I received a charming New Year’s Resolution email from my friend, M. It said:
Yesterday I remembered that New Year’s resolution I could not pull from my brain on NY’s eve. It is to throw my Kleenex away after using them immediately, instead of leaving them about for another possible nose wipe use later . That’s what I call a resolution. Not a hope, not a project, but steeling my resolve to make a behavioral change. But then . . . started wondering if I should use a cloth hankie like you. . . .
I agree. That’s what I call a reasonable resolution – nothing too strenuous; no reaching for the stars with exceeded grasp. No firm set to the jaw; no self flagellation for ongoingly egregious behaviors.
Gone, thank God, the days of requisite New Year’s Eve parties with the expectation that one will contribute to raucous, extrovert-type Fun, believing that this rite will exfoliate the old sins and shortcomings, and invite the donning of fresh starts and betterments.
It’s not a bad idea to set a goal as the old year turns from itself to clasp a new, crisp other. The problem is one of scale. The word forces the gaze upward, toward perfection. I used to invite family and friends to gather and write their New Year’s Resolutions en group, and then hide their lists to retrieve them one year later, and note the progress. Or not. I wish now that I had saved mine to see what improvements and hopes and projects over the years did, or more probably did not, get realized.
Perfection is not a friend of growth.
Underneath M’s Kleenex-hope flows the theme of kindness – in this case, that others not come upon the crumpled nastiness and have to deal. It must have been kindness toward myself that made me resolve to quit smoking. That was many, many years ago. My habit was deeply entwined with my perceived sex appeal, the writing of loggorrheic poems, coffee and scotch imbibed at the beginning and end points of each day, and the faux companionship addictions offered.
I approached the strategy to quit like an athlete, for it did require stamina, the need to override craving, and equipment. I bought an elaborate fountain pen and a leather journal in which to make a daily accounting of my habit and its diminishing cling. I gave myself thirty days, and marked the date. I lessened the number of Pall Malls smoked every day by three. At some point, the process itself became more engaging than maintaining the addiction, and I actually quit a day ahead.
That had been a grand and necessary resolution. At twenty-three, I wheezed when climbing the one flight of stairs, albeit steep, to my apartment. Quite simply, I had done this to myself by smoking. There was a lot that needed fixing back then, and as I began to expose myself to Buddhist practice, I would conflate my deepening commitment to meditation with a “fix me” state of mind.
Among the variety of teachers whom I learned from, sat with and attended, it was Ruth Denison I thought of as my teacher. Over half a dozen years, I attended as many retreats, three of them at her center, Dhamma Dena – one quite noteworthy in the two weeks between Christmas time and New Years.
Dhamma Dena was then half a dozen haphazardly strung together, single-story, flat-roofed buildings, ill coordinated and make-do. They were scattered like tossed dice across the flat, tan, tilted bit of land. Mountains like crumbled earth broke out in the distance.
A teeming, enormous, sonorous military presence was close by. Pull out a California road map, and trace a finger east from L.A. to Riverside, and further east, slightly down, to Palm Springs, that celebration of excess contained within a frame of austerity, and then continue north along a diminishing scratch of road 80 miles or so and you will come to the dot of Joshua Tree and a little further north and east will find two designations for Twentynine Palms – one a happy, red Tee Pee and the other, a large, irregular mole-shaped pinky-beige area marked: Marine Corps AGCC Twentynine Palms No Travel. Pause here. Pitched that close to Ruth’s meditation center was – is – one of the largest military training areas in the country, where combined arms attacks – air to ground or ground to air –are staged; artillery and tank combat executed; a replica of a Middle East village offering simulacra in which to confront the hostilities of Iraq and Afghanistan. This enterprise leant our meditation practice an edge of revolt, albeit disembodied and nonviolent in principle. The sounds of modern warfare that shook the meditation hall kept very present in the mind, and at all times, beliefs we could not align with. But should we regard this base and its activities as the enemy or as our protectors?
It was freezing in the desert, and we were austere. The buildings offered only rudimentary shelter; their furnishings, worn and grim. Bare light bulbs hovered over hard cots. Water had to be conserved. If a bath were taken, one was impugned to scoop the sullage into a bucket; wrestle it outside and dump it on the shrubs of Mormon Tea, creosote, oleander, prickly pear. The food was austere – vegetables, beans, fruit and grains. Caffeine was not in evidence. Reading was forbidden, especially those books intended merely to distract or entertain. Journals could be kept; notes, taken. But to read a book invited escape from the self and diverted the point of being here – to cultivate moment to moment mindfulness. Ruth dazzled with astonishing, albeit rudimentary connections. She might enter the dining room, where ravenous retreatants, desperate for distraction, were falling on their lunch. She would stop us; command us to prayer, and attention. Agony or irritation would grip us, as she forced our attention onto a lettuce bit, a wedge of tomato.
“Eat this, and imagine what it took to make this food. You are eating sunshine, rainfall, seed, the hands that picked this fruit.”
I would never again fall mindlessly upon my food.
Among the routines typically defining a retreat are chores performed for the good of the community. A peculiar challenge of Dhamma Dena, however, was the lack of guidance when it came to execution. I had assigned myself the outhouse; it had struck me as humbling and not without some humor. But really, how did one empty an outhouse? For this is what it meant. Not sweeping and dusting and tidying the surfaces. But lifting the seat and hauling up the can. I could think of one perk: walking into the desert in the early morning with Brian and the birds.
Brian had been studying with and assisting Ruth in preparation for his entry into a monastery in England. A slender, young man with an easy smile, he had a way of appearing out of nowhere to answer a question, soothe a worry, supply a need, which, in my case, meant the outhouse.
“That’s been my job ongoingly,” he said kindly. “Before this retreat started, I was doing it, so I’ve learned a trick or two.”
One crucial trick – keep the garbage can lid at the ready. Together, we hauled the can out of its outhouse chamber, quickly slapping on the lid.
We dragged it, sloshing, in the early morning desert light past the dining hall, across the sandy driveway, through the sacred circle, where Ruth had strewn bright bits of glass and ceramic shards, jewel bright, under hanging bird feeders. We dug a shallow trench, the magpies with their dragon fly tails and brown wrens behind us, feeding. We paused, breathing hard, looking up at the circling ravens. Would there appear a road runner today? I would never see one.
Each afternoon, I’d walk into the desert, piercingly bright and cold. Where in this flat, vast desert did anything find protection? Settlements littered the desert – tiny, rough-hewn shacks close enough to each other to suggest neighborly relations, but dispersed, indicating wariness and paranoia. The human detritus looked as rough and camouflaged as the animal denizens – the rattlesnakes, brown birds, and scorpions. Water tanks or ingenious simulacra loomed over each shack, larger.
I loved it here. The paring down spoke to some half-excavated belief in my deep unworthiness, and so this retreat into Ruth’s desert was a cleanse, a peeling away of, what, though? Seemingly, imperfections. Exacting standards accompanied unbroken scores of self criticism, confusing spiritual practice with spiritual boot camp, the point of which could seem to drive away “bad” thoughts, to scorn the ego, to impose a rigid self control. In the zendo, I had piled my zafu, zabuton, and this tower of my self by a stout pillar underneath a sign that read, “You are nothing special.” I understood the point of practice as striving for perfection, launched by a deep distrust of self.
Ruth was known for quirky methods applied to meditation instruction. She was regularly called a pioneer. So, for example, we might have an evening of music, in which primitive instruments would be given out, and we would spend the time in mindful mayhem, banging and blowing and pinging with attention riveted on each other’s din in an attempt to keep focused; to not get swept up, giddy, in the racket. We learned to separate identifying with an experience from observing it. Did I ping with joy, with calm, with agitation? What feelings brought to the banging and blowing governed outlook and behavior? She enlisted everything in the service of awakening – sweeping floors; dancing; creeping; breathing; feeling ill –with an astonishing attention to the deep sensations inside the body. She could lead you into a space of pure awareness, in which the simple act of swallowing made you feel like a vibrant speck among the swirling stars.
Hers was a grounding, albeit impulsive presence. She would swoop into a meditation hall, wide, polyester skirts swirling, matching head band or odd cap hardly restraining thick, long, graying blond hair. She would never be without two or three ragged dachshunds waddling behind. Her eyes, in a flash, took in everything – the state of the room and its inhabitants; who was new; who nervous; who would challenge with a distracted, troubled mind. She was possessed of a sharp intuition and the gift of knowing exactly what this disparate room of people needed by way of instruction; what each needed to deepen practice.
Christmas Eve, our group of twenty gathered in the zendo for evening service. After dinner, flatulence would be routine, making meditation olfactory, and with attuned attention, I would watch arise in my mind the terrible urge to flee. A forty-five minute meditation would typically be followed by Ruth’s heavily accented Dharma talk. But it was Christmas Eve and Ruth had had an inspiration. It was “The Little Drummer Boy.” She prepared us to hop mindfully to “Ah Rum Pah Pah Pum.” The piece began. Awkwardly we formed a circle under Ruth’s direction. The zendo’s lights were low. There were candles. The desert night was crisp and deeply black. But we were hopping, and warm. The song ended. I’ve always loathed this song. Not Ruth. It began again. For the sake of enlightenment, and Ruth’s Bismarckian ferocity, we hopped.
This continued for an hour. I remember it well, because I had not worn my bra. Surreptitiously, I gathered my breasts inside my folded arms, but this particular constriction, with the hopping, presented a threat to balance. It was a miserable, miserable practice. I sensed a strain of the sadistic accompanying each Ruth’s “Again!”. Feeling spent and oddly sullied, I tried to find something transformative in the ruthless hopping. Perhaps it was helping to drive out the underlying badness in myself, the badness I brought to every retreat I attended. I would go to fix the essential badness; take my wrong parts to the Buddhist Repair Shop, excoriate my flaws; excise my doubts; grow myself whole like a melon. And so, breasts flapping, I hopped, my belief in my bad self concurring with Ruth’s humiliating commands; her “Again” demanding the song be played one more endless time.
I don’t know about you, but it’s taken me over twenty years since those Dhamma Dena rigors to reach for, imaginatively, another kind of construct: let change issue from love.
For Christmas this year, I received two items to enhance my cookery – a stock pot large enough to bathe in, and a six quart slow cooker. These, in turn, inspired two manageable resolutions:
. to find a recipe for a slow-cook cassoulet, and make it;
. to make stock in enormous quantity, and thus, expand my soup repertoire.
Reasonable, everyday goals, particularly appropriate for winter, when kindness can easily find its expression in the sharing of broths, cassoulet, thick bean soups. I remember when coming across this aphorism, ”do your work and be kind,” to want to live it. What better application than making soups, and picking up your Kleenex?
Every Sunday, my wife and I have our Family Dinner. All pitch in, adult offspring having reached that age of loving and spontaneous reciprocity. I had found my recipe for the cassoulet. Ordinarily, I would have tacked the task onto an uber list created for that day, even though that day was Sunday, and because of how I was grown, I still regarded it as the Christian day of rest, meaning you go to
church, strain against boredom and resentment, after which you climb into Father’s Chevrolet and drive, bored and resentful, up to Grammy’s, where she has toiling since dawn to present her own Sunday Family Dinner. However my day of rest may begin in that spirit, by 9 A.M. the list and I are off, goading each other on, adding new “To Do’s” each time an idea surfaces and working ourselves into a lather. I decided, this Sunday, it would be different. I decided it would be just the cassoulet.
After all, it is a complicated dish, even tough D. reassured me, “It is a peasant dish. Do not be intimidated.”
I used that as my mantra. But timing is key. Everything has to be chopped and browned and in the pot with enough time to slowly get the the dinner cooked. I was already an hour behind! Nevertheless, I would try to concentrate on the steps as I undertook them, and not flip into the paralyzing projection of all that must be done. I scoffed in the face of the list, telling myself I had the rest of my life to plant the spring-blooming bulbs and learn Bach’s choral opuses. I observed my stress as if it were a small, silly monkey worrying a rind. So what the stew would cook only eight hours, not nine? Would some deadly bacteria bloom and kill us off? Would this be our last Sunday Family Dinner?
On I chopped. It’s not a complicated dish, as far as chemistry goes. That is, there are not intricate reductions or foldings of one fragile ingredient into another, complicated sauces. There is, though, athletic chopping. The four pound, boneless pork shoulder must be hacked, seasoned, and browned. The chorizo sausage, purchased raw, needs breaking up and cooking; the bacon, fried and drained. The panko and parsley and of course the heaps of onions. Plus tomatoes to be mashed and drained. There are steps. There is an order. It all takes time, and heroic washings-up before the next onslaught of large bowls and heavy pots. Have I mentioned the twelve cups of white beans? Fortunately, having read the recipe half a dozen times the night before, I had already prepared them. However, they had cooked up in a quantity that could keep my neighborhood nourished for the winter. My slow cooker has a six quart capacity. The recipe (Thomas Keller’s, by the way, oddly sansduck and confit) was sized for an eight quart cooker. There followed a crisis of quantity; the terror that the contents would explode – beans and pork and spatter.
By 11 o’clock in the morning, the ingredients were snugly in their pot, although well above the ¾ full line. But this was an experiment, after all, and I had found myself, although almost constantly engaged in argument with that self, for the most part present to each task – not hurrying through the sausage, for instance, to get outside to plant the bulbs, or prune the espalier, which has been crying out for a year to be hacked and tidied. Each competing thought that arose, after all, subtracted from the value of the task at hand. Thich Nhat Hanh has said that there is as much merit in washing the dishes mindfully as there is in writing a poem. I am not utterly, totally at peace with that, being an English Major, but I respect the intent – to bring clarifying attention to whatever the task at hand, not weighting the composition of the potentially brilliant poem over the tenacious removal of chorizo grease from the skillet. It is the quality of one’s attention to the task, not the rank of the task before one.
Although having found myself arguing with that self in the intricate assembly of the dish, I am calling my experiment a success. There were no casualties of the cassoulet. I had discovered my analogy to M’s Kleenex resolution – “Just the Cassoulet,” focusing on a simple enough object, and thus to topple the stacks of high falutin resolutions. Awareness multi-tasks, while needing to do nothing.