Recently, I have been talking about how simplifying our lives can help us discover and live from what T. S. Eliot calls, “the still point of the turning world.” Regardless of how fast things are moving and how dizzy we feel, we can always follow Thoreau’s advice: “Simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail- simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run.”
Those of us who are committed to a spiritual practice have to continually think about what things, activities, and people help us return to these roots where we discover this still point, so we can step back from those activities that cause our mind to become dizzier and dizzier.
Can we step back without isolating, without acting against our core value of being open, generous, and embracing folks who are in pain? That’s a skill that I think can only be developed over time.
I am not suggesting we make a religion out of simplicity- that can be a little dangerous. At times Thoreau seems judgmental and a little misanthropic, treating money and ownership as if they were innately bad.
Instead, I am talking about disengaging from those things or activities that do not support our commitment to living from this still point. I have talked in the past about having to disengage from my own father during my early years of my Zen practice to protect myself from his negative vibes about the life choices I was making. Later, when I felt steadier in my practice and life and he had a chance to cool off about the poor decisions he was convinced I had made, I was able to engage with him again.
If we divest ourselves of those things, activities, and relationships that don’t support our spiritual quest, we may experience a deep loneliness, a loneliness that I experienced in my early years of Zen practice. And it can be disappointing to discover that the feeling of loneliness can be heightened through a sitting practice.
For me, at first there was a honeymoon period in both my sitting practice and my feelings about my teacher. But after a while there was just the bare wall and me, day after day, week after week… and my teacher’s words didn’t seem so compelling any more. He seemed to have no interest in the enlightenment experience I pined away for, referring to it as “giving candy to a baby.”
My sense of loneliness only increased when in 1966 our little Zen center purchased and made plans to open the first Zen monastery in the U.S. at Tassajara Springs south of San Francisco. After this happened, it seemed like I couldn’t get much of my teacher’s attention and I felt jealous of all the interlopers who were flowing in.
I was lonely enough that I might have abandoned my practice, but instead I increased the amount and rigor of my meditation. One evening after completing my evening sitting I happened to notice the following poem by Basho:
On this road
walks no one
this autumn eve
At that moment Tim’s so called loneliness died, and Tim did too. There was a feeling of being embraced by all of life.
It reminds me of the historical Buddha’s statement, “Only I, alone and sacred.” Some Christian mystics refer to this as being alone with God, but Meister Eckhart’s, “In the godhead there is no trace of God,” is closer to my own experience. But even to call it “my own experience” doesn’t feel quite right, because it’s only when there is no sense of “my” that there is a freedom to enjoy each aspect of the turning world, no matter how crazily out of control it seems to be.
As I share this with you, I do it with a little hesitancy. My own teachers didn’t talk much about these experiences, but sometimes a little candy is what we all need to sustain our commitment to tasting the sweetness continually emanating from this still point.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher