Looking for Robert Daniel Ennis

-by Stuart E. Goodnick
May 22, 2005

When I first contemplated writing my reflections on Robertís influence on my life and my practice I came up empty-handed. When I looked for the obvious internal handles by which we tend to hold onto the past, nothing obvious presented itself. I could find no pang of emotionally charged memory that reignited a longing to say certain things I should have said years ago. No thoughts that conjured a web of expectations of what might have been or what should have been rose up to demand my attention. Even within my flesh could I locate no play of sensations that embodied a dislocation that echoed in an absence a presence now past. Wherever I reached and attempted to grasp, my hands came up empty.

So complete and precise was Robertís death in 1998 that as my organism settled down from the shock of that extended event, I was left with as little in the way of tangible assets internally as we were with his physical remains when we scraped his ashes out of the cremation oven. Certainly there have been occasional echoes of memories bouncing off the corners of an empty room over the years. And running across a photograph of some old vacation or Tayu event causes my heart to leap with joy as I am transported back to one of the many wonderful occasions I was privileged to share with Robert. But when the echo fades away and I put the photograph down, a silence returns and my hands again hold nothing.

Occasionally a more potent reminiscence will arise in my heart as I touch again briefly a deep sense of tenderness I felt for Robert. For as powerful as he was a teacher and as relentless as was his practice, Robert embodied a vulnerability to Life that was potent in its suppleness. This vulnerability could not but help to invoke in my various centers a growing appreciation of his Work, a love of his person, and an urge to protect and support both his form and his teaching. And through the years I was graced to spend with Robert, I witnessed as best I could recognize, a deliberate cultivation on his part of this vulnerability and a deepening of it as his practice unfolded. Robert never construed himself as a finished product of his spiritual work. For him, no matter where one finds oneself on the path, oneís practice continues. Right up until the moment of his death, Robert embraced and allowed this unfolding sense of vulnerability. At the end it was raw Ė as raw as it gets in this life Ė and it was beautiful to behold. He found ecstasy in an ice cube melting on a parched tongue and in the simple kindness he received from a nurseís aide. His dream in these moments was to return home from the hospital and to offer the Teaching in the form of dinner parties we would host with friends. Even on his deathbed, Robertís wish was to serve the Teaching.

But as I wipe away the tears that well up in my eyes with the writing of these words, and my heart returns to the task at hand, the feeling fades and the silence returns. The curious thing about the sense of this silence in the face of rising and fading memories of Robert is that it is not as though he never existed. It is as though he never left. In my search for some extensible recollection of Robert I resemble the person searching their house to find their glasses all the while still wearing them around their neck. Robertís death seems complete to me in part because it does not feel like he has ever left me. When I cut vegetables in the kitchen, it feels like Robert is there with me watching. When we have study groups and give talks, it feels like Robert is there maintaining the integrity of practice. As I serve tea at Many Rivers , though he never stepped foot physically in the store, it feels like Robert inhabits the space.

This feeling is the presence of the Work and the primacy of practice in oneís life. Robertís life was about his practice and about the Teaching. His spiritual work was not some detail in his curriculum vitae , it was his vita . No moment was too brief and no detail too small for it not to be worthy of Robertís full attention. No feeling or thought was too painful for him not to be willing to see it clearly and embrace it fully whether it arose in himself of in one of his many students. In every recollection I have of Robert, even my most intimate memories, the Work came first.

When I reflect on Robert as a spiritual teacher, the most succinct description I can find is that he made the Work important. He made it important to himself and he made it important for his students. This is no small thing in our western world of trivial distractions. And it wasnít the form of the Work that was important Ė not the postures, the robes, the art, the chanting, etc. Ė it was the Work of putting full attention on oneís life no matter where it took you. This Work is not glamorous. So many of us come to spiritual work precisely to avoid putting attention on our lives Ė we want to escape into the exotic. But Robert was all about making the ordinary extraordinary. He demonstrated that it is possible to live a life with full attention and that such a life is an ongoing process of unfolding and transformation.

When I can remember this simple thing, Robert is right there with me.