© 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.

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