I travel to the annual conference of the Lay Zen Teachers Association that takes place every Martin Luther King weekend in January. It means waking up at 3:30 in the morning, which means not sleeping much, which comes on top of a few other sleepless nights. We land in a Chicago of rain and heavy fog, but when we take off the plane lifts up, breaks through the ceiling of clouds, and waiting for us is the sun.
How many of you out there also feel at times that you have no idea what’s happening in your body-minds? That energies come up, shake up your system, and you have no idea what they have to do with you?
Yes, I know the psychological stories of the past, I have some sense of the seeds of my confusion. And maybe if I went to a psychiatrist s/he would dangle a few more diagnoses I never considered or even heard of, labels to frame the turmoil and anxiety that often go through me like a tropical storm, Category 3 or 4. You know, you’re walking in the woods, weather looks fine, you feel collected and calm, normal so to speak, and a sudden wind starts spitting out twigs and branches all around, a waterfall crashes on top of your head, and you say: What the — ? Where did that come from?
And none of the stories of your past or, for that matter, the present seem to connect to this. You look around for the familiar triggers—after all, haven’t we studied ourselves for years?—and don’t find a thing.
Just the previous night at dinner Bernie teased me by calling me by my Hebrew name, Chavale, in that old Yiddish intonation from East Europe, and I made a face. I like the light Israeli Hebrew way of saying that name, I told him, but not the East European, which is heavy and drags; in fact, I don’t relate much to my East European roots. But now I think again because back there, they knew of dybbuks, maniacal, occasionally destructive souls that take over your psyche and act out their own life in you rather than letting you live your life.
The Buddhist side of me shakes her head. There’s only one life, the voice says, and that’s the life of this moment that the words this moment can’t capture, it’s this that the word this can’t capture. What are you getting yourself tied up in knots for? And you call yourself a teacher!
But for me teacher has nothing to do with equanimity; I’ve never pretended to be a mountain. There is no Mount Eve in any land, I’m quite sure. For me teaching—and living, for that matter—have much more to do with a reshuffling of the cards, followed by another reshuffling, and another and another. Always a new deal, a new game, with some invisible players joining whom you can’t even see never mind check out their finances to see if they can pay up.
I’m off to Texas folks, wild country, but it’s even wilder inside. Winds of change blow through, and it’s my tough luck if they wait to do this till the middle of the night. Where do they come from? From my present? The past? My parents’ past? The dawn of time?
Sometimes they knock, but lately, maybe because they know I’ve put away my guns, they just walk right in.
You’re strangers, I tell them. I know my own ghosts and sorrows; you I don’t recognize.
Who cares, they say, just make room in the bed, we can all fit.
You know what time it is? You know I’m getting up in just a few hours?
You want us to stay outside in the cold? You wouldn’t do it to a dog.
I start sitting while lying down. I become mindful of my breath, the bed against my back, the sounds made by Stanley and Bernie, the heat coming up.
Stop fidgeting, they tell me.
You’re not letting me sleep. You’re too stormy and violent, please get out of this bed.
You’re sending us into exile, you of all people? You’re the Roshi, you’re supposed to know how to let us in. Let us in, let go, let us in, let go. So nu, Roshi, why can’t you help us find some peace?