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You Listen, God

“Sit still and listen.”

Listen to the voice of the Universe.

Listen to the voice of God.

What am I doing talking about God?

Roshi Anna Gamma, a Catholic religious herself and Roshi Pia’s first Dharma successor, asked me just that.

I suppose that I am trying to communicate, trying to offer to myself and others a hint, a finger pointing at the moon. Despite many misconceptions, Buddhism is not the religion of atheism. When asked about the existence of God, it is said that the Buddha remained silent, neither affirming nor denying. On another occasion, he asked in response, “How would knowing my opinion help you?”

Growing up in America, I learned to speak English, to express myself as best I could in English. My parents were atheists, but God was in the air.

“In God we trust.”

“God damn.” It’s hard to curse in English without God. My parents didn’t curse. But I did.

I could say, “Listen to the voice of the Universe.” I do, but many people don’t understand.

“Listen to the voice of God.” That is so much easier for so many people to understand. But it’s hard to do. It takes practice to sit still and listen.

“Sit still and listen.”

It’s now my favorite zazen instruction. For others. And for myself.

Some days it doesn’t work. I keep chattering away.

“Shut up and listen.” It sounds harsh, but sometimes harsh is helpful.

Sometimes I just can’t or won’t shut up. Sometimes we all need someone to listen.

I have often found myself on the other side of the conversation with Dee. She is upset about something. She is talking about it; and as she talks, something comes up for me which I feel is good advice, helpful advice. But Dee won’t stop talking.

“Are you looking for advice or are you venting?” I ask.

Sometimes the answer is “Venting. I just need to vent.”

I had learned something about this as a psychotherapist. There are patients who can talk non-stop for an entire session, seemingly without coming up for air.

As a therapist, with practice, I was able to learn to listen patiently, even when I felt that I had something brilliant to contribute, until finally it was time to announce, “Our time is up. We can continue this next week.”

Of course, there were also times in which the patient, going on and on, was impossibly boring. The same stuff over and over again. I had heard a world-famous psychotherapist advise that when it got to the point where he was afraid that he was going to doze off he would say something. Anything, just to keep himself in the game.

As a therapist, I found that the bigger problem was that patients end up complaining, probably to their friends, “I go in and tell him all my problems and he never says anything. How is this going to help?” And then they quit therapy.

Therapists who just listen and nod and offer nothing more than “uh-huh” are often perceived as unhelpful. I couldn’t just sit there. I had to say something.

I developed a technique.

Toward the end of the session, I would interrupt. “Our time today is running out. So if you want me to respond, we should leave some time.”

Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn’t.

Most patients did want something back. Usually.

I did hear a story once which offered a wonderful contrast. During the year that I served as Chief Social Worker at South Beach Psychiatric Center, I spent most of my time doing training on groups, -- group therapy and community meetings, -- with the staff of various inpatient units, day treatment programs, and outpatient clinics. I spent the time working with the South Richmond Service outpatient team, viewing groups on live video feed. One group meeting stands out in my memory, one story told by one of the patients, a young woman.

She told the group about a psychiatrist she had been seeing for about a year.

“I don’t know what was going on with me but I never said a word. I would just come in and sit and think about what I might say but not say anything until finally he would announce, ‘Our time is up. We can continue next week.’ And I would leave. He was so patient with me, but I think he must have been getting bored. I was thinking of things to say, but I never said anything. One week — it seemed out of the blue — he announced at the end of the session, ‘Obviously, this therapy isn’t going anywhere. I won’t be seeing you anymore.' I felt very bad. He was so patient, and I was getting very close to talking."

I felt so bad for that psychiatrist. He had been so patient. I understood how hard it was to listen and not speak. I knew from my experience. He was so close to being rewarded for his patience — what a great story it would have been to share with his colleagues, how he just waited and waited until this young woman was ready to share what was in her heart — when he ran out of patience.

This going on and on and apparently not even coming up for breath happens not only with our friends and our therapists, it happens on our cushions. It happens to me. Sometimes I just won’t shut up. I sit down ranting, and I rant as I bow. I rant and rant, and I am still ranting when the bell rings to signal the end of the mediation period.

Some days, there is just no end to the rant. We will beat ourselves up for this when we get up from the cushion or even on the cushion in the midst of the rant. “I’m such a bad Zen student.”

But really, no harm. God, it seems, is the infinitely patient therapist.

The Universe, we might say, has all the time in the world.

What do you do when you have ranted away the period?

This therapist has no other patients. No need to wait until next week for your next session.

Sit another period. And another. Sit as long as it takes.

Oh, you have to go to work. Sit again as soon as you get home.

Oh, the baby has to be fed. Sit again as soon as the baby goes down for a nap.

Sit until you are able to listen and then just sit still and listen.

Since I began sitting regularly thirty years ago, my practice has generally been to sit one 30-minute period a day. For many years, I would also sit a Zazenkai, a full day of meditation, once a month, and would get to a sesshin, -- a week of sitting, thirteen periods a day, -- at least once or twice a year. The sesshin particularly was a wonderful cleanser. Closing myself off from all the external stimuli — the emails, the phone calls, the world news, all grist for the never ending rant — I would finally listen.

It was in those moments that I first had the clarity — I think, as early as my Soho Zendo years — that I could sit through anything. No, not in one period. Or two. Maybe not in a day or two or three. Maybe not in a sesshin. Maybe I would need to retreat to a monastery where I could sit for as long as it took. I pictured the Zen Mountain Monastery where I had been for a couple of weekend retreats. I imagined that I would need to do that retreat at some point in my life. I hoped that by then my pension would cover my room and board. I felt a certainty that if I sat long enough, I would come out the other side.

I didn’t know what to call this moment until several years later, at the Zen Community of New York, introduced to a new way of thinking about Jukai. Until then, I had thought of Jukai as “becoming a Buddhist,” as a conversion ceremony. I wasn’t interested. I didn’t want to take any loyalty oaths.

Bernie explained Jukai as taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. I knew that that was something I already done. I had already found my refuge. Taking Jukai became for me an act of celebration, a public celebration, of this taking refuge. I had come to Zen practice, had sat for years with the mantra, “With peace, nothing else matters; without peace, nothing else matters.”

And I had found peace. I had found refuge. Yes, sometimes the rant seems endless. Sometimes it seems that I will never shut up and allow space for the Universe, for the voice of God.

In this refuge, there is peace.

Will it survive every test?

Don’t know.

I will find out.

But there is joy in that not knowing. There is peace there. Sitting into the silence, I will find out.

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