Living close to my own life

Book of Serenity #20: Dizang’s Nearness

Dizang asked Fayan, “Where are you going?”
Fayan said, “Around on pilgrimage.”
Dizang said, “What is the purpose of pilgrimage?”
Fayan said, “I don’t know.”
Dizang said, “Not knowing is nearest.”

I wrote in my previous post of an experience, early in my introductory training for chaplaincy, that gave me space to act, spiritually and meaningfully. That all happened sometime late in the fall of 2010. Within a month of that experience, I was seriously researching seminary programs; within two months, I had applied. Before the year-long chaplaincy training program had ended in June, I was accepted to Union Theological Seminary and I had given notice at my job. Within a year, I was studying theology, Bible, and depth psychology. It was a heady and challenging and rich time and in retrospect I wouldn’t exchange it for any amount of money. Cross-reference: the pearl of great price.

When I think back to then, just over seven years ago now, it’s surprising how quickly it all happened. However, once I had realized the fundamental shift, once I had found the crack in my own resistance and self-doubt, and could see something else for my life on the other side of it, doing the rest was just a matter of course. It took effort and energy and was sometimes difficult —  filling out paperwork, paying application fees, visiting campus, figuring out how to make the money stuff work, etc. — but I think of it this way: the change had already been accomplished. Whatever seminary and pastoral study was for me, I was already in it, and needed only to find a setting where the outer reality matched the prior inner condition. Whatever Union was, I was shown that the decision to go there had already been made.

I knew this, but it was hard to communicate. Leaving my career and livelihood, pursuing a path that had no precedent in my life or anyone else that I knew, among colleagues or friends or family — it was hard to say exactly why I was going to study. Even if I had the language, I wonder if saying, “I need to find a setting where my outer reality matches my inner condition,” would have satisfied anyone’s curiosity or concern.

The responses to “I’m going to seminary,” ran the gamut. My IT coworkers assumed I was going to become a monk. My parents were vocally concerned about how the cost and debt might limit my freedom. You might be surprised to find that seminary is not high on those annoying grad school ROI lists. My friends, with whom I had been most frank about the changes in my spiritual life and ethic, were supportive and encouraging, and asked good questions which I could not easily answer. These were mostly different versions of: what are you going to do with it?

Great question. It created some tension in me, and to hold the space I often said that I was planning on becoming a chaplain after I graduated. I said it enough that I started to believe it. But if anyone had pressed me on it, I would have said — no, probably not. Chaplaincy had brought the fundamental question of my life out into the open, but my sense even then was that chaplaincy itself wouldn’t take me further than that.

In the meantime, which is where we live our lives, it was a good story, in that it was coherent. It went like this:

“When I left teaching to work in IT, I suddenly found myself with something like a 9-5 job and a lot of extra emotional energy that I was no longer expending on the vicissitudes of teaching math to the Youth of America. It was then that I found a rewarding and meaningful meditation practice, and through it I was introduced to a way to manifest that meaning in my day-to-day life: chaplaincy. So I’m going to study theology and psychology so I can become a chaplain.”

Perfectly coherent! Just not really true in the last part. Its merit was that it made more sense than:

“Paul (yes, that Paul) told me that meditation is okay so now I want to think more about that.”

How spiritual! Its merit is that it is descriptive and accurate — but, alas, not compelling unless you are of a particular mindset.

This makes me think of the koan I quoted above, because in retrospect, I think I could have responded to “what are you going to do” with what Fayan says:

“I don’t know.”

This works on levels that I couldn’t express at the time, though I was experiencing them intimately. Of course, there was the element of literally not knowing what was going to happen when I left my job and studied theology. But it is not a small not knowing, like not knowing when the train will come or what’s for dinner tonight. It’s not, “I dunno.”

The not-knowing I was experiencing then was like the experience when you’re walking through the city, and can’t see very far because of the buildings or the contour of the land, but then you turn a corner or come to a little rise, and suddenly you can see the whole at once. You see this vast expanse of people and buildings and streets, in the bowl of a valley, or down miles and miles of a broad avenue, or in some huge open space or park, and suddenly you see the largeness of what you’re in. You behold thousands of lives, interwoven and in motion together. The sky and the earth are broad and incomparable. You have, in a moment: perspective, possibility, and openness.

And if in the moment you see this, someone says, “where exactly will you go in all that,” or, “where’s the nearest subway station,” or, “think there’s a Starbucks with a bathroom somewhere over here?” you might answer with a little smile: I don’t know.

This, as Dizang says, is nearest. Other translations of this koan have Dizang say, “not knowing is closer to the truth,” or “not knowing is most intimate”. As I look back, all of these capture the sense of wonder, the simmering anxiety/excitement, and the sense of being truly close to my own life, more so than I had ever been, in that time.

If you can find a pilgrimage to go on, I recommend it. It was important for me to live not knowing, so I could start learning what was up.

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