a teacher is a mirror

because your mascara ran
your lipstick smudged
you have spinach stuck between your teeth
because you broke a nail
got a rash
wore a hole in the heel of your sock
because your crow’s feet
your frown lines
the circles under your eyes
because what to do about your hair
you’re going bald
you’re going gray
the roots grew out
you sweat
snore
shit
stink
can’t do it
don’t want to
a lost cause
a waste of time
a lie a fraud a joke
but mostly you’re afraid
afraid to face the mirror
because the mirror just reflects

like walking on diamonds

A poor man came to visit a wealthy friend, and they ate, drank and talked until late in the night. After the guest fell into a deep sleep, the host learned that he had to leave immediately for a distant land. Before he left, to show his care and compassion, he sewed a beautiful jewel inside the hem of his friend’s shabby robe. This jewel had the power to satisfy all one’s desires.

The next morning, the guest awoke alone in his friend’s lavish house. He departed, traveling from place to place begging for food or work, unaware that he possessed a priceless gem in the hem of his robe.

One day, by chance, the wealthy man came upon his friend. Seeing the man’s desperate condition, he asked him: “Why have you allowed yourself to become destitute? You could have used the jewel that I gave you to live your life without worry.”

Bewildered, the poor man fumbled in his robe and found the gem. Ashamed of his ignorance yet overcome with joy, he realized for the first time the depth of his friend’s love and compassion. From then on, he lived in complete fulfillment.

When we realize we live in a treasure house, we can use it freely.

The Parable of the Jewel in the Robe from the Lotus Sutra

 

I just want to encourage you

My first Zen teacher was Japanese, and although he spoke English, he was nearly impossible to follow. In his soft voice and heavy accent, a good part of what he said was indecipherable. Because of that, he had a reputation for giving terrible Dharma talks, or teachings, and this caused him regret.

“I just want to encourage you,” he would say as he set off on a discourse that no one could make heads or tails of. But that was enough, at least for me. I’ve realized that encouragement is the essence of teaching. I think it’s just about all we can do for one another, and all we need to do. With encouragement, you see, people can do anything and will. A little encouragement goes a long way. You might even say it lasts forever.

Nowadays I’m grateful for the encouragement I’ve been given, which seems to be the most useful thing I can pass along.

A few years ago there was some new research into how toddlers learn to walk. The study said that a baby learning to walk falls on average 17 times per hour. 17 times! Can you imagine that? Seventeen times the shock, hurt, and tears. More than 200 failures in one 12-hour stretch! And 200 times to start over at square one. Even with all that, there has not yet been a baby who gave up on the whole enterprise. It’s a remarkably efficient learning process. Forward motion dissolves fear.

This information has factored into a lot of the advice I’ve given to people since then. Most of us, most of the time, encumber ourselves with the terrible weight and responsibility for teaching our kids everything so they turn out to be something. By that I mean something successful or prized, happy or well. Starting out, we look at them as shapeless clay, putty, or goop. I like to remind parents that we don’t actually teach our children how to walk, how to eat, how to talk, or how to sleep, regardless of how many expert opinions we seek on those subjects. An acorn becomes an oak, I say, lacking any other explanation for how human development happens. And on this basis, our children are completely and wholly themselves at every age and stage, lacking nothing, only absorbing time and encouragement to keep going.

Back when my daughter was in preschool, her teacher made a handout for parents called 4 Steps of Encouragement. When your kids are about 4 years old, you might start to worry about the really important stuff they aren’t doing, like riding a tricycle, holding a pencil, writing their name, or drawing a person with arms and legs. You’re pretty sure they’re already behind, and then where will they end up?  The teacher assures you it’s not late, there’s no hurry, children learn and grow at their own pace, and for heaven’s sake please confine your contribution to repeating these four things:

1. “I understand, I know it’s hard.”
2. “I think you can handle it.”
3. “Want to give it a try?”
4. “When you’re ready . . . “

Last week my daughter texted me during a school day, one of the last of her senior year, and said “I’m getting sad to leave.” I was surprised to hear her express affection for high school, but that wasn’t it. She meant sad to leave home, which really means sad to grow up. Isn’t that true? Isn’t reluctance at the root of all sadness? The reluctance to change, let go, fall down, get up and move on?

Of course we can give help where it is needed, attention when it is lacking, and patience when time is short. But there’s one more thing that bears repeating.

I just want to encourage you.

instant pot enlightenment

I didn’t want it. I didn’t ask for it. What I asked for was a slow cooker. When I said “slow cooker” I envisioned the brown ceramic Crock-Pot my mother filled with pork chops and a can of condensed mushroom soup in the morning before work. I’m good with slow.

I usually scale down what I ask for because gifts for me tend to get scaled up. Once I asked for a juicer and got a stainless steel “citrus press” that stands 14 inches high. I asked for a 10-inch fry pan and got a 15-inch skillet. I asked for a soup ladle and got a professional grade combination ladle and strainer with a handle so long that it won’t fit in a drawer. I use all these things, but I have a small house and kitchen that gets teenier every Christmas.

So when I saw the two-foot tall box under the tree I held my breath. It was the last gift I unwrapped. It wasn’t a slow cooker. It was my worst fear: an instant pot. I needed it like I needed another ladle.

A week later I still hadn’t opened the box. When I did, I was wary. It had a lot of packing material and instructions in several languages. My husband reassured me it wasn’t that complicated. And it was the highest rated model he could find. I might have asked for what I wanted, but I hadn’t wanted nearly enough.

I waited until he cleared one of our three gourmet coffeemakers from the counter before I installed it. And then I trolled Facebook looking for real people who had used the thing successfully. The first weeks of the year were full of postings from first-time instant pot users, posts of the “live to tell” variety. I found one from a friend and went right to the recipe she had used: butter chicken.

I tried it. I loved it. Everyone loved it. And that’s all I needed to keep going. I’ve attained instant pot enlightenment, and here’s what I’ve learned:

1. It’s not complicated. Never mind the 14 function buttons lined up on the front of my Instant Pot Duo Plus. I don’t want to make cake or porridge or yogurt. I want to make dinner, and to do that I have only ever used two functions: sauté and pressure cook.

2. It’s not that big, not as tall as a citrus press, for instance.

3. It saves time to cook, but not necessarily the time for cooking. You still have to prep the ingredients, and you might have to shop for specific ingredients more often.

4. It’s fun. I’ve been the cook for at least four nights a week for the last 21 years. So I needed a jolt to my system.

5. There are a lot of recipes out there. Some of them are faster ways to make old favorites like pot roast, chili or tomato soup; others are things you never thought you’d make, like Indian food. The Instant Pot has revolutionized traditional at-home Indian cooking with its time bound methods to achieve complex flavors. (I read that in a magazine article.) I usually start looking for a recipe using things I have on hand and want to use up, like too many sweet potatoes, carrots, or tomatoes.

6. Season it up. The pressure cooker nukes your seasonings. My favorite recipe is for a quick pot roast that sounds like something my mom would have made: it uses a packet of old-fashioned onion soup mix for flavoring.

By now you might have an instant pot sitting on top of your refrigerator. Time to haul it down and fire it up. People ask where I get my instant pot recipes. I get them instantly, but I can still save you a second or two of trouble. These are some the recipes that I have or definitely would make twice.

Beef Stew
Butter Chicken
Chicken and Pea Risotto
Chicken Biryani
Curried Carrot Red Lentil Soup
Curried Sweet Potato Lentils
Ground Beef Chili
Kale with Garlic and Lemon
Lemon Vegetable Risotto
Mongolian Chicken
Mulligatawny Soup
Palak Paneer
Spicy Cauliflower Soup
Pot Roast
Sweet Potato Chicken Curry
Tomato Soup

 

go straight on

Here are audio excerpts from a dharma talk given on April 14, 2018 at the Rime Buddhist Center in Kansas City.

How to meditate

Practicing Zen is zazen. For zazen a quiet place is suitable. Set aside all involvements and let the myriad things rest. – Dogen Zenji, “Rules for Zazen”

To start, let go of the ideas you may have about what meditation is supposed to look like or what meditation is supposed to feel like. Let the monkey in your mind go to sleep so that you can wake up and reclaim your rightful home.

Unless you have a meditation cushion, or zafu, do not attempt to sit cross-legged on the floor to meditate. Without adequate support to elevate your buttocks and enable you to anchor your knees on the floor, sitting this way quickly becomes painful. The point of meditation is not pain. Your life is painful enough as it is. The point of meditation is to relieve pain.

What follows are instructions for meditating in a chair. Although you are unlikely to have the perfect chair in your home for meditation, any chair is perfectly okay. So do not delay your practice until your trip to the Furniture Mart.

1. Sit on the forward third of a chair so that your feet rest firmly on the ground. To support your back, place a hard cushion between your spine and the chair back. This will prevent slouching and keep you alert.

2. Space your feet widely apart. Your body is now supported at three points: your two feet and your bottom. In seated meditation, three contact points are essential for endurance and comfort. Your body now evokes the strength of a mountain.

3. Place your hands in the middle of your lap as follows: first, your right hand, palm up; then, your left hand, palm up, resting in your right palm. Lightly touch the tips of your thumbs together. Holding your hands in this way calms agitation and restlessness.

4. To check your posture, align your ears with your shoulders. Align your nose with your navel. Tuck your chin in slightly. Hold your head as though it were supporting the sky, and it will neither hang forward nor fall backward.

5. Relax your belly. A stiff, cinched abdomen restricts your breathing. In meditation, you will try to return to the full, rounded breathing of a baby. Watch a baby breathe and see that the belly rises on inhalation, not the chest. This is a good demonstration for you to learn from.

6. Lower your gaze, but do not close your eyes. If you close your eyes, you will be lulled into daydreaming. Meditation is not practice for sleeping; it is practice for waking up. Look at a spot on the floor or on a wall in front of you. Any spot will do, as long as it is not distracting.

7. Close your teeth and your mouth. Take a breath and exhale completely.

8. On your next inhalation, silently count “one.” When you exhale, silently count “two.” Inhale counting “three.” Count each exhalation and inhalation up to “ten” and then start back at “one.” If you lose the count, begin again at “one.” This meditation practice is called counting your breath.

9. When a thought comes up, let it go away by itself, which it will if you do not pursue it.

10. This is the practice of zazen. Do zazen for up to five minutes. Keep a watch or clock nearby to note the time. As you meditate more often, you may be able to do it for longer. Do not be self-critical or impatient with yourself. Do not push yourself. Do not make meditation one more thing you have to do. If you are gentle, encouraging and consistent with yourself, your meditation practice will naturally deepen and lengthen.

Five minutes is not a long time, but it can take a long time to find five minutes to meditate. Usually, the first five minutes or the last five minutes in the day are the easiest to find. You already have them and they are already quiet.

I will be most happy to answer your questions and encourage you to keep going.

how to raise an adult

Today I walked to Rite Aid, something I’ve done a few times — okay, exactly twice. On the sidewalk ahead, I could see a bowlegged man shuffling toward me. When he got up close he pointed to the intersection behind me with his cane.

Is that Huntington? he asked.

No, that’s Sierra Madre Boulevard.

OK, he said, I just have to cross that street.

Huntington and Sierra Madre boulevards are three miles apart and not in any way like the other. So I wondered for the rest of the afternoon whether he was: 1) following a peculiar exercise regimen, or 2) genuinely disoriented and lost. I didn’t look back to see if he made it across the street, nor did I see him on the return walk home, but he stayed with me, that old traveler did.

When I encounter a stranger who tells me something unexpected — the lady in the Whole Foods parking lot who said she loved the shape of my head; Sister Imelda, a nun in full habit on the hiking trail telling me she was collecting souls — I figure they have a message for me. The message is to wake up. After 10,000 or so steps, I realized the man had given me an answer I’d been looking for.

I’ve been wanting to write a post about how to raise an adult, an activity that’s occupying me these last hundred days before my daughter leaves home. But I couldn’t, because I don’t know how to raise an adult. I was thinking I’d come up with a handy list of steps, like, say, the steps for growing corn. But it turns out growing corn isn’t that simple to sum up either. There’s the matter of soil, weather, temperature and pests: so many variables, too many unknowns.

When you’re a parent, every question you have is how, and every answer is do. All those ages and stages, milestones and thresholds, tests and percentages, transitions and regressions, variables and unknowns. But that’s in your head. In real life, to get where you’re going you just have to cross the street.

Forward motion: it happens.

Last week, a vote-by-mail ballot for the city election came addressed to my daughter. I sat beside her as she read the instructions, asked thoughtful questions and filled in the bubbles. Then she signed her name with a signature I’d never seen and wouldn’t have recognized. An adult.

Guess that’s how.

***

Coming up next:
What is Zen: A Retreat in Kansas City, April 13-15
Still Summer: A Zen Retreat in Ohio, Cincinnati July 5-8

 

healing community

Thorndale, Texas by Adrienne Breaux

 

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them. — Matthew 18:20

I’ve had this verse on my mind since I spent time in the hospital. I wasn’t in the hospital being a patient, mind you, but rather being patient, cultivating one of the virtues required of us in difficult circumstances.

A friend was having major surgery, and I accompanied her into the hospital and sat beside her as she mended for a day or so after. Although I didn’t do anything while I was there, I learned some things.

I learned, for instance, that a hospital is its own country, with its own language, symbols, rituals and time, its own days and nights. The outside, with its calliope of circus distractions, doesn’t exist. The first day I just sat in a waiting room with strangers whiling away the time. I was alone until a family came up to me and asked if the empty seats nearby were taken. We shared the lengthening hours then, talking about weather and pets, bound by our communal experience of waiting and worry.

It is a beautiful thing to see how much you have in common with people you’ve never met and know nothing about. People you might not see again and would likely never recognize. The circumstance connects you in a clarifying way, and you can see beyond appearances, beyond what you might otherwise judge on face value.

I learned that even the most confident doctors can pray, and that their shoulders carry the weight of our urgent faith.

I saw that even after 12 hours on the job nurses still enter sick rooms with a smile and leave with a thank you.

I watched a phlebotomist take blood so gently, so tenderly, asking permission and making apology while causing no pain, all because, she said, “I put myself on the patient’s side.”

I learned that it is always possible to be kind, and that most people already are.

The hospital gave me hope, tremendous hope. Not hope in miracles, but hope in healing. The hope that we can turn this thing around, that we can begin to heal one another even if only by twos or threes, which is the really good news, because that means we can do it right now where we are with the first stranger passing by.

Life in community

I read one pastor’s take on this Bible verse and I really liked it. She said that the verse instructs us to live our spiritual lives in community, with others, where there is conflict and contention to be reconciled. It’s in our differences, you see, that grace is revealed, that we are rescued and redeemed from our self-interest and thus able to love a neighbor with equal devotion.

In Buddhism we call this sangha. It is honorable for its harmony, and it is everywhere.

What is killing our communities? I wondered about that this week when I read the story of the unrepentant Austin bomber, isolated and frustrated by his life living in a town reminiscent of one I once knew.

Reading that he was from Pflugerville, Texas, reminded me of Thorndale, Texas, just 30 miles northeast, where my mother’s people had lived. Both towns were founded by farmers in the late 19th century for the sake of common interests: to have a school and a church, a general store and a post office, a bank, a cemetery and a cotton gin. These were real communities that arose out of real needs, needs met by being shared among the many.

Thorndale hasn’t changed. Progress passed it by. But not so Pflugerville, where real estate developers arrived in the ’80s to remake it into an Austin suburb. A city of 60,000, Pflugerville is now rife with master-planned communities, neighborhoods of sameness secured by fences and gates, valued for what’s left out as much as what’s put in.

What does living in community mean any more? There’s no grace, no spiritual good when we make our community out of one ideology or income bracket, and Lord knows there’s no salvation to be found in Facebook, either. These days the word, community, is used for everything while meaning nothing.

I spent two days watching how it works in a hospital, and this is what I saw. We have to get real, people, to get better, and we have to do it together before it’s too late.

You might want to watch a beautiful film, The Florida Project, about a community left on the fringe after Disney fashioned a make-believe world.

5 steps to joy

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How do we find joy amid chaos?

I’ve been practicing meditation for 25 years now, and this question tells you why. It’s why I do retreats as a student, and it’s why I offer them as a teacher. Each of us, no matter what the circumstances, can find ourselves in a daily struggle to stay sane. And if not completely sane, at least positive. And if not totally positive, than at least moderately hopeful. There is so much going on. We can’t catch up or get ahead. Even our kids are too busy. Everyone is stressed, pressured, and anxious. The outlook is for more of the same. We may feel an urgent need to slow things down, or a depressing belief that nothing we do will make a difference.

We might think that chaos is a unique feature of our 21st century culture, but that isn’t so. True, technology means that we can work 24/7, and we have our devices to thank for our chronic distractibility. We may lack the support of family and friends, and feel disconnected from meaningful relationships. But I bet that you don’t need to look very far back in your family history to find a time when your own ancestors struggled just to maintain adequate food and shelter, or labored under catastrophic wars, disasters, and economic or social injustice. In short, life has always been hard, and often a lot harder than it is now. The proverbial “simpler time” we yearn for might not have been simple at all.

Contemplative practices such as meditation originated many thousands of years ago and haven’t changed. They don’t need to change. They don’t need to be modernized or adapted to the millennial mindset. They depend solely on oneself. And they work. This is what I have observed in my own meditation practice: stillness and silence bring peace, and from that peace springs radiant joy that you can experience for yourself.

It begins in chaos. Are you troubled, confused, anxious or overwhelmed? You’ve taken the first step to joy.

Enter the chaos

All spiritual practices are born in chaos — the shock of loss, the pain of despair, the sobering certainty of old age, sickness and death — the recognition that time swiftly passes and you are not in control. When the world is moving too fast, we always have a choice: to be tossed about by external events, or to center ourselves in the midst.

Drop resistance

The fact is, you’re upset. Frustrated, disappointed and annoyed. Resentful, regretful or indignant. Uncomfortable, uneasy and afraid. Most of us have developed a hard outer edge: the edginess that comes from resisting the way things are. Once you recognize what you are holding on to, you can drop it. It’s a lot of work to haul that extra stuff around, and it makes you feel terrible.

Exhaust yourself

No longer struggling against anything, you might instead feel . . . tired, very tired, and tender, very tender. Your heart softens, and you feel genuine compassion for yourself and others. Everyone is simply doing their best. This is a key step on the journey, because now you are courageous enough to do the most difficult thing of all.

Be still

A great teacher once said, “The effort of no effort is the hardest effort of all.” Using breath as a guide, meditation draws you into the still center of your being. You can stay, rest, and relax there. Your core of stillness, which is pure presence, is the place where healing and transformation occurs.

Enter the silence

Some people approaching their first retreat think that keeping silent will be the biggest challenge for them. I always remind folks that silence is not a prohibition. It is instead an invitation to enter the silence that is already here. Once the mind is quieted and the heart is calmed, everything is exactly as before, but without the noisy rat-a-tat-tat of our judgments. Inner silence harmonizes with all outer activity.

In silence we find quiet joy and gratitude for our life, and for all those who share it with us.

What a useful thing to bring home from retreat. Perhaps you could find out for yourself.

***

Join me at  Still Summer: A Zen Retreat in Ohio the weekend of July 5-8 in Cincinnati.

being well

All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. —Julian of Norwich

Last weekend I sat in a meditation retreat with a beautiful group of people. Three were in pain from back injuries. Two had recently lost close members of their family. One had a chronic illness; another, cancer. Others were facing vexing uncertainty in employment and finances. Several were overwhelmed with the care of elderly and incapacitated parents. Our youngest participant, a 20-year-old college student, said that because she has difficulty managing her attention and anxiety she was pretty sure she was doing it all wrong.

In short, we were exactly alike, doing what we needed to do in the only place we could be.

Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves. — Rumi

My doctor’s office called a few weeks ago saying that I was overdue for a physical. My last visit was in 2016. How had a whole year disappeared?

I knew how. The year had vanished in a lethal flurry of hurricanes and floods, fires and mass killings. It was swept away in a cyclone of fear, behind a wall of rage. It was crushed by greed, ignorance and ineptitude; infected with hate; buffeted by chaos; and pounded by gale-force lies. Oh yes, I understood why I might have lost track of normal. The world—with me in it—was sick and on life-support, in organ failure, beyond medical intervention. The family had been called in to pray.

We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence.  We need silence to be able to touch souls. —Mother Teresa

At the beginning of every retreat, we set out a blank sheet of lined paper with the title “Sick List.” Everybody is invited to write the names of people to chant for who are sick or suffering, that is, anyone other than themselves. The trick to wellness, you might know, is to see beyond yourself and your sickly preoccupation with your own fear, pain, inadequacy and sorrow. Only then can you see what to do.

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

At first, the names appear slowly, a dozen or so, the people and pets we know for certain are worse off. Their names are chanted in our morning service. Then, in the mounting hours of silent stillness, our hearts soften and we think of many more. Now there are two dozen names on the paper. We might recall those people we didn’t think we could help, or even want to. Difficult people, distant or estranged, overlooked and then suddenly seen in a sympathetic light. Three dozen, four, five. Spoken, the names flow like a spring river over two sides of two pieces of paper, and fill the room.

Little by little we let everyone into our warming hearts until the last day, when we arrive at a great and humbling truth: that as soon as we stop thinking about ourselves we are one piece with the entire world and everyone in it. No one is left out or forgotten; no one remains unworthy or unloved. And then we can’t help but smile, because we are not sick, we are well and whole.

The way I see it, if the greedy, angry and ignorant can unleash this much evil in the world, each of us, by our own selflessness, can deliver this much good.

Winter Sun Zen Retreat, Madison WI, March 4, 2018

already you

You have always been you. It sounds a little bit silly to say that, because it doesn’t come close to expressing what I mean. As the person who has spent nearly every one of last 7,000 days and nights in silent wonder and raging worry over every aspect of your life—your eating, sleeping, feeling, and thinking; your hair, bones, blood and skin—I mean it as an admission. It wasn’t me. It isn’t me. It will not be me that makes you who you are.

I have a memory of the first time you waved bye-bye. A sitter was holding you in her arms near the front door and I was walking out of it. When your baby waves bye-bye to you it’s a moment that really sticks. But it’s not quite right to say you were a baby then. You were already you when you did that, already a perfectly functioning human being. You were on a path that was uniquely yours, that had begun in a time and place before me, and that would progress in a completely intact and natural way after me.

Why did I think I had so much to do with it?

Every now and then my Zen teacher will say something (that he has said many times before) to point to the truth of life. It goes sort of like this: “Once you were a little child, then a teenager and now an adult. You were 10 then 18, 30 or 50. Was any of that hard to do?” No, we chuckle to ourselves, since it’s a given. It happens by itself.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin.

A lily does not become a stalk of corn either. It never becomes anything but itself, by itself. This is another revelation that sounds stupidly obvious and unremarkable. But we should reflect on it. We should study it: the obvious and effortless perfection of the way things are and how they come to be.

I grew up in another time, a time before the dawn of the Industrial Parental Anxiety Complex. This is to say that my mother did the mothering, such as it was, and my father did the fathering, for better or worse, but nothing that they did or didn’t do was formed by this new attitude of expertise called parenting. Parenting is not something that anyone knows how to do or will know how to do. It cannot be taught, except by children, who have the sometimes charming and often infuriating ability to be no one but themselves.

My mother never once hid broccoli in the mac and cheese. She never hounded me to practice the piano as a way to elevate my math scores or letter in lacrosse to polish my college prospects. These kind of manufactured agonies were simply beyond the few extra hours available in her day. She had other concerns, great matters, and her children did not appear to be chief among them. Oh happy day!

Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

This is not to say that we don’t have our hands full, as parents. Not to say that there isn’t much to learn or do, but it concerns our children far less than we think. Our job is to raise ourselves upright as half-decent people and self-managing adults. To be honest and reliable. To be patient. To have confidence in ourselves and trust in nearly everyone else. To keep going through the rough patches, with a resilient hope and idiotic optimism that all will be well. To shine light equally on the lilies and the thistles, the flowers and the thorns, the rocks and the mud and the grass that grows every which way in the field without applying a fence or force. To simply be, faithful and true, because that is how our children grow strong in themselves as themselves, lacking nothing, functioning perfectly, the amazing humans they already are.

to keep our children safe

Across the fields a cry heaves up as young bodies bleed out on native soil
What can we do
ten thousand echoes pound the sky
to keep our children safe?

I watched the news this week, and this is what I saw.

On Monday, a short black man stood on a stage in Washington DC and spoke words that were hard to hear. The microphone was positioned for a person much taller than him, and because he was either too nervous or polite, he did not draw the neck of the mic down to his own mouth. He gave a speech barely heard and returned to his seat, but then stood up again with unseemly insistence to interrupt the next speaker so he could say the one thing that had to be said.

“My mother,” he began. His chin quivered and mouth broke.

This was Kehinde Wiley, the painter of Obama’s portrait for the National Portrait Gallery, the son of a single mother with six children who ran a junk shop in South Central LA, the survivor of a notoriously dangerous neighborhood who had become one of the most successful portrait painters in the world.

“My mother . . . she bought me paints,” and now he is crying as he looks at her, knowing that the pigments were his sole power and privilege.

“She bought me brushes,” the word itself fluttering with impracticality, the whisper of impossibility. His face shines with tears. He doesn’t have to say more. The portrait is already drawn, and we’ve seen the invisible mother, we know her heart and the dire hope it held, the hope that her children would be safe.

Two days later, in one of the safest neighborhoods, one with good lawns and great schools, home of the lucky and best, came the terrifying report that repeats each week, of children killed in the hour they should be most alive and free, followed by the cynical insult unique to this country, the blatant lie that nothing can be done to stop the mass executions of the innocent except what is too early or too late or not enough or must be pried-from-my-cold-dead-hands. This familiar drone, so dull to the senses, subdued by the next day’s disaster, is forgotten, until the child among us stands up and says the one thing that must be said. “You are the adults. Do something.”

###

As it turns out, the famous portrait artist went to the same high school my daughter attends, a public arts school that by its very creed welcomes the free and shelters the brave. There, as a self-described “chubby 16-year-old,” he painted himself into the portraits he practiced on, painted himself as a nobleman, a conqueror and a hero. True, each of us creates the world we inhabit with whatever tools are in our hands.

What power have we handed to our children, I ask you, the power of goodness or villainy? The color pours out from our schools, streets and homes, and beauty lives or dies.

practice no harm

Cracked_Pavement

When folks begin to practice Zen, they can be set back by how hard it is. They might have expected to be good at it—for certain they expected something—but what they are good at is something else altogether.

Why is it so hard to just breathe? Because you’ve been practicing holding your breath.

Why is it so hard to keep my eyes open? Because you’ve been practicing falling asleep.

Why is it so hard to be still? Because you’ve been practicing running amok.

Why is it so hard to be quiet? Because you’ve been practicing talking to yourself.

Why is it so hard to pay attention? Because you’ve been practicing inattention.

Why is it so hard to relax? Because you’ve been practicing stress.

Why is it so hard to trust? Because you’ve been practicing fear.

Why is it so hard to have faith? Because you’ve been trying to know.

Why is it so hard to feel good? Because you’ve been practicing feeling bad.

Whatever you practice, you’ll get very good at, and you’ve been practicing these things forever. Take your own life as proof that practice works as long as you keep doing it. Just replace a harmful practice with one that does no harm.

***

For the benefit of those who will be practicing with me at any of these places, and especially for those who won’t be able to make it.

Winter Sun Retreat, Madison WI, March 1-4
Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, LA, March 18
What is Zen? Retreat, Kansas City, April 13-15

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