start with the seed

 “I’ve taken a lot of Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Ritalin, Focalin. I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies of the religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.”

Leonard Cohen – prelude to Ain’t No Cure for Love, Live in London Disc I

There was a time during which I woke up every morning, and in that waking felt intense anger that I had woken up. Physically and mentally, that is. Not deeply in any sense of the word. Woken up to the reality that I had not died in the night – quietly, softly, without fanfare. When people ask me if meditation has helped or why they should practice mindfulness (secular, therapeutic or otherwise), I veer away from this story because it’s just not that believable. What can I say to them? “Oh well, I felt profoundly suicidal all my life until one day I didn’t. Gee, I think that was the meditation! Well, it could have been psychotherapy but heck, the therapist had transference/attachment issues which really sank that ship.”

Let’s face it, friends. We all know our share of dharma teachers and longtime practitioners with serious Icky Disorders that we should be careful about assuming meditation/mindfulness is sufficient for insight and transformation. I’ll leave this here for the moment. Let’s go back to a time before pandemics and mindfulness wars.

The last few years have been a heady journey into the bowels of the many worlds of mindfulness. I mean that deliberately to point to the challenges of taking a path without a clarity of intention and insight to the consequences of our actions. Shit can happen and does. And the mindfulness worlds are no different in containing the good, bad, and ugly. More than that, I discovered it is a landscape in which the good needs the the bad and ugly in order to germinate, sprout, and bear fruit. I’m not naive – being a survivor of decades of throat-cutting academic studies, employment in highly competitive venues, and just plain dealing with toxic family issues. And yet. And yet, I fell into the hell realms with an ease that was impressive!

Good things happened though. I think – I’m told – our work made a contribution to setting a course towards the role and importance of sila in teaching mindfulness. More than that, thanks to the evolving conversations around intersectionality, uncovering our biases, and decolonizing our perspectives, the zeitgeist of mindfulness now seems to curve our life towards compassionate care for each other. The core intention of mindfulness is the arc of opening our heart/mind and with that we can let go of the dualistic discussions of mindfulness.

But… there is still the issue of practice and transformation. Practicing good intentions is not sufficient for cultivating wisdom and insight. Our transformation is firmly rooted in our ability to feel the consequences of our action. As skillful as we may believe we are, the fruit of our action informs us of our skillfulness – and the honesty of our intentions. Our willingness to experience the bitter taste of (hopefully unintended) consequences or the sweetness of wholesome outcomes is the teaching, is karma. It fuels our willingness to change our actions, evolve through the lessons of experiential consequences, and learn the nuances of being blameworthy.

Because each of you has his or her own death, you carry it with you in a secret place from the moment you’re born, it belongs to you and you belong to it.

Jose Saramago, Death with Interruptions

Now let’s return to those waking moments when I felt betrayed by Death. Honestly, to hope that death would be an extension of falling asleep is a misunderstanding of responsibility and a vast ignorance of belongingness. This sense that my practice was in cultivating belongingness wasn’t some great insight or a jolt of connection. In fact, it arose from the pain of all the not-belonging I felt day by day, moment-by-moment. As our dear Leonard Cohen did, I tried everything – meditation groups, sanghas, sesshins, dokusans, mindful self-compassion, teaching, reading, learning, writing, and way too many talks. Through all the disappointments, it came back to practice.

Practice – call it meditation, zazen, koans, what have you – has been a continuous thread of saying mu, no, neti-neti, slowly eroding away that craving to belong to be proven worthy of the tribe. And slowly, slowly “cheerfulness” kept surprising me. One morning I woke up, not just literally and caught my breath in the silence, in the empty space when anger had been. One day, I felt the gut punch of someone saying to me, “It hurts when I hurt myself.” One night, I fell asleep without expectations of living or dying.

There’s no magic in practice or prostrations. There’s only the embodied feeling of the consequences when they don’t align with my intentions to be kind, supportive, compassionate, caring, loving. Therein is the seed of liberation and the transformation of our unskillfulness.

I’ve missed you all. Thank you for being here waiting.

