The energy hose

It’s not difficult to imagine the Zen center’s main sanctuary as an old-timey classroom like the kind in Little House on the Prairie where kids of all ages sit together. At one end, where a chalkboard might have hung, sits a simple wood altar with a statue of Buddha. The school desks have been swapped for cushions, offering occupants a shift in perspective, one in which the windows on both sides look exceptionally tall and the ceiling far away. The floor seems to stretch endlessly and must be from an ancient Red Wood tree because it glows a rich rosy patina.

Today will be the longest I’ve sat in meditation at one time, though the hours will be broken up by periods of walking. What’s in store is nothing compared to the agenda of some retreats, which can go on for days but, for me, today is a challenge because I’ve never spent so much time cross-legged as I have these last couple of weeks. You wouldn’t think sitting could be so physically demanding, but doing it with nothing to lean against requires a surprising amount of strength in the muscles of your back and belly. I’ve realized this the hard way—by discovering my core is extremely achy. By the end of the first hour of the retreat, I’m eager for the part where we get up and move around the perimeter of the room in a line.

In the middle of the second hour, my spine droops and I begin to question whether I can sit upright for much longer. An older woman across from me has dragged a folding chair to her spot and I consider doing the same. The discomfort becomes so acute that I even think about getting up and leaving—just walking out the door and not looking back. Forget trying to watch my thoughts, I’m just struggling to stay seated; I’m barely holding on, inching from one painful second to the next. Then I remember a tip the Zen master told us in the meditation instruction a few days earlier. He said when your energy flags, sometimes it’s helpful to imagine a hose—a big one like the kind firefighters use—going into your stomach. He explained that this shouldn’t be too difficult if our arms are in the traditional stance with the tips of our thumb and fingers of one hand lightly touching the tips of the thumb and fingers on the other; this forms a loose circle that rests just below the belly button. He told us to picture this as a feeding tube of sorts, one that can nourish us with energy from the universe. In my moment of desperation, I try it. I imagine it like a pipe pumping fuel. I breathe in a tiny bit of strength. Slowly, I feel my spine straighten and a second wind blows into my core.

The Zen master isn’t in the sanctuary with us. He’s in a small room that shares a wall with this one, accepting his consultations. When a person returns, the next goes. In the meantime, the rest of us continue our meditations. At some point, I begin to notice a crashing noise that sounds like a two-by-four being dropped. At first I think there must be construction going on nearby. But, no, it’s perfectly silent in the space between crashes. No hammering. No buzz saw. Just, “thwack!” out of nowhere. It dawns on me that the crashing might be coming from the room where the meetings are taking place. If this is the case, I hope it is a technique reserved for the most advanced students. As people reappear, I surreptitiously study them for signs of trauma.

My turn arrives. I bow to my cushion upon standing and again to the altar as I leave the room. I enter the dark hall, where I open the meeting room’s door. The Zen master is sitting cross-legged on his cushion. I scan the area for a two-by-four but see nothing. I walk in and perform the “sandwich bow” that the abbot showed me earlier. It is comprised of two bows at the waist with a single prostration of forehead to floor in between. Although it is optional, I was told it is the traditional way of greeting a master. I am hoping this lessons the severity of my beating should one be in store.

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7 thoughts on “The energy hose

  1. I don’t know why I started laughing when I read your sentence, “I scan the area for a two-by-four but see nothing.” It seemed like one moment you were trying to be “holy” and in the next, a moment of human apprehension. It reminds me of my experiences with Bioenergetic Psychotherapy, a therapy that combines body work along with talk therapy. The body stances are important in order to elicit the most energy to be expressed. Sometimes it called for pounding a hassock with my fists or arching my body or simply letting out a scream. The room had several thicknesses of insulation and wood to sound proof it. I found it very helpful at the time as we would later discuss the feelings that emerged so that I not only came away with insights into my behavior but also felt a physical release in my body which brought me great inner peace. A kind of letting go. Of course, now you have me curious about your experience of the “thwack” if it happens.

  2. Its interesting how so many faith share rituals of approach, preparation, and contemplation. Most of the catholic denominations still genuflect or bow before the crucifix, and of course, don’t forget “Catholic aerobics”, the sequence of kneeling, standing, and sitting during Mass. Protestants, Jews, and Muslims have their own rituals as well. I think they all have a common purpose–to get us in the right frame of spiritual mind to approach what we hold to be holy.

    • Hi Tim, It seems like the bowing puts us in a position of recognizing our vulnerability so that we can honor that which is greater than us, that of which we are a little part. I definitely felt that unifying principle among all the faiths so far.

  3. Hi! I look forward with great curiosity to discovering what is making the thwack. 🙂

    Hello Tim. And of course there are those Lutheran, Orthodox and Anglican aerobics as well. My elderly mother, who was a staunch Methodist, always sat through everything and said “My knees are too old for this!” Alas, at almost 65, I am discovering what she meant and I find I often kneel on one knee and ‘skooch’ a bit on the seat to support me.

    Luckily, this does not in any way detract from the efficacy of my worship, it just reminds me that I am getting nearer my God in years as well.

    Perhaps the thwack is the Master getting someone’s attention? I am really curious. Corinna, you know how to keep our attention.

    Yours in Christ

    • Hi Patti, That’s another think I noticed with all the faiths–they accommodate for different abilities. Everywhere I went, it was not unusual to see older people remain seated during bows or ups and downs. I think all the being humbled is a young person’s game, anyway. Like you mention, getting older is its own humbling exercise.

      • Corinna, I see you have not lost touch with your inner humor….
        About the “being humbled is a young person’s game…” That’s so true! They need it. We don’t, right? And aren’t I good!

        I’m getting ready to head down on my knees, but it will take awhile….

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