Thursday, August 30, 2018

for the sake of others

The story goes that in certain Native American tribes, when a person became psychologically unstable, she or he was placed in the middle of a circle of tribal members – men and women, children and old people – and required to spin around and around until collapsing to the ground. The tribal member toward whom her body faced now became her special charge. She was obligated to care for that person, see to their needs, and be their companion and friend. The understanding was that caring for someone else is what stirs personal healing.

When we ache from the pain of loss or rejection, the pain of depression or loneliness, the pain of feeling unloved, from bodily pain or even the pain of impending death, the ache can feel agonizingly private to us. We feel alone in our pain: it encloses us in an isolation that feels terribly unfair. How is it possible then to offer care for others?

When Robert Kennedy lay dying from an assassin’s bullet, his blood spreading across a kitchen floor, he opened his eyes and asked, “Is everyone all right?” I like to believe that question eased his homecoming. At least it taught me this counter-intuitive calculus: when you are in need, give.

Giving in this way requires a shift in our hearts. In moving from self-concern to other-concern, we enter a deeper belonging.

The Native American ritual is charged by the healing power of belonging, not altruism, for altruistic behavior benefits another at one’s own expense. The circle of tribal members embraces the wounded person, who returns that embrace. Both are healed.

So to say “when you are in need, give,” is not an injunction to be virtuous or to sacrifice your need in favor of another’s. It is to step from the loneliness of separation into the seamlessness of Being where nothing and no one has ever been separate from anything else. Our absolute belonging is not an idea, nor do we need to make it happen, nor make ourselves worthy of it. It’s already and always so.

“Stepping into the seamlessness of Being” doesn’t require us to travel any distance – it may be more accurate to say it steps into us when we allow it to. A generous heart is first of all a receptive heart.

If I feel the need to be seen and loved for what I am, and if I sit in that need waiting for someone to respond with what I need, I might sit for a long time in disappointment. But if I stop waiting and simply give, as best I can, what I’ve been waiting for, my world turns inside out. The connection I longed for is revealed – maybe not in the way I wanted or expected, but in a more fundamental sense of belonging. I am now able to receive.

The way this happens is a kind of magic that is always available to us. The distressed woman falls to the ground. When she looks up she sees in front of her an old toothless grandmother. She takes her hand. What is it that passes between their hands?

~ Pir Elias Amidon, from Free Medicine

inner wounds


Each of us carries in our hearts the wound of mortality.
We are particularly adept at covering our inner wounds, but no wound is ever silent. 
 Behind the play of your image and the style you cut in the world, 
your wounds continue to call out for healing.  These cuts at the core 
of your identity cannot be healed by the world or medicine,
 nor by the externals of religion or psychology.  It is only by letting in
 the divine light to bathe these wounds that healing will come...  

Every inner wound has its own particular voice.  It holds the memory
 of that breakage as pristine as its moment of occurrence.  Deep inner
 wounds evade time.  Their soreness is utterly pure.  These wounds lose little
 of their acid with the natural transience of chronological time.   
Only the voice of deep prayer can carry the gently poultice inwards to these
 severe crevices and draw out the toxins of hurt.  To learn what went on
 at the time of such wounding can help; it will show us the causes,
 and the structure of the wound becomes clear.  Real healing is, however, 
another matter.  As with all great arrivals in the soul, 
it comes from a direction that we often could
 neither predict nor anticipate.

~ John O'Donohue
from Eternal Echoes
art by picasso

a dream

Now I am being buried in the earth. Every one leaves me and I am alone, quite alone. I do not stir… I lay there and — strange to say — I expected nothing, accepting without question that a dead man has nothing to expect. But it was damp. I do not know how long passed — an hour, a few days, or many days. Suddenly, on my left eye which was closed, a drop of water fell, which had leaked through the top of the grave. In a minute fell another, then a third, and so on, every minute. Suddenly, deep indignation kindled in my heart and suddenly in my heart I felt physical pain. ‘It’s my wound,’ I thought. ‘It’s where I shot myself. The bullet is there.’ And all the while the water dripped straight on to my closed eye. Suddenly, I cried out, not with a voice, for I was motionless, but with all my being, to the arbiter of all that was being done to me.

“Whosoever thou art, if thou art, and if there exists a purpose more intelligent than the things which are now taking place, let it be present here also. But if thou dost take vengeance upon me for my foolish suicide, then know, by the indecency and absurdity of further existence, that no torture whatever that may befall me, can ever be compared to the contempt which I will silently feel, even through millions of years of martyrdom.”

Suddenly a familiar yet most overwhelming emotion shook me through. I saw our sun. I knew that it could not be our sun, which had begotten our earth, and that we were an infinite distance away, but somehow all through me I recognized that it was exactly the same sun as ours, its copy and double. A sweet and moving delight echoed rapturously through my soul. The dear power of light, of that same light which had given me birth, touched my heart and revived it, and I felt life, the old life, for the first time since my death.

Oh, now — life, life! I lifted my hands and called upon the eternal truth, not called, but wept. Rapture, ineffable rapture exalted all my being. Yes, to live…

All are tending to one and the same goal, at least all aspire to the same goal, from the wise man to the lowest murderer, but only by different ways. It is an old truth, but there is this new in it: I cannot go far astray. I saw the truth. I saw and know that men could be beautiful and happy, without losing the capacity to live upon the earth. I will not, I cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of men… I saw the truth, I did not invent it with my mind. I saw, saw, and her living image filled my soul for ever. I saw her in such consummate perfection that I cannot possibly believe that she was not among men. How can I then go astray? … The living image of what I saw will be with me always, and will correct and guide me always. Oh, I am strong and fresh, I can go on, go on, even for a thousand years. …

And it is so simple… The one thing is — love thy neighbor as thyself — that is the one thing. That is all, nothing else is needed. You will instantly find how to live.

~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky
from The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

the discovery of daily experience

It is a whisper. You turn somewhere,
hall, street, some great even: the stars
or the lights hold; your next step waits you
and the firm world waits - but
there is a whisper. You always live so,
a being that receives, or partly receives, or
fails to receive each moment's touch.

You see the people around you - the honors
they bear - a crutch, a cane, eye patch,
or the subtler ones, that fixed look, a turn
aside, or even the brave bearing: all declare
our kind, who serve on the human front and earn
whatever disguise will take them home. (I saw
Frank last week with his crutch de guerre.)

When the world is like this - and it is -
whispers, honors or penalties disguised - no wonder
art thrives like a pulse wherever civilized people,
or any people, live long enough in a place to
build, and remember, and anticipate; for we are
such beings as interact elaborately with what
surrounds us. The limited actual world we successively
overcome by fictions and by the mind's inventions
that cannot be quite arbitrary (and hence do reflect
the actual), but can escape the actual (and hence
may become art).

- William Stafford

from  Writing the Australian Crawl: 
Views on the Writer’s Vocation

what the heart wants

See then 
what the heart wants,
that pliable iron
sprung to the poppy's redness,
the honey's gold, winged
as the heron-lit water is:
by reflecting.
As an aged elephant answers
the slightest, first gesture of hand,
it puts itself at the mercy -
utterly docile, the forces
that brought it there vanished,
fold into fold.
And the old-ice ivory, the unstartlable
black of the eye that has traveled so far 
with the fringed, peripheral howdah
swaying behind, look mildly back
as it swings the whole bulk of the body
close to the ground.  Over and over
it does this, bends to what asks.
Whatever asks, heart kneels and offers to bear.

~ Jane Hirshfield
from The October Palace

Wednesday, August 29, 2018



Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. 
I walk out to the pond and all the way 
God has given us such beautiful lessons. 
Oh Lord, I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the hour and the bell; 
grant me, in your mercy, a little more time. 
Love for the earth and love for you 
are having such a long conversation in my heart. 
Who knows what will finally happen 
or where I will be sent, yet already 
I have given a great many things away, 
expecting to be told to pack nothing, 
except the prayers which, 
with this thirst,
I am slowly learning.

~ Mary Oliver

late have I loved thee


Late have I loved thee, O Beauty 
so ancient and so new;
late have I loved thee! For behold, 
thou wert within me and I outside;
and I sought thee outside
 and in my unloveliness
fell upon these lovely things 
that thou hast made. 

Thou wert with me and I
 was not with thee.
I was kept from thee by those things,
yet had they not been in thee,
 they would not have been at all. 

Thou didst call and cry to me
 and break open my deafness. . . .

I tasted thee, and now hunger
 and thirst for thee;
thou didst touch me,
and now I burn for thy peace. 

