Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dill Pickles

One of the Zen concepts I'm playing around with a lot right now is the idea of "practicing nonpreference." It comes back to what I was talking about yesterday, acceptance and serenity, in a way. Feeling sad is only bad when I think to myself, "I hate feeling sad! I want to feel happy!" Simply letting go and experiencing the sadness (or anxiety or fear or...fill in your least favorite emotion here) is far less traumatic, because I'm not trying to change anything, or escape from my present into an imagined future where all will be just as I want it to be.

But that's hard to do. I've spent years of my life honing escape skills. Acting differently, newly, is a real challenge.

One night at a dharma talk, Darlene spoke about her experience of practicing nonpreference at an ice cream parlor. She went in, ready to order chocolate. Then she thought, "Wait! I think I'll practice nonpreference." It was an urge that simply rose up, and she decided to act on it. She closed her eyes and pointed randomly - and got orange sherbet. She was bitterly disappointed. Not orange sherbet! But then, when she actually got the ice cream and began to eat, she said it was absolutely fabulous. Her years of preference for chocolate had made her completely forget (or not know) that orange sherbet could be good.

The story made all of us laugh. It was such a light-hearted approach to a practice that could, if carried out to its fullest extent, transform your life.

Not too long after that, I was at a hospital for an evening workshop on health issues. I had come directly from work, and was hungry, so I went to the cafeteria to grab a quick bite to eat. As a vegetarian, I often find cafeterias to be a bit challenging; there are very limited options. I went with my safe bet that night - a grilled cheese sandwich.

The cafeteria worker served up an ordinary grilled cheese sandwich on a paper plate, with the requisite big dill pickle as a garnish. I have never liked dill pickles. I used to eat sweet pickles when I was a child, but as I grew older, they never seemed to be an option in most places where I ate out, and I never thought to buy them, so I gradually gave up eating pickles all together. Every time a dill pickle appeared on my plate at a restaurant, it stayed right where it was, untouched.

For whatever reason, though, that night I remembered Darlene's story, and I thought,"What the heck. I'm going to try to practice nonpreference and eat this pickle." I gingerly put it to my lips - it was tangily sour. I took a bite, and was surprised by the crisp, clean taste in my mouth. I sat in that cafeteria by myself and ate the whole darn pickle - and I loved it.

So, big deal, right? Now I know I like dill pickles. But don't you see? The magic, the zinger, the kick to it all, was that I surprised myself. I thought I knew myself inside and out - what I like to eat, what I believe, how I work. And just one bite of a dill pickle undid all of that burdensome predictability. Who knows what's going to happen next?

Upcoming Schedule, Oct. 3 and 6

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, Oct. 3

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

12:30 p.m. Biannual Board Meeting

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Oct. 6

7 p.m. double sit and service

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


In the Tuesday night sangha, we are studying the book Trust in Mind: The Rebellion of Chinese Zen by Mu Soeng, which Tony believes to be on the "top five" list of books on Zen because it so perfectly captures the essence of the teachings. Trust in Mind is a line by line analysis of the classic Zen poem, Hsin Hsin Ming (pronounced "shin shin ming," more or less - the link takes you to one translation of the poem), which translates to "trust in mind." It is slow going, because although the writing is lucid and accessible, each page provides rich fodder for discussion.

Tonight's line is this: When you try to stop activity to achieve passivity, your very effort fills you with activity. Mu Soeng says when we make a conscious effort to stop a behavior or thought that we feel is undesirable, we engage in a struggle, filling us with even greater chaos instead of resolution, trying to fix things according to our own flawed preferences instead of choosing serenity.

Darlene said she realized a number of years ago that relying on conventional morality to control her behavior was inherently unsatisfying. She took as a personal koan the question, "What do I trust?" On that journey, she unearthed the Three Poisons: greed, hatred and delusion, the things that lie beneath all that we dislike about ourselves and the world. The challenge, then, is this - can we come to terms with the fact we are, each of us, imperfect persons?

The group wrestled with this question, wondering if it meant we must stop trying to become more than who we currently are. If we are addicted to heroin, do we just give up, and not try to stop using? If we dislike our behavior towards others, do we simply say, "Oh, well. That's me," or do we strive to improve ourselves? But striving is focused on attainment, and we all know that gets us nowhere. So, what next? What does Su Moeng mean by nondoing?

I find comfort in this paragraph: Nondoing is not a state of being catatonic but rather a skillful choice, a condition of serenity in which one does one's best according to one's ability and the circumstances but also one has the spaciousness to allow things to unfold according to their causes and conditions. One has the wisdom to accept the results of such unfolding without any struggle.

Ah, that I can both wrap my mind around, and hold close to my heart. It sounds remarkably like the Twelve Step Program's Serenity Prayer: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Trying Again

I work as a journalist for a small town weekly newspaper, the Calistoga Tribune. I am a staff writer, by title, but my job extends far beyond that, since there are only four of us in the office. We all have our hands full doing page layout, answering phones, dealing with subscribers, taking photos, and orchestrating the myriad mundanities that make up the world of community journalism.

One of my jobs is to gather all of the components for our two editorial pages, Perspectives. There are columnists to send reminders to, letters to the editor to proofread, Mystery Photo identifiers to list. A fun little feature on the Perspectives page is our "Quote of Note," just a short quote I select each week depending on my mood, sometimes humorous, sometimes inspirational, sometimes political. Last week, scanning my favorite quote site, Brainy Quote, I ran across this one by the Dalai Lama: Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. Perfect! I rapidly typed it into the appropriate spot on the page, and turned to my next task.

It was a Wednesday. Wednesdays are our press deadline; they are always insane. I start work at 10 a.m., and frequently don't leave the office until midnight or later. I am trying to compile calendar entries, put together puzzle pages, make last minute interview phone calls, and write my own news stories, as well as a movie review and a column. I am on overdrive all day, racing from one thing to the next. And, for some reason, Wednesday is also the day the phones seem to ring off the hook. It is the day people stop by just to chat, to see what's going to be in the paper this week. It is a constant stream of interruptions.

In the middle of the afternoon, one of our contributors stopped by to talk about his idea for a new feature. I saw him enter the office out of the corner of my eye, and groaned to myself. Oh, not another interruption! Without even taking my gaze away from the computer screen, I curtly said, "What do you need?" He wanted to talk to my boss; she wasn't in. He said he'd wait. I continued working. A few moments later, he asked me if anybody needed the Press Democrat he'd found lying on my boss's desk; it had an article he was interested in reading. Again, without making eye contact, I shot out my answer: "It's not mine. I have no idea." I felt him shrink from my sharp words. Instead of eliciting my compassion, his discomfort made me even more annoyed. What, now I had to worry about his feelings, too? I didn't have time for this! Finally, my boss showed up, and I was no longer responsible for him. I shut him out of my thoughts and continued with my work.

About an hour later, my attention was again on the Perspectives page, as I added in one more missing element. And then I saw it - the quote from the Dalai Lama himself. Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. Reading it the second time, I knew I hadn't selected it for our subscribers. It was a message to myself.

When I got home from work late that night, I found a piece of butcher block paper and wrote out the quote in black marker. Then I thumbtacked it up on the wall above my desk.

This Wednesday, I can try again.

The Hummingbird

I'm not a nature girl at heart. Although I grew up in the country, and I currently live in the country in Alexander Valley, most of my adult life was spent in cities, and I am much more urban at my core. Because of that, I don't regularly go to the woods or pasture or ocean to clear my head. It's not my first instinct. Every time I allow myself to pay attention to that natural world, though, it cuts through to something true and deep.

Yesterday my partner Sabrina and I were sitting out on the deck having a smoke. (Yes, I'm a Buddhist who smokes. I know that's almost as bad as saying you're a serial killer in Northern California; let's just say quitting is on my list, but a lot of other things are on the list, too. I'm working on it.)

Anyway, back to the deck. We have a hummingbird feeder off to one side, and we are constantly entertained by a pair of hummingbirds who swoop in for drinks, and chase each other off, trying to establish dominance over the territory. But as we were sitting out there, a tiny little hummingbird that we hadn't seen before came flying up, and landed right near our heads, perching on a small mobile we have that is made of a red glass bottle with various baubles and wire. He was so close to us, we were practically holding our breath in order to not scare him away.

The little guy seemed plumb tuckered out, and even though we eventually moved slightly, he did not take off, which struck us both as unusual behavior. Sabrina finally stood up and approached him, and still he did not move. We realized he was just a baby. He looked like he was suffering in the 110 degree heat; Sabrina thought some of the sugar water from the feeder might help revive him. But it was across the deck, and the tiny bird made no move in that direction. He appeared almost too feeble to make the journey.

Then I said, "Why don't you bring the feeder to him?" Sabrina looked at me like I was crazy. I knew she was thinking, "He'll never let me come up that close!" But she shrugged, and went to get the feeder. I sat enthralled as she brought it back over, and directly to our little hummingbird. Not only did he stay put, he immediately began to drink out of the feeder. She was handfeeding a baby bird! He stayed for a few more moments, drinking several times, then, physically rejuvenated, he took off, fluttering tentatively across the yard.

It was only after he had gone that we looked in each other's eyes, and fully realized the sweet little gift that had just been given to us. We had been completely wrapped up in that moment of watching, caring, and feeding. It was a direct experience.

Suzuki-roshi said, "When you study something with your whole mind and body, you will have direct experience." And he reminds us, too, of what Dogen said: Mountains and rivers, earth and sky - everything is encouraging us to attain enlightenment.

Mountains and rivers, earth and sky...and baby hummingbirds.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Like Kids at Play

Today I attended class at Russian River Zendo, where a group of us are reading Kosho Uchiyama's Opening the Hand of Thought, with Tony Patchell. In the section discussed this afternoon, Uchiyama is trying to define the undefinable: What is self? He argues that we are too used to viewing our self as just that conscious part of our being, our thoughts, our feelings. And yet what happens when we go to sleep? The thoughts and feelings are gone for those eight hours - but clearly, our self remains, because it is right there again when we wake up in the morning. So what exactly is that self?

Uchiyama believes human thought "cooks" everything up, removing it from what is raw and fresh, the direct experience of living fully present in the moment. We interpret; we generalize; we make associations to past experiences and those associations flavor the "now." How to get around that?

He continues: In Zen, it is said that a person knows cold things and hot things only when she herself experiences them. Everything is taken in as the real life-experience of self. This means there is no true value in definitions of things, reports of other people, or so-called pure observation of things, from which the life-experience of one's self is removed.

The lesson, which he drives home again and again, is that generalities and philosophies cannot serve us. It is only through direct experience, a complete understanding that the universe is me and I am the universe, that we can begin to approach true self.

Talk like this quickly becomes a bit of a mind-bender for me, especially since I am easily enticed by thought games. But then I luck out - chance encounters open new doors.

After the talk, I walked down the hill and to the Guerneville Park and Ride, where I had left my car. There was a van in the parking lot, with the words Segway of Healdsburg emblazoned on the side. For those of you who haven't heard of a Segway yet: it's a motorized "personal transport" device that looks like a one-person scooter on two wheels. The driver zips around at about 12 miles per hour, standing up. I had heard reports, but hadn't actually seen one until today.

A half-dozen people were tooling around the parking lot on Segways, wearing bicycle helmets. They were just going around and around in circles. Most of them were older, as in grey-haired but not octogenarians. What was amazing, though, and what made me stop in my tracks, was their facial expressions. Every single one of them was grinning from ear to ear.

It was so clear, at a single glance, that these people were THERE. They were completely in the moment. And in those brief periods when they stopped concentrating on how the thing worked, and whether or not they were going to make the next turn, I could just imagine them returning to reflective thought for a second: Damn, I haven't had this much fun since I was 10!

What it made me realize was that sometimes it takes a jolt, a Segway even, to wake us up. To remind ourselves that there is just this one wild and precious life, as poet Mary Oliver would say. I tend to forget that. I get caught up in my everyday routine, and then the thinking mind takes over, the planning, the worrying, the staging. Those bursts of newness can help shake us out of the rut.

I went skydiving once when I was in college. I've always wanted to go again. Words cannot express what it felt like, to dive out of an airplane in a solo jump. Falling through the sky, I had never felt so alive. Because it was, as Uchiyama said, that undefinable self, pure, raw, uncooked.

Having taken myself far too seriously for most of my life, the Segway lesson was clear: remember to play, kid. Remember to play.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Beginner's Mind

The Zen priests that I study with, Tony Patchell and Darlene Cohen, have asked me to start writing a blog affiliated with their Russian River Zendo in Guerneville, California. At first, I was at a loss as to how to respond to this request. I have been formally practicing Zen for only about three years. What could I possibly have to say that would be worth listening to?

But, Darlene quickly assured me that this is precisely why I should write. She said I have "beginner's mind," not because I have attained enlightenment, but because I truly am still a beginner. Shunryu Suzuki-roshi said in his classic book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, that the goal of practice in Zen is always to keep that fresh perspective. He said, "In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."

I first was exposed to Zen practice many years ago, when I studied aikido, a Japanese martial art, in Seattle. After we practiced, we would sit zazen together. I found it as challenging and invigorating as the martial art itself. It took me many years, and many twists in the road, to come back to this path. But I often reflect on that first experience, and remember my initial impressions.

In aikido, there is a similar concept of "beginner's mind," connected to the idea of attaining a black belt. When you begin practice, your belt is white. Over time, through sweat and use, the belt slowly becomes soiled. When it is completely black, indicating the years you have dedicated to the art, that is when others often recognize you as a master. But -- soon after that, if you continue to practice, the top layer of the belt will actually wear away, revealing once again the bright, new white cloth. In other words, when meeting a martial artist wearing a white belt, there is no way to tell -- is he or she a beginner or the head teacher at the dojo?

So, in the interest of full disclosure -- I am no Zen master. I am just one of many who practice, and search, make mistakes, and try again. I invite you along for the journey.