Thursday, October 29, 2009

Off the Grid

I'm going to be off the grid for the next two days, participating in my first multiple-day sit or sesshin. Things kick off at Black Mountain Center at noon tomorrow, with half a day of meditation on Friday, a full day on Saturday, again Sunday morning, and then a concluding shuso ceremony back at Russian River Zendo for Cynthia Kear.

Thus far, I have participated in four one-day sits. They are extremely challenging for me. I have a very hard time leaving the form world of clocks and to-do lists, and moving into the emptiness realm, where my only job is to respond to the bell, sitting, walking kinhin, or leaving the zendo for a meal. I have a tendency to try to memorize the schedule ahead of time, and count the number of zazen periods. Then I tick them off in my mind as I successfully complete each one.

But a one-day sit at Russian River Zendo is only from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with about seven or so periods of zazen. That's pretty easy to keep track of. This weekend, our long day will be from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., with, if I have counted correctly, 14 periods of zazen. There's no way I'll be able to keep track.

I have heard that this is why multiple-day sits are so powerful - one is forced to give up, let go, and simply sit. I am trying not to fret about how physically difficult it will be. I am also trying not to stew about how I am going to occupy myself mentally. In fact, my coping strategy up to this moment has been to not think about the sesshin at all, figuring that the only thing I'd do anyway is worry, so why bother?

I spoke to my mother on the phone tonight, and mentioned that I was going to the sesshin tomorrow. She is completely unfamiliar with Zen, and has never meditated. She asked me if it was a silent retreat. When I said yes, she said, "Well, can you read a book or something?" When I said no, that you're sitting looking at a wall, she said, "Oh, I could never do that!"

I had to laugh about the initial question. I can just imagine that scenario. I'll bring a good novel, and sit on my cushion all day flipping pages. While I'm at it, I might as well pack my iPod, so I can have some tunes!

Another challenge for me in the next three days is that Black Mountain Center doesn't allow smoking on the grounds, at all - and the grounds are huge, so I don't think there's any hope of walking out to the end of the driveway. I smoke a pack a day, which works out to roughly one cigarette every hour. Three days without a smoke is definitely going to stir up some usually-camouflaged emotion....I have purchased Nicorette lozenges as a discrete emergency measure.

So, wish me luck! On the sitting, the counting, and the nonsmoking marathon. Should be one interesting weekend!

Upcoming Schedule, Oct. 30 and beyond

Russian River Zendo:

Oct. 30-Nov. 1
Sesshin: Black Mountain Center in Cazadero

Saturday, Oct. 31
RRZ closed due to off-site sesshin.

Sunday, Nov. 1
Shuso ceremony for Cynthia Kear, 3 p.m., Russian River Zendo

Healdsburg Sangha:
Tuesday, Nov. 6
7 p.m. sit, service, and discussion of "Trust in Mind" book

Future dates to consider:

Healdsburg sangha will not meet on Nov. 24 (due to Thanksgiving) and Dec. 29 (the week between Christmas and New Year's). On Dec. 22, a special Bodhisattva Ceremony will be held.

Russian River Zendo will be closed on Dec. 26 (the day after Christmas)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

In Honor of Matthew Shepard

Today marks a historic victory for those in the LGBT community. President Barack Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This law officially adds violence directed at a person because of their sexual orientation or gender identity to the reasons that someone can be tried for a hate crime.

This is very personal for me. I was living in San Francisco when Matthew Shepard was tortured and left to die tied to a fence in Wyoming in 1998. The next day, the huge rainbow flag in the Castro was lowered to half mast, and our entire community was in shock. We were also frightened, looking over our shoulders liked hunted animals. It brought home how incredibly vulnerable we could be in a society that routinely classified us as sinners and second-class citizens.

That next summer, I was in Los Angeles with my girlfriend, when we were threatened and chased down the street by three angry young men dressed in "skinhead" garb. We managed to escape to a coffee shop. Moments later, the men showed up again, and saw us through the plate glass window. They began throwing their bodies up against the glass, screaming obscenities at us. There were only two young people in the coffee shop besides us. With shaking hands, I grabbed the pay phone on the wall and dialed 911. When I asked for help, the dispatcher calmly said, "In what way do you feel threatened?" The police never came. We were left to figure out a safe exit on our own, with the assistance of other patrons.

For ten years, Matthew's parents, LGBT activists and sympathetic politicians have lobbied to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of motivations on the hate crimes act. Numerous times it was brought forward; numerous times it failed, turned down by people like former President George W. Bush, who said that gay people shouldn't be given "special treatment." Each time it came up, I believed it would finally pass. Again and again, I was disappointed. And each disappointment made me feel less safe in this country, in this community.

So it is with great exultation and relief that I received the flurry of e-mails in my inbox today from the various groups I subscribe to which deal with gay and lesbian issues. Finally, there is recognition from my government that LGBT people are singled out by perpetrators. Finally, there is some legislation with some teeth in it to send a societal message that this behavior will not be tolerated.

And finally, most important of all, Matthew Shepard can rest in peace. We have, at last, provided him with a meaningful legacy. What better message of compassion?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Saving the Dalai Lama

I am listening to Faith, Doubt and Reason, a collection of interviews from Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air. It is an eclectic mix of Jews and Christians, pastors and laypeople, believers and former believers and nonbelievers. So far, no Buddhists...

The interview that made me cringe shouldn't come as a surprise. As a lesbian, the religious group that I always have the most trouble with is the Christian Right, since they seem incapable of grasping the concept of live and let live.

Terry Gross spoke with Tim LaHaye, co-founder of the Moral Majority, and co-author of the series of novels called Left Behind, about the Rapture (when the saved will go directly to heaven) and the Tribulations (the seven years of plagues, famine, etc. for the unsaved) that are foreordained in the Bible's Apocalypse. LaHaye is unequivocal in his insistence that only those who are "born again" will be counted among the saved, quoting the passage from John that says, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. What is alarming is that his books have sold 60 million copies - that's a helluva lot of end-of-the-world fascination.

The highlight of the interview was LaHaye's recounting of a chance meeting with the Dalai Lama. LaHaye was in Jerusalem, and happened to see the Dalai Lama approaching, flanked by his entourage. LaHaye stepped forward, shook the Dalai Lama's hand, and said, Has anyone ever explained to you who Jesus Christ is? If not, I'd be happy to meet with you for an hour. He said he was cursorily dismissed by several of the Dalai Lama's attendants. But, he went on, here was a holy man, a pious man, who doesn't know the truth of the way to God, and LaHaye feels it is his duty as a born-again Christian to spread the word.

The arrogance! Can you even imagine attempting to convert the Dalai Lama? To try to sell your own religion, a belief system which defines itself by exclusive access to God, to the man who epitomizes the worldwide movement for interfaith harmony?

It is precisely this kind of behavior that soured me so thoroughly on religion that for years I wouldn't go anywhere near spirituality, in any form.

In what ways has religious extremism influenced your life? I'd love to hear from all of you out there!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Ennui By Any Other Name

One of my favorite anecdotes is about the drunk driver careening down the highway with his name spelled out on his plates - which led to his arrest, since every driver on the road with a cell phone was able to quickly identify him to police.

Personally, I've never felt so strongly connected to my vehicle that I wanted to purchase vanity plates to declare my personality to the world. Not because I want to be able to pursue a criminal career without fear of getting caught...but simply because I've never cared enough to invest the time, energy and money in choosing and purchasing special license plates.

At the same time, though, I have been sucked into the whole "car as identity crisis" inadvertently. Standard issue California license plates have a single number, three letters, then three numbers. So the three letters, even on a normal plate, can sometimes spell a word, or hint at one in that special "license plate jargon." A good friend had the letters "XTC" on her state-issued plate - "ecstasy." Cool!

Unfortunately, at the same time, my middle three letters were "TDM" - and the only thing I could come up with from those letters was the word "tedium." Hardly inspiring to have a synonym for "boredom" as your automotive/highway identity.

I suffered stubbornly for nine years with that plate, refusing to succumb to the materialism and egocentrism of purchasing a new plate simply to escape "tedium." But when I bought a new car three years ago, I was almost as excited at the prospect of new plates (and the possibility of a new moniker!) as I was about having a 2006 model.

So I cannot tell you with what dismay I opened the package containing my new license plates, finding that the state had issued me the letters "TED." Oh, no! "Tedium" again! Once is an accident, a fluke; twice? It had to be a sign from the universe - and not a sign I wanted to see.

But a moment of internet grace has saved me. While surfing the web, I ran across the website at TED stands for "technology, entertainment and design" and the site's tagline is "ideas worth spreading." It is a fabulous collection of online lectures by authors, scientists, inventors, designers, spiritual leaders, all kinds of fascinating people, sharing their expertise and enthusiasm on a wide-ranging field of enthralling topics.

So finally, I can rest happily with my "TDM/TED" license plate identity. I'll just pretend that I knew all along that it brought me into the good company of intellectuals and artists, dreamers and doers.

