Posts Tagged ‘Mindfulness’

Objects may be closer than they appear

May 8th, 2008    -    19 Comments


I’ve had it up to here with all your whining, whining, whining.

I didn’t sleep last night and you need to go to bed right now.

I want you to listen to how everything you say starts with “I want.”

I wish you wouldn’t always be wishing for something else.

I have to do everything around here and nobody gives me a break.

Don’t make me say this one more time.

Just be quiet!

Notes on a wildfire

May 1st, 2008    -    13 Comments


“Diligently practice the Way as though putting a fire out on top of your head.”

There is engaging language in my spiritual tradition, in the old writing and the poetic phrases. It’s easy to take the language as inspiration or as metaphor, inclined as we are to analyze everything for deep meaning and exalted purpose. This is what religious scholars do, what intellectuals do, and it’s obvious why. We can almost never believe that things are simple or straightforward, that they are what they are. What do we use our brains for if not figuring things out? Everything has to mean something else.

I’ve heard a phrase more or less like the one above many times and thought it conveyed urgency and desperation. It does. But then I saw with my own eyes this week the startling science of extinguishing fires. How you put out a fire is exactly how you should practice. How you put out a fire on the ground is exactly how you put out the fire on your head – your insane, compulsively anxious, fearful ego mind.

Like you, I wish practice was merely a matter of writing this post, or reading a book, or making a list, or thinking positive thoughts, or losing five pounds. But I’ve seen the firefighters, and how they practice. They do not waste a moment to theory, philosophy, inspiration or appearances.

This is what I learned:

The best fire prevention is fire. When an area burns fully it does not burn again. To extinguish the fire of ego, you must burn the concept of self completely. Then it does not re-ignite or flare up in trouble spots. Have no more inflaming thoughts of yourself: what you want, what you need, what you wish, what you think, what you feel, what you don’t have, what you don’t like, your dramas and intrigues, the world according to you. It is not enough to comprehend this, though. You actually have to burn the brush away, and let the fire rouse you from the bed you sleep in tonight.

A fire isn’t out until the roots are upended. When a mountain catches fire and the flames soar from a vertical surface, the battle begins from the air. Water and fire retardant are dropped over and over. It’s impressive. It buys time, but it doesn’t finish the job. To finish the job, they send in the ground crews. Foot solders, who scale the blackened slope with picks and shovels to turn up the smoldering roots. The roots of burned vegetation can hold a fire for months, I’m told, like the roots of ego attachment, ageless embers of ignorance and anger, all the delusive ways in which you hold fast to the idea of yourself.

Fire erupts from conditions, an inextricable set of causal conditions including heat, dryness, fuel and a spark. Unfavorable conditions sustain a fire, no matter how valiant the strategy. When conditions change, the wind turns, humidity climbs and the temperatures drop, the fire goes out. Like that, it goes out.

To practice the Way is to change the conditions of your personal suffering. Like that, it goes out.

***
Written in haste, while clear and fresh, and with apologies to those who have no interest in these matters.

Rescue mission

March 13th, 2008    -    11 Comments


Twice a year or so I get this kind of telephone call.

We’ll be in your neighborhood next week. Do you have any donations of used clothing or household goods?

And right away I say yes. Without even knowing what the donations might be I say yes.

The outfit that comes by is called Rescue Mission.

There are things that you and I probably don’t want to know about the used clothing business. There is re-marketing and profiteering. I’m never sure how much of what I pack up will be used, or used by someone who really needs my shredded sneakers and faded khakis.

There is more to this than meets the eye, I’m sure. But I don’t need to know. I always say yes because the time is always right and the need is always great. Because the call has come and the closets are full. Because children grow and parents do too. Because I use my clothing well but I never quite use it up. Because when you have more than you need things grow heavy and dull, dusty, dark, airless and dead. I say yes because it’s a Rescue Mission, and the one being rescued is me.

Distance calling

February 17th, 2008    -    10 Comments

My parents called one night last week. It was late and I’d been sleeping.

First, my mom got on the line. I recognized her right away although she sounded old and frail. It was so good to hear her.

“We’re coming out,” she said. I understood that she and dad were getting in the car and starting to drive all the way from Texas to California.

“It will take awhile,” she said, “because we have to stop at the pharmacies.”

Somehow that made sense to me. Then my dad spoke.

“Hi honey.” I could tell he was smiling in his weary way. “Are you sure you want us to come?”

I was remembering all this the next day when I drove down Santa Anita Avenue and I saw an old man in the crosswalk. He was stoop shouldered. The breeze made his white hair flare out behind his ears like wings. From the back, he looked exactly like my dad, who died two years ago. Mom went first; soon it will be seven years.

Here’s the thing: I said yes. I really do want them to come, and they’re on their way.

