrases from the book.

Finally, a few tentative sentences. I spoke to her one day and said I appreciated how she was beginning to write in her journal. Her response was, "this is very hard for me." I suddenly realized that I had been making a lot of judgements and labeling as resistance a matter of a task that was quite simply overwhelming to her, beyond her capabilities.

This is how I feel about emotional work. Tracing down anger is this dance that is very difficult, and sometimes quite simply beyond me. I'm beginning to learn, but I've been a helpless infant in this area. I'm beginning to try to crawl and maybe even to walk, but I'm still awfully wobbly. This is very hard for me.

My students used to express gratitude for my patience. I don't know where I learned patience and calm -- I have felt little enough of both toward myself during this emotional work. However, I do see it in my own teachers. They have been putting up with me as we all did with M. -- trusting that she would somehow find her way through. And she did.

I've had a fear of my teachers tiring of me, my own getting tired of it, of wanting things to clarify, to change in some way. This then taps into old habit energy patterns that say I'm not worth all of this attention and care and patience, that I don't deserve to live. And there goes that spiral downward.

I saw it happen last week, that tipping over from acceptance into despair. I couldn't seem to stop it. I just finally had to ride it all the way down. I do think these episodes are becoming a little shorter.

Sunday, June 1, 2008, 7:30pm
I waited in the sitting room of the Dharma House for Sanzen with Kyogen this morning. There was a green fleece blanket in the wicker wastebasket next to the fireplace in front of me. I recognized it, and wondered what it was doing there. It doesn't belong there, I thought, wanting to rescue it, put it somewhere else, find a way to let everyone know this isn't acceptable. But I was sitting zazen, and there were others in the room also waiting for Sanzen sitting zazen, and I couldn't jump and disturb them, nor was it the right time to do anything about this.

My mind was jumping all over the place. Sunday morning, cleaning up after Kakumyo, jumping into robes at the last minute, deciding on Sanzen at the last minute, mind whirling. I could feel fatigue alternating with all these thoughts of managing this, that, the other thing.

Calm down, I think. Settle. Zazen, sanzen, I don't even know what to talk about today. My student M.? Okay, maybe. My ineptitude at emotional stuff? What's real right now? What's alive right now? I tried to bring the mind of zazen to watch my emotions. They swirled around, slammed against a wall. I feel like a rat in a maze, backed into a corner. Want to hunker down, get small, disappear.

Okay. I know that reaction -- try to escape, be invisible. The only emotion I really know is fear, and my reactions careen off this wall and then the other as I ride the elevator sideways, out of control.

Okay, that's getting closer to what's really going on.

The person sitting next to me goes in for sanzen, and I look at my watch, almost 9am, close enough for the kesa verse. I take out my kesa and put it on my head, saying the verse silently. I put on the kesa, still chanting silently, ending in gassho.

Pretty soon the bell rings and I go in. I tell the story of M. I tell Kyogen that's how I feel about emotional stuff -- it's very hard for me (at this point I begin to cry, nothing unusual there). I tell him I have a lot of respect for M., though, because she kept at it.

It occurs to me now that she was only able to tell us hard it was when she was beginning to crack the code, beginning to see how it worked. She finally began to see writing as something she hadn't known how to do, something that was hard for her. It was an important turning point for her. It clarified something for her, something she needed to work on, something she could begin to see she could work on, not just some huge overwhelming blob that couldn't ever be penetrated.

My students have taught me so much.

Kyogen listened to me and nodded understandingly. We talked a little about difficult students we have known and how really we all know that we will keep working, keep trying to find a way to help each other get down the road. I confessed anxiety about this counseling thing. He reassured me that counselors were kind, not out to get me or show how inadequate I may be. Finally, he said he would be interested if I wanted to share something of my process with him. It might be better to keep it somewhat separate, but it would be up to me.

We looked at each other then. I saw his kindness. I saw his trust of me, and my own trust of him. "Thank you" was in my mind, and maybe in my eyes, but it didn't come out of my mouth. He smiled and rang the bell.

