Endless Changes

A short verse from Dongshan, a 6th century Chinese Zen teacher:

Not getting caught by it is or it isn’t
Do you have the courage to be at peace with it?
Everyone wants to leave the endless changes
But when we stop bending and fitting our lives
We come and sit by the fire.

It takes courage to not be caught by “it is or it isn’t” by liking and not liking, wanting and not wanting, good and bad, and right and wrong. We all want clarity, and of course some things are good and bad, and some things are right and wrong. And yet, how do we have the courage to hear other points of view, to not dismiss those who don’t agree with us?

The reality of change can be daunting. When I’m teaching, I sometimes suggest that if you don’t fully embrace the reality of change, just look in the mirror. Is that person now, the same person I was looking at yesterday, last year, ten years ago. The reality of change is potent, mysterious, sacred, and freeing.

And, let’s all stop bending and fitting our lives. The last line in the verse, come and sit by the fire, I find as an invitation not only for rest and acceptance, but and invitation to act without anything extra.

I find so many practices in the midst of this short verse:
– letting go of dualistic, yes and no thinking
– leaning in to change
– finding effortlessness in the midst of effort

Our Guides Along The Journey

I’ve been enjoying re-reading The Hero With A Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, published in 1949, describing the similar archetypal path of humans, throughout time and across cultures.  The first three parts of this path are named as:

–       the call to adventure

–       refusing the call

–       supernatural aid

The first part of the human journey is to be called, usually unexpectedly to do something, find something, or achieve something.

The second part, is refusing the call. Often, we don’t want to answer the call – we are too busy, or it’s too dangerous, or we have other things to do.

The third step along the way, as described by Campbell is supernatural aid.  He uses this term to describe our guides along the way; the people that seem to almost “magically” appear to help us.

I’ve had so much help, from so many people. I don’t generally think of it as being supernatural, but this help and guidance is certainly usually unexpected and surprising.   “Even to those who apparently have hardened their hearts, the supernatural guardian may appear.”

This is an excellent topic to think about or write about. Who have your guides been?  And, who are you guides now, in your life?  In what way is your heart hardened, and in what way is your heart open?

Seven factors of cultivating freedom

The Buddhist tradition names what are called the seven factors of enlightenment.  Enlightenment is a fancy word for finding more freedom, real confidence, and emotional flexibility. These factors are meant to be practiced, not just during meditation practice but throughout daily life:

1. Mindfulness – awareness practice is the basis for cultivating more freedom

2. Discernment – this is the practice of seeing more clearly

3. Energy – making just the right amount of effort

4. Joy – cultivating an open, uplifting state of mind

5. Relaxation – staying calm in the midst of activity

6. Concentration – the ability to stay engaged, present, and focused

7. Tranquility – skillful engagement

Choose one of these practices and try it on this week.  How does it show up in your life? What is the resistance or difficulty? What supports you in this practice?

Practicing With Paradox

I have come to believe that embracing and responding to paradox — turning our assumptions upside down, expecting the unexpected, comfortably holding two opposing viewpoints at the same time, resolving conflicting requirements, and so on — is the key to waking up to ourselves and the present moment and discovering the right thing to do. Paradox is the doorway to insight, just as falling is necessary for learning how to balance on a tightrope. We all want more clarity, more ease, more connectedness, more possibilities, more compassion, more kindness. We want healthy relationships in order to thrive at our work and to be effective in all areas of our life. What is hard is knowing in any given situation what the appropriate action or response should be. We want the insight to know how to achieve all these things, but our vision and experience are limited.

There is an expression from the Zen tradition, “Don’t be a board-carrying fellow.” This refers to the image of a carpenter carrying a wide wooden board on his or her shoulder. The board blocks and limits vision, allowing the carpenter to see only one side of things. This expression is meant to caution us from thinking we see fully and clearly, when we see only partially. We are all board-carrying fellows. We usually just see the world from our ordinary, habitual viewpoint and neglect the mysterious, the profound, the obvious. If we don’t know or acknowledge that our viewpoint is limited, we will find it virtually impossible to gain the insight that allows us to respond in new, more successful ways. To become aware of our limitations, to achieve the insights we crave, we need to wake up.

Accepting the power of paradox is one of life’s ways of waking us up, shocking us into awareness, so we can find our balance again. Waking up can be cultivated, practiced, so that it becomes a way of life, so that it becomes our habitual approach to life. Then we may become as skillful as a tightrope walker, who lives on the edge of falling and yet (almost) always catches him- or herself in time.

Paradox means many things and can be worked with and utilized in our lives in many ways. Many Zen stories embody or are steeped in paradox, and I use them often in my work, as I do in this book. Yet paradox can also simply be a startling, peculiar, playful, or unexpected observation that challenges our habitual way of thinking. It is asking, “What is this rhinoceros doing in my office?” It is the late anthropologist Gregory Bateson observing that spaceship Earth is so well designed that we have no idea we are on one. Here we are, hurtling through space at a million miles per hour with no need for seatbelts, plenty of room in coach, and excellent food. Imagine. Paradox is anytime you hear that whisper in your ear, “Wake up, the world is extraordinary. This life you take for granted isn’t what you think!”

(From Know Yourself, Forget Yourself)


Just Avoid Picking And Choosing

A coaching client of mine, a successful entrepreneur and scientist, once showed me his happiness assessment. Every day he ranked on a scale from 1 to 10 how he was performing on a variety of areas: work, relationship, spiritual practice, hobbies, exercise, and a few others. He would then calculate an average of these numbers to determine his daily overall happiness quotient. He showed me a chart he kept, tracking the daily rises and falls of this measure. It looked much like the Dow Jones stock market index, with its various trends up and down, seesawing between deep valleys and steep climbs.

I admired his effort to pay attention and measure his level of happiness. This can be a useful self-awareness tool. He used this tool to determine which parts of his life needed more focus and attention. You, too, could use this approach to provide a quick, daily snapshot.

Living Beyond Right and Wrong

Beautiful poem by Zen teacher Ryokan, from the early 1800’s Japan:

What was right yesterday
Is wrong today
In what is right today,
How do you know it was not wrong yesterday
There is no right or wrong,
No predicting gain or loss.
Unable to change their tune,
Those who are foolish glue down bridges of a lute.
Those who are wise get to the source
But keep wandering about for long.
Only when you are neither wise nor foolish
Can you be called one who has attained the way.

(translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi – from Sky Above, Great Wind)

The Myth Of Work-Life Balance

There is a famous Zen dialogue from ancient China about a monk and a teacher.  The monk arrives at the monastery and says to the teacher, “I’ve arrived.  Please give me your teaching.”

The teacher says, “Have you eaten your breakfast?”
The monk responds, “Yes, I have.”
The teacher says, “Wash your bowl.”
The monk understood.  What could be more obvious?

If you were to ask, “How can I find work-life balance?”, I might be inclined to ask if you have eaten your breakfast… And, assuming you have, suggest you wash your bowl.

This dialogue and this terse instruction are meant to shift your attention from looking for answers outside yourself to looking more directly within yourself beginning with your experience – directly and simply.  Noticing, appreciating, and learning from the mundane activities of your everyday life.

Even the act of “bowl washing” washing dishes, can be turned into an incredible, even sensuous event; an act of discovery, a blossoming of the senses.  What is the sensation of the water touching your hands; is the water hot or cold?  Or washing dishes can be simply a chore to get done as quickly as possible to get to the next event, where the real action is – like sending emails or watching television.  The same activity can be completely different, depending on where you put your attention.

Context matters.  The story we tell ourselves is vitally important, not only to our state of mind, but also to our physical relationship and response to the events of our daily life.

Attempting to achieve work-life balance, as though something is missing or something is wrong, (either with you or with your situation) is a set-up for failure, for stress, and for anything but balance.  Instead, experiment by bringing your attention to the activities that make up your work.  Notice the activities and notice your inner dialogue, the stories you weave, as well as your feelings.  Just this act of paying attention can produce positive change – a bit of slowing down, a little more space – opening up the possibility of change, of more calm, even of more appreciation.

So often, all the attention goes to the “what” – the content or story line – too much to do and not enough time.  Try shifting the focus to the “how” – what is the quality of your activity, as well as the quality of your state of mind.

All of these suggested activities are simple and complicated, easy and sometimes impossibly difficult.  Paradoxical?  Yes!  Much of being a human being requires that in order to get more done, try slowing down.  To become more confident, try more questioning.  To achieve more, explore beginning by accepting what is.  To know yourself, try forgetting yourself.  How – pay attention and appreciate what is right in front of you.  Please, wash your bowl.

Peaceful Life

Peaceful Life, a poem by Katagiri Roshi

Being told that it’s impossible,
One believes, in despair, “Is that so?”
Being told that it is possible,
One believe, in excitement, “That’s right.”
But whichever is chosen,
It doesn’t not fit one’s heart neatly.

Being asked, What is unfitting?”
I don’t know what it is.
But my heart knows somehow.
I feel an irresistible desire to know.
What a mystery “human” is!

As to this mystery:
Knowing how to live
Knowing how to walk with people….

The full poem can be found here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/zen/katagiri.txt

Possible or impossible; which is it?

Katagiri Roshi was the teacher of the Minnesota Zen Center for many years, until he died in 1990.

This is a poem about saying “Yes!” to our lives, to the mystery, the messiness, the love, the impossibility of being a human being.

It is a poem about stopping, and appreciating, ourselves, each other, our work; and going beyond ourselves. Stopping, being changed, and getting back to work.

The poem goes on to present and encourage living with a vow, or more strongly, living a life of vow, stronger than intention; stronger than a promise. A vow to live a peaceful life, to help others live peaceful lives:

To aspire
To be resolute

Today, I let these words wash over me, through me.

Cultivating Joyful Mind, Kind Mind, Great Mind

“Instructions To the Head Cook” is one of my favorite pieces of writing from Dogen, the 13th century founder of Zen in Japan. In it he describes the three states of mind that the head cook should cultivate in all activities in the kitchen: Joyful Mind, Kind Mind, and Great Mind.

I’m struck by this simple yet radical notion of cultivating states of mind. Usually we feel as though our state of mind, our feelings and emotions just happen, generally in relation to the events and circumstances of our lives. And, of course we are influenced by what we do and what happens in our lives, within and outside of our own control. At the same time, what a powerful idea, that we can cultivate states of mind. Here are three states of mind suggested by Dogen, that are applicable to our lives, not only in the kitchen but anywhere, at work, or outside of work:

Joyful Mind: “since you are cooking pure meals in this lifetime, this is a life of rejoicing…” Whatever we are doing can be thought of as cooking meals – our work, our relationships, our play. What meals are you cooking? Whatever we are doing, we can cultivate doing it wholeheartedly and joyfully, by simply cultivating the mind of joy.

Kind Mind: This is sometimes described as grandmother mind, the mind of unconditional love, looking over everything we do with love, without expecting anything in return. Cultivating kind mind mean bringing our presence and kind attention to each activity.

Great Mind: “is the mind like a great mountain or a great ocean.” Dogen describes this as the mind of equanimity; staying focused on being aware and present, bringing compassion to whatever we are doing; staying open to freeing ourselves and others from greed and fear.