I’m headed into the dining hall for lunch. I’m hungry and need to find a bathroom. But in looking around, I begin to realize that it’s weeks into the semester and I haven’t been going to any of my classes. I can’t even remember what classes I’m taking. A wild panic rises within me. This is terrible. It’s Tuesday, do I have an afternoon class today? I don’t even know. I’m so far behind in everything, how do I get myself out of this mess? What can I do? I am truly lost. Is this really happening? I’m not a student anymore am I? Maybe this a dream?
I wake with a start. It’s five a.m. and I’m lying in my dark bed. I slowly realize that my terrible situation is just a dream. It takes me a few moments to fully wake. I am deeply relieved.
So the final day of the year begins with this familiar fear. Forty years after college, I’m still in school and suddenly realize that I haven’t live up to my responsibilities. I haven’t done the reading, written the paper, prepared for the test. I feel a sense of dawning panic and shame. I think I am doing fine, then come to realize that I’ve been fooling myself. I’m actually in a terrible situation with no way out. I’m a mess.
I wonder how to live into this dream in a new way? Maybe I need to withdraw from my inner college—to take a semester off. I think I’ll do that. Just go tell the Dean of Students that I need some time off to get my head together.
I’ll hitch-hike to the Baja and live by the ocean. Every morning I’ll walk the beach as the sun rises. I’ll learn to surf and fish. I’ll build an easy life around the incoming waves. The water and the sun will be my teachers. Lunch and dinner will be my courses. I’ll get tan and learn to meditate.
Eventually, I just disappear into the waves.
‘Where did Dave go?’
‘Oh, he’s out there with the waves.
Way out. Way, way out.’
Like lemmings over the cliff,
the years of my life now
disappear in accelerating succession.
What can be done?
I carefully instruct myself to
rest in the life of little things.
The taste of hot tea on the tongue,
a deep breath and a sigh,
tired muscles after shoveling wet snow—
all are invitations to infinite life.
With no choice,
why not jump
off the cliff
of how things
used to be?
Why not leap
over the precipitous
fantasy of how
things will be
into the great
freedom of how
I seem to have veered away from writing about our incoming President over the past week. I see this as both a good sign and a warning signal. Perhaps it’s just the diversion of the holidays. Perhaps it is a sign that I have gotten over the initial trauma of losing the election and having someone so crass and unconventional as the incoming President. But perhaps I am slipping into the new normal—falling into the convenient liberal bubble of hoping things will be OK.
How do I find a way of living into our new political reality that is neither panicked nor avoidant? The middle way?
For me, the new reality is that we have a President-elect who has little respect for the institutions of democracy in our country – including the press and reasoned discourse. We have a President-elect who brags about his track record of being solely focused on enriching himself. I see no reason to expect he will behave differently in his new role as President. And if he’s only out to enrich himself and his friends, how will it be for the rest of us?
Yesterday, Ross Douthat, a conservative New York Times op-ed writer, reflected on some of the possibilities of our upcoming four years in a piece he called The Trump Matrix:
“…the possibilities for how Trump governs, runs from ruthless authoritarianism at one end to utter chaos at the other. Under the authoritarian scenario, Trump would act on all his worst impulses with malign efficiency. The media would be intimidated, Congress would be gelded, the F.B.I. and the I.R.S. would go full J. Edgar Hoover against Trump’s enemies, the Trump family would enrich itself fantastically — and then, come a major terrorist attack, Trump would jail or intern anyone he deemed a domestic enemy.
At the other end of this axis, Trump and his team would be too stumbling and hapless to effectively oppress anyone, and the Trump era would just be a rolling disaster — with frequent resignations, ridiculous scandals, Republicans distancing themselves, the deep state in revolt, the media circling greedily, and any serious damage done by accident rather than design.”
I am not hopeful. But this morning, I am determined to not look away—or rather, I am determined to look away and then look back again. Probably some kind of rhythm of turning toward and turning away will be a necessary survival skill for many of us over the next four years. We should not get caught up in every passing drama but should stay alert of moments when saying something and doing something will be important.
A friend of mine is considering starting a newspaper. Although it’s still in the development stage, I think it’s a wonderful response to the problem that many of us face in being overwhelmed with so much disturbing news. I also see it as an antidote to the ‘fake news’ that has been so troublesome recently. My friend sent the idea to me in an email and also gave me permission to mention it here.
First, some background on the founder: she is a long-time student of Arny Mindell’s Process Work and also has studied and practiced in the Sufi tradition for many years. She is also resolutely anti-hierarchical—a great believer in the power and authority of each human being. Because of this, she is a reluctant teacher and down-to-earth thinker.
Although she didn’t mention it, the newspaper would directly support the religion she has considered founding: ‘Wowism.’ In Wowism there is only one teaching: ‘Wow!’ This exclamation is the universal practice. When things go well, we appreciate them by saying ‘Wow!’ And when things fall apart, we appreciate that as well by saying ‘Wow!’ (I’m not certain about the exclamation point as the religion has no written texts, but it seems appropriate given the spirit of this considered religion.)
I can’t go on without mentioning another dear friend who has also stumbled upon the roots of this same religion. He wrote a Buddhist children’s song about it in which he presciently notes that dogs go ‘Bow-wow-wow’ but in Buddhism we go ‘Wow. Wow. Bow.’ And this takes me to a family worship service one summer when my little sister must have been five or six. One Sunday morning on vacation, my father was trying to get us to be worshipful and it wasn’t going well. Out of the blue, my little sister proclaimed ‘God is dog spelled backwards.’ We all laughed and things were about to get out of hand, when my father, to his everlasting credit, concluded the theological repartee with: ‘And dog is man’s best friend.’
But back to the newspaper that does not yet have a name. To illustrate her concept, my first friend sent along the following proposed headlines/story ideas:
Squirrel Runs Across Power Line
A Gull Flies By
Window Reflects Early Morning Orange Sunlight
Other story ideas were:
Trees Still Stand Tall Offering Free Guidance To Those That Ask
Cloudless Sky Promotes Expansive Feelings
Dog Stares Out Window Waiting For Something To Bark At
She went on to elaborate: ‘The stories in this newspaper would be short and sometimes the headline would be enough. Mostly readers would fill the story in themselves by conjuring their own associated images and responses to the headlines.’
Since she’s just starting up, I’m sure she’s looking for reporters. I suspect the pay will be low, but job satisfaction will be off the charts. If you’re interested, you can start today. As you move through your life, keep your senses open for a good story.
Stories of interest would be situations and sights you might ordinarily pass by on your way somewhere else. When come across something, stop for a moment and consider how amazingly it is exactly what it is. Then you might even let yourself get a little dreamy and notice what associations and images arise. Finally, come up with a headline and send it on.
Good luck out there.
“From the onset patch-robed monks have this field that is a clean, spacious, broad plain. Gazing beyond any precipitous barriers, within the field they plough the clouds and sow the moon.”
Zen Master Hongzhi 12th century
Having established the possibility that this life we already have might be the ‘spacious, broad plain’ of grace, we now push on to how we might live in this illuminated field.
‘Gazing beyond any precipitous barriers’ – First instruction: ‘Don’t look in the dragon’s eyes.’ This advice is given to the hero (you and me) when he/she enters the dragon’s cave. There is real danger, real darkness in the world. This dark force has the power to seduce us, to draw us into its thrall. It’s best to be respectful of the darkness, yet we should be careful of gazing too long directly at it.
This is true in whitewater kayaking as well. Many years ago, I spent time dodging boulders in fast-moving water with a friend who was a skilled paddler. He was fearless and practical. He taught me how to ‘scout’ the rapids ahead when they were dangerous. Getting out of your boat, you walk along side the rapids to study the different channels and possible routes. But he always said to take a quick look, then get back in your boat because the longer you look at the boulder you need to avoid, the more likely you are to run right into it.
‘Gazing beyond any precipitous barriers’ means not losing our focus by getting lost in ruminating on the difficulties ahead. When I focus on all the things that may happen or will happen that are beyond my power to influence, I easily become overwhelmed. ‘Gazing beyond…’ encourages us to hold our heads up, even in dangerous water – to see the patterns of the bigger picture and to stay focused on what is most important.
‘within the field, they plough clouds and sow the moon.’ Now we get to Hongzhi’s description of the spiritual journey – the journey of being human. Within this grace of life that pervades us all, our job is to do the impossible and to be content with no results. A plough going through clouds leaves no trace. The moon cannot be plucked from the sky and covered over with dirt.
Yet Thoreau, who plied his trade not far from the spot where I write these words, spoke of ‘weaving moonbeams for the public good.’ What is worthwhile doing in this cloud-like life? We are usually encouraged to work hard and accomplish great things. We admire people who accumulate great wealth, or make important discoveries, or devote their life to political service.
But we so quickly grow old and all of us, each one of us, eventually leaves everything behind. The houses we build, the financial plans we carefully monitor, even the friends we love dearly—all this is much more cloud-like than solid. Our difficulties too, though they appear as precipitous, solid and urgent, are of this insubstantial nature.
‘plough the clouds and sow the moon’ invites us to the constant and joyous work of waking up. This is not a life of inactivity, but rather a life of full engagement in the particular manifestation of each moment. Realizing the evanescence of everything, we can give ourselves without reservation to the life circumstances we encounter, no matter what form they take. With no expectation of results, we are free to accomplish without attachment and sow seeds of love without expectation.
I gave a short talk last night on a few sentences from 12th century Chinese Zen Master Honghzi’s writing:
“From the onset patch-robed monks have this field that is a clean, spacious, broad plain. Gazing beyond any precipitous barriers, within the field they plough the clouds and sow the moon.”
Hongzhi lived in a time of great political uncertainty. The stability of the Tang Dynasty had disintegrated due to pressures from within and without. The fundamental forms and manifestations of Buddhism itself were reformulating. Scholastic Buddhism had been discredited by its close association of the failed ways of the past and the new Zen school was beginning to coalesce. Hongzhi is one of the early exemplars of the Soto branch of Zen school of Buddhism that flourished first in China, then in Japan and Korea. We here at the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester, Massachusetts, continue to claim his lineage and be inspired by his lucid and poetic teachings.
Honghzi expounds his central teaching in the first sentence. We (patch-robed monks) already have the peace that passes understanding—‘the field that is a clean, spacious, broad plain.’
For many of us, our life often feels like a sloping and rocky field with barely enough soil to nourish our life. We seem to move from one trial to the next. Plans fall apart, health is uncertain, and the weather is often stormy.
So what could Hongzhi be talking about? It may be tempting to dismiss him off as someone who is speaking to people who are not like us. Perhaps his insights only apply to people who are naturally serene and mostly live in beautifully austere Temples filled with the smell of incense. Perhaps, but I always find it more interesting to consider that he may be speaking to people like you and me.
What if this ‘clean, spacious, broad plain’ is not different from the geography of our lives right here and now? We often imagine that there is some other place we will arrive at and where we will find peace. Some other place. Some other time. Then we will become different people – we will be less disturbed and troubled. Then we will live in a state of ease and grace.
What if what we seek is already here? In the Zen tradition, we are not encouraged to ‘believe’ this, but simply to consider it for ourselves. What if in this moment, in the middle of all the worries and challenges of your life—what if this moment itself is filled with grace and spaciousness? What if you don’t have to fix things or become someone different? Is it possible to appreciate life just as it is? Sweet and bitter? Clear and confused. Emerging and falling apart?
As a Zen teacher and son of a Christian minister, I find this teaching central to both traditions. We live in a world of grace beyond our comprehension. We do not sustain ourselves by our own efforts, but are supported by some mysterious and sacred source that is always present.
I’m not interested in trying to prove or explain this teaching, but am quite interested in spreading the word and encouraging us all to see what happens when we consider the possibility of that the ground of ease and grace is the very land under our feet right now.
Coming tomorrow: How to ‘plough the clouds and sow the moon.’
Christmas morning. The size and shape of the presents under the tree is now obvious, but the contents are still hidden. Hopes and fears abound. Each gift is an earnest reflection of the complex web of human relationships. This wondrous tangle of privilege, affection and mutual obligation is who we are.
