Just Peel The Potatoes. September 13th, 2019
Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.
Someone recounted to me recently an experience that used to be quite common but is now rare: a clear and bright night-time sky. The wonder of the universe was freshly stirred in them. Without words, the stars convey the mystery and magnitude of life. As this person put it, “they were a physical reminder of the spiritual.” The conversation moved along to discussing a health issue. The speaker had been listening to a lot of Eckhart Tolle and was working on “dissolving her pain body” in response to her health issue. I don’t hold Eckhart Tolle in high regard, and this sounded like his usual dissociative hullabaloo to me, so I just nodded my head skeptically. “I want my spirit to be uninhibited by my body, which is subject to pain,” she said. “I am working on perceiving my body as it is — just a tool, a shell that houses my spirit — so that I can be more in touch with my spirit.” I winced. This made me feel really sad. Had it been appropriate at the time, what I wanted to say was this …
Our bodies were formed out of the remnants of exploding stars.
No less than the stars, our bodies are holy emblems of the spiritual mystery and magnitude of life.
The physical IS the spiritual. There is no separation. The spiritual IS because the physical IS. “Physical” and “spiritual” are just concepts. The experience we are having exceeds the limits of these mere words.
“Be here now” means be HERE now. Here. Alive, in this universe, on this planet, in this body, subject to these natural laws. Reverence for life means coming into harmony with this great cosmic body and with the natural laws that govern it. When white people catch up to this truth, we’ll all be the better for it.
The cycles of creation hinge on change and mortality. No matter how “spiritual” you are, illness, injury, hardship and death will befall you. These vulnerabilities are inherent to the human spiritual journey and are portals for awakening. Through the crucible of the temporal, we gain the eyes of the eternal.
To have disdain toward your own suffering, to attempt to avoid pain, to entertain delusions of bypassing natural order is arrested development. “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, gotta go through it.”
The Earth is currently demonstrating to humanity the limits of our power and the limits of ignoring, neglecting, abusing, and exploiting the Earth body. We treat the Earth like a tool and look where that has gotten us.
The body is its own ecosystem. Ecosystems rely on continual nourishment, restorative cycles, and interrelated faculties functioning together as one (body, mind, breath, spirit, consciousness). If you listen well, your body will teach you how to be sick and how to be injured; it will teach you how to restore balance; and it will teach you how to die.
The body is far more than a tool. It is the checks and balances of the mind. It is the conductor of consciousness. It is the conduit of the subtle energy body. It is the power to connect to everything around you. It is living Nature, living scripture, a reservoir of primordial wisdom. It is a generator for the palpable energies of love, joy, compassion and peace. Through the body, we cook, we craft, we garden, we make art, we express affection, and we feel emotion.
“We have a map of the universe for microbes, we have a map of a microbe for the universe. We have a Grand Master of chess made of electronic circuits. But above all, we have the ability to sort peas, to cup water in our hands, to seek the right screw under the sofa for hours. This gives us wings.” (William Carlos Williams)
“Oh Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” (Heart Sutra)
“The creative transformations of true voidness (formlessness) and marvelous existence (form) freely conceal and reveal themselves through all things in the universe, throughout vast eons without beginning: this is the truth of Il-Won-Sang / Ensō.” (Il-Won-Sang Vow)
The first time I practiced yoga was a revelation. Up to that moment, my body was a place I was always trying to get away from. I felt awkward in my body. It was an uncomfortable world that I had no control over, simmering with anxiety and insecurity and craving. My back and neck were an aching sheet of tension. In my early twenties, while working at a summer camp, a friend sitting behind me tried to rub my shoulders. I remember the concern in his voice as he asked me over and over again to relax my shoulders. “Jenne,” he gently chided, “That is not what relaxed is. Relax your shoulders. Relax. RELAX.” I could not. My body was so heavily armored.
It took a certain level of personal pain and desperation to get me to try yoga, but good fortune landed me in the hands of a skilled instructor. Coaxed by her nurturing attitude and mindful guidance, I breathed and moved my way into a kind of relaxation and self-kindness I had never experienced before. I was in awe of how pleasant a place my body could be. I remember thinking that it was like taking a nature hike in my own body: exploring, discovering, familiarizing myself with a personal landscape as capable of beauty and balance and tranquility as it was capable of discomfort and turmoil and terror. I noticed little details about my hands and feet that I hadn’t before; I noticed what it felt like to move my hips; I noticed muscles I didn’t know I had; I noticed what was tight and what felt good to open up that tension; I noticed how my nervous system responded to my breath.
It dawned on me that my body got all of the blame for simply communicating to me about my undigested emotional pain and my aggressive lifestyle choices. What I had failed to realize was that my body was a command center for healing and cultivating my inner world. By releasing tension in my body, I released constriction in my heart and mind. By loving my body and healing my body’s wounds, I was loving and healing my self. By striking a stable or flexible posture, I invoked a feeling of inner stability and personal expansion. By breathing calmly and slowly and peacefully like the ocean, I generated an internal oceanic feeling of love and safety and tranquility. My body appeared to me as a steering wheel for regulating my nervous system, for calming my mind, for opening my heart and for digesting emotional pain.
Yoga is many things, but westerners think of yoga primarily in terms of asana or physical postures. I think this is as it should be. In the West, we need first and foremost to get back into the body. We have left the body far behind and have holed up obstinately in our heads. We are born with a profound human gift for integrated awareness and expanded consciousness, yet we choose not to explore this capacity. It is as if we have inherited an enchanted mansion and instead of exploring the splendor of the whole house, we hang out in the attic of the mind playing virtual reality games all day. We are born into this luminous mystery, and we choose not to walk in it on our own two feet, with all of our faculties awakened. We barely dip a toe into our full potential. We barely arrive.
I believe that we have Descartes and the Puritans to thank for this (and by the way, “Descartes and the Puritans” would be a great band name). All of us are harboring unconscious beliefs from these formative personalities about the unquestioned rightness of subjugating the body and the ultimate goal of corporeal transcendence, whether secular or divine. The mind is the place where it’s all happening, so we must keep pace with the mind. The natural world, the body, and the heart are frivolous and slow-moving and interrupting backdrops, subservient to the obligations, rationalizations, projects, goals and all-important to-do lists of the mind.
We drag our body around behind us, demanding without question that it carry out the will of the mind at whatever the cost. We perceive the body as an afterthought: a crass and indulgent thing, and mostly a thing that gets in our way. The heart is also an afterthought: we speed past all those little pings of emotion we get throughout the day. We don’t have time for it. Emotional digestion is tedious, requiring us to slow down and notice and be with, which is too high maintenance for these busy modern times and all of the entertainment we could be consuming instead. Hearts are impractical, unpredictable, and too fragile and vulnerable to lead with, prone to irrational hysterics. Doing the work of growing into a greater love is for snowflakes. We’ll suffer the starving isolation and numb disconnection just to “get through the day” so we can come home and be colonized by our screens and devices. We’ll sacrifice any sense of depth in relationship or community on the altar of the mind being “right,” and skip the transformative growth and rapturous intimacy that comes of humility and the admission of not-knowing. The thinking mind, after all, is what sets us above all of nature, so why prostrate ourselves to anything else? The sole source of consciousness, according to Descartes, is the unequalled mind, venerated as superior and far more sophisticated and objective than the animalistic information coming from the body and the impractical messages coming from the heart. “I think, therefore I am,” said Rene Descartes. To which I counter: You think, therefore you are distracted, disconnected, unfulfilled, and out of touch with your greater integrated faculties and the interactive super-consciousness of the here and the now, dude.
Yogis and meditators are not immune to this unconscious conditioning. I am continually amazed by how westerners can take embodied philosophy from other world traditions and unconsciously morph it into another way to get stuck in their heads and to push away reality. The practices become not one of discovery and unconditional love and acceptance of what is but of dissecting and covering up and removing parts of themselves, or floating off and escaping to some celestial realm that separates them from this place and the people around them. When “spirit” or “spirituality” is removed from the body, we perpetuate a western pattern of the self being nothing but an extension of the mind. “Spirituality” becomes a hyper-intellectualized filter to layer over the unmediated experience of reality that embodied practice is meant to bring us closer to.
To use a real world example, I recently had an interaction with someone in which they bypassed witnessing my personal pain due to a chronic illness by waxing poetic about “raising the vibration” and engaging objects that operate at “high vibrations.” This person was on some sort of mental escape into new age cloud coo-coo land while I was here trying to listen to and respect my body’s needs. The spiritual elitism and subtle judgmental was not lost on me: maybe if I were more attuned to the higher celestial vibrations then I wouldn’t be caught in the limitations of this subpar body. Puritanical indeed: high and low, pure and impure, above and below. This was spiritual makeup, not being with the world as it is. This was a failure of compassion.
I want the low vibrations. I want all the vibrations. I want to open my heart to the deep, dark vibrations of shadow and struggle, of suffering and doubt, of wrestling and grappling with growth and decay, of messy and painful death and rebirth. I want the down and dirty vibrations of sensuality and sexuality, of crass humor and unabashed play, of courageous honesty and transformative confrontation, of uninhibited creative expression. I want the broken hallelujah vibrations of unapologetic weeping, of the mind admitting defeat so that is has nothing left but deference to the heart’s humble reaching out for love and support. I want the bass-y, booming vibrations of the Earth; of loam and galax and scat.
Our path is not to reject any part of this experience but to pay homage to it. Our path is to be walked in this body with a humbled mind and an open heart. The spiritual journey is not one of ridding ourselves of pain and imperfection, nor of transcending this lesser body and earthly domain. The boundary to what we are willing to accept is the boundary to love and freedom. The deeper workings of liberation and belonging require an inward dive, not ascendence. My friend and mentor, theologian and cultural historian Thomas Berry, called this inscendence (vs transcendence) — going inward and downward, toward the body, toward the heart, toward the Earth, and toward the primordial cosmos as spiritual path. Rather than transcending toward greater perfection, we are turning toward the world and toward ourselves to embrace what is here, to discover what is already in us. Beneath the surface dissonance of the mind arguing with reality is a still point, a peace that passes understanding.
We are living outside of our bodies and so we do not have peace in our bodies. There is great tension there. There is exhaustion and there is pain. If we want peace in our bodies, we must learn to inhabit the body. We must swim against the tide of cultural conditioning and recommit, over and over again, everyday, to nurture and live in service to our body. Deep relaxation practice, mindful breathing, gentle stretching, going for walks, stilling the mind through meditation, and sensory awareness practices are all tools that can help us to restore peace to our bodies. We need structured time and practices to listen and to learn more about our body’s needs. Yoga and meditation practice provide us with this structured time, and furthermore teach us how to be with pain that cannot be relieved; how to attend to ongoing suffering in the body with gentleness, attentiveness, fortitude, and unrelenting self-compassion. Through embodied practice, we learn to create pleasant sensations to counter-balance pain. We learn to generate feelings of safety and nurturing to embrace feelings of hardship and brokenness. Bringing peace to our bodies starts with one conscious in-breath and out-breath.
We are speeding past the communications of the heart, and so there is not peace in our hearts. Our hearts get tight and filled with unresolved pain. We have fears and anxiety, we have anger and irritation, we have overwhelm and despair. Taking time to experience and look at these feelings honestly is the pathway to greater love — for ourselves, for each other, and for the world. We can restore peace to our hearts by engaging our body and our breath to generate internal feelings of safety and nurturing that allow us to approach challenging emotions without being overwhelmed or consumed by them. By acknowledging our suffering and our feelings of separation, by slowing down rather than speeding up in response to sadness, by leaning into our feelings and having the courage to express them, we can ventilate them and digest them; we can move through them and allow them to expand us into more loving people. By welcoming challenging emotions without judgment, and with unrelenting compassion (and a good helping of humor when possible), we come into a greater intimacy with ourselves and others. We transform suffering into a practice of healing and growth. If we live only in our minds, and outside of our bodies, then we will pull our emotions up into our ruminating and dissatisfied mind, which steers our emotions toward greater magnification and distortion. By locating our emotions in the body instead, we can be with the energy and sensation of them, getting to know them and express them as they are, unfiltered and unexaggerated by the mind. The purpose of emotion is to feel, not to be rationalized, analyzed, or suppressed, as the mind is wont to do. We can bring peace to our heart by arriving back in our body with one conscious in-breath and out-breath.
Because the mind is unchecked by the body and the heart, and because it is always wandering far away through some distant imaginary world rather than the world right in front of us, we do not have peace in our minds. There is restlessness and unease; there is craving and dissatisfaction; there are scary stories being told of failure and isolation, and there are fantasies being entertained about control and having more. We can bring peace to our mind with one conscious in-breath and out-breath: the conscious breath an agglutinant that keeps the mind anchored to the body. The body is, always, literally touching the here and the now; by bringing the mind back to the body, we awaken the mind in the here and the now. With mind and body together as one in the here and the now, it is possible to walk in the kingdom of god with every step; it is possible to touch deep peace and unyielding compassion in every breath; it is possible to truly see each other and to truly touch the Earth. That is what spirit is, and it happens through the body.
Yoga means “union.” Zen means “seeing oneness.” Meditation, dhyana, means sustained absorption, sustained attention. Our goal is not to be able to touch our toes or put our foot behind our head. The goal is not to be perfectly enlightened and pain-free and always happy and well-behaved. The goal is not to accumulate heady knowledge and right answers or to spin endless philosophy. The goal is to be fully engaged, right here in this moment, informed by your heart and body and mind as one, attentive to yourself and to all these beings around you, absorbed with this unnameable experience, and with the practical earthly task at hand. When you are stretching, the practice is to be fully absorbed with stretching. When you are sitting in meditation, the practice is to be sitting and breathing and nothing else. When you are driving, the practice is to be fully absorbed in driving. When you are brushing your teeth, the meditation is to slow down and brush your teeth. When you are washing the dishes or taking a shower, the practice is to feel what it is like to wash the dishes and to take a shower. When you are walking in nature, the spiritual task is to be fully there, walking in nature. When you are crying, the practice is to be crying. If you let your mind run constantly — mind running into the future, mind running into the past, mind running into what could be happening, mind running into this fantasy or that nightmare — you will miss out on the subtle glory and grace of being here, in favor of the neurotic and distracted childishness and conceit of the mind.
Our body is here to help us fully arrive in the unknown quantity of this moment. When you are peeling the potatoes, the spiritual goal is to just be here peeling the fucking potatoes. It requires a body to do that. Enlightenment hides in the mundane. The spirit is bejeweled by the physical. Wisdom resides in the body. Peace comes to us in one conscious breath: the lungs expand to take in this unfathomable world and then contract to send us out into it. “No separation,” was the Buddha’s enlightenment. Union. Oneness. Absorption. With that realization, the first thing he did was reach down and touch the Earth.
The world is perfect. Pay attention to the details.
Scripture without paper or ink. July 26, 2019
and sit watching the clouds.
My favorite Korean zen koan goes like this:
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.
What does this mean?
When I am on retreat with my teacher, she intones a zen koan every morning about halfway through our seated meditation. Once the koan is spoken, it is followed with the question – what does this mean? Usually my internal response is: Ummm? (not to be confused with Ohmmmm). Perhaps the koan above is my favorite because I do know what it means. Well, what it means to me anyway. My three-fold answer is as follows:
Nature is a volume of scripture without paper or ink. I recently read a book that details the effect that the natural world has on the human brain. It was 300 pages of interesting statistics written with grating academic neutrality and hip modern-day cynicism, with little whiffs of white imperialist arrogance thrown in, all dancing and dodging with ironic reluctance to admit what those of us who don’t need to read the book already know: our very being is an expression of the natural cosmos, inextricably dependent upon it, not only biologically but psychologically. When we come into contact with our primordial context, we thrive. But, alas, at this bizarre juncture in human history, we need to write books about the neuroscience of what nature has to do with anything. Both religiously and scientifically, we have grossly overestimated ourselves as a species and grossly underestimated the natural world as a rightful parent, a critical teacher, and a true God in many ways, but especially in the way that our reverence, or lack thereof, determines our survival.
We are not foreigners here. We are not supreme beings here. As David Abrams points out, “Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix – our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, soundscapes, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interactions with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. This landscape of shadowed voices, these feathered bodies and antlers and tumbling streams, these breathing shapes are our family, with whom we struggle and suffer and celebrate in this life. We need that which is other than ourselves and our own creations – we are truly human only in contact, and in conviviality, with what is not human.”
Without any effort on our part, without sophisticated philosophy, without 8-step programs or 4-fold agreements, without special postures or rituals, without having to do anything but simply show up, nature meditates us, clearing our minds, relaxing our bodies, imbuing us with insight into our lives and special knowledge about the nature of our existence. The lone wildflower, the blooming sunrise, the hushed desert, the numinous stars, the interrupting thunderstorm, the cheerful creek, the snow-silent woods, the bright meadow, the backyard bird feeder: the unparalleled solace and aliveness of nature elicits from us a feeling of homecoming. Because that’s what it is.
We need do nothing but take the time to place ourselves in its care. The internal expansion happens all on its own. We come into contact with the beating heart of life and the timeless urgency of this moment. The scripture inherent, comes alive in us.
Inside of me is a volume of scripture without words. The sanskrit word srvana, as it appears in the Yoga sutras, means “the message of the heart that we can only hear when the body is calm and the mind settled.” In Buddhism, the word prajna similarly describes the human faculty of receiving spontaneous insight when the doors of perception are cleansed enough to come into direct contact with reality. This capacity to access subtle realms of consciousness and to channel insight is innate in all of us. Yoga and meditation offer us unparalleled tools to hone and wield that power. When the mind, breath, and body are in concert with the heart of the moment, we access a deep inner knowing.
Our dear poet Walt Whitman said it best:
We consider bibles and religions divine – I do not say they are not divine,
I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still;
It is not they who give the life, it is you who give the life,
Leaves are not more shed from the trees, or trees from the earth,
than they are shed out of you.
In the holy in-between realm, where living beings connect with one another, is a scripture that always radiates light. Remembering to arrive here and now in the presence of one another, therein lies the salvation of the world. The doorway into relational space is the doorway into true magic. Human consciousness is marked by the gift to witness other beings with reverence and compassion, and in doing so, be changed by it. When we greet the holy other – human or non-human – we expand the painfully restrictive confines of self, freeing our identity to become a permeable and unfolding artwork. We could perpetually work to solidify ourselves, or we could work to strengthen the way in which we relate and come into presence with others as a means toward an even greater stability. For to have the courage to give ourselves up to this process is to be sustained by currents of power larger than our own. Walking and talking together, sharing a meal, sitting in silent meditation together, releasing tension together, singing or listening to music together, reading to one another, laughing and crying with one another: the two of us connect, or however many, but there is an additional presence – a coalescent third – our collective entity, a vital energy that radiates light. I think it’s safe to say that most of us feel this at the culmination of yoga class when we sit in silence with palms together, or when we are sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers witnessing a particularly powerful music performance. An inrush of creativity and novelty occurs, an upwelling in the heart, a peace that passes understanding, unleashed in this collective connecting around something that feels so magically alive because it is beyond words or beneath the words, expanding us beyond the world while rooting us more deeply inside of it.
The magic of relational space ignites when we are willing to lead with caring for others – both human and non-human entities – friendly curiosity toward the other rather than certitude, self-armoring, judgment and presumption. When we are willing to embrace paradox and accommodate a wide spectrum of viewpoints, we can straddle the complexity of individual experience, accessing great clarity of perception and depth of insight into ourselves and one another: a rich fluidity and convergence occurs where once what appeared like hard angles had us knocking into things. Tapping the nectar of communion involves a kind of softening in the midst of the hard western world; it requires stepping outside of linear time into deep time; it requires a reawakening of consciousness in our bodies to feel the solid mystery of the earth beneath our feet; it requires an attentiveness to breath – YHWH – another word for God.
We need continual reminders that listening is so much more than hearing ourselves think, and that to remain inward is to be in exile. The key to accessing the in-between realm is not to label and analyze and filter through individuated self but engage in conscious wonderment and unabashed connection: to hold an experience between language, to stay with the experience of this moment while holding one’s intellectual and rational breath. Not only the mind, but almost more so our sensual bodies and our breathing are instruments of language and perception: we have the power to transmit and receive through them.
Here we call on the 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi to give it to us plainly:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
Peace of mind is rooted
in caring and compassion.
The Dalai Lama
that the universe is held together.
I am sitting on my meditation cushion trying to focus on my breath when I finally admit to myself that I feel terrible. Empty. Not in a Buddhist way, but in an isolated-free-fall-into-an-
I say to myself: “Right now, in your meditation practice, something destructive is happening.” I observe that I am uncontrollably marinating in sewage, hoping and waiting for the act of meditation to transport me to another state of being. “Is meditation about getting away from uncomfortable feelings?” I ask myself. Hell no, it isn’t. Meditation is, in part, about leaning into discomfort when it arises, while cultivating as relaxed a state as possible in which to greet it, by directing attention and breath. A very mindful, sometimes messy, and certainly harrowing walk towards the bear. The compassionate, inquisitive welcome of whatever arises – ugly or beautiful, painful or blissful – is a practice in open-hearted fearlessness.
So I lean in and ask, “Jenne, what is really going on here?” And what is really going on is that I feel totally disconnected from everything, and I am floundering to gain some kind of foothold on feeling connected or alive, but there isn’t one, so I’m just free falling in voidness. It’s like viewing the world through death-colored glasses. It’s like being a ghost. I am here in the world, but I’m not reallyhere. I can’t touch anything. There’s numbness and a feeling of exile and a long-nurtured fear that this stark cosmic impersonal coldness is some ultimate truth that’s too hard to admit to ourselves and I just happen to be in contact with it right now. “Okay. That’s pleasant. So why do I feel this way right now?” And when I poke around, I notice that my self-image in that moment is really demeaning. In an unconscious way, I feel bad about myself. The condemnation is so substratum and non-specific that it’s barely visible, only perceptible via the symptoms, primarily a feeling of being torn from the world. And no wonder, as self-condemnation is like a tearing at the roots of oneself. A deep deep down disapproval of myself is happening, and a subsequent sense of discouragement, defeat, and separateness that suggests being outside of love. Subliminal messaging.
“Jenne,” I say to myself, “I forgive you for whatever you think you’ve done.”
Deep peace bubbles up. No one is being punished for nebulous crimes, rejected for a million petty missteps, or scorned for the legitimately harmful blunders on my part in moments of ignorance, selfishness, and desperation. The internal punisher steps aside, like the moon stepping aside from the sun during an eclipse, and I feel warmth and I feel at home in myself and I feel love coming from the world on all sides. The world is alive even if damaged, and I am in it even if damaged, and I belong to it.
These days, I want myself to feel safe and well, which is why I meditate. The problem is that at times there is really uncomfortable stuff inside of me that I end up having to sit with in meditation, causing me to become reluctant to sit because maybe meditation, actually, is to blame for being uncomfortable! But that projection gets turned on its head in the moment when in the light of my awareness on the cushion I do not try to move away from the creeping darkness, but instead muster the fortitude to dig in and look deeper on my own behalf from a deeply caring desire to free myself from suffering. Looking deeper, I am often able to see that at the root of my suffering is some illusion of separation. In this particular instance, I find self-condemnation, so impulsively I extend forgiveness as an antidote. Where once there was a feeling of horror, a cascade of forgiveness and love starts to happen. Meditation is the practice of creating internal refuge, a safe container in which to explore our inner wilderness.
To extend forgiveness to myself means that I cannot recoil from my perceived sins and shortcomings, but rather I must reach out and look the poor self-images full in the eye in order to embrace them like one would wrap a child in their arms to let them know that YES, of course they are loved, reassuring them again and again that the world of these encircling arms is a safe and caring place in which one can totally fuck up, but that the fucking up does not ever, EVER, cast us outside of love. This is what unconditional love looks like: to care for someone as a fellow human being, regardless of our approval or disapproval of their behaviors and actions. Care for someone and frustration toward someone can coexist. Unconditional love acknowledges our shared humanity: to be human is to be vulnerable to suffering and confusion, fear and greed, desperation and poor choices; the people around you are as vulnerable to the harrowing darkness and bumbling ignorance of this experience as you yourself are, and perhaps even without some of the graces that you enjoy; and, all humans (yes, even that one!!!) are as capable of generating love and insight, affection and beauty, as you yourself are capable of when the right conditions are present. Meditation is not a project where we approach ourselves as if something needs to be fixed, getting rid of this thing or that thing in order to get something else – because that is not what love looks like! Meditation is about learning to love ourselves so defiantly that we get in touch with our innate goodness. In meditation, we cultivate the right conditions for our innate goodness to shine forth.
Each and every human being is deserving of these fundamental reassurances: caring, patience, honesty, kindness, mercy. These reassurances have the power to awaken a greater love in the human heart, irregardless of and concomitant with the necessary arc of justice and action toward accountability and reparation.
When I remove even the possibility that I could be unworthy of love, I am no longer afraid of my perceived flaws and shortcomings, and without fear fueling the game, I am no longer consumed by my perceived shortcomings (negative narcissism). No longer consumed by aberration, I see my whole self more clearly: there is beauty and goodness and tenderness, as distinctly visible as the yucky stuff. The yucky stuff, when I look at it without fear or shame or condemnation, is something that can be understood. When I see the yuckiness for what it truly is, I find that it does not in fact set me apart from everyone else but rather connects me to everyone else. The things that I disdain and recoil from in others are here in me, too, in greater or lesser measure. And, just like me, other people’s flaws are only a part of their bigger picture, which also contains a measure of beauty and kindness and tenderness, of seeking and striving, insecurity and fear, fumbling and failure, and desperate attempts to escape that empty feeling that can only be filled with a painfully courageous awakening and reaching toward love.
When I see how hard it is for all of us, not just myself, there is an expectation of imperfection. And there is a recognition that courageous, almost kamikaze-level, stretches into embodying kindness toward ourselves and toward others can make life so much lighter. Forgiveness is the doorstep into the great expanse of unconditional love, where the air is much more breathable.
There are many shades of forgiveness, just as there are many shades of love. Forgiveness does not mean condoning destructive actions, nor does it have to mean actively or externally reconciling. Forgiveness is extremely powerful even in its smallest concession, which takes the form of a simple question: when I feel this hardening against myself or against someone else, where can my heart open and soften? when I feel this hardening and bracing in fear or in anger, how can I open myself into a small love in this moment? when the traumatic feeling of separation or rejection or violation descends, is possible to feel my way into even a small sense of caring for myself, or a small sense of caring for the other person? At this point, it is critical to note that, generally, when we cannot connect to a sense of caring for someone else, it is because we are too freshly or intensely hurt, or we are too self-condemning, such that we need to be focused first and foremost on caring for ourselves. It is not at all a loving thing to forsake yourself in an attempt to feel care for someone else. Once you yourself are properly cared for — safe and loved and supported — exploring a small measure of care for someone that has done damage is not only good for them, it is good for you. Even just a drop of unconditional love is a powerful digestive aid for anger, outrage, hurt, disapproval, and disappointment. Healthy digestion of strong emotions can lead to their full authentic expression, which is at the heart of taking right action and constitutes a cornerstone of inner peace. When I recognize that I myself am worthy of forgiveness, I can extend some measure of forgiveness to many people in my life; and when I feel even a little bit of forgiveness for others, I realize how much more freeing it is to care for them alongside other important emotions like anger and sadness and disappointment. To wish healing and awakening for us both (either inwardly or outwardly), feels far more medicinal than the bitter feeling of condemnation and the disturbing feeling of craving retribution from a place of ill-will.
I saw the film Philomena several years ago around the time of its release, but it has stayed with me all this time for one very specific reason. Aside from its being based on a powerful true story (and starring the phenomenal Judi Dench and Steve Coogan), the film features human forgiveness. I mean, think about it. In this dominantly Christian nation, you have to wade through a thousand vigilante movies before you find one even loosely flirting with the work of forgiveness.
Contrary to what the bumper sticker says, I’m not convinced that critical thinking is the other national deficit. As a society, I believe that thinking and criticizing and being rational and objective is something we now do in harmful overabundance, and it separates us. Our brains, bodies and nervous systems were designed within the context of hunter-gatherer culture, where survival depended on our interdependence and connection with one another, and where survival also depended on the mind being a servant to the intelligence of the body — heightened senses, instinct, intuition were imperative — and we developed and thrived in relational reality. With the advent of agriculture and industry, capitalism and modernity, the body has become enslaved to the priorities and ingenuity of the mind — we now primarily inhabit and struggle to reconcile ourselves with artificial reality.
Neuroscience tells us that the mind has a fundamental negativity bias that in hunter-gatherer times was a function of protection against potential predators. Now that we have chosen to be ginormous minds sitting atop distant bodies, our sense of self is in a constant state of threat against the predator of the critical minds of others and of ourselves. Everyone feels as though they are everyone else’s prey on a subconscious level, and we are all prey to our own harshly judgmental minds. Our interactions with one another are performance-driven; we barely make true contact with each other. The impossible standards, the grudges and denouncements, the fear of failure, the hunger for approval are bottomless and looming.
In the hunter-gatherer culture that we descended from, to be separate was to be in exile. The sense of separation that modernity demands is all wrapped up in pervasive feelings of shame. When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned, intones Leonard Cohen.
Father Richard Rohr points out that human development on an individual scale and on a collective scale can be simplified into three stages: Order – Disorder – Reorder. Western civilization has been “discovering” its way through the adolescent disorder phase for the past several centuries to near destruction via genuflection to the discriminating intellect. If it’s the near-death initiatory experience into adulthood we’re subconsciously seeking as a species, it’s safe to say we’ve arrived. Staring down the barrel of global warming, we feel the “Reorder Phase” labor pains: hungry ghosts endlessly scanning the isles of the entertainment industry, spiritual thirst sacrificed at the altar of cool reason, mechanistic science consoling us with empty materialism, direct contact with reality strangled by analysis, exploitation and oppression under the guise of freedom, unprecedented autonomy in exchange for unprecedented feelings of isolation, luxurious comforts in exchange for terrifying existential discomfort. We have it all, and we have nothing. Some of our liberties are not quite as freeing as we thought. We are stunted and sheltered and bound by the freedom to disconnect and disassociate.
Connection, not critical thinking, is the other national deficit. “Reorder” on a cultural level is contingent upon each of us individually resetting the true north of our internal compass to connecting in each moment. Our salvation is contingent on a subjugation of the mind in deference to the heart and in reverence to the body, our own body and the Earth body. The heart has got to open in a fundamental way, sings Leonard Cohen. Without love, it’s just a house where nobody lives, croons Tom Waits.
In that empty loveless moment on the meditation cushion, I was the house where nobody lives. I could not connect. I was a casualty of modern culture. The mysterious magic of breath awareness, the aliveness that comes with the awakening of the senses, the primacy and unparalleled medicine of the natural world, faith in ancestral contemplative technologies, the fearlessness to witness suffering instead of tumble down a rabbit hole of distractions, the heeding of the call of countless sages and visionaries to make the work of opening into a greater love our central human project — these are the practices that reconnect. Awakening from the illusion of our separateness was the very heart of the Buddha’s enlightenment.
A twist of fate in my early twenties led me to an extremely rural village in Africa. High atop a grassy escarpment, Chepterwai overlooks the Nandi Hills in all directions, 6,700 feet above sea level along the Great Rift Valley in western Kenya. My personal version of Walden, I lived in a mud hut with no electricity and no running water.
Connection was still a way of life there. When you have no electronic screens and no artificial light, you go to bed when it gets dark and wake before dawn. The kitchen and the outhouse are separate from the living quarters, so upon waking the first thing you do is to go outside. With no light pollution blunting the night sky, you wander outside to watch crystal clear stars wink out in the rising glow of dawn. You acknowledge to yourself, “I am part of a universe.”
In Chepterwai, you get where you need to go by walking there. You meander along red dusty paths through green meadows where human buildings are a subtle overlay. Along the way you pass many neighbors, many kids, and many intimidating cows. You greet one another, asking, “Where are you headed today?” You want to know where the day is taking your friends, and you want to wish them well on their way.
In Chepterwai, when you walk into a shop to make a purchase, the clerk expects that you will first make a connection, that many kind words and gratitude for the day will pass between you, before making a transaction. I had to learn this the hard way my first visit to the village store, embarrassed afterward by my body language giving me away as a closed-up, me-first, agenda-driven, charging-like-a-bull westerner, graciously interrupted by a big open hand extended across the counter for a traditional Nandi handshake and a spot of friendly conversation. The gesture said, “In Chepterwai, we value connecting with one another as the primary vehicle to carry us through our day.”
When I returned to the United States, the first thing I noticed was not just how much stuff we have, but how many opinions we have. Individuation is the order of the day here, and so we continually distinguish ourselves from one another in an endless process of mental separation. Discernment and caring are not mutually exclusive, and they are equally important, like two wings of a bird, both necessary to fly. To balance the scales, we would do well to explore how it feels to lead with our caring and not with our criticism, toward ourselves and toward each another.
One of the ethical precepts of yoga is kshama, translating from the Sanskrit as forgiveness and forbearance, patience and letting go, releasing agenda, releasing time table, and functioning in the now.
Let it be.
I am enough as I am. I can love them as they are. Right here, right now, I can just be with love. This moment is enough.
Kshama suggests forgiveness of and patience with yourself; forgiveness of and patience with others; forgiveness of and patience with life; forgiveness of and patience with limitation. Kshama asks of us to recognize that what we are seeing is incomplete; ourselves and those around us, the circumstances of life, are in process. Kshama asks of us a willingness to trust in the unfolding of things, in the holy contour of life. Kshama asks of us a slowing down, a letting go, an easing up, and a shoring each other up against the riptide of the artificial world that we’ve created by keeping our feet rooted in the real one. Kshama points to the transformative power of what is taking place in this very moment and the magic of connecting to what is alive — to the living beings here with us in this very moment. Whatever this thing is that we have been born into, whatever this life is, surely it is an opportunity to connect and to love above all things. Love beyond liking or disliking. Love beyond infatuation and condemnation. Love that is a willingness to stay, in the heart, with each other, through the discomfort and the disorder and the death, allowing both the darkness and the light to transform us and to lift us up.
spring comes and the grass
grows by itself.
Before I made my way down the winding gravel road to silent retreat, I had an insight that I shared with my therapist: the safest, truest place that I can ever be is in the present moment. When my mind projects into the future or past, I enter into a kind of non-reality, a world that only exists in my mind, a speculative fantasy realm based more on assumption than fact. My inner demons live in this realm. In the shadows of what I cannot yet see, in the specters I raise from the past, they eagerly fill in the blanks with worst case scenarios, potential threats and disappointments, suspected enemies, and harsh critiques of myself and others. I get swept up in strong emotions (anxiety, excitement, despair, infatuation, craving, horror, anger, shame), vivid reactions to something that is not actually taking place in this moment.
My mind loves a good horror movie about the future; it feels like preparation for the worst. The unsettling re-runs of the past are usually cued up to make me feel bad about myself. How productive and unentertaining! So, when I see the opening credits start to roll, I let my mind know I’m not interested, and I hit STOP on the fear/shame reels, coming back to the fundamental safety, loving acceptance, and incomparable true-ness of this moment.
The past is just echoes. Strong though those echoes may be, they are only scattershot snapshots taken by a narrow lens telling an incomplete story. I greet those echoes when they arise, holding with loving and healing wishes the people that appear in the freeze frames: myself, my friends, my family members, my enemies, people who are now strangers to me, past versions of myself that are now foreign to me.
The future is conjecture; a fixation on the things I most fear and the things I most desire. The outcomes I most fear rarely come to pass, and even if they do, they are always more nuanced and grace-filled than my stark imaginings. The outcomes that I most desire don’t always turn out to be desirable things. That thing that I obsessed over gaining or achieving may turn out to be a thorn in my paw. Things not going my way may ultimately lead to a better outcome than I ever could have imagined. Terrible things happen, and moments of unique beauty arise within the terrible things. Wonderful things happen, and moments of immense distress arise within the wonderful things. A dear friend once said, “We are not fucked. And we are not fine. We are just here in the mystery.”
The past is not here. The future is not here. I exist in neither of those places, nor does anyone else. The only place that I can exist is right here and right now. Like vampires annihilated in the light of day, my inner demons are extinguished by the clear light of my consciousness coalescing in the present moment, touching what is.
The artificial world of the mind entrances us with memory and expectation, distracts us with illusions of control, compels us with endless planning and problem-solving, so absorbing and so addictive that it can feel more real than the present moment where life is actually happening. Such busyness in our minds, worrying about what happened or will happen; such busyness in our minds, making the plans and solving the problems. We miss out on the healing silence and the clarifying stillness – the most true thing – that the busy mind obscures. The solace of relaxing into spontaneity and imperfection. The power of trusting the nature of problems to work themselves out. The strength in walking one’s own path rather than trying to walk others’ paths for them.
On the final day of my retreat, my fellow sojourners and I lie on our backs in the meditation hall while my teacher offered reflections. “I promise you,” she said, “the safest place you can ever be is in the present moment.” I was unmoved by the coincidence of my insight coming out of my teacher’s mouth. Of course she said it. It’s truth.
wide awake in the current of Reality must,
with the intensity of an obsession,
be your one and constant endeavor.
Do not invite the future.
Do not fear appearances.
Do not alter your innate wakefulness.
There is nothing more than that.
After months of scary symptoms (dizziness, cognitive impairment, inability to focus my eyes), a specialist ascertained that I had sustained damage to a nerve in my inner ear. This was after more doctors than I can count on one hand mainly pointed out to me that I’ve been under a lot of stress as a caregiver and that I should not underestimate the power of the mind to somatize stress in the body. Had I considered trying to reduce stress? I even got the “everything happens for a reason” platitude, and “maybe your body is trying to tell you to slow down.”
There is more than a seed of truth in their observations and admittedly there is a part of me that needs a doctor’s permission to give myself more time to recover than I think I deserve. However, I knew that something was going fundamentally wrong with my body, and I felt certain that it wasn’t so ambiguous as “stress-itis.” I became worried at appointments that my very real medical concerns were being minimized by an assumption about how I was handling stress or what “the universe was trying to tell me.” Turns out my brain was just trying to tell me that it was getting faulty signals from my ear.
Because I persevered to get to the root of the problem, I am now feeling much better after only three weeks of vestibular rehabilitation. This hardship on the heels of hardship has yielded jewels of insight into my relationship with suffering, but that’s not to say I believe that I was “meant” to suffer. I tell this story because I continue to feel concerned about how we talk about stress and hardship and illness in our culture, and most especially in yoga culture.
First things first: You cannot avoid stress. By virtue of being alive, you will encounter stress. To be sure, we can make mindful choices and engage in practices that build resiliency and help to reduce the effects of stress – yoga gifts us with these very superpowers. Regardless, both positive and negative stressors will arise for anyone in a body with a brain and a nervous system wandering through an impermanent and unpredictable lifescape. That this body/brain must secure resources for itself in order to survive, and do so within the uniquely dysfunctional context of the modern world? Yes, there will be stress. And, in smaller or greater portion, all of us at some point will encounter tsunami-sized, knee-knocking waves of stress by virtue of circumstances that are entirely outside of our control. How our body and psychology respond to that stress can, up to a point, also be outside of our control, according to our exposure to childhood trauma, our level of social privilege, our access to psychosocial support, and our genetics. Yoga practice has the profound power to help us attenuate that response, but not delete it. “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, gotta go through it!” as those of us who have gone on a bear hunt know.
Second: It’s not your fault. Self-improvement, or “self-help,” is more popular in the United States than anywhere else in the world. It is a $10 billion dollar industry. Also trending? Perfectionism, judgment, “Type A” personalities, shame culture, and a high-speed chase to achieve productivity, bypass pain, and mask weakness to the point of health hazard. This is not a coincidence. Self-improvement and self-judgment are two sides of the same coin and feed on one another in dysfunctional ways. I routinely witness people blaming themselves for hard things happening to them. And, furthermore, criticizing themselves for being emotionally upset over hard things happening. The contemporary malfunction of assigning blame to ourselves for being vulnerable to illness and sadness, subject to hardship and struggle, is intensely toxic. To believe that by “improving ourselves” we can eventually become immune to suffering is a dangerous psychology. It is on the one hand aggressively disconnected and unreasonable, and on the other an incredibly insensitive and demeaning way to be with a person who is suffering, yourself or anyone else.
Spiritual practice is meant to help us come to terms with and relax into the messiness of life, not set about trying to clean it up or rationalize it or pretend it’s not there. I don’t want to hear the metaphysical implications of why you caught the flu, I want to hear how your practice is helping you turn toward your suffering with kindness, and how you are taking mindful action to ventilate it. At no point on this path do we become immune to life or discover that everything is now going to go our way because we’ve finally mastered our practice. To the contrary, signs of mastery are that you “improve” at loving and accepting yourself as you are and trusting yourself to the changing currents of your imperfect life. If all goes well, you will learn to be happy and to suffer at the same time. Stress will befall the spiritual people and the not spiritual people. Stress will bring both the strong and the weak to their knees. It’s not your fault.
Third: Working on how you relate to stress is more effective than trying to reduce it.
I cannot tell you how many articles on caregiving I read over the past few years that listed “reducing stress” as a suggestion. If I had the power to set flame to something with the touch of my finger, I would have burned every one of those articles to ash and used it to draw magic symbols on my forehead to protect my ravaged spirit from the insult of empty platitudes. If anything, I was painfully aware of my minuscule power over mine and my Mom’s overwhelmingly stressful circumstances, and for someone to blithely suggest otherwise made me feel like a failure. To “reduce stress” in my life during that time would have been a miracle on par with “arise and walk, my son.”
I had occasion to visit Vilano Beach, Florida a few weeks ago. During the last leg of a 9-mile hike in the Guana Tolomato Estuary, I got stung by a scorpion when I stepped off trail to get a closer look at an impressive falcon perched in a nearby tree. When I got back to my vacation rental, I googled recommendations for how to treat a scorpion sting. One of the suggestions from an article on Web MD (I shit you not) was to “avoid getting stung.” I laughed so hard. This struck me as the quintessential American piece of advice.
