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.