Man, this Sucks. Oh, Well. (And Other Thoughts About Letting Go)

Heard back from another small press yesterday. A little part of me always falls when I don’t get what I dearly, dearly, dearly want (and we are not just talking about books here). And this is of course why I have chosen Joko to focus on. She taught me how to work with the tragic disappointment in my life….the primal scream of a 2o-something who was hitting the wall of needing something from the world to feel whole. And the world just would not oblige. And Joko nudged me to be myself anyway, a real person in a real body, and to see through the disappointment into the raw desire, and how to transform that desire into a longing to awaken. At least that was my take-away.

And then Joko disappointed me.

Look: (I just have to do an homage to my favorite president who rocked last night!) She….talked a lot about….letting go…of anger….and then….after pulling the American Zen people in…with  her promises of true…lib….eration…..what did she do….at the end of her life? She looked around….at the people who had supported her for many…many….years….and she said…You! You’re Dead To Me. You! I Take My Transmission Back! So….what can we think….then…..about the…..power….of her insight? And of…her teaching….itself?….Was she….just old and….as people say….demented….with Alzheimers? Or….is it impossible….to truly let go….of….our suffering selves….and all that we want….from the world?

Has Barack ever been truly bummed out?

So. Where does that leave me as I continue to walk this road of mine, filled with longing and dissatisfaction. Not every day, in every moment, or anything like that, but about the big things, the subtle things, my place in the world, and how to best “combust” my life, as we hear a lot. I keep looking at Joko’s teaching and her story because I think there is something here that I haven’t yet seen, and I am dying for a look.

As promised, here is the next section from the Intro:

For months after the Barnes and Noble incident it would not be incorrect to say I read Joko’s books constantly, but what I was really doing was more like eating, gorging myself on the dharma. When I woke up, as I went to sleep, on the subway, between classes, before therapy, after therapy, as I ate a lonely meal, even walking down the street, I read, ingested, Joko’s wisdom of letting go. From all my reading, it was clear that this meditation (zazen) thing was major, that for people to really practice Zen, they had to do it. And a lot, I gathered. Oh, well, I figured. I guess since I am just not that kind of person who will ever sit still on a goofy cushion, I will have to be satisfied with what I am getting from the words, which is a lot!

And then. One day I was reading Joko in my little three room apartment in Brooklyn, my relationship still going on in all its excruciating glory, which meant that on this particular Saturday, I must have been either waiting for a call or reeling from one, because the other option is that I would have been so high from some over the top rendezvous that I would not be reading Joko. So on this day, I read a passage where Joko invited readers to give meditation a shot. She wrote: “Usually, in meditation we don’t shut our eyes. But right now I’d like you to shut your eyes and just sit there.” And so there, on my bed, which took up the entire room, facing the narrow window that opened on to the wilderness of fire escapes, I did it. I sat there. Joko then listed a bunch of sensations to pay attention to, and ended with, “If you can just do that for three minutes, that’s miraculous…our interest in just being with reality (which is what we have just done) is really low.” And I was hooked, not just on the practice of sitting still (which felt immediately glorious, though difficult), but on breaking barriers, of doing things I never thought I could do.

I began throwing myself into zazen with a passion I had only known for self-destruction. Even my boyfriend was taken aback, noticing (a surprise in itself) that my energies were shifting. I looked for a teacher on the East Coast, as Joko was in California, realizing that I needed face-to-face support and guidance. Eventually, I found the late John Daido Loori, Roshi, who happened to have the same Japanese teacher as Joko, Taizan Maezumi, Roshi, making them dharma brother and sister. And that’s when my life as a Zen student got serious, and I began really fortifying myself for the battle up ahead, when this man who I felt I would die without, would finally disappear. And after I basically wrote his application essay for an Ivy League Ph.D. program, and after he got in with a scholarship, he broke up with me. And off I went, into the abyss I had been preparing for.

I have to say, looking back on the period of utter agony it took me to move through the bulk of my withdrawal, I kind of miss it. It’s like the way we look back on significant, though painful events, with just a bit of longing—the week after a funeral, where there is nothing to do but eat, mourn, stay close to what we know matters, a special time when we can trust that someone else will do the dishes. After my boyfriend left me, it was like a two-year luncheon where all I did was move through pain, millisecond by millisecond. I drew, I read, I did zazen, I worked, I wandered around New York City bringing my awareness back to my own body, as Joko instructed me to do, while still searching through the crowd for a new fix, caught in all kinds of gripping, jealous fantasies about how the rest of world was normal, happy, not broken.

