Back to Zen

This evening I headed back to Zen Buddhism for the first time since July, and had my first visit at the Cork dojo. I’d been given some advice by one of the people I met on Inishmor, that I shouldn’t force myself to go back to meditation, that I shouldn’t make it a chore or beat myself up about it if I didn’t go. I should just take it as it came, and see if I wanted to go back to it, and to only go back to it when I felt ready.
It was extremely good advice, which seemed almost tailor-made for me and my usual, general attack upon the world: ‘You must do this! You must do that! Why aren’t you doing more of this now? Why are you doing too much of that! You’re a terrible human being, because you’re not doing that!’ So, even though I knew that the dojo was holding meditations early in the morning and in some evenings only 30 – 40 minutes away from me in Bandon, I decided not to attempt to rush myself in there before or after work. I knew that I would only *just* make it, if I made it at all and it seemed silly to be getting all stressed and upset over an activity that I was taking up to make me feel happier and calmer and more at peace.
So, I left it for all of August. I didn’t even force myself to try and meditate on my own, or to look at Zen Buddhist principles. I let it lie. I told myself I would start up again, when I knew I comfortably and easily could do so, that is, when I was in Kinsale.
In the end, it was the end of September before I contacted the Cork dojo and said that I would like to come back to meditation. That gave me 3 weeks to settle into my new job, new family, new routine and see whether or not I had the time, inclination and energy to go into Cork on a Wednesday evening and meditate. Eventually, I decided to go back last week, but I was asked to work late that Wednesday, so I put it off. Again, I took a very Zen approach to the whole incident and said it was fine, there was no rush, and I would go back the week after.
That was today.
I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to go back to the practice. After my post a day or two ago about being sick and tired of being anxious and worried and constantly feeling like my brain is being pulled in 5 different directions at once, like it is being forced to concentrate and give energy and focus to a million different responsibilities, it was utter bliss to go somewhere quiet, and sit still, and calm and just stop for an hour and fifteen minutes.
Three of the people I had met at the sesshin on Inishmor were there, including the man who runs the dojo. I was met with such genuine warmth and welcome, and it was wonderful to see them again. Even sitting outside the dojo, there was a real feeling of peace and contentment. I was reminded of the practice, the correct way to do certain things, sitting, hand placement, and then we were into the dojo and preparing. When I sat down on my zafu, I felt like I was about to burst into tears from relief. I was so happy to be back, to have an hour and fifteen minutes in which I was not allowed to do anything but sit and breath and focus on sitting and breathing. When I could let all my thoughts and feelings wash over me and know that I couldn’t, wouldn’t, was not required, was not able, to do anything about them. I couldn’t fix anything, I couldn’t look anything up, I couldn’t eat anything, or drink anything, or sit in front of a laptop and will it to give me answers, or sit in front of a TV and will it to block out the problems. I hadn’t forced myself to come back, I hadn’t stressed about it, but at the same time, clearly I had been desperately missing it. In a way, it was probably a good thing I didn’t get stressed about it as well – I was already missing the meditation, it would have created even more emotional havoc if I’d started beating myself up over it.
With a start like that, when you are so grateful to be there, so happy, so delighted, of course the practice itself is going to be more difficult. It actually felt longer than the sittings we did on Inishmor, maybe because of the feeling that there was a world rushing by outside and that I would soon be on a bus, back to Kinsale, where I would immediately jump online and re-connect with ‘the world’. I was aware of a pain in my back, in my neck. I was slumping. But, we were given some actual teachings to consider during this practice, which also made things easier. And, whilst it seemed much longer, when the bell was rung to signal the end of the practice, I was hugely reluctant to move. My arms and shoulders felt heavy, and they tingled like muscles that have been tensed for some huge exertion and then been let go. They felt totally blissed out and calm, and they did not want to go back to tensing, and walking and typing and moving about.
I’ve been reading a book recently that I wouldn’t normally pick up, as it falls into the self-help/religious section of the bookstore (a friend once lost a job at a bookstore for sneering at a customer who asked to be shown the self-help books, and, apart from not wanting to lose his respect, I have a similar attitude towards the self-help aisle, so never go there), but I started reading it in the library and became hooked. Now, bear with me, o thou, cynical non-believer atheist, but the book talks about how modern Western life, with its reliance on science and rationality, has left us with a spiritual void in our lives, and how the common emotional malaise of our times, which often then develops into depression, anxiety, eating disorders, drug abuse,  can be related back to this spiritual void, this lack of meaning, purpose and direction. Now, obviously its a big generalisation, and not everyone who has a problem would agree that they need to fix it with a religion, but its certainly something I have felt in my life, and particularly in the last few months, when I have been very uncertain of the reasoning behind my decisions, when my chosen career path (no matter how it looks from the outside) seemed to be slipping further and further out of reach, when long-term and lasting relationships appeared to be so incredibly impossible that I had truly resigned myself to a life as a crazy spinster in a falling down house infested with cats. My parents took the view that we, the children, should be able to make our own decisions regarding religion, though we were enrolled into Church of England scripture classes in primary school (and, look, I don’t mean to offend anyone who is a Church of England parishioner, but, all the images I can conjur up for that particular religion are King Henry VIII chopping off his wives’ heads and Eddie Izzard: ‘Cake or Death?’) My point is, up until now, instead of ‘making up my own mind’ regarding religion, I kind of took up my Dad’s atheism by default, as well as his respect and belief in science.
The problem was, I didn’t have the understanding and knowledge of science that my Dad did to back up this belief in its inherent rationality. I was like John Safran said in ‘Safran vs. God’: one of those pinky-lefty intellectuals who scoffed at religious people, basing my atheism on Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’, a copy of which sat, unopened, on my bookshelf, because my BA didn’t give me the resources to even understand the index. So, in some ways, I was just as bad as the religious fanatics out there, clinging to a belief system that I didn’t understand the half of, that I understood superficially, defending it passionately, afraid someone might notice that I couldn’t actually back up my arguments, and I would be left, rudderless and confused, my only sense of how the world worked suddenly left in tatters at my feet.
This kind of sounds like I’m about to turn around and tell you all I’m converting to Orthodox Judaism. I’m not. I’m not even becoming a devoted Buddhist at the moment. All this is, is building up to is a realisation that I don’t know how the world works. I don’t even know how I think the world works. I don’t know what the point of the world is, what its purpose is, and, therefore, how could I possibly be expected to figure out what my little place in it is meant to mean. And, so, I’m dipping a toe. I’m experimenting and exploring, to see what I can find. I’ve got a lot of predjudices to work through. I have some hang-ups about religion in general, and Buddhism in particular, left over from high school and many a cynical discussion with friends and family. The story we were told during meditation tonight really irritated me, though I can’t quite remember why, now. Some of the precepts that were read out, panicked me as well, though, again, I can’t remember why. But, at the same time, sitting still, and having to only focus on my breath for an hour and fifteen minutes is wonderful. Maybe I could do it without the religion. But I don’t think I want to. I don’t think it would be the same without the ritual, the people, the incense, the gashu, the zafu, the chanting. All these rituals build up to give significance, meaning and importance to the act of sitting still and becoming aware of your sitting, your breath, yourself. And, hey, if I need that feeling of significance at the moment, to make me stop worrying about the future, beating myself up about the past, and just let me sit still, quiet and calm for a little while, then I am happy to go through it all.
And, there is something about being silent that seems profound and important in itself. This book I’m reading, it talks about how the prophet Eljiah goes into a cave, hoping to hear the voice of God. He doesn’t hear it in a storm, he doesn’t hear it in a fire, but finally, he hears it in ‘a silence so profound that it spoke.’ I’m never going to convert to Christianity, its just not going to happen. But, I know that feeling, that feeling of significance, of importance, of connection to the world, of a greater presence. And I want to figure out a way that I can incorporate those huge, inexplicable feelings into my understanding and experience of the world.


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