Category Archives: Overcome Difficulties

Being Nobody, Going Nowhere!

This poem by Emily Dickinson heads the home page of Rita Brady Kiefer’s website, more on her another time. I have bumped into it in a number of places and each time I’m left in a thoughtful mood.

“I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d banish us – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog —
To tell your name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!”
– Emily Dickinson

Being a shy sensitive youngster I longed to have an identity and at the time that was connected to what I did. ‘What do you do’? was the question I would dread as I struggled to be invisible in the public space! Then it was a common make-conversation opener when sitting on a train or bus, now most people are looking at a screen rather than at each other. Teenagers struggle to be something or somebody, to have an answer as much for themselves as curious others. I wanted my answer to be a casual, ‘Oh, I’m a photographer!’ In time, a long time, I could honestly use that as an answer but by then I didn’t need it. I knew I was a multiple me and nobody wants chapter and verse, at a bus stop!

Fast forward through the decades, now when asked I can say ‘a monastic’, (surrounded by Northumbrian bog)! Identity, apart from ‘function’, is so tied up with appearance, how our face is. Photography is in the hands of everybody, everywhere, anytime. Screens, especially at the moment when less in outdoor public space or indoors for that matter, has become how we know people. How we make contact. For those who have used Zoom, or group Skype or other means of joining online using a webcam, there you are face and shoulders with a ‘sneak peek’ into the life behind the image. On big Webinars, there are multiple screens to scroll through to see ‘who is there’. No questions asked or needing to be answered. At the moment for so many people having contact is to see, and speak to a moving image. Which is both close-up and at a distance on a glass screen. To go deeper than surface appearance is all guesswork, more or less.

The other day I had a photograph of myself ‘taken’ for the booklet of printed photographs we have available for visiting guests although, needless to say, we are not open to live guests, for the moment. This book of faces means visitors can learn the monk’s names which is all part of connecting with the community, and the practice and teaching here at Throssel. Little did I realize uploading this photograph here and in other online places I frequent (Facebook as hounmugo for example) I’d get the multiple responses that I have.

How public – like a Frog —
To tell your name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

With thanks to all those 67, and still counting, people who have responded to that image. It doesn’t cause me to think I am ‘somebody’ going ‘somewhere’. Nor on the other hand, am I, or anybody reading this, a nobody with no direction to life. That would be a sad, sad thing.

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Paying One’s Last Respects

The remains of snow, perhaps.
Just a moment to pause, on the top of a hill (somewhere in Yorkshire) to mark the cremation ceremony for Norman Trewhitt in Lancaster yesterday. I attended via a live Webcast since I was not able to travel, it’s not the same as being there and in person but better than nothing. This remote attending at cremations is the way many have to pay their last respects, currently. The grief of seeing those spaced chairs, all filled, no chance for hands to reach out for comfort and support. The ceremony was conducted beautifully by Paul and Kate. We all did our best Norman.

I offered incense and a candle, which wasn’t possible at the crematorium, and sang and observed moments of reflection and listened to the chosen music and watched as the curtain closed and the people processed outside. The webcast ended abruptly. Then with a cup of tea and a piece of cake leftover from Sunday lunch, I phoned up a fellow webcast watcher for ‘tea’.

This was the story for a couple of other cremations further south on Monday, a mother and the other for a dearly loved life partner. Such events, cremations where just a few can attend are happening all around the country, all around the world. We show our respect or affection and love for someone who has just died by coming to see their body or grave.

There is something to ‘paying one’s last respects’, to travelling to a gravesite, attending a Cremation Ceremony, a funeral, a scattering or interring of ashes. But there is never a LAST visit is there. What has been, a life known and shared remains and travels into the future as memories? That’s natural, normal and part of living. Part of being alive and forming attachments.

One day when I was young in training one of my fellow monks quoted a saying by Zen Master Dogen to me, ‘attachment and detachment’ he said ‘flow together throughout ones entire life’. I’ve never been able to find that reference although I probably didn’t look that hard. I find it comforting.

I’ll keep that thought beside me when, once again, I need to be reminded to be compassionate for myself, and for others.

Thank you kind person for sending me the photograph. I’ve lost track of the location, sorry. I thought it fitting since Norman was a keen walker and fellrunner.

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Embracing the Wise and the Foolish

A wise person learns the mystery of existence in a flash
And climbs in a leap beyond the world of hollow phenomena,
Whereas a foolish person holds willfully to facts and details,
To drown in subtle differences of words and lines,

Not happy with these lines above. There is a strong pointing to the opposites and for most people, this can be a grand opportunity to climb aboard the ‘foolish’ label and stick it securely to the self. Where it can remain for decades, which is indeed foolish! Or, and this happens, one sticks on the wise label and believes oneself to have ‘lept beyond the world of hollow phenomena’. Maybe so, maybe not but this is still within the realm of the opposites.

One does come across texts that extol the reader to let go of the intellect and allow oneself to ‘leap’ or more often to ‘let go’ of discursive thinking and habitual behaviour. As is said above, ‘to drown in’ and ‘to hold willfully’ to facts, details, subtle differences of words and lines, neither any of us would want to do, certainly not for extended periods of time. It takes as long as it takes to realise the futility of such thinking. So I take the lines from the poem by Ryokan copied above as a strong pointing past what we often term ‘the ordinary mind’. Such teachings can be and are a powerful reminded of the futility of such thinking.

