A few months ago, I moved into the San Francisco Zen Center City Center, a Zen temple in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. I have a nine-to-five job during weekdays, but, other than that, since I moved in, most of my time has been taken up by activities at the temple.
At the end of the Summer, within a six week period, I think that it is fair to say that the wheels fell of my life and it came crashing to a halt, all at once. I was traveling in Europe with a few members of my family and visiting other members, when I had serious fallings out with all of them. Then, a couple weeks later, I had a knife held up to my throat on a side street in Seville, Spain (which is the first time I’ve been violently accosted in public in my life). I then came back from Europe to find the lock clipped off of my storage space, my belongings ransacked, and most of my financially valuable possessions stolen. Finally, a couple weeks later, my inattention caused a freeway accident that put six people in the hospital, one of them critically, and totaled three cars. Needless to say, by the end of all that, I was depressed and unhappy to an exponential power.
I had talked to my friend Jeremy about some of my travails and pain, and he, having lived at the Santa Cruz Zen Center for over a year, and also having just visited his former SCZC housemate Joe at the San Francisco Zen Center City Center, recommended that I consider living at the latter place. I was not happy with the idea of giving up much of my personal freedom, but I also wasn’t exactly in a ya-hoo party mood to make good use of living in SF as a free man. Besides, with the economic boom going on these days, finding a place to live here in the City (any place at all, not just a decent place) seemed like a Herculean ordeal.
So, I went and interviewed at the Zen Center, and applied to be a resident. I talked individually with both Shosan Victoria Austin, the director, and Ryoshin Paul Haller, the tanto (director of practice). Both interviews went well, and I felt optimistic. I was in the middle of my job search, so I sent thank-you cards (as I do after job interviews) to the priests.
I was accepted to move in, hired my friend Erik and his van, and he and I moved my stuff in. It was a warm feeling, to finally have a home of my own, after a year of traveling and roaming.
[The City Center Courtyard]
The daily weekday schedule began for me the next day – waking up at 4:50 am, soon to begin an hour and twenty minutes of meditation (almost all of it sitting, with a little walking meditation in the middle), followed by twenty minutes of chanting, twenty minutes of temple cleaning, and then breakfast. The first two weeks, most days, I went back to bed after breakfast. Then I began my nine-to-five job managing and analyzing data for a drug-and-alcohol treatment research team at the UCSF Institute for Health Policy Studies, and started having to leave for work right after breakfast.
After I moved in, I often felt angry – the other residents seemed unfriendly, my freedom was being severely restricted, and the whole often thing seemed dumb to me. I wanted to leave, and had a sick feeling that I had made a mistake by moving in.
[The Zendo/meditation hall at City Center]
I feel differently now; my attitude has noticeably improved. I’ve done lots of meditative sitting in the two months since I moved in, which seems to help me to feel happy. This has included three Saturday all-day meditation sittings, which, as they always are, have been challenging and painful – I feel like it takes lots of strength to sit all-day like we have been doing. The sittings have also been leaving me feeling clarity, peace, and even often ecstasy, and I am pleased that I have been sitting them.
I have been studying with Paul Haller, a priest who, again, is the “tanto”, or head of spiritual practice, here. I have been taking a class with him, and occasionally we have been having dokusan (a private interview about how meditation, Buddhist practice, and life in general are going). I have been finding him helpful, and I feel respect for him. I think that he is a good role model for me. He and I also have fun, weird word-game conversations like I like to have with people. He seems to like me. I feel humanized and glad to be alive after interacting with him.
I am finding that Zen awareness is seeping into little moments of my everyday life, which was what I had hoped for when I moved in. I feel certain that living here has been healing, in comparison with my emotional state I was in when I moved in. Even though I sometimes feel a tightness of regret over having to go to bed so early and wake up so early, and therefore missing out on the wildness and fun going on with my friends in the city all around me. But the narrowing of choices also seems somewhat positive – it has forced me to spend my time meditating and going to spiritual classes, things that, in the final analysis, is I most want to do.
Also, it seems, now that I have been living here for a while, I am connecting better with the other residents now. It seems like, earlier, there had been an attitude of not wanting to spend too much time on a new guy who might be gone the next week. This hurt for a while, but now I can also recognize myself having that same attitude towards other people fresh through the door.
The longer I have lived here, the more responsibility has been asked of me – locking up the building and being night watchman once a month, greeting people arriving in the evening for classes once a month, cleaning all the altars of old incense once a week, washing dishes for sixty people twice a week, watching the meditation-hall door during morning sitting once a week, and other tasks too. And, if you add all of these little jobs to all of the sitting and chanting each morning and my forty-hour-a-week new job during business hours, it all adds to a stuffed full life – I have been turning down lots of social offers from friends outside of the building. But, the responsibility is also a nice feeling, being part of a community, all pitching in. I feel adult taking care of the community in the ways that I do.