The Mystery of Vow

I know many people who are experts at what they do. They’re brilliant when it comes to investing, or they know all about gardening, or they can explain in detail exactly what makes a particular symphony such a pivotal turning point in the history of music. There are yet other people who simply have an opinion about many things, whether or not they have a strong knowledge base.

Between these two groups of people, up until a few years ago, I often found myself surrounded by friends, family and acquaintances who flooded me with words of advice – everything from what I should do with my money to what kind of coffee I should buy, from where I should live to what career I should pursue, from what spiritual path I should embark upon to what kind of music I should put in my CD player.

Much of the advice-giving happened, I believe, because the people in my life saw me as lost, as fragmented. It seemed that I needed guidance. And I was vulnerable to that impression, at times believing it myself.

But as time passed, I realized the long and rocky path I had traveled had given me a great deal of personal wisdom. I knew things. Yes, I have been a victim of molestation, sexual assault and domestic violence. Yes, I have struggled with mental illness, alcoholism and eating disorders. Yes, I have attempted suicide. Yes, I was even classified for a time as permanently disabled for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Yet I survived. Slowly, slowly, I began to rebuild myself. I got clean and sober. I worked in therapy as if my life depended on it – because it did. I began to write, and there found the voice I needed to first express the pain, and eventually to begin writing about beauty.

About six years ago, for the first time, I began to feel as if I might have something to give. Perhaps I, too, would be able to find words of advice for someone. From my own experience in hell, I thought I might be able to lead another person out of the pit.

There was only one problem. I have never believed in giving unasked for advice. And no one in my life saw me any differently yet. I was still broken Michelle. So there were no seekers knocking on my door. No one thought to ask me for assistance.

Until now. Over the past four months, it seems as if almost weekly something has come up. People have been approaching me with all kinds of situations and problems, asking me to help them think things through. Not little things, either. Big things. Suicidality, substance abuse, schizophrenic episodes, fear of death, spirituality.

I am humbled by the trust these friends show in me. For each one of them, what I try to do is be fully present, listen, share what I can of my story that might have some relevance, help them look at their own resources for answers. Often listening is the most important act. I know that because that’s what I needed. I remember all the times I wasn’t listened to, all the times a doctor or a psychiatrist or a police officer didn’t hear me.

Today I was feeling so grateful this is happening, that I am finally having this chance to give back in some small way, to transform all the hurt I experienced into something good. And I was trying to figure out how it came about. Why now? Why are people asking me for help?

Then it hit me. It is because I made a vow to follow the bodhisattva path. It is because I went through jukai (lay ordination). My intention is manifesting itself in the universe.

My Buddhist name is being realized: Ankyo Kikan, Dark Mirror (my past) Joyful Reflection (my future).


Darlene Cohen,Oct. 31, 1942 – Jan. 12, 2011

Darlene Cohen, Su Rei Ken Po, Great Spirit Manifesting Dharma, passed away at 1:15 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

I received word via email just as I was about to leave the house for work. The extended sangha planned to sit vigil with her body for the next day and a half.

I was heartbroken, because it was deadline day at the newspaper, and I knew I could not leave to go and be with her.

But after I arrived at the office, I received a second email, saying the vigil went through the night and until noon on Thursday, and people were particularly needed and wanted during the wee hours of the morning. So when I finally wrapped up the paper at 3 a.m., I drove to Guerneville.

I arrived at 4 a.m., to see the zendo softly lit up with candles. There were four of my sangha members there, sitting. Darlene’s body was laid out on a covered table. She was dressed in her priest’s robes, wearing her lavender rakusu that we recently sewed for her. Her body was covered with flower petals people had bestowed as offerings.

I came into the hushed room, bowed before her, and offered a few petals of my own. I touched her sleeve. It was as if her spirit was still in the room, as if any moment she would open her eyes and smile at me. It was only then I felt the rush of grief.

Moving towards the back wall, I selected a zabuton and zafu, and began to sit. A few more people came, and a few people left. My sangha members approached, and gave me hugs. It was beautifully silent, and the candles cast flickering light on the altar. A gentle rain began to fall.

After sitting for two hours with Darlene, I felt it was time to go. I had been up for nearly 24 hours straight, and still had an hour to drive home. The coffee shop at the base of the hill had just opened up , so a latte helped with that last stretch.

There is sorrow, but also a deep joy in my body right now, a profound gratitude. Darlene is no longer suffering in the body. She was able to pass on her lineage, and her sangha is pulling together in a wonderful way. We will get through this. And I feel privileged to have had her in my life, even for this brief time.

Farewell, Su Rei Ken Po. And thank you.


Ring My Bell

Last summer, when Sabrina and I were in New Mexico, while I attended a writing retreat, Sabrina stumbled upon a small town named Madrid. When she picked me up at the end of my stay, she took me there to share her find.

They pronounce it MA-drid, unlike the similarly-spelled city in Spain; it was only a few blocks long, but contained a thriving little arts community, with enticing shops at every turn. We meandered through a store filled with items made from recycled goods, where I picked up a notepad constructed out of an old license plate. And we could not resist purchasing a whimsical welded bat, hanging upside down. We dubbed him “Madrid,” and he now peeks from under his wings on our deck.

We were being tourists. It was fun. We went in and out of shops, oohing and aahing over all of the interesting things for sale. Neither of us are shoppers, generally, so this was a treat. We were definitely in vacation mode.

But then I found the real reason that I was in Madrid. As usual, Sabrina had something left as a surprise. There was an art gallery whose outside yard was filled with temple bells. They were stupendous. We walked around admiring all of them, striking each of them in turn. The sounds were gorgeous. And Sabrina said, “Do you want one?”

“No, we can’t,” I said. “They’re too big. They’re too expensive. Thank you, sweetie, but no.” I hit one last bell wistfully, and we went to go find some lunch.

Let me tell you one thing – Sabrina is persistent. Lunch was only a detour. Two hours and some price haggling with the dealer later, we left Madrid with a huge temple bell on the floor of our truck.

The bell weighs about 70 pounds, I would guess. We got it all the way home to California, lying mutely in the back seat next to its leather-wrapped striker. Now what? Where were we going to hang it? At the gallery, the bells had been hung from metal stands. A co-worker of Sabrina’s offered to make one for us. We had taken photographs, and gave him copies. But it was a favor; he would do it in his spare time. The bell was relegated to an ignoble position on the floor of the garage, wrapped in a beach towel.

Time passed. A lot of time. Yesterday morning, I was sitting at my desk writing, and I heard Sabrina out on the deck, working. I knew she had yardwork plans. She had said she was going to the hardware store for weedspray. But when I stepped outside for a smoke, I saw that she had installed a new post underneath our porch roof – and immediately, I knew. It was for the bell.

Our porch has a roof, and we had considered hanging the bell there, but we were afraid it was too heavy. Sabrina solved the problem by adding another post, creating a solid frame. The bell was finally liberated. We lugged it up the stairs, managed to hoist it up into the air high enough to get it on the hook, and, voila! We had ourselves a bell!

The moment had come. I picked up the striker, and hit the bell. After nine months of silence, its rich, deep tone rang out, filling the valley air.

It was worth the wait.


Continuous Practice

The theme of our Rohatsu Sesshin this year was continuous practice. My understanding of this is learning to take our practice into every aspect of our lives, instead of separating zazen from all other activities.

A sesshin is an ideal place to do this, because the tight schedule and focus on silence and routine remove many of those distractions of our ordinary lives. It is much easier to be mindful at a meal when there is no conversation at the table, simply a keen awareness of the food on your plate, the tastes in your mouth, and the sounds of humans eating.

Staying in the moment is more challenging after the sesshin has ended, when you must return to jobs, chores, and family life.For me, the “to-do lists” very rapidly create a mindset of worrying about the future, instead of staying right here.

In a dharma talk that Darlene Cohen gave during the sesshin, she referred to this quote from Dogen:

“Continuous practice, day after day, is the most appropriate way of expressing gratitude. This means that you practice continuously, without wasting a single day of your life, without using it for your own sake. Why is it so? Your life is a fortunate outcome of the continuous practice of the past. You should express your gratitude immediately. “

— Zen Master Dogen quoted in Enlightenment Unfolds edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi

I love this quote. I love the idea of expressing gratitude by practice. Darlene also said, during that talk, that it was our task nor to become a “better” self, but to become more fully who we are. It seems to me that these two ideas are integrally connected. Learn and become my own true self; practice continually in order to show thankfulness for everything. Two steps both incrediby easy and incredibly hard to follow.

Every moment of every day that I can create space around myself, a gap between input and reaction, a slowing down of movement, I am moving closer to active zazen, continuous practice.

What do you do to bring practice into your daily life?


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.


Accentuate the Positive!

I am listening to Pema Chodron’s Don’t Bite the Hook, and driving home tonight in the wee hours after a long day at work, one of her teachings was about something she calls “cheerfulness practice.”

Her message is that the human tendency is to focus on what’s NOT working – the unkind word, the friction, the unmet need. As an antidote, she suggests fully appreciating each positive thing that happens during your day, to retrain the mind. This can be anything, no matter how small. The point is to notice happiness when you experience it.

So, with that in mind, I’ve been reviewing my last two days. They have been hectic, and although overall the hours have been productive and relatively pleasant, I still had quite a few grumpy moments.

But, in an attempt to reframe, here are some of the good things:

  • A reader complimented me on a story from last week’s paper, and came into the office to buy extra copies.
  • My boss told me I did a good job on the photographs I took this week, and thanked me for all of my hard work on stories.
  • A co-worker who has a very elderly, frail poodle named Chica showed me her latest gadget – “doggles,” sunglasses/goggles for dogs – to help deal with the little girl’s increasing eye sensitivity. They were so adorable I couldn’t stop grinning.
  • I interviewed a new priest in town for the Russian Orthodox Church, and not only did he not flinch when I mentioned my female partner, but after the interview he gave me four of the beeswax candles he makes as a present, saying that I should use them while having a nice dinner with my partner.
  • I interviewed a couple who has been married 56 years, both of them veterans. They had received a U.S. flag flown in Afghanistan from their son, as a birthday present for the father. It will be placed in a shadow box containing all his medals. They were so thrilled to have me there, to share in their news; both had been moved to tears by the receipt of the flag. I felt honored to be their witness.
  • The grocery store had the new graham crackers that I’ve fallen in love with – up to this point, I’d only been able to find them at Whole Foods, which is a long way away.
  • The dogs and cats greeted me with tremendous enthusiasm when I got home at 2 a.m., after spending the day alone. Kenji the kitten appeared blinking, and we’ve already had a bunch of cuddle time.
  • I got an invitation to Thanksgiving diner at my best friend’s house.
  • I called my grandmother to see if she wanted to go to the Firefighters Bingo night on Nov. 21, and she was thrilled.

What surprises me about this list is that the more time I spend thinking, the more good things I come up with. How about that? And looking back on it, as memories of each of these happy moments flits through my consciousness, I have a stronger and stronger sense of just having had an amazingly good two days.

You’ve got to accentuate the positive….

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved