Nitty Gritty: 3 Pillars of Zen

This book is one I return to repeatedly. Partly for its clear message that, yes, enlightenment is possible for everyone. And partly because I find the discussion of how to meditate simple and refreshing.

But my favorite aspect of 3 Pillars of Zen is absolutely the personal anecdotes, transcribed and laid bare for the reader, of both dokusan (meeting with the teacher) and of the enlightenment experience itself.

Each time I re-read 3 Pillars of Zen, I uncover something new. So it goes, I suppose, with books that speak to us in a profoundly personal way. They seem to have an uncanny ability to morph & say exactly what we need to hear in the moment.

I appreciate the wide array of experience and personality of the subjects carefully chosen by Philip Kapleau: both Japanese and American, men and women, with varying (and relatable) back stories. As this reading unfolded for me, I found myself particularly amused by the Americans’ struggle with ego, which impacted their ability to grasp the simplicity of meditation, to be humble and open during dukosan, and to be patient (but still willing to work) to reach enlightenment.

It was disarming to be able to so clearly see the root of the the struggle of those zany Americans from the 50s & 60s (3 Pillars of Zen was published in 1965)… and then to (slowly) admit that some of those issues mirror my own. It was humbling–in a gentle way that allowed me to laugh at myself & release some of my take-myself-to-seriously-ness.

I also was keenly in tune with the book’s timeline this go-round. Some of the personal anecdotes of American zen practitioners begin unfolding, in Japan, in the 1950s. Maybe it’s because I finished Alas, Babylon recently, but I felt viscerally aware of how soon after the bombing of Nagasaki & Hiroshima the 1950s actually were. The willingness of Japanese zen masters to have any dealings with Americans at all made me re-evaluate my own perspective on the world around me–and left me feeling convicted about how long I’m willing to grasp at old wounds and how much more peace I might be able to bring into my own life with the practice of non-attachment.

When I want a clean slate, a fresh start, openness–I equate that feeling with painting all the walls white. All the walls in my house. All the walls in my soul.

This book paints all the walls white. Every time.

A Lesson in Letting Go (Remix)

Owning a small business during a pandemic is one lesson after another in letting shit go that I can’t control.

Most recent on the list: anger.

I’ve always been prone to grudges. I like to hold onto my anger, poke at it a bit, reignite it occasionally. But, honestly, that doesn’t serve me well. Never really has. Holding anger close takes a lot of energy. And, I find this pandemic exhausting, so I’m trying to keep as much energy for the good things as I can.

The details of the anger-inducing situation aren’t super important: there was an issue at the bookstore that cost me several (s-e-v-e-r-a-l) hundred dollars. The management company communicated nothing about the problem, or the solution they employed without my knowledge, to me. A charge–a big one– just showed up in my bill.

To be real clear: they did nothing that was not legally appropriate. But that doesn’t make it right.

As one might an expensive and incredibly frustrating situation, I got angry. And, increasingly, I felt pinned in and helpless to rectify what I saw as a grave injustice. So I got even more angry. To the point that every single time I thought about the situation, I could feel my entire body tingle with rage.

This had been going on for over a week.

Yesterday, my concerns and frustration were roundly dismissed by said management company.

And that was it.

I was done.

I opened Facebook Messenger, shot off a message to a friend that deals with the same shiftiness from the same folks and told him precisely how I felt, just because I knew he’d understand. And it always feels good to really be seen.

And then I paid the management company their money, and I let that shit go.

And although it was both emotionally & fiscally taxing to let go of that money, once I hit “send” on the payment, I felt so much more free.

I believe we invite in to our lives what we put out into the world. Anger invites more anger and frustration. Gratitude invites goodness and light. For real.

So, I choose to be grateful that the amazing friends and customers who donated to our GoFundMe for the HVAC raised enough to cover this additional cost, too. I’m grateful for our Bookshop store, which brings in extra revenue to help pay the bills (even these weird, unexpected ones). And I’m grateful for this bookstore that keeps me connected to my community and provides me a place to give & serve & love the folks around me.

And I choose to let all that other shit go.

Pity Party for One

Yesterday, a woman with two wiener dogs made me cry.

This is notable primarily because I rarely cry out in the wild because someone did something to upset me. Not anymore, at least.

Here’s what happened: I was trying to deliver a book to a customer that lives in an apartment on the second floor of a huge, gorgeous house. There’s no interior access to this apartment–just a steep, narrow flight of metal stairs on the outside of the building. It had been raining, so everything outside was wet. No real overhang to speak of. And y’all know I wasn’t going to let that book get wet.

So, I’m looking around for an common interior space. Or at least a space that’s covered. But I’m not really finding anything that looks viable. I see an open garage space that is dry, but I don’t know the protocol for leaving packages or even if these tenants are on friendly terms with each other. I don’t want to leave a package in the wrong space and start some turf war.

