Toxic Stories, how to purge them

I had a sudden awakening this morning, the kind you cannot plan. My mind would not be still. So I took it to the San Francisco Zen Center for the early chanting service. But they were having a way seeking talk instead. As my mind’s RAM was full, I didn’t feel like feeding it more story. I wanted out of story. So I sat meditation downstairs in the gaitan for 20 minutes or so. Then home again. Still had a monkey mind. So I took it to the San Francisco Bay. In my threadbare suit, I eased on in to the 55 degree F water. It was borderline ice cream headache cold. But I kept at it through fully 10 minutes of resistance (why am I doing this? turn back now!). I let the swells rise up my calves, thighs, lower trunk, upper trunk, arms, armpits. All the time my mind was not at ease. I paddled around in water over my head, never more than 30 or 40 feet offshore. I wanted to get out after maybe five minutes. Then, a sudden calm overcame me. It descended so fully and completely—one second I’m thrashing to get out, next second, I’m blissed out—it was all the more sweet for its swiftness. I was aware of just being present with the Bay, wearing it sort of, under beautiful leaden skies, wind spraying my face, gulls teasing, the Balclutha listing, masts creeking, the Golden Gate in the distance, the wooden 1877 Dolphin Club promising to warm my bones when this all passed. I was so calm, it was scary. I thought I could take a nap in this frigid water. But ten minutes into the calm, my jaw started chattering (my mind at least had stopped). I know the signs of hypothermia, so I paddled toward shore, resigned to accepting the law of impermanence that my Zen practice drills into me.

Even suffering doesn’t last. Do nothing and all will pass. Do something and all will pass. That guy who said heaven and earth will pass, but my words will not, must have been a writer. Writers feel this way about their words, even if they don’t admit it to themselves. So, this calm was a writerly gift. Here, I had gone to the Zen Center to have my mind stop ch-ch-chattering, to purge its contents of all storylines. But, while meditating, no sooner would I catch one story beginning to take root, then another would replace it, and another it, and another it, ad infinitum. You might think that storylines are writer’s gold. No, they are fool’s gold. That mind is a threat to real story. We writers need to purge our minds periodically, flush out all the debris of old tape, false fable, fake glory, faux pas, mutant truisms that leech onto the vulnerable mind (like from schmedia, my shorthand for social media). We must become the empty mirror, the clean slate, the child not yet tainted by knowledge yet chock full of native wisdom. Then the deep narrative can flourish.

So all this schmedia is like particulate in the air of Creation. We need to oxygenate the mind from time to time. Get away from electronics, TV, radio, ear buds. For me, it is in nature where I can let go of the “cache” file buildup and the “cookies” that get stored in the recesses of our minds only to reach critical mass. With all the skimming of Web stories, surfing the Net, speed reading my mind gets to feeling so gorged, I long for the virtual-room equivalent of the Romans’ vomitorium. I prefer to not let things go that far.

This Sunday, Dec. 2, at the San Francisco Zen Center, begins a seven-day sesshin (Japanese for “mind training”). Some hundred participants will sit zazen meditation daily from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. in a dimly lit zendo. Each sits upon a black cushion and faces a blank white wall and ostensibly just breathes. Each one, in various stages of desperation, allows stories to arise and tries to let them go. In seven days’ time, a gazillion stories will have arisen among those 100 in that zendo on aptly named Page Street and they will fall away. By week’s end the pitch that was palpably shrill and frenetic will have calmed to the equivalent of a slow ripple on a mountain lake. The stories will be either purged, dissipated, or held in abeyance with refreshed eyes, the monitor to the soul.

I have done this sesshin a good half-dozen times over the years and I regret I cannot do it this year. It is called Rohatsu. It celebrates the Buddha’s awakening and entering into enlightenment. (This little comparison has always intrigued me: That Christians celebrate Christ’s birth in December and his death and rising into heaven in spring, while the Buddhists celebrate the reverse—the Buddha is said to have been born in April.)

There is nothing like Rohatsu for “refreshing the page” cleaning out the mind, Big Mind, small mind. This stillness done with others in support is rapturous eventually, after the pain passes. Each day of sesshin is a sort of death to the obsessive story and a rebirth to the pure mind, Buddha mind (Buddha means “awakened”) or if you like to the Christ-Child mind. It seems to happen gradually. You hardly recall by the end of the week the wild monkey mind you entered this container with. And although I can’t afford the time away from work this year, there is that icy saltwater Bay. A 20-minute dip and the sudden cleansing of mental dirt and grime . . . if only I could make it happen on demand.


  1. Dear Camille-

    I so admire what you do, the way you do it. Your grit, your fearlessness shines bright. Your commitment to yourSelf, the way you step into physical pain, the way you calm the chatter of your mind, the knowing that like pleasure, it all passes is…. brilliant! (God! swimming in the bay is just short of having to do radiation or chemo to me! Yikes!)

    You know, it’s funny or interesting ….that….the reason I’m posting here is I was looking for a quote on the cycles of life, birth and death and the first page I opened was to your post on dailyreads~! You are so on my radar dear woman and I heard just what I needed to. Thank you!!!