Posts Tagged ‘Maezumi’

One more thing I can live without

June 4th, 2009    -    18 Comments


My daughter comes to me after watching TV.

“Mom, I know what I want to save my money for. A laptop or a cell phone.”

She’s nine years old, and the money she’s talking about is her weekly allowance. As long as I’m her mother, she won’t be fulfilling either desire any time soon, but that doesn’t resolve the problem for me. I perceive it as something far bigger, more menacing and upsetting. Something not right.

Those insidious commercials! Our consumer-driven culture! Our insatiable kids! Those inexhaustible desires! How I want to put an end to them! Specifically, how I want to put an end to hers!

Or so we chant in the Four Bodhisattva Vows:

Desires are inexhaustible
I vow to put an end to them

What exactly do we mean by that? Have no desires? Want nothing? Is that what we really want? After all, it is desire that brings us to the Dharma, desire for truth, and desire that brings us back to practice again and again.

Maezumi Roshi once responded to a student who professed to having no desires.

“Your practice is wrong!” Maezumi replied.

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Hanging out by my lonesome

May 14th, 2009    -    1 Comment

A monk asked Gensha, “How do I enter the Way?” Gensha replied, “Do you hear the murmuring stream?” The monk answered, “Yes, I do.” Gensha said, “Enter there.” – Zen koan

“What is dharma?”

That was my one of my first questions in one of the first dokusans, or interviews, I had with a Zen teacher when I started practicing 15 years ago.

I’d been drawn to a remote mountain, to the scent of sandalwood, to the hush of the pine trees, to the rustle of the robes in the dim light of a zendo, and to an inscrutable Japanese teacher. I’d been driven by despair, by a broken heart, and by disgust with the same old same old me.

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Empty in the fullness of time

March 25th, 2009    -    13 Comments


So last week I catch a headline in Newsweek: Why Getting Rid of Clutter Doesn’t Make You Zen. Of course I read it and my molars start to grind before I’m halfway through. How I want to be free of this! Not free of reading, but free of judging what I read.

The author takes clever exception to the crock of wisdom that a clean house is a clean mind. And like nearly everyone who tosses around that familiar punchline, Zen, she thinks it is a joke. We have a dart we like to throw at comedians who ham it up for a laugh about Zen.

Words, words, words: Fluttering drizzle and snow.
Silence, silence, silence: A roaring thunderbolt.

– Zen Expression

The writer goes on to defend herself against the irrational notion that you can get rid of your emotional past. Not her. As proof, she quotes Faulkner’s “The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even the past.” Why you would want to take housekeeping advice from a guy who could write a 1,287-word sentence before he found a period, I do not know. Write a sentence, that is, when he was sober. Sure, he won prizes. But that’s not the prize you really want.

Most of us can’t tell our mind from a hole in the ground. In truth, our mind is a hole in the ground. Our mind is the cluttered house. Our mind is the cypress tree in the garden. Our mind is exactly what appears in front of us, without separation.

Though clear waters range to the vast blue autumn sky,
How can they compare with the hazy moon on a spring night!

Most people want to have pure clarity,

But sweep as you will, you cannot empty the mind.

– Keizan Zenji

Studies have shown that most of us think. (Zen joke.) Most of us think our mind is our thoughts. We think our thoughts are what we are. Thoughts about the past, the future, the snappy little article in Newsweek. But here Keizan Zenji tells us otherwise. The mind he speaks of is not the thinking mind beneath our skull. It is true mind. Buddha mind. And he tells us it cannot be emptied.

Now this Keizan guy is so deep and so precise that they sometimes call him the Mother of Zen! He describes our mind perfectly. Vast, clear, incomparable. If you have a concept of clarity, that’s not it. If you have an idea of purity, that’s not it. If you have a picture of emptiness, that’s not it. It is empty as it is. And it appears full. Doesn’t it?

This is not for you to take my word on. This is something for you to examine for yourself. Where is that past you think you can’t let go of? Where is the emptiness you envision as a vacuum?

We should thoroughly study ourselves from top to bottom. Our existence has nothing to do with the old or new, the past or the future. This time we are living right now exists as it is. There is no way to compare it to anything else. It is more than enough. It is the life of the sun and the moon, the life of the mountains and the rivers, the life of hundreds of grasses and myriad forms.
–Maezumi Roshi

There’s a good description of emptiness! Everything, anything, sun, moon, hundreds, myriad. When we say empty, you see, we mean it is not a fixed thing. It is constantly changing. It takes every form. It is empty and full. We misjudge empty when we think it is lacking. Or when we think it is the feeling of lacking.

In any of the phases of the moon before it is full, is anything truly lacking? Is the crescent moon lacking? A half moon? Of course not. You can see that assuming that the moon – or your life – at any time is not full doesn’t make any sense. Perhaps you are much more logical than I am, and you don’t wait for the day your life will be full!

Oh that Maezumi! He’s always telling a Zen joke. You have to clear away the clutter before you can laugh out loud. You, yes you, are Zen! Now put your shoes in the closet.

Wanna get away?

January 11th, 2009    -    21 Comments


Open your eyes.

Open your eyes and see that you are no longer in the dreary landscape you habitually occupy in your head.

This is a head’s up and sincere invitation for you to take part in two eye-0pening events coming round the bend.

The first is a Beginner’s Mind One Day Meditation Retreat I’ll be leading on Sunday, Feb. 15 at Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. It’s perfect for you, and it’s only $25.

The second is the half-day Palo Alto Mothers Symposium at Stanford University on Saturday, March 7. It won’t be complete without you, and it’s only $20.

Now, before you tell yourself what you always do, “I can’t possibly go,” stop and open your eyes. Read aloud the next words you see here:

Let’s just see how it goes.

Let’s just see how it goes. That’s what Maezumi Roshi always said to me. It’s not just a social courtesy. Not a simplistic cliché. It is a precise instruction on how to live an enlightened life.

Open your eyes.

That brings me around to mentioning something that might seem peculiar about zazen, or Zen meditation. We meditate with our eyes open. Slightly open, but still open. What you probably think of, and maybe even do, is meditate with your eyes closed. But that’s not practicing meditation, or awareness. That’s daydreaming, or sleeping. Daydreaming is nice, but no one needs to practice it. If you want to meditate with your eyes closed, I suggest you just opt for a deep tissue massage and get total body benefit out of it. That’s what I plan to do with the gift certificate I got for Christmas.

Wanna get away?

See how it goes. See that airfares, in some cases, are delightfully low. See that cross-country or even cross-town, is amazingly close. See me smile in total rapture to finally meet you face to face.

This time of year, we might find it easy to make long-range plans and commitments to improve our health, break old habits, lose weight, enhance our productivity and save or make more money. But can we commit even a few moments to transforming our lives and everyone in it? Sure we can.

Open your eyes and see.

Lost shoes, found days

January 2nd, 2009    -    18 Comments


Update: Miracles underfoot!

Tomorrow I’m going to have to drop into my reliable local bookstore to buy a 2009 wall calendar. The kind with trite pictures of lotus ponds and such. I always stick one on my kitchen cabinet to track comings and goings in the heart of our home: vacations, school holidays, washer repairs, flea treatments, the important stuff. It’s amazing to me that I haven’t been given a calendar this year. One or a hundred and one, which heretofore has been the custom. The current lack seems weirdly suited to the state of suspension we’re all in, this limbo in-between the end and the beginning of so many unfathomable things. It’s not surprising that no one could muster the faith this season to look far forward. No matter, I can find the coming days on my own.

Last night I was at the temple for our traditional New Year’s services: chanting and bowing in fusatsu or atonement ceremony, followed by meditation across the midnight hour, then the spectacle, (for us spartans anyway), of revolving the sutras, a kind of blessing ceremony. I was more than once reminded of the power and reach of this anniversary. New Year’s Eve is an anniversary in and by itself, of time’s eternal beginning, and then a personal anniversary in each of our lives.

It is the anniversary of the night my husband lost his shoes in a crowd of Buddhists, for instance. A loss in which everything unexpected was later found.

It was soon after I began my practice with Maezumi Roshi and I then met my husband-to-be in a restaurant in Florence, Italy; a husband-to-be that lived in Los Angeles, glory be, while I was still a wanderlusting south Texan. It seemed too eerily easy that I should begin an affair with an eligible guy in LA, and the obviousness of it prompted Maezumi to say, “Invite him for tea.” So my guy came for the first time to Zen Center of LA to meet Maezumi in the lull of New Year’s Eve before a traditional ceremony much like the one I was at again last night.

Impressionable, my boyfriend and I were both mildly terrified by the extreme auspiciousness of the favor: to be Roshi’s guests in his home on this night of nights. Once arrived, my boyfriend took off his shoes outside the door.

He never found them again.

There were many people there that night, many people inclined to wear the ubiquitous shoe fashion of the time, black Reeboks. After the services, after the time for putting shoes back on, long after everyone but my husband-to-be had his or her own shoes snuggly back on his or her feet, I went around in the crowd inspecting the shod.

“Are those your shoes?” I would say, pointing at the very shoes on their feet. “Are they really your shoes?”

I didn’t find anyone not wearing his or her own shoes. We didn’t find any shoes unworn.

My boyfriend left his first encounter with Zen sans footwear. (I’ve tried to leave everything else since then, but alas, I’m still holding on to a lot of unnecessary freight.) In his socks, he drove me to his apartment late that night, and he was pissed.

It’s easy to see the metaphor in this. He and I left behind a familiar road on that night, a well-worn footpath, the way things were. We went on, of course, getting over it, finding our way, uncushioned, unprotected, by a different route, to an altogether unimaginable future. We left behind more than a pair of shoes, but losing your shoes can indeed be an auspicious start to a whole new way.

Wishing you abundant lost shoes and found days, because sometimes it takes one to have the other, and I want you to have it all.

Look in your top left-hand drawer

December 19th, 2008    -    9 Comments

Steps of Encouragement:
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 . . . “
5. “Look in your top left-hand drawer.”

***
Today, shopping done, leaves raked, laundry spinning and the computer waylaid one more day in repair, I cleaned out my desk. My desk may be no different than the one you have, drawers so full of detritus that I hardly open them anymore. Into the drawers I went, and I found:

1. A short stack of rejections I saved while hunting for an agent. There were eleven of them here, among more that weren’t, because these were the dozen that favored me with a written reply. What struck me was not the disinterest these strangers showed, but the civility of their response. So I keep them still. The most civil of all was the one who called.

2. Scrap papers of notes written on the plane home after my first retreat with Maezumi Roshi 15 years ago. What I jotted: “He says he doesn’t want to flatter me, but he has been waiting for someone like me, someone with a big capacity to learn and teach others.” You can see he still has an infinitely big capacity for flattery! And while I don’t doubt he told others the same thing, I was the one who found it today.

3. A photo of my mother giving baby Georgia a bath. My mom’s head is a post-chemo cap of newly grown, wiry black curls. She is not the radiant woman who still lives in my heart; the baby is not the precious girl who still lives in my home. Time has passed but I’ve lost nothing and no one.

4. A snapshot of El Santuario de Chimayo taken on a visit in 1992, a magical axis from which my life turned in a totally new direction.

5. A print out of the first and only of Maezumi’s teachings I edited for him before his death. It was from three hours of his talks on Dogen Zenji’s fascicle, “Tsuki,” or “The Moon.” It took 36 hours of listening to tapes, craning into the earphones of a Radio Shack portable cassette player, to transcribe one inscrutable word at a time. I had no idea what I was doing.

6. Stuck on the first page of the completed transcription was a Post-It note written by my current teacher when he read it five years ago. “Maezen, Thank you so much! Keep it going – N.” This was the first time I’d read the piece since. I was afraid to.

7. A sheet of paper with the first four of the above Steps of Encouragement given to me by a preschool teacher when my daughter was three. My daughter never needed them; I still do.

8. And thus I found all the encouragement I need right now in my top left-hand drawer. There’s more than enough here, so please take some to tide you over until you look deeper inside for yourself.

The smile spread

February 29th, 2008    -    9 Comments


I thought I’d told it all, but yesterday when I was doing an all-day sit at the Hazy Moon, I remembered something. Without realizing it, I began this recollection on February 24, which would have been Maezumi Roshi’s 77th birthday. I decided to add this benediction, with a smile.

Coming softly down the carpeted stairs on the last morning of sesshin, she saw Roshi and his attendant having tea, the way they did every morning when she passed by. This time, Roshi asked her to join them. He introduced her.

She’s been having her own business for over 15 years, but she can’t be over 16 herself! He laughed at his own flattery.

Actually, today is my 37th birthday, she said.

Why would you want to spend it here? His smile spread.

I was hoping not to meet you, she said, letting the truth be playful for a change.

Then let me write you something. And come to see me before you leave.

After the morning sitting and the work period and the closing remarks, she came to see him, giddy to be finished and facing only the full blue sky of a return flight to Texas.

He sat in his study, behind a deep wooden desk made serious with the surrounding stacks of papers and books. Looking up, unshaven, he handed her a square flat package wrapped in sturdy rice paper. When she unwrapped it she saw that, to Roshi, writing meant calligraphy. The bold black strokes danced down an ivory bristol board.

Let me read it to you, he said as he came forward. Congratulations on the anniversary of your birth September 26, 1993. He pointed to two large characters stacked on the right side. Spring and fall.

Do you want to see my inspiration, he asked, pulling a leather bound volume from the bookshelf. He turned to a page, pointing at the last two lines.

She read to herself: No matter how much the spring wind loves the peach blossoms, they still fall.

Do you know what it means? he quizzed. She shook her head no, but she knew without knowing. He had seen through her all along.

That would be 1956, then, the year you were born? He scratched his stubble and she nodded.

That was the year I came to America, he said.

They hugged then, a full familiar embrace, and she ran to catch the ride that would take her home.

***
Happy birthday, Roshi. Happy birthday, Everyone. It’s always a good day to be born.

Some other place entirely

February 28th, 2008    -    11 Comments


It seems like it’s over even before it begins:

Inside the dokusan room, she bowed again, a full bow to the floor, then lifted from the waist and stayed seated. Maezumi Roshi sat two feet away. She spoke as she’d been told, stating her name and her “practice,” which was counting her breath, although she didn’t really know how to do it, or whether she did it at all.

He spoke. Are you a teacher?

No, she wasn’t a teacher. She had her own business in Houston, Texas. A public relations business for more than fifteen years, although she was going to sell it and change her life and all of that. And all of that.

And you came to Zen by?

Not by her parents, and not her training, not anyone in particular, not that, no, no reason at all. By a book, she half-lied, ashamed that an endlessly broken heart could send her tumbling all this way.

He nodded and talked. Kept talking and saying things she would not remember or ever repeat, streams of words assuring, encouraging and appreciative and she felt her face hot and wet and knew that she had been crying for some time. He asked her to turn sideways and he lightly touched her shoulders so they lifted, and he showed her how to relax her neck and lower her chin in posture. He was slowing down now, winding it up. Do you have a question, he asked, in courteous dismissal.

Yes, she seized, aiming to do her best. When I get up right now do I do a standing bow or a full bow?

He tossed his head back and laughed and called her sweet, and she caught her breath at the sound of the nickname only one other had ever called her. Smartness alone isn’t as nice, he said. She stood and bowed and left the room, walked back to her seat in the zendo and sat down in the spot where she started, in some other place entirely.

***
You could also try this place, or this place, or even stay right here.

Wake up when you get here

February 27th, 2008    -    6 Comments


There’s still time to dive into the story because it’s just starting.

By 9 p.m. she was back in her upstairs room, the first night done. She had followed everyone else’s moves, a half-beat off, corrections whispered by well-meaning strangers. The sitting was easy and quick. She shuffled off with the other newcomers early for a lesson in eating “oryoki” style, using monk’s bowls with chopsticks and chanting, all choreographed in unison like a mealtime ballet. Come breakfast she would be lost.

It was a strange night in a strange place and she didn’t sleep, which wasn’t strange at all. Where oh where have I ended up? She wrapped her head in a pillow to fend off the all-night noise from the street below, and gradually sunk into the wide-eyed defeat that accompanied nearly every night’s tossing. Hours evaporated. She heard a gentle rap at her door. It was Roshi, calling her name to wake up for the dawn sitting period. He said the r in her name like an l. The clock said 3:30. She washed her face and dressed, went downstairs and out back and sat in her spot on her cushion in the dim light of the zendo.

The room filled to stillness, and the timekeeper struck the bell three times to begin the sitting. Before long, Roshi and his attendant rose and walked out, turning down a side hall to what she had been shown the night before as the “dokusan” room, where the teacher saw each student in a private interview, sometimes several times a day. This was the real stuff of Zen, she knew. The eyeball to eyeball encounter that revealed all. And this was the tight spot she still hoped to opt out of, unready to defend her feeble motivations for being here.

The attendant returned to the zendo and announced that the dokusan line was open for those attending their first sesshin. No mistake. This meant her. Right now. Her legs responded and she stood, picked up her cushion, and watched her bare feet move in autopilot across the parquet floor. This was how she found herself kneeling in a shadowy hall waiting to show herself to a Zen master. Against her better judgment. She craned her ears to listen for the next cue recollected from last night’s hasty lesson. From inside the interview room , Roshi rang a tiny bell, signaling her to enter. She stood, walked, stopped, bowed, went inside and closed the door behind her, guessing at the moves.

***
All week, and all because of the Beginner’s Retreat coming up on March 16.

Both feet

February 26th, 2008    -    9 Comments


From a story that seems like it began yesterday:

She followed her guide out the back door and into a shaded garden, where she could now see that this place, a collection of houses and apartment buildings painted pale yellow with blue trim, covered perhaps half a block. They walked across the yard to the far house, which she took to be the teacher’s.

They paused inside the door to remove their shoes and padded through the downstairs in stocking feet. In the living room the woman pulled up and did a little bow. There in a nubby upholstered armchair sat a little Japanese man, bald-headed and smiling. She fumbled at the bows and nods, invisibly, she hoped.

Hers was a large guest room with three twin beds. She was too early, and where she thought there would surely be something, something important to do, there was nothing to do but quiver and wait. Wait first for supper, then the first sitting period beginning at 7. This was what Zen Buddhists called a “sesshin,” or a meditation retreat. Four periods of seated meditation a day, two hours each, divided into 30-minute periods with walking meditation in between. Meals, services, work and rest in all the other hours. Starting at 4 in the morning and ending at 9 at night. She’d been warned that, even though this was a beginner’s retreat of only three days, it would be the hardest thing she’d ever done. These days, everything was hard for her. Eating was hard, sleeping was hard, speaking and making sense was hard. She laid down on one twin and listened to the street noise barge through the open windows: cars, buses, horns, shouting, the forlorn refrain of an ice cream truck. She was too afraid to cry.

Shortly before 7, she put on her loose black pants and t-shirt and went downstairs to walk over to the zendo, the meditation room. It wasn’t like a lecture hall. With just over 40 people sitting along the walls, she wouldn’t be overlooked, but she could still be inconspicuous, she thought.

Just outside the backdoor, she found Roshi, now in his black robes, standing with his attendant. They looked at her and smiled.

“Are you ready for me to torture you?,” Roshi kidded, the words softened by his accent and his laugh.

“I do that well enough myself already,” she joked, flush with the narrowness of her escape.

***
To be continued all this week or until I find out how the story ends.

Once paradise

February 24th, 2008    -    4 Comments

I’ll be leading another one-day beginner’s meditation retreat on Sunday, March 16 in Los Angeles. That reminds me of a story.

The taxi driver was lost. Not lost, but not where he expected to be. She sat silent in the back while he retraced the turns then stopped on a narrow street crowded with pastel apartment houses and faded cars. Airport fares didn’t come to this part of LA. She paid, grabbed her duffel and stepped out.

It was a raggedy neighborhood not far from downtown. Tiny bungalows perched off the curb behind chain link fences; noisy, messy lives on full view through open kitchen windows. Only if you looked up, straight up, at the palm trees swaying against the perfect sky, did you realize that this was once paradise.

She was unsteady after the big trip. And disappointed. A three-hour flight and she was standing on a painted porch without a soul in sight. The door was locked. She rang the buzzer and an intercom voice answered. Come in, the woman said, we’ve been expecting you. The automatic lock unlatched. She went inside.

She’d always mistrusted the mean little black pillow he sat on when he turned his back to meditate, mornings and nights. Once she had tried the pose beside him, only once and only to please. Follow your breath. Count to ten. She didn’t get it. It hurt and it was dull, almost impossible to do and who would want to? So when he chose it, day after day, a sacred routine, she tiptoed past, petrified that this strange seduction would drive them apart.

Much later, a slender red spine caught her eye on a night spent roaming what remained on the bookshelf. When she opened a page of the Chinese verse, the ache in her gut yawned wide and the words fell in. Dropped all the way down and echoed back again. She took her bed pillow and folded it into a high square and sat on it. First, for five minutes. The cool space that surrounded her seemed so significant that she wrote the date down in a book by her bedside: June 18, 1993.

She read more books and bought new ones. The man at the yoga studio said it’s called a zafu and it’s $36. She left work at lunch and bought her own hard black cushion. That night and almost every night after she sat and watched the wall, measuring the time and her intent. Why am I doing this? What am I hoping for? She remembered his reverential reference to a teacher in Los Angeles, one of the first and now one of the last. One day she dialed directory assistance and asked all the questions without, she thought, revealing her doubts. When the woman said they had a special training planned for September 24-26, she said yes send me the form because it coincided with her birthday and only just then she had begun to believe in magic.

She went upstairs to the office and was greeted by a kind-faced woman who handed her a schedule and keys. She nodded at all the instructions but couldn’t respond, taking in the cases of books and papers and mismatched furniture that filled the room. How nice you’ll be houseguesting with Roshi, she heard the woman say, and she squinted at the rarefied name of the teacher she’d hoped to avoid.

***
More to come. There’s always more to come.

Bookmark it

February 21st, 2008    -    16 Comments


Updated to note the first come, first served below:

Jena tagged me for the meme that I’ve seen a number of you do already. Like most exercises, it is useful. I am to take the book closest to me and open it to page 123, then go to the fifth sentence and quote the next three sentences, or some such. I’m not being too exact with these instructions because, well, I wasn’t too exact when I did this and you’ll see that it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we do it at all, and the how just takes care of itself.

I honestly did reach for the book closest to me here at my desk. It is a book that sits, indeed lives, under my desk. A number of books live under my desk, because literally and figuratively, that’s where my writing grows out of: the underneath. A box of books I wrote sits under my desk. But the book closest isn’t one I wrote. It is a book that I endeavor to rewrite daily through my life itself. It is my muse and inspiration, “The Way of Everyday Life” by Maezumi Roshi. This happens to be a self-published publication from 1978. It is out of print. And because it has that circa-1978 zen spin, it doesn’t even have page numbers. So I turned to what I would like to think is page 123 and I scrolled down a bit and chose not three but four sentences:

Some people think that until they complete their practice and attain enlightenment, they can’t help other people. But such a time will never come, because practice is our life itself, and continues endlessly. So, according to the demands of each situation, we do our best. That’s our way.

We do our best. That’s not only our way, it’s the only way. We are always doing our best. When I see these words, so simple and clear, I want to weep for all the times that I have forgotten them.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading (and writing) lately. Because of these appetites and my deep belief in the beneficent and reciprocal power of circulation, I have books to pass on to you. This post gives me a way – the best way – to offer up some fine paperback reads for your taking, and this is the only kind of tagging I do. I will send any of these by very cheap, excruciatingly slow media mail service to anyone who claims a title by name in a comment. Then email me separately with your address. Please take only one so more can benefit. I enjoyed them all in their own original way. According each to its situation, they were the best. The one you choose will be the best for you. That is our way.

The books have been claimed by the following readers, many of whom pledge to pass their copies along in good faith, and whether they do or not it will be good enough. I am delighted to have heard from so many first-time commenters and I encourage you to keep coming so together we can keep going:

A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton/The Conspirator
Handling Sin by Michael Malone/Mama Zen
Life of Pi by Yann Martel/Jennifer The Word Cellar
Oil by Upton Sinclair/Kathryn
Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan/Someone Being Me
Snow Flower and The Secret Fan by Lisa See/Kirsten Michelle
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón/Jena
Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett/Backpacker Momma

Turn here

January 2nd, 2008    -    12 Comments


When we were little, my mother would drive us to our babysitter’s house early each morning so she could go to work as a schoolteacher. My big sister and I walked to our elementary school from there. My little sister, who was about 2, stayed at the sitter’s all day.

The three of us sat in the backseat as my mom drove the familiar few miles of the daily route. This was before car seats– egad – it was even before seatbelts, so you won’t be shocked to hear that my little sister stood on the hump of the floorboard and gripped the back of the front seat as we rode. She would stand like that and speak into my mom’s right ear, saying:

Turn here! Turn here!

My baby sister wasn’t giving my mom directions to the sitter’s house; she was giving her directions away from the sitter’s house. It was so funny: as if just hearing the words would cause my mom to steer away from the same old, everyday destination.

My mom, of course, couldn’t turn. But I can, and I do, every time I remember.

As always happens in the dharma, or your life, the very conversation you’re having gives you the inspiration you’re seeking. The very question you ask contains the insight you need. And so it happened in a dialogue yesterday about towels and trash and teeth flossing.

Why is it so hard to do what we know we should do?

Because it takes self-discipline, I replied. All practice is the practice of making a turn in a different direction. Toward one thing, away from another: the particulars in any situation don’t matter because we always know the right way. A different way. With practice, you get better at turning.

Even as I responded I was remembering a fascinating article I read in the paper a year or two ago. It was an account of the rather startling finding in the “Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance,” a book based on a study of how people get really good at what they do. The book shocked everyone by disputing the notion of talent. How people get really good at something is not because they have more talent but because they practice more.

Specifically, they do deliberate practice. Not just mindless repetition, but mindful repetition – directional, correctional and concentrative.

Turn here! Turn here!

Friends, this is my practice. This is Zen. It is not anything new you need to learn about. It is not some new information you need to study. It is not anything you haven’t heard before. It is just a turn you might not have yet made, or made again, and again, and again.

Maezumi Roshi used to say he was so sick of himself. So sick of hearing himself saying the same thing over and over again. Nyogen Roshi, my teacher now, says the same thing.
As a student, I get sick of hearing them say the same thing over and over again too. I’ve heard the same thing about a million times over. But then, for the first time, I might actually hear it. And then I might actually do it. And when I do, I arrive in a different place altogether: into the wide-open, beautiful, limitless and unknowable life right in front of me.

Turn here! Turn here!

Someone who advises me on my writing usually bounces things back to me with the encouragement to try again, reminding me that readers like to be taken on a journey. I’m sure that’s true, but this advice frustrates and perplexes me, at least momentarily. My readers are already on a journey – a desperate, painful, heart-wrenching, anxious, chaotic, and unfulfilling journey. They take this journey every day and night, incessantly, and even given the information and encouragement to go somewhere else, they usually never do. They might die on the same forsaken highway, having missed all the exits.

My practice is not a journey. Or if it is, it is a journey of one turn.

Here.

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