Oops! It’s happened again. I’ve acquired another label. It was there on the cover of Buddhadharma, sitting on the front of the newsstand at Barnes & Nobel. “Going It Alone: Helpful Advice for Unaffiliated Buddhists.” Well, I guess if the shoe fits…
I’ll own up. I’m an unaffiliated Buddhist, though not for lack of trying. I’ve dipped my toes into more than one pair of shoes in the past years, including spending several months in the sandals of a Shambhala Buddhist. Yet in the end, I’ve reacted to all these pairs much as I did to real shoes as a child, by flinging them off to go running around barefoot. Nothing always fit better than something, anything else.
My mother always told me I would cut up my feet doing that. I am still conscious of her warnings. Practicing alone seems to include a certain amount of risk. There is a real possibility of badly misunderstanding the teachings, of building up ideas and habits of thinking that are more of a hindrance than a help. The path may fade and I may find myself wandering in the wilderness.
Well, I never heeded my mother when I was little (at least, not about shoes), and I still managed not to come to harm. I assume she feared some random shard of glass would pierce my sole, drag in dirt and become infected, proceed to gangrene, and they’d have to amputate. I suppose in a way I did amputate something, but it wasn’t my foot. It was the Christian church when I was fifteen. At that time I certainly wasn’t unaffiliated and had more “guidance” than I knew what to do with.
That is no doubt part of my lack of affiliation now. I tell myself I have nothing against any of the organized Buddhist denominations; I just haven’t found the right fit just yet. But how egocentric is that? To believe that religion should mold itself into a perfect fit for me, like the perfect pair of shoes. (And how often do we really find those?)
But you know, the Zennies are just too hard core. They insist on sitting so, so perfectly still, and getting wacked with sticks. And the Shambhalians are just a little bit too mystical and follower-like. A king? Are you kidding me? This is America. And the Jewel Heart people, well they’re nice, but their rinpoche is in Ann Arbor and I’ve never met him. How do I know these folks aren’t full of crap?
Of course, I can see the benefits of all these practices, stilling the body, revering a teacher, practicing where you can with what you have. Yet I remain unconvinced, still searching for my Yoda. (Who, if I recall was a reluctant teacher to a reluctant student.) I watch the forms, rituals, and costumes like an anthropologist on the outside looking in. The trappings have a purpose, certainly, I’ll concede, but they are still just trappings, and because I see them as such, I don’t need them. I’ve seen through them.
Plus, I have this romantic notion of doing it all on my own, the way the Buddha did. Or actually, didn’t quite. The Buddha studied with many teachers, kept many companions on his quest, learned from many people, and was helped and supported by generous folk, before wandering off to sit under that tree.
I think I’m full of shit. I really do. I can concede there are several perfectly good reasons to wear shoes and then just walk around barefoot anyway? I expect some magical resonance, the perfect fit, before I’ll commit? I think I’m superwoman? Please.
I can’t even claim inconvenience as a legitimate excuse. The Lotus Zen people are nearby, utterly friendly, and have several meetings each week I could easily make. And I haven’t had a class to conflict with the Thursday night Jewel Heart meetings since December.
In considering this, I have come to only one conclusion (other than I’ve full of shit, which we already knew): commitment breeds expectation and I’m just not ready for that. I have enough expectation in my life. Professors expect and bosses expect and family expects and friends expect and coworkers expect and classmate expects and even my cat expects. I really don’t need anyone to expect anything else from me right now, even if it’s just showing up. And in this twisted little mind-game, it doesn’t even matter if they really expect anything or not. I expect for them.
If there is one thing I’ve learned this year, it is the freedom and comfort that comes from shedding expectations. I no longer expect myself to cook, like a good little vegetarian tree hugger should. This is a great relief. I don’t expect myself to take on responsibility for student organizations. I don't feel overburdened. These are all exterior changes though, things I stopped doing. So many other expectations live inside my head. I can continue to try to let go of them on my own, or I can do it within the support of a sangha, one to which it may be helpful to commit myself. I am certain of this – things change. So I’m not too worried, yet.
The great thing about shoes is you can own more than one pair, or choose to forego them all and walk barefoot in the rain.