My last post talked about home, and ended describing how my husband felt at home anywhere, including at an Apple store:
Bernie was at home everywhere except in the Land of Emotions. He didn’t look like a Zen master, he looked like his surroundings. At the Apple store, dressed in jeans, Hawaiian shirt and suspenders, itching for the cigar in his breast pocket, he talked Nerdish. On street retreats he looked like a hobo. In the zendo he was a meditator. Everywhere was home.
The following morning, as I was sitting, it hit me: He was most at home with me. That’s how I should have ended that post. True, the Zen master was home everywhere, but he was most at home with me.
He needed me to be his anchor and harbor, the person who sat across from him at the dinner table and listened to ideas and events, who sometimes said “That’s great, Bernie,” and more often added: “Did you think of this or of that?” This is not self-aggrandizing, it’s basically how it was.
I think many of us hope that by following some spiritual practice—Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, our own custom-made path—we’ll become independent avatars of peace and tranquility, unruffled by life, not needing anybody. Spiritual Rocks of Gibraltar. Or else happily going off on our own, free and untethered, intimate with the stars and sky and avoiding people messes. There are lots of stories and haikus of Japanese masters who are alone in the fields or follow the moon, happy in their worldly solitude.
Bernie Glassman may be seen as an avatar for engaged spirituality, but in the last ten years of his life he used to say: “I’m just Bernie.” Not Sensei, not Roshi, just Bernie. Which reminds me a little of how HH the Dalai Lama likes to say about himself: “I’m just a simple monk.”
I don’t think it’s false humility. The deepest understanding doesn’t pre-empt human feelings and frailty. Enlightenment doesn’t make you invulnerable; it gives you strength even as it makes you more vulnerable than ever: I vow to bear witness, to be touched by the joys and suffering of the world. I vow to be raw, to eschew defensiveness and self-protection. To feel deeply grateful for the ground that holds me up and the morning sun that shines regardless of how deserving I am. It’s hard to speak of publicly.
Bernie had many, many people and things around him—and he had me, whom he needed. In early years he denied that need, but not later on, and especially not after his stroke. Finally, he just wanted to be a human being who needed other humans, too.
And that is true for me, too. I wish like anything that I could have my family down the block, like my Irish friend from Monday. There are times when I weep without it, when I wake up in the morning and think, I don’t have anybody down the block. I used to have a husband, but not now. I used to have two dogs but had to give one up. Now I have Aussie downstairs, and nobody down the block.
Why didn’t I write the sentence: He felt most at home with me? What pushes me to often paint him as self-sufficient and self-contained, seeing through everything? I still need to uncover this because I’m very clear: This is about my need, not his.
My collaborator in The Book of Householder Koans, Roshi Egyoku Nakao, wrote there that it’s important to unveil the hidden motivations behind our spiritual practice. Is it that if I attain some deep understanding nothing will hurt me anymore? That I won’t be dependent on anyone, especially if that person dies and I’m left alone? That the world could throw one thing after another at me—climate change, coronavirus, poverty, massacres—and I will be serene in the face of them all?
As Bernie used to say, when you really understand that we’re all One Body, there may be more to upset you than less. The practice gives me strength and resilience, less reactivity and more responsiveness. But most important, it helps me embrace my humanity.
Yesterday I brushed my hair back hard, trying to straighten it, and put on a new pair of glasses.
“What are you doing?” asks Aussie.
“I’m trying to look like Ruth Bader Ginsberg.”
“She’s a justice on our Supreme Court, Aussie, and her cancer has come back.”
“So, she’ll croak. What’s the big deal?”
“If she croaks, as you so inelegantly put it, Donald Trump will get to put another judge on the Supreme Court. So, a friend of mine had the idea that we should do a Ruth Bader Ginsberg look-alike contest, so that if she goes, the winner puts on her robes and sits on the Court as if nothing happened. Nobody will ever know the difference. What do you think? Do I look like her?”
“Nah, you look like you. You smell like you, you sound like you. You still go hide out in the downstairs bathroom when there’s a thunderstorm outside. You can’t be anybody else but you. My misfortune, but there it is. Ain’t nobody going to adopt you like they did Harry, not even your Supreme Court.”