The Shock of Vulnerability

Throughout my life I have been blessed with relatively good health and vitality. I have decent genes and come from good stock, for which I am exceedingly grateful. As a college student, my father was a record-setting athlete in track and field, and has remained physically active into his 70s. As a young girl, my mother was an energetic ranch-hand working cattle right alongside my grandfather. She has always been hearty and healthy, from a long line of women who typically live into their 90s. As a result, I have lived most of my life with an uncritical assumption that I, too, would remain healthy and active without any extraordinary effort on my part, and that I would naturally look and feel more youthful than my chronological age. Of course, this set of assumptions is really a kind of self-centered entitlement, completely in accord with our society’s preference for youthful bodies and infinite good health, a form of clinging that has set me up for a certain kind of painful fall as things have begun to crumble. As they say, “aging is not for sissies.”

When this kind of grandiosity or entitlement is confronted by undeniable experience, therapists call it a “narcissistic injury.” It is a terrible shock to confront one’s messy humanity and to realize that this very special self you have cultivated and protected for so long is not so special after all. It is embarrassing and painful to be ordinary and vulnerable. It can also be a big relief.

The first time I went to San Francisco Zen Center as a guest student I was thrilled and nervous at the opportunity to practice in such a well-known and historical center. I had planned the trip for over a year, had carefully designed a way to take the time off from my therapy practice, had negotiated with my partner to be gone for a week, and had read everything I could about the Zen Center and its history. I had made it a big deal. The second day I was there I was given a soji assignment (a temple cleaning job) following morning service. My job was to vacuum the residents’ lounge. I found the vacuum cleaner and began doing the job in the way I thought an enthusiastic Zen student should. At one point as I reached over to pick up and move a rather large chair in order to clean the area it covered, I was thinking about how cool it was to finally be at Zen Center after so much fantasizing about the trip, and how much I was going to learn by being in this wonderful place with these wonderful teachers. As I lifted the chair, something unpleasant happened in my back. I felt something like an electrical shock in my lower back, immediately followed by muscle spasms. I was unable to straighten up without intense pain. I somehow managed to slowly become upright enough to drag myself, along with the vacuum cleaner, back to the closet. I was then able to sneak down to the men’s dorm in the basement without attracting too much attention. to myself. I lay down on my bed and pondered my situation.

Here I was, just beginning my special week and I was flat on my back. I knew this wouldn’t just go away and I was slightly panicked. I also knew I couldn’t even pack my things and go home. I wasn’t able to sit on a plane in this condition. I was trapped and embarrassed. My body had betrayed me and I couldn’t escape this temporary disability nor could I leave and hide my embarrassment. I had to face THIS! My roommate came by and I solicited his help in going to the store and getting ibuprofen for the inflammation. He also took a note to both the Ino and the Work Leader to tell them the situation and then I just lay there – miserable and in disbelief.

My journal and pen were right by the bed and I found a small piece of paper I had been using for a bookmark. I wrote the following three phrases on the paper:




After a while I rolled over onto the floor, got up on my hands and knees, and pulled myself to my feet using the desk as a crutch. I could walk if I remained very upright, but I couldn’t bow. I even found I could move around slowly and I could sit carefully in a chair, a big embarrassment for this enthusiastic beginner who was trying to sit on a zafu in full lotus. However, I could only do these basic things if I followed the three suggestions I had written on the paper. If I took my time, with very mindful attention, and didn’t get caught in my story or trapped by fear, I could keep going. Of course, I also had to rest and allow healing rather than trying to be the best beginning Zen student ever.

Throughout the rest of that week I had the opportunity to meet myself, and the challenges of this new practice, in ways that I had never anticipated. I couldn’t depend on my body as I could ordinarily. I couldn’t move about in habitual or unconscious ways. I had to be very focused and present in my body or I had a painful reminder that I just become distracted. I had never had such exquisite and precise help with practice before. This was not the teacher I had expected to meet at the San Francisco Zen Center, and yet I was intimately connected with what all the teachers would have suggested: enter practice through your body; be present with “things as it is”; let go of your preferences; study the self- centered dream and drop the clinging to that self. This list of practice recommendations could go on and, in fact, continues to this day.

Ten months later I returned to Zen Center to participate in my first seven- day sesshin. I carried that small piece of paper with me and put it on the altar in the room where I stayed. Each day of that difficult and wonderful week I was reminded to slow down, pay attention, and to not give up. These phrases helped me make my way through the sesshin and became important guides that have stayed with me. I began to have a visceral understanding of Pema Chodron’s phrase — “the wisdom of no escape.” I found myself backed into a corner with nowhere to turn except to follow the schedule of practice, The events which offered me this painful and useful opportunity were literally physical blows to my self-centered image of myself. I was shocked at how vulnerable I could feel and I began to wake up to the truth that simply by being alive we are always vulnerable, no matter what grandiose stories we have about ourselves. Actually, each day is a gift and a blessing, best met with gratitude. Our temporary bodies are miracles, the source of the most amazing pleasures and often very difficult pains. This is where we live – in this body. This is where we practice – with this body and mind. And this is what the young Gautama saw on his secret trips outside the palace; that everything wasn’t always beautiful and pleasant; that sickness, old age, and death are real and inevitable for everyone; and that the shock of this human vulnerability has the power to awaken us from the self- centered dream and liberate us from suffering if we slow down, pay attention, and don’t give up.

Living Renunciation

I wrote the following piece as a personal message to the students in my Practice Discussion groups last month (February 2019). It was a way to reflect on my own practice at the moment, and as such, it was an invitation for others to reflect on their own lives and practice. I hope it will serve as a similar invitation and prompt in your life.

“The formal announcement that someone no longer owns, supports, believes in, or has a connection with something.” (Cambridge Dictionary)

“Renunciation is not giving up things of this world, but simply realizing that they all go away.” (Suzuki Roshi)

This series of images are a contact sheet from images taken during my priest ordination ceremony in April of 2001. Cassy Weyandt, the photographer and one of my longest students, later gave me a copy of these unedited photos. This particular sheet contains images of the private head shaving ceremony done is advance the formal public ceremony. At this stage in the process a very small bit of hair, about the size of a dime, is left on the back of the crown of the head. This is the shira, and is only shaved off by the Ordination Teacher during the formal part of the public ceremony. These acts of shaving the head, taking a new name (a Dharma name), and new clothes (the robes), are supposed to represent renunciation, ritual acts which “announce” that a person has severed their previous relationship with something (or, in this case, everything).

During the Tokudo ceremony (priest ordination; literally “leaving home and following the way”), there is a line that is chanted as the shira is taken off. This happens twice during the ceremony, one half of the shira removed each time until no hair remains. Here are the lines:

“Only the mind of a bodhisattva can cut through this drifting-wandering life and take the path of nirvana. This virtue cannot be defiled. Within our past, present, and future karma, the bonds of attachment are hard to break.”

The bonds of attachment are certainly hard to break. We all know this to be true, and if we live long enough we also come to know quite powerfully, and sometimes painfully, what the Buddha taught:

Everything coming together falls apart. Everything rising up collapses. Every meeting ends in parting. Every life ends in death. [Buddhist Scripture: Udanavarga 1.22]

In David Chadwick’s biography of Suzuki Roshi he recounts a night in the zendo at Tassajara after a lecture when David asked the old teacher, “Can’t you just put the whole of the teachings in a nutshell.” Unexpectedly and shockingly, Suzuki responded to the question: “Everything changes.”

But the lines from the ceremony point to much more that simple change. “Only the mind of a bodhisattva can cut through this drifting-wandering life and take the path of nirvana.” In other words, it is not enough to simply understand what the Buddha taught. Impermanence is actually not difficult to understand. These lines from the ceremony suggest that it only by living the Bodhisattva Vow is one then able to cut through the enchanting and entangling attachments of everyday life and take the path of freedom. Our karmic bonds are indeed hard to break.

In the midst of this chant there is a curious line: "This virtue cannot be defiled." Renunciation is not as act of virtue in itself. We have often been told that it is virtuous to renounce certain things (chocolate, alcohol, sex, money, TV, etc.). However, this unusual line of the head-shaving verse says that the Bodhisattva’s commitment to mutual awakening is full of virtue which cannot be defiled. In other words, we don’t create this virtue, but neither can we destroy it. You can turn away from this virtue and try to ignore it, but you also have the choice to enact and practice it for the remainder of your life. This is the practice of renunciation, the commitment to practice for the benefit of all beings, renouncing the “self-centered dream” as the unconscious organizing principle of this “drifting-wandering life.” You have the opportunity to bring forward and express this virtue.