The ‘leap’ then is a leap of faith/trust that there is a deeper aspect to ourselves/existence that is not available via the normal means of understanding ‘why things are the way they are’ and to work out how to change them in oneself or others or both.

Faith in this tradition does not need or require an ‘object of faith, nor is ‘blind faith’ what’s being pointed to. Rev. Master Jiyu said in my hearing that the solution to all koans, including the koan of daily life, is a leap of faith. I’d think this was about doing something deliberately with my mind. I’ve learnt that it’s the opposite, that it’s to deliberately decide NOT to do something! Committing to sitting still in formal meditation is to deliberately decide not to something, anything, one could be doing and JUST SIT! And to simply and actively engage with ‘what is’. This embraces the ‘wise’ and the ‘foolish’, without discrimination.

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Challenges For Change

Here is a repost from 2009.

Challenge One: Trust
Challenge Two: Face up to change
Challenge Three: Access the source of Trust
Challenge Four: Trust that trust is not…what we think it is.

It’s not always so easy, it’s a personal challenge in terms of trust, to talk about one’s interior world with a monk who they don’t know. However, that’s what people can do when here for a retreat, or at other times too. It’s especially challenging to talk about a life change on the horizon which, on the face of it is life-changing, in every direction. The third challenge is to trust ones own heart while talking. Hearing ones own voice emanating from deep within, knowing that another is listening without judgment, can be life-changing!

Here is some correspondence with a woman I met at a recent introductory retreat. I’m publishing with her permission. Our exchanges, both in person and via email, are an example of how Taking Refuge in the Sangha works.

Dear Rev. Mugo,
The time that I spent at the monastery this weekend has been invaluable. No matter which route my spiritual journey now takes, it will not be the same as I thought it would have been on Friday when I set off. Many thanks to you and the other monks for your inspiration and a special thanks to you for listening and allowing me to honestly explore where I am right now.

My response:

Thanks for this. Glad the retreat helped and thanks for the thanks. As you will have read on Jade, I found being around all of you people this last week inspiring. Here we all are just attempting to take the next wise step in our lives. May your steps take you to the important thing, however that manifests in your daily life as a religious person.

This person has in actual fact made a remarkable step in her religious life. On the eve before going off on holiday for two weeks she asked me if I had any general advice you thought might be appropriate.

I responded thus:

Have a lovely holiday with your family. As for advice generally? I’d say to trust the deepest part of yourself and consult inwardly as you move along in your life. Rather in the way one does when out and about, shopping perhaps, taking a pause in an aisle in a supermarket and then remembering you need eggs and if you hadn’t stopped you’d have had to make an extra trip to get them later. The process is just the same generally. Pausing as you go to give those sideways thoughts and insights a chance to be heard. Maybe a slight adjustment suggests itself regarding ones intended direction. This is probably particularly important when, as you are, taking what seems to be a big change of direction in terms of religion. However, you more than likely already realise it’s not such a big step now because you can see how there have been lots of little steps which have come before this one.

Yes, just keep on with your life and enjoy each day, hour, moment. Perhaps appreciate would be a better word. I think one can’t help but appreciate when one opens ones’ heart and follows where it leads especially when a certain level of ‘leap’ has taken place. A life-changing change.

I’ve never used the example of pausing in the aisle of a supermarket before, it just came up when writing to you and thinking about it you can probably relate to it. Often people divide up there lives between spiritual and ordinary, I think this is a false distinction. Obviously one is not going to check with ones interior about getting white or brown bread or will it be cheese on toast or fish fingers for tea! We use our ‘common’ (sense) obviously.

Back from holiday recently my correspondent made a huge leap in understanding regarding listening. I bow to her continuing insights.

We are back safe and sound. We enjoyed the holiday but I am glad to be home nonetheless. Thank you so much for your reply. Yes, by all means, use your response on Jade. I found the supermarket analogy interesting but it did make me realise an aspect of myself which I have to be careful of, I think. My husband always offers to do the shopping, much preferring that I keep well away from the supermarkets and Costco especially. The reason for this is that ….. I spend too much money. ‘I had better put that in the basket because I may need it sometime in the future’. I never seem to be able to keep to what I have written on the list. It got me thinking that to pause in/for the moment is good but not to pause contemplating what I might need in the future. Your comment re, opening my heart and following where it leads, I am adopting as my motto to remind myself to follow the lead rather than trying to lead where my head says it wants to be. Patience is a virtue!

The leap, just in case you didn’t notice it, was to pause and not contemplate what might be needed in the future.

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A Saving Grace

Here’s a wonderful observation from Henrey Miller. I subscribe to the thought of not taking things too seriously. My response to a seeming disaster is ‘nobody has died, been maimed, abused or needs to be taken to hospital’! Let’s be grateful’. Often I’ll laugh with the thought, ‘how human’. Of course, we all do have to take responsibility for when things go wrong or a mistake is made but getting all worked up about it doesn’t help the situation. Retraining a sense of humour helps to maintain a sense of proportion. A saving grace.

Perhaps the most comforting thing about growing old gracefully is the increasing ability not to take things too seriously. One of the big differences between a genuine sage and a preacher is gaiety. When the sage laughs it is a belly laugh; when the preacher laughs, which is all too seldom, it is on the wrong side of the face.

Henry Miller, (December 26, 1891–June 7, 1980)

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