Category Archives: Blog

It’s Alive!

A Sandwich for Frank

Sometimes I help out at a place where people sometimes need help.  On Monday, I was sitting in the office alone when there was a knock at the door.

“Are you Jeffrey?” she asked.

“No, I’m Jesse,” I replied.

“Oh! Would you like a sandwich?”

flowers crop squareThere was a meeting and they had too many sandwiches, so she was offering the extras around.  It was in a brown, waxed cardboard box labeled “Smoked Turkey,” that was sealed shut with a single piece of Scotch tape.  Not being one to (ever) turn down free food, I graciously accepted.  I wasn’t terribly interested in a sandwich, but just about anything sounded more satisfying than the baby spinach salad and Fuji apple I had brought with me and anyway, I consider unexpected food to be one of the great joys in life.

I set the sandwich aside.  I mused on it on and off for a couple of hours.  I thought about the other person working that day, who was out on an errand.  I wondered if she had brought a lunch and whether or not she liked smoked turkey sandwiches.  I decided that I would save the sandwich for her.

But once time decided to be around 1:30, I started doubting that the other person was going to return in time for the sandwich to be relevant.  I looked at the sandwich.  I severed the tape and opened the box, inspected its contents: one smoked turkey sandwich on wheat, one cookie (looked like molasses, mmmm), and one tiny plastic ramekin of  some couscous-like substance.  The sandwich didn’t look all that appealing to me, nor did the couscous substance, but I had an errand to run at 2:00, so I figured I should probably eat something soon.

I checked in with my stomach: not hungry at all. Usually, not being hungry is no barrier to me eating, but this time my stomach was actually telling me not to put food in it: “Don’t do it. We’re good.”  I hesitated. I WP_20150401_001looked at the sandwich.  I looked at the cookie.  I looked at the couscous cup.  I thought about my salad.  I looked at the sandwich again.  And the cookie.  Slowly, I began to unwrap the sandwich, all the while feeling very apathetic about the whole affair.  Undaunted by my lack of hunger or really any interest at all, I picked up half the sandwich and brought it to my mouth.  Just as I was about to take a bite, there was a knock at the door.

“Yeah?  Come in.”

“Hey, brotha.”

A Kentucky drawl.

“Hey Frank, what’s up?”

I put the sandwich back in the box and set it aside.  He sat down.

“Can you help me call my doctah?  I don’t know when my next appointment is.”

We called his doctor and found out his next appointment time.

He kept sitting there.

“So how’s it going, Frank?”

“I’m really just tryin’ to hang in there today.”

“Oh? Rough day, huh? What’s going on?”

“I don’t have any food at all in my apartment.”

Missing Piece fitsSuddenly it all made perfect sense.

I pointed to the sandwich.

“Do you want this sandwich?”

“No! No, brotha, I can’t take your sandwich.”

“No, really, I don’t want it.”

“That’s really generous of you brotha, but I can’t take your sandwich.”

“Frank, let me tell you how I got this sandwich…”

I proceeded to tell him a considerably more concise version of the story of the sandwich than I have just told you, which seemed to satisfy him.  His entire demeanor shifted.

“OK, thank you brotha! Bless you!”

He ate the sandwich.  He seemed much happier afterward.  We talked for a while and then he left.  Then I ate my spinach salad and my Fuji apple.

They were delicious.


I have been visited by many koans who have tried to take credit for this story.  What koan(s) does this story remind you of?  Let me know by commenting below.

P.S. The black and white line drawing of a circle with a wedge in it is from the Shel Silverstein book The Missing Piece. If you did not already know that, your life is a little better now.


Ending homelessness

A koan: Taking the form of Guanyin, find shelter for the homeless person.

There seems to be a WP_20150923_002connection between my happiness and how I hold the world.  Often it seems as though the task in meditation is just to welcome visitors: the sound of my cats facing off or my partner emptying the dishwasher, the smell of a full litter box, the feeling of back pain or drowsiness or visions of the day to come.  This morning, our foster kitten crawled into my hands while I meditated and began to purr loudly.  It seems that how I hold things is how the universe will hold me.

WP_20150405_002A friend of mine who meditates recently told me a story of a friend of hers who meditates.  He has young children and, trying to get some good meditation done, trained the whole family to be very silent around the house during his daily meditation sessions.  Failure to comply often earned stern scoldings.  At some point, he decided to teach his oldest child to meditate, but while he was instructing him for the first time, he noticed the child was fidgeting and looking very uncomfortable.  “What’s the matter?” he asked.  The child hesitated for a moment, then  explained that since his father always seemed so unhappy about meditation, it must be a very difficult and terrible thing.

