At Willow Monastic Academy, I lead chanting every day. My voice begins to break, cracking from the effort. 

The head monk, Virabhadra, draws me aside in the afternoon to give me feedback. He tells me: “ I want to hear your voice and energy more. Remember – chant like you’re about to have an existential crisis.”  

I tell him with a tremor of futility in my voice: “I’m trying. My voice isn’t strong enough.” 

Nathan, another resident who drums while I chant, walks by and pipes in: “I don’t think you’re pushing hard enough Cheryl. You’re slowing down during the Gate chant.” 

I feel frustrated at him and argue back: “Nathan. I’m pushing as hard as I can. You have to meet me in the middle.” 

Virabhadra interrupts with gentle firmness: “Cheryl, you are the chant-leader. It is your role to lead and harmonize the group. You have to chant as energetically as possible, while bringing the group together into collective samadhi. This is the tension you must hold: You have to listen at the same time as you lead.”

“You have to balance power with harmonization.” 

The Art of Harmonization

I’ve been at Willow Monastic Academy for three quarters of a 3-month residential program, allowing the time and space to fully sink into the embodiment, the deep praxis of training here. At Willow, the scholarship of my soul-directed masters becomes immersive field study: theory translates into the intense rigour and discipline of everyday, relational practice. 

At Willow, I wake up at 4:45am, chant and meditate from 5am – 6:30am, exercise from 6:30-7:30am, before we eat breakfast in noble silence. At 8:20am after a morning check-in and meeting, we enter a responsibility period where we work on Willow-related projects (ranging from strategic planning and fundraising to mowing the lawn and laying down floors) until 1pm, when we eat lunch together in silent practice. After 15 minutes of chores, we have three glorious hours of personal practice from 2-5pm – where I go for walks in the forest, lie on the grass or have calls – before we enter group practice from 5-7:30pm. We meditate and chant to end the evening at 8:30pm. On a good night, I carry the samadhi cultivated to bed, falling asleep the moment that my head hits the pillow. 

One can easily feel the daily monastic schedule to be relentless. It is firm and unyielding to shifting moods and weather patterns: whether I wake up energetic and well-rested,  or exhausted from the maelstrom of unexpected emotion – I must show up. Especially now as chant leader, nothing is hidden. The group hears and is impacted by any constriction or distraction in my voice. Morning chanting is the first challenge I meet in my training every day, of setting aside a tender ego to serve the work of cultivating collective harmony. 

And yet, rocking between calm waters and stormy seas, the strict schedule becomes as much anchor as prison. It is a steady container to hold the intensity of waves that crash through. 

Willow’s three month intensive program centres around the practice of harmonization: to skillfully move between tension and release, stuckness and flow, contraction and expansion. Ryushin Daniel Thorsen models and teaches it as an ecology of practices that cultivates one to become an “omni-harmonization agent”: a person who can step into any system across scales – a family, an organization or social system – and attenuate it towards greater harmony. Over the past 9 weeks, we’ve been training across what Ryu refers to as the five aspects of reality: Energy Body, Psyche, Relationality, Ethics, and Emptiness.

Energy body:  

We frequently ask each other at Willow: “Check in with your energy body, how do you feel?”

Primarily based on the teachings of dharma teacher Rob Burbea, the foundation of our practice is to meditate by focussing on our body as a field of energy, subtly sensing where energy moves or gets stuck in our bodies. Whether we are aware of it or not, we step into any situation tuned in to some mood, a tone or frequency. When I act from contraction in my body – a clenched heart or a dense heaviness in my belly – I am often caught up in webs of stories (“I am scared, I feel resentful”) that limit the arena of my choice-making. Harmonizing the energy body is to notice the subtle threads of tension or dissonance – and to skillfully untangle and tune oneself like an instrument towards greater expansiveness and possibility. 

As I deepen my meditation practice, I encounter moments of quiet harmony where the tumult of inner chatter falls away to stillness like the mirrored surface of water. I begin to notice the subtler ripples of vibration running through my body, tuning through them into samadhi: luminous states of wholeness that arise from inner wellsprings of energy and well-being. In Buddhism, these are described as jhāna states – embodied experiences of pleasurable absorption. Seishin, a teacher at Willow, describes how the growing capacity to access the ever-present abundance and fulfillment in our own bodies means that it becomes easier to let go of what is harmful to us and the planet. We rely less on the numbing and addictive pleasures of late Capitalist society – a beef burger, carbon-intensive vacation travel  – that feeds an inner sense of lack and scarcity that cannot be satisfied. 

As I spend more time practicing with the energy body, I’ve come to primally trust it as the compass of my deepest intuition and discernment, uncovering the path by following resonance. It allows me to be brave. By trusting in my body’s innate capacity for wisdom and well-being, it stretches my courage to intensify my compassion, building my strength and resilience to lean into the pain of deeply loving.

Psyche / psycho-emotional:

In this intensive, the value of healing intertwines with the path of awakening. In meditation, dyads and group circles, we work through emotional and trauma healing through relational support and the healing wisdom of the body. With care and gentleness, we integrate powerful psycho-technologies such as: 

  • Internal Family Systems (IFS) – A psychotherapeutic model that pluralizes the self as a system of parts with distinct roles and personalities. These parts relate with each other like a family, and can work together harmoniously, or clash and disagree with each other. 
  • Gendlin focussing – A method of tapping into felt sense by noticing what is present in the body, and relating to it by speaking to it and seeking resonance.  
  •  Bio-emotive processing – A framework that guides a person into processing experience through their emotional body, tapping into the potency of its latent wisdom (usually ignored by or buried by the mind) through physically expressive manifestation, most often crying and sobbing. 

These therapeutic practices empower self-healing: equipping us with the tools during meditation to notice and relate with what is contracted within us (e.g. fear, anger, helplessness), and to skillfully guide it to move through and come into release. These processes have allowed the group to support each other when we need help, when we need to be safely held by the larger body in order to release into states of expansiveness and integration. We do this knowing we are not professional therapists, meeting the group’s limits with humility: it is wise to know it is not our place or time to intervene, to fix or force solutions.  

Relating with the entangled depths of psyche is also a process of soul-making, as I explore through Rob Burbea’s Soulmaking Dharma and Imaginal meditation practice. When I sink and dance in the realm of the soul – turning towards the dark, tortured depths of its anguish and pathologies – I come to fall in love with the potent images and the Imaginal figures that arise from my mysteries of my psyche. I come to find the gifts in the wounds – the seed of divine longing [how am I called to serve?] in the heated clench of clinging and attachment.

Relationality:

The foundation of our relational practice is Circling, a relational modality where we share from what is most alive and arises in any given moment. We commit to speaking from what is present – even if it’s awkward, effusive, or uncomfortable. During evening group practice: when someone is bored, they say it. When someone is feeling guarded and contracted, they name it. I found a part in me that wanted to be articulate and “nice” resisting the vulnerability of this process at first, nervous to admit the less-than-perfect tensions and judgements happening in me.

And yet, circling has a revelatory quality that allows us to shift from pre-conscious scripts around how we think we “should” speak or act, to being radically open to and trusting what presently unfolds. Each of us commit to speaking from a place of owning our experiences, relating from a subjective account of what is happening in ourselves, not by speaking to a “reality” that is tempting to project onto a situation. And when we do share what we sense to be happening out in the world, we caveat how we are impacted by or perceive others through “stories”.

In this intensive, training in relationality is not limited to group activities in the zendo, but in the quotidian experiences of cohabitation together. I have never spent this much non-stop, dedicated time with the same people before – working, training, living and playing in the same container. We practice when we eat lunch together, when we wash the dishes together, when we fight together, when we make generous amounts of popcorn and watch a movie together. Living at Willow is to meet the every day work of coming into harmonious entanglement with seven strangers, who over time, become beloved friends. 

Ethics:

Throughout my life, I’ve had a troubled relationship with ethics. Steeped in the stew of cynical postmodernism, I’ve been suspicious of moral certitude, sniffing out the lingering shadows of colonialism in any prescriptive narrative for how we must act in the world. And yet deep within me, I also feel called towards goodness – there is a longing in me to live a life that leads to more goodness, truth and beauty in the world. 

In this intensive, the starting point of ethics is to follow the thread of what makes our hearts come alive, of what ignites our souls. I dare to wonder: what if there is a right way to be in the world? What if I can come to intimately know what that is, for me and for my relations? 