Dreams are not dreams, you know. They are no more dreams than any other dreams we live while we’re awake.

I’m dreaming with my eyes wide open. And I’m watching for what comes.

Stepping in it

January 9th, 2008    -    8 Comments


I just came back in from walking the dog, something I never wanted to spend a moment of my life doing. Now I do it daily. And the dog does it daily too. Not just the walking. The dooing. Dogs poop. Sometimes I step in it.

I’ve been stepping in dog doo lately. There we have it. As my teacher would say, it’s good practice. You step, you see, you scrape it off. You scrape it off enough and something more than shit starts to come off. You lose your revulsion, your upset, your attitude. You see it and you just take care of it, the stink on the bottom of your shoe. Mommies and daddies learn particularly well that some shit doesn’t even stink. That’s love.

I want to take a second to clarify something. I’m not writing about you. I’m not writing even for or at you. I’m writing to myself. Honest. These are my fingers flailing across the keyboard. These words are appearing before my eyes from I really don’t know where. Like every part of my life – the laundry, the dishes, the dog poop and the singular sensation of falling short again – it is my practice. It teaches me. My life teaches me things I’ve never seen before, and my words tell me truths I’ve never conceived. I don’t know you and never really can; my practice is to know myself.

The fact that these words might hit you where you sit is, well, magic. What you do with them is entirely up to you but I hope you scrape them off right quick.

In my Zen lineage we have a ceremony that concludes an intensive 30-day training period wherein the head trainee or priest gives a public talk for the first time on a particular teaching point. (I’m choosing my words carefully so as not to misrepresent.) As part of this ceremony, the trainee reads lines that monks have been saying in this ceremony for generations. One line is, “I hope there is enough water in the Pacific Ocean to wash my words from your ears.”

I like that saying. I repeat it often to myself. It reminds me not to conceptualize any experience, not to think myself into intellectual understanding, confusion, upset, anger, defensiveness and intractability. Just to scrape it off.

“I love you but you poop too much,” I might say to my dog. You should see the volume of poop in my otherwise pristine backyard. “I love you but,” I say, and then I hear myself and realize that’s not love.

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.

As close as I come to baking bread

December 12th, 2007    -    6 Comments


I know. Any way you slice it, going someplace else to practice is going too far. I used to live three states away from my practice center and that was too far. Now I live 19 miles away and it’s too far. Believe me, I understand how far it can be.

I also understand that bread doesn’t bake until you turn up the heat and close the oven door. When you are ready for results – when your life and everyone else’s depends on it – you have to take your lumpy rumpus on the road.

People always ask me if it is necessary to have a teacher to have a practice. The answer is yes and no. No, because you can cruise along for quite some time on your own power. Yes, because cruising along on your own power rarely gets you anywhere else. We all, naturally, find a comfort zone for ourselves, by ourselves, and we stay there. A teacher helps you recognize your sticking points. Comfort zones become discomfort zones, and a teacher won’t let you wallow. So a teacher is your best, worst friend.

At the same time, practicing with other people in the room gives you amazing power and encouragement. It is like family, only better, because you never have to speak to one another!

All of this gets scary and most people opt out right there. But consider this: We might go to a chiropractor to fix our back, a therapist to fix our head, a facialist to squeeze our zits, a fitness studio to squeeze our glutes, a stylist to cut and color our hair, a manicurist, a nutritionist, an acupuncturist, a massage therapist, a naturopath, a palm reader, and so on. You get my point. We do all that and more, and sometimes in one day! But it’s too far out to go to a Zen center and sit in solitude for an hour.

Here’s your first stop to see if there’s one near you: a roster of centers from the American Zen Teachers Association.

Here’s an even easier way: Madison, Philadelphia, Chicago, Montreal, Boston, St. Louis, Houston, San Diego, Minneapolis, Portland or Washington DC. Otherwise just Google it. If you found me, you can find out where to go in your own backyard. If you’re lucky, you can try a few places to zero in on one that fits.

This is the time of year when we naturally turn inward. We celebrate the light illuminating the darkness, the dawn of the new. It is an auspicious time to reflect. If you go looking, you may find a way to participate in part or all of a New Year’s retreat, like this one in Silver Spring, Maryland in the company of one of our own, or this one in Los Angeles at my own practice home and haven.

This is the last I’ll post on practice for a while. I always, however, welcome your questions publicly or privately, just so you know.

***
In spite of my daughter’s fever, my ill temper and all those missed appointments (see above), we did get out to sign a stack of books headed for you know who, making it the best kind of day. You can still order inscribed copies of Momma Zen for Christmas or any occasion by visiting here.

The unsecret

December 5th, 2007    -    10 Comments


The mind of a human being is like murky water, constantly churned by the gales of delusive thoughts and feelings.

Today I feel thoughtful. No, hold that thought. On second thought, I feel . . . how do I feel?

Random ideas are relatively innocuous, but ideologies, beliefs, opinions and points of view, including the factual knowledge and experience accumulated since birth, which we erroneously call “myself,” are only shadows which obscure the light of the truth.

Whoa, buddy. My opinions are just as good as yours, and I happen to like them better too.

As long as human beings remain slaves to their intellects and its observations, they could well be called sick.

I resemble that remark.

It is imperative that the mind be stilled.

Then what would I do with myself? And what would I do with this blog?

Once the waves subside, we perceive directly that the moon of truth has never ceased shining.

I, for one, don’t see anything out of the ordinary.

For the first time we can live with inner peace and dignity, free from perplexity and disquiet, and in harmony with our environment. – Yasutani Roshi, “The Three Pillars of Zen”

As entertaining as it might be to treasure hunt amid the dusty relics of the attic trunk, nothing we’re looking for is inside. Because nothing is hidden.

Let this reward you at once. And let me go back to getting the ink stains out of the white laundry since in my haste to explore myself I overlooked the ballpoint left in the shirt pocket.

***

Look no more! Find the perfect, and perfectly inscribed, gift for every mother on your list right here and now.

Everything and the kitchen sink

December 3rd, 2007    -    14 Comments

Returning after two days of retreat. Crumbs, mud, dog hair, mail, laundry, trash, stacks, cracks and someone else’s dishes. But my oh my, look at the view from my kitchen sink.

Eyes wide open, I’m home again.

When all else fails

November 28th, 2007    -    7 Comments


So while I was gloating over what this much-loved and widely read woman said about me, Ana spoke from behind my chair.

Ana is a woman who quite nearly shares my age, my home and my family and yet we live worlds apart. She comes every other week to put my life right side up, to pet the dog and humor the kid, to climb ladders and sweep corners and reach places that annoy me to high heaven but not enough to get off my butt and do something about.

She sat with me when I was bedbound and pregnant; I have rushed her to the hospital with strange and gripping pain. I do not live without Ana, and thankfully, I do not have to.

I swiveled around and Ana told me about her niece in El Salvador who was dying of leukemia. A niece only 12 years old and with only five months to live. A niece with the two names Meriam Artice.

At least I think that is what she said. Although we communicate perfectly, Ana and I rarely understand one other, which is the basis for an ideal relationship.

Meriam Artice is what I heard, and she spelled it for me. I had to ask because hearing this shut me down and emptied me out. Artice was my mother’s name. It was only my mother’s name. I never knew anyone else, nor did my mother know anyone else, who had her name. My mother has been dead for six years, but as you might guess, she’s not gone. Not by a long shot.

I took Ana by the shoulder and we went to the backyard to say a service. We said a chant for auspicious blessings for Meriam Artice and every other Artice, for Ana, me, you and every other you. And post-haste, I hastily posted to broadcast the benediction.

This is how the practice works. This is how the world works. In thunderbolts of heartbreak and flashes of illumination.

And while I was out back, with the dog and Ana and Artice, I saw clearly that it was time to rake. The rake rescues me, every time.

Interview with a vampire

October 30th, 2007    -    11 Comments

Did somebody say to write about control? Did somebody ask about fear? I’m afraid so. Who better to pontificate on the point than today’s guest, the phantom of fear himself, Count Effluvium Ginormus Overtopster.

May I call you ego for short?

I prefer that I forever be known as I, me, myself, the Big Kahuna, Top Dog, Numero Uno, the Commander in Chief or the Decider. I’m sure you won’t mind. In fact, you’ll come to love me as none other than yourself.

Are you big and bad?

Of course not, I simply have a neverending job to do.

Which is?

To protect you.

From?

Lions, tigers and bears.

But I don’t see any wild animals.

Boo!

Seriously, there’s nothing dangerous going on.

What’s that sound? Who’s hiding in the closet? What’s around the corner? What if? What then? What next?

Are you trying to change the subject?

All the time! See my sleights of hand? Judgment, control, planning, defense, intellect, memory. Hey! Remember that time you walked home in the dark and that stranger came close and . . . Remember when you were six and the dog barked and . . . Look before you leap! Better safe than sorry!

You’re trying to scare me.

I like to stay busy! And look at all the nifty defense mechanisms I brought with me: denial, displacement, intellectualization, fantasy, projection, rationalization, reaction formation, regression, repression, sublimation, blah, blah, blah. I can’t wait to use one after the other. I never go anywhere unless I’m armed to the teeth.

You never go anywhere?

I prefer to stay in control right where I am. In fact, why don’t you go upstairs into that dusty attic surrounded by all those old, familiar things and I’ll lock you in where you are safe and secure.

Secure from what?

The outside, you silly! Didn’t you notice it’s getting dark? Didn’t you notice it’s getting light? Didn’t you notice all those ominous changes? The threatening signs? Didn’t you notice that those people over there are looking at you? Didn’t you notice everyone is talking about you? Better get up there and not move an inch. Entrust me with your life!

But it’s my house and there’s no one else here and you’re the only one talking.

Yes, and I wish you’d straighten up and set some standards! Fresh towels would be nice.

Why don’t you shut up?

Why don’t you try to make me?

This is my Halloween prank, but for a real scare, see what happens when ego rules the so-called free world.

In a variation on trick-or-treat, this is Grab Bag week at Cheerio Road. I’ll let your comments ignite the topic I take up each day. If there isn’t a gust from you – a question, a comment, a change in direction – we’ll just have to sit through the wait. At the end of the week, there’ll be a goodie at the bottom of the bag.

The stew in lieu (of a post)

October 29th, 2007    -    9 Comments

1. Wake up.
2. Realize it is Monday.
3. Realize the phone is ringing; answer it and agree to teach yoga this morning.
4. Realize that by teaching this morning I can be home this evening instead of taking a class.
5. Realize that I need to check my calendar to be sure.
6. Realize it is October 29.
7. Realize that today is my 12th wedding anniversary.
8. Realize I need to buy a card.
9. Realize I need to buy a gift.
10. Realize the gift should be something my husband really wants.
11. Realize that would be a 90-minute massage at the health club.
12. Realize I could make a nice dinner.
13. Realize it could be something my husband really likes.
14. Take daughter to and from school, walk the dog, answer email, teach yoga, pick up dog poop, go to market, get card and gift certificate, talk on phone, chop veggies, make pot roast, receive magnificent floral delivery, help daughter with homework, clear table, bring in mail, vacuum, empty dishwasher, take out trash and chill champagne.
15. Realize that I can stop pondering the imponderabilities of today’s potential profundity
16. Because whenever I wake up and realize that my life as it is is perfectly OK it answers Karen Beth’s question from yesterday about my practice.
17. And thus comprises my post as promised.

In a variation on trick-or-treat, this is Grab Bag week at Cheerio Road. I’ll let your comments ignite the topic I take up each day. If there isn’t a gust from you – a question, a comment, a change in direction – we’ll just have to sit through the wait. At the end of the week, there’ll be a goodie at the bottom of the bag.

Putting out the fire

October 28th, 2007    -    7 Comments


Practice the Way as though saving your head from fire. –Nagarjuna

We ended the week by quite nearly putting out the fires. We also ended the week by quite nearly coming around to practice. Are they one or are they two?

Here in Southern California, each round of wildfires reminds us of the last, only worse. It can appear to others that we are ignorantly dismissive or resigned. People rail against the shortage of plans and preventions, the inadequacy of resources, the greed of land developers and the (mostly) wealthy homeowners who build and buy in the fire zone. All of those are reasonable questions. But at this time of year, this long into the eternal drought, this far into Earth’s desperate disequilibrium, none of those questions puts out the fire. When the scorching desert wind blows from the East and starts or spreads the fire, there is nothing that can stop it. As long as the gusts are blowing from the Mojave furnace, the fire always wins. There is no fighting it. There is only the ravaging wait.

When conditions change, the fire always goes out. When the wind changes directions and the moist, cool air once again flows inland from the Pacific, the fires die back, and the fighters prevail.

So it is with practice. So it is with meditation, mindfulness and Zen. Only the fire is on your head. More precisely, it is in your head. It is your chattering, egocentric, picking and choosing mind that is aflame with fear, anxiety, worry, doubt, agitation, or just plain restlessness. None of those things is a problem unless it causes you a problem, unless the flames are too close for comfort. Maybe you can’t sleep. Maybe you can’t smile. Maybe none of the tried-and-true fixes will fix you up again. And that is the siren call for practice.

Just as with the other kind of fire control, we practice by changing the conditions. We settle our bodies into one spot, we minimize sensory distractions, we bring the full force of our mental powers away from the conflagration in our mind and toward the breath – the wind – to squelch the flames and cool the inferno.

Honestly, a life of practice isn’t the life we go looking for. It isn’t easy. It isn’t familiar. It isn’t a mansion in the hills. It is a life that starts out hard and ends up sweet; starts out hot and ends up cool. But it’s the only kind of sweet that ever satisfies. It’s the only kind of cool you urgently want and need. When it’s time, you know it, and you know what to do.

In a variation on trick-or-treat, this is Grab Bag week at Cheerio Road. I’ll let your comments ignite the topic I take up each day. If there isn’t a gust from you – a question, a comment, a change in direction – we’ll just have to sit through the wait. At the end of the week, there’ll be a goodie at the bottom of the bag.

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