Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Vulnerability and Worthiness

Kim: When Quandra wrote “vulnerability” I felt something hit me in my chest. It is the elephant in the room. “Worthiness” didn't seem so serious . . . maybe even another topic. Tonight I went to a party. Everyone was talking to someone, and I didn't want to intrude and didn't know how to intrude. I thought I might be at the party and leave without talking to anyone, and no one would know the difference. Then I saw a man seated alone, and I sat at his table and we started talking. He knew all about the migratory patterns of Monarch Butterflies and told me about them. I felt vulnerable at the party as I do anticipating my 50th high school reunion in June. What if someone discovers I have nothing to say?

Quandra:  I think worthiness and vulnerability are correlated. When my Uncle Des walks into a party, he proceeds to interject himself into every ongoing conversation throughout the night. He enters the room with the assumption that he belongs. I love it.  He couldn't care less who knows more about a topic of discussion; he'll just throw in his 2-cent opinion with no hesitation or deliberation. In his mind, nothing he says can detract from his non-negotiable sense of belonging. That's an awesome sense of worthiness that I think empowers his willingness to put himself in vulnerable positions (e.g. mingling at a party).

I haven't been as open to vulnerability because my sense of belonging—worthiness—isn't as strong. I wanted to invite a friend somewhere today, but I talked myself out of it, saying "she probably won't want to do it," and decided not to open myself to rejection. I decided not to make myself vulnerable.  Then, I asked myself what a person who assumed their own worthiness would have done. That person, I think, would have just offered the invitation without the deliberation and wouldn't have taken a decline as a personal rejection because their sense of worthiness doesn't depend on any specific event . . . it's just assumed to be true so being vulnerable isn't so threatening. If I believe I'm worthy of love and belonging no matter what then I can be vulnerable and okay no matter how things work out. I can be awkward at a party and know that I was just awkward at that party, that's all. My core sense of worthiness wouldn't be shaken to the point that I fear whether others see me as worthy. I haven't grown to this point yet.

Emma: Me neither. I love the phrase “non-negotiable sense of belonging,” Quandra. Yes, that is what I long for. I hold back, too, swinging between a longing for connection and a fear that being vulnerable will lead to my annihilation.

I used to often feel as though I had no feet. My vulnerability didn't feel like a choice to be made, just something that I had to cope with. Without my feet, I'd get knocked flat on the floor with just about every interaction I had. A lot of therapy and my Zen practice have slowly returned my feet to me. I still get knocked about some, but I can at least stay upright now. I suspect that this basic sense of worthiness is to be found in the body, in having a fully embodied experience of our own right to be here. Our bodies don't question that. I mean, our lungs don't say, “Has Emma been good enough to deserve breath today?” They are utterly impersonal. Our hearts continue to pump blood through us day in and day out, whether we're being kind and loving or a total asshole.

There is grace in talking about topics like worth and vulnerability. It would never have crossed my mind that either of you would have concerns about your worth. You're both fascinating and brilliant. Knowing these fears are universal somehow takes the sting out of them. It's just more evidence that they're not personal.

Kim: The Monarchs’ life span varies greatly (from 3 months to more than a year) depending on when they are born, and what jobs they need to do. The man I was talking to said they are the only animal that has such a varied life span. Of course, we are all vulnerable to have a premature death. But that is not determined by the date of our birthday. Is this vulnerability about fearing death? Certainly that's the vulnerability of a soldier (something I admittedly know little about). Or maybe the ultimate vulnerability is facing the wall in the zendo? We can't turn on the radio or TV. The only opium is running away with out thoughts, and that gets old pretty fast.  We are nothing but who we really is (Suzuki Roshi used "is" instead of "are" to denote the oneness of things).

I keep shying away from the worthiness part of this theme. At first I thought “I don't have an issue with that.” Now I've flipped 180° on that. It is my insecurity of being worthy that makes me so vulnerable. Thanks, Quandra, for suggesting this topic, which is quite the Pandora's box.

Quandra: Emma mentioned annihilation.  That's a heavy word.  When I read that I thought "maybe that's what has to happen though." Maybe, annihilation is what leaves our true selves exposed.  I heard someone say there's a part of us that was never born and a part of us that never dies.  So, not even annihilation can touch that part.  That word made me think about that section of A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield that says “Only to the extent that a person exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible be found within.”

I wrote at the end of my previous thoughts that I haven't grown to that point of a non-negotiable sense of worth yet.  After I sent the email, I thought of it differently.  It's more like I haven't grown to the point of reconnecting with it.  I remember being a teenager who didn't care so much about what others thought.  It's been over the years, for various reasons, that I learned to guard my heart and shy away from being too vulnerable.  That's what I mean when I'm talking about vulnerability: exposing my heart.  I don't really mean physical vulnerability or fear of death.  I feel I have so little control over that.  I don't even bother worrying about it.  I like what Emma mentioned about an embodied experience.  I want to settle so comfortably into my body that I reconnect with that part of me that knows exactly how to reach out in vulnerability.  That part of me knows exactly how to take care of me in that vulnerable state.  I need to reconnect with that.  In my mind, I feel like that would be like coming home to myself.

Kim: Yesterday at a Shuso ceremony at the Zen Temple we had the opportunity to ask questions of the Head Student. I asked him, “Is the Big Mind vulnerable.” First he said, “I haven't heard that question.” I replied, “Well, I made it up.” Then he said no, the Big Mind is not vulnerable, but when we come out of it, we are. I switch back and forth between feeling vulnerable and feeling invincible (actually most of the time somewhere in a la la land in between). It seems my choices when I'm feeling vulnerable are to be depressed, to protect myself from harm, or to simply take notice of that feeling and gently bid it goodbye. Bertrand Russell wrote in his autobiography that he used to feel tremendous anxiety. Then one day he realized that in the grand scheme of things, he was so unimportant in terms of the cosmos that his existence or non-existence really didn't matter (Big Mind?). From that point on he claimed his anxiety had left. Did he bid it goodbye or rationalize it away?

Quandra: I can relate to that. I'm less likely to fret over myself and how others see me when my perspective is broader. I adopted a new kitten this weekend (Zoya). I've been so consumed by taking care of her I barely remembered how agitated I was last week over a very uncomfortable meeting I had at work last week. Normally, I would have replayed that meeting in my head and wondered how each thing I said and did might have been perceived, but I brought Zoya home and was only focused on making her comfortable (and making sure she doesn't scare my geckos and bird). I've had a broader perspective, so protecting my image is smaller. Maybe, it's not that vulnerability goes away exactly. Maybe, it can just be held in such a large perspective that it doesn't dominate our emotional state. I think this is why some people recommend doing volunteer work when you're feeling down . . . getting connected to something bigger than ourselves can make us feel less anxious about our own image.

Emma: Yes, being of service helps me put my fears into perspective. I think it's because love, tenderness, and compassion arise in me, and their enormousness cradles the fear, vulnerability, and shame, which are, in that moment, both right-sized and deeply cared for. The love, tenderness, and compassion might be arising in response to someone else's needs, but they are my feelings, and they help me, too. I've found myself in so much fear about what someone is thinking about me, absolutely lost in despair over it, and then had that same person tell me about some struggle or joy in his or her life, and the fear just seems to dissolve—perhaps like Steven Levine says, into the enormous heart of mercy. And other times, the fear and vulnerability and lack of self-worth are just up and all that I can feel. It's so hard to just greet them, to recognize them as old friends, but doing that feels needed sometimes, too. Kosho talks about how all of our many selves are always trying to help us. The parts of me that feel fear and vulnerability, that say, “No! Do not connect! Danger! Danger!” are loving me in the only way they know how; they're using every bit of knowledge they have to keep me safe. It's just that those parts of me don't have access to the vast store of knowledge and experience from my whole life that I can find when I'm present to my whole self. Congratulations on your new kitten, Quandra.

Quandra: Emma talked about her love, tenderness, and compassion being extended to others but helping her too. I want to remember that . . . my goodwill towards others helps me too. That's really helpful. There was a guy who shared at a meditation group I attended who really made himself vulnerable.  It reminded me of how valuable it is when someone demonstrates vulnerability; it's like an invitation. I'm so grateful that he didn't hold back. His vulnerability invited me to share my own. That type of revelation can allow for real healing. A wound can't heal if it's not exposed.

Kim: I'm reminded when I am at funerals and one person after another speaks so authentically and with so much insight. If only we could take that truthfulness and retain it for our non-funeral activities. It is like we take our clothes off and reveal our deepest most innermost heart of hearts. Wow. How can that level of vulnerability be retained? That incredible warrior strength? That courage?

Emma: Life is so generous to us. It keeps presenting with opportunities for us to open up to our deepest experience of ourselves and one another. Not just with big, momentous life-changing opportunities; all the time. We get to choose again and again how we will respond, who we will let in, how deeply and thoroughly we will let ourselves be moved by it.

Kim: And we can open up now. That's the incredible gift of life—that we can “start over” at any moment.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


Kim: Today we were talking about entering the stream, and I realized (suddenly) that the stream is where we are. Even those who imagine themselves to be looking onto the stream are actually in the stream. In fact, maybe there is nothing but the stream. I wasn't able to say anything about this in the discussion group I was in. It wasn't my turn to talk. But as others spoke about being in or out of the stream it became clearer and clearer that believing that we aren't “in life” is like people in universities believing that they are in an Ivory Tower. It all happens wherever you are, whether you like it or not.

Bruce:  When you guys mentioned the “eureka” theme, my mind immediately went to an unlikely epiphany I experienced while cleaning my cat's litter box. I'd recently returned home after tending to the ash and incense containers from various AZC altars, when something about the quiet, everyday task of scooping cat waste hit me like a flash. I'm hesitant to articulate exactly what happened, because this seems beneath or behind (or before) the realm of conscious thought. Still, some kind of correspondence between cleaning a sacred altar and sifting through cat litter became suddenly and powerfully apparent. Both activities call for focus and attention on the task at hand. And besides, doesn't Buddhism caution against discriminating between the sacred and the profane (and does it get much more profane than cat excrement)? For me, this incident offers a lesson about being fully present and practicing in every moment, and it suggests that awakening is more random than rational.

Emma: Have you two ever noticed how those moments of awakening, of opening, often have this tender quality to them? For me, they arise with such softness and compassion. Yes, Bruce, I agree that they aren't rational. I never have these kinds of realizations after thinking and thinking and thinking. I wonder about their randomness. They seem random. But I wonder. Perhaps we always plant the seed for them. We sit, we listen, we stay open (or at least try), and when the time is right, when we are ready to see, the realization comes, as if from nowhere.

I love how related your realizations are—that we're always on the path ("in the stream"), whether we're being chiden or cleaning up after the cat, that's it's all life, beautiful, terrible, extraordinary, ordinary life. My favorite awakenings are the ones that humble me, sometimes so much so that I'm dumbstruck. They happen when I’ve been rigid, strongly convinced I am right about something or better than or apart from. Out of this contracted, lonely way of being, I’m shown my place in the order of things, my absolute value in messy humanity.

Kim: I got into my car the other day and felt something crawling on the back of my neck. I brushed it off. “Wow. That was big,” I thought. I turned on my interior lights, but couldn't see anything, so I went on my way. Then today I started to get in my car and a rather giant spider had built a web in the front passenger seat. The foreboding creature was in the middle of the web, waiting for me. At first I thought I'd vacuum him to oblivion, but then I felt a little compassion for the scary beast and thought I'd use a broom to move him outside. Then I started to imagine that he'd jump off the broom back into the recesses of my car and kill me at some indiscreet moment. (Is there ever a discreet moment to die?)

So I vacuumed up the spider and his web. (Was it a he or she? I don't know) Then I opened up the shop vac and saw the poor little dead spider huddled along the bottom edge of the tank. He went from being a beautiful gold color to a very dark brown, after being covered with dust.

I went on my way, rushing to the Zen center to sit. Rushing to sit is always a fun contradiction. Next thing I knew, a car failed to stop at a stop sign and was a few inches from the side of my car. I saw time freeze as I made a sudden swerve and survived the near hit. “Ah ha!” I thought. “Payback for murdering the spider.”

I told my wife my theory about the near accident. “But you weren't in an accident. How is that payback?”

“I was given a pass. This time.”

Bruce: It's very interesting that you describe a near-hit, Kim, because I was just thinking about something I once heard on a Zen podcast. This person observed that enlightenment is accidental in the sense of striking us unexpectedly, when we're not looking. Yet while we can't aim for awakening, exactly, what we can do is make ourselves more "accident-prone" through regular, mindful practice. Also, I have to say that "rushing to sit" reminds me of the expression "hurry up and wait."

Emma, you remind me that my favorite poetry captures the miraculous in the mundane, the “extraordinary ordinary, ” as you put it. And you're probably right to suspect the randomness of these eureka moments. Maybe this is how we're able to redirect karma, by planting seeds. Still, in typical Zen fashion, it's not a direct process of creating Cause A in order to reap Benefit B: in that sense, “deliberate randomness” may be a reasonable way of framing it. Live mindfully, simultaneously cultivating skillful means and letting go, trusting that the moments of realization and opening will come.

Emma: Ooooohhh. I like “deliberate randomness,” Bruce. It reminds me of this drawing I've seen of a man fishing from a dock. Next to him is a basket. A fish from behind him is jumping out of the water into his basket. What a great image for deliberate randomness. We can set the stage (and fish our hearts out) and then let go of how, or even whether, the fish will actually come to us. Someone very dear to me once told me you can have everything you need if you're not attached to where it comes from. He said it during a time of many small and large awakenings for me, the beginning of my redirecting my attention from what I thought was going to make me happy (by force if necessary). Perhaps it was the death of my Bulldozer Nature, or at least my first notice that trying to force my life to be how I wanted not only wasn't working but was making me miserable.

My Zen practice is the first thing I've ever done where I've given myself permission to be gentle, to take it slow. Although I sometimes have the odd thought I'm not doing enough, or doing it “right,” (yesterday, I decided I wasn't reading enough), I feel I am being drawn to practice by a childlike sweetness and an adult desire for wholeheartedness. It is extraordinary to me that we come together to learn how to be present. It's an entirely different process unfolding. I like your story, Kim. How different to even ponder not killing the spider. That's what meditation reveals to us, right? The pauses, the awareness of the gap between urge and action. It gives us the time to notice that we have a choice whether we will respond or react.

Bruce: I can totally relate to Bulldozer Nature, as that was very much my M.O. for many years (not that I'm claiming to be totally beyond it now). Also, the gap between urge and action was exactly how I was describing the effects of meditation on myself to some friends about six months ago.

As for blending childlike sweetness and an adult desire for wholeheartedness, my experience suggests that children are sweet, yes, and authentic, but without desiring to be so, without having to think about it. They're also angry, impatient, and various other flavors of not-so-sweet: point is, they are whatever they are in any given moment, slipping into and out of mind/emotional states much more readily than most adults. So you know that statement attributed to Jesus about needing to be like little children in order to reach the kingdom of heaven? I think he was on to something with that.

Kim: A dog came up to me and sniffed my pant leg. Satisfied, he walked away. Did he smell the dog that I'd been with? Did he think, “Oh, he was around a dog that smelled like . . .” As I watched the sniffer, I was particularly interested in that point at which the sniff made sense. He was so abrupt at that certain point, as if saying, “Ah ha, I know who he's been with.” We move from being an input device to a central processing system. We think, “I have the data. Now I know.” That, for me, is “eureka.”

(Note: Bruce Smith's blog: Kim Mosley's blog: )

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Pure Love

Kim: We have my daughter's dog for a few days. I hugged her, and she was so warm, which felt good on this cool day--a furry warm dog. Very different from the idea of a dog or from seeing a dog across the street and thinking "dog."

Emma: Dogs are all about love. My ex, Chuck, and my two chocolate labs, Mollie and Sophie, live in Ohio. Chuck opened the door the other day to find a tiny kitten. Days old. He was about to go to work, so he put her in a box in his bedroom and shut the door. The labs were in the living room. When he got home, the dogs weren't at the door as usual. "Shit," he thought. He ran into the bedroom to find Mollie panting, standing watch over Sophie, who was lying on the bed with the kitten sleeping next to her. The kitten was sopping wet from the dogs' kisses.

I love that story. It's just pure love.

Kim: I was going to respond immediately. Your story reminded me of something I received yesterday as an email. It was a tiger, a lion, and a bear that all shacked up together in a cabin in the woods. They were the best of friends. Animals do seem to have hearts, don't they?

But I decided instead to take a nap, and then to make bread, and then to fill my tires with air. When I went into the bedroom, Maya, our temp dog, was already asleep by the bed on her cushion. She knew it was siesta time. There was something comforting about falling asleep hearing her faint breathing. Yesterday I was watching her sleep and wondering if she knew something that we don't know.

Emma: Dogs are eternally present, ever forgiving. I remember how much I loved Sophie when she was a teeny puppy. It was a heart-wrenching, self-obliterating, fierce and divine maternal love. It didn't feel like anthropomorphism. I loved her tininess, her innocence, her dog-ness. I loved how her dog intelligence allowed to her to express her dog-self every day without any other dog present. (Mollie didn't come along until later). I was astounded at how calm I was each time I found a shoe she'd torn to pieces. I was so clear it was my fault for forgetting to put them away, so clear there was nothing that needed to be changed about her. She was being herself, and doing it perfectly.

I hope I come close to seeing the people I care about that clearly. I think I sometimes do.

Kim: What is fascinating about this dialogue is the darkness that I'm trying to suppress surrounding dogs. I had to give Maya her flea medicine. It is a liquid that is supposed to go the skin on her back, but it was thick and went too much on her hair and now we can't touch her. I didn't get an A+ for that job. And then I was buying eggs at the grocery and had to decide between sad chicken eggs without hormones for $1.99 or happy no cages chicken eggs for $2.49. I imagined that the no-cage eggs were good because the chickens were happier. But I've never seen chickens express happiness.

Back to love. So love is like the liquid in a glass. There is also the air in the glass. We can see/taste/enjoy the liquid because it is scarce. Not everything is liquid. We are despondent and then we see something or hug something and feel joy and warmth and, against the background of the despondency (my word?), we feel love. It makes it way out, screaming, “Hey, look at me!”

Emma: Darkness and dogs. When I was addicted to painkillers, I decided late one night that I needed cigarettes. I concluded, with all of my addict logic, that it'd be fine for me to drive as long as I took the dogs.

Because God wouldn't kill the dogs.

I encouraged these beautiful creatures to get in the back of the car because I believed their innocence would keep me safe from my insanity.

Yup, I did that. And at the same time, I would've leapt under a bus to save them from harm. Both are true. I'm wondering if I can love the me who put those dogs in the car with as much compassion and clarity as I love the dogs. I just looked at that me. She's very little, a tiny little confused girl. Maybe it wasn't so much addict logic as it was child logic. I'm sitting here typing this and forgiving myself.

Do you think love is scarce? I think love is abundant. I think it's everywhere. We just walk around blocking it. There's a poem, "To Live in the Mercy of God" ( These lines make me shiver: Thus, not mild, not temperate, /God’s love for the world. Vast/ flood of mercy/flung on resistance.

I block love—sometimes with full body armor.

Kim: I told the sitting group this morning that we had a problem, that I wanted them to tell me whether love is scarce or abundant. Shirley said, "how about scarcely abundant or abundantly scarce?" I told her that didn't make sense. Then I sat for three periods of zazen and spent some of the time contemplating the issue. At first I concluded that love was abundant because, though we (in numbers) are limited, since we can make love out of anything or nothing, it is abundant.

Three periods of zazen later I wasn't so convinced. Maybe Shirley was right—that it was both abundant and scarce. Though we are able to create it anywhere and anytime, much of time we don't, or, as you say, we block it.

I remembered the Jataka tale of the Buddha sailing with the pirate who was going to kill everyone on the boat. The Buddha-to-be ends up killing the pirate out of love because he doesn't want the pirate to accumulate any bad karma from killing the passengers. In doing this, the Buddha took the chance of accumulating bad karma himself because of his love for the mean pirate.

Emma: I think the problem with that question is it's tossing us back in the land of ideas. I'm sitting here loving my friend, appreciating her strength and beauty, feeling my heart open and open and open in response to her. In the midst of loving her, in the experience of it, the love is without beginning and end. It is boundless. If we weren't having this conversation, it wouldn't even occur to me to look for how much love is there, to explore whether the supply is limited. It is infinite. Its limits only come into question when I'm disconnected from my love and love becomes an idea I'm talking about.

Even blocking love doesn't affect the amount of love there is. Being in a submarine doesn't change the ocean. It just changes my experience of it.

Kim: I asked my pilates teacher and one of her students whether love was abundant or scarce.
My teacher blurted out without hesitation, “Abundant.”
“Well, that settles that,” I said.
What you said about blocking love not reducing love did not feel right. Then I was sitting in the zendo and heard the wind against a window and realized, like the wind, love has an energy of its own. We live a little bit away from the main drag of our neighborhood.

I've been surrounded with a lot of love during my life. Some people haven't. It sometimes makes it hard to understand what the people who love me see. I'm continually struck with the love that continues even when I may not deserve it. Or is love something to deserve, anyway?

Emma: Yes, that's beautiful, Kim. Love has an energy of its own.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

What Is Santa About?

Kim: What is Santa about? Why do we deceive kids? Is it just because we can? Are we interfering with their ability to see things as they is (as Sukuki Roshi would say as his way to remind us that there is only one thing)? What about Santa having kids sit on his lap for that photo after we tell them not to let a stranger touch you? What other deceptions do we teach kids? God, Jesus, you’ll live forever, adults are happy? What will I tell my Austin grandson when he asks? At what age can a kid understand that Santa is just a metaphor? Do they have to first be deceived into believing Santa and the elves give toys to all the kids on Earth?

In improv we learn that asking questions is not a good way to have a conversation. It puts the hot potato into the other’s lap.

So I’ll start again. I think my parents taught me that only things that you could see were real. They had no interest in deception. God, to them, was the big deception. Santa was of no interest to them. My Phili grandkids call me Grandpa NoFun. I wonder why?

Emma: Well, Grandpa NoFun, I can see your Phili grandkids’ point. I remember feeling delight when I used my burgeoning higher-level thinking skills to conclude there was no Santa Clause. My cousin and I felt very clever in realizing that his appearance at multiple shopping malls around New Zealand made his existence highly suspect. All around he was a delight—there was the delight in believing in a mystical grandfather whose sole purpose was to bring gifts to children and delight in finding out for myself that he wasn’t an actual person. I think Santa is fine when he’s about play, expectation, delight: he’s a way to make a holiday precious for children. For me, the deception comes in when there’s rigidity, when parents use Santa for their own purposes. If my parents had continued to insist there was a Santa after I’d figured out decidedly that there wasn’t, I would have experienced that as self-centered deception (because it would’ve been about them and what they needed.) If they’d used threats of Santa’s abandonment throughout the year as a means to get me to be “good,” I would've hated the man. It’s not Santa or a belief in Santa that’s terrible, it’s what we do with him, same as with most anything, really.

There are mystics who say God is the most commonly used term for “all that is.” Why is teaching children about God or Jesus a deception? Is it deceptive to teach children about the Buddha or Suzuki Roshi?

Kim: Here’s my grandson about God:

This was a year ago. Now, according to Jasper, there is no God.

