Friday, December 09, 2011

Thoughts on a flight after a friend's funeral

A dear friend died recently.

Sometimes I go to funerals for the sake of others – the survivors who will live with a hole in their lives for years to come. But this one was for me.

The hole is in my life.

Not gigantic – not the sort of hole that would be left without my wife or sons or brothers. But yes, a hole.

A Zen chant:

All things are impermanent.
They arise and they pass away.
Living in harmony with this teaching brings great happiness and joy.

In every moment, there is change.

Not so much a truism as a definition: there is no moment without something changing.

It took me several weeks of study, of knocking my head against the wall of my own mindset, to finally “get” special relativity. Conceptually, I could accept that the nearer one draws to the speed of light, the greater one’s mass.

I even thought I was ok with the idea that the greater one’s speed, the slower ran one’s clocks, relative to an identical clock at the point of origin. And I generally could work with the idea that the difference in clock time of the rocket and the earth was a calculable function of the velocity of the rocket.

But I made a mistake in my original conception.

I understood the idea that time would run more slowly for the astronauts in the rocket.

But the way I understood that was that those travelling in the rocket experienced those peculiar effects because they were in a peculiar situation that made their clocks move more slowly. *Real* time continued to click away right on schedule.

Eventually, I realized a mistake in my understanding: how did the clocks know how slowly to go? Which was the wrong question, but kind of right, nonetheless. Because the clocks don’t go more slowly. They measure each and every second, exactly as a second. It wasn’t just the clocks that went more slowly: the molecules and atoms and subatomic particles of the clocks moved more slowly, too.

*All of existence* that moves in that direction at that velocity moves at the same speed -- exists at the same speed.

For that to make any sense at all, *time itself* had to be defined by change.

From within a system, no change=no time.

It’s nighttime and moonlit. I’m walking barefoot on the concrete pavers of the courtyard. As a foot presses into the stone, the residual heat of the absent sun warms the skin of the sole. As each foot lifts, the warmth disappears and the sole feels the barest whisper of cool, night air. My gaze is soft, resting on an invisible spot in the air ten or twelve feet ahead of me. With each step, that spot never changes. But with each step, all of the visible world in the periphery flows and fluxes. Parallax motions work their changes with mathematical precision, responding to my step. If there were an I, it would be the center of the flow of space and time. But there isn’t. That sense is quiet. Missing, yet not missed. There is only the flowing. The changing. The arising. The passing.

Robyn was one of those people who was gently, insistently kind. When she’d walk in a room, she’d look for someone who needed attention. Who needed a hug. Who needed love. Her actions were modest. She wasn’t particularly interested in herself, but fascinated by the world. Committed to a particular way of living.

At the funeral, one of her daughters told a story. Shortly after they’d moved to Colorado, the daughter was walking home from elementary school. Some boys started to throw rocks in her direction. Then, bolder, they threw rocks at her. One hit her just below the eye. She ran home with an ugly welt, crying and scared. Robyn hugged her and comforted her and cleaned her up. Then Robyn got two chocolate suckers out, and led her daughter to the boys’ house, to share the sweets with them.

Love your enemies.

And teach your children how to love their enemies.

There’s lots about the meditation that I practice and teach that tends to be misunderstood. I suspect that the misunderstanding must have something to do with how I’m teaching it, but whatever. One of those misunderstandings is that there’s something to be thinking about – or that there’s nothing to be thinking about. But as far as my meditation practice is concerned, thoughts are just the sensations of the mind.

As I sit in this moment, I smell the dry, processed scent of airplane ventilation system. In the next moment, I see sunlight angled in on the seat-tray of the passenger next to me. I feel the pressure of the soles of my feet against my socks, shoes, and floor. A particular hair follicle on my left cheek. The blue of the computer screen background. The vibration of the airplane’s engines coming through my seat cushion. The sensation of the air I inhale as it crosses the edge of my right nostril. The pressure on the pad of my left ring finger against the keyboard. The taste of Diet Coke. A thought of my wife at home. Anticipation of New York City. Stomach. Thought. Sensation. Thought. Dit. Dit. Dit. Ditditditiditditditditditdit…………………………………………….

Each perception is a change relative to the prior state. The very definition of a moment.

One of the most important meditation instructions I ever received was this: “It doesn’t matter what arises in your experience; it only matters that you notice it."

“And then speed up your noticing.”

I considered the instruction, and thought, “ok, I’ll try it.”

Then I got the next part of the instruction: “With diligent practice, you can notice dozens of perceptions each second.”

Each second?!!? No way. Uh uh.

And in a way, I was right: it was impossible to do what I was doing dozens of times per second.

Eventually (and this took years), I began to realize several things. First, I realized that in a normal conversation, at normal talking rates, I was already perceiving, processing, and making use of at least a dozen inputs per second. Think about it. “Think” “about” “it”





“- -“






“- -“



In a single second, a dozen sound changes, to say nothing of assembling the sounds into conceptual words, to say nothing of associating the words with meanings, to say nothing of understanding the meaning ,to say nothing of formulating intention with respect to the meaning, to say nothing of acting on the intention.

So I realized that in fact, a dozen is more than possible. I remembered that movies run at about 30 frames per second, giving even the fastest-noticing people the illusion of motion pictures.


So what was the meditation secret? Getting out of the way. Letting go. Why was I only able to notice two or three things per second? Because I was holding onto them. Sometimes only a split-second or two; sometimes longer. Long enough to recognize them, name them, assign some content-meaning to them, relate to them, attach to them or avert from them. Lost in thought.


So how am I getting in the way of Robyn’s death? Attachment. She was – she is still – interwoven in my experience. My mind formulates certain meanings with her role in my life assumed, steady, essential, permanent.

And yet, she is not.

If I simply notice that, there is a sense of change. If I try to argue with reality – the reality that does not include her – suffering arises. Disappointment.


All is unsettled. Anicca.


Even Robyn. Even “I.” Even even.


Anicca: impermanence

Ken McLeod: What is the one thing you know about every relationship you have? That it will end. So what should you do with every relationship? Savor it.


Several years ago, I worked at a company that was in the final stages of being sold to another company. Because there were a lot of government regulatory approvals that were required before the deal could close, there was a gap of about a year between the time the deal was announced and the time it was expected to be completed. As is usually the case with such events, many of us working there expected to lose our jobs within a few days of the deal closing.

Toward the end of the process, a group of us decided to have a celebration dinner at a nearby restaurant. We reserved a private room, and had some fun sharing food and stories and laughs from our time together. Toward the end of the evening, Tom – a lawyer I’d worked with for several years – asked for a moment to speak. We quieted down. He brought out a bottle of port, and said, “I like to collect bottles of port when I can, but it’s harder to find the right moment to open a old bottle of port than it is to find a really old bottle of port. When I learned that the company was being sold, I realized that this was the occasion and the group to share this with.” He then uncorked a bottle of 130 year old port. The room we were in was large enough for the 14 or 15 of us there that evening, but not much larger than that.

As soon as he pulled the cork, the entire room was filled with an incredible fragrance of pears and walnuts. We breathed it together. It lasted only a couple of moments, then disappeared.

And ten years later, I still remember it clearly.


When I think of savoring the impermanent I think of the brief scent of Tom’s 130 year old port, reconnecting with the outside world, blossoming briefly, then done.


A blessing – not a curse:

Every building ends in ruin.
Every meeting ends in parting.
Every aggregation ends in dispersion.
Every birth ends in death.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Upside of Emptiness

Usually, when we lose someone or something that has helped us defined much of our lives -- whether a lover or a belief, a job or a home, an ability or a skill -- we feel a sense of loss.

Sometimes, it's more than that.

Or rather, "less."

Sometimes rather than just feeling a void where previously there was a treasure, there is a sense of emptiness that reaches well beyond the contours and borders of the parts of life defined by what has been lost. That sense of emptiness affects all of our experience -- we discover through its sudden absence a now-missing sense of belonging and warmth, confidence and meaning. It seems that we see through new eyes, and they reveal everything to be artificial, a bit contrived. What used to be our sense of belonging and meaning, we now see as structures of a mind that we no longer occupy.

Sometimes there's just a hint of that seeing. But at other times, it's so strong that it's overwhelming.

But it's always disturbing.

* * *
The Heart Sutra, a core text of the Mahayana Buddhist scriptural canon, uses a four-part framing to express this experience:

Form does not differ from emptiness. Emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness. Emptiness is itself form.

* * *

We often associate the sudden, jarring sense of emptiness -- the sense that things and experiences and life itself are hollow or lacking an essential stability and solidity -- as a sense of loss of something we value profoundly, even if we didn't know it until it was gone. But that isn't the only way that most of us have experienced emptiness. All who've lived to adulthood have experienced a time, a moment in our teens or twenties when we just as suddenly had the sensation of seeing the life of grade school -- all the competitions and dramas and dilemmas and challenges and failures and misery -- of seeing all of that suddenly empty of meaning. For most of us, that discovery of emptiness was accompanied not so much by a sense of loss, though that can be a part of it, but rather more as a sense of freedom. And because it feels lightening to move beyond those structures of life, we might not have even paused to consider the discovery of emptiness where we'd previously found meaning and purpose and definition to be a loss of any sort. Giving that up felt good.

Similarly, many of us who've been through depression can remember a time when we realized that the downwardly-spiraling thoughts that were carrying all our life into the depths of misery were, themselves, empty. We remember realizing, "oh...those are just thoughts; that is the way my mind behaves in these circumstances." And rather than feeling that discovery of emptiness to be a loss, on the contrary, it felt like a glimmer of light in the darkness, like a place where we could stand while everything around us was unstable, like remembering in the middle of a horror movie, "oh...this is a movie."

* * *

So the experience of emptiness isn't always a bad thing; though experiencing it in connection with the loss of something we identified with, something we adored, something we depended on -- that experience of emptiness *does* feel like a wrenchingly bad thing.

When I've found myself in that kind of strange, uncomfortable, disquieted mind state, there are three basic ways that I've responded. Since it's an uncomfortable feeling, I've often sought to bring it to an end as fast as possible. One way is to instinctually return to the things that I'd valued previously. Reattach myself to what the momentary perception of emptiness has made seem hollow. I tried this approach the first time I experienced emptiness in connection with my believing and faithful worldview. And I repeated it again and again. But despite my efforts, I never quite forgot afterwards that I'd seen its emptiness. Another response I've tried was to instinctually turn away from what I'd seen as empty and replace it with something that seemed sturdier -- more solid and essential. From my spiritual life, I turned toward scientific materialism. Hard-headed facts that seemed much more trustworthy than my hollow religious beliefs. Seemed. But there came a day when I saw the emptiness of that, too -- when I saw the mind-contrivances that I was engaged in, that the science writers I followed were engaged in. And I saw that scientific materialism, too, was empty of something essential, of solid, irreducible bedrock. Which led me to a third way of responding to the perception of emptiness: rather than turning back to old attachments, and rather than turning toward new attachments, to turn instead toward the emptiness itself, and to allow my eyes to see emptiness in all things.

I had actually become aware of this potential response *long* before I ever attempted it. To my western-shaped mind, "turning toward emptiness" sounded frightfully like nihilism, frightfully like despair. And I wanted nothing more to do with those demons. But eventually I came to see that emptiness only looked like nihilism to an egoic mindshape. And so I ventured. But in the actual *doing* of turning toward emptiness, there was not the weight of judgment condemning existence as vacuous and void that I'd felt when I'd been nihilistic. Instead, there was a little hint of lightness. Of freedom.

But it was only freedom for so long as I was willing to allow the emptiness to be, while seeing all the forms that filled my sense perceptions and my mind.

* * *
bardo (bar-do) (noun)

  • (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person's conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.

  • an indeterminate, transitional state: wandering adrift in a bardo of intense negativity, blame, disappointment, criticism and denial.

Despite the sense of liberation, it isn't easy to stay in that equipoise, seeing the Heart Sutra's form and emptiness equally in all of experience. It's like standing on a tightrope while the wind gusts at me and the sound of the neighborhood ice cream truck tantalizes off in the distance. I've given up that perception almost as many times as it has arisen in my life.

But I've come to consider those moments when I am able to stay with that sense of emptiness as powerful times. When I'm in -- and allow myself to remain in -- that sense of emptiness that sometimes arises, I find myself comfortably recogizing the death of one life, of a worldview that once was "me." But I've also come to recognize that I'll eventually enter another life. I know that I'll soon re-enter experiences that will seem solid and tangible and essential from which I'll build a new life, a new worldview. And even knowing that that will eventually happen, I can still stay in equipoise in the experience of emptiness while it is what is.

But after that's happened again and again, I've discovered that I enter the next life a little bit aware that it is both form-and-emptiness, emptiness-and-form. And I think maybe that background awareness lets me be a little bit less rigid in my thought patterns, in my certainty, in my waking dreams. I'm more aware of my own mind's contrivances, of my mind's own role in creating my experience of reality.

* * *

The discovery of emptiness is a kind of falling in love. There is a
vertigo in it: we step off the cliff of what we know and are certain
about. -- Zen Abbot John Tarrant

These insights aren't unique to Buddhism, though I found them while looking through the lens of Buddhist teachings and practices. After I found them there, I went looking for them elsewhere. I was surprised to find them in the teachings of the Catholic saints, Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross. I found them in the teachings of the Advaita school of Hinduism. I found them in the Sufi poetry of Hafiz and Rumi. And I even found them in the temple endowment ceremony of Mormonism.

* * *

In Mormon terms, the gist of it is this: the perception of emptiness can be profoundly disturbing to a mind that has become accustomed to attachment to a specific form of thought -- especially to a particular belief set that promises comfort and success by following a prescribed set of actions; but the very same emptiness is profoundly empowering when we do not resist it, because the very emptiness ("...there is space here...") empowers us to create meaning from the actions of our consciousness in the context of the experiences we have. It takes the endowment's "yonder is matter unorganized" and it brings the truth of that statement to the center of the heart of each individual.

Where there is emptiness, there is potential.

The experience of emptiness brings to our conscious minds the choice that we previously never knew that we had.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Haiku for departing summer

Bird-pecked, black racemes
Of chokecherries gleam among
The not-yet-red leaves.

Sunday, January 02, 2011


At the end of a painful retreat (about which, click here), Laurie came to pick me up.

She brought Echo, a rambunctious Samoyed, who, she informed me, was disappointingly not named Moksha.

We walked the dog around the outer grounds of Spirit Rock. Up the hills, through the winter-brown weeds and grasses. She tugged and jumped and played. She started at a tall, white marble Buddha standing in a grove of trees, was only wary of a small seated Buddha halfway up the hill, and by the time we encountered another figurine at the foot of the hill, she was
unimpressed, sniffing along the fringes of the dirt footpath.

Coming off this retreat, my heart was a bit raw, but relievedly open.

* * *

The first several days had been a painful, pain-filled retreat for me. The only relief I found was in walking meditations – under the overhanging eaves during heavy rains, under the bay laurel and live oak forest when the rains lightened. On one of the most difficult days, I found a stretch of forest trail to serve as my walking path. Fifteen slow steps from a young fir tree to a huge, head-level oak branch, covered in bright green moss and grey lichens. Then back. Then back. Then back. Then back.

The deep sound of the far-off courtyard bell signaled the return to seated meditation and the pain I was unsuccessfully struggling to overcome. I paused at the overhanging oak limb. Pressed my face against the cold, rough, damp moss. Inhaled the scent of cold, wet life. I turned my head toward the trunk, pressing my cheek against the moss. Deep in the moss-lined niche where the limb joined the trunk, sat a two-inch statue. But unlike the blissful, peaceful icons of Buddha-nature that dot the grounds of Spirit Rock, this one is rendered inexpertly in clay. Its face is more of suggestion than a rendering – eye sockets and a closed mouth. The effect is a gaunt and troubling figure.

That isn’t the Buddha. It’s a starved yogi.

* * *

I heed the bell and return to the meditation hall, rotely bow to the standing Buddha at the front of the room to acknowledge my effectless resolve to seek liberation, and resume my pain-filled and increasingly desperate sitting.

* * *

The next time the rains lighten, I return to the bit of trail for walking meditation. At the end of the slow slow slow walking, I look again at the clay statute. It is still gaunt. It still seems to say more of warning than of enlightenment. I walk. The distant bell sounds. I approach the tree limb end to my path.

I turn to walk away. Then I feel a slight desire well up. In the quiet, the mind turns toward the desire, and I see a want to offer something. “No. Foolishness.” my mind says. I turn to follow the bell’s call back to the meditation hall. The same up-welling arises. I look to the forest floor and find a bit of oak branch with tiny, ungrown acorns barely emerging from scaled caps. I place it before the gaunt little statue.

* * *

On our walk, Laurie and Echo and I approach the last statue of the Buddha from behind. As we near, we see strands of weathered mala beads hanging from the statue’s neck. We round it and stand, looking. Someone has clipped a barrette to a strand of mala beads. Someone else has hung a pendant around the statue’s neck. In the statue’s mudra-nestled hands someone has put a piece of flint, several have put coins, another has placed a smooth, red stone. At the base of the statue are arrayed impromptu offerings – more coins, a house key, a cracked nerf football, stones, bracelets, a corroding piece of folded paper clipped with a wooden clothespin, an earring. I bow toward the statue, feeling this time in my raw, open heart, the acknowledgement of the path, of the pain I’ve stopped resisting. I let go of the form, and gratitude wells up. The bow offers my complete awareness.

* * *

Fetters of I, me, and mine fall away, veils of time and place pull open and the gratitude of the mala-bead offeror is present. The gratitude of the house-key offeror is present. The gratitude of the barrette offeror is present. The gratitude of the bead-purse-offeror, and rock-offerors, and the feather-offeror, and the coin-offerors, and the football offeror is present. And the gratitude of countless people who have bowed before the statue is present. And all of us in that moment without ourselves are realized in one offering, one gratitude, one bowing.

And as I’ve done countless times on this retreat, I weep.

Laurie unclips a tag from Echo’s collar and places it gently beside someone’s house key.

(Cross-posted at, which has some of Laurie's pictures from that day)