When I understand the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious. – Ajan Chah
Of the privations this pandemic, of the dreariest for me has been the loss of the in-person meditation retreat. Once or twice a year, I would trek to the Mt Carmel Monastery to sit quietly with Shinzen Young and dozens of other meditators. It was the perfect crucible, a week from which you would emerge not just changed, but with a granular front-row view of the re-ordering.
Sometimes the insights were gleaned in a moment, a complete surprise. Other times, they were glacial, noticed in micrometers months later. Often they were in a direction you wouldn’t have picked if you could choose. Even if uncomfortable, though, there was something about my experience that was becoming more….real. I was changing for the better.
One of the biggest rewards of these retreats was a chance to talk with Shinzen one-on-one, with the full momentum of concentrated practice. I would time the talk for late in the week, so I could be specific about where I was stuck, and he would leverage decades of experience listening to people evoke their inner worlds towards it.
Once, years ago, I signed up to talk to him about a technique I was focusing on, a practice he called “Just note ‘gone’”, in which I hitched my attention to the endings of things. Sounds, thoughts, sights, body sensations. The intention was to cue a person to notice change, the perpetual shifting nature of nature.
“What is your experience?” he asked, his common question.
I looked around the drab room.
“Like everything is being eaten up,” I answered.
“And how does that make you feel?”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It eats fear too.”
His answer didn’t help the fear, at least right then. Whatever ‘it’ was, would swallow me too.
This was an anxiety reinforced by my culture. When we say we want change, on a societal or personal level, we mean only certain types. I mean, I want to be a “better person”, but I’d prefer to skip the bifocals if that’s cool. Change in that direction is scary, for it reminds us of our own ephemerality, the trifling 4000 weeks we might be alive, so we pull back, double down on the illusion that we are here for both a good time AND a long one. Dye our gray hair black, tie drooping skin back, create legacy projects to outlast a capricious body. We celebrate the arrival of newborns with thousands of pictures, while shuffling grandfathers into homes where they slide, unseen, into the ground one by one.
So why does paying attention to all change matter? If each glass we hold, like Ajan Chah’s, is already broken, why does anything?
In some ways it doesn’t. The words you heard in your head while reading this have already disappeared to make space for these ones, and once this essay is through, the world will erupt into something beyond our predictions and preference, whether we notice or not. In other ways, though, there is nothing more important.
Through time, and practice, I’ve come to see that Shinzen was right. “It” did eat fear. It does. And then it lets fear bloom again. And on and on. When we can glean impermanence as not just available in our experience, but as our true self, it frees up the energy we spent looking for it, and it can pass through us towards other people, doing its endless work. Soothing them, tending them, making them laugh when times are hard.
The “gone” of the in-person retreat, at least for now, has meant the arising of the online offering, where we sit with people from all over the planet. That is how we will spend September at CEC, not just realizing that change is afoot, but understanding that we are it and that this time with each other is both precious and passing. As we learn the truth of change, we struggle less, trust more. “It” is moving us right now into a new, open place, simultaneously speaking and listening, eating and flowering. As we sit with it, and each other, we know ourselves as none other than the ground from which all life springs, and we feel love.