Update: Teaching in the UK

Dear Friends,

I recently sent an email to my Practice Discussion Groups in Austin letting them know about my teaching adventures in the UK. I wanted to stay connected and support our shared practice while I was gone I've been encouraged to put this up on the blog so everyone can be part of the update so here it is!

I miss every one of you! I do appreciate the wonderful opportunities I have to teach and work with amazing students in so many places, but, as they say, “There’s no place like home.” I just finished with the first week of teaching here with two more to go, so I thought I would check in with you. Here is my update so far.

I flew to London, leaving Austin the evening of Thursday, April 28 arriving at Heathrow early Friday morning. I was met by one of my senior students, Cesca, who drove me out toward the southern coast, along the English Channel, to an old farmhouse where another of my senior students, David and his wife Sallie, took care of me until I left for “the North” on Tuesday, May 3. I recovered from jet-lag, worked on my teaching plans, walked along the windy shore, through fields of Spring flowers, and began the teaching tour by leading a one-day retreat composed of students from two small sitting groups which meet in the homes of these two senior students. We had just over 30 people and it was a lovely day. We had beginners who had never sat a retreat before and some very experienced students who came down from Sheffield. It was a great start in an entirely new area of the UK for me. Here is a small image from a beach walk. At the end of the one-day we had a small precepts ceremony for two students who had finished their study and practice course, the first such ceremony I’ve done in the UK. It was sweet and more potent than I think the group had anticipated.

When I finished in the South, I took a train back to London to Waterloo Station, then a cab through across to Euston Station, and then a second train to Lancaster in the northwest where the Irish Sea and North Atlantic come together. As I went from station to station in London in the cab I took a quick shot as the crossed the Thames. There was a lot to see in this one view if you look closely (whether walking, biking, or in a cab).

Once in Lancaster, I stayed with two of my other senior students, Josh and Trudy, who, as a couple, lead the "Nothing Missing” Sangha. Josh Gifford will actually be the first Head Student among the UK sangha’s beginning next week. I will say more about that later. The 3-day non-residential retreat was this Wednesday through Friday. We had 26 people and continued the teaching theme on “Embracing Impermanence.” It was a very rich three days with powerful Inquiry at the end. Lancaster is known for its large and ancient castle which served as a prison for many years. It has parts that are Medieval and then other parts added later. Here is a glimpse at the oldest part of the huge structure on the hill.

Today (Saturday) I was driven back to the middle of the country, to Sheffield, where my teaching in the UK started. The “Nothing Special” sangha is the original group here. Tomorrow we will have a special day in celebration of Ginny Bennett, the woman who first organized the Hakomi trainings which brought me here years ago, and who later took on the IFS trainings, and also helped support the sanghas here in the UK and Switzerland. She was an amazing woman who died in February of pancreatic cancer. Monday I will begin another 3-day non-residential retreat here in Sheffield and then on the south again to Devon and the longer residential retreat. I will report on those events later.

I will report back later as the next two retreats unfold.
Please know that I carry you in my heart.

P.S. My student David has a lovely little one-room building where he meditates and studies. It is part of the cluster of buildings at Nunnington Farms and serves as his office as well. Here is the corner where we would sit in the morning. All the stones which make us the walls of the building are flint. Every one of them.

The Dharma of Carl Rogers

I have been reflecting on the gifts of “ancestors” and the fleeting nature of life—mine and those around me.  My father recently celebrated his 88th birthday, I am the age at which both of my grandfathers’s died, a close friend suddenly died after a very brief illness just last month, and three of my beloved students were recently diagnosed with cancer within a few weeks of each other. Time passes swiftly.  As the Tibetan teachers like to say, “Death is real. The only question is how and when we  will die.”

I feel immense gratitude for the wonderful people who have helped shape who I am. If we are honest and generous, we can all name people we would designate as worthy role models or ancestors.  These are the people we have learned from; people who saw something in us and encouraged us; individuals we may have never met but whose work profoundly influenced our decisions about ourselves and our lives. I am blessed to have had some wonderful ancestors several of whom are honored with pictures resting on my personal altar.

As I reflected on the beauty and power of ancestors I scanned my bookshelf to see if I could identify some of the very first books I bought as a young man, when I was hungry for wisdom and guidance. I came upon the classic, On Becoming a Person, by Carl Rogers. Published in 1961, I obtained my copy about ten years later. The title intrigued me at the time. I was naive and longed for wisdom and guidance I could trust. I was curious, looking for direction. Now, over forty years later, as I re-read some of this amazing book I discover the seeds of the dharma that were planted in me by this man I never met and who would not have thought of himself necessarily as a Buddhist. I was particularly taken by the very first chapter—“This is Me: Some Significant Learnings”. Rogers presents these learnings as a list which I have included below along with a few brief notes of my own. There is much more about this in the Inquiry recording at the end of this post.

This is Me: Some Significant Learnings

"I speak as a person, from a context of personal experience and personal learnings."
In my relationships…I have found that it does not help, in the long run, to act as though I were something that I am not.

Suzuki Roshi would say, “When you are you, Buddha is Buddha.”

I find I am more effective when I can listen acceptantly to myself, and can be myself.

Zazen is our ongoing enactment of listening acceptantly.

I have found it of enormous value when I can permit myself to understand another person.

Step aside from the self-centered dream and open to another.

I have found it enriching to open channels whereby others can communicate their feelings, their private perceptual worlds, to me.

In this I hear echoes of the Bodhisattva Vows in which one is committed to the freedom and well-being of the other.

I have found it highly rewarding when I can accept another person.

The deepest nourishment comes from accepting another, not necessarily being accepted.

The more I am open to the realities in me and in the other person, the less do I find myself wishing to rush in to “fix things.”

In Zen we say, “Nothing is wrong and nothing is missing.”

I can trust my experience.

In Zen we say, “Just this is it.” This moment, this body, this experience. This where we awaken.

Evaluation by others is not a guide for me.

A quote from Sojun Mel Weitzman of the Berkeley Zen Center: “Our job is to not take offense, even when it is meant.”

Experience is, for me, the highest authority.

We chant, “Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher.”

I enjoy the discovery of order in experience.

The dharma is everywhere because that is the definition of dharma—THIS! NOW! HERE!

The facts are friendly.

The Zen teacher John Tarrant says: “There are no circumstance under which it is wise to refuse life.” We turn toward each moment, rejecting nothing.

What is most personal is most general.

We enter the universal by being intimate with the particular. Suzuki Roshi would say, “Doing one thing completely is enlightenment.”

It has been my experience that persons have a basically positive direction.

Awakening is our direction. Our nature is that of a Buddha.

Life, at its best, is a flowing, changing process in which nothing is fixed.

Inter-being and impermanence are the core teachings of the Buddha.
Samsara is being caught in reactivity. Nirvana is freedom from reactivity.
Inquiry recording:

Monasteries Everywhere

This is actually a letter I just sent to my friends taking the current Appamada course, "The Heart's Release: The Zen Path to Softening Barriers to Love." I thought it might be of interest to a larger audience so I am including it here as a blog post. I hope you find it an encouragement to find practice in everyday life.

Greetings from Molokai:

I am spending this week at the annual “Great-fullness Camp” held at Hui Ho’olana, the retreat center where I have taught for the past 16 years. It is a week in which friends of the Hui gather to deep clean everything, work to support the existing landscape, clear invasive species and prepare for additional native reforestation, do maintenance on the buildings, and build new structures if needed. We have a wonderful time together as old friends arrived to offer themselves in support of something that has shared meaning—this place, the land, the vision of the non-profit, and each other.

