or… Why I am still uncomfortable calling myself a Buddhist.

The past two mornings I’ve been hearing a nearby dog whine. Another bark. I haven’t been able to figure out where exactly it’s coming from. I’m wondering if the neighbor got a new dog who’s frightened to be alone during the day.

I went outside, but still can’t be sure where it’s coming from. The sound bounces around these houses so much when the air is this clear. It seems to be coming from everywhere at once.

Howling now. But Leonard is unperturbed. I figure he speaks dog language better than I do, so maybe it’s nothing to worry about. People, too, can bitch at the drop of a dime with little cause.

Storms in teacups and all that.

For some time now I’ve been listening to one teacher’s dharma talks. I like them because he refrains from homilies, and seems to favor consideration over dogma. He gives his interpretation of what is thought to be the words of Gautama Buddha, and often reminds the listener to ask themselves how it rings – or doesn’t ring – as true in one’s own life.

Yesterday in a talk, he interpreted a passage regarding the division between spiritual life and family life. For the first time I found myself disagreeing so strongly I began to question the foundation of the eight-fold path. I’m usually fine with contradictions in metaphors. I don’t think we are ever in a position to see the entire elephant, and that actually – a perfect metaphor that feels true from every perspective, would no longer be a metaphor and would become a kind of false dogma.

But here, the teacher pointed out that in order for one to “truly” follow a spiritual path one must leave one’s family. He said that if you chose family life you would be “behind” on your spiritual path and you would not actually be following the eight fold path.

There are times when I feel the crone in me rise in her mature glory. This was one of those times.

I once heard another Western teacher talk about how one of his gurus was cruel with him often – sarcastic and insulting. And this teacher explain that this was a good thing: the guru was teaching him in this way. My first thought even then was, yes, I suppose if you are a monk with no family (no siblings, no children, no acerbic aunts or creepy uncles), you might need someone to treat you poorly so you can learn to deal with it. Who needs family if you have a guru who makes you feel like sh*t?

When I read that the Dalai Lama has an acolyte sleep on the floor in his room in case he is thirsty in the night, I nearly wept. In his book An Open Heart he explains how much a devoted layperson should meditate each day. I was in my 40s then with two kids and a full-time job. Even with the privilege of having a responsible husband, it would have been nearly impossible for me to fit so many hours on a meditation cushion.

What about the single parents with multiple jobs? Because I don’t believe in reincarnation or a caste system, I reject entirely the notion that anything that is not a valid choice for everyone can be a tenable ethical- or spiritual imperative. I believe that to accept these ideas is egotistic, and at odds with the understanding that the self is an illusion.

The idea of “My spiritual path” seems at odds entirely with skillful intention. To relieve my suffering by avoiding what makes people suffer, is not skillful living. It’s avoidance.

This is the crone in me whose earned-wisdom will not be dismissed by people who do not have to sit in meeting rooms with colleagues, or negotiate bedtimes with children.

There are many paths and many teachers. And it’s not a friggin’ race anyway.

(Yeah, avoiding harsh words isn’t exactly my strong suit – being a teacher lets me work on that way every day.)


“Haaaaaa”: allowing that storm to settle. It’s a bit like reading tea leaves in the aftermath.

These slow mornings are a gift. The whole world is soft – even when soft means a difficult beach run. My feet sinking deeply into the sand.

A hard run on a soft morning.

There was duck at the very edge of the tide, so out-of-place there – and dying slowly.
Rolling slowly, helplessly, with the water.
It’s the kind of thing that stops you in your tracks.

When I run this beach I nearly always see dead birds: seagulls, swans. I used to take photos of them – my own memori morti practice, I think – until my sons told me I was being morbid.

But witnessing death as a fact of the immediate past is not the same as being present with death. Acknowledging that death is inevitable is an intellectual act.
Experiencing one’s helplessness in the presence of the death is a physical act.

I’ve not been at a person’s deathbed. I can only imagine. I’ve never heard anyone say they want to die alone.

I was with my border collie as she died. I held her. My body had something to do. I stroked her. Talked to her. My body was kept busy enough to vent some of my energy. My living body a comforting distraction for me, and I assumed it was providing a comfort to her.

But we are not able to be that intimate with nature. One cannot reach out and comfort a dying bird without causing more suffering.

Empathy can seem meaningless.

Death wasn’t taking her with sharp teeth, but rocking her back and forth in the cold water. Watching this duck in a coil of struggle and rest, I was overwhelmed by my own uselessness.

I looked down on the duck. And realized my body was casting a shadow over her. I moved to the side. I wondered if my presence was distressing the bird. I wondered if she was in pain, was frightened. I wondered if I should carry her up to the dunes. If a death there would be kinder than a death in the water, if my hands carrying her would shock her into a heart attack -and whether such a sudden death would be kinder.

Eventually Leonard’s curiosity was peaked, so I pulled him back alongside me and we continued on our run. On our way back, I kept nearer the dunes and saw two women then standing by the bird.

Helpless.

I don’t know how long they kept vigil until they, too, were perhaps overwhelmed by their uselessness, and perhaps found a reason to be “busy” again.

It was another 20 minutes back to the car. My thighs were tired, my jaw aching. Leonard lagged behind, his harness kept sliding up around his neck, cutting in behind his forelegs. I’d been running faster than usual.

Taking things slow is hard.
But taking things slowly makes the whole world softer.
I think that’s a good thing.
It’s a lesson in authenticity at the very least.

