I Choose Both

Snow in Hanover, ME

Snow falling in Bethel, ME. Photo by Karen Swanson

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”

“A human being is a deciding being.”

                                                            ~All quotes Viktor E. Frankl


Dear Friends,

Have you ever experienced a feeling of dissonance despite the fact that you are doing what you should, taking the best course of action for your job or as a parent, and yet, there was a scratchy feeling of unrest and anxiety? I am paying attention to this feeling and what I am unearthing is the effect of hidden mixed motivation. Often there are more than one motivators at play in our lives. We usually go with the ones that show us in the best light, make us look unselfish or generous. Our choices often stem from our conditioning and wanting to be seen as good. This evaluation of good and bad motivations can keep our deeper desires and needs hiding from ourselves and result in subtle and not so subtle feelings of distraction and anxiety.

One of the biggest and most concealed drivers of our actions is to be seen in a certain way. We want to do the right thing—to be the generous one, the saintly one. We certainly don’t want to be the selfish lazy one, the one who just wants pleasure and their own comfort. This desire to be seen in a certain way is one of the three hungers the Buddha spoke about, the hunger of becoming. We want to become something specific in a conditioned setting. This hidden desire for a way of being can cause great conflict when we do not have the honesty to confront our desires directly.

In Buddhist forums, I’ve heard folks confess that they really want ease, recognition, or comfort and are surprised how that desire is driving them. There is an unspoken evaluation of “bad” attached to wanting a life free from suffering, with ease, and enjoyment. It’s much more acceptable to speak about service and the Bodhisattva ideal of liberating all beings instead of disclosing the truth of feeling irritated when caring for sick parents or acknowledging how much research and upheaval it creates cooking for a child with a gluten allergy. We may carefully attend to the sick parent and create delicious gluten-free meals for our kid, but when we have an unacknowledged conflict in our intentions, it blocks our spacious generous heart and creates resentment and a limited capacity.

The first step in opening to allow true generosity is removing the dualistic and discriminative label of good and bad to our motivations. Visiting our ill parents, or moving in to care for an elderly parent can conflict with our need for autonomy, for spaciousness, ease, and enjoyment. When we label these desires as selfish and bad, we don’t want to own them or be associated with them. Dropping the conditioned judgment and looking beyond the labels we can give ourselves the understanding that, of course—we, just like all beings, desire to create our own lives. All beings long to be in charge of themselves. At the same time we desire our freedom, we may want to honor our commitments and care for the people we love. However, when our ability to create our own lives is not supported, that lack of understanding blocks the ability to open-heartedly attend to another intention.

When we are able to regard all of our desires and motivators as benevolent—even the ones that in the past have incorporated the unskillful tactics of greed or anger, we can acknowledge them without shame or turning away. Recognizing and allowing all of our motivations takes the first steps towards accepting the whole of our humanity with compassion. If we allow all of our desires to be seen with the same valuation we step into a new way of relating to our choices—they become conscious and the methods for caring for ourselves and others become more creative and varied.

When I know I desire some rest and fun after a hectic week AND I also want to help my friend with the herniated disc pack up her kitchen because I value her friendship and want to make life better for her, allowing both those things to have equal weight gives me relief. If I believe that helping my friend is more holy, generous, and pure than caring for myself, I will create conflict through an involuntary act of self-abandonment. If I do not see the whole of my motivations and I chose to stay home and take a nap and watch a movie, I will have guilt at my choice because I continue to see one as more evolved and better than the other.

The simple practice of looking deeply and honestly gives us the freedom to choose. Knowing what we are needing and legalizing our humanity gives great relief. Recognizing the validity of wanting ease, joy, and to be seen in a certain way is already a freedom that gives us more choice. When we accept our mixed motivations without judgment we can make choices that nourish all of our desires, clearly, without punishing others for needing help and without becoming martyrs. When we act from a place of clarity, we choose the seeds we want to water and how we want to live, authentically, and with equal compassion for self and others.  

This week you may want to use the guidance of the emotions to alert you to when you are operating from conflict. Looking honestly without judgment can give you the freedom to choose to follow one path of action because that value creates a more beautiful life. Recognizing our choice point that gets buried beneath the “should’ and the “have to” creates a life that includes both autonomy and compassion. When we wake up to the choices we make in each moment we are no longer a passive victim. We can recognize our responsibility and our capacity to create lives in accord with our deepest intentions.

May we all trust our light,


Mindfulness is a source of happiness



Celebrate Everyday

Daffodil head 2

Daffodil head. Photo by Celia

“Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.”  ~Hafez

“Rejoicing in the good fortune of others is a practice that can help us when we feel emotionally shut down and unable to connect with others. Rejoicing generates good will.” ~Pema Chodron

“Everything that is made beautiful and fair and lovely is made for the eye of one who sees.” ~Rumi

“This is your celebration.” ~Kool and the Gang

Dear Friends,

Now that Thanksgiving is over, Americans, once again, are plunged into the vortex of consumption. We can shop all night and day and contribute to the important fourth-quarter earnings that keep our fiscal world spinning. Gift giving is linked to celebration in our culture and comes to us as virtuous consumption, distilled from religious traditions. Our holiday shopping buoys the weighty dictates of capitalism and the Consumer Confidence Index. Maybe it’s my imagination, but holiday marketing this year seems earlier and more unapologetically fierce than ever. While I appreciate cultivating generosity, the obvious commercial manipulation to make us want what we don’t need and can’t afford seems such a poor substitute for what we are really longing for.

All the marketing in the world can’t make us believe that we will truly be happy when we get the just right thing. We know that that new computer or cell phone won’t really be the catalyst for connecting with others or make us less lonely. We know that our new weave won’t guarantee that others accept us for who we are or bring us someone to love us for our authentic self. I am looking at what we are really searching for during our hours trolling through Amazon Wishlists checking off the gifts we are obliged to buy. What do we want to celebrate? Not stuff, not momentary happiness.

I believe we are all looking to go deeper and to celebrate the gifts we have already been given. When we recognize the abundance in our lives, we can celebrate every day. There’s a celebration in seeing the generosity of the Earth, the beauty of kindness in others and in ourselves, the delight in someone who makes music, sings or creates beautiful food. That may sound naïve and impossible, but when we consider what Interbeing is—the knowledge that all rely on each other to support our lives much more than we know, we can celebrate what we have already been freely given.

Dance in the kitchen and celebrate that you can still dance despite the pain in your knees and your 1980’s dance moves. Celebrate that you can feed your friends and those you don’t know. Celebrate that you have a quarter to give away to the woman sitting by the subway and that you have laundry to be washed. Celebrate the good in others and in yourself. Our feelings are worth celebrating, the happiness and sadness that let us be fully present to experience life and this body we have on loan—that allows us to engage in the process of being a human on Earth and the energy of life that enables us to wake up each day.

Celebrate when a spontaneous thought of generosity appears, the wish to help, the desire to see a world free from violence and inconsideration. Allow someone else’s point of view to matter as much as our own and celebrate dropping our judgment to find out what happened to make them speak with hatred. Find the celebration in the sweet sharpness of the pomegranate seeds that we did not have to tend, but grew healthy and fertile without our worry. Knowing what causes suffering…that first drink, eating all the cheesecake, texting that person who is not good for us, and we don’t do it—that’s a celebration. In our grief, we can celebrate that we have a friend we trust to understand. There are celebrations waiting for us everywhere we look. Where is your celebration hiding today? Celebrating this life is the realization of our interbeing. We don’t do it alone. Get a little retro with this video and start the party early. Let happiness be your default mode. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GwjfUFyY6M

May we all trust our light,


Dont ignore suffering

Being Compassion Wherever We Go

Snow Clouds

Snowclouds. Photo by Celia

“The Buddha told Ananda, ‘You still listen to the Dharma with the conditioned mind, and so the Dharma becomes conditioned as well, and you do not obtain the Dharma-nature. It is like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? It is because he mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.'” ~Shurangam Sutta

“The teaching is like a raft that carries you to the other shore. The raft is needed, but the raft is not the other shore. An intelligent person would not carry the raft around on his head after making it across to the other shore. Bhikkhus, my teaching is the raft which can help you cross to the other shore beyond birth and death. Use the raft to cross to the other shore, but don’t hang onto it as your property. Do not become caught in the teaching. You must be able to let it go.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh from Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha

“We have to continue to learn. We have to be open. And we have to be ready to release our knowledge in order to come to a higher understanding of reality.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh


Dear Friends,

In our lives, we have lots of training. Some of us were taught the forms of practice in our root religious traditions. We may have gone to classes to become good Christians, Muslims, Jews, or Buddhists. We may go on retreats to learn techniques of meditation or do mindfulness training, yoga training, or some form of wellness practice. In all these endeavors there’s a point of integration when we take the practice off the cushion or the mat and we bring it into our lives. I’ve heard this described as the way we learn to dance. At first, we count steps and follow the outline, but after repeated practice, the body learns what to do and we can respond to the changing music with grace and ability. In the same way, our practice gets into our bones and we learn to respond skillfully to what is happening.

 In the Buddhist tradition siilabbata-paraamaasa, “grasping at precepts & practices,” is one of the five lower fetters from the list of the ten that binds us to Samsara, the repeating habits of causing suffering for ourselves. This means getting bound up in the appearance of doing things right and believing that fulfilling one’s obligations is equivalent to practicing real compassion and wise action. So, what does it mean to be devoted to our spiritual progress and practice but not attached to form? This means making our practice our own.

What does an integrated practice look like? Our lives are unique and as Jack Kornfield reminds us, in the eons of human development, there has never been this person on the planet who is you. We are all unique and have our own individual history and life situation and that life situation is constantly changing. When we believe that we satisfy our intentions for compassion and growth through our forms of practice, we set ourselves up for disappointment and frustration when the outside conditions of life don’t support us in fulfilling our goals. And we miss the opportunities to bring these practices to the relational world.

So, we may wake up and your dog is sick, and we have to call out of work and take her to the emergency vet and we don’t get to sit and meditate, or the pipes freeze and burst in the bathroom and we have to give up our weekend retreat to find a plumber and a carpenter to make repairs. We may be very diligent at saying our compassion phrases and blessing the strangers in the grocery store, but when our elderly neighbor needs a ride to the drug store, we don’t want to sacrifice our Qigong time and drive her. In our lives, we are called upon to be the embodiment of our training and our fundamental desire to wake up and alleviate suffering in the world.

Being unattached to forms and rituals may include the need to forgive ourselves for not doing what we want and doing what is necessary. The karma-phala, the karmic fruit of practice is apparent in our quality of heart in the moments when we are called upon to respond. Do we begrudge the time spent buying our kid winter boots because we have more spiritual projects to attend to, or can we carry our intention to befriend ourselves into that project as well? The practice of compassionate presence and non-abandoning ourselves becomes wedded to our being and we can practice mindfulness of the body, of our emotions, and compassionate care of ourselves and others, no matter what is happening.

With holidays coming and the demands of family and society ramping up, I encourage us all to practice some forgiveness and realism regarding our practice. Maybe this means letting go of our consistent meditation streak on the Insight Timer app or giving ourselves understanding when we only have time for three breaths to center ourselves before sleep. But be realistic, can we make time for our formal practice? Is it supporting what we do in our lives? If doing the practice creates more pain—that’s a signal that we need to change the plan. Practice is a crucial support for developing our own stillness and insight AND how do we make it our own? I’d love to hear some of the many ways your kindness is manifesting in the world. Drop a line, if you have time.

May we all trust our light,


The way out is the way in

I am Thankful for my Friends

Purple orchids

Purple Moth Orchids. Photo by Celia

Friendship is the most constant, the most enduring the most basic part of love.

~Ed Cunningham

The friend who is a helpmate,

the friend in happiness and woe,

the friend who gives good counsel,

the friend who sympathises too  —

these four as friends the wise behold

and cherish them devotedly

as does a mother her own child.

~Digha Nikaya 31

Friends show their love in times of trouble, not in happiness.


It’s good to see Noble Ones.

Happy their company  —  always.