This particular morning, many of us are preparing to practice the receiving part of this equation. Personally, I am steadying myself to do a good job, knowing that receiving love is sometimes a challenge for me.
But I remember Esshin. The impossibly cute and ugly bulldog puppy of a friend, she is my model of a joyful receiver. Esshin simply loved to be loved. She greeted every visitor in her space with the full and shameless expectation of receiving affection. When you bent over to pet her, she would roll over onto her back, splay her little legs outward and allow you to pet her soft belly. She would then lie in this state of obvious bliss and vulnerability; happy to receive your love and affection for as long as you were willing to give it. And you felt momentarily honored to be in this sweet reciprocal relationship with Esshin, the four-legged love sponge.
Most of us are more ambivalent about this human necessity of receiving. We all want to be loved and approved of, but some of us are not certain that we really deserve it. Or if we are certain, we are fairly sure that there is not enough of it out there for us. Or if we believe there is enough love, we aren’t fully willing to receive it unless it is expressed in the exact way we imagine it should be. Or we’re hesitant to receive what is given because then we imagine we will then be obligated in some confining way. It’s truly complicated.
I consider myself a remedial receiver. In spite a lifetime of abundance and unwarranted affection, I cycle through the above categories at regular intervals. But this morning, I vow once again to gratefully receive what is given.
The presents, of course, are nice but they are minor parts of the rich and complex web of human relationship that sustains each one of us. The real presents have already been given. Parents that brought us into this world and guaranteed our survival when we were utterly helpless. Friends and colleagues and strangers that have been the fabric of our lives and stories since our earliest days. Without all this, we would not be here.
The deepest gift, is of course, simply being alive. The incomparable generosity of the endlessly beating heart and the lungs that unfailingly fanning the flame of our life. Of course we get lost in the thoughts and emotions, but perhaps today, in the midst of the unwrapping and cooking and cleaning up, we can once again appreciate what has already been given. Let us all splay the legs of our little souls and receive God’s endless patting of our tender bellies.
I remember Christmas Eve services at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Endwell, New York. My father was the minister and I was in high school. My friends and I would sit in the same pew rather than with our parents. At the time, we were quite cool and utterly unaware of our shining youth and hopefulness. We were the gang—Steve and Jeff and Kathy and Lynne – the boys and the girls and the endless longing in between.
I did love the singing. Angels We Have Heard on High – ‘singing sweetly o’er the plain, and the mountains in reply, echoing their joyous strain’. The words and melody appear magically in my mind. Like my father after his stroke. When words had fled, he and I practicing slow walking down the corridor. One day I began to sing an old family song – a camp song. And my father who could barely shuffle his feet and had not spoken for days, smiled hugely and began singing with me – word perfect.
So even now the music and words of Christmas Eve are with me. Singing still, together in the dark night, listening to the familiar and comforting readings about ‘certain shepherds.’ Nowadays I wonder how certain they were. Those men in the cold fields watching over their flocks by night. When the angel of the Lord appeared and said ‘Fear not.’
Fear not. The angels of life are terrible and wonderful—descending and vanishing in their own times and places. Dark and light alternating endlessly. Fear not, for I bring you tidings of great joy. Fear not. In the midst of the dark and cold life and love itself are being born.
But I’m trying to get to the end of the service at Northminster—the part where we sang Silent Night. My father was talking about Christmas the day he died. He kept apologizing for ruining it. I found out later that in his middle family, it was a time of drinking and fits of terrible anger and depression. Not so lovely. But the attending minister at the hospital suggested we sing ‘Silent Night’ – and we did – his first family and his third family joining in together around his hospital bed. Minus the second family and our mother from the first family who weren’t invited.
I didn’t mean to get lost in the darkness of my father’s death again, but it is very present with me. Now his life AND his death are part of the story. The light and love he gave me. His passing was the loss of one of my biggest supporters – someone who never tired of telling me how proud he was of me, who I had become and what I had accomplished. And also the dark gifts – the family legacy of the terrible loneliness and longing – the breaking of vows and sacred trusts. All of this passed on to me.
But on Christmas Eve, at Northminster Church in the mid-1960’s, we would each have a small candle with a round circle of paper half-way up to (supposedly) catch the drips. My glowing father would light his candle from the altar and pass it on down the center aisle of the church and from there down each row until everyone who was old enough to stand on their own two feet would be holding a lit candle.
And then, my father, his face alight with joy above his black robe, would say some magic words to invite everyone to lift their candle up. And the whole sanctuary would glow – bright as day. Angels everywhere.
I recently read the transcript of a talk by Paula Green given on December 7th in Northampton, Massachusetts: “Despair and Empowerment in Our Watershed Moment.” Paula is a peace activist, founder of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding and recipient of a 2009 “Unsung Hero of Compassion’ awarded from the Dalai Lama.
She spoke of the election exit polls that reported one in five people who voted for Trump didn’t believe he was qualified to be president. In reflecting on what causes people to act in such a desperate way she turned to the issues of respect and humiliation, saying: “The felt sense of being respected, or its opposite of being ignored or humiliated, has a much more powerful influence on people’s opinions than rational arguments…The pain of being humiliated and excluded is unsustainable. Sooner or later, shame seeks a scapegoat, someone to blame in a misguided attempt to reduce the pain. The excluded demand their place at the table.”
She goes on to say: “I watched this play out so viciously in the former Yugoslavia during my years of intensive engagement in that region. Milosevic, an opportunist demagogue, rose up by cleverly appealing to the grievances of one ethnic group in the region, promising them status, prosperity, and glory. Demonizing all the other ethnic and religious groups, especially the Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims, he slowly tightened the noose, inciting and baiting his followers to commit plunder, murder, and war crimes. The parallels are chilling, the lessons are clear.”
Trump certainly is “an opportunist demagogue.” He has been utterly consistent in his disregard for shared standards of truth and his relentless undercutting of reasoned discourse. He has come to power through fanning the flames of grievance in those who have felt unseen and disrespected. He dependably points the finger of blame on Muslims, Mexicans and people who ‘are not like us.’
How do we, as Paula Green says “enlarge our boundaries of inclusion?” How do we join with those who have felt so disrespected and left behind by our country? A friend who voted for Trump is also appalled by the racism and violence he incites and suggested we might form a ‘coalition of the reasonable’ to protect those who are vulnerable.
How do we go beyond being shocked and outraged and begin forming new coalitions and taking strategic action? This is not the time for playing nice and pretending everything will take care of itself. All of us who pay lip service to compassion, democratic principles and economic justice need to being behaving in new ways.
Ms. Green challenges us all saying: “Governments cannot last without the acquiescence of the governed. If we are determined not to acquiesce, give up, give in, normalize, or cooperate, and* we are equally determined to become more inclusive and to remain nonviolent, our revolution will triumph over obstacles that otherwise will threaten and divide us.”
Our human minds are designed to compare one thing to another. This wonderful capacity allows us to buy groceries and build electric cars but also leads us into a near constant state of dissatisfaction. We often wish that things were different: It’s too hot or too cold. I’m too anxious or too tired. Our team should have won the game. Our woman should have won the election.
Since we can imagine that things could be or should be different, we often think that someone must have done something wrong to get us here. It might be us or it might be others, but someone is to blame. We can spend a lot of time looking to find who is at fault. Or we spend a lot of time wishing that things were different—regretting the past and complaining about the present.
But what if this is it? What is our current situation (inside and outside) is not a mistake that should have been avoided, but it is exactly where we need to be? What if our whole lives have led up to this moment and if we are the ones who have what is needed to meet the current challenges? Or what if the conditions around us are exactly what we need to wake up to our birthright of freedom and power?
From a scientific perspective, these are not testable hypotheses. We cannot ‘prove’ that things, as they are, are an opportunity rather than a trial. But we appear to have the freedom to approach them from either perspective – and many others as well.
Whatever perspective we hold on our current situation, it probably serves us well at least to be aware of it: What is the story I am telling about where I am now? Without being aware that our perception of any situation includes some creative assumptions, we experience our personal view as fixed reality rather than one of many possibilities.
As we become aware of the multiple views that are inherent in any given situation, we can sometimes choose new possibilities for ourselves and for the world we live in. We will continue to struggle and complain, but maybe we can find more ease and be more effective in our actions as well.