Still Busy -- May 23

Well, I did manage to get back from retreat last Sunday, and it's just been another busy week. The retreat was good. The anxiety I felt over working in the kitchen kicked up the first afternoon, and I almost panicked, just barely keeping it together. MrK, the tenzo, kindly put me to cleaning up things and dealt with the problem on his own. I felt awful, and cried through one afternoon.

But after that, I was able to calm down and things went better. In fact, he found things for me to do that I felt confident about -- pie crust, bread, biscuits, dishwashing, cookies, and a few other things. And it all worked out well.

It felt strange to be on retreat and not only not be leading chants, but in fact not even being in the zendo during two of the four services of the day because I was in the kitchen instead. A very different experience. Every retreat has been a different experience for me. I'm learning just to expect that this will be the case.

Since I've been back there has been a lot going on, both externally and internally. I got a letter from the Department of Corrections scheduling me for a volunteer training. Along with that, I had to do self-study with a booklet that is online, print out the last 15 pages of self-test and fill those out, and sent those in yesterday. The training will be June 5 in Salem. After that, at some point I will do a tour of the facility I am volunteering at (Coffee Creek Correctional Facility -- CCCF), and somewhere in there get my own ID badge. This should allow me to go to the prison by myself as needed.

I was planning to go this evening, but the person who was scheduled to do it has come down sick, and so we're cancelling the group. Once I get my card, I could jump in for others who have things come up like that.

I saw an e-mail about a chaplancy study program being offered through Upaya Zen Center (where I went in 2003 for a weekend). It looks wonderful, and I think I could probably fold it in to my training here. But it costs $5400, and they don't offer scholarships. With no income, and my money running out, this is simply not an option. Sigh. Oh, well.

I've pretty much given up on going to China next year with our group as well. So, yes, my money is almost gone. I need to sell my car quickly, and hope I'll get enough money to pay for some of what I've put out to maintain it this last few years. I need to quit paying insurance, gas, etc. I use it very little. But selling it is work in itself, and not work I'm that interested in.

Some of the work this week has been a result of the retreat -- laundering linens and washing bowls and utensils from oryoki sets, not to mention my own laundry and bowls. I like to put our sets away clean and ready to go for the next time we need them rather than trying to assemble them right beforehand when time is tight and there are a million things to do at the last minute.

I've been doing more and more as jisha, sometimes kind of impromptu. Jisha is a word meaning something like the one who carries incense, and that is the hallmark of what a jisha does during a ceremony. But it also extends to meaning a teacher's assistant. Our teachers are a bit different from most Zen teachers in that they don't like the idea of personal assistants, and rarely tolerate much in the way of personal attending (i.e., we don't tend to bring them tea on a set schedule, etc.). I'm getting more comfortable with the choreography of how a jisha moves during a ceremony, and how to hold incense. Still forgetting at least one thing every time, and sometimes making what I consider spectacular mistakes (which most other people who are not jishas don't notice).

This week I suddenly had to oversee sanzen (teacher interview), which I had not been trained on. My teacher knew this, and didn't expect me to do the extra setup and bows required. That afternoon, I had Jyoshin teach me how to deal with sanzen, and hopefully now I will be able to do this. I've had to do at least one Saturday morning, and will also do tomorrow morning because the jisha scheduled for that has a conflict and asked whether I would do it. The drawback of being someone who lives here is that I'm always available and easy to tap. The advantage to that is that I get more practice than many others.

Since I've been back this week I've had very little time to spend in the kitchen here. I want to do more of that, but really am just trying to catch up on everything. We're back into newsletter production, and I've had a fair amount of that to do. Had a meeting yesterday that I had to type up minutes from. Put together a flyer for an August event today. Next will have to get it onto the web. Etc.

Heading Out Again -- written May 11

Well, things have been very busy the last month, and tomorrow we leave for the monastery for a week-long retreat. There will be periods of busy-ness there, as well, because I'm assistant tenzo again, so all my work periods will be in the kitchen. But the rest of the time will be primarily silence, lots of sitting meditation in silence, with some interviews with teachers, some dharma talks, and some chanting services. I may have to miss most of the chanting services in favor of the kitchen, not sure yet. I find myself looking forward to the quiet, and the fact that there will be no more actual decisions to make, no more conversations (other than with the teacher), a time to focus inward, a structure that will keep me contained.

