I think the word “trust”
and my heart cowers, trembling,
trying to squeeze
into the tiniest corner it can find,
to be left alone to pick up
a million shattered pieces,
find utmost tenderness
in the wake of a thousand heartaches.
There are so many ways of falling apart,
each feeling like a well-trodden road
that can take you to your place of pain
with the great ease of the unburdened.
The climb back, out, in the other direction,
the monumental effort of this.
The ache of one tiny swivel of the head,
the reward is instant.
Right there, just off to the side
on the road of worry,
a tree, gargantuan, protector and protected.
It makes no promises, asks nothing of you.
So you are drawn here, slowly, to observe,
(still clutching your aching heart)
the great way of the tree,
standing through all seasons,
accepting of its plush plenitude
and bear nakedness alike,
harming no thing,
nourishing as it is nourished
only to the extent that it can,
so that it always has what it needs,
the great lesson in this.
The great miracle
of being teaching being,
of all that is offered, all the salves
to a heart in need of healing.
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” ~ Maya Angelou
Why do we want to be a tourist in our own city (or town, or suburb, or village, you name it?)
Because fresh eyes and an open heart are the true antidote to boredom, lethargy, confusion and feeling stuck, and by antidote, I don’t mean “cure,” because we already know that life entails more than naming a problem and then fixing it on the proverbial spot.
Sometimes a simple shift in perspective can get the ball rolling and awaken the brain-mind complex to start working with us toward desired change. It’s as simple as that. I’m sure we’ve all had experiences where the very last thing we wanted to do was hit the yoga mat, or show up for our coffee date, or sit on the meditation cushion at the appointed time.
We’ve probably also experienced the actual doing of those things that seemed so mountainous, and feeling greatly rewarded and satisfied as a result.
If for no other reason than to try something new and engage in a sense of discovery with where we are (physically and metaphysically), it’s worth casting our lives in a renewed light, or approaching familiar things in a different way. The seeds of change are also the seeds of possibility.
Why don’t we try a few of these, starting with very simple shifts we can make in our own home?
Watch the sun rise (suns don’t only rise on beach vacations!).
Look out the window for a few minutes, instead of turning on the computer or phone.
Start your tourism right where you are. Take a lingering look at the books on your shelf, or the smattering of varied dishware accumulated over the years, and use a different mug for your morning coffee (maybe while reading a “new” old book!).
Okay, we can leave the house now. Why not take a walk in a new neighborhood? If you have to work, walk instead of bike, or take a different route if you’re driving. You get the picture.
No matter what the time constraints are or where you’re headed, really look around. Notice the store fronts, the relative health of the grass and foliage around you, or at how melting snow changes the landscape you know so well. Any new construction projects in our midst? Anything that’s been redesigned?
Visit the local library. It may have been a long time, so going is like revisiting our childhood and a new part of town at once (how efficient!)—two very exotic locations, not to mention the worlds we can find in the books themselves. We can also get a library card, because while we’re tourists for the day, we’re also sticking around!
Take pictures. No matter what device your camera is lodged into, use it as a photography medium. Let’s regard the city/town/suburb/village as we would a tourist destination. Find what is beautiful and make an image of it. We can send our new discoveries to friends and share the wealth, enjoy looking at them and marveling at the hidden treasures continually awaiting our attention.
Try new cuisine. We can bring India, Thailand, Japan, Jamaica, and so on, right to us for a little while. Entering a new restaurant is like opening a great book, and is a feast for more than just our sense of taste.
Check for activities (free or otherwise) going around town and try a couple of them out. Maybe this is the perfect chance to discover new and rewarding ways to spend time and nourish ourselves, or try out different variations of things we already do, but in a different setting.
People watch. This can be done in a café, on a patio somewhere, on church steps—you name it. See what people are wearing, how they move, what their facial expressions or the sounds of their voices are revealing, how they live and go about their lives, and just get lost in the wandering, and wondering about humanity. This is not about invading people’s privacy, of course, but gathering impressions in a mindful and respectful way.
