Tuesday, December 29, 2009

apart and a part

Phillip Hallie on Albert Camus: "Two French words summarize the mood (for it is a mood and not a philosophic system) that Camus expresses in his writings and in his life and death. The words are solidaire and solitaire. Only one consonant separates the two words from each other, but the difference between aloneness and union is immense. We are born into separateness: then, after a while, we die into it; and, in between our birth and our death, we are strangers and afraid in a world we never made. And yet we feel solidarity with others, love, from time to time,. We live out our lives apart from others and as a part of others."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

waiting for the miracle

The Temple is very quiet today, and clean and empty. Leonard Cohen's words echo in my mind: we are waiting for the miracle to come. In a few hours, over 40 people will be arriving, getting settled, and then diving into the silence and stillness of sesshin. I feel so lucky that I can participate in this miracle -- the unusual opportunity, with other like-minded Dharma friends, to realize the truth of what it means to be a human being.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Some new research on healthy marriages suggests that spouses who express their gratitude to each other have a better chance of staying married. The connection between them is nourished by truly seeing and commenting on the other's loving acts. Intimate connection can also go beyond gratitude. The implication of this is expressed in case 17, from the Gateless Gate collection of koans, where Chung Kuo-shih calls to his attendant three times, and is answered three times. Kuo-shih says, "I was about to say that I was ungrateful to you. But the fact is that you are ungrateful to me." I myself am so grateful for this expression. Thank you Chung Kuo-shih!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

a drop of ink

An old friend just reminded me of something I said to her many years ago and I was happy to be reminded. It's an image I use when I'm confronted by suffering -- my own or someone else's.

I imagine that whatever is causing the suffering -- physical pain, a thought or an emotion, someone's behavior or our own actions -- is like a drop of ink. When the ink is dropped into a cup, it colors the water. When it's dropped into a big bowl, it becomes dispersed, and the water turns gray. When it drops into the ocean, there's no color left at all.

This is an important part of our work in becoming human beings who are free and useful -- to create a spacious container for our suffering -- to be open and present to whatever is here, and to everything else that is not the suffering.

Sometimes we contract -- it's human nature, and it's not a bad thing. Sometimes we expand, and that's not a bad thing either. Rumi speaks about this in his poem "Birdwings" as translated by Coleman Barks:

Your grief for what you've lost lifts a mirror
Up to where you're bravely working.

Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
Here's the joyful face you've been waiting to see.

Your hand opens and close and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
You would be paralyzed.

Your deepest presence is in every small
Contracting and expanding,
The two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
As birdwings.

Monday, November 16, 2009

the dosage for happiness

Lately I've been notice just how darn happy I am. I don't mean that I'm blissed out all the time, or even cheerful. There's just a very deep sense of contentment that seems to be patiently waiting for any temporary emotional, cognitive or physical storms to subside. I have a few theories about why this may be happening. For one thing, I'm thrilled with my work at the Center at the University, and my new life at the Temple. Everything right now seems to be revolving mostly about around what t I love. Next to my husband and daughter, and along with some dear friends and my brother, what I love the most in this lucky lifetime is practicing and teaching meditation. And I'm getting to do a lot of that. Another theory is that meditating so much (daily sittings at the Temple plus a few evenings and other times throughout the day) contributes to happiness, as so many researchers into meditation have been speculating and wondering about. (One of my favorite words related to mindfulness research is "dosage" -- how much time on the cushion creates a measurable effect in what-have-you: mood, health, behavior...) And I must say that I know well, based on what I know about human life, that the reality of all this is that at any moment, this lovely contentment could be altered by some significant personal or global event. But I'm beginning to suspect that even this potential tragedy wouldn't destroy the underlying awareness of something sweetly pleasant that lies just beneath the surface of our lives, waiting for us all.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

It's dark outside

This morning I had a conversation with a student about a much beloved koan. In the story, Deshan, who would later become a great master, is still young and somewhat confused (and we might even say arrogant.) At one point, as he's leaving Lungtan, the teacher he has just encountered, he looks outside and sees that night has fallen. "It's dark outside," he says. Both of us had tears in our eyes as we reflected together on this poignant moment. A beautiful poem by Wendell Berry came to mind, which I first heard from a stress reduction student who was in remission from breast cancer. She told me that the poem helped her to allow her to be with her cancer just as it was -- the possibility of death, and the big "don't know" of her life. It was dark in her life, but she found that simply being in the dark was enough. No need to make up anything, no need to know more than she could know.

