Quietly Undone: Disruption as Nature

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel
September 17, 2021

I remember strolling in my favorite park in Oakland, filled with redwood trees dripping with rain.  I can feel the paved road not allowing my feet to sink into the earth. I switch to a dirt path where the wet shavings of bark and dead leaves cushion my landings. The tall redwoods block the sun.

Without any warning, a wind smothers my hearing. I am startled and chills take over. I stand still. Something out of my control is happening. My walk has taken a turn from a calm stroll to an uncertain venture. Next, I hear a dog barking and the sound of large wings hovers over my head. A vulture. I stand still as it swoops down, passing close. There’s nothing to do but stand there, unraveled. When doing is done and there’s nothing to do, you meet what can’t be imagined. You discover vultures don’t sing. They bark.

We are to be undone. This is life. There’s no getting around it. We unravel over and over again. Life gets disrupted. We are thrown off. We face the unimaginable. It’s sobering, ending up in a place that we thought we’d never be. In that strange place, we are quietly undone. We’re not who we thought we were. We burn away and then immediately we want to sweep up the ashes, or whittle and sand the charred pieces, to make a smooth mound of life—a mound that if breathed upon would come undone again.

We create mountains from the shadows left behind by disruption, only to find after climbing such mountains, that we could have just walked through them. We struggle when the waters of our lives are disturbed, and our reflections appear distorted and unfamiliar. We run from the waters. Being undone, we discover we’ve been fooled by wishing wells and have mistaken the fire of desire for radiance. We’re stunned.

And sometimes we have no clue as to what is causing our undoing. What is this thing that pushes us over the cliff just when we think we have it all together?

We live in societies that reinvent themselves after each destruction. Often, we use the same old bricks to rebuild. It’s a shortcut to quiet fear. We don’t have enough time to start from scratch. We won’t demolish constitutions, legislations, preambles of human rights that have long outlived their functionality. We simply attach legs to them—so many legs, that whatever it once was now exists as an unrecognizable monster and no one can find the body, the core, the breath, or the intention for peace.

When what we intend for our lives has been destroyed, escaping the world is not possible if there’s an intention to live. We keep living, knowing that in a moment, in a day, a year, disruption is coming. Couldn’t this be called magic? That something, of our own and not of our own choosing, comes and makes things appear and disappear in our lives. Our hands are unfolded. The palms are wiped clean of imaginings and made ready for what’s to come. Feet are made smooth when thorns are plucked from them.  Our minds are blown open so that wisdom can be placed in them. An elixir of tears is gifted if we are fortunate. To be undone is a mystical occurrence, a state of being in which we are rendered, eyes opened, to the unknown. We see, hear, smell, taste, think, and can do nothing about it. All doing is done.

What are we to do when we feel lost, a stranger in our own lives? We go through it. In the undoing of life, silence stretches into eternity—revealing stars in the dark. We cry at the destruction of a way of living caused by the sudden death of a loved one, the loss of a home, or the arrival of life-threatening illness. At the time of undoing, our gathered breath, stored in the belly for emergencies, is meant to be breathed out and heard in the wild, like a bird’s song, like a bison’s call. At the time of undoing, our cries, ascended from ancestors, are to be discharged into the world, out into the atmosphere of a million realms.

In disruption we sink our feet deeper and listen for what is beneath the earth. What is being said about centuries of violence? What’s being asked of us in the midst of injustice? Is the death of our loved ones the beginning of living together in a different way, while preparing us for our own leaving? Can a catastrophic experience lead to a large-scale awakening? Can peace express itself in the sound of vulture wings?

To be undone is to be reminded that in nothingness, there is peace. A peace-filled nothingness isn’t an annihilation of anything or anyone. It’s a nothingness that feels like a blanket of snow that covers, for a time, what you have taken for granted and rarely appreciate. The beauty of peaceful nothingness is that everything lies beneath it.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel is an author, poet, Zen Buddhist priest, teacher, artist, and drum medicine woman. She holds a Ph.D and worked for decades for arts organizations and those serving women and girls, cultural arts and mental health. Her books include The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality, and Gender.

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