Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

“Calm the heart’s dark waters,” advised the third-century Chinese poet Lu Chi. “Collect from deep thoughts the proper names for things.”

I was reminded of Lu Chi’s admonition the other day, when I came upon a poem by the Irish poet Pearse Hutchinson (b. 1927). Entitled “She Fell Asleep in the Sun,” the poem concerns the children of unwed mothers.  Embedding Irish-Gaelic phrases within his English text, Hutchinson presents two, very different ways of describing such children. In so doing, he also presents two contrasting perspectives on human frailty.

“She fell asleep in the sun,” explains the narrator of the poem, is an Irish way of saying that a young woman got pregnant unintentionally. “That’s what they used to say,” the narrator recalls, “in South Fermanagh / of a girl who gave birth / unwed.” Shifting the scene to County Kerry, the narrator invokes a phrase used in that part of the country: “leanbh on ngrein: / a child from the sun.” As a third example, he describes another “child from the sun”: a “little lad running round a farmyard” in North Tipperary. Watching the child, his “granda” remarks that the boy is “garsuinin beag mishtake.” That phrase may be translated as “the little lad’s a mistake” or “the lad’s a little mistake.”

Taken together, the Irish phrases in Hutchinson’s poem express an attitude of realism, acceptance, and forgiveness. In subsequent stanzas, the narrator praises that attitude—and wonders whether it can survive in modern times:

A lyrical ancient kindness

that could with Christ accord.

Can it outlive technolatry?

or churches?

Not to mention that long, leadranach,

latinate, legal, ugly

twelve-letter name not

worthy to be called a name,

that murderous obscenity—to call

any child ever born

that excuse for a name

could quench the sun for ever.*

Pairing a narrow morality, as preached in certain churches, with the worship of technology, these lines inquire whether the Christ-like kindness of the older culture can endure in twentieth-century Ireland. Embodied in the phrases of an endangered language, that kindness seems itself endangered, a mode of feeling that may soon be leaving the world.

Among the forces eroding that mode of feeling, Hutchinson cites a  “legal, ugly, / twelve-letter name.”  As the reader may readily infer, that unspoken, Latinate name is illegitimate. In contrast to the vivid, concrete Irish phrases, the abstract English word conveys a tedious (leadranach), judgmental attitude toward the mother’s “mistake” and the child who must bear the consequences of her actions. Rather than welcome the child into the human family, the English word defines him as an outcast, murdering his spirit and quenching the life-giving sun.

Of the two perspectives in his poem, Hutchinson clearly favors the first. Adopting that perspective, we might empathize with the plight of mother and child. We might look into the conditions that brought her son into being and try to imagine the life ahead of him. And we might also admit that at times we have done foolish, irresponsible things ourselves. Adopting the second perspective, however, we might observe that the child is indeed illegitimate, as judged by accepted norms, and that to call him a child from the sun is to soften a social reality, poeticize a legal fact, and implicitly condone unwed motherhood. In passing we might note that calling a child a “mistake” may be only a little less damaging than calling him illegitimate.

One of the virtues of meditative practice, Zen included, is that it allows us the space and freedom to examine our responses to human frailty, whether judgmental or compassionate or somewhere in between, before taking action or saying a word. In contemporary American culture, the judgmental response has become reflexive, even in putatively “spiritual” circles. But a compassionate response is also possible, and the mind of compassion is often more penetrating than that of moral judgment, which tends to distance us from the conditions of human suffering. And should we deign to look deeply into the heart’s dark waters, we may discover that in our own ways we too are children from the sun.


*Pearse Hutchinson, “She Fell Asleep in the Sun,” An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry, ed. Wes Davis (Harvard University Press, 2010), 183-4.

Garden sculpture by Robin Caster Howard.

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DoorwaysThere are many ways to close a door. It can be done angrily or in haste. It can be done with infinite care. When Thich Nhat Hanh, then a young Vietnamese monk, visited the Trappist monk Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1966, Merton observed how his guest opened and closed the door. From that action alone, Merton later remarked, he could tell that Thich Nhat Hanh was “an authentic monk”.

Presumably, Thich Nhat Hanh closed the door quietly and with full attention, as his monastic training had taught him to do. In his book Zen Keys, he explains the purpose of that training:

The master can see if the student is or is not “awake.” If, for example, a student shuts the door noisily or carelessly, he is demonstrating a lack of mindfulness. Closing the door gently is not in itself a virtuous act, but awareness of the fact that you are closing the door is an expression of real practice. In this case, the master simply reminds the student to close the door gently, to be mindful. The master does this not only to respect the quiet of the monastery, but to point out to the student that he was not practicing mindfulness, that his actions were not majestic or subtle.*

Although he is articulating a general principle, Thich Nhat Hanh is also recalling a personal experience. As a sixteen-year-old novice, he closed a door with less than full attention, and his teacher called him back for a second try. That experience was, in his words, his “first lesson in the practice of mindfulness”.

In Zen practice the closing of a door is only one of some ninety thousand “subtle gestures,” each an expression of mindfulness. Symbolically, however, the opening or closing of a door has special importance, insofar as it signifies a moment of transition.  In his poem “Men at Forty” the American poet Donald Justice employs that traditional symbol, as he observes that “Men at forty / Learn to close softly / The doors to rooms / They will not be coming back to”. As they stand “At rest on a stair landing,” these newly middle-aged men “feel it moving / Beneath them now like the deck of a ship, / Though the swell is gentle.”**

In her book Making Friends with Death, Judith Lief employs the same symbol to describe the transitions in our lives:

Transitions are like doorways. When we open a door, we think we know what we will find on the other side, but we can never be sure. We do not know with certainty whether we will find a friend or an enemy, an obstacle or an opportunity. Without actually opening the door and walking through, we have no way of knowing. When we face such a door, we feel uncertain, vulnerable, exposed. Our usual strategies do not hold. We are in no-man’s-land. Transitions make us uncomfortable, and they are often accompanied by some degree of pain, but at the same time, they open us to new possibilities.***

Acknowledging that each moment of experience is a transition, “bounded by its own birth and death,” Lief reminds us that transitions often engender fear. Like Justice’s forty-year-olds on their moving decks, we feel uncertain and insecure. As a counter-measure, Lief urges us to pay close attention to all the transitions in our lives, however small, and to abide, if we can, in uncertainty, rather than retreat to what we know.  By so doing, we “begin to loosen our habitual fear of the unknown and undefined”.

For many of us, that noble goal is not so easily attained. It is one thing to learn, as Thich Nhat Hanh did, how to close a door with full attention. It is another to learn how to witness and accept transitions, whether they be from youth to middle age, working life to retirement, robust health to chronic illness, a stable marriage to sudden widowhood. But, in truth, the two kinds of learning are of a piece, and the one is training for the other. By learning to be mindful of the “ninety thousand subtle gestures,” we cultivate an ability to cope with the not-so-subtle changes that befall us. By learning to close an actual door with full awareness, we strengthen our capacity to pass, with grace and affirmation, through the wider doorways that lie ahead.


*Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Keys (Thorsons 1995), 29

**Donald Justice, New and Selected Poems (Knopf 1995), 76

***Judith L. Lief, Making Friends with Death (Shambhala 2001), 15

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In the Rinzai Zen tradition, the first interview between student and teacher is an auspicious formal occasion. The required attire includes not only a robe but also the white booties known as tabi, which cover the feet and ankles. Tabi are fastened with hooks and eyes located on the inside of the ankle.  For Westerners they are difficult to manage, even on the best of days.

On the morning of my own first interview with Jiro Osho Fernando Afable at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a formal Rinzai monastery, I forgot all about my tabi. They were nestled like sleeping rabbits in the sleeves of my robe. As I prepared to leave for my interview, a senior monk noticed my oversight. He gestured sternly toward my feet, and I took his point.

Unfortunately, there are no chairs in a Japanese zendo. Rather than hunker on a cushion, I stood on one foot, then the other, as I struggled to put on my tabi. At one point, I hopped; at another, I nearly fell over. It must have taken me three minutes to marshal my partially hooked tabi into a semblance of order.  Meanwhile, the senior monk was summoning every bit of his Zen discipline to keep a straight face. I suspect that he told the story to his fellow monks later on.

Embarrassing though it was, my awkwardness was not unusual. Ceremonial forms abound in Japanese Zen, and to the uninitiated Westerner they often feel as alien as they are compelling. From the relatively simple protocol known as jukai, in which a lay practitioner “receives the precepts,” to the high theater of shitsugo, in which a seasoned priest receives the title of roshi, public ceremonies acknowledge the practitioner’s deepening insight. And even on ordinary days, when nothing special is being recognized, celebrated, or commemorated, a sense of ceremony permeates the zendo. It can be seen in the bows and heard in the bells. It can be smelled in the incense. For the Western lay practitioner, this pervasive atmosphere of ceremony presents a challenge to the skeptical mind as well as the reluctant body. How much Asian ceremony should be included in a Western lay practice? How much is essential?

In addressing those questions, it is important to remember that Asian ceremonial forms, as used in Zen, exist primarily to support the practice of mindfulness. Pressing the palms together and bowing to one’s teacher, for example, is a way of expressing gratitude and respect. But it is also a way of knowing that one is expressing gratitude and respect and a way of cultivating those states of mind. For those prepared to embrace them, the bows, chants, prostrations, and other elements of traditional Zen can become as integral to the practice as awareness of breath and posture.

For those who are not, however, there is another way of integrating a sense of ceremony into one’s daily life. It is well described by Brother Joseph Keenan (1932-1999), who taught religion at La Salle University and was also a master of the Japanese tea ceremony:

The making of a bed, the folding of laundry, walking down stairs, driving a car to work — instead of racing through these actions with the mind-set of simply getting them done, savor them as present moments which contain hidden riches, and do them in the most beautiful way. Do them not from egotistical motives of self-fulfillment, but rather as gifts to the world that express to those you meet that you really want to present the best to them. In this approach to life even in today’s world . . . the niggling details of the daily grind can become moments of joy, moments filled with sweet nectar to be savored rather than tension-filled tasks. With this sort of attention to mundane actions, you can open yourself and others to a greater awareness of what is around you in the here and now.*

Although Brother Keenan is speaking of the tea ceremony, his description applies equally to a committed lay practice. In such a practice, each mundane task becomes an occasion for ceremonial regard. Each is an end in itself, not a means to a practical end. Each is an act of giving.


* Brother Joseph Keenan, “Tea for All Nations: The Japanese Tea Ceremony”


See also http://www.phillytea.org/about.html

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If you own a home in Western New York, you may be familiar with ice dams. These pesky obstructions occur when heat escapes from a warm attic, melts the snow on the roof, and sends water trickling down to the cold eaves. There it freezes into mounds of ice, blocking the further flow of melting snow. Unless your roof is protected by an asphalt polymer membrane, the trapped water may find its way under the shingles and into the ceiling below.

Ice dams can cause no end of trouble. And so can their counterparts in the inner life, if we allow them to form and grow. In his article “The Mind’s True Nature,” the Tibetan poet and meditation master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche explains:

Water is soft and fluid, ice hard and sharp, so we cannot say that they are identical; but neither can we say that they are different, because ice is only solidified water, and water is only melted ice.

The same applies to our perception of the world around us. To be attached to the reality of phenomena, to be tormented by attraction and repulsion, by pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and obscurity, praise and blame, creates a solidity in the mind. What we have to do, therefore, is to melt the ice of concepts into the living water of freedom within.*

In this vivid analogy Dilgo Khyentse is describing dualistic thought: the process by which we habitually divide undifferentiated reality into concepts of this or that—into good and bad, beautiful and ugly, self and other, and so on. While necessary for survival, such concepts can all too easily freeze into rigid categories, to which we become attached, occluding our vision and blocking the stream of life.

But how do we “melt the ice of concepts into the living water of freedom within”? Franz Kafka, author of “The Metamorphosis” and other modern parables, once described a book as an “axe to the frozen sea within us.” And Zen koans, which sometimes resemble Kafka’s parables, can also serve that function. Contemplating a koan such as “Who hears the sound?” or “All things enter the One. But what does the One enter?” we are compelled to abandon conceptual thought, making room for direct, intuitive perception.

But there is also a gentler and more gradual method. It consists of sitting still and watching our sensations, thoughts, and mental states arise, take form, and eventually dissolve. Bringing relaxed attention to that inner stream, we may detect the counterpart of ice dams in our psyches: fixed ideas, inflexible beliefs, impermeable states of mind. That’s just the way I am, we may be tempted to say. But should we continue to shine the lamp of mindfulness on those aggregates of thought and feeling, recognizing their impermanent and insubstantial nature, we may sense the beginning of a thaw. We may touch the ground of being—the common source of ice and water. And over time, we may taste the living water within.


* Shambhala Sun (January, 2009), 78-79

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22. The tow rope

Three weeks ago, winter arrived in Western New York, catching some of us off guard.  I was reminded of a poem by the twelfth-century Japanese poet Saigyo:

Neglectful, we’ve yet

to fix the towrope

to the sled—

and here they’ve piled up already,

the white snows of Koshi!



sori no hayao mo

tsukenaku ni

tsumorinikeru na

koshi no shirayuki *

Perhaps as you read this poem, you were thinking of something you’ve left undone. For my own part, I’m thinking of a heavy wooden storm window, which I should have put up weeks ago. Across the centuries, it would seem, some things don’t change.

Saigyo, however, was no ordinary homeowner. His real name was Sato Norikiyo, and he was born in 1118 in Kyoto to an aristocratic military family. Skilled in the martial arts, he became a private guard to a retired emperor. But at the age of twenty-two, Norikiyo renounced warfare to become a Buddhist monk. Living a solitary life, he traveled widely, writing lyric verse under the pen name Saigyo. Today he is one of the best-loved poets in Japan, second only to the haiku master Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), who took Saigyo’s life’s work as a model for his own

The form of Saigyo’s poem is the waka, the conventional form of Japanese court poetry. A five-line syllabic form with a pattern of 5-7-5-7-7, the waka resembles the haiku in the first three lines, but the addition of two extra lines allows for greater expansiveness and complexity. Often, as in Saigyo’s poem, an abrupt shift of perspective occurs at the end of the third line. In Saigyo’s mature poems, subjective and objective elements are held in balance, the former expressing the poet’s feelings and the latter describing a natural phenomenon.

In this particular poem the first three lines report an oversight: Saigyo has neglected to fasten the towrope to the sled. Buddhist monks are supposed to be paying attention at all times and to be attuned to seasonal change. Perhaps Saigyo was too busy to bother with the towrope. Perhaps he forgot about it. In either case he realizes, here and now, that he has ignored the advent of winter and overlooked a necessary chore.

In the next two lines, the perspective shifts abruptly, as Saigyo turns our attention to the newfallen snow. Koshi is a coastal province, known for its heavy snows. Although Saigyo does not develop the scene, we can well imagine its natural beauty, which contrasts sharply with the human situation he has just described. If the human error is cause for consternation, the natural scene is cause for joy.

“Like many great Japanese poets,” writes Burton Watson, a distinguished translator of Saigyo’s poems, “he was not afraid of saying something very simple.” Nor was he afraid to look at his human failing in the light of the impersonal natural world. In Saigyo’s vision, human error and unforgiving nature are parts of the one body of reality. Open to both, he gives them equal standing. Engaged with both, he sees them as they are.

* Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home, translated by Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, 1991), 94.

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I have a friend who’s obssessed with fish. Or, more precisely, he’s obsessed with fly fishing. So far as I can tell, when he is not fishing, he is thinking about fish. His license plate reads “Red Trout.” So does his e-mail alias. I suspect that he also dreams about fish, and when he closes his eyes it’s not Renoir’s bathers or Rubens’ nudes but red trout that swim up to greet him.

As some of you may have guessed, I am speaking of Richard Thompson, a painter of national renown, who recently retired from the School of Art and Design at Alfred University. Now he devotes his days to painting and fishing in (I think) that order.

Not long ago, Richard painted a series of pictures entitled “Mindful Wading.” These paintings feature a fly fisherman in hat and waders making his way across a stream. The paintings were inspired by a conversation with my wife (who suggested to Richard that he take up yoga and meditation) and informed by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Long Road Turns to Joy, a pocket guide to walking meditation. As Thich Nhat Hanh explains, “Walking meditation is walking just for the sake of walking.” Mindful wading is Richard’s version of the practice.

In one of Richard’s paintings, a circular panel called“Cross Currents,” the fisherman stands in the center with outstretched arms. In one hand he holds his rod, in the other his line. His feet are poised on the bed of the stream, surrounded by rocks, and he appears to be stepping gingerly, lest he stumble and fall. Above his head and to either side, the heads of trout are surfacing, each lunging toward a fly. Superimposed on five contrasting colors—yellow, red, blue, and two shades of green—the image feels both centered and kinetic. Viewed from a distance, the painting itself resembles a pinwheel.

“I fly fish,” Richard has written, “and I wade streams. When I am crossing a stream I can’t see the bottom, and the water is moving. I have to balance myself while testing each rock for stability. I do this navigating under low light and in bad weather and often on unfamiliar streams. I do mindful wading.”

Thich Nhat Hanh might be surprised to learn of Richard’s adaptation of his practice, but I suspect that he would approve. For the practice of walking meditation, as interpreted by Thich Nhat Hanh, is more than a respite from the rigors of zazen. It is a practice in its own right, whose purpose is to cultivate awareness of our bodies, our surroundings, and our changing states of mind. Beyond that, it is also a way of developing inner peace and a non-violent attitude toward our natural environment. Walking mindfully, we notice whether our steps are anxious or peaceful, and we cultivate the latter.

If you would like to practice walking meditation, select a place where you will not be observed or disturbed. Open your senses to your surroundings. Assume an upright but flexible posture, letting your shoulders drop and your belly soften. Relax into your breathing. Then walk naturally and unhurriedly, as though you had no destination, feeling the bottoms of your feet pressing the ground. Continue this practice for fifteen minutes or more, maintaining mindfulness all the while. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back.

As you become more skillful in this practice, you may wish to extend it into the public arena, increasing the tempo so as not to call attention to yourself. Let the practice restore your peace, your grace, and your dignity, as you walk—or wade—through your day.

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