Wiener dog lady is looking at me from inside her house. I don’t know she has wiener dogs yet, but I do know she looks vexed. At me, I suppose. But I’m really focused on this book, so I’m not paying much attention.

As soon as I exit screen right to examine the porch on the front of the house for viability, she walks out with her two yapping dogs. One immediately escapes the leash. She’s yelling for the dog, and I’m scurrying stealthily away. I have no desire for my ankle to be chomped on.

Not today, Satan.

I’m also growing increasingly frustrated–at myself primarily. Why can’t I decide where to drop this book?!

Fed up with my own indecisiveness, and realizing that this lady has re-leashed both dogs and they’re happily sniffing things in the yard, I decide I’m going to ask her about a shared common space.

I approach her with a “Hey, can I ask you a question?”

She looks at me like I’m something stuck to the bottom of her shoe. “I guess,” she says.

I promise you, I don’t remember when I met this kind of distain from another human.

“Is there a…” I start. Her dogs, seemingly noticing me for the very first time, immediately start yapping again.

“I can’t HEAR you,” she says.

And I know I’ve been summarily dismissed.

I head back to my car without another word. Before I even get to the car, I’m crying.

I’m just going to break my own narrative here and tell you that I know people suffer much greater indignities than this daily. That, really, this wasn’t a big deal. That the fact that I was so stung by her dismissal is a sign of my own privilege.

Yes.

I also know that I cried for the next 15 minutes. That I was so swamped by shame, and hurt, and self pity (oh my good lord, so much self pity) that I could hardly breathe.

I just kept thinking, “You never know what people are going through. You should be nicer.” But I wasn’t thinking I should be nicer, or more compassionate, or have broader perspective. I was thinking that woman should be nicer. She should think about what I was going through. She should think about how hard I’m trying right now.

It has been years since I felt that particular way: so overcome with feelings of being misunderstood, so in the throes of self-pity because people are mean to me, so self-centered that I could barely function.

That, right there, that feeling is why I used to drink. This oppressive cycle of self that I couldn’t seem to escape was how I lived my entire life. I was always upset because people didn’t understand me. I always was the victim. And I felt perpetually sorry for myself.

The reasons I ended up in that shame-cycle of self-centeredness yesterday are myriad. And crying it out was the only way I was going to escape. The release was cathartic.

But what stuck with me the most was realizing, even as I was swamped down in that moment, that if I felt this all the time, I would certainly drink. I could hardly stand feeling that way for a few minutes. I needed to escape. I need emphatically to not feel that way.

And I used to live in that space of pain, shame, and self-pity all the damn time.

15 minutes of that yesterday launched a full-scale internal gratitude campaign about my sobriety. I’m grateful that I’ve spent the past decade or so cultivating a world-view that (tries to) decenter my self. That my spiritual practice is about compassion. And that I realize that self-pity and self-compassion are most certainly not the same.

Today, I’m left with these 2 things:

  1. the thought that perhaps I should cry a little more freely when I’m frustrated or overwhelmed, so as not to give all the power over to random ladies with wiener dogs, and
  2. a tremendous tenderness toward what other people are reckoning with: those who are still sick and suffering, folks navigating their own shame-storms, people with emotional & logistical challenges big and small… and yes, even ladies with wiener dogs having a bad day.

Do I Need to Take Out a Billboard?

When the Universe wants to tell me something, it practically takes out a billboard.

Right now, there’s a flashing, Vegas-style “SURRENDER” billboard front and center in my psychic landscape. Which, incidentally, is a desert-scape. Even though I’ve never, not once, been to the desert.

I’ve been fighting a lot lately.

It’s exhausting.

I’ve been waging this intense internal war against outside factors I may or may not be able to change. This isn’t foreign territory to me. I’m kind of a control freak by nature. But I’ve gotten better, these past 11 years, at letting go.

It’s progress not perfection up in here.

But the past few days, I’ve just been mad. I’m mad at the pandemic. Mad at the landlord for the shop. Mad at myself for being mad.

By yesterday, I’d worked myself up into a frenzy (for about the third time this week. And it was only Tuesday). And I just wanted to sit in my own anger and self-righteousness.

So, I didn’t meditate. Didn’t do yoga. Didn’t run.

Because all those things would’ve helped. And I didn’t want help.

I was mad as hell, and I intended to stay that way.

And so I did.

Which sucked.

Then chose to engage with someone who always sets me off–always makes me feel less-than, like I’m competing to prove I’m smart enough and capable enough to be taken seriously by them.

Which is the stupidest thing ever.

But I fall into this trap every. time. I. engage. with. this. human.

By the time I was done with that conversation, I just wanted to come home, give away all my belongings, and paint all the rooms white.

And that’s what psychic surrender looks like for me, by the way: clean slate. All the rooms white. And spare. Open and airy.

So, I took a little scooter ride. Came home and did some yoga. And just let that shit go.

I talked to some friends last night–honestly, with no pretense. Admitted I was struggling. Which, you know, feels a little like defeat. I want to be all Zen. And I was the antithesis of Zen yesterday.

But so it goes.

And then, this morning, the Yoga Camp mantra was I Surrender.

Okay, Universe. I hear you.

When I first encountered the idea of surrender, I confused it with weakness, with giving up.

But surrender is about accepting what is. I have to stop fighting and take stock of the situation, so I can move forward with sure footing. Surrender is rest and peace in the middle of a complete an utter shitstorm of life being life.

And, for me, surrender is believing that the Universe has only my best interest at heart.

Only good, even when I don’t get my way.

Only good, even when things look dire.

Only good.

I surrender.

Grace & Ease

When I signed up for AA*, it was with the understanding that they were going to fix me. Although I’d mostly pulled my shit together from the outside, on the inside I was a mess. I felt suffocated by shame, terrified of actually experiencing real emotion, and mostly just broken. Oh, and I was completely devoid of effective coping mechanisms.

Drinking was my coping mechanism, and it landed me in meetings with an oddball bunch of folks who drank bad coffee.

I liked those oddballs though, because they didn’t find my obsession with alcohol or my inability to stop drinking once I’d started strange in the slightest. And they told me I never again had to be the person I’d been when I was drinking.

That felt like being born again.

Part of what they laid out for me was that I never had to pick up a drink again, as long as I followed the 12-steps. And continued going to meetings. Like, forever.

A couple competing things were going on for me during the first 2 years of sobriety: I never felt really at-home in AA (which made me feel like a complete loser, because folks are always saying how they never felt at home anywhere until they walked in the rooms of AA. Huh. I didn’t feel at home there, either. So what was wrong with me?), and I had a couple sponsor relationships that were pretty damaging (which is tough because your sponsor is supposed to walk you through the 12-steps, and you have to trust them in order for that to be a possibility). Oh, and I was hella stubborn… as I’ve always been.

So, after 2 years I quit AA. Cold-turkey. No sponsor. No meetings.

But here’s the thing: I’ve always been a spiritually-oriented person, so I stayed committed to spiritual practice. I’ve also been in and out of therapy since I got sober. And I talk about recovery a lot.

I never neglected my recovery. I wasn’t “white knuckling it.” I was working to stay sober by constantly examining the patterns in my life, exploring my lack of coping mechanisms and trying to implement ones that wouldn’t blow up my life, and taking a hard look at the need for escape that made me want to drink in the first place.

But even after 11 years, I don’t consider myself “recovered.” Because, although I’ve never picked up a drink or drug again, I’ve got these addict behaviors that can creep out from time to time. I think of them as relapse light. They can be incredibly destructive. And they’re insidious.

When I was about 5 years sober, I had been a stay-at-home mom for 3 years. For me, staying at home was one of the most beautiful, mind-numbing, joyful, isolating experiences of my life. It was so beautiful and so horrible at the same time that my mind almost melts when I think about it even now.

I am grateful for the time I got with our daughter. And I wouldn’t trade it. But it was excruciatingly hard.

I think we’ve already covered the idea that my coping mechanisms can be iffy. During the hard and seemingly interminable toddler years, I did not pick up a drink. But what I did do was lose myself in an incredibly emotionally entangling toxic friendship. This friendship was obsessive escapism–and it fed this minor messiah complex I’ve nursed since I was a kid.

Relapse light.

Instead of dealing with my shit, I was escaping. And getting unentangled from that relationship was emotionally messy, logistically awkward, and shame-inducing.

It also showed me I had more work to do in my recovery.

I don’t think it’s inevitable that relapse is part of recovery. If I’d ever believed it was, I don’t think I would’ve put in the work to get sober. But building a recovery that is joyful and full of growth and exploration means looking at the other ways that relapse light can happen–and addressing those openly and without shame when they arise.

And just acknowledging the way that old behaviors have caused chaos in my life makes me more compassionate towards folks for whom relapse with drugs or alcohol is part of the journey.

AA did fix me. Or, maybe more accurately, AA helped me face the idea that I was powerless over alcohol. And that’s a fact for me.

But I do find power in taking control of my own recovery, in finding what works, and in creating real coping mechanisms that allow me to move through the world with more grace and ease.

And god knows I surely needed more grace and ease. Don’t we all?

*You don’t really have to sign up. But you do have to show up.

**I’m reading The 12-Step Buddhist, which spawned all these recovery musings.