David Rynick is the husband of Melissa Blacker and, with her, co-teacher at the Boundless Way Zen Temple in Worcester. He is also a potter, and some of his pieces are displayed on the temple grounds.
When I first visited the temple in 2013, David told me a story which I have frequently repeated since. His initial efforts at meditation were difficult. “I hated sitting still. You know, some people talk about, ‘Oh, the first time I sat it was great.’ I was like, ‘Oh fuck! I’m gonna die!’ My mind was going crazy! But I knew it was the path, and so I started sitting two minutes a day. ’Cause that’s all I could tolerate. And I figured if I tried half an hour a day, I’d last a week. So two minutes a day. I’d set my little timer, and I’d be just about jumping out of my skin.”
Six years later, I remind him, “When we first spoke, you told me you ‘chased enlightenment’ for the first ten years of your practice. Do people still do that? When newcomers arrive at the door in Worcester are they looking for enlightenment?”
“You know, people don’t often use that language. People often use the language, ‘I want to be peaceful. I don’t want to be anxious anymore. I want to have a clear mind.’ It’s interesting that ‘enlightenment’ isn’t often in the vocabulary of the people. I think we’re a much more secular culture than we were forty years ago, fifty years ago.”
“What’s your job then?” I ask. “When someone knocks at the door for the first time, what is it you do?”
“I would say my job is to see the Buddha in each person.” My expression is probably a little skeptical, but he doesn’t back down. “That is, I think, probably the most important thing I do. In that meeting of hearts when I’m with you, and you are with me, if I can see and appreciate that, that shifts what’s possible for you.”
“So I knock at the door. I’m not looking for enlightenment, but I want to be a little less anxious. What are you going to do for me?”
“I’m going to appreciate that you walked in the door. What an incredible thing. That you really want something, don’t you? So I will inquire, ‘What are you here for? What do you really want?’ And once we clarify what you want – ‘I want to be free from anxiety’ – I might say, ‘So, let me tell you that when we practice here, we’re actually not trying to control our mind. The truth is that sometimes human beings feel anxious. So what we are doing is increasing our capacity to be with what is here.”
The way to do that is through meditation. And generally newcomers are introduced to breath practice, which, David explains, is a four step process.
“The first step is being present with the breath. The second step is wandering away. This is an essential ingredient in breath practice. Most people are pretty good at it. But it must happen. The third step is something miraculous, that at some point you become aware that you have wandered away, and that is a moment of awakening. And the fourth is then that we can choose to return to this moment, to this breath. And every time we return, we’re strengthening our capacity to be here. So the more times you wander away,” he says, chuckling softly, “the better your practice is, the more you increase this capacity.”
“And if I were a new person,” I say, “I suspect my next question would be, ‘So how’s that going to help me feel less anxious?’”
“Anxiety is unavoidable, but part of the problem we human beings have is that not only do we feel anxious but that we suffer because we don’t want to feel anxious. So there are mind states that we resist. I don’t want to feel anxious. I don’t want to feel angry. I don’t want to feel sad. But what we resist persists. Whatever we try to push away gets more energy and gets bigger. So as we learn that human beings feel anxious, sad, happy, clear, cloudy, all of those, as we open up to what is here, then feelings come and go on their own accord. Then anxiety is not a problem to be fixed but is how I feel sometimes.”
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 200-01, 207-08, 209, 210, 211, 212, 214, 215-222, 228, 418
The Story of Zen: 386
Zen Conversations: 75-79