Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Cold Stone Zen

Two retreats ago there was a woman who’s husband had just died, and we all either knew them, or one or two people knew, but it was very clear. And what was so interesting is it became this beautiful time together, because she sobbed through almost every day. She ended up sitting behind me a lot, and I had a moment where my impulse, I could feel her so profoundly because we were still, and I had this moment where I just wanted to touch her, and I had to go through all my rules about: “am I allowed to reach out and touch her in a retreat center, blah, blah, blah,” and then … I realized, “Please.” And I reached out and touched her because it’s my human impulse, and she’ll let me know if she doesn’t want that. And I probably did that three times during the week. And at the end of the retreat she said, “Oh my God, thank God, you touched me. I needed contact, I’m in a freefall.”

This passage was part of a fascinating two part panel discussion on Buddhist practice, trauma, the body, healing, and several other topics. Over and over again, the participants bring up challenges they have faced, and questions they have about the ways in which convert Buddhist practice has been set up here in North America. I encourage folks to read it, and I may take up a few other sections of the discussion in future posts.

Back to the story above. I don't know about other branches of Buddhism, but there's a lot of talk about form and the role of a strong "container" amongst Zen folks. This is especially true in retreat contexts, but even during daily services, attention to precise details, from bowing to offering incense, are emphasized. What's important to note is that that attention is directed towards doing things in a certain way. Not really clinging to rules, but certainly maintaining a particular, shared direction.

Chanting. Bowing. Walking. Maintaining silence. Forms for eating meals. All have particular instructions, and everyone involved aims in the direction of embodying those instructions as best they can.

There's a lot of beauty to this. Being in the middle of a group of 60 adults all bowing at the same time in the same basic way can be life affirming. Listening to an even larger group, including children, chanting the precepts together - which we did at our sangha this past Sunday - is often quite exquisite.

And yet, the story above demonstrates something of an absence I sometimes feel. The lack of touch, especially during retreats, is one thing. However, overall, touch or not, I sometimes wonder where the warmth is.

A few years ago, I essentially stopped doing meditation retreats at my zen center. For awhile, I really struggled with the resistance, thinking it was just laziness, or fear. And perhaps some of both of those are true. However, even when I first started developing the resistance, I knew it was more than that.

Do you know the story of the monk whose hut was set on fire?

There was an old woman in China who had supported a monk for over twenty years. She had built a little hut for him and fed him while he was meditating. Finally she wondered just what progress he had made in all this time.

To find out, she obtained the help of a girl rich in desire. "Go and embrace him," she told her, "and then ask him suddenly: 'What now?'"

The girl called upon the monk and without much ado caressed him, asking him what he was going to do about it.

"An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter," replied the monk somewhat poetically. "Nowhere is there any warmth."

The girl returned and related what he had said.

"To think I fed that fellow for twenty years!" exclaimed the old woman in anger. "He showed no consideration for your needs, no disposition to explain your condition. He need not have responded to passion, but at least he should have evidenced some compassion."

She at once went to the hut of the monk and burned it down.

What I have often felt in Zen meditation retreat is similar to that monk, only it's magnified throughout the entire group. With our current teacher, this has been less so, but somehow the combination of the people attracted + the forms themselves, seems to bring out that cold rock in winter feeling.

One of my dharma sisters has been talking a lot about body practice recently. She's gotten interested in Reggie Ray's work, and since I, too, have been interested in body-mind connections, I have listened closely to what she's said. And I think I hear that similar voice behind her words. The one that's saying "Something is missing."

The thing is, it would be really easy to suggest that this voice is just longing and desire. Coming from a place of dis-ease. I do not doubt for a moment that some of it is. But not all of it. Perhaps not even the majority of it.

Something I learned towards the end of my yoga teacher training were some simple massage techniques to apply in classes. Actually, it might be more accurate to say massage coupled with posture adjustments. The thing that stood out for me in practicing these on classmates was the ways in which, when I let go of trying to "do it right," there was a subtle exchange of what I'd call wisdom that happened. It didn't need words. In truth, that same exchange happened when I was fumbling around, or my classmate was fumbling around, trying to get it right. It's just that the depth wasn't there in those cases.

Is there a gender component to all of this?

The two women in the retreat story shared something. It was beyond words. Sure, it wasn't part of the "retreat plan," but it does seem to me to be part of the awakening plan. Especially for those of us living in the everyday world, dealing with all the challenges of a lay life.

Your thoughts?


Algernon said...

I really like the story you shared. One of the most moving things about it, for me, was this person's bravery in allowing himself to touch the grieving woman and trusting she would let him know if she didn't want that. More often than not, I would check that impulse, out of fear of breaking someone's retreat and the embarrassment and all of that. "Cold stone Zen" emerges not only from holding an idea about zen, but from fear and panic, not wanting to be "wrong," etc.

Mumon K said...

I agree w/ Algernon: this is always the dilemma: Am I doing this out of greed, or am I doing this out of a mandate to serve others as they need to be served?

This absence you feel, I've felt it too. At a certain point you say, "Goddam it, I just gotta do what needs to be done!" And you live with the consequences. They're not always rosy. But this practice never was about a popularity contest.

Side thought: I wonder how many of the Cool Kids in high school became Buddhists? I'm sure a few did. Subsequent thought: I wonder how many people from my high school became Buddhists? Not that it matters; I'm just a guy who likes to ask questions.


Robyn said...

This practice isn't about timidity. Sometimes you have to kill the cat and sometimes you have to stop someone from killing the cat.

Unknown said...

I found myself in an interesting moment on the bus the other day. It was crowded and a passenger sat down next to me. At first we both sat very still and upright, but it was 6:30 am and a long ride. Eventually, as he dozed a little, he relaxed just enough that our arms were pressed together. I was tempted to move away, but that tiny warmth and vulnerability was pleasant as well as a reminder that there was actually another human next to me.

Touch and fear of offering or accepting it are deeply rooted in our culture, especially here in the Midwest. I once attended a business training on sensitivity/diversity where we were taught that the only "safe" place to touch another business contact was on the forearm between the elbow and the wrist. These ideas separate us from one another. I find myself more and more interested in ways of providing and finding safe touch.

As a social dancer, I admit that part of the point of partnered dancing, for me, is to have safe enjoyable ways of touching and connecting with others. There are lines, but offering warmth or kindness through touch, even if we occasionally err, seems a more joyful way to live than to consistently stay within our cold culture.

spldbch said...

There is definitely power in touch. I recently had a patient who said his wife complained that he wasn't affectionate. I made some suggestions about how he could show affection - putting his arm around his wife, kissing her on the cheek, holding her hand - and his initial response was, "Why?" Fortunately, he was willing to give it a shot. I think his marriage will be enriched as a result of his efforts. Maybe touch sends its own special kind of message that can't really be communicated any other way.

Anonymous said...

Dear Nathan,

I was walking to the dining hall and it was raining here. A resident who is usually fast paced and "angry" looking was standing and crying. I asked is she was okay and if she wanted a hug. She just opened her arms and we hugged for quite a while.

Very intense experience, as it was a good, wailing, cry. Also, I never know what might make her feel good or might set her off. Took a leap, and it worked out.

Great post, so relevant I can taste it. Centers are suffering magnets, and it's quite lovely to see ourselves take on the these rigid, beautiful forms, and also to watch them drop away and do what needs doing.

I don't know an Ino who would object to what is described in your blog; but then, I used to. Now I'm in California, where the hugs and loving kindness flow like...quinoa?

P.S Do you all chant the loving kindness sutra?


Nathan said...

Excellent story! I think a lot of the restrictiveness is internalized. Withholding touch, a hug, or something else off script just seem like the proper thing to do after awhile. I think many of us struggle to let go of the forms when the situation calls for it.

We do chant the metta sutra sometimes. I use it at home occasionally as well.