Friday, August 29, 2008

La Noche Oscura Del Alma

Over the past twenty days or so, I have turned my attention inwards... as I am wont to do from time to time (I am a monk, after all... )

My days have been long, and I taken some perverse joy from the physical exhaustion, even while I was suffering as a result... The economy has done nothing to help out, financially, and there is nothing other to do than to work as hard and as long as I am capable of doing. This has become more or less a matter of survival. The choice is 'Just do it'.. or possibly end up with no place to live, and nothing to eat. I take joy from the simple truth of my being physically strong, mentally tough, and spiritually resilient, and that I have the opportunity to work the extra hours in order to get through the rough patches. This is a blessing that many others do not enjoy.. so, I am not complaining at all. I am fortunate. The situation is difficult, but by no means insurmountable. Of late, the financial situation has taken a turn for the better, so hopefully the 'work binge' will slack off a bit.. or, more accurately, the dire need for the work binge will slack off. In any case, this is what life is bringing, and it is my story... so I am diving into it, with both feet, and immersing myself in life, just as it is.

I am training in two monastic offices simultaneously, and holding two others... this involves a great deal of memorization, as well as the learning of a huge body of very exacting liturgy and ritual. I love what I am learning, but it takes a huge effort to learn properly.

Somewhere in the midst of all this the truth of my mortality hit home with the force of a hurricane.

Although the life review, which is a part of this practice, doesn't start until 15 September, I am finding that it is nearly impossible for me to avoid conducting informal impromtu 'mini life reviews' as I go through my daily routine, and also, at times, I must admit that it creeps into my practice.

I have been 'remembering' many of the failures, bad decisions, false starts, and out and out crappy things that I have done... as well as the disappointments, heartbreaks, and bleak times.

Many of these topics and incidents had been conveniently pushed from the forefront of my mind, and now I find them all rushing back; which tells me that they have never been properly confronted or dealt with effectively - simply swept under the rug. (Any rug will, apparently, do just fine it would seem). At first I was somewhat dismayed by all this crap that came rushing in to wash over me and leave me gasping and flailing and trying to keep my head above water...

... Now I think I am grateful for a chance to simply face this stuff directly, and accept it for what it is. I am beginning to realize that we need both day and night. Both good and bad... so, I suppose I must find my center, and try to achieve some degree of balance.

While I have more or less let my mind flow with the thoughts that have been coming... observing, noting and practicing soft belly as the need arose... I have not done much more than to simply let the thoughts arise and move on...

When Life Review practice begins, I will start to work with this stuff. I am not particularly looking forward to this... but it is going to be a long and probably difficult process... and the only way past it is through it. I don't want to turn my face away from the unpleasant parts any longer... I think that by doing this, we injure ourselves in some fashion.

So.. I will be facing whatever comes... in practice, or in my life, directly and head on. Pretty much from here on out. This is more or less what I do. But, in all honesty, this is not what I have always done... so there is a great deal of work to be done.

Intellectually, I am aware that this work will involve opening my heart to whatever comes during the life review, and of forgiving both the others who I perceive to have done me wrong, and, most importantly - forgiving myself for the stupidities, failures, and all of the other things that didn't work out as planned, or just plain blew up in my face over the years. This is the part that I fear will be the most difficult. Nevertheless.. I am going to have to find a way to do it, or I will be stuck swimming in circles over these issues that now long in the past... so I suppose it is up to me to decide what it is that I am going to do.

Life Review will not be all bad, of course... actually, most of it will be pleasant and enjoyable... but, thats sort of like saying "You can play and enjoy yourself all day long... for hours and hours... I will only be sticking a needle in you for a few seconds each day!!" -- you see?

But, this is the practice.. and it is already doing a great deal of good for me.

One of the offices that I am being trained to hold is called 'JikiJutsu -- here is a Wikipedia entry:

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A jikijitsu (直日) is the individual in charge of directing monks to the zendo to sit zazen in a Japanese Zen Monastery. Their position is that of head monk, and they are generally regarded as strict disciplinarians. Their position is considered most desirable to hold in the meditation hall. The jikijitsu also ensures that the monks get to sleep and wake up on time according to a strict protocol. During zazen, the jikijitsu will walk around the zendo wielding a kaisaku (or, Zen stick), which is used to strike a student's back when they have lost focus. These strikes are generally not violent, and will often relieve muscle cramps for the individual being struck. In the Rinzai school, the jikijitsu may strike a student without a student's request if they feel the student has gone astray. In the Soto school, a student will ask for a blow by placing both palms together as the jikijitsu walks in front of them.

The other office is called 'Eno'. The Eno in a Zen Monastery, Temple, or Zendo is the 'Chant Master'. The Eno chants the dedications of merit before each chant and also leads the chanting service. Often, when some special chanting ceremony or ritual is required, it is the Eno who is responsible for doing this.

The way that we are taught our duties and responsibilities is through a one to one relationship with the teacher. Day by day we are taught a little bit more, and we are constantly corrected on what we have already been taught. By this method, we eventually learn what we must know, or at least enough to do a passable job.

As for perfection? Well.. I am still trying to figure out precisely what that is...

These positions take literally years to learn properly. Every action is deliberate, and every movement must be polished and executed with poise and with grace. This is Zen.. and, this is life. We take it a second, a minute, a day at a time... In Zen, it is the journey that is the focus; and not the destination. In this journey, we are always arriving, every minute... and we are always dying.. with every breath.

In my forays into the 'pre-life review life review' I have been mostly satisfied with my life.. thrilled actually with how things are currently... somewhat regretful of how I chose to do things in the past... but extremely happy with how things have turned out. Just about the only exception to this is in the realm of my career... So, much of my attention is likely going to be cast in this direction. I have mentioned this issue already, and I have been letting it slowly turn and percolate in my mind.

I am taking heart from my determination to face things directly, and I have been doing this for some years now... and it has worked wonders.

Although living a perfect life may be out of reach for most people, I think that living a life of authenticity is not so far out of our reach, if we are willing to simply face things and to see them as they are.

While I think my lifestyle lends itself to authenticity, I suspect that there is a great deal of work to be done. This is probably the most important issue that I am facing.

As T.S. Eliot said, "
  • There is one who remembers the way to your door:
    Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.
    You shall not deny the Stranger.
  • They constantly try to escape
    From the darkness outside and within
    By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
    But the man that is shall shadow
    The man that pretends to be.

Authenticity. That is all there really is.... because everything else?? ... is Bullshit!!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

One Month

A month has already passed since I have begun this practice.

The corollary being that I now have eleven months (and change..) left to live..

One month ago, the thought of having only one year left to live was.. well... frightening.. at least on the surface.

Intellectually, I feel as though I should be appalled that a month has slipped through my fingers, already... except;

it hasn't.

With very few exceptions, I have squarely faced every moment of this past month. I haven't retreated from unpleasantness by trying to wish it away, or by succumbing to pointless anger, or by simply retreating into my head and "getting through" the tough parts by numbing my brain, or turning my thoughts entirely inward... nor, for that matter, have I shrunk away from introspection... I have simply done my best to keep my focus on that point between.

We look inward to explore our past... Outward to hope and plan for our future... but where to we actually exist?? Well, on that tiny point in between the past and the future... the present moment.

Soft-Belly practice has helped me to begin opening my heart... even to the unpleasant & unavoidable occurrences that come along with frightening regularity.... Observing and Noting practice has helped me to learn how my body, and how my mind react to these moments and incidents... and I am beginning to learn how to replace that reaction with a more appropriate response.

There is a paradox in this; while I am living more and more mindfully, and finding that I am becoming more and more successful at staying in the present moment... and living much more fully in so doing! ... I am also noticing a certain measure of detachment to all of these goings on.

It isn't that I care any less... I actually care much more... it just seems that life doesn't strike me as being so personal... where the good things are mine... and the bad things are aimed at me. It occurs to me that the universe is impersonal... it does not conspire... it doesn't hold grudges... and it doesn't help or save either....

If you are standing on the spot where the rocks will fall when the earthquake hits... you will die. If you are standing a few feet away from the spot where the rocks will fall when the earthquake hits... you may be injured. And if you are nowhere near the spot where the rocks will fall when the earthquake hits.. you may emerge unscathed, or you may not. Something else might happen. Its as simple as that. That sounds as though we have only a one in three chance of making it safely through.. and perhaps that is true... but, here we all are, despite the odds.

So... time passes... day and night cycle by... turn into weeks.. months... and years... we look back and wonder where the time went, and talk about how much better it was way back then... in the good old days! (The implication being that today isn't quite as good).

Well.. maybe that is so... maybe we live through times where the world is spinning itself apart all around us... but, whether or not we can change that... we are still living in it...

Today... right now... will, at some point in the future... be looked back upon and remembered by someone as "The Good Old Days".

In order to remember those great times... there had to have been great times to remember... so, to my mind, why wait years before we enjoy them??

I have less than eleven months to live... my good old days are right now!!

... and do you know what the freaky weird part of it is??

So are yours!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

All of it


I have been following this practice for just short of one month. I had expected that there would be some insights, perhaps a shift in perception or priority, or something.

One very huge change in my way of viewing things, however, I did not at all expect;

I am finding that when days come where I am not feeling all that well, when I am tired, or when I am in a great deal of pain (such as this morning.. I did quite a bit of work yesterday which involved many hours of standing, bending, and turning, lifting heavy loads, and often carrying them on slippery floors - which makes one stand and walk oddly; out of fear of falling, I suppose...) - I am hurting in places where I hadn't known I had places! (My hair hurts ... and I don't have any hair!)

I am finding that, rather than being miserable, or annoyed, or any of the emotions or mental states that have habitually accompanied such pain or disability, I am actually happy, appreciative (yes.. that's what I said!) and upbeat, pain not withstanding.

Yes, I am hurting. Yes, it prevents me from being able to move or even be the way I normally do.. at least physically. But, I don't care. It is simply one more thing to get used to... they stream at us unendingly... so, why kick and scream about it?? Bring it on!

The pain isn't any less than I remember, and I still find it somewhat embarrassing to be hobbling about, but, with only 11 months and just over 5 days of life left; I am simply happy to be able to feel even this. At any rate, it certainly beats getting stabbed in the eye with a sharpened stick! And.. I don't intend on allowing some discomfort to steal away the the precious time that I have left to me.. however long it is. I can choose to get bogged down by some issue that is less than pleasant, or I can accept it with an open heart, appreciate that my physical body is functioning properly, and efficiently protecting itself from more damage while it repairs and mends all of the wee bits that I strained, stretched, spindled, and mutilated, and simply get on with it!

In the Irish language, current protocol insists that when we are speaking in English, and describing the language, we should call it 'Irish' as opposed to 'Gaelic'. When speaking Gaelic (Hey!) however, we call the language Gaelic, in Gaelic.. so there! Don't ask... its just the way it is!

Scottish Gaelic is Ghaidhlig in Gaelic, and Irish Gaelic is Gaeilge in Gaelic, but, when speaking of (Irish) Gaelic in English.. its 'Irish' and not 'Gaelic'.. or you get one of those looks! You may, however, refer to Scottish Gaelic as Gaelic, and although you may still get a look, it will be a look that has nothing to do with what term you are using to refer to Gaelic, but more of a look that is wondering why you would refer to it at all... or something.

Anyway, in Irish we have a proverb; "Marbh le té agus marbh gan é" (we don't use the letters the same way as they are used in English - this is pronounced ((roughly)) as Maruv ((or Maduv, since you sort of roll the R)) luh tay ah-guss maduv gahn ay) - 'Marbh' means 'dead'. 'Le' means 'with'. Té is Tea. 'Agus' means 'and'. Gan is 'gone' and 'é' is 'it'.

So the overall meaning would be, literally "Dead with your tea, and dead without it." - the implication being, for those whose eyes have begun to glaze over, that one should, when faced with an unavoidable and miserable set of circumstances, take enjoyment out of whatever becomes available to you.. regardless of how seemingly insignificant this enjoyment may appear to be. Each situation will present different possibilities... some are better than others... some are much, much worse... but there is always something. The trick is to find it, and to make the very best of it. Truthfully, it may be all you have.. so... why waste it??

When I was a young warrior attending Paratrooper training or 'Jump School' we were, on one particular day, receiving instruction on possible malfunctions or mishaps.

In this particular part of the class, we were learning how to deploy our reserve parachute if the main chute failed to properly deploy, and if we were unable, for some reason, to cut it away... due to altitude (which determines how much time you have to fart around with things... sort of like life, right?! The closer you are to hitting the ground.. the less time you have to fool around with unimportant details! Ha!)

Anyhoo.. we were taught that this particular situation would likely result in a 'spin'.. this means that as we plummeted towards earth, the raggedy-assed and useless malfunctioning parachute that was trailing our fall in a streamer of death would cause us to spiral towards earth, rather than simply falling to earth in an orderly and military fashion!

If we were to simply pop the reserve chute this is what would likely happen; as we spiraled towards the earth, the reserve chute would begin to deploy, and our spiraling motion would cause the reserve parachute to wind around the main parachute, getting it hopelessly entangled and effectively putting an end to any minute hope we may have harbored at actually living through this situation.

If the main chute winds and becomes entangled with the main chute - you are a bomb.

That's all! Thank you for playing... Good EVEning!! It's sort of like winning second prize in a Mexican Cliff Diving competition - you get a plaque that reads '2nd Place - "Stuff on a Rock"' Very nice.

So.. in order to avoid that admittedly yummy sounding outcome, we were taught to hold the parachute tightly to our body (the reserve parachute is located just over your solar plexus.. just so this makes sense) ease the ripcord out, and drop it...(you don't need that any more.. it just gets in the way, and its one more thing to land on if you screw this up!), gather the parachute into both hands, and throw it down and towards whatever direction you happen to be spinning.

The Blackhat (Airborne Instructors are called Blackhats.. because they wear hats... that are, well, black... so, well... you know... I'm just sayin'!) who was teaching the class described this action as being similar to passing a basketball - you sort of bounce the ball towards the other player.

Some bright-light amongst us Airborne student asked "What do you do if it doesn't work?", and the Blackhat sagely replied, "What the hell do you think you might do, cool breeze?!?! You reel that reserve chute back in and you try it again! -- UNTIL YOU GET IT RIGHT!!"

He then put his fists on his hips, surveyed the motley crowd of soldiers gaping at him and asked "...and how long do you think you might have to GET IT RIGHT??"

After a few seconds of 'deer-in-the-headlight' eyeballs and fly-catching gaping mouths, you could see the wheels begin to spin as each soldier present began to try to extrapolate a suitable time-frame from dividing the likely altitude by the terminal velocity of a falling human body (A free falling object achieves its terminal velocity when the downward force of gravity (Fg) equals the upward force of drag (Fd). This causes the net force on the object to be zero, resulting in an acceleration of zero.

Mathematically an object asymptotically approaches and can never reach its terminal velocity. However, in something that will likely only last for a very short period of time, relatively speaking, the Army allows us to approximate a correct answer in this instance, so we are taught that terminal velocity for our purposes is approximately 120 MPH which can be increased to approximately 200 MPH if the falling individual pulls his or her limbs in close to their body... in case you were wondering) in order to come up with some answer that sounded plausible... (it would be measured in seconds, by the way...) after a few moments of mental gymnastics on the part of the student body, the answers began to trickle in; "Um.. a minute?" "NO, JACKASS!! NICE TRY! GET DOWN!!

('Get Down!' is Army parlance for 'Do pushups!' -- this act of doing pushups serves as penance, punctuation (i.e. a physical exclamation point to be appended to some concept, issue, or statement that the person in charge is trying to convey..) or, strangely, a way of enhancing esprit de corps. Go figure! But, it works.. This particular set of pushups translated as, 'Wrong Answer! Stop that!') - wrong answers continued to roll in.. "Ten seconds?" ""NO! GET DOWN!", "2.354 seconds?" "HOLY SHIT!! WHO ARE YOU?! ALFRED EINFELD?! NO!! GET DOWN!!"

(I, rather diplomatically, I thought.. forewent the correction which begged to be administered in that one, by the way...) followed by punitive pushups, until the Blackhat, in exasperation at the density of our skulls, leaned his face closer to us (obstensibly to get his huge, loud mouth a few inches closer to our ears, I guess..) and bellowed, at the top of his lungs, "YOU HAVE THE REST OF YOUR MISERABLE, WORTHLESS LIVES TO GET IT RIGHT!! SO KEEP TRYING UNTIL YOU DO GET IT RIGHT.. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?!?!?!"

Point taken. This happened to be one of those moments in my life when somebody made a point with a specific situation in mind.. and the advice turned out to be a gem of wisdom that applied to everything although they may not have intended it that way. As an aside, I happened to run into that particular Blackhat just a few months ago, and was able to tell him how that advice had made such an impression on me, and to thank him for teaching me well, and for doing his job in such an exemplary fashion. In turn, he introduced me to his entire family, and I got a bone-crushing, gut squelching hug that one can only receive from a fellow soldier, or a fellow boxer... you soldiers and fighters out there will recognize this as a truth.

Regarding my present practice, and some of the realizations that are stemming from it - Well, they are fairly simple, really; The time is passing very quickly; more quickly than I would have expected. The time that I have left to live is literally flying by at an unprecedented speed... and there is nothing whatsoever that I can do to slow it down, or to stop it.

