“The silence of sitting will tell you everything you need to know.”
It was the kind of fortune-cookie bullshit you hear a lot of at Zen meditation retreats offered in Northern California by Northern Californians. Actually, that’s not fair. You get that kind of bullshit in Portland or Seattle or Denver or New York too, but this dose of bullshit was the first cohesive collection of words I’d heard in what felt like forever – and it wasn’t helping.
There’s this point in an intensive meditation retreat where you’ve been actively concentrating on your breathing and your posture and how your knees are now made of concrete and that the small of your back is the all-consuming heart of a great vortex of pain that is actually absorbing the pain from all living beings for hundreds of miles around you and compressing it into a perfect symphony of agony composed in a language of utter suffering that you will sing through clenched teeth until you finally embrace the sweet release of death.
I had passed that point something like a lifetime (or at least forty-five minutes) ago and what I was not prepared for was a lesson on sitting in silence. I was ready to flex my legs, stand up, bend backwards and crack my back like a machine gun, and then reconsider the life choices that had led me to think a three-day retreat in the middle of nowhere between Ukiah and Clear Lake California was “exactly what I needed.”
Truth be told, I had no idea what I needed.
In the late summer of 2006 I thought of myself as “recently separated” from my wife of eleven years and I was struggling to figure out who I was at the age of thirty distinct from who I had been since the age of 19 as a husband and part of a joint man-and-wife unit. My self-identification as a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church had been one of my cornerstones, one of the concrete aspects of “who I was” and I was beginning to consider what it meant to separate from that identity. I was living in a two-bedroom apartment two doors down from my impending ex-wife, a decision made to facilitate easy shared custody of our daughter, but that apartment was not my home. It was where my stuff was. And a lot of her stuff. Boxes and boxes of stuff from when we had been us, before “us” dissolved into accusations and instant messenger conversations with other people, and a refusal to go back to counseling. Before “she” became “her” and I became just the recipient of scowls and the subject of dismissive conversations.
I remember how incredibly lost I was early in the separation. I knew I was profoundly unhappy in Salem, a town I had moved to because of her. Everything was a reminder of her, of us…eleven years is a long time, a lot of stuff. But no matter how much I knew I didn’t want to be there, I couldn’t see clear to just leaving. We had a daughter, and I couldn’t imagine missing even one minute of her life; so I lived two doors down, in my own little slice of un-decorated purgatory, over the bridge and up the hill from the saner parts of the universe. My little brother wanted me to move up to Seattle, where I had friends and family and a place to land on my feet. My parents made grand gestures of me moving home to Boise, but I’d already burned so much of that bridge chasing after her, I knew the offer was more formal than heartfelt.
I should have put all that stuff right back into a storage unit, driven my car as far as I could, and found another job in another town in a whole new life. But that never occurred to me.
Instead I started to change the things about me that I knew I wasn’t happy with, and Adventism was top of the list. I’d been on both sides of the evangelical Christian spectrum in the last ten years, and it’s safe to say that my years flirting with an agnosticism that bordered on direct atheism had NOT helped my marriage. I’d come back again like a pendulum, swinging from true believer to skeptic and now back towards faith again. But the split, the counseling with our pastor, reading slanted and stilted marriage books from a perspective I couldn’t see from…it finally shattered my ability to see through an Adventist lens. So I went looking for a new perspective.
It’s fair to say that I’d been interested in Buddhism since childhood. I wrote my senior thesis on Zen Buddhism and had remained at least philosophically aligned for most of my adult life. I read books by Robert Aitken and D.T. Suzuki and Thich Nhat Hanh and subscribed to Tricycle and Wind Bell and thought of myself as an outside observer. An outside observer who sat meditation sessions on the sly and hid my activities like a man sneaking off to strip clubs or peep shows.
