“Don’t Look for Anything Else” – Weathering the Storm

THURSDAY EVENING ZAZEN AT CHURCH OF THE REDEEMER ENDS ON FEBRUARY 26

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With countless watches, warnings and advisories for significant windchill values in the mid-atlantic and heavy snow for the eastern seaboard, I began thinking about my own ability to weather stormy times in my life

A long time mentor shared this story from Pema Chodron. He retold her story of how ravens in Nova Scotia frolic in the hurricane force winds. [Ravens and wild fox are abundant there!] The birds hold onto the branches as long as possible and then letting go, getting tossed about by fierce winds, turning it all into a game. They even peck at each other’s feet when sensing that another is holding tightly onto the branch. “Most importantly they find joy in the play of the cold winds.”

How do we find joy in the darkest of times? Here we are wondering what to do, whether to stay or go. Guess we’re all looking for something …a new job, relationship, better salary, larger home, new group, new place. Digging a bit deeper, a whole barrage of feelings arise such as anger, dissatisfaction,worthlessness, loneliness, and restlessness. Here we are, searching for something, anything to feel different than what’s coming up. Or maybe, we are willing to settle into the thick of it?

There’s a story in Opening the Hand of Thought by Uchiyama Roshi. An American business man traveling all the way to Japan to visit Roshi says, “I have plenty of money and a wonderful family, but for some reason that I can’t explain, about ten years ago I began to feel a terrible loneliness in my life.” Then Roshi replies with something very poignant. “Did it ever occur to you that this feeling of dissatisfaction or emptiness might be caused by your searching for the value, the basis or recognition of your existence only in things outside yourself.”

Ten years of feeling a fearsome loneliness. Yikes! How do we see this in our own lives? Why do we look to things outside of ourselves for comfort? Can we actually settle into our hearts and with ‘engaged’ practice, resolve what is it to weather the storm?

An interesting point here is how do we free ourselves from habitual patterns of looking outward. How do we jump in, get our arms around it all and see right through it. At times during our lives when it’s really turbulent, each of us in our own way at some time, relies on things outside of ourselves for comfort and support. Often we’re get lost in the storm missing the point that right here is where it’s happening.

Finally, when we give up pursing things outside of ourselves, give up figuring things out, the gate opens. Here’s the invitation, an opportunity to settle. We can be here and meet ourselves just as we are. Everything is fully alive and we penetrate everywhere. This is how we expand beyond conceptual understanding and open the door to clarity, kindness and mercy towards ourselves and others.

When we see, truly see, what is going on, we are allowing the world in which we live to touch our hearts. When seeing the kindness of others, we become increasingly grateful, more accepting, resilient, and flexible. We are creating space within our hearts for ourselves and those we meet. We are everything that we experience. The whole world becomes the koan.

Once again, I am reminded by my dharma friend from Shasta Abbey that we don’t need to search anywhere else for clarity nor put aside what we have and look elsewhere for what we don’t have.  We can settle down.

Fortunately, we can weather the storms through our own hearts and find joy even when our feet are being ‘pecked.’

City Dharma: Zen Buddhism in Pittsburgh

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“Once you have adjusted your posture, take a breath exhale fully, rock your body right and left and settle into steady immovable sitting.”   Eihei Dogen- Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen

This provocative photograph creates an image of the lower extremities extending from the torso like roots of a tree. Notice how they swirl and intertwine as they reach outward and beyond.  Here I’ll focus on how the legs are in relationship to the torso in particular to the activity of zazen, seated meditation. For now, can you sense where the legs begin?  This is really a practice in sensory awareness, an attention to this body.  Sitting becomes an experiment in sensing!  Sitting as this body is.  So what exactly is the torso?  How does it articulate with the legs?  I think this photograph displays an utterly beautiful interplay between the flow of gravity down through the legs while simultaneously surging upward, outward through the upper torso and arms.  This is the perfect dance expression of  “down to go up”.   The downward flow of gravity meets the upward life force. Hence, a perfectly balanced body+mind.

In zazen, we sit either on the floor, a bench or on a chair. In activity, the femur, upper bone of the lower limb, supports the weight of the body and has a tremendous range of movement; it’s also the longest and strongest bone in the body.   The  lower limb consists of the femur, tibia, patella, fibula and a series of small bones that comprise the foot/ankle.  There are twenty-two muscles that support the femoral joint i.e hip joint.  Interestingly, twenty-one of twenty-two originate from the pelvis.  

In this conversation, the pelvis, hip joints, the entire length of the spine, all the way to the top of the spine (i.e atlanto-occipital joint) make up the torso.  In sitting, we can open and relax, allowing the legs to rest completely into the earth.  Yet many of us have lost flexibility, elasticity in the lower limbs, because we have spent so much time sitting “in” chairs.  When we sit on the floor, the legs can begin to ache, ankles hurt from being pressed against the mat, not to mention the upper and mid-back.  When sitting can we relate to the surface?  What does it feel like?  What do you notice when the surface is hard?  When it’s soft, can we sense downward through to the supporting surface?

Preparing the body for sitting, allow the torso to fold over the legs, sense the movement occurring at the hip joints  Breathing one full breath, we come forward and up, let the head lead the movement. Finding the sitting bones, ischial tuberosities, allow them to sink into the surface. Then sense an energetic flow extending outward to the thighs, down through to the knees, to the ankles and out through the feet.  Allow the feet to lengthen simultaneously in two directions out through the toes and back through the heels.  Here we are developing intuitive awareness in action. The sitting bones are part of the torso and are approximately 1″ in width, depth, height.  That’s it, 1 inch and here we can balance on pointe.  Notice too, that the sitting bones are located directly under the hip joints. Your newly found feet! Okay, so you now have two anatomical references for coming to balance. Note both are part of the torso.  

By this time, the legs are soaring away from the torso into the earth’s core.  When the legs are part of the attention, they open, relax and naturally come down to the floor.  Allow gravity to assist releasing tension in the legs.  Gravity is the downward pull into the earth. In fact, it is pulling us down and in. Hence, the natural response is to go UP.  And up means up.  You are the planets, moons and stars. The interplay between gravity and life force is depicted so well in this photograph.  See how they intersect at the base of the torso. In fact, we could say they are originating from the spine.  And the twenty-second muscle, iliopsoas, connects the lumbar spine to the femur. Well, that’s for another conversation.  For now, see how “just sitting” can become effortless and begin dancing on the surface and falling into the earth’s depths. 

With warm regards, Jisen

 (Photograph by Eric Vasquez)

“It” is this

photo“Life of a human being is like a leaf, short-lived and falling into emptiness.”

Dear Friends of City Dharma,

Since the last post in March 2014, there have been countless changes in my life.  One significant event was the passing of my Mother, Julia, on 13th June, 2014.  During this time, I accompanied and supported her until her death. I had been her caregiver with ever increasing responsibilities during these past seven years.  The days were heart heavy and filled with weeks of moving within the complex world of healthcare.  By this summer’s end, I found myself exhausted and feeling sad and discouraged.

In August, I returned to the monastery to rest and celebrate my Mother’s life.  The monastic community offered a lovely Memorial Service.  Many of the monks attended and those who couldn’t sent emails or spoke to me afterwards.  I received encouragement and support to “just keep going.”  So in this spirit, where do you put your trust in the darkest of times and for that matter in the best of times?  Things change.  Relationships end, loved ones die, and we get sick.  Rilke says it well, “Just let everything happen to you.  Beauty and terror.  Just keep going.  No feeling is final.”  Can we be aware when we’re soaring the peaks and conversely  falling into the gutter?  When we’re feeling inspired, joyful  or discouraged, disheartened, can we open to change? This is a refuge we can trust.  This awareness is our refuge, a sanctuary for beginning to hear with our eyes and see with our ears that it is this.

As I was writing this entry, an elderly gentleman stopped by and asked me if I had cancer,  not so unusual for those of us with shaved heads. He said, “I was wondering if you have cancer and if you do and are feeling down, I’d like to talk to you and cheer you up.” I said, “Well, no, I don’t..” He said, “Well, I have stage four cancer and have about a year to live…. You know, it’s all part of life……” I said, “Yes, it is like this,  just here sharing a conversation.”  He smiled and told me his story and I listened, listened.

As he was going out the door, I heard him say to his wife, “I think I’ll have a beer…some dinner.” Hearing him speak, I said, “Okay, I’ll just sit here, my heart feels heavy, and yet here’s another twenty-four hours.”  If we had only twenty-four hours, then what?  And if we’re fortunate, perhaps another twenty-four.

Sometime during my Mother’s last hours, she looked directly into my eyes and said, “There’s so much to be grateful for.”  I can still see her lying there motionless in bed with her hands folded perfectly over her abdomen, wearing a soft, light flannel nightgown, etched at her neck with tiny, pink roses.  She was so still; only her mouth moved and eyes lit while she spoke.  Within an hour of her death, the light left her eyes. When I looked into them they were dark, opaque.  The stillness of her body and breathing was eye-opening.  She died very peacefully; I was fortunate to be present.  Since her death, I have been reflecting on these questions.  Can we be satisfied with the way things are?  Can we really see that “it’s like this“?  Because it has been so long since I last wrote, I wanted to share this with you.

I hope you will consider joining us at City Dharma.  It requires a tremendous effort to begin anew and it cannot be done alone.  We meet Thursday evening and Saturday morning at Church of the Redeemer in Squirrel Hill.  Meditation instruction is available upon request.  To receive event updates and schedule changes, please “Subscribe” by clicking on the “Follow” button.  Training at City Dharma offers zazen, studies, exploration in movement and encouragement to engage with issues of daily life and global concerns. We are dedicated to offering a practice that is both collaborative and teacher led. If you are interested, there is a seat for you.

With warm regards,
Jisen Coghlan

 (“it’s like this” – Ajanh Sumedho’s phrase found repeatedly in The Sound of Silence)