Fumbling in the dawn light
an old woman
comes upon an ancient mirror
and clearly sees her true face.
Rest now your confusion
and recognize your own reflection.
– “The Particular Within the Complete,” a Zen koan translated by Rachel Boughton
This past Sunday I realized that Flower Mountain Zen, a small Zen community that Rachel Boughton Roshi and I helped to get started along with some of her other students, is now two years old. We have meditated together and talked together, almost entirely online, through two of the most complicated, turbulent years any of us have ever experienced. We have sat quietly in front of our computer screens in California, Washington, New Mexico, Mexico, India, Canada, and elsewhere – through pandemic, divorce, social unrest, insurrection, the death of loved ones, catastrophic wildfire. We are not really special. The whole world has done this, even if “meditation” has not been the intention, or if the quiet has lasted just the space of a heartbeat, now and then.
Inside of all the turbulence, there has been still life.
Yesterday, though, during our quiet Zoom conversation in the wake of meditation, I also realized that maybe, just maybe, I have lost sight of this still life. The name of my blog is “Still Life, Turning Planet,” but I almost always focus on the turning planet piece. How do I stay upright and find equilibrium on this constantly turning planet? But it’s like “don’t think of an elephant!”— as soon as I ask that question I feel dizzy, I feel like I am falling. And something inside me scrambles to keep pace with all the revolutions, in spite of myself.
But when my friend Michael Hofmann spoke yesterday in his calm, reflective way, from his art- and light-filled room on the other side of the county, he said that meditation had given him the sense of being in a still life. Tell me more about that still life, said Rachel. Well, he responded, it feels very inclusive. It includes me and I am just one element among all the elements of the room, and all of you on this Zoom, too. We are all part of the still life.
Something inside of me gasped, and settled, and rested.
“Rest now your confusion,” the koan says, “and recognize your own reflection.” Rest as if you are leaning against a tree. Rest not as if all the problems have been solved, but long enough to feel yourself as one element among everything. Settled, amidst the luminosity and confusion, of all things.
Last night I had a nightmare. Perhaps it was watching too much of “The Mandalorian” with my 11-year-old, too close to bedtime. Perhaps it was arguing with said 11-year-old, who got hungry and depleted after being too jazzed up (by having dinner company for the first time in almost two years) to eat anything sensible. Perhaps it was the fact that my own creative life has been put on hold during the holidays, and already I can see myself scheduling it out of existence into the near-term future. I have a vet appointment for my cat, fire rebuild meetings, volunteer facilitation work all scribbled into my weekly calendar—and no space yet for writing.
Yet here I am, writing.
Because in the nightmare a serial killer was also a writer, writing a book on post-it notes in a shadowy version of my own house. I was the only one who knew who he was, and didn’t know how to let anyone know. I was torn between giving him a chance (“maybe that was just his past, maybe he’s changed”) and protecting myself and my family. He was an ordinary, fit, dark-haired young man, maybe in his late twenties, wearing jeans and a white tee-shirt. As I tried to decide whether and how to tell people the news about him, he opened a school locker and looked at himself in a long mirror. His reflection was different — a clear caricature. He was high-pitched, pinched, and mean-looking. A shrieking clown in jeans and a plain tee-shirt. He revealed his own true face.
His face was a face of desperation and craving. His figure was a figure trying to fill some deep emptiness with sarcasm, bitterness, and violence. And he is inside of me. His life is my very own grasping life. My “not enough” life. My “I wish it was a different way” life. And sometimes that life eats me alive, carves me up into sadness, spinning, busyness, and worry.
Yet I only need, today, to think of Michael, glancing around him at the things in his room with a sort of simple wonderment, to know I am not lost. To know the still life is there also, inside and around me. And companions are there to help me find it. Friends and trees and hummingbirds and mirrors and yes, even scary dreams. Together, they hold me in some larger, luminous pattern. Each of my reflections is just one particular moment in the midst of a complete life.
And here I am, writing again. The week ahead is crowded, but not impossible. The sky is a cold gray. I am thinking about love and history and coffee. And said 11-year-old helped me find a cozy jazz track to listen to while I fumble and clatter away, into this new year.