Like Words Together Reflections from the deep end of Practice.


Stumbling Towards Peace

So much for my National Poetry Month pledge. Ah well.

Red Gerbera Daisy - May 25, 2015 - Portland, Oregon

Creativity, writing or other artistic medium, has been distant this winter into spring. I'm also not really motivated to read much either. I was thinking this morning about the two kinds of shame that arise around this. First out of the gate comes the, "Why are you at your desk working on collage, polymer clay pieces, organizing, bead work, anything!?" That one is so obvious. I should be making an effort to spend time at my desk dedicated to my art. This is the way artists  become selling artists.

The more subtle voice of criticism is softer and hints at some colossal, irredeemable flaw in not wanting to be creative. To be perfectly content in this slow, fugue state and not desire to break out and make art seems like the biggest betrayal, failure of them all.

Which means that some days, still many days, I work a little (3 classes a week, moving up to 5 come June), try to take care of some household errands and/or chores, and nap. I still feel kind of amazed at just how much  I still nap and how an hour of therapy can throw me into a tailspin lasting for days. A particularly intense therapy session earlier this month has seen me back to nearly daily naps, many over 2-3 hours.

What finally occurred to me on the 11th was that I'm angry. I left that therapy session angry, which was a far healthier response than the shame and body disgust I went in with. That said, I'm really at a loss when it comes to anger. A childhood of being disallowed the expression of any "negative emotions", anger, disrespecting elders, "talking smart", anything perceived or labeled as "back talk", etc. As a young child this was enforced through physical action followed by banishing me to my bedroom where I was also not to cry and carry on, lest I be "given something to cry about". As I grew older I would mostly just be banished. Cut off from contact aside from school attendance. The rest of the time I was in my room with the door closed, shutting me away.

What I realized now is that when I'm angry I tend to get in a gray, exhausted, demotiavted funk really quickly. This leads me to just go to bed and nap. I go somewhere quiet and try to wait it out. Which really worked for me growing up, but as an adult.... well it still works because I'm teaching and not working some stressful, full-time+ job in IT. However, I also get that the anger I feel at the abuses I survived is a pretty reasonable response.

And yet... there are my vows, particularly the Ninth Grave Precept which directs us to, "Actualize harmony. Do not be angry."

So I'm trying to find ways that let me acknowledge and reconcile the anger I feel, particularly my "inner, younger selves" that were so utterly denied any way to express anger at what was happening in the present moment. Ways to express the anger that are safe, measured, and do not bring further harm to myself or others. I'm brainstorming some "intuitive art" sessions where I just pick colors, textures, words, and images from my collage materials that the inner anger resonates with and, on the advice of my therapist and CK, I occasionally try yelling and screaming in the car.



Xenophobia is a great, big-points-in-Scrabble kind of word. Wictionary defines it thusly:


xenophobia (plural xenophobias)

  1. A fear of strangers or foreigners.
  2. A strong antipathy or aversion to strangers or foreigners.

The Seventh Grave Precept, one of the vows I received when I took refuge, provides us with clear direction about xenophobia:

Realize self and others as one. Do not elevate the self and blame others.

Mom & Mr. Murphy, January 2012

The past ten days have been a roller coaster, a Mom roller coaster. This time it is something entirely out of the realm of the usual conflicts and hurt between us. In some ways there's a rather painful familiarity to what's been happening, but for now I don't want to go into the details, although I will in time.

What I want to talk about is what happens when we do not realize the self and others as one. What happens and what we are capable of when we don't practice with the Seventh Grave Precept.

We truly see and hear about the consequences of seeing people as other every day. Wars, murder, sexual exploitation, ethnic violence, abuse, theft, and more all happen because one group of people sees another group as other and their xenophobia lets them justify all manners of horrifying behavior.

We also witness this when animals are treated as commodities to be tortured, killed, and consumed. We tell ourselves that animals don't feel the way we do, that their suffering isn't on par with ours so we find it acceptable to treat them horrifically. We justify laws that classify sentient beings as property and allow barbarous treatment of them to be classified as "animal agriculture".

