Friday, September 24, 2010

It’s So Simple, Really.


For whatever combination of unknown reasons I’ve had the opportunity to give a number of interviews lately. They allow me to do something I really enjoy, which is to pare down my expression of practice to the bare essentials. This isn’t a workshop or retreat with a theme that I try to adhere to, a series of exercises and experiences designed to provide a participant with a particular perspective. This is an hour of “so what is Zen awareness practice and why is it important?”

After one such talk the interviewer and I agreed that while it would be lovely if our exchange were helpful to others—and we really hope it is—it didn’t matter because we, at least, got to where we wanted to go through the process of conversing. Focusing, asking, looking, responding, seeking clarification, finding words to express brought each of us, through the direction of our attention, HERE, where we want to be.

We have fingers crossed that the new book is going to arrive in time for the Bridge Walk. This afternoon I’ll record the guided imageries that go with the book. This one captures, I think/hope, as perfectly as June and I can manage, the essence of Zen awareness practice as offered through A Center for the Practice of Zen Buddhist Meditation (yes, that’s the official, legal name of this organization). The book lays out those bare essentials I’ve been speaking about in the conversations with the interviewers (and pretty much anyone else who will stand still long enough for me to tell them.)

What are they? There is nothing wrong. Period. LIFE is all there is. Separation is an illusion. There is nothing real that suffers. We can stop identifying with the illusion of a self that is separate from life, from its imaginary suffering existence, and end suffering in any moment we choose. All suffering happens in a conversation with the illusion of egocentric karmic conditioning/self hate. Drop that conversation, turn your attention to HERE/NOW and you are free. (You will be the judge as to its efficacy, but the unique aspect of this book is that it lays out the “how” so clearly.)

The Buddha taught it. Jesus taught it. Sages and awakened adepts around the world throughout recorded history have reinforced this understanding: Just as life is, life is perfect. Just as you are, you are perfect.

How can you know that? Stop indulging egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. Get out of that conversation about what’s wrong and what’s lacking. Get HERE/NOW. With fresh eyes and mind, SEE! You will know.

Yes, you will see that there is nothing to know and no one to know it—and you will know that! It’s quite magical. It’s the mystery we keep hearing about.

The fact of the matter is, when you’re looking through the magic it is crystal clear that there is nothing real in the universe that wants you to suffer. There’s nothing to fear, nothing to regret, nothing to feel bad about, nothing wrong and nothing lacking. Turn your attention to “yes” and “thank you” and feel life’s joy. Might sound corny—if you’re listening to conditioned mind—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

In gassho,

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Awareness Junkie Man


My grandson sent this to me recently:

It is our nature to be powerful, joyful, vibrant, full of energy, and in command of our experience. Conditioning can only control us AFTER we have been beaten down into a weakened state.

The great trick of conditioning is that once we have been beaten down by outside forces, conditioning convinces us to use our own strength to keep ourselves down. This is the only way it can have any hope of controlling us.

Exactly so.

It is because of conditioned mind’s single-minded effort to redirect attention to maintaining its position of control over the life force that animates us that, in our practice, we encourage an even greater diligence in keeping attention and awareness here/now with life. To that end we offer a wide range of practice supports—most free of charge—that those wishing to wake up and end suffering can avail themselves of. Practice Everywhere reminders (which come with technical assistance for anyone new to this sort of thing), Daily Peace Quotes, Transform Your Life (the perpetual calendar of quotes and awareness exercises) is now available as a free iPhone app, Open Air talk radio’s thousands of hours of archives, The Voices cartoons, Peace Practices, these blogs… Then there are things like Reflective Listening Buddies and at-home working meditation retreats, the 30-day retreat in the back of Making A Change for Good that have a small cost.

In short, there are enough practices to occupy a person’s attention around the clock, enough fun, interesting objects for attention to keep the willing practitioner grinning constantly. (The grin, of course, is what happens when a person is living Here/Now.)

But, sadly, people—good, sincere people—continue to get talked out of availing themselves of all those grins and instead allow conditioning/self-hate to use the strength of their very own life force to keep them in bondage.

I don’t know how many of you have a sense of what the monks do day in and day out. If you’ve been around for any length of time you probably have a strong sense that they do a lot. They do. They work 24/7 doing their own practice and offering practice to others. Briefly (keep in mind that these are only the big rocks in their job descriptions), Michael is in charge of all things food, Amy handles the logistics of practice (who is where when doing what), Sequoia does communication between practice central and the rest of the world, Melinda facilitates and combines psychotherapy with Zen practice, Dave oversees practice, training, the Monastery itself and too much more to imagine, and Jen is in charge of keeping and coordinating the big picture of every aspect of practice(!), our financial wellbeing, and the Africa Vulnerable Children Project. This leaves only Alex. What in the heck does Alex do?

Like everyone else, Alex has a long list of services he performs, but what he brings to practice is a willingness, enthusiasm, and creativity that keep us all inspired. If you’ve seen him you know that he is always “decorated” with the various reminders he wants at the front of his conscious awareness to keep him inspired. There are pictures of the children he’s partnered with in Kantolomba, the Peace Quote of the day, the exercise from Transform Your Life, and whatever else he’s currently working on. He’s done the 30-day retreat from Making A Change for Good repeatedly since the book came out. He draws a Voices cartoon every week. He’s invented an iPod shuffle earbud reminder system that will be unveiled next month with the new book What You Practice Is What You Have. The guy is non-stop! Oh, and he’s that great singer on the Open Air commercials, the author of “Stop, Drop, and Breathe.”

But here’s what has inspired me to write this blog: He, and his alter-non-ego Awareness Junkie Man, are launching a campaign to raise $5000 for the children in Kantolomba. If that money comes in, Awareness Junkie Man (complete with goggles, cape, and, we fear, tights), will walk across the Golden Gate Bridge on October 2 at the 9th Annual Bridge Walk. This I want to see!

So, I am proposing a matching grant. I will match donations up a thousand dollars that come in by the 21st. Are you in?

Oh, and one other insight I had this morning. Tomorrow is the last day to get a t-shirt for the Bridge Walk. This one is a stunner (drawn by Alex), and we want everyone who would like one to have one. If the voices are telling you you can’t afford it, here’s my offer to you. Email the registration office at with your name, address, and t-shirt size, and I will cover the cost for you. (In case anyone is having a suspicious moment, these funds are not coming out of donations. I have a part-time job.)

I hope you will join us in person, in spirit, or both in making this Bridge Walk the biggest and best ever. A lot of great people and really adorable children are counting on us.

In gassho,

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Just Keep Going

In many ways this August 2010 trip to Zambia was the hardest one for me. Being there is always physically challenging—malaria medications; the need to be covered with insect repellent; scarcity of fresh fruits and vegetables; the standard difficulties with water, electricity, and the internet—but the poor air quality this time took the challenge to a whole new level.

When people have no way of dealing with trash except to burn it, and when a huge percentage of the burning trash is plastic, the result for the environment and lungs is disastrous. When those circumstances take place in the hottest, windiest season of the year, we get that “whole new level” I mentioned. So, when the day arrived for my departure, while it is always sad to leave good friends, I was ready to get on the plane that would fly me away to the marginally more agreeable atmosphere of the Johannesburg airport.

We have a departure tradition in Ndola. The traveler checks in the requisite two hours before the flight, after which we adjourn to a nearby coffee/tea establishment to go over last-minute details. Alas, the computers were down and all tickets were being written by hand. By the time I got my boarding pass, there was barely time to say a hasty farewell and make it through the rest of security and immigration before queuing up for boarding.
Ah, here we go!

The airlines in that part of the world have a few traditions of their own. One I find most (yes, the word I keep coming up with is “challenging”) challenging is spraying the interior of the plane before take off and/or landing. I understand that there are all sorts of challenging (!) critters who would stow-away and set up housekeeping in new locations without that spray, but goodness, it is unpleasant to be closed in a small compartment, breathing air one intuitively senses just isn’t good for a human, reassurances from the airline to the contrary.

Moments after the plane had been sprayed down, the captain came on the PA to announce, in that tired or bored voice people assume when they want to sound reassuring, that there “are a couple of problems with the plane.” A couple!?! My row mates began telling stories of these kinds of situations leaving Ndola, specifically involving the very plane we were on, which had come in two days before and promptly been grounded for mechanical problems. OK. This might not go as planned.

He announced we would be deplaning and returning to the terminal, while the airline either fixed the problems or brought in another plane from Johannesburg. The seasoned travelers on this route groaned simultaneously and announced, “That’s it, we’re stuck, we won’t get to Jo’burg tonight.” I, too, was groaning, but inside the conversation was more along the lines of, “No, this is not possible. If that’s true I’ll lose my entire itinerary. This is not happening!”

As we stood to deplane, the Captain came on once again to announce the door would not open! Not a problem, there’s a door at the back, we’ll just bring stairs…

Imagine this next part happening at the speed of “I am perfectly willing to accept whatever happens, and I am going to do absolutely everything humanly possible for me to get to Jo’burg and make my connecting flight”:

I’m first in line at the desk.
Airlink: We don’t have any information.
Me: What’s that plane on the tarmac?
Airlink: That’s a Zambezi Air plane.
Me: (Internally, “Yikes.”) Where’s it going?
Airlink: Johannesburg.
Me: Can I get on it?
Airlink: Don’t know. You can ask them.
Me: If I can get on that plane, can I get my luggage off of yours?
Airlink: Yes, if you can get a ticket, we’ll get your bags.

Hyper-speed. Found an adorable fellow who was immediately sympathetic, walked me to the Zambezi ticket counter so I wouldn’t get stuck behind official lines, and explained the urgency of the situation to his colleague who hopped on writing a ticket (no computers, remember). “Will I make it?” I ask. “I think so,” is his less than reassuring answer. What seemed like hours later, I had a rather expensive replacement ticket for the one going nowhere. Back to Airlink with my shiny new ticket. “Can I get my bags?” The woman from the ticket counter stood up and I followed her out across the tarmac, while she yelled at young fellows to open up the plane and offload the luggage. There my bags were. Back we trudged, sweating profusely in the scorching sub-Saharan Africa afternoon sun.

More forms and conferencing and explaining and my bags were checked to Jo’burg. After profuse thank-yous, some discrete tipping, and hugs all around with my new best friends (amazing how going through an emergency bonds people!), I was once again on my way through the rest of security and immigration to queue up for boarding. I felt, and I suspect looked, as if I had just run a summer 10K—perfect way to start 48 hours of travel!

On that flight I reflected on the relationship between acceptance, maximum effort, and letting go. I remembered a call years earlier from a monk who, driving up to the gate of the Zen Monastery Peace Center to leave for an appointment, came upon a huge tree that had fallen, blocking the road completely. “Guess it’s God’s will that I not go,” was the comment. “Perhaps,” I replied, “but I suspect it’s also God’s will that you go get a chainsaw, cut up that tree, and clear the road.”

Seems to me we never have to decide anything, even in circumstances such as these. Our job, our opportunity, is to show up with all the trust, willingness, and courage we can muster. Life will take us where we need to go.

When we decided to purchase the property for the Monastery, we had many uncertain moments, most of which resulted from having no money. How was this going to work? Would we be able to find the money? What if we couldn’t come up with all we needed? Much “sitting still with” was required. Finally, in one of our discussions, Sr. Phil said, “Well, how about if we just keep going until something we can’t get past stops us?”

Good plan. Here we are 23 years later, still going!

In Gassho,