"Mindfulness and Meditation allow us to open our hearts, relax our bodies, and clear our minds enough to experience the vast, mysterious, sacred reality of life directly. With Practice we come to know for ourselves that eternity is available in each moment.

Your MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call:
Musings on Life and Practice
by a Longtime Student of Meditation

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

When You Wish Upon a Star

"What you are looking for is already in you…You already are everything you are seeking."
-- Thich Nhat Hanh
"The real meditation practice is how we live our lives from moment to moment." 
-- Jon Kabat-Zinn

Sometimes, it seems like a previous lifetime.  
Almost twenty years ago, I sat on the front porch of a rustic A-frame perched on a ridge overlooking the campus of Zen Mountain Monastery. It was nearing midnight.  Inside, my housemates, also in Zen Training at ZMM, were asleep.  
We''d all been up in time to walk down to the first meditation at 4:30 am that morning.   
Then, after a long full day, I'd walked up the ridge in the dark, alone.  As if a high pressure deadline day of producing a set of CD's during "work practice" wasn't enough, I had been assigned the service position of Evening Jikido.  I was in charge of ringing, banging, and clacking a collection of wooden blocks, bells, drums, and gongs to announce the evening service, time the meditation periods, lead the walking meditation, and close the service.  Then, as others headed back to their quarters, I had to straighten up the coffee service counter, clean out the coffeemakers, and set them up for morning coffee.  It was well after the obligatory "lights out" at 9:30 pm by the time I climbed back up the ridge.  Exhausted, I crawled into bed as soon as I arrived.  
I couldn't sleep. 

After about an hour, I  slowly and silently made my way outside into the crisp, clear,  mountain air.  There I Just Sat Still, breathing, and gazing into the deep blue-black infinity of a  star-filled Catskill Mountain sky.  
At that point, I knew ZMM wasn't working for me.  
Moving Right Along
Over the course of the past six months, it had become increasingly clear that the rigid, hard-driving, and unabashedly authoritarian nature of the Roshi's Eight Gates of Zen Residential Training didn't ring true to me.  For sure, I was grateful to have experienced some openings at ZMM and made some new friends.  Yet, to be honest, the community culture at Zen Mountain Monastery wasn't all that different than the outside world. It seemed like the same old story. Business as usual in a capitalist society.
At Zen Mountain Monastery there was a "big boss. " He ruled the roost and ran the show. His word was the law. He, his protege, and a few senior monk/supervisors told us what to do, when and how to do it.  Being a spiritual training program, they told us what to believe in, to boot.  (I was incredulous when one of the senior monks --who has since become a "transmitted" teacher -- snarled at me that Thich Nhat Hanh wasn't teaching Real Zen!  WTF?) 
The senior monk/supervisors, and the worker-bees put in long, often quite strenuous, days on a strictly timed schedule keeping the retreat center and grounds, publications operation, and the mail-order businesses going -- as well as attending the mandatory daily meditation periods and zen services. 
It was stressful. 
As well as our "work practice" assignments, we each were required to rotate through ritual service positions which could require intricate and demanding physical moves performed in public.  Supervisors and meditation hall monitors barked out orders and corrections, even during silent meditation practice.  We were "on," with very little down time between required activities, through days that began at 4:30 am and ended with lights out 9:30 pm.  
It was exhausting.   
Meanwhile, the Roshi, had his own space and seemed to come and go as he pleased.  He rarely was around at early morning meditations, communal mealtimes, or evening services.  He showed up in the Zendo to give talks on Sunday, to meet privately with students in Dokusan a few times a week, to preside over special ceremonies, and to hold court during the monthly sesshin.  Of course, as the Top Dog, he also met with his managers and the board when he thought it was necessary.  There was no doubt that this guy was in charge.  At one point during my residency, he unilaterally changed the entire organizational structure to conform more closely to what he had just come to believe was the structure of Dogen's medieval monastic community. 
The rest of the time (if he wasn't traveling to teach/recruit elsewhere, including New Zealand,) he appeared to hang out doing what he wanted to do in his modest, but spacious, home. It's large yard fronted on the Esopus, a beautiful mountain river.  As well being the Roshi, he was a pioneer digital photographer.  (The first iteration of ZMM was the Zen Arts Center that he founded on that site.)  
The couple of times I was sent down to do his yard work as "work practice," I saw that he had two state of the art Mac computers running .  As I picked up winter downfall and raked leaves, he spent hours and hours at the computer screens doing what he was doing.  He had articles, books, and interviews in publication.  His art was on the newly emerging world wide web. 
Right across the road, the rest of us were living communally in cramped quarters, spending hours in the zendo each day, and working away under the close, and sometimes verbally abusive supervision of the senior monk/department managers.  I was on a scholarship, but -- believe it or not -- folks were paying for the privilege of being in residence.
Looking back, I guess this was not a big surprise.  
We live in a capitalist society that prides itself as "democratic," yet operates in hierarchical,  authoritarian patterns.  There are inequalities of power and privilege in all areas of life. Our families, schools, churches, and workplaces are all set up that way.  But, unlike the usual workplace, where folks had the opportunity to bitch about things when the boss wasn't around,  those types of conversations didn't take place at the lunch table.  (Such behavior violated a number of the traditional Bodhisattva Training Precepts).  We also, couldn't look forward to punching out and going home -- although we did have a couple of days off schedule each week.
When I entered residency, I knew that this would be the deal.  I'd been involved in the community for over a year.  I already had spent a month in residence during the Fall Ango training period before entering residency in the Spring. Yet,  at the point that I entered -- at age 59 -- I thought that I might be able to suck it up and ride it through for a year's commitment. 

