Emergency Room Zendo

I am finishing up another 10 hours of emergency call, with, as usual, all sorts of thoughts running through my head: “I’m so tired,” “I hope I made correct decisions today,” “How could I have missed another Sunday morning sitting at HCS. Gotta work on scheduling more Saturday’s instead,” “My teacher will think I’m slacking off, “I need a vacation.” It go on and on… You would think one would not have time for such thoughts when one is so busy, but sometimes the mind really is much busier than the body that propels it.

There’s a chapel across from the emergency room where I sometimes will sit for a minute or two. There is silence there; maybe some shining candlesticks under an imitation electric flame and the faint smell of cedar. Reminds me of our zendo and the solace I sometimes seek there. But then more thoughts intrude: Is this setting more real and desirous than what I experience across the hall, where I can hear other bells and claps: a beeper going off, an alarm at a patient’s bedside, the smell of vomit over vaporizing alcohol, a weeping daughter in room 26? Then it occurs to me that the chapel/zendo is not a place to escape (as initially comforting as it may be), but a container  (as the late Joko Beck would call it) to hold and see all those thoughts rising and falling. The very place we sit offers a skillful means, a place where I learn that even one mindful upright breath–maybe even smack in the middle of the ER– teaches me that all of this experience is Dharma. I am always (as are you) always at the center. What I think I hate, love, or simply find neutral are just extra. But sit with that for a while, and that’s Dharma too! It’s empty.

In one of the fascicles of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, he inverts the usual derogatory status of thoughts and ideas as illusory flowers and instead calls them “flowers of emptiness.” Each moment of this samsaric world–including what’s in my samsaric head–is blooming in dynamic flux. All of it is truly empty, and there’s a genuine peace in my accepting whatever grows and dies in this moment, wherever I find myself.
I am grateful for this practice, Joan, our Roshi, and all of the students–senior and novice–under her tutelage. As part of Ango study, I will re-read this wonderful Dogen chapter again and meet you after the new year.


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Real Rakusu

Today when I was giving meditation instruction, I noticed that something was hanging from my rakusu and then saw that the end of one of the straps was no longer attached. I had sewn this blue rakusu with a brownish-golden thread, each stitch visible, each stitch a dot, symbolizing all directions, everything.

I remembered that there was an envelope in a dresser drawer with some materials from when I sewed the rakusu and I thought that perhaps there would be some golden thread in there. The envelope was a treasure trove of things I had forgotten — rakusu sewing instructions, chalk-like sewing markers, white thread, blue thread, and even the cloth where I had practiced the stitches — but no golden thread.

I began by sewing with the white thread and it just wasn’t working because I no longer remembered how to do the stitch. It was a horrible disaster so I pulled it out and returned to the cloth with the practice stitches. Attached to the cloth was a needle and thread so I was able to figure out how the stitches had been done.

Slowly, like a child just learning a new skill, I sewed this small area with the blue thread.

Now the strap is attached with thread that doesn’t match and isn’t quite visible and with stitches that aren’t all dots, but when I looked at the rakusu, it was a perfect match. It was a perfect match because this 17 year old rakusu, with its worn fabric, discolorations, and some spots left by long ago oatmeal, is a real rakusu. Unlike the scraps used by monks of old, it started out with new cloth, but now speaks of practice and life and that perfection lies even within the flaws.

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Chirping crickets

Noise inside my head.
Zazen brings the quiet mind
hearing crickets chirp.



{a pun:}

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Reflections on Joan’s reception for Sri Lanka Relief

Although I made a decision to make a small monetary donation to Sensei’s team of psychotherapists weeks before an upcoming reception for them on July 22nd, I am happy I was able to attend the small gathering for them, in honor and support for their ongoing efforts. Joan’s presentation of the facts of the country’s long and fluctuating crises, both natural and man-made, was an eye-opening reminder of the extreme suffering that takes place all over the world. What I was unexpectedly delighted to hear and feel, however, was the love and intimacy which seemed to simply exude from my fellow sentient beings who simply decided to celebrate, in a small way, the simple and straightforward kindness of others. My fellow sangha members helped prepare for the event while I hemmed and hawed about whether I could or should make it late to the event from work. But when I got to Joan’s, I was slowly immersed in a lovely glowing ambience and surrounded by tender laughter, good food, calming music and a beautiful dawning sky. As one of the visiting therapists was strumming a guitar, I began to calm down from the day’s hectic pace , started to eat more slowly, and glanced over to my lovely wife, Doreen, and told her “I love you.” By the end of the evening, what I learned was that–along with the real concrete need to give money and resources–we also have a very critical need to provide love and emotional support to each other. In fact, the two are intertwined: It is money that helps these talented and caring individuals to continue their work abroad. I guess what really struck me, however, was how I, inadvertently, was also the recipient of this love and support: I felt their kindness right here. I didn’t know I needed it when I entered the room, but there it was exuding itself, slowly enveloping me, allowing me to switch gears, and reminding me that much of my own suffering is self-propagated. My day was hectic but I helped make it so. The magic of walking into the sangha, this community of sober and like-minded individuals, gave me the scaffold and support to make this realization possible. I reflected on the fact that we truly are interdependent, and remember Joan’s little phrase that in giving we transform the gift as the gift transforms us, or, as I believe Mother Theresa put it, “There are no such things as great acts, just small acts done with great love.” Maybe Dogen would say this kind of love leaves no trace and that this no-trace continues forever. May it be so.

