Get Unstuck

It's Friday morning; I have 50 midterms to grade, a book to read, two Japanese tests to study for, and a Chinese Buddhist story to translate, so that must mean it's time to write a blog!

My blog has been slowing, slowing down in the last eight months and a large part of that has been adjusting to being in America. What do I have to say about Zen practice in this country-- a country in which we have deemed Japanese monastic forms unnecessary? Then I fell head long into Serious Relationship Land and this has complicated my own understanding of my practice even more. For so long I thought that true practice meant living in a monastery, or at least, living in poverty while dedicating my life to the Way. It meant not having things, it meant being alone.

And what of those ideals now? I'm sitting on a comfy couch as I write this. I'm drinking coffee. The air conditioner is going and an air purifier is going and my partner is on a conference call. I have a refrigerator chocked full of food, not one but two coffee makers, and a big, soft bed. I go to school in the morning, teach and take classes, and earn money. What do I have to say about Zen practice now? What do my monastic training and my fancy robes have to do with any of this?

And then there is my partner. He is such a huge part of my life now. He is beautiful; he paints his nails, cleans, is a feminist, and says adorable things like how his teacher supports him being in "relationship practice." The term "relationship practice" makes me giggle, because I am a cyborg designed and created by the Japanese to destroy American buddhism. I learned about feelings from a programming manual.

Part of me thinks that "relationship practice" is an incredibly stupid concept. Part of my thinks that we Americans have simply rejected a celibate tradition because it's too hard and not fun enough, re-branded it, and made it our own thing without understanding what we've given up. As a priest-- but mostly as a person who has made watching my own mind the focus of my life-- romantic relationships are tricky because they are so clearly a nest of mutual delusion. A romantic relationship is a collaborative delusion with someone else in which you encourage the other person to think that you will, can, or should make them happy, and vice versa. Even if your relationship is more subtle and nuanced than this, the hidden subtext is that you expect the other person to make you happy, or at least less unhappy.

All of the arguments in relationships come down to perceived broken covenant of stimulation and happiness: you have failed to make me happy. You didn't wash the dishes (and made me unhappy); you don't give me the right kind of orgasms (and this didn't make me happy); you don't do your share taking care of the kids (and this didn't make me happy); I don't want to meet your family (because this won't make me happy); you have cheated on me (and this made unhappy).

Instead of acknowledging this delusion, we fool ourselves into thinking that "relationship practice" is some special thing that is different than "monastic practice." It is a special, magical, psychological land where we learn to negotiate boundaries and speak our truths and see and be seen. Or something. I don't know, I am a cyborg invented by the Japanese! I obviously can't agree that a "relationship practice" like this is valid form of practice. The problem with this line of thinking is that soon you have "women's practice" and "men's practice," "American practice" and "Japanese practice," which flies in the face of truth being the same everywhere.

But, since as a cyborg I am still half human, I can't reject relationship outright either. Every now and again something will happen in my home life, and my heart/mind will hurt and stretch in the same way it did back in Japan, when I was in a convent pushed to my limits. In relationship, I am still pushed to my limits and then my heart grows in response. Maybe I am fooling myself but I think or hope that the basics of monastic training are applicable here too-- the basics of monastic training meaning doing work, not fighting with others, watching your mind, letting go of ideas. Being like water.

An example: the other day I was lying in bed after a long day at school, and my partner came in to do his weekly therapy appointment on skype. I was tired and wanted attention, and asked if I could stay in the bed while he had his skype conversation. He said no. Because boundaries. I got grumpy and left in a huff. In that moment, though, I could see my mind having two contradictory reactions. One was simple anger/ disappointment/ sadness at not getting affection and getting displaced. It was a pure, infantile reaction. I don't mean infantile in a bad way. I mean it more like "simple" and "human."

But the other reaction in my brain was, "Claire [I always use my birth name when I talk to myself], it's not so hard to just move to the other room. He has this appointment every week. You know about it. It's totally fair for him to want to talk to his therapist in privacy. Your anger won't help you right now."

I've started to think concepts and emotions are like a sheets of stickers. We think life is one way until we can peel it apart and see that the thought was just a sticker stuck to a sheet. The problem is, I don't think we ever throw away the stickers completely. I've been around enough "enlightened" people to know that stickers are infinite. But, we can peel apart our mind and look at where we are stuck and hopefully it's a funny looking sticker. In that moment, I could see both reactions happening at the same time. And once I'd peeled them off like stickers I chose the sticker I liked the best, which was the sticker where I went to the other room and wasn't angry.

Another example. My partner does a lot for me; he cleans up after me, he shops, he pays more bills. He makes me coffee every morning. When we moved into this apartment I bought a coffee maker with a timer, and every evening he fills it with coffee and presses the right buttons so it will be ready for me in the morning. He doesn't drink coffee. It's for me. On the weekends he programs it an hour later because I sleep in. I never asked him to do this. It is out of the kindness of his heart, because he knows I need coffee and wants to make it for me.

A week or so after moving in together, he asked me if I could please empty the coffee filter every day so that it's easier for him to set up in the evening. I reacted to this badly. WHO ARE YOU TO TELL ME TO EMPTY MY OWN COFFEE MAKER WHEN YOU DON'T EVEN DRINK COFFEE was the gist of it. My argument was, why should I clean up the coffee maker on his schedule when I never asked him to make me coffee in the first place? The argument got so heated that I told him to stop making me coffee all together. "Fine!" he snapped. And yet every evening he continued to clean out the coffee maker and set the timer.

I existed in the self-righteousness of this for about two months. But thankfully, in the last week or so I realized that showing him I love him was more important than being "right"-- that emptying the coffee filter was a small, easy thing to do that helped him know I love and am thinking about him. Again, I could see these two contradictory things floating around my brain: the belief that I was "right," and the understanding that showing him that I love him was more important. Perhaps there was a third piece in there as well of noticing that I was stuck and wanting to be un-stuck.

For the last week, I've been trying to remember to empty the coffee filter. These are the small victories of relationship, of practice, and of life: remembering to empty the damn coffee filter because the person you love asked you to. We change but in the smallest, minutest ways, and even those tiny sacrifices feel monumental.

We fear sacrifice so much because even the tiniest one feels like giving up our whole self. It feels impossible until it doesn't, until it's not. Until we can peel apart the layers of thought and see what's there, and then, for a brief, brief moment, get unstuck.


  1. so you're no longer poor, in a relationship, in america, and not in a monastery

    quite different then even a couple years ago eh !

  2. Stickers are numberless, I vow to free them
    Stickers are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them...
    -A relationship is boundless, I vow to perceive it.
    We will wake up and embody it.
    May this partnership blow your heart/mind. I get the feeling you can handle this! And thanks again, for your heart felt words.

  3. Thank you for continuing to blog, your writing always feels like it's straight from the heart.

    I decided when I was in my thirties that romance was like grace, bestowed by providence, not a thing that I could make happen. At the same time, it seemed to me that romance could blossom out of friendship, and I could always aim to be a friend.

    Where's my love-life now? On hold; waiting. I sit with "making self-surrender the object of thought", and the recognition that what lies outside the senses is as much a part of my posture as what lies within. I look for happiness, because it's the only way this child is going to learn to sit up straight, and know the moment of romance with the friend who has touched my heart.

  4. great post. make sure to descale that coffee maker once per month, just fill up tank with whie vinegar (no beans of course) and brew full pot, followed by 2 more with just water to get any vinegar taste out. otherwisw coffee makers get moldy and nasty


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