[Tassajara monastery has no internet. I finished writing this letter in late November 2008, then I then sent it on a disk through the US postal service to my Mom, who emailed it out to a mailing list of friends]
These letters are funny things. They generally feel good and healthy to write – writing them seems to put a seal on my experiences here, like an epilogue to a book, a desert to a meal, a shavasana to a yoga session. Also, somehow, I can’t explain how, I usually get a clear intuition about what things to write about in them, and what not.
But, I wonder, what is it that motivates me to write : is it to connect and share myself with people, or is it to try to share (teach) something liberating uplifting and inspiring with people – and, if either, which people. Or am I writing this for myself, and, if so, is it my future self (to remind myself of what I learn and experience here), or is it for my present self (to help move the energy through as I experience things here, like a diary, or a conversation with a friend where you get something off your chest). I also wonder how much to just bluntly share what’s happening, no matter how raw and freaky it is, or how much is it better to wait until I have worked through things more and I can write in a more neatly packaged form – with an inspiring uplifting moral to the story, and maybe looking better in the process.
Another funny thing about these letters is that my first one didn’t get on the web until three weeks after I wrote it, my second one a isn’t up yet (a month after I wrote it), and this one prolly won’t get up for at least another couple weeks from now. So, they’re not really serving as real-time communications. One glitchy thing that I’ve noticed about the way the human brain works, however, is that, as soon as I had finished writing my first two essays, I emotionally felt like they had been posted, released out to you all out there in the world, that same day. And I imagine that when you read them, maybe you felt like I had just written them.
It’s part of a larger pattern that I’ve noticed : people tend to act like a communication loop has been closed starting at the moment when they write an email or letter, even if the receiver hasn’t read the email or letter yet (or even if it hasn’t been sent yet). Another example is that, if you tell someone something that happened a while ago but they didn’t know about, for them it is often as if it just happened. The classic example is when someone discloses a episode of cheating from the distant past, and the feeling of betrayal is immediate and real-time.
The subconscious mind : not always the best at keeping track of the distances and the dimensions of time.
“It’s risky business to deeply listen to others, to empathize with and truly understand others, because it makes you open and vulnerable to do so. The value of doing it is so immense, though, the power of healing, and making huge deposits in the emotional bank account that you have with others is so great, that I think that you will find, in the end, that it is well worth it.”
— Stephen Covey, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”
“It is rare but wonderful to be able to be completely present to yourself. And it is rare but wonderful to be able to be completely present to other people. And it is most rare of all, and most wonderful of all, to be able to be simultaneously completely present to yourself and completely present to other people.”
— Tenshin Reb Anderson
One of the many things I love about meditation is how it helps me to listen to people on a deep and true level. Before I started meditating, when I was a depressed teenager in a violent, over-intellectual family, I was kinda a horrible listener – while the other person was talking, I would mostly be impatiently thinking of how I was going to respond. But, the more I’ve meditated, the more I have had the capacity (if and when I chose to) to calmly and openly receive other people’s fullness, to have my awareness gently caress the exact shape of their being, to deeply empathically feel how it is for other people to be themselves. By developing the capacity to be present with my knee pain without shying away from it, I seem to have developed the capacity to be present with the fullness of another person (and with how I feel, being present with another person), without shying away from it.
And, so, I would think that, with all the meditation that I have been doing here in the monastery, I would be naturally present to other folks. But I have been dismayed to find that, no, mostly, I feel kinda distracted when I start talking with people here – people initially show up as an “it” to manage, rather than as a human being to experience. It could be that it is because my time here this visit has mostly involved either frazzling work in the kitchen, or meditation practices like noticing the streams of my breath, my body sensations, or my thoughts, all of which are all internal. I have been giving a try to a meditation that my teacher Shinzen Young calls “focus out”, which is to put all my attention on my environment – what I see, what I hear, and where my body feels external touches – but it is not something I’ve done a lot of.
The good news, however, is that I find that my attention is so focused from all the meditation that when I find myself in a conversation, and do intentionally set my intention on listening deeply, even if I didn’t start listening deeply, POW, the presence and connection is right there, hard core. It’s sometimes almost too much, overwhelming, how deep and real people seem, when I open up to experiencing them. But all this internal meditating has been giving me the capacity to open and allow to that rawness also.
My intention is to increasingly find that balance of awareness described in the quote above, simultaneously present to myself and present to other people, and hold a big enough space to feel all of it. I find that such a balance naturally emerged for me when I was doing coaching for my training program last year, and also when working with people in my meditation class. I trust that it will emerge more as I work with people more.
I thought that my last letter would be the final letter writing for this visit, that I wouldn’t write anything more until I returned back here from holiday break in January. I mean, my life here is continuing in about the same way : being aware of my breath, chanting, ripping lettuce, washing dishes. I guess that there is something new in that I now seem to be friends with most people here – just like my previous visits, it just took time. But that’s hardly enough to write home about.
But then some stuff arose that felt like it wanted to be shared, mostly about, well, life and death. It started one day when I read three passages in three different books that talked about the same thing, and then a few days later I also read a fourth passage in a fourth book. It knocked me on my ass – both the coincidence of reading the same general idea in four different books, and the intensity of what they all say :
“Yes, enlightenment is experienced as actual ego-death; ‘to die’ is not just a metaphor. The accounts of this experience, which may be dramatic but can also be simple and non-dramatic, make it clear that all of a sudden you simply wake up and discover that, among other things, your real being is *everything you are now looking at*, that you are literally one with manifestation, ‘one with the universe’, however corny that may sound. You also realize that you did not suddenly become one with God and All, it more that you have eternally been that, but just didn’t realize it. And along with that feeling (or the discovery of the all-pervading infinite self), goes the concrete feeling that your small self just simply died, actually died. Zen calls liberation, ‘the Great Death.’ Medieval Christian mystic Miester Eckhart was just as blunt: ‘The soul must put itself to death.’ Ananda Coomarawamy explains: ‘It is only by making stepping stones of our dead selves, until we realize at last that there is literally nothing with which we can identify our Self, that we can become what we truly are.’ Or Eckhart again, ‘The Kingdom of God is for none but the thoroughly dead.'”
— Ken Wilber, “Grace and Grit”
“Die while you are alive, and be thoroughly dead. Then, do whatever you want; it’s all good.”
— Zen Master Bunan
“Everybody dies as he lives. I am not afraid of death, because I am not afraid of life. I live a happy life, and shall die a happy death. Are you ready to follow my example? I am dead to the world, and I want nothing, not even to live. Be as I am, do as I do.
I am not asking you to commit suicide. Nor can you. You can only kill the body, you cannot stop the mental process, nor can you put an end to the person you think you are. Just remain unaffected. This complete aloofness, unconcern with mind and body is the best proof that at the core of your being you are neither mind nor body. What happens to the body and the mind may not be within your power to change, but you can always put an end to your imagining yourself to be body and mind. To know that you are neither body nor mind, watch yourself steadily, and live unaffected by your body and mind, completely aloof, as if you were dead. It means you have no vested interests, either in the body or in the mind.
The ordinary man is afraid to die, because he is afraid of change. Death appears to be a change in time and space. When you realize that there is neither time nor space, how can there be death? The man who knows the truth is not afraid, because his mind is dead already, he is already dead to name and shape. He does not think: ‘I live’; he knows: ‘There is life.’ There is no change in it, and no death. How can the loss of name and shape affect him?
The man in the train travels from place to place, but the man who is off of the train goes nowhere, for he is not bound for a destination. He has nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to become. Those who make plans will be born to carry them out. Those who make no plans need not be born.
When you demand nothing of the world, nor of God, when you want nothing, seek nothing, expect nothing, then the Supreme State will come to you uninvited and unexpected. You will receive everything you need when you stop asking for what you do not need. Just realize the One Mover behind all that moves, and leave all to Him. If you do not hesitate, or cheat, this is the shortest way to reality. Stand without desire and fear, relinquishing all control and all responsibility. What is wrong in letting go the illusion of personal control and personal responsibility? Both are in the mind only. Would people know that nothing can happen unless the entire universe makes it happen, they would achieve much more with less expenditure of energy.”
— Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, “I Am That”
“A deep happiness was there, as my focus changed. ‘I’m dead! There is nothing to call me! There never was a me! It’s an allegory, a mental image, a pattern upon which nothing was ever modeled.’ I grew dizzy with delight. Solid objects appeared as shadows, and everything my eyes fell upon was radiantly beautiful.”
— Philip Kapleau, “The Three Pillars of Zen”
Jesus Fuck Almighty. What do those passages mean? For me, they peel the paint off the walls with a blowtorch. What does it mean to “die while alive”, like these people are talking about? That was a question that sat with me for days after I read those sections.
I remember when I lived at the Green Gulch Zen monastery thirteen years ago, in the main hallway of my residence hall there was a painting of a skeleton. The skeleton was wearing Zen priests robes and holding a Zen services officiating baton (a “kotsu”), and it had a smiling, laughing look of joy and release. The picture freaked me out, but I was also drawn to it, and I would stare at it when I could. I remember thinking, is that what we are supposed to do, die in some way, and joy is supposed to come from that? I couldn’t really wrap my head around it.
It feels to me like “dying while alive” is a form of surrender, but it is surrendering to being my deepest, truest, best self, and nothing less. In University, twenty years ago, there was a passage I loved from Ram Dass’ classic book “Be Here Now”, where he said something about how when you are evolved enough, it’s not you living your life, it’s more like the universe lives itself through you. And I remember a similar idea from when I used to attend twelve-step/Anonymous meetings, where we would talk about letting go of self-control and self-will, turning control of our lives over to our higher power.
I read in a Buddhist magazine recently, in an article about “The Dharma of the Beatles”, that when Timothy Leary first heard their song “Tomorrow Never Knows”, he announced that his efforts towards helping birth the next stage of human evolution was done, that the evolved human had arrived. That song says, “Turn off your mind / surrender to The Void / it is not dying / it is not dying.”
You could say that one of the main goals of Buddhism and Hinduism, if not *the* main goal, is to die in a state of peace and open acceptance. The idea is that, the karmic forces and state of mind that are present at the moment of our deaths are what create and propel us into our next rebirths (agitation and anger at death = take a rebirth in hell, absolute peace at death = release from the wheel of rebirth). And, it seems to me, a main way to be calm, accepting, and open at the moment of our biological death is to have made peace with death a long time beforehand.
Also, I can’t help but think of Jesus on the cross. I mean, if you accept the setup of the whole story, that the dude could walk on water and could turn water into wine, and that he was in constant communication with his Father (who could bring down plagues, part seas, and, oh what the hell, create universes with his breath), then it would not be assuming too much to think that Jesus could have gotten out of the whole “captured by some Roman soldiers” thing if he had really wanted to – maybe bring down a lightning storm or a plauge of locusts or something? But he didn’t back out of it – maybe because he knew that the crucifixion was, as we would say here, his “dharma role” – it was what walking the path of Divinity required of him. So, as the story goes, he surrendered to the situation and went through with the whole thing. Dying of puncture wounds and exposure in the desert sun is probably nobody’s idea of fun, but “being resurrected in the Spirit” and “purifying all the sins of humanity” strikes me a good return on investment.
So, the story of Jesus, allowing himself to be crucified, is something that I recollect to people in my meditation class – I say that when physical pain, emotional pain, or “soul pain” comes up in meditations, yeah, you can probably get up and distract yourself from it if you really want, but, y’know, your path in life might be best served by keeping your ass on the cushion and letting yourself be crucified by the pain – or even letting it *kill you*. That sort of surrender just might be how we can be “reborn in Spirit”.
So many different ways of saying the same thing. Anyway, I’ve been dipping my toe in the water, checking out how it feels to “die while alive”. And, my experience is that the main way it feels like is : peaceful, large and expansive, less or no resistance to things, and a big space to hold everything in. This came to me one day – if I die while alive, then I am dead, and then I am nothing, and that means that I am everything, and that means that I am an immense space – a big enough space to hold anything and everything. “Dying while alive” also brings up in me a feeling of solid engaged and locked in with my life, a cold empty feeling (like, nothing is special or that exciting), and also feeling a little frightening/uncertain (the loss of control).
My Buddhist teaching Gil sometimes says that, when he has a choice to make, or just in his everyday life, he makes it his practice to “trust the Dharma”. That means, I think : to choose to trust Buddhist teachings, to choose to trust the spiritual path, and to choose to trust the deepest Truth of things – to trust all of that more than momentary thoughts and feelings. When I have taken that on the practice of “trusting the dharma” in the past, it feels similar to how “dying while alive” feels now. Another thing that feels like it might be related to dying while alive is simply following the rules here at the monastery, without thinking about them so much. It’s like what I wrote about in my last letter, how the two senior priests were so cooperative when I supervised them. It’s like letting our impulsive small selves die, than our big selve may bloom.
“‘Conviction’ is a quality that is traditionally given as a source of strength for the mind. And ‘conviction’ here means conviction in the principle of karma – basically, that, through our actions, we are creating the world which we experience. And, so, if we act in skillful ways, we are going to be creating a world which is a good place to live for ourselves. And what this does is give us a strong sense of the power that we have to shape our lives. If you don’t have conviction in that, it gets difficult to put forth the energy that’s needed to shape a good life. If you think, perhaps good things come by coincidence, perhaps good things come from some outside power, therefore, why bother in making the effort, in for example sitting meditation every morning in a cold room, when you could be out doing something else. So we need the conviction that what we do will repay. If we act in good ways in terms of what we do, say, think, the payment will come, there’s a reciprocal relationship here.”
— Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Interdependence”
“But there is a strange and horrible thing about one’s daemon (the Greek word that in classical mythology refers to “a god within”): when honored and acted upon, it is indeed one’s guiding spirit; those who bear a god within bring genius to their work. When, however, one’s daemon is heard but unheeded, it is said that the daemon becomes a demon, or evil spirit – divine energy and talent degenerates into self-destructive activity. The Christian mystics, for example, say that the flames of Hell are but God’s love denied, angels reduced to demons.”
— Ken Wilber, “Grace and Grit”
“Camus said there is only really one serious philosophical question, which is whether or not to commit suicide. And that is indeed the question. Are you willing to play the game of being human, or are you not?”
— Alan Watts
According to the personality theory The Enneagram, my personality type (the “five”) is usually pretty competent at anything we put our minds to. But, the catch is, that we often don’t see the point in trying. In my life, I find that to be true : I’ve sometimes been amazed when I’ve looked for a job and have actually gotten one, when I’ve created a meditation class and people actually take it, when I’ve asked a girl for a number and we’ve actually gone out, or even something as simple as when I get in my car to go somewhere, and then I find that I have successfully arrived there – I find it surprising when I try at something, and it actually works. I had a therapist many years ago who often used to say that “a warrior of soul never gives in to pointlessness, hopelessness, collapse, despair, giving up”. I have, however, found that it is sometimes a challenge for me to be a “warrior of soul” … and not just say, “ehhhh … whatevs … what’s the point.”
Sitting here in the monastery, with most distractions stripped away, a feeling emerges : I feel like I have not tried at some of the things that have called to me. I have not given my gift in life as much as I would like, I have not gotten on the field and played the game as much as I would have liked, I have not yet done many of the things I feel it is important to do before I die. One of the Pink Floyd songs they always play on the radio says, “No one told you when to run / you missed the starting gun”. And, sometimes, I have had a feeling like it is too late, that it will never work out – it sometimes feels like crushing hopelessness.
I think that when some people hear the phrase “die while alive”, they may think of that feeling of hopelessness, and of committing suicide. Freud wrote about how all people all have within in us “Eros”, the urge towards life and light, and “Thantos”, the urge towards death and darkness. I would guess that most people have felt the pull of the darkness, and felt suicidal, at at least one point in their life (even if only fleetingly). I have – who knew, I know, all the black clothes. The times that I have felt hopeless and suicidal in the past six years, however, I have not moved to act on it for three reasons:
1. It would be so harsh and unfair to my parents (especially in light of my two sisters’ serious health problems)
2. In my head, I know that hopelessness/despair is just a feeling, what Buddhists call “a conditioned mind-state”. I know that, like all feelings, it just *seems* like the truth, but that it is impermanent (i.e. it will pass), and will eventually give way to a different feeling. I know that, at some moments, I may feel like I am unable to do anything that will make a difference or work out, but, out beyond the subjective influence of my feeling state, that my actions actually do make a difference, and that yes indeedee I am actually capable of trying at things and having them work out. Thoreau said, “There is no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of a human to elevate their life by conscious endeavor.”
3. Most significantly, I “trust the Dharma” – specifically, I trust the Buddhist teaching that suicide doesn’t help anything. The idea is that, if you kill yourself, all the pain and confusion that drove you out of this life gets carried over into a new life.
I never understood the Buddhist concept of reincarnation until I thought about it in terms of suicide. The teaching is that we have to work out our tangles, the viscosity in our soul that keeps us separate from Divinity, while we are alive. The teaching is, if we die in a big tangle, then all that is fucked up and tangled up within us stays in this universe, fucked up and tangled up, in some form. We only smoothly melt back into the peace of Infinity, our true home and our place of final rest, when we work the tangles out while we are able, while we are alive as humans and able to do spiritual practice.
Someone once asked the great Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa, “If Buddhism teaches ‘no-self’, then what is it that gets reincarnated?” He replied, “Your bad habits”. Beautiful.
