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NOTES ON SANGHA & A KOAN ABOUT INTIMACY |

March 8, 2021

 

I've been thinking about sangha—the community of fellow practitioners—and those of us who come together on Zoom each morning, or some mornings, and also those who don't drop in but are perhaps sitting on their own for good reasons or are perhaps in a time zone that makes it difficult to participate. And thinking about how, for millennia, people have been gathering to sit together to inquire about this great matter of being alive. 

 

And how even the deer that come and eat the birdseed, and the people who seem indifferent and content at the top of the food chain, and the full moon rising above the trees—they're sangha too. 

 

And how easy it is to lose track of this intimacy unless we're practicing, that somehow sangha deepens practice and practice deepens sangha. In Japan, the terms intimacy and enlightenment are often used interchangeably. What is enlightenment after all but the experience of intimacy, of no self apart? 

 

Here's a good koan about intimacy: When the sound of the temple bell replaces you, who becomes enlightened? 

 

Sitting together is an act of trust and vulnerability, even on Zoom, because we're not just sitting with pure light and smiley faces. We're also sitting with anguish and uncertainty and self-doubt and back pain and aching joints and fear of death and longings and all the precincts of discomfort that come with being human. In sitting together, the experience becomes not so much about me and my shortcomings or my ideas about what kind of clarity I should be having. It becomes more about the vastness in all places and all places having light and value. Just how each face in the dojo, familiar or unfamiliar, is beautiful.

 

But I think Rainer Maria Rilke put it best in an early version of his Tenth Duino Elegy (translated by Stephen Mitchell): 

 

How dear you will be to me then, you nights of anguish.

Why didn't I kneel more deeply to accept you, inconsolable sisters,

And surrendering, lose myself in your loosened hair?

How we squander our hours of pain, 

How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration

To see if they have an end. 

Though they are really seasons of us, 

Our winter enduring foliage, ponds, meadows, our inborn landscape, 

Where birds and reed-dwelling creatures are at home. 

SITTING IN THE FLAME-LIT CAVE  |  Feb. 21, 2021

One of the oldest meditation teachings (2500 years old +/-) goes like this: when inhaling, be aware that you're inhaling. When exhaling, be aware that you're exhaling. When walking, sitting, lying down, or standing: be aware that you are walking, sitting, lying down, or standing.

Can you notice when you drift away in thinking and then just come back to the breath without self-judgment?

 

In this way we step free from the sharp edges of lock-step clock-time to align with a kind of subterranean rhythm. There is no other inhalation to inhale than this one. There is no other exhalation to exhale than this one.

 

There is no other life to live than this one, the one we have.

This is the news that stays news: each moment is utterly complete and also utterly brimming with possibility.

 

It's as though we're sitting in the flame-lit cave at midnight. The bison etched on the wall breathe as we breathe. Each being, each thing, and each place is always beginning anew.

THE MINOTAUR AND THE TENT | February 14, 2021

There seems to be a strong correlation between feeling lost in our own mind and feeling estranged from the world and from each other.

 

At such times, we're like the mythological minotaur, lost in a labyrinth of our own making, revising old operas and brooding over lost time—often without realizing that we're doing this or that there's another way.

 

But when we choose to sit still and allow the stillness to find us, even a little, the old stories begin to settle down and we can taste the inklings of a new spaciousness.

 

It requires patience and diligence but it's like discovering a kind of sanctum or shrine that's actually just this ordinary carpet, just this ordinary sitting here, just this ordinary and very loud magpie on the roof.

 

We see that everything's inside the tent and nothing's outside the tent. And so there's less compulsion to insist that we're lacking in some way.

 

Busy mind, still mind, dark thoughts, brilliant thoughts, good days, bad days, bodily aches, bodily ease. 

 

No need to banish these guests, nor detain them, when there's enough room.

HOW TO DISAPPEAR | February 7, 2021

It's easy to get distracted by the challenges of meditation: physical discomfort, scheduling, uncomfortable thoughts, self doubt, swarms of preoccupations, skepticism, resistance, etc.. We might think: surely this is easier for other people. Surely, not everyone is struggling like this.

 

But what if we were able to practice as though it were a child's game? Sitting for the sake of sitting. No expectations of anything beyond the experience itself.

 

Just a kind of playful openness.

 

Can we sit so still that the birds mistake us for a rock? Can we sit so still that our dog gets a little worried? Or maybe: can we sit so still that we disappear? What would it mean to disappear?

 

I think it might simply mean that the smell of incense momentarily replaces us on the meditation cushion.

 

Can we sit so still that we're just keeping company with our breathing?

 

Perhaps appreciating how the end of an exhalation is also the beginning of an inhalation.

 

Not wishing away the storms of thought or the bodily discomforts.

 

Just seeing them clearly, maybe even appreciating their richness, and once again coming back to the breath.

 

This is the practice: drifting away in fantasy, noticing the drifting, and returning to the breath. Again and again.

 

Each time strengthening the ability to be here more deeply and completely, and perhaps a little less seriously.

 

THE AUDACITY OF NOT-KNOWING | January 24, 2021

In this culture, at this time, with so many competing crises that are under-funded and under-championed, it might seem 

audacious (or perhaps even self-indulgent) to set aside time each day to be still.

 

To literally, physically, commit to not moving.

 

To acknowledge that there might be something else here worth investigating, and that we might have to do something different to move beyond a conceptual understanding of this enterprise of being.

 

That it might be something perhaps more foundational than the affairs of the world and something perhaps more primary than personal concerns about one's place in the world.

 

And it's not just our body that becomes still. The mind becomes still. Or we might say that the mind recovers its original stillness: 

a vast and wordless unmovingness right here in the heart of the never-ending mess.

 

Being in touch with this spaciousness, even a little, can allow us to move in the world and do our work, whatever it is, with a little more generosity, fluidity, and even joy. 

The following poem by David Wagoner, "Lost," (a Native American elder story rendered into modern English by Wagoner) shows us the power, and necessity, of being still and allowing ourselves to be found, wherever we are.

 

The story is a response to the question of a child asking, "What should I do if I'm lost in the woods?"    

 

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

THE OLD RECIPE | September 27, 2020

Meditation is an old recipe that calls for equal portions of body, mind, breath, time, stillness, and space. Other ingredients might include an understanding that the affairs of the world will never be settled.

 

Or an urgent sense that life and health are fleeting. 

 

Or a hunger to experience something foundational—what Dogen called original mind. 

 

Most of us don't realize how preoccupied and scattered we are until we sit down and try to count breaths. And for some of us, the enormity of the challenge is too much. But when counting breaths, the idea is not to get to ten. It is, rather, to be completely intimate with one. And then completely intimate with two, and so on.

 

When you get sidetracked, start again with one.

 

Patience is also a crucial ingredient.

 

And one day you might find that you're momentarily replaced by the sound of rain. In that moment, who are you? Like a child free from the coffin of theory and interpretation, the most playful and penetrating response to that question might be to make the universal sound effect of rain and flutter your fingers in the air as falling water—to be the rain in body and mind. 

 

This is the intimacy of no self apart, the vastness normally paved over by ruminations, the news that stays news. 

 © 2021 Hoag Holmgren