Of Mere Being


A couple of weeks ago, Akiba Roshi, teacher at Kojin-an temple in Oakland, asked after zazen: “What’s the purpose of our lives?” The person standing next to me said that all of life is an ecological system, like a forest. When a tree dies, a space is created, and something grows to fill that space. Each of us is filling a particular space until we die, when another form will take shape in the emptiness.

I thought this an elegant explanation and have been turning it over in my mind since — that for example, I’m filling a Molly-shaped hole in the universe simply by being, and perhaps mere being is enough…I might not have to worry so much about doing. This is a very relaxing thought, and I believe it’s consistent with zen’s widest view of life.

A few days ago, I thanked this same person for washing dishes, and he answered that he was glad to be of at least some use. I was struck by the contrast with his earlier remarks, especially because I myself am always thinking about how to be most useful; I’m obsessed by the question. I always equate being useful with doing something — mere being never feels enough. Zen certainly encourages the intention to be helpful to all beings. But how does this fit with the larger idea that we are enough when we are simply ourselves?

I believe we express ourselves most eloquently through our actions. And also that our motives matter greatly. For instance, my yearning to be useful is more than a desire; it’s a need. It’s fueled partly by genuinely wanting to help people and things, and partly by a need to justify my existence on this planet, which is a selfish and unhealthy motivation — unhealthy because it implies that I feel my existence isn’t worthy in itself, that my worth as a human being is contingent on what I accomplish. This is in fact exactly how I feel, although I wish I didn’t.

I hope this is making some sense despite being written on the sixth day of Rohatsu sesshin. I’ve never written from the midst of a sesshin before, and it might be ill-advised, but this sesshin has been full of things I’ve never done during sesshin before, so why stop now? Although I am going to stop now, and let one of my favorite poets have the (almost) last word. 

Of Mere Being
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
— Wallace Stevens


The bird sings. Its feathers shine. These things are more than enough in the place “at the end of the mind, beyond the last thought.” In this place, “mere being” doesn’t merely suffice — it’s the source of our joy: our own mere being and that of the palm, the flame-feathered bird, the slow wind in the branches, the song and the shine.

It’s rare for us to feel that mere being is enough because to feel it, we have to get to the “end of the mind, beyond the last thought”. Anyone who has sought this place knows how elusive it is. The harder we seek, the less we find. And our lives are full of things that feel more real than that place: getting and spending, struggling and achieving, and always, always thinking.

Is there a happiness beyond what happens, a worth beyond what we do? A peace that neither rejects nor depends on our experiences, but runs imperturbably beneath them like a current underground?




Not Knowing


A zen story says, “Not knowing is most intimate.” When we don’t know, our minds are open and curious — we draw closer to our questions, eating and sleeping them, walking them down the street. But as soon as we think we’ve got the answer, we break our engagement with the questions — case closed.

In Say Anything, a classic movie of my generation, released the year I graduated from college, the hero, graduating from high school, is reproached for his aimlessness by his guidance counselor: “All your friends know what they want to do next, Lloyd.” Cheerfully, Lloyd attempts to reassure her with a quintessentially zen response: “They think they know. I know that I don’t know, which puts me ahead.”

Not many of us have as much equanimity about not knowing as Lloyd; I know I don’t. An open mind sounds like nice place to visit — spacious, relaxed, airy. But who’d want to live there? Living each day with the truth of not knowing is a fearsome project.

I remember a zen teacher introducing a dharma talk, “You might think you chose to come here.” She then listed several of the innumerable conditions that had happened to enable our presence in that place at that time, and a few of the countless others that had allowed our presence by helpfully not occurring.

When we think we’re deciding to do something, it’s not only us deciding; ten thousand things are deciding our decisions with us — all the myriad causes and conditions of the world.

This insight particularly dismayed me because my life had long been driven by the desire to “do the right thing,” if only I could figure out what it was. Naturally, this determination was accompanied always by its shadow, the profound fear of doing the wrong thing.

The right thing is an elusive animal, visible mostly in hindsight. It’s something we invent afterwards, when we see how things turned out; it seems rarely to appear at the moment of decision. And things are forever “turning out” — the consequences of our actions play out infinitely. Miles Davis said there’s no such thing as a wrong note, because it’s the note you play next that determines whether the previous one was good or bad.

This is how life is; there’s rarely an objectively “right” answer, and one moment’s solution easily becomes the next moment’s mistake. But this also means that each moment offers the chance to redeem all the moments before it, all the moments that culminated in this one and are alive within it, not to mention all those yet to come.

Carl Jung advised that when we find ourselves facing a question to which the answer cannot be known, we should simply pick whichever belief is more helpful. I think it’s important to remember that we choose our beliefs, and that they might be wrong; fundamentalism is a cheap way out of a mystery.

So we must make from partial and contradictory information our best decisions for our own lives and others’. This is an undeniably appalling fact. Our consolation is that if the “right decision” is a chimera, the wrong one is equally a fiction. All we can do is know that we don’t know, and play our next note.





For All the Days After


“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” — Paul Farmer


What to do when the unconscionable happens? When lies and hatred carry the day, the next four years, and the leadership of a nation ostensibly based on the ideals of “liberty and justice for all”?

A few days ago over tea at Kojinan temple, the topic of enlightenment arose, as it likes to do among zen practitioners. Specifically the question: what is enlightenment? In Flowers Fall, a commentary on Dogen’s Genjo-koan, Yasutani Hakuun described enlightenment as action in oneness with all things.

Action takes myriad forms, but the form we begin with in Soto zen is zazen, just sitting. By letting go our thoughts and feelings while sitting, we let go what separates us from everything else. After this practice of sitting in oneness with all things, we stand up. That’s when a difficult practice becomes all but impossible.

How do we work in oneness with all things? Protest in oneness with all things? Fight bigotry and hatred in oneness with all things? It’s not only what we do that matters, but how and why we do it — whether we create karmic fallout with our sometimes self-righteous motivations, exacerbating circumstances even as we strive to better them. Asked whether he felt anger toward China, the Dalai Lama responded, “The situation is bad enough — why add anger to it?”

The Dhammapada counsels us, “In this world, hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible.” Not the law written by human beings, but the law that is simply the way things are, the truth.

Once I sat zazen outside San Quentin prison in the hours before a man was killed there by the State of California. A small envoy from San Francisco Zen Center arrived to a frightening scene: a crowd of people screaming in darkness broken only by the prison’s blinding lights. Some people screamed for the prisoner’s blood; others screamed against murder by the state.

Three or four of us sat down in the middle of this. I was terrified by the noise and the crowd’s barely contained violence, afraid we’d be trampled in the conflict. Finally, a few more people showed up from the zen center. And after awhile, people began to detach from the crowd and join us on the ground. At last, there was a substantial circle of quiet — I couldn’t call it peace — in the midst of fury and murder. That was how I learned that zazen itself can be a protest, and silence sometimes more persuasive than a scream.

What to do when the unconscionable happens? There are ten thousand responses. But maybe first you could sit down for awhile. And then stand up and do the next thing, whatever it might be, in the spirit of oneness with everything, with all that you love and all that you cannot abide.




On Faith


In zen, faith can be difficult to talk about. Since zen isn’t a theistic religion, when we talk about faith, the question immediately arises: faith in what?

I love Sheryl Crow’s lyric, “She don’t believe in anything, but if you ask her she’ll say there’s plenty of things to believe in.” The idealistic/cynical stance of someone who believes there are things worth believing, even if she doesn’t believe them.

According to scholar of religion Karen Armstrong, the word translated as faith in the Old Testament came from a Greek word meaning “trust, loyalty, engagement, commitment.” In the New Testament, the word became credo, from the expression, “I give my heart.”

yosemite-bathroomSo faith is not merely believing in something, but giving our hearts to it. The use of faith to mean intellectual belief came later, and many Buddhists wouldn’t use these words interchangeably. For Alan Watts, they’re opposites: “Belief is holding tight to something; faith is letting go.” Hence our expression, “leap of faith”.

Throughout our lives people tell us what we should believe in and give our hearts to. The urgings, subtle and not so, begin early and continue as long as we live within society.

One of the most important challenges of our lives is finding our own faith. Because as David Foster Wallace observes, there are no true atheists — “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

I worship trying to see things the way they are, and I worship trying to make them better.

And you?




In the Maze


From the time I read William Wordworth’s description of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility,” I believed events were best discussed after they happened, after one had “processed” one’s feelings — made peace with them, transcended or transformed them, broken through to insight or wisdom.

If you wrote from within an emotion or experience, you wouldn’t have the perspective, or what in zen we call the spaciousness, to describe it accurately, much less synthesize meaning from it.

When my zen teacher talked about his teen-age determination to find the meaning of life by reading all the books about philosophy, religion, history and science he could get his hands on, he often described his quest as “foolish”. Once I asked him about this, and he clarified that it’s not the search for meaning that’s foolish, but the assumption that there’s a single answer, and that it can be found “out there”. Meaning isn’t objective or static; it’s a co-creation of the ever-changing self and its times.

Because my intention with this blog is to encourage and inspire, I’ve usually written about dark events in retrospect, from the other side, so that I could write not only about the maze, but about the way out, so that every story could have, if not a happy ending, at least an empowering one.

I think of this as my profession, the vow I took in becoming a priest — helping people enlighten themselves by enlightening myself and telling about it. Not that my path will be yours, my meaning your meaning, but that any one person’s finding a path, a graceful way through, encourages us in finding our own.

I’ve been working and waiting for the right time in my two-year fight with Lyme disease, the time after, when I’ll be able to sum my experience into a story with an uplifting finale. So far, I haven’t been able to write from the middle, the time during. I’ve wanted to offer something, but had nothing besides exhaustion, sadness and fear. Along with the losses wrought by illness, I lost my ability to make offerings. For someone whose calling and vow this is, there’s no more destitute feeling.


How to write blind, from inside the maze? What to offer with empty hands?

Outside the hospital where I had surgery long ago, there’s a labyrinth. Walking a labyrinth is a meditative and reassuring exercise. You can’t figure out the way to the center by looking ahead, so you’re forced to focus on your feet, on the step you’re taking now. This is relaxing. And it’s spiritually reassuring, because you can’t help but reach the center, and the way back out, if you simply continue walking. This is because labyrinths are designed to be “unicursal”: one road in, one road out.

But life, especially life with a poorly understood illness, is more like a maze. There is no one path. Instead, we’re faced with myriad intersections where we have to choose. Some choices lead to dead ends. There’s no guarantee of finding the heart of the matter or the way through. In a maze, a person can spend a lifetime walking in circles. And it could feel like your fault, for having taken the wrong turns. Although a counselor told me there might not, at any given time, exist a “right” move. I can’t decide whether this makes things better or worse.

I can say it’s hard to keep faith in a maze, unlike a nice, trustworthy labyrinth. You can lose conviction in your chosen direction after just a few steps. And it’s hard to keep walking for long without conviction. Every day my belief in what I’m doing unravels, and almost every day I thread it back together by taking the steps that seem to make sense today, although I know they may lose that quality before tomorrow. This is what there is to do in a maze, and why there aren’t mazes outside hospitals.



An Approximate Position


Dead reckoning is the process of determining one’s present position by projecting course and speed from a known past position, and predicting a future position by projecting course and speed from a known present position. The DR position is only approximate because it does not allow for the effect of leeway, current, helmsman error, or compass error.

— National Imagery and Mapping Agency


I learned today that the word evolve means to unfold. The etymology doesn’t connote progress but revelation  — not that things will necessarily become better, but that they will become more clear. Which is a form of progress, I suppose.

To use dead reckoning, you need a known point. And these tend to be more elusive in life than on navigational charts. The past is as subject to revision, to shifts in perspective and changes of heart, as the present. Our perception of where we came from depends partly on where we’ve gotten to, where we stand now. Just as our understanding of where we are now will change depending where we go from here. Fixed points feel to me like unicorns or sasquatches — things that live more in our imagination than our experience.

This is relevant to me now because I’m between places — where I used to live, and where I’ll live next, with the latter yet to unfold. I’m staying in a beautiful home with very nice people, and I’m grateful to have landed so fortunately. Yet where I am now feels a bit surreal, because I don’t yet know where I’ll be.

Even more disconcerting, when I drove through my former neighborhood a week after leaving, everything looked different, almost unrecognizable. This seemed impossible. But maybe places are changed by the mere fact of departure, altering as soon as we turn our backs. Who knows what happens when we aren’t looking?

I can only say that since I don’t know exactly where I’m going or even where I’ve been, I feel a sense of unreality about where I am. This time and place aren’t yet part of an internal narrative — they’re just now. While experiencing life this way is a zen ideal, it’s disorienting. We humans have a yearning not only to be somewhere, which is inevitable, but to feel we know where we are, which proves more problematic. We’re always somewhere real, with an approximate idea of it.

Last night I saw a movie in the city I hope to live in. Afterwards, I was tempted to wander the streets but thought, “I’ll have plenty of time to explore here after I move.” So I decided to revisit my old neighborhood for dinner. But I passed the exit I meant to take, the one I’ve taken so many times and never missed before.

This highway isn’t forgiving of those who miss their destinations — by the time you get an opportunity to turn around, you’re already at the next town; there’s no place in between. I couldn’t go home because my friends were hosting a dinner we’d decided was better for me not to attend. So I figured I’d drive two towns further, past where I live now, and check out a restaurant I’d always meant to visit, although I didn’t know where it was. Turned out it was at the very end of a pier, dark and silent when I finally found it.

Hungry and feeling geographically challenged, I passed an establishment with its lights afire, the only spark of life in an otherwise empty village. It was called The Wayfarer. I thought, that’s what I am now, so I should stop here. There’s no way to leap forward to a place that doesn’t exist yet, or return to one that doesn’t exist anymore. Years ago I saw a play with the line, “Where you are now is a place too.”



Valentine’s Day All Day

My new, first-ever smartphone informs me that today is Valentine’s Day, All Day. But I knew that. The heart-shaped boxes of chocolate inching closer to the discount rack and the red-sweatered employees of my local grocery store made the day eminently clear this morning at 6, a time things are rarely clear.

The question was, what did the day mean to me, moving out of my apartment this morning, a few hours ahead of a blizzard? Maybe it meant that everyone who came to help actually helped. I moved in February in Maine amid snowdrifts as tall as I am and temperatures in the single digits.

But no one snapped at anyone else or complained. No one malingered, cherry-picking the lighter boxes. Everyone seemed oddly happy under the circumstances. There was even a young teenager, present voluntarily, who carried most of my books after being out late dancing last night. With no attitude at all. I’m still awed by this Valentine’s Day miracle.

To my mind one of the most useful skills in life is the ability to discern love in all its guises, to know it for what it is. And to do everything in one’s power to make sure the world’s love doesn’t go unremarked, or unrequited.

On this note, I have a beautifully made cherry pie waiting to be savored, along with some sparkling red wine that strikes a rare balance between sweet and piquant. Which is not unlike the feeling of a supermarket at 6 am, its fluorescent splendor empty and overflowing at the same time.

Here’s a toast — To all the unlikely beauties of this world: the long shots and the near misses, the late-game reversals and the death-bed epiphanies, the indivisible harmony of opposites and the everyday feats of impossibility.

You know who you are.


Image Ian Vollmer


Beginning Again

2015After a year’s worth of posts, it’s time to begin again. In last week’s Homeless Kodo study group, the subject of faith arose with its accompanying semantic difficulties, like what is it, anyway? One person testified that because of his religious upbringing, he initially equated faith with blind acceptance, often of things that make no sense. This is a depressing definition, I think.

For me faith is closer to trust, a sense that things will work out as they can over time. A zen teacher once said, “I trust people. Not necessarily to be what I want them to, but to be themselves.” This is faith in the real…that people and things will be themselves because in the end, that’s what they know how to do.

Faith is allied not only with trust but with innocence, because only people who trust can afford to let go of their assumptions and approach life freshly in each moment. Alan Watts wrote, “Belief is holding tight to something; faith is letting go.”

Faith isn’t optimism — it’s being at peace with never knowing how things will turn out. In the eighties classic Say Anything, Lloyd Dobler’s high school guidance counselor chides him for not knowing what he wants to do with his life, while his classmates have their futures sorted out. He offers a joking yet incisive retort: “They all think they know what they’re going to do. I know that I don’t know, which puts me ahead.”

It puts him ahead in only one way, but that way is important: he’s living in the reality of not knowing, while his classmates are living in an idea of the future. It’s great to have dreams and goals and to work toward them. But it’s a delusion to think we know. Delusions tend to make our lives easier and more comfortable, whether they’re positive or negative. They reduce infinite possibility to something limited enough for us to navigate — the world as it’s already understood by us. This is a kind of karma: the pressure on things to happen the same ways so that we can feel at home, whether or not we’re happy there.

To my mind it takes tremendous courage to live the reality of not knowing with anything resembling grace. When I see that quality, I call it faith. It can’t be mistaken for indifference or aimlessness; it’s an unmistakable steadiness of heart.


Great Faith, Great Doubt

If you’re lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it. — John Irving

Yes, I’m trying to sneak in a last post before the year pulls its tail through the doorway and pads off to time’s Florida. Usually this turning point is one of my favorites, since I live for resolutions and fresh starts. But I’m not experiencing that hushed sense of promise this year because I feel so frustrated in my battle for health.

It seems like the past four months have been a series of failed experiments in treatment, the only apparent result being that my liver is getting cranky in reaction to the drugs it’s been bombarded with. It’s not the only organ to feel that way; my brain keeps wanting to threaten, “I can’t take this much longer,” with much left conveniently vague. But I’m wary of issuing an ultimatum, even a vague one. Life tends to respond to ultimatums badly, if at all. And understandably so — ultimatums are a nasty business.

It’s for these reasons that John Irving’s statement caught my heart. There’s no doubt that I’ve found/made a way of life I love, despite its tenuousness according to our usual standards of “security” and success. The former is surely one of our most cherished delusions. Someone said, “Most of us would trade anything we have for a good, false sense of control.” And any good sense of control is bound to be false. So it hasn’t cost me much to give up something I don’t believe in.

Not that I disdain cars younger than twenty, or houses in which one can sleep through the night — these are very nice things. They just haven’t exerted sufficient gravitational pull for me to give up the work I believe in for something better remunerated.

When I first began practicing at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, I had just returned to the U.S. after five years of living in Japan, and I was in shock, cultural and otherwise. ThanksgivingDuring that summer of fumbling through zen forms, an older student said to me, “This practice was made for people like you.” I reversed her words in my mind: I was made for this practice. I sensed that much, and a decade later I have no real regrets.

What is this way of life I feel made for? Radical simplicity and straightforwardness, for a start. I don’t want to waste time on the intricate fictions our society abounds in, as perhaps all societies do, since part of what defines a society is shared fictions. Radical in the sense of values lived down to the roots — not betraying what one believes in with what one does. And empathy, and concern for the consequences of one’s actions in the world.

Working toward these ideals the long way is the life I love. As for courage, what’s most difficult sometimes is keeping the faith that what I’m doing matters. I loved cleaning the cabins at Tassajara, a job widely despised, even in that zen environment. I’d walk into a room in some stage of dishevelment and restore an idea of order. Finally, I’d stand at the door imagining how the room would look to the next person who entered. I always felt a sense of accomplishment, of having tangibly helped.

Growing up I dreamed of becoming a doctor. I borrowed surgeons’ biographies from the library, imagined working in a hospital, saving people’s lives. I started off pre-med in college before realizing bodies didn’t interest me very much; I was more intrigued by what went on in people’s heart-minds.

So I wound up working with the world of the intangible, the felt and imagined, feared and longed for. And this work naturally entails an ongoing struggle of faith that the inner world matters as much as the outer, the one we can see and therefore don’t need to believe in, the one where people get sick and sometimes don’t get better. Without great doubt, great faith wouldn’t exist. It’s possible that incurable skeptics make the best idealists in the end.

And on that note, how about some resolutions?


Sand and Pearl


The other day, after a round of stormy weather, I took a walk along the beach at low tide. All kinds of things had been coughed up by the sea: old lobster traps, soda cans, bits of rope and plastic, quantities of seaweed, and a few large mussels, what we used to call horse mussels. I wondered if they were edible. So I took them home and did what we do now when faced with mystery — I googled.

Apparently horse mussels were edible, although considered inferior to the smaller varieties. I promptly steamed them up, and found them inferior in no way — they were delicious. When I peeled the last orange body from its shell, I found a couple of pearls embedded in the opalescent lining. This surprised me — I thought only oysters could make pearls.

The process has always moved me as a metaphor, especially after I learned that the root of mollusk was the same as my name, and means soft. I did feel “soft” growing up — easily hurt, incapable of withstanding bullying with as much aplomb as my sister and brother. But the alchemy gave me hope: that everything irritating or wounding could be transformed in a way that rendered it not merely harmless, but beautiful. To me this is one of the functions of both art and spiritual practice.

I was shuffling these reflections as I chewed the last mussel and felt myself bite down on something crunchy. I eased the half-masticated body out of my mouth and examined it. Buried in its flesh were several pearls, which I carefully extricated and dropped in their shell. Shades of pink, grey, white, black. All different sizes, none of them large. Eighteen in total.