Emma: Jasper is very wise. His answers to your questions are perfectly reasonable to him, and he seems deeply in touch with what he wants—he knows when he’s had enough questions and wants to go see his dad, for example. To me, this deep connection to our wisdom is god. Deciding that the god of a year ago doesn’t work for him is also wise. The trouble with God (and Santa) isn’t God (or Santa); it’s that God and Santa are us and we are Them. I think the trouble is when we think there’s something not us to know about them. It’s when we get all stiff and rigid and "idea-y" about this stuff that it causes havoc. I love Thomas Merton’s quote:

“If only they [people] could all see themselves as they really are. I suppose the big problem would be that we would bow down and worship each other. . . . At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth. . . . This little point … is the pure glory of God in us. It is in everybody.”

It amuses me that every time I look the quote up online, I find it on a site that is explaining why it’s the doctrine of the devil.

Kim: I was reading this essay on anger by the Buddhist therapist Mark Epstein. He talked about how the therapist is able to be non-judgmental because he/she resides equidistance between the id, ego and superego. Maybe that’s where God/Santa resides too. And maybe Freud was short sighted in thinking the ego mediates between the id and superego (that can only lead to a constant battle). How do we learn to stand in the center? At once, our center, too. That’s where I want to be.

I don’t know where Jasper got his thoughts about God. His parents are not believers. And I don’t know that my kids were ever fooled by the Santa story though we did have pretty cool Christmas morning events when they were young because Linda’s parents would be there. Now back to the original question, “Is there a Santa?” What has been gnawing at me is that if you convince the kid that Santa’s an earthling and then the kid discovers that the chimney is just a piece of stove pipe and not big enough for an elf, the kid rejects Santa completely. Or you tell him God loves him and then he meets up with loss and he stops believing. Next time I have kids I’m going to jump ahead and just tell them about the spirit of Santa/God . . . something that they can hold in their hand forever and “own.”

Emma: That’s a beautiful gift, Kim. Perhaps it’s all we really ever need on the spiritual path, a little God, a little Santa, a little Buddha, all of our own.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


Kim: My son asked me if we were going to drive his kid to school when we come to Phili to child-sit, or would he take the bus. I told him that you shouldn’t make decisions until you have to. He said “really?” Then we started talking about choices and I said that one could be peaceful in their choices. He wrote back to me later that day, “every choice is a brutal amputation.” One thing I see with kids is that they are who you (the parent) were. We hear at the Zen center all about attachment. Seems like we attach ourselves unnecessarily to our choices, our positions (the Republican Convention is on TV now). So what was Robert Frost talking about in “Two roads diverged . . . and sorry I was that I could not travel both.” Is the voice his, or some unenlightened individual who doesn’t understand that one doesn’t have to be sorry? Or do you?

Emma: I read a great quote yesterday by John Welwood about a misunderstanding around nonattachment. He said that nonattachment should not be confused with avoidance of attachments—that avoiding attachments to people is just another form of clinging—as he says, “clinging to the denial of your human attachment needs, out of distrust that love is reliable.” I think it is so easy to fall into the trap of avoidance and denial, especially of difficult feelings. Maybe nonattachment can be, but doesn’t necessarily have to be, about peaceful choices. (If it can only be about making peaceful choices, there’s another attachment, right?)

Deeply feeling my sadness around not being able to take both roads, or regret about the road I did choose (Frost’s speaker says he’ll be telling “with a sigh”), is not necessarily an indication of my being attached to choices in an unhealthy way. I think it’s actually just an acknowledgement of what is. Here’s a possibility: I must make a choice, fear and confusion arise, I make the choice, perhaps there’s regret, sadness arises when I consider what might have been, and then I move on. I can imagine a scenario where that could happen and the nonattachment would be about not being attached to any part of the process, not getting stuck anywhere along the way. My feelings are my feelings; if I have a hard time making a choice, that’s what’s real for me. It doesn’t make me unenlightened. It makes me human.

That said, I don’t think every choice has to be a brutal amputation. Cheri Huber talks about how our ego/self-hate creates an alternate reality in which we’re living out our other choices for the primary purpose of torturing ourselves in this reality. I can resonate with that—“if only . . . ” can be such a painful thought if I believe that what is happening right now is fundamentally wrong and could be different. Accepting that what is happening right now is happening and cannot be any other way (how could it?) feels important. We can never know how life will unfold; having to make choices just gives us an opportunity to remember that.

Kim: This is especially meaningful because I grew figs in St. Louis. They were from a fig plant brought from Italy at the turn of the last century (mafia family). My barber gave them to me. Most years we hardly get any figs. It wouldn’t be a long enough growing season. This is really too about my next post . . . about choosing life or not.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
~ Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Emma: Oh, Sylvia, great voice of the wounded! Yes, this makes me think of how necessary it is to take the time to mourn the figs at our feet . . . to take the time to notice them, say goodbye, and move on. I think that’s how we stop ourselves from becoming bitter. It is self-brutality to pretend they’re not there or to stare at them ceaselessly. Both denial and regret produce frozenness, immobility. How much easier it would be to make choices if we knew clearly that the fig tree that is our lives does not dry up because we haven’t been able to make up our minds. Choices will keep appearing, over and over again. Life never gives up on us. We can give up on it, in moments of true despair and illness, as Sylvia did. What a place of utter darkness she must have been in, to believe that suicide was her only choice.

Kim: Is suicide the only real choice that we make? Not just suicide of our body, but suicide of our feelings. Somewhere I remember Camus writing that you can’t live until you make that decision not to take your own life. We are thrust into the world without our choice. We push the boulder up the hill to watch it fall every evening. How many choose—really choose—to live? What would that mean for me?
“For his whole career Camus wrestled to come up with a reason not to commit suicide. He then penned a seminal article, The Myth of Sisyphus, outlining the futility of life concluding that “there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Self murder was his only way out of the Sisyphean task of life. If a man realizes his life is pointless, he can either keep rolling the boulder up the hill only to have to roll it again tomorrow, or he could kill himself and end the misery. This was the existentialist’s great controlling guideline. If a restaurant only has Coke or Sprite, you can choose either drink, or you could kill yourself. You have at least that control. Ironically, Camus died young in a car accident before he could decide to kill himself.”
Emma: We have to make that choice over and over again, to choose to keep living even when it feels as though this thing will be the one that we won’t be able to take. Taking suicide off the table changes things—it leaves no exit (to use the language of the existentialists). Then we must face what is in front of us or perhaps continue choosing and and letting go of other kinds of death—obliteration through alcohol or drugs or disconnection through television or other people’s drama. I guess there are a lot of ways to “die,” or take our exit out of the present moment, and as many opportunities as we have breaths to return to now.

Kim: Last night I went to a yoga class where the students are very lax about where they put their mats. They don’t seem to anticipate that more people will come in. In fact, they arrange their mats just to drive me up the wall. I’m usually the first one there, and I want to control where the mats go. But no, I choose to keep my mouth shut and fry inside. Then the teacher comes in. I think, “at last, we’ll get a semblance of order in this room.” But no, he’s oblivious to the chaos in the room and attends promptly to the chaos in our minds.

Here we have a succession of choices. The students choose where to put their mats down. Then me with the OCD-like desire for everyone to choose to love order. And then the teacher who doesn’t walk on the floor, but chooses to floats into the room, unmoved by the chaos. Each of us chooses where and who we are.

What did I learn tonight? It is ok where things are.

It better be. They are!

Perhaps “death” is wanting things to be different than how they are. Death is thinking that everything is done in the world as a punishment to ourselves.

I was relieved to learn that the Buddha did not believe that every good and bad thing that happened was the result of someone’s good and bad karma. Things happen. People place their mats on the floor where they belong. Right? Wrong? That’s my problem, not theirs.

Emma: Yes! Things happen. Of course. It feels like just more attachment to say there’s always a reason for everything. We want to believe we’re all-powerful because we think it’s less scary. But how painful it is! If we’re all-powerful, if everything that happens is a result of our karma, then we’re responsible for everything, and every choice really is life or death.

I like to think I’m free to make good choices and terrible choices and see it all as learning.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Rebel and a Monk

See image that inspired us:

Kim: Emerson said,  “A true friend is "one soul in two bodies.” I heard this in a movie last night, but it was said a little differently, and it made me think of the two men holding hands. The guy in the movie said that his Polish grandmother had said that when two bodies touch, their souls become one. The woman (who at that point was quite antagonistic) said that Emerson had said that, not his granny. So what is going on with these guys, anyway?

Emma: I see a lot of love—love manifesting as a cigarette-smoking bad-ass, as a sultry monk. It’s all the same love, overflowing. They walk like allies, two kids against the world. They hold hands to remind each other of something.

Kim: I think “remind” is important—that they’ve had a connection for some time. “Against” is important to me too—that their connection separates them from a world that may not be as warm and friendly.

So I told my wife the Emerson quote and she said that he was wrong, that it is more like a multi-colored marble (“it” being the soul) that happens when people touch.

So what is this soul thing, anyway, which Buddhists don’t buy? And what is the relationship of these guys?

And why does the photo hit us right in the heart?

Emma: It does hit us right in the heart, doesn’t it? I think that’s because it so perfectly presents the intimacy we’re all looking for: that deep, all-the-way-down-to-the toes feeling of being known. Everything is revealed (look at that shoulder!); nothing is rejected.

They walk like they have a secret—something perfect and beautiful that belongs to both of them and none of us. Maybe it’s that they’re lovers on their way to a make-out session. Whatever it is, I want it.

I think soul is a word God gave poets so they could talk about this kind of love. Hands being held, limbs intertwined, words whispered . . . . that’s all good. But souls meeting . . . that’s happening somewhere else entirely. Souls meet in the ocean of being. I think Buddhists might be okay with that.

So who’s right, your wife or Emerson? What do you think these kids are up to?

Kim: Eric Fromm talked about “dual egotism” as a negative thing, where we get so close to someone we lose who we are. I think that was my wife’s objection to the idea of the bodies having one soul. Emerson was being a little more romantic about it that she is.

I don’t see them off to a make-out session. That didn’t enter my mind. But a little homophobic element may have made me squirm a little—I can’t quite remember what I felt when I first saw it.

Imagine if we were all one giant marble with each of us having our own swirl. That’s the meaning for me of “not one, not two.” Emerson was doing a little hyperbole, don’t you think?

I’m now looking again at the picture. The rebel is holding the monk’s hand (not the other way around). The monk is looking at the photographer. The shirt says AC/DC Black Ice. Here is more than you want to know about that group. AC/DC used to be a reference to people who would do it with either sex, but I’m not going to jump to that conclusion. Theravada monks can touch people of the same sex.

Those are bike gloves the rebel is wearing. Maybe they are part of his toughness. I now remember that I thought they were brothers. There is a chain hanging from the rebel’s right hand. Why?

Holding hands in a market makes some sense since it is so easy to lose someone.

Now, back to the soul. I heard the word “consciousness” as what moves to another when we die. I think that is more fluid and less permanent than a soul. It would change by the moment.

So why does one photograph touch our heart while another doesn’t?

Emma: I liked your wife’s image of us as swirls in a marble. Intimacy is meeting in the places of our samenesses and our differences. We don’t connect with everyone, right? The sameness isn’t enough--there’s something about a few special swirls that makes our hearts sing. It’s the same with art to a certain extent—what resonates with me is not necessarily going to rock your world.

But some photographs do seem to captivate in a universal way—I’m thinking of the Afghan girl ( That child’s angry, riveting eyes . . . Maybe we more clearly see ourselves in the photographs that touch our hearts.

The AC/DC kid’s got a whole rebel thing going—I think the t-shirt and chain are just a part of that. He’s maintaining an image. I guess the monk is, too, in his own way. If you put your cursor over the source image, it says “An Odd Couple—Buddhist Brothers.”

It’s curious to me how much I wanted them to be lovers. I think part of it is conditioning that says that kind of love can come only from a romantic partner. But I think too, it was coming from a deep longing for anyone in love to be able to hold hands anywhere in the world and stare down a camera with that much certainty. “Yes, I’m in love. What are you going to do about it?” kind of thing.

Pure consciousness is fluid, yes, ever responding. Consciousness allows for complete transformation, moment to moment. It is freedom from everything we think we are. Consciousness doesn’t need to be “saved” from anything. It just is. Souls let us think we can exist forever, but there’s a heavy price to be paid for that kind of certainty: we don’t get to keep changing and growing and exploring. Souls could be that fluid, too, if only we’d be brave enough to let them. Letting go of the idea that we’re not forever is scary.

Kim: I know that photo of the Afghan girl. I heard the photographer talk about it. He was surprised how it touched so many people.

I wish that we’d have more people holding hands who come from different places, like Republicans and Democrats, Jews and Muslims (though that is happening a little), etc.

In ancient Greece supposedly the intimate relationships were between men and boys, and marriage was for different purposes. I wonder to what extent that is true today—not necessarily between men and boys, but between friends. I sense that friends often have a greater intimacy than husbands and wives. A psychologist William Glasser said it was because we don’t criticize our friends (because we’ll lose them as friends) but we’ll criticize our family. He also said, “Caring for but never trying to own may be a further way to define friendship.”

Look at the withholding of judgment that must have taken place for the odd couple to exist. No one is right or wrong. They both are who they are.

D.H. Lawrence wrote in a letter, “I am glad that you are in love. That is the right way to be—happy and in love, and if there are friends to help the love along tant mieux (so much the better).” That letter was on the cover of a book of his letters that I found when I was 18. It stuck.

Emma: Yes, I suppose different relationships have different purposes. I don’t know if it matters, ultimately. I have found the deepest, most profound love open up in unlikely relationships, most certainly not where I wanted or expected it to come. But when love is flowing, truly flowing, it just flows everywhere. It’s just love all around, life saturated in love. There’s even space to dislike people, to be angry with them, perhaps even to hate them for a while, but the love keeps flowing. When that happens, it doesn’t matter what opened up the source, what turned on the tap, so to speak. The tap’s just on, and the love is there. When I’m contracted, when I can’t feel my own love, I have all these ideas—that there are certain relationships for this and that, that this kind of relationship is more important than that kind (hence the wanting the Buddhist kids to be in love). When I’m opened up and present, it doesn’t matter. I don’t need to own anyone or have anyone be any certain way.

I’m not claiming to live in this space, but it’s nice to visit.

I love these young men. I hope their love provides them with an occasional sanctuary from the world for a very long time.

Kim: Yes, this for me is what “taking refuge in the sangha” is about—a place to open your heart.