meticulous care

Meditation is not about some state, but about the meditator.

Joko Beck (1917-2011 June 15), Everyday Zen

We started in on the vegetable garden.  Finally!  Not because we’re lazy, negligent gardeners.  It’s a matter of weather; the ground really doesn’t warm up until about now.  No amount of optimism in the warm and sunny days of May is going to change the fact that we only get one growing season here in Zone 4a.  I’d always railed against it, pushing the season by setting things out on May 24th – that magical date for Northern addict-gardeners – then having to rush out with bed sheets and blankets to protect the plants from the chilly mornings.

A car-side chat with my equally fanatic-gardener neighbour opened my eyes to something.  “You know,” he said, “We may only get one crop but you can still plant by July 1st and get it before frost.”  Of course, I thought to myself as I drove away.  I loved the turn-around.  I could let go of getting the seeds and plants in quickly.  I could now focus on just what was here:  eight 4×4 boxes chaotically overflowing with relatively inedible greenery; weeds don’t believe in short growing seasons.  Enthusiasm and equanimity strangled in a mental tangle of twisted vines.

Joko explains what she means by her statement above.  It’s not about analyzing ourselves; it’s about watching how we get lost in our thoughts.  We roam around in our heads as a way of protecting ourselves from what is unfolding right now, what difficulty we may be facing in this moment.  “We want to figure life out,” she says.  However, what really happens is that we slide into a fantasy about our boss, friend, family member, or even weed-filled boxes.  It’s a way of protecting ourselves from reality.  But it doesn’t work because it actually takes us away from reality and worse, creates one that is unflattering about who we are.  That is why, when we sit, it should be with “great, meticulous care” and observe every thought, labeling them with attentive detail.

So I sat in the middle of that vegetable garden and treated it like my mind.  Each plant was a thought that I labeled.  “Green vine.”  “Dandelion.”  “Tall spindly thing with yellow flower.”  “Thistle.”  “Stinging nettle.”  “Clover.”  “Jerusalem artichoke.”  Sometimes a plant would appear to be something I could cultivate into something edible; some of these weeds look like coriander or parsley.  Label and pull: “Plant that looks like an herb.”  Slowly, the boxes cleared and the earth shone through.  By the end of the day, we had put in 30 tomato plants, 4 chilli peppers, and a few lettuce into five of the boxes.

Earlier in the Spring, I had checked the strawberry box and thought the 36 plants had not survived the winter.  Peeling away the layers of weeds, I discovered several had survived – our first strawberries in a patch I thought was ready for the compost.  I labeled them, tenderly, “Sweet.”

Zen is about an active life, an involved life.  When we know our minds well and the emotions that our thinking creates, we tend to see better what our lives are about and what needs to be done, which is generally just the next task under our nose.

Joko Beck

Joko Beck

Via Clouds June 13

The following from Joko’s son, Greg Tando Beck:

“Hi all, Just a note to you about Joko. Brenda and I are at here side and keeping her comfortable. She will pass on soon, like today or so. So wish her well in her final chapter and send her your prayers and love.”

Namo Avalokiteshvara
Namo Avalokiteshvara
Namo Avalokiteshvara

mirror bright

I’m not sure why gardening gloves would be called Karma but I bought a pair.  And perhaps that is my karma; always dragging myself around from one bright, shining object to another.  No wonder I’m frequently fatigued and frustrated.  Or frantic and fearful.  No, I think it’s more like indecisive and irritated.

Well, as I write this, I am certainly feeling indecisive and irritated.  It’s cloudy and the delivery of the newly purchased lawn mower is delayed – threatening clouds holding the overgrown lawn hostage.  I want to get out to the vegetable garden and clean it up.  It’s one of the last pieces of the gardens that needs attention.  But I’m torn between doing paperwork (it is cloudy after all) and weeding.  What if I did one and neglecting the other has serious consequences?  What if I did the other and neglecting… no wait… that’s the same question!

It happens frequently.  I think I’m asking good questions, analyzing the best approach to something but really I’m just stuck in this split, wanting an answer I can live with, one that confirms my worldview and belief system, something that isn’t going to be demanding in its corollaries.  That would be too frightening.  And when I’m most fearful, I tend to become most dogmatic.  This is the moment when I am vulnerable to zen sickness: there is no decision, no decision-maker, no garden, no paperwork.  I’m starting to see that the most insidious of my cravings is the desire to annihilate reality because it, too often, confirms my limited self.

Joko Beck (Everyday Zen) writes about the “Bottleneck of Fear,” the way in which we contract our lives down to a limited view of ourselves.  We are all subject to being conditioned to protect ourselves however we derive meaning about who we are from the conditioning.

The bottleneck of fear isn’t caused by the conditioning, but by the decision about myself I have reached based on that conditioning.

I am conditioned to value efficiency and efficacy.  These are the cornerstones of my identity; they are the twin deities of my personal religion.  Split between decisions – even if they are those of low-threat as paperwork and gardening – triggers a gut level response which Joko points out is my best teacher.  Bringing awareness to that gut-clenching illuminates the fear and sheds light on the falsehood of my limited self.  But it takes practice not just sitting around waiting for that understanding to emerge from the murky depths of my multi-layered delusion state.