Amazed, I returned to Google, where I learned that only freshwater mussels are capable of creating pearls, not sea mussels like these. So the pearls before me were impossible. Which made them even more beautiful.

I’ve always wondered about the word redemption. I remember some teachers cast final exams as a chance to “redeem yourselves”. This seemed cheap — that one could make up for an entire semester of slacking with a carafe of coffee and one long night.

The images that whispered to me of redemption were fresh paint and falling snow. And cities viewed at night from above — none of the grime or subway smells, just darkness and dazzle, the first making possible the second.

I don’t like to think of redemption in terms of points, calculations of profit and loss. I prefer to think of it as the way things that haven’t happened yet reshape the things that have: history never being final, consequences unfurling into infinity. Which means all judgments are nearsighted and arbitrary.

What do you think? Comments are working again, so comment away!

[Image Ian Vollmer]

When Buddha Blows a Gasket

Hi, everyone (I like writing that, as if I’m addressing multitudes of readers). I’m back. Back from four days of meditation in honor of the prodigious accomplishment of a man who lived 25 centuries ago. His name was Buddha, and his achievement was waking up to the truth of life.

I was worried how this particular meditation would go, given that my body is hurting and my mind worries about that when it has nothing else to do. The first three days of sitting were great. On the fourth day, my downstairs neighbors, who happen to be my landlords, began partying in the recently renovated Man Cave (directly underneath my bedroom).

There I sat in front of my altar, gazing into the heart of a candle flame, as concentrated as I ever am, the very picture of a conscientious zen priest, when the turning words all aspirants long for finally arrived, at top volume: “A____, get your ass in here!” Apparently A____ deigned to do no such thing, because the injunction was reissued several times, with increasing wholeheartedness.

I decided to move my meditation somewhere quieter, which turned out to be the bathroom. It wasn’t bad. Warm and relatively peaceful, with plants for company and the new candle: Christmas lights tracing the roofline. After the partying settled, I settled in front of my altar again, finally wrapping up my dogged pursuit of enlightenment at 11pm.

Along about 11:30, after I’d dragged my vociferously aching body into a chilly bed, my landlady decided to organize her Christmas presents. I could hear her footsteps, back and forth, forth and back, under my bed and over my white-noise machine. I was suddenly and intensely angry. I didn’t want to go downstairs because I knew I’d get drawn into a conversation, and I was supposed to be nurturing silence. So I fumed, silently.

The next morning, I probably didn’t look too good, or too friendly, when my landlord greeted me. I said I hadn’t slept well. He said he hoped it wasn’t because of them. I said, well now that you mention it, someone was busy around 11:30, and that kept me up for awhile. Then my body finished the job. He was somewhat sympathetic, though he stopped short of apologetic.

I’m sure he said something to Mrs. Claus though, because the downstairs doors slammed harder than usual that afternoon. Or was it my imagination? And the aforementioned A____ resumed his practice of jumping down the last step in the hallway, setting off aftershocks every time he crossed the house. Which was often.

When the time came to go to bed, I went, but didn’t sleep. I was too furious. And stressed about what to say or do. I rehearsed notice-giving speeches in my mind until they sparkled with eloquent regret. I revisited fuming. I ranted, silently, about how much I hate passive-aggressive people, without spelling out whether I was thinking of myself or my landlady.

When things really hit bottom, I opened my computer and surfed apartment listings on Craigslist. I didn’t email any of them because I didn’t want prospective landlords to ask themselves what kind of person looks for apartments at 2am? But I took notes. And fumed some more. I also took every herb in my soporific arsenal, to no avail. I even threw my principles to the wind and dug out the Nyquil. That knocked me out for an hour, and I was awake again. And furious, again.

In the morning, which felt like a paler shade of a neverending night, I realized I had no energy to muster for the conversation with my landlords. At the same time, I needed to do something. So I wrote a note. Only two drafts, a miracle for me. The letter was a masterpiece of evenhandedness and multiple position-taking, if I may say so. It was true and balanced, a fair feat when the author is hopping mad and seriously sleep-deprived. But no blaming, no whining, no threatening. Even some genuine affection — although it may not be obvious from this account, I actually do like and appreciate these people.

When the hour became reasonable, or at least less unreasonable, I knocked on the downstairs door and tendered the note, along with a clean Tupperware container in which my landlady had packed her awesome tomato soup. Odd combo, I know. My landlord looked so alarmed when he took the note that I hastened to reassure him, “Don’t worry, it’s not that bad.” Meaning I hadn’t given notice (except those million times in my mind, which he didn’t need to know about).

Then I swept the snow off my car and drove to the big city to have my breasts clamped in a vise, which seemed appropriate. After which I treated myself to lunch, buying time to write in my journal and calm myself, while conveniently postponing having to go home. Which I refused to call home in my journal, referring to it instead as back.

I have to say it’s been quiet as a grave today. I’m a bit worried. I imagine the whole family huddled in their bathroom, muttering, “We have GOT to get rid of that

And welcome back to samsara! It’s almost like I never left.




Light in Darkness

If life were a bell curve, this season of mine would be drawn as a downslope. My father, an English teacher, once said, “No one ever writes about how it feels to be nauseated.” And it’s true that although that sensation has figured prominently in my last few months, I haven’t wanted to write about it, or the other forms of physical and mental discomfort I’ve been experiencing. My goal for this blog is to inspire and empower readers, and I doubt reading about nausea would help.

A friend asked me whether my intention means I can write only about happy things. Which does seem unreasonable, as well as annoying. She surmised that I might learn things worth knowing from my battle with Lyme, but those famous silver linings might not come to light until after the experience has passed, and I can reflect back on it. I’m skeptical of that kind of transcendence though – it’s too easy to wax enlightened after an event, once you know you’re safely past it. Any clever person with a penchant for seeing the bright side can pull off that trick.

But I stubbornly feel that transcendence ought to be possible in the very thick of suffering, in the messy heart of it. I believe that light exists alongside and in the midst of darkness, not merely following it, as day follows night. My friend wasn’t sure – isn’t transcendence by definition moving beyond a situation? Can we move beyond something while we’re still in its midst?

And can we do this in a way that doesn’t deny the reality of the experience, its right to exist and be acknowledged? I’ve always wondered what the word redemption means, not as an idea or a consolation, but as something to live. Viktor Frankl wrote of what he called the final human freedom, the ability to “choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances — to choose one’s own way.”

I once dreamt I was being given a tour of the underworld. It wasn’t a particularly hellish place, just very dark and quiet. Which meant that every glimmer of light caught the eye: a faint glow burnishing the train tracks, the bioluminescence of small creatures living in the Lethe, radiant mushrooms adorning tree trunks like scattered jewels. Confiding my impression of Hades to my guide, I said wonderingly, “I never knew there was so much light in the dark.”




In the Labyrinth

In his memoir Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes of a man whose plane goes down in the desert:

The hardest job I had was to force myself not to think. The pain was too much, and I was up against it too hard. I had to forget that, or I shouldn’t have had the heart to go on walking…. What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step.

These words, among my favorites since I read them, resonate especially these days. They remind me of walking the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco the last time I was seriously sick, about fifteen years ago. The labyrinth defied my foremost defense mechanism: looking ahead. Squinting into the future and trying the plot the best route to the destination doesn’t work — the path is too circuitous, and dizziness sets in long before any progress can be made. Which is not unlike the experience of researching medical mysteries online.

Trying to estimate how far you have to go doesn’t work either. You might be standing right next to the center, but you can’t jump the track, you can only follow it. And just when you think you’ve arrived, the path inexorably bears you back to the perimeter, directly away from where you want to go. A line in the zen poem Sandokai says: “Progress is not a matter of near or far.” What kind of progress doesn’t mean moving closer to a goal?

In the labyrinth, all that makes sense is to keep your eyes on where your feet are now, step by step. Trust or faith in the path definitely makes the journey easier, but such companions can’t always be summoned, and have a way of ducking out just when things seem darkest.

Yet the fundamental truth of the path is this: just because you can’t see the future doesn’t mean there isn’t one.


At Home in Homelessness

While many emotions act as spurs to creative expression, sadness isn’t one of them for me, and that’s been the prevailing weather lately. Which accounts for the fact that it’s been awhile since my last post. As I was explaining to friends last night, my intention for this blog is that it offer something to readers — inspiration or uplift, at least an interesting thought to chew on. If I don’t have that, I see no point in taking up people’s time with more words, of which there are many in the world already.