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark.
Go without sight.
And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings.
And is traveled by dark feet, and dark wings.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

trusting and encouraging

This week most of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teachers I supervise have noticed a similar personal pattern arising in their teaching: a kind of impatience that begins as a subtle desire to want their students to find relief from their suffering. This may seem obvious -- isn't the relief from suffering the reason any of us practice (or teach) meditation in the first place? Isn't it a common condition that we are habitually unhappy with our lives, and wish they were different? And, for those of us who teach meditation, this wish naturally extends to others. If we're on the bodhisattva path, it extends to all beings.

The problem here is that things are not different. In this moment they cannot be different. They're the way they are. Of course we know that in the next moment, they will be different. This is not a theory -- it's more of a guarantee. The problem is that we'd like to control the particular way they'll be different. And this is a recipe for even more suffering.

What is our actual work as human beings? Is it to do all the saving and healing of others ourselves, to give advice about what people should be thinking or feeling or experiencing or doing?

In my own teaching, I can feel this pull of desire for relief of suffering. Thoughts arise: "Wake up already!" "Get over it!" and..., most dangerously, "Here's what you should do!"

But it seems to me that the real work is to simply encourage people to wake up -- to point them in a direction and trust that, eventually, understanding and clarity will arise. Because these qualities appear to be waiting, very patiently, in the form of little embers of awakening, to burst into flame. We encourage, we point, and then we trust.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

glass horses

Living at the Temple has a certain simplicity to it -- many of our old belongings remain hidden away in boxes. There isn't much time in our busy lives to unpack...but every once in a while, like today, we rediscover the past in the form of things we used to think we needed, but have done without for months, and in some cases, years.

Today, as if returning home after a long voyage, I unpack a box that's full of memories. I don't see how I got along without these two glass bookends, in the shape of horses, that adorned my parents' bookcase fifty years ago. This afternoon they find themselves returning to their lost life, happy to hold up books about Zen, poetry by Rumi, and mystery novels. In the past, they held up my parents' collection of art books and hardcover novels by forgotten writers of the last century. Perhaps those books too will someday reveal themselves from the bottom of their own box. Until then, I welcome back my sturdy and reliable glass friends, ever alert, performing their still and quiet function.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

the destruction business

Today the construction crew at the Temple are working on the handicap ramp. They're making the entry way level so that people can enter the main hallway from the porch without having to go up steps. I've been curious about how they were going to manage this, not being someone who understands even the basics of building, and have been mighty impressed with a number of things. One is how Will, the volunteer foreman of the crew, gently and directly explains tasks to his (mostly) unskilled volunteers. And another is how, in order to make this new entrance, the old entrance has to be destroyed.

It's probably pretty obvious -- the need to destroy something to allow something new to emerge. And it pretty much describes how everything seems to be emerging in this new Temple life. Personally, I've been finding that all my old ideas, habits, patterns, are slowly but surely being eroded by the demands of this amazing project. The new life arises through the destruction of the old. And through this wide and spacious new door will come people who never knew the limitations of the old narrow entry.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Living in Boundless Way Temple is strangely freeing. Although I feel that I have lost some of my privacy, I find myself feeling more at ease and present. As if in confirmation, I came across this quote from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in the November Shambhala Sun: "The point is that when you give up privacy, that is the only time you can be with yourself. Our normal version of privacy is not really privacy. We say, "I need my privacy." If you are bottling yourself up with your so called privacy, you find yourself getting in your own way. There is no privacy in that situation. The privacy does not exist. Instead, you feel completely bombarded with internal emotions and thoughts, which take away from your chance to be with yourself and relax with yourself completely. Once you begin to give up privacy, you open your heart and your whole existence to the rest of the world, and then you find greater privacy. You find that an actual discovery of yourself is taking place."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

a new life

My life has completely turned upside down since August. My husband and I have purchased a big new house, part of which we are using as our home and most of which is devoted to use for our Zen community. Boundless Way Temple is an exciting place to live -- so much energy and creativity coming from the sangha, and such promise for the unfolding of American Zen.

And -- practicing impermanence is definitely on the menu! Having left my old home, I find myself waking each morning as if on a journey. I don't know where to find the simplest things, all my old routines are gone, and every moment brings a new mood, sometimes confusion, sometimes deep gratitude, and on and on...

What an amazing new life!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

at home in uncertainty

My husband and I are buying a large house where we are planning to establish a temple for our Zen community. We sit in a great deal of flux and uncertainty as we wait for our closing date, and we are full of gratitude to so many friends and sangha members who have helped us pack this week.

