I was at the dentist yesterday undergoing a root canal procedure, with a dentist and an assistant hovering over me.
I couldn’t talk (Whatever happens, don’t close your mouth!). I was further incapacitated by the heavy x-ray “blanket” they drape on you before taking x-rays, which they did several times during the procedure.
I usually like to tease Dr. Kim when he works on me. Once I wore a mala of skulls around my wrist and he asked me about it. “It’s the heads of all the dentists who screwed up my teeth,” I told him. He laughed so hard he had to put down his instrument.
Nothing doing this time. “Can’t you at least give me a running narrative of what’s going on?” I managed to garble out, but he shook his head, working quickly. He’d been delayed due to an emergency patient in the adjoining treatment room.
In the middle of it all, as the nurse prepared to do another x-ray, I sat up a few inches and saw a framed picture of these words: “You are my happy place.” I groaned and lay back. And remembered this Zen koan:
”Iron Grindstone Liu arrived at Kuei Shan. Kuei Shan said, ‘Old cow, so you’ve come!’
The Grindstone said, ‘Tomorrow there’s a great communal feast on T’ai Shan, are you going to go, Teacher?’
Kuei Shan relaxed his body and lay down; the Grindstone immediately left.”
Ah, the exquisite idiosyncrasies of Chan koan literature! Iron Grindstone Liu was a woman, an accomplished teacher, one of the very few women teachers mentioned. She could grind you right down to the essence if you engaged with her, hence her nickname. And yes, Old Cow was her teacher’s affectionate, respectful name for her.
She asked him if he was going to a big event. What did he do? He lay down. Maybe the floor was his happy place. Being the great Chan master he was, any place would have been his happy place.
Sometimes, in these days of covid, I want to go out and have fun. I miss live music, I miss dinners out, I miss going out with friends.
Much of my life has been full of activity. Even now, at the age of 71, I feel like I go from one thing to another to another, one job to the next to the next to the next, and at times I could feel a rushing energy go through my body that whispers: Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! I take a deep breath, even walk out into the back yard and visit with Kwan-yin, but the voice continues: If you don’t hurry you won’t get this done or that, you won’t blog, you won’t be ready for the class tomorrow, you won’t answer emails, and then the day ends. Your life will end, so hurry!
I’m taking things off my plate so that I could slow down. Don’t need to go to the great communal feast on T’ai Shan—or anywhere else, for that matter. I can lie down on whatever patch of earth life gives me and feel that I am already here, nothing remains to be done because it’s all here. My happy place.
Bernie was full of action when he was younger. There were always a million projects going on around him, people hurried, people ran, but he, the center of it all, didn’t hurry, not even once. He wouldn’t speed on the road even if we were late to the airport, he’d be as cool as a cucumber. Someone would tailgate or cut us off; no four-letter word would come out of his mouth. Not a gasp, not a gulp, no sudden inhalation. He’d pause, then go on talking just as before after making sure the car was right.
He had lots of destinations, but he fully inhabited wherever he was—including that final bed in the emergency room of the hospital where he died.
Sometimes we’d plan to do something—have a talk, go out—and I’d say, “I’m quickly making this phone call” or “I’m quickly going to the bathroom. And he’d say, “You don’t have to do it quickly.”
Finally, after all these years, I’m taking his advice. I’ve always been a very slow student.
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