This Side of Nirvana: excerpts

Introduction: Inadvertent Refuge

For as long as I can remember, I believed I needed to do something to improve my life. I was most attracted to programs of my own devising, which tended to be grandiose and vague: abandoning all else for true love, abandoning all else for a Cause. Methods urged by others—eat right and exercise, relax, smile—came in for consideration as well, and some of my plans had features in common with one or another spiritual path, such as observing a day of rest. Once, having read about the benefits of concentrating attention on one’s respiration, the only physiological function that is both voluntary and involuntary, I resolved to be aware of my breathing for the rest of my life (when I wasn’t busy thinking, of course). Occasionally, I imagined an alternative to imposing any discipline at all, believing, however briefly, that happiness surely would be found in doing whatever I wanted to do.
spacerOne after another, life-improvement programs rose on the horizon of my expectations, and I never quite noticed the point at which each evaporated somewhere overhead. But the subsequent anxiety was unfaceable, so I would quickly cast around for the next idea on how to make everything better. Eventually, the exquisite hopefulness that attended each new beginning grew dull with repetition, and I feared I would never figure out what it was I should be doing, much less do it.
spacerIn fact, there was nothing terribly wrong with my life. I had, however, prolonged well into my thirties a restlessness that suits late adolescence but palls in its second decade, then grows urgent and depressing and embarrassing. My first fifteen years of adulthood were scattered among six universities, a dozen cities, and several countries, with a romance for each new place, along with assorted jobs and periods of dropping out to do some serious wondering about what it all meant. The idea of settling down crossed my mind now and then, but I could not decide what to settle down to, or with—or where, or why.
spacerAn immediate dissatisfaction that helped propel me into spiritual practice, I suspect, was that I had ended up teaching art history. Liking art is one thing, and teaching the history of it, I found, is quite another. One day during the last term that I taught, standing in the darkened room beside a slide projection of Rembrandt’s “Three Trees,” I suddenly became unable to speak. My silence probably lasted only a few seconds, but because it was involuntary, it disturbed me, and I entertained dire thoughts about my mental health. Looking back, I see that incident in a different light. It was as if a firm but kindly hand gripped me, held me still, so I could see the truth: I loved presenting those glowing images for people to admire, but I did not like trying to explain art.
spacerAfter I had left academic life and begun to practice meditation, I noticed two interesting developments. First, the tendency to define beauty ever more narrowly was reversed, along with the concomitant need to reject things because they are not beautiful. Second, my interest shifted from talking about beauty to simply enjoying it.
spacerLong before I knew much about meditation, I already considered it my best chance for learning how to live. Meditation promised balance, and, between the extremes of grasping and despair, a center in which to rest. Meditation might undo the deleterious effects of academic life—all that reading, writing, and talking about things of no consequence to most of humanity—and restore the natural abilities to live more fully in the world. Yes, I thought: meditation must be the answer. Inward and upward!
spacerHaving looked for answers in the most obvious places in my own culture, from the wisdom preserved in great books to the latest fashions in psychotherapy, with intermittent forays into hedonism, I was ready to look elsewhere. This book is an account of where I looked and what I found.
spacerThe last resort, for me, was Buddhism.
spacerFortunately, this path can be followed by anybody, even those of us who need remedial training in concentration or who, for whatever reasons, consider ourselves “spiritually challenged.” Indeed, that is where the path begins: sitting still with a wandering, restless mind. Noticing and accepting all one’s imperfections, again and again and yet again. Learning to love, in spite of everything.
spacerNor does the path require that we approach it with noble intentions. What I brought to my spiritual seeking was the one thing I had going for me all along, although it took time to recognize its importance—the sincerity of my simple wish to be happy.

In the Sauna

What we seek lies in our moment-to-moment
experience; where to look is always here, now.

