Paul made me a Buddhist

I was reading about the apostle Paul over the holiday, and thinking of his participation in a turning point in my life.

Early in my Buddhist practice I was volunteering as a chaplain-in-training in hospice care, under the guidance of Zen monks. Born a Catholic and uneasy about that tradition’s claim on me, I had found a new and liberating energy in the practice of sitting meditation, an energy that brought me to this chaplaincy training program. I recognized that the urgency of being near death lent my patients clarity, and thought that that clarity would help resolve the question of my life.

This was a misunderstanding, of course. Being with the urgency of dying (which is the same as the urgency of living) doesn’t resolve anything. Only humans can resolve, can make resolutions — but in matters that deserve resolutions, it’s only after struggle, with others and with ourselves. The urgency of life and death, when fully realized, clears a space for conflicting forces within one’s self to come to the fore. The struggle that results when we can no longer hide from this internal tension is, to paraphrase biblical scholar Phyllis Trible, a struggle we have to endure until it blesses us.

So chaplaincy work, which I was sure would speak to me about my life in a new way, actually returned me to exactly the same question of my life, the one that brought me to Church and made me leave Church, the one that made me sit and brought me back to Church, and the one that had me sweating while meditating at home one day a few months into my chaplaincy training.

For a some weeks I had been working with a patient, an older Japanese man that I’ll call Stephen. I characterize him now as a charismatic Christian without a church, a man filled with adoration, despair, insight, loneliness — and cancer. He had a tumor the size of an orange on the side of his throat, that he covered with a napkin that slowly saturated with blood when I visited with him. He had an affection for me but also identified my Buiddhist practice as a smoke-and-mirrors seduction whose architect was the Devil. While I obviously didn’t engage him in these claims, I was hopelessly green and couldn’t move our focus back to him. Further, our visits bothered me well after I left him, and in the words of one of my fellow trainees, I allowed him to completely drape his worldview over me. I never would have done such a thing if it didn’t find something to catch on my own view of myself, some crack in my armor, a jagged edge where a projection like his could find some purchase.

What Stephen had found in me, in his suffering and through his significant spiritual insight, was my own doubt and guilt about my own practice. And as good teachers do, he called me on it. Of course, he was not actually my teacher and his assessment was actually a projection, a part of his process of dying slowly and painfully, which arose great doubt and fear in him. However, my work as a chaplain would require me to recognize my own struggle so I could more effectively sit with him in his.

So there I was, at home, meditating, sitting with my own struggle. My doubt was: am I allowed to meditate? Is this a thing that’s okay with God if God exists? You know you’ve reached the question of your life when you keep asking yourself a question that is so completely ridiculous when you think about it objectively, but it will just not leave you alone. It’s because the question itself is just a cover for a subjective reality that has not yet found a fitting expression. I was gripped by this reality but didn’t have the words to confront it consciously, so I struggled with what I had on hand: my sitting practice itself.

Even though meditation had given me new life, I was filled with guilt that it was somehow wrong. And the root subjective experience I had was in fact a feeling that I was wrong: me, sitting there in my me-ness, was wrong. So this was not guilt but shame, more existential and transcendent, that I tried to control by transferring it onto my new spiritual practice. It had been brewing for a while and Stephen gave it the external circumstances to raise it up such that I couldn’t ignore it.

My experience in that moment was: I could not sit. It’s really incredible to write, but that’s exactly what it was. Sitting on a cushion in kneeling position, eyes cast slightly downward, counting my breath, I was so overwhelmed with a feeling of despair and restlessness and doubt that I just couldn’t go on with meditation. I experienced the feelings as a fretting narrative of doubt: What if I’m wrong about all of this? What if sitting it not what I’m supposed to be doing? How can I know what I’m supposed to be doing? Will I be punished for doing things the wrong way? How can this be? What am I supposed to do?

Over and over, this story repeated itself. I couldn’t count my breath to one. I could hardly stay still. The tension became so great that I stopped the meditation. I looked up and thought, what the hell is going on? what is wrong with me? I had found such support in my life from meditation, but what happens when I create a barrier for myself, blocking me from my practice? I was bereft by an opponent sitting exactly in my own shadow, in my own psyche, in my own being. I didn’t know the arc of the struggle, that it was in fact a struggle I was in — as far as I knew, I had just concluded that I couldn’t sit and breathe anymore.

I looked around, despairing. To my left was a small bookcase, and I reached for a book with a big ol’ crucifix on the side of it, John Richard Neuhaus’ Death on a Friday Afternoon. I opened to a random page and found Neuhaus quoting the words of Paul, directed to the Corinthians:

“But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God.”

Neuhaus names this as the “foundation of a Christian’s freedom,” as opposed to a source of “paralyzing insecurity,” like what I was experiencing right at that moment.

Reading this cracked my anxiety wide open. At one time, it both absolved me of my relentless self-doubt and recrimination, and it gave a transcedent value to the “purposes of the heart,” my longing to be free and live my own life. Naming this desire, and recognizing the small self-concern that obstructed rather than assisted it, allowed me to trust my own expereince, and my own agency in finding the way to that freedom. “I don’t even judge myself!” I think of this now as, being able to trust my own experience as a guide to the purpose of my heart. This spoke exactly to what I had heard as the teachings of the Buddha: be your own lamp.

This did not answer the question once and for all, but it was a pivotal turning point in my Buddhist practice, and my vocation: it gave me space to act. I was, on some fundamental level, in a way that I had not been before, okay. This was both a place to stand, finally, but also a dynamic force — the purposes of the heart are always changing with the world, and keeping close to them provides a kind of motivating energy that prompted the huge external changes in my life: to continue to practice meditation and to serve as chaplain, to go to seminary, to take my Buddhist vows, to be more vulnerable and trusting with others than I ever had before.

One day I’ll have to write more about the irony of Paul making me more Buddhist than ever, and the nature of conversion, or rather, call. And also the irony that I had this very Augustinian call experience without ever having read his Confessions. Seriously. When I finally read it I said, oh shoot.

This makes me think about shame and guilt, and about New Year’s resolutions as well: specifically, my commitment to write more in the New Year. They’re all related. Looking forward to what comes around, even as the news in early 2018 sounds a lot like the news in late 2017: it all looks bad. Thank God for practice, and good books, and friends and loved ones, in the New Year.

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