But, even if someone doesn’t check out all at once, some people kill themselves slowly – little bit by little bit. And there have been times in the past decade where I have retreated away from the world, using video games, web surfing, porn, little projects that no one else will ever see whose only purpose was to park my brain, whatever – and I have had a clear thought go through my head: “I am choosing death right now – I am choosing to avoid the call of real life – this is slow suicide.” It’s like the “holding pattern” that I wrote about in my last letter.
Do you know that, in the past ten years, I have spent thousands of hours on baseball fan blogs and chat sites? I’ve spent hundreds of hours doing little baseball-statistics-crunching projects, some of which have been published on baseball analysis websites, some of which I share with people in discussion groups, and many of which I just keep to myself. I mean, I enjoy it, it’s fun, it’s not that harmful, but, really : that, and some other things like it, are not what I was out on this earth to do. I think that, dying while alive, trusting the dharma, walking my path in life, that it’s things like that that fall away, and the deeper meaning and activity of my life that emerges.
When I am here at the monastery, I see clearly how each little action we take makes an impact on our lives and on the world around us (aka “karma”). I see how important it is to sincerely choose life. I feel a clarity setting goals, working against resistance (including hopelessness), and achieving them. I feel like a “warrior of soul” – taking action, and feeling a sense of my own ability to create positive outcomes – I think of things that I could do, steps I could take in my life, and I’m like, yeah, I could rock that shit, I could make that happen. I feel increasing contact with reality, more deep, more alive, more moving towards the light.
“The simplest and quickest way to be kind to other people is to drop our addictions.”
— Linda-Ruth Cutts
“Your true self is calling you collect. You’ve already paid the bill with the years lost to your addictions, so you might as well answer the call. It will not stop ringing until you do. You placed the call at the front desk of yourself a long time ago. Only you can answer your wake-up call; no one else.”
— Mel Ash, “Zen Of Recovery”
“In many cases an alcoholic quite clearly knows that he is destroying himself, that for his liquor is a poison, that he actually hates being drunk, and even dislikes the taste of liquor. And yet he drinks. For, dislike it as he may, the experience of not being drunk is worse. It gives him the ‘horrors’, for, sober, he stands face-to-face with the unveiled, basic insecurity of the world. And herein lies the crux of the matter. To stand face-to-face with basic insecurity is still not to understand it, however. To understand it, you must not just face it, but you must be it.”
— Alan Watts
Sometimes, how to be a more “spiritual” person does not seem so crystal clear. Does being “spiritual” mean that you make more effort and focus more, or is it more that you let go and open? Do you try to purify and clean up your life, or do you try to love and accept life in all of its mess? The answer to both questions is probably, “yes” – but, still.
One thing does seem simple and clear to me : addictions are the opposite of spirituality, and spirituality is the opposite of addictions. That simple equation is pretty much the foundation of twelve-step/”anonymous” programs. Being here at the monastery, it becomes crystal clear : we humans cannot *not* be Divine – Divinity is simply what we (and the rest of the universe) is made out of – always has been, and always will be. There is NO WAY to not be Divine. Why don’t we realize that? Because our addictions cover our perception of Divinity over – like clouds shrouding the moon’s radiant light.
Buddhism has various teachings about what those shrouding factors are. The way that I talk about them in my class is called “the three kleshas” (which I wrote about six years ago). You could say that the three kleshas are what creates human unhappiness – they are the Thantos, the pull towards death. They are the thing that has us not realize the perfect Divinity that we are. The kleshas are :
* “Raga”, which means attachment, grasping, drivenness, compulsive wanting, covetousness, addiction, craving, neediness, hunger, or greed.
* “Dvesha”, which means aversion, closing up, rejecting, resistance, pushing away, tightening up, avoiding, defensiveness, fear anger and hatred
* “Moha”, which, in the most simple sense, means unconsciousness, no paying attention, unawareness, not being present, being gone from our own lives, living shallowly and on automatic pilot, delusion, or confusion. Even more fundamentally, though, moha can be defined as the state of un-enlightenment, a lack of “spirituality” – being caught in the illusion of the world, being ignorant of interconnectedness and emptiness of the whole universe and of the Divine Source from which the whole show springs forth.
Someone who took my meditation class told me that he had tried to kick a marijuana addiction for a long time, only to suffer the usual pattern of failure and frustration. He said that what helped him to finally break the compulsive hold that skunk had on him was when, in my class, he heard the Buddhist teaching that all addictions have two sides – like a coin – both a compulsive *running towards* a pleasure (“raga”), and compulsive *running away* from a unpleasant mood that one doesn’t want to feel (“dvesha”). He told me that starting to carefully notice the simultaneous pull of both the pleasure of getting stoned, *and* the push away from whatever feeling he had that he didn’t want to be feeling, and that that gave him a feeling of freedom and open space, a willingness to feel the frustration or hopelessness of whatever he was feeling at the time, and the ability to make the choice to stop smoking.
