Affliction

August 20, 2012 § 46 Comments

I have only hazy memories of my paternal grandfather.  Grey hair, angular face.   A serious man.  He sent his son to a military boarding school- to toughen the boy up, I imagine.

I have vivid memories of my father.  Cropped salt and pepper hair, dark eyes.  Whip smart, a great writer, socially graceful, desperately in love with my mother.

My father taught me many things- how to play tennis, how to catch and eat blue crabs, how to take care of dress shoes.  But amidst all the great and wonderful things, he taught me something else- something wrong and terrible.

In our house there was a right way and a wrong way to do everything- mow the grass, get a haircut, drive the car, park the car, pack the car- you name it.  I knew that because of my father’s appraising, critical, and relentless gaze.

When something wasn’t done the right way, I received that lacerating look, sometimes joined with a few short brutal words, but mostly just the look.  More than enough.

I learned the lesson.  For most of my life, I was ruthless in my self-appraisal.  Each moment, each choice, each thing.  Right way, wrong way.  Judging, judging, judging.

I turned it outward too.  Judging everyone and everything around me.  A ferocious critic of all I surveyed.

The worst thing, the most terrible thing, was to see the reflection of my critical gaze in the people I love the most- to understand how I had fed their self doubt all those years.   How I had harmed those I loved so deeply.

Father to son, father to son, on and on.  Our affliction.

Now I know.  No right way/wrong way, no judging, no look.  Just to love and to be.

I’m trying.

Gone But Not Gone

August 15, 2012 § 55 Comments

“You may think that when you die, you disappear, you no longer exist.  But even though you vanish, something which is existent cannot be non-existent.  That is the magic.”

Shunryu Suzuki

My mother does not know who I am.  She lives in a locked down wing of a facility that she will never leave.  She cannot hold anything in her mind for more than a few seconds.   She will die there.  I often hope it’s soon.

My mother is gone.

Before she was gone, my mother would often say to me, “You’re such a good writer.”  She meant it as a compliment I know but there was something else.  It was as though she thought that I didn’t understand, or wasn’t using, my talent.

But all those years my mother kept saying this to me, I was writing.  Along the way I published dozens of articles, several book chapters, even a book.  And still, I would hear from my mother that same admonishing compliment- “You’re such a good writer.”

What I now understand is that amidst all those pages of published work was hardly a single page that really meant something to me.   Mostly cold, academic stuff.   Hundreds of pages where I was not to be found.

That’s changed.  Now I write what I feel- not what’s expected, not out of any ambition.  Writing now because I can’t see any other choice.  Drawn to the work with all my heart.

My mother patiently waited all those years for me to believe in myself.   By the time I did, it was too late for her.  Now she’ll never read anything I write- ever again.

But she’s here, right now, in my work.

Gone- but not gone.  Never gone.

Be There

August 13, 2012 § 45 Comments

The first mile of my run is always the hardest.  Before I find my rhythm, before my mind clears.  Painful, labored, difficult.

But soon I’m just running.  I am aware of my surroundings- I hear the birds, feel my foot strike the ground- but I’ve shed the dualistic and busy way of thinking of the first mile.  No me and the birds, or me and the ground- just me, running.  Feeling strong and sure.

I am drawn to simple, elemental sports.  Running is the paradigm.  But also snowboarding- a board, the mountain, and gravity.  And surfing- a board, the ocean, and waves.  To be just running, just boarding, just surfing is to be in that transcendent place where you are fully engaged physically but somehow utterly at peace.

You do not have to be on a wooded trail or a mountain to find this feeling.  It does not come from the place or the nature of the activity.  It is available to each of us in each moment, wherever we are, whatever we are doing.

When we lose the dualistic way of thinking, our mind clears and we settle into whatever we are doing.  Just reading, just cooking, just being with the other person.  The peace comes upon us.

So wherever you are, whatever you are doing, just be there.

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.

Somewhere Right Now

August 2, 2012 § 24 Comments

Somewhere right now a woman is running on a mountain trail, the wind in her face, pushing herself, pressing on, alone and unwatched.

Somewhere right now a man sits on his bed, looking down at his lover still sleeping, seeking only to be close, knowing that whatever comes, he is all in.

Somewhere right now a child is walking into a school building, head up, shoulders back, striding purposefully into a cauldron of taunts and humiliations.

Strength is in the effort- not in the achievement.  Achievement is an external marker. Effort comes only from within.

That runner may never win a race.  That lover may have his heart shattered.  That child may come undone.  But each of them- in their moments of effort- is strength.  Embodied.

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

Bone Deep Weary

July 30, 2012 § 56 Comments

Early this morning I stood in a clearing in the woods behind my house.  The morning sun carved channels through the mist.  The air was crisp and cool.  Idyllic.

And yet while standing in that palace of nature, my tortured mind wouldn’t stop.  Too much to do.  Too little time.  Too many failings.  Negative thoughts tumbling through my head.  There, in that perfect setting, I was coming undone.

I know what I believe.  I know that peace is always right there for me.  But knowing the way and being the way are two different things.

Sometimes I think I should just give up.  Go back to living in my head.  Embrace repression.  Set aside this wearying quest for self-awareness.  Or maybe just take a break.  Just rest for a bit, I think.

I can’t know what’s ahead.  So maybe I will someday give up on this.  But not today.  Or at least not in this moment.

This bone deep weariness that comes upon me is something I must just accept.  Let it come.  And after it passes, start again.  That’s what I’ll do.

The Mist on the Mountain

July 27, 2012 § 22 Comments

If I believed in God, I would have felt her with me that day.

Standing alone in a mist so thick that I could see only several dozen yards ahead.  I knew this mountain well so as I stood on the ridge, I could see in my mind’s eye the valley below and the peaks that ringed me- now all blocked by the liquid clouds enveloping me.  A mist so thick that it created a silence beyond silence.

I struggle to find the words to describe what I felt in that place.  A bit fearful at first- it was a little foolhardy to be up there- but soon I felt safe- but more than that.  I felt a sense of absolute security.  Nothing like fear remained.  My busy mind stopped.  I was just there.

Peace is a word I use a lot.  That day, in that place, peace came to me like nobody’s business.  Simple, undiluted.  Filling me like the mist that filled up the canyons beneath me.

In what some would call my regular life, in my ordinary places, I often feel as though I am walking along the edge of a cliff.  The chasm of regret and self-judgment always right there, just waiting for me to slip.  In such moments, I try to recall that time when I stood on the edge of a real cliff, alone in the dense mist.  I think of the peace I felt there.

I now understand that what I felt on that mountain didn’t depend on where I was, or the mist, or anything else outside me.  It depended on only one thing.  I needed only to be strong, open, and ready.

So that precious peace, that exquisite sanctuary, I found that day on the mountain is always there for us.  Wherever we are.  It’s always there.

When the Time is Right

July 24, 2012 § 40 Comments

Early in my career, I held a teaching fellowship at the Stanford Law School.  One of my students gave me as a parting gift a copy of Shunryu Suzuki’s book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.  I was touched by the gesture but not engaged by the book.  I recall thinking mostly that the “Zen book” looked cool sitting on my bookshelf.

After Stanford, I headed east, jumped into the corporate lawyering world, and lived anything but a Zen life. A lot of time spent spent feeling frantic, unhappy, hollow and unfulfilled.  Through those difficult times, as the decades rolled past, Suzuki’s book patiently tagged along on my bookshelf- never read, but never left behind.

Five or six years ago, I picked up the book again.  This time I read it, really read it, again and again. I discovered the Tao te Ching.  I began working with a therapist.  I sought to feel and hold a strong sense of self.  I began to live in a more present and centered way. I changed.

I sometimes wonder why it took so long.  All that time- most of my life- I had right at my fingertips the text that would start me on the path to strength and peace.  Why didn’t I pick it up sooner?   So many years lost, I would think.

But that way of thinking is all wrong.  What I did or didn’t do before is gone now.  And that book, that amazing text, those redemptive teachings, would have meant nothing to me until I was ready.  I wasn’t ready before.  I am now.

Understanding and redemption come when the time is right.   Don’t regret what may feel like their tardy arrival.  Rejoice in the fact that they are here.  Right here, right now.

The Moment Before

July 18, 2012 § 29 Comments

Michelangelo’s sculpture, the David, stands in the Galleria Dell’ Accademia in Florence.  I cannot find the words to describe its magnificence.   David stands with a far off gaze, his sling over his shoulder, frozen forever in that moment before his great triumph.  There can be no doubt about his intentions.  He knows what he must and will do.

Our challenges seem less dramatic, less momentous, than the one David faced so long ago that day in the Valley of Elah.  But we face our challenges every day in a myriad of contexts.  And each of our challenges, like David’s, begins with the moment before.  The moment before we step into that tough conversation, the moment before we choose to do that task that we have resisted for so long, the moment before we open ourselves to the great loss we have sought to repress.

The moment before is the moment we must choose- this way or that- evade or confront.   Our question is the same one that David faced.   Who shall I choose to be in this moment?

We best live in our moments before if we know who we are and let that sense of self drive our choice.  It is not a moment for analysis; it is a moment to let our actions flow from the core of our being.

This is how I imagine David lived in the moment that Michelangelo so preciously captured for eternity.  This is how I would hope to live in each of my moments before- an aspiration I live out imperfectly but ceaselessly.

 

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