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 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 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.