All I have right now is a series of intellectual impressions; I don’t know if they add up to anything. But I’m putting them down in hopes that something will resonate for you.

At a retreat this weekend, Buddhist teacher Mu Soeng offered the following summary of our human existence: we’re always seeking support and security from people and things that cannot give it, thereby putting ourselves in the way of continual disappointment, suffering, and harm. This is an absolute statement, which means it isn’t always true. Some things and people can be relied on more than others. Yet nothing can be ultimately and always relied on. Under the right (or wrong) conditions, anything will let you down.

He asked us to consider whether it’s possible to create a life of not wanting anything from any person or situation, as a way of reducing suffering, or as he called it, “managing harm”. I think it might not be possible to avoid wanting things, and some things are worth wanting, but we can negotiate how tightly we cling to our wants: how we justify them, whether we let them harden into expectations, and how we respond when we don’t get what we want.

The topic of the workshop was “psychological homelessness”. This is an important theme in Buddhism, where the ordination ceremony is called “leaving home”. I wonder if there can be a kind of home within homelessness, a being at home within oneself and the world no matter what happens, inside or out.

Part of the reason this idea resonates strongly for me now is that I feel physically and mentally besieged by the bacteria I’m hosting at the moment. It’s not clear how long they mean to stay, whether I can evict them, and what the costs of their staying and going might be. How can I make myself at home here?

David Loy writes that “we project a higher ‘spiritual’ world to compensate for our inability to be comfortable in this one.” This statement may apply to many religions, but not to zen. In zen the only world is this one. It might seem higher or lower depending where you stand and what you look at, but for better or worse, there’s only one world in the here and now. Which is obviously slim consolation when the here and now isn’t pretty.

While I was procrastinating writing this column, I read a response by TV journalist Mike Rowe to criticisms of his recent spot about a doctor who’s trying to save endangered whooping cranes.

Experts call it “congruency,” that rare and wondrous state that occurs when your beliefs and your actions line up perfectly, and net out in a vocation or avocation that you truly love. Dr. French is first and foremost, congruent, and thus, perfectly suited for [the show].

I understand congruency as continuous practice in all the moments of one’s life and death, and as another word for home — a graceful yet adamantine integrity that might be the only ground we have to stand on.


Is It Working Yet?

I’m going to pick up a thread from my last post and my friend Jaylene’s comment on it: How do we know if our practice is “working”? Which is oddly enough the same question I have about the antibiotic I’ve been taking for the last two weeks.

In the case of spiritual practice, the question feels a bit problematic, especially within a zen lineage that emphasizes practice for its own sake, with “no gaining idea” — no goal. Eihei Dogen, founder of Soto Zen, famously wrote that practice is enlightenment; there’s no distinction between the two.

Much as there’s no border between samsara and nirvana — they’re both right here, right now. Which one we experience in a given moment largely depends on our attitude toward our lives and the degree to which we’re able to accept reality.

“No gaining idea” is based on the zen ideal of purity in action, meaning our actions aren’t corrupted by motives or agendas beyond themselves. Kodo Sawaki Roshi observed that we believe we go to high school to get into a good college, then to college to land a good job so we can have a good life, etc. He finds this way of living, with everything serving as a stairway to something else, ridiculous. Possibly because the future is so unpredictable, contingent on myriad causes and conditions. And because neverending dissatisfaction (dukkha) is built into this way of life. And yet this is how we usually proceed.

So what do we mean by a spiritual practice “working”? In my case, nearly a decade staring at a wall trying not to think — has it worked? Hard to know, partly because I entertain no expectations of it. Strange to say, since I harbor abundant expectations, often concealed until they’re disappointed, in relation to most facets of life. Amidst a generally goal-oriented existence, I’ve felt it important to do one thing for no reason: no good reason, no bad ones. No expectations or justifications. Even I think meditation is a bizarre thing to do, especially with the intensity I do — five days a month is a lot of nothing.

Certainly I’ve changed over the past ten years, but how can I attribute the shifts to practice? Life is an experiment without a control. I think when we talk about practice working, we mean making us bigger and better — wiser, more compassionate and peaceful, more free. Maybe this last is the key. The fact is, having no expectations is a kind of freedom; there’s no way to win or lose, succeed or fail. And to do something year after year without expectation is an exercise not only of freedom but of unconditional love, something many of us could use practice in.