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We have two sides of practice, like the left and right hand, or the left and right brain. One side, call it, “this side”, has the capacity to control, to think about, to rationalize, to choose. The “other side” is wild. It cannot be rationalized. My teacher, Dai-En Roshi, put it this way: “It’s like the difference between ‘push’ mode and ‘shove’ mode.” When we’re in “push” mode, we are calling the shots. When we are in “shove” mode we have no control over what’s going to happen. The “push” comes from us, but the “shove” comes from beyond. What do you say or do the moment after you fall from the horse and the moment before your face hits the dirt? This is shove mode. This is karma from a previous life, or this life, manifesting.
This side of practice requires an understanding and appreciation of the need for a well-functioning ego. We need to be able to discern what is good from what is bad. Here, everything is not one, and it would not be beneficial to see things as one. We need to learn to create good boundaries between ourselves and others.
On this side we can choose. We have a choice at any given moment what we will do and what we will not do. How do we decide? One way is to consider our energy level. How tired are we? Will doing “this thing” create more energy for me and everyone, or will it take away energy? Perhaps using rationality, bouncing ideas off of one another can be of benefit here. Looking at things from a logical angle may prevent disaster. Looking closely at the details of the Buddhist precepts can be of guidance here.
The easier hand to understand (from an intellectual perspective) is the one we have control over, the one we can flex, move, and pick objects up with. Understanding should not be confused with mastery… of anything. These are two separate things. We can “understand” a theory, for example, but have no idea of how to make it practical. We can understand a person, but we cannot control that person’s behavior, nor does understanding help us to deal with our explosive feelings in the moment (karma may be ripening). Practice is for us, not for someone else.
The more complex hand (the other side) looks like the 10,000 things coming all at once: a crying baby, a leaky window, a lawn full of weeds, a demanding spouse, pressure from the boss, an ignorance of facts that just keep multiplying, or the unpreparedness that we feel towards our future.
The other side sometimes appears to surround us in a million forms, so much so that we can’t take it all in, nor can we find our bearing. When the “other side” is not recognized, we generally shut down or close down our mind because we cannot take it all in. Yet we know there is something we are missing – even perhaps unconsciously. Our dreams may wake us up to what we’ve been shielding ourselves from… if we can remember our dreams.
When we are not shut down to the “other side”, we lose the capacity – even if just for a moment – to feel our feet touching the ground. We may appear to be swimming in a bottomless pit, water swirling around like solid thoughts on all sides, sometimes choking on ideas, other times floating above them.
When life rears its complex face, how do we practice? If we try to control the uncontrollable what happens? What if we let life, in those moments, take care of life? Do we have to control everything? What would happen if we just trusted the process, floating above the river of thought through relaxing muscles and taking deep breaths? What if our ego – that which holds on desperately to a separate identity – were to release its grip?
We spend a good chunk of our time on “this side,” so much so that we forget the other side. We forget the wildness, the death side, the side that says, “You are going to die. Everything you’ve worked for is going to burn, or is burning as we speak. Forget about what you love. It’s going to leave you if it has not left already. Forget about what you hate. It’s going to become your best friend. Forget about what is fair or unfair. The unfair is fair.”
Gassho – joined palms – was the first lesson my teacher gave me. She said it means, “the unity of opposites – up and down, high and low, left and right, black and white. When an astronaut is up in space she has no idea which way is up. You have to have a ‘down’ for there to be an ‘up’.” This gassho is the first thing we do, even before meditating. We gassho to our seat, representing our inner world, or our inner Enlightenment. We turn clockwise and gassho to the outer world, the Enlightenment that is all beings, even you.
These two hands or sides of the Dharma represent the aspect of reality that we can control and the aspect of reality that always remains out of reach and beyond our comprehension to either understand or control. On the “this side” is what the Buddha referred to as “The Middle Way,” (in its shallower meaning) or the way between the extremes of indulgence and asceticism. On the “other side”, the fearsome, uncontrollable and wild-ness of life is symbolized. Two hands coming together (gassho) – this side AND that side – is the symbol of awakening to the “not-two-ness” of reality. The expression of Enlightenment unfolds in the present moment. Whether we see it or not or are ready for it or not, the “twue” dragon manifests now.
Note: The word “twue” is my own compound of the words “True” and “Two.” I purposefully left dragon singular. The “True Dragon” is a reference to Zen Master Dogen’s, “Universal Instructions for Zazen.”