an unknowable purpose

There is this chaotic moment in renovations where the content of rooms begin to infiltrate each others space.  That’s what happens when we instigate change: barriers drop and boundaries blur.  As a masked introvert (that’s someone who is an introvert but can play the role of an extrovert), I shy away from large gatherings, especially ones that can trigger my insecurities as a professional.  Yes, I still hold a membership in the Group for Impostors and Miscellaneous Posers (GIMPs).  So this mindfulness conference was a challenge at many levels and my only recourse was to find a sofa somewhere out of the scrum and curl up with sufficient determination to drive away all the other introverts.

The problem however is that deciding to go to a conference (after avoiding it successfully for 8 years) AND agreeing to present at it effectively precludes all the introvert’s strategies I’ve cultivated over the years.  More than that, having cultivated a practice of being aware of the never-ceasing flow of sensations meant I couldn’t even lie to myself.  Saying yes to engaging in the marketplace is by definition opting for change, being open to change, and being vulnerable to what havoc that change can wreak on the fragile self-system.

At the same time and thankfully, it opens us to confirming what is important and necessary to continue to be who we are.  Who we truly are, not the clinging fearful self who emerges when threatened with loss.

This was the space I eventually entered as the myths and misperceptions of who I am as this or that flowed around me.  These projections were the real impostors and posers yet it was disconcerting to see the constructed imaginings that had grown in the minds of others during my absence from the gatherings.  And of course, despite recognizing them as delusions, I caught myself hopping into the minds of others trying to find that rewind and erase button.  I know you’re not surprised that I was an abject failure at re-directing even one misaligned neuron.

This is the uncomfortable and crucial truth about engaging in the marketplace.  Only you will know who you are.  All else is constructed to serve an unknowable purpose.

walking the wards

This porcelain lady has played the silent koto for at least three decades.  I had bought it for my mother as a birthday present; she collected “curios.”  At the last minute, I decided the potential of her rejecting the gift over some imperceptible flaw was too much for me to handle so I kept it.  An act of emotional cowardice perhaps but I’ve never really regretted it.  There is something about her intense and eternally focused dedication to her art that steadies me every time I see her on my shelf.  This morning, her hand fell off.  And I’ve been sitting here wondering how she’s going to manage.

Yesterday, I gathered up my jelly-like resolve and headed down to the hospital for a solo trip on the wards.  The Reverend Bosses are away although the newest Chaplain was hanging out.  We chatted for a while and I discovered how hard it is to convey Buddhism in bite-sized bytes to a non-Buddhist.  It highlighted the fact that in my professional circles, I don’t tend to share or have the opportunity to share about my spiritual practice.  Ironically, we talk tomes about mindfulness.  Mindfulness-this, mindfulness-that, and isn’t it all interesting about MB-everything.  But the topic of Buddhism and personal paths seem a conversational no-fly zone.

Armed with my trusty identity badge (I finally have a badge with a picture that doesn’t look like I’m in sore need of a bath!), I headed off into three floors of mental health units that made me regret not bringing bread crumbs so I could find my way back out.  I must have been quite the sight: ten steps forward, stop, look back, remember where I came from, don’t trust the directional arrows on the wall, proceed another ten steps.  Being directionally-challenged, I seriously dislike this form of not knowing.  Next time, I’m taking my Garmin wrist GPS.

In the last post, I mentioned that my goals for Chaplaincy have been trashed – more or less.  It’s one of those things where serendipity and desire met leading to a new path that landed me in a mental health hospital rather than the comfortably known environment of police and military service.  This is all new for me.  I had no illusions that my professional role as psychologist would allow any soft landings and I was/am determined to not reach for that set of robes.  But I didn’t count on the long-trained reflex that would have me dragging them into view.  In a conversation with a nurse, it didn’t take long for the ego to feel a need to establish credentials and haul out the sequined moon-and-stars, empire-waistline, sateen gown.  I think awareness kicked in quickly enough that only the hem and petticoat flashed.

Over in the long-term facility, I searched out a patient I had met on previous visits and wanted to check on.  “Hi, I’m Lynette.  I’m the Chaplaincy Intern?”  (Oh dear God, do you have to sound like a telemarketer!)  OK, so this is new too.  I am politely told where to go (next floor up) and as I head to the elevators, the young person sitting by window calls out.  “Hey!  Who are you?  What are you doing here!”  I suddenly realize I’m doing that “on a mission don’t make eye contact in case someone needs you outside your office” walk I learned in my previous internships.  Look up.  Make eye contact.  Be grateful someone woke you up.  She smiles; I smile and introduce myself, sounding less like a telemarketer and more like I’m a happily lost soul.  We talk at length about Monkey’s Journey to the West and she asks me bring back some books because “Buddha is awesome.”

In our conversation that wound from her holiday gifts through tears about life as it is in this moment and laughter about the antics of Monkey, I noticed a need to ask about her diagnosis, her treatment, her labels.  None of that mattered a damn in that moment and would only have served to separate us.  But my monkey wanted to know because the usual things I can reach for to create protection and an illusion of wisdom are not within range.

So today, when my Lady of the Koto lost her hand, I understood what I’m up against.

Thank you for practising,

Genju

what remains?

Sunday, May 2, 2010
I’d like to leave this up for a few days in support of the spirit of a dharma sister who passed away this morning.

Dear Heart, you asked me once, a long time ago, as we debated hotly over David Loy and Vietnamese noodles: “Is that ‘lack’ as in mu or not enough?”

You beat me to the answer! Travel well.

Thank you for practicing,
Genju

hotei’s finger

A long time ago, I wrote a paper on how psychology mismeasures being human.  I proposed that in its development of tests and assessments, it had taken the finger pointing to moon, amputated it from the body, placed it on a grid and took its measure.  From those data, we have come to believe that the feel, sound, smell, taste, sight, and concept of the disembodied finger is the totality of who we are.  And we ask endless questions about the validity and reliability of our ways of knowing what we are.

I got a C, I think.  The prof went on to teach at Harvard.  I have gone on to learn how to re-attach the finger to the Dharma Body.

There is much that is valuable in how we understand the world from what philosophy, psychology, sociology and all the ologies have contributed.  Still, sometimes, I try to remember that what we know is, of necessity, disembodied from the core of who we are.

So, when I see a finger pointing, I remember it is not about finger or moon; it is about orienting myself in a direction.  I follow the finger back, not up and outward into nothingness – back into the hand, arm, shoulder, heart, gut, legs and feet.  Then in reverse to the fingertip.  And, like the needle of a compass, I point in the direction of my path grounded in what I am.

A (modified) story from The Moon Appears When the Water is Still by Ian McCrorie:

Two teachers argued long about the true path, authentic texts, pure Dhamma.  A servant boy served them tea.

“And what do you do here?” asked one of the learned monks.

“I serve tea,” answered the boy.

“Where are you from?”

“Here.”

“When did you start work?”

“Now.”   The boy bowed and left.

“Perhaps,” said the monk,

“It is we guides who need to observe one such as this

whom we hope to guide for he understands more clearly than us that

the truth is not seeking more answers

but asking fewer questions.”

Thank you practicing,

Genju

reflections

Sometimes I wonder what I look like to myself.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately talking about how people present themselves and how they perceive themselves.  There was a long and intense discussion one night about coming to that edge of knowing and falling off into un-knowing, into a fabricated reality without any ground.  The technical term is delusion – one constructed reality reflecting back as another.

Standing in the middle of my experience, how can I know which end of the reflection I’m setting upright?


Thank you for practising,

Genju

nothing changes if nothing changes

The title of this post is a sign the hangs in my office.  It seems to have a profound effect on people who read it.  Of course, anyone coming to my office is either looking something to change or looking for ways to keep things from changing.

It’s often painful to watch how we hold onto the “nothing” with such tenacity. We brace against the inevitable change that happens irrespective of our desires.  And perhaps that’s why, when change brings down the walls of our sanctuary, we feel our desires have been disrespected. We become emotional hoarders – stashing away the rubble of having loved, the bricks and cobblestones of defensiveness that justify how we have acted or what we believe is true.  It lends strength to our belief that security is possible, a belief that the world is real in a tactile, concrete sense.


