by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.
--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Our practice here can be called an art of losing. And when Bishop says its not hard to master shes saying something like dying is the easiest thing in the world. Anybody can do it. We all experience loss. But what does it mean to practice it or to master it?
The poem sort of ironically suggests that one can master impermanence or loss, somehow be immune to its effects, but ends with the impossibility of not experiencing the loss of love as a disaster.
So when we say that Buddhisms central truth is of the impermanence or emptiness of all things, what does it mean to practice with that or to master it? Inevitably, we I think all have some fantasy of imperviousness or detachment that we think we will acquire through this kind of practice. And as I said its not that that is completely impossible... the problem is that its almost possible. We can use practice to become more detached, more hardened. But in the end theres a brittleness to that kind of hardness and detachment. Like in this poem, its finally not sustainable.
Theres a sense in which practice exists in the tension between mastering and surrendering. The element of mastery comes from the side of practice that is about discipline, steadfastness, wholeheartedness, endurance, precision, meticulousness....and these are all very important and real aspects of our practice. And we cant bypass them if were going to create a real emotional container from which to experience the reality of our lives.
However, maybe particularly when were younger, we can get much more attracted to the mastery side of things... the sense of accomplishment or specialness that comes from being able to do something thats very difficult. The traditional forms of Zen are very difficult. And there can be an exhilaration, an elitism in feeling like were able to do what so many people cant.
But all practice, if its not just about becoming tougher, has to include elements of surrender. Surrender in the face of what cant be mastered and cant be controlled, both within ourselves and externally, in terms of what life brings to us. And part of the difficulty in sitting... part of the point of the difficulty is not that you learn to handle anything, but that you learn to stay with the reality of what you cant handle... a mind that wont calm down, a knee that wont stop hurting, a form or a ritual that just wont make sense...all the things that are arbitrary or uncontrollable that one just has to take as the reality of this moment, this body, this mind, this place, these people.
There are many ways in which traditionally we practice or are brought to the point of surrender, sometimes just by being pushed physically to a breaking point or a limit. We try to be a little more subtle these days, than just pushing you physically to a breaking point. But always theres that sense of having to come to terms with both whats uncontrollable and what doesnt fit our image of how we want to be or how we want practice to look.
In traditional Soto Zen much of what the form of surrender is is surrender to the form itself of the practice, to the ritual of practice, to the whole daily routine, form of monastic life, which wears out any notion of picking and choosing. One simply gives over to it. A long slow grindstone in which you wear out notions of control, self-interest, preference. Of course when you use that kind of grindstone, you can wear out a lot more than just ego, and theres a way in which too often in traditional forms resignation and compliance become the outcome rather than genuine surrender.
In Jokos formulation we say each moment life as it is the only teacher, and the way she taught practice was surrendering to life itself, to each moment. I think though that theres another element that we have to stay aware of and honest about, and that is the role of the teacher in the practice, in the practice of surrender. Theres something about this practice that has to be, I believe, personal. It cant be just giving yourself over to a form, or a discipline or to a way of life. Theres personal commitment involved, too. And its whats involved when I ask people to think about what it means to them to become my student. I leave that ambiguous and open-ended, precisely because it means so many different things to people... to accept another person as their teacher, and we need to see what comes up, whats evoked by that. And we can avoid it if we think about practice too abstractly or esoterically as something thats just about the inner state of consciousness you generate sitting on the cushion or the forms and rituals you follow in the sangha, and leave out that personal dimension of who is the teacher, whats my relationship to this person, and why?
When practice focuses too much on surrender to an individual, it becomes purely devotional. And when the surrender to the individual is in the foreground, I think then you have a guru, not a teacher. And some traditions can work within that, but Zen doesnt really have gurus. And surrender is not solely or exclusively to the person of the teacher. I mean theres an element, and we try to find this balance between master and surrender, personal and impersonal. Life is the teacher, Barry Magid is the teacher. In some ways its much easier to accept life as your only teacher. In some ways its much easier to have Barry as the teacher. Life wont sit and listen to you for very long. At least you can come down and talk to me. Ill pay attention. Each has its pluses and minuses.
This poem I think speaks very much to the heart of what we do here, what we have to come to terms with, what do we think we learn, what is it that we think we master.