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Category Archives: bearing witness

Joanna Macy writes:

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As the rug is progressively pulled out from under us, it is easy to panic, and even easier to simply shut down. These two instinctive reactions — panic and paralysis — are the roadside ditches that border our pathway to a livable future. To fall into either one is the greatest of all the dangers we face, for they deaden the heart and derail the mind. If ever we needed spiritual practices and disciplines for staying alert and connected, it is now. The greatest gift we can give our world is our presence, awake and attentive. What can help us do that? Here, drawn from ancient religions and Earth wisdom traditions, are a handful of practices I have learned to count on.

1. Breathe

Our friend the breath is always with us. When we pay attention to its flow, it merges mind with body, and connects inner world with outer world. Mindfulness of breathing in and breathing out can center and steady you. “Feel how your breathing makes more space around you,” writes the poet Rilke. “Pure, continuous exchange with all that is, flow and counterflow where rhythmically we come to be.” Notice that you are not deciding each time to exhale or inhale; it’s rather that you’re being breathed. Breathed by life. And so are all the other animals, and plants too, in vast rhythms of reciprocity. Feel that web enlivening you and holding you. The felt flow-through of matter/energy brings a measure of ease, and opens us to the flow-through of information as well. This lowers our usual defenses against distressing information, and begins to unblock the feedback loops, so we can more clearly perceive what we’ve caused to happen.



caregiver’s curiosity

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I hosted a jizo ceremony for members of our mediation group yesterday — an occasion to reflect on personal losses, sew little garment, and place them on statues in our meditation garden. All done in silence, except for a couple of chants and poems; solemn, some tears. Afterwards two people wrote to say that “it was more profound and beautiful than I could have imagined. We both noticed a sense of lightness ….”

While I guided the proceedings, I also visited my own grief. Once everyone had left, I marvelled at this wonderful practice. How did I get to be so fortunate (blessed?) to have the tools and opportunity to be of service? I felt drained and took to bed; woke up an hour later, refreshed and still.

Many friends are caregivers: nurses, counsellors, health care providers, volunteers, companions, teachers, parents. How do you do it, day in and day out?

What motivates a caregiver’s actions?
Why are we willing to be with another’s pain?
Who can say?
We want to help,
but that’s not the whole story.
We feel obliged,
but that’s not it either.

Beneath the many motives of the conditioned mind
rests the mysterious Tao,
which is the true source of all caring.
We can’t see it or understand it.
We can only trust that it
is the origin of what we do
and the power that helps us see it through.

source: Martin, W. & M. (2011). The caregiver’s Tao te Ching. Novato, CA: New World Library, p. 24. The Tao te Ching is a 2600-year old Chinese text. The term tao can be translated as “way” to mean course of life and its relation to eternal truth. 

face it: you are alone

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In her latest blog post, our friend Tess reports on changes in her life: she’s got a full-time job and is able to pay her bills. For that she has to get up before 5 in the morning to catch several bus connections, only to return 12 hours later, exhausted. “And trust me,’ she writes, “I’m eternally grateful … really I am. It’s just been a shock to my system and I’m finding a real test to staying present. My ego is having a heyday in convincing me that … I deserve better, that I should be … living over a bakery in Paris.”

O how I know that voice! There’s always something lacking, be it food, love, health, money, things, or enough rain for the garden. What is this dissatisfaction, I wonder, this longing for what is not, all the while dismissing or overlooking that which is? There’s a line in a long Buddhist sutra:

The Way is perfect like vast space, where there’s no lack and no excess.
Our choice to choose and to reject prevents our seeing this simple truth.

In her book on Mindful Eating, Zen teacher Chozen Bays offers clues as to the cause of my pervasive dissatisfaction. “Heart hunger,” she suggests, “is satisfied by intimacy. 

Each of us is fundamentally alone in the world. No one can know us to the bottom of our being. No one can know all our thoughts. No one can know completely the deepest longings of our hearts. No one, not even the person we are closest to, can experience life as we do. The realization that we are fundamentally alone can be a source of sadness, or grief.”

So, once more, instead of looking for magic explanations I’m called to take refuge in simple awareness. Not to make loneliness to go away, but to welcome it unreservedly. This alone feeling is neither a personality flaw nor a curse inherited from my family of origin (as I’ve always thought). It comes with being an authentic human being.

source: Bays, J. C. (2009). Mindful eating: a guide to rediscovering a healthy and joyful relationship with food. Boston: Shambhala, p. 58. image: when I googled for an “alone” image, I found mostly people in tears: sad and miserable. Photo above taken during week-long walk along the Mosel River: alone and happy.  

you’ll never know

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Further to yesterday’s post: To stimulate creative thinking, William Taylor tells us to “look at a familiar situation as if you’ve never seen it before.” How many times have you started the day thinking “here goes another day,” as in “same old, same old”? Marshall McLuhan talked about looking into the future through the rearview mirror. Assuming we already know what lies ahead helps us get oriented, which is helpful. It also limits our openness to surprises and discoveries, not so good. I’ll be putting this into an experiment today: watching my assumptions as I go through the day, from one appointment and routine event to another. May your day be filled with wonder!

image: horse with blinkers to help keep it focussed straight ahead.

any body there?

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There’s a line in one of James Joyce’s Dubliners short stories about Mr. Duffy who “lived a short distance from his body.” That’s how I feel this morning. Bought a router for the computer and spent “chatting” with a succession of tech support people (Suchita, badge 71460 and Kaustav 71122, to name but two) trying to get it installed. Each asked the same initial questions, then poked this way and that, and suddenly wrote, “I understand you no longer need my assistance.” No, don’t go! Reconnecting meant a new technician and starting from scratch, “Could you please let me know what is the main issue, so that I can assist you further?” Arrghh, not again! Finally, after 4 hours and 28 minutes, Prasad (#71591), my fifth contact, advised to “get router back to store and get it replaced.”

How did I manage to waste all that time and come away with nothing to show for it? Following a night of restless sleep, I feel like Mr. Duffy: disconnected from my body. Makes me wonder how much time is spent, every hour, every minute, as we chat and text and blog away — communicating into the void.

not dawdling (sunday poem)

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Not dawdling
not doubting
intrepid all the way
walk toward clarity
with sharp eye

With sharpened sword
clearcut the path
to the lucent surprise
of enlightenment

At every crossroad
be prepared to bump into wonder

James Broughton (1913-1999), American poet, playwright, and filmmaker. source:; image:

why open the gate and ring the bell?

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After last night’s meditation, two of us stayed to talk about our zendo. Why is it, I wondered, that so many people come to sit for a while and then drop by the wayside? Years ago my monastic teacher told me not to worry, but to announce the times, sweep the walkway, unlock the gate, light a candle, and be ready to receive whoever comes to the door.

If one person shows up, he said, be glad and ring the bell. If ten or twenty come, likewise. But what if no-one comes? Ditto: light incense, bow, ring the bell, and sit. Make sure you meditate regularly and don’t get hung up on numbers. Concern yourself with your own salvation and leave everyone else to attend to theirs. People will come when they need to. 

My zendo friend and I also touched on the weight of having a teacher present, and of following certain forms and rituals. Might that be the reason people flock to centres  where there’s someone in a robe and a title? How is that people spend hundreds of dollars to travel and sit among a large audience to hear someone speak in translation — but won’t sit on a cushion once a week, free of charge? We both agreed that yes, a teacher is important and sooner or later most everyone can benefit from being pointed along a path, but that meditation, the fundamental ‘work’ of awakening from delusions, requires individual effort. The purpose of a sitting group, then, is to bring together a group of people — a sangha in the Buddhist tradition– to support and accompany each other.