A Very Zen New Year

I’m on the list serve for the artist who goes by Paleo.  I saw him perform at SXSW last year under a Portuguese music showcase, as his name might suggest, but as far as I can tell he lives in Iowa City and his name is David Strackany.

Anyway, he sends out an email once a month about nothing in particular…. This time he started off with a memory of asking his brother when they were kids…

“you think if I practice I could be the best in the world?” And I remember him really taking it for a spin up there in his head. He tucked one cheek into the corner of his mouth and he said, “yes, David, I suppose you could.”

He was talking about ping pong, but I suppose he could have been writing about anything really, like soccer, meditation or even music.  If you practice, you could be the best in the world.  It might take 10,000 hours, but you’ll never know if you could be the best if you don’t start putting in the time.  So I guess it might start with an intention, an idea, or a spark.

Patti Smith writes about the St. Mark’s Poetry Project.  She says…

I wanted to be a poet but I knew I would never fit into their incestuous community.  The last thing I wanted was to negotiate the social politics of another scene. I thought of my mother’s saying, that what you do on New Year’s Day will foretell what you’ll be doing the rest of the year.  I felt the spirit of my own St. Gregory, and resolved that 1973 would be my year of poetry. (Just Kids p. 214)

Patti chose poetry for 1973, and she ended up not only being a great poet, but also a great musician, performer, mother, friend, and probably a host of other impressive titles too.  I had to look this one up but it turns out that St. Gregory (Pope Gregory I) is the patron saint of musicians, singers, students and teachers and died in the beginning of the 7th century.

Snow covered ravine in Litchfield, CT.

This week I had the good sense to take myself to the Village Zendo’s end of year retreat or Sesshin at Wisdom House in Litchfield, CT.  We arrived just as the blizzard was getting started and the winding country roads were lightly dusted with snow.  For the following few days while we settled into the austere practice of about 6 hours of sitting meditation per day, the wind “blew an opera” around the old monastery, as one of our teachers so poetically described it, and we sat inside the silence and music of it, counting our breaths, and opening to the palate of sensations which for me included thoughts, hopes, desires, expectations, aches, pains, grief, and joy.

By the end of six days we came up with our own vows to make silently in a ceremony to top all ceremonies.  We sat in the sound of 108 hits on the large metal bowl that is a bell, and let the waves of energy from each hit move through the group, uniting us in our combined intention to bring in the new year with clear and steady minds and open hearts.  We then stood up and one at a time took turns hitting the bell for ourselves to the internal recitation of our vows.

On New Year’s Day, we slept in until 6:30am, sat in the zendo, chanted again in Japanese and English the words of the sutras, and Roshi delivered some parting words to send us into 2011.  We ate a light breakfast, packed our things, cleaned up and each person went their separate ways back to their various and distant lives.  I got a ride back to Washington Heights with fellow meditators and hopped on the A train downtown toward my transfer at 14th Street to take the L back to Bushwick.

Manhattan had been through the blizzard too and the snow was piled high in dirty piles on the sides of the streets.  Heading into the belly of the subway, the dirt and grime and dampness of it contrasted with the pristine snow covered paths we had just walked along for walking meditation or kinhin at Wisdom House.  At the retreat, after every sit, it is expected that you smooth the wrinkles from your cushion and mat, and brush off any lint or dirt, making the space spotless and ready for the next sitting period.  I came back to my tiny Brooklyn apartment, where the building door had been recently jimmied and was in the process of being fixed, where the furniture doesn’t match and the primary colors seem to clash, where the floor hadn’t been swept and the cat box needed changing.

I thought back to a quatrain Roshi had talked about from the 7th century Chinese Zen master Yung Chia’s Song of Enlightenment.  He says…

We know that Shakya’s sons and daughters

Are poor in body, but not in the Tao.

In their poverty, they always wear ragged clothing,

But they have the jewel of no price treasured within.

I can’t remember exactly how she put it, something about how we all have imperfect bodies, but we have rich minds.  The ragged clothing that we wear may not look so great, with all the errors and mistakes and flaws and regrets that our lives seem to encompass, but often without realizing it, we help those around us just by showing our rough patches, showing our vulnerability.

Patti Smith is that person in ragged clothing too with a great big jewel in her heart for sharing herself with the public across the decades, and showing us how to be a grown up and an artist at the same time.  Paleo does that for me too.  He takes his creative voice seriously and shares it with those of us who want to hear him.  Even a small voice becomes a big inspiration when it tickles the vocal chords to create sound.

Sesshin Schedule

Sesshin Schedule

This was my first lengthy experience with Zen meditation and the many beautiful ceremonies of the Sesshin, which means literally “touching the heart mind.” When you sit zazen you take all the stormy weather with the fair weather and together they create your experience on the cushion.  Also from Yung Chia’s Song of Enlightenment, he says “To be mature in Zen is to be mature in expression.” I couldn’t have said it any better!

If Patti’s mother is right (and they usually are), this year will be about getting up early, cleaning my house, clearing my mind, doing some traveling, some learning, some writing, and some loving.

What will 2011 be for you?


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. andrea white
    Jan 03, 2011 @ 12:25:30

    Dear Blue Unicorn,
    This blog is wonderful, the words, the thoughts, the colors and the falling snow. Your New Year’s Sesshin must have been magical, even though (or maybe because) it began at 5:30. Were many of the people from your group in the city? or strangers? or both?
    You describe the sights, sounds, and feelings movingly and I’m so glad this is how you chose to begin your new year. may it be a wonderfully illuminating one for you. I love you, mom


  2. Dad White
    Jan 03, 2011 @ 17:03:32

    Happy New Year Mols, Thank you for sharing about the Meditation. The retreat sounded pretty severe, having to get up at 5:30 but I think thats what we did on our retreat in the mountains in LA too. Glad you missed the big storm. I love your blog, you write so well and are such a clear and creative thinker. Are you going to be bloging more and more? Can’t wait to see you in Feb. I love you.



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