© Jean-Paul Bourdier, land art, no title
© Jean-Paul Bourdier, land art, no title

I can’t really say when the decline of my meditation practice began. It was sometime after 9/11, but that had nothing to do with it. Indeed, there was no one event that caused it. I was going along, doing my obligatory morning sitting and Lectio Divina (scriptural reading) practice, attending the requisite Sunday sitting group and following the traditional rites and rituals. But gradually, one by one, these routines began to seep out of my daily to-do lists, which brings me closer to the cause of the tumble. When something interesting and vital becomes part of a routine, part of a schedule, a certain life force can leak out of the activity, like a drip in the kitchen sink. It was this drip that kept me from practice for about two years, as I continued to look for a plumber, or at least a wrench.

No one tapped me on the shoulder to question my fall from grace. The followers of other paths like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam more often intercede when one of their flock strays. The minister or rabbi or mullah pays a visit, for tea perhaps, but really to inquire after the well-being of the parishioner. “I’m concerned,” they might say. “I haven’t seen you in church lately.” And this opens the floodgates of soul searching, doubts, and regrets, prompting in response an assurance of understanding and perhaps a compassionate chiding—urging, really—to return to the fold. I’ve rarely seen a Buddhist teacher reach out in such proactive ways. But recently I found myself at the receiving end of just such a talk.

Some months ago, Zen monk Bruce Fortin, the leader of my Sunday Sangha in Sebastopol, California, put out an email (at least I hadn’t been dropped from his list) calling us to honor dead loved ones at the next sitting. With this door cracked open, I sent the names of my parents, grandparents, and best boyhood friend (who died in a car crash in college) to be read at the ceremony. I didn’t know it at the time, but this hopeful gesture was the start of my return. A few days later, I received a personal note from Bruce inviting me to dinner, on him.

We had a robust meal with fine and funfilled conversation until he asked, “So, how’s your practice?” Unprepared with any good response, I began to babble incoherently. Bruce counterpunched: “So why haven’t you been coming to Sunday Sangha?” Bloodied and sprawled out on the mat, I answered, “Just lazy, I guess.” He laughed, extolling what he took for blunt honesty, but down deep I knew I was just bullshitting him. I am anything but lazy. I was simply unwilling to share with him my deep doubts and struggles with the Buddhist practice.

Bruce’s questions were the first to challenge the internal discourse that rationalized my absence from formal practice. He was staging an intervention of sorts, for he recognized that the slippery slope I was on was a manufacture of my own mind.

My practice now had more to do with time in nature, I said to Bruce. It had to do with mindfulness in the present moment, something at which I’d become quite adept. It had to do with opening to the senses and watching the arising of ego. Past teachers had acknowledged my dharmic abilities: Ajahn Sumedho, the late Zen master Seung Sahn (Dae Soen Sa Nim), Sasaki Roshi. Each had given me good grades in their own unique ways, I thought, so I no longer needed to practice that intensively. Now it was just moment by moment. Breath by breath. Thought by thought. One desire at a time, dropped. Even death acknowledged, accepted, defeated.

What delusion! The mind must be monitored and inventoried like an alcoholic in recovery or a Washington lobbyist: It never goes away until it gets what it wants. And what it wants is to be in control at all times. But control is not part of the deal of being a human being. We may rightly try to confront injustices, but some things can only be seen, noted, and accepted for what they are.

So I’ve returned to sitting. Just 15 minutes, suggested Bruce. That’s all you need at first. Increase the dose as tolerated. Try it. See what happens. Be open to the possibilities. Ah, but I have no zafu, I replied. I wore out the one I’d been using for years. Bruce was impressed but wouldn’t accept my wilted excuse. Find a way, he urged. Whatever it takes. It’s a good thing.

At Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, in Carmel Valley, California, where Bruce was ordained, there used to be a block of wood—it may still be there— whose inscription had been pounded away with years of summoning practitioners to the zendo. What remained of its powerful message read as follows: “Listen carefully everyone. Great is the matter…[words obliterated]…death. Time passes swiftly…[words obliterated]… is lost. Awaken! Awaken! Do not waste your life.”

So I try the short sittings. Early morning in the dark before the world awakens. Mr. Potato Head, crosslegged on couch cushions. No altar, no incense, no candles, although Bruce recommended all of the above. Back to the breath, to watching, to spacing out, to spacing in, to a koan Sasaki had given me, and, in a swish of a horse’s tail, 15 minutes are up. I see now that I missed meditation. Without it, I was off balance in a tightrope world—just enough to cause vertigo at the precipice of consciousness.

Sometimes the frustrations of the search provide an opening. Perhaps it is advancing age and the specter of infirmity or death. Perhaps it is the anxiety I feel when, watching the evening news, the weight of the world seems to fall on my shoulders. Or the medications I’ve had to resort to in order to get through the day without thoughts of despair. Pain brought me to the practice; pain bids me back.

I have not returned to the Sunday Sangha. I have not done any more extended retreats, as I did so often in my younger days. I have not read my inspirational texts recently. I don’t even call myself a Buddhist. But I have got the proverbial ball rolling, the wheel of dharma turning, my breath breathing, my legs crossing, my back erect, my ego trembling, and my true self remembering itself yet again.

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