Monday, September 27, 2010

What I Know For Sure

A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. "It's overfull! No more will go in!" the professor blurted. "You are like this cup," the master replied. "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

My mind feels like that cup sometimes. So full. Overflowing full. I have a hard time remembering things. My daughter says I have the memory of a gnat. She’s right. I think it’s because I have so much useless stuff stuck in my memory and I can’t find the delete button. I can remember my childhood phone number, but I can’t remember to pick up juice on the way home. When I try to remember something new, my mind plays a familiar recording. “The message inbox for the number you are calling is full.”

There is just too much information out there that I’m trying to store in here. Not only grocery lists, but also information about truth. I just finished a book by someone who thinks he has God all figured out. The title isn’t important because there are a million books like that. There are a million books like that because there are a million people who believe they know the truth.

Oprah Winfrey writes a column for her magazine every month called “What I Know For Sure.” Whenever I pick up her magazine in the checkout line, I marvel at the notion that at least once a month, she knows something for sure. No wonder she “makes bank,” as my daughter says.

So if these people really know the truth, then why don’t they all agree? Not only do they not agree, but some will argue vehemently about the rightness of their positions. Some will even kill each other.

The Tao Te Ching teaches, “Wise men don’t need to prove their point. Men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.” I must be very wise, because not only do I not need to prove my point, but I’m not sure I even have a point to prove.

You can’t organize truth. That’s like trying to put a pound of water into wrapping paper and shaping it. –Bruce Lee

Related post The Way of No Way

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Go to the places that scare you. –advice from her teacher to the Tibetan yogini Machik Labdron

Losing my way ... and finding my way back again. A time of transformation, changes, releasing, becoming. Holding on as life’s current pulls me away from the familiar, feeling my fingers slipping off. Straining to see what’s up ahead.

In her book, Open the Door, Joyce Rupp describes this as the liminal space, the in-between space of a doorway. No longer here, but not yet there. A place of grieving, but also of mystery and promise.

A place of extreme discomfort. It’s very hard to stay, to tolerate the restlessness, to abide in the unknowing. My instinct is to escape, to choose something, anything, to get relief from the waiting, from the fear.

But my spirit says to wait. To trust. To be willing, when the time comes. And to remember the angels. I wrote before about an experience I had at my cabin in the mountains (Falling into Now). I fell off a ladder, and as I fell, I had the most exquisite experience of being held by angels. I understood that they were there not to protect my body from harm, but to give me a priceless gift. The gift was knowing that no matter what happened to my body, everything was perfect. Exactly the way it should be. This moment, this holy instant, is always perfect.

Down by the waterfall, Amanda pitched her tent–it was made of willow sticks and the wool of black goats. Having filled the tent with her largest and softest paisley cushions, Amanda stripped down to her beads and panties and fell into a trance. “I shall determine how to prolong the lives of butterflies,” she had previously announced.

However, an hour later when she awoke, she smiled mysteriously. “The life-span of the butterfly is precisely the right length,” she said.

--from Another Roadside Attraction, by Tom Robbins

So I wait. Willing, at least trying to be willing, to go to the places that scare me. Trusting, at least trying to trust, that angels surround me and that everything is exactly the way it should be. Perfect.

Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. –Exodus 23:20

Monday, September 20, 2010


At the beginning of the academic year, the head of my department conducts a training session for our teaching assistants, senior students who will be working with new students. He tells them that they are likely to review some assignments that are below acceptable standards. He cautions them that although it might look like a student has not made much of an effort, they should assume instead that all students are doing the very best they can.

I wrote last week about my reaction to a difficult evening with my autistic son (Losing My Way). I believed that my son was being deliberately rude and was choosing to disrupt the family dinner celebrating his brother’s birthday. I was frustrated by his unwillingness to accept my efforts to redirect his energy. I was angry. (Yes, I know that an inability to consider other people’s feelings is a classic characteristic of autism. I still thought he was doing it on purpose.)

Then I had a visit with a friend who was, like me, struggling to understand the behavior of a family member. We talked about how hard it is not to judge. Then she sighed and said about her own family member, “Maybe she’s doing the best she can.” I paused and admitted, “And maybe James is doing the best he can.”

Pema Chodron writes, “No one knows what it takes for another person to open the door.” The Native Americans understood about walking a mile in someone else’s moccasins. If I look at James’s behavior and consider the possibility that he is doing the best he can at any given moment, then perhaps I can loosen my grip on my judgment and resentment. Perhaps I can sense a glimmer of compassion.

Perhaps I could even do that with myself. I have had a hard few weeks in terms of my own efforts to be a “kinder, gentler” person. To be wise and serene. To be full of joy. I don’t always like what I see in my dark corners – dust bunnies of the soul. But maybe I am doing the best I can.

Not everything we find is what we want. But if we befriend what is within us and are willing to learn from it, serenity will ultimately reign at the center of our being. –Joyce Rupp

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Don’t push the river. It flows by itself. –Fritz Perls

My daughter is a natural athlete. She played basketball during her growing up years. She played during the season on her school team, and during the off season in hoop clubs. Then in high school, she wanted to switch to a new sport, lacrosse.

But when she came home from practice the first day, she announced that she did not like lacrosse. When I asked her why, she said in frustration, “I don’t know how to play.” I casually asked her how long she had played the game. She frowned and snorted in exasperation, “Two hours.” “Well,” I suggested, “why don’t you play two more hours before you decide.” After practice the second day, she announced that she loved the game and thought she would be good at it. And she was. She played on the varsity team the last two years of high school. Patience, child.

I have a brown belt in taekwondo. Like everyone, I started with a white belt. I didn’t know anything. It took me over two years to get a brown belt, and if all goes well, it will take me over another year to get a black belt. When you start, you progress fairly quickly, but as you get to the higher belt levels, the minimum length of time between belt promotions gets longer. You can extend the intervals if you are not ready for the next level, but you can’t shorten them. It takes as long as it takes. You learn patience.

But sometimes I am not very patient. For example, as I have struggled the last few weeks to regain my spiritual footing, I have felt discouraged and self-critical. I think I should do better, be better, and I should do better and be better faster. Pema Chodron says that this is a subtle aggression against who we really are. Practice “isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we already are.”

In her book Sacred Thresholds, Paula D’arcy writes:

Don’t get ahead of your soul. The goal isn’t to get somewhere. The goal isn’t about forcing something to happen. The goal is to be in harmony with the gifts that are already given. The goal is to fall in love with your life. –as quoted in Open the Door by Joyce Rupp

I haven’t been in love with my life lately, but I’m going to do something about that, beginning with not pushing. It’s raining a little, but it isn’t cold. An afternoon walk sounds nice.

Friday, September 17, 2010


I wrote yesterday about how responses to my losing-my-way post had softened my heart. When people reached out to me with such compassion and kindness, my heart, which was so tense and knotted up with little lightning sparks sizzling and snapping, relaxed and took a deep breath.

The anger and frustration and agitation melted. What was left was sadness, deep pure sadness. And with the sadness, I felt a flood of compassion, both for the people who reached out to me and also for myself.

The judgment and blaming and criticism closed my heart. I was not in my happy place. But oddly, the sadness felt good. Not fun good, but peaceful good. I realized that I can be sad in my happy place, because the sadness does not separate me from others.

If we can tolerate our sadness, just sit quietly with it instead of running away from it, we can tap into deep wells of compassion – for ourselves, for those who comfort us, for those who, like us, feel sad.

If you want to make others happy, practice compassion. If you want to make yourself happy, practice compassion. – The Dalai Lama

Thursday, September 16, 2010

...and Finding...

I wrote last time about losing my way. Since then I have been finding my way back again. Still in process, but I will write as I go along.

Someone’s comment on the last post included this quotation. “As we give fully, unafraid to let others know the truth about ourselves, we receive unexpected rewards from unexpected sources.” – Helen Lerner-Robbins

I don’t claim to have given fully or that I was unafraid in posting that last entry. On the contrary, I was anxious about revealing too much, about disclosing that I was having a hard time, about admitting I had “relapsed” into negative habits. But whether warranted or not, I have indeed received unexpected rewards from unexpected sources.

A number of people have posted comments or emailed me to express appreciation for my honesty, to share their stories, to offer encouragement, to simply reach out. Some are people I know; some aren’t. The kindness of strangers. Unexpected sources.

And guess what – I feel better. Not because other people are also struggling, but because other people responded to my openness with openness in return. And feeling connected helped me feel better. My heart, which was closed with anger and judgment and shame, softened. Sometimes I get so focused on fixing the problem, that I overlook the real healing.

A blog is an odd thing. It is generally one directional. You post entries in cyberspace. For the most part, you don’t know who reads them or how readers react. But every now and then, there is dialogue. Connection. Healing. Unexpected rewards. Thank you.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Losing My Way...

Living in my happy place does not mean feeling happy all the time. I have not felt happy these last few days. Three friends have died in recent weeks of cancer. I’m sad for their families and for all the people who will miss them.

I’m sad because the other night at Dan’s birthday dinner, James was being rude and disruptive at the restaurant. Nothing I said helped him redirect his negative behavior. On the contrary, it seemed that everything I said aggravated him even more. Which in turn, aggravated me. I was unable to take an emotional step back. I felt frustrated, embarrassed, angry, ashamed, and sad. So sad.

The anniversary of 9/11 hit me hard. People of faith, many faiths, stirring up so much anger and hatred. So much fear. Causing so much pain. The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35. “Jesus wept.” I think he must be weeping now. My spirit hurts.

I try to meditate, to pray. To pick an appropriate step and use it. Where are all those happy habits I’ve been nurturing? I’m churned up, cranky, uncomfortable. I want to have a tantrum and a good cry, and then go to bed for several days. Until the storm passes. Until I feel at peace.

No, living in our happy place does not mean that life is always joyful. Old habits resurface. Judgment, criticism, control. Especially control.

So I wait.

Wait for the Lord. Be strong and let your heart take courage. –Psalms 27:14

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Prayer of Hope

On this day of remembering, may these words of a Bengali poet inspire us to stretch out our hands in friendship and peace.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake!

–Rabindranath Tagore

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mind Kittens

I have written before about training our minds like we train a puppy, with gentle repetitions and positive reinforcement. A trained mind is a happy mind, just like a trained puppy is a happy puppy. Or rather the owner of a trained puppy is a happy owner.

But the truth is that most of the time, my mind much more closely resembles a kitten than a puppy. Several kittens. High on catnip. Tearing around the house in the middle of the night crazy kittens.

One of the practices of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism is right effort. I like the idea that I get spiritual credit for just trying. Heck, I can get credit for just wanting to try, as in right intention, another one of the eight practices.

Perhaps if I want to try and make an effort to try, then one of these days, I might get the kittens’ attention long enough to be here now. Just for a second before they race off again.

“If it weren’t for my mind, my meditation would be excellent.” –Pema Chodron

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Little Boy Blue

The kids and I made our annual trek to the state fair yesterday. My son loves the animals. We go through every building looking at all the cows, sheep, pigs, goats, llamas, horses, and chickens. This is as close as my kids ever get to a farm. Although I grew up in the city, I come from rural roots and spent many summer vacations on the old homeplace, a farm in the Ozarks of Missouri. But I have not passed on any of the richness of my memories to my kids. Their farm IQ is, well, dismal.

I could not convince my son that the longhorn cows with calves were females. Because of their horns, he ignored any other evidence and insisted they were bulls. My daughter and I oohed and ahhed over the squirming pile of brand new pink piglets. I pointed out that baby pigs are called piglets. As we walked by the sheep, I asked her if she knew what baby sheep are called. Sheeplets? she asked.

No, my kids are city kids. I watched the children and teens at the fair tending to their animals, readying them for the judging ring. A goat was getting a bath, a llama was getting the tangles brushed out of her coat, a young steer was getting a last minute appraisal. These kids were focused and confident, comfortable and knowledgeable. They seemed more mature than their city peers, somehow. More grounded. They proudly led their animals to the ring, ready to show off the time and effort and love they had spent on their charges.

Except one boy. As we passed by some goat pens, there was a young boy curled up in the straw sleeping soundly with his head resting on the flank of his goat. The goat was lying down, too, but not sleeping. She was alert, watching the people go by and then turning her head to sniff her boy’s hair and make sure he was all right. His head rose and fell with her breathing. Such a peaceful nap in the middle of so much activity. He was in his happy place.

Little Boy Blue come blow your horn,
The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn.
Where is the boy who looks after the sheep?
He’s under a haystack fast asleep.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Lights from Other Lamps

I used to attend a church that included during worship a segment called Lights from Other Lamps. During this segment, some lesson or text from another faith would be shared. What usually struck me was how much different faiths have in common.

There is much in the news now about faith as we approach the anniversary of a tragedy that shook America’s soul and set our country on a path of war. A proposed mosque near Ground Zero in New York has set not only Christian against Muslim, but also Christian against Christian. A cabdriver was stabbed for being Muslim. My heart feels so heavy.

When I lived in West Africa, a man who worked for us as a gardener was a devout Muslim. At the appointed times, he would put down his tools, wash himself, and pray. My son was just two years old, but he adored Nofu and would imitate him. I would look out the window and see Nofu bowing on his prayer mat with James right next to him, forehead to the ground. And while some Christian friends might have been appalled, I was moved to see Nofu’s deep faith calling to James’s little spirit.

My own spirit has responded when I have heard the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. I don’t understand the words, but I understand the invitation to stop in the middle of our busy day and bring our attention back to God, to take a deep breath and enter the holy instant of our lives.

I have tried to incorporate a similar practice in my own life. I say a prayer when I wake up and when I go to bed. It might not be elaborate. A simple “Thank you for the day” is enough to turn my attention to gratitude for the present moment. In addition, I set my phone to vibrate at 10am, 2pm, and 6pm. As I push the button, I say a silent “Thank you.” It lacks the ritual of more formal prayers, but five times a day, I am at least momentarily connected to God. (The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we use other reminders to bring us back to the present moment as we go through our day – stoplights, for example!)

May the light from many lamps illumine our common ground.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Doors of Change

Beginnings are such fragile times. –Lady Jessica in Dune

In Open the Door, author Joyce Rupp uses the image of a door as a symbol of spiritual growth. In one chapter she quotes a poem written by a 12 year old girl named Mary Katherine Lidle. The day after she wrote this poem, Mary was killed in a car accident. Here is the last part of the poem.

Listen to me
Go through those doors with hope
Go through those doors knowing change is the future and you’re part of it
You don’t know what change is; that’s why you’re scared
Change is the sun booming over the horizon
Scattering rays of hope to a new day
Change is a baby lamb meeting the world for the first time
Change is growing from a young child to a young woman
Change is beautiful; you will learn to love it

I wonder if Mary’s spirit knew her life was going to change dramatically the next day. Did she write this poem to leave some comfort for her grieving family? Where did these words come from to be written by a 12 year old girl on the last day of her life?

Doors. Doors closing. Doors opening. My youngest child turned 18 this year and graduated from high school. The end of 23 years of day to day parenting. Change is booming. New opportunities beckon. I am learning to love it.

So when you feel all the endings coming ... begin looking for all the beginnings. –Ann Voskamp from her blog Holy Experience

Thursday, September 2, 2010

You Can Go Home Again

You have no doubt heard that you can’t go home again (a Thomas Wolfe title). When I go back to visit the city where I grew up, it isn’t the same. Strangers live in the house where I grew up. Upscale suburbs have obliterated the miles of fields and forests where I rode my horse bareback in the summer heat to the pond where we could splash in the cool, muddy water. New highways are disorienting and I get lost. The home I knew is gone.

But it’s said that home is where the heart is. (My computer says that Pliny the Elder said this first.) So where is my heart? The Bible tells me that where my treasure is, my heart will be there, too. So where is my treasure? Probably in different places at different times. But when I really think about it, what do I value more than anything else? A story immediately comes to mind (a story I wrote about earlier in Life in Four Words).

One day, soon after Buddha’s enlightenment, a man saw Buddha walking toward him. The man had not heard of Buddha, but he could see that there was something different about the man who was approaching, so he was moved to ask, “Are you a god?”

Buddha answered, “No.”

“You’re a magician, then? A sorcerer? A wizard?”


“Are you some kind of celestial being? An angel, perhaps?”


“Well, then what are you?”

The Buddha replied, “I am awake.”

That’s what I treasure most. I want to be awake. I don’t want to be a seeker. I want to be a finder. A be-er. A being. That is where my heart is. And thus, my home.

Robert Frost said that home is the place where, when you go there, they have to let you in. So I’m knocking on the door of home. I’m going to hold Jesus to his promise that if I knock, the door will open. And I believe that when the door opens I will find myself where I’ve been all along. Right here, in this holy instant, in an eternal state of grace.

You can go home again. Indeed, it is the only place we can go because, when we get there, we realize that we never left.