Posts Tagged ‘Fear’

song from a well

October 21st, 2020    -    8 Comments

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

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

She was 18 months old and 22 feet below ground.

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

But it didn’t go quick.

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

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

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

It took 58 hours.

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

We are in a well right now.

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

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

the safety pin sutra

September 23rd, 2020    -    11 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empty suitcase
Start wash
Get mail
Feed birds
Return safety pins

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

freedom dreams

June 10th, 2020    -    5 Comments

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

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

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

I’m only beginning to wake up.

***

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

Photo by Yulia Agnis on Unsplash

the covid improvisations

April 20th, 2020    -    2 Comments

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



rainy night, lonely road

April 8th, 2020    -    7 Comments

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

reality dawns

March 18th, 2020    -    6 Comments

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

everything is viral

March 9th, 2020    -    9 Comments

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

after the winds

February 9th, 2020    -    9 Comments

Last Sunday evening the wind picked up until it rose into a roaring gale of flying limbs and leaves and it didn’t stop for two days. These are the Santa Ana winds, downslope desert gusts that can rage any time of year, a hated harbinger of force and flame. When the calm finally descended I was sunk as low as yard waste. There would be days of work ahead, hard work, yet knowing that the labor would somehow save me, I went out back and started dragging broken branches into mounds. I’d already quit when I heard a blower out front but I didn’t think it could be in my yard because our gardener Tomas wasn’t due for another two days. But lo, it was him, breezing through heaps of fallen leaves and needles as if parting a sea.

Tomas once told me that he’d worked here since he was 15, and somehow we figured out we were the same age. I’m a late beginner to this life’s work, but he abides my interference. No matter what you think of the racket, those blowers can tidy up a mess, so when Tomas left after an hour, my mind was lighter. A little later I brought a folded slip of paper in from the mailbox:

Dear Customer,

I will be going out of town for a family emergency. I will be out for a week. Sorry for any inconvenience, and thank you for understanding.

It was from Tomas. He’d be driving to Mexico and back, and he’d delayed the emergency to swing by, leave this note, and do what he could to ease my way. I marveled at his goodness. Then I realized that even after 48 years, he’d be afraid his job could disappear in a sudden gust.

It was a hard week all over, or so I heard from folks. Kids are sick or sad; the old and young are dying; the world, so dark and doomed that we are afraid to look ahead. I can’t do much for those in trouble, but I try to ease the way.

Around here now, the paths are swept, the ponds are clear, and all the things that fell or broke are stacked in piles four feet high. We go on, you see. We get through. The way forward is hardly ever what we want to do or where we want to go, but it brings us back.

Thank you for understanding. Understanding each other goes a long way.

***

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

the serious business of simple

August 21st, 2019    -    8 Comments

Back in May it was time to clean the rain gutters. I knew it was time because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done it. When your house sits under giant bamboo on one side and redwoods on the other, the gutters clog up like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve made it my job to muck them out every year, which might easily turn into every other year or longer if I lose track, and I’ve been losing track. I told myself that at my age I could fall off a ladder and break a leg, so I tried to hire someone else to do it.

In what I now think of as “the old days” there seemed to be more people you could hire for handiwork. A neighbor might give you the name of a reliable fellow who made a decent life that way. These aren’t the old days so I went on Yelp. I found a guy who advertised himself for cleaning windows and gutters and I phoned him.

He asked me to text him since he only communicated by text. When he showed up the next day to give me a bid he walked around looking up at the roof and said one hundred and twenty-five dollars. It sounded like a fair price to keep from breaking a leg, so I agreed. He said it would only take an hour or two, which struck me as peculiar. As I knew it, the job took two days if I was ambitious and two or more years if I wasn’t.

A week later he texted that he was on the way over to do the job. He got on the roof with a leaf blower, which surprised me, since my approach was more basic. Pretty quickly he came down and knocked on my door. The gutters were full of mud, he said, and he didn’t want to blow it all over the sides of my house. The job would have to wait a week or two until things dried out. He wouldn’t charge me for what he’d done so far. I appreciated that. After he left, I walked around the house and saw the mud that had splattered all over the sides and would end up sticking there.

I never heard from that individual again, which was pretty good news.

