Posts Tagged ‘samsara’

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.

Too hot to handle

April 28th, 2008    -    10 Comments


As I write this the helicopters growl overhead, the sun glows orange through an ochre haze and petals of white ash drift in a funereal descent. ‘Tis the season.

It’s not supposed to be fire season but we have one nonetheless, a little fire that exploded into a big and menacing one overnight on the brushy mountains behind our home. We are still here and safe, one block outside the evacuation line.

I already had the title of this post in my head two days ago and it applies even more now. I’ve written about Southern California wildfires before. They are an intermittent fact here in desert paradise. You might wonder how we can handle it. The answer is we just do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. Today we wait and trust and offer a hand to those who live one block higher up the hill.

The fact is, no matter which state we reside in we all live in the pit of the flame, confronted time and again by conditions that seem too hot to handle. Sometimes the most we can do is offer an oven mitt, a sopping towel, a tall cool one, or a breather. Whatever we do is the best we can do. We all handle what we think we can’t.

And in that spirit I offer for your interest and consideration several quenchers.

Those of you who oohed over my daughter’s tortured art may be ignited by her one-of-kind potholders now up for bid at the Bloggers for Jeni auction. She made four to contribute to this amazing endeavor, all to raise funds for Jeni Ballantyne and her son Jack. The bidding on these is still quite low, and if you knew what I had to pay the wee miss in order to secure rights to her work, you would appreciate the bargain. Please bid high and often because these little squares are guaranteed to get you out of a hot spot. I don’t know how, but that Georgia can weave magic.

I’m offering my own kind of comfort on the auction, and it is already high priced enough. When the chance came to contribute to the sale, I couldn’t think of anything to give other than myself, and I routinely give that away for free, as you’ll see below. But that wouldn’t net any money for the cause, so we figured out how to give away nothing for something. The Comfy Day I’m offering is everything and more I can do for a mom (or dad) who thinks she’s in it alone, without a clue, a break, an extra pair of hands, a shoulder to cry on or a day off. I wish I could give it straight to Jeni but I think she’ll be just as soothed knowing that someone else is getting a lift. Think of it as a Mommy 9-1-1, suitable for a new mom, a multiple mom, or a group of moms, a shower gift, or a rescue for your own combustible self. If it doesn’t sell, I’ve already committed to contribute the value of my plane ticket to the auction fund so Jeni and Jack will get the most I can give no matter what.

That’s how we handle the heat, giving the most comfort we can give, knowing that there’s always someone farther inside the evacuation line.

***

Last week’s giveaway really caught fire and inspired a burst of wild-eyed generosity:

The winners of the English version of Momma Zen are nyjlm, Almighty Mama, Patricia, Amy and Shama-Lama Mama.

I’m sending the German version to all five people who asked, because what else am I going to do with a box of books in German? (Especially when I evacuate!)

Winners, please contact me via email on my profile page and leave me signing and shipping instructions. Soon the air will clear, the breeze will cool, and I’ll be winging your relief packages in a flash.

Tearing my heart at broken knee

March 31st, 2008    -    26 Comments


If the boat were empty, He would not be shouting, and not angry.
– Chuang Tzu

Early Saturday afternoon I pulled into my driveway after a regular morning at the Zen Center. I saw my husband walking our dog Molly half a block up the hill.

I later wished I had rolled down the window and called to them. He might have turned back. Then I could have taken Molly for her walk as I do every day, sometimes twice a day, a comfortable habit.

But I didn’t, and about 10 minutes later he shouted into the front door. “I’m taking Molly to the vet!” It didn’t quite register with me. He already told me he had a list in mind of things to get done that I really wanted him to get done: fixing the sprinklers, picking oranges, taking my car in for tires and alignment. I wandered into the kitchen to investigate. I saw then that Molly was limping on three legs, her left rear leg hiked up in an awkward clutch.

“Molly hurt herself,” my husband said. “She was chasing a squirrel and I didn’t see it. She must have tripped on a hole in the ground. She didn’t cry.”

“You had her off leash?” I gaped. He took a half a minute to tell me the particulars. Yes, she was off leash up at the wilderness park at the end of the street, a place he liked to go instead of walking all around the block, a place he liked to take her off leash to satisfy what he thought she really wanted to do, what dogs should do, sprint around after birds and squirrels.

“I never take her off leash up there,” I said to his back as he left.

* * *

We have a big yard, and although I thought it would be ruined when we adopted our dog, she has made a peaceable kingdom of this place, and we all get by.

Sometimes she saunters out back through an open door and lounges in a pool of pure sunshine on our grassy hill. Other times she barrels off at top speed from a standing start, chasing a dart of shadow or sound. Her sleek flanks ripple in a bronze shimmer of grace and power. She launches these feats from an invisible, intuitive surge. We call her Super Dog.

Saturday afternoon I sat at my desk behind a picture window overlooking the north yard. I saw Molly outside accelerate across the turf and out of my sight toward the perimeter fence. I later wished I had called her in when I saw her bolt, but it’s nice to leave things be when you’re otherwise occupied. She must have seen people strolling on the sidewalk beyond. Maybe neighbors walking a dog.

A minute later I heard her paws click on the parquet behind me. She was limping, her left rear leg hiked up in an awkward clutch.

“What happened to you, Molly?” I spoke gently, in a radiating stillness. There was no way to guess or judge. No one else to ask or blame.

* * *

It’s not so uncommon for dogs of Molly’s size and type to tear their anterial cruciate ligament. It’s a knee injury that tends to end the careers of the fleet of foot, like football players and lion hunters. Because Molly is still young, we have the inconvenient option of unaffordable surgery and an even more excruciating recuperation – weeks, a month or so, crated and immobile, on drugs.

We were shocked for a bit, foggy about what to do, veering toward the least, the easy, the nothing. Thankfully, we now have a clear-minded vet in the sisterhood, and she answered my question. We will do all we can to make our dog well, and soon.

My heart is broken with sympathy and concern. I shudder with fear and doubt that I can manage her long convalescence and confinement. This morning I’m scrubbing rugs, washing and bleaching towels and rags, releasing my fragile hold on normal. As a result of her stress or medication or both, she cannot manage herself through the night. Today we’ll schedule her surgery and see what happens next.

All of that is trouble enough. But what rends me in two is that I cannot yet reconcile the difference in the two stories I’ve told you of how it happened. I have not emptied the boat. Until I can, I too am unwell, and I spread even more pain in these broken down places.

A floss of a different color

February 7th, 2008    -    13 Comments


Some things said are not to be forgotten:

So last night my husband stuck his head into the office where I was filling out the Scholastic Book order form and all such things I like to do in my spare time said, “Did you get Georgia some different floss sticks?” Then she wandered in holding up the offending specimen and said:

Mommy, these are really hard to use.

I whipped my head around to look at the both of them and said YES I GOT SOME DIFFERENT ONES BECAUSE I DIDN’T MAKE A SPECIAL TRIP TO TARGET.

The thing is, I’m conscientiously avoiding Target for incidentals since they usually extract $200 or more from me before I leave. I’ve written about the peculiar devotion I have for flossing, and my wicked bliss to see my daughter favorably habituated toward dental hygiene because of our early introduction of candy-colored flossing sticks, but criminy guys, HOW ABOUT TRANSITIONING TO SOME NEW FLOSS STICKS BECAUSE I DON’T ALWAYS HAVE TIME TO MAKE SPECIAL TRIPS TO ALL THESE SPECIAL PLACES FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED THINGS LIKE SPECIAL FLOSS STICKS THAT THEY DON’T SELL AT THE GROCERY STORE.

And Georgia looks at me and says:

Mommy, these are really easy to use.

A happy girl

January 24th, 2008    -    10 Comments

First, a shout out to the wonderful parents at Serra Preschool in San Clemente, Calif., for welcoming me so graciously on a wet and wild Wednesday night. Your attention made me feel at home. And on that note, I’ll conclude this week’s story.

Home became a distant thing. She would write “Santa Monica” in the blank besides Birthplace, all those vowels imparting a faraway status. But they hardly ever returned there until they never went back at all. Her grandparents became faint and frail, even by phone. Grandma died first, a long and lonely departure. Then grandpa came to Texas for his turn. He was stooped and stale and forgetful, forgetting even to buckle his belt, since he couldn’t unbuckle it again. She had learned more about him by then. She had learned who he wasn’t. He wasn’t big and never had been, being a half-foot short of six feet tall. By then a young woman, she had already begun to choose big boys and men to stand beside, only later realizing the misperception. To a four-year-old, five-foot-six was big enough.

She held fast to what she later learned, the family secrets and perpetual failings, and forgot the rest. She forgot about California. Only recently, in the long sad summer which had just ended, and at the suggestion of a counselor running thin on weekly advice, had she looked through grandma’s photo albums, now in her closet, with open eyes. She saw herself again, and she was stunned. I was a happy girl.

A smithereen heap

January 23rd, 2008    -    8 Comments


Later, when she wasn’t near as small or cute anymore, but grandpa still glowed at the sight of her, her mom and dad moved to Texas. It was the week after Bobby Kennedy was shot right there in LA and on TV. Her dad had moved out first and alone, starting a new job and finding them a brand new Texas house with each their own bedroom and furniture. Her big sister graduated from eighth grade and they loaded up the new Ford Torino station wagon, her mom and the girls. They drove off and left California, the oranges and grandpa and grandma. Somewhere in Arizona or New Mexico, they heard a thudding crash and pulled over on the highway to see her mom’s master’s degree typewriter, a sacred thing, a centerpiece of their lives and a fixture on the dining room table for as long as they could remember, smashed in a smithereen heap in the middle of the road. It had flown off the wagon roof. Things weren’t tied down so good after all.

Her mom stood helplessly on the roadside in the desert wind. Watching from the backseat, she stifled tears for her mother, the tears she would cry in her princess canopy bed to the late night shouts in the living room in the years to come.

They also serve

December 28th, 2007    -    8 Comments


What can be said? Can the world be more insane? More predictably inhumane? More corrupt? More abrupt? More aflame? More inane?

In the darkness of this dark world, oceans away, I’ve said my piece. I penned it too. And although time still stands before the day, I’ve stood with other mothers, encircled in strength and multiplied by each our own true account: Enough.

Forever enough, until the seas gather and swell into an irreversible tide of we.

Who only stand and wait.

One voice among those in this forthcoming title, which will not arrive in time to soften the long shadows of this day, but to enlighten and uplift another.

Enough thoughts on practice

December 10th, 2007    -    15 Comments


I thought if I grew up, did good, and made everyone proud of me, it would be enough.
I thought if I got a good job, got a better job, made money, and then made even more money, it would be enough.
I thought if I met the right person, fell in love, got married, got a house, wised up, moved on, met the really right person, got remarried, and got a better house it would be enough.
I thought if I didn’t get pregnant, or if I did get pregnant, if I had a child, or if I didn’t have a child, it would be enough.
I thought if I could ever again sleep through the night, take a shower, get beyond the first three months, get beyond diapers, get through potty training, get past the ear infections, and into the right kindergarten, it would be enough.
I thought if I could lose ten pounds, get a better haircut, get the right jeans, get a different hair color, lose ten pounds, lose the same ten pounds, or just accept my hair and body the way they were, it would be enough.
I thought if I made everything healthy, organic, and by hand, with an occasional pizza night thrown in, it would be enough.
I thought if I went to Italy, France, New York, India, Big Sur, China, Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Seattle, Sedona, Indonesia, Orlando or just Kansas City it would be enough.
I thought if I ate, prayed and loved enough, it would be enough.
I thought if I could understand, explain, and express my feelings, it would be enough.
I thought it I could write a book and get it published, it would be enough.
I thought if I had the right luck, attitude, information, and inspiration; I thought if I wished, hoped, dared or dreamed enough, then it would finally be enough.
Then I thought: enough.

I practice being enough. When I do that, everything, already, is enough.

Off to get one little girl past an ear infection. Or two.

Perfect as you are

December 6th, 2007    -    15 Comments

MathEquationsLike a lot of news, this article has me laughing and weeping. “Unhappy? Self-Critical? Maybe You’re Just a Perfectionist” poses the New York Times in one of the more ridiculous examples of news, let alone medical news, in recent circus history. Pity the poor perfectionists. Not only are they imperfect, but they’re also depressed. They drink too much and they sleep too little. They don’t eat right. They have a really hard time.

This is like squinting to read a headline that says, “Need Reading Glasses? Maybe You’re Just Too Old.” Now that would be news.

The stunted logic and stumbling blindness of psychological science amazes me. Because, like, where are the non-perfectionists? Are they in a secret society with the I. AM. NOT. A. CONTROL. FREAKS ???!!!!!

Let’s face it. We’re all perfectionists. We’re all control freaks. Some of us deal with our perfectionism by trying really hard. Some of us deal with it by trying really hard not to try hard. How do I know that? Because we’re human beings. We all have thinking minds, the picking-and-choosing mind, and we judge. Can’t be otherwise. We judge everything as good or bad and no matter how hard we try to be good we judge ourselves as not-so-good. Isn’t that what we all agree on about life in general: We’re human. We’re imperfect. That sounds like it settles the matter; only it just settles it on the side of imperfection! It’s still a judgment. Who needs that? Remove the self-judgment and we are what we are.

“Mommy, I’m too dumb for second grade!”

Georgia was wailing on Monday morning before school. She moaned and rolled in bed, begging for an out. The reason? She was going to have a math test.

Don’t get me started on the lunacy of school testing, and the absurdity that such educational “improvement” was championed by none other than the child tyrant of mediocrity. School is what it is, and it’s a lot like the rest of life. One thing after another.

“I thought you said you liked tests,” I reminded her, and it was true. That comment put a swing in my step just a week ago.

“I like them when I get 100%,” she quivered.

Ah yes, don’t we all? Diagnosis complete. She’s a certifiable problem child, a syndrome, a case. Only I happen to see that she’s perfect as she is.

PS. Intervention averted. She got 100%.

 

Self-deceptively delicious

November 1st, 2007    -    19 Comments

Mom, what’s your favorite holiday?

Crinkle. Chomp. Swallow.

New Year’s.

And hey! Speaking of lying to yourself, what’s the deal with this mega-deception anyway? 1.2 million copies in print? And who needs help hiding squash in macaroni and cheese? Burying chickpeas in chocolate? What kind of help is that? We need help getting the squash out into the open as it is! Chickpeas, rise up and reveal your true (lack of) colors! Good food tastes good by itself. But let’s be honest. You can do all that without a book, and your children just might begin to trust you more if you stop trying to pull one over on them at dinner, no matter how adept you are at fooling some of the people some of the time.

Oh look at that, my buddhism went all to hell with this post. I’ll try to patch up my self-image next time. Maybe I should get a little counsel from a world-class expert in the art of fooling no one. Turns out that, as of today, Karen P. Hughes, trusted counselor to the President, is available for another tricky assignment with truth, and I only hope she doesn’t write a cookbook.

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.

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.

Tidying up

October 19th, 2007    -    16 Comments


Leaves have a way of falling. Scars have a way of healing. Babies have a way of sleeping, eventually. Fridays have a way of rolling around. All by themselves.

This week we started on a low note, were roused into an angry fright, and got entangled in a world of pure junk. What does any of this have to do with the other? Here on the Cheerio, how is Sunday related to Monday related to Thursday? By the courage to keep going, my friends, and by the power of truth, nobly told.

Everything we talked about this week illustrates Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. Of course, everything everywhere illustrates the Four Noble Truths. How life involves suffering, how suffering stems from attachment – to things, feelings and ideas – and how attachment can be overcome by ending our desperate clinging to things, feelings and ideas. Including, most importantly, the idea of who we are. These Four Truths are the one storage system, the one container, that truly simplifies your life. It organizes all there is to know and all there is to do. This is the way to true freedom, and it’s absolutely free. This weekend, if you have a chance, read the link. But don’t just read it, consume it. So that there’s only one thing left behind: trust.

And now that it’s appeared, all by itself, let’s make trust our topic for the week to come. I trust you’ll have something to say about it. I trust I will too.

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