Zen & Despair: A Meditation

Zen & Despair: A Meditation January 7, 2022




About twice a month I visit an old ministerial colleague. He lives in an assisted living house across the Los Angeles metroplex from where we live, so about an hour’s drive away. More if we push close to LA’s rush hour.

He suffers from two things. One is macular degeneration, a disorder I particularly dread. But, worse he suffers from vascular Parkinson’s. It’s a nasty thing, the product of a cluster of strokes. It looks like Parkinson’s, where his motor skills are significantly compromised. Even worse it is extremely hard for him to communicate. Putting together sentences of more than three words is a struggle. And it can be hard for the listener to understand any of those words.

I’m not sure it’s relevant, but he was formerly a very successful large church interim minister. A fixer. Spiritually, he identified as a progressive Christian. I knew him in seminary. He taught a class on pre-Transcendentalist American Unitarianism. A subject I found enormously interesting. He was knowledgeable, opinionated, and while a bit disdainful of anything that had happened within the liberal religious movement since that interesting period which birthed American Unitarianism, he welcomed any well-articulated and defensible view into the discussion. I was grateful for what I learned as a factual matter, but more for the lively conversations out of which I felt challenged to understand my own progressive Buddhist views.

Life moved on. We each had our careers, and our spiritual lives. And our paths moved ever farther apart. It was simply the accident of proximity and a request from a mutual colleague that I drop in that has led to our ongoing visits.

Communication is a bear. But early on it became apparent he wanted me to serve as his “spiritual guide.” His term. Our visits had some checking in. He doesn’t have much different in his life from day to day, week to week. And, really, I don’t so much either. Although my life has a lot more stimulation of various sorts. Then, we’ve settled into my reading poetry to him. With pauses for some conversation. The hard part is I understand maybe twenty percent of what he says.

A consequence of this is the level of attention I feel I need to bring to our visits is intense.

This past visit he wanted to talk. I’d been encouraging him to take up the Jesus prayer. It’s simple, it can be tied to the breath, it is out of the tradition that has nourished him for his adult life. Every visit I would bring it into the conversation. And, as my part I’ve been doing the prayer on occasion most every day.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

None of the theology works for me. But. There is some deep aspiration that rides on the words which I’ve found leads easily to deeper silences. And which I’ve found does work for me. So, I was a bit taken aback when he told me the prayer doesn’t work for him. Then he said, “God doesn’t work for me.”

I did not expect this. And, of course, it can be taken a number of ways. At least some leading down a judgment road for me. Which, I am grateful to say, I only glanced at, but did not follow. What I head in this most of all is his despair.

Lots of pauses in our conversations.

And he pushed me to say something helpful to him. Him as he was. Is.

I admitted I only had the smallest of gifts for him. Pay attention. Let go.

It was clear this didn’t feel of much use to him. He pushed on the paying attention a bit. He pushed on the letting go, a bit.

The message he seemed to hear was its all meaningless.

I don’t feel I was able to say there is meaninglessness. It’s a real thing. It’s where he is right now. And I wouldn’t for the life of me deny his experience. But, and there is a but in this. But, meaninglessness can be noticed. And then it needs letting go of.

I didn’t want to go into how meaninglessness and meaning are words that dissolve in the face of the mystery. I did talk about that famous conversation between Arjuna and Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, and how Krishna reluctantly showed his complete self as the destroyer of worlds. He knew the story in the context of Robert Oppenheimer and the first explosion of an atomic bomb.

And for him in the moment, words. Just words.

And I felt ashamed.

He asked why I was there. A lot of thoughts flooded through me. I came because I was asked to do so. I felt a distant sense of relationship from the class, now more than a quarter of a century behind us. I felt some collegial obligation. But I stayed for other reasons, mostly. I’ve been returning because there’s something powerful in that room at the end of corridor in that assisted living facility.

He sits there, waiting. I’ve come to join in that waiting.

And, I’ve come with some things as gifts. My life of practice, for sure. Some insights, yes. But, mostly, I’ve come to join him in that waiting. Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Namu Amida Butsu. Not knowing. Not knowing.

I come into a sense of companionship on some mysterious journey we share.

And, so I said, I come because he’s my friend. I didn’t really know that until he asked. But, it’s true.

We sat together for another half hour. He pushed me on this paying attention and letting go. With difficulty, without being able to say words that were fully intelligible to me. But, with emotion. And desperation. He wasn’t at the edge of despair, he’d tumbled full into it. And it was hard for him to see anything going on through any other lens.

But, he’s also desperate enough that he is pushing to understand. What does pay attention mean? What does letting go mean?

Two things happened in that visit. His room is at the end of the building and at a corner. There’s a back yard to the facility with trees. And next door is a house, a home.

While we sat there, sometimes talking, less understanding, with a thread of silences, out of that a crow cawed. We both noticed. I talked a bit about how I loved how they always seem, to me, to be rebuking the hearer. Here I felt I was being called to pay attention. And to let go. My friend seemed mildly amused by my presumption of interpreting the crow’s call. And said, I believe, how he always has felt crows to be chiding, as well.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Namu Amida Butsu. Paying attention. Letting go. Empty. And full of so much.

Then, about forty minutes into our visit, children in the house next door seemed to have poured out into their back yard. What they were saying, or yelling at each other, wasn’t clear. Mostly it felt like exultation. Play.

An answer to prayers. Not an explanation. Rather an invitation. Pay attention. Let go. No meaning. Not meaningless.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Namu Amida Butsu. Pay attention. Let go.

The heavens and earth revealed. Not despair. Friendship. Intimacy.

Only this. Intimacy.

Just this.


Browse Our Archives