BACK TO BASICS-LISTENING

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It was the same thing every night. I’d get into bed, start drifting off to sleep…then the toilet would start running. It would fill for about 5 seconds then quiet down for an indeterminate amount of time. In the morning I’d forget about the toilet only to be reminded again the next evening as I lay in bed.

 In a half sleep state I’d try to remind myself to call the plumber in the morning so he could figure out the problem. One evening, lying in bed and listening, I relaxed and focused on the sound. The sound was intermittent rather than a steady stream so it was clear that the toilet basin was somehow loosing small amounts of water, bit by bit. I wondered what could be causing this small, consistent leakage? Lying in bed imagining the insides of the toilet and mentally peering into the water I looked all the way down to the flapper that lifts each time the toilet is flushed. Perhaps there’s a faulty toilet flapper? This, as it turned out, was the problem. I didn’t need to pay a plumber after all. All l needed to do was go down to the hardware store, buy a new flapper and install it.

 I try to remember to listen this same way when something is amiss in my body. At first all I feel is undifferentiated pain and an urge to get away from the pain. But, if I resist the initial impulse to pull away from the pain, a space opens up. Into that space I can ask, where is this pain coming from? Which systems are involved? Muscular? Circulatory? Keeping the area and quality of the pain in mind I mentally scan the various bodily systems. Eventually the source of the pain is discovered and, as was the case with the toilet flapper, I can then work on remedying the problem.

 The simple art of sitting and listening is one of our most powerful and underused human abilities. Watching and listening is the first step towards healing, the first step towards creativity and the first step towards learning something new. Listening is an art, and, as an art, it can be developed with discipline and practice. As is the case with other art forms, there is no end to the wonders that unfold as the practice deepens. The skill is useful for everything from fixing a household problem to pursuing the question, what is life?

 Meditation is another word for listening. It’s about listening to our own unique functioning and environment in the moment. If you learn to meditate you have an ally for life. You can carry this ally into your home, family, friendships, confinement, car, and temple. To make full use of this art requires the same discipline as any other art form. It requires our time and attention.

 Having listening become part of our life is simple, but not easy.  It can be learned in an afternoon but maintaining the practice, especially when we don’t have a group of people to meditate with, can be quite challenging. One of the main purposes of Hearth is to support this practice at home. To that end, we are offering a 6 week New Year’s meditation refresher. In this time together we will offer support and a place to talk about your challenges and triumphs as you slowly and gently move your listening practice into your home and life. Please come join us in community as we support one another’s awakening into everyday life.  For questions and interest contact me at jacqueline@hearth-foundation.org

 Wishing you all the joy and wonder awareness can bring in this fresh, new year,

 

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A Prayer

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It’s winter. The warm, inviting Earth pulls in on itself. Cozy indoors, but being out on the streets, away from the safety of a warm home, is more threatening during these dark days. As families are forced to leave their homes in Syria, crowd onto dangerous vessels and face unimaginable peril in an attempt to save themselves and their families, the land ices over. I watch mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, helplessly. It wasn’t that long ago that my people were forced to leave their homes in the dead of a Russian winter.

I’m not sure what I can do to help ease the suffering of the refugees, or the troubled boys with guns who do not see the preciousness of life, or an Earth that is drying up here while flooding there. The question, how can I serve, is with me everyday. I remember having had a similar feeling after giving birth to my daughter under the shadow of nuclear proliferation. The urge to be of service got so strong, I finally went out to the back yard and prayed, use me, as a soulful brown eyed cow looked on. Soon after that morning the groundwork laid by the prayer appeared as my book, Buddha Mom. As the days grow darker and the year comes to an end, I am ready to make another prayer.

Years ago, when I was a Religious Science Practitioner, I learned the mechanics of affirmative prayer. Affirmative prayer is not about begging some supernatural being to make things go our way. It’s a way to open our heart, to affirm the what Buddhism calls the vastness and Western religions call God, and putting ourselves in alignment with this vastness. It’s a way to remember that we are not separate from life, from the person living on the street or the refugee desperately seeking safety. Affirmative prayer has a lot in common with meditation, the difference being that during meditation we sit in the vastness without interaction. In preparation for the New Year I share this prayer with you.

Vastness, the all that is, that which is my true life and the true life of everything animate and inanimate, I speak into you. I know that, underneath personality and physical appearance, I am this vastness, without boundary or limits, connected with everything from the smallest weed to the largest elephant, to the family on the street and the powers that be in mansions and estates. Any separation is an illusion. Speaking past that illusion into the all that is, I send a heartfelt wish for the well being of all, for the planet that is our home, for all the families, young men and women who feel separate, for the CEO’s who make decisions about resources and for the plants and animals that feed us and bring joy. May they all awaken to the bliss of their unity with all things, may their joy spill over into their lives like a great sea of nurturance, abundance and love. Into this vastness I speak my word. Use me in this new year for the good of all. Knowing that this prayer is spoken into the all that is, that it is reverberating and coming into being in this very moment, I release this word into the law and celebrate its unfoldment. And so it is.

I wish you all a beautiful holiday season, wherever you are and whomever you’re with. Thank you for sharing your life with me.

 

 

 

AUTUMN

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Hello dear Buddha moms and dads. Here, in California, we are raking leaves, picking figs and apples and grapes, and pruning off dead roses. There is a whisper of autumn in the air, the sun seems closer, the days shorter. Even with the dry parched earth, California’s portion of the the Earth’s warming, there are bird’s songs and bees to be grateful for.

Autumn evening:
Has its limits,
But its moments of leisure as well.
Issa

It’s amazing that 2015 is winding down. It feels like just yesterday the summer was in full swing.

 After the dancing,
The wind in the pine trees,
The voices of insects.
Sogetsu-ni

Autumn is the time of graceful dying. The leaves turn bright red and orange and yellow before releasing their hold on the trees that have been their homes. The ancestors presence can be felt as the day of the dead, all soul’s day, draws our departed loved ones closer to us then they are during the freshness of spring or the fullness of summer.

