shadow 2

Sangha Arana is our home sangha – or more correctly, it’s our sangha-in-the-home.  As you may have seen in other photographs, our living room/dining room is the zendo and what constituted the LR/DR is tucked warmly into the “TV” room and kitchen.  My non-Buddhist friends (whose numbers diminish by the day) look at me as if I’ve lost my mind but I think it’s only because they miss the weekend long gatherings punctuated by beer, hot dogs, and hamburgers on the BBQ.  My Buddhist friends (whose numbers are quite static) also look at me as if I’ve lost my mind – which coming from a bunch of Zennies should be a compliment, I suppose.

And therein lies many a session about form and wholeheartedness, ritual and zealousness.

Sangha Arana started out as a space and time limited to health care professionals so that we could gather and practice mindfulness through meditation (that is worded deliberately).  As an experiment in providing a space for us to “be ourselves,” where we could disrobe from our professional obligations, it was a minimal success.  The shadow side of prajna kept creeping in and finally absorbed much of the light.  We are so highly trained in the “compare and contrast treatment efficacies” that it is hard to leave that judgemental, preferential mind on the elevator.  But as the disgruntled fell away, there was left a quiet group of us who have come to appreciate the privilege to have the time and space free to dig deep into our shadow side.

At a point in this evolution of community, however, we stretched the definition of “health care” and open the doors to more “professionals,” eventually throwing them wide open to anyone who wanted to practice in a Zen tradition.  That, of course, meant reiterating the ground rules each evening; Thich Nhat Hanh called for deep patience in such times.  After all, he said, the airlines always go over the skills of clinching seat belts and finding the emergency exits each time you get on an airplane because even if it is your 100th flight, it’s always someone’s first.  So we gently repeated, every evening, the ways in which to practice with us.  And, Arana, for a while, became a magnet for people who believed wholeheartedly that the aspiration to find one’s true nature meant doing what came naturally.  About the time our evenings became a roundtable on levitation and license of all things sexual, I woke up to the shadow side of patience.

My reaction (and I take full responsibility for this) was to be even more wholehearted about practice.  By which I meant a strong adherence to “ritual,” thinly disguised as a means of order and control.  These shadow manifestations are fascinating.  Being wholehearted about practice slides so easily into an accreted view of how practice should be.  Being patient softens the boundaries so that no one knows the edge of practice.

Thank you for practising,


shadow 1

It’s been a while since I’ve had the inclination to play with breath-brush-body.  When we lived in Montreal, Quebec, every evening, my parents and I would go for a walk after dinner.  The route took us squarely from our home along a major thoroughfare, and across a boulevard lined by industrial shops on one side and the commuter railway on the other.  That end of the neighbourhood bordered another where the beer factories spewed out columns of white gases, rank with hops.  When the wind blew from the southwest, the rancid smell floated across into the parallel blocks of red brick duplexes and occasional bungalow that huddled together waiting to be gentrified.  On days like that, walking past the shops, my father would stop at one, sniff the air, and read aloud the hand-inked cardboard in the sooty window: Inspiration, Limited.

He would laugh, “You don’t have to look far to see why, m’girl, eh?”

A silly memory but in the last few weeks, it’s been popping up.  Inspiration, Limited.  Head-learning will do that: limit all inspiration.  I’ve been scrambling through my notes from the chaplaincy retreat to write the papers, catching up on technical articles in preparation for the next cohort of soon-to-be MBSR teachers, surveying my library for an inspirational Zen book to blog about, and just plain sneaking in a novel.  This is too much brain candy and I think I went into knowledge-shock, a non-life-threatening form of insulin shock.  But it’s definitely a state that can bring on a similar form of delusional process – I started to believe I knew things.

Thankfully, one of the aspects I was working on from the chaplaincy retreat, which coincided with my re-reading of Roshi Aitken’s book on the Paramitas, was the “shadow” side of each paramita.  The cultivation of Prajna or Wisdom, for example, is an “inspirational” practice (to use Roshi Aitken’s term).  However, it is more related to striping away the layers of delusion than collecting the flotsam and jetsam of information.  When approached with the over-zealous, driven quality we tend to bring to cultivating Wisdom can manifest as a righteousness.  It can lead to fixed positions which then bring about misunderstandings and suffering.   Similarly, single-focused concentration is an inspirational practice.  Not only is it a form of coming home, it gives rise to stick-to-it-iveness, hanging in when the difficult and unwanted come to visit.  Pushing it beyond the edge of Dhyana results in obsession or a tunnel-vision that excludes important aspects of one’s life.

“Inspiration limited” has taken on a new meaning and is a neat little mindful bell for me over this week as I work with the paramitas and their shadow.  I’m finding it a challenge to sense that tipping point where the practice shifts from light to shadow – or at the very least notice the layering of shadow elements over what is.

Thank you for practising,