Monday, June 11, 2012

Going Round With A Stick Is Not For Me


Back in November, I blogged about becoming a Zen choir boy. Or second zendo leader, as the official term has it. Now I've decided that going around with a stick on alternate Thursdays was a bit too much excitement for me and stopped doing it.

The role kind of blindsided me from the start. There are little parts to play in the zazen ritual, like banging on the han and lighting the incense, which I was already doing anyway, so when they asked if I could do the stick thing on Thursdays, I didn't really think anything of it and said "Sure, why not?" I like the ritual after all, and am happy to help it along.

I only realized that there's anything more to it a week or so later when I got an email invitation to a zendo leaders' meeting. I was like, Huh? A meeting, for walking around with a stick on alternate Thursdays? From there on out, I felt a bit uncomfortable about the whole thing. Initially it was just about learning how to do the stick thing and the bell thing, but once I had that more or less figured out, the discomfort didn't abate; if anything, it got worse.

Don't get me wrong, the zendo leaders' group is a great set of people, and I'm chuffed they asked me to be a part of it. And it's not like it's any huge and rare honor to be asked to do the stick thing; there are some 100-odd people on the membership roster, and some 20 or so zendo leaders. And in the end it really is about nothing more than going around with the stick on alternate Thursdays.

But. There is baggage that comes with it. There is a feeling of being in an "inner circle." There are pressures and expectations, imaginary or otherwise, to do more, participate more, practice more. Suddenly if I flap my mouth about something or other, it's perceived differently. It's not just me flapping my mouth, it's an HZC zendo leader flapping his mouth. In any case I started feeling increasingly antsy about being no longer entirely my own person; being publicly associated with the HZC even in a role as minor as this. That stuff I think and say is also seen as representing the group and the tradition in some way. That if I disagree with someone else in the group – which hasn't happened all that much, by the way – it's in some way an "internal disagreement in the group" rather than just two people disagreeing. That my opinions aren't just some random guy's opinions; they're opinions that feed into the loop that ends up hammering out decisions about how the group is run.

That creates problems.

One problem is that I have a loud voice. I'm good at arguing my point, in writing and in person, and I do it vigorously. I rarely run out of points to argue. I have a personality that takes up space. Sometimes that's a good thing, and I imagine some people envy me for it. But it has a very big downside, which is that just by being there and speaking my mind, I make it more difficult for quieter, more introverted people to speak up, even if what they have to say is way more insightful, wise, or relevant than whatever I'm going on about. That also gives them stuff to feel frustrated and anxious about, which isn't good either. This has gotten me into trouble more than once. I have entirely without intending to walked over people. They have been hurt, and sometimes avoidable screw-ups have happened.

I'm not saying it's all bad of course; I am right too, from time to time, and I can point to things where I've argued forcefully for positions many people thought but nobody wanted to say, and some really serious mistakes were avoided. Sometimes you need someone to rock the boat, and in such cases, I'm your guy. But then you have to get rowing again, and that's when I become an impediment.

All this kind of came home to me after I locked horns with Uku on his blog a couple weeks ago. That took a toll, and it could've ended much worse than it did; we did bury the hatchet eventually, and at least I think a good deal better of him now than I did before the blow-up, so it wasn't all bad. One reason I felt uncomfortable enough to go off like that was the discomfort I felt being officially associated with the tradition. And naturally my being a zendo leader at HZC meant that there was a good deal more charge to the drama than there would otherwise have been within the group as well.

To make it clear, nobody's been wagging their finger at me for being a naughty boy or anything. More the contrary. Perhaps many of the people who really think I screwed up won't speak up about that either, for the same reason they think I screwed up – i.e., they don't want to provoke more conflict and confusion. That would be logical and consistent. Be as it may, I caused confusion and drama which I did not want, and that confusion and drama was due as much to my being a zendo leader as due to what I said. I'm not much good at changing myself – although that, too, is happening, slowly – but I can change where I'm sitting. At this point it's better that I'm facing the wall, not the room.

I've been in this dynamic before, and I could see it playing out again. I've tallied that over the past ten years or so, I've been enmeshed in six conflicts with similar features, not counting individual flare-ups that didn't have any followup. Of the outcomes of those six, I would say that two ended up materially better through my involvement and probably could not have been resolved without a certain amount of drama, two others ended up a net positive but with an unnecessarily large amount of upset and hurt feelings, one was a complete waste of energy from everyone involved with everybody ending up more or less where they started with perhaps the only gain being a hard-earned lesson on how not to do that exact thing between those exact people again, and one was mostly just unnecessarily hurtful, although everybody who got hurt – myself included – has more or less picked themselves up and moved on since. A mixed bag.

