Monday, July 27, 2009

Anti-Impermanence Injections

If you want to see just how far some of us go to avoid the inevitability of impermanence, just look at a person's face. I see lots of people with foreheads that eerily lack any sign of aging, and eyebrows forever frozen in place from regular botox injections. More than a few TV and movie actors purposely limit their ability to emote and express naturally by paying dermatologists to pump them up with artificial fillers and botulism toxins that paralyze their muscles just so they can have smoother skin. More often then not the end result is imbalanced—it's like buying a brand new couch and sticking it in your living room amidst all your shabby old furniture—the newness of the couch makes everything around it look all the more tattered and worn out.

We all know we can't live forever and that change is inevitable yet we desperately try to keep things just as they are. We think we can halt or turn back the clock with the latest face cream or dietary supplement or risky plastic surgery. We spend hours of our time and thousands of dollars at the gym to fight any sign of aging. We try to keep people in the roles we're comfortable with, limiting their growth and our own in the process. We repeat old patterns of behavior that cause us suffering rather than trying a new way of relating to ourselves and the world that might give us some peace of mind and inspire happiness in the people we come in contact with.

I'm not entirely sure why I do some of these things (fortunately I can't stomach the idea of injecting my face with anything) or what exactly I'm trying to stave off other than the eventual ceasing of my existence in this particular form.

As I turn another year older today I'm aware of these tendencies of mine, of this inborn desire we all have to fix and improve and put off what we label as undesirable but in reality is completely unstoppable and natural.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Post-Retreat Report

I was assaulted during the first day of retreat. Not by another person but by my own mind. I can't remember feeling so trapped and resentful since my first day of kindergarten over 35 years ago.

I was furious with my Zen teacher because during the first morning meditation period when it was my turn for my "interview" (called Dokusan in the Japanese Zen lineages, and called I-don't-know-what in the Korean Zen traditions) he knew precisely was I wanted to ask him about before I even had a chance to speak. And he was saying exactly the opposite of what I wanted to hear since built into my question was the answer I wanted. I don't want to go into the details of what we talked about because these interview sessions are private and based on a student's individual needs. Suffice it to say I was dumbfounded by how he intuitively knew exactly what needed to be addressed as I approached him.

Instead of recognizing that as further evidence that he was the right teacher for me, I spent the rest of the sitting period (all three hours) coming up with a laundry list of reasons why I'd made a mistake by choosing him in the first place, and how once back in New York City I'd approach that "other teacher" I was considering just a few months earlier. The one who'd be more inclined to hold my hand through the rough spots and charm me with their softer, more Western approach to the dharma, what I thought I needed, as opposed to the hardcore, old-school approach that Sunim offered. No, I just don't respond very well to that, or at least that's what I thought that morning when my brain was basically throwing up all over me.

During the retreat, every minute of the day from 5 in the morning until 10 at night was scheduled for us, so once my mind settled into the experience I felt an incredible sense of contentment, and even joy at some very odd moments.

After lunch one day, after thoroughly cleaning the small bowl I had just eaten from by scraping every last crumb up with my index finger (I was just following everyone else's lead) I presented it to one of the Zen teachers for inspection in the kitchen before it went into the sink for washing. She eyeballed it, inside and out, and then put her hands together, bowing before me with a sincere look of gratitude and appreciation for what I'd just done. Never before had bowing back to someone seemed such an obvious and natural thing to do in return. I'd always felt a little strange about bowing until that moment, the highlight of my retreat experience.

There was no hot water or showers or private, comfortable sleeping quarters. It was all arranged to remove us from our normal day to day comforts and distractions and leave us with…with just ourselves and our minds I guess. And frankly I was shocked at how unruly my mind can be when things are the slightest bit out of whack.

The thing is, up until that day I really thought that I was a very "free" man—I mean, I work for myself and my schedule is basically my own and so I honestly believed that this meant I was free. I now see that freedom has nothing to do with those things. It has more to do with how I approach each moment before me. And much of the way I spend my own time, my "free time" isn't as fulfilling as it was to wipe my bowl clean and get an approving bow from a silent woman in gray robes.

On July 4 I took the precepts and received the dharma name Nosan (prounced NOH-SAHN) which means "old or ancient mountain." I love this name and I'm gradually incorporating it into my life. I think dharma names sometimes signify a quality someone already has or one that needs to be grown into, or perhaps a little of both. I'm not entirely sure what Sunim intended by naming me this but I do think it is my responsibility to uncover the layers of meaning buried within this name over the years as I continue to practice.