All posts by Flint Sparks

A gift

It was wonderful to return to Appamada this week after more than a month away and to be back with the sangha in Inquiry. This is a very brief post to share the joy and energy that moved in our return meeting this Tuesday, July 18.

There is often an expectation — especially with kids — when someone returns from a long trip: “What did you bring me!?” We rejoice in finding just the right gift for our loved ones and we all love to receive a surprise from some special or exotic location someone has visited. This is also true for me. I always want to bring something to the sangha, and not only when I return from traveling, but every week. I always want to bring something useful, inspiring or transformative. I want our time together to make a difference. On this recent trip my dear friend and neighbor Teri Waros, the owner of a lovely gift and book store in Kaunakakai, Molokai, offered me this piece by Rumi. It seemed perfect. [To see more about Teri check out this interview].

You’ve no idea how hard I’ve looked for a gift to bring You.
Nothing seemed right. What’s the point of bringing gold
to the gold mine, or water to the Ocean. Everything I came
up with was like taking spices to the Orient. It’s no good
giving my heart and my soul because you already have these. 

So- I’ve brought you a mirror.
Look at yourself and 
remember me.

I felt we could even read the last line without the “me” at the end. We meet in Inquiry as mirrors for each other to help us Remember. Together we remember our True Nature, our beauty and perfection, our wholeness as “messy miracles.” This requires us to rest rather than to strive. To accept rather than judge. We simply walk together along the path, opening to the world and to each other. These are the things I spoke about and which moved in the group. I won’t write much more, but I hope you enjoy the recording linked below.

The Gift of Rest

Portals into the Mystery

As you know, I often use my photographs to illustrate a teaching point or highlight a concept I am trying to convey. But sometimes the photographs themselves are the inspiration for the teaching. This is the case with this series of images from our recent retreat in Hawaii.

We typically make our journey to the overlook to the Kalaupapa peninsula for our sunrise meditation early in the week when we are waking early, still on mainland time. On this particular morning, after a brief 3 mile drive, we assembled in the parking lot and walked in the faintest light of dawn through the ironwood forest to the overlook. In silence we stepped out onto the bluff behind the rock retaining wall, into the buffeting wind and streaming clouds to bear witness to the beauty and sadness of this powerful place. On each visit I have the feeling that I am passing through a mysterious transitional space—a kind of portal—emerging into a new or special world that reveals itself on the edge of those high cliffs. As we stood in silent attention to the shifting skyscape and seascape that morning, the early light began to offer itself to us.

Standing there in awe with my camera in hand, I was fully immersed in the magnificence of the moment. Everything was unfolding around me powerfully and magically. I continued to look through the viewfinder and allowed what I was witnessing to release the shutter on its own as the light continued to work beautifully through the clouds and the water and the cliffs. I had no idea what I was capturing at the time, but nature’s invitation continued to lead me deeper into the morning mystery.

The Four Practice Principles kept going though my mind:

Caught in the self-centered dream, only suffering
Holding to self-centered thoughts, exactly the dream
Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher
Being just this moment, Compassion’s Way

Opportunities to enter the fullness of the present moment are always available if we relax our insistence on our own narrow, self-centered perspective. I remember feeling very small and vulnerable facing the wind and the ocean, completely immersed in the immensity of the unfolding light. I was aware that my body would contract whenever anxiety began to take over. I could also sense that when I relaxed into the warm connection of the group, even in complete silence and stillness, I felt a deep comfort and a confidence that we were OK—together. Practicing together helps us tolerate the gentle release of the “self-centered dream” and allows us to have more faith in “life as it is.”

Lately it has been hard for me to see clearly what lies ahead in my own life. It is not as if there aren’t signs and signals to alert me, but I can’t always tell what they mean. What should I attend to? What can I safely ignore? What is a beckoning invitation and what is serving as a warning? I am in the midst of so much change at the moment that I am alternately challenged, disoriented, and even frightened at times. Which way should I turn? How should I respond? Is life really teaching me or simply defeating me? These may be questions that may arise for many of you as well.

I know that everything is impermanent, constantly changing in and around me. I also know that everything is contingent, being created and evolving in response to everything else. I am aware that there is nothing apart from this great flux and flow, including my stumbling navigation through it all. This is what I teach and practice every day. But for once it would be relieving to simply enjoy the illusion of complete clarity and certainty about something. However, as I get older and continue to practice steadily, I sense that I have a diminishing capacity to believe in this kind of fantasy. Regular meditation practice and deep inquiry completely ruin certain things about ordinary life and certainty is one of them.

There is a wonderful line from Dogen’s Genjokoan that come to mind: “Though there are many conditions in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach.” Another translation from Shohaku Okamura is, “Within the dusty world and beyond, there are innumerable aspects and characteristics; we only see or grasp as far as the power of our eye of study and practice can see.” 

I can’t predict what I will capture when I press the shutter on the camera. I see what my limited human eye can perceive in the moment and I am frequently amazed and humbled by what I am being offered. I hope that I can capture some of what I see using the equipment at hand, but I really don’t know what I’ve been given until I look at the image later. Like everything else in life I am constantly receiving what my sense perceptions offer me, but this data is also infused with and shaped by my unconscious projections about what I secretly hope for or fear. And, like everyone else, I construct something that seems whole and coherent from these perceptions, thoughts, feelings and bodily reactions. I then call that something “reality.”

As I reflected on these lines from Dogen,“…you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach,” I began to ask myself, “What do I actually ‘see’ through practice?” I’ve practiced long enough to realize that I am not going to receive some “answer” which will nicely match my fantasied expectations of spiritual life. If I am fortunate I see a bit more Truth or “Life as it is.” If I really pay attention with patience and curiosity, I will begin to see my faithful habit patterns more clearly—the embodied expressions of the habitual ways I’ve come to organize experience, mostly outside of my awareness. As I see these patterns more clearly and they begin to soften, then life simply unfolds as it will — as it does anyway, despite my opinions — and without my painful and frantic attempts to force it back toward the fantasy that sustains my constructed “reality.”

I came to realize more fully that morning at the overlook that I don’t actually shrink from present moment experience because it is boring or painful or confusing. I do so because it is too rich. The more I practice, the greater my capacity to allow life to blossom more fully through me. As I discipline myself through consistent practice I sense that I am cultivating a kind of courage and a greater willingness to face the rawness of my life circumstances more graciously. Without a commitment to a steady and wholesome practice I find myself running, embellishing, turning away from, or contradicting the truth of my life and my precious relationships. This courage and willingness offers me more choice, more vitality, and ultimately the restoration of joy, the theme for our week of retreat.

Sometimes I download an image and am shocked by what I see. Not just because it might a beautiful photograph, but because of the flood of meaning that leaps forward immediately and surprisingly. All of the teachings and experiences I’ve been writing about in this small piece came together when I opened the image above. On the left I saw the light of the early morning streaming in magically, illuminating what was previously dark or indistinct. Morning light so often represents the beginning of new possibilities or a fresh start, a longing we all share. On the right there remains an ominous darkness and an approaching storm, and with it the sense of fear and anxiety that we so often carry, usually in the hidden shadows of our hearts and minds. In the center there is the promise of light and an opening in which I could see more deeply into the mystery. It is as if I could literally see into new potential and possibility.

As many of you have heard me say in the past, the spiritual path is like walking between hope and despair on either side, straight into the the face of uncertainty. We long for a path that will take us from despair to hope, but we know deep down that neither place is stable or reliable. We can’t leave despair behind and permanently arrive at a solid place to rest. Fear is part of being alive. We can’t count on hope either because we see it crumble in the face of life circumstance. What we can count on and can learn to welcome is the ongoing change of each new dawn and all that it brings. I have to ask myself if I am willing to give myself fully to a life I can’t control and that I will eventually loose? Anything less and I will be robbed of the joy that is not based on circumstances or personal happiness. Am I willing to accept my human life as the mysterious and miraculous gift that it is?

There are a few more lines from the Genjokoan that follow the statement about “seeing.” Dogen says, “You have gained the pivotal opportunity of human form. Do not use your time in vain. You are maintaining the essential working of the Buddha-Way. Who would take wasteful delight in the spark from the flintstone? Besides, form and substance are like the dew on the grass, destiny like the dart of lightning—emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.” When I first came to practice at the San Francisco Zen Center and told my guest practice leader my full name she looked at me with an wry smile and said, “Have you ever read the Genjokoan?” I had not even heard of it at that time and did not know she was referring to Dogen’s question: “Who would take wasteful delight in the spark from the flintstone?” The flint and the steel come together to produce a spark. Transient and delightful, it is easy to get entranced by the spark, “emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.” But its real function is to initiate a fire which can be used to keep us warm and to cook our food for life sustaining nourishment. The spark is not simply for our delight, but for the benefit of all beings. And so is our practice—life giving and life restoring—just as the sky and sea, the rain and wind, the light and dark, offer themselves to benefit all beings. And sometimes the storm and the light come together to produce a little bit of magic so we can be called back to gratitude. As Suzuki Roshi said, “Just to be alive in enough.”

Thoughts about things

The week before Christmas I awoke around 1:30 AM and could not go back to sleep. I had just finished co-leading the first Mindful Photography workshop the previous week at Hui Ho’olana with John Barclay, an amazing photographer and teacher. Erin and I had also enjoyed being together for the first time in our new house on Molokai. These were good, new, challenging experiences which I had dreamed about for a long time and worked hard to achieve. What woke me in the darkness of that morning was a message that emerged clearly and powerfully in these words: “I like the idea of things but not the reality of things.

I lay there as the message repeated itself. “You like the idea of things but not the reality of things.” This was not a new revelation or a fresh insight. This is what I teach. However, there was something deeper and more insistent in the message that was calling to me. After a few minutes I realized I was not going back to sleep anytime soon so it might be well to get up and journal in response to this late night signal. Here is what I wrote:

Ordinary coping is an attempt to shape our experience to always match our idea of things. If our experience maps onto our precious idea of things, this is called “happiness” or “satisfaction”—getting what we want. This, we are taught, is the purpose of our lives and where we will find real meaning—it is the foundation for enjoying success.

We are addicted to the idea that shaping our lives to match our idea of things will bring us happiness. This is why New Year’s resolutions are both popular and universally futile. A new year brings a fresh start and with it new ideas about how things could be. Creativity and imagination bring wonderful things to life, but they can have a shadow side which is the entrancing nature of self-created (and self-centered) realities.

In Zen training we engage the practice of turning toward and engaging with the bare reality of things. Through steady engagement with our practices we come to realize that life is actually inconceivable. We can never settle on a single meaning, an enduring concept, a personal like or dislike that will capture and define this immense mystery. We continually plunge into life—the inconceivable nature of things just as they are—with the hope that we will make them better. This capacity to live in awe of the mystery and, at the same time, to engage the mundane world with intelligent care, is the purpose of spiritual practice and distinguishes it from self-help or psychological work. We are not continually trying to shape ourselves or the world to fit our idea of things. We are meeting things just as they are and yet working with them as skillfully as we can. Practice encourages and supports this skillfulness (upaya).

Unlike what most people hope, this practice shift does not result in learning to let go of our likes and dislikes—to live without preference. We do not practice in order to release all concepts and avoid thinking. We do not vow to forsake wholesome goals and aspirations. We will always have likes and dislikes. We will always have preferences. Hopefully we will always have a clear mind and a robust capacity to solve problems. But being attached to our preferences and demanding that they be met is inevitably painful. Freedom from this pain is found in the inconceivable nature of things—like and dislike drop away as mere concepts. They become irrelevant in a strange way, we come to realize they are just more thoughts about things. Intimacy with what is, is quite different from evaluating what is—trying again to see if it matches our idea of things.

For many of us, the shocking reality of the last few months has not matched our precious idea about how things should go. How many of us have heard words such as: “Surely this is not right! If this can happen, I don’t know what to believe, how to even think about life going forward.”

I was surprised to find that I was almost completely unaware of how closely I held the idea that my idea of things was reality. I held this view of the world because it allowed me to feel a sense of security, stability. I could delude myself that I was in charge, able to predict or control my circumstances. I felt hopeful. But life seems to be following some other route and evolving against a much larger plan than my personal preferences and expectations. The fantasied outcomes are fading and the unpredictable and inconceivable nature of reality is unfolding as life—and as my life.

We often feel fear when we lose what we cherish most. At some level we know full well that will happen. We grieve when the inevitable loses do occur and then we push ourselves to get over it, or move around it, to go through it, or get beyond it. When we can’t, we can rage at the affront as if it were a personal insult or we collapse in the face of challenges, unable to move forward. As hope for the fantasied outcome fades we often slide toward two polarities—hate and despair.

There is another way, but it requires a surrender to the mystery, to the inconceivable reality of things, and that grace-filled shift is called love.

All through the trip I had carried Paula D’Arcy’s new book Stars at Night with me. A few days after this night of disturbed sleep and insight I sent a message to Paula about getting together when I returned from Molokai. We had not seen each other in a long time and I hoped we could catch up. I sent her a small snippet of my evening reflections as if I had discovered something profound. Then finally, began to read her book. She writes poetically and was reflecting on how “darkness unfolds at light.” I was stunned to see the lessons so fully expressed in her writing that I had so clumsily written about in my email. I have to admit that I felt a little embarrassed by my message and apologized for what seemed like a sophomoric message to a woman who had come to her understanding of these same things through unimaginable loss. Here are some examples that stunned me.

In response to her immense loss and wrenching grief she reflects (p. 11):

I wonder if I have the courage to accept this rare and beautiful gift called life, which is also able to wound in this way. This gift, it is now apparent, is something I have never understood at all. I wonder what wants to live. That question seems important. (p. 11)

In time, perhaps, the bewilderment and fright will lessen. Right now I am being washed clean and wrung out. The fact that I once thought I knew what life was about would make me laugh, if I could laugh. All my former certainties lie exposed. I remember fighting stubbornly to prove myself right about things, and believing that I was right. I recall everything I took for granted. What was that, that life I was leading? Behind the facade, behind the image of the person I thought myself to be, is there a truth worth knowing? How many things were never seen never guessed? What have I missed? A small clarity arises. I was not the center, even though I felt that way. I was not the center. The small story of my life was not the point. It left so much unborn. (pp. 13-14)

Through her narrative she also introduced a lovely new poet to me, Dorothy Walters. Here is her poem that shines light on this cycle of remembering and forgetting.

Taken

~ Dorothy Walters

First, you must let your heart
be broken open
in a way you have never
felt before,
cannot imagine.

You will
not know if what you are
feeling
is anguish or joy,
something predestined
or merely old wounds
flowing once more,
reminders of all that is
unfinished in your life.

Something will flood into
your chest
like air sweetened by
desert honeysuckle,
love that is too
strong.

You will stand there,
very still,
not seeing what this is.
Later, you will not remember
any of this
until the next time
when you will say,
yes, yes, I have known this before,
it has come again,
just as your eyes fold under
once more.

As I lived with the poem and began to digest its meaning I read further. I came upon these simple words and an image that reflected both my morning insights and the poet’s message. I could hardly believe the words I was reading.

We all hide our eyes when we enter the light after being in a dark space for a long time.  The change is powerful. We struggle because it is more familiar to relater to the idea of things than to relate to the things themselves. (p. 100)

Here is the link to hear the full Inquiry session associated with this post.

Growing Up and Waking Up Presentation

This post is a pointer to a new set of video links to a presentation I did for the Mind and Science Foundation a few years ago. The presentation is divided into 9 segments and are all linked on my website Teaching page. I was speaking to a large lay audience but I was representing an important scientific organization. I did my best to bridge there two worlds and to speak for the kinds of work that goes into the double helix of human maturing—growing up and waking up. I hope you enjoy the talk. [Below is a screen shot from the first video but is not a live link. Please go to my website to find the links to the videos]

Hakomi and Zen

In 1993 I traveled to Esalen along the Big Sur coast of California to attend my first workshop with Ron Kurtz. My friends and colleagues with whom I was traveling had all heard about Hakomi and we were interested in spending time with the creator. We were particularly intrigued by the name of the new workshop he was offering: “Loving Presence.” The workshop turned out to be life altering. Ron was just beginning to reframe the way he was teaching the Hakomi Method and Loving Presence was clearly included it’s fundamental practices.

At this same workshop I met a young man who had just returned from a time in residence at Green Gulch Farm, the rural practice center of the San Francisco Zen Center. He had been part of the Fall Practice Period at Green Gulch and had gotten a lot from it. I was not only new to Ron’s work, I was new to Zen. I asked, “What is a Practice Period?” From that question and his generous response my life’s direction shifted.

These two simultaneous and serendipitous events led to my signing up for a three-year training in Hakomi that Ron announced at this workshop at Esalen. He called this special residential training sequence to be held in a forest retreat center in Oregon, “Psychotherapy as Spiritual Practice.” Over the following three years I began training with Ron and also began training as a student with my Zen teacher Zenkei Blanche Hartman at Zen Center. These two threads, Hakomi and Zen, began weaving together that December to form the key ways I teach and work with people today.

Earlier this year I was invited to participate in the Hakomi Global Summit, an online conference featuring some of the best teachers of the Hakomi Method. I recorded the interview a few months ago with Manuela Mischke-Reeds, a wonderful Hakomi trainer and Buddhist practitioner herself. You can find the interview by following the link below. I hope you find it useful.

Link to Flint’s Hakomi Global Summit interview

P.S. During my original three year training in the early ’90’s I met a woman who was on the training team for the very first time. Her name was Donna Martin. Over the past 20 years she has become a tremendous influence in my life, a wonderful teaching partner, and a best friend. I am so blessed to have her in my life and to able to co-lead Hakomi events around the world with a woman I believe Ron thought of as his closest student and most talented successor (my opinion!). She is also featured in the Global Summit and we are shown here at Hui Ho’olana where we teach in Hawaii.

flintdonnacolor_2

Be gracious and raise yourself up

I chose Psalm 57 as the next verse in our sequence because it deepens the previous “Koan of You.” There is a tension between the powerfully gentle first line—“Be gracious, Be gracious, Be gracious” and the fierce voice speaking in response—“Raise yourself up and blaze out over all the body of the earth!”. There is so much to be said and learnt by moving through this poem line-by-line, additionally I offer another voice—that of the 14th century Tibetan sage Longchenpa in his “You are the Eyes of the World”. In this companion piece, the speaker takes the first-person voice (“Me”) and yet seems to be calling out to and from the same space as the Psalm.

Read them several times together. Enter the conversation through your body. Copy each by hand—write them out—and feel the echo of this evolving koan. Who is “You?” Who is “Me?” How do these two faces of the “One” reveal themselves?

In the Psalm we hear about taking refuge, a confident kindness, deep love, the temptations of fear and chaos, the unwavering movement of karma, the powerful resolve of “live fully”, and the return to the center through practice. Be gracious and blaze out! What a beautiful and complicated space this opens.

In Longchenpa’s words, we are reminded that we are this infinite space, that inconceivable heart and mind, the essential functioning of “Me” and “You” in human form. Remember who you are! Shine forth, raise up, blaze out, and sing.

Psalm 57

Norman Fischer translation

Be gracious, Be gracious, Be gracious
For my soul flies out to your protection
Flies up to the refuge of your wings
Until this anguish passes

I call on you, my guide
Confident of your kindness to me
You who swirls out from the center
And penetrates me with your love
Thought the one who wants to swallow me up
Utters curses and accusations
Your faithfulness will still them all

I am in the company of lions by day
At night I lie down in flames
Their teeth are spears and arrows
Their tongues a sharpened blade

Raise yourself up and blaze out over all the body of earth!

They prepared a net to ensnare my foot—
I was almost caught
They dug a pit for me—
But they fell into it

My heart is firm, my heart is firm, my heart is firm
I sing it, I cant it, I pluck it on the lyre
Awake, my soul!
Awake, harp and psaltry!
I will wake up the dawn with my song!
I will go our among the people with my chanting!
I will rouse the nations with my plating!

For your kindness swirls about the entire center
And your truth reaches as far as the empty sky.

Raise yourself up and blaze out over all the body of earth!

You Are the Eyes of the World

Longchenpa (1308–1364)

All that is has me—universal creativity, pure and total presence—as its root.
How things appear is my being.
How things arise is my manifestation.
Sounds and words heard are my messages expressed in sounds and words.
All the capacities, forms, and pristine awareness of the buddhas;
The bodies of sentient beings, their habituations, and so forth;
All environments and the inhabitants, life forms, and experiences;
are the primordial state of pure and total presence.

Without understanding me, the creativity of the universe,
But understanding phenomena that I manifest,
You perceive everything dualistically due to your attachment to longing.
Impermanent, apparitional things will fade away.
they are aimless, like a blind man.

All that is experienced and
Your own mind are the unique primordial reality.
They cannot be conceptualized according to cause and effect systems of thought.
Investigate your mind’s real nature
So that your pure and total presence will actually shine forth.

Ptown Sunset

Coming out from enclosure

This is my final reflection in this four-part series on the Psalms. Having begun with my own longing for consolation, comfort, and contentment (Psalm 23), I was confronted with an unexpected question: “Who am I calling to? Who or what is this ‘You’ to whom I call on with such anguish and hope?” (Psalm 46). As I’ve explored my own identity with the Universal or the divine through meditation and prayer, I did find myself comforted—met and heard—even when my feelings did not resolve. I was consoled IN my feelings, not relieved of them. I found I was being called to meet life as it is, to rise up and come forward wholeheartedly and graciously no matter how I was feeling (Psalm 57).

In this final Psalm I could hear an echo of the signature teaching of Zen formed as a question: “Can you simply be yourself wholeheartedly?” In this Psalm I could hear the song of gratitude for being brought “out from enclosure.” When I can step beyond my conditioning and the habits of reactivity I have the opportunity to awaken from the “self-centered dream” and realize the freedom that comes from having remained faithful to my most troubling and compelling questions. With an equal measure of joy and tears I discover again and again the nourishment I hoped for as I called out for comfort in Psalm 23. As my heart opens to others, I can both give and receive the essential nourishment of life. As I open, I spill out my pain and through the same opening I am able to drink from the kindness around me like “water in an arid land.”

Psalm 126

Norman Fischer version

When you bring us out from enclosure
We will be like dreamers
Our heads thrown back with laughter
Our throats vibrating with song
And the others will say

Yes
Great happenings
Have happened to them
The ones who have struggled
Long with their questions

Yes
Great things would have happened to us
And we would be dizzy with the joy of them
Drunk on water in an arid land
Our tears our joy’s seed
We’d go out weeping
And come back singing
Our arms full of sheaves

Then, like a silent messenger, the following quote from Mark Nepo arrived by email, deepening the message of Psalm 126 and the path to profound self-acceptance. I had to be reminded that I will forget all of this. That my commitment is to remember over and over, not to cling to what is remembered. I must discipline myself to taking my time, to learn to soften into strength, and to craft a particular kind of space for the inevitability of fear. This space is for surrender—to life as it is, to the the way we need each other profoundly, and to the endless beauty of loss and love.

Most of our searching is looking for ways to discover who we really are. Thus, we continually run into mountains and rivers, into the farthest seas, and into the arms of strangers. And some of us lead simple lives hoping to practice how not to forget. But, part of our journey is this forgetting and remembering.

So what can we do? Well, it is no secret that slowness remembers and hurry forgets. That softness remembers and hardness forgets. That surrender remembers and fear forgets.

It is beautifully difficult to remember who we really are. But each time we help each other fill the cup of truth and hold each other up after drinking it, we find the essence that always holds us.

