Last night I arrived back at the Zen Center in the middle of dinner and dished myself up some tagine while engaging in conversation with a resident who wanted to tell me how much the ginger cabbage and kokuho rice I made at breakfast on Tuesday had improved her mood. Wanting to be present with this person who was saying such good things to me at the end of a long and involved week, I nevertheless could not fail to notice when I heard “There’s Gretchen!” from behind me and was suddenly flanked by the Ino and Tanto standing side by side like Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
As soon as I could end my interaction with the complimenting resident, I turned to Tweedledum and Tweedledee with a questioning look. The Tanto had that grin he wears when he’s up to some mischief.
The Ino spoke: “We want to talk to you about the tenken log …”
“And what is this about excessive partying on Tuesday night?” finished the Tanto.
The tenken log is the book in which we write our reasons for not being in attendance at required dharma events, like morning zazen. So thoughts were coming up in sequence. When first seeing them there I thought ‘they want me to do something.’ When I heard “tenken book” I thought ‘I have finally tripped the invisible line that triggers concern and/or reprimand from the practice committee about my attendance.’ And when I heard “excessive partying Tuesday night,” I thought ‘ah, no wonder they look so full of mischief. They’ve conjured up some story about a frumpy middle-aged Zen practitioner all of a sudden going nuts and hanging out in bars until the wee hours of the morning.’ They were looking for the Zen version of People magazine.
I leaned in conspiratorily.
“It was my BIRTHDAY…” pausing to think, “…and evidently I was unwilling to write THAT in the tenken log for everyone to see.”
What I WAS willing to write, what I actually wrote in the log, was this:
“Gretchen – AM – too many excesses of the night before.”
It wasn’t even really a correct sentence, possibly due to the two glasses of wine I’d had with my sister at dinner, a rather tame event that I decided not to describe to Tweedledum and Tweedledee so that they could continue to have their fantasy that I’d spent Tuesday night at some wild orgy or whatever it is they were imagining. A nice dinner, I got a little fuzzy-headed, I had some intense days of work ahead of me, no windows for rest, and I didn’t want to be trying to work through a brain full of concrete. So I decided to sleep late that morning rather than going to the zendo. Maybe someone else would make a different choice – maybe I would make a different choice on a different day. Probably the worst part of what I wrote, unless that sort of thing became a habit, is that it sets a questionable example for others at the beginning of a practice period. Perhaps not my finest effort, but not fatal.
Some people really hate the tenken log, seeing it as an instrument used by the practice committee to pass judgment on the strength of their practice. I think because I’m embracing transparency and collaboration more than I ever used to, the tenken log feels more like a device for seeing my practice just as it is, with the added bonus that other people can reflect back to me as a reality check. If I’m afraid to write the truth in the tenken log, well, that should tell me something. If I write the truth and the practice committee begins to question my judgment, well then, maybe I should listen to their concerns.
Awareness and familiarity often seem to dissipate my fears of something sinister going on. Last year I started working with a financial coach who gave me a dashboard for tracking my spending and investments, and I feel much the same way about that as I do about the tenken log. It lays it all out in front of me, telling me what areas are stable and which areas can get me into trouble fast. Looking at it with my coach, I learn what beliefs I have about myself that are no longer serving me. In our last meeting I told him that I was afraid I was overindulging myself in some areas. “Gretchen, I WANT you to indulge yourself,” is how he responded. He then showed me how disciplined I am, that the evidence was right in front of me on the dashboard. I was shocked — my belief about myself was that I am someone who is out of control, and here was this guy who’s worked with hundreds of people on their financial behavior and he was saying I was okay and that in fact, I should loosen up a bit. That was a really nice reframe.
I’m always surprised when someone remarks on my notes in the tenken log. It can feel like a personal diary or maybe a formality with no real traction in everyday life, but actually it’s a living document that shows us when viruses are spreading in the community, what interesting projects and demands are keeping some people from the zendo, and sometimes when there’s an excess of anxiety or agitation or depression among the residents – at least that’s what I think when I start to see the word “insomnia” creeping into the log more frequently, like it’s something contagious. The feedback is both personal and communal.
Twedledum and Tweedledee seemed satisfied with my explanation of the “excesses of the night before.” I don’t think this was a formal investigation, but I don’t know. I tend to be wound a little on the tight side when it comes to following rules so I don’t think I’ve crossed any lines. Perhaps it might even be a good thing if I were to suddenly go crazy and get into some minor trouble. I’m leaving that open as an option for now.