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.

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.

Making Lemonade, the Patient Pause

“What else might this mean?”

Recently, I came across the question in this context: how different the world might be if we asked that question when facing a tense moment, when feeling anger or aggression, whenever there is pain.

To ask the question is to pause, creating a distance from the situation, preventing an immediate and perhaps pointed reaction.

We have given ourselves the opportunity to make the compassionate response.

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Rather than clinging to the pain of the moment, we release it. We are not boxed up in a mindset or limited in our choices. In the compassionate response, we are open to the unimaginable.

We are not relinquishing our beliefs or changing our goals. We are not giving up or accepting less. We are standing in the reality we have, taking a moment to step back and make the choice that suits the moment.

We find ourselves less concerned with identity, the beliefs of “I,” and more concerned, maybe even intrigued, with how we might offer more to many.

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Asking what else might this mean reminds me of a well-worn meme—when life gives you lemons make lemonade— there was a time that I would roll my eyes whenever I was told this, which was rather often.

At some point, and I have no memory of any “aha” moment, I considered what it might mean to experiment with life’s lemons. It is an exercise in patience. In making lemonade, I found curiosity and grew to trust it.

Was I lowering my standards?

These days, I live a routine of no routine, relieved of the stress of tasks assigned to specific times. There is enough freedom so that on the days when life is one lemon after another, lemonade seems more than sufficient. I never know how tart or naturally sweet the lemonade might be.

I sip and stay curious.

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In the last two months, I produced more solid writing than I have in the last year and a half.

Physically, I am markedly different. I am not referring to walking with a cane or wearing a soft neck collar. These are temporary conditions of myelopathy.  Once again, the question of lowering my standards drifted through my ego. That required more than one glass of lemonade.

In short, myelopathy relieved my suffering for I had no choice except to slow down. Myelopathy accomplished what nearly 40 years of autoimmune disease could not. That is the difference.

In slowing down, I gained life anew. I have just begun to consider what this might mean for me.


Although my pace of life is slow, more measured, it is now possible for me to comfortably complete two or three errands in one outing, something I have not been able to do.

In rest, I find awareness, options never imagined. No longer am I pushing through to the end of a task, exhausting all of my resources.

In exhaustion, I find energy. To me, they are opposite ends of the same spectrum. I aim for even. The day does not dawn to certain tasks, it lights up with curiosity.

Still, there are the daily lemons.

My biceps feel as if there are weights on them; little has changed since the spinal cord surgery. The same is true for the numbness/tingling in my hands, particularly my index fingers and thumbs. They are unpredictable.

I use voice recognition software so that the frustration of typing does not impede the writing. My thumbs and index fingers have difficulty pinching or picking up small objects such as pens or pills, a mushroom slice, coins for the laundry.

Daily, I do dexterity exercises for my fingers and thumbs, a bit of yoga for my arms as well. There is no pushing just gentle flexibility. There is a lot of lemonade as well.

For all those moments when the world rages, as it does for all of us, if I ask, “what else might this mean,” I choose the compassionate response. It is not about having an answer. It is about asking the question.

Releasing the Fragrance of Forgiveness

Lately, I have been writing about transformation, in particular the changes I am experiencing with my health. And this week, there is even better news. For the first time, my acupuncture physician felt all of my pulse points. For me, that is huge—to say it is remarkable is not an exaggeration.

It indicates more movement than stagnation. It is as if a way of life, a mindset, is dissolving, breaking up. There is still some stagnation but the decline is being reversed as my cell structure changes in my body’s attempt to balance itself.

Transformation offers what has never been. If not a new body, literally, then a body and a being “falling in love with life, again” as reader Val Boyko so generously offered in the comments on last week’s post.

That more life is pulsing through me accounts for my increased energy level; also, it seems accurate to say—now–that my pain level is also in decline, albeit a slow one.

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Transformation occurs in its own time—patience is essential–but the benefits are life-changing, literally. I find I am more present in each moment. I do not want to miss any of the unfolding of any day so I am less likely to pay attention to mindset. There is so much new to explore.

Still, the mind prefers calling up the tried and true of old, a series of steps followed again and again until they are, well, set, as if in concrete. Mindsets are the known, limited in effect and thus, predictable, perhaps even stagnant.

Yet, I do not believe that a mindset is without its worth. Not at all. Rather, it is our own bank of experience. Mindset makes us who we are.

Mindset is what we bring to the moment we meet transformation. Then, we have a choice: same-old, same-old secure or the unknown of transformation.

“Patience, grasshopper” is a line I have met many times these last months yet sit I did and do still. My impatience is less for I found that in being patient, one finds forgiveness, the ability to let go of the debt that accrues from all regret. It is the way to open one’s heart to all.

Not a Violet but a Petal

Not surprisingly, I returned to a favorite quote. Forgiveness is the “fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” Though often attributed to Mark Twain (since the 1970s), it seems its present form is a compilation of phrases from centuries past.

No doubt the thought stays with us for forgiveness is such a struggle for humans.

There is a firm delicacy in a violet petal forgiving the heel that crushes the life out of it. Soon, the fragrance dissipates but it lingers just longer than life. That is forgiving the debt.

