Posts Tagged ‘Compassion’

flooded with love

August 28th, 2017    -    4 Comments

A few weeks ago I went to see the movie Dunkirk. I had heard something about it, how real and human and decent it was. It was real all right—being relentlessly terrifying, conveying the experience of being trapped, desperate and abandoned.

It’s about a 10-day period during the Second World War when Allied forces retreated to the northern coast of France to evacuate from a “colossal military disaster.” Except there wasn’t really an evacuation. Hundreds of thousands of bedraggled troops massed on the beaches awaiting rescue by naval ships that were blasted to bits either before or right after they were loaded with evacuees. After two days, the British weren’t inclined to send more assets, as they say, into that certain fate. The ships stopped coming.

Knowing nothing of the history, I watched this doomsday unfold in a mounting panic as if I, too, were waiting waist deep in water for a rescue that would never come. But it came, after an eternal two hours, the rescue came and left me flooded with relief on a sun-soaked sidewalk outside the multiplex.

****

After I’d spent 23 of my best years living in Houston, I came to appreciate what those years were about. They were about work, because you come to Houston to work. Sure the place can be good and plenty fun, but it’s not a cushy life, not carefree. You’ve got the heat, you see, which is not really the heat, but the humidity. And you’ve got the rain, a whole lot of it whether you’re ready or not, with skies that rupture into Biblical floods that swallow half your block and all your car before you can conjure a superior second thought. And in the middle of all that, you work.

But the work you’ll do in Houston is not just what’s visible up top. It always seemed to me that it was underneath. Soul work, you might say. Because hard places make you dig deep and find what matters in your own self. Houston is not really like some other cities in Texas. It’s a working-class town. A wide open town. With people from everywhere doing everything. I used to get asked what made Houston different. Well, I’d say, in Houston nobody asks you who your daddy is.

****

So the call went out to everyday folks back home to muster fishing boats, pleasure boats, life boats and any other passable craft to come to the aid of their unlucky and afflicted kinsmen. It was a crazy, reckless, impossible thing to do, but these neighbors didn’t think twice. A hastily assembled fleet of more than 800 little boats rescued 338,226 soldiers from Dunkirk.

And yesterday a man from Texas City, launching his boat into a flooded Houston underpass, made it plain as day: I’m gonna try to save lives.

When the skies are really dark you can see the truth at the very bottom of things. There’s only one side. We are already united. We love one another. And right where you are with whatever you’ve got, you try to save lives, don’t you?

Contribute to the Greater Houston Community Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund

the dharma of lincoln

June 15th, 2017    -    8 Comments

I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t in any textbook I’d read as a schoolgirl. It wasn’t at the memorial on the mall or the monument blasted onto the face of a mountain. I didn’t find it in any of the 10 million pages collected by 10 thousand presidential historians. It wasn’t even at Gettysburg, where the rolling fields of green still heave with everlasting shame. I suspect it was the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in 2012 that opened my eyes for the first time to the hidden dimensions of the human being we know as Lincoln, an odd and nearly unknowable man transfigured by grief and despair, shouldering the immeasurable wrongs of a divided people and broken nation. And then came this year’s amazing work by George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo, a fantastical rendering of an event that might have converted the man from a doubtful political strategist into a courageous instrument of compassion.

The worst times make the best leaders, and if not, we’re so much the worse.

So some days, awake and reading the news in stunned torpor, I wonder how Lincoln might have seen the day. What he might still have to say. Then I go looking for words to calm my agitation. Lincoln’s dharma, like all dharma—the truth—does not fail to illuminate the way.

What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself. — Campaign circular, 1843.

How fortunate that Lincoln didn’t distinguish himself with vanity.

Common looking people are the best in the world: that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them. — Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay

In his humility, he saw the One in the many.

Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally. — Speech to 140th Indiana Regiment, March 17, 1865

And the many as One.

You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.—1st Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861

We must take responsibility for the greed, anger, and ignorance in our own hearts.

I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. — Letter to Albert G. Hodges, April 4, 1864

With no promise to turn back time, but rather, to face things as they are.

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. — 2nd Message to Congress, Dec. 1, 1862

Only how we respond in this present moment can save us.

An Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction! — Address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Sept. 30, 1859

And this, too, shall pass away.

I have stepped out upon this platform that I may see you and that you may see me, and in the arrangement I have the best of the bargain. — Remarks at Painesville, Ohio, Feb. 16, 1861

Visit Washington and you might see the corpus of a 28-foot-tall man enshrined on the platform of a marble throne. But that’s not what Lincoln sees. Through the open portal right in front of him, he sees vast emptiness reaching beyond the horizon, and under a common sky, the good people he has vowed to serve as one, now and forever.

These days, it helps to look at things his way.

***

Photo Source: Shorpy Historical Photo Archive. May 5, 1922. Washington, D.C. “Vista of Monument from Lincoln Memorial.” National Photo Company Collection glass negative.

 

 

beside still waters

March 15th, 2017    -    15 Comments

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He leadeth me beside the still waters:
he maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his namesake:
he restoreth my soul.

This is not quite how it goes. I know it is not quite how it goes. I don’t remember how it goes, but I mumble it anyway. It is the least and the most that I can do.

Standing by the bed in the ICU, the respirator inflating my father’s chest like a pipe organ, I leave aside the Buddhist incantations that I’ve memorized and whisper remnants of the old soul song. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

This is a passage from Hand Wash Cold that I’ve been thinking about lately and a lot. Soon after my father died 10 years ago, I told my sisters that I would take his dog to live with me. That’s how the old girl ended up here, in a picture I took this morning.

On the far side of 15, she’s not quite on her last leg but clearly on her last three legs, as arthritis hobbles and sometimes topples her. I’ve pulled her from the pond twice. And yet she still wants to wander in and out, not hearing, perhaps not seeing, and not managing much of what she used to do so dependably. So I’m at her side most days, all day, watching for the wordless word she will give me, when we both know beyond knowing what time it is.

I’ve had a number of visitors to the garden lately, and the subject of nearly all these encounters has been life and death. Not surprising since it’s the only subject there is. Some people have seen the warning light of a crossroads ahead. Others are investigating how to be with the sick and dying. I always tell them not to make too much of the dying part, since it happens by itself and without us ever knowing quite how or when, but rather to work on the being part, since only when we know how to be can we be not afraid. Oh, to be not afraid. That is quite simply everything you can do for everyone.

I rattled around Amazon last week and picked up George Saunders’s new and brilliant novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. It is wonderful in the most daring and difficult way, and I recommend it.

The author has imagined life in the graveyard, populated by grotesquely self-obsessed specters who linger longingly and in great distress because they do not know that they are dead. And when they realize it, they are buoyantly free to leave all suffering behind.

I can imagine life in a garden, populated by self-obsessed specters who linger longingly and in great distress because they do not know that they are alive. And when they realize it, they are buoyantly free to show goodness and mercy forever.

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walking to rite aid

March 7th, 2017    -    14 Comments

When Friday rolled around I didn’t much feel like doing anything special. Just about every day I haul myself to a certain place for yoga, or another place for a workout, or charge up my Fitbit and conjure up a route by which to “get in my steps.” But it seemed to me that I should just use my body in an everyday way and so I decided to walk to Rite Aid and pick up a refill that was ready. I didn’t know how far Rite Aid was from me but it was far enough that I had never been there without driving. So after a half day of doing regular Friday stuff I set off.

Before I’d even walked to the end of the block I’d noticed how much was going on in my neighborhood. Three folks were having new yards put in—yards without any grass and with a lot of wood chips and rock— and two more had already completed theirs. Driving by, I’d seen it all happen, but I hadn’t really taken it in, focused on getting somewhere. Because I know what even a small landscape re-do can cost in time and money it seemed to me that my own street was a pretty hopeful example of good citizenship. It’s now fairly common in California to rip out a lawn, given climate change and water rationing, but these new yards are more than a way to save on a utility bill. Each one is not only an investment in a single household’s water savings but also an investment in the whole world’s water supply. Everyone benefits when one person does the right thing.

After awhile I noticed that a lot of rain gutters need cleaning, including mine. It’s not so bad to feel as if you have something like a mucky gutter in common because it’s, well, common. There’s grace in realizing that we all have a responsibility to take care of something messy without blaming anyone else for the trouble.

When I’d made it about half a mile west, I turned south to head down the hill to the shopping center. I started thinking about the last time I had made a long walk sort of like this one, not just to mark off the distance but to get somewhere. It was during the summer when I was 15 and I had a woeful crush on a boy who would never like me, and I lived invisibly in a small tract house on the barren side of town while he was living large on the leafy side, and I set out one day in the 500 degree heat that is a peculiar feature of your North Texas anguish to walk the 3.5 miles in his general direction for no other reason than I thought he might drive by and see me, the only person out walking on the sidewalk anywhere in town. Or maybe it was that I might see him, because he was someone you couldn’t help but see, being a spoiled son of an airline pilot who had given him a yellow 1973 Jaguar XKE for his 16th birthday. I try to think of how that day went and I can’t remember anything except the long stretch of hot sidewalk along Finley Road because nothing at all happened. I just made the seven mile round trip without anyone ever knowing what I’d done or how sad and silly I was. This boy’s name was Pete but a long time later I learned that his real name was an old-fashioned one, after his dad, a name that would have killed a teenage boy to say out loud, and I only learned that fact from his obituary which I certainly wasn’t thinking I’d come across anytime soon, having a persistent sense of my own youth. Reading between the lines, he appeared to have died without a family or a home of his own, no job, no biography, in his early 50s, and I saw it as the sad end of a dissolute life, a long flight from fear and pain. But what the hell do I know? I didn’t even know his name.

Then I got to Rite Aid where I couldn’t give a dime to the guy sitting at the table outside the entrance because I didn’t have a cent, but I gave him a decent hello.

How long is the walk to Rite Aid and back? About 12,000 steps and 45 years.

Today I’m starting on the gutters.

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the man on the wall

February 12th, 2017    -    13 Comments

A couple of days ago some visitors dropped by to see the garden. Before we went outside we sat around the dining room table chitchatting. One of the guests pointed to an old-timey portrait on the wall and asked who it was.

The fact is, I didn’t know for sure. I’d been told it was my father’s grandfather, my grandfather’s father, whose name I only guessed at because nothing had ever been told to me about him except that he had died young and left his family destitute. This old-fashioned, hand-tinted photograph turned up after my grandparents died and if I hadn’t claimed it, it might have been tossed out of the shed along with everything else. This side of my family didn’t waste much sentiment on the past, for reasons you know if you’ve read Paradise in Plain Sight, but still there was a little bit of mythology that we granddaughters clung to, as some of us do about historical fictions. First, we’d been told ours was a clan of railroad men, iron tough but weak to the degradations of drink, and that somewhere sometime they’d come from Ireland. That sounded like a romantic beginning to an American fairy tale but my grandfather didn’t have a wisp of interest in spinning it, nipping our questions about the old country by saying “if there had been anything worth remembering, we’d have never left.”

But things being what they are these days, and the question coming across the table at me last Thursday, I thought I would try to verify the simple facts of the mysterious man who has been hanging on my wall for the last 20 years, peering at me through the same liquid blue eyes that have marked the scoundrels in the family for at least a hundred years.

***

We all have an immigrant story. Some of us were right there in it at the start, clutching a hand, crossing a border, coming ashore; for others, it’s a story covered in dust and thick with make believe. When my daughter was 12, my sister and I took her to New York City and then by ferry to Ellis Island, where we heard a less lyrical history of the place than I would have ever guessed from the words in the national anthem. Here I thought I was a good American student, but I was shocked and sad to realize that immigration has always been as much about keeping people out as letting people in. And so the hollow caverns of the Statue of Liberty National Monument are haunted with the desperation of not just those who survived the cull, but those who didn’t: the ones judged defective or diseased, crippled or criminal, cross-eyed, insane, unemployable or unlucky enough to cough that day, folks who were put back on the boat to sail the other way. I don’t know what you’d have left to say after that kind of cruel passage, which was not just the end of the worst but a hard start to what would prove to be harder still.

So I went looking for a thread to connect those liquid blue eyes from one generation to the next, from father to son, to find the name behind the frame that came to be hanging on the dining room wall. I found it and something else too. I found out how much my family was like every other immigrant and refugee family: they damn sure wanted to be Americans.

The man on the wall is Grover Cleveland Tate, my great-grandfather, who was born in Illinois in 1885 and died in 1919. His wife, my Grandpa’s mom, was Mary A. Cox, born in 1883.

Grover C. Tate’s father was George Washington Tate, who was born in 1850 and died in 1928, father of 10. And although all these many lives were lived in Illinois, the 1900 US Census shows that, sure enough, G.W.’s father had been born in Ireland.

Sixty years later, his blue eyes turned up in my grandpa, George James Tate:

And then again in my dad James Allan Tate:

None of these men amounted to much except what little comes from hard luck, hard life and hard times. Not much to show for all their work and woe other than me and my sisters and all the lives entwined in a galaxy with ours, my daughter and nieces and great-niece and great-nephew-to-be, each and every bloom of fruit on this fertile plain, all the sons and daughters of George Washington and Grover Cleveland, the weak, the strong, my family, my heart, my home, my country, my countrymen and women waiting to cross over and become one of us. I don’t have a political position on immigration; I don’t have the slightest idea. What I have is a life. What is it that you have?

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what to do next

February 1st, 2017    -    12 Comments

Never underestimate the power of a single monk on a mountaintop. He alone is transforming the universe.

***

A terrible forest fire broke out one day, and all the animals fled their homes. But one hummingbird zipped over to a stream, got some water in its beak, and rushed back to the raging fire. The little hummingbird tried to douse the flames with a few drops of water, then back to the stream it flew to retrieve more water. The other animals watched in disbelief. They asked the hummingbird what it was doing—one tiny bird would not make a bit of difference. The hummingbird replied, “I’m doing the best I can.”

***

On a winter day 56 years ago, Edward Lorenz, a mild-mannered meteorology professor at MIT, entered some numbers into a computer program simulating weather patterns and then left his office to get a cup of coffee while the machine ran. When he returned, he noticed a result that would change the course of science.

The computer model was based on 12 variables, representing things like temperature and wind speed, whose values could be depicted on graphs as lines rising and falling over time. On this day, Lorenz was repeating a simulation he’d run earlier—but he had rounded off one variable from .506127 to .506. To his surprise, that tiny alteration drastically transformed the whole pattern his program produced, over two months of simulated weather.

The unexpected result led Lorenz to a powerful insight about the way nature works: small changes can have large consequences. The idea came to be known as the “butterfly effect” after Lorenz suggested that the flap of a butterfly’s wings might ultimately cause a tornado. And the butterfly effect, also known as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” has a profound corollary: forecasting the future can be nearly impossible.

***

It seemed to be going one way, and it turned out to go the opposite. The disaster is overwhelming, and you are powerless to change the tide. What do you do now? Be a hummingbird, be a butterfly. Do your best against impossible odds.

The hummingbird and the fire is a Japanese folktale, but you might like to hear it told by a masterful storyteller, political activist and Nobel laureate.

The story of Edward Lorenz is quoted from this article by Peter Dizikes in the MIT Technology Forum, Feb. 22, 2011.

And impossible things? They are happening every day.

 

I know

January 29th, 2017    -    16 Comments

Last week, I woke from a frightening dream in which a friend had gone missing. Nervous, I sent her an email and asked about her health. She told me that she had just been referred to a specialist for something serious, and had suddenly entered a place of uncertainty and worry.

Two nights ago, another friend appeared in my sleep and asked me to say a service for someone with a terminal illness. In the dream, we were in a vast temple, darkened by deep shadows. I ran across the long length of an endless corridor to find the altar and light the incense, panicked at the time being lost, the prayers unsaid.

Yesterday a good friend told me he had been to the hospital earlier in the week. His heartbeat was racing and he was short of breath. Tests were run, but no cause could be found. He thought he knew what it was. He had been waking at night in deep terror. His were the symptoms of profound anxiety.

This morning, a friend texted me and said that I had come to her in a dream last night. She was terrified about our country and sobbing. I appeared out of nowhere and hugged her. Then I said, “I know.”

In the name of terror, we are being terrified. In the name of security, we are being attacked. In the name of freedom, we have been made hostage. The temple is dark.

But this I have seen, and you have seen, and we can trust. Our fear is collective; our tears flow in common; our prayers ascend in one eternal sky. You appear to me and I appear to you. We are in this together.

I know. And I will always respond.

I am writing more than ever, saying all that I can. If you wish to subscribe to this blog and receive new posts in your email, please sign up here.

a little rain must fall

January 9th, 2017    -    12 Comments

I tell people that we’ve had a little rain lately. We’ve had a little rain. December was the wettest month in Los Angeles in six years, and around here people look at the sky, and then at each other, afraid to jinx it, afraid to even whisper that the drought might be ending. What it depends on, we all know, is not the rain soaking our backyards, but the snow falling on the Sierras, because our water supply depends on the depth of the snowpack. So far the snow is looking good. And this week, with the promise of big storms piling up in the forecast, a little more rain could tip the scales.

