Friday, June 8, 2012

Let Go of Everything Completely

What should wash up on my shores of Stumbleupon this evening but a ten year old recording of the Venerable Sarah Thresher speaking in San Francisco on the topic of healing.

It sounded as though the organizers of the talk has set the topic out for her as "Healing the Pain" but she addressed the broadest ranges of individual and physical healing, all the way to healing suffering between nations. And she did so with an engaging series of stories and examples from her own life. I found her teaching style delightful and I commend the audio to you when you have time.

What I have always found compelling about Pema Chodron, Roshi Halifax and also Joko Beck is what I call their Great Grandmother Compassion. No, not that they are literally a great-gran anything, but that they pull no punches, don't sugar coat anything, and their stories are meant to help correct you. To help correct your mind. And however unpleasant it is to be corrected, it's because they love you. After hearing this talk, I now include Ven Thresher in that set of teachers as well.

So as much to get these concepts and practices more firmly in mind myself as to share them with you, here are a few of the approaches Ven Thresher raised during her talk:

Whatever is happening, I need to have happen. Whatever comes, let it come. Try to recognize exactly when we find ourselves saying "This shouldn't be happening to me!" And then say to yourself just: "Well, this is what's happening." When we find outselves thinking "This is outrageous!" then note that is resistence arising, and allow it to be. Because it is what is happening. The toughest part is that part where you say "...and I need this to happen." No I don't need this disease or car accident difficult job situation exactly, but I need to recognize where I am resisting this set of circumstances so I can let go of the resistence which is only increasing my suffering. So I need to work with it, with things as they are.

The only thing you can control is your response to what is happening. Keep asking the question: "Why don't I want to accept what is happening?" If we can recognize in moments of resistence or suffering that we don't actually have to need anything extra, we are complete. Wisdom mind says we don't have to create additional needs. Ask yourself, resisting: "What is it I think I need (that I'm not getting)?" If you can identify (correctly!) what it is you are holding on to that is causing can begin to let go. "But that thing I'm holding onto gives me my identity!" What is it you think you are losing if you do let go? Pride. Self-importance? Sense of self? "If I let go of this, what's left?"

When I let go, things change. When I let go, what actully changes is me. Circumstances haven't changed. I have accepted them and therefore can more effectively adapt and respond to them.

View whatever arises as the teacher. Freedom is the mind that doesn't hold onto anything. Because really there is nothing to hold on to (groundlessness is reality). Once you are not trapped by the mind you can help yourself and others. "Let go of everything completely; there are no difficulties."

There is really not a lot I can add to that except to say these are things I really needed to hear right now, and hope you find them similarly compelling.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Dreams of Falling

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I started having dreams where I would fall from a tall building or crumbling cliff. The sensation was itself terrifying, flailing helplessly into blackness. Subjectively the fall would seem endless, always with the added fear of what would happen when I hit bottom. Objectively the sensation may not have lasted more than a few moments. I would apparently shout quite loudly and then wake up.

One of my parents suggested that, it being my dream, the next time it happened I should just dream up a soft landing. I scoffed. Sounded so simplistic, so like a parents advice when really they could not understand that if I had any control over my dreams I would not be falling in the first place!

And yet somehow in the subsequent weeks and months, when this dream would occur I recall thinking "wait, I can try and change this." Suddenly there was a small space, inside the dream, where I could look at it without being completely overwhelmed by that seemingly endless sensation of falling. It took some practice, but I vividly recall the first time I was able to conjure just a grey piece of solid ground underneath me. Such sweet unbelievable relief to be landed, resting, no longer in stark peril. After a few months the dreams stopped completely, and for years afterwards I gave it little thought.

By college, I had run into the concept of lucid dreaming and could occasionally 'wake up' inside my dreams, and perhaps affect their course or content. I mark this as the first way in which I ever understood that my mind was somehow multilayered...that myself and my mind were anything but unified and monolithic. That a technique applied with one part of the mind can affect how another part of the mind operates, functions or reacts.

I think this is why, when I encountered Buddhism, it made so much sense to me that hundreds of years of self observation, comparing notes, codifying over centuries could lead to a theory of mind not too far from our own neuroscience. And that everyday practices such as lovingkindness, tonglen, and Zen sitting, working with precepts, could help me or anyone else create the space to better respond to everyday struggles.

In extremis, the past week I have been losing stamina, feeling more and more dizzy. Over the weekend I crashed so hard while out with my children I had to lie down on the sidewalk. The cascade of panic about possible outcomes to the situation was very much a free fall. Even now, days later, I still get stuck in loops of what might have happened, how badly things might have turned out. And what might happen next.

So it was just last night lying in the dark in bed, I remembered about the dreams of falling. From a practical day to day standpoint, especially given my current challenges in recovery, I realized that the practice now must be to try to recognize when I am falling while awake, and instead of focusing on the terrifying heights or the fear of the crash, to try to work with crafting a soft landing place. May it serve all beings.

Fear not.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

On Loving Stories

Zen Confessions time...I love stories.

Izzat so wrong?

While sitting, one approach to clearing the mind is to recognize when the monkey brain has bounded off in a new direction. Then simply name the line of thinking, and recenter on the counting. Usually I find myself spinning on some aspect if life, or how it "should" be but isn't, how it was and will never be again, or how I wish it hadn't been. Recognizing the drift, I name it "story" and come back to center.

As an English major and someone mad for narrative, I have noticed that if I have been reading any time close to the moment I get on the meditation cushion, there's even more sludge than usual to wade through before mind settles down. I have an extra layer of story, usually fiction, sometimes biography or research all fresh and interesting to contemplate instead of getting down to brass tacks.

Like swimming through a turbulent sargasso, I feel like I have to push these seaweed distractions to each side as I swim down to a more tranquil depth. At the same time I know it shouldn't matter whether the story is "my" story, or someone else's, as long as I am mindful of whatever comes up.

Does not stop me from reading, however.

When feeling ill, my old standby since the fifth grade was to stack the books high by the bed, and read, sleep, eat, repeat until I felt better.

Since I've been hammered with the adrenal burnout, I've spent weekends (and once almost two weeks) just reading, hoping that the down time will help me recover. What I am discovering is that in fact, anything too emotionally compelling is actually more of a strain than I should be putting myself through right now. Evidently, everyday life with two kids and two cats in the house plus work has enough stress without adding more.

So...spending a lot more time reading facts & research, learning about the body and nutrition, health topics, and in the evenings, Zen sources.

Reading one of those last night, Deshimaru's Way of True Zen (thanks Pigasus for the recommendation), I recognized that a great deal of how teaching is effectively transmitted is through metaphor, comparison, and quick narrative sketches. In other words, stories. In this case, stories to help us wake up, as opposed to those simply meant to entertain or distract.

But don't the best stories both engage us to the point we forget ourselves, and then plop us right down in the middle of significant recognition and resonance? The ones I love most, do.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Dalai Grandma Wisdom

Sometimes a person says or writes something that is just what you need to hear at the moment.

For the past several weeks I've been right up against the issue that adrenal fatigue means I quite literally can't be very productive. Because, well, I'm lying down in bed. So what's a type-a, recovering perfectionist to do when I not only don't have my usual list of accomplishments to feel good about, I'm not sure that measure is ever going to work for me again?

Enter the Dalai Grandma. Her essay today is on life curves, and I'll let her speak for herself.

I knew, I knew I needed to take this adrenal burnout as a sign that I had to reframe but to what? And here it is:

You can think that at the same time as we grow in compassion and wisdom, our life unfolds into the world.

[Like so many colored strands of thread moving into the world like rivers, curling around, embracing it.]

That is a life of connecting and giving that can become richer in a peaceful old age.

Like Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, faced with the glory of the French Riviera: "This...THIS is what I want!"

But before I tear off and start planning and projecting how to make that happen, I think I'll just sit back, reflect and resonate. Like a Martin D-35 guitar body. Just let this note sustain for a while.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A few quotes I find inspiring

While I had been introduced to formal meditation by a philosophy professor in college (thanks Dr. Brown, wherever you may be!), I didn't sit again until another professor in grad school basically told me he would not sign off on my Buddhism thesis unless I meditated. He had a good point there -- and therein lies the reference for my first inspiring quotation, from the Dhammapada:

If one, through reciting much of texts, is not a doer thereof, a heedless person; he, like a cowherd counting other's cows, is not a partaker of the religious quest. If one, through reciting little of texts, lives a life in accord with the dhamma, having discarded passions, ill will, and unawareness, knowing full well, the mind well freed, he, not grasping here neither here after, is a partaker of the religious quest.

After graduate school, the only mediation I practiced was a few minutes on the mat before Aikido. So fast forward about six years. Got married, we got pregnant, and suddenly I had a fire lit under me to get serious about meditation. But of course, I had to read even more about it before I could get down to brass tacks.

I read texts from the Tibetan, South Asian, Zen traditions, you name it -- being at that time a hopeless and unacknowledged perfectionist I wanted to be sure I was doing this sitting thing right. so the following are just a few more quotations I noted in my sketchbook from those years that I found particularly informative or inspiring:

Do not think, nor conceive. Abide in the natural relaxed state, without contrivance; with the absence of all projections is the innate nature attained. Such is the way followed by all victors of the three times. -- Nagarjuna

When Mind has no place where it can stop (and become limited) the mahamudra [lit. the great attitude] is present. By cultivating such an attitude one attains supreme enlightenment...universal attitude of mind, infinite, all embracing, jewel-like casket of the original mind, free from selfish passions, shines like the [infinite] sky. -- Tilopa

Too close to be recognized. Too deep to grasp. Too easy to believe. Too amazing to be understood intellectually. Still water is clear; mind free of strain is happy. From possessiveness comes want. From nonattachment, satisfaction. -- unnatributed

Whether we are of greater, middling or lesser abilities, the best signs of success are a decrease of self-centeredness and the easing of mental afflictions. -- Gampopa, Precious Garland of the Sublime Way

For the strings to vibrate harmoniously, they must have the right tension. Well the same is true of your mind. To practice with the correct attentiveness, it should be not too tight, not too relaxed. We then let our minds remain at rest, open and without strain, fidgeting or distraction, and we abide attentive to the mind as it is. The ability to return to the breath and thereby to remember the meditation, is called recollection. Attention and recollection are two essential elements of Samatha practice. -- [I think this is from Breath Sweeps Mind but I will have to double check.]

Caught in the self-centered dream, only suffering. Holding on to self-centered thoughts, exactly the dream. Each moment, life as it is the only teacher. Being just this moment, compassions way. -- Charlotte Joko Beck

Become one with whatever you are doing. -- Dogen Zenji

You have stopped running from your suffering. You know now that we all suffer. You have become more compassionate, which means you are including others in your practice. Now deepen. Buddhism is a two-edged sword, wisdom and compassion. Keep both edges sharp. Take it with you wherever you go and there is nothing you cannot meet with deep joy. -- Dainin Katagiri Roshi

Turns out I gave away my only copy of Breath Sweeps Mind, so unless somone has a copy they can check, we'll have to wait to confirm that one.

Any inspiring quotes that pertain to beginning the path, or being on it, that you want to share?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Zen belly laugh

It was certainly unexpected that a Tricycle "wisdom of the day" email might lead to helpless belly laughter, in addition to good writing and a pithy life lesson. But it did and I'm grateful. Try this one on for size:
You deal with your shit in Zen by sitting with it. By breathing right into it. You don’t try and ignore it with pleasant thoughts or lofty ideas, and you don’t try and bury it with solutions. You deal with it, you work with it, one breath at a time.
For the laugh, you have to link through and read the whole thing.

From Cave to Corporation

Was introduced by a former colleague to an interesting person this week, named Gregory Burdulis. For eight years he was a practicing Theravadin Monk, but he has left his hermitage in Burma and returned to the USA to engage in work I find fascinating: attempting to insert mindfulness meditation into the modern corporation.

Specifically he was invited to work with ad firm CP+B. If you read CopyRanter, you know he calls his own colleagues "lying liars who lie." But I take it as an extremely good sign that one of the principals at the storied firm thought it might be important for their employees to actually live a more contemplative, centered and full life. Of course, the idea is that they will also be more creative. I'll take whatever reason works to get meditation into the modern corporate ethos and keep it there. Once there I have the strong suspicion it will do a lot more to shift the overall culture, stealthily and over time, than might otherwise be accomplished by "outside influence."

Going from a hermitage to an ad firm is kind of like visiting one of the suffering planes -- it's Bodhisattva work to be sure, but that had to be a shock to the system.

Here is Gregory's TEDxBoulder talk:

I love what he says here about sitting in the deep dark morning:
listening to the crickets sing
they were singing a love song...
it was an invitation
Aside from his monk-ness, his other significant street cred includes having done work on The Artist's Way with Julia Cameron, contemporary/ conceptual performance dance, and worked in Hospice care Chapliancy.

Something he says in his bio that I'll be practicing with especially when things get tough on this recovery path: "pain is inevitable but suffering is optional." [On edit: Please see this post by Mystic Meandering about suffering in fact also being real and inevitable, with the clarification that it is the "story" we might weave about the suffering that is optional...]

More of his work here, from the Wisdom 2.0 conference. Go to 51:32 for the start of his panel. [Also on edit: this session is about Mindfulness in the workplace, great panelists, and is also worth watching because you get to see Greg turn the tables on the moderator (twice).]

Thursday, May 10, 2012

On feeling terrible

When I started this blog, it was with the fullest intention to focus on creativity, Buddhism, healing, recovery and that there would be no whining.

But being open to the process, I find the most important thing I have to share is the possibility that it does get worse before it gets better. And that things may indeed be worse for a while.
So this is one of the times I feel worse. I've been warned. But I had held out hope I might be one of those lucky ones who once they get started with this approach to adrenal healing just feel better and better.

Thought I had a stomach virus last week. Whatever it was set me back, energy wise. I had already become used to not being dizzy, which was a huge relief after embarking on the supplementation regime. But the disequibrium came back, along with this completely new sensation of being stunned. And I mean that quite literally. Like when you stand up under a bunk bed and crack yourself on the top of the skull, and the shock and weakness goes right for you crown through your spine into your toes.

And I'm feeling that each time I stand up. What is disconcerting is that I thought I had pretty well catalogued the different ways this condition could make me feel terrible. And that familiarity at least had its own comfort. Each had its corresponding coping strategy, if not a remedy. This is completely new. And without energy, the hallmark deficit of the condition, I don't have the emotional barriers to cope with it rationally.

So last night the only thing I could do was keep saying to myself, you just have to get through this one moment. Just one moment at any given time.

Really a challenge not to just lie here and worry.

That was last week. Spent the time since then resting as much as I could. Still rose to take one brief walk each day, eat with family, do dishes, small stuff. Took a break from the supplements. While that break has alleviated the stunned feeling, it meant a return of other (gut) discomforts.

When I started out with an interest in Buddhism, I was sure I was like the first horse from the teaching story, the one that takes off the minute it hears about the Dharma (old age, sickenss and death). But now I feel like the fourth horse, which is interested Dharma because of the immediate effects of old age, sickness and death to its own every other dodge, coping strategy, masking attempt in life has not panned out, things are breaking down, and this is the last option. I wonder if we don't all wind up as the fourth horse, in some fashion, as we get old.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Theresa Vernon interview

Maria at RestCo has done a fantastic three part interview series with Theresa Vernon, a specialist on Adrenal issues and on the Nutritional Balancing approach. I encourage anyone curious to learn more to check out the interview and Theresa's own site.


Saturday, April 28, 2012

Rest with Great Diligence

This past two weeks I have been starting with re-mineralization. Which means, hey your body is so completely out of balance, you have to take targeted supplements for several months to several years to restore it. If you want to learn more about this, please take a look at what Maria has made clear on her Restco blog.

My own test results were below the lowest of the normal range for all but one vital mineral -- and the ratios between vital minerals confirmed adrenal burnout (not really a big surprise).

One of the things the ARL lab is clear about in their materials is that you will feel better, and have more energy, as you embark on the program. And this has been my experience. Just like Maria, I have found I am at least 40% better already. Which, when you have been absolutely flattened, is a huge improvement.  But what ARL says immediately after "you will have more energy" is "don't spend it."

You body heals mostly at night, and it needs energy to heal. Your cells have only so much energy, and if you're starting from behind the eight-ball you need to guard and preserve what you can scrape together.

This whole process is making me reconsider the wisdom of Daoism, which I had studied in graduate school but mostly disregarded in favor of Buddhism. Well, now that I see an acupuncturist/Chinese herbalist twice a week, I'm coming to understand all the Daoist emphasis on spiritual vitality as an operating metaphor for everyday energy management.
Heaven does nothing: its non-doing is its serenity.
Earth does nothing: its non-doing is its rest.
From the union of these two non-doings
All actions proceed.
All things are made.
How vast, how invisible
This coming-to-be!
All things come from nowhere!
How vast, how invisible
No way to explain it!
All beings in their perfection
Are born of non-doing.
Hence it is said:
“Heaven and earth do nothing
Yet there is nothing they do not do.”
Where is the man who can attain
To this non-doing?

-- Chuang Tzu

What does this look like for adrenal recovery in the modern era? For the first time since grade-school I have been going to sleep at 9 or 9:30pm and I have to say the difference in sleep and the feeling upon waking is remarkable. Also, a self imposed curfew of no electronic screens after 8pm.  I find that helps my bodymind come down from the frenetic energy level we carry throughout the day.  Eating more meals more frequently. Keeping a food journal and being clear about the effects of when and what I eat. Eating only whole, unprocessed foods.  Reviving my sitting practice. Beginning to do artwork again. Letting go of the feeling that I must achieve this or that in any given 24 hour period.

I feel sheepish that a science writer at ARL had to be the one to raise this particular aspect of burnout to my attention.  So much focus on the medical side, anxiety about will I recover from this and not enough on:
What could possibly be positive about burnout? Burnout is often a wake up call. For those who can hear, it can be a signal that one's life is out of balance. It can provide a stimulus to re-examine where and how one lives. Maybe one's attitudes need adjustment, or one has set unrealistic goals. Often one has not loved the body enough and has in fact ignored or mistreated it.
    Burnout can be a opportunity for a person to reevaluate priorities in order to bring one's life into greater harmony and happiness.
The sound you hear is the sound of one Zen hand clapping myself on the forehead.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Waking up Grateful

This morning I had cause to wake up thinking about the commute-time of your average bumble bee.

What time would he have to fly out of the hive in order to arrive at the flowering bush outside our bedroom window by 6AM sharp? No weekend hours for the hard working bee, no sir. Nor did he care that I wanted to sleep at least a smidge longer on my Sunday morning...

It has been unseasonably hot the last two days, and since we have no air conditioning, we sleep with the window open. I've been reading Dogen's exhortations about continuous practice in the evenings.  So the stage was set when I awoke this morning to incessant buzzing for me to notice that my instinctual hindbrain would not believe that a screen between my head and the bee a half-foot or so away should allow me to safely continue sleeping.  Nope, instinctual hindbrain said: Bee = danger. Wake up! 

Meanwhile discursive brain immediately kicked into gear as I cracked my eyelid open just wide enough to check my watch. Great scott that bee is punctual, what time did he have to leave in order to get here and get busy this exactly 6AM?

If this had happened on almost any other day, what would have come next is resentment, spinning about the lost sleep, the endocrine system cranking into gear so I could leap into action. As if there was anything I could do to keep that bee, and his brothers, from their appointed rounds.

But this morning, having been hearing about colony collapse and all the related theories about mites and/or pesticides, I was just glad to hear them doing their thing.

And it was only a small step from there to ask myself, in the spirit of continuous practice, could I transform my instinctual hindbrain alarm at hearing that buzzzzz so close to my head, the analytical brain, the take-action conditioning -- and just be grateful that these extraordinary motes, so essential to our ecosystem, were making those pollen connections in our little corner of Indra's net?

Kalu Rinpoche the elder wrote:
The Vajrayana path leaves nothing out, no matter what. Nothing can be rejected. We simply transmute our mind and its experiences by recognizing their actual nature... to practice and attain genuine realization even in our usual context. To that end, Vajrayana practitioners use "sacred vision" with which they recognize that this world is already fundamentally pure; it is already a pure land, a realm where all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are visible and the Dharma is understood. Likewise, they consider all beings fundamentally Buddhas and that there is no real distinction between samsara and nirvana, which are merely appearances. In the practice of this sacred vision the world is meditated on as a pure land and beings as aspects of Buddha; all forms are enlightened aspects, all sounds are mantra, and mind is pure mind.
I don't know if I'm committing a hopeless oversimplification, but Dogen's continuous practice and this description of the Vajrayana path seem quite resonant. It works for me.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Langston Hughes

Gather out of star-dust
And splinters of hail,
One handful of dream-dust
Not for sale.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Anger and Karma

As this was raised over on Aerial Pork, and what I wanted to say in response was really more than is polite to leave in someone's comment section, I want to write today about the precept on not being angry, and if I have time dip a little bit into karma.

When I was growing up, anger was one of those things I denied so strongly that for the first two decades of my life I claimed to friends that I didn't get angry. At all. Ever.

Mr. Placid, cool and unruffled. Even-keeled.

Anger was scary, I'd seen it enough to know "that's not me, no way" which of course meant I had driven it so deep underground that it came out in a leaky pressure cooker fashion, teeth grinding away... When you say someone is out of touch with their emotions, well in this case my Anger and I hadn't ever even talked.

By my mid-twenties, I did finally realize that my lack of awareness around anger was -- far from being an admirable quality -- actually gumming up my emotional works pretty badly.

As I started paying attention to anger, I measured my progress in the following fashion: I would say to my then new bride: "You remember that thing you said two weeks ago?"

"Yeah," she'd say. "What about it?"

"Well, that really made me angry."

"It took you two weeks to figure out that made you angry?"

"Yes." I'd say, studiously not getting angry at her reaction.

So I would actually keep track of how many days less than two weeks it took me to realize I was angry. And that meant progress. It became a running joke. After a while I was down to two days. Then it was only a few minutes. Now, thank goodness, I pretty much feel the anger as it arises. And I can work to transform it.

During that time when I was just beginning a daily practice, but still had no handle on anger, I had systematically renounced the majority of my usual coping strategies. Without those filters, barrierrs and crutches I began realizing that not only did I get angry, I was angry almost all the time. I was a constantly simmering cauldron of judgements, in true perfectionist fashion always dissatisfied with how little my own actions and those of the people around me -- and reality in general -- met my admittedly rediculous expectations.

What I found really helpful to do, because this recognition scared me, was to work with Pema Chodron's "meditate on whatever provokes resentment."

Tracing each resentment back to its source meant discovering everything from simple fatigue, to those myriad judgements, but also to fear, simple emotional needs, expectations, assumptions and my self-imposed silence about all of those. Recognizing how self-generated most of it is.

Raising our first infant child, we were cranky, bone-tired, cross-eyed and stupid with lack of sleep -- resentments and anger flared at the smallest things. This practice was essential during that time. And it might seem ludicrous, but as I would sit down at night on my cushion for just a few moments of peace, the cat would come around and I'd think "Oh great, how long is this going to take before he settles down? I'm trying to meditate here!!" I'd aim all the resentment of the entire day at this cat, who, being a cat, let it roll off completely. It was disarming. After a while I just let being present with the cat be the practice, until he settled down.

That's all nice and pat, but there's another level which I call Meeting your Inner Murderer. Buddhism isn't just about recognizing that everyone including you was once somebody's good little baby, it's also recognizing that everyone including you has also wanted to maim, murder and otherwise ruin the credit rating of your boss, your best friend, and that jerk who just cut you off in traffic.

Recognizing that every single person you walk by on the street is a great deal of the time also almost drowning in their own sea of anger and resentment, it sets you back. Helps build compassion for them. But even this didn't help me feel anything but resentment at my own anger and resentment. Anger was still Other and Unwanted. So whenever I recognized anger the plan was still transform it by god as quickly as possible into snowflakes or baby ducks or whatever it took so long as I wasn't angry any more. I was still missing the mark here.

And I'd like to say this all happened in sequence but the fact is after so long it is kind of mushy what the order was, but in the middle of grappling with the precepts and trying to get a handle on my anger I ran into this quote by Thich Nhat Hanh:
Treat your anger with the utmost respect and tenderness, for it is no other than yourself. Do not suppress it -- simply be aware of it. Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things they are transformed. When you are aware that you are angry, your anger is transformed. If you destroy your anger, you destroy the Buddha, for Buddha and Mara are of the same essence. Mindfully dealing with anger is like taking the hand of a little brother.
Oh snap. I really, really didn't want to make friends with my anger. Fine to process it like outgoing toxic waste, but to treat it like taking the hand of a little brother...but that's the practice. And I'm so glad to be reminded of it.

Getting back to meeting your Inner Murderer, TNH in his Old Path, White Clouds tells the story of Angulimala the serial killer who converts after meeting the Buddha. One of the things that has always given me great comfort when thinking about all my ancient twisted karma is that if this guy could just STOP, drop his old ways, and become an Arhant, then there has to be hope for any of us. Which is...probably the point of that parable. But nobody taught it to me like that, I just ran into it reading Old Path one day and it hit me like a thunderbolt.
Bodhidharma said: "Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous. In the Dharma of the No-Self, not postulating a self is called the precept of refraining from anger."
No self, no problem.

Open to all beings and myself
with unrealized anger
eyebrows contract, vision blurs
we strike out blindly.
With realized anger
our foreheads touch
and even with closed eyes we see.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

For Pigasus

This has been sitting in a corner of my in-law's house for years. Was over there this weekend, and as I walked past it, I had a sudden moment of delight.  Like a surprise visit by a new friend.

Peace in Action

I recently signed up for Tricycle magazine's daily email.  It has only been a few weeks, but already several times I've found their wisdom snippets striking close to home.

This one was from a 1992 interview with Thailand's Sulak Sivaraksa. Just an excerpt:
In America and Europe, everyone is very active. But if you become too active, you lose the essence of Buddhism. You only have the Buddhist labels. One must cultivate peace to be compassionate. Without this, what you do, even as an 'engaged Buddhist' is just a lot of activity with no good purpose.

 For those of us who take right livelihood all the way over to the do-gooder extreme, it's hard not to take -- if not pride, at least solace -- in the feeling that no matter how badly one may be screwing up in any other realms of life, at least I got this part right.

And then this very difficult pill to swallow, that anything done to extremes is still life out of balance, and thus not really right livelihood. If it harms you, your family by extension, and those you seek to serve.

I read How Can I Help? by Ram Dass probably three times in my early career, trying to push the very separate circles in the Venn Diagram Of My Life into closer congruence.  A life of service called and who was I not to answer?

When I ran into Bernie Glassman's Instructions to the Cook, I had to sit down in the middle of the bookstore aisle, the sense of recognition and resonance was so strong. The Supreme Meal. Hungry Ghosts feeding each other. Social action, social enterprise, Bearing Witness, engaged Buddhism. Sign me up!

But that sneaky Protestant work ethic, "just do your best, honey" messages, and thorough training in perfectionism ... well what exactly is "our best" and what is the point past which it is actually unhealthy to throw energy even in an unassailably good direction?

What Sivaraksa points out is that if we don't embody peace then we may actually be doing damage as we seek to do good.

Upon reflection I see that after a few relatively solid years I reached the point where I approached my work as work. Fulfilling certainly, but I had dropped my practice more than a decade ago, and my efforts to lead a life of service eventually had no foundation.

Something to sit with.

And the cosmic ha ha here, having scanned the top bookshelf and opened the Ram Dass book again tonight, flipping through the sections I had dog-eared... the second to last chapter is titled: Burnout.  Guess I'll just be re-reading that one later tonight.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Robinson Jeffers: Natural Music

Robinson Jeffers:

Natural Music

The old voice of the ocean, the bird-chatter of little rivers,
(Winter has given them gold for silver
To stain their water and bladed green for brown to line their banks)
From different throats intone one language.
So I believe if we were strong enough to listen without
Divisions of desire and terror
To the storm of the sick nations, the rage of the hunger smitten cities,
Those voices also would be found
Clean as a child's; or like some girl's breathing who dances alone
By the ocean-shore, dreaming of lovers.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Keeping a Sense of Humor

The first thing to go out the door when things get tough is our sense of humor.

I'm not talking about sarcasm, which even if it is termed a refuge of the weak was and continues to be a high art in my family. The thing about sarcasm is that you can rarely fit it into that precept called right speech. Because of its biting quality, I'm hard pressed to see how it builds anything up. At best it can be used as a signal of commiseration, affirming that yes indeed it is cold and dark here in the cruel world, and us without coats.

Our family is also great with the gallows humor; we are really something at funerals. Full spectrum from the macabre to the double entendre.  It passes the time, and insulates from tears and earnestness, but it is not in any sense healing.

The sense of humor I mean is something that buoys us up, which is why its so curious that we don't pay more attention to it as an important coping tool. What could be a practice to help us recognize in the moment that while our situation may not be funny haha humorous, our sense of humor can help us keep some honest perspective?

So in that sense, the quality of of humor I am trying to zero in on feels related to equanimity.

When things get ugly, right away we get entangled in the upset, the storyline, and if we're really on top of our game, problem solving. Some of us actually skip directly to the problem solving in order to avoid being present with the source of suffering. I'll be the first to raise my hand on that one.  Here it is -- suffering hits: BAM! -- and I have no idea where to find my sense of humor at that moment. I know, let's work it like a business problem!

Lama Anagarika Govinda is said to have passed away laughing, so I pay attention when he says something about the Buddha and humor, from his Way of the White Clouds:
The Buddha's sense of humor -- which is so evident in many of his discourses -- is closely bound up with his sense of compassion: both are born from an understanding of greater connections, from an insight into the interrelatedness of all things and all living beings and the chain reactions of cause and effect. His smile is the expression of one who can see the 'wondrous play of ignorance and knowledge' against its universal background and its deeper meaning.
Only thus is it possible not to be overpowered by the misery of the world or by our own sense of righteousness that judges and condemns what is not in accordance with our own understanding and divides the world into good and bad. A man with a sense of humor cannot but be compassionate in his heart, because his sense of proportion allows him to see things in their proper perspective.
Breaking this down, we have elements of compassion, understanding of interdependence, non-judging, emptiness and then he winds us up right back at compassion and perspective.

Bernie Glassman for several years was working with his Order of Disorder, walking around with a red nose. Their precepts certainly seem like they're on to something, including an admonition to drop your fears and be one with Disorder. Their vision statement is literally illegible, which is, you know, really funny. I get the rationale, but I'm not quite ready to go over to the absurdist camp.

How about you, any strategies help you keep your sense of humor when things get rough?

Raymond Carver's Epitaph

Raymond Carver
"Late Fragment"

And did you get what
You wanted from this life even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Regret and Self-Blame in Healing

Feeling terrible at the moment, having eaten something with a higher glycemic index than I apparently should have.

A string of a few good days after so many tough weeks, and amnesia already was setting in about the tightrope those of us in adrenal recovery must walk. Managing energy output, being careful to eat more often, and eating high protein, low carb, no sugar, etc. I've been refining my weekday regime and Thursday / Friday were two of my best in a few months.

Weekend broke the routine.

I ate too late in the morning, and not enough. Then I waited too long to eat lunch. Grabbed the most portable thing I could think of ... Avocado sushi roll. Harmless, right? Ate it in the car. Home by 1pm and ate a giant salad with egg, chick peas, peas, celery, beets... But that only lasted me until 4. By 4:30 I knew I needed to eat again, so I made a bowl of leftover lentils and rice. Too many carbs in a row. Adrenals not happy, and though I tried to follow up with some grilled chicken, the horse was already out of the barn. I'm left with that jangly, hyperglycemia feeling that I know will shortly be followed by the hypo version.

All of this is just context. On to the regrets.

As I've mentioned it has taken twelve years, possibly even the choices of the last thirty years to get here. The difference to me between this situation and something viral or genetic is that I can draw a clear line from many choices right to the front door of adrenal burnout. So I've found it unavoidable not to catalog, enumerate in detail those choices, reexamine them, second guess them, and generally stew.

I've been present with regret during sitting practice. I've breathed into it, and breathed out metta (loving kindness, self forgiveness). Late at night I have labelled thoughts of regret and watched them arise, dissipate, only to arise once more. Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them. But nobody said it would be easy. Doing my level best not to allow regret to mature into self-blame, and finding that difficult as well. 

The fact is I've only become aware of this as a condition, with potential remedies, in the last two months. Since then I've made some pretty drastic behavioral and diet changes, seen some great progress, and have a long term plan for recovery. I recognize that every erg of energy wasted on regret is something I can't put towards recovery.

But as I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, we live in a culture where anything but the manic exuberance of youth, or the caffeinated accomplishment-driven adult equivalent has the odor of failure about it. So you feel even more badly about feeling terrible.

All of that is also just context. On to the healing.

Taking another page from Maria at Restco's playbook, I just want to encourage anyone who is struggling in the same unmapped territory to take a deep breath, or several, and know you are not going through it alone. This issue is endemic and largely masked by coping strategies from the obviously bad (caffeine, alcohol) to those as seemingly healthful as overwork, working out too much at the gym, and shoring up flagging energy with fruit and juices. All of which just dig our adrenals further into a hole.

There is a prescription, and it is long term, amounting to changing our way of being in the world, while also rebuilding the nutritional foundation of our bodies. And it starts with rest.  Pema Chodron says "The only thing that exists is the continual opportunity to either open up to what's happening, or shut down." Time to open up and be present.

Paraphrasing here, and aware of the gentle irony:

Recovery is difficult. Rest with great diligence.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Enku Book Arrived

My copy of Enku: Sculptor of a Hundred Thousand Buddhas, by Kazuaki Tanahashi arrived this morning.

The very first time I ran into Enku's work was in Frank Olinsky's Buddha Book: A Meeting of Images, from 1997, which is a collection of ancient-to-modern Buddhist artwork ranging from monumental, to temple altar, to print media. The Enku carvings were featured in two photographs. The first was of fourteen figures out of "one thousand Bodhisattvas" and the other was what can only be described as a pile of several hundred "chip Buddhas" (or koppa-butsu).

Several years later I happened on a fantastic hardbound book of Enku carvings in a bookstore in San Francisco, but it was written entirely in Japanese. Happily took it home with me anyway and pored over the photographs.

I had a copy of his Enlightenment Unfolds as required reading, but until last week wasn't aware of the extent of Kazuaki's publications, much less that he had done a book on one of my favorite sculptors of all time. Just ten pages into it and already learning a great deal. 

This was published in 1982, but Kaz started his Enku research as early as 1967.  The photo on the back--he's so young!