The fragrance reminds that in forgiveness we are transformed–a mindset shattered for what is yet to come with no regret of what has been.

Transformation requires we accept every step we have ever taken; it requires we acknowledge every action or decision, given or received. None can be undone. All steps are ours to own, to accept, and to release.

As always, forgiveness—a journey deep and often dark—begins within us. We cannot offer to others what we do not give to ourselves. In the moment we accept all that we have been, we release the fragrance of forgiveness.

We focus not on what crushes us but on what releases us.

Compassion Totters on Friday the 13th

Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

~The Tao~

A car accident allowed me a “real-life” opportunity to practice the three treasures of the Tao—simplicity, patience, compassion. The Friday the 13th mishap found my compassion tottering, like an amphora (vase) too close to the edge.

Frankly, my patience held, even when my tone of voice betrayed me, as I temporarily strayed into the tentacles of story so very far from the simplicity that is “the source of being.” As far as I know, the story strands still abound outside my being.
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At the core of the story is an uninsured driver, momentarily distracted by a text message, hitting one parked car and sliding it into another (mine) in the parking lot of the apartment complex where all involved live. The driver left a phone number, unable to remain at the scene. That is the source of every story that followed.

Thoughtful neighbors who witnessed parts of the accident notified me. My initial thought on seeing the two cars together was I am very fortunate. The car that slid into my white Scion was severely damaged on both sides. After more than one call to the police, an officer did arrive to assist with details and separate the two vehicles.

My compassion vase moved ever closer to the edge as the hours ticked by, bringing no response to a voice mail I left for the driver. His late night call to me with strands of story unconnected to the accident wrapped round me, and my emotions swirled to the surface. My compassion went into free fall.
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Over the next 72 hours, the driver’s story would emerge in various versions, sometimes tangentially connected to the incident but often not. In a face-to-face meeting of all three car owners, I peppered the driver with questions in a cold, staccato tone devoid of compassion, a tone I once used far too frequently.

However, that realization was not what returned me to compassion but this thought: I really have to stop reading/watching so many murder mysteries. I am not a chief inspector solving a crime. I smiled, stopped my questions, and leaned back in my chair, finally listening to the driver’s story. Then, I let it go.

Securing my amphora of compassion—returning to my source of being—meant more to me than staying in a never-ending story. Once, I had lived that way, for most of my life, actually. Those years pale to how I live now.

Of course, I still have moments when my compassion totters, and there will be others, no doubt, but such is the human experience. My vase is secure for now. As for the final reconciliation, the driver and I have entered into a payment arrangement. After all was agreed and signed, he said he had not expected me to be kind. I responded that he and I had one bad moment but we need not have another.

Patience is…

…second to simplicity, according to sage Lao-tzu, sixth century B.C. author of the Tao Te Ching (Tao). Some sources cite the Tao as the second most translated work in history, preceded only by the Bible. As always, second place may or may not impress but what is impressive is that each of the Tao’s 81 sections (or 5000 Chinese characters) provides us with the constant contradictions inherent in life and then, most generously, offers us strategies within the Tao’s three central teachings–simplicity, patience, and compassion—for every moment we live.

That simplicity precedes patience is not difficult to appreciate. Before we can be, we must separate the strands of our life, acknowledging each strand unto itself as well as its relationship to every other strand. Patience emerges from the untangling but “the place of waiting is always trying and very difficult to live out…fear wants us to act too soon…patience, hard as it is, helps us outlast our preconceptions” (Mark Nepo).

If we practice patience rather than relying on a conditioned response—that which we have always known or done—our perception of what is possible changes completely. Within patience, the moment is fresh and free as in Moksha, a Sanskrit word meaning freedom or release. Deepak Chopra has referred to Moksha as “choiceless awareness,” in which the moment is emotionally free from the situation surrounding it.

In the freedom of Moksha, every moment is free because it is now, completely and fully present. Just as the strands separate to reveal simplicity, in Moksha, the present moment is removed from any future or past situation. The moment is free of any complication, of any condition. The moment is.

Like the moment, how we respond is free and fresh, separate from any situation that has established itself in the past or in the future. As long as we are completely present, we are as emotionally free as the moment. Essentially, we are not attached to the situation’s outcome– a central tenet of Buddhism—as yet another ancient tradition reveals itself within the practice of patience.

Yes, I am weaving in and out of the Vedas of Hinduism and the Tao of Taoism along with the Zen of Buddhism, an intricate weave of no beginning and no end. Continuously, I am startled by similarities—as if I were following the strands of the weave for the first time rather than following a familiar pattern—there is such crispness, freshness to this wondrous weave’s undulating eternity. There is such life in these traditions and thus, freedom.

Yet, the moments from my previous meandering among these traditions show themselves from time to time. There is unraveling yet to be done but the strands sort themselves as only memory can. It takes time but I wait for I know every moment I have is free as long as I have patience. It is rarely easy but with practice, patience increases.

“… When feeling urgent to find your place on this Earth…wait…and things as you fear them will, more often than not, shrink into the hard irreplaceable beauty of things as they are…of which you have no choice but to be a part” (Nepo).

And buried therein are the seeds of compassion.

(All Mark Nepo quotations are from The Book of Awakening