Posts Tagged ‘Practice’

the best chocolate cake

February 14th, 2013    -    53 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

fog lights

January 15th, 2013    -    4 Comments

This is what practice is like.

If the video doesn’t appear in your email, click here.

Our practice is like walking in a fog, Suzuki Roshi said.”In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little.”

And then you see the sun.

Cultivating Stillness: A Weekend Meditation Retreat at Grailville
Friday, Mar. 15-Sunday, Mar. 17, 2013
Grailville Retreat Center
Loveland, OH
20 miles northeast of Cincinnati
Sold out for overnight attendance; day passes for Saturday participation will soon be available.

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I’ll be here

January 13th, 2013    -    3 Comments

NBR_Golden_Gate_no_headline_111212_kfr_0

The future lays before me like a bejewelled carpet, a glistening tide.

Golden Gate: A Weekend Retreat on the Marin Headlands
Saturday, June 8 at 9 a.m. – Sunday, June 9 at noon
NatureBridge at Golden Gate
Sausalito, CA

Registration open.

An introductory Zen meditation retreat for all levels of practitioners. Includes instruction in sitting, chanting and moving with mindfulness. One night, three meals included.

Located on the Marin Headlands just steps from the beach, NatureBridge sits amid 140,000 acres of coastal parklands with views of the Pacific Ocean, delicious meals, tide pools, hiking trails and dormitory-style lodging to the sound of the ocean. I’ll be here.

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the appetite

January 6th, 2013    -    24 Comments

7244511-rice-on-a-blue-bowlAnd he took bread, and gave thanks, and broke it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. — Luke 22:19

The communion ritual fascinates me. I suppose for some it can seem an outright lie or ignorant superstition. Even as a girl who came to church solely for the sake of obedience, the words drew me into their mystery, and I partook. I still take communion whenever it is offered to me. I take my sustenance in the mystery.

Last week I was tenzo, or cook, at a five-day retreat, preparing three meals a day for 25 people. I have participated in countless Zen retreats, maybe a hundred, taking many more hundreds of meals, and never cooked. Let me express my deep gratitude to every cook who has ever prepared my food. I had no idea.

Having no idea is the doorway to realization. It is the essential ingredient, you might say, in the miracle.

They sat down in ranks of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. They all ate and were satisfied. — Mark 6:40-42

At first my assistant and I were inept and overwhelmed, chased by the doubtful hours and disappearing minutes. We rushed and scrambled. We erred in composition and quantity. Every bowl we set out was returned empty. The diners seemed insatiable. The food was not enough.

But sitting down in the ranks transforms everything. By the third day of sitting, appetites quieted. Minds settled. In the kitchen, we moved with silent purpose. The miracle had begun to unfold. The food became a marvel; our hands, the instruments of magic. The taste was indescribable.

The cooks made an offering of the meal; the guests made an offering of their appetites. Everything in harmony; everyone blessed. By faith alone, we were all fulfilled. read more

can’t apologize

November 19th, 2012    -    7 Comments

Yesterday I made an error in speech, which was actually an error in typing. Sending an email, I intended to write what I always advise on the subject of conflict resolution: “Say you’re sorry. Apologize not because you are wrong but because you can.”

After I sent the email I re-read it. What I had written was “Apologize not because you are wrong but because you can’t.” I wavered: should I send a correction? A quick clarification? Make sure that the recipient understood that I was in my right mind?

When I looked at it again I decided that the mistake expressed an even deeper level of practice. Apologize because you can’t. Send the apology you never thought you would. Do it because it doesn’t make sense.

This is the way we resolve everything: by realizing that the only thing standing between can and can’t, love and hate, war and peace, us and them, is a hasty, reckless and erroneous contraction. So get over it.

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deep sanity

October 8th, 2012    -    3 Comments

Sometimes the room is so still that the only thing you can babble about is gratitude. I am forever grateful to my teacher, and my teacher’s teacher, for showing me the deep sanity of practice.

A sky that never darkens.
An ocean that never empties.
Beyond patience and surrender,
the dignity of having no choice.
Sitting quietly, doing nothing
giving birth to a whole wide world.

Sharing my practice is the only thing that matters, because practice takes care of every single thing. Come sit by me two weeks from now in a world of your own creation.

Deeper Still: a Breath & Meditation Workshop, Washington DC, Oct. 21.

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the koan of boredom

September 27th, 2012    -    4 Comments

Please see the link at the bottom of this post to read the entire essay online.

The message comes with good intentions, as do most things designed to inspire, so I click on the link in my email and watch the short video.

