A Good Mu

I woke up hurting all down the left side of my body. From aching sinuses in my head down the side of the leg to the ankle. I was glad to be working from home today and have even opted to not attend the women’s practice group I started going to last week. I could have finished up the reading and went, but I decided that some rest tonight would probably be more beneficial.

I did go down and sit in the new “zendo” space I cleared up for us over the weekend. It is in a little nook at the back of the sitting area. On Saturday I hung various wall hangings over the rather unsightly unfinished walls and put down the carpet that had been upstairs. The dull olive green of the carpet looks rather cozy in the lower light and smaller space.

While sitting I had what felt like a rather silly realization – I could do Mu chanting at home! I really have enjoyed toning and Mu chanting while in retreat at Great Vow, but never had made this connection to including it in my home practice. I’ve even done some chanting practice at home as part of the my last Ango commitment.

I was aware of the dull ache of my neck, I think the amount of sneezing I’ve been doing may be part of the problem. My tailbone hurt and in turn that ache radiated into my hip. My mind was all over the place, just unsettled and full of anxious, judging thoughts.

Breath practice? Nope, let’s consider the unwashed dishes.

Body scan? Nope, instead we shall reflect upon the practice group we made a commitment to and now are missing when we’re not really sick.

Metta practice? Are you kidding us?! No! Have you see the state of your studio/office upstairs? Someone needs to sleep there on Thursday!

Now, quit all this sitting here nonsense and go organize the storage area!


I don’t know why it struck me to start Mu chanting, but I did. Several loud, long, powerful, deep breaths worth of Mu. I felt the vibration of it deeply in my whole body. Like I’ve done up at Great Vow I envisioned concentrating, focusing the vibration into my sore head & neck and into my back.

I felt more clear after a few minutes of this and returned back to Metta practice. Whenever a thought arose, I let out another Mu. There was no one in the house my Inner Critic would say I was bothering, so I just went with it. Felt the thought, felt the irritation at catching myself thinking, and…

MU!

Take that, Discursive Thoughts! Mu!

Mu, to you, Inner Critic!

Mu, indeed!

My thoughts settled further and my need to use a “Reminder Mu” did to. I was able to sit in silence, practicing Metta for all the fears and anxieties that have come up the past several weeks. When the bell rang I felt much calmer than I had in several days. There’s even been a little popping and shifting in my tight muscles.

Where Silence and Stillness Meet

Big day today — told two co-workers I’m close with and my boss about the divorce, my being a lesbian. The first one I talked with is a gay man on my team who went through a similar transition himself several years ago. It was good to have his advice and I was very moved to have his offer of a sympathetic ear as I make this change in my life. My boss just gave me a big hug and offered support. My other co-worker, who has a 17 year-old son struggling with his sexuality, offered another hug, support and asked if I’d be comfortable talking with her son when he was ready to start talking to people (her son, and my knowing I might be able to be some kind of resource for him, was part of the reason I told her).

As with telling other people, it goes just fine. People are supportive, open, loving and very respectful. Everyone also seems to be really behind AM & I doing this to nurture our friendship and to be fair to everyone involved. It hasn’t been really fair or satisfying to either of us for a while and adding CK to it as a polyamorous relationship for me only meant that it was unfair for more people.

Tomorrow I’m going to have lunch with DH and tell her the news. AM and I are going to send out an email to the rest of our friends over the weekend since we’ll have told the closest friends by then. I’m sure there will be emails and phone calls galore after that. More than anything it is just tiring and I feel drained. It was a tremendous relief to have the routine of zazen at the Dharma Center tonight.

HB said something tonight in his Dhama talk about there being a space where silence and stillness are the same. Silence isn’t being closed off and isolated, rather the state of being we are in when we are entirely still. Where we are when we settle the mind into silence and rest in the essential self, to paraphrase Patanjali.

I wasn’t there when I first started to sit zazen tonight. RP had told me as I was heading upstairs to the zendo that HB had said he wanted to the Ino to wear a microphone when chanting. I felt my stomach tighten up in response and I tried to laugh about it.

I settled onto the bench and breathed in deeply a few times, feeling my diaphragm move the air. Just trying to let the thoughts settle and let go of thinking about chanting with a microphone later. And it worked for a little while.

Until I felt the anxiety about my voice come back and this time it came accompanied by old emotions from childhood. I worked on my breath and when I felt that slipping sideways feeling of something triggering my PTSD I focused my gaze on the radiator, the repeating patterns on it. I looked sideways and CK’s profile, feeling the energy of her sitting next to me.

I never felt the full heart pounding, skull crushing fear I’ve had show up. Just a kind of sadness. I was able to remind myself that what happened to me was years ago and I am just fine now, that I was in the zendo, with people around me who care very deeply for my well-being.

I didn’t even have to say it again and again. Once I’d grounded myself by connecting to the room, the radiator and CK beside me, I was able to feel the breath and the sadness together. The steam clanged loudly in the pipes, I was pleased to note my heart was beating at a calmer pace. In kinhin I felt myself slide into the movement meditation with profound gratitude and stillness of mind.

When I returned to my cushion for zazen I set my mind to metta. I pictured myself, the little girl who wanted to be a Rose Princess, and began the practice. I was amazed to find myself staying with the practice, breathing in, breathing out a loving-kindness prayer for myself.

May I be free from suffering and fear.
May I be free from anger.
May I be free from shame. (an extra one I add for myself sometimes)
May I be happy.

Usually I cannot even stay with myself enough to do three of those prayers. My mind wanders around, off planning and full of fear, shame. When I consider that I’ve done enough mindless metta I focus on a person I love, a person I have a more neutral relationship with, and a person I dislike or have difficulties with. These are normally easy and focused, when I send metta to others.

Tonight I was able to stay with myself, the image of myself as a little girl. 9 rounds of prayers, each staying mindful. Not unwavering, but never so far I forgot where I was, which is the usual case. After 9 I did the three prayer sets for others and then let myself return back to my body, the feel of it being breathed, until the bell rang.

I started to Hogen about it, but decided to hold off, just letting my acknowledge of it just be still a little longer. It has been such a full day

Calm in Voice Despite Anxiety in Spirit

Last night was the first time HB told me I did a good job chanting for service after zazen. No reminder that I’m doing fine, to slow down. It wasn’t the usual service I’ve been chanting either and HB had commented several times to me several times I needed to be stately in my chanting for the ango opening ceremony. He sent me to practice while people sat zazen!

I really never sat last night. During kinhin I let LM know I needed to chat with her to discuss the ringing of the bells. While I was going over that with her HB told us we had just a couple of minutes before he wanted to give a talk about ango at the end of zazen. As soon as I settled onto a seiza bench HB was talking. I tried to let his voice fade into the background so I could settle into my body, let my breath move around the knot of anxiety in my chest over chanting.

Afterwards HB gave me a thumbs up, a smile, and said, “Perfect”.

I am just trying to stay with everything I’m feeling right now. There are these great moments — the election, HB telling me I’d done a good job, Barry telling me twice how much he like my article, reading for SMART this morning — all of these bright, positive things and the deep uncertainty I’m feeling right now.

Tonight in asana practice I was mindful of JW telling us as we started the teacher training program how for everyone that’s done it stuff has come up. Every time she teaches things come up for her — I can’t imagine doing that! In the intensity of working, studying, teaching, taking asana practices, and going to teacher training classes I feel like I’ve pulled out thin again. Thin and taut enough that more falls away, things I kept saying I was comfortable with.

There is a part of me that is tired of this work, this endless unpacking of the great trunk of junk that makes up my coping mechanisms and PTSD. Disliking that learning how to help others, to teach better, to deepen my understanding of the Dhamra always seems to feel as though parts of me are pulled apart. I know that being sick the work is another form of resistence, although I think it is understandable that I will feel weary from the effort from time to time.

The Weight of Compassion

I was doing OK with things, even during a phone conversation with SJ about all he knew and the phone calls he’s had the past few days. I felt sadness and grave concern for DW, but was feeling past the choking pain. The day was filled with busy work and a lunch out at Blossoming Lotus with CK and GK. I didn’t tell GK about DW over lunch, didn’t want to rehash it at that time.

In the afternoon at home I got the merit list ready, adding DW’s name to it. At some point the mind that knew the only thing that can be done right now is to chant for her and the mind that is in pain got separated. The pained mind forgot about my being the one to chant her name.

Until I got to it on the list. My voice freezing up in my throat, feeling like all the muscles and bones around my heart were being crushed together. I didn’t want to chant her name and my voice broke, stayed broken and raw for the rest of service. I kept going but felt my face burning in embarrassment and discomfort a top the choking pain.

Afterward I was given the most beautiful compliment and offer of gratitude. RS came up to me and said that as he heard my voice breaking it occurred to him the tremendous weight I carry for the sangha in not only collecting all the names of the suffering and deceased, but in chanting them as well. He said he hadn’t appreciated the burden that I hold for all of them and that he feels deep gratitude that I do this. He told me that he hears me as the actual voice of compassion for the whole sangha. Struggling with my own grief I felt the tears springing to my eyes again.

I felt overwhelmed and so humbled by his words. Sitting here now I’m trying to remember these words so I can learn to replace the fear and shame I feel when I cry with them.

Chanting is not singing

Something that has settled into my mind the past few weeks around my Ino duties at the Zen center is that chanting is not singing. It surfaced a couple of days after HB told me I was doing better, still slow down, and to put spaces into the words, savor them.

I loved to sing along to the radio as a kid, to myself even if there was no radio. I was constantly told to be quiet, no one wanted to hear me, and I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. Therefore there was never any support for me wanting to be in a choir or anything like that. At college I finally broke free of this and joined the college choir, the community masterworks choir, and took voice lessons in the music department.

And I learned how to sing, how to carry the sound as a constant through the words, flowing. Ways to end words that end with Ms, Ts, and Ds. How to sing in Latin, German, Italian, and Spanish as well as English. Despite prompting by my vocal teacher I never became comfortable with solos, only performing them when forced to by the requirements of the voice lessons.  I did love singing in the choir and have particularly lovely memories of performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

In approaching chanting service I’ve used the lessons about breathing and projection from singing.  I also used the way lyrics are vocalized, especially in the classical, Western approach.  However, chanting isn’t singing Verdi, it is chanting.  The words flow in more of a rhythmic fashion, closer to percussion than the way a voice may be trained to move like a string instrument.  
I’ve been mindful of the feel of the words more than the meaning.  The feel is important in singing, the movement of a word.  In chanting sutras the importance is the meaning of the word, what the sutra is teaching us.  In chanting names, transferring the merit of our practice to the suffering and deceased, it is especially important to be mindful and hold each person in the heart as their name is recited.
I may still rush, I’m learning to be slower in chanting.  I feel like this realization will help.  There is such a distinct difference between the type vocalization I’ve done in the past and Zen chanting.  I’m still not used to the sound of my voice, loud in the quiet of the zendo.  It plays into my feeling like I couldn’t yell, really make noise in the zendo during the women’s retreat over the  New Year.  
I so deeply feel, in my bones the quiet of the zendo.  Something about chanting, being loud brings up old ghosts.  The obvious moments of having distinctly heard my Mother’s voice telling me I couldn’t carry a tune.  Ghosts of my grandmother admonishing us for being noisy, laughing during Mass and disturbing the quiet of the church.  Or any number of ghosts raining down disapproval for making too much noise.  Slowly I’m trying to replace those old voices with the new ones from my sangha telling me how much they appreciate, enjoy the sound of my voice ringing out in the stillness.

Validating the Inaccuracy of Input

I was slower chanting tonight, my teacher did not actually come over and tell me to slow down although each time I looked at him he was making a gesture with his hand to indicate that I was going too fast again. What got me afterward was D coming up and telling me how much she enjoys my voice during chanting service. That she finds my voice strong but mostly just beautiful.

I felt myself stiffening up inside. The veracity of the comments before me, and similar comments from other sangha members in nearly every week prior, were undeniable. Yet the present moment is in direct conflict with all the messages given to me over and over as a child.

You couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket!

No one wants to hear you making that noise, keep it quiet.

And music, other than what I could listen to in my room on a radio, was denied to me. I was always steered away from choir in middle and high school. The one time I tried out for, and made, the choir for my school’s annual winter holiday production the endeavor was cut short when it meant that I’d have to pay for shoes. It wasn’t until I was at college, over 2000 miles away from home so there was no way anyone could hear me, that I actually was part of a choir.

I was aware of the stiffness, of feeling a tightness in my chest. “Don’t cry”, I thought to myself.

CK knew, of course. Before we even made it to the car she was asking if I was alright. We got into the car and I started to cry. I immediately felt really stupid crying over a really heart-felt, genuine compliment. It had struck me, listening to that praise just how false the input given to me for so many years was.

That was hard. Maybe it is because my birthday is a week away and it has me thinking I should spend time with my Mom since it really is a special day for her. But with the terrible echoes of shame coming up and memories of non-supporting, downright invalid information it is difficult to want to spend my precious free time with her. But I still feel guilty about it.

CK asked me when I was leaving her flat if we’re doing better, she can’t tell. I think we are. I to her the way her actions had left me feeling really alone and uncertain. She observed that it must have been really hard.

It was so hard and I felt terribly abandoned, all the more so because I could hear her breath but not her presence. Now we’re able to cuddle again, so I feel reconnected to the intimacy we share. It isn’t all about sex, it is about something she said to me when we were first getting together, shared vulnerability.

I’ve so vulnerable, exposed really, for so long now. Losing weight pulled down a lot of the persona I’d built up to feel safe behind. If anyone laughed at that person she’d flip them off, swear, and distract herself from hurting over it. But that persona is gone and when I’m around CK it feels as though there’s very little left except the vulnerability. To have her share it with me again, in any capacity, does feel like progress.

What does it mean to miss someone

Last night, while trying to get to sleep I saw that CK lay facing me and she had pulled her hands up tight to her chest. At that moment I’d been feeling a bit of fear and was rubbing my hands with anxious energy. Seeing her face tucked down towards her hands I thought that we looked like two frightened children hiding under the blankets together. I had a moment of feeling things shift, going a little sideways. Some buried echo of being frightened with another little girl under a blanket so many years ago. I was aware of wanting to touch her, feeling how the desire to comfort my own self would try to rationalize as comforting her tension over the flight in the morning.

It took a while, some mindful breathing and I was eventually able to drift off to sleep. In the morning I was tired and sore, but very happy when she told me she actually slept well if too little. I lay in bed aware of her moving around, finishing off her packing, then we were into the car and at the airport.

At noon I ran into a very challenging day at work. More big changes. They affect me personally and make my boss, who is my friend too, miserable. I spent 3 hours solid on the phone. At 2PM I heated up some re-fried & corn tortillas and quickly ate them while on mute. My flood dream seems like some kind of strange premonition now.

AM put together dinner for us and we quickly ate out on the deck before going to the Dharma Center for Zazen. I finished first and sat back in my chair on the deck, pulling my feet in close. “Missing her already?”, AM asked me.

I thought about it. I’d been thinking about it all day. Yes, I miss her. But it isn’t just her companionship and feeling cut off from that since she’s in California. We’ve been apart for a few days at a time. Although even being apart for more than a day or two in town and I miss her.

I finally answered AM. I told him it wasn’t that I was missing her. I was feeling the anticipatory anxiety for her time with her family tomorrow. What I am missing is the ability to be there and rub her feet, put music on for her, take care of her in whatever way offers her comfort and ease. I can’t do that from Portland. All I can do is think about her tension around family visits.

During zazen I first just sat, just felt my breath in my body. Starting with fuller breaths, really filling and emptying my lungs. In the second sitting period I returned to metta practice. I offered it for my co-worker who was given upsetting news today of a change in manager; that she will be joining a different team. I offered it to my boss who has had a long year of changes, reductions in her team. Finally I settled in on CK. Making metta a container for my own worry, feeling lost without the ability to offer physical comfort, and gathering up her worried, tense expression I chanted metta practice for her in my mind.

Afterwards I chanted my second time. I was much louder, more confident Kojun said. She thought a very stressful work day led to a more easy chanting service. My teacher told me I needed to enjoy my voice more. He also said I will make an excellent Ino.

No hearing the voices of the past tonight when I chanted. I gave my teacher a quizzical look at his telling me to enjoy my voice more. I remember studying voice at college felt like such a daring thing. Done so far away from home no one would hear me and tell me that I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. Two thousand-plus miles I found that I had a strong, good voice but I never grew comfortable in it and I only enjoyed it when I was surrounded by the rest of the choir. Even then I felt a little nervous, as if at any time someone would tell I was an imposter and disgrace me.

Thursdays make for such late nights. At least tomorrow is Friday and there isn’t much beyond gardening planned.