For those of us who have not yet discovered how to avoid getting stung in life, Stanford research psychologists suggest that how we relate to the fact of stress in our lives is more important (and more realistic) than attempting to “reduce stress.” They suggest that the emphasis on “reducing stress” can actually generate fear of stress, a sense of deflation when stress cannot be reduced, a sense of discouragement and heightened anxiety when stressful circumstances arise, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness when stressors occur one after another. Taking the perspective that “stress is harmful” leads people to fear it and to cope in unhelpful ways like shutting down, avoidant behavior, and entertaining worst-case scenarios. Conversely, viewing stress not as a threat but as a normal part of life, an inevitable challenge to rise to, is associated with more positive outcomes – like humor and levity, greater trust in personal resiliency, and proactive measures to support oneself such as reaching out for help and taking extra measures toward self-care.
Given that life is going to be stressful, what do you gain by not accepting it? Changing how you think about stress can balance your mindset, so that you feel less intimidated or singled out by stressful circumstances. A core component of stress resiliency is a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. This is one of the primary aims of meditative practice: sensing the possibility that two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time. It can be true that going through something stressful can make you sick and depressed; and it can simultaneously be true that the stressful experience invites you into a greater love, generates moments of grace and breakthrough, makes you a more resilient human being, gives you unique insight into relieving the suffering of others, and ultimately sets you out on a new and novel path with creative outcomes that you could never predict. Psychologists call the process of learning and growing from a difficult experience stress inoculation. Stress leaves an imprint on your brain that prepares you to face similar stress the next time you encounter it. If we recognize that stress is something we all share, stress can become an avenue for connection in an isolating society. Stress can inspire us to renew our dedication to our spiritual practice and to remember the importance of taking solace in the healing arms of nature.
Finally: You can develop a beautiful container for stress to occur in.
Atta diipa saranam, said the Buddha: “Take refuge in the island of oneself.” Mind-body practice brings us into conscious relationship with “the self in us that is aware.” The self that is aware is fundamentally okay, riding the unpredictable wave of the present moment without labeling good or bad. Over time, mind-body practice more fully realizes this part of you, generating a palpable space of awareness. Awareness resides where the mind is anchored to the body. What part of you is always, literally, touching the present moment? Your body. When your mind is anchored in your body, they come together as one, and enter into direct relationship with the world around you and inside of you. This space is a refuge. All of the things that you love about being in nature come alive in you when you enter into this space. It is an equanimous container as vast as the cosmos because it is you connected to the cosmos, a space in which stress can occur but not consume you. Ancient yogis used the Sanskrit word garbha to describe this place. Garbha means inner sanctum, womb, sacred dwelling – a place where we are completely intact, a place that has in no way been diminished since we took our very first breath – our fundamental nature where we are connected to, and belong to, all things. When we encounter stressful circumstances, we have this incredible opportunity to reap the fruits of our practice by remembering what it feels like to swim up to the safe island of awareness inside of us. This is a place of deep unyielding compassion, as soft and enduring as an angel’s wing. A beautiful container to experience stress in.
When you learn how to suffer, you suffer much less.
Thich Nhat Hanh
At the dawn of 2019, I sat in 5am darkness on my meditation cushion. I sat with a lot of suffering. Last year was a dramatic crescendo of three years as a strained caregiver. Once my Mom was placed in 24-hour care, I had to face the damage to the caregiver, which was substantial. During a time when I felt I should be frolicking in liberation, brushing the dust off my neglected guitar, enjoying more social time, dating — having awoken like Rip Van Winkle from a three year blur of caregiver chaos — I instead found myself largely at the beck and call of aggravated chronic illness.
Bringing my palms together for the traditional bow to conclude my meditation practice, I off-handedly questioned what exactly I was bowing to. A merciful deity who might bend to my plea to take this suffering from me? A more noble, perfected version of myself that would prove itself too worthy for such dissonance, dropping it like Marley’s chains? Was I bowing to the righteousness of my meditation practice, which at times feels mired in the same dysfunctional habits that lead me to suffer?
“No. I want to bow to my suffering,” I thought. “In this moment, I bow to the one who suffers.”
The suffering itself, not indulged or pitied, but truly seen and honored, cupped lovingly in hand. The merciful deity placed on the pedestal. The noble, highest expression of the self on the pedestal. The unswerving virtuous practice on the pedestal. What about the one who deeply suffers, to be placed on the pedestal? Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
To the extent that I can transform my suffering into liberation, as the Buddha taught, I am the all-powerful deity, but rarely a merciful one. When faced with my own suffering, half the time my internal deity looks more like the annoyed and disappointed God of the Old Testament; the other half looks like a very Eeyore-ish version of Job. Worse, I sometimes take the aloof and avoidant stance toward my suffering as someone who quickens their pace when they pass a homeless person on the street or someone in need of assistance. I try to step over it. I numb out. I get frustrated; exasperated. I shut down.
To my credit, through the merits of study and meditative practice, I do at times remember to turn toward my suffering with compassion, which is a step up from the zero times I did it in my teens and 20’s. But when I do, it’s somewhat awkward, brief, and outcome-oriented like a well-meaning narcissist … there, there … now, give me what I want. More often than not, I go relieve someone else’s suffering instead, which does help; up to a point. Relieving the suffering of others has been an ingrained and largely unquestioned motivation of mine for as long as I can remember. It’s a beautiful and sensitive reflex, but it’s not as entirely wholesome as it appears, or could be. The somewhat misguided subliminal motivations lead to severe burnout, codependency, and self-neglect. Why? Because I still behave aggressively toward myself, routinely. And I do not take care of my own suffering as I do that of others. Despite my practice, an overwhelmingly powerful part of me insists on seeing my own suffering and illness as weakness, flaw, curse, or punishment. In which case, of course, the suffering is ugly and must be redeemed, rather than held or healed. It’s the psychological equivalent of ushering a disabled person to the back of a hiking group and scolding them to either pick up the pace or earn their keep for slowing everybody else down.
But from that first spontaneous and reverent bow of 2019, toward “the one who suffers,” sprung an unprecedented and visceral experience of tenderness and attentiveness toward myself. It came with a clear insight that if I put in the time, effort and care to investigate the root of my suffering so as to understand better how to relieve it, combined with the proper motivation to take practical actions to heal, then I will be healthier and happier. More available, to myself and others. These kinds of realizations sound painfully obvious when you say them out loud. But being able to say it is not the same as being able to know it. To feel the truth of something, a truth that arises from the wisdom of the heart unclouded by the noisy whims of the mind (prajna), resonating with such power as to silence and disarm the dominant and misguided inner voice, that is why I come to meditation practice over and over again. I am the one who suffers, and I am the one who scorns and avoids the suffering that is there, and I am also the noble, enlightened one who, rather than collapsing or bypassing or shooing the suffering away, turns toward it with great respect and unyielding compassion, coupled with the dedication and perseverance to investigate and understand its nature, so as to comfort, uplift, and relieve it. To bow to “the one who suffers,” and to take resolute action on your own behalf, is a practice in positive neuroplasticity that expands your consciousness with the understanding that you are more than the sum of your parts: the one who suffers, and the suffering itself, is not alone, but in good company; surrounded by a vast, too oft untapped consciousness that holds endless potential for nourishment, creativity, peace, and freedom.
Deena Metzger wrote many years ago that in order to achieve a healthy Democracy we must first topple our own inner tyrants. We must shift the imbalance of power from the destructive, entitled, dominant and blindly indulgent factions in ourselves toward the oppressed, subjugated, underserved indigenous factions. It is in this spirit that I commit myself this year, not just to learning, but to becoming a skilled expert at noticing and relating kindly to my own suffering, investigating and taking action on its behalf, and rising to the level of proactive, compassionate self-discipline in my diet, physical activity, sleeping habits, leisure habits, spiritual practice and daily routine that is worthy of myself, whom I love. I’m not resolving to change myself in 2019. I’m resolving to change how I see myself, care for myself, and support my own being.
Ill-being, the causes of ill-being, the end of ill-being, the Path, insight and attainment, are not separate self-entities. Whoever can see this no longer needs anything to attain.
– Thich Nhat Hanh, Heart Sutra translation
Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the Earth.
that though the flesh be bugged,
the circumstances of existence
are pretty glorious.
I never aspired to become a yoga instructor. I stumbled into it. In retrospect it makes perfect sense: a popular and profound vehicle through which many of my personal callings and cumulative studies find voice. The most challenging aspect of becoming a yoga instructor was, for me, navigating the spiritual and psychological baggage of mainstream yoga in America.
In the beginning, I was pretty self-conscious about having allergic reactions to what felt like spiritual bypass and syrupy sentiments about gratitude, light and love, usually coming out of the mouths of people who looked more privileged than me.
You see, I wore heavy black mascara and a spiked dog collar in high school. My teenage years were marked by choking on my first taste of the different forms of mental illness that I would have to grapple with for the rest of my adult life, juxtaposed with the cultural pressures to appear normal, demonstrate achievement, and “fit in.” In my vulnerable and repressed state, I took refuge with the goth kids, to become (for better or worse) a walking reminder of America’s shadow. In my early 30’s, yoga found its way to me and gently held my hand as it walked me back into the temple of my body, demonstrating that it could be a safe and loving place, even after years of fearful dissociation.
As I continue to nurture a snail-paced recovery from 3 years of chronic stress as a caregiver without the requisite resources, in this season filled with messages of gratitude and joy, I feel called to bring the “gratitude messaging” down to earth for all of us, but especially for those among us presently struggling with chronic illness, mental health challenges, grief and loss, lack of financial resources, and overwhelming adversity during this holiday season.
When life gets so tough that the words “gratitude” and “joy” make you feel sad, cynical, or repulsed, it’s time to call in the angels of fierce self-compassion. In spiritual practice, we explore how it feels to open our hearts, and to peer closer into our fears, at a healthy pace. Whether or not feelings of “joy” and “gratitude” come easily for you is not a ruler by which to measure how virtuous, how courageous, or how ungrateful you are. The foundation of ALL spiritual practice is to move toward greater love and seek understanding, and that starts with greater love and understanding for yourself. In yoga and meditation practice, we generate feelings of safety in the body, creating a space inside of us, and cultivating the right conditions, for feelings of peace, love, joy and gratitude to arise in us regardless of external circumstance. Usually, the more challenging the external circumstances, the more challenging the practice. To love your best friends in their worst moments is like hiking up Looking Glass Rock; it’s pretty steep terrain, but it’s doable. It can be like climbing Mount Everest, however, to access that level of love and understanding for the relative you dread seeing during the holidays. You may not be ready for Everest; that’s why it’s called a “practice.” Just because you like the idea of playing piano concertos, doesn’t make you a concert pianist. Recognize and honor what is and isn’t beyond your skill level, meet yourself where you are, and sense what it would feel like to move beyond what now seems possible. Self-discouragement and harsh self-judgment are red flags that indicate the need to go back to square one: becoming a compassionate ally to yourself. If talk of “joy” and “gratitude” feels heavy to your soul, it’s time to take drastic measures to call in the angels of fierce self-love: take a hot bath; allow enough time for a good nights of sleep or take more naps; let nature be your nurse, in the woods or by a river; find someone to connect with – a trusted friend, a therapist, a support group. Keep a list of small things you can do to bring in the angels in times of crisis – especially those times when joy and gratitude feel difficult to access.
Gratitude and joy are not rewards you reap when things are going your way. Joy is the soulful pleasure of being and connecting, regardless of circumstance and surface happiness or unhappiness.Brother David Steindl-Rast defines joy as “the spiritual happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.” You can experience moments of joy in the midst of great discomfort. Sadness can contain an element of joy. The opening of the heart that occurs in moments of deep joy or deep grief often leads to feelings of gratitude.
Joy is far more than an emotion. Like grief, it is a life skill. Joy and grief are two sides of the same coin – equally necessary and fundamental ways of coming into relationship with being. Joy and grief are kin; both require an opening of the heart and a shedding of personal and social armor. Raw and honest grieving can be a pathway to joy. Opening to an experience of joy can open up the floodgates for suppressed grief to flow through.
Slowing down and setting aside quiet moments to see and appreciate the ordinary, everyday blessings in our lives, as well as marking and celebrating the extraordinary blessings in our lives, is the heart of gratitude practice. Beautiful clouds during your morning commute, a home-cooked meal, a hot shower, a simple peaceful walk from here to there, two minutes of mindful breathing. Although we have many such fleeting ordinary moments in our days, we usually speed right past them. We forget what joy they can bring if we bring ourselves more fully into the present moment. Neuroscience teaches us that, evolutionarily, the human mind developed a negativity bias as part of our threat response system (don’t worry, it’s not just you!). Due to this negativity bias, it takes 10 – 30 seconds to develop an emotional memory, a residue, of joyful moments and feelings. Therefore, a central practice in cultivating both joy and gratitude is “noticing the good” and “letting it steep.” Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to consciously say to ourselves, “this is a joyful moment.” Throughout your day, when you experience a joy or a feeling of gratitude: slow down, mark it, stay present, and let it steep inside of you. Even if this is all we do, it’s revolutionary. This simple practice can change the neural pathways in your brain to become more aware of joyful moments and to deepen the experience of joy.
By taking care of ordinary things that support our aliveness and well-being—our bodies, our pots and pans, our plants, our vehicle—we take gratitude in them. When we scrub a vegetable or wash our bodies in the shower or wash the dishes, we are expressing ritual appreciation for our food, our bodies, our material belongings. We can turn daily acts into an expression of friendship toward everything that supports our being. In the Zen tradition, students are taught to bow not only to other people, but also to non-human beings like plants and rocks and animals, meals, glasses of water, brooms and toilets, as a way of expressing respect and true appreciation for these things we are fortunate to have.
Everything in life may be a teacher, but everything in life is not a gift. There are many things for which you cannot be grateful; be wary of naivete and victim-blaming when yoga instructors and spiritual teachers veer into the realm of magical thinking. War, violence, oppression, and sickness are not gifts. The wisdom and life skills gained from these difficult experiences are gifts. We cannot be grateful for everything, but in every moment, we can find something to be grateful for.
As with all spiritual practices, the road to joy and gratitude, especially in the midst of hardship, begins with loving-kindness, curiosity, and the willingness to be with “what is.” In our most difficult moments, joy can emerge with the relief of finally accepting where we are instead of fighting it or pushing it away, and sensing the possibility that where we are is workable, even if it’s far, far away from what we wanted or expected. Joy can emerge from respecting our limitations and practicing unconditional patience in our healing processes. Joy can emerge when we consciously acknowledge we are suffering and take action on our own behalf, reaching out to others or engaging in activities that help us to process and aerate our suffering.
When your mind is predicting CERTAIN DOOM, make a conscious choice to trust that joy and unexpected blessings can (and will) continue to happen. My new favorite practice when my mind takes a dip or a dive into feelings of despair (while reading the Washington Post, or having a bout of insomnia, or feeling overwhelmed with caregiving responsibilities) is to make a counter-argument, and even collect and present evidence to the contrary, for my mind. My mind’s darkest predictions … “the world is ending” or “my world is ending” or “this terrible thing or feeling will never end” or “now this will never happen” … have, thus far in my life, never proved true. Life comes with both harm and grace, built-in. There will never be just one or the other. There will always be both. It will get better. Then it will get worse. Then it will get better. In our meditation practice, when the mind wanders, we bring it back to its anchor in the body and the breath. In equanimity practice, when the mind wanders into certain doom, we bring it back to the everlasting and unseen potential for joy and grace, for creation and rebirth. We are not clinging to the idea of joy, nor are we clinging to the idea of suffering – we are keeping ourselves open to both. Returning the forecasting mind, again and again, to the great mystery.
Wear all your clothes and do what you do.
Slow poke, we’ve got some things to find,
When I was faster I was always behind.
In his book, “The Five Invitations,” Frank Ostaseski, Buddhist teacher and founder of the Zen Hospice Project, tells the story of a common phenomenon in people newly diagnosed with cancer who express a quiet sense of relief after the initial shock. “Now I can finally rest,” they say, or, “Now I have a reason to say ‘no’ to things I feel obligated to say ‘yes’ to.”
“Do we need to die in order to rest in peace?” Ostaseski asks.
The rhythm of nature espouses a slow walk with life, a quiet day-to-day kind of existence. The modern industrial-technological world, heavily dissociated from nature, steams through life like a locomotive, fueled by careless waste and leaving destruction in its wake, moving us faster and faster along, as we are progressively emptied out of our emotional, spiritual core. There are two things we can never do living in this fast lane: we can neither deepen our experience, nor integrate it.
This month I enjoyed my first true vacation since taking on the mantle of caregiver three years ago. It was total bliss; all the time in the world to sit and soak up the St John’s River, which ran right through my back yard. That enormous swath of river was one of the quietest, most serene places I have ever been. I cannot emphasize enough its quiet grandeur. The rich presence of wildlife was stunning–barred owls, bald eagles, great blue and pure white herons, ibis, egret, alligators, bull frogs. The morning after my arrival, I sat staring at the river for nearly three hours, receiving something like a blood transfusion as I allowed its soft power to wash over me, the scenery continually changing with the growing light of day. The first noisy speed boat that sliced through the river was the most outrageous offense. How could anyone in their right mind disturb such a thing?
I watched the sun rise over the river every morning. One morning, well after sunrise, I was delighted by a family of river otter playing close to shore. Then I realized they were not river otters. They were manatees. Jaw-dropping awe! There were two groups of them, one close to shore, one rolling around and snorting closer to the central part of the river. I cringed every time a speed boat slashed through. A little research revealed that the very human-like eyes of manatees are a source of mermaid and mermen legends. Although they can no longer be hunted (which once threatened their extinction), power boats are now the greatest threat to the endangered species. Manatees are slow, near-surface swimmers, and they don’t have the agility to get out of the way of fast-moving watercraft. Many living manatees bear the scars of speed boat collisions. Whatever destination those speed boats are in a hurry to get to, do they know they are blazing through paradise? Or is it simply the thrill of speed that is of greater worth than the lives it claims and the health of the river that provides it passage?
Consider that our lives are the exquisitely serene and soul-singing St John’s River. And that we are power-boating through paradise.
More and more on my commutes to teach, I navigate the stress of people driving in too big a hurry or with a reckless need for speed, dangerously riding my tail on the highway. I observe a correlation between the increased processing speed of our tech devices and our increased need for speed on the roads. People want to get to their physical destination as quickly as they can get to their smart phone destination. Now that we can map the exact amount of time it takes to get somewhere, we feel the need to cram in a couple more tasks or distractions before leaving the house. When unforeseen obstacles arise, the specter of being late becomes a major source of stress. Noting this tendency in myself, I’ve begun to make a point of leaving for destinations with time to spare; enough time to ENJOY the drive. Riding in a car is a great opportunity to do breathing or chanting practices, even meditation practice, in the midst of a busy day. We are responsible for our own lives and other people’s lives on the road. People ride my tail, they weave and honk, they flash their brights, as if it’s my fault that they didn’t leave with enough time to get to where they’re going. As if their personal agenda, or need for speed, is worth risking my life and all the lives that depend on me.
When I returned from my vacation, I made a point of creating a photo album. Every day of my vacation, I journaled my experience. Taking time to mark and process our experience is becoming a lost art, a sacrifice for screen time. We have too much of everything these days. Too much music in our iTunes, too many photos clogging our storage space, too many connections to keep up with on Facebook, too much paperwork, too much stuff to fit in our house. We accumulate bazillions of photos on our tech devices like we collect bazillions of experiences in a day, with little or no time to process, digest, revisit, make special. Art anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake observes that “people in modern times become so concerned with getting on with the next thing that they don’t have time to consider their experience, and then to mark it, to care about it, and to make it special. When you have the time to think about it, then you see within a particular experience that something someone else says suddenly connects, something you read about connects, something you remember from a long time ago connects; that, in a way, is making artwork of your experience.” When we notice things and mark them, intentionally take time to process them — little parts of our day or big experiences — bringing significance to them in a ritualistic way, we return to our roots as human beings. Petroglyphs, storytelling, sacred sites. Cultural/ecological historian and catholic sage Thomas Berry wrote that “[humans] are the universe becoming aware of itself; through our eyes, the cosmos perceives itself.”
The present nature of society requires us to become inhuman. To wait until we are dying to slow down; to make radical choices in order to more deeply experience the specialness of our day-to-day existence. It is nothing less than the greatest human tragedy that for an insatiable infatuation with luxury, entertainment and human-centric advancement, we are forsaking a sacred contract with life, a soul-consummating relationship with all beings and the incomparable miracle of the cosmos.
An entertaining google search of “the fastest way to…” presented me with the following options:
THE FASTEST WAY TO BECOME A MILLIONAIRE
THE FASTEST WAY TO SUCCESS
THE FASTEST WAY TO PRE-ORDER iPHONE XR
THE FASTEST WAY TO GET RID OF A HANGOVER
THE FASTEST WAY TO GET FASTER
THE FASTEST WAY TO BECOME AN EXPERT AT ANYTHING
THE FASTEST WAY TO HELL
THE FASTEST WAY TO LOSE WEIGHT
I would like to propose something superior to all of these options:
The fastest way to become a slowpoke.
Take care of your inner manatees. They are slow-moving, playful, and mystical beings.
Bodhicitta is a sanskrit word that means “awakened heart, open mind.” Although it obviously speaks to the condition of loving-compassion, the emancipation of the mind by an experience of emptiness is its central feature. Loving-compassion is the organic result (or precipitating factor) of that release of agenda or themes in the mind. Bodhicitta is strongly correlated with equanimity. Equanimity can be described as spacious awareness (versus tunnel vision), freedom of mind (versus obsessive or habitual mind), not being controlled by the demands of the ego-self — all side effects of practicing or having an organic experience of sunyata – emptiness.
Okay. Let’s get away from the fancy concepts and turn our attention to kittens.
The past couple weeks will go down in my personal history book as some of the most adverse. You’ve heard it a million times from me and you’ll hear it a million times more: caregiving for a parent with early-onset dementia, and extremely limited resources in a country with a profit-based healthcare system and increasingly strangled social aid, sucks. Toss in a dash of broken timing belt at an extremely sensitive moment and YOU JUST SANK MY BATTLESHIP. Enter kitten, stage left…
Fela, a 6-week old female kitten, woke me up mewing her head off outside of my screened-in front porch last week. She was soaking wet from the rainstorm and trying to snuggle with my 10-year old male cat, Huck, through the screen. She was desperate for rescue but also afraid of rescue (who can’t relate with that?). So, after two days of sweet talking and leaving food out for her, I managed to lure her onto the porch and close the door behind her. As soon as I started petting her tiny head, she let out a purrrrr of relief and was full-blown domesticated. This was a mutual rescue. The currently heightened hardship of caregiving is slamming into my health, stability, work responsibilities, and personal routines like a wrecking ball nearly every day right now. At my worst moments, when my mind is made infinitesimally small by titanically overwhelming circumstances and my heart clenches under the weight of exhaustion, fear, anger and frustration, it’s like I’m drinking a 6-ounce glass of water with a pound of salt in it. But. When I come home to the tiny doting mews of Fela the kitten, who stretches out into a fierce downward-facing dog with excitement to see me, who looks the most cute when she’s doing something she knows she’s not supposed to, who gets so gushingly filled up with joy that she prances on her tippy toes like the tile floor is made of cookie dough, who slapsticks her way around the house like Chevy Chase… well, that 6-ounce glass of water turns into Lake Superior and I cannot even taste the salt. THAT is bodhicitta.
When you walk into yoga class with the weight of the world on your shoulders and then walk out of class like a great bird is bearing you across the sky, that is bodhicitta. When a gentle, persistent, all-day rain persuades you into an hour of rest instead of trying to push your way through exhaustion at the price of weakened productivity, that is bodhicitta by way of rain.
This past Wednesday, I was running on only 4 hours of sleep. I had a hundred things to do on behalf of my Mom and just as many personal obligations eclipsed by hers. My Mom and I were leaving the Minnie Jones pharmacy and I was weary to the bone and cranky as Ebenezer Scrooge. As we neared the bottom of the steps into the parking lot, I looked up and made eye contact with an elderly man sitting in his car, looking similarly tired. When I caught his eye, he lit up with a smile and asked how I was. “All right,” was the best I could muster. “And yourself?” I asked. “Oh, I’m thankful. I’m thankful.” He replied as if joining hands with me in a moment of humble celebration. I was kind of stunned and touched. I had never gotten or given that answer to a “how are you?”. The sky of my mind, which was full of low-hanging fog, was shot through with a tiny sliver of blue sky. My circumstances had not changed. The fact of my exhaustion and daunting obligations remained, but there was a little space around the plaque where my fear of those things had magnified and cemented to form an obstructive wall that blocked circulation. Little bit of circulation can start the process toward a re-awakening of the heart, a re-opening of the mind. That, my friends, is bodhicitta. Meditative practice enhances our capacity to recognizethose moments when they happen and to have the reflexive power to initiatethose openings of bodhicitta, not solely by external catalyst, but also from within.
On a personal note, I am purrrring with relief and fierce gratitude to those of you who contributed to caregiving assistance this month. Truly, there but by the grace of loving community, go I.
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 of 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 may 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.
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
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
Bought and sold,
And bought again;
The dove is never free. Leonard Cohen
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. (Won-Buddhist 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.
Sankalpa is the yogic spin on new year’s resolution. Translated 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
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.