This stuff is draining. Every time it happens, I resolve that this is it, I'm not going to do this again. But one or two years later, I do.

Another repeating pattern has been that after the conflict I was involved in got resolved, I stepped away from the position where I provoked that conflict, which allowed things to settle down into their new configuration. At work, for example, I asked to be relieved of all my 'leadership' roles and went back to a pure 'expert' role. That's worked out well for everybody. Anyway if I really feel that the boat needs shaking again, I can do it from where I am too.

If I had realized that there was more to this than just going round with a stick, I'd have said thanks but no thanks from the get-go. Once in it, I figured I'd give it a try and see what it feels like. It's now been six months. I think I now have an idea, and it's not for me. So I stopped. I'm still happy to ring bells from time to time and hammer the wooden thing and stuff, but in a strictly unofficial capacity. I'll also continue blogging and commenting in a purely personal capacity if there's something I want to say, and if someone doesn't like it, they're free to comment, or not.

So if there are any HZC folks reading this, I'll be seeing you at the zendo. I'm sorry for letting the Thursday team down, but I'm sure you'll find a replacement. I won't be quoting any lines from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta just yet.


  1. I used to have similar issues before I became self-employed.

    As a 'senior manager' I was expected to suborn my personality and views to those of the firm and the directors and it took me almost 20 years to realise and accept that I would simply never be able to do it.

    I eventually sought advice from a psychologist who specialised in workplace environments and after some testing, was advised that I was almost certainly blessed with/suffering from Aspergers as well as having a Myers Briggs INTP personality type.

    The shrink said that I should never try managing people or working in teams as I would never be happy and neither would anyone else involved!

    There was no stick with any of the roles I had though, which is a shame!

  2. Interesting to read your process on this. I have questions, but don't want to come off as nosy or trying to change your mind. I trust you to make good decisions for yourself, of course. (And hell, we've never met, so what do I know?)

    After reading this, it seems to me that you have a vigilant eye on yourself and your behavior. So I'm left wondering why it can't be just walking around with a stick on alternate Thursdays. Is the pressure to get more heavily involved in a leadership role real or is it imaginary? If it's real, can you say "no?" If it's imaginary, well.... what of it then? If it's just about being required to pack more meetings into your busy schedule, are they compulsory? These are small details, perhaps, but that's what I wonder at the end.

  3. You know, Algernon, I don't really know.

    Of those things I listed, perhaps the most important are that (1) my already loud voice gets louder and starts to drown out other voices which shouldn't be drowned out, and (2) said loud voice, by virtue of its loudness, becomes a representative voice of HZC zendo leaders, which is something I think would be wrong. I really don't want to find myself speaking for other people who didn't ask me to speak for them.

    I'm not able to change my voice, at this time anyway, but I can speak up from the back of the room instead of the front. That solves the problem, or at least makes it much smaller.

    Or put another way: just going round with a stick on Thursdays is not something I'm able to do. I keep doing other things which get in the way, and at this point I don't feel like dealing with those other things.

    Or put yet another way: I find it hard to shrug off imaginary things even if I know they're imaginary.

    Or put even more simply, I just don't want to, and since nobody's making me, I won't.

    1. "Just going round with a stick on Thursdays is not something I'm able to do. I keep doing other things which get in the way, and at this point I don't feel like dealing with those other things."

      That makes sense to me.

  4. I forgot to ask: what is the purpose of the stick?

  5. You hit people with it.

    Okay, that sounded a bit weird.

    We normally do three rounds of 30 minutes of seated meditation. Sometimes you get drowsy or achy or distracted. In the middle of the round, one of the zendo leaders gets up and goes around the place with a flat stick called a kyosaku. If you want to, you can raise your hands palms together when s/he goes by, and s/he'll give you two sharp raps on each shoulder with it. That helps.

  6. Well, somebody's got to do it.

  7. Yeah, I get it. Luckily in some ways enough of us improve over time to make such things possible. Like certain cheeses or wines.

  8. Yeah, who knows. I'm not saying I won't ever do that sort of thing. It's just not what I want to do from where I am at this time.