I kept it a secret from my wife, her family, and the people at the church we had been attending; but I started going to the Portland Zen Center on a near daily basis. I just wanted something different, something calm, something where no one looked at me and saw “that guy whose wife quit pastoral counseling” or “that guy who couldn’t keep his family together” or just “that guy who failed.”
I’d been attending regularly for a little more than a month when the priest pulled me aside after a Wednesday evening session. “There’s a three-day intensive retreat next weekend being run by our sister center at their facility in Northern California. One of the students has had to cancel due to a family issue and their spot is now open. I know you’ve been searching for a more intense experience, and this may be just what you’ve been looking for.”
I was surprised by the offer, and the timing was perfect, Heather was taking Sarah to see her family that weekend and I’d be effectively free to do as I wanted. I drove down to Eugene to work until a little before noon that Thursday, then hit the road south trying to make up time as I flew down I-5. I’d driven the first half about a thousand times before; I could drive that stretch in my sleep (and honestly had multiple times).
Once I was south of Ashland I was into less familiar territory. I’d certainly driven it in the past, and all of the northern third of California looks essentially identical, so I ran hammer-down and just hoped that my forest green Passat would blend in if one of CHIP’s finest was waving a radar gun around in my path. Google Maps says the trip should have taken eight hours and three minutes; I left Eugene at ten-to-noon and arrived a little after six-thirty. For a guy looking for peace and enlightenment, something to calm his soul, I was in a mighty aggressive hurry to get there.
Silent meditation retreats have a set of customs and protocols that I was completely unfamiliar with when I walked up to the registration table set up in the front of the dining area. I talked with the registration staff, read over the welcome sheet and the retreat rules (printed on a purple sheet of paper and in Papyrus font no less), and took my bedroll and gym-bag to my assigned room.
We mingled for a few minutes while we waited for the call to enter the main room. The retreat was officially scheduled to start at 7:00 with a welcome talk and then the silence ceremony. We collectively entered the main hall a couple of minutes before the scheduled time, bowed to each other and to the teacher, and then took our places on the zafus and zabutons arranged in two facing rows of ten or twelve places each.
“Each of you will take from this experience only what you put into this experience. Every step here can be a step on the Eight-Fold Path, or it can be a wasted moment. You have come here to further your personal journey, but only you can choose to take the steps. Silence is our expression of emptiness, of surrendering the things that fill us up and prevent us from finding enlightenment in our day-to-day world. You have stepped out of your everyday lives, now embrace the silence as a bridge on your path forward. For the next three days you cannot turn left or right, there is only this bridge to cross, but you must take those steps yourself.” The Roshi continued to give us a very eloquent Dharma talk, and then at the end of the session a ceremonial bell was rung with a wooden striker; symbolic for the sound of emptiness replacing the everyday sounds of speaking to communicate.
Then we sat in the typical silence of a zazen sesshin. We sat for four rounds of thirty minutes with a fifteen minute session of walking meditation between them. It was ten thirty when I unrolled my bedroll and laid down to sleep. I was exhausted, and even though the bedroll was far from plush or even particularly comfortable I was out within moments of my head hitting the pillow.
I woke up early. And Sore. But mostly early. Like five A.M. early. I wouldn’t have woken up that early on my own, one of the retreat staff silently shook my shoulder and I recognized the sound of the morning bell gently penetrating the haze still fogging my brain. I got up and dressed as quickly as I could, though I realized that my brain’s instructions were only partially followed by my limbs as I wobbled and gyrated into a clean shirt and a new pair of loose-fitting shorts. Shorts proved to be my first mistake of the day. The dress code was casual, but the mountain air coming off of Clear Lake was brisk at best, and shiver-inducing as I walked to the main hall.
We gathered and went quickly through the greeting ceremony, taking seats and facing the students positioned across from us. Positions aren’t assigned, but the process of repeatedly following a very consistent routine breeds an unconscious urge to go directly to where you went before. I would face this student for the rest of our time at the retreat, though I didn’t know that at the start of our first early morning session.
