when all else fails*

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This week we had the horrific earthquake in Nepal and the riots in Baltimore and so all at once I heard from people I haven’t heard from in a while. Something was in the air. I love hearing from people, just not quite as much as I love meeting face-to-face with those same people. What brings us together is always the same thing.

Terror, sheer terror.

People contact someone like me because they are afraid. To one degree or another, we are all afraid. We are afraid because we thought life would be different. We thought that we would be happy, for instance, or at least be able to handle things. That our work would satisfy, the money would be enough and the marriage would last. That our kids would be okay. And that their kids would be okay. That we would be one of the lucky ones, safe and in control. We wouldn’t get old. We wouldn’t get sick. And no one would die.

Spring is sweet and summer is easy, but one day you’ll find yourself in the middle of a hard winter.

I try to keep things sunny around here but then I remember what line of business I’m in. I’m in the getting old, getting sick, and dying business.

Life is suffering. Everything falls apart. It’s overwhelming and irreversible. There’s no place to hide. What the hell are you supposed to do now?

A couple of weeks ago I sat a beginner’s retreat on the East Coast and this time nearly everyone who came was a beginner. Oops. In the dining hall before the retreat started I looked around at the mostly middle-aged and older group of total strangers and was afraid. They would never be able to handle the sitting, I told myself. I’d oversold the whole Zen thing again. Whatever they thought they were in for, none of them was ready to face the reality of Zen, even so-called beginning Zen, which is no different from advanced Zen, which is no different from life as it is. They were probably as terrified as I was. I made silly jokes and hardly ate a thing.

But then we began sitting, and sitting some more, and every time the bell rang to sit again everyone showed up in their little spot, day in and day out, in silence, sleepy and sore, emptied of bright ideas and escape routes. It seemed like forever but a minute later the last bell rang on the last day. They had survived.

Before the end, everyone spoke for the first time. An old fellow said his wife had died last year and he was restarting his life. This was his first step.

One woman had returned after the first night without a wig to cover her head, and she was bald from chemo. She didn’t say one word about it and neither did anyone else.

Another woman said she’d woken up a year ago and realized that although her job was to heal children and families, “I was the one who was sick.”

The woman next to her said she had three children and she loved them but sometimes she had to get far, far away from them.

A man said he had bought one of my books for his wife but she wasn’t much of a reader so he read it and then he went on my website and now they were both here together. He smiled a lot, and she did too.

“It was a hard winter,” the next man said before tears overcame him and he thanked everyone just for sitting with him all weekend. “It made a difference.”

Nearly everyone cried. And everyone laughed. Hearts were light and minds, clear.

They’d done the only thing you can do when all else fails: sit down for a while, and then get up and go on back home.

*and it will.

 

the problem with you is me

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Water birds
going and coming
their traces disappear
but they never
forget their path.

— Dogen, “On Nondependence of Mind”

For a week I’ve had a thought every so often to write a blog post entitled “Leave No Trace.” Then the thought would disappear and I wouldn’t do it. When I sat down just now to write, I realized that I had not visited this site for twenty-eight days or written anything new for thirty-nine days. In the meantime, my site meter had stopped working. The traffic stats for this website thus appear as a vast empty stretch of tracelessness, as if a flock of birds could fly right through it. Something probably happened over the interval — a few visits here, a few there, two thousand spam comments — but nothing was recorded so I don’t know or even care. While I was so nobly intending to hold forth on the Dharma wisdom of “Leave No Trace,” the Dharma was expounding itself without me.

Isn’t that wonderful?

Your site meter can stop and it doesn’t mean you are dead. You can do nothing and everything still happens. You can leave no trace and you won’t fall into a void of extinction. But you might notice that you are a little less self-obsessed, a little less devoted to fame and popularity, less dependent on recognition and praise, less inclined to argue and blame. This is the subtle and profound wisdom of Zen instruction. You don’t lose anything when you leave no trace but the notion of your own ever-loving importance.

The Dharma is always expounded in the absence of self.

When I first began to attend Zen retreats, or sesshins, I’d see the short admonition posted throughout the retreat grounds. Leave No Trace was taped to the corner of the bathroom mirror, propped by the coffee pot, and hanging above the kitchen sink. It secretly pleased me because I thought it validated my own tendency toward obsessive-compulsive tidiness. Wipe your feet! Clean up after yourself! Rinse your own cup! It does quite literally mean those things, but it also means much more. Leaving no trace is a practice that goes on well after you clean your shoes, brush your teeth, and wash a lifetime of coffee cups. No trace is aimed at getting rid of all the petty offenses, inconveniences, and problems in your life: namely, you. Or should I say, me.

Do I have a problem with you? That’s me.

Am I irritated? That’s me.

Do I feel unappreciated? That’s me.

Distracted? That’s me.

Disrespected or misunderstood? That’s me.

Do I feel the need to explain my personal history and point of view so that you can validate my experience? That’s me.

Am I angry at you? That’s me.

Am I struggling with things around me? That’s me.

Do I feel vulnerable, ashamed, defensive, unworthy, or victimized? That’s me.

Uninspired, resistant, and unsure? That’s me.

Do I feel like I leave a big blot of ugly trouble wherever I go? Every day.

Water birds are not dependent on a particular place. When they are on the ground, they function on the ground. On the water, they function on the water. In the sky, they function in the sky. They function perfectly and intuitively wherever they are, moving from one place to another by spontaneous instinct, never lost and never leaving a trace of where they’ve been. So can we live like that?

But wait, one time a bird pooped on my head. (True, it really happened to me.) Isn’t that a trace of the bird?

No, it’s a trace of me needing to have the last word.

Please everyone: clean up the crap you leave behind, stand clear of the crap I leave behind, and just keep going. This is the fundamental truth and beauty of the traceless path.

Photo Credit: “Birds in Flight on Water” by Joe Myeress

 

 

dare small things

Become the least grain of sand on the beach. —Maezumi Roshi

I’ve had this quote on my mind lately, because it’s so easy to be distracted by the waves.

A few years ago I spent considerable time running the streets around my neighborhood. I told myself I was training to do a great and worthwhile thing: a marathon. I didn’t yet know that the truly great thing was taking even one tiny step.

Since I ran in the mornings, I would often cross a major intersection at commuting time, and lope through the crosswalk as the cars idled beside me. I had a startlingly intimate view of the solitary drivers, which is a rare and beautiful thing. We sit behind our wheels as if cocooned in invisibility. No one looked back at me. No one noticed the small, stooped lady striding past, smiling at them.

I might have said people looked grim, but that wasn’t quite true. They had no expression. They were unaware. It was going to be a day like any other. Not a single one of them would have thought they’d achieved greatness.

But they had. They had punched the alarm and gotten out of bed. Made the coffee and turned off the pot. Packed a sack lunch. Fed the pets, scratched the sweet spot under the dog’s chin. Smeared a smudge of butter across a slab of toast. And here they were, on time or late, calm or impatient, angry or bored, feeling utterly insignificant in the scheme of things.

My heart would swell at the sight of these great people answering the noble call: to do small things, and do them everyday. That’s why I smiled, but they didn’t see.

***

My dear husband was part of a recent space landing that bore as its slogan “Dare Mighty Things,” a snippet from a stirring Teddy Roosevelt quote:

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

Teddy could rally soldiers to their doom.

The space project was daring, its landing sequence worked, and it brought a wave of relief and pride to a group of people whose careers are continually being foreshortened and whose intelligence, frankly, is a bit of a cultural liability. (At least in this country.) The landing of the mission, though, was not the mighty thing. I had an up-close look at this endeavor, so I know.

What was mighty is that thousands of people woke up each workday for many, many years in several countries to log onto their computers and answer emails, stand in security lines at airports, eat crackers at their desks, tell jokes and ask about each other’s kids.

We must not lose sight of this everyday greatness, or we might as well live on Mars.

***

My teacher tells the story of hearing firsthand Maezumi’s instruction, “Become the least grain of sand on the beach.” He thought at first the old guy was telling him he wouldn’t amount to much. Aim low. Give up. Settle for less. And then he realized that not amounting to much was amounting to everything.

Become the least grain of sand and you’ve become inseparable from the whole beach. Big, mighty, or great doesn’t begin to measure what you already are. All you have to do is see it, and then, keep doing the small things. The universe depends on it.

Two more little things you might want to look into:

Beginner’s Mind Meditation Retreat April 17-19 in West Hartford, CT

Prairie Bloom: A Zen Retreat Aug. 6-9 in Madison, WI

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when kids say what we can’t hear

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It was an unpleasant morning in our house, the atmosphere thickened by resistance. You know the kinds of things your kids can throw at you sometimes. Our children are really good at saying what we don’t want to hear. Annoying things. Inconvenient things. Alarming things. Things that interfere with our expectations for them and make us feel angry, afraid, and let’s face it: like bad parents.

I want to quit.

I’m sad.

I’m afraid.

I don’t want to go to school.

I feel pressure.

I need help.

It’s not fair.

I’m stupid.

I can’t go to sleep.

I hate myself.

I’m ugly.

Nobody likes me.

I don’t want to grow up.

I’m worried.

I can’t do it.

I forgot.

I made a mistake.

You don’t understand.

It’s hard.

I’m not like you.

There was another teen suicide last week in Palo Alto, a community that more or less represents the epitome of achievement in our competitive culture.

I’ve struggled with writing anything lately. No one has asked me to. No one needs me to. And I guess that’s my point. I realize I’ve said too much at those times when all I needed to do was listen.

Listen.

I don’t have any explanations for what’s happening, although it’s pretty obvious why some of our children are tormented by anxiety and depression. All feelings are mutual. We live in an anxious world advancing insidiously high standards in our children as a way to soothe this anxiety. And I contribute to the problem when I ignore, resist or reject my child however she is right now.

Whenever I won’t listen.

There are some wise individuals out there who are saying sensible things about how to survive the madness. How to find peace, contentment, and belonging.

One of them is probably your child.

Listen.

 

 

meditation is love

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Whether we know it or not, everyone comes to meditation for love. And the good news is, everyone leaves with it. It can’t be any other way, because we are each beings of immeasurable compassion. This runs contrary to the way we think about ourselves — our motivations, virtues, and abilities — but the way we think about ourselves is usually stingy and wrong.

We typically think we lack compassion, or the capacity for unconditional love. We want to define it, learn it, teach or acquire it. But none of us lacks it in the least. We are simply unaware of the compassion we possess, preoccupied by the judgmental thinking that darkens our hearts with fear, greed, and anger. When we quiet our thoughts through meditation, we finally see the truth about ourselves. This kind of seeing is called “waking up,” like waking up first thing in the morning before your headed is clouded by even a single distraction.

The awakened mind has two natural attributes. One is compassion, what some would call love. The other is clarity, what some would call sight. They are not really two things. Each is a function of the other. When you see, really see, you just love. When you love, really love, you just see. You see things as they are, not as you expect, and in that wide-open clarity is love. read more

to handle the weather

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Vast, empty sky, and occasionally a cloud drifts by. — Maezumi Roshi

This photo was taken yesterday morning on my front lawn, looking over the leafy tops of bamboo into the endless sky. When I shared it on Facebook, someone doubted that it was a recent photo, since storms were presently slamming the other side of LA. Sure enough, by late afternoon the sky over my house was low and gray. There was a crash of thunder and downpour sometime in the night, but by the time I remembered it had happened, it seemed like a dream.

Weather is like that. Even during a stretch when it never changes, it’s changing continuously, clouds and shadows. Life is like that, joy and sorrow. Weather makes things interesting, but most of us are not that interested in what’s interesting. We want to predict, prepare, and avoid: be sure and steady, on course, in control. Thinking we can achieve that is delusion.

