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Archive for April, 2009

My Conversion

April, 2009

I’m not quite sure how to tell this story, I just know that I need to tell it. I’ll probably be telling it and re-telling it, trying to understand what happened to me, for the rest of my life. Here’s the punch line: last week, on a Buddhist retreat, I got saved by Jesus Christ.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, this 10-day retreat. My friend called it “Buddhist boot camp.” Ten days without talking; 10 days of no reading, no writing, no making signals of any kind, no touching. 10 days of 10 hours a day meditating.

Did I mention 10 days of not praying?

One of the agreements you had to make to attend this particular kind of retreat, to learn this particular form of meditation, was that you would suspend any and all other spiritual practices. I’ve since learned that this is a weird requirement: my friend who attended a 21-day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh tells me that there were both Jewish Shabbat meals as well as Christian services during the retreat. But since I thought it was necessary, I agreed to it. Not easily. I thought long and hard; I thought it over and over. It meant no contemplative reading. It meant no formal prayer. It meant no journaling. It meant that when I meditated, I left my mantra behind. For me, it also meant I wouldn’t even peep in the direction of God, much less Jesus. The closer the time came, the more I realized just how hard this would be. But I felt like I was supposed to do it, so I agreed.

We arrived at the centre in the late afternoon; that evening’s session would mark the start of the retreat. Before I went into the meditation hall, I sat on the bed in my room and talked to Jesus. I told him that I was putting this entire retreat into his hands, under his direction. That I would do my best to take what they had to teach me without inappropriate quibbling, though I reserved the right to use my good and discriminating mind. And I told him goodbye for ten days. At least I thought I did.

I soon realized that I had brought with me two perfectly matched sets of desires and fears: the desire to know God more deeply and the fear that I’d discover there was no God, the desire for deeper healing as well as the fear of discovering some boundless misery at the centre of my life. I guess I also brought the fear that nothing would happen.

I didn’t have to worry about that last one.

The teacher was a God-send, he really was, though he would be appalled at what I learned from him. I suppose he qualified as a fundamentalist Buddhist: though he repeatedly said that anyone from any tradition could do this practice, he insisted that one accede to his worldview. This included his assertion that the theory behind the meditation didn’t matter, that we could set it aside and “later we would come to believe it.” It included his repeated statement that no one and nothing could “save” us—all religious practice was hollow, and religious figures were to be revered only for their character traits. One must work out one’s salvation alone, with no help, he said. Life is misery, pure misery, from which we all long to be liberated.

Did I mention I never saw this man laugh? Have I mentioned that I don’t think this man would get along with the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh? I say this so you don’t assume all Buddhists are like this. I say this so I remember that I was exposed to a particularly joyless sect.

I put my mind to the program and tried to stay within the limits to which I had agreed—both figuratively and quite literally, since our exercise area was marked off with twine and signs labeled “Course Boundaries” beyond which we were forbidden to walk. I trudged up and down the hill and through the woodlot for what seemed like hours every day, affirming my willingness to learn whatever God (though I tried hard not to think about God) wanted me to learn. I came up against those signs, that rope, that border, over and over; but I did the best I knew how to honour the boundaries I had agreed to observe.

I suppose it was the story about the old woman that first broke my resolve to set God aside for the duration. It was part of one evening’s dharma talk, and was meant to show how trivial our attachments really are. The object lesson was a very poor, very elderly Indian woman who had somehow made her way to one of the teacher’s retreats. She learned the method quickly; both she and the instructor were pleased with her progress. Then one afternoon, she burst out of her room in hysterical grief. Sobbing, she revealed that she had brought with her a small purse that contained her entire dowry—20 rupees and a cheap silver trinket. For all her adult life, she’d kept the purse close to her—under her head when she slept, under her leg when she sat. Now, she’d left it in her room for a few hours, and it had been stolen. Our teacher spoke about how the group tried to comfort her, how they collected almost 100 rupees for her. But she was still inconsolable. Not until later that evening, when someone managed to grab her purse—complete with the tiny silver ornament—back from the mischievous monkey who’d snatched it, did she stop crying.

The moral our teacher wanted to draw from this was that attachments make us miserable. But the way he did it was to mock her obsession, her crying for her small trinket when the group had collected money worth so much more than the bauble.

I didn’t quite learn what he wanted me to.

I got it, I really did, about attachments. But I got more too, and that “more” felt just as important. I started thinking about how the theft of the purse went beyond loss to betrayal; how it feels to assume you are safe, able to trust people and then feel that your trust has been violated. Then I thought about the nature of the things given us by our parents, our partners, our children: things whose value goes far beyond their monetary worth. I thought about all the longing and hope I have attached to small, inexpensive, heart-laden objects. I thought about how a small loss can trigger my deepest grief. And finally I thought, my God would not judge her. My God would want me to sit down next to this old woman and weep with her.

I thought about the fact that being a Christian means that I believe bodies matter, that the physical world is beautiful as well as miserable, and that life is meant to be lived in relationship and compassion. That even if I think you’re suffering too much, that you are too attached, I can have compassion for your suffering. In my world, I want to start with human tenderness and understanding.

So that was the first hard, sticking place.

The second hard place was the meditation technique itself. Part of the process I learned was to notice the “subtle energy” on the surface of my body. This is no brand new, secret technique. There are a bazillion articles on subtle energy on the web, telling you about how to enhance it, move it, heal yourself and others with it. People use different names for it—like prana, chi, and Holy Spirit. But I got stuck, once more. Where does the subtle energy come from, I wondered. My own body? The universe? But if it comes from the universe, then it’s from the power at the centre of the universe which I consider Ultimate Love, right? So now I’m back to awareness of the Holy Spirit, and hence to God, whom I was supposed to leave out. I tried to dismiss these ideas and just perceive. But I didn’t want to summon up energy from just anywhere. So I kept getting stuck. I could feel the energy, all right: I just wasn’t sure of its origin. That made me nervous.

I freely admit that the meditation process that I learned on this retreat worked. It involved using subtle energy to sweep my body, finding all my knots—the attachments and aversions I have engaged in over and over, the suffering caused in me by myself and others. This repeated examination, bringing these places to consciousness and then letting them go, is meant to help them fade into nothingness. Poof! Gone. And it works, it really does. A pain would occur, I might have a glimpse of memory (or not); I’d let it go, and eventually the pain would pass. That was good. My body felt alive and surprisingly healthy.

However, somewhere along the line the experience began to change. I got good at the subtle energy thing. But I found myself, one whole evening, reliving in vivid neurological detail a boating accident has given me 30+ years of neck pain. There’s a lot of memory there: the original accident plus all those years of tightness and suffering. The process itself was uncomfortable, not painful; but I found it frightening in its explicitness. Back my head went, neck stretched and head bent almost to the ground, then forward with chin crushed to the chest. Back and forward again, not so dramatically; then a smaller arc, a smaller arc, an even smaller arc, until my head bobbed round and around in tiny circles and finally came to rest. Then, depressingly, again through the whole sequence on the other side of the neck; and then again, both sides of the trunk. I recognized the kindness of the method—if I’d had all the circuits lighting up at the same time the pain would have been awful. But if this was the way the technique worked, it was exhausting: and it was only the beginning. The teacher had mentioned that clearing out your knots is lifetime work, the work of many lifetimes in his estimation. You don’t get free in just one time around. You work, and you work, and then you work some more. Body memories, I decided, were the pits.

So, the second hard thing. The method took me to a place I didn’t want to go, the place of interminable work. Now someone might tell me that I did it wrong; that might be true. But this was my experience with the method, and while it relieved my physical pain, it felt like way too much work.

Other things happened too, weirder and wilder than this body memory; and with each new change, I grabbed outside the permissible container—the course boundaries—and asked for God’s guidance and protection. I was scared, and I prayed. I found I had to.

Which is what brings me to my final point, my teacher’s repeated assertion that we cannot rely on a saviour, because there is none.

Now I know how most people would understand this statement, and how I might normally hear this. I’d normally interpret such words to mean no one can live my life for me. No one can get me well if I’m not willing to get well; no one can put me into relationship with God—not even God’s own self—if I’m not willing to be in relationship. That’s the nature of free will, as I understand it.

But what I heard was, “There is no saviour.” And I thought, “Are you sure? What about Jesus?” And I left it at that, mostly a bad taste in my mouth because he felt he had to denigrate someone else’s path. But that was before the last evening.

On the 10th day, we got to break silence. The night before had been very rough—I’d had panic attacks for much of the time. I’d slipped three separate notes under my friend’s door begging her to break silence, and pulled them each back out again, trying to respect the process. I found myself walking the road in the icy dark at midnight, and again at 4 a.m. At one point, I walked right through the line stretched across the road. Twang! it went. I laughed out loud—I’d broken the course boundary inadvertently. But of course I had, I thought. I’d been breaking it all along.

I was very glad when we began to talk. But still I felt disturbed and off. A series of conversations with a few kind women helped me find my voice and my bearings; I sneaked a piece of paper and a pen and began to write, trying to make sense of some of what had happened. I began to accept what I’d learned about myself as the gift of God, not to be feared. And then, that evening during our final meditation, my head began moving again, and I came to understand that it was no longer a body memory but rather some divine power trying to relieve my constant neck pain—a kind of cosmic chiropractic adjustment. I gave up being afraid when a hand very tenderly and very briefly cradled the back of my skull.

But again, it went on. And on, and on. When the pain in my neck had been fixed, we moved into other parts of the body. In the middle of the night, I was exhausted, and it began to hurt, badly. I was still sure that the being who was working on my body was working under God’s direction, but I began to be afraid that I couldn’t handle all the pain and suffering that was being released. Finally, with help from a friend, I was reminded that I didn’t have to do it all by myself. That’s the point of being Christian, I realized: that I have Jesus and I also have these other lovely humans. I’m supposed to ask for help. Christian belief is that Jesus has already suffered for all my sins, for all the shame and hurt knotted into my bone and muscle and nerve. I began to understand that it was not up to me to release myself: Jesus could and would take my suffering away as soon as I was willing to let it go. I found myself affirming the basic tenet of my faith that has never made sense to me, the one thing that I had never been able to grasp no matter how much I loved God: that Jesus died to free me from my suffering. I saw—didn’t reason, just saw—that I didn’t have to work it all out, gut it all out alone, by myself. Jesus had already done that.

When I finally said, out loud, that I wanted Jesus to take my pain—when I claimed Jesus as my saviour—the pains turned to bubbles and rose through my body to dissipate into the air. And then my legs straightened, my chest opened, my sinuses cleared, my lower jaw was adjusted forward, my ear stopped aching, my hips realigned, my shoulders pulled back, and my throat began to lose the lump that’s impeded my swallowing for 35 years. When I gave up being my own project, Jesus took over and made me perfectly Therese.

Now it’s a week later. My neck gets a bit sore sometimes but I can move it in ways I haven’t been able to move for years. My posture is different, the pain in my sinuses is gone most of the time, and I’ve actually swallowed one of those honking calcium pills without having it get stuck. I’m breathing more freely. More importantly, I seem to myself, and even to George, to be both more quiet and more kind. Hell, I disagreed with a friend today and only raised my voice once!

At first I thought that my physical healing was about God loving me—after all, I’ve been crying for years to know in some real way that God loved me—and showing me who I am in God’s eyes. As Gerard Manley Hopkins says, when one is grace-filled, one
“…Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

And while this is true, I have come to believe that this physical realignment is the visible indicator of my inner realignment on Jesus. When I was six years old, I learned that a sacrament was an outward sign of an inward grace. I guess that what happened to me was a sacrament, a gift, an outward sign of the deeper grace of letting myself become fully Christian.

One last bit of this story. When I turned all my suffering over to Jesus, the being that was holding me picked up my left hand and brought it to my forehead. Then, surprisingly, my hand was turned, and with my little finger, the sign of the cross was traced on my forehead. Not the hand I’d normally use, not the finger I’d normally use—the least finger on the less favoured hand, the weakest part of me, the part connected not to my fine mind but to my right brain intuitive self, the rejected and embarrassing part. One final, profound gift, just in case I thought I was doing all this myself.

Over the last week I have come to believe that my inner and outer healing is, as we say in AA, based on the maintenance of my spiritual condition. This is not a threat, merely a fact. If I don’t stay connected to Jesus, I won’t be able to see the miracles of life. Which is why I’m telling this story: I want my voice to stay open and true. I have also come to believe, once again, that while this is my path, it is not everyone’s path. While it took a Buddhist fundamentalist to teach me that I was utterly Christian, I assume that God uses other teachers for each of us. God comes to us, oh so kindly, in the ways that we can understand. Which brings me to my final story.

In the year before my father died, he had a dream where he was walking down a dusty road at the end of the afternoon. Ahead of him on the right side was a taverna with an outdoor beer garden, and in the garden sat Jesus with the disciples. They were drinking beer, eating big sandwiches, and laughing. Peter was giving Jesus grief about the mess that they’d had to clean up after the multiplication of the loaves and fishes: he pointed out that Jesus should have filed an EPA clean-up report before he performed that miracle. Everyone roared with laughter. My dad stood watching; then, he said, someone handed him a sandwich and a beer and “I knew I was in.”

May we each allow God’s grace to show us our way in.

Copyright © Mary Therese DesCamp 2009