the covid improvisations

A month ago when the big one hit and the world shook loose, communities began to gather online. That’s when I started offering weekly zazen and dharma talks to the group of students around the country with whom I practice regularly. The talks are recorded and publicly available, but I am posting them here so you won’t have to go looking. Each talk is 20-30 minutes and informal, arising from the mood of the moment. They are arranged here chronologically, but you can play them in any order that strikes you. Just to pause for that long and listen could keep you afloat.

On my site, you’ll see embedded players below. If you receive my blog via email without the embedded players, the links to each talk are here:

Peace Is All That’s Left, March 29
We’re All Hermits Now, April 5
Beyond Stress & Anxiety, April 12
Breathing Makes Beautiful Sense, April 19

Above photo by Sam Wermut on Unsplash



the last outpost

I walked down to the post office again today. By again, I mean for the second day in a row. I’m partly motivated by my personal mission to save the postal service as the last outpost of our once-civil society. Yesterday I bought stamps; today I mailed a book. Yes, I wore a mask and gloves and kept a social distance. I could have driven, but walking matters. Walking can save the day.

Twenty years ago I moved here from a place where walking outside was not something you’d ever be able to write about. You just didn’t do it. You lived a kind of pneumatic existence, riding a blast of air conditioning from one enclosure to another, entirely avoiding the heat, humidity and mosquitoes. Oh the humanity.

Once I got here I saw real live people unseal their windows and doors, step onto the sidewalks, and mosey about all day long in the wide-open air. At first, I thought less of these slow pokes: they clearly had nothing better to do. And then I learned that there was never anything better to do.

When a crying baby came I found out what a walk to the post office would accomplish: a miracle. Her upturned face warmed by the pure light of the sun, skin cooled by the soft caress of the wind, senses delighted by birdcalls and coos—a few blocks in her stroller would calm the baby and silence the cries. All was well that day and every day we made it down to the post office.

I had one child who outgrew the stroller a long time ago. Now she gets around by herself. But there’s another crying child, restless and fretful, who still lives here. When she’s tired and cranky, past her limits, worn out from worry, I take her out for another walk to the post office. As long as there’s a post office, I believe I can keep going.

***

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

what my mother taught me

It was an attribute of her deep faith and her final, modest confusion that my mother believed she was dying on Easter, and it was, for her. But for the rest of us it was in the dark night after Maundy Thursday, the day commemorating the Last Supper when, in facing certain death, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment to love one another as he had loved them. Months before this day my mom had taken quiet confidence in me, telling me what she wanted for her funeral, what she wanted for her body, and asking me to write her obituary. Permission was thus tacitly granted to each other to proceed as we must. At her funeral I rose to say these words. They were not the first thing I had ever written, but they were the first thing I had ever written for myself, to be spoken in my own voice. This is the kind of thing that a mother can teach you. I have remembered it always, and especially on this day every year.

I wanted to share a few things with you about my mother. I’m sure you already know them. They are what bring you here today.

Nonetheless, over the last few months, she said some things that I wanted to pass along. She has probably been saying them to me all my life, but I suspect I heard them, finally, for the first time.

Just last weekend she looked at me, clear-eyed and steady, and told me what I’ve come to recognize as her final instructions.

“Be yourself,” she said. “And take good care of your family.”

Now you know that my mother could never, for one minute, be anything but herself. Honest, unselfish, unpretentious, lighthearted, optimistic and, in a way, so ordinary. So ordinary that she was, in fact, extraordinary. It drew people to her, to her comfort and ease. So open and accepting. So authentic. And so happy!

She kept all the cards and notes you all sent over the course of her illness. Hundreds and hundreds, perhaps even a thousand. She kept every one and everyday, more came. She was so uplifted, and in a way, mystified at the magnitude.

I told her that they showed how much she was loved. “Yes,” she said, and she shook her head in disbelief. “And just for being me.” read more

rainy night, lonely road

It was raining hard. It was dark. My dad had pulled off the highway onto a road I didn’t know. A road that wasn’t the way.

I couldn’t have been more than three or four. We were in a surf green late-50s Chevy sedan that rode low and the water was high. The roads were flooded and the water was high. My dad was up front clenching the wheel. My sister and I were in back. We were wide awake in the nighttime we were wide awake.

We were coming back from somewhere, where could that be? And the rain wouldn’t quit and the wipers couldn’t keep up and we were awake and afraid.

My father was afraid. It was different, that was. He could be scary but I’d never seen him afraid. We were late.

He pulled into a gas station. What was that for? Not for gas. Not for a smoke. Not for a beer or a break. It was to make a call. We were late.

We were late in the rain and we didn’t know how to get home. But we did, after a while. We got home.

I am remembering this now and I don’t know why.

Oh, I know why. Because we got home.

Take heart, friends. It’s a rainy night on a lonely road that takes us home.

The nearer the dawn, the darker the night. — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

***

Photo by Amir Borhan on Unsplash

10 tips for a mindful home

1.Wake with the sun
There is no purer light than what you see when your eyes open first thing in the morning.

2.Sit
Mindfulness without meditation is just a word.

3. Make your bed
The state of your bed is the state of your head. Enfold your day in dignity.

4.Empty the hampers
Do the laundry without resentment or commentary and have an intimate encounter with the very fabric of life.

5. Wash your bowl
Rinse away self-importance and clean up your own mess. If you leave it undone, it will get sticky.

6. Set a timer
If you’re distracted by the weight of what’s undone, set a kitchen timer and, like a monk in a monastery, devote yourself wholeheartedly to the task at hand until the bell rings.

7. Rake the leaves
Rake, weed, or sweep. You’ll never finish for good, but you’ll learn the point of pointlessness.

8. Eat when hungry
Align your inexhaustible desires with the one true appetite.

9. Let the darkness come
Set a curfew on technology and discover the natural balance between daylight and darkness, work and rest.

10. Sleep when tired
Nothing more to it.

a chain of daisies

The other day I did something I don’t ever do. I sent an email to my best friend, asking her if there was a good time I could call. I really wanted to call her because I don’t ever call her. As much as I preach about staying in touch with others, I’m usually on the receiving end of someone else’s kind thoughts and selfless concerns.

At that instant, my phone rang. It was my friend. She said, “You won’t believe what just happened. I was typing an email to you when I got yours at the same time!”

I did believe it. This kind of thing actually happens a lot, although we might not notice. When we do notice we call it coincidence, serendipity or synchronicity; a fluke, an accident, a chance, all the ways we brush off events that defy the separation of time and space. We just think about someone and they appear. We just talk about something and it materializes. We need and then we miraculously get.

The fact is, there isn’t any separation in time or space. There isn’t any separation between any of us, or any time, or any place.

Obviously, this is not conventional wisdom, but it is wisdom. You can see it in the Buddhist or Hindu mandala, which diagrams the living reality of the universe; or in a wheel and its spokes; or in a daisy with its petals. Each of us is the center, the hub, the eye, of a circle containing everything and everyone else; a spontaneous infinitude of interconnections through all space and time.

Today, it’s a global pandemic, a contagion without boundaries or exemptions. More proof, as if we asked for it, that we’re all in this together. Now we can see for ourselves that little things make a big difference, and that Good Samaritans are strangers.

The other day I did something else I don’t ever do. I received an email from a friend inviting me to participate in a chain letter of sorts, a chain to exchange poems. I don’t do chain letters, and I have enough poems, thank you. But this came from a good friend at a time friends have never been so good. So just this once I participated without any expectation that anyone anywhere else would do likewise, or that I’d ever see any poems out of it.

Over the next few days, dozens of messages arrived. I’d open one to find a familiar verse, or more likely one I’d never seen before. They were poignant, masterful and sweet, delivered to me as gifts from people and places far beyond my knowing. Some came as photos taken from books or journals; one included a recipe for “comfort cookies.” Each was like a ray of warmth, a beam of light, a link in a chain of daisies springing up as if from nowhere.

This is our hope and blessing: each other.

Beannacht
by John O’Donohue

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.

from Echoes of Memory (Transworld Publishing, 2010)
Photo by Kristine Cinate on Unsplash

just give yourself

On a walk around town yesterday, I passed a house with glitter-painted rocks lined up along the sidewalk. It looked like a cute way to jazz up a yard, but then I saw the hand-lettered sign taped to a nearby telephone pole.

Adopt a Rock!
(I promise they’ve been Lysoled)

On the way back home, I passed the house again. It didn’t look like any rocks had been taken, despite the invitation. I intended to take one, but then I took two because I couldn’t choose. Plus, I didn’t want to be stingy with the adoption. I have the room to foster a lot of rocks! After I finish jotting this down I’ll take them outside for a photo so you can appreciate them. Like the rest of us, rocks want to be seen, touched, and heard. They want to belong.

We’re all trying to reach out these days even though we can’t really reach out. The Italians set the bar with their sunset serenades across deserted streets. Every evening in Madrid, people throw open their windows and give a round of applause for healthcare workers. Musicians share mini iPhone concerts. A neighbor down the street gives away painted rocks, and me, I do this thing with words.

I’ve been writing quite a bit, in case you’ve noticed. A few years ago I lost interest in it. Writing about kids, or about Zen, or about trees, pets or plants just seemed like a blabbering conceit. I couldn’t stand the sound of myself anymore. After suffering enough pain and penury from publishing I told my Zen teacher I was going to stop writing. He chuckled.

What are you going to do then, he asked. Write?

He had me there. Writing isn’t a matter of what you write about, or who you write it for, and certainly not about praise or profit. Writing is just writing, like a rock is just a rock, and it’s a fine offering, a simple medicine that restores our common humanity while jazzing up the yard.

If you’re sitting at home like I am, wondering what you are supposed to give to a world ravaged by pain and terror, just give yourself. That’s the most beautiful thing.

all is calm

The blue jays call. The squirrels chitter. Otherwise, nothing and no one stirs.

My daughter is behind a door with a handmade sign reading “In Class.” My husband is in the office staring at a screen. I am in the living room pecking on this keyboard, with only my thoughts to disrupt.

We can hardly keep from napping in the afternoon, retiring without turning on the TV. The hush that has pervaded this place seems other-worldly. But it isn’t another world. It is the sound of a world that always sounds this way. So peaceful, so natural; so ordered, so right. What a shock to realize that human beings make all the noise, cause all the crush, summon the haste and fury.

To be instantly free from ourselves, ah, that is the gift of letting go.

This morning walking by the kitchen window I saw the garden shimmering in its everyday light and I recalled the words of a hymn we all know, a song that praises the silence before waking, the stillness before breaking, the dark that beckons the saving grace of a new day.

All is calm, all is bright.

May we each remember a peace long forgotten, a noble way of being with all beings, beginning in our own backyards.

letter from home

I’m writing these words on a blank sheet of paper in longhand, which is a forgotten word, although it used to be the only way anything could be written. Longhand is the way I write all the letters I send. What makes this relevant, I’m not quite sure, except that I spent the morning writing letters, which is something I can still do, and after that I walked to the post office, which is another thing I can still do, even though the governor of California has decreed that all 40 million of us Californians must hereafter stay home with only a few essential exceptions, like taking a walk or standing six feet apart in line to get into a grocery store where they probably don’t have what you’re looking for anyway.

Writing letters is thus much favored as a daily event, as is walking to the mailbox, the post office, or even farther. Many stay-at-homers were walking the streets this morning with me, some with dogs, others with their babies. Walking outside on a morning like this was a thrilling way to see that the world is still outrageously beautiful and alive, the fruits ripe to bursting and spring flowers flush, the bleeding red hearts of the bougainvillea spilling everywhere. Strangers waved from across empty streets. Suddenly, we have so much in common.

Along the way I realized the benevolence, the genius and, yes, the pure common sense of the governor’s decree. I’ve been thinking of this virus as an invading force, an outside threat, and praying for the threat to pass. But there is no threat from outside. I am the threat, and I have to contain it. This is my responsibility, my duty as a human being among human beings. I alone can either spread it or stop it. The answer is in my hands.

I can do this, how about you?

Photo by Natalia Łyczko on Unsplash

 

reality dawns

Daylight followed by darkness followed by daylight.

Many years ago, more than I can entirely recall, I went to one of my first meditation retreats in the mountains. It was to be the longest retreat I’d ever sat, more than a week. I was riding the edge of newness and enthusiasm about this thing I was doing, making myself well and happy. I half-hoped something would happen to me while I was there, some kind of wonderful thing. I’d spent a long time waiting for something wonderful, maybe my whole life.

The conditions were tough. It was winter, cold and dark. Sometimes it snowed. Sometimes the wind blew all day and night. My meditation seat was near a window, and I could see out of it. All day long, from the dark of early morning, to the bright of midday, to the shadows of the evening, in my still, silent spot by the window, I could see.

Somehow, seeing what was in front of me, hour after hour, day after day, I wasn’t afraid of the mountain or the deep winter or the sharp cold. I wasn’t confused about what to do. When the retreat was over, a friend asked about it. Did anything happen while I was there? Yes, something had happened.

Daylight followed by darkness followed by daylight.

These are hard times. I won’t compare this to any other time, or any other source of fear and uncertainty, or any other kind of pain, sickness, loss, or trauma. Comparing is pointless. I haven’t read the news today, so I don’t know how bad it is today. Bad is bad enough. Hard is hard enough.

Last Friday, as this new reality dawned, I heard from people. One was a stranger. She had read a book, and would I be willing to talk to her about it? Sure. We set a date in April.

April now seems like the dark side of the moon. It’s full of things once imagined that will never see the light.

A few minutes later, she contacted me again. Could we talk on Monday instead?

Her name is Kristen Manieri. She asked very good questions, and recorded our conversation for her podcast, 60 Mindful Minutes. I hope you listen, because if I had an hour to spend with you today, this might be how our conversation would go. It helped me to connect, share, listen, laugh and breathe. I hope it helps you.

You can listen wherever you listen to podcasts, if you do, like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or iHeart Radio. Listen right here, in the middle of eternity, as unknowable as it is, on this great earth and under the vast dancing light of the everchanging sky.

Photo by Marcus Cramer on Unsplash

through the cracks

Last night I was dreaming when my mother spoke. I heard her calling my name in the way only your mother says it, the way you’ll never forget, and I woke from a menacing darkness to that single unmistakable sound, “Karen.” It’s been so long. I was so relieved.

At that very instant I heard the mechanical voice on my phone saying, “Message from Georgia Miller.”

I’ve taken to leaving my creaky old cell phone on the nightstand the last couple of weeks, when the first hairline cracks appeared in this thing we call the world. She might need me in the middle of the night, was my thinking, or first thing in the morning. Perhaps I knew what was coming. Not even two weeks ago my daughter was auditioning for the chance to spend next semester studying Shakespeare in London. Oh, I know how lucky she’s been. I know how favored. It was a lark, a dream. It was yesterday. But today it is nearly impossible to conceive of a next semester, or spending three months in London, or London, for that matter. She called that day to say she loved her life and that she was so fulfilled. Really, she said “fulfilled,” and hearing it, so was I. On Monday her college announced the temporary end of in-person classes, today they told her they wouldn’t resume for weeks or maybe months. She is coming home for how long we don’t know. Who, on this day, could say they know a thing?

My whole life is falling apart, she says. I don’t argue.

I console her tears and shock by saying this is a time like nothing else and never before, except perhaps a world war, which most of us who think we know it all only know from a book. I am so sorry for her and her generation, which could be another generation of lost time and lost chances, made great by their shared trauma, extolled for their resilience. I’m sorry for everyone, because every one of us will lose something or someone dear, a loss incalculable and irreversible.

It is not nothing, you know, this disaster. It is not an accident. It is a call, a bell, a beacon, and yes, a wake-up from the arrogance and ignorance of thinking we know what’s possible and what’s not. We have been sleeping for a long time.

Packing up to come home for what used to be the blink of a spring week—a frolic, a folly—she told me she would need to bring the big suitcase to hold all her books and sadly, all her shoes. It’s the shoes that make it real, that bring it home.

What will be, will be. It will be hard. It will get worse. And one day there will be a call that shatters the dark, and you will wake as if from a dream, so relieved that the night has passed and that you are loved.

Dear friends, I’m glad you are here.

Photo by Umberto on Unsplash

everything is viral

Sometimes people ask me whether or not Buddhists pray. I can tell you that I often break into prayer when I wake in fear or worry at night, or all those times I wash my hands during the day. The prayer might begin Dear Lord or Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo or Our Father Who Art In Heaven or Sho Sai Myo. To me, the words don’t matter. What matters is the intention, the elicitation of aid beyond my limited means, which is to say, beyond my ability to accomplish or understand. I do this because all things are viral, not just bad things. All thoughts, words and actions spread, so I don’t want to be stingy with the good stuff right now. It’s never a good time to be stingy with encouragement, a hopeful wish, or what in better times might have actually been your own hand, freely given.

I have a faint memory of sitting in the hallway of a county health building many years ago. My mom and sisters were with me, and we were waiting to get shots. A little googling this morning makes me think it might have been during a measles epidemic in LA County in 1966, when 50,000 doses were given to kids through age 10. It’s hard to imagine, but there hadn’t even been a measles vaccine until a few years before that. We waited a long time in a long line snaking through that hall, maybe most of the day. Everyone did. I wasn’t afraid because I wasn’t alone. I didn’t feel lonely or isolated during those days. Everyone seemed to do pretty much everything together. We shared libraries, pools, parks, sidewalks and schools; fire, earthquake and bomb drills. There were fears, sure, met with trust and belonging. I suppose you’d call it community.

I have a nearly invisible scar on my upper left arm from a smallpox vaccination. Every one of us had it growing up. Once a year in school we’d be called into the cafeteria where nurses from the health department would administer a tuberculosis test using a kind of gun (yes, they called it a gun) that would leave us with a circle of six tiny holes on the inside of our wrist. These were the early, miraculous days of vaccines and disease eradication. Things are done differently now.

Absent dire threats or emergencies, we don’t seem to behave in the same way, that is, with common purpose and concern. Instead, we choose sides, face off, criticize and demonize. Communities have become small, self-chosen, and more than likely, nonexistent except for ideological affinities maintained online. But that can change, and it will, if we see this virus as a gift to reconnect with the real lives we share.

Which reminds me: I saw a wonderful story in the newspaper yesterday about a man who loved a certain homemade soup so much that he took it to work for lunch everyday for 17 years. The story came with a recipe that has probably already gone viral. I’m making it tonight. Perhaps you’ll join me?

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

sitting enough

 

Nowadays I wake up even earlier than usual to check the news. It’s an obsession but it feels like a duty; I’m a sentry in a war zone, scanning the horizon for smoke and fire. Threats multiply every day. Environmentally, socially, politically, and technologically, the world seems locked in a death spiral. I feel overwhelmed and, to be honest, complicit. What have I done to alter the tides of human ignorance, greed, and hatred? Clearly not enough.

Then I go sit.

As Buddhist practitioners, indeed, as citizens of planet Earth, we might wonder if there’s a better use of our time than sitting still in silence. Shouldn’t we be raising our voices, righting wrongs and fighting the good fight? There are people to help and causes to champion, protests to organize and injustices to correct. Turning our backs and facing a wall sure looks like escaping reality and avoiding responsibility.

Formal practice—in a meditation hall, surrounded by a sangha—has long been criticized as socially disengaged, morally indifferent, and even selfish. Besides, as far as meditation goes, there are apps for that.

Whenever we’re confused about the point of our practice, it’s time to question our judgments and beliefs. We are taught to take refuge in buddha, dharma, and sangha, and many of us make vows to do so. But is there true refuge in our refuge, or are we just reciting words? Is practice our living reality or just an intellectual pastime? We must continually answer these questions for ourselves, or the buddhadharma dies.

Do I really believe in buddha, the awakened mind that frees sentient beings from the suffering of samsara?

Do I really believe in dharma, the path of practice that leads us out of egocentric delusion and into lives of clarity and compassion?

Do I really believe in sangha, the harmony of oneness that underlies all things?

As taught in the Eightfold Path, the right view changes everything, because when we know that our actions and beliefs have infinite consequences, we live differently. Practice is the place where we can begin to see the truth of this, and each glimpse subtly transforms our lives and the world.

Changing the world is not likely to be our first intention in coming to a practice center. We might want to change a niggling little aspect of ourselves—be more productive, less distracted, less angry, or less anxious, for example. But a funny thing happens while we sit silently struggling with our runaway thoughts and emotions. What keeps us in place is the person sitting next to us. We don’t move because they don’t move. If we weren’t sitting in a group, we would probably walk out. The same is true for everyone else. We sustain each other. We uphold each other. We are not separate, but rather sitting, breathing, and living as one.

And it doesn’t stop there. When we chant, we broadcast the benefits of our practice throughout the universe. We know it works, because our actions and beliefs have infinite consequences. Little by little, our view widens beyond our own desires. What starts as a self-help project thus becomes the work of a bodhisattva: taking on the suffering of the world. That means we respond to the needs that appear in front of us. It doesn’t matter if our actions seem big or small, enough or not enough. We shouldn’t be fooled by what we think.

Practice is a marvelous vehicle—it goes everywhere and includes everything. It donates clothing and food, signs petitions, and joins marches. It visits the lonely and sits with the dying; it listens, smiles, laughs, and cries. It gives money and time. It votes. Far from disengaged, a living practice is intimately engaged because it is you.

The never-ending greed and hate in our world make the need for practice clear. Without you there is no sangha, no dharma, and no buddha. As the late Zen teacher Kobun Chino Roshi said, our personal responsibility is so great that “naturally we sit down for a while.”

***
Compassionate Heart: A Zen Retreat near Toledo June 25-28

Essay originally printed as “True Practice is Never Disengaged,” in Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Spring 2020. Photo by Tom van Hoogstraten.

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