Dorkiness and the path to mastery

December 6, 2011   |   3 Comments  |   FavoriteLoadingAdd to favorites


Late last year, I flew out to Shambhala Mountain Center, a beautiful retreat center in the Colorado Rockies where I teach frequently, to be one of a bunch of meditation instructors staffing a month long meditation program. In my sangha, this program, called Dathun (which means month-long retreat in Tibetan, unsurprisingly), has been going on for over 30 years and has a very proscribed form. It is very intense and deep, although anyone can do it (and has).

In addition to meeting with students one on one, each MI also had an additional area of responsibility: to be a point person for health issues or study materials and so on. My role was “Oryoki Master.”

Oryoki (which means “just enough” in Japanese) is a form of practice adapted from the Zen tradition and is a way of taking your meals in the shrine room so that the practice container isn’t broken. Otherwise, at meal times we might dissolve into socializing and chit-chat. Oryoki is a way of saying “there is no break from working with your mind. Even when we’re eating, we’re still holding our minds meditatively.”

It is a truly amazing form. To serve, consume, and clean up after a meal takes about 30-40 minutes from first gong to last and once service is done, there are no leftovers and no dirty dishes. It is very efficient and also highly, highly detailed. We sit in quadrants and the person closest to the shrine is served first. (Here are some photos.) You hold out your second bowl to receive food in one hand, but the third bowl you present with two. When not in use, chopsticks rest on the second bowl, tips at 5:00. Like that. There are 23 pages of instructions on how to take a single meal.

When I participated in my first Dathun, oryoki was what I most dreaded, not the 5 or 6 hours of cumulative sitting, not the weeks away from email, not the possibility of altitude sickness. I’m a picky eater, the kind who will pick out over- or under ripe tomatoes from her salad. I have a smallish appetite and if I have to clean my plate, I’m in trouble. In oryoki, however, there is no talking and although there are little hand gestures to indicate to servers “just a little” or “no more”, you have to eat what’s on your plate otherwise you won’t be able to wash, dry, and put it away when the time comes.

To my surprise, I fell in love with the practice. There is something so incredibly beautiful about it, once everyone gets the form down, which takes pretty much the whole month. In the meantime, though, you see so clearly your longing to “get it right.” The judgments you lay on yourself for the smallest reason. The importance of attuning to the state of mind of those around you so you can make it through this practice together. How defenseless we are (and need be) when learning something new. The whole thing is just so frigging touching. Every aspect of oryoki shows us our own and others’ vulnerability and lovability. I can’t explain why. You’d have to try it to see for yourself, and I hope you will.

So what qualified me to be an oryoki “master” beyond my love of the practice? Well, not a damn thing. And, as the date drew closer and closer, I remember one additional detail about the practice: I actually sucked at it. I used the wrong hand gestures. I dropped food. I could never figure out how exactly to fold all the napkins. I had conveniently forgotten this all this.

On the flight to Denver, I was thinking what the hell did I get myself into? Not only am I not good at oryoki, it is a practice that makes people very, very cranky. (Why can’t I just put the food in my damn mouth, why do I have to fold my napkin in thirds, how come I can do it right but everyone else is screwing up, how come I’m screwing it up when everyone else is doing it right, and so on.) If the oryoki master hems and haws, irritation doubles. Will I be able to enter them into the practice with confidence or will my own inadequacies screw it up for them? WHAT HAVE I TAKEN ON?! I was pretty nervous.

My plan was to meet with a guy named Greg Smith who lived at Shambhala Mountaint Center and IS an actual oryoki master. He had most graciously agreed to help me prepare and I was thrilled. (Greg is an amazing thangka painter and dharma teacher, plus an all-around fantastic guy. Here is some of his work.)

At our first meeting, I was nervous for him to see how little I actually knew about oryoki and was ready to assure him that I planned to completely throw myself into the memorization of the technique (all 23 pages) until I had it down, and quick. I had in fact been up since 430a, going over and over the instructions in preparation for our lesson. 50 people would be arriving in 36 hours and I had to tell them what they needed to know in order to get food in their stomachs. Retreat is hard enough. You don’t want to screw with peoples’ heads when it comes to their chow.

As we opened the instruction manual, I said to him, “I’m really excited about this. I love oryoki so much—it is one of my favorite practices. Oh, and also, I’m pretty bad at it.” “Excellent,” he said. “That combo will make you the perfect oryoki master” and then proceeded to lay on me some major, major insights into the practice, although none exceeded that first insight: that loving something in combination with awkwardness is actually an ideal situation for developing mastery.

Think about it. When you do something (whether it’s painting, hiking, HTML coding, or kissing), if you feel like you’ve already got it down, you miss the actual experience. Uncertainty creates receptivity. Awkwardness implies a kind of freshness, rather than doing it by rote. Beginner’s Mind has got to include some dorkiness, otherwise it’s not Beginner’s Mind.

So remember: when you feel those little (or big) cringes of embarrassment or fear of failure or whatever it is that prevents you from going deeper with what you love, be grateful. This is the gateway to mastery. Take your clumsiness as a sign that you’ve reached a new frontier and if you can go forward with both the love and the gawkiness intact, you’re in great shape. It’s the perfect combo.

In the meantime, definitely memorize those 23 pages of instructions. Do your homework, over and over. Don’t leave anything to chance. It takes a lot of preparation and discipline to be a truly intelligent dork.

And of course our meditation practice is the cultivation of just this kind of mindset. If you have been practicing and feeling uncertain or ungainly about it, brilliant. If you feel like you’re never quite going to get it right, high five. If you keep showing up anyway, you officially rock.

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  • Posted by:  Michelle Huber

    I love how you describe and embrace the “dorkiness” of learning something new. And the insight as to why I love the learning part (being in the dork moment) and grow bored by expertise (no longer participating in the moment). Love it! Embrace dorkiness!!!

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Dorkiness is good. You are good! xo S

  • Posted by:  Karen Talavera

    I just started teaching yoga this year and every time I work a new pose or series into the class and feel dorky or stiff doing it, I’m reminded I am student as well as teacher. And I enjoy the class that much more. I know deep down, I’m teaching it for me, not them. I think you understand.

    Blessed as I am to live in south Florida I did a sunrise meditation today (literally facing the sunrise on my balcony) but was thrust again and again into “Beginner’s Mind” as I was distracted by the beautiful water birds fishing for their morning meal in the little lake behind my house. How could I keep my eyes closed to such outer beauty? Abundance of life? Although the regular practice of meditation reminds us this is within as well, today I indulged in the childlike distraction of the beginner and savored nature. Just another step to mastery I guess 🙂

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