For those folks who don’t want to face the truth, climate change like what we’ve experienced could look like it’s just a liberal bellyache. I visited Connecticut in October and spent a night in a bed and breakfast near Hartford. It was a lovely place, old and elegant, and Connecticut looked like what you’d expect after the first snowfall of the season. At breakfast the innkeeper started up a conversation about the weather, and I told her that it had been 97 degrees or so when I’d boarded the plane the day before in LA. No kidding. Last week of October. That kind of heat has been scaring the shit out of us for six years. She threw her head back and laughed, saying something like “But the drought isn’t real. Isn’t it caused by the environmentalists trying to save a fish?” And I was dumbfounded that this seemingly well-bred woman could be so willfully ill-informed, swallowing and then spreading the fake news spewed by you-know-who, ridiculing a guest at her dining room table. Serves those Californians right! I know a few people who satisfy themselves making fun like that, denying pain, denying truth, denying responsibility.

A couple of years ago I invited an arborist into the backyard to give me an assessment. I was hoping that there was some mystery to the dying trees, something other than the obvious. He told me what I already knew and then some. Trees were stressed and dead all over, and even the ones that looked alive were probably ghosts. He pointed to the three redwoods and explained that they don’t just take water from the ground, but through the air, and fifty or so years ago the air was different. There wasn’t much more to say or do, and so we stood together in prayerful silence, pallbearers in the middle of a sad forest, lifeguards in front of a dead ocean.

Sometimes when people ask me how they can be more compassionate, because they are ripping themselves apart over not being compassionate enough, I say, well, why don’t you just talk to people about the weather? What I mean by that is let’s not be strangers. Let’s be human beings. Let’s talk about something we have in common, you know, something like rain or snow or wind or heat, summer, winter, spring and fall. We all know hot; we all know cold. There didn’t used to be two ways about the weather. But I guess today there are two ways about everything, and no way in-between.

A hard rain’s gonna fall.

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because it is impossible to hold

May 9th, 2016    -    1 Comment

IMG_2012

Because it is impossible to hold, I hold it.

Because it is impossible to hold, it is a word.

Because it is impossible to hold, it fills everything.

Because it is impossible to hold, it falls down.

Because it is impossible to hold, it stands up.

Because it is impossible to hold, it breathes.

Because it is impossible to hold, it lets go.

Because it is impossible to hold, it never leaves.

Because it is impossible to hold, it never ends.

Because it is impossible to hold, love keeps forever.

sharing the road home

April 6th, 2016    -    11 Comments

 

Cajon_Pass,_wide_angle

We were about 300 miles from home in stop-and-go traffic in the middle of the Mohave Desert just inside the state line when the dashboard lit up.

Brake Malfunction!
Stop the vehicle immediately and contact dealer.

It’s trouble enough to be in stop-and-go traffic in the middle of nowhere 300 miles from LA, but the slow homestretch of a Spring Break road trip had just turned from hypnotic boredom into naked terror.

To the touch, the brakes seemed fine, but the failures were spreading. A new light screamed Check ABS/VSC! (Like we knew what that meant.) I flipped through the 400-page owner’s manual for clues. It didn’t tell us anything. We pulled off on the shoulder and checked the emergency brake. Not it. And the brake fluid. Not it. There was nowhere else to get help. So we flowed back onto the crowded road, dash warnings blinking, up the high pass through the San Bernardino mountains and down the steep grades of the San Gabriel mountains, through thicker and faster traffic until we pulled into the driveway and exhaled.

We are lucky to have an honest mechanic in our town, and I stopped by his place the next day. I was surprised he wasn’t there. It had me more worried when no one answered the phone all afternoon, but he answered when I rang in the morning.

Is everything OK? I asked because I knew it wasn’t.

It’s really not.  Last month he was working on a car while the engine was running, and he put his hand where he shouldn’t have, nearly cutting off a finger. Since then he’d been at doctors and hospitals, desperate to save an otherwise useless finger that he thought would cost him his work, his business, his home, and the future. He talked for 30 minutes, and I wanted him to. I wanted to listen and let him be afraid and angry and unsure. I wanted to be more than a customer. I wanted to be a decent human being like him. That’s really what his job is, just being decent, so he said, go ahead and bring the car down and I’ll check it while you wait.

Turns out there was nothing wrong. Maybe a low battery charge in the hybrid engine while we were stalled in traffic caused a bad sensor reading or something that I didn’t really catch the gist of. He wouldn’t let me pay him, but he let me listen while he told me about the hassle of scheduling a blood test before the next surgery, how upset and distracted he felt, and how unfair and impossible things were looking for him today. I believed him.

Let’s just see how it goes, he said then, and it caught my ear. He meant I should drive the car around town and see if the warnings came on but he was pretty sure everything was fine. I said I’d be back to check on him. It didn’t sound like much, but it’s all that decent human beings can do for each other when life is spinning out of control: share the road home.

serene through all their ills

January 17th, 2016    -    4 Comments

popsicleboat1

When I travel around the country for meditation retreats, they usually take place in rooms that weren’t designed for Zen meditation. We may come together in a converted barn, for instance, or a basement, conference room or classroom. All that matters is that the room be empty. Then into the space we put a little bit of the form, or appearance, of a Zen retreat.

That means a bell, a statue of Buddha, and if allowed, a candle and incense; cushions or chairs; and a schedule of seated meditation, walking meditation, and chanting services throughout the day. It sometimes seems to me like we fashion a retreat out of popsicle sticks, but somehow it works.

To a beginner, the form appears strange. It’s rarely anything you’ve done before; classical Zen is not exactly a free-for-all. It’s important to see that the form of a retreat isn’t imposed, like a rule. It is offered, like a life raft. Form gives us a place and a way to rescue ourselves from ourselves. What do I do now, our crazy mind shrieks. Do this, form tells us. But how, we wail. Like this, the form shows us, and we have one less thing to fret about.

One of the first things I invite people to do at a retreat is write down the name of someone who is suffering, someone other than themselves. Even though people come to a retreat to get something—something called Zen—we automatically receive the benefit of our own practice. The point is to extend the benefit to others. The names go onto our retreat sick list which is chanted out loud as part of each day’s service. People might offer the name of someone who has cancer or is going through a personal calamity. Someone ill, elderly, or near death. We all know someone in those straits, and those are the first names that come to mind.

At the first morning service, people are self-conscious. Anyone would be. They are chanting things they don’t understand, mumbling words and syllables that don’t make sense. The chant leader is trying to find the right rhythm and pitch; the names on the sick list are mangled. But this is practice: everyone doing everything together for the first time. There is no criticism spoken, but of course, we often judge ourselves harshly.

With each service, the chanting grows clearer and more confident, and each morning the sick list grows a little bit longer. In our empty room, our minds are growing clearer. We think more compassionately of others when we stop obsessing about ourselves. We might approach the chant leader and ask, can I add one more name to the list?

On the last day of retreat, the chanting is strong and beautiful. The words merge in one voice. All are alert and present. The chant leader makes a point of sounding out each syllable. The names are carefully pronounced, and the list is twice as long. That’s when I hear the names of our children, partners, and parents: people who may not be distressed except by what we say to them, what we do to them, what we expect of them, and what we think of them. We have, by the last day, forgotten ourselves, and in that forgetting, taken responsibility for everything and everyone. After saying the last name on the list, the chant leader intones the final benediction:

May they be serene through all their ills
and may we accomplish the Buddha Way together

And in that instant, they are, and we do.

***

Even when it’s made of popsicle sticks, there is room in the raft.
Come sit by me.

Zen Retreat: Meditation as Love
Feb. 5-7, 2016
Kripalu
Stockbridge, MA

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the myth of the missing moon

September 28th, 2015    -    25 Comments

Let’s consider whether we see a crescent moon, a half moon or a full moon. In any of the phases of the moon before it is full, is anything truly lacking? — Maezumi Roshi

One day a girl looked up at the sky through a veil of clouds and saw that half the moon was missing.

The moon is missing! The moon is missing! No one could convince her otherwise. In fact, she had seen it shrinking for some time, and every night came more proof of her worst fears.

I was right! This conviction was a miserable consolation.

Where others might have seen a sliver of shine, all she saw was the deepening hollow of absence.

There is something you think you don’t have. A virtue, quality, or substance you need to acquire. Courage. Strength. Patience. Wisdom. Compassion. Wholeheartedness. As soon as I name it, you see it as missing from you, quick to disavow the suggestion that you are complete.

I’m only human, you might say. I’m not at all whole and perfect. I’m injured, inadequate, and yes, even a little bit robbed. Especially robbed.

She tried filling the hole with tears, shouts and bluster. She bought a toaster, a Sub Zero, and a Maserati, a pile of shiny objects. They overflowed her house and storage unit. She stomped her feet and kicked up dust. All of it made a mess, but nothing more. You can’t fill a hole that doesn’t exist.

And so, exhausted, she gave up and sat down, head heavy, heart leaden.

She didn’t notice the shadows shifting into light, the wind lifting, the clouds parting, the days passing. One evening she opened her eyes and saw the moon. It was full, of course. It was full all along, doing what moons do, reflecting light. Only our perspective changes. We rob ourselves when we mistake the unreal for the real.

Your heart is always whole, just as the moon is always full. Your life is always complete. You just don’t see it that way.

Just let everything and anything be so, as it is, without using any kind of standard by which we make ourselves satisfied, dissatisfied, happy or unhappy. Then you’ll see the plain and clear fact.

Excerpted from the book Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com

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not the story you wrote

September 27th, 2015    -    61 Comments

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A couple of weeks ago I saw one of those charity appeals scroll past on my Facebook feed. Someone was sick and needed help. I let it pass at first, and then it came back again. So I clicked on the link. It was for this fellow I’d never met, who lived across town, a Facebook friend who was always kind and—get this—encouraging. He’d been hit with a triple whammy on the health front: lymphoma, kidney disease and congestive heart failure. I hesitated before I signed up. My choices were to give money, make a meal, or ignore it altogether. His location wasn’t exactly convenient, so maybe money would suffice. Or I could drive a meal over. In the end, I decided that if I couldn’t do that little, my friendship wasn’t worth that much. So I put my name next to a date, cooked that morning, and showed up on his doorstep.

I apologized when I got there, because the food I brought didn’t even taste good. There were dietary restrictions to follow, and anything cooked without salt ends up tasting like wet cardboard. But it turned out we had a lot in common and had a nice visit. The meal I brought, and the meal he needed, wasn’t my tasteless stuff in the plastic containers. The meal was the company we shared. I told him I could drop by and hang out anytime, and I meant it.

The next day he learned that his lymphoma had progressed even further throughout his body. He was devastated.

This isn’t the ending you’d like for this story, is it? And yet, it’s the ending we all share.

There’s a New Age mantra that tells us if we own our story and reframe the story we can rewrite the story. We can turn down into up, failure to success, pain into promise, and fear into courage just by changing the way we talk to ourselves. It’s true up to a point, and it’s not a bad way to spend a few days if you find yourself in a career or lifestyle funk. But the suffering I see all around me is too real for that.

The other night I flipped open a Buddhist magazine and saw what are called the Buddha’s Five Remembrances. These are the remembrances that we spend our whole life trying to forget.

  1. I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid aging.
  2. I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.
  3. I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death.
  4. I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.
  5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

With every true thing staring me in the face, I stopped flipping through the pages.

***

The response American crowds gave to Pope Francis last week was not surprising. We are drawn to his being because we suffer deep ills that cannot be fixed by ego’s clever devices, wounds that cannot be healed by the shallow salve of American self-help. We need a real priest for real times. The times we’re in.

So here’s the purpose of this post: I’ve been handed two beautiful books that I’m going to give away to folks who are ready to read them. If you’re interested in winning either one or both, leave a comment on this post by this Saturday, Oct. 3. Let me tell you what you’re in for.

410mchq-dOL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_The Taste of Silence: How I Came To Be at Home With Myself  by Bieke Vandekerckhove. This is the most profoundly brilliant book I’ve read in a long time, and it took me completely by surprise. When she was 19 and in college, the Belgian author was diagnosed with ALS and quickly became paralyzed from the pelvis up. Facing the certainty of approaching death, she took refuge in the silence of a Benedictine monastery and Zen practice. Remarkably, she experienced an unheard-of remission, and from her extreme forbearance came this small book of shining teachings. A week after I read this long-awaited English translation, I learned that Bieke had died after 27 years with the disease.

41HyRSSg4xL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness by Toni Bernhard. Fourteen years ago, Toni was traveling in Paris when she fell ill with an acute virus. She never got better. She is still sick. Toni is no longer a law professor or college dean. She is instead a tireless author of books about the unavoidable presence of pain and the power of sickness. Her work is wonderfully honest, practical and wise, proof that living ill can be living well. From the midst of suffering, Toni is generous and clear. This book is a bountiful gift to caregivers too, so they can keep giving when they’ve given just about everything.

A taste of hard wisdom offered with love and delivered to your doorstep. If you could use the company, just tell me so.

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