8 reminders to let go

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 Leaves fall. Freed from a useless stem.

Bags break. Contents spill.

Wind moves. Never arriving.

Birds fly. No end to the sky.

Clouds burst. The earth flows.

Fruit rots. Returned to their nature.

 Smoke rises. In plain sight.

 Morning comes. Where does the moonlight go?

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imparting wisdom to children

I94_North_Dakota_March_2005__soul-ampWhat have you imparted to your daughter?

This question came near the end of our one-day retreat together, when our hearts were open and full. After we’d done zazen and chanting, walking and bowing. It’s the kind of question we find underneath it all, when we’ve emptied all the silly stuff out of the top of our heads in the weary stillness of practice. We might still be looking for evidence that we’re doing something worthwhile.

Nothing.

That was my answer. I have imparted nothing to my daughter. At least not successfully. In hindsight, it seems to me that she has been waiting for me to stop imparting to her. To stop imposing on her, to stop judging, coercing, undermining, and second-guessing her, as if she were the proof of my able foresight and good intentions.

“You’re not me.” She tells me this with the blunt force of her 14 years, and I am stunned that she can see so clearly through the dark cloud of my crazy fears. “You don’t know what my reality is like.” And since I can’t identify the point at which she gained this unassailable insight, I can only assume she has possessed it all along.

Yes, yes, that’s it: each of us possesses this illumination (although we might only catch a glimpse in the rear-view mirror). The certainty that we can only be ourselves, at the center of our own reality, encountering the unknown road, and doing the best we can. So we can be kind to one another, offer the space to rest and refresh, without hurry, without doubt. We can be generous. We can let things be. And although this insight belongs to me, it is sharpened in the shadowless cast of her shine.

What has your daughter imparted to you?

Everything.

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why the hell you’re here

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Practice is like medicine: it is bitter, but good for you. Although it is a bittersweet experience, it is worth it. When you sit on your cushion, it is tearful and joyful put together. Pain and pleasure are one when you sit on your meditation cushion with a sense of humor. — Chogyam Trungpa
The money, I say.
The hassle, I say.
I have no zafu, I think.
I haven’t sat since March, I think.
Sitting is hard, I think.

In my mind’s eye, I see
that wall in front of me,
that damn wall after the blessed
reprieve of a meal or a break time.

I see you bow over
and over and the skies are gray
and dull and I wonder why
the hell I’m there

and then we are all speaking
with one voice even though
our tongues trip on the
unfamiliar syllables

and time is suspended
and the air feels sacred
and maybe there are tears
or maybe no tears
or a sigh
or no sigh

but there is breath
enough
and I forget to wonder
why the hell I’m there.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, Nov. 10, Los Angeles
Returning to Silence: A Retreat at Grailville, March 27-30, Loveland OH

Painting “Grailville Retreat” by Melissa Eddings Mancuso
Poem by Anne Erickson

10 tips for mindful writing

How to keep your mind on writing.

Read more. Words are the food of lively writing. Read everything you can get your hands on. Be greedy, but not picky. You never know what will flavor the meal you ultimately cook.

Think less. The kind of writing you want to do does not come from contemplation or analysis, not from self-judgment or second-guessing. It comes by itself when you stare blank-headed at a blank page.

Practice. Writing is a job. Writing is a discipline. A famous author once said that discipline in a writer was overrated. That’s clever, but wrong. Overrating is overrated. Without stopping to judge, just keep going. Everything done well takes practice.

Have no goal. Other than to write. Examine your motivations and be clear. There are easier ways to become famous. Sing, dance, run for high office, make a sex tape. If your goal is to become rich, I have no career advice for you.

Use a net. A butterfly net. Words and phrases will alight in their own time and place, and not always on a keyboard. Keep a pen handy. Journal. Jot in the fog of a mirror or shower door. Catch what comes.

Write for yourself. Write to yourself. Writing for others, to satisfy other people’s opinions and expectations for your writing, is folly. No one is as interested in your work as you are. You are already your worst critic. Now be your number one fan.

Know the reader. Approach your reader with fearlessness. Be honest. Be open. Say everything. Say anything. (Hint: the reader is you.)

Don’t know the reader. The world is vast and wide and does not fit on a Facebook page or Twitter list. Your true reader, like your true friends and fans and followers, is in the real world beyond social media. Let this comfort you, and redirect you to your real work.

Do not confuse talking for writing. Writing about how to write is a waste of time for you and everyone who reads it.

Go back to it. There are no tips for writing, only tips to avoid writing. I apologize.

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the idea of help

3659camel_blanketI’d just posted this list over on Facebook and here it was, playing out in real life. As I slowed at the light, I rolled down the window, knowing there was fresh green in my wallet.

In the car with me were three middle-schoolers and another mother. I passed the dollar out the window, and in that opening, he took the opportunity to look me in the face and explain himself. He wasn’t going to be here long, he said, but he’d lost his driver’s license and he when he got it back he was going to drive somewhere and work. It spilled out quickly, so long held, the awful jam he was in.

“Do you need a blanket?” the other mother offered from the passenger seat. We’d had fall’s first cold spell the night before.  I wasn’t sure why she had spoken. Was this her gift?

“Sure,” he answered. “Do you have one?”

There was no blanket, just the idea of a blanket, and that doesn’t cover it.

“Now we have to bring him a blanket,” her daughter commented from the back.

“If I bring you a blanket will you still be here?” The mother folded up what had gotten out of hand.

“I’ll wait,” the man said. And the light turned green.

 

4 ways to get here from there

scan0012Here’s the history: it all started with Google. Then Google bought Blogger, then YouTube, then Feedburner, then bought and sold two dozen other things. Then I opened a Gmail account.  I had so many Google usernames and passwords that every time I tried to go anywhere to do anything I was asked if I didn’t want to combine, or reallocate, or add this, or try again or restart or use Google+, all your friends are using Google+, and in a moment of fury and confusion I stupidly responded The only thing I want right now is Google Minus and I deleted what I thought was a useless account. Then one day last week I clicked on a link and found that I no longer had a blog feed, no longer had any blog subscribers and anyone who is reading this right now doesn’t even exist, and then I realized the terrible thing I had done, the awful irreversible crime which is to second guess Google.

I was rummaging around in my old and defunct important papers file—consisting of paper that really was once important and now is just quaint.  I found this impossibly out-of-date passport. It was my daughter’s first and as yet only passport. She was just six, and she is now 14, so there really is no use for this except its sentimental appeal. Don’t you still want to travel with this girl and her mom?

If the answer is yes, please consider the following:

1. Subscribe or re-subscribe to this blog. Subscribe using a blog reader by clicking here. Subscribe via email here.

2. Like my author page on Facebook. I spend a ridiculous amount of time over there talking to you.

3. Friend me personally on Facebook. Personally, I’m much funnier.

4. Follow me on Twitter, not that I’m going anywhere.

So let’s stay in touch. I’ve made some wrong turns, but I’m not gone yet.

Thank you.

 

when you meet a nun on the mountain

wilson2There they were in full-length habit, an unlikely sight on a Sunday morning hiking Mt. Wilson. Out of the blue, three nuns rounded the switchback straight ahead of me. They were coming down; I was heading up. No matter how promising the skies at the start of the trip, the southern trail descends into a merciless sun. They had to be broiling by now.

These suburban mountains lure all sorts of pilgrims on weekends—mostly first-timers, families, and well-meaning health-seekers who are ill-equipped for the incline. One minute you’re strolling in the park and the next you’re crawling up an unforgiving peak. It’s a lot like life: the path is steep. That’s why I’d found refuge in my practice as a Zen Buddhist priest. Zen teaches you to take each moment, like each step, one at a time.

This morning my step was heavy. I’d taken to the hills after an angry talk with my teenager and a tiff with my husband. I was still steaming as I stopped and stood to the side of the narrow path, letting the first two sisters pass.

They were talking and barely took notice, but the third was falling behind and as she approached she said, “So much farther to go.”

“Always farther to go,” I said, and then, struck by the words, went a little further, asking where she was from.

“From the Motherhouse in Alhambra,” she said, taking a card from a rubber-banded batch in her hand and holding it out to me. A meeting on a mountain is not without purpose, and she had come prepared to save someone’s life. Despite our religious differences, maybe that someone was me. I ventured another step.

“What is your name?” I asked.

“Sister Imelda, like Imelda Marcos. Except I don’t collect as many shoes, but more souls.”

We both laughed, and my burden lifted. Two souls meet on a mountain, and although they come from different sides, they close the distance one step at a time.

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mindfulness starts here

deep+waterWhen I first began my practice, I was already lying inert at the bottom of the deep end. Life’s triple decker of despair—heartbreak, grief and depression—had sent me plummeting into the murky realms. On the way down, I tried to rouse myself with the usual prescriptions, but nothing could reach. So when I bumped into a Zen teacher who reminded me how to breathe, it saved my life. Breath gave me the buoyancy to rise to the surface where I could float, and later, find the strength to swim. Breath always does that.

Not everyone comes to practice in the same sloppy way. Not everyone is as far gone as I was, in dire need of resuscitation. Some folks are holding onto the side of the pool, knuckles whitening, but still alert and awake enough to realize, “Perhaps I should give some serious thought to taking some swimming lessons.”

There’s a new book out that is like a set of swimming lessons.

Lynette Monteiro and Frank Musten have kindly packaged an eight-week mindful course into a single volume, Mindfulness Starts Here: An Eight Week Guide to Skillful Living. It includes the practices, explanations, encouragement and accountability you would find if you participated in a mindfulness course like the kind they lead at the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic. And here’s what I really like: it also includes the people. The authors pair their artful instructions with real-life commentary from the students in their classes—students who might as well be you, facing the fear, doubt, resistance and even overconfidence we carry with us into the water. This is what I like best about this eminently likeable work: the human voices and stories reminding us that this practice isn’t academic or intellectual. It isn’t a course of self-improvement or just a tool for a toolkit. Mindfulness is not a seasoning, a flavor or a fad. It is life—your life—and it starts here. It starts wherever you are.

I’m still in the deep end, you know. We’re all in the deep end. But this much I know: I’m breathing.

Leave a comment on this post and I’ll draw a winner for a free, brand-new copy of Mindfulness Starts Here next Sunday, Oct. 6.

And in case you think you still don’t have the time, place, or teacher to begin your practice, look right here. There is water, water, everywhere.

The Plunge One-Day Retreat in Boise Sat., Oct. 5
Yoga & Meditation Retreat, Washington DC, Sat. & Sun., Oct. 19-20
Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, LA, Sun., Nov. 10

If money is what’s stopping you from starting at these or any of my programs anywhere in the country, please contact me privately for help. Even a little help can help enough. Money never gets in the way of the Dharma, and that’s how you can tell what’s true.

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unfolded, a gift

Martin_Creed,_Work_No._340_A_Sheet_of_paper_folded“There is something in me maybe someday 
to be written; now it is folded, and folded, 
and folded, like a note in school.”
― Sharon Olds

Unfolded
by Jena Strong

Every line on my face is a place I unfolded,
no longer compressed, no longer needing
to contain mystery after mystery,
no longer a matryoshka doll holding itself
in and in and in, kaleidoscopically hidden.
No, life has unfolded my careful origami,
like a middle or third name
too beautiful for the world not to hear,
each deep crevice a hint of healing
and heartache and hero’s journey.
It’s old-school, to remain folded up
like that, or to collapse like a mountain
unto itself, or to get so lost
in the folds of what happened
that you can no longer make out
the writing on the wall of your life,
which is to say how blue the sky is
in September, how kindly she caresses
the deep grooves between your eyes,
folded notes to be passed to a friend
between classes, perhaps—or birds
or buildings or an architecture
defying smooth textures. Let me be
creased, then, unfolded as a piece
of paper you’ve tucked inside
the pages of a heavy hardcover for years,
stumbled upon, blank, and fluently speaking
in a language you didn’t even know you knew.
***
A gift on the first day of my fifty-eighth year.

Art by Martin Creed, “Work No. 340: A sheet of paper folded up and unfolded,” 2004.

that jerk saved my life

Zazen

I am concerned that in the process of making a business out of all this your sense of compassion is going out the window. I do not see a person in tune with others’ suffering. I see a lack of humility.

This is the kind of correction that can knock you back a bit when it appears in your inbox. I suppose I don’t get much criticism, all things considered.  I’m sure it can’t compare to the uninvited trouble foisted onto the rich and famous—but even a near-miss can level you, make you stagger and tumble onto the rocks where you scuff your knees and pick the scabs for a good while after.

He thinks this is a business?

That’s when you might see that the unwelcome blow was in fact an act of compassion. Why? Because it stops you. It interrupts your monologue. It commands your attention. And if you feel unjustly injured, you can take a good look at where that injury comes from, where it resides, and what sustains it.

Only the thoughts in my head.

Anything that interferes with the flow of thoughts in your head is compassionate. Why? Because what we think isn’t real. It is delusion. More than delusion, it is death. And that’s how we live most of the time—as if dead—arguing, defending, judging and debating with ourselves, by ourselves, and then projecting our upsets onto the real world. The internet seems to make this projection easier and even painless. It’s so easy to sound smart and clever, raw and biting, in a comment box. It’s so easy to argue, attack, and rebut. But it’s hard to stop.

All this digital carrying-on while we might not even pause to say hello to a single real, live person we pass on the street today.

Real compassion requires that you go out the window.

There is a part of the message that would have been laughable if I’d been of a mind to laugh: the “business” part. This isn’t a business. I don’t ask you for money. There is no enterprise here. I’ve dressed up the joint, but behind the curtain I’m just an old, poor, woman. By old I mean I turn 57 on Thursday. By poor I mean I don’t earn any money. The amount I’m paid to write a book every four years falls beneath the one-person poverty line. I write to myself and for myself, and if you encounter it, it is free or next-to-free for the taking. And by all means, be compassionate with yourself and discard whatever I say if it doesn’t make sense to you. Suffering is voluntary. You can opt out at anytime.

Compassion is a stick.

In the Zen tradition, there is something called a “waking stick.” It is a long, flat wooden stick used during meditation periods of long retreats. A monitor walks behind the backs of meditators, stick in hand, totally alert and watching for people who place their palms together and bow slightly, which is the gesture that means, “hit me.” Ask to be hit? Would anyone ever ask to be hit? If the business at hand is waking up, and you are cramped, sleepy, bored, or in pain, yes, you might ask for the stick. The monitor wields it swiftly, delivering a jolt of energy to the soft pad of muscles between the shoulders. It hurts! But you wake up, the pain dissipates, and then you realize, “That jerk saved my life.”

The stick is called the stick of compassion. It comes only when you ask for it.

The business of a buddha.

This is not a business, but there is a business here, and it is the only business worth pursuing. Compassion is the business of a buddha. A buddha’s work is to wake up. I’m here because I have more work to do. I always have more work to do. I offer this commentary as proof of how much work I’ve yet to do.

Good advice from a good friend.

That’s what I wrote back to the guy. And it’s true. But the real correction is what comes after.

Don’t make anything more out of it.

***

Photo: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

 

value of time

1376345328e69d8ff06a72cen“I think I have the sixty cents.”

This is what you’re likely to hear if you’re standing behind me at the post office. Or at Starbucks, tapping your feet, waiting to order and get back on the road.

Sure enough, I do have the sixty cents to go with the five dollars’ postage for my priority mail envelope, and as I dig in my wallet to bring it forth and count it out, I realize how it looks. Two quarters and two nickels.

“Money is so old-fashioned, isn’t it?” I say to the postal worker, who sees a veritable parade of the out-of-date at her counter every day. The post office today is like a mecca of yesterday.

Here’s what I like about exact change. It takes time. Counting change slows me down.

I’m not in such a hurry anymore. I don’t know why anyone would be. I can see what we lose by our rush, but I cannot see what we gain.

It was back-to-school night last Thursday. The school year is now one month gone. The 8th grade math teacher let us in on a plan they have to roll back the math curriculum to the way it used to be. Awhile ago when everyone decided we were falling too far behind in this country, losing the future and forfeiting our superpower, they commenced a reign of terror in our middle school math program. Good math students were funneled into accelerated classes, learning math two years ahead of schedule, crammed and tested until they crapped out of the cull. It was a mystery to me why they thought this was good for our kids, what they hoped to gain by the pressure to duke it out with each other, let alone compete with the kids in Bangalore or Chengdu.

Tell kids to hurry up and you’ll stop their love of learning. Steal their confidence and pride. Dull their excitement and delight. Given time, they might yet recover. I hope somewhere along the line someone will give them back the time they’ve lost.

You can find time waiting in line behind me at the post office but those lazy days are numbered too.

This weekend I posted a prayer list and invited folks to add to it. The list grew and grew. Someone wondered how long it would take me to recite all those prayers. It takes several minutes a day. Maybe that’s why I’m doing it. Doing things that take time is the way to find time. Find time, and you’re not in such a hurry anymore.

Find time for yourself at the Plunge Retreat in Boise on Saturday, Oct. 5.

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prayer list

imagesWhenever I am feeling injured or ignored, which I’m sorry to say is quite a bit, all I have to do is open my eyes to someone who has real suffering, not just the imaginary kind like me.

That’s what I’m feeling now as I consider the devastation and despair passing through every news stream in front of me. I feel a triple, quadruple whammy of sad helplessness, which is a powerful invitation to pray.

I’m saying a prayer service today, and tomorrow, and the day after, and after, and after. Let’s assemble a prayer list, shall we? I’ll start the list, and please leave a comment or two and add to it. Tell me who or what to pray for. You can give me actual names if you like. In the face of our suffering world, I can’t imagine doing less, and I don’t know how to do more.

I’m praying for:

All the people of Syria.
All victims of war.
All victims of the Jersey boardwalk fire.
All victims of the Colorado floods.
All victims of natural disasters.
Our mother the Earth.
All children who are troubled and want to die.
All children who are sick and want to live.
All parents who need strength and guidance.
All animals suffering from abuse and neglect.
All beings suffering the pain of parting.

So far it is a short list, but it is a neverending need. Please add your prayers to the list.

7 tips to de-stress your home

A tour bus stops in front of my house and two dozen visitors disembark. They’ve come to view the 100-year-old Japanese garden in my backyard. Without a word of instruction, they spontaneously merge into a single file and advance soundlessly along the suburban sidewalk like an order of monks, albeit monks in khaki shorts and ball caps carrying iPhones.

It happens by itself, an autonomic response to the pervasive calm of the environment. When these guests leave, they might attribute their sudden state of reverence to some unseen spiritual power. Maybe the place is sacred, they might think. Mystically endowed, holy.

I thought about this recently when I was asked to come up with some simple tips for de-stressing a home. If I live on hallowed ground, I might have an unfair advantage in handling stress. Except I don’t. I stress out just as easily as anyone, but by managing my environment, I de-stress easily too.

What turns a home into a sanctuary? What transforms a familiar set of cramped rooms into a sense of spaciousness? What changes everyday chaos into an oasis of calm? You don’t need to install a meditation garden or consult a geomancer. There are no ancient secrets. The same devotional practices that turn monasteries into bastions of serenity can relieve the mindless stress that infiltrates your home life. Even if you can’t consistently observe all of these pointers, doing a few will change the way you feel when you come home, and that is nothing less than a modern miracle.

1. Observe light. The natural world wakes with the first light of the sun, why not you? If rising at daybreak is too late for your daily work and commuting schedule, wake before the sun and observe the sunrise. In the habit of hitting the snooze button? Don’t.  If your waking thought is resistance, you wake in stress. You start the day in a race against time, and you stay that way. The sun is not only a natural time management system, it delivers the neurotransmitter serotonin that enhances brain function and reduces stress.

2. Observe darkness. Turn the power off and see what happens when night falls. We’ve turned our homes into temples of electronic stimulation, and our default position is maximum overdrive. Gadgets are handy and appliances are useful, but everything from the microwave to the smoke alarm and the cell phone to the computer is discharging a constant pulsing stream of energy. We cannot afford to be careless about our electronic addictions because we are going out of our minds. Evening brings a natural end to the 24-hour workday, restores mind-body balance, and invites quiet.

3. Observe quiet. I’ll be loud and clear. The quiet that needs observing is not an external silence like the kind imposed at a library or hospital. Our homes are not ivory towers or infirmaries. The quiet that needs stilled is our internal commentary – the nonstop thoughts that stir anger, resentment, anxiety and fear. You may never get around to practicing meditation, but try this technique in the meantime.  Designate a comfortable seat in your bedroom as your “quiet chair.” Clear it of clutter; keep it empty and available. When domestic chaos and turmoil overtake you, retreat to your bedroom and take sanctuary in your quiet chair. Conflicts will decelerate by themselves when you take a step back. When the decibels in your head come down, come out.

4. Observe bells. A mountain of laundry, a forest of weeds, and an avalanche in the hall closet: the sheer size of untended tasks at home can topple us into paralyzing despair. When chores get out of hand, pick up some extra time. Set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes and focus on doing one thing during that period. It doesn’t matter if you finish; what matters is that you start. Once you start, the finish comes into view.

5. Observe nature. Open a window. The view doesn’t matter. Open a door. You don’t have to be in a national park. Air and light are curative. If you doubt it, just take a walk around the block and watch your mood lift with the breeze and change with the scenery.

6. Observe order. Washing dishes, sweeping floors, folding clothes, clearing the table, and sorting mail: these are not just simple means of practicing mindfulness, they are your mind. As Buddha described our true relationship to our environment, “There is no inside, there is no outside, and there is no in-between.” When we resist order, we are messing with our minds.

7. Observe ritual. Light a candle, and elevate your mealtime. Burn incense, and alleviate anxiety. Sages have always known that rituals are not just symbolic. Your rituals don’t have to reek of religious significance. Give yourself a set of completion rituals to signify the end of the day. Empty the kitchen sink; put your shoes in the closet; brush and floss your teeth. When repeated, rituals prepare you to enter a state of repose.

***

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