~ Saint Augustine of Hippo
from Confessions


her longing

Before this longing,
I lived serene as a fish
At one with the plants in the pond,
The mare's tail, the floating frogbite,
Among my eight-legged friends,
Open like a pool, a lesser parsnip,
Like a leech, looping myself along,
A bug-eyed edible one,
A mouth like a stickleback,-
A thing quiescent!

But now-
The wild stream, the sea itself cannot contain me:
I dive with the black hag, the cormorant,
Or walk the pebbly shore with the humpbacked heron,
Shaking out my catch in the morning sunlight,
Or rise with the gar-eagle, the great-winged condor,
Floating over the mountains,
Pitting my breast against the rushing air,
A phoenix, sure of my body,
Perpetually rising out of myself,
My wings hovering over the shorebirds,
Or beating against the black clouds of the storm,
Protecting the sea-cliffs.

~ Theodore Roethke
from News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness
edited by Robert Bly

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

when the lamp went out

When they plow their fields
and sow seeds in the earth,
when they care for their wives and children, 
young brahmans find riches.

But I've done everything right
and followed the rule of my teacher.
I'm not lazy or proud.
Why haven't I found peace?

Bathing my feet 
I watched the bathwater
spill down the slope.
I concentrated my mind
the way you train a good horse.

The I took the lamp
and went into my cell,
checked the bed,
and sat down on it.
I took a needle
and pushed the wick down.

When the lamp went out
my mind was freed.

~ Patacara, (6th B.C.E.)
from Women in Praise of the Sacred
edited by Jane Hirshfield


understanding fails

If one reaches the point where understanding fails, this is not a tragedy: it is simply a reminder to stop thinking and start looking.  Perhaps there is nothing to figure out after all: perhaps we only need to wake up.

A monk said: "I have been with you (Master), for a long time, and yet I am unable to understand your way.  How is this?"

The Master said: "Where you do not understand, there is the point for your understanding."

In the first two chapter of the first Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul distinguishes between two kinds of wisdom: one which consists in the knowledge of words and statements, a rational, dialectical wisdom, and another which is at once a matter of paradox and of experience, and goes beyond the reach of reason.  To attain to this spiritual wisdom, one must first be liberated from servile dependence on the "wisdom, of speech."

St. Paul compares this knowledge of God, in the Spirit, to the subjective knowledge that a man has of himself.  Just as no one can know my inner self except my own "spirit," so no one can know God except God's Spirit; yet this Holy Spirit is given to us, in such a way that God know Himself in us, and this experience is utterly real, though it cannot be communicated in terms understandable to those who do not share it.  Consequently, St. Paul concludes, "we have the mind of Christ."

~ Thomas Merton
excerpts from Zen and the Birds of Appetite
art by Van Gogh

Monday, August 27, 2018

an older unity

And the deepest level of communication 
is not communication, 
but communion. It is wordless. 
It is beyond words, 
and it is beyond speech, 
and it is beyond 

Not that we discover a new unity. 
We discover an older unity. 
My dear brothers, we are already one. 
But we imagine that we are not. 
And what we have to recover is our original unity. 
What we have to be is what we are.

~ Thomas Merton
from his Asian journal
art by Van Gogh


Friday, August 24, 2018

ask the horse

There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse. 

The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, 'Where are you going?" and the first man replies, I don't know! Ask the horse!" This is also our story. We are riding a horse, we don't know where we are going, and we can't stop. The horse is our habit energy pulling us along, and we are powerless. 

We are always running, and it has become a habit. 
We struggle all the time, even during our sleep. 
We are at war within ourselves, and we can easily start a war with others.

~ Thich Nhat Hanh
from "The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching"


The shoes put on each time
left first, then right.

The morning potion’s teaspoon
of sweetness stirred always
for seven circlings—no fewer, no more—
into the cracked blue cup.

Touching the pocket for wallet,
for keys,
before closing the door.

How did we come
to believe these small rituals’ promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?

How intimate and unthinking,
the way the toothbrush is shaken dry after use,
the part we wash first in the bath.

Which habits we learned from others
and which are ours alone we may never know.
Unbearable to acknowledge
how much they are themselves our fated life.

Open the traveling suitcase—

There the beloved red sweater,
bright tangle of necklace, earrings of amber.
Each confirming: I chose these, I.

But habit is different: it chooses.
And we, its good horse,
opening our mouths at even the sight of the bit.

~ Jane Hirshfield
from Given Sugar, Given Salt

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

waiting for you


It's very important to experience the complete negation of yourself
which brings you to the other side of nothing.
You go to the other side of nothing
and you are held by the hand of the absolute.
You see yourself as the absolute
so you have no more insistence of self.
You can speak of the self as no self
when you sit in the absolute.

Your sitting still is like a person who just shot an arrow.
A moment later the result is there.
What you know, the only thing you know
is the sense that the arrow is moving all right.
It has left your realm but you sense it is running well.
The stillness in sitting is like that.
You flip to the other side of nothing,
where you discover everyone is waiting for you already

. ~ Kobun Chino

hymn to time

Time says “Let there be”
every moment and instantly
there is space and the radiance
of each bright galaxy.

And eyes beholding radiance.
And the gnats’ flickering dance.
And the seas’ expanse.
And death, and chance.

Time makes room
for going and coming home
and in time’s womb
begins all ending.

Time is being and being
time, it is all one thing,
the shining, the seeing,
the dark abounding.

~   Ursula K. Le Guin

Friday, August 17, 2018

no such thing

contemplation is not trance or ecstasy
not emotional fire and sweetness that come with religious exaltation
not enthusiasm, not the sense of being "seized" by an elemental force
and swept into liberation by mystical frenzy.
contemplation is no pain-killer.

In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing
that he no longer knows what God is;
this is a great gain,
because "God is not a what,"
not a "thing."

There is "no such thing" as God
because God is neither a "what" or a "thing"
but a pure "Who,"
the "Thou" before whom our inmost "I" springs
into awareness.

~ Thomas Merton
from New Seed of Contemplation
sketch by the author

Thursday, August 16, 2018

the lesson of the falling leaves

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god.
i agree with the leaves.

~ Lucille Clifton

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

outside ourselves

When we live superficially … we are always outside ourselves, never quite ‘with’ ourselves, always divided and pulled in many directions … we find ourselves doing many things that we do not really want to do, saying things we do not really mean, needing things we do not really need, exhausting ourselves for what we secretly realize to be worthless and without meaning in our lives.

~ Thomas Merton
from Love and Living
art by Picasso
with thanks to louie, louie

Monday, August 13, 2018

the heart's value

On God's pathway
there are two Ka'bas.

One is the Ka'ba you can see;
the other, the Ka'ba of the heart.

As much as you can,
make pilgrimage to the heart -

The heart's value
is greater
than a thousands Ka'bas.

~ Awhad al-Din Kirmani
from Love's Alchemy
translations by David and Sabrineh Fideler
Kneeling "Chinese" Man, 13th-14th centuries. 
Terracotta, Brooklyn Museum

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

it’s the dream

It’s that dream that we carry with us
that something wonderful will happen,
that it has to happen,
that time will open,
that the heart will open,
that doors will open,
that the mountains will open,
that wells will leap up,
that the dream will open,
that one morning we’ll slip in
to a harbor that we've never known.

~ Olav H. Hauge
translated by Robert Bly
art by klimt

the sound of the rain needs no translation

I had a discussion with a great master in Japan, and we were talking about the various people who are working to translate the Zen books into English, and he said, "That's a waste of time. If you really understand Zen, you can use any book. You could use the Bible. You could use Alice in Wonderland. You could use the dictionary, because the sound of the rain needs no translation.

~ Alan Watts

meditation on how

there's no 
figuring out how 
to live life 

there is only 
the living of life 

those who 
figure out how 
end up learning 
to forget all hows 
in order to live again

~ Benjamin Dean
from Short Zen Poems, Koans

Saturday, August 4, 2018

dispair and humility

Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love ... It is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost. In every man there is hidden some root of despair because in every man there is pride that vegetates and springs weeds and rank flowers of self-pity as soon as our own resources fail us. . . . But a man who is truly humble cannot despair, because in the humble man there is no longer any such thing as self-pity.

Humility, therefore, is absolutely necessary if man is to avoid acting like a baby all his life. To grow up means, in fact, to become humble, to throw away the illusion that I am at the center of everything and that other people only exist to provide me with comfort and pleasure…

~ Thomas Merton
from Seeds of Contemplation
with thanks to louie, louie
art by van gogh