by John Backman
I couldn’t sit zazen this morning. That didn’t stop zazen from talking to me.
I know: Zazen can’t talk. It has no mouth. It’s a Buddhist practice—meditation, sort of—where you sit and let your mind go empty and live in awareness of the present moment. Zazen is something you do, not something that gabs at you. A fussy grammarian, or a Zen newbie like me, can tell you that much.
I couldn’t sit zazen this morning because my cat’s health is failing, and he’s taken a turn for the worse. Beorn is old, nearly 18. His kidneys have barely functioned over the past year—the vet has no clue how he’s lived this long—and a few days ago his right hind leg stopped working. It may have stopped working when I handled him awkwardly. To my anxious mind, that means the end is near and I brought it on.
I’ve always been ambivalent about this cat—he has a dark side—but since he got sick my affection for him has grown. There’s something luminous about beings who approach the end of life. They almost vibrate, it’s so intense. I want the luminosity to go on forever. I know it won’t.
Last night the won’t seized me with panic. I couldn’t sleep. I obsessed over the corpse I’d find on arising and the heaviness that would crush my chest. By dawn my mind was in no shape for zazen, and I needed to monitor the cat anyway (for he was still alive): his food intake, his litter box needs, his attempts to forge ahead on three legs.
But you know what? It didn’t matter. As I watched Beorn, the zazen—not the sitting I couldn’t do at dawn, but the sitting I’ve done every day for months now—began to whisper in my head. Forget the outcomes, it said; watch the cat on the floor, it said. I could tell it was the zazen talking, because the familiar emptiness filled my mind and nudged it wide open.
* * *
I babble at life’s peak moments. When our newborn daughter squirmed and howled in the birth room’s warming tray, I yammered to her about the world and the wonders she would see and what she might do and I don’t know what else. It felt like gibberish, and also like ecstasy.
I also babble during vet visits with dying animals. Today the vet tried to articulate Beorn’s chances of survival and the challenges he’ll face. I kept talking about physical therapy and the life force in his eyes and anything I could say to get him a few extra days, and there’s my panic again, and I know it’s coloring my view but when I step back and really look at his will to live I can’t have him euthanized. Sure he’s got only three working legs now but a lot of tripods (the vet’s word) have thrived on that. He just needs to learn how to manage.
Maybe he will. Maybe he won’t. The mention of won’t brings back the heaviness that will crush me.
Again the zazen talks to me. It says, sit. And everything goes quiet.
* * *
This is my favorite thing about the sacred. Sure, zazen—and Mass and kirtan and all the other ventures toward the Center that I’ve sampled over the years—fill me with ecstasy. Sometimes I think I could sit and pray and chant forever.
But every now and then I’m nowhere in particular, and some random thing pops up, and it tells me I’m not the same. All those practices aren’t just pleasant complements to my life; they’re active partners, even shapers. So zazen tells me to sit, and prayer turns my deepest self toward the light, and the further I go the deeper the change.
I watch Beorn struggle from his fluffy bed to the cat box beside him, and my heart’s very first whisper is look at him go. Not he’s going to be fine, or I’ll miss him when he’s gone, as it might have been once. Just look at him go. And I realize that this time, zazen didn’t have to talk; it had been here already and done its work.