Dead end. That is what the sign said.
Funny how long I’ve believed I could only walk on the road.
It was the deer who showed me how to leap the fence,
how to circle the sign in irregular orbits.
There was no end to the number of paths I might choose.
I was clumsy at first, unversed in this new navigation—
the earth so soft I easily lost my balance.
It was the breath that taught me to pour my weight
first into one foot, then into the other.
My soles relearned how to meet the ground.
It was the clouds that showed me how to let myself
be orchestrated by wind, spiraling like a bird,
as if stirred by some great hand.
Ever since I began circling, I’ve come to see dead ends as invitations.
— Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer
Dear Still Water Friends,
A fellow Sangha member gifted me with this poem. Both the gift and the gifting evoked within me a deeper understanding of my gratitude to Thay, this practice, and the Sangha.
Too often my insistence on there being “one right way”—my forgetfulness and the clumsiness of my yet-to-be honed skillfulness—leaves me closed off, balking at rather than gripping reality. For each time I find myself stuck, this “dead end” I’ve dug my heels into is not the impasse I’m imagining but an invitation for me simply to stand still. Breathe deeply. Step mindfully. If only I hear, finally will listen to what lies behind my insistence, this resistance inside me … then the practice and the Sangha lift, steady and, if need be, carry me forward.
Here’s how Pat Enkyo O’Hara in her book Most Intimate: A Zen Approach To Life’s Challenges explains this gift we’re all offered:
One of the elements in the ancient Chinese ideogram for Zen is “clearing a space for an altar.” I feel that is exceedingly apt, because so much of Zen is about making space in our heart-minds so that we can live a life that is direct and clear. We burn off the brush and find ourselves in an unobstructed opening to life, and that opening, that bare space, is our altar. It is open and allows reality to enter. When a flower comes, it is accepted as a flower; when a dark cloud comes, it is accepted as a dark cloud. There is no denial or grasping. There is recognition.
Zen is a way of being in touch with our wholeness—our self, without the overlay of what may have crept through in our history, without the stories we make about our life, without the defensiveness or delusions that we have built up to protect ourselves. Too often what we consciously or unconsciously use as “protection” can become a frame through which we view all of life; it is a distorted frame—a prison, actually. And in that prison it is very difficult to function from the heart or even to find the heart. By clearing the space in our mind, we open our life to appreciation of and confidence in whatever shows up.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation of “dead end” in 1886 referred to “a closed end of a water-pipe, passage, etc., through which there is no way.” Wikipedia notes that a contemporary use of a “dead end street” is to “calm vehicle traffic.” So what about dead ends and me—you?
“Everything is practice,” Norman Fischer writes in Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong:
It’s impossible to be lost. You are constantly being found, whether you know it or not. To practice this … is to know that no matter what is going on—no matter how distracted you think you are, no matter how much you feel like a terribly lazy individual who has completely lost track of her good intentions and is now hopelessly astray—even then you have the responsibility and the ability to take all negativity, bad circumstance, and difficulty and turn it into the path.
Hearing this, I can also hear another part of me balking, “whining” as Fischer cautions me against. Thay assures all of us in Creating True Peace that the Sangha “radiates a collective energy that can support us and make us strong. … ‘I take refuge in the Sangha’ is not a statement of faith,” Thay reminds us, “it is a practice. As a river, all the individual drops of water arrive together at the ocean.”
What is your experience of and practice with, your way through, dead ends and seeming impasses on the path of practice? How can we hold to our deepest convictions, yet remain open to the moment, the way, and life’s flow? How do we hold to our practice, find and stay on our path?
I look forward to our coming together and your sharings, and I hope you will join us Thursday evening.
Much appreciation, many smiles,