What does your license plate say? Has anybody lucked out by being issued "ZEN"?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Letting Go of Thoughts

In our study group discussion on Saturday, reviewing the next passage from Kosho Uchiyama's Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice, we were focusing on the idea of letting go of thoughts while practicing zazen.

Uchiyama differentiates between ideas or thoughts merely occurring and chasing after thoughts and thinking. He says that of course, since we are not rocks, we will have thoughts while we are sitting meditation. But the thoughts should just arise and then be let go. What is to be avoided is having a thought, grabbing on, and then running with it.

Everyone in the study group had had clear experiences of that grasping behavior, when, for instance, you figure out your budget while sitting zazen, or plan your entire day's schedule while on the cushion, supposedly meditating. Uchiyama says, If a thought occurs during zazen and we proceed to chase after it, then we are thinking and not doing zazen.

Now, that feels a little harsh. You mean that 35 minutes on the zafu doesn't even count, if your mind is racing around? Quite a few of us in the group felt pretty discouraged upon first hearing that proclamation.

Uchiyama says that the posture of zazen, the way we sit, quiets the excitability of the mind, and helps us let go of the grasping when thoughts do arise. But each of us knows that the posture alone does not accomplish that pure shikantaza (just sitting) state. Sometimes when I sit, I find myself writing an entire short story, regardless of the fact that my body is still. So that's not zazen?

Thankfully, Uchiyama continues with this helpful note: So the essential point when doing zazen is to aim, full of life, at the posture of zazen with our flesh and bones while at the same time leaving everything up to the posture and letting go of thoughts. By aiming at the zazen posture and simultaneously opening the hand of thought, both body and mind do zazen in the proper spirit.

Ah, there's the saving grace. It's about aiming at the correct posture and aiming at releasing thoughts. It reminds me of the Buddhist precepts. They are not commandments, not Thou shalt nots. They are vows, directives, intentions. We understand that we will repeatedly violate all of them, some on a daily basis: harboring ill will, speaking badly of others, putting ourselves before others. The vow is about continuing to make that right effort, aiming towards upholding the precepts, even though we know we will break them.

And so it is with zazen. It is humanly impossible to not chase after a single thought during a full zazen period. The thoughts come up, and it is our mind's nature to chase. The goal is to gently catch ourselves in the act, again and again, and once more turn our attention back to the body, back to the breath, back to the coming and going of thoughts with no attachment. I guess that's why this is a life practice. There are no graduates.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

What If a Gunman Comes into the Zendo - Can We Move?

There's an episode of CSI that has unduly influenced my "monkey mind" while sitting zazen. (I don't watch much television. After reading this, you'll know why.) In the episode, four monks at a monastery are shot and killed while sitting meditation. The shooter came in while they were sitting and shot each one point blank in the forehead, execution style. But what is startling is that each one of them stayed in the meditative posture, while the killing spree went on, as if waiting their turn. No one stood up, ran, struggled....they just sat there.

Now, they were not Zen monks. They were not sitting zazen. For all I know, they were practicing some kind of trance meditation. But it created an image in my head, a "goal" of not moving, that overwhelmed completely even the instincts of fear and response in a crisis.

So now, occasionally when I am sitting zazen at the Healdsburg Yoga Studio, and I hear people approach on the sidewalk outside, lingering at the front door...I go into morbid fantasies. What if one of them came in with a gun, and threatened us? Would we all just sit there? Would we all continue to face the wall, unmoving, because the period of zazen was not officially ended? If a gunman rushes into the room - do we need to wait for someone to ring the bell before we can respond?

I struggle with a similar "is it OK to move" question when sitting at home, only based in more mundane realities. I live in a house with five cats, three dogs and a parrot. Even when I am "home alone," as it were, I am anything but solitary. So when I sit down to meditate, there is a very real chance that something (someone) will interrupt me. I don't want to jump up at the slightest sound, or I'd never get through a sit period. On the other hand, I don't want to not respond if something truly attention-worthy occurs.

So my sitting goes something like this: I sit down on the cushion. I am silent and relaxed for about 10 minutes. Then I hear a crash. I remain seated, and keep my ears alert. If there is silence after the crash, I think, "Well, maybe Kenji the kitten jumped on the shower curtain again and brought the rod down. Or maybe Dozer misjudged when leaping down from the kitchen counter, and knocked my book bag onto the floor." I can keep sitting; there will be time later to put the house back in order.

However, if I hear a squawling, or a moan, maybe somebody got hurt. If I hear a flap of wings, then maybe Barney the parrot has decided to make an ungainly flight off the top of his cage and is now wandering around the living room floor, eating the new baseboard or getting dangerously close to the sleeping Bailey (cat) on the dog bed. Or if I hear a whole lot of crunching, maybe Teo the ridgeback has managed once again to spin the cat box around, and is creating a catastrophic mess in the bedroom. Time to get up and move, restoring everyone to safety.

I brought up this "can I move?" question at our study group today, and discovered that everyone who shares their home with animals grapples with these issues. What if the dog is barking? Is it better to ignore that and keep meditating, or to take the little guy into your lap and stroke him? What if the cat is kneading your leg, with a generous use of claws? Do you stoically resist either moving yourself or extracting talons from your thigh, or do you gently reposition your feline friend before returning to zazen?

Tony and others in the group reassured me that sitting zazen, in "no thinking" mind, does not mean that we are unable to respond to a crisis, small or life-threatening. In fact, the opposite is true: that posture of alert "no thought" puts us in an ideal position to move quickly and effortlessly toward right solution.

Whew. One ridiculously misplaced crisis fantasy put to rest - only one million other distracting thoughts left to deal with!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Loving the Critic

I don't know about you, but I spend an awful lot of time listening to my internal critic. She's that nagging voice in my head that tells me, over and over, ad nauseum, that I'm not smart enough, not talented enough, not disciplined enough, not kind enough, not pretty enough - let's face it, just plain not enough of anything.

She comes to the forefront at fairly predictable times - when I'm trying something new, venturing outside of my normal sphere. Or when I've just given my all for something, and one person that I come into contact with looks slightly askance or raises an eyebrow, and I become convinced that they think my project, my effort, is not only less than perfect, but in fact is so flawed that I should be embarrassed that I even made the attempt.

She also surfaces disguised as envy. When I read a beautifully written paragraph by someone else, or see a gorgeously hand-wrought work of art, or hear someone play a piano etude flawlessly, she takes that moment and warps it, taking me out of that wellspring of sheer appreciation and celebration of someone else's creation, and throws me into a self-flagellating remorse about my own ineptitude and inability to measure up.

I know where the voice originated - I can trace it back to unkind teachers, shaming parents, cruel girlhood friends. But those voices are not what haunt me now. I have taken the real life critics and internalized them to the point that "she," the grand critic, is an entity all of her own, with me wherever I go, because she lives inside of my own head.

She is a monster of my own making. The bad news about that is that I'm the only one who can conquer her. The good news about that is that I'm the only one who can conquer her. Both are true - it is incredibly freeing and terrifying at the same time - it's all up to me.

Recently while chanting the Metta Sutta, or Loving Kindness Meditation, I realized that here was a directive for dealing with the critic:

Even as a mother at the risk of her life
Watches over and protects her only child,
So with a boundless mind should
one cherish all living things.
Suffusing love over the entire world,
Above, below, and all around, without limit,
So let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world.

This stanza is not just about loving the world, although of course, that is also our directive, our vow. It is also about loving ourselves.

Even as a mother at the risk of her life/Watches over and protects her only child - what if the child is myself? What if the child is the ceramic clay that I have molded into a jizo? What if the child is the words I write late at night alone in my office?

So with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things/Suffusing love over the entire world. Not a limited, critical mind, but a boundless mind. Not cherish only the perfect, the unstained, but all living things. Not loving just that which is easy to love, that which is flawless, but the entire world.

So let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world - not just the external world, but also the internal world. Good will and love and tenderness and protection. What if I wrapped my arms around my critic, and told her that I loved her, that I would take care of her? What then?


There is nothing like a good scare and a lot of blood to jolt your perspective into the present moment.

It is 1 a.m. and we just got home from the emergency animal clinic. Barney, our 18-year-old African grey parrot, took a nose dive off the top of his cage. I was going over to pick him up, and he scuttled away from me, startled, and fell straight to the ground.

Periodically he does fall - usually, he just gets ruffled feathers. I scooped him up and carried him over to his other perch, then went back into the kitchen, where Sabrina and I were heating up leftovers for a late dinner. I happened to glance down at my hand, and saw blood. At first, I thought it was from me - then I said out loud, "Barney!" and we both raced into the other room.

The fall had cracked the tip of his beak. He was bleeding profusely. Sabrina held him in her lap, applying pressure with a towel, while he screamed wildly. I ran for the phone, and started calling clinics. First I called Pet Care, the 24-hour clinic in Santa Rosa. They did not have a bird vet on duty. So I called Memorial Beach in Healdsburg (Barney's regular vet) and another vet in Rohnert Park. At both numbers, I got answering machines referring me to Pet Care. When I called the emergency clinic in Rohnert Park, they said they had no one available, and gave me a number for a clinic in Marin, nearly a two hour drive from here. I tried to find personal phone numbers of vets, but no luck. I called a couple of friends, to see if they had emergency vet numbers. No. So I called Pet Care again, near panic. Sabrina's hands were covered in blood, and the towel was getting saturated. Losing too much blood is a real fear with birds.

I convinced Pet Care to see him, regardless. Right after that phone call, the bleeding stopped. But we weren't sure how long that would last. We took care of all the other animals, grabbed a carrier and an extra towel, and headed out the door. At the clinic, the vet on duty had called the animal specialty unit in Davis to get advice. He examined Barney, gave him a shot with an analgesic, and prescribed anti-inflammatory medicine, telling us to check in with our regular vet tomorrow to see what else might need to be done. We drove the long hour home, momentarily relieved and breathing easier.

And then he started bleeding, again. I got on the phone, talked once more to the vet tech. She said there was nothing she could do - we just needed to keep applying pressure, and keep him as calm as possible. Fortunately, it was less severe this second time, and the blood flow stopped fairly quickly. He is now in his carrier for the night, covered, calm, and for the time being, safe.

In the six years that Sabrina and I have been together, we have been to the emergency room once for me, twice for her, three times for Barney, once for Dozer the cat (rattlesnake bite), and once for another cat, Ziggy, who did not survive a dog attack. Nothing brings home what is important in life more than those tense car trips to the ER, with someone you love in pain at your side.

It's not a pleasant way to wake up - but it works.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Rach Three

I am a classical music nut. I routinely fall in love with women who are concert pianists and violinists and cellists. (Not that any of them are any the wiser, of course. I'm a quiet fanatic.)

I played violin when I was young, through college. And I also play the piano. I began taking lessons again in January after a long hiatus. I absolutely love playing - I can get so lost in it, that mesmerizing combination of logic and rhythm and melody and ethereal magic. Of course, my own playing is frustrating nearly as often as it is satisfying, because my fingers won't quite cooperate with the perfect tune in my head. But oh, those moments when it works: it makes it all worthwhile.

I heard Jeffrey Kahane play Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Santa Rosa Symphony recently. I had never heard him play before, and I had never heard the "Rach 3" - I overheard another patron referring to the concerto this way, and sure enough, upon doing research, found that this is what the "in the know" people say!

It was incredible, listening to him play. His touch was so masterful, the range of dynamics so broad, his ability to both sing out the melody line and subdue the accompanying hand, switching back and forth - I was intensely envious. He made it all look so easy! I am currently working on a Chopin waltz, and although I am beginning to master the notes, the mechanics, I have not even begun to be able to interpret it, to explore it, through the full range of its possibilities.

After that night, I wanted to get a copy of the concerto. I often play classical music in the car during my commute to Calistoga. I went to The Last Record Store in Santa Rosa, the best place around to actually talk to a live person who knows something about music. Searching through the database, we discovered that there was a rendition of the Rach 3 by Martha Argerich, an Argentinian who happens to be one of my favorite pianists - I fell in love with her renditions of Chopin, and have a couple of those CDs. My infatuation with Chopin is largely due to her. My last recital piece was one of Chopin's Preludes. During the weeks before my recital, I played her CD with the Preludes over and over and over again, trying to soak in her style and translate it into something with my own hands.

So tonight, driving home, I was listening to Martha Argerich play the Rach 3 for the first time. It opens with a simple, lyric, heartbreakingly sad melody, which recurs periodically throughout the piece. But from there, it goes everywhere - driving, mad, rushing notes, waterfalls of scattering rain, swelling crescendoes and decrescendoes, moving in and out of the rest of the orchestral sound. It is stunningly beautiful.

No matter how long I practice, I will never be able to play like that. But because I play, in my own imperfect, beginner way, I am always expanding my ability to hear the music of others. That is the gift of practice: opening myself up to beauty. That's good enough.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ripples in the Water

To what
Shall I compare the world?
It is like the wake
Vanishing behind a boat
that has rowed away at dawn.
-Sami Manzei

For the past several days, I have been listening to CDs of a book by Jack Kerouac, Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha. It was billed on the cover as Kerouac's version of the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would become the Buddha. I was expecting a novel, something along the lines of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, but in Kerouac style. Nothing prepared me for what I heard.

Apparently, Kerouac used ancient texts (or translations of them) from various sources, piecing together an almost Biblical-style life of the Buddha. The language is formal, stylized, reminiscent of Old Testament translations. The story line was there, sporadically, but much of the book is focused on sermons, teachings of Buddha, rendered in mind-numbingly repetitive and convoluted form, so that my head was swimming as I tried to make sense of all of it.

Listening to the Buddha trying to explain to his disciples the inconstancy of mind, the impermanence of the world, the unreliability of the sense perceptions, in words that turned around and around in circles, for five hours - I feel as if everything I ever knew about Buddhism has been lost in a whorling vortex of confusion. Much of the discourse is directed to Ananda, Buddha's principal disciple and devout follower. I was heartened by the fact that in the midst of the teachings, Ananda said, over and over, "But, Blessed One. How can that be?" or some such statement, always asking for further clarification. However I was disheartened by the fact that eventually it all seemed to become crystal clear to him, while I was still lost in the fog.

I am wondering if some of these teachings are similar to Zen koans, riddles with no answer, that must be answered anyway. Is it simply the contemplation, the applying of one's mind to the task, that eventually bears fruit, giving you an understanding that is beyond logic? Or am I just woefully inadequate for the task?

There were, thankfully, a few crystalline moments. One was when the Buddha was comparing life and the world to a ripple in the water, saying that it arises from nothing, returns to nothing, and cannot be defined since it dissipates almost as soon as it appears. Which led me to the poem copied above...

Anyone out there able to offer enlightenment on the subject of central Buddhist teachings?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Clean Sheets and Trash Cans

Last week, sangha member Debi Papazian said, "Sometimes zazen is like taking a hot bath and climbing into clean sheets. Other times it feels like rolling down a hill inside of a metal trash can."

I had a "climbing into clean sheets" zazen period this morning. It was raining gently outside. My dog Ripley was lying on the floor next to me. The Japanese incense that I burn on my altar, sandalwood, smelled particularly fragrant. I bowed, rang the bell, sat, rang the bell, chanted the Bodhisattva vows, and bowed again. I felt completely and absolutely present, rested but awake.

But I've had the "trash can" experiences recently, too. One evening a few weeks ago, I came into my office to sit, feeling no more or less ready than I usually do. I sit for 30 minutes; I have a yoga timer that I set on the corner of my altar, facing away from myself. I settled myself on the cushion, lit the incense, and turned on the clock.

Within minutes, I had a tormeting itch on my face. I tried to relax out of it, let it go. But I had to give in and scratch. It was driving me crazy. Then my legs started cramping. I waited, but had to move. It felt like I had already been sitting for hours. I broke my hardfast rule not to look at the clock - oh, god, I still had 23 minutes left!

My legs cramped again. I moved. Then I just got squirrely, restless, my whole body twitching and needing to reposition. I looked at the clock again. Only five minutes had passed. Arghhh! I decided I could wiggle as much as I wanted, but I was not going to get up off of that cushion until 30 minutes had passed. It was a tortuous period. And of course, my mind was not at rest, either. It was going like crazy, with all kinds of messed up thinking.

I wanted to kiss that alarm clock when it finally went off.

What does that tell you about Zen practice? It's a helluva lot like life. Some days everything goes your way, and some days nothing cooperates. But no matter how badly you want to get up off of that cushion, you still have to sit through it.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Doing Work, Creating Art and Breathing

I was immersed in art/work practice today, spending the morning glazing my jizo (see link for more information about this Japanese Bodhisattva) and spending the afternoon working on my rakusu, the symbol of jukai (lay ordination).

My jizo survived his first firing, and somehow I managed to get a little bit of my vision of a Bodhisattva into the clay, much more so than in my first attempt. Although I'm trying very hard to just let each one exist on its own, without my judgments, I seesaw back and forth from feeling artistic pride (Wow! I made this!) and an art critic's scorn (A third grader would have done a better job.).

We met in Susan Spencer's studio in Sebastopol, which is an art lover's paradise. Her garden is filled with ceramic figurines of all colors, shapes and sizes, from the whimsical to the spiritual. The ceramic studio has a big work table, and shelves lined with paint brushes, sponges, cutting tools and all kinds of miscellaneous implements. It's hard to resist the call to create when you're standing in that room.

Today we applied glazes, which is both easier (since the surfaces to paint were large and fairly clearly delineated) and at the same time a leap of faith (since I have no idea what it's going to look like when it comes out of the kiln the second time). Sangha member Debi was also with me, finishing the glazing on her feline jizo, a black cat Bodhisattva with wings and gold eyes.

I love colors. It's funny, because there was a long period in my life when I dressed only in black. Everything I owned was black - black bike messenger bag, black piano, black car. But at some point a few years ago, when the world got a little brighter for me, colors came back into my life. So choosing the glazing paints was heaven - sky blue, emerald green, rose pink. My jizo's robe is textured, so I used a sponge to wash some of the color off, leaving indentations of color beneath the ridges of clay. At the end, I covered the entire figure with a clear glaze, which dries white, completely masking all the work I had just done. Again, trust comes into play - the colors should reappear after firing. That's what I've been told.

I had a wonderful time getting paint all over my shirt, cradling the jizo in my arms while I applied the brush, feeling the weight and roughness and "I am that" -ness of it all.

And then, on to the next adventure. At sewing class, there were only four of us, due to a house blessing held this afternoon at sangha member Deborah's, so our teacher Connie Ayers was able to give lots of one-on-one attention. We practiced stitching, ironing, cutting, and marking.

But then I got to move on to the real deal, the cloth for my actual rakusu. I ironed the face cloth, for the front piece of the rakusu, and then Connie helped me apply the pattern and mark lines. On to cutting - which made me nervous, because that can be screwed up, but I made it through without destroying anything. The next simple step, ironing the folds on five pieces of cloth, I managed to bungle, doing it the opposite of what I was instructed. Thankfully, though, it was salvageable - just more ironing. The final step was to pin the first five segments, which again took some doing, but I survived with help from Connie.

Now this week I have to take the big plunge - make my first stitches on those pieces of cloth. This whole sewing thing is fascinating for me. I am so surprised how pleasurable it is. Once again, as with the clay, there is that sense of work and of art. I am making something with my own hands.

I am a word person. I make my living sitting at a computer, writing news stories and designing pages, which are sent to the printer electronically. At home, I spend hours in front of the screen, doing my own writing, blogging, emailing. I exist in an environment of ideas and papers, metaphors and keyboards.

To sit down at a table and pick up a lump of clay and roll it in my hands, to wield a paint brush, to thread a needle, to iron and tie knots and draw lines - this is opening me up. It's like the breath in zazen, a reminder that I have a body as well as a mind.

Just breathe.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sewing a Rakusu

Last Sunday I began sewing my rakusu. A rakusu is a patchwork miniature robe that you wear around your neck: navy blue for lay ordination (jukai), black for priests, brown for those who are able to teach, having dharma transmission. I've heard there's also a green one, for lay people with dharma transmission, but I've never actually seen one of those.

Hand sewing the rakusu is one stage of the year-long preparation for jukai, taking Buddhist vows. I am part of a group of seven from my sangha who will go through the ceremony next August. For the next three months, we will meet every Sunday to sew together. The sewing is a form of meditation. As you do each stitch, you chant to yourself: Namu kie butsu. I take refuge in the Buddha. We work with a sewing instructor, Connie Ayers, who guides us each step of the way.

Still, it is a difficult task for many of us. Last week, several in the group, myself included, were all thumbs, completely unfamiliar with even the most basic steps involved in sewing. I'm guessing that the lesson in patience is as integral to this practice as the meditation.

Despite the fact that I can barely sew on a button, so far I am enjoying the practice. It appeals to the detail-oriented part of me, with the single-minded attention towards the task. I am sure, though, that over the next weeks there will be at least one post where I throw my hands up in the air over the whole ordeal, frustrated beyond soothing. Bear with me. I'll do my best not to whine too much.

For a great article on the rakusu tradition, see Taking the Precepts: Sewing Buddha's Robe by Josho Pat Phelan.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Creating a Jizo

On Sunday, I will go to sangha member Susan Spencer's house to glaze my jizo. A jizo is a guardian spirit, a little bodhisattva, who protects women, children and travellers. The statues come in various forms and shapes, but all have a beatific smile, a childlike appearance, with great serenity and patience resting on their brows.

When I lived in Japan, I saw jizo everywhere. Because they are frequently purchased at temples to honor children lost to miscarriage or abortion, or infant death, the jizo I saw were usually dressed, clad in miniature red knitted bibs, shawls or hats, with toys placed nearby. Women use the figures to grieve, and to wish the lost children (mizuko, or "water children") safe passage to their next place.

I have always wanted to have a jizo of my own, but never made that happen. Then, in the spring, Russian River Zendo created landscaped temple grounds with a gift from a sangha member who had passed away. Ceramicist Susan Spencer suggested that the sangha create jizo in her studio for the grounds. Over the summer, I participated in one of the workshops, making a jizo for the garden.

It was a wonderful, frustrating experience in "beginner's mind." I had a clear idea of what I wanted my jizo to look like - but I hadn't worked with clay since fifth grade, and even back then, I was none too skillful at it. That day at Susan's, nothing seemed to be going as I planned. The head was misshapen, the ears too big, the nose odd looking. I was so annoyed after the first thirty minutes that I almost left and went home. I've never been very patient with tasks that I don't have a natural talent for - I guess that's the down side of having too many other things come easily for me.

But I eventually got over my surliness and just did the best I could, summoning up as much humor as possible. The end result was a figure who looked more like Yoda from Star Wars than a Japanese monk. Sigh. He now stands guard at Russian River Zendo, a tangible testament of my imperfect offering.

Susan offered to hold another workshop this fall, for those of us who wanted a jizo for our own gardens at home. I decided to try again. I kept it really simple this time, going on the theory that less is more. In particular, smaller ears!

I haven't seen how he survived the firing yet - and this will be my first time to do glazing, as Susan did that for me the last time. I can't wait to meet up with my little jizo again. I am determined to love him, no matter how he turns out. It's the heart in the clay that matters, right?

Language note: In Japanese, there is no plural form for words. So, when I use Japanese words, like jizo, I don't add an "s" when there are more than one of them. Whether the subject is singular or plural is indicated by context only.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Do I Have to Share My Ice Cream?

I've been listening to Pema Chodron's The Places That Scare You on CDs in my car. It's a four-disc set, and I find myself listening to each CD at least twice, because there's just so much to take in.

Last night she was talking about the paramitas, and different ways of practicing each of them. When Chodron was discussing dana paramita, generosity, she said one of her students decided to give something away when she realized she didn't want to part with it. It got me pondering, long and hard. I like to think of myself as a generous person. But the more I reflected on it last night, the stingier I felt.

A big issue for me is food. I simply hate having to share my food. When I decide I am going to indulge in my favorite decadence, a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, I eat the whole pint in one sitting. I began wondering, what would happen if a friend, or my partner, said, "Oh, can I have some ice cream, too?" I would feel absolutely frantic. No! This is MY pint of ice cream!

I have fooled myself for a long time about this by saying that it wasn't really ungenerous, because I was perfectly willing to buy another pint of ice cream for my friend. I had no trouble with the thought of making it my treat; I would gladly buy ice cream for a whole party, and not feel a bit put out. See, I'm generous!

But that doesn't change at all the way I feel about the pint I set aside for myself. That one I clutch onto desperately. No one else can have any. Not even one spoonful.

I think I understand where this grasping comes from. I was the oldest of six children growing up, and now there are nine siblings all together. My immediate family has always been a brood, a crowd, a sprawling mess of human activity. Our portions were meted out evenly at dinner, with just enough for everyone. I never went without, but I also never was able to indulge myself. This will sound silly, but I didn't even have my own underwear. The three oldest girls were all close enough in size, that we shared. Whoever folded the laundry got first dibs on the best pairs.

Listening to Chodron, I realized that this scarcity model is still playing out in my life, so many years later. I like things to be "just mine" - my own scissors, my own home office, my own books on my own bookshelves...and my own pint of ice cream. I have camouflaged this greediness with financial largess, gladly buying presents for people, meals at restaurants, miscellaneous this'n'that things for my partner....without having to actually share anything, except money.

So I have decided to start stretching myself a little bit, starting out with that most simple thing, the food I eat. I am going to try to share something whenever the opportunity arises - a bite from my plate at a restaurant, a slice of my apple, half of my dessert. And it doesn't count to buy two - I have to give from that portion which was meant for me.

Even the ice cream.

Technical Difficulties

I got home from work tonight a little before 2 a.m., but despite the late hour, I was determined not to break my daily blogging routine. I was still amped up from deadline day at the newspaper, and after a quick cup of coffee (don't ask how many that makes for the day - the answer would be a scary, big number), I was ready to punch things out on the keyboard.

But - I couldn't log on. What was the problem? I checked and re-checked my wireless signal - strong and connected. I thought it might be Google that was down, so I attempted to log onto other websites. No such luck. I did the magic reboot - still nothing. I began to think that my computer was on the fritz, and so I went into Sabrina's office to try hers. Same error message.

Finally, I had to concede that Comcast, my network provider, was down. I did not want this to be the answer. All of the other possibilities had potential solutions: repair programs to run, cables to check, buttons to push. But if Comcast was down, there wasn't a damn thing I could do.

As much as I like to think that I am progressing towards "detachment," I am constantly reminded of the myriad ways in which I struggle to stay in control of everything, even things as completely out of my power as service from my internet provider!

The toll my long Wednesdays take on me was beginning to show. I was getting irritated, annoyed, impatient and bordering on cranky. Luckily, the only beings close by tonight are the dogs, and they are incredibly compassionate towards my misbehavior. I think if anyone is ever sent to me as a teacher of patience, the teacher will be in the form of a dog.

I had two options: Give up and go to bed (very tempting at 3 a.m.) or stay up a bit longer and keep trying to log on, just in case. My insomniac Wednesday side won out, and it is now 4 a.m., and Comcast has restored service, and I am once again on the go.

So, nothing very insightful to share with you today, due to extreme fatigue - just this message - teachers are everywhere, some in yellow lab form, some in network provider form. I never know where my next lesson will come from.

Upcoming Schedule, Oct. 17, 20 and 27

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, Oct. 17
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:35 a.m. dharma talk by Darlene Cohen and tea

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Oct. 20
7 p.m. sit, service, and dharma talk by Tony Patchell

Tuesday, Oct. 27
7 p.m., sit, service, and Way Seeking Mind talk by Joani Goldsmith

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Lesson at J.B. Big Boy's

Tonight at the Healdsburg sangha, Darlene shared part of a talk written by one of her students. The student compared the forms and rituals of Zen to her time working as a hostess at a McDonald's fast-food chain. The talk was funny and insightful, showing how we can find Zen lessons in almost any setting - it's life, after all.

It brought to mind one of my own experiences. When I was 21, I did an internship as a lobbyist for higher education at the Montana State Legislature. After the session ended (the Montana Legislature doesn't meet year-round like California and other more populated states), I had a couple of months to kill before going back for my final semester of college at Montana State University. I decided to stay in Helena, the state capitol, and find work.

But the only job I could find was as a hostess at J.B. Big Boy's Restaurant. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this chain, it's similar to a Denny's, only with a huge cartoonish "Big Boy" statue standing next to the sign outside.

My job was to seat patrons, serve coffee and other drinks, and act as cashier. Pretty simple. Right from the get-go, though, I had real attitude. What am I doing here? I'm so much smarter than everybody else! This is completely beneath me! Last month I was giving testimony in the Senate, and now I'm wearing a polyester wrap-around skirt and a horrid poly-blend blouse with a big bow at the neck, pouring coffee for losers who have nothing better to do than hang out at a sleazy restaurant. I wore a permanent scowl on my face. Every request from a customer was an inconvenience and an annoyance. I spent my entire shift watching the clock, praying that more than five minutes would have elapsed since the last time I looked. I was miserable, and I was certainly sharing the wealth, making everybody else miserable, too.

And then one day, I had a moment of clarity. Who knows why it came - but I realized that I could make this an awful experience, or a good one. It was entirely up to me. I softened; I greeted people at the door with a genuine smile, and refilled coffee cups with attention and care. I began to know the regulars, to care about them, to trade stories and teasing. I finally paid attention to my co-workers, learned what their lives were like, and some of them were brutally hard. They started to feel like family.

Miraculously, the clock became unfrozen. My shift went by quickly and effortlessly, because I wasn't enduring it. I was living it. I was in the here, instead of thinking about how soon I could escape.

I know that the transformation wasn't just in my mind. Just about one month later, my manager came to me, and asked for a private chat. He offered me a promotion, to head hostess. And he said, "A few weeks ago, I almost fired you, because your attitude was so bad. But this dramatic change - now I know what kind of an employee you can be."

Since then, I have had many jobs, of all kinds, with varying degrees of responsibility. Nothing, though, can compare to hearing those words from my boss, and knowing that I did have the ability to wake up, and change my life.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Wabi Sabi - Beauty in the Imperfect

I lived in Japan from 1990 to 1993, in Kyoto and Osaka. I have a master's degree in Japanese studies from the University of Washington in Seattle, and initially went to Japan on an 18-month Japanese Ministry of Education fellowship to study. I extended that stay for another 18 months, because I fell so completely in love with the country and its culture.

The Japanese have a concept called wabi sabi. It refers to beauty that is imperfect, unfinished, and fleeting. Much of what we think of as the Japanese aesthetic (ikebana or flower arranging, the tea ceremony, the Zen sand gardens, the style of some of the most famous temples and shrines) reflect wabi sabi. It is exemplified by everything that is simple, modest, intimate, asymmetrical, and prone to the influences of nature through aging, rusting, disintegrating.

There are two other Japanese words that are applicable here: hade and jimi. Hade refers to things which are brilliant and ostentatious, big and bold. Jimi refers to that which is muted, natural, rustic, understated.

The Japanese love to give gifts, on almost any occasion; whether they are bringing you an omiyage (souvenir) from a trip they just went on, paying New Year's respects, or simply sharing a meal with you, they never arrive empty handed. Through this practice of gift giving, my large circle of Japanese friends soon realized that I delighted in the aspects of their country that were jimi - and, to my surprise, they received me with greater intimacy after that, feeling I was accepting of the "original" Japan, with its vast history and ages-old traditions. I was honored that they were willing to teach me, month after month, by introducing me to all that was essentially Japanese, from sumo wrestling to koto playing, from the art of kimono to seasonal rituals at nearby temples and shrines.

A perfect example of the contrast between hade and jimi is two famous Zen temples in Kyoto, the Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) and the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion). The Golden Pavilion is actually covered in gold leaf. It towers three stories tall above a stupendous reflective pond. It takes your breath away with its splendor. The Silver Pavilion is something very different. Although it was originally intended to be covered in silver foil, that never happened. The temple has been allowed to stay the way it was then, five hundred years ago, a modest wooden structure weathered by the rain and the snows, surrounded on one side by a beautiful pond, nested into the trees. It also is the site of the very famous sand garden that has a miniature Mt. Fuji at its center. Ginkakuji is known as one of the premiere examples of the wabi sabi aesthetic.

I went to The Golden Pavilion only twice during my stay, once on my own, and once with visiting family. But Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion - I went there as often as I could, to walk through the quiet gardens, to touch the weathered wood, to let the beauty sink into my soul. When I am homesick for Japan, this is what I think of: monks raking the sand garden at Ginkakuji, with the rippling reflection of rocks and twisted pines in the background, and the aging temple rising gently above it all.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Paper Clips

I watched a documentary tonight called Paper Clips. It is the amazing story of a middle school in Whitwell, Tennessee. Teachers there decided to teach about tolerance and open mindedness by presenting a class on the lessons of the Holocaust. At one point, when the students learned that six million Jews perished in the camps, one of them asked, How many is six million? I can't visualize that. This from a student who lives in an impoverished rural town of only 1,600 people.

So the students had the idea of collecting something, something small, to represent those six million lives. Doing research on the internet, they learned that in Norway, those who wanted to protest the terrors of the Nazi regime and the extermination of the Jews wore paper clips on their lapels or collars as a secret symbol. And so, the Paper Clip Project was born.

The students sent letters out to people all over the country, asking them to donate paper clips. Through a series of fortunate meetings, their message ended up being given on NBC Nightly News and in the Washington Post, and soon they were receiving paper clips from individuals such as former President Bush, former President Clinton, then-current President Bush, Bill Cosby, Tom Bosley and other celebrities. But far more moving was the outpouring of letters and paper clips from families who had lost relatives in the Holocaust, people who wrote stories, sent pictures, thanked the young people for this memorial act. By the end, the children had collected 29 million paper clips, each with a story, an outpouring of good will. Holocaust survivors, hearing of the project, came to visit the school, to share their memories in person.

Eventually, again through the kindness and dedication of caring individuals, and the commitment and participation of the entire town of Whitwell, they were able to erect a memorial on their school campus inside of an actual cattle car from Germany that had been used to transport victims to the death camps. Inside the railcar are 11 million paperclips, to represent the six million Jews and the five million other victims (homosexuals, Gypsies, Poles) who lost their lives. Now these eighth graders conduct field trips for visiting school children, telling them the lesson of the Holocaust, teaching tolerance, and passing on the stories.

This movie is powerful at so many levels. I was moved to tears again and again. It is such a message of hope, of possibilities. Even in the face of such horrific loss, the human capacity for compassion can and will be awakened if we allow ourselves to go there, to those dark and ugly places.

I highly recommend it. If a little town in Tennesse can open their hearts enough to hold the entire Holocaust - then I, too, am inspired to keep up this work, expanding loving kindness, daring to feel compassion, facing the darkness of the human soul that is inherent in all of us, without losing sight of the goodness that lies just underneath.

