Before Completion, Stillness

Sun, Aug 22, 2021 8-minute read

My gaze often returns to the willow tree in the backyard of the Willow Monastic Academy. Seeing the arms branch upwards makes me sit up straighter; my body relaxes and sways with the silvery tendrils of leaves lifted by the wind. 

When I first arrived, I felt moved by the sight of this soulful tree. Willow is part of a larger network called The Monastic Academy for the Preservation of Life on Earth, with branches reaching out to Maple in Vermont and Oak in California. The tree is also deeply appropriate to the Buddhist teachings of the training centre; in Buddhism, Kwan Yin, who is the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara representing compassion, is often depicted holding a willow branch and water vase. 

I have been at Willow Monastic Academy for 12 days, and I will be here for three months as part of an experimental summer intensive taught by Ryu and Seishin. After morning meditation, I sit on the wooden porch steps or by the window to gaze at Willow, and she transforms everyday. Sometimes I see my Chinese ancestors, firm and rooted in the Confucian spirit, reminding me why the dedicated discipline and practice that I’ve spent much of my life rejecting is so deeply critical now. Other times, Willow is more motherly and yin, gathering me into a sense of profound trust with the current of the Tao that has led me here, that continues to carry me everyday. 

A part of me can step out and observe how surreal and out of character it is for Cheryl to step away from “normal life”, away from X, my family and friends, to commit to a monastic lifestyle with seven other strangers. She skeptically looks at Cheryl and asks: “Why are you doing this?” “How is this going to fit into your career? Your life back home?” “Do you seriously think you will find what you are looking for here?” 

On the second day of meditation, words surfaced and made deep, vibrating contact with my core – a resonance whose integrity I’m learning to trust: “I know I’m supposed to be here, but I don’t know why.” 

I don’t know why.

And yet, the sovereign choice I made to come here is wrapped in many nuanced layers of justification that feel reasonable, that tell me that I am making the right decision: 

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I want to make change: 

Even with the hesitations of my secular self, I recognize that this is a Buddhist monastic training centre grounded with a focus on relating change in inner awareness with change in the world, in order to “create leaders who are capable of transforming the untransformable.” I’ve been working as a systemic designer in social systems for so long, seeking pathways to transition and hitting walls, until I realized that the interventions – policies, resource flows, behavioural and narratives shifts – required in our external systems need to interweave with our internal systems. As Donella Meadows describes, the most effective place to intervene in a system is “The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, power structure, rules, its culture — arises.” I must leave behind the business models and academic maps to follow my longing for how deep it must go, how deeply we must let go in the entangled depths of psyche, the dimensions of the cosmological and the spiritual. 

I can no longer turn away:

There is immeasurable pain in the world: our ecosystems are collapsing, forests are burning, species are dying, people are harming each other and themselves. There is so much pain that in the moments where I do make contact, my entire body is electrocuted with it, seizing up with such intense agony and overwhelming sorrow that I fall apart. I am terrified. I feel immature and unskillful, developing coping mechanisms to look away and numb myself. 

But I feel ready to look now: I am a small but mighty part of a larger organism going through collapse and transformation. I need to crack through and compost the human systems and lifeworlds that I’ve been clinging to for so long, my entitlements to what success means, around how to live a good and comfortable life.  I cannot be attached to systems that I know cause so much pain. I cannot turn away from ecological devastation and its continuing impacts to life on the planet. And I’m beginning to trust that in the grief, there is a kernel of something indescribably beautiful: by opening up to my capacity to witness and hold pain, I come into clear relationship with joy, the love and the beauty that I want to preserve and nourish in the world. To invite in planetary consciousness is to fall in love with the world.

I need to pause:

There are no solutions to make the problem go away, even in the temptation to throw myself into systemic change work, however values-aligned, in the hopes that I might feel the pain less. The nervous system (my own, and the collective body) is holding so much tension and contracted fear to be triggered into reaction.  Any solution or intervention that I find will be designed with the master’s tools, its impacts stuck with its unintended consequences within the closed loop toolbox of perspectival Modernity.

I created the container of this self-directed masters to honour a space to crack open, to let go, to unlearn. Two weeks before I left for Willow, I was sitting with X over morning coffee, and suddenly felt moved to throw the I-Ching. I received Hexagram 64: Before Completion with changing lines to Hexagram 52: Keeping Still. 

The advise is clear: slow down, pause and be still. This is the time to allow my awareness to be like the surface of a still lake – what my Taoist ancestors call the mirror mind – to reflect what needs to be witnessed, so that I can respond appropriately. So that I may cultivate response-ability. 

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And still, while sharing these reasons that I can utter and language into words – I want to change, I cannot turn away, I need to pause – I notice there are so many “I"s, there is so much self. And the statement continues with its sonorous ring: “I know I’m supposed to be here, but I don’t know Why.” 

I don’t know Why. So I’ll leap over the edge into this yawning chasm. 

Because Why is a bottomless mystery. Arriving here took courage from a place that is not reasonable, emotional or conscious – it flows with great ease in the mysterious current of the soul’s longing. My choice, wrapped in the fiction of autonomy, was always cradled in fates’ mesh. My intuition – the compass of longing in my energy body – pulled me here. I encountered a constellation of synchronicities of such meaningful potency that I knew that if I chose to ignore this calling, a vital, living core within me would wither and die.

And when I first arrived, I was calm. I didn’t experience the flutters of nervousness and fear that I associate with the first days of school, job or joining a new team. I felt the rightness immediately, the deep resonance in my soul attuned to harmony. This deep and subtle sense that: “Yes, you’re supposed to be here.” Here, at Willow, right now, present here. And meeting seven strangers felt immediately familiar, as though I could access a felt sense of the potentiated future in the present. As though being here is already enfolded within me.

I have surrendered fully to the strict monastic schedule and frugal lifestyle, and I feel joy. I don’t feel the resistances and cravings that I had anticipated: no attachments to sleep in, to drink wine, to eat cheese, to check my phone.

And this powerful sense of rightness continues to feel so easeful, so unfettered, so whole, that a part of me is terrified – a part that is deeply attached to my autonomy, my agency, my choice.  I want to laugh and sob at the same time. So many decisions in my life have relied on observing and synthesizing assessments and external validations of what is “right”, what is “good”, what is “reasonable”. So coming here has a touch of madness to it. 

And yet, the words of Akira Kurosawa come to mind: “In a mad world, only the mad are sane.”

So I breathe slowly, close my eyes, open my eyes. I gaze at the Willow tree in the backyard and become suffused by the sweetness and grace of profound trust.

I’m supposed to be here, and I don’t know why.

-– 

Hexagram 64: Before Completion 

Fire over water
The image of the condition before transition
Thus the superior man is careful
In the differentiation of things,
So that each finds its place.

Hexagram 52: Keeping Still, Mountain

Mountains standing close together:
The image of Keeping Still.
Thus the superior man
Does not permit his thoughts
To go beyond his situation.