song from a well

It’s like we’re in a well. That’s what I say when people tell me about their angry and overwhelmed children, collapsed businesses, lost jobs, bankruptcy, overdue bills, sick and lonely parents, dead relatives, meltdowns and panic attacks, insomnia, and terror of going back to the classroom, the workplace, the polls. How can we begin to describe the descent we’ve taken into a darkness beyond reach or rescue?

It’s like a well, I say, we’ve fallen to the bottom of a well. I could never describe it quite right until I remembered that day in October 1987, a day I can still picture vividly.

She was 18 months old and 22 feet below ground.

No one knew how she ended up there. One minute she was in a yard of toddlers at her aunt’s house in Midland, Texas. The next minute she had disappeared down the top of an 8-inch-wide well casing. Rescue workers came within minutes and they thought they’d have her out within hours.

But it didn’t go quick.

That day, workers finished the first part of the rescue. They drilled a parallel shaft and started to bore a horizontal tunnel to reach the spot the baby was stuck. But the ground was rock, and jackhammers didn’t work when you tried to drill horizontally. The first day turned into the second and then the third. They had to come up with something else.

They weren’t sure she could make it that long.

Oxygen was piped down the shaft but there was no way to get her food or water. They dropped a microphone down and listened to her breathing. A space that small and deep is dark and stays dark. Alone and afraid, she cried and moaned and shouted. And then they’d hear her singing a children’s song and knew she was still okay.

It took 58 hours.

After an eternity, with everyone in the world watching anxiously, she was lifted up into the glare of lights on live TV and then kept a month in the hospital. There were many surgeries but she grew up like any baby to have what you’d call a normal life, with normal joys and pain, normal love and sadness, everything that goes along with life above ground. She has no memory of the events that happened 33 years ago last week, but some of us can’t forget.

We are in a well right now.

But we can remember the light. We can remember the song. People are helping, and we’re in it together.

The rescue of Baby Jessica on TV.
Photo by Steven Wright on Unsplash

one tiny bird

We are doing the best we can in the middle of this fire. Whether or not you are a quarter-mile away from a wildfire, you too are in the middle of a fire.

We all feel the heat of samsara, this ignorant, angry, greedy world that we live in, and it is too much to bear. It is too much to bear.

What do we do when everything is out of control? When the world is crumbling into ash and rubble? When we feel the urgent need to flee, even from what was once secure: our homes and, perhaps, our country? To answer that, let’s remember the story of one tiny bird trying to save his forest home from flames. He, too, is doing the best he can.

“The Hummingbird and the Forest Fire” dharma talk
Photo by Victor Sauca on Unsplash

the safety pin sutra

I went to the dry cleaners the other day. It wasn’t because I had any dry cleaning, at least not like before, when my husband went to work every day wearing collared shirts that he liked laundered with light starch. That meant I went to the cleaners every week to drop off and pick up. But who needs the cleaners now? They’ve cut their hours in half.

This time I took one pair of linen shorts and five safety pins. The shorts were mine but the safety pins were theirs. I could do without the shorts, but I wanted to take in the pins. I wanted to do something, even a little something, to make things better, to even out the loss. The little somethings are what keep me going now, keep me upright and moving forward.

The safety pins came from the numbered tags they pin on your order. One day I was returning hangers to the cleaners and they said I could bring the safety pins back too. That sounded like it could be helpful, so I collected them in a little pile, like the books I used to take back to the library, the glass bottles that went back to the grocery store.

It seems to me that safety pins used to have a bigger role in life, maybe even a vital role. We always had them around, and used them too. We used them to pin a falling hem, or to close a gaping neckline. When I was a teenager, I used a safety pin to hold my bra strap in place, and other intimate things that must be kept hidden under your clothes.

A safety pin was for safety, really, the kind of safety you were worried about back then, not now, when there is no such thing as safety and there really is no way to hide.

Last week I left home because the fire was too close and the smoke, too thick. I was safe where I went, at least safe from some things, but it was there that I realized that I couldn’t be safe from anything. I stopped sleeping. I kept searching for a shred of good news about the fire, the air, the wind, the earth and the evil running amok, real evil, the evil that destroys rampantly and without remorse, the evil at our heels in flaming red cloaks, with torches and pitchforks. I wish it weren’t so.

After five days I returned home. Don’t worry, everything is intact. No one stole my Biden/Harris  yard signs, which was a principal concern. But then, as now, I was overcome with the scale of the things to do, the dangers yet to overcome, the damage to repair. I am laid low with grief and feebleness, with the sad admission of what I can’t bear, can’t fix, and can’t turn back. The first morning I made a list to settle my mind, to ground me in what is still real and good and useful, things that don’t even need a list, but here it is, my David against Goliath, a fervent, tearful prayer for a kinder, better world.

Empty suitcase
Start wash
Get mail
Feed birds
Return safety pins

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

being free

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A Manifesto for a Sane World

Get off Facebook. It has destroyed truth, corroded society, and degraded our intelligence while enriching a single misanthropic person to inconceivable wealth and power.

Quit Twitter. It serves no purpose now other than to elevate the ego of one dangerously corrupt and self-obsessed human being.

Watch no cable news. Never set eyes on Fox. Subscribe to a newspaper, if you can still find one, but not any newspaper. These days the Washington Post is the standard of excellence and independence.

Protest with your mouth, your feet and your dollars. Open your eyes. Get out of your chair.

Realize that every moment spent scrolling, clicking and typing into your device amounts to silence. Silence is doom.

Know enough to be afraid. Without fear, there is no courage.

Have no hope. Hope is a slogan that will divert your attention from the reality at hand.

Believe nothing. Investigate for yourself. Search the internet the way you used to. Look for evidence, not false assurances. The truth is always the simplest and most obvious thing in the world.

Be sane. A sane mind creates a sane world.

If you need a friend, contact me via my website. Send me a message asking for my mailing address and then write to me. I will respond.

Originally published on Nov. 26, 2016.

 

by no means useless

Not seeming to protect
The paddy field,
Scarecrow standing
On the hillside –
By no means useless.
— Dogen

This is a time of despair. During the Democratic convention, I felt such a sense of buoyance and belonging. I felt as if I had a community, a real live community! And it was huge. But after the last week of lies, corruption, fear, fury, and hate, I no longer feel as if I have a country or any place in it. I’m afraid.

Why aren’t things getting better? Are all my actions, all my words, all my efforts in vain? Why can’t good things happen? Why won’t people do the right thing?

I found this poem by accident, which is how we find everything. While we’re looking for something we want, we find something we need. It was in the last line, by no means useless, that I found encouragement.

Don’t you ever wonder if all your efforts are useless? That you won’t make a difference? That your hope, faith, and good intentions are for naught? That there’s no point?

I sometimes like to examine where I’m at, or where the world is at, compared to the world the old masters lived in. We might think, for instance, that life is so much harder for us, the world so much more evil—and that this ancient practice originated in a simpler time, a better day. But that assumption, like most assumptions, is wrong.

Even as the world seems to be falling apart, there’s a reason to believe in the promise of life, goodness, and supreme usefulness. There’s a reason to be here, now.

By ourselves and for ourselves, we accomplish nothing. These times are terrible, and we are afraid. But this practice is by no means useless. Because open your eyes and look! The Dharma never dies.

“By No Means Useless” dharma talk
Photo by Kiril Dobrev on Unsplash

rise up

On the eve of the first Women’s March on January 21, 2017, my sister, niece and I walked through the Muir Woods National Monument, an old-growth redwood forest north of San Francisco. The majority of the trees there are between 500 to 800 years old. The oldest tree in the protected forest is more than 1200 years old. It gave me hope.

Now, it has taken less than four years for one malevolent man to bring our country to its knees. But look! It’s taken less than four years for us to rise up again. When you tire, falter, and lose faith in the democratic ideal, look to the trees. There, you’ll see that the earth, the sky, and all of time are on our side.

Redwoods can grow as tall as 380 feet from a seed the size of a tomato seed—a nearly invisible seed. Do not doubt the power of what that one seed knows. You know it too, and you will stand tall.

how do you find a Zen teacher?

flip-flops-485956_640

A question that comes up nowadays: How do I find a teacher?

This question is an important one. I would even say it is the most important one. Unless we limit our interest in Buddhism to philosophy, history or literature, a teacher is essential. Buddha was a teacher. He did not formulate a doctrine or creed. He simply sat down and meditated, and for forty years taught others to sit down and meditate. Out of that we have this question.

So let me tell you that just asking the question is answering the question. You have raised a thought, and that thought will manifest direction and motivation for you. There is no need to figure anything out, such as distance or location or likelihood. You raised the question and then you sent it to me, someone who answers from the most fundamental view of a teacher. You need one. You do not need to know how you will find one.

In short, you are being led. Yes, you go and look. You listen. You’ll know your teacher when you hear him or her speak (as if they were speaking to you alone). You will work, however, to actively limit and prohibit your chances of meeting your teacher, in the ways you already have, such as “I live in the middle of nowhere, everyone is too far away, you can be a Buddhist without a teacher, I don’t know the kind of Buddhism I want, I have no time, yada, yada, yada.” All of those excuses will make you stop before you start, talking you out of the direction you know you need to go. Even now, with most of us staying at home and doing all kinds of things remotely—meeting, sitting, and talking—you still have to be willing to open your eyes and see.

Finally, beware of teachers who say they are self-taught. They have mythologized themselves.

Just continue to meditate on the thought: who is my teacher? — and let yourself be guided.

When I met Maezumi Roshi I lived three states away. I attended a retreat not to meet a teacher (Lord, no!) but just to get instruction in how to sit. So imagine my surprise and deep recognition when I saw him standing in front of me. Right in front of you is the only place you’ll ever find your teacher.

Body, Breath & Mind dharma talk

lone tree

At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet. — Plato

Like the well to the water

the drip to the dry

as the wind draws the dust

so the sun pulls the sky

Like the tree makes the shade

by standing still

on a hill

look around now

and meet everyone, everything

with great love.

From a weekend traveling the golden hills of Interstate 5

Photo by Sean Brown on Unsplash

hair, teeth, and nails

You may suppose that time is only passing away, and not understand that time never arrives. — Dogen

I once heard about a man who spent four hours a day for 25 years writing down what happened every five minutes of every day. “You might say I’m a nut,” he said, although it’s the kind of nut we all are, by degree. By that I mean we make monuments out of minutia, keepsakes from what we cannot keep. Maybe that’s why we do it: as proof that we have no proof.

7.30-7.35: “We changed the light over the back stoop since the bulb had burnt out.”

This fellow typed a diary of 37.5 million words that eventually filled 91 cartons. It was a world record. If we dug through all the detritus we could learn his body temperature at different times of day, blood pressure, medications, and everything he ate, read and did, including descriptions of his urinations and bowel movements. He recorded his dreams, but slept only two hours at a time so he wouldn’t forget them before he wrote them down. He taped a piece of his nose hair to a page.

8.45: “I shaved twice with the Gillette Sensor blade and shaved my neck behind both ears, and crossways of my cheeks, too.”

A few months into the pandemic there was much made of hair, because it grows out. And then, what grows in doesn’t look like the old you, but rather the old you, which is altogether a different thing. Whenever I ask, my daughter rakes a cordless clipper across my scalp. When the inch or so of snipped hair falls to the patio where we do this, I imagine a bird building a nest from it. It’s a nice thought, but I won’t have proof of that either. Not the hair, the bird, the nest or the thought.

7.00: “I cleaned out the tub and scraped my feet with my fingernails to remove layers of dead skin.”

Back in April I was surprised to learn that oral surgeons were essential workers. This was after my daughter complained about pain from her wisdom teeth. I made one call and in a couple days she had all four teeth extracted. Afterwards, the doctor handed her a little plastic bag with the four big teeth inside. “I grewww theeese,” she said, drawing out the words in dazed astonishment. That might have been the anesthetic talking. I don’t know where the bag ended up.

3.20-3.25: “Humidity: fifty-one and a half percent. Porch temperature: fifty-six degrees. Porch floor temperature: fifty-one degrees. Door jamb temperature: seventy-four degrees.”

This year has put us in touch with what is untouchable. Namely, time. Days flowing upon days, dissolving indistinguishably without measure or mark, nothing left over and nothing left out, no falling behind, no getting ahead, and so on, and so on.

12.20 -12.25: “I stripped to my thermals.”

“It would be like turning off my life,” the diarist said in 1994, when asked what would happen if he quit. That wasn’t the case. The diary ends in 1997 when a stroke disabled him. Was that pain or paradise, to be released from his obsession? He died ten years later. His name was Robert Shields. You might say he reached a state of timelessness.

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

Photo by jim gade on Unsplash

through the door

The way out is through the door. Why is it that no one will use this method? — Confucius

Yesterday I was doing morning yoga but I was thinking about what I would make for dinner. The problem was, I didn’t have all the ingredients. Not fresh thyme, not pecorino, not shallots, not the pound and a half of beefsteak tomatoes. How many was that, anyway — one, two, four? Come to think of it, I didn’t have a single one of the ingredients! It was hot and getting hotter, so why was I trying so hard to make tomato soup from nothing? I’d twisted myself into a sweaty heap before the answer floated down from heaven. I’ll just make something out of what I already have.

I’d spent nearly ninety minutes mentally freefalling through deep space when all the while I was planted on mother earth with spinach in the fridge.

One hundred and ten days of going nowhere can feel like falling through a black hole, as if anyone could tell you what that feels like. And that’s what it feels like too, not knowing how it feels. At the beginning we actually thought we could see an end, we thought we could go back, we thought it would turn out. We carried a sane, logical, and highly orthodox expectation that it would all be okay. But now I wonder: had I ever even been mildly inconvenienced  before this happened? Thrown for a loop? Knocked back on my heels?

“My life has been destroyed,” my daughter would say about the piecemeal disassembly of her world. “You can’t understand because you’ve already had a life.” That much was true. She clung to the hope, the absolute necessity, that she’d return to school, pick up where she left off, and resume her steady progress toward the glittery future she’d imagined.

There have been many dark days, spiraling into darker days, dark beyond dark.

Last week she sat on the sofa and read a list of protocols that had just been handed down for the fall semester in her drama studio: no more than six people per class, no fewer than six feet apart, no removing of masks, no uncovered mouths, no noses, no faces, no people, no performances.

I held my breath.

Perhaps she had already expended all her disappointment and despair, because something amazing happened instead. She said, “I don’t have to do it. I can do something else.” And so she will take other courses, happily, gratefully, with interest and enthusiasm. She worked it all out within a day, saying it was what she wanted to do all along.

Here we are entombed by walls that turn out to be doors, and we walk through. We just walk through.

***

Photo by Filip Kominik on Unsplash

wildness comes

Helicopters were buzzing the hills around our town again this morning. That usually means a bear sighting. Or maybe a mountain lion. Last month our neighbors called to tell us they’d seen a baby bear tottering along the fence leading into our backyard. We just missed seeing it but they’d taken a photo as proof. At dawn one morning I walked into the kitchen and saw a coyote just outside the picture window. It was so well-fed that I couldn’t identify it at first. I’d never seen such a powerful thing at home and unafraid. Then it turned my way and I saw the furry prey in its jaws, a cat, maybe even the gray stray that had been lounging in the yard not long ago, the one we loved.

The goats have taken back Wales, the deer are stalking Pennsylvania, the ducks are parading in Paris, but the coyote snatching breakfast on my patio was what did me in. What made us think we were in charge of this Eden, huddling in our collapsible boxes, barricaded by rose bushes, fortified by wobbly fences and broken gates?

The wildness stalks at night and takes its revenge. No, not anymore. The wildness comes by day and shows us our place in a living world: not apart, not above, and not immune. A kingdom untaxed by forethought of grief, in balance and at peace: this is our forgotten domain.

It is a kind of justice, a restoration, that comforts me in the falling days.

###

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

the world enters us

Hold the sadness and pain of samsara in your heart
and at the same time the power and clarity of the Great Eastern Sun.
Then you can make a proper cup of tea. —
Chogyam Trungpa

As long as you think that all the trouble and turmoil in the world is outside of you, beyond you, separate from you, then you support the world of samsara, the world of greed, anger and ignorance. Now this is not to blame you, this is to encourage you. It is vital that, since you have been led to the Dharma, you truly commit yourself to your practice, because only through this practice can we see that this world — which appears to be beyond us and outside of us and against us — is not separate. It is the world of oneness.

Right now there is momentum to make a better the world a better place, a noble aim. But I’m here to tell you what my teacher once told me: you can’t do that. You, that separate you, that ego that you carry around, is not the agent of change. As long as you carry that separate self forward, driven by your own beliefs, ambitions, and expectations, you don’t change the world.

I remember years ago when I was first asked to give talks, I told my teacher (because this is the voice of someone who’s quite full of themselves) “I just want to help people.” I thought that was the thing we were supposed to say and supposed to do. And he said, “Maezen, you can’t help anyone.” This was a shock to me, because I had testimonials! I had perfect strangers writing to me and saying “You helped me so much.” But what he was telling me was this: “Maezen, you, with what you think you can do, with your idea of help, striving for purpose and to make a difference, which is all ego, you can’t help anyone.”

But this is not the end of the story. Is it impossible for the world to change? No. It is impossible that it won’t change. What matters is how we move forward and what we share.

An excerpt from the last in a series of talks given during this, the first wave of the pandemic.
The World Enters Us dharma talk
Photo by Quincy Alivio on Unsplash

freedom dreams

The dreams go like this: I board an airplane and soon after we take off there is a loud boom like a shotgun blast from behind me. We are going down. Or I’m on some kind of a boat that I need to get off of but my baggage is below deck. I run through dark corridors to find my things but they are lost and we are sinking. Or my plane is in the air but I look down and see that we are flying impossibly low over roads and trees, just a few hundred feet off the ground, veering around buildings that tower above us, and I know I won’t survive.

I wake and wonder if I’m having these dreams because I need to get out of the house after three months of confinement. That it’s the virus, the president, the police, the social upheaval, the chaos that haunts these futile efforts to flee.

But then I realize the share of humanity whose dreams are not like mine at all. Their nightmares are lived in broad daylight, their faith and solace shattered every moment by the failed promise of freedom, safety, and belonging.

I’m only beginning to wake up.

***

Friends helped put together this list of Fiction to Change Minds, a selection of powerful novels that help us see the truth beyond our own. Whether you are a reader or a writer, a student or a teacher, it’s a way and a place to start.

Photo by Yulia Agnis on Unsplash

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