Interconnection is as basic to what we are as impermanence Barry Magid December 18th 2021

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It’s bittersweet speaking like this, at year end. Once again we’re on Zoom because the pandemic persists and thwarts our beginning efforts to resume in person zazen at the zendo. And yet there’s also something sweet, something I’m continually grateful for in the way that the pandemic has also been an opportunity to connect more directly to so many of you outside of New York, and to really expand the boundaries of our sangha in ways that we never would have done before.

I think that we have succeeded in creating a bigger sangha, a sangha of folks that know and interact with one another. It’s not simply a bigger audience for my talks, a bigger audience of people who simply are passive recipients of what I have to say, but who are actively engaged in making an effort to find the time, often an inconvenient time, to sit with us in an ongoing, regular, committed way, so that we get a sense of one another’s presence and involvement and participation in this thing we call sangha.

Sometimes in the triad of buddha-dharma-sangha, the sangha is given short shrift. It comes in a distant third in importance, as if it was merely a group of followers and disciples, again simply recipients of the teaching. At least, maybe, it’s a peer group or support group, of individuals who encourage one another to practice, and to sit, but certainly in the Zen tradition, it’s more than that.

When Dogen talks about zazen as the expression or the performance of our enlightenment, one of the things he’s doing is taking the experience of meditation out of our heads as if it is simply a cognitive kind of experience, a transformation of consciousness, and puts it back down into our bodies. Zazen reunites an apparent split between body and mind, a split that is an illusion, one in which we get stuck, and we think that zazen is a matter of our attention or concentration or equanimity, or the absence of thought, all sorts of things that we can say about what goes on between our ears that we mistakenly identify as the essence of practice.

But Dogen says our practice is in our body, in our posture, as much as it is in our head. And he goes further because it’s in our body in the presence of other bodies. It’s not solitary. Very fundamentally, in Dogen, our practice is communal. Again it’s not simply in the manner of supporting one another in our practice, but it’s the relational embodiment of our interconnectedness, our non-separation. Mind has to go down and reconnect with the body, and the body has to reach out and feel its connection with its world and with others. All of these things are essential, fundamental, and in the nature of realization, which is about the overcoming of separation at all these different levels.

Some of you will be familiar with the work of the philosopher Charles Taylor, who, in a book called A Secular Age, described one of the cultural transformations that was taking place in the creation of what he’s called the buffered self. And what he means by that is our coming to take for granted, to take as common sense, the idea that we are separate individuals whose essential nature is internal to us, and that meaning is something that we make for ourselves, meaning is something we give to the world. We, as separate individuals, consciously or unconsciously, decide what matters to us, what we will invest our interest and energy and motivation in. Will we decide we want to practice Zen or do we want to go to the synagogues or do we want to go to the football game? What kind of person we want to be is a matter of individual choice and decision.

An individual at that level assumes a great burden and responsibility to be a meaningful creator, to be a source of what matters, and that perspective is fundamentally different from the one that people lived in for most of our history in which meaning was something that was seen to be invested in the world, that was an aspect of the world, that we as individuals were part of something that had its own logic, its own order, its own narrative, one that wasn’t one of our creation. We found ourselves in the middle of it and participants of it, and that could take many forms.

In some places like classical Greece, it was taken for granted that the world was populated by gods, all of whom had their own distinctive qualities and agendas, and individuals were sometimes bystanders, sometimes collateral damage, sometimes trying to get in harmony with what was going on. But there was a whole cosmological narrative, a whole divine play in which we had a kind of walk-on part. It wasn’t up to us to decide what was going on out there. We had to find our place in it, and even if gods were not personified, if you had a kind of philosophical perspective like that of the stoics, the logos, reason, was an organizing force of the world, a world which had its own distinctive logic and pattern and harmony in which we needed to try to become in synch with.

There was a fundamental shift to move away from this idea that the world is something we find as preorganized, meaningful, whether by a divine plan or logos, or competing narratives of polity or theism, to a world in which basically we’re just a lot of isolated individuals who have to choose what kind of relation we’re going to have with one another, what kind of narratives we’re going to choose to tell, and how we’re going to organize our own experience. Taylor calls this the buffered self, the idea that there is fundamentally a gap or barrier between our inner world, our innerlife, where we think the real me lives, and other people in the natural world. In a very interesting way this kind of picture, which he associates with modernism, in a secular age, is a kind of picture of delusion that we get in Buddhist practice, of the separate isolated self, the loose connection, the connection between self and body and self and other.

So certainly in Zen practice, the sangha is a kind of reenactment of the realization of our interconnection. In our tradition, we don’t particularly valorize the hermit, the solitary practice. There’s certainly some traditions where it seems like the epitome of dedicated practice is to go off to a mountain-top by yourself for years and practice in a solitary fashion. Certainly there’s a hermit tradition in Chinese Zen. But in Japanese Zen and for most of the history of this practice, the idea that Zen is communal, relational, has been a big part of our understanding of what we’re doing. Part of losing the self is the sense of losing it into the community, into the common activity, with its shared functioning, the being together with others, such that our own individual likes and dislikes are not always central stage.

I was thinking in terms of the readings we’ve been doing in the van der Kolk book, The Body Keeps the Score. One of his descriptions of the sequelae of trauma, is first how we have a variety of ways the mind becomes split off from the body. This can happen in terms of dissociation or depersonalization. There can be strange dissociative experiences where people imagine themselves up on the ceiling or up in the air looking down at what’s happening to their body, and I think van der Kolk describes the situation when he had that experience as he was being mugged.

So much of the therapy for people who have been traumatized is intended to reconnect them slowly and carefully with bodily experience, without retriggering the experience of trauma. Van der Kolk talks for instance about the value of gentle massage for a traumatized woman that just allows her to feel her body again, because so much of the traumatic reaction is to dissociate from any kind of bodily experience.

But there’s another stage of traumatization in which an individual seems to sever their connection to other people in any meaningful way, and are experiencing everybody else as potential sources of retraumatization. So he talks about how typical it is that a traumatized individual has trouble with eye contact, that too much direct contact with another, either visually, let alone being touched, can lead to a kind of immediately reactive cringe response, and there’s a safety sought in separation and isolation as a kind of drastic attempt at self-regulation because the world of connection and being regulated by others has been shattered.

It makes me wonder about how much people who are drawn to solitary practice, with a hermit life, with deep silence, are doing so in reaction to trauma, that their doing so is a way to separate themselves from any kind of dangerous impingement and get themselves settled down again by themselves in a silence that can be soothing.

I thought of Thoreau, and how he went to spend most of two years by himself in his hut in Walden for all sorts of reasons having to do with wanting to explore a life of simplicity. But what I didn’t know until I read some biographies, was that this followed the sudden death of his brother by tetanus, the person he was closest to in this world. His brother cut himself shaving with a straight razor, developed tetanus and died within a week, and Thoreau was deeply traumatized to the extent that he developed hysterical symptoms of tetanus, where he went through a whole period in which he looked like he developed the disease himself and was dying from it, but it was hysterical identification with what his brother went through. And when he went to live in a hut by himself, I can’t help but think that part of this is a kind of post-traumatic reaction.

The other example that came to mind was Thomas Merton, who not just sought out Trappist monasticism, but while he was there kept longing for the life of a hermit. He wanted to become more and more solitary. Yet one of the things I learned about Merton, reading the biographies, was that as a child, he suffered horribly from loneliness. In particular his mother died when he was very young, but she died slowly of a chronic illness, and was hospitalized for a long time. And yet he was never allowed to see his mother or visit his mother during those illnesses. His father would regularly visit his mother in the hospital, but leave Tom, as a little boy, alone in the car for hours, while he went up to visit his mother who never saw him before she died. There was something about this horrible solitude that in a kind of strange, post-traumatic way, Merton ended up gravitating himself towards and finding God in that style, a God who was always present and never leaving him. That’s a kind of antidote to the experience of deep abandonment that he originally felt in silence.

In any case, I don’t mean these examples to make a blanket disparagement of the hermit vocation, but I do want us to use them to say something about how basic connection is to others in this practice and it’s the sense of re-establishment of connection through sangha that I think is a crucial part of what we’re doing. It’s an antidote to our fantasies of the isolated inner mind, a separate, essential inner self. It’s what we return to as we return to our body as a rediscovery of what has been there all along. That interconnection is as basic to what we are as impermanence.

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