Pausing & Leaping
Now I’d like to talk about “leaping beyond dualistic thinking.”
The famous early 20th century ballet star Vaslav Nijinsky, when asked about how he had developed his technique to such perfection, replied, “It’s really quite simple. I merely leap and pause. Leap and pause.” Let’s look at pausing and leaping in dancing, poetry, Zen practice, and life.
To really pause, to completely still the body and mind for even a moment, is difficult. But without the pause, the leap loses its connection with reality; it loses its rootedness. The leap, then is impulsive and lacks balance, as with George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. When I was in my early twenties, my fury at the promoters of the Vietnam war led me to join a group which chased Hubert Humphrey when he came to my campus to speak. This impulsive leap almost got me arrested, and only widened the gap between the pro and anti-war groups.
This past year has been a difficult one for most Americans. The pandemic has gone on unabated (although now there is finally a vaccine becoming available); Donald Trump and his supporters are continuing to insist he won the election; the racial divide has grown wider than ever since George Floyd’s death. But the pandemic has also given us the opportunity to pause. And if you do this, you realize that, regardless of how stressed you are, you are still breathing. And as your breath ebb and flows, you can experience the ebb and flow of any anxiety which might be present.
Whether you are sitting in meditation or not, you always have the opportunity to pause and breath fully and completely into any and all emotions that are arising. And if it’s a difficulty you’re experiencing, that’s fine, since difficulties are the path to freedom. There’s really no other path.
Our Zen practice is to be with whatever arises. Difficulties are the path. It might even be possible to open ourselves to deeper and deeper feelings and discoveries with each breath. This is really pausing. Instead of acting impulsively, really pausing.
The summer after I chased Humphrey, I spent three months at Tassajara Zen Monastery in Carmel Valley. And the practice there, of course, was in the art of pausing. It was only after I had spent time there that I was ready to again insert myself into activist politics without leaping impulsively. For the next fifteen years I continued my immersion in both daily meditation and periodic retreats. As a result, when my only brother suicided by hanging himself from a sheet in a locked hospital ward, instead of acting impulsively myself, I paused meditatively for about a year, sitting day after day right in the middle of my confusion, fear, guilt, and feelings of impotence. I was comforted by the quiet presence of our teacher, Katagiri Roshi, who sat with us every day. Finally, when I had regained some balance, I was ready to leap into acting to both advocate and develop humane community-based alternatives to a locked hospital for people like my brother. And it worked!
Many of our best writers have spent time pausing reflectively before they leap. Maybe they are reflecting upon a difficulty; maybe they are reflecting upon a theme that arises out of that difficulty; maybe they are reflecting on an image or a series of images. Pausing doesn’t make us any surer of what we’re doing but it can give us both a sense of balance and a rootedness in something deeper than our mindless chatter. Pausing is the best preparation for leaping---but at some point, we do have to take the risk and make the jump.
Here is Agnes de Mille: “Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist and poet never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.”
As I think of what Ms. De Mille said, three poets who lived in times of social unrest not unlike ours come to mind: Matsuo Basho, Garcia Lorca, and Allen Ginsberg.
Here’s Basho, writing in 18th century Japan:
In plum blossom scent
Aside for a stay of a couple of years in a Zen monastery, Basho was a traveler, meditatively traversing Japan on foot time and time again over the course of his life. In the circumstance above we can imagine him on his journey, finding himself immersed in fog and then pop, the sun appears.
I take this as a metaphor for our spiritual journey. Sometimes we are immersed in the fog of confusion, not knowing anything. Even our meditation isn’t going well. If we continue on our journey in a meditative way, so each step is actually a pause, when we least expect it, everything opens up and we feel the warmth glow of the sun shining on all of life. And at the same time our path opens up before us, reminding me of Suzuki Roshi’s saying, “There are no enlightened people; only enlightened activity.”
How might we walk peacefully on our own path when its foundation is constantly crumbling or we feel we are constantly in fog? First it was the virus, then George Floyd’s death, then the looting and burning throughout our city. What’s the role of our supposed protectors, the police, in all of this? Where can we find any kind of stable footing and see more than a few feet in front of us? Can we notice our urge to leap simply to get out of our current situation? Or are we inclined to just withdraw completely and freeze?
Maybe it’s possible to pause and be present for each of our feelings. Can we give a warm hug to our fear and confusion? Can we relax into uncertainty even though chaos is swirling around, and we feel we have no place to settle? It is possible that our discomfort arises not from uncertainty, but from our resistance to it. I wonder if we can simply follow Nijinsky’s advice: “It’s really quite simple. I merely leap and pause. Leap and pause.”
The best poetry and the most deeply satisfying lives involve leaping from the known to the unknown. As we leap, we experience interbeing in which the sun does, indeed, shine on everything and we walk on the path bathed in its glow.
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Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher