at the edge

There’s an edge that is always pressing into the space around it.  Even if it only serves as a support for something else to push outward, it lives its purpose as the staging area for growth.  But growth can’t happen unless all parts of the system are involved.  The trunk of a tree can’t just decide it’s going to grow and head off into one direction while the branches head off into another.  It sounds obvious yet how often have I decided to dive into something without really considering how it’s going to be sustained as I stretch at the growing edge?

Growth also happens continuously.  It may slow at times.  Get re-directed.  But it tends to be a continuous process.  I forget that too.  When practice seems diverted or stagnant, I feel like “nothing’s happening.”  Or when plans tumble into disarray, I feel stunted in my aspirations.  Depending on my state of mind, I might take all or none of the responsibility for the mess.

Whether I am committing myself to something without appreciating the available resources or misunderstanding my situation, I tend to act as if I (meaning my perspective) am the only one who matters.  I think the real definition of narcissism is “thinking you can be a branch without the trunk, leaves, flower, fruit, or roots.”  Or maybe that’s the definition of “clueless.”

The second turning of the wheel of the Fourth Noble Truth is the study of what encourages or reinforces healthy growth.  There has to be a willingness to stay at this edge where growth happens.  What that means in terms of living my practice is hard to put into words.  It’s noticing how, these days, my eyes click like a camera shutter.  I’m more likely to pull out the camera than to say, “Oh, that would have been a good shot.”  Or it is feeling the steadiness in my tone as I make a dreaded phone call.  There was a moment when chaos ruled because I had overlooked a detail – and then order asserted itself because I got out of my own way.  Oh, and there was that awesome moment when an old, familiar demon appeared and tried to set two of us up for a dog fight – only to find I am much better at letting go.

These are just the buds.  The whole system that sustains and nourishes this growth is comprised of innumerable beings.  It arises from the blogs I feed at and bloggers I harass with my comments.  The interconnections of authors, books they’ve written, and those to be test-driven are a series of roots pulling nourishment up into my branches.  Chaplaincy readings are challenging my comfort zone or taking me back to decades past when I thought I understood Joanna Macy, Fritjof Capra, or Thich Nhat Hanh.  Friends are surfacing after years and new forms of connections are strengthening.  Family is coming together, quietly in the background.  Friends are moving on and I quiver at this edge of letting go which I preach constantly about: Walking the entire path they take is not given to you, only to their threshold.

Thank you for practising,

Genju

ecology of being

Happy Valentine’s Day!  I hope you remember that it is not only the day to give joy and support to others but also to be open to it for yourselves!

We all love a recipe.  Tell me what to do and tell me that will fix what ails me and… I’ll rebel.  Let’s be honest.  As much as we want to know exactly how to get out of the mess we got ourselves into, we really don’t want to be told how to do it.  Not in detail anyway.  Give me the broad brush strokes and let me fill in the details.  I’m the pick-and-choose type.  I like this way out of suffering and not thatThis type of meditation and not that.  Oh and retreats?  LOVE the ones with good food; the austere stuff, nah – gotta wash my hair that week.  From what I’ve read and studied, the Fourth Noble Truth is often presented as a promising recipe and maybe that’s why I push back.  But is it?

The First Noble Truth pointed out what we would like to deny: we are unskillful in the way we relate to ourselves and the world.  The Second Noble Truth peeled away the veil of denial that we are responsible for our mishaps and mis-steps.  The Third Noble Truth gave us a choice: transform those icky perceptions and actions or continue to dance to the same deathly soundtrack. Fourth Noble Truth states that there is a way to approach our perceptions and actions that lead to ill-being so we can be more skillful.

The Fourth Noble Truth can be a challenge to the prevaricating, preferential, finicky mind.  At its essence it is uncompromising.  This is the Path.  Not that, that, or that.  At its heart it is a manual of moral views and ethical behaviour.  The problem is that sometimes, it comes across in a teaching as a recipe for quick fixes.  In reality, when we feel it in action, it is a complex network of outward-reaching branches.  In fact, the Four Noble Truths don’t really work in lock step as they might appear.  They are a network of interacting processes that both feed and draw nutrients from each other.  (Thich Nhat Hanh in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings presents the Four Noble Truths and Eight Fold Path as concentric and inter-linking circles.)

I think we run the risk of misunderstanding the Fourth Noble Truth when we take it as a hierarchical system for practice.  When we approach it as an Ecology of Being along with the First, Second, and Third, it becomes a better approximation of life as we live it.  I think I just articulated the first turning of the Fourth Noble Truth: Recognition of what it is.  I hope.

Over the next few days and even weeks, I’d like to play in this net and hopefully not get too entangled!

Thank you for practising,

Genju

a necessary connection

Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (pg 43):

We need suffering in order to see the path.  The origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering are all found in the heart of suffering.  If we are afraid to touch our suffering, we will not be able to realize the path of peace, joy , and liberation.  Don’t run away.  Touch your suffering and embrace it.  Make peace with it.  The Buddha said, “The moment you know how your suffering came to be, you are already on the path of release from it.” (Samyutta Nikaya II, 47)  If you know what has come to be and how it has come to be, you are already on the way to emancipation.

sentimentally so

Damn!

Here I was feeling all warm and fuzzy about my blog and then I saw a description of it as “sentimental prose.”  It was a nice description which included that the blog is “inspiring” too.  (Thank you, Top 50 Buddhist Blogs.)  Of course, being the sensitive, insecure  type, I immediately sought reassurance: Do they mean “sentimental” as in Emily Dickinson?  Or do you suppose they meant “sentimental” as in Jonathon Livingston Seagull?  Because, you know, Emily I can handle… but seagull sentimental… ewww…

This debate is quite timely though.  I’m trying to embody the realization step of the Third Noble Truth: open-handed awareness of non-duality in my life.  “Suffering and happiness are not two,” says Thich Nhat Hanh.  Sentimental, heartfelt, expressive, weakly emotional, mawkish… Emily and Jonathon are not two, I say to myself.

I chuckle too because can’t think of anyone in my life who would see me as sentimental (in the weakly emotional sense).  Definitely not the Kid who exclaimed one day as I tried to help in a mother-ish, subversively-shrink-ish sort of way: How do people find her SOOTHING!?  Definitely not my friends – what straggly few I have – who once looked at a certain character on a TV show and exclaimed: Hey, That’s Lynette!  Definitely not the insurance companies I fight with despite trying to project my intention to advocate for my patients.  Oh, and then there was this one fellow who was obstructing the ambulance at a crash scene and refused to move because I was a woman ordering him around.  I think he growled something about “Mother…ing” to which I replied, “In this parking lot I’m the only Mamma you got so don’t make me do something I won’t regret.”

And yet, and yet…  I was thinking about many things about this blog.  The language notwithstanding,  there is the issue of transparency about who I am.  Barry wrote a post a few days ago about hiding behind a pseudonym and the problem of such anonymity.  That struck a chord, leaving me wondering about my use of “Genju”  and my reluctance to full disclose aspects of my life.  In part, I’m trying to honour my family’s privacy; however, I note I have put Frank “out there.”  I also rationalize that if you really want to find out more, you’d Google for it.  There are certainly enough traces of identity in the blogs.  The other part of “Genju” is my commitment to embodying the dharma name given to me.  And the final point (if anything is final) is that this is a personal space where I get to be a “me” that is different from the hour-by-hour piecework shrinkology I am/do/be everyday.  But yes, I have been thinking about introducing the other parts of me into this process.

I’ve been thinking about the sentiment (argh!) too.   The intent and tone of the writing is something I try to set with each post – expressive but hopefully not mawkish like some sooty, snooty Victorian.  I certainly feel I’m a poor student copyist of my heroes in Literary Prose and Poetry.  But a congealing of the rhythms and cadence of so many influences is hard to avoid.  It’s like my “accent.”  Drives people crazy trying to figure out where I’m from.  Boston?  Egypt?  (Huh?)  Bermuda?  My only response is “TV.”  It’s true.  Like all refugee kids, I spent my language formative years in front of the Tube, which in my day was an unending transmission of Americana.  So I sound like an amalgam of leftover Brit, a Mouseketeer, and Sgt. Saunders from Combat!  It’s scary when I express sentiments of anger.   That being said, I hope this blog expresses an approximation to a mid-range exploration of the Dharma – albeit through my stumbling gait and, to be honest, being non-controversial.  That’s not to say I don’t have strong opinions about things.  I just don’t care to explore them in this venue – much.   That will change in time and I’m in no rush.

So there you have it: the third turning of the Third Noble Truth.  It is the insight that all things can exist simultaneously and without conflict.  It is also realizing – or making real – the variations on a theme of our experiences.  At this moment, it is the twinge about being perceived as writing sentimental prose and it is the contentment in my attempts to convey my feelings as I practice.

Thank you for practising.

Sentimentally & prosaically yours, I remain

Genju

against a big sky

Sometimes there is a great sky against which I can place practice.  The zazenkai (aka Day of Mindfulness) is a sky like that.  The day starts the day before as we gather the tools of the trade: assorted teas, hot water heater, bells, poetry, yoga mats, & cushions.  I’ve learned to let the day unfold, no longer so anxious that I need to orchestrate every minute of the meditation.  The room is a lovely open space nestled at the end of a side hall in the Eastern Orthodox Religion Department of a local university.  Participants gather at 0915 and we start promptly at 0930 with an introduction to the space we will occupy for the next six hours.  This time just after the intro, the meditation is derailed by Frank’s announcement that the parking is no longer free on a Sunday; half the participants have to head out and pay for their parking downstairs.  This moment is what I fondly call a nodal point of equanimity.

There is  a choice here.  I can drop my vision to the ground and see only the slush and muck we’re about to fall into.  I can raise my eyes and see the great sky against which practice can stand.  This is the third turning of the wheel of the Third Noble Truth: the encouragement or reinforcement of useful, beneficial actions that lead to well-being.

We’re professional enough that glitches in the flow of a presentation tend to be met fairly well; the flow of a whole retreat day however is somewhat more challenging.  What I have noticed is the loud, obnoxious chatter in my head that saps the energy usually required to think on my feet (or in this case, on my butt which is on the cushion).  Sometimes, that chatter can leak out as a manic cheerfulness designed to reassure everyone that the world is not about to come to an end.  I think there was a day when I realized that, not only was I not kidding anybody about how I was not coping, I was also assuming everyone else was having the same reaction to the event.  On this day, facing the empty seats in the hall, I realized I had a powerful tool: a non-discriminatory agenda.  It didn’t matter a heck of a lot if we started with a sitting meditation, mindful movements, or dancing a jig.  We did 15 minutes of mindful movements which gave everyone a chance to return to the room and slide into the sitting meditation.

I’ve been noticing a lot of online commentary about practice not being magic.  True enough.  It can look like that though, so I find it important to remind myself that practice is a never-ending series of nodal points where a decision can be made.  And the longer I practice the more seamless those transitions from one node to another might be on that big sky canvas.

Thank you for practising,

Genju

no options

Over the last two weeks, we’ve facilitated two all-day meditation sessions.  Zazenkai or Days of Mindfulness, depending on tradition and ease of use, are a challenge to organize and even more of a challenge to commit the time to attend.  My days tend to be packed – I’m starting to realize they are – and the idea of taking a whole day to sit around, breathing, eating, and listening to a talk is hard to justify from a purely time-economy perspective.  And yet, when we run one, even though it’s because we have to, I never regret the time spent.

You may have hooked onto the idea that we have to – or like good Buddhists, you’re likely asking us to challenge the perception that we have to.  At one time, I may have caved and said, “Well no, we don’t HAVE to have to.  I just mean that blahblahblah…”  Today, I would say, “Yup.  We have to.  It’s what we do.  We practise.  And we practise a Day of Mindfulness once a month because we have to.”  In fact, in the context of the Four Noble Truths there are no options about practice.

