Monthly Archives: November 2009


Sewing with Worry Brain

Today I finished the patchwork face of my rakusu. I am amazed that I have come this far – it actually looks the way it is supposed to look, which is nothing short of a miracle, given my past history with sewing.

I missed the last two weeks of sewing group, first because our teacher Connie was out of town, and then because I was home tending to my little dog Houla. At our last session before that break, I was “ahead” – keeping pace with one other student, I was farthest along on the project.

But the missed time meant that now I am more in the middle of the pack, with three people significantly deeper into the sewing. While I was concentrating on my final vertical seams on the front piece this afternoon, I was overhearing the instructions they were receiving on the next steps, and I often glanced in their direction to see what was in my near future. They were marking and cutting the frame, pinning and sewing the frame, measuring the white fabric that will lie on the reverse side.

Two things happened: one, I didn’t like being “behind.” As much as I knew it was silly, as much as I know this is not a race, I love being “ahead.” That’s a very, very old habit, and one which is definitely in need of revision, so it’s probably excellent practice for me to lag behind. In fact, I should stay behind for the rest of the classes, just to work on sitting with that uncomfortable feeling.

The second thing was this – I began to stew and fret about the future steps. They looked hard; I didn’t fully comprehend what others were doing. It seemed like I would not be able to execute the tasks when it came time.

What’s comical about this is that when I was “ahead,” I wasn’t worried at all. Because I had absolutely no idea what was coming next, I had no reason to worry about it. I simply did the very simple tasks Connie set before me, one at a time. Now, suddenly, because I am aware of the progression of the building of the rakusu, I am starting to stiffen up with fear and feelings of inadequacy. I’m looking five steps ahead and thinking, “I can’t do that!”

What a great metaphor for staying in the moment! When there was no future, I had no worry, and I was completely competent, with “beginner’s mind” fully intact. As soon as a future appeared, I began to fret, and “expert mind” took over, leaving me feeling absolutely stymied.

A young friend of mine, age eleven, has been learning for the last several years to deal with obsessive compulsive disorder. She calls the two voices in her head “Bossy Brain” and “Worry Brain.” “Bossy Brain” tells her to do things, like wash her hands over and over again, or turn on all the lights in the house. “Worry Brain” is the voice of anxiety, creating tension over imagined negative outcomes of things that are off in the future. When she feels herself succumbing to one of these voices, she talks to herself: “Now, that’s just ‘Worry Brain.’ Summer camp will probably be really fun. I’m not going to listen to you, ‘Worry Brain.'”

Today, I realized, I was sewing with “Worry Brain.” As soon as those words came into my head, I laughed to myself. Ah, I recognize you! I gave “Worry Brain” a little talking to, quietly coaxed “beginner’s mind” to come up out of hiding, and got back to work.

So goes the sewing. Life lessons with every stitch.


Ready for the End of November

In the six years that I have been with my partner, Sabrina, we have noticed an unfortunate pattern: disaster seems to strike during the month of November.

Or at least in that vicinity. It started our first year together, when I lost my father to lymphoma on Oct. 30. The first week of November all eight of my siblings and their families came to stay at my parents’ home, while we prepared for the funeral together. It was a time of incredible pain, because my father was in many ways the glue that held all of us together.

Shortly after the funeral, Sabrina was scheduled to go on a working cruise trip with her friend Jacqua – Jacqua gives informational talks on board ship, Sabrina acts as her technical support person, and they travel at no cost. They generally go on at least one trip each year.

Right before their departure, our rescue greyhound Mocha attacked one of our cats, nearly killing him. Ziggy went in for emergency surgery, and then came home to be tended by me, since Sabrina was leaving. While she was away, his condition worsened, and I had to make the decision to have him put down. So there I was, barely two weeks after holding my father’s hand while he took his last breath, holding one of our pets in my arms until his body went limp.

Since that time, it seems as if many of the hard things wait for that time of year, when it’s cold and the days are short. We have had pet emergencies, crises with friends, difficulties at work, all coming up around this time.

So now this year, we started early with the parrot scare on Oct. 23, when Barney fell off his cage and chipped off the end of his beak, ending with an emergency late-night trip to the vet. Then Sabrina left on another cruise, and our dog Houla had the lens luxation eye crisis, which ended in having the eye removed last week. The same night that I was rushing Houla to the hospital at UC Davis, a close friend called to tell me that her father had died.

Sabrina returned home on Monday, and I took a deep breath of relief. It felt like things were getting back to normal. We’d make it through. Then this afternoon, as we were brewing a fresh pot of coffee,we heard a loud thump and a screech. We ran into the living room, where Barney was sprawled on the floor with his left leg held at an awkward angle. We both thought he had broken it. Again, the adrenaline rush – again, on a Saturday, when there are no bird vets on call. Again, November!

As luck would have it, it appears that the fall was simply painful, and the damage more akin to hitting the funny bone than breaking anything, because Barney seems to have recovered and has been acting normally for the last several hours.

But – enough already! Sabrina turned to me and said, “I’m done with November.”

I’m sure there’s nothing to this, really. When you look for patterns, you can see them anywhere. We have a houseful of furred and feathered children; somebody’s always getting into mischief, and accidents do happen. And having eight brothers and sisters, plus untold nieces, nephews, aunts, cousins, etc. – the odds are pretty good that something will go wrong somewhere almost every month.

I am not, though, immune to superstition. Right now, I am crossing my fingers that we get through the last two days of November in one piece.


Upcoming Schedule, Dec. 1-5 and Beyond

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Dec. 1

7 p.m. sit, service, and dharma talk by Darlene Cohen

Upcoming Closures: Tuesday, Dec. 29 (the week between Christmas and New Year’s)

Special Ceremony: On Tuesday, Dec. 22, a special Bodhisattva Ceremony will be held.

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, Dec. 5

9 a.m. informal sit and service

10 a.m. formal sit

10:35 a.m. dharma talk by Tony Patchell and tea

12:30 p.m. Precepts Class

Upcoming Closures:

Saturday, Dec. 12 (for sesshin at Black Mountain Center)

Saturday, Dec. 26 (for Christmas)


Creating Beauty from Katrina

Yesterday I finished reading Barb Johnson’s collection of stories, More of This World or Maybe Another. Barb was the recipient this year of the A Room of Her Own (AROHO) Foundation’s Gift of Freedom award, a $50,000 grant given to a deserving woman writer so she could practice her craft without financial worries.

I attended the AROHO women’s writing retreat in August, and Barb was an invited guest. She read from her new collection (just published this October), part of a short story called The Invitation. It was funny and wise and sweet, and uniquely told in her voice. I couldn’t wait to read the rest of the book.

Barb is from New Orleans. She grew up in a small town in Louisiana, and eventually ended up in the big city, working for 20 years as a carpenter. At some point along the way, she realized she had stories to tell, and enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program.

Barb brings to life the women and men and children of Louisiana, in all their specificity, with regional color and gorgeous description, peopling a world in her pages. What is truly remarkable is that she wrote the book in the wake of Katrina. Although the storm is not mentioned in the stories, the writing of it took place living on her apartment’s balcony, surrounded by the hurricane’s aftermath. She speaks of how beautiful it was at night:

The darkness provided a relief from the visual assault that went with life in the daylight: debris everywhere, pieces of my neighbors’ lives sitting in the middle of the street, animals that hadn’t made it through the storm.

Every day, National Guard patrols would drive by, and say to her, “Ma’am…you can’t be here. This neighborhood hasn’t been okayed for occupancy.” And I’d say, “Yes, I know.” Then they’d wave and drive off, and I’d go back to writing.”

In an afterword to her book, she said:

Anyone who was in the city at that time was starving for something normal – seeing a neighbor, walking the dog, sitting down to a meal with friends. Writing was the only thing I did after the storm that I’d done before it. It was normal. Having to write under those circumstances banished forever any notion that things had to be a certain way – neat desk, good coffee, agreeable temperature – in order for me to write.

And the result of that labor, produced on a laptop on a balcony in the midst of hurricane disaster, is this beautiful book. What a metaphor for what art can be!

Sitting and working at my neat desk, with the heat on, a roof over my head, coffee brewing in the next room, I know that there will never again be a valid excuse for not being able to write. The words do not rely on perfect conditions. All that is required is showing up.


A Bolt of Gratitude

Since it’s Thanksgiving (or at least, it was until midnight, which wasn’t too long ago), it seems that gratitude is the most obvious topic this evening/early a.m.

About six months ago, I had a gratitude moment so transformative, so intense, that I feel it must have been some kind of “Wake up!” shout, a call of transitory enlightenment.

It started out simply enough. I was sitting on the deck having a cup of coffee, smoking a cigarette. As I sat there with my coffee mug in my hand, I became aware of the heft and weight of it. I began to look closely at the cup – one we had purchased in Mexico a couple of years ago, made by an artisan there, with coyotes and cactus painted on the outside. I realized I loved the mug – everything about it – the memories, the connection with my partner Sabrina, the design and texture and feel of it. I loved my coffee cup.

With that moment of love, I cracked open. Things started coming to mind, one after another, things that I loved: the clothes line Sabrina hung up for me last summer when I was wanting to “go green;” my bike messenger bag from Timbuk2; the work we’ve done on our house over the past two years; the trees surrounding the back side of our property, and the vineyard/valley views in the other direction.

The list kept growing. Everything I thought of, I loved – from the wooden Buddha on my altar to the art hanging in my home office. From the inanimate, my love moved to the breathing beings in my life: my faithful yellow lab Ripley; Houla and Teo (dogs), Gordy, Dozer, Idgie, Kenji and Bailey (cats); and Barney the parrot. Then on to my partner, then to my best friend, then to other friends, then to co-workers. Bigger and bigger and bigger – my heart opened wider with each thought.

I was grateful for the present. I was grateful for the past. And for the first time, in a profoundly deep way, I was humbled with gratitude that I was still alive to experience all of this. Given my path, which has included multiple suicide attempts, my being here at all is nothing short of miraculous.

The gratitude experience was a complete, whole body manifestation of emotion, something which continued to build for several hours. Eventually, it began to subside, and by the next day, it was gone.

Gone, but not forgotten. I managed to avoid the desire to retain that altered state, thank goodness. Instead, I felt truly blessed to have experienced it, and amazed that although it has ended, I can remember exactly what it felt like, and through that memory, I can at least return to the consciousness of it all whenever I want to, even though it might not be with the exact same emotional charge.

So today, my first Thanksgiving since that day – I am taking time out to remember. And it feels good.

May you find deep gratitude for your life this week.


Blogging into Troubled Waters

There’s an article in the winter issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review called Dharma Wars. In it, Zenshin Michael Haederle examines a disturbing trend – Buddhist teachers letting loose with slanderous diatribes on internet blogs.

Apparently, among the many Buddhist bloggers out in cyberspace, there are those who get a little caught up in the game, attacking writers who they feel “misrepresent” the dharma, challenging those who cross them, and, in general, exhibiting behavior startlingly inappropriate for those who supposedly are pursuing enlightenment.

I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this is occurring. In Haederle’s article, he quotes psychology professor John Suler, who refers to the “online disinhibition effect,” saying, “People experience their computers and online environments as an extension of their selves – even as an extension of their minds – therefore feel free to project their inner dialogues, transferences, and conflicts into their exchanges with others in cyberspace.”

When chat rooms were first becoming popular, I spent some time checking them out, popping into various spaces to meet online friends. I lucked out, and hooked up with a couple of “real” people, who I had ongoing conversations with over a period of several months. But I quickly learned that the general fare in chat rooms was superficial at best, and juvenile and malicious at worst. I tired of the open room exchanges, and limited myself to one-on-one cyber relationships.

As a journalist, I was equally interested when newspapers began creating online formats, with room for readers to weigh in on the latest news stories. But I was appalled at what I found in the comments section. It seemed to be a forum specifically for the venting of bigoted, hateful, insensitive rants, which soon escalated into back-and-forth name calling. I still read news online – but I don’t go near the comments. I have no desire to invite that kind of behavior into my home.

So far, my own blogging experience has been free of the posturing and bullying that Haederle talks about, but that’s probably because I have only a handful of readers, most of whom have some actual connection to me through sangha or other friendships.

I suppose the day that I get my first nasty comment will be a coup of sorts, a sign that my readership has grown to the point that I am garnering more attention.

But I can’t say I’m looking forward to it.


Starting Out Perfect

Shunryu Suzuki told a group of Zen students: All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.

It’s a beautifully simple way to express a Buddhist truth – each one of us is a manifestation of Buddha nature. Yes, there are things we should work on: being more open hearted, practicing generosity, avoiding slanderous talk, calming the mind, taming aggressive thought. But don’t lose track of the grandeur of the forest while focusing on all the life-scarred trees.

In Pema Chodron’s lecture series, Practicing Peace in Times of War, she mentions this quote from Suzuki. Taking it further, in a conversation with her own Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chodron asks, What is the one thing you would recommend to Westerners pursuing this path? Her teacher’s reply: Guiltlessness.

Chodron’s teacher said Westerners get caught up in the shame cycle, which serves no one. He said we all act badly, repeatedly – but that is ephemeral, fleeting, impermanent. What is constant and true lies underneath all of that. Our innocent original nature.

It’s the old question: Is the glass half empty or half full? Does it matter how we frame the way we look at ourselves? From the pessimist’s lens, seeing a flawed human being with occasional moments of goodness? Or from the optimist’s lens, seeing a good person with moments of less-than-stellar behavior?

I think it does matter. I wish I had had a Shunryu Suzuki in my childhood, telling me I was perfect, while at the same time encouraging me to keep growing. It might have saved me many, many years of debilitating self-hatred and guilt.

However, that was not my path. I have learned, over the years, to appreciate the rough road, because of where it has brought me. The journey hasn’t been easy, but I am very grateful that I have ended up here. Because here, in this Zen community, hearing the dharma talks of my teachers, reading the works of other Buddhists, I am finally finding the comfort I had been seeking all of my life. Not the comfort of “no problems” – there is still plenty of room for improvement. Instead, what I have found is a place of refuge in sangha and dharma, an increasing willingness to sit still with what is painful, and an ever-expanding sense of connection and possibilities.

I am beginning to see my own Buddha nature. And as for the rest of my imperfect self, I am learning to live in the realm of vows:

Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
Buddha’s way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.


Practicing Generosity in the Check-Out Line

Waiting in line, whether at the grocery store, the bank, or the DMV, is a great way to observe humanity at its worst and at its best.

For too many of us, those “line moments” are keeping us from the next thing on our list – the doctor’s appointment, picking up the kids from school, getting to work on time, meeting a date. It is an enforced time of surrender to powers greater than ourselves. Have you ever noticed? When we’re in a hurry, no matter how good we think we are at choosing the fastest line, , invariably the line we’re in turns out to be the slowest.

I try to avoid putting myself into the position where I only have five minutes to accomplish a task that involves a line. This means going to the bank at the end of the day, instead of trying to squeeze it in between three other errands on the way to work. Or making the big trip to the grocery store on my days off, when there’s no where else I have to be any time soon.

When I don’t have that time crunch, it is much easier to be a good line person. I can wait patiently while the elderly woman in front of me empties her entire purse looking for her check book. I can feel sympathy instead of annoyance for the young mother with three kids who’s holding up a queue of people because the clerk is processing her WIC certificates. I can strike up a conversation with the person behind me, when I notice that we both picked up Ben & Jerry’s, instead of tapping my foot while the cashier replaces the register tape. I can connect with people, instead of separating myself into my own little world of building fury.

As a general rule, I am courteous and friendly with tellers and cashiers, servers and clerks. Part of it is my upbringing; part of it is intentional practice. While a piece of this is, of course, wanting to respect the other people that I come into contact with throughout the day, I must also admit that it serves me well. Most of the time, I get better service when I treat the person on the other side of the counter as a human being instead of a functionary.

I also truly enjoy getting to know the many people in my life. It feels good when the bank teller knows my name and gives me a smile. I am pleasantly amused when a server remembers that I don’t like mushrooms on my salad. I like the small talk, and the commiserations over the rainy weather, and the eye contact. It is a way of building community.

But, like everyone else, I have my moments of impatience. Especially when I’m caught up in myself, some crisis or stress or worry, I can become one of the “bad” line people, one of those surly, curt, unpleasant people that makes whoever’s waiting on me grimace when I step up for my turn. When it happens, it isn’t pretty.

Usually I catch myself in the middle, sometimes soon enough to save myself. I’m able to apologize, start fresh. But occasionally, the whole thing goes from bad to worse, and then it’s only when I’m home alone with some space to think that I realize I’ve completely misbehaved.

Many years ago, I heard a comedian do a routine on waiting in line. He was talking about waiting and waiting, forever. And then that magic moment, when you’re “next.” He spoke of it with giddiness, excitement. When he was “next,” he said, he became magnanimous. The impatience was gone. In fact, he would even turn to the person behind him and say, “No, please, go ahead.” It was not only about being gracious – it was about prolonging that anticipatory feeling, that sense of everything almost coming to fruition. The beauty of being “next.”

Frequently, when I am standing in line, and feeling a bit impatient, I remember that comedian. Every time, it makes me smile. And often, it opens me up just enough to practice generosity instead of stinginess. It reminds me how good giving can feel.


Upcoming Schedule, Nov. 24-28 and Beyond

Healdsburg Sangha:
Tuesday, Nov. 24 – CLOSED (for Thanksgiving)

Upcoming Closures:
Tuesday, Dec. 29 (the week between Christmas and New Year’s)

Special Ceremonies:
On Tuesday, Dec. 22, a special Bodhisattva Ceremony will be held.

Russian River Zendo:
Saturday, Nov. 28 – CLOSED (for Thanksgiving)

Upcoming Closures:
Saturday, Dec. 12 (for sesshin at Black Mountain Center)
Saturday, Dec. 26 (for Christmas)



I was in Normal Rockwell’s America tonight, at the Calistoga Firefighters Association Bingo & Raffle fundraiser.

Held in a large exhibition hall at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga, Bingo Night is an annual event that has been going on for 71 years. Hundreds of people show up to play bingo, try their luck at the dozens of raffle prizes, support the fire department, and simply have a good time.

The firefighters are all on hand, verifying bingo winners and distributing raffle prizes – good looking young people in uniform is definitely part of the draw. There is food for sale, ball park fare – hotdogs, hamburgers, nachos, beer. Plus, of course, lots of wine – this is the Napa Valley, after all.

My grandmother Gladys and I joined my four co-workers. My boss unexpectedly treated the six of us for the night, purchasing our bingo cards. That left us free to pool our money into the raffle baskets. My hope was to win at least one prize, since my grandmother is a gamer at heart, and winning makes her very happy. We lucked out, and won a $75 gift certificate to a women’s clothng store in Calistoga. That counts for double fun, since it means an afternoon outing sometime in the coming weeks, when I can pick Gladys up in Santa Rosa, and bring her to Calistoga to shop and have lunch. None of us won any bingo prizes, but we certainly had fun trying.

It was a raucous crowd. I’m not sure if it was the wine and beer, or the nature of the evening, but people were laughing and talking loudly, feigning bingo wins, and wadding up their used game sheets and hurling them through the air from table to table. I was bonked on the head twice by flying paper missiles. There were children in the room, but it was the adults who were keeping things stirred up.

But, it was so small town, so Americana, so infectiously fun – who could resist?

I was able to attend the festivities because I managed to find a “babysitter” for Houla and the rest of the gang. It was pretty comical, actually. She was an older woman, who doesn’t drive, so I had to pick her up and drive her home. I left her with written instructions on feeding, emergency phone numbers, microwave popcorn and a frozen pizza in the freezer. I felt just like a mom leaving her kids with the sitter! (A new experience for me, since I’ve never had “human” children.)

And I have no idea how to relate all of this to a Zen concept. Any ideas? (I promise to be more focused tomorrow….)

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved