Tag Archive | Zen

Trying to Get Beneath Things

During a meditation, I realized what I have always been trying to do: get to the causal level of everything. It explains everything: my obsession with simplicity, my interest in Taoism, endless therapy, my fascination with organizational dynamics (talk about a weird interest!), you name it.

The obvious problem is that most causes are also effects. Then endless cycle of karma is the epitome of what I am talking about. My understanding of the universe is that everything is interconnected and sometimes in ways we cannot see and may never fully understand. Anything that helps us connect more dots is often a good thing.

My epiphany had the ring of truth because my gut reaction was, “Ohhhhh. That’s it. Crap. How do I integrate this into my knowledge base?” Every time I have been excited at an idea, it has been because the execution of the idea held the promise of getting various needs (usually subconscious) met, whether romantically, religiously, socially, or vocationally. Of course the needs were never met because I was completely unaware of them until their never getting met became a foregone conclusion.

It reminds me of a book about the AIDS epidemic, The Band Played On, by Randy Shilts. Scientists were struggling to figure out what was causing all these bizarre maladies (horrific infections, cancers, etc.). An epidemiologist asked a patient what he remembered about the summer when he and all his friends (now suffering from similar problems) were all together. The patient mentioned “all the pretty boats in the harbor.” The epidemiologist instantly knew what the guy was talking about: the bi-centennial, 1976. The epidemiologist suddenly felt an instant foreboding. This was 1980. Whatever the hell was causing all these symptoms had a long latency period and people had been spreading it for years. Seemingly unrelated dots were simultaneously connected with haunting implications. Sometimes you almost wish denial was an option.

I want to deal with situations before they become problems, if that is possible. I want to deal with problems while they are still small, as the Tao Te Ching advises. Solutions always involve getting into the silence and refusing to unnecessarily complicate one’s life.

Easier said than done. Last year showed me that we are often given more than we can handle, belying Veggie Tales theology. Being forced to deal with things that are more than we can handle is called “trauma.” Sometimes you cannot deal with the underlying issue because you are too busy coping and just putting one foot in front of the other, and feeling good about being able to accomplish that much. Been there, done that.

So I ask myself what a life lived in the causal plane would look like. This is why I want to be in the back office somewhere, noticing everything and letting those in charge know the trends I see. I am not looking to be “the face of” anything. I am looking to make a difference on a deeper level than many people even know exists. Can I do this? Maybe someday, when my life is actually about me. But not for the foreseeable future. Right now, I am too busy functioning for two and dealing with the alert light in my car saying that the tire pressure is low, despite having two new tires and all the pressures being perfect. One thing at a time…..

Keeping Me Company

“The range of these between moments [emphasis in original] or intervals can be wide. Times of physical pain often take such a form, as can waiting in line for a driver’s license, and in general waiting for someone else to do something–for example, to sign a deal, to grant you a visa, to die [emphasis all mine, CDH], to fall in love with you, or to pass sentence on you.One of the virtues of meditation is that it allows you to tolerate or even enjoy such between moments, to befriend the material your mind throws to the surface when it is not otherwise occupied by chasing something or trying to improve its condition. There is a koan that encouraged me to examine such moments. The koan: ‘Count the stars in the sky.'” John Tarrant, Bring Me the Rhinoceros, p. 84-85

A friend asked me yesterday if I had emailed the physician’s assistant yet regarding what kinds of tests could be performed on Barry that wouldn’t be painful or invasive that might be helpful in treating his pain when he gets pain. I said no and wondered why. I figured it out today: I don’t want to get into hypothetical situations. What if…..? No. I want to email her when the situation is concrete, as in, “Barry is having a hard time swallowing (or is in pain or whatever). Do you have any suggestions of procedures that would be minimally invasive and minimally painful that might help to more specifically address the situation?”

In a few weeks, Barry will have a few doctor appointments and blood work done. Someone may say something that could change the conversation altogether. I am not pushing anything because that would make it all about me.

And so I wait. I never understood the concept of koans, but Bring Me The Rhinoceros has helped me to see the point. Tarrant talks about a koan choosing you. He also talks about them keeping you company. He says, “Koans unravel the world that we have thought up, and it is this unraveling that makes it possible for a different world to appear.”(p. 173) Being overly logical (not to mention cynical as hell), the point of koans always eluded me. Who gives a ____ about the sound of one hand clapping? But the idea of unraveling the pain story or of a question keeping me company in this time of lonesomeness greatly appeals to me. I’ll take what I can get.


But I’m not done with the First Half!

“If change and growth are not programmed into [emphasis in original] your spirituality, if there are not serious warnings about the blinding nature of fear and fanaticism, your religion will always [emphasis in original] end up worshipping the status quo and protecting your present ego position and personal advantage—as if it were God!…All we can conclude is that much of organized religion is itself living inside of first-half-of-life issues, which usually coincides with where most people are in any culture.” Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, by Richard Rohr, p. 11

Rohr talks about security, success, and containment as being the primary tasks of the first half of life. On many levels, I have failed in these essentials. I am only now coming to terms with how far behind I am. I am not a great housekeeper, but somehow I became the solely responsible home-owner for everything. I never got a career up and running, but somehow I am living the life of a retiree!

I feel as if I have been airlifted out of the first half of life and placed unceremoniously  in the middle of the second half—without any resources, guidance, or even acknowledgment that this new territory is real! It is disorienting. I live in a realm of wills, advance directives, funeral preparations, pensions, Social Security, blood work, routine physicals, etc.

So..what the heck was I doing for the first half? I was trying to avoid the mistakes of my brothers and peers. (“Stay out of my car with your joints and pot seeds.” “I think I will use birth control.” “I have to get an education because my husband is 16 years older than I am and Michigan’s economy is changing, and not for the better.”) I didn’t know what I wanted, but I did know that I had no desire to deal with the consequences they were dealing with. I was trying to prevent chaos. I was seeking sanity through every available means, including religion.

To say that my seeking sanity through religion was a failure would be an understatement of ginormous proportions. I would get along famously with church leaders, until I started to question their highly questionable judgment. I refused to honor the status quo because it seldom meant anything to me and never delivered on its promises to me. The status quo had to go. That attitude made me unfit for organized religion on every level. People had made tremendous sacrifices to create a status quo that worked for them and I basically defecated on it. The status quo had never worked for me and I refused to support it financially, emotionally, or socially. It was high school all over again: sacrifice every shred of self-respect and maybe, just maybe, we will accept you and love you. Talk about an offer I could refuse! The emotional manipulation was greatly resented.

But needs do not go away. I discovered that I could even use Zen (!) as an escape. I was trying to avoid the emotional hype of Christianity, only to find myself using Zen in the same emotionally escapist manner I was trying to avoid in church. There is not much difference in result if the intent is the same. I was finding the same relief in meditation that I saw on the faces of Pentecostals with their hypnotic hand-clapping and swaying. The tendency for self-deception is universal, regardless of religion.

So now I am in the second half of life, trying to figure out who I am and what I want. I didn’t finish the first half! And now I have to get help and advice from people that did successfully complete the first half. Who wants to listen to a failure? I am so lost.

More Emptiness

“We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move. We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. We work with being, but non-being is what we use.” Tao Te Ching, Mitchell translation, chapter 11


I have been struggling lately with not having goals. Last year, I stopped having the assumption that I would continue to live and achieve various goals in my lifetime. With no forward movement (goals, hopes, etc.) in my life, what on earth could I do?

That is where I have been. If you had zero goals or hopes in your life, what would you do?

I am discovering some interesting ironies. I am finding that working towards a particular goal or outcome puts me, to some degree, in a state of waiting. Once I have done absolutely everything I can to prepare for some eventuality (getting the degree, paying for a funeral yet to happen, getting a will for Barry, etc.), I am then in the position of waiting. And this is the ultimate passive state. So I am in the, “OK. Now what?” position. Instead of frantically preparing to live, I am actually living.

Being here is interesting. I am doing things because I want to. Not for a future goal. In some ways, I am now more active than before.

I can now do what I wanted to do many years ago—tell the truth about my family’s dysfunction—without fear of reprisal. Fear is focused on the future and I am not.

I can meditate with zero goals of enlightenment. I still have to take care of Barry and may never have the freedom to do long retreats. Pointless meditation is the best. It is a stopping of the insanity. It makes no pretenses. “Here I am. Deal with it,” it says.

The dysfunction in my family comes from not allowing issues to become conscious and from a lack of honesty in terms of what part each person plays. And so nothing ever changes. The insanity is justified throughout endless repetitions.

By stopping (and meditating), the cycle is broken and issues rise quickly to the surface. The stopping is the emptiness, the hub of the wheel, the interior of the house, etc. It is the blank tablet. Nothing is fixed, but at least you know what needs to be fixed and are no longer contributing to the insanity.

I still have no idea what I want, but now I am able to act on what I want as I figure it out. It is ongoing. I am not careless; I am fearless. When you have already let go of just about everything, what is there to fear? Audre Lord said (and I agree), “Of what was I ever afraid?”


A Special Kind of Stillness

In The Light Inside the Dark (p. 119), a story is told where a man hears cries and runs to help. He and a bunch of friends arrive on the scene and the person calling for help dies.

“When everything that could be done was done, and the ambulance called, the group of friends that had run to the scene stood there, just waiting, keeping company with the now dead young man and his world…To wait is good. It gives time for the world to turn and something else to come along. But this waiting extended and spread out. Time had stopped. There was nothing to do in the whole universe. Everything was simple, complete, still; each thing had equal weight. The man felt utterly present….This incomprehensible peace under duress is the taste of the empty world. At such a moment there is nothing to be done and this nothing has to be enough. The intimate attention of the man and his companions is their blessing on their friend, so irrecoverable, so newly dead.”

This is where I am. I have stopped the striving and ambition. I refuse to prepare for some future phase of my life that I may or may not have. I am here. And I am going to make the best of it.

A few days ago, I decided to volunteer at a women’s center on my end of town. They interviewed me and, while there, I signed a confidentiality agreement and a handbook acknowledgment agreement. They seem excited about me. They have some files I could consolidate for them. Also, they want me to help write some paper justifying their existence, showing how the services they provide for local women saves the taxpayers money and are no longer provided by traditional providers that have always done those services. This is right up my alley. I could do this in my sleep.

I have decided that I am going to continue helping this place until either I can no longer provide them any useful service or I move, whichever comes first. I may help them a few months or a few years. I don’t know. What I do know is that I can no longer wait for something in my life to change. And trying to change things myself has been radically unsuccessful. I have never tried so hard and accomplished so little.

I am making the most of the lack of movement in my life. Time has stopped for all, practical purposes. Also, it is January and I am enjoying the deep stillness of winter. On top of it all, there is right now a storm forming called Jonas that will close down most of the eastern seaboard. Thousands of flights have been cancelled in anticipation of it. Nothing is going anywhere, at least for a few days, and people may as well get used to it. I am hunkering down on so many levels.

Despair and Not Preparing

“Despair is a time of waiting, of paralysis, of non-time. When we are in its kingdom we do not distinguish among things. Our experience is incomplete because it is non-experience; it is not anything in particular itself and neither is it turning into something else.” The Light Inside the Dark by John Tarrant, p. 52

I am there sometimes. I spent the better part of last year there.

I cannot be comforted at times, especially by superficial clichés, which I call “Veggie Tales theology.”

Would you tell someone in a concentration camp, “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do,”? It is insipid. There is no real light at the end of my tunnel. Sorry if I get depressed. Sometimes the tough times outlast the tough people. That is truth. Patience can be pointless.

I have been having a rough time trying to motivate myself to do things to prepare for a next phase of my life that I don’t have any assurance of having.

So I’ve decided to indulge myself. I am eating things I really like, while I still like them. My tolerance and taste for white sugar is declining, so self-indulgence ain’t what it used to be.

I’ve also decided to lean on the fact that nothing is changing, to count on it, to base choices on it. I am simply taking care of myself and not concerning myself with a future that may or may not occur. If things are not going to change, I may as well take advantage of that. I am going to decorate the pit I have fallen into. I did absolutely everything last year I could think of to move my life forward. I’m done for now. I will find little things to do that mean something, but it is no longer in preparation for something.

I have prepared as much as a human can for various scenarios. I’ve gotten an education, planned for my own and Barry’s demise, gotten new windows for the house, cleared out the basement, etc. I’m done preparing. It is time to live in the meantime. This may not be a bardo at all. Things just are as they are. Lesson learned: I cannot move my life forward without life’s cooperation. I cannot find that house buyer. I cannot have that certainty (good or bad) regarding Barry’s health. If someone asked me if he has cancer, my response would have to be, “Maybe. We can’t be sure and he won’t have a biopsy.” I know nothing and all the prayer and meditation in the world do not fix that. I only meditate to be here now. I am not pretending to accomplish anything.

Transformation involves change. When the necessary changes do not occur, then maybe it’s not a phase. Maybe it’s the new normal.

It reminds me of a story of Shunryu Suzuki. A student was asking if he had ever met some renowned Japanese roshi. Suzuki said yes. The student asked what ever happened to Roshi So-and-So. Suzuki’s answer? Drum roll…. “He died.” I read that and cracked up. I laughed so hard it hurt.

Found a Profound Book

I am reading The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life by John Tarrant. OMG. This is probably one of the top ten books I have read in the last decade. It speaks to me on so many levels. I am not done, but it has had me crying more than once. I am sure I will be quoting it a lot.

It explains why I want a life of spirit while going through this dark night of the soul. Spirit is idealistic, seeking the pure and detached. Soul lives deeply and messily and, at times, angrily. Soul is down and dirty. It changes diapers and feels the endless losses of life. I have always wanted the spiritual and then found many of the most spiritual people I know to be kind, but airy-fairy and ungrounded. For example, I love the idea of living in a convent and being totally devoted to spiritual goals but the nuns I have met in person have been creepily childish and weirdly innocent. Maturity simply does not develop when all of your real world needs are taken care of for the long haul. Uncertainty develops coping skills.

Much of “spirituality” is pure escapism. That is part of what always attracted me to it, I’m sure. I feel a need to be careful with Zen because using it for escapist purposes is just too easy.

It is showing me the effects of my dark night and how the superficial reassurances of others can never help. I need the guidance and supervision of someone who has been where I am. I hope to meet that person in my lifetime.

Page 44:

“During the descent we also lose the way others see us. This is not always a bad thing in the long run, but it is humiliating and painful. The mask that we present to the world slips off and the face behind it becomes visible, with its expression of terror, greed, despair, dishonesty–whatever is usually kept in the cellar. The moment of surrendering the old image–of life, of the self–is most painful. At such a time we know that we must strike out on our own, but in our new solitude and shame sometimes we go under, for a while, or forever.”

This is me, submerging. I wonder if I will ever surface.

Be Careful What You Ask For

Now that life has calmed down (thank goodness), I am looking to make my life saner. And I’ve been doing fairly well with that.

One of my priorities has been trying to figure out how to get my house sold. It happens that one of my New Age-y friends knows a local realtor familiar with my neighborhood. She has given me his phone number and email. Why am I nervous about contacting him? I already have a realtor, but checking out what he has to say cannot hurt.

My pain seems habitual to some degree. But I am also oh, so tired of it. In “The Transformation”, Audre Lorde put it best:

“In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my own mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for in my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed I would have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence.”


Looking at my own mortality this past summer has done something similar to me. Am I still nervous? Yeah, but I don’t want to die like this. Sure, I’m nervous; I just don’t care that I’m nervous anymore.

Part of making my life saner has been major decluttering. The issue, I have discovered, is a matter of letting go of everything. I am approaching 50 and just figuring this out now. Last year, I let go of so much that it hurt: possessions, money fixing up the house, relationships, illusions, Barry’s health, and even my possible life. It was not cathartic; it was traumatic. Nevertheless, my life was simplified, even clutter-wise, more than I ever imagined possible.

Every object represents something. A relationship. A hope. A dream. A cherished illusion. Once the underlying issue is resolved to some degree, the objects are easily discarded. The hard part is tossing objects with the meanings still attached. It resolves nothing and brings up the pain all over again. The internal work must be done first or the process doesn’t work.

I’ve been reading a book called Buddha’s Daughters, written by multiple women Buddhists. One of the authors is Anne Carolyn Klein, mentioning her teacher Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche. He visited the University of Virginia and reminded his students “that so long as there is anything left to stir, paths of practice will stir them. It is like taking a whirling whisk to a floor. The floor might have seemed clean enough before we started sweeping, then the air gets so thick with dust we can hardly breathe. This means our sweeping is effective.” (p. 161)

This whole realtor thing raises questions. What on earth have I not let go of yet?



The Upside of Emptiness

Yesterday was fabulous. I went to a local bookstore, ate a salad, and relaxed.

No drama or trauma.

I believe that my refusal to repress anything whatsoever anymore has cleared the decks for days like yesterday. I am now dealing with my current feelings, which, no matter how ugly they may be, are fleeting. I feel like the past year scraped me out emotionally. I have the tools to eliminate the emotional clogs that kept me stuck. It is an emptiness I have never had.

Meditation enables me to know what I am feeling when I don’t know. I don’t do it when feeling overwhelmed because I can only handle so much at once. Having everything come up simultaneously can be re-traumatizing. I feel a clarity, or at least the option of having it, that I never had before.

It’s been a little more than a year since going to church. I don’t miss it at all. I thought I might. But I don’t miss the emotional manipulation. Part of what was annoying as a Protestant was the blatant whipping of people into an emotional frenzy. Being Orthodox brought some relief because the church really doesn’t care what you feel. It’s not in the business of making you feel good. The only thing better than a little emotional manipulation is no manipulation. I have a deep suspicion of someone that seems to have a great stake in making sure I feel certain things while ensuring that I don’t actually stop and think about what they are saying and their motives for saying it. Whipping people up emotionally is cult-like. Period.

I can use this time of non-drama for strategizing for the new year. Things have stopped for the moment. I have been needing this time of refreshing for a long time. (Exhale.)

Goodbye, 2015

2015 was my hardest year ever. No contest.

Just the level of chaos was bizarre. A BB through my living room window. Car problems. House problems. New windows. A bullet through the living room window into the new TV.

And the medical drama. An abnormal mammogram for me. Blood in Barry’s urine. Chronically high PSA levels. Barry deciding not to get a biopsy to determine the probability of (and possible spreading of) cancer.

What good came out of 2015? I’ve always wanted to simplify my life. To a great extent, I’ve done so now—albeit not always voluntarily. I’ve gotten rid of almost everything in the basement. I’ve whacked everything in the yard down to a more manageable form. I truly believe that I have less stuff now than when we lived in the apartment. That is huge.

And I’ve learned who I can and cannot count on in times of need. The blinders (and sometimes the gloves) are off. No more pretense. I know who can trusted and for what. At the top of the list are my parents. When my friends were all letting me down, my folks were there for me. They gave me a car. Can anyone say “Holy crap!”? And my mom showed me her totally awesome household abilities. There is just about nothing she hasn’t at least attempted in the past. She doesn’t always know what does work, but she can tell me if something is a royally bad idea. I don’t see her dying with Alzheimer’s like her mom. I envision her death as a fall off the roof or something falling on top of her. She has inspired confidence in me. If she can do something, I should be able to do it.

That confidence is what I am leaning on now. I’ve handled so much that I feel like I can handle almost anything. Maybe not all at once, but in bite-size chunks. I put the house up for sale and have done dozens of other things by myself I never thought I could or would have to do.

My life now is more authentic, perhaps by default. Having limited emotional, time, energy, and financial resources has forced me to let go of everything that no longer serves me (or maybe never did but I wasn’t honest about it). I see one-way relationships for the parasites they are, demanding access to my precious resources and then not finding my needs to be convenient for them. I’ve had to get more realistic about finances. The other day, the local neighbor kid came by. He has done a ton of yard work for me and I have paid him handsomely for it. He wanted to earn $40 for a ticket to Indiana. I explained that we were not rich and that the nice car in my driveway was given to me by my mom. Forty bucks is a lot of money in my world. I am authentically broke. Reality bites sometimes. Deluding myself into believing that I have social and financial resources that I do not actually possess has cost me dearly emotionally and that’s a price I am unwilling to pay any longer. If I am authentically pathetic, so be it.

Everything seems to come down to what I am and am not willing to invest my time, energy, and money into. Becoming realistic regarding my limits has been almost unbearably painful. Just because a relationship worked in my twenties doesn’t necessarily mean that maintaining it today is a worthwhile endeavor.

What do I want to take with me when I leave Michigan? What’s worth preserving? The less crowded my life is with things and people that serve no purpose, the more flexibility I have. Flexibility is more important to me than almost anything else I can think of.

Who knows? My values will probably change as time goes on, but that’s where I am at today. I don’t know if my life is any better today than a year ago, but I have a clarity about certain issues that I couldn’t even dream of this time last year. I am walking into 2016 clear-eyed and capable. Nothing beats clarity. I never had this kind of clarity going to church. Thank you, Zen.