Monday, November 30, 2009

The Wisdom of Slippers

Sometimes cultural misunderstanding can be as simple as a pair of shoes.

A while ago, I met two women who had spent a week doing a homestay with a family in Japan the previous year. The women explained to me that during the visit, as they entered the house, or the garden, or the toilet room, there were always slippers placed on the floor. Their hosts instructed them to slip out of one pair and into another as they ventured around the house and yard.

The alarming frequency of slipper donning and removal soon had the guests completely bewildered. They were constantly wearing the wrong slippers into the toilet, or forgetting to shed the toilet slippers when back in the house. The hosts were beside themselves, trying to explain in broken English the proper time and place for each kind of footgear. And whenever the guests made an uncorrectable error – that pair of slippers ended up in the trash.

My friends laughingly told the story about their complete inability to adopt a custom which, to their Japanese hosts, seemed simple enough for a child.

Having lived in Japan for a long enough period of time, I shared the wronged sensibilities of the Japanese hosts. It is a very basic rule. The world outside of the home is dirty. Shoes that you wear on the street should never, never come into the house. That rule is absolute. Not even construction workers or moving crews violate it. When two men moved a piano into my home, they picked up the piano in the street with their shoes on, and, balancing it on their backs with straps, paused in the doorway long enough to remove their shoes before stepping into my foyer. Once the piano was in place, they slipped back into their waiting shoes and were gone. In the house, it was acceptable to wear house slippers. But those were not to be confused with toilet slippers. You had to slip out of the house slippers, put on the cheap plastic slippers meant only for the toilet room, use the facilities, then step out of those slippers and back into the house slippers. And if there was an inner garden...well, there was probably another row of slippers to put on to wear in the yard.

When I was first trying to rent an apartment in Kyoto, I had several instances where I was initially told there was a vacancy, and then suddenly informed that the apartment was taken. The rapid change occurred when the landlords discovered that I was an American. Or really, not a Japanese. At first, I took great offense, thinking it was clear and absolute discrimination. But later, after talking to a Japanese friend, I found out the truth: landlords were afraid that a foreigner would ruin the floor in the apartment, since they had no concept of slippers and such.
Once I discovered the fear, I was able to alleviate it. I met with the potential landlord, explained (in Japanese) that I understood Japanese customs, and professed complete understanding of the shoe issue. The floor was sacred ground, as far as I was concerned. As if by magic, I found that the previously occupied apartment was now vacant, and I was given a warm welcome, with no further problems.

Thinking back on all of this, it makes me wonder how often a simple difference in custom creates seemingly insurmountable barriers between different groups of people. If shoes can lead to housing discrimination, imagine what a difference in religious beliefs might stir up?

It has served as a gentle lesson for me. When faced with behavior that I do not understand when traveling or when coming up against other cultures in my own country, I try first to observe instead of passing judgment. Often, sitting quietly and watching, or opening dialogue, has left me with a new understanding of the situation. You could call it the wisdom of slippers.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sewing with Worry Brain

Today I finished the patchwork face of my rakusu. I am amazed that I have come this far - it actually looks the way it is supposed to look, which is nothing short of a miracle, given my past history with sewing.

I missed the last two weeks of sewing group, first because our teacher Connie was out of town, and then because I was home tending to my little dog Houla. At our last session before that break, I was "ahead" - keeping pace with one other student, I was farthest along on the project.

But the missed time meant that now I am more in the middle of the pack, with three people significantly deeper into the sewing. While I was concentrating on my final vertical seams on the front piece this afternoon, I was overhearing the instructions they were receiving on the next steps, and I often glanced in their direction to see what was in my near future. They were marking and cutting the frame, pinning and sewing the frame, measuring the white fabric that will lie on the reverse side.

Two things happened: one, I didn't like being "behind." As much as I knew it was silly, as much as I know this is not a race, I love being "ahead." That's a very, very old habit, and one which is definitely in need of revision, so it's probably excellent practice for me to lag behind. In fact, I should stay behind for the rest of the classes, just to work on sitting with that uncomfortable feeling.

The second thing was this - I began to stew and fret about the future steps. They looked hard; I didn't fully comprehend what others were doing. It seemed like I would not be able to execute the tasks when it came time.

What's comical about this is that when I was "ahead," I wasn't worried at all. Because I had absolutely no idea what was coming next, I had no reason to worry about it. I simply did the very simple tasks Connie set before me, one at a time. Now, suddenly, because I am aware of the progression of the building of the rakusu, I am starting to stiffen up with fear and feelings of inadequacy. I'm looking five steps ahead and thinking, "I can't do that!"

What a great metaphor for staying in the moment! When there was no future, I had no worry, and I was completely competent, with "beginner's mind" fully intact. As soon as a future appeared, I began to fret, and "expert mind" took over, leaving me feeling absolutely stymied.

A young friend of mine, age eleven, has been learning for the last several years to deal with obsessive compulsive disorder. She calls the two voices in her head "Bossy Brain" and "Worry Brain." "Bossy Brain" tells her to do things, like wash her hands over and over again, or turn on all the lights in the house. "Worry Brain" is the voice of anxiety, creating tension over imagined negative outcomes of things that are off in the future. When she feels herself succumbing to one of these voices, she talks to herself: "Now, that's just 'Worry Brain.' Summer camp will probably be really fun. I'm not going to listen to you, 'Worry Brain.'"

Today, I realized, I was sewing with "Worry Brain." As soon as those words came into my head, I laughed to myself. Ah, I recognize you! I gave "Worry Brain" a little talking to, quietly coaxed "beginner's mind" to come up out of hiding, and got back to work.

So goes the sewing. Life lessons with every stitch.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ready for the End of November

In the six years that I have been with my partner, Sabrina, we have noticed an unfortunate pattern: disaster seems to strike during the month of November.

Or at least in that vicinity. It started our first year together, when I lost my father to lymphoma on Oct. 30. The first week of November all eight of my siblings and their families came to stay at my parents' home, while we prepared for the funeral together. It was a time of incredible pain, because my father was in many ways the glue that held all of us together.

Shortly after the funeral, Sabrina was scheduled to go on a working cruise trip with her friend Jacqua - Jacqua gives informational talks on board ship, Sabrina acts as her technical support person, and they travel at no cost. They generally go on at least one trip each year.

Right before their departure, our rescue greyhound Mocha attacked one of our cats, nearly killing him. Ziggy went in for emergency surgery, and then came home to be tended by me, since Sabrina was leaving. While she was away, his condition worsened, and I had to make the decision to have him put down. So there I was, barely two weeks after holding my father's hand while he took his last breath, holding one of our pets in my arms until his body went limp.

Since that time, it seems as if many of the hard things wait for that time of year, when it's cold and the days are short. We have had pet emergencies, crises with friends, difficulties at work, all coming up around this time.

So now this year, we started early with the parrot scare on Oct. 23, when Barney fell off his cage and chipped off the end of his beak, ending with an emergency late-night trip to the vet. Then Sabrina left on another cruise, and our dog Houla had the lens luxation eye crisis, which ended in having the eye removed last week. The same night that I was rushing Houla to the hospital at UC Davis, a close friend called to tell me that her father had died.

Sabrina returned home on Monday, and I took a deep breath of relief. It felt like things were getting back to normal. We'd make it through. Then this afternoon, as we were brewing a fresh pot of coffee,we heard a loud thump and a screech. We ran into the living room, where Barney was sprawled on the floor with his left leg held at an awkward angle. We both thought he had broken it. Again, the adrenaline rush - again, on a Saturday, when there are no bird vets on call. Again, November!

As luck would have it, it appears that the fall was simply painful, and the damage more akin to hitting the funny bone than breaking anything, because Barney seems to have recovered and has been acting normally for the last several hours.

But - enough already! Sabrina turned to me and said, "I'm done with November."

