Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Animals Wearing Our Clothes

It's natural to focus our compassion on other beings - animals, children in need, the sick, the downtrodden, even our enemies. Being selfless. Putting our own needs and comfort on the back burner. Tireless rescue workers forgoing sleep. Mother Teresa. Bodhisattvas in the trenches. So much to do. So little time.

In all of this, it's easy to forget a much neglected group of animals. I wrote about them in my first blog post (Who Are These Faithful Friends?):

They are generally obedient animals, with teeth, nails and hair like most others. ;They love attention but are often ignored.  They would love to romp, but are usually allowed only a little bit of walking, and for the rest of the time, are made to sit.

Most often, they are made to eat food with minimal nutritional value, so that for much of their lives, they are obese and unhealthy.  In some cases, they are forced to breathe smoke and even to take harmful drugs to the point of addiction.

They have naturally curious intellects, but these are usually stifled by the countless hours of mindless television they are made to watch.

They are aware of endless opportunities to make others happy, to reach out and comfort suffering.  But because they are forbidden to do so, they are mostly sad.

Despite all of this, they continue to serve us until they eventually die.

They deserve our kindness.

They are our bodies.

Compassion for others and our sense of identity with them go hand in hand.

Compassion is not an idealized state. It is a profound realization that we are not separate from one another. It involves the ability to feel another’s suffering. Like lovingkindness, it is fundamentally interactive and ultimately has no subject and no object. Lovingkindness and compassion are the perfume of the realization of nonduality.

           Compassion: The Second Abode by Joan Halifax Roshi

Respect and kindness towards our animal bodies is really no different.

Besides, there is work to do, and our bodies are our tools. Letting them deteriorate is like letting our chisels get blunt and our wrenches get rusty. Unnecessary illness is unnecessary distraction.

In our enthusiasm for self-sacrificing compassionate action (or possibly, I hasten to add, because of laziness or gluttony), we may overlook or minimize our bodies' needs.


The cost of poor sleep is much greater than many people think: it may have profound consequences for our long-term health. Research has revealed that people who consistently fail to get enough sleep are at an increased risk of chronic disease, and scientists are now beginning to understand why. Treating sleep as a priority, rather than a luxury, may be an important step in preventing a number of chronic medical conditions.

Sleep and Disease Risk (Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School)


The health benefits of regular exercise and physical activity are hard to ignore. ... Find a physical activity you enjoy, and just do it. If you get bored, try something new. ... As a general goal, aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day.

A healthy diet

Metabolic Syndrome is a cluster of conditions — increased blood pressure, high blood sugar level, excess body fat around the waist or abnormal cholesterol levels — that occur together, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes ... If you have metabolic syndrome or any of the components of metabolic syndrome, aggressive lifestyle changes can delay or even prevent the development of serious health problems.

Metabolic Syndrome (Mayo Clinic)

I can’t slip away without putting in a plug for what I believe is one of the best gifts you can give your body – a whole foods plant based diet, as recommended in the documentary film Forks Over Knives.

Through an examination of the careers of American physician Caldwell Esselstyn and professor of nutritional biochemistry T. Colin Campbell, Forks Over Knives suggests that "most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting our present menu of animal-based and processed foods." It also provides an overview of the 20-year China-Cornell-Oxford Project that led to Professor Campbell's findings, outlined in his book, The China Study (2005) in which he suggests that coronary disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer can be linked to the Western diet of processed and animal-based foods (including all dairy products).

Forks Over Knives (Wikipedia)

This public service announcement was brought to the animals wearing your clothes by the animal wearing mine.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

I Will Love You All My Life

The first time I saw this picture, I got choked up - and the second time, and the third, and the fourth. Innocence, unwavering loyalty, sadness at the shortness of life, all from one image. It was love at first sight.

I will love you all my life.

Lovers say it to each other. Christians, Muslims and Jews say it to God. Narcissists say it to themselves. Materialists say it to their possessions. Vegans say it to the animals. Environmentalists say it to the earth. Bodhisattvas say it to all sentient beings.

It's possible to get bogged down in nonduality (Gazing at the Ox - Solipsism: Trapped in Tozan's First Rank), but wherever "I" and "you" appear, so can love. What an absolutely marvellous fact!

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians: 12-13)

It's also possible to get bogged down trying to define love. A many-splendored thing? That which makes the world go round? The only thing that there's just too little of? All you need? Perhaps love is like a window. Perhaps an open door. I fear we're straying into koan land.