As Maya Angelou says above, one of the most beautiful aspects of travel is to find and remember all the ways in which we, as humans, are alike and connected, to the betterment of every single one of us. I can’t think of a better way to generate compassion.
Watch the sun set (suns don’t only set on beach vacations!)
And finally, we can take a moment at the end of any given day we’ve actively engaged with our environment in a new way, to express gratitude for where we are, and review. What did we enjoy among the discoveries, and what surprised us? Was there anything about this “new” place we’d like to incorporate into our lives in the coming weeks and months?
Let’s express gratitude for the opportunity we gave ourselves to open our eyes and begin again, and realize that beginning again is something that can, and will happen as many times as we allow it to.
Are we the stories we tell?
Do our stories—that is, our way of conceiving and talking about ourselves—have anything to do with the question, who am I?
Which stories make us feel like ourselves, and how much, and in what way? How much do our stories correspond to the answers we find when we attempt self-understanding?
We probably find that some of our stories, if we reflect on them, make us feel very secure while others make us squirm a little, and that the stories that have these effects are likely to change over time.
Ramana Maharshi, the great Hindu guru and sage who awakened at the age of 16, famously advocated asking the question “Who am I?” as a meditation practice, believing that self-inquiry, and plenty of silence, was the way to evolve to higher planes of consciousness.
“Enquiring within Who is the seer? I saw the seer disappear leaving that alone which stands forever. No thought arose to say I saw. How then could the thought arise to say I did not see.” ~ Ramana Maharshi
We can say that “that which stands forever” is something pure, beyond the mind and the stories we tell about ourselves.
Yet stories are bound to erupt as we ask, “Who is the seer?” Who is the person even doing the asking? Who is it that is seeking his or own true identity? Who asks, “What is true? What is reality? Where am ‘I’ really located and what is essential about me?”
Our answers are bound to tell us something about the stories we tell and the relationship we have, and think we have, with them.
What are some of the ways we tell stories?
We write works of fiction.
We make movies.
We tell the truth.
We share anecdotes with friends.
We explain things to children.
We explain things to each other.
We draw pictures.
We discuss our memories.
We remember things, and then re-remember them, over and over.
We sit under a great big sky and wonder about things.
We put two and two together.
We fill out forms and questionnaires.
We answer the question, “How are you,” and explain to people what we do for a living.
We react in predictable ways to things that cause pain, and joy.
We say things like, “I wouldn’t do that. I love those kinds of things. I am the type of person who hates when that happens.”
A story is never just a story. It is the culmination of an entire system of thoughts, beliefs, conditioning and identifying markers. As they form, they become infused into us, and it becomes hard to distinguish the stories from the person, the “I” who has absorbed and reformulated them again and again.
“The body does not say ‘I’. In sleep no one admits he is not. The ‘I’ emerging, all else emerges. Enquire with a keen mind whence this ‘I’ rises.” ~ Ramana Maharshi
How empowering, then, to recognize that, just as we are not our bodies (if we lose a finger, we still think of ourselves as us), or our feelings (feelings come and go, but we still feel we have an “us”), and our minds (our thoughts are a virtual revolving door of coming and going, yet here “we” are), nor are we our stories.
Our stories can be beautiful things. We are creative beings by nature, and storytelling (and extensions of that, myth-making and the formation of all kinds of grand narratives) are a natural part of the fabric of being human, in both the individual and collective sense.
It’s when our stories threaten to limit us, overwhelm us and hold us fixed to one spot (especially when that spot is not serving us and we no longer want to be there), that we may wish to learn how to separate from our stories.
Our stories have gotten us here, to this point, no matter where we are or what our aspirations might be. This isn’t good or bad; it’s natural, and intrinsic to our way of being human. We can’t so much as look as cross the street without a whole host of stories running through our head, some of which help us know how to cross that street in the first place.
We all exist in relationship, to other things, beings and people, and to our own history, and what is the strongest glue bringing us into connection, if not our stories?
But notice how they are among the first things to rise to the surface, explode into chaos and reveal their impermanence when we sit down to meditate, breathe and fill ourselves with silence in a space of calm and rest.
They bubble up and ask to be witnessed. They shake; they are fragile and hesitant and wavering and very demanding of our attention. They poke and threaten to disappear if we let them.
Do we let them?
How much do we hold on, terrified to lose our grip on what we’ve come to know as our reality, and how much do we let go?
If we hold our stories in our hands and scrutinize them, will they change or will they disappear, and doesn’t the former mean the latter? If something takes on a different form, it is no longer what it was. This means that we can dislodge it from its stronghold and it loses some of its power over us.
Sitting quietly and observing our stories stomp into our minds in a relentless bid to take over is one way to recognize that we aren’t our stories; why would the deepest, most lasting parts of ourselves give us such grief and be so susceptible to transformation? Journaling—writing variations of our stories down—is another powerful way to get them out, separate from them and begin to see them for what they really are.
Which takes us that much closer to who we really are.
Let’s love our stories, and honour the humanity that allows us to have and share them, and to learn from each other in this way. Let’s mindfully remain aware that we are creating something every time we tell a story, and that this act of creation has come about to serve a purpose. Only we can determine what that purpose is and how we feel about it.
And when and if the time comes, let’s recognize that there is so much more to who we are than the stories that have brought us here, and that we have the power to lay them gently aside as we continue on our path of evolution.
I will bring myself to the cushion, not because I want to be enlightened.
Yesterday, I might have been thinking like this.
Yesterday, I might have unintentionally brought goals with me to my meditation seat, memories of learning from a place of love and light, compassion and bodhicitta, soaking in this glory under so many bright, holy suns.
Maybe the memories go even further back, into a consciousness that leaves its imprints even as I can’t reach for their source.
Today, there is fear. There is the temptation to find solutions to problems my mind doesn’t know how to handle. Confusion enters, reigns, dominates.
This is what fear does, it spirals and expands and makes me desperate to climb out, but instead the terror creeps slowly out from the cover of dark and makes its way slowly around the world’s every crevice.
There is fear all over; I fear the world is baking and burning in fear. I am enjoined, too; the darkness and terror envelops me and originates in me too.
Acts of hatred, of violence and hostility—I shake all over, not comprehending. There is a great danger in this confusion. I fear being a mirror on all sides, exponentially growing my confusion as I spread it out far and wide to everything I come in contact with.
My mind will spin from here to the end of time if I let it. It does this well.
Sadness emerges through the fear, a bottomless ache that I know lives underneath fear because I have unearthed these layers before.
Feeling sadness brings me one small step closer to myself.
In fear, I run away. In sadness, I can allow a certain stillness.
So I sit, not to erase being sad and afraid, not to jump right over them to the unparalleled post-thought clarity I might have been seeking yesterday.
Today, I need to sit on my cushion and not think about fear and destruction, but see them. See them not as images and thoughts, but as unease written all over my body.
I need to do this as I breathe in, breathe out, letting my breath remind me of my physical presence, my map of all I have been and all we have come to; and also of the heartbeat that connects to the living organism all around me, because this being is expansive and bathes us even when we forget, and doesn’t seek destruction.
I will meditate because I want to embody and reflect peace, not fear when I go outside today, and because the path of the warrior, of the gentle, compassionate activist begins with an ability to be quietly, fully present with the self.
Today, I will meditate not to get me somewhere else, but to get back here to start from where I am, to caress the wounds by observing them, watching them change, and anchoring myself in a breath that is specific and grounding and also shared with every other being.
“Life is glorious, but life is also wretched. It is both. Appreciating the gloriousness inspires us, encourages us, cheers us up, gives us a bigger perspective, energizes us. We feel connected. But if that’s all that’s happening, we get arrogant and start to look down on others, and there is a sense of making ourselves a big deal and being really serious about it, wanting it to be like that forever. The gloriousness becomes tinged by craving and addiction. On the other hand, wretchedness—life’s painful aspect—softens us up considerably. Knowing pain is a very important ingredient of being there for another person. When you are feeling a lot of grief, you can look right into somebody’s eyes because you feel you haven’t got anything to lose—you’re just there. The wretchedness humbles us and softens us, but if we were only wretched, we would all just go down the tubes. We’d be so depressed, discouraged and hopeless that we wouldn’t have enough energy to eat an apple. Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together.” ~ Pema Chodron
There is a Love Beside Love
There is a love beside love.
It sits with me when you cannot
Teaching me about absence
About the very bottom of desire
Love comes with me on a walk
and we experience things together
For a moment I dissolve in the sun
and start to see Love’s teachings
wide open in all things,
That I will never be the song
I am singing to the clouds
That I am not a bird
as I peck for sustenance under the sky
I am not a laugh
as I see the sparkle of my joy in your eyes
That laugh that gives life for
at least a thousand years
I cannot be the river
or the wooden plank I sit on
high above its narrow passage
even as I understand the water’s downward flow
and shiver as the eagle soars low to its
Nor can I be the language stenciled onto craters
that have sent messages along the river
that sit beside me now
even as everything I cannot say
lays bare in words
I say to the love that sits beside me
I am not you, and love looks back
(I am love)
I say I am not life
(I am life)
The sun on the river shines bright
without my ever looking up
I don’t want to know anything else
I want my feet to kiss the river
down at the shore
as long as it will have me
as the day grows cold
and you will come back to me
It’s quiet, still
I want to thank the wooden planks I sit on
pray for the forest
and breathe love in
(I am love)
*first published on elephant journal, here!
“From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”
~ Edvard Munch
I came across a book, almost lost among Japanese recipe and travel books, with the words “Death Poems” written on its spine. I was immediately intrigued.
There is a tradition in Japan, I read, that upon one’s death, one would leave a will behind, but also a “farewell poem to life.” These death poems are called jisei, and the practice was long adhered to by Zen monks and haiku poets.
What might be contained in a few lines uttered by a spiritually advanced human at the time of death, to encapsulate a life in learning? What do the dying awakened ones want to leave behind for the rest of us?
The words ring like chime bells in autumn wind, and also cut like a blade. This, for me, is the paradoxical beauty and magic inherent in Japan’s ancient history.
Here are some of these last words, a death practice full of observation, contemplation and also humour, but also a gift to the living. So much to savour here!
Bassui Tokusho (died in 1387, age 61)
Look straight ahead—what’s there?
If you see it as it is
You will never err.
Daido Ichi’I (died 1370, age 79)
A tune of non-being
Filling the void:
Dokyo Etan (died 1721, age 80)
Here in the shadow of death it is hard
To utter the final word.
I’ll only say, then,
Gesshu Soko (died 1696, age 79)
Arrows, let flown each to each
Meet midway and slice
The void in aimless flight—
Thus I return to the source.
Hosshin (died 13th century)
Coming, all is clear, no doubt about it.
Going, all is clear, without a doubt.
What, then, is it all?
Kaso Sodon (died 1428, age 72)
A drop of water freezes instantly—
My seven years and seventy
All changes at a blow
Springs of water welling from the fire.
Mumon Gensen (died 1390, age 68)
Life is an ever—rolling wheel
And even day is the right one.
He who recites poems at his death,
Adds frost to snow.
Tetto Giku (died 1369, age 75)
The truth is never taken
One carries it always
I found more of these incredible poems here. Here are a couple of them:
The death poem of Matsuo Basho, one of the greatest haiku poets of all time:
On a journey, ill;
my dream goes wandering
over withered fields.
Zoso Royo (died 1276, age 84)
I pondered Buddha’s teaching
a full four and eighty years.
The gates are all now
locked about me.
No one was ever here—
Who then is he about to die,
and why lament for nothing?
The night is clear,
the moon shines calmly,
the wind in the pines
is like a lyre’s song.
With no I and no other
who hears the sound?