I stand as nigh

Yesterday morning I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center, as I do about once a month. Consulting interviews give Zen practitioners a chance to have a private, one-on-one conversation with a teacher: a time to ask questions, talk about things you’d be too embarrassed to mention at a public talk, or simply check in. As a Senior Dharma Teacher, I’m supposed to be the one “answering” student questions, the assumption being that someone who has been practicing long enough to earn the title “Senior Dharma Teacher” must know her way around the karmic block. But of course, I’m as new to the metaphysical neighborhood as the next person, so I never know exactly what will come out of my mouth when someone enters the interview room looking for Answers From The Teacher.


I’m always amazed by how sitting face-to-face behind closed doors with someone creates a heightened sense of awareness, an experience just as intense as any silent meditation session. Perhaps it’s the sanctity of the Zen Center’s interview room, a place where I’ve spent many a face-to-face session on the student cushion puzzling over some metaphysical mystery or (more typically) struggling with some personal conundrum. Given this history, it seems outright comical to find myself sitting, about once a month, in the teacher’s seat. I always feel a bit like the Wizard of Oz when I don my long, bat-winged Dharma teacher robes. Walking down the street, I’m just another average Joe, but when I put on my Dharmic Disguise, people think I have answers, insight, or clarity they lack.


“Ignore the woman behind the curtain,” I’m sometimes tempted to say when students enter the Interview Room at the sound of the bell that signals “next”…but I don’t. As much as the Wizard of Oz turns out to be another clueless guy from Kansas, Dorothy and her companions need to believe that someone like the wizard exists. Before Dorothy and her companions are ready to realize they already have the things they seek, they need the feedback of an impartial third party to validate their quest. The Wizard of Oz doesn’t give Dorothy, the Tin-Man, the Cowardly Lion, or the Scarecrow anything they didn’t already have…but somehow they each needed to make the trip to Oz to realize what was already as apparent as the ruby slippers on Dorothy’s feet.


Like the Wizard of Oz, I don’t have much in the way of Answers to offer those folks who are brave enough to sit face-to-face with me behind the closed door of the Zen Center interview room. Instead, I try to listen and be present with whatever question, problem, or situation each individual brings, and when I do open my mouth, I hear myself saying variations on the same basic responses. “Yes, I’ve experienced the same thing,” “You’re on the right track, so keep going,” and “You already understand” all sound like pat answers, the Dharmic equivalent of a doctor saying “Take two aspirins and call me in the morning.” But all of these responses are nonetheless entirely true. In most cases, even beginning practitioners already understand, in their heart of hearts, what they need to do in Situation X, or they already are halfway down the road to their own solution, and they simply need encouragement to keep going. And yes, there is very little any given Zen practitioner can tell me in interview that I haven’t done, thought, or otherwise experienced myself, too: there are only so many flavors of suffering we all keep rehashing and reheating in recipe after recipe, ad nauseum.

Walt Whitman with table and chairs

Before arriving at the Zen Center on Sunday, I took my usual walk around Cambridge to clear my head before practice began. In a park at the end of Auburn Street, between Central Square and MIT, I stumbled upon a plaza with the words of Walt Whitman inscribed on the sidewalk: “If you are a workman or workwoman, I stand as nigh as the nighest that works in the same shop.” In the 1855 version of Whitman’s “Carol of Occupations,” Whitman reassured readers that divinity isn’t some distant person or concept; it’s as close at hand as your nearest neighbor. Similarly, the answers any of us seek aren’t far off or even separate from ourselves: you needn’t visit a Zen Center, go into a special room at the sound of a bell, or ask a teacher.

The answers any of us seek are like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, already on our feet, or like the wisdom, courage, and heart the scarecrow, lion, and tin-man already had. The answers any of us seek are as close and familiar as our own nose: something immediately close at hand, but sometimes hard to see. The dialogue between so-called-teacher and so-called-student on Sunday mornings in the Zen Center interview room is like looking into a mirror. In case you need help finding and seeing your own nose, a teacher sits as nigh as a face-to-face neighbor ready to reflect back that which you already own and understand.