something left behind


The koan of Senjo and her soul being separated (Mumokan, case #35) describes and explores the paradox of living our passion and meeting our obligations.  The story of Sen-jo and her soul is a Chinese folk tale (Aitken, 1991; Shibayama, 2000) about a young woman who decides to leave her parents and an arranged marriage in order to be with the man she loves.  Stricken with homesickness and guilt, she and her husband return only to find her parents confused when she claims to be their daughter.  As far as they know, Sen-jo has been in their home all these years, lying in her bed unable to engage with her filial duties or her life.  Which is the real Sen-jo?

The question posed by Zen teachers of their students is not about re-uniting her with her soul but an inquiry into which is the real Senjo, an issue of dualistic identity (Arnold, 2004).  Inherent in the question is the implication that the split is real and that resolving the conundrum requires determining what is real.   This overlooks the story material that wraps around the koan and it fails to appreciate that the paradox in the story is imposed by our own separation from reality (Hori, 2006; R. Sasaki quoted in Loori, 2006).  Current interventions to resolve the suffering of burnout continue to seek resolution without recognizing that the dualism between work and personal lives is an illusion, albeit a sometimes inspirational illusion.  The real question therefore is not which is real Senjo but rather how does Senjo’s work become a pilgrimage of identity (Whyte, 2001) so she can exist fully and in alignment with each of her roles.

….Conventionally, work and personal lives are viewed as separate and much energy is expended holding the boundaries between them. When difficulties arise in one domain, we are expected to keep the emotional turmoil from interfering with our performance in the other.  When conflicting schedule or expectations arise, our choices of home over work or vice versa can bring on criticism, often regardless of which we choose.  The koan of Sen-jo and her soul being separated offers insight to this putative divide between the two realms.  A literal reading of the narrative describes Sen-jo as unable to sustain the inconsistency between two values: her love for her parents and her love for her beloved.  She runs away with her beloved and creates a life for herself.  In current societal terms, this is appropriate individuation and establishment of one’s identity (albeit somewhat unskillful).  However, in cultural terms, the cost is the abandonment of a different set of values: honour her parents, enter a marriage that would bring support and care for herself and her parents.  To stay would mean being caught in a set of values that are not in alignment with her desire or passion for her own way of life and choice of life partner.  To leave would be to defy the rules of family and community, to violate expectations of her as daughter, wife, and future mother.

She is caught at the extremes of avoiding evil and doing good, aware that her actions have deep consequences for herself and her family.  It also exposes her internal values conflict and is metaphoric of choices we make when confronted by two apparently irreconcilable systems of belief.  We try to leave one behind while pursuing another, believing the two to be easily dismembered.  And, the denouement of the story suggests that is not possible, that there is a larger, deeper, and very different reality.  While we may believe we have walked away with all that is essential to us, there is something left behind.

from Burnout and Spiritual Incongruence, Lynette Monteiro, ©2012

perfect offerings

You know that eternally beautiful song Anthem by Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

I don’t remember when the light began to get in.  It might have started when I realized there was no one who could save me.  Except me.  Over the years, my life became privileged: a loving spouse, a beautiful daughter, an amazing career, a home, friends (two-legged and four).  And still, the split endured keeping me from truly connecting with what was right there in front of me.  Until one day.

The horses we had were housed in a barn on the edge of a stream.  It was early Spring and the snow melt had begun.  Walking back from the barn, I felt my body stopped by an unfamiliar sound.  It took a moment before I realized it was the sound of the stream rushing through the culvert in the small ravine.  I’d walked that path every morning for ten Spring seasons and never heard it.  Slowly I looked around as if I’d come to this place for the first time in my life.  And, in effect, I had.  Everything seemed brilliant in the sunlight – the snow, the sky, the pine and spruce trees.  I slid down the slope to the stream which was wild with enthusiasm for the renewed life it had, released from the clutches of ice and cold.  Sinking into the snow and mud, I knew no one could hear this stream except me.  No one could see the sky or the trees except me.  No one could feel the chill soaking wet of the ground except me.  And I could not give this perfect moment to anyone – no matter how badly I believed it would  help them.

The crack through which the light entered was the sincere desire to prevent suffering.  Over the years, when life did not fit my belief that doing good had good outcomes (that’s the “Just World” hypothesis we tend to hold), I modified my experience so that the belief held.  Good didn’t happen for others because I wasn’t good (read: worthy) enough which only caused me to ramp up the intensity with which I tried to “do” good.  Community was also important so I fell into sangha-building as yet another means of “doing” good.  The disasters accumulated and the slope became more slippery than that Spring slide down to the stream as the perfect offerings became warped and unrecognizable.  As did I.

I had to “die” in those waking moments I mentioned yesterday, to die to these perfect offerings.  The reality of perfection is that it is never about beauty or love but rather about fear.  And only when I allowed myself to be consumed by the wolves of fear was it possible to fully experience my life.  Unfiltered.  Raw.  Broken open.

I wrote to my coach about a lovely experience this is currently unfolding in my life:  If we die in every moment, then I have died happy for several in this day.  That, in all its simplicity, is life.