I learned the art of "checking out" early. I would shift my attention from my body to some small detail of the moment. The vivid colors of cartoons on the television. The quality of the morning sunlight coming in through the north facing windows of my Mother's bedroom. The pattern of the paint and plaster on a ceiling. Code. Work. Writing ideas.
You get the idea. Something I could make so deeply engrossing that I was no longer connected to my body. I was outside of what was happening to my body. It is a pretty useful defensive tool and it has got me through abuse, doctor's exams, and dental work.
As a Zen practitioner we work toward being present to the moment. Fully conscious of the whole moment. The sensations of the body. The speeding of the mind. The sounds, textures and entirety of the present moment.
When I first was given the practice of Metta from my teachers it was profoundly difficult for a long time. I could send Metta all the live-long day to people I knew, people I was neutral toward, and even became more comfortable cultivating loving-kindness toward people I found difficult.
Where I got stuck was cultivating loving-kindness toward myself. The idea with Metta is that you start with yourself, filling yourself with so much loving-kindness that it very naturally extends outwards to benefit all living beings. I was right there with the benefits to all living beings, but not myself.
I realized with some shame that when I tried to focus on myself I'd "check out". Many people have a struggle with their inner critic who finds any number of reasons why they don't deserve loving-kindness, but I didn't get that. I just left the scene.
My teachers gave me all kinds of ideas on how to stick with myself. After many months, well over a year, of working with Metta practice, I can finally stick with myself. I built up slowly through the phrases, getting stuck on wishing myself happy for quite some time. Now though I can even find myself truly wishing that I be free from fear and anxiety, may I be peaceful and happy. I also sometimes add an additional loving wish that I be free from shame.
In this case it has felt like a victory to not "check out" (such a gentle way of saying "disassociate"). However, I've noticed in the past few months that I don't really check out anymore. I'm going through a period right now where it doesn't feel like progress or healing at all. It feels like I've lost one of my best allies.
I find myself fully, wholly present to what is happening to my body and mind. While at times it is great and other times tedious (chronic pain is, above all things, tedious), there are other times when it is truly horrifying and awful. I feel utterly defenseless against memories both mental and somatic. At those times I really grieve the loss of my ability to disassociate.
Don't know when or how it happened, but I feel bereft. I'm sure there's some combination of Yoga, Zen and EMDR therapy at work in this.
I am assured by both therapists that it is very certainly progress even though it feels like a terrible loss. They've also pointed out the progress I've made in being my own advocate and asking for what I need. My cognitive therapist even noted that I've been able to more clearly articulate events that have happened.
At this point I'm just going to accept that it is progress and stick with things. But I miss it.
This past Sunday CK and I met with two members of our sangha that are part of the Harmony Committee. It was exceedingly painful to open up to them about how I'm feeling excluded. Despite reassurances to the contrary, just trying to address it leaves me feeling as though I'm breaking the vow to not speak ill of the sangha. It was sobering and upsetting to acknowledge that the lack of respect I feel as a vegan is something that has kept me from feeling safe and included for the entire time I've been practicing with my community.
Monday evening one of my teachers phoned me at home. I found it a little ironic that he rang just as I got up from sitting zazen. He had wanted to touch base with me, having heard that I was experiencing a lot of unease lately.
We talked a little about my feelings of being excluded as a vegan in the community. He said to me that he felt it was important that our community feel very inclusive. He'd also commented about seeing the ethical choice I make being a vegan and that as a teacher he feels pleased to see a student exceed him in this area.
I believe it was the first time one of my teachers actually discussed my veganism with me. Acknowledging that it is an ethical choice that is the foundation of my practice. It was good to have it really seen as that important. Some part of it did feel painful, my wishing it could have been acknowledged this way, without my having to express how much suffering this has been causing me.
What has struck me the past few days are these thoughts:
Being vegan is not an allergy, but it feels like it is treated as such. This difference is accommodated but not celebrated as a deep expression of practice.
Our community is built upon a deep respect for people who's sobriety is an essential part of their practice. I feel like
I feel terribly guilty for not having spoken up sooner. Had I vocalized these feelings to my Zen community sooner than perhaps the environment would be more inviting to CK now.
Although I am hurting tremendously about my Mom, it does not lessen the importance of addressing this. I am not the only vegan who's felt excluded at times and it has been quite painful to me to see how this has impacted CK.
Although I appreciate that people in my community, including one of my teachers, seeing my veganism as being further along the path of compassion for all living beings, I don't just want to feel complimented. I feel that some change in our community is important. Just compliments have left me feeling like I have been - left out.
I also appreciate the suggestions that I show people through cooking how easy making vegan food is. However, just making cupcakes hasn't solved the problem. I've been doing this for years and although people appreciate my cupcakes, it hasn't cultivated mindfulness around this being my practice. Those same people might very well bring a non-vegan dish to a practice group that has asked that vegan dishes be brought.
I also acknowledge that people in my community may not understand that the lack of options around vegan food is seen as alienating and disrespectful to me. At the same time I have to recognize that for now that alienation feels rather painful.
Through all the busyness and discomfort I am trying to find my way along the thin thread of practice.
I haven't written a lot about the struggles in my practice with my Zen community around my veganism. Instead of writing about it publicly I've just reminded and reminded people about the need for vegan food, brought my own treats, and have practiced tolerance & patience when I feel hurt. When people engage me with questions I openly talk about the way in which I feel my veganism is intrinsically linked with my practice.
No group, no community is ever perfect. Everyone is unique, struggling, and trying to make their way. It is inevitable that we step on each others toes once in a while, so to speak. In this way Maezumi Roshi likened sangha to a bag a rocks. It is by rubbing and grating against one another that we are polished.
I'm feeling rather over-rubbed and raw right now about my sangha. I've spent over 4 and a half years facing the discomfort of trying to feel like I belong to a community at all. One of my extra-honed skills from surviving trauma is my ability to find nourishment even in environments that aren't supportive or perhaps even toxic. I can adapt and find something that is beneficial almost all of the time. I have managed to do that when I've felt hurt by my community and in staying I've learned a lot that has helped me so far.
Around my veganism it has become increasingly tiring to stay, to smile and remind, to continuously make food because I can't assume something will be there, and to patiently listen to comments I find insensitive, at best . I accept that being vegan is separating myself, stepping away from commonly held beliefs and emotions surrounding the use of animals and refusing to take part. I don't feel that my veganism is an act of fear or anger, rather I see it as an act of deep compassion. Living peace, feeding peace for the sake of ALL living beings.
However, it is hard and draining to be out on the edge. I have found it increasingly hard in my Zen community because I feel that a spiritual community should strive toward inclusiveness. I often feel like my veganism might be accommodated (but not always, not reliably unless I remind), but I quite often do not feel included. I've written about this before, it was something I very strongly felt while attending a special function last summer and it hasn't felt like it has improved much.
I also have been watching how this lack of inclusion has been hurting CK and it has affected me a lot. The lack of support in our community, from our teachers, around being vegan is painful to her. Honestly, it affects me a lot as I hate seeing her hurt. It makes me look at my tendency to dig in and find some, small hospitable corner for myself, despite an uncomfortable environment, and question it hard. Am I clinging to the parts of my community that I do find insightful because I afraid of exposing myself to something new and have worked too long at what little comfort I have? Am I ignoring the pain I feel because I don't want to be judged as a bad student?
In the years I've been practicing I find that my sangha still must be reminded all the time if I am going to be attending something. If I forget to do this I will surely be left out of whatever special treat someone has brought. I've missed out on the special treats for teas, celebrations for teacher's accomplishments, and the fancy desserts served on Sundays at the monastery. I've also heard countless jokes about people being addicted to cheese, how veganism is just too hard, and the like. Even more painful are the times when people refer to our teachers, including Dogen, as a reason why it is just fine to consume animal products. I hear these types of comments from every level in my community, from priests to lay people alike, and they are really quite painful to me.
When I've missed out on a treat I've spent a lot of time reminding myself that I don't need a treat. That I'm trying to not gain back the 100+ pounds I once carried and a treat is just unnecessary calories. That only works a small portion of the time, if at all. Deep down, where it feels like the response of a small child, I hurt and feel unwelcome.
During retreat practice many of the most painful moments, times when I felt things went completely off the rails for me, have been triggered around not being included. Not having the same food at dinner, not being given very much of a specially set aside food, spending an entire week picking blackberries but the resulting pies contained animal products, and not getting a special treat with tea after a full day of meditation. I've learned, painfully, to bring treats I keep in the drawer by my bed. On some level they help, the 4-year-old who awakes with howls of fear and pain is somewhat comforted by the fact that there is a treat, but the pain of not being included weighs on me.
Despite my bringing my veganism up repeatedly to my teachers I don't feel a lot of engagement from them about it. I talk about how it is the very foundation for my practice, how I feel compassion in nurtured, but feels like something that is just shrugged off. My weight loss has been looked at as this remarkable accomplishment, but the fact that it is tied to my veganism doesn't feel to me as though it is regarded as important and is even brushed aside.
Tonight is a meeting with my practice cohort and I'm dreading it. Although one of the students who leads it now reminds people to bring a vegan dish, I am preparing myself to be calm when I see that someone has forgotten or brought an animal product anyway. Last month it was a bowl of cheese next to the salad. It honestly frustrated and pained me to see it there, like somehow the meal would be so incomplete if there wasn't some kind of animal product there. Most likely there won't be vegan cookies for tea unless I go to the market and buy some on the way there.
I was talking about my Zen practice a lot on Monday when I saw GM. I had burst out that some of my worst moments related to my PTSD, the most awful flashbacks and raw pain have shown up during meditation & retreat practice. How many of those moments have been triggered by not being included around food. I don't think I'd ever told her this before. She shook her head at me in amazement and asked me why I keep going.
The painful answer was that right now what is keeping me going is a sense of responsibility and bad-student guilt. I am coordinating a much-needed community day next month, preparing a yoga workshop for August, and I volunteered to create a practice cohort for sangha members who identify as queer. It is a group that we lack and are very much needing, but it is hard to feel enthusiastic when I feel unsupported in what I consider the very foundation of my practice.
The tasks around Jukai, particularly sewing my rakusu, writing about the Grave Precepts, and making my lineage chart, have riled up my Inner Critic hugely.
What occurred to me tonight, while lying on the bed with a hot bag of flax seeds on my face and doing Metta practice for myself because I feel lousy, was that I've been able to more clearly hear the words of my Inner Critic lately. I've experienced a lot of the sensations of shame, guilt, anxiety, unworthiness, etc. that my Inner Critic builds up in me, but not the words.
It isn't even that I'm arguing with my Inner Critic (that still riles up a lot of childhood anxiety about the consequences of "talking back"). I can just make this internal voice out more clearly, which is kind of different.
My Inner Critic seems at times to be made up of a bored Greek Chorus of 13-14 "cool" kids from middle school. Not the self-conscious & longing to fit in kind of kid, that was me, but the disdainful, judging, mean-spirited kind. Nothing but pure anxiety-inducing spite and sarcasm.
You get the picture... Bullying, arrogant, jerks.
In fact, that "Yeah, right!" response to the name given to me was immediate upon hearing Chozen tell me that my name means Peaceful Person. That bored, young-adolescent voice snorted in derision, rolled their eyes and said, "Yeah, right."
I insisted to myself that I was not allowed to start laughing in the zendo, in the middle of Jukai, right after my teacher gave me my name. In retrospect they both probably would have encouraged that laughter to just take form. I was conscious of the same Inner Critic who denies me the right to say I'm "Peaceful" then denied me the option of laughing about it. For a moment there my Inner Critic taking on my Mother's voice about proper behavior.
I'm still juggling how to deal with this voice, or voices it feels like at times. The very fact there is a distinct voice instead of just pure, overwhelming surges of emotion feels like an interesting shift. When I started writing this all down I wondered if some of these sensations would make a little more sense, I'd be able to define the "voices", and maybe that's what's happening now. The combination of the writing practice and the furnace-like intensity of preparing for Jukai have started to reveal some clarity.
Ko, meaning: Peaceful, safe, secure
Nin, meaning: Person, human being, human kind
Three times that evening Chozen reminded me that it not only means that I aspire to become a peaceful person, but I am a person who helps all people to a peaceful state. I help manifest peace for all beings. It struck me the third time she told me that in naming me Konin my teachers were bestowing an enormous responsibility as well as a reminder for my own practice. It feels as though this name reflects Chozen's request for me to write about my weight loss and the pull towards teaching yoga, particularly a yoga that is flavored with Metta practice and cultivates the attitude of loving-kindness towards the body.