And I will never look at a paper clip the same way again. Each time I hold one in my hands, it will seem like a person's soul

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Four Rabbinim

A friend recently turned me on to Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Most of you have probably heard of her - she is the author of Women Who Run With the Wolves, which every woman seemed to be reading about ten years ago. I knew of her, but had never actually cracked the book. My introduction to her was through a set of CDs called The Creative Fire, dealing with myths and stories about the cycles of creativity. I am putty in the hands of a good storyteller, and she is a delightful master at it. So I decided to check out the book as well.

And there, I ran across this story:

The Four Rabbinim

One night four Rabbinim were visted by an angel who awakened them and carried them to the Seventh Vault of the Seventh Heaven. There they beheld the sacred Wheel of Ezekiel.

Somewhere in the descent from Pardes, Paradise, to Earth, one Rabbi, having seen such splendor, lost his mind and wandered frothing and foaming until the end of his days. The second Rabbi was extremely cynical: "Oh, I just dreamed Ezekiel's Wheel, that was all. Nothing really happened." The third Rabbi carried on and on about what he had seen, for he was totally obsessed. He lectured and would not stop with how it was all constructed and what it all meant...and in this way he went astray and betrayed his faith. The fourth Rabbi, who was a poet, took a paper in hand and a reed and sat near the window writing song after song praising the evening dove, his daughter in her cradle, and all the stars in the sky. And he lived his life better than before.

Okay, first I have to admit: I love this story because the poet wins! Not wins - you know what I mean. The poet is the one with the healthiest response, the most life affirming reaction to seeing paradise.

It calls to mind for me Zen teaching I have heard about moments of enlightenment, altered states that result from periods of zazen, or from mindfulness, or those that simply arise as gifts from the universe. What happens if we have one of those moments? Do we go mad? Do we brush it aside with cynicism? Do we intellectualize it to death? Or do we just use that beautiful insight, that moment of connection, to further enrich our own everyday, ordinary lives, penning a poem or writing a song, and then moving on to the next right thing?

In the book The Places that Scare You, Pema Chodron tells of a student who has such an enlightenment moment. The student is standing on a street corner, and suddenly she feels no separateness between herself and everything else in her sight, and then that expands to a feeling of connection to the entire world. She is profoundly shaken by this, and rethinks everything she has ever believed. The problem came when she began to despair that she could not maintain this sensation all the time. Everyday life now felt dull and unpurposeful; all she wanted was to re-enter that state of blissful union. She became miserably unhappy.

Suzuki-roshi, too, lectures again and again about not becoming attached to enlightenment or special states. The message seems to be coming loud and clear from many directions.

I like the fact that the poet in this story has "right attitude" - for me, poetry has always been very Zen. It is a crystallization of the now, a nugget of beauty or surprise, a sigh, or simply one deep breath.

So, here is a breath for you, by Zen poet Saigyo:

Every single thing
Changes and is changing
Always in this world.
Yet with the same light
The moon goes on shining.

Friday, October 9, 2009

That's How the Light Gets In

I was listening to Leonard Cohen's Greatest Hits album, and I heard this line in the song Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.

I hit the repeat button, and played the song a couple more times. That's it - there is a crack in everything. Forget being perfect. Nothing is perfect. The world is not perfect. I, most certainly, am not perfect. But rather than despair over that, as I am wont to do...this song says to celebrate it, be glad for it, rejoice. That's how the light gets in.

If you had told me, at age fifteen, what the next thirty years would hold for me, I would have said, "No, thanks. That sounds like one helluva ride that I am not about to go on. I have other plans." It's been a messy life, one full of bumps and stumbles, grief and loss, seemingly unendurable suffering. There have been, of course, good things, too. Beautiful, shining moments. But much of the time I was wandering and lost. And my pain was also heartbreaking to those who loved me, as they helplessly stood by and watched my relentless stubbornness, my cataclysmic collapses and long periods of mute retreat.

But here I am. Amazingly, still alive. Astoundingly, open hearted. Miraculously, rendered whole by the very things which I felt were splitting me apart.

And now, if I were to talk to that fifteen year old self, I would say: It's going to get rough. It won't always be pretty. But oh, the view, once you get there!

Not, of course, that I am "here" to stay. I'm sure there are more surprises ahead. Finally, though, I am in a place where I can actually feel tremendous gratitude for all of that living, that struggle, that cracked me open, to let the light come in.

Leonard Cohen - rock on!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Kitten Bodhisattva

Kenji the kitten, now five months old, came into our lives as a Bodhisattva, a call for compassion. In June, my partner Sabrina was on her way to work a graveyard shift at the plant, and stopped to buy groceries for dinner. In the parking lot, she heard a kitten mewling. A teen-age boy, skateboard nearby, was sitting on a pile of potting soil bags, near tears, with a kitten in his lap. Sabrina went up to ask what was wrong. In a quavering voice, he said, "Some lady just asked me to hold this kitten, and then she disappeared. I can't bring him home, and I'm afraid he's going to get killed if I leave him here. I don't know what to do."

At that moment, I was driving home from a week at Tassajara, where I had been studying dana paramita, "the perfection of giving." It was my first visit to Tassajara, and I was still blissed out. I had just reached a point in my drive where I had cell phone reception again, and called to check in with Sabrina. "Hi, how was your week?" To which she grumpily replied, "I have a kitten in my truck." Now, Sabrina will never turn down any animal in distress. If she could, she would bring them all home. But, this was unplanned - and we already had four cats, three dogs and a parrot. The house was full. And the animal shelter was closed for the night.

I said, "Bring him to work. We'll figure it out from there." I was feeling generous, magnanimous. Finding some little creature that needed love and tending seemed like the perfect end to a wonderful week. It just felt right. As I neared Santa Rosa, I realized I wasn't that far from the plant in Sebastopol, so I called again. "I'll come by and get him, so you don't have to worry about this all night." So, by 11 p.m., I was driving home with a tiny, precious, squawling five-week-old kitten.

The original plan was to take him to the shelter the next day, or find him some adoptive parents. Of course, after one night of feeding and cuddling, cooing and coddling, there was no way that kitten was ever going to go any place else. He was home.

It seemed fitting that he have a Japanese name, since I was en route from Tassajara when we first met. I named him Kenji, after a little boy who was one of my neighbors in Osaka. Every time I hold him, I am reminded of dana paramita: the spirit of generosity, the heeding of the call to compassion. He is my little Bodhisattva, in feline form. Every ounce of him is a lesson in being present, in awakening, in thereness. We saved him; now he is saving us.

Yesterday I was in the shower, soaping my face. When I opened my eyes, there he was - in the shower, water sprinkling over his head as he blinked up at me. Ah, yes! Laughter and love are good for the soul.

Upcoming Schedule, Oct. 10 and 13

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, Oct. 10

9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:35 a.m. dharma talk by Darlene Cohen and tea
(topic: how Zen forms enrich our lives)

12:30 p.m. Precepts Class

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Oct. 13

7 p.m. sit, service, and dharma talk by Darlene Cohen

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Thoughts on Utopia

Two years ago, the women's literary journal Sinister Wisdom invited me to submit work for a theme issue they were planning on the topic of utopia. I felt flattered to be asked, and wanted to honor the request, so spent several weeks asking myself these questions: "What is utopia? Is it possible? How do I envision it?"

I finally drafted a poem about my imaginings of a perfect day. As much as I worked on it, though, it was dry and lifeless. It had no spark, no la chispa or creative ember, as writer Clarissa Pinkola-Estes refers to it. What was missing? Then my closest friend, also a writer, looked it over for me. And she said, "It's missing the dark side."

I knew immediately she was right. There was no shadow here, no imperfection, no texture. I tackled the poem once again, adding in all the elements that I had purposefully left out the first time: the moments of doubt, the life and death struggles in the animal world, the sharing of a friend's pain. Instead of a utopian ideal, it became something real, reachable. I did not call the poem "The Perfect Day" - I named it "The Good Day." Because, I realized, thanks to the wisdom of my friend, thanks to the time spent at the writing desk...that is what I want, just a good day, one with all aspects of life, the suffering as well as the joy, the hurt as well as the healing.

Here is my version of utopia - life on life's terms.

The Good Day

Your alarm sounds first. I hear shower water,
doze, then feel your soft lips on my cheek,
saying good-bye just for now, as you head off
for another round of belabored union talks.

In morning’s filtered light, I make coffee,
scoop earth-dark grounds, add water,
fill the kitchen with aromas of two worlds,
home and a distant Guatemalan plantation.

Sipping from my cup, I gather three bowls,
serve breakfast to the other early risers in the house,
my knees bumped by wagging tails as dogs
circle, always famished, always fed.

I peel damp sheets off the bed
after summer night’s heat, float new linens
softly through the air, smooth coolness
into each crisp corner, tuck and straighten.

Picking up pen and notepad, I sit down
with yesterday’s perfect metaphor. It falls flat.
Scratch it out, roll new sounds around
on my tongue, picture the polished poem.

A blue belly lizard skitters under the couch
and across my toes, its tail sacrificed to the cat.
I can save this one, scoop the wriggling body up in warm hands
and release it to the relative safety of the rosemary bush.

The garden needs water. I pace between verdant rows,
touch thigh high corn, spy new potatoes poking
through rich soil, brush bugs off jalapeño plants,
watch the leaves unfurl as moisture seeps into the ground.

The dogs bark at the mail truck. We trot together
to the box at the end of the driveway.
I finger through bills, down to the surprise of a postcard
from Puerto Vallarta, friends on vacation, hola.

Back in the cool of my office, I escape to India,
taste chutney in the kitchen of a novel,
prepare for a Hindu wedding while parsing
each paragraph with the eyes of a poet.

The phone rings. A friend struggles with her marriage’s end,
asking for answers. I make my words a mirror
of her own wisdom, know I cannot predict
what will grow in someone else’s garden.

The mercury keeps rising. I fill the wading pool
with fresh water, call the dogs, take off my shoes and splash,
dodge and play, adding the outline of my feet
to the damp paw prints scattered across the deck.

Hungry, I open the crisper and pull out fresh
broccoli, asparagus, heirloom tomatoes.
I rinse soft tofu, slice and toss the medley into an iron skillet,
ready to sauté as you come in the door.

You say the union may strike. With good food
and love, I try to soothe the day’s tensions,
listen to the details of conflict with management,
provide a haven from the stress of the world.

We wash the dishes by hand, and move to separate corners
of the house. You unwind with a book about dragons,
and I open up the past in my journal, look for healing,
remind myself I am now safe and almost whole.

At day’s end, you and I savor one more cup of coffee,
watch the full moon spotlight nearby vineyards,
bittersweet sphere that shone on my father’s last night
two years ago, his hand in mine, my other hand in yours.

I turn back fresh sheets, snuggle in close to you.
Touch turns to passion, and we merge our two histories,
create a third that is ours, both bound and free.
When I cry out in my sleep, you will be right here.

dedicated to Sabrina, with thanks to Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Published Winter 2007-08, Sinister Wisdom

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Physical Challenges of Sitting

Since the beginning of my sitting practice, what has been most challenging for me is the physical aspect of zazen. Most of the time, I am mentally able to sit fairly easily. I enjoy the quiet, and feel refreshed after a sit period.

But I struggle with my body. My feet go numb, and tingly. I worry that the sit period will end, and I will be unable to stand to do kinhin, the walking meditation. So I am forced to move, once, sometimes twice, to allow the blood to recirculate in my limbs.

I resist it. It seems that I should not have to move, not have to interrupt my zazen to respond to this physical demand of my body. I have tried numerous tactics: tightening and loosening my buttocks, flexing and curling my toes. But still, my legs fall asleep. Still, I must succumb to this uncooperative body of mine.

At all-day sits, the physical challenges become even more noticeable. There is the persistent problem with my feet falling asleep, now accompanied by a steadily growing pain in my back as the day progresses. For at least one of the afternoon sit periods, I am in agony, unable to get comfortable.

I beat myself up about it. I think it is a reflection on my practice. I think it is an indicator that I am not a "good" Zen student. It makes the noise in my head get louder and more obtrusive.

But still, I persist. I continue to attend the all-day sits. I no longer have "scheduling conflicts" when my Tuesday night sangha plans a double sit instead of a dharma talk. I show up.

And I have found that, as is so often the case, my recalcitrant body, stubbornly resisting my efforts to control it, has become a gentle teacher. I cannot master this situation through will alone. I am forced to come face to face with my limitations, my imperfections. The only way to silence that critic in my head is to be gentle with myself, to quietly sit as long as I can, and then give myself permission to move.

I am slowly coming to realize that "good" zazen is simply zazen: however it manifests itself, it shows me who I am, where I am. Begrudgingly, I am even coming to the realization that I am thankful it does not come easily for me. I am so attached to seeing myself as a "good student," that were I to have perfect, uninterrupted zazen, I would be feeding that delusion, that striving and attaining. Instead, I am given this reminder: I have limits; I am a beginner.

So, imperfections and all, tingly feet and all, critical mind and all: I sit.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Procrustean Bed

There is a Greek myth about a man named Procrustes. He invites travellers in for a good meal, and a restful night's sleep, in his special bed which he claims exactly fits whoever sleeps in it. However, the bed is a trap. If the person is too small for the bed, Procrustes stretches him on a rack until he fits. If he is too large, Procrustes lops off the hands and feet that extend past the frame.

A Procrustean bed is a metaphor for making a person fit the form, instead of finding a form to fit the person. Zen, of course, is filled with forms: the proper way to sit, the bows, the chanting in service. But blindly adhering to the forms for form's sake is not Zen, I don't think. Each one of us is an individual, and we bring our own needs, desires, weaknesses, strengths to the practice.

One of the things I love about the teachings at Russian River Zendo is the permission to do zazen as it works for you. If you cannot sit in lotus position, sit cross legged. If you cannot sit on the floor, use a chair. If your back will not permit sitting in a chair, then lie down. No matter how different each person's "sitting" may look, it is still zazen, as long as the intention is clear.

But having some forms, some guidelines, keeps us centered, so we can find that self expression. Suzuki-roshi talks about expressing yourself fully in Not Always So. He says:

It is a big mistake to think that the best way to express yourself is to do whatever you want, acting however you please. This is not expressing yourself...If you know what to do exactly, and you do it, you can express yourself fully.

That is why we follow forms. You may think that you cannot express yourself within a particular form, but when we are all practicing together, strong people will express themselves in a strong way and kind people will express themselves kindly...The differences among you are easy to see because the form is the same.

Later in the same book, Suzuki-roshi continues:

Zazen will become your own zazen, and as you are Buddha, you will express your true nature in various ways. That is freedom from the forms of practice. Whatever you do, you will really be you. You will be Buddha, in its true sense.

This is what initially drew me to Zen practice: the sense that here was a place that had room, a place where I could be myself. I love the forms. I love chanting, and full bows, and lighting incense. I love the sound of the bells and the drums. But I also love that no one has to do anything they're not comfortable with, and that anyone can modify their own participation to fit where they are at that particular moment. I love the fact that Zen teachers say, "You know your own truth better than anyone else."

Zen is no Procrustean bed. Instead, it is a way station for the weary traveller that offers beds of every possible size, a unique resting spot for each individual. And there is always room.


To anyone out there reading: Comments are welcome! I'd love to have your input, either responding to topics I have brought up, or sharing your own experiences with Zen and Buddhism. Write!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Shaved Heads

A couple of months ago, I started shaving my head again. I've always worn my hair short, except when I was a little girl and had no choice, and briefly in high school, when I succumbed to peer pressure. But shaving it is something more recent. I did it the first time about twelve years ago. I don't even remember what inspired me at the time - I just went to a hair salon, asked them to set the clippers at one, and said, "Take it all off."

It is one of the most liberating things I have ever done. I now completely understand why monks and nuns do it. Hair is one of those links to the material world, to the realm of appearances. Even when you wear it short, you have to worry about it - will it get plastered to your head if it rains? Will it get tangled in a knot if you ride in a convertible? Will your baseball cap, once on, have to stay on, because now you have hat head? Do you absolutely have to take a shower in the morning, even if you just took one before going to bed, because otherwise your hair will be sticking straight up? And long hair - oh, my goodness. Blow driers and curling irons and permanents and appointments at the salon. No, thank you.

I shaved it for several years. During part of that time, I lived in a shared house with six other roommates, one of whom was a talented acrylic painter and also a hair stylist. He had a salon chair in his room, and friends came over for dye jobs and hair cuts. He began shaving my head for me every few weeks. By that time, I had completely lost attachment to hair as identity, which left me open to all kinds of crazy experiments. One time he gave me two little parallel mohawks down the center of my head. Another time he shaved spiralling lines, then dyed them bleached blonde, so when my hair grew out, I had this amazing pattern. Whenever he did a dye job, and had dye left over, he'd just call out, "Hey, Michelle. Want to try something?" I had cherry red hair, skateboarder bleached orange hair, ash blonde, black. Then four or five weeks later, we'd just shave it off and start again. Call it a unique way to practice nonpreference. When I moved out, I reverted to the simple shaved head. But all fear about "What will I look like?" was gone.

Being a woman with a shaved head does sometimes draw some interesting attention. This past weekend, wearing a ball cap and my usual Converse sneakers/cargo shorts/sweatshirt attire, an elderly woman stopped me at the door to a restroom with a loud admonishment: "You can't go in there. This is the ladies' room." When I am very thin, as I have been in the past, people sometimes think I'm sick -cancer, or AIDS. Now that I am in the Zen community, I have had people ask if I am a priest. People do a double-take when they see me, trying to figure out gender, trying to discern reasons. That's the downside, I guess. I'm not really thrilled about the extra scrutiny. But not even that can dampen the liberation I feel every time I cut it all off.

So much is about context. My partner Sabrina has been doing the honors for the past few months, coming out on the deck with clippers in hand every two weeks to shave my head. Last week, midway through, she paused. "This is so weird," she said. "I'm reading that book about Auschwitz right now, and I just read the part about the prisoners having their heads shaved."

Sabrina just recently discovered that a huge percentage of her extended family, relatives that her mother had never talked about, perished in Poland in the death camps. On our vacation to New Mexico in August, we drove to El Paso to see a Holocaust museum, which was chilling and powerful. Since we returned home, she has been immersing herself in Holocaust literature.

Amazing, isn't it? That the same act, shaving hair, can be a statement of complete personal freedom and refusal to conform in one context, and a shaming, dehumanizing violation in another.

As the Hsin Hsin Ming says: Nothing is separate and nothing in the world is excluded.

It is both, it is neither. It is all, it is nothing. I simply shave my head.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

No Self, No Other

At Russian River Zendo today, Darlene gave a dharma talk about interconnectedness, the most basic of Buddhist principles. When Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and suddenly saw the world as it really was, the moment of enlightenment that was the foundation of Buddhism centered on his insight that there is no separation, no self and no other. This transformative "seeing" forever changes the way one perceives everything.

In Zen, it is expressed in terms of "form" (separateness, definition, differentiation) and "emptiness" (all things united without boundaries, nothing but everything, one is two and two is one).

To explore this point, Darlene spoke about a Deepak Chopra article in a recent edition of the San Franciso Chronicle which dealt with the concept of "social contagion." Harvard researchers have found something interesting: if Person A is overweight, smokes or gets sick, his or her family and friends (Persons B) have a 50 percent chance of exhibiting the same behavior. Not too surprising; we all know how peer pressure and social environment works. But here's where it gets trickier: Person C, who knows Person B but not Person A, also has an increased chance of showing those behaviors, about 20 percent. So it can skip a link. According to the data, a friend of a friend can influence your health habits. Chopra claims this is suggestive of invisible connectors, showing we are affected by people we don't even know.

I must admit, I immediately want to punch holes in this argument. A statistical trend only shows how many people and which people this holds true for. It does not supply that most critical piece of data: what causes it? I can think of one explanation that completely takes the "wow, that's eerie" element out of the equation. Let's say I'm Person A, and I am overweight. Now, supposedly, everyone I know has a 50 percent greater likelihood to be overweight. Okay so far. But remove that one step - everyone who knows my friends and family (but not me) has a 20 percent greater chance of becoming or being overweight. It seems to me there is a simple rationale here. People who are my friends and family, through their relationship with me, have exposure to someone who is overweight, and so are more likely to tolerate that condition in someone else in their lives. So, the chances they will have other friends who are overweight is slightly elevated (that 20 percent).

In other words, there is no mysterious link between overweight Person A and possibly overweight Person C. It might simply be that Person A's friends and family, because they're used to accepting him or her in their lives despite weight issues, will not shun another potential friend because they are heavy. The Harvard researchers may have stumbled upon something, but I'm not sure it will help them deal very effectively with troubling health behaviors.

But, leaving that aside for the moment, let's get back to the Bodhi tree. Even my new explanation about the behaviors reinforces the principle of interconnectedness. Instead of explaining health behaviors, it suggests our attitudes towards each other can have far-reaching ramifications in terms of options and choices we consider. That I find very comforting. Maybe "doing the right thing" for the environment, or social justice, does actually affect the rest of the world, even though it doesn't feel like that on most days.

There is something that runs through all of us, through all of nature, through every thought and feeling and sensation we have, that ties us together. I do believe that my behavior at any given moment sends a ripple undulating through everything around me, animate and inanimate. That never changes. The only thing that fluctuates is whether or not I notice it - whether or not I am paying attention.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Doing What You Love

Tonight the local writing group that I am a member of in Cloverdale held a public reading of our work at the Arts Alliance Gallery in town. We are a diverse group: poets, memoirists, novelists, children's fiction writers, penners of short stories. We have been meeting together monthly for the past three years, to peer critique our work, offer encouragement, and simply provide impetus for the task of sitting down at the desk, pen in hand.

About three times a year, we invite the public into our space, and share what we have been working on. It is always magical. There is something profoundly moving and deeply satisfying about reading your own words out loud, having people laugh at all the right moments, or eliciting a group sigh after an evocative image in a poem. It does two things for me - it makes me feel an even stronger connection to the other women in my group, and it solidifes for me my identity as a writer. It makes me think: "I am that."

Writing is something I always wanted to do, but I was timid. I didn't trust myself. I began my first novel when I was ten. My first rejection letters, from Highlights Magazine, are glued into a childhood scrapbook. Even then, I thought of myself as a writer. But at 16, I took a creative writing class in high school, where I wrote a collection of insipid, sophomoric, sentimental poems. I knew they were terrible. I vowed never to write another poem again.

I veered off in the direction of journalism, working for my high school and college newspapers. I thought it would be my career. Again, a detour. My lack of self confidence and a series of disastrous relationships pushed me into survival mode, and I ended up working for a number of years as a legal secretary, paralegal, and administrative assistant. It was not at all where I wanted to be, but I didn't have the courage, or the belief in myself, to go somewhere else. So I just got by, paying the bills, and let my writing life exist only as a fantasy, never acted upon.

About 15 years ago, I took a writing class in San Francisco with poet and essayist Thea Sullivan on "Finding Your Voice." To my surprise, everything I wrote came out in the form of a poem. "But I'm not a poet!" I said to Thea. To which she replied, "Apparently, you are." I gave in. I began writing poems.

For a long time, I kept them to myself. Gradually, I began showing up at open mic nights to read one short piece. My voice trembled; my hands shook. I kept writing, but sporadically, aimlessly. I still had so much fear, fear that I wasn't good enough, fear that I would hurt someone if I told the truth, fear that no one would believe me or listen to what I had to say. But I kept taking the occasional workshop. I went back to the field of journalism, not quite the creative place I wanted to be in, but much, much closer. I began telling people I was a poet.

Finally, three years ago, I decided I needed to act, now, this minute, jump in. I began looking for a writing group. Of course, you know how the universe works when you're ready. It just happened a Cloverdale writing group was forming right at that moment. I was in on it from the start. It has been a place of incredible support and inspiration, because all of us have grown as writers, and as public readers. Tonight's successful event is a testament to that. I write poems, I write short stories, I write essays. And I read my words aloud, and a roomful of people listens.

And now, at home in my office, the glow of the reading still rests on me. I am, finally, doing what I love. Sitting at my desk, night after night, my fingers tapping rapidly over the keyboard. I am a writer. I am a writer!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Wild Strawberries

You've heard the Zen story about being chased by a ravenous tiger? You're running away, and the tiger is right behind you, and you come to a cliff. The only way to escape is to lower yourself off the side of the cliff, and hang from a vine. So you're hanging there, and you look below into the valley, and two more ravenous tigers are waiting. And then a little mouse comes along, and begins gnawing at your vine. Just at that moment, you notice a wild strawberry growing near by. You reach out, and pop it into your mouth. How delicious!

And that's what life is. Learning to appreciate the strawberry, even though we're all hanging from a vine that's about to give way, sending us tumbling down to the hungry tigers.

One of my favorite authors is Marilynne Robinson. Her first novel was "Housekeeping," the story of two young girls who are orphaned when their mother commits suicide. They are then raised by an eccentric aunt, who would rather be hopping a train. It's fabulous.

There is one scene from the novel that has always remained in my mind. Early on, the girls' mother leaves them with their grandmother, and goes for a drive, not to return. Here are Robinson's words:

They searched for her. Word was sent out a hundred miles in every direction to watch for a young woman in a car which I said was blue and Lucille said was green. Some boys who had been fishing and knew nothing about the search had come across her sitting cross-legged on the roof of the car, which had bogged down in the meadow between the road and the cliff. They said she was gazing at the lake and eating wild strawberries, which were prodigiously large and abundant that year. She asked them very pleasantly to help her push her car out of the mud, and they went so far as to put their blankets and coats under the wheels to facilitate her rescue. When they got the Ford back to the road she thanked them, gave them her purse, rolled down the rear windows, started the car, turned the wheel as far to the right as it would go, and roared swerving and sliding across the meadow until she sailed off the edge of the cliff.

For a moment, if you can, set aside your judgments about committing suicide. Because I have been in my own moments of great darkness, I know only too well what it is like to consider that option. What strikes me about this passage is the incredible beauty of that moment: a young woman sitting on the roof of her car looking out over the lake eating strawberries. She knows she is about to die. The fact that her death is of her own choosing is irrelevant. It is a purely Zen moment. When it is the last thing that you are going to experience in this life, sit with the wind in your hair, spray from the lake moistening your face, imagine how exquisite those strawberries must taste.

Whenever I remember this scene, it makes me hold my breath. To live each moment as if it was my last. Each taste, each smell, each sound, each touch...fully present. Ah, yes. The strawberries!