SCENARIOS: or, “Do Your Own Disaster”

This short, fanciful essay emerged during a Zen 7 retreat. I think it has a certain similarity to the “Do Your Own Adventure” series of children’s books in which each choice the reader makes brings about a different consequence and a different end to the story.

Where did these scenarios come from? From the prompting of my teacher during an interview. Certain things happening during the retreat were upsetting me, and I was encouraged to examine my feelings about them. It seemed too hard for me to approach my feelings about the other participants right away, so I decided to begin with something simple and immediate: pain. The other scenarios developed naturally from that point. They bear some similarity to, but do not reflect reflect any literal occurrence at the retreat–only my own stream of consciousness at the time. Thought process is fast, but it’s taken somewhat more time to record, as is usually the case. If you think about your own feelings and reactions in the course of reading these stories, then my time has been well spent.
~ Susan Kline, 1/5/16

This is Scenario 1:
You are sitting in meditation in the Zen Hall. It is the third day of a seven day retreat, and for you this seems to be a low point. Pain radiates from your numb knees down to your overextended ankles and up through your spine, which, over the past three days, has developed a tendency to curl and drop your body forward. All your effort seems to be expended in simply holding your body upright. You have forgotten what was said in the last lecture, forgotten what time it is, and even the building where you are currently sitting. Your only hope is that the sitting period will soon be over and you will be able to stagger to your feet and walk again, and yet…you know in some part of your mind that the period has just started and that you are less than ten minutes into it. You have another half-hour to go. You immediately repress this thought as a sharp pain pierces your collarbone. ‘Well’, you think. ‘This is new.’ Now the question is, how will you deal with pain?
a. In your mind’s eye, you look at the pain. You observe it as it becomes stronger, and then weaker. But as you look, your body tenses. You realize that instead of observing, you are fighting the pain, and you stop doing that. Suddenly your shoulder seems to lock up and begin to twist forward, and you consciously relax it, imagining warmth permeating the tension. This does not last. The shoulder tenses again, and the stiffness creeps up the back of your neck. You lift your head and pull your chin back toward the collar of your robe and again feel a sharp pain in your collarbone. Your legs begin signalling to you again, and a dull ache radiates into your hips. You wonder if you are causing or exacerbating arthritis or varicose veins.
b. You will not be mastered by pain. Pain is not your master. With effort you hold yourself upright in the correct position for meditation, and think, ‘At least I can sit correctly.’ Any deviation is noticed and instantly corrected. Suddenly you notice that your body has frozen into a position. There is no flexibility or relaxation: tension has locked you up. You begin counting your breath….one…two…three. But the breaths are shallow and give you no relief. They begin in the throat and go no further than the middle of your chest. You realize that you’ve been holding your abdomen in all this time. Relaxing it is much harder than you thought it would be. It seems to be holding you together.
c. You decide to be absent from the next sitting period, take a walk outside and stretch everything out, maybe even see the acupuncturist.
d. You curse yourself for not bringing enough ibuprophen tablets with you. You decide to bring whole bottles of both the blue and white ones to the next retreat. Or will you even come to another retreat after this experience? Who knows…

This is Scenario 2:
Three people staying in a room. The toilet is non-functional. It’s overflowing, and flushing has made it worse. Raw sewage is backing up into the bathtub and sink. You complain to the landlord, but he says ‘I’ll fix it when I fix it. You can find some place else to wash up.’ But it’s late at night and everyone wants to turn in. Suddenly you see brown, foul smelling liquid creeping under the door. You grab a big bath towel and shove it against the crack, and open a window slightly to let some fresh air in. ‘I will deal with this tomorrow’, you say, ‘But right now everyone has to sleep.’
The next day someone suggests, ‘Why don’t we go wash up at the gas station down the street?’ So you all grab your wallets, soap and towels and go to the station. But the manager says, ‘Bathrooms are for customers only—that’s the rule.’ ‘Okay’, you say (because you don’t have a car) ‘Is there any other place we can go to get clean?’ ‘Yeah’, he says, ‘The restaurant two blocks up, but they’ll probably ask you to buy something too.’ So you all go to the restaurant and get donuts and coffee. Each of you goes into the restroom in turn, and you are the last to wash up. In the meantime one guy has pulled out his phone and has called his father to pick him up and the other has found a copy of yesterday’s newspaper and is looking for rooms to rent…cheap. You’re thinking, ‘I’ll have to deal with that landlord because we are paid up for the next three weeks.’

Second version, worse situation: You hear a loud noise. It’s the middle of the night and there’s been an earthquake. You wake up in pitch darkness to the sounds of screaming and ambulances. No light in the apartment, but you can smell gas in the room. No sounds from your roommates. You call, ‘Hey, hey! Are you alive?’ But there’s no answer. Maybe you’re the lucky one, you think, and the roof fell on the other two beds? But there’s no one around, no firemen, no ambulances except sounds far away and getting further. The smell of gas seems to be getting stronger, so you have to get up, find your way out of the apartment in the dark and get to some place safe. But as you try to get up, you realize that your arm has been crushed by a big roof beam. It’s pretty much flat, with bones sticking out everywhere. You feel a wetness seeping out that you assume is blood. So you pull out your pajama cord and twist it three times around your trapped arm above the elbow and then pull it tight, wincing against the pain. At least now the bleeding’s stopped. Now the question is, can you pull away and escape, leaving the crushed arm where it is, in order to get out of the building?
Third version; worst case: You hear a loud noise. There’s been an earthquake. It’s the middle of the day. You are knocked out. You awaken to the sounds of screaming and ambulances. The last thing you remember was being in your room, but now you are in bright sunlight. Something seems wrong with your breathing. You look down, and you see an enormous piece of  roofing material crushing the lower half of your body. Your spine has been shattered so there isn’t much pain, but this doesn’t look good. Now imagine as you regain consciousness these three possibilities:

First possibility: There’s no one around, as if the street’s already been evacuated. Then you hear footsteps. One straggler comes down the street, half his clothes muddy, the other half seem burnt or stained. He’s wearing a backpack and looks like he knows where he’s going. Maybe wherever the others went? You call out weakly, ‘Help, help.’ The man hears you, walks over, and takes a look at your situation, walking slowly around the big block covering your lower half. He says, ‘Can’t help you, man. You’re a goner.’ You look up, surprised at the remark. He continues, ‘I gotta go, man. Sorry that happened to you.’ And without another word, he turns away and continues on down the street, stepping over pieces of rubble and wiring as he goes.
Second possibility: There’s no one around, as if the street’s already been evacuated. Then you hear footsteps. One straggler comes down the street, half his clothes muddy, the other half seem burnt or stained. He’s wearing a backpack and looks like he knows where he’s going. Maybe wherever the others went? You call out weakly, ‘Help, help.’ The man turns quickly, runs over to you and in a glance, takes in your situation. His eyes seem to glaze and harden, but he covers it up fast with an expression, you think, of concern. ‘I can’t lift that by myself’, he says. ‘Let me go get help. Until I get back you have to hang in there.’ You nod, and he walks hastily away. You think, I’ll never see him again.
Third possibility: There’s no one around, as if the street’s already been evacuated. Then you hear footsteps. One straggler comes down the street, half his clothes muddy, the other half seem burnt or stained. He’s wearing a backpack and looks like he knows where he’s going. Maybe wherever the others went? You call out weakly, ‘Help, help.’ The stranger looks at the block, then he squats down and looks into your eyes. You’re not feeling so well. Your head is fuzzy and the effort of calling out for help has just about taken all your energy. The stranger kneels down and puts his hand gently under your head, dusting away the road dirt. With his other hand he strokes your hair back off your face. He asks, do you have a religious belief? And…

a. You say, ‘Yes, I am Buddhist.’ ‘Then’, he says, ‘I want you to visualize the Bodhisattva GuanYin coming toward you. Reach out and take her soft hand in yours and hold on to it. Look up into her face, which glows with infinite compassion. Behind her, you see that the great bodhisattvas have descended to take you to the Western Pure Land, where under their wise teaching you will eradicate your karma and enter into nirvana.’
b. You say, ‘Yes, I am Christian.’ ‘Then’, he says, ‘Visualize Christ on the Cross, dying for the sins of the world, but right now, dying just for you. Look up into the beautiful face of Jesus and admit all your faults to him, all your shortcomings, and accept his forgiveness for all of them. Trust in his merits alone, and as you sleep, pass into his love and care.’
c. You say, ‘I have no religious beliefs.’ ‘Then’, he says, ‘I am going to stay here with you as you rest and sleep. Know that your suffering will soon be over and your pain will soon end. Just be aware of the sensation of my hand on your forehead. When sleep comes, be assured that the good earth will welcome you, as it does all creatures, and you will rest in peace.’

This is Scenario 3:
Perhaps this scenario is, in the long run, most difficult to deal with, since it involves many different personalities and complex emotions and actions, most of which are out of your control. You are in a Zen retreat. As long as everyone is sitting in meditation, you are not having trouble with it. Or rather, with them…because on the breaks the behavior of many of the other participants is progressively and persistently getting on your nerves. During the breaks, the other women descend on the snacks like locusts. They are consuming dry crackers immediately after meals, and every 40 minutes after each sitting period. They are, you think, making you ashamed of your sex. You ask yourself, ‘At home, do they eat every 40 minutes?’ The bovine creature sharing your table already looks as if she is 8 months pregnant…and she is just a young woman in her early 20s. In ten years she will be a hundred pounds heavier, diabetic, and in a wheelchair. Everywhere she goes, crunch, crunch, crunch. Now she’s eating pretzel sticks, because there’s nothing else left. You think, how could someone be hungry immediately after a meal? Three nutritious meals every day, and you can even have seconds if you want. So this can’t be about hunger.
But no, you think, this behavior hasn’t anything to do with hunger. It has to do with ritual and with distraction and with the consumption of time. Eating is taking place here in slow motion, tiny bites at a time, one peanut, one bit of cracker. There is a special self-consciousness about it, a grasping for meaningfulness. These tiny bites are followed by tiny sips of water or tea. And, since no one actually eats and drinks like that in regular life, people are choking on the food and water is coming out their noses. But more food has to go in. It’s as if, since words can’t come out of their mouths, something has to be constantly going in. They can sit, but not sit still, and they slowly circulate around the room, avoiding one another’s eyes, deferring, and causing collisions and traffic jams.
You feel cynical and restless and impatient until you want to say, ‘Just stand there. Just sit there. Just eat. It’s a simple matter!’
Even though it’s cold outdoors, you make it a point to get out, to walk around, or do extra meditation sessions, just to stay away from that break room. But little do you know that secret, whispered meetings are being convened in your absence. The other women are saying ‘That one always wears a scowl! She isn’t with the program! She is not fitting in with the spirit of the retreat. Most of the time she just disappears as if she wants nothing to do with us. She is spoiling everything for everyone else. We need to get her out.’ When you return from your walk the spokesperson of the group takes you aside for a quiet conversation. She does not want to make a scene, but needs to tell you about the group decision. ‘You must leave here. You have contempt for us and we are sincere practitioners.’ You retort ‘Whatever happened to Zen tolerance?’ She replies, ‘This is a majority group decision. There are those who don’t agree, but you must go. It is for the peace of the retreat.’
First possibility: You say ‘Well, I know when I’m not wanted. Goodbye to you all. This community is a mess.’
Second possibility: You say ‘Give me more details. How is my behavior here affecting all of you? If you can tell me how, I will either change, or leave.’
Third possibility: You walk out without any response and never return, either to the temple or to the retreat.
Fourth possibility: You go to the Abbot and tell him that the other women are attempting to expel you, even though you haven’t broken the no-talking rule.
Fifth possibility: You go to the Abbot and tell him that you have no idea what’s bothering the other women—you have been practicing quite peacefully without troubling anyone.
Sixth possibility: You go to the Abbot and complain about the ‘Zen bullshit’ going on around you in the break room constantly. You ask if it’s possible to just not go in there again.
Seventh possibility: You ask the Abbot ‘Has anyone complained about me?’
Eighth possibility: You simply ask the Abbot for general advice.
Ninth possibility: You blame yourself for everything. You apologize to the women and ask to stay. You put the whole incident out of your mind as well as you can for the remainder of the retreat. Then you never speak to any of the ‘enemies’ again.
Tenth possibility: You realize that none of the women has the authority to kick you out of a retreat. You decide to just behave exactly the same as the majority of Zen students at the retreat.
Eleventh possibility: You decide to speak with the members of the women’s group who did not black ball you, and get whatever information you can out of them.
Twelfth possibility: Etc, etc., etc…..

Each of these scenarios has some peripheral relationship to what actually happened to me at the retreat. In Scenario One, no matter what strategy I chose to adopt to deal with pain, getting upset about it wouldn’t have helped. In fact, it probably would have made me more tense, and with resistance to pain, comes increased pain. I might have become completely distracted by pain and decided then and there to never attend another retreat.
In Scenario Two—no matter how extreme the hypothetical situation—no emotions or emotional reactions would have made any positive difference in my situation. If I became angry I might have hit the landlord and been sued in court. I might have camped out on the street. I might have blamed my room mates for destroying the plumbing. I might have never associated with either of them again. In the ‘Worse Situation’ my arm had to come off, no matter how frightened I felt. And the less frightened I allowed myself to feel, the easier the task of pulling away from it and saving my life would be. In the ‘Worst Case’ no feelings I had about my situation would again make any difference. I was, in effect, already dead. The behavior of the three passers-by made no difference in my situation at all. If I became resistant or angry about the behavior of the first two men or grateful toward the last, I had only minutes to live.
In Scenario Three, there’s where the extreme freedom exists. Everyone involved is independently walking around making decisions about how and how much contact with each other they are going to have now, and how they are going to behave and react in the future, and there are no mind-readers among us. But because there are so many people there may be a tempering effect: feelings may change and calm. Others may come to ‘my side’ or the ‘sides’ themselves might dissipate. In other words, solidifying differences isn’t the only way and staying irritated isn’t necessary. There can be outside counseling, either one-on-one or in a group. People may become indifferent; feelings may cool. There may be a decision to reestablish peace for the greater goal of harmony and group unity. Forgiveness might take place. In any case, nurturing negative emotions would not have brought about any positive result.