Monday, September 28, 2009

Surrender and Small Comforts

I am sitting on the couch in the dimming evening light, in the glow of the computer screen. I am happy to have no where to go, nothing to clean, no one who needs a phone call. I think I need some time to digest all that late August and early September have brought me. I feel a bit like a snake who has swallowed a cow. I need some time to lie here, inert, while the silent, invisible work of digestion takes place. Looking back, it has been a hard month and yet, when I say this, I am aware that not every moment was hard.

Yesterday I tried to practice surrender as 3 of us walked along the sun infused shore of China Beach, to just breathe in the energy of the giant trees in the forest and let the sound of the waves fill my ears. Nothing else. To let go of the subtle tentacles of wanting and needing, of planning and hoping, of thinking. Just to release the silent undercurrent and eddies of my habitual imaginings of how life should be. It was a fine warm day with good company.

Today after we delivered my good friend to the airport we stopped by to clean the last of my mother's things from her apartment. It felt good to have that taken care of. A few more faces of care workers and staff appeared to say good bye and I was able to offer them thanks for taking good care of my mother. Tomorrow I will deliver them some treats and a card, say a few final thank-yous and good byes. A closing and an opening woven seamlessly together, as so many things in life.

And so the trick as always is to be with what is, not to push away the sadness, but not to be swallowed by it. To take some time and rest and just be. To follow the call of what is needed, instead of rushing to fill up the space. To surrender, to let unfold what will. Sleeping in, being lazy, reading a book in bed these are the things that sound good to me right now. To just really sink into these small comforts.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

"I don't like to be afraid, it scares me" -Woody Allen

I just got wacked upside the head last night by a large fear stick. It's interesting to me that my brush with the fear stick always causes the same reaction in me. I get terrified about something and have the same knee jerk reaction of not knowing what to do, of feeling overwhelmed, like I might drown in a pool of my own fear. No maybe this doesn't approach an accurate description of it. It's more like the spiritual temperature drops so far below freezing that I am immobilized. I become some inert brittle block of fear. I think I can identify with the catatonic.

The timing of some things was interesting. Tricycle's Daily Dharma proved to be whitling away on the fear stick this morning. It was a writing by Ezra Bayda, one of my favourite Zen teachers, called "The Three Things We Fear Most". How did he know this was what I needed to hear? It was interesting to be reminded of that neural groove that we all fall into, that our way of reacting to our fear is the result of deeply ingrained patterns in the brain. It was a good reminder that one of things that needed attention is this habitual reaction to my fear. He suggests breathing it into the heart, not running with the story; things I know it my head but are often difficult to do on the spot. He also suggests being curious about our fear, really exploring it, asking questions like how will it be this time? It's an entirely different way of relating to the fear that feels like it can break that habitual bond of terror.

Here's a section of his post that spoke to my particular brand of fear, one he calls the fear of helplessness: "We all dread the helplessness of losing control, and yet real freedom lies in recognizing the futility of demanding that life be within our control. Instead, we must learn the willingness to feel—to say yes to—the experience of helplessness itself. This is one of the hidden gifts of serious illness or loss. It pushes us right to our edge, where we may have the good fortune to realize that our only real option is to surrender to our experience and let it just be.

During a three-year period in the early 1990s when I was seriously ill with no indication that I would ever get better, I watched my life as I had known it begin to fall apart. I not only lost my ability to work and engage in physical activities, I also experienced a dismantling of my basic identities. At first, it was disorienting and frightening not to have the props of seeing myself as a Zen practitioner, a carpenter and contractor (my livelihood), a husband and a father. But as I stayed with the fears, and particularly as I was able to bring the quality of lovingkindness to the experience, there came a dramatic shift.
As the illusory self-images were stripped away, I experienced the freedom of not needing to be anyone at all. By truly surrendering to the experience of helplessness, by letting everything I clung to just fall apart, I found that what remained was more than enough. As we learn to breathe fear into the center of the chest, the heart feels more and more spacious. I’m not talking about the heart as a muscle in our chest, but rather the heart that is our true nature. This heart is more spacious than the mind can ever imagine." Bayda

The other interesting bit of timing that seemed to be offering me some direction was that I awoke at some point during the late evening to hear music my partner had put on. The song that was playing was an instrumental version of "Let It Be". It too was just what I needed to hear. And so the adventure continues. Can I breath in my fear today? Can I be curious about it? And can I just let it be?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Closer to the Truth

I am artless, as in without art, new art that is. Due to the last month's activities art has been pre-empted by other parts of life, the parts where people die and you have to find new homes for their stuff or other people get ready to sell their houses and have to clean and paint and declutter.

The last week has been particularly weird. I am not unacquainted with the suffering in the world and yet it seems so in my face lately. In my human-trying-to figure -it-out-way, I ask what's this all about, why is this coming to me? A fruitless, even foolish question, with no answer. It just is. One day there is an email from a new friend who has just received a cancer diagnosis. On the same day a note about another friend who has had a serious cancer reoccurance. Another day some not so good news about a family member's cancer surgery.

I clean out my mother's apartment and though I have managed her passing fairly well I am struck by how sad I feel as I take the last few pieces of clothing out of the closet and put them in a box for the Hospice Thrift Shop. My brother and I ponder the original birth certificates of my parents that we find in a locked metal box my mother kept. There is a finality to it all that can't help but be sad. And yet not every moment is sad. My brother tells stories about jumping on the bed as a kid and breaking it. We enjoy potato latkes and challah sandwiches in the sunshine at a little cafe our mother liked. Impermanance washes over us like the sunshine. We swish it around in our mouths with the coffee.

Yesterday I chipped a tooth and was ready to go down the avenue of, "man things are crazy and weird and bad. Who let the demons out? And I was going to slump into a heap of overwhelm on the chesterfield when a young friend called to tell me his mother had been seriously injured trying to commit suicide. All of a sudden my sad day and my chipped tooth didn't seem that important. Someone elses's troubles eclipsed mine and I offered an ear and some empathy.

I don't mean to sound like a downer but there it is, the truth of suffering all around us, sometimes closer to the top of the pond than others. So many people to keep in my prayers these days. It reminds me of the story of the mustard seed where the Buddha tells a woman whose son has just died to bring a mustard seed from a house that had not been touched by death. She canvases the village but can't find one. It is just one of the ways we are all connected. It is one of the things that helps compassion arise in us.

So as I drove along in the sunshine today I had to remind myself to really see that sunshine, to enjoy the cool fall air, not to get caught up in the story of how I am being overwhelmed by suffering. I can conjure up a whole big story that focuses on the suffering, making it big and everything else small. But that is not the whole truth, everything is moving and shifting. If I can move and shift with it from moment to moment my reality moves closer to the truth. I am freed from the big solid ball of suffering that threatens to suffocate me. It is more like a lacey tapestry with light shining through the openings. My wish for you is that you too, can breath in some joy through the openings.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Paper Buddhas & Tennis Balls

Here's a paper Buddha. Somehow it called to me as I looked through iphoto this morning. You've heard of paper tigers? I feel a bit like a paper Buddha these days.

We have been scrambling to keep the house neat as a pin, refreshed with flowers, garden watered as the gazillion folks make their way through our house to see if they'd like to buy it. After having to be out of the house all day we return to feedback and requests for more showing times. We feel the need to take care of our tenant who lives downstairs and not subject her to too much stress and visits. This is life in a faster lane than I usually live it.

I get to see the inclination to run with stories the mind creates and how emotions easily take hold when I am tired and stressed. I see my Taurus nature to get a little "uppity" when negative information is directed at me.

It is a prime opportunity to hold my seat and just let it all wash over me like a play. I am watching a movie really, just seeing it all unfold and yet..... it is so easy to get caught up in this little scene or that, to cling to what seems good and true to me.

There I am bouncing back and forth between hope and fear like a little tennis ball. It is a tiring thing, living life as a neon green tennis ball. Sometimes I take time out and decide with mindfulness that I will spend some time on the side lines, just me in green furry-ness, sitting peacefully on the edge of the court.

So today I am reminding myself to hold my seat as offers are called for at noon and to not go with the stories, to just let things unfold. This is my aim for the day, to enjoy my adventure, the movie that is my life, to keep my wits and not be drawn down the river of great emotion, that swirls with muddy confusion. I wish the same for you as you go about your day.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Tasting Life: Sweet, Salty, Sour, Pungent Or Bitter?

I just received my complimentary copy of "Buddhadharma Magazine" and I will have to post my art that appeared there as the credits that often appear in the "gutter" (which is the inside edge along the fold of the magazine) got lost. I had so much fun with that one when they suggested I look in the gutter for the credits. No I couldn't find myself in the gutter, although I know I spend some time there on a regular basis! Anyway I will get credit in the next issue which is just fine.

But what I am getting around to is a piece by Ezra Bayda, a Zen teacher whose clear, pragmatic writing I like a lot. In his Buddhadharma commentary called "The False Promise" he talks about how we spend a lot of time, years in fact trying to "be free of the anxious quiver of being". What a great image, "the anxious quiver of being." It can be almost too much to bear sometime.

And I think if we're honest most of us go there, trying to escape the anxious quiver. We embrace and lean into the comfort and try and get the uncomfortable out of the way as quickly as possible. We're hoping through our practice that we'll become less angry, less fearful, less gripped by our emotions, more clear and wise, less greedy. Some look forward to some sort of "enlightenment". We might hope to be calm and tranquil or clear, maybe blissful. We all spend some time with our hopes.

But Bayda points out: "One of the hardest things to understand in practice is that we don't have to fulfill our idealized pictures of how we're supposed to be or what life is supposed to be. All we have to do is experience and work with what our life is right now. It doesn't matter what arises. Nor does it matter how we feel about it. This may be hard to accept, but all that matters is whether we can honestly acknowledge what is going on and then stay with the present-moment reality of the experience."

So if we're attentive we will see ourselves in our little games, wanting, hoping, expecting. We'll see ourselves trying to control our environment or trying always to figure things out. Why did this happen, what does it mean? As our house hit the market on Thursday I could see this. Until now we have just been working away, focused on the many hours of painting, sprucing and tidying that went into preparing the house for sale. What, the closets need to be neat as a pin, all the kitchen cabinets too, and the basement? But underlying all this work is some expectation that this will make the house sell. I even (for shame) snuck into the yard next door and tidied the pile of old barbecues and strollers that sat in clear view of one of our windows. Pragmatic yes? Am I trying to control outcomes? Yes. I did it out of frustration and longing after several friendly chats with the upstairs neighbours produced no tidying results.

But for me where I really get lost is in the "how I feel about it" part. I love working with what arises, that is my passion, seeing where I hope, seeing how I try to control or make sense of the unknowable. But I am easily lost in the "I wish that didn't make me so mad" or "I wish I was more compassionate", or "I shouldn't feel that way."

So Bayda's article really called out to me, reminding me that it's all okay, the passing clouds of the day. Yes I can do my practice and yes it may change me in the long run but it's really about just being here with "the anxious quiver of being"

There is lots of grist for the mill as our house hits the market, as I prepare to do my mother's paper work and settle her affairs. I will even confess to using a feng shui method to help with the sale of the house, (hoping in action??) that Erin from Dragon Horse told me about. It's a fun little tidbit that you want to know, right? She gave me a little red envelope. In it you put some dirt from your garden, something metal from your kitchen and a piece of wood from a baseboard. You throw all this into a fast running river! Have I resorted to magical thinking or am I just working with unseen energies?

So there it is. Our life as the path. Mostly we know this but it is so easy to loose our way. What comes to us is our practice, not our ideas of how practice or life should or shouldn't be. Each little morsel of our experience is as flavourful as the next if we just let the taste rest on our tongue, not preferring the sweet to the bitter.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Ego As Swiss Cheese, Full of holes and a bit stinky

It seems life is so full and busy right now that all I have time for is "to do what needs to be done", if that makes any sense. It seems akin to the experience Zen masters confer upon us when they have us sit a retreat with such intense schedule that somehow the ego doesn't have time for it's usual tricks. At some point in the process the ego begins to look like a bit of swiss cheese, full of holes and a bit stinky. Gruyere ego, that's what I am dining on these days.

It is all good, an opportunity for transformation. For the most part the experience of my mother's death has been a good one, one of deep peace and gratitude. Gratitude for her presence in my life, for all I have learned from her and with her and for her peaceful passing. I have encountered such loving and kind and comforting souls along these final steps of her journey, including the delightful, young funeral director who seemed to have such a direct understanding of the simple nature of our needs and dignified caring presence, a true kindred spirit. Of course there is sadness and a sense of an empty spot at moments when I might have called my mother or as I start on the project of cleaning out her apartment.

Thrown in with all this our house goes on the market this week so there is the busyness of last minute painting and prep which seems endless at this point. Throw in some phone calls and emails re: my mother and a little of this and that and all you can do really is attend to the details which is really what the Buddha suggested we do. Rumination and worry and anger are so clearly too much of energy suckers at this point. It seems so obvious from where I stand. And yet I got to look at what I habitually do and have a bit of a power struggle with the swiss cheese part of myself.

As we prepare we look at the house next door which has exploded into a rental property of vast busyness, 8 cars or more. I can no longer keep track of the number of people who actually live there. I had to spend a little grumble time to see the futility of my anger over this. I got to see the feature movie on clinging and fear as I worry over the impact of the this house on our property. And then I looked at my mother's death and how it had been so peaceful, why would I want to get all stirred up over the house next door? In the grand scheme of things how did this make any sense? Mother's death fine, house next door makes me crazy? I ask myself what's this all about. Why has it come to me? And the answer that seems most apparent is that there will always be people around us doing things that we (our little selves) don't like. At some point we need to make peace with that, find a way to hold it, that doesn't generate anger and torment for us. If I don't do it now, when will I do it, I ask myself? And so I work at being less egocentric. I work at letting go. It doesn't mean some appropriate action isn't taken. Maybe I will ask the woman upstairs if I can help her put some of her things in the storage room so the yard doesn't look so full of stuff. Or maybe I won't. I will wait and see what seems appropriate. And I feel thankful that my mother has provided me with this lovely parting gift of peace.

We attended my mother's cremation on Wednesday. It's not that usual for families to do but something in me wanted to do it. We helped the body in and started the cremation process, said a few prayers and a final good-bye. It seemed good to do, an act of respect and completion, a final act of keeping her company through the difficult. I have been saying a prayer for her each night before I fall into my work induced sleep.

And as always there is much to learn. It seems these days life is bringing me the simple reminder to do what needs to be done and let the rest go. To do my part, that's all I am asked really, and the universe handles the rest. No energy to waste on the fruitless trappings of worry and anger and speculation. No time for art, little time for blogging. But that is life right now, why argue with it? So I need to hurry off to buy more paint, paint the living room. I am truly thankful for all of this and the lovely souls I meet along the way each day. May your day bring you what you need.