The past several months has been an interesting journey. This time last year I was making the decision to leave my job of 7-and-a-half years and leap out into uncertainty. The leap was made far easier due in part to a generous severance package and in larger part because my wife was such a huge support.
When I began that journey a Dharma sister encouraged me to think of it as a sabbatical. She'd gone through a somewhat similar period of joblessness and it was how she approached that time. During her sabbatical she dove deeply into Zen practice, attending sesshin monthly.
Given such a powerful example I too used the time to dive deeply into practice, but in a profoundly different way. To the appearance of my community I've withdrawn from practice, at least from regularly showing up as part of a community of practitioners. I've also been doing a whole lot more therapy around the underlying events and present-day triggers of my PTSD -- which is a pretty profound practice to stick with.
The question I came back to again and again these past months is this: what is left when I strip away all the striving?
My profound drive to be A Good Student has really been revealed to me. What I've learned about this motivation requires a dedicated post, but it has been very interesting. What I know now is that this powerful urge is helpful, when used wisely, it is also not my practice and shouldn't drive my practice any longer.
I didn't last much longer than 2 months into my sabbatical when the reality of no longer having an active title attached to my name, and the potential monetary possibility such a title implies, hit me. I was unemployed. That's when the big whoosh of uncertainty hit me.
What if I couldn't find a job? This consumed me. All of the worry around it ending with being left alone, homeless. Real terror at being groundless in many ways.
I was just Sherri. Not Sherri, the Systems Analyst. And not Sherri, the yoga teacher (at least not actively being paid to teach, really I will never stop embodying a yoga teacher). Although I was still striving to be The Good Student.
What is practice now? What is left? Seeing my driving urge to be approved so clearly I stepped back from practice, rather than dive more deeply in.
What is practice? Is it the teacher? Is it zazen (maybe)? Is it sitting in silence for hours on end? Is it sitting and being stripped down to nothing but absolute desolation and terror? Is it the lessons? Is it a place? Is it the cushion or bench you sit on?
What if you can't find your incense and your Buddha statue is in a box? Mine were for weeks, still are to, as a vast home improvement project began in October. I did make sure I knew where my seiza bench was, but the rest? The important Stuff I associate with my practice? Well, that's in boxes.
What's left? What is left away from teachers, places, rituals, schedules, chants, lessons... What is my practice when I strip it all away, pack it up in boxes, and stop trying to attain something.
That was it. I'd chanted *it nearly weekly for over a year.
...no cause, no cessation, no path; no knowledge and no attainment. With nothing to attain, a bodhisattva relies on prajna paramita, and thus the mind is without hindrance.
There I was alone with my striving and what was my practice? What was left when I sat with my desire to be considered The Good Student? What was practice when I haltingly, painfully stopped trying to attain?
It was then I fell back into Yoga, as I learned to do during a truly ghastly night in my life during my first sesshin. Before Zen, before anything, there is Yoga for me. Even when I do not have an active class I am still fully connected to the Lineage of Yoga.
Unlike previous times times in my life I didn't immerse myself in a demanding course of yoga study, spending most days each week in rigorous practice (and injuring myself). What I fell back into was is for me the absolute foundation of my yoga practice.
Breath is left. Breath is always here and now. Well, until Breath isn't and then we're really involved with something aside from The Present Moment.
On my leg is tattooed the first three of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. The tattoo takes up my lower right leg and culminates in a lotus on my right foot. It is the constant reminder of the path I walk.
The first sutra reminds us, "Now begins the practice of Yoga."
It is very specifically NOW. Now we practice. Now. Now. NOW!
Practice is always now. It is always here, always present. We carry the breath. Really, our breath carries us and we always have it as the guide of practice.
Now is the breath. It is always now, so we are always beginning the practice of Yoga.
The second sutra teaches that, "Yoga is the settling of the fluctuations of the mind."
Or, as I liked to poetically say to students, "Yoga is the settling of the mind into Silence."
When I follow the breath, feel it fully in my body, my mind settles. Yes, it is a constant practice because as soon as my mind settles, the thoughts still, and there is just breath... well, soon enough comes along another thought, worry, plan, song, regret, desire... And then Now begins my practice, again and again and again.
The third sutra: "With a settled mind we rest in the essential self."
I like that the third sutra reminds us that we rest. To me in points back to that words of the Heart Sutra, "...no path, no knowledge, and no attainment." We drop all of those things and rest. Still, present, breathing and resting.
So the breath, the foundation of Yoga is there. That is very certainly my practice.
What else? Metta is there. Only now it has become a looser, less rigid practice. I do still sit sometimes and mindfully do Metta practice for myself, for others, for all beings. But now I also find that opening my heart and mindfully sending loving energy that another being, or myself, be free of anxiety, fear, and shame. Wanting peacefulness, contentment and happiness in a open and loving way.
My Metta practice now flows in and out. It arises spontaneously as I wait in lines, am stuck in traffic, or find frustration arising. Out of Metta flows deep compassion, deeper connection, and more joy. Like my fixed ideas about how my zazen should look, I stopped trying to attain some idea of the "perfect Metta practice."
I find that the same small piece of Rumi's writing that I've written about several times here stays lodged in there. A few weeks ago one of my teachers even referred to it as a koan. It just persists, becomes part of my breath and hums along amidst it all. It informs me, when I let it.
It is such a short piece:
proudly into sunlight,
not looking back.
Take sips of this pure wine being poured.
Don’t mind that you’ve been given a dirty cup.
Yet how it informs my life, my practice, can be summed up in even fewer words.
Step off proudly.
These are all hard lessons for me to learn, but vital: The ability to request what I need in life. The confidence to start new things and take pride in my accomplishments. Not seeing myself as stained by the trauma and abuse I survived.
When I stop trying to attain, stop trying to fit some ideal I have in my head, stop trying to define my practice by who I sit with, where, when and for how long... When there is no path, no knowledge and no attainment there is still practice.
It ebbs and flows for each of us. It changes, it grows, it shrinks, it transforms, and it is part of us. Practice is nothing outside, and is all inside.
I'm not saying I won't have teachers in my life, but I've been able to soften up around the urgency of having a teacher. I often tell my own students that DVDs and books are great, but a real and present teacher will spot subtle, but important points to work on. However, I would consider it equally valuable to know that a student is practicing without me. I guess what I've been able to let go of, like the idea that my identity is somehow tied to the job title I have or the income I make, is that I'm defined by the name of my teacher.
What is left behind is my practice. My breath. The flow of Metta. The reminders from Rumi.
*The "It" I refer to a couple of times is the Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom Sutra. As the Ino, or chant-leader, for my Zen community, I would chant this as part of service once a week at our Zen temple.