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,


closed door

Sometimes our animal nature takes over and we disregard what’s good for us.  This is TomCat.  He wandered onto the property two summers ago looking somewhat worse for wear.  I named him.  He stayed.  Indoors, TomCat tends to be a pushover. All the cats except his buddy, Slick, swat him away from the food and allow him the barest edge of a cushion or chair.  Outdoors, we suspect he’s unwilling to let the lack of testicles dictate his social skills.  On the way to the vet this weekend, Frank noted that we have spent more time in the ER of the local animal hospital with TomCat than we ever did at the Children’s Hospital.

From the location around his neck of the large contusions, abscesses and all that goes with using one’s claws and not one’s words, it seems TomCat tangled with something rather fierce and with big teeth.  The evidence points to a willing engagement or the bites would have been on his rear, explained the very chatty vet.  Her verdict: house arrest for two or three days until the wounds stop oozing and he’s feeling less punk.

Tell TomCat that.

He’s perfected his caterwauling skills for the two days he’s been incarcerated and no amount of logic is swaying him from his unshakable claim that he has been wrongly sentenced. Keeping him in, however, is more than just logic about healing.  There is something large out there and because his buddy, Slick, hasn’t been home for three days, I’d prefer to worry only half as much.

We often don’t know that a closed door is better for us than access to everything our nature desires.  Even when we’ve been hurt and mangled, we cling to the idea that there is no connection between where we were and what happened.  A closed door challenges our beliefs that we are entitled to everything on the other side of it.  It also triggers our fears that we will miss out, not have, be deprived of what is rightfully ours.

Old habits die hard, I suppose.  On other occasions, TomCat howled and the door opened.  Having been there in various forms, I understand completely.  Been there, invested in the relationship, climbed the ladder.  Sat in front of that closed door.  Sometimes for years.  Sometimes even waiting for a window to open when that door closed.  It didn’t occur to me until recently that the closed door is practice.  It brings me face-to-face with my greed, my sense of entitlement, my assumptions that wanting is all that is required for having.

Consider the generosity of a closed door.  It gives the space to heal, to come into one’s own.  And given I’m not big on leaping out of windows as an alternative to closed doors, it is also a chance to explore what is already here.

I’m beginning to think it’s time to find a quiet place to curl up and live life as it is.

Thank you for practising,