Posts Tagged ‘Impermanence’

majestic

May 14th, 2020    -    3 Comments

“What is it like to live in a painting?” a guest once enthused about the view from my kitchen sink.

It’s not a painting. It’s life, and being life, it’s equal parts death.

So I recognize the shape that is too fleet to be seen, the finality that is too grim to grasp. It’s the heron! One of the reapers that cull our fish on flights north, then south again, two seasons a year.

Up close, herons are exquisitely beautiful. An audience with a heron can freeze you in the shock of good fortune. Only these visitors don’t come for a swim, and the good fortune doesn’t extend to the fish. Even for a Buddhist, it’s difficult to take this sort of outcome sitting down.

These days the heron is observing a stay-at-home order. May is typically two months past the migration north, but his stony gray stillness is perched over the pond in the early morning and late afternoons. I suppose there’s no reason for him to go anywhere, no hurry, with food stocked, and all the time in the world. The rules and routines are broken. For all of us.

People are awed by herons. They call them majestic. True. But they come here for only one reason.

So too the hawk I saw swoop across the yard last week. I heard a frenzy of songbirds before he made his elegant approach. Then no songbirds.

It’s hard to appreciate a predator’s appetite, his relentless power and precision killing.

But this is how it is. This is how it is.

Photo by Caroline Cameron on Unsplash

after the before

May 11th, 2020    -    4 Comments

My mother’s first round of chemotherapy was successful, or so it seemed to us. She revived. Her hair sprouted. Her vigor returned and she went searching for something, anything that could restore what she could no longer conjure up: feeling like she did before. Before chemo? Before surgery? Before the c-word? Before carcinogens, cyclamates, hormone replacement therapy or second-hand smoke? Before the first cell made its disastrous detour toward mutation? She tried acupuncture, herbs, juices, vitamins, music, laughter, meditation and some of the internet remedies and rumors sent her way. I didn’t tell her there was no “before;” no place, no time, no single fixed point of certain health, certain safety or certain anything. I didn’t tell her because I, too, wanted her to find it.

When I went to Los Angeles to meditate with Maezumi Roshi for the first time it was, by coincidence, the weekend of my thirty-seventh birthday. I told him the occasion, but otherwise I was covering up a lot that weekend, or so I thought— my heartache, my loneliness, my endless longing and my fear at moving beyond. He gave me a handmade gift: a freshly inked calligraphy of the kanji Chinese characters for “spring” and “fall.”

“Would you like to see my inspiration,” he offered, and he pointed to a line of delicate print in a leatherbound volume:

No matter how much the spring wind loves the peach blossoms, they still fall.

— from Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood

***

This seems ever-more appropriate now, when we are so far beyond the beginning, and infinitely before the after. And so we wait in faith and pray.

“Faith, Prayer and Song” a new dharma talk.

Photo by Stella Tran on Unsplash

through the cracks

March 13th, 2020    -    21 Comments

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

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

soft focus

April 30th, 2019    -    4 Comments

We were walking down the street when my daughter looked over at me and said I hope I inherit your DNA of aging.

What do you mean? I’m an old woman.

Your face doesn’t look like it.

That’s not DNA. That’s lifestyle.

The flattery was nice, and the science might have been correct, but I wanted to kick that train of thought in its little red caboose. It’s not so helpful for a 19-year-old to believe that she’s nothing but a double helix of nucleotides unleashing an irreversible code of predeterminants that she can’t tinker with.

And yet, that’s precisely the way some of us approach our lives: with grim resignation. You’re born, you pay taxes and you die.

No one can argue against DNA, but do you know, really know, what your DNA is and what it foretells? Of course not. What I’m talking about here are the hard lines of our foregone conclusions, the unyielding beliefs we hold about who we are, what we can do, and how it will turn out.

I once told an audience of women who were easily 25 years younger than me that I was an older mother. I can’t deny it and I don’t try to hide it. A rumble erupted in the room until one of them demanded to know why I called myself that. I asked what was wrong with being old. Why is it a thing we’re not allowed to be or even say?

When I first started to practice Zen, my teacher said that women who practice become more beautiful with age. They soften, he said. I wondered why he told me that. Was it so obvious that I was a panicky 40-year-old staring into the maw of middle age and what comes after? Why yes, it was obvious. Nothing is hidden. But it’s also true. When you relax and release the grip of vanity, fear, resistance, and self-obsession, things change. You’ll probably be the last to know, since you no longer spend time in front of a mirror fussing with what you find there. You no longer have the interest.

So when I say I’m old, it’s not a criticism or complaint. It doesn’t come from self-pity. It comes from being free. And yes darling, I really hope you inherit that too.

Here is a talk about body acceptance and the courage to be what you are.

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

why buddha sits

November 4th, 2018    -    4 Comments

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

what brings you back to earth

September 24th, 2018    -    21 Comments

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.

what always is

August 31st, 2018    -    5 Comments

Art by Bonnie Rae Nygren

jewels in the dust

August 7th, 2018    -    13 Comments

When my daughter was three, she played all morning in a broad and shady yard at her preschool. There, she was instructed in the most ingenious way by having free range to climb, run, sing, swing, laugh, cry, fall down and make stuff up. The teachers had spread bag after bag of tiny beads and plastic jewels into the sand, and she and her friends made a treasure hunt of them every day, perfecting the pincer skills necessary to holding a pencil and using scissors, the final summit before kindergarten. The girls hoarded these shiny baubles into collections that were the subject of much intrigue and negotiation between them. A good day meant Georgia came home packing equal parts dirt and dazzle in her filthy pockets.

These days folks send me kind solicitations about the “transition” or “passage” I am going through as the nest empties. “I can’t imagine the feelings you must both be going through,” or “Let me know how you are handling it,” and I am embarrassed because the truth is mostly that I can’t wait. It feels the way it does when you are too pregnant and ready to burst. You’re not relishing the thought of labor but you can’t stand the delay of another day. I tell people that this is all natural and organic and such, that our current relationship is unsustainable because it is hard to share a home with someone who is 1) never home or 2) won’t come out of her room. At some point your child can come to feel like a stranger and worse, a squatter.

I’ve told most people that it reminds me of when she was three, the very age of all those treasure beads. Age three is competent enough to become bossy, as I recall, with none of the sweetening that surfaces at age four. A friend once told me that when her sons were young, her exasperation would reach a pitch where she would think, “If they don’t change I’m going to throw them out the window,” and right then they would change. In the old days I read books that affirmed this very thing: child development goes through cycles of equilibrium and disequilibrium, ease and difficulty, compliance and rebellion, with the goal that everyone simply gets out alive and with a good probation officer.

It’s interesting too that all this is happening in the same month of her birth, an unforgiving August of incinerating heat and astrological omens: lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, and that pesky Mercury gone retrograde. I don’t know what any of that means except that the dog got sick, the AC died, the dryer broke, the garden gate collapsed, and the bears are tearing into the garbage cans nightly. Today I was rescued by my trusty appliance repairman who made it out to fix the dryer. It was a simple thing, just a two-bit fuse, but there was a rattle in the drum, probably spare change trapped in the cylinder, so he would open it up and fix that too.

A little bit later he’d finished the job. In front of the dryer he’d swept up a 20-year mound of dust, topped by a myriad tiny jewels once washed out of her preschool pockets. They’d been rattling around all that time, but here they were, freed at last to shine.

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

it always comes out of nowhere

June 29th, 2018    -    13 Comments

We have more money and more brains and better houses and apartments and nicer boats. We are smarter than they are. We are the elite. — Trump in Fargo ND, June 27, 2018

In the light of an early morning last week, I was on a 58-foot boat motoring the 22 miles to Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California. The sky was gray, the clouds were low and the water, smooth. We hadn’t seen much—a handful of seals, a scattering of water birds, and nothing at all on the horizon—when the island suddenly penetrated the mist.

“It always comes out of nowhere,” the captain said.

I’d never been to Catalina, although I’d long heard that there wasn’t much there. As soon as the clouds lifted we set off walking. To my mind, the only way to get to know a place is on foot. A mile-and-a-half stroll across the tiny harbor town takes you a century back in time to the island’s brief heyday, when a chewing-gum magnate bought the whole of it and vowed it would never leave his hands. Mr. Wrigley aimed to turn his investment into “the people’s island,” a tourist mecca to be known all over the world.

It didn’t take me long to reconstruct what happened instead. The Wrigleys built their mountaintop home here 1921, their son’s mansion in 1927, the country club in 1928 and the Casino boasting “the world’s largest circular ballroom,” in May 1929. Yes, that 1929. In the long and great aftermath, who would dare to boast? The island was closed to visitors during WWII. Big bands died, and with it, ballroom dancing. Commercial air travel would soon make far more exotic locales accessible to tourists. Dreams disappeared like mist.

Decades later the island remains what it has always been, a lovely little spot to see the endless wash of wind and waves, which leave their mark without a word.

Can anything be imagined so ridiculous, that this miserable and wretched creature [man], who is not so much as master of himself, but subject to the injuries of all things, should call himself master and emperor of the world, of which he has not power to know the least part, much less to command the whole? — Michel de Montaigne

This sad week has felt, politically speaking, as if nothing will ever change, that the deck is stacked, the course is set and the outcome is irreversible. The vain and vile talk of “more money, more brains, and nicer boats” recalled, for me, the nicest boat of all, the world’s largest ocean liner, built by the richest men with the biggest blindest egos and ambitions, a vessel that nonetheless took only 2 hours and 40 minutes to submerge completely under the North Atlantic and a scant 5 minutes more to reach the ocean floor. All because something always comes out of nowhere, and things really do change overnight.

Photo by Matthew Johnson

I just want to encourage you

May 1st, 2018    -    11 Comments

My first Zen teacher was Japanese, and although he spoke English, he was nearly impossible to follow. In his soft voice and heavy accent, a good part of what he said was indecipherable. Because of that, he had a reputation for giving terrible Dharma talks, or teachings, and this caused him regret.

“I just want to encourage you,” he would say as he set off on a discourse that no one could make heads or tails of. But that was enough, at least for me. I’ve realized that encouragement is the essence of teaching. I think it’s just about all we can do for one another, and all we need to do. With encouragement, you see, people can do anything and will. A little encouragement goes a long way. You might even say it lasts forever.

Nowadays I’m grateful for the encouragement I’ve been given, which seems to be the most useful thing I can pass along.

A few years ago there was some new research into how toddlers learn to walk. The study said that a baby learning to walk falls on average 17 times per hour. 17 times! Can you imagine that? Seventeen times the shock, hurt, and tears. More than 200 failures in one 12-hour stretch! And 200 times to start over at square one. Even with all that, there has not yet been a baby who gave up on the whole enterprise. It’s a remarkably efficient learning process. Forward motion dissolves fear.

This information has factored into a lot of the advice I’ve given to people since then. Most of us, most of the time, encumber ourselves with the terrible weight and responsibility for teaching our kids everything so they turn out to be something. By that I mean something successful or prized, happy or well. Starting out, we look at them as shapeless clay, putty, or goop. I like to remind parents that we don’t actually teach our children how to walk, how to eat, how to talk, or how to sleep, regardless of how many expert opinions we seek on those subjects. An acorn becomes an oak, I say, lacking any other explanation for how human development happens. And on this basis, our children are completely and wholly themselves at every age and stage, lacking nothing, only absorbing time and encouragement to keep going.

Back when my daughter was in preschool, her teacher made a handout for parents called 4 Steps of Encouragement. When your kids are about 4 years old, you might start to worry about the really important stuff they aren’t doing, like riding a tricycle, holding a pencil, writing their name, or drawing a person with arms and legs. You’re pretty sure they’re already behind, and then where will they end up?  The teacher assures you it’s not late, there’s no hurry, children learn and grow at their own pace, and for heaven’s sake please confine your contribution to repeating these four things:

1. “I understand, I know it’s hard.”
2. “I think you can handle it.”
3. “Want to give it a try?”
4. “When you’re ready . . . “

Last week my daughter texted me during a school day, one of the last of her senior year, and said “I’m getting sad to leave.” I was surprised to hear her express affection for high school, but that wasn’t it. She meant sad to leave home, which really means sad to grow up. Isn’t that true? Isn’t reluctance at the root of all sadness? The reluctance to change, let go, fall down, get up and move on?

Of course we can give help where it is needed, attention when it is lacking, and patience when time is short. But there’s one more thing that bears repeating.

I just want to encourage you.

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