Who or what was making the strange voices upstairs? I heard them while I poured cold water into the coffee maker New Years Day 2012. It sounded like a gang of teenagers chatting. This was, of course, absurd because the only person upstairs was my wife and she was fast asleep. Nevertheless, the sound of the adolescent disembodied voices brought me half way up the staircase. They faded the closer I got to the top of the stairs.
I returned to the kitchen. Our electric coffee maker burbled as it streamed and drizzled my morning cups into the once empty glass pot. After the ‘maker spit out a few more tssssst! phooopht! tssssst! phoooopht! and soft puffs of steam, I heard the voices again. Again I headed toward the stairs, but the baffling banter departed.
Soon, the lyrics to “Proud Mary” cranked through my brain. Over and over again: “Proud Mary Keep On…” Suddenly, the music in mind was silenced by a loud and clear inner voice:
But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
The lines from Poe’s The Raven instantly triggered a memory I had when I strolling barefoot on the beach with my girlfriend, Christina, many years ago.
It was at Manersa around mid day, nothing but slop and chop–unsurfable. Christina pointed to an abnormal black celestial shape flying towards us. It swam graciously through scattered wispy clouds in the blustery sky. I watched it closely as it approached, I soon discovered that it was…
A giant beetle? No, a raven? Yes, a large raven; in fact, I could hear it cawing. As it flew closer, I wondered why its beak and legs were colored bright green and also why it was flying so erratically. By the time it was close enough to see it clearly, I realized something bewildering about the bizarre bird: It was a plastic bag!
Christina and I both laughed. It tricked us both. Unfortunately, not all fantasies reveal their reality with such clarity. Sometimes the voices tell enticing stories and sometimes the ravens cast their wicked shadows on the floor.
It’s not always easy to distinguish the raven from the plastic. Zazen helps. I am much stronger and lucid when I breathe and it carries through to the rest of my life. In a very short time, the practice of Zazen has transformed me. The changes have NOT come as mystical flashes of insight or clouds parting as God beams of enlightenment blast open my spirit. That would be too easy.
Instead, Zen appears as the cold hard facts of my life. In the moments when I discover that the voices upstairs are the neighbor’s TV that the mysterious raven is just a plastic bag (or sack if you’re from the Northwest).