One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck

Monday, February 22, 2021

Intimacy in the Temple Courtyard

Last night my friend Kumar asked me to share what I understood about “intimacy.” I immediately understood him to be talking about more than just a concept, or a feeling, or the interrelationship of the lines and colors in a design, or even an attribute of human love. One might be able to lay the concept of intimacy on feelings, or relationships, or even the elements of design, and still miss the point.

I love Kumar deeply, and know that he is going through a kind of creative crisis as he formulates the final project for his degree at a prestigious design college. My immediate instinct is to help him in any way I can, but know all too well that he is the creative genius and source of his own inspiration. Trying to be helpful might just block him. I might be able to point in a direction or share my own experience, but I cannot cancel the dilemma. 

I mumbled something about my experience of intimacy being connected to my meditation practice. “Yes,” he said, “I’ve heard that meditation is connected. Can you tell me more?” He’s a young man with different sleep needs, so I begged off and said good night.

When I woke up, I found my mind flooded with memories of that period when I was trying to solve my first zen koan in the meditation hall. I can’t count the times that Aitken Roshi would try to soften the blow of my frustration and disappointment of a failed response with his gentle pointer: “Not intimate enough.” It became like my mantra that I would carry back to the meditation hall. If I tried to forge a “est” business-like plan to achieve deeper intimacy, of course that didn’t help, but it didn’t stop me. When I tried to figure out what “Intimacy” really meant linguistically, that was not much help either. Recalling instances of deep intimacy, usually sexual, lead into the deep thicket of regret and failed relationships. A feeling of intimacy, or a memory of that feeling, was not the key I needed. 

I've spent long hours in the meditation hall. Oftentimes it’s felt like a long tough haul with very few rewards. But somehow I was able to keep sitting. When I learned that sometimes, or often, or perhaps all the time, seeking the rewards of discovery actually stands in the way of practice, it helped enormously. The reinforcement of an opening is usually such a surprise, so rare and hard won, it’s almost like an archeological excavation on Mars digging for the lost continent of Atlantis. If handled well, as for example Doris Lessing writing about the Representative of Planet 8, it might bear fruit. But this is not for mere mortals. We have to deal with what we’re given, and eventually I did have a profound insight into what I have been given which perhaps I will talk about at more length another time.

But it’s the exploration of intimacy, with no agenda, that I want to pursue.

Sometimes, actually often, these few words, “Not intimate enough,” kept coming back, a deep refrain in all my meditation. And they still do.

I’ll turn to another koan (Case 37, Mumonkan): “The Chestnut tree in the Temple Courtyard,” “庭前柏樹子.” 

A monk asked: "Compared to what was the intent of the ancestral founder coming from the west?”

Joshu (Zhou) said, "In front of the hall, a cypress tree.”

I was at the Angela Center in Santa Rosa for a long sesshin. I can’t recall if I was having an easy time or experiencing a lot of pain in my meditation, that really doesn’t matter, but I do remember exactly where my seat was, back in the far northeast corner of the hall, far from the offering table with the Buddha’s statue but right next to the main door. I had gone into Tarrant Roshi’s room twice a day, and my response became clearer and clearer. I will not speak of any “correct answer” or give away something about time honored practice, but after I responded, he just nodded and asked if I was ready to move on. Something inside said no, that there was more there for me to experience. A koan can keep lots of mysteries locked up inside.

So I went back to my seat. After dinner on the third or fourth night, we sat another long period of meditation and then the usual closing ritual. In that moment my mind was having a lot of difficulty staying tightly focused, something that I usually enjoy during long periods, I thought, well it’s the end of the day, why don’t I give myself a wide open field?

Suddenly I was back at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor attending the opening of an exhibit that honored a gift of a wonderful collection of illustrated books to the Museum’s collection by Reva and David Logan, parents of my friend Jon Logan. I was wandering through a series of small rooms, every now and then edging my way through to the front of the crowd to catch a glimpse of a wonderful illustration. The collection was rich. A sampling: 
Joan Miró’s À toute épreuve by Paul Éluard, Pablo Picasso’s Le Chant des morts by Pierre Reverdy, El Lissitzky’s Dlia Golosa by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Umbra Vitae by Georg Heym.  But the attention required to make out intricate designs on relatively small book pages induced a kind of narrow, tight focus. 

I rounded a corner and had to look down to pay attention to the few short steps into the main hall, but when I looked up, in front of me, an entire wall of Matisse’s paper cutouts. The onslaught of bright color and form took my breath away. These were not framed posters you bought at Ikea, not the lavish prints that I’d treated myself years ago at MOMA in New York, these were the actual shapes that Matisse himself cut out and arranged on larger pieces of paper when his hands could no longer hold his brushes steadily enough to paint. There he was, an old man, holding his pencil taped on the end of a long stick to etch the lines of leaves, slowly, carefully, but freely, with the skill and care of a practice that traced back hundreds and hundreds of years. I had traced back their root to that legendary tree in the temple courtyard.

It was of course a kind of illusion, what zen meditators call makyō, and usually something to be handled with caution, like dreams. John was just leaving the hall after the service, and I reached out and touched his shoulder. He grabbed my hand, and we returned to his interview room. He asked me what had happened, and I blurted out a bunch of words. Then he asked me to show him the chestnut tree in the temple courtyard, and yes, really, there it was.

Thank you M. Henri Matisse for getting so intimate with your colored paper, your pencil and your scissors. Thank you David and Reva Logan for your generosity. Thank you Bob Aitken for just pointing to where I might find intimacy, Joshu for pointing to the chestnut tree, and John Tarrant for grabbing my hand as I was about to wander off. And thank you Kumar Abhishek for asking me about intimacy and then letting me fall asleep in your arms. May you shape your design faithfully, lightly and freely.

Words cannot describe everything.
The heart's message cannot be delivered in words.


Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Case 5 of the Mumonkan and Step 1


Case 5 of the Mumonkan

Mumon, Wu-men Hui-hai (無門慧開), the Chinese Ch’an Master says, "If you can respond to this dilemma properly, you give life to those who have been dead and kill those who have been alive." 

Here is Case 5, "Hsiang-yen: Up Tree." 

The priest Hsiang-yen said, "It is as though you were up in a tree, hanging from a branch with your teeth. Your hands and feet can't touch any branch. Someone appears beneath the tree and asks, `What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?'”

If you do not answer, you evade your responsibility. If you do answer, you lose your life. What do you do?"


It has been at least 6 years since I took up the case. I told another story about Hsiang-yen in a piece I wrote about a difficult and wonderful conversation that I had with my mother a few months before she died ("The Gift of Tears"). Hsiang-yen must have been an immensely gifted teacher if he continues to inspire others to be honest and human more than a thousand years after his death.

Today I find myself totally swept up in the hanging man's dilemma as I begin to re-work Step 1 of the 12 Steps. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous puts the first step in simple, straightforward language: "I admit that I am powerless over [alcohol, drugs, food, sex]—that my life has become unmanageable." It's just the first step on a journey, and there is a story connected with my personal surrender.

Even if I'd never heard of Bodhidharma, there are questions in my life that I can't evade—my life depends on my answer. It might not be entirely clear to a 21st century reader that the question about Bodhidharma coming to the West carries enormous weight for anyone practicing with a Zen master. My answer unlocks the wonder of practice and the Buddha Way.

At my first 12 Step meeting, when asked "are there other alcoholics/addicts present?" I automatically said, "yes." I didn't grasp that the question was a life or death issue, that it carried all the weight of the person hanging by his or her teeth. I certainly didn't realize that it would turn my world upside down. I was about to learn that answering it truthfully meant that I was about to lose a life I'd become comfortable with, a life of deception I loved in a weird perverted way. I'd learned to talk my way around my addiction so well that I even believed its lies.

I had been practicing meditation for decades, but I missed the immediacy and urgency in that question—right now, right here, people in this room were suffering real biological and psychological effects of drug and alcohol abuse. If I'd been paying closer attention, it might have been easier to see the delusions I'd have to give up, and admit that I'd lost control of my life which is the baseline for any real conversation about sobriety. Another question follows an honest yes: could I examine the roots of my addiction clearly and move beyond denial? My sponsor was very direct, “Cut the bullshit and get real.” We all need real friends we can talk with, men and women who leave any pretense at the door.

Both the spirituality of the Big Book and Zen, I think, start from the same place: what in my experience got me stuck? It’s my dilemma, not the person on the cushion next to me, or the homeless guy stinking of urine on the bus that I can’t move away from. In zen I am never asked to believe anything outside my own experience, not even for a split second.

What transformed this question for me from an intellectual consideration about the nature of addiction and alcoholism to one with all the force of Bodhidharma's coming to the west and facing the wall for 9 years in meditation? My roommate committed suicide, and I found myself hanging from the branch by the skin of my teeth.

I came home to discover my roommate's bloated body dead for at least three days. Just the smell of the house was overwhelming. The shock sent me spinning emotionally and psychologically. The police and medical examiners suggested that I call a friend. The man I called came right over, put an arm around my shoulder and listened without any judgment to whatever came out of my mouth as they carried Dean's body down the stairs. 

My response was to lapse into an uncontrolled rage of using drugs and drinking. As I look back over those few days and weeks, Ash proved the depth of his friendship even more: he wouldn't allow me to play the victim, "Oh you poor guy, how horrible!" or indulge any self importance or fake heroism to let myself off the hook. He told me that even if I was just a guy who happened to be standing by when a tragedy unfolded, I still had to clean up the mess before I could move on. I had no other choice if I was going to choose life. He encouraged me to face the circumstances without drama, and get it done. And he took me to a meeting. Friends don't get any better.

A long meditation practice follows me into the 12-step work, not as baggage but as a friend. When I listen to someone in one of the rooms coming to terms with the concept of a Higher Power, having been told that his or her program depends on acknowledgment and surrender to Something greater than the self, I can only admire the struggle and right-mindedness of their effort. My own experience was very similar. At some point the practice of meditation, or maybe just growing older with more life experience, I dismantled most of the conceptual notions I had believed and put my trust in, but what replaced it was a far more intimate sense of how I am, at the core of my being, connected to the profound inner-workings of the universe.

And even though my own inner experience started to become clear only after long hours on the meditation cushion, I know that this path is open to anyone, even in a blink of an eye. So meditate. Just do it.

The instructions to enter the koan’s world are really quite simple: Sit down, straighten out my spine so that I can stay awake and alert, focus on my breath, pay attention. That’s enough meditation instruction to get started. Then as I settle in, if I choose, I can get real about how I respond to Hsiang-yen’s question, what do you do when you're hanging from a branch by your teeth? My life depends on my answer, where really, no kidding, I'm going to fall into an abyss when I open my mouth. I don’t believe anything, not even for a split second, that I have not experienced myself, but I have also come to trust, thanks to my teachers and my own experience, that the koan will shake an honest answer loose.

Perhaps our answer allows us to simply fall into the unknown and follow the example of the trees' own leaves in the Fall. Thank you, Lucille Clifton, for the capping verse:

The Lesson Of The Falling Leaves

the leaves believe

such letting go is love

such love is faith

such faith is grace

such grace is god

i agree with the leaves

Friday, November 6, 2020

"Mindfulness is Not a Part-Time Job," a talk by Issan Dorsey

A Dharma talk given by Issan Dorsey Roshi
Originally posted on 1/13/2012

This transcript appeared in the newsletter of the Gay Buddhist Fellowship in January of 1995, four years and five months after his death from AIDS.

From Allen Ginsberg's collection
Someone said to me the other day, “Aren’t you always working on something?” Yes, we are always working on something, but hopefully it’s not up here in our heads, filled with words to obscure it. I was talking with a friend recently about the phrase, “coming to reside in your breath-mind,” and working with the phrase, and how useful it is to me. I thought it was interesting that I’d never really heard it before, and was just now beginning to work with it. I realized that I actually just heard it deeply.

This has been with me since I first started practicing. It’s a whole way of working with your mind—and I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately. I hope you won’t have to wait for 20 years before you begin to hear how to work with this thing called mind in [your] zazen meditation.

Now, people who come to practice, immediately sit much easier than they did when I first began to sit at Sokoji Temple years ago. I remember everyone sitting with their legs bent up. They’d sit for five minutes, then they’d lie down and moan. But now people come and it’s like we already did that part for them. It’s as if we have a shared body that has already gone through that preliminary stuff, and people are already able to experience some aspect of zazen practice and how we practice together.

We have to be willing to explore and experiment. First we have to have a sense of humor and a willingness to explore and experiment with our lives and our uncomfortableness. We know that sometimes we can sit for a few minutes, or even a few days, and at some point it gets pretty uncomfortable, and it’s uncomfortable for us not to invite our thoughts to tea, and reside in our breath-mind.

“Don’t invite your thoughts to tea” is an expression of Suzuki-roshi’s which I’ve always found useful. You know these are just words, and we have to remember that every human concept is just delusion. Still, we use words and provisionally talk about our experience. Lately I have been exploring this way of thinking with a friend who has AIDS dementia; the virus is living in his brain. I’m thinking and working on it and talking with him about it because the virus that is attacking so many of us now ends up being in the brain. So is there some way for us to experience that? I don’t know yet. My question is: how to be with people who have dementia and how to experience the dementia that we all have anyway? It’s called delusion. Mind is always creating confusion, joy and pain, like and don’t like, and depression. But there is also a “background mind.” That is what my friend and I have been discussing.

Sometimes when I’m talking about uncomfortableness, I talk about the five fears. One of the five fears is the fear of unusual states of mind. How can we come to have appreciation and respect for this fear and not just some resistance, so that we can enter our fear, allowing these new areas of uncomfortableness? When we can enter each of these new spaces, we can begin to look at truthfulness.

Why do we have to sit? Really there’s no reason to sit. If we’re completely sincere, then there’s no reason to sit. I’m not completely sincere so I have to keep sitting to check. Even if we’re involved with unskillful actions, the one quality we should strive for is truthfulness. Truthfulness takes a total commitment to see all aspects of ourselves and our unskillfulness. If we can embrace the totality of ourselves, we can embrace the totality of others and of the world. Our tendency is to think about things before we do them. Even when we see a beautiful flower, we say, “Oh what a beautiful flower.” “Beautiful flower” is extra. Just look at the flower with no trace.

Suzuki-roshi wrote, “When we practice zazen, our mind is calm and quite simple. But usually our mind is very busy and complicated, and it is difficult to be concentrating on what are doing.” This is because when we act, we think, and this thinking leaves some trace. Our activity is shadowed by some preconceived idea. The traces and notions make our mind very complicated. When we do something with a simple, clear mind, we have no shadows and our activity is strong and straightforward.

So, even with zazen practice, it gets so complicated. We’re dissecting every aspect of what’s going on, reviewing and comparing. How do we keep it simple and straightforward? How do we come to know this basic truth of practice and Buddhism? The teaching and the rules can and should change according to the situation and the people we’re practicing with, but the secret of practice cannot be changed. It’s always truth.

We teach ourselves and encourage ourselves by creating this space, the meditation hall, so we can begin looking at our mind. “Don’t invite your thoughts to tea.” “Where is your breath-mind?” I used to say, allow this kind of mind to arise. But now I’m saying create background-mind.

This practice is simple: watch your breaths and don’t invite your thoughts to tea. But not inviting your thoughts to tea doesn’t mean to get rid of thinking. That is discrimination. So, there’s no reason to get rid of thoughts, but rather to have some blank, non-interfering relationship with them. Don’t make your mind blank, but rather have some blank relationship with the thoughts. Begin to see the space behind and around the thoughts, and shift the seat of your identity out of your thoughts and come to reside in your breath-mind. We develop our intention to reside in our breath-mind by first bringing our intention to “breath as mind,” and then by shifting the seat of our identity from our thoughts to our breath.

This all ties in with how we use this space, this laboratory. We should have a willingness to explore with our lives, and this is our laboratory right here—how we use the meditation hall and how we use what happens outside of it. Mindfulness is not a part time job.

If you want to see more about the life and teaching of this remarkable man, please visit my page: "The Record of Issan."

Thursday, October 29, 2020

"The Three Key B’s of Buddhism: Bowing, Boring and Bliss," by Phil Whalen & Ken Ireland

Phil with Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman at Naropa

Bowing, Boring and Bliss

I recall a talk about “Bowing” by Zenshin Phil Whalen at the Hartford Street Zen Center. Damn I loved his talks. He was without a doubt one of the most literate men ever to don the robes of a Zen priest anywhere, at any time. And if you want to challenge me, I’ll be suiting up on the Dalai Lama’s debate ground up here in McLeod Ganj. 

But first things firstI was going to try to record the talk, but was my usual bumbling-self with electronic equipment, and couldn’t get the machine working in good time. Being his usual patient-self, he yelled at me, saying that we didn’t have all day and, anyway some things were just not meant to be recorded. Sometimes words are purposefully impermanent. It was not like he was going to recite some goddamn hidden, secret sutra for the last time before he croaked.

So I lost the talk, but I am going to do my best to reconstruct it from the basic “B’s” as I remember them.

He began by saying that if he really wanted to write a bestseller, his publisher would insist that he come up with a title like the “The 10 Recondite Rules for Clean Buddhist Living” or something like that. So let’s give it a try: “The Three Key B’s of Buddhism, Bowing Boredom and Bliss.”  Perhaps Phil’s publisher was onto something. More than 20 years have passed, and I still remember long sections of his talk (it’s also true that as with many teachers, he returned again and again to his favorite topics like an old horse headed back to the barn).

When he was in Japan, in the monasteries and temples there, everyone bowed three times. People just always bowed three times. But for those who couldn’t count, he said, before he just sat down to begin his talk, he bowed nine times. We all bow nine times at Zen Center, why is that? Well he said, when the first students began to gather around Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco, they went to him one day and complained, “Roshi we love you but we’re Americans and we don’t like all this bowing. We don’t understand it. So why are we doing it?” And the Roshi said with a smile, “Oh so you don't like bowing three times? Good. Perfect. I think we should bow nine times. Better that way, More practice.”

So we bow nine times. Better that way. Practice.

Phil then told an anecdotal story about some legendary old Japanese teacher way out in the middle-of-nowhere backcountry who was revered for the callous on his forehead. He explained himself: one of his first teachers had scolded him for being stubborn and told him bowing would be a good practice. So he began bowing. He never stopped. He discovered that the body is stubborn and the mind is stubborn. He said that he would stop when he stopped being stubborn. So he just kept bowing and thus the calloused forehead. In one way or another, we’re all like that.

Then he said that Zen students actually have it very easy. In Tibet all the new monks bow 100,000 times before they do anything. It’s called Ngondro, and it involves the whole body, not just your forehead, hands, arms, knees and feet touching the floor but your whole body flat out, like you were a swimming fish, and it’s so strenuous that it takes a lot of effort to reel back and bounce back up. Do that a hundred thousand times. I’m told that it’s a purifying exercise. But it’s not done with some idea of repentance like Christian pilgrims bowing every three feet along the Camino de Santiago. It’s done because we practice meditation with every bit of ourselves, wholeheartedly, fully, without reservation, holding nothing back. 

And then he said that anyone who’s lived in Asia knows that bowing is just good manners. It’s a sign of respect. You tilt your body down, your eyes are not focused on the face of the person you’re greeting, your whole body is lower. Of course you’re going to bow lower to a king or abbot. There’s a whole book of bowing etiquette: you bow very slightly to someone who’s your equal, but your bow is lower when you greet your parent or someone who’s older out of respect. That’s why we bow to our teachers in a formal situation. We’re showing respect and love. And we show it by using our whole body and mind. Our mind bows down, and for maybe an instant, we’re slightly less arrogant. We have to throw every bit of being into the bow.

But the most important thing, and here is a place where I actually have Phil’s own words, from his notebooks from Tassajara, we have to make it our own. In the rule infested monastery or practice center, we ask ourselves are we “bowing to rules rather than using them? We must contrive to be Buddhas & patriarchs rather than students who are good at following schedules (and bowing).”

But you’ll notice, he said, we follow a certain order in the zendowe bow to the cushion, then everyone else in the room, and we sit. How strange, bowing to the cushion. We’re not bowing to a Buddha, or a person. You can think of it anyway you want to. Sometimes I like to  think that I am bowing to the practice, but that is really way too abstract. Sometimes I do it just automatically, without thinking much of anything. But in any case, we just do it. It’s probably not important what you think about.

Now we get to the B for boring.

We sit and almost immediately after we learn to sit with only slight discomfort and our bodies become both more relaxed and more alert, we get bored. We all have our own experiences, but I’ll tell the world, I get bored.

But then the mind, it’s like fiddling with a bungled up ball of twine, if you try to untangle it when you’re frustrated or angry, the knots are just going to get tighter. You’ll be looking for a knife (He laughed). I’ve pictured the mind as a bag of worms or a net of living anchovies. But you get the point, it’s a conundrum, it’s a mess. It may be filled with ghosts or paranoia or algebraic equations. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, it’s just there, all tangled up. 

So there’s this big mess of thread sitting in your mind, and you just begin to play with it, without much purpose, no rhyme or reason. You tug a bit here and notice a bit that’s a bit looser over there, but you’re relaxed and maybe you follow the thread to a knot that looks tight but on closer inspection, it loosens up and falls away. And maybe after a while there’s just a whole mess of lovely threads in front of you, and though you really don’t fully grasp how it happened, there it is.

Then the bell rings. 

I’ll end by quoting Mr. Robert Bly who tells us to follow our bliss. Of course Mr. James Campbell has also told us to follow our bliss, and he did it on the Public Television Station so it must be something worth doing. But I was watching Bly talk about it on the TV and found him quite interesting, if not persuasivebecause bliss is not something I can buy, like the gummy bears I get at the Walgreens. It’s just there. 

Some very fussy Buddhists might describe it as a fruit of meditation. If you hang out long enough, it’s just there because it’s always been there, but you wake up, or you open your eyes, or you open your heart. I’ll agree that it’s just there, and it really doesn’t matter how it got there. But this it does share with the gummy bears: when you taste it, you know that it’s a gummy bear.

And sometimes it might feel like something is lost in the process. Bly quoted a poem by Antonio Machado which I quite like.

The wind one brilliant day called to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

The wind said, “In return for the odor of my jasmine, I’d like all the odor of your roses. ”

[Machado said,] “I have no roses; all the flowers in my garden are dead … ”

The wind said, “Then, I’ll take the withered petals, and the yellow leaves, ”

and the wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself, “What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”

I think that’s enough for today. Keep bowing. Thank you.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Many Voices, a Note from Jon Joseph Roshi

by Jon Joseph Roshi

Jon has allowed me to repost his commentary on the koan "Little Jade." 

I will attest that the monsoon has finally let up. Thank you, Jon.

Nora Reza

A treasury official retired and came home to Sichuan where he sought out Wuzu to learn about Zen. Wuzu said, "When you were young, did you read a poem which went something like:


“She calls to her maid,

‘Little Jade!’

not because she wants something

but just so her lover will hear her voice."


The official said, "Yes, I read it."

Wuzu said, "That is very near to Zen."

   ~ PZI Miscellaneous Koans; Entangling Vines, Case 98, Notes


This is too rich a story-koan to leave its many parts unvisited, so I would like to sit with it again this week. The above exchange is deeply touching for me: a mistress of the house is calling to her lover through her maid, Little Jade. It is very near to Zen, says the teacher Wuzu. I have a warm memory of this koan, when a few years ago, at St Dorothy’s Rest, a moldering century-old building deep in a redwood forest, we were holding a week-long retreat. I walked into the kitchen to help with cooking, and found my retreat roommate, a former Jesuit novitiate, rooting and clanging through the industrial pots. He was calling out, “Little Jade! Little Jade! Where are you, Little Jade?” At that retreat, unbidden, he gave me a pair of new white socks, which I still have, though they now have holes in the toes.


It was all the more unsettling and heart rending, then, to read my Little-Jade friend’s recent blog posts on revisiting his first major love encounter as a gay man. What he thought was a friendship of growing mutual love and respect, turned out to be forced sex and rape, a pattern of emotional abuse that lasted for a quarter century. “I can find no silver lining in the story of my abusive relationship with B, but even if there were one, the relationship was so muddy that I don’t know where to begin to look,” begins his blog.


So how to resolve, for him, the many decades-long pain that recently revisited him? “It is my ghost,” he wrote me from Dharamshala, in India, where he now lives. An acquaintance of his and follower of the same psychic-spiritual school from those days, wrote that she herself was able to put her shadow behind her by “obliterating the traces of her parents’ negative influence" in a daily ritual of stamping out her family’s memories. She suggested my Little-Jade friend try the same. “Only time can judge its effectiveness,” my friend writes sardonically.


Last night I checked in with him via WhatsApp. McLeod Ganj, like all of India, is under stay-at-home orders; the dark downpour of the monsoon has not let up for weeks. “How are you doing?” I asked my Little-Jade friend, who is alone in his small apartment all day long. We talked about the dark nature of his posts, and laughed about Little Jade in the kitchen years ago. Despite the need, he felt, to write of his experience, he does know that “the Little Jade poem has been written more than once,” and that “it comes in more than one voice.” The variations of the Little Jade poem have allowed him to fall into some deeply satisfying love relationships in his life, he says. “I now write my own Little-Jade poem.”  I sent him Tony Hoagland’s piece, A Color of the Sky, one of my favorites (fragment below):


Last night I dreamed of X again.

like a stain on my subconscious sheets.

Years ago she penetrated me

but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,

I never got her out,

but now I’m glad.


I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.

I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.

What I thought was an injustice

turned out to be a color of the sky.


Perhaps the rain will let up soon. That would be very near to Zen.


P. S. Here are two links to the the writing Jon refers to: 

This Victim Refuses Silence

A Very Personal Question: Can I Forgive Bob Hoffman?

Monday, July 20, 2020

Ignatius and the "Discernment of Spirits" in a different light

McLeod Ganj, July 20, 2020

In a cave in northern Spain between 1522 and 1524, Ignatius of Loyola had a series of spiritual experiences that changed his life as well as created a spiritual revolution. As a direct result of his mystical awakening, he, along with 7 of his “companions,” went on to found the Society of Jesus. One of these men, Francis Xavier, came to India in 1542. His body is still venerated to this day in the basilica in Goa that bears his name.

If one thing stands out about the early exploits of the Jesuits, it is their decisive action which they attributed to following the plan that God had for them. To uncover God’s Will they used a spiritual technique that Ignatius developed in his retreat at Manresa: “The Discernment of Spirits.” 

Now that I’ve paid my respects to Father Ignatius, let me look at the actual process of what he called “The Discernment”  to see if there is a way for someone who does not hold to the religious tenets of Christianity to use his methodology--yes, even a person with a more rational mind set to access more information about his or her decision making process to come to a workable decision about a course of action. I suggest that using the methodology of Ignatius might allow us to listen to our deepest emotions without allowing them to hijack our decision making process.

Ignatius lays out two sets of 14 “rules” for making a choice. I have tried to remain faithful to the spirit of Ignatius while simplifying them. I’ve also bypassed Ignatius’s insistence on conformity with the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Ignatius invites us to weigh what he calls “Consolation” and “Desolation” regarding a specific course of action over a period of time. Ignatius believed that the forces of good and evil are at war inside you. They try to sway you. Our job in prayer is to observe the battle, to sort out the emotions and eventually to allow the correct decision to emerge.

I’ve used the word emotions here, and I think that discerning what our deepest emotions are telling us might be a useful way to look at what Ignatius calls “spirits.” Consolation indicates a feeling of peace and contentment, while desolation points to upset, even revulsion, perhaps even the feelings we might normally associate with depression. When we feel at peace, “consoled,” we are aware that we are on the right path, but when we feel uneasy, we sense that we are treading a path that leads to uncertainty or even harm, emotional or physical. 

However, our past experience has educated us, colored our emotions and conditioned us to behave in a certain way. We are aware of some of this conditioning but a great deal remains unconscious. A note of caution here: we are not engaging on a course of psychotherapy, and while it may be useful to uncover and deal with the emotional undercurrents of our past, I think that in ordinary circumstances, weighing what our emotions tell us about a course of action does not require this level of analysis. 

Allowing our deep emotional responses to inform our decision does however require a kind of detachment. And in order for this process to unfold, Ignatius recommends that we not jump into a major decision impulsively. Rather he would like us to weigh what I’m going to call our inner movements. Allowing our deepest emotional instincts to have a voice in our decision making, might be closer to what’s called in modern psychology “emotional intelligence.”

Let me give an example. Let’s suppose that I have a friend with whom I’m deeply in love. I think we can all agree that love is an extremely powerful emotion, one that can dictate our actions in both positive and negative ways. My friend tells me that he has to move to another city for a long period and that our relationship will have to endure that separation. This seems at first to be a circumstance beyond my personal control.

But suddenly the thought crosses my mind: I will just follow him or her. The motivation is love. What could possibly go wrong? Lots. But there’s also the possibility that the move might also open the gate to new rich experiences and a wonderful new side to our relationship.

So now let’s set aside some thoughtful time to “discern the spirits,” to weigh the emotional impulses that are driving the decision and see if we can sort them out. A lot of people would counsel “weighing the pro’s and con’s.” The process might include making lists with the both positive and negative consequences: shifting house, disruption of our normal daily routine, work and financial realities, readjusting close personal ties. Of course, make a list. Evaluate each possibility.

But Ignatius would, I think, ask us to take another step. Let’s say for the sake of the example, that most of the practical issues could be easily resolved, that the actual shifting were possible, that money would not be an issue, that family and friends support the decision, but we are still undecided. He would ask us to take the decision to prayer and seek a deeper answer. 

What might this look like, even for a non-religious person, who would like to explore the possibilities of the move in a deeper way? First we would formulate the proposition: “I will move to another city to be with this person I am in love with.” And then with our mind as quiet as possible, we allow the feelings and emotions to arise, without judging them. I cannot predict what might happen in an individual case, but let’s just take an obvious one: The overwhelming emotion is to simply pick up and move. But that’s followed by what seems to be an equally overwhelming fear that things might go wrong, that the added strain would distort my relationship and my friend would reject me. It’s possible. 

A series of emotions arise, and they are a jumble. But somehow, if we are able to neither reject or push them away, over a period of time, they begin to sort themselves, and the picture becomes more clear. Perhaps we decide to move, or perhaps we decide to stay, but in either case, it comes with much stronger determination that we have tapped a deep source of inner strength to follow through and take whatever steps are required to fulfill our plan.

I think that Father Ignatius would be pleased that his inspiration allowed us to open up new possibilities in our own life even if dismayed that we have decided to remain agnostic with regard to his theological claims.

Is life over when it’s over?

Ala n Wilson Watts (6 January 1915 – 16 November 1973) "Each one of us, not only human beings, but every leaf, every weed, exists in t...