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Shambhala Sun | July 2010
You'll find this article on page 62 of the magazine.

I'm Loving It

Genine Lentine on how a McJob and her brother’s magic tricks led her to the zendo. Advisory: this piece contains adult language and partially unbuttoned fast food uniforms. 

What brings you here this morning?

This is the guiding question of the “way-seeking mind talk,” a talk students at the San Francisco Zen Center are invited to offer on Thursday mornings during intensive periods of study. On these mornings, the regular schedule of zazen and service is abbreviated so that a student may tell her story of how she got there—a twenty-five-minute slice of how she came to be sitting on a cushion in the Buddha hall at 6:45 a.m., speaking to a group of people sitting in zazen posture, their eyes lowered to a forty-five-degree angle.

These talks chronicle an arc of awareness, an unfolding portrait of a mind getting to know itself. They often single out specific traumatic events as turning points, recounting new permutations of what other human beings and circumstance can levy onto the self.  They are tales of extremity and moments of clarity, of hunches followed, of determined recommitment to life: an emergency tracheotomy on a premature infant, as recounted half a century later through that blessed, resealed trachea; an encounter with a person who sees something everyone else had missed; an offhand reference to a parent in prison, to suicide attempts. One after another, students explore the infinite ways a life cracks open and shines.

These accounts are registered by the assembly with extremely subtle facial responses, the kind Paul Ekman studies, the kind longtime meditators are said to be better than the average population at detecting. Faint variations that say, I’m here with you, or that was funny, or that was tragic, or that’s just like my life. An upturned corner of the mouth, delicate nostril flare, lift of the chin. Sometimes there’s outright laughter—relief at the prevailing nervous suspension—and, of course, much quiet sniffling.

A feeling of temporal dilation pervades the room, but still there’s a clear boundary. At 7:20, if the talk hasn’t already tapered off into, “Well, I think that’s about it,” or, “Does anyone else have a question?” a bell might ring to indicate the time. This audience was woken up by a different bell at 4:55 a.m., and they haven’t yet eaten breakfast.

When I gave my talk a couple years ago, I focused on a cascade of revelations brought about by a string of very thorny breakups, so-called losses, and strokes of fortune. Yes, they are indistinguishable. Mostly, I gave examples of how the world makes explicit offers framed almost exactly to the specifications of one’s barely registered needs, but usually the offering remains unrecognizable to the recipient. I illustrated this phenomenon by describing how one afternoon I set out on my bike down Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts, heading to the library to work at one of the spacious oak tables overlooking the harbor, and I almost rode right past a beautiful, perfectly proportioned maple writing desk a guest house had put out at the curb. I caught just in time the familiar flaw in the logic of my hurry: Too bad I can’t stop to pick up that table; I have to get to the library… so I can, uh, use the table there. I turned back to get the desk and right then a gardener appeared from the adjacent yard and asked if I’d like some help carrying it home.

With so many tiny moments when an acutely relevant lesson feels fully articulated and noticed in the nick of time, it’s impossible to include them all. I did not find time, for example, to speak of how, the very next day after I met Popeye—a beloved figure in Provincetown who collected aluminum cans, told fabulous stories, and marched at the front of the Fourth of July parade every summer—he suffered a fatal heart attack the morning before the parade. He was found in a porta-potty in full sailor regalia. I took his death personally, numbering it among all the other incidents that verified my theory that if I cared about someone, that person would disappear immediately.  But somehow this incident with Popeye, in its acute swiftness, helped me see the absurdity of my theory. And with the hairsbreadth of space that opened for me in relation to this person to whom I’d spoken only once, I was emboldened to entertain other, closer, losses with more space as well.

Time constraints require one to be selective, so no Popeye story—that will have to be saved for the director’s cut—but still, the expectation is that the talk is going to touch on all the key points. And so, for months after the talk, whenever I mentioned a new fact about my life to my friend Stephen, his face took on a wide-eyed, genuine disappointment, confusion, and shock: I can’t believe you left that out of your way-seeking mind talk! For him, the way-seeking mind talk is the primary point of reference, the hegemonic text for knowing anyone, as if you are supposed to include every pivotal incident, overshot gesture and course correction, relationship, and part-time job in your life.

Though I mentioned only briefly the profound and abundant gifts of working for six years with the poet Stanley Kunitz, Stephen remembers my talk as being very “heavy on Stanley” and yet considers grave the following omissions: (1) My brother is a magician. (2) My first job was as a hostess at McDonald’s.

ILLUSTRATION BY HILDE THOMPSON

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