did you know you’ve already been chosen?

In response to yesterday’s post about hiding under a bushel and hoping to be chosen, my dear pal posted on the 108 Zen Books Facebook page, “perhaps you just haven’t realized that you have been chosen….”  I posted back a smart-ass comment but she’s right.  About the same time, I was reading a practice tip post by Ken McLeod about our reactions to adversity.  Some respond with gratitude and some with bitterness.  Why?, asked a reader.  McLeod’s response is here.  In essence he says it’s normal to react with “Why me?” which leads to all forms anxiety in the absence of a good enough answer.  In the end it comes down to accepting that you may never know why something happens to you.  Then he writes that through acceptance we find a way to be with the event with equanimity:

In the case of cruelty, you recognize that, however cruel and vicious your assailant, you understand, even though it makes no rational sense. Yet you have no sense of moral superiority or righteousness. 

The last sentence was a heart-opener.  I had shared with a colleague the frustration of seeing someone “get ahead” despite what I saw as all his shortcomings.  And digging into the raw truth I said, Why not me?  Somewhere along the back-and-forth of our conversation he used the word “jealous.”  While it didn’t feel right, it made me sit up and listen to my tone, examine my intention, and dig deeper.  Was I really jealous?  Was it about belonging in a place and space to which I was not entitled?  Was it greed?  Unearned assets?  I’m going to need a convoy of backhoes and bulldozers to get into this one!

When I tie in McLeod’s statement of being released from a sense of moral superiority and righteousness, I can get a glimmer of what might be happening.  True, I react strongly to injustice.  But is righteousness the appropriate response to injustice?  Is there even such a thing as a personal injustice or is that just a euphemism for self-centered?  Oh dear.  Pants down again!

Practice tells me that the path out of this is one of gratitude.  Accepting that there are many places I will never enter.  So being grateful for all the millions of hectares of space I can enter is important to see and practice seeing clearly.  I’ve already been chosen.  There is nothing more to add.  Nothing more to demand.  But it doesn’t stop there.  These friends, colleagues, and teaching moments are just ingredients for the meal.  They are wasted left in the fridge and no more nourishing than the poison of all hindrances.

Time to get cooking!

get thee behind me, sardine

Thank you for all the concern you’ve expressed about Sprout, on- and off-line.  After much deliberation (read: 10 minutes angst + 2 minutes discernment), we decided to try a live trap.  I’m not in favour of traps – heart-filled or otherwise.  However, as the weather deteriorated and my mental state kept pace to the tune of the wild winds, it seemed the only thing left to do.

The first night we put the trap out filled with kitty kibble and a can of salmon mash.  If Sprout showed up at all, we likely missed it in the out-of-sync  periodic window checking.  By bedtime, we had deliberated every contingency of leaving the trap out overnight versus taking it in.  The advantage of leaving it out was that we might capture him – or something with four legs anyway.  The disadvantage was that if it did trap him and we didn’t know it, he was left in the cold with no shelter.  Bringing the trap in meant another day of cultivating distress tolerance.  Besides we had no idea it was going to work anyway and my mind pulled in at the what-if gas station and filled its tank to overflowing.

Doubt is formidable foe.  It erodes all the accumulated wisdom or at the very least punches illusionary holes in the safety net of knowledge.  In the face of the hindrance of  doubt (which is not the same as Great Doubt), I tend to build endless loops of  “but-what-if-and-then” scenarios or put on  my Chicken Little costume (is it really a costume?) and scurry around the house traumatizing the cats.  Frank googles “how to catch a feral kitten.”


Yes.  Pungent, oily, slimy small fry fish.  We laced the kitty kibble with the stuff, slathered it on the cage wire, set the door (I wanted to put a blanket in it just in case he needed the comfort) and laid it out on the deck.  No Sprout.  Apparently the delightfully sunny day and the vast acreage of mice-filled fields were more appealling than store-bought sardines.  However, by nightfall he slithered up to the deck like an adolescent past curfew hoping Mum and Dad were asleep and he could catch a snack without waking them.

We sat at the kitchen table ready to pounce outdoors at the sound of the trap being sprung.  I still had deep doubts about its safety which fed a firestorm of fears that he would be hurt in the process.  After all, our good intentions had not done well for his mother and my brain now had this one-way neural path that anything I might do intending good would end up bad.  Ah, Doubt.  You insidious, entrapping, pungent creature.  Get thee behind me!

I used to think that doubt was counteracted by confidence.  Now I sense that doubt is rousted by the willingness to take that risk we would anyway if not crippled by our need to always have a good outcome.  Furless, clawless, top-heavy creatures that we are, the common assumption is that we use our brains to compensate for our inability to risk in the same way a sabre-tooth tiger or polar bear would to survive.  Perhaps not.  Lumber we might but there was certainly a willingness to take the risk by going out to  hunt or to turn and face the rampaging beast in order to protect our offspring.

We are not risk averse because we are defenseless.  We are defenseless because, in taking a risk, we fear what an unfavourable outcome might say about our competence.  Meet Sprout.  Five pounds and quite disdainful of the sardines.  While in the trap, on the way to the vet, he delicately ate all the kibble around the fish.

the lazy person’s guide to the galaxy

There may seem a contradiction between the title of this post and the lead picture.   Or perhaps not.  I look at this picture and see this steady trek across the fields, hugging the small ravine in places only to leave it for a gentler slope up the hill; a wondrous result of meeting the day which doesn’t reveal the deeper effort to not believe my thoughts.  It was our first snow shoe trek of the season; in truth, it was our first snow shoe together in years.  The day, the sunshine, the acres of crusty snow was a finger-snap, breaking through the trance of anxious misery over a continuously mentally failing mother, ailing cats, and life’s other vagaries.   The outcome of that trance has been a heaviness in the seat of both body and mind.

While the heaviness in my seat is a health consideration, I must admit the mental torpor in its cognitive manifestation is what causes me grief.  For the most part, my days are filled with assessing situations, negotiating, shifting gears, and trying to stay out of the mind of others.  It’s fast-paced, unrelenting, and not for the risk-averse.  In contrast and I don’t know if it is cause or effect, in matters of my own well being, I am far more likely to take the slothful path.  I could bring that analytic mind to bear on the conundrum of wasting the 2 hours scheduled each day, every day for 15 years to get to the gym.  There is a clear predictive equation between my nastiness factor and the sugar content of a morning snack that would benefit from my wisdom about highly processed carbohydrates.  The luxury of a meditation room attached to the general offices seems far less seductive that the mantric clicks on Facebook.

I should be clear (making an effort at arousing the analytic mind here) that it’s not about fuzzy thinking.  It’s about the unwillingness to consider the alternative to “Meh.”  Call it resistance, tentativeness, captive of past and future, it amounts to the same thing.  There is a sedating seductiveness to not rising up and taking charge of the direction of our mental life. And the consequences are as debilitating as any physical disease that comes from not dealing with the fat-ladened arteries or the bulging belly.

When we aren’t willing to rouse ourselves to stop the downward or outward spirals of self-defeating thinking or self-abuse, we  open the gateways to superstitious thinking.  If perceiving reality isn’t likely to soothe our fears, then magic will, says our deluded mind.  Unrelated events take on great significance, skies are filled with portents of success or failure, and our actions (which are our only belongings) become caricatures of rituals to keep bad things from happening.  Ironically, in the shackled mind the world becomes a scary place – a galaxy far, far scarier than the fear of taking charge of how we think.

Sloth and torpor.  Not for the mentally faint of heart.

worry & flurry

Sangha now meets on Sundays at a luxurious hour and we’re exploring the Heart Sutra for as long as it takes to comprehend one of the most incomprehensible texts in spiritual history.  And yet, it is one of the most prescriptive texts if we take our time to hold each word gently in the palm of our hand.  With time, the tangle it seems to be does unravel.

In time.

I’m learning that I have what David Whyte calls “an adulterous relationship with time.”  It’s not enough, fulfilling, generous, kind, eternal or protective.  It betrays promises that wounds will heal and dogs get their day.  It is capricious in its affections giving to others what it swore would be mine exclusively.  That, of course, gives me license to adulterate our marriage; and, like all bad marriages, I seize the right to lay blame at time’s feet for disappointing me.

The time demanded of me by the the tangle of the Heart Sutra requires that I step back into this awkward, narcissistic relationship I have with time itself, long before I can dive into the twists and turns of paradox and paradigm shifts.  I have to be willing to sit with a word, to sift it, to let the silt and the muck stir and settle.  That willingness is mediated by having a good marriage with time.

Instead, I find myself promiscuous with my attention.  As I sit in zazen, my mind wanders into worry about the kitten whom I haven’t seen this morning.  The evidence of a now-empty food bowl is insufficient.  I turn on time and accuse it of not having me at the window to coincide with the kitten at his food.  In the spaciousness of zazen which is synonymous with the spaciousness of time, I feel the tension in my legs and my back.  They are priming to rise and check outside the window in the kitchen.  Time says, zazen is marital therapy between you and me; if we’re ever going to better ourselves in the other’s presence, we must agree to hold this discourse of stillness.  So I sit and we have this gentle probing conversation about how worry energizes me into action, how that action is not discerning of what is possible, and the ways in which it renders the power of time impotent.

