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some days are like this

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As I wake this morning, nothing much lights up. Yes, there’s the pale sun, and odd bird sounds, and a delivery truck rumbling past the house. There’s awareness, faintly, of entering another day. Instantly there are thoughts of this obligation and that, and of things to get done. In short, the usual mish-mash at the edge of nightmares. 

For one with a long history of sliding into greyness, it takes an extra effort to come into the light. So I turn to the nearest object, my hand. Looking closely, I marvel at this appendage, its contours and texture. Been there all those years, functioning without my say-so. Brown spots, wrinkles, tendons, veins, spare skin, old scars, faint hair. Turning palm upward, seeing lines without knowing their gypsy meanings. Miraculously, dark thoughts — like thunder clouds — drift away unaided, revealing for split moments just this.  

image: “Hände des 12jährigen Christus” by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), German painter, printmaker, mathematician, engraver.


there are days …

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… when nothing much happens, nothing spectacular anyway. just one thing after another, as on other days. It’s then that the little things grab me by the nose (or ear, as my stepmom used to) and say, “Listen!”

And so it is today. Someone wrote to say “thank you for all you do” and another asked for advice on “where should I go from here.” Then a note from the monastery about “scattering Alex’s ashes,” that lovely man, painter and dad to two sweet kids, who died from some degenerative brain thing. And a friend sending a picture of her love bird named Bean (“because he looked like a green bean when we first got him”) who fell off his perch, twitched a bit, and didn’t survive another seizure. “We wrapped him in tissue paper and buried him in the garden under a flower-pot — after the dog had given him one last sniff.”

Just another day, eh?! There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground, Rumi says. I’m grateful to be disturbed in my slumber.

a mindfulness experiment

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Mindfulness is the practice of witnessing and accepting, moment by moment, what goes on in our mind and body. It helps us awaken to ‘what is’ — unspoiled by wishful thinking.

This morning, wide awake but not ready to enter the rainy day, I stayed in bed with Johann Sebastian on the radio. My mind went this way and that, reflecting on my distant stepmother’s death last week, drones over Libia, my financial situation, a neighbour’s complaints about parking in front her house, the state of my lower back, next sunday’s 10k run … well, you see where this was going. Monkey mind, swinging from thought to thought, being anywhere but present.

Bringing attention first to my breath, I became aware of body tension which soon led to relaxation. Nothing special, simply noticing. Instead of proceeding systematically — as one might with isometric or body scanning techniques — I turned my radar inwards to receive whatever signals came to my awareness. 

Instantly my jaw unclenched, muscles twitched, belly softened, all of “me” felt warm as if embraced. Devoid of urgency and compulsion to intrude, thoughts faded into the background. The mere act of attending — not doing anything to fix or alter — brought about this reduction of stress.

Then something interesting: the moment I stopped paying attention things got tense again: teeth clenched, belly tightened, and thoughts returned full blast. Made me wonder what it does to my general state of health, this constant way of living in tension.

Click here for information on our next ‘mindful living’ course. image:


just a breath away

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Just back from a weekend at the monastery, where I sat on a cushion or chair for hours, didn’t speak to anyone, helped in the kitchen, ate meals out of wooden bowls, chanted in English, Pali, and Japanese, woke up around 4 am and didn’t get to bed till close to 10 at night.

For the first ten hours of that I was busy daydreaming, fantasizing, fabricating, worrying, and watching my mind doing useless acrobatics. Then late at night, well past worry about stiff legs and aching back, something happened, if even for a moment. For the duration of several breaths I sank into a vivid awareness of my physical body, followed each breath into the fibre of my being, noted tense spots and soft areas, letting go – o miracle – of wandering thoughts; sank past wanting to get anywhere, greeted sensations and feelings as they passed by, fell deeper and deeper into successive waves of being-alive, witnessing nothingness while being fully awake.

I came back to “normal,” back to wandering mind and obscured awareness. That’s to be expected. Yet a full day later I remain refreshed by the realization that light resides within darkness. Nothing profound perhaps — except that for someone prone to depressive swings, welcome evidence of spaciousness residing a mere breath-length away from everyday chaos.



everything’s part of the curriculum

On a frosty morning eleven years ago, during my first training period at a zen monastery, a few of us stood huddled at the edge of a large gathering waiting for work assignment. As newbies we were drawn to each other for temporary shelter amid the demands of 16-hour days, comprising long hours of sitting meditation, silent work assignments (I recall endless shovelling of snow and chopping of onions), endless chanting in Japanese, Sanskrit, and English, bowing everywhere including forehead touching the ground, and, in between whenever possible, stealing cat naps on the floor somewhere because going to our ice-cold cabins would have used up most of those so-called rest breaks. In short: no time to reflect or catch up on sleep. No privacy. No rest.

So we enjoyed this tiny time-out, exchanging whispered stories and irreverent giggles. Until … as if out of nowhere, like a hawk towards the tiniest mouse sunning itself in the foolish belief that all was safe, the head monk seized two us by the wrists, looked at us with the bulging eyes Zen teachers seem to develop over time, and told us that “everything is practice — and that includes waiting for what comes next.”

Everything is practice. Not only meditating on a cushion 15 minutes each day, or twice a week, or for ten days straight. Not just listening to a CD on emptiness, reading a book on mindfulness, or chanting a sutra on impermanence. Opportunities abound to bring attention to this one moment, and this, and this. During last week’s retreat (see yesterday’s post), the teachers reminded us that “everything you say, think, feel, sense, and do is part of the curriculum.” The only time to be alive, apparently, is right now.



i eat therefore i am, or is it the other way ’round?

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After meditation last night, B. described how she’s begun paying attention to food and eating in her busy life. My husband gives me strange looks, she told us, and my kids ask, What are you doing, mom? when she goes quiet at the start of a meal.

Eating, like so many things we do in the course of a day, happens automatically. It requires no special effort, no thinking. Maybe that’s why eating has become problematic for some. For me it’s anxiety, however trivial or complex, that makes me eat. Can’t find my car keys on the way out the door — and a piece of chocolate appears in my mouth and is gone before I know it was even there. Anticipating a difficult conversation — and a tub of hedgehog ice cream appears out of nowhere to cause brainfreeze. Gradually, over time and with effort, I’m becoming aware of how worry, fear, sadness, and joy trigger eating. Once I notice, I can make choices.

In her book Mindful Eating, Zen teacher Chozen Bays suggests ways to explore our relationship to eating and drinking by creating pauses of awareness. For instance:

1. Pause before beginning a meal. Look at each item of food, taking it in with the eyes. Notice colors, textures, shapes, arrangements on the plate or bowl. 2. Take a moment to say grace. Thank the animals, plants, and people who brought this food to you.Be aware of their gifts as you eat. 3. Begin the meal by pausing to inhale the fragrance of the food. Imagine that you are being nourished by just the smell. 4. If you notice that you are eating without tasting, stop and pause to look at the food again.

source: Bays, J.C. (2009). Mindful eating: a guide to redicovering a healthy and joyful relationship with food. Boston: Shambhala, p. 100. image:


nothing special

Up with a jolt — a nightmare perhaps or acid reflux or because I’d suddenly remembered something. Wide awake and dazed at the same time; not unlike most waking hours, really :-). Now I sit at the keyboard and look out the window. A grey morning, the usual cars parked across the street, Tibetan prayer flags hanging limply. No one walking past: no white earphones, to-go cups, or hand-held devices. All’s quiet. Not even gulls, nor the usual crows. So what is this? Nothing special. How amazing that I’m able to see all this.

“Awareness can take in a multiplicity of things,” writes Joko Beck, “just as an eye can take in many details at once. But awareness itself is one thing only. … Awareness is completely simple: we don’t have to add anything to it or change it. It is unassuming and unpretentious; it can’t help but be that way. Awareness is not a thing, affected by this or that. When we live from pure awareness, we are not affected by our past, present, or our future.”

So there “it” is. Being aware I see what’s outside. Expanding awareness inward: bare feet touching the carpet, left ring finger aching, right eye lid touching frame of reading glasses, left shoulder itch, slight thumping in the brain, a lightness of heart. All coming and going.

“Because awareness has nothing it can pretend to, it’s humble. It’s lowly. Simple.” [and] “Practice is about developing or uncovering a simple mind. …. It is not easy. It takes endless practice, diligence, and determination.”

The place and time to practice, it seems to me, is always now. Seize your activity this moment … and become aware of what’s around and within you. Notice when the mind wants to add a judgement, an explanation, a preference. Stay with pure awareness a little longer.

source: Beck, C.J. (1993). Nothing special: living Zen. HarperSanFrancisco, p. 255. image: