Originally Published: December 23, 2012 by remingtoncooney |
“When we awaken during our practice, it is like we come “back” – but back to what? There is no beginning to the circle, so we cannot come back to the start of an enso. But in a sense, we do come back to some kind of a beginning; however, this beginning is also an ending. This is why the circle, or enso, is an adequate representation of our awakening. As we awaken, we come back to the beginning – that is, the beginning of our realization. But we’re also coming to the end of the circle at the exact same time because that beginning is also the ending. But ending of what? Well, ending of sleep of course.”
– Toronto Nov 15th
This was an excerpt from a journal entry that I did after the first day of my yoga retreat at the Centre of Gravity. Michael Stone – a great mentor of mine – conducted the retreat over a 5 day period. This, I can safely say, was the highlight to my year. In early May I interviewed Michael Stone for an article I was writing. When I learnt that he was a yoga teacher and Zen monk committed to intergrating traditional practice into a contemporary lifestyle, I knew that this was a man after my own heart. Following the interview, I continued listening to his teachings online and when the opportunity arose in November for me to visit Toronto, I knew what I’d be doing – practicing at the Centre of Gravity.
My 5 day retreat was certainly not your typical yoga retreat. For one thing, the Centre of Gravity is not located deep in some forest or atop misty mountains. No. It’s situated right in the middle of the city, at the hip end of town I might add – Queen st. I had trouble finding the centre initially, as it’s well disguised within a concrete complex that looks much like your average low rise condominium. To make matters just that little bit more urban, there was a large construction site right next to the complex, so the view from the yoga room was of tractors, mud, and graffetied make-shift fences. Like I said, not your usual retreat centre. But then again, that’s why it was so perfect.
At the core of the centre’s philosophy on practice, is the notion that one does not need to be in a pleasant ‘retreat-like’ environment, in order to perform authentic spiritual practice. Such a practice is ongoing, and needs to be conducted at all times in all places. This is a belief that has permeated Taoist and Zen philosophy right since the beginning. For example, in Zen Buddhism, meditation (known as Zazen) is conducted with eyes half open so that we don’t close ourselves off to the world. When we rise out of meditation, we don’t leave our meditative state there on the cushion that we were perched upon. We carry our meditative state with us, throughout the rest of the day . In other words, we don’t close our eyes to the world in order to find peace. We find peace with our eyes open to the world. In a similar sense, we don’t leave busy and polluted metropolises to find peace in our lives. We find peace within the busy metropolises – with eyes open.
This is one of the reasons why I enjoyed studying at this particular centre. I also realized how much I enjoyed dedicating myself to the simple things: to the breath, to chanting, to listening, to meeting people, to walking the Toronto streets in a meditative state. The best part of the day was mid-afternoon when we all pulled our cushions in around the front of the classroom, and Michael gave his daily dharma talk, offering wise words on how to drop into our lives: how to deepen our practice; how to avoid getting lost in spiritual bypassing; how to come to terms with your own mortality. Such profound speeches would shake me everyday. I would often leave the centre, returning to my friend’s place where I stayed, feeling unsettled and full of mixed emotions. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t able to put words to how I was feeling. I was just feeling these strange sorts of emotional combos: bliss and anxiety, saddness and happiness, nostalgia and excitement. And when I tried to write about them in my journal, all I could say (for the first time in my life) was “I can’t put words to how I’m feeling.” My state of being was beyond language. And that for me didn’t matter. It was refreshing. It was exactly what Michael was teaching us to do through our yoga and meditation. To feel your emotional states simply as raw senesations and nothing more. No judgement. No interpretation. Just being with them. Just holding them with both hands. Palms open.
There were many moments during those 5 days that I now reflect on with great fondness. However, there was one thing that stands out the most: the sound of water in the drain pipes. At 10.30 am each day we would begin our sitting practice, Zazen style. Bowing to the cushion and to the sangha, we would then sit crossed legged for an hour and a half. As I focused on slowing my breath, I also allowed my ears to open to the surrounding sounds. Being at the centre of the city, the room was never quite silent. There was the opening and closing of heavy metal lids, as homeless people salvaged food from the outside dumpsters. There was the roar of tractors lifting dirt, and the abrasive bouncing of jack hammers from the construction site next-door. And hanging from the ceiling were black drain pipes with the building’s sewage swishing through them. With eyes half closed, the water passing through sounded identical to the trickling of a soft stream. And so, with each breath I allowed myself to go deeper into this artificial stream. The sound of the water wasn’t constant either. It would come and go, depending on whether someone was washing their hands, or flushing the toilet on the level above us.
The coming and going of the water was exactly like the coming and going of my thoughts, which was exactly the same as the coming and going of my breath. And often blending with this swishing of water, was the bouncing of jack hammers from the construction site. The deeper into the breath I went, the less I judged the surrounding sounds. At one point, the grating sound of the jack hammer met the soft sound of the drain pipe water at such an equilibrium, that it became its own unique sound in itself. Both good and bad; both grating and pleasant. And I sort of fell into this sound without judgement. It was at that moment that I really felt interpendence – a concept right at the very heart of Taoist philosophy. Where there is shallow, there is deep. Where there is softness there is hardness. Where there is loud there is quiet. The contradiction that exists at an intellectual level was no longer contradictory, for it was inherent in my very existence. It is inherent in all existence.
I draw attention to this moment because it was a real highlight for me. I recommend taking a moment after reading this post to just consider what has been a highlight in 2012, for you. What have you achieved? What have you failed to achieve? What moments allowed you to really have raw experiences without judgement? What’s something that you’ve completed that you’re really proud of? What elements of this year can you take into next year to keep that positive momentum going? Remember: although this year and next are separated by calender, they are interdependent – just like the jackhammer and the drain pipes. The sounds of 2012 are reliant on the sounds of 2013. This year and next are not separated outside of our intellect. Time blends into union, just like the enso. All is interdependent.