WP_20150719_006Aside from our regular Monday night koan group, I offer another meditation group every week in the Charlottesville community.  This week, one person showed up: a young woman with a quick mouth and an intense stare who is determined to get the world before it gets her.  She shines with a bright intelligence and it is clear that somewhere safely behind the ramparts, there beats a vivid, crimson heart.  “So is it just gonna to be you and me? Cause I said I’d come to this, but I really don’t wanna be in here with the rest of these assholes that live around here.  It’s the same drama, same bullshit, they’ll just move it in here.”

She then proceeded to talk WP_20150305_004nonstop, rolling out a disjointed, sensational tale of homelessness, incarcerated partners, partner abuse, drug abuse, brain damage, property damage, gang violence, violent love, love triangles, female fist fights, betrayal, and raising other people’s children.

Often it seems as though the task in meditation is just to welcome visitors.

After about 25 minutes, she stopped abruptly and looked at her watch.

“Well, are we done?” I said.

“Can we be?”

“Of course.”

She thanked me and apologized for not humoring me with “the meditation thing.”  I thanked her for not humoring me with “the meditation thing” and told her that she was welcome anytime.

WP_20150403_001There seems to be a connection between my happiness and how I hold the world.  To refuse what is being offered in any given moment is to make the entire universe homeless.  To care for what shows up at our doorstep is to come in from the cold.

Ringing the doorbell:

  1. Who is someone in your life that you just can’t accept?  What is a part of you that you just can’t accept?
  2. When or where do you feel like you don’t belong?  When do you feel most at home?
  3. Was there ever a time when you left what is safe and familiar on purpose?  Why?  And what was that like?

Make the Mountains Dance: A Zen Koan Meditation Retreat

with Jesse Cardin, September 17 – 20, 2015 in Crozet, Virginia


When I think about going on retreat, I get very excited. I am visited by memories of long, still days in the meditation hall, silent meals together with friends, working with teachers, and the way that everything seems to shine after a day or two. I also remember the sense of connection that I feel to everyone I’m on retreat with, even though we may speak to each other very little or not at all. It is a beautiful thing to be a part of, something I wish everyone could experience even once. This retreat has grown out of my desire to share this experience with others.

At this retreat, there will be meditation, teaching, and the opportunity for individual practice conversations with a teacher. There will also be time to spend just looking at the trees and taking walks through the countryside. We will be visited by koans and dreams and unexpected friends, and we will make new discoveries—or perhaps new discoveries will make us. It should be interesting.

Amigo no pantsThis residential retreat has been designed to be accessible to people at all levels of experience. Actually, koans are designed to be accessible to people at all levels of experience, so I suppose I can give them the credit. Koans aren’t interested in how long you’ve been meditating, whether or not you’re a good person, or if you cheated on your diet today. They have their own agenda and they will be friends with anyone (yes, even you).

It is not always easy to set aside the other areas of our lives to attend a residential retreat, or even one day of retreat. We may be apprehensive about what may or may not happen while we are away, that we might miss something. But the stillness and silence of retreat has a way of softening the boundaries between our inner life and outer life. In retreat we can’t help but transform, and the whole world transforms with us. We come home seeing with new eyes and hearing with new ears and our life responds to that.

The Details

PZI profile picA Brief Overview: We are affiliated with Pacific Zen Institute. Although this retreat incorporates many aspects of formal Zen practice, it is by no means a typical Zen retreat. In keeping with the spirit of Pacific Zen Institute’s mission to create a truly western Zen culture, the focus will be on the transformative process of koan practice itself rather than strict adherence to traditional Asian Buddhist forms.

The retreat will be held in a DSCN1169large cabin generously provided by the Our Lady of the Angels monastery in Crozet, Virginia. It will run from Thursday, September 17th to Sunday, September 20th. Participants are welcome to attend full-time or part-time as they wish, to stay overnight or just attend during the day(s). We will begin at 7:00pm on Thursday with meditation and a short welcome ceremony. Participants will need to provide their own dinner the first night.

The Daily Grind: The wake-up bell will be rung at 5:00am each morning and meditation will begin at 5:30am. There will be coffee. Each block of meditation will consist of 25-minute periods of silent seated meditation punctuated by brief periods of walking meditation. We will have our regular morning meditation schedule on Sunday, followed by a closing ceremony at noon. (See the Retreat Schedule for more details.)

Note: If you are attending part-time, please take care to arrive and depart during breaks in the schedule so as not to disrupt meditation.

Food: Please provide your own dinner for Thursday evening. A vegetarian breakfast and dinner will be provided on Friday and Saturday, and breakfast on Sunday. Lunch will not be provided, so please bring your own for however many days you plan to attend (there is a refrigerator and kitchen on-site, but please be aware that everyone will be sharing the space). Light snacks like fruit and nuts, and coffee and tea will also be available throughout the retreat.

DSCN1204Accommodations: Space is limited. Our cabin features 3 bedrooms and a loft, which altogether contain 6 single beds and 2 double beds available for those wishing to stay any or all nights. There are 2 full bathrooms (one on each floor). Please bring your own bed linens, blankets and towels as the monastery does not provide any (pillows are provided). Please let us know if you are a couple and would like to share one of the full beds. Sorry, there are no private rooms.

Cost: The intention is to keep this retreat as inexpensive as possible while still covering operating costs. Feel free to donate extra if you wish! No one will be turned away for lack of funds. (To request a scholarship: before registering, please use the comments form at the bottom of this page to note many days you would like to attend and how much you are able to pay.) Please see the following fee schedule:

One day: $30.00
Two days: $60.00
Full-time (Thurs-Sun): $90.00

Work Practice: The famous Chinese Zen master Baizhang once said, “A day without work is a day without eating.” Well, that’s one way to look at it. There are a few simple jobs that need doing to keep the retreat running and you will be assigned one of them, but also, work practice is an excellent way to carry our koan off the cushion and into our daily activities.

What to bring:

– Please wear comfortable clothing and bring shoes to walk in. The cabin we are staying in does have heat and air conditioning, but you may want to wear layers just in case.

– Please feel free to bring any meditation gear you would like to use (cushions, chairs, benches, etc.). The cabin has some chairs which you are welcome to use, but we are unable to provide meditation cushions.

– Bring something personal to contribute to the altar. It can be anything–something sacred to you, something that makes you smile, something you find particularly repulsive, whatever.

– A journal (or something to write with and on).

Silence: One of the jewels of retreat is DSCN1262silence. However, another one of the jewels of the Pacific Zen School is conversation and community. Please be considerate of others; if you find yourself involved in a conversation, please carry it away from the meditation hall and common areas so that others may enjoy the silence. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you need to, but you might also notice that you don’t need to. Learning how to make mistakes is another jewel of retreat. Thanks!

I’m interested, but not sure I want to jump into a 3-day retreat with you people: Great! Come sit with us and see if you like our approach. Our group is called 16 Bodhisattvas: A Koan Small Group and we meet every other week at the JMRL library’s Central location in downtown Charlottesville, VA. We meet on Mondays from 6:00pm – 7:30pm. Bring a cushion or just yourself (chairs are provided). Check out our schedule of upcoming meeting dates.

Jesse Gassho refuge squarish cropped (2)Who’s running this thing anyhow? Jesse Cardin is a koan teacher in the Pacific Zen School, the practice leader for the Charlottesville-based koan meditation group 16 Bodhisattvas and the author of the It’s Alive! blog. He has been working with koans since 2006 under the guidance of John Tarrant, Roshi (Director of Pacific Zen Institute). He is particularly interested in how koans use the circumstances of each individual’s life to facilitate awakening, and how they can be adapted for use in mental health and substance abuse recovery.

Retreat Daily Schedule

5:00 – 7:00pm – Arrive/set up
7:00 – Meet in zendo: meditation and opening ceremony
9:00 – Close the day

5:00am – Wake up
5:30–8:00 – Meditation
8:00—10:00 – BREAKFAST / free time
10:00—Noon – Meditation/movement
12:00—2:00 – LUNCH / free time
2:00—5:00 – Meditation
5:00 – 7:00 – DINNER / free time
7:00 – 9:00 – Meditation/dharma talk
9:00 – Close day

5:00am – Wake up
5:30–8:00 – Meditation
8:00—10:00 – BREAKFAST / free time
9:30—Noon – Meditation
12:00 – Closing ceremony
12:00 – 2:00pm – Load out


Ready to Register?

Click the Donate button below to be magically transported to our secure PayPal payment site. Enter the appropriate amount for the number of days you wish to attend and follow the instructions to check out. We will email you as soon as possible after your payment is processed to confirm your registration details. (Don’t have a PayPal account? That’s cool, just click on the link on the lower-left corner of the payment screen, under “Don’t have a PayPal account?”)

One day: $30.00
Two days: $60.00
Full-time (Thurs-Sun): $90.00

Donate Button with Credit Cards

Any Questions?

Please feel free to contact me with any questions, comments or concerns via the comments web form below and I will respond as promptly as possible.


