MonoBlog


Sometimes topical, sometimes personal - always absorbing - Leo writes and presents his popular monologues whenever the mood hits him, and this blog is the complete collection of them.  Just like any other blog, you can subscribe to the monologues for delivery to either your reader Subscribe to The New Capital Show MonoBlog
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Zen

Several years ago, my wife and I experienced a tragedy, the kind from which you think you may not ever recover.  The days look black and your heart feels as if it will explode.  Sleep is the only relief, and waking is dreadful.  In this place, and on a visit to New York, one of my great friends asked me one day if I cared to go with him on Sunday morning to a Buddhist temple, one that he attended regularly.  Normally, I would immediately have responded with a host of questions: Why?  What’s it about?  What goes on?  Will I like it?  And so forth.  On this particular day, though, I remember simply responding “Yes.”  And then only later hitting him with all of the questions.
 
The temple was in Brooklyn, the Fire Lotus Temple, led by a well-known teacher John Loori, or Daido, his ordained Buddhist name.  I would receive meditation instruction while my friend sat the first meditation session, and then I and other beginners would then join for the second session, timed to last 35 minutes.  35 minutes of motionless silence.  I had never done such a thing, and was equally concerned and excited.  Upon arriving I was ushered upstairs with other beginners.  To my surprise, I was the oldest person there, then in my mid thirties; the other ten or so beginners younger with several in their twenties.  Our instructor, a young woman, a Buddhist monk in robes with her head shaved, Hojin, had us each take a seat on a meditation cushion, and she then explained different postures available to us.  She asked that we place our hands in the shape of a meditative mudra, palms overlapping and thumb-tips touching to form an oval, and to place this hand formation at the belly’s midsection, resting lightly.  We should relax our bodies and lower our eyelids to look at the ground, and thereby avoid distractions.  She described meditation, and recommended a beginner’s technique of counting the breath.  Upon inhaling, one, exhaling, two, inhaling, three, exhaling, four, and so on to the count of ten.  If we lost count, or reached ten, we were to start over again at one.  If thoughts interrupted, we should just let them go, release them.  All of this seemed easy enough.  Hojin explained that we might feel some discomfort from the lengthy sitting but that we should not move, and that we should not worry about the discomfort, no one ever died or got gangrene from sitting in meditation.
 
After a brief practice, we were led back down to the main temple room, a handsome transformed bank lobby with columns and sloping marble floors.  I was shown to my cushion.  No one moved.  The only sounds were of us beginners moving into position.  And then, as we sat and took our postures, a bell was struck, and all became silent and still in the room.  There I was, in a full room of other people, mostly strangers, in Brooklyn New York, no chit chat, no pleasantries, no expressions of self or other, nothing except the sitting.  A swirl of feelings and thoughts suddenly fell over me, yet through them I began to feel the radical power of this act almost immediately, sensing its alternating contours, individual, then communal, back to individual, my own silence interacting with that of the others.  I began to count my breath as instructed.  One, two, three, four, five…I wonder what my friend is doing right now?  Where is he?  I don’t know.  What number was I on.  I forgot.  Back to one.  One, two, three, four, six…dinner last night sure was good, what was the name of that restaurant?  Manhattan sure is exciting, the center of the universe.  Oops.  Back to one.  One, two, three, where is that attractive woman sitting, maybe I can spot her out of the corner of my eye.  Four, five.  Nope, return to one.  One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, almost there, do I think I’ll have enough money?  Ever?  What is enough?  You idiot.  Back to one. 
 
One, two, damn my knee is really hurting.  And not just my knee.  Soon the novelty of the experience began to give way to discomfort.  Hips, knees, and especially in my case, my back, an encroaching annoyance, entering the novel space of communal silence that I had only just begun to discover.  And then annoyance began to change, to grow larger, and soon entered the realm of pain.  One, two, three, I can’t make it.  How many minutes has it been?  Probably two.  Another thirty minutes.  I’m going to have to scream out.  My back itself was screaming out, begging me to shift slightly, to relieve my knees a bit, to drop my arms to resting.  I felt that everyone in the room would sense even my slightest movement, and I desperately tried to fight off the urge to get relief.  Everyone else seemed to be not only fine, but blissfully serene.  What was wrong with me?  Why was this happening?  Why wouldn’t my body cooperate?  One, two, three, dammit, I’ve got to put my hands down, I can’t put my hands down, Hojin told me not to put my hands down, I’ve got to put my hands down, rest them on my legs, I can’t put my hands down.  Just try to count a little more, go ahead, one, two, three, four, five…OUCH THIS IS KILLING ME.
 
