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

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