Thursday, December 31, 2009

Original Goodness, Original Sin

The beginning of a new year is a great time to remind ourselves that we can approach our lives in a fresh and open way. It's a good time to start with a clean slate, to set our calculator-minds back to zero, to erase our metaphorical chalk boards so we can get back in touch with our true nature and operate from there rather than that delusional place that believes we're all separate from everyone and everything else.

During my twelve years of Catholic school I was taught that we’re all born with original sin. Having been born essentially tainted, we're asked to search for salvation outside of ourselves even though Jesus Christ himself said that the kingdom of God is within you.

Buddhism teaches that we come into this world with what I call original goodness, or Buddha nature: a pure, perfect, loving nature that we simply need to get back in touch with. It’s always there just as the sun is always shining even behind the clouds on a stormy day. It isn’t something we need to try and get, it’s something we merely need to uncover.

If we’re going through life from the starting point of being damaged goods in need of repair from some far away and disconnected entity that judges us and our actions as good or bad, our motivations and behavior will be one way. But if we approach life from a place where we realize we’re inherently good, and we take the time to sit silently and mindfully so we can get a real glimpse of that goodness, then our actions will always be natural and right on. There won’t be any need to for over-thinking anything or following someone else’s set of one-size-fits-all rules. We can be in touch with our hearts and our true nature enough to know what the right course of action is at any given moment.

May we all attain a degree of sanity and peace of mind so we can better serve ourselves and each other.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 24, 2009


May we all appreciate each and every moment and fully recognize how precious our lives are.

May we stop grasping at outer sources of happiness and learn to sit in noble silence long enough to uncover the joy and goodness that already exists within us.

May we acknowledge the dignity and worth inherent in ourselves and every other being and thing around us.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Street Prajna

In New York City we're very used to seeing people living on the street. We're a little too used to it.

Today I walked past the same homeless man on the sidewalk twice (once on my way to the gym and once on my way home). He was hunched forward as he gestured around with his hand as if talking to someone, very dazed and lethargic. He was in that in-between place that's hard to figure out--he might have been feverish or drunk or mentally ill but without interacting with him directly it was impossible to judge.

He helped me realize today that the more thinking I do, the less helpful I am. On a good day I'll see someone who appears to need some kind of assistance and simply respond in the best possible way, without plotting or thinking or second guessing myself.

Today I looked at this man and considered the possibility that I might catch some sort of skin disease by helping him. I wondered if anyone I knew would see me and think I was trying to be some in-your-face show-off do-gooder, or even worse, think I wasn't being a "real New Yorker" by not rushing by like everyone else was.

I thought about so much while this guy may have just needed a quarter or a sandwich or some serious medical attention.

This is all assuming he wanted or even needed my help. For all I know he might have been having a better day than I was. And my fantasies about coming to his aid may have been nothing more than the rumblings of my hungry ego.

We really aren't served very well and we certainly don't serve others very well when we rely on our thoughts alone. We're so disconnected from our hearts and our fundamental wisdom by the haze of thinking that seeps into every aspect of our daily experience that we miss opportunities to be present for ourselves and each other.

My teacher Sunim reminded me last night how important it is to incorporate our practice into our everyday life, no matter how busy or crazy or challenging our lives may be. May we all find a way to do that and serve those who need us.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Right Under Your Nose

May we use this time to remind ourselves that who we are right now is more than enough.

What we have right now is just fine.

The conditions of our life as they are in this moment are simply the way they are.

May we all learn to be content with what is right in front of us, since the only thing we can truly count on is that life will always be just as it is (nod to Charlotte Joko Beck).

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tidy Home, Tidy Mind

What Zen practice affirms for me is how important it is to have regard for our environment. While it may strike some as rigid and superficial to clean one's mat and cushion off every time a meditation session is over, it's really part of the practice of paying attention to what's happening right here and right now. My teacher Samu Sunim stresses this often. It matters that I stand dead center and right in front of my cushion each time I bow. It matters that the mats get cleaned before every Sunday public meditation service, even if no one shows up.

If we can have this kind of regard for every aspect of our life, this can have an impact on our practice and on our mind. Good habits on the outside are naturally part of what's inside, and vice versa. There is no separation.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Importance of Surrender

We constantly have to let go, we have to do this over and over again.

Snakes shed their skin, trees shed their leaves, and we must shed the multitude of beliefs and words and things we identify with if we are ever to end our suffering.

People who spend their lives working hard to restrict and repeal the rights of others might as well be chopping off their left hands with their right ones. People who see them as the enemy are like an ocean wave that believes itself to be separate from the foam at its tip.

Attaching to a legal status for some false sense of solid ground is futile, even for those that can take such a status for granted. Hoping for the day when a majority of people favor equal rights for all beings is a noble cause and one that should be fought for diligently, but in the meantime, it is important to surrender to this moment and to the way things are right now.

The only other option is to be blown around by the political winds of the moment, and to be elated or deflated by the twists and turns of our extremely slow-to-change social mores.

Throw it all away, focus on your breath, do your part to end suffering for all beings.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Staying Still

The other day I saw a woman walking her dog in lower Manhattan (a fairly common site in a city where most are more likely to have a pet than a spouse). When faced with the traffic whizzing down Fifth Avenue, just before they were about to cross it, the dog suddenly stopped walking, froze in his tracks, and lay down on the sidewalk. People were passing by them, before them, behind them, but he was was having none of it. With all of the activity and rushing and noise around him, he decided to stop and be still for a few moments. His owner was flushed as she tried tugging at the leash to get him up and moving again to no avail.

We could all learn a lesson from that dog. Sometimes it's important to just pause and be still.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Right Now

The sound of the oscillating fan whirring back and forth doing it's job of cooling off the room.

The glow of the computer monitor that I consider man-made moonlight falls onto my outstretched hands.

The sound of cars zooming north on 8th Avenue outside my window, doing their job of taking people from here to there.

The occasional clacking noise I hear from the coffee maker every few minutes tells me it is keeping my coffee warm.

Just being here right now.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Anti-Impermanence Injections

If you want to see just how far some of us go to avoid the inevitability of impermanence, just look at a person's face. I see lots of people with foreheads that eerily lack any sign of aging, and eyebrows forever frozen in place from regular botox injections. More than a few TV and movie actors purposely limit their ability to emote and express naturally by paying dermatologists to pump them up with artificial fillers and botulism toxins that paralyze their muscles just so they can have smoother skin. More often then not the end result is imbalanced—it's like buying a brand new couch and sticking it in your living room amidst all your shabby old furniture—the newness of the couch makes everything around it look all the more tattered and worn out.

We all know we can't live forever and that change is inevitable yet we desperately try to keep things just as they are. We think we can halt or turn back the clock with the latest face cream or dietary supplement or risky plastic surgery. We spend hours of our time and thousands of dollars at the gym to fight any sign of aging. We try to keep people in the roles we're comfortable with, limiting their growth and our own in the process. We repeat old patterns of behavior that cause us suffering rather than trying a new way of relating to ourselves and the world that might give us some peace of mind and inspire happiness in the people we come in contact with.

I'm not entirely sure why I do some of these things (fortunately I can't stomach the idea of injecting my face with anything) or what exactly I'm trying to stave off other than the eventual ceasing of my existence in this particular form.

As I turn another year older today I'm aware of these tendencies of mine, of this inborn desire we all have to fix and improve and put off what we label as undesirable but in reality is completely unstoppable and natural.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Post-Retreat Report

I was assaulted during the first day of retreat. Not by another person but by my own mind. I can't remember feeling so trapped and resentful since my first day of kindergarten over 35 years ago.

I was furious with my Zen teacher because during the first morning meditation period when it was my turn for my "interview" (called Dokusan in the Japanese Zen lineages, and called I-don't-know-what in the Korean Zen traditions) he knew precisely was I wanted to ask him about before I even had a chance to speak. And he was saying exactly the opposite of what I wanted to hear since built into my question was the answer I wanted. I don't want to go into the details of what we talked about because these interview sessions are private and based on a student's individual needs. Suffice it to say I was dumbfounded by how he intuitively knew exactly what needed to be addressed as I approached him.

Instead of recognizing that as further evidence that he was the right teacher for me, I spent the rest of the sitting period (all three hours) coming up with a laundry list of reasons why I'd made a mistake by choosing him in the first place, and how once back in New York City I'd approach that "other teacher" I was considering just a few months earlier. The one who'd be more inclined to hold my hand through the rough spots and charm me with their softer, more Western approach to the dharma, what I thought I needed, as opposed to the hardcore, old-school approach that Sunim offered. No, I just don't respond very well to that, or at least that's what I thought that morning when my brain was basically throwing up all over me.

During the retreat, every minute of the day from 5 in the morning until 10 at night was scheduled for us, so once my mind settled into the experience I felt an incredible sense of contentment, and even joy at some very odd moments.

After lunch one day, after thoroughly cleaning the small bowl I had just eaten from by scraping every last crumb up with my index finger (I was just following everyone else's lead) I presented it to one of the Zen teachers for inspection in the kitchen before it went into the sink for washing. She eyeballed it, inside and out, and then put her hands together, bowing before me with a sincere look of gratitude and appreciation for what I'd just done. Never before had bowing back to someone seemed such an obvious and natural thing to do in return. I'd always felt a little strange about bowing until that moment, the highlight of my retreat experience.

There was no hot water or showers or private, comfortable sleeping quarters. It was all arranged to remove us from our normal day to day comforts and distractions and leave us with…with just ourselves and our minds I guess. And frankly I was shocked at how unruly my mind can be when things are the slightest bit out of whack.

The thing is, up until that day I really thought that I was a very "free" man—I mean, I work for myself and my schedule is basically my own and so I honestly believed that this meant I was free. I now see that freedom has nothing to do with those things. It has more to do with how I approach each moment before me. And much of the way I spend my own time, my "free time" isn't as fulfilling as it was to wipe my bowl clean and get an approving bow from a silent woman in gray robes.

On July 4 I took the precepts and received the dharma name Nosan (prounced NOH-SAHN) which means "old or ancient mountain." I love this name and I'm gradually incorporating it into my life. I think dharma names sometimes signify a quality someone already has or one that needs to be grown into, or perhaps a little of both. I'm not entirely sure what Sunim intended by naming me this but I do think it is my responsibility to uncover the layers of meaning buried within this name over the years as I continue to practice.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


I'm going on my first retreat in Toronto this weekend, and on the 4th of July I'll be taking the precepts (another first for me). What I'm the most curious about is what exactly will constitute "work practice." I understand it can mean anything from washing dishes to mopping the floor to raking leaves so I find this very intriguing. I'm so used to my daily routine and being completely in control of every minute of my day--I'm self employed and very independent by nature, so the idea of someone else deciding for me when wake up in the morning, when I sit or do walking meditation or when I do chores or what kind of chores I do is quite a novelty. It is really doing a number on my head. Not necessarily a bad number, just a number.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Buddhism Ain't Just Books

At a sangha meeting a few weeks ago we had an evening of intensive practice (sitting and walking) instead of the usual group discussion format (a short sit followed by a group discussion of some assigned reading material). Someone later commented to me on the side how he really preferred to talk than to meditate, and how much better he liked our "regular meetings." He meant no harm in saying this nor was he being critical—he was merely expressing a preference and in doing so did me a huge favor.

He inadvertently helped me realize that I'd been doing the group a disservice by not emphasizing the importance of regular practice enough. I discovered that I was in the same trap that a lot of Western Buddhists are in--the bottomless pit of dharma books and talks and cd's and mp3's and podcasts that do their best to explain Buddhism in purely intellectual terms. This is absolutely fine and necessary and a huge part of the practice life but first and foremost the whole point is that we have to PRACTICE…

If we know intellectually that touching a hot stove will burn our finger, we have some abstract concepts about what a burn might feel like, and how much it might hurt to touch it. We can talk about it and ponder it and write about it which is all well and good. If we actually touch a hot stove and scream "holy shit, that's hot!", our understanding of hotness and what it feels like to have burning finger flesh becomes much more real. We're experiencing something rather than thinking about it. That's the best way to truly understand something as far as I can tell.

We can talk about the dharma until we're blue in the face but if we don't sit regularly we can't ever fully grasp it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


On Saturday I received my certificate from the chaplaincy training program at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. It was a very emotional experience for me, since our group had formed a unique bond over the past 10 months. Knowing them and being in their company taught me about kindness, authenticity, and how to give selflessly.

I thought I knew about all of these things when I started but I was wrong.

They all gave me so much without even realizing it, and it was a privilege to be in their company. I am missing them already.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Don't Roll Around in the Shit

Most of us believe that we are just not meant to experience pain. We’re genetically wired to resist it at any cost--which is perfectly understandable. If we didn't have a natural aversion to pain, we'd be ridiculously reckless most of the time because they're wouldn't be any incentive not to be. The problem is not that pain is a basic fact of life, but the way in which we handle this.

The Buddha taught that shit happens, but we don't have to roll around in it.

The first noble truth is that life is suffering. Suffering here can describe anything ranging from our relatively minor discomfort with the weather ( i.e. I love when it's warm out but I hate the humidity!) to the utter disgust and hatred some of us feel towards ourselves (i.e. I’m so fucking fat…I’m such a loser…why can’t I meet the right guy/girl? father was so mean to me and that’s why I’m so screwed up….)

We suffer when we combine our inborn aversion to pain with our misguided belief that the current state of affairs should be other than what they are.

Pain happens, and it's mandatory. None of us can live a pain-free life. Suffering is optional since it's merely something we create in response to that pain. We suffer when we try to push pain away. We do this in all kinds of ways, most commonly by creating a story in our heads around a painful experience. Then to top it off, we believe our thoughts as if they're real and then make decisions and engage in behaviors based on our deluded thinking.

Ain't that swell?

I'm slowly beginning to realize that I suffer when I refuse to simply experience unpleasant physical sensations and thoughts directly and instead choose to build a psychodrama around them. When I connect to the pain by feeling it's unique qualities, I allow myself some breathing room and the degree of my suffering decreases.

Sounds simple I know, but it isn't always easy.

One of our techniques for dealing with pain is to muster up some anger and blame someone else for it. A while back I tried this with a good friend of mine who was going through a rough break up. I encouraged her to "get angry" because I found her suffering too threatening somehow, too hard to witness. I didn't realize this at the time however and honestly thought I was doing her a favor by encouraging her to feel anger instead of the underlying pain she needed to experience.

We often look at pain as an obstacle to our spiritual life and forget that it is the one of the best vehicles to help us reach some level of balance in our lives. Practicing with pain and discomfort is one of the most useful things we can do. One of the points of meditation is to train us to sit with anything that comes up without running away from it. Sometimes it can be an itch on the nose that we really, really want to scratch, or a foot that falls asleep and freaks us out so much that we think we’ll never regain feeling in it again, or a dull pain in our knees that begs us to give it a break for a few seconds.

Whatever it is that comes up when we sit comes up in a much larger way in the rest of our lives. So when we say we're practicing by meditating, we really are practicing for our entire lives.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Spring Showers

On Friday evening I went to a party in Brooklyn. It was warm and drizzling when I left Manhattan on the F train but when I arrived in Park Slope it began pouring just as I was climbing up the subway stairs. It was cool enough to warrant a light jacket but wearing one caused me to perspire, just a little bit. Even though I had one of those small, cheap $5 umbrellas that magically appear on every city street corner and store front the second it begins to rain, I decided to wait out the onslaught of precipitation by hanging out under the canopy on the side of a corner restaurant. It was just about 7 pm and the sunlight was diffused softly through the bright clouds, and the trees lining the street were vibrantly green. The scent of newly growing foliage permeated the air and I could see a young woman looking up at the sky from her small table. It's really spring now.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

What's Eating You? A Reflection on the precept "Not Indulging in Anger"

“What’s eating you?” is the perfect thing to ask since anger really does eat away at us emotionally and physically.

