We receive this sustenance gratefully, appreciating all the forms of life that have offered themselves for our benefit. We are grateful for all the abundance in our lives and for our loved ones – both those present and those who are absent from this table. May the ancestral peoples of the land where we gather be blessed. And may our actions in this world bring peace and happiness to all beings. May it be so.
Q: Where did you get the confidence from [to make “Citizen Kane”]?
Orson Wells: Ignorance! Ignorance! Sheer ignorance, you know. There’s no confidence to equal it. It’s only when you know something about a profession that you’re timid or careful.
When I was on my 3-year cancer journey, my psycho-oncologist said that I was “dealing with” cancer. I wasn’t “fighting,” “struggling against,” or battling” it. I was simply dealing with it.
I really liked that construction, and I’ve been using it for all kinds of things ever since.
Since words – being labels – have impact, I choose them with care. Like “strong” emotions. I don’t say “powerful” emotions, because that implies they have power over us. They do not. At least not unless we let them.
All of this came up last night when one of my students asked for suggestions in dealing with her own strong emotions around the recent U. S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe V. Wade. For anyone unfamiliar with this ruling, the original gave women a right to abortions, although each state could place some restrictions on that right. Now, slightly over half of our population no longer has agency over their own bodies.
No wonder emotions are running high.
But this post isn’t about abortion or self-determination. It’s about any strong emotion and how to deal with it.
Here is the process I suggested to my student. It works well for me personally, and I recommend that you try it for yourself. Like a recipe, feel free to add, remove, or adjust ingredients to suit your taste.
1. Face the Emotion
Look at the emotion squarely. Face it head on. Label it, if you like. You might label it “frustration,” “anger,” “disappointment,” or “sorrow” to give a few examples. You might use language to label it, or you may have a felt sense of what it is, instead.
Do not think about the source of the emotion. As Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says, “Let the storyline go.” Continuing to think about it is like pouring fuel onto a burning fire. Instead, encourage the emotion to extinguish all on its own. (Nirvana literally means “blowing out” or “extinguishing.”)
Do not “stuff” the emotion, as that’s unhealthy both psychologically and physically. Sometimes we need to be with the emotion for a few minutes, and that’s all natural and good. Just don’t feed it with the story.
2. Recognize the Emotion is Impermanent
When we meditate – and I hope you’re meditating regularly – thoughts come up all the time. It’s part of the process. When thoughts arise, we realize that they are as ephemeral as clouds in the sky. We notice and acknowledge them, then allow them to dissipate. This is the practice.
We can do exactly the same thing with strong emotions. No matter how intense the feeling or how much it seems like it’s about to overwhelm us, we know it will pass. All things do.
“All conditioned things are impermanent.”– the Buddha
Our emotions are conditioned on our upbringing, the circumstances, what we ate for lunch, and more. Remember that they are temporary and that “this, too, shall pass.”
3. Release the Emotion
Now that we’ve laid the ground work, it’s time to let that shit go. As my grand-teacher, the Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn, used to day, “Put it all down.” (He also used to say, “Changing, changing, changing, changing, changing…”)
Perhaps this is a purely mental process for you. Perhaps you take a deep breath and blow it out forcefully, imagining ejecting the emotion from your body. Perhaps you feel your body relaxing all over as you sense the strong emotion draining away. It really doesn’t matter. Just let go.
By the way, these three steps can be accomplished faster then it’s taken you to read this far. So don’t despair! Just do the work.
4. Go into “Action” Mode
This is where the rubber meets the road, we put our money where our mouths are, or we walk our talk. (Feel free to choose your expression or come up with your own.)
Don’t like how something is going? Make a plan to change it.
Let’s go back to the example of my student who was experiencing some anger about the overturning of Roe V. Wade. She already participated in a demonstration about it. What else can she do?
- Support organizations and officials who seek to change the law through donations or volunteering her time.
- Educate the people in her circle about why this is important to her.
- Support groups who are providing legal access to abortion to women in states where it is now illegal. (Usually this means providing them transportation to another state and back.)
- Avoiding spending money in states where abortion is illegal.
- Chanting and meditating for the benefit of all involved.
I’m sure you can come up with some others.
The point is that you are not powerless, no matter whether that strong emotion made you feel that way for a tick.
I encourage you to try out my “recipe.” Give it a taste test, then make your own adjustments. At the end of the day, nothing I or anyone else says matters unless it works for you.
The next time you start to feel yourself getting spun up, take a breath and try this process. I guarantee it’s better than doing nothing.
“The gift of a beginner is fresh eyes.
“The longer you’re in a field, the harder it is to perceive new truths. Your mind is biased toward refining what you’re already doing instead of exploring fresh terrain.
“Take your expertise and apply it to something new.”
– James Clear
Clear is the author of “Atomic Habits,” a book I highly recommend. I wonder whether he knows he’s talking about what Seung Sahn called “don’t know” mind – that state of remaining teachable.
Either way, that advice is Zen AF.
December 8th is the date generally agreed upon in Zen to celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment or awakening. The Buddha lived on the lunar calendar, so the actual date on our solar-based calendar would move every year. (Think of Passover or Easter – they move because they’re based on the lunar calendar.) In Japanese, Bodhi Day is called “Rohatsu.” It literally means “eighth day of the twelfth lunar month.”
Traditionally, the way to celebrate or honor the day would be to sit in meditation from sunset the night before until sunrise on the 8th. This is what the Buddha did. Today, in Zen monasteries around the world, the monks and nuns sit for the entire week leading up to Bodhi Day.
As people with jobs and families, we may not have the time to sit for an entire week, or even overnight. Here are some ways to mark the occasion, going from the simple to the more elaborate.
Meditate more than you normally do. If you don’t sit at all during the work week, and December 8th falls on a workday for you, sit for five minutes. Go out in your car if you have to, but find some quiet and do it.
A Note About Posture
Sit however your normally sit: on the floor, in a chair, it doesn’t matter. Get comfortable. Do not allow any physical limitations to keep you from the task at hand.
Sit Under a Tree
The Buddha sat under the Bodhi Tree, a Ficus religiosa or sacred fig. If you don’t have a fig tree, any old tree will do. If you have a Christmas or Yule tree set up, you can use that. The Buddha preferred to meditate outdoors (and I highly recommend that), but if the weather isn’t to your liking, you can stay indoors.
Review Your Precepts
If you’ve taken Buddhist precepts, this is a good day to read through them and check in with how you’re doing upholding them. Ideally, you are reciting your precepts every full moon and new moon. But who are we kidding? Householder life gets in the way. So if it’s been a while, do it now.
Read something the Buddha said. Or read something by an historical or modern Buddhist teacher that resonates with you. If you have time, contemplate what you read. To retain the information better, read it like you’re going to teach it within 24 hours, then corner a willing friend or family member, and tell them all about it. Or you can journal about your reactions to the reading.
A Note on Journaling
I strongly recommend handwriting a journal as opposed to typing one. The reason is that it’s slower. And recording our thoughts more slowly slows the brain down. The ideas become richer. Don’t take my word for it: try it for yourself.
The Buddha, born Siddhartha Gautama, went on an arduous, six-year quest to find the answer to his burning question: why is there suffering in the world. I’m grateful that he did that. But he didn’t do it for me; he did it for himself. What I’m most grateful for are the next 45 years: the time he spent walking and teaching anyone who cared to listen. When I deeply ponder the effort he expended on behalf of all beings, I am moved nearly to tears.
Then I consider all the additional people who taught in a direct line from him to me (82 of them), and the tears come. So many selfless people! So many obstacles overcome to share the Dharma! I am overcome by thankfulness.
Go Deeper: Write it Down
It doesn’t matter if you ever go back and review what your write. The fact is that writing about something engages a different section of your brain than merely thinking about it. So now you’ve recorded the information in two different places in your brain, doubling your chances of it having a long-lasting effect. Plus, writing slows down your thoughts, allowing them to expand in unexpected directions.
Personally, I’ve kept a gratitude journal since 2010, even during my cancer journey. Every day, I answer these three questions from M.J. Ryan’s book Attitudes of Gratitude:
- What am I grateful for?
- What did I enjoy today?
- Where do I feel satisfied?
Or you could use this list from Seventeenth Century Dutch Rabbi Baruch Spinoza:
- Who or what inspired me today?
- What brought me happiness today?
- What brought me comfort and deep peace today?
If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”Meister Eckhart, 13th Century German Catholic mystic
You can decorate your home for Bodhi Day. Adding lights to a tree is one traditional method, and with Christmas and Yule trees readily available, it’s easy enough to do. I have a number of Buddhist-themed holiday ornaments that I put on our tree each year and leave up until the tree comes down right after the new year.
You can also display images of the Buddha, especially statues.
Creating an Altar
There are many articles on the Internet about setting up an altar according to different Buddhist sects. Here’s a really simple one.
- Place a statue of the Buddha on a riser, like an upside down bowl. (Use the nicest bowl you have. Drape a doily or napkin over it if desired.) If you don’t have a statue, print out an image from the Internet and lean it against something so that it’s upright.
- Burn incense in front of the Buddha as an offering. Personally, I say “Thanks, Sid,” when I do so. (Yes, the Buddha and I are on a first name basis.)
- If you wish, add two candles, one on each side of the Buddha. White is good, or use your favorite color.
Take the Day Off
This one requires some advanced planning and isn’t available to everyone. But if you can, take a personal day or vacation day from work and spend time in the Dharma. When I was a college professor, I used to swap days with one of the Jewish professors: I’d cover their class on the first day of Hanukkah and they’d cover mine on Bodhi Day – with our supervisor’s consent, of course.
Summing It All Up
Chose what works for you. Buddhism, like life, isn’t “one size fits all.” Here’s the core of what I do on this day:
- Be grateful,
- Practice to honor those who came before and for the sake those who will come after.
Happy Bodhi Day! May all beings benefit.
Nearly five months ago, I became a Zen Master.
Or should I say a Zen “Master.” What, exactly, does that mean? Have I now “mastered” Zen? What does it mean to attain mastery over a body of knowledge? And can a philosophy as rich and varied as Zen be ever fully comprehend by a single human brain?
I don’t think so. Rather, I think of my new title more as a sign that I have received the respect of other teachers. My teacher, himself a Zen Master by decree of his teacher, felt that I was ready to accept additional responsibility in teaching the Dharma.
Because with this title comes certain ethical obligations. While there are no requirements per say, and no one supervising me any longer, there is an expectation that I will share what I have learned. I’m rather reclusive by nature, so this challenges me to step outside my comfort zone and put myself out into the world rather more than I might otherwise choose.
Here are some of the ways in which I’m going to do that. First, I’ll be starting a podcast, hopefully in February, to host a discussion with other women religious leaders. By sharing our stories of practice, challenge, and success, I hope to break the way for the generation of women coming up behind us. And men need to hear this, too, because like it or not, they’re going to need to make room for us. I hope we can all be wise and compassionate in the transition.
I’m also starting a local course to teach people how to teach meditation. I’m taking an inter-faith, at times secular, approach since Buddhism does not hold the monopoly on meditation. I’m doing this through my business, Open Door Yoga, and I am charging for it. Here’s why: first, I have expenses in the design, production, and teaching of the course. Second, people value what they pay for. (Trust me. When I offer a free event, no one shows up. The more I charge [within reason], the more people come.)
I plan to host half-day retreats about three times a year. We just had our first one for Bodhi Day, celebrating the Buddha’s Awakening, in early December.
I will continue to teach weekly in Claremont, CA and monthly in Riverside, CA, both for free. I will accept invitations to teach the Dharma whenever I am available, also for free. And I will continue to meet with students one-on-one, in person or via Zoom, when I am asked to do so.
So what is a Zen Master? Definitions.net says,
“Zen master is a somewhat vague English term that arose in the first half of the 20th century, sometimes used to refer to an individual who teaches Zen Buddhist meditation and practices, usually implying longtime study and subsequent authorization to teach and transmit the tradition themselves.”
Here’s my definition: an experienced Zen teacher who is of service to others. I hope to embody the highest and best in Buddhism and in myself. May all beings benefit.
One of my students lost a beloved pet two nights ago. She wrote me that she is taking refuge [in the Dharma], but she still misses her companion. She understands impermanence and yet remains effected by loss.
I’ve always thought Buddhist priest Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) expressed this apparent disconnect best. He wrote this haiku on the occasion of the death of his daughter:
This world of dew
is a world of dew.
Neil deGrasse Tyson on how death helps us live more fully:
“We fear death because we are born knowing only life…
“It is the knowledge that I am going to die that creates the focus that I bring to being alive. The urgency of accomplishment. The need to express love now, not later. If we lived forever, why ever even get out of bed in the morning? Because you always have tomorrow. That’s not the kind of life I want to lead.”
“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the moment.”
– Unknown (attributed incorrectly to Lao Tzu, but still a brilliant idea)
I’ve never been bored
since I learned to meditate.
Just pay attention.