I havenít done the end of Ango retreat yet, nor am I really sure when I will. To do it on the scheduled dates of 12/4-5 was just impractical due to job demands. As a college professor, thatís about the end of the semester when things get really busy and more than a bit crazy. So my plan was to extend Ango another 20 days and do it 12/24-25. These two days have some significance for a lot of people, but because I donít really do that holiday anymore it seemed a good time to have my own zazen-type holiday. Plus, I did the retreat those days last year and it worked out great, so I planned on this year being like last. But somewhere along the Way I got burned out by it all. The whole shebang blew up in my face, so no retreat, at least not yet.
The first 100 days of Ango went pretty well. I donít think I missed a day of sitting once, even when sick I managed some form of zazen every day. I never ever thought I could be that consistent, so I was encouraged and thought little of extending Ango for a measly 20 days. But from day 100 and on Ango got really hard for me. My practice began to really fall apart. I would forget to sit a second time on some days and on others I would literally drag myself to do that second sitting. Morning sits went better, but even those began being done with reluctance. The DO-ing of zazen became a tote that barge in the morning and lift that bale in the evening chore, a burden, a heavy weight that began to drag me down. I feel itís important to say that the zazen itself was always fine, because even sloppy zazen is perfect in its own way. But the getting of myself to do it actually began to depress me, especially with the idea of two solid days of it looming on the ever nearer horizon.
I think a couple things were going on here. One, somewhere towards the end of the 100 days it had ceased to be a life-practice and become instead a job, a task with a beginning and an end. I began to say to myself things like, ďI just have to get through a few more days of this twice a day sitting stuff and then Iím free.Ē Two, I had artificially enforced some deadline, imposed an endpoint, concocted a finish line to it all by giving myself my own dates of closure, my own retreat dates. There was a growing internal pressure to meet this self-imposed deadline, to reach my endpoint, as if there really was such a thing as a finish line to this practice. Forms. I got stuck in forms. I lost the life-as-practice flow and snuck in my own delusional hard and fast forms.
A couple things got me out of this rut called Al-Ango. One was the story of Vasubandhu I read while catching up in the book. The name Vasubandhu means total practice, and he was a guy that lived up to that name by doing everything right, by the book. His practice looked perfect on the outside. But one day the patriarch Jayata came up and said something along the lines of ďYou donít have to do be so by the book to practice the Way. Loosen up. The unaimed arrow never misses.Ē That really planted a seed in me. The second thing that helped was to finally send a note to Jundo asking for some Skype time. Now, zen is not a 12-step program, but sometimes the most liberating step you can take is that first step to ask for help, something I generally loathe doing. In this case, the step to ask for help was a backward step, because it gave me some space to see what I was doing to create this self-imposed samsara. As of this writing, I have yet to talk to Jundo (weíve missed each other), but that backward step space has helped me to see a way out of this mess.
The first thing is no retreat today. Take the pressure off. Iíll do it some day, soon, probably, but I donít know when, and thatís ok. The second thing is I need to get my practice back to being a dance and not a chore. Iím trying to shake things up, get out of the routine. No zazen first thing in the morning for a while, no timers for a while, no set sequences of Heart sutra, then zazen, then metta, etc. like I was doing during Ango; instead just sit when I feel like sitting, chant when I feel like chanting, metta when I am moved to it, precepts when it seems like the right thing to do, vows and bows when vows and bows seem in order. All in no order. Just dance with all the forms of practice to make them new again.
Iíve taken to the analogy of surfing to describe my practice, but I think I took it too far to mean digging into the waves of life and practice. A good surfer, I imagine, has to be light on their feet on the board, like Jundoís dancer. A good surfer (zen practitioner) glides over the waves as his board (zazen) digs into the waves. As a result, surfer and wave merge; not one, not two. And even the best surfers, which I am most definitely not, fall off their boards from time to time.
Here endeth my confession. Thanks for listening. This, too, the making of a private struggle public, was a way out of my mess. As we say here in Texas, I appreciate ya.