“The path is the goal.”    June 23rd, 2018

In the garden of gentle sanity,
May you be bombarded by coconuts of wakefulness.   

      Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

A disciple once asked Shakyamuni Buddha, “Teacher, what is the goal of meditation?” To which he replied, “The goal is the path.” Not a utopian static state of being, not a perfected version of you, but a moment-to-moment, awakened engagement with what is happening in the here and now. Not a gradually gathering and penultimate outcome, but an ongoing exploration, an ever-unfolding relationship with the world around and within you, as it is. Yoga and meditation practice help to awaken us to that relational space.

Yoga and meditation have a positive impact on our overall health, but those are happy side effects. If we make things like achieving a certain standard of health, balance, and stability our primary goal, well, life will mess up our plans. No amount of stretching, OM-ing, healthy eating, or cleansing your chakras will exempt you from the fact that you are involuntarily swept up in a matrix of life that exists by virtue of transformation, limitation, and mortality. Health, balance, and stability will always be elusive to varying degrees. Meditative practices are not about getting what we want; in a way, they are about being okay with not getting what we want. You can play at “manifesting” what you believe you deserve, but ultimately, you will be humbled by what you cannot control. No measure of discipline, organization, visualization or being-all-that-you-can-be will rescue you from the fact that life, in all its holy contour, is by it’s very nature fragile, complex, and unpredictable. Life is a relational space between many interdependent beings. Life is not about you, and it’s not about getting what you want. Life will gift you with treasures you could never have imagined to “manifest,” because true treasure comes all wrapped up in a stunning package of unexpected, blissful marvel; the treasure is in the not-knowing. That amazing grace will arise when it damn well can, for all beings, and not according to your personal schedule.”One dwells in suffering if one is without reverence and deference,” said the Buddha. Through meditative practice, we put ourselves in the way of the health, balance, and stability that is available to us at any given moment, and we relax into the lack thereof. We put ourselves not in the way of material graces, or the love of desired outcomes, but rather, we put ourselves in the way of the limitless grace that wells up from simply loving for the sake of loving, and simply being present for the sake of the wonderment of what we do not know and cannot predict; the fathomless and marvelous NOW. Through meditative practice, we put ourselves not in the way of the ignorance and greed that gathers around personal agendas and invulnerability and comfort-seeking, but in the way of wisdom that lies behind the doors of discomfort, death, and darkness.

The goal is not to succeed or conquer or transcend, or to finally arrive at a new place or a new you.The goal is not to feel good all the time. The goal is not to be good all the time. The goal is to turn toward this messy and seemingly unremarkable moment as it is and to gaze open-eyed into the simple joy and the petty discomfort of it and not look away. Don’t wait for an end goal. Find the love and the peace and the relaxation right there in the middle of the turmoil and you will have to reach out to others for help with that. We need each other for this truly advanced practice.

Ride the rough wave of mortality into an ocean of no separation. Turn toward your suffering and your struggle with kindness. Walk the wild edge of imperfect life and be imperfect back. Respond to the unexpected with your own unexpected response. Every moment of our lives offers up a fresh opportunity to trust in and engage the energy of what is happening, of what is so, rather than to quantify it, analyze it, bend it to our will, or bore it to death with habit and assumption. In the midst of constant change, unrelenting challenge, and unrealized expectations, we can take refuge in the practiced constancy of RELATING, lovingly and fearlessly and freshly, TO THIS MOMENT AS IT IS.


“Walking like a free person”     May 25th, 2018
Every step is an opportunity to walk like a free person.  Thich Nhat Hanh
Without any effort on our part, without fancy philosophy or 5-step plans, without special postures or rituals, nature meditates us. The sunrise, the starry night, the summer storm, the snowy woods, the vast desert, the green meadow, the backyard bird feeder, the primal solace of nature elicits from us a feeling of homecoming, of reverent quietude, of sacred wonderment, of internal expansion, of being loved and welcomed just as we are; in nature, we feel invited into a slower walk with life, a pace that feels more right, more true; along the river, under the trees, looking up at the sky, we feel more inclined to connect with one another from a soul-space; to connect with non-human entities in a soul-space. In nature, we feel drawn into direct contact with the heart of life and the timeless immediacy of the present moment. 
 
