At The Oars (with Brownies for Sustenance)

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Si tu demandes une question aux maîtres, ils vont te donner la réponse qui va le plus te faire galèrer.

I could translate this like this:

“If you ask a question of the masters, they’re going to give you the answer that will make you work the most.” Reasonable enough. However, this misses the more particular sense of the word “galèrer.” It comes from the word “galère,” as in a galley, one of those enormous wooden ships built by nations in days of old that were out to take over the world. The verb “galèrer” refers to the dolorous business of rowing said craft when the winds were down. So now you see.

IMG_1843My friend Loïc said this to me last week in relation to the nature of planning one’s life around the study and practice of Dharma–what the Buddha taught. At the time I thought, “Pfft, everything about my journey has been super natural thus far. One week I was in Santa Barbara, the next in India, and now I live in France. I hardly had to anything but show up. It all just happened. Clearly this whole rowing-a-giant-boat business is a matter of perspective. He must be overthinking things.”

Yesterday I had a meeting with Jigme Rinpoche, a master teacher in the Kagyu Lineage and the spiritual guide of the center. I had a simple question: “Do you think it’s appropriate for me to prepare for a long-term retreat?” He had a simple answer: “Yes, I think it’s good.”

I promptly floundered. I had been mentally anticipating this meeting for weeks, debating about asking this question for months, considering this possible path for years. I crafted an extremely precise and thoroughly reflected e-mail just to request the meeting. Seventy-two seconds after showing up…that was it. I queried for more specific directives; books to read, things to do. Rinpoche nodded and said, “Yes, I think it’s good you came back. You live here in the community; keep studying, meditate, prepare for some years.”

IMG_1849And just like that, my whole life is different. By being the same. Somehow I thought that the decision to prepare for retreat, to someday do a long retreat, would instantaneously catapult my days and thoughts into a more enlightened form. I thought that something important and tangible would change. I think I thought life would get easier. That making a big choice would somehow get me out of making all the little hard choices that fill up a day.

Read or draw? Meditate in a rush before dinner or sleepily after dinner? Write a blog post or answer e-mails? Start learning Tibetan or start a new art series? Shredded carrots or beets with lunch?

These questions don’t go away. They seem small and silly written out, but they tend to be enormous and weighty in the course of day. I was so hoping that settling on a big important goal would get me out of these kinds of questions, of the business of everyday life. But the thing about Dharma, the thing about masters, is that all they ever do is throw you back into the business of life. Because life is where transformation happens. Even though retreat often seems like a method of stepping out of life for a while, it’s actually the opposite. In retreat, you spend nearly all day meditating, which to me means watching my brain argue with itself until the futility becomes apparent. Then, calm starts to arise on its own.

The business of life is no different. Watching myself fight out these questions until I learn to ask them more peacefully. When I stop and think about it, nothing seems more sensible than that preparation for retreat comprises the same activity as the rest of life.  Make art; make food; study Dharma; meditate; be a person in the world with other people. Try to be patient. Try to be kind.

The brownies I made for a friend whose ship is taking him away from France and back to the US, and eventually to India. Transition times, even when transition means coming to terms with life staying the same, necessitate a bit of comfort food to offer the finest thread of stability when all else becomes fluid. If you have any childhood brownie memories, these are likely to be the perfect fit. They are chewy and dense and rich, almost veering toward underbaked even when fully done, but without hitting that mouth-glued-together effect that causes some brownie recipes to flounder. Also, they have the crackliest of crackly tops. And finally, they are ridiculously simple to make, practically the most basic recipe I’ve ever used and definitely the best so far.

Recipe follows…

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