Sunday, August 30, 2020


Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.

-- Children's Song

The 17th century Zen Master Takuan Sōhō, as his last act before dying, wrote the kanji for "dream"  pictured above.  Since I first heard Takuan's story at the beginning of my Zen training, I have been inspired by his simple summation of a life of complexity and wildness.  This is certainly my experience, that life is like a dream.  Zen practice is about recognizing our dream life fully, and awakening into a more spacious life.  

In the past few days of these strange times, I've been having extremely realistic dreams.  Perhaps this is also happening for you.  And two blogs I follow, one from my husband, David Rynick, and one from my teacher James Ford (, also mention their unusually vivid dreams.  As Zen teachers, we often hear about dreams becoming more intense during sesshin, our Zen meditation retreats.  It's been my contention that everyone on the planet, because of the pandemic, as well as the political, racial and gender unrest, is living life more intensively.  We may wish to turn away from all the suffering, but it's becoming more difficult to do this.  And the feeling of turning away can be numbing and exhausting.  At sesshin, we spend many hours turning again and again to what is right here, while sitting in stillness, and transitioning to other practice activities like walking, care-taking of our space, cooking and eating.  Life becomes extremely simple during these retreats.  And for many of us, because of the limitations on the lives we're used to living, what I have been calling the "before-times" everyday life has developed this quality of a silent meditation retreat.

So it makes sense that our dreams are following us as we move into the interior space of the heart.  My dreams have been full of imagery of meditation retreats, people from the past coming back into my life to ask forgiveness for various wrongs they did to me, all surrounded in an atmosphere of love and spaciousness.  I wake up from these dreams feeling alive and present.  My dream life is comforting.  Waking life can be challenging.  But I'm lucky -- I have the good fortune to have found Zen practice, in its many forms.

Attending and teaching sesshin, practicing Zen daily in formal practice periods on Zoom (and recently in person in the Temple garden) and doing my best to continue to wake up in every moment, this is how I stay awake in the dream of human life, right now, on this planet, in this country, with everything exactly how it is.  Our Temple provides many ways to join with others in practice, study and discussion, including sesshin.  (  Maybe we'll find each other in one of these practice opportunities, and we can learn how to wake up together.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Perfection of Melancholy

 After teaching an on-line retreat last weekend for Irish mindfulness trainees and teachers, I was inspired to go back to a book I bought, on the recommendation of Irish friends, the last time I was in Dublin.  Who knows how long it will be, if ever, that I walk down those beautiful, green-lined, busy streets?  

The book, "Are You Somebody?" is a memoir by the late Irish journalist Nuala O'Faolain, a wild and daring writer about Irish culture, feminism, and the movement in Ireland from narrow poverty to cultural openness that she witnessed during her lifetime.  

She writes about a breakdown she had just before turning 40, after the deaths of both her parents and before she became sober.  (She, like her parents, and most of her friends and partners, was an alcoholic.)

Here is her recollection of those last days before sobriety, which echo the feeling many of us have had during these oppressive days of life during the pandemics, now 5 months in.  

"An aspect of being vulnerable is that you are very open.  I used to lie on the bed and look at the sky as it very, very slowly got dark on summer evenings.  There was a kind of perfection of melancholy.  On Sunday mornings, or on Bank Holiday weekends, I had absolutely nothing to do but feel the quiet.  In a way, I was with my self very fully.  Afterwards, I used to miss the feeling of being held within pure, empty space."

Maybe you have found that the enforced solitude has been a strange kind of gift, helping you find your way to something beyond the identity with a self that is active and productive and ignorant of suffering.  This is the formula for Zen practice, too.  Sit still, feel everything, as far as you can bear it, and see what happens.  Perhaps you, too, will feel held within the pure, empty space of this wondrous life.

Monday, August 17, 2020

A Zoom Retreat in Ireland

 Earlier today David and I finished teaching a four day retreat in Ireland, hosted by the Mindfulness Centre.  Our hosts were the talented and warm teachers Helen Byrne and Josephine Lynch, and the photo here is one of three screens showing the 75 participants.  As with all of our retreats online since the pandemic began in March, it was deep and profound.  Moving back and forth between formal practice and daily life, we all had a taste of how meditation practice allows us to make our lives whole, no matter what we have to deal with.  The world is on fire, and we can learn to sit with all that is happening, in order to act to help with the healing.  

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Darkness is Asking to Be Loved

 The other day I was in the grip of a difficult mood: politics, the pandemic, global warming and racism, sexism and anti-semitism were all mixed together into a toxic mess.  And I felt oppressed and beaten down.  I tried to find some solace in Buddhist writings from the magazine Lion's Roar, but all of the articles were either full of blame or cheerfully upbeat...well-written and I'm sure helpful for people, but there was nothing that even began to touch my own mood.  Until I came across the following prose poem by the Black Zen woman teacher Zenju Earthlyn Manuel.  "This is it!"  my heart shouted out... the Zen approach to suffering.  We must face what we experience directly -- learn to bear the unbearable.  This is why we sit still and upright in the midst of everything.  We can even face our anger and hopelessness, and the parts of us that are trying to be cheerful.  Here are the words of Zenju Sensei:

Darkness Is Asking To Be Loved

By now we have lost the tiny sense of peace we created for ourselves.  Our composure is an idea long gone, reflected in the grinding of our teeth and locked jaws.

If you are still holding up trying to meditate, I invite you to fall down.  Fall down on the earth.  Come down here and smell the sweat of terror on your skin, overpowering the scent of agarwood.  Come down on all fours and greet the darkness that reeks of death, reaches out its desperate hand, and asks to be loved as much as we love the light it gives.

Come down here on this earth and breathe for those gasping for air.  Hear each scream as a bell that never stops ringing.  Bury your face in the mud of this intimate place, in this shared disease and tragedy.  

If you have nothing to say, now is the time for the deeper silence that does not apologize or seek something kind to say.  And yet the deeper silence is not quiet.  It whispers in the dark and wakes you from the nightmare.

Come down here and be still on the earth.  Let loose shame, rage, guilt , grief, pain, and make a river of it.

Come down here.  Catch the love poems hidden in the shouting, watch the unfolding of the seasons from the ground, look up at the sky.  And when it hurts from being down here so long, roll over and see what you couldn't see from the other side.

Breathe out loud.  No particular posture needed.

Fall down onto the earth.  Fall off your soft cushions.  Come down here.  Come down here, where the only lullaby tonight will be the sound of your heart drumming the songs you were born with.