the gardener’s way

IMG_5876

You are all perfect the way you are, and you could use a little improvement.

—Suzuki Roshi

a mother’s unmanifesto

window1Do not be me.
Do not act like me, look like me, talk like me, live like me or remember me.
If you should, in some late season, see me in yourself, realize that I am long gone and happy to live forever in the deep well of your forgetting.
Forget my voice.
Absolutely, I mean it this time.
Even this voice!
Allow yourself the quiet I disturbed.
Remember instead what you said and what you did.
The things I overlooked.
The things I tried to change.
Your silliness.
Your friends.
Your fascinations.
Your refusal to listen to my worry and fear.
I was trying to turn you into me!
Find your heart.
Free your mind.
Use your feet.
Love your life and hate it, sometimes, too.
Everything is permitted.
Give yourself totally to your world.
Overrule me.
Remove my hands.
Escape my grip.
Kick me out of the house.
I will fly in on the starlight
between the cracks
through the gaps
in the empty veil of time
and watch you.
Silently watch you.
It’s all I ever wanted to do.
Love, Mom.

For my daughter, in tribute to my mother, with apologies all around.

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a moment of shame

Let it be well understood: once desire for the truth arises, the desire for fame and riches will disappear in a moment.
- Dogen Zenji

I worked for a few days on a blog post. It expressed my feelings perfectly—outrage, cynicism, moral superiority—but I just couldn’t bring myself to put it up. Then I saw this quote and it corrected me instantly! I was ashamed of my bluster and threw it out.

There’s a lot of psycho/spiritual talk out there. Shame on me if I add to it. All around me are better teachers innocently delivering an instantaneous correction. Who don’t busy themselves talking mighty talk while sitting on comfy sofas or chairs. The purity of their faith and the discipline of their practice humbles me.

When it comes to authenticity and humility, I’ll throw in my lot with a Pope who rides the bus. For courage and vulnerability, I’ll take the TV host who trades fame for farming. For gratitude and compassion, look to the billionaire who gives 99 percent of his wealth to charity. For a teacher, follow anyone who actually gets down on the ground and helps sick babies and teen mothers and old people, the homeless, hopeless and unwanted—while unpaid and unseen.

As for me, I hardly help anyone at all except when I roll down my window at the stoplight and hand a dollar bill to the lost soul on the corner. That’s my master class. I can really learn from people who don’t try to teach me a thing. Who aren’t selling me a credential or an e-course.  People who have more important things to be than right or wise or popular.

Let me well understand myself. Let me be quiet. Let me do good.

 

weather

JR70297-red-tree You are the sky. Everything else—it’s just the weather. Pema Chodron

Ohio in March? The weather would be iffy. For months before last weekend’s retreat in southwest Ohio I crossed my fingers about the weather. The brink of spring in Ohio was like—what exactly? Now I know the answer. Ohio would be like Ohio. A chilly day of filtered sun, the rip-roar of thunderstorms preceding a bright and balmy afternoon, an overnight freeze and snow flurries on the way out of town.

Welcome to Ohio, everyone said, with a tinge of dismay, since it was, after all, Ohio. Nothing to write home about. Oh but it is! Here I am at home writing about it. I found everything about Ohio to be utterly wonderful and illuminating. What a marvelous place to observe the whims of the weather, and learn by it.

Weather changes. Weather moves. Weather does not linger. It is not to be understood or analyzed, because it doesn’t last. No one, I hope, believes they are irreparably shaped by the misty rain they encountered walking home from school in April of the fifth grade. Or by the heat wave that stultified the summer of 2006. Or by last night’s wind or this morning’s fog.

Everything, it turns out, is like this. Everything we see, hear, feel, and think. Every bit of life plays out in a phenomenal flicker, and then it’s gone. We are able to accept this impermanence in the weather; we are not so foolish to expect one day to be like the next. Welcome to Ohio! But we are terribly foolish in other ways. One is the importance we give to our feelings, especially our difficult and uncomfortable feelings. We think they have value—high and lasting value—giving insight into our being, our soul, our self, the who, what and why that we are. We are obsessed with our feelings; we are confused by them; we are entertained by them. On a perfectly ordinary day when nothing at all is happening to us we rummage back into old feelings—I’m afraid, I’m angry, I’m sad—as if these faded footprints formed the meaning and substance of life.

When we identify so totally with the weather we do not see where the weather comes from. We do not see our true nature, the infinite and eternal spaciousness that gives rise to a single momentous thunderclap or the billion snowflakes that melt into a square foot of March mud. We do not see that we are the sky, a vivid and unpredictable vista that is never once marred by the frolic of light and vapor across its flawless face.

This is what I saw in Ohio. I saw the sky, and I loved it. I loved everything and everyone who roamed with me across that wide open field, like birds at rest and play. They leave no trace.

Now, come see the ocean in June.

 

love letter to a teenage girl

valentine-note-foldYou’ll just have to get used to this, Mom, because every teenage girl is like this.

My mother said, in one of her last long sighs in the short last year of her life, that all the problems I thought were so big when my daughter was one year old were really small problems, although they seemed so monumental at the time. The problems of eating and sleeping and teething and talking and knowing and growing and the like.

She offered the flimsy consolation a young mother can’t yet receive, from her own mother long past, that “When they are little they have little problems and when they are big they have big problems.”

Last night my daughter relaxed over dinner out, just the two of us, and showed me a view of her problems, which sounded like this: no one likes me and I’m not pretty and no one likes me and I can’t help it and I don’t know and its hopeless and I’m ugly and stupid and no one likes me I’m not pretty and no one likes me and I’m not pretty and you can’t help me and you’ll have to get used to this because every teenage girl is like this!

I sat there dumb and numb and having no idea how to repair a heart I’d never known was broken and stanch the pain that poured out of her mouth and across the table and up my spine and into the hollows of my breathless chest as I hoped against hope that we could just once be handed a small problem to fret over and fix.

And then I granted the absence she asked for and wrote this instead. In between every word is the sobbing heaving ocean of a mother’s silent love that does not fix a thing.

 

 

how do you mother yourself?

Every now and then an old post gets popular again and I go looking to see what the fuss is about. It is, indeed, time to mother myself all over again. How about you?

——

One of the first readers of Momma Zen, by my timid invitation, was a middle-aged single gay man who had no interest or experience in parenting but a keen eye for content.

“This is about parenting yourself, right?” he concluded after a quick flip through the pages.

I agreed as if I knew. As if that very insight had guided my hand.

But those aren’t the kind of insights that illumine the daily life of a mother when the process is so totally involved with the continuous operation of a malfunctioning bundle, so wholly immersed in behavior management of a toddling monster or a moody teen.

We don’t see our lives clearly when we live it as though it has an external object and outcome. Judging it as if it is a foregone conclusion or – what if? – a looming failure.

Yet how we mother our children can never be anything other than how we mother ourselves, because it is all one life. So my question is not how you parent the people you undoubtedly love the most, but rather, how do you mother yourself? Because there are not two ways.

Are you kind and forgiving?
Do you give yourself quiet attention?
Permission to play?
Discipline to work?
The confidence to do things by yourself?
Are you honest with yourself?
Do you encourage yourself to go outside?
To take a breath?
To try again?
To take risks?
To be silly?
Are you hurrying toward some imagined milestone?
Do you undermine yourself with constructive criticisms?
Are you undisturbed by your apparent lack of progress?
Are you tender, careful and trusting with yourself?
Do you comfort fears, or magnify them?
Do you nourish yourself?
Laugh at yourself?
Smile in greeting each day?
Do you abandon yourself to preoccupations with the past?
Do you make new friends and forgive the old?
Do you allow that the world is entirely your own and encourage self-mastery?
Do you sleep when tired and eat when hungry?
Take a bath and splash?
Do you let yourself rant and cry for no good reason and then coax yourself back into the familiar cushion of your very own lap?

Do you tell yourself you are a wonderful mother and a beautiful daughter? Then let me be the first, and not the last.

How do you mother yourself?

A printable copy of this post is available here.

the last fall

12778814-oranges-in-ground-who-fallen-from-tree

I want to tell you that the baby won’t fall
the tooth won’t break
the skin won’t scrape
no row of stitches at the hairline
you never saw it coming
I want to tell you that the teasing won’t hurt
the teacher won’t frown
the kids won’t laugh
her name won’t be the last one called
because I suck at kickball that’s why
I want to tell you that your heart won’t rip
your eyes won’t mist your breath won’t catch
when she disappears into her lonely self
beneath a sweatshirt two sizes too big
a widow
to her babyhood
I’m not that girl anymore
I want to tell you that the flowers won’t bloom
the leaves won’t bud
the fruit won’t dangle and drop
that nothing fades and nothing dies
nothing hurts and nothing leaves
you’ll never see it going
but it will go
it will go home
the way a period ends a sentence
the earth is our mother
she heals even the last fall.

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face time

blog-wilted-house-plantNext time you want to grow a plant, set it in front of a screensaver of the sun and see what happens.

Excuse me for pointing out the obvious. The sun is not a picture of the sun. An internet connection is not the same as a living connection. Life is not a picture of life. It is the transmission of living energy and not the transmission of digital data.

Or as an old Zen fogey said in far fewer words, “A rice cake is not a picture of a rice cake.” Which one will satisfy your hunger?

There were a couple of events that brought this to mind this week. One was the decision by the CEO of Yahoo to suspend the struggling company’s work-from-home policy. The stated reason turned out to be controversial: people who work together benefit from actual face time. And I do mean “face time,” not the phone app FaceTime for video chats, another example of a digital surrogacy that has brought living proximity to near-extinction. When I read the arguments against the new (old) policy on my computer, I said to my husband, “That CEO is right.”

He sat at his desk looking into his own computer and said, “Yes she is.” This spoken exchange is called “having a conversation.” From time to time we sit in the same room and speak to one another. Granted, not often, but stringing together these occasional proximities is what used to be called “a relationship.” He travels quite a bit in his job to have one-day meetings with his co-workers around the world because it makes quicker work of their complicated labor. Something happens in the space between living things—something visible as well as invisible. Something shared: a force, a bond; the circulation of energy, thoughts, feelings, sound, motion. Get it?

Few do. Not long ago I heard a young couple talking about their communication style. The fellow preferred texting; he said phone calls were inefficient and exasperating because “talking wastes time” when data can be conveyed instantly. I smiled and had a sense of where that non-conversation would be taking them in the next few years.

We all know better, really we do. That’s why we call that kind of disengagement “phoning it in.” I know doing things in person isn’t always convenient, but do we really have to argue the merits? I guess we do.

Last weekend at a beginner’s meditation retreat I was asked how many students I have. “That’s a good question,” I responded. “Lots of people ask me if I’ll teach them online, but I don’t do that.” It’s wonderfully clarifying for me that I practice in a line of teachers who have carried the living Dharma down from antiquity as an oral tradition. Teachers and students practice in living proximity: in the same room, two people sitting together having conversation, sharing sound, motion, breath. Get it?

Few do. Just about anything that looks like what we do in a meditation hall can now be done online via email, downloads, Skype, discussion boards, even meditation apps. Do it in your own home (where you won’t do it)! As an e-course! I don’t get it. This is not the Dharma I practice. Not the Dharma I teach. Whether you can see it or not, something happens in the space between us. Something intimate, wise, and generous. Something real.

You have to experience the light and warmth of the sun to stay alive.

This fascinating video called “Finding the Visible in the Invisible” will give you a look at the face time I’m talking about. But don’t mistake the video for the magic of real life. The video may pique your interest but it will not satisfy your hunger.

heroes

imagesThe question of the hour is “Where are the heroes?” This seems like the question of every hour, every season, every year, when the mask of greatness falls and we see that our statesmen, athletes, idols and stars are not so great after all. I don’t just mean that they make mistakes, but that their hearts are hollow. They cheat, lie and hurt people. They are selfish, ignorant, undisciplined and up to no good. Real heroes are something else altogether.

Yesterday I joined a group of people—perfect strangers—who entered an empty room and sat still and quiet for the better part of a day. I am honored by the presence of people who would dare to do such a thing: use up a perfectly good (which means an astonishingly beautiful) Sunday in California to sit down and stare at a wall. At the end of it all, I told them that what they had done was heroic. To take responsibility for peace in the world is genuinely heroic. I reminded them that while practicing Zen can be difficult on your stiff body and restless mind, it does not hurt anyone. No one is harmed by your practice; indeed everyone is helped, even if it is only because you are not erupting in anger or simmering in resentment during the time you are away.

When you are still, no eyebrows are arched, no fists are clinched, no fingers tapped, no sideways glances given. When you are quiet, nothing mean, cruel or critical is said. This alone makes the day a good day for everyone in your life.

I began my practice purely for myself. I wanted to be able to get out of bed in the morning, go to sleep at night, and overcome my crippling sadness. I wanted to be able to cope. But now I practice for another reason: because I hurt people. I hurt them a lot, and in ways I never see until it is too late, until the breadth of my failure crumbles whatever notion I had of my own greatness.

I am amazed by the extraordinary power we have to do good when we have the courage to do nothing.

Then I bow to this great earth and everything in it, asking forgiveness. And shazam! It is given. Talk about superpower.

You can still join a day at my Grailville Retreat in Cincinnati on March 16, or book your space in the Marin Retreat in June by going to this page.

you are born

eggshellFor everyone.

You are born.

Let’s consider the facts before we get carried away.

You are born and no one—neither doctor, scientist, high priest nor philosopher—knows where you came from. The whole world, and your mother within it, was remade by the mystery of your conception. Her body, mind and heart were multiplied by a magical algorithm whereby two become one and one becomes two.

You inhale and open your eyes. Now you are awake.

By your being, you have attained the unsurpassable. You have extinguished the fear and pain of the past, transcended time, turned darkness to light, embodied infinite karma, and carried forth the seed of consciousness that creates an entire universe. All in a single moment.

Now that you are here, you manifest the absolute truth of existence. You are empty and impermanent, changing continuously, turning by tiny degrees the wheel of an endless cycle. Just a month from now, your family will marvel at the growing heft of your body. They will delight in the dawn of your awareness. You will grab a finger and hold tight, turn your head, pucker your lips and eat like there’s no tomorrow. You will smile. Six months from now, the newborn will be gone. Within a year, you will be walking the earth as your dominion. And although your caregivers might think that they taught you to eat, walk and talk, these attributes emerged intuitively from your deep intelligence.

You are born completely endowed with the marvelous function of the awakened mind. You are a miracle. You are a genius. You eat when hungry and sleep when tired.

You are a Buddha. But in the same way you will forget the circumstances of your birth, you will forget the truth of your being. And by forgetting what you are, you will suffer in the painful, fruitless search to become something else, striving against your own perfection to feel whole and secure. By your attachment to desires, you will squander the chance of infinite lifetimes: the chance to be born in human form. Luckily, the chance to be reborn—to wake up—arises every moment. Your body is the body of inexhaustible wisdom. When will you realize it? read more

compassion doesn’t need doing

dirtydishWe do-gooders think quite a bit about compassion. We want to have it, feel it and share it. There is so much we think we need to do to make the world a better place. But compassion doesn’t need doing. It exists already in the harmony of things just the way they are. Discord comes from our doing. Compassion comes from undoing. It 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 gapless gap we close by reaching an arm’s length in front of us to wipe a tear or wash a bowl.

You won’t find compassion in the brain. You will find it in your hands.

We can only love the world we wake up to. Start right here.

Good morning.

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the best chocolate cake

DoubleChocolateSnackingCakeForkMy father-in-law was a simple man, and the things he said could ring with unintended clarity.

Every time he ate something, like a piece of chocolate cake, for instance, he would say, “This is the best chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted!” He meant it, and it was true, because it came from the exuberance of a mind emptied of critical thought. A mind like that can seem silly and childlike. It is, and that’s what makes it so wise.

Last night I finished a small book that was the best chocolate cake, and I’d love for you to taste it. At the start, you might not think this kind of cake is for you. Nearing middle age, a man faces himself honestly, courageously, admitting that he is gay, a liar, a cheater, a thief, a phony, a creep, a mindless alcoholic and ugly drug addict, and here’s the sweet spot—despite his serial failure at suicide—he wants to live. Does this sound even remotely like your kind of chocolate?

He envisions for himself the sort of idealistic quest that is the stuff of parody. He travels to India in search of enlightenment. What you find in India is, well, India. And what you find on a quest is yourself. But he tells his story with such beauty and feeling, such flavor and artistry, that I could not resist the whole thing.

At the end of the book, he is finishing his trip with a trek to Nepal in the company of a young guide and porter. His months of meditations and mantras, vows and renunciations seem to have failed. On the trail he is back to being angry and resentful, feeling foolish and even exploited. The objects of his spite are the two poor servants who are attending him. Does this sound even remotely like what happens daily in your kitchen, your home, your neighborhood, your world?

I remember the promise I made to myself to keep my heart, mind and senses open for the rest of my stay. My journey was coming to an end too fast. There was no more time to drift off in daydreams, or to lose myself in petty complaints. But all that resolve had flown off like a bird from an untended cage and the hours given over to anger and self-cherishing are now gone forever. What sights, sounds and joys did I miss as I sealed myself off from the world?

This is the practice. Watching my actions, watching my words, watching my mind every day. It does not only occur at holy pilgrimage sites or on retreats or in the presence of great spiritual masters. It occurs everyday, with the people who are with me right now, in this time, in this place.

“Hey, Chris!” my guide waves to me with a big smile. “Your dinner is ready.”

He wipes off a seat on the rough little bench and hands me a bowl of stew and when I look down into the steam and the goodness of it, I already know it will be the best meal I have ever tasted.

I really, sincerely, wholeheartedly recommend The Narrow Way by Chris Lemig. Buy yourself two copies: one for you, one for a friend. Leave a comment below and you could win the copy I’m giving away on Friday.

Update: The winner of the book is commenter #12, Robin Gaphni, whose blog is Grief & Gratitude.

There is still time to register for the Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat on Sun., Feb. 24 at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in LA.

 

the wisdom of the one you love

glitter-heart-painting-L-JLKW_sMommy,

It’s not always going to be easy for me.

I’m not you.

Why don’t you encourage me?

A “B” is a good grade too.

I’m too dumb for second grade.

When is it tomorrow?

I’ve been waiting for you all night.

I do lots of things you don’t know how to do.

Come see.

You’re not me.

It seems like I have friends all over the world. 

I am thankful for my life.

Haven’t you ever heard the saying “Everybody makes mistakes?”

Everything happens when you don’t expect it.

Can I have your jewelry when you outgrow it?

Do you want a lucky penny?

I never get mad when you don’t do your best.

I just forget.

Are you happy now?

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