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.

Not Chosen

July 10, 2012 § 31 Comments

The one goeth to his neighbor because he seeketh himself, and the other because he would fain lose himself.  Your bad love to yourselves maketh solitude a prison to you.


I am a child.  We are at a park and a group of boys are playing baseball.  My father commands me to go ask the boys if I may join them.  I do and they simply ignore me and carry on their game.

I am a young University professor at my first academic conference.  I seek to join a conversation but as I see the other academics glance at my nametag, there’s no mistaking the disinterest expressed in their body language.

I am sitting across from someone I love.  Without words, I can sense the distance between us- the discomfort that person feels being in my presence.

We each want to be chosen.  We need to be the one that others want.  When we are not the chosen one, we lament.  Why not me?

Looking for ourselves in the response of others is our great and terrible affliction.  It is just another way of giving others the power to determine our self-worth.   Just another passage to the inauthentic life that ceaselessly dogs us.

Do not seek yourself in others.  Do not seek to be chosen.  Choose.

It is your choices- not theirs- that embody who you are.

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)

The Hollowness of Hope

July 8, 2012 § 26 Comments

Success is as dangerous as failure.  Hope is as hollow as fear.

Tao te Ching, Chap. 13 (Stephen Mitchell translation)

Of all the Tao passages, this one may be the most difficult to embrace.  The rejection of what Kipling called the “twin imposters,” success and failure, is not so hard.  And to banish fear is a common aspiration.  But hope?  Hope seems so indispensible, so positive.

Most of us labor under the illusion that through our choices, we determine our consequences.  Good choices yield good outcomes.  Bad choices, bad outcomes.  We also imagine that these outcomes are static.  We register our success- or failure- and close the ledger book.

This is all a mistake.

The only thing that we can hope to control is our own actions and choices.  What follows from those choices spins instantly out of our grasp.  What we do matters, certainly.  But we don’t have the power to control or even know what will come.

The very idea of an “outcome” can reflect the parallel illusion that we can freeze our circumstances at one moment in time and know that we succeeded- or failed.  Each success, each failure, of our lives becomes simply part of an infinitely complex and evolving tapestry.  Change is our only constant.

So what does this have to do with hope and its hollow quality?

To embrace hope is to embrace these same illusions.  We say that we hope for some outcome- good health for a loved one, good fortune for us.  We can hope and hope but we can never know what’s coming.  And whatever form the future takes, we cannot suspend time’s arrow in its path and in that frozen moment seek to pin down our hoped for outcome.

No need to mourn the hollowness of hope though.  It’s true that we can’t see or control what is to come.  But we can see what is right here, right now, and we can choose how to be, and how to act, in our moment.  We can choose to be present, strong, open, and ready.

Success, failure, fear, and even hope, we can set aside because all we have- and all we need- is ours in this moment.


July 3, 2012 § 16 Comments

One of the most important texts in my life is Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki.  This is a passage about mindfulness and wisdom taken from that book.

Just to see, and to be ready to see things with our whole mind, is zazen practice. If we are prepared for thinking, there is no need to make an effort to think.  This is called mindfulness.  Mindfulness is, at the same time, wisdom.  By wisdom we do not mean some particular faculty or philosophy.  It is the readiness of the mind that is wisdom.  

Those Moments

July 2, 2012 § 11 Comments

Those moments.  When it all seems too much, when you feel overwhelmed, lost, falling.  When you want just to give up, to go away, to stop the noise.  When you feel beaten down, used up.  Crushed and finished.  Those moments.

I have many of those moments, harrowing moments of weakness.

But there’s a strength there too because however deep the crevice into which we tumbled, we are still here, still struggling to hold our presence in this moment.  Arriving at this moment means that we climbed out of the crevice and went on.

The cliché- “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”- actually reflects a deep wisdom.  All those bleak and crushing moments are behind us.  And as we stand in this present moment, we stand as survivors, ready to be strong and present in this, our moment.

We will fall again.  We will experience more of those moments.  But right now none of that matters because in this moment we possess the glorious chance to be strong, centered, and present- right here, right now.

The Raw Courage of Artistry

June 20, 2012 § 9 Comments

Many of us yearn to create, to be an artist.  But we come up short.  The work we produce seems derivative, banal, or just a big mess.  Not art.

To create art is an act of will and courage.  So long as we are trying to achieve some objective or emulate some other creative artifact, we fail.

Only when we step off the cliff with nothing but a sure sense of self, shedding all expectations of accomplishment, only when we boldly risk rejection and ridicule, only when we sustain our sense of wonder, our “beginner’s mind,” do we have a chance- and even then only a chance- to create truly.

It’s not for the faint of heart, which explains why true artistry is rare- and why it should be adored and venerated.

The Prison of My Own Construction

June 19, 2012 § 4 Comments

I spent most of my life in a prison of my own construction.

I tried to be a good son, a good student.   I looked for the approval of my peers.  I took prideful note of my ascending career path.   I collected external markers of success.  I saw the worth of my life reflected in the regard of others.

I want now to be done with all that.

This has nothing to do with not caring about, or feeling disdain for, others.   My connections with family and friends are precious.  But however much I care for them, I cannot look to them to tell me who I am or how I’m doing.

The Tao teaches: “When we seek the approval of others, we become their prisoners.”  They become the lens through which we view ourselves.  When they are pleased with us, we are good.  When they are unhappy with us, we are bad.  We are so busy meeting their approval, there is no time for becoming conscious of one’s self and living an authentic life.

Escaping this prison is as simple as it is difficult.  Stop measuring yourself in the reflection of what others think of you.  Better yet, stop measuring yourself at all.  Be yourself.

Intensely Practical, Intensely Zen

June 18, 2012 § 15 Comments

For many of us, self-forgiveness is the greatest challenge.  We look back and see our mistakes.  We can’t believe we were so stupid, so lazy, such a fool, so unworthy.

We often manifest that self-judgment by crappy behavior towards others- projecting arrogance, dealing out harsh judgments.  On the surface, this crappy behavior seems the antithesis of self-doubt.  But that arrogance and those harsh judgments are all born from our own self-loathing.

The great and wondrous thing about staying in the present moment is that it frees us from this pointless and corrosive way of being.  Whatever we did, or failed to do, before is gone.  All we have is this moment.  In this way we cut off the oxygen of our self-judgment and all the negativity it spawns.

Many people think the Zen and Tao lessons are just fuzzy New Age mumbo-jumbo.   That’s wrong.

Try this.  Be self aware and the next time you start to beat yourself up over what you did or didn’t do, just stop.  Exhale.  Reboot.  Recall that each moment is a fresh start.  Feel the freedom, feel the strength return.

It’s a glorious thing.

Intensely practical, intensely Zen.

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