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Power Outage Haiku

Zazen in the dark.
Children giggle in their beds
While I watch my breath.

candle in the dark

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Hearing the birdsong
Cacophony of nature
Night sky is revealed

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Easter for the Buddhist

I feel funny saying I am anything these days, but as I get ready to celebrate Easter with my family, having been raised Roman Catholic, I am contemplating what it is that I do that is “spiritual,” other than conceding that I am a “practicing zen buddhist.”. And even conceding that, I ask myself what that can possibly mean. Well, I suppose that means I am “staying present” which leads to the question of how and why I came to believe that doing just that could alleviate suffering–mine, as well as yours. Well, Yes, this is what I do in fact believe and try to manifest as best I can on a daily basis. And as I prepare for hosting Easter dinner with my family, many of whom are staunch believers in God and biblical scripture, I get a little nervous thinking about how to defend my behavior without the fixed grounding of the written Word. I will be asked just what it is that guides and helps me through Life. They will certainly not understand what “following the dharma” means or how it changes lives. Perhaps I need not to defend myself in any way at all, aside from practicing dharma and nonattachment with them, as well as all that I encounter, and letting them decide for themselves, as if even that matters. I will say to myself, however, that I am indeed celebrating Easter, after all, and so perhaps I ought to silently contemplate the Resurrection and what that means for me as a practicing buddhist. Just what is it that I can resurrect when I in fact let go, presumably as Christ did when he let go of everything? Yes, the final letting go, and, hopefully for me, the letting go that goes on from moment to moment to moment…, in that state of absolute poverty, as perhaps Thomas Merton would put it, where I may find absolute joy and abundance–yours as well as mine.

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Fusion Poem

Tonight we come out from slavery.

Slavery –
Chains, hard labor, sweat,
no voice,
no speech,
Constricted Consciousness.

Then, slowly, we are roused,
moving out from slavery,
liberation beckoning,
like Abraham before us,
we cross over.
A wraggle-taggle group of nomads,
everything left behind,
our egos baked in 18 minutes,
we cross over
into the desert of unknowing.

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Seeing Our Shadow

One of the definitions of Enlightenment that I appreciate is Carl Jung’s, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious” We all have parts of ourselves that we don’t want to acknowledge, that we would prefer to leave in the dark. Feelings like rage, jealousy, greed, lust, shame, competitiveness. Often the pain of those feelings leads us to actions like addiction, laziness, aggression, dependency, which only lead to more shame and deeper shadows.

In Buddhism we talk about shadow parts as the three poisons or the klesas (poisons in Sanskrit.) The three poisons, commonly known as Greed, Anger and Ignorance, encompass all of the shadow material. Greed includes, desire, lust, competitiveness, jealousy; Anger includes, hatred, rage, revenge, aggression; Ignorance includes, denial, addiction, laziness, and not seeing the interconnectedness of all beings, all things.

Our work as Zen students is to work to shine a light on those parts of ourselves we would prefer not to see. Meditation is a very powerful light. Those parts just pop up when we sit. When they pop up we can allow ourself to get curious about them,  inquire what they are about. We can even work to develop compassion toward these disowned parts of ourself. When we can feel compassion towards ourself, compassion towards others naturally flows.

If we keep those parts in the dark, not acknowledging them, we act them out while at the very same moment we deny them. We say something mean and then say, “That was just a joke.” Or we can be passive aggressive by disrespecting others by showing up late regularly, but with out making any effort to change. Or for example, if we have a lot of old rage from early trauma that we don’t acknowledge, that rage will find a target in our life and we will justify the rage, believing we are right. This will disrupt our current relationships. We will get stuck in being right and lose the connection with the other person.

As a psychotherapist I do volunteer work for an agency that works to support prostitutes who have left “the life”. Some of these women are still teens who ran away from terrible homes and were picked up by undercover cops. Others are women lured here from other countries with the promise of good jobs as nannies or housekeepers. But once they are here they are imprisoned in brothels, their clothes and passports taken away so they cannot leave. Once they are able to break free, they are very angry even many years after and they are unable to connect in a healthy way to their own children and new lovers. Like war vets, their anger erupts unexpectedly with little provocation. They need help dealing with their old trauma to clear away their dark shadow parts.

Our masks of innocence and “niceness” cover up those parts of us that we don’t want to see. As we begin to take off our own masks and look underneath, we must try to see ourself with ruthless honesty  so that we can address those parts of ourself. The shadow parts need time, patience and courage to reveal themselves to us. They often are revealed through glimpses of strong emotion that seem out of place even while we try to explain the strong reaction. Sometimes we find ourself being kind of compulsive and don’t understand it ourself. We may find we hold very strong judgements about others which is usually about a self judgement that we don’t want to admit. Feelings of contempt for others is a clue to a feeling about our own shadow quality.

For example, someone who is driven to accomplish many things will often feel contempt for someone who is less ambitious and more dependent. The shadow, a laid back, dependent part, will hide because it’s not safe to come out as long as self judgement is around. I often see this in husbands and wives. The wife may be ambitious and driven, hard working, successful and the husband unhappy with a laid back job and lots of free time. The wife may feel jealous of his free time and contemptuous of his lack of ambition. Her own dependency needs are hidden away deep within her and she can’t acknowledge the part of her that would like to be more laid back and less responsible for everything. She hates those parts of herself. That self-hate manifests in the contempt she expresses towards her husband because he doesn’t “make enough money.” In order to rebalance this relationship, she has to begin to accept her own dependency needs and he has to allow his caretaking parts to get more active in taking care of her in some way. Then she will drop her contemptuousness and he will feel more self worth.

Finding and acknowledging our shadow parts makes us vulnerable because we are dropping our mask. Vulnerability itself is often a shadow part. We have deep fears about being vulnerable. We often view it as weakness. This is a big mistake. Being vulnerable is not weakness at all, but strength. It is only through vulnerability that we can connect with others. It is only through our vulnerability that we can be lovable. As long as our mask is up in our intimate relationships we are not connecting. Oddly enough, those shadow parts that we hide from ourself, are easily seen by our intimate family. They can see the rage, hatred, jealousy, greed, lust, and shame that we hide from ourself, and being family, they often point it out to us when we are not interested in hearing it. Can we hear and put it aside to reflect on later?

We come to practice hoping to experience clarity, peace, happiness. Being told the work lies in facing all the parts of ourself that we want to pretend don’t exist is not welcome news. However, we really can’t find that inner peace, clarity and happiness unless we are willing to tackle the dark places.

So sitting practice is a part of the lifetime work to bring light to the shadow. It’s not the whole story however, because the work of finding the shadow also must be done off the cushion, in our lives. We must begin to recognize how we are reacting to events in our lives from our shadow parts. Learning to respect those parts of ourself instead of denying them is enlivening and enlightening. It gives us greater access to ourself releasing creative energies and compassion for others. It is known as “Clearly knowing” in Buddhism, seeing ourself with ruthless honesty.

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Unpoem — Impermanence

This is an unpoem
about unpractice.
Yesterday, in Starbucks,
a woman with a toddler
sat at my table.
The child was adorable,
the mother attentive and caring,
a pleasure to watch.
I thought of saying,
“This is a cliche,
you’ve probably heard
a gazillion times,
but it is true —
Enjoy this now,
because it goes so fast,
changes so quickly.”
Instead, as she began to leave,
I just said, “Enjoy!”

Seeing the changing landscape
of one’s life,
the stages and ages,
does this come from practice,
or is it a function
of having lived and looked and seen?

A poem
about unpractice.

Follow-up to unpoem:

I think that awareness of impermanence is the driving force behind our lives, whether we have a spiritual practice or not, whether we are aware of it or not. We have many ways of dealing with impermanence, some of them not so healthy. In the movie, “Moonstruck,” a woman whose husband is having an affair, asks another character, “Why do men cheat?” The answer that he gives is, “Because they’re afraid of death.”

Follow-up to the follow-up:
The chicken or egg conundrum.

Do people come to Zen practice because they want to understand impermanence or does understanding of impermanence bring them to Zen practice?

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