With a lot of bustling around, cardboard boxes, packing tape, cat carriers, excitement, trepidation, pouring rain, a rental truck, and incredible help from extended family, Devon, the baby, and I got ourselves moved up to Oakland last month, and are slowly settling into the new rhythms of our life here. Among the joys of the new situation is the fact that we’re living near our local Zen temple, so for the first time in many months I’m able to sit morning zazen one or two times a week, with others, in robes.
I’ve been struck by what a different experience that is than sitting mostly by myself, mostly in Western clothes, in my living room. Part of it, I think, is the importance of the group, of the other breathing bodies nearby. In the few moments I can grab these days in between the baby, unpacking, and work, I’ve been taking a look at David Abram’s book, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, and that’s helped me think about all of this in terms of animality, in terms of my embodied, sensory experience. Not just zazen, but a mammal’s zazen, with other mammals, in the zendo’s half-dark. Very different than a mammal by himself in an apartment somewhere. I’m really taken by Abram’s writings, and by his call to make our bodily experience central to our thinking about ourselves and our place in the world. Here’s a long passage from the introduction:
For too long we’ve closed ourselves to the participatory life of our senses, inured ourselves to the felt intelligence of our muscled flesh and its manifold solidarities. We’ve taken our primary truths from technologies that hold the world at a distance. Such tools can be mighty useful, and beneficial as well, as long as the insights that they yield are carried carefully back to the lived world, and placed in service to the more-than-human matrix of corporeal encounter and experience. But technology can also, and easily, be used as a way to avoid direct encounter, as a shield—etched with lines of code or cryptic jargon—to ward off whatever frightens, as a synthetic heaven or haven in which to hide out from the ambiguity of the real.
Only by welcoming uncertainty from the get-go can we acclimate ourselves to the shattering wonder that enfolds us. This animal body, for all its susceptibility and vertigo, remains the primary instrument of all our knowing, as the capricious earth remains our primary cosmos.
His first book The Spell of the Sensuous, which I read a few years ago, explores a lot of the same terrain, in equally vivid and interesting ways. I highly, highly recommend them both.
So, as I say, I’ve been reflecting on my experience of morning zazen in terms of animality, corporeality, the relationship of my living body to the living world. All wonderful and valid and rich. But then a few weeks ago, I saw this article in the New York Times and since then I’ve also been thinking of the importance of the robes, of what the body is draped in. Here are the article’s opening sentences:
If you wear a white coat that you believe belongs to a doctor, your ability to pay attention increases sharply. But if you wear the same white coat believing it belongs to a painter, you will show no such improvement.
So scientists report after studying a phenomenon they call enclothed cognition: the effects of clothing on cognitive processes.
It is not enough to see a doctor’s coat hanging in your doorway, said Adam D. Galinsky, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, who led the study. The effect occurs only if you actually wear the coat and know its symbolic meaning — that physicians tend to be careful, rigorous and good at paying attention.
Isn’t that wild? And doesn’t it follow that something similar must happen when we put our hands in gassho and put on something we know is called “the great robe of liberation?” If putting on a doctor’s coat makes us act like we think doctors do, does putting on the robe of Buddha make us act like we think Buddhas do? Does unfolding the rakusu and slipping it over our heads, or fumbling in the dark for the ties of the okesa, serve in some way to help us enter our practice in a different way? Experience differently? Act differently?
At the first shuso ceremony I ever attended, a friend told a story about a little kid dressed up as Batman. “Great Batman costume,” someone says.
“I’m not in a costume,” the kid says, puzzled. “I’m Batman.”