Zen on the Road: Practice on Vacation

The following is excerpted from recent talks in Eugene & Corvallis

Neither Here nor There

An airport is nowhere
which is not something
generally noticed
by those inside it

yet some unnamed person in the past
deliberately planned it
to be there

and now you are
spending time there
unknown time
because of something you have done
like the souls in Purgatory

you sit there in the smell
of what passes for food
breathing what is called air
while the time pieces measure
their agreement

you believe in it
while you are there
because you are there
sometimes you may even feel happy
to be that far on your way
to somewhere
~ W. S. Merwin

As summer approaches, I’m reminded of the common experience students share with me about the difficulties they encounter while trying to maintain some sort of practice on vacation. It’s a time one notices how things devolve in the absence of regular meditation and support we take for granted at home. Although it is natural in this ancient Zen tradition to “pick up and put down” formal practice with the change of seasons, many people tell me they notice they’re a little off center when they skip sitting. And yet, doesn’t it seem to be the exact medicine needed amidst the stresses of travel or family? Rather than muscle ourselves onto the cushion while traveling and feel guilty when we can’t find the time, I’d like to take a fresh approach to practice while traveling by asking different questions, starting with, What practice is anyway? Once we have a sense of this, we’re ready to notice what arises most naturally when we’re on the road. And by cultivating this kind of presence, we’re then able to hold our overarching experience of traveling and notice how this informs our journey on the path of Zen.

I. On Practice

Periodically we should all consider this question: What is practice? There is real benefit to being able to give this household word, practice, a fresh view. Without reading further, what is your answer?

Zen Master Dogen taught that practice is awakening itself. Shusho, practice-enlightenment, is considered one hyphenated word, never separate. That is a real koan for most of us – how can that be? Mostly we consider we are practicing for some later date or some particular effect, like practicing scales on a violin for the upcoming performance. Zen calls attention to the problematic nature of this idea of working towards some future spiritual event. What happens when our longing gaze is on the horizon when life is actually unfolding right in front of us this very moment? Although in hindsight we might notice zazen has made us more resilient in the face of difficulty, in Zen, we come to understand that practice itself is Buddhamind manifesting in this very moment. It is complete and whole right now.

So then, what does it mean to practice in this moment? I find that in order for there to be real practice there has to be some movement. What brings movement is having both yin and yang elements, active and receptive qualities. It’s is a kind of dance we do that’s embedded in a larger conversation, a dance whose goal and expression are one and the same. There are the activities and rituals we engage in, bowing, chanting, sitting, serving tea, and there is a listening that accompanies these activities. If we have either without the other, something feels either stuck or flat on one hand, or drifting and ungrounded on the other.

After you learn the basics in Zen, after zazen has naturalized in the heart-mind-body, you are able to ask the question, What is my practice in this moment? and receive a reliable answer. In order to find out more about practice while traveling, start with an experiment of letting go of ideas of what practice should be and ask moment to moment this question. Recently, I was curious about what spontaneous ritual or practice would arise to fit the circumstances on a trip to Florida, and here are my findings. What I discovered was that no matter where I was, practice was always available, but for the purpose of this talk, I’d like to share just a small sample of experiences during the most excellent bardo plane of the airport. When you practice, you are always home.

II. In Airports

Airports are a perfect place for practice because, as W.S. Merwin eloquently points out, we are neither here nor there, not quite this, or that. Something has already been loosened to open up a gap in our usual busyness. Our everyday identity is suspended. If we forgo the usual distractions and entertainment, it is an excellent time for being completely awake. As soon as I entered the airport with this curiosity about practice, I immediately began to notice the kindness of strangers, the sincere helpfulness of the baggage security as they took my bags, the man who helped another at a kiosk, a woman joking with another person in the long line through security. The dharma eye knows what we are at our core and what is most essential.

What is the self that arises amidst all these people we don’t know? How fascinating that we all see one another in a public space, but avert our gaze not be seen seeing. As I sat waiting for my airplane to board, I noticed the quick categorical labels, stereotypes, and judgments in the mind as our limbic system unconsciously sizes up one another up to see if we are friend or foe. Entitled business man, bored teenager, proper housewife, macho football player, and so on. My practice in that moment was to notice this and the effect of how this distances us from each other, placing us in safe categories and an “off” button of concern. Though “safe,” ultimately it is an unsatisfying feeling.

As I let go of those judgments, I made up a ritual of imagining what it would take for me to connect with each person, a small story about their lives to upend my categories, and notice how it changed my sense of compassion and interdependence. Business man working on his weekends to develop a project to employ veterans in his community, teenager not sure of herself and fearful that her parents are going to divorce, housewife teaching her five year old to care for all the animals and plants in the garden wondering about global climate change, football player loves Kierkegaard, his little brother, and knitting. Although my stories were imagined, being a therapist, I know they are more true to life than our own stereotypes. We are all complicated and mixed and full of potential. When we find what unites us, our common ground, we are closer to the truth of how we exist as one another. Soon it was time for my new sangha to board.

The airplane itself is the place for zazen! A zendo par excellence. (When Dogen wrote about “upright sitting” he had no idea.) The key is to begin by refusing all distractions, which are extraordinary in variety in such a limited place ~ laptops, iPhones, books, snacks, drinks, movies, skymall shopping, small talk with neighbor, avoiding small talk with neighbor, list making, people watching, cloud gazing, and then some. It appears that actually just being there in the airplane and non-doing is to be avoided at all costs.