I see it as a habitual, conditioned response that shields against anything that would require me to feel more fragile and open. There is always something underneath anger I'd rather not experience—usually fear or sadness. My anger can be ignited by something as minor as an unintentional bump in the subway, or by something I perceive to be poor treatment by someone else: a remark that I decide is hurtful, or a behavior that I interpret as insensitive.

What lays beneath my anger is the misconception that there are certain ways in which the course of history ought to progress, and when it doesn’t go according to my grand plan I want to pick up my marbles and run over to another corner of the playground where everything is more to my liking.

My mind is like a mini courtroom with a virtual judge and jury that constantly weighs in on every situation I encounter. I deem some of these situations to be unfair or unjust and I get a lot of pleasure out of coming up with reasons as to why I'm "right". Most of the time the defense produces a very compelling case that justifies why I am angry and who is to blame. Not surprisingly, this inner jury almost always decides in my favor.

There is no such thing as “righteous anger” because nothing good is ever produced from an angry thought or a decision made under the influence of this emotion. Our culture is very big on expressing anger and even psychologists and psychotherapists encourage us to do so. I used to think that expressing anger was a wonderful thing, even if it meant punching a pillow or screaming out loud in an empty room. I’m no longer so sure that expressing anger really does anything beneficial at all—and in fact I tend to think that doing so might be harmful and ultimately counterproductive. I think the best way to deal with anger is to simply experience the emotion, to be aware of the thoughts that set it off, and to feel physical sensations that accompany it. It really does feel great when we lash out at another person by yelling, arguing or behaving aggressively—for a moment. But anger is a bottomless pit, an insatiable fire that wants to be constantly fed with the coals of our insecurities, our sadness, and our fears.

Some people think that getting angry is a necessary component of social change. But the people that are looked up to the most in this world acted with a passion that was tempered with awareness, patience, and loving action. None of the public figures that we admire today (ie Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama) attained their status by being aggressive or cruel. What makes them so memorable is that they achieved great things by helping countless numbers of people through their positive actions and their virtuous examples.

We can work through anger by being aware of it and how it really feels in our bodies. It is important to become aware of the underlying emotions and thought patterns that give way to the rage we suffer from if we ever hope to move beyond it. If we relate to our anger instead of from it, we have a chance to free ourselves from the pattern of behaviors that cause so much harm to ourselves and others. If we let ourselves simply experience anger instead of reacting whenever it comes up, it will gradually lose its hold over us.

It isn't a stumbling block on our way to waking up. It is an invaluable tool that will help us do so, as long as we pay attention.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Buddhism and Sexuality

This was a response I added to a posting on another blog about sexworkers and Buddhism. It is rather brief considering how complex a matter sexuality is, but I think it effectively sums up my view about sexuality and morality:

I think sexuality or any other area of life can be engaged in wisely or unwisely.

It is true that a sex worker could misuse sex. It is also true that a psychologist could misuse psychology or a hair stylist could misuse cosmetology. If we are not mindful, aware, and well-intentioned, the results of any of our activities can be negative.

If our aspiration is positive, and we stay present and aware as much as possible, the effects of our behavior are more likely to be positive. This goes for a sex worker, bricklayer, politician, psychotherapist, athlete, whatever.

It is odd how people single out sex for misuse and put a lot time and energy into moralizing over it while at the same time claiming that buddhism is not a judgmental religion.

Let’s be mindful of that and not give in to the usual negative knee jerk reactions when it comes to sexuality.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Just Sitting or Just Hiding?

My initial approach to meditation was very misguided-I believed it was going to do all kinds of things for me and make my life easier. I thought I'd morph into this robo version of myself, replete with a soft voice and permanently pasted on smile, never getting angry or upset or bothered by anyone. I'd be impervious to anything negative and pearls of zen wisdom would spontaneously pour from my lips as needed.

It took me a while to realize that the changes that come with practice, if there are any changes at all, are more subtle than that. And if they do happen, they aren't all that noticeable right away, or at least they weren't for me.

Most religions or philosophies offer the promise of a grand prize if you play the game of life just right. The motivation for being a "good person", whatever the hell that is, is that you'll go to heaven or have a better next life or get the bicycle of your dreams if you can just visualize it strongly enough (remember The Secret?)

The way I see it, Zen offers no guarantee of a better afterlife or even a better next week. What it does offer, if we practice, is a better experience of life overall. In this moment. Right here and now. There are no fairytales or promises or magical cures, just an emphasis on a regular sitting practice so that we can better know ourselves and our minds so that eventually we are longer be so beholden to our thoughts.

That's something I can work with and believe in.

It's very tempting to view practice as a means of escaping rather than a tool for embracing our lives as they are. This was certainly how I saw it in the beginning.

The real payoff comes when we learn to stop running away from this moment in search of something better because true joy is right under our noses right now but we're too blind to see it most of the time.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Big Mind, Big B.S.

There is someone out there who claims "you will have in one day — before lunch actually — the clarity and experience that a Zen master has. But Zen is seen as the school of sudden enlightenment. And we're just making sure it remains sudden."

I find it troubling that someone can package enlightenment as if it were a lunchtime Botox session, with no down time.

By "sudden enlightenment" I'm sure no one ever meant that sartori should come about without the necessary time spent on a cushion or in a chair meditating. A seed does not produce a tall and steady tree in just a few days—it takes a good deal of time and a confluence of proper conditions ranging from good soil to light and adequate hydration. When and if it does come, I'm told, it can seem quite sudden indeed, but to promise people that your patented "Big Mind" process will provide them with a shortcut to enlightenment is irresponsible and even dangerous.

Anyone can be part of the Big Heart Circle plan and go on a 5 day retreat in Stein Eriksen Lodge Deer Valley, Utah on May 18 for only $100,000! If that's out of your price range another option is to go to Hawaii in June for only $50,000. And for if you can't afford that, you can take advantage of the $10,000 weekend in Utah this July. I'm not joking, you can see all of this HERE.

Just as I was about to publish this piece, I got a spam email from a website with the name "Sartori" in it that peddles psychic readings for up to $7.99 per minute. I'm an astrologer and I'll be the first one to tell you that while a reading can be very helpful and insightful, it isn't going to give you enlightenment. That is something we all have to discover within ourselves after a lot of hard work and time on the cushion.

As our practice matures, we move from a place of wanting to get something out of it to simply doing it. And over time, if we're really practicing well, we aspire to practice so that we can be of better service to others rather than being preoccupied with what practice can do for us. (The JFK speech comes to mind about what we can do for our country vs. what it can do for us.)

So it is very disturbing to hear Genpo Roshi packaging Zen Buddhism as if it were instant oatmeal.

Let's face it, very few things that are lasting and meaningful in life come about without at least some degree of effort and struggle and patience. And those things that do fall onto our laps easily are the very things we end up taking for granted in the long run.

We all want stuff to happen quickly and easily, and promises like these are very tempting. In fact, during my early days of practice I started watching Genpo Roshi clips on Youtube but fortunately something told me I wasn't hearing authentic Zen Buddhism and with very little research was able to see why.

Buyer, beware.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Ven. Samu Sanim of the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom

Samu Sanim is a Korean Seon sunim of the Jogye Order. He received Dharma transmission from Zen Master Weolha Sunim in 1983. He has taught primarily in Canada and the United States, having opened centers in Toronto, New York, Ann Arbor, Michigan and Chicago, Illinois as well as Mexico City.

He was born in Korea in 1941, suffering the loss of both parents at an early age. He was orphaned at age eleven and became homeless. After several years of living on the streets, Samu was ordained as a Buddhist monk at Pomo-sa in Pusan, Korea in 1956 (age 15). He moved to Japan in order to avoid conscription and relocated to the United States in 1968, where he established the Zen Lotus Society in New York (today named the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom).

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Reflection on Planning My Own Funeral

This is a reflection paper I wrote for my chaplaincy training class. As an assignment we were asked to plan our own funeral and to go through the process of making arrangements at a funeral home for our own service.


I purposely scheduled my visit to a local funeral home as I would any other chore—I made it happen between my shift at the hospice and just before I went grocery shopping. I can't tell if this means I am very comfortable with the reality of my eventual death or if it means I'm simply not taking it seriously enough. I really don't know for sure either way but I tend to think I'm relatively comfortable with the knowledge that I am absolutely going to die one day.

When I met with the director I felt a tad guilty for taking up any of his time considering my visit was partly an assignment for this course and not because my death is really imminent, at least as far as I know. It was rather odd to sit at a table and watch him itemize the various costs involved with a service and viewing on a form the way a car salesman might do had I been shopping for a Honda. If I did want to have a one-day viewing, my dead self would have the option of renting a coffin for $700. Something about being there and looking at the coffin samples clarified for me that I really want to be cremated and that over my dead body will there ever be a formal viewing of my dead body.

As I sat there I tried to muster up some heavy emotion, thinking an experience such as this should have felt more eventful and traumatic than it actually did. I thought of what it must have been like for all of the people who sat in that room before me and all of those that would follow. I thought about what it must have felt like for them to be making arrangements for their own death or that of a loved one. And then I felt some sadness and a very palpable sense of loneliness. Not the kind of loneliness that seeks company as a remedy, but the realization that death is so deeply personal an experience, and each of our deaths is going to be as unique and individualized as each of our lives. And ultimately no one knows our moment to moment experience as well as we do, nor will anyone else be able to fully understand our death experience as well as we will ourselves.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Reacting vs Responding

Last night at our sangha meeting we had a really interesting discussion about the differences between reacting and responding. Hearing people's thoughts helped me clarify my own about what this means.

When we react, we're on autopilot because our behavior is governed by repetitive conditioning that took place in the past. Something happened in the outside world that wasn't to our liking so we formed a reactive behavior of one sort or another to act as a shield against any potential misery that might come about if things don't go just as we'd like them to. As kids, we'd scream and carry on when we had a parent tell us we couldn't have that cookie before dinner or stay up past our bedtime. We carry our automatic reactions into adulthood, only we've cleverly adapted them so that they seem more justifiable and socially acceptable.

We're only truly free when we're able to pause for a moment before responding to someone or something that pushes our buttons. There is no freedom when we react like a robot: when we do that we're nothing more than a prisoner of our past conditioned experiences.

Those moments of anger are the most difficult to control because when we're angry we often thing we have to respond NOW and in the loudest, boldest way possible. But if we just sit with our anger and get really up close and personal with it, we can see that it doesn't necessarily require the extreme and hurtful behavior we're normally so tempted to attach to it.

As we sit and practice each day, we create more spaciousness in our heads and therefore in our lives. When we function with a mind that is bigger and calmer, we're not as likely to be hasty and hurtful and counterproductive.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Meditation in the Dentist's Chair

This morning I had an appointment with my dentist to have two cavities filled (only 5 more to go! Yay!)

For as long as I can remember, my way of coping with dental visits was to distract my body and my brain as much as possible from the pain, discomfort, and awkwardness of the experience. I mean, there is a whole lot of drilling and drooling to contend with at the dentist's office and if there were ever any moments of my life I hesitated to embrace, it would be these.

One method of distraction I'd use was to focus entirely on my hands--and as soon as the huge scary novacaine needle was about to pierce the wall of my mouth, I'd start tapping or scratching the top of my left hand with my right one, in a semi-successful attempt at redirecting my awareness from one area of my body to the other. And of course I'd keep my eyes closed and picture myself sipping on fruity cocktails in an exotic beach somewhere very far away from here. As usual I'd attempt to push away the unpleasant, and summon a degree of neutral-to-semi-unpleasant sensations in their place.

Today I experimented with sitting zazen in the dentist's chair. As I lay there reclined in the chair, I simply focused on my breathing and paid keen attention to the cold sharpness of the needle as it dug into the top row of my gums. I kept completely still as my hands rested on each of the chair arms, my body open and vulnerable to the entire experience. My mouth and tongue gradually numbed, and I took stock of what that felt like: nothing actually, it felt like nothing. A second injection followed and again, I sat motionless, and didn't entertain any judgments or opinions about what was happening, I just let it happen and submitted to the moment.

My dentist conversed with her assistant as she filled my two teeth (are they still putting mercury into our mouths?) and before I knew it, it was all over. Uncomfortable and awkward, complete with saliva streaming down my numbed-out mouth and onto my shirt, but it was over.

No big deal, just a dental appointment I decided to keep.

By the way, if you don't floss now, start.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Fireflies in the Morning

When I was a kid I was fascinated by the fireflies I'd see hovering around in the hot evening summer air. One night I trapped a few of them between my cupped hands and stuck them into a jar, screwing the top on and leaving it on the side of our suburban home. I thought that by doing this I'd be able to have a mini-light show again in the morning and throughout the day.

By the time I got to the jar the next morning, the fireflies were already half dead and barely able to fly around, and I had inadvertently zapped any trace of the energy that enabled them to pulsate with their brilliant yellow glow. Suddenly they looked like ordinary insects and I was very disappointed. Frustrated, I let them out of the jar and squashed them against the pavement with my foot. For just a few seconds I could see a trace of that amazing glowing light streaked across the sidewalk, only now I couldn't enjoy it at all as I could the night before--it felt artificial and anticlimactic.

I do the same thing now as a grown man, only in other ways that most people think are logical—through grasping and trying to hold on to those experiences that give me some pleasure.

When we try to hold onto an experience or person that pleases us, we're instantly setting up a situation where the only possible outcome is suffering. We naturally try to hold onto things and people, hoping that they'll stay the same and perform for us whenever and however we want them to.

By doing this we're confining both ourselves and the object of our desire within a virtual jar, just as I did with those fireflies. And all that does is to suck the life and spontaneity out of things because we're resisting the natural ebb and flow of life and instead demanding that it be a certain way at all times, with no room for change or growth or new possibilities.

When we can appreciate the beautiful brilliance that each new moment offers us without latching onto it or fearing its eventual absence, we allow ourselves an escape from suffering and an authentic sense of freedom.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Not Being Ignorant / Do Not Get Intoxicated (a paper on the precept)

This is a portion of my monthly precept paper for the Zen Center Chaplaincy Training program.

Not Being Ignorant
(Seeing Things Clearly)

The way in which I get the most clouded and unclear about things is through anger. Anger is extremely alluring and intoxicating because when I am angry my sense of identity and separateness is at its strongest. When something "out there" offends or hurts me "over here" I feel as solid and substantial as I possibly can and that sensation is very appealing.

The moment I fall into anger I'm no longer living in the present moment. Instead, I am reacting to something based on an erroneous belief I've formed in the past or assumptions I'm making about the present or future. Either way the ensuing thoughts and feelings aren't based in reality—but they do pump up my ego and this gives both the angry thoughts and feelings the illusion of realness. Rage gives me a real high, and the ensuing drama that goes on within my head is usually much more interesting than whatever it is I simply need to do at any given moment. I rob myself of just being here when I allow my thoughts to swirl around and feed them with attention or action. This gives way to fanciful conversations, imagined political debates with world leaders I'll most likely never meet, and blistering verbal attacks on anyone I'm at odds with or was at odds with at any point in time.

What's great about anger is that it gives me an outer focal point to blame for its presence—and the oxymoronic righteous indignation that goes hand and hand with it causes me to feel very superior and important. To support my case, I make a mental list of the reasons why I'm right and someone else is wrong. I'm certain that if only the object of my rage would be rational for a moment, they'd see how awful they are and how wonderful I am (and maybe even thank me for pointing out their fatal flaws).

For me, anger takes me away more than my use of alcohol does. I drink moderately and never get intoxicated to a degree that seriously impairs my judgment or ability to take care of myself. Alcohol does dull my overall experience and perceptions however, but I've gotten in the habit of being mindful of how off my senses are whenever I've had a drink or two. It's sort of like being mindfully intoxicated if that makes any sense.

Another way in which I get intoxicated is through fantasy. When things feel less that satisfactory or if I'm getting bored, my mind starts creating the ideal home—either my current apartment refurnished in some minor or major way, or when I'm really needing to escape I conjure up images of a huge two bedroom with ample space and a spare, modest room devoted solely to my practice and reading. While there is a practical aspect to this fantasizing and I could use more space, much of the time I'm just doing it to avoid whatever reality is asking me to experience at any given moment.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year