The Seventh Grave Precept asks us to keep our hearts open to the compassion of the Buddhas. It tells us to never flinch away from taking responsibility for ourselves, never put ourselves above another being either by seeing them as other or through blaming them for our own poor choices. At every moment we look at another being knowing that they are absolutely the same, equal with ourselves.

The First Noble Truth reminds us that we all suffer. It is the human condition to suffer. In this, and in so many other ways, we're each of us exactly the same. We all long to be loved and seen for who we are. We fear the suffering of illness, injury, loss, and our inevitable deaths. Each and every moment we're all out there together with our worries, hopes, dreams, and desires.

The past 10 days have created a gulf between people who have tried, in their own flawed and human way, to love each other. There's been both discord and joy, misunderstanding and communion. There have been unexpected and grave illnesses. In the end my Mom was seen as other and experienced shocking treatment because of it.

It hurts a lot and I am mindful of an anger so keen that it leaves me feeling ashamed and overwhelmed.

In contrast to the negativity that comes from not practicing the Seventh Grave Precept, loving-kindness and compassion arise naturally. In response to the events of this past week I see the true compassion people have for one another. There have been so many people, some of them complete strangers, who've offered help, time, money, creative thinking, concern, and loving-kindness. People have been giving in so many unexpected ways. These kindnesses, both small and large, help me to remember to keep my heart open instead of closed in anger.


The Tenth Grave Precept

Experience the intimacy of things. Do not defile the Three Treasures.

I find the precepts to have moments of clarity, times where I think it they are obvious and then suddenly I'm finding layers of where I don't apply them. When I first sat with this precept my mind immediately jumped to insisting that I'd never "defile" the Three Treasures. That other bit though, experiencing intimacy...

The intimacy of the Dharma, that's part of what draws me to Buddhism. It isn't just some words written down by people hundreds of years after some guy said them. It is the collected teachings from the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, to the teachers we have now. Considering, applying wisdom and compassion, and most importantly to me, a growing, living thing. There is an approach with the Dharma that reminds me of the way a scientific theory is considered, tested, discussed, tested, and considered some more. If anything, I think I can too easily sink into isolated intimacy of the Dharma without ever touching the other of Treasures.

The intimacy of the Buddha, of falling back into the 10,000 arms of Avalokiteshvara and knowing with certainty I'll be caught? This is pretty scary stuff for me. I don't fall back on my own easily and the Loving-Kindness sesshin certainly felt like one hell of a shove at times. During the Grasses, Trees & the Great Earth I think I got a little taste of actually letting go, allowing the feeling that my entire soul was exhausted just press me down into the warm floor of the cedar grove.

The intimacy of the Sangha is the most terrifying of them all to me. Having moved so often as a child and having had such a dysfunctional, rejecting family I really don't feel like I know how to belong to a group. For quite some time I came to zazen with the community and fled immediately after sitting was done. I enjoyed that I could come, sit in the depth of shared, communal silence, and not have to talk to anyone at all. Early on the ability to "sit and run" (as a Dharma sister names it) was part of the appeal of Zen.

Yet here it is, nearly 4 years later and next week I'm going to stand up in front of people next week, of my community, and take the vows of Jukai. I've even joined a practice group for women on Monday evenings, giving myself some structure while CK is taking a woodworking class, and shoving myself into a scary place - the close company of a group of women. We met for the first time this Monday evening.

As I talked about why I came (essentially because I was afraid of it) I could hear my voice speed up with the anxiety I was experiencing acutely and could feel my face & ears grow hot. I tried not to listen to my Inner Critic, tried to just stay with the way anxiety feels in my body, and when the next person began to speak kept my attention focused on her, not giving into the rather desperate urge to evaluate, judge, and criticize what I had shared. It feels like progress.


The Ninth Grave Precept

Actualize harmony. Do not be angry.

