My koan small group 16 Bodhisattvas is spending time with this koan right now:
Save a ghost.
When I think of ghosts, themes that immediately come to mind are: failed relationships, perceived inadequacies, fears I try to ignore, old resentments–things that seem not fully alive but not quite laid to rest.
When I first sat with this koan a few years ago, I was very interested in getting right answers, impressing my teacher, and getting to the next koan (“How do I save a ghost? Well, let’s get on with saving them, then!”). But between the seeking and finding a response that would earn me a stamp of approval, I caught a glimpse of something deeper and more interesting.
It was very clear that although in many ways I could run from my ghosts, somehow when I stopped they were always there waiting for me: at the grocery store, after the argument, in my own home. I have a memory of jogging down the sidewalk with the sense that apparitions were trailing out behind my head like phantom streamers on a child’s bicycle.
This poem might have come as a result of spending time with this koan:In the afternoon, I laid down
on the sidewalk under a tree.
I closed my eyes and slipped down somewhere between the waking world
and the one of dreams.
There I saw demons dancing around a fire,
black and sketchy forms like
old woodblock prints from religious texts.
They called out to me as they danced,
We will cut off your head!
We will pull out your entrails!
We will tear you limb from limb!
I watched from some distance away as they fulfilled their promises on me.
I felt comforted as I watched,
knowing that these were my demons
that they were faithful.
While I was sitting this morning before work, I noticed a smidgen of feeling peeping out from under the hem of my consciousness. By reflex I brushed it off but then, noticing the callousness of my response, almost immediately I turned around to see what it was.
I didn’t want to go to work. It was that same sad, scared feeling I would get sometimes when Mom would drop me off at school as a child. Accompanying the feeling was an image of Lorna Doone shortbread cookies. A Bruce Hornsby song is playing. I don’t want to go. There’s so much light at home, and space, and cool blankets. There’s Mom’s kindness. There’s a feeling of timelessness–the day stretches out ahead of me like the sky and there’s nothing yet filling it; there’s the reassuring promise that nothing will ever fill it.
I notice this is the same melancholy that still visits me at the ends of vacations and on Sunday evenings; it’s a small, nagging ache that I usually brush aside, just as I started to this morning. It seems to serve no purpose but then what does? Diamonds were not valuable until we decided they were and this ache, the cascade of images, the wisp of sensation of cool blankets and sunlight is mine.
Maybe that’s all that’s needed.
But there’s more to walking with the dead than just putting them to rest. It’s not about exorcising unwanted spirits or purifying my soul or even healing grisly old wounds. When I dance with the dead it seems like my life takes on an extra depth–everything seems more alive and I’m not afraid anymore. In fact, I hadn’t even noticed how saturated in fear I was until I stepped out of it.
So what have you got in there? When you feel something shadowy tugging at your hem, do you swat it away? Those nagging sensations, memories, thoughts that you have a solution for–what is it like when you stop having a solution for them? Before you turn around to see who is following you, what is there? Are there places, objects or people that seem to raise the dead for you?