On Knowledge

I just returned from a week-long informal writing retreat with my close group of women writing friends on the Northern California coast. Part of our practice together is to draw tarot cards and use them as writing prompts. We have multiple decks to choose from; one is a new deck I found recently, the Osho Zen Tarot. I randomly pulled this card, Consciousness, and this short essay resulted.

The third eye, the knowing. Sit deep into self and let go of all that doesn’t matter, the judgment, the baggage, the conditioning, the you-will-never-be-good-enough, the fear, the hesitation, the second guessing.

Become the mountain self. Hips planted on the cushion, back straight, shoulders soft but firm, relaxed, the breath moving in and out with life force, and the face soft, quiet, tender in its no concentration, in its no focus – all present, all now.

And yet, that most important part, the third eye, glowing in the center of the brow, the penetrating wisdom, the pure insight, true knowledge.

Not the intellectual dissection, not the quick wit, not the ironic tongue or the acerbic humor, not the speed of a barb –

No, this is a mist of illumination, raindrops to clear the morning, cool water scooped with a gourd outside the temple gates to slake the thirst of the weary pilgrim. To dip the gourd in the well, to pour the water over the top of your head, to wash your dusty feet…

When simply to sit, to breathe, is enough.


But Is It My Place?

Last winter, I attended a silent Zen retreat up in the mountains. At one point in our tightly regulated schedule, the retreat staff didn’t have our noon meal ready on time. Generally, when we walked in, our two teachers, Tony and Darlene, went to the head of the line and served themselves first, and we all followed after. But now, we found ourselves milling about in the dining room, momentarily purposeless.

At last, the meal was ready. I turned, and gestured towards Tony, who stood at the back of the room. He shook his head, and waved me forward. So I went on, got in line, and helped myself.

Moments later, one of the other priests approached me. Taking me aside, she said in no uncertain terms that we never serve ourselves before the teachers. Point taken. As a relatively new student, I am used to being corrected on this path. I nodded, and sat down.

At the conclusion of the retreat, this same priest approached me again. She said, “I need to apologize to you.” She told me she uses three guidelines to govern her behavior, taken from the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. They are: Is it beneficial? (Will it be helpful?) Is it skillful? (Will my words be kind, and cause no harm?) Is it my domain? (Is it my place?)

She said after speaking to me, she realized she could answer yes to the first two questions, but not to the third. It was not her place. She was not in a position of authority at the retreat. It was not her duty to instruct me. And so, she apologized.

That last lesson, “Is it my place?” stuck with me. So often I have found myself in situations where I wanted to weigh in, to get involved.

A friend’s mother said something cruel and inappropriate. I was sorely tempted to phone her and explain what was really going on. Someone petitioning for an application with the planning commission is taking an approach that might be damaging to his case, and I have an opinion about that. Just yesterday, I chatted with a young man with a dog, and saw that the dog had a foxtail embedded in his foot. I mentioned it, yes. But to go further?

In each of these cases, that line comes up in my mind: Is it my place? It reminds me that if people want my advice, they will ask for it.

Of course, there are times when it is our place. When it is time to act. And then, I will act. I am not afraid to take the right step when it is time.

It is also interesting to me that what this priest taught me came from her mistake. That in itself is something for me to hold onto as an example.

Yes, I did learn not to cut in line in front of the teachers. But the lasting lesson I received, the true teaching, came when she made a minor correction regarding my behavior, then came back and apologized to me.

It was her willingness to be vulnerable in front of me, her willingness to look at her own actions. I was holding no grudges. I had already let it go, and would have forgotten it. But she did not. And because of that, I received this teaching.

Every day, I thank her for it.


RItual in Daily Life

In a dharma talk recently, Susan Spencer spoke about ritual in daily life.

She said the ritual we use in the zendo, from the roles of doan and kokyo, chanting and incense burning, stepping on our left foot as we enter the zendo, or bowing in front of the altar, are not mere rules. They create a container, a space within the community, so something else can happen. She emphasized it is not about being perfect, but about intention.

Outside of the zendo, ritual can be just as important. It is created, once again, by intention and consciousness. It can be formed by something as simple as pouring a cup of tea. If you pour the cup of tea with your full awareness, picking up each object with both hands in its turn, giving each step your complete attention, being absolutely in the moment – you will create a ritual. The person you pour tea for will feel the difference. It will become a spiritual act, a transformative moment.

Susan asked us to reflect on the rituals in our own lives in an exercise after the talk.

Frederika Haskell recalled watching a ritual her parents performed every day which informed her deepest beliefs about love and marriage. Each night, when her father returned home from work, he sought out her mother, wherever she was in the home. He went to her, took her in an embrace, said she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and kissed her. The routine of it, the trust and stability, gave a foundation to the marriage, and gave Frederika expectations about what a true relationship should look like.

Phil McDonel spoke about his morning ritual with his wife Barbara around coffee, an elaborate, two-pot, caffeineted and decaffeinated preparation, exacting in its execution, but more importantly, a time each day they spent together, before heading off in separate directions.

Each of us had our own ideas of how to respond to the query. I love ritual, myself. I adore the aspects of Zen that build familiarity with their routine. Chanting is my favorite, so any services are high on my list. I like memorizing the chants, so I can intone them without a chantbook in hand. My week at Tassajara summer before last was truly wonderful because of the extensive ritual at the large zendo – there were more bells, clappers, incense, chants, services, and a greater number of people participating, so it all felt marvelously other-worldly.

But even in my daily life, I adore creating ritual. I have rituals with my dog – rituals are great with dogs, because they love them, too. They crave routines, and look forward to repeated behaviors. I do many things a certain way – I turn my Coke tab a quarter turn. I line up the seam of my to-go coffee cup with the lid. I fold laundry precisely. My desk and work space are always neat and tidy, with everything just so. This may sound silly – my friends sometimes joke about my OCD tendencies (obsessive/compulsive disorder, for those of you not in the psych-term world) – but it is more than that. Each time I do one of these things, I am being present and aware. I am coming out of the ether into the moment, to touch the object at hand.

What I would like is to make into ritual some of my other activities. Someone asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote regularly or only when inspired. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he said. “Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

Something to keep in mind for 2011.


No Permanence, Joyful Open Eyes

To quote Dainin Katagiri, in “Each Moment Is the Universe

When you see in the proper way, what do you see? You see the true nature of time. In Japanese we say mujo. Mu is “nothing” and jo is “permanence,” so mujo means “no permanence” or “impermanence.” Seeing impermanence is not to face a kind of nihilism that leads to despair; it is to become yourself, as you really are, with joyful open eyes. Thinking in the proper way is not to understand life through your intellect; it is to contemplate deeply how to live every day based on wisdom. When you see the true nature of time and understand how impermanence works in your life, you can use time to cultivate your life and to keep up with the tempo of life without feeling despair. That is the basis of a complete way of human life.

The true nature of time. That is definitely something I am grappling with at the moment. One of my co-workers, in my small, four-person office, has announced that she is leaving on Aug. 11. We will be hiring a replacement, but probably not until mid-October. Three of us can put out the newspaper, but it means that no one can be out on vacation, or sick, or not carrying their weight. Since I had not taken any vacation time yet this year, and saw that my opportunities were fast disappearing, I rapidly requested a week off, just to stay at home and regroup.

My plan for this week was to catch up on sleep, do some reading, spend time on my own writing, move organically through the days. Too quickly, though, I found myself distracted by chores and “have to” items, with the sense that I was not getting the indulgence I deserved. I ended up harried and dissatisfied, instead of relaxed, exactly the opposite of what I was hoping for.

Reading this Katagiri quote, which my teacher Tony Patchell shared with me a few weeks ago, I was reminded that I was going about the whole thing in the wrong way. Well, wrong might be too strong a word. How about “misguided”? Instead of trying to create perfect days where nothing interrupts and everything goes my way, I can find much greater satisfaction in facing each moment of every day, no matter the challenges, with humor, wisdom, and presence.

Clinging to the idea of a perfect week off, or even an ideal afternoon, brings up those feelings of despair. Where is my life going? What am I doing with myself? Where do the days go? But when I focus instead on this moment, the task right in front of me, my breathing slows. My sense of harmony increases. I hear the Mozart playing in the background as I type. The brain quiets, and wisdom creeps in. It actually becomes possible to see with joyful, open eyes.


Alone But Not Lonely

I’m not a big fan of large gatherings, especially meet-and-greets where you have to make small talk with a lot of people. That kind of superficial contact tends to wear me out, and it simply doesn’t give me much pleasure. But I like human contact. I enjoy immensely an evening with a few friends, and become quite animated with the energy of conversation. And I adore spending time one on one, where I can talk for hours about books, ideas, dreams, passions.

Anyone seeing me in these environments would probably classify me as an extrovert. I appear to be comfortable and at ease in these situations – and that is not untrue.

At the same time, however, I love spending time alone. I cherish the days when I am able to stay at home all day, puttering around the house, reading books, writing, having my only conversations with my dogs and cats. I find that in order to have those external energetic times, I need time alone to recharge – hours of quiet, uninterrupted space.

Sometimes, though, I manage to combine those two sides of myself, being both alone and with people at the same time, in a deeply satisfying way.

A couple of weeks ago, while researching calendar items for inclusion in my newspaper, I discovered that one of my favorite cellists, Nina Kotova, would be appearing in Napa Valley. Since the concert was set for a Tuesday, Sabrina would be unavailable to attend. I asked my co-workers if they were interested, but there were no takers. I was not about to miss this opportunity; I immediately booked a single ticket online for myself.

The concert was held at Castello di Amorosa, a recently-built replica of an Italian castle. The program included two piano/string quartet numbers, plus a cello sonata by Kotova. Knowing that the venue would draw Napa Valley’s “in” crowd, I had dressed up for the occasion. I arrived early, and watched people. Being alone gives you the opportunity to be a “spy;” it’s one of the reasons I enjoy it so much.

We were seated in the central courtyard of the castle, in the open air. When the musicians came out, and took their chairs, it became obvious that I would not have a clear view of them, especially because there was a very tall man seated in front of me. For the first piece, I relaxed with my eyes closed, and felt the breeze on my face, imagined the notes falling into my hair, and smiled when small birds flew overhead and gave answering trills to the high tones of the violins. But before Nina came out, I stood and walked to the side of the courtyard, finding a seat on a low brick wall. I now had an unobstructed view of the stage. I watched enrapt throughout her Debussy piece; it was over far too soon.

A woman approached me later and asked me whether I enjoyed the Debussy. I said I liked it very much. She said she could tell. Apparently, my pleasure was visible. I had brief conversations with a few others about the music. I noticed a man and woman with a young boy. The man was carrying a slender musical case. I couldn’t tell what it contained, so I asked him what he played. He said he was a cellist. I said, “Oh, it’s your bow.” He told me he used to play with a member of the string quartet, but now he sold instruments, and members of the ensemble were trying out some of his instruments. He was up from Los Angeles. The young boy was studying piano.

All of this is simple, nothing earth shattering. Conversations, observations, reflections. But it happened because I was alone. I followed my desires, moving to get a better view of Nina, not worrying about whether or not that was appropriate. I was able to be fully present for the entire concert, not off in my head while the music was playing, not engaged in conversation with my partner during intermission, not closed into an inner circle of friends. I was alone but completely there.

I can close my eyes right now and hear Debussy, and feel the breeze on my cheek.


How to Eat with All Your Senses

On Saturday night, Sabrina and I decided to celebrate the second anniversary of our wedding with a special dinner out. An acquaintance had raved about the food and atmosphere at the Madrona Manor, located just outside of Healdsburg on Guerneville Road. I drive past its front gate every time I go to Russian River Zendo. I knew it was pricey, and an extravagance. But it seemed the perfect choice, and we managed to get last-minute reservations for 8 p.m.

Oh – we had no idea what we were in store for! The food was beyond anything we could have imagined. It is French cuisine, with local produce, and a Sonoma twist, prepared by chef Jesse Mallgren, born in San Francisco and raised in Sonoma County, but trained at some of the finest restaurants around. We chose from the “compose your own menu” selection, which allowed Sabrina to have seafood and meat for almost every course, while I had a rich selection of vegetarian entrees.

For Sabrina: scallop sashimi with borage, Meyer lemon, uni and fresh wasabi; Lobster “cuit sous vide” with carrot, fennel, pea and coriander; abalone; northern halibut with corn, miso, dashi and porcini; lamb. For me: beets with gorgonzola; haricots verts with burata, hazelnuts and truffle; potato gnocchi with peas, mint, pistachios and creme fraiche; and the Madrona Manor Signature Cheese Course, around the world in cheese.

But that is just a small piece of it. In between each course, we received little “palate ticklers,” tiny taste tests to ready ourselves for the next bite. A slice of hollowed-out radish filled with butter, or a yogurty-drink beside a single ravioli. A dish of strawberry sorbet to freshen our mouths before moving on to the next taste.

Part of the beauty of it all was the presentation. Every course was brought in a plate or bowl especially designed to showcase what it was serving: a large, broad-brimmed bowl with only a small dip in the center to hold the food; a long, angular plate divided into four sections, each containing one small bite; tiny glasses; perfect little spoons.

And with this, another part of the beauty was the portion size. We were given just enough to enjoy the flavor, enough to appreciate what we were eating, not enough to sate ourselves. We ate, we tasted, we relished each bite, but we did not stuff ourselves. We were on a journey of exploration.

The dinner stretched out over three hours. The service was impeccable, and constant, but not stiff. We felt pampered, without feeling that we were about to make a grave misstep by picking up the wrong fork. We were served each course, had time to eat leisurely, then a few moments to ourselves to talk, and enjoy the ambience. We sat outside, on a covered porch, in the summer evening, looking out over lush gardens.

It was an absolutely luxurious experience of being in the now. I cannot remember the last time I was so present with my food. The newness of the tastes, the surprises, kept us continually open. I was aware of every plate, every wait person that approached and laid down a new fork, every shift in the room.

To cap the evening, it turned out that we had met one of the servers before at a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner. She remembered that it was shortly after our wedding and mentioned that. We said yes, and told her we were celebrating our anniversary. Moments later, she reappeared with two large plates with tiny cups of creme brulee at their centers, and the words “Happy Anniversary” written in gorgeous script with chocolate sauce on the edge of the platters.

(We still had dessert coming, of course: Chocolate to the Fourth for Sabrina, with devils food, soft Gianduja ganache, sorbet and mousse, and Strawberries & Cream for me, with orange financier, lemon verbena and brown butter sable. Plus they sent us home with clear plastic bags of caramel corn, tied with brown ribbon.)

Oh, what a dinner! After, at home, I found myself wishing I had taken pictures of the food, captured each course. But then I had to smile at myself. No, no. It’s better this way. It was exactly as it was supposed to be. Perfect for those three hours.


Making Connections

I buy gas regularly at the same “Fast and Easy” cheap gas station in Cloverdale. One day when I had gone inside to purchase a drink, as I was waiting to pay, I overheard the young male cashier speaking in Spanish to a Latino customer. I was surprised, because he appeared to be East Indian. When it was my turn, I said, “I’m impressed. Your accent sounds Indian, but you speak Spanish.” He smiled, and said that he was Pakistani, and spoke native Urdu. He told me that he had picked up a little Spanish since moving to the United States, since so many of his customers were Latino. We spoke briefly about languages, a topic that I love, and I told him my name was Michelle. He said he was Rasheed, and extended his hand. We shook, and smiled. In that small way, a simple friendship was born.

Often when I stop for gas, I’m in a hurry, and just fill up and go. But if I have time, and see Rasheed through the window, I step inside to say hello. We greet each other by name; he asks me about my job; I ask if he has decided yet to make the move from St. Helena to Cloverdale. It is nothing earth shattering, or monumental – but both of our faces light up with smiles when we see each other.

There is another regular employee at the gas station, an older man who I thought might be Saudi; he had an accent I couldn’t place. But I had also noticed several times that he was wearing shirts with Native American images on them, so I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. He was friendly, but in our exchanges I had never moved beyond the point of basic acknowledgements.

This morning, I was on my way to a medical appointment in Santa Rosa. It was pouring rain; I had been up the previous night until 5 a.m. after working nearly 18 hours on deadline day at the newspaper. I was nervous about the procedure I was about to undergo at the lab, and I was cognizant of time – I needed to get gas, stop at the ATM for cash, and get on the road.

At the gas station, after I turned on the pump, I decided to go inside to purchase a cup of coffee. As I stepped inside, I saw Rasheed to the rear of the store. I called out, “Hello, Rasheed!” Then I saw that the other man was also on duty, which was a surprise; usually there was only one person at the station at a time. In that moment, it suddenly struck me as unfriendly to greet Rasheed by name while ignoring the other man. So I turned to him and held out my hand. I said, “I’m Michelle. I should know your name.” He introduced himself as Gil.

While he rang up my purchase, we lamented about the unseasonal stormy weather. I mentioned that I worked for a newspaper in Calistoga, and that next week three outdoor school graduations were scheduled; I was praying that the rain would stop, so they wouldn’t have to be held in the high school gym. And with that innocent statement, a wonderful opening came. Gil said, “I went to my daughter’s graduation in San Diego last week. She got a 91 percent in calculus. She made the President’s List.” He was smiling broadly.

I pressed him for details. His daughter, a high school drop-out, had just completed a B.A. in Business in San Diego. She was returning to Sonoma County this summer, to pursue a Master’s Degree in Business at Sonoma State. He told me that as long as she had a C average, the casino would pay for her tuition. I asked, “You’re Native American?” He said yes; he was from Arizona, but his wife was a Pomo Indian. Their daughter’s education was being paid for by the tribe, with monies from River Rock Casino. Throughout the conversation, Gil was beaming. I congratulated him repeatedly, and told him how happy I was that he had been able to attend the graduation, and said he must be very proud.

With a final “Congratulations!” and smiles, we repeated our names one more time, and I turned to go. In that short five minutes, I had completely forgotten my anxiety about my appointment. I was no longer looking at my watch, wondering if I would be late. I was not worrying about the rain or the traffic. Instead, I felt buoyantly, exuberantly connected. It was an incredible gift to have been the person to receive Gil’s good news. I held it in my heart like a treasure for the rest of the day.

In “Zen Is Right Here,” there is this anecdote about Suzuki Roshi:

A student asked Suzuki Roshi if he kept an eye on his students to see if they were following the precepts, the Buddhist guidelines of conduct.

“I don’t pay any attention to whether you’re following the precepts or not,” he answered. “I just notice how you are with one another.”

For me, the experience today was a reminder to put aside all of my thinking and planning, my concerns about my own life, and whether or not I am a good person, or whether or not I will find happiness, and all of those other daily worries. Instead, slow down, pay attention, and look into the eyes of my brothers and sisters in the world. In those small moments of connection lie deep fulfillment and joy.


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.

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