That Bottomless Feeling
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
<<As was the case merely a couple weeks ago with a post by our friend Pelin Turgut, this entry on the ACEBE blog has the penmanship of our dear friend Remington Cooney ––a nomad of sorts, an enthusiast of cool ideas, a devoted Dao teacher and practitioner, the coordinator of the Module on Mindful Leadership at Universitas Triatma Mulya Stenden in Bali, and a writer/poet at heart! Remington has decided to contribute cents on this whole lockdown experience, so we hope it gives you all some food for thought. And if you're curious to read some more, check out our other entries on 'Life in times of Corona' clicking here!>>
I’ve been living North of Sydney in my parents boat cabin for over two months. Two months is quite some time to be with your own thoughts. And during my time here I’ve come to realise that this lockdown period, for those of us with the privilege of safety, health, and shelter, has, in some form, taken on the role of a retreat. A global lockdown retreat. What joy!
I have been fortunate enough to have external things to keep me sane: the rugged nature of the kurangai-chase national park behind my parent’s house, which I hike through everyday in-between teaching online. Or living here by the waterside, watching the boats sway to and fro, never far from the anchor point that they are tethered to, just like a meditating mind. Not to mention evening meals up in the main house with my family, after an afternoon of classes. But In between those activities, my mind has had time to wander in out of past, present, and future in such a way that memories, current activities, and future plans have begun to meld.
The great Zen master Dogen Zenji said back in the 13th century that past and future are merely constructs of time that are not separate from this present moment; that, in all reality, the entire time spectrum collapses back onto a single point ––this moment–– and that this moment pivots on the point of nothingness. That is, inherent in this present moment is an eternal emptiness of the rising and falling of time which, in and of itself, contains the whole potential of the universe ready to actualise at an instant. Put differently: the very emptiness of the present moment ––the only moment that your life is ever happening in–– has the potential for anything and everything to manifest.
Perhaps, in these times, you’ve found yourself in a similar privileged position, having time to contemplate 'life before coronavirus' and what could potentially occur 'post-virus' once lockdown has ended. Or, perhaps, you just ended up watching a lot of Netflix! Either way, you’ll know by now that, like in an actual meditation retreat, the combination of deep contemplation and repetitive schedules can start to make us feel like we are losing it a bit: an internal existential challenge arises and, with that, we often start facing some of those bigger underlying questions that busy lifestyles and social media can distract us from: Who am I? What is this? What is the meaning of my life? And how do I get back to 'normal'?
It is in these exact moments of existential challenge that the bottom feels like its falling out from under us. The proverbial rug, as it were, is pulled from under our feet in what initially appears to be some form of existential breakdown. This current world crisis is unique because it appears that the bottom has fallen out from under our entire collective. The camaraderie that has arisen in response has been quite heartening at times, demonstrating that there is a potential collective upside to the bottom falling out from under us. In Zen, the upside to the bottom falling out is symbolically recognised in a parable about a nun, Chinyono, carrying a bamboo bucket of water. After months of wholehearted practice, she went out on a full-moon night to draw some water from the well. The bottom of her old bucket, held together by bamboo strips, suddenly gave way, and the reflection of the moon vanished with the water. When she saw this she attained great realization. In achieving this realisation Chinyono wrote: "[W]ith this and that I tried to keep the bucket together, and then the bottom fell out. Where water does not collect, the moon does not dwell."
The adage highlights that our fixed ideas of how we think our life should go carry a weight that can be limiting to authentically expressing our true nature. In Zen, the mind that limits us is called 'the small mind.' We practice seated meditation (zazen) to break through the small mind’s limitations. However, often that breakthrough can only stem from the pre-cursor breakdown. Ultimately, we can only fully reimagine our lives, our lifestyles, our worldview and, in this case, our culture when the bottom of what we thought we knew falls out from under us. Indeed, we may find ourselves upside down, maybe even floating in the ether, disoriented, but this is necessary in order for us to reimagine and reorient the potential of our 'time-being.' This creative reinvention stemming from reimagination comes from this state of time-being where we have been forced to fully embrace the present moment because the future is completely unknown ––we don’t know what’s next. Just like our past, the future has collapsed in and is pivoting on the point of nothingness: this present moment is the edge of the unknown. And this is where life really happens, on the precipice of the unknown. In the words of a lesser known Zen teacher, Dizang: “not knowing is most intimate.” Only on this edge of the unknown is real intimacy possible.
Being on such an edge has also led to the instances of disorientation we currently find ourselves in. In a lengthy meditation retreat, as the mind’s layers begin to peel back and reveal some deeper insight, we find ourselves momentarily or even for a prolonged period losing our bearings. Suddenly, existentially at a loss ––what am I doing on this retreat? What has my world come to? We thought we had a reason to be here in this retreat–– we had a logical explanation for why we came, we had our ducks in a row; but now our inner compass is reorienting, pivoting on the point of nothingness, and our time-being is redirected before the thinking mind is able catch up and compute logically what has just occurred. At some point integration will come, it always does; but in these instances there’s a lapse and delay which leaves us in that state of confusion. We thought we came here for clarity, but we are more confused ––this what not how it was meant to go…
Dogen Zenji might say that this disorientation gives birth to a deeper understanding of the intimacy of our lives which, at the end of the day, is the realization and coming to terms with the fact that, at an existential level, we never truly can know. If we open to this, how beautiful the surrender can be. For that surrender is the bottom falling out from underneath. This realization alone allows us to lean in closer to our lives so that everyday mundanity becomes perfumed with the richness of momentary presence, and the infinite potential of the present moment opens itself. Again, giving rise to the potential for anything and everything to manifest.
And whilst being at home in small spaces with our own thoughts for long periods might be, for some, anything but ideal, it has provided the groundlessness that perhaps we all needed. It’s allowing the bottom to fall out from underneath the heavy pale that we have all been carrying in whatever form that came in: the greed of mass consumption, the burnout of overwork, the human toll on the environment... Now, this moment greets us and we have the potential to become intimate with it again, be intimate with what is really occurring as opposed to the mental constructs of what we think should be occurring in our lives. It brings us back to centre point, that is presence, but not negating the joys and pains and the cries of the world as it shifts and reorients itself to a place of deeper meaning.
From this pivot point Dogen would say that we live the “meaning of ultimate meaninglessness” which, although sounding drab, is actually one step closer towards human liberation. That what we in our western minds would perceive as a nihilistic void is, in fact, the falling out of the bottom of the bamboo bucket; the break down/through we all needed so that we can again reimagine our world, and our lives, with fresh eyes and a beginner’s mind, like that of a child: innocent and curious, as we slowly but surely re-emerge from this retreat humanity has undertaken. So, together, let’s let the bottom fall out from underneath.