from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Thursday, 11 October 2012

zen on the edge and saying yes

Rain and more rain – water dripping down our quarry-face, loitering in the courtyard, flooding the lanes. Punctuating it are moments of brightness, like the flocks of rose and lilac outdoor mini cyclamen, clustering around tree roots, and the amber and green swarms of fallen leaves on the road, and the brilliant scarlet berries of that magical tree, the rowan. Driving across the moor on Thursday with its strong southwesterlies jackdaws were playing with and hawks and falcons hovering on the wind. The sky that day was nearly clear, with wisps of mare's tail clouds hovering above the tors, and the sea was visible at and south of Plymouth Sound – a smear of silver.

Floods everywhere. The last stragglers of swallows and house martins – late or second broods – flip through the air any time there's a brief let-up in the deluge in search of the few insects also braving the elements. The adults left a few weeks ago – the young swallows and martins will need to make their own way across the continent and ocean, at just a few months old.

I've resisted the great tits congregating pointedly in the courtyard on the fallen-over-in-the-flood buddleia next to the seedfeeders – it's earlier than I'd normally start feeding, and it seems to me there are still seedheads around, but they are pretty insistent.

The witch hazel's yellowing. This year, our apple harvest has been – nil. Too much wind for the blossom, too much rain and cold for the bees, too many wasps and slugs for the pathetic handful of apples that one of the ten trees produced.

There are hawthorn berries everywhere: a sludge in the lanes, half-eaten by squirrels on tops of gates.

A blaze of marigolds and nasturtiums still lights the kitchen garden. There's a ghosting of Michaelmas daisies – rather sad, outriders of summer that they are.


Well, that resolve lasted a couple of days. The feeders are installed and the tits, finches and nuthatches are back, though the woodpeckers may have given up on me.

Days of deep mist and rain; the valley is softly autumning.

Next door, the usual three elderly and creaky black-faced lop-eared rams are consorting with the flock of ewes: each year they get wheeled in; all of them hobbling and lame, they alternate between bursts of very focused and fast, albeit limping, activity, and lolling prone by the stream, completely, shall we say, shagged out to the extent that they can't even graze.


My mum has been dead for 335 days. Each day I think of something else I long to tell her.

And my heart stutters these weeks – it is, of course, years of over-riding my physical and heart-nature needs. I am shocked but not surprised. ECGs show up a condition that is not in itself life-threatening, but increases my risk, added to my high blood pressure, of heart attack and stroke (my dad has had both).

The French, with their instinct for subtlety and nuance, call it a crise de coeur, a 'crisis of the heart'. I notice how a cri de coeur – a cry from the heart – is almost the same phrase. In English we call it a 'heart attack', or 'cardiac arrest' – as if it were an assault from outside us.

This is indeed for me a 'cri de coeur'. I know this. I am lucky to have kept going this long without stopping or taking notice of my needs. There has been so much loss, so much stress, so little rest over such a long time for me – and as I write this I'm grateful for the fact that I'm not in a war-zone, not in danger of starvation, not oppressed, or frightened for my life (well actually in A&E twice lately I have been, a bit) &c.

But our condition is one of living with joy and sorrow both – that's simply how it is – whatever our circumstances; and we do best to say 'YES' to it all; simply YES. It's the resistance that brings the suffering.

So there has to be a YES to opening my heart over and over to the dharma, which is simply the Way – the journey; in this case right here right now, to what my heart is telling me.

And here on my meditation stool this morning, having decided at last to give myself rest, so a lazy start to Bach on the CD player and a gentle breakfast by the courtyard window, here on the stool I meet those old friends, the 'five hindrances' of the human condition, according to Buddhism: craving, aversion, apathy, anxiety, doubt.

I've been doing this for decades. They don't go away, these old friends; utterly loyal, we meet each other over and over. The good news is I don't fight them so much any more – not quite. I nod, and let my attention rest again in silence. And again. And again. Yes, that's progress!

'We all dread the helplessness of losing control, and yet real freedom lies in recognizing the futility of demanding that life be within our control. Instead, we must learn the willingness to feel—to say yes to—the experience of helplessness itself. This is one of the hidden gifts of serious illness or loss. It pushes us right to our edge, where we may have the good fortune to realize that our only real option is to surrender to our experience and let it just be.' (Ezra Bayda, "The Three Things We Fear Most"; from Tricycle Daily Dharma)

Zazen, Zen sitting meditation, is one of the toughest practices, it seems to me. When sitting, you simply – SIT. How hard is that? When I was a teenager muddling my way towards some sort of path that was spiritual but not 'religious' or monotheistic I learned all kinds of lovely soothing meditation practices with candles and mantras and mudras and visualisations and substitutions of positives for negatives and 'bringing in the light' and chants and prayerbeads. Dreamy trancey stuff.

Then one day I decided I'd give 'proper' Zen meditation a go. Boy, was it tough. Bearing in mind I was a romantic young thing, into poetry, music, New Age stuff and a little experimentation with soft drugs, Zazen shocked me awake.

One austere white room. Half a dozen scary-looking austere silent men, all much older than me. Two forty-minute sitting sessions, facing the white wall, eyes a little open. No movement. No mantra. No guidance. No distraction, not even a candle. No words. Twenty minutes silent slow walking in between the two forty-minute sitting 'sesshins'. My mind, cartwheeling, freefalling, bored, running amok, disliking intensely this confrontation with – itself, no distraction.

Zazen is also perhaps, it seems to me, one of the most courageous meditation practices. You don't attempt to fill the emptiness that arises when we're no longer distracted. You simply watch the mind – its games, its addictions, its evasions and duckings and divings, its endless babble. You watch it. This is how it is. You don't need to hang onto any of it, though the mind will try and try.

Sometimes, just sometimes, you break through this chatter and you fly free, for a little while – 'free of the false, free of the true' as the Zenrin has it. Free of all our conceptualisations, as well as our preoccupations. 'Me, you, these walls, these books, all gone like a waterfall over a cliff.'

I have other spiritual practices besides, mainly on the turning dates of the year, that draw on my transpersonal, druidic/pagan/esoteric, Western Mystery Tradition values, but Zazen is core. It's like the movement from a very beautiful very elaborate celebration in an ornate temple (the pagan-type work) to a very simple hut in the woods. How little we need, not how much.

Zen is a practice to do with cutting through the games of ego. It's integrative rather than transcendental – and as someone who craves transcendental experience it's been really useful and grounding for me to stay with something unshowy and simple and direct. The aim is to enquire, to see clearly, into the nature of reality by becoming aware and slipping the bonds of the things that keep us stuck: our fears, our anger and resistance, our greed, our dislikes, our cravings; and seeing them all as ways of distracting ourselves, as reactive constructs of the ego-mind that sit between us and All That Is.

Yep, it's still as hard, sometimes, as when I was a teenager. Sometimes it's not. I'm learning not to resist or judge. And I have discovered that Zazen is the candle. And my heart likes this spaciousness that opens up if I can just sit with everything exactly as it is, without needing to change it or move away or towards it.


Blog Archive