Autumnal river flows
Slow and shallow, breathing
Golden light radiates.
Alder, willow, maple and cottonwood
Emerge out of its banks, skyward
Roots dipping downward, drinking.
We dip our tender feet in
Tentatively, tantalizingly, invigoratingly
Cold long known to salmon and steelhead.
Solar warmth radiates everywhere
From rock, tree and sky
Soon overtaken by cool, upriver wind.
Beginningless wind, always flowing
Deep in the Pacific a storm forming
Does the river know?
Nourishing rains carried on the wind
Dark storm clouds form and reform
Bringing salmon in their embrace.
We walk the riverbank, warm and cool
Lost in reverie, autumn river reverie.
Seamless soft sand, a roaring sea
Featureless, smooth sky
Gray fog obscurity.
Godwits in tawny plumage, gulls wrapped in clouds
Forage in the margins, each doing
Their dance with the tide.
Brought in daily from somewhere
Nowhere at all, the ocean’s graveyard
A detrital line of gifts from the sea.
Reminders of our frailty
Here just for a moment
Breathing in the long now.
Following a line of pelicans following waves
I traverse the arc of my own disappearance
And am gone before I know it.
Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire.
~Dongshan Liangjie (China, 807-869)
I just got Mark’s last letter in the mail. It’s been almost two years of knowing him, 18 letters in all, a strange relationship that has been at once both distant and intimate. I guess that comes with the territory; letters can be so intimate because we assume that no one else will read them so we give voice to things we may not otherwise say. There is also the intimacy or understanding of two Buddhists conversing with one another. It was also distant because, well there is distance involved – both the literal distance of miles of separation and the figurative kind born from leading two very different lives. He inside, me outside although in reality there is no inside or outside.
There wasn’t much in this last letter – just saying that he was still alive and getting out in June. Getting out of what you may be wondering. Through the San Francisco Zen Center’s Prison Pen Pal program I have been corresponding with an inmate in a maximum security prison and he will be out on parole next week. In the letter he says that he is “very stressed out” because he is getting out. At first glance it seems strange to be apprehensive about getting out of prison but I think I can relate. Not to getting out of prison after many years (7 or 8 this time around for Mark) but the stress of such a huge change in one’s life. Don’t we all experience this kind of intense stress when going through a dramatic change? Haven’t we all felt this at some point in our lives? There is the excitement and anticipation of something new but also trepidation and fear of the unknown. Of course in actuality, everything is unknown or at least unknowable.
In a letter written by another inmate, with whom Mark thinks I should correspond, there is a quote from Alan Watts that says, “The illusion of significant improvement arises in moments of contrast, as when one turns from left to right on a hard bed.” That struck me as related to Mark’s stress particularly, and to our lives in general. Is he feeling stressed because of the uncertainty of what he will do on the outside and the fear of doing the same shit that got him locked up in the first place. I would guess that inmates are both afraid and incredibly excited by the possibilities of a better life. But the reality is probably much like flipping over on a hard bed – the other side only seems comfortable in contrast with what you have been lying on. Both sides are hard, damn hard and no amount of flopping around is going to change that fact. So while getting out of “hell”, as Mark has described prison, offers a world of possibility, it is no panacea for one’s ills. Wherever you go there you are and life, your life, is there to meet you. When we attach to ideas of happiness, like I will only be happy once I am out of prison, we set ourselves up for disappointment and great suffering. Our attachment to a future state that is unlikely to be exactly how we want it to be anyway is the root cause of much of our anguish. In this ever-changing world we are setting ourselves up for unhappiness when we hold on to anything too strongly. This doesn’t mean that we cannot hope for a happy life or for something to be a little different; what it does mean is that we need to find a way to be happy regardless of what happens, irrespective of the outcome. A qualifier like “I will only be happy if” sets us up for disappointment because life is constantly changing and we really cannot know what is going to happen next. We really cannot know if an outcome is good or bad because each new outcome sets in motion a whole new set of conditions. What we can do is to practice equanimity, whereby we are okay with whatever happens. Without qualifiers we have the possibility for a boundless life, one in which we can be happy and content, most of the time, regardless of what happens. No “if” statements, no caveats and no qualifiers. No looking for significant improvement by turning over on a hard bed.
I don’t know what prison was like for Mark and I can’t know what it’s like to be released after so many years. What I do know is that we all go looking for happiness somewhere else, outside of ourselves and beyond the conditions of our lives. We wish for something else, someone else and think that only then will we be happy. In fact, we all the possibility for happiness right now, right here. So perhaps Mark found some contentment or happiness in prison and that he can take that practice with him into this dusty world of ours, outside of the walls of prison. I wish for him a happy and (mostly) satisfied life where he feels like he is positively contributing to society. I know that is his intention but now he will have to do the difficult work of realizing that intention. And when he inevitably flips over on the hard bed of life, I hope he understands that there is no significant improvement over the present moment and that just this is enough, whatever this is. I hope this for myself too and for all of us.
Free your mind and your ass will follow.
I settled into my seat, buckled the lap belt, took a deep breath, and looked out the window at the tarmac. I have enjoyed airplane travel over the years, mostly because of the sense of adventure associated with going somewhere far, but I am still nervous when it comes down to it. In part this is due to the insanity of leaving the earth beyond in such a heavy bird and expecting it not to crash, but also there is the nervousness of so many strangers being so intimately packed into what is really just a large sardine container. It’s really quite amazing to think about how well we all get along as we total strangers come together in such a way. I took a deep breath, grabbed my notebook, and was about to begin writing when I read the writing on the back of the seat in front of me. It said, “Fasten seat belt while seated, Use cushion as flotation device.” This was something that I had read many times before, and it was almost always the exact same with nothing profound or out-of-the-ordinary. I read it again and thought to myself, “Could I write something equally succinct and terse about my life, my values,” like a modern day, American haiku. Here is what I came up with from seat 14A, with a few variations to boot:
Unfasten the self, be wild and free.
Use your life well, don’t waste it.
Unfasten yourself while in flight
Use bottom for cushion and float away free.
Unfasten your mind
Let it flow freely.
What would you write, dear reader, for your life? If you are comfortable doing so, please share with all of us by replying below or emailing me directly.
It is the sufferings and insecurities of our lives that, although painful and distressing, teach us not to cling to the impermanent things of this world. Not even the greatest master could teach us so well. We should honor and respect them, not shun their company.
~ Dongshan Liangjie (9th Century Chinese Ch’an Master)
Kristin placed a dollop of peanut butter carefully upon each round of sliced banana and then artfully arranged it all on a plate in the shape of a smiling face with eyebrows raised in a quizzical look. The girls devoured this dessert like ravenous wild dogs until there were only two pieces left. Juniper, the younger, grabbed one piece and quickly popped it into her mouth and then grabbed the second one and as I was saying, “that’s for Maddie” popped it in too. As Maddie bounded down the hallway to where we were standing, her joyous countenance turned to sadness in the blink of an eye as she realized what her little sister had done. I held her as she cried and felt her anguish ripple throughout her small frame. Juniper stood nearby looking at her with a searching look that wondered why her big sister was so upset. I explained to her that this was because she had eaten both bites of food one of which was for Maddie. I didn’t belabor the point and I didn’t chastise her for it. I simply let the effects of her action sink in. She stood nearby looking concerned and then it softened as a look of empathy came to her face. She toddled over, hugged her sister and said, “Sorry Maddie” in her sweet, toddler voice. “Sorry eating Maddie’s bite,” she said again and the two sisters hugged as Kristin and I looked on lovingly.
This situation and the suffering that occurred taught me something important, something that I seem to need to learn over and over again – that the difficult moments in our lives are our greatest teachers and that when we don’t shun them there is an opportunity for growth within the suffering. When things go well, we don’t have cause to learn anything. “We got this,” we may think to ourselves. But it’s when we have difficulties and when we suffer (or cause suffering for others) that we have the opportunity to learn something. And what Juniper showed me is that moments when we don’t act our best are the fertile ground of our blossoming. In this situation, I saw the realization of what her actions had caused and the compassion (literally “passion together”) of her apology. She seemed to learn something about compassion, empathy and the power of atonement that I could never teach her. She learned it first-hand because her actions were real and Maddie’s tears were authentic.
I also learned an important lesson in parenting from this situation. Because neither Kristin nor I stepped in to discipline Juniper, it allowed her the space and time to think about what happened and to come up with her own response. Had we stepped in, we would have limited the possibilities of this moment and I don’t think Juniper would have learned the lesson of cause and effect. Because we took a step back, we were able to enjoy heartfelt reconciliation between two sisters, who really are best friends. The seeds that were planted in this moment will likely blossom at some point in the future and while we don’t know when or where, we do know that they will produce a delicious fruit because they were planted from the heart. Lessons abound in this life of ours when we pay attention and especially when we don’t shun anyone’s company.
I just found a half-sheet of yellow paper ripped off a legal pad, stained with coffee and displaying the beginnings of what looks like an excellent round of crayon doodling by a toddler. The title says, “Blog Post” and under that I wrote a list of things to write about:
- The warmth of eggs on cold hands
- The crescent moon slowly slicing its way across the western sky
- The huskiness of coastal dusk
Finding this list this morning stopped me in my tracks and brought a smile to my face for it is a brief glimpse into my life, into a day in my life showing something about the richness in which I live and the mind that I try to cultivate – a mind without walls that can be present, aware and appreciative of whatever is occurring in the moment.
How wonderful is it to know the delight warm eggs on cold hands, eggs that had been warmed the soft body of an ochre-colored hen. If it was cold enough that my hands were cold in this mild coastal climate then the skies must have been clear. And if the skies were clear then nascent stars would have been visible to the east and the western sky would have been the most splendid dark blue color fading to lighter blue and on down into a very subtle green where the blue of night-time sky and the yellow of the daytime sky just above the horizon merge. Yellow and blue make green.
The crescent moon slicing its way across the western sky would have been hanging there or perhaps this was another evening. The crescent moon with a planet dangling off of it like those Arabic earrings I saw for sale in Moroccan shops. There is something about the smallness of a crescent moon that illuminates the vastness of the night-sky in ways that a big, round full moon fails to do. Just enough light to let me know where I am but not so much as to make me feel exposed.
On other evenings when I head out to do the chicken chores, taking them fresh water, collecting eggs and closing them in for the night, the air feels thick and heavy. It’s a huskiness that can feel oppressive in hot places but not here on the coast, where it is almost always cool and mild. On these evenings there is cloud cover, which acts like a blanket over the earth, holding in the heat of day and raising the humidity. Calmness and quiet reign supreme on these nights as if the moisture in the air captures any errant sounds. On these nights a few chickens may still be out, pecking here and there or getting their last drink of water before roosting for the night. If this is the case, I slow down and simply take it all in. If I hurry, however, and am impatient the chickens will run away frustrating me to no end. But if I just relax and let things unfold, the stragglers will put themselves to bed. No effort on my part but mind that it takes to just be there. In these instances I am afforded the opportunity to look around and take things in. I may see the trees in the orchard beginning to bloom, plums first then apples and pears. My skin may feel the slight movement of a soft breeze, gentle and refreshing, perhaps bringing the scent of plum blossoms along with it. And I may hear the sound of a cow mooing in the distance and think perhaps its Basil, the cow that has been giving us delicious fresh milk once a week when Kristin volunteers on that farm. The sounds, smells and sights of this moment are always there, if and only if, I can be there too, not distracted by self-centeredness or delusion. When the walls of mind come down, anything is possible and the moments of life scratched down on scraps of paper come truly alive.
Dawn is breaking over a fuzzy and opaque coast range. Just as slits in a crocheted blanket let in light so too do the slender gaps in the velvety gray clouds, revealing the clear sky and sun rising aove. I walk along a well-known path in the half light and partial darkness of early morning. This is a time of day when day and night, light and dark seem to merge and I cannot tell which I am in. Is this still night or has morning begun already? With my eyes cast downward looking at the path before me, I find myself lost in thought. My mind wanders and finally settles on an ancient Chinese Zen text – the Sandokai. Often translated as the “Harmony of Difference and Sameness”, the Sandokai was written by Shitou Xiqian, a Chinese Zen master in the 8th Century. As I strode an often traveled path, the following came to mind:
In the light there is darkness but do not take it as darkness.
In the darkness there is light but do not take it as light.
Not one, not two like the foot before and after in walking.
This text and these lines often enter my head for some reason. Perhaps I have something to learn and here is the teaching. Like the foot before and after in walking, I cannot tell which came first: the breaking dawn or the fading darkness of night. And just like walking, my thoughts cannot impede the flowing movement of changing light, so I continue on and enter the orchard to an awakening world. Robins are beginning to sing a welcome to the day and I hear the first white-throated sparrow with its characteristic song. “Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada-Canada,” it seems to be saying. While gray clouds still dominate the sky, slits of light shine through the half-closed eyelids of dawn like a slowly waking up child.
I hear the hens waking up inside the chicken coop and they get louder as I approach. I open up the door and say good morning as they flutter to the ground in order to search for their breakfast. I am surprised at how happy I am to see them foraging on new ground. They had been moved here just the day before. My joy and theirs merge as I watch them forage in the luscious new grass where insects must abound. I love moving them into a new part of the orchard although I am always filled with the trepidation of one knowing how the coop was built and wondering if something is going to break in the move. This part of the orchard is filled with the lush new growth of spring time grass and hasn’t felt their footfalls in several months. They seem happy, which perhaps is just a projection of my mind, but surely they are elated to have so much fresh food to eat. Their world is abundant again and there is joy in that.
As I walk back home, returning the way I had come, to see if my family has awoke yet, I pause and look to the east. The sun has yet to crest the ridge but its light is almost everywhere giving outline and revealing form of forest, cloud and earth alike. Sparrows and robins continue to sing their morning greetings and the chickens move about the new pasture. At this moment of the day, darkness and light, cloud and sky, foraging chickens and birdsong, all merge with the rising sun and with me standing in the middle of the orchard. I take it all in, knowing that I cannot hold on for long, and then continue on my way back home. As I open the back door, I feel the warmth of our home on my skin and I hear my older daughter calling from her bedroom. “Papa, come here,” she calls out, stretching each syllable into a song and bringing a smile to my face due to the sweetness of it all.