Demons in the Night

August 7, 2012 § 31 Comments

The transition from sleep to awareness feels instantaneous.  My mind has leapt into full alert- heightened in its capacity to catalog and elaborate on tonight’s list of difficulties and failings.  Down each rabbit hole my mind plunges until I hit bottom- always a conclusion stunning in its simplicity and harrowing in its implications.  Hopeless.

When I try to think my way out, I only get more entangled.  Maybe it will work out for the best because of this or that, I say.  But my ferocious mind pounces on that consolation, ripping it to pieces.  Turning my pathetic efforts to climb out of the hole into further reason for my self-loathing.  My nighttime mind can be horrifically brilliant in this way.

Night or day, trying to outthink your busy, ferocious mind is always a mistake.  It will tear you to bits every time.  Resistance only feeds the busyness.

The demons are always right outside the door.  So when they knock, don’t try to bar the door or throw them out.  Be the imperfect host.  Welcome them in- and then pay them no mind.   Soon the demons will retreat.  Soon peace will come upon you.

They’ll be back.  That’s for sure.  But you’ll be ready.

The White Cloud and the Blue Mountain

July 31, 2012 § 13 Comments

A wise and lyrical passage.

Tozan, a famous Zen master, said: “The blue mountain is the father of the white cloud.  The white cloud is the son of the blue mountain.  All day long they depend on each other, without being dependent on each other.  The white cloud is always the white cloud.  The blue mountain is always the blue mountain.” 

This is a pure, clear interpretation of life.  There may be many things like the white cloud and the blue mountain: man and woman, teacher and disciple. …They are quite independent, but yet dependent.  This is how we live, and how we practice zazen.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

The Ladder

July 16, 2012 § 6 Comments

I am feeling shaky, a bit unsteady, these days.   My busy mind beckons.  Come join me, it says, in the brilliant analysis of your own failings.  Why didn’t you do X?  Why can’t you do Y?  Overwhelmed.  Undeserving.  Alone.  Falling.

In my struggles, I returned, as I often do, to this passage from Suzuki’s great work, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

One of my students wrote to me saying, “You sent me a calendar, and I am trying to follow the good mottoes which appear on each page.  But the year has hardly begun, and already I have failed!”  Dogen-zenji [a great 13th century Zen master] said, “Shoshaku jushaku.”  Shaku generally means “mistake” or “wrong.”  Shoshaku jushaku means “to succeed wrong with wrong,” or one continuous mistake.  According to Dogen, one continuous mistake can also be Zen.  A Zen master’s life could be said to be so many years of shoshaku jushaku.  This means so many years of one single-minded effort.

A single-minded effort in each moment.  That’s all.  It sounds so small but within this conception a world of  great wonder and possibility resides.  Within this conception, each moment becomes a fresh start.

It is a ladder out of the pit of corrosive self-judgment.

Lucky Me

July 13, 2012 § 27 Comments

I’m driving into town for an early morning breakfast with my friend.  Traffic is thick.  I see an opening in the lane next to me and start to accelerate into the space but then see that the car directly in front of me has simply stopped.  I’m able to brake and avoid the collision.  I travel on.

At breakfast a drop of syrup falls from my fork, landing exactly in the center of my wrist and not in my lap.  With my finger I bring the spilled syrup to my lips.

I’m writing now in my friend’s offices in the midst of the city.  The sky is gray, the air is cool.   The window beside me is open to the urban landscape.  I am surrounded by old buildings, rust and weeds, wildflowers and gardens.  I hear the symphony of sounds- dripping water, traffic humming, the quiet murmurs of the people at their desks.  All so evocative, so beautiful.

Lucky me.

We hear so often that we should feel gratitude for each precious moment and for all the great blessings we have received.  But too often, this conception exists for us only in the abstract.  Worse yet, we often feel as though we are somehow obliged to possess this feeling and so, when we inevitably fall into some negative place, we feel guilty.

Appreciating the wonder and goodness of life is not an obligation.  And it’s not just an abstraction.   All that it requires is to be present in your moment- open and ready to feel and see what is right there.  The lucky fortuity of an accident averted or a drop of syrup falling in just the right way or the stunning imagery that’s just outside your window.

I am beyond blessed.  And even in those moments of struggle, I possess the capacity to struggle.  Lucky me.

The Only Path to Serenity

July 9, 2012 § 14 Comments

I love the simplicity, the rhythm, and the depth of this passage.


Fill your bowl to the brim

and it will spill.

Keep sharpening your knife

and it will blunt.

Chase after money and security

and your heart will never unclench.

Care about people’s approval

and you will be their prisoner.


Do your work, then step back.

The only path to serenity.


Tao te Ching, Chap. 9 (Stephen Mitchell translation)

Out of Control

June 13, 2012 § 12 Comments

Feeling unable to control what is happening around us can make us crazy in our heads.  We cannot make our children do what we know they should.  We cannot influence our political leaders to act responsibly and fairly.   We cannot stop the degradation of our planet by the forces of rapacious greed.

The same is true in our day-to-day existence.  Traffic jams, flight delays, barking dogs, broken appliances.  Relentless chaos.

We often say we feel “out of control” or that we have “lost control.”  But this is all a big mistake.

The truth is that we didn’t “lose control” over things; we never possessed it to begin with.  We control nothing except how we choose to exist in our place and moment- right here and right now.  Everyone else, everything else, exists beyond the perimeters of our capacities.

This is not a recipe for giving up or indifference.  We must act and care.  As we model the life we choose to live, our children watch us.  As we act in the spirit of public service, we may inspire our neighbors.  Attending to another person with love and care is a very powerful thing.

What we do matters.  Each of us changes the world by our existence.  Just not according to some design or plan.

If we can give up our illusions of control, we might then devote ourselves to the one thing that is within our grasp- the opportunity to live with strength, focus, and a sure sense of self- moment to moment.

That’s all there is.  But it’s more than enough.

Be Like the Wind

June 6, 2012 § 4 Comments

This is one of my most treasured passages from the Tao.


Express yourself completely,

then keep quiet.

Be like the forces of nature:

when it blows, there is only wind;

when it rains, there is only rain;

when the clouds pass, the sun shines through.

Tao te Ching, Chapter 23 (Stephen Mitchell translation)


A simple thought, a source of strength.

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