I made a mistake about this precept very early on, assumed this meant I could NOT get angry and gave my Inner Critic another way to beat up the times when I did feel angry. I finally took this error to Sanzen where Hogen reminded me that it meant we should not give rise to anger, rather I should look deeply at why the anger was arising. This precept directs me to accept that I will feel anger at times, to seek the source of my anger, and not give rise to the anger.

Anger can be a scary emotion for me to be around. In my family we were given the message, reinforced by punishment, that anger cannot be displayed. Raising your voice was forbidden. The image of the “happy family” presented to outsiders must be preserved. In response to this artificial, false act everyone ate inappropriately to feed the hurt feelings since acknowledging the anger, the hurt wasn’t allowed. It wasn’t OK to tell someone that a quietly spoken insult wasn’t acceptable, but it was just fine to have a piece of pie to make yourself “feel better”.

There are times, looking deeply at the source of anger, where I am put back in contact with memories of abuse. The frightened, unsupported child I was is heard and at times seems to be attacking me for not acknowledging her. I was introduced to her anger during the Loving-Kindness sesshin in April and her anger is a ferocious thing.

When I look at that anger, the rage of the child I was who experienced abuse, I can try to be calm with it and acknowledge it. Not only is that anger legitimate, it deserves to be heard since I was always told any anger I tried to express as a child was "inappropriate" or "over-reacting". Even still, even as understandable as that anger may be, when I feel the heat of it rise up in me I can breath into it, offer comfort to it, and instead respond to the situation with as much compassion as possible for myself and others.

I am far more comfortable with the work of actualizing harmony, especially for other people. I was a child who thought she wanted to be in the spotlight, but as an adult I've found I really enjoy being in the background, helping with all the little details. In a much more direct way, I feel profound gratitude for the opportunity I have to teach yoga, it is this very clear path to helping others actualize harmony, particularly a state of harmony towards the body. I try to remind myself to include myself in the people who deserve this kind of energy from me.


The Eighth Grave Precept

Give generously. Do not be withholding.

I tend to be a generous person. I am happy to buy lunch for a friend who doesn’t have the extra cash for a lunch out. I enjoy sharing with people my time, my possessions, my energy and my passion. Most of the time. Despite all of this, I have become aware of the ways in which I want to withhold that spirit of generousity.

On the flight back from Hawaii there was a family that I was rather disturbed by. First was the look of pure adolescent venom one brother gave to the youngest of his brothers when asked to help get the younger child buckled into his plane seat. It was just so strong it shocked me. What came next was triggering to my PTSD. The very harried and irritated mother returned to this row with the two boys and when the youngest said something to her that angered her the mother reached out and slapped the young boy across the face. Not hard, there was no abrupt sound and if I hadn’t been looking at the family I probably would have never noticed it. But I did.

I remembered Chozen telling us when in doubt do metta practice. It immediately occurred to me that this family really could use a lot of Loving-Kindness directed at them, however, because it was so emotionally upsetting to me I felt intense resistance. A voice inside me clearly said, “No, I’m not going to give them metta.”

I felt guilty and awful. How could I be withholding, especially of Loving-Kindness? I finally made myself look out the window of the plane and try to offer metta to myself. Start with the angry, hurt child’s voice that felt entirely disconnected from this family and saw them as “other” and therefore unworthy. Even that was hard to press past, feeling the tension arise at touching Loving-Kindness at all.

It really made me think about how a disconnect between the self and others, not seeing all people as one, makes it really easy to forget the precepts, especially this one. When I feel that I’m not included or unworthy, it is easy to withhold something like Loving-Kindness from myself. When I see other people that way, when I allow them to become “Other”, then the impulse to give freely, generously is dampened down by that disconnect. When I tighten up, when fear arises and I feel the shutters close up tight around my heart, that's when I withhold.


The Seventh Grave Precept

Realize self and others as one. Do not elevate the self and blame others.