I have paid close attention to the exact moment in my life that I choose addictions. And what I’ve seen is that I am usually feeling pointlessness, hopelessness, collapse, despair, giving up – like life is too hard and will never work out – the moment that I retreat from the world and act out. That’s the moment of the slow suicide.
Anyway, back to my friend : by paying attention, and seeing things more clearly, was the evaporation his unconsciousness/delusion/moha, and that increased awareness helped evaporate the grasping/raga and avoidance/dvesha that were the two compulsive pressures of of his addiction. Buddhist teaching says that unconsciousness/delusion/moha is the root klesha – in other words, grabbing at life and pushing life away grow out of our spiritual alienation, out of our not paying attention to what is really happening. We get compulsive when we make objects out of life, when we don’t see the deepest truth that we are, well, *dead to our limited self while alive* – that our true nature is Infinite Spirit.
There is not much chance to act out addictions while here in the monastery. The place is set up to make us burn off our raga/attachment – we are constantly asked to drop whatever it is we wanted to be doing, and drop how we wanted to be do even those things we do, and to not engage in activities that might become addictive. And we are constantly burning off our dvesha/aversion – the practice is to face with an open acceptance all sorts of things we might otherwise reject : the cold weather, sleepiness, hard work, knee pain, other people being assholes, and more. We keep on with our meditating and working no matter how we feel (even if we feel hopelessness and despair). And, most of all, as Buddhist monks, we burn off our delusion/moha; more and more, we see how false the limited self-identity we had constructed for ourselves was, and we awake to something larger.
While we are monks here, we die while alive, our impulsive addictiveness dies that our depth and truth may live. This un-addictiveness brings a certain fundamental ease to my social interactions here. When I talk with people, I feel a simple openness about who I am. I do not feel like I have something to hide or be ashamed of, which is how I sometimes feel in my city life when I have been living in the world of addiction / slow suicide / holding pattern.
There are times here where I do act out addictively, like a few days ago when I ripped all the pictures of sexy women that I could find from a pile of old magazines (someone here gets “Entertainment Weekly”!), or even something as simple as spending a meditation period fantasizing about what if I had been a rock star at age twenty. I find that my mind state here is usually so open, clear, powerful, and smooth that I can see the little and big ways that addiction and attachment clouds things over – clouds over my mind, soul, interactions, and peace – enough that I don’t chose to recreate the experience. I feel a sense of hope and ability in my life, and the warrior of soul in me choses to empower that.
“First, have a definite, clear practical idea; a goal, an objective. Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials, and methods. Third, adjust all your means to that end.”
“God asks no man whether he will accept life. That is not the choice. One must take it. The only choice is how. ”
— Henry Ward Beecher
“If you know your purpose, your deepest desire, then the secret of success is to discipline your life so that you support your deepest purpose and minimize distractions and detours.”
— David Deida
My best friend in university was a guy ten years older. I knew his from twelve step problems, he was a recovering alcoholic/addict, and we would often talk about how to live fully in the face of addictions. He would say to me, “What I’m learning is, never try to get rid of negative chi (life-force). That’s just fighting against your own chi, and that which will just fuck you up. Instead, watcha do is, replace your bad chi with good chi.” What he was saying was, spend less time fighting your addictions, and more time finding what challenges call to you, what can move your life forward, what deeply brings you alive, and do that instead.
One thing that people here in the monastery talk about is how, sitting still and being present, deeper life issues come into focus – we start to realize and explore deeper issues about where we are going in life, what could bring us more deeply alive. For me, while here, some deeper life energies have becomes clear, contours that had been covered over with facebook, music downloads, porn, and just getting by, as I was treading water. As with past visits here, I have been thinking, feeling, and sitting with questions like, “Where is my life going?”, and “What can I do in this world that is the deepest expression of who I am meant to be?”
In my first email, I quoted the Buddha saying that, if you want to understand the past, deeply study the present. Archeologists better understand the ancient world by digging up artifacts that exist today. And there is a dude here who, based on how he acts today, I feel pretty certain was sexually abused many years ago.
The Buddha also said, if you want to understand the future, deeply study the present. The writer Georg Sand said, “Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds”. That is to say, we create our future in the choices we make today (again, this is also known as “karma”). For me, I can feel how something is working it’s way out in me here in the stillness of the monastery. I feel that my future is being shaped by my time here, that the battles I am fighting on the cushion here, to open and untangle myself, are creating a vector as to how my future will unfold.
