WHAT’S A ROMANTIC DOING IN ZEN?

Photo by Peter Cunningham

I quoted Lao-Tzu the other day: “Eyes unclouded by longing.“ Words sent me by a friend.

To get to a point of no longing smack in the middle of birth and death, where he is right now, is quite something, perhaps finally essential. I did a lot of that practice after Bernie became ill. There was so much to accept, so much to make peace with,. Four months before he died, in early summer, I felt that I had reached the place my friend refers to as articulated by Lao-Tzu, and by other masters as well. I had eyes unclouded by longing.

But here I am in Switzerland to lead retreat with one of my students, and someone pointed out that it’s my first time in Europe after Bernie died. We always loved coming to Switzerland, to warm and welcoming friends, teachers, and students. To a challenge posed by two Zen teachers who taught together: Work more in partnership together, they urged us. The world needs to see more partnerships between men and women. We had trouble with that because ours was both a vertical and horizontal relationship, unlike theirs. Some things came into fruition, some did not; that, too, is what you work with at the end of a marriage’s lifetime.

Has longing disappeared? Have I reached the point of being at peace with things as they are?

The photographer Peter Cunningham took the photo above some 23 years ago, when we were back in Yonkers. There must have been a work meeting and it must have been summer because I’m sitting outside with Woody, my Golden Retriever, by my side, and I’m gazing at something. Where? Who knows? Probably at some panorama of endless possibilities visible only to me. I was such a romantic at heart. Not romantic only in love (Bernie and I were not a couple at the time), but romantic in the sense of Goethe and Wordsworth (in fact my dog was called Wordsworth, Woody for short).

My father loved the photo so I gave it to him. A few years after he died in 2015, his widow moved to a new home and a new life, so I took the photo back. And now, as I was doing my own post-death clean-up, I found it again and wondered what to do with it.

Should I trash the photo? Is there room for a romantic in Zen practice?

The face is younger, of course, and also filled with hope, longing, yearning, curiosity. There’s a road still ahead of that woman, she’s sure of it. She’s such a romantic.

What’s a woman like that doing leading a Zen retreat in Switzerland? Aren’t we told again and again to close the circle between life as it is and life as we’d like it to be? But there she goes, looking beyond the hedge to what lies outside, wondering, always wondering about the possibilities.

When I was a child I was a dreamer. I didn’t like people because I was afraid of them, afraid of social situations where I was such a dork (I was a dork before the word was invented). So I went into my dreams. I could sit in a car full of people and be gone, having terrific conversations inside about the meaning of life while they talked about the weather and the next Jewish holiday coming up. My mother often turned around, saw me, and got angry: Stop dreaming! Don’t be so anti-social.

The woman in 1996 was still dreaming. And the woman now? A lot less, but her eyes are still clouded by longing, a perpetual reaching out even with no grasp in sight. She could never be a pragmatist like her husband was, his feet securely on the ground even as the rest of him went flying. But when his life filled up with uncertainty, when he could no longer do what he used to do, his eyes, too, became more tender and ethereal.

When your legs can’t hold you up anymore you give up even the last, tiniest pretense of solidity and accept the fact that all you are is stardust. There’s a weeping beauty in that realization, and the deepest love imaginable.

The blog will be silent till early next week.