Challenge #6: Vulnerability in Practice

The practice makes us vulnerable. We are led to let the carapace of protection drop, and then what of our old protective habits of fear and retreat, anger and blame? The writers in this issue's JustThis speak of opening to people and feeling worthy enough to come out of hiding, responding to aggression and danger in new compassionate ways, fully experiencing change and loss, becoming malleable and receptive to whatever comes.

Vulnerability and Worthiness
(Emma, Kim, Quandra)

Kim: When Quandra wrote “vulnerability” I felt something hit me in my chest. It is the elephant in the room. “Worthiness” didn't seem so serious . . . maybe even another topic. Tonight I went to a party. Everyone was talking to someone, and I didn't want to intrude and didn't know how to intrude. I thought I might be at the party and leave without talking to anyone, and no one would know the difference. Then I saw a man seated alone, and I sat at his table and we started talking. He knew all about the migratory patterns of Monarch Butterflies and told me about them. I felt vulnerable at the party as I do anticipating my 50th high school reunion in June. What if someone discovers I have nothing to say?

Quandra:  I think worthiness and vulnerability are correlated. When my Uncle Des walks into a party, he proceeds to interject himself into every ongoing conversation throughout the night. He enters the room with the assumption that he belongs. I love it.  He couldn't care less who knows more about a topic of discussion; he'll just throw in his 2-cent opinion with no hesitation or deliberation. In his mind, nothing he says can detract from his non-negotiable sense of belonging. That's an awesome sense of worthiness that I think empowers his willingness to put himself in vulnerable positions (e.g. mingling at a party).

I haven't been as open to vulnerability because my sense of belonging—worthiness—isn't as strong. I wanted to invite a friend somewhere today, but I talked myself out of it, saying "she probably won't want to do it," and decided not to open myself to rejection. I decided not to make myself vulnerable.  Then, I asked myself what a person who assumed their own worthiness would have done. That person, I think, would have just offered the invitation without the deliberation and wouldn't have taken a decline as a personal rejection because their sense of worthiness doesn't depend on any specific event . . . it's just assumed to be true so being vulnerable isn't so threatening. If I believe I'm worthy of love and belonging no matter what then I can be vulnerable and okay no matter how things work out. I can be awkward at a party and know that I was just awkward at that party, that's all. My core sense of worthiness wouldn't be shaken to the point that I fear whether others see me as worthy. I haven't grown to this point yet.

Emma: Me neither. I love the phrase “non-negotiable sense of belonging,” Quandra. Yes, that is what I long for. I hold back, too, swinging between a longing for connection and a fear that being vulnerable will lead to my annihilation.

I used to often feel as though I had no feet. My vulnerability didn't feel like a choice to be made, just something that I had to cope with. Without my feet, I'd get knocked flat on the floor with just about every interaction I had. A lot of therapy and my Zen practice have slowly returned my feet to me. I still get knocked about some, but I can at least stay upright now. I suspect that this basic sense of worthiness is to be found in the body, in having a fully embodied experience of our own right to be here. Our bodies don't question that. I mean, our lungs don't say, “Has Emma been good enough to deserve breath today?” They are utterly impersonal. Our hearts continue to pump blood through us day in and day out, whether we're being kind and loving or a total asshole.

There is grace in talking about topics like worth and vulnerability. It would never have crossed my mind that either of you would have concerns about your worth. You're both fascinating and brilliant. Knowing these fears are universal somehow takes the sting out of them. It's just more evidence that they're not personal.

Kim: The Monarchs’ life span varies greatly (from 3 months to more than a year) depending on when they are born, and what jobs they need to do. The man I was talking to said they are the only animal that has such a varied life span. Of course, we are all vulnerable to have a premature death. But that is not determined by the date of our birthday. Is this vulnerability about fearing death? Certainly that's the vulnerability of a soldier (something I admittedly know little about). Or maybe the ultimate vulnerability is facing the wall in the zendo? We can't turn on the radio or TV. The only opium is running away with out thoughts, and that gets old pretty fast.  We are nothing but who we really is (Suzuki Roshi used "is" instead of "are" to denote the oneness of things).

I keep shying away from the worthiness part of this theme. At first I thought “I don't have an issue with that.” Now I've flipped 180° on that. It is my insecurity of being worthy that makes me so vulnerable. Thanks, Quandra, for suggesting this topic, which is quite the Pandora's box.

Quandra: Emma mentioned annihilation.  That's a heavy word.  When I read that I thought "maybe that's what has to happen though." Maybe, annihilation is what leaves our true selves exposed.  I heard someone say there's a part of us that was never born and a part of us that never dies.  So, not even annihilation can touch that part.  That word made me think about that section of A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield that says “Only to the extent that a person exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible be found within.”

I wrote at the end of my previous thoughts that I haven't grown to that point of a non-negotiable sense of worth yet.  After I sent the email, I thought of it differently.  It's more like I haven't grown to the point of reconnecting with it.  I remember being a teenager who didn't care so much about what others thought.  It's been over the years, for various reasons, that I learned to guard my heart and shy away from being too vulnerable.  That's what I mean when I'm talking about vulnerability: exposing my heart.  I don't really mean physical vulnerability or fear of death.  I feel I have so little control over that.  I don't even bother worrying about it.  I like what Emma mentioned about an embodied experience.  I want to settle so comfortably into my body that I reconnect with that part of me that knows exactly how to reach out in vulnerability.  That part of me knows exactly how to take care of me in that vulnerable state.  I need to reconnect with that.  In my mind, I feel like that would be like coming home to myself.

Kim: Yesterday at a Shuso ceremony at the Zen Temple we had the opportunity to ask questions of the Head Student. I asked him, “Is the Big Mind vulnerable.” First he said, “I haven't heard that question.” I replied, “Well, I made it up.” Then he said no, the Big Mind is not vulnerable, but when we come out of it, we are. I switch back and forth between feeling vulnerable and feeling invincible (actually most of the time somewhere in a la la land in between). It seems my choices when I'm feeling vulnerable are to be depressed, to protect myself from harm, or to simply take notice of that feeling and gently bid it goodbye. Bertrand Russell wrote in his autobiography that he used to feel tremendous anxiety. Then one day he realized that in the grand scheme of things, he was so unimportant in terms of the cosmos that his existence or non-existence really didn't matter (Big Mind?). From that point on he claimed his anxiety had left. Did he bid it goodbye or rationalize it away?

Quandra: I can relate to that. I'm less likely to fret over myself and how others see me when my perspective is broader. I adopted a new kitten this weekend (Zoya). I've been so consumed by taking care of her I barely remembered how agitated I was last week over a very uncomfortable meeting I had at work last week. Normally, I would have replayed that meeting in my head and wondered how each thing I said and did might have been perceived, but I brought Zoya home and was only focused on making her comfortable (and making sure she doesn't scare my geckos and bird). I've had a broader perspective, so protecting my image is smaller. Maybe, it's not that vulnerability goes away exactly. Maybe, it can just be held in such a large perspective that it doesn't dominate our emotional state. I think this is why some people recommend doing volunteer work when you're feeling down . . . getting connected to something bigger than ourselves can make us feel less anxious about our own image.

Emma: Yes, being of service helps me put my fears into perspective. I think it's because love, tenderness, and compassion arise in me, and their enormousness cradles the fear, vulnerability, and shame, which are, in that moment, both right-sized and deeply cared for. The love, tenderness, and compassion might be arising in response to someone else's needs, but they are my feelings, and they help me, too. I've found myself in so much fear about what someone is thinking about me, absolutely lost in despair over it, and then had that same person tell me about some struggle or joy in his or her life, and the fear just seems to dissolve—perhaps like Steven Levine says, into the enormous heart of mercy. And other times, the fear and vulnerability and lack of self-worth are just up and all that I can feel. It's so hard to just greet them, to recognize them as old friends, but doing that feels needed sometimes, too. Kosho talks about how all of our many selves are always trying to help us. The parts of me that feel fear and vulnerability, that say, “No! Do not connect! Danger! Danger!” are loving me in the only way they know how; they're using every bit of knowledge they have to keep me safe. It's just that those parts of me don't have access to the vast store of knowledge and experience from my whole life that I can find when I'm present to my whole self. Congratulations on your new kitten, Quandra.

Quandra: Emma talked about her love, tenderness, and compassion being extended to others but helping her too. I want to remember that . . . my goodwill towards others helps me too. That's really helpful. There was a guy who shared at a meditation group I attended who really made himself vulnerable.  It reminded me of how valuable it is when someone demonstrates vulnerability; it's like an invitation. I'm so grateful that he didn't hold back. His vulnerability invited me to share my own. That type of revelation can allow for real healing. A wound can't heal if it's not exposed.

Kim: I'm reminded when I am at funerals and one person after another speaks so authentically and with so much insight. If only we could take that truthfulness and retain it for our non-funeral activities. It is like we take our clothes off and reveal our deepest most innermost heart of hearts. Wow. How can that level of vulnerability be retained? That incredible warrior strength? That courage?

Emma: Life is so generous to us. It keeps presenting with opportunities for us to open up to our deepest experience of ourselves and one another. Not just with big, momentous life-changing opportunities; all the time. We get to choose again and again how we will respond, who we will let in, how deeply and thoroughly we will let ourselves be moved by it.

Kim: And we can open up now. That's the incredible gift of life—that we can “start over” at any moment.

Ai-ki-do(g) the Way of unifying with life energy or any other growling entity
(Mike McCarthy)

“There are indeed (who might say Nay) gloomy & hypochondriac minds,
inhabitants of diseased bodies, disgusted with the present, & despairing of
the future; always counting that the worst will happen, because it may
happen. To these I say, How much pain have cost us the evils which have
never happened!”—Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, Apr. 8, 1816
After years of participating in martial arts, vulnerability as a practical
physical function has become second nature. It's easy to surrender to an
aggressive force by flowing with the action until your opponent's aggressive
move has carried them beyond their ability to maintain stability and
balance, allowing you to leverage their own momentum against them. But inner
vulnerability as part and process of an enlightened path is much harder to
achieve because the opponent is self. Our ignorant myopic view of reality,
our misplaced fear of hurt or rejection or failure, our selective
pessimistic memory that tends to focus only on the negativity of past
experience, our insatiable desire to control, and our denial of our own
inner potential, all separate us from freedom, freedom from our own self
centered illusion.

As a young boy I walked to elementary school every day, and there was this
large dog that took certain undue and unwanted interest in my wanderings by.
First there were only growls and barking as I hurried by, but somehow the
creature sensed my fear, and the situation escalated over several days. I
tried running and I tried kicking back at the beast, who was set upon
chasing me, but both actions led to tugs at my pant leg and shattered ego as
I desperately tried to remain on my feet and struggled to move beyond his
territorial bounds where he would eventually cease his aggressive pursuit.
My fear only increased as the days went by. I imagined all sorts of
miserable and tragic fates; and, I asked the wrong questions. Why me? What
did I do wrong to deserve this? When will this be over? Can I face another
day? How can I avoid the situation? Should I lie about not feeling well and
stay home?

Then the day came when I was finally liberated from my fears by fear itself.
I had carried the burden for so long that it turned into paralysis. As the
dog raced to once again harass me I was frozen in my footsteps. I couldn't
move; this was the end. I closed my eyes and surrendered to being knocked
down and having my throat ripped out. But seconds went by and nothing
happened. I slowly opened my eyes and there he was, just sitting with head
cocked to the side and ears perked erect. I stuck out my hand and he sniffed
my palm. I remember him relaxing his ears and returning to his haunt on the
front porch of the house. I hadn't fled and I didn't try to harm him; I had
unknowingly communicated a new signal. I wasn't prey on the run, and I
wasn't a threat; I was just another creature passing by.

Fight or flight is part of an ingrained mental state. We have rehearsed
fight or flight so many times in our lives, beginning in our childhood, that
they have become deep ruts in our inner consciousness. But what if we use
the momentum of every situation, good or ill, that comes our way to leverage
our fear of the unknown? What if we simply surrender to vulnerability and in
doing so maintain our inner spiritual balance? Might we find that it is our
self centered and deluded illusion of reality that is the true root of the
distress and suffering in our life?

I'm Not That Old
(Katherine Moore)

I'm not that old. Not really. Not compared to my parents or my grandparents. But I know insecurity. I've watched at least three genocides unfold on tv. I've seen three buildings blow up or tumble down. My country has been at war three times or for a third of my life. I can recall one, two, three, four, five, six school massacres during my time here and several more told to me by the history books. I know what it means to fear. I know that I am vulnerable.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend told me that she took her niece to see a movie and was put off by the presence of armed guards and ushers seating people in the theater. A man (a copy cat killer as he was called) had tried to sneak guns and ammo into a movie theater in Kansas City. Therefore, they were beefing up security in North County St. Louis. Her eleven-year-old niece wanted explanation for the new security measures. My friend said she didn't know what to tell the girl. She said she told her, "All you really need to know is that the nearest exit is right there. Most likely nothing bad ever happens. But if it ever does, it's just good to know where the exits are."

I don't know if my friend's comments to her niece were wise or not. I've never had to talk about random violence with a child. I guess I am lucky in a way that I don't have to figure out what is right action in such circumstances.

This last school shooting played out for me mostly via Facebook. I watched a lot of people I know grieve in a multitude of ways. The posts that disturbed me the most were young fathers explaining that this was why they carried a gun, to keep their children safe. I felt so bad for them.

I have never carried a gun. I never felt I needed to. I did however carry a small can of pepper spray on my keychain. And I did not simply have it in my pocket. I had it in my hand and ready pretty much every time I left the house. I was very scared of one particular person for a period of time in my life.

The pepper spray didn't make me feel safer. I clung to the weapon because I was scared. So when I see these fathers who are my age writing about how this gun will keep their family safe, I already know that they are clinging to that gun because they feel completely vulnerable. That is why I feel bad for them. That and because they have to explain to their kids why it's important to know where the exits are.

The letter I haven’t been sending
(Allyson Whipple)

for A.S.

I’ve spent hours staring
            at your address, pondering
            the etiquette of forgiveness

I’ve catalogued deeper losses:
            Dik Van Merteen
            Mark Gobble
            Amanda Dewey

I’ve weighed my scars,
            all my hours in the dentist’s chair,
            days lost to painkillers
            the cold-snap ache of tendons

There are so many ways to stay angry,
            but I understand the heaviness of guilt

And more than that, I’ve got gratitude
            for walking, for dancing
            for the fact that you didn’t flee the scene

I understand that memory is its own
            kind of nerve damage
            and letters of forgiveness can stir up that racing pain

So please excuse me if I don’t send one;
            I can’t help but fear intrusion

Note: Dik Van Merteen, Mark Gobble, and Amanda Dewey were Austin cyclists/pedestrians hit and killed by vehicles in 2012.

Snow Cold Flakes
(Richard Fisher)

Snow cold flakes
gather warmth
insulating my thoughts
against melting
changes on
the morrow.
Tomorrow now-morrow
ever again
each flake a star
in a galaxy of universes
falling into a well
disappears in

He Was Tapping His Foot
(Ginger McGilvray)

He was tapping 
his foot, 
under that white knit blanket in that 

dying bed in the 
nursing home. 

Hot white August
afternoon, Round Rock
My sister, our cousin and I somehow piled
up and on or around
that slim bed, with my dad, still
tall, still
handsome, still

laughing and
talking as
the three of
us do.

My dad, tired tumored
mind, working on

breathing again.

One of us noticed it,
and pointed,


there it was. How he had tapped
his foot
a thousand times before
to someone like

Neil Diamond,
Marty Robins,
even some funny stuff like

I want to say
it was Johnny Cash singing
Sunday Morning Coming Down,
one of dad’s all time favorite tunes.

Or it could have
just as well
been Willie
City of New Orleans.

Oh yeah.

Dad “couldn’t stand” Willie’s voice, unless
he was singing
that one.

My dad’s
couldn’t help it,
every time.

Tap tap tap tap tap tap

That was the last time.

My Father
(Lina Lee)

Bright moon floating alone,
Autumn wind whirls in chrysanths from home, half the world away.
Papa yawns from his afternoon nap in his old chair,
Throws his jasmine tea party with only his TV.                       
I was 5,
Papa bicycled me to local traveling shows.
I was 10,
Papa scootered me to school on rainy days.
I was 17,
Papa carried my luggage to the train station and sent me off to college.
I was 21,
Papa saw me off on the plane to America.

Papa was young and fast, he ran like a racing greyhound.
Papa was steadfast as a tall standing mountain, echoed colorful tunes
We were chanting in life.

Now, he wobbles, he stumbles, he stammers,            
He keeps his eyes half closed while his TV friends keep on chatting.           

Birth, Aging, Sickness, Death.
Life cycle remains constant.           
My one wish for papa, is a long life
And a share in this moonlight loveliness, half the world away!

Portrait in IMC
(Allyson Whipple)

You wake up, and
call for your husband.
I remember
that's what my aunt did
with her last breath,
so now I'm worrying
that it's the end.

Just as suddenly,
you fall back to sleep,
your legs kicking death away.

I sit and meditate
on your fighting frame.

Every now and then
you groan, as if
the act of resting
is too much work.

It's not yet solstice, and
the afternoon spreads
into night.
Soon, it's too dark to
see, and all I
have is the sound
of your tired breathing.

This morning, I remembered:
(Allyson Whipple)

there's no point in wondering
whether you'll live
through today

either you won't
or you will

just as it would be
if you were out
of the hospital and healthy

we push aside the
facts of drunk drivers,
faulty wiring,
inaccurate directions

we circumvent
the museum of accidents

the trap looms over
us all, and we
pretend it's invisible
to get through each day

yours shines in stark
relief against the hospital
ceiling, but that doesn't
mean it will fall
tonight, or next week

it doesn't mean
mine won't tomorrow

In the Tide
(Sarah Webb)

Stand at the lip
ankle deep, knee deep 
that far, no further.

The place where tides come
in and back, in and drag back,
that’s the place of life.

Stand.  Let the water pull you
not on the dry
not in the deep.

It will call,
siren of dark water,
tremble your arms.

Stand in the dark-light
no sun, no night
forms ready to take shape.

A wave-voice, a tern-voice
cries, What am I?  Am I?

One bare foot
cold with wet
gritty with sand

dark water raising
salt air moving
a star pleading.

(Emma Skogstad)

When you seek and seek
and seek the truth,
when you say yes to it,
even when you think
it will kill you,
even when it rattles your bones,
and slings mud on the crisp
white sheets on your washing line--
when you do this,
eventually, peace will find you
and you will find peace.
But be warned.
Peace is not always quiet or still;
sometimes it is a deep vibration,
a rock and roll song,
a piece of chocolate cake dripping
in heavy cream sauce.
Peace can be raucous,
I tell you, downright audacious.
One night, you might find your peaceful self
dancing naked in your backyard
while the stereo blares through the window
and the trees’ branches and the leaves
and the blades of grass
sway to your beat.

(Emma Skogstad)

Your red car
speeds us farther and farther into now
into ourselves into the night wind
the wind beats against our skin
as the car follows the road’s turns
music pounds loud around us
and out into the night air
dun dun dun
and you sing
and I laugh and you drive
and I watch the night sky.
We fly in your red car
(sadness sits waiting
she can’t fly)
and nothing else is real
for a while—
we are
we are
we are
the beat of the night air,
the music,
the road,
and your red car.

Introduction to French Language and Culture
(Allyson Whipple)

Back when I thought I’d never get married, I picked up a little high school French. I could ask directions to the salle de bains and bibliothèqe. I could order une verre d’eau, un croque-monsieur, une plaque d’escargot. But what mattered most was learning to say Je t’aime. Because I was never getting married, but there was, like, this guy, you know? My own language was too intimate, too real, too dangerous. When he passed in the hall, I’d whisper Je t’aime, Je t’aime, Je t’aime, knowing that even if he heard me, I was safe—he was enrolled in German I.

Tibetan Girl
(Melissa Prado Little)

Love and Fear
(Ginger McGilvray)

Fear and love are not opposites. They swirl around each other and dance and co-create the living moment.

Challenge #5: Seen and Heard, A Continual Transmission

We speak of the path as being transmitted from teacher to student. But the universe transmits to us in many ways, nudges us through lovers, stumbles, laughter, sunflowers. What comes from that nudge may be an insight that makes us laugh or turns our life upside down. Share how the universe has nudged you. What was the spark? And what did it help you see?

Do the Work
(Sarah Webb)

Some years ago, when I was first beginning to study Zen, I used to practice at a center in Portland, Oregon. I soon learned the teacher of that lineage was not to be my teacher. For one thing, she would only accept students who came to live at the monastery, and my husband was not interested in Zen. For another, she was not pleased with the existence of our Center and only visited it every couple of years. The students in it were welcome to visit the monastery, however; and I went down to California twice for sesshins.

The teacher was British and of High Anglican origin, and chanting was important in the practice. One time a priest who had come to teach us in Portland complained about the prosaic, ragged quality of our chanting. When I first attended sesshin at the monastery, I learned why he might make that comment. The chants at the monastery were like a fine choir with voices taking different parts--like Gregorian chant, someone told me. I wasn’t familiar enough with music to make that connection myself, but I responded to the sound. It was a big monastery, and the many voices seemed like ocean water, rushing and ebbing, soaring and falling. I don’t remember the words of those chants, whether they were similar to ones I heard later, except for one line, which comes to me sometimes when I sit: “Do the work within my heart.”

That phrase helps me step back when I’ve tied myself in a knot trying to do the work from the outside, trying to control it, to master my recalcitrant self. Ah, I think, I am not doing this work. I just need to let it happen.

The meaning of the phrase has changed a bit for me over the years. At first, with my Christian background, I thought of a spirit like the Holy Ghost, later something more nebulous but still an essence of a kind, the same voice that would speak my poems to me. Now I hold back from thinking of a being or a form. Who am I addressing? I wonder. Not a Buddha, not the Patriarchs, or even an inner guru, but more a growing. I grow like a tree, not by willing myself to grow but just naturally by manifesting roots and leaves--or in my case, body and mind. All I need to do is soften to it. And maybe not even that.

The Guardian
(Matthew Squires)

I am my only guardian.
All else will surely pass away
And shift and rearrange. It looks the same,
But everything has changed,
Its form like a thunderstorm
You could hide away or you could simply get
Washed out.
I think I’m getting washed out
Of that place where my mind would race,
Where my head would shake
When asked if I was real
Or a lie. It seems that I
Was trying too hard to become someone else.
I thought I was myself
How silly I had felt.
Being someone else
And now, if I may misquote Robert Frost:
If you want to get over something,
Then you've got to want to go through it.

Hear the song:

Morning Meditation
(Bruce Smith)

muted thunder of
stomachs in the zendo,
a steady rain outside

Originally posted at

Fukudo, Zafus, and Shadows (Oh, My)
(Bruce Smith)

Great is the matter of birth and death.
All is impermanent, quickly passing.
Awake! Awake! Each one.
Don’t waste this life.
Three days a week, I get up at 5:30am. Voluntarily.

The Austin Zen Center has ten regular programs each week, five of which begin at 6am. I’m not a morning person by nature, but given my choir schedule and the fact that I live barely two blocks from AZC, I’ve gotten into the habit of attending the morning sessions on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays.

Actually, I rather enjoy walking down the street in those pre-dawn moments. If the sky is clear, the moon and stars are quite visible. On those mornings, I always check to see where Orion is while treading as mindfully as possible down the pavement. It’s like being up in the middle of the night—a stolen moment while the rest of the world sleeps—only I’m relatively refreshed after seven or eight hours in bed.

On Mondays I serve as fukudo, which primarily involves striking the han with a wooden mallet. The loud, percussive blows I give this thick square of wood follow a set pattern, alerting all in the vicinity of the approaching start of zazen, or sitting meditation. The quote at the head of this post is written on the han itself, and speaks to the symbolic function of this ritual: to remind us of the transience of this life by calling to mind (or so I was told) the knocking of death on our hearts.

However, my intention with this post is less to take you through an AZC morning program than to relate two observations that came to me last Friday, during and after sitting. For context, it may help to envision the zendo, or meditation hall, as a spacious, rectangular room with zafus (cushions) on zabutons (mats) in a perimeter lining the walls. During zazen, practitioners sit on these zafus and face the wall (or outward, if the zabuton they occupy sits in the middle of the room).

While zafus share a common, rounded shape, they exhibit a surprising range of firmness and thickness, depending in part on whether they’re filled with plant fibers or buckwheat hulls. There are very few reserved spots in the zendo and so, upon entering, one must decide where to sit. I try not to put too much thought into this, but must confess that many times, I try to quickly assess which zafu is most likely to support my back and legs during the long periods of sitting.

The first of my twin epiphanies came during Friday’s second period of zazen. To preface this, I must add that the uniqueness of each moment becomes tangible when practicing zazen, as you always sit on a different zafu, with different people (and numbers of people) present. Sometimes the zendo is packed; sometimes there’s space on either side of your zabuton. If it’s morning, the sun will gradually rise during the program; this time of year, the sun sets during the evening session. At any given program the way you feel, whether your stomach is empty or full, your legs or back sore, your throat dry (or not), all varies. Even the walls are not as uniform or featureless as you might suspect, with bits of moulding, ventilation grates, and other marks distinguishing each blank vista.

Anyway, last Friday I was sitting in such a position that the angles of candlelight projected two silhouettes of myself on the wall before me. Yes, I thought: projections. Here I am, reminded that not only does the reality we conceive consist of projections, thin, flickering shadows: even in meditation, I can’t isolate a single projection of myself. (Of course, these thoughts didn’t arise in this exact narrative, or even in narrative form. What one does during zazen varies, depending on a variety of factors, but generally the idea is to observe the thoughts that arise and depart, rather than attempt to stop thinking altogether.)

My other mini-epiphany occurred during the period of soji, or temple cleaning, that concludes the morning program. On Friday, my task was to brush the zabutons and firm up the zafus. Working my way around the zendo, zafu by zafu, it struck me: there must be as much variation in the shapes and consistencies of these cushions as there are in the practitioners who sit on them, including each person’s mutability from one moment to the next. Again, it’s not really the point or purpose of soji, to gain insight: as with the overall practice, it’s rather about cultivating mindfulness in each moment, not learning any specific lesson.

Seeing multiple silhouettes or comparing zafus to people may not be the most profound of observations, but in my limited experience of Zen practice, this is something I enjoy: sensing connections, parallels, or overtones where previously none had been noticed. It’s one thing to read about being in the moment, and another—much more gratifying and centering—to actually experience it, however shallow or fleetingly.

Gassho, everyone.

(p.s. I actually had a third Zen moment while writing this post. Seconds before I was to click the “Publish” button, a rogue keystroke combination wiped out nearly an hour’s typing—like a 21st-century sand mandala, another unwanted reminder of transience. Ah, well: as they say, every moment is practice…)

Originally posted at

Fukudo, Zafus, and Shadows (Oh, My)
(Bruce Smith)

(Quandra T. McGrue)

The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.—Thich Nhat Hanh
I have practiced meditation and mindfulness since 2005. Not too long ago, I had an amazing experience with one of my students that deeply impacted my relationship to mindfulness. I usually have a particular practice for the day. The purpose of the practice is to keep me present. If I'm present, then I'm not wasting precious energy regretting the past or manipulating the future. My practices have included the following: reciting poems at the sound of a timer throughout the day, counting the number of times I do something kind for myself, setting good intentions towards others at various points, and whatever other random thing I think to do.

One week, I set the intention of seeing the nobility in others. I got this idea from Jack Kornfield. I interact with difficult personalities every day, and I wanted to redirect my focus. I set the intention to remember there's something admirable in everyone. At one point that week, I made a playful comment to my students. They laughed (as usual), but I noticed a particular student shift in his seat. Something about the way he shifted revealed an important insight. He was self-conscious. Underneath his tough exterior, he was painfully self-conscious.

This insight didn't come from a conversation, book, or student file. This insight was a direct result of my mindfulness practice. From that moment on, I treated that student with the understanding that he was much more fragile than he appeared. I didn't consciously change my communication with him. I never told him what insight I gained. I simply held this insight in mind during our interactions. All of the tension and resistance I felt from him immediately dissolved. I never had another problem with this student. To this day, when I ask for volunteers, for example, he's one of the first to raise his hand (not at all his prior custom).

This experience taught me a very important lesson: the insight I need rests quietly in my present experience. Whenever I doubt my practice, I think of this one experience. It had a profound impact on my appreciation for mindfulness.

(Kim, Emma, & Bruce)

Kim: Today we were talking about entering the stream, and I realized (suddenly) that the stream is where we are. Even those who imagine themselves to be looking onto the stream are actually in the stream. In fact, maybe there is nothing but the stream. I wasn't able to say anything about this in the discussion group I was in. It wasn't my turn to talk. But as others spoke about being in or out of the stream it became clearer and clearer that believing that we aren't “in life” is like people in universities believing that they are in an Ivory Tower. It all happens wherever you are, whether you like it or not.

Bruce:  When you guys mentioned the “eureka” theme, my mind immediately went to an unlikely epiphany I experienced while cleaning my cat's litter box. I'd recently returned home after tending to the ash and incense containers from various AZC altars, when something about the quiet, everyday task of scooping cat waste hit me like a flash. I'm hesitant to articulate exactly what happened, because this seems beneath or behind (or before) the realm of conscious thought. Still, some kind of correspondence between cleaning a sacred altar and sifting through cat litter became suddenly and powerfully apparent. Both activities call for focus and attention on the task at hand. And besides, doesn't Buddhism caution against discriminating between the sacred and the profane (and does it get much more profane than cat excrement)? For me, this incident offers a lesson about being fully present and practicing in every moment, and it suggests that awakening is more random than rational.

Emma: Have you two ever noticed how those moments of awakening, of opening, often have this tender quality to them? For me, they arise with such softness and compassion. Yes, Bruce, I agree that they aren't rational. I never have these kinds of realizations after thinking and thinking and thinking. I wonder about their randomness. They seem random. But I wonder. Perhaps we always plant the seed for them. We sit, we listen, we stay open (or at least try), and when the time is right, when we are ready to see, the realization comes, as if from nowhere.

I love how related your realizations are—that we're always on the path ("in the stream"), whether we're being chiden or cleaning up after the cat, that's it's all life, beautiful, terrible, extraordinary, ordinary life. My favorite awakenings are the ones that humble me, sometimes so much so that I'm dumbstruck. They happen when I’ve been rigid, strongly convinced I am right about something or better than or apart from. Out of this contracted, lonely way of being, I’m shown my place in the order of things, my absolute value in messy humanity.

Kim: I got into my car the other day and felt something crawling on the back of my neck. I brushed it off. “Wow. That was big,” I thought. I turned on my interior lights, but couldn't see anything, so I went on my way. Then today I started to get in my car and a rather giant spider had built a web in the front passenger seat. The foreboding creature was in the middle of the web, waiting for me. At first I thought I'd vacuum him to oblivion, but then I felt a little compassion for the scary beast and thought I'd use a broom to move him outside. Then I started to imagine that he'd jump off the broom back into the recesses of my car and kill me at some indiscreet moment. (Is there ever a discreet moment to die?)

So I vacuumed up the spider and his web. (Was it a he or she? I don't know) Then I opened up the shop vac and saw the poor little dead spider huddled along the bottom edge of the tank. He went from being a beautiful gold color to a very dark brown, after being covered with dust.

I went on my way, rushing to the Zen center to sit. Rushing to sit is always a fun contradiction. Next thing I knew, a car failed to stop at a stop sign and was a few inches from the side of my car. I saw time freeze as I made a sudden swerve and survived the near hit. “Ah ha!” I thought. “Payback for murdering the spider.”

I told my wife my theory about the near accident. “But you weren't in an accident. How is that payback?”

“I was given a pass. This time.”

Bruce: It's very interesting that you describe a near-hit, Kim, because I was just thinking about something I once heard on a Zen podcast. This person observed that enlightenment is accidental in the sense of striking us unexpectedly, when we're not looking. Yet while we can't aim for awakening, exactly, what we can do is make ourselves more "accident-prone" through regular, mindful practice. Also, I have to say that "rushing to sit" reminds me of the expression "hurry up and wait."

Emma, you remind me that my favorite poetry captures the miraculous in the mundane, the “extraordinary ordinary, ” as you put it. And you're probably right to suspect the randomness of these eureka moments. Maybe this is how we're able to redirect karma, by planting seeds. Still, in typical Zen fashion, it's not a direct process of creating Cause A in order to reap Benefit B: in that sense, “deliberate randomness” may be a reasonable way of framing it. Live mindfully, simultaneously cultivating skillful means and letting go, trusting that the moments of realization and opening will come.

Emma: Ooooohhh. I like “deliberate randomness,” Bruce. It reminds me of this drawing I've seen of a man fishing from a dock. Next to him is a basket. A fish from behind him is jumping out of the water into his basket. What a great image for deliberate randomness. We can set the stage (and fish our hearts out) and then let go of how, or even whether, the fish will actually come to us. Someone very dear to me once told me you can have everything you need if you're not attached to where it comes from. He said it during a time of many small and large awakenings for me, the beginning of my redirecting my attention from what I thought was going to make me happy (by force if necessary). Perhaps it was the death of my Bulldozer Nature, or at least my first notice that trying to force my life to be how I wanted not only wasn't working but was making me miserable.

My Zen practice is the first thing I've ever done where I've given myself permission to be gentle, to take it slow. Although I sometimes have the odd thought I'm not doing enough, or doing it “right,” (yesterday, I decided I wasn't reading enough), I feel I am being drawn to practice by a childlike sweetness and an adult desire for wholeheartedness. It is extraordinary to me that we come together to learn how to be present. It's an entirely different process unfolding. I like your story, Kim. How different to even ponder not killing the spider. That's what meditation reveals to us, right? The pauses, the awareness of the gap between urge and action. It gives us the time to notice that we have a choice whether we will respond or react.

Bruce: I can totally relate to Bulldozer Nature, as that was very much my M.O. for many years (not that I'm claiming to be totally beyond it now). Also, the gap between urge and action was exactly how I was describing the effects of meditation on myself to some friends about six months ago.

As for blending childlike sweetness and an adult desire for wholeheartedness, my experience suggests that children are sweet, yes, and authentic, but without desiring to be so, without having to think about it. They're also angry, impatient, and various other flavors of not-so-sweet: point is, they are whatever they are in any given moment, slipping into and out of mind/emotional states much more readily than most adults. So you know that statement attributed to Jesus about needing to be like little children in order to reach the kingdom of heaven? I think he was on to something with that.

Kim: A dog came up to me and sniffed my pant leg. Satisfied, he walked away. Did he smell the dog that I'd been with? Did he think, “Oh, he was around a dog that smelled like . . .” As I watched the sniffer, I was particularly interested in that point at which the sniff made sense. He was so abrupt at that certain point, as if saying, “Ah ha, I know who he's been with.” We move from being an input device to a central processing system. We think, “I have the data. Now I know.” That, for me, is “eureka.”

(Note: Bruce Smith's blog: Kim Mosley's blog: More posts like this: )

Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha
(Mike McCarty)

In this journey whatever happens to us is something that should happen. Life has a way of teaching us complete composure … if we listen.

A few weeks ago I was struck with a sudden illness, an overnight onset of severe arthritic pain, sometimes so severe that I couldn’t walk. I was anemic and lost twelve pounds in one week. Hospitalized, fear of the unknown began to invade my thoughts. The many blood samples given, scans and tests administered, along with the various specialists called in, they all became characters to some internal tragic drama concocted in my mind.

In this moment of weakness instead of turning from the illusion of all the drama swirling around me I turned to levity to mask my confusion. I said within myself, I will have comedy and not drama. I posted a photo on a popular social networking site of my torso arms extended crucified with IV’s in both arms. The responses from friends included many get wells and thinking of you, but one held a cure; not for the immediate wellness of my body, but for the wellness of my mind. It was from Kim (ever the teacher), and it simply stated: “Sun faced Buddha, Moon faced Buddha.”

The Sun-faced Buddha is supposed to live for one thousand eight hundred years. And the Moon-faced Buddha lives only one day and one night. And so, when I am sick, I am like the Moon-faced Buddha, and when I am healthy, I am like the Sun-faced Buddha. But neither the Sun-faced Buddha nor the Moon-faced Buddha has any special meaning because there is no difference; whether ill or healthy we must be disciplined enough to seek a calm body and mind experience, and be able to listen with enough concentration to experience insight into the nature of our existence.

This is my body; I embrace both it and the experience it brings. So, don't worry about my health … “Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha.”

Another Lesson
(Allee Blatner)

Another lesson around a litter box: A now and forever moment?

One of my joys in the teachings in Buddhism is how practical they are.
And on reflection, how profound.

I recently visited my son and his family who have two cats.
Arising after my grandsons had left for school, I noticed the uncleaned litter box.
The night before, I listened as the two boys negotiated who would clean the litter box and who would feed the cats. The one who promised to clean the box before school ... forgot.

As I looked at the litter box, the teaching-by-a-rule-book part of me thought, 
“He will really learn a lesson when he gets home this afternoon.”
However at the same moment, my heart viewed the situation and comprehended the reality, “The cats have no clean place to deposit their waste during the day.”
I automatically scooped out the box and replaced it with clean litter.

Later when my son noticed and thanked me, I stopped to reflect on my action.
The simple truth of the situation had come with such ease and clarity.
All of this happened by “the viewer” shifting to my heart.
In meditation I practice “getting my head out of the way” and then
it happened naturally when I was faced with an ordinary decision.
The action of “no thought” seems simple and profound. 
I was the one who learned a lesson that day ...
perhaps about Buddha's teaching on compassion.

Challenge #4 (click on the link to see a picture of the rebel and the monk. Who is the rebel? Who is the monk?)

Rebel or monk—is there a place in Zen for rebels as well as monks? Maybe we need to fall down out of our grand rebellion and be ordinary. Or maybe we need to shake things up—drive out complacency and inertia with the cayenne of bright revolt. Let your inner rebel or your inner monk speak.

Alan the Rebel-Monk
(Katherine Moore)

“I am a total jerk.”

“Yes you are! You put your foot in your mouth with that one!”

“How was I supposed to know?”

“You just had to share some of that enlightened Derek philosophy.”

“Anita, how is Alan a monk? He goes and visits this church or a temple or what-have-you in the old steak house next to the liquor store and then three weeks later he’s telling me he’s a monk. What is that supposed to mean?”

“Well according to your wisdom, it means he either can’t deal with normal life and has to lock himself away in a temple or he’s on an ego trip trying to prove how morally superior he is to everyone.”

“Yeah, thanks for the heads up. I wouldn’t have said that to him if I would have known he taken monk vows.”

“I think they are called precepts. And I am sorry. It was wrong of me. I just really wanted to see the look on your face when Alan broke the news. And I’m sorry again, but it was totally worth it! You just sat there with your mouth hanging open in shock!”

“I don’t even know why this surprises me. We are talking about Alan, the guy who ran away with the carnival last summer. In all reality, this is more normal. Instead of getting a phone call from Indiana that the carnie folk haven’t paid him in a month and he has no money to get home, I’m just going to get a phone call from the old Black Angus that he needs a ride home since he no longer drives and it’s raining.”

“Don’t be so pessimistic. This could be good for him. He’s given up drinking and smoking and eating meat. Maybe he’s just trying to change his life for the better.”

“He’s changing too much at once. He’s setting himself up for failure. Moreover I really think if you take a vow to not drive, you shouldn’t be asking me for a ride back to your house.”

“Oh stop. It’s not like you were put out. He only lives a few minutes away.”

“Exactly! If you took a vow to not drive, walk home! That’s all I’m saying. . . Besides Alan is doing this both because he has a problem dealing with the real world and because he wants to act morally superior over other people. So it’s not like my philosophy is wrong.”

“I don’t think that’s it. I think he really wants to make life changes and he’s found a support group to help him through that change.”

“At the Black Angus Temple? Next to the liquor store? Give me a break. That is not a religious group. Those are modern day non-profit squatters.”

Anita laughs at this and says, “I really don’t know what to think about the temple he’s joined. He seemed to rebel against religion so strongly in the past. Why he would embrace religion or more specifically this group of people at this point in his life does confuse me.”

“Well . . . I would be worried that this was a cult out to get all Alan’s life savings, but then I know Alan doesn’t have any money. So I guess they just like his company.”

“Oh our Alan. Always doing some crazy thing. He keeps us on our toes.”

“Great. Our rebel monk. Can’t wait to see how this plays out.”

(Bruce Smith)

What we are called to, I think, is life as rebel-monks. At least, this has long been a powerful draw for me when it comes to this both/and, neither/nor tradition called Zen: that it straddles, bridges, melts, and blows up dichotomies such as rebel versus monk. We who practice are rebels in swimming against the cultural mainstream, straying from the herd of convention, coloring outside the lines of our conditioning. Yet we also require the discipline, community, and contemplativeness of monks in order to transform rebellion into growth and positive action. We wage an ordinary, daily revolt, wrestling with conceptions and direct experience, bodies and minds, time and space. Are we rebels? Are we monks? Who are we when we sit and face the wall, and just breathe?

All is Well
(Quandra T. McGrue)

This month’s topic reminds me of a discussion I had with myself one night. I asked myself if people are inherently good or bad. Since I let go of religion, I hadn’t figured out how to answer this question. I felt frustrated because I thought a reasonable argument could support either viewpoint. I wanted an answer but had no real basis on which to choose the right answer. Then, I thought about how I act when I’m assuming the people around me are inherently good. The issue, I decided, isn’t whether either position is right. I have since chosen to believe people are inherently good because it motivates better behavior on my part. I think I am a better person when I’m trusting the goodness in others.

That said, I think I would apply a similar thought process to this idea of whether there’s a place for the rebel and the monk in Zen. I think the question of whether there’s a place for either is moot because periodically one or the other will surface. Once either role has surfaced, its presence has already affirmed its place. In response, I need to muster the highest level of awareness and wisdom I can. I need to attend to the rebel or monk that’s here, now. Either one rises because it needs my attention, or it’s pointing me to something that needs my attention. My compassionate attention. It’s helpful to practice compassionate presence with whatever arises. It’s not a matter of one role being intrinsically appropriate. Every experience or state can serve awakening to the extent I’m present with it. Any state, in my practice, is less harmful to the extent that I cultivate compassion along with my sense of presence.

I like the quote at the end of Kosho’s email signature: “It’s not outside. It’s not inside. It’s not both inside and outside. It’s not neither outside nor inside. Everything’s a mess, yet all is well.” (Ezra Bayda)

The Choice
(Michael McCarty)

Between the rebel and the monk, it seems the choice, at least for me, is one of expediency. In my lifetime I have been both; though, in looking back, it is difficult to fully distinguish between the two. That line of separation has blurred somewhat, not because of passing time, but because of a greater awareness.

Yes, while I was in the moment, I owned the perception of what I thought was a clear distinction between the two and I embraced each with equal and separate excess. As a rebel I tested boundaries, pushing the line as far as possible indulging in eccentric behavior ... and as a monk I explored the paradigm of self-centricity through detachment. The rebel in me sought truth in contrast, in terms of black and white ... and the monk in me sought truth in homogeneity, in infinite shades of grey.

As I look back now I can relate to the concept of adaptive strategy relative to those instances of excess as expedient means. You’ve heard the expression, “The end justifies the means.” At first impression the phrase has an admitted Machiavellian slant. But consider, as a path to enlightenment, a process involving the pragmatic use of various means. One means may not represent the best or most enlightened choice but it may lead to a place where other means may be employed. There is however this caveat; one must always opt for more desirable means as they become apparent. The rebel becomes the monk and the monk becomes the “Rebel” Monk. The implication is that even if each excess was not ultimately “true” in the highest sense, each may still be considered a valid and expedient path in the sense that each path inched closer to true realization anyway.

In time you come to see that discrimination is an illusion. That, the rebel and the monk are not necessarily separate paths leading in opposite directions; but in fact can be unified steps within a single stride. As one cohesive process, and as unified in the Rebel Monk, they include the right paradigm of non-discrimination, non-separation, the absence of a pair of opposites and unity of a pair of opposites, and ultimately freedom from duality. From an artistic viewpoint: the process of the Rebel and the Monk reminds me of Chiaroscuro, an Italian term which literally means “light-dark” where three-dimensional volume is suggested by the value gradation of color and the analytical division of light and shadow shapes—often called shading. The contrast created by line (as representation of the Rebel) creates shape but the graduating homogeneity of shadow (as representation of the Monk) gives shape its recognizable form. Even so, the resulting image is only a mirror of reality and is, alas, an illusion itself.

Love, Souls, Rebellion, Refuge: A Dialogue
(Kim Mosley & Emma Skogstad)

Kim: Emerson said,  “A true friend is "one soul in two bodies.” I heard this in a movie last night, but it was said a little differently, and it made me think of the two men holding hands. The guy in the movie said that his Polish grandmother had said that when two bodies touch, their souls become one. The woman (who at that point was quite antagonistic) said that Emerson had said that, not his granny. So what is going on with these guys, anyway?

Emma: I see a lot of love—love manifesting as a cigarette-smoking bad-ass, as a sultry monk. It's all the same love, overflowing. They walk like allies, two kids against the world. They hold hands to remind each other of something.

Kim: I think “remind” is important—that they've had a connection for some time. “Against” is important to me too—that their connection separates them from a world that may not be as warm and friendly.

So I told my wife the Emerson quote and she said that he was wrong, that it is more like a multi-colored marble (“it” being the soul) that happens when people touch.

So what is this soul thing, anyway, which Buddhists don't buy? And what is the relationship of these guys?

And why does the photo hit us right in the heart?

Emma: It does hit us right in the heart, doesn't it? I think that's because it so perfectly presents the intimacy we're all looking for: that deep, all-the-way-down-to-the toes feeling of being known. Everything is revealed (look at that shoulder!); nothing is rejected.

They walk like they have a secret—something perfect and beautiful that belongs to both of them and none of us. Maybe it's that they're lovers on their way to a make-out session. Whatever it is, I want it.

I think soul is a word God gave poets so they could talk about this kind of love. Hands being held, limbs intertwined, words whispered . . . . that's all good. But souls meeting . . . that's happening somewhere else entirely. Souls meet in the ocean of being. I think Buddhists might be okay with that.

So who's right, your wife or Emerson? What do you think these kids are up to?

Kim: Eric Fromm talked about “dual egotism” as a negative thing, where we get so close to someone we lose who we are. I think that was my wife's objection to the idea of the bodies having one soul. Emerson was being a little more romantic about it that she is.

I don't see them off to a make-out session. That didn't enter my mind. But a little homophobic element may have made me squirm a little—I can't quite remember what I felt when I first saw it.

Imagine if we were all one giant marble with each of us having our own swirl. That's the meaning for me of “not one, not two.” Emerson was doing a little hyperbole, don't you think?

I'm now looking again at the picture. The rebel is holding the monk's hand (not the other way around). The monk is looking at the photographer. The shirt says AC/DC Black Ice. Here is more than you want to know about that group. AC/DC used to be a reference to people who would do it with either sex, but I'm not going to jump to that conclusion. Theravada monks can touch people of the same sex.

Those are bike gloves the rebel is wearing. Maybe they are part of his toughness. I now remember that I thought they were brothers. There is a chain hanging from the rebel's right hand. Why?

Holding hands in a market makes some sense since it is so easy to lose someone.

Now, back to the soul. I heard the word “consciousness” as what moves to another when we die. I think that is more fluid and less permanent than a soul. It would change by the moment.

So why does one photograph touch our heart while another doesn't?

Emma: I liked your wife's image of us as swirls in a marble. Intimacy is meeting in the places of our samenesses and our differences. We don't connect with everyone, right? The sameness isn't enough--there's something about a few special swirls that makes our hearts sing. It's the same with art to a certain extent—what resonates with me is not necessarily going to rock your world.

But some photographs do seem to captivate in a universal way—I'm thinking of the Afghan girl ( That child's angry, riveting eyes . . . Maybe we more clearly see ourselves in the photographs that touch our hearts.

The AC/DC kid's got a whole rebel thing going—I think the t-shirt and chain are just a part of that. He's maintaining an image. I guess the monk is, too, in his own way. If you put your cursor over the source image, it says “An Odd Couple—Buddhist Brothers.”

It's curious to me how much I wanted them to be lovers. I think part of it is conditioning that says that kind of love can come only from a romantic partner. But I think too, it was coming from a deep longing for anyone in love to be able to hold hands anywhere in the world and stare down a camera with that much certainty. “Yes, I'm in love. What are you going to do about it?” kind of thing.

Pure consciousness is fluid, yes, ever responding. Consciousness allows for complete transformation, moment to moment. It is freedom from everything we think we are. Consciousness doesn't need to be “saved” from anything. It just is. Souls let us think we can exist forever, but there's a heavy price to be paid for that kind of certainty: we don't get to keep changing and growing and exploring. Souls could be that fluid, too, if only we'd be brave enough to let them. Letting go of the idea that we're not forever is scary.

Kim: I know that photo of the Afghan girl. I heard the photographer talk about it. He was surprised how it touched so many people.

I wish that we'd have more people holding hands who come from different places, like Republicans and Democrats, Jews and Muslims (though that is happening a little), etc.

In ancient Greece supposedly the intimate relationships were between men and boys, and marriage was for different purposes. I wonder to what extent that is true today—not necessarily between men and boys, but between friends. I sense that friends often have a greater intimacy than husbands and wives. A psychologist William Glasser said it was because we don't criticize our friends (because we'll lose them as friends) but we'll criticize our family. He also said, “Caring for but never trying to own may be a further way to define friendship.”

Look at the withholding of judgment that must have taken place for the odd couple to exist. No one is right or wrong. They both are who they are.

D.H. Lawrence wrote in a letter, “I am glad that you are in love. That is the right way to be—happy and in love, and if there are friends to help the love along tant mieux (so much the better).” That letter was on the cover of a book of his letters that I found when I was 18. It stuck.

Emma: Yes, I suppose different relationships have different purposes. I don't know if it matters, ultimately. I have found the deepest, most profound love open up in unlikely relationships, most certainly not where I wanted or expected it to come. But when love is flowing, truly flowing, it just flows everywhere. It's just love all around, life saturated in love. There's even space to dislike people, to be angry with them, perhaps even to hate them for a while, but the love keeps flowing. When that happens, it doesn't matter what opened up the source, what turned on the tap, so to speak. The tap's just on, and the love is there. When I'm contracted, when I can't feel my own love, I have all these ideas—that there are certain relationships for this and that, that this kind of relationship is more important than that kind (hence the wanting the Buddhist kids to be in love). When I'm opened up and present, it doesn't matter. I don't need to own anyone or have anyone be any certain way.

I'm not claiming to live in this space, but it's nice to visit.

I love these young men. I hope their love provides them with an occasional sanctuary from the world for a very long time.

Kim: Yes, this for me is what “taking refuge in the sangha” is about—a place to open your heart.

Challenge #3: The Voice Within

Dogen said, "Do not follow the ideas of others, but learn to listen to
the voice within yourself." Listen to the voice within yourself. What does
it say?

The voice ...
(Michael Uebel)

The voice within myself says listen to the voice within myself.

(E.L. Tessier)

"You hear them."

"Hear what?"

"Cut it out."

"No, really. Hear what?"

"The voices, stupid."

"What do they say?"

Trey glowered at me, clearly exasperated that I was maintaining the myth so many other people persecuted him with—that only he could hear the voices. But it was true. We only seemed to occupy a single reality. There were two, and his had the fuller soundtrack.

Turn towards, not away.
(Peter Einhorn)

Turn towards, not away.


Awareness of the noise,

Like a Klieg light,

Helps me see clearly.

Or is it a mirror?


The ideas come from outside

But reach something inside

Not all, but part.

Like the eagle

On the back of a quarter.

It is there, always there

That voice in me

Telling me that I am what they say,

That things are as they will.


It isn’t the ideas of others

But the voice in me accepting

That must be seen through.

I hear you frightened voice.

I see you.

I love you.

You are me.

Not all, but part.

And I love you, scared child.

(Emma Skogstad)

It will become so clear,

the voice that will arise

out of the whirling din,

free from the children whispering,

“Stay silent and safe”;

the teenagers swearing, laughing, cynical;

the jeering crowds roaring,

“Who do you think you are?”

Out of all that noise, this voice

Will be soft and certain:

“You are you,” it will say.

“Befriend everything.”

In words, in longing,

in a solitary quiver

deep within the body,

this voice will urge you on,

deeper and deeper

into your own messy humanity,

prodding you into grace and foolishness,

into heartbreaking misunderstandings

and merciful intimacy with your senses,

mud between your toes,

the soft hands of another on your hands.

It won’t direct you to bliss

or moral perfection, this voice,

but it will guide you in the direction

of your own authentic life,

where you will listen, ever attentive,

for reminders from the one that loves you.

(Mike McCarthy)

I’ve played with the photo by adding what was at first white script, blocked each line of script (including the background) in rectangular selections, and then inverted the selected rectangles creating black script on a negative background. The next step was to select a larger rectangle encapsulating all of the script and background and inverting it… returning the first selection of rectangles back to positive (white letters), and the newly selected greater background to negative.

Notice the misplaced pieces of the puzzle’s border next to Kennedy’s image? They are supposed to fit on the opposite side where indeed there are similarly mismatched pieces. I have found that the more complex the puzzle, the greater the possibility the die has repeated itself. Though the continuity of the image may not be the same, the shape and fit of an individual piece or pieces suggests a different but equal and perhaps even greater validity. I keep this framed puzzle in my office to remind me of that small still voice that is resolved to alter our cookie cutter image of reality.

The voice within ...
(Liana E Dawson)

The voice within is not the incessant chattering of your “I.” It is not the right, the wrong of your mind. The voice says not “he said, she said.” It cares not of pomp and circumstance or of happy and sad, wealth and poverty. There is no anger, no disturbance, no desire, no wanting. The voice has no words and no admonishing. It is a simple, subtle wind, turning you ever so gently towards peaceful, tranquil being.

Woman with Yellow Shirt
(Katherine Moore)

Challenge #2: Crossing the Stream

Challenge: There’s a stream to cross and a raft to get us there. We look to the other side with longing as we stand in an arid land. We step on the raft, become stream-enterers, pole with diligence. A day may come when the green of that far land rises up on every side.

I am thirsty
(Emma Skogstad)

I am thirsty, a pebble,
Stooped and lonely bones
And stone.
I am parched and longing and gone.

I am eating a mango,
Sweet, my life tastes sweet
And meaty.
Communion: fruit drips down my chin.

I am stepping off the raft,
There are no waters
Between the arid and the lush places—
Between thirsty and sated.

There is only a spasm and then expansion,
Forgetting and then remembering,
Distraction and then presence,
Then and then now.

I tried to cross the river
(Heather Martin)

Many times, over many years, I tried to cross the river. I had heard and read about the wonders of the other side: the trees straight and tall, the flowers vibrant and scented, the sky far more open than the tiny mind can conceive. The river was so wide that I could see only hazy outlines, but this only made me want to cross more.

When I tried, I would often find myself walking for days and weeks only ankle deep, and the opposite shore never came closer. I tried the kinds of boats other people told me had worked, but they leaked or sank or swirled endlessly in stinking eddies.

Determined, I came across the path to a new spot that I had heard rumors about. I started walking. Soon, very soon, the water was up to my knees. Elated, I rested rarely. The water got higher. As it rose to my waist it got swifter, and I became afraid. I tried to turn back in panic, but I had lost all sense of direction. My feet lost the bottom, I tumbled, and was carried away. I reached for anything to save myself. Some lunatic shouted to me to let go, but I didn't have the luxury of deciding to listen or not - every branch and hand was torn from my grasp in short order. I fought as long as my body would obey me, which was much longer than I would have thought. I had strength I did not know before, amazing strength to hold on to tiny branches with broken fingers, but it was not enough to change anything. I made my best effort even for a long time after I had not a single fiber of muscle left.

I thought about all the people who had drowned before me, and felt a deep kinship with them. I admired both their efforts not to drown, and their acceptance of it happening. How sad, I thought, and how mighty. How beautiful.

And I gave up with my whole heart.

I woke on the shore, soaking wet. I was so thrilled and relieved to be present, anywhere, that for a moment I didn't notice that I was at what seemed to be a narrow place in the river. I could easily see both shores from that one spot. The trees, the flowers, and the sky were shockingly lovely, but absolutely ordinary, and quite obviously precisely the same on both sides of the water.

I laughed and laughed, and still do not know whether I crossed or not.

The Film Maker, the Murdered Boy, and a Socratic Dialogue
(Katherine Moore)

“I think it's baby steps to creating a new way to think about race and
economy in St. Louis (as you've pointed out), and it's very important
to show how the local and federal government play into this vicious
cycle of 'flight and blight' and see how we've been encouraged to
stimulate the economy through racist belief systems.”—Morton
wrote in an email to me
I really wanted to research all the dynamics that went into the
phenomenon of white flight in Spanish Lake,
 Morton said in a recent
telephone interview from Los Angeles. 
I came away convinced that this
is not an issue of race but of class and opportunities.
quoted on
“A lot of it is class. A lot of it is politics. Race is one dynamic,
but the appearance of the transition does seem cultural. It does seem
like it is a racial thing.”
Morton on KTVI
“I told you not to trust the guy.”
“You did.”
“He just says whatever he thinks people want to hear.”
“We don’t know that.”
“He tells you that our economy is built on a racist system and he
tells The Post that this ain’t a race thing?”
“He didn’t exactly say the economy was built on a racist system. I
think it was me who said that.”
“That’s why he’s saying something similar to you now. Not because he
believes it, but because he knows that’s what you believe.”
“I don’t think I ever actually said that to him though.”
“Oh for the love of God! Your Facebook is not private!”
“That’s true.”
“He’s a jerk.”
“We don’t know that.”
“We do. People who talk out both sides of their mouths are jerks.”
“All human beings are inconsistent. And besides, we don’t understand
the nature of the inconsistency.”
“Give me one reason why one would say radically different things like
“Maybe he is being misquoted by The Post.”
“You’re more comfortable calling The Post guy a liar than calling
Morton two-faced?”
“Six of this. Half a dozen the other. I’m just recognizing
“Fine. What about when he was talking to Randi Naughton?”
“He said race was one dynamic. I agree with that.”
“No. He said it SEEMED like a racial thing.”
“It doesn’t seem like a racial thing to you?”
“He means that it SEEMS like a racial thing, but.”
“But it’s a class and politics thing?”
“If The Post writer isn’t a lair, yeah.”
“Ugh. It’s not like I can do anything about it really. I’m actually
more pissed off at this Rob Levy guy anyway.”
“The writer from The Beacon. You see what he wrote about our home?
Apocalyptic ghost town. American dream to American scream. Gag me with
flamboyant language ... Look how good my writing is. I use 10 letter
words and make clever rhymes. My overly-dramatic language doesn’t
negatively affect an entire community at all.”
“There’s 11 letters in Apocalyptic.”
“Did you ever ask Morton about the inconsistency?”
“Sort of.”
“What do you mean?”
“I asked him what consequences might arise or not arise by framing the
issue away from racism. If one focus on class and/or lack of
opportunity as ‘the problem’, how might the outcome differ from one in
which racism is the focus of ‘the problem?’”
“What’d he say?”
“He never responded.”
“Of course he didn’t.”
“I can’t fault him. I haven’t answered all my emails yet either... I
have been asking other people the same question though.”
“Erica Huggins.”
“She told me that I should ask the question of the film maker and take
things from there.”
“That’s obvious. Why’d you ask her? Seems random.”
“Perspective. See how someone outside of myself would answer the
question. See if maybe I was missing something important.”
“And Erica Huggins knows about Spanish Lake because?”
“I thought she might know something about how racism gets talked about
that maybe I wasn’t considering. Plus she just seems like a kind
“Who else did you ask?”
“Some ladies on the panel after the Pruitt-Igoe Myth movie.”
“What they say?”
“The first woman to respond was like, ‘It’s a race thing! You saw the
people in the film!’ There was old footage of white people saying
things like, ‘I moved here because it was a white neighborhood. I
don’t want to live here if it gets black quite frankly.’ An older
woman on the panel began to disagree. This upset the first lady who
said something to the effect of, ‘No! We hide behind politics! We hide
behind ideas of economy!’ The older woman spoke up and said that this
did nothing to address the structural issues of the Pruitt-Igoe
buildings ... which is probably true ... Then the politician lady
talked about how lots of people made their careers off Pruitt-Igoe.
She mentioned some PhD’s famed study as an example. All the panelists
scoffed at the mention of his name. She said that by-and-large the
people who profited off Pruitt-Igoe were not African-American people.
She also said that the people of Pruitt-Igoe raised funds to do their
own study or to make their own documentary or something like that.”
“You going to make your own documentary?”
“Buy me a camera. We’ll find out.”
“You ever answer your question for yourself?”
“Yes and no. I’m still processing. I think about the question a lot.
Especially lately with Trayvon’s smiling face staring at me every time
I open my laptop. I think he is an example of the consequence of down-
playing how racism affects the make-up of communities. People are
afraid of Spanish Lake. It’s so dangerous. All these gangsters and
thugs walking around in groups. All these dark-skinned people living
together in a concentrated area. We live in an urban ghetto according
to some and they are scared to come here. And yet this boy walks
through a really nice gated community and gets kill. So what are you
talking about? It makes me angry that white people don’t address the
racism issue more openly. That’s why I’m watching Morton’s words so
closely. I don’t want him to down-play the racism. I don’t want it to
be about just class and lack of opportunity because that’s leaving out
a huge part of things.”
“What about Zimmerman. You think they will arrest him?”
“Yeah. I don’t think he will be found guilty of anything. I remember
Laurence Powell. Somehow this guy seems less scary than Powell.”
“Seems less or SEEMS less, but...”
“Beat a man repeatedly with a stick. Shoot an unarmed boy. Six of
this. Half a dozen of the other. But somehow with Zimmerman, I
empathize with him more. He was paranoid. He had fear. He was scared
of a hooded dark-skinned teenager he didn’t recognize. He trailed the
kid even after 911 told him to stop. That was wrong... But
somehow ... That he had this irrational fear ... it’s the same
fear in many people around us. Zimmerman could have been any one of a
number of people we know. Any one of those people would have been just
doing their best to protect us. Irrationally protecting us.”
“I figured you’d be the first to blast Zimmerman.”
“I too am inconsistent. Today I feel more melancholy than angry. On an
angry day, I probably would bash Zimmerman.”
“What does it all matter anyway? Nothing’s going to change.”
“You don’t believe in the Promised Land?”
“No. I’m not MLK and you’re not MLK. Neither one of us are ever going
to change anything. So why bother?”
“I can’t believe like you. I have to believe differently just to get
out of bed in the morning. I believe we can cross that stream.”
“Yes ... I quote, ‘There’s a stream to cross and a raft to get us
there. We look to the other side with longing as we stand in an arid
land. We step on the raft, become stream-enterers, pole with
diligence. A day may come when the green of that far land rises up on
every side.’”
“What’s that from?”
“I have no idea. Sounds Buddhist though doesn’t it.”
“Interesting... You’re going to have to give me a good reason to do
anything and that reason can’t be to end racism. I don’t believe that
will ever happen.”
“How about revenge?”
“My interest is peaked.”
“Well, I’m still hating on Rob Levy. I think messing with him would
bring satisfaction.”
“Cyber hack The Beacon?”
“What? No! I was going to say flood his email with lots of positive
images of Spanish Lake.”
“And there goes my interest in your lame revenge plot.”