Falling together

paradise lost set upon by creaturesA very dear friend of mine named Joel is going through a rough time right now. His mind spins yarns of impossible worry so mercilessly that it sometimes drives him home in tears in the middle of the day, unable to work. This is not something new, but it has been particularly bad for him lately. His mind is working overtime just to maintain, doing whatever he can to make the next moment bearable. He feels really stuck and doesn’t know how to get free.

The other day, over dinner, some friends and I were discussing Joel’s woes. I seemed to know everything about his difficulties and had very reasonable solutions for all of them. As we talked, I noticed myself growing more and more agitated at what I thought was Joel’s inability to take effective action on his own behalf. The more I solved Joel’s problems for him, the more worked up I became. By the end of dinner, I was sick and tired of talking about Joel. I felt worn out and a little ashamed about how callous and arrogant I had been.

Earlier that evening, my koan group began working with this koan, which appeared of its own accord:

Layman Pang was once selling bamboo baskets. Coming down off a bridge, he stumbled and fell. When his daughter, Lingzhao, saw this she ran to her father’s side and threw herself down.
“What are you doing?” cried the Layman.
“I saw Daddy fall to the ground, so I’m helping,” replied Lingzhao.
“Luckily no one was looking,” remarked the Layman.

One of the wonderful things about koans is that they don’t need me to turn a crank or flip switches in a certain order—they operate on their own. I had no intention of spending time with this koan outside of group, but later that evening something interesting happened. I imagined Joel lying on the grounR Lee Ermey Drill Sergeant 2d, struggling and failing to get up.  I was bent over him, pawing at him and shouting like the ornery drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, “You gotta move your legs like this, son! You gotta get your legs under you and pick yourself up and fix it! No, no, like this!” I suddenly realized how unhelpful my whole approach had been. I felt myself diving toward the ground to be next to Joel, the years of my own worry and hopelessness washing over me, as fresh and welcoming as ever. The drill sergeant, now supple and weepy, was bathed in a sweet, golden syrup.

(Luckily no one was looking.)

Needless to say, my interactions with Joel have been different since then. I no longer experience his suffering as a problem, and as a result I am no longer personally invested in what I think he ought to do.   skating failI feel a kind of spaciousness when I talk with him—I am interested in what he is saying and it touches me. I do not feel a compulsion to do or say anything in particular, helpful or otherwise, and I do not experience his suffering as a burden.

I’ve been noticing other things, too.  Someone I usually try to avoid is having a really good day, and feel so happy for her that I notice my heart swelling and my eyes tearing up.  A friend is so anxious and agitated after spending time in the hospital for heart trouble that he cannot sleep for days, so I offer to just sit up with him.  My fiancee is preparing to leave on a trip and when she mentions that she’s anxious, I notice that I’m anxious too, as though I were the one preparing to leave.

If we’re not believing our own stories about needing to fix things, we might notice that falling down–our own and others’–is not a problem.  The scraped elbow, the broken relationship, and the shattered china plate belong to all of us, are felt by all of us.  They are one segment of the crimson thread that stitches us all together.

Some things you might consider:

What is it like for you when someone close to you is hurting? What about someone you have never met? How do you respond?

How do you respond to you when you are hurting?

What if you saw a problem and intentionally didn’t fix it? What if you intentionally added to it instead?

It is said that the entire Pang family was enlightened, Lingzhao included. What was she saying about falling down and being with falling-down people? What could that mean for your life?

train crash

Footsteps in the hallway

FishtailWhen longing comes on, it seizes me sweetly by the throat and weakens my knees. It blows heavy electricity into my chest, takes my reason hostage and impels me. But then again, perhaps it’s not the longing at all that impels me, but my stories about the longing. “I must be with this person,” “I need to get out of this job,” and “I’ve got to have that guitar” are some of my personal favorite stories about longing. It’s easy to lose the longing itself among the flurry of stories that can rise up around it. I’ve been sitting with these lines as a koan:

Footsteps in the hallway,
is that you, my love?

I am not convinced that longing is an absence of something, although I tend to notice it when I think I want something I don’t have. Longing is a positive rather than a negative, has a life and a presence all its own, plays second fiddle to none. I might have longing without even knowing what it is I’m longing for, and all sorts of questions can arise in that space: What is missing here? Why am I feeling this? What is this feeling and how do I get to the end of it?

These days I have a healthy respect for impossible situations, because I have noticed that they provide unusual opportunities. My usual reaction to longing is the same as to any emotion, which is to manage it (this doesn’t leave very much room for something interesting to happen). I might gather together all of my resources in a single-WP_20140519_010minded attempt to acquire whatever it is I think I’m longing for or use clever strategies to deny or dilute the feeling, but either tact is a kind of rejection. This is nothing new. People have traversed oceans, waged wars, and founded spiritual traditions in response to longing, and while there’s nothing wrong with those responses, they are not the only way. Perhaps the best thing when I have longing is to be unable to resolve it. It turns out that when I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place, there is some value in really sinking into what it is to be stuck rather than scrambling to escape. Here is the story of a friend (paraphrased) whose impossible longing led him somewhere surprising:

Every year I visit friends for the holidays, and every year I see a friend that I have deep romantic feelings for. The very first time I met this woman, I felt drawn to her. My heart swelled and beat hard, and my vision narrowed. The shadows disappeared from the room. Each time I looked up from a task or rounded a corner, something in me hoped she would be there. Sometimes I would wander the house late at night, pretending to have a purpose, but really just hoping to run into her. I thought all the clichéd being-in-love thoughts, that I’d never met anyone like her, that we could live happily ever after with no problems of any kind ever, that I had found my soul mate. How alone under the mooncould I go back to my old life after having these feelings?, I thought. But alas, we were both happily married when we met, and have been ever since. Every year when I see her, my heart is broken open anew. At times, this has seemed like torture. But there was something different about this last time I saw her—I felt the same longing I had always felt for her, but this time I didn’t try to deny it, I didn’t have any stories about how I shouldn’t be feeling it or that I had to do something about my feelings–they were just for me. I can’t even say now that my feelings for this woman are romantic, because somehow that description makes them too small. It seems like meeting that feeling opened something in me. I feel more compassion and concern for others and myself, I feel a longing for friendship that I’ve always tried to deny, and I tend to assume the best of strangers. I have also become more interested in my own emotional life, not just dealing with my emotions, but experiencing them as they are. I am more patient and my sense of humor is right on the surface. The world just seems more open and kind now.

Just as my friend found, longing can be an invitation to step deeper into the experience of being human. When the heart opens to longing, it opens a little bit to everything. The wind and sun come closer, my memories are more vivid, and my whole body rocks when I laugh.

frog window cropI remember feeling an acute sense of sorrow while working with my first koan at a retreat some years ago. I was struggling mightily to create an experience of “oneness” like the ones I had heard about, but my efforts only seemed to push the world farther away. I would sit out in the forest, concentrating, staring down the redwoods and inviting them to merge with me, but it didn’t work. I remember looking out the window at a tree after dinner one night and feeling such a heavy sense of loss, as though I knew we were intimately related but had somehow been tragically and irreconcilably separated. When I have longing, I can think that I’m longing for closeness to something or someone else, but it might just be my own life calling. Spending time with koans can be like a romantic comedy in that way: the hero pours his heart and soul into an attempt to win the love of the prom king (or queen), but in the end it turns out his ordinary friend was his true love all along.

skating failWhat we love can take us by surprise. If we allow ourselves to be unsure about love, to let our stories fall away, who knows what we will find? Really, mysterious things happen without our consent: acquaintances who irritate us end up being intimate friends and songs that grate on our ears the first time we hear them suspiciously become favorites when we are not looking. But it might also be simpler than that. If we allow longing to open our heart, we might find that we are in love with the birds at the feeder, the beep of the microwave, or the smell of burning engine oil. It’s good to have companions, whoever they are, and if we’ve run out of sugar there’s nothing wrong with black coffee. Whatever we have, it is good to have it.

It might be helpful to say that when spending time with a koan, we have the opportunity to embody each of the roles in the scene that is playing out. And so with this pseudo-koan, like any koan, you can enter from any point, whether it be, “my love,” “is that you?,” or “footsteps in the hallway.” Whatever arises, you can trust it. You might follow it like breadcrumbs left by a mysterious helper or keep it warm like a mother hen. Or maybe just forget all about it and let it come to you.

Questions to Begin (or end) With

old woman waiting cropped tallish1. Is there something in your life that you are waiting for? Yearning for?

2. What does “footsteps in the hallway” feel like in your body?

3. Do you remember a time when you were in love with someone whose feelings you were unsure about, or someone you knew was out of reach? What was that like?

4. Have you ever waited for something so eagerly that it seemed as though everything was a sign of its approaching (or not approaching)—a call about a big job interview, news about a loved one who is ill?

5. If you listen closely, can you hear something approaching? Feel something? What does it sound like, look like, feel like, smell like?


Jeff, the Charlottesville airport bodhisattva

I got home from a PZI 7-day retreat Byron SHadow chair girl croppedyesterday.  I felt sad, wallowing a bit in the special kind of grief I often feel at the end of a retreat. Stepping off the plane into sharp winter Virginia air, it felt like I was being thrust into a foreign country. Surely people will not understand me here, I thought. I do not belong.

As I looked for my car in the airport parking lot, I wondered if there was someone I could bum a cigarette from. I don’t usually smoke, but there’s something I like about having a cigarette or two after retreat. I peered over at the ashtrays and by where the taxis park. I glanced furtively at anyone I saw, looking for a telltale puff of smoke or a thin white stick protruding from a hand. Nothing. I gave up and went to find my car.

PortraitI wandered over to the long-term parking lot and, lo and behold, I saw a guy in a Charlottesville Airport uniform smoking a cigarette. Late 40s, mustache. I held up two quarters and said, “Excuse me, could I buy a cigarette from you?” He turned around, smiled, deftly pulled a Marlboro halfway out of his pack and said, “No man, you don’t have to pay for it.”

As we were smoking, I asked him what he did at the airport. He said, “You mean what I don’t do! I help people. I’m all over the place, fixing things, carrying things. I like to think I help people out. I just do whatever needs to be done.”

I said, “In the Buddhist traditions, they call those people bodhisattvas.”

He nods, “Yep, that’s me.”

He seemed like a pretty straightforward guy. Competent, quick, handy.

I said, “It’s good to have a job where youCantaloupe feel like you’re helping, isn’t it?” He nodded vigorously. “You hang out in an airport for any length of time and you’re bound to run into all kinds of people that need help. I’ll see someone come in the front door, some older person or someone struggling around, and I just see their entire life story, right there–I know who they are and I go help them. What do you need? Sometimes I’m hanging art or putting together sculpture installations, and man, working with artists…”

I laugh and nod. Yeah. Artists. I know.

country road“But I just try to smile and be helpful. Cause you know, everyone’s got problems, I got all kinds of problems in my life. But when you help someone, that stuff always comes back around. It may not come back like, you help someone with their luggage and they give you a $20 bill, but maybe it comes around in some other form.”

I say, “Yeah, like you step out your front door and it’s a beautiful sunny day. All for me!” I’m surprised when he seems excited at that idea. He grins and exclaims, “Yeah!”

 Just then his radio babbles something. We shake hands, exchange names, and he goes running up the stairs.

I think, maybe this could be home after all.

(Photo credits: Thank you to Byron Young for the picture of the child in the dark and Sandra Cardin for the cantaloupe.)

That’s a good question

When we take up with a good question, themore difficult cropped 2 entire universe is there with us inside our questioning. The birds chirp our question, people smile it, and our emotions paint it in jagged lines or swirls. We don’t have to take anything for granted as being true, and actually we don’t have to do that for things we think of as false, either. We can experiment with stepping out of all our assumptions. It can be very uncomfortable at first to live inside a question (why do you think we have so many answers for things?), but it can also be absolutely exhilarating.

WP_20150124_057If we have a question, often we also have some idea about what the answer will be, or at least an approved list of possibilities. Many questions are born inside answers and live out their entire lives there. Various explanations may trot out at different times during our questioning, often awkwardly cobbled together from used materials that don’t quite fit flush, but we may notice that their interchangeability subtracts from their credibility. Like a charging bull being attacked by tiny mice, a good question will just keep on trucking, no matter how clever and complex its hopeful answers may be. It will pare away our certainties about the answers we come upon, the beliefs we hold that spurred the question, and identity of the questioner itself.

We might say that the least interesting thing in questioning is to receive a satisfying answer. Many kinds of answers provide something I’ll call closure; they rescue us from the vast ocean of ambiguity that comprises the universe. But if we accept them, we are like a gutter-dwelling beggar who believes he is a king. On the other hand, there is a breed of truly helpful answer; they are actually more like a question wearing an answer mask. These dubious answers entice us with promises of certainty, only to turn and push us deeper and deeper into our questioning, widening our field of experience and enlivening the demons of ambiguity. If we are tricked into freedom by one of these answers, we become the beggar who really is a king.

Deep questioning of this kind is a bleeding ground short croppedparadoxical activity. Rather than asking good questions to secure certainty, we ask in order to release ourselves from it. When we pursue a good question with the entirety of our being, when we really listen, the barrier between us and the world begins to dissolve. We forget who or what we thought we were and surprising other possibilities emerge. As provisional answers fall away, we may forget the original question we started off with, being left to bear the heart of questioning itself. When we are open in this way, we might discover that we are nestled in the wide arms of the world. Everything is nourishing. Everything is speaking the answer to us and it is incomprehensible by our usual way of thinking.


Some thoughts on kindness

helping injured soliderI helped an elderly man with his groceries today and it opened my heart. Then I had some thoughts on kindness.

You can keep your eyes open. Look around you. Chances are, there is someone very near who needs your kindness. Most certainly, it is you; but there are others as well. You know those superhero movies where the world is in peril and there’s only one person who can save it? That person is you. We need your help. But don’t worry, you don’t have to move to the slums of Calcutta to live with lepers or give all your money to charity. Even if you are rich and you want to give your money away to people in need, that’s fine, but it’s not necessary. Kindness doesn’t need to cost anything and perhaps it means more when there is no money involved.

If you’re not sure how to begin,traincar help you can start small, like stopping your car so another person can pull in front of you in traffic or offering to help an older person lift a frozen turkey into their shopping cart. This is perhaps especially important during the holidays, when people are stressed and rushing and striving to meet so many expectations—the busyness of it all is enough to drive anyone bonkers. So be kind. And if you find yourself overwhelmed with frustration or anger and it seems like too great a task to be kind, then you can be kind to that. It just goes on and on like that. It grows, and although you might not notice it at first, small acts of kindness radiate out and enrich the world around you.

If you don’t know how to be kind to yourself, then start with others; if you don’t know how to be kind to others, then start with yourself. Or an animal. Or a plant. It doesn’t matter, it’s all kindness. Being kind is not always easy, but it is always possible.

And you’re perfect for the job.

little angels

No. Just No.

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman.
“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened,
and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
. . . Then the eyes of both of them were opened,
and they realized they were naked.
-Genesis 3:4-5

“What do you feel before you think?
What do you see before you blink?
Who do you battle in your dreams?”

My Cat, Uncle Larry, and the Inherent Perfection of this Moment

Our cat Amigo loves me with great intensity.  When he sees me he flops onto his back, purrs loudly and presents his belly for me to rub. Sometimes I feel bad because I don’t have time to pet him, but in that case he just follows me around the house, squawking until I do.  When he’s not following me around, he’s usually eating or sleeping in a piece of sunlight or playing with a WP_20141005_001misplaced hair rubber band.  Far be it from me to assume I know what attends the deepest recesses of Amigo’s walnut-sized brain, but I have the feeling that he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how he should have been born a Calico or ruminating on our other cats’ opinions of him. I could learn a lot from Amigo.

Fibromyalgia napkinThis moment is complete.  If it could be any better, it would be, and if that were the case, it would be a different moment.  But that doesn’t stop me from trying to improve it.  I notice that my mind tends to seek out the flaws in things, or at least some part of it does.  It’s like a crazy uncle who always does something deranged to ruin family gatherings.  He’s always willing to criticize the food, but you won’t find him helping in the kitchen.  Everyone’s favorite part of the evening is after Uncle Larry has passed out on the couch.

Things either exist or they don’t.  When they do it’s as though they carry a fundamental blessing just by virtue of their existence, like a stamp of approval from the universe.  It’s easy to see that things like kittens and rainbows and extraordinarily gifted artists are blessed, but what about terrorists?  What about social injustice and that nosy next-door neighbor who knows everyone’s business?  If I think back through my day, I can remember a hundred things that were just not quite right in some way.  That crazy uncle part of the mind has an opinion on everything, from how people drive or dress to the squeaking-grinding noise of the elliptical machine–even what I think.  And don’t look now, because he’s coming your way.

You are not outside the roger-rabbituniverse. When I’m living in Uncle Larry’s world, it’s as though there’s an unbreachable rift between myself and my life; there’s a background and a foreground and I seem to be the only one inhabiting the foreground.  It feels like my skin is too tight, my mind is too tight, or somehow the world just doesn’t fit.  That’s a painful way to live, as a sore thumb, the only skinny-dipper left standing on cold conrete while everyone else frolics in the pool.

Life is unmanageable.  We are ever comparing the world to our ideas about how it ought to be–husband should have emptied the dishwasher, wish it wasn’t so cold right now, my sister should be happier–what a way to live in the world! Actually, it’s not really living in the world, it’s living in a little tiny box  with the word “world” neatly printed on the inside.  Standard operating procedure is to try to run the troops holiday mail delugeshow from inside the box by managing external conditions, internal conditions, other people’s thoughts and behaviors, our own thoughts and behaviors, their impressions of us, our impressions of us–the list is endless.  You’ve heard of the American Dream, right? Well, this is the promise of the Human Dream: If It Exists, We Will Manage It!  Something opens at the moment when we realize there’s something missing in this approach to life–perhaps we don’t have all the answers, maybe nobody does, and maybe answers are not all that valuable anyhow.

The universe is irreducible.  The mind does its best to help us navigate our lives by creating a sort of Cliff’s Notes about things.  This is a good method for understanding how to set up a bank account or drive a stick shift, but it doesn’t work remarkably well for the bigger questions in life.  It tends to make jerky out of our experience, drying out all the juice and cutting it down to bite-size pieces.  We lose something when this happens, an intimacy, a deep connection with life.

Life is inexplicable.  A friend recently A pair of colliding galaxies about 62 million light years from Earth.suffered a devastating loss.  After decades of struggling with deep loneliness and depression, he had finally found a partner who made him feel whole.  In short order they were engaged and he moved all his things into her apartment, but within a month she died abruptly.  I had seen my friend profoundly depressed before, but never so bereft of hope as when he related this tale to me.  In a moment like this, often there is an urge to say something to fill the silence, to offer some helpful words to alleviate a loved one’s suffering or our own discomfort. We want to help, but perhaps above all we want to make sense of what has happened, for him and for us.  But these moments, like all moments, are complete expressions of the universe and as such they are irreducible.  Life is not meant to be suppressed or managed or ruled from inside our tiny box and so perhaps what is truly needed is just our participation, our full presence.  And so while I could have offered my friend any number of trite consolations, I didn’t feel the need to change him or myself, and I knew that whatever I explanation gave him would have been more for my own benefit anyways.

The universe is always moving towardWP_20140817_001 awakening.  Experiences like the one my friend is having shatter the certainty of the world we have been living in; they are a form of awakening, and perhaps that’s why people often find enlightenment in the midst of terrible suffering.  Sometimes the world opens to us accompanied by the gilded voices of angels and sometimes darkened by the shadowy work of demons, but either way it opens, and when it does we find ourselves in the middle of the deepest sea, unable to see land in any direction. My friend is a man of strong faith, someone who has looked to God his whole life for strength and support.  “Someone told me that God never gives you more than you can handle,” he said, “but that’s bullshit.” He is in the middle of it now, treading water out beyond where the lights on shore can reach him.  Rather than pointing him in one direction or another, it seemed enough to keep him company while he swims.

Like the student in this koan, like my friend, like all of us, we seek an explanation, some tool we might use to carve meaning into our experience.  But at some point we notice that our tools never quite do the trick–our thoughts about the world never come close to encapsulating it–and actually our attempts to reach dry land only serve to push us farther out to sea.  And so perhaps the best thing we can do in the beginning is entertain the possibility that there might be some value in just being where we are. Perhaps this very moment carries with it the blessing of existence–like kittens and exceptional art–and we can trust what it’s giving us.  If we let the koan take away our usual way of understanding things, it might leave us open to discover a new way of living.

Perhaps then, even Uncle Larry has Buddha nature.


A story about koans and Love and creativity

Koans pick the locks on the narratives that define our lives. When those narratives become exposed and transparent we have the freedom to move through them and outside them, to rewrite entire portions of our story. We recalibrate our sense of what we are capable of caged lionsas individuals and what is possible in this universe by taking risks, and when we stop limiting ourselves according to what we believe is possible it’s as though the universe has suddenly opened the corral and given us freedom to pursue what we love. We may not have even known or acknowledged what we love until this moment because it laid outside the realm of possibility, so we might stand at the open paddock gate for a long time, wondering where to go.

But maybe one day we have some wild idea about a project or a passion or a fear and instead of muting it immediately with the muzzle of possibility, we think, “Holy moly, do I dare break my own rules and follow that dream?” Do we take that chance and step off the ranch? If we say yes, it is at that moment that the wealth of creative energy in the universe comes to bear in us. When we make the decision to set out on the course that Love has charted, without knowing where it will lead us, suddenly it seems we become beneficiary to a vast and mysterious storehouse of resources that we never knew existed. Purpose gives us wings, problems become puzzles, and everything becomes useful.

trophiesAlthough it can be deeply rewarding to give life to something and bring it to completion, we might find that the completion of our task actually brings on a kind of disappointment, even a sense of grief despite what we may consider a great accomplishment. While we were engaged in our holy mission to find the grail we enjoyed the blessings of Heaven and weathered the curses of Hell, but we have brought the golden cup back to the paddock and now it sits coldly on a shelf somewhere, perhaps adored by others but not as much by us as when we were searching for it. It turns out that all along there were two grails, the one we sought and the one we found, and now that we possess the grail we have found, we have lost the grail we sought. Such can be the irony of getting what one wants.

And so we can say that perhaps our finest reward was not in the completion of our work, but in the struggle and search, the dirt-stained clothes and sweaty arms, and the feeling of Landscapestrain and release as we enjoyed the grace that comes with doing Love’s work. Perhaps the most valuable thing was not the grail itself, but the connection we enjoyed with the things of this life which colluded to bring us to it. And so we set out again on that dusty road of Love, the wind at our back and another grail in heart. And may we be so blessed as to never find what we are looking for.