Grand Openings

Half a lifetime ago, I sat upright in the meditation hall during a long retreat, fighting off sleep–with little success. Finally I decided to stop struggling, and all at once the sleep stopped fighting back. Emboldened by this success, I embraced much more that afternoon, and let go of much too. And it was as though I had broken through, up or down–who can say?– to another level. I sat with it for two more days, savoring it, before I went to see the roshi. “You’ve become quiet enough you ran right into your true nature.“ “Will I lose this,” I asked, and he answered, “It will always be there, beneath your practice, supporting it.”

For years I didn’t speak of it. We don’t speak much of those openings in Zen practice, at least not in Soto Zen. Maybe in part it seems too intimate. I remember in college my friend Michael and I were sitting in meditation together at his house. A housemate of his came in. She was terribly embarrassed, and said she felt as if she had walked in on us having sex. Of course meditation seems more normal these days. But I wonder if all the talking about it, about inner experience, does kill the immediacy and intimacy of it. Or it may that aspect of American culture toward self-disclosure– so that talking about openings in meditation feels like going on Jerry Springer to talk about being in love with you mother-in-law.

But I’d like to risk it. Because it’s important to remember that opening is available to anyone in each moment, in any activity. Every moment contains within it the seeds of enlightenment. It has to. And in something that sounds close to the idea of grace in Christianity, we must strive for it, make effort toward it, and yet it occurs beyond effort and striving. But it does seem to help when I remain open to opening. Perhaps we strive hard so our letting go of striving can be just as strong.

Ten years later I sat on a porch all day in the rain, my three day old son sleeping and waking and sleeping again, cooing beside me in his bassinet. Another kind of opening sneaked in on me, one I would not begin to understand for many more years. But my heart slowly opened, something took root, and pushed the boundaries of that heart further and further. Some openings come crackling like thunder, sometimes like rain gently seeping into the earth to slowly open a spring flower. This opening was as gentle and slow as the all-day rain that fell outside my porch that summer afternoon. And I suspect it will take a lifetime to ripen.

It seems most of the time I am living the moment I was in just before this present one. So when opening bursts onto me, I try to fit it into what I already know. Which is really never possible. To be in a new place, a new realm, to become a new person, means I can’t operate as I did.

Opening also requires things of me. Once opened, I can only close up again with intense effort. The world enters into me, through the walls built to protect that shaky self. Those cracks not only let the world in, but let something else out. Part of me that is hidden and protected slips out into the world. “No point closing the barn door once the cows are out.“ Knowledge is a dangerous thing, and it takes effort to avoid or forget it once it is given.

That moment in the zendo, it felt as if I had been birthed again, brought into a new world, and for a while I tried to claw my way back into that old world as hard as I could. When I opened to clarity, I could not easily go back to my muddy world of attachment and misery. But I tried, through drinking and drugs, sex and work. But the world you are in keeps pressing insistently in on you. And finally finds the crack to enter you once again. In that case, it took place on the shore of Lake Superior, in a little motel on vacation. Reading an old Elle magazine in the lobby, there was a brief review of “Nine Headed Dragon River” by Peter Mathiessen, and I was dragged back in that clear spot again.

So I move through openings, through layers. It seems sometimes it is moving upward, like the Hopi creation stories, where the Hopi people moved up, always climbing into new worlds one after another. And other times the movement seems downward, like falling through the ice. The sense of falling into a new world, or a world less certain than the old one. Either that movement out of the muck and into the light, like the hand of John Goodman bursting through the earth in the movie “Raising Arizona.” Or downward, like the time I was replacing the rotten roof on my friend’s cabin. I took a step, the roof gave way, and suddenly I found myself halfway through the roof, my feet dangling in his kitchen, Rumplestiltskin in a tool belt.

What is comforting is that when I stop running away, it is quite easy to slip back into that openness. Perhaps, like that fall through the roof, only part of me breaks through sometimes. And the rest struggles to stay behind. Until I can just let go, give way to opening, to fate, to the moment, to gravity. Until I can fall into the place I belong. I imagine, even when being born into this world, part of me wanted to move forward, and part wanted to stay where it was dark, warm, and familiar.

With that opening that occurred on that rainy porch, I had the chance to see it ripen, as well as the chance to escape. That moment was quietly overwhelming. Perhaps such things are like an enlightenment experience that comes without the structure of practice, or a teacher. People have told stories of great enlightenments occurring. Rather than feeling blissful, they worried they had become psychotic. Only with guidance could they see it for what it was. The overwhelming feelings for my son were more perhaps than I was fully ready for, and I found myself backing slowly away. Not intentionally of course. But it is easier as a man, when there is a mother to care for your child, and all you heard your whole life was that your job is to provide material needs, not love. And so I fell more heavily into work, and practice, seeing him only for brief times during the day. The phrase was new then, of “quality time.“ Of course there is no substitute for time, and quality time was often just a way to rationalize and soothe our guilt.

So one morning, I was running around getting ready for work, Joe in my arms, my briefcase in my other arm. I went to get something I needed from the porch. Joe arched his back like 5 month old babies will do. I could not respond quickly enough, and he rolled backwards out of my arms. In a cluttered porch filled with tools and pots, he fell avoiding all of them, leaving only a shovel to graze his shoulder–a small scar to remind me of my mindlessness. It was enough to make me believe in divine intervention, as it seemed like a hand had laid him in the only safe place there. Guilt overwhelmed me. But guilt is a useless thing unless married to action. So the next day I took the day off, and we spent the whole day at his favorite park. And finally giving in to that opening would lead to a year off from work, and taking on the sacred and joyful task of raising a two year old. That is one other thing I have learned. When I give in to opening, I never quite know where it will lead me.

Hiking the bluff
on a winter morning.
Old oaks and birches creak
in the wind, in the cold air
like a great door opening.
I hear it and know
great and small doors
opening constantly–
into wonder, into love,
into awakening.

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