The other day I hauled out the ladder, climbed up and started in using just my hands. It was good work, and it felt good. I quit after half a day and picked it up again the next. By then I’d had a major breakthrough. My legs are not broken. My hands are not helpless. My thinking was crooked, but two days at the top of a ladder can straighten that out. Nothing is as complicated as we make it out to be.

Here’s a new talk on the practice of Zen, or the serious business of keeping life simple. If you’re facing something you think you can’t do, it might be time to listen.

Photo by Xin on Unsplash

spring and fall

April 18th, 2019    -    10 Comments

“No matter how much the spring wind loves the fragrance, the beauty and the delicacy of the blossom, the same wind that caresses the blossom sets the blossom free. And so we see that. We feel that. This is what life brings to us: spring and fall, the bloom and the faded bloom.

The boundless ocean of love encompasses everything—the rise and the fall. We can know the infinite comfort of love and still grieve. And still be terrified! We can be unafraid to be terrified. We can be unhindered by grief.”

Dedicated to my faithful dog Molly, 2001-2019

An excerpt from Closing Remarks at the Spring Wind Zen Retreat on April 14, 2019. Listen in full using the player shown below, or at this link.

Photo by Robbin Huang on Unsplash

doing something

September 29th, 2018    -    9 Comments

 

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

where the fun stops

July 11th, 2018    -    7 Comments

Two years ago we took a summer vacation to Hawaii. Nowadays weather is unpredictable all over, and here it was unseasonably wet. Roads flooded and bridges washed out. One day the clouds lifted. Housebound and bored, we signed up for a kayaking tour that would have us paddling up a river and hiking to a waterfall.

The guide told us that because of the rain, this was the first day in a week that any boats had gone out. When we launched, the river was wide and placid. About two miles in, we pulled out to start the hike. They gave us sandwiches and cold drinks for a picnic in the shade. Then they told us that to start on the trail, we had to cross a ford over slippery rocks in high water with a churning current by holding onto a rope. We’d have to do the same on the way out. There was no way around it.

For some of us, this is where the fun stopped.

I spent last weekend sitting with a group of people in Cincinnati. Anyone who has ever been on a meditation retreat knows that the principal reason you come to sit, whether you realize it or not, is because life is difficult. Sure, meditation helps you focus and calm down. But no one with a half-opened eye comes to Zen just to chill out, be a better person, or get more out of life. This was never clearer to me than when folks began to tell me their troubles. Inside this silent room, amid a rainbow of stained glass, illuminated with the dappled daylight of the glistening garden beyond, disease was spreading, surgeries were pending, marriages were ending, parents and partners had perished, children were stumbling, money was scarce, worry was rampant, and fear flooded our hearts. The sky was falling and the earth was burning. Up ahead, the current was swirling.

Knowing what we know—the swiftness of change—and what we don’t—the miles of uncertainty ahead—how do we live?

There’s a rope over the river and we cross it together.

The rope is love. Take it.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, July 15, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
Register by email

Beautiful Valley: A Zen Retreat in Upstate New York
Oct. 11-14
Chapin Mill Retreat Center, Batavia NY
Register here

practice no harm

February 7th, 2018    -    3 Comments

Cracked_Pavement

When folks begin to practice Zen, they can be set back by how hard it is. They might have expected to be good at it—for certain they expected something—but what they are good at is something else altogether.

Why is it so hard to just breathe? Because you’ve been practicing holding your breath.

Why is it so hard to keep my eyes open? Because you’ve been practicing falling asleep.

Why is it so hard to be still? Because you’ve been practicing running amok.

Why is it so hard to be quiet? Because you’ve been practicing talking to yourself.

Why is it so hard to pay attention? Because you’ve been practicing inattention.

Why is it so hard to relax? Because you’ve been practicing stress.

Why is it so hard to trust? Because you’ve been practicing fear.

Why is it so hard to have faith? Because you’ve been trying to know.

Why is it so hard to feel good? Because you’ve been practicing feeling bad.

Whatever you practice, you’ll get very good at, and you’ve been practicing these things forever. Take your own life as proof that practice works as long as you keep doing it. Just replace a harmful practice with one that does no harm.

***

For the benefit of those who will be practicing with me at any of these places, and especially for those who won’t be able to make it.

Winter Sun Retreat, Madison WI, March 1-4
Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, LA, March 18
What is Zen? Retreat, Kansas City, April 13-15

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