There is a sad little store I drive by on my way around the city. The sign outside reads “Safe N’ Ready Emergency Supplies Disaster Preparedness.” They sell stuff for your earthquake kit, like water, batteries and generators, freeze-dried food for survivalists, everything you think you’d need to outlast the end of the world. I call it a sad store because I never see anyone inside. But then again, maybe they do most of their business online, to people who are already too afraid to leave their houses. Those who can’t see that things change in unpredictable ways, and not always for the worst.

“You are the sky. Everything else — it’s just the weather.” Pema Chodron wrote that and it’s true, you are the sky. But you are also the weather, which after all, is not separate from the sky. All those ups and downs; thunder, wind, snow and rain; light and dark; doubt and fury; change and sameness — all you, all you. Can’t very well get rid of the weather, can you?

Last week I heard from someone who had attended a recent retreat with me. It was a powerful retreat (they all are), and everyone came home changed. This person said that after retreat they had felt so positive and energetic, so happy, so good, but now they didn’t.

Me too, I said, that’s why we practice. So we can handle the weather.

In some places, last month was the coldest February ever. The snowfall is insane. There’s no end in sight. You don’t know how you can face another day, let alone another year. I hear you; I get it; I know the feeling. And so I always say the same thing.

Come to California.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat
Sunday, March 22
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles

shoveling gutters

18335467I’m biding my time today until the sun is higher in the sky, the air warms a bit, and I can get out and clean the rain gutters. This is a chore that stands in for all the snow shoveling that might go on where you live. It is a solitary job. No one but me notices that it is time to do it. No one but me will do it. It does not diminish me. On the contrary, cleaning the gutters will give me power and purpose, direction and rhythm: spiritual guidance that doesn’t come when I spend the day merely thinking about what I could be doing, say, tomorrow.

My dear and sensitive friend Katrina Kenison recently sent me a marvelous book, out of the blue, which is what makes something a gift, descending like a bird into your hand from who-knows-where, a memoir by Mary Rose O’Reilley, a poet and author hitherto unknown to me, who once apprenticed herself to a sheep farm. Going to work every day in a barn made no sense in a literal way, her lofty mind knowing nothing about sheep or lambing or castration or shearing or sudden virulent sickness and death, any of the activities that make up the muddy substance of a sheep farm. Perhaps she had an inkling that the experience would spiritually ground her, rescue her from the reaches of her poetic inclinations, and it did. The farm rescued her, and reading about it rescued me too.

I haul the ladder from the garage and put on oversized gloves. I always start by using a trowel to dig out the gutters but before long I’ll pitch the gloves and tool because they don’t quite get at the depth of the matter, the sweet oozing muck, the marriage of last summer’s dust, wind-brittled leaves and December’s forgotten rain. You have to use your hands.

Sometimes, to tell you the truth, I don’t know what to do with myself. I feel greatly alone and sad. Especially these days, I have to remind myself that I keep company with the earth and sky, and that I alone mother the myriad things in-between. That I am a farmer and a friend, and still an apprentice at both. I have to come back to this wholesome earth and shepherd myself in the best way I can. That’s about the time a gift arrives, and I am saved.

The ladder is shaky because at no spot around this house, which sits on a mountain, is the ground level. I’m not afraid. This old path is muddy, but my aim is straight, and maybe I’ll see a bird.

Going out now.

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letter from my 16-year-old self

mailbox-396694__180Today’s news has brought this old post to mind. Looking at life straight on, death is always at hand.

Yesterday I reached into the bottom of a drawer and rediscovered my English Composition notebook from my junior year in high school. I knew that I had kept it, and flipping through the pages of my tightly curled script, spaced so sincerely between faded blue rules,  I remembered why.

We often think that if we had the chance we would go back in time to illuminate our younger selves with mature insights, to foreshorten expectations and prevent cruel disappointments. Drop the notion that you’re wiser now than you were then. What did your 16-year-old self know that you’ve forgotten? Before your last hour, can you remember again?

My Last Wish
English III
October 23, 1972

My life is a collection of small occurrences. In looking back over sixteen years, I remember incidents which, when they happened, seemed quite forgettable. A handshake with a friendly dog, a gift of bubble gum from my father, and a playground chase are a few of the scenes that come to mind.

When confronted with the possibility of only one more day of life, I immediately respond with a desire to experience all of the thrills our earth has to offer. But, after considering further, I reject that idea as a way to conclude my life.

What experiences, after all, has my memory chosen to include in its vast enclosures? The everyday happenings remain most clearly in my mind’s eye. They have influenced and molded me into the complex person that I am.

If I had one day left to live, I wouldn’t want to circle the world or sail the seas. I might wash my hair, play cards, clear the dinner table, fight with my sister, say my prayers and go to sleep.

We must become the ones we always were. How else to explain the sublime recognition when we meet ourselves again.

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how to see paradise

kmm-placeArt by Esmé Weijun Wang.

how to peel an orange

Grandpa showed me how to peel an orange.

Hold the fruit in one hand and the pocketknife in the other.

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First, score a circle in the rind around the navel below and the stem on top.

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Draw the blade down the sides in vertical strokes all around the whole, no deeper than the skin, an inch between each cut. Be careful. Go slow. Do not harm the flesh.

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Lift off the top and bottom pieces.

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Pull each section of rind away from the fruit. It will come easily, and with it, the pith.

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Wedge your thumb into the center and splay the fruit wide open.

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There will be ten or so segments—enough to share.

Once you taste the living truth, you are never again fooled by the imitation flavored drink in a carton.

A lesson from my garden to yours, via my newest book,  Paradise in Plain Sight. Order signed copies of all my books here.

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15 ways to practice compassion today

Marc-Dombrosky1I hear quite a bit about compassion, that brand of selfless love we usually judge ourselves to be lacking. Talking about compassion may be one reason it is so frequently misunderstood as something that we should be doing. But compassion doesn’t need doing. It exists already in the harmony of things just as they are.

Discord comes from our doing — when we impose our judgment, expectations, fear and greed. Compassion comes from undoing. Compassion greets us when we undo our boundaries and erase the lines we said we’d never cross. Compassion waits in the space between us, the space that only seems to separate us: a gap we close when we cease all judgment and take care of whatever appears in front of us.

We don’t have to go anywhere else to find compassion. Not to the Himalayas or even a meditation retreat (although the latter is probably cheaper and easier on the feet.) We don’t have to sit at the foot of a guru or stand on our heads. We won’t find compassion in a book, a blog, a TED talk, a sermon or an inspirational quotation. People who argue the need “teach” compassion usually mean their own idea of compassion.

Right in front of you, every moment of every day, is the only place to practice compassion. Do you want to live in friendship or fear? Paradise or paranoia? We are each citizens of the place we make, so make it a better place. Here are 15 ways to practice compassion today. You don’t have to do 15. Just do one as an experiment so you will recognize the source of compassion within you. You’ll feel good, and then you’ll share that goodness more easily and more often.

1. At the grocery store, give your place in line to the person behind you.

2. Ask the checker how her day is going, and mean it.

3. On the way out, give your pocket money to the solicitor at the card table no matter what the cause.

4. Admire children and praise pets, especially bothersome ones.

5. Roll down your car window when you see the homeless man on the corner with the sign. Give him money. Have no concern over what he will do with it.

6. Smile at him. It will be the first smile he has seen in a very long time.

7. Do not curse your neighbor’s tall grass, unshoveled walk, foul temperament or house color. Given time, things change by themselves. Even your annoyance.

8. Thank the garbageman. Be patient with the postal worker. Light a candle for the power company and the snow plows.

9. Leave the empty parking space for someone else to take. They will feel lucky.

10. Buy cookies from the Girl Scout and a sack of oranges from the poor woman standing in the broiling heat at the intersection.

11. Talk to strangers about the weather. Forgive weather forecasters.

12. Allow others to be themselves, with their own point of view. If you judge them, you are in error.

13. Do not let difference make a difference.

14. Do not despair over the futility of your impact or question the outcome.

15. Love the world you walk, ride and drive around in, and make it your home. It’s the only world you’ll ever live in, and you have all the love in it.

Leave aside the extraordinary lengths and heroic measures. There’s an eyeful of suffering right in front of your face. Often, people look frightened and lonely. They seem bothered, hurt and terrifically sad. Kindness doesn’t cure everything, but it cures unkindness. What a magnificent place to start.

Be compassionate on your way home today. You don’t have to go as far as you think you should. You just have to go farther than you think you can’t. There is no greater compassion than your own.

Prove it to yourself:
Beginner’s Mind Zen Retreat at Copper Beech, West Hartford, Conn. April 17-19
Waking up to our own compassion

Art:

Hand embroidery and found cardboard sign by Marc Dombrosky.

important things are close by

rockIn the past, I thought the important things were far away from me. I worked hard and thought hard every day in order to get to those important things. But soon I realized that these were actually close by. — Lee Kang-hyo, master potter

I’ve watched a video about this man several times this week. As in some books, the first lines are unforgettable. The simplicity is brilliant. I hope you can make the time to watch it, and if you can’t see it at the bottom of this post, you can go here to watch it. You may never get a chance to meet this man or glimpse his life, and even if you met him, you might not recognize him as a master. His shirts are stained and he smokes.

Earlier this week I spent a day with the ponds in the backyard. The leaves in Southern California have finally shaken loose and there is work. Everything I do in the garden or house I do by hand, like you. I bend low over a small stream under the sycamores and lift layers of wet leaves from the slow flowing water. They smell of earth and decay, a luscious stink. I scuff my hands and crack my fingernails without knowing. I try not to fall into the deeper water, aware that no one will come and fish me out, but I straddle the rocks without fear. After a few hours I’ve built a mound of leaves and muck at the back of the yard. My shoes and pants are wet. I need a shower. I don’t give a backward glance at what I’ve done. It will be meaningless tomorrow. I feel alive.

Do you ever experience something like this? Is it possible to live like this in an everyday way, doing everyday things? The potter in this video is a master of the Korean onggi, which means large jars. They are amazing creations, these massive jars. He says that when he began working, he saw them as sculpture. He wanted to make beautiful sculpture. Now he appreciates that the clay pots, first created to store fermenting food like kimchi, chili paste and soy sauce, are inextricable from Korea’s food culture. Food that people make for their own families and eat in their own homes every day. Large jars are even more beautiful as large jars.

Important things are close by. Let this bring you peace.

26 things I can’t teach your child

stack-of-booksToday someone contacted me with a question I’ve been asked more than any other. I appreciate any question that comes to me directly. I appreciate anyone who takes the time to email me, which happens far less frequently these days. (Maybe because I don’t have any answers.)

The question was: How can I teach my child to ________.

It doesn’t matter how you fill in the blank. Pick one, pick another, I can’t tell you squat about any of them.

a. sleep through the night
b. go in the potty
c. share
d. stop fighting
e. start reading
f. make friends
g. make better friends
h. eat right
i. wear appropriate shoes
j. make better grades
k. not quit
l. respect others
m. lighten up
n. do their work
o. listen
p. focus
q. be quiet
r. be kind
s. love
t. help
u. know right from wrong
v. take responsibility
w. quit bothering me
x. do what I say
y. be who I want
z. meditate

I won’t make light of them; these are big time questions. I don’t have any answers, but I always respond to people who have the courage to ask a stranger for advice. I say, “Just for one teeny, tiny minute, believe that your children are fine. And then take whatever you want to teach them and make sure you do it yourself.” Everything, everywhere, every time begins with you. And the miraculous thing is, it doesn’t end there. It goes on and on forever.

***

You might like these:

Teaching children to meditate
8 ways to raise a mindful child
How to raise a Buddhist child
The myth of the teachable moment
Bring your own cookies
The child is not the child

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