Posts Tagged ‘Zen’

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.

Silent night

December 19th, 2007    -    10 Comments

All is calm, all is bright.

Can’t you hear the quiet? We all seem to be shutting down the works this week. My friend who put her blog on semi-permanent pause; the others wisely taking hiatus hither and yon. The email slows, the work dries to a dribble and stops. We stand still and then what?

This slowing down, this shortening of the day, does it make us anxious? Does it make us afraid? Or do we hurry up elsewhere to compensate? Quick! Find a crowd. Create a stir. Start a fight.

Within light there is darkness, but do try to try to understand that darkness.

This article in yesterday’s paper lit a bulb for me. Once again, it shows us something about ourselves that we do not see. Or rather, when we do see it, we only see it superficially and seek to change it. It’s about Seasonal Affective Disorder, the name given to the obvious fact that when the days shorten we go dark as well, withdrawing into ourselves, becoming less alert, less social, and less cheerful. What struck me about the story was not the symptoms described, which seem quite normal, natural and appropriate.

Light and darkness are a pair like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.

What struck me about the article was the use of the word “disorder.” Talk about a disorder! Of course I realize that the pharmaceutical industry drives the disordering of our world, but in buying it we show what a narrow range of life and time we accept as “ordered.”

Each thing has its own intrinsic value and is related to everything else in function and position.

Winter is winter. Cold is cold. The branches are brittle and bare. The quiet glistens. The darkness shines. Winter is its own time, and it passes in its own way. Right now, can you appreciate things as they are? You, as you are?

Sleep in heavenly peace.

Wishing you every comfort of the season, every calm, every hush, every star blazing full in your perfect silent night. Amen.

Combining the poetic brilliance of “Silent Night” and “The Identity of Relative and Absolute.”

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.

Your heart is in your hand

December 11th, 2007    -    15 Comments


“I need instruction. How, HOW do I realize that I am enough?” -– Lisa

I am honoring Lisa’s plea from yesterday in this post. Here, I’m going to speak as directly as I can about what true practice is. Then tomorrow I will tell you how to find a practice center. Because, for all of us, time is wasting.

There’s a lot of bullshit talk about practice. There’s a lot of talk about spirituality, wholeness, wellness, self-improvement, happiness and all that rot. I say rot because talking and reading about it is crap. It misses the point entirely. The point of everything I write is the same point of everything I do: to bring my practice to life, not just to tell you about it. Zen makes it clear that doing makes all the difference.

I saw a friend and reader over Thanksgiving who had some advice for the next book. She said, “Include more about meditation, because I can’t really do it.” I said: Exactly! Even though I encourage you to meditate at home, even though I encourage myself to meditate at home, I can’t really sustain my effort by myself, and I’ve been practicing for 15 years! My teacher recalls something said by Maezumi Roshi after he’d been practicing most of his life – more than 40 years at least – while recognized as one of the foremost Zen masters in the world. He said, “I think I’m finally starting to do it.”

The “it” I’m referring to is zazen, or Zen meditation. I’m not going to recite how to do it in this post. You can follow the instructions here, and do your best. Or you can read this book, a classic, featuring the instructions of my dharma great-grandfather. Or better yet, you can find a place that will welcome and support you and a teacher who will guide you.

There are many answers to spiritual questions and many traditions that ensue, but I will only tell you what I know from personal experience: Zazen will do what Lisa asks. It will show you that you are enough. It will show you that, in fact, you are the only thing. You are the whole world, the earth, heaven and stars. Even when you aren’t yet able to see the truth completely, zazen will totally transform your life. It worked for Buddha. It’s what the Buddha taught, and how the Buddha lived.

Now here are some responses to the questions that I imagine you might have.

What makes Zen meditation different than other kinds of meditation? It is not visualizing. It is not ruminating. It is not contemplation. It is not wishful thinking. It is not a relaxation technique. Those are all OK; they just won’t transform your life. Zazen is not done with your eyes closed. It is the discipline of stilling your body and watching with precise attentiveness – and your eyes open – to how your habitual worries, fears and anxieties rampage and ruin your life. And when you finally notice that, it helps you to kick those gangsters out of the house.

What is it supposed to be like? Here are two warning signs to watch for with meditation. (1) Beware if you like meditation, because you’re probably not really doing it. Sorry. At least for the first 39 years (joke), meditation is difficult. Your mind and your body will revolt against it. It is a discipline. It is a crisis intervention. You are withdrawing from your lifetime addiction to your self-involved, ego-driven thoughts. Hear this: you are not destroying your ego; you are not going brain dead; you are putting your overblown head on a diet. (2) Beware if you don’t like meditation, because no one does at first, and if you think you’re the only one who doesn’t enjoy it you will stop right there. This practice works when you keep doing it in spite of your preferences. This practice IS going beyond preferences, your picking-and-choosing mind. When you keep it up, practice deepens. It grows. It takes time to recognize and relax into peace of mind instead of darting madly for the exit. Misery, you see, is an addiction too.

How do I prepare myself? There is no way and no need to prepare yourself. You simply begin. Telling yourself you have to prepare before you begin a meditation practice is just setting up false expectations of how it is supposed to be. The best preparation is the state of mind expressed in Lisa’s question: heartfelt insistence, urgency and the raw vulnerability of having nothing left to lose. That’s where I started too.

Tomorrow I will tell you where and when to find people who can help you. And because that’s not soon enough, you have in your hands the means to find it yourself. Start right now. Do it all wrong, because there is no wrong. Do not waste another minute waiting for the right way or the right day or the right place or the right anything.

I wish I could say more, but I cannot say enough. Please see it for yourself.

And if you’re not interested in meditation practice, forget all this, but be sure to visit Lisa anyway and practice kindness. It’s the same thing and in equally short supply.

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%.

 

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.

Zen in ten

November 29th, 2007    -    17 Comments

Because one thing leads to another, here is my contribution to total life fulfillment in 10 seconds or less:

1. Make your bed. The state of your bed is the state of your head. Making your bed enfolds your day in respect and gratitude.

2. Use butter. Be generous with yourself and others; there is no need to skimp or settle; there is always enough; and it tastes much better that way.

3. Say hello. This is a genuine act of true love: to give and accept friendship for no good reason.

4. Floss your teeth. It really will keep your teeth and gums in better shape; you will feel good about it; and, most importantly, you will no longer have to lie to the dentist.

5. Slow down on the yellow light. Save yourself the effort of making an excuse.

6. Be quiet. Nearly all of conversation is complaining, blaming or criticizing, which is so much fun until someone gets hurt. Silence never judges. It is infinitely kind.

7. Rake the leaves. Not because you’ll finish and not because there is a prize, but because somebody has to.

8. Answer. There is nothing in life that doesn’t belong here. Listen when spoken to; answer when asked. Pay attention and look people in the eyes.

9. Exhale. This is what it really means to let go. Every other form of letting go is just imaginary. If you call yourself a “control freak” – and who isn’t – remind yourself that you already know perfectly well how to let go. Then exhale. You’ll feel pounds lighter right away.

10. Be. Forget all about this list; you already know how to live and you’re doing it beautifully; there are no rules required, and no authority elsewhere.

 

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.

What she said

November 28th, 2007    -    6 Comments


In the beginner’s mind are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few. – Suzuki Roshi

It’s a good thing I’m having this conversation today when I otherwise feel so, well . . . fruitless.

She speaks my mind for me. And she speaks my heart.

How can I connect the two?

Back to the beginning, always back to the beginning.

Nothing left over

November 24th, 2007    -    7 Comments


Joshu asked Nansen, “What is the Way?” Nansen replied, “Ordinary mind is the Way.”
“Shall I try to seek after it?” asked Joshu. “If you try to seek after it, you will become separated from it.” “How will I know the Way unless I try for it?” Joshu persisted. Nansen said, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion. When you have truly reached the Way beyond doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space. How you can explain it by yes or no?”

Making the effort, in these unusual days of unusual events with unusual company in unusual circumstances, to leave no trace of myself. In Zen we call this the effort of no effort. It is the hardest effort of all, but it sure tastes good.

Hundred flowers in Spring, the moon in Autumn,
The cool wind in Summer and Winter’s snow.

If your mind is not clouded with things,
You have the happiest days of your life.

Nice haircut

November 8th, 2007    -    18 Comments

I guess the last post was too much to swallow in one gulp, when all we’re really talking about is how to know for sure that we’re teaching our kids to do the right thing.

Buddha left us a nifty eight-step program for that called The Eightfold Path that tells us how to live an enlightened life. It tells us eight ways to do the right thing: eight ways that cover just about the entire scope of human activity. It goes: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

That’s a lot of right. But this right doesn’t mean from wrong. This right means without a perception of a self.

Whaaaat?

Specifically, when it comes to speaking, it means that honesty is not always the best policy if someone has just gotten a bad haircut.

It means that in my interaction with my child, if I am motivated by: my shame, my anger, my fear, my worry, my desire to have my way, my pride, my fervent hope that I can teach her to be smarter, more charming, more clever, more grown up, more successful, more like me, less like me or more or less of anything or any way that constitutes my personal agenda, that’s not right. And I will inevitably cause her harm.

It means that in my interaction with anyone else, if I am motivated by: my shame, my anger, my fear, my worry, my pride, my desire to have my way, my need to be understood, my need for you to hear me out, my need for you to validate, concur, accept or agree to my point of view or do anything else that accords solely with my personal agenda, that’s not right. And I will inevitably cause you harm.

How can we put this into practice? Each time you get ready to speak, take a look at what you’re carrying. If you’ve got a pair of scissors in your hand, ready to cut, snip, shape or otherwise improve someone else’s head to your liking, set the scissors down!

Turns out not very much needs to be said. And in the event that you slip, hair grows back in no time at all. That’s the truth!

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