I'm sure there's nothing to this, really. When you look for patterns, you can see them anywhere. We have a houseful of furred and feathered children; somebody's always getting into mischief, and accidents do happen. And having eight brothers and sisters, plus untold nieces, nephews, aunts, cousins, etc. - the odds are pretty good that something will go wrong somewhere almost every month.

I am not, though, immune to superstition. Right now, I am crossing my fingers that we get through the last two days of November in one piece.

Upcoming Schedule, Dec. 1-5 and Beyond

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Dec. 1

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

Upcoming Closures: Tuesday, Dec. 29 (the week between Christmas and New Year's)

Special Ceremony: On Tuesday, Dec. 22, a special Bodhisattva Ceremony will be held.

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, Dec. 5

9 a.m. informal sit and service

10 a.m. formal sit

10:35 a.m. dharma talk by Tony Patchell and tea

12:30 p.m. Precepts Class

Upcoming Closures:

Saturday, Dec. 12 (for sesshin at Black Mountain Center)

Saturday, Dec. 26 (for Christmas)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Creating Beauty from Katrina

Yesterday I finished reading Barb Johnson's collection of stories, More of This World or Maybe Another. Barb was the recipient this year of the A Room of Her Own (AROHO) Foundation's Gift of Freedom award, a $50,000 grant given to a deserving woman writer so she could practice her craft without financial worries.

I attended the AROHO women's writing retreat in August, and Barb was an invited guest. She read from her new collection (just published this October), part of a short story called The Invitation. It was funny and wise and sweet, and uniquely told in her voice. I couldn't wait to read the rest of the book.

Barb is from New Orleans. She grew up in a small town in Louisiana, and eventually ended up in the big city, working for 20 years as a carpenter. At some point along the way, she realized she had stories to tell, and enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program.

Barb brings to life the women and men and children of Louisiana, in all their specificity, with regional color and gorgeous description, peopling a world in her pages. What is truly remarkable is that she wrote the book in the wake of Katrina. Although the storm is not mentioned in the stories, the writing of it took place living on her apartment's balcony, surrounded by the hurricane's aftermath. She speaks of how beautiful it was at night:

The darkness provided a relief from the visual assault that went with life in the daylight: debris everywhere, pieces of my neighbors' lives sitting in the middle of the street, animals that hadn't made it through the storm.

Every day, National Guard patrols would drive by, and say to her, "Ma' can't be here. This neighborhood hasn't been okayed for occupancy." And I'd say, "Yes, I know." Then they'd wave and drive off, and I'd go back to writing."

In an afterword to her book, she said:

Anyone who was in the city at that time was starving for something normal - seeing a neighbor, walking the dog, sitting down to a meal with friends. Writing was the only thing I did after the storm that I'd done before it. It was normal. Having to write under those circumstances banished forever any notion that things had to be a certain way - neat desk, good coffee, agreeable temperature - in order for me to write.

And the result of that labor, produced on a laptop on a balcony in the midst of hurricane disaster, is this beautiful book. What a metaphor for what art can be!

Sitting and working at my neat desk, with the heat on, a roof over my head, coffee brewing in the next room, I know that there will never again be a valid excuse for not being able to write. The words do not rely on perfect conditions. All that is required is showing up.

A Bolt of Gratitude

Since it's Thanksgiving (or at least, it was until midnight, which wasn't too long ago), it seems that gratitude is the most obvious topic this evening/early a.m.

About six months ago, I had a gratitude moment so transformative, so intense, that I feel it must have been some kind of "Wake up!" shout, a call of transitory enlightenment.

It started out simply enough. I was sitting on the deck having a cup of coffee, smoking a cigarette. As I sat there with my coffee mug in my hand, I became aware of the heft and weight of it. I began to look closely at the cup - one we had purchased in Mexico a couple of years ago, made by an artisan there, with coyotes and cactus painted on the outside. I realized I loved the mug - everything about it - the memories, the connection with my partner Sabrina, the design and texture and feel of it. I loved my coffee cup.

With that moment of love, I cracked open. Things started coming to mind, one after another, things that I loved: the clothes line Sabrina hung up for me last summer when I was wanting to "go green;" my bike messenger bag from Timbuk2; the work we've done on our house over the past two years; the trees surrounding the back side of our property, and the vineyard/valley views in the other direction.

The list kept growing. Everything I thought of, I loved - from the wooden Buddha on my altar to the art hanging in my home office. From the inanimate, my love moved to the breathing beings in my life: my faithful yellow lab Ripley; Houla and Teo (dogs), Gordy, Dozer, Idgie, Kenji and Bailey (cats); and Barney the parrot. Then on to my partner, then to my best friend, then to other friends, then to co-workers. Bigger and bigger and bigger - my heart opened wider with each thought.

I was grateful for the present. I was grateful for the past. And for the first time, in a profoundly deep way, I was humbled with gratitude that I was still alive to experience all of this. Given my path, which has included multiple suicide attempts, my being here at all is nothing short of miraculous.

The gratitude experience was a complete, whole body manifestation of emotion, something which continued to build for several hours. Eventually, it began to subside, and by the next day, it was gone.

Gone, but not forgotten. I managed to avoid the desire to retain that altered state, thank goodness. Instead, I felt truly blessed to have experienced it, and amazed that although it has ended, I can remember exactly what it felt like, and through that memory, I can at least return to the consciousness of it all whenever I want to, even though it might not be with the exact same emotional charge.

So today, my first Thanksgiving since that day - I am taking time out to remember. And it feels good.

May you find deep gratitude for your life this week.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Blogging into Troubled Waters

There's an article in the winter issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review called Dharma Wars. In it, Zenshin Michael Haederle examines a disturbing trend - Buddhist teachers letting loose with slanderous diatribes on internet blogs.

Apparently, among the many Buddhist bloggers out in cyberspace, there are those who get a little caught up in the game, attacking writers who they feel "misrepresent" the dharma, challenging those who cross them, and, in general, exhibiting behavior startlingly inappropriate for those who supposedly are pursuing enlightenment.

I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise that this is occurring. In Haederle's article, he quotes psychology professor John Suler, who refers to the "online disinhibition effect," saying, "People experience their computers and online environments as an extension of their selves - even as an extension of their minds - therefore feel free to project their inner dialogues, transferences, and conflicts into their exchanges with others in cyberspace."

When chat rooms were first becoming popular, I spent some time checking them out, popping into various spaces to meet online friends. I lucked out, and hooked up with a couple of "real" people, who I had ongoing conversations with over a period of several months. But I quickly learned that the general fare in chat rooms was superficial at best, and juvenile and malicious at worst. I tired of the open room exchanges, and limited myself to one-on-one cyber relationships.

As a journalist, I was equally interested when newspapers began creating online formats, with room for readers to weigh in on the latest news stories. But I was appalled at what I found in the comments section. It seemed to be a forum specifically for the venting of bigoted, hateful, insensitive rants, which soon escalated into back-and-forth name calling. I still read news online - but I don't go near the comments. I have no desire to invite that kind of behavior into my home.

So far, my own blogging experience has been free of the posturing and bullying that Haederle talks about, but that's probably because I have only a handful of readers, most of whom have some actual connection to me through sangha or other friendships.

I suppose the day that I get my first nasty comment will be a coup of sorts, a sign that my readership has grown to the point that I am garnering more attention.

But I can't say I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Starting Out Perfect

Shunryu Suzuki told a group of Zen students: All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.

It's a beautifully simple way to express a Buddhist truth - each one of us is a manifestation of Buddha nature. Yes, there are things we should work on: being more open hearted, practicing generosity, avoiding slanderous talk, calming the mind, taming aggressive thought. But don't lose track of the grandeur of the forest while focusing on all the life-scarred trees.

In Pema Chodron's lecture series, Practicing Peace in Times of War, she mentions this quote from Suzuki. Taking it further, in a conversation with her own Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chodron asks, What is the one thing you would recommend to Westerners pursuing this path? Her teacher's reply: Guiltlessness.

Chodron's teacher said Westerners get caught up in the shame cycle, which serves no one. He said we all act badly, repeatedly - but that is ephemeral, fleeting, impermanent. What is constant and true lies underneath all of that. Our innocent original nature.

It's the old question: Is the glass half empty or half full? Does it matter how we frame the way we look at ourselves? From the pessimist's lens, seeing a flawed human being with occasional moments of goodness? Or from the optimist's lens, seeing a good person with moments of less-than-stellar behavior?

I think it does matter. I wish I had had a Shunryu Suzuki in my childhood, telling me I was perfect, while at the same time encouraging me to keep growing. It might have saved me many, many years of debilitating self-hatred and guilt.

However, that was not my path. I have learned, over the years, to appreciate the rough road, because of where it has brought me. The journey hasn't been easy, but I am very grateful that I have ended up here. Because here, in this Zen community, hearing the dharma talks of my teachers, reading the works of other Buddhists, I am finally finding the comfort I had been seeking all of my life. Not the comfort of "no problems" - there is still plenty of room for improvement. Instead, what I have found is a place of refuge in sangha and dharma, an increasing willingness to sit still with what is painful, and an ever-expanding sense of connection and possibilities.

I am beginning to see my own Buddha nature. And as for the rest of my imperfect self, I am learning to live in the realm of vows:

Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
Buddha's way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Practicing Generosity in the Check-Out Line

Waiting in line, whether at the grocery store, the bank, or the DMV, is a great way to observe humanity at its worst and at its best.

For too many of us, those "line moments" are keeping us from the next thing on our list - the doctor's appointment, picking up the kids from school, getting to work on time, meeting a date. It is an enforced time of surrender to powers greater than ourselves. Have you ever noticed? When we're in a hurry, no matter how good we think we are at choosing the fastest line, , invariably the line we're in turns out to be the slowest.

I try to avoid putting myself into the position where I only have five minutes to accomplish a task that involves a line. This means going to the bank at the end of the day, instead of trying to squeeze it in between three other errands on the way to work. Or making the big trip to the grocery store on my days off, when there's no where else I have to be any time soon.

When I don't have that time crunch, it is much easier to be a good line person. I can wait patiently while the elderly woman in front of me empties her entire purse looking for her check book. I can feel sympathy instead of annoyance for the young mother with three kids who's holding up a queue of people because the clerk is processing her WIC certificates. I can strike up a conversation with the person behind me, when I notice that we both picked up Ben & Jerry's, instead of tapping my foot while the cashier replaces the register tape. I can connect with people, instead of separating myself into my own little world of building fury.

As a general rule, I am courteous and friendly with tellers and cashiers, servers and clerks. Part of it is my upbringing; part of it is intentional practice. While a piece of this is, of course, wanting to respect the other people that I come into contact with throughout the day, I must also admit that it serves me well. Most of the time, I get better service when I treat the person on the other side of the counter as a human being instead of a functionary.

I also truly enjoy getting to know the many people in my life. It feels good when the bank teller knows my name and gives me a smile. I am pleasantly amused when a server remembers that I don't like mushrooms on my salad. I like the small talk, and the commiserations over the rainy weather, and the eye contact. It is a way of building community.

But, like everyone else, I have my moments of impatience. Especially when I'm caught up in myself, some crisis or stress or worry, I can become one of the "bad" line people, one of those surly, curt, unpleasant people that makes whoever's waiting on me grimace when I step up for my turn. When it happens, it isn't pretty.

Usually I catch myself in the middle, sometimes soon enough to save myself. I'm able to apologize, start fresh. But occasionally, the whole thing goes from bad to worse, and then it's only when I'm home alone with some space to think that I realize I've completely misbehaved.

Many years ago, I heard a comedian do a routine on waiting in line. He was talking about waiting and waiting, forever. And then that magic moment, when you're "next." He spoke of it with giddiness, excitement. When he was "next," he said, he became magnanimous. The impatience was gone. In fact, he would even turn to the person behind him and say, "No, please, go ahead." It was not only about being gracious - it was about prolonging that anticipatory feeling, that sense of everything almost coming to fruition. The beauty of being "next."

Frequently, when I am standing in line, and feeling a bit impatient, I remember that comedian. Every time, it makes me smile. And often, it opens me up just enough to practice generosity instead of stinginess. It reminds me how good giving can feel.

Upcoming Schedule, Nov. 24-28 and Beyond

Healdsburg Sangha:
Tuesday, Nov. 24 - CLOSED (for Thanksgiving)

Upcoming Closures:
Tuesday, Dec. 29 (the week between Christmas and New Year's)

Special Ceremonies:
On Tuesday, Dec. 22, a special Bodhisattva Ceremony will be held.

Russian River Zendo:
Saturday, Nov. 28 - CLOSED (for Thanksgiving)

Upcoming Closures:
Saturday, Dec. 12 (for sesshin at Black Mountain Center)
Saturday, Dec. 26 (for Christmas)


I was in Normal Rockwell's America tonight, at the Calistoga Firefighters Association Bingo & Raffle fundraiser.

Held in a large exhibition hall at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga, Bingo Night is an annual event that has been going on for 71 years. Hundreds of people show up to play bingo, try their luck at the dozens of raffle prizes, support the fire department, and simply have a good time.

The firefighters are all on hand, verifying bingo winners and distributing raffle prizes - good looking young people in uniform is definitely part of the draw. There is food for sale, ball park fare - hotdogs, hamburgers, nachos, beer. Plus, of course, lots of wine - this is the Napa Valley, after all.

My grandmother Gladys and I joined my four co-workers. My boss unexpectedly treated the six of us for the night, purchasing our bingo cards. That left us free to pool our money into the raffle baskets. My hope was to win at least one prize, since my grandmother is a gamer at heart, and winning makes her very happy. We lucked out, and won a $75 gift certificate to a women's clothng store in Calistoga. That counts for double fun, since it means an afternoon outing sometime in the coming weeks, when I can pick Gladys up in Santa Rosa, and bring her to Calistoga to shop and have lunch. None of us won any bingo prizes, but we certainly had fun trying.

It was a raucous crowd. I'm not sure if it was the wine and beer, or the nature of the evening, but people were laughing and talking loudly, feigning bingo wins, and wadding up their used game sheets and hurling them through the air from table to table. I was bonked on the head twice by flying paper missiles. There were children in the room, but it was the adults who were keeping things stirred up.

But, it was so small town, so Americana, so infectiously fun - who could resist?

I was able to attend the festivities because I managed to find a "babysitter" for Houla and the rest of the gang. It was pretty comical, actually. She was an older woman, who doesn't drive, so I had to pick her up and drive her home. I left her with written instructions on feeding, emergency phone numbers, microwave popcorn and a frozen pizza in the freezer. I felt just like a mom leaving her kids with the sitter! (A new experience for me, since I've never had "human" children.)

And I have no idea how to relate all of this to a Zen concept. Any ideas? (I promise to be more focused tomorrow....)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Plenty of Stress, Little Cash

I found out that I made a "top 15" list - but before you get too jealous, let me tell you the whole story. came out with an article called Stressful Jobs that Pay Badly, and my job, news reporter, was right up there in the top fifteen. Other lucky winners included probation officers, social workers, marriage and family therapists, substance abuse counselors, ministers, and high school teachers.

I happened to find out about this dubious honor earlier this week, arguably one of the most stressful that I have had to date at the newspaper office. Last week, I wrote a story about a survey two high school students conducted, asking junior high schoolers how they felt about cafeteria food. As you can probably guess, the food got a big thumbs down - when was the last time you met a kid who raved about school lunches? But, I was impressed with the project. The two students had ciruclated a petition, gathered 250 signatures, written up a survey, distributed it, tabulated the results, prepared a Power Point presentation, and given a report to the school board on their findings. I thought of the whole thing as a rather light piece about student initiative, giving a well-earned voice to local kids.

Late in the game, my editor read over the finished piece and said since the results were so negative, I should probably call the head of the school's food service, and offer her a chance to weigh in. I disagreed, thinking that the piece stood on its own. But, at her request, I made the phone call on deadline night. The food service director said she knew of the survey, was familiar with its results, and she chose not to comment. We went ahead and ran the story, and I went home with a clear conscience.

The day the paper came out, the food service director's husband came into the office furious with all of us, cancelling their subscription, saying we had ruined sixteen years of hard work that his wife had done in the community. I learned of the reaction over the weekend. When I got into the office on Tuesday, as much as I dreaded it, I went to the school to find the woman and apologize, for it certainly had not been my intent to harm her.

The apology was an unmitigated disaster. She did not want to talk to me, and although she listened to my explanation of how the story came about, she was completely unmoved. She said the damage was irreparable, and there was absolutely nothing I could do. Towards the end, tears came to my eyes, and mumbling a final "I'm sorry," I left.

By the time I got back to the office, the stress of the entire week came crashing down - my dog was still in surgery when all of this happened, and I was waiting for a call from the vet. While attempting to make a cup of coffee, I was suddenly overcome with sobs, and cried for a good fifteen minutes, for everything - my dog, the newspaper article, the botched apology, all of it.

The irony, of course, is that the school lunch story was one of five news stories I had written the previous week. On my way to work, stopping at the local grocery store, the director of Calistoga Beverage Company sought me out to thank me for the nice job I had done on the story about the bottling plant's impending closure. And when I got to my desk, there was a plate of home-made brownies waiting for me with a thank you card on top, from the couple who had received a U.S. flag flown in Afghanistan from their son, another piece that I had done, that one in honor of Veterans Day.

When covering contentious issues that come up before the Planning Commission, I am routinely criticized by people on both extreme sides of the issue who say I was unfairly favorable to their opponents. Obviously, I can't be giving biased weight to both the "pros" and the "cons" at the same time, but that's what travels down the grapevine. It simply comes with the job: when people are angry, when they feel their security or position is threatened in some way, it is easy to vent that frustration on the news reporter who is quoting the "bad guys."

And, of course, there's the measly paycheck.

So stress management is definitely one of the reasons I sit. But, as much as I would like it to be a direct-link fix, zazen provides a much more nebulous solution than that.

In Turning Suffering Inside Out, Darlene Cohen says, We see our stress as a problem to be overcome and eliminated, like hemorrhoids. We want to reduce stress, plain and simple, not merge with it, not study it, not hold it in meditative equipoise. We think that whatever we're going to learn to conquer our stress, it should be definite, graspable. It's difficult for us to live in the realm of not knowing, just giving everything in front of us our whole attention and suspending our worry about what comes next until it arrives. We need to cultivate a lot of faith to live that way. But this attitude may be the most intimate and satisfying connection we could ever have with our lives. Not to know exactly what's going to happen but to do, to feel, anyway.

No matter how much time I spend sitting zazen, there will still be disgruntled readers. The only thing I can hope to change is how I respond to that anger. And even when I do my best, come forward with the most direct, open heart that I have, my goodwill gestures may be spurned. And then I will try to experience that hurt completely and fully, before taking another breath and moving forward, heart open once again.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Ahhh....taking a deep breath.

Things are pretty much back to normal at my house, which is a very good thing. It's not until everything gets turned upside down that I realize how remarkably smooth life is the rest of the time.

My dog, Houla, is sleeping peacefully on my bed, wearing the annoying "cone of shame," with a bruised and swollen left side of her face, but, all in all, safe and sound. The dog door is impossible to negotiate with the cone, so I must let her in and out for bathroom breaks. I am having to remember to administer three different types of pills throughout the day, plus eye drops. (Thank goodness for the allure of wet cat food...makes pill dosing a snap!) And I am still making phone calls and writing email messages to juggle my schedule, to make sure that I can be with her most of the time, either at the house or taking her along for the ride. And yet, even with all of that, we are so much closer to the usual routine than we were three days ago. It is a huge relief.

My mind, which has been running at hyper speed with worry, planning, strategizing and future-tripping "what ifs?" has finally slowed down to a more reasonable pace. In fact, at this very moment, I think I'm actually closer to comatose than alert....but it is a welcome change to have that luxury, the luxury of turning off the alarm signals and relaxing into a rejuvenating lethargy. You may think that sounds oxymoronic. But I feel like a mouse who has just successfully out-maneuvered a ravenous tiger, and am now in the safety of my little hole for a nice, long, well-deserved nap.

Tomorrow I will return to the blogging page with renewed vigor and stamina, and fresh thoughts. For now - a restful sleep, with my dog cradled up against my belly. Wishing all of you sweet dreams of your own.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Good News

Houla successfully went through surgery today. I haven't seen her yet - my veterinarian thought it best to keep her overnight, because she was still groggy from sedation. Since she has such huge separation anxiety, as much as I wanted to go see her after work, I knew it would be better for her if I did not visit, because I would have to leave her again. So I am at home, waiting for morning, when I will pick her up, smother her with love and kisses, and bring her with me to work to be a pampered, special dog for the day.

Her right eye appears to be completely normal, which means that although she has lost one eye, she has not lost her sight.

When I brought her to a Santa Rosa ophthalmologist on Monday afternoon, for a check-up prior to surgery, I was still struggling with the fear that she could go blind. I was having a hard time dealing with the enormity of that, worrying about how she could possibly survive, unassisted, in our home during the day when we were at work. It seemed insurmountable.

In the lobby, there was a book: Living with Blind Dogs: A Resource Book and Training Guide for the Owners of Blind and Low-Vision Dogs. I began to page through it as we waited for our names to be called. I had no idea that such a book existed. There was a section on grief, on readjustment. There were tips on training, on how to use things like scent trails (applying a fragrance like lavender) to indicate paths to the dog door, or tactile trails, like rug strips. There was information on how to reintegrate the blind dog into your home "pack," supporting her previous alpha role (as in Houla's case). There were even wonderful stories about other dogs becoming guide dogs, so that the blind dog may stand out in the yard and bark when she's ready to come in, and the sighted dog goes to get her, and leads her into the house. And also, ways to reformat "play," so even a blind dog can continue to fetch balls.

I felt an immediate and huge sense of relief within moments after opening the book. I had a sense, suddenly, that this was doable. That we could meet this challenge, even in the worst-case scenario.

It was like the discovery of sangha, community. A sangha of low-vision/blind dogs and the people who love them.

Add to that my already-existing sangha, the friends who have e-mailed and called and offered support over the past few days....and I feel very lucky indeed.

My deepest thanks.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wearing Shoes, Training the Mind

In Pema Chodron's lectures from Don't Bite the Hook, she tells the following story:

Imagine that there is a man who is barefoot. Everywhere he walks, he steps on sharp things - stones, thorns, briars. His feet are cut and burned and frozen at different times. And he thinks to himself, What I need to do is to cover the entire world with soft leather, so that nothing will ever hurt my feet again! But where could he ever come up with that much leather? And then a second thought comes: Oh! What if I just covered my feet with soft leather? Now, that I could do!

Chodron likens that thorny, prickly world to the things that bother us, things that make us uncomfortable or angry or annoyed or sad. The lesson is that instead of trying to make all of those troublesome things go away, by covering them up, what we must do instead is train the mind, cover our feet, so to speak.

During my recent days of stress and anxiety and sadness, I must admit that there was a part of me that wanted to cover up the world. I wanted there to be no suffering, no pain, no loss. I wanted to make it all go away.

I did, last night, finally, sit. And those thirty minutes gave me more peace than I had felt since this trouble started on Friday. That is Chodron's lesson - keeping the heart open (the world uncovered, with all its flaws), and training the mind (finding equanimity even in the face of loss).

Maybe if I do it a million more times, it is a lesson that I will learn.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Emotional Overload

Reading over yesterday's blog post, I was struck by how unemotional it was. It brought to my attention how exhausted I feel.

For me, when things get really crazy, I simply go from one movement to the next, trying to make the best decision, then another best decision, on some kind of strange autopilot. My emotional response turns almost completely flat. I can be appropriately compassionate and externally caring, but inside everything is muted and dimmed.

There is nothing more troubling to me than seeing someone else, animal or human, in pain. It brings up such a helpless feeling, when I know that no matter what I do, how nice I am, how comfortable I try to make them, the animal or person still has to deal with their own process of suffering.

I have spent the entire day fretting about Houla: giving her medications and eyedrops, making sure she's warm enough, trying to be near her as often as possible to give her the reassurance of my touch. I called my boss and made arrangements to have someone else cover tomorrow night's Planning Commission meeting, so I can work from home. That way I can be with her all day tomorrow, and on Tuesday up to the time I drop her off for her surgery. On Wednesday, I'll bring her in to work with me.

I know that I'm doing everything I can, but it just doesn't seem like enough. And with each passing hour, I feel heavier and heavier inside, filled with an unbearable sadness. I think it would help if I could cry long and hard, but even that is beyond my reach.

I haven't been able to sit zazen, either. In fact, it was not until typing this line that it even occurred to me that I haven't been doing it. Maybe that's what I need. I'll give it a try.

When you meditate, could you send comfort to my sweet little Houla? We both thank you....

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Losing an Eye

I didn't blog last night because I was up until 5:30 in the morning dealing with an eye emergency with my dog Houla.

When I came home from work on Wednesday night, late, Houla wouldn't open her left eye. I called my vet the next day, but they couldn't see her until Friday. I thought it was just an irritation, or maybe a scratch, and was anticipating eye drops or some other relatively simple solution, and so thought it could wait.

When I brought her to her appointment on Friday at 5 p.m., we soon discovered that it was much more serious. Many hours and three vet hospitals later, including a late night drive to UC Davis emergency clinic, I know now that she has to lose her eye.

The lens on her left eye fell forward (lens luxation), blocking the drainage channel for the fluid naturally created in the eye, which led to increased ocular pressure (glaucoma). The pressure caused the retina to get distorted, swelling the eye. We were hoping that the trip to Davis might mean emergency surgery to save it, but it was already too late. She has completely lost vision in that eye. There was some evidence of vision loss in the right eye, but we are hoping with treatment to save it.

Now, on Tuesday, the poor little girl is scheduled for enucleation, or a removal of the eye. She can't see, and there's no sense leaving the eye there, since it is causing her pain, the equivalent of having a really bad migraine.

The whole nightmare was exacerbated by the fact that my partner Sabrina is in the Caribbean right now on a cruise with a buddy of hers, so I was having to make decisions on my own, as well as trying to juggle making sure that all of the other animals were tended to, before leaving for Davis late at night, unsure when I would get home.

Houla is a 12 year old Catahoula mix, an adorable little black-and-white dog with the sweetest personality. She has been stoic, and a real trooper through all of this, but we were both exhausted when all was said and done. Tonight we are recuperating at home with a nice fire burning in the pellet stove.

Throughout the experience yesterday, I kept imagining what it would be like to lose vision. Right now, she can still see from the right eye, but she was having trouble in low light, and I had to carry her into the hospital, because she was stumbling. Throughout all of the procedures, she was stressed and increasingly exhausted and in pain. Thankfully, most of the time I was able to be right there in the room with her, which alleviated some of the fear.

I wrote a long email to Sabrina early this morning, and she was able to reach me by phone later on, so I now know that she is in agreement with me about the enucleation. It felt good not to have to make that decision entirely on my own.

Going blind is one of my biggest fears. I can imagine learning to live with the loss of the use of my legs, or even my hearing. But losing my eyes? Being unable to read and write? It would be a huge part of my identity, something that would radically change my life.

We are praying that Houla will keep the vision in her right eye. And if not - we will just do the best we can to keep loving her, keep her safe, and keep her free from pain. Throughout all of this, she can be my teacher.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Getting Intimate with Anger

As part of the jukai process (lay ordination), each of us was asked in August to choose one of the Buddhist precepts to practice literally for a year. The intent was to select something that would be challenging, something that touched a deep part of yourself.

I chose the Ninth Precept, which deals with anger. One version reads: I vow to not harbor ill will, but to practice loving kindness. Other times it is listed simply as: There is no anger.

At first, I was drawn to the "no slander" precept, which is definitely something I could use some work on - especially at the office, where we find great delight in pointing out the shortcomings of various people we run into in the course of the day.

But something about the "no anger" precept drew me, even before I could clearly articulate why. The expression of anger for me is almost taboo. I grew up witnessing a lot of rage and unpredictable outbursts, and experienced more as a young adult living with explosive partners. Other people's anger terrifies me. I will do anything to get away from it.

Equally terrifying is the knowledge that I myself have the capacity to get angry. I have spent much of my life burying those feelings deep in my body; although outwardly it may appear that I rarely blow up, inwardly anger resides in secret pockets, behind closed doors, and I live in constant fear that it will leak out into the open.

I have been kidding myself that I have successfully entombed that inner rage. I am listening to lectures by Pema Chodron, Don't Bite the Hook, which deal with anger. In her words, I am hearing how my anger has nested itself into my life.

I have always been strongly opinionated. When I was very young, I was incredibly rigid in my belief system. I like to think that I have grown a great deal in the last twenty years, softening some of that extreme version of the world in clear-cut black and white sides on every topic. But there are a number of things that I still feel so passionately about, truths that I have come to through intense and hard personal work, that I can still be amazingly intransigent, convinced that I am right.

I'm talking about things like speaking out against racism or ethnocentrism or homophobia or violence against women. I'm referring to bigotry and religious intolerance and xenophobic rants. Those are the things that make my blood boil.

For all of my talk of compassion and acceptance, hearing that the local cop who happens to be a friend of mine had voted for Prop 8, taking away the right of gay marriage, I became so incensed that I had to leave the room.

One night at a club, a Filippina woman I was dating made a racist comment about the black karaoke singer. I grabbed her by the arm and pulled her violently towards me, demanding, "What did you say?" It wasn't until I saw the fear in her eyes, the way she recoiled from me, that I realized I had completely lost it, becoming as dark as the bigotry I was sworn to combat.

When I was walking downtown in Los Gatos, and a pick-up truck of guys drove by, hollering out the window at me, "Fucking dyke!" - instead of being a warrior bodhisattva, facing that assault with kindness and patience, I spun around and flipped them the bird, yelling, "Fuck you!" at the top of my lungs.

The day I saw a man strike his girlfriend and throw her to the sidewalk, I was so enraged that I began to run towards him. I had every intention of leaping on top of him and pummeling him with my fists. The only thing that stopped me was the friend who physically held me back.

Even though these particular examples make me feel ashamed, I have always justified them. I am a lesbian who has been discriminated against, and physically threatened because of my sexual orientation. I grew up in a multi-racial/cultural family, and witnessed too many examples of racism in the society at large. I am a survivor of domestic violence, and I don't want any other woman, ever, to be afraid the way I was.

I was in the right. I was working for social justice. It's necessary to get angry to fight back. How else are we going to defeat all this hatred?

Well, well. I wonder why I chose the Ninth Precept?

Upcoming Schedule, Nov. 14-17 and beyond

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, Nov. 14
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:35 a.m. dharma talk by Tony Patchell and tea

Upcoming closures:
Saturday, Nov. 28 (for Thanksgiving)
Saturday, Dec. 12 (for sesshin at Black Mountain Center)
Saturday, Dec. 26 (for Christmas)

Healdsburg Sangha:
Tuesday, Nov. 17
7 p.m. sit, service, and dharma talk by Beata Chapman

Upcoming closures:
Tuesday, Nov. 24 (for Thanksgiving)
Tuesday, Dec. 29 (the week between Christmas and New Year's).

On Tuesday, Dec. 22, a special Bodhisattva Ceremony will be held.

Accentuate the Positive!

I am listening to Pema Chodron's Don't Bite the Hook, and driving home tonight in the wee hours after a long day at work, one of her teachings was about something she calls "cheerfulness practice."

Her message is that the human tendency is to focus on what's NOT working - the unkind word, the friction, the unmet need. As an antidote, she suggests fully appreciating each positive thing that happens during your day, to retrain the mind. This can be anything, no matter how small. The point is to notice happiness when you experience it.

So, with that in mind, I've been reviewing my last two days. They have been hectic, and although overall the hours have been productive and relatively pleasant, I still had quite a few grumpy moments.

But, in an attempt to reframe, here are some of the good things:
  • A reader complimented me on a story from last week's paper, and came into the office to buy extra copies.

  • My boss told me I did a good job on the photographs I took this week, and thanked me for all of my hard work on stories.

  • A co-worker who has a very elderly, frail poodle named Chica showed me her latest gadget - "doggles," sunglasses/goggles for dogs - to help deal with the little girl's increasing eye sensitivity. They were so adorable I couldn't stop grinning.

  • I interviewed a new priest in town for the Russian Orthodox Church, and not only did he not flinch when I mentioned my female partner, but after the interview he gave me four of the beeswax candles he makes as a present, saying that I should use them while having a nice dinner with my partner.

  • I interviewed a couple who has been married 56 years, both of them veterans. They had received a U.S. flag flown in Afghanistan from their son, as a birthday present for the father. It will be placed in a shadow box containing all his medals. They were so thrilled to have me there, to share in their news; both had been moved to tears by the receipt of the flag. I felt honored to be their witness.

  • The grocery store had the new graham crackers that I've fallen in love with - up to this point, I'd only been able to find them at Whole Foods, which is a long way away.

  • The dogs and cats greeted me with tremendous enthusiasm when I got home at 2 a.m., after spending the day alone. Kenji the kitten appeared blinking, and we've already had a bunch of cuddle time.

  • I got an invitation to Thanksgiving diner at my best friend's house.

  • I called my grandmother to see if she wanted to go to the Firefighters Bingo night on Nov. 21, and she was thrilled.
What surprises me about this list is that the more time I spend thinking, the more good things I come up with. How about that? And looking back on it, as memories of each of these happy moments flits through my consciousness, I have a stronger and stronger sense of just having had an amazingly good two days.

You've got to accentuate the positive....

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Existence of the Pure Heart

I've always loved Shakespeare, particularly the tragedies. King Lear is one of my favorites. And I know Romeo and Juliet almost by heart. I watch Franco Zeffirelli's version with Olivia Hussy as Juliet once a year on Valentine's Day, my own capitulation to the sentimentality of the season.

But there are plays among Shakespeare's voluminous output that I have never read. Since I have recently discovered the joy of listening to audio books on my commute, and I also found that many of Shakespeare's plays are available through the Sonoma County Library on CD, I've decided to start getting acquainted with more works of the master.

My first plunge was into the play Pericles. The choice was a pure fluke - it happened to be on the shelves at the Cloverdale Library, so I didn't have to request it through interlibrary loan. Last week I listened to the play while commuting. On Monday I pulled my Complete Works off the shelf and read Pericles, and today I have been listening to it for the second time.

To sum up the relevant parts of the plot so I can make my point: Pericles the king and his queen Thaisa are on board ship, sailing back to his land of Tyre. In the middle of a terrible storm, Thaisa gives birth to a baby girl and then dies. Pericles brings the infant, Marina, to nearby Tarsus, to be raised until she is of a marriageable age by rulers Cleon and Dionyza. However, when Marina turns into a beautiful young maiden, Dionyza fears that the girl is overshadowing her own daughter, and she plots to have Marina killed. The servant assigned to do the deed is interrupted by a band of pirates, who kidnap Marina and then sell her to a brothel.

Whew! And that's just part of the plot line! What happens at the brothel, though, is what drew my attention. "Gentlemen callers," one by one, are shown into the room with Marina, having paid a special price to sleep with a virgin. Yet one by one, they leave, and Marina retains her chastity. She is a creature with a pure and honest heart. She speaks so sweetly to the men, calling upon their own highest selves, that she convinces each of them to abandon their habit of sleeping with prositutes. Each man is transformed simply by being in her presence.

When I first heard this, I scoffed. Right! If you're an innocent, that will save you from being ravished by johns at a brothel! But later, after reading it and hearing it again, I realized that, while fictitious, Marina is a character that I believe in. She is the embodiment of good, the best of our intentions, and because of this, she not only protects herself, but redeems others as well.

One could even call her a bodhisattva, keeping her vow to save all beings.

Monday, November 9, 2009

One Stitch at a Time

I met on Sunday again with my jukai group to work on my rakusu. Amazingly, it is actually beginning to look like a rakusu, since I am far enough along to have sewn together several of the strips for the face, into that wonderful rice paddy configuration of alternating long and short pieces.

There are nine of us in total, although so far the gatherings have consisted of at most six people, as we all struggle with scheduling conflicts. Two are from a group in Sebastopol; the other seven of us are from the Healdsburg sangha. We meet at the home of Connie Ayers, our sewing instructor, in Sebastopol.

The big open room that we sit in has a large work table, a small altar, and an ironing board. Scattered about the work space are half a dozen desk lamps, an iron, a box of pairs of scissors, another box filled with metric rulers, and our own individual sets of cloth, pins, needles, and thread. We spend the four hours on Sunday afternoons bent in concentration over our project, pinning, stitching, and measuring.

At times, I look around the room in wonder at it all. Who would have thought, even five years ago, that I would find myself here? Part of a Zen community, pursuing lay ordination - I had no idea this was in store for me. And sewing? Never would I have guessed that I would be sitting, needle in hand, making something myself.

The stitches in the rakusu on the surface of the cloth are small, likened to "poppy seeds." Underneath, the longer threads show, in parallel diagonal stripes. My stitches are not perfect; even with concentration, every few inches I veer off slightly, have a stitch out of balance with the others. But when I look at the overall piece, and the lines of nearly perfect poppy seeds, I am stunned. I think, "I did this!"

I love the satisfaction of creating this rakusu with my own hands. It is a meditation practice, a building of sangha, and a creative act, all rolled into one.

I am evidencing my Buddhist vows, one stitch at a time.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Managing Busyness

On Wednesday at the newspaper, I was having a severe case of losing my place every few moments. I would be working away on the computer, building a page. Then I would think, "Oh, I have to get that information from the internet." I would switch to my browser, only to stare at in confusion, unable to remember why I had opened it. I would sit for a few minutes, remember that I was double-checking a date the school's website, and select the link. As the page was loading, I would think, "Oh, right, I can't forget to add the Garden Club announcement to the calendar page." I would open that screen, and then the phone would ring. I'd take a garage sale ad from one of our subscribers, then turn my attention back to the opened calendar page - and once again, I'd be completely unable to remember why I was there.

When I get in that frenetic pace, it is the exact opposite of sitting zazen. Meditating, I am calm, aware and focused, even when the focus is "not focus." At work, though, all of that seems to go out the window, and I am flying like a maniac from one task to the next. I get less and less efficient the faster I go, yet am seemingly unable to halt the mania.

A couple of days ago, I wrote about this "busyness" factor in my "Slow Down? Or Speed Up?" entry, wondering how exactly I am to deal with my overloaded life. Darlene Cohen, one of my teachers, wrote in a comment suggesting that I take a look at her book, The One Who Is Not Busy: Connecting with Work in a Deeply Satisfying Way. I own a copy - but I've been too busy to read it!

I pulled it down off the shelf today, and already there is helpful information. Darlene talks about the importance of mental flexibility and shifting the mind's focus at will from one thing to another. In other words, you bring your full attention to one task (like talking to a client on the phone), then you shift attention and bring your attention fully to that next task (like creating a new document on the computer), and so on, throughout the work day, and into your family life, where you narrow your focus to the objects of preparing food, eating dinner, taking care of children, etc.

Darlene talks about this "narrowing of focus" as a practice in "simultaneous inclusion," where life is both this moment, right here, this task, and at the same time it is eternity, everywhere, everything. She refers to this kind of attention as being that of feeling "what is before us is the whole world," saying, "When we sink deeply into our activity, whatever that activity is, everything is simultaneously included at the same time. The grief we once felt over a life incompletely lived, squandered on the demands of others and trivial chores, is transformed into a deep feeling of fulfillment and a flexibility up to meeting any stimulus."

Later in the book, Darlene has exercises on how to cultivate that skill of "simultaneous inclusion." The practice is very Zen, but also very mundanely practical, very much of this world, this place, this time.

So for myself, I am going to keep reading the book, and begin tomorrow practicing some of these tips. I am very much looking forward to a relief from the busyness, and a move towards integrated wholeness. We'll see if it works!


One of the commitments I made when I started blogging was to write daily, as a practice in self discipline. I've been doing pretty well, until this week, when my schedule overwhelmed me and I ended up missing a couple of days.

For those of you out there who noticed, and wrote notes - thank you! All is well. Just routine craziness on this end. My sister Ali was visiting from New York, and we met with her to take my 99-year-old grandmother (Gladys) out for dinner last night. The Indian food and belly dancer were a big hit. Today entailed a trip to San Francisco to hook up with more family members, to attend the wedding of my cousin Don and his fiance Makesha. I just got home from the festivities a few moments ago. My partner, Sabrina, stayed in the city, to head out on a cruise with her good buddy tomorrow morning, so I'll be flying solo for the next 15 days, trying to keep the meneragie fed and under control, and all the other balls up in the air, which can be a challenge. So, in summary, I've been on the "high" setting for the last week.

Up to this point, I have made sure I sit down to the blog even on nights when I'm not home until after midnight, trying to keep up that discipline. That's the big "D" word for me, something I've always struggled with, setting and maintaining regular practices. So just as an exercise, I have been attempting to blog as if it were a vow, a daily intention, hoping that this commitment will build confidence in my capacity for steadfastness, and eventually spill over into other areas of my life.

It's one of the things I wrestle with about my zazen, as well. I usually sit four or five times a week, but it's kind of random. I don't have a set time or set days. I know that most people sit first thing in the morning, early. That's a stumbling block for me, because I'm simply not a morning person; I never have been. Since I first began following the Zen path, I have jokingly said that the main thing between me and enlightenment is 6 a.m.

It seems like I should "follow the rules" and meditate in the morning. But the reality is, that just hasn't worked out very well for me. I love sitting at the end of the day, when it is dark outside, with a lit candle illuminating my wooden Buddha. It's a wonderful way to finish up, and head to bed. But unfortunately, waiting until the end of the day sometimes means I get caught up in other things and forget, or simply become too tired, and go to sleep instead.

When do you sit zazen? At a specific time every day? Or is it flexible, varied? Is anybody out there a night person who has learned to practice in the morning? How did you manage it?

In June, I went to Tassajara for the first time, for a workshop with Darlene Cohen on dana paramita, "the perfection of giving." I got up at 5 a.m. five mornings in a row - the first time in my life that I have ever seen that many sunrises. It was actually pretty magical - but I drank an awful lot of coffee that week, even more than usual. And I haven't quite figured out how to bring that same "Tassajara incentive" into my home sitting practice. Maybe I'll just experiement with a few morning sits, see how it goes. Who knows? I may become a convert yet.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Slow Down? Or Speed Up?

Sometimes I feel like a hamster on a wheel, spinning each day rapidly under my feet: there goes Monday, Tuesday, on to Wednesday, whoa, Thursday already, how did that happen?

My job lends itself to the sensation of rushing time. As a weekly newspaper employee, I am constantly focused on forward propulsion. I work from home on Mondays, making phone calls and conducting interviews. On Tuesdays, I hit the ground hard at the office, cleaning up last week's mess, and beginning the physical layout of the paper. By Wednesday, I am juggling interviews, story writing, layout, and a thousand other tasks, trying to get everything done by the end of the night so we can "put the paper to bed." Thursday I wake up late and bleary-eyed, spent from the 15+ hour deadline day.

Thursday through Sunday is my own time, four days that I feel lucky to have. But why, then, do those days rush by almost as quickly as the three action-packed "work" days? I try to fit it all in, but it seems I am always running out of hours of the day.

I remind myself that it is a luxury problem to have so many things that I love to do, that I don't have enough time for them all. But somehow, that doesn't make the situation any more liveable; it just makes me feel whiney.

I tend to go full speed ahead for several weeks, cramming as much as I can in, and then I crash, cancelling appointments, sleeping for 12 hours straight, holing up in my house for two or three days without emerging.

Pacing is not something that has ever come easy for me. I jump in, swim until exhausted, and then barely make it back safely to the shore. I guess what I struggle with most is feeling like if I just managed my time better, I could keep doing everything, not have to give up anything, and wouldn't feel completely wasted every night as I sink into bed.

When I watch other people in my life manage much more demanding schedules with seeming ease, it doesn't help. Then I just feel, once again, like somehow I didn't get the same rulebook, or the proper coaching, something. Somehow, it always turns into a big ball of confusion, leaving me wondering if the problem is learning how to slow down, or figuring out how to speed up.

Any great wisdom out there?

Maitri: Unconditional Love for Oneself

I am still learning, each time I sit, about the incomprehensibly varied ways that zazen instructs me. This simple act, just sitting and breathing, somehow encompasses everything: my perceptions of myself, my relationship to my body, my connection to the other beings in the room, my weaknesses which can become strengths, my strengths which can become weaknesses.

A period of extended sitting, like last weekend's sesshin, is somewhat like the intensive summer courses of Japanese that I took in graduate school, where I would learn two semester's worth of material in just a couple of months. There is a rush, an excitement to it all. But there is an accompanying panic, an anxiety. I was so immersed in the language, that I grasped new concepts quickly and easily, absorbing a great deal. But I was so over stimulated that I collapsed into my bed at night with exhaustion, physically spent. In the same way that the unrelenting pace pushed me to rapid language breakthroughs, a sesshin can destroy the barriers that I manage to skirt in a normal daily zazen period. But it can also feel, at times, impossible to survive another minute.

Reading through some of my earlier blog entries the other day, I was amused to find that my most frequently recurring theme was "imperfection." Being flawed, it appears, is the thing I struggle with most. I constantly strive towards some ideal of behavior, performance, and even thought, as if these paragons of my imagination were actually attainable. Even though I intellectually understand that I am human, and so by very definition fallible, I continue to act each day as if this is something I can correct, if I only try hard enough.

In The Places That Scare You, Pema Chodron discusses the concept of maitri, which she defines as unconditional love for oneself. In her introduction to this topic, she says:

...meditation is not just about feeling good. To think that is why we meditate is to set ourselves up for failure. We'll assume we are doing it wrong almost every time we sit down: even the most settled meditator experiences psychological and physical pain. Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and our sanity. This complete acceptance of ourselves as we are is called maitri, a simple direct relationship with the way we are.

She then goes on to examine the first quality of maitri that is cultivated by meditation: steadfastness. She says that no matter what comes up, although "plenty of meditators consider it, we don't go screaming out of the room."

And this was the passage that reminded me so much of my sesshin experience:

So whenever we wander off, we gently encourage ourselves to 'stay' and settle down. Are we experiencing restlessness? Stay! Discursive mind? Stay! Are fear and loathing out of control? Stay! Aching knees and throbbing back? Stay! What's for lunch? Stay! What am I doing here? Stay! I can't stand this another minute! Stay! That is how to cultivate steadfastness.

So, somehow, sitting in the zendo for those long periods of zazen, aching knees and all, wandering thoughts and all, self doubt and all - that was precisely what I was supposed to be doing. It's all part of the plan. I can rest easy now. Every little imperfection is just a pebble along the path to the development of steadfastness, and that, ultimately, will lead to maitri, an unconditional love for myself. Let's see how long I can hold onto that thought.