About the second day during lunch I told my table-mates, “I feel like I did when I was at Tassajara (the Zen monastery where I trained). We get up early, sit in meditation, have breakfast, gather for work circle and a small inspirational reflection, and then disperse to our work teams until lunch. After lunch we enjoy a small break and then we are back to work in the kitchen, in the garden, on maintenance crews, etc. We end the day with dinner and warm conversations on the porch.” The basic arc is the same as in the monastery even though there is far less sitting and no formal services. However, the deep intention, the shared work, and the pace is quite similar. We begin with sitting, we work in teams to support the place and its complex array of interdependent parts, all necessary to maintain this transformational container for guests and teachers throughout the year, and maintain a shared schedule during this 10-day “retreat.”

But here is one of the most interesting and unexpected things (at least to me) that has emerged this week. When I arrived, Bronwyn Cooke, the Director of the Hui, suggested that I could offer morning meditation before breakfast if I wanted. It is always a good way to start the day so I agreed. I was also interested to see who might join me. Surprisingly there was a very robust response. There was also a request for an altar so I made sure we had a simple altar and candle. There was mention of people who were ill or who had recently died, so we constructed a second memorial altar covered with cards bearing the names of people we are holding in our hearts. We began to add things from nature, a beautiful Kwan Yin statue, and the cards. One of the participants had recently been to Bhutan and had brought back prayer flags blessed at a monastery in the mountains. I helped her hang the colorful string of flags over the entry so we pass under them each morning as we enter and depart our meditation hall. Suddenly we had a little temple, altars, and shared practices.

In addition, there is a tradition at work camp in which one person begins the morning work circle with a poem, a reading, or some other brief reflection to support our aspirations for the day. At the end of the circle the person who has offered the reflection for that day invites another person to lead the next morning. Bronwyn opened the first morning and tapped me for the second. The next morning I spoke about our shared connections and what a true circle of care can create. I used a short piece by Wendell Berry (attached below) and then had the group stand and enact the circle of care with the Metta phrases we use at Appamada with the appropriate gestures (the words without the choreography are below). Knowing that traditional hula combines chanting and whole-body gestures to tell a story, I said half-jokingly that our little practice would be a version of the more traditional Hawaiian hula. We would chant and use gestures to help tell our story of loving kindness. It seemed to be well received with a great circle of 34 people smiling in the morning sunlight.

Something organic happens when people offer themselves wholeheartedly toward a shared purpose. We all know this and have probably been blessed to experience it at times. However, I was not expecting the deep desire for practice to be so close to the surface. It only took a small invitation and a little nudge and the group was practicing together in a beautifully simple way. This is how ready the heart is to be released, to “blossom into a future graced with love.” (from John O’Donohue’s, To Come Home to Yourself). This is the “in-most request” that we all carry waiting for a place for it to be called forth. This week, this has been one of those places.


To Come Home to Yourself
~ John O’Donohue

May all that is unforgiven in you
Be released.

May your fears yield
Their deepest tranquilities.

May all that is unlived in you
Blossom into a future
Graced with love.

Gathering for morning work circle

We Clasp the Hands
~ Wendell Berry

We clasp the hands of those that go before us,
And the hands of those who come after us.
We enter the little circle of each other’s arms
And the larger circle of lovers,
Whose hands are joined in a dance,
And the larger circle of all creatures,
Passing in and out of life,
Who move also in a dance,
To a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it
Except in fragments.

Metta Phrases

May this body be at ease
May this heart be open
May this mind be boundless
May this being awaken

May your body be at ease
May your heart be open
May your mind be boundless
May you awaken

May our bodies be at ease
May our hearts be open
May our minds be boundless
May we awaken together

May all bodies be at ease
May all hearts be open
May all minds be boundless
May all beings awaken together

Practice as a Conversation

As I sat quietly in my cabin on the hillside at Hui Ho’olana, looking out over the beautiful landscape, the vast sky, and seemingly endless expanse of ocean, I waited patiently for an idea to come. I was sitting with this question: “How can I weave various forms of meditation, embodied mindfulness practices, the challenges and gifts of living closely in community, and the study of the Buddhist precepts into a coherent and vibrant fabric?” I wanted each of these practice areas to come alive in relation to each other in our upcoming retreat. I wanted the retreat participants to engage each practice area fully and to do so in a way that would naturally reveal the relationship among all the practices. I wanted to invite a way to enter each practice as a conversation. Here is a brief overview of the essential conversations I encouraged.

Our first conversation is always with the body and breath. This reflects the first foundation of mindfulness taught by the Buddha and it is an essential part the ground of contemplative practice. Without a firm grounding in the body, the transformational potential of true practice cannot emerge.

The next conversation is with the heart and mind. These are classic areas of mindful study and meditation—thoughts and feelings. With some gentle relaxation and focus, we begin to cultivate a way to witness the endless progression of thoughts and feelings generated by our body/mind. Our hearts open and close like a flower following the sun of connection, subtly and continuously responding to the ever-changing landscape of relationships.

During the course of living and practicing together for a week we naturally engage in verbal conversations with each other—ordinary human conversations. However, when we bring mindful attention to these conversations, attending to our impact as well as our intentions, we learn more and more about ourselves and each other. It is here that we begin to “wake up to what we do,” the descriptive phrase that is the heart of Diane Rizzetto’s book on the precepts used in the retreat (Waking Up to What You Do).

If you have spent any time in Hawaii, you realize that what we commonly think of as the “inside and outside” are not completely separate. Living very simply and in constant contact with the elements demands an ongoing conversation with nature. Nature can’t be avoided at Hui Ho’olana and it encourages a beautiful conversation and a rhythm that is quite different from the ones we typically engage in city life.

Finally, or maybe most fully, there is the conversation with Mystery. On the island of Molokai this energy is called “Mother Molokai,” a powerful, feminine, embracing energy. But the True Mystery, by whatever name, is all around us all the time. We are never apart from the mystery though we may not notice it and we may not be intimate with it. Meditation, embodied practices, living close to nature and to each other, slowly begin to reveal the Mystery in all of its ordinary, everyday splendor.

We find powerful and perplexing conversations at the center of traditional Zen training. The old teaching stories (koans) of our ancestors are a peculiar form of conversation between students and teachers, between a sole practitioner and the natural world, or within the hearts and minds of dedicated practitioners struggling to come to terms with the “great matter of birth and death.” Peter Herschock calls these encounters “communicative crises” in which our conduct is challenged and shaped by the conversations in which we engage. This is a place where the precepts and meditation meet, in the conversation that illuminates our conduct—waking up to what we do. Herschock says that awakening can be seen as “a qualitatively unique way of conducting ourselves in the narrative space of interpersonality.” (Liberating Intimacy, p. 63) Suzuki Roshi said it this way: “Technically speaking there are no enlightened people; only enlightened activity.” How we act in the world is our most public conversation.

The wonderful poet David Whyte speaks of “courageous conversations.” He posits that our lives require such conversations and call them courageous because they are the conversations we don’t want to have. Spiritual practices invite and encourage courageous conversations with ourselves, with others, and with the Mystery. He says, “Life is a creative, intimate and unpredictable conversation if it is nothing else, spoken or unspoken, and our life and our work are both the result of the particular way we hold that passionate conversation.” (Crossing the Unknown Sea, p. 6)

Of course, these ways we engage in Inquiry is clearly a form of courageous conversation. By coming together to relate to Truth we create a lively, generous, and nourishing communicative crises. These are the kinds of crises in which our habitual ways of being in the world are shaken loose so we have the potential to embody and express something more authentic and free.