I give you just a quick excerpt or two:
Enku was a lower class itinerant monk who used any piece of wood he could find as material for his carving. His sculptures provoke such a feeling of intimacy that we are almost tempted to touch and caress them instead of looking at them from a distance.  Once I went with a group to visit a mountain temple, we saw a monk splitting wood with an ax and someone said "Oh, I want to carve a Buddha image on a piece of wood like that!" We all understood how he felt. Enku gives us the heart of creation.
Certainly at a tactile level I resonated strongly with his carvings the moment I saw them. Enku leaves his toolwork so exposed and raw that as a carver myself (although my preference is stone), I could almost feel his movements and the wood shaving off under my own fingertips.
Enku was born in 1632 in Mino, one of Japan's central provinces ... Enku may have begun his religious practice as a monk of one of the Pure Land schools of Buddhism in a temple near his home. It was probably during the first few years of training that he was given the Buddhist name Enku, which may be translated as "round or complete emptiness."
I based my earlier statements regarding Enku's vow of carving 120,000 Buddha forms on a few web references. But Kazuaki corrects that understanding. More likely his vow was to carve 100,000 -- still an astounding and worthy vow.  There are two collections (boxes) that Enku produced as sets that contain 1,000 "chip-Buddha's" each, just to give you a sense of his incredible rate of production. All of these supposedly carved with a single implement: a hatchet.

On one of the boxes of 1,000 Bodhisattvas, Enku  wrote a poem:
The rotting driftwood
picked up
the guardian gods
of children.

More from this great volume at a later date.

Dreams and Radical Creativity

A few years ago I had a dream that challenged my opinions about the human capacity for creativity.

Now, there is not much more offputting than listening to someone trying to recount their dream, but I ask you to bear with me as I share just this one scene:
I am visiting my old college art professor at his home studio, the one where I worked so many hot afternoons helping to prepare canvasses. As we catch up, I am casually flipping through his stack of recent artwork. Pausing briefly to reflect on each image, I comment on perhaps eight to ten paintings, lithographs and other prints. Overall I view perhaps twenty works, before he and I wander into another room, and the dream takes me elsewhere.
None of the works were ones I had seen before. All were done in his style. I was dreaming in full color, because I remember remarking on his use of color in several pieces.

None of the works actually existed, except as instantaneous, fully completed creations of my dreaming mind.

The reason I even recall this dream is that once I woke up, I was struck by the fact that for the most part when I would try to draw or paint I would get completely stuck. Before I even started, all these doubts and judgements would arise about the final product. And more often than not, no matter what I wound up creating, I was unsatisfied with the result.

So how did that square with a dream where I could and did create what to my own critical eye were complete and satisfying works, twenty in a row, in the space of a few moments? Whether I had the skill technically to create them by hand myself is immaterial. The vision was there.

What this dream -- and indeed the entire human facility of dreaming -- points to is that the human mind is capable of absolutely astounding creativity. And what stops us from accessing that creativity are mostly our own ideas, fears and stories about our limitations, and about what makes an acceptable final product. Ideas which also don't exist except in our minds.

For the purposes of this post, I am only talking about visual art. But I believe that everything stated above just as easily applies to any other type of human creativity, be it music, choreography, narrative or what have you.

Attempting to work with what I learned from that dream, I have tried to retrain myself when faced with a blank page to just dive in and start making marks. To just see what comes up. Sure, I will continue to draw an occasional still life. But I find it a lot more satisfying these days to start without any plan at all and see what happens.

Turns out this is a lot more fun, and more often than not, I am satisfied with the final product.

What is circular for me about all this is that "just dive in and see what happens" is a lot of what my college art professor was trying to teach us so long ago.

This sums it up, from ZenDot Studio:
If I was asked to get rid of the Zen aesthetic and just keep one quality necessary to create art, I would say it’s trust. When you learn to trust yourself implicitly, you no longer need to prove something through your art. You simply allow it to come out, to be as it is. This is when creating art becomes effortless. It happens just as you grow your hair. It grows.
--John Daido Loori from "The Zen of Creativity"

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Magic Disappearing Blog

Talk about a quick lesson in impermanence.

I checked the blog this afternoon and got a message "Blog has been deleted or domain name has already been taken."  Upon further click-through to FAQ's, "why has my blog been deleted" possible reasons included policy violation(s).

I couldn't figure out what policy I could possibly have broken in only a week or so posting. Logged into Google and got it sorted. Still don't know why it was deactivated. There were no messages on the dashboard. Just in case, I deleted the image from the WaPo article.

And I copied all the posts to the local HD.

Just the universe trying to keep me from getting to attached...

A monk arrayed in purple/ would be laughed at by monkeys and cranes.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Brush Painting

For years I admired a certain genre of Chinese brush painting, where tall, distant mountains are revealed in the swirling mists. Perhaps with a spare hut nestled amongst ferns and bamboo . Their scenes have such an ephemeral quality, and evoke the tactile -- you can almost feel the cool humidity on your face, smell the foliage.

For my birthday, a friend gave me a big coffee table book of Zen paintings, full of these types of scenes, and I would try to copy certain elements on rice paper.

I had always thought that these paintings must be very highly stylized. Kind of like a Zen cartoon. No mountains could possibly be so tall or picturesque. Surely it's just a case of wanting to squeeze more mountain shapes into yet another vertical scroll-painting. A style that must have developed over the centuries as a kind of spiritual shorthand, not representational. Kind of like Christian iconography developed its own style and shorthand.

Then I actually visited rural China, and was absolutely gob-smacked. And chastened.

The mountains not only looked a lot like those paintings, they looked exactly like those paintings. Incredibly steep and jagged vertical faces, rows of these mountains sitting like monks in a Ch'an monastery. And mist! Every morning heavily shrouded in the (swirling!) mists. And growing on them all the Chinese herbs and ferns and bamboo you could possibly shake a stick at.

Great jumping jehosephat, those guys were no cartoonists, they were the hyper-realists of their day, just paintin' 'em likes they sees them.
Proud mountains, robed in mist ... open our eyes
they look just like that.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Buddha statue contains hidden truths

From the Washington Post last week.

This statue was taken to a medical center and put through xray and CT scans -- leading to a remarkable discovery.

I think it would be great if there could be more blending of the disciplines around research like this. It was wonderful to read about the entire Radiology department gathering around to be a part of solving this mystery of what could be inside the statue.

Inner and Outer Weather

For several years I worked with the practice of pausing whenever I left a building, to just look up at the sky. To notice what was happening there. I would do this especially before entering or leaving the office.
Each morning and evening, look up. How is mind today? Mind has stars, moon and Milky Way. Mind has rising sun. Mind is cloudy. Mind is dark. Mind is clear blue. Mind is cooling into evening redness.
This was a great support for sitting practice, to consider the mind as the big open sky, always changing. To recognize more fully how both are always changing. That thoughts, like clouds -- if allowed to just be in that mind-sky -- would eventually move on or dissipate. That we have internal weather not unlike the outer weather in the sky. 

Just last night I made a new connection between internal and outer weather that caused me to recall my old practice of looking up.

Of course we may become wrapped up in our inner weather, and mediation can help us get perspective on that; to work with it. But consider that we also come into unavoidable contact with other weather systems in the form of family, friends, colleagues. And for those the outlook can be anywhere from calm, to stormy-gloomy, or even stormy-exuberant. For most of us, this is weather that cannot help but affect our own weather system.

The National and International climate may also affect our internal weather.  Earthquakes, floods, financial collapse -- hard not to be affected.

Cultivating a mind that sees clearly. This can be difficult especially if we are not conscious of the effects of outer weather on our inner weather. So we may need reminders to check the weather, to metaphorically look up, and see what is happening.

Like Joko Beck advises about the practice of specifically labeling our own thoughts, not just "thinking. thinking" or "worrying. worrying. worrying." but "having a thought about work." And through labeling, the thoughts become like the clouds and eventually dissipate. (For most of us, quickly replaced by new clouds!)

Over time as we practice labeling our inner weather, we may also find ourselves better able to label outer weather as we encounter it. Not just "Janine: So angry today!" but to be specific: "Janine is expressing her feelings of anger and frustration." Perhaps that way we can, depending on circumstances, either talk with Janine about, or simply ruminate silently on the roots of that frustration without being drawn into its cyclone.

This is just another way of saying, work with circumstances as they arise. Cultivating a mind that sees clearly.

Back to the practice of looking up at the sky. It has another benefit. After a time, this practice becomes just delightful in that you begin to sense down to your bones something normally reserved for dreams: endless, radical variety.  Even viewing the sky from the same vantage every morning and evening, it is never remotely the same twice.  Compare two consecutive grey and overcast days, and the quality of grey, the luminosity pushing through the fog...always new, always different.

I want to write about this and its relationship to creativity a some point soon.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Authentic Suffering and Health

In my family growing up there were two deep cultural traditions around the enumeration of suffering.

One of these came from what I have to assume was a South Eastern US pass-time of gossiping about the neighbors' hardships, with the obligatory hand-wringing, doleful noises, not so secret sense of superiority and relief that lightning hadn't struck closer to home. More than semi-pro, such sessions could go on quite a while in gruesome detail until our elder matriarch might state with finality, "Well let's not dwell on that, no we won't dwell on the negative. No." 

And our poor young psyches, still vibrating from what one of my siblings calls the "litany of horrors" were expected to switch gears and go on with a light and lively conversation. Pass the dinner rolls, dear, thank you. 

Alongside and intertwined with that was a Southern European tradition that I only became conscious of when watching the singularly depressing My Life as a Dog. Which is to say whenever we were confronted with suffering in our own lives, we engaged in a group exercise of pointing out that surely there were others who were suffering much more, and then go on to list a few examples in great detail. So while meant to make you feel better in comparison, such a verbal smoke-bomb instead reduced the value and integrity of whatever experience we might have been needing to work through.

While I think I've done a good job eschewing the gossip, damned if I can't break myself of the My Life as a Dog habit even now, facing my own recent health issues. "Our friends lost their son in a freak accident; so and so's child has cancer..." etc.

All of this is adding story on top of story, layering and spinning so that we aren't present with our own suffering. An attempt at self-insulation. My sense lately is we cannot find perfect health, even amongst infirmities, unless we can be present with the reality of our own suffering.

The Dalai Grandma offers us this translation of a Buddhist chant from Thich Nhat Hanh:

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. 
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My  actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences  of
my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Which I will begin working with, and for which I am grateful.

Dogen Zenji

Ariel Pork gives us a snippet from Dogen's Valley Sounds, Mountain  Colors:
Slipping out of your old skin, not  held back by past views, you manifest immediately what has been  dormant for boundless eons. As this very moment manifests, "I" don't  know, "Who" doesn't know, "You" have no expectations, and "the buddha eye" sees beyond seeing. This experience is beyond the realm of human  thinking.
Just this.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

On Not Sleeping

So I'm doing it again, where resistance to being present with suffering includes storytelling about how someone always has it worse, really. One of our friends goes several days in a row without being able to sleep. I'm not dealing with anything like that.

When the adrenals are slagged, while they may not work at full power, they also don't really believe it is ok to take a rest. Having been in emergency response mode for the better part of a decade, it is hard to convince them that the crisis (most of which was manufactured) is really not immanent.

What is happening is the experience of being tired and dizzy all day, working with random symptoms and trying not to panic about those. Having cut out any screen time after 8pm, filling that time before sleep with drawing, quieting the mind. Then finding that sleep just won't come. Breathing through that, counting breaths, finally asleep and something in the flow of our house (a literal catfight under the bed, for instance) will wake me again and then it's 45 min or more of working through annoyance at waking, then spinning on all of the above, about not sleeping, finally returning to counting the breath, calming the mind, and again sleep. But it's not a deep restful sleep.

The predominant description I am finding for this state on the adrenal recovery sites is "wired & tired."

So it was with great thanks that I ran across the below this evening,  from ZenDotStudio:  
I was reminded of a Gil Fronsdal talk on insomnia where he suggested rather than fretting about lack of sleep a person could lie there and appreciate that they were safe and comfortable, resting in the present, rather than building a story around sleeplessness.
So simple a prescription, will just be giving that a try in a few hours.


For some time I have felt rather on top of the issue of personal health. Not obsessively so, just at level one might call quietly smug. (on edit: This is the smugness of youth that hasn't realized we're well into middle age.)

Kept good track of the myriad possible things on the radar that could kill me, including a specific family history of prostate cancer, heart disease, IBS, etc. and whatever flavor of the  month fatal distraction the popular press might throw up.

Always take the stairs, years past of martial arts training, more recently the gym four to five days a week for an hour and a half. Once I understood the link to heart issues, I had even moved through the entire spectrum from dental floss refusenik to twice a day.

Burnout always seemed describe an emotional state. As in, "that job really burned me out for community organizing, I just couldn't do it anymore, so I had to move on to something different." My man was not aware that you could physically burn out your adrenals. Sub-clinically,  it appears, but still. Just was not on the radar.

Leave aside the litany of activities I've engaged in, and things I have done on purpose over the last three decades that piled insult upon injury to the poor little bastards, it turns out my entire personality (this current ego structure) may be toxic to those unsung, kidney-riding, grape-sized producers of over 50 essential hormones.

My Myers-Briggs description starts with something along the lines of "lives in preparation for emergencies."

This is all about mission-readiness. Grew up in a military family. As a small child, once I understood the scenario of possible house fire, I packed a small bag with the items I was sure I would need to grab on the way out, and put shoes by the side of my bed. 

When we flew, which back then was mainly when we were moving somewhere new, I packed what I called my Desert Island kit--things that might be essential were we cut off from civilization (band-aids, a bar of motel soap and sewing kit, candy, comic books...not really survivalist items and nothing you would get thrown off an airplane for today).

Not to draw to thick a line from then until now, but I find myself in a career that while on the upside is focused on helping others, also keeps me focused on natural disasters, their aftermath, and working with specific efforts for immediate aid, longer term recovery and rebuilding.

At night, I'm the one who wakes up to any odd noise, whether it's to corral and dispose of whatever vermin our cat may have brought in to the killing floor under our dining room table, or to discover a leak under the kitchen sink, or just in time to miss catching one of our kids vomiting with a towel.

So the challenge right now is how to notice and try to amend lifelong patterns of seeking -- from a Buddhist standpoint let's call it addiction to -- a feeling of immanent crisis, and preparations for remedies for same. As if you can ever be fully prepared for life.

At a retreat for individuals interested in end-of-life care more than a decade ago, Roshi Halifax once asked us to practice with the following: "Anything that can happen to a human being, can happen to me, and I accept that."

Surely thought I had accepted that by now. Clearly had not.

Working with a shifting landscape of symptoms and anxiety about possible remedies and whether this is recoverable, it has occurred to me to wonder if, at times, all this focus on attention is just one more strategy of preparation for disaster. Life, perceived as immanent or ongoing disaster. Trying to get to that place of acceptance, like the part in the movie Parenthood when Steve Martin finally relaxes and laughs into the moment.

This is all wrapped up in layers of recovering perfectionism

No answers on this one today, I'm in the thick of it.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Working with Fear

Working with fear, emerging from a fear-centered framework or set of circumstances, we notice a few things.

There is the fear itself, which if fed becomes a self-amplifying loop and can lead to complete overwhelm.

Then there is whatever it is that can sit and watch the fear arise, and which can also insert a needful brake: breathe, notice, breathe, notice, breathe...

There is the fear about present circumstances, and there is fear about possible outcomes or implications. Many different fear-flavors.

There is even a Book of Hours for fear, the fear of the early morning is not the same as the fear felt at mid-day or while trying to fall asleep at night.

Fear often seems tied to intense feelings of panicked attachment to or frantic avoidance of certain circumstances. Whatever it is we don't want to change might change. Or whatever it is that we don't want, will never change. Surprise! Thanks to impermanence, everything you don't want to change will always change, and nothing that you might fear will always stay the same.

Perhaps getting stuck in fear is because we forget about impermanence, even for a little while.

So can we make friends with impermanence as an ally to help us work with fear? To help us understand that no matter what we find at the root of our particular fears of the moment, it will not last?


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Just This

I was all set to post this evening and then I read the latest on Dalai Grandma, called the Nirvana Fallacy.  Really so well put, what more is there to say?

And yet as Katagiri Roshi puts it "You have to say something!" 

One of the quotations she posted this evening points out that many of the lineages were practiced, codified and transmitted not by rarefied intellectuals, but by regular folk. Nobody closer to the absolutely unavoidable wrack and struggle of everyday existence, who better to practice with it and from that practice generate wisdom worth sharing?

Ikkyu says:

wife, daughters, friends this is for you satori 
is mistake after mistake

So very guilty of putting an intellectual distance between myself and something that called me. I studied Buddhism for years academically until one of my teachers required me to meditate in order to pass his course. That was the crack opening the door. Still kept it at an academic distance until I found Joko Beck. Her two books helped me understand among many other things, that being present with this absolutely pedestrian moment, that is the practice. Later Roshi Halifax and Pema Chodron further underscored that perspective.

In one of Pema's talks, a woman during Q&A says something along the lines of "Lately I just want to chuck all the day to day frustrations of my life and set sail on the great burning ship of the Dharma!"

"Oh honey..." says Ane Pema, with that grandmother compassion that does not spare as it cuts. "That everyday life you're talking about leaving, that IS the great burning ship of the Dharma."

Even knowing that, for several more years I felt that one couldn't truly practice unless one were to take vows and become a monk or a nun. And one day while I was very unattractively pining for such a life it took a young Tibetan monk, very politely, putting my nose in it for me to recognize, as he put it "My life, your life, no difference. Just the practice."

As a householder the last ten years with two children...many very full episodes. In my more wry moments I had to wonder if a lot of what the younger monks are put through is so they can get to recognitions that Householders get for free at 1:30am after a week of no sleep because the baby is still sick. More ego and story but it made me feel better at the time, joking to my wife "hey we're having our own sesshin."

On edit:
Become one with whatever you are doing. That is the way.
Isshiki ino bendo
To practice the way with wholeheartedness.
      --Dogen Zenji

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Ego and Rest

So sure of myself, I took the robe and bowl, hustled off and got lost. Would I be so wise today if I hadn't screwed up so badly?
"There are many hours in a day, and I am not indispensable." -- Greg @ Upaya retreat circa 2000

A dear friend of mine lived in New Zealand for a year on a Rotary scholarship. She roomed with a woman from South Asia who remarked to her one morning while sipping her tea: "You Americans, you only know how to do. Why can't you just be?"

After an almost ten year hiatus, I am picking back up a formal meditation practice (and starting this blog) just when I need to be removing as much effort as possible in order to focus on healing. My hope is that both will serve that purpose more than they work against it.  For instance working on drawing, posting, sitting helps me to not obsess about getting better -- to not work recovery relentlessly like a business problem.

Our tech-permeated culture, much influenced by Protestant and other hard-working immigrant traditions, doesn't much cotton to rest as a value. Whether focused on the fruits of labor, accomplishment, the sweat of your brow, or kicking back to party hard, chill with Angry Birds there is just not a lot rest-full about our days, weeks, months.

Vacations are for going somewhere and doing things you don't normally do when you're working.

Most often, how we enumerate our own value is completely wrapped up in what we do, our job role, family role, what we contribute, what we earn. Living up to our own and other people's conditioned expectations of who we should be and what we should do. All so much story and ego. This nurse who worked with the dying tells us that nobody on their deathbed ever said "I wish I had worked more."  In fact, #2. on the list was "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me."

It is radically counter-cultural to practice being. Even when in every visible way we who choose to stop, sit, breathe in and breathe out, may not be cultivating being. In my own practice I have caught myself over and over doing what Suzuki Roshi called "trying to be the best horse." Trying to get to some goal through practice.

Lately that goal has been better health, and that means most of my meditation time is spent lying down, counting breaths in the middle of the night. Or just being with symptoms, trying to allow them to be ok without fighting because that creates an ever greater energy deficit.  Trying not to practice with the goal that it should serve healing -- trying not to make it work. Just letting it be.

Recovery and Renunciation

Renounce means renounce.

Some of us dealing with healing and recovery have talked about how difficult it is to stop eating or drinking their familiars and often favorites. 

This week, giving up the eating habits of many years in order to heal means -- in addition to my having given up alcohol, coffee, tea, chocolate (!) -- I now must add to that list all wheat, fruit juices, whole fruits...and begin paying attention to the glycemic index of any vegetables I may consider for the daily menu.

For someone who grew up in a household where meals were centered on pastas and breads, followed by a double espresso, this has been no small adjustment.

This also means adding in new things like green smoothies (which without the fruit/fruit juices are really lacking). The best recipe I've found so far: throwing celery in with the kale and baby bok choy makes something reminiscent of a V8.

The fact that I feel so incredibly terrible or immensely better when I do eat certain things provides a certain operant conditioning to help me along in this process.  Really wanting not to wind up in the ER again. That also provides great motivation.

Another: No smartphone/ ipad/ computer screens after 8pm, to quiet the mind and prepare the body for a more restful sleep. On night two of that one, we'll see how it goes.

Working with renunciation means noticing our cravings as they arise, acknowledging them, and making a different choice.  I'm making sliced apple for the kids, it smells so good, just one won't hurt...remember last time...right. Time for celery and hummus.


Simple enough.  Enku sought to carve 120,000 wooden Buddhas. As a Dana practice, here we will post original Buddhist artwork at whatever rate it may arrive, with the only criterion that it be the original artwork of the person making the submission.  Other themes may include recovery, social justice, Buddhist practice for householders, and contemporary practice in geographies like the EU and US where Buddhism is not part of our historical culture.