Friday, July 18, 2008

Take Your Seats

When we take the seat, we become our own monastery. We create the compassionate space that allows for the arising of all things. So Jack Kornfield (A Path With Heart) begins his chapter on preparing to worship – or, in his lexicon, to meditate. Jon Kabat-Zinn (Wherever You Go, There You Are) continues with his thoughts on the same topic: there is a strong sense of honouring place and placement of body and mind and moment (as we take our seat).

To the uninitiated, the un-mindful, perhaps even the disrespectful, the time (and space) before ritual is just that – room to chatter, to finish up last minute bits of business, to diffuse the nervous energy that sadly pervades our culture when its occupants are confronted with silence. I sit in theatre as the ‘show is about to begin’ and am amazed, make that appalled, by the residual ‘chitch’ (as a colleague is fond of naming idle prattle) that floats in the air once the lights are dimmed and Richard (or James or whoever chastens the noisy patrons to shut off the watch alarms and cell phones) has intoned his solemn prohibition. I (used to) stand at the start of a foot race and hear incidental accounts of last night’s pasta feed, the projected splits for two, five and eight K, the commentary on Mary’s new shoes – all intruding on the attempt to centre, focus, ground, to set fully for an important (in those days) ritual.

The capacity to listen unspeaking and indeed, to respect the individual’s need to prepare him/herself for ceremony has sadly been lost to the compulsive urgency to ‘communicate’. With the latest ‘innovation’ in communication technology –- whatever version of I-phone we’re now up to – the Globe & Mail reported text messaging to have increased ten fold in the past few years. I am passed by all manner of pedestrians (and cyclists!), oblivious to their surround, bent forward, sending or receiving what I can only assume to be mindless and largely unnecessary bits of dialogue, text. That Blackberries are now more aptly described as ‘crackberries’, that PDA-free zones are being established in resorts, and cell phones use banned or limited in a variety of venues bear testament to the near-addictive, ubiquitous, and frowned upon nature of these compulsions.

At a gathering of friends recently, a serendipitous set of circumstances thrust us all into five (seemed like fifty-five) minutes of unplanned silence. As an opening to the evening, several of us had been assigned ‘roles’ within a ‘modified liturgy’ – with the expectation that as one finished another would take up the baton. As luck would have it, not all shared the same ‘script’ – injecting a protracted ‘gap’ into the sequence. It was not long before fidgeting commenced, watches were covertly eyed, nervous glances cast at the next (presumed) presenter, himself sublimely oblivious to the ‘order of service’. Ultimately our host provided the requisite nudge to get things going again – but not before those present had opportunity to move through a surprisingly complex sequence of thought – given that ‘nothing’ was going on: an expected moment of reflection?; is it my turn?; is this a test of some sort? And with it the chance to share responses to the experience. We broke into two camps: those whose discomfort grew as the seconds ticked by, needing to scratch that compulsive itch (to speak); and those who settled into a resolve of sorts, bent on embracing the time and ‘emptiness’ for reverie – a preparation for the balance of the evening.

Like the sacred bow as one prepares for practice, settling, ‘taking one’s seat’ to begin service – be it a ‘full Sunday event’ or simple gathering in chapel, shared (what’s that expression) ‘where two or three are gathered together’ – is part and parcel of the sacred space, the reverential preparation for a special event. I suppose I can and should (no, I needn’t go that far) tolerate the public compulsion, the twitch to check that incoming text message, email, or phone call – wherever, whenever, and in whose ever presence.

What is becoming difficult to countenance is the incipient ‘chitch’ encroaching upon sacred events, space, and times, creeping in and squeezing these very core elements into a corner that diminishes the experience for the participants and the respect for the ritual. I expect a chapel to be a ‘no fly zone’ for those very, very brief periods through the week when a sacred event is not only in progress – but is being prepared for. I would hope that the silence that precedes a service is treated with like deference to that afforded silent prayer, interpolated into that service. A practice that I have long valued is the sounding of the tingsha, little brass cymbals whose resonant, lingering tone calls participants to collect themselves – and by implication, to fall silent. Perhaps that’s what those church bells mean?
David Howard

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