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Category Archives: equanimity

sunday poem

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Feeling deeply appreciated and nourished by the comments to my previous post, I dip into The poetry of Zen* —

Whatever it is,
I cannot understand it,
although gratitude
stubbornly overcomes me
until I’m reduced to tears.

* by Saigyō Hōshi (西行 法師, 1118–1190) in Hamill, S., & Seaton, J. P. (2007). (trans.). Boston: Shambhala, p. 112. image: “Old Man Weeping” after Van Gogh by Gordon Christie when he was still a teenager.


soixante huit

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What do you make of birthdays when you’re getting old? I’m told that Zen practitioner no longer mark the occasion (although some make a fuss about the Buddha’s own). I woke up this morning with the familiar mix of physical and emotional aches, made the same cup of tea and pot of oatmeal as I often do.

Same old, same old — yet new and for the first time. This is a day like any other, yet it is not. I’ve never been here (nor have you, come to think of it). Celebrate? Why not celebrate this moment? And say a prayer of thanksgiving —

Praised be your father and mother,
Who loved you before you were,
And trusted to call you here
With no idea who you would be.

Blessed be those who have loved you
Into becoming who you were meant to be,
Blessed be those who have crossed your life
With dark gifts of hurt and loss
That have helped to school your mind
In the art of disappointment.

On this echoing-day of your birth,
May you open the gift of solitude
In order to receive your soul;
Enter the generosity of silence
To hear your hidden heart;
Know the serenity of stillness
To be enfolded anew
By the miracle of your being.

source: O’Donohue, J. (2008). To bless the space between us. Doubleday, p. 51. image: self-portrait walking along the camino.

in the ordinary everyday

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We finished a 4-week Mindful Living course last night. In response to someone’s report of persistent back pain and another’s mention of not having enough time to meditate, I spoke of obstacles as key ingredients to the practice of mindfulness. Each obstacle on the path to happiness is in fact the path itself. Each calls us to ‘come to our senses.’ Instead of resisting or wishing them to go away, I suggested, we can welcome them as fingers pointing to the moon. “It’s helpful,” writes Pema Chodron,

to realize that … doing everyday things like working, walking outside, talking with people, bathing, using the toilet, and eating is actually all that we need to be fully awake, fully alive, fully human. 

source: Chodron, P. (2010). The wisdom of no escape and the path of loving-kindness. Boston: Shambhala, p.5. image:

forgiveness — easier said than done!

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Ever so often a person’s name comes up … someone I worked for and who rejected me. At least that’s how I remember the situation: he didn’t value my contribution and eventually nudged me out the door. It’s been two years and still there’s this sting in my heart. In Buddhist parlance we talk about two daggers: one that pierces our soft belly when something bad happens and another we insert ourselves to keep the wound from healing. First injury, then suffering.

It occurs to me this morning that one way I might get over the continuing hurt is by practice forgiveness. Zen teacher Ezra Bayda, who I often turn to when it comes to tackling difficult emotions, writes that “forgiveness is about loosening our hold on the one thing we most want to hold onto — the suffering of resentment.”

In forgiveness practice, we work to see through our own emotional reactions. We practice noticing what stands in the way of real forgiveness. Genuine forgiveness entails experiencing our own pain and then the pain of the person to be forgiven.

His pain!? What about mine, which he caused?! And there I am, stuck in resentment and righteousness, unable to let go, however much I want to. “Letting go is not the real practice,” Bayda suggests, “it’s a fantasy practice based on an ideal of how we’d like things to be.”

Instead, he writes, we need to simply acknowledge our unwillingness to forgive and our holding on to the ideal that I shouldn’t be resentful in the first place. That’s radical (“going to the root”), to admit that I’m holding on to pain and — there goes there’s that second dagger — that I’m a flawed person in feeling resentful. As I pay attention to the physical experience of all this, I notice stiffness across my shoulders, into my neck, and forward around my upper chest like strips of iron encircling a wooden barrel. I feel confined and compressed. Breathing near the edges of the tension, and gently into it, I notice restrictions around throat and lower jaw. Widening my breath, slowly and gradually, the load softens, leaving traces of the iron bands.

We can’t move on to the [next] stages of forgiveness until we’ve entered into and experienced–in your bodies and minds–the depth of our unwillingness to forgive.

May this story be of benefit to you.

source: Bayda, E. (2003). At home in muddy waters: a guide to finding peace within everyday chaos. Boston: Shambhala, p. 92. image:

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:

what’s good about back pain?

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In Buddhist terms there’s neither good nor bad back pain: “pain just is.” Not a comforting thing to say to someone in acute pain, annoying and callous-sounding in fact, but there it is. If, as in my case, a soft disc between vertebrae slips its moorings (herniation), it can push against a nerve running nearby, causing protective muscle cramping which in turn exacerbates the pain. Nothing to do with “me,” not something I’m responsible for or can undo. It happens and there it is: pain as a phenomenon of the physical body.

Along comes the ego, the me, the so-called small self. O no, it exclaims, that’s not good. Poor me, I don’t like pain. This is unfair and inconvenient; not what I desire, like, want, deserve, how I envisage the good life. I won’t be able to do this and that; now I’m getting old and decrepid for sure. In short, it enters a mind state of what in Buddhism is called dukkha (from Sanskrit), translated as suffering, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, unhappiness, sorrow, anguish, misery, and frustration. The Buddha is said to have taught that–

Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha.

I’m writing all this with … a grin on my face. I’ve already had to cancel a day-long retreat for today (with apologies to all who’ve had to change their weekend plans). The grin is about the experiment before me: how to live with something for which there’s no medical remedy (other than ameliorating treatments) and to observe how my mind will handle suffering as it comes and goes. 

source: Thanissaro Bhikku. (1993-2001). (trans). Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: setting the wheel of dhamma in motion. Retrieved today. image: (top)

a note to my multi-tasking friends

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“There’s a lot we can do in the fast lane — we can grow and we can expand.
But we cannot deepen, and we cannot integrate our experiences, unless we slow down.” (Angeles Arrien*)

As Br. Wayne Teasdale writes, “when we deepen and find integration of our most important experiences, we also find the common ground with all other sentient beings. To enter into this depth of realization, we must slow down and make contemplation a singular priority in our lives.”

sources: Arrien, A. (1998). Signs of life. Tarcher. Teasdale, W. (2004). The mystic hour. New World Library, p. 243. *Dr. Arrien is a teacher in the year-long end-of-life care program I completed in 2006.