According to the schedule posted for today, until 2:00 it's More Of The Same.
Tea, kinhin, sitting, breakfast, damp mopping, sitting, kinhin, chanting, chanting, chanting, lunch, sitting, dokusan.
I was smart enough this morning to not take that vitamin on an empty stomach. Someone left out some of the shelled walnuts from last night's evening snack. I scarfed a small handful of those and downing them with water and the vitamin on my way out the door at 5:20 a.m. What a difference. The "kan ze on" chant, which I have always liked, was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. I still don't know it by heart, but this morning I was able to sit and listen to it in the dark with my eyes closed. No restless stomach, no shakiness, no being overwhelmed. I just sat and listened and felt it and loved it.
It's been a good morning, but not without it's challenges.
Remember Oddball, the Donald Sutherland character in "Kelly's Heroes?" "Negative waves, man. Negative waves."
So much has been right. So much of me has felt tuned in, calm, glad to be here in spite of the aches and pains, despite secretly counting down the hours till I see Sam and Jennifer again, before I stop at the burrito shop and pick up a big, greasy dinner on the way home.
But That Guy. And That Other Guy. And Him.
I find the thoughts-- or, more than the thoughts, the feelings-- popping up over and over and over again. And I don't love that. I don't like it.
I don't know if this crankiness, this judgmental, pissy attitude, has gotten worse over the past day and a half, or if in all this silence, all this mindfulness, I'm just noticing it more. I mean, yes, I've always been critical, opinionated, a little bit controlling. I have that. But do I always let things get to me like this? Is this new, or is this just one of the more unpleasant gifts of heightened awareness, the ability to see pretty clearly into the uglier parts of myself?
I mean, That Guy. He sat at my table again this morning for breakfast, and he doesn't get this whole meal time routine at all. This is three meals now that have not gone smoothly. I mean, we had to wait like 30 seconds before we could all stand up because he didn't remember to put his bowl on the table. And he put his chopsticks in the wrong spot every damn time! And, man, during zazen? Shifting his weight constantly. Can't sit still. Fidgeting. It's enough to make you crazy.
That Other Guy? He doesn't like me. We haven't spoken at all, but I know he doesn't like me. I can feel it. It just pulses right out of him. He doesn't like me one bit. And I know why he doesn't like me: he doesn't like me because he's an asshole. And I have to wonder: why would an asshole even come to something like this?
And Him. Him means well, but come on man, this isn't rocket science. Fall in line.
And seriously, did I actually see someone texting in the Dharma Hall this morning? And what the hell was all that googly eyes between women in the kitchen during the work period? Keep your eyes to yourself, isn't that a rule? No secret eye talk allowed.
The thoughts just keep spilling out. At times, I'm calm, clear, full of gratitude. At other times, I can taste the bitterness, feel the sting on my tongue, the turning in my gut. I'm back and forth between the two.
And now the bell rings from upstairs.
I strike the bigger bell twice with the hammer. I go up the stairs. I enter the room. I bow. I do my prostrations.
I planned on bringing up all this bitter stuff with roshi. Planned on it, but I don't. I wanted to ask her advice. I wanted to ask her how to deal with it, how to deal with that frustration. But I know I didn't want just that. I know I already mostly knew the answer to that. What I wanted was to say it out loud. "That Guy is just no good at all!" That would have made me better, more. I know there's a pettiness to that, and so I mention none of it. Instead, I acknowledge that I'm having some hard times here, but I focus mostly on yesterday's "moments" instead. Then we talk about breathing. Then she asks me if I would like to formally join the Zen Center.
I know that roshi is most likely asking every new person here if they would like to join. I know this isn't something that's just for me, that marks me out as special or different from the others. I know that, but it doesn't matter. I feel a little bit honored by the offer. I say yes, yes I would like to join. I've actually wanted that for some time, but have been hesitant (my past experiences with belonging to a church, being a part of that organized faith, were not entirely positive ones). Now, with the question out there, all I feel is "yes." I head back down the stairs for more sitting, pleased with the meeting, and resolved to not hang on to this bitterness. To let the story go. I mean, we're all going to be a big family soon, right? "Love, love, love, love, Christians this is your call." Some variation on that.
No time for a nap today.
Things are winding down. After lunch, there's work to be done. The tables and chairs from the dining area need to be put away. People have packed their overnight belongings, and furniture needs to be moved back to where it was before 30 house guests arrived and threw everything into disarray. There's a form to be filled out for new membership. Busy, busy.
At 1:30, I go to the zendo. I'm joined by three others-- the two women from my shoken ceremony, and a young guy, probably in his early twenties.
There's actually some talking now. Still a lot of silence, but when people are moving furniture, there's by necessity some talking ("watch that step," "ready, lift," "where I am I supposed to put this?"). And now there's talking here in the zendo. The doors are closed. The four of us are joined by two monks, two women who are showing us the new membership ceremony, walking us through it.
I've been with these two monks a lot these past few days. One has generally seemed pleasant, easy going, good natured. She gave one of the early orientations. The other has seemed more stern. She's led most of the services. She has a title, but I can never remember it. Basically, after roshi, she's In Charge. She has always looked very serious. Severe, at times.
Now, both are smiling. Both are laughing. I'm seeing past the formality, I'm seeing more of the real nature, the at-ease-ness. They walk us through everything. Twice. Three times. I joke that if we screw up, we have to start sesshin all over again. They laugh, but both assure us that the broad strokes are more important than the details. It's the spirit of it that matters.
The doors eventually open. There's tea. There's sitting. There's chanting.
Roshi stands. She introduces us. The four of us, seated in different parts of the zendo, stand. We bow in unison. We walk carefully, falling into a pattern, into lines, move through the zendo and eventually to the front of the room, to where roshi stands, before the statues of Buddha. Roshi has us turn and introduce ourselves to the sangha (sangha means group, or something like "church family," "gathering of practitioners"). I again explain, this time to everyone, that I want to continue to practice because I think I'm a better person to be around when I do. Because I think that, whether they know why or not, my wife and my boy like me better when I'm sitting consistently. The others introduce themselves. They say good things. Things that make me like them, care about them. They strike me as good people.
We turn again. There is some bowing. I'm not sure if I'm getting it all right. I step forward and take a piece of incense. I light it in the flame of an oil lamp. I put out the flame in the incense with two fingers, so that just the red ember remains. I bow to roshi. Then I begin my slow, stately procession throughout the zendo, in front of and around and through all the people sitting there, the incense between two fingers of my hands, which are in a prayer gassho before me. The others follow, doing the same. There is chanting as we pass through. We eventually return to the front, place the remains of our incense in a bowl, and return to our cushions.
We are officially Zen Buddhists now.
The next couple of hours are hard.
The sitting has become painful again. From 3:25 till 3:55, I can't stop fidgeting. My nose is running like crazy, and I've been rubbing at it with a tissue every couple of minutes. Between dabs at the nose, I'm redistributing my weight. Cracking my back. Rolling my shoulders. Shifting. I can't sit still. My mind is everywhere. I'm afraid I must be driving the guys next to me crazy. I realize I'm done. This day goes till 5:00, but I'm done. It's over for me. Hooray, I'm officially a Buddhist now, but can I go home early? There's nothing left in this for me today. I've spent all I have to spend, and I'm not going to get anything more back.
At 3:55, the bell rings. Time for some kinhin. I spend most of it in the bathroom, blowing my nose, making a racket.
At 4:00, I'm on the cushion again, about to return to my restlessness, about to resign myself to just getting through this anyway I can ("I'll make a mental list of every book I've ever read"), when it occurs to me: this is it. This is my last chance. From 4:00 till 4:30 will be the last round of sitting for sesshin. Then it will be over. This is the last experience I'm going to have of sitting in my first sesshin. I don't want that final experience to be spent making a list of books, or thinking about burritos, or reviewing work place personnel issues.
I breathe through my mouth, deeply, exhaling. "Just let go of the story." I inhale, again through the mouth. My nose is plugged, this will have to do.
I feel the knees. They hurt. But the knees hurt. My mind doesn't have to. "Just let go of the story."
I feel my back. It hurts. I breathe in, and I elongate the spine. It still hurts. But it hurts less.
I breathe out. "Just let the story go." I breathe out slowly, completely. I breathe out till there's nothing left inside there, till it's gone, till my lungs are as close to empty as they can be.
For a fraction of a fraction of a second, I live in that space between the two breaths, that empty space, that pause. Then I let the belly expand, let the belly bring the breath back in. Slowly. And I breath out, "mmmmmmmuuuuuuuuu" (nothing, the negation, no, not, non, the "no" that doesn't answer a question but that says "your question isn't the question"). Again. Again.
And then. And then something that I don't know how to describe. After the fact, when I think on it, when I visualize it, I'll put colors in there. I'll understand it only as colors, through colors, a swirl of colors. I'll see that, but I don't know that I'm seeing it now. For a second, a fraction of a second or maybe for always, I see a piece of old furniture, something out of my childhood, with the press-on wood finished all peeled away, the treatment stripped down, the bare wood underneath like it never was when I was a child. That image, fleeting, will stay with me for a long time after when I think back on it, but that image is nothing, it's a flash.
I wonder, briefly, when my mind has popped in to check things out, if I'm dreaming now, if I've been dreaming. But I realize, I realize in a sort of observational disconnected way, that my eyes are wide open. They've been open. I'm awake. I see the people in front of me and I somehow know that I've been seeing them. The question fades away, irrelevant. The colors-- but there aren't colors, not really-- continue flashing. My knees come back to me a second, just long enough that I know they're there, but that they have not been relevant. I feel my body, but I feel my body in a new way, as if I'm truly in my body, not simply only in possession of my body, as if I'm fully settled within it and so notice it as little as a fish notices the water or a bird notices the sky. I'm in it, there. But even that thought doesn't come till later, doesn't explain itself at the moment, is only passing, is only on the margin.
What I feel is ecstasy. What I feel is beyond words, and the only words I know that come close, that I will try to attach later, come from early Christian writers. Joyful overflowing. Ecstatic trance. Fullness. None of them describe it quite right. But it's there. That something, that everything, that sense of well-being and completeness and oh-my-god-what-is-this?-ness.
I know, after, when there are words, that this isn't the point of Zen. This isn't what it's all about. That this in fact can become a trap. That those who chase the ecstasy are missing the deeper understanding that comes with mature practice, which comes with seeing into the true nature of self and the world. I know that this isn't a goal, and I won't let myself become confused.
It's a pleasant stop though. An amazingly pleasant stop. A glimpse of something worth glimpsing. A glimpse of something that makes the aching knees, the burning back, the tight neck and shoulders, hungry stomach, the stinking feet (so long since a shower...) all a small price to pay.
The bell rings, it's been a half hour, and I can't believe it's over. This half hour has gone by too quickly. I want to continue sitting there, I want to stay on that cushion. But I stand. Everyone stands. I stand with them. I stand with them wondering if they can see it, wondering if I'm glowing, if there's a light pouring down on me from heaven, thinking that surely they must have seen that something amazing and miraculous happened. But no one seems to notice. They are standing. Looking forward. Maybe standing in their own light.
We walk our final kinhin. I can't get the big dumb grin off my face.
When we sit again, there's tea. A final ceremony. Some words from the roshi. And then it's over.
There are hugs all around. The women who have just joined are beaming, thrilled, elated. Members of the sangha hug me, welcome me. There are so many voices. Everyone is talking, engaging. People who have not seen each other in a while before sesshin are catching up. We stand for a group picture. Part of me wants to stay, more of me, still reeling from that last sitting, wants to get home, wants to see Sam and Jennifer, wants to take this home with me.
I stop at the burrito shop. It's closed. I go next door to the Chinese take-out place and load up on greasy food, more calories of spring rolls and fried tofu and sesame noodles than everything I've eaten all sesshin.
I drive home. My driving is erratic. I feel giddy, drunk. I try to be careful, but I'm wobbly. I take it slow.
I walk in the door.
Sam yells my name. When I ask him for a hug, he tells me he'll give me as many hugs as I want and throws his arms around my neck. He shows me the set up he has been working on for me-- a battle scene of orcs and beastmen and dinosaurs and ninja and knights and dragons and pirates that fills our entire living room, covers the whole of the floor, much of the furniture.
After dinner, while I'm in the shower, he cuts out a heart, colors it, writes his initials on it. It's for me to take with me wherever I go. When I'm home, he says, our hearts are together. When I leave, I can take this heart with me, so that no matter where I am, our hearts will still be together.
I will take it always. I tell him that, and I mean it.