Friday, February 4, 2011

Buddha's Hesitation - Translating Practice into Life

We are in the home stretch of our two week intensive at the zen center. Today was an off day, followed by two half days of practice and group study this weekend. It's been a worthy challenge, different from full on meditation retreats, but in some ways harder. Working the rhythm of introspection followed by interaction with the regular activities and people of the day, followed by a return to introspection provides for an interesting ride.

I've been seeing today how I am guarding my time and energy, sometimes in healthy ways, and sometimes just avoidance. I slept in this morning (all the way until 7:30 lol!), and didn't rush to get out of bed, knowing I have been somewhat sleep deprived. Have run into a few old acquaintances this afternoon, and made efforts to not talk to them, one of which failed. And then I made an excuse about having "work to do" - a lie - in order to end the conversation quickly. Not a big deal, but I have noticed I don't always know how to make graceful exits without resorting to some line about being busy with something.

Next week, I will begin a 9 month yoga teacher training program. Perhaps you have seen the slight uptick in posts about yoga in recent weeks. That will probably continue. In fact, it will be interesting to see how studying the Buddhist precepts again (which started last month at the zen center and will go until May) will mix with studying sections of the Yoga Sutra, which is part of my teacher training. The flow between these two practices - yoga and Zen - have been informing much of what I have written on this blog, even if the Zen piece has had a stronger presence.

Speaking of flow, Katherine over at On the Precipice has a beautiful post about vulnerability that I think fits in here.

Last week I had an interview of sorts. There was a lot invested in the one half-hour I was allotted, and due to train delays, etc., I was running late. I arrived with a ton of nervous energy and was over-heated, hurriedly pulling off layers as I sat down across from this stranger. There was a smile on my face that didn’t go away well into the conversation. It was a smile that, though perhaps genuine on one level, was belying what was actually happening inside. And the person with whom I met was an incredibly perceptive person. And he turned the lens inward, and forced me to look at that disconnect. He challenged me in so many ways, (and I was uncomfortable in so many ways!). The visceral reality of the pain in my cheeks — because I could not get them to relax, try as I might — and the rawness that emerged in the middle of my chest were together perhaps one of the most intense felt experiences I’ve ever had. I did not want to make myself vulnerable because if I did, the tears were going to fall.

You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, a single power, a single salvation…and that is called loving. Well, then, love your suffering. Do not resist it, do not flee from it. It is your aversion that hurts, nothing else.–Herman Hesse

Here I was relating. Here someone was giving me the incredible, unconditionally loving, gift of reflection. And boy, did it hurt. There was so much contraction! Fear. “Don’t want to look, don’t want to feel, don’t want to know.” Here I am, dedicating my life to the work of self-inquiry and meditation, and someone holds a really clear mirror up to me and I realize there’s a virtual fortress around my heart.

I felt a little bit of that "fortressing" myself upon seeing these two old acquaintances today. I also felt it while on a bus, when a man on cell phone yelled at a guy talking to himself, thinking the guy was butting in on his phone conversation. I looked directly at the phone guy, and almost said something about the fact that he was having a phone conversation in a bus - and that the guy wasn't talking to him anyway - but it just seemed futile. And maybe it was. But also I know my mind enough to know that sometimes things "being futile" is code for checking out on my part. I squirmed in my seat a little bit, and then shook my head, and looked out the window, all the while feeling a tension running through my neck and shoulders. Again, not a big deal, but paying attention to patterns of disconnection and avoidance are important, even if it's just little incidents that may or may not fit that appear.

Part of my response to Katherine's post was the following:

but the larger point i’ve been seeing is that regardless of form, whether long retreat, “practice intensive,” or just a daily sitting practice or sutra study – none of it necessarily leads to being a more open, vulnerable, and alive person. The threads often need to be deliberately teased out, so that the introspective insights are translated into awakened relationships based on love, vulnerability, and wisdom. i always remember the buddha’s hesitation to teach during the first days of his awakening. to me, that’s a story about vulnerability, about relationships, and about how we can make decisions that expand the field of insight, or which contract it in every moment.

Perhaps this view is controversial - I don't know. There are people with brilliant insights into the ways the world works, and yet are totally crappy at being human with other humans. I've seen a few of them come and go through my own life. Years and years of study and spiritual practice didn't seem to translate into the kind of openness and vulnerability that seems to naturally put others at ease. Whereas I have met others where the practice and study match the deep humanness exuded.

Which is why, going back to our practice intensive experiment, I'm interested in structures like it that allow for more of the ebb and flow between introspection and one's relationships and everyday activities. Because there's enough intensity from the form to conjure up some of your shit, and then you have to face it, work with it in the middle of your life with others. Which is what often happens to us anyway, right?

Maybe it's worth considering Buddha's hesitation towards becoming a teacher more closely again. Has there been a frequent imbalance in favor of the processes "before enlightment" and not enough focus on the processes that pushed Buddha beyond hesitation and into teaching? And then, by extension, what it was like for Buddha to work with others? What qualities he displayed, and what actions he took or didn't take?

There's a subtle shift here from what Buddha taught to how Buddha interacted with others as gleaned from the teachings we have available.

Anyway, this is where I am at on this Friday. May you all be well.


Carol said...

I'm reading "Mixing Minds-- the power of relationship in Buddhism and Psychotherapy" by Pilar Jennings. Very interesting reading, both about the limitations of both approaches "healing" and ways they can support one another. She has a lot to say about relationship in the teacher/student dyad ... and I think much of it does carry over into our daily relationships with everyone and everything. Otherwise, the temptation to hide out on the cushion or in our lofty spiritual insights may merely be masking a deeper avoidance.

Robyn said...

Hey Nathan - so you are taking the plunge! I will look forward to hearing about your YTT.

One thing I have noticed recently is that when my yoga practice is very strong and active, my zazen takes a back seat, and the other way around. Some of that is because I have only a certain amount of time each day to devote to such activities but it is something else as well. Despite one being totally active and one being very still, they seem to meet at the same place...??

Have you experienced this?

Nathan said...


I have had short periods of time when the two practices were very active - maybe 1 or 2 months, like last winter. But yes, most often, one or the other is more dominant.

The practice that falls into "secondary" position doesn't tend to completely drop off for me. During this practice intensive at zen center, I have been doing yoga between sittings, for example.

But yea, they seem to meet. I've always felt both go to the core.


It's been interesting to have a few discussions about those potential limitations in my sangha. It's hard not to get into the mindset that meditation, for example, is some kind of cure all.
We've had a few people come through our center and stay for awhile who had serious psychological issues. Our leadership handled things well from what I have seen, not trying to be therapists, and also not quickly tossing folks.

I often feel torn when someone is struggling, ends up being pretty disruptive, and then something needs to be done.