Thursday, March 31, 2011

the screw turns

It's almost comical how the screw turns and what once was derided becomes the fact in your are now what once you shunned.

After writing a letter yesterday that took exception to a local rabbi's newspaper column about a local effort to boycott Israeli goods, I got into a small email discussion with Frank, a longtime friend and fellow Zen Buddhist, about a trip we had once made to a Ch'an (Chinese Zen) temple in Queens, N.Y. I said I remembered the trip because I never did find out what the small towel placed on each meditation cushion was supposed to be for. Was it to be placed over the hands, to keep them warm? I didn't know. Frank said he thought perhaps it had something to do with preserving spiritual energy ... and besides, how could anyone get cold hands during zazen (seated meditation practice)? I said that the older I got, the colder it got and there were quite a few times when, during nippy winter mornings, my hands did in fact get cold. I conceded that this was probably a reflection of a weak and wobbly practice, but that didn't stop my hands from getting cold. The to-and-fro was not one of those solemn conversations that meditation students can indulge in ... we were pretty much just shooting the breeze.

But my cold hands inspired Frank to mention that he no longer laughed at older people who could be slow when getting up from the meditation cushion. Both of us had been go-getter Zen students at one time, but now I was 71 and Frank was, I think, somewhere in his 60's. Frank said his feet still got numb when sitting and I said that getting up required the judicious placement of hands on the floor for leverage. In the once-upon-a-time of the past, each of us might have bounded up like a yo-yo on a string, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and anxious to do Zen 'right' -- with a vim and vigor that would attest to our 'serious' commitment. Now, to differing degrees, we were both victims of time, consigned to the old song lyrics that observed, "my get-up-and-go has got up and went."

The screw turns. What was once on the far side of youthful rambunctiousness was now on the very near side indeed. But it was a good lesson indeed. Yes, we could whine with the best of them about the "ravages of age" and associated whines, but with meditation practice as a background or upbringing, it was a good time to reflect: Zen is not so much a matter of vim and vigor -- though a lazy approach isn't likely to accomplish much. It's about mind. And even that may be subject to revision. :)

I see nothing special about whining. It's like talking about the weather -- a way to fill a conversational lull or assert my importance. But these days I don't take it quite so seriously.

I do think it's a good idea to try on the clothes of the thoughts and beliefs that stand in contrast to our own. And not just as an oh-so-tolerant assertion of self. Is there really so much contrast? Is the one point of view really disconnected or distinctly different from the other. Don't get me wrong, I still think anchovies suck, but I can recognize them as a food that might nourish others.

When the joke's on me, I like to laugh.

1 comment:

  1. The towel/blanket is placed over the legs, or sometimes draped over the shoulders (mainly, I've seen female practitioners do this). It keeps you warm (sitting for long periods in drafty temples can really cool you down) and some feel that it retains and stabilizes spiritual energy (i.e. chi). I've encountered this at Chinese and Thai temples, there are probably some other ones that use it too.