When you’ve a decision to make, fence-sitting is not the most pleasant of occupations.
As you sit there on that metaphorical fence, you look in either direction. To one side lies safe and comfortable territory, familiar as the back of your own hand. Turn to the other side, though, and the landscape is completely different: strange, the path less defined – and yes, wilder.
Oh, you can feel it beckoning, all right – it’s been beckoning for some time, in fact. But you can’t, for whatever reason, make the decision to move in that direction. You’re stuck. On the fence.
(What fence? See “View from the Fence,” Parts I and II.)
Sooner or later you notice that your seat is becoming really uncomfortable, and you’re painfully aware that you’re eventually going to have to make that decision, one way or the other.
This time, my choices were either to sit self-righteously in my little shell of Buddhism as I understood it, or to jump into another, perhaps broader – certainly different – understanding of the Dharma. So I balked like a skittish horse, torn between desire to join a welcoming and very compatible group, and questions about the style of Buddhism practiced there. Added to that was a large element of not wanting to have to bother learning a new set of practices (even though I had the tools and means) when my own had served me quite well so far, thank you very much.
Oh, the things you find out about yourself on this journey!
I, who had always seen myself as open-minded and excited to learn new things, was now face-to-face with a viewpoint that I not only did not want to have to look at, but really would have preferred to write off so that I could fade quietly back into the sunset and go about my business. So there I sat on my righteous fence, alternately yearning and judging.
I don’t have any trouble recognizing the symptoms of inner crisis (heaven knows, they’ve happened often enough in my life), but I’ve never been able to figure out how to short-circuit the process. All I can do is wait until some inner gauge tells me I’ve stewed long enough and am ready to move on. Let me tell you, it can be quite the little journey, getting my arse off that fence!
This appears to be my own peculiar pattern of inner growth, odd as it may be. What I know, though, is that (although I rarely remember this while it’s happening) the process of becoming more conscious – however odd it looks from the outside – can be totally life changing.
Let me give you an example:
It was the summer of 1999, and my first residential silent meditation retreat. The setting was completely idyllic – a small private island on the coast of Georgian Bay, wild and lovely, with a large, cool and beautiful main house and several small cabins tucked in among the trees and bushes, comfortable paths for walking meditation, and a large floating dock where you could lie and feel the lapping of waves against the shoreline. It was truly a sublime setting for a retreat.
We were a small group, eight or maybe ten people. From the enormous screened veranda of the house, our little group could watch the sun rise as we gathered in the morning for the first meditation period of the day, and enjoy the moon shining on the water as we relaxed in quiet contemplation after the last sitting of the day.
After being assigned our cabins, unpacking and settling in, we gathered on the screened veranda and were told how this was going to work:
- There would be a schedule of alternating sitting and walking meditations, work periods, and time each day for food, rest and contemplation.
- The retreat would be conducted in Grand Silence, which meant no talking, even to our roommate in the privacy of our cabin.
- We were not to make eye contact with each other, thereby allowing each of us the courtesy of remaining in our own meditative space without fear of interruption.
I don’t know if anyone else there was totally green, but I certainly was! All I knew about it all was that I liked this meditation thing and wanted more of it. I was, in fact, so thrilled to be there, I could hardly sit still!
The retreat began. Sitting was painful, but I expected that. I tried my best not to change position too much, and when it became too difficult, I could always stand for awhile to stretch my joints. Although I couldn’t quite overcome my responses to the discomfort enough to watch it objectively, I didn’t do too badly. Before long, my mind began to relax and I started to occasionally notice my thoughts, the constant white noise of the mind, as they came and went.
I soon discovered, however, that there was something I was doing badly; extremely badly, in fact!
I had never been a garrulous person, but now, for some reason, I could not keep my mouth shut or my eyes on the ground when I passed someone. I suppose that years and years of practice in being “nice” and “making pleasant conversation” had ground themselves so thoroughly into my subconscious mind that not to do these habitual actions was proving nearly impossible.
Passing another person in walking meditation, my head would automatically rise and a smile appear on my face. Doing chores with the other retreatants, I soon discovered that I couldn’t seem to stop myself from making little jokes or remarks, to which the others clearly felt obliged to respond in some way. After all, we are a basically a polite society, we Canadians.
I tried. I really did. But the harder I tried, the worse it got, to the point where eventually the retreat leader had to address it. She did so, in the kindest possible way. There were retreatants who were apparently unable to keep silence; and if it was not possible for the group as a whole to maintain silence, then Grand Silence would have to end for everyone.
Since I was the only retreatant having this problem, I felt terrible to have caused so much difficulty to my fellow retreatants, and shamed that I had actually had to be reprimanded in public. I doubled my efforts and watched my every move like a hawk.
Now, though, it seemed that I couldn’t do anything right!
Watch yourself, dummy, you almost knocked over the broom. Try to get up without falling over, okay, clumsy? Can’t you even wash the dishes without spilling water on yourself? Get it right, stupid. For heaven’s sake, try to do slow walking meditation without staggering like a drunk. What’s the matter with you? Bull in a china shop, that’s you. And keep try to your mouth from flapping while you’re at it! Can’t you do anything right?
One morning, a couple of days into this, I filled my bowl with my breakfast porridge as usual and headed outdoors to eat in the sunshine not far from the main house. Discouraged at my many failures and wondering how on earth I was going to get through the rest of this retreat, I lifted my first spoonful to my mouth….and at that moment one of the lenses in my glasses tumbled smack into my porridge.
As I stared at my lens, torn between laughter and tears, muttering to myself, “Well, that just takes the cake,” I suddenly heard, for the first time, all the cruel, terrible things that made up a large portion of the white noise in my mind; the same hurtful things that I had in fact been casually telling myself all my life, I realized.
The clarity took my breath away.
All that cruelty.
All those years.
I was my own worst enemy!
The dam finally broke. I burst into tears and ran to my cabin, where I spent the rest of the morning alone, grieving for the injured person I was, who had had to listen to all these terrible words – words I would never, ever speak to another human being – aimed directly at me. By me.
But, do you know what? After that awakening and the beginning of my grieving process, the retreat fell seamlessly into place for me. Silence became a time of healing and grace, and I slipped into it as easily as a fish into water. And I began to heal.
I discovered, whenever I heard my mind playing those old tapes, that immediately counteracting those words with positive ones – “No, you’re NOT….” – changed how I felt about myself. The positive words were just as powerful as the cruel ones, and mostly more accurate.
That retreat was a turning point in my life, because it changed me from the inside out.
Just as, I suspect, this new sangha experience is going to be another turning point.
It’s odd: for me there seems to always be this awkward period of gathering steam, much like a pot that’s going to boil over, before I finally wake up to whatever realization is bubbling around in there. It’s certainly not a comfortable period, and it’s usually embarrassing in some way. But once it’s reached whatever its crisis point happens to be, though, a sense of spaciousness emerges – and a page is turned…just like that.
Up to now, I haven’t known a better way to get through these little “belches” of consciousness. I’ve just been grateful that they happen at all – because if they didn’t, I’d never have the opportunity to escape whatever unconscious little shells I’ve managed to build around myself.
Because, of course, sangha is one safe place where you can gather steam and “boil over” as you struggle with the challenges of growing and following the dharma in your daily life. Every person sitting there with you is someone who has been there, done that (or is there, doing that at this very moment).
No wonder the Buddha thought sangha was important enough to be called one of the Three Jewels!
And embarrassing as the process of bubbling and boiling in direct view of witnesses (gasp!) will probably be, I think I’m ready to loosen my hold on my precious ego long enough to go for it. It’s about bloody time, actually.
So, having finally begun to educate myself and discover the interesting and positive aspects to this new Buddhist viewpoint, I’m more than happy to count myself a member of this sangha – and finally ready to take part with enthusiasm and gratitude, if they’ll have me.
[Postscript, sometime later: And they did have me. Because this, after all, is what sangha is about: you just come as you are, warts and all. Namo Amida Bu.]