The poem below by Zoë Skoulding is from the Guardian’s Poem of the Week.  I hope you find it helpful when rebuilding after the bricks of your walls have been scattered.

The lead to the poem by Carol Rumens is worth reading here:

“Reconstruction” is a reminder of the lost spaces and faded memories into which the robustly renovated city may almost disappear. Perhaps the physical re-building has replaced memory, or has displaced the mental rebuilding that memory is? Subtly, the poem seems to revise the old saying, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It whispers, delicately and disturbingly, that the more things stay the same, the more they change.

Reconstruction

These days you forget how the bricks
were piled up all over again,
their edges just where they were before
as if nothing had happened.

As if nothing had happened
they hold the shop-fronts up, the bricks
under stucco and paint again
making a surface as they did before
the words fell down.

The words fell down
and nobody knew what had happened
to the places that bricks
were not the edges of. Making them again
meant bricking up the way things were before,
so that nothing could ever be different.

Although it is different
you forget it, looking down
the street where if you happened
not to know you’d never see where new bricks
are mortared to the old. The walls are here again
but the air between them changed before
it could be sealed inside a memory,

for if you build around a memory
words come first and walls follow. It’s no different
from how it was, the plaster smoothed down
over the gap of what might never have happened.
The sky glows on an outline of bricks.
You open the window wordlessly. You shut it. Again
the room shifts another breath from what it was before
whatever it was that these days you forget.


Thank you for practising,

Genju

going nowhere

medthroom

It was one of those days.  Beginning with much promise and sliding into unfulfilled hours. I’d like to blame it on a lot of things.  The problem with blame is that it’s only a commentary on what might be.  It’s not and cannot be explanatory.  Nor can it be motivational.  Maybe that’s why the day slipped into a string of moments that unwittingly got filled with unphotographed images.

I like to tell the participants of a stress management program I run that when we lapse into unawareness, we turn off the camera of attention.  No camera, no memory.  No memory, no learning.  No learning, lousy choices.

If I peel back the days, I can see why this particular day was what it was.  Two days earlier, my partner and I lead a retreat for over 150 people for whom the idea of meditating was “out there”.  It didn’t help to find out that their professional development day had begun at 0500 with more physical exertion than I’ve put out in my lifetime. And, they were a captive audience – this was not a choice to be there listening to a couple of shrinks tell them how to get healthy by developing awareness.

We take so much for granted.  I have hung out in groupings of professions, practitioners, and play-dates whose language and assumptions have become somewhat unquestioned as we weave our relationships.  And then (thankfully) I’m put at an edge of communication that demands letting go of everything I rely on to forge relationships.  All the concepts of assumed commonalities are stripped away and I drop into the true nature of relationship.  It can be threatening.  It can be a giggle.

So I picked up the microphone, stepped out into the center, looked around the room, went blank, and said, “Well… I haven’t got a clue what to say!”  It was as close to a standing ovation as I’ll ever get.

My job for three hours was to get across a simple point: pay attention, notice when you’ve looked away.  My partner did the rational data delivery: allostatis, allostatic load, stress, lions, elephants, and zebras, Oh My!  I did the experiential stuff, evoking a felt sense of the data – dangerously close to a tent revival meeting if the call and response is unskillfully managed.  The image of over 150 men and women sitting still and following their breath was, and still is, overpowering.

sunset2

The responsibility of a retreat, of course, is for the retreat leaders themselves to pay attention, not look away.  I call it the full-body contact version of embodied practice.  In every moment, I have to find the balance between what was unfolding in my body, speech, and mind and steer to coordinates set in a thirty second conversation we’d had the night before.  It’s our style of preparation: plan no-plan.

I suppose it’s about trust.  Not so much in the Other; though it helps that we’ve done this a couple of times before.  It’s trust in my own way of knowing, in processing the sensations sent from body to mind to speech to body to mind.  Touch, sight, sound, scent, taste, and knowing.  Powerfully elevating and equally emptying.

Somewhere in the day that was going nowhere, I woke up and remembered what I had said to those very still women and men sitting and breathing.

Pay attention.  Notice when you’ve looked away.  Come back.

There’s nowhere to go.

Thank you for practising,

Genju

Images from top: Syracuse Airport, Sunset after waking up