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Category Archives: being of service

when suddenly a light goes on …

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… and, for a couple of seconds, clarity reigns. And so it was during last night’s meditation. As I told fellow-sitters afterwards, my blogging days are coming to an end. If not an end, then to a drastic slow-down. In a couple of weeks it’ll be the 1,500th posts since I began — almost one per day for four years.

The time has come for me to walk more quietly. “He who knows does not speak”, it says in the Tao te Ching, and “he who speaks does not know.” There’s a fair amount of ego involved in keeping a blog: thinking that what I have to say is of interest and even benefit to others.

What brought this on? The mind likes to figure things out, label it, put a neat bow on it. In reality, as with an avalanche, many tiny events contributed to the shift. For one, the question of what matters bubbled up on my 68th birthday. So did Steve’s decision to toss his TV and disconnect from the Internet. Also the facts that, in my family at least, the previous generation has died out … and that an offer to father a child has come too late. My days are numbered (statistically) and I notice the hours spent at the keyboard.

All these are just thoughts, of course.

Looking back on life we see
that nothing remained the same.
things came
and went
without permission or control.
The future will unfold in the same manner.
What is there to do
but sit in mindful appreciation
and watch it come
and go.

source: Martin, W. (2010). The sage’s Tao te Ching: ancient advice for the second half of life. New York: The Experiment, p. 114. image:


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. 

can you sit still for 3 minutes?

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I’ve been reading about Christian mystics and was struck by Apostle Paul telling the flock to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). In the 3rd and 4th century, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who lived solitary lives away from communal bustle, recited all 150 Psalms every day. A recent 60 Minutes piece showed the Greek Orthodox monks of Mt. Athos continually praying while doing routine chores. Talk about being focussed, about bringing monkey mind back to the centre, moment by moment. I admire such dedication and concentration and, in a romantic moment, wish I could be one of them. I tried it 10-15 years ago, spending guest-time with Benedictine and Franciscan monks and training at a Zen monastery for a year.

What can we busy bees — with jobs, studies, relationships, and assorted worries — learn from people living in monastic seclusion? For many of us, meditation appears to be a route towards stilling the mind and finding some peace amid everyday chaos … but sitting still for 30 minutes or an hour isn’t working out. We try … and then give up, discouraged. We join a sitting group … and gradually stop coming. Many practical explanations, all good. Net result: new disappointment on top of old.

Here then is my suggestion: “meditate every day for three minutes.” That’s about as long as it takes to drink a quick cup of tea, make a short phone call, or reply to a couple of emails. Is that something you could do — would like to try? Can you find a quiet place somewhere (at home, in your office, the college library, a bathroom, on a bus, before getting out of the car)? Can you sit upright or lie down, on a chair or meditation cushion? Close your eyes or lower your gaze? Notice your body’s sensations: aches and itches, tensions and pleasures? Sense your breath, even half a breath? Do this for three (3) minutes, no more. Do it every day, ideally at the same time.

Let that be your meditation practice, gentle and kind.

image: monk at Mt. Athos

don’t read this …

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… unless you’re going to die some day. I just completed a list of people (with phone numbers and email addresses) to be contacted when I die and sent it to my executors. They’re the two kind men who’ve agreed to execute my will, liquidate my belongings, pay taxes, distribute my wealth [sic] according to my will.

I’ve updated my Last Will, with a copy at my lawyer’s and another in the fridge at home (apparently a good common practice). I’ve left instructions for the body to go to the medical school for educational and research purposes, with the cremated leftovers to be interred at the monastery. The corneas of my eyes will be “harvested” for transplantation through the Eye Bank.

I mention all this because most people I’ve asked (statistics point to 60%) don’t have a will. Many reasons: I’m too young; my family will take care of things; I don’t own anything;  I haven’t had time. Mainly, I think, because the topic of death and dying is just too unpleasant and so we avoid all mention of it. But when it comes to communicating funeral wishes and having a will in place, we’re actually doing others a favour. They’ll be busy enough coming to terms with your passing and won’t have to second-guess “what she/he would have wanted.”


on seeing familiar things anew

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Many times I’ve found myself with a ‘really good idea’ to provide a service, only to be held back by internal limitations. I’m a much better assistant-to than a leader. Give me a task and I’ll do it well and on time; offer me overall responsibility and I wither. Against this background, I read about a new book on organizational transformation. It may be too late for me, but not for you.

In Practically Radical, author William Taylor tells us to “look at … your field as if you are seeing it for the first time,” also to look outside of the familiar to see what works elsewhere. He cites a 90-year old hospital in Seattle where executives went inside a Toyota plant so that, by working alongside front-line employees, they could experience such manufacturing concept as just-in-time delivery, continuous improvement, and worker-initiated quality control. The experiment caused an uproar, as doctors quit and the media complained — but, over time, the hospital flourished. A Taylor principle: where you look shapes what you see. Another: looking at a familiar situation as if you’ve never seen it before.

Taylor names some habits which I might apply in my current projects, even at this late stage: Don’t be a know-it all. Tap into collective genius. Be good at rejection. Be humble and ambitious. Be eager to learn from and to share with others. Click here for more.

Taylor, W.C. (2011). Practically radical: not-so-crazy ways to transform your company, shake up your industry, and challenge yourself. New York: William Morrow.

finding a spiritual teacher

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There may come a time when a meditator stands to benefit from a relationship with someone who’s further along the path. Reading books, attending lectures, or watching Mr. Tolle on YouTube can point the way, but the right guide will take you deeper.

My suggestion is to ask friends for their first-hand experiences and to sample local people. If you live away from urban centres, try the Internet for online instruction. I’m currently auditing a by-donation course with the Insight Meditation Center, with daily practice tips, optional reading, and access to teachers via Skype or email.

My own journey evolved in stops and starts. Fifteen years ago someone suggested that I might benefit from meditation and took me to a 10-day silent retreat as taught by N.S. Goenka. That made me curious but didn’t cause me to meditate on my own. A year later I googled ZEN and TRAINING and MONASTERY and soon found myself on the other side of the continent for two intense months of what felt like Zen boot camp.

Soon afterwards — while working full-time and doing graduate studies — I found a group in Oregon who were looking to start a monastery. When a former elementary school became available I was invited to contribute my hotel management experience and stayed for a year to help get things started. Since then I’ve attended retreats with different teachers, but continue to return to Great Vow Zen Monastery and consider my teachers there as spiritual guides for life.

How did you get to where you are on your meditation journey?


are you a real teacher?

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From time to time the question arises with people coming to my house for meditation (Fernwood Zendo). Having heard about dharma transmission and lineages, they wonder whether I am “a real, you know, Zen Teacher.” Over hundreds of years, as zen moved from China to Japan to the West — bringing with it robes and statues, elaborate ceremonies and arcane language, acquiring occasional scandals and a predominately white middle-class membership — an unwritten code has laid claim to the word teacher.

Today there’s no seminary or university I know of where one can study to become a zen teacher, there’s no set curriculum on how and what to study, and there’s no formal examination or certifying authority. Only certified teachers may certify other teachers: genetically not the healthiest way to propagate.

Yet we’re all teachers — we teach our children, coworkers, and team mates. Life is a teacher — we learn from experience, by observation and trial-and-error. Just about any topic is taught and certified — just check online or ask the nearest school. For 25 years I taught others ‘how to teach’ in corporate and university settings, earned master’s and doctorate degrees, and wrote about teaching … but after 11 years of earnest study and practice, calling myself a meditation teacher is frowned upon. When I mentioned that I hosted two weekly meditation groups, offered daylong retreats, worked in end-of-life care, and helped others on their spiritual path, a “transmitted” teacher told me that host was right, since you’re not a teacher.

Is that what the Buddha had in mind? As best as I can determine, he wasn’t interested in a hierarchical religion, nor did he want the sangha (community of followers) depend on him and other teachers for their salvation. Based on heresay — his words weren’t written down for 200 years after his death — his dying guidance is significant:

“Therefore be ye lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on external help. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Seek salvation alone in the truth. Look not to assistance to anyone besides yourselves.”

In short: there’s no absolute need for teachers — authorized, certified, or otherwise. Teach yourself. Trust your innate wisdom. As to me: yes, I’m a teacher but don’t make me your teacher.

source: Mahaaparinibbaana Suttanta. Burtt, E. A. (1955). (ed.). The teachings of the compassionate Buddha. New York: The New American Library, p. 49.