The Wisdom of No Escape
When I arrived, the room was bare and Zen-like, lined with chairs and meditation cushions. There were about twenty-five people there, including the instructor, an experienced Zen practitioner, and we could choose to sit on a chair or a cushion to meditate. The time was divided by a bell that chimed in twenty-minute intervals between sitting and very slow, mindful walking. The first time we all lined up to walk, an elderly man in the group fainted and we all broke our silence in concern for him. Just as quickly, the leader brought us back to the purpose of the retreat, and we resumed our painfully slow walking. I followed along earnestly, yet, although the room was silent, inside my head, there was chaos; my brain never stopped its constant motion, jumping from thought to thought, as though it was skipping over rocks on a stream. In my head, I was arranging furniture, testing out new paint colors for my walls, going through my lists of tasks and phone calls to make—to the point that at the end, instead of feeling quiet and rejuvenated, I was exhausted from all the lists in my head. I had failed at the silent retreat, yet, when I looked at the faces of the other participants, they seemed serene and at peace. I wondered if I was doing it wrong...
There's a Monkey in the House
Freedom from Goal Setting
In the gut, there is a huge tangle of sensory nerves called the solar plexus; it sits with and through the organs of digestion and is the center of our intuition. It is the solar plexus that causes that fluttering of the stomach when you're nervous—the Monday morning nervousness at the start of a week, the nervousness you feel in public speaking, or much worse. When the sympathetic nervous system is aroused, everything involving digestion or sleep is shut down until you are safe again. In some of us, this part of the autonomic nervous system is continually engaged, so that food doesn't absorb properly in the colon and we can't slip into deep REM sleep. The miracle is that when you take a deep breath, as in meditation, the sympathetic nervous system shuts down and its opposite mechanism, the parasympathetic nervous system, kicks in to allow restful sleep, healing from illness and proper digestion. One simple breath can open the door to restful sleep and allow us to stay present in our lives. This is a great gift!
The concepts that set Buddhism apart—groundlessness, or living within the anxiety, releasing contrasting thoughts and forms—to me have always seemed out of reach, intangible. Yet, determined to let go of my mind's grasping and lovelessness toward myself, I am discovering that there is wisdom in knowing there is no escape from my own mind, no momentary distractions or addictions that will save me from myself. Buddhist teachers suggest that we walk toward our uncertainty, even smile at our fears, instead of resisting them. Breathing into the fears of the unknown, the difficult loneliness, depression, and anxiety of modern life, and approaching them with love instead of reaching for distractions, is the path to becoming a true modern Warrior. When we do this, we are practicing gentleness and loving kindness toward ourselves, which allows us to be loving toward others. The silent retreat for me was not a loving experience, and I wanted to understand why.
The Only Way Out Is Through
As I have been learning to live with this new reality, get closer to it, become friends with it, I find I approach my life in a gentler, more loving way. It was the pain I experienced in the retreat that brought me to the understanding of emptiness of form, that failure brings success, and success brings failure, and nothing is set in concrete. For me, getting to know and face constant change, turning toward it instead of running from it, has slowly begun to shift my nervous system. I see the challenges of life as part of my practice. In the smallest of baby steps, I have begun to allow emptiness to become the ground of my being, living more comfortably with uncertainty.
Having just received my Medicare card, perhaps I can even welcome my fears of getting older as I watch myself and the people I care about age. Perhaps I can embrace the pain of loneliness, realizing that it is part of my life's path, the path of all beings. Knowing that I am not alone in these things, that there are billions of us on the same path, (maybe) I can allow my life to unfold with love, and in so doing, stay awake.
Risa (and Audrey)