BootsnAll Travel Network

Leaving Upaya

Three things. Joan Halifax, Roshi for this center, gave a dharma talk last night, so I have a better sense of who she is as a teacher. Second, I had a formal interview with her this morning (Dokusan). She made a couple of helpful suggestions for my practice, and she reminded me that I don’t have much time left. I’m in my last years. It’s time. Choose well. Third, there was a meeting this morning for all residents and staff, and while the meeting was confidential, the theme as I understood it is that the real nature of this place is evolving. The system is finding its way. Some residents question whether it is primarily a retreat center for guests, which is how it makes its money, perpetuates itself, and offers service (to people who can afford the retreats); or is it a retreat center for residents, more like a monastery. Right now it is straddling both streams, and that is important for me to consider. If I come back, I will be in the company of some great spirits who are doing their utmost to create a mindful, conscious community. A few times a year, something like ten days will be set aside for deep practice. But I will be, for most of the first year I am here, and perhaps for more than that, a hotel housekeeper or restaurant worker. I take all of this in.

Cleaning toilets is no more onerous to me than the duties of a college dean, especially budgeting and scheduling. Give me a few toilets any time. Chopping carrots is less tedious than grading freshman compositions. Sweeping flagstone paths in juniper-scented mountain air is actually much more pleasant than attending committee meetings or writing up minutes of these meetings. But say I remain here for two years, three years, the rest of my life: if I move up in the hierarchy, that is to say if my particular gifts are recognized and put to use here, my work will still be that of sustaining a community of people who host retreats. I imagine I might help to create programs for residents; I might join those who are working in prisons (in their spare time, as my work in prisons has always been). Sometimes those retreats are led by people I admire. Wendell Berry is here now. Jane Fonda is arriving tomorrow. Great Zen teachers show up from time to time. Residents get to serve them by cleaning their rooms and serving them food. Weigh this.

One person said, “This is the Ritz-Carlton of Zen Centers.” I see that. We don’t begin meditation till 7 a.m. (most centers start at 4:30 or 5 a.m.). We have these lovely fluffy white duvets on our beds. Good food and no end of it. No bunk beds. All beds are on the floor. It’s not palatial, certainly. Some people live in spaces so small they can’t stand up in them. A few people have a private cubicle, but most live with one or more roommates. Free time after 4 p.m. unless there is a service or talk laid on for the night (and those end by 8 p.m. or so). Residents who stay longer than a week get two complete days off every week, and on those days, I have noticed, they don’t even attend meditation sessions. They can go off, visit friends, hang out in Santa Fe or drive down to Albuquerque. The land, as I have said, is spectacularly beautiful, even if it doesn’t invite one to roll around in it. The computer room, as I styled it once, has two computers, one of which doesn’t work. So there’s one computer for the whole place. It appears to me that about a third of the residents have their own laptops or have access to computers in their work spaces. So the other two-thirds, and any retreatants who didn’t bring laptops, share this one computer. It has worked out well enough for me, and the amount of “free time” the residents have, and the fact that most go away at night, has given me as much use of the computer as I wanted.

The main thing Upaya has going for it, in my opinion, is something I have not been able to articulate here. It’s the people. I’ve said that. But what is it about these people? Seven of them in particular, besides Joan, are people I would like to know better, live among, talk with, work with, and develop friendships with. These are seven people who have “worked on themselves” in important ways. Some have left high-level, high-status, interesting lives of considerable achievement (including wealth) in order to be here. One was an academic (in Germany). Some are too young to have had achievements outside, but in order to work here they are skipping the opportunity to make the kind of wild and adventurous mistakes I made, including years of dissipation, relationship drama, and flawed parenting. I eventually saw that drinking, drugs, and promiscuity did not really serve me or teach me–but it took me many years to learn that. My children all suffered from my foolish ways, as did many of the people I fancied myself to be in love with. I admire people who catch on faster. So it would be a pleasure to live with these people of different ages and class backgrounds, from several different cultures and nationalities. It’s a possibility.

Is living at Upaya the best possible use of the time I have left on the planet? I will continue to sit with that question. In a few hours Diane, my friend in Albuquerque who is a few years younger than I and is the mother of another friend–will come to collect me, my sleeping bag (which I didn’t need here, thanks to the beautiful duvets), and my one little carryon bag. I will move on. The people here will go on doing what they do. Dawa and Hiumaya will leave in October, so I’m saying farewell to them for the rest of our lives, as far as we know…and possibly farewell to this place, these people. I’m certainly glad I came here, met them, and had this adventure. I was given this morning “off” to pack and ready myself. I admit that there is no longing in me to be on the work team again, cleaning and washing dishes and doing all that they do. I’m relieved not to have to do that. Not only am I relieved, I think of it with a kind of shudder. But I’m glad I came. I certainly know more now than I did when this all started.

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