We explore the ethics of right action by uncovering one’s most vital values, and asking the question: “What is worth loving?”  We assume that these values are ontologically real and buried deep within us. They are already motivating our thoughts, emotions and actions, yet often through the distortion of our fears and projections. So we try to uncover and come into clarity about these values –  because when we do, we cannot help but strive to live in accord with them. Because living ethically is to feed the fire of our soul’s calling. 

I have come to see my ethos as flowing with eros – I unfold with what enables me to love more deeply as a fluid, living path. This ethical path makes demands of me that I willingly serve. My struggles become meaningful. My sacrifices become sacred. My values weave through the rivers and tissues of my body –  they become the compass by which I feel sinking, painful remorse when I fall short of my duty, that motivates me to learn from my mistakes and become more skillful and less harmful in moving forward. 

I come into harmony with ethics when I am brave enough to ask myself: what is the world that I long for, deeply in my soul? And how do I meaningfully create and live in that world right now, in the present moment?

Emptiness / Insight: 

The Buddhist concept of Emptiness [Śūnyatā] is the most liberatory aspect of the harmonization curriculum, and also the most challenging and mysterious to practice. It relates to how we let go of what we desperately cling to, at the ontological foundations of how we know and perceive in the Modern world.

Stated simply, the practice of emptiness reduces suffering. Our suffering arises from the delusion that the reasons for our pain is some terrible reality, situation or “thing” outside of us. When we do this, we cling to the very thing that we are so desperate to fix or avoid.  Emptiness is to accept that all experience is co-dependent arising: there is no inherent, independent reality outside of the way that we perceive and relate to it. 

At Willow, we practice meditating with the three characteristics of emptiness:  Aniccā [impermanence]; Duḥkha [suffering] and Anattā [no self]. When I decided to spend our three-day silent retreat on emptiness fasting completely, I suffered greatly on the first day. My mind was obsessed with tracking the passage of time, the exhaustion in my body, the gnawing in my belly. By clearing all potential distractions, the silent retreat shined a glaring light on how rapidly the mind architects stories of vicious judgement and escapist fantasy: I found myself counting down hours, wishing that the retreat would be over, and then harshly punished myself for doing so. And yet, aniccā: everything changes. I was clinging to the “reality” that I was hungry, even when my belly felt fine without eating. I was clinging to the “reality” that I was tired, even though my body was full of energy. I was clinging to duḥkha – my dissatisfaction and my suffering – and when I noticed this, something shifted in my awareness and I let it go. I began to notice how a phenomenon arising – the sensation of a stomach rumbling – doesn’t have to be perceived as “I am hungry” but simply as an experience that just as quickly drops away into a vast field of potential, from which might arise many possible ways of looking. 

As someone working in and seeking systems change, I can’t help but witness the clinging in how I relate to the ecological, social, and spiritual crises that we are entangled in. I cling to the despair that these specific systems we need are stuck and broken. I am attached to the contracted urgency of the problems that must be solved. I become so obsessed and distracted with my suffering that I forget about my capacity to love the world, and thereby remake it.

It can be easy to confuse Emptiness for a kind of nihilistic nothingness – perhaps a flavour tasted in predominant scientific materialism – and yet, it goes much deeper. For me, radical fulfillment arises from emptiness. Everything arising and passing away becomes imbued with an ever-present wholeness, with sacred meaningfulness. During our retreat, Ryu read a line from the Diamond Sutra of the Buddha:

“This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world: Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream; Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

There is wonder and beauty in emptiness. What happens when we come to know that everything we experience is timelessly ephemeral – as fleeting as a “tiny drop of dew or a bubble floating in a stream”? As writer Octavia Butler invokes, what if God is change? I become present with each moment as a divine gift. I become wholly intimate with each experience that arises and passes away. 

The worthwhile struggle of loving  

So what makes all of this work, the discipline and struggle of it, worthwhile? 

The truth is, training at Willow is relentlessly difficult work. Since I’ve been here, every day and every hour brings up new edges, new cycles of challenges to be met. I have to muster up the energy to dedicate and recommit to it all the time, especially when it is the most difficult, and the temptation to give up is the most tantalizing near. After all, all of us chose to show up here, and we can just as easily choose to leave. 

This is why we don’t do this alone, we do it with friends that we trust. When one of us is feeling existentially depleted and depressed, hopeless and inadequate –  the work to do is to show up to the check-ins and circles and be fully yourself – the full mess of it all. The rest of us support by listening and paying loving attention, and by being fully ourselves – the full mess of it all. We try to help and hug each other; we make mistakes and feel embarrassed; we accept that there is no “fix” or release and simply sit with the discomfort of stuckness, remembering aniccā: everything eventually changes and passes. 

The cycles of effortful work and release are intensely felt on our energy, emotional and physical bodies. Hurdles and challenges that feel insurmountable are met and confronted. Skillfulness is honed and sharpened by the whet of friction. 

In the wake of two particularly difficult weeks – after it felt like we were confronting hurdle after hurdle in a relentless sequence – someone gasped out: “I’m exhausted, but I feel spiritually buff.”  We all agreed, feeling the ache and soreness in our muscles, in the heat of the collective container expanding and tearing from the effort. And yet, we also knew that we were healing and growing back stronger and more resilient. 

That night, we sat together around the fire, eating s’mores and laughing under the stars. The group easefully harmonizes together for a glorious song, ending on a sustained sonorous ring… 

… falling away to the tension that inevitably arises once again. 

Harmony, Ryu emphasizes, is not the same thing as unification. The work of harmonization is far from simple. We are thrown into a world that is beautifully troubled and always in flux. It is plural. It is differentiated. There are no perfect solutions, simple fixes, final destinations. 

When I sing my “body” electric, I am harmonizing a complex ecology of living spirochetes and gut bacteria and beating heart organs feeling the energetic frequencies and clenched sensations of the Psyche, a complex ecology of exiled and frightened five-year olds protected by firefighters and divine dragons, bumping up against the complex ecology of the human beings that I live with and train with and eat soft oatmeal with apples every morning with, surrounded by the complex ecology of Willow trees, wiley insects that sneak into the zendo and get gently scooped onto a piece of paper to be released into the sunshine that warmly pours in through the windows, interacting with complex ecologies of thick metaphors and composting heroes that curl and branch like mycelium through political, economic and cultural systems collapsing and dying like the ivory-billed woodpecker or the yellow-breasted songbird or the other 22 species that are now extinct, sinking into wet, fecund soil tenderly cradling the tear-streaked skeletons of the Indigenous children and slaves that we deeply buried but are never lost, still singing their forlorn soul song through their graves.

We live through systems of systems, fields of fields folding in and over itself in processual movements of tension and release. We harmonize through diffractive, fractal resonance chambers, cacophonous and interpenetrating with many unique voices, contexts, and frequencies – a teeming multitude of past, present and future. And as Donna Haraway says, how do we come to stay with the trouble? 

For me, harmonizing with the trouble is not to find perfect synchronicity or balance, but to move and be moved into a trans-contextual dance of aliveness. It is to become sensually intimate with the push and pull, the tension and release, the agony of death and the joy of living that exists in each moment – with each in-breath and out-breath. As Nora Bateson might say, systems change cannot just be abstract – it needs to be embodied down to my elbows and feet.If I can’t feel it materially matter at the breakfast table, while I’m picking the last grains of rice off my dishes, when I feel the satisfying crunch of my feet stepping on crisp, vibrant autumn leaves in the woods, then it’s not real enough. Then I am not moving with the emergence of living systems, the implicate wholeness of the Tao that flows all around us.

I embrace harmonization as the art of living, as sacred play – a cosmopoietic dance that liberates us from being trapped in one song or story; it opens up vast, pluri-dimensional horizons that diffract into more ways of seeing, more ways of tuning, more ways of healing, more ways of creating. And being a good dancer requires patience, practice and skillfulness: you cannot just will or force yourself into a fluid step with rhythm and flow. With my first forays onto the dance floor, I am shy, careful and over-polite at first, looking around to find and learn the right moves. And over time, with more practice, I become more comfortable in my body to the point where awareness of it dissolves away. I abandon myself to ecstatic dance. 

The art that is meaningful to us is the music that moves us to tears, it is the dance that pulls us into the exuberance of effervescent joy, the juicy movement of thick muscles and sensual energy. I sense that when we enter the creative dance of eros, experiences of vibrant harmony break through the clouds and the struggle of making new worlds eases into the flow of wu-wei – the Taoist spirit of effortless, harmonious action.

I realize that I decided to stay at a Buddhist monastery not because I seek a life of perfect equanimity, or to finally escape the cycles of worldly samsara into awakening. I came to passionately fall in love with the world so that I can serve it.

My deeper felt sense of time at Willow is not linear, but spirals: in slow, devotional circles around Riilke’s primordial tower; or with swirling intensity like a vortex, fiercely coiling energy and heat around my soul’s calling as strange attractor. I came to meet my Angel out ahead, surrendering to what philosopher Jean Gebser calls primordial trust around a path that unfolds through rippling, widening circles.

I came to feel the fiery burn of planetary loving, made more fierce and passionate because it co-arises with pain of pathos and the weight of responsibility. And I came to learn how to hold the fire wisely: to become a vessel that is powerful enough to contain the heat, to know when to cool it with the waters of Emptiness, and to know how to feed it with my soul’s longing.

Re-en[chanting] the world 

Being chant-leader at Willow has been subtly reshaping me everyday, building range in my voice and breath, cultivating energy in my body. I responded lightly when the role was first offered to me. “Sure, I’ll lead chanting,” I said with a slight shrug. It was more additional work, memorizing and guiding the seven chants that begin and end our day, but seemed easy enough. 

Virabhadra, who had held the chant-leading role, steadily emphasized that the chant-leader is considered one of the most important positions in a monastery. The mantras that we chant and come from a deep and time-honoured lineage of Buddhism, crossing languages from Pāli to English to Japanese. Everyday, I must honour and draw from this ancient lineage, harmonizing with the echoes of the ancestors who have chanted these words before. 

I quickly learned about the vulnerability of chanting. When I don’t put energy into a chant, it is heard and felt by the group. When I lose steadfast concentration or make a mistake, the group stumbles with me. When I fall out of sync with Nathan, the drummer, the group falls out of harmonization. And yet, there are experiences of sublime harmonization: where we ecstatically sing om mani padme om with heart-opening joy, or collective tune into the guttural, primordial opening of the Gate Gate, heart sutra chant. 

Since I’ve been here, I’ve been repeating a mantra to myself: “I sing the body electric.” It is the title of a poem written by Walt Whitman, arrived to me from the dharma teacher Rob Burbea in his retreat “Re-Enchanting the Cosmos”. Rob passed away last year, but has been alive for me as a teacher throughout this intensive, encountered through his recordings and in the realms of the Imaginal. 

Rob connects the practice of enchantment to chanting, noting its relationship with the French word chanter, meaning to sing. When we chant and sing, we tune the frequencies of sound and words towards something beautiful, we breathe air into the alchemy of our bodies and transform it into song. We enchant the vibrations running through us with meaning, wonder and mystery.

Rob Burbea says:

“Through my enchanting, through my singing, through my conjuring of consciousness, of reception, through the magic spell that I’m playing with in my awareness, I sing my body electric. I sing it into being.”  

When I whisper the words to myself “I sing the body electric”, I fall in love with an image of all of us – Seishin, Ryu, Jim, Nathan, Virabhadra, Dana and Diane – harmonizing our collective body electric through our chanting, training and practicing together. Whatever is happening within the alchemy of this collective body is mysterious, but it feels to be the work of what Rob Burbea calls cosmopoiesis: the unfolding and manifestation of new worlds, the creation of sacred universes that we en-chant into being. 

When we stepped into the Willow intensive on August 11, 2021 for three months, we crossed a threshold and into an alchemical container. We took this leap of faith knowing that we needed to let something go: we needed to burn away the dross of old stories and attachments that no longer serve us and life on this planet. So we wake up before dawn, we train intensively, we sob and hold each other through healing trauma. We work hard, and we love hard. 

And we endure through the excruciating burn, the tender ache of the work, because of what is revealed: insights that burn like a bright, shining flame. Rising out of the ashes, something worth loving.

A soul song worth singing.

Dispatches from Willow is a blog series that offers glimpses in the personal experiences and insights of the residents training at Willow Monastic Academy in Canada.

Presently, there are seven residents (Ryushin Daniel Thorson, Seishin Jasna Todorovic, Vīrabhadra Colin Bested, Jim Drinkle, Cheryl Hsu, Nathan Vanderpool, Dana Lahey) living together at Willow as part of a three-month intensive around Harmonization until November 11, 2021. [Learn more about the ecology of practices in a Stoa talk between Ryushin, Seishin and John Vervaeke]

Each individual has been on their unique paths of healing, growth and meaning-making, as we ask ourselves: “what is worth loving?”