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Go Deeper

On March 20, 1998, my heart teacher, Roshi Jishu Holmes died suddenly in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I have told this story often, of beginning koan study with Jishu during the final year of her life, while she was still in Yonkers. In early September, exactly 7 years after I had begun sitting with Kyudo Roshi’s sangha at the Soho Zendo, Jishu told me that she thought it was time for me to begin koan study. It was so weird. Kyudo Roshi, in one of his teishos had impressed when he said that in Japan, for the first 7 years, the monks just count their breath. I was horrified by Kyudo’s news. I was looking for enlightenment in 7 weeks, 7 months maybe.

How did Jishu know I had been counting my breath for 7 years? It felt good to finally get to koans. And frightening. I had no idea what I was doing. I would drive up early from Staten Island, one hour, for daisan before heading to work in Eastern Brooklyn, another 90-minute drive, at work by 9. I was in and out for the interviews. I made my bows, presented my koan. Jishu’s comment, as I remember it now, was inevitably, “Go deeper.” More bows, back in the car.

I had no idea how to go deeper. Where did I think deeper was? I never had a clear image. Maybe I was imagining a sub-basement. How do I get to the sub-basement? I had no idea why I was going there.

I did have an image of where I wanted to go. Buddhists called the place of aspiration, “Nirvana.” What was Nirvana? I imagined the opposite of a sub-basement. When I thought “Nirvana,” I thought heaven. Nirvana didn’t really work for me either. I kept picturing my image of heaven, a folksong from my childhood, “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” the hobo’s idea of heaven, “where the cops all have wooden legs, the bulldogs all have rubber teeth, and the hens lay soft-boiled eggs.” There was no resonance with Nirvana. It wasn’t where I was going.  I called the place where I was going “Inner Peace.”

When I was still with Kyudo Roshi, I had created my mantra: “With inner peace, nothing else matters; without inner peace, nothing else matters.”

When Jishu told me to go deeper, I had no idea what to do. I just kept doing what I was doing and hoped that she would eventually tell me to go on to the next koan. Jishu died before I got out of the preliminary koans.

Where was I going? Years before Jishu, early in my analysis with Erika, stressed by the idea of constantly going forward, ever forward, I asked Erika why I couldn’t just become an assistant camp director at Wel-Met for the rest of my life. I had made a lot of progress in therapy. Why couldn’t I just settle on a plateau and rest without stress?

Wel-Met assistant camp director was my idea of a plateau. I had worked summers through college at the Wel-Met Camps. It was my experience there that led me to social work. Assistant Camp Director was the entry level, full-time position for social workers who had recently completed their master’s degrees. Assistant camp director for life represented to me — not my words at the time — a life without ambition, a kind of giving up and settling. It felt like a chance to breath instead of always striving.

If I’d already met Jishu, I might have asked, “Why do I have to keep going deeper?”

Erika, the Zen master, told me that there was no standing still. “You either go forward or you go backward.”

Erika pushed me off the plateau. Through twists and turns, I moved forward. I got my doctorate in sociology and then I tried academia. If my father had been alive, he would have loved the idea of “his son the professor,” but it wasn’t me. My final academic gig was at Sacred Heart University. It was about as an uncomfortable fit as I could have imagined. At my first faculty meeting, the college chaplain welcomed me, “our new, Jewish member of the faculty.” I survived that, but when students started jumping from dorm roofs, when a colleague had the gall to raise the topic at a faculty meeting, when we were informed by the Dean that student suicides were not the concern of the faculty, that’s when I knew I had to get back to mental health. At least in psychiatry, when a patient died, we reviewed all that we had done: what might we have done differently that could have shifted the outcome?

I’d had a good run as a mental health administrator before arriving at Yonkers in search of Inner Peace.

Going forward was not going deeper, but I didn’t know that yet. I just went forward. It was many years before I began to get an inkling of how to go deeper. We turn the light of our consciousness inward. We become aware of our conditioning. It is a difficult and gradual process. Krishna Das helped me see this.

Krishna Das is a wonderful kirtan performer, and he was a great friend of Bernie’s. At Bernie’s request, KD scheduled a concert at the Montague Farm barn. And the afternoon of the concert, he gave a talk. He talked about his spiritual path and his practice. Krishna Das chants. That’s his practice. The chants are repeated over and over, but they do not go on endlessly. The number of repetitions is prescribed. Counting is important. KD told us about losing count. And he’s a kirtan master.

KD explained. When your mind wanders, it is your conditioning which is taking you away. The conditioning — habits, formed and often forgotten —are held in place by the tendrils of repetition, a million threads. Each time we notice that that our mind has wandered, each time we bring our attention back to our breath, or back to out chant, we clip one of these threads, and the hold of the conditioning is weakened until eventually it loses its power. The freedom, the spaciousness in our life expands. I was so struck, listening to KD, by the similarity between his chanting practice and our breath counting.

We just sit on our cushion and count, until we reach a point in our practice when we can follow our breath without counting. And when we notice that our mind has wandered from our breath, we very gently return. With each return, a piece of conditioning is losing its hold. Eventually, we are freed from a piece of our conditioning. There is always another piece of conditioning which will pull at us, grab our attention, a new tendril of repetition to be clipped. The practice goes on and on. We just keep going deeper. What’s next? We keep practicing. At least as far as I can tell, there is no end to my conditioning. 

Twenty-six years after her passing, Roshi Jishu is still sitting with me every morning, reminding me to “go deeper.”

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