When I travel I like to sit zazen stealth style, so no one has to call the steward and report how their neighbor sietting in the next seat has become inexplicably comatose. Slipping of my shoes so my feet can feel the floor of the plane, resting hands in a relaxed mudra, book on lap as prop, just lower the eyes as if naturally dozing, and you’re good to go. Being nowhere and awake. Noticing the body firmly upright, the hum of venting system, a soda can pops open, a child squeals, the overhead air brushes a hair past your cheek. This is the best way to fly. Coming into the sensations of the body you notice each shift and move of the plane and feel completely present to this metal bird as if its wings were yours, the clouds brushing the bottoms of your bare feet. You are fragile and alive. That this is an extraordinary experience is registered. (Although I am not afraid of flying, practitioners who experience anxiety tell me that this kind of awareness of the micro movements of the plane actually decreases their fear.)

This is just a small taste of practice that balances the yin and yang of action and listening, attuning to the truth of the moment. Letting go of getting somewhere, we practice in these in between bardo places like kinhin, step by step and come into the richness of presence that our rituals point us towards. Allowing your own rituals to emerge that bring the mind awake, alert and close to the heart doesn’t require any changes to the itinerary, just a shift in the attention. Although it’s been months since this trip, I remember that airplane ride more exquisitely than that richly flavored dinner out with family at a fine Italian restaurant or sunny afternoon on Vero beach. You can listen to your own answer of what your practice wants of you moment to moment. Be creative.

III. On the Journey

As practice unfolded spontaneously throughout this trip, what emerged, however, was a larger koan. Where am I really going?

What is our aim on any particular trip? What do we hope will happen or that we’ll experience? Whether the classic get-away or visiting a beloved friend, it’s good to consider this. We are chock full of expectations and desires when we travel. As I was preparing to give this talk, I had the following dream that informed me about the way we travel in these journeys and how this parallels the spiritual path.

Walking barefoot. Big city. I like it but realize it’s not acceptable socially or in public places. I go through many neighborhoods which turns out to be in Portland. I am going down angled streets and trying to cut back eventually towards Dharma Rain Zen Center. It’s unclear where to turn to get to Madison. I see 53rd and am going into higher streets but that seems wrong. I have to go away to go towards it. I can’t go directly to the center. I realize I need some shoes. It’s too late to go home and come back. I decide to go to Chinatown for a cheap pair of cloth sandals so I can go to DRZC. There’s a man there, piles of imported stuff. I see a few pairs – one that looks a little large but might fit. It has ballerina straps. They offer not support but will protect my feet from glass and such. I liked walking barefoot, even on hard surfaces like asphalt and concrete.

When I awoke from this dream it occurred to me that there are really only two journeys we take in life – the journey for adventure and the journey home. On the adventure, we look for the new, the novel, to be touched in some way, to take risks and grow. Returning home, we long for the familiar, being seen and known, for rest and release. From Odysseus to Game of Thrones, it’s all the same story. We repeat this impulse in large and small ways, whether attending a weekend family dinner or 50 year high school reunion, or hiking along the river by work or Kilimanjaro. There is something calling us and our talk in the zendo is how this plays out on the spiritual journey. What is it that calls to you? What is the journey you long for?

So we can learn something about our mind and our habits by looking at our motives and what actually happens during our travels. Where am I going? Is a portable koan to travel with. Fits nicely in the overhead. When we are open and engaged, adventure and home fill a deep need for our human growth. However, when life has other plans, or we are attached to particular outcomes on our travels, the shadow sides of these experiences emerge. Luggage is lost. It rains on the beach. The old friend is distracted and has changed. We’ve changed. We get ill. Our hosts get ill. The adventure turns boring or nightmarish, and the homecoming is harmful or feels alien. In this way, Zen practice helps us to dig deeper and listen to how our journeys ask us to be aware of our deeper purpose, and note what is actually happening beyond what we want to happen and learn something.

In these moments, when we let go of our ideas and align with what is actually happening, the practice of Zen is alive and right in that moment, we understand what we are looking for. In Fukanzazengi, we recite, Why leave behind the seat in your own home to wander in the dusty realms of other lands? If you make one mistake, you stumble past what is directly in front of you.

Zen is a journey that simultaneously actualizes both archetypes of adventure and home, at once, right in this moment. In zazen, you are immediately and simultaneously home and a wonder even unto yourself! It is no doubt we will continue to wander in those dusty lands, but each time we leave home, we can discover our true home and true adventure is right in this seat, a window view in 28A. Everyone’s on board.

We travel not to meet others and see great sights, we travel to meet ourselves. I close with a poem Jim in our sangha shared with us. It’s fitting the irony that here I am talking about insights while vacationing, which I hardly ever do, making me a good anthropologist in my own culture but not a good traveler. As a farmer, therapist and introvert, my own travels and adventures have been here rooted in this earth, this practice, this zendo, this community. For me each day is full of pyramids, warm oceans, exotic tastes and the northern lights. Directly in front of me. I think Wendell Berry knows this place too.

~ Palm to palm,

I will wait here in the fields
to see how well the rain
brings on the grass.
In the labor of the fields
longer than a man’s life
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.
I will be standing in the woods
where the old trees
move only with the wind
and then with gravity.
In the stillness of the trees
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.

~Wendell Berry

1 thought on “Zen on the Road: Practice on Vacation”

  1. Rilke’s words are poignant and I find meslyf coming back to them again and again. Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves

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