This moment, this intimacy. This is just sitting, this is just doing; this is being completely pierced.
Everything is the Way by Elihu Genmyo Smith on Dogen’s koan “A single hair pierces many holes.”
But sounds don’t worry about whether they make sense or whether they are heading in the right direction. They don’t need that direction or mis-direction to be themselves. They are, and that’s enough for them. And for me too…
A sound possesses nothing, no more than I possess it. A sound doesn’t have its being, it can’t be sure of existing in the following second. What’s strange is that it came to be there, this very second. And that it goes away. The riddle is the process.
from Where the Heart Beats – John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson
For all our best intentions, it became an inadvertent 10 km journey of back-tracking. We started the day in a compassionate-mind state, choosing only to cover what distance would be possible. That got us to the car from the kitchen. It was a good start followed by an hour-long drive to the Gatineau Hills and Trail #3. Sure it was coded as “difficult” but we had that compassionate-mind which was going to allow us to be wherever difficult joined us on the trail.
Trail #3 starts out at a lovely lookout point, Étienne Brûlé, and descends quickly to a flat run through the forest. The implication of that drop didn’t escape me; it would be there as the last leg of the hike when we returned. I knew better than to project into the return trip and set my mind into my feet. Mu. The trail markers named #3 the Huron Trail which crossed others that lead to Meech Lake, the Western Trail, or up to the Rampart Lookout. It was fun and games; we were actually enjoying the slopes and slides, enjoying the feeling of effort and lifting of the mental fog that held us earlier in the day.
Alone on the trail, I was happy when we met another hiker. My mind could finally stop trying not to think of black bears, hungry black bears, hungry black bears looking for a quick meal deal. Mu. We stood and chatted for a while, the hiker subtly assessing our capabilities, asking us if we’d been on these trails before. And where were we headed and when had we started out and yes, the trail up to the Rampart Lookout was quite easy. No, not steep at all; a few ups and downs but not steep. I was so relieved I failed to note he was wearing a tee-shirt that advertised the Meech Lake Trail; he may have been inclined to experience a different version of steep.
We overshot the trail leading to the Ramparts and wandered about 1.5 kms further east before turning around. Getting to the lookout from the trail junction was another 800 meters; a kilometer and a half there and back again. I dithered about it as the start into the trail looked chancy and then decided that trusting in difficult to join us had worked so far. It met us about two-thirds of the way up and set its challenge. Not in the steepness of the trail but in the sheer drop off the edge of my mind as old stories surfaced about what should have been, what is, and what may never be. Mu.
Mu is this large, this wide, this deep, and this penetrable when you’re sitting on a log wondering why 800 meters is so large, so wide, so deep and so impenetrable. It sits on your chest and clutches at your throat, willing you to be someone else. Someone who says Mu! to wanting the world to shift, the ups and downs to smooth out, the forest to open and the way to be passable.
It runs rampant over your life and confirms, “Now, you can never say never again.”
(Interesting factoid: Trail #3 is locally called, by hikers and skiers, Burma Road. The trail builders found it so tough to cut the route that they felt they were building the Bridge on the River Kwai. A bit of a stretch to calling it the Burma Road (which is whole different part of Burma’s war history) but I’m not about to take it away from these folks who hand sawed the trail open. You can read more about it here.)
I was at an art retreat with Stephen Addiss at Zen Mountain Monastery. We practiced with the kanji character for mu and I was having all kinds of trouble. Of course you were, you say. That’s just who mu is.
If you’ve seen the formal script for Mu, you’ll know there are four lines in the middle and four dots at the base. For whatever the reason, I just couldn’t get the lines to look like lines. Now that may seem very strange because, after all, how hard can it be to just draw four tilted lines. Well it was until I figured out that there was some trust that had to be placed into the relationship I have with the observers of my efforts.
That they would perceive whatever line and tilt was necessary to facilitate our ongoing dance with each other.
Part of the return to health has included a return to yoga every week. I’ve missed it. So too have my core muscles because apparently they are on strike – or having a tantrum. But I committed to approaching yoga this time with a truly non-competitive attitude. The teacher often says about certain poses, “When in doubt, leave it out.” And I catch myself saying, “Hah! Didn’t have to with that one!”
If “No” is a form of Mu then that was a Mu-Mu.
For 75 minutes twice a week, I watch my nonsense mind make so much more of every moment than it needs to. And thankfully my body doesn’t listen. Or at least, my muscles don’t because as time passed, strength accrued with diligence.
So, I’m learning. What needs to be left out most is that need to be more than what is possible at this moment. That’s not to say more isn’t available in the next moment; just not this one. And in a yoga school as in a zen community or any place at all, there are ample opportunities to want more. I’ve been successful at passing up the 200-hour yoga teacher’s course and the 5-day yoga intensive. I’ve let go of teacher trainings on some beautiful beach somewhere and I’ve even resisted heading down to Toronto to train with the Yoga for Round Bodies folks!