When I was 22 I lived on Cherryvale road with boyfriend, and goats, chickens. We cleaned houses, a good job for a hippie- philosopher- physicist and me, a dancer. I could fit work between class and rehearsals, hauling hay bales, and milking goats. I remember the phone (off-white) and the over-painted blue child’s desk in our kitchen (I painted several things marine-blue after my seventh Rolfing session…another story).
A furious homeowner called. We left streak marks in the entryway, the bathtub had residue, we didn’t clean the appliances even though she had clearly told us… Appliances— the word has a strange absent feel in my mouth. I can’t picture what it refers to. As I hold the phone far from my ear, Bill can easily hear her shout, and so can our two dogs, Frannie and Zooey. The client’s last exasperated statement was, “My husband is a very busy man!” Click. Bill quietly turned to Frannie and Zooey and said, “Zooey is a very busy pooker.” Zooey, hearing her name, wagged; thump, thump.
Occasionally I am the very busy dog.
Time shrinks. I’m directing a dance, or I teach too many classes, or trying to pack and leave for retreat. Speedy, overwhelmed with self-importance. Can’t accomplish any one thing. The world becomes about me, and what people will do for me.
Shambhala Mountain Center. Day three. I head toward the shrine room to teach, then spin around, circle back to talk with Kim Macaulay, who is clearing her breakfast plates. “Please tell me I do not have to control the space, or the people.” I stand, chest puffed, as she holds my shoulders and glares into my eyes, “Katharine, you do not have to….”
Being busy masks what is happening internally. I can ride it for a while. Finally my somatic intelligence says, done! You know how it is, after the performance is over, the temperature, chills, headache, moans, and coughing fits; fully stopped, out of the game.
Journalist, Carl Honoré says we think speed is “fun, sexy; that people who are slow are lazy, slackers.”** When we are revved up we don’t have to “ask those metaphysical questions, Am I happy? Am I well?”** We don’t have to feel our fear and anxiety if we are sprinting the self-justified race.
Sogyul Rinpoche says, “In the West, laziness frequently manifests as speed. People rush from one thing to another, from the gym to the office to the bar to the mountains to the meditation class to the kitchen sink, the backyard, the club. We rush around seeking, seeking, seeking comfort and ease.”***
My family rant: “Are you busy and happy?”
Do you think busyness is modern person’s laziness? Is that fair? Do you think aggressiveness and speed have to go together?
In ballet class we learned to dance fast with small pauses and places where we stretched the rhythm a beat. The allegro. Our legs and articulate feet memorized the steps and our torsos, arms and head sort of floated on top.
In long Zen retreats we eat Orioki style, the formulized eating out of three bowls, precisely unwrapped from their cloth. Other than chanting at the start, it’s in silence. People usually eat fast.
In my ordinary days going fast has some sort of hard focus that is complicated by living a few steps ahead of where I am, combined with multi-tasking. If I drew a cartoon of the word “fast” I would draw a me-bubble with sparks going off and waves of speed (Oh! A car. Already invented). When I need to get somewhere fast I hope waters will part and I will make my way— like Whole Foods before Christmas. I must have knocked into five people or more. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. When I looked back at them, they were staring ahead, pushing carts as extensions of their bodies, (not quite weapons) mission forward.
It’s convenient to be hectic. When I am overwhelmed I can’t really see you. I have a reason to say, no, I can’t. If I can keep moving fast, slightly stressed, and apologetic, maybe embarrassed, head low than I don’t have to embody my life or pause for a stranger. When I finally stop, I’m out, fast . . .
No wonder people struggle or fall asleep meditating or doing restorative yoga. We’re tired. When the body finally gets a break she associates this slowing down, this un-doing, with sleep. Or the old brain is still racing because of out of date (by thousands of years) survival patterns.
The traditional obstacles to practicing yoga include laziness, not knowing what to practice, sickness, not having the proper space, having no desire. Patangali says nothing of time, only priorities. How I think of time changes depending on the view from my little pockets. Time stretches or goes by in a blip, shaves off in small coconut flakes, feathers, or sweats. It attacks me in the early morning, with its eyes.
In improvisational dance practice sometimes I walk, sit, stand, and lie down extremely slow and then fast. Fast motion—everyone is laughing. In slow motion I notice every small thing. “Adagio” means, at ease.
In improvisation practice “open space,” is where anything can happen, like meditation practice. No instruction to satisfy, no object or goal to realize.
Try this. Call your current bundle of sensations “open space.” You lean into the car to gather grocery bags and coffee mugs from the week. You close the door with a foot. Open space. You look into your phone or laptop reading these words. Open space. You lift your hand and scratch nape of your neck. Open space.
Does open space mean choices? Awareness? Does awareness mean gratefulness? Is it a privileged space? Shall we pause and ask each other, Mary Oliver’s question in “Summer Day?”:“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”****
This investigation of speed, stress, open space— so what? So what if I’m a little aggressive. So what if I knock into a few pedestrians, give a student the evil eye? What’s the big deal? OK. I ask myself. I ask you. What is the most important thing? What if reducing suffering was more important than being right, then being in shape, or successful, making a good dance, being liked, being cozy, leading a great retreat? What if reducing suffering, my own and others, was more important than being blissful? Why do you think I remembered that phone call from 36 years ago? It got me. I cause suffering. And sometimes I get feedback. That’s a blessing. Most of the time I am oblivious. I have lost students and friends. Have you?
I think writing poetry can help relieve suffering. I think the deep play of improvisation can do this, community, solitude, massage, hot baths, enough sleep, cooking. And what is it that you do? Do you put together small parts of machinery? Do you write a letter? Do you send a photo? Do you play tennis? Do you place a cup of tea in your guest’s cold hands? Do you measure how much snow has fallen in various places? You know—the balanced life.
The process of sitting practice is underneath everything I do. Our teachers say this is part of the balanced life, a way to relieve this inner agony.
Kobun Chino, Roshi said that what we are doing, just sitting, is not about logic. He did not use the word, “enlightenment” very often. When I said it once he sort of winced as if, by uttering the word I would hurt it, squash it. One time he did say it. In a rare talk filmed in the Alps in Puregg, he let us in on this:
“Enlightenment is always going on”. He says, It “sparkles.”*****
Today when I woke up I saw frost on the windows, iridescent. I thought about Kobun Chino saying the world is giving us these moments continuously, one after the other.
Can I see this? Can I be this? … underneath all that is going on and because of all that’s going on…. Yes. If I pause and recognize the discursive patterns of my held opinions and little comforts I’ve got a chance to clear the veils from my tiny view. Not to freeze like a terrified animal and certainly not to live small and stark. I don’t have to stop forever. Occasionally though, stop like how the land stops, the wild gull, and cormorant, and geese. And how, when the sun sets, the sky clouds whoosh around, pinks and reds, purples. Birds sit all together, face a certain direction. Other animals too, humans among them— We are still.
And how still also means something that distills.
~ o ~
*Poet, Kenneth Koch wrote a fantastic book, Making Your Own Days, The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry (p 21). The term comes from Frank O’Hara “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island”
*****Kobun Chino Otogawa