On Feeling Lost – Madelon Bolling

Posted by on Jan 26, 2018 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on On Feeling Lost – Madelon Bolling

The koan here is case 1 in Zen Echoes; also found as Case 1 in the Book of Equanimity and Case 92 in the Blue Cliff Record.

One day, the World-Honored One ascended the seat. When the great assembly had gathered and settled down, Mañjuśri struck his gavel and said, “Observe deeply the Dharma of the Dharma King; the Dharma of the Dharma King is like this.” The World-Honored One then came down from the seat.

In response to this koan, Zen master Miaozong declared:
The true teaching has been transmitted in its entirety.

The Buddhadharma is like this! Sitting around the room here, doing our level best to touch mystery amid the contradictions of this amazing and baffling experience called life, we hear the story of the World-Honored One ascending the seat . . . and then just coming down again. And this is said to be the true teaching transmitted in its entirety?  Notice how your body feels at this moment! I don’t know how your system responded so I have to take a chance and report on mine.

With just this information—what seems like a non-event, and the message that the true teaching has thus been transmitted in its entirety, my limbs feel revved up, eyes and ears want to look around, to get oriented; breath constricts—the entire thing feels unsettled, an inch off the ground, and the thought occurs: Well, where do we go from here? I don’t have a clue!

I ran across this rhyme, “Completely Lost” by George Bernard Shaw that describes this pretty well:

Have you ever had that feeling?
That you are completely lost.
Your mind and senses reeling,
As in a dark foreboding frost.
Nothing but nothing is as it seems,
Words like phantoms come and go.
It is as if all the bizarre dreams,
Have turned your brain to snow.
The ticking of the mantelpiece clock,
Cuts the silence like a knife.
Your mind is in a mysterious block,
You ask yourself is this my life.
Perhaps I am just getting old,
Brain and body gone to pot,
Where are the times that I was bold,
And my brain could solve every plot.

In this sort of situation we automatically search for something familiar to hold onto, even if it’s an argument or a worry or some unpleasantness—at least it has a focus, a direction even if it’s irritating – the lost or disoriented sensations then morph into the known experience of irritation. But what if we were to try something different when the sense of being lost and disoriented shows up? What if we were to stay with it? I mean this year, conditions for feeling lost and disoriented are staying with us and we can’t very well run from them. We may as well consider at least, looking closely at what’s already here anyway

The sense of being lost and confused is real and so ordinary we skip right over it in search of certainty, looking for something known, something that will orient us once again. “Orient” means something that will tell us where we are in relation to the sunrise, to the rest of the world. In relation to–where are we in the midst of whatever-this-is? We seem to have lost ourselves. Wouldn’t this be a positive turn of events in this context of Zen practice? Why then does it feel so raw? So unbearably painful?  Sometimes the most ordinary experience—even of loss and confusion—may afford us a transcendent perspective. It’s just that we dismiss it as ordinary before giving it a chance, immediately rejecting this experience as obviously undesirable and we look for something else. This could be a mistake.

Loss and disorientation seem to have dominated the experience of most of us here across many domains over the last year. As Shaw says, “Nothing but nothing is as it seems.” Because it is a new year now, following the solstice, a time when people traditionally set an intention to change or look forward eagerly to a new start, I felt a need to acknowledge our actual experience. Yes, the solstice is past, but I for one am still experiencing astonishing amounts of loss, confusion, and disorientation.

It’s like the way I felt about 2/3 of the way through the last Broken Raven sesshin, summarized in this little verse:

It’s quiet here.
Closing my eyes I see
a patch of bare ground,
many small stones
pressed firmly into dirt,
grey upon grey
and that’s all.

What should I do?
No sign of direction,
no way out.
How did I even get here?
I feel – lost.


Lost, not even “stuck,” just lost. If I were stuck there would be at least a rock and a hard place I could identify and wrestle with, but this? – is nowhere, with no direction, no thing to fight, nothing to fix, nowhere to go. Every inch seeks relief, a change, a fix—anything but this! There’s a reflexive dissatisfaction with puzzlement, with cluelessness. How do I get out of this? And then the mind calls out “God!” and laughs at itself; then, in a twist of agony calls out “I want my mommy!” and cries.

Stories, the stories that shape us—come unraveled. Nuclear war might happen at any moment. Who am I when death is on the doorstep like this? What am I if there is no future in which to follow plans? And where—where? If my stories, the maps that tell me where I am and where I am going—if my stories come unraveled, I am lost, disconnected. And I certainly don’t know what to do. The Dharma is like this! This—is nowhere with no direction, no thing to fight, nothing to fix, nowhere to go. This—is now here, a different pronunciation of nowhere. Serendipitous, yes, but helpful in this case. It’s really all we have.

David Wagoner has this to say in his poem, Lost:

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

The first tenet of Bernie Glassman’s Zen Peacemaker Order is:

“Not-knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe.”

When we’re feeling lost because circumstances have changed around us, we don’t have to “give up” ideas about ourselves and the universe—they have already been wrenched away from us and thrown to the winds. We are having the experience of really not knowing. [Here we listened to Daniel Norgren’s song, “Everything you know”] The central skill is seeing clearly and allowing it to be—seeing clearly and allowing it to be, not trying to chase down what has been blown away. As though it were an injury newly sustained with no treatment available, we can only savor not-knowing just as it is. We may not be in an actual forest, but still the moment of lostness is a stranger and undeniably powerful. Rather than hiding from it or distracting ourselves to pretend we don’t notice, it pays to admit we are clueless and dare to face the situation respectfully, just as it is: a world without known dimensions and landmarks, shot through with danger and beauty. Ask permission to know it. As it says on our website, “Zen is about coming face to face with ourselves…” and that’s exactly what this lostness is: it’s an experience of what has been called “the exact identity between ordinary consciousness and fundamental openness.” [James Ishmael Ford, 2006, Zrn Master WHO?, p. 37. (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006)]

Lostness also means resting nowhere, that is, “not stuck to inside, outside, or in between,” as Shitou Xiqian’s Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage says. Generally we simply ignore this phrase as belonging to the realm of abstraction and weird Zen chants. In fact it is absolutely concrete: forgetting ourselves in doing, in action, in experience, in the shape of this moment may be in the realm of inside or outside or in between. But really it is nowhere as now-here, so inextricably present that what is usually named and pointed out as separate simply cannot be other than the continuous unfolding shape of the moment—no two moments the same. Then we cannot help being the red-violet rhododendron blossom sounding deep noon chimes. We cannot help becoming what we already are: fundamental openness as phenomena. Zen is about coming face to face with ourselves, with this ever-unfolding openness, having relinquished our stories, our explanations about who-where-what-how we are.

In her poem, Could Have, Wislawa Szymborska kindly and mercilessly points out how we cling to explanations, to stories of how things are, how they came to be. She shows how we distract ourselves from simple presence, and how we keep ourselves from acknowledging what is, simply as it is:

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.

You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.

You were in luck — there was a forest.
You were in luck — there were no trees.
You were in luck — a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant . . .

So you’re here? Still dizzy from
another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn’t be more shocked or
how your heart pounds inside me.

[From her View With a Grain of Sand, trans. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
(New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1996)]

From here then, having dispensed with stories about who-where-what-how we are, and not knowing what to do next, we can only bear witness to what actually is, without an appended story, without explanations of why or how—just: this is what I see; this is how it is now-here. Staying in that place that is noplace without struggling allows us to be open, to recognize kindness when it appears as opportunity to act:          If my foot’s not wet, I have found the stone.

In this way we take another step in the darkness. If we move out of the way, not confounding the situation with our stories, things around us reveal another step.

Dark to us though it may be, the world is the essential activity of the buddha way; it is where we are.