The return of spring is a good time to let nature take over your best laid plans, your foolishly chatty mind, your strict and stodgy to-do list operator, your overflowing netflix queue, your sinking despair and anxiety about what could be wrong with the world or yourself. Let’s let nature take over all that stuff like kudzu takes over an old dusty house. Let’s allow spring to put us in mind of the resiliency of life, and of our underestimated selves; to put us in mind of the almost inconceivable inevitability of renewal and rising phoenixes no matter how barren or beyond healing the world appears through our harsh winter eyes. Let’s allow the stubborn and untamable creativity of life’s unpredictable persistence sway us to suspend our salty disbelief for a moment in “the holy contour of life” (Kerouac’s words). Let’s allow this sudden unleashed upwelling of springtime beauty and thick vitality remind us how it feels for a moment to walk like a free person. Let it soak in. Let it steep. Let it dethrone your agenda, your disillusionment, and your certainty.

The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.    Thich Nhat Hanh


“Divine slacking and the art of failure”     April 28th, 2018

Our first obligation is to live in the universe.   Thomas Berry

I loafe and invite my soul; I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.  Walt Whitman  

You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese”, like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, has become so popular that I cringe a little when either are performed in public (only because they feel rote with so much repetition). But how wonderful, really, that we’re exposing ourselves through our adoration. We are quietly and collectively perceiving our antidote, even as we perpetuate the condition and dare not speak its name. Instead, we repeat the songs and the poems, like mantra: “There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” we intone from Cohen’s “Anthem.” Each of these collectively selected anthems repeat the same thing in uniquely beautiful ways: Acceptance, reverence for imperfection. Permission to let ourselves off the hook, and off the cross.
Caregiving has largely relieved me of my perfectionism, at least for the time being. I once regarded it as a great virtue, so much so that being forced to shed it spun me into an identity crisis. Any lingering perfectionistic tendencies I cautiously handle like copperheads (careful Jenne, that shit will kill you, I remind myself). In order to survive caregiving, I have had to get really comfortable with failing. For any measure of happiness, I have had to even enjoy failing. Peace? At peace with utter mess. “Take care of yourself,” everyone tells me, lovingly. I fail at taking care of myself almost all of the time. Because, well, I’m only able to take care of myself as well as I can under the circumstances; and, under the circumstances, that’s not very well. So, really, I’m succeeding at taking care of myself: because I’m doing the best that I can to take care of myself under the circumstances, which is really quite a lot, and continually working to take actions to better care for myself. See what just happened there? Acceptance of imperfection = letting self off cross. Failure becomes a form of success.
To take care of yourself in modern life, even without the caregiving part, is truly radical. It is not a thing that you do and check off the list or pat yourself on the head for; it is a continually unfolding process, which really sounds too pretty. It is a relentless, messy, losing battle. Because taking care of yourself, in modern times, means failing at something. And everybody knows that the game is achievement – that’s when you get the “gold sticker” feeling – when you are doing it well, according to standards that you set or that the culture sets. There are so many things to get done and to do well at any given moment in the modern age that, in order to take care of yourself, you have to practice not excelling, and not doing, which feels wrong on a fundamental level. Succeeding is so ingrained that even “taking care of yourself” becomes a project that you are either failing or succeeding at; you are also failing or succeeding at being fit, at aging well, at saying the right thing, at saying something wise or insightful, at attaining enlightenment, at eating well, at not getting sick, at doing that one thing better that will make you better overall, at being right, at being comfortable with not being right, at being compassionate, at being woke, at being a good person, at being the best you that you can possibly be. I got to meet a Korean Zen master last year. A perky, blonde, well-muscled, “fit at 50” yoga instructor asked him: “When you attain greater stages of enlightenment, how does that correlate with your health?” To which he replied, “The more enlightened you become, the less attached you will be to your health.” Take that, America.
In order to take care of myself, sometimes I have to let go of getting important things done (this is called “patience”; it’s really hard). I’ve learned that you can choose to not do the important thing, and life will still go on. And, when I am doing the important things, I’m usually exhausted from cumulative burnout while doing them, so I am also learning to love my sub-par, mistake-riddled self as she tries to do the important things as best she can. This is a very tender and sweet love. Whatever you do is okay, Jenne, because you’re doing the best you can, and you mean well for yourself and everyone around you. Through this love, I just baaaaaarely scratch the surface of a genuine understanding that the important things on the to-do list, important though they may be, are still not even half as important as what is truly important. To do the truly important things, you have to forsake getting important things done. This is called “divine slacking”. It’s when you take time for truly important things, often on the spur of the moment, by slacking off from doing important things. The truly important things? To lean and loafe and invite the soul. To observe a spear of summer grass instead of getting the newsletter out on time. To live in the universe. To love. To be loved. To connect. To feel. To cry. To not apologize for crying. To speak truthfully. To admit what’s in our hearts. To not know, to admit not knowing. To be wild, to be unknowable. To try it differently, to defy the habit, to restrain the compulsion, to break the rules. To remember we’re living in a mystery. To be broken, and by embracing brokenness, to see what is not broken. To experience wholeness.
Access to truly important things requires coming into relationship with the fact of imperfection. The fact of not being in control, the fact of not being able to fix it, the fact of not really knowing what it is all about, the fact of mortality, the fact of vulnerability, the fact of weakness and limitation, the fact of messiness — to be with reality as it is, without trying to fix it. This is called “deep listening”. It does not preclude accountability and working toward life-affirming growth; rather, it coexists with these things, and ironically, catalyzes them. Life is different than how we think it is.
Seeing life, or yourself, or the world as a project — that is the condition we suffer. Always trying to fix it by way of accomplishment — that is a problem. Despairing in failure, reveling in triumph — that is missing the point. Life is not a thing you do well or do poorly, nor are you a thing that you do well or poorly, nor are your days. Walking is controlled falling, and life is controlled failing. I would wager that our failures propel us forward more than our successes. To revel in failure is to love life. Patience is a virtue, a really hard one. And forgiveness, maybe the hardest. Learn how to find levity and freedom in failure, and there you will find patience, forgiveness, unconditional compassion. Thomas Moore reminds us that the soul prefers the labyrinth to the ladder. The soul prefers inscendence to transcendence. The soul prefers paradox, mystery, being sick, failures, foolishness, boredom, blank spaces, not knowing. All good for the soul, which is ripened by making mistakes. Magic, not reason and will, accomplishes what the soul needs (is it any wonder our cultural adoration for Hogwarts?). We may have to give up many projects that seem important to modern life in order to take care of ourselves, in order for our souls to thrive. To take care of ourselves, to bring soul in, means other things go out.
You are not a fixer-upper; you are a fucking orchid. You are a wild and delicate thing, as raw and as blunt as you are elegant and mysterious. Here is what the internet says about how to care for yourself, dear orchid.
 
“When your orchid stops blooming and enters dormancy, don’t worry, it is not dead. You can encourage your orchid to bloom again with just a little tender loving care. To trigger re-blooming, your orchid will need a little more attention than what you usually give it. The thrill when your orchid blooms again, however, makes the small investment in time and effort required to trigger re-blooming well worth the effort. Orchids expend a lot of energy to create the large, beautiful flowers for which they are prized. Under normal circumstances, your orchid will enter a necessary resting period called dormancy once it stops blooming. Dormancy allows the plant time to rest and replace the nutrients expended during blooming. Nutrients and water are stored and replenished until the right conditions occur for growth and blooming. Your orchid may re-bloom on its own, but sometimes orchids need a little help activating the natural rhythms that lead to blooming. 
 
To be in harmony with the oneness of things is to be without anxiety about imperfection.  Dogen Zenji
 
The holy dove
She will be caught again;
Bought and sold,
And bought again;
The dove is never free.  Leonard Cohen
 
Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.    Howard Thurman

“A volume of scripture without paper or ink”   February 23rd, 2018

I have a volume of scripture. It is not written with paper or ink. It does not contain a single word, yet always radiates light.   (Zen Koan)The yogis and the meditators, the psychologists and the neuroscientists, teach us that, at any age, we have the power to shape the structure of the brain, to direct the flow and attention of the mind, to heighten consciousness, to deepen our capacity for love, to fundamentally change how we relate to our inner and outer world. The four boundless qualities …

… loving-acceptance …

… compassion …

… joy …

… equanimity …

absolutely can, with practical practice, become the foundation from which we move in the world, relate to ourselves and others, and deal with the innate suffering of life. With every breath and every step, we can craft a masterpiece of an ever-awakening self, because steadfast practice shapes how our brain, body, and nervous system respond to stimulus, sending roots deep down into the heart of the highest good that human beings are capable of. The practice of anchoring the mind to the body and touching in to the present moment, with an open heart and a calm mind, brings us home. The volume of scripture without paper or ink is the shared consciousness we find there, the unspoken language between ourselves and the vast cosmos. A deep knowing, without words, that always radiates light, guiding us to take action in harmony with all things. To take refuge in the awakened self is to become a refuge for the whole world.


“Further up and further in”         January 25th, 2018
Go further, go further, 
go further in, towards awakening.   
       Heart Sutra
At the start of every year, I have a ritual of revisiting the moral precepts of yoga. Yoga is an eight-limbed tree, and only one of those limbs contains the physical poses we primarily associate with the word “yoga”. The first two limbs that sprout from the tree are the precepts–the eternal verities–universal truths and spiritual virtues that, with right intention, we hope to cultivate through our practices. As a very dear teacher-friend of mine says, “The first imperative of yoga is to lead an ethical life.”
One of my absolute favorite things about yoga is how spiritual philosophy is disseminated through the practices themselves. Without any knowledge of the precepts at all, one might still discover them, as they become self-evident and embodied through the practice. “Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory,” K. Pattabhi Jois entoned. Direct study of yoga’s precepts deeply enriches and informs how we approach the practices, helping us to identify the ways we unconsciously use our practice to reinforce dysfunction and harm-inducing behaviors. With this in mind, I found myself transforming the precepts into queries this year. Here are a few I’ve been playing with and you can take hold of any that resonate:
(Ahimsa) How is my practice helping me to become a better friend to myself? Am I using my practice to listen to and to love my body as it is? Am I using my practice to enter into compassion with myself, especially when I feel the most challenged and when I have the poorest self-image?
 
(Satya) How is my practice helping me to be with what is happening right here, in this moment? How am I helping my mind to become like still water, so that I can see things reflected clearly, as they are? 
 
(Asteya) How is my practice helping me to bridge my inner world toward relationship with the beings around me (both living and “inanimate”)? Can I feel the floor beneath my feet, can I recognize the enormity of the earth beneath the floor, can I feel the air on my skin and being pulled into my lungs, can I wonder how the person practicing next to me is feeling and all the many ways our experience intersects; can I recognize how “I am” because other things are? Am I allowing the beings and things around me to draw me into shared presence? To feel gratitude, reverence, curiosity toward beings and things beyond myself?
 
(Brahmacharya) How is my practice helping me to notice and to continually release ruminative and behavioral habits that cause me ill-being, and that distract me from  being awake and aware, that draw me away from the feeling of “walking with God”? How am I gathering and directing my energy and how am I scattering and dispersing my energy?
 
(Aparigraha) How is my practice helping me to let go of gripping? Where in my mind and where in my body can I release clenching? Where can I let go a bit more, or even sense how it might feel to let go? What happens if I do a little bit less in this pose (or in this situation), bend a little less deeply, let go of trying to achieve the biggest expression that I tend to want to reach for? What if this is enough? What if I am enough? What if this moment is enough?

How am I scattering my spirit?        December 30th, 2017
~
The wisdom of the heart arises not through knowledge or images of perfection, not through comparison or judgment, but by seeing with the eyes of loving attention, by touching with compassion all that exists in our world.    Jack Kornfield
~

Sankalpa is the yogic spin on new year’s resolutionTranslated from the sanskrit, sankalpa is “a sacred vow to stay connected to one’s highest truth.”  I like to think of sankalpa as a mother of triplets: sravana, manana and nididhyasana. Sravana is when the body is so calmed and the mind so settled that the message of the heart can be heard. Manana is turning toward the message of the heart with dedication, contemplation, and engagement. Nididhyasana is the organic and embodied action that we take on behalf of the heart’s message when we have fully integrated it.

The poetry of sankalpa invites us to resolves of the heart. It shifts our attention away from entertaining messages of self-deficiency to engaging practices that remind us of our wholeness, a numinous feeling from which healthy and life-affirming choices arise easily. What might happen if you stepped away from chasing “a better you” on the self-improvement treadmill and instead stepped closer to a resolve to love yourself more deeply as you are? The wisdom of sankalpa recognizes that resolute action arises from a place of listening, of self-reverence, of a genuine desire for personal healing and wellbeing, not by constructing a set of hurdles to gain our own approval or to improve how others perceive us. To turn toward our challenges and shortcomings, not with admonishment and a desire to perfect, but with a compassionate curiosity about what fuels our choices and how the soul might better flourish to influence those choices.

Sankalpa invites us down a path that leads to a clearing. A clearing inside ourselves where important messages can be heard. And an act of clearing—the clearing out of internal and external clutter that distracts us from our connection to being alive in this moment. As we approach the new year, we might ask ourselves—in what ways am I scattering my spirit and in what ways am I gathering my spirit? What are the right conditions for my highest wisdom to surface? So that we can be clear, not about how to live a better life, but about how to stay connected to what makes us glad to live and to be well.


Slowly, slowly…        November 24th, 2017

Sometimes I think there are only two instructions we need to follow to develop our spiritual life: slow down and let go.       Oriah Mountain Dreamer

I recently had occasion to visit the woods for a full day. My caregiving responsibilities for my Mom have been so suffocating over the past several months that I simply haven’t had the time or energy for walks, much less hikes, and it was alarming how winded I got during my first summit. I had to stop 3 times to catch my breath. At the top of the mountain, as I took in the view and turned my face to the sun, closed my eyes to feel the rhythmic gusts of wind passing through, I felt my internal world finally start to meld with the pace of nature, rather than the pace of my whirling brain, and I felt myself receiving the world around me, instead of forcing myself through it. For the remainder of the day, I walked more and more slowly – a “saunter” as Thoreau would insist – and when I found a spot that intuitively attracted me, I gave myself permission to sit in that place silently for as long as I wanted to, letting go of my “hiking agenda”, and just sitting in the space for as long as it felt good, for as long as it needed to steep in me – no thoughts, no dialogue – just feeling its healing presence in my body. By the time I came to my second and final ascent, I felt as if I was no longer in control of the movement of my body, or the pace of my movement; my body was moving up the mountain as it wanted to, and in concert with nature. I found that my steps were quite small but vigorous and consistently rhythmic, and I could feel strong waves of chi in my feet dan t’ian. Without the slightest need or desire for pause, I made my way effortlessly up the mountain this time.

During my brief stint living in Africa many years ago, I picked up a frequently used phrase: “pole pole” (pronounced ‘polay polay’ in Swahili). If you tripped over something, or something went wrong, or you started to get frustrated or intensely sad about something, inevitably someone would respond with “pole pole”. It translates to English as “slowly, slowly”. Something is wrong? Oh, you just need to slow down. That simple. This December, how unconditionally patient can I be with myself? How often can I remember to tune into the sensations of my body and my breath NOT just during yoga and meditation practice but in the moments when I start to feel overwhelmed?  Can I give myself radical permission and accountability to carve out time for things that slow me down enough to “receive” moments rather than force my way through them? Can I relax into the painful moments and slowly be with the pain with a heart of loving-kindness and support for myself rather than numbing out and dragging myself through it at a violent pace?


Relating Kindly To Yourself     September 21st, 2017

Self-compassion is being open to and moved by one’s own suffering and recognizing that one’s own experience is part of the common human experience.   – Kristen Neff

Shakyamuni Buddha told it like it is. The first truth of life, he said, is that we will encounter suffering. The first truth we can tell is to admit that we suffer and to name it. The second truth is to notice and admit our personal style of responding to suffering. Do you instinctively turn toward the feeling of suffering with a heart of kindness and compassion and pull out all the stops to address it and heal? Or, like most of us, do you blame and shame yourself for your suffering, power through it, and obsess over it when you are alone but conceal it around others?

How we relate to the fact of our suffering has everything to do with whether or not we ourselves aggravate and magnify our own suffering, and whether or not we engage, express, and digest our suffering, transform it into healing, and find access to joy in the midst of it. Liberative awareness, the Buddha taught, is a bird with two wings, both wings necessary to fly: compassion (unconditional friendliness toward oneself) and clarity (observing your thought, speech and behaviors with a curious and non-judgmental attitude). Meditation practices change how we relate to suffering when we approach our practice with unconditional goodwill toward ourselves and a healthy measure of patient curiosity toward our inner workings. When we change how we relate toward our own suffering, we change how we relate to one another’s suffering, and the suffering in the world. Every breath, every step, every word and action, an opportunity to relate kindly to ourselves and to one another.


An Everlasting Flower      July 23rd, 2017

The ultimate source of comfort and peace is within ourselves.   14th Dalai Lama

Atta diipa saranam — take refuge in the island of yourself.   Shakyamuni Buddha

The Korean chant that I intone in the early morning darkness to open my meditation practice says that inside of me are the eyes of eternity through which I can perceive the heart of existence, which is perpetually shining, even with the extinction of all things. The chant reminds me that to continually awaken myself to this inner knowing is “an everlasting flower”.

I find myself easily and often overwhelmed by the state of the world lately, and of our country. My thoughts and my feelings get dark. And in that darkness, I get knocked over the head with reminders to set aside despairing over what is wrong with the world, and to return to the fundamental work of being a peaceful and loving home to myself. Through that work, I stay connected to what is true, even with the inevitable coming and going of all things. Through that work, I become a source of refuge and of hope in the world, even with the inevitable coming and going of all things.

Inner peace is a doable thing. Embodied practice is key. Books and lectures are helpful, but pretty much a hill of beans if we are not awakening the concepts in our bodies. Inner peace feels like an actual place inside — both monks and neuroscientists will back me up on that. With familiarity, it becomes a touchstone. When it becomes a struggle to access it, the alarm bells go off to listen deeply; wait in the darkness, with whatever compassion, curiosity, and faith can be mustered, to locate and to generate an access point to internal refuge and safety. A path is formed by laying one stone at a time; and so, my practice of inner peace is the arduous work of laying stones through the darkest, most vulnerable and isolated parts of myself; and in the darkest, most challenging times. With every stone that gets placed, a masterpiece is crafted, of inner rootedness, inner peacefulness, inner wisdom.

To feel that we are an indispensable part of the love in this world, to feel the peace of irreducibly belonging to this world, no matter how imperfect it may seem, is the bare minimum of the truth we deserve to access. How much love you are willing to extend to yourself, and how safe your internal home is, determines how much of that truth you let in. Neglecting my body and my emotional needs, harsh self-judgment, shaming, isolation, and self-distrust exile me from my own inner world – my home – which is the world that connects me to all worlds.


Not a measuring stick. Not a weapon.     April 26th, 2017

There was a time when I was largely motivated by the belief that I was fundamentally unworthy of love and that no matter how hard I tried to do well and be a good person, I was irredeemably abnormal, flawed and less than everyone else. This old conditioning still expresses itself in my life and my spiritual practice, and I have come to recognize the hallmarks of its presence. I acknowledge it when I catch myself pushing to obtain some imagined standard in my meditation practice or in my life, rather than simply trusting in what I am capable of; when I catch myself trying to feel a certain way rather than leaning in to what I am actually feeling; when I begin to pressure myself to over-prepare for classes or workshops or meetings, as if I’m not already good at what I do or comfortable with who I am; when I magnify perceived lack or flaws or weaknesses in myself, crafting ugly images with little regard for the gentle, well-meaning, beauty-seeking, and innately generous soul that powers the person that I am; when I feel the need to be very serious or austere to prove my worth or selflessness, rather than seeking out levity and joy to temper this life that already comes with plenty of heaviness and seriousness built into it; when I pressure myself to do more and be more and get it all done even at the cost of good sleep and healthy nourishment and a walk outside in the fresh air – all things to keep me healthy and glad to be alive; when I feel a strong internal dissonance — a sense of isolation and self-blame in my suffering — that is when I know my “never enough, not worthy” self has come to visit. In those moments, the wholesome practice of meditation and the wholesome practice of offering my gifts in the world gets warped into unwholesome activity. My meditation practice suddenly forgets to be a place of refuge–a place to connect with what is with compassion and curiosity. It becomes instead a measuring stick and a weapon to wield against myself or others. Shakyamuni Buddha said that “liberation is a bird with two wings: clear-seeing and compassion.” Through this teaching, I have learned that whenever I start to feel a sense of dissonance or isolation, the answer is ALWAYS to apply more compassion and self-acceptance.

At the age of eleven, my spiritual life was stirred awake by Christ’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’, by my walks alone in the woods, and by John Lennon’s song “Imagine”. The expansive feelings they stirred in me became moral compass points: listening to the natural world, protecting the vulnerable, commitment to the sanctity of life, imagining my way into a life of peace. These aspirations fundamentally shaped my life path. But there are moments when these moral drives find a way of warping themselves into weapons and standards to wield against myself and others. My spirit gets drained with a sense of burden and despair as I weigh all of the cruelty and suffering I see in the world against all of the kindness and grace. In the name of harsh self-sacrifice, I deprive myself of compassion and generosity and access to inward peace while trying to bring those same qualities into the world. I lose my sense of goodwill toward others with my self-righteous indignation and hostility toward ignorance and harmful actions, without considering the unseen suffering and lack of nourishment that fuels the behavior; I disregard the spirit of my perceived enemies and scoff at their audacity to be flawed and struggling human beings, as I am; as we all are.

The great singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt sang, “What is venerable can be damnable.” Spiritual practice and precepts and moral values are powerful, and as with any power, we must be vigilant not to wield that power against ourselves and others. Spiritual power is strictly for upliftance. We must ask ourselves regularly – how are my practices and values helping me to be with the world as it is? Am I using my spiritual practice and moral values to steady my soul or to drain my soul? To awaken myself or to punish myself? To love myself or to demean myself? To love the world or to demean the world? To wish healing and awakening on others or to wish them harm and further blindness?

Spiritual practices and precepts must be grounded in their proper context: expanding our capacity to love. Not a door-mat, it’s-all-good, rose-colored glasses kind of love, but the kind of love that the Greek word agape and the Tibetan word maitri point toward–goodwill toward all, independent of approval or disapproval. The love of God operating in the human heart. Our practice, grounded in its proper context, should not only sharpen our discernment and inspire constructive action, but also expand our patience to be with the world as it is, to be with ourselves as we are, to be with others as they are. “We are all on our path, Jenne,” Won Gong said gently to me once while we were chopping vegetables and I was expressing irritation about someone in a damning tone of voice. Our practice, in the proper context, is meant to bring us into relationship with the fact of imperfection — with a familiarity and intimacy with imperfection, a deep knowing and understanding that imperfection is the axis upon which reality spins, upon which we all spin — that we will always be an imperfect expression of ourselves, that our loved ones will always be an imperfect expression of themselves, that humanity will always be an imperfect expression of itself — because that is what makes things “go” in this reality we find ourselves in. We cannot have wisdom without neurosis, we cannot have affection without irritation, we cannot have the garden without the stinky decaying matter, we cannot have new life without death, lotus flowers without mud, joy without suffering, summer without winter, light without darkness — and neither one is more important or ‘better than’ the other because their equal weight, their equal importance, is the stuff of wholeness. If I befriend what is inside of me, ALL that is inside of me, the ‘darkness’ especially, I gain fearlessness and unshakable peace and unconditional loving-acceptance; I see that the suffering and struggle that I experience in myself are not my own, they are an expression of the shared human experience. When I stand in this awareness, I can relax my sense of being a separate “I”. I open myself to an experience of how inextricably linked I am to all things. I don’t have to get so caught up in being “Jenne”, attached and obsessed with my sense of self, with how good “I” am or how bad “I” am.

There was a moment during my meditation practice at silent retreat when I was overcome by the experience of no-self, of being utterly confronted by the field of aliveness around me and within me. All thoughts of self — evaluation, identification, and performing for others — dropped, entirely and absolutely, like 10,000 tons of weight shed in an instant. I was swimming so totally in the pure, unadulterated experience of being alive and a part of everything around me that I have never felt so satiated, so utterly complete, so indestructible with nothing separate or distinctive to destruct. Every word, every step, every action I took was organic: the fullest, most correct expression of my being possible, precisely the most good that could come from me at any given moment, without thought or grasp or control, because it simply wanted to arise from “me-connected-to-everything”. The axis of me-connected-to-everything was LOVE and ACCEPTANCE. The experience of total belonging and total immersion into the fabric of reality arose from love and acceptance of myself, love and acceptance of others, love and acceptance of the world, love and acceptance of all things.

Spiritual practice is not a measuring stick. It is not a weapon. It is not makeup that you apply to show everybody how good or how wholesome or how enlightened you are. It is a mirror that you continually wipe judgment from to reflect things as they are; a pond, where, through the work of peacefulness, the debris settles at the bottom so that the reflection is clear. It is an invitation to reach out through the space between us and to find where the heart can connect and where the healing can begin.

~

Won Gong asks, “What do you see

when you look out the window

before you say tree?”

I see long limbs reaching

to lift tiny green and blossoming beings

toward the nourishment of the sun.

Sometimes, I am the rooted branch

lifting others closer to nourishment;

sometimes, I am the fragile, trembling being

allowing myself to be lifted

by sturdier arms

toward the light.