grabbing the gearshift

I chuckled as I sat down on the zafu, because the invitation to sit dokusan with my teacher came at the last minute as it sometimes does, and I had no idea what I wanted to ask him.

I decided to start with some gentle teasing.

“I’ve been reading Fire Monks” (the book that just came out about the monks at Tassajara in the 2008 Basin Complex Fire).  “The book says you often shout at your students, but you’ve never shouted at me.  Should I be worried?”

“That’s funny,” he replied, “because as you sat down I was thinking to myself, what is it going to take to go deeper?”  It wasn’t shouting but it was fierce; he answered my teasing with a challenge.

In the service of taking things deeper we talked about the events and situations in my life that affect me the most, and he probed into my thoughts and feelings about them, my beliefs, my responses.  We looked at the language I use to describe these situations, whether the language was neutral or non-neutral.

The line of questioning, seeming to examine how well I knew my own state of mind, left me agitated.  Is this what he thinks has been missing in the two plus years we’ve been meeting?  Does he think I’m a shallow person, avoiding contact with my inner emotional states?  My system objected. Aren’t we cultivating equanimity here?  Isn’t my psychological stability one of my best assets?  And is he asserting that it’s built on a false base, that in reality I am disconnected from my own experience?

This great doubt, it is not fun.

One time in a workshop I was asked to walk a timeline of my life and stop whenever I came upon an experience in which I felt wronged or resentful.  Before I started walking the line I thought ‘oh no, this is going to be a disaster – I don’t have any lingering resentments, not me.’  And then I walked the line and stopped on almost every major relationship I’ve been in.   I would stop and see a mental picture of the person and my disappointment in them was right there, I didn’t have to go searching.  And this was almost immediately followed by the “extenuating facts” voice in my head that wanted to excuse the person for doing the best they can and bring up my own shortcomings and disappointment in self in that relationship.  But because the workshop exercise wasn’t about that, I was forced to just look at the resentments as separate events, see them for what they are, to notice that they exist.  How illuminating!  This is what I do.  I move so quickly to the wide view that I skip the original experience.

So perhaps my teacher has a point, if indeed that’s the point he is making.  It’s not equanimity if I’m glossing over the events of my life and jumping right into the it’s-all-good mantra to steady the ship.   Equanimity pulls from deeper waters and is ready for all storms.  Equanimity knows where the disappointments and resentments are, and includes them in the appropriate response.

Sometimes I look at my face and I don’t recognize myself.  I look old and tired, weighted down in a way that I don’t identify with.  Perhaps my face shows the sadness of my ancestors, their pain and bitterness coming through in physical form even though my life is unfolding in a way that feels less limited by my convoluted family soul, or ancient twisted karma, than it used to.  But I also wonder if I’m missing something; perhaps my face knows something about me that I’ve forgotten or never wanted to really look at in the first place.

This is my koan for today:  No one can know what my internal experience is but me; what is it that I really feel?

About gretchen

Gretchen lives in San Francisco. She writes about Zen practice and mundane moments on a planet that is increasingly ... hot.
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1 Response to grabbing the gearshift

  1. “No one can know what my internal experience is but me; what is it that I really feel?” I am not so sure this is true. I think that with intimacy, real intimacy, we do know each others inner experiences, because they are the stories we tell, and in intimacy it’s about telling our stories 😉 anyway.. Just my jaded bitter point of view. Or maybe I want to feel closer to you or something.


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