September 29, 1977
Feelings that can’t be described, only felt: the steam-fire energy sometimes crescendos past my control. If I can turn it (like a stampede of cattle) and slowly and quietly gather it in, “everything is okay.” It passes. This is called “Waiting out the fire.” If I can’t, all hell breaks loose.
Very subtle, but very potent is this internal work. An example of how the inside work can shoot out: walking back to the car before lunch I think up a dust storm, “Should we park here, or there, there or here? Should I drive and find water, or not?” The fire is starting to leak out. “Look at yourself, Heng Ch’au! You are scattered and rambling like a scared hen.” But, I can’t seem to find the throttle—the brakes fail. “Should I recite my precepts, or sit in Ch’an? Cook or sew?” It’s building—“Slow down,” I try to reason, “Slow down or you’re going to pop.”
…. I think, “this is impossible! I can’t walk this electric tight rope! I can’t handle the intense cultivation, no talking, the press, and all manner of people. Cook, clean, the blazing heat, the aches and pains. No time to shave or wash up, falling asleep while standing up. Take care of collapsing car, collapsing clothes, thieves, religious zealots out to convert us, and cars and trucks trying to run us over (last weekend, three in one hour), the police, no camping laws,” and on and on, feeling sorry for myself and frustrated. Do I laugh or cry?….
Bing! Lunch is over. “But I’m still hungry! I didn’t have time to… Arrg!” I can’t chew on the right side of my mouth because of an exposed nerve, and the left is still sore from the lemon. My back is a mess and.…
“Congratulations,” smiles Heng Sure, “You are on the cultivator’s edge.”
— Heng Ch’au, from the bowing journals¹
[Audrey] The past few weeks have found me in the frenzy of a storm. Hit hard by the crashing waves of doubt and restless worry, a heaviness has come over me that I’ve never known before. It’s consumed me. Like a dam that holds back a flood, I find myself bottling up waves of uncontrollable emotions that burst into tears at random moments.
I am stuck in an indecision that leaves me numb to the motions of time, people, conversations. I speak in incomplete sentences, as repetitive thoughts echo-run-twirl-spin in my mind. I sleep late and wake up purposeless. When I meditate, my whole body heaves in a dull heaviness, like all my senses have turned to stone, endlessly dropping into the empty-nothing space of my mind-body continuum. When I chant, tears fill my eyes and my gaze turns inward, as the assembly’s recitation echoes outside like a dizzy dream. I keep my eyes to the ground.
When I meditate, my whole body heaves in a dull heaviness, like all my senses have turned to stone, endlessly dropping into the empty-nothing space of my mind-body continuum.
Everything feels overwhelming. Everything puts me in a constant state of agitation. A crowded room. Someone’s gentle suggestions. Rules. Unfamiliar faces. Food has become tasteless and heavy. My head feels too heavy for my body. A tumbling thought brings me tumbling to the ground, I thought today, after slipping over wet floors and falling flat on my back in the dining hall. In the monastery, sleep is my only escape. And I dread the moment when my eyes blink open to the new morning.
I don’t know who I am. What I’m here for. Or where I’m going.
I have no identity. Moving through motions like a ghost, each day’s actions have become grey. All the work and chores are empty. I am a murky whirlpool of water.
From the outside perspective, this sounds depressing. I probably sound depressed. But from a cultivation point of view, this is normal. It’s just deep stuff arising. Sides of myself that I never knew existed are getting shaken up to the surface. And I am tumbling in the anxieties of my mind.
This weekend, I stepped out of CTTB for a breather. One evening I bumped into a dharma talk at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery by Ajahn Santacitta, an Austrian nun from the Theravadan Forest Tradition. She talked about the five hindrances, two of which I recognized as my state: doubt and restlessness (or worry).
When I think about it, these qualities have always been a part of me. Reflecting on various points in my life, I’ve always been a bit indecisive when faced with a fork in a road. Be it something as small as what to eat for breakfast or weekend plans to something more substantial like a career or housing decision, I always seem to find the question “What if?” burning in my mind later down the road. “What if I had taken the other choice?” With this “grass is greener on the other side” mentality, I’ve struck the golden state of doubt. And the shimmering rainbows of restlessness and worry. Lucky for me, there’s nothing else to do but to observe myself get caught up in these webs of sticky hindrances.
But it’s okay.
“Everything is okay.”
I’m reminded of quote from John Francis, aka “Planetwalker.” After an oil spill in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1970s, he felt compelled to take more direct action to make a difference. So he decided to stop driving. For 22 years, he walked. For 17, he was silent. He walked across the United States, hopped on a sailboat on the East Coast, sailed to South America and walked it tip to tip. Along the way, he got his bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. degrees.
A few weeks ago, we showed a clip about him in a 9th grade Ethics class. Towards the end, he said, ”I have to say there were doubts sometimes. You know, as I’m walking and I am alone. And I am just a black man with a banjo, walking across America.”
That struck me.
I’m realizing that the greatest challenges sometimes lie in the space between things, in the moments, days, weeks, years when you’re just chugging along, trying to keep doing what you set out to do.
I’m realizing that the greatest challenges sometimes lie in the space between things, in the moments, days, weeks, years when you’re just chugging along, trying to keep doing what you set out to do. It’s so easy to forget our purpose. To feel lost in the mundane motions, like we’ve veered off the romantic vision of being here—be it a new project, relationship, adventure, or life chapter.
“I think if we just make that commitment to make the journey. And once we commit ourselves to doing it, we change. We change ourselves from just sitting on the fence thinking about it, to actually jumping in the field and making a mad dash,” John Francis had gone on to say. “Or a slow walk.”
Because it’s in these mundane moments—when you’re not sure what you’re in it for, or why you’re doing what you’re doing—that holds the deepest potential for inner transformation.
“You’re as cultivated as your worst moment.”
At times I’ll laugh to myself, finding it ironic that the room appears so quiet when my insides are so deafening.
The past few weeks have been filled with many worst moments. One after another. Sides of myself that I had no idea existed keep coming to light. And there is really no person or thing to blame but myself. Lying alone in darkness, I watch the thoughts of my ego wash over me: insecurities, doubts, anxieties, fears, desires all swarming around in my mind, escalating, amplifying in volume. At times I’ll laugh to myself, finding it ironic that the room appears so quiet when my insides are so deafening. I feel paralyzed. Dulled down by dusty memories, hidden emotions, feelings, habits. At a complete loss for where to go, who to talk to, what to do. Nothing makes sense, nothing feels right.
The funny thing is, I don’t think I realized until now that this is what it means to cultivate—that this practice of self-awareness, this steady observation of my thoughts, emotions, and sensations throughout the day is the real work. In this environment, all my senses have the space to expand, and everything is heightened.
So it’s no wonder that SMACK! Four months into this immersion, this heavy stuff would come to hit me full force. All this negativity and agitation come flying to the surface. They were bound to come up sooner or later. And I am forced to face my faults, and accept that this is me. I have fear. And doubt. And worry, sadness, joy, arrogance. Anger, desire, insecurity, guilt. I am uncertain. I don’t know. But in this unraveling of self, I can slowly get to know. And in some moments—during a tender calm amidst the storm—I catch an inkling of gratitude. A sobering thankfulness for this opportunity to practice. To get to know myself and the inner forces that drive my daily emotions, thoughts, and actions. To peel off the layers of my persona and face whatever reveals itself, be it dark or bright; heavy or light. This is what it means to peer into the very essence of my being. This is what it means to be alive.
“Congratulations. You are on the cultivators’ edge.”
From here, gradually, I can begin to pick up the pieces. Clean up the apparent mess. Smooth and settle the turbid waters. Slowly, I can accept where I am and move forward, with a deeper, humbled, and discerning awareness.
This is a state that has arisen. And like everything else, it too will pass away.
….Somewhere I know this. Somehow I know “everything’s okay,” and this is part of purifying the mind and breaking attachments. But, it is such a fine edge. Such a tight line to walk. And it keeps getting finer and tighter. But, while there is less and less room for error, there is more and more room for something beyond thoughts and words—something wonderful within the emptying of “me”.
Who is making you do this? Who asked for it? Nobody but myself. The stress and pressure, greater than any I’ve ever experienced, isn’t unbearable. (“What is unbearable?” I wonder. Or is the question, “Who cannot bear what? Who is it that suffers unbearably?”) Something good and pure is coming of it. Besides, there’s no place to go back to. Breaking through the illusion of self is unavoidable, and we are drawn towards this true, original nature like iron filings to a magnet. So don’t get angry; just “try your best,” as it says over the exit door at Gold Mountain. Inside a voice says, “Okay, Mac, turn up the heat, I think the kid’s ready for more.”²
¹ Heng Ch’au (Dr. Martin Verhoeven). With One Heart Bowing to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. San Francisco: Sino-American Buddhist Association, 1979. 248-250
² Heng Ch’au. With One Heart Bowing to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. San Francisco: Sino-American Buddhist Association, 1979. 250.