Like the Sixth Grave Precept I feel that this is a message I heard as a child, but equally similarly was the way in which the example from my family members did not uphold this message. The idea that we're all one has always stuck with me, even though the nature of my childhood & adolescence has left me with a tremendous sense of not belonging or fitting in. What I find interesting is how the point in my life I was most disconnected from the feeling of being one, and most likely to elevate myself above others, was when I weighed the most. For me there is real irony that the literal insulation of my obesity, which I felt helped me feel more comfortable in groups, was the time in my life I was my most impatient and blaming towards other people. Now I see that grave disconnect from the health of my body as contributing to my ability to silence the part of me that knew I should treat people with more grace.

I saw this mostly in how I treated people, especially people like cashiers and others in the service industry. I could be short, terse, dismissive and unpleasant as a “dissatisfied customer”. In this way I would try to hold the person dealing with me accountable for all the irritation I felt at life instead of seeing how utterly insignificant the issue I was demanding be fixed was. I’m not even sure if I really felt like I was being elevated at those times, so much as I didn’t see them as one; the same impatient, frightened, confused, joyful, hopeful, wonderful kind of person I am with nothing but a desire to be happy, to be content.

The weight loss has at times heightened my feelings of not belonging. The loss of that layer insulating me from the enormity of my unacknowledged grief leaves me feeling completely isolated and alone with the messages I heard as a child. I’ve reached a point where I have cultivated the ability to see others as one, but it is challenging practice to include myself and not judge myself as ‘broken’.


The Sixth Grave Precept

See the perfection. Do not speak of others' errors and faults.

Growing up I got such mixed messages about talking about other people. On one hand we would be punished for “talking back”, arguing or being perceived as being disrespectful. On the other hand it was quite common for me to hear my Mom, grandmother or aunt gossiping about other family members, co-workers and friends. When we weren’t all together I would hear my Mom talking negatively about my grandmother, my aunt and my cousins. Even today my Mom still likes to talk over the misfortunes of others and make what I often consider to be rather racist comments about the migrant workers in the field near her home.

During my divorce this year I found myself really trying to focus on the precepts. Walking a fine line between acknowledging the ways in which I felt the marriage had been undermined, issues that were on-going above and beyond my initial unwillingness to accept my own sexuality. Even if that hadn’t been there, AM and I had several other deeply rooted problems.

Like all of the other precepts I find myself looking deeply at why I am talking about what I perceive as the faults of others. Is it necessary to talk about such things? Why do I feel the need to share my opinion. How do I talk constructively with people when their actions feel harmful, unhealthy to me?

I’ve tried to keep focused on not judging a whole person by some of their actions, what I may perceive as an error or fault. I look deeply at why I may be feeling hurt, fearful or angry and if it is strong enough that I need to share with someone how their behavior is impacting me. I don’t talk about these kinds of issues as widely as I once did. It might be reasonable to discuss the behavior of one person with another, but in doing so I now try to keep focused on how the behavior in question is affecting me, is my response reasonable and what constructive approaches I can use to address it with that person. Using that third-party for their ability to observe the situation from a different view than I have, not to just have a “ranting session” with no real purpose to it.

I also have become very aware of how easy it is for groups to fall into discussing the perceived errors and faults of others, especially celebrities. Whole industries have arisen to enable this kind of behavior. It is perfectly acceptable in society to gossip about a celebrity. I don’t know any celebrities directly, so it has become pretty easy to just not participate in conversations like this.


Revisiting the Fifth Grave Precept

Proceed clearly. Do not cloud the mind.

Why practice? The answer for me is that we practice because distraction does not work. Distraction is the essence of the Fifth Grave Precept.

Everything about us encourages distraction. Give me a boring, tedious OR a very challenging task (I'm intimidated then) and I find all kinds of was to procrastinate. Rather than proceed clearly with the task, for whatever mental story I'm telling myself about it, I choose to cloud the mind, to procrastinate, to not think about the task or why I'm avoiding it. If I think about the avoiding it I'll feel guilty and then need to procrastinate some more.

Alcohol, sex, opiates, shopping, donuts, exercise, running marathons, cribbage, carousing through Wikipedia, television, trashy novels....

Whatever. They're all ways we can choose to distract ourselves when taken too far. It isn't so bad in moderation. It is perfectly alright to make the choice to watch a television show, but perhaps not so cool to alienate your friends & loved-ones because you're not taking care of yourself because you're too busy watching shows. For some people a cupcake is just a cupcake, for others it is the beginning of a weekend-long cycle of binging and purging.

Why have I avoided writing about my weight loss for Chozen? Well, because talking about it such a public forum still makes me uncomfortable. I have found months worth of distraction, some of them I even cross-reference as "Zen Practice" (e.g., sesshin, sewing rakusu, writing about precepts, etc.) as a justification for my avoiding what my teacher has told me is of great value. Yep, we're back to my number one way to cloud the mind, procrastination. I'm good at it.

What does my distraction, my intently seeking to cloud my mind from the uncomfortable feelings that arise get me? Well, yes indeed-y, more GUILT. More Inner Critic assuring me my Dharma name will mean something along the lines of "Great Clumsiness" or "Remedial Zen Student" or "Slow Learner".

Proceed clearly. Drop the distractions. Drop the noise about needing the distractions. Just move forward in clarity even when, especially when the going is tough.


Revisiting the Fourth Grave Precept

Manifest Truth. Do not lie.

Looking back on what I wrote in April 2008 and where I'm at in September 2009 is a lesson in seeking the truth of one's own life.

I'm divorced because of this precept. Of course it is at once more complicated, and yet as simple as that. It is the seeking of the Essential Self, the goal of the settled mind. That clarity does not mean that the consequences of the truth revealed will be simple or painless, but the way is clear.

"Are you self-identifying as a lesbian." a good friend asked during the divorce.

It felt weird, something about the words, "Self-Identifying" just didn't sit right. I guess I don't feel so much as I'm making a conscious decision to "identify" so much as a conscious decision to recognize, honor, and manifest the truth about myself. Acknowledging the Essential Self that is glimpsed when we settle the mind to silence.

I strive for such honesty, such transparency with others that I could easily dismiss this Precept as being "done". The truth of it is that I have the most difficult time when it comes to applying this precept to how I deal with myself. I find it far too easy to be untruthful with myself when it comes to looking honestly, compassionately at the whole of my life. The shiny bits and the ugly ones.

Especially the ugly bits.


Revisiting the Third Grave Precept

Honor the body. Do not misuse sexuality.

This is such a sticky-feeling precept for me. As a person who has experienced sexual abuse my emotional response to the Third Grave Precept is pretty intense. Just this week I've found myself trying to respond calmly to some comments online where someone was suggesting that a celebrity had only now revealed sexual abuse because it was timed with a book being released. That no one would just keep stuff like that a secret.

But sexuality misused is all about secrecy, shame, and hidden things. I was livid at reading someone suggesting that hiding abuse was about attention-seeking and that gathering together the courage to speak about the abuse nothing more than a cheap ploy to generate book sales. I find it incomprehensible that someone could still suggest such a thing. That it was a man writing these awful things led me down the path of judging the majority of men for being abusers and doubters.

Loving, consensual sexuality is an act of sacredness. It has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the divinity that is arises from the sharing of vulnerability in sexual intimacy. When that honor, that trust is broken it can be so profoundly devastating at so many levels that it considerably easier to hide it in the silent abyss of shame.

My marriages were both, in their own way a misuse of sexuality. A way of staying "safe" and not exploring painful, difficult questions about myself. There just finally came a point where honoring myself, my essential self, meant recognizing that pretending I was something I was not. Pretending that I'm not a lesbian in order to not hurt someone is another way of misusing sexuality.

Even when I try to look at just the affirmation to "Honor the body." my mind jumps away from any connotation of sexuality. It is more comfortable to think about a healthful diet, weight loss, and exercise than it is to think about how this relates to sexuality. I immediately seek to distract myself from that discomfort by attempting to interpret the statement in a way I feel more confident speaking to.

But I am trying to see it as a way of learning to accept that our bodies have sexual feelings. Feeling desire for another person isn't a weakness nor is it something to be ashamed of, particularly not in the context of a loving relationship between adults. The sharing of intimacy should be an act of honoring the body.