One form of practice in a Zen temple is the practice discussion, a brief one-on-one meeting with a teacher designed to explore the student’s personal practice and give them a direction for spiritual growth. Here in San Francisco we have many teachers, and I occasionally schedule practice discussions with others besides the one teacher who is my teacher. There are many ways to describe the dharma, and the diversity of language and approach that can be tapped into here is like cool water for thirsty beings.
Often these discussions with Zen priests feel like I’ve been taking an intermediate French class and then dropped into a cocktail party in the middle of Paris and instructed to talk to the natives. I haven’t steeped in Zen juice long enough to really speak the language yet. I can generally follow what teachers are saying, even when they’re referring to tricky (to me) concepts like emptiness and non-attainment. But my attempts to turn the conversation into a dialogue are comical; I feel like I’m mostly nodding my head and then spitting out a few words in garbled diction that are just noun statements with present-tense verbs attached and hoping the other person gets something of the gist of what was in my head that I’m trying to describe.
Lately what I’m butting up against is some sort of dukkha over my life trajectory. I’m feeling friendlier with the present moment than ever in my life, but when I look over the whole arc – I’m old enough now that the limited nature of a lifetime has sunk in to moderate depth – I’m afraid that what life seems to be is a random walk, a series of haphazard lurches. So is this a problem? My friend Ed came up with this random walk concept and we consider its qualities and ramifications often during our regular breakfast rendezvous. Ed celebrates the random walk and happily awaits the next chapter, which always seems to come out of a grab bag of unrelated items. I’ll admit that often the random walk does seem like a fun romp, a series of short stories that have different themes but a common voice. My voice. But sometimes I want more. I want the epic novel version of my life, not the version that comes in magazine installments.
Weirdly, I keep thinking about that Three Cups of Tea guy. I’m not obsessed with him, but he seems to represent something to me that I can’t seem to shake, so when I’m mulling over this particular “problem” in my life, images of the mountains of Pakistan always appear. I think that perhaps if I only had something I was that passionate about; if only when I woke up in the morning I knew I was doing my equivalent to building schools for girls in Pakistan; THEN my life would be complete.
Perhaps dukkha comes out of the act of separation, from labeling things as me vs. not me. I bifurcate my existence into the things I am okay with and the things I find unacceptable. It turns out to be acceptable to find myself daydreaming during zazen or running into people as I round the corners in this building when I have let my attention be focused all in my head. I have my prejudices about whether I should or shouldn’t be doing those things, but I accept and incorporate those prejudices into my identity as well; okay, that’s me. But for some reason it’s unacceptable to think that I could live another 40 years and not at some point become some idealized version of myself, a version that I can’t even define clearly if you ask me to describe it today. Some part of me is cut off and dis-identified with. Not me.
These priests I talk to in practice discussion are of no help, seeming all too happy to not answer the question that I think I am asking. Given my inarticulateness in these situations it’s unclear whether I have just asked the question unclearly, or they know all too well what it is that I’m after and, having deemed the question I pose to be irrelevant or invalid, choose to answer the better question that they think I should have asked in the first place.
Perhaps I am asking them to collude with me in my delusions, to help me figure something out. I know better even than to use those words, “figure out,” a Zen no-no that should be a red flag that I’m even thinking them to myself. I am concerned with the status of my checklist that judges whether my life is adequate or not, whether I have accomplished something grand or not. They are measuring against some other checklist, something to do with relating to the moment. So I am stuck with my agitation. I had assumed I’d let go of most of my judgments about who I am supposed to be, about whether my intelligence or accomplishments or acquisitions defined my worth, but it was only one layer of the onion and there are still plenty left.
Practice discussion is useful; even if my conscious brain doesn’t always know what has been transmitted, there is a certainty that some phrase has landed somewhere, some reframe that will provide an opening to a fuller understanding. And the place to take this other-than-conscious transmission is zazen, so that’s where I’ll go for more clarity. There’s a lovely voice I hear sometimes that is only audible when I’ve been sitting very still and paying attention. It’s like coaxing a bunny rabbit out from behind a bush; it takes patience. The voice just laughs at my left-leaning brain trying to “figure stuff out,” because there’s nothing to figure out. When it’s time to move, movement appears. Knowledge about that resides somewhere in my bodymind, but it is taking awhile to reach a threshold where I can begin to work with it skillfully. So this is my practice today.