I have been weighing this name the past several days and how it marks a significant point in my life. One of Pure Precepts is to actualize good for others. For me, with this name, I know the good I will be working on is helping people find peace. It is also my constant reminder to maintain a more gentle, compassionate, and understanding approach with myself.
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...
Take that, Discursive Thoughts! Mu!
Mu, to you, Inner Critic!
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.
It is a week away and I don't feel excited or happy about the Jukai ceremony next week. It has felt like every task (sewing my rakusu, making my lineage chart, and writing about the precepts again) has done nothing but stir up my Inner Critic and/or trigger painful memories. For the most part I'm just feeling apathetic, tired and emotionally raw.
And I'm still waffling on asking my Mom to attend. Right now part of what I'm stuck on is pure logistics. Mom doesn't drive, is out in either Corbett or Gresham (long story, another post), our house is already going to be filled to the brim (yep, source of anxiety) as are our cars, and I'm not sure her husband or anyone would be willing to come into Portland on a Thursday evening. Add all of those headaches to having stirred up a lot of painful emotions around growing up and I still haven't talked with her about it at all.
My neck/head still ache, particularly the left side. IW worked on it yesterday at our therapy appointment, but there's this lingering heavy feeling to it all. I think some of it is allergies/sinus and some feels like all this icky, sticky energy. CK and I talked again last night about my seeing someone for acupuncture to get some of that stuck stuff moving. Massage and the physical/craniosacral therapies have helped, but stuff still feels stuck at times.
Tonight before sitting we had a meeting with our practice group and I shared that I felt lousy, cranky and didn't really want to be there. It was suggested that we talk about working with emotions in our practice and I felt like I had a total meltdown, including muscle spasms, stuttering, and crying of course. We ended up not staying for zazen and instead went to the gym to sit in the steam room, which helped relieve some of the muscle tension.
What really hit me was feeling angry that here I've worked so hard to reach this point, to receive Jukai, and I don't even appreciate it. I'm so worn out and exhausted by all the painful emotions it has brought up that I can't even enjoy the accomplishment. I feel that I've been robbed of feeling good about this, like so many other times in my life the abuse in my past has taken from me.
Before we left one of my Dharma sisters reminded me that I have a week to go, that maybe by next week I'll be able to appreciate the work I've done. I hope so.
Experience the intimacy of things. Do not defile the Three Treasures.
I find the precepts to have moments of clarity, times where I think it they are obvious and then suddenly I'm finding layers of where I don't apply them. When I first sat with this precept my mind immediately jumped to insisting that I'd never "defile" the Three Treasures. That other bit though, experiencing intimacy...
The intimacy of the Dharma, that's part of what draws me to Buddhism. It isn't just some words written down by people hundreds of years after some guy said them. It is the collected teachings from the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, to the teachers we have now. Considering, applying wisdom and compassion, and most importantly to me, a growing, living thing. There is an approach with the Dharma that reminds me of the way a scientific theory is considered, tested, discussed, tested, and considered some more. If anything, I think I can too easily sink into isolated intimacy of the Dharma without ever touching the other of Treasures.
The intimacy of the Buddha, of falling back into the 10,000 arms of Avalokiteshvara and knowing with certainty I'll be caught? This is pretty scary stuff for me. I don't fall back on my own easily and the Loving-Kindness sesshin certainly felt like one hell of a shove at times. During the Grasses, Trees & the Great Earth I think I got a little taste of actually letting go, allowing the feeling that my entire soul was exhausted just press me down into the warm floor of the cedar grove.
The intimacy of the Sangha is the most terrifying of them all to me. Having moved so often as a child and having had such a dysfunctional, rejecting family I really don't feel like I know how to belong to a group. For quite some time I came to zazen with the community and fled immediately after sitting was done. I enjoyed that I could come, sit in the depth of shared, communal silence, and not have to talk to anyone at all. Early on the ability to "sit and run" (as a Dharma sister names it) was part of the appeal of Zen.
Yet here it is, nearly 4 years later and next week I'm going to stand up in front of people next week, of my community, and take the vows of Jukai. I've even joined a practice group for women on Monday evenings, giving myself some structure while CK is taking a woodworking class, and shoving myself into a scary place - the close company of a group of women. We met for the first time this Monday evening.
As I talked about why I came (essentially because I was afraid of it) I could hear my voice speed up with the anxiety I was experiencing acutely and could feel my face & ears grow hot. I tried not to listen to my Inner Critic, tried to just stay with the way anxiety feels in my body, and when the next person began to speak kept my attention focused on her, not giving into the rather desperate urge to evaluate, judge, and criticize what I had shared. It feels like progress.
I made a mistake about this precept very early on, assumed this meant I could NOT get angry and gave my Inner Critic another way to beat up the times when I did feel angry. I finally took this error to Sanzen where Hogen reminded me that it meant we should not give rise to anger, rather I should look deeply at why the anger was arising. This precept directs me to accept that I will feel anger at times, to seek the source of my anger, and not give rise to the anger.
Anger can be a scary emotion for me to be around. In my family we were given the message, reinforced by punishment, that anger cannot be displayed. Raising your voice was forbidden. The image of the “happy family” presented to outsiders must be preserved. In response to this artificial, false act everyone ate inappropriately to feed the hurt feelings since acknowledging the anger, the hurt wasn’t allowed. It wasn’t OK to tell someone that a quietly spoken insult wasn’t acceptable, but it was just fine to have a piece of pie to make yourself “feel better”.
There are times, looking deeply at the source of anger, where I am put back in contact with memories of abuse. The frightened, unsupported child I was is heard and at times seems to be attacking me for not acknowledging her. I was introduced to her anger during the Loving-Kindness sesshin in April and her anger is a ferocious thing.
When I look at that anger, the rage of the child I was who experienced abuse, I can try to be calm with it and acknowledge it. Not only is that anger legitimate, it deserves to be heard since I was always told any anger I tried to express as a child was "inappropriate" or "over-reacting". Even still, even as understandable as that anger may be, when I feel the heat of it rise up in me I can breath into it, offer comfort to it, and instead respond to the situation with as much compassion as possible for myself and others.
I am far more comfortable with the work of actualizing harmony, especially for other people. I was a child who thought she wanted to be in the spotlight, but as an adult I've found I really enjoy being in the background, helping with all the little details. In a much more direct way, I feel profound gratitude for the opportunity I have to teach yoga, it is this very clear path to helping others actualize harmony, particularly a state of harmony towards the body. I try to remind myself to include myself in the people who deserve this kind of energy from me.
Realize self and others as one. Do not elevate the self and blame others.
Like the Sixth Grave Precept I feel that this is a message I heard as a child, but equally similarly was the way in which the example from my family members did not uphold this message. The idea that we're all one has always stuck with me, even though the nature of my childhood & adolescence has left me with a tremendous sense of not belonging or fitting in. What I find interesting is how the point in my life I was most disconnected from the feeling of being one, and most likely to elevate myself above others, was when I weighed the most. For me there is real irony that the literal insulation of my obesity, which I felt helped me feel more comfortable in groups, was the time in my life I was my most impatient and blaming towards other people. Now I see that grave disconnect from the health of my body as contributing to my ability to silence the part of me that knew I should treat people with more grace.
I saw this mostly in how I treated people, especially people like cashiers and others in the service industry. I could be short, terse, dismissive and unpleasant as a “dissatisfied customer”. In this way I would try to hold the person dealing with me accountable for all the irritation I felt at life instead of seeing how utterly insignificant the issue I was demanding be fixed was. I’m not even sure if I really felt like I was being elevated at those times, so much as I didn’t see them as one; the same impatient, frightened, confused, joyful, hopeful, wonderful kind of person I am with nothing but a desire to be happy, to be content.
The weight loss has at times heightened my feelings of not belonging. The loss of that layer insulating me from the enormity of my unacknowledged grief leaves me feeling completely isolated and alone with the messages I heard as a child. I’ve reached a point where I have cultivated the ability to see others as one, but it is challenging practice to include myself and not judge myself as ‘broken’.