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The purpose of all this

It’s my fourth day at Upaya. My time here is a little more than half gone. Spent the morning dusting the art and then polishing windows at Upaya House, a rust-colored two-story adobe building that provides rooms for a dozen retreat guests and has a meeting room, a large dining room, and two rooms upstairs marked “Private,” Roshi Joan’s personal space. She’s rumored to be arriving tonight or tomorrow. I loved dusting the art. There is shaman art all hairy and wild, Hindu art (Mother Durga, my personal favorite among the Hindu dieties), Hopi pots, Buddhist art (of course: statues, paintings, weavings, calligraphy), and a three-foot by two-foot rendering of the Virgen de Guadalupe surrounded by artificial roses. After the dusting and window cleaning I went back to my dorm and (are you ready for this?) cleaned three toilets, the small kitchen, and the laundry room, and I swept the walkways. By then it was almost noon. It started raining, so I lay on the comforter and listened to the rain. At what I thought was about 12:15 I headed out, checked the clock, and it was 12:25. Oops. Meditation starts at 12:20, and you can’t go in late. So here I am.

The longer I stay, the more settled I feel, and the more I hear of people’s stories, the more I enjoy the collection of characters who are the residents here. This morning I was chatting with Saro, a dangerously thin 19-year-old man with wavy thick black hair, who asked me what I’m doing here. I explained, and he observed, “Well, you can’t make a mistake. Whatever you decide, you’ll learn what you need to know by being there. It almost doesn’t matter what you choose.” Good, Saro! It feels as though I’ve been here for months, though I keep discovering.

There’s a crabapple tree in the back garden. I stood beneath it and felt a shock of memory. There was a crabapple tree in my grandparents’ back yard, where I first learned to walk, and where I hung out with the basset hounds and poked sticks into moss, ate rocks and mud, slapped my hands in puddles, and generally had the kind of sensual time small children have. There are cute little garden snakes: bright green ones, slithery brown ones, baby ones thinner than my smallest finger, and adult ones longer than I am tall. Dawa tells me we need them around to control the mouse population. The mice hang out at the compost heap, which isn’t a place I’ve spent time in. Yet.

Is it inertia? familiarity? what? The place is seductive. It would be easy just to stay here, hearing stories and cleaning toilets, meditating and listening to the rain or the wind or the hummingbirds. I have a feeling of being slightly drugged. Maybe it’s because I’ve slowed down; maybe it’s the meditation three times (or two if you snooze) a day. I haven’t seen a TV, heard the news, or connected with the outside world except to write in my blog, check email, or occasionally check other people’s blogs. I did call Manko today and got good news: she’s happy, she’s well, and she has found a job. I sit and listen to the thunder. There are a thousand small contrivances. Some people (like Rose, for instance) stay busy every waking moment except during meditation. Just now she’s collecting lavender to dry for the winter. Tonight she’s the cook, and I’m assisting. There is always something to do, and there is sometimes a great rush to do it, but there are people to help out…meals have to be put together, certain things have to happen on time to facilitate the schedule.

I don’t miss much…but there is something…what? I feel a little ashamed. The life feels too easy. What are we doing but sustaining each other and a place for wealthy people to come to for retreats? This place reminds me of Kripalu Yoga Center in that way. Same clientele, just set in the Sangre de Christo and not the Berkshires. I looked at the schedule. It isn’t unusual for a retreat to cost nearly $900. Sure, it’s important for people involved in doing good things for the world to have a place to come to, for recharging, for regeneration. But there’s nothing in catering to the very wealthy that inspires me. I walked through the parking lot. Big cars. Expensive cars. Only one Ford Focus. Not a Prius or a Hybrid in sight–that surprised me. As Stephen is always quick to remind me, there is nothing wrong with being wealthy. There are many perfectly wonderful people who are very wealthy. But…well, they don’t need me. They can buy anybody. I’m much more interested in the downtrodden, truth be told. Meditate on that, Kendall. Is it identification? I’ve always said it’s that the poor have more interesting stories, less predictable stories, stories with more juice in them. Prejudice, I know. But I just don’t get wound up about cleaning rich people’s toilets. And poor people clean their own toilets.