I relapse during walking meditation as I reach that pivotal point in the room where I could continue forward into the kitchen (and the window) or I can turn to the right and go to my cushion.    Just one quick minute.  Give me just a moment to go and check.  It doesn’t mean anything.  I’ll come back!  But we had that conversation already.  I turn right and face the brilliant sunshine pouring down on my cushion and Midas-like turning the pine floor gold.

These gossamer threads of worry and flurry are a symptom of a failing marriage with time.  They are probably the most seductive of the five hindrances because they create the illusion that we are actually accomplishing something.  In fact, they are the thieves of our intimacy with time.  Transforming that marriage, regenerating  intimacy, requires an act of courage.  It means saying no so we can say yes; saying yes so we can say no.  It means reaching into the heart of who we are and honouring our practice of fearlessness.


There are few pleasures more all-encompassing than watching the birds at the feeders. It usually starts on a weekend morning sitting curled up in the sofa, sipping a cup of tea, savoring the aroma and taste of the spices that blend with the black tea leaves.  It’s a year of grosbeaks – steely-eyed females and showy males fluster on and off the grid of the feeders, trying to find their place in the hierarchy of woodpeckers, blue jays, and cardinals.  No matter how often we fill the baskets, how quickly we race out there to bridge the gap between depletions, the birds don’t seem to learn that there is a never-ending supply of food.  Always frantic, always pushy, and always determined to be the only ones at the stand.

It’s interesting because it’s not a question of intelligence.  Some of these beasties have figured out how to undo the latches on the feeders, flip open the suet holders, and even carry off the lighter feeder into the woods.  Whatever it may be, it’s a fascinating sight and the flurry of wings would make for amazing photography, if I felt so inclined to get myself off the sofa and snap a few shots.

It’s also interesting because they don’t suffer from the process.  (At least to my minimally perceptive mind, they don’t.)  For all the flapping around, everyone gets a shot at the sunflower seeds and, when they don’t, they hang out at the mixed seeds feeder until a shift change happens.  There’s a persistence and patience in the whole process that I’m only just starting to appreciate.

A willingness to wait things out has been a theme in a few conversations I’ve had lately with dharma friends and one of my dharma teachers.  Success, we’re noting, has been re-calibrated to be less about ownership of object or space and more about connecting as possible and then moving aside.  And, repeating this as needed.  This last bit is something we often forget or, perhaps out of hubris, we don’t believe is necessary.  It wasn’t uncommon for our reflections to touch on how we used to (still?) feel frustrated by the time and effort required to establish ourselves, be it in business, a career, a role, whatever.  So perhaps I should call it skillful repeating or mindful engagement with the world.

This dance of holding and letting go, giving and releasing, touching and retracting is a beautiful one when we allow it to happen.  There’s a looseness and delight in approach and turning away.  Oh and let’s not forget the seeds of nourishment we receive in that space between contact and moving away.  Even as I write this I feel a rhythm in my breathing, a settling in of muscle and bones, loose-limbed and fluid.  Like the sumi-e brush skating across the paper, sharing its ink with the compressed, pale fibres and lifting off to wait by the ink stone for the next opportunity.

The dharma talk given by these birds brought me to a better understanding of the dynamics of natural desire and greed.  Walpola Rahula in What the Buddha Taught explains that our desire for existence is the source of tanha (thirst) and is found in the aggregate of Mental Formations.  That’s not to say all striving is bad; there are ethically-motivated desires which lead us to make changes necessary for well being.  But without the awareness of that tipping point between skillful striving and wild grasping we can end up training greed.  Typically, when digging into the roots of grasping or greed we are advised to bring up the energy of generosity.  I found it interesting and more helpful to notice that the energy of patience is equally present.

something about a goose

There was no real intention at the outset of the week to get into the Five Hindrances; the talk by Sharon Slazberg on Tricycle’s online retreat seems to have penetrated more deeply than I expected.  The Five Hindrances are desire, aversion, anxiety, restlessness, and doubt.  They colour our vision and skew our perception in ways that create profound suffering. 

Salzberg’s suggestion of turning into the experience of the arising emotion is a conventional approach to the Five Unholy Terrors but when she called it pivoting, it sparked a whole set of images for me.  Of course, at one level, we’re talking about the stance we take to the various experiences unfolding in our sensory realm (see the comment by Jeanne Desey, our dear Dalai Grandma, on Monday’s post).  At another, it’s about consciously breaking the trance of the activating event (riffing on Tara Brach) and choosing a different part of the horizon to hold in our vision. 

When difficulties arise, I tend to repeat to myself over and over: it’s not the event, it’s the experience that you’re reacting to.  Sometimes, it stops me from falling over the edge between equanimity and reactivity.  Sometimes it’s about as useful as Charlie Brown’s teacher going “wha-whan-wha-wha”.

Anger/aversion is a good example.  Lately, my mind-field has been exploding, sending out a number of shards over some events and my perceptions of the people involved.  It took some serious deconstructing and brutal honesty with a good friend who finally said (in so many words): I know you don’t tolerate fools – gladly or otherwise – but aren’t they the ones most deserving of your bodhisattva practice?  My response: Yeah, whatever.  Very gently he pointed out that while he agreed about the critical elements of the situation, he failed to see why I thought skillfulness and therefore liberation would happen just because I was involved.  That smart.  I might start speaking to him again in few months.

Salzberg suggested that when anger arose her teacher recommended that she imagine a spaceship had landed on the lawn and Martians (why is it always Martians?!) came up and knocked on her door.  They asked: What is anger?  Please tell us what is anger?

So I’ve been trying to do that but it’s tough.  These Martians need such basic explanations about socialization, virtues, values, and gosh, a whole class on the grasping that is fortified by organizations.  Then I saw a goose on the verge of the boulevard as I was driving home.

Kensho from a goose.  Really.

Along the Aviation Parkway, if you drive slowly enough (and please do!), you will spot a family of geese.  Dad and Mum with their clutch of goslings.  In the dusk they were hard to see and I think they were trying to cross the road.  It struck intense terror in me; my gut froze, cold and hard.  My breath caught and I thought I was going to suffocate.  My mind raced through thousands of horrible images of what would happen to the goose, gander, and the little fluffy yellow babies.  I was distraught to the point of wanting Frank to go back at 10 PM and check on them (he didn’t but he biked by today and reported they were fine).

My reaction fascinated me.  The Martians asked, What is this?  What is this?  The image of the goose (the male?) kept surfacing.  He stood on the rise of the grass about 10 feet from the curb, neck long and firm, body braced and his gaze fixed on the cars going by.  Each time that image arose, I sensed in my body the same gathering up of muscles and firm intention in my posture.  Protective, determined.  Willing to take on the sedans and SUVs to get to the other side.  In the end its stalwart stance may not matter because a speeding car is no match for a goose’s conviction that it can and must protect its young.  With that thought, anger arose in me. 

And I understood. 

Something precious to our work has been taken and there are some forms of attacks, such as greed and its attendant grasping, we cannot protect ourselves from.  It’s unfair and it enrages me if I think of it in terms of ownership and trust.  I have to remember that we offered our skills freely, trusting in the integrity of the process, and the dharma is not owned by anyone.  And while that trust may have been violated, the greater violence would be in getting swept away by the rage and losing our own integrity because of it.

I’d like to add Sharon’s response to a question about the usefulness of anger and fear as means of motivation and protection:

I think a couple of distinctions might be helpful. One is between feeling something and being lost in it. Even in a situation of real and immediate danger being overcome by anger or fear might severely limit our options for action, though the most natural thing in the world is to feel them. So can we have the integrity of those feelings, and even utilize them, without being overcome by them.And the other distinction would be between feeling something appropriate in a situation as compared to having that feeling become habitual, so that we perceive threat where there might not be a threat, or personalize impersonal events, and are often angry and afraid.

You can read more comments to her talk here.

sew the sky to the ocean

We were watching my mother gather the edges of her knitted bed cover together, gathering the loose ends and matching them along the selvage.  It was massive and cumbersome, sliding off the tray of her wheelchair and lodging in the wheel rims.  Her hands were manic and the actions repetitive but it was soothing for her, the task taking on whole horizon.

Frank quipped, “It’s important to sew the sky down at the horizon.  It keeps the ocean from spilling out.”

There were times when being in the presence of frenetic activity would have me reaching for control.  I would need some way to shut down the energy before it reached critical mass.  Listening to a talk by Sharon Salzberg, I begin to understand that practice is about pivoting away from the external stimulus and turning into the inner experience.  What does it feel like to be in the presence of frenzy and restlessness?  It feels like the ocean is going to spill out.  And I understand the fear that can drive this need to gather the edges of the sky and sew them together.

However, it’s futile.  This frenzied activity only leads to exhaustion – perhaps even boredom and then loss of motivation (oh, my favourite twins, sloth and torpor).  And besides, the point is not to staple down the horizon to avoid the drama of a flooded universe.  That’s just another delusion.

So what’s left?  What’s right.