It took a while, but I have developed a clear feeling in my body as to why I came here – it is to be prepare and be ready for the rest of my life, to untangle, to feel cleaned out, calm, ready. I came here to die while alive, to stop avoiding, and to surrender to my destiny. When I have felt despair in the past couple years, the thought was, well, don’t get a gun, go to the monastery – kill yourself that way – kill the despair, not the organism.
I had fantasies that maybe after three or six months of meditating, I would have “turbo-purified” and gotten what I came to get, and that maybe I would then be ready to come home and resume city life. And this first three month retreat has indeed been great and purifying. But I also feel certain that I have not yet gotten what I set out to get – I do not yet feel untangled, clear, cleaned out, cracks in the foundation filled in and ready to build the house back up again, the way I intend to when I return.
As I wrote about in my first letter, I am prepared to do this journey for as long as it takes, even if that means being in debt when I get back to city life. How will I earn the money to pay that debt back? Well, I could take another statistical database programming contract when I get back, going back to earning $2500 a week, and I could zoom through the debt in no time. Sometimes I tell myself that : don’t worry about money, programming is always the backup plan. But I CAN’T DO THAT ANYMORE. People have asked me, what if you were a programmer for the rest of my life, and I’ve said, I’d kill myself. And I think I mean it – if not killing myself boom all in one shot, it’d be more like the slow killing myself of addictions and other forms of choosing not to be real, to medicate the despair that comes when I stuff down the springing forth of my destiny. I’ve been on the path of personal growth for twenty years – IT’S WAY PAST TIME TO MAKE THE JUMP.
I met a supercool corporate coach last summer at a workshop. After he and I had talked about God and consciousness for an hour, “Jeez Adam, I don’t know what your place in this world is, but, man, I’m clear that it is not programming for a bank. ”
I think to myself that the big significance of my leaving the city three months ago is actually less me going to the monastery, and it’s more quitting being a programmer. As I left, I got a bunch of emails, voice mails, letters, etc congratulating me on being brave and saying I had people’s support, which felt great. And y’all may have meant “I’m proud of you for going to monastery for a while”, but, in my own mind, the way I took it was, “I’m proud of you for stepping into your destiny”.
It feels like a huge step, one that I am not sure how to take, like a man climbing a staircase and finding that one of the steps is five feet tall. I feel nervous making a living at as a meditation teacher/coach/workshop leader/author/whatever, especially with the economic downturn. I see many Bay Area people in the Common Boundary with their little workshops or practices, and imagine that many of them barely make enough to live on.
I have many ideas for what I want to do when I get back. Among them:
* Continue teach my eight week Buddhist meditation course, but teach more often
* Host a weekly sitting group
* Lead meditation classes in yoga studios
* Get credentialed as a Buddhist teacher
* Do private meditation coaching
* Create a series of videos for youtube on the value of meditation in various life situations (relationships, academic study, etc)
* Write articles for Buddhist magazines
* General life coaching
* General weekend workshop leader – other people’s courses, my own* Finish the book I started nine years ago
* Do corporate consulting/training – On mindfulness/focus, on communication skills, on goals and mission-statement clarification
* Get a therapy degree, or more coaching training, or an integral counseling certificate
* Find a mentor and work with them
And that’s just the start – I have a lot more ideas all written down somewhere. I read a quote yesterday : “Nothing can add more power to your life than concentrating all of your energies on a limited set of targets.” Accordingly, I imagine that I will eventually want to narrow down my goals, focus and commit. It’s not all clear to me right now what direction, or directions, to move.
And yet it HAS TO HAPPEN. There is no alternative. I HAVE TO BE WHO I AM. I trust the Dharma, and where it will take me. I will die while alive, surrendering to everything that is not what is most meant to be. When I come back, I intend to be ready.
When I’ve been here at the monastery before, I’ve left feeling a sense of hope, energy, motivation, enthusiasm, and inspiration. The big confusion of the world has a way sometimes of swallowing that all up. But, one of my goals for this journey is to go so deep that my own inner truth becomes more compelling than they various chatter out there of the world, and that I am empowered to follow my inner compass.