We all met in the meditation hall after supper to hear how the retreat would be structured. Cheri, wearing a long black skirt and black kimono top, walked to the front of the room, removed the cushion and mat from the platform, placed them on the floor, bowed, and sat down facing us. Then she outlined the schedule for sitting and walking meditation and the two work periods during the day. . . and described the procedure for personal guidance interviews, which would be held in the sauna. You would sign up for a fifteen-minute slot, and a few minutes ahead of time you would go to the sauna. Outside would be a chair and a small gong. At the time of your appointment, you would strike the gong, and when you heard an answering bell from inside, the person ahead of you would come out, and you would go in.
spacerSilence would be observed throughout the retreat, Cheri said. She gave no instruction in meditation, and she did not mention Buddhism.
spacerWe sat very still. The sounds outside—the stream, the wind—filled my awareness.
spacerAfter a while, Cheri slid her right hand back into the kimono sleeve, where it rummaged in the deep corner and emerged with a Kleenex. I watched with rapt attention as she dabbed at her nose. Then she spoke, very softly.
spacer“Our practice is quite simple, really. It’s to pay attention. Not to do anything. Not to get anything. Not to learn anything. Not to change anything. But to pay attention, because everything you are seeking is present in each and every moment. If you’re busy trying to change, you’re missing it. Don’t worry about trying to do life differently. Just see how it is.”
spacerA woman in the front of the room said that she didn’t see how you could avoid trying to do things. How would you function?
spacerCheri stuffed the Kleenex into the opposite sleeve of her kimono. “If you are content to be with exactly what is, each moment, functioning is not a problem. You’ll function as the need arises. The medieval mystic Meister Eckhart talks about having nothing, wanting nothing, needing nothing. To be completely at one with what is means there’s nothing left over to have any difficulties. That’s what this practice is about.”
spacerThere was a long silence. Then Cheri spoke again.
spacer“If I had one wish for everybody, it would be that you get really interested in how all this works. It’s much more enjoyable if you remember that this is an opportunity to figure out the universe. You have this person, yourself, available for scrutiny. It’s as if you put yourself under a microscope in order to find out everything there is to know about how a person operates, and then you know how everything operates. It’s also better if you remember that this is a path of compassion, this is a process designed to end suffering. If we can find the compassion to simply sit still with this person,” she pointed to herself, “as she or he is—not having an idea that I can improve this person or fix this person or enlighten this person, just that I’m going to sit down and be with this person—it’s much easier.
spacer“There’s nowhere to go on this path. There’s nothing to accomplish. The moment you move into your heart of compassion, you are there. And you don’t have to be a perfect person to do that. You can simply be present to whatever you are, moment by moment by moment. You don’t have to understand, you don’t have to be bright or clever, you don’t have to know a single thing about Buddhism. Whatever happens, embrace it in compassion, and let go of everything else.”

* * *
. . . When my turn came, Cheri suggested that we go inside the sauna because it was getting too warm for her in the sun. We climbed in, arranged ourselves on the two black cushions, and sat. Some moments passed in silence, long, still moments, in which I noticed that, to my amazement, there was really nothing wrong.
spacerFinally, Cheri whispered, “How can I be of assistance?”
spacerNo question came to mind. Since I did not feel free to remain silent, or to say, “I don’t know,” I said I was confused about what I was doing in sitting meditation.
spacer“Well,” said Cheri, “let’s look at it this way. That which you are seeking is that which causes you to seek. So your heart says ‘Sit,’ and when you sit, then you are following your heart, you are being at one with that which is guiding and directing your life.”
spacerI wondered what that meant; it sounded suspiciously theistic. She went on to say something even more surprising.
spacer“It’s not necessary to be absolutely present for extended periods in your meditation for it to have an effect. We’re not measuring this in time and space. There is a way of grasping your willingness to be present that does not involve standards and competition and judging yourself and that sort of thing. It’s like being in the presence of someone you really admire and respect and care a great deal for. You just don’t tend to nod off, you don’t daydream and make shopping lists, because you really want to be there. It’s that attitude with which we can learn to sit.”
spacer“I’m a long way from that,” I said. I confessed that I had begun to dread sitting, using work as an excuse to avoid it when I could.
spacer“And how does that make you feel?” she asked.
spacerI described the anxiety I experienced anticipating meditation, the frustration I felt sitting on the cushion thinking about what a failure I was, and the shame that sickened me when I manufactured excuses to avoid going to the meditation hall.
spacer“Suffering. Do you see that? Do you see how it works?” Cheri asked. “You know, almost everybody I talk to about spiritual growth has one deep, underlying concern, and that is everything they’re going to have to give up. It almost never occurs to anybody that all they’re going to give up is suffering.”
spacerThe best I could do with that idea was to quit sitting altogether. I knew it fell short of true acceptance, but at least it was not perpetuating the agony.

