Life is tough...and transient

Shambhala Sun just sent me the pdf of Norman Fischer's article, Life is Tough - 6 ways to deal with it, from the March issue of the magazine, so I thought I'd share it here. As I mentioned in yesterday's post, it's a great article about the Lojong slogans, and his book, Training in Compassion, which I'm reading now, is even better. Today I'm studying slogan #2: See everything as a dream. Here's a little bit of what Norman says about it:

Everything is always passing away. That's just how it is in this world. As soon as something appears, in that same moment, it's already gone. Everything that exists in time is like this, appearing and disappearing in a flash. That's what we mean when we say "time is passing."

Now it is today. Where did yesterday go, and where is tomorrow now? You can't say. Nor is it really clear where today—where now—is. As soon as you try to figure it out, it is already gone. Since this is so, you have to wonder whether it was ever really here to begin with...

Reading this, I can trace so clearly the influence of Norman's thinking and teaching on A Tale for the Time Being. I can also hear the echoes of Dogen Zenji's beautiful fascicle "Uji" or "The Time-Being." After my mother's death, I spent several years studying these Zen teachings on impermanence, and the outcome of this study was a novel. Who could know?

This evening, as I was walking through the forest on my way back from a neighbor's house, life really felt like a dream. It was getting dark. The mist was hanging low in the trees. Drops of rain clung to the tips of the cedar boughs. The ground was spongy and deep, and the moss, clinging to the dark wet bark of the fir trees was brilliantly green. At least that's what I remember.

Norman writes that everything is a memory, even while it's happening. Research in neuroscience has demonstrated that the brain registers experience a moment after it occurs, so by the time it occurs to us that we're experiencing something, it's already over. Life, as we think we're living it, is always a dream. It's always an illusion. This sense of the fleeting and ephemeral is at the heart of the Japanese term wabi-sabi, which refers to the exquisite, dreamlike beauty of impermanence, simplicity and imperfection. This is an aesthetic ideal I aspire to as a writer.


Nothing is Wasted

Here's an article I wrote for the March issue of Shambhala Sun Magazine about turning problems into art.

When you’re a writer or an artist, nothing is wasted. Even the most painful and difficult situations in life can be recycled into material for a project, and it’s the artist’s job to be awake, aware, and opportunistic. This attitude might sound a bit cold and calculating, but it’s not. Quite the opposite. Art, when it comes from dark and difficult places, gives us a means to fully feel our most powerful human emotions and to transform our suffering into something meaningful.

<read more...>

The theme of the March issue is Life Is Tough, which is also the title of the feature article by Norman Fischer about transforming difficult situations into beneficial ones. The essay is based on his wonderful new book, which I'm reading now, entitled Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong. Lojong refers to the ancient Tibetan Buddhist mind-training methodology, described in The Root Text of the Seven Points of Training the Mind, by the twelfth century master Geshe Chekawa Yeshe Dorje. The seven points of mind training, each contains several pithy slogans, which are like taglines or exhortations to guide your practice.

In his article, Norman talks about the six Lojong slogans that pertain to transforming difficulty, but in the book, he goes into greater detail about all seven points and fifty-nine slogans, and offers ways of practicing with them. They are all very useful, very beautiful, and far more practical than writing novels.

Here's a list of some of my favorite slogans:

  • See everything as a dream.
  • Do good, avoid evil, appreciate your lunacy, pray for help.
  • Be grateful to everyone.
  • Trust your own eyes.
  • Don't be a phony.
  • Abandon hope.
  • Don't poison yourself.
  • Don't be so predictable.
  • Don't go so fast.
  • Don't be tricky.
  • Be wholehearted.
  • Don't expect applause.

These are the ones I'm going to be practicing when I'm on book tour next month...

baby priestlet

The significance of headshaving is complex. Certainly it's a symbolic act of renunciation, of cutting ties with the world. But it also felt like a kind of liberation, and after my head was shaved, I felt light-headed and clear, like a weight had been lifted. I could feel every cool and ephemeral breeze and glint of warm sun against my skin. When I looked at myself in the mirror and saw my skull for the very first time, I recognized myself. There I was. Where had I been all this time? It was like my face had opened up. Suddenly, there was no place to hide, but there was no need to hide, either, and this was a powerful feeling. I felt strong and lean, and my friend said I looked taller, too. Hair seemed immediately extraneous and cumbersome, and in the shower, I was delighted to realize that I no longer needed shampoo, conditioner, blow dryers, and product to keep the stuff in line.

Having no hair also made me feel like a baby, and that's what I am: A bald baby priest, who doesn't even know how to put on her robes, and needs to ask for help at every turn. It's a sweet feeling, and a relief from the normal responsibility of always thinking I have to know things.

The ordination ceremony was a beautiful mix, formal but also intimate and friendly, and I felt relaxed and able to enjoy it, to laugh and also to feel moved to tears. Lots of friends, family, and the wonderful sangha. I've had many thoughts about ritual over the years, lots of skepticism, resistance and doubt, but now I feel a deep and growing appreciation for ritual's ability to mark moments in time, to strengthen intention, and to forge bonds within community. It doesn't always work like this. Sometimes ritual can feel superficial, or pompous, or exclusive, and I have at times felt excluded and resentful and embarrassed. But not this time. This time felt fine.

I feel deeply grateful to my teacher, Norman Fischer, for all this. He's truly a great teacher, and he's got a great website (okay, full disclosure: I edit the site), with hundreds of wonderful talks that you can download for free or for a donation. And if you'd like to see the range of Norman's teaching activities, from Zen & Jewish meditation to his workshops at Google, check out this video that recently aired on PBS's Religion & Ethics program. And don't miss the extended interview, which is in many ways even better than the program, because he talks at length about the benefits of meditation practice, about renunciation and happiness, and about the psalms.

And last but not least, I have an essay in the July/August issue of More magazine about ordaining and sewing Buddha's robe, so check it out!

Okay, I'm off to Japan in a week, and I'll try to post again from there. Thanks for all the comments, emails and encouraging words. I appreciate them all.


Well, this is it. Today I go into retreat. In a week from today, I'll be shaving my head and being ordaining as a Soto Zen Buddhist priest. People keep asking me why. Why am I doing this? What does it mean? I try to answer. I talk about how profoundly Zen practice has helped me and changed me. How I want to share this practice with others. I talk about the importance of transmission of knowledge and forms, and about how I want to help by being a link in this lineage. I talk about how I've lost my parents and have no children or close blood relatives, and about how my Japanese grandparents were Zen Buddhists, so in a way I've inherited their traditions and am carrying them forward. I talk about the importance of sangha to my psychological health, and the importance of meditation to my writing practice. I talk about my profound gratitude to my teacher, Norman Fischer, and how much he has inspired and helped me. I talk about all these things, and all of these are good reasons, but the final answer to the question of why is simply, "I don't know." I don't know. I may never know. The truth is, I just have a feeling. The feeling has grown stronger over the past ten years of Zen practice. This feels like what I should do, and I'm okay with not knowing exactly why.

So, if you happen to think of it, on June 25th, please take a moment and send me some nice, steadying thoughts. I'm sure I'll be nervous about shaving off my hair. I know I'm both scared and excited about taking vows that will last for all lifetimes to come (especially given that don't really "believe" in reincarnation) but anyway, here goes. I'll let you know how it turns out.

waiting for nothing

I’ve been writing well these days, which means I’ve been feeling well, too. This is different than feeling good, although as it happens, I've been feeling good, too: happy, excited, eager to get back to the page. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

My point here is that I’ve been feeling well, which is to say that my ability to feel is heightened. This is what happens when I’m writing well: I feel better.

Writing is one of the means I have available to feel. Meditation is another. Put another way, writing and meditation are practices that allow me to feel my feelings. Otherwise, how would I know?

We are what we tell ourselves we are,” says my friend and teacher, Norman Fischer. “Language-making isn’t incidental or ornamental to human consciousness: it is its center, its esssence. No language, no person. No relationships, no tools...Meditation practice brings the mind to a profound quiet that comes very close to the bottom of consciousness, and right there is the wellspring where language bubbles up.”

I’m hopelessly drawn to this wellspring. I sit on my cushion or at my computer, alert, eyes half shut, listening into that profound quiet. I seem to be waiting.

How am I waiting? Hopelessly (because hope can be constricting), and yet curiously, too. Trying to cultivate some patience and trust. Drawn by a longing to be fully who I am, whatever that may be.

What am I waiting for? Words. Or the world. No, that’s not quite right, because this is an intransitive kind of waiting, with no object.

I could just as well be in the garden, pulling up weeds or planting tomatoes or watching the ducks eat slugs. But instead I’m sitting here, waiting for nothing at all.

samish island

Another summer, another sesshin. The Japanese word "sesshin" means "touching the mind" or "joining the heart." It's a week-long Zen meditation retreat, and I've been doing this one at Samish Island for several summers now. There were about fifty people this year, which was a big group, so the energy was pretty strong. We sat zazen from Sunday to Friday, then on Friday evening we did a Jukai ceremony. "Jukai" (Receiving the Precepts) is the Zen lay ordination ceremony. There were three of us ordaining, and in the ceremony we received the sixteen bodhisatva precepts, our rakusu (a mini-version of Buddha's robes, which we had each sewn), our lineage papers (connecting us back, through time, to the historical Buddha), and our new Buddhist names.

The power of the ceremony took me by surprise. When I was growing up, my family didn't do religion. We were a small, nuclear unit of mixed cultural heritage. My parents were social scientists and secular rationalists: my mother, a linguist; my dad, an anthropologist. As a child, I remember observing, with a kind of anthropological detachment, other families celebrate their rituals, but I always felt acutely embarrassed when I was called upon to participate in any kind of religious ceremony myself. Even Christmas made me feel somewhat fraudulent. So I was nervous about the jukai ceremony—I hoped it would be nice, that it would go off smoothly, that we wouldn't screw it up too badly—but I never expected it to be so deeply moving. And moving is exactly the word for it. When we entered the zendo and approached the altar, it felt quite literally like we were stepping into a stream, whose current would carry us, and there was no need to be nervous or anxious or anything else. It was so much bigger and stronger and older and longer than any of us, and we were just these little motes or particles in the current, bobbing and flowing along. It was a powerful feeling. There's something to be said for a 2500 year old tradition. It puts things into perspective.

But religion aside, I'm always awed by the effectiveness of formal meditation as a technology for studying the mind. In the retreat, we do very little. We sit, we walk, we listen, we work, we chant, we eat. But everything feels brighter and lighter and more spacious after sesshin, like you really have touched, however briefly, the mind of the world, and rejoined it at its heart.

walking meditation

Letter to Zoketsu Norman Fischer

December 8, 2005 Dear Norman,

Thank you for asking me to write this.

As you know, my mom died one month ago, today. She had three terminal conditions: Alzheimer’s, cancer of the jaw, and ninety years of living. Her death should have come as no surprise, but of course when she died in my arms, I was astonished.

How can this life, which has persisted here on this earth for over ninety years, be over? Just like that? This strange new state of momlessness is inconceivable to me. It is new and foreign, a condition I’ve never experienced in my own forty-eight years of living.

I’ve been taking care of my mom for the last ten years, so my grieving is minute and quotidian. When I go to the grocery store, I find myself searching for things that are soft and sweet (she loved chocolate and she had no teeth), or beautiful bright things (she loved flowers, but her sight was failing). Then I remember that she isn’t here anymore, and I’ll never see her face light up when I come into her room, or hear her exclaim over the color of a leaf or a petal or the sky. For the first couple of weeks, I just stood in the ice cream aisle, stunned and weeping.

When I think about her death from her perspective, mostly I just feel relief. She was beginning to suffer a lot of pain and confusion, and I believe she was ready to go. But when I think about her death from my point of view, it breaks my heart. Maybe that’s selfish. I don’t know. All I know is that I miss her like crazy.

I miss her thin little fingers. I miss holding her hand. I miss twirling her wedding ring around so the tiny chip of a diamond sits back on top.

I’ve tried so hard to be strong for her. When she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s ten years ago, our roles began to switch. I took over caring for her, and slowly she became dependent on me. In the end, I was feeding her and changing her, and she was calling me mom. Alzheimer’s is an achingly long way to say goodbye, but I had to be strong, I thought. It would only confuse and upset her to see me cry.

Then a few months ago, I had to take a trip and leave her for a couple of weeks. I went to tell her, knowing that she might die while I was gone, and as I sat on the bed next to her, the tears just came and there was no stopping them. I tried not to let her see, but of course she noticed. She’s my mom, after all—it’s her job to notice these things. She put her arm around me, put her head on my shoulder, and although she’d pretty much stopped using language by then, she made these sweet, singing, mom-like noises meant to comfort me. And it worked, and I felt better, and when I left, we were both laughing. So that was good. My grieving gave her something that she could do well, something she could succeed at, and that made her happy. It let her be the strong one for a change.

They say every death is different, and I think every occasion of grief is different, too.

When my dad died, I was angry because he was angry and despairing. He did not want to die. He was not ready; and I was in charge of his health care; and neither of us could do a damn thing to prevent or forestall this utterly unthinkable and unacceptably terminal outcome. I was mad at him for his lack of readiness, and I was furious at myself for my impotence and lack of compassion. After he died, I couldn’t think of him without a lot of pain and anger and confusion and despair and sense of having failed him. I couldn’t look at his picture without feeling my insides twist. I wanted to look away. And I did. I remember I drank a lot, too, in order to get through it. I took his death very personally.

It was different with my mom. We’d had lots of time together, and we were both as ready as we could ever be. And I wasn’t drinking. I quit two months before she died. I’d done drunken death-and-grieving thing once, and it was lousy. I didn’t want to do it again. I wanted to keep my wits about me. I didn’t want to run away.

The last thing I promised my dad was to take care of my mom. He knew she had Alzheimer’s, and he was tortured at having to leave her behind. So for ten years now, I’ve been fulfilling my promise to him. And this has been good, too. His request gave me something that I could do well, something I could succeed at, and this has made me happy.

So I’m grateful to my parents for dying in my presence, and for teaching me their two different ways of how it can be done. It is hard work, dying, but after watching my mom and dad, I realize that we’re built to do it.

Grieving is hard work, too, but again, I guess we’re built to do it. We come equipped with hearts to break, and eyes to cry with. We have brains to hold the memories and stories, and voices to tell them with. We have the capacity to love and heal.

I have my dad’s picture on my altar, next to my mom’s, and now that the anger and remorse has subsided, I can look at him with gratitude. And a month after my mom’s death, I’m not crying in the grocery store so often anymore. Instead, when I think of my mom, I buy a sweet and offer it to her, and then I eat it (she hated wasting perfectly good food). I bring home flowers and admire them through her eyes. I takes walks for her by the ocean and look at the sky.

So that’s a little bit of what it’s been like. Thanks again, Norman, for asking me to write this. It helps to have a place to put the feelings.

with love, Ruth

mom, by the ocean, eating ice cream

summer camp

Back from Zen camp. What an amazing thing it is, to sit perfectly still and in silence for sixteen hours a day. Total reboot of the system. Of course, you’re not just sitting. There’s some walking involved, and chanting, and eating, and meetings with the teacher, and even some physical work as well. In fact, it all seems quite busy, so much so that you start to wonder how you are ever going to manage to return to your civilian existence and fit in all the stuff that life demands.

The retreat takes place at a Church of Christ Bible camp on Samish Island, Washington, and the first thing you notice as you come up the drive are forty litle identical brown cabins, laid out in a perfectly symmetrical grid pattern on the flat green lawn. Each cabin is intended to hold four children and is equipped accordingly, with two sets of bunk beds (mattresses encased in plastic, just in case), a folding chair, a astebasket, and a broom. Since there are fewer than forty of us, each meditator has his or her own cabin. Our zendo, or meditation hall, is a basketball court, and my cushion was on the foul line just up from center court.

The camp overlooks a spectacular tidal basin and an improbably high, humped island to the west, beyond which the sun sets. There's a great blue heron rookery in the forest, just inland from the mud flats, and when the tide recedes, the birds are drawn from the treetops onto the shallows, where they stand on the gleaming mud, at dawn, or dusk, or under the moon, perfectly still, waiting for morsels of marine life to scurry by to catch and regurgitate to into the wide and waiting mouths of their fledglings.

In the forest, you know you are nearing the rookery by the ruckus the young birds make, a Jurassic cacophony, as dissonant as the fledglings are ungainly. They stick their necks out of the tattered nests and turn their beaks resolutely toward the sea. When one of the parent birds makes its pterodactyl-like approach, they screech with wild and uncontainable excitement. The fledglings are huge, and down below, on the forest floor, the underbrush is splattered white with excrement, and specks of feather and cottonwood down drift through the air.

In his daily dharma talk, our teacher, Norman Fischer, quotes a lovely Rilke poem, with a line that goes something like, “Even a bird must fall before she learns to fly.” This must be a startling thought, if you are a fledging heron.

Meanwhile, as I was sitting on my cushion, the world continued without me. Here’s a very encouraging update from the meat world, about McDonalds’ new anti-antibiotic policy, sent to me by Larry Haveson. Thanks, Larry. Let’s hope this is real.

And if you're interested in the Starbucks vs. Haidabucks story, there's more information and some cool pictures of the interior of the cafe here.

Thanks to everyone who sends email. It really helps.