[Tassajara monastery has no internet. I finished writing this letter in early October 2008, then I then sent it on a disk through the US postal service to my Mom, who emailed it out to a mailing list of friends]
Thank you for being the people in my life that I love and who love me.
To reiterate – I do not have email or interwebs access while I am here; I am sending this on a disk to my mom, who is posting it for me. Also, to reiterate – if you wanna read about the basics of how life is structured here on practice retreat at the Tassajara Zen monastery, for example the daily schedule, please read my letter-essays from past years.
So: I am sending this off one month into the first of two back-to-back three-month meditation and Zen practice retreats that I am doing here at the Tassajara Zen monastery.
The group for this retreat has a little over forty monks in it, which fewer than the sixty to eighty who were here when I have been here for ninety-day retreats in the past. This means that all groups of monks (the work crews, the meal serving crews, the kitchen crew, etc) are on a smaller scale. We’ve had a number of people coming and going, which is fine, but I also find that I liked better the tighter container that I experienced in past years (i.e., where everyone who is here at all is here no less than the full three months).
Most people here seem to know each other, from having worked together here this last Summer (Tassajara is a Zen resort in the Summer, Zen monastery in the Winter), if not from earlier acquaintance. Since six years ago was the last time that I lived at any of the SF Zen Center temples, when I got here I was familiar with just a handful of the people that are also here. Most of those people are high-ranking priest types who have been around Zen Center for a long time. Most of the other folks here have been new meetings for me. This has felt awkward and difficult at times – the full schedule of meditation and work here is easier, I have found, with established social connection.
As when I have been at this monastery in the past, I am loving many aspects of living here. I have loved the general tightness and cleanness of life here, for example doing so many things that are difficult each day gets me in the habit of taking care of the stuff I need to, whether I feel like it or not. I have been loving all the sitting and walking meditation, the clean wilderness air, the healthy food, talking about Buddhism with people, spiritual book-reading and lectures, going to bed at the same early time each night, and being totally off of email and the internet. And, also as when I have been here in the past, I am also missing and feeling the absence of my friends, my music, my freedom, and, well, of email/the internet.
As many friends might know, there were wildfires last July that burned much of the wilderness area around Tassajara, and would probably have burned down the monastery if not for the efforts of a legendary group of five heroic priests who stayed behind when the flames roared in from three sides and the fire crews pulled back. So, now, much of the hillside around the monastery valley, rather than being the rippling sea of deciduous green that I had grown used to, is charred, stripped raw, brown, and dead. And, going forward, the state forest service experts say that when it rains hard, there won’t be live vegetation to anchor down the steep hillsides, and so more rainwater will flow down the slopes and into the creeks. It may be a lot more, and it might take some dead tree trunks with it (which might get caught in draws and create temporary dams that would back up the creeks, which would then break with a giant cascading wave roaring down the valley, also known as THE FULL FURY OF MOTHER NATURE’S WRATH). So, our first week here, we had an emotional meeting about it all, where the senior staff told us about the plans that they’ve been drawing up, and also told us that, apparently, Zen Center’s lawyer has been wanting us to get out of here before any heavy rains come. Since then, there have been some guys coming in from other Zen temples, and a crew of fifteen construction dudes in from Monterrey, building retaining walls, deepening creek beds, doing other projects, so as to protect the buildings from mudslides and floods. Meanwhile, Tassajara Creek seems so cute and innocent right now as it burbles along …
I was assigned a room in “The Dorm”, in the middle of the temple grounds, which is right over the study hall, and across from the Zendo (meditation hall). I was pleased with this; I have coveted a room in the Dorm when I have been here before because of its central location, and because rooms there are newer – which means that they are cleaner and, wonder of wonders, also have heat and electricity. I love hanging out in my room – it’s my li’l sanctuary here. My room there is so small, however, that I can barely do a standing yoga pose on my open floor space.
My work assignment this go-round is to be a kitchen monk, which is apparently something folks eventually do if they are here for enough retreats. It’s kind of a deal, in that the kitchen crew’s way-of-life and schedule is in many ways separate and distinct from the rest of the monks’. It feels good to work hard, and to so tangibly see that I am serving the rest of the community. It’s a pleasure to be active and physical, lifting heavy soup pots and jumbo-sized cans all day (I am looking good with shirt off), and it’s a welcome rest for my injured knees to be standing up more (i.e. not sitting in cross-legged meditation posture so many hours a day). Being on kitchen crew also makes the life here easier because it means getting enough to eat (our meal procedure is more leisurely then the general populations’) and getting more sleep (we have a little more free time than the common monks, but, more to the point, we have it in one big chunk between lunch and dinner, which allows for long afternoon siestas).
The kitchen is also hard work, though. My feet, calves, and shoulders ache at the end of some days, and my hands are covered with little burns and cuts. It’s also messy, I have food splattered everywhere on my work clothes. And all the flies, rodents, and mold in the kitchen took some getting used to.
My three previous retreats here all spanned from January to April, moving from freezing cold winter into a warm spring. Before arriving here in September this time, I did not know what sort of weather to expect. For my first week, the weather was hot all day and warm all night, and it has mostly stayed warm since, which was a new experience for me here. And, as someone who generally enjoys being hot, and who usually lives in San Fracrtica, it was bliss for me to fall asleep at night in an eighty degrees haze.
The problem was, the warm seems to correlate with swarms of houseflies, vast flotillas of em, buzzin around everywhere as soon as the sun warms up the valley. From watching the other monks, it appeared to me like the standard practice here is to just let the flies be – let em be on the kitchen pots, pans, and cutting boards, let em be in our food bowls, and let em be on our hands, neck, and face.
I can see the value of this, similar to allowing and being willing to feel bodily pain while sitting in the meditation hall. Often, when we are willing to fully and openly feel to what we formerly blindly reacted to, pushed away, and were repulsed by, the world we live in becomes more patient, open, full, and liberated. When feeling a fly tickle the back of my neck, feeling that tickle and just letting it be, I have felt calmer and more spacious. I sometimes remember, though, what my mama told me growing up, that flies spread disease, and then I swat them away. But, it never seems possible to keep them away for very long.
At one point while baking cookies in the kitchen, I had a bunch of flies resting on my scalp, neck, face, and arms, and I was, as the saying goes, “being with it”. I then looked down to see a couple of them on my forearm, fucking. So, this is what it’s come to: my left arm, an anthropodic honeymoon suite. At that moment, I was reminded me of the section in the David Chadwick’s Zen travelogue book “Thank You And OK“, where he described sitting in the meditation hall in a Japanese Zen temple, while sizable, lethally poisonous Japanese centipedes crawled over and inside the monks’ robes. He did as he was trained, which was to sit perfectly still and let the deadly centipedes do their thing. He wrote that, on reflection, he found this to be a valuable exercise, but he was also thinking to himself, “Ummm … hell of a spiritual path we’ve got going here …”
Anyway, the temperature has, predictably, been getting progressively colder here. One recent morning, the thermometer reveled below freezing readings, and I was actually warmer in our walk-in refrigerator than I was in the kitchen. I have missed wearing short sleeves on days like that – but have not missed the swarms of flies.
“Once you connect all the parts of your conscious and unconscious mind, develop yourself to a certain level, and become authentic and transparent, you are likely to feel a connection to a sense of grief inside of you. Following the grief down can become a source of fantastic enthusiasm for your life, and it can lead to a feeling of connection, groundedness, and purpose that most people are not in touch with. It is mature to allow all of these parts of you to be connected together, wherever they may lead you. Grief is often the doorway to deeper feeling.”
— Robert Bly
There is quote that I find intriguing, I think it’s by Stanton Peele or Milton Erickson, and it is that “all psychotherapy is grief work”. It’s an interesting way of looking at things, that all you’re ever really doing in therapy is learning how to open up and let go of what’s already gone. For example, just about everyone that I know seems to have weaknesses and wounds whose source is acceptance, understanding, caring, and/or safety that they wanted and needed at some point in childhood, but didn’t get – this has become more and more obvious to me, the more I work with people. Most of us also have things that happened last year, or last week, that are still sticking with us, consciously or unconsciously. Psychotherapy helps us to see, first off, that most of our problems in the present have their roots in what we are still reacting to from our past, and second, to see, hey, the past is *over* – we will never be able to negotiate a better past for ourselves. To be healthy adults, therapy helps us to let go and open up, cry our tears and express our rage, and eventually come to accept the past the way it is (and to accept the present the way it is). This process, of course, leaves us more conscious, free, and otherwise able to make healthy choices as we create our future.
I find it equally intriguing to consider the idea that “all meditation is grief work”. That might not strictly be true, but some classic Buddhist scriptures do kinda say that, stating that “meditation is how one releases worldly karma” – in other words, using the fullness of the present moment to untangle past experiences that were not fully digested or worked through at the time. One difference in the process, however, is that the way one gets clear in verbal psychotherapy often happens in a way that the mind can understand, while, on the meditation cushion, purification occurs in a nonverbal way, for example through a meditator being patient and open with the weird itchy doesn’t-hurt-and-yet-I can’t-stand-it feelings that arise if we sit still for long enough. There are many other differences as well, of course, such as the fact that, in true meditation, we may start by getting complete with the argument that we had last week, and then move on to getting complete with the time in second grade when that wierd thing happened, but it’s eventually more about getting complete with infinity falling asleep and getting caught in time and space …
Anyway, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross did the classic work of delineating the stages of grieving: first denial and ignoring, then anger and blame, then bargaining and ruminating, then sadness and tears, and then, finally, acceptance, release, and integration. I notice that it’s relatively easy in everyday city life to be in the denial, anger, or bargaining stages of the process of letting go of things, to run around from place to place without fully emotionally getting complete with all the big and little emotional impacts that life makes on us. But, the reason why I come to monasteries like this one is that: sitting still, I strip away the busy-ness, the social-image management, the striving, and the distraction of my normal life, and then all of that I have not fully worked through catches up with me – all of my incomplete emotion bubbles up, little bit by little bit, and I burn it off, through sitting still and being willing to fully and totally experience whatever is happening for me in the moment.
There is a metaphor that I came up with about this process for the meditation class that I teach, which is: if you had a house where the water flowed only though certain main set of pipes, but that water always seemed slightly unclean, you might hire someone to blow high-pressure water through the whole system, so to clean it out. And, as the high pressure water cleaned out the rarely-used back channels and loops, where algae and rust had built up, your whole water system would be flooded with gross funk for a while. You might say, “this is awful – I wanted cleaner water, not super-extra nasty water.” But, if you were patient with the cleaning process, and let it do its thing, eventually all the goo would work its way out, and your daily water would be cleaner. Doing a process like that, again and again, is what I think meditation retreats are like. In meditation, the extra dirty water part is an experience of sitting on a cushion in the meditation hall and feeling painful overwhelm and confusion – stripping things so far down that you forget your own name or even that you are a human being in the mind-fuck of it all – that’s a sign that you’re clearing old slime out of the pipes.
Wanting to do that sort of deep clean is the biggest reason why, five years ago, I set it in my mind to come do this monastery journey. And a desire to do that sort of deep clean is why I have said no twice before, in 2000 and 2003, to working in the kitchen here. Kitchen monks here at Tassajara spend a lot of time, well, working in the kitchen, and so we miss a lot of the scheduled meditation time – most of the other monks sit meditation an average of about six hours a day and work an average of around two-and-a-half hours, while kitchen monks average about three hours of meditation a day and work an average of five. So, I see saying “yes” to the request to be in the kitchen this time as a sacrifice in terms of doing the inner work that I came here to do. In fact, so far, there have been a number of days where I have worked in the kitchen for ten hours without much of a break, and then also attended a ceremony or a lecture, and I wouldn’t have meditated that day at all, if I hadn’t sat on a cushion on my bed in my room during my precious sleep hours, after lights-out.
Not only am I sitting meditation less being a kitchen monk, but, also, the kitchen is a busy place, with lots of deadlines, and sometimes, literally, juggling and keeping an eye on two, three, five things at once. There is also something of a banzai/kamikaze die-for-the-cause ethos, for example none of us have taken any time off for the various colds that we’ve had. The kitchen leaders sometimes have told the rest of us about how we are understaffed, how much there is to do, how we have extra work to do feeding all the construction workers, and how we should speed up. And, since I have not so much general cooking experience, and since the Tassajara kitchen is a complex machine with many established procedures, when I first arrived the fukiden and tenzo (kitchen crew chief and head of the kitchen, respectively) were giving me a hundred thousand and one instructions, comments, and corrections per day (and that number is exact, by the way).
Almost all of the constant input was fine, I just did what they told me, or I asked for clarification. Unlike everyone else in the kitchen, though, who had been living together here at Tassajara for years, I was a new face for them when I got here. So, maybe they wanted to make sure that I got the rules and knew that they are the authorities – or maybe my energy was still dialed up to the city, not down to the monastery, and needed some turning down – either way, I seem to have gotten a whole bunch of extra attention, instructions, feedback, rules, and control. There were times when I felt young, small, and dominated, which sometimes lead me to act in an angry and defiant manner. And that sometimes seemed to attract negative attention on me, in a way that felt super-sucky, and so the kitchen sometimes felt like a humiliating prison.
This has been the most stressful thing about being here for me – in fact, it’s basically been the only stressful thing, so far. The dysfunctional family-hell I have sometimes felt while working in the kitchen has contrasted with peaceful, spacious, dignified, present feeling that I have felt when I have been in the meditation hall, or the cozy feeling I have felt when in my room.
All this intense anger and other emotions, plus busting ass to get the lunch salad done by serve up time, working in interlocking systems with other kitchen monks, chopping onions with a razor-sharp knife has made the kitchen, unlike the meditation hall, often not seem like a place where I can break it down deep meditative style. It’s not a place where I can let my mind open up and melt away to the point where I don’t remember my name, where I can let the house’s water run extra dirty for a while as I clean out the system, where I can take the watch apart and spread the gears on the table before I clean them and put them back together, where I can strip the house down to the its base to re-cement cracks in the foundation, where I can be the caterpillar dissolving in the chrysalis before being the butterfly – whatever metaphor you wanna use for deep meditative work.
“Everything that happens to you is stored away in the mind in some form, mental or emotional. During normal activity, you get so caught up in the press of events that the basic issues with which you are dealing are seldom thoroughly handled. They become buried in the unconscious, where they seethe and foam and fester. Then you wonder where all that tension came from. All of this material comes forth in one form or another during your meditation. You get a chance to look at it, see it for what it is, and let it go We withdraw from those events which constantly stimulate the mind. We back out of all the activity that prods the emotions. We go off to a quiet place and we sit still, and it all comes bubbling out. And then, it’s gone, and we are freed from it.”
— Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, in “Mindfulness In Plain English“
There are however times where I feel some unpacking or untangling happening. There have been unguarded moments where I have suddenly felt sad, for many reasons all at once, or for no real reason. These experiences have felt like grieving or letting go, in a positive way.
I think that one thing that I sometimes feel sad about is getting older – I am going to turn forty while I am here. It’s beautiful in a way, but, it’s a letting go in another. I am feeling aware of the limited time I have left, and how much there is that I want to do. And other times I have these poignant flashbacks to moments that I have had at Burning Man, and it’s like, if while we’re out there, being human is capable of being that free, open, loving, happy, deep, self-expressive, trustworthy, creative, sexy, delightful, beautiful, and pleasant, then why can’t all of life be like that.
I wrote a long thingee a few years back about how going to Burning Man is completely the mirror opposite of coming here for ninety day retreats. I also listed the many ways that I think that both experiences are remarkably similar. Well, one more way that the two experiences are similar is: the first time I visited each of em (1995 for BM, and 1999 for the monastery), I didn’t really choose much about my experience, it was more like holding on for dear life as the deep and transformative psychological space of the place took me over, overwhelmed me, and took me on its ride; whether I was ready for it or not, both places blew me more open, larger, deeper, and more alive in ways I hadn’t even known were possible.
Well, having attended BM twelve times now, and now back here at Tassajara for my fourth long-term monastic stay, I find that neither brings the same easy rush – the places by themselves don’t do it for me as much anymore. For both of em, now, getting the most out of it is more of a case of me being intentional and generating my own experience: deciding what my context is for being there (“why am I choosing to come here again?”, “what do I want to get out of being here?”, “who am I going to be while here?”), and what practices am I going to take on so as to create the experience I want for myself (for example, daily meditation at BM, daily yoga and being sure to be on time for things here).
And I am finding that, being here, surprise surprise, some of the same basic good habits in the outside world seem to apply to being intentional about making the most of my time here: being brave and clear in asking for what I want, making good, intentional use of my free time, cultivating conscious gratitude for what’s good in my life, verbally expressing appreciation to people when I feel it, and keeping my word with myself.
At the times when things were at their most tough in the kitchen, I started asking myself: “Why *am* I here? How does this fit in to my life goals? Is this experience moving me more towards being the person that I am aiming to be? Why am I paying almost three thousand dollars to work my ass off at what feels like a demanding and sometimes demeaning full-time job here in the kitchen?”
My great friend Kevin O’Malley emailed me last year and said, “Your gifts are rare, your time on this earth is short, and your time is precious” – I love love love that. Kevin also emailed me a couple years ago and gave me this excellent input: “From my perspective, it is a simple matter of the goals that you set for your life. You have set them very clearly: a home, wife and children, income to cover all of the previous doing something like corporate coaching business, teaching, writing … Committing yourself to actions that support these goals (and taking those actions) is what will make any of that happen. That means that any actions that support your goals are good actions and are in integrity for you. Any actions that do not support your goals are wasteful and out of integrity … so, do whatever is necessary.” As Kevin reflected, having a successful career in personal growth and having a family when I get back are so important to me that I want to be sure to “get it”, whatever “it” is, from my time here, so that I live happily ever after when I get back to the Bay. I want my time here to leave me ready to fly, not drag me down.
As I said, I feel like I came here with a bag of karma on my back that I wanted to work out – I came here intending to sit in silence to unpack and untangle. Instead, I found myself in an intense caldron of work and emotions in the kitchen here, feeling like I was taking on more karma, jamming more stuff into the already heavy bag on my back, backing my vibe up with more incomplete emotions to untangle or unpack later. It’s like, yet again, feeling like I have felt a lot in the last few years, while I saved money for this trip: waiting for my real life to start.
I also think that in life there is a time for everything – we don’t eat a big meal right after finishing a big meal, and we don’t go to sleep for eight hours right after we wake up in the morning – and I have been dealing with intense people and work stuff for the past few years, and I came here for something different, something more chill and reflective. So, there have been moments when I have considered leaving here to “make better use of my time”, maybe find a different monastery where I actually meditate in silence all day.
I remember, though, that each time that I have been here in the past, there have been times when I have wanted to leave, and I have always been glad that I have seen it all the way through. I also trust that the positive transformative experience of a Buddhist monastic period is not always apparent while one is in it; sometimes, I think that maybe it’s best to let go of being intentional, and simply give myself over to it, just like the first time I was here. And, also, I know that some of the goals that I set for myself before I came here were to cultivate patience and focus in the face of difficulties and challenges.
In general, the Zen thing is: if life deals us work-and-people issues, then that’s what’s happening right now, and that’s what we deal with – that’s what there is for us to be intentional about. My teacher Paul Haller, the abbot, told me years ago: “The things that are in the way are The Way”. He told me last week, the kitchen is where I am right now, so that’s where my practice is. People at Zen Center talk about the kitchen as a great place of Buddhist practice, although a challenging and unconventional practice. So: “it is what it is”, as the saying goes, and I have been dealing with it. If life deals you lemons, why not kill someone, perhaps by shoving lemons down their throat … wait, no – it’s, why not make – oh you know what I mean.
It reminds me of some excellent input my AWESOME friend Mark Lewis sent me a few years back about being mindful while working as a computer programmer. He said, “How can you use your work AS your meditation? … How can you use the relationships with people at work as a laboratory to study how you experience people? … I believe that THIS is what will make you not only a great meditation/spiritual teacher, but a relevant one. I assert that what twenty-first century USA needs is NOT another meditation teacher who teaches the type of meditation a person learns in a monastery, but a teacher who teaches people to use their consumer/commercial/corporate lives AS their practice. Few people can relate or project their lives onto a monastic life, but virtually everyone can relate to the attractions/aversions/indifference of relationships/money/health/work/and ‘the man.'”
Word up on the Mark Michael Lewis tip. I think that his thoughts are a good context for my remaining nine weeks in the kitchen here.
So, I have been doing my best to learn and grow from my time in the kitchen. Basically, as in all other areas of life, I feel like there are two ways for me to grow: (1) to take the parts of myself that I would call “negative masculine” energy (defensiveness, blame, resentment, over-hardness, withdrawal, criticism, impatience) and transform them into “positive feminine” energy (compassion, understanding, openness, relaxation, cooperation, generosity, connection, warm heartedness), and (2) to take my “negative feminine” energy (depression, feeling beaten down, not asking for what I want, feeling small, feeling too invaded by other people’s feelings) and transform them into “positive masculine” energy (figuring out what I need in this situation and asking for it, believing one hundred percent in my right to be me, strength, dignity, putting a strong boundary between my experience of being me and other’s feelings and opinions, trusting myself and figuring out how to do things in the kitchen on my own rather than asking too many questions).
And now, after having worked there for a full month, things are better in the kitchen than they were. Part of it may be me chilling out, getting into the monastery vibe rather than the city vibe, the longer that I am here. And part of it may be that, as time has gone on, the authorities in the kitchen have gotten to know me more, they have trusted me more, and they have given me less petty control and micromanagement. Part of it may also be the off-duty-time chats that I have been seeking out and having with the other people in the kitchen, chats that feel open, raw, vulnerable, challenging, and difficult – but have also felt alive, positive, and productive (somewhere along the way, I seem to have developed some pretty dope communication and processing skills). And, part of it may be that, as time has gone on, I more and more I know what I am doing in the kitchen, and that has meant the more I can just get into the flow of what I am doing in silence without a lot of talking, which has meant being able to do my best to meditate while working.
While I have not been that able to do that much of the classic formal meditation-in-action techniques like resting awareness on my breath, or noticing where in my body I feel sensations, while I work, what I have been practicing with while working in the kitchen has been (1) posture practice – tucking sacrum and shoulder blades down, and lifting up with the sternum and the crown of the head, (2) repeating mantras like “I am a finite fragment of the infinite” while I work, (3) my Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal’s general instructions to me to “relax”, (4) my teacher Leslie James’ instructions to me (given during an interview here last week where I talked to her about my experience in the kitchen) that all of my intense feelings there are *my* feelings to feel, even if it looks like someone else “caused” them, and that one way I can go deep in the kitchen is just to be willing to deeply and fully feel emotions in my body whatever I do, and (5) little meditations that I make up on the spot that help keep my energy open and moving.
Today as I cooked breakfast (at 4:10 am), the tenzo (head of the kitchen) called me “my dear” and “sweetie”, and hugged me a bunch. Word. In general, the last few days have been peaceful, smooth days in the kitchen, where everything went fine and I mostly just worked in silence. I have been keeping a mantra going in my head all day: “I am dignity and presence, I am emptiness and subjectivity” – I silently subvocalized that mantra, again and again, yesterday, as I made 120 peanut butter cookies, dried five racks of dishes, and wok-ed up twenty five gallons of kale. “Dignity and presence” was who I was choosing to be as a person, and “emptiness and subjectivity” was more of a “spiritual” recollection. FWIW, “Emptiness” (“shunyata”) is Buddhist-speak for the fundamental basis of all things – you could say that it is the background against which the imminent manifest world that we live in, transcendent Spirit/Divinity that is the source of life, all of everything everywhere, appears.
Bottom line, on a simple dumb-monkey level: since things are more chill for me in the kitchen now, and since they even feel spacious and “spiritual” at times, my wanting to say “fuck this bullshit” and leave here seems to have gone away too. In fact, I have been having some fantasies about coming back to Tassajara for the September 2009 through April 2010 monastic season. The whole episode reminds me of how, many years ago, getting trained to volunteer on a suicide hot line, I was told that most people who consider or attempt suicide don’t actually wanna die, they just want the pain to end. I also once read a book, David Richo’s “How To Be An Adult In Relationships”, that said a similar thing about relationships: many marriages/LTRs that end don’t need to fully end when they do, they just need a break for the acute pain to subside.
I am envisioning friends writing and telling me that it sounds like the kitchen is the perfect place for me to be at this time, so yeah save it bitches. 🙂
Anyway, on the upside, I have been told that if I stick around for the second ninety-day retreat here this winter, the January-April one, that my work assignment will be the “Doan Ryo”. That’s kinda a position of honor – being trained in priestly tasks like ringing ceremonial bells, announcing chants in a deep sonorous “Zen” voice, supervising a food serving crew, running ceremonies, training new monks in basic tasks, fun shit like that. And, I’ll sit meditation just as much as anyone else. Cool. But that is assuming that we aren’t washed away down the valley or buried under rockslides by then, since the hard rain season here is December through February …
“It is flat-out strange that something – that anything – is happening at all. There was nothing, then a Big Bang, then here we all are. This is extremely weird.”
— Ken Wilber
I am so so happy with how the two Arabic/belly dance chill mixes that I slapped on the web right before I left turned out (hey it’s cool that you asked, and YES! they are available for download). According to the personality theory The Enneagram, it is a sign of mental health for my personality type (the “five”) to actually finish creative projects, let em go, and put em out there for other people to see. Cool. When I first got here, though, my mind carried with it the momentum of what I had been doing right before I got here, making those mixes – so my thoughts were convoluted with all the other mixes I wanna make – what style, how to organize it, and in what order. That shit’s gonna have to wait a while, of course …
When I first got here, my mind also repeatedly gave some ponders to what I will do after I leave here. Those thoughts have faded with time, but I do predict that my time here will be over in a flash, and it will be time for the next thing. It’s kinda like how, when I was younger, I noticed that the first time I went out running on a new route, it seemed like it went on forever and ever. But, the fiftieth or hundredth time I ran the same route, I set out running and – boop – suddenly I was home. It’s like, time slows down when you are faced with the unfamiliar, but goes more quick when you are doing the same ol’ thing. So it is with Tassajara – my first month here back in 1999 felt like it lasted for years. But my time here this time seems mostly to be hummin right along, the six months are already a sixth over.
My thinking about future plans is kinda contingent on money. I started this travel journey with about half the money that I thought, as recently as six months ago, that I would have. The reasons are, the upper management at Schwab totally failed approving funding for the three-month Summer programming contract that I had a verbal agreement with their research department to do, and also I took a risk and left two-thirds of my traveling money in equities, and it lost twenty percent of its value in the recent economic crash-and-burn.
And yet here I am, going on my monastic adventures, five years after deciding that I would do so; and I am going to finally set sail for a tour of Asia, fifteen years after getting that idea. And, with no big commitments in life, and all my stuff jammed in storage, I have decided that this is my time to really *go for it*. I have decided that I am OK with coming back to the Bay Area in two years with five-figure debt, if that’s what it takes. Obviously, not so pleased about the idea of debt, but, that’s the way it all goes down in the big city some times.
“He who knows himself knows God.”
— St. Clement
* I was bumming before I got here that the strained tendon in my left knee from earlier in the year was not getting any better. Combined with the long-time patella tendon problems in my right knee, I was worried that sitting cross-legged in the meditation hall would be a bitch. But a couple people recommended to me this supplement “Glucosamine/Condroitin”, which helps with joint and ligament health. I tried it, and the shit has been working like magic. So, during meditation periods, I have been sitting cross legged exclusively (no chair), with no more knew pain than I’ve had in the past. And, just two days ago, I sat in full lotus (cross legged, with both feet on opposite thigh) for ten minutes straight for the first time in my life. Magnifique! So, if you have joint/ligament issues … I recommend checking Glucosamine out.
* As is true whenever I am on meditation retreat, my dreams here have been vivid and intense, and I sometimes wake up here feeling all – what’s the word – magical, shaken up, moved, deep … I don’t know how to describe it. Lots of you my friends have been making cameo appearances – thanks for stopping by.
* Veganism is kind of a deal when the times I was here five years ago, but it’s really a deal here now.
* We read for an hour here each day. I am reminded how much I like reading Ken Wilber’s writings. And whoever it was that told me to read the Chuck Palahniuk short story “Guts” (I forget who it was): you’re a sick fuck.
* Each night before I go to bed, I have been writing down three things that I am grateful for, which has felt good.
* We are instructed to spend our three months here without any form of music, but I often sing during the times that I am alone – in my room, walking along a path, in the bath house if I feel certain that there is no one else there, and in the walk-in refrigerator getting vegetables. The top songs that pop into my head to sing: “My Name Is Jonas” Weezer, “So Good It Hurts” The Mekons, “99 Problems” Jay-Z, “Angels Fallen” The Darling Buds, “Shady Hands” Swoon 23, “Love Is A Stranger” The Eurythmics (what?), and “Where Does The Good Go” Tegan And Sara.
The song of the month, though, the one I hella can’t get out of my head: “Got To Give It Up” Marvin Gaye. It’s either weird, or maybe not weird at all, that I am living a totally constrained, alone life in a monastery and keep on singing to myself, “Move your body, baby / and dance all night / do that grooving / feel all right”, or “I used to go out to parties / and hang around / cuz I was too nervous / to really get down / but my body, yeah / yearned to be free” or “No more standing / on the side wall / I have got myself together, baby / and I am havin a ball”
One of the rules here is to always wear traditional black Zen-style robes to the meditation hall. The robe that I wore in past years always looked a li’l funny on me – I bought it years ago from someone who was a lot taller than me. Also, it was sun-faded in spots, deep black faded to a purple-maroon.
So, about six months ago, I sent off a bunch of measurements and a check for $250 to a Zen priest in North Carolina. And – with the aid and abetment of the United States Postal Service – she just hooked me up! It looks so damn sharp – made just for me.
My new robe! Don’t I look an actual real monk? Now that’s what I call REAL ULTIMATE POWER.
“Practice the wound of love. Real love hurts; real love makes you totally vulnerable and open; real love will take you far beyond yourself; and, therefore, real love will devastate you. If love does not shatter you, you do not know love.”
— Ken Wilber, “Grace and Grit”
As many of you know, the spiritual/tantra teacher David Deida says that the deepest essence of the masculine energy in all people is pure aware consciousness for which the priority in life is mission/purpose, and that the deepest essence of the feminine energy in all people is love, for which the priority is relationships. Sometimes I think that there is something pretty strongly feminine in me, given how central love and relationships sometimes get to be for me.
Two of the three times I was here before, I came here alone, but also had a girlfriend back in SF, living in our shared house. In both cases, the girlfriend (and life back in the city in general) were on my mind, kinda all day every day. It created a certain fiery burning feeling to being here, a passion for the meditation practice that came from a need to somehow improve, purify, and focus myself, so that I deserved respect and love – or something like that. I was also feeling an impatience to return to San Francisco, to get back to connection, dating, and love as fast as possible. The days on the calendar dragged by so slowly. Also, I was constantly obsessed with the mail: did the supplies truck arrive today, did they put the new incoming mail in the boxes yet, maybe I got a letter today, let me calculate what day will she will probably get that letter that I sent.
This time around, I have more of a peaceful feeling. The days seems to go more rapidly, and I don’t care about mail (as much as I love y’all, and as much as my heart has been pleased by the letters that I have gotten here so far, sorry but it’s not at all the same as getting a love letter). My last real relationship ended ten months ago, my heart got pretty deeply engaged in it, and I had fantasies all Summer about getting back together with her again; also, I was interested in other ladies in the past year too (you know who you are). But, as much as I sometimes wanted to be partnered up in the past year, I am now appreciating not having had a recent love affair – it’s less of that burning feeling, less of a feeling like some part of me is missing out there somewhere over the hills, and more feeling like all of me is whole and just simply here.
Sometimes, of course, I feel a longing to have a special lady friend – but usually I am feeling just happy to be me as is, and I am feeling a trust that kind of fun will come my way again when the time is right. I more have felt a loneliness in terms of not knowing people here – feeling, especially when I first got here, like many of the people here around me here knew each other but didn’t know me, and missing having people to share impolite observations with, joke with, or simple chat with.
I think that there are not many people who use the SF Zen Center the way that I do, which is as a place to stop by every few years and live in for a while. I think that the vast majority of people who engage with the SF Zen Center don’t live here, they just attend a lecture or take a class or do a week-long retreat, and then go back to their civilian life. And then there are a small number of people who love it here, and get all into it, and, for a year or fifty years, the world of Zen Center becomes their home, their career, their family/community, and the central focus of their life. It’s not either of those for me, though – as I said, it’s more like a place to come and, episodically, do intensive, committed visits. But that means that, every time I come back here to Zen Center after being away for a while, there’s this transition period of feeling different and separate as I get to know all the new folks who are living here now.
I think that part of it also is me being aloof or reserved. I have noticed that the way my brain works is, I don’t seem to like or respect anyone when I first meet them (with the exception of a few females I have had deep love affairs with, and a few other females that I imagine I could – but those are about the only people I have liked immediately when meeting them).
Also, I remember lying around and having a deep conversation with Karin Werthiem and Thomas Boutte one hot afternoon in the Conexus dome at Burning Man 06. We came up with a way of describing my personality that I have used a lot since – I am like a garden filled with rare lovely flowers, deep wells of pure water, intricate machines that can do amazing powerful things, little altars with inlaid woodwork – and the garden has these big spikey walls around it to stop animals from getting in and stomping all over things. In my coaching training last year, Guy Sengstock suggested to me finding ways to “toughened up” the insides of the garden without losing its depth beauty power and wonderfulness, so as to be able to receive visitors more easily without needing the spikey walls. It’s like a request that many people have made to me over the years: “I’d love it if you would be the person that you are when you are teaching your meditation class, out in everyday life more.” Guy also observed that I so clearly care about and enjoy connecting deeply and easily with people, and yet, there is this thing, or things, that have seemed to get in the way. He suggested that some time it might be useful for me to take a poll of my friends as to what you think gets in the way of simply connecting with me, what I might be doing that makes it more complicated, how you feel when that thing happens, and how connecting might go easier … so, ummmm, yeah, maybe someday I’ll ask you that. 🙂
And yet, I have all these friends. I have enjoyed the shout outs that I have gotten from folks in the outside world since I have arrived here; little brief moment of feeling human and connected through getting a letter have reminded me of who I am at my best a few times that I have forgotten. You, the people of my life are in my heart, and, in a way, you could say that you are my life.
I also find myself ambivalent about communicating with folks back home more, though, or writing more letters like this one; some part of me feels like it’s best just to fully be here while I am here. I am reminded of some work that I was doing with Guy last summer, about breaking a narcissistic addiction to being seen, listened to, watched, to attention, to wanting to be gotten, wanting to impress people, and wanting to be understood. What if I don’t get as much attention and connection as I want, what then – finding peace in that, being comfortable with that. My teacher Gil said last Summer that maybe one meaning of the journey that I am on could be exploring and growing comfortable with aloneness, the same way as Buddhist monks we explore and grow comfortable with all other mind states.
And right before I got here, my great friend Bill Press, with his extensive experience with Zen retreats, wrote me and said, “i also wanted to offer something to try on, a question to consider: what would it be like if you took some time, maybe a ninety-day retreat, or even a year, to set aside the writing altogether? don’t analyze your experience, don’t try to tell a story, don’t try to remember anything. what will happen if you set aside recording and analyzing your thoughts and experience? what will happen if adam steps aside? and what would it look like to set aside communicating with your family and friends for a little while? i suspect this would be something of a revolutionary experiment for you. i don’t know if it resonates, but i wanted to offer it.”
That is an interesting and provocative challenge from Bill, and I like it. I don’t think that I am exactly there just yet – I imagine that I will write another letter like this at some point in the next month. But I do think that a time will eventually come where I will let it all go for a while …
Leading up to the very day I left San Fran-disco, I was thinking to myself, regarding my friends who were upset at me leaving, “What’s wrong with all you drama queens acting like I am gonna be gone for so long – I’ll be back on the scene soon enough, you’ll see me around – just settle down and save the ‘you’ll be gone for so looong’ drama for your llama.” But yeah it looks like maybe I really am on the road – it’s looking like I really have no home, like Casa Precita (my home for the past eleven years) really is gone forever – like I really am a wondering monk for now, I really have set sail, I really have cut loose, and maybe really I will gone for a while. Yup.
In the meantime … thank you for being the people in my life that I love and who love me.
Paz, amor, amistad, y suerte,