But I had planned well. By this time I had an established zazen practice, a community (sangha) and, my teacher, Daido, who eventually gave me the Buddhist name Senkyu, which means, of all things, Enduring River. I owe Daido Roshi an enormous debt of gratitude for all the day-in-day-out, nitty-gritty work he did with me flopping around on the bank of the river, one minute offering the kind of grandmotherly compassion I needed, the next chiding me for being so aggressive, or shouting at me to stop chasing my tail. Eventually, through Herculean effort and support, the ache subsided and I started having a life, even dating and meeting my future husband at Zen Mountain Monastery, where I was Daido’s student. It’s a miracle, really.

All told, I worked with Daido both as a lay student who did a silent retreat every month for several years, and then as a resident, living at the monastery for two years, a time filled with middle of the night walks down the hill from my cabin and days and days on my cushion, my robe soaked in tears, peeling the onion as Daido used to say, moving through the layers of conditioning, of heartbreak, and of self-concern that had led me to this practice and this big, chilly monastery, of all places. And then for a few years, again, as a lay person, with a house and family, down the road. And Daido was always there, either in his little dokusan room, the place where he met with students privately to test their understanding, or walking through the zendo for morning checking rounds, making sure we were all in our seats, or grumpily getting his spaghetti on Sundays, just daring us to say a word of Zen. And then schlepping to our home in the snow with all the monks before our daughter was born, performing an eye-opening ceremony in our little blue house, offering incense at every altar. And Daido’s unconditional love—I don’t know what else to call it—healed me. And yet, I have always considered Joko my first teacher, the person who introduced me to Zen, the one who snatched me from the terrifying current of my longing.

As such, my relationship with Joko, a woman I have never met, is deep and complex. Always, in my most desperate moments, it was Joko’s raw voice that I heard, bolstering me with frankness, saying things like, “If you’re not ready to be serious, that’s fine. Just go live your life. You need to be kicked around for a while.” I always, always trusted Joko, and I trusted that if I were, indeed, serious, I would see through my suffering. Something about Joko’s voice always sounded true. And not just to me.

Joko’s teaching is often referred to as being “accessible,” which it certainly is, but not because she presents some kind of Zen for Dummies, but because she focused her attention on aspects of the human experience that are so deep and so basic they often fall under the radar of spiritual teachings. And she helps people see how to actually practice these hurts, these obstacles, instead of trying to get over them. For instance, one of Joko’s core teachings was about the efficacy of disappointment. In an interview that appeared in Tricycle, Amy Gross said to Joko, “You’re very enthusiastic about the uses of disappointment.” And Joko replied:

“See, we usually live our lives out of the ceaseless hopes and expectations of this self-centered mind or ego. And if that works, if you’re unfortunate enough that it works—you want the ideal man, you get the ideal man; you get the ideal job; everybody loves you—then you forge ahead in your usual way until something comes along that stops you in your tracks. Usually, it’s a disappointment or disaster of some sort. What most people do then, naturally, is try harder. They want to be happy, so they look for a new formula, and that’s when they take up some sort of a practice, or go to church, or do something.

If you’re lucky, though, you continue to meet painful disappointment. “Gosh, it just doesn’t work; I don’t know what to do next—I’m baffled.” I always congratulate people who arrive at this crossroads—“Aren’t you lucky!”—because now the true path can be glimpsed. A real practice can begin. It doesn’t mean that if I get disappointed, I like it. But I know it now for what it is.

Because of the nature of my suffering—a deep yearning that is impossible to satisfy—Joko’s teachings on disappointment, woven into nearly everything she had to say on life and Zen, have been critical to my being able to see, then heal, my anguish and turn my life around. It was as if my most shameful humiliation—that I craved a deep human connection and wasn’t getting it—became a jeweled portal, sparkling in its relentlessness. I couldn’t avoid it, nor, it turns out, should I. Instead, I could pass through it a million times (and still counting), and experience its’ fleeting, not-real nature first-hand. And instead of chasing after my empty desire, I could relax even more and actually see what was in front of me: a  life, good enough, and worth living. The river widens.

Over the years I have come to see this process as a Divine Disappointment, a way of working with the “ceaseless hopes and expectations of this self-centered mind or ego.” In giving up my fantasies that the man, the work, the moment, the practice, will fulfill my bottomless cravings, I am clearing the slate for something real to arise, something that is a genuine culmination of what is happening on Planet Earth instead of the many sordid tales of life on Planet Bethany. This is, I believe, the “true path” that Joko refers to, and indeed, I have felt seriously lucky to have glimpsed it.

(To be continued….)