Perfect as you are

MathEquationsLike a lot of news, this article has me laughing and weeping. “Unhappy? Self-Critical? Maybe You’re Just a Perfectionist” poses the New York Times in one of the more ridiculous examples of news, let alone medical news, in recent circus history. Pity the poor perfectionists. Not only are they imperfect, but they’re also depressed. They drink too much and they sleep too little. They don’t eat right. They have a really hard time.

This is like squinting to read a headline that says, “Need Reading Glasses? Maybe You’re Just Too Old.” Now that would be news.

The stunted logic and stumbling blindness of psychological science amazes me. Because, like, where are the non-perfectionists? Are they in a secret society with the I. AM. NOT. A. CONTROL. FREAKS ???!!!!!

Let’s face it. We’re all perfectionists. We’re all control freaks. Some of us deal with our perfectionism by trying really hard. Some of us deal with it by trying really hard not to try hard. How do I know that? Because we’re human beings. We all have thinking minds, the picking-and-choosing mind, and we judge. Can’t be otherwise. We judge everything as good or bad and no matter how hard we try to be good we judge ourselves as not-so-good. Isn’t that what we all agree on about life in general: We’re human. We’re imperfect. That sounds like it settles the matter; only it just settles it on the side of imperfection! It’s still a judgment. Who needs that? Remove the self-judgment and we are what we are.

“Mommy, I’m too dumb for second grade!”

Georgia was wailing on Monday morning before school. She moaned and rolled in bed, begging for an out. The reason? She was going to have a math test.

Don’t get me started on the lunacy of school testing, and the absurdity that such educational “improvement” was championed by none other than the child tyrant of mediocrity. School is what it is, and it’s a lot like the rest of life. One thing after another.

“I thought you said you liked tests,” I reminded her, and it was true. That comment put a swing in my step just a week ago.

“I like them when I get 100%,” she quivered.

Ah yes, don’t we all? Diagnosis complete. She’s a certifiable problem child, a syndrome, a case. Only I happen to see that she’s perfect as she is.

PS. Intervention averted. She got 100%.

 

The unsecret


The mind of a human being is like murky water, constantly churned by the gales of delusive thoughts and feelings.

Today I feel thoughtful. No, hold that thought. On second thought, I feel . . . how do I feel?

Random ideas are relatively innocuous, but ideologies, beliefs, opinions and points of view, including the factual knowledge and experience accumulated since birth, which we erroneously call “myself,” are only shadows which obscure the light of the truth.

Whoa, buddy. My opinions are just as good as yours, and I happen to like them better too.

As long as human beings remain slaves to their intellects and its observations, they could well be called sick.

I resemble that remark.

It is imperative that the mind be stilled.

Then what would I do with myself? And what would I do with this blog?

Once the waves subside, we perceive directly that the moon of truth has never ceased shining.

I, for one, don’t see anything out of the ordinary.

For the first time we can live with inner peace and dignity, free from perplexity and disquiet, and in harmony with our environment. – Yasutani Roshi, “The Three Pillars of Zen”

As entertaining as it might be to treasure hunt amid the dusty relics of the attic trunk, nothing we’re looking for is inside. Because nothing is hidden.

Let this reward you at once. And let me go back to getting the ink stains out of the white laundry since in my haste to explore myself I overlooked the ballpoint left in the shirt pocket.

***

Look no more! Find the perfect, and perfectly inscribed, gift for every mother on your list right here and now.

Audacious


Some people really have nerve. A few months ago a young couple had the gall to open a teeny bookstore in my dinky hometown. They have the impudence to think that people still read stuff that’s not on a computer screen. Furthermore, they’re the foolhardy kind who dream that people will buy from a store they have to walk into and cheeky enough to sell books no one has ever heard of.

It’s enough to make you believe in yourself.

Now you know where I come in. Since it’s the holiday season, and you’re not done shopping by a long shot, and you might have heard from someone more reliable than me about a nifty gift idea for your favorite mom with her finger in a light socket or a blissfully unaware mother-to-be, let me suggest that you straightaway contact Sally at Sierra Madre Books to order by phone or email either the classic hardcover edition of Momma Zen or the jazzy new identical-in-every-way paperback. I know you can get it anywhere, but here’s the last little audacious part: I will pop down to the store and sign the book along with an intimate and magical salutation to you or your recipient, and Sally will ship the gift to its yuletide destination. Be sure you tell her all the particulars.

It might not be enough to make you believe in Santa Claus, but I bet you’re mightily impressed by the woman in red doing a back swan dive off the high board. Pretend she’s me. I’m taking the dare, and I’m taking everyone with me.

Everything and the kitchen sink

Returning after two days of retreat. Crumbs, mud, dog hair, mail, laundry, trash, stacks, cracks and someone else’s dishes. But my oh my, look at the view from my kitchen sink.

Eyes wide open, I’m home again.

Zen in ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

When all else fails


So while I was gloating over what this much-loved and widely read woman said about me, Ana spoke from behind my chair.

Ana is a woman who quite nearly shares my age, my home and my family and yet we live worlds apart. She comes every other week to put my life right side up, to pet the dog and humor the kid, to climb ladders and sweep corners and reach places that annoy me to high heaven but not enough to get off my butt and do something about.

She sat with me when I was bedbound and pregnant; I have rushed her to the hospital with strange and gripping pain. I do not live without Ana, and thankfully, I do not have to.

I swiveled around and Ana told me about her niece in El Salvador who was dying of leukemia. A niece only 12 years old and with only five months to live. A niece with the two names Meriam Artice.

At least I think that is what she said. Although we communicate perfectly, Ana and I rarely understand one other, which is the basis for an ideal relationship.

Meriam Artice is what I heard, and she spelled it for me. I had to ask because hearing this shut me down and emptied me out. Artice was my mother’s name. It was only my mother’s name. I never knew anyone else, nor did my mother know anyone else, who had her name. My mother has been dead for six years, but as you might guess, she’s not gone. Not by a long shot.

I took Ana by the shoulder and we went to the backyard to say a service. We said a chant for auspicious blessings for Meriam Artice and every other Artice, for Ana, me, you and every other you. And post-haste, I hastily posted to broadcast the benediction.

This is how the practice works. This is how the world works. In thunderbolts of heartbreak and flashes of illumination.

And while I was out back, with the dog and Ana and Artice, I saw clearly that it was time to rake. The rake rescues me, every time.

What she said


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

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

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

How can I connect the two?

Back to the beginning, always back to the beginning.

Seeds of conversation


fer•tile, adj. Capable of growing and developing; able to mature; highly or continuously productive; prolific

An open invitation to enlarge your point of view by talking about the infinite possibilities of fertility as part of a one-hour teleconference on the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 28 at 6 p.m. Pacific, 7 p.m. Mountain, 8 p.m. Central and 9 p.m. Eastern.

Our topic is “The Mind-Body Connection to Conception.” Let’s see what grows out of it.

Sponsored by RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association. There is no charge; please register to obtain the call-in information by contacting Ami Jaeger at 505-466-4642 or asj@bio-law.com.

A good night to see the moon

A comment over the weekend had me remembering that my father died two years ago this Thanksgiving. Or rather, he died the day after Thanksgiving, but only because we delayed him on this side of the door until the dinner dishes could be cleared. His death was swift but a long time coming, unexpected but unsurprising, inconvenient but flawlessly executed.

I hope you understand when I say my father’s death was his finest hour. I was proud of him, something I never genuinely felt before.

My mother ran interference for Dad in our lives. Despite her frequent assurances that “Your Daddy really loves you,” my father did not love easily nor was he easy to love. Although no child could be expected to know or compensate for it, my father showed us what a lifelong submersion in pain could look like, and how insidiously it could spread. As soon as I could steady myself on two feet, I kept my distance. For the rest of his life, nearby or not, I cultivated ways to buffer myself. I owe my strength, resilience, independence, intelligence, humor and oddly enough, peace of mind, to him.

My sisters and I would sometimes imagine my father’s decline into illness and incapacitation. We would stew in the cynical certainty that the burden would befall us to be kind to an unkind man and generous to a self-centered scrooge. We weren’t at all sure we could do it.

Suffice it to say that isn’t what happened.

About a year before he died, my father began to do some strange things. He imagined a new life, or death, in a new place, far away. And he set about, with the intention and resolve he had lacked in nearly every other year of his life, to accomplish this. He gave away or sold all the stuff we were so sure we would be saddled with sorting out. He sold his home, the albatross we’d already hung around our necks. He loaded up his dog and his truck and moved to a mountain home where six months later he could no longer breathe.

When I arrived at his bedside, he was not breathing on his own. I sat for two days to the rhythm of the respirator while we waited for a pathology report delayed by the holiday hiatus. There was no hope, nor was there need for any. We saw so clearly the perfect plan and timing, the wisdom, the care, the great responsibility he had stepped forward to shoulder for his life, finally, and his death, and weren’t they one and the same?

The last night, I felt his life rush out like the tide, and I lost my footing. I could not stand. I could not walk. The nurses wondered if I had the flu and if I should go to the ER.

“No,” I said, “it is my father dying.” They could only assume that it was an emotional response. But it wasn’t emotional. It was physical. I clung to my chair like a raft lest I flow out in the undertow. And then I felt, as never before, that my father was me.

When all was said and done, we turned off the machine and death came. It was simple and effortless. It was easy and on time. I spoke prayers, verses and encouragement, and I found out I could. I owe my compassion, faith and fearlessness to him.

I owe him my life, and my dog.

Good night, Daddy.

Nothing left over


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

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

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

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

The risk of life

When I realize I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I realize I am everything, that is love. And between these points I live my life.

In this big, wide world that fits on the head of a pin, in this universe of infinite possibilities and yet identical experiences, I often find my voice in the words of readers or find my readers in mine. Such was the case today when this post prompted a drip and then the outpouring you find in the puddle right here.

This is what I have been longing to say.

Living involves an incalculable level of risk. It is the riskiest thing we do. And not because it could be fatal. There is a 100 percent risk of fatality, and that cannot be called a risk, but rather a guarantee. No matter what false comfort we take in our age, our habits, our attitude, or our genetics, none of that changes the bottom line. We all die. In spite of that irrefutable end, living with our whole heart, our whole mind and both feet is a risk that few of us are willing to take.

Few of us are willing to take on the risk of being alive. By that I mean being fearless and free, spontaneous, creative, generous, expansive, trusting, truthful and satisfied. To risk accepting ourselves and our lives as they are. To risk forgiveness. To risk not knowing. To risk messing up and starting over. To risk life’s inevitable cycles and sequences. To risk something new. To let hurts heal. To let bygones be gone. To face the fact that the narrow, familiar, comfortable idea we have of our self is just that – an idea – and to let that idea go. And not to be replaced by any other newer, better idea of who we are. To realize every name, every definition, every label, every story, every boundary, every fear, every feeling, every diagnosis, every conclusion, everything we claim to know about ourselves, is just an idea. And to let every bit of that go too.

The truth is, we know nothing about life. It can’t be known. But it can be observed. This is what we can see.

Life wants to live. Watch a friend or family member face death, or have a health scare yourself, and see how much life wants to live.

Life wants to grow. Plan a family, or struggle with infertility, and see how much life wants to grow.

Life is not hard to live. It is effortless. Life lives by itself. It is what we think and feel about life that is so very difficult to endure.

Life has a way of going. Why it goes, we can’t answer. Where it goes, we don’t know. But how? That’s entirely up to us. How can you risk losing another year to fear, anger or anxiety? Another month? Another day? Another moment? How can you risk being anything but whole-heartedly alive right now?

If you or someone you know is struggling with infertility, look into the free teleconference I’m hosting on “The Mind-Body Connection to Conception” next week. I don’t know what I will say, but I promise to do no harm.

Coming home to the place you never left


We pulled to a stop at the light on the way to the dentist, of all places.

Mom, there’s a man holding a sign that says homeless.

We do this nearly every time, handing a very small bill to this very same man in the very same spot. I roll down the window with my offering. He blesses us and the light turns green.

That’s going to take him a whole year, she says as I pummel the accelerator.

A whole year for what, I ask with imperceptible interest.

To save enough for a home.

And the curtain rises to reveal the innocence of a child, seeing the hidden dignity in the humbled, the obvious depth of the need, the unbiased purity of the gift. And I hope that in this one exchange, this folded paper passed between a crack of glass, this man has indeed palmed a full dollar’s worth of peace and comfort, a home sweet home, as he is and where he is.

He is not, of course, saving up for a home. But the rest of us are. We force and finagle. We fret, scrimp and plan. We set our sights on an impossible someday, when things are finally set, the ship comes in and the planets align. When the grass is cut and the pie crust is perfect. At last, or so we envision, we arrive at a life of ease and fulfillment. Until then we scramble like mad to recast a life with a different beginning in urgent anticipation of a life with a different ending. We go looking for home.

In this week when tradition calls us home, can we find it? Can we set aside the expectations and standards, the wishes and dreams, the old resentments, the tired conversations, the grudges, the comparisons and judgments? Can we avoid the build-up and the letdown? Can we accept, forgive, forget, make peace and pass the mashed potatoes? If we can do that, really do that, then we might find home – our true home – in the very spot we sit, and we might for once – I don’t mind if I do – just eat.

A detail from the woodcarving on our front door.

In celebration of our home’s inclusion in the remarkable new book, At Home: Pasadena.

Fill me with pie


Georgia and I have volunteered to make the pumpkin pie for this year’s family Thanksgiving. I could just go to my safe-bet recipe source. Or to the tried and provenly true. But I’d much rather take a tip from you. I have in mind that nearly everyone else but me is deliciously crafty and outrageously homespun. And some of you really are. Yes, I’m talking about you.

Before the holiday week barrels over us, before we all become overwhelmed, underwater and out of touch, send me your favorite pumpkin pie recipe please. It can be a link or a list; it can be elaborate, unusual or as easy as pie. Georgia and I will whip it up together and take a piece of you on the road to the glistening winter wonderland of Newport Beach, California, where one more faraway friend will have a seat at our table of thanks.

From the bottom of our crusts, thank you.

Attention readers, bloggers and opinionators: if you would like a review copy of the new paperback edition of Momma Zen, my publisher will provide! Just contact me via the email on my profile page.

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