I did two talks in the last month, at Term Student retreats (everyone who participated in the retreats was required to give a 10-minute talk). Here's how I ended the one yesterday. It outlines the beginning of my days. The talk was about love, and the point I was making was that everything I do here is about love.

The alarm goes off at 5:10. Some days I'm already awake, and other days I struggle to come out of slumber. I get out of bed around 5:20 or so, make the bed as I get out of it. I wash and dress and head out the door, turning off the porch light and locking the door carefully behind me.

I walk the three blocks to the Dharma house, looking at the sky, listening to the birds, smelling the air, appreciating the fact that I can walk in this wonderful world.

At the Dharma House I take off my shoes as I enter the side door so I can walk quietly upstairs toward the front door inside. Hang up my jacket and put my shoes where I can easily find them in a few minutes. I go upstairs, put my purse away, get out of some of the clothes I just put on in exchange for a sitting robe. Get my shawl to stay warm. Back downstairs, where I may or may not get a drink of water, and then put my shoes and shawl on and go out the front door, across the street to the Zendo.

I go in the basement door, put my shoes and socks and keys away, get my kesa case, get a drink of water (if I didn't do that at the Dharma House), and go upstairs the zendo.

I check to make sure the zendo is set up all right, look to see whether there are things I need to do, and either take care of them or assure myself that someone else has it covered. I take care of what is mine to take care of, and then take my seat by 6am.

I do this every day except Sunday, when the schedule is different, and my service to the community takes a different, perhaps more public form.

April is busy -- written April 27

Okay, take 10 minutes to do a quick update. Lotsa stuff happening, right after another after another. Friday I went and picked up new shelves for the newly-remodeled laundry room. MrK put them together, and I painted the shelves, since the sun was out. 9 shelves altogether (this is Rapid Rack shelving -- with metal frames and adjustable shelves, and particleboard shelves). Put a coat of primer all over, and a coat of gloss enamel on one side of each. In between did some office work, updating the website, etc.

Friday evening I finally went to Coffee Creek (women's prison near Wilsonville) for my first visit. I went with Getsushin, who is the director of the prison program here. She's in her 70s, a retired UofO professor, an interesting woman originally from Norway, and with a pretty strong accent still. She has spent time in Africa, France, and various other countries. She has been ordained here for several years, and is also transmitted and can give the Precepts. She has been working in the prisons for several years now.

Anyway, we went to the Medium building, and I sat in on the weekly group there. They do check-in first, then 20 minutes of sitting meditation, and then study a text. Getsushin uses the text as an anchor for discussion, which is the way I like to do these kinds of groups as well. How does the dharma apply to our daily lives and the issues we're working with. In prison, people are having to deal with making sense of their lives and trying to find ways to change how they've always done things. The prison environment both helps and hinders that process. Our work there is to help people find a way to work with the environment, to take advantage of the opportunity provided by having your life completely disrupted and stopped in some ways, to take a close look at what's going on and find a way to live more authentically, more wholesomely. Anyway, I enjoyed the discussion a lot, and the women seemed to enjoy it as well. They all thanked me for coming and asked me to come back. We told them that the eventual plan is for me to work in Minimum on Saturdays, and a couple of them are scheduled to move to Minimum soon, I gather.

I got back home a little after 10 (because Getsushin and I talked a bit as she dropped me off, of course), and then got up at 4:15am yesterday so I could do the Zazenkai all day yesterday. That is, we were in silence from 5am to 5pm, with formal oryoki meals (like we do on a silent retreat), chanting services, and lots of sitting meditation, about 8 hours of that during the 12-hour time period. It was hard at the time in a lot of ways, and yet I find that today I can feel the benefits of having done it. And now, in a moment, it will be time for breakfast, and that will begin Sunday morning programs, which are always fun and tiring.