Student talk My own life is the koan Heather Benson December 31st 2022

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Happy New Year's everyone. I think this is going to be our New Year's Eve party as Ordinary Mind Zendo today. So I'll try and stay in that festive space. And also, I want to celebrate what Chris had talked about last week, the idea of sanctuary and how sanctuary for me, in Ordinary Mind has allowed me to flourish as a human, as a person, in ways that I am not sure that I would have otherwise. I had a traumatic childhood in many ways. My mother was a very loving mother until she faced some difficulties in her early thirties. And her life deteriorated, her support deteriorated, and she was increasingly incapable of caring for young children.

My brother and I went back and forth between my parents, and we became, in many ways, without sanctuary. And in our own ways. I think we started on a journey, at around seven or eight years old for me, of trying to find something like a sanctuary, like a child has with their mother. Only for us, that was no longer possible in most significant ways.

I had gone off to McGill University after my last year of high school, during which a friend who is Baha'i had invited me to a talk on the many religions of the world. Buddhism was one of them. Each night was a different religion. And the night on which there was an overview of Buddhism, it kind of caught my ear, you know, even though I was there mostly to hang out with my friends. But something in this talk was very appealing to me. I don't remember details, but in any case, when I went to McGill, I studied East Asian studies and French literature and language. That was a difficult year for me trying to master two languages at once. And I was incredibly lonely, I still had not figured out sanctuary, at all. But one day I sat in the basement of McGill's library and I was reading an assigned text by Lao Tzu. It was a short text, and I don't remember the name of it, but I do remember that keen sense of loneliness, which was especially acute that Saturday morning, as it often was when there were no classes to attend, during any free time really, where I isolated myself to study, but that morning, I read Lao Tzu from cover to cover, and it filled me with a sense of peace that I had probably not felt in a very long time.

I soon forgot it though. I dropped out of university after that first year, because the pressure was too much and the support was too little. Soon, I started traveling around Canada. It was an exciting time. I eventually ended up on the west coast of Canada, and one day a friend brought Joko's Everyday Zen to my house. I remember sitting on the couch, and we were reading to each other from it. I read aloud to her, I am paraphrasing, 'Zen won't change the lessons that life is going to teach you, but it will help you to suffer them intelligently'. That's essentially it, it's not the exact quote, but you know what I'm saying.

I practically jumped up off the couch and ran to San Diego, almost quite literally the next day. In the next few days at least, I was on a train down the West Coast to San Diego, and I showed up at the Zendo in San Diego. When I arrived, there was no scheduled sitting, there was no sessin scheduled. No zazenkai. I just knocked on the door and they welcomed me. It was lovely. And I actually stayed for a couple of days and I heard Joko later say, 'that was a weird visit', and it was! But there I was, you know, chasing down sanctuary. And, of course for anyone who's met Joko, it was an incredible experience to talk with her and to learn from her some initial pointers for how to sit zazen. But we didn't have any great meeting of the minds or anything like it.

She wasn't teaching. She was just living her life. But I did continue to go back and do sesshins, and I became her student, attending both sesshins and doing dokusan over the phone for a couple of years. And this helped for the first time, it sort of grounded me in a way that allowed me to start to feel what was happening. You know, Joko's instructions were pretty simple. Sit down and don't move a muscle. Unfortunately, being the sort of eager and zealous student that I was, I took that very much at face value, and I would sit periods really not moving a muscle, or just the very occasional muscle. Joko said that if you were determined to move, that might signal some kind of thought or discomfort that you were trying to move away from, So I was very busy, noticing thoughts and such and starting to see, 'Oh, that's what I'm moving away from. Oh, okay. I'll try and stay still.' It was a very vigorous kind of practice, and maybe that was good. At some point, I had to be farmed out to Diane Rizzeto. Joko had gotten very popular around this time after her second book, and students were coming from all around the world and knocking at her door. And Joko knew I was living in the Bay Area, where her student, Diane Rizzetto, had established the Bay Zen Center. So I was asked to go and study with Diane, so that Joko had more room to teach her new students from all over the world. So I did. I went and I threw myself into that, I was very eager there as well. I was living in the Bay Area, mostly to study with Diane, and I began jikido-ing four or five days a week. I would ride my 12-speed up the Oakland hills and sit, and then ride back down. It was kind of wonderful in a way, and very effortful, very determined, probably trying to get back to that initial feeling I'd had in the McGill library basement, that feeling of peace, which was eluding me still.

I did jukai with Diane after a year or so, and I was the work leader for that seven day sesshin. And this was the type of sesshin in which we would wake up at four or five, something like that, sitting until 10 or so. And I think the stress was increasing. The pressure of that sesshin led to me completely falling apart after the jukai ceremony. And I think Diane tried to be there for me after that, but it was such a devastating realization that this Zen, this Zendo, and this practice that I was so enthralled with and was determined was going to save me, had in fact, in some ways done the opposite; the pressure of my determination and the style of concentrative practice, sort of working on deep breaths and stillness, and with not a lot of integration of the psychological, or the emotional like Barry has taught us. So I left the sesshin in shambles; I was depressed and anxious. But around this time I met Barry, and I think I had the good fortune of meeting Barry at a time when I was really broken open in a way that I didn't wanna be, but I was- and he encouraged me to return to zazen, and I was determined not to; every week or two, he would say, 'well, I think you should sit', and I would say, 'okay', but I wouldn't do it. The terror was so overwhelming.

Gradually, every time he repeated that, over the course of probably years, slowly, I would dip my toes back into the waters and I would go occasionally and sit with the group and feel so incredibly welcomed in just a subtle way, it was nothing special in a sense. It was just a very welcoming feeling. I think it was, in this case, what was missing, with no sense of any kind of pressure to achieve anything. But I couldn't put my finger on it at the time, only there was a sense of, well, there's no concentrated practice. There's no sort of pressure to achieve anything, to be at the top of the heap in any sense. There was no hierarchy. I mean, obviously Barry was the king of the hill, but there was no sense of you're working your way up some kind of ladder.

And I think slowly, you know, I swam in those waters for long enough that I realized that, okay, this is a safe place, this is a sanctuary. And that guided me through some big difficult times; a difficult marriage, being a single mother and being able to have confidence in mothering. After having watched my mother's life deteriorate, and her confidence, and even her mind in some ways, watching that happen, I was terrified to have children. And when I had young children, Barry said something very useful. He said, 'it's okay that there's rupture'. You know, because I would make mistakes the way young parents do. Rupture and repair is good. You repair the rupture, and everyone involved knows that there is the capacity for rupture and then repair. And in a way, that's what I had been living, you know, with Barry for probably close to a decade at that point.

So I knew on some level, some deep level, okay, I can do this with my kids. Yeah. And I would repair things. I would apologize. I would make it up to them if I did something that was insensitive. And I think slowly over the years, my children have grown to trust rupture and repair, and have that kind of relationship with their friends, and with both of their parents, I hope. And so I guess that's what I want to encourage for everyone else in the sangha. If there's a part of you that you hold back from participating in the sangha or something like coming to the physical zendo or doing intensives, I would encourage you to trust this particular Sangha. Especially in the sense that you can bring your life as it is to dokusan. Like Joko said, you know, there's nothing particularly magical about dokusan.

Your life is the koan, you bring your life to dokusan, and just present it as honestly and vulnerably as you can, and that's enough. That's what I hope for everyone in the new year, that you can find new ways to engage with Barry, and with the Sanga. The Sangha is so helpful for getting through, whether it's a life full of trauma and loss and loneliness like mine, or whatever new stage you could be facing, you can email Barry. He's very available. Like Chris said, he responds to the squeaky wheel. It helps to be a squeaky wheel. Email him, he will email you back quite promptly usually, and with a really fulsome answer I have found. And I think you will too. Show up to the physical zendo if you're in New York, or close by, and enjoy being in that space. And join the intensives. Come to Garrison. Come to San Raphaela. Find a way in the new year to drop your blade of grass and say, there's your sanctuary. It's right here.

Previous Talk

Christopher Hawkins December 24th 2022 Did that change my life?

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