Destabilizing Self

Lost and found in Crestone

By John Jennings


I’m John, I’m from Georgia and I like art. This summer I woke up at 4:30 a.m. every day for four weeks to meditate and work at the Crestone Mountain Zen Center. And I liked it. I liked it because practicing meditation isn’t the same as talking about it. Talking about things lends itself to thinking of them as separate and concrete, and I’m not (completely) of that opinion just as I’m also not only into art. While that’s how people identified me in high school, having that concrete persona of “me” as “artist” mediated and limited who I was. Thinking of myself strictly in terms of art restricted my opportunities, conversations, and thoughts. Thinking of myself in terms of “I” can do similar things. In this way, I spent my summer trying to forget myself so that I may better know myself.

The use of language forces us to think of the world as subject, object, verb, etc. When I eat lunch, “I” is separate from “lunch.” Of course, language is useful, but it is also is limiting. In perceiving and thinking about “lunch,” I’m not paying attention to the world around me; by focusing on one thing, I lose sight of everything else. As Shunryu Suzuki says in “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” “If your mind is related to something outside itself, that mind is a small mind, a limited mind.” I’ve found this to be true when I’m thinking about that existential “I.” I objectify myself into a particular entity.

Every day in Crestone I woke up to the sound of someone running around the grounds ringing a bell. By 5 a.m. I was in the zendo (sitting hall) on my zafu (sitting coushion). We would sit for 40 minutes, walk around the zendo, and then sit for another 30 minutes. Afterward there was service which consisted of a bowing and chanting practice. Everything we did was supposed to be practice. The intention was to be mindful in one’s daily life and not just leave the practice on the zafu. 

Sensing the breath enter through my nose, down my windpipe and into my chest, I notice the soft rolling quality it has. I straighten my back again with the exhale and try to keep both my posture and breath in mind with the next inhale. I relax my face and eyes, trying to let them naturally open or close, with my focus resting on the glowing wall before me. As the rising sun begins to lighten the wall, the temperature inside the zendo rises. Without the night chill, the blanket of air around me grows warm. A bead of sweat forms on my back. It itches. I know I’m not supposed to move; it’s not necessary for me to move. I’ve sat for over 20 minutes with my leg asleep and been just fine. But I want to scratch the living hell out of my back. As the minutes pass, this meaningless circular debate consumes my mind, despite that initial intention to focus on my breath. 

The opposite of seeing myself as a solitary “I” that is pissed off at a bead of sweat is seeing the bead of sweat and the rest of the world in terms of connectedness and unity. I’m not going to belabor this point, though, because it is not what Buddhism teaches. Suzuki says, “Our body and mind are not two and not one ... Our body and mind are both two and one. We usually think that if something is not one, it is more than one; if it is not singular, it is plural. But in actual experience, our life is not only plural, but also singular. Each one of us is both dependent and independent.” This is the teaching of the middle way. Buddhism is about neither overindulgence of a separate “I” nor an asceticism where the “I” is completely ignored—accepting this brings one to practice. Finding truth in both of these seemingly mutually exclusive ideas means that I shouldn’t extend my thought beyond this very moment, but instead dwell in it, find out what it means for “me” to be “here.” 

As a work student, I participated in the same daily activities as those who lived there, but because it was the busy guest season, we sat less and worked more —most days I would leave the zendo before service to help with breakfast. After breakfast, there was a short break before the work meeting where we were assigned our tasks before lunch. As a visitor, my work included cooking, weeding, mowing, cleaning rooms, and washing windows. After lunch we had a few hours to ourselves before the next work meeting where we were assigned similar tasks before dinner. After washing the last dishes and bowing out of the kitchen, I was free to sit in the zendo, read something from the library, or go pass out in my tent—I usually chose the latter—before I would wake up to the sound of the bell that started the next day. 

While this was the basic daily routine, much more also happened. We had days off, dharma talks and discussions, an induction ceremony one weekend and plenty of conversation about zen, meditating and people’s lives. Though there were defined schedules and practices, the sangha (Buddhist community) had its own particular feel because of the particular individuals and place. I’m glad I stayed long enough to settle into the daily routine and find my place in the community there. The question that now remains is how I will settle back into the daily routine at CC.

I have sat almost every morning so far, but I have also noticed a significant difference when I sit in my room in Synergy rather than in the zendo. After sitting for a while, I get that same itch again, but instead of just being aware of it and sitting through it, I immediately scratch it. I move, I adjust, I check my alarm and see that there are only two minutes left. I’m anxious about class, I have homework to do and I have a social life to figure out. There are many more things to remember here than when I was in Crestone. I’m preoccupied with all I need to do and consequently lose sight of the here and now, but I intend to keep practicing and find something that works for me. There is the Springs Mountain Sangha that meets in Shove on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, David Gardiner’s BodhiMind Center that meets on Tuesdays at the Women’s Club, or the (relative) quiet of the early morning in my room. Regardless, I need to stop writing this article that contradicts most everything I am trying to convey by putting forth a concrete ideology and be present in this moment of now.