“The Buddhist precept of not intoxicating the mind or body of self or others is for all of us who have difficulty remaining upright in the midst of our suffering … the essential issue here is that we are dissatisfied with our current experience. We may dislike or feel bored with our experience and wish to bring something in to change or end it. We may be fairly satisfied with our experience but want to bring something in to modify it a little. Or we may enjoy our experience and wish to being something to it to prolong or intensify it, because we anticipate that it will not last. All these examples share a common thread: a lack of appreciation for life as it is.”
— Tenshin Reb Anderson
Me and my Zen teacher Ryushin Paul Haller
So, I finished sewing my rakasu that I wrote about last time, and had my lay ordination ceremony. It was quite epic – Zen Buddhist lay ordination is not just empty ceremony, you are actually taking a step up, you are vowing to take on the Buddhist ethical precepts. So, after nine years of preparations and meetings, my teacher pulled me aside a few hours before the ceremony was scheduled, and – given my overdose last May, which I had told him about – we got all into it. We had a hyper-intense hour-long conversation about the nature or intoxicating the mind, and about the place of drugs and alcohol in the life of a committed Buddhist.
He laid it out : he told me that he was not willing to lay ordain me unless I was willing to make some commitments. After some discussion, he asked me to promise not to get drunk on alcohol, and also to not to change my consciousness with chemicals out of avoiding my feelings. It was a difficult challenging intense conversation – I felt resistant to his demands, I felt that he doesn’t understand my conscious-partying social scene, and also I felt angry, singled out for attention in a way that I think that many Zen students are not. In the end, though, I realized, hey, this conversation is my destiny calling me to take the next step in my evolution. I would have been ashamed of myself if I walked out of that meeting saying “I’m about to turn forty, and getting drunk is more important to me than being lay ordained in my spiritual tradition, or moving forward as a meditation teacher, so ummm yeah let’s just call the whole thing off.”
I talked about my teacher’s actions the next day to one of my friends here, who is a priest. He told me, “No, my teacher never asked me to stop doing anything, not even close – we were knocking em back together the night before my priest ordination.” But then he quietly added, ” But I wish he cared enough that he *had* to ask me to.”
Anyway, I felt emotional after that meeting, but was then emotional in a different way – moved, grateful, and honored – that night during the fifty-minute ceremony. My little lay ordination group was kneeling in the center of the meditation hall, with forty silent, robed monks sitting in rows all around us, giving us their full attention and honor, warm candle-light flickering on the floors, walls, and faces. Paul welcomed us into the lineage of the past enlightened beings and the Dharma ancestors, and told us that their blood lineage now runs through us. He congratulated on choosing to go deep and be the best selves we are able to be. My eyes misted up.
The Dharma name that Paul picked for me is “Gyoku Zan Mokuin”, which translates as “Jewel Mountain, Silent Seal”. Paul told me that the “jewel” in first part of my name refers to “the three jewels” – in other words, he sees me as a grounded mountain of Buddha (liberated consciousness), Dharma (liberated teaching), and Sangha (liberated community). The second part means something like a silent meditation posture of the Buddha. One of the priests told me the next day that the second part of dharma names are usually considered something for the person to grow into. 🙂 Also, the next day, I asked my friend Koji what I thought of my Dharma name. He enthusiastically said, “I think it’s … THUGGED … OUT.” That brought a smile to my face.
Paul calligraphied on the back of my rakasu, “The moon sets in the middle of the night. The ancient white crane leaves the jewel mountain, flying out into the world.” He explained that the “moon setting” means coming back to the normal world and normal consciousness after an encounter of the transcendent Spiritual Source. He said that the second sentence means taking the purity of spiritual liberation (a white crane) from the source of purity, the mountain of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and bringing it out in into the world to the suffering beings who thirst for it.
Rokkin my Rakasu
So, bottom line, I’ve been thinking about life and death. I don’t know if things are really as simple as these equations say, but, here’s how I’ve been thinking of things:
The life urge = big self = moving towards the light = meditation = surrendering to our destiny = trusting the spiritual teaching = making the jump to the next level = untangling and opening = being a warrior of soul = letting the universe live through us = being willing to grow up = let the addictions distractions and fears fall away like Jesus’ misgivings = recognizing Divinity = choosing to do what brings us alive = dying while alive = starving what’s false and alienated in us, and feeding what’s true and Divine
This is the opposite of
The death urge = small self = disappearing into there darkness = committing suicide slowly = addictions = avoiding our deep callings in life = pointlessness, hopelessness, and despair = staying safe = the three kleshas = childish indulgences = not recognizing Divinity = starving what’s true and Divine in us, and feeding what’s false and alienated in us
What I wish for you is as much as possible from the first list of things.