Half Day to Whole

Half Day Sit

I arrive early, the MTA surprisingly quick for a weekend, whisking me from Queens to Brooklyn through long tunnels on steel wheels.

The first to arrive at the temple, I sign in, and walk up the wooden stairs in  morning sun, stepping in and out of the yellow shafts shining through the glass windows. Creaks meet my feet, inside thick winter soles, the melting ice from outside leaving a trail of water spots in my wake.

Though I shed my coat, I keep my scarf wrapped around my neck, doubled in softness against the early chill.

I do a few yoga stretches, elongating in my downward dog, padding my sock-covered metatarsals into the Buddha Hall floor. My palms press into the wood, and I move through from knees to chest to child’s pose.

And repeat, breathing, while another practitioner sits holding a cup of coffee, eyes forward, warming his insides before the call downstairs.

The call to sit.

The call to begin.

I hear the wooden beats, rhythmically beckoning all practitioners, marking the time, and gather myself, taking a sip of water.  After the steps contract under my feet moving downwards, I enter the Zendo, finding a cushion; the black rectangle softening under my weight as I lower to the floor.

My mind whirls, foggy and thick with concern, timetables and To-Do’s arising over and over, the question of “How, How How?”.  Three chimes ring out, and I settle, hands in the cosmic mudra, eyes lowered in the dim light.

Inhale, exhale 1.

Inhale 2, exhale 3.

Thought, thought, thought.

And…..back to 1.

 

Meditation arose in my life as a survival method.  I was in crisis, in deep loss from my divorce, and the realization I truly had no control.  I watched my beliefs burning before my eyes as the life I had built in New York City came crashing to the ground.  Suddenly the loud noise that I escaped into for so many years of my life was a horrible reminder of the blindness and permanence I had desired.

Triggers were everywhere.  They appeared in the words of a song, an image in a magazine, a character on TV.

For the first time in my life, I truly craved silence.  As I tried to accept the inferno around me and the massive wave of change, the silence was my solace.

In that silence, I learned how to do something I had always wanted to do.  I learned to listen.  Except this time, it was myself, not the outside voices or expectations, but what lay underneath.  It was so quiet at first, and I cried for months at the beginning as I touched on the little girl, scared and frightened in the corner, coughing from the smoke as she stared wide eyed at the flames engulfing her life.

As the coughing subsided, and the daily practice became routine, a foundation emerged, a basis for not only beginning my day, but dropping into this new place.  The foundation was inside, at the inception of my breath and blood, not outside of myself, reaching with frantic fingers.

Except it had been there all along.  I had just drowned it out.

At first it was 5 minutes, then 10, then 12, then 15.  For a long time, I would light my incense and set the timer at home, adding in two 35 minute sitting periods, called Zazen, at the Fire Lotus Temple’s Zen Service on Sundays.

After meditating for a year, I leapt into a Half Day sit at the temple, which translated to five rounds of Zazen, with walking meditation, or Kinhin, in between.  We did chant some liturgy, but essentially it was a four hour commitment to the practice.

As I had never done more than two Zazen periods in a row, I was nervous, wondering if my body would ache, or how my mind would be.

In the experience I found a shift, an opening.  With each period, it became easier to return to one, and the thoughts were spacing out.  They never stopped, but my breath slowed, and time became a new concept, not so immediate, but merely relative.  Surrounded by the community, I relaxed into my seat, and the little girl stretched in the safety of emptiness.  Her lungs were free and healthy, allowing a steady flow of inhalation and release.

A few months later, I did a full day Zazenkei at the temple, arriving at 8 am and leaving at 6 pm.  There was a meal in the Zendo, a short service, and what seemed like endless rounds of Zazen.  We had a short rest after lunch and I slept soundly.  What surprised me as I left in the early evening summer sunshine, was my energy.  I felt great.  I had purposely left the evening open, unsure if I would be exhausted.  And yet, I walked to the subway invigorated.

I was ready to meet the city.

 

Last weekend, I did my first meditation retreat since last summer, coming to the temple for a Half Day sit, this time more at ease from knowing the structure of the morning, but rusty on the feeling of elongated practice.

I had tossed and turned the night before, playing out scenarios and fears as I switched side to side on my mattress.  My arm wrapped around my ribs and I sighed in attempts to relax.  My head was full, the ego calling to be heard, and I pulled the covers over my shoulders until I finally drifted off.

Would I be able to stay awake during the morning or would I be fighting myself the whole time?  Should I just stay at home and sleep in?

The alarm came, and I moved, half asleep, my mind immediately picking up from where it had left me in my fevered dreams.  But my body quickly grabbed my clothes out of the hot shower, and turned the key in my lock, stepping out into the early March air.

I’ve never gotten to the temple that quickly.

 

The Half Day sit was overseen by a senior teacher, a kind and laughter-filled monastic who’s voice lilted through the Zendo during the first Zazen period.

“Today, we celebrate the privilege to come here and sit, to take this time.”

 

As each period progressed, the tossing and turning of hours before began to melt away.  My sides so tight from the back and forth, opened with my lungs, inhaling the sweet incense burning slowly before me.  I heard the breathing of my community, and my gaze lowered into the soft fabric of the practitioner seated in front of me.

When the final round of Zazen began, the timetables that had felt like an unmanageable threat hours before, became an opportunity for solution.  Answers began to arise from the now open space inside.

The body that pulled me from my bed melded with my mind, and I had something I didn’t possess before entering the temple doors.

Integration.

My ego mind and body were no longer separate.  They had met in the seated breath, and remembered how to play like children on a swing, legs kicking to the sky in a beautiful dance, straight then bending with focused effort and momentum.

The sky was above and it was a glorious blue, clouds passing in puffy caravans, riding on the wind, and moving on.

After a delicious lunch with the rest of the retreat participants, I walked out in the afternoon air and headed back on the subway to my home.

I headed back to action, invigorated and fearless, my winter boots light, with a child-like skip.

IMG_5293

The Compassion Course

ZMM

“How do you let go?”

Tears stream down my face, as I sit on the cushion in front of Ryushin Sensei, the Abbott of the Zen Mountain Monastery, any last illusion of keeping it together completely shattered as I choke out my question.

He gently grabs a box of tissues from behind him, and places them in front of me.

“That is a very good question. Now I’m going to ask you a question.”

I look into his eyes after my fists grab around a handful of white Kleenex and I fumble to ease the stream flowing down my face.

“Are you ok without him?”

Everything stops for a moment. I feel my breath in, my breath out, and realize my present truth, eyes widening as the tears abate and I slowly speak from a very basic place.
“Yes, I am.”

 

In my search for answers and clarity two years ago, I found myself drawn back to spirituality. I knew I wanted to add meditation to my yoga practice, and ended up discovering Buddhism. The practice resonated with me deeply, speaking to my anger, pain, and the massive surge of change that was steam-rolling a marriage of 15 years. I was getting a crash course in impermanence and needed study guides, and a teacher.

Raised Methodist, I enjoyed many childhood Sundays in the community of our church, ringing in my mother’s bell choir, and going on Youth Group trips. I read the Bible and prayed, believing in the Pastor’s word and taking great comfort in the teachings.

I had a compass.

My high school sweetheart and first really serious relationship lasted for three years. He was a year older than me and an atheist. Some of our worst fights were over religion and I ended up just accepting it was one of many things we would not share.

I ended up getting accepted into the BFA for Musical Theatre at Penn State, and college opened me on many levels. As my friendships deepened within my theatre community, I was very troubled by the church’s stance toward gay rights. The language felt harsh and judgemental, a complete untruth aimed at my gay friends.  I began to pull away, and didn’t seek a church community at college.  Sundays turned into time to sleep in and recover from the long week of classes, late rehearsals, and show performances.

I married a man who shared my religious views, and while we bowed our heads in prayer every night before dinner, church was an experience saved for family visits, and holidays. In the early years, we went to a church on the Upper East Side, participated in Lenten devotions, and gave up vices for those 40 days leading up to Easter.

While we were not a part of a formal church community, I believed God was in our home, and something we shared. We had our faith together, and in each other.

Until we didn’t.

Until I didn’t, particularly in myself.

Prayers became desperate, secret admissions, whispered in the dark, or as hot water fell around me in my solitary morning shower, my hands splayed on the white bathroom tile, reaching for support from the cold wall. I was asking for forgiveness, but not really addressing the rising panic or lies between us. I prayed for elimination of my suffering, but didn’t understand the inception of why I was scared and exhausted.

A month after he left me, in a moment of absolute anger, I yelled at him, “Did the vows you took before God mean anything to you?”

His harsh, loud return stopped me cold, “When was God a part of our marriage?”

Not only did I hear his loss of faith, I knew it was reflecting a gaping hole within me.

I began seeking, trying different centers and different sects of Buddhism, and three months later, found myself at an Introduction to Zen Training weekend at the Zen Mountain Monastery, weeping in meditation and waiting in line to speak one on one with the master teacher, Ryushin, in formal interview, or Dokusan.

In the moment I left the small room, my hands still clutching the wet tissues, I connected back to the basic level of living. Despite my inner pain, and the daily intense reminder of loss, I was ok. My ground of being always existed, but had been covered in a fog for years. Now I saw a path.

After that weekend, I knew I had found my practice and for the first time in years, embraced a childhood constant:
Faith

I started going to the Fire Lotus Temple in Brooklyn, and enjoyed community within this recovered space. Sundays became spiritual days again, and chances to connect.

Church dresses were replaced by loose pants and basic colors, but I was cultivating another gift within those walls, on my yoga mat, and back at home on my meditation bench:
Compassion

By embracing and recognizing my own suffering and giving it a voice, I found compassion towards myself, and began to see it in others, all around me. I wasn’t alone, and neither were those with bowed heads and heavy hearts I encountered throughout my daily life in the city. The separation I formerly believed was an illusion of my mind.

I wasn’t praying for the pain to stop, nor turning away. Instead, I turned towards it for answers, and was rewarded tenfold.

 

Last year, I opened my mailbox to find a sampling of The Sun magazine. It was full of short stories, interviews, and poems, all written from a conscious point of view. That it coincided with the beginning of ZenRedNYC was a beautiful synchronicity. After one issue, I was hooked, and signed up for a year subscription.

With a heavy heart towards recent acts of terrorism, I recently read an interview with African-American lesbian Reverend Lynice Pinkard on “The Revolutionary Act of Living The Gospels”. She resigned from her position as senior pastor in 2010 and became a volunteer and board member of Share First Oakland (sharefirst.org), and the community-training institute Seminary of the Street, with side work as a hospital chaplain. She intended to decentralize the church’s hierarchical leadership and put her resources into helping the surrounding communities. Her words:

“The problems that beset us aren’t insolvable. The world is not full of scarcity, and we do not have to scramble to get our share. Our hurts are not as endless as they seem. Hope doesn’t have to be stifled by frustrated cynicism. Peace is possible when we tell the truth about our hurts and our hopes.

The bottom line is that we are called to lives of compassion. We are called to the work of liberation through love. That calling is the only thing worth suffering for.”

Amen.

The Sun