what we do for love

A practitioner at a meditation retreat asks a question.

Q: What am I practicing here that helps me be more present and connected in my daily life?

A: Here, what you’re practicing is presence and connection, so that you can be more present and connected. Although right now you’re in a different place doing something different than usual, this really is your daily life. Yours alone. Even among all of us gathered here in one place, no one else is having the experience that you are having. Furthermore, if I were to tell you that practice is transactional, that if you sit like this you’re going to have a certain wonderful experience in your other, “normal” life someday – that would be a lie. This isn’t a transaction. Practice isn’t a product, a course of study or a life hack. There are not two things: your life and your practice. They are the same thing. You never leave your life, and the point is to never leave your practice. It’s all one thing.

We are here practicing being human beings. This is the practice of being a human being. In the old days they called Zen the practice of everyday life. You think, “This isn’t my everyday life. This is the opposite of my everyday life.” But nonetheless, this is your everyday life. Since the very beginning, and I don’t know why, human beings are not so good at everyday life. Unless they really practice everyday life.

Can I practice handling just this moment, however it is? Because when I’m out and about in my everyday life, I’m perfectly fine until someone does something that I don’t like or something happens that I don’t want. That’s where it gets tough, and it can get tough every day. It can get tough today. This environment here is very artificial and contrived. We’ve arranged ourselves in this nearly empty room, everyone in funny clothes trying to sit still and be silent. We don’t intentionally add stress here, but you experience stress here. I promise you that in your life, you experience stress. Can you sit it out? Wait it out? Breathe it out? Refrain from involving yourself in sticky situations that you don’t need to be in?

I can only speak from my own experience. At a certain point in my everyday life, I just could not handle it! I didn’t want any more of it! I tried everything I could think of to fix the problems and nothing worked. So when I finally sat down like this, it was an act of complete surrender. A sign of total failure. I’m going to have to do this on my own, I said. I’m going to have to figure out how to be a human being, with a life that has other people and things in it.

That’s what we’re here to do. And why do we do it? I think it’s why we do everything. Not because we’re high-minded or religious. This is not a religion. It’s a practice. You do not worship Buddha, and you do not worship me. Let’s see for a moment if you can stop worshipping yourself.

We’re here for love, because we have a capacity for love and we want to love and we want to be loved. That’s the connection. It’s not romantic love. It’s unconditional love. Unconditional love is pure presence.

Here we are among strangers. It’s a good idea to find love among strangers. It gets complicated after you know each other’s names and stories. When you know all that, you might find that you can’t relate to someone else. You might not even be able to tolerate them. But here you can simply have respect and gratitude for one another. Here you can just be present with everyone and everything.

It’s a beautiful practice, this practice of presence. It comes in many shapes and forms. Some people find connection on a swim team, or a cooking class, or off-road racing. And then you wonder how does that apply to life? But it does.

What we’re doing here this weekend requires a very modest amount of time, compared to how long it takes to stream a Netflix series. And it is relatively painless. So ask yourself. Why am I here?

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
March 31, 2019

Spring Wind Weekend Retreat
Holy Wisdom Monastery
Madison, WI
April 11-14, 2019

Photo: The Dewdrop Sangha by Rick McCleary.

This is an excerpt from an informal Q&A at one of this year’s Dewdrop Sangha meditation retreats. You can listen to the full recording here.

the orbit is elliptical

Sunday morning I was standing on the sidewalk with my dog Molly. Standing is what passes for walking when you have a dog this old and infirm. I saw my neighbor striding down the hill toward us. Straightaway he asked about my daughter.

I think about her all the time! She’s so brave. You are all so brave.

This neighbor attended the same university where my daughter is now, and has embraced her college choice and field of study with unfiltered enthusiasm.

The energy is so amazing! The people are so creative! It’s the best place in the world for her!  Then he asked about her recent visit home.

It hadn’t gone the way I’d expected. After three months away, she spent most of her time in her room or ricocheting from one friend to another, special people she just had to see, spinning in happiness and heartache. Three days later she got up at 4 a.m. without complaint to catch her return flight. It was barely noon here when she texted a valediction: Landed. I told my neighbor that I realized her life now is all about moving forward.

You know, the orbit is elliptical. It’s not circular.

He said this with the insight of an astrophysicist, which he isn’t, but I could grant him that, since he is a professor of supportive care at one of the world’s leading cancer centers. He knows all about comings and goings and the paths we travel in-between. Our children return home to refuel before they accelerate outward again.

Once indoors, I sounded out the science with the astronautical expert I live with. I vaguely remembered not listening to him tell me about the elliptical flight path of a mission to Saturn, when the spacecraft slingshotted back around two or three planets en route to its faraway destination. Why do you have to do that? I asked him.

The planet’s gravity accelerates your velocity so you can get where you’re going.

I’m schooled now on the mechanics: we pull her in so we can fling her out. Hers is a distant world.

***

The interplanetary flight path of the Cassini mission to Saturn began with launch from Earth on Oct. 15, 1997, followed by gravity-assist flybys of Venus, Earth, and Jupiter before arriving at Saturn on July 1, 2004. The flybys of the different planets were designed to increase the spacecraft’s velocity relative to the sun so it could reach Saturn. During these flybys, there is an exchange of energy between the planet and the spacecraft which accelerates the latter and changes its velocity direction relative to the Sun.

Image: How small the sun looks from Saturn.

 

caring letters

When he was 23, Jerome Motto led an Army truck regiment in World War II. He drove through mile after mile of devastation, surrounded by enemy fire and praying that he and his 39 men would be safe. His prayers were answered with the occasional cargo drop bringing food, supplies, and the one thing he would later credit for keeping him alive—letters.

There was a day last week when I looked at the papers strewn across my desk and thought, “What a good day.” I had just opened and read three letters: one each from Illinois, Wisconsin and northern California. It isn’t such a strange thing for me to receive or send letters. One or the other happens several times a week. Hearing recently that the Forever stamp would go up by five cents at the end of January, I bought three sheets on Monday. These days, stamps feel like the only investment that will pay off.

Jerome Motto got letters from his family, of course. They wrote about their worry and hardships, and wished he would write back more often. He felt sad and guilty that he couldn’t help them. Surprisingly, the letters he most looked forward to were from a woman he’d met but barely remembered. She wrote about commonplace things, he said, like weather and songs on the radio, and she kept writing whether he did or not. He felt a connection. She was interested; she cared. And although he wondered what might come of their friendship, nothing did. He survived the war, living another 60 years without ever seeing her again.

Two years ago I invited people to write to me, promising that I would respond. The world seemed broken. We were disconnected, alienated and at war. At first, a lot of letters came. And then, as you’d expect, enthusiasm waned. I know: it’s hard to keep correspondence going. I never meant to imply that people could only communicate with me by letter, but there is something intimate about putting words on paper, folding and creasing, then closing, addressing, stamping and posting the envelope. It is personal. It is a person.

I have a thing about letters.

After the war, Motto became a psychiatrist. He happened to read an authoritative paper suggesting that the most disturbed patients could be helped by a feeling of connection to another person. So he came up with a research project. He and his staff would interview patients being discharged from a psychiatric hospital—3,000 in all—and half of them would be sent a series of letters—24 letters over five years—asking how they were doing. The letters were simple and short, intended to create a sense of kinship as if sent by a friend.

The results were dramatic. The suicide rate among the “contact group,” those receiving letters, was half that of the control group to which no letters were sent. The lower incidence continued even after the letters had stopped. His was the first experiment to ever show a decline in suicide rates. But still, not many people ever found out about the work.

Around the time the bounty of letters landed on my desk, I read about Jerome Motto and the legacy of his letters in this in-depth article. After you read it in full, you might reflect on yourself and the people in your life. Should you ever feel alone and in despair, perhaps a caring letter will come. Or perhaps you will send one. Either way works.

 

finding a life

You must refuse to accept the common delusion that a career is an adequate context for a life. The logic of success insinuates that self-enlargement is your only responsibility, and that any job, any career will be satisfying if you succeed in it. But I can tell you, on the authority of much evidence, that a lot of people highly successful by that logic are painfully dissatisfied. I can tell you further that you cannot live in a career, and that satisfaction can come only from your life. To give satisfaction, your life will have to be lived in a family, a neighborhood, a community, an ecosystem, a watershed, a place, meeting your responsibilities to all those things to which you belong. — Wendell Berry

This week, should you travel far or close, join the table as a guest or host, may you find your life in all those things to which you belong. And in a quiet hour, perhaps you’ll listen to this. I am grateful to have something to share with you. Thank you for fulfilling my life.

Karen Maezen Miller: Finding a Life podcast

scales fell

At once something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. — Acts 9:18

A few mornings ago I looked out the window to the garden and saw something really weird scattered over the patio. At first, it looked a little like confetti. Up close, it seemed more like press-on fingernails. I picked up a piece and it was as hard as plastic. It took me a few minutes before I knew, with resignation and sadness, what I was looking at.

In my last blog post I told you that the practice of Buddhism started when Shakyamuni realized that he would get old, get sick and die. It went sort of like this: “Here’s the baseline. You’re not going to like this. It’s going to be hard. Life’s a bitch.” That’s what we call the First Noble Truth: life is suffering.

The practice of Buddhism is to look into that suffering and see what’s there. Are we just a collection of bones, or as my teacher likes to say, a bag of shit, pus and blood?  Because if that’s all that’s sitting here, go on home and spend the rest of your life streaming Netflix. But Shakyamuni has his doubts. He wants to see for himself.

When he looks into his own nature, he arrives at the Second Noble Truth, which is that the source of suffering can be known. You can see that you suffer because things don’t go the way you want them to. Out of nowhere we get sick, and try as we might, we can’t undo the causal factors. No one can even tell you for sure what the causal factors are. We have an accident, and we can’t unwind it. Trouble comes, and we can’t get around it. Happiness shows up, then disappears. As long as we go through life saying, “This doesn’t work for me, I can’t handle this, I don’t want it, I don’t like it, and I’m not ready,” we’re in continuous discomfort, or dukkha.

And where is all of that happening? In the mind that picks and chooses, trying to plan, prevent, organize and prepare, as if you could avoid all the bad stuff and hold onto the good.

So by now you know that you suffer, and you can also see why. The next step is to stop doing that. The Third Noble Truth tells you that you don’t have to be a prisoner to your thoughts. You don’t have to live inside your head, spun about by “me, my, I” and all your likes and dislikes, desires, fears, how-comes, why-fors and the really big question: the what-comes-after.

Buddha laid out a path for liberating yourself from delusion. It’s called the Eightfold Path and the fact that it exists is called the Fourth Noble Truth. The path looks a lot like this: be where you are, as you are, take care of what appears in front of you, and don’t judge it. After all, you can’t avoid or escape it, and it will change.

As for what comes after, we have to say we don’t know. Explore that space of not knowing. Live in that house, the house where there are no walls. No before and after; no beginning and no end. Where everything happens whether you’re ready or not, and face it with the courage of your ancestors who ascended the throne of enlightenment. That’s the truth of Buddhadharma, which is the truth of your life.

***

(It was what the owner of a particular koi pond, which is visited nightly by raccoons, might see as the end.)

Excerpted from a Dharma Talk, “The Truth of Your Life” which you can listen to via this link.

 

 

why buddha sits

Let me tell you a story about Buddha. This story is often mischaracterized as mythology or parable, because we like to approach things that way. Oh I get it, it’s a fable— rather than facing it as stark reality.

Buddha was born and his parents adored him in that misguided and dangerous way that all parents adore their children. Because daddy was king of the clan, they had the resources to raise their son with considerable advantages. At the same time they had been warned about certain dangers. They had consulted a seer, who said, “Look, your son is either going to be a great warrior king or become a spiritual freak.” So they tried to prevent him from becoming anything other than a king with power and wealth. They didn’t want any damaging influences to detour his ascent to greatness. What spiritual seekers did at that time was . . . weird. They were ascetics. They didn’t eat. They didn’t dress. They didn’t sleep. They didn’t have homes or shelter. The parents had to rule out that nonsense entirely.

Like all of us, they were very afraid that their child would suffer pain or misfortune. So they baby-proofed the house. They put a lock on the toilet lid, the kitchen cabinets and the refrigerator door. They set out to eliminate all hazards, because this is how much they loved their son and feared for his future. As he grew up, he was surrounded by servants to care for his every desire so he didn’t have to go anywhere. And they weren’t just servants. They were the best-looking servants: only young, fit, beautiful people bringing him the finest food, most beautiful music and freshest flowers. Nothing decayed; nothing unpleasant.

I understand a couple of things that are going on here. I understand love, and how as parents we feel the need to protect and control. But I also get what we feel as children. We grow up, and by degree, we keep peeling back the curtain. We’re hungry for the truth. We feel trapped, smothered, and fooled. We know our parents might have good intentions, but after a while all that confinement begins to feel like bad intentions.

Even though Buddha had everything he ever wanted, he wanted more. He said, “What’s the real world like?” He and his adolescent friends decided they were going do the unthinkable. They jumped over the wall and they went down to the city, that forbidden place. He was gonna have fun!

Only he didn’t have fun. That’s because the first thing he sees is an old person. And he’s like, “Whoa, what happened to him?” Because when you’re 15, you think you’re gonna be 15 forever. When you’re 20, you’re gonna be 20 forever. And then, when you slide over into 30, you think, “Well, at least I’m not 40!”

So Buddha says to his buddy, “What the hell happened there?” And his friend says, “That’s just an old person. We all get old.” That was a downer.

They go on, and pretty soon they see somebody sick on the street. You don’t have to look far to see something like that no matter where you live. Even now when you see it, do you really see it? Nowadays if you get sick, what’s the first thing you think about? Prevention. “If only I’d . . . worn a mask on the airplane . . . hadn’t eaten sushi . . . gotten a flu shot . . . taken a different elevator.” What we’re always trying to do is engineer a different outcome: perfect health, happiness, and the fountain of youth.

A whole lot of what we buy feeds into that delusion. You’re not going to get sick if you use this. You’re not going to get wrinkles. You’re not going to get gray hair. You’re not gonna get old. What’s implied in everything we buy is you’re not going to die. Because the same night Buddha sees the old guy and the sick guy, he sees a dead guy.

Old age, sickness, and death. That’s reality, not a myth.

So what does Buddha do when he comes away dazed and confused from the most shocking night of his young life? He looks around at the hordes of people – his friends, his family, the crowds milling around town, buying and selling crap — and says, “How can you live like this? If you know you’re going to get old, sick and die, why do you live as if it’s not going to happen?”

He’d been born into brocade and jewels. He’d come from a palace. And he saw what it wasn’t. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t true. He realized that he needed to relinquish his false identity of privilege and immunity. He needed to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, irrefutable and irreversible truth that we grow old, we get sick and we die.

Right then, he dedicated himself to resolving this dilemma: How can we live if it’s for nothing? What do we do and where do we go, if there’s no way out?

“This is where we start,” he said, and sat down to see it through.

Excerpted from a Dharma Talk, “The Truth of Your Life” which you can listen to via this link.

***

Photo by Henley Design Studio from Pexels

fall

I had a long flight home last Monday. After landing at LAX I got a text from my husband saying there had been a bad windstorm while I was away. It had left the yard a wreck, the power out. So it goes with the Santa Ana winds, easterly gusts that whip up from the desert and mow their way to the coast. Hot and dry, Santa Anas ignite wildfires, allergies, insomnia, anxieties, anger and worse: conflagrations of the flesh and spirit.

Here, they mean days of hauling limbs and leaves from the ponds. The job, like the wind, is insistent. It must be done. And it gives gratifying results: stacks of tinder, mounds of muck. But as the surface of the water clears, it reveals the even uglier side of what’s beneath—the rot and sludge from years before. Things I never saw, work I never did.

“Isn’t it a shame that we have to go through this to see what a beautiful place this is,” a friend says while looking up. The wind has polished the sky into a perfect jewel glittering above the golden hills.

I’m not surprised by what falls to earth—it all falls—but by how much the world is made better for it.

This is the truth and a parable.

try

try to turn off the radio
take out the earbuds
save the podcasts
for another day
set your phone down
pause the music
save the lullabies
for later play
put your shoes on
leave your front door
greet your neighbor
sunshine lights your way
do something, really do something
that makes a difference
today

doing something

 

Last night I said a service, or chant, invoking compassion and healing for 150 victims of sexual assault. These are our daughters, sisters, mothers, sons, brothers, and, yes, mostly ourselves. After the convulsive end to Thursday’s Senate hearing, I felt like I’d been run over and left for dead. Women were not going to heard or believed. Nothing would ever change. Then I remembered what my teacher said about those times when we think we can do nothing: We can always do something. I asked for the names of sexual assault victims from among my friends on Facebook, and before the sun went down, I lit incense and chanted their names, or for privacy, their initials.

Christine Blasey Ford changed everything on Thursday. Maybe not in the way I thought at first. Maybe not in the way I’d hoped after her painfully honest answers. Beforehand, one expert said she needed to appear unassailable to be a good witness. When I was live-streaming the hearing first thing in the morning, my husband passed by. “How’s she doing? Is she good?” And I said no, she’s not good. She’s nervous. She’s wounded. Her voice is high and cracking. She sounds like a 15-year-old. When she told the prosecutor how the experience had affected the rest of her life—the anxiety, phobias and panic attacks—I recognized the voice.

It was the voice of a girl crying late one summer night about what a boy had forced her to do. Her fear and shame after. Feeling ugly, unwanted, and abnormal. The self-harming, anxiety and panic attacks. No longer belonging. Unable to trust. Being so different than she used to be, with no idea who she was supposed to be.

I hadn’t really put it together until Dr. Ford spoke. I hadn’t known it was one true thing: the trauma of being physically overpowered and dehumanized.

By now I’ve also seen the very same person do brave and big things, finding the seed of faith in herself. I’ve seen her give her whole heart to what she loves, and surprise everyone with her secret strength.

In the U.S., 30 percent of women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Today it feels like 100 percent.

No matter how many, no matter how few, no matter how long, no matter how little, we are the 100 percent. And we can always do something.

Photo by Daniel Jensen

what brings you back to earth

Gravity
by Donna Hilbert

What binds me to this earth
are the hands of my children,
as I hold my mother
holding her mother
back to the mother
who begat us all.
This is gravity.
This is why we call the earth Mother,
why all rising is a miracle.

***

From Gravity by Donna Hilbert
Photo by Markus Spiske

Tell me, what brings you back to earth?
I will award one commenter the lyrical wisdom and loving company of this beautiful new book.

learn to see

If you don’t see the Way, you don’t see it even as you walk on it.
Identity of Relative and Absolute

I used to go around thinking that one day my real life would begin. That some day something important would happen. My life would become interesting and enjoyable. I would do things that mattered. My hard work would pay off, and my ship would come in. All of that would make me happy, someday. But I wasn’t seeing clearly. I was missing the picture entirely. Like someone standing in the waves, looking for the ocean.

We spend a lot of time trying to see far ahead, figure it out, and plot the course to get somewhere else. But we can’t see far ahead. We can only think far ahead. Thinking far ahead is called blindness. Seeing what’s right in front of you is called seeing.

Learn to see. Because now you know that all the things that are so easy to miss are the things that really matter.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, Sept. 30, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hazy Moon Zen Center, Los Angeles
Register by email

Photo by Frances Gunn

the moon follows us

“The moon follows us wherever we go.” My daughter said this when she was about three, gazing up out of a car window. And she was right. The moon has not yet and never will leave her sky, or mine. I’ve heard others tell of their little ones, usually no more than three or four, seeing the same intimate companionship in the sun and stars. Little children still experience themselves — correctly, I might add — as the axis in a spectacular universe, not apart from, but immersed in its shining seas. They haven’t been taught to know more, as we have; they haven’t been instructed to think less of what and where they are.

“That’s an optical illusion,” a well-meaning someone will soon insert into this teachable moment. “It only looks that way because the moon is so big, 3,476 kilometers across, and you are so small, 384,400 kilometers away.” The child sinks back inside the stiff straps of her car seat, which isn’t in the front seat, she notices, but in the safest, smallest notch in the back, where all the wonders of the universe are explained away.

In the middle of missing my grown-up daughter, now nearly 3,000 miles away, this story came to mind. How far apart can we be when we share one mind, one heart, one sky, sun, and moon, wherever we go? It’s no illusion: as close as close can be.

Originally published March 22, 2012

what always is

Art by Bonnie Rae Nygren

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