When I first started practicing Zen in earnest, I was struck by a number of different aspects of both the practice, and the personal experience of Zen Buddhism. Now obviously, Zen shares a great deal with other schools of Buddhism (having grown out of that which came before it), and the particular style of Zen I practice has been informed and shaped by those schools moreso than other Zen schools. This is not to say that more “traditional” approaches to Zen are without merit; far from it. But my teachers have taken certain pieces from other traditions (Rinzai, Vajrayana, Pure Land, etc) and incorporated them into their practice, and through them, they have woven themselves into mine. I feel very happy about that.

My roshi (the person primarily responsible for the base design of our school of practice) has often been heard to say something to the effect of “It doesn’t matter where it comes from, just so long as it’s good medicine,” and I couldn’t agree more. Anyway, this multi-faceted approach to the Dharma and practice is something I treasure. I have been exposed to, and moved by, so many different traditions over the years that the thought of having to become voluntarily myopic really was a worry when I first began this practice some four years ago. Turns out that fear was completely unfounded. It was a result of my preconceived notions of what Zen was, or could be. It was also a result of my preconceived notions of my teachers and my sangha. Once I opened myself up to experience this practice they were offering simply for what it was, it was completely different from what I had been assuming it would be. Once again, I did not actually discover this fear, I created it with my own preconceptions. I’m really good at that. Frankly, we all are. But it was primarily those preconceptions (and a few other issues to be discussed at some other point) that kept me from going deeper for easily the first three years of my practice.

But deeper I went. At times, it was scary. Really honestly and deeply scary. Any practitioner suffering from PTSD will tell you that at times, Zen practice can be a really dark place. You feel alone in your own head, trapped and stuck to the ugliness of the past like a mouse on a glue-board as everything presses in on you, and no matter how you try to simply let go of that past, it clings to you. It makes zazen at times feel not only insurmountable, but counter-productive to a peaceful life. Why do things that make you feel worse? But I stuck with it for one reason. I stuck with it because even though I hated it (and hated it often, and still do!) or it seemed to hate me, every time I did it, finished it, and got up, I felt noticeably better than before I’d done it. Physically. Emotionally. Mentally. Just better. Not skipping down the street, all-is-rainbows better, but quantifiably better. Even the scary parts inside my head seemed to lessen in intensity. They were--and are--still there, but they slowly--very slowly--started changing from these active lurkers in the dark, and more into ugly pictures hanging on the wall. That doesn’t lessen their horror, but for me, it did slowly start putting things into context. They weren’t going to be eliminated by zazen or Buddhism, but they could be seen for what they really were, and that was more help than I thought it would be. Again, my preconception of something (PTSD’s ever-present control over my psyche) got in the way of experiencing the truth of something. Catching a whiff of a theme here?

Deeper yet. The act of going deeper itself at times can be rather scary. Getting lost. Letting go. Allowing the ego to begin to dissolve, like the initial laps of the tide at the base of a massive and complicated sand-castle. Being less about “me” and more about “us”. Not defining myself anymore with external measures because not only are those metrics useless, the very act of definition is pointless and false.

I’ve been a retreatant at a number of places in the past, but they’d sort-of been retreat-lite. I’ve never felt a desire to commit myself to a practice that would require so much intensity of me. I’d go on a retreat for a week, feel good about having muscled through, taken a few warm-n-fuzzy things from the experience, and called it good. But I’d always hold something back; I’d always try and protect my “self” in some way. I can see this rather clearly now, looking back with the eyes I have now. This is primarily the reason why I haven’t gone on retreat or seshin with my own Zen sangha, even though we own and operate our own monastery only 90min from here. I’d been blocking myself from that experience, again, because I have notions in my head about what I’ll think of the experience, even before I do it.

This fear of going deeper gets louder and louder as time goes by, directly in proportion to the growth of my practice. It’s almost as if my ego raises its volume in sync with the depth of my immersion in this Dharma-ocean of practice. It’s yelping, gasping, screaming; “If you go too deep, we’re going to DROWN, you idiot!!” I’ve heard from other practitioners that this reaction is pretty common. There; I’m in good company.

I do my first retreat at the monastery the first week of March.

And so here we are. Water at my chest. “Too” deep for parts of me, yet a growing desire to simply step off the shelf and be without footing. Sometimes I wonder if this urge I feel is not unlike those who have the irrational urge to jump off bridges, but I know it’s different. I know--via experience--that this isn’t about oblivion, avoidance, or escape. It’s not about drowning in the ocean. I know that it’s not going too deep.

I know this because of one very simple revelation:

You can only go too deep into the ocean if you are something other than the ocean. A wave can never drown.

More as it happens...



Laura said...

What a beautiful observation, and perfect energy to take into Sesshin -- a wave. Blessings.