When I was having the crisis of confidence described in Great Sorrow I didn't know what to do about it. Lest you think I had parted from ordinary reality, the facts were that I knew I was voluntarily participating in an activity with a bunch of generous, reasonable, kind people and I was free to leave or quit at any time. None of them would have shunned me, shamed me, or rejected me in any way for resigning from the activity. They knew it was hard, and they probably all wanted to quit too.
I knew I would still be given warmth, food and shelter until I could leave on my own, and I also had a friend in town who would have ridden (driven, actually) to my rescue. There was no actual threat anywhere, the drama was all about the safety and integrity of my self-concept, not my actual safety and integrity.
However, within the confines of that envelope of protection, I did not restrain myself to some standard of taciturn equanimity. That wasn't what I came to do. I came to find out about my life, and if what I found out was that I can't be the Soto zen student I want to be, that's what I wanted to know. I would not come into full contact with that knowledge if I restrained my mind with the comfort that this crisis was just some game I was playing.
There were moments of mirth. On Friday, December 10th, I distinctly remember sitting in the classroom during the afternoon coffee break thinking about the fact it had been a year since I had surgery. I had been looking forward to my "surgiversary" for a long time. Over the year I had fantasized about the celebration I would have on this day.
I imagined a big party, with a bunch of significant others around, perhaps including my surgeon. There would review of my pictures over the year, stories of lessons learned, and lots of hugs and kisses from beautiful women, perhaps capped off by a night of fabulous sex with some willing babe.
Instead, here I was surrounded by a bunch of seemingly morose people, most of whom I had never met before, all dressed modestly in black or dark earth tones, drinking coffee, eyes downcast, silent, with pained expressions on their faces. There were attractive women there, but I was convinced they didn't like me.
Worst. Party. Ever.
This started a giggle that I had trouble stifling for the next forty-five minutes. When I told this story to my teacher the next day, he said "perhaps it was the best observance you could have had." He meant it. I had no idea what he meant until much later.
There are two senior teachers at Dharma Field. One is a published author and it is he, and his works, that drew me to this sangha. He's the one I singularly identify as "my teacher" in these essays. The other is not published. He is bereft of even a modicum of fame, even among zen nerds. When I was getting familiar with this group I considered him sort of the bench-warmer Zen Master--the utility 3rd baseman kept on the roster in case A-Rod got hurt.
He was the teacher who was available for Dokusan when I was undergoing the worst part of my crisis of confidence. I was in such distress I didn't care who I saw and could talk to. I would have pulled the mailman walking by on the street in for Dokusan if that was my only choice. I needed to talk to someone.
To be fair, I had gotten to know him since I first came to the sangha. My experience of him is of a warm, humble and funny guy always quick with a smile and a spot of encouragement. We shared a fondness for bad and off-color jokes, and over the years I had sent him the best ones I came across in the mail. He had also lost a lot of weight since I saw him last, he now looked tall, lean and stately. He imbues the room with an understated sense of comfortable calm. He's the kind of man everyone would want as a grandfather figure in their lives. I'm fortunate to have him in mine.
I sat in front of him in Dokusan and the tears started to fall. I told him about my struggles, the weird dreams I had been having, and my doubts that I could do this, and how much those doubts devastated me emotionally. I told him I wanted to be a zen student more than anything else I had ever wanted and I didn't know what I was going to do if I couldn't make it work.
He looked at me with warmth and compassion and said "You are very sincere."
He went on to tell me the standard zen advice: take care of this very moment, look at what is coming up, there's nothing to do other than be present with it. That was all stuff I knew, it was the comment about my sincerity that turned my crisis into an opportunity. He was right. I have Great Sincerity.
The previous night I had broken into tears on the cushion during the final session of zazen for the day. Fortunately (for me) the man sitting next to me was beset with a cold, so he had been sniffling and wiping his nose with a tissue for days. I doubt anyone other than he noticed that I was now doing the same.
The tears streaming down my face didn't bother me. They actually felt warm and comforting, but crying also makes my nose run and there was nothing serene or elegant about snot on my upper lip, so I had to wipe it off. I had a napkin from the kitchen squirreled away in the pocket of my meditation jacket for this kind of thing, but we weren't even halfway through this sit before it was a slimy mess.
My back was really aching as I described in Great Soreness, this was the worst it got through the entire sesshin (though, be aware I didn't know this at the time), and my desire to quit was the greatest. I realized I had been feeling sorry for myself and that sorrow now turned to anger. I turned the pain and my resistance to practice into an entity, a wrathful entity, and I confronted it.
"Come on!" I shouted internally. "Kill me. That's the only way I am going to stop this practice. You have to kill me. Carry through with your threat! As long as I can draw another breath I am going to keep sitting here, so you have to kill me! Do it. Bring it on!"
I knew my life wasn't really threatened here, but the symbolism was the same if you consider practice as dear as life, and I do.
So, I stood up to this internal bully and confronted the threat. This went on and on throughout this period of zazen. I sat there, yelling at this wrathful entity, challenging it to make good on it's threat. I was not going to back down. My sincerity was expressing itself as anger. At one point every muscle in my body was tense, my jaw was clenched, sweat was now rolling down my face along with the tears and snot.
Then, a surprise. I heard the most beautiful sound in the world when you are sitting sesshin: the bell. The sit was over. Dreams with Miyuki were now just a few minutes away, and I could now go lay down flat on my back, the one position left for me that I could get into for which my back didn't hurt.
This sit was the only one the entire time during which I was surprised by the bell. Usually I was convinced that the person keeping time was either inattentive or a sadist. Being surprised by the bell was truly a surprise.
This was the nadir, or the zenith, depending on your view, of my sesshin. If I'm asked to identify a reason I came, or what I got out of it, this is it. I came to know my own sincerity.
I came to know some other things too. I got to know Minnesota better (people are so nice!), some important members of my sangha better, and I resolved a question I had about whether I should still regard this place as my dharma home even though it is hundreds of miles from my actual home (I should, and I do).
But, beyond that, most important to me was that I came to know my own sincerity. I am in possession of a quality that Dogen, a 13th Century zen teacher and father of my denomination of zen, repeated said is absolutely essential to practice--a will to find the Truth.
This is Great Sincerity.
Next - Great Guys