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what vow is this?

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Till now our fledging meditation group has stayed clear of chanting — something that’s integral to monasteries and priest-led practice centres. We’ve limited rituals to ringing a bell here and a han there; we bow as we arrive and depart, when taking and leaving our seats, and as part of tea service. During this week of rohatsu, however, we’re adding the four-line chant of the Bodhisattva Vows to our morning and evening sittings. It begins with this line:

Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.

You what? Why not end world hunger or make peace on earth while you’re at it? Outright silly, you say? Meaningless? Get real! And who are you to “free” anyone? And free from what? Delusions? Greed? Illness? Sadness? Bad habits? Arrogance? Old age? Just a few that come to mind: states I wish I could be free of. Bingo! Start right here, right now.

What keeps me from being a kind person, a happy man, a good neighbour, a forgiving brother, a generous friend? How about this for a vow: May I be free from fear, anxiety, anger, hatred, prejudice. May I accept myself as I am, warts and all. May I cut myself some slack.

That’s a start: my mantra for today. May your day go well.


old dog learns new tricks

Walking alone for seven straight day on unfamiliar terrain offers many opportunities for disappointments. Not everything works out as planned. Examples are: not too hot but no rain; neither mud nor asphalt please; clear signs to show the way; the ‘right’ overnight accommodation to come along at the ‘right’ price; etc. Every event that unfolds in unexpected ways offers the opportunity to awaken to what’s actually happening, not what I imagine or fear.

You may recognize this formula: expectation → disappointmentsuffering

If things don’t work out the way I (my ego) expect them to, disappointment can cause suffering. The little voice laments: Why does this always happen to me? How stupid can I get? I hate this place. And yet, the shift does not have to occur automatically. In the split second before suffering sets in, I have the choice to realize that very little is actually my or anyone’s fault! In fact, most events are not about me at all. It’s merely the small and insecure voice within that’s trying to fit the world in its narrow field of vision.

Being on my own this trip, away from the familiar, I’ve been treating my often fragile ego with loving kindness. When things went awry, I’ve laughed. When my mind wanted to go to an injured place, I’ve talked to my/self in German, made funny voices, and even sang a silly song. It worked … 95% of the time!

p.s. As if on request, this morning brings new disappointment. A week ago, family members agreed to come by train to spend the day with me near the end of the hike. Lat night, by phone, they inform me that a key member “has to play golf today” and that the get-together is off. Plans for the next week (my last days here) are also in disarray. My reaction is disbelief, then anger. I’ve lived up to my end of the arrangements and changes were made without consultation. …. exhale …. This is old family stuff, dysfunctional at best. Alcohol is part of the equation, so is a history of things-best-left-unsaid. … Exhale some more … and remember the ancient practice of metta, loving kindness. Exhale, inhale, sit still, listen to the heart, feel the sensation of exclusion, of sadness over the disconnect with the one family I have.

Metta practice begins with paying attention to our own heart. Paying attention to the breath, say “May I be free from fear” or “May I be free from sadness” or whatever suits the occasion. …. After a little while of this, “May I be at ease” … three times, accompanied by gentle inhale and exhale. Then “May I be happy,” noting the breath going in and flowing out. Now repeat, while keeping the other (my brother, say, or his wife) in my mind’s eye. …. “May X be free from fear” … breathe … “”May she be at ease” …. breathe … “May he be happy” … noting breath and the gentle softening in the heart space.

Practicing Loving Kindness begins by taking care of myself before extending loving thoughts to others. It helps open my heart of compassion by diffusing self-centred anger and generating compassion towards my brother and sister-in-law. Deep bow to them for bringing me back to basics.


meeting strangers

This is my third day of walking the Camino along the Mosel River. Wherever I go, I’m a stranger. Speaking the language helps keep disorientation in check. This morning I covered 13 K in two hours, level terrain, barely a hill to slow me down (just arrived in Cochem, about a 1/5 from the top, at left). Walking on asphalt for a few Ks looks easy but is hard on the feet: they heat up and the body has to absorb more shock with each step. It occurred to me — as it has on previous walks — that I could fall or trip along a remote stretch of forest and no-one would be the wiser. Hours go by without another soul in sight. In a way this is dying practice. Everything “important” has been left behind in Canada; nothing I can or have to do about everyday busyness — I’ve taken myself out of circulation. Without a cell phone or fixed address, I cannot be reached. There’s no internet access in villages and since I stay in private ” room for rent” homes without paper work and cash transactions, I leave no paper trail.

One thing I have been doing is to practice kindness along the way. Wherever I go, whoever crosses my path, I endeavour to look at them bid them the time of day, approach them with an open heart. “Unless we practice loving feelings toward everyone we meet, day in, day out, we’re missing out on the most joyous part of life” writes Ayya Khema. It’s much easier to look down and walk past strangers and even if some don’t respond. I notice a gradual letting go of expecting to be rewarded for my greeting. I simply greet and acknowledge the other’s presence. Occasionally someone else initiated contact. As I sat on a church wall this morning, keeping my distance from a group gathering for a funeral procession, an elderly lady (older than I am 🙂 that is) came up from behind and said, “Wer rastet, rostet” … If you rest, you rust. We both smiled; brief contact, never to meet again, leaving behind a little taste of our humanity.


practicing with ‘should’

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After we’d sat for an hour in evening meditation, a friend asked to discuss a personal problem. “For quite a while I’ve been trying … trying hard,” he began haltingly, with tears welling up, “to love my wife. I’m supposed to love her. Why can’t I?”

You say you ‘should’ love her; why should? 

Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do with this practice (pointing to his meditation cushion), be loving towards others?”

We sat in silence for a little while. More tears. What do you feel right now — in your heart, your body?

“I feel flat.”


“Yes, flat dead.”

Let’s try something. Sit with this for a few minutes, this deadness in your heart. Breathe into the place where flatness resides in your body. Can you do that? … Let warmth enter your heart. ‘Should’ and ‘ought to’ easily get in the way of ‘what is.’ … What is, as you say, is that you feel dead in your heart, that you’re unable to feel love for your wife.

“But if I were to accept that deadness, that sense of not loving her anymore … what then? I don’t know what will happen then. I’m afraid that …” (Pause).

Not knowing,’ the old Zen master said to the monk setting out on pilgrimage, ‘is most intimate.’ Most intimate: closest to the truth.  

I suggest you take this one step at a time, baby steps. For a few moments each day, whenever you meditate, direct your breath to reach the pain and longing, that flatness you described. And, as an experiment, set aside thoughts about what may or may not happen. Baby steps! Is that something you’re willing to do?

We bowed, got up, and straighten our sitting cushions.



slow learner

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As some of you know, my outlook has steadily grown from grief into joy. Three-plus years ago I experienced a devastating loss when the woman for whom I had fallen deeply decided that she could no longer be with me: “I love you and I must leave you,” she announced one day. In the midst of the pain and sadness that followed, I remember a voice within telling me that this is a life-altering event for you — don’t rush — savour the devastation. On the surface, a weird bit of advice and consolation, but even then, amid the tears and despair, I recognized its fundamental truth. 

The fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafiz wrote:

Don’t surrender your loneliness
       So quickly
Let it cut more deep

Let it ferment and season you
       As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.

And so I took my time — letting the pain subside, the heart to heal itself, and a more grounded self to emerge. Of the many things that differentiates this heart-break from others I’d experienced over a lifetime, is that I did not go into numbness tinged with rage and self-loathing. Instead, I allowed the practice of metta (loving kindness) to guide me. Even during the darkest moments I harboured no anger towards my former lover for leaving me or myself for screwing up once more. Instead — to my amazement — I learned to appreciate the grand purpose of our relationship as an opportunity to grow a larger heart, to open my small self to love and passion on a spiritual plane.

I’ve recently allowed my/self to be touched once more by a lover who thrives on those very qualities. I’m able to bring to this relationship an ease of staying present, of not projecting into the future, of minding my heart’s boundaries, and of savouring the surprising gifts of being loved.


how sweet

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In counselling we talk about the non-directive approach grounded in what Carl Rogers named unconditional positive regard. With it we accept another person as they are, unconditionally and non-judgementally. Similarly, people talk about unconditional love, not (as I suspect) so much as something they know from experience, but as something they wish for.

Wouldn’t it be downright exquisite to be valued by another person with unobstructed respect and liking — not only for what we do, think, or say but for who we are in any moment? “Warts and all” is the expression: an unreserved welcome, free even of the concept of flaws. The current phrase “it’s all good” speaks to that, but has, I suspect, become just another trendy (and empty) expression as “OMG–o my god” and “how sweet.”

In recent months I’ve been the beneficiary of unconditional positive regard in personal relationships. My god-daughters (ages 2 and 5) visiting from Scotland exemplify such an attitude and so does my spiritual coach. And now a blossoming relationship with a woman, the first such exposure in over three years, is unfolding along the same lines, allowing me to take interpersonal risks without fear. “To love with the hands wide open,” as Marge Piercy puts it, creates a deep sense of being-of-value and unrestricted scope for our psycho-spiritual growth. Yes?

image: “Magnolia” by Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976).


my heart goes out to dick cheney

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O no, it doesn’t. This morning NPR reported that former US Vice President Cheney was admitted to hospital. This isn’t the first time he’s sought medical care for his heart condition, we were told: after five heart attacks over the years a built-in defibrillator now helps regulate his body’s rhythm. All in all a sad story, one that would make anyone’s heart open with compassion. Yet as I listened, anything BUT filled my heart; my dislike for this man runs deep.

In 2006, during a training program for end-of-life care practitioners, Ram Dass spoke to us via satellite from Hawaii where he’s lived since being “stroked.” One of the things he talked about — and which I’m reminded of this morning — was his home altar. It holds several pictures: my spiritual teacher, my parents, and … G.W. Bush and Saddam Hussein. [The latter was at that time the Bush administration’s enemy du jour.

The purpose of the Saddam photo, Ram Dass explained, is to remind me to practice compassion not only for people I care for and love, but also the ones I dislike and have little liking for. That’s were the rubber of loving kindness hits the road.

Sitting in meditation I hold Mr. Cheney’s image in my mind’s eyes, breathe into my heart space, and gently offer the three-phrase metta prayer — first for my/self and then for him, his family, and all who’re taking care of him:


May he be free from fear.
May he be at ease.
May he be happy

As today unfolds, my intention is to monitor my own heart as it expands and contracts in relation to the people I hold dear and those I find difficult to like. May all beings be happy.