* * *
Spiritual growth can take place in some pretty roundabout ways. In this instance, I suspect that temporarily giving up on meditation—or, rather, giving up stewing about it (I had yet to discover that I could stop stewing without stopping sitting)—helped me quit perpetuating agonies in general. It felt so good just to be going about my life, without dragging around that pernicious sense of Something Wrong. . . .
spacer[Cheri] agreed that I was probably enjoying the results of letting up on myself about meditation, and she suggested that I notice how good it felt to let go of suffering. In the long run, though, she thought it likely that I would suffer again. I was like someone who had moved from a poor neighborhood to a nice part of town, she said, and was enjoying my bright new life. But I had left behind a houseful of crying, hungry children—unacceptable aspects of myself—to whom, sooner or later, I would have to return. I was the only one who could take care of them, and it was there, and there alone, that I would learn compassion.

In Silence: Practice

A pane of glass separates me from the world.
spacerFor most of my life, I was unaware of it, although often I had the sense of something in my way, restricting my movement, boxing me in, creating problems, something just not right.
spacerWhen I step back and look from a different angle, the glass works as a mirror, reflecting the world–or rather my idea of the world, which is to say, myself. I practice looking at those reflected images because that seems to be the only way to see through them, to understand their nature, and to see beyond.
spacerFrom another angle, I see that the glass is smeared and crusted with dirt, old dirt, accumulated over a long, long time. Little by little, I am clearing small areas, the easy ones first.
spacerA woman’s version of the Zen classic, polishing the mirror, this is housewife Zen: washing windows.
spacerThrough the clear spaces, I see fragments of a bright and free reality. It is no different from the life I already know; to my unending surprise, it is, in fact, identical with it. But seen through the clear glass, this very same life has nothing wrong with it. It is fine just as it is.
spacerI treasure each of those glimpses. A boy making noise in the meditation hall–is simply a boy making noise in the meditation hall. A monk puts his lips out to touch a swaying willow branch, standing still while it comes and goes, comes and goes. Life happening in the form of trees, wasps, sleet, touch, walking, thoughts, laughter. The humanness of the teacher, baffling, maddening, disappointing, endearing, enlightening, so precious and poignant. My own fear, and my willingness to admit it. These are tiny openings into my heart and back again into the world. Everything is here and then gone; I am here, in the midst of it. When I am still, the world explodes around me in its infinite perfection.
spacerAs I work away at the window-washing, the clear areas of glass get bigger, there are more of them, and the scene before me is more complete. The more I see, the more I want to clear away whatever obscures my view.
spacerIt goes a lot faster with somebody working on the other side. The teacher is there, scrubbing, it seems, more energetically than I am, and tapping her finger at spots and blurs I’ve missed and stubborn smudges I try to ignore. I am encouraged by her presence. She looks me in the eye with a steady clarity that is at once a challenge, a refuge, a blessing. Sometimes she seems not to see me. Sometimes, when she knows I’m staring at her, she ducks out of sight. Sometimes I look for her and see my own reflection.
spacerOne approach I’ve heard of is to break the glass and be done with it. Maybe a time will come when I want to do that–or when the teacher tricks me into it. But shattered glass still has to be cleaned up.
spacerFor now, I’m content just to scrub, patiently, systematically clearing ever larger areas. Then I’ll see. For now, this is where I take refuge, in the practice itself.

* * *