[yes, that lower picture is a web built by a spider on caffeine)
It is something a Zen retreat tries to tell us with The Evening Gatha - You could die any minute. You don’t have forever to get with your life. You can’t be waiting for It to happen. Teachers say it in their dharma talks. You begin to get it.
I got it big in the early seventies. I have written before about how a book helped me think closely about what really mattered to me. I came up with the understanding that I urgently needed "to learn to relax." Well, that's a long story of not understanding what it would take, how I needed to change my life down to the very foundations. I'd rather do a bit of memoir on the arrythmia I experienced last month. It was called "a heart event."
Don't you like the term, an "event"? It was not a heart attack, nor was my heart damaged. I didn't have a blockage - I went out of rhythm. I find that evocative, because I did have the feeling in the weeks before that that I was too speeded up. It was a fact that my heart rate was higher than usual. It was a sort of too-much-caffeine feeling, though I never drank coffee after noon. (In the hospital I got off caffeine against my will, but have stayed off.)
The event . . . my heart began thumping, like an engine that's missing, and then felt like it was bounding around in all directions, racing faster, so that I got shorter of breath. When it peaked I realized I could be dying right now right here on this couch with no warning I could die!
This was the second time in my adult life that I knew that - nothing about dying from fear or grief, it was the genuine thing, the body. (The first time was the cancer diagnosis in 1997, which caused me to begin meditating.) Facing death is much harder if you think it is the very end of you, that there is nothing beyond. And since our beloved cat Sherlock died four months ago, I have been convinced that the death of the body is the end, for in no way has he come back to give me a sign. Our bond with that animal was so deep that I believe if such a thing were possible, he would have done it.
Dying, I felt, was just going to be descending into blackness. Gone. I haven't even recorded myself singing Keep Me in Your Heart for a While (but here is a lovely version).
Well, there is so much time in the heart hospital, time when you are awakened at 3:00 a.m. by someone taking your vitals or drawing your blood, and can't get back to sleep. No laptop, nothing much to do but think. Sense how worn out you are from that "event," how it battered your heart. Think about how you had been sliding on your meditation practice. Skipping days, doing it lightly, just ten minutes maybe, or just sitting outside in a lawn chair letting the universe be with me, contemplating. But not meditating.
Meditation is hard work. Seung Sahn said Americans won't do it because it is boring, and he laughed. Maybe the truth is right there - that America is a culture of Getting Somewhere, Getting Some Thing, you know, fame, money, status, going for it, just doing it, accomplishing. It is our heredity, and it surrounds us everywhere. This is why there needs to be an American form of Zen that truly takes this psychology into account. In my opinion, such an approach to Buddhism will keep before us the issues of our yang. How, for instance, being aggressive increases testoserone, which makes an individual tend toward aggression.
I got it during that event - I could die. If it hadn't calmed down, I would have. In my three days in the lovely private room in the privileged heart hospital I began meditating again. Out of bed, sit in a chair, do the posture as well as you can.
Home I didn't have to take a vow - I just started my morning practice again, sitting upright now with the incense I get from Zen Mountain Monastery, and a tea candle in a rose quartz holder. Started inching my time up from 20 minutes in case I decide to go to the Ama Samy retreat later this month, where the sits are 25 minutes. A retreat costs a lot, takes me away from my doctors and all my comforts and protections, most of all, asks a great deal of me. Follow the schedule. Meditate all day. No distracting. Some people call it "facing the wall." I think about that, how it is a metaphor. What is the wall you face? Is death a wall?
A retreat always stimulates my practice. What else would make me stay with it? besides this motivation, this urgent feeling that I could die, which is coupled with the conviction that meditation does destress me, and gives me a space to touch down on my true self, to be myself before I die. That's a good question, so I'll end with it.