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.
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.