Never mind. Our hearts know exactly what love is, even if our brains don't.

Returning to the pathetic story about how I let a bunch of pixels shaped like a dog's face get to me, I was reminded of the true story of Hachikō, an Akita dog. The video tribute is a moving blend of clips from the 1987 movie and the 2009 movie with Richard Gere and Joan Allen.

Thanks to Lynette Monteiro at 108zenbooks for the introduction to Hachikō in All in the Waiting. (And best wishes to Lynette and the Ottawa Hospital Emergency Spiritual Care Assistance Team responding to the train-bus tragedy yesterday.)

What the world needs now is love, sweet love,
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.
… no, not just for some, but for everyone.
(Burt Bacharach)

Monday, September 9, 2013

Flee(t)ing Thoughts

As I never seem to tire of mentioning, my attraction to Zen practice is its simplicity, or more precisely, its lack of distracting frills and ornaments, and its directness.

Whether we're off the cushion chopping wood or interviewing a client, or on the cushion following the breath, sitting with a koan, or just sitting, our brains naturally churn out unbidden thoughts. A constant part of practice is dealing with them in order to be fully present.

In Opening the Hand of Thought, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (successor to Homeless Kodo Sawaki) describes the process like this:

Briefly, our attitude in zazen is aiming at maintaining the posture of zazen with our flesh and bones, and with our mind letting go of thoughts.

What is letting go of thoughts? Well, when we think, we think of something. Thinking of something means grasping that something with thought. However, during zazen we open the hand of thought that is trying to grasp something, and simply refrain from grasping. This is letting go of thoughts.

When a thought of something does actually arise, as long as the thought does not grasp that something, nothing will be formed. For example, even if thought A (“a flower ") occurs, as long as it is not followed by thought B (“is beautiful"), no meaning such as AB (“a flower is beautiful") is formed. … So, even if thought A does occur, as long as the thought does not continue, A occurs prior to the formation of a meaningful sequence. It is not measurable in terms of meaning, and it will disappear as consciousness flows on.

Our encounter with thoughts during practice seems to fall into two categories: after daydreaming and before daydreaming.

The first happens when we have grasped a thought, chased it with others, and find ourselves in a daydream. Here we simply notice that our attention has wandered, let go of the thought, and return to being present. If it’s gentle, effortless and non-judgmental, the process of letting go doesn't itself become a distraction, as it can otherwise trigger its own train of thoughts.

The second happens when we become aware of a thought as it begins to take form, but before it takes hold.

Dealing with these nascent thoughts requires even less effort - just returning the attention to the matter at hand without, literally, giving them a second thought, allowing them to 'disappear as consciousness flows on.'

Of course there are times when we need to pay attention to thoughts as they arise. Making thoughts disappear while trying to write a list of things to buy at the store would be a little, er, off the mark.

The title of this post comes from the realization that opening the hand of thought is a skill that, perhaps because it's so easy, can be used wrongly. I've been catching myself allowing thoughts to disappear not because they distract me from being present, but because they're uncomfortable: generally thoughts that remind me I'm avoiding something. (Hopefully I'm just noticing this more, rather than doing it more.)

Either way, more practice required.

Related Post: Stage Fright

Photo © 2013 Marjon Hollander, with kind permission.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Missing In Action

Stepping from August into September, the question nipping at my heels is, "When is not doing enough, enough?" The lazy summer months floated by, my formal practice went on holiday, this blog crawled under a rock and went to sleep and to some extent, honestly, I feel like I did too.

The summer hasn't been a complete write-off by any stretch. Lots of family time, office time and exercise, and what I think of as my informal practice - i.e. for pretty much everything outside the zendo that doesn't involve sitting on a zafu, aiming to be fully present - continued to unfold at its own pace.

The bodhisattva express, it seems, has infinite stations where one can get on board, but none for getting off and going on a seaside holiday.

The feeling of having been missing in action (I pause to acknowledge having borrowed, nay, stolen the term from blogging friend Lynette Monteiro's Trudging the Wrong Path Diligently) arises when my half-hearted best intentions miss the mark and I drift back into reading a mindless novel. Another twinge of remorse comes from the downside of spending less time on the internet: falling behind in my blog reading, leaving a veritable cornucopia of wonderful works to catch up on.

I could lapse into platitudes here, but since what is really called for is action, I'll just click the 'publish' button and get back to work at failing better.

See you out there.
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