Thursday, November 4, 2010

just the facts, ma'am

In Indonesia, a powerful volcano has been spewing lava and ash sporadically during the last week or so. Each time it subsides, evacuated residents try to return to their homes, only to be ousted anew.

A news story this morning began like this:

Nov 4, 5:11 AM (ET)

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia (AP) - Towering clouds of hot ash gushed from the mouth of Indonesia's deadly volcano Thursday, hours after its most explosive eruption in a deadly week sent screaming women and children fleeing mountainside villages and emergency shelters.

Scientists - shaking their heads as they watched the wide, fast sweeps of a needle on a seismograph - worried that the worst might be yet to come.

Some things seem to be like that -- explosive, disrupting and somehow endless. Each new hope of reprieve is dashed as another gush, another explosion fills the universe. Memory and hope entreat the universe ... this is unbearable! ... and yet events require still further endurance. Hope and belief are useless. Numbness doesn't work. Kindness is shredded. Intellect is stupid.

Death, disease, drugs, divorce and other situations: Make it stop! But there is no stopping....

Once, at a sesshin or Zen meditation retreat, I was experiencing a lot of pain in my legs. At sesshin, everyone sits still and silent for periods of 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 minutes at a time. The periods are interspersed with walking meditation (kinhin), but invariably each student returns to his or her cushion to sit some more. Over and over again.

I was sitting and my mind was full of whimpering and screams and anger and a half-baked defeat and then some more screaming. Explosion after explosion, moment after moment of being forced from my home -- a home in which the agony of my legs was absent. Seconds were like hours. And there was no reprieve, no the-end, no return to sanity, no roof over my head or walls to protect me. I was angry at and envious of the others who sat so still and uncomplaining in the room -- how could they not see the pain I was in? How could they be so still and composed? How come they were so much better than I was? Why wouldn't they share their serenity with me? Where was their compassion? It's their fault! ... aaarrrghhhh!

And still the volcano exploded ... hips, knees ... agony in waves and spasms and endlessly.

And then, towards the end of one particular sitting, as my mind squirmed and screamed, "I can't do this!!!!!" a small conversion appeared. That conversion didn't change anything in my legs, but it did clarify the scenery. The thought that arose like pure water was that at the same time I was wailing, "I can't do this!!!!" -- at precisely the same moment -- I was, in fact, doing it. There was no consolation in the fact, but there was a sense of release.

Naturally, the release didn't last long. I was so habituated to my aches and pains and complaints that I really didn't want the facts to interfere. Somehow I didn't have the strength for them ... just the facts. But that one small moment did instill some of what I think of as fruitful doubt. It was a seed.

The inescapable was just the inescapable. Isn't that the case in every moment? I think it is, but I also think it takes some practice to be able to stick with the the facts... as if there were any other choice. :)

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