Vividly present,
As though here before us,
The Feast of all souls.
Kigin

There is an electricity of change in the air. I’m drawn to clean out dusty corners. Life is conspiring to have us let go of things, either willingly or from tightly clenched fists.

A monastic asked Yunmen,
“When the tree withers and the leaves fall,
what’s happening?”
Yunmen replied,
“The golden wind is revealing itself.”

This is a good time to sit. To feel the changes without clinging to what is known.

The autumn mountains;
Here and there,
Smoke rising.
Gyodai

 What is it like to wake up on an autumn morning?

The puppy that doesn’t know,
That autumn has come,
Is Buddha.
Issa

During this sacred time I wish you the comfort of drawing closer to home, warm smells from the kitchen, and a delicious cleansing of all that no longer serves.

Host and guest-the Zen of airbnb

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Working alone, unobtrusively,
Practice like a fool, like an idiot.
Just to continue like this
is called the host within the host.

                                                                                        Dogen

When Nicole and Naia moved out they left an empty bedroom. It occurred to me that this home, with its organic orchard and garden, where friends and family come to rest and be healed, that is permeated with art and color and shady trees, and layers of generations of people, dogs and cats, might be a place worth sharing. Being a private person, I never imagined opening up my home to strangers, and probably wouldn’t have done so were it not for airbnb. Although inviting strangers to share my private space was way out of my comfort zone, with airbnb I felt I could, perhaps, expand that zone. If I liked hosting I’d continue, if not I’d take my offer off the website. So, cautiously, I entered into hosting. My first guests were a mother, father and 4 year old boy from Columbia. They were elegant human beings, stunningly beautiful, intelligent and kind. The little boy ran around the back yard picking apples off the tree. When it was time for them to leave the little boy looked up at his mom and said, “This is my happy place.” An auspicious maiden voyage.

Since opening up my home to guests I’ve become fascinated with the question, what creates great hospitality? A friend told me about a vacation she took at one of the Ritz-Carlton hotels. She said a janitor opened the door to the store when, late at night, she needed something. His act of kindness made her vacation one of the most memorable she’d ever had. The Ritz-Carlton is heralded as one of the best hotel experiences in the world, out ranking other luxury hotels by way of their exceptional hospitality. Here are a few of the core values all of their employees, from the CEO to the janitor, recite each morning:

I am always responsive to the expressed and unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.
I am empowered to create unique, memorable, and personal experiences for our guests.
I continuously seek opportunities to innovate and improve the Ritz-Carlton experience.
I own and immediately resolve guest problems.
I have the opportunity to continuously learn and grow.
I am proud of my professional appearance, language and behavior.
I am responsible for uncompromising levels of cleanliness and creating a safe and accident-free environment.

There is an air of generosity and selflessness about these vows, creating service that is infused with honor and thoughtfulness. The recitation of these vows by the Ritz-Carlton staff has some things in common with the recitation of the 4 vows at the beginning of Zen practice. Although both vows have a different basis, one is to provide great service and the other awakening, both vows set the tone for their respective environments. Both contain potent wisdom. Through following my own personal version of these vows I’ve learned a lot about myself, about happiness, about being a host, about being a guest and about being an open gracious human being. It’s not a bad business model either! My guests consistently give my home and service five star reviews.

The personal rewards of hosting are many. Through hosting I’ve stretched my capacity to accept others, just the way they are. I’ve become less judgmental, more tolerant of diversity, not just sexual and religious diversity, but psychological diversity. People show up in all sorts of containers-gruff, shy, stern, bubbly. I’ve learned to meet people where they are rather than expecting them to be the way I want them to be. I’ve become more selfless as I focus on my guest’s comfort. I’ve learned how to greet and how to bid farewell, when to move into someone’s space and when to allow for their solitude. I’ve learned to read my guest’s subtle body messages and move in and out of their space like an Aikido master. I’ve come to enjoy the pleasure of living in a beautiful space that’s always guest ready. One can see this sort of environmental beauty in the polished wood floors and simple flower arrangements found in Zen monestaries. Using home maintenance as a mindfulness practice infuses the work with purposeful, forward moving energy. While the monk is dusting the mantle he is also dusting his consciousness.

I used to envision spiritual practice as going off into a forest, monastery, or retreat center in order to sit quietly in a protected environment. But 40+ years in, spiritual practice looks more like a way of life than an event. As such, it contains all the same sorts of messy issues that everyday life contains. Like many others, I came to spiritual practice in an attempt to better control my environment, inner and outer. I wanted my life to be less messy, more peaceful. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the path isn’t so neat and tidy. Spiritual unfoldment is wild and unpredictable, all the things I was hoping to avoid through silent meditation. But, the ancestors have left us wisdom to navigate these wild seas. This wisdom can be found in the mystical echelons of all major religions. I’ve found the Zen wisdom to be particularly practical for use in everyday life. An example is the pocket koan, whatever arises, be the host. The practice of welcoming whatever, and whoever, appears in the moment becomes an ever-available door to freedom.

The host opens the door and lets the fresh breezes blow through her life. An entire form of Zen dialogue about host and guest was developed by Zen Master Lin-chi during the mid 800’s in China. Zen monks traveled from monastery to monastery to learn from different teachers. The teacher was the host, the mountain, and the student was the guest, the wind that blew through the mountains. The host invites the guest in, shares the best of what they have, and sees to their guest’s needs. The guest respects the host’s gifts, brings their full presence into the room. They come empty and willing to receive. The host is grounded in the bedrock of the numinous. From that vantage point she welcomes in her guests- the leaky faucets, the grumpy teenager, the sunny day, with kindness and curiosity. Everyone, everything, becomes her guest.

If the host’s practice is selflessness and generosity, the guest’s practice is gratitude and respect. When my dad was in my home dying he taught me a lot about the guest practice. Each morning, when I’d wake him up to give him his medicine, he’d look up at me with so much love in his eyes and say, “thank you” fully from his heart. He was afraid of being a burden when moving in with me. The opposite turned out to be true. He was a delight! He was sensitive to my home environment and contributed to the household any way he could. While he was dying he hired workmen to build my garage into an art studio. He gratefully picked figs and drank orange juice on the deck in the morning and found delight in things the way they were. His gratitude and gifts made his stay one of the best memories in my life.

Ours is a lonely culture. We’ve created little nuclear units where each person tries to make their homes into perfect environments for themselves and their immediate families. The cost for not sharing our bounty is isolation and loneliness. I’ve found that being a host, and being a guest, ameliorates the loneliness in my life. It connects me to the rest of the world in a positive, caring way. Considering the needs of one another and letting go of selfishness is one way to become both connected and free at the same time. I’ve learned how to be part of life rather than imagining myself as a solitary nuclear unit. Einstein wrote,A human being is part of the whole…but he experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest. This delusion is a kind of prison for us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion.” Hosting, and guesting, is one way great way to do this.

Like seaweed in the ocean, the host and guest move freely with the tides. The guest brings gifts chosen with the host in mind and respects the space that holds them. The host does her best to make the guest feel at home on their travels. The host stays in one place like a mountain, the guest moves in and out like the wind. In Zen there is a saying, “By the fireside there is no guest or host.” Eventually all roles, host and guest, are abandoned. There is no “other”.

As we move into the holiday season many of us will be hosts and many of us will be guests. I wish you much insight and joyful memories as you open up your door and enter the opened doors of others.

THE TRUE PERSON HAS NO RANK

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There is a true person of no rank who is constantly coming and going from the portals of your face. Who is that true person of no rank?  Linji

Once there was a baker who had two daughters. The elder daughter was clever and had built up her father’s business by getting the most she could out of each sale. The younger daughter was not as clever but had a quiet kindness about her. One rainy morning a disheveled old woman shrouded in a dark cape hobbled into the shop. The stranger asked the clever daughter, “Could you spare a crust of bread? I haven’t eaten in days.” The girl sized her up and decided that she was just an old vagabond, not likely to be a future customer and so not worth the effort. The girl said, “If you have no money you’d best move along. We’re not in this business to give things away.” The old woman left the shop. The next day the younger daughter was tending the shop. (do you see it coming?) The old woman came in and asked, “Could you spare a crust of bread for an old woman? I haven’t eaten in days.” The younger daughter responded, “I think there is something here for you.” and gave the old woman one of the loaves off the shelf. The old woman removed her cloak revealing herself to be a beautiful, powerful genie. She said, “For your generosity and kindness I will make your greatest dreams come true.”

As a child listening to this story I wondered, how would I act if I met that old woman in the dark cloak? Would I be generous? Would I be stingy and protective of my possessions? Since that time I have met the old woman in many guises and my responses have varied, running the gamut from generous to stingy. I’ve also encountered the baker’s daughters. Raised in an upper-middle class home, I went to one of the best private schools in Los Angeles and then to Bennington College to get a degree in painting and sculpture. All in all, a privileged upbringing. I married a man who was a good provider and lived happily in my country castle, until we split up and my income plummeted. I needed to find a way to make money- fast. Nursing seemed like it would provide me with the flexibility to be both a mother and a bread winner so I applied to the local JC program. The first hoop the nursing students needed to jump through was nurses aid training. This aspect of nursing, with its hands on patient care, really interested me. It felt natural, even joyful, to take care of people this way. As a middle class girl, and as a doctor’s wife, I had been accustomed to a degree of respect from others. When I walked into the nursing home in my nurse’s aid uniform suddenly I found myself at the bottom of the social ladder, ignored and dismissed by RN’s, doctors, patient’s families and administrators. They assumed I was poor and uneducated, why else would I take this lowly job? This nurses aid job was my cloak of invisibility. From within a crisp, white cape I was witness to a layer of behavior that was previously unavailable to me. The very same body in which I had received respect instantly became lowly. A powerful lesson in perception.

We all perceive ourselves and others through a skewed lens. Perhaps that is why these two daughters and the genie are so well traveled. Stories about mysterious strangers who appear in one form then, usually through an act of kindness, reveal their true nature, are found in cultures throughout the world. The actors appear in various guises. Sometimes the baker’s daughter shows up as a fisherman throwing back a magical fish who grants him three wishes, sometimes the genie is disguised as an animal who is set free and rewards it’s liberator. But in these stories there is always a powerful stranger disguised as a lowly being. The reverse is also true. In the story of Hansel and Gretel a woman appears to be a kindly old lady and turns out to be fattening up the twins for her dinner! All these stories present the listener with the question- when you meet someone, who are you really meeting? What is the true nature of the person in front of you? They may appear lowly, but might they be a goddess, or a genie, or a Buddha? Or maybe they are someone who is fattening you up to throw you in the oven!

What if you knew that the Buddha could appear in any form at any time? Would you approach the janitor, the nurses aide, the mailman, the soccer mom, your own face in the mirror, differently?

This story about a powerful stranger disguised as a lowly nobody is universal because it reveals our common human predicament. We humans create self images through education, physical appearance, number of meditation retreats completed, economic position and abilities. We then use these accumulated titles and accomplishments as cloaks of invisibility, hiding even from ourselves. We compare our cloak to others. The ensuing judgments become dark and light threads tightly woven into our cloak. “She’s poorer than I am because I’m more industrious.” “She’s beautiful so she must not be too smart.” “He’s got a PHd so his perceptions are more valuable than mine.” We forget that titles and achievements are just inventions of man, patinas covering our true nature. Still, we hold tight to our stories, even in the face of contrary evidence. The threads we’ve shrouded ourselves in make us feel like our life is safe and has substance. But when a lion, or an earthquake, or marital problems, or illness, or death, come knocking on our door they do not ask to see our degrees, bank accounts or titles. Things get real fast.

The question ultimately comes down to, Who am I? Who is the true person coming in and out of the portals of my face? This inquiry is the beating heart of all spiritual practice. It opens the door to all other spiritual qualities; compassion, right action, wisdom, kindness and generosity. The reemergence of our true face is the gift we receive when we are brave enough to look at the stranger in the mirror with fresh eyes. If only for an instant, our greatest dream has come true!

Rats! Rats! Rats!

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My home is so quiet. No little scratching noises in the walls. No fresh poop on the mantle. The last of the rats is gone, at least I think they’re gone. But then, I tend to think, “This is the last rat” and then am ambushed by 6, then 10 more… I’ve learned to stay open to the possibility that there may be new recruits. They say that if you see one rodent there are at least 20 lurking in the shadows. If that’s the case, my home has hosted over 200 rats this summer. When I tell people about the rats in my house they grimace and share stories about a rat that lived in their garage, or stove, or kitchen and then go on to say what a hard time they had getting rid of him, or her, how it took months, sometimes even a year. This is not that sort of rat story. This is the story of a full on rat infestation.

You can expect some mice and rats and raccoons and lizards to find their way into your home when you live in the country. That’s just country life, especially in an older home. And, I’m not a messy person. I store food in the cupboards, except for the occasional ripening banana, clean up the kitchen before I go to bed and have a below average amount of furniture and tchotchkes for creatures to hide in. The house is thoroughly scrubbed every other week. Still they come. People feel comfortable and safe in my home. Apparently so do rats.

 
A few years after my cats died I’d see a rat or two, but nothing I couldn’t handle by setting a trap. Occasionally I’d run into one of their poops when cleaning, but I wasn’t too worried. In retrospect I can see that perhaps I wasn’t aware of how bad things really were. Rats are very quiet invaders. The only time a problem called me to action was one winter when everyone in the valley was experiencing heightened rat activity. While on a book tour I got a frantic call from my roommate telling me that there were rats running around the house. I called in a rat professional. After that things seemed to settle down…until this summer. Apparently, over the years the rats have created numerous pathways into my house, usually through holes made by pipes leading to appliances. Everywhere there is a pipe entering the kitchen the rats widened the space and made their way in. Still, I didn’t worry. It wasn’t until a particularly ambitious rat chewed a hole through the ceiling and parachuted down into my living room that I took a deep breath, girded my loins, and prepared for battle.

 
Before going to battle, like so many warriors before me, I prayed. With a heavy heart I told the rats I was sorry, but they needed to vacate the premises. For a week I brought them to mind in my meditations, wishing them well, warning them to flee, to save themselves and their families, that there was plenty to eat for them outside. Still I awoke to rat poop on the kitchen counter and the smell of rat urine. Reluctantly putting aside my do-it-yourself mantle, I once again called a professional pest removal business. They set a few traps, caught a few rats, plugged a few holes, sent me a bill and gave me the number of a contractor. The contractor scraped off the old ceiling, filled in the hole made by the industrious rat and re-plastered. $2000 later, there were still rats making themselves at home in my kitchen- behind the refrigerator, behind the stove, behind the dishwasher, in the cupboards and behind the washing machine. There was fresh rat poop on the mantle, floor, and counters each morning-and it was increasing.

 
I set out have a heart traps, but the rats weren’t going for that. So I moved on to sticky board traps. One morning I found two terrified baby rats stuck in the goo and, not being able to free them, my heart broke. I couldn’t bring myself to do that to another living creature. So I chucked the sticky boards, even though they were highly effective, and moved on to electronic rodent zappers. One day I pulled out the zapper trap while a rat was still being electrocuted. It was gruesome. I threw the zapper trap in the trash and moved on to snap traps, which worked well- until the rats caught on and were able to take the bait out without getting caught. I felt helpless and wondered if I’d even be able to win this battle. But loosing was not an option, how could I give my home over to the rats? I needed it for my family and myself.

 
As one worker after another (none of them stayed for long) uncovered more and more rat’s nests and entry points in the living room and kitchen we’d find little metal containers that once held the tea candles I had around my home. The rats had been absconding with my tea candles for months. I wondered if they might be creating a zendo somewhere in the attic. These rats are smart, smarter than me, smarter than the pest professional I hired and smarter than the three different contractors who hunted with me for entry points. We’d plug up one hole and they find another. They just kept coming. While searching for their nesting spots one day, we turned over my living room sofa and discovered that they had made a nest in the batting! Every night as I sat and watched TV or read or visited with friends they were sleeping snugly under the warmth of my body. We brought the sofa, my favorite piece of furniture, to the dump. Then we proceeded to take off the outside paneling on the side of the house, the side the kitchen was on. There we found pathways through the insulation where the rats had made holes leading inside.

 
I am a devoted lover of all living creatures, including rodents. When I was a little girl I cherished the little moths that flitted around our lemon tree. I loved the bugs and horned toads that stood in for wild life in the San Fernando Valley. My little brother and I saved our allowances to buy animals at the pet store for a zoo in our garage. I have no fear of rodents or bugs or reptiles and even harbor warm feelings for the rats in my home. They were smart, community oriented and just trying their best to stay alive. But I could not allow them to take over the home where my family lived. The health hazards were too great. I wish I could be like Cinderella who, rather than killing the creatures, sang to them. But I had to face reality. It came down to a cut and dry decision. I had to kill them or they would take over my home. In fact, they already had taken over my home. I was finally pushed to use something I vowed never to use in my home, poison.

 
I remember discussing the precept not to kill with other Buddhist students. The discussion usually came around to some version of, what if someone is threatening your family with a gun? Would you kill them first? That question was challenging to answer when it was hypothetical, but ultimately the response was that killing is wrong, period. Once this became a question that had real consequences, inquiry into the precept not to kill was even more challenging. In an article in the Guardian, when asked whether or not the killing of Osama Bin Laden was justified, the Dalai Lama is quoted as saying that the terrorist deserves our compassion but, “If something is serious you need to take counter measures.” There is a famous story about one of the Buddha’s past lives as a ship captain whose name was Super Compassionate. While at sea he learned that there was an assassin on board who intended to kill all 500 passengers on the vessel. In order to save the passengers from, not only death, but bad karma for becoming murderers themselves, he stabbed the criminal to death. Unlike Super Compassionate, the passengers would have killed the man in fits of rage and fear, whereas he killed in a state of peace and compassion. This story, as well as other’s in Buddhist history and literature, point to the idea that there is a time for killing and that it is one’s state of mind that creates karma, not the killing itself. No one can tell us when that time is, we need to feel it for ourselves through deep listening.

 
We Westerners tend to think of things in terms of black or white, omitting the infinite shades of grey in between. Given this vantage point we’ve adopted a sentimental view of Buddhist compassion. I discovered that my precept not to kill was more nuanced than I had originally imagined. The Earth’s creatures can pilfer my garden and gorge themselves on my fruit trees but I draw the line when it comes to endangering my home and family. I amended my original understanding of non killing. I would kill to protect my family, and with my eyes wide open. During this battle I was aware that I was committing rat genocide and didn’t try to sugar coat the action with words like “friendly fire” that people come up with to make themselves feel better about killing. I was killing beautiful, natural creatures, albeit reluctantly and with sorrow for their suffering. It’s all very humbling.

 
Practicing keeping my eyes open during years of meditation left me with no choice but to stay aware during this entire rat fiasco. At times the task in front of me felt impossible but I just kept slogging through it. Moving through a seemingly endless, sometimes hellish, ordeal with eyes wide open garnered wisdom that would otherwise have been lost. What I noticed was that my suffering, the rat infestation, did not define me, or even color my daily experience of reality. When I went to the market I was shopping, when I met with a friend we laughed and talked and made plans. When I was killing rats, I was killing rats.

 
Miss organic Buddhist has learned quite a bit from this home invasion. I’ve learned that it’s more important to keep my heart open when making tough decisions than to hold to static rules. I’ve learned that, as is written in Ecclesiastes, there is a time and a place for everything, and that, yes indeed, part and parcel of life is suffering-for all living things. We have no control over the fact that suffering is part of each life, all we can do is practice meeting our own personal allotment of suffering with open eyes.

 

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sensuality and awakening

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Waking up next to a child, feeling their warm breath. The scent of your sweetheart’s shirt as you pick it up from the floor and put it into the laundry basket. Jasmine wafting through the living room window on a hot day. Warm, sudsy water on slippery dishes. Hundreds of flowers are thrown at our feet every day.

Religion sometimes breaks the world down into two parts; the temporal world of pleasure and pain- the world that is constantly dissolving and rearranging itself, and the absolute world of meditation- the vastness we enter when we become deeply quiet or during peak moments. Pleasure and pain come and go, are always dissolving. There is loss, hunger and frustration in this relative realm as time relentlessly marches on. The vastness does not contain any of this messy stuff of life; birth, death, disease, only undifferentiated bliss. These worlds live side by side, superimposed upon one another.

Our Zen patriarchs invite us to be open to awakening under all circumstances. Sengtsan wrote,

The Way is perfect, like vast space,
Where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess.
Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject,
That we do not see the true nature of things.

Some, many, advocates from various religions would have us believe that it is best to avoid worldly pleasures, since pleasure has the ability to seduce us into believing its illusionary nature is real and that we can have some control over it. It’s easy to become attached to the pleasant, we all do. Yet the vastness also has the power to seduce us into the same sort of illusory attachment. I remember a retreat I attended where we practiced deep concentration meditation late into the night. At about midnight the alarm on my watch went off. I hadn’t set the watch and, to this day, have no idea how the alarm got set. This hasn’t happened before or since (I suspect my former teacher, Annagarika Dhamma Dinna, returned from the grave to impart one more lesson. She had a great sense of humor). A woman who was deep in meditation exploded in rage when the alarm went off. For her, the bliss of silence instantly turned into rage, like a match thrown on gasoline soaked papers. For others, attachment to emptiness, to the bliss of deep meditation, can take the form of greed, greed for retreats, greed for quiet. Still others may use meditation as a way to avoid messy problems at home. Attachment to the vastness can be as much of a danger, and as detrimental to our well being, as attachment to sensual pleasure.

When you think about it, it’s clear that the problem is not a product of the sensual world verses the world of meditative absorption. The problem lies in attachment…to anything. Any time we want things to be other than the way they are we are running away from the moment. This brings to mind the koan where two monks are on a pilgrimage. They come to a stream where a beautiful woman needs to cross but is unable to do so. One of the monks lifts the woman up and deposits her on the other side of the stream. The two monks go on their way and after awhile the second monk says, disgusted at his friend’s behavior, “How could you hold that woman. You know we monks are not supposed to even look at a woman let along lift one up and carry her.” The other monk says, “I let her go hours ago. Are you still carrying her?”

Separating sensuality and spirituality then putting one above the other has led to some unintended cultural consequences. Distain of sensuality, distain propagated by a surprising number of religions, has trickled down to the householder engendering feelings of shame, feelings of not being worthy of awakening. Sadly, the lion’s share of this shame has fallen on the heads of women and children since women and children are intimately associated with sensuality. Children live in a world of wonder. All of life, its smells, its sights, its sounds, are fresh and exciting to a child. Women also live in a sensual world. She makes love and the world emerges from between her legs, she nurses her baby with her breast and sustains life on Earth with her hands in the rich, fragrant soil, she creates alchemy in the kitchen. This does not, however, mean that they cannot live simultaneously in an awakened state. But for those who need to believe that spirituality is at odds with sensuality a woman’s life is deemed less spiritual. To make matters worse her body is blamed for the lust it evokes in those who can’t have her, or choose not to have what her body offers. Life itself is on trial here. Sadly, as valuable as religion is in so many ways, it has made a grave error in judgment in this area. If we truly want to be pro-Earth and all that entails, we need to rethink the interface of spirituality and sensuality.

Being a mother and homemaker is one sensual activity after another. Actually, being alive, fully alive, is a sensual endeavor for anyone, man, woman or child. Issa writes:

Summer’s first melon
Lies firmly hugged to the breast
Of a sleeping child

Rather than teaching women and householders that in order to find awakening they need to leave their home, they need to stop making art and eat only to for sustenance, it might be a more fruitful tact to teach us how we can find awakening within all the activities of our sensual lives. Life is wonderful when we are take each moment as it is and let it go when it is over. This is a real challenge! Embracing the pleasure, the pain, the bliss of emptiness- and then letting it go, over and over, day after day.

HAPPINESS RIGHT NOW

Tree-House-Wellness-CenterTis nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.
Shakespeare

I pulled out an old family album to show my granddaughter, Naia, pictures of her mom when she was her age. Naia got distracted after a few minutes but I was hooked. It’s amazing to look at old pictures and realize, this was my former self. I peered into my own past eyes and, as the pictures of me got progressively older I noticed that, after a dark phase, my smile became increasingly brighter. It made me wonder, what is it about my present self that is happier than my former self? What would I tell the young woman in the pictures about being happy?

I have written, in these newsletters, about the joy of my home, family and garden. That aliveness, the aliveness I see reflected on my face when looking in a mirror, is not the product of dreams that have come true. On the contrary, most of my dreams have not come true. Nor is my current happiness due to greater health and vitality, recognition in my field, or having found the perfect partner. My health has been a constant challenge, recognition in my field has eluded me and the blessing of a life partner has not been in the cards. Other dreams have slipped through my fingers as well. Since childhood I’ve carried, deep within me, a vision of creating a retreat center on beautiful acreage. My father planted that dream in me one summer when he took me with him to Vancouver to look at some land that was for sale. I was enchanted by the green moss, rolling streams and the idea of a place where people could live and work together, a place that would be of benefit to the world. This dream comes from deep within my DNA, from grandfather, to father, to me. But the realization of that dream died with my father. So what can my current, authentic well being possibly be attributed to?

The question, what creates real and lasting happiness, is of prime importance to each one of us, particularly parents. A joyful heart is the greatest gift we can give our loved ones. A joyful heart is clearly not dependent on money. A number of studies have concluded that once our income reaches a few notches above poverty level, once our basic needs are met, our relative happiness quotient starts leveling off. A working class family is as likely to be happy, or unhappy, as a wealthy family. We need enough money to procure food, shelter, clothing, health care and other necessities. After those conditions are met, something else super cedes material gain as an indicator of potential happiness. Nor is happiness dependent upon health, as there are many examples of people who find joy in the midst of illness and even deformity. A joyful heart is not contingent upon being born into a traditional family configuration, religious or sexual orientation or level of education. Happiness transcends all of these factors. This is actually great news. It means that the bar for happiness levels off and becomes attainable for most, if not all, of us.

Having searched for happiness down many a dark alley I’ve finally found it hiding in plain sight, within the present moment, regardless of what the moment holds. The present moment might hold pain, or loss, or a party, or a book. A joyful heart is not dependent on fortunate circumstances. This is the second piece of good news. Not only is a joyful heart possible for all of us, regardless of where we find ourselves in our life, a warm, richly textured life is available right in the middle of our current now, and nowhere else. We may feel sadness or anger or even hopelessness, the richness of life resides in those moments as well. This has been my experience, as the aliveness of so many of the sad songs I’ve sung can attest to. It’s not being sad, or angry or hopeless that separates us from the richness of life. The problem lies in either pulling away from our authentic experience or, alternately, hanging on to it. That avoidance of or attachment, rejection or clinging to our present experience makes life unbearable. It stops up the works. A joyful heart is found in intimacy with the moment, whatever the moment holds.

I have found my own joyful heart in the midst of lost dreams. The practice of meditation and wisdom studies has built up a patina in my consciousness over time. That patina is made up of sad, happy, angry, peaceful and hopeless moments that have been intimately entered into. What I would tell my younger self about happiness is this; happiness is not created by getting what you think you want but by deeply embracing your life as it is right now. What a wondrous thing it is to be alive! There is magic in every particle of dust. Being aware of the aliveness offers access to that magic. This is why mindfulness is being taught for everything from dealing with chronic pain to parenting. It really works. And it deepens as the years of practice go on. Surrendering to the present moment is so simple. Try it. Right now- what do you feel? Relax into that. Allow it to be there without clinging or rejecting what you find. Allow thoughts and feelings to fly through your consciousness unencumbered. What does it feel like in your body right now? Are you buzzing with plans? Restless? Feeling heavy? Elated? Blah? Watch the feelings deepen, abate and shift. Witness the constant shifts. Allow the shifts to happen without commentary, embarrassment or pride. How alive it is to be you right now! That is what I would say to my younger self. Have your dreams, build your castles, but find your aliveness in the present moment. Ultimately, that is your life.

The birth and nurturing of Hearth

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My daughter is writing her thesis on defining the traits of an entrepreneur. Some of those traits are; vision, willingness to take a risk, resiliency, management skills, the willingness to take the product to market, and adaptability. I think this is a helpful set of qualities to reflect on when talking about Buddhist women’s leadership. In fact, there are many people engaged in the development of new forms of Buddhist expression as Buddhism comes to the West. These forms are designed to interest people in new ways of thinking, or in business terms, bring a new product to market. I’d like to weave these traits into the following story of how the Hearth Foundation has been, and continues to be, evolving.

Vision
Although there are many things that can spark the creation of a new organization, most new projects arise out of some combination of the founder’s passion for something in particular and a lack of services or products in that area. The creator sees a need and decides to try their hand at filling that need. Each step along the Hearth Foundation path arose out of needs I experienced as a young mom, my love of being a mother and tending a home, and a dearth of spiritual services and literature to support those needs. I didn’t go about trying to form something new. Instead, feeling passionate about the beauty of the mothering path, seeing a glaring need for recognition and support for women who make this life style choice, I looked around for a teacher, or teaching, that would fulfill those needs without much success.

Finding no established community to turn to for support of my Buddhist home practice, I patched together my own support system using the Buddha’s teachings as a grid. I also drew from the goddess cultures that honor feminine spirituality, from Western mysticism and, when they were offered, I went on family retreats at Green Gulch Zen Center as well as a one week family retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. This was in the early 80’s before the inception of Spirit Rock and other places that now offer family programs. I plugged my situation, being a mom and homemaker, into the remarkable grid the Buddha left for us; the four noble truths, the 8 fold path, the 5 precepts and other teachings. From that point on, I continued to follow what was being laid out in front of me. It was like walking in the fog, seeing just one step ahead, not sure if what I was seeing was real or an illusion, sometimes wailing, “Why me?” sometimes willingly- even blissfully. A deep love for my mother, who was a wonderful mother and homemaker yet felt demeaned in this role, and for all other mothers who went from being someone to being just a mother, kept my feet on the, sometimes lonely, path.

Research and development
Despite the scant supply of sangha and teachings unique to my home based situation, I couldn’t help but notice that my spiritual development was moving along in leaps and bounds as I changed diapers and moped the floor. Inspired by Gandhi’s autobiography, I decided to use my life as an experiment. My home became a laboratory where I applied the Buddha’s teachings to the everyday life of mothering and homemaking. Like a lab scientist, I experimented and took notes on the results I was observing. I cast a wide research net, covering many spiritual systems, in an attempt to find home based practices. There was not much written about mothering as a spiritual path in Buddhist, or other, religious literature.

Resiliency
I was trained as an artist and musician. Artists live an internally focused life. Before I became a mother I would spend hours in my studio and hours practicing my instrument. Meditation retreats share this quality of internal focus. I loved the quiet, the stillness, and found a life of internal focus fulfilling. Then, when I became a mother, I no longer enjoyed the luxury of being able to focus internally for long periods of time. I was forced to put someone else’s needs above my own. At this point I could have chosen to skimp on my mothering, but my love for my baby, combined with scant outside child support, led me to put aside art and a life of deep meditation for the immediate needs of my child. But the creative mind will not be squelched for long. In this case, the creative mind looked for expression in my understanding of mothering and how that coupled with Buddhism. The pain of giving up a more conventional artistic expression gave rise to a new and surprising form of artistic expression at home.

Persistence
As these creative ideas about mothering and Buddhism began to flow they needed to be shared. But how? It became clear that the insights I was experiencing wanted to be written down. They came pouring out onto pieces of napkins, the backs of to-do notes, and any other writing surface I could get my hands on. What was emerging was a book. A book? I thought. Who was I to write a book? I wasn’t a writer, I was only a passable mom (there were moms with many more children than I had who performed their daily responsibilities with much greater skill) nor did I have authorization to teach on spiritual matters. I slogged through this internal doubting for the full 20 years it took me to write Buddha Mom. The challenges to develop this material were many. I had to learn how to write, I had to usher my child safely through childhood and adolescence with scant support, I was dealing with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome when it was an unknown disease, and I was a single mother. I just kept going with no assurance that my ideas would be received. The skills I brought to the table were an intimacy with the creative process, a strong maternal instinct, and a deep love and appreciation for Buddhist wisdom and practices. I stumbled around (I still do) trying to find the best words to describe what I was discovering in my little home lab. This experiment eventually turned into my book, Buddha Mom.

Adaptability
Once Buddha Mom was released women contacted me with their stories. Like me, they were searching for spiritual guidance for their home centered practice. This led me to develop online lay Buddhist practice classes that later became the core of Hearth. The teachings were formed out of the needs expressed by the women who were sharing their hearts with me. For example, one month 3 of our Hearth moms were dealing with a death in the family. That became the motivation for the Hearth series on death and dying in the family. The material for the Hearth lessons came out of the real life needs of the women who came to me for support. Wonderful, creative things come out of listening to our students, or clients, and letting them lead us. We may have some expertise in the teachings, but the people who come to us are the experts in what works and what doesn’t work.

My father and Going non-profit
Hearth didn’t become a non-profit until, a few years after the classes began, my father, an attorney specializing in non-profits, was dying in my home. He decided to incorporate and modestly endow the work. What I’ve learned from this is, if passion is followed, regardless of how crazy it feels or how incapable we believe ourselves to be to complete the task, if we let go of thinking we are in control, our life’s work will find us. Support rises up out of the blue. It’s a subtle dance- leading, but at the same time following. Hearth became a non-profit, not by my effort, but by the invisible hand of fate and by Hearth’s own validity.

My mother and a gas station
My mother used to say, if you’re going to be an artist you need to have a gas station. This was her pithy way of teaching me that in order to have the freedom to create art without compromising, watering down or skewing the work for profit, I would be well advised to have an alternate source of income. That way my survival needs would be met without interfering with the creative process. I feel the same way about spiritual work. The Buddha said that the teachings are to be given freely. I take this to mean that in order to be free, in order to walk the bodhisattva path, we need to be in a position to not have to compromise our values in order to survive. Some meet their financial needs with work outside their spiritual service; sometimes the spiritual work is endowed or receives grants. If and when our service as a spiritual teacher is in great demand we can let go of our day jobs and the funds will be there to support the work.

Hearth, after much consideration, decided to offer our lessons at no cost. This decision is born of personal experience. When I became a single mother I couldn’t afford the time or money for retreats, spiritual counseling and available group activities. This is also the case for many of the young families I minister to. Because of this I have been offering Hearth’s classes for free and online so mothers can come to class in their own time without any economic hardship. Since I have other sources of income I’ve been able to offer the Hearth classes without charge. But, I’ve been learning, people still need to have some skin in the game to stay engaged, be it money or donation of time. I encourage students to pay for what they receive from Hearth through service. One of my students created Hearth’s original website and administered it. One student became our registrar and welcomed new students. The organizational model I would most like Hearth to emulate is the AA model. In that model, receiving support is not dependent on a person’s ability to pay. The organization is de-centralized, with no corporate structure to maintain so it doesn’t get top heavy, and it sustains itself through it’s own members. For Hearth this vision is a work in progress.

Bringing the work to the marketplace
No matter how interesting the material is, an entrepreneur, even a religious entrepreneur, is in sales, whether they want to be or not. As is the case with other artists and spiritual teachers, sales is not my forte. This is something I still struggle with. But I’ve learned a few things. When Buddha Mom was released I gave talks at places like La Leche League and other mothering venues. It’s good to reach out to groups outside our Buddhist communities. Otherwise we are talking to ourselves and these valuable jewels are not being put to best use. There are many ways to outreach in our web connected world. Hearth has a website which houses our teachings, a list of parenting and homemaking resources and a monthly newsletter. We are looking at becoming more web savvy, as this is how ideas can be most effectively spread in today’s world. But even a vital web presence doesn’t make up for reaching out to people in person. When sharing with new communities it’s important to listen as well. What do the people need? What words turn them off? What words inspire them? What parts of the old ways are relevant and what parts are archaic and no longer fit into today’s culture? How does their religion of origin interface with Buddhist teachings? Many of Hearth’s students are Catholic or Jewish. We do not try to convert but, rather, add to their spiritual life. Hearth is always amending our approach and looking for new ways and words that resonate while remaining respectful of the cultures and expressions of the people we teach, and are taught by.

Making the path by walking
It’s an exciting time for Buddhism as it comes to the West. In many ways those of us who are helping translate Buddhism for Western audiences are entrepreneurs. In other ways our mission is quite different than that of the classic, business entrepreneur. Unlike the business entrepreneur, our goal is not to make a profit. This is an important distinction. Religion can easily turn into a business. I remember seeing ornate temples in Burma where people put gold leaf over Buddha statues as mother’s and children begged for food outside the temple walls. There seems to be a universal inclination for religious organizations to choose wealth and power over universal awakening. This human tendency has done as much damage as war or anything else we human’s have devised. It’s important to remember this as we import Buddhism to the West.

Like the entrepreneur, we need a vision of how the teachings might speak to a new audience. In that sense we are creating a new product. A good example of someone who does this well is Jon Kabat-Zinn. Using the healing aspect of the teachings on meditation he introduced meditation to many people who might never have been interested in the practice. He had both the vision and the ability to take that vision to market. Like the entrepreneur we need to be willing to bear risks, just as the new Bhikkhunis bear the economic risks of creating new support systems when the traditional supports are not available to them. We need good management skills in order to organize groups of people. I think here of Spirit Rock and how they successfully manage a beautiful place to practice and spread the teachings. Hearth aims to honor homemakers and supply spiritual support for home practice. Our bent is both mystical and practical. Our challenge is to make the teachings relevant and available, to let people know we are here, and to continue to build a team of bodhisattvas wanting to share with others who might be struggling alone.

To learn more about Hearth go to: http://hearth-foundation.org/

 

When the wind blows

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Everything seemed to be going wrong. The medical bills were mounting, an old friend was poking me with sharp words, and I could feel a virus coming on. Suffice it to say, it’s easy to get tied up in knots on a day like this. I opened up my computer and found a note from a friend. One of the things she asked in the note was, “How do you approach koans?” I told her, I plant koans into the loamy soil of my consciousness and watch them sprout up in odd and unexpected places throughout my everyday life. Sometimes the koan that pops up will be an obvious match for the day. For example, when I’m faced with a frightening next step, a koan such as take a step off the 100 foot pole might appear. When I’m loosing touch with my surroundings, a koan like not knowing is most intimate might appear. Sometimes the koan that shows up will seem to have little to do with what I’m facing. But somehow it will be perfect. On this day the koan that is showing up is:

When the wind blows through the willows,

The downy seed balls float away.

In the midst of upset, I watch and listen to the wind. It sings through the eucalyptus grove and plays its music on the wind chines on the back porch. The lyrics to the song are; life is mysterious, everything is moved by the wind. There is a koan where two monks are arguing about whether the wind is moving or the flag they just erected is moving. The sixth patriarch comes riding by and says, it is your mind that is moving. When I listen to the wind there is no difference between the tree, the wind and my mind. They are all creating the experience together. The mysterious and omnipresent wind-so alive!

Watching downy seed balls float through my imagination brings a sense of release and ease. Someone saying, “Just let go, these things mean nothing in the larger scheme of things”, is speaking the truth-but the words ring hallow. Watching those puffy seed balls float away in the wind of my imagination brings the feeling of letting go into my heart and body. I am the wind and the seed ball. We are all floating away together. Nothing to hang on to, no reason to hang on.

I have a tendency to want things to happen in my own time. A pretty human tendency. This koan reminds me that there is a more mysterious order than the one I would create. When the wind blows, the seed ball lets go. The seed ball doesn’t try to control which gust of wind will be the one that helps it leave the branch. It trusts that there is movement, there is always movement. If I become still and listen I can let myself relax into that movement and float along my way. A maddening day is just as real and alive as any other day. I can float along in the madness. Right along side the flotsam is the silver, shiny stone, the bubble of the brook and the still mountain. The little seed ball continues to float down the stream.