(Note to self: Stay!)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Hungry Ghosts and Moonlight Magic

One of the highlights of the sesshin this past weekend was segaki, the "feeding the hungry ghosts" ritual on Halloween night.

The hungry ghosts are spirits in one of the hell realms who have huge bellies and tiny, tiny mouths, so they are never able to satisfy their hunger. They are symbolic of those parts of ourselves that we struggle with: self criticism, doubt, anger, jealousy, procrastination, dissatisfaction.

The segaki ceremony is traditionally celebrated during O-bon in Japan, a time of remembrance for the dead which takes place in August. In the West, it has merged with our own time of spirits, the night of Halloween and Dia de los Muertos.

Before the ceremony, all of us changed into costumes. There was a full and imaginative range of masks and camouflage, from our doan Roland in his puppy costume to kokyo Debi in her angry devil outfit, Darlene's Medusa headpiece to Tony's exposed brain, and all kinds of things in between. I wore a long blue wig, black cape, and goth make-up. We were all pretty squirrely in the moments before the ceremony, reveling in the transformations and the silliness after two days of silence.

The altar was covered with mounds of Halloween candy, an offering to the hungry ghosts. During the ceremony, those of us who cared to came forward to the altar and invited our own personal "ghosts" into the room, welcoming them for the evening. After more ritual, we then sent them on their way. There was also a time for remembering our honored dead, stepping forward to name the people that we had lost in the previous year, or those very dear to us who we had lost even longer ago. After the concluding periods of zazen, and the ending chants of the day, the candy was up for grabs.

This past weekend was the five-year anniversary of my father's death. I lost him to lymphoma on Oct. 30 in 2004. It was a Saturday night in San Francisco. I was at his side in the hospital when he took his last breath, and then had to go out into the streets of the city, which were filled with Halloween revelers, people in wild costumes. It was incredibly surreal. That night, there was also an astoundingly beautiful full moon. It felt as if his spirit had leapt out of his body and into the midnight sky. Since that time, whenever there is a breathtaking moon, I feel that he is with me.

Black Mountain Center was bathed in luminous moonlight this past weekend. After the segaki ceremony, I walked into the woods, not needing the flashlight in my hand, because the entire landscape was softly illuminated. I found an opening in the trees, a small meadow, and laid down on my back, the moon washing my face and body with the glow of a father's love.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Black Belt Zen

The sesshin that I just participated in was the final part of a six-week practice period led by Darlene Cohen on virya paramita (or the perfection of energy/effort). The practice period began with an all-day sit at Berkeley Zen Center, which I attended, and then there were weekly study classes in Pacifica, which I unfortunately was not able to attend, since they happened on Wednesday nights, my newspaper deadline day. The conclusion was the three-day sesshin at Black Mountain Center, and then the closing ceremony at Russian River Zendo Sunday afternoon.

Cynthia Kear acted as shuso for the practice period, or apprentice teacher. Shuso is one of the rites of initiation for priests, as they move towards becoming Zen teachers.

The final shuso ceremony is a fabulous "high church" Zen ritual, with all priests in full robes, a processional, lots of bowing and chanting. The apex of the ceremony is the "test," when each person in attendance gets to ask the shuso a question, which she has to answer in rapid-fire succession. There were about 40 people in attendance. As each person's turn came, they would call out, "Shuso!" Cynthia would say, "Hai!" (which means "yes" in Japanese). Then the person would ask their question. Cynthia would answer, then pound the wooden staff in her hand on the ground, signalling the end of the exchange.

Questions covered a wide gamut, from explorations of the practice period ("How do you find virya in your practice?") to age-old philosophical questions ("Is there a God?" and "Why do bad things happen to good people?") to questions of a more personal nature, exploring particular struggles ongoing for those in attendance. The answers were similarly varied, from the pragmatic to the wise, from heart-talk to belly-laugh.

Watching the shuso ceremony reminded me again of my aikido experience. The Japanese martial art of aikido is entirely self defensive. There are no competitions, and attacks are learned only so you can assist your fellow practitioners in learning how to deflect them. When a person decides to go for a black belt, there is a formal testing ceremony. The black belt candidate stands in the center of the room, surrounded on all sides by fellow students. The students take turns attacking, one by one, and the black belt candidate must meet each attack with the appropriate defensive move.

Watching Cynthia yesterday, it was exactly like that: She was a Zen teacher earning her black belt, staying present and alert, meeting each one of us head on, heart open, sharing her wisdom, and helping us find our own answers.

My question was simple: "How can I forgive the unforgiveable?" The beauty of this practice is that not only did I get the perfect answer from Cynthia, but two other Zen practitioners in attendance came up to me at the reception with their own solutions. Now all I have to do is let it all settle and distill in my own quiet space, to find my own truth.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ah, Peppermint! Reflections on Sesshin

I survived my first sesshin. It's amazing how many things can happen over the course of three days when, on the surface, all you're doing is sitting and not speaking.

First, there was the physical challenge. One remarkable change for me was that I was free of back pain for the first time in an extended sit. Darlene recently did a posture adjustment for me that transformed the way that I sit. She has told me before, but this time, a couple of weeks ago, the lesson sunk in. I tend to sit with my shoulders curved in, my chest collapsed towards my spine. For the past week, I have been aware of this, constantly going backwards and forwards, in and out of usual alignment and erect posture. I managed to incorporate that "shoulders back and down" state into my sitting this weekend - and lo and behold! No mid- or lower-back pain! Hooray!

My knees are another story. I noticed late in the day on Saturday that my knees were giving me trouble. I finally added some support cushions, and had instant relief. They seemed fine today, until this afternoon, when my left knee began having excruciating shooting pain. Apparently, I waited too long before responding to the discomfort, and I am now paying the price with throbbing, aching, over-spent knees. Another lesson, one that will have to be incorporated before the Rohatsu Sesshin in December - otherwise it will be a very long five-day sit.

Then there was the silence. I spend a great deal of my life home alone, since my partner and I have differing schedules. Silence is something that I am comfortable with; in fact, I get overstimulated and exhausted very easily with too much people contact. I anticipated that this part of the sesshin would be easy for me. Interestingly, though, being silent around twenty other people is even more tiring that socializing. Language serves as a distractor. Without it, I was intensely aware of every movement and mannerism of those around me. We sat in the zendo, side by side, hearing each other's breath. We ate our meals in silence, eyes averted, acutely in tune with each clack of the fork on the plate, each trip for seconds. Most of us slept in dormitories, so even changing clothes, getting ready for bed, and sleeping were communal activites. I found myself longing for time alone.

But at the same time, the silence creates space to notice and appreciate those things that are usually camouflaged. The bow of the person across from you after a sit period becomes an intimate and nurturing acknowledgement. The bell signaling the next activity rings out into the stillness with a rich beauty. The changing light in the zendo throughout the day, the intermittent breezes that cause the trees to rustle outside, even the fly that wanders into the room and buzzes stupidly, full force, into the closed window, become bodily awarenesses, sensations that fill you up.

There are so many other aspects of this sesshin to write about, that I will revisit it over the next few days. For now, I leave you with this:

On Friday afternoon, we sat for three periods in a row separated by kinhin (walking meditation). Then we had tea, the formalized ceremony with servers bringing cups, a cookie on a small napkin, and hot tea to each person, with lots of bowing and ritual all around. We begin drinking the tea and nibbling on the cookie all at the same time, at the sound of the clappers of the kokyo (chant leader).

My initial zazen periods were refreshing and full. When the tea service started, I was alert, present. Picking up my cup, and taking that first sip - ah, the peppermint! The taste flooded my mouth, the heat warmed my throat and then my whole body. I smiled and closed my eyes, savoring it all - the moment, the cookie, the quiet, the exquisite freshness of hot peppermint tea on my tongue. This, then, is zazen.