First published as Passionate Journey: The Spiritual Autobiography of Satomi Myodo and then reissued as Journey in Search of the Way, this autobiography chronicles the journey of a Japanese woman’s search for enlightenment. Satomi lived from 1896 to 1978, her lifetime spent during some of the most difficult of Japan’s history. The story reveals the darkness, urgency and extremity of Satomi’s effort. She did some terrible things in her life, like abandon her child. She also never gave up. Ultimately, she attained releasement while studying under Yasutani Roshi. What I’d like to discuss in this essay is a practice that Satomi developed herself and which became a support to the occasion of her letting go, or waking up, as it is sometimes known.
At the time that she developed the practice described below, Satomi worked for the wife of a Buddhist teacher. Although the teacher was kind, his wife was very difficult to work for. This woman was impatient, quick to find fault with Satomi and generally hard to please. Satomi, who was struggling to be a good Buddhist, tried, to no avail, to use each difficulty as a spiritual lesson. Try as she might, she couldn’t overcome her own angry reactions, reactions of which she was very ashamed. Finally Satomi discovered a fruitful practice.
In the guest room of her teacher’s home hung a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa’s smile affected Satomi profoundly. Each time she passed the image, Satomi contemplated the smile. Gradually, Satomi found herself melting into the Mona Lisa’s smile. Smiling like the Madonna brought peace and joy to Satomi’s body. Beginning with the smile on her lips, the warmth of her expression spread quickly through out her body and banished the troublesome attitudes she struggled to transcend. Noticing the soft power of her own smile, Satomi was struck by a revelation. She determined to smile first, no matter what. Smiling first became her every moment practice. In her own words, “Quickly, before anything could happen, I cut off all deluded thoughts with my sharp sword of a smile-and the results were one hundred percent. By smiling first, I was always clear and bright, and I could handle whatever came up.”
Satomi continued this practice no matter what irritation, anger or sorrow arose within her. The depth of her practice is reflected by Satomi’s subsequent gratitude to the very woman who had been her petty tyrant. In her autobiography, she describes how upon her awakening she was overcome by warmth toward the very ones who had once been the occasion of her torment.
The discovery of a practice is a wonderful happening. In this case, Satomi’s discovery was almost indistinguishable from insight. In seeing the Mona Lisa’s beautiful, subtle smile, Satomi intuited a peace that transcended every petty torture of her daily life. As the Mona Lisa smiles gently, Satomi, too, practiced a subtle smile. Perhaps there is no greater tribute to the Mona Lisa’s smile than this story of how it inspired a seeker.
Satomi’s story illustrates what a creative and devoted mind can do with insight. An invention in a moment of despair; personal practice can arise from insight as it did for Satomi. Her story is all the more palpable because her frustrations are the daily and ordinary kind. She was born in 1896, but she could as easily expressed the same frustrations with a boss or peer in any kitchen or work environment today.
Satomi’s story elevates petty suffering to the level of significance that is warranted. People are usually ashamed of their little sufferings. Yet these small sufferings can be the content of their daily lives. To bypass their virtues would be a spiritual loss. The content of most people’s pain are rather ordinary. Certainly there are the big ones; sickness, old age and death. But ordinarily our trials are the little ones; jealousy, bitterness, hurt and loss. What matters, I often tell my students, is not the smallness of our hurts but the greatness of the spirit with which we respond to these hurts. Each occasion grants us an opportunity to transcend. We are the “petty tyrants”2 to one another. A petty tyrant is a small tormenter that we meet in our daily life and cannot easily avoid. Depending on the depth of your intent, your petty tyrant can teach you about yourself.
So what are the virtues of small sufferings? For one, they are pointers. When your temper rises, or your self-hatred appears, notice the trigger. Is your reaction based in truth, or belief? Does the trigger stir up the tangle of a historical pattern? Is it necessary for you to live within the confines of this pattern, or are you ready to let it go? Perhaps your suffering is more vague. You are only able to say that what you are experiencing does not measure up to the happiness you crave. As someone once said to me, “I can’t say exactly what I want or what would make me happy, but I can say what doesn’t make me happy.” Noticing what doesn’t work is also perception.
Our attempts to realize fulfillment include generous portions of trial and error. We twist this way and that, usually with little clarity, as we seek happiness. I often reflect on Satomi’s discovery almost as if it were my own memory. I imagine that I am working under a petty tyrant. I try different approaches. Perhaps I can be unaffected? No, not for long. My emotions boil to the surface and redden my cheeks. Maybe I can merge with my task and feel a oneness with the doing? Yes, but soon the voice of the petty tyrant interrupts me. Then an image of the Mona Lisa rises before me. I picture clearly her enigmatic smile. She knows something. What does she know? I smile myself, letting the warmth of my smile open my body to the universe. When I feel tension and resistance, I smile through it, and surrender my attitudes as if they were so many items in my home to cast off. I clear the space of my body/mind with Mona Lisa’s smile. ‘Smile first’ becomes my secret practice, too. The smile grounds me, and teaches me to surrender.
An aspect of Satomi’s spiritual genius is reflected in her gratitude. Imagine the depth of insight necessary to feel grateful to your petty tyrants! Perhaps you yourself have been able to be grateful to a period of hardship in your life, or even for a difficult childhood because you know that it taught you much. Gratitude softens the soul and melts the hard resistance we feel into golden joy. Satomi found this out when she practiced Mona Lisa’s smile.
This essay first appeared in the winter issue of Still Point Arts Quarterly
On the notepad I had written the obscure line, “They matter.” Now, having lost the prior sheets, I was left to contemplate these words. The stray page belonged with a stack of notes I’d written about my clients. The one to whom this note referred was a therapist like myself. When we met, she spoke to me about her relationship to her own clients. As the memory came back, I smiled. It is not always the case that therapists care so deeply about their clients. For some the days’s hours follow each other in long line of tedium: a rosary of complaints, angers, jealousies and self-importance. Lacking the honesty to see oneself in the trials of one’s companions, sessions can pile up like a stack of slow soap opera episodes. This woman was different. For her, they matter.
The short sentence came back to me throughout the day, at odd times, like a revelation. Once when a woman came to see me and unexpectedly brought her daughter. Facing a tragedy, the two women, physically so alike, took careful comfort in each other. I was struck by their well chosen words, their tentative embrace.
The words came back as I witnessed a young man, a clerk, humiliated as he lingered, helping an attractive woman of his own race when his boss scolded him for neglecting the cash register. Frowning angrily, the youth sought to restore his dignity by muttering under his breath. I, his customer at the register, said to him gently, “No hurry, no hurry.”
They matter. What exactly is it that matters of them? Not squandered moments or petty emotions, emotions that we all have. Not delusions of grandeur or childishness. What matters is Spirit. Spirit rises in the most difficult and ordinary of circumstances: the everyday hurts that we try to cast aside, along with the grander ones. Spirit matters as it comes to know Itself in the occasion of ourselves. Unyielding, it rises again and again, perhaps freshest in the morning when we feel hope, but most beautiful in the evening if we lived our day without letting down our effort.
What is the effort we make? We make the effort to be real; to be fulfilled. We claim it with a hundred silent calculations. We choose the best fruit in the marketplace, the nicest clothing we can afford. We look for our name written somewhere, or listen for it spoken on the lips of a friend. “What tone was that,” we ask, “what attitude?” Do we count, count the way we hope we do? Do we matter?
I know the secret of how we matter. I try to tell you with my smile and my eyes, especially my eyes. Can I catch your attention, that attention that you want to have? Can I help you to notice the jewel that you are: perfect and complete and fantastic-you that embody the impossible everyday marching on, as if undaunted somewhere deep within because there, there you know the same secret that I know even if you can’t bring it to word.
You know. You know when you feel outraged by the slight, though the outrage is not what matters. You know when you are hungry: soul hungry to be seen and understood. Gasping for air your hungry spirit refuses to starve even as years pass by without satisfaction.
I know the secret. You need nothing. You already Are. You must nurture and encourage the flame within. Distinguish it from it’s petty manifestations but don’t let it go out, never let it go out. It is for you to realize.
This time matters. The time of your lifetime both short and long. Long enough to find the answer and make it real by faithfully climbing the succession of images that come to your mind-the answers that get cast off one by one. What is cast off is that which fails to really express what you know inside to be true.
You are not your feelings.
You are not your doings.
You are not your history.
You are not your loves.
You are….you know. That’s right. Let it rise.
Whenever I stand near a waterfall I feel moved. No other natural form of flowing water stirs me more. Imagine the dance and play of the water as it cascades over stones. Picture the light flickering and twinkling like the winking of Spirit in dangers that would crush you and me, made as we are of human bodies in flesh, bone and sinew. While we mortals twist and turn daily to avoid injury, both psychic and physical, the water moves freely meeting any obstacle; water is ultimate fluidity.
‘Fluidity’ often denotes freedom. A person who is capable of demonstrating fluidity is the opposite of a ‘rigid’ person. A rigid person must have things ‘just so’ whereas the fluid person is uninjured by circumstance, bending and yielding as necessary. The virtuosic fluid person moves within and through circumstance without surrendering his or her values.
When observing the waterfall you will notice a paradox. The water, infinitely yielding, carves stone-that ancient and utterly hard substance, the bones of this earth. Water caresses stone with whisper touches, or crashes against stone with utter abandon. Water carves its mark through the aeons while stone guides the dance of the water. Causing the water to shift, fall back, dash again-apparently without care or resentment-the water’s path is determined by the hard substance it plays against.
Which shapes which? In one way, it is clearly the stone that shapes the path of the water. The water, while marvelous in its play is forced to move ever downward to the lowest point. It gathers momentum or rests in pools depending on the forces that work on it.
Yet stone is shaped by water, isn’t it? Notice the textures of the stone, the basins that have been carved by whirlpools and the gathering of like with like to create a pebbled stream bed. With another paradox, it is the water that moves rapidly but does its work over very long arcs of time. The stone; solid, cold and unmoving has an instantaneous effect.
What does this play of hard and soft, liquid and solid, movement and stillness teach us? The movement and stillness can be reversed by perception. Stand back from the waterfall and notice the repetition of the patterns. Yes, it moves rapidly, but from a distance a painter could paint the same mounds of water, the same mass of bubbles, the same quiet pools. From that distance, all is still.
Turn now to your own life. From a distance, isn’t all still? Don’t your doings and actions repeat endlessly, seemingly infinite from the inside while imbued with drama, but when viewed from the outside an unmoving picture?
Think of time. Do you feel that you are in time as if time were some substance or thing that you must work your way through? Or are you the stationary one, the one who does not move while the world passes by around you-your being divides the flow, but you cannot jump in for fear that you will be swept away, ever down and down to some crashing end?
Are you what moves or are you what is still? If you are still, what is the nature of your stillness? Is it repetition? Is it resistance? Do you take the same posture again and again like the figure on a Greek vase chasing his foe on the other side of the same vase? Does this posture give you the sense of movement because your gaze is pinned determinedly on your foe fleeing just ahead of you? If you were to step back, just a little, or turn around quickly, what would you see? Could you see the play of forms, endlessly the same yet suffused with the dynamism from within, informed by the dream? What is inside and what is outside here? What is movement? What stillness?
Silent, for just a moment, you contemplate your seeming action which is really inaction. These daily actions and reactions are as still as night when viewed, like the waterfall, from afar.
Now turn your attention away from the drama that usually grips you. Stepping back with the mind’s eye, can you notice the steps of your own dance in slow motion? Visualizing these dance steps, can you notice yourself twist this way and that as you try each day, each moment really, to experience freedom? Are you not are greeted by a hundred impediments, coming from both within and without? Some of these impediments are understood by you, some are not. Some, less known to you, contribute to the dull dissatisfaction of your day.
Who notices this play? What is this other Stillness that moves you like a sharp gasp of recognition? With your indrawn breath you become quiet. You exhale softly, carefully wanting to notice everything about your perception, a perception whose origin you cannot fathom yet know to be your home. Silent, you inhale slowly to let the mystery infuse your being. You feel respectful, soft, calm. There is a fresh energy moving up your body. You also feel a wide, expansive horizontal reach. You are centered in the mystery (but suddenly it is not right to say in.) You are the mystery of Stillness and movement, form and formlessness. Exhale. Your breath becomes a circle. The circle is infinitely large yet somehow experienced by you.
What is the you? Is there any other you aside from the dream that you are always held to be reality. If you are the one who dreams, who is the one who is dreamed? Inhale. Your alignment shifts. You feel gentle, receptive and kind. Nothing can rouse you to anger or despair because those are features dreaming, while you are the Dreamer.
Exhale. The water crashes over stone in both stillness and movement. Stone is solid and yet moved by the softest of pressures slowly through vast expanses of time. The stillness and movement are the same. The moment and the arc of time are one. The dreamer dreams that he is the dreamed.
This piece is reprinted from my column in Still Point Arts Quarterly, Fall 2015
In the 17th century, the poet Basho wrote a sort of travelogue called ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North.’ In his day, travel in Japan was dangerous and the outcome uncertain. Basho’s journey was a profoundly contemplative pilgrimage. The premier haiku poet of his day, Basho related deceptively simple scenes to an audience already familiar with a rich history of short form poetry. This poetry included tanka, a five lined poem that predated haiku. On his journey, Basho experienced hunger and cold while feasting on beauty and the sublime. The first to combine prose with tanka, Basho wrote from the deep presence of Stillness. This Stillness is the Emptiness of the mystic. A lay Buddhist, poetry writing was Basho’s spiritual practice as well as his craft.
We are familiar with haiku, perhaps having written our first in grade school using the familiar syllable count of 5-7-5. Basho’s most famous haiku is
The old pond;
A frog jumps in:
Sound of water.
In this poem, the jump of the frog and the sound of the water are simultaneous. Since it is the frog jumping into the water that creates the sound, why does Basho say it is the sound of the water? Because frog and water and the mind of the listener are not separate. In these few, simple lines, Basho deftly indicates a mystical level of awareness and invites the reader to experience the same.
Seemingly as far from the modern day as a contemplative poet can be, Basho is one of my mentors. First by writing tanka, and then tanka prose, I found my voice with this ancient, Spartan form. In particular, I am drawn to minimalist tanka, painting a picture with my palette of five lines. Here I speak of nature and the voice it arouses in me:
the soul soars
Or, with five lines, revealing the essence of relationships many years long:
adopted the doll
will we argue when it’s time
to take care of mom?
call me flash
my brother said
zooming past me at 5
on the phone he tells me
that his wife left him
As a teacher, I find the brevity of the form valuable as a challenge to my students. They are pressed to relate the truths they discover as succinctly as possible. I encourage them to write a journey to their own interior, juxtaposing prose with short tanka. The tanka hits the point home in a staccato of sharp images-sometimes contrasting, sometimes amplifying the prose.
The modern English language haiku writer usually doesn’t count syllables, nor does the tanka writer. It is also customary to leave out punctuations and capitalization. While haiku only gives the writer three lines, tanka allows for five. If you were to count syllables, the tanka poem would be 5-7-5-7-7. Two additional lines allow for more personal remarks than the haiku. Tanka predates haiku by hundreds of years, evolving from short songs. Communicative forms of tanka writing evolved in the form of notes passed back and forth between members of the court. They were obscure enough to fool the messengers while sharp enough to communicate the vicissitudes of love affairs. Later tanka parties developed. I have held some of my own with my poetry writing students. A 5 lined poem begins the conversation, and, passing a notebook, we write responsive tanka, circulating the notebook between us. Sometimes for fun and ceremony we don antique kimonos and sip sake.
Basho’s genius was his clarity, brevity and piercing insight into what in the plethora of experience was the jewel to pluck. In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, we are as haunted as he is by the briefness of his remaining time on earth. We share with him his pleasure at the beauty of nature and his comradeship with contemporaneous poets as well as with those who left their traces with brief verses. Coming upon a scene a poet spoke of years before, Basho adds his own as if continuing a conversation. In his hands, verse, like art, seems an ample foil against the imminent darkness of death. How that darkness pales in the face of such brilliant words! His prose alludes to friendships that span centuries, like mine with him. Admiringly, I share his contemplations and imagine misty Japanese mountains. My mind, too, seeks truth as my weary body resists sleep.
There is one description in particular that leaves the modern reader in anguish and points, perhaps, to a failing in the sublimity of Basho’s love of nature and beauty. In an earlier travel journal, ‘The Records of a Weather Exposed Skeleton,’ Basho describes coming upon an abandoned child. Here his words describe the scene:
As I was plodding along the River Fuji, I saw a small child, hardly three years of age, crying pitifully on the bank, obviously abandoned by his parents. They must have thought this child was unable to ride through the stormy waters of life which run as wild as the rapid river itself, and that he was destined to have a life even shorter than that of the morning dew. The child looked to me as fragile as the flowers of bush-clover that scatter at the slightest stir of the autumn wind, and it was so pitiful that I gave him what little food I had with me.
The ancient poet
Who pitied monkeys for their cries,
What would he say, if he saw
This child crying in the autumn wind?
How is it indeed that this child has been reduced to this state of utter misery? Is it because of his mother who ignored him, or because of his father who abandoned him? Alas, it seems to me that this child’s undeserved suffering has been caused by something far greater and more massive-by what one might call the irresistible will of heaven. If it is so, child, you must raise your voice to heaven, and I must pass on, leaving you behind.
This child’s cries now haunt us more than three hundred years after Basho met him. It is hard not to rage against the poet whose observations seem merely aesthetic and indicative of a moral fault. Could this poet be the man who fathomed the Oneness of all things in the sound of water? What is the ‘irresistible will of heaven’ such that Basho, a man, can’t swoop up this child and bring him to shelter with some peasant family? Why must he pass on, advising the child to raise his voice to heaven against his undeserved suffering?
My favorite poem by Basho is the following:
At the journey’s end:
A late autumn eve.
In this haiku I find a sense of mystery, wonder and gratitude. There is no feeling of entitlement; only wonder. The poet greets his journey, and finally, the late days of his life, with awe. How does his sense of awe cast light on his attitude toward the lost child? What is Basho’s fault? It is hard to understand him correctly as we gaze back through the centuries. His was a time of frequent violence. Tragedy was commonplace. Reading his surprise, still alive at the journey’s end, we sense that he found his life to be an unexpected, and perhaps unearned jewel. He seems to suggest that we don’t suffer because we deserve to suffer nor experience joy because we earn it. Is it the stillness from which we emerge, in joy or sorrow, that arouses Basho’s awe? If so, it is also the Stillness that we are.
Inspired by Basho, my own poem references my teacher:
to the stick you offer
I see now
it is attached
Sometimes, when I meet a prospective student, he or she asks me, “How do I begin?” I think this is a wonderful question. To ask it is a privilege. Usually we don’t slow down enough to ask. We don’t ask, “How do I begin?” because we already know the answer. We are involved in a matrix of doings. Our purposes are revealed in our doings. We are unlikely to stop to review those purposes in the drive to accomplish them. Arriving at the openness of the question means that we have let go, at least briefly, of the answer that occupies us.
There are many moments in our day that support beginning. The morning is a natural beginning. If you are able to sit quietly before the flush of your day has taken hold, you are at a moment of beginning. Less easy than the morning, there are nevertheless a hundred other chances. A minute of quiet, here or there. A pause in a discussion. A hesitation before a repetitious argument. But because there are many chances, don’t assume they will always arise. One day you will arrive at your last chance.
Beginning requires attention. It is a state of being in question. Beginning, for me, requires a letting go of attitudinal answers. Like the attention you invite when you stand in a yogi’s mountain pose, to begin you must casts aside emotionality, attitudinal stances of all sorts, and the posture of being the one who already knows. As knower you cannot be in question. As seeker, you can.
Beginning becomes possible after an ending. We seek to solve our problems, but anyone who has actually solved one has seen that a real solution is more like a dissolution. The terms of the decision are not necessarily carried into the solution. Take a break up as an example. In the throes of the conflict you have with your mate you struggle this way and that to make the relationship work. If you solve your problem by breaking up, the struggle simply evaporates. You abandon the terms you were trying to meet.
Inner moves also have this character. Let’s say you are struggling with the sense that you are inadequate. You feel the heaviness of disappointment in yourself, and wonder why it is that you cannot do better with your efforts. Then, almost miraculously, you make a decision. You decide to go to school, or lose weight, or apply for a job. A new inner energy awakens and you are able to do what you thought you could not do. You have dissolved your previous answer; the previous refusal to make a move in life. In the dissolution of your inertia, you discover that you can act. Doing, which previously seemed impossible to you, is now possible.
With spiritual work, we begin. We ask the most fundamental questions. “What is satisfaction?” “How am I attempting to be satisfied in my daily life?” “If I am not satisfied, how is my answer inadequate?” The beginning returns when you ask the right question. With each life transition the question arises anew. “How am I seeking satisfaction? If I am satisfied, what is my satisfaction?” Arriving at these questions is your beginning. Your question, which may begin with torment, is your jewel. Hold it with great care. It can open a door.
One of the many phrases from Zen Buddhism that resonates with me is the simple instruction, “Eat your rice, wash your bowl.” The beauty of this phrase is endlessly deep, and yet it is so deceptively simple that one wonders why the instruction even exists.
As I reflect on the phrase, I wonder if the reason for it is that we human consciousnesses just can’t do anything without assigning meaning to our activity, or meaning to ourselves in doing it. “Assign” is probably the wrong word because it suggests a deliberate choice. It might be better to say that we discover ourselves to be inside of a matrix of meanings when we undertake an examination of our experience. For example, rather than ‘just doing’ we want to do what is important. Alternatively, in our doing we may want demonstrate that we are good. If we are of a different bent of mind we might indicate that we are injured. We signify the chip we carry on our shoulder by the way we lift the rice to our mouth and sadly wash our bowl. Another common attitude might be resentment. Why should we have to serve ourselves our own rice in the first place? Shouldn’t we be served by another? We could imagine that if we were loved enough, we wouldn’t have to preform ‘menial’ tasks. Since attitudes dominate our experience, our doings in the world are never simply what they are.
It is even possible, with the endless creativity of being oneself, to flip the whole thing on its head. Why not use the opportunity of serving rice to another to demonstrate our significance? Let me show you what I mean. Have you ever been served by a haughty innkeeper or waiter? I was, and his bearing was such that our whole table wanted to impress him. As if he alone knew the secrets of good taste and culinary discrimination, this man sadistically teased us as we tried to guess the contents of the soup. Finally, with a flourish, he revealed the recipe (a pumpkin soup in a chicken broth base) shaming each of us. My brother in law even tried to win his approval by buying him an expensive bottle of wine at the end of our stay.
Eat your rice, wash your bowl. What does this mean? Freeing an action from symbolic and projected meaning is no easy task. Human consciousness swirls in dreams of self-importance or injury, outrage and anger. We invest our actions with meaning and are quick to take offense if these meanings are violated. It is enough to cause us offense if our own assigned meanings simply aren’t noticed.
The journey to eat your rice, wash your bowl requires self-inquiry. We can start by asking ourselves who we imagine that we are. Unlike the TV show that explores our DNA and our heritage, this “Who do you think you are?” is about our unexplored attitudes. How do we explain the apparent actions of the world upon us or our own actions in the world? Do we have some secret justification behind our actions; some unarticulated assumption? We must tease apart the circumstances of our life from the meanings we ascribe to in order to discover that the way we live in circumstance is a manifestation of our attitude. In seeking to be released from our notions, we seek ‘eat your rice wash your bowl.’
Our attitudes are an excessive embellishment to the good of simple action. I think of the designer’s phrase, “form follows function.” The elegant object that is made by the practitioner of this edict demonstrates simple beauty. Maybe this phrase, ‘form follows function,’ is the craftsperson’s ‘eat your rice, wash your bowl.’
In the case of psychology attitudes are also constitutive. In other words, the attitudes can shape experience. An example might be a paranoid person who sees danger even from innocent people. By believing in the malevolence of others, this person may even elicit that malevolence. Even if he does not, he is able to experience the world as threatening regardless of the reality of that threat at any given time.
People often use objective fact to counter the suggestion that their attitudes inform their experience. It can be a convincing argument. What is left out of this argument are the twists and turns consciousness can make in the effort to support its own claim. The fluidity of argument has an intelligence that seems to combine self-insistence with a prejudiced opportunism. It is as if each person we speak with manages to twist the words of others to accommodate a preexisting vision of reality. Rather than being available to uncover their own vision and its ramifications, the individual interprets fact and action to fit into the un-self-seen vision. The versatility of intellect required to do this demonstrates a creativity that we can hardly say we are the source of. It is too fast, spontaneous and automatic for us to have calculated it so well and so quickly.
Let’s see if I can indicate this intelligence that we are and yet are not the source of. It can be witnessed hundreds of times each day and yet ordinarily missed. How do you know even how to lift your arm with the attitude of yourself? Watch another move and you will easily see how perfectly he is himself in moving. In another example, anyone who has been in an argument has seen the uncanny way in which his opponent interprets remarks and configures discussion along unrecognized but rock solid terms. (We ourselves are guilty of the same.)
The easy predictability of human actions also illustrate this intelligence. What perfect consistency our actions reveal! If one had to hold one’s personality together like so much formless silly putty, the work require to live each moment would be monumental. Instead, we are ourselves as easily as animals are themselves. The intelligence that we are manifests with our each and every breath.
There is genius in responding to a circumstance in a way that confirms one’s attitude. It is far savvier than any personal genius. I’ll offer a story to illustrate this. My husband had a client who was a large and irritable man. This man frequently came to trouble as a result of his argumentativeness. The man himself experienced the world as hostile. What appeared to others as his provocativeness was borne from within by him vulnerability to attack. On one occasion, the man described a complaint by a female colleague. He considered the woman’s complaint completely false. Gingerly, in the effort to explain to the man that he could appear threatening, my husband told him that women can feel intimidated by large men. Jumping on the opportunity to support his claim, the man declared that this was indeed true. He was, he said, regarded unfairly because of his size. He was, he asserted, a victim of prejudice.
Let’s apply eat your rice, wash your bowl to the experience of pain. We suffer illness, pain, and injury. We suffer heat and cold. Since, as I’ve already suggested, our doings and experiences are laden with projection and meaning, is our experience of pain likely to be an exception? If not, how does our personal history, our desire, our projection, and our self-image influence the way we experience pain? What would “just pain” be?
As long as pain is a part of our lives, this question is relevant. There are many forms of emotional pain, but in this case, I want to consider only physical pain. As I raise this question, I imagine that you are already wondering how your own attitudes may influence your experience of pain.
Let’s say you are sick and your doctor doesn’t listen to you. Are you outraged? If you are outraged, is your pain worse? Or, imagine that you feel that you should be self-sufficient. Because illness often requires us to ask for help, will you greet this as a failure of self-sufficiency? Will your pain be doubled by the pain of realizing your project to be self-sufficient fails? I think you can see quickly where I am leading.
For most of us, the majority of the pain that we feel in life is not physical. It’s psychic. Our disappointments are disappointments of meaning. You will not be able to avoid all physical pain, but learning to experience just pain, stripped of projection, will offer significant relief.
My uncle was an old fashioned Christian, and, at one time, a farmer. He had the earthy practicality of a man who had spent his life with animals, witnessing life and death with a regularity that would stun the city dweller. As his time came to die, his questions reflected this earthiness. “What will happen to my body, exactly?” he asked. He wanted to donate his body to science and was interested in the minutia of what would be happen to his body, and how it might be useful. “It isn’t as easy a process as one might expect” he explained to me. “It isn’t at all clear that my particular body will be accepted. Some bodies are useful to science, but it depends on what they want to study.” Finding a comfort in the thought that his body would be helpful to science, my uncle conducted research and made the necessary arrangements.
My uncle remarked that the good thing about being in hospice care was that he no longer had to take the pills that he had been taking to stay alive. It was a relief, he said: the side effects were unpleasant. One might wonder at the sensibility of such a man, a man who could cheerly seek the silver lining behind the clouds, even under such conditions. It was also no longer necessary for him to force himself to eat. He was dying of esophageal cancer. Swallowing was painful. His appetite was gone. He, a big man who had enjoyed food, finally set aside the chore that eating had become. While he occasionally reminisced wishfully about tacos and fresh peaches, he let go of eating and pill taking. He retained only his pain pills.
My uncle’s final purchase was a large, flat screen TV. A luxury he never would have allowed himself during the bulk of his life, he splurged now. He was able to watch a few football games on that TV. The big, shiny screen added a modern touch to his clean, traditional living room. Gorgeous colored images on the moving screen flashed with eerie brilliance, drawing the eye from the clean room with white carpet. It was wonderful to see his smile and the heartiness of his enjoyment. His laugh echoed my grandfather’s. Tickled by new technology, with the farmer’s love of tools, my uncle clicked through channels with his remote. The game was really all that he was interested in, but he couldn’t get enough of the miraculous gadget. Commanding the screen from the ease of his big chair, Jon seemed to have complete ease using his final days of life in ordinary activities. Perhaps the ordinary was no longer ordinary to him.
Sometimes the mystics speak of life as a kind of play. The play of good and bad, wrestling and dancing throughout eternity, joyful only to the unattached. Yin and yang, perhaps the most beautiful circular symbol every created, illustrates the mysterious play of opposites. And sometimes, on the occasion of deep insight, a belly laugh rises up from the void and shakes the body of the meditator. Could my uncle’s full belly enjoyment of the football game, a game witnessed after he accepted his death, carry the unattached joy of the one who has let go? I like to think that it did. There was a peace in his face during those last days, and a full smile beaming love.
“The good thing is that I don’t have to take those pills anymore.” His words circulated through my awareness. I returned to them periodically, wonderingly. He really seemed to mean it. No more medicine was a good thing: a burden off his back. He was strangely relaxed, like all the troubles had been lifted from his shoulders. What must it have been like to let go the tense energy in his body: let go the struggle to continue? No more pills. No more fighting to live. No more arguments with his wife or son, or long, soft-voiced talks with the two troubled daughters who loved him so dearly. No more feeding the hungry, or feeling unimportant. No more vacuuming, shaving, or shopping for clothes.
When he said good bye to each of us, individually, he told us in his simple, but completely sincere way, how much he loved us. He assured us that he would be watching us from heaven. He was so literal that some of us were sending messages of love to our grandparents through him. He would be waiting for us, he said.
No more pills. The Buddhist teacher, Hakuin, advised his students to die before they died. What would it mean to relax away one’s worries? No more trying to be good: no more trying to be perfect. No more need to be angry or need not to be angry. No more wanting to win and hating to loose. What is it to die before you die? Was the freedom that my uncle seemed to feel a suggestion of the Buddhist master’s attainment?
There is such a hustle and bustle to life. It all seems imbued with such importance. What is it that is so important? Sometimes it seems hard to remember. In the early morning, before that first cup of coffee, there is a reluctance to get engaged with it all again. Is it just a dream? Sleepily, we pull on the mantle of ourselves and shove our feet onto the familiar paths. Hating or loving each step in turn, we might long to stop, stop like Robert Frost who lamented that he “has miles to go before he sleeps.”
Frost’s poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening has been interpreted as reflections of a death wish. But what if it’s not? What if it’s a life wish? Isn’t true life the life of freedom from attachment? Isn’t the weariness of life really the weariness of repetition? If we were released from the repetitiveness in our life would all our days be fresh and new?
Each person longs to live his life the way he wants without the negative associated with that life. Who doesn’t want to have things go his way without the accompanying trouble implicit to his choices? No more pills. Could one refuse? Could one awaken one morning and not push one’s feet into misshapen shoes worn by weary patterns? Refuse the medicine that allows for repetition? Refuse to survive with only the shreds of happiness we seem allotted, and instead make our bid for freedom?
Perhaps only the immediacy of our impending death can shake loose our usual attitudes sufficiently to spawn letting go. Even in the heart of despair freedom can be born. Don’t give up, but strive continuously for liberation. Perhaps, in facing despair, you will be released from attachment.
I published this piece in the Ithaca Journal on 6.12.15
The type of driving error that I find most annoying is what my friend affectionately calls a ‘farmer turn’. Swinging wide, as if driving a tractor, the perpetrator of this crime seems to feel the need to move far to the right before turning to the left. I immediately want to give the driver a lesson in angles. Musing on the strange bodily distortion that is the source of this maneuver, I find myself reflecting on the various types of driving behavior that we all witness on the roads.
Take the timid passer. You are driving along on the highway and you find yourself behind a car who is attempting to pass a truck. Picture the truck in the right lane, and your timid driver in the right land beside him. The pass begins well enough, but then, when right along side the truck, the driver seems to loose courage. Apparently unable to speed up or slow down, this driver forms an effective block to an increasingly long line of cars behind him.
What lies behind the behavior of the timid passer? When the driver is a woman, I find myself coming up with explanations like a failure to be assertive. What imaginary force would she violate if she sped ahead confidently? When the driver is a man, I tend to imagine that he is passive aggressive. Maybe he is punishing me for my desire to pass, and thinks that by stopping me, I will get my just deserts for my crime of self-interest.
Among my clients, too, there are multiple tales of road related torments. One such story led to a psychological break through. The client had a history of annoyance that occurred within him when he attempted to parallel park or scoot into a small spot lining the street. His annoyance was invariably directed toward the other drivers who treated him as an obstacle, and bore down on him, leaving him little time for the necessary vehicular adjustments. One day, he found himself on the other side of this event. A driver was scurrying to pull into a small spot on the side of the road causing my client to wait an extra minute or two. Worse than the arduous extra seconds of a computer search, my client was irritated to no end by the wait imposed upon him by the other driver’s maneuvers. Fortunately, my client had the insight to recognize the irony of the situation. He wanted to be unimpeded. We discussed the secret juvenile desires that lay secreted within each of us. Why can’t I go where I want and do what I want without any external limitation? These seemingly absurd desires lie at the heart of many an interpersonal trouble.
Human consciousness has the capacity to experience their vehicle as an extension of their own body in space. The moment we step into our car, we become that car by some secret calculation. When you witness strange behaviors on the road, you are seeing the manifestation of attitude. You notice the lingering next to a truck by the one who passes it, or the fierce, almost predatory behavior of the speeder who comes up on you so suddenly from behind that you scoot out the way in fear. Even the person who seems to veer into your lane very slightly as you pass-each of these are subtle indications of attitude.
When given a large, metallic body, a person becomes willing to demonstrate behaviors that he or she would never manifest during a leisurely stroll. Road rage evidences feelings that are ordinarily repressed. Our angers, insistences and fears take on an almost cartoon-like quality when we don the clothing of a vehicle. Take a moment to join me in a meditation on this fascinating, and sometimes dangerous phenomena. Then, if you are willing, reflect on what clues your own driving offers you about yourself.
Adapted from an article published in GreenLeaf in advance of a talk I am offering on 6/ 25.
In January of this year, I made a shift in the focus of my work. Having worked as a psychotherapist since 1984, I made the decision to use the next years of my life to help others on their spiritual journey through spiritual self-inquiry. My talks and essays are part of my effort to reach out to those who are called upon to take on such a journey.
How is spiritual self-inquiry different from psychotherapy? Both encourage the growth of the spirit through self-discovery, but the foundation self-inquiry is the search for truth, regardless of the disruptions such a search may introduce into your life. Self-inquiry reveals the untruth of your assumptions. Both psychotherapy and spiritual self-inquiry require honesty and fortitude. Without honesty, no discovery can be made. Fortitude is needed because it can be painful to face the truth. Very often, in the case of psychotherapy, the person stops when they reach contentment. Perhaps you learn to adjust and compromise. In the case of spiritual self-inquiry, you don't compromise. You court disaster, disaster for your ego. You seek the attainment of freedom, a freedom that transcends the concerns of your ego.
While psychotherapy and spiritual self-inquiry overlap, the goal of psychotherapy is psychic health. I define health as the ability to honestly face the challenges and negativity that arise in life and grow. The hunger for spiritual freedom cultivates more than your growth. It may also undo you as who you take yourself to be. A simple distinction between the two disciplines may seem to be the depth and intensity of your pursuit. However, on the spiritual path, you and your pursuit may be turned completely upside down.
The ultimate goal of spiritual self-inquiry is “letting go.” Spiritual self-inquiry is designed to help you wake up. A Hindu might say that what you wake up from is illusion. As a Westerner, I suggest that you can wake up from assumptions that shape, and are the substance of your life. Waking up from these assumptions, you arrive at mysticism.
In my practice, I offer several forms of guided spiritual self-inquiry. One form is private talk; one-on-one conversation that fosters spiritual development. The initial meetings may seem indistinguishable from psychotherapy appointments. As you continue, the difference becomes clearer.
I often work in small groups. My inspiration comes primarily from three traditions. The first is the Quaker meeting. In the Quaker meeting members gather in silence. When one is moved to speak, he or she shares a thought or perception. The remarks are received respectfully in meditative silence by the group. The second inspiration is Zen Buddhist meditation. Together in silence, group members allow their thoughts to rise up to be noticed calmly. Individuals take note of themes and patterns that can be explored.
The third inspiration is the Socratic dialogue. Socrates used a method of inquiry to help unfold the meaning of such terms as truth, or beauty, or love. His method was dialectical. In my group, I engage with individuals to help them explore their own images and unarticulated philosophies using a similar dialectical approach. The main difference is that instead of asking, for example, “What is love?” we inquire directly into group members' own visions and understandings.
I use spiritual self-inquiry when working with people in relationships. Relationship itself can be a mindfulness practice. In relationships, we search for fulfillment. The complaints that we have about our relationships can be traced back to our images of fulfillment. In other words, if you dream of a Prince Charming, you will be disappointed when your mate does not measure up. Is the flaw in your mate or in the measure you are using?
I teach forms of communication that allow you to articulate your desires and bring them forth for examination. Spiritual self-inquiry helps you use your relationships to discover who you are and what you are seeking. This is a different orientation than the orientation of using your relationship for the satisfaction of your dream. By emphasizing what you are coming to see rather than the satisfaction of your dream, your relationship may become much more satisfying. Whether or not this shift of emphasis becomes the foundation of a deeper satisfaction is a matter of temperament, predilection and karma. If you and your partner have this aspiration, you and this partner can work together.
I'd like to mention one last technique that I enjoy using in my work with people. It involves the craft of creative writing. My undergraduate degree is in Creative Writing and Literature. I love to incorporate creative writing into self-discovery. It helps to articulate the joy and beauty of spiritual self-inquiry. Working with small groups, I encourage members to draw on their insights and perceptions to write poetry or short prose. By exploring the results with the purpose of both improving the writing and deepening self-inquiry, the writing practice becomes a support for self-discovery.
You are warmly encouraged to sign up for my blog. I publish one or two short essays each month or two designed to support your own self-inquiry practice.
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