I was wrong. 
Toward the One
I had come of age in the late 60's and early 70's.Like many others, I was part of the widespread counter-cultural ferment of that era.  By the time I had graduated from college with the infamous Class of 1969, I had experienced altered states of consciousness (with the various medicines available).  I soon began an exploration of meditation and Eastern mysticism.  
I had a peak experience in 1972 that affirmed to me the existence of the One Love that is the ground of our being.  It was experienced with an outpouring of tears of joy and wonder at the Perfect Beauty embedded in the fabric of existence.  It only lasted for about twenty minutes or so. I wasn't on drugs at the time.  I was actually sitting at my desk writing up a lesson plan for the High School Civics class I was to teach the next day. 
It blew my mind.  It was beyond belief. 
By then, being the geek I am, I had poured through volumes of literature on the nature of mind and mysticism, including the scriptures of the world's religions and numerous commentaries . It had become clear to me that there was spiritual dimension of being that had been experienced by seers, sages, saints, avatars throughout the ages.  Intellectually, I had accepted that there was a direct experience of Divine Oneness at the heart of reality.  Now, I felt it in my bones.   
I now knew, in my heart of hearts, that we are not only all in this together -- we are all this, together!  

Unfortunately, even a trip to the Mountaintop wasn't enough to heal the deep wounds of a traumatic childhood.  Radicalized, I wasn't able to accept the American Dream as the path to happiness.  My marriage collapsed.  Addicted to romantic love,  there were more marriages and more kids. I  still experienced bouts of anxiety and depression. I suffered a number of serious "career" burnouts and returned to low status jobs as a matter of principle.
Yet through it all, I still continued to return to mediation.  I studied and practiced with a number of teachers, mostly in the Buddhist tradition.  I read extensively, corresponded and compared notes with kindred spirits.
So, when I was finally in a position to retire and become independently poor, I had followed the longstanding, and fundamentally disempowering convention that it was necessary for an "authority" to validate my own experience of the Sacred for it to be real.  I thought I still might be missing something essential

I wasn't. And, as best I can tell, neither are you!  
Does a Top Dog Have Buddhanature?
The most profound shortcoming I witnessed at Zen Mountain Monastery was the shared assumption that only the Teacher really knew what the Real Deal was -- and he had to transmit it to you.  It was also assumed that he knew you better than you knew yourself.  He was the one who could tell you what you should do to progress spiritually.
I realize that this might work well for some people for a time.  I honor that fact that the wisdom teachings have been passed on through the ages in this way.  I can bow deeply to Roshi and to all those who found this approach useful.  Yet, I've found that it doesn't work for me. 
In numerous heart to heart, eyeball to eyeball encounters with regular human beings, I'd seen for myself that Buddhanature is Universal. I'd experienced the Teacher in the guise of homeless alcoholics and grocery clerks.   I'd seen that we each have the onboard equipment to discern what is True for ourselves.  We each have the innate capacity to experience Communion with one another. 
Our hearts are an organ of perception. We just have to open up and be real with ourselves and one another.  If we do, we come to know that we are capable of deep generosity, kindness, compassion, care, vision, and wisdom.

This, of course, takes Practice.  There's a commitment and an effort to be made. Meditation and Mindfulness Practice have been invaluable to me in my aspiration to cultivate the open heart and clear mind needed to be Present.  
Power to the People
As a peace and social justice activist for decades, and in my years as a member of a peacemaking and conflict resolution collective, I had experienced the value in creating a safe, non-judgmental, compassionate space to share personal experiences.  I'd witnessed the healing power of facilitated explorations, and had been part of peer counseling groups.  There, deep listening, openness and honesty, and non-judgmental compassionate inquiry supported individuals to come to a deeper connection with themselves, with one another, and with the spiritual dimension of life that connects us all. I'd helped create such settings in my own work, and I'd spent time in retreat with Stephen Levine and, later, with Joanna Macy. 
In the Monastery, awash in the majesty of the Catskill Mountains, we had the perfect opportunity to meet together to share our experiences and compare notes on our lives and our practices.  There were almost thirty of us. On weekends, up to a hundred or so others would join us.  We were swimming in a pool of life experience and sincere spiritual inquiry. 
The "Eight Gates of Zen" didn't offer such settings.   There weren't regular structured opportunities to share personal experiences.  Such conversations weren't happening in the informal conversations around the dining table or during the breaks either.  The table talk was pretty much what you'd experience elsewhere.  Most of it was small talk.  Nobody was discussing the real issues in their life or -- god forbid --comparing notes on their spiritual experiences or meditation practices.  It simply wasn't done -- except, perhaps, surreptitiously, in hushed tones. The shared understanding was that such things were only to be discussed behind closed doors with the Teacher.  
What a freakin' waste! 
Now what???

I sat there that evening, absolutely clueless as to what I was going to do next.  I was used to spending a lot time Just Sitting Still, so I just relaxed into being Present.  I don't know how long I sat there.  
At a certain point, a line from the book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull came to mind.  "Just hang onto the wind and trust!" That very instant, a shooting star flashed across the night sky directly in front of my eyes.  As it disappeared into the tapestry of countless stars and fathomless blackness reaching overhead, I grinned.  I was ready to do just that.

I wish it was always that easy.  
The next morning I sought out my favorite senior monk, the Workmaster.  A former medical doctor, he ran the day to day to day operations of the Center.  He chided me a bit for bailing but, bless his heart, he eventually hugged me and wished me well. (He has since left the Monastery.) 

Coming hOMe

My tour of duty at Zen Mountain Monastery was, I think, the final time I barked my shins on the way up that particular wrong tree.  I have realized, in my bones, that the true spiritual journey for me was one of Connection, not separation from, what Zorba the Greek called the "full catastrophe"of Life.   When push comes to shove, I'm not seeking any more big bang experiences.  I no longer think of enlightenment that way.  Enough is enough.

Although I didn't have a clear idea of what it would like as I left ZMM, I knew in my heart of hearts that I just wanted to help out, to serve, to do my best to try to make this a kinder world.  This was nothing new, I've known that since I was a kid.  In launching off into the unknown, I was coming hOMe to my heart's deepest aspiration. 

What more could one wish for?
I'm gonna go Just Sit Still for awhile.

* I wrote about my take as a member of the Woodstock generation in "Woodstock Forever" for the Progressive a few years back.


Cie said...

Beautifully and Vulnerably said, Lance. Yes, as your contemporary in the eras you spoke of, I have come to the same conclusions. Our answers are within

Anonymous said...

AMEN 🙏❣️

Stephanie said...

I've heard this story of yours before, Lance, though I feel like I can tell how much of it you rewrote. It's much more vulnerable, touching, and fascinating. I often remember Pema Chodron talking about appreciating teachers who were open about their mistakes--often very serious mistakes--and then she's honest about how she once threw a rock at her husband on finding out that he'd been having an affair. The difficulties you describe here feel similar--honest, and clear that you've really been doing the work to connect the dots, and to do your best to try to make a kinder world.

Rickie said...

There’s so much about this blog post I like. Too much for me to note here every sentence that made me pause, and then re-read, but I will point to the sentence “Our hearts are an organ of perception.” I just love that. And you certainly were perceiving this experience with your heart and then, in the spirit of “swimming in a pool of life experience”, shared this in a way so as to invite me to consider how I best grow into my individual spirituality. For me, reading (and listening to) voices from the heart like yours helps me find my own voice. Thank you.

Lance Smith said...

Thanks for your kind words, Cie, and for the Anonymous Amen.

Stephanie, as always, its so good to hear from you! As a career editorial pro, and one of the original MMM CircleMates, I bet you can discern that there was some significant reflection and revision going on. 😘

The piece was first scribed in March of 2014 So,nine more years of life and practice (and several previous rewrites) have flowed under the bridge and over the dam.

With about 3105 more hours of morning meditation, about 1800 more Mindfulness Circles, almost 100 Be Still and Know one day retreats, and a couple of handfuls of personal 3 day fasting retreats, -- as well as 3285 more daily opportunities to be present "off the cushion" -- I would hope that I've been able to get a bit clearer and more open. LOL
One Love,
Lance 🙏❤️
PS. But who's counting? 😘

Lance Smith said...

I'm so glad that the piece resonated and was helpful, Rickie. Your Presence in the MMM Circles has made my heart glow. I feel really blessed to share Practice with you most every morning. Your utter sincerity, deep kindness, bright intelligence, and ever-deepening insight is a wonder to behold!
One Love,
Lance 🙏❤️