musical chairs & the subtle nourishment of lack

Yesterday marked a turning point in my practice.  As most of you know, Frank and I facilitate/manage/runaround a sangha.  Most of the time, it’s a lot of fun.  We have an opportunity to sit, walk, drink tea, and laugh with like-minded folks who share a curiosity about life.  Sometimes, it’s a pain where the zafu meets the body part.  Events are rarely attended and often we’ve been left holding the financial bag for community gatherings.  (Probably the worst was a fund-raising dinner for a local charity to which we had “bought” a table for 10 and no one showed.)  We tend to roll with these things though Frank and I have markedly different approaches to the ups and downs of interest and attendance.

My view is quorum-based.  There’s no point going ahead without the right size of body count.  His view is to go ahead with practice and eventually the bodies count.

I finally acknowledge that Frank is right.

There.  It’s in writing and published across the multi-verse.  And yesterday was that kind of turning point in my practice, a realization finally that practice must be independent of all outward markers of success.  It was our Day of Mindfulness (zazenkai, for those of us who need exotica in our language).  The number of emails expressing regrets suggested there would not be anyone attending but we went ahead anyway.  One person did come – in fact he came twice: the day before, thinking it was Sunday, and again on Sunday.  Now that is dedication! K. walked in and said, “Oh, is no one coming today?”  And for the first time, I truly felt the paradox in our thinking.   I replied,  “There will be three of us today.”

I have wondered where this need for a body count comes from, especially in the sanghas I’ve attended.  One dharma teacher would send out anxious and angry emails railing at the community for not showing up.  Another would become furious when other communities formed because it threatened to take people away from his group.  A third, greatly beloved by all and sundry, took strips off Frank and me because we had only brought 11 people to his retreat (final body count 35) and refused to give talks at our budding sangha until we had over 30 people attending regularly for at least two years.

Looking back, I can see this as a subtle training in sensitivity to lack, to not having enough, to the Other as a threat to acquiring more.  Sadly, it reduces the spiritual path to just another form of desperate consumerism.  Interestingly, the talk I chose for our DoM yesterday was given by Sensei Beate Stolte at Upaya ZC: Exploring the Self.  In it, Sensei Beate goes on a bit of a tangent but an important one.  She describes the subtle ways in which we foster our fear of not getting what we deserve, not having enough.

She used the example of a child’s game, musical chairs. You know the game.  It starts out with much laughter and fun as the music plays, children run around the chairs, and squeal as they try to find a chair when the music stops.  Quickly though, the implications of the music starting and stopping sink in.  Now it’s become a full contact sport.  Has it ever become again just a game for us since those days of birthday parties and summer picnics?  Was this part of the early seeding of our competitive, driven nature? Do we still walk into a room, a situation and scan it for the potential of “one-less-chair-than-bodies?”

I had hoped it would not be that way in communities given to mindful consumption or dedicated to the uprooting of greed.  Apparently it is not and this is distressingly so.  The marker of a community dedicated to practice cannot be the number of bodies sitting in rows.  Admittedly, if we’ve got to support temples and structures which necessitate an accounting at the end of the day, bodies count.  And perhaps, that’s a morality tale in itself about tails wagging dogs.  At the same time, I won’t say I’m not concerned by the low body count in sangha-building but it’s more a concern about people not taking advantage of the dharmic riches available.

But yesterday, it was different for me.  Whatever it was, however many we were, it was enough.  In my striving to be homeless, free of attachments, I noticed that three of us shared a wonderful morning of meditation, followed by a lunch of roasted squash soup, fresh-baked bread, spinach salad, tea, a walk in the woods, and then a gentle sharing about our practice.  There were two chairs and a zafu leftover and no one had to fight for their seat in the circle.

Thank you for practising,


11 thoughts on “musical chairs & the subtle nourishment of lack

  1. I remember the time, about 20 years ago, when someone first confronted me about my “not enough” mind. It was around food and my desire to have just a little more condiment, thank you. And the head monk said, “not enough?”

    And it really hit me and it has stayed with me for two decades now: the many ways in which hunger arises.

    Your post today quenches hunger and I’m grateful. (Oh, and that monk from 20 years ago now lives in Seattle and we’re friends. Funny how things play out . . . and never end!)

  2. Nice post on so many levels. I guess I think of the numbers as some confirmation that we’re okay. And we look for this in so many ways. The Buddhist nun I used to sit with would talk openly about this feeling “no one is coming this evening” and how it had karmic overtones of abandonment for her. And yes that “not enough” mind is busy in many places!

    So much to contemplate. And what a wonderful release for you! THanks for reminding me to watch for this little beast!

  3. The comparing mind shows up in all sorts of ways, and yes, it’s deeply conditioned. Happy that you found freedom yesterday from the not-enough syndrome. Sounds like a lovely day. I sit weekly with one friend, in between our formal retreats (which have at times been just three, including teacher), and it’s a wonderful reminder of the fact that “it takes two to make a sangha” …

  4. Thank you, my friends! ZDS, I was amazed to learn some time back that you didn’t know there were statistics on your blog. One day I will come to all of you and ask for help for my “Number of Visitors” addiction!

    Barry, that “not enough” is so alive in me and while I can explain it, I certainly cannot yet meet it with equanimity.

    Sharanam, knowing of your sitting with your friends helps tremendously. As time passes, I feel more removed from that manic drive to increase the body count so we can… we can what?… I never did understand it… 😀 We will be making a huge move in the New Year at many levels of our life. Time to activate Plan A-2!

    • Isn’t it awesome? (If I may say so) Fifth Avenue and all the contradictory signs… stop, pause, don’t turn, one way but not this way…. I found an online art print producer and may just make this a canvas poster!

  5. Pingback: if ihad an ipad – the subtle surrender of relationship « 108zenbooks

  6. “I had hoped it would not be that way in communities given to mindful consumption or dedicated to the uprooting of greed. Apparently it is not and this is distressingly so. The marker of a community dedicated to practice cannot be the number of bodies sitting in rows. Admittedly, if we’ve got to support temples and structures which necessitate an accounting at the end of the day, bodies count. And perhaps, that’s a morality tale in itself about tails wagging dogs. At the same time, I won’t say I’m not concerned by the low body count in sangha-building but it’s more a concern about people not taking advantage of the dharmic riches available.”

    This is a really wonderful post. It’s challenging too. I just sat here reading the words above, and then thinking about my own sangha. Thinking about the classes and retreats canceled because “not enough people” signed up. And the discussions about money, and how we’re always trying to get more from members. Our teacher is constantly talking about wanting more people doing retreats. And I sit there, one of the community’s leaders, thinking “you must be disappointed that people like me aren’t attending regularly.” Because I don’t.

    Honestly, I sometimes I get the sense that much of the Western Zen community is living in “not enough mind.” Whatever practice we’re doing – it’s not enough. Gotta sit more. Do more retreat. Study more texts. More. More. More.

    • It is definitely a challenge – all around. Many of the reasons you list are why I left the sanghas I used to frequent. When I got more emails asking for us to raise MILLIONS on ill-conceived ventures than emails encouraging practice, I figured it was time to be somewhere else.

      In our current sangha, we try to foster a practice of generosity in this moment. We ask attendees to each evening to pay attention to what needs doing – and do it. Tend to the altar, lay out the mats, set the cushions. Stay after and clean the room, volunteer to open the doors the next week if they’re attending. Do what is necessary in this moment when you are here. But I think the Western mind is geared less to communal activity than consumer mentality. Most people coming to a sangha are dipping their toe in, they want to be entertained by stars in a comfortable environment that pops up and dismantles without effort.

      Striking “just enough” is a tough balance. I love sitting more, reading more, bowing more – and it amounts to greed after a fashion. But then, it IS important to sit, read, learn, experiment with that learning. When community leaders forget to help us negotiate that balance, it becomes a problem. In the end, it’s never about more people but about fostering the mind of generosity in the one person in front of us.

      (Full disclosure: I do get severely pissed when everyone turns out for a Council evening, makes their demands about what they want from sangha, but then never show up again. But it does make me understand the voting process!)

      BTW, my most powerful role model is Sodo Yokoyama – the homeless, leaf-whistling monk who taught in a Komoro park for years.

      Some day may I achieve that deepest practice.

  7. It’s taken several years of deliberate effort in our sangha to develop a culture of service that isn’t (mostly) based on guilt or some expected reward. I have enjoyed seeing this happen, and yet it’s probably still the case that many (maybe a majority) are dipping in the way you describe it. A consumer experience where most, if not everything, is taken care of, and it’s all comfortable and easy.

    “it IS important to sit, read, learn, experiment with that learning.” Very true. I’m all for this. And also how to balance that with the rest of one’s life, knowing everyone in my sangha, for example, has a life outside of the community?

    I guess I believe that people can develop great wisdom in different ways, and that doing X number of retreat days a year, for example, does not necessarily equate with being a wiser, more compassionate person. This seems to be my issue these days, as my practice has become more about day to day investigation, and less and less about retreats.

    I’m interested in how to support the rhythms in people’s lives through the way dharma is taught – instead of what I often see, where a lot of lip service is given to daily life, but “deep” practice really means going away for days, weeks, even months at a time. The way I see it, there are times in life where retreat practice, even monastic training, might be called for. And other times, it’s something completely different. In fact, I think the whole monastic/lay divide is kind of a false dichotomy that has a lot of Zen folks stuck in many ways. People either try to hard to be monastic-like or they drop off everything and are too relaxed. I’m all about experimenting, and listening to what you’re heart is calling for – which sometimes goes against the whole submission to the form’s given narrative.

    Sodo Yokoyama’s story is quite cool! I can see why you’re inspired.

    I think one of our jobs – living in consumerist, anti-community-driven cultures, is to develop or tweak practice forms so that they allow people enough space and safety to open up and cultivate a generosity that’s beyond money or time – that goes to our very cores. Seems to me that Sodo’s frame of living was from giving – it was how he woke up and lived each day, instead of a jacket he put on when it seemed to be the right thing to do. And it was more about being with others, connecting and sharing, devotion to a particular place and it’s rhythms, and exuding love for practice and living. He probably wasn’t worried about how much zazen he did everyday, or if he’d given enough time on a given day or not. Seems to go right against that more, more, more mentality.

    Sorry to ramble on. I guess this all has struck a nerve with me. Thanks for listening.

    • I don’t read this as a ramble at all. You are addressing some critical issues about the authenticity of practice and its relevance. Practice meets the path in our everyday lives, not in some rarefied building or in an exotic ritual.

      Having said that, I do enjoy the rites and rituals of long retreats and their rituals. But I realize this is a gift of a particular time and space. I could not have practiced this way when my daughter was young or when we were just starting out in business. We are very blessed and privileged at this time to have the finances and freedom to go on retreats (though I may be bankrupt by the time I finish this Chaplaincy!).

      At the same time, I too don’t believe that going on long retreats makes us better practitioners. Nor does going on no retreats make us bad practitioners. Many of our sangha members enjoy the day long sessions and that is quite enough to solidify practice for most.

      In the end all this is about honoring the sacred in each other. That’s all.

      Thank you for practising. And, I truly mean that.

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