My giant goes with me

Zen artJournal entry #3
Day 17 of 26

Morning zazen was particularly prolific and visionary today. I’m learning how much creative stimuli enters my mind every second. I see photographs, paintings, drawings, films. Oddly, there is hardly a word that enters my mind—only this ceaseless inflow of imagery; images I cannot hold, they last a moment and then can never be accessed again.

What are these? I wonder. Simply subconscious charges, access to the collective mind, or new ways of asking and answering my own questions in irritative form, challenging me to translate within one quick and restless second?

It seems that these contents of my subconscious are running over, an ejaculation years in the waiting. And when I’m in the middle of this immense discharge—in the stillness necessary for the mind to achieve this climax—it’s as if the mind is coursing through the whole body, picking up tensions and information and little truths packed in all the pouches of muscle and bone, and sending it into consciousness.

And I can feel the heaviness of space. I feel how it weighs on my skin, and when I move my head side to side in slow motion, I feel all its density and resistance. It’s my first time truly realizing space.

Each time I embark on a new tourism adventure, I’m reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words: “Travelling is a fool’s paradise. … At home I dream that at Naples … I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends … and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self … that I fled from. … My giant goes with me wherever I go [italics added].”

I’ve asked myself if this is true, if travelling is nothing but an attempt to distract ourselves from our own misery and lack of contentment, if it’s a momentary escape from boredom and existential dread; and if, perhaps, there’s no such thing as travelling at all, and we’re always exactly where we are, which is inside our head.

A trip to Zen Mountain Monastery (ZMM) is, in every way, the antithesis of vacation. Nearly each moment of the day is ordered and businesslike. You work, you clean, you follow the rules;  luxury and indulgence are totally absent, relaxation is scarce, and there are times when some of your most basic human needs, like interpersonal contact and sufficient amounts of sleep, are all but removed.

And yet, in every way, it’s the absolute vacation, the unending vacation. As it demands that you face yourself, you’re learning not just the futility of escape, but how to rest within yourself comfortably.

And while it demands that you wake too early and work tiredly, and zealously recite chants you don’t semantically or ideologically understand, ultimately surrendering your will to the circumstances which—despite your most stubborn efforts—you can’t change, you’re learning the greatest lesson of all, which is to accept; to accept reality precisely as it is; to lose your resistance; to lose that giant that goes with you wherever you go. This is why I call it the paradox vacation.

To be clear: To accept doesn’t mean to be complacent. It does mean to lessen the suffering caused by rejection and the constant struggle against the fact of existence. It’s like walking out the door and noticing that it has snowed. You can either curse this unchangeable fact and spend the whole drive to work groaning and stewing, or you can accept it. It also means to loosen our hold on attachments, which, according to Buddhism, is the greatest threat to tranquility.

For this reason, I think of ZMM as a microcosmic training ground where practicing love, compassion, peaceful dwelling and efficient (meaning not needless) suffering is promoted and can be realized. And I call it the unending vacation because, unlike the piña coladas on a Caribbean cruise, the palaces of India or day trips through the national parks of Iceland, it doesn’t really provide any sense of momentary comfort, satisfaction or conclusion.

The spiritual journey begins continually anew. It has no conclusion. You learn to practice, and in practicing, you learn to discover vacation in every moment, right where you are.

Leaving my Shangri-La

Zen Mountain MonasteryI simply had no other words than these two, “I’m frightened.” And then, feeling no particular feeling about having said them, I looked evasively at the books on the shelves and the paintings on the walls behind Zuisei.

My heart and sense organs were open, my walls torn down. I was raw. And I was about to re-enter the ordinary world, to put myself in the thick of New York City, with shops and streets and cars blaring.

My heart and sense organs were open, my walls torn down. I was raw. And I was about to re-enter the ordinary world, to put myself in the thick of New York City, with shops and streets and cars blaring, and the endless tide of anonymous persons surging past me—a disoriented buoy. Then back to Chicago, my hometown, back to my partner and family and the clutter I left behind, knowing all too well that now I had a deep obligation to life and correcting my old errors. No simple task.

But mostly, I understood that in that moment, I was leaving my Shangri-La: the land of authenticity, the community where I’d finally found a tenacious collective agreement to build and protect harmony, to preserve vulnerability and intimate connection, to strive for non-judgment and compassionate listening, and to never be “too busy to be courteous,” as Robert Pirsig wrote.

I was leaving a world that made sense, a world undivided and unimpressed with hegemony, a world without cruelty or alienation or petty feud; a world where shared moments of silence are cherished, instead of being saddled with self-consciousness.

When I looked back at Zuisei, she was holding a smile that seemed to comprehend all I was saying without words. It was a smile she wanted me to see. Then, with casual certainty, she shrugged and said, “But you’ll carry this with you.” And that was all.

Since returning, I’ve thought of the monastery every day. On Sunday mornings, I wonder if Steven and Nolan are covering “Ghost Riders in the Sky” in the empty hall of the Sangha House. I wonder what poems Rakusan is reciting to young writers. I think of Doug walking to the top of Mount Tremper alone in the fresh spring air.

I think of Anastasia and Josh in the kitchen, showing weekend retreaters where to put the Tupperware and woven wooden bowls. And I think of Shugen Roshi, his wizard-like eyes, and all the dharma talks I can’t attend. It’s a kind of homesickness that deepens on days that I struggle to find peace and forbearance.

And yet, I know that my life is irreversibly transformed, that I can’t help but carry it with me in every second, in every interaction. There’s something like a chip in my mind, a constant reminder to move with the least resistance, to act with the least harm. This chip can’t be removed. Zuisei was certain of this, she knew from experience.

I sit on a zafu in my bedroom, folding my legs into Burmese pose and shifting my back and neck up to the ceiling. The whir of my fan reminds me of the loud heating vents in the zendo. I breathe deeply and slowly.

Today and every day, from now on, I practice freedom and ‘awakened cooperation.’ I’m running towards myself, and never again away.

«RELATED READ» INTO THE LAND OF WOO-WOO: My hunt for the Afterlife»

Alexandra Kulik

images courtesy of author

1 2