Archive | December 2013

Incubation Space

“Regardless of how long formal training takes, there is after that a period of maturation called “the nurturing of the sacred fetus.” This is a period of time in which the teachings are allowed to penetrate one’s flesh and bones and blood so that they become a manifestation of our being. It’s only then that a person is really ready for the seal of approval.

“In the literature of Zen there are many examples where after the transmission, the teacher asked the disciple to disappear and let his or her understanding mature. The Sixth Ancestor, Huineng, spent sixteen years in hiding before he emerged and began to teach. The process of training takes a long period of time. There are no quickies in Zen.” Chasing Buddhas and Ancestors, Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori, Roshi, Koans of the Way of Reality, Master Yunmen’s Zen Warnings

Creative people everywhere know about “nurturing the sacred fetus,” although I have never heard it put like that. Students are also familiar with the concept. People normally call it “incubation.” I use it.

What I do is cram my head full of information. And then I do nothing. The information knits itself together. I make connections I never contemplated. The subconscious is truly amazing.

I’m in the process of doing it now. I am studying New Age-y medicine. I am learning about chakras and intuitive diagnosis and things like that. I am fascinated by it. I do not understand all of it by a long shot. Worse yet, I cannot even see auras!

I don’t care. I want the understanding at my disposal when needed. What if I saw someone’s aura and didn’t know what it is? I want the foundational understanding just in case it happens someday.




“We are so prepared to surrender, to give up our own power. We have no idea how powerful we are. No sense of it. We’re endowed with an incredible mind, incredible potential, incredible strength, incredible determination. And we’re ready to give it up. There’s no other animal on the face of the earth that seems so willing to give up. Other animals will scuffle until they take care of the barrier or they’re crushed in the attempt.

“It’s that kind of determination that we need to settle the most difficult things we carry around with us. It’s no small thing, the things that we deal with–our demons, our barriers, our hesitancies, our fears, and our anger. Nobody is going to do it for us; nobody is capable of doing it for us. We must, of necessity, accomplish the barriers ourselves. When you really push “I can’t let go” to the edge and you finally do let go, the next time becomes that much easier. Each barrier you encounter is that much easier to deal with.” Can Do, Will Do, Done, Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori Roshi,True Dharma Eye, Case 143, Touzi’s Clarification of the Ancestor’s Intention

Only we humans give up so easily. I’ve been guilty of it myself. “It’s just too hard. It’s not worth it.” Most things aren’t worth it, but a few things are: enlightenment, doing what you believe is the right thing, getting your vehicle out of the ditch, etc.

I believe we give up too easily because our energy is already going in twenty different and unworthy directions. One more demand elicits the “screw it” response. We’re already tired.

Going to school endlessly has taught me to push for those things I believe are worthy of an investment of my time. I’ve seen so many people fail at classes and it is almost always for the same reason: the student has too many other demands on their time, many of which are pure BS.  Students grossly underestimate the sheer amount of time many classes demand, even the easy ones. Homework, discussion questions, and term papers apply to even the easiest of classes. Then there are the classes that you have no natural affinity for, which can take up to three times the time to do the homework than it takes other students. For example, I am not naturally talented at accounting. I’ve had accounting classes that sucked up 25 hours per week for homework. Other students could do it in eight hours.

I remember one girl telling me, “I have the right to party.” I responded, “The teacher has the right to fail your ass, too.” She was hurt I never called her again, but I wasn’t wasting my time trying to help someone whose highest priority was partying. I, unlike her, did not live in a bad Beastie Boys video. I took fewer classes than she did. She failed all of hers. I aced most of mine. I had no intention of failing. I removed any obstacles to my success. Hangovers were never part of my academic strategy.

As a tutor, I have found that the students that practice eventually catch on, no matter how little natural ability they may have at a particular subject. They may never be great at it, but they don’t fail. It’s about persistence, not ability. People are capable of so much more than they realize.

I believe success at pretty much anything demands a reduction of other competing priorities. Nobody can be everywhere at all times. Choices are made. Consequences are dealt. Persistence does not guarantee success, but the alternative is to always wonder if you could have succeeded, had you just tried harder. I would rather fail honestly than to regret just not trying.




Zen, Space, and the Mind

“When we take stock of all these ideas, beliefs, and habits, we see them for what they are: constructs, figments of our imagination! By seeing that these things have no substance at all, we create the space to discover who we truly are.”  The Path of the Human Being, Dennis Genpo Merzel, p. 79

Despite not being a great housekeeper, I have an abiding interest in sacred space. In the Greek, the word for forgiveness is about making space for the other person. I am that space. You are that space. What is the clutter making the space unusable? Our thoughts. Zen is a big-ass broom.

But you can’t see the dust needing to be swept if your brain is full of unmovable and battered furniture made of unexamined beliefs. The beliefs seem solid, and perhaps they were at one point, but time and life have knocked the rivets out of their joints, one by one. That’s what happened to my Christianity: brick by brick, the foundation of my belief system was removed. I examined each one and marveled at how solid it had seemed. I made that brick! I fashioned it out of my own unmet needs. And I had so many. It is a wonder I didn’t become a Hare Krishna or Scientologist.

As I put my broken-down beliefs into the recycling bin one piece at a time, I found the change previously trapped in the cushions. A veritable treasure trove of coinage. The money didn’t come with the furniture. It was my money all along! I had been giving the furniture credit for possessing the cash, when it had fallen out of my pockets over the years, leaving me wondering where all my money had gone. I am retrieving my money even now.

And I can see it now that I have removed most of the larger pieces of beliefs.  There was no point doing Zen and sweeping my mind when I couldn’t even move around in my mind due to a lack of space. I’ve gradually done a great haul-away of my mind. I thought the furniture provided solidity to my life, but the truth was that it wasn’t even as valuable as the space it was occupying.  I kept hurting myself banging into it. Every piece removed made my mind more peaceful and safer. I have a lot more space now, but wow is my floor buried in dust-bunnies. Time to get out the broom and dust pan.

Surreal Encounters

I had an interesting encounter yesterday. I was sitting in a Biggby, as I do pretty much daily, and I saw someone I hadn’t seen in a few years. He is a Ukrainian Orthodox Christian. He is a good person and very enthusiastic about many Christian issues: pro-life, pro traditional marriage, anti-syncretism, etc. I sat and listened to him for probably longer than I should have. Of course, he invited me to his church, the local Russian one. It was all very nice.

And I couldn’t get away from him quickly enough. I wanted to slough off his energy as quickly as possible. What I respect about him is his desire for integrity; he truly tries to live his values. What I have a problem with is his lack of self-awareness. I sat there quietly, saying only a few things. He thought my insights were powerful. What he didn’t get was that my insights have come about from separating myself from Christian culture in general. Many, if not most, of the social issues he talked about, I oppose him totally on, but did not let on to my position. What point would there have been?

One thing I told him was:

When Christianity is the state religion, it survives.

When Christianity is persecuted, it thrives.

When Christianity is forced to compete, it dies.

He even wrote it down, seemingly oblivious to my blatant statement that Christianity is incapable of competing on a level playing field with other spiritualities. He clearly feels that there should be no competition and that Christianity should be enforced nationally, even as he decried the open hypocrisy in churches he’s seen. What can I say to someone that just listened to what I said and yet managed to miss the point entirely?

It was just another example of a huge spiritual disconnect. I speak and people hear what they want to hear. I would have felt more real had he inquired about my statement, as in, “What do you mean that Christianity dies when there is competition? Are you saying it is irrational?”

I’ve been having these encounters with Christians lately. It was reminiscent of when the priest gave a sermon about abortion a few months ago—to a congregation full of senior citizens! Most of the women there probably have not had a menstrual cycle since Reagan was president. Then there was the congregation trying to sell baklava to the poor to fix the parking lot; meanwhile, the local economy was collapsing! To say these encounters were weird would be a major understatement.

My encounters with Christians—even the most sincere and wonderful among them—seem to have a rather surreal quality about them. I find myself shaking (or scratching) my head or just simply saying, “Huh? What? Did that person really just say that? Are they kidding?”

I may just as well have said, “Blah, blah, blah.” Can no one see my lips moving?

Discovery, Not Doctrine

“Buddhism is a process of discovery, not a list of principles. There is no book of Buddhist principles. Buddhism is about realization. It is about transformation of consciousness. It means throwing everything out, including Buddhism, and going very deep within yourself to find the foundations of your life. And once you have done that, to learn to live your life out of that which has been realized—not what you’ve been told you should or shouldn’t do.” Wisdom Seeking Wisdom, Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori Roshi, True Dharma Eye, Case 241, Xuansha Hears the Sound of a Swallow

In pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 48, Stephen Mitchell Translation


I can tell that my values are being transformed. I now ask myself if something is necessary before I purchase or do it. I don’t need to look it up or automatically indulge. This is a much higher level of consciousness. I feel like I am not groping for things as much. During the holiday season, there is just so much to say no to.

I feel like I am doing less, but accomplishing more. By rejecting most of the values I grew up with, I now live with more integrity and simplicity. The need to please (which was never that strong in me to begin with) is almost gone. I am spinning my wheels less.

I come from a blue-collar family, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth types. I inherited a good work ethic, but, other than that, I am not particularly proud of my background. They would give you the shirt off their back, but were nothing short of horrified that a black man became president. Racism runs deep in my white trash family. Worse, there is no real priority placed upon education, as if people with no skills should be able to easily support a family on one income. That’s the time and place they grew up in. I never had that luxury. I’ve been forced to deal with a changing world from an early age. I have shed off most of the more destructive values.

With fewer and clearer values, my life is much simpler. There are fewer moral dilemmas if one’s primary value is the wholeness and healing of as many in a given situation. Not many values compete with that.



No Excitement

“Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.” Shunryu Suzuki

I like Zen’s emphasis on the ordinary and orderly. It provides an antidote to my culture’s obsession with speed and novelty. Just because something is new or fast doesn’t make it a worthwhile sucker of your time and life energy.

I just started volunteering at a local non-profit nature center. I do administrative things. Ironically, I am not a fan of the outdoors. So, people kept asking me, “Tell me more about why you are interested in volunteering here,” seeking my motivation. I told them that I am bored and want to use my skills for a useful purpose and that I cannot commit time-wise to a normal job.

I spent four hours in the office. Nothing particularly noteworthy happened. Until Liz came in. She was psyched to have someone willing to help organize some of the computer files, in particular the registration database. She wants to make it mail-merger friendly.

Now I am off and running. I spent last evening separating last and first names and moving columns of common information to the same relative locations on different sheets. It was boring, but it kept me busy and I know that what I am doing will make her job much easier.

And that’s where it’s at: making people’s jobs easier and things run more smoothly. So much of what we do is routine. To spend your day frustrated at the inability to get the routine stuff done expeditiously will make any worker frustrated. Frustrated workers seek alternative employment.

I am no expert on mail-merging. I’ve done it a couple times. So I have some brushing up to do. But the better I am at this stuff, the more I can help them and the more valuable skills I have. It feels good to help some place be more organized. Now I just need to apply more of that to my own life. When I was less organized, I felt like things were “good enough” for the longest time. Now that I have started the process, I just see everything as a big mess. If I ever get everything in my life in order, I will probably think things are more out of control than ever. I need to channel Suzuki Roshi.


Staying Home

“So whatever meditation you may be doing, make the hara your home. Take yourself there whenever you can. Take your meditation there and bring the two together—even if you consider yourself to be contemplating something more mental—don’t consider yourself abiding separately from your body and be up there in your mind. By staying at home you are abiding in the practice center of your being. By centering yourself there you are gathered up in a controlled and balanced state, so that when life energy wants to wander off in its frustration at its containment you can catch it quickly and drag it home again.” Dharma Mind Worldly Mind by David Smith, page 50


Zen is a combination of Buddhism and Taoism. Taoism is all about returning: seasonal cycles, going back to the feminine after masculine excursions, that kind of thing.

The hara is the spiritual energy center a couple inches below the navel, and is also called the tan dien and the second chakra.

The point of this quote is to not live exclusively in one’s head. I’ve spent most of my life living in my head. It’s a great way to avoid my feelings, but it doesn’t take long for it to feel very surreal. My mind is doing one thing and body is doing or expected to do something completely unrelated. That disconnect between body and mind is a relief during high-stress experiences, but it also isolates one from the changing sensory world of useful information. The stress level is reduced but at the cost of being informed and useful in this world. Go ahead. Take a nap in your head. Visit for a few hours. But don’t camp out, let alone build a house there. Living in one’s head can be peaceful, but it is not real. Others will see your detachment from reality and might visit you, but they will not seek advice from you.

Staying at home means, at the very least, not wandering too far off. Keeping the mind’s energy there helps to avoid dissipation. We all need energy and letting the mind suck it up depletes the body. Reconnecting the mind and body may be stressful at times, but at least the stress is real, not the product of an out-of-control mind. People, including myself, sometimes complain about not having a life, but the life we are seeking can never be found in the head; it is always necessarily connected to the body and the outside world.