the fear of loving ourselves

Each year I wait for this out breath: Little buds on my father’s transplanted roses that signal another year of surviving the harsh winter.  I remember agonizing over whether to bring the roses out from their beds in Montreal where they were coddle against the warmth of the bungalow’s foundations and brought to life each year by a more temperate climate.

These roses had been planted by my father in the back gardens of their home and were a showpiece of the neighbourhood.  And, typically, they were also a focus of some warm-hearted competition with their neighbour who managed to grow some of the most beautiful tree roses I’ve ever seen.  All summer long, Bruce and Dad would go on about the best way to prune, cultivate, and feed these plants.  The fence between their houses fell to disrepair.  The crabgrass invaded one yard as the dandelions parachuted into the other.  And they argued on – sometimes about the weeds but mostly about the worthiness of the floribunda over the hybrid tea.

After my father died (has it been ten years already) and my mother’s dementia left her planting the florist-delivered long-stem red roses, the house was rented to a stream of people and the roses – by now considered heirloom varieties – died.  With only five bushes left, I became obsessed with possessing them.  But the possibility that rescuing them would also kill them stopped me at the planning stage until one year I decided to dig deep and commit to whatever outcome evolved from my action.

It’s not enough to step up and take a chance.  There’s the follow up, the follow through.  Call it what we will, the real work begins after the commitment is made.  We know that about pets, plants, and people important to us.  But what about our own lives?

I suggested to our meditation group that we learn to fall in love with ourselves.  Embrace ourselves as we would a lover – filled with enticement and wonder at this being we are.  Seeing every act and engagement with ourselves as inspiring and vital to our life.  Someone commented to me that it seemed egotistic.

That’s the fear we have, isn’t it?  That self-love is a slippery slope to self-centeredness and narcissism.  So we withhold, become Scrooge-like in our tenderness to our hurt and sorrow.  And when that deprivation becomes too intense to bear, we react through grasping and greed.

Perhaps a considered approach would yield more nourishing fruit.  Preparing the ground each day to receive the treasured aspects of ourselves, to be held, watered, and feed so that healthy growth is possible.  Patience when we are dormant to our potential and welcoming when there is sight of aspirations that lean to the sun.  What might happen then?

what were your roots before you were born

You’ll have to tell me if there’s a theme building through this week.  Oh by the way, it’s so nice to be back writing every day.  Thank you for being so patient with my wild absences.

This is the Norfolk Pine.  It began one Christmas as a desktop tree.  You know, the kind you see on the counters of banks and drugstores, plunked in a red foil diaper and pinned with a plastic bow that would make even a shih tzu die of shame.  I think we bought it because it was the year my father died and none of us had the energy to put up the usual tree.  It likely sat on our dining table – back in days when we had a dining room and not a zendo – decorated tastefully with an ornament or two.

It started to fail over time and I had enough vitality myself to just get it to the outer room.  We call this euphemistically the “sunroom” perhaps meaning only that it faces south and gets a lot of sun.  It is insulated but has no source of heat so in the winter everything freezes.  The tree in its little pot sat on the shelf in the window from about March to the following May or June.  I recall I was desperate to clean up the “sunroom” so I could use it as a potting shed.  That meant everything had to go!  I picked up the pot with the now-dessicated and dead tree – which came as no surprise being left for over a year in a room alternately hot and freezing cold with no water or nourishment.  As I started to pull the little tree out, a flash of colour slipped out of view: there in a wedge between the main trunk and a branch was a little spot of green.

Over the years, the Norfolk has grown to about three feet.  One Christmas, when I ran out of energy again, it served as the Seasonal Tree, happily reincarnating to its role before it was born.

There is surely a theme here, building defiantly to some conclusion.

eternity in a seed

Did you know cyclamen are tubers and not bulbs?  In the grander scheme of death and destruction, it probably means little to most of us that a plant is more akin to a potato than a tulip.  In terms of caregiving however, it might make some difference.

I’ve always loved the astonishing flowers of the cyclamen; angel wings swooping back poised to descend on earth yet never quite completing the landing.  Over the years I’ve bought several of these plants and enjoyed the displays all the more for thinking they were like forced tulips – lovely and poignantly impermanent for being constrained in a pot.  The cyclamen were even more exotic because they could not grow in my garden and were only available pre-grown.

When the first one I had began to die, I called in to the CBC gardening show and asked about saving it.  The instructions I got were simple: water it without letting it touch the “bulb.”  It died anyway and I resigned myself to having short-term romances with the plant, composting them when the flowers wilted.

One day while watering the plant, I noticed that the leaves were flattened exposing a view of the bulb shifted off-center.  Immediately I blamed our little Zen Master Sprout who had been seen occasionally testing the plants for their snooze factor.  Because, in my view, this particular plant had lasted the longest of all the plants (it might even be ten years old), I put some effort into reading up on how to revive it and solve the mystery of the transported bulb.

Apparently, cyclamens grow from tubers.  It would seem my dear plant is and is not my dear plant at all.  It is several generations removed having produced shoots from its tubers and happily procreating all these years.

Then I learned about the cyclamen fruit, a round pod left after the petals dried and fell off.  This I had thought was the end of the plant; it signalled a parting of company as I walked it to the compost heap.  In fact, it was the beginning – of sticky brown seeds and new life.

There’s a lesson in this.

right looking away

Following up the theme of quiet persistence from last week, it was lovely to see this little fellow sprouting.  (Oh yes, Zen Master Sprout is doing well, thriving on generous amounts of tolerance and occasionally being put in his place by our Matriarch Cat, Desireé.)  This is an orchid.  I got one several years ago in full bloom but was never able to encourage more blossoms.  Being the lazy sort, I would from time to time do a bit of hortigoogling but the suggestions all seemed to require too much effort.  So I watered the dear thing haphazardly as I do with most of my plants and it lumbered along in much the manner of most pot-bound beings, that is to say it sat contented not to shrivel up and die.  One might say that orchid showed some quiet persistence but I suspect plants are generally resilient and thankfully robust to our neglect and ignorance.  

Last Fall, I came across a type of orchid called a “Just Add Ice” which is not a species but a technique.  About the same time I read about a blogger pal who had received an orchid as a gift.  He worried about caring for it and whether he was up to the ministrations such a rare and delicate plant would need.  I felt a bit guilty at first glancing over at my orchid which was languishing in a pool of murky water; then I felt competitive.  Could I get mine to bloom before his?  I also recalled during one samu or work period at Upaya, the resident gardener came into the dokusan room where I was cleaning up.  Using a damp cloth, she gently wiped down the each of the leaves of the lusciously blooming orchid.  I asked her how to make these things bloom and she looked at me with that “oh you still don’t get it, do you?” look.  

With a caretaker so attached to outcomes and desirous of sensual pleasures, no wonder my orchid remained resolutely barren.

So I formed a clear intention to put some effort into caring for my orchid in a more conscious and attentive manner.  I even bought two more to keep it company on the shelf where they get indirect sunlight all day and cool temperatures at night.  I logged onto the Just Add Ice website and read (quickly and somewhat impatiently – but hey… transformation takes time!) about the care and feeding of orchids.  I even got a measuring cup to mix up the right amount of nourishing broth to feed them.  

Over the winter, the two I bought struggled to recover from the severe neglect they had endured in a cavernous hardware/homeware center.  When I tried to repot them, my heart dropped at the sight of rotted roots.  But, remembering to hold that intention to care close, I repotted all three and set up a reminder to fertilize them once a month on the first Sunday and to water them with 3 ice cubes on the other Sundays.

The instructions had said a new bloom should show in a month.  And this was the test: to read that but not become invested in it.  To look at the three orchid plants and see them as unique systems that had their own time-table of recovery, nourishment, and expression.  To step back each Sunday from the pots and not want to make it different from what it was.  And to welcome the anticipation and the deflation when that shoot with a mitten offshoot heralding a blossoming spike didn’t manifest.

This is a practice of Right Looking Away, Wise Disregard.

And then one day… one day…

soft power for introverts

Ben Howard, author of One Time, One Meeting, wrote this lovely piece on introverts and how to engage in a world that is driven, loud, and often self-promoting.  I particularly liked the ideas of “quiet persistence” and “soft power.”  Ben references a book about introverts by Susan Cain – Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking – and then in his inimitable way takes it deep into the dharma, weaving together patience and diligence.

Watching the window installers, I was struck by the steady, unrelenting way they approached the task.  And it is a formidable task, this tearing out wood frames of a friable old farm-house without taking out chunks of the (wood) wall.  Hour by hour, window after window was pried away from almost a hundred years of clinging to the frame; the opening was cleared of debris and the new window inserted.  They cleaned the floor and outdoor surfaces of splinters and nails, methodically moving from section to section.  There wasn’t a moment of wasted or mis-directed energy; conversation was light yet never broke the rhythmic dance between deconstruction and reconstruction.

In a quiet moment’s conversation at the conference last week, a friend and I shared the frustrations we feel when we want immediate results and have them come in a particular form beyond what the situation can grant us.  We reflected on the years we’ve put into our work and eventually gazed astonished at what had emerged from our own quiet persistence.  I spoke with someone else of wanting a more “intimate relationship” between our organizations and later through a different interaction with her came to a painful realization of what that intimacy would cost.  I wondered what diligent persistence in that direction would bring me.  In another conversation with a friend, I garnered from her wisdom that the true circle of impact is much closer to the heart and it’s easy to disperse our energy when we get caught by the wanting-creatures.

Kabir’s warnings against the wanting-creature notwithstanding, it’s difficult to “stand firm in that which you are.”  This is especially so in a world that loudly proclaims it knows us better than we could know ourselves.  It’s easy to doubt our senses and to lose them.  It’s a short tumble into the rabbit hole of crippling grandiosity and inadequacy.  To persist with diligence requires reducing our reactivity to the voices that decry our strengths, our commitment, and our willingness to begin again moment after moment.  It means honestly appraising our deepest intentions, willingly acknowledging our deepest fears, and proceeding with attentive awareness of the impact of our actions.

I’m not sure if this is what is meant by “soft power” but it does seem softer than the sledgehammer and crowbar approach and more powerful than strong-arming a connection.

practice is what you can’t imagine


by Mary Oliver

For example, what the trees do
not only in lightning storms
or the watery dark of a summer’s night
or under the white nets of winter
but now, and now, and now – whenever
we’re not looking. Surely you can’t imagine
they don’t dance, from the root up, wishing
to travel a little, not cramped so much as wanting
a better view, or more sun, or just as avidly
more shade – surely you can’t imagine they just
stand there loving every
minute of it, the birds or the emptiness, the dark rings
of the years slowly and without a sound
thickening, and nothing different unless the wind,
and then only in its own mood, comes
to visit — surely you can’t imagine
patience, and happiness, like that.

from Long Life: Essays and other writings

practice is trust

There’s a book of variations of kanji script that is the calligrapher’s Bible.  Every kanji character is reproduced in dozens of versions, some by ancient masters of shodo, some by unknown clerical scribes.  Because I don’t actually read Japanese, it takes hours to find the kanji character I want and then to track down the variations.  Then it’s about practicing the strokes, hour after painstaking hour.  The deeper practice in working with the variations is that they don’t tend to look like the original script.  It requires a level of understanding of the stroke sequence to grasp (or even read) the variation.  But more, it requires trust that all the lines are present in the final variation even if you can’t see them.

I’ve started to understand this process as one of transformation not unlike what happens when we commit to spiritual practice.  We start with the traditional ways of doing things, focusing on form.  Slowly as we begin to understand the unfolding of breath and body, we can play with variations.  I think benefits from that phase of practice only accrue when we acquire  a level of trust in our ability to represent the whole with only the hint of a part.

Last week was my personal deadline to finish editing my Chaplaincy thesis and putting together the portfolio.  I’ve felt somewhat ambivalent about whether I actually accomplished anything in the last two years.  Sure, there were tons of papers on wide-ranging topics and reams of reflections and oodles of analyzed data.  But I wondered if there had there been any real transformation?  I think I saw a hint of it as the portfolio took shape – a shift in adaptability, an openness to new perspectives, an accommodation of concepts that didn’t assimilate well initially, a willingness to be vulnerable in black-and-white (which is an improvement over being black-and-white to avoid vulnerability).

No, I’m going to be more self-supportive than that.  I was astonished by the shifts in my perspective, my connection with the work, the training, the way of being as a Chaplain.  If you asked me if I noticed any change, I’d have said I didn’t.  But there it was in folder after folder, neatly slipped between transparent sleeves and falling nicely into the spiritual journey of the 10 Ox Herding pictures.  While I truly cannot point to it as I sit here, I have to trust in the variation of my life script that is contained in that package flying south thanks to UPS.

Practice is patience, endurance – as trust forms.