(If you have time – this is a beautiful film about what can happen when you aren’t too busy to take the time.)

https://aeon.co/videos/two-strangers-forge-a-surprising-connection-as-they-climb-a-steep-lisbon-street

Suffering is not enough. Life is both dreadful and wonderful…How can I smile when I am filled with so much sorrow? It is natural–you need to smile to your sorrow because you are more than your sorrow.
THICH NHAT HANH

If that is not the perfect definition of real “self-care”, what is?

So many years ago a therapist told me to imagine myself as a child, and to comfort her. It’s interesting to revisit this now. Back then, I was in the position of an older sister. And now – I’m old enough to be a grandmother to her, and the exercise is an entirely different experience.

It’s funny to notice how easily my attention turns back to my current self and my current “sorrows”. Even in the midst of the exercise: “Oh, but what child takes an old woman’s words seriously?”

But I do notice this happening, and I can smile at myself – at both the my sorrows and my silliness. I’m counting this as a sign of maturity, as well as proof that I am still gloriously fallible, i.e. human.

Tending to wounds becomes habitual. So habitual that we learn early how to make them ourselves, to serve our tending.

We cut ourselves down to be able to experience nurturing. Even if we are alone in nurturing ourselves.

And maybe this isn’t a wholly bad thing: maybe this is how we learn to recognize our better selves.

This morning I’m thinking I don’t want to lose this complex relationship with myself. I’m not ready to even aspire to be singular – as the wisest version of myself. It’s enough that I glimpse her now and then these days. I’m not ready to give up childishness entirely. What if that means an end to growing –

when I’ve so much still to learn?

Parkinson’s Law.

Tuesday mornings I have a late start at work, and when the alarm goes off at the usual time, and when E. isn’t here with his own obligations, I find myself negotiating with myself. My morning routine takes 2 and a half hours, and I start counting backwards to see if I can lie in bed another half hour.

The thing is, all this math wakes me up anyway but now I am in the wrong groove. It takes me a half hour to tie the bows on my running shoes. And because E. is offshore, I start my run from home and head to the lake: the first kilometer on the sidewalk, dogging sulky teenager, and mothers with their six-year-olds walking to school three-abreast, forcing me into the street.

It isn’t until I hit the trail that my breathing eases. It takes me even longer before I hear the birds. Even longer before I fall into a gentleness of spirit.

This morning I’ve been meditation on being less judgmental. “Haaaa”, I chant. And I imagine a storm in a teacup settling into a clear reflection of the real problem: my own thoughts in a teacup.


Everyone is talking about the documentary about the man and the octopus. But I spent the first hour focusing on how he managed to do all the filming himself, on the miracle of his having found this one octopus who lived an entire, heroically dramatic life cycle under his gaze. I started to wonder if anyone would know better had he pieced together footage of twenty octopuses to make a story. I wondered why the credits included two writers when the narrative film clips seem confessional.

I wondered why I am such a jerk.

Where is the middle way when it comes to questioning what we are told? Between unhelpful skepticism and unhelpful naivetè?

I suppose it is about the source from which the questions arise. Even knowing that I can sometimes be arbitrary for the sake of being arbitrary – looking for an opportunity to be oppositional – but that is still not the source of the impulse.

At this point in my life – self-analysis does little more than foster self-pity, self-loathing and shame… which sends me looking for a way to bolster my ego. Looking for the source of the need at this point seems like little more than justification and permissiveness. Fake spiritual work.

Maybe I need to come at it all from the other end. What – in the present tense – do I need to let go of?

Maybe all that matters is stopping to ask the question,
Is this helpful?

Or am I just throwing chum in the water to avoid my own discontent?


The blackbirds are singing in the driveway.
That should be enough for the next few minutes.
The sun is rising.

Ann E. Michael writes about practice. She’s been writing since she was 10, and though she’s lost the pages, she has the memories.

Sometimes I wonder if all these gaps in my life – the seasons lost from memory – have been lost exactly because I didn’t take the time to write them into being. There are long stretches where I wrote nothing, and there have also been long stretches of forced “morning pages” that went round and round each day, and I remember then my life going round and round in meaningless circles.

But I was present in those days – going round and round.

There were also seasons that I choose to identify as the authentic me – the person I long to get back to when I am feeling out-of-sorts. I have no objective basis for identifying these periods as the real me, and I am certain people who have known me do not see it that way, and quite possibly believe the authentic me is the anxious and odd one. But I have very few memories of her. She is not real to me. She is the warped-with-sickness me, the smudged and painful reflection of overwhelm, a torrent of noise.

Only the writing seasons are etched into my memories and – agreeing with Ann – this doesn’t mean these were seasons of well-crafted sentences, or of searing insight. They were nothing more than seasons of consciousness.

I am always pleased with the woman I write into being.

It is easier for me to make changes in my life when there are large shifts in circumstances. Two weeks ago I committed to a new and specific practice. Practice is something that reinforces itself. The psychological power of cycles: a day, a week, a season. A foot pushing the bicycle pedal down on the way up a hill. Momentum isn’t enough, but it still matters.

As a teacher, one of the first things I do – looking over my student’s shoulder at their screen – is scan their document and hit return again and again, separating the thoughts into paragraphs so I can take in their ideas in at a pace that allows me to find meaning. There are days when I wonder if my doing so – my providing white space – is actually imposing my meaning on their lives.

I guess this is what makes me a writer. This need to use writing as a tool for understanding the world. It has nothing to do with producing texts, or thinking deeply about everyday matters. It’s not about a gift at all, it’s simple a matter of which vehicle I require to navigate the world.

When one meditates, one experiences the consciousness that watches and interprets the “I” who is in a mood, whose knee aches, whose mind wanders. The “I outside the I” narrating an ego into existence.

New paragraph. Here is a transition. Here, something changes.