Category Archives: Overcome Difficulties

Realizing Body/mind Together – Guest Post

One day, several years ago, I woke up and decided (quite out of the blue) that I was going to climb a mountain. Now a lot of people do that, it’s sort of a primal urge, but most of them aren’t middle-aged, overweight, asthmatic, and firmly planted on flat, sea-level, ground. To this day I can’t really explain the origin of that idea or why I didn’t shrug it off as unrealistic.

Of course, I couldn’t get anywhere near a mountain in that shape. I had to embark on a punishing training and diet regimen and stick to it for many months before setting foot on a mountain would be possible. So I did my research, started my training, and even reached out to a famous mountaineer who would become my mentor, my friend, and eventually my climbing partner.

Training at that level is really something. In the months leading up to some of my climbs, I was working out at 5 am before work, during my lunch break at work, and a couple of hours each evening after work. I would run 100 stories of stairs in 100-degree heat or freezing cold, put in several miles, and lift weights every single day. And at no point during this did I ever think that I was “in shape”. At no point did I ever consider myself a mountain climber. I thought of myself as a person who was climbing mountains to learn how to be a mountain climber. That title was a goal that moved further off in the distance with each accomplishment. I was focused – arguably too focused.

Which brings me to Zen practice and the similarities between it and climbing – at least from my view. Both require persistence and faith. Both are made easier with the assistance of mentors who have travelled the way and who understand the inevitable pitfalls. We can even say, with no disrespect, that both undertakings are also a little bit crazy – unconventional if you’re trying to be polite. And once undertaken with some seriousness both can become goal-driven in a way that blinds us to an important truth; perhaps what you seek to attain is already there.

My climbing mentor once told me that you don’t have to feel good about your training. You just have to do it. You just have to show up every day and do it. Take your expectations, feelings, likes, and dislikes and set them down. Perfection is manifested in the act of showing up each day and putting one foot in front of the other. He also said that climbers are defined by the act of climbing, not summits reached. For the climber, form, the act of putting one foot in front of the other regardless of feeling or outcome, becomes a refuge.

Form can feel superficial when we’re focused on the divergence between it and our inner dialogue. But that divergence doesn’t change the fact that we are in touch with perfection at every single moment – realized or not. When we practice zazen we are the physical embodiment of our teaching and the greater wisdom that it points to. In this way form can be a refuge for us as well. Unlike the climber, we can sit quietly and know, feelings and conditions aside, that we are already on the summit. It is there – waiting to be seen.

Contribution by John.

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What Am I?

We struggle to know who we are, to define and be defined. To be valued, to be of value. To know and be known. To understand and be understood. In this tradition, humans are regarded as intrinsically empty of independent existence. Yes, we know and experience ourselves as individual and separate, functioning in the world along side other ‘separate’ beings. However, the sense of being a separated self, separate from other ‘selves’, fades. If given half a chance!

I am what I do?
I am what I think?
I am how I appear?
I am what I feel?
I am what I understand?

Doing, thinking, appearing, feeling and understanding are known as the five Skandhas or five aggregates or ‘heaps’ which are: form (or material image, impression) (rupa), sensations (or feelings, received from form) (vedana), perceptions (samjna), mental activity or formations (sankhara), and consciousness (vijnana).
Wikipedia for starters:

This post is for those suffering from long term degenerative conditions, and those who partner them. Over time and increasingly: no longer able to ‘do’ as they once did, not able to ‘appear’ thus ‘invisible in the world’, feelings are extreme/diffuse/confusing (you name it) thoughts are muddled and understanding dimming. This too is Buddha, we take care of Buddha. Note to self: ‘Aging’ is not a long term degenerative disease, however it surely does feel that way! sometimes.

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Did I sign up for This?

I have been thinking about the relationship of developing dependence, over time, between ‘carer’ and cared for. Mother and ‘child’, husband and wife, professional carer and client (live in carer especially.) Not to mention all the other multiple relationships that grow when an individual needs help.

I’ve also been thinking about people I have worked with who developed some form of Autoimmune Disease MS (Multiple sclerosis) for one and Parkinson’s Disease for another.

Back in 1972, I worked for a voluntary organization coordinating young volunteers. Calls would come in for help needed for the elderly and infirm: gardening, decoration, shopping, cleaning.  These requests would be matched to the volunteers. Peter, who had just been named ‘Man of the Year’, was the coordinator of the organization. Bound to his chair and not able to move his limbs, only one finger worked to switch on his speakerphone and his speech was weak.  He had MS, was totally dependent on his mother for EVERYTHING, disarmingly handsome and ready for a laugh. When we met we would talk about his life in particular difficulties around dependence and his relationship with his mother. Months after I’d left I learnt he had got married! Imagine? While his mother was devastated, he had found love and perhaps some level of liberation.

Then there is a whole raft of people I know who developed Parkinson’s Disease. Mr Cook my employer, Alexander my colleague, Brian the ebullient one. My heart goes out, at times the outlook appears grim and hopeless both for the individuals concerned and for those who support them. Dancing for Parkinson’s people and in an interesting turn of events, my former Alexander Technique teacher is working wonders in Edmonton Canada to support those with compromised mobility.There are other AT Teachers working in this field all around the world.

Returning now to my original thought. To the relationship, human, emotional, practical between those in need and those who can and do meet that. I’ve been that person. I assisted Rev. Master Jiyu towards the end of her life, in the mid-1990s. I was never her ‘carer’, she was always my teacher. That was the basis, teacher/disciple, heart to heart along with all that goes with assisting, Testing times for sure. So looking past the dependence relationships talked about in this post, there is the unseen heart to heart level. Which sometimes gets lost sight of.

Let Candace have the last word, Parkinson’s has become interestingly and unexpectedly, my passion’.

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Getting Out of My Own Way – Guest Post

I have been reflecting on my Zen journey quite a lot over the past few weeks. It’s hard to believe that I picked up my first batch of second-hand Zen books from a bookstore about a quarter of a century ago. At the time I didn’t even know why I was buying them. They just seemed interesting and, honestly, kind of exotic. I certainly didn’t expect them to send me off on a lifelong journey – but here we are.

I suppose I was somewhat fortunate that the original owners of those books bought well. Those first few finds were modern classics and translations of the masters. And despite not understanding 75% of what I was reading something stuck. The pursuit was intellectually stimulating but the subconscious attraction that propelled me forward was driven by the recognition of something running much deeper. Zen had the same unexplainable magnetic pull on me that the ocean has had on humanity throughout our history. I didn’t understand the mystery but I also couldn’t turn away from it. This is all much clearer now, with hindsight, than it was at the time.

That period of frantic exploration passed some time ago. There was a period of intense doubt and questioning along the way too. That passed as well. Now I mostly seem to have quiet conversations with myself. I read less and when I do it’s usually a return to Master Dogen. Life and death, almost 1,000 years, and language do not separate us. Ultimately, nothing can. Reading Dogen is a conversation with a dear friend.

I have been thinking a lot about ritual, form, realization, and actualization. The inter-relatedness of these concepts; the different but complimentary purposes that they serve and the ways that they play off of each other are so interesting. My relationship with each of them continues to evolve in complex ways. And despite all of the intellectual observation that is necessary to consciously navigate the world, it is clear that all of this stuff floats on an ocean of great simplicity and great perfection. There is really nothing left for me to do except get out of my own way.

By John


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When a Smile is All

It’s odd!
A streaming cold
emptied in-box.

It’s odd!
to feel sick
and energetic

It’s odd!
I said
I’m dying

She said
‘we are’
I smiled.

Yes, it is odd to be caught in this in-between world within the community. Taking care not to spread the cold; we take a lot of care. Not mixing, eating alone, not joining in kitchen clean-up, sanatizing hands, handles etc. At least we can share a smile. I’m not dying but it feels that way sometimes. My sympathy goes out to those who are actually and actively dying. Human, animal, the earth.

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