One friend in Canada sent this poem from Kodo Sawaki Roshi, quoting a popular verse:

Wherever it goes,
The snail is at home when it dies.
There is no world outside the kesa.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

lovingkindess part two -- embracing fear

To practice loving-kindness is to embrace everything that is, just as it is, and to detect within this "is-ness" a spark of something sweet and tender. It's easy to use this practice as a way to avoid the truth of our emotional reality, and this can be very dangerous. Right underneath a calm surface there can be unacknowledged turmoil, waiting for a chance to manifest itself. Embracing fear and anxiety is not easy, but is an essential step in learning how to feel the sense of safety and peace that is subtly waiting to be revealed, once we stop fighting our fear. Is fear present right now? How do you know this? Is the awareness of fear afraid? Is there a sense of fear in the body? Are there fearful thoughts present? This exploration is a powerful practice -- to turn towards any fearful thoughts or sensations, and simply know that they are present, without trying to get rid of them. Pay attention to what arises in the presence of this loving curiosity and openness to what is here, temporarily manifesting as fear. Notice if and how it transforms.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Here's a quote I heard from Jay Leno: " I went into a McDonald's yesterday and said, 'I'd like some fries.' The girl at the counter said, 'Would you like some fries with that?'"

Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of my mentors and my former boss, defines mindfulness as "paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment." A big part of paying attention in this way is connected to really hearing, seeing, being with things the way they are, and especially noticing when we fall into the trap of ignoring what people are actually trying to communicate. My day today was filled with discussions with people who were stuck in old patterns of reactivity, and of course my own patterns were triggered by their patterns. We found ourselves in a soup of misunderstandings and confused communication. Some of these folks practice mindfulness, however, and so we gradually found that we could reach some kind of clarity. Working through this together was profoundly connecting. I feel so grateful for being on the planet with people who are willing to wake up to their own expectations, filters and confusion to a shared tenderness and kindness.

The three marks of existence go into a bar

The three marks of existence are ways of framing reality. Through paying attention to what arises moment to moment, within the frame of a settled body and mind, we come to understand them as experiences, not as theoretical constructs. The Pali words, used in the early Buddhist sutras, are dukkha, annicca and anatta. Dukkha means unsatisfactoriness, things being out of alignment. (The original meaning comes from the sound a cart makes when one of the wheels is a little bit off-balance: dook, dook, dook.) Annicca is the truth of impermanence, and and anatta is the recognition that there is no fixed self that abides through time. After a talk I gave about the three marks at the Berwick Street Zendo the other night, my husband and fellow teacher David Rynick, and my colleague at the Center for Mindfulness, Florence Meleo-Meyer, came up with this joke:

Dukkha, Annicca and Anatta go into a bar. Dukkha says, "life sucks!" Annicca says, "it won't last." Anatta says, "Are you talking to me?"

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Not backing down

When I'm afraid to show up in any situation, I often find that I'm having a thought like, "if only I could be better or more accomplished than I (believe I) am." And when I do it anyway, I find that what I really needed was not to be the best, but to be fully committed to the moment ... as present as possible. Here's some inspiration along those lines from from Sasha Frere-Jones, in The New Yorker, April 6, 2009, writing about Bono, the lead singer of U2.

"For all his limitations -- he's one of the last vocalists you can imagine making a solo record -- Bono is the only singer who could possibly make U2's music succeed...Bono's voice can sound strained fairly quickly...Bono's gift is the ability to sound utterly immersed in and committed to whatever his band is proposing. He backs down from nothing that the band starts."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Heavenly Abodes right here on earth

One of my favorite meditation practices derives from the Theravadin tradition: the four Brahma Viharas or heavenly abodes. These are a set of contemplations that encourage the cultivation of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. In working with myself and with students, I've found that these practices hold a hidden danger -- they can be done in such a way that they inadvertently contribute to the old familiar feeling of wanting things -- myself, the world -- to be different. For example, saying the traditional phrase "may all beings be at ease," can subtly create a feeling of aversion to the way things are and a desire for things to be better. While hatred and greed are natural human feelings, cultivating them might not be so useful for a meditation practice focused on seeing through the clinging to a self that is the cause of most of our suffering. In grappling with ways to clarify these practices for myself, I've begun to suspect that they could be phrased in ways that helps rather than hinder our waking up to reality. One entry point is to first bring attention to any subtle or strong feelings of desire or aversion to the present moment by asking something like "How could it get any better than this?" and then allowing an opening to all the variations of desire that arise with this simple phrase. In future posts, I'll continue to explore ways of investigating the heavenly abodes, experienced right here, right now.