April 30, 2015
If you're not sitting, the Sensei said, you're wasting your life.
That, more than dying and death, the pupil feared most of all. Too easily he imagined himself old and dried up on a bed worn out and sad under a threadbare blanket looking back--as the light dimmed and the warmth faded--searching through all the spent years and finding nothing of more value than a broken promise, a forgotten dream.
So he sat. Legs crossed before him, perched on a cushion, on a mat, in a line with students likely motivated by nothing as petty as insecurity, as desperate as fear. He bowed when they bowed and chanted when they chanted, not knowing what any of it meant. Worrying he was doing it all wrong, while he did it all wrong.
A bell rang. The dojo descended into silence. And, before long, the pupil was drowning in the quiet. A slow panic rose as slight discomforts grew out of proportion and his thoughts ran wild. He tried to focus on his breathing, but he barely resisted jumping up and running out the door. Eventually, the bell rang again and zazen, an eternity -- 30 minutes long-- was over. The student swore to himself he would never go back, and swore to himself he would try again. Someday. If you're not sitting, you're wasting your life. In this case, I was the student and Savoca Sensei the teacher, but the story may sound familiar to at least some of you who meditate at the dojo. As it turned out, I never went back.
Then an opportunity presented itself, thanks to the generosity of Sensei Savoca and the hard work of all the students who have raised money for scholarships. In February I was able to attend Winter Camp at Juba Nour Sensei's Baja Aikido dojo. I didn't know what to expect, other than I would be expected to attend every class, including meditation. And it was the meditation I feared even more than the legendary Bulgarians I knew would also be there.
I was right to be afraid. In addition to the Zen, we practiced Misogi every morning. As the sun rose each day I shouted along with the other students until my voice was hoarse, sitting seiza until my feet numbed and my knees screamed. Each day I felt pushed to the very edge of my tolerance.
The Misogi never got easier. If anything, it got harder, but it was gratifying to know I could do it.
A strange thing happened, however, during zazen on the day before I left. I experienced the most fleeting of epiphanies, yet the realization has stayed with me. That morning I gave up on trying to control my mind; I did not fight it or try to push down the panic. Instead, I stopped worrying about it--not altogether, but enough to begin to understand the voice in my head, the babbling stream of consciousness-- it is not me. I don' t know who I am, if I'm not that relentless narrator who never seems to shut up, but I do know now I am more than that. The day before I left, for just a moment, I was able to ignore the noise in my mind.
I didn't find enlightenment that day, but it felt like I took a step toward something important.
If you're not sitting, you're wasting your life.
I'm not sure it is possible to waste a whole life. In all these years I've lived, there have been moments that counted for something. No matter what happens in the future, I know that trip to Baja was filled with them. For that, I can't thank Brooklyn Aikikai enough. I am sure I'll waste plenty more of the few precious days I have left, but I'll have my moments, too--moments that count--and not even I can take those away from me.