Calming a Room Full of Crying Quintuplets

At our Precepts class on Saturday, we broached the topic of mindfulness as a way of bringing a monastic-like focus into a lay life. We talked about Dogen’s exhortation to use everything from cleaning the temple to personal hygiene as an exercise in mindfulness practice. Darlene Cohen said especially in lay life, focusing on tasks like doing the dishes, or folding laundry, or preparing meals, can bring those monastic forms to life, deepening our experience of an integrated nature of reality, a sense of “all is one.”

I have a tendency to try to be “efficient” in my movements. By that, I mean reaching for something with my left hand while sliding something else closer with my right hand, and nudging the refrigerator door shut with my knee, and at the same time talking on the phone. Sheer madness. I catch myself at it all the time – trying to carry too many things at once, balancing precarious loads instead of making a separate trip. Losing the thread in a conversation with a friend, because I am checking the balance online in my checking account. Making lists of the lists of the things I have to do.

The two most frenetic times of the day for me are right when I first wake up and when I first walk in the door, returning home from work. As I have mentioned, we have three dogs, five cats, and a very opinionated parrot. We have recently added a stray who we have dubbed Bliz (short for Blizzard) to the mix, who we are feeding twice a day — all white, he blew in on a cold rainy day, half starved and very scared. Who could refuse?

When I wake up, the dogs race to the kitchen and circle until they are fed. The cats, too, run to the counter, and pace up and down, while I am preparing the dog dishes. Barney (the parrot) is covered at night. He begins his one truly obnoxious sound, a very high pitched squawk, which is his demand for immediate attention — fresh water, fresh food, and yogurt dipped treats, please.

I have to open a can of dog food, scoop out dry dog food into three bowls, get out two separate pills for two of the dogs on meds, open a can of cat food and put that out, and uncover Barney, and take care of his food needs, all in the shortest time possible in order to avert complete cacophony.

It is a bit like having six-month-old quintuplets who have all awakened from a nap at the same time starving, and you’re just one poor mom.

That’s just the inside crew. Gordy is patiently waiting outside the French doors on the deck. So I grab another can of cat food, and feed him outside, then on to the latest addition, over to the tool shed to pick up Bliz’s dish, back into the house again, one more trip, and finally, everyone has breakfast. The whole thing gets repeated when I come home from work.

The other night, though, I had a “wake up” moment. I came in, bustling as usual. I took off the dogs’ collars (they have to wear bark collars when we’re out), fed them dinner, put out the cat food, and was generally racing around. Barney was putting up a terrible fuss. He was just squawking and squawking. I checked his food dish. It was full. I opened the cage so he could get out and go up top, and rushed over to take care of some other detail. He kept squawking. I looked up at him in exasperation and said, “What?” He continued to make a racket. I was losing my patience.

Then it hit me. I walked slowly over to the cage, taking a deep breath. I put my face up close to him. “Hi, Barney.” He nuzzled up against my cheek. “How are you? Did you have a good day?” He cooed, and bobbed his head around, prancing back and forth a bit, with a few good-natured chortles. That was all he wanted. He just wanted me to see him.

I have been trying, these past few days, to reframe my mornings. The dogs will always be excited about breakfast. Barney will always get wound up and impatient. But I can bring some calmness, some grounding to the experience, if I take each step purposefully, touch each animal one at a time, as if they are the only one in the world at that moment. Saving time is much too costly in the long run.


The Courage of a Patch-Robed Monk

It is easy, day to day, to feel that what I do, what I deal with, is so small in the grand scheme of things. When reading the newspaper and listening to the news, hearing of the wars, violence, turmoil of the world, my own struggles and concerns seem diminuitive, tiny. What does it mean to focus on personal growth and discovering my own true self, when there is so much pain and suffering in the world?

Joan Amaral gave a dharma talk at the Rohatsu Sesshin in which she quoted this passage from Dogen’s “Eihei Koroku”:

“Traveling the land without fearing the tiger is the courage of the hunter. Sailing the sea without fearing the deep sea dragon is the courage of the fisherman. Facing the sword drawn before you and seeing life as like death is the courage of the general. What is the courage of a patch-robed monk? Set out your cushions and sit; lay out your bowls and eat. Exhale through your nostrils, radiate light from your eyes. Do you know there is something which goes beyond? With vitality, eat lots of rice, and then use the toilet. Transcend your personal prediction of future buddhahood from Gautama.”

There are different kinds of courage. In my heart, I know this to be true. The courage it has taken me to find peace with myself is just as great as that of the general or the hunter. Different, but equally valid.

Dogen tells us that simply by setting out our cushions and sitting, we can find transcendence. He honors that everyday courage of being alone with ourselves.

And, I do believe, that coming to the point where I can “radiate light from my eyes” will, eventually, change the world.


The Hummingbird

I’m not a nature girl at heart. Although I grew up in the country, and I currently live in the country in Alexander Valley, most of my adult life was spent in cities, and I am much more urban at my core. Because of that, I don’t regularly go to the woods or pasture or ocean to clear my head. It’s not my first instinct. Every time I allow myself to pay attention to that natural world, though, it cuts through to something true and deep.

Yesterday my partner Sabrina and I were sitting out on the deck having a smoke. (Yes, I’m a Buddhist who smokes. I know that’s almost as bad as saying you’re a serial killer in Northern California; let’s just say quitting is on my list, but a lot of other things are on the list, too. I’m working on it.)

Anyway, back to the deck. We have a hummingbird feeder off to one side, and we are constantly entertained by a pair of hummingbirds who swoop in for drinks, and chase each other off, trying to establish dominance over the territory. But as we were sitting out there, a tiny little hummingbird that we hadn’t seen before came flying up, and landed right near our heads, perching on a small mobile we have that is made of a red glass bottle with various baubles and wire. He was so close to us, we were practically holding our breath in order to not scare him away.

The little guy seemed plumb tuckered out, and even though we eventually moved slightly, he did not take off, which struck us both as unusual behavior. Sabrina finally stood up and approached him, and still he did not move. We realized he was just a baby. He looked like he was suffering in the 110 degree heat; Sabrina thought some of the sugar water from the feeder might help revive him. But it was across the deck, and the tiny bird made no move in that direction. He appeared almost too feeble to make the journey.

Then I said, “Why don’t you bring the feeder to him?” Sabrina looked at me like I was crazy. I knew she was thinking, “He’ll never let me come up that close!” But she shrugged, and went to get the feeder. I sat enthralled as she brought it back over, and directly to our little hummingbird. Not only did he stay put, he immediately began to drink out of the feeder. She was handfeeding a baby bird! He stayed for a few more moments, drinking several times, then, physically rejuvenated, he took off, fluttering tentatively across the yard.

It was only after he had gone that we looked in each other’s eyes, and fully realized the sweet little gift that had just been given to us. We had been completely wrapped up in that moment of watching, caring, and feeding. It was a direct experience.

Suzuki-roshi said, “When you study something with your whole mind and body, you will have direct experience.” And he reminds us, too, of what Dogen said: Mountains and rivers, earth and sky – everything is encouraging us to attain enlightenment.

Mountains and rivers, earth and sky…and baby hummingbirds.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved