A few nights ago, at our first ‘Zen Movie Night’, we watched Bill Murray’s classic film: Groundhog Day. Murray plays a self-absorbed local TV weatherman who is caught in a repetitive loop of living out the same day, February 2nd, again and again. At first he is horrified, then he tries to use the situation to his own advantage. He uses the knowledge he gains from one day to get what he wants (the beautiful woman) on the next same day. When that doesn’t work, he falls into despair of every getting out of this day. But even when he tries to escape by taking his own life, he still wakes up the next morning in the same day.
Such a wonderful metaphor for the problem of our lives. In Zen, we call it genjo koan—the koan of our everyday life. The koan, the issue, is not an intellectual puzzle involving esoteric stories set in medieval China or even a philosophical matter of spiritual doctrine. Our true challenge is in encountering the world of our everyday life. And like in the movie, we get a chance to do it over and over and over.
Every morning, we regain consciousness and have to figure out how to be ourselves one more time. Mostly, like Murray, we don’t feel like we have much choice. We’ve got our to-do list and calendar of appointments. The current state of ease or dis-ease in our body. The myriad expectations and assumptions of others. And, of course and most challengingly, we’ve got the myriad expectations and assumptions of own.
‘Another day.’ Without thinking, we think we know what is going to happen. The mind expects more of the same. As relatively well-functioning humans (and if you’re reading this piece of writing, I count you in this category), we have all created some relatively stable understanding of the world. We know that the world is _____________. Fill in the blank. Dangerous. Beautiful. Reliable. Oppressive. Fascinating. Terrifying. Safe. Or something else. Or maybe it changes from day to day. But, for all of us, our experience of the world is shaped by the mental maps we have constructed.
Stephen Covey once wrote : ‘We see the world not as it is, but as we are, or as we have been programmed to see it.’ Though our perception appears to be an objective observation of something outside of us, it is not. What we see and understand is a creative construction, based on bits of external information filtered through a lifetime of experiences.
In the movie, [SPOILER ALERT] Murray finds his way out through realizing two things. First, he is not all-powerful. Even in this world of no consequences, he cannot have everything he wants (the beautiful woman still won’t fall for him) and he cannot make everything OK (the old man still has to die.) Second, he learns that his attitudes and actions do have an impact on his own experience. His realization leads to both surrender and to choosing to actively use his life to heal the world in whatever way he can. In Zen we would say that he chooses the path of a Bodhisattva—rather than focusing on getting what he wants, he devotes himself to serving the world.
…and, because this is a movie made in Hollywood, he thereby achieves true happiness for ever after. Including getting his love interest to finally sleep with him. So, in this humorous and mostly thoughtful movie, the path of spiritual liberation is portrayed as coincidentally being the best pick-up strategy ever. If you want the unattainable woman/man just become and Bodhisattva and they will find you so irresistible they will immediately hop in bed with you.
As far as I know, this isn’t true.
But in the movie Murray is finally released, finally solves the koan of his life, not by getting what he wants, but by learning to appreciate what he already has and dedicating his life to bringing joy to others.
This is enough. Though of course, it is enough only for the moment.
In the sequel, I would have him caught in another repeating day—this time he is in a long term relationship where his partner doesn’t fully understand him and where he is lost in longing for that day, so long ago, when he was truly happy.
The azure mandalas now appear each morning on the pergola. Like a flock of migrating birds, dozens arrive daily. Only briefly, these glorious winged blossoms light on the tangled exuberance of green vines. Vanishing in short order. As if they were only resting before departing to a more exotic world that does not appear on any map.
These delicate travelers have clearly come from distant lands—they are not made of the ordinary stuff of daily life. Their insubstantial skirt of the deepest blue responds to the caress of each breeze. And, toward the center, the intense hue fades to white and then to the softest yellow—a tiny glowing sun surrounded by the cerulean sky.
Every morning, I am in awe.
I stare at them again and again. From near and far. Once again enchanted.
I suppose I should be more sophisticated. I suppose once or twice should be enough. But I can’t help myself. Their beauty and mystery softly speak to me. Whispers of the uncharted world behind appearances.
I try to receive the message of these brief beings. I take pictures from every angle and spend hours weaving these insubstantial words to try to manifest the ineffable.
I never quite catch the fullness of it all, but continue, like an enthusiastic little boy who has seen the first dandelion of the season, to wave my arms and point wildly to what is hidden in plain sight.
I am a piece worker. I work breath by breath—trying to manage one at a time before I go to the next.
I am a peace worker. I start with me. Each morning I wake up to meet the many mystifying people that I might be. If necessary, I enter the fray to try to break up the disputes between the different parts of myself. It is dangerous work. I often end up beat up. One self refuses to relinquish its cherished certainty and will not stop. Sometimes there is pushing and shoving and insults are hurled in every direction.
I try to keep my head about me even words of venom spill from hateful mouths. When my safety is not certain. Sometimes the fear simply slides around and over me without even touching. Sometimes they lodge in my heart like an arrow with a poison tip.
It’s not an easy job, but it’s endlessly fascinating. These many characters that I am—sometimes wise and patient, sometimes anxious and confused. Day to day, I never know who I will be. But morning is usually the hardest time—before the momentum of the day is established—before I remember the things I used to know.
I wake up in the middle of forgetting—like my soul has traveled too far during the night. Wandering through the many universes, not wanting to return, it waits till the last minute to scramble back into my body just before I begin to wake up. Breathless from its cosmic travel, my soul barely remembers its day job of being me.
So I come to consciousness slowly. At first I can’t distinguish dream from daylight. Am I the figure of my dreams? What life am I living? Am I ten years old and about to start sixth grade with Mrs. Hamilton again? Will the sweet and cute Joanie Darrow be in my class again? Will the other boys still let me play baseball with them even though I blew that easy pop-up yesterday?
I write a lot about waking up. I’m sure there are people for whom this is not a big deal—who wake up and bound out of bed with the familiar assurance of a brain bathed in seritonin.
Taking a moment to insure the scientific basis of my writing, I read on Wikipedia that “Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and is found in all bilateral animals, where it mediates gut movements and the animal’s perceptions of resource availability.”
Somehow, it’s comforting to think of myself as a bilateral animal. My two feet have ten toes carefully divided between the two. They unfailingly take turns when I walk—the left always respectfully waiting for his partner, the right, to take a turn before he steps again. (Of course except those rare occasions of frivolity (or disaster) where hopping and skipping are required.) I suppose I would still qualify if I had four feet as well – as long as there equally distributed on either side.
But it’s the resource availability that really catches me. What a lovely way to reduce the peregrinations of my mind. The real questions are: “Will there be enough food and water?” “Will there be enough shelter?” “Will there be enough human connection?” The primal questions.
Of course, my experience has been one of extreme abundance in the food, water and shelter category. But the human connection has, for some mysterious reason, always felt tenuous to me. I don’t have any real reason to doubt, just that doubt is so deeply planted in my brain—planted a place so deep and inaccessible I can’t get there to reason with it. What if she doesn’t come this time? What if my diaper never gets changed? What if my brother takes all the food and there’s none left for me?
So, for the time being, I’ll keep my job as peace-maker and negotiator. When I can, I’ll do the piece work of watching each breath. And I’ll try to remember that though walking is much more efficient, sometimes skipping is a much better way to go.
A bright and cool dawn has come after last night’s wild storm.. A perfect day for a walk or bicycle ride. The morning leaves, still held high aloft on the garden trees, are illuminated from the northeast, though, already the sunrise is already trending toward the south—toward the winter sun that rides low in the sky. Soon the day will start in earnest, but for now, I am content to sit here on the porch and allow everything, including myself, to be just as we are. What more could be necessary?
In a flowerpot near my feet, the cream and green crinkled leaves of the hosta are suspended effortlessly on the ends of perfectly engineered stalks. Nothing is straining or planning. All is resting still right where it is. Looking closer, I see the stillness is really an illusion. The airy leaves are slightly wagging on the ends of their stems, happy for the micro-currents of air I can barely perceive.
And Ms. Cream-and-green-crinkle has a neighbor. Sprouting from the cylindrical abode next door, there’s the silver green hosta with leaves more upright and decorated with vertical lines. Unrumpled, she holds herself in upright elegance. Her larger leaves on taller stems hold a stationary wave along the edge—still undulating—a momentary profile of the rolling swells on the smooth ocean.
Both hosta leave live a distance from the dirt in the pot. They have both made a concerted effort to give space to the leaves – to spread the reach of these decorated sun catchers. Up and out. Cantilevered into the open air. Related yet different—as if each was given the same instruction book but interpreted the directives differently.
Now I appreciate the shape of the stems. Not flat, not round, but each stem a rising gully of green. To what purpose? A river bed to guide rain water toward the center of the plant itself? Additional strength to support the cantilevered leaf.? I wonder if the stem is working hard? I don’t think so. It’s not hard work to fill the function for which we were designed. The trick, for us humans, is to find out what that work is. It’s not like we’re handed an instruction manual. (Though neither, I suppose, were the hosta.)
For us, it’s all trial and error. Since each one of us has never before happened on the face of the earth—never before happened in the incomprehensibly deep and vast history of the cosmos. We have to make it up as we go.
But we make it up only as we are, as we find ourselves. At its root, it’s not an act of will. We can’t choose to be someone else, we can’t live someone else’s life. We can only be the person we are right now. The body we have in this moment is the body we get in this moment. All of our wishing and hoping and resenting are to no avail—a misguided attempt to control the universe, to try to bend the reality of the present to conform to some small idea we have of what should be happening.
Our two-legged freedom is life-changing, but wildly limited. We have the freedom to discover our gifts – to discover what has already been given. And then, if we choose, we can use who we are to make a difference in the world. We can give who we are toward some purpose larger than our limited and complaining self.
The hosta in the pots on my porch don’t, of course worry about any of this. They leave the dreaming of words and the poking at the laptop keys all to me. I don’t think they feel worse for themselves for not having this capacity. And I imagine that the cream and green hosta does not begrudge the gray-green hosta its more elegant and upright inclination—does not berate itself for holding its carefully rumpled leaves closer to the ground.
Everything appears to be content to be itself except this unfortunate two legged creature. We have been given the demanding gift of perceiving the world as being composed of discreet objects. These supposed objects can be manipulate in our minds to create possible worlds of difference.. These marvelous and troubling minds. This magnificent perception of separation causes so much suffering and yet is also the path through which we can awaken to the joyous realization of non-separation. We might say that the division is God’s gift. The separation is the universe’s way of appreciating itself.
Sometimes it does seem clear that my true job is to appreciate the world—to sing songs to celebrate the glorious green life forms that inhabit the Temple gardens—to marvel at the variety and sweetness of the two-legged life forms that stroll the garden paths. I am happiest in the morning, when I take the time to see what is already here – when I babble the praises of this most inconceivable life.
The last Tuesday in August. Morning twilight spreads toward full daylight with the slightest brightening through the eastern trees. A cool breeze ruffles dryly through the nearly autumn leaves of the trees in the Temple garden. Cars rush by sporadically on their way to another necessary week of work.
I sit quietly on the porch looking out over the new bed of variegated Solomon seal we planted back by the gazebo on Sunday. My dear friend and master gardener Fran dug up thirty or forty slips from her garden in Connecticut while others had prepared the bed.
The area used to be full of day lilies. I’m sure they were put there by the landscape designer who created the garden in the 80’s. And I suspect, at one time, the lilies were thriving. But these past years, either the shade from the trees had grown too thick, or the plants themselves just ran out of energy. The formerly lush display of foliage and flowers had degenerated to a few meager blossoms and quickly wilting greenery.
So we dug up the remaining roots from the dry ground. Ryushin, one of our Temple guests from Great Vow Monastery in Oregon, put in some hours over the week and the participants in our monthly Sunday morning family service also contributed some caretaking practice. And even the old Abbot (that’s me) joined in toward the end of the family caretaking practice.
I was particularly struck by the efforts of one young man named Odin. He’s a relatively new member of our community—in fact, he’s relatively new to the planet, having arrived without clothes or any plans some eighteen months ago. Most of us pegged him as rather immature, even babyish at first. But he’s been studying hard these past months (with the full support of his loving Mom, Dad and older sister) and has fully mastered the upright walking trick and is also making some minor progress on the language front. Sunday, he turned his prodigious attention to the practice of digging.
As the rest of us adults and older kids were digging in order to remove roots and stones, Oden was just focused on the process digging. He wasn’t even really trying to make holes, he was just digging. He would wave his tiny white trowel around a little, stick it in the soil, push it around a in different directions, then pick it up again to examine whatever had stuck to it. At seemingly random intervals he would walk a few paces, squat down and repeat the process. For him, there was no need for some purpose other than the digging itself.
What was he thinking? Was it the texture of the dirt and stones and roots? Was it the wonder of using a tool to make an impact on the world? Or was simply the joy of joining in the activity with other members of his human species? Whatever it was, he was fully devoted to his digging practice and utterly unconcerned about the larger outcome of his work.
Now, I am grateful to have a mind that can construct the world in such a way that I have a rudimentary understanding of some of the laws of cause and effect. If I water the morning glories in planters on the access ramp every morning, they will continue produce those exquisite blue blossoms day after day. And I am grateful to have a body healthy enough to carry the water from the spigot to the flowers. (As well as a body and mind to accomplish the myriad daily tasks that allow me to live independently now that my parents are no longer willing to take care of my every whim.)
But Odin’s wholehearted activity is a lovely reminder of the joy that is possible in devotion to the task itself. It’s not an either/or situation. We can be practical in being mindful of caretaking ourselves and the world around us. AND we can absorb ourselves fully in the activity of the moment—appreciating the wonder of using tools—spoons and forks, trowels and cars, computers and cups.