Monthly Archives: March 2009

The One at the Center

The One at the Center

You don’t see the water itself.
You see wavering trees, rippling clouds,
a sun rocking back and forth.
The pond is clear glass
until a small black fish
with a stout nose
wiggles and taps the air
from below, sending out
concentric haloes that spread
like portholes opening wide
and melting back to clear glass.
In the same way
you don’t notice silence
until the bell master breaks it
striking wood to metal
sending out wave upon wave
of ringing, traveling outward, disappearing
like a ship into the horizon
or a meteor’s tail.
The motion of love is no different.
Touch your beloved with a smile,
a warm hand, a kind word.
Watch the joy radiate from his face.
Feel the ease echoing down her body.
Again and again
water moves into waves.
Silence folds into song.
We change each other into love.
Again and again
each moment is a new chance
to reach forward.
Be fearless as the stout-nosed fish.
Be humble like the bell master.
Be the one at the center
making a motion
of beginning.

The lotus pond at Deer Park Monastery, where I watched small black fish tapping the water's surface from below, & wrote this poem.

The lotus pond at Deer Park Monastery, where I watched small black fish tapping the water's surface from below, & wrote this poem.


Bring Your Whole Self! (Thoughts on Teaching Mindfulness)

“Example is not the best way to influence others. It is the only way.” – Albert Schweitzer

The Buddha told his students he was like a finger pointing at the moon. It’s the moon we should look at, not the finger. Look at the truth, not the teacher. The teacher is a mail carrier delivering a message. We’ve got to take it, read it, eat it, be it – realize the truth in and for ourselves. Otherwise it’s a prizewinning envelope that we never open.

A few weeks ago at Deer Park Monastery, I had a chance to work in the garden with Sister Bach Nghiem, a nun whose eyes are gentle, receptive, and kind. She told me that as a novice nun, she spent some time as Thich Nhat Hanh’s attendant, and that she cooks for him when he comes to the U.S. He asks her a lot of questions about her practice, and koans. The best answer, she said, is to breathe and smile. “He teaches only by example,” she told me. “That’s how he teaches. He doesn’t scold.”

Observing Sister Bach Nghiem, I noticed that she embodies Thay’s gentle peacefulness and harmlessness – maybe because she’s spent a lot of time with him. (And her six years of meditation practice didn’t hurt.) I wondered if I could absorb some of those qualities by spending time with her. People rub off on each other; we shape ourselves after those who surround us — so it’s good to choose our friends carefully. A lot of us have spent a few hours with Zen masters, and now we like to put on a good Zen show and talk Buddha-talk, but how do we act when nobody’s watching?

Lately I’ve been observing my own behavior, knowing it might be contagious. At Deer Park, newcomers to meditation asked me lots of questions (what’s a bodhisattva? why do we face the wall in meditation? how do I stay peaceful when my sons are fighting?) which I tried to answer, sorely aware of my ignorance. Even as the newcomers questioned me and studied my meditation practice, I felt like their student, watching their careful beginner’s-mind walking meditation. I was asked to lead a discussion group for visitors, and found that learning is the real reward of teaching, as other folks shared their wisdom and showed me how they invite the bell.

Recently I started volunteering in a prison with a group that facilitates Buddhist meditation (fodder for a separate blog entry). I came up against some big insecurities about facilitating, being a teacher, being an authority. After hearing me vent these fears, my mentor just said: “Great! Perfect!” It’s a rich opportunity to feel the emotion, to touch the soft spot, to be fully human. My mentor also taught me what she learned in Buddhist chaplaincy training: “Bring your whole self to the work. Don’t try to be holy. Just bring your whole self, all of you. They can tell if you’re faking it. But at the same time, don’t make it about you.”

If I’m trying to be a teacher, it’s pretense. If I’m just talking about mindfulness, it feels hypocritical. When I’m practicing mindfulness for the sake of practice itself, I stop thinking about whether it’s being observed; quit hoping people will learn from me. Then I really enjoy life, and it’s more likely other people will enjoy it with me.

Trying to teach mindfulness is funny. You only teach it by embodying it. You realize that most of the time, you’re not even pointing at the moon. You’re aiming at some obscure star cluster and the moon is off to the side, chuckling at you. My best teaching is this: “Here’s me, with all my foibles and fumbles and sufferings and joys. Here’s how I’m trying to be a kinder person. What about you?” My best offering is to be my whole unholy self, and you can be yours. Bless the moon for shining on us no matter what.

a poem or two


you will not wonder who I am
but will happen upon me
in the marketplace
making strangers laugh.
all this time
I’ve spent worrying
what people think
& where the mirror is –
I could have been
feeding people
or dancing.
as long as I want
to be loved
more than
to love
I live in a small
windowless box.
what matters?
not the lie
that I must be something
someday my throat will swell
with singing
you won’t recognize me
but will laugh
with my laughing
both of us


like happiness

& poems
come only
you stop chasing
sit down
at the edge of your life
all stillness
& awe.

Breathe, My Dear

“What is most important is to find peace in oneself and to share it with others.”  – Thich Nhat Hanh

In my next life I’ll be a nun. Or a supremely gifted gospel singer. Or both. In this incarnation my unreliable pitch and whispery Catholic girl voice prevent me from the latter occupation. And my socialite, consumerist, desirous tendencies keep me out of the cloth. But, I love monasteries and they pull me like deep water pulls a diver. There’s something about the fathomless silence, the disarming kindness of the sisters and brothers, the reverence, the fact that peace is not just an inkling or wish, but a daily practice.

Tomorrow I’m leaving for Deer Park Monastery. Today I worked 13 hours in the acupuncture clinic where I am an office manager. On days like today it’s easy to get churned into a froth by the busyness, to become a mind spinning into blur. To be caught up in MUST DO THIS! HURRY! NOT ENOUGH TIME! It all feels urgent. Today I splintered repeatedly, chasing tasks while distracted by other tasks, like an ADD kid in a toy store. This morning, knowing it would probably be that kind of day, I left myself a little note on the herb shelf: “Breathe, my dear.” I saw it twice during the day and smiled. It reminded me that I have an island of peace within myself. Even when the island is obscured by storms, shipwrecks, fallen palm trees and refugees, still, underneath the chaos, it is there, unaffected, quiet, simply present. Likewise, the peace within me is always available.

Going to Deer Park gives me a chance to clear the skies and calm the waters around my island.

Yet whenever Thich Nhat Hanh and the monks and nuns host a retreat, their literature reminds people: “Please do not wait until the retreat to begin your practice of mindfulness.” There’s no time but now, no place but inside oneself to practice being at peace. I am looking forward to being at Deer Park, but Deer Park will come and go. It doesn’t matter where I am. Anywhere, any time is ripe for being awake, for dropping the preconceptions and fears that keep me boarded up, keep life from rubbing my skin. Anywhere, any time is right for taking a deep breath.

Take a deep breath with me. I’ll be breathing with you, nourishing the island of peace, so I can share it with you when I return.  And maybe we’ll sing a little gospel song…