something about the hair

I was in the waiting room at the dentist’s when the woman sitting across from me said, “I love your hair.”

This happens quite often. Of course, people who think otherwise aren’t likely to say so.

A few years ago a woman called to me from across the parking lot at Whole Foods. “I love your hair,” she shouted, and then she walked over to me to inspect it.

“I could never do that because I don’t have the right-shaped head,” she said.

That happens quite often too. In fact, I don’t think that anyone has ever said that they like my hair and hasn’t immediately followed with, “But I could never wear it that way.” Their head is too flat or their cheeks too round or their ears too long or some other disqualifier that is always held at the ready, like all our reasons why not.

I say thank you, although I don’t have much to do with my hair or how it got this way.

Still, I wonder what prompts the outburst. Is it out of kindness, shock or maybe pity? Compassion, curiosity, or discomfort? No, I don’t think so. I think it springs from a deeply held wish, a wish that I have too, a wish that unites us. The wish to be free from ourselves and all our reasons why not.

Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash

 

the accident that ended my life

Not long ago my husband and I watched the season finale of a British detective show. The chief detective is driving home from work late at night. She is exhausted, and on top of that, distracted about a disagreement she’s had with her aging father. As she is driving, she picks up her phone and calls him for the umpteenth time, but he is not answering her calls. She leaves a voicemail apologizing for the anguish she has caused.

Then she hangs up, runs a red light, gets hit and dies.

I turned to my husband and said, “That happened to me once.”

It was in the old days, in my old life, when I was driving back from a client meeting that had gone on way too long. I can’t remember what the meeting was about, but it was irritating. This was a good client, and by that I mean a big-name, well-paying client, but I had begun to see the lies and larceny in everything they did. It’s a sickening feeling to realize that you’ve devoted a good part of your life to a truly dastardly cause — your own greed.

This was before mobile phones, or at least what we think of as phones now. So when I was stopped at a red light, I picked up my “car phone,” a contraption the size of a shoebox and as heavy as a barbell, and called my office to say I was twenty minutes away from the appointment that I was already thirty minutes late for. I would never catch up. But then again, that was how I felt every day: behind.

I hung up the phone, and then, out of an unconscious impulse, pushed the accelerator, ripped through the red light, and plowed straight into an oncoming van.

No one died, no, not really. My BMW was totaled, and the beat-up van I hit was probably never driven again. Three guys got out and waved their arms at me as I sat numbly behind the wheel of the wreckage. They looked like they might be housepainters, construction workers, or odd-jobbers, like the van was uninsured, and that I’d just destroyed their everything. I probably did.

The police came, then a tow truck, and someone drove me home. The insurance company did its job, but things were never quite put back together again.

After that, my first marriage ended and I left my home with just the things I needed. I quit my job, went back and then quit it for good. I never again drove a BMW. I drove a Camry, then a Corolla. I was done with cars as status or accessory. I still don’t have a phone like the ones everyone else has. It must seem pretty silly. People keep telling me I can’t live without one. But you can live without a lot of things. I lost my reckless ambition in the accident, or at least my momentum. Someone died, and someone else came alive.

People sometimes ask me how I made such a big change all those years ago. But I didn’t make a change. I made a mistake, a terrible mistake, and it changed everything.

Offered in the spirit of fresh starts, second chances and, please Lord, better days.

Photo by mohsen ameri on Unsplash

 

 

we all fall down

Yesterday it rained. It rained all day, which is a major event in and of itself, a genuine freak of California weather. When it rains here in late fall and early winter, it doesn’t only rain drops. It rains leaves. The leaves—oh my goodness, yes—are ready to fall, needing only a plonk of water to let loose.

That’s how it feels these days: like we’re all ready to drop, quit, let go and fall apart. I spoke to someone this week who could do nothing but wipe her eyes and cry. She couldn’t say a word. Even when things are getting better they feel worse and going forward feels backward and when will it all be over?

And then I catch a glimpse of what I’ve always known about this time of year: it’s dark, it’s dank, wet, windy, and never-ending. There is no break, no rest, no peace, and no place to find. That is, until there is, only it’s not what we were looking for, not what we were wishing for, not better, not like before. We were looking for a place and time we remembered and what we got was a lean-to, a shack, a roof with a hole in it, a disaster of Biblical proportions.

We all suffer losses. Some lose what they love. And some lose what is better off gone. Either way, there are absences, hollows, and estrangements. Lines crossed, words said, luck run out, spirits broken, hearts bereft.

Before the new year comes, 400,000 leaves will drop from the sycamores in my backyard. (It’s a fact.) I always think: oh no, not again, not now, not me. But what will I do? I will love the trees, the leaves, and especially the rake. I will love the sky, the wind, the rain, and the pond scoop. I will love the fall and the fallen. I will love my life, which is yours too, and I will cry your tears.

the myth of the missing moon

Let’s consider whether we see a crescent moon, a half moon or a full moon. In any of the phases of the moon before it is full, is anything truly lacking? — Maezumi Roshi

One day a girl looked up at the sky through a veil of clouds and saw that half the moon was missing.

The moon is missing! The moon is missing! No one could convince her otherwise. In fact, she had seen it shrinking for some time, and every night came more proof of her worst fears.

I was right! I’m always right! This conviction was a miserable consolation.

Where others might have seen a sliver of shine, all she saw was the deepening hollow of absence.

There is something you think you don’t have. A virtue, quality, or substance you need to acquire. Courage. Patience. Love. R-E-S-P-E-C-T! As soon as I name it, you see it as missing from you, quick to disavow the suggestion that you have everything already.

I’m only human, you might say. I’m not at all whole and perfect. I’m injured, inadequate, unappreciated, and yes, even a little bit robbed. Especially robbed.

She tried filling the hole with tears, shouts and bluster. She bought a $429 gourmet toaster with a red knob, a Sub Zero, and a Mercedes, make that a Tesla, piles and piles of shiny, meaningless, objects. They overflowed her house and storage unit, then filled a giant cargo ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal. She stomped her feet and screamed, sent mean emails and angry subtweets. All of it made a mess, but nothing ever satisfied. You can’t fill a hole that doesn’t exist.

And so, exhausted, she gave up and sat down, head heavy, heart leaden.

She didn’t notice the shadows shifting into light, the wind lifting, the clouds parting, the days passing. One evening she opened her eyes and saw the moon. It was full, of course. It was full all along, doing what moons do, reflecting light. Only our perspective changes. We rob ourselves when we mistake the unreal for the real; when we believe what isn’t rather than what is.

You are always whole, just as the moon is always full. Your life is always complete. You just don’t see it that way. And until you do, you don’t.

Just let everything and anything be so, as it is, without using any kind of standard by which we make ourselves satisfied, dissatisfied, happy or unhappy. Then you’ll see the plain and clear fact.

A cosmic gift for the season of giving.

Photo by Camille Cox on Unsplash

a few less thoughts on gratitude

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, it is the parent of all the others. — Cicero

It’s too hot, it’s too cold, and the passengers are attacking the flight attendants. It’s too wet, it’s too dry, and five million people have died. It’s the fires, liars, deniers, cheats, grifters and resisters. The fears and the worries (don’t get me started on the judges and juries.) Oh, the bother, the trouble, that sister, that brother! It’s too late, it’s all over, it’s goodbye. And now they say even pies are in short supply. How are you supposed to conjure gratitude out of all this bitterness, rage and bad attitude?

It’s pretty hard, but it’s pretty simple.

A few weeks ago I talked to my podcasting friends Lori and Stephen Saux about this very topical topic. Where does gratitude come from? Empty your head, open your eyes, and look around. Start to see, really see, what’s being offered to you right under your nose. It’s not what you think.

You can’t be charitable, you can’t be kind, and you can’t be genuinely loving unless you are first grateful for your life. But if you never see your life clearly — without anger, judgment or expectation — you will never know gratitude.

Thank you for not expecting more than this.

Listen to the podcast right here or right here: Practicing Gratitude Without Expectations 

Photo by Andrew Dunstan on Unsplash

life lessons in bubble wrap

It wasn’t long ago that I took a trip, my first trip in what seemed like forever. So I was out of practice, which made me nervous, and I forgot a number of important things along the way. That’s what this story is about.

Practically speaking, when you take a morning flight out of LAX you’ll have to leave home in the middle of the night to get to the airport on time. I left home in the middle of the night, and before I’d driven half a block I realized I’d left my computer power cord plugged into my bedroom wall. I kept going, though, since I didn’t believe a trip to LAX for a pre-dawn flight allowed for any U-turns.

You see, when you arrive at LAX at any time of the day or night these days you will immediately realize that you are not in proverbial Kansas anymore, and furthermore, you are not in any zip code, time zone or nation-state where you thought you lived. You are instead in a raging flow of people, sounds, languages, lights and chaos, a rough-and-tumble reality otherwise unseen, and one in which your only ambition is to mind your own business and keep going.

I landed in New York City later that day entirely intact except for my missing power cord. Crazed with doubt that they even made power cords for my obsolete eight-year-old laptop which no longer holds a charge or even closes all the way, my first stop was the Apple Store, where an utterly unruffled representative behind a pristine white counter swiped through a catalog on her handheld device and said three words that chimed like crystal to my stopped-up ears: We have it.

Four days later I left my Kindle on a side table in my daughter’s apartment, a sad fact realized mere moments into the trip to the Newark airport and a flight bound for the furthest regions upstate. I’ll send it, my daughter texted, and I eased back into the contoured seat of my ride.

Six days later I left two prescription bottles in the bathroom of a hotel room, a grave certainty grasped as I boarded an airport van for an all-day return trip home. We’re checking the room right now, I was told, my life now held in the hands of a reassuring front desk clerk back in Buffalo.

The Kindle arrived in a bubble mailer, double wrapped in another bubble mailer, on which my daughter had written her aim, For extra protection!

The prescriptions came encased in a weave of bubble wrap so impenetrable it could have contained the crown jewels and not my teensy thyroid and blood pressure pills.

I was overcome, really, at the repeated acts of such service and care, attention and concern. How thorough, how reliable, how very noble and good! And not just with my replaceable things, but with each irreplaceable other! We are going to have to count on people, I realized anew. We’re going to have to help each other. We’re going to have to give a damn, and not spend so much time being fed up and bothered. And we’ll probably have to step outside our cozy little bubble to learn it.

All this is to say, I love you.

what you don’t do

Life is full of difficulties: things that are hard for us to handle. Sometimes those things are difficult people, and sometimes those things are difficult circumstances, but what we have to see is where the difficulty comes from. As long as we think the problem lies outside of us, nothing changes. We can rail against a person or situation with our anger or blame, but then, who’s being difficult?

Buddha Dharma gives us a straightforward answer in the Ten Grave Precepts. Not to be confused with commandments, laws, rules or ethical boundaries, the precepts simply show us how we make things difficult, and how to make things less difficult by letting go of our egocentric views.

The precepts have been re-interpreted in different ways intending to make them more understandable or relevant to modern times. In my practice tradition, we still use the language that came from the first Chinese translations of the earliest Buddhist texts. That’s where we find a not-so subtle clue to disciplining our behavior and transforming difficulty into ease.

I vow to refrain from killing.
I vow to refrain from stealing.
I vow to refrain from unchaste behavior.
I vow to refrain from telling lies.
I vow to refrain from being ignorant.
I vow to refrain from talking about others faults or errors.
I vow to refrain from elevating myself and blaming others.
I vow to refrain from being stingy.
I vow to refrain from being angry.
I vow to refrain from speaking ill of the Three Treasures.

On first glance, we may not see the clue. After all, we tell ourselves, we don’t kill, steal or lie! We’re nice, not mean. We give money and old clothes to charity. And more than that, we’re right about most of the things that other people are wrong about.

But the clue is in none of those things. The clue is the word “refrain.” What we are vowing to refrain from is letting ourselves be controlled by the ego-driven “I” that wants to impose itself on others in self-centered ways. The practice of refraining is multi-dimensional and profound. It requires self-awareness, self-admission and self-control before taking action. And it makes a big difference. In the words of Dogen Zenji in The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, “refraining is not something that worldly people are apt to think of before concocting what they are going to do.” Pain and suffering result from actions taken by people who do not refrain.

There are no limits to the good that comes from what you don’t do.

This blossoming of strength will extend beyond all places, all worlds, all times, and all things. And the measuring of it will take “refraining” as its yardstick.

New dharma talk, “Refrain From All Evil Whatsoever”
Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

all this and skinny jeans

Last week I talked to my friends Lori and Stephen Saux on their podcast, “If We Knew Then.”  We were talking about beginner’s mind, the mind that is free of expectations and judgments—the mind of now. At one point, I remembered this story from 10 years ago. Can we meet our lives right where they are? Can we meet our children as they are? Can we enter the next moment as it is? The answer is always yes, and it can turn your world upside down.

Some truths are self-evident. Money doesn’t buy happiness. Appearances don’t matter. You can’t tempt me with a mindless shopping spree. So it’s easy for me to say no when my 11-year-old daughter resumes a noxious whine for skinny jeans or a bazillionth pair of dimestore earrings. I’m not the mom who shops. I’m the mom with the $12 haircut, the 10-year-old sweater, in the same faded khakis you saw me wearing yesterday. I am the one with a half-empty closet, a near-empty wallet, and a brand of religious devotion that keeps them that way. I’m a Buddhist priest. I’m not the mom at the mall.

That changes one day as I’m driving her home from school.  Something surprising opens in me—a whim, a glimpse—and I turn onto the street I never take, into the asphalt sprawl of the local mall. The two of us are fairly airborne as we enter the cool cavern through the automatic doors and ride the escalator past the food court. Striding beside me on the concourse, my daughter narrows the subtle distance she has begun to keep from me in public. I notice her head tops my shoulder. Her face has narrowed, and her lips have grown full. She flashes me a comrade’s secret smile and reaches for my hand. “Mom,” she says, radiating her bliss, “I don’t think Dad gets this.” In one unexpected turn, I’ve entered the exuberance of her girlhood, a treasure too fleeting to resist.

It’s true, appearances don’t matter, and the skinny jeans won’t last, but I found something I’ll always cherish – the closeness of her company before she outgrows me for good.

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”  Shunryu Suzuki

Listen to the podcast here or here.
Photo by Double e on Unsplash

one

During the long, slow months of the pandemic lockdown, holed up at home with nothing to do and nowhere to go, I discovered something new. I discovered my breath.

Breathing might not seem like much of a discovery, occurring as it does twenty thousand times a day for each of us. But we hardly notice the breath. We remain unstirred by its subtle constancy and unmoved by its deep mystery. Yet right there under our nose lies a journey into the pulsing heart of a living, breathing universe.

All I needed to do to take that journey was sit down and count my breath.

Counting one’s breath is the foundational practice in Zen, taught by generations of ancestors. It’s an efficient way to quiet discriminative thought and bring the mind to single-pointed concentration. Yasutani Roshi, a twentieth-century Japanese Zen master, instructed his students in a sequence of four types of counting, which are described in Phillip Kapleau’s classic book The Three Pillars of Zen. To start, count each inhalation and exhalation up to ten, and then return to one. Do this over and over for the length of each sitting period. Next, count only the exhalation up to ten and over again for each sitting period. Then, only the inhalation. Finally, drop the counting entirely and concentrate your attention on each breath fully.

“Breathe naturally,” Yasutani said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Even so, anyone who has ever tried a breathing practice knows that it is not at all simple in the doing. The very word “simple” conjures up difficulty in our dualistic thinking. Trying too hard to “just breathe” can strangle the breath. The number ten can seem as distant as ten thousand. Obsessing about breathing, we may no longer know how to do what we have been doing effortlessly since the moment we were born, and even before.

“Before we were born, while still in our mother’s womb, how did we breathe? You don’t remember how? Actually, that is the problem!” the late Taizan Maezumi Roshi said. Like his teacher Yasutani, he exhorted his students to remember “that most excellent breathing” from the lower abdomen where we were once connected by umbilical cord to our mothers.

Infants maintain full-body breathing—not to mention full-body crying and full-body laughing—until they grow older and, like the rest of us, become engrossed in the artifice of thought. It’s the busyness in our heads that tightens the chest and shortens the breath, creating physical and mental discomfort. Because of that, we are likely to conclude that a breathing practice isn’t working for us. It’s harder than we thought it would be. It doesn’t seem like we’re getting anywhere. And it’s not interesting. We want to move on to what’s next, to a more entertaining or important stage in our quest. Or we give up altogether.

But all the while, breathing remains the most profound dharma—every thought, every action, and every moment comes out of it. So how do we keep the practice of breathing going if we get discouraged? The answer really does lie in giving up.

Breathing exposes the expectations we bring into a practice: what we think it should feel like, what we aim to accomplish, and what it all means. But each breath defies our expectations and is entirely original: sometimes long, sometimes short; sometimes smooth, sometimes not. Breath is movement and movement is change, the truth of our existence. We can hold on to our expectations, beliefs, and judgments, but we cannot hold on to a breath, which is the manifestation of the present moment. The exhalation itself guides us into the empty ease and relief of letting go.

If we’re honest about counting the breath, we have to make sure we can keep a count going through a full sitting period, then a series of sitting periods, or, if we’re on retreat, for a full day of sitting. By then, we are probably unconcerned with whatever comes next in our spiritual advancement, and when we empty ourselves of ambition, a kind of in-the-marrow remembering occurs. Our bodies know how to be. Our breath knows how to flow. Our brain knows how to self-regulate and our thoughts to self-liberate. This is the inherent wisdom of our Buddha nature. It’s how the seemingly simplistic instruction to “breathe naturally” can be realized quite naturally. We just get out of the way.

That’s what happened to me while I was stuck at home for a year with nowhere else to go. I sat down on my cushion, folded my legs, straightened my back, and brought my attention to my breath, just as I’ve done for more than twenty years. Longtime meditators can get trapped in stale habits, but this time was different; this time was entirely new.

Alone, with nothing to prove and no insights to uncover, my body relaxed. I felt my weight drop to the floor and even further, as if pulled underground. I breathed as though my nose wasn’t in the middle of my face, but located two inches beneath my navel, inflating and deflating my belly. My mind cleared, and automatically I began following the counting instructions Yasutani had spoken so long ago. It happened by itself. In sight of a clock, I could tell that my breathing slowed to four or five times per minute, sometimes slower. As I did this day after day, it felt as though the sitting weren’t my doing at all. It was the world that wanted to stop spinning, and me with it.

Studies tell us that focused breathing can help relieve depression and chronic pain, fight inflammation, and activate life-extending genes in our DNA. The power of breath can’t be understood but it can be felt—not just within but beyond our egoistic self. Deep in the lungs, the separation between ourselves and the outside world is smaller than a single cell. That’s no separation at all. That’s what we are.

From the Sept. 2021 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine.

Photo by Amy Clark.

drying out

Those who have the strength and the love to sit with a dying patient in the silence that goes beyond words will know that this moment is neither frightening nor painful, but a peaceful cessation of the functioning of the body. — Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

I was bringing in the garbage cans when I saw my next-door neighbor crouched in his front yard pulling a tuft of grass.

It’s half dead, I said to him, which might not have been true about the grass but was certainly true about a lot of other things. So I said it.

I just can’t seem to get the sprinklers right, he said. We’re thinking about taking it all out.

The ground was bare in spots, and although our neighbor’s patch of grass is small, I understood where he was going. It’s a stage of grief. A late stage.

That’s how I feel about the garden, I said. So much of it is dying.

He looked up. What’s the good news?

We were warned.

I heard a story on the radio the other day about the dire impact of climate change in the western U.S., specifically the southwest. The expert being interviewed said that the current drought and water shortage wasn’t just about seasonal temperature or rain but about a third, larger transformation at work: aridification, the long and irreversible process of drying out. Or maybe it’s dying out.

I happened to hear this report on the drive back from a few weeks of sitting in silence, and when I came home the truth of things rang out to me in the shriveled stalks, burnt leaves and bright yellow slope of dying mondo in the backyard. I’ve been seeing this happen in inexplicable bits for quite some time, seeing but not quite seeing, disbelief holding sway, as it does, past the point of no return.

And so I sit, even as I walk and weed and sweep and weep, but there is no hurry because I have no answers or questions, nothing to add, nothing to say. I don’t write much. I don’t do much. I am letting go, which is the unburdened love of the one left behind, the peace that passes human understanding.

Photo by Kelsey Dody on Unsplash

 

 

a quiet room

For zazen, a quiet room is suitable. — Dogen Zenji

Chapin Mill Retreat Center
Batavia, NY
Oct. 7-10, 2021
Registration Open

Midway between Rochester and Buffalo, New York, Chapin Mill is a quiet refuge on 135 rural acres. Here, in a meditation center built expressly for Zen, we return to the traditional practice of sitting together in person. This three-day retreat is open to all levels of practitioners and includes sitting, chanting, walking meditation, Dharma talks and the opportunity to meet privately with a teacher. Silence is practiced throughout. More information and registration here.

 

already you

You have always been you. It sounds a little bit silly to say that, because it doesn’t come close to expressing what I mean. As the person who has spent every one of last 8,000 days and nights in silent wonder and raging worry over every aspect of your life—your eating, sleeping, feeling, and thinking; your hair, bones, blood and skin—I mean it as an admission. It wasn’t me. It isn’t me. It will not be me that makes you who you are.

I have a memory of the first time you waved bye-bye. A sitter was holding you in her arms near the front door and I was walking out of it. When your baby waves bye-bye to you it’s a moment that really sticks. But it’s not quite right to say you were a baby then. You were already you when you did that, already a perfectly functioning human being. You were on a path that was uniquely yours, that had begun in a time and place before me, and that would progress in a completely intact and natural way after me.

Why did I think I had so much to do with it?

Every now and then my Zen teacher will say something (that he has said many times before) to point to the truth of life. It goes sort of like this: “Once you were a little child, then a teenager and now an adult. You were 10 then 18, 30 or 50. Was any of that hard to do?” No, we chuckle to ourselves, since it’s a given. It happens by itself.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin.

A lily does not become a stalk of corn either. It never becomes anything but itself, by itself. This is another revelation that sounds stupidly obvious and unremarkable. But we should reflect on it. We should study it: the obvious and effortless perfection of the way things are and how they come to be.

I grew up in another time, a time before the dawn of the Industrial Parental Anxiety Complex. This is to say that my mother did the mothering, such as it was, and my father did the fathering, for better or worse, but nothing that they did or didn’t do was formed by this new attitude of expertise called parenting. Parenting is not something that anyone knows how to do or will know how to do. It cannot be taught, except by children, who have the sometimes charming and often infuriating ability to be no one but themselves.

My mother never once hid broccoli in the mac and cheese. She never hounded me to practice the piano as a way to elevate my math scores or letter in lacrosse to polish my college prospects. These kind of manufactured agonies were simply beyond the few extra hours available in her day. She had other concerns, great matters, and her children did not appear to be chief among them. Oh happy day!

Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

This is not to say that we don’t have our hands full, as parents. Not to say that there isn’t much to learn or do, but it concerns our children far less than we think. Our job is to raise ourselves upright as half-decent people and self-managing adults. To be honest and reliable. To be patient. To have confidence in ourselves and trust in nearly everyone else. To keep going through the rough patches, with a resilient hope and idiotic optimism that all will be well. To shine light equally on the lilies and the thistles, the flowers and the thorns, the rocks and the mud and the grass that grows every which way in the field without applying a fence or force. To simply be, faithful and true, because that is how our children grow strong in themselves as themselves, lacking nothing, functioning perfectly, the amazing humans they already are.

Originally published Feb. 26, 2018. Still counting the days and nights, and will be, forever.

metaphor

You are on a plane, a plane like a troop carrier with people squeezed together on all sides and although you can’t turn to look you know your daughter is behind you but just then you see waves splashing up against the windows and feel the fuselage dragging and you don’t know if you’re on top of the ocean or already below it and then you are in the air although it’s not the sky but way down close to the ground, I mean like inches, a massive flaming machine dodging buildings and bridges (there’s no way planes can fly like this) but then you’ve landed somewhere and you recognize it as the airport from another dream, a terminal far away from where you need to be and not enough time to catch the connection you have to hurry hurry and then you see your daughter go out the door and disappear down the gateway and you’ll never know the rest.

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