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FACING DEATH AND LIFE, PART 2 (2010)

I would like to talk today about what the past few years have been like for me.  Five years ago I lost my brother Ricky to a long illness. I was fortunate to be there at the time of his death and for that I will be forever grateful. Two years ago there was the sudden death of my father and then three months after that I was faced with the painful responsibility of placing my mother in a nursing home where she now lives.  Although she has moderate dementia and is slowly loosing her mind she is happy, safe, productive and exactly where she needs to be. The past few years have been difficult and exhausting and more emotional than any time of my life. Today I would like to tell you how my practice has changed and deepened over the course of this time.

During this time I have maintained my normal daily routine with work and painting in my studio and my regular Tuesday and Saturday zendo schedule.  I’ve included in my new “normal” life monthly drives up to New Hampshire to visit my mother and to spend time with her.

There’s nothing like death and loss to remind us of the unavoidable, unpredictable nature of our lives. We create elaborate ways of coping with our anxiety and our inevitable fate by creating and maintaining a comfortable distance between our fears and each other. When we create a protective space between life and our experience of it we cut ourselves off from each other and from the world around us.  As a result, everything is distorted and diminished.  Our Zen practice implicitly breaks down these walls. 
One of the new roles in my life is having full responsibility for my mother’s needs. Although huge, this is a function that I am perfectly willing to assume.  The impact of my loss and grief and new responsibility has given me a kind of before and after perspective on my life. It changed overnight.  And along with all the changes in my everyday life of course practice changed too. Practice during this time has felt both new and old to me. I have sat on my cushion for years before this, but now everything was different. I sat and cried and I sat completely numb. Life is just what it is and this was it for me, loss of people I loved. All loss, all sadness.

During this time practice also became a very comforting experience for me. Given all of my new responsibilities and concerns, practice became a restful place where all I had to do was sit, bow or walk.  For many of you who have practiced over many years, you know that practice has a way of wearing you down, wearing away the ideas of who you think you are. Probably just from sheer fatigue, I discovered I was leaving everything alone when I sat. It’s not that I didn’t sit there thinking or worrying about everything. What happened was that I gave up. I no longer had any desire or tolerance or ability to sit on my cushion and be the person I thought I was or had been.  I wasn’t able to do it anymore – everything changed.

This oddly enough was a comfort to me. My life could be turned upside down, full of grief and yet I could bring this to the zendo, sit with it and be contained, wrapped in silence and the physical experience of sitting alone with others.

Practice was right there focusing and presenting a much larger experience of life. This meant of course opening myself to really facing the unknowable, facing the notion of being alone one day.  I am immersed in the life of someone at the very end of her days. For the first time, I was seeing life from a whole different perspective. I am a mortal being. This is what it’s like to reverse roles with a parent, this is what it’s like to see your mother old, frail and forgetful. And I’m responsible for her.

“The great way is not difficult if you just do not pick and choose.”

All things in this world are just what they are. For me “giving-up” on my cushion was a very intimate realization. It was an experience of my own consciousness. It was an experience of  life not only as I see it but also as it is.  What happened was with the act of “giving-up” I was actually becoming more engaged with life and the world around me.  It’s funny how sitting with the heavy weight of responsibility dissolves the notions of who you think you are. I was sitting and living with the physical experience of life not my constructed idea of life. 

It was in the living of my everyday life where I realized that my practice had seeped deep into my fabric and into every moment of my day.  All the burdens, worries and stressful situations are terrible and perfectly just what they are – JUST worry, JUST stress, JUST this; and strangely enough, this is not entirely bad.  In many ways I have never felt more engaged or connected to life as I do now.

When we talk about our practice we often say it is “just sitting” or shikantaza. That doesn’t mean that is the only thing going on during our time on our zafus. Just sitting includes everything we are. Just sitting is the perfect expression of who we are.  All the noise going on inside our heads, the thoughts, the plans, the anger, the fear or the fantasies – all wrapped-up in the physical body called you.  Our zazen is the perfect expression of who we are. Barry often has said that when we sit, we face a mirror and our true self automatically appears. We don’t have to try to do anything and we cannot do this wrong.

What I have learned during the past five years is that even though there has been much sorrow there has also been much relief and even joy in knowing that our practice is there to contain and support our whole life on and off the cushion. After a while there is really no difference between on or off the cushion. Our life is contained in the form of everything, “not born, not destroyed, not stained, not pure, without loss, without gain.” Let’s practice well.