The Sound of Breath

Lately, the sound of my breath is interrupting my morning meditation. It’s noisy, calling attention to itself. I am not just exhaling. I am “pushing” my breath, hurrying it along.

It is as if I hear the sound of my thoughts and use my breath to expel them–emptying my mind and closing it off.

These thoughts are a part of me, words with images. With each breath, I expel a load. These days, the sound of my breath is gale force, far from mindful.

At every moment where language can’t go, that is your mind.
Bodhidharma

I guess that is where I try to go every morning for an hour or so and then take a bit of that into the rest of my day. It’s tricky, this mindfulness stuff.

I remind myself about the stories of the Buddha realizing what enlightenment means. It is a gift but the experience of it is life changing. It is not floating around in peace in a never-ending story.

Well, it is but getting there is giving up a lot like language, labels and learning to share space with all living things. The activities of daily living don’t magically stop or become unnecessary.

It’s just the perspective that changes. It’s a completely different lens.

Sogyal Rinpoche illustrates with the example of empty jar or vase. There is air inside and outside. What separates is substance, clay in this case.

Our Buddha mind is enclosed within the

walls of our ordinary mind.

But when we become enlightened,

it is as if the vase shatters into pieces. 

 Sogyal Rinpoche, Glimpse of the Day

And then the sound of breath is soundless. Until then, patience is my practice.

Marianne Williamson says “infinite patience yields immediate results.” I don’t disagree. I think there is a glimpse, a moment when there is a favorable shift in the odds. In other words, growing awareness.

No overnight enlightenment for me, and I’m okay with that.

Patience resides in the hard places, where it hurts the most to be, physically or emotionally. To sit with the pain is patience. It takes trust.

The minute the struggle to sit stops, that’s the when the odds shift from suffering to acceptance. The pain may be less or may be more but there is no more holding onto it.

Infinite patience, immediate results.

It is the “unpleasant experience” in which I hear the sound of my breath, forcing words to empty the mind, which is not to say the words will not return.

They do, in Technicolor–full image–even a movie if I allow my memory its way.

My ego has superstar status when I lack compassion, refuse to listen to a point of view so opposite from mine. It is unpleasant, at times frightening, and every time I turn away from “the enemy,” I turn away from myself.

I hide in the jar of my “ordinary” mind, seeking solace but staying separate from my “Buddha” mind. In frustration, I breathe and the words keep coming.

I know of no Zen or Buddhist teacher that does not advise both patience and tolerance as well as interaction with our enemies. Not on a full-time basis but to seek what separates us.

Break through the clay, completely cast it aside.

It’s not about changing anyone into what they are not.  It is about breathing the same air with everyone else, soundlessly.

Bits and Pieces: The Reality We Have

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If we live in the moment, we work with the reality we have. Sounds good, if a bit obvious or perhaps platitudinous. Yet, it seems the way to experience the best of what is being offered.

And if we are not thrilled with the reality we have, we need only remember that like the weather, life is impermanent. It will change; reality will offer other options.

Working with the reality we have is a bit of a slippery slope as joy never seems to stay long enough while pain never seems to leave soon enough.

Reality—the moment–is all we ever have. For however long it lasts, it is for us to do the best we can. Impermanence will do the rest.

Currently, my reality seems as if it is in a holding pattern. Doing the best I can to experience the moment I have, I admit I am often on the lookout for change.

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Recently, I came through cervical myelopathy surgery with remarkable success–truly, there were some unforgettable and stellar moments–but success has shown its shadow.

Success and shadow—as one—make up memory. Always there are moments of both but perhaps only in memory are the two as one.

Memory does not re-create reality. It allows us reflection, a way to wait upon reality, to work with the moment we have.

In shadow, my reality seems a growing force of chronic illness comprised of autoimmune disease, degenerative disc disease, and myelopathy.  There is no complete defeat possible, not physically. That is not my reality in any moment.

Accepting that reduces my suffering and strengthens my resolve to explore the experience I have. By not attaching to the pain as the only reality I will ever know, pain passes like a shadow. Acceptance incites change.

Of course, I am not always as aware or as accepting. Sometimes, I have such an aversion to my reality that I am determined to change it, as if I could. After all, I am not accepting the actual experience. I am only trying to avoid it.

Sometimes, my aversion is quite elaborate, methodical even. Other times, I rush reality for all I am worth with everything within my grasp. I suffer for my indifference to reality. It is as if I am fighting my own biology.

After all, each of my body’s cells works with the state of its reality. Each cell works for balance–aging as well as disease affect this process– yet each cell works with its own unique makeup. It accepts its options.

In working with the reality we have, we accept that moments do not restore each other. They offer us other options, new perspectives on reality that just a moment ago seemed so difficult, even impossible.

Reality is messy that way. It overlaps who we are with who we were just a moment ago, leaving a trail of consequences.

Neither good nor bad, they are reality lived, bits and pieces of experience. Some are stored as success; others slip in as shadow.

The wise adapt themselves to circumstances,

as water molds itself to the pitcher.

Chinese Proverb

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The Good Fortune of Illness

We do not think of illness or disease as an opportunity. Maybe we should.

We label our disease, know all of its characteristics, and sometimes we identify so closely we define ourselves as disease. The result is we suffer.

I know. For decades, I identified as autoimmune disease. Five years ago, I decided I was not my disease no matter what changes that might mean for me.

Immediately, my perspective on chronic disease broadened; ultimately, I came to understand that only I can change my relationship with pain. Pain is a part of life but suffering is entirely up to me.

That Buddhist teaching served me well in my recent diagnosis of cervical myelopathy, particularly in the two weeks that I had to wait for the surgery. Every minute of every day, I lived with the risk of becoming a quadriplegic.

I was not to drive or even ride in a car–in a vehicle, my chances increased to one in 100. I stayed home in bed.

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People lying in bed ill are lucky because they have the opportunity

to do nothing but contemplate stress and pain.

Their minds don’t take up anything else, don’t go anywhere else.

They can contemplate pain at all times — and let go of pain at all times, too.

“A Good Dose of Dhamma: For Meditators When They are Ill”

Upasika Kee Nanayon

During my two weeks of mostly lying in bed, I read Nanayon’s essay more than a few times. I focused on the word “lucky” for this new illness did feel like an opportunity. Yes, I mean that, and no, there were no strong drugs involved.

It was as if I was given another chance to experience a major illness without becoming it. This time, it would be different.  I would not focus on the pain and stress—the suffering–but the experience of it as part of being alive, breathing in and breathing out.

Here was an opportunity to meditate 24 hours a day. There really was not any medication for a pinched spinal cord that was decreasing the mobility and use of my limbs while my joints continued to ache.

I had to stop any over-the-counter medication in preparation for the surgery.

I had plenty of time to contemplate the sensations of my body, including my fear of becoming quadriplegic. In order to let all of it go, I had to empty my mind.

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When the mind is empty, in line with its nature,

there’s no sense of ownership in it;

there are no labels for itself.

No matter what thoughts occur to it, it sees them as insubstantial,

as empty of self.

There’s simply a sensation that then passes away.

A sensation that passes away, and that’s all.

Upasika Kee Nanayon

This is the opportunity of illness, stripping away the fear and anxiety that make pain so deceptively powerful. Without an identity, without a label, pain is just another sensation that comes and goes. No label, no way for suffering to take root.

I had to get away from labeling both the “what ifs” and the actual pain sensations. Mine was to experience but not to hold onto what was happening. That would label the sensation–a way to stick—suffering would have a way to grow.

Focusing on the breath allows label after label to drop into the mind without sticking. The mind stays “in line with its nature” as labels float in and out, each experience occurring and then leaving. Not attaching to the sensation is to experience it with the wonder of being alive.

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With the exception of death, there is not one sensation we experience that carries one and only one guarantee.  Rather, if we can let go of the label—guarantee–each experience of our life will guarantee us unimaginable wonder.

As humans, we communicate with labels—they are a necessity–but we do not have to become them or hold onto them. Labels inform and pave the way for what comes next. That is their only purpose.

For me, autoimmune disease and now recovery from surgery are labels that sometimes stick. Then, I suffer. Eventually, they float away on my breath.

After all, I am no longer “lucky” to be lying in bed only having to contemplate stress and pain. Now, there is more to experience than the opportunity of illness. And that is my good fortune.

Stay Open to Life: It is Rigged

Sometimes, life feels pre-determined, pre-destined even. I do not believe that it is but this past week had me wondering—at least for a while. Nothing in my world was as it appeared. I was stuck in some kind of state.

There was the appointment I missed by arriving too early.  I arrived at the time I was told, but that was not the time scheduled for the appointment.

My pot of vegetables—a staple of mine—soured as if it had been in the refrigerator for a week rather than two days.

A quick glance at the calendar revealed the number of days remaining in the month had no working relationship with the amount in my bank account, even if I remained in a meditative state until May 1.

Physically, there were issues beyond my usual lupus symptoms. These my body had kept all to itself. Until now.

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Ultimately, of course, each was a moment for me to broaden my perspective, to view life through a different lens. Always, I am reminded of the Buddha’s belief that pain is part of life but suffering is optional.

That was my state of mind when I came across this quote from Rumi–“Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor”—well, why not? It would change the view, if nothing else.

And how else does the tide turn other than with a view change?

A missed appointment freed up some cash as well as time to explore some options I had not considered.

There was no saving the pot of vegetables, of course. I suspect a couple of days really had turned into a week. Some part of my mind knew this for in the crisper I found fresh vegetables.

And then there was a visit with a good friend. Nothing rigs life in your favor quite like that. In the space of a couple of hours, our conversation ranged from Harper Lee to “branding” in social media. We have yet to meet a topic we would not attempt.

Most of our obstacles would melt away if,

instead of cowering before them,

we should make up our minds to walk boldly through them.

Orison Swett Marsden

And while we are walking through them, we may realize life really is rigged in our favor for the view always changes.

Have a good week. Stay open to life’s rigging.

If We Learn to Read Hearts

There is one gift appropriate in any season or on any occasion. It is the gift of relationship. After all, we are always in relationship, one of the many miracles we experience every day.

Most miracles have a certain sparkle, and relationship is no exception. Eckhart Tolle says in this amazing miracle “ultimately, you are not a person but a focal point where the universe is becoming conscious of itself.”

Here we are, having this remarkable experience as human beings, born with this and without that but physically each of us travels the life cycle from two major states, birth and death. What happens in-between those two events is the unique, individual experience of you and me.

It is not as if we reside in existence, it is that we are existence having these individual experiences. And it is not just about humans, either. It’s everything we can imagine and all we cannot.

The flower is aware of the fact that it contains everything within it, the whole cosmos, and it does not try to become something else.

Thich Nhat Hanh

No matter how many ways I write about relationship or how many quotes I find, I am astounded by the reality of always being in relationship. Often, its immensity is beyond my grasp.

I look to the elephant as the creature that most embodies relationship.

Elephants define family beyond any words we have ever written. For elephants, relationship is forever, absolutely essential to life and not broken with death. Elephants remember their dead, travelling miles to visit graveyards.

It seems a miracle that elephants maintain this richness of relationship as they come closer and closer to extinction. Yet, these loving and compassionate beings know what we have not learned: they are always in relationship for everywhere they go, there they are.

“They can read your heart” are the words of Daphne Sheldrick, a woman who has, for 50 years, given love and created family for orphaned elephants. It is the kind of story that always opens our hearts—giving season or no—sometimes, we donate to such a cause but what of learning to read hearts?

Not living as separate from existence but as existence experiencing itself is learning to read each other’s heart. Like the elephants, we must have the physical touch, comfort, and compassion of family—no matter how family is defined.

We must learn to read hearts so that when family is lost, family is created again, and we are not orphans. We have role models such as Daphne Sheldrick. We need not be orphans. We need only to read hearts.

Note: This writer and this blog thank Zen Flash for the post and video on Daphne Sheldrick and the orphan elephants.

Of Alarms, Animals, and Awakened Hearts

When the fire alarm went off, feline EmmaRose and I seemed sure it had something to do with me. She gave me her usual look of what now? My thought was I had finally succeeded in leaving an empty tea kettle on a hot burner long enough to melt the kettle’s bottom.

Quickly, I realized it was not our smoke detector but the fire alarm for the entire building. It was someone else’s burner/pan/tea kettle. I went outside into the warm, North Florida midnight air as did the rest of the building’s residents.

I did not put EmmaRose in her carrier and take her with me for she has such dread of any interruption of our routine—it upsets her for days—and although she is not fond of the fire alarm, it is not an unknown to her. Was this not yet another human event occurring for no apparent reason?
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That seemed EmmaRose’s attitude, and she was correct. We never knew who pulled the alarm and probably never will. However, it would take 40 minutes before the alarm was finally silenced. Neither management nor the fire department could locate a key. This was not routine.

Within minutes, I decided the alarm was too much for EmmaRose’s ears. Standing among my neighbors, I heard myself say, “Well, I’m going to go get my cat.” I turned and walked toward my apartment.

Why I said aloud what I was thinking I have no idea but it produced another kind of human alarm.

“WHAT GOOD IS A CAT GOING TO DO??!? HOW WILL THAT HELP US?!?”

My back was to the man who was bellowing. I knew who it was, Carl. He had been talking nonstop to anyone and everyone but no one seemed to want his opinion, especially the firemen.

Still garrulous with my thoughts I shouted, “I think a lot more of animals than I do of people.” His retort was a strong suggestion that I grow up. I offered he might do the same and walked into my apartment.

EmmaRose met me at the door, ready to get into her carrier, and together, we went outside and away from the building but still in the vicinity of Carl’s voice.Eyes Open 0513

“I’ve been on the battlefield! I was in Special Ops! This is nothing! We are all upset!” Then, he stopped and looked around. After a few breaths, he mumbled something to the effect that I was making it worse for everyone.

It seemed more residents were bringing their pets outside. Maybe I had made it worse.

I looked at Carl. “Well, I didn’t think I was but if I have, I apologize.”

“Well, I apologize, too,” he said, adding, “peace?”

“We’re done,” I said.

Both of us remained quiet for the duration of the alarm as did every dog and every cat.

The next morning, Carl and I found ourselves face-to-face, again. We rarely saw each other.

“Good morning,” I said to Carl and meant it.

“So, we’re okay after last night?”

“We’re fine, really.” I extended my hand to him, and he shook it.

“I don’t know why I said that about your cat.”

“The alarm is hard on animals’ hearing,” I said, adding “I didn’t need to say what I said, either.”

“No, that was all right.”

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At this point, we actually heard each other; our own alarms had finally shut off. For longer than the 40-minutes at midnight, Carl and I acknowledged each other’s value—a traditional Catholic soldier and a Buddhist animal lover—each worthy of respect for the human beings we are, a veteran and a hippie.

Carl is a fine teller of stories and excels at revealing the punch line. We laughed a lot and genuinely. We found common ground in a thoughtful discussion on democracy, in our mutual disdain for both prejudice and the healthcare system.

As he started up the stairs to his apartment and I to my vehicle, I heard the limp in his step, something I had not noticed.

I called out to him. “How do you feel about acupuncture?”

“I believe in it. Why?”

“I know a good one. Would you like her card?”

He says he would. I return to my apartment for the card, and he comes down the stairs to get it.

He thanks me and adds, “When you make a mistake you just have to own up, don’t you?”

“Yes, and then let it go,” I say.

And so we separate with hearts awakened.

The quality of modesty, or humility, comes naturally when we’re attentive. When we see how reactive and unkind we can be, this humbles us considerably.

Instead of causing despair, however, this painful realization can connect us with the tenderness of bodhichitta [or, awakened heart].

Modesty, or humbleness, is the opposite of armoring ourselves: it allows us to be receptive and hear what others have to say.

Pema Chödrön

(No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva, pp. 134-35)

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When to Carry and When to Let Go

My previous post considered the constant connection we have with our world, one more immediate than ever before. There is a continuous buzz of busyness. It can overwhelm one to stillness, this blogger included, so I took a week off from publishing a post.

A break in routine is an opportunity to create a change in the way we live unless the break is just another form of busyness—same behavior just different surroundings or situations.

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A true break means we attend to basic requirements only and not carry the world with us so we may meet the mundane as if for the first time, eyes fresh and bright. It requires us to drop what we carry so that we hold only the moment we have.

There is a well-known story of two monks who come to a river where they meet a woman who needs assistance in crossing.

Without a word, one monk picks up the woman and carries her across. She thanks the monk and leaves. The two monks continue on their way, one troubled and one not.

Finally, the troubled monk can stand it no longer and asks, “Why did you carry that woman across the river when you know we are prohibited any contact with women?”

The untroubled monk responds, “I only carried her across the river. You are still carrying her.”

If it is a break we intend, then it is much like residing in the gap between thoughts. In no thought there is no mind just pure consciousness. In a break from our routine, we no longer carry the busyness of everyday. We put it down and rest. When we return to our river of routine we cross, carrying our load again.

For me, this short break from blogging was different than previous ones. It started with a stop. Simultaneously, I dealt with a colorful but significantly sprained toe on my left foot and an aggravated inflammation of my right knee.

I note that the injury to my toe is probably related to increasing lupus inflammation issues but the injury occurred after my trip to the library in search of Zen novels (I found two). In fact, it was after I put down my library load that I stubbed/sprained/jammed my toe.

Resting and reading Zen provided me another perspective on balance both physically and emotionally. Perhaps my knee was more troublesome that particular day as in addition to wandering around the library, I had stocked up on groceries for the week.

My usual routine is either the library or the grocery store but not both yet organic, freshly ground almond butter was on sale, and I had new recipes to try, in particular Zoe’s cookies.  I would have to wait most of the week to make them but they were worth every step to get the ingredients. EmmaRose thought so, too. EmmaRose meets Zoe Cookies 0814

When not reading, I put down other emotional baggage that tends to clutter my routine, remembering that people really are doing the best they can and there are always options–this is true for me, as well. Sometimes, my routine blinds me to what others face so I do not see what they are carrying.

Now, I return to the river of my routine. I know the moment is all I ever have and that it is more than enough. After all, I only need to carry it to the next moment.