‘Always acting alone, walking alone,
The enlightened travel the same road of freedom.
The tune is ancient, the spirit pure, the style poised,
The face drawn, the bones hardened; people take no notice.’
When I first discovered the Shodoka, the Song of Realising the Way – and it felt like a discovery as it was not something that we chanted or studied in my first few years at Zen Center – I remember thinking that these lines were admirable, but I didn’t really want to be alone. The wish for deep connection has always held sway in my life, though it has not proved easy to combine a dedicated residential practice with romantic relationship; the tensions I have felt around that have caused me many difficulties over the years.
There are other ways, though, that I do feel largely independent, and for the longest time, that meant keeping most people at bay, from a felt need to protect myself, and an introvert’s wish to be able to recharge alone. Having spent the previous ten years in London living on my own, being in community was a great challenge to these preferences, though I noticed that the abundant silence at Tassajara made it easier. My favourite physical activities, cycling and running, have also been mostly solitary pursuits, though they don’t always need to be, and at times I have enjoyed sharing them. On my recent trip to England, I noticed that there were times when I felt totally relaxed among my friends, and then there was the joy of navigating the solo journey to my next destination with my bag on my back and my camera in my hand, independent like a tortoise or a snail (while I was extremely well fed by all my hosts, I also found it a relief to be back in my own kitchen, eating my more regular diet again – more fruit and vegetables, yoghurt and eggs than I was getting, a lot more water and a little less coffee).
Nevertheless, years of practice have allowed me a different way of meeting others: I don’t worry about other people so much, and I don’t worry about myself so much. I don’t often feel the need to protect myself from imagined harm or psychic incursion. I know that I am flawed and stupid more than I would prefer to be, but that is the reality. I have found that sometimes it is okay to be vulnerable and honest rather than always having to put a ‘good face’ on things. And I understand that just about everyone else goes through the same struggles and is making the same effort.
All of this is part of my thinking as I prepare to give four classes at Zen Center on the Brahmaviharas; for the past few years I have been curious as to how our way of behaving with others has been shaped by our online activities (fully aware that this blog gives a very carefully edited version of who I am), and how qualities that are promoted in our practice and training can help us navigate the perils of being authentically ourselves, by connecting more fully with others. I hope that if you are local you will join me, and I will do my best to reflect back on what I learn from sharing my thoughts with others.