I have the time that I have... and that is all. Apparently, some part of my brain that is not readily accessible to me has shifted in some fashion, with the result that I am feeling appreciative of even the moments that in the past I most likely would not have found so very deserving of my appreciation.

What is even more surprising to me, is that I have never made this jump in perspective in the past. Oh... I have briefly made a token nod to it when I was in a "sour grapes" frame of mind, and powerless to change it... but underneath the facade of bravado and partial acceptance, I was... well, dissatisfied. It seems to me that fundamentally, there is no difference in my life during this practice than there was prior to it. The end of my life was rushing to intercept my life with blinding speed from the moment I drew my first breath.

I reckon I was simply blind to it until now.

Another strange thing is that I would have thought that keeping the fact of my not so distant death (well.. no matter how you look at it.. it can only be what... 50 years, tops?) in the forefront of my mind would have been oppressive and saddening.. perhaps even causing anger, or at least a sense of helpless futility. But this is not what I am experiencing. On the contrary, I find it to be liberating. My life from moment to moment is lighter and I seem much better equipped to take the bumps and knocks in stride. The crappy bits that plague most of our days simply don't seem to me to be all that big of a deal really.

There are no bad days... and there are no good days; there are only days. And, frankly, when I open my eyes in the morning to find that I woke under my own steam, and that I can get up unaided - no tubes, no wires, no medications.. just me. No matter whether I am sleepy, or that I have to go somewhere and do something that I might not prefer to do... or that I have financial worries, or any other types of concerns. I woke up. You have to be alive to wake up.... its a good day to start with; So why bring a bad day to you?

Every thing that passes my attention and my focus is my life. Every single minute detail. What I decide to get hung up on is within my power to decide. What I am learning is that when I would turn my attention to some physical pain that is hindering me, I allow it to encompass my entire world with the result that I miss the tens of thousands of other things that are pleasant, and welcome, and indescribably beautiful. Whatever misery I happen to be facing is only a very small part of the whole - but, it is a part... and I will take it. Whatever it is. I have learned to accept my life in whatever form it takes as it unfolds.

This is well, because it is my life... all of it!

This practice has bestowed some very special, very valuable, and quite unlooked-for gifts upon me. I am very grateful for this. Life is short, and nothing is guaranteed. I cannot afford to squander a single second. Not ever again.

My life, you see, is just as it is.. and that is precisely what it should be... Other people's lives may be different... but mine is following the path that it follows... I can direct it to some degree, but wherever it goes, and whatever form it takes, it happens to be the only life that I have.

Marbh le té, agus marbh gan é! - HA!

Friday, August 1, 2008


Being aware of the impermanence of my life on such a deep level and on such a constant basis has made me think deeply about what is truly important. I don't think that it is likely that I can create a list of what is important for all of humanity, or even for a relatively high percentage of humanity since we all tend to inject our own meaning into life. What is important to some is meaningless to others.

However, I must confront my own life and death; and, when faced with the inevitability of my own death; I find that my priorities tend to become something that I am more or less constantly examining and fine-tuning.

Honestly, there are no major changes in my priorities; my monastic practice is, by extension, a form of dying practice. I think most monastics would tend to agree with this assertion. What I am discovering is that I am becoming more intimately acquainted with my thoughts, my perceptions, and the ebb and flow of my emotions. This is helping me a great deal in the task of articulating to myself, and, I suppose, to others, what is going on in the interior of my heart and my mind. Particularly regarding this question of priorities.

To my mind, I really only own three things. When I say this, what I am attempting to convey, or at least to imply, is that there are only three attributes or qualities or 'things' (if you can call them things..) that cannot be taken from me by force. I have to give them away by choice... or sell them.

Everything else that I "have" (or delude myself into believing that I have), including my life, my sense of self, my memories, my sight, hearing and other senses... even my very identity or awareness of myself as a person... *everything* can be taken. Except for three treasures.

These three treasures are;

  1. My Love.

  2. My Generosity.

  3. My Integrity.

These are the only 'things' that I truly own.

Most of what we use to define ourselves is, eventually, rendered meaningless.

Naturally, I don't mean to say that we should all quit working and being productive members of society... things wouldn't work out so well... but, at least for me, balance is best achieved, I think, when I know what is most important, and what is merely 'important'.

Love. Generosity. Integrity.

If I had a choice, I don't think I would change a thing.