Over the last few posts we’ve explored the First and Second Noble Truths.  To recap, the First Noble Truth is about the Power of Perception and the Second Noble Truth is about the Power of Deception.  (Yes, I should have said that earlier but honestly, I just figured it out so you’re getting it hot off the neuronal press.)

The Third Noble Truth is about the Power of Cessation.  And a day spent practising how to seamlessly flow from one moment to the next is precisely that.  It is about stopping, ceasing the battle between the mind and body.

I wrote in our clinic guidebook that meditation is often seen as a harsh taskmaster.  It takes no prisoners in the battle of wills between body and mind.  But perhaps, we would do better to see meditation as not creating that battlefield.  And it may be more useful to see it as an opportunity to create a space in which we can stop.  Hence the need to practise in an all-day setting.  It just takes that long to recognize the need to stop.  Recognition, the first turning of the wheel in the Third Noble Truth, is crucial to the practice of cessation.  If I can’t see that I’m going full tilt and likely off the rails too, I’m not going to see the need to slow down and take stock of my situation.

Lately, I’ve been hearing my friends and colleagues recite a little chant every time they are with me.  It goes something like this: Gosh, you do so much.  Gosh, you’re involved in so many things.  My first reaction (what cessation?) was to laugh it off: Don’t say that!  I’ll trip and fall on my nose!  Going full tilt means I’m also playing with those nasty triplets: craving, rejection, and delusion.  Or at the very least, it means I’m less aware of how often I’m playing with them.  Of course, the nerdy ones, generosity, acceptance, and wisdom, are also residents of my ghetto mind and stopping means I remember to find time for them too.

The Third Noble Truth is about the Power of Cessation.  It is about the power of seeing what is enough.  It is about the power of seeing all of what is already here.  There’s no other option.

Thank you for practising,

Genju

ceasing the conditional

Waiting patiently has never been my strong suit.  After I laid down the larger viridian circle, I panicked at the tone which to my eyes ground into the neighbouring sap green with the ear-splitting sound of colliding metal.  Luckily, I was distracted away before I could “fix” anything and when I returned the wide swath of eye-ache had softened.

The capacity to simply pause or to attend without acting – wu wei – is a tough skill to cultivate.  I’m starting to see, however, that it is the heart and soul of the Third Turning of Wheel in practising the Second Noble Truth.  To realize the truth of the cause of my suffering requires me to step back from the sensations that drive me to act impetuously.  It’s a hypnotic process and I can really feel it in my breath.  Well, I can feel that I’m holding my breath as I fall into a desperation to “get it over with.”  The Second Noble Truth however is not just a recognition and clarification of what causes and sustains suffering, it is also the first step to the breaking the links of the damaging cycles.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that the Third Turning of the Wheel can be summarized as “When I’m hungry, I eat.  When tired, I sleep.”  Practice is not just the recognition and knowing of the roots of my suffering but also cultivation of the appropriate response.  Hungry -> eat.  Tired -> sleep.  These are good psychological tactics; we only ever restrain a bad habit but it helps to have a good one to fill the space left behind.  I can tell when I’m hungry or when I’m tired… mostly.  And usually “cranky” points to hungry or tired anyway.

The tough practice is with the more fine-grained sensations that underlie “disappointment,” “uncertainty,”  “loss of faith,” or the Big One, “breakdown of belief systems.”   Usually it goes something like “when I’m disappointed, I shut down.”  Or it may be “when I’m uncertain, I push your buttons.”  Or “when I lose faith, I wipe the hard drive clean.”  And this Big One: “When my belief systems breakdown, I want you to fix it.”

Realization of the cause and maintenance of suffering is in the willingness to wait in that space between “I am <fill in the blank>” and “I <fill in the blank>.”  But I want to push it further (No!  Really?).

Cease the conditional.

“I am disappointed.”

“I am shut down.”

“I am uncertain.”

“I am pushing your buttons.”

“I am losing faith.”

“I am wiping the hard drive clean.”

“I am feeling a breakdown of my belief systems.”

“I am wanting you to fix it.”

“I have laid down a swath of viridian.”  “I am walking away.”

Let’s see if that works.

Thank you for practising,

Genju