A quick breath

Falling closer to stillness

A gift before the tree excused me

A gift before the tree excused me

Glancing up, I happened to see the rain begin to slow. Not let up. Still plenty of it drizzling down. Before my eyes, its falling suddenly shifted into something closer to stillness coming in mid-air, as each drop, every drop, took a gentler pace, no longer hurtling toward the hard ground below to burst asunder in a splash, rather now easing downward to tenderly meet, settle onto, and soak into the supportive earth. My chest ached as the metronome of my heart was, in that instant, rendered out of sync with the grace of the moment. What is there to do but breathe?

Raindrops, now snowflakes
falling closer to stillness–
more time in the sky.

A quick breath

A rose by any other…

See the root?

See the root?

The gift of a name–
a reflection or road map?
Regardless, live it.

山花, San’ka, Mountain Flower.

The Buddha twirled a flower. 🙂

Roots in the earth, strong and stably grounded, blooming up into the clouds, our teachers.

Brief and ephemeral, growing into fruit or sending out seeds on the wind.

山 can also be read as Temple. Temple Flower–who doesn’t blossom in the zendo?


Deep gratitude to Sensei Kaz Tanahashi for the name 山花 and to Jun Pei Cui, resident artist of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum store, who designed & carved the seal.

A quick breath

What yield?

Grapevine pruning

Did you know they weep when cut?

Pruning the grapevines–
choosing what lives and what dies,
will the yield be good?

Neglected vines. Dead vines. So many buds. Blackberries thorning their way through. Start cutting. Cut away the spent ones, living only as the mold that eats them. Cut away the damaging ones, who rub another to wound or choke it. Cut away rows and rows of buds–so many potential vines, fruit, forms. Feel the vines’ tears as they land on the back of your neck or wrist. Shed a few of your own. Keep cutting. Apologize and thank the cuttings, now just sticks on the ground. Keep choosing. Concentrate the growth. Cut your hand on a stubborn blackberry vine. Find a tool to dig it our from the roots. See how far they spread. Return to cutting.

A quick breath

Frost on an airplane window

Frost calligraphy on an airplane window

As one of Tanahashi Sensei‘s seals reads: one brush line embodies the universe

It cannot be read–
calligraphy everywhere,
singing of what is.

Branches against the sky. Shadows on the bedspread. Wrinkles on the dog’s tongue. Needle and thread. Patterns in the sandpaper. The hairs on your arm. Dust in the sun’s rays. Spots on the slug’s back. Oil swirling in a puddle. Steam rising to the sky. Waves dancing on the Sound. The iris of her eye. Your shoelaces. Tamari on rice. Pine needles on the ground. Lines in the palm of your hand. Cracks in the pavement. Exhaust from the car up ahead. Crumpled paper lying by the side of the road. Crumbled cornbread being fed to the birds. Their feathers. Their droppings. Wood grain. Eye wrinkles during a smile. Frost on an airplane window.

A leg up

108 Ways of Being

wooden wrist mala from compassion malas on Etsy

108 beads for 108 ways to be.

Whether we’re working to overcome a bad bout of depression, seeking to grieve and assimilate a new loss, or just evolving into yet another new type of awareness that’s left us needing to recalibrate a bit, a relatively objective self-assessment rubric can help. Mood trackers can be vague, even with a numeric 1-10 scale or a pre-set list of words to choose from. I know that my own sense of how I’m feeling in any given moment shifts with how I’m feeling in aggregate, and so it can be hard to tell if it’s the land or the boat that’s moving, y’know?

It would be nice to start with some objective measurement, like standing a child up to their growth chart on the wall. Really, though, life isn’t that linear. Our experience of moving through it is a little more like dead reckoning at sea. And really, that’s still pretty flat by comparison–only going from one dimension (up or down) to two (north versus south & east versus west). How do we tally up the more unquantifiable aspects of our infinitely faceted jewels that are always shifting in the light to reflect the countless others?

What about a more subjective measurement? I once made up a system that had such ratings for my sense of how I did in a day like RTW (rocking the world), JST (just slogging through), and such. While it gave me a fun and easy way to communicate my state with my counselor, it wasn’t really useful in terms of holding myself accountable in the name of personal growth. Under any scrutiny at all, those subjective assessments just collapse into various flavors and combinations of like & dislike (which, we know from the sutras, is a disease of the mind).

So, how do we break it down into as objective a series of parameters as we can? I recently met someone who had a great answer for that, even though that wasn’t what I asked him.

While attending a retreat at Upaya Zen Center, one day at lunch I found myself sitting across the table from Genzan, one of the novice priests (who has since become a friend and valued teacher), who was wearing a long mala wrapped around his wrist. I’ve always been curious about malas and their role in the practice. I’ve never seen my teacher use or wear one, and so they are not something that has formally played any role in my practice thus far. So, I asked Genzan about his. He replied that it had been a gift at his ordination. When I asked him what it meant or what it was for, the answer was a gift to us all.

Apparently, the 108 beads symbolize 108 ways of being. Our awareness can be placed in any of our 6 senses: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; focused on any of 3 timeframes: past, present future; judged from any of 3 mindsets: positive, neutral, negative; and engaged with either of 2 states of attachment: grasping, non-grasping. 6 x 3 x 3 x 2 = 108. Wow.

When it comes to understanding, or even changing, our habitual states and patterns, awareness is the keenest tool. Time and again since learning about this, I’ve used it in moments where my feelings are stirred up. Whether it’s the mind+past+negative+grasping (in this model negative + grasping is aversion) of finding myself reliving old hurts from someone I hope to never see again, or the body+future+positive+grasping of looking forward to curling up to cuddle with my husband at the end of a tough day, it’s amazing how connecting with each of these aspects and calling them out for what they are almost effortlessly pulls that focus back to a-balance-of-the-six+present+neutral+non-grasping state of observation, even as the thoughts and feelings play on.

In Hakomi/IFS therapy (and likely other modalities, but that’s where I’ve heard it), that’s called being “in self,” and it’s that presence and mindfulness that spares us fresh trauma from the slings and arrows of our memories, fantasies, wishes, and wants and frees us to freshly see and fall in love again and again with each and every moment, just as it is.

A quick breath

One being

Reflection at the PDX Japanese Garden

We’re all the puddle.

Everywhere, just look–
organs in the same body,
one being, one breath.

Plant breathes out; you breathe in. Whose breath is it? Eat the plant; whose body is it? Plant fiber is broken down by the myriad beings in the gut. How many are you? Drink water that has danced through the sky as snow, refracted countless rainbows, passed through seas and sewers and the veins of ages of beings before you. You are mostly water; who haven’t you been? Every cell made of recycled matter that was once an oak tree, a cow pie, a squid–and before all of that, a star. Feel how you still shine in the sky?

Is your eye truly separate from your intestines? Would you rather do without one or the other? How about your heart? Is it truly separate from your brain? Could you do without one or the other? Can the intestines beat, or the eye think? She may be here, and you may be there; but where do you end, and where does she begin? Take a closer look. Well, actually, the closer you look, the more elusive our boundaries get, until…

A quick breath


Dewdrops on lacinato kale in my patch at the Johnson Farm, Bainbridge Island, WA

Dewdrops on lacinato kale in my garden at the Johnson Farm, Bainbridge Island, WA

Sparkling dewdrops–
the stroke of the day starts here;
don’t forget to smile.

At Tanahashi Sensei‘s recent Calligraphy: Heart of the Brush workshop at Upaya, in which we covered material and techniques from his book of the same name, Master Kaz taught us that every stroke starts even before the brush reaches the page: with presence, with breath, with a smile–“not a ‘cheese’ smile,” as he says– and with a conscious, arching approach. When that motion does bring brush to paper, each stroke almost always begins (and often ends) with a “dewdrop.”

A leg up

On Intimacy & Interrogativity

When I think about what it means to be ‘intimate,’ usually a bunch of synonyms come to mind: present, aware, awake, engaged, attentive. Really, though, enacting any of those is usually a charade of some kind, complete with its own script: make eye contact, nod, hum disapprovingly or delightedly depending on the subject at hand, make physical contact as appropriate. Any of that enacting, though, is not actually being intimate. Fact is you can’t just “be intimate.” You can’t be anything that you think is intimacy because then you’re being something, and, well, ‘something’ isn’t intimate. (Sorry for the tautology, but it’s true.)

To be intimate, you have to be nothing. No certainty, no entrenching yourself in familiarity, no knowing the terrain or the ways. If you’re in any of that, you’re in your head. There’s only one way to get out of your head, and that’s to not know. What do you do when you don’t know? You wonder. You question. You pay attention and observe with an investigative heart. Intimacy is fundamentally interrogative.

Whenever we slide into the familiar, we fool ourselves into thinking that we know how something will go down, what someone will say. Then, at that point, we’re not really interacting with them or being alive to the moment anymore; we’re lost in our own fantasies, surfacing only long enough to congratulate ourselves when what we thought was going to happen happens (“I totally called it!”) or to express our dismay when it doesn’t (“No way!”).

As something is happening around you, whether it’s a conversation with a dear friend or a sunset viewed from a peak you’ve never climbed before, there’s that fleeting sensation where we let go of ourselves and look to see, listen to hear, and it’s there, in the clarity of that wonder, that we are truly present with and alive to that moment as it unfolds. My roshi tells me that there was an ancestor long ago who taught us to “wander in the circle of wonder.” Yeah, what he said.

So, let’s hold that wonder, even in the most familiar of spaces. For, really, you never know what will happen. Treasure that not knowing. Look through it always. Let it bring the world closer—all the way in. Like a child playing detective, walking around looking always through their magnifying glass, hold that question mark of an interrogative heart before you. Gaze deeply at the world through it. Let it enlarge, expand, clarify, and connect your experience of the moment. Let its hook yoke you to what is. Lose yourself in that, and you will gain your whole self.

A leg up

Resisting rain

Rain drops on my head
down my neck, shoulders, & back
Just moving on through

Seattlites, and all us other residents along and around the Salish Sea, do not use umbrellas. Tourists do, of course, but we residents have long since taken the presence of rain in the 9-and-a-half-month-long wet season as a given and purchased waterproof coats.

Even so, now and then, something in the look of the sky or the scent on the air tells us to leave the jacket at home. Maybe it’s a little warm out. Or, perhaps, the forecast said there’d be no precip today. For whatever reason, even us seasoned locals end up getting rained on a fair amount. It’s certainly happened, and continues to happen pretty regularly, to me.

A few years ago, though, I noticed something about it. When unexpected rain came, and I heard it on the roof or saw it out the window, I’d feel that familiar, awful, sinking “oh, no!” Then, as I approached the threshold, I’d tense and tighten. Once out in it, I’d rush to get through it, thinking I was somehow minimizing the inevitable wetness by contracting my body. Making myself smaller & faster, I somehow thought fewer drops would hit me, I guess.

Then, one day, the thought rose up that I was going to get wet anyway. I realized that all that tension and resistance and rush was self-imposed. So, I let it go. I let my shoulders settle, opened my chest, and got my head back up on top of my neck where it belonged, and I just walked. Same side walk, same rain drops, same steps, and yet, a completely different experience.

I have since tried and found that this same phenomenon holds true not just for rain, but for snowy cold, muggy heat, or any other fleeting condition–even pain. When infection blooms and from it my body thrums, or the roots of my teeth inexplicably ache right up into the backs of my eyeballs, or my spine lights up with its electric fire, I’ve learned that, like the rain, it just is, and when I let it be and just move on through it, it’s a completely different experience.

A leg up

Never apart

It is never apart from this very place

Awash in a river of grief and illness, I found myself like one “riding in a boat, [who] looks around and sees the shore, [and] mistakenly thinks that the bank is moving.” [Genjo Koan, Paul Jaffe; from TTS sutra book] What a swirl it has been: the numbness of a grief so keen from a death such that I just forgot to sit, a trip back to my childhood home staying among family and lulling into their rhythms and ways and deluding myself that I had no time or place to sit, back home to illness in the wake of the shock of the grief. For the first month, I didn’t think about it. For the second, I missed my practice. I missed my cushions and the resilience that my time on them lends me. I missed being a duck and letting it all roll off my back, even for just a little while each day. I missed knowing myself, seeing my lens for what it is. I knew how to get it back, but it had drifted ‘so far away.’ How do I tell my roshi that I’ve slacked off so bad and I feel so guilty? How do I forgo a drink with dinner to take the edge off so that my mind can be clear to sit once the kids go to bed? There’s never any time, and I never have the energy. And it’s just so hard, and I feel so crummy about it, and, and, and…

And then my roshi reached in and invited us up to the weekend retreat. We went. We sat. We listened. We laughed a great deal. (Wait, what? Well, Red Pine was presenting, and well, he’s Red Pine.) Most importantly, we sat. That was it. No guilt, no fuss, nothing to do. Don’t just do something; sit there. All that other stuff is just delusion. Sure, that two months is gone, but today isn’t.