What is “spiritual”? What is “growth”? What is “deep practice”? I sit, and I ask myself why I’m doing this. What did I think I would find by spending more time in a community of people who sit? It slips through my fingers. For me there is really no difference between “sitting” and the rest of my life. I always notice what I’m thinking; I’m just that kind of girl. I usually know what I’m feeling, physically and emotionally; I hear the sounds and textures of life and the people around me. I am judgmental, sure; I make comparisons; I have preferences; I have (god knows!) an ego that loves praise and hates criticism. But I already know that’s all a source of suffering, and I do try to cut down on it, or at the very least to laugh at myself for it and to feel bonds of compassion with all the other people who do the same stupid stuff. I deeply agree with the Dalai Lama when he says, “My religion is kindness.” That’s really all there is to it. Kindness to oneself and others, kindness to the planet and all that’s on it. That’s the whole ball of wax.

So what’s the point of all this sitting? I’ve been doing this for–what? thirty years or so. And I do still have beginner’s mind, because I still ask myself why I am doing this. If there’s a way to be a better person, I want to find it. If there’s a way to relieve more suffering, mine and everyone else’s, I want to practice it. If there’s a way to be gentler and kinder to the earth and all beings, I want to go for it. At least Buddhism TALKS about all these things. It feels good to be in a room full of people who are making a commitment to not act on their ignorant or hormone-driven impulses for an hour; for that little time, we don’t jump up to check email, yield to our distractions or addictions, give it the old knee-jerk. We sit very still, and I don’t know about everybody else, but my back really hurts after the first fifteen minutes, and maybe part of the kick is a kind of masochism, or a kind of self-righteous puritanical ego that says, “I can sit here and suffer in silence for an entire hour–or more–and watch my thoughts, and return to the present moment, and return to the breath…and most people can’t do this (or don’t want to) so aren’t I hot shit!” There is a kind of mastery in that, I suppose. But mastery in itself is not something I value. I continue to live in these questions. I continue to enjoy this place and these people, doing the same thing I’m doing. I wonder if anybody else ever feels so foolish. I wonder if anybody else in that room full of meditators wonders, “What on earth am I doing here? Why am I doing this?” I wonder.

The only times sitting has resulted in something I might call “transformation” was when I sat those ten-day Goenka Vipassana courses. Something happened in those courses. The first three, anyway. After the first three, not so much seemed to happen any more. In the first three, I realized how everything arises and falls away. I have not forgotten that. I realized that the edges of my body melt, that the skin that seems to enclose me as a separate person actually is molecules. Atoms. With space. That there is more connection between me and everything else than I had known. I got that, and I carry it with me. That we are deeply involved in each other–that violence begets violence, kindness begets kindness, and that when one entity hurts, we all hurt. I got that. Is there somewhere else to go now? I wonder. Maybe I’m just being stupid again. Maybe it will come to me, any minute now, why I need to sit a certain way, wear black, hold my hands a certain way, bow at certain times, and be still when my back hurts and my knee turns to fire. I can do it, god knows, I know I can do it. I’m just not sure why. I keep looking at that question–and you, dear readers, my dear friends and trusted companions on this journey, must be very tired of me for the earnestness with which I pursue this wonderment. I apologize. You can always quit reading. I can’t quit living these questions, so I continue doing what I do. With love.

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3 responses to “The purpose of all this”

  1. Gallo says:

    Quit reading? Preposterous! Not when I can spend twenty minutes catching up with your journey during which time I laugh uproriously three times, cry twice, am reminded what is important in this day, what questions I should ask, what values should guide me. Where else can I get a dose of medicine good as that?nrnrGallo Azul

  2. admin says:

    Ah, Gallo. So wonderful to hear from you. I miss your good sense and soft uprightness. Thank you for this.


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