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Adjusting one's robe

Posted Sep 12 2008 12:02pm
The other day, while talking with my wife and an old friend, a fragment of memory was dislodged from some underground crevice and shot up to the surface of my mind, vivid in its single detail: the image of Thich Nhat Hahn, onstage in Berkeley, adjusting his robe.

The actual event happened about five years ago, shortly after 9/11. My friend and colleague David took me to see the Buddhist monk give a talk, whose exact subject I'm forgetting, except for fragments of his discourse on relating to such horrible events. It was a long evening, in a hall filled with perhaps a thousand people, and I seemed to have drifted in and out of listening, and probably sleep.

But that one brief motion of Thich Nhat Hahn shifting his saffron robe has stuck with me. It was, in all honesty, breathtaking, and still is as I remember it. He was preparing for the discourse, and had just finished the introductory chanting and meditation. His monks were sitting still and waiting. Hahn reached down and took the edge of his monk's robe, and quickly moved it to the side, straightened up, and commenced. And that was it. Yet there was an incredible frankness about the motion, a sense of there being no distance between the man and the motion. That the intention to arrange his robe and its execution as a bodily act did not happen in different times and places, but were one seamless event, happening in the extremely vivid present moment. But totally without adornment or affectation, or any studied self-consciousness. This wasn't a teaching he was offering; he was just straightening a piece of cloth.

This little vignette highlights what I see as one of the core sufferings that people come to psychotherapy to deal with, namely, the awareness that there is something sticking between our intention and our action. There's a painful sense of disconnect from ourselves, or a recognition of lag or awkwardness in acting on our desires.

For instance, someone might come in to therapy with a desire to quit their current job, but can't find the traction to act, as if they were standing in tennis shoes on an ice skating rink. Or another might want to deal with their sense of physical sluggishness, with an insight that their lack of freedom of motion has something to do with what's going on--or not going on--in their minds. And it seems to me that the basic goal of both these people is to unify desire and action, to find ease in the doing of our lives.

I remember practicing judo in college, and in the midst of a sparing session I found the "sweet spot" and tossed my opponent over my shoulder with virtually no effort. The experience was of power without force, and both openness and action in the same motion. There was me doing the throwing, but not just me. Feeling deeply open to my opponent and to myself, mindful of where I was in relationship to him, and the floor, and my muscles, and the space of the room, allowed for effortless action, and a sense of liberation. I think that if any of us looks back through our history, we'll find such moments, and see that they often provided impetus for change and opening to something deeper in ourselves.

So it seems that all practices, including psychotherapy, aim at reminding us that it is possible to move in the world without so much struggle, and intend to give us ways to practice, as it were, adjusting our various robes with ease and simplicity.

(Resources: Plum Village and the Wikipedia Wikipedia entry on Hanh.)
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