Tag Archives: charlottesville

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.

Who am I and What is This Group?

It occurred to me as I was walking through the door of my house this evening that maybe it would be good for me to introduce myself.

Hi! My name is Jesse.Me smiling

I started this blog as kind of a support site for 16 Bodhisattvas, the koan small group I lead in Charlottesville, Virginia. But also, I love to write and although I share my writings with people, it seems like I want a place to put them where I can go back and look over them. And I guess other people can read them too, if they want.

Maybe a quick history of my practice is in order. I started meditating in April of 2006 after a pretty major life change. It just seemed like the right thing to do: slow down, listen to the birds, look inside. My dad started sending me boxes of the books about Zen and meditation he had collected over his own years of practice, and so I started reading them. I guess I seemed pretty interested, because Dad started looking for a teacher for me. Luckily, he found John Tarrant, who is the founder and director of Pacific Zen Institute.

About six months later, I was off to my first 7-day retreat: silence, lots of sitting, and interviews with teachers. Vegetarian food. I was a pack-a-day smoker at the time but decided I wouldn’t smoke while I was there. I had no idea what I was getting into. But sitting in a hotel hot tub after that first retreat I felt something had changed, although I wasn’t sure what. There was something about the soft, crispy whispering of the trees that I had never heard before and I remember the lines on a dirty pickup truck seemed to be just right. Apparently I got something out of it, because I accepted Dad’s offer to take me to another retreat 6 months later.

Photo by Jana Jardine
Look at me! I’m right here!

I spent the next several years softly concussing my head against the wall with koans, trying real hard and comparing what I was experiencing to what I expected to experience, based mostly on what I had read in books (needless to say, I felt pretty incompetent). When I look back on that time I tend to think, “What kept me going all that time, frustrated, feeling like I was getting nowhere?” I think my answer now is that I was probably getting the same thing I get from meditation now: intimate contact with my own life. The only difference is that now I realize that’s what I want, is what I’ve always wanted. There’s this thing we do in meditation–I think most of us do it–where we assume that there’s some golden ideal to achieve, and it can only be obtained through a great deal of hard, painful work whereby we purify the soul, let go of all worldly attachments, and achieve perfection so that we can Be Like The Buddha. Or something like that. But anyway, that’s all garbage, or at least unnecessary. Strangely enough, when I stop trying so hard to become something, it turns out I already am what I’ve been looking for.

Anyhow, eight years and many hours on the meditation cushion later, I’m still studying with John. Since 2006 I’ve spent time with a bunch of koans and the way I experience my life has changed. A lot. There have been some sudden changes and many more subtle, gradual changes. I’ve just returned from a PZI retreat in January to find that my approach to meditation and koans has shifted dramatically. At least once a year I realize that All Along I’ve been Doing It Wrong, and Now I’ve Really Got It, and this is one of those times. But it’s a good feeling, like finding out that your crush likes you back or being rescued after days lost in the desert. It seems to be mostly about the falling away of my ideas about how things need to be. There’s a tremendous joy and gratitude in that.

And so I guess this current enthusiasm has re-energized me about bringing koans to people.  I work at a mental health crisis stabilization unit and I’m starting to bring koans into my work with clients in a way I haven’t allowed myself to before. I’m also expanding my efforts to reach people who might be interested in what my koan group has to offer.

If you’re interested in getting your feet wet with Zen and koans, join us for meditation some Monday night. Here’s information about the meditation group.

If you’re interested in taking the koan path in perhaps a more deeper way, I teach in person in Charlottesville and via any medium of communication.  Here’s information about working with a teacher.

(Thanks to the lovely and talented Jana Jardine for the seagull photo)

(Thanks to Ashley Callen, Ishara Sweeney, Jack Randall and Mike Papciak for making an orange out of me so that I could attend sesshin)