being a lamp

We are coming down the home stretch of the Eightfold Path.  In my notes, the eight practices are clustered into three groups: Wisdom (Right View, Right Thinking), Ethics (Right Action, Livelihood, Right Speech), and Concentration (Right Effort, Right Concentration, Right Mindfulness).  Each cluster is also the skillful means to deal with ignorance, ill-will, and craving, respectively.  Together they form a mandala of practice by supporting each other so that a deeper relationship to self and others can emerge.

As part of looking into Right Effort, I want to stop and breathe a moment at the end of the cluster of practices that comprise an ethical stance to living well. Shining the light on my practice, I’ve been asking myself about my intention as I engage in a particular action or speech.  I’ve also been asking myself if my response is going to encourage the other person to counter with unskilfulness.  I know this sounds like I may be taking too much responsibility for the actions of others, getting into their heads.  A famous psychologist is reported to have said that we need to stop being our patient’s frontal lobe.  In other words, we need to respect each person’s ability to do what is exacted of them in the moment (note: not expected but exacted).

That is true.  And the flip side of allowing someone to find their skilfulness is respecting the ease with they can slide into unskilfulness.  Still, the cycle of unskilfulness (or what I like to call reactive bludgeoning) has to be broken somewhere and who better to break it than the person who constantly is confronted with needing to practice breaking these links.  In that sense, I believe it means me – and you and you and you over there.  Effort is the burden of awareness; once the consequences of being in an ever-widening circle of relationships comes into view, we can’t claim blindness.

Oh, about the nun with the lamp.  Frank gave me that when we first met and were in that buying-cutsey-things-that-seem-so-meaningful stage.  I was quite affronted (and didn’t hide it) but his explanation was that it seemed just like “me”: facing everything with a sense of amazement.  I don’t know about that.  Yet over the years, I’ve sort of warmed up to her especially after I noticed she’s wielding a lamp.

Thank you for practising,


an expression of self

The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self,
or it can be a source of suffering for you and others.

Thich Nhat Hanh on Right Livelihood – The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

OK.  I’ve written and deleted this post three times because life has been intervening and offering new perspectives on the practice of earning a living.  It started with an early morning phone call from the nursing home where my mother has lived for four and a half years.  Vascular dementia has painfully eroded her capacity to discern between threat and safety resulting in raging violence when her caregivers try to give her a bath or cut her nails.

The phone call was a variation on that theme with a twist.  Mum was having severe chest pains that had begun the evening before.  When I showed up she was in full rant, most of it unintelligible because of her aphasia.  But occasionally a word or exclamation would bellow out unmistakable in its intent both to frighten us off and to summon help.  “You’re killing me!”  “Whore!”  “Dirty woman!”  You have to understand that my mother is 4′ 11″, 93 years old, and not much heavier than a load of groceries – with a right hook to shame a heavyweight boxer.

We needed to change “everything,” the care givers told me.  Clothing, bed covers, blankets, everything. I was the drone: hold her down here, turn her over and HOLD!  Now turn the other way, flip, pull, tuck the sheets in.  The two women patiently explained every step to my mother.  She watched them intently as they stroked her cheek and said: Julia, we’re going to…  Now we have to…. Julia, I need to…  Then, as they proceeded to do what had to be done, she screamed words at them I don’t think any mother should know.  In the melee, one care giver took it in the temple (right on her bar bell piercing – that must have hurt like hell!).  The other caught a glancing blow on her cheek.  I think I escaped but there’s a soreness on my upper arm that wasn’t there before.  Working swiftly the three of us managed to undress, wash, and dress her; then we managed to change the bedding and the blankets.

When it was over, Mum stroked the cheek of one of the care givers, allowed herself to be tucked in and, Frank having tentatively returned to the room, took his hand in what he said was a bone crushing grip.  Drifting in and out of sleep, she turned and asked me, “How is your Mummy, dear?”

I started this post quoting paragraphs about the indeterminacy of Right Livelihood, about earning a living in ways that may be damaging to others, about doing what must be done even if it violates the precepts.  There are many words and analyses dissecting Buddhist principles, ethics, and skillful living.  I deleted them all in the end because I don’t think they capture the practice of Right Livelihood as powerfully as two women did that morning, doing what was clearly distressing to them and doing just what needed to be done.  They seem to embody Thich Nhat Hanh’s term “supporting” oneself which offers more than just the idea of an exchange of services with an eye out for bad karma.

Thank you for practising,


doing it right

There’s a close link between thought and action.  Remember all the training techniques for athletes?  They involve self-talk, visualization, re-framing, and even suppression. Facebook pal Doug M. mentioned that the Buddha’s teachings emphasized “thoughts as a forerunner of actions.”  This tends to be the usual take on Right Action, practising at that boundary between thinking and manifesting the content of thought.  I want to write “embody” but the term encompasses so much more than the completion of the thought-action circuit and includes a flavour of skilfulness.  Either way, Right Action evokes not only a sense of engagement but implies familiarity with a deep ethic of that engagement.

Many of our friends and colleagues are involved in compassionate projects, engaging in the world in ways I can’t imagine myself doing.  Maia Duerr, author of the fabulous Jizo Chronicles, just returned from a trip to an elephant hospital in Thailand and writes passionately about it here.  The video is heartbreaking but I made myself watch it; I’m not good with this level of suffering – or I should say, I’m useless in the face of senseless suffering brought about by human stupidity.  My first reaction is rage which is totally ineffective.  So, I applaud Maia for facing this Ox and returning to the marketplace with the wisdom of her teachings.  Other friends like Iris whose dedicated work is with rescue dogs, Lisa Friedland who founded Awakened Connections and Nancy Lasseter who is Director of Rwanda Sustainable Families are facing down HIV/AIDS in Thailand and poverty in Africa, respectively.  And, of course, there is our daughter Alex (The Kid) who comes home to stay just long enough before this life of ease and comfort becomes inconceivable in the face of global suffering.  She’s off on another adventure which I can’t share yet in case I jinx it.

These are people with whom I am in direct contact, face-to-face, hand-to-hand, heart-to-heart.  And yet.  And yet…  There is a side to Right Action where one cannot get it “right” no matter what one does.  As an aside – and perhaps belatedly so – it was pointed out in a dharma talk that the Eightfold Path is a manual of Ethics. I haven’t been explicit about it in my written exploration but it certainly is bouncing around in my skull.  This double-edged aspect of manifesting Right Action is in the foreground of our lives at the moment.

Frank’s father died three years ago this week, leaving a broken down house and an even greater broken set of relationships in the wake of his departure.  The house, more easily managed than the floundering relationships, is in North Carolina which is a state in profound distress.  Unemployment is running about 9.7% and in the county where the house stands, it’s much higher.  Over the three years, we’ve rented the house about four times, each time to tenants who were likely unable to pay the rent but whose stories suggested compassion was required.  And, you know where this is going.  After four occasions of having to repair damage to a newly renovated house, chase down house keys from vanished occupants, and apologize to neighbours for collateral damage, we find ourselves faced with a tough decision about what constitutes right action.  There are no clear answers and, at the moment, we realize that the rental agent, a saint of a woman with a discerning nature, is the better judge of Right Action in this dilemma.

My Chaplaincy supervisor at the hospital pointed out this need for discernment to me when I asked if I could take on a former patient through the spiritual care department.  Positive support includes teaching people how to use the resources that are already available to them.  And it includes knowing when the they’ve received all they can use effectively.  It’s a tough call and I’m glad she asked me to make it.  Perhaps in the end, Right Action is generosity of spirit, the willingness to do what is difficult and to engage in it wholeheartedly – even if “doing” is saying it cannot be done.

Thank you for practising,


a lineage of speech

Into everyone’s life a Moment must fall.  That Moment landed for me during a gathering at a conference on peer relationships – how children made friends and the positive effects of friendships on child development.  We were standing around in a large-ish group, not-so-greats, wanna-be-greats, and graduate student hanger-ons.  Interestingly, for a group who studied everything from what made kids popular to what created bullies, we were a particularly competitive and mean-spirited clutch of researchers.  At least that was how it sounded by our verbal exchanges which was more about seeing who would be hacked to bits next than about discussing how to make school an emotionally safer environment.  The irony, however, was lost on me as I jockeyed to be one of the group.

I don’t recall what I said; I’m actually surprised I’ve forgotten.  A graduate student I admired made a comment about her work.  I snapped back with what I thought was a witty come-back.  The stunned silence said otherwise and someone quietly exclaimed, “Oh.  That was horribly mean.”  I don’t remember much else after that.  There was a feeling of shame but more one of confusion.  In a whirlwind of cutting remarks and digs at competence, I couldn’t understand why my words were judged so profoundly lacking in kindness.  I still don’t know but it doesn’t matter.  The lesson was well learned.

It was a powerful Moment in which I suddenly felt the lineage of hurtful speech bearing down on me.  I think there are times when we have this felt sense of the stream of all our ancestors.  This was one.  It wasn’t only about Right Speech – or in this case generations of Wrong Speech.  It also brought into high relief the sense of verbal entitlement I had inherited from my family’s way of communicating: a belief that we could say anything about anything to each other and the supposition of love was the license.  Of course, if fair play and willingness to take responsibility were part of the agreement, it might (might?) have passed for teasing.  But there was a one-sidedness to the Unmindful Speech and a scurrying into denial when someone (usually me) broke down.  “Oh we’re just joking.”  “You’re too sensitive.”

Back story aside, I felt in that Moment something needed to change, this was not who I wanted to be.  I don’t know who that person was who lowered the boom on me at the conference but I owe her my practice.  Now, roses don’t fall out of my mouth and I can get pretty foul at times but I notice that edge when my speech is not going to be useful.  I’m learning that Right Speech is not about “make nice” words and tones.  It’s not about tearing one person down to build up a relationship with another.  It’s not about trading integrity for belonging.  It’s neither seduction nor collusion.

It’s about speaking to my truth, going to essence, trusting that what needs to emerge will, and not measuring my words against my preferred outcome.  It’s also about noticing reactivity and taking responsibility for what happens when highly practiced tracks in my brain send the signals before I can hit “mute speakers.”

Thank you for practising,


are you sure?

This should be an easy post to write on Right Thinking, the second practice on the Eightfold Path, but I keep getting my neural pathways mixed up.  Developmentally, I suppose you could say I grew up as a cultural Buddhist and a spiritual Catholic.  It wasn’t a bad mix behaviourally; I seem to recall being opportunistically evangelical and it worked like a charm on most of the adults, which in my childhood seemed over-represented by priests, nuns, monks, and the occasional saint.  As a result, my thought patterns were some screwed up variation of life-is-suffering-what-does-it-matter-even-if-you-go-to-confession-you’re-gonna-go-to-Hell.  That being a well-worn neural path, on some days, those thoughts still feel like the truth.

I’m not surprised that I gravitated to cybernetics, cognitive science, and eventually forms of therapy that relied on challenging our thinking process.  Equally unsurprising is the fact that I only developed faith in the capacity of Cognitive Therapy to be useful and beneficial because I tried it on myself.  (Thankfully, I didn’t become a psychiatrist specializing in electro-convulsive therapy.)  Why wouldn’t I?  Can you imagine telling someone “Look, you need to let go of that thought about being a loser and just challenge it with a question like ‘What’s the data that I’m a loser?'” with no idea of how hard it is to do that?

It’s not impossible.  It can be done.  But until I actually sat with this rampaging bull of a mind and tried to get it to turn right when it was careening left, I didn’t have a clue what it took.  For a period in my life, I remember creating a little template with five questions that I hauled out and asked myself every time the bull started thrashing around.

What was the Behaviour?
What Affect are you noticing?
What Sensations?
What Imagery?
What Cognitions?

This B-A-S-I-C is a template from a researcher named Arnold Lazarus whose concept of cognitive appraisal dove-tailed with the rising theories on stress in the 70’s.  Even when the surge of Cognitive Theories and Therapies hit psychology, I stayed loyal to Lazarus’ theory of how we generate suffering for ourselves by interpreting situations as catastrophic when other perspectives may be more useful.  It seemed so… well… Buddhist.  And besides, it made sense.  And, it had strong backing from Buddha to Marcus Aurelius to Shakespeare.

Recently, I’ve started using Thich Nhat Hanh’s four practices for Right Thinking (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching):

Are you sure? It’s easy to mistake a rope for a snake, a friend for a foe, a helping hand for an ambush.  I’m good at these thought twisters.  Asking myself if I’m sure of what I perceive is a checkpoint on the road to suffering.

What am I doing? Unfortunately, when I ask this question of myself, it sounds a bit panicked!  The intention is to be – right here, in this moment.  This works really well for me when I’m chopping vegetables or doing something routine where the probability is greater that I will be caught up in discursive thought.  Thich Nhat Hanh writes that the initial thought is not the problem; it’s the developing thought that can run us down paths that are judgemental and unpleasant.

I’m relieved to read this because there are too many mindfulness teachers spouting “Thoughts are not facts” and really confusing folks about the obvious: thoughts help organize facts.  Fact or not, “She’s probably mad at me” is not the problem.  Expanding it into a three-part mini-series of betrayal and vengeance is – all the more so if she really is mad at me.

Here you are, my Habit Energy.  Neural paths are easy to lay down and hard to avoid once entrenched.  There is safety in habits: taking the same route avoids getting lost, eating the same food avoids disappointment, sticking to the same relationships avoids risk of rejection.  I’m a creature of habit but I’m starting to push that edge of comfort out of curiousity, adding colour to my palette.

Bodhichitta.  In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh doesn’t really dig into the practice of cultivating the mind of love as a part of Right Thinking.  I can see some obvious connections: bodhichitta is a perspective of relating with compassion to all beings which requires a form of non-preferential thought, non-judgemental mind.  It is linked with Right View as cart to ox, pulling along together in the rutted road.  I have to work on this one.  Really work on it because the initial thought I get with some folks is likely only going to be dislodged with some high voltage current.

Thank you for practising,


no idea

In my commonplace book of shodo, where I script kanji characters, their variations, and anything else that might be a germ of inspiration is listed the eight practices of the Noble Path.  They curl in Burmese stacked in a column with the penmanship of a first-grader.  I received them years ago from a Burmese gentleman who single-handedly manned a website of Theravadin scriptures.  Through our brief correspondence I developed enough trust to ask him to visit my sole-surviving aunt in Rangoon when he was there on one of his regular trips.  I didn’t know if she knew her favourite brother, my father, had died; I sent pictures, money, and my land address.  Not only did he find her in a tiny apartment, cramped with her daughters and their families, he left them with food, medicine, and sent me a picture of Aunty Maggie.  She looked sad and worn, making no effort to steer away from the weight of being Burmese in this time and place, even for a stranger from the UK who came with gifts.  I’m not sure why I expected something different.

The characters in the scroll on the left are “mu” and “idea.”  “Idea” is made up of the script for “now” and “heart/mind.” Put together, it conveys what we practice as Right View, the first on the Buddha’s list of practices in the Eightfold Path.  Our stance is one of emptiness of what is in the heart/mind in this moment.  I tend to shy away from the word “emptiness” simply because it evokes too many unrelated meanings.  Another way of understanding emptiness is as interdependence, in other words as a relational process.  That makes it a bit more manageable in my head:

Right View as a process of being with that ever-unfolding relationship between what is happening now in my heart/mind and environment.

I’ve appreciated Helmut’s and Barry’s comments last week on the exploration of the Four Noble Truths as an open system.  They were by turns cautionary about getting caught in ideas and about practice being as simple as “How is it now?”  And here it is.  Practice of seeing clearly (Right View) is very much one of holding no fixed concept of what is happening now.  At the same time, there is a leaning into what feels “right.”  I’m starting to understand that this is more about discernment than seeking support for my opinion about something.  This is the space in which the presence of the “heart/mind” arises.

Yet sometimes, leaning to what feels “right” is not always apparent.  When I’m in pain, leaning into it certainly doesn’t feel “right.”  Nor does it feel “right” to lean into sorrow, loss, or anxiety.  Not surprisingly, looking at the JPG of Aunty Maggie leaning into her sorrow, I lean away.  Yet, because it always seems “right” to lean into joy and happiness, I begin to wonder how to get past the preferential mind and cultivate Right View.

Parallel to these readings on the Eightfold Path, I’ve been enjoying the Tricycle online retreat with Roshi Enkyo of the Village Zendo.  Roshi Enkyo has been teaching on Ease and Joy in Your Practice and Life.  In the second talk, she described how we can take a skillful stance to being with suffering by “turning into the skid.” Rather than evading the suffering by distracting myself or numbing the impact of it, I move deeper into what is happening now in my heart.  It’s counter-intuitive.  It requires letting go of preconceived notions of how things should be or unfold.  It certainly challenges me to be open to possibilities as I change my relationship to how it is now.

Thank you for practising,


open systems

The third turning of the Fourth Noble Truth is to make the Eightfold Path real (Realize it).

Not there yet.

Or more accurately, it requires digging deep into practice.  A few days back, I presented the Fourth Noble Truth as a network of practices that interconnected with the First, Second and third Noble Truths.  In the comments to that post, Barry noted that the Buddha had a good reason for making the Eightfold Path a systematic process.  We can never know why the Buddha chose this pattern of steps but they appear to proceed one after the other in a firmly set direction towards deep clarity.

I hadn’t thought the network version was in opposition to this although it may seem that way.  Perhaps it’s all just chaos ordering itself.  Or it may be order letting loose and having fun. In fact, as I dug into the three turning of each Noble Truth it was hard to see where one left off and the other began.  At one level, each can be “worked on” as a single unit – and it would follow that the Eightfold Path would be a systematic practice of well-being.  At another, the Four Noble Truths can be an open system that feeds itself and the world through a wide and deep circulation of insight, awareness, and compassion.

Regardless, realizing the Fourth Noble Truth, for me, means making a conscious commitment to practice.  At the same time there has to be an intention to not get distracted by the “stuff” of Buddhism.  As a religion, it has the same content and capability to disappoint me.  It’s priests and warriors are made of the same stuff as found in all religions.  Flies in the zendo.

All that matters is practice.  All that can be made real is practice as “an open system …in which material continually enters from, and leaves into, the outside environment.”*  I’m not sure of this (or of anything for that matter) but I think it is in that space between entry and leaving that the eight practices of the Fourth Noble Truth manifest.

Thank you for your practice,


*Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General System Theory, 1968