First I see a sleeping newborn swaddled in a blanket, followed by a silken black butterfly perched on a finger, a dewdrop dangling from a leaf tip, and a nest cradling two luminous robin’s eggs. Images dissolve to a piano serenade—a foggy meadow at daybreak, the fiery blaze of an ocean sunset, a peach pie cooling on a plank table, and a vase of peonies gracing a windowsill. A boy bites a glistening red popsicle at that perfect instant before it slides off the stick. A golden-haired girl blows the dancing flames from her birthday candles. “Moments,” the voiceover says. “Moments like this are all we have.”

They are happy, captivating shots, drenched in color and sentiment. The eye wants to drink them in and dwell. Compared to this, my life seems mostly washed-out and even wasted.

I stop the show. Something’s wrong with this picture. Pies and popsicles are appealing, but these pictures don’t quite capture the essence of life. Not the whole of it.

Later on, in the bathroom picking up dingy wet towels, I notice the mildew creeping up the bottom of the shower curtain. This is not the life of precious tributes. It’s not one of the moments you want to frame and keep. It’s one you want to throw out. And many of us do. We replace people, places, and things that have grown charmless and tiresome— which they always do. Fascination fades and restlessness stirs.

Chasing the picture perfect, we can lose what we have in abundance—the times that teach us even more than the rare delight of butterflies or a robin’s blue eggs. We lose the hours, the days, and the decades when nothing much seems to happen at all. Time freezes. Paint dries. Mildew spreads. We’re bored out of our minds.

Boredom is the unappreciated path to patience, peace, and intimacy, so who would read a paean to it? Let that be your koan.

Don’t quit now! Continue reading this complete article online at Shambhala Sun.

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I am not awesome

September 19th, 2012    -    10 Comments

I am not awesome. Nor am I doing awesome work. I have no research, and not a single conclusion. I cannot tell you a thing about how you should live or why. Not one thing about greater meaning or purpose. I do not preach a doctrine, a science, a language or a new way of thinking. Words — authenticity, courage, creativity, happiness, innovation, greatness, compassion, mindfulness, even Zen— these are like wax wings to a fruit fly, feathers to a cloud. What I preach is practice. A preacher without a practice is a preacher. A preacher with a practice is a human being.

Try it.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat on Sept. 23 in LA.

The Art of Non-Parenting: Discovering the Wisdom of Easy, and Deeper Still: Breath & Meditation Workshop on Oct. 20-21 in Wash. DC.

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no way over but through

September 4th, 2012    -    7 Comments

I’m a guest teacher this month at  Shambhala Publication’s Under 35 Project, where the topic is Experiencing Loss.

Under 35 is a site for young meditators to write about finding, beginning and encouraging a mindfulness practice. I hope you’ll visit and read this month’s submissions. If you’re a writer looking for a new venue, or a practitioner looking for support, please consider writing a short essay and contributing it to the site. It doesn’t matter to me if you’re under 35 or not. I view age limitations the same way I view loss: there’s no way over but through, and getting through is what makes a difference.

This remind me of a passage I came across in James Ishmael Ford’s book Zen Master Who? 

There are numerous stories about Maezumi Roshi’s teaching style, but one I particularly like has to do with a student who had been a professional dancer.

As recounted in Sean Murphy’s One Bird, One Stone, the student had badly hurt one of her feet in an accident and was forced to retire from the stage. Embarrassed by her injury, she always kept her foot covered with a sock. In her first interview she asked Maezumi a question about her Zen practice. But he answered, “Never mind that. Tell me about your foot.” She was reluctant to talk but he insisted. She told him the story, weeping, and even took off her sock and showed him her foot.

Maezumi placed his hand silently on her foot. She looked up to find that he was crying too. Their exchanges went on like this for some time. Every time she asked the roshi about her practice, he’d ask about her foot instead, and they’d cry together. “You might think you have suffered terrible karma,” Maezumi told her, “But this is not the right way to think. Practice is about learning to turn disadvantage to great advantage.” Finally the day came when the student walked into the interview room and began to tell her teacher about her injury, but it summoned no tears from her. “Never mind about that,” Maezumi told her. “Let’s talk about your practice.”

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat on Sept. 23 in LA.

The Art of Non-Parenting: Discovering the Wisdom of Easy, and Deeper Still: Breath & Meditation Workshop on Oct. 20-21 in Wash. DC.

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sit there

July 10th, 2012    -    9 Comments

Conventional wisdom has it that Los Angeles is sinking into the Pacific. One more quake, they say, and this silly sandcastle will be swept offshore. But they have it upside down. We’re already on the bottom of the sea. Five million years ago, seismic storms pushed the Pacific crust to the surface of the Earth. We are the children of a risen ocean. We scuff our shoes on its billowy floor.

Conventional wisdom says this ancient practice of mine no longer reaches. It does not translate. Westerners don’t get it. It’s too hard and long and fruitless (although science, medicine and common sense affirm it at every turn.) I once studied with another teacher who prodded me. Faster, faster! He wanted to see flying colors, coach a champion, build a team. I quit that place. Later, he trademarked a new way to sell enlightenment, a method sped up for the restless and distractible. We’re competing with many other pastimes, the reasoning goes. Better give people what they want when they want it, or they will . . . do what? Scatter, like so much dust.

Thinking like that is a sure way to lose ground. Where wisdom is the agenda, there is no wisdom.

“I was afraid Maezumi was just going to let you sit there,” he said. I didn’t know better at the time, but now I can answer.

My teacher was unafraid to just let me sit there.

This is my inexhaustible desire: that you will find a guide who is both patient and daring, unafraid to watch you struggle, drift, and finally settle in the tempest of your own pot. One who will keep you quiet company as you go deep and dig, until you look up and see that you are not sinking, you are not hopeless, your cause is not lost. There is no war and no enemy, no hurry and no wait. You are sitting upside up in the echoless calm of a deep, clear ocean, no wind or waves, and you are breathing, breathing, breathing.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, Los Angeles

the way

July 1st, 2012    -    6 Comments

Open the door.
Take a step.
Follow signs.
Do not be deceived by shortcuts.
Do not make excuses for false turns.
Keep to the right except when passing.
Go straight on.
Wake up.
Take in the view.
Keep going.
Forever.

Summer vacation, Telluride, Colorado

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settle

June 18th, 2012    -    12 Comments

When my daughter was little, she would squat for hours every afternoon on a pile of sand in the front yard. I planted little plastic animals underneath, and she’d dig them up with a shovel, handing them over to me with a satisfied grunt. She quarried the same zebra, the same tiger, the same frog, hippo, and horse out of that pile every day. While she wasn’t looking, I’d hide the toys under again. She’d keep at it, tireless. We sat there for what seemed like forever, unearthing purpose from the sodden heap of our new life together. She couldn’t know how much she was teaching me then, in her wordless way, about being satisfied with the same old thing, squashing my every day’s plan to get somewhere else.

I used to think those days were over, but they never really are. We move on to a different pile, but we have to find a way to settle into it just the same.

One time I was interviewed by a radio host about meditation as an antidote to dissatisfaction. She seemed alarmed, even offended, by the suggestion. Staying put runs contrary to the doctrine of self-improvement.

“It seems to me you’re telling people to settle,” she said. I was tongue-tied, and I searched my mind for a response. If I’d had the equanimity of my Zen kin, I would have said what I really meant.

I would have said, “Yes.”

I’m telling you to settle.

What’s wrong with settling? What’s wrong with making peace? What’s wrong with quieting the crazy-making, egocentric mind? This is why we begin our practice, and this is why we keep practicing even when we are no longer entertained. If we are really committed to our own sanity, we keep chasing ourselves out of our ruminating mind and onto different ground. The ground where things come to be.

“People will be drawn to you, and now you have something to share,” Maezumi said to me before I knew anything, least of all what those words could possibly mean. This is how you arrive at the ground of faith—not by what you know, but by what you don’t. Luckily, the ground of faith is, for all practical purposes, the ground itself. It is the ground where we stand, sit, walk, work, and rest. Faith is the ground on which we settle, or we will never settle at all.

Some people settle with shovels and picks, some with tractors and hoes, some on a mat, chair or cushion. Once you learn to settle, you can settle wherever you are, and begin to cultivate the scenery.


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the end of mother’s day

May 13th, 2012    -    6 Comments

Someone sent me something that renders me mute with gratitude.

Blackbirds
by Susan Mitchell

Because it is windy, a woman
finds her clothesline bare, and without rancor
unpins the light, folding it into her basket.
The light is still wet. So she irons it.
The iron hisses and hums. It knows how to make the best of things.
The woman’s hands smell clean. When she shakes them out,
they are voluminous, white.

All night my hands weep in gratitude
for little things. That feet are not shoes.
That blackbirds are eating the raspberries. That parsley
does not taste like bread.

From now on I want to live
only by grace. In other words, not to deserve things.
Without rancor, the light dives down
among the turnips. I eat it with my stew.

Today the woman’s hands smell like roots. When she
shakes them out, they are voluminous, green.
All day they shade me
from the sun. The blackbirds have come to sit in them.
Since this morning, the wind has been enough.

Image above is “Clothesline,” a painting by Heather Horton.

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