~ Mark Nepo

Leaving Oahu

The Koan of “You”

One of the central organizing principles of teaching at Appamada is that the dharma is, most deeply and fully, an expression of relationship. In his introduction to Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms, Norman Fischer speaks to the centrality of this insight:

“Although our lives are located in our hearts and minds, they are also located, perhaps most poignantly, in the space between us.”

He also speaks about the elegant treatment of this theme by Martin Buber in his classic, I and Thou:

“For Buber, there is no God, no absolute, no present moment outside the profound relationship that takes place between the I and the you, between the self and the other. Within the hallowed reaches of that ineffable experience (which is not an experience, Buber insists) our true self takes place. Relationship is the theme of the Psalms—specifically that most difficult of all relationships, the relationship with God.” (p.. xviii – xix)

Of course, in Zen practice and in all of Buddhism, “God” can be a problem, or at least a sticking point for some people. Norman continues in addressing this concern:

“For many of the religious seekers I have encountered, the word God has been all but emptied of its spiritual power. Even when it is taken in its most positive light it seems often reduced and tamed, representing some sort of circumscribed notion of holiness or morality. For me, what is challenging about “God” is exactly that it is so emotional, metaphysically emotional. The relationship with God that is charted out in the Psalms is a stormy one, codependent, passionate, confusing, loyal, petulant, sometimes even manipulative. I wanted to find a way to approach these poems so as to emphasize this relational aspect, while avoiding the major distracting pitfalls that words like God, King, Lord and so on create. My solution was simple. I decided to avoid whenever I could all these words and instead use the one English word that best evokes the feeling of relationship, the word you.” (p. xix – xx)

This is a stunningly simple and potent choice. In doing so he transforms “You” into a koan rather than as a someone or something to be known. Suddenly we are forced to confront the central question: “Who or what is this You?” A few last lines from Norman’s Introduction:

“With human consciousness, with language, the perfect silence is necessarily broken as we call out with words to one without a name or location, to all that immensity that surrounds us everywhere, inside us and outside us. The word you contains all that and includes all its sadness, intimacy, and power, for in the word you God becomes painfully close, utterly unreachable in his nearness.” (p. xxi)

At the heart of Inquiry we encounter the question, “Who am I? or What is This?” Relationally we also have to ask ourselves, “Who or what is the You being addressed in the Psalms?” Is it an external being, a universal energy or consciousness, our own deepest nature, or the ultimate, unknowable mystery? Might these all be different perspectives on the One? Reading Psalm 46 leads us deeper into this question.

Psalm 46

Norman Fischer version

You are our protection and strength
Help in the storm of anguish and despair
Exactly and easily found close at hand
So we are not afraid

Even when earth’s in upheaval
When mountains are carried to the sea
When the sea’s waters roar and foam
And the mountains quake and tremble with the water’s swelling—

In the middle of the world there is a river
Streams run into it, making glad your cities
Making glad the places where you are known
You flow as the waters of that river
And she shall not be moved
For you are with her
You are the morning that dawns over the quiet waters

Nations rage, kingdoms tumble—
What we see is all your doing
These desolations
These terrifying moments—
Only your unmoving movement—

You cause wars to cease when they cease, to cease forever
You break the bow, snap the spear
Burn up the war wagons

Be still—be still
And know me
Be still and know
That I am what the nations grope toward
I am earth’s desire

So we know you are with us
Our defense at the silent center of things

During extremely difficult times we long for “Help in the storm of anguish and despair—When the earth’s in upheaval—Nations rage, kingdoms tumble—we know you are with us.” How do we know? Who is it that is with us. Toward the end of the Psalm we hear the response and the injunction to practice: “Be still—be still/And know me/Be still and know/That I am what the nations grope for/I am earth’s desire.”

How do we come to know what is with us, always on our side, “our defense at the silent center of things”? Be still and know. This is the entry gate to the koan of “You.”

Koann of You

Consolation Comfort Contentment

Consolation Comfort Contentment

These three words—consolation, comfort, and contentment—do not frequently appear as part of the conventional language of Zen practice. Zen is more often seen as confrontational rather than consoling. Being attached to comfort is often named quite specifically as a barrier to meeting “life as it is,” and contentment is sometimes used as a description of loss of commitment or vitality in Zen practice. Yet, we all long to feel consoled by someone we trust, to be comforted in their warm embrace, and to rest in the contentment of safe harbor. These are wholesome human longings of the heart and the freedom that emerges through Zen practice does open us to these universal, peaceful-filled qualities. If this were not the case, I am not sure how I could have continued this practice for so many years.

As I was reflecting on my own powerful and painful longings for consolation, comfort, and contentment over the past few months, I happened to be listening to an interview with Norman Fischer (Everyday Zen: Changing and Bring Changed by the World) posted in the archives of The New School at Commonweal hosted by its founder, Michael Lerner. Norman spoke about how he had come to create his own versions of the Psalms, first as part of his personal practice and then as something to share with others. He quoted the well known 23rd Psalm in the interview and I was stunned to find it touching precisely those tender places I was yearning to be touched. I remembered that I owned a copy of Norman’s volume of Zen-inspired translations of the Psalms, Opening to You, so I took the slim volume from my bookshelf and began reading these ancient and complicated poems. Here is Norman’s version of Psalm 23:

Psalm 23
Norman Fischer translation

You are my shepherd, I am content
You lead me to rest in the sweet grasses
To lie down by the quiet waters
And I am refreshed

You lead me down the right path
The path that unwinds in the pattern of your name

And even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will not fear
For you are with me
Comforting me with your rod and your staff
Showing me each step

You prepare a table for me
In the midst of my adversity
And moisten my head with oil

Surely my cup is overflowing
And goodness and kindness will follow me
All the days of my life
And in the long days beyond
I will always live in your house

There is much more in the Inquiry recording, but here are a few notes and reflections.

The dictionary tells us that Consolation is “to offer comfort to someone in distress.” Spiritual friendship is a powerful source of consolation, but a kind of consolation that does not say, “Everything is going to be OK.” Instead, it is a consolation that suggests that “Everything will be what it will be, and we will be OK—together. I will be with you, and you with me, as we meet what comes with care.”

Contentment is “a state of peaceful happiness; not wishing for more.” Softening our continual grasping for more is at the core of Buddhist practice. But contentment is not just refusing what we want, it is a more positive embrace of what is possible. “I will be OK no matter what. I will not abandon myself and I will not abandon you. I am content knowing I will be OK no matter what.”

To offer Comfort is “to ease distress or suffering.” This is at the very heart of the Buddha’s practice. Understanding suffering and easing the distress of unnecessary suffering is the primary fruit of practice. To be free of distress or unnecessary suffering can be thought of as nirvanic moments. When we are free from the constraints of conditioning and not caught in reactivity shaped by conditioning, then we are free. The deepest understanding of this freedom tells us, “I am never apart from you.” Who is this “I” that is always on our side, that is always with us? Big Mind, Buddha Nature, Boundlessness, Universal Consciousness, or a deity (God)—all fit as responses to this question.

Investigate your own longing. Share your vulnerable longings with those you trust. Listen to the longings of others. Offer consolation and comfort to others and realize the deep contentment that opens in its own between you and a friend. Discover the path that unwinds as we open to each other.

C3

Touching contact

Sometimes there are no words. Lately I’ve found myself in a place of very quiet tenderness. It’s not that I am devoid of feeling. I feel a lot. Its not that words don’t ever come in response to a gentle request or a warm greeting by a friend. I simply feel no desire to lead with words. I want to look deeply and touch lightly. I want to be in intimate contact in whatever way is appropriate and to feel the trembling pulse of aliveness just under the skin of social activity.

I don’t have many words to offer now. In the Inquiry session that is linked to this brief post I acted in an unconventional manner. Rather than giving an introductory talk, I stood and walked among all the people in the room looking into people’s eyes and briefly making contact — a touch on the shoulder, meeting and outstretched hand, brushing by an arm or a leg. Touching contact. If you listen to the session you will hear the result. I hope you will take the time.

Quiet tenderness