By sitting zazen we enact renunciation. We take the posture of a Buddha and relinquish all other activities as we sit. We express what we can’t even conceive of, our nature as a Buddha, and it is said that the virtue of even one person’s zazen cannot be comprehended. In Bendowa (The Wholehearted Way), written by Dogen Zenji, he says: “…the zazen of even one person at one moment imperceptibly accords with all things and fully resonates through all time.” This is the virtue which cannot be defiled. I know some of this may sound strange or difficult to understand, but I am hoping that this helps you begin to ask yourself some important practice questions.

Where do I cling habitually? What are the bonds which are hardest to break.
What am I willing to let go of and what am I not?
How does my clinging get in my way or cause suffering for me or others around me?
Do I really have the faith that the Way of the Bodhisattva makes a difference in any way whatsoever?
Can I imagine that some virtue is my deepest and most enduring quality which cannot be defiled?
Do I really believe I will die? Not know intellectually, but know!

I, like many of you, have had to deal with the recent death of Mary Oliver. I find it hard to comprehend that she is no longer living. Aren’t her poems ample evidence of her existence? At the end of one of her classic poems, In Blackwater Woods, she writes:

Every year, everything
I have ever learned in my lifetime
leads back to this:

the fires and the black river of loss
whose other side is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.

To live in this world you must be able
to do three things:

to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

“Everything leads back to this.” Love what you love as deeply as you can, down to the bone. This is an embodied, everyday vow of a bodhisattva. Realize that your life depends of all other life. This is why you must dedicate your life to others. This is the understanding of renunciation and impermanence.

I am facing these practice challenges now. I left Austin and I lost a lot in doing so. I thought I knew something about renunciation when I was ordained, in the images you see here, but I didn’t know it in my bones in the ways I do now. And I know that there is more to come. My parents and friends are moving toward death. I am moving toward death. I am aging and I am having to make hard choices about what I can do and want to do, and more importantly, what I can no longer do. It feels like one long string of losses, “whose other side is salvation” as Mary Oliver assures me. Continually turning toward these realities will save me/us from unnecessary suffering, but there is a cost.

In the midst of his poem The Layers, Stanley Kunitz writes:

When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?

“How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses”? Sometimes it is tough to look back, as I am compelled to do from my hillside here in Hawaii. I am happy to be here. That is not the issue, but do you ever wince as you reflect on your past, feeling the sting of regret, the broken heartedness of loss, the indescribable beauty of special moments, the overwhelming gratitude and grace of real love, or the tangle of loves and losses which are inevitable? I have to take a very deep breath and “gather my strength to proceed on my journey.” Practice helps. Friendships help more. Things I worked so hard to accomplish all my life are now fading in the rear-view mirror. “I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon.” Things which used to be calling me forward are now fading in the distance, and the places and people which were central, like a campfire is central to a campsite, seem abandoned now, and that exquisitely beautiful line, so gorgeous and hard to bear, “over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings.” I created a self, a life, an identity, a story, a reality, and attached to it as we all seem to do. My “affections,” my attachments, evolved as my “life,” are now scattered. What I thought was permanent, or at least solid, has been shown to be impermanent and flimsy. “How shall the hart be reconciled to its feast of losses?” This is our question.

Did you notice the grease pencil markings on a few of the images on the contact sheet? Cassy could see something interesting or important in some of the frames once she had printed them. Focusing on a more narrow portion of the whole suggested a new perspective — a fresh story or a better story, or somehow revealing the real story to her. I love seeing those marks. Some of us write poetry, some photograph, some journal, or paint, or sing. There are so many ways in which we take what life gives us and then shape it into a life's journey that we imagine is going to be good and real and satisfying. Practice shapes our lives over time and focuses our imagination in ways which reveal our true virtue. Without renunciation real life is not possible.

Empty handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going –
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.

(Kozan Ichigyo, 14th century Zen monk)

Gratitude and Generosity

This evening I am sitting between two important days; yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, and tomorrow, Erin’s and my 38th anniversary. I feel immense gratitude and a good measure of humility to have had such a blessed life as well as a loving relationship which has offered me more than I could have ever imagined.

What does one do with such abundance? I think generosity is a natural response, so I would like to offer two things. One is a link to a talk given in 2005 by my teacher Blanche Hartman that was featured in a recent message from Lion’s Roar magazine. She titled her talk “Just to Be Alive is Enough.” Reading it again after all these years I can hear her distinctive voice which brought some gentle tears of gratitude. I was also surprised to recognized echos of my own teaching in her talk. I am clearly her student, but I sometimes forget how much of her I took in and how much she shaped me and my teachings. Her generosity became an essential source of my own offerings. Her gratitude called forward my own, and this continues even though she is gone. Maybe it flows from an even deeper place since she is gone. I would invite you to take the time to read this classic talk by my dear teacher.

Read More

Notes to Myself

So much has changed in the last year. I have let go of so much and embraced so many new challenges and opportunities. What follows are a few things that arose as I anticipated meeting with my Appamada practice discussion groups online earlier this month. I shared a very brief version of these reflections with the groups which convened online in July, but I decided to revisit my notes in preparation for resuming our beloved meetings and then decided to write a bit more in the hope of encouraging you to consider your “in-most request” as Suzuki Roshi would say, or your deepest desire for not only these precious meetings but everyday practice no matter where you are.

Truth be told, most of us long to simply reconnect, to catch up with each other, and to be reminded of the warm nourishment of mutual care which a sangha and spiritual friends afford. However, these simple points of practice may support us in remembering what it really means to sit together and open to the transformative potential of community. What is possible when we practice in a vibrant community with dedicated spiritual friends? Here are the things that came to me.

We start with the basics. We sit down, sit still, and settle into a generous silence. By continuing these practices over time we encourage each other to stick with it, and as we do we have a greater capacity to meet whatever arrives with more kindness and maybe a bit more patience. We practice paying attention to our body, our heart and mind, and in doing so we release that which binds us to the self-centered dream and separates us from the fullness of lives and from our love for each other. Through ongoing practice we are able to more fully integrate all that moves in us and between us, learning to embody the Bodhisattva’s Way.

Here are the notes I wrote for myself as reminders about practice essentials. They are things I needed to remember. You might consider your own essentials and make a list of your own important reminders.

1. The Willingness to Begin and the Perseverance to Continue
What are you willing to begin to do which you have previously avoided; to what have you been clinging which you are now willing to release; what do you now have the courage to meet given the support of your friends; and, what do you now see that you must turn away from or refrain from which you realize to be unwholesome?
Perseverance in the face of any challenge requires courage and constancy, two important qualities which can best be fostered through spiritual friendship.

2. Embodied Immediacy and the Discipline of Practice
- Intimacy with the present moment is foundational; we begin with attention to the body and we continually return to the body, all the while cultivating a capacity to witness our impermanent thoughts, feelings, inclinations, and entrancing stories.
- Mindfulness is a form of remembering — remembering to wake up within the present moment.
- Discipline is remembering what you want, not what you crave or fear.

3. Deepening and Letting Go
- Bearing witness to both our private inner world and our busy and complicated outer worlds, without being too caught up in the content of either world, allows us to rest more deeply in pure awareness. The contents of awareness are held more gently and are allowed to arise and pass away more easily with practice, especially if we refrain from manipulating and fighting with our minds.
- What is an “appropriate response?” What is called up in this body-mind by present moment circumstances? -- What is called for if we are to live by Precepts and the Bodhisattva Vow?

4. Integration and Opening to What Comes
- “Being just this moment” becomes understood as a natural and continual unfolding of our True Nature, not as an elevation of consciousness or any kind of specialness. In doing so we learn to step forward more fully into our gifts because they come to be seen as responsibilities and opportunities to serve.
- “Compassion’s Way” is more deeply understood as offering our attention and energies as care for each other as well as for ourselves.

I also encountered this wonderful set of instructions given by Patrol Rinpoche, a wise Tibetan teacher:
Don’t invite the future
Don’t prolong the past
Don’t fear appearances
Don’t disturb your innate wakefulness

My great friend Donna Martin once noticed that these very concise instructions are all couched in the negative. She suggested that we might consider what they would look like if they were transposed into invitations rather than as prohibitions. “Don’t invite the future” becomes, “Be here, now.” Further, “Don’t prolong the past” could also be stated, “Be here, now.” The instruction “Don't fear appearances” (not to get caught by our reactive constructs) would become, “Be here, now.” And, of course, the last warning, “Don’t disturb your innate wakefulness,” (the very essence of our True Nature) could also translate as “Be here, now.” All four admonitions or encouragements are essentially instructions for zazen — not leaning into the future, not clinging to the past, not overly identifying with thoughts and feelings, and not manipulating or disturbing our primary awareness which is already awake. We sit to express our nature which is that of a Buddha, not to achieve something extra or special.

If we have the willingness to begin again and again, and to persevere no matter what; if we commit to embodied immediacy and the discipline of mindful awareness, we find we can rest in the simplicity of our natural wakefulness. From this perspective we can discover, or maybe re-discover again and again, that we are actually generous resources for the world rather than needy demands on it. By practicing gratitude and humility, we are naturally more generous and kind. This is the Way we are when we are together in with our spiritual friends and practicing in a warm sangha. These are some of the qualities which call us back to practice and to each other, both giving and receiving spiritual and emotional nourishment, the necessary food of life.

With my warmest aloha,

P.S. Sometimes it is as important to stand together and look in the same direction than it is to turn to each other and look into each other's eyes.

The Charter of Compassion and the Golden Rule Day

“Treat others and the planet
as you would like to be treated”

This past Thursday, April 5, was the International Golden Rule Day sponsored by the Charter of Compassion. I had the honor of being asked to contribute to the day by being one of the faith leaders interviewed from North America. There were presentations from all over the world throughout the day. I've attached a link which you can use to access the presentations from North America -1 (there is more than 1 but I have linked it here for you). You will find my 12 minutes tucked in at about 1 hour and 15 minutes along the way. I hope you find it useful or interesting.

Interview segment Make sure you go to 1:10:15 to find the conversation with host Kevin Tuerff.

A Personal Reflection: A Public Statement

Early in 2017 I was asked to offer the keynote for the annual celebration and fundraising event for an organization in Austin called iACT — Interfaith Action of Central Texas — to be presented on September 26, 2017. The mission statement is simple: iACT cultivates peace and respect through interfaith dialogue, service and celebration. The annual event, “A Night Under One Sky” was to focus on spiritual friendship and I agreed to speak. As I began to prepare my talk I found that I was unable to craft the usual, and expected, speech about unity and oneness. The current situation in our country didn’t seem to call for this kind of talk which would no doubt be enjoyed by everyone but ultimately remembered by no one. I couldn’t bring myself to focus on the “One Sky” part of the celebration. Instead, I chose to focus on “the Night.”

A bit more about the context of the event: It was held in a beautiful sculpture garden in which guests could wander along trails, along a stream, and through woodlands. Along the way they would encounter the lovely image by Charles Umlauf (1911-1994), a beloved sculptor from Austin. Knowing this will help you understand some of the references in the body of my talk which follows. I am sending what I wrote and how I ultimately delivered it. I have been strongly encouraged by many people to publish it (possibly in an edited version) but I have not felt like I knew the appropriate place. So, here it is. I hope it may speak to you in some way that might be helpful.

With my warmest wishes for peace and healing — everywhere and for everyone.

We find ourselves in such a confusing, unnerving moment, but this evening we are embedded in this enchanting landscape, inhabited by these silent, beautiful images of Charles Umlauf. This is their garden, and tonight they allow us to join them in silence and stillness, even if we pause for only a moment with each one, captivated by their exquisite presence. Our task now is to open to the warm embodied presence which comes from the deepest well of silence within and between us. Of course, the intimate touch of human presence can only arrive if we stop and allow life to catch us — to flow through us, simply and fully…humanly…through our marvelous animal bodies.

I want to pause to offer an apology at the outset. I love to speak directly, with a personal, intimate connection. It is what I know and who I am. But tonight, as you can no doubt tell, I have uncharacteristically written what I hoped to say. Very early yesterday morning I woke up in Geneva, Switzerland. By late morning I was in London. By afternoon rush hour I was in Austin. Yesterday was a long travel day, but I did not want to miss this night with you and I wanted to be clear. So, this is what I composed as I imagined our brief and precious time together. And as I stand here now I can feel what an inspired and inspiring group you are, filled with goodness, coming together to celebrate in this way — a Night Under One Sky. And I want to focus on the night — darkness and light playing off each other as we gather as humans have always done, out of a primal necessity to be close in the dark. Our hearts require each other.In knowing that in order to truly flourish, I require you. And this is at the heart of iACT.
“The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing no matter how you land there,” the artist and writer Patti Smith famously said. And for many of us here tonight, the work of spiritual and social transformation is our dream, our calling, or our vocation. I would assume everyone here came tonight because somewhere deep inside, you long for the world to be lovingly transformed in some way. We long for a kind word. A compassionate world. A world full of wisdom and generous care. A patient and spacious world in which everything and everyone is welcomed.

Although I would wager that my assumptions about us are reasonably accurate, I feel a bit of discomfort, as if I am beginning to go slightly astray by making this list of admirable qualities. Here are my concerns.

There can be a hidden seduction in consensus, an unseen perversion of purpose in holding too tightly to any one position, a subtle entrancement invited through commonality of thought, and an unexpected form of violence in a social worship of one-ness.

So, I now have to apologize for a second time; this time for being so blunt. I was not invited to guide us down a road of cynicism or despair. We certainly have more than enough of that at this moment. I promise I am not arguing for some intellectual erosion of faith, care, or everyday hope. I only ask that we enter our conversation honestly and clearly forewarned.

I speak in this way because I am concerned that we don’t have time to waste. Consoling each other only through shared agreement won’t transform the broken-heartedness and shattered relationships of the world. We must venture to the shadowy edges of our understanding, of our comfort and of our comprehension, in order to come to appreciate the startling diversity of who we really are, what we truly stand for, and what we are capable of in this world.

At bottom we are here to celebrate our unity and to reflect the light of our genuine goodness that flows through the work of iACT. But I am concerned that in doing so we might easily and unknowingly neglect the dark…and I am convinced that neglecting the dark is destroying us. I don’t want to fail you or miss the moment. I feel called to more. I am calling you to more.

Here is Rilke, writing from his time in a Russian Orthodox Monastery:

You, darkness, of whom I am born —
I love you more than the flaming light
that limits the world
to the circle it illuminates
and excludes all the rest.

But the darkness embraces everything:
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations — just as they are.

It lets me imagine
a great stirring presence breaking into my body.

I have faith in the night.

I have a vibrant and abiding faith in the great incomprehensible web of existence in which we are held. This is the space into which we are born and into which we will inevitably return. It is the field of all goodness and sorrow, of love and hate, of grief and celebration—our one unbound heart and mind which we strive to embody through the spiritual practices of our various wisdom traditions and to express in our communities. In our Zen liturgy we chant a beautiful phrase which comes within a longer verse — “Vast is the robe of liberation, a formless field of benefaction.” This virtual robe of liberation is what surrounds us and the field of beneficence is our home. By whatever name, it is vast and liberating. And yet, this “stirring presence” that Rilke described breaking into his body, and the “formless field of benefaction,” in which we rest, is more than the magnificent light of the Divine, the glow of the Great Mystery, the warm smile of God, or the unbound love of Universal Consciousness. And please be assured, I embrace this light and love, as the very essence of goodness at the heart of our lives and our practices. This perfect and brilliant radiance is precisely what we are celebrating tonight and where we channel our energies in response to the call for social action. But I am concerned, in that rich glow, that we may be blinded to the very shadowy requirements of our quivering animal bodies, our frail and shaky humanity, our fierce and messy mammalian life force which is our ground of being.

Humans have always sought a way to tolerate the primal vulnerability we face against the sheer mystery — the incredible awe — of simply being alive. This earthly embodiment is what we must reclaim and utilize wisely if we are to survive as a species and as a planet. This is what makes organizations like iACT essential. We can be a stronger and more penetrating voice for the radical inclusion of faith and courage in this generous embodiment, and we can enact these vital and liberating qualities where they are most needed if we do not turn away from our most vulnerable longings.

I am pointing to the essence of spiritual life because without our bodies — the exquisite expression of creation and human incarnation – and without a wholesome environment in which the bodies can strive and thrive — there is no life of spirit, there is only a slow and painful, self-created diminishment of spirit and, as we are witnessing all too painfully, the death of civil humanity.

Humans have very sophisticated brains, and we are singular in having the most well developed pre-frontal cortex. It is why we have these skulls which are peculiar among primates. We are a species of mammal who bring their young into the world long before they can be on their own. We are not on our feet running with the herd within minutes because our survival does not depend on it. But our survival does depend on rich enduring relationships. As a result, we have to attach strongly and remain attuned deeply in order to support maturation into resilient human-being-ness. And the part of our brain that fills this frontal protuberance is working continually, like the spinning, searching signal on your phone or laptop, to find a connection. It is scanning to answer three crucial questions constantly — many times every second of our lives:

1. Are you there? We naturally look for a caring figure to whom we can attach, not just as infants, but throughout our lives.
2. Do you hear me or see me? We long to attune with others emotionally because it is the way we regulate our bodies, hearts and minds.
3. Do you choose me? The heart of it all — am I loved?

Every human yearns for a warm response to these questions in engaged action, in living form, in fleshy human relationship. And much of what we are now horrified by in our world are the consequences of the ways in which these signals have found no response, no answer, no connection. There are so many people lost in the shadows and we are startled as they begin to emerge into view and with them come the demands and pains of their unmet longings.

I am not talking about the failure of parenting here, I am speaking about the ways we relate to each other as adults every day. Leaders at every level, from those in the smallest local enclave to those on the largest and most visible national and international stage—if they appeal to these essential qualities of inclusion and connection, they will find friends and ardent supporters. No matter how disaffected or marginalized, if you offer someone hope that they will be seen, heard, and included, and if you offer them something to do that will make a difference—any difference— in a world that they have given up on, and if you promise, even falsely, that they will be celebrated alongside others for joining in, then they will join you. And no amount of rhetoric or rebuke from another perspective about how misguided the group or its leaders are, will change that reality. Powerful meaning and meeting in human relationships is what matters, even in what we might judge as base or even savage relationships. An invitation to join with others in a way that makes sense to you trumps despair and isolation, meaninglessness and impotence.

We have to go into the dark, the shadowy aspects of ourselves, of our closest and dearest relationships, and these complex communities of our world. This will likely make us uncomfortable or even terrify us, but the result of not looking, not listening, not connecting, and somehow missing something important in the dark has become equally terrifying. Hopefully we are awakening to face who we really are and who the “others” are, and the pain that comes with even making such distinctions. We must make contact with, and even better, friends with, the shadowy elements of both ourselves and those around us.

If It Is Not Too Dark
~ Hafiz

Go for a walk, if is not too dark.
Get some fresh air, try to smile.
Say something kind
To a safe looking stranger, if one happens by.

Always exercise your hearts knowing.

You might well attempt something real
along this path:

Take your spouse, lover in your arms
The way you did when you first met.
Let tenderness pour from your eyes
The way the sun gazes warmly on the earth.

Play a game with some children.
Extend yourself to a friend.
Sing a few ribald songs to your pets and plants—
Why not let them get drunk and wild!

Let's toast
Every rung we've climbed on evolution’s ladder.
Whisper, "I love you! I love you!"
To the whole mad world.

Let's stop reading about God—
We will never understand Him.

Jump to your feet, and wave your fists,
Threaten and warn the whole Universe.

That your heart can no longer live
Without real love.

Hafiz always grabs us with a joyful invitation. In our current circumstances however, this invitation seems a bit timid. In fact, the title given to this piece, “If It Is Not Too Dark” hedges a little. It is very dark, and we are called to act anyway—to go for a walk, to exercise our heart with strangers, to love and to play, and to celebrate. But then he turns: “Jump to your feet, and wave your fists, Threaten and warn the whole Universe,” About what? “That your heart can no longer live without real love.”

What does that mean in your life and in my life? What can we actually do?

See each other. Acknowledge each person’s truth and presence, even if you are dismayed by what you encounter. Learn from everyone or at least about them. Someone will find them and connect, and that is the person or group who will have the most influence. Everyone wants someone there - really there - so they feel truly met. Failing that, most of us can easily escalate into reactive or protective behaviors in a feverish attempt to grasp at what we lack or cover our fear.

Listen to each other. Really listen for meaning, not agreement; listen for vulnerability and the signs of suffering, not so you can “help,” challenge or change. Allow people to speak their truth and to be reflected so they can know themselves, and so you can know yourself as something more than your most cherished personal perspective. What you don’t know or turn toward will hurt you — and others.

Cherish everyone and everything as if it were your own body—because it is. Turning toward the shadows can be frightening, but turning your back on the darkness is dangerous. And we are all in this together.
Boundaries are essential for life to flow in balance. Rivers need banks and a fire needs a container. Without the boundaries they can be destructive. With proper boundaries they serve and nourish. There is such a thing as foolish compassion and there are real dangers in the world. It is crucial to know your limits because it helps contain and focus your strengths. Sometimes it is wise to put some distance between you and another person or group, even as you hold them warmly in your heart.

Be patient with yourself as you stumble and fail, but don’t give up. Accept your impotence without apology. Soften into strength and be kind to yourself, another way to describe self-compassion.

Practice flexibility and humility: In the words of the well known family therapist Carl Whitaker…
Fracture role structures at will and repeatedly: Entrenchment is not a nimble place from which to respond to the world.
Learn to retreat and advance from every position you take: Try on new perspectives and learn from what you meet there.
And, if we can abandon our missionary zeal we are less likely to be eaten by cannibals: Certainty is a formula for being unkind. It will also help create contention. Please no “helping,” just service.

Beloved community is the fabric that holds the night, however dark. It reflects the light, but it holds the dark, and in doing so cradles the deepest capacity for transformation of the heart. Our many traditions are threads which weave this tapestry of potential. On the one hand they tug on the edges and knit them across the great wide heart at the center, not to drown the distinct differences or dull the vibrant hues of each tradition, but to hold them in place so they can do their work—The Work—of continuing this immense earthly experiment which is in peril. In addition, the threads of community extend beyond the edges to communities and people who are unseen, maybe without a voice, and lost in echo-chambers of their own. In this way we have a chance to reclaim bits of broken and scattered hearts for the gold they contain.

And this noble experiment is in trouble—politically, socially, culturally, biologically, and artistically because we are at a crossroads of imagination in its truest sense. Can we imagine big enough, deep enough, wildly enough to save ourselves? Can our imagination grow beyond the bounds of practical problem solving or endless technologizing and reclaim the deep responsibility to each other and for each other in the face of such bewilderment?

How will our children ever learn to be grace-filled humans beyond their tablets and phones? How can we teach character and emotional intelligence, not just learning to be tech-savvy? How we use technology is making a difference in radically disturbing ways as we see every day. And finally, can we demonstrate with our own lives and through our personal relationships, and with full conviction, that a Tweet is not a kiss on the cheek, an email is not a whisper in your ear, and a Facebook friend request is not an outstretched hand. Language was the first virtual reality, let’s practice with it skillfully.

Will we leave the next generation a world they will truly want to occupy, and one in which they can actually live and thrive? These are real questions, and it appears that our wisdom traditions may hold more of a key to survival than our evolving technologies and complex global economies. Because without groups like iACT, it is all simply two- dimensional—a flat, well explained, detailed and digitalized map of prediction and knowledge that is barren — devoid of wisdom and drained of compassion — good at the bottom line but deadly for the vulnerable living beings we are.

And one last thing. We require more beauty. Returning to our silent hosts in the garden (the sculpture), we are reminded that we are surrounded by works of art. Acts of kindness and works of goodness are beauty incarnate. Beauty is visible, palpable, in moments when human beings “reach across the mystery to each other,” as Krista Tippet has said. Our most beautiful work is removing barriers to love - but isn’t that what spirituality is for and what social action brings to life? Elizabeth Alexander, speaking boldly on that beautifully crystalline inauguration day in 2009, stated in a public, political arena that “love is the mightiest word.” And so it seems to be.

How can we come to love the full force of life energy which terrifies us? And how do we face our deepest longing alongside our greatest terror — loving and being loved? What if beloved community is already the Truth in which we are immersed — a literal field of benefaction which we can awaken to, like fish swimming in water. What if our job is to realize it, to embody, and to live it? In the Buddhist tradition we take refuge — we endeavor to “fly back” as the root of that word implies, to come home. To what? The Buddha’s earliest teachings were clear, sangha—spiritual friendship and beloved community— the heartbeat of spiritual life.

And what does this look like in action? Each person here could tell a story of how some small action has made a difference. Several years ago I was working with Palestinian and Israeli women in a powerful and raw encounter at Esalen through a wonderful foundation, “Beyond Words.” These women were asking the same questions I am posing tonight in the face of seemingly unending generations of strife. One woman, a kindergarten teacher, told me that she felt helpless, as if anything she could do would mean nothing against the ancient hate and enmity. But she told me how she taught her students to sing, and her tiny choir went out from the classroom and sang to the soldiers along the wall dividing the Jewish and Arab settlements. She told me how the soldiers put down their guns and turned toward the children, helpless against their call, their tiny, tender courage. This one small thing did not stop the deep conflict but it interrupted the damage, at least for a moment. And every moment counts.

The poet W.S. Merwin, nearing 90 years old, taking care of his garden and his grove of endangered palms on the north shore of Maui, spoke about the pain of the earth’s destruction. He then said, “On the last day I want to be planting a tree.” This is what he does for the good of the earth, so he will do it no matter how things appear to be going. He is not blind to the massive destruction of the planet. This is his small thing he can do, despite the fear that it will make no difference. Why do we do good? Because it is what we do. Because we must!

Rilke again…

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.

Thank you very much.

A gift

It was wonderful to return to Appamada this week after more than a month away and to be back with the sangha in Inquiry. This is a very brief post to share the joy and energy that moved in our return meeting this Tuesday, July 18.

There is often an expectation — especially with kids — when someone returns from a long trip: “What did you bring me!?” We rejoice in finding just the right gift for our loved ones and we all love to receive a surprise from some special or exotic location someone has visited. This is also true for me. I always want to bring something to the sangha, and not only when I return from traveling, but every week. I always want to bring something useful, inspiring or transformative. I want our time together to make a difference. On this recent trip my dear friend and neighbor Teri Waros, the owner of a lovely gift and book store in Kaunakakai, Molokai, offered me this piece by Rumi. It seemed perfect. [To see more about Teri check out this interview].

You've no idea how hard I've looked for a gift to bring You.
Nothing seemed right. What's the point of bringing gold
to the gold mine, or water to the Ocean. Everything I came
up with was like taking spices to the Orient. It's no good
giving my heart and my soul because you already have these. 

So- I've brought you a mirror.
Look at yourself and 
remember me.

I felt we could even read the last line without the “me” at the end. We meet in Inquiry as mirrors for each other to help us Remember. Together we remember our True Nature, our beauty and perfection, our wholeness as “messy miracles.” This requires us to rest rather than to strive. To accept rather than judge. We simply walk together along the path, opening to the world and to each other. These are the things I spoke about and which moved in the group. I won’t write much more, but I hope you enjoy the recording linked below.

Inquiry recording:
The Gift of Rest

Portals into the Mystery

As you know, I often use my photographs to illustrate a teaching point or highlight a concept I am trying to convey. But sometimes the photographs themselves are the inspiration for the teaching. This is the case with this series of images from our recent retreat in Hawaii.

We typically make our journey to the overlook to the Kalaupapa peninsula for our sunrise meditation early in the week when we are waking early, still on mainland time. On this particular morning, after a brief 3-mile drive, we assembled in the parking lot and walked in the faintest light of dawn through the ironwood forest to the overlook. In silence we stepped out onto the bluff behind the rock retaining wall, into the buffeting wind and streaming clouds to bear witness to the beauty and sadness of this powerful place. On each visit I have the feeling that I am passing through a mysterious transitional space—a kind of portal—emerging into a new or special world that reveals itself on the edge of those high cliffs. As we stood in silent attention to the shifting skyscape and seascape that morning, the early light began to offer itself to us.

Standing there in awe with my camera in hand, I was fully immersed in the magnificence of the moment. Everything was unfolding around me powerfully and magically. I continued to look through the viewfinder and allowed what I was witnessing to release the shutter on its own as the light continued to work beautifully through the clouds and the water and the cliffs. I had no idea what I was capturing at the time, but nature’s invitation continued to lead me deeper into the morning mystery.

The Four Practice Principles kept going though my mind:

Caught in the self-centered dream, only suffering
Holding to self-centered thoughts, exactly the dream
Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher
Being just this moment, Compassion’s Way

Opportunities to enter the fullness of the present moment are always available if we relax our insistence on our own narrow, self-centered perspective. I remember feeling very small and vulnerable facing the wind and the ocean, completely immersed in the immensity of the unfolding light. I was aware that my body would contract whenever anxiety began to take over. I could also sense that when I relaxed into the warm connection of the group, even in complete silence and stillness, I felt a deep comfort and a confidence that we were OK—together. Practicing together helps us tolerate the gentle release of the “self-centered dream” and allows us to have more faith in “life as it is.”

Lately it has been hard for me to see clearly what lies ahead in my own life. It is not as if there aren’t signs and signals to alert me, but I can’t always tell what they mean. What should I attend to? What can I safely ignore? What is a beckoning invitation and what is serving as a warning? I am in the midst of so much change at the moment that I am alternately challenged, disoriented, and even frightened at times. Which way should I turn? How should I respond? Is life really teaching me or simply defeating me? These may be questions that may arise for many of you as well.

I know that everything is impermanent, constantly changing in and around me. I also know that everything is contingent, being created and evolving in response to everything else. I am aware that there is nothing apart from this great flux and flow, including my stumbling navigation through it all. This is what I teach and practice every day. But for once it would be relieving to simply enjoy the illusion of complete clarity and certainty about something. However, as I get older and continue to practice steadily, I sense that I have a diminishing capacity to believe in this kind of fantasy. Regular meditation practice and deep inquiry completely ruin certain things about ordinary life and certainty is one of them.

There is a wonderful line from Dogen’s Genjokoan that come to mind: “Though there are many conditions in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach.” Another translation from Shohaku Okamura is, “Within the dusty world and beyond, there are innumerable aspects and characteristics; we only see or grasp as far as the power of our eye of study and practice can see.”

I can’t predict what I will capture when I press the shutter on the camera. I see what my limited human eye can perceive in the moment and I am frequently amazed and humbled by what I am being offered. I hope that I can capture some of what I see using the equipment at hand, but I really don’t know what I’ve been given until I look at the image later. Like everything else in life I am constantly receiving what my sense perceptions offer me, but this data is also infused with and shaped by my unconscious projections about what I secretly hope for or fear. And, like everyone else, I construct something that seems whole and coherent from these perceptions, thoughts, feelings and bodily reactions. I then call that something “reality.”

As I reflected on these lines from Dogen,“…you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach,” I began to ask myself, “What do I actually ‘see’ through practice?” I’ve practiced long enough to realize that I am not going to receive some “answer” which will nicely match my fantasied expectations of spiritual life. If I am fortunate I see a bit more Truth or “Life as it is.” If I really pay attention with patience and curiosity, I will begin to see my faithful habit patterns more clearly—the embodied expressions of the habitual ways I’ve come to organize experience, mostly outside of my awareness. As I see these patterns more clearly and they begin to soften, then life simply unfolds as it will — as it does anyway, despite my opinions — and without my painful and frantic attempts to force it back toward the fantasy that sustains my constructed “reality.”

I came to realize more fully that morning at the overlook that I don’t actually shrink from present moment experience because it is boring or painful or confusing. I do so because it is too rich. The more I practice, the greater my capacity to allow life to blossom more fully through me. As I discipline myself through consistent practice I sense that I am cultivating a kind of courage and a greater willingness to face the rawness of my life circumstances more graciously. Without a commitment to a steady and wholesome practice I find myself running, embellishing, turning away from, or contradicting the truth of my life and my precious relationships. This courage and willingness offers me more choice, more vitality, and ultimately the restoration of joy, the theme for our week of retreat.

Sometimes I download an image and am shocked by what I see. Not just because it might a beautiful photograph, but because of the flood of meaning that leaps forward immediately and surprisingly. All of the teachings and experiences I’ve been writing about in this small piece came together when I opened the image above. On the left I saw the light of the early morning streaming in magically, illuminating what was previously dark or indistinct. Morning light so often represents the beginning of new possibilities or a fresh start, a longing we all share. On the right there remains an ominous darkness and an approaching storm, and with it the sense of fear and anxiety that we so often carry, usually in the hidden shadows of our hearts and minds. In the center there is the promise of light and an opening in which I could see more deeply into the mystery. It is as if I could literally see into new potential and possibility.

As many of you have heard me say in the past, the spiritual path is like walking between hope and despair on either side, straight into the face of uncertainty. We long for a path that will take us from despair to hope, but we know deep down that neither place is stable or reliable. We can’t leave despair behind and permanently arrive at a solid place to rest. Fear is part of being alive. We can’t count on hope either because we see it crumble in the face of life circumstance. What we can count on and can learn to welcome is the ongoing change of each new dawn and all that it brings. I have to ask myself if I am willing to give myself fully to a life I can’t control and that I will eventually loose? Anything less and I will be robbed of the joy that is not based on circumstances or personal happiness. Am I willing to accept my human life as the mysterious and miraculous gift that it is?

There are a few more lines from the Genjokoan that follow the statement about “seeing.” Dogen says, “You have gained the pivotal opportunity of human form. Do not use your time in vain. You are maintaining the essential working of the Buddha-Way. Who would take wasteful delight in the spark from the flintstone? Besides, form and substance are like the dew on the grass, destiny like the dart of lightning—emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.” When I first came to practice at the San Francisco Zen Center and told my guest practice leader my full name she looked at me with a wry smile and said, “Have you ever read the Genjokoan?” I had not even heard of it at that time and did not know she was referring to Dogen’s question: “Who would take wasteful delight in the spark from the flintstone?” The flint and the steel come together to produce a spark. Transient and delightful, it is easy to get entranced by the spark, “emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.” But its real function is to initiate a fire which can be used to keep us warm and to cook our food for life-sustaining nourishment. The spark is not simply for our delight, but for the benefit of all beings. And so is our practice—life-giving and life-restoring—just as the sky and sea, the rain and wind, the light and dark, offer themselves to benefit all beings. And sometimes the storm and the light come together to produce a little bit of magic so we can be called back to gratitude. As Suzuki Roshi said, “Just to be alive is enough.”

Thoughts about things

The week before Christmas I awoke around 1:30 AM and could not go back to sleep. I had just finished co-leading the first Mindful Photography workshop the previous week at Hui Ho’olana with John Barclay, an amazing photographer and teacher. Erin and I had also enjoyed being together for the first time in our new house on Molokai. These were good, new, challenging experiences which I had dreamed about for a long time and worked hard to achieve. What woke me in the darkness of that morning was a message that emerged clearly and powerfully in these words: “I like the idea of things but not the reality of things.

I lay there as the message repeated itself. “You like the idea of things but not the reality of things.” This was not a new revelation or a fresh insight. This is what I teach. However, there was something deeper and more insistent in the message that was calling to me. After a few minutes I realized I was not going back to sleep anytime soon so it might be well to get up and journal in response to this late night signal. Here is what I wrote:

Ordinary coping is an attempt to shape our experience to always match our idea of things. If our experience maps onto our precious idea of things, this is called “happiness” or “satisfaction”—getting what we want. This, we are taught, is the purpose of our lives and where we will find real meaning—it is the foundation for enjoying success.

We are addicted to the idea that shaping our lives to match our idea of things will bring us happiness. This is why New Year’s resolutions are both popular and universally futile. A new year brings a fresh start and with it new ideas about how things could be. Creativity and imagination bring wonderful things to life, but they can have a shadow side which is the entrancing nature of self-created (and self-centered) realities.

In Zen training we engage the practice of turning toward and engaging with the bare reality of things. Through steady engagement with our practices we come to realize that life is actually inconceivable. We can never settle on a single meaning, an enduring concept, a personal like or dislike that will capture and define this immense mystery. We continually plunge into life—the inconceivable nature of things just as they are—with the hope that we will make them better. This capacity to live in awe of the mystery and, at the same time, to engage the mundane world with intelligent care, is the purpose of spiritual practice and distinguishes it from self-help or psychological work. We are not continually trying to shape ourselves or the world to fit our idea of things. We are meeting things just as they are and yet working with them as skillfully as we can. Practice encourages and supports this skillfulness (upaya).

Unlike what most people hope, this practice shift does not result in learning to let go of our likes and dislikes—to live without preference. We do not practice in order to release all concepts and avoid thinking. We do not vow to forsake wholesome goals and aspirations. We will always have likes and dislikes. We will always have preferences. Hopefully we will always have a clear mind and a robust capacity to solve problems. But being attached to our preferences and demanding that they be met is inevitably painful. Freedom from this pain is found in the inconceivable nature of things—like and dislike drop away as mere concepts. They become irrelevant in a strange way, we come to realize they are just more thoughts about things. Intimacy with what is, is quite different from evaluating what is—trying again to see if it matches our idea of things.

For many of us, the shocking reality of the last few months has not matched our precious idea about how things should go. How many of us have heard words such as: “Surely this is not right! If this can happen, I don’t know what to believe, how to even think about life going forward.”

I was surprised to find that I was almost completely unaware of how closely I held the idea that my idea of things was reality. I held this view of the world because it allowed me to feel a sense of security, stability. I could delude myself that I was in charge, able to predict or control my circumstances. I felt hopeful. But life seems to be following some other route and evolving against a much larger plan than my personal preferences and expectations. The fantasied outcomes are fading and the unpredictable and inconceivable nature of reality is unfolding as life—and as my life.

We often feel fear when we lose what we cherish most. At some level we know full well that will happen. We grieve when the inevitable loses do occur and then we push ourselves to get over it, or move around it, to go through it, or get beyond it. When we can’t, we can rage at the affront as if it were a personal insult or we collapse in the face of challenges, unable to move forward. As hope for the fantasied outcome fades we often slide toward two polarities—hate and despair.

There is another way, but it requires a surrender to the mystery, to the inconceivable reality of things, and that grace-filled shift is called love.

All through the trip I had carried Paula D’Arcy’s new book Stars at Night with me. A few days after this night of disturbed sleep and insight I sent a message to Paula about getting together when I returned from Molokai. We had not seen each other in a long time and I hoped we could catch up. I sent her a small snippet of my evening reflections as if I had discovered something profound. Then finally, began to read her book. She writes poetically and was reflecting on how “darkness unfolds at light.” I was stunned to see the lessons so fully expressed in her writing that I had so clumsily written about in my email. I have to admit that I felt a little embarrassed by my message and apologized for what seemed like a sophomoric message to a woman who had come to her understanding of these same things through unimaginable loss. Here are some examples that stunned me.

In response to her immense loss and wrenching grief she reflects (p. 11):
I wonder if I have the courage to accept this rare and beautiful gift called life, which is also able to wound in this way. This gift, it is now apparent, is something I have never understood at all. I wonder what wants to live. That question seems important. (p. 11)

In time, perhaps, the bewilderment and fright will lessen. Right now I am being washed clean and wrung out. The fact that I once thought I knew what life was about would make me laugh, if I could laugh. All my former certainties lie exposed. I remember fighting stubbornly to prove myself right about things, and believing that I was right. I recall everything I took for granted. What was that, that life I was leading? Behind the facade, behind the image of the person I thought myself to be, is there a truth worth knowing? How many things were never seen never guessed? What have I missed? A small clarity arises. I was not the center, even though I felt that way. I was not the center. The small story of my life was not the point. It left so much unborn. (pp. 13-14)
Through her narrative she also introduced a lovely new poet to me, Dorothy Walters. Here is her poem that shines light on this cycle of remembering and forgetting.


~ Dorothy Walters

First, you must let your heart
be broken open
in a way you have never
felt before,
cannot imagine.

You will
not know if what you are
is anguish or joy,
something predestined
or merely old wounds
flowing once more,
reminders of all that is
unfinished in your life.

Something will flood into
your chest
like air sweetened by
desert honeysuckle,
love that is too

You will stand there,
very still,
not seeing what this is.
Later, you will not remember
any of this
until the next time
when you will say,
yes, yes, I have known this before,
it has come again,
just as your eyes fold under
once more.
As I lived with the poem and began to digest its meaning I read further. I came upon these simple words and an image that reflected both my morning insights and the poet’s message. I could hardly believe the words I was reading.
We all hide our eyes when we enter the light after being in a dark space for a long time.  The change is powerful. We struggle because it is more familiar to relate to the idea of things than to relate to the things themselves. (p. 100)
Inquiry recording:
Hear the full Inquiry session associated with this post.

Growing Up and Waking Up Presentation

This post is a pointer to a new set of video links to a presentation I did for the Mind and Science Foundation a few years ago. The presentation is divided into 9 segments and is all linked on my website Teaching page. I was speaking to a large lay audience but I was representing an important scientific organization. I did my best to bridge there two worlds and to speak for the kinds of work that goes into the double helix of human maturing—growing up and waking up. I hope you enjoy the talk. [Below is a screenshot from the first video but is not a live link. Please go to my website to find the links to the videos]

Hakomi and Zen

In 1993 I traveled to Esalen along the Big Sur coast of California to attend my first workshop with Ron Kurtz. My friends and colleagues with whom I was traveling had all heard about Hakomi and we were interested in spending time with the creator. We were particularly intrigued by the name of the new workshop he was offering: “Loving Presence.” The workshop turned out to be life-altering. Ron was just beginning to reframe the way he was teaching the Hakomi Method and Loving Presence was clearly included its fundamental practices.

At this same workshop I met a young man who had just returned from a time in residence at Green Gulch Farm, the rural practice center of the San Francisco Zen Center. He had been part of the Fall Practice Period at Green Gulch and had gotten a lot from it. I was not only new to Ron’s work, I was new to Zen. I asked, “What is a Practice Period?” From that question and his generous response my life’s direction shifted.

These two simultaneous and serendipitous events led to my signing up for a three-year training in Hakomi that Ron announced at this workshop at Esalen. He called this special residential training sequence to be held in a forest retreat center in Oregon, “Psychotherapy as Spiritual Practice.” Over the following three years I began training with Ron and also began training as a student with my Zen teacher Zenkei Blanche Hartman at Zen Center. These two threads, Hakomi and Zen, began weaving together that December to form the key ways I teach and work with people today.

Earlier this year I was invited to participate in the Hakomi Global Summit, an online conference featuring some of the best teachers of the Hakomi Method. I recorded the interview a few months ago with Manuela Mischke-Reeds, a wonderful Hakomi trainer and Buddhist practitioner herself. You can find the interview by following the link below. I hope you find it useful.

Link to Flint's Hakomi Global Summit interview

P.S. During my original three year training in the early '90's I met a woman who was on the training team for the very first time. Her name was Donna Martin. Over the past 20 years she has become a tremendous influence in my life, a wonderful teaching partner, and a best friend. I am so blessed to have her in my life and to able to co-lead Hakomi events around the world with a woman I believe Ron thought of as his closest student and most talented successor (my opinion!). She is also featured in the Global Summit and we are shown here at Hui Ho'olana where we teach in Hawaii.

Be gracious and raise yourself up

I chose Psalm 57 as the next verse in our sequence because it deepens the previous “Koan of You.” There is a tension between the powerfully gentle first line—“Be gracious, Be gracious, Be gracious” and the fierce voice speaking in response—“Raise yourself up and blaze out over all the body of the earth!”. There is so much to be said and learned by moving through this poem line-by-line, additionally I offer another voice—that of the 14th century Tibetan sage Longchenpa in his “You are the Eyes of the World”. In this companion piece, the speaker takes the first-person voice (“Me”) and yet seems to be calling out to and from the same space as the Psalm.

Read them several times together. Enter the conversation through your body. Copy each by hand—write them out—and feel the echo of this evolving koan. Who is “You?” Who is “Me?” How do these two faces of the “One” reveal themselves?

In the Psalm we hear about taking refuge, a confident kindness, deep love, the temptations of fear and chaos, the unwavering movement of karma, the powerful resolve of “live fully”, and the return to the center through practice. Be gracious and blaze out! What a beautiful and complicated space this opens.

In Longchenpa's words, we are reminded that we are this infinite space, that inconceivable heart and mind, the essential functioning of “Me” and “You” in human form. Remember who you are! Shine forth, raise up, blaze out, and sing.

Psalm 57

Norman Fischer translation

Be gracious, Be gracious, Be gracious
For my soul flies out to your protection
Flies up to the refuge of your wings
Until this anguish passes

I call on you, my guide
Confident of your kindness to me
You who swirls out from the center
And penetrates me with your love
Thought the one who wants to swallow me up
Utters curses and accusations
Your faithfulness will still them all

I am in the company of lions by day
At night I lie down in flames
Their teeth are spears and arrows
Their tongues a sharpened blade

Raise yourself up and blaze out over all the body of earth!

They prepared a net to ensnare my foot—
I was almost caught
They dug a pit for me—
But they fell into it

My heart is firm, my heart is firm, my heart is firm
I sing it, I cant it, I pluck it on the lyre
Awake, my soul!
Awake, harp and psaltry!
I will wake up the dawn with my song!
I will go our among the people with my chanting!
I will rouse the nations with my plating!

For your kindness swirls about the entire center
And your truth reaches as far as the empty sky.

Raise yourself up and blaze out over all the body of earth!

You Are the Eyes of the World

Longchenpa (1308–1364)

All that is has me—universal creativity, pure and total presence—as its root.
How things appear is my being.
How things arise is my manifestation.
Sounds and words heard are my messages expressed in sounds and words.
All the capacities, forms, and pristine awareness of the buddhas;
The bodies of sentient beings, their habituations, and so forth;
All environments and the inhabitants, life forms, and experiences;
are the primordial state of pure and total presence.

Without understanding me, the creativity of the universe,
But understanding phenomena that I manifest,
You perceive everything dualistically due to your attachment to longing.
Impermanent, apparitional things will fade away.
they are aimless, like a blind man.

All that is experienced and
Your own mind are the unique primordial reality.
They cannot be conceptualized according to cause and effect systems of thought.
Investigate your mind’s real nature
So that your pure and total presence will actually shine forth.
Inquiry recording:

Coming out from enclosure

This is my final reflection in this four-part series on the Psalms. Having begun with my own longing for consolation, comfort, and contentment (Psalm 23), I was confronted with an unexpected question: “Who am I calling to? Who or what is this ‘You’ to whom I call on with such anguish and hope?” (Psalm 46). As I’ve explored my own identity with the Universal or the divine through meditation and prayer, I did find myself comforted—met and heard—even when my feelings did not resolve. I was consoled IN my feelings, not relieved of them. I found I was being called to meet life as it is, to rise up and come forward wholeheartedly and graciously no matter how I was feeling (Psalm 57).

In this final Psalm I could hear an echo of the signature teaching of Zen formed as a question: “Can you simply be yourself wholeheartedly?” In this Psalm I could hear the song of gratitude for being brought “out from enclosure.” When I can step beyond my conditioning and the habits of reactivity I have the opportunity to awaken from the “self-centered dream” and realize the freedom that comes from having remained faithful to my most troubling and compelling questions. With an equal measure of joy and tears I discover again and again the nourishment I hoped for as I called out for comfort in Psalm 23. As my heart opens to others, I can both give and receive the essential nourishment of life. As I open, I spill out my pain and through the same opening I am able to drink from the kindness around me like “water in an arid land.”

Psalm 126

Norman Fischer version

When you bring us out from enclosure
We will be like dreamers
Our heads thrown back with laughter
Our throats vibrating with song
And the others will say

Great happenings
Have happened to them
The ones who have struggled
Long with their questions

Great things would have happened to us
And we would be dizzy with the joy of them
Drunk on water in an arid land
Our tears our joy’s seed
We’d go out weeping
And come back singing
Our arms full of sheaves
Then, like a silent messenger, the following quote from Mark Nepo arrived by email, deepening the message of Psalm 126 and the path to profound self-acceptance. I had to be reminded that I will forget all of this. That my commitment is to remember over and over, not to cling to what is remembered. I must discipline myself to take my time, to learn to soften into strength, and to craft a particular kind of space for the inevitability of fear. This space is for surrender—to life as it is, to the way we need each other profoundly, and to the endless beauty of loss and love.
Most of our searching is looking for ways to discover who we really are. Thus, we continually run into mountains and rivers, into the farthest seas, and into the arms of strangers. And some of us lead simple lives hoping to practice how not to forget. But, part of our journey is this forgetting and remembering.

So what can we do? Well, it is no secret that slowness remembers and hurry forgets. That softness remembers and hardness forgets. That surrender remembers and fear forgets.

It is beautifully difficult to remember who we really are. But each time we help each other fill the cup of truth and hold each other up after drinking it, we find the essence that always holds us.

~ Mark Nepo
Inquiry recording:

The Koan of “You”

One of the central organizing principles of teaching at Appamada is that the dharma is, most deeply and fully, an expression of relationship. In his introduction to Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms, Norman Fischer speaks to the centrality of this insight:
“Although our lives are located in our hearts and minds, they are also located, perhaps most poignantly, in the space between us.”
He also speaks about the elegant treatment of this theme by Martin Buber in his classic, I and Thou:
“For Buber, there is no God, no absolute, no present moment outside the profound relationship that takes place between the I and the you, between the self and the other. Within the hallowed reaches of that ineffable experience (which is not an experience, Buber insists) our true self takes place. Relationship is the theme of the Psalms—specifically that most difficult of all relationships, the relationship with God.” (p. xviii - xix)
Of course, in Zen practice and in all of Buddhism, “God” can be a problem or at least a sticking point for some people. Norman continues in addressing this concern:
“For many of the religious seekers I have encountered, the word God has been all but emptied of its spiritual power. Even when it is taken in its most positive light it seems often reduced and tamed, representing some sort of circumscribed notion of holiness or morality. For me, what is challenging about “God” is exactly that it is so emotional, metaphysically emotional. The relationship with God that is charted out in the Psalms is a stormy one, codependent, passionate, confusing, loyal, petulant, sometimes even manipulative. I wanted to find a way to approach these poems so as to emphasize this relational aspect, while avoiding the major distracting pitfalls that words like God, King, Lord and so on create. My solution was simple. I decided to avoid whenever I could all these words and instead use the one English word that best evokes the feeling of relationship, the word you.” (p. xix - xx)
This is a stunningly simple and potent choice. In doing so he transforms “You” into a koan rather than as a someone or something to be known. Suddenly we are forced to confront the central question: “Who or what is this You?” A few last lines from Norman’s Introduction:
“With human consciousness, with language, the perfect silence is necessarily broken as we call out with words to one without a name or location, to all that immensity that surrounds us everywhere, inside us and outside us. The word you contains all that and includes all its sadness, intimacy, and power, for in the word you God becomes painfully close, utterly unreachable in his nearness.” (p. xxi)
At the heart of Inquiry we encounter the question, “Who am I? or What is This?” Relationally we also have to ask ourselves, “Who or what is the You being addressed in the Psalms?” Is it an external being, a universal energy or consciousness, our own deepest nature, or the ultimate, unknowable mystery? Might these all be different perspectives on the One? Reading Psalm 46 leads us deeper into this question.

Psalm 46

Norman Fischer version

You are our protection and strength
Help in the storm of anguish and despair
Exactly and easily found close at hand
So we are not afraid

Even when earth’s in upheaval
When mountains are carried to the sea
When the sea’s waters roar and foam
And the mountains quake and tremble with the water’s swelling—

In the middle of the world there is a river
Streams run into it, making glad your cities
Making glad the places where you are known
You flow as the waters of that river
And she shall not be moved
For you are with her
You are the morning that dawns over the quiet waters

Nations rage, kingdoms tumble—
What we see is all your doing
These desolations
These terrifying moments—
Only your unmoving movement—

You cause wars to cease when they cease, to cease forever
You break the bow, snap the spear
Burn up the war wagons

Be still—be still
And know me
Be still and know
That I am what the nations grope toward
I am earth’s desire

So we know you are with us
Our defense at the silent center of things
During extremely difficult times we long for “Help in the storm of anguish and despair—When the earth’s in upheaval—Nations rage, kingdoms tumble—we know you are with us.” How do we know? Who is it that is with us. Toward the end of the Psalm we hear the response and the injunction to practice: “Be still—be still/And know me/Be still and know/That I am what the nations grope for/I am earth’s desire.”

How do we come to know what is with us, always on our side, “our defense at the silent center of things”? Be still and know. This is the entry gate to the koan of “You.”

Inquiry recording:

Consolation Comfort Contentment

Consolation Comfort Contentment

These three words—consolation, comfort, and contentment—do not frequently appear as part of the conventional language of Zen practice. Zen is more often seen as confrontational rather than consoling. Being attached to comfort is often named quite specifically as a barrier to meeting “life as it is,” and contentment is sometimes used as a description of loss of commitment or vitality in Zen practice. Yet, we all long to feel consoled by someone we trust, to be comforted in their warm embrace, and to rest in the contentment of safe harbor. These are wholesome human longings of the heart and the freedom that emerges through Zen practice does open us to these universal, peaceful-filled qualities. If this were not the case, I am not sure how I could have continued this practice for so many years.

As I was reflecting on my own powerful and painful longings for consolation, comfort, and contentment over the past few months, I happened to be listening to an interview with Norman Fischer (Everyday Zen: Changing and Bring Changed by the World) posted in the archives of The New School at Commonweal hosted by its founder, Michael Lerner. Norman spoke about how he had come to create his own versions of the Psalms, first as part of his personal practice and then as something to share with others. He quoted the well known 23rd Psalm in the interview and I was stunned to find it touching precisely those tender places I was yearning to be touched. I remembered that I owned a copy of Norman’s volume of Zen-inspired translations of the Psalms, Opening to You, so I took the slim volume from my bookshelf and began reading these ancient and complicated poems. Here is Norman’s version of Psalm 23:

Psalm 23
Norman Fischer translation

You are my shepherd, I am content
You lead me to rest in the sweet grasses
To lie down by the quiet waters
And I am refreshed

You lead me down the right path
The path that unwinds in the pattern of your name

And even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will not fear
For you are with me
Comforting me with your rod and your staff
Showing me each step

You prepare a table for me
In the midst of my adversity
And moisten my head with oil

Surely my cup is overflowing
And goodness and kindness will follow me
All the days of my life
And in the long days beyond
I will always live in your house

There is much more in the Inquiry recording, but here are a few notes and reflections.

The dictionary tells us that Consolation is “to offer comfort to someone in distress.” Spiritual friendship is a powerful source of consolation, but a kind of consolation that does not say, “Everything is going to be OK.” Instead, it is a consolation that suggests that “Everything will be what it will be, and we will be OK—together. I will be with you, and you with me, as we meet what comes with care.”

Contentment is “a state of peaceful happiness; not wishing for more.” Softening our continual grasping for more is at the core of Buddhist practice. But contentment is not just refusing what we want, it is a more positive embrace of what is possible. “I will be OK no matter what. I will not abandon myself and I will not abandon you. I am content knowing I will be OK no matter what.”

To offer Comfort is “to ease distress or suffering.” This is at the very heart of the Buddha’s practice. Understanding suffering and easing the distress of unnecessary suffering is the primary fruit of practice. To be free of distress or unnecessary suffering can be thought of as nirvanic moments. When we are free from the constraints of conditioning and not caught in reactivity shaped by conditioning, then we are free. The deepest understanding of this freedom tells us, “I am never apart from you.” Who is this “I” that is always on our side, that is always with us? Big Mind, Buddha Nature, Boundlessness, Universal Consciousness, or a deity (God)—all fit as responses to this question.

Investigate your own longing. Share your vulnerable longings with those you trust. Listen to the longings of others. Offer consolation and comfort to others and realize the deep contentment that opens in its own between you and a friend. Discover the path that unwinds as we open to each other.

Inquiry recording:

Touching contact

Sometimes there are no words. Lately I’ve found myself in a place of very quiet tenderness. It’s not that I am devoid of feeling. I feel a lot. It's not that words don’t ever come in response to a gentle request or a warm greeting by a friend. I simply feel no desire to lead with words. I want to look deeply and touch lightly. I want to be in intimate contact in whatever way is appropriate and to feel the trembling pulse of aliveness just under the skin of social activity.

I don’t have many words to offer now. In the Inquiry session that is linked to this brief post I acted in an unconventional manner. Rather than giving an introductory talk, I stood and walked among all the people in the room looking into people’s eyes and briefly making contact — a touch on the shoulder, meeting and outstretched hand, brushing by an arm or a leg. Touching contact. If you listen to the session you will hear the result. I hope you will take the time.

Inquiry recording:

Inconceivable Joy

As most of you know, my dear teacher Zenkei Blanche Hartman died only a few short weeks ago. Here is a lovely piece written for Tricycle by one of my good friends and dharma sisters, Shosan Victoria Austin. The link to her reflection on Blanche's last days can be found at Inconceivable Joy.

Of course I miss my teacher, but I feel her presence so intimately. This is the way she taught me, through her intimate presence and her moment-by-moment willingness to simply do what was needed. One of the Zen ancestor stories she enjoyed telling was about the of not knowing when you embark on whatever is next in life. She could not know about death before entering that mystery, but she was willing to go. Here is the old story from China:

Fayan was preparing to go on pilgrimage. Dizang met him as he prepared and asked, "Where are you going?" Fayan answered, "I'm going around on pilgrimage." At which Dizang inquired further, "What is the purpose of pilgrimage?" Fayan said, "I don't know," at which point Dizang concluded, "Not knowing is most intimate." 

I am profoundly grateful for her presence, her teachings, the way she treated me and Erin as a couple, the way she was such a gracious guest in our home when she visited, always wanting to help out around the house. I can still feel her help working in me and I believe I always will.

P.S. When I still had hair.