Eyes are typically kept averted, as a sort of unspoken social contract. As you sit, you will occasionally have to change your physical position, knees get sore, backs get tired, necks develop kinks. If you look at someone as they adjust their position, it implies that they distracted you from your meditation, and inevitably eye-contact feels like an accusation or admonishment to “meditate better.”
Of course, sesshin veterans all know that one’s meditation and gaze are both the responsibility of the meditator, not the person making the adjustment; but there’s this fear of “making a mistake” that neophytes have a very hard time overcoming. I recognize now that the woman across from me was as new to this as I was. And she was struggling. She readjusted her feet at least half-a-dozen times in just the first sitting session, and clearly would have leaped to her feet for the walking meditation, but leaping was also completely beyond her abilities. As we finished our last sitting session before breakfast, I looked up to see her face contorted in the visage of a marathon runner desperately pushing for the will to go just one more mile. I have only rarely seen someone more physically miserable and still push on.
She climbed to her feet a bit more slowly than the rest of us, and walked slowly in front of me as we made our way to the dining hall for breakfast. I’m not a vegan, and I tend to have a hard time with a lot of vegan specialty foods, but breakfast was a sort of buckwheat and/or rice-flour pancake with a sort of honey and berry jam that was rolled up and cut like cinnamon rolls; and it was delicious. There was also some sliced fruit, some sort of tofu something, and something that I think was supposed to be yogurt minus the yogurt (I’m not vegan, I can’t explain). I’ll admit I pretty much stuck with the pancakes.
After breakfast we walked as a group up to a flat grassy area where outdoor zafus (a sort of smooshed wicker ball) had been arranged in a circle. The view was unbelievable, the entire valley spread out perfectly beyond the rock edge of the retaining wall that formed the far side of the plateau. We bowed to the teacher, to each other, and took our seats. The Roshi held up the ceremonial bell and struck it once, the clear sound seemed to fill the entire valley from our elevated vantage point.
“You have come here to discover emptiness. You have come here to surround yourselves with silence. This is a journey through sitting, and we take steps of pure motionless thought. But as we go forward on the path of emptiness, we must fill ourselves with compassion. Emptiness without compassion is not enlightenment, it is a doorway you cannot open. As emptiness creates an opening in us to pass through, compassion is the door that we throw wide; an expression of doing that extends beyond merely being. It was once said that there are 163 different states of compassion. As you reflect on the emptiness that this retreat brings into your life, reflect on the different states of compassion that you pour into that emptiness, and how that compassion can go out and fill the world.”
The Dharma talk continued on for the rest of the hour, but I am ashamed to admit that I processed no further. It was an excellent discussion of what silence gives us, and how the emptiness and mindfulness of intense living meditation creates a place where we are free to become more than we are in our every-day lives; but I was suddenly trapped in the game of identifying one-hundred and sixty-three different states of compassion.
Why would you even say that to an over-analytic semi-obsessive nerd-monster? How am I NOT supposed to dwell on this during every silent moment for the rest of the retreat? I’m not sure what the opposite of enlightenment is, but my brain just found it. I am now the opposite of emptiness. I’m completely consumed with what was obviously a semi-koan thought exercise. Koans are meant to nudge us, not derail us. I was rapidly loosing faith in myself, my practice, my ability to not be a fuck-up at this just like I’d been a fuck-up with Adventism, a fuck-up with my marriage, and a fuck-up with my life.
Just as I was about to surrender to the chorus of doubts ringing in my mind, the sound of the bell again filled the valley and seemed to wash away everything. I focused on the sound, I fed my own doubts and fears into the clear tone and let them fade away as it expanded outward and dissipated into the sunlight. I counted my breathing, felt for the emptiness, and then let my emotions rise up and wash away. This school of Zen has been called the “Paul McCartney” school of Zen…the “Let it Be” school of Zen. Let the thoughts come, let the thoughts go, find emptiness in the spaces in-between.
