by Donna Quesada: When I first walked into the Zen Center, I thought I knew all about Zen.

Zen-AWAKEN

I was a twenty-something, tender-footed new professor of eastern philosophy. I was an expert. I would be right at home in the monastery. And they would love me and be impressed by my knowledge of Zen. But that’s just the thing. No one cared about knowledge. No one cared that I had read Alan Watts. No one cared that I had read all the books about Zen. Sure, I could talk a big talk about how everything is mind, but I had never faced my own. The only thing that mattered was, can you sit on your cushion?

I was just a student myself, when I made a study date with my new friend, Stephanie. It was the late 80s. There was a book with a funky green and purple cover, lying on her counter, whose title caught my eye: The Wisdom of Insecurity, by Alan Watts. When I picked it up, she said, “Oh, you can have that…my hippie dad gave it to me, but I won’t read it.” I happily took it.

That began a lifelong love of Alan Watts and Zen Buddhism.

In stark contrast to the black robes, the starkness of decor, and austerity that gives Zen its fundamental character, I bumbled into the monastery on that first Saturday, wearing a colorful, flowing Indian skirt. Thats exotic enough, I reasoned. And then I confidently approached my appointed cushion at my appointed spot on my appointed mat. Everyone around me suddenly dropped down to the ground in a full body bow, before placing themselves on their cushions, which were called zafus. I simply sat down.

After one of the black-robed monks with a shaven head, a serious face, and thickly framed black glasses struck a large singing bowl three times, there was no further movement in the room. The only sound was the lingering resonance produced by this huge metal Japanese bowl, which looked like it was going to slide off of its saffron colored, silken base cushion. The deep reverberating tones felt at once serious and holy.

Everyone sat rigidly straight, facing the wall. Are you not supposed to move? I stole a glance left and right. I peeked at my watch several times. It hasn’t even been five minutes! How can that be! I’m starving… HOW THE HELL WILL I MAKE IT TO 30 MINUTES!? Let alone an entire one and a half hour “block?

This is insane, I continued bellowing to myself. My foot itched. I was hungry. I was hot. I really needed to lie down. I listened to the ice cream truck blasting its ridiculous happy tune on a loud horn speaker, just outside the window. It played over and over and over. What I wouldn’t give to go and buy an ice cream. I dreamed of the freedom of being outside. This is like jail… like some kind of torture. Then I remembered all the things I needed to do… and I can’t write them down because Im sitting here with no pen and paper. I have to keep these things in my mind. The market, dog food, Rite Aid. I need a pneumonic device to remember all this… because it’s very important. Maybe I can create an acronym using the first letter of all those items… Market, “M”… Dog food, “D”…

My God! Its only been 10 minutes! How can that be? My back is killing me.

The mind will find ways to avoid sitting still… because the ego—it’s routine resident—wants to do. It wants to solveto achieveto attain. It especially needs to prove. It must never forget these goals. And it mustn’t stop for one minute. It cannot stand still. And it won’t be happy until all the desires and ambitions are checked off and done. But the list is interminable.

The ego is afraid. It’s afraid of being wrong. Or not knowing at all. It’s afraid of just about everything and so it overcompensates for its inherent insecurity by acting like a big shot and a know-it-all. And because it knows everything already, it doesn’t need to listen to anybody and doesn’t like to be told anything.

It especially doesn’t want to shut up. It pushes its weight around like a blustering bully everywhere it goes. It’s the town drunk. The antidote is Beginner’s Mind—the willingness to not know. The willingness to consider other perspectives. The courage to be quiet.

GOD let it be over! NOW!

Hallelujah! Two strikes of the singing bowl echo through the room and everyone bows to the wall in front of them before twisting their robed bodies around, and bowing again to each other, then assembling themselves into a single file line. Because everyone else does it, I follow suit and place my hands together in a fist while holding them against my chest. I then follow the person in front of me as we walk in circles around the room for exactly seven minutes.

We don’t look around as we walk. We keep our expressionless gaze lowered toward the floor. When those seven minutes are over, we unceremoniously find our way to our mat and again bow to our seat before sitting down. And again, the three strikes of the bowl echo through the room.

And just like that, the second of three half-hour segments has begun. Minute one…

It would be humiliating to get up and walk out, at this point, so I don’t even entertain the fantasy. I close my eyes and decide not to look at my watch at all this time. I might as well give myself over to the task. After all, I tell myself… that is why I came here.

The only instruction I had received was to count my breath. And so, I do. But I keep having to start over again, because the fire-breathing dragon inside my head continues to roar. Despite my resolve to actually do it this time, I suddenly need to solve 20 problems. Just as I begin my count, everything that I need to say to anybody begins to run through my mind. I am constructing imaginary dialogs complete with structured arguments and detailed explanations. I am anticipating disputes and creating foregone conclusions to problems that don’t really exist.

But I catch myself doing it. That’s the first step! Applauding my success, I return to my breath…

Inhale… “One.” Exhale… “One.” Inhale again… “Two.” Ive got to give my shower a really good cleaning I wonder if I should use bleach to scrub around the corners? Oops… thinking again. Back to inhale… “One.” Exhale… “One.”Inhale again… “Two.” I really do make a good pasta, that’s what I should make on Saturday. Oops, back to inhale…“One…”

But then, a gap seemed to open up. It was as if I had fallen through a crack… and time didn’t exist at that moment. I didn’t know who or what I was, at that moment. I didn’t know how long that moment was. And I didnt care.

The mind, like a hyper child who finally falls asleep, eventually gives up the fight. A therapist said to me once; “anxiety won’t and can’t last forever… it burns itself out after a while, even if you do nothing.” I think of it like a storm. It gets itself all puffed up… reacting to the air pressure inequalities, and thrusts itself about in the form of wind and rain… and then it runs out of gas and surrenders. The mind is like that.

Eventually, the ego—the monkey behind the wheel—exhausts itself and passes out. When you watch your thoughts… just watch, like a silent and unshakable witness… it gets tired of you and collapses in a drunken stupor.

You just keep coming back to your breath. Over and over again. And somewhere between the non-stop thoughts, beyond the numbers, and behind the to-dos, there is a chasm. Like a timeless abyss. But when it happened, I had not fallen asleep. I wasnt spacing out. I was here. More here than ever. Just not in the usual way.

me stairs-AWAKENThat was tremendous! That was it! I want to do it again! I was hooked. It felt like the most delicious and comforting reprieve from the insanity called normal that I had ever tasted.

And once again… the three strikes of the bowl. Then, like a big, human, multi-robed machine, everyone bowed to the wall, lifted themselves up, swiveled around, bowed to the room, and got into line. And once again, we walked in circles around the room in a single file, with one fist squeezed inside the other, to make a giant fist, which we held to our chest as we walked as one, in silence. A circular procession of robes and socks and bare feet.

When we sat for the last half hour, I thought I could find my way back to that luscious silent space. I wanted to at least encounter the emptiness once again. I wanted to fall into the expanse. Was this the emptiness? It was a bit like falling in love. You want it back. You want to see it again. You need to get there. But, I was chasing the dragon. And the more I tried, the farther away I felt from the new object of my desire.

It was my new goal. But thats the trap. The harder we clutch to a destination, the crazier the chase begins to feel. It’s the whole metaphor for life. Running after happiness. Or, whatever it is we think were going to find by continuing to achieve, accomplish, get, and do, so that we can cross things off our never ending list.

On that Saturday, the Dharma talk would follow. That’s where “Roshi”—the teacher—delivers a talk to his disciples. This talk takes place in the same room in which we have been sitting… the zendo. Only for this occasion, everyone swivels around to face the teacher as he speaks.

I soon signed up for a retreat, which would entail not just a one and a half hour block, but four of those in a day, which would be repeated for an entire week. During this retreat, I would also have the opportunity to speak one-on-one with Roshi, my new teacher. A senior monk would show me the proper way to enter the dokusan room, where these meetings would take place and where he would give me my own koan and eventually, a new name.

When the time came, I made my way to the dokusan room, and waited for Roshi to ring his bell to signal my entrance, then I repeated the instructions as well as I could remember them, as I entered the room. I first dropped my body to the ground, in full bow, three times, in front of where he sat, before sitting properly on the cushion to introduce myself.

I told him about the troubles I was having while sitting. He placed his hand on his belly and breathed with me. With my hand on my own belly, I followed his breath pattern. He told me to imagine there was a Buddha in my belly. Why don’t you wake him up? he said. I went back to my cushion and snuck a peek at my watch. 15 minutes left.

The dokusan room was the only place in which it was appropriate to speak. We practiced silence during retreat, even during meal time, where basic communications, like asking for more oatmeal, is done with very specific hand gestures.

At some point, during the 52 hours that I spent next to the same man, during seated meditation, we became the best of friends without ever exchanging a word or a glance. When he would slowly pull his leg out from its locked position, tucked under the other, I knew that his foot had fallen asleep. He was trying to discreetly shift his position without drawing attention to himself. With one slightly outstretched leg, he would wait for blood flow to return before situating himself again. I didnt have to turn my head to watch, exactly… I could feel his grimace. I felt it too. I had my own troubles.

When I thought my back would break, and I gently arched it forward and then pushed it back, like a very subtle, seated version of cat-cow, he did me the favor of not looking at all. Without even as much as turning his head he was saying “I understand… Me too.”

By the third day, we were like old friends that had shared a kind of intimacy that could never come through words. We had gone through a peculiar sort of war together, only this particular kind of war has no external enemy. The antagonist is inside.

My practice has since taken me in other, equally beautiful directions, but still, the ripples left by the silence of those Zen retreats have etched indelible markings on my DNA. Like big brush strokes of sumi ink swirled into an imperfect circle on the blueprint that is me, it changed the character of everything I do. Sometimes, for example, I am astounded and surprised at my capacity to take action when needed, or to be still… and do absolutely nothing if that is what is needed. Zen is a hushed kind of power that doesn’t need to announce itself. I will always be grateful for its place in my life.

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Source: AWAKEN