The Stone Mind

Hogen, a Chinese Zen teacher, lived alone in a small temple in the country. One day, four traveling monks appeared and asked if they might make a fire in his yard to warm themselves.

While they were building the fire, Hogen heard them arguing about subjectivity and objectivity. He joined them and said: “There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be inside or outside your mind?”

One of the monks replied: “From the Buddhist viewpoint everything is an objectification of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind.”

“Your head must feel very heavy,” observed Hogen, “if you are carrying around a stone like that in your mind.”

I love this zen story because it succinctly, and always with that clever simplicity, overrides the rational mind, the ego, the voice inside explaining why or justifying the emotional reaction. I’ve read this many times and this time I am struck by the monks answer, relying on the Buddhist viewpoint instead of his own “teacher within” as us yogis like to say.  It’s almost as if he doesn’t know what’s inside his mind, as though he has lost that awareness.

I haven’t written a blog in a while…in fact, I haven’t written anything in a while.  I guess you could say I’ve been carrying a heavy stone inside my mind, objectifying this process of finding an agent, as the reason to write or not write.

But sometimes a stone is just a stone…

The Empty Boat

There’s a wonderful Zen story about a man who is out on the lake in his boat.  I have read many translations of this story but basically while enjoying his time on the water, he looks over to see another boat on the lake.  He thinks to himself how the other person on the boat must be enjoying the lake like himself.  Then he notices how the boat is heading straight for his boat.  He screams out, “watch out,” but the boat is still moving fast.  He stands up and waves his hands and screams even louder, but the other boat is coming right towards him. Inevitably, the boat slams into his boat.  With rage, he looks inside the boat, wanting to unleash his anger all over the person who did not heed his warnings before crashing into him, but the boat is empty.

He couldn’t unleash his anger on an empty that just happened to be on course to hit his boat. It was then he realized the empty boat was his teacher.

When people, situations, boats full of doubt and sadness and anger head straight for us, there is something soothing about saying the mantra, “empty boat.”  Perhaps those people are in boats out of their control, without any rudders, and although they are heading towards us, perhaps their own wounds are steering them instead of their higher selves? The empty boat is our whole life really and we get to choose how we react to all that is not in our control.  Even when people are unkind to us, they are showing their pain, as if saying, “I am an empty boat.”

In a way, that is what my book, “Inside the River” is about…the way in which Emma and Ana learn to let go of that empty boat crashing into them (with the help of some magic and the singing fish).







Going with the flow

A Taoist story tells of an old man who accidentally fell into the river rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for his life. Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. People asked him how he managed to survive. “I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl. This is how I survived.”

I love this story as I’ve been working on “surrendering” while trying to find an agent for my book, “Inside the River.”  The discipline and courage needed to write this book felt like a turbulent rapid at times.  But this part of the process is even more out of my control, and so asks for more of my surrender to the flow.

There are daily situations where our first reaction to an unappealing situation is to fight it as a way of controlling our environment.  The old man fell into the water, and the water was choppy and brutal.  How often do our days feel like those rapids? What happens when we fight this flow and try to make sure our current is noticed/heard/validated? What would happen, if like the old man, we plunged into the swirl (the chaos) and went with that flow, until we came out of it, amazingly unharmed?  I think our ego, the part of us who always wants to win and be noticed, would scowl at the old man and ask him why he didn’t try to get out of the water somehow, even if the effort caused him bodily harm.  Our ego wants us to flair about and show our strength and power over everything.  But if we want ease in the discomfort, peace beyond the chaos, and calm inside the storm, then the old man taught us well–inside the swirl, be the swirl, and come out with it.

A Cup of Tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

I was happy with “Inside the River.” I thought the “cup” of my novel was full.  Then I was given the incredibly accurate advice to switch the order of the parts so that Emma (not Ana) begins and ends the book since it’s ultimately her story.

I am loving the restructure; the book is reaching its true current.  It needs work and I am cutting out unnecessary passages. My phenomenal editor, Jacob Miller, was impressed with how easily I let go of paragraphs and phrases that previously I hung onto.

And so I embrace another Zen story, “A Cup of Tea.”  How could I dive into another edit if I cling to the idea that the book is done? If I let my own opinions fill up my head, how is there room to hear someone else’s advice? How do I show up to my work, my days, my mat, my interactions? Am I spacious and open to whatever opportunity presents itself or do I let my ego and past opinions spill over into everything?


Muddy Road

Zen Story: Muddy Road

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.

Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

“Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

I am ready to start writing again after a bit of a hiatus.  My intention is to write a collection of interweaving short stories about Antonio, the old man with piercing blue eyes, from “Inside the River.” There is a nagging thought that goes something like this–why write it, why not wait to see how “Inside the River” gets published?

And then I went to the stories I love that swirl around my head, stories that help me reset my brain, so as not to cling to negative thinking.  The above Zen story is what I chose to think about.

What does it mean to me? There are rules all around us, and rules that Tanzan and Ekido follow.  And then life happens and for them, life happened with a lovely girl who needed help.  Tanzan helped her, and then let it go. Ekido did not help her, but chose to hold onto his discomfort that Tanzan broke a rule.  Ekido, therefore, was still carrying her, making it dangerous for him as it clogged his thoughts with perhaps temptation or cravings or the disquiet of the mind.

What do we get attached to and how does that stop us from our pursuits, intentions, ease? If I am waiting for the end result of “Inside the River,” before continuing to write, an action that enlivens me and brings me joy, than aren’t I just like Ekido?  And by clinging to negative thoughts, can I be of service to myself or anyone else?


Find the Funny Friday: Yoga & Hiking

It’s Find the Funny Friday–here we go:

A year ago, I went to Kripalu, for a yoga retreat.  It is one of my favorite places to go for a long weekend alone, to delve deep into my practice, and eat incredible food.  This time, I decided to get out of my comfort zone and so signed up for a Yoga & Hiking retreat as Kripalu is immersed in the beauty of the Berkshires.

I bought myself my first pair of hiking boots and pants.  I covered up and doused myself in DEET as my adventure preceded an incredibly wet and rainy November.  I headed out, ready to climb into bliss.

Now, I have say that I was fully conscious in my decision to head into the woods knowing that I get an incredibly bad reaction to mosquito bites. I was entirely covered up, but made the poor decision not to spray my face as I thought DEET on the rest of my body was bad enough.

I wish I could exaggerate the swarm of mosquitoes that followed me on the trail.  I wish I could exaggerate the amount of bug bites I got on my face, the only part exposed and unsprayed.  The thing about my reaction is that it, rarely, takes a bit to get into its full swelling.  But this time, I found myself enjoying the view, amidst the swarm, and then made my way back to my room, content and exhausted.

Kripalu’s dining room is cafeteria style, with long buffets and long tables set up.  Breakfast is silent, a way to add mindfulness into a meal.  I woke up and went to eat, with one eye swollen shut, my hairline puffed up (it’s quite a strange sight) and my cheekbones gone.  I had to silently ask those I knew as I sat down to eat, if they had Benadryl.  Not an easy charade word to perform! And what was even funnier, was their reactions as they tried to stay silent.

Needless to say, I spent the rest of the weekend inside, in zen safety, on my mat.

What’s your funny?


I Quit

There once was a monastery that was very strict. Following a vow of silence, no one was allowed to speak at all. But there was one exception to this rule. Every ten years, the monks were permitted to speak just two words.

After spending his first ten years at the monastery, one monk went to the head monk. “It has been ten years,” said the head monk. “What are the two words you would like to speak?”

“Bed… hard…” said the monk.

“I see,” replied the head monk.

Ten years later, the monk returned to the head monk’s office. “It has been ten more years,” said the head monk. “What are the two words you would like to speak?”

“Food… stinks…” said the monk.

“I see,” replied the head monk.

Yet another ten years passed and the monk once again met with the head monk who asked, “What are your two words now, after these ten years?”

“I… quit!” said the monk.

“Well, I can see why,” replied the head monk. “All you ever do is complain.”

I love this zen story.  The monk could only speak two words every ten years and those two words were complaints.  He spent his time thinking thoughts that kept him stuck in that cycle of angst without movement or transcendence.  Thirty years dwelling on what was wrong without taking the turn to see what is…where the road opens up and eventually becomes road-less. It also took him thirty years and six words to finally say, “I quit!”  He stayed stuck, following the rules, until he decided to make a change.

How often do we do this?  How often do we stay stuck in complaints, almost delighting in our chance to point out what’s wrong with everything?  How often do we stay stuck for years before making a change, deciding on a choice that was always there?

I have said before that it took me twenty years to write, “Inside the River.” I complained about my lack of discipline, time, inspiration, talent.  I quit, deleted, ignored, complained. The monk realized after thirty years that he could make a choice to quit rather than complain and rather than transcend into the spiritual realm that his silence could offer. I, too, decided another way.  Each draft, restart, and new choice veered away from the complaining.  Each misstep, rewrite, and finishing touch was a step forward.  Each time I acted upon instead of complaining about was a spiritual awakening.  If I only had two words every ten years for those twenty years (regarding my book), my words would be similar to the complaining monk.

My first two words now would be, “Thank you.”

What would your two words be?