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.

Student, Teachers and Confidence in Practice

Below is a link to the recording of our Appamada Inquiry session from April 1, 2014. I wanted to speak about the challenges of being a teacher and a student, and the inevitable tangles of these important and difficult relationships. I drew heavily from the words of Zen teacher and friend Norman Fischer. You can read his article I quote from in the Spring 2014 issue of Buddhadharma magazine [“No Teacher of Zen” p. 48.] [Here's a similar article from 2019 in Lion's Roar]. This Inquiry session includes a very tender dialogue between me and my teaching partner, Peg Syverson.

Inquiry recording:

Just As I Am

Dear Friends,

Several years ago I was invited to write a short piece about my spiritual life; a vignette illustrating a significant turn in my spiritual path. This is what I wrote. The story became more important and more intimate than I had anticipated, but this is how writing—and practice—often goes. If we are willing to offer ourselves fully to it, it can take on a life of its own, and we are often changed as a result. For those of you not raised in a traditionally Southern Christian family, the specifics of the hymn and the service may have little meaning. However, I hope you will find something that resonates within the larger story.

I remember sitting in the front pew of East Avenue Baptist Church on Sunday morning as a young boy, watching my grandfather preach. When he finished and it was time for the invitation, he would ask us to join in singing the old hymn, “Just As I Am.” The church was too old, too small, and too poor to have a Minister of Music, so he would point us to the right page in the hymnal and we would sing along as he spoke during the chorus to those in the congregation who were ripe for conversion. I was a serious little boy, having grown up in the Southern Baptist Church, and I was always moved by that song and the earnest request of my grandfather, or any preacher, who was suggesting that this was a life-saving opportunity—the pinnacle of spiritual transformation—to come forward and profess your faith in Jesus Christ and thus to be assured of salvation.

The music was emotional and solemn: “Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thy blood, was shed for me, and that Thou bidd'st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.” The invitation touched that place in me, and I am sure in many others, that longed to be called into a relationship in which we would be fully seen, completely accepted, and infinitely loved. Only God was capable of that we were told, and if we were willing to come to him "just as I am," all would be well. This was all fine and good during the Sunday morning service, but in Sunday School the very next week, the story mysteriously changed. Apparently I wasn't OK "just as I am." In fact, it was probably a good idea that I should actually offer a “plea” to be forgiven for who I was. I could “come home,” but there were rules in this house and entry into the Kingdom had a big price. The truth slowly dawned; being seen was a bit risky, being accepted was definitely going to be conditional, and being loved “just as I am” finally seemed impossible. After all, I knew I was different. I was gay.

I was a really good boy. I did what I was told. I was polite and smart. I had my Perfect Attendance in Sunday School pins and I was a Royal Ambassador. I memorized the 23rd Psalm and repeated it in my father's Sunday School class when I was five-years-old, and was baptized when I was six. I knew what it took to make it in this world of religion and it meant following the rules and pleasing the big people. I knew I could do that and I was good at it. The only trouble was, I had to maintain certain secrets in order to keep it up. Of course, I also noticed that most of the other people in church had their secrets too, but one of the rules we shared was not to notice. It became clear that looking good was sometimes more important than being good, so I became good at that. Over time, the hidden parts grew too large, the pleasing became too much a burden, and the disconnection too great. I left the church, but "Just As I Am" did not leave me. It kept working on me. I became a Psychologist and practiced as a psychotherapist. I dedicated my life to the relief of suffering in others and in particular I was devoted to helping people find a way to accept themselves, just exactly as they were. If change was possible, this was the starting place. I studied, trained, and practiced. I found my place in the field of Behavioral Medicine, with a specialty in cancer care, working in hospitals and cancer treatment centers around the country. These were real life-saving opportunities, or at least life-affirming and healing opportunities. But one big thing was missing - a spiritual path. Psychology only went so far, and these patients were facing much more than passing anxieties or depressions. They were not just struggling in their marriages or fighting with their children. These people were facing the possibility of an foreshortened life and they were living with pain and suffering that was very apparent. I needed spiritual help in my own life and new tools to support my patients. I also needed a break.

Work in cancer care can be demanding, so I finally took a vacation to Hawaii, hiking the beautiful and rugged Na Pali trail on the north coast of Kauai with a friend. Along with the needed supplies to sustain us on our trek, I took along a copy of the Dhammapada, one of the earliest texts of the Buddha's collected teachings. The eleven-mile hike along the narrow trail to our campsite was demanding but the scenery was unbelievably inspiring. The combination of fear and awe left me in a rare state as I finally sat on that remote beach in the Kalalau Valley reading the unfamiliar words of this ancient eastern teacher. Ordinary life had dropped away as I traversed the switchbacks through the hanging valleys along the jagged coast. As I walked, I was held up by the vast sky above me and called forward by the seemingly endless ocean reaching out to the horizon. Something true was being revealed to me in the raw power of nature and more subtly on the pages of the slim volume I carried in my backpack. Here I was, just as I am, without much to prop me up or fall back on, no one to impress and nothing to hide. I stood naked under the waterfall to take my shower, rested in the shade of the rainforest canopy to eat my meals, and took walks along the beach with the shorebirds scurrying along beside me as my companions.

When I returned, I began to slowly find my way along a new spiritual path. This landscape was characterized by mindful awareness, profound acceptance, and deep gratitude for all that is. I studied and learned all I could about the Buddha's teachings. I came to see that his only concern was the cause of suffering and the relief of suffering he saw around him. That was what I was interested in and what my patients needed - relief from suffering. I meditated and went to retreats. I found a mature teacher to guide me and friends to accompany me along the way. I started a meditation group, founded a Zen center, was ordained as a Priest, spent time in a training monastery, and practiced in Japan. Eventually I allowed a good bit of the ancient Asian forms of practice to fall away. Now I teach this same freedom from suffering, just as I am, in this body, at this time, in this culture, under these circumstances, right here in Austin.

And along the way, I turned back to the actual teachings of Jesus and discovered what the young boy could not have seen; that this freedom was what the Jesus story had been about all along. I now understood that the yearning to respond to that “call”—to be seen, to be accepted, and to be loved unconditionally—was a universal desire, not a Christian or Buddhist desire. Everyone wants to be “saved,” no matter what their spiritual tradition; saved from a disconnected life that is not their own. What was touched as I sat singing that song of invitation was the soft spot in all of us, and it was this tender place that Jesus and Buddha had recognized and met with their lives. They responded as compassionate healers and wise teachers, and their kindness has made a profound difference in the world over the past two millennia. As a result, I now have the opportunity to live a life of truth - just as I am - held in that radiant light of wise care that these great teachers demonstrated in their lives. And you have that same opportunity—just as you are.

Horizonless Intimacy

This is a piece I wrote while teaching in Ireland. Recently, I have been drawn back to this image and these reflections because the perspective of “horizons,” those apparent limits we live with, and “intimacy,” the stance of awakening presence, are so important in spiritual practice. I hope this small story touches something intimate for you and opens your horizons.


I captured this image as I took an early morning walk along the beach in Bray, Ireland (County Wicklow) this past Monday morning (7/28/08). I was looking across the Irish Sea as the sun made its way up through the clouds. If I would have been able to see beyond the horizon where the sea and the sky appear to meet, I would have found northern Wales on the other shore. In fact, on the previous afternoon while walking along another stretch of beach just south of Bray near Newcastle I ran upon a granite marker tucked among the boulders of the seawall protecting the railroad that passed nearby. On the opposite side of the railway from the nearly hidden marker was an abandoned and decaying building. The marker indicated that it was from this site and this tiny station that underwater telegraph cables were first laid beginning in the late 1880s, connecting Ireland and Wales. These connections were in use through the early 1930s. What happened then? I suppose technology changed what was possible. Horizons for communication were extended and expanded.

If my view across the Irish Sea could have extended even further that morning, beyond the Welch border, I would have encountered the midlands of England where I had just spent the previous two weeks teaching and walking on the moors of Derbyshire. Further still and the English Channel would have come into view and then the Netherlands, France, and the whole European continent. Where would it have ended? With a higher or more complete view, when obstructions or limitations are released, when horizons vanish, what can be seen? Apparently there is no end to the great view of a liberated mind, which I am only imagining, even while my particular human senses are, of course, quite limited.

These past three weeks have been very concentrated for me—many days of teaching and very deep encounters. I worked with a number of wonderful people who were wholeheartedly offering themselves to a process of assisted self-discovery in mindfulness. They were curious about what they could see and what horizons they might explore as their self-identifications relaxed into the more diffuse awareness and warmth of intimacy. In my reading this morning, I ran across this brilliant statement by the late Irish poet John O'Donohue: "In the human face infinity becomes personal."

As I turned my attention to the vastness of the morning sky, into the cold wind, and toward the glistening sea last Monday, my awareness expanded and opened, inviting the unbound possibilities of my heart and mind to know themselves more fully. In the very next moment, in the reflected light of that same morning sun as I turned and looked into the eye of my friend Donna with whom I was walking, that vastness became personal, close, and alive. This is also what I saw in the faces of the participants in the retreats over these past three weeks. In the reflected presence they offered to each other, they began to see their own brilliance and fullness, flaws and limitations, all perfect because they were whole. This is the same infinitely transformative potential I see in the faces of each person who brings themselves forward in our Inquiry Groups, who come to practice discussion, and who sit in the zendo every day. We offer ourselves to each other so we can remember our vulnerable humanness and, in the bargain, get a glimpse of the divine. “In the human face infinity becomes personal.” What are the limits of this liberating intimacy? Our spiritual ancestors suggest that it is boundless. Let's turn to face each other again and again, and in that reflected presence, discover this truth to be our own.