This morning I was reading an Internet post by a fellow who had recently returned from a retreat. His tradition is not exactly like Zen practice, but the fundamentals are the same, so I read most of it and thought it was a nice thing to do, posting a travelogue of reflections ... outsiders may wonder what, exactly, anyone does at a retreat, so reading some words can inspire some confidence ... or perhaps just less doubt.
The whole thing made me remember Zen retreats I had been to. I was never any good at them, but one aspect that stood out for me was this: For two or seven days, a group of people would get together, erect their spines, pay attention as best they might and ... remain largely silent. It had quite an effect, as anyone who has been to such a thing can attest. In that silence there was some something-or-other that seemed to take root or express itself.
But it was the silent aspect that crossed my recollecting mind this morning: Seven days of (give or take) silence and at the end of that time, there might be a little farewell tea.
And after seven days of silence, the tea room would be positively packed with conversation...conversation I enjoyed as much as anyone else. But it was strange to think: What the hell would anyone who had just finished seven days in silence have to talk about? There was something silly about it and yet serious as well ... I've got nothing to talk about, really, and still I can talk the hind leg off a dog.
During such farewell teas, some, of course, would not join the conversations. Thin-lipped and persevering, they seemed to want to hold on tight to the wisdoms and depths of silence, as if the silences they recalled might somehow save them from the world of the monkey mind they had come to the retreat to address. They refused to be swayed by tea room chatter. The 'teacher' of that time was among such thin-lipped postulants. He seemed to want to 'set and example:' Just because the retreat and its disciplines was over didn't mean the retreat and its disciplines was over. And there were others who emulated his example.
Not me. I chattered and rolled around verbally like a puppy on the living room carpet. Woo-hoo! But I noticed the contrast of the talkative tea with the seven days just past and had my doubts about my own chitter-chatter delight. A part of me wanted to be kool and thin-lipped and 'determined' as well. It never worked, but that didn't mean I didn't wish I were somehow better, more serene, more contained, more erect, more constant, more vigilant, more ... well, improved somehow. I had come to the retreat with some wispy or perhaps very specific notion of improvement and here I was going home still wishing for some improvement. Three- or four-hundred bucks down the drain and, after seven days, I had gotten precisely nowhere.
Improvements. I guess they're like the rueful male observation about women: "Can't live with 'em; can't live without 'em."
It hadn't really sunk in at the time what seems obvious now: It's not the profundities of silence nor the shallowness of so-called monkey mind that matter so much. Bliss comes and bliss goes. Confusion comes and confusion goes. What matters is the knee-jerk willingness to grasp and hold and believe and box the wonders and horrors of either. If someone were 'holy,' of what possible use would that be? If someone were 'damned,' the same question needs to be asked.
In words, we sometimes lay emphasis on the word "sometimes." Sometimes silent. Sometimes chattering. Sometimes blissfully clear. Sometimes confused and unclear. Sometimes ... well, just sometimes.
But talk is just talk and anyone can say "sometimes." It is the grasping and rebellious and emotionally-convinced heart that needs unraveling and pacifying. And no one can pacify this heart with talk ... or silence either. It's your heart, after all, and if the invocation of "sometimes" is to have any meaning and bring any peace, it has to be in your heart ... you know, the messy, improvement-oriented, tender and tough, happy and sad, horny and satisfied, wide and narrow, thin-lipped-with-discipline and chattering-like-a-jaybird heart that is your very own life.
Can you improve what can't be improved?
Maybe it's like trying to climb a greased pole. There may be a wonderful prize to the man or woman who can do it, but no one can climb a greased pole.
Our imagined prizes always lead to defeat.
Maybe when we learn to set aside the notion of improvement, things can improve a bit.
Sometimes I think so.