This is my third piece on what I have been calling our pilgrimage through “don’t know” into intimacy. We get disappointed when we think our pilgrimage, or any important endeavor isn’t going well. But as any real pilgrim knows, part of being a pilgrim means, not saying, “Yuck, this experience, sucks, get me out of here”, but instead being curious about and acutely aware of whatever negative sensations, feelings, or thoughts we are having as we continue our journey.
Is it possible for you to simply notice all the thoughts and opinions busily vying for attention in your chatterbox café? Can you just be awake to those without a hint of judgement, just as my first teacher suggests in his book Not Always So? If you are facing a huge difficulty or barrier in your journey, might this be entirely about your perceptions and/or expectation rather than the pilgrimage itself? If Touzi’s statement from my last piece, "Moment-to-moment nonstop flow.” applies to all life, doesn’t it apply to the solidity of your so-called “difficulty” or “barrier” as well?
During my early time with Zen practice, I began to see how many fixed ideas and views I had, how much I judged my own and others’ behavior, and how strong my wall of preconceptions inhibited my appreciation of Beginner’s Mind.
As my months or practice turned into years, I developed the ability to notice this stuff sooner and I got trapped behind a barrier or wall less and less frequently.
If we don’t notice our preconceptions before they take over, they color everything we feel and do. How about trying out saying, “Oh, you again! Didn’t I just deal with you yesterday,” noticing a projection as it first pops up so the wall, we create with it is no longer impenetrable. Most preconceptions don’t have much to do with what’s right in front of you, anyway. “Oh, I think I’m just hauling that around with me. I don’t think it has anything to do with this.”
Maybe we can have a belly laugh as we do this, since laughter is a wonderful door into intimacy. Time and time again in the early koans, interchanges between Zen pilgrims during the Tang dynasty in China, humor is used to unlock a novice’s stuckness.
Not knowing is so often thought of as a negative experience, but it doesn’t need to be, as Mary Oliver reminds us in her poem, “When Death Comes.”
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
Can each of us be the bridegroom, taking the world into our arms? Can each of us “open the hand of thought” as Uchiyama Roshi says, opening our heart-mind and letting the sense that you need to know go completely... to be here, ready to meet whatever comes up, willing not to be an expert, allowing not knowing to be near and dear?
If we continue on our pilgrimage- our meditative journey- patiently and persistently through both our daily meditation and regular retreats, inevitably we will pass through the unknown into a clarity of seeing and being that is beyond anything you can imagine. This is what pilgrimage is all about.
Let me close by discussing a few words from Joan Stamm in her book, A Pilgrimage in Japan: The 33 Temples of Kannon:
“More than one expert on global crises and the environment has suggested that changing ‘tourism’ to ‘pilgrimage’ would have a significant positive impact on the world. In other words, bringing “sacred intent” to travel, to the land, people, and places we encounter when traveling, whether domestic or international, could transform the planet.”
Whatever spiritual path we are on, let’s not be tourists, trying to only have “good experiences.” Let’s encourage ourselves to embrace uncertainty. Let’s risk putting ourselves out there and welcome whomever and what we meet on the road. The tourist is an impoverished version of the pilgrim, but as a pilgrim we step into the unknown with awe, feeling the sacred nature of whatever place we are in, no longer lulled by the familiarity of our habitual ways of being.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher