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Beyond Christmas Trees
Eyes glued to the ornaments on other trees,
heart bleeding at the base,
I’ve yearned for the traditions of others,
abandoning my own in mistrust.
Where is the base of this tree?
Is it rooted in connection
or uprooted, killed to die
for some indoor tradition
that does not feel genuine?
Angel at the top,
are you watching over us?
Presents at the base,
will you fulfill our needs?
Seeing all the firs, pines, and spruce
in high demand this time of year,
I envision this body as a tree--
sits bones rooted in earth,
crown sunkissed, starstruck, moonswept.
Ornaments etched with glittering words
adorn these branches, these limbs,
words that have more dimensionality
than the ornaments themselves.
Generosity. Patience. Reverence.
How I decorate my inner life
determines how I see others,
and sense relationships with soul.
Dying to Live
(Inspired by William Stafford’s “The Way It Is”)
There is a breath that you follow.
Sometimes the breath is heavy,
oppressed by circumstance.
Sometimes you sing,
inspired by a courage
beyond words and music.
You grow old.
You never stop breathing
till it’s time for your last one.
Disheveled and depressed, his spirit is struggling to stay embodied. After 11 days in the hospital, the white stubble and glazed look in his eyes make me yearn for the man who introduced me to elements of the natural world as if they were my relatives, who sheltered me as his own daughter.
He’s still in there somewhere…
Sensing that he may respond to touch beyond the squeeze of a blood pressure cuff, the prick of needles drawing blood, even a cold stethoscope meant to hear the breath and beating of life, I ask the nurse for assistance in bathing him.
Our hands work gently, methodically, dipping white washcloths into warm soapy water, stroking dry wrinkled skin tenderly, as if we are bathing someone sacred. I hear whispers of encouragement. He is still here. Find him!
As if on cue, Papa responds. “Pass me a washcloth to help.”
Once the bathing ritual is finished, the nurse proceeds to dress this skeleton of a man in a new patient gown. I reach for the Eucerin cream and began to moisturize dry skin thirsty for better days. A single tear trickles down his cheek. It’s all that he can contribute despite the heavy diuretics he is on. We make eye contact. Something is different. The clouds still linger. There is also a clearing.
Today, I am not here as a doctor, Papa. The cardiologist and medicine team have that covered. Today, I am here as your daughter, someone who wants to bathe you in love. What good is modern medicine if loving connection is lost?
On a walk at Calaveras Big Trees National Park, the park ranger paused to pay homage to two giant sequoias that shared the same trunk. The trunks were originally separate, and fused together after a fire for mutual benefit and survival.
I thought of my mother and daughter, how the umbilical connection was severed between us at birth, how the sacral, sacred burning in my body was a sign.
I reflected on all the beings I have pushed away on this camping trip and beyond, the yearning to share the same base, something tender beyond ideas of a separate self.
In meditation, the image of the conjoined sequoias arose, inspiring metta for my teachers, for me, for my mother and daughter, for all the beings at camp, and beyond. It wasn’t my body-heart-mind responsible for such vivid and vast imagination, but tapping into a larger, loving life force inherent in all things.
Listening to the bell resound at the end of the sit, I was clinging- to the bell, the sequoias, the feeling, fearful that I would walk back into a black and white world where beings scurried frantically around like mice to make meaning.
I will continue to disagree with others and feel the pain of separation. I will also persevere in tenderness, beauty, and Soulmaking.
It’s what I was born to ‘do’, and who i already am.
During spring break, I had the opportunity to visit a butterfly sanctuary in Maui. The fact that it is called The Maui Butterfly Farm (not caterpillar or chrysalis farm) speaks volumes about the value given to the butterfly in its life cycle.
The butterfly is beautiful, light, and free – an exquisite symbol of pleasurable moments or stages of life. In contrast, the caterpillar is ugly, heavy, sluggish, always hungry for more. It represents challenges along the way, the wish to transform and be transported elsewhere. For me, the hardest stage to be in sometimes is the chrysalis, the neutral moments of perceived inactivity when questions are marinating in dark space. If I force answers prematurely, wings are torn before possibilities can even take flight.
What does it mean to honor each stage, to understand that I am moving through symbolic caterpillar-chrysalis-butterfly stages multiple times, not just once in a lifetime? How would my life change if I wasn’t just chasing butterflies, but embodying the whole picture?
