Myo On Susan Linnell is a Zen priest in the Rinzai-ji order living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is also a studio artist. “I think of myself as a monk/artist,” she tells me. Her hair is cropped, and she is wearing meditation robes as we speak.
“Studio artists are an isolated group of people. I don’t think I realized that until late in life. Actually I found Zen through the art world. Zen practice and meditation practice is not totally different from painting practice or art practice. So for me the two are now completely fused.”
We are both in the age group most severely impacted by the covid virus and talk about the difference between the way the pandemic has been handled in Canada – where I live – and in US. At the time of our conversation – the end of July 2020 – there had been less than 9000 covid-related deaths in Canada whereas the US death-toll already exceeded 150,000 persons. When I posted this profile, on September 6th, the totals had risen respectively to 9071 (245 deaths per million) and 177,013 (532 per million).
“I had an experience with a friend of mine just the other night,” Myo On tells me. “We were in a Zoom meeting together and afterwards we spoke for just a very few minutes. She’s working in the health industry with patients, and she’s clearly very stressed. I could see visibly just how suffering she is. ‘I’m very tired. I’m very upset. I’m not patient. I’m not kind to my patients.’ She was very disturbed by this. And this is a person who’s been practicing for about five years, and when I practice with her she appears to be a really great student. And she said, ‘The patients ask too many questions. I don’t have time. I have so many things I have to do, and so I lose patience.’ She was just so distraught. So I thought I needed to offer her something to work with, and I said, ‘What do you do?’ And she said, ‘Well, I’m focussed on the breath.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, of course, very good. But can I offer you something else?’ And what came to mind was Kosho Uchiyama’s book, Opening the Hand of Thought. And I just gave her that as a practice image. I thought it might be a way for her to focus.”
It is a technique, based on the Buddhist concept of mindful awareness, that she had taught before, even to people in jail.
“‘Present moment awareness in the body as the body only’ is how I think the Buddha expressed it. Uchiyama’s instruction is to recognize that the mind has the habit of making a fist around its fear, a fist around its suffering, a fist around its worry, and so forth. I use it myself all the time, because I can wake up worrying about my family or worrying in a most general way about everything that’s going on, and I literally use it to drop the hand and open the hand of thought.”
“So if I were to come to you,” I say, “and told you that I was anxious about the current situation – I turn on CNN every morning and see those numbers on the side of the screen and can’t stop thinking about them – how would this help me?”
“People always say, ‘Live in the present moment,’ and I say, ‘Yes. Okay. Perfect. But how?‘ The question is not whether or not you should live in the present! No serious person disputes this. But how do you do this? And the answer is ‘Present moment awareness in the body as the body only. This is the path and this is the destination.’ That is the Buddha’s teaching in his words.
“So, what does he means by that? I’m going to give you the physical example, but it’s the same with covid-fear or covid-anxiety. Let’s say I’m sitting, reading a novel, and I have knee trouble, and the pain in my knee kicks in. And our habitual untrained response to this can be that first you put your hand on the pain, but then you think, ‘Oh, no! Not again!’ And then the mind goes to, ‘Why did I lift those boxes yesterday, and I put on the wrong shoes, and why did I eat that, on and on.’ Whatever your mind habitually does around that particular issue, and you’re off to the races. So the way to live without being hounded in this way by your anxiety or fear is when the pain arises in the knee or the anxiety arises in the chest or if you perceive it in your head or your heart, then you must learn to practice going to the body, staying in the body, experience it as it is in the body. So the question is, you said, you see the numbers and ‘I can’t stop thinking about it.’ So the thinking mind will continue unless you wake up in your body. So you need to leave wherever it is that you are doing that is keeping you from paying attention to your body. If you have a garden, go to your garden and work. If you have dirty dishes in the sink, go wash those dishes. And experience the washing of the dishes. So when the mind wants to go back to covid while you’re washing the dishes, you have to come back to the soap on your hands. If you’re digging in the garden and the mind goes to the covid, you have to come to the temperature of the soil, to how your hands feel in the dirt. To what the sun is like on the back of your neck.
“It is always very simple, but not easy until you break the habit of leaving the body. Or develop the habit of returning to and remaining awake in the body as the body only.”