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Tag Archives: presence

what to do?

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Writing helps sharpen my awareness of the everyday, the ways in which reality — seen straight-on with a clear mind — contains everything that’s needed for an authentic life. Suffering, yes, there’s plenty of it. The Buddha taught that much depends on our stance vis-à-vis suffering, our relationship to what causes heart-ache, loneliness, and confusion. In a nutshell: pain is pain, suffering is optional.

Looking back over the last 24 hours shows me ways in which people I know are dealing with adversity — how they’re seeing opportunities for growth in the midst of their suffering. [I use the term suffering as the Sanskrit dukkha, also translated as pain, anxiety, sorrow, misery, stress, angst, and frustration.] 

• A dharma friend tells me how her family is coping with the stress of inadequate funds to make ends meet. They’re working with their bank to consolidate debts, cutting up credit cards, restricting purchases to the essentials, and keeping a tight rein on spending. “It feels good to take charge.”

• A man who lives with his mom and poodle in a nearby apartment rides an electric scooter. He often stops at our fence and speaks of social issues, of poverty, living on the street, and activism. Today he holds a stack of leaflets: “Friday I’ll be filing my nomination papers for election to city council,” he explains with a grin. Seeing his cap-in-hand, two of us take the hint and give him a twoony (C$ 2) each towards his filing fee.

•  A café acquaintance put a letter into my mailbox. She writes of a dear friend, age 78, freshly diagnosed with brain cancer after spending the last two years looking after his 94-old mother. He never wanted to become old and feeble. What shall I say to him, what can I do — will you help me? I’ll meet with her tomorrow, ready to listen and to encourage her to do the same for her friend. What else is there when we’re invited into the intimate sphere of dying, but to arrive with unreserved presence?

image: Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump (1982); acrylic and oil paintstick, and spray paint on canvas. Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) was the first Afro-African artist to become an international art star. His began as a graffiti artist in New York City, he died due to a heroin overdose at age 27.


rule #1

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I watched a DVD about the painter David Hockney this mornings. In commenting on a series of landscape paintings of his native Yorkshire, he said that “all painting is autobiographical.” After decades as an avant garde painter and co-founder of the Pop Art movement living in L.A., he returned to paint ordinary views of cornfields, woods, and farm houses — some of them in 10 and 12 versions. “If you want to see the thing as it is,” he continues (and I’m paraphrasing), “you can just go there and see for yourself. What I, what a painter will give you, is his view of the thing, his interpretation, his perception at a given moment, however ‘realistic’ it may look.”  

In one scene Hockney is standing on a narrow field track leading towards a tunnel of trees. His rubber boots make squishy sounds in the mud; he wears a cap and thick tweeds against the chill as we can hear the sounds from a nearby motorway. At one point a neighbour’s dog comes and barks at him; at another he has to move easel and table aside to let a tractor pass. As he marks a row of bare autumn trees on a large canvas, the sun steadily shifts to create fresh shadows and bathe the mossy tree trunks in pale-green and yellow. Muttering about the “@%#* light,” he paints over the initial black-grey-brown of trees to capture the sun’s reflection. “Rule number one,” he says later, “The moment overrules everything.” As if to illustrate the point he walks off-screen, effectively ending the interview: “I’m a bit tired right now.”

I wish I could be that direct in my observations and actions.

letting go of ‘technique’

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I sat with a friend the other day, offering to help him sort a personal problem. At one point he threw up his hands and said  “you sound like a therapist.” A little later he commented again, this time on the substance of his exploration and no longer on anything I’d done or not done. Looking back, I must have let go of technique — however skilled or well-intended — and instead immersed myself in listening with as much moment-by-moment presence as I could muster. I’d let go of expecting a possible outcome of the conversation or even of comprehending the full extend of my friend’s situation. All I had done, as best as I now recall, was to attend with all my being.

An old Zen story illustrates this point very nicely: I see my action (and non-action) reflected in those of both swordsmen and master.

Zen master Shoju Rojin was once confronted by samurai disciples who asserted that his realization might be superior to theirs in the abstract but theirs was superior to his in concrete application. The Zen master responded by challenging them to a duel, facing their swords with only an iron-clad fan, parrying every blow. Stymied, the humbled samurai asked about his technique. The Zen master replied that he had no technique but clarity of the enlightened eye.

source: Cleary, T. (2005). Soul of the samurai. Rutland, VT: Tuttle, p. 106.


crooked line

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I’m venturing into an intimate relationship: first with caution, then courage, I’m opening my/self to being loved –allowing body-heart-mind (shin in Japanese*) to be touched: withholding nothing. Immersed in bliss, I’m tasting absolute presence, without a single thought of past or future, fully immersed in sensory and spiritual mindfulness. Not even during week-long retreats with their long hours of meditating, chanting, and working, have I experienced such intense alertness. Only chaplaincy work — sitting at hospice patients’ bedside, attending to the emotional needs of their loved-ones and coworker — has given me a similar taste. 

The Danish philosopher Søren Kirkegaard says that while life must be lived forward, it can only be understood backwards. Looking back on my last ten years shows a direct line, even if at the time it’s been obscured by upheaval and disarray: → Zen training → three years of self-imposed celibacy → tumultuous affaire d’amour → first taste of spiritual sexuality → extended grief → gradual recovery and healing → end-of-life and spiritual care work → more celibacy → now this → beyond that: not-knowing.

True, I may appear
unkempt like a rotten tree,
jetsam or flotsam,
but on the right occasion
this old heart can still blossom.

By the monk Kengei (ca. 875).

*my given name is Daishin, boundless heart; source: Hamill, S. & Seaton, J.P. (2007). The poetry of Zen. Boston: Shambhala, p. 100. image:


touched by the divine

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I woke up at 4:11 from a dream in which the VW van I was driving lost its braking power and, after steering it to safety on a meadow, I continued my travels astride an Island pony. Wanted to get up to start writing this post but, not wanting to wake my hosts,calmed myself back to sleep by doing deep-belly breathing.

Yesterdays was a day of much information and a few startling insights (see two previous posts to explain where I am this week). The most profound thing by far occurred during the morning break when I took another student aside and asked her to help me figure out what this ‘divine’ was which everyone seems to be talking about. In my mind ‘divine’ equalled ‘god’ and, as practitioner of a non-theistic (no god) religion, I was getting more and more confused and irritated — to the point that I silently concluded that this training wasn’t for me and that I’d best leaved the program.

Fortunately, the person I asked listened carefully and thus heard my cry for clarity. Have you ever felt as if guided by a force, a mysterious hand, something beyond your comprehension? Of course, I have! So many times at hospice or in one of my current volunteer jobs, or when talking to a stranger who tells me that we’re having instant report and she or he is able to tell me things that are most private — there are moments when I’m absolutely present, when the words and gestures coming from body are not of my own making, when I feel a mere vehicle, a conduit, for what I sometimes call ‘spirit’ or with the Greek word ‘pneuma,’ meaning breath, wind, or spirit.

Afterwards, when trying to make sense of the experience, I’d see it as ‘bigger than myself,’ something my mind alone could not have devised on its own, something ‘mystical’ for lack of another explanation.

Well, said my friend, think of that as the Divine working in and through you.



does nothing last?

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During an NPR interview with Kiefer Sutherland (of television’s “24” fame) the conversation got around to how each day’s outcome is unpredictable: You wake up, set out to do this and that, expect to be here and there, meet this person and that, hope to accomplish ‘x’ number of things … and by nightfall, looking back at the day, how often can you say ‘I nailed that one perfectly’?  

Rarely, if ever! We set out each day — and, for that matter, to each job, relationship, or project — with our best intentions, full of hope, a few fears, and an unspoken faith that all will go well. Much of the time we don’t have much of a plan, nothing more than an idea or expectation. Perfectly normal. And then things don’t quite work out, some end in disaster, others take turns we never expected or could have anticipated. That’s life, you say; dust yourself off and start over again.

Impermanence is a key teaching in Buddhism: nothing lasts, everything changes. What is “real” in this moment is this sound from the radio, this itch on my right shoulder, this view out the window, this uncertainty about how I’ll complete the sentence I’m typing right now … anything beyond that is a mystery. 

“Impermanence is not a uniquely Buddhist insight,” writes Gil Fronsdal.

“Some spiritual traditions equate the world of impermanence with suffering. For these, the solution to suffering is to transcend the world of impermanence.

The Buddha approached suffering differently. He said that suffering is not inherent in the world of impermanence; suffering arises when we cling. When clinging disappears, impermanence no longer gives rise to suffering. The solution to suffering, then, is to end clinging, not to try to escape from the transient world.”

source: Fronsdal teaches at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, CA; image:


original package

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Another key teaching in Zen Buddhism concerns duality: ways in which we separate I-You, day-night, life-death, thought-action, this and that — suggesting instead (as I understand it) that each of the parts are One. Night turns into day only because our organizing mind describes it thus. What actually occurs is the gradual and seemless change in light as the earth and stars move. Makes sense, non?

Perceiving You and Me as One is more difficult to comprehend (for me), yet watching a mother and infant communicate by touch, smell, gesture, and sounds demonstrates that they’re intimately connected: in fact, while in the womb, the child was one-with the mother, even as it developed a separate operating system.

What brought this on, you ask? During last night’s sitting at Fernwood Zendo it occurred to me that such meditation instructions as “counting your breath” and “notice sensations arise” are examples of a dualistic way of seeing. There’s the breath and there’s the one counting. There’s the pain in the leg and the one noticing it come and go.

Ever so often, it seems, “I” move past this-and-that and locate presence at the centre of the breath. During such moment there’s no breather and no observer, only breath. “No objects, no subjects, only this,” writes Ken Wilber,

“No entering this state, no leaving it; is absolutely and eternally and always the case: the simple feeling of being, the basic immediacy of any and all states, … prior to the split between inside and outside, prior to seer and seen, prior to the rise of the worlds, ever-present as pure Presence, the simple feeling of being … I-I is the box the universe comes in.”

Does this sound familiar at all?

source: Wilber, K. (2000). Sex, ecology, spirituality: the spirit of evolution. 2nd ed. Selections reprinted in: The collected works of Ken Wilber, vol. 6. Boston & London: Shambhala Publications, p. 318. © 1999 Ken Wilber.