I managed to find some emptiness, but I continued to struggle for the rest of the day. We had more rounds of sitting and walking meditation, indoors and out. We gathered for lunch in mindful silence, and then we returned to rounds of meditation. Late in the final afternoon session I was beginning to lose the battle with doubt and self-awareness. I couldn’t find emptiness and I began to feel the physical toll of the last twenty-four hours. My knees were killing me and my back had begun a chain reaction of pain that would blossom into something nearly beautiful in its completeness of force and agony. Then the ceremonial bell rang out and the sound seemed to crash off of the walls of the main hall like a tsunami wave crashing against an ocean cliff.
“The silence of sitting will tell you everything you need to know.”
If there was anything more to the Roshi’s message (and I’m sure there was) I can assure you that my brain did not record it. I focused on the fact that once the message was over, we would all stand and walk to the dinning hall, and eat our dinner. Mindfulness had fled me. Concentration had disintegrated under an onslaught of physical pain. I just wanted to stand and walk. I’d have walked all the way home without a second thought, but deep inside me was a stubborn lump that refused to be beaten by aching knees and a sore back. I had come here to learn something, and all I knew right now was that I wasn’t as Zen as I had wanted to believe I was.
After dinner we participated in a session of mindful work. We were each assigned a task (seemingly at random), silently provided a tool and a gesture of what or where we needed to work, and then left to meditate in the act of washing dishes or scrubbing showers or sweeping floors. I was handed a broom, shown the dining hall and kitchen, and left to my task. Mindful work is something I find very peaceful. I can pour all of myself into the work and become oblivious to everything but the task I am performing. No wasted effort, no wasted movement, no wasted consciousness. Let thoughts come, let thoughts go, only the work remains.
After sweeping up the entire dining hall, I moved on to the kitchen. Several others were performing various tasks, such as washing commercial cookware, or preparing vegetables for a future meal, or taking cleaned dishes from the washing station to the cabinets. That last job was being performed by the woman who had been sitting across from me, and she was in visible agony. No one puts dishes on a chest-high shelf one at a time unless they simply can’t lift any more than that. It was clearly all in her back and I tried to stay out of her way as best I could. As I continued to sweep through the back, I kept looking back at the woman who was fighting through the pain. I’d been in that same place for most of the afternoon, and I knew she needed her back popped. After a few more minutes I saw her place her hands above her hips and attempt to lean back and pop herself, without success.
I leaned my broom up against the wall and crossed over to where she was standing at the long row of cabinets. I hesitated, but then finally decided to place my hand gently on her shoulder. She jumped at my touch and her eyes were wide with surprise. I held up my hand with my palm open, in a sort of silencing and calming gesture and then I pointed at her and wrapped my arms across my chest and leaned back. She instantly knew what I meant and her smile was as bright as the sun. She turned away, crossed her arms below her chest and I stepped up behind her and placed my own arms under hers. I waited for our breathing to sync up, then I breathed in deeply and we exhaled out together. At the end of our exhale I gently lifted her with pressure under her elbows, which allowed her back to stretch and adjust. It sounded like someone had set off a string of firecrackers.
Without a sound I set her down on her feet, and she held herself steady for a moment, turned gently from side to side, and then relaxed her shoulders for the first time in hours. Then she spun around and wrapped me in a hug. It was a short but strong squeeze, and then she turned away and returned to placing the dishes in the cabinet, now three or four at a time. I picked up my broom, returned to my sweeping, and completely forgot the entire encounter before I’d finished my path past the walk-in refrigerator and the industrial mixing machine.
We had more sessions of sitting and walking meditation for the rest of the evening, and once again it was after ten-thirty when I unrolled my bedroll and fell on top of it, not even bothering to undress or pull the blanket on top of me. Once again I was asleep no more than ten seconds after my head hit the pillow.
There’s something that happens when you spend many intensive hours intentionally suppressing your conscious and subconscious mind in a direct effort to create a space without thought or processing; when your conscious mind shuts off for sleep, your subconscious mind busts out and decides to make up for some lost time. Often in very intense and vivid ways.
I found myself standing in a house made of glass. Entirely of glass. The floors were glass, the walls were glass, the ceiling was glass, even the counters and the tables and the chairs were made of glass. Everywhere I looked the glass was fractured and broken and not a single piece anywhere was whole. The house was on a bluff overlooking an ocean beach. The horizon was red and there were dark clouds thick overhead and threatening to rain. It was just on the edge between dusk and dark, and the streaks and smears of the sunset were far out on the horizon beyond the grey and churning sea. I could see the wind blowing the scrub grass that surrounded the house, but I couldn’t hear anything but the silence.
I looked at the floor and everywhere there were cracks creating strange splits in the view. Everything outside was misaligned and disjointed when seen through the broken glass all around me. “You never could do anything right” she said to me, “I always knew I shouldn’t have married you.” The sneer on her lips was obvious from across the room. “You want to know why I picked him? Because I never trusted you to stay. I get to choose when it’s over. I’m not going to wait for you to choose it for me.”
I open my mouth to tell her again, for the hundredth time -or the thousandth- that I choose her, that I want to be with her and our daughter and fix whatever is broken between us…but no sound comes out of my mouth. I’ve said these words to her more times than I can count, but I cannot make the sounds come out. I am bound to silence and silent I remain. I start to walk to her but I hear the sound of glass cracking, and the floor is flexing dangerously.
She slams down her hand on the counter and the counter shatters into an avalanche of glass shards. “Why can’t you do anything right? You know this is all your fault. It’s always been your fault. I’ve never loved you,” and then she shatters like the rest of the house that begins to come apart around me. I jump out of the doorway and land rolling on the sand. The house and the bluff are a sandy strip that is entirely surrounded by the roiling grey sea. With a final sickening crash the house completely collapses, a jumbled heap of glass ribbons and sharp shards. I walk back up to the wreckage and see a reflection of myself in a large piece of the room I had been in, now at a tilted angle half-buried in the sand. I see myself, but only in disjointed reflections in the different shards; my face sliced by different cracks, creating different perspectives, different parts of my reflection just out of sync with the others. A whole not quite correctly composed of its parts.
Then the wind howls and the sea spray pushes on my face…and a hand is gently shaking my shoulder. I am face down on my pillow, the grey light of the pre-dawn hour is leaking in through the door and the sound of the morning bell is calling everyone from their individual slumber.
Saturday began exactly like Friday: meditation, breakfast, a Dharma talk, more meditation, lunch…but in the afternoon there was a change. Every student was given a private one-on-one session with the Roshi. Typically this lasted fifteen to twenty minutes, and it was the moment I was both the most curious about, and also dreading. A part of me kept waiting to be told “you don’t belong here” or that “I wasn’t doing this right.” I was secretly afraid that the Roshi would see right through me and tell me that I didn’t belong. That I was fooling myself and no one else.
When my turn came I stood and followed the staff-member down the long hall to the private classroom where the Roshi was waiting. I felt like a naughty schoolchild being taken to see the principle.
The Roshi greeted me with a wide and welcoming smile, and struck the ceremonial bell as soon as we had completed the greeting and sitting ritual.
“So tell me, how have you felt about this experience so far? I understand this is your first retreat, but you act like a seasoned pro.” There was nothing the Roshi could have said to set me more at ease. I’m sure the relief was visible in my body language. “Many students find the concept of sesshin retreats attractive when they sign up, and overwhelming once they get here. What made you choose this retreat?”
I shrugged, “I’ve been going through a lot of changes in my life, and I’m looking for something more peaceful than what I’d been doing before. I know that this is a journey, but I kind of wanted a chance to just sit down with the destination for a while and figure out where I’m going next.”
“As I’m sure you’ve realized, even sitting can be part of the journey. What kind of changes are you going through?”
“I’m separated from my wife. We’re going to get a divorce; I…I just realized that’s true.” I looked away and kept talking. “Everything is changing and I’m losing myself in the process…so I’m looking for a different..a better process. I feel like everything I’ve ever done resulted in failure. I don’t know where I went wrong, but I’ve been wrong for a very long time. Many years in the wrong direction. Some days I’m just so angry at myself for not fixing this, or seeing it sooner, or being on the path at all. I don’t know what I did, and that makes me the angriest of all. I know that anger is wrong, but it’s not something I feel, it’s something I am.”
The Roshi sighed. “This does seem to be the year for new singles. Must be some kind of theme.” The Roshi adjusted positions and looked me directly in the eyes. “I do not believe you ARE anger, I believe that you do not know what the absence of anger and pain feels like. You’re still carrying the broken pieces and not building something new. This is normal. It takes time to give up what we were, to become what we will become. I know, I know, that sounds like a kung-fu movie line. But, everything is meant to find transition; if we aren’t changing then we’re static. The difference between water and ice isn’t just the temperature, it’s the lack of movement. Water changes, it shifts and fills in where it needs to go, rises and falls as required. Ice is hard, and brittle, and it hurts when we fall on it; it can cut us or crush us under its weight.
“We cannot change ourselves when we sit. We cannot change ourselves with mindfulness or enlightenment. We can only allow ourselves to be changeable. Let our attachments rise up, let our attachments go, all that will remain is room for change. You cannot become what you need to be by holding on to what was. This is the great gift of sitting. It brings us to a place where we can change.
“Let me give you an example: Earlier this year my home was hit by a windstorm, and a tree broke a beautiful picture window that looked out over my backyard. I had spent many hours enjoying the view from that window, it is one of my favorite things about the house. Do you know what was the first thing they did when they came to fix that window? They broke out all the remaining pieces of glass and then the old window-frame so that there was a place to install the new window. A part of me was saddened by the last pieces of that window being broken, but it had to happen for the rest of the work to get done. It’s human nature to try and fix things that are broken. It’s human nature to want to keep the pieces intact. But sometimes we have to break out the old pieces before we build something new.”
The Roshi smiled again and straightened up in the low chair. “Which brings me full circle. In your time here so far, has there been anything particularly challenging for you?”
I looked away again, slightly abashed at my answer, “yeah, you’ve had wonderful talks, but yesterday you said there were one-hundred and sixty-three different states of compassion…I’ve been completely baffled by that. I can think of a few different kinds, like a mother to a child, or a friend donating a kidney, but I can’t really see one-hundred and sixty-three different kinds. I understood what you meant by filling ourselves with compassion, but should we try to fill ourselves with all of those different types? Is that even possible?”
The Roshi sighed again. “The lesson isn’t numerical, it’s observational. The only real type of compassion in this world is the compassion we create in ourselves and give to others. You cannot give something that you can’t see inside yourself. If you focus only on the compassion around you, the compassion outside of yourself, then you are not mindful of the compassion within yourself. This retreat is about seeking what’s inside of you, so that you can give it to others. Or give it to yourself.
“Don’t worry about what kinds of compassion you pour into your emptiness, the labels will block out room for the compassion. Simply become the change you must become. And…try to give some compassion to yourself.”
With that the Roshi smiled one more time, struck the ceremonial bell and silence again descended over my life.
The rest of the day continued like the day before, sitting and walking meditation, a silent meal in the dining room, more mindful work, and more meditation. Every moment was intense. I was assaulted over and over by my doubts, my fears, my regret. Let them come, let them go, find emptiness, give up the broken pieces. Once again we meditated until after the sun went down and the stars came out in the cool night sky. Once again I found my bedroll, collapsed into it, and sleep found me within moments.
The vividness of the dream was what amazed me. I knew I was dreaming, the sunlight was brighter, the colors more saturated, everything was extra sharp and extra-focused. I am standing on the end of the dock at my uncle’s house on Lake Chelan. I’m looking over the edge, I can see the glint of metal on the lake bed about twenty feet below the surface.
“It’s alright to want something for yourself” she says. Next to me is Meeka, one of the girls who works at the coffee shop I visit every morning. I’ve talked to her dozens of times for three to five minutes at a stretch, but never anything personal. She’s next to me, wearing my leather jacket which is about three sizes too big for her, a white scarf, and her typical dangly earrings. I look back at the silver coin in the water. This is a game we used to play when I was a child. Someone would throw quarters and half-dollars off the dock and the cousins would dive into the frigid water to see who could get to the coin first. Winner kept the coin, and there always seemed to be coins for everyone.
“It’s so cold” I say. The air is cool and the water has that dark tint of a lake in the shade.
She shrugs. “How much do you want it?”
It’s not about the coin to me. It’s about grabbing something out of reach and far away. Something that shines and sparkles. I look at her, she smiles like she knows what I’m thinking, and then I leap.
The water is a shock to my whole body. It hurts instantly, my skin feels tight and my hand shoots out to feel for the coin. I can’t see anything in the darkness, the pressure is building in my lungs and I begin to feel the weight of the water all around me. I see a glint, my hand thrusts out, my fingers wrap around the smooth disk. I push off the bottom and claw desperately towards the surface, my lungs can’t hold out any longer and my ears begin to ring…
And my eyes open to the first peals of the morning bell, no one had to come and wake me today.
The day begins like the others, we meditate before breakfast, we eat together in silence, we meditate and have a final morning session of mindful work followed by more sitting and walking meditation. Finally, we gather for a special meal, this one is taken Oryoki style, which is a specific kind of meditative eating that uses special bowls and special utensils in a set pattern. After completing the Oryoki meal, we gathered in the main hall for the end of silence ceremony and the final Dharma talk.
The ceremonial bell rang out for the last time, and somehow everything felt a bit lighter.
“You have all crossed a bridge. You have crossed it within yourselves and you have crossed it together. As you have discovered emptiness I hope you have found something noble and worthy to replace the things you have surrendered. I hope you have discovered the compassion that is always within you. Continue to find new types of compassion, discover new expressions of it in your lives. Compassion is within you, and becomes living through you. The Sanga is one of the three great treasures, but our value comes from the compassion that we create and give to the world around us. Be a gift to those around you. You create compassion from nothingness, from emptiness; give that compassion away as freely as you create it. That is how we cultivate the true spirit of the Dharma, by creating a valuable gift from pure emptiness.”
With that the Roshi bowed to us, we bowed to each other, and the retreat came to an end.
There is a sense of comradery shared by people who have sat silently and faced the innermost parts of themselves. When you are sitting zen you can’t escape the worst of yourself. You can’t escape your fears or your doubt or your sense of failure, and you will be confronted with those things relentlessly. I saw people cry silently in physical pain, and I saw tears of pure mental torture…the torture that only our own mind can inflict on us. A silent retreat is not something I would suggest for anyone, only someone who knows themselves and their own limits can judge if they are ready for the intensity of the experience.
Had I known before I went there what was in front of me, I’m not at all sure I would have gone.
As I was carrying my things back to my car, the woman who had sat across from me all weekend called out to me.
“Hey, I wanted to thank you” she said as she walked up to me.
“Oh?” I asked, a bit confused.
“Yeah, you have NO IDEA how much I needed that adjustment in the kitchen the other night. I couldn’t have gone one more round without it.”
“OH!” I say, having completely forgotten the whole thing. “No problem, I could tell you needed it, and I used to do that for my…wife…all the time.” My voice fell off, I hadn’t though about her in several hours, and it took a bit of the wind out of me.
“Yeah, my husband…well, ex-husband I guess…he’s a chiropractor. I hadn’t had a back adjustment in forever, and that was exactly how he used to do it. It was perfect!”