Embodied Practice and the Warm Sun of Friendship

The Buddha’s practice is an embodied practice. Every one of us is a product of the union of our parent’s bodies—we are miraculously borne in our mother’s body and then suddenly delivered into this world as a tender, embodied expression of that union. We learn to navigate our lives with a body and as a body until it ultimately drops and we make space for new life. Being human is a shaky, embodied experience, and the Buddha’s teachings emerged from his determination to understand what it means to live in such a body that is simultaneously shockingly vulnerable and amazingly resilient.

The Buddha’s teachings rests on the realization of “emptiness,” the profound apprehension that all of life is one, inconceivable, interdependent event unfolding continuously and impersonally. The only way to experience being alive is by fully inhabiting a body. This fullness of embodied life is empty of separation; empty of independence; full of the inevitable, ever-changing, relentless unfolding. Here is a clarifying quotation from Steven Batchelor’s new book, After Buddhism, in which we hear the echo of the early teachings on emptiness being a call to embodiment—not philosophy or theology.

“The Shorter Discourse on Emptiness concludes with this insight: to dwell in emptiness means to inhabit fully the embodied space of one’s sensory experience, but in a way that is no longer determined by one’s habitual reactivity. To dwell in such emptiness does not mean that one will no longer suffer. As long as one has a body and senses, one will be “prone to anxiety” that comes with being a conscious, feeling creature made of flesh, bones, and blood. And this would have been just as true for Gotama as it is for us today.
Here, emptiness is not a truth—let alone an ultimate truth—that is to be understood correctly as a means to dispel ignorance and thereby attain enlightenment. For Gotama, the point is not to understand emptiness but to dwell in it. To dwell in emptiness brings us firmly down to earth and back into our bodies.” (p. 9)

To dwell in emptiness is to live in an animal body that can think, imagine, and act in ways that are, in some ways, unlike any other animal on this planet. Because we are a certain kind of animal—a member of the remarkably adaptive and intelligent Class Mammalia—we require each other in order to survive. Our bodies are made to seek out, touch, be warmed by, groomed, and loved by others like ourselves. These requirements are our gifts as Mammals, but these gifts come with complications and difficulties. The Buddha sought to understand the nature of the struggles and inevitable suffering of ordinary, embodied humans, and in doing so he came to understand the importance of friendship as a central feature of spiritual practice. This is a large and important topic which we cannot exhaust in this small post, but here is another statement from Batchelor’s book regarding kalyanamitta—true spiritual friendship.

“Throughout his life, the Buddha was known as the Friend of the Sun (adiccacitta) or Kinsman of the Sun (adiccabandhu). He likewise compared any true friend (kalyanamitta) to the first light of dawn, for in the same way as the dawn is the precursor of the rising sun, a true friend preceded one’s cultivation of the noble eightfold path, the route to self-reliance in the practice of the dharma. Through both example and teaching, the true friend encourages the sun to arise in another’s life. The sun, in this case, is nirvana, which is beheld as soon as the dark cloud’s of habitual reactivity are momentarily dispelled from an individual’s mind. Such moments open up the possibility of leading a life that is no longer conditioned by impulses of greed, hatred, and confusion.” (p. 36)

In the Inquiry recording (found below if you are reading this on my blog) you will hear the story about the final morning of the retreat above Lake Chapala near Guadalajara this Fall. On this morning as I was packing to leave and looking over my preparations for our last sitting together, I heard knock on my door. I was invited to join the entire group outside under an outdoor pavilion where we had been doing walking meditation. It was a clear, chilly morning, soft in the early morning light. One of the leaders began to reflect on what the retreat had meant, how we had come together in such a loving and generous way, and what this might mean to the community. As she spoke, the sun broke through the clouds hanging over the lake, streaming over the mountainous landscape and into the pavilion, flooding our bodies with warm light. We engaged in several embodied ceremonies of gratitude and completion, honoring each other and the practices that had bought us to this moment together in the morning sun. I read the quote above as my translator worked wholeheartedly to transmit the teachings clearly and lovingly in Spanish.

“Through both example and teaching, the true friend encourages the sun to arise in another’s life.” As we stood together in our circle of care that morning, showered with both morning sunlight and flower petals, we knew this to be true. We were embodying the teachings of the Buddha: “To dwell in emptiness brings us firmly down to earth and back into our bodies.” We were home—together.

Inquiry recording:

The Space Between

Many of you have heard me say, over and over, that awakening does not happen "in" a person. It happens "between." If our lives are woven as a single fabric and linked as one inconceivable network of relationship, then to "attain individual enlightenment" has no meaning. However, the realization of liberating intimacy through profound meeting is the great gift of all contemplative practice and spiritual inquiry. But opening the space between us requires courage — the courage to see and to be seen. This capacity is grounded in the practice of loving presence which is the embodiment of wisdom and compassion.

Most of you also know I love photography and the way that this artistic practice of "seeing" invites intimacy with the present moment. Here is a TEDx talk by Nic Askew who embodies these same messages and engages in a profound practice using intimate video to open "the space between." He calls his work Soul Biographies. With his unwavering eye and open heart he encourages us to join in seeing each other as "naked" or authentic, and, in turn, to be seen in this same way. Here is his talk and a few of his powerful images that teach Buddhist principles without a single Buddhist term and demonstrates the essence of the practice of Inquiry with a camera. With great respect for his work and a deep appreciation for his message, please meet Nic Askew.


Imagination and Wonder

There are two lines from the writings of the Chinese Zen Master Honghzi that I have always loved. I imagine their intention was instructive, however, the phrase about “wonder” is also inspiring and enchanting. This translation is from the work of Taigen Dan Leighton (Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi).

“With thoughts clear, sitting silently, wander into the center of the circle and wonder. This is how you must penetrate and study.”

“Wonder” is not a word that is used frequently in spiritual writing these days. There is so much emphasis on belief and certainty, especially in religious writing, that the innocence and spaciousness of wonder have lost its place in religious dialogue.

I found Hongzhi’s words interesting in two ways. First, viewing wonder as an activity, as something that one can do—once you have wandered into the center of the circle. I imagine standing in a literal circle at the center of something, maybe at the heart of a labyrinth having just walked along its folding path, and purposely opening to the mystery on that sacred spot. I imagine this is the ordinary meaning intended by Hongzhi. Another more eccentric reading would be to see that wonder, along with the circle itself, is a place where you wonder. In this way, the center of the circle, along with wonder, are joined and become the place you would discover yourself wandering. Either way, wonder comes alive as a way to meet the great mystery and as a place to encounter mystery, both of which stand at the center of true spiritual practice.

The wonderful Franciscan priest and teacher Richard Rohr suggests that “wonder” can be a word connoting at least three ways of standing at the center. I have added a few things of my own, but the basic ideas are his.

Standing in disbelief or outside of belief. Without being caught in skepticism and negativity you might encounter the incomprehensible, the inconceivable.
Standing directly in the question itself. Not standing passively with the question, waiting for an answer, but with openness and vitality, the aliveness of intimacy with the question.
Standing in awe before something. Standing in awe demands that we drop self-importance and self-centeredness, but without abandoning self-responsibility. instead we learn to tolerate standing in awe as a source of deep nourishment and inspiration, not passivity.

In these three ways we are invited to wander into the center of the circle and wonder: with beginner’s mind, intimate with our questions, and in awe of the mystery.

Imagination is another word associated with wonder. I am not speaking of “fantasy,” but of an essential creativity of heart and mind necessary for spiritual practice. Here are a few reflections on “imagination.”

Imagination is beyond knowing, outside of conceptual thought. We literally imagine the world into existence through our senses.
Imagination brings the world alive, otherwise everything would be dead stuff lying there with no meaning and no relation to us and our world. This is the way life seems to someone deeply depressed. Things are seen, heard and felt, but the sensory data are dead. There is no vital imagination.
Through imagination we create and re-create the world—the impermanent, interdependent world. In doing so the world is made new again and again.
Imagination allows us to apprehend the wholeness of life, the fluid, vital, illusive whole that has meaning. We create narratives, live them, and pass them on as gifts of meaning.
Imagination invites us beyond the merely psychological into the religious or spiritual. We are embraced by the divine, or universal energy, or whatever we call it. We might even feel an embodied release through engagement in ceremony or even by simply entering a temple or church which is felt as sacred. This is only possible through imagination.

Spiritual practice may be the supreme act of imagination, but it must be embodied and enacted, not just imagined. We can embody kindness and enact care. These are everyday practices. Wander into the center of the circle and wonder at this great possibility.

What do I do now?

There are moments in life when everything suddenly changes, when things shift in an instant and the world seems unfamiliar and new. In these moments we often feel confused, ungrounded, shattered, disoriented and disenchanted. No matter what we call these turning moments, we tend to think of them as problems to be solved, difficulties to be set right, or at least understood so the world can be made “normal” again. But the truth is, there is no going back.

We all have our list of these moments and their residual impact: the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, passing a major milestone in life, the achievement of a lifelong goal, witnessing something completely inspiring or totally devastating. We may be brought to a new and more vivid place of aliveness by art, music, poetry or architecture. Something opens, turns, falls away, or is shown to be possible that simply did not exist before that moment. Then what?

Attempting to regain our bearings is the strategy for ordinary life. Moving with and through the sudden reversals and surprises is the direction offered by spiritual practice. Everyday questions seek a clear and sensible answer. Through spiritual inquiry we turn things upside down and question our seemingly clear and sensible answers. The “not knowing” of beginner’s mind is the open curiosity of “what do I do now?”

Our primary practice is zazen—sitting in silence and stillness. In doing so we learn to tolerate our questions without grasping too quickly for a sure answer. The essence of “silence” is simply learning to wait. Patience and curiosity are far more likely to open a space for what wants to emerge than a habitual reaction based in fear. At the heart of “stillness” is the capacity to resist the urge to fix. This can be a particularly difficult challenge, but practicing not-fixing along with waiting allows something new to emerge in the space that opens through the steady practice of zazen.

These are just a few of the things we met in Inquiry as we faced the question—“what do I do now that everything has changed?” The recording of this Inquiry is available (on my blog) following this short reflection. In addition to the Inquiry I would like to recommend the new book from my teacher Zenkei Blanche Hartman, beautifully edited by my dharma sister Zenju Earthlyn Manuel. The title is Seeds for a Boundless Life: Zen Teachings from the Heart (Shambhala, 2015). Here is a quote from Blanche in which she speaks to the question arising from surprising change:
“If we’re open to embracing the surprises as they arise, then there will be inconceivable joy. If we fuss and fume and say, “That isn’t what I expected,” then there will be inconceivable misery. Just to welcome your life as it arrives moment after moment, to meet it as fully as you can, being as open to it as you can, and meeting it wholeheartedly, this is renunciation—this is leaving behind all of your preferences, all of your ideas and notions and schemes. Just meeting life as it is.”
Blanche’s dharma name, Zenkei, means Inconceivable Joy.

The following is a snapshot of Blanche resting on the steps of the cabin where her sewing teacher Joshin-san lived while at Antai-ji Monastery. We had traveled from Kyoto to the West coast of Japan to pay homage to the newly installed marker on Joshin-san's grave site. Joshing-san passed on the lineage of sewing Buddha's Robe to Blanche and it was the many hours I was fortunate to spend assisting Blanche in the sewing room that showed me her deep devotion and the true spirit of Zen.

Inquiry recording:

Ask me

This past September (2016) during the Swiss retreat one of my students brought a beautiful poem to me in practice discussion. The poem, Ask Me, is by one of my favorite American poets, William Stafford (1914-1993). I've lived with the poem these three months and wanted to bring it to Inquiry. There is so much in this brief but powerful verse which reflects the depth of Inquiry; the invitation to meet each other intimately and honestly, the willingness to face the immense beauty as well as the unpleasant truth of our lives, the necessity of listening deeply to the questions and to attend to their responses, and to note the ways in which life invites us to solidify into "selves" below which truth moves more freely. We grasp for solid ground in an ever-changing and completely interdependent flow of contingencies. In doing so, we abandon the warmth of lived experience for the false hope of certainty. Can we "hold the stillness exactly before us?"

The recorded Inquiry opens in response to the poem but the poem is enough in itself. Live with it as I have. It has gifts for you hidden in the stillness.

Ask Me
~ William Stafford

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there; hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

Inquiry recording:

Let's Grow Up

Growing into our fullness, into true human maturity, is the primary function of authentic spiritual practice. If we live long enough or pay attention carefully enough, we will inevitably meet the universal, unanswerable questions such as—“What is this life?—Why am I here?—What am I supposed to do with this life?—What happens next?”

Willingness to respond to these core questions without contracting or fleeing, while cultivating the capacity to tolerate responding without the satisfaction of ultimate “answers” are hallmarks of maturity. Here is a quote from Suzuki Roshi:
We want to be fooled by something. That is maybe why we say that human beings do not like something real. But human beings like something unreal. That is very true. You don’t like anything real.
This may be a difficult message to hear. Secretly or at least unconsciously, most of us would rather relinquish full responsibility for our lives and forgo the demands of growing up. We would rather relax into a dream of false comfort and apparent safety, hoping it will all turn out OK. We are terrified of the “real” and yet suffer because we don’t or won’t look. We enter spiritual practice wanting to know the truth and then flinch at what we discover.

Here is a fierce poem by Jennifer Welwood which speaks to this dilemma and the requirement of disciplined practice. A “dakini” is a figure in Tibetan Buddhist iconography and mythology which is often depicted as a female warrior—telling the truth and taking no prisoners.
The Dakini Speaks — Jennifer Welwood

My friends, let's grow up.
Let's stop pretending we don't know the deal here.
Or if we truly haven't noticed, let's wake up and notice.
Look: everything that can be lost, will be lost.
It's simple—how could we have missed it for so long?
Let's grieve our losses fully, like ripe human beings,
But please, let's not be so shocked by them.
Let's not act so betrayed,
As though life had broken her secret promise to us.
Impermanence is life's only promise to us,
And she keeps it with ruthless impeccability.
To a child she seems cruel, but she is only wild,
And her compassion is exquisitely precise:
Brilliantly penetrating, luminous with truth,
She strips away the unreal to show us the real.
This is the true ride—let’s give ourselves to it!
Let's stop making deals for a safe passage:
There isn't one anyway, and the cost is too high.
We are not children any more.
The true human adult gives everything for what cannot be lost.
Let's dance the wild dance of no hope!
One final word for those who have been harmed by the loud voice screaming—“Grow up!” There are ways in which this injunction is communicated in violent and unhealthy ways. That is not the teaching here. Many people find themselves in a psychological bind as they attempt to navigate the conflicting messages they receive in their families. These are the messages that are often received from immature parents, partners, friends, and even spiritual teachers. The paradox is set in place when you get the message—“Don’t grow up,” along with the message—“Don’t be a child.”

Very briefly, here are the core messages and the antidotes which were expanded and amplified in the Inquiry itself.

Don’t grow up: The person in power communicates in some way—“I want you to remain immature so I can remain in control.” The underlying message from the person in power is—“I’m actually a frightened child. Don’t ever leave me.”

The practices that liberate you from this message require:
  1. A willingness to find your own voice, especially in the service of individuation from the unreal dependency that is being encouraged.

  2. A capacity to learn about appropriate boundaries, especially if you want to be deeply intimate.
Don’t be a child: The person in power also communicates—“You are not to have your own feelings. I can’t handle them. Don’t be a child and have needs. Above all, don’t need me. I need you.”

The practices that liberate you from this message require:
  1. The courage to allow and accept your feelings and to learn how to navigate them self-responsibly.

  2. The skill to become attentive to both your intention in relationships as well as your impact in all situations.
Maturity: Fundamentally this is the capacity to think and feel at the same time, to accept your vulnerability and limitations while, at the same time, owning and embodying your authority and responsibility. In other words, a willingness and a capacity to tolerate what is real.

Inquiry audio:

Simply Aware

Awareness is always aware. It may be odd to consider awareness as something that flourishes without needing “you.” I don’t mean that there is no requirement for a body that is alive, a brain that receives and interprets sensory input, and the alchemy that occurs when all these elements come together. I mean that awareness is aware before the person thinks that they are aware and continues after a moment of self-conscious awareness. Awareness is just aware. It is only aware.

Simple awareness does not move, makes no comment, has no preferences and does not require the reflexive “self” to flourish. Awareness, like breathing is not something we do. We can become conscious of our thinking, reflecting, feeling, story making, reacting, and all the miraculous capacities of consciousness. But simple awareness just rests as awareness, a place in which we enact all of these self-generating and self-maintaining activities. We can become conscious of our breath as well. We can manipulate it wilfully, but eventually it will continue to breathe us. There is no self needed for breath to continue during sleep or in any moment in which we forget ourselves and move effortlessly in present moment experience.

Awareness is simple aware.

Zazen is said to be “just sitting.” Technically, it is not a form of meditation. It is not an instrumental activity used to create a personal result. Zazen does zazen, yet we engage in the ceremony of sitting in an upright posture, in relative silence and stillness, to bear witness to and to embody simple awareness.

In zazen we are invited not to move, even as we sit in an alive body that is subtly moving. We are invited not to comment, even on our comments. We are invited to hold preferences lightly and release them, even as they inevitably arise. Zazen does zazen. There is no need for a meditator nor a meditation in order to demonstrate our commitment to simple awareness.

Immediately following Inquiry on August 18, I visited Antaro Burke in his room at Christopher House (a facility for Austin Hospice). He was not socially engaged in a conventional way, yet there was awareness. His personality was not required for the shared intimacy. There was no one else in the room with us so I simply sat and touched him—a hand on his shoulder, moments of gently holding his hand, or at times a soft hand on his forehead. I said a few things but not much. Simple awareness. Just sitting. Together. It was clear that awareness was aware. I have no idea of the form or content of “his” awareness. In fact, I now see that as soon as I use the pronoun “his” I create a self that is aware. And in writing this sentence there is the necessity to type “I create a self” and in doing so I create not only a self lying in the bed, but a self-standing by the bed attending to the one in the bed. It is inevitable that we create these selves but completely unnecessary for awareness to be aware. No self was required, yet the moment was complete. This is the great mystery. I have no idea how consciousness works and neuroscientist are unable to explain it. Yet, there was awareness, the flow of presence. There was Antaro in the bed, and Flint sitting with him. It seemed to me that there were small responses, simple shifts in orientation, the ever-changing breath, all seemingly in response to our vital connection. But I really don’t know. The contents of awareness were irrelevant, just the simple fact of awareness and our presence. No “I” was required for profound connection. No “self” was required for love to open. Just awareness and bodily presence.

Antaro passed away peacefully surrounded by his family at 3:20 PM on Monday, August 24. His Memorial Service was held at Live Oak Unitarian Church on Friday, August 28.

Here are a few teaching quotes I drew from for this Inquiry. I’ve not added any additional commentary here because they are used in the Inquiry talk. I offer them here for your reflection.

The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. – Dogen

The more you think about these matters, the farther you are from the truth. Step aside from all thinking and there is nowhere you can’t go. – Hsin Hsin Ming

One should realize that one does not meditate in order to go deeply into oneself and
withdraw from the world... There should be no feeling of striving to reach some exalted
or higher state, since this simply produces something conditioned and artificial that will
act as an obstruction to the free flow of the mind... The everyday practice is simply to
develop as complete awareness and openness to all situations and emotions, and to all
people, experiencing everything totally without mental reservations and blockages, so
that one never withdraws or centralizes onto oneself… – Dzogchen text

Wide and far-reaching without limit,
pure and clean, it emits light.
Its spiritual potency is unobscured.
Although it is bright, there are no objects of illumination.
It can be said to be empty,
yet this emptiness is [full of] luminosity.
It illumines in self-purity,
beyond the working of causes and conditions,
apart from subject and object.
Its wondrousness and subtleties are ever present,
its luminosity is also vast and open.
Moreover, this is not something that can be conceived of
as existence or nonexistence.
Nor can it be deliberated about with words and analogies.
Right here—at this pivotal axle,
opening the swinging gate and clearing the way—
it is able to respond effortlessly to circumstances;
the great function is free from hindrances.
At all places, turning and turning about,
it does not follow conditions, nor can it be trapped in models.

– On Silent Illumination: Hongzhi

Inquiry audio:

The Minds of Summer: An Interview

For the past three years I have had the wonderful opportunity to be part of the faculty for the Cape Cod Summer Institute and I look forward to teaching there again in 2016. This year the Institute's founder and Director, Gil Levin, in association with Teresa Martin of the Lower Cape TV, organized a series, The Minds of Summer, “featuring conversations with leading thinkers from the Cape Cod Institute's renowned series of summer workshops.” I was fortunate to be selected as one of the teachers interviewed for the series and I have provided the link below. I hope you enjoy it.

Episode 9: Flint Sparks, PhD

Turning Therapy Inside Out

The title of this post is actually not mine. It is the title given to a recent blog post by Marcia Brubeck from Hartford Connecticut. Marcia is a counselor and coach who participated in my class at the Cape Cod Summer Institute last week (Growing Up and Waking Up: Applied Mindfulness in Psychotherapy and Buddhist Practice). Her writing is an amazingly faithful reflection of the teachings I hoped to offer and a warmly insightful synthesis of her own experiences. I feel a deep gratitude for her efforts in generating this post and for the care she took in putting it together in such a coherent and meaningful way. Enjoy her excellent writing and hopefully our shared work will turn therapy inside out. Thank you, Marcia!

Turning Therapy Inside Out

Reflections on Illness, Old Age and Death

The Buddha was determined to resolve his questions about suffering after encountering someone who was quite ill, another person who was struggling with the inevitable decline of old age, and after witnessing family members preparing the body of a loved one for cremation after death. This is the “Great Mater” investigated in Zen practice and will be the theme of my Fall course at Appamada, Living Our Dying.

As I was preparing for today’s Inquiry I received a message that a beloved sangha member has entered hospice. He is in his 80’s and has been declining physically in recent months even while his spirits have remained quite vibrant. We were told that he has a few days to live. One of my dear friends just lost his son two weeks ago. The young man died when his vehicle hit a tree after he fell asleep driving home at night on a country road. Today, I also learned that another sangha member in the UK has had a recurrence of her cancer. Illness, old age and death are with us always.

Here are two poems for your reflection. The first, by Mary Oliver, describes everyday worry about both the mundane and the sublime. The second, by a Sufi poet, speaks deeply to the mystery of loss and life. Both invite us to learn to “sing” — to offer our song to the world despite the inevitable, or maybe precisely because we are only here for a short while. I hope they speak to you as they did for these people in Inquiry who came forward with their songs.

A postscript: As I was preparing this small post at my desk on Monday afternoon (August 25) I received a call that Antaro Burke had died peacefully an hour earlier, at 3:20 PM. This post is dedicated to him and to Tom Utts, the young man who died in the tragic accident on the morning of August 3.

I Worried

I worried a lot.  Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up.  And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

~ Mary Oliver

The Unbroken

There is a brokenness
Out of which comes the unbroken,
A shatteredness out of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is a sorrow beyond all grief
Which leads to joy
And a fragility
Out of whose depths emerges strength.
There is a hollow space
Too vast for words
through which we pass with each loss,
out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being.
There is a cry
Deeper than all sound,
Whose serrated edges cut the heart as we break open
To the place inside, which is unbreakable and whole,
While learning to sing.

~ Rashani (Sufi poet)

Inquiry recording:

Navigating Our Lives

Earlier this week we completed our Appamada summer residential intensive (July 31 - August 5). The focus of our study and practice for the week was Genjokoan, a powerful teaching from the 12th century Zen Master Dogen Zenji. This piece of writing was not a formal Zen treatise or philosophical writing, but was a personal letter Dogen sent to one of his lay disciples, Koshu Yo, in 1233. Even so, it is probably the most famous piece written in all of Soto Zen literature and is beloved by many. It was written when Dogen was still a young man. He had embarked on a dangerous voyage between Japan and China in 1223 with his Japanese teacher Myozen because they were both committed to discovering the authentic Zen teachings in China. Myozen died while they were on their pilgrimage, but Dogen returned to Japan in1227 with Myozen’s ashes and the way of practice he had received from his Chinese master Rujing.

Just before our summer retreat began I finished reading a book I had begun during my stay on Molokai, Hawaiki Rising: Hokulea, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance by Sam Low. This is a history of the amazing and inspiring story of the rediscovery of open ocean navigation without the aid of a modern compass, maps, sextant or satellite signals. This feat brought together a young Hawaiian man (Nainoa Thompson) with an older man who would become his teacher and mentor, (Mau Pialiug), from a tiny atoll in the South Pacific who held the authentic lineage of the ancient navigators. Nainoa was totally dedicated to his vision of re-enacting the voyage that transported the first people between Hawaii and Polynesia, and Mau yearned to find at least one more committed student to whom he could pass on his ancient knowledge and skill of navigation.

Both stories are about young men with the courage and dedication to meet very difficult challenges. Both found true teachers who believed in them and who transmitted their lineage to their young students so it could be carried forward. Both young men embarked on tasks which had enormous transformative potential against great odds and at great personal risk. Both suffered painful losses in the process and both brought lasting gifts back into the world. This Inquiry used these two stories to encourage us to practice with commitment in order to learn to navigate our lives despite the challenges, fears, lack of clear instructions, and losses along the way. I read some of Dogen’s words and some of Sam Low’s account of the Hokulea’s incredible voyage. I will copy the two readings here and you can listen to the Inquiry on the blog post. What does it mean to find “home?” What does it take to navigate your life when it sometimes seems so unclear and complex? How do things appear when you can’t read the signs? How do the way ultimately unfold through true practice?

From Genjokoan:

For example when you sail out in a boat to the middle of an ocean where no land is in sight, and view the four directions, the ocean looks circular, and does not look any other way. But the ocean is neither round nor square; its features are infinite in variety. It is like a palace.

It is like a jewel. It only looks circular as far as you can see at that time. All things are like this.
Though there are many features in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach. In order to learn the nature of the myriad things, you must know that although they may look round or square, the other features of oceans and mountains are infinite in variety; whole worlds are there. It is so not only around you, but also directly beneath your feet, or in a drop of water.

From Hawaiki Rising:

“Bring her down!”

With this command from the navigator, my watchmates and I threw our weight against the steering paddle to bring our vessel off the wind. We are aboard a sailing craft the likes of which has not been seen for centuries. She is called Hokule’a—star of joy—and she is a replica of canoes that once carried Polynesian explorers to discover and settle thousands of islands in a vast watery domain know as the Polynesian Triangle.

For twenty-one days we had sailed through storms and uneasy calms and now we were nearing our destination. Our navigator, Nainoa Thompson, had guided us here without compass, sextant, or charts by signs that only he could read—the paths and shapes of constellations, the curl of ocean swells, the winds. It is an ancient art, practiced for millennia before the “discovery” of Polynesia by European explorers.

Our voyage took us northeast from Tahiti for twenty-four hundred miles until today when Nainoa ordered us to steer directly west. Running with the trade wind, a gossamer mist wafted over the canoe, parting ahead and reforming behind us as we continued on.
Except for catnaps, Nainoa had been on watch the entire voyage, willing himself back to a time when his Polynesian ancestors sailed across similar expanses of ocean. Now, having observed signs invisible to the rest of us, he was certain that the island of Hawai’i lay directly in our path.

“The mist to the north and south moves,” he told me, “but ahead of us it seems to stall. It sits there like a constant fog. That makes me think there’s land ahead.

There was also the wind. For a time it held steadily from astern and we sailed wing-on-wing—one sail to port an done to starboard—then the wind shifted southeast making it hard to fill our sails without changing course. For those of us manning the sweep it was an annoyance. For Nainoa, it was another sign of land.

“The trade winds cannot rise over the high slopes of Mauna Kea so when they encounter the volcano they split to flow around it. Our branch flows southwest down the Puna coast, the other southeast along the Hamakua coast. When the wind veered southeasterly, it was an indication we are north of Hilo.”

As the sun descended, Nainoa observed a slight shift in the density and the color of the sky ahead.

"To the left I see a brightness on the horizon. Looking to the right it’s dark, until farther right it becomes light again. Where it’s dark, there is land breaking the rays of the sunset."

None of us could see these signs. We do not doubt that they exist, but to predict our position within a few miles after such a long voyage seemed impossible. We tacked the canoe to starboard. The Hamakua Coast, if it was there, was invisible in the darkening mist.

Slowly by a latent instinct, we became aware that something large lay to port. We felt it—a kind of pressure. The feeling drew us to the rail, where we stood peering into the darkness. Then, the clouds began to lift, and we saw the twinkling lights of Hilo on our beam.
Speaking for all of us, Nainoa said simply, “We’re home.”
(p. xiii - xiv)


Inquiry Recording:

Coming and Going

We come and we go. This is very present for me at the moment as I have been away from Austin and Appamada for nine of the last twelve calendar weeks, first teaching in the UK for three weeks in early May and then in Hawaii for another six weeks during June and July. Returning home has been both wonderful and challenging.

Everything comes and goes. This reality of everything coming and going allows us to begin realizing the truth of impermanence. Through sitting practice we discover it as an embodied experience rather than a spiritual idea. Mindfully watching the interplay of all that comes and goes in each moment of our practice we begin to appreciate the vast interplay of this coming and going. Everything is contingent on everything else – slowly revealing itself as the truth of life as it is, not just another Buddhist concept.

Without clearly seeing this dance of impermanence and interdependence, we unconsciously turn our back on the truth that everything comes and goes. The ignorance of, or unwillingness to face this vast, ongoing flux of coming and going, leads us to suffer. These are the Three Marks of Existence as taught by the Buddha — anicca, anatta, and dukkha — impermanence, dependent co-arising, and dissatisfaction. Everything changes, everything is contingent, and discomfort is inevitable. Nothing is permanent, nothing is a “thing,” and nothing is ultimately satisfying. Everything comes and goes.

In Zen we call this “The Great Matter” — birth and death — our embodied coming and going. We practice the Great Matter with a small, embodied matter – the breath – as it comes and goes. We can rest in stillness and silence with a bit of mindful attention to this coming and going, and in the process we cultivate Presence, the deep gift of practice. We can learn to be present to the breath, to each moment of distraction from the breath, to another moment of quiet attention, and then to the many moments of jumbled thoughts and feelings that come unbidden and leave reluctantly. All coming and going. Can we cultivate a capacity for presence to this coming and going?

Suzuki Roshi said, “Just to be alive is enough.” This suggests to me that it is enough to accept the Great Matter and its everyday expression as our life. Our practice is not to get out of life and move into a permanent, blissful, safe place we think of as nirvana. Our practice is to live our actual lives. This is what matters. This is the Great matter. We can be thankful that we are alive because we get to experience dukkha. Realizing dukkha means we are alive, so we can be grateful for dukkha. We can be thankful for our problems. They are aliveness showing itself. Because we are alive we get to have problems. Because we are alive we get to practice Presence. Presence is aliveness, and because we are alive we can be present to coming and going. Noticing that this coming and going is universal, a shared experience we can be grateful for the opportunity to take care of each other. This is life. This is practice. This is presence. This is care. Coming and going. Practice brings us alive — into presence with coming and going — waking us from enchantment with permanence, perfection, and protection.

These are some of the things that arose in Inquiry. I began the sitting with a guided teaching – “Coming Home.” Coming home to our true Nature is our practice and is only possible as we relinquish our longing for permanence, the ideal of perfection, and the hope for protection.

In my Inquiry talk I briefly mentioned a very energetic Hawaiian boy, maybe 6 years old, who I met at a Kualapu’u Ranch event. This boy was all over the place, climbing, running, playing with the other kids, and watching the paniolo’s (Hawaiian cowboys) and the amazing group of Navy Seals helping out (another story!). This boy somehow captured my attention, coming and going with joy and enthusiasm. At one point he called me over to show me a spent shotgun shell he had found – something awesome to him.


“Uncle!” he cried out to get my attention. I stopped and he stopped. I had never been called “Uncle” by a native Hawaiian child. As a southern boy I was sternly trained to always call my elders “Sir.” This was the Hawaiian equivalent and obviously natural for him. For me, it felt like an honor and it stopped me in my tracks. I felt “seen” in a way that I had not expected and it surprised me. I asked if I could take his picture. He thought for one moment and gave me the Hawaiian sign of friendship and connection. Our coming and going played together for awhile as we spontaneously recognized each other in that moment. Then he was off to play again on his own and so was I. Coming and going. Finding our True Home.


Inquiry recording:

The Tangle

This story sets the stage for entry into a large volume of practices and teachings which form the foundation of the Theravadin tradition of Buddhism. Written by Buddhaghosa in Sri Lanka in approximately 430 CE, this comprehensive manual is called The Path of Purification or Visuddhimagga.
When a wise man (person), established in virtue,
Develops consciousness and understanding,
Then as a bikkhu (student) ardent and sagacious,
He (she) succeeds in untangling the tangle.
This was said, but why was it said? While the blessed one was living in Savatthi, a deity came to him in the night, and in order to do away with his doubts, he asked this question:
The inner tangle and the outer tangle —
This generation is entangled in a tangle.
And so I ask of Gotama this question:
Who succeeds in untangling the tangle?
The image used by the Buddha of an inner and outer tangle seems amazingly contemporary. “This generation” is clearly entangled in the same human tangles that existed 2,400 years ago. We usually think of our tangles as problems which are to be solved, so we adopt a “How to” approach to enlightenment as if practice is a method of problem-solving. I notice two broad approaches using this perspective:

If I could only solve all my problems and work out all of my limiting conditioning, then the truth of who I am could shine through.


If I could only practice fully, then I would be transformed by the mystical alchemy of enlightenment and all of my problems would fall away.

Both are “problem-solving” approaches: (a) get rid of personal problems and you can achieve enlightenment, or (b) accomplish enlightenment to take care of all of your personal problems. Inquiry and practice then become, “How do I do either a) or b)?”

The true practitioner comes to realize that it is possible to be at ease in the world for no reason—an ease that is beyond conditions—beyond solving personal problems or solving spiritual problems. This freedom exists prior to our desires being satisfied and exists despite life’s difficulties.

The corollary to this realization and the softening of the two problem-solving approaches is that you can come to realize a love that is not based on emotion and that is strangely not personal. In fact, it flowers in the absence of self-concern. This is a love that is a simple fact and which is realized as we see through the illusion of an individual self. There is no thinker doing the thinking. No problem solver to be freed of his or her problems. Self-concern abates while joy for the happiness of others increases. Envy, jealousy, competition, fear, aggression either do not arise, seem irrelevant, or pass away without creating more of a tangle.

Back to the initial story for a moment. Here are a few brief notes that I am including from my own thinking and because they showed up in the Inquiry session itself. How do they open in your life?

When a wise man (person), established in virtue: Practicing with the Precepts
Develops consciousness and understanding: Self Study in Mindfulness
Then as a bhikkhu (student) ardent and sagacious: Diligent, wise care — Appamada
He (she) succeeds in untangling the tangle: Life as it is — Everything belongs

Inquiry recording:


Reflections on the Hawaii Retreats

Aloha kaua!

This is the Hawaiian greeting of love and care which is inclusive of everyone, including the speaker (as opposed to aloha kakou which is specific to the speaker and the single person being spoken to).

I’ve just returned from six weeks on Molokai having participated in three very different and equally powerful events. First, I was privileged to be part of one of Paula D’Arcy’s circles and was offered the opportunity to drop the teacher role and move deep into conversation with my own questions. I then co-led our annual Heart of Meditation retreat with Donna Martin in which we used the Mary Oliver poem (copied below) To Begin With, the Sweet Grass, as our text. This poem is more like a sutra. It is vast and deep, so we took a week to move through it, each day practicing with what it called forward. Next we moved from Hui Ho’olana where the first two events were held, to Pu’u o Hoku Ranch where Donna and I led an advanced Hakomi training we called Higher Ground. Pu’u o Hoku literally means “the hill under the stars,” and from that expansive hill we practiced together for 10 days. I can’t even begin to unpack all that happened in a brief blog post, so I will lean on Mary Oliver and offer you her poem and some of my photos. These are a poor match for her amazing words, but they allow me to offer something of my own as you read the poem. I hope you will spend some time with what is evoked for you.

To Begin With, the Sweet Grass
~ Mary Oliver


Will the hungry ox stand in the field and not eat of the
sweet grass?
Will the owl bite off its own wings?
Will the lark forget to lift its body in the air or forget to
Will the rivers run upstream?

Behold, I say — behold
the reliability and the finery and the teachings of this
gritty earth gift.


Eat bread and understand comfort.
Drink water, and understand delight.
Visit the garden where the scarlet trumpets are
opening their bodies for the hummingbirds
who are drinking the sweetness, who are thrillingly

For one thing leads to another.
Soon you will notice how stones shine underfoot.
Eventually tides will be the only calendar you believe

And someone’s face, whom you love, will be as a
both intimate and ultimate,
and you will be both heart-shaken and respectful.

And you will hear the air itself, like a beloved,
oh, let me, for a while longer, enter the two beautiful
bodies of your lungs.


The witchery of living
is my whole conversation
with you, my darlings.
All I can tell you is what I know.

Look, and look again.
This world is not just a little thrill for the eyes.

It’s more than bones.
It’s more than the delicate wrist with its personal
It’s more than the beating of the single heart.
It’s praising.
It’s giving until the giving feels like receiving.
You have a life - just imagine that!
You have this day, and maybe another, and maybe,
still another.


Someday I am going to ask my friend Paulus,
the dancer, the potter,
to make me a begging bowl
which I believe
my soul needs.

And if I come to you,
to the door of your comfortable house
with unwashed clothes and unclean fingernails,
will you put something into it?

I would like to take this chance.
I would like to give you this chance.

(This photo by Cassy Weyandt)

We do one thing or another; we stay the same, or we
Congratulations, if
you have changed.

Let me ask you this.
Do you also think that beauty exists for some
fabulous reason?

And, if you have not been enchanted by this
adventure — your life —
what would do for you?


What I loved in the beginning, I think, was mostly
Never mind that I had to, since somebody had to.
That was many years ago.
Since then I have gone out from my confinements,
though with difficulty.

I mean the ones that thought to rule my heart.
I cast them out, I put them on the mush pile.
They will be nourishment somehow (everything is
nourishment somehow or another).

And I have become the child of the clouds, and of
I have become the friend of the enemy, whoever that
I have become older and, cherishing what I have
I have become younger.

And what do I risk to tell you this, which is all I know?
Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world.


Presence not Preference

Let's start with the image this time. After teaching for three weeks in the UK, I took the Eurostar through the Chunnel (the improbable tunnel under the English Channel) from the Ashton Station just outside London on to the Gare du Nord in Paris. Although I had visited Paris several times before, I had never experienced it in the Springtime. It was lovely, busy, overcrowded, beautiful, inspiring, overwhelming, expensive and amazing. Like life, it was everything. But, of course, it was also Paris!

Sitting Place de Vosges

I took this iamage with my iPhone through the window of a gallery bordering the Place des Vosges in the heart of the Marais. Obviously the sitting figure caught my eye, but then more appeared. The meditator is steady, balanced, but insubstantial. He or she sits in stillness and silence against a background of color, movement, and passion. In the distant background in the far left corner is a solitary figure standing alone, head down. How many things can you project onto these images? What do these images show you about you? I could see so much of my own practice in this one glimpse through the window, this momentary capture with my ever-present phone.

Following up on last week's Deepest Longing Deepest Fear I spoke about our natural tendency to complicate things, with a prejudice for our personal preferences rather than pure and simple presence. We sit as best we can, coming to realize that there is no life devoid of the “red thread” as it is called in some old Zen stories — passion, embodied, juicy life, with all the emotion that goes with it. In addition, there is the inevitable solitariness we encounter while active and chaotic life swirls around us. This is some of what I saw through the window that afternoon. What do you see? Check out the Inquiry recording and hear what came forward for others when preferences meet presence.

Inquiry recording:

Deepest Longing Deepest Fear

Having just returned from three weeks of teaching in the UK, I am filled with gratitude for the opportunities I continue to receive to practice with many wonderful and dedicated people. From the chilly Lake District in the North, to the rollings moors of the Peak in the Midlands, and finally on to the warmer fields of Sussex in the South, wholehearted students encouraged each other in practicing the dharma. I led two three-day non-residential retreats, one five-day residential retreat, a sangha day on engaging Buddhist practice, a therapist training day on IFS and Applied Mindfulness practices, and an evening for new students on the fundamentals on Inquiry. It was a fantastic experience which I could not have done without every person’s kind support and gentle care.

A strong theme emerged from the various events. Over and over I found this tension revealing itself in the conversations among students in every event. They spoke with me about how much they longed for authentic love and deep connection. In doing so it was as if they were letting me in on their most precious secret, but this secret seemed to be universal. The other side of the tension was that with this longing came an equally powerful struggle to engage and accept love when it was offered. I began to see that our greatest longing calls forward some of our greatest fears, and that the willingness to sit in silence and stillness alongside others somehow called the secret out of the shadows. This vital intersection of longing and fear is a rich place for practice because embodied, relational practice invites both our most primitive instinct for connection and care to surface while, at the same time, evoking our deepest emotional vulnerabilities. Longing and fear are intimate practice partners.

Most of us hold a secret hope is that if we could somehow satisfy our incessant longing for connection and finally get the love we want, that this would quiet our fears. But this is not how it works. Instead, we often find ourselves oscillating between a fear of abandonment (loss of love) at some moments and the discomfort of engulfment (being overwhelmed by love) at others. Back and forth we go seeking our personal “middle way” — a relaxed body, a peaceful mind, and a warm heart. I would wager that few of us grew up being shown by clear example how to navigate this vulnerability. Were you patiently mentored by someone who guided you by revealing their own tender heart while also demonstrating how to sit with the natural longing for secure attachment? Were you helped to understand that clinging to the idea that you can be certain of satisfaction in your longing is a painful fantasy? Were you helped to realize that rejecting the unpredictability and chaos of human relationships is another sure way to suffer? Instead we are more often taught—even encouraged—to expect a sure and certain proof of love and also to be vigilant for the ways in which it is denied, distorted, withheld or forced on us in ways we dislike. Ignoring the whole messy thing doesn’t help either. To ignore this core dilemma is to slowly dry up, both emotionally and spiritually. This is the intersection where vitality swells and recedes depending on our response to life’s difficulties and joys. Practice helps us become a larger container for life energy so it can flow more freely and fully. Ultimately will not get everything we want in just the way we want it, but we can learn not to contract in the face of this reality in ways that are designed to protect us but end up ensuring that we are relatively “safe” but inevitably and deeply disappointed. We hope to be less vulnerable by trying to manage this turbulent boundary between longing and fear, but more often end up feeling small and empty. However, there is an alternative. Steady, well-grounded practice, with the help of patient spiritual friends (and teachers), does offer the freedom we long for, but it does not come in the form of personal satisfaction. It arrives as a freedom from the demand that we are personally satisfied. In this brief Inquiry we begin to touch on this universal theme of longing and fear.

Inquiry recording: