It’s a three-week “practice period” at the Zen Center. Sounds tough — but in the end, it’s all love. Photos and text by Cassandra Moore.
My first night as a resident at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe began a love affair with the New Mexico sky. Several of us dragged out chairs to sit and watch an August monsoon gather in violet clouds above us. It felt unusual to me that a group of adults would sit in silence when we had so much getting-to-know-each-other to do: I’d come here from Portland, where people gather to talk, as they do in so many places, in circles of smoke outside bars.
I’m still awed by how quiet it can be at Upaya, under the soft salt of the Milky Way; at twilight I anticipate the coyote pups howling across the foothills into the otherwise silent night. The sky offers a spaciousness that has become part of my Zen practice, as if it embodies the hugeness of our lives, a kind of untellable story and original bigness that I forget when my problems make me and the world feel small and tellable.
I felt I’d been living in a naive way, assuming that because I loved something I could keep it.
I hear that there are 84,000 dharma doors—a poetic way of saying that people come to Buddhism in numberless ways, for countless reasons. My own door of heartbreak and loss is surely one of the most commonly used doors. In the aftermath of infidelity and betrayal that collapsed a six-year relationship and left me feeling skinned, I found myself questioning everything. Was I ever really loved? Was I ever really loving? Could I trust anyone or anything again? Ultimately I felt I’d been living in a naive way, assuming that because I loved something I could keep it.
Where do we turn when the story we thought made up our life unbraids and we see it was just, after all, a story which falsely made the world seem bite-size, holdable, and fixed? I love these words from Krista Tippett: “To be alive is by definition messy, always leaning towards disorder and surprise. How we open or close to the reality that we never arrive at safe enduring stasis is the matter, the raw material, of wisdom.” I came to Upaya full of grief, but with an intuitive understanding that life is bigger than I’d ever given it credit for, and that by hook or by crook I would learn to stop making it so small.
Currently, it’s Practice Period at Upaya. For three weeks, we have the opportunity to practice alongside Norman and Kathie Fischer, who are leading the period, and who walk the walk with warmth and humor. The residents here have opportunities to meet with the teachers for one-on-one practice discussions. My last was with Norman. I asked him, “What’s the point of sitting through grief?”
Grief has wrapped around my heart the past few days and wound me up as if caught in barbed wire. I’ve sometimes struggled, I told Norman, to sit through periods of zazen; overcome by grief, compelled to leave the zendo, I want to walk away from practice because it feels too uncomfortable to hold stillness amid turmoil. Wouldn’t be natural to let the emotional turmoil have its way a while?
The point of sitting is to see just how equipped we are at dealing with the unknowable, and with what feels intolerable — and then, we might feel able to offer our presence and strength to others.
Norman’s answer was simple — but for me it got right to the point of Zen practice and my commitment to practice in residency. He said the point of sitting through anything is to cultivate trust in our own strength and ability to meet whatever arises in our lives, and to know that we can welcome everything, resist nothing, and allow it all fully into our hearts without walking away. The point of sitting is to see just how equipped we are at dealing with the unknowable, and with what feels intolerable — and then, we might feel able to offer our presence and strength to others. You’re suffering the insufferable? Okay, I’ll go there with you, I’ll help you hold that. I will not abandon you.
I began a sitting practice because I felt gutted and ill equipped to meet the circumstances of my life – much less anyone else’s. I know you’ve felt abandoned by someone who could not meet you in your darkest hour. I’ve felt it, too, and it breaks my heart to see how I’ve been an abandoner, as well. Yet I feel a becoming, and a transition that I feel only the persistence of residency has allowed: a turning outward and the cultivation of, I hope, an ability to not abandon the world or others in painful service to my own wounds. The longer I stay at Upaya, the more it feels like me—organic, more feminine and rounded, more subtle and soft. Practice is about nothing but a greater capacity for love.