Undoing the Usual – Zenkai Talk by Madelon Bolling (Feb 9-10, 2014)

Posted by on Feb 17, 2014 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Undoing the Usual – Zenkai Talk by Madelon Bolling (Feb 9-10, 2014)

How can we extend the experience of sesshin and bring that settled focus into our workaday life?


Right after sesshin, things often seem to go smoothly for awhile. For a few days as we recover from exhaustion and notice the strangeness of our surroundings, meal gathas echo quietly in our minds when we look around the lunchroom at work. Dōgen’s words about practice and enlightenment gentle us into the same directness we had as Cook, Chopper, Dishwasher or Bathroom Cleaner during sesshin. That experience enfolds us as we cook, chop, wash dishes and clean bathrooms at home and as we perform similarly necessary tasks at work. The experience of sesshin naturally extends itself in this way.

And then subtly or suddenly, thousands of other concerns land on our shoulders, dig in their claws and start encroaching or irritating, dragging attention away from what’s right here now. [After all, we are responsible for an aging parent’s well being, which requires attention to repairs on a house in Oregon for the renters’ safety. There are questions about succession of responsibility, rent, taxes, insurance and medical bills, healthcare directives and what the will actually says, as he loses his mind and vigor. And where is the daily email message he usually sends?] Worries and responsibilities flock around us at work and at home with partners, children, companion animals, friends and community.

And if we have the thought that awakening is something different from all of this, we’ve run right past it. It’s as though the line from the Verse of the Faith-Mind has embodied itself in us, where it says:

If there is the slightest distinction,
it is the distance between heaven and earth.

How does a person stay balanced and attend to the completeness of now, the utterly sufficient just this when worries and wildly emotional experiences come our way?

Practice is not about improvement so that then (after I’ve mastered this, fixed that, developed a different obscure skill), then I will be worthy of enlightenment and something wonderful and transcendent will happen. Well, no. Practice is about giving up the notion that improvement is relevant. That’s a scary thought! Practice is being willing to see truthfully what is here all along, right in the midst of chaos, having the very form of chaos.
You might call it undoing the usual. That is, deliberately noticing the weird wonder of the world – or more accurately, the weird wonder of experiencing. Sesshin helps us experience this way.

For a week at sesshin we are held by form and traditions. There is little choice about what we will do next: everything is pre-determined. As beginners we probably all spent time thinking about better ways to do retreats, but after awhile we just settled in to “the way it is.” And even though naturally things go sideways at sesshin just as they do at home: we sprain an ankle or are short of sleep, catch a cold or slice a finger – or there aren’t enough tomatoes for the recipe, we run short of oatmeal, someone forgot the soy sauce, someone else voices painful criticism . . . Or – remember that famous time at Fort Flagler when backhoes and front-loaders worked the whole week roaring, screeching, clanging, digging ditches all around the dojo, and mosquitoes swarmed in clouds following us everywhere? Even after those times of endless discomfort we came back to home life with a sense of settledness or at least some evident quality of calm.

The restriction of choice and our acquiescence to that are key. At sesshin everything is predetermined – there are few decisions to make and those are within a narrow range of options. Energy is freed up to focus on the robin’s call or Mu or Who Hears. It is calming after a while to function as though, “Well, there’s no help for it. What’s next?” – even as things fall apart all around us. There’s the bell – bow, get up and walk. Lunch dishes are done: take a shower. The bell! go to the dojo. Allowing and practicing this continuous alignment with the inevitable is part and parcel of the experience of focus and settledness.

Staying alert to the exact situation – not as it might be another time, not as we think it should be, but this particular instance right now, just as it is – precludes waffling. This is the flavor of living completely in the moment, right on the cusp of everything unfolding, and “trusting without doubt.”

This can be extended to life at home. It takes attention, keeping alive at each point the intention to be completely honest with ourselves, to be immersed in Dōgen’s mysterious assertion that “practice is enlightenment.” It is a practice of surrendering again and again to the exact configuration of this moment and acting accordingly without second thoughts, giving up the fiction of self while making use of it, and when the task is done, letting go of results and moving on to the next thing.

My mind reads words like these and desperately says, “But I don’t know how!”

Poor suffering mind! It’s OK to not know how; in fact it is essential. Not knowing allows the actually unknowable total reality to occupy us, to move in a little closer. Or rather, it keeps us from reflexively pushing away from things as they are. In stepping from the known to the unknown in this way, we acknowledge what is right here as though for the first time. After all, what is right here is really not known – it has never occurred exactly like this before. This configuration is new, unique, it opens the eyes wide and pounds the heart.
Each of us in this room has had real-life experiences again and again that map onto not knowing how and doing what needs to be done, surrendering to the inevitable, acting appropriately, letting go and doing the next thing. It is experienced in grief, loss, disaster, adventure, betrayal, moving to a different country, becoming a first-time parent, and sometimes in yaza (all-night sitting).

When someone close to us dies, grief shakes the known world out of the picture. Grief can also occur with loss of career or health and mobility, loss of a dwelling from natural disaster; finances pulling the rug out from under you; or following the shocking behavior of someone you thought you knew. In acute grief we become disoriented. We detect the shakiness of our assumptions about what is real and lasting. All the known features of our experience are on shaky ground, no longer reliable, no longer sufficient foundations for living.

Without my child, without Mama, without my work, my partner, my leg, or the house now lying in ruins, the sky is no longer sky; the ground does not feel like ground. My favorite food is like eating sawdust. Morning routine makes no sense: I stand here blank, a toothbrush in my hand. What’s that for? Even sleep, that refuge, eludes me – why did I think it would help? All certainty is gone.

This is undoing the usual, and an experience of not depending on anything, because the assumption that there is such a thing as dependability has been torn away from us. Notice, too, that the notion of choice is gone, because nothing makes sense – what’s to choose? – one senseless thing or another? Here’s a poem from that space:

Wandering Through the House

My father built it decades ago . . .
the living room, my mother’s kitchen.

Mama died in the night.
Now they’ve taken her away.

Not knowing how–
I wash the glass coffee table,
dust agates in the red dish,
dust the crevices, stop.

Stiff and hesitant,
I walk this way and that . . .
to the kitchen,
stare at the counter,
stare at the ‘fridge.
The coffee pot is empty,
no more grounds for a refill.

Search the cupboard,
find a jar of old Nescafe,
break the crusted powder
and spoon some into a mug.

Add hot water.
Look out at the bird bath.

Like her mother before her,
she planted nasturtiums, pansies,
small ordinary flowers
at the foot of the basin.
Watching robins splash,
watching sparrows drink–
providing, she carried on.

In her eighties she used to drag
the mattock to the rose bed
down by the fence, chopping out
blackberry, bindweed, cleavers . . .
with a smile on her face,
knowing what to do.

In her absence,
her presence.

There is nothing for it now
but to drink this bitter instant.

The edges of illusion – when death comes, when disorientation sets in – these edges reveal underlying facts: change is unavoidable, and radical, constitutive interdependence is right here all along. Somehow we don’t see or don’t acknowledge the obvious. These underlying facts are already completely present. There is nothing more out there, nothing more to get, nothing to learn. We benefit from this backwards turn, settling in, undoing the usual to acknowledge what we already know and to live by it.

Fortunately we don’t have to wait for deep bereavement to try undoing the usual. By “the usual” I mean anything we might think of as, “you just have to get through this part on the way to the important things.” When I notice a sense of boredom, when I’m just going through this to get to someplace else, that’s a clue that my attention is somewhere else, not here. The truth of the whole universe is right here, complete in this moment of NO OTHER – not just that there is no other person but really that there is no object-other at all, and there is no someplace else to get to. Just this: the empty cement passageway from the garage to the hospital, lit with fluorescent lights; the mail in the mailbox that’s mostly advertising; the alleyway’s gravel-lined holes filled with dirty rainwater and ragged plastic shreds; the night bus steamed up with wet coats and warm breathing so you can’t see out… This is the whole thing already.

In grief or following sesshin, the strangeness of our surroundings in everyday life shows up. Isn’t it odd that we put pictures of flowers in frames on the wall or on the desktop? Isn’t it odd that we have things called “rooms,” and other things we call “hands”? Isn’t it odd that what I am looking at now are called “faces”?
The experience of choiceless action has the quality of intense focus on what is right here without second thoughts. This is much of what we do at sesshin. It seems unique to that setting but isn’t really limited to it. For instance, chopping garlic at sesshin when you’re a little fuzzy, sleepy, tired, you might feel as though someone had shaken you when you were sleeping and said, here, would you peel this garlic for me? You’re a Chopper, so even though you hate garlic, there’s no choice – is it day or night? – what day is it anyway? Doesn’t matter. None of that matters. Right now it’s just “peeling garlic.” It’s just garlic, the knife and chopping board. And the light. And the aroma. Stunned, and working anyway. Peel it, put the skins in the compost; chop it and put the chopped stuff in the bowl; then what? Oh, wash the board off, wash hands.

This is undoing the usual. There was nothing “usual” about that chopping. There was no ruminating about better ways to do it or “why do I have to do this, why can’t he do it?” or “garlic is an evil weed, we shouldn’t allow it in a pure diet.” No notion of “get through this so I can walk in the woods.” No thinking, just present and completely finished doing.

Now my mind sets up objections like, “Sure, but in real life, I have to think about car repairs and meeting up with the carpool, and choosing which bills to pay and which ones to put off this month. I can’t help but think about that stuff when I’m cooking.” OK mind, I hear you. But those same bills were waiting to be paid when you were in sesshin, too. In fact, part of the attraction of sesshin is your agreement to put everything else on hold. And the world didn’t disintegrate because you did that, did it?

What if we treated everyday life in the same way, using the mind of grief or shock to narrow the focus to what’s right here, as though we had never done this before, throwing ourselves into each task? Putting aside all impulses to avoid or postpone or change, letting there be no choice, no second thoughts, bowing to inevitability . . . We would be choosing to be completely present, without worrying, criticizing, optimizing, enhancing, diminishing our experience… not thinking about other stuff that’s not here, not now. Let’s dare to undo the usual little by little, forget ourselves continually in what’s right here and let the unknown move through.