Joko does something fascinating with this idea of practice.  She points out our eagerness to go to Hui-Neng’s verse that raised him to be the Sixth Patriarch: “there is no mirror-stand, no mirror to polish, and no place where dust can cling…”  Sure.  If our vision is clear in the first place.  But usually it isn’t; clouded by the cravings, desires, preferential states and deceptive actions, how can we get past the dust, let alone find the mirror!

It’s a paradox, Joko writes.  We need to understand the Sixth Patriarch’s words but we need to practice with the verse that was not accepted by the Fifth Patriarch.

This body is the Bodhi tree;
The mind is a mirror bright:
Carefully cleanse them hour by hour,
And let no dust alight.

(W)hen we fail to see clearly, we create merry mayhem for ourselves and others.  We do have to practice, we do have to polish the mirror, until we know in our guts the truth of our life.  Then we can see that from the very beginning, nothing was needed.  Our life is always open and spacious and fruitful.  But let’s not fool ourselves about the amount of sincere practice we must do before we see this as clearly as the nose on our face.


It’s going to be a spatter week!  Oh and, Joseph… note the white balance!  I’m too embarrassed to explain why I wasn’t getting the right effect for all the advice I was getting.  But that’s the problem, isn’t it?  There are subtleties in the join-these-dots-please of a teaching I tend to be oblivious to.

The nuances of getting the ink to spatter was one of those moments.  However, it ended up being a good lesson about the physics of objects in motion and letting go of how I think something should happen.  And it lead me down a rabbit hole about mass, velocity, and attaining enlightenment.  If I recall, mass X velocity = momentum.  Which says a lot about the effect of my surplus baggage on sustaining momentum in anything I’m doing – mental or physical – including getting enlightened.  One of the excess bags is the one that I call Wishfulness.  It carries the shoulda’s, woulda’s, and what if’s.  (The coulda’s are in the Resentment bag.)  It gets heavy at times, these moments of wanting a second chance – or even a better first chance. 

Here’s a nice piece from Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen:

To some degree we all find life difficult, perplexing, and oppressive.  Even when it goes well, as it may for a time, we worry that it probably won’t keep on that way….Nobody believes his or her life is perfect.  And yet there is something within each of us that basically knows we are boundless, limitless.  We are caught in the contradiction of finding life a rather perplexing puzzle which causes us a lot of misery, and at the same time being dimly aware of the boundless, limitless nature of life.  So we begin looking for an answer to the puzzle.

Joko points out that we tend to look outside ourselves – that bigger car, higher salary, better vacations, and so on.  These are the “if onlies” that we go through hoping for a resolution to the puzzle of feeling our suffering and intuiting our boundlessness.

First of all, we wear out those (if onlies) on the gross levels.  Then we shift our search to more subtle levels…we turn to a spiritual discipline.  Unfortunately we tend to bring to this new search the same orientation as before….  “If only I could understand what realization is all about, I would be happy.”

Enlightenment is not something you achieve.  It is the absence of something.  All your life you have been going forward after something, pursuing some goal.  Enlightenment is dropping all that.

I’m getting the sense that just dropping off those excess bags at the Salvation Army is not enough.  Velocity has to drop off too.  A full stop?  It suddenly occurs to me that the velocity of the ink is most powerful when the brush comes to a sudden stop on the paper.

hidden promises

Sunday’s post announced that Zen teacher Joko Beck was in hospice care.  Scouting around the bloggosphere, I’m touched by how deeply this teacher drew so many of us onto the path of practice – and service.  I read Joko’s book Everyday Zen decades ago, wandering across it as I struggled with the role Buddhism played in my life.  I was in graduate school, mangling relationships and getting mangled in turn by the zeitgeist in Psychology that had yet to understand the concept of empathy.  We were a good match. 

In the turmoil of egos and crazy-making interactions, Joko Beck’s writings were a clean straight arrow shot into the air.  The tempo of a cognitive psychological stance resonated with my studies.  It’s not the intention of her teachings to activate the left brain but it is skillful means if the brain at hand is tilted so.  Whatever it was, I learned and grew from her books.  Nothing special, simply unfolding breath by breath, in my life as it was at that time – and it is now.

When I read the news of her dying, I lit a stick of incense. 

May you journey safely to the other shore, Joko. 

May you finally be free of carrying us, one-by-one, word-by-word, to our transformation. 

May you rest now, trusting in the labor of all of us who take your teachings into heart and plant them into ground. 

May you find your promise kept and no longer need to practice disappointment.

These are some of my favourite readings from Nothing Special:

The problem is that nothing actually works.  We begin to discover that the promise we hold out to ourselves – that somehow, somewhere, our thirst will be quenched – is never kept.  I don’t mean that we never enjoy life.  Much in life can be greatly enjoyed: certain relationships, certain work, certain activities.  But what we want is something absolute.  We want to quench our thirst permanently, so that we have all the water we want, all the time.  That promise of complete satisfaction is never kept.  It can’t be kept.  The minute we get something we have desired, we are momentarily satisfied – and then our dissatisfaction rises again.

Practice has to be a process of endless disappointment.  We have to see that everything we demand (and even get) eventually disappoints us.  This discovery is our teacher.

The promise that is never kept is based on belief systems, personally centered thoughts that keep us stuck and thirsty.

It’s useful to review our belief systems…because there’s always one that we don’t see.  In each belief system we hide a promise.