I put my hands down.  This simple movement brought some immediate relief.  And then a voice filled the room.  It was Hojin, from up on the dais.  A firm, clear voice: “Place your hands in a meditative mudra.”  Me?  Is she talking to me?  A room full of people, how can she possibly see me.  But she must.  And she must be talking to me because I am sure I am the only one in the room whose hands are no longer in a meditative mudra.  Oh my.  I have wrecked the entire room’s meditation.  I have broken the law, failed to follow instructions, like one of the kids in Willie Wonka, stealing a Gobstopper behind Wonka’s back.  Still, no one moved, all was still.  I put my hands back in the mudra.  Now I knew what would happen if I put my hands down, or un-tucked my legs.  How much more time?
 
And so it went.  There I was, face to face with the sad state of my own inability to sit quietly, to count to ten without interruption, to let go of my own stories, obsessions, narratives, and plans, to simply be in one place, and be only in that place.
 
Somehow I got through it.  When the bell rang to end the meditation, I felt chastened and amazed, as if I had been shown some secrets about myself.  It had hurt physically, my messy mind was revealed, I had caused Hojin to publicly correct me.  But despite these things, I felt, I don’t know, amazed.  Even thrilled.  The silence, the novelty, the defiance of the ordinary, the motionless of the others had inspired me, and I thought it was beautiful.  Emerging into the sunlight to leave the temple, I felt different.  The quality of the light that morning was brighter, I felt more relaxed, I smiled.  Something had moved inside me.  I somehow had a sense of a future, even if brief moments, without pain, without tragedy, without self.  I liked it, I wanted more of this, and I trusted that the physical difficulties I experienced that day could in time be overcome with regular practice.
 
Practice.  I heard that word several times that day, and I understood that it signified one’s personal approach to meditation, to Zen.  Practice could have intensities, durations, magnitudes.  I asked my friend if he thought there might be a place to practice in Houston.  He thought so.   Upon my return to Houston, I Googled “Zen” and “Houston.”  The Houston Zen Community met not far from my house, at the First Unitarian Church.  One Sunday evening I walked in, and again felt the excitement of the onset of silence by a group of people.  I began to attend regularly, and learned that the Zen Community would soon become the Zen Center, as a generous donor had made it possible to purchase a house in the Heights for a permanent temple home.  And a teacher had been asked to come from the renowned San Francisco Zen Center, to teach, to lead, to guide.  And she had accepted.  I remember the first time I met Gaelyn Godwin at the church, before the move to the new center.  She smiled and shook my hand firmly and confidently.  And then she turned to one of the other members of the community who was standing nearby, and whom I had not yet met.  And she, a visitor, introduced two members of the same community.
 
My Zen practice has come to influence the way that I see everything.  Political, economic, familial, personal, spiritual.  It is always there, a constant companion, and one that I trust implicitly.  In my work as a financial advisor, Zen steadies me when markets act manic, as they inevitably do, and helps me provide steady guidance to clients.  And it helps me listen with an open mind to guests and callers to this show, and to ideas with which I am unfamiliar.  It is not my intention today to try and bring you, the listeners of this show, to Zen, to Buddhism, to meditation.  Rather, on today’s show and with Gaelyn’s help, I simply hope to describe what I perceive to be a source of virtually endless capital.  For it is clear to me that for lasting and meaningful political, economic, and environmental change to take place in the world, change must first occur within.  And in my experience, no way brings such change more directly, rapidly, and with such impact, as the silence and stillness of a group seated on meditation cushions.
 
It has been several years since I found the Zen community, since Gaelyn arrived, since the Zen center was renovated and founded.  On Heights Boulevard, each day, people gather to meditate, to practice.  Gaelyn runs the Zen center with abiding attention to detail, with extraordinary programs and guests from all over the world, and with an open-hearted welcome to newcomers, just as I was welcomed one Sunday morning in Brooklyn.  But don’t worry.  If your knees or back hurt, Gaelyn doesn’t call you out in public.

I’m Leo Gold.  This is the New Capital Show.

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