“I’m glad I could help, you looked pretty miserable there for a while.”
“Yeah, the Roshi said I looked like I was about to quit. You ended up being the Dharma example in our talk.”
“Yeah, as ‘an example of outward compassion’ which you TOTALLY were.”
“I didn’t realize anyone saw.”
“I’m pretty sure everyone in the dining room saw, it sounded like gunshots.” She smiled. “Anyway, I just wanted you to know that you were a real inspiration the whole weekend. I’m really glad I came, and I’m glad you were here.”
I smiled a somewhat embarrassed smile and we said our goodbyes, and then I climbed behind the wheel. I drove the entire route home without ever turning on the CD Player or the Radio. I treated driving as a kind of Mindful Work, and eight hours went by very quickly. I remember long stretches of the Willamette Valley wrapped in the orange glow of sunset, and wispy clouds stretched out on the horizon.
I pulled into the parking lot of the apartment complex a little after midnight. I grabbed my gym bag and walked down the sidewalk towards my door. As I passed under the window of Heather’s apartment I looked up and saw the light on and the glow of the computer monitor. She was online, talking with him, and I knew that there were still broken pieces I had not yet surrendered.
I walked up my steps and put my key in the lock. Her irritated voice called up from the bottom of the stairs. “I wasn’t sure if I had to take her tomorrow. You know you could call if you’re not going to make it.”
My shoulders slumped and I prepared for the argument. “I’ll take her in the morning on my way to work, just like always.”
“Why don’t you come over and make breakfast. I got croissants at costco, you can make egg and cheese sandwiches.”
“Sure, I’ll be over at 6:30. Unlock the door and I’ll make coffee.”
“Sounds good. Did you have work this weekend?” she asks looking at the gym-bag in my hand.
“Went up and saw Alex” I lied. “Traffic was worse than I expected. You know how Seattle can be.”
“Ah” she said, and then she walked away.
I fell asleep just as fast that night, but I didn’t dream. No sooner had my head hit the pillow than the alarm was blaring in my ear. I thought at first it had gone off by accident, but I realized that the light had shifted and the clock was showing 6:01.
If I had somehow thought that the night before signaled a thawing in the state of relations, the next morning proved otherwise. I walked over to her apartment, and set about to making coffee and breakfast. She chatted online with him the entire time, and said no more than five words to me, four of them being “thank-you” twice and one of them being “bye” to the two of us.
I got Sarah ready to go, and then we gathered up my stuff at my apartment and headed out for the morning. My first stop was Java Crew. I ordered my typical Chai Tea with honey, and a kids hot chocolate for Sarah. I pulled up to the window and Meeka waved hello.
“Good morning!” she said with extra enthusiasm. “We missed you all weekend. Did you get to go do something fun?”
“Sort of” I said, “something character building anyway.”
“Pffft, that doesn’t sound like fun AT ALL. Next time do something crazy.”
She handed me my drink and waved to Sarah when she handed me hers.
“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind…something crazy.”
I pull away slowly and move up towards the exit onto the main road. I looked in my rear-view mirror, the lane was still empty all the way back to the order board. I thought about being changeable, and about letting go of broken things so that new things could be built. I put the car in reverse and backed up to the window.
She still had the window open and she looked at me with a funny smile in her eyes. “Yes?” she asked. “I know I didn’t forget anything,” she was still smiling, her dangling earrings swinging to a gentle shake of her head.
“You work at a coffee shop, so it feels odd to ask you out for coffee…So how about dinner?”
Her laughter was sincere and I knew she wasn’t laughing at me. “Aww, you just made me lose a bet. But that’s OK, I don’t mind. I’ll tell you a secret: I have a rule about not accepting dates from regulars the first time they ask. So ask me again tomorrow. Plus that way I can win a bet.”
“Deal” I said as I saw a car pull up behind me in the rear-view mirror. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“You better,” she said, “I’m betting on it.”
[Word Count: 7075]