The practice I want and the practice I have

Some amazing changes have taken place in my life in these last few months, which has meant little or no time to think about writing anything up for this blog.  I’m grateful to Jiryu for the steady stream of pieces he’s been posting while I’ve been more or less incommunicado, and wanted to at least share a bit of an update.

First, on December 7, my wife Devon gave birth to our son Gabriel James Rutschman Miller.  I’m not sure what to say about the birth.  There was something shamanic about it, those long hours of fear and pain and blood.  The staff at the birthing center let us keep the lights off in the room, and in the darkness it felt like we were in a cave, like we had been transported to some ancient and vivid realm.  The nurses came in and out of the room carrying flashlights, these little hand-held streams of light bobbing up and down.  Gabriel was born in the very early morning, and screamed his head off and flung his arms around and climbed up Devon’s chest to snuggle in.  He has a ton of dark hair, bright eyes.  My heart is blown wide open.

And then, about six weeks into the glorious, terrifying, exhausting, gorgeous upheaval of this new life with the baby, another piece of news—my mother-in-law Rebeccah, with whom we’ve lived since we returned to California last June, has discovered cancer in her bones.  Tests and procedures—a surgical biopsy, blood tests, a bone scan.  A few nights in the hospital last week.  We are still waiting to hear the exact diagnosis, and the treatment options, but in the meantime we’ve rearranged the entire house—moved her things downstairs into our room, and moved all of ours up into hers—to try to adapt to her new limited mobility.

My practice these days has a different shape than it has at other times in my life, and a different shape than the practice I imagine when I close my eyes and see what comes to mind when I say the word “practice.”  Not much zazen;  not many ceremonies;  not much Dharma study.  I’ve gone over a month without an occasion to put on the okesa.  Instead, I get up early and commute a long ways to work—I’m a grief counselor in hospice—and come back home to my scared and brave household try to figure out how to be a husband and a father and a son-in-law in this particular situation.  Generous friends come by with food.  We are all very tired.

Not necessarily the practice I want, the one I would have chosen—but the practice I have.

“What is Buddha?” Hui Ch’ao asks in Case 7 of the Blue Cliff Record.

“You are Hui Ch’ao,” Fa-yen says.

Not the practice I want, but the practice I have.  Not the life I might want, but the life that arises.  Not the world that’s the most convenient for us, for any of us, but the world that is.

Now my son is having belly trouble—his stomach cramps up from time to time and he shrieks and thrashes and his little face turns red.  Devon’s adjusted her diet considerably, but so far it hasn’t seemed to make a huge difference.  A lot of the time he’s doing great, cooing and smiling, but late at night his stomach can start to bother him.  When that happens I sometimes put him in a baby carrier against my chest and go for a walk up and down the block.  The cool night air seems to soothe him—I zip my sweatshirt up around his legs.  Once he’s asleep, I recite sutras as I walk, or say the refuges over and over again, or just let my mind drift from concern to concern—work, money, Rebeccah, Gabriel.  I feel my feet on the sidewalk through my thin slippers, the baby breathing against me.  It’s our kinhin.


5 thoughts on “The practice I want and the practice I have

  1. Such clear-eyed writing of the way life is is a total gift. Thank you, Dave. And as for the way life is, Suzuki Roshi — according to Mel — said: “Buddha is an obstacle.” Mel’s comment to me on this was, “If you don’t have an obstacle, you don’t have much of a practice.” It appears you’ve got a good one. Onward.

  2. Sending you (singular and plural) so much love. Your situation sounds so difficult and so alive. I am filled with tenderness, awe, appreciation for your presence and your practice.

  3. I’m reminded of the original TV series “The Prisoner”. A retired spy wakes up in a strange village from which there appears to be no escape. The series wraps itself around his identity, his escape attempts and identifying who is in charge, who is keeping him prisoner. In the final episode we seem to find out that he is in charge and he makes himself a prisoner.

    There is a repeating dialog in the series (between six – the prisoner – and two)
    6: “Who is number one?”
    2: “YOU are number six!”
    6: “I’m NOT A NUMBER, I’m a FREE MAN.”
    2: [laughs manically]

    The essence of the series was captured loosley by the iron maiden song:

    The recent US remake removed everything they didn’t understand so they just kept the title!

    Yesterday after work and a really really long commute I wondered just who the hell I was and what the hell I was doing. Why do I give a shit about some things and some people? It seems to make no rational sense? It seems like there should be some magical easier choices that I could take.

    It felt like yesterday I was shown who I was. I’d forgotten, caught up in my own narrative of who I thought I was. Caught up in the narrative of who others thought I should be. But then I thought about my actions, choices and things I’ve been through. How would I describe such a person, who would I think they were?

    The Tarot Card “The Devil” shows two peope apparenly trapped in the devil’s chains. But if you look carefully at the picture (rider-waite or marseilles deck) you will see that the chains are very loose and would easily fit over the heads of the prisoners – so they are trapped because they don’t know or cannot see there is another choice.

    Maybe I can neve know who I am or what is right for my life or what is possible. I can see what choices I make over time, money and love. I can look for clues. I can see what fulfills me.

    The Pink Floyd song “Wish you were here” includes the lyics “So you think you can tell, heaven from hell”. Can we really?

    Who am I?
    Can I ever know?
    Is my life empty and pointless?
    Is it rich and fulfilling?

    Today the sun is shining and I will go and do some things. My choices. My idea of what feels right for today at this point in time. Are those choices freely made? Is it destiny? Am I a passenger?

    It’s time to go.

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