Saturday, March 28, 2020

Sent March 20: Not knowing is Most Intimate

But two nights ago, I woke up with muscle spasms in the middle of the night. Not a big spasm. Just a slight involuntary clenching of all my muscles about every two minutes. I carefully concentrated, so I could catch one as it began and relax my body. Then, the spasms disappeared.

I lay there awake, thinking. And for the first time since the crisis started, I wanted someone in bed with me. (Yes, Nikki would be delighted to comply, but he's a big dirty dog and then the bed gets gritty and I don't sleep well on grit.) I wanted someone to hold, someone to hold me. I was lonely.

Loneliness has been my biggest emotional problem for a long time.
But this loneliness was different. There was no tragedy, no self-pity, no "Why me?" There was no inner bewailing, "Oh no, how could this be happening to ME, I never expected to be alone now! IT"S NOT FAIR!" This loneliness was gentler, softer. This loneliness had no baggage. It was just... loneliness. I cried a little. But I felt no distress or drama. And when I thought about the people I love who DO have someone to hold and be held by... I was GLAD for them. I didn't feel envious or distant. I felt connected to them by my gladness -- which is called sympathetic joy in Buddhism.

I think everything -- the muscle spasms, the emotional change -- was a response to a dharma talk given by Norman Fischer that night, live over the internet. Another teacher was scheduled for the time slot. But because of the crisis, that teacher asked Norman, one of the most respected Zen Buddhist teachers in the country, to share his thoughts.

Norman did not offer comfort. He said the things we all fear -- that the way we have been living might be coming to an end, that the coronavirus has come at a time when we are ALREADY in an intense crisis politically, economically and environmentally. He reminded us practitioners that, while we say "Nothing is permanent," and think we really accept it -- yet suddenly so many aspects of our lives so basic that we never questioned them -- are all in question. So we weren't really anywhere near as enlightened as we might have thought.

He talked about an important Buddhist concept: Not Knowing. That is something we all are facing now. We truly do not know whether we will live or die in the near future, whether our civilization will survive, or even whether it's safe to turn a doorknob or open a letter we received. He quoted a famous Zen saying: "Not knowing is most intimate." He said it several times, and it has continued to resonate with me.

It is true that I am never in the same room with anyone other than the pups. And yet, my relations with people have become more intimate. My neighbors, who were away, phoned me to ask that I check on some packages being delivered and put them in their house. (Much hand-washing followed.) After living next door to each other for decades, for the first time my neighbors and I had an intimate conversation on the phone. It felt so good. I'm phoning my friends just to check up on them -- especially the ones who are single like me. Suddenly, their well-being is important to me, and I'm reaching out. Others are reaching out to me. I'm meeting online with Carolyn and others to pursue our writing and projects. In these meetings, I feel a warmth that I've never felt before.

And that is because we all know now that we don't know. The assumptions of what the future holds have been stripped away. Our ability to physically touch or be present in the same space has been stripped away. But that has only thrown into relief how very important and special our connections are with each other. I feel the warmth of others' love for me in a way that I didn't feel it before. And I feel my own love for others in a deeper, more flowing way -- not as anything grand or special, but just there -- as I felt my loneliness in the middle of the night. I was being intimate with myself at that moment, lying there, just being lonely, just feeling whatever it was without exaggerating or minimizing anything.

I agree: Not knowing is most intimate.

And I'm an intimacy junkie. So I'm enjoying that aspect of these times.

Here is a link to a video Norman Fischer's talk. There are a lot of irritating squeaks from the sound system in the first half, but they do disappear. I found what he says profoundly moving:

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