The Night Chant

CAM00509I am recently returned home from a vacation that included a three-night, four-day stay at the beautiful, peaceful Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I attended a retreat entitled “Contemplative Practice and Rituals in Service to the Dying”, taught by Roshi Joan Halifax and Frank Ostaseski. Perhaps I should say “facilitated” rather than “taught”, because there was nothing arm’s length about this retreat.

There were more than fifty of us attending and I was one of the very few not actively working or volunteering in end-of-life care or who had not recently tended to the dying of a close loved one, often at home. Our time together consisted of meals, work practice, and multiple daily sessions of silent meditation and group discussion that left most of us emotionally (and surprisingly physically) exhausted. The retreat certainly fulfilled the advertised description of being “an intensive plunge into core contemplative practices”. Afterwards, the only way I could think of to describe how I felt was that my soul had been scrubbed clean.

My experiences of the retreat and the notebook I filled up during the discussions will probably launch many future blogs as I process what I received in accordance with Frank’s final instruction: “Don’t believe anything we said; chew it, taste it – if it’s right for you, swallow it; if not, spit it out.” I would do a grave disservice to cram all of my thoughts into one quick recap of retreat ‘highlights’. Therefore, I want to focus this entry on my experience of one temporally small aspect of the retreat, yet something that shook me to the core: the Zen Night Chant. Continue reading

Gatha

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASometimes I am nearly overcome by the preciousness of life, so beautiful, so fascinating, so fragile. Over and over again I come back to Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea of the relative dimension – the wave – and the ultimate dimension – water. As a wave, we are each different from each other, each subject to birth and death. As water, we are all of the same essence, infinite as the ceaseless cycle of clouds to rain to river to clouds. “The cloud can never be nothing,” he says. “That is the true nature of the cloud.”

I have composed a little gatha that lately I like to breathe with each morning. Gathas are new to my practice since coming to Thay’s tradition. I have slowly begun to embrace them; they are wonderful bells of mindfulness. Let me offer this one as a lotus for you, a Buddha-to-be.

Breathing in, I am a wave, coming and going.

Breathing out, I am water, ceaselessly flowing.

Breathing in, I am a wave, crashing and striving.

Breathing out, I am water, calmly abiding.

 

Stories

Jizo 23At heart, I am a storyteller. I love the English language, whether spoken or written, though my particular passion is playing with written words. I’ve written a couple of books and co-written a couple more; I earn my living through mastery of a highly technical and precise form of writing that has little room for creativity and often feels like assembling a verbal puzzle. I get a lot of enjoyment from crafting a well-turned phrase.

Stories are a wonderful way to learn, teach, and share. Some truths penetrate the heart easier when they are clothed in fiction; a lesson may face less resistance when presented through a well-told story. I spent my childhood unashamedly in love with books and can still be enthralled by a good author who knows the craft.

Mary McCarthy wrote, “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story.” As an inveterate storyteller, I occasionally catch myself doing something akin to narrating my own life through internal dialogue. There is always a danger that I will sensationalize, catastrophize, romanticize, or otherwise subconsciously alter my own experience in order to make a “better” story. Mindfulness practice reminds me to remain in the unvarnished present moment, accepting and embracing what actually is rather than trying to recast it into something else. Continue reading

Roles

Jizo 5I had the good fortune earlier this month to attend the first day of a FACES Compassion and Wisdom conference here in DC. FACES conferences focus “on the integration of ‘mindfulness’ and ‘compassion’ in the counseling field”. They are largely intended for mental health professionals and therapeutic service providers, though members of the public like myself may also attend. I attended one plenary session with Roshi Joan Halifax called “Inside Compassion” and two presentations/workshops by Kristin Neff on Self-Compassion: “The Proven Power of Kindness” and “Difficult Relationship Interactions”.

The talks I attended concerned compassion for self as well as others. There was a tangible atmosphere of caring in the audience, magnified by the feeling of proven compassion-in-action that radiated from the speakers. Before Roshi Joan began her talk, she asked the audience to identify themselves in terms of their roles, which was expressed here in terms of livelihood. Waves of people stood up to be counted as therapists, counselors, psychiatrists, social workers, physical therapists, and the like. A few proudly shouted out titles that didn’t neatly fit into the category of healing professions, like accountant and home contractor, to be met with good-natured laughter. Continue reading

Nourishing

Jizo 29After what felt like an interminable winter, spring arrived with an explosion of sunshine, blossoms, green grass, and birdsong. I’ve been delighting in the change, fully aware of how much better I feel inside when the world outside appears bountiful and generous. Nature seems now to have so much to go around – an explosion of light and loveliness – that I am inspired to openness as well. I feel more expansive when the natural world is positively tripping over itself to unfold.

This past weekend I attended a three-day mindfulness retreat by the Chesapeake Bay. The location was glorious and I was nourished by the supportive community of practitioners who joyfully sat, walked, cooked, and cleaned together in mostly silence. Settling into silence actually turned out to be much easier than coming out of it. After several days of eating and walking slowly, listening and watching mindfully, being aware of everything going on around and within me, the return to normal conversation and the speed of regular life has been exhausting. I am adjusting with earlier-than-usual bedtimes.

One of my favorite parts of the retreat experience was mindfully and silently walking with the rest of the retreatants along the shoreline at low tide. I was drawn to the trees that grew sideways out towards the water, their root systems almost entirely exposed as the cliff they’d originally been embedded into had largely eroded away. They were such improbable trees – their roots twisted among rocks, their trunks stretched long and low over the shore, somehow managing to survive with almost no soil and certainly too much water. If I had seen them a month earlier, I would certainly have thought they were dead. And yet spring has arrived and even these improbable trees are responding with bud and bloom. It was a remarkable affirmation of life despite desperate circumstances.

In The Mind of Clover: Essays in Buddhist Ethics, Robert Aitken (Robert Baker Aitken Roshi) has a fascinating footnote in the middle of a discussion of the Three Pure Precepts (Renounce all evil; Practice all good; Save the many beings.) He writes: Continue reading

Commitments

Jizo 15I recently finished two books on the subject of precepts: Thich Nhat Hanh’s For a Future to Be Possible: Commentaries on the Five Mindfulness Trainings (revised 1998 edition, Parallax Press, now out of print/revised into The Mindfulness Survival Kit) and Robert Aitken’s The Mind of Clover: Essays in Buddhist Ethics. I’ve been thinking about precepts a lot over the last several weeks and wanted to start my blogging on the subject with a discussion of why I think precepts in general are so valuable. I’ll be using the term “commitment” to encompass the world of precepts, vows, mindfulness trainings, and other less formally transmitted injunctions to moral conduct.

Some people feel that commitments are confining; I find them to be freeing. Commitments focus the mind so that it’s not scattered to distraction. To quote Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche from The Path of Individual Liberation: The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, Volume One, “Discipline may seem complicated, but it is actually very simple – it is what binds your life together. Without discipline, life is made up of successive indulgences and confusions based on aggression, passion, and ignorance.” Interestingly, that statement rings true in modern psychological studies relating to a phenomenon called decision fatigue. Continue reading

Aimlessness

Jizo 11Last blog I wrote about the major topics covered by the book Living in the Light of Death: on the art of being truly alive by Larry Rosenberg with David Guy, namely the Four Messengers of aging, sickness, death, and spiritual attainment. My favorite part of the book, however, was actually the last half, which talks about how to bring one’s newly awakened or deepened commitment to practice into every moment of daily life.

Rosenberg says that we have to stop looking at meditation or any other aspect of our practice as being goal-oriented, because ironically, if we focus on a goal, we hinder our ability to attain it:

On the one hand, sitting is one of the most practical things you can do. It definitely has beneficial effects on your life, as anyone will tell you who does it. But when you sit in order to gain them . .  . you undermine yourself. You limit what sitting can do. It is fine to have a sincere aspiration to be a free and sane person; that can give enthusiasm and direction to your practice. But very often we put something in front of us to run after, and that separates us from full and direct contact with the present moment. A corner of the mind is occupied with the goal and is unable to see what is right now.

I relate to this out of my own struggles to establish a regular sitting meditation practice, which took me nearly two decades. Continue reading