In Matty Weingast’s, The First Free Women, original poems inspired by the early Buddhist nuns, Theri Punna (Full) writes:
the dark night
Hearing Punna’s whispers inside this body-heart-mind, I wrote the following:
All this time--
for the big moment,
the Earth to quake
like His awakening.
All this time--
the heart knew
in all beings,
like a still lake
the full moon,
was Her awakening.
For years, I’ve been waiting for my life to begin. Chasing butterflies, waiting for the Earth to quake, to awake with ultimate understanding, I missed the smaller moments of stress and struggle, of forgiveness and redemption, of joy and fullness all around me.
In medicine, meditation, and other aspects of life experience, there is deeper presence, less restlessness, more contentment in the simplicity (and profound healing) of reflecting wholeness in others by sensing the fullness within.
Lake Super Moon Reflection by Randall Branham
In Yasodhara* and the Buddha, Vanessa Sasson does a fine job of setting a vivid stage for their story. She honors ancient Indian culture with humor and reverence. Because of her background in Asian studies and notes at the end of the book referencing other Buddhist and Hindu texts, I trust the story. I also respect her creative additions.
There are so many themes to contemplate in the book: opulence vs. simplicity, loving a precious few vs. all beings equally, the life of a monastic vs. the life of a householder, confusion vs. clarity. They remind me of the three poisons in Buddhism – greed, hatred, and delusion, and the healing power of generosity, metta, and clear-seeing.
Though the Buddha’s story gets all the attention, Yasodhara’s story is equally important. As a householder myself, I feel her loss when she agrees to marry and is confined to the palace walls and Siddhatta’s heart. She renounces her previous life and the freedom it offered. I feel her labor pains, her devotion to Rahula*, her grief and the doubt it conjures when Siddhatta leaves and again when the Buddha takes Rahula for training. I resonate with the need to embody Durga Mata*-like fierce presence, the need for strong maternal guidance and support from someone like Mahapajapati* to face sexual assault.
In the end, I understand that awakening is possible for a householder as much as it is for a renunciate, not because she left, but because she stayed. She stayed with the whirlwind of emotions, changes in her body, changes in her identity. She saw Kisa Gotami* holding on to a dead child in a deliriously painful way, and began to contemplate the power of letting go.
May all women sense their full moon potential, and reflect this in others.
*Yasodhara is Siddhatta’s wife. Siddhatta later becomes the Buddha.
*Rahula is the son of Yasodhara and Siddhatta.
*Durga Mata is the Hindu goddess of protection, strength, motherhood, destruction and wars.
*Mahapajapati is Siddhata’s maternal aunt who raises him when his own mother, Maya dies after childbirth.
*Kisa Gotami is so stricken by the death of her child that she loses her mind. She is freed by a wise teaching from the Buddha.
Buddha and Yashodhara by gireesan v s
Butterflies, full moons, epic stories inspire this journey of late. I’m so grateful for some time to slow down and reflect on them. May something offered here be of use, of inspiration.
Poetic Reflections from Retreat
"Born of the Light" by Meganne Forbes
she understands you worry about the future
keep visiting the past as if rereading
the chapters will help you to understand
she invites you to be here
sitting and walking, just breathing
as if there’s no place else to be
as if this is the missing link
the sanctuary you always sought
The Last 15 Minutes of a 45 Minute Sit
leaning into what’s next
the body screams to get up
as the mind conspires to leave
not yet, the heart whispers
just one more minute
as body and mind agree
to settle, to relax
then the sound of the bell
an invitation to enter life
one minute, one breath
one day at a time
bowing to everyone you meet
reflecting True Nature
when it’s hard to see
because there is clarity in you
Gone, the sweet tartness of plump blueberries,
the crunch of cinnamon peppered almonds
in a sea of steaming oatmeal,
now a gurgling afterthought in the belly.
Gone, the tender tones of his teaching instructions
after the birth of an 8:45am sit,
umbilical cut to silence, to sadness
not knowing if I’ll ever see or hear him again.
Gone, the scene of a Saturday morning
girls’ soccer game at the local middle school,
the house with the rose stems
beheaded by the fall season,
white petals decaying between wood chips and soil,
the bright yellow diamond 15 mile per hour
speed bump sign as I turn the corner
of walking meditation towards home--
images encased in the album
of memory that will fade.
I’m chasing after the high school bus,
first kiss, first lover, first child, first job
the way I looked in that residency picture at 31,
abundant glossy black hair and clear complexion
though nothing was ever really clear.
Gone, the thought of what’s next on the schedule
as my invincible partner collapses
on our bed from excruciating back pain,
his body subject to breakdown
like everyone else I know.
Gone, the belief that this retreat will last forever--
a perpetual bomb shelter of safety
against the war with life
when the vihara was always within.
Gone. Gone. Gone.
A birthday candle wish that was never promised,
and a blessing of breath while it lasted.
On Retreat at Home
Restlessness, Metta, and True Nature
There’s a restlessness inside me--
checking the phone, the weather
checking for missed emails, calls, texts.
Am I ok as I am?
Are others ok because of me?
When did the external funhouse
mirrors get so distorted?
When did abandonment
become the only story?
May I be patient with anxiety and restlessness,
and trust something precious beyond this.
A few Winecup clarkias stand out
amidst Pacific poison oak.
Beautiful growth is possible anywhere.
The trill of a red-winged blackbird
invites joyful sound meditation.
Magnetic Mama Earth guides footsteps
to avoid stepping on western
whiptails activated by amygdalas.
So I’m not the only one!
A summer breeze blows
the breath inside out.
Am I ok?
There is no one left to answer…
No Timeline for Love
I don’t need to fill my heart completely
before I can show you love.
I just need to see the thorn,
feel the sharp point against softness,
wrap the wound in tenderness
as scar tissue learns to love
in its own healing time.
These days of cutting okra and long
beans together will soon be over--
hearing knives slice through dark
green flesh at different rhythms,
watching the way your air pods
hang from your ears
as a slight smile crosses your lips,
wondering what you’re listening to
and if you’ll still like that song in college,
or who you will choose to love.
Or the way I turn to you
with partially cut vegetables
that you will chop into smaller pieces
the way your mother did back in India,
breaking down larger pieces of life,
seasoning with spices and cooking slowly
into food the family can easily digest
until arthritic hands can no longer chop
or vision fades into final darkness.
Soon all I will have are these words,
and memories of three generations
cutting okra and long beans
side by side by side.
What used to seem so mundane
now feels like sacred ground.
Please help me to be here!
Soon we will all be gone.
till she can let go
is a gift
by your perception
For years I've gone on retreat, escaping family and home to find freedom. Little did I realize that freedom can be found within my own home, that refuge in a Brahmavihara happens wherever, whenever the heart is willing to feel, and surround all experience in its embrace.
Deep gratitude to Brian Lesage and Sangha for this sacred, unique, configuration, to family and friends for being there with food, hugs, kisses, laughter, and conversation when needed, to colleagues for covering my time off from work, and patients for trusting this practice to widen/deepen my understanding of compassionate care.
The Guest Room
It’s hard to see the chips and stains on walls
where visitors are supposed to feel welcome,
at home in aesthetically pleasing surroundings.
Each time I walk in, the furniture is rearranged
into a configuration that tells me my in-laws
are staying longer than I anticipated.
The scratches, the dents, the torn bedsheet corner
is so unpleasant, just like the hard wooden slats
you are placing over the mattress so your father
feels more comfortable sleeping on the bed
than on the floor. Why does this bother me so much?
Is it because my in-laws are making their mark
in our home, or because they are burrowing into the room,
into my being in ways I do not yet understand?
What if the chips and stains, scratches and dents,
the torn bedsheet corner are all signs of life,
not a sterile room staged for a home
I was not meant to live in?
Maybe the guest room is their room,
the heart space their space to teach me
about inviting more vulnerability in.
Purple Iris Mystery
The Earth holds me. When I felt disconnected, the Earth spiritually re-parented me into a profound sense of belonging. Her trees taught me how to silently release and receive through Tonglen practice. Her oceans accepted each and every saltwater river of tears. Her creatures cautiously eyed me with curiosity, wondering if I would threaten their existence, or bow in reverence.
Today, I had the privilege of witnessing a ceremony welcoming a beloved and respected Dhamma teacher to a retreat center’s counsel. She eloquently expressed the connection between slavery, colonialism, and the exploitation of land, how this same land can heal us, invite us into belonging and connection beyond personal wealth, status, and ignorance.
As photographs were shared of the land around the retreat center, one picture spoke louder than the rest.
she calls to you…
how will you answer?
I am not sure how I will answer, and hope to visit Vallecitos soon. For now, I take refuge in the Earth holding me so I can hold others.
This heart is strong.
The cozy configuration of our family nest during the pandemic is about to change. The news of my in laws coming soon to stay with us for a significant length of time rattles the bones, leaves the nervous system unsettled.
It’s tempting to spiritually bypass what’s here, to suppress thoughts, feelings and sensations that aren’t congruent with my partner or rebel against cultural tradition. It’s also easy to blame others for misunderstanding my need for space and silence.
The Practice is asking for ease, curiosity, patient benevolence, a reliance on certain support systems, and remembrance of beauty, joy, hidden gifts.
Sitting in meditation each day is like relaxing back into my favorite chair or cushion, leaning the weight of my body and worries against a giant redwood tree that knows how to root and endure. The breath makes its loyal sweep from head thoughts to heart feelings to gut sensations, gathering them all in its tender embrace, unifying the pieces into one collective, sacred experience.
From this grounded place, questions about perception are asked without expectation of an exact or perfect answer. What’s happening now? Who am I taking myself to be? How am I relating to others? To space? To time?
Once I have attended to my own authentic inner experience in an honest, compassionate way, I can begin to let others in, to get curious and ask about their experience, to sense the multidimensional aspect of relationships and vast space of the Brahmaviharas. Love is not a limited resource trapped inside my own heart. It can flow both ways...towards myself and others.
May I be happy, as well and safe as I can be, peaceful and at ease.
I care about my suffering.
May I know joy.
May I trust in the mysterious unfolding of my life.
May you be happy, as well and safe as you can be, peaceful and at ease.
May you care about your suffering.
May you know joy.
May you trust in the mysterious unfolding of your life.
May we be happy, as well and safe as we can be, peaceful and at ease.
May we care about our suffering.
May we know joy.
May we trust in the mysterious unfolding of our lives.
The term ‘patient’ benevolence helps to remind me that there is no fixed timeline for this process, no need to get anywhere, become anyone too quickly if it doesn’t feel like an embodied experience. Rushing the process can cause more harm.
Reliance on Certain Support Systems
It’s so easy for me to let anxiety and aversion eclipse the whole truth of any given moment. Sometimes I miss sweet family connections, opportunities for beauty and joy.
When this happens, the skillful, compassionate, and wise move is to lovingly separate from others so I can connect back with myself to remember. (Sati, the Pali word for mindfulness means ‘to remember’). Through meditation, mindful movement, time in nature, reflection and writing, listening to music and singing, I hear that one clear voice calling out for me to listen. I can also reach out to wise ones who offer safe shelter for the nervous system to settle, the bones to rattle less.
I need to take things one breath, one step at a time, slowing down so the contraction of time does not scatter my attention in multiple directions to dissipate and waste energy.
Remembrance of Beauty, Joy, Hidden Gifts
When there is resistance to unpleasant perception, animal instincts of survival kick in. Can I fight? Can I run away? Can I play dead, sleep, and wake up when it’s safe, when it’s all over?
Is it ever truly all over???
Zen Master Setcho Juken said, “Here in the dragon’s jaws: many exquisite jewels.”
For me, the jewels of practice have shined in so many ways—the width of loving-kindness, the depth of compassion, the length of joy unmeasured by circumstance, the groundless ground of equanimity that does not crack in any mind-heart-body quake, seeing all parts of myself reflected in other beings, other animals, the Earth, and vice versa, everything mentioned and not mentioned in these words, the unborn, the unheard, the unseen.
I am ready to welcome my in-laws, welcome all that arises internally and externally with this shift. I am not the same person I was before. My partner, daughter, mother, and in laws are also not the same. I know it will not be perfect, that I may forget what I have learned, written, practiced and embodied over time.
When this happens, how blessed I feel to return to these words, this heart-mind, these intentions to embody The Practice as best as I can like Kali, Durga, Lakshmi, Kwan Yin, Tara, a Dakini, a redwood, willow, oak tree, all phases of the moon, a lotus (including muddy, tangled rhizome roots, long stem, and budding blossom), the uterine journey from menarche to menopause, the elemental forces of Nature...the Divine Feminine in all her many moods and manifestations!
Kaveri Patel, a woman who is always searching for the wisdom in waves.
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