And Then Came the Rain…

I am struggling. Again.

It’s the “again” part that is hard. For much of my adult life, I have battled with depression. There are many contributing factors: repeated trauma, biochemical imbalance, personality, philosophical bent. But knowing the cause doesn’t help to deal with the numbing heaviness when it once again descends upon me.

I have been blessed with relief for much of the past six years. Some of that is due to extensive work on tough issues. Some of that has been thanks to appropriate medication. And some, a huge part, has been because six years ago I met the woman that I would marry, someone who has given me the safe haven and unconditional love that I had been seeking my entire life.

As a bonus, my wife also reconnected me with animals. I had strong relationships with a childhood dog and cat, but had not included animals in my adult world, partially because of my itinerant proclivities. Now, when I come home at the end of the day, I am greeted by the faithful lab Ripley who holds a special place in my heart, the adorable kitten Kenji who can always make me smile, and dogs Houla and Teo, parrot Barney, and cats Bailey, Dozer, Gordy and Idgie, each one of whom loves me in that unrelenting and uncomplicated way that only animals are capable of.

Also, I have found in the past years, for the first time in my life, a spiritual home. Sangha and zazen and teachers…all have been an incredible comfort and source of strength and growth.

And yet – here I am. Barely making it through the days.

It is so familiar. The weight, the dreariness, the fatigue. The inability to concentrate, the trouble getting motivated to do anything, even the things that I enjoy.

But it is also different. Before, I didn’t have all those “good” things from the paragraphs above. Now, I do. Before, I couldn’t think of one reason to keep on going. Now, I can make a long list. Before, I truly believed that it was never, ever going to change. Now, I know that the depression did finally lift in the past, and that it will lift again.

It will change. Everything changes. For right now, though…the rain.


Upcoming Schedule, Jan. 12 – 16 and Beyond

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Jan. 12
7 p.m. sit, service, dharma talk by Tony Patchell on body and practice

Tuesday, Jan. 19
7 p.m. sit, service, dharma talk by Keith

Tuesday, Jan. 26
7 p.m. sit, service, dharma talk by Phil McDonel

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, Jan. 16
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk by Darlene Cohen and tea
12:30 p.m. Precepts Class


A Squeal of Brakes and a Crash…

The night was foggy, and still. I was sitting out on my deck in my pajamas, having a smoke before sitting down at the computer to blog. I had just arrived home from work about 20 minutes earlier; I glanced at the clock – it was 2:15 a.m.

Then the quiet was pierced by a squeal of tires, and a huge, thudding crash. The dogs, out on the deck with me, broke out in three-part alarm barking. I jumped up, grabbed the flashlight, put the dogs in the house and snatched up my phone, and ran as fast as I could in my slippers out to our road.

I had seen headlights, but now the night was dark again. At the base of Cedar Lane, as I turned onto River Road, I called out: “Anybody there?” I heard the crack of stumbling footsteps, and swung my flashlight beam over to the side, just in time to catch a body falling forward out of the dense undergrowth and trees.

A young man staggered towards me. He said, “I had an accident.” I turned my light towards the car, which I could now see buried deep in the culvert, air bags deployed, front windshield cracked.

His name was Jordan. He was confused and disoriented. I checked him over quickly: bloodied lips, abrasions on his arms, and a discolored dent on his forehead, but no other signs of injury. My primary concern was concussion. I tried to get him to sit down, and pulled out my phone to call local police. The dispatcher said an ambulance was on its way.

We waited. Jordan moaned periodically, and started to cry. He kept repeating that his head hurt. I could smell alcohol on his breath, but said nothing – I was afraid he might be aware enough to realize he was soon going to be in a lot of trouble, decide to take off on foot into the night, and end up unconscious somewhere in the vineyards with a head injury.

He pulled an iPhone out of his pocket and punched in a number. I said, “Jordan, you know it’s really late, don’t you?” He said he was calling his parents; he lived with them in Santa Rosa. I listened as Jordan work his mom and dad up, telling them the bad news. A minute into the conversation, he began crying and handed me the phone, saying, “Can you talk to him?” I told his dad that an ambulance was on the way, that he wasn’t injured badly, and that I would call again once emergency personnel arrived. He thanked me, the worry evident in his voice.

Jordan reached into his pocket and withdrew a pack of cigarettes. He lit a Marlboro, and took a few puffs, seated on the side of the road. I was standing above him, holding the flashlight. He suddenly fell backwards, arm extended above his head, lit cigarette ember-first in the grass. I grabbed the cigarette and stomped it out. Jordan sat up, saying, “It’s okay; I’m okay. Oh, my head hurts!”

A door opened. The dogs were still barking – they could obviously hear my voice. I knew Sabrina must have woken up, and realized something was amiss when she saw my abandoned coffee cup outside. She appeared a few minutes later, also in her pajamas and slippers. I introduced her to Jordan: “This is my partner. She’s a trained EMT. She’s going to look you over.”

Finally, after Sabrina had determined that Jordan’s biggest issue was that he was drunk, the fire truck and ambulance arrived. We were surrounded by men and women in crisis mode; they put Jordan’s neck into a brace, placed him on the stretcher, and loaded him into the ambulance. Our night was done.

Jordan was 20 years old, not even of legal age to drink. Thankfully, no one else was in the car, and no other vehicle was involved in the crash. It was chilling to realize that not 20 minutes before his wreck, I was on that foggy road, coming home. I’m glad we didn’t meet.



We held a special New Year’s ceremony at the Healdsburg sangha tonight, to bless and give thanks for our meeting space.

The ceremony was fairly simple, moving to each room of the building and lighting a cande, then giving three bows. At the end, we all returned to the main altar, and in between chants, we took turns stepping in front of the altar to announce our practice intentions for the year.

Intentions, though coming at the same time of the year in this case, are not the same as resolutions. As Darlene Cohen explained, resolutions are a matter of applying one’s will to something: losing weight, quitting smoking, being on time. But intentions are commitments to mindfulness, a form of vow.

The intentions voiced by members of the sangha ranged from following the Precepts to the best of one’s ability to recommitting to daily zazen, from giving oneself a break to bringing practice from the zendo out into everyday life.

Darlene stressed the importance of vow, and of taking the time to state intention, as part of practice. She said since Zen is “nowhere standing,” with nothing to hold onto except the fact that there’s nothing to hold onto, knowing one’s own intentions is critical.

She also spoke of daily intentions, making a statement to oneself each day when sitting down to zazen. This reminded me of my friend Clare, who said that her New Year’s resolution for 2010 was to take a moment each day to reflect on what she is grateful for. Here, slightly reframed, is a similar thought: once a day, ask yourself why you are doing this Zen practice. Darlene points out that finding an answer is not important; what matters is asking the question and remaining open to whatever comes in – and continuing to sit, regardless.

My intentions…a good thing to add to my day.


Upcoming Schedule, Jan. 5-9 and Beyond

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Jan. 5
7 p.m. sit, service with New Year’s blessing

Russian River Zendo:

Satuday, Jan. 9
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk by Tony Patchell and tea

Saturday, Jan. 16
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk and tea
12:30 p.m. Precepts Class


The Zen Monk’s Workout for Perfect Quads & Abs

I mentioned briefly that Russian River Zendo held its first-ever Full Moon Ceremony on New Year’s Eve. What I failed to note was that I hobbled around like an old lady for two days after that.

The Full Moon Ceremony lasts about 20 minutes. It has all the fun Zen stuff – big bells, small bells, clappers, the inkan (another bell), and a kokyo script (for the chant leader) that would test Pavarotti. I showed up early for rehearsal, to “shadow” the doan (master of all the bells) and kokyo, with the idea that at some point in the future, I may be able to take on one of those roles. Also, since our sangha had never done the ceremony, Joan Amaral (our ino, person in charge of the ceremony for the night) thought it would be helpful to have one other person (me) who knew what was coming next, to help model for everyone else.

For the ceremony, you set aside your zafu, and use only the zabuton. The entire time, you are either standing, bowing, or sitting in chokei, which means knees bent, resting your weight on your knees and shins, with the rest of your body upright, in gassho (hands in prayer position). I have done some exuberant full prostrations at Tassajara, and also at our recent Rohatsu Sesshin, so I know that those bows can work up some body heat. But I had never sat in chokei before. It looked deceptively simple. But, whoa! It turns out that this posture requires some major quadriceps action! Between the bowing and the kneeling, I was warm, winded, and sore by the end of rehearsal.

And that was only the rehearsal. I had to do the whole thing all over again about an hour later, the real deal.

Don’t get me wrong; it was absolutely fabulous. The ceremony, the sounds, the music of it all, combined with the physical movements: It was like being part of a dance. I loved it so much, that I can’t wait to do it again. And I really want to learn the kokyo role.

But when I woke up the next morning, I groaned. My thighs felt like I had just gone through circuit training at the gym with a gung-ho 20-year-old fitness pro, after spending a year of sloth on the couch eating bon-bons and watching daytime soaps. It was that bad. My partner was in hysterics listening to me vocalize every time I had to either stand up from a chair, or sit back down again – equally painful.

I asked around via email, and it turns out I’m not the only one who got a workout. My buddy Malcolm Yuill-Thornton said he had just been saying to someone in his life that he was still “feeling the ‘burn’ from our prostrations.” When I mentioned it to Joan, she sent this reply: “I call the full moon ceremony the ‘quad and pec total workout.’ Not for sissies!!”

So, coming as it did at this auspicious time of year when we’re all setting goals for ourselves and turning over the proverbial new leaves…How about introducing the idea of a Zen Monk’s Workout? I can already see the ad campaign on late-night TV:

“So busy you need to multi-task? Find spirituality and get fit at the same time! Just call this toll-free number. We’ll send you a Full Moon Ceremony workout DVD and a zabuton for only $29.99! Call within the next 15 minutes, and we’ll include a complete set of oryoki bowls, with detailed instructions on how to lose weight through the clumsy use of chopsticks. But wait! There’s more! Tonight only, we’ll also throw in a five-inch-high glow-in-the-dark statue of Buddha. Act now, and don’t miss this amazing offer!”

Whattaya think? A money-maker, or what?


Good-bye, 2009 – A Year in Review

Last night at Russian River Zendo, we finished off 2009 with three hours of sitting, our first full moon ceremony, ringing the densho (bell) 108 times up to the stroke of midnight, and then hearing a neighbor play “Auld Lang Syne” on his trombone. The new decade started upstairs at Tony and Darlene’s house, with champagne, hot sake, a varied potluck spread that contained everything from cabbage rolls to sushi to mini-quiches, and lots and lots of chocolate.

It has been quite a year for me as a Zen practitioner. 2009 is the year that I decided to plunge in completely, to give myself to this practice and open my heart to my sangha.

After two years of rather erratic attendance, last January I made the commitment to attend my Tuesday night sangha every week – a commitment that, with a few rare exceptions, I was able to keep. Regular attendance meant that I began to feel part of the group, and gradually took on responsibilities, and now I miss it terribly when a scheduling conflict keeps me away.

I also began attending a study class at Russian River Zendo one Saturday a month, and in April, started participating in the monthly Precepts class as well. That led to fairly regular attendance at Saturday morning sits and service at RRZ, allowing me to expand still further my Zen family contacts, as I grew close to people in that context.

Before this year, I had only done one all-day sit. This year, I participated in two all-day sits at RRZ, one at Berkeley Zen Center, plus a three-day sit and a five-day sit with RRZ at Black Mountain Center. The one day sits were fairly tortuous, and I thought I would never survive a longer sit. The three-day one was difficult – but the most recent, the Rohatsu Sesshin, although the longest at five days, was the easiest so far. I fell so completely into the rhythm of the experience, that I believe I could have continued for a couple of weeks. What a surprise! It has made me eager for more sesshin days.

This past summer, I made the decision to pursue jukai (lay ordination). With a group of my other sangha members, I have been studying the Precepts, and since October, we have been sewing our rakusu together. The sewing has been challenging but also unexpectedly pleasant, considering the fact that I had very little faith at the outset that I was going to be able to do it.

I also broadened my Zen world byvisiting other places. I went to services at the Berkeley Zen Center and the Santa Cruz Zen Center this year, as well as a small zendo in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The trip to Tassajara made me become enchanted with the forms and rituals of Zen, and so I was thrilled to be able to be part of two classes with Joan Amaral on the forms, and have brought that knowledge into my role as kokyo (chant leader) at the Tuesday night group. I have become so enamored of chanting, that I have added it to my home sitting routine as well. I just can’t get enough.

Along with others, I made a ceramic jizo for the new temple grounds at RRZ, which was so much fun that I went back to artist Susan Spencer’s house to make a second for my own garden.

At the urgings of Tony, Darlene and Joan, I started a blog for Russian River Zendo during the last days in September, and have now posted over 90 entries in the past three months. This “practice” has proven to be both challenging and rewarding, and has led me to many new insights and richer understandings of everything else I am learning.

And, as a culmination of all of these things, I asked Tony to be my teacher, and am in the process of beginning what I hope will be a long relationship of guidance and tutelage.

So, all in all, it has been one amazing year of deepening practice and Zen discovery. Thank you to all of you for being part of it.


You Are Feeling Very Sleepy….

During a brainstorming session about possible story ideas for the first issue of the Calistoga Tribune in 2010, I was trying to come up with creative angles on the whole New Year’s topic. In the past, we have written stories about health clubs, asked local bigwigs for predictions, and stopped people on the street to ask what their resolutions were. After eight years, though, the annual events and holidays become harder and harder to tackle with a fresh mind.

Then I saw that we have two new regular advertisers in the newspaper: a hypnotist and an astrologer. Perfect! Here was a unique take on working on resolutions, and also something I knew nothing about. I hoped it would be interesting to me and to our readers.

And so, I interviewed Anthony Royce Barnacott of Kamalot Astrology and Donna Rodolph of Hypnosis for Change. Both were knowledgeable, enthusiastic and contagiously thrilled to talk to me. But there was a bonus that I wasn’t expecting: both also offered me a free trial to get a taste of what they do.

Anthony is currently preparing my TimeLine, an astrological chart which will tell what is in store for me in 2010 based on my Dec. 26, 1962, 5:43 p.m. birthdate. It should arrive in the mail in the next day or two. So that is still to come.

Today, at 12:30 p.m., I was hypnotized by Donna. She specializes in helping people overcome problems, things like losing weight, stopping smoking, overcoming fears, reducing stress or managing pain. Although there were any number of things on that list I could have chosen, I selected the biggest obstacle in my life: food. I have struggled with eating disorders and weight gain and loss since I was a young teenager. I have periods of stability, then again go back into the cycle of destructive behaviors. Could hypnosis really work?

Well, we’ll see. The session was surprisingly relaxing, and did not, as I thought it might, put me into an unconscious state. Instead, it was more like a deep attentiveness, with a complete absence of tension. Donna had me visualize what it would be like to be healthy and fit, and I had a strong image of myself as a runner, something I used to do, and have been considering taking up again.

I still feel a bit skeptical of the whole process. But despite that, hopeful. Maybe this really can help me rewire my brain, and establish new behaviors.

An interesting note to all of this was Donna’s comment that she could not offer me any “satisfied customers” names for interviews, because when she was starting her still relatively new practice, most of her clients were Christians. As in fundamentalists. And, because of that, they were very guarded about their participation. Apparently there was some sense that a good Christian shouldn’t be turning to something as potentially “spooky” as hypnosis for answers. I guess God was supposed to do it for them.

All of which made me reflect on my own spiritual practice. I didn’t turn to hypnosis and astrology looking for answers – what I was really looking for was a story. But once I was there, it made me wonder a bit. How does all of this fit in with Zen?

I guess the good news is that it doesn’t have to fit. There’s enough room in my Zen, anyway, for everything….even the far out stuff. Because it’s not a religion – it’s a way of being present for life, no matter where each day takes me.



I received a holiday greeting from Tony Patchell that was simply too good not to share – so I am stealing it, and offering it up to all of you….

“Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all and a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2010, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make America great (not to imply that America is necessarily greater than any other country or is the only ‘AMERICA’ in the western hemisphere), and without regard to the race, creed, color, age, physical disability, religious faith, or sexual preference of the wishee.”

And with that….off to eat more cookies!

(Thanks, Tony!)

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved