Saturday, October 24, 2009

What If a Gunman Comes into the Zendo - Can We Move?

There's an episode of CSI that has unduly influenced my "monkey mind" while sitting zazen. (I don't watch much television. After reading this, you'll know why.) In the episode, four monks at a monastery are shot and killed while sitting meditation. The shooter came in while they were sitting and shot each one point blank in the forehead, execution style. But what is startling is that each one of them stayed in the meditative posture, while the killing spree went on, as if waiting their turn. No one stood up, ran, struggled....they just sat there.

Now, they were not Zen monks. They were not sitting zazen. For all I know, they were practicing some kind of trance meditation. But it created an image in my head, a "goal" of not moving, that overwhelmed completely even the instincts of fear and response in a crisis.

So now, occasionally when I am sitting zazen at the Healdsburg Yoga Studio, and I hear people approach on the sidewalk outside, lingering at the front door...I go into morbid fantasies. What if one of them came in with a gun, and threatened us? Would we all just sit there? Would we all continue to face the wall, unmoving, because the period of zazen was not officially ended? If a gunman rushes into the room - do we need to wait for someone to ring the bell before we can respond?

I struggle with a similar "is it OK to move" question when sitting at home, only based in more mundane realities. I live in a house with five cats, three dogs and a parrot. Even when I am "home alone," as it were, I am anything but solitary. So when I sit down to meditate, there is a very real chance that something (someone) will interrupt me. I don't want to jump up at the slightest sound, or I'd never get through a sit period. On the other hand, I don't want to not respond if something truly attention-worthy occurs.

So my sitting goes something like this: I sit down on the cushion. I am silent and relaxed for about 10 minutes. Then I hear a crash. I remain seated, and keep my ears alert. If there is silence after the crash, I think, "Well, maybe Kenji the kitten jumped on the shower curtain again and brought the rod down. Or maybe Dozer misjudged when leaping down from the kitchen counter, and knocked my book bag onto the floor." I can keep sitting; there will be time later to put the house back in order.

However, if I hear a squawling, or a moan, maybe somebody got hurt. If I hear a flap of wings, then maybe Barney the parrot has decided to make an ungainly flight off the top of his cage and is now wandering around the living room floor, eating the new baseboard or getting dangerously close to the sleeping Bailey (cat) on the dog bed. Or if I hear a whole lot of crunching, maybe Teo the ridgeback has managed once again to spin the cat box around, and is creating a catastrophic mess in the bedroom. Time to get up and move, restoring everyone to safety.

I brought up this "can I move?" question at our study group today, and discovered that everyone who shares their home with animals grapples with these issues. What if the dog is barking? Is it better to ignore that and keep meditating, or to take the little guy into your lap and stroke him? What if the cat is kneading your leg, with a generous use of claws? Do you stoically resist either moving yourself or extracting talons from your thigh, or do you gently reposition your feline friend before returning to zazen?

Tony and others in the group reassured me that sitting zazen, in "no thinking" mind, does not mean that we are unable to respond to a crisis, small or life-threatening. In fact, the opposite is true: that posture of alert "no thought" puts us in an ideal position to move quickly and effortlessly toward right solution.

Whew. One ridiculously misplaced crisis fantasy put to rest - only one million other distracting thoughts left to deal with!

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