Like Words Together Reflections from the deep end of Practice.


Dirty Cups

CK bought me two beautiful editions of Rumi's poetry for my birthday. On the flight home from Hawaii I came across the following piece, gorgeously illustrated in The Illuminated Rumi


Step off
proudly into sunlight,
not looking back.

Take sips of this pure wine being poured.
Don't mind that you've been given a dirty cup.

I read that as CK dozed next to me on the long flight over what appear to be endless water and clouds, then darkness. It really made me sit up and blink. The last line particularly resonated with me.

Don't mind that you've been given a dirty cup.

I tend to see my life, especially the fragile, bruised beginning, as a "dirty cup". This life where my Inner Critic relentlessly condemns my goals, my present actions, my trauma-triggered responses - the whole of me. To that critical voice my life is a dirty cup, unworthy of pure wine being poured by the Beloved.

Greater than the Inner Critic who immediately deems me as unworthy, is that on many levels I mind. I mind ferociously that I experienced abuse, repeatedly. I mind a world where every step I move towards truth alienates and invites insult from much of the society I live in. I mind the very idea of suppressed memories surfacing unannounced and involuntarily pulling me backwards into misery. I mind tremendously that CK was hurt. I mind that my job frustrates me and leaves me feeling unable to accomplish anything.

Alright, so I mind a lot of things. All those things that stack together in an ugly heap, the dirty cups of my life. I mind them. Some of them I downright resent the hell out of. Some I want to pick up and hurl into the wall I mind them so much.

Which would then leave me without a cup for the pure wine.

Leaning into this suffering to feel compassion for myself is hard, excruciatingly difficult. When I do I almost immediately run into either drowning in grief or completely overwhelmed by fear. Sometimes I kind of ping-pong back and forth between the two. There was a whole lot of that back in April during the Loving-Kindness sesshin.

Yet in fighting these realities, in minding the "dirty cup", I'm staying stuck in the fear and grief. I can touch back to moments during the Grasses, Trees & Great Earth sesshin in August where grief came up and I was just able to be there with it. It wasn't that I didn't cry, but I didn't have the overwhelming fear about crying. I just cried some and the moment of grief passed. I even had a pretty awful memory bubble up and I was also able to stay still with it.

I was so stilled by the outright exhaustion that hit me at the start of the sesshin that I lacked the energy to fight. It even felt like my Inner Critic was quieter, minimized due to the soul-deep fatigue. Regardless of why, it was still a taste of just being present to the grief and able to witness & accept the memories.

The knack of doing this is something I need to cultivate in my practice. Waiting until I am utterly exhausted by the tension isn't terribly sustainable. Besides, I am weary of being exhausted by fear.

I'm also taking Bansho's suggestion and considering a suitably non-threatening, perhaps slightly comical name for my Inner Critic.


Present to Exhaustion

I am waking up with a lot more energy the past few days. I still reach a point during the day or evening where I am suddenly just worn out. Right now I have a pile of skin from some Delicata squash I roasted earlier. We've been enjoying the thin skin of the squash lightly coated in oil then roasted low until it is crispy.

But I had an enormous pile of phone calls today then rushed around getting stuff together to make a great dinner, vacuumed the front rooms & hall, and cleaned up a bit. We met with our insurance agent for the oh-so-boring and "grown-up" task of discussing life insurance. After he left we had the most marvelous dinner (squash casserole, no recipe yet), watched an episode of Big Bang Theory (CK has introduced me to this and we're watching back episodes online). I've cleaned up a bit, CK made chocolate almond biscotti, and I just ran out of steam.

I'm trying to remember that I've apparently had a low-level infection for quite some time. I'm taking enormous doses of antibiotics. I have chronic pain, which tires me too. It isn't unreasonable that I'm prone to running out of energy. Sure it is a great opportunity to practice with the body, with the impatience I feel with it, but I'd honestly like a little break.

It has let me look at the exhaustion I felt during the Grasses, Trees & Great Earth sesshin in August. I suddenly was stopped and some of the exhaustion from the infection was able to express itself. That little crack opened by the actual physical illness I was fighting, present to it without the distractions of work, life, etc. opened me up to feel a deeper exhaustion within me. It was so utterly consuming, I had the sense of never having had enough rest in my whole life.

The first time I saw Chozen for sanzen I told her about the exhaustion. Not just a drowsiness of wanting to avoid being present, but a cellular weariness. I said that I was so tired, so warn out that even my Inner Critic wasn't getting much traction on me. It was if a very young version of myself was saying plaintively, "Oh go away. I don't feel good."

She told me to do the most restful practice I could. It was unusual to have even my Inner Critic silenced by anything at all. I would find myself sliding in and out of a very heightened awareness of the sound of the rain. I'd be watching it fall, hearing the different sounds of it as the water connected back to the earth, and drift off to a very light sleep. When I'd open my eyes it would feel as though I was blinking very slowly. The whole world seemed to move slowly.

The whole of the sesshin I was in a present, slow state of alertness and sleep. During every break I'd crawl into my bed, under the blankets and fall immediately to sleep until the bell rang. At night, when sitting ended, I'd take a hot shower to loosen up my back & hips, crawl into bed again and fall asleep. I experienced very little insomnia, for me. This is significant since I actually cannot recall not having insomnia.

During zazen I might drift off, but not know it. It would only have that lazy, strange sensation as if I'd just blinked very slowly. My Inner Critic never grew loud during these times, never berated me for my bad practice. I just let myself be present to the exhaustion I felt.

I felt rested by the time I left. Slow moving still, but not as brittle & bright feeling as I'd felt leaving the Loving-Kindness sesshin in April. I felt profoundly grateful at the end of our last early morning zazen.

I'm trying to be mindful of how judging I can be of my energy level away from the container of sesshin practice. How quick I am to either bemoan my lack of energy or prod myself to get just one more chore done. How unwilling I am to just be present to the sensation of being tired, the sensation of the body needing rest to heal.


Mala Tool

Talked with GW today about the anxiety that comes up around sesshin, around practice in general. I occasionally get really wicked flashbacks during meditation. Oh how I wish they were just like some creepy movie playing in my head. Zen meditation is done with the eyes open, but unfocused and relaxed. I found this to be amazingly helpful instruction that I shouldn't close my eyes while meditating. That totally got rid of the "movie in the head problem".

I get auditory flashbacks. Yes, that means I hear what clearly that cannot possibly be there, that was decades in the past. I also get tactile, sensory flashbacks. Yes, that means I feel like I'm being touched.

Yes, they make me want to start screaming and run.

For the longest, longest time I never told any one about these. I'd stick with nightmares, those were bad enough and fit the PTSD stereotype of "a terrifying movie you can't wake up from". Meditating in Zen fashion, with my eyes These other types of flashback really left me feeling like I was going insane. It was only after years of therapy that I admitted it to my therapist. To my relief she only cringed and commented that those were bad ones.

Her recommendation to me seemed so obvious, get a mala. When it happens give myself something concrete, from the present moment, to hold onto. Let it help bring me back into the present when a flashback has hauled me backwards into the past.

I remembered the story of Mara attacking the Buddha as he meditated. Throwing all manner of visions to terrify, tempt, or otherwise distract the Buddha from his focus. In the end the Buddha touched the ground, saying that it would bear witness to his practice.

Flashbacks are nothing but pure, unadulterated Mara. It is so strong that it can totally pull me out of the present moment. The trick, says GW, is not to hang out there. Find the resources, the tools to pull yourself back into the present. Touch ground.

On the way to another appointment in NW Portland I picked out an agate wrist mala at New Renaissance Bookshop. It has several moss agate beads on it and reminds me of the ground. My new tool in working with the anxiety.


Garden Begun

And we're off! Behind and with several crop options out of the question as the days get warmer, CK and I cast aside all thoughts of laying around, farmer's markets, street fairs, or anything else and took full advantage of the past three days of glorious sunshine here in P-Town.

In the past three days CK and I have:

  • Cleared out the two beds that were completed last year (one had acquired a lush, verdant carpet of.... dandelions. Just the succulent, invasive, tender leaves which we pulled with great diligence)
  • Filled the third bed with a layer of cardboard (easy-peasy when there are boxes from moving everywhere)
  • Cleared bark off, then turned & added topsoil to the small bed on the south side of the deck (me, mostly, reacquainting myself with the inferior, but adequate garden fork)
  • Cut down towering blackberries (CK took on this monstrous task, wading in with the trimmer. She also did the work of bagging the dangerous clippings while I was plied with coconut rice & mango at the SMART appreciation get together at Tin Shed. *Thanks, Christie)

In all this space we planted:

  • a whole pile of heirloom tomatoes
  • an assortment of mostly sweet peppers (are Anaheim peppers really that hot, or is just me)
  • 3 small-fruited eggplant
  • 4 rows of bush beans
  • numerous cucumbers
  • 3 summer squash
  • 5 pole beans

Yet to be planted:

  • 4-5 winter squash & melons
  • greens (rainbow chard & Lacinito kale)
  • mache
  • lettuces
  • Flowers!

The yard already is looking better. We still have a lot of boxes inside, but it was so beautiful & warm this weekend that we both really wanted to get vegetables going. It was good spending the weekend feeling like my health was returning and working hard. Weeding out the beds reminded me a lot of work duty during April's sesshin and I was smiling remembering the little interactions with my work partner. Entire conversations based upon a slight smile, small bows, tired sighs, and occasional bursts of quick laughter.... oh, and one very small victory dance.

Well, I did one small victory dance, my weeding partner just laughed merrily. Given that I was very present and mindful, I think a quick booty-shake of pepper cress eradication celebration was very Zen. It was one of these spots of absolute joy that would pop up during what was an emotionally challenging sesshin for me. (I wrote a little about work practice during the Loving-Kindness sesshin earlier)

We got a bit carried away at Portland Nursery picking out vegetable starts. This explains the numerous cucumbers - we both started just picking them out instead of agreeing upon how many we were getting. There's going to be a whole lot of cherry tomatoes in our future too.

I'm thinking gazpacho. CK's never had it. I've never made it. I think it would rock with all of our veggies. Maybe another victory dance will be necessary?

We are a tad nervous that all these tomatoes are going to show up the week we're gone for my birthday. Perhaps we'll have to have designated veggie pickers from the sangha come over and help themselves to some?

Oh, and are we ever aching! As the man sang, "I ache in the places where I used to play."



The 2007 Fall Ango Zen Community of Oregon reflected upon a teisho from my teachers' teacher, Maezumi Roshi. The particular teaching we studied was entitled, "Close the Gap Between Yourself and Yourself". Hogen suggested that I really look at how to cultivate pride and appreciation for my accomplishments.

It struck me as "pretty un-Zen" at the time. When I talked with GM about it during that Ango she said she wasn't surprised I didn't get it. One of the things she notes is an area that could use some improvement is my ability to really appreciate my accomplishments. I downplay my achievements all the time.

Really most of the time it doesn't feel like I'm doing anything extraordinary. It just feels like I'm chugging along, humming & drumming through each moment.

So I struggled with this topic and a few weeks into Ango I went back to Hogen and asked for help. It struck me as somewhat comical that I was asking my Zen teacher just how one goes about cultivating pride. He suggested that I consider the task of digging a 100 foot ditch, irrigation or some such thing. He said that when one is digging a really big ditch it is necessary to turn around after the first 5 feet and recognize the effort that has gone into that work. Not to just keep feeling overwhelmed by the 95 feet yet to be dug.


GW agreed that I spend most of my time worrying about the other 95 feet. CK, after she got to know me weighed in with her agreement of this assessment.

This spring for some reason I'm finally starting to get it. In most things in my life I've been a quick learner, adapting with speed to new things. Sometimes Zen makes me feel like a rather poky student.

My doctor, the same physician I've had for over 15 years, called me "skinny" when he saw me last month. He checked out my blood pressure & pulse statistics, shook his head and smiled. Maybe it is that his reactions are so candid, so human that it is finally sinking in that my weight loss is something unusual. There have also been friends and teachers who have been telling me again and again that the changes I've made in my life, have maintained in my life, are unique.

This takes me to the berry patch at Great Vow Zen Monastery. Last week at sesshin my work duty was out in the gardens. In particular, the berry patch where another retreatant and I had been asked to remove pepper cress. There was a lot of pepper cress, it is very successful at sending seeds spraying out in all directions. It seemed like an enormous task.

The first work period I just sat down at the far corner and started pulling pepper cress. By Friday I realized I'd cleared nearly half the berry patch! I stood up looking at the ground, cleared of the invasive weed (although it is edible). I nearly started to laugh as I stood there feeling a great deal of pride in what I'd finished. On Saturday my silent partner and I finished the last 3 feet in a great flurry of weed-pulling after the clean up bell had rung. We closed the gate, laughed together merrily, and I performed a small celebratory dance, waving my 5 gallon bucket in the air. We grinned at each other and continued to chuckle while emptying our buckets before heading back in for more zazen.

I still feel a little uncomfortable with this new sensation. But I can feel the way pride is good. That it is OK to look at something I finished and really let myself feel the accomplishment, the appreciation.