For an incredible ride into the world of transformation and insight, give C.W. Huntington’s powerful novel Maya a whirl.


on compassionate community, septic tanks, and toast & jam with a nice cuppa

It’s a rainy Friday and I’ve successfully managed to navigate through a wild week of the ego roller coaster.  Success, of course, is not defined as achieving anything momentous but rather a capacity to stay with whatever is unfolding.  And this week it ranged from the ego-dizzying peaks of public talks to the crash of discovering our septic system is in need of attention.

You have to admit, reading the snip to the left, that we mindfulness practitioners tend to be a rather strange lot.  Or maybe it was only that I was Twittering with the Oxford Mindfulness Clinic whose Brit humour was quite appreciated in my moment of dire need.  Who else would suggest having a cuppa as we contemplate the exudate of our sack of blood and pus!

Well, the true practice of mindfulness is to find the surprise in the center of turmoil, the extraordinary in the ordinary, and the ordinary in the overblown.

Let me rewind.  The week was originally scattered through with several interviews for police officers wanting to make a transition to our local constabulary.  I tend to enjoy this facet of my life because it is a nice change from the inexhaustible flow of pain and suffering.  I’m being honest here; even we shrinks with all our pistons firing in the empathy engine look for some variety in the object of our concern.  This meant it was a relatively light week to get to the fiscal bottom line (they pay rather well) and when I ran into a schedule conflict for some public talks, I simply re-scheduled all three to the same week.

The first two talks were sweet.  Two hours of sharing the intricacies of mindfulness practice with physicians and other health care professionals on one day (they paid in chocolate) and a delightful lecture to a group undergrads at my alma mater on the second day (their prof paid in a Starbucks gift card).  I love doing this sort of thing.  It’s not just a chance to educate on mindfulness practices; it’s an important opportunity to dispel the myths and other ridiculous ideas we in the profession have about mindfulness.

The third talk was a heart-clencher.  There’s a new Kid in town called Mindfulness Ottawa which hopes to be a community of professionals who do what such groups do.  It’s a brave initiative and I’m 100% behind it.  Who doesn’t need a supportive community for the tough and gruff times?  Besides, they asked me to be the keynote speaker.  Brain-swell like that you can’t turn down (I didn’t know they wouldn’t be paying in chocolate).  The pressure on my rational center was enough that I wore a strapless black dress, high heels, and a red leather jacket.  (I’m assured that my big toes will not need amputation.)

In preparing the talk, I reflected on the many ways in which I have failed in trying to build compassionate community.  At one level, I don’t believe I have the personality that is soft-hearted enough.  And it’s not a contradiction to say I also don’t have a personality that is tough-minded enough.  To build a community that can fold in all manner of personalities does require a softness to flow with and a toughness to deflect all manner of challenges.  And yet… as we all introduced ourselves, it became apparent that two-thirds of the attendees had trained in our clinic and announced themselves having us (Frank and I) as their teachers.  Oh alright… some said “inspiration.”

I cried.

This is not how it’s supposed to go.  There’s supposed to be this slow and steady ramp up to fame and then ignominy in our dotage.  We were supposed to either schmooze our way into the limelight and be adored or work in relative obscurity only to be discovered sipping a shake at a local soda pop shop of mindfulness.   It wasn’t supposed to happen that one day we would show up with heart in throat to deliver a talk on “laying down the path to compassionate community” only to discover it had already happened.

I won’t complain.  These are good people.  And, truth be told, I am proud of what we have unwittingly accomplished and of every one of them as they lay down new paths in saving beings from suffering.  And… and… if they are still deluded in thinking their passion comes from some earthly source, who am I to argue – especially when some of them are frustrated pastry chefs who use me as their guinea piggy.

This is practice – tough, tough practice.  It unfolds deep in the heart of our experience as we, blinded by our self-importance, stumble about tramping down a peripatetic path.

I may never wear high heels again – at least not without having my feet bound.  I may never fit in that strapless black dress or red leather jacket again.  (Perhaps I should make that a metta practice: may I never…)

Certainly I will not as I tramp around trying to figure out what’s gone wrong with my septic system.