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Freezing my ass at Green Gulch

Good God, it’s cold. The weather report says it is 61 degrees F (16 C), but the wind is blowing, and there is heavy mist in the blowing wind. The wet wind seeps into my old bones and makes me creak. The electricity was out for hours today, and the only way I could get warm enough to stop shivering was to plunge my hands in scalding dishwater up to the elbows. Fortunately, there was a need for dishwashing, so I spent several hours that way today. But for all I could see, I might as well have been in Cleveland in the winter. I’ve been indoors all day. I tried to get out and take a walk, but I turned back after about fifty feet of walking against the wind and what the people here call “mist”–slanting sheets of ice cold water in the air. I always thought that was rain, but whatever. This community is much more “religious” than any I’ve ever been in. That has its pros and cons.

I enjoy the ritual, in the short term. There is chanting and bowing, prostrations (my thighs are aching, but I’m sure it’s good exercise), candles (even when the electricity is working), incense, people in robes, the whole banana. Very beautiful. Clearly this is a path with a long and distinguished history. There are many gray heads among the robed and chanting beings, and they hold the space for the young ones who are drifting through in search of something or other. There are chants in Japanese and chants in English, and we sit two forty-minute sessions, twice a day, facing the wall. Given the good advice I received from Joan Halifax at Upaya, I have started off sitting in a chair instead of sitting on a cushion, and it is much less painful. That’s good. And it is good to remember the wise ones who have gone before us on the path. The custom here is to chant the names of the former teachers (two and a half pages of names) every morning. The first time, it’s quite moving. I rather doubt I would feel that way a year from now. I wonder what it is that draws people to want to do that every day. Perhaps it’s comforting. I think Evensong has the same affect in the Anglican church. Stability. Predictability. Repetition. It must be good, for some people, to be able to learn something complex, to get it perfectly, and then to repeat it. In hard times, in times of confusion, it must be good to fall back on something familiar. There is a beauty in that. I can see it clearly, even though it doesn’t call to me personally.

So anyway, Sundays here are special days. Meditation and chanting in the morning, and then, after breakfast, a dharma talk. Today’s talk was very well attended by a hundred fifty or so people who drove up through the slanting icy drops of “mist” in order to listen, to have tea and muffins (for a dollar a cup and a dollar a muffin), and perchance to purchase a bag of fresh lettuce. The farm sells seedlings, small plants, and organic produce. It’s about to open up a large bakery, and it will add bread to its saleable offerings. Very sensible, I think. My feeling about this place is that it is, above all, stable. Financially stable. Stable in terms of age and continuity. There is a grace about the place, with its shaggy young redwood trees, its fertile gardens, its rolling grounds laid out between two mountains. The place itself is not unlike the many gray-haired people in robes, male and female, walking slowly with ease and joy, gently bowing and graciously smiling at those of us who are passing through. They have found a place and a system that works for them, and I celebrate their doing so.

On the plane from Albuquerque to Oakland I sat next to a woman with a virulent cold. She was coughing, sneezing, and blowing her nose, and I was praying for an immune system burst that would ward off her germs. But my throat is sore, and I spent last night trying to be sure I was lying on my side so I wouldn’t wake my roommates. Nevertheless, Meghan tells me I did snore, and she would cough loudly when my snoring became annoying, and that seemed to wake me enough that I would stop. Humiliating. I hope I can do better tonight. Standing over the steam of the dish water for several hours does seem to have done my nasal passages good, although my back is screaming at me.

I am seeing a few things clearly. First, I am not personally drawn to all the ritual. I don’t think this is my path. Second, life in a Zen Center is physically extremely difficult. The coordinator of people on “try out” status tells us that other days are not like Sundays; that this was an extraordinarily demanding Sunday because the electricity went out and we had so many guests. For the rest of the time we are here, we will at least get out to the gardens for a few hours a day. That will be interesting, unless it continues to be as cold as it is. I will certainly go on putting my whole heart into the work that is given to me till next Saturday, but I will say this: if the Portland option had not arisen last June, I would be really upset right now.

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-49 responses to “Freezing my ass at Green Gulch”

  1. stephenbrody says:

    such a nice and generous description of a place that would be better, perhaps, if it were really “stable in terms of age and continuity”. It’s just not old enough, and in the wrong place? Try it without the electricity at all and then perhaps the purpose of the chanting and the ritual might be clearer, if also even more boring …..
    Ýour cynical old friend again

  2. Jade says:

    Zazen, I find, is both spiritual and mechanical. Attentiveness embraces form, and form is nothing but attentive and disciplined practice.

    I once read zazen being compared to sailing. The correct way to sail brings one closer to success, and the incorrect way to failure. Doing it incorrectly is pitting one muscle carelessly against another, bringing only pain and exhaustion. The sea is not the enemy, but it is unforgiving if we do not sail correctly.

    To persist through the physical pain and repetitive rituals is an opportunity to dampen down the ego, the overactive “I”. Eventually, you don’t see it as persisting through anything at all, but just being, albeit in pain.

    In any case, 40 minutes at a time sounds very hard indeed. As we practice it, we do 2 to 3 25-minuters 4 times a day.

  3. admin says:

    Gratitude to both of you. Wisdom in two very different containers. I am wealthy in my friends. I go on stumbling around, finding a way.

  4. stephenbrody says:

    “form is nothing but attentive and disciplined practice” I rather like that as applied to art, but it begs the question doesn’t it by referring to the technique to arrive at it rather than the ‘thing’ itself?. Form is shape, determined initially by the unconscious and undirected laws of Nature without volition or intent. The human personality aspires, perhaps, to ‘good form’ – balance, proportion, harmony and so on – but it’s infinitely more complicated because individual desire, striving and countless opportunities for mistakes – accidental or otherwise – enter into it as well. Given that the unrestrained ‘ego’ is not an harmonious component, and that ‘discipline’ is therefore essential, it still strikes me that too much of that may be as detrimental as not enough, that the ‘form’ may be coerced to the point of such rigidity and paucity that it loses vitality.
    It’s all very well to make an analogy with sailing, but then one doesn’t usually spend one’s entire existence navigating a raft. And it’s all very well to restrain the ‘I’, but then that’s the essential material without which ‘form’ is meaningless, we’re not just nicely moulded rocks or dead leaves. Of course there are as many paths as there are individual persons trying to follow them, but I suspect our esteemed mutual friend here is not going to find one that is mapped out merely by a programme of pulling up weeds and repetitive chanting to be much more ‘right’ – interesting, varied or ‘joyful’ to use one of her own words – than it would be for me. Or in other words, there’s not enough protein.

  5. Jade says:

    Zen is not ascetism and asks only that we practice at the forward edge of our endurance. If it gets too painful then sit on a chair, as our friend did.

    It teaches no separation between technique and the “thing” itself, nor the “I” that experiences them, or for that matter the entirety of the
    physical world that contains all these, including my art, or any manner of rock or dead leaves or the act of sailing whether one does it or not. Therein lies essential nature, meaning and nothingness.

    If I see through the limited self–the “I” that is selfish, controlling, obsessive, roped into reactive emotional systems laid out early in life, any meaning I come into isn’t necessarily diminished. A calm and quiet mind is more prepared to receive insight.

    Words do not speak to the heart of it. Excuse me if I sound like I think I’m enlightened. lol

  6. stephenbrody says:

    “A calm and quiet mind is more prepared to receive insight”. Is it? I’d say there might be a few to be received in quite the opposite state of mind too …. depends on the insights one wishes to have, I suppose

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