[photo: Sheba sleeping in my study. Note orange spot on top of head.]
Somewhere in the box of old-fashioned photos and slides in my study closet is a picture of nothing, taken when I visited San Francisco years ago. Actually, it is a picture of a path. A simple path, wide enough for one person, scuffed in the dirt and surrounded by tufts of tall grass. Often I couldn't explain why I took the stupid pictures I took, pictures that didn't even have people in them. Now I wish I could get my hands on that one. Hardly a day goes by when I don't think of getting into that box and having at least some of my pictures (that's what we used to call "pix") digitized. Seems lower priority than cleaning up some other areas, what I'd like to call "disorganized areas," or "my filing," but actually think of as messes. In fact, getting out that box would be sure to create another such . . . area.
This morning I am thinking about how I have wandered off my chosen path. That is, right now I am choosing to do this rather than study dharma and meditate. Earlier this morning I chose to sit and talk with Tom over first coffee. We have our best talks this time of day. Inbetween I petted Sheba, who asks for frequent doses of serious petting. I dressed. I sat down here and checked e-mail to see if anything important had come to me in the night.
Indeed, it had. An e-mail from a friend who has been in the hospital with her very sick daughter for many weeks now, coming home briefly now and then to shower and talk with her other kids, then back to keep vigil. Her life has been interrupted - she is thrown off her usual path. I think of another friend, who is grieving her husband of over fifty years. She has grown very thin.
As for me, I woke up depressed, feeling flank pain, which makes me think my kidneys are still infected. I'd gotten used to these infections, but now I'm scared, because we think the episode of arrythmia I had over the weekend was caused by the miracle drug I was taking. The usual drugs for these infections are fluoroquinolins like Levaquin and Cipro; but they can cause arrythmia. What if I can't take them? A kidney infection can kill you. So can irregular heart rhythm. What will the doctor say this afternoon?
Meanwhile, Sheba sleeps beside me on a chair with a hand towel on it. I have discovered that she feels secure on a towel. There are now three towels folded on various chairs in the house. She goes right to them. During her long months at Cat Welfare, she sat on a bit of chenille on a little pillar in the quiet room - that was the limit of her territory. How we envy and love animals for this simplicity. Sheba is happy now, ranging this much larger territory of this house, and having people to pet her frequently. She does not need to be told her path - she knows it. What security is, when she should be fed, when to sleep, what her instincts tell her to do (run from window to window to keep out the Mu's when they stroll our garden paths).
I am less certain of my path. How can I say that? At this moment, being here doing this is the right thing for me. So it must be some idea of my path that troubles me. Tom said an interesting thing about that this morning - as soon as we get on a path, we stop seeing all the options. We tend to keep our eyes down on that path. For me, the path was meditation. I undertook it in 1997 when I was diagnosed with cancer, believing that healing visualization was the only thing I could do for my health. I was wrong about that. There are a lot of other things you can do. Since then I have benefitted from drawing and painting, working with beads, being with friends. Writing poetry. Sitting here in the morning looking at the woods and sky.
One of my friends began keeping a gratitude journal every night when her daughter was dying. She also bought herself a photograph full of comforting blues and white, and put it up opposite her recliner. She has had a daily tai chi practice for many years. The friend who is in mourning keeps a journal listing things she can do for herself, and also sits and lies in her back yard, surrounded by trees and stars. She meditates every day, too, though she is quick to say she's "not a Buddhist" - she follows her own path. She has been writing poetry.
Another friend loves to go walking in the morning before work. When she has to choose between that and sitting in meditation, she chooses walking. She is a healthy, active person who loves to be outside. "Walking on the earth is a miracle" Thich Nhat Hanh says. She sings in a choir, too. These things nourish her spiritually.
So what is our path about? Who knows our path? I suppose that one of the things that has always attracted me to Zen is its focus on meditation, its conviction that this individual practice will lead us to the wisdom and compassion that are basic to the larger Buddhist way of life. Zen also offered me a history of eccentrics. Poets, hermits, people who journeyed around trying this and that until they found it on their own - in fact, that's the Buddha's story or myth, if you prefer. It's a story that emphasizes sitting under a tree and looking at the stars.
For most of the years since I began meditating, I was rigorous about doing it every day. Yet, I always had the policy that if my daughter called when I was meditating, which she often did at one time, on her way to work, I answered the phone. To call this "juggling priorities" is to trivialize the nature of the choices. We are talking about our spiritual nourishment, our commitments, about love. I think it is in this context that we need to contemplate our own path of this moment.