Through not seeing fools

constantly, constantly one would be happy.

 ~Dhammapada, Verse 206

Dear Friends,

It’s a cold night in Connecticut and we had snow flurries yesterday while parts of California are burning and folks are losing their house and lives. I am imagining that anyone in that position is struggling with grief and fear, dislocation, despair, and longing for physical safety. I hope those who are losing homes and neighbors have good friends who can comfort them and let them know they are not alone. We are not born to be solitary beings. We all do better with support and community and the kindness of friends can help make tragedy more bearable when we are met with compassion.

Friendships according to the Buddha are not only a way to make life more enjoyable, but are an essential ingredient in waking up. It’s recorded in the Upaddaha Sutta when Ananda asked the Buddha if good spiritual friends are half the holy life, the Buddha replied “Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life” (Upaddha Sutta, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans.). The Buddha repeatedly counseled his followers to seek Kalyanamittata [good friendships]. While friendships with those who are not interested in waking up can lead us off the path, friendships with those who are wise and have an evolved spiritual practice can guide and be a support for us.

When we experience doubt or the pain in our lives seems too heavy for us alone, we can borrow the skillful qualities of others. We can find strength and renew our confidence in our own goodness and capability through the examples of others. When we see someone do something we would like to do, we learn how to do it ourselves. The more we are witness to kind speech, thoughtful generosity, or patience, the more realistic living those virtues becomes. The Buddha tells us the one who wants to have a peaceful and calm life will spend their time with the “young or old, who are advanced in virtue. He [She] talks with them, engages them in discussions. He [She]emulates consummate conviction in those who are consummate in conviction, consummate virtue in those who are consummate in virtue, consummate generosity in those who are consummate in generosity, and consummate discernment in those who are consummate in discernment. This is called admirable friendship” (Dighajanu Sutta, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans.) Emulating friends we admire is a way to catch the contagion of goodness and faith in our own ability. Our wise friendships are not limited by time and space; we can use the example of Mother Theresa’s steadfast compassion and humility when we feel wearied by so much suffering around us, or Nelson Mandela’s nonviolence and patience when we witness injustice and unfairness, or in the face of personal attack or prejudice, borrow the equanimity of the Buddha who did not hate or condemn his cousin Devadatta, although he tried to assassinate the Buddha killed three times. Making a place in our lives for those we admire and see as wise, gives us the courage to be bravely true to our most cherished intentions.

The Buddha warns of friendships with those who engage in bad habits, of drinking, gambling, gossip, lying, harsh speech, sexual misconduct, who are lazy and do not seek any transformation, are ungenerous or give gifts without care or believe that they make a difference. Hanging around with this crew will likely not advance your path towards enlightenment and most likely add some heavy karmic load to your luggage. But for those who are capable of discernment and knowing what true friendship is, they are able to find others, “who are endowed with conviction, conscience, concern; who are learned, with aroused persistence, unmuddled mindfulness, & good discernment” (Dighajanu Sutta, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans.).

The Buddha was called a physician who cured suffering and a teacher, but he also thought of himself as a worthy friend for his followers to rely on. It is the Buddha’s commitment to friendship and the compassion for his followers that created the conditions to end their suffering. He tells Ananda that “It is in dependence on me as an admirable friend that beings subject to birth have gained release from birth, … from aging, …release from death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair” (Upaddha Sutta, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans.). The body of the Buddha is no longer in this realm, but the energy of the Buddha’s friendship lives on in the sangha, the community that supports and guides us as we all travel together.

As I write this I am thinking of all the opportunities for care and togetherness we have in this lifetime. The physical presence of the sangha who encourages us with their kind eyes and gentle speech, examples of those who have gone before and show us the way to walk with strength and conviction, and the wise teachers we include in our lives who demonstrate kindness, generosity, and fearlessness.

May we all trust our light,


joyfully together




Resting in Not Knowing

snail and terrier

Sami meets Snail. Photo by Barbara Richardson

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” ~Socrates

“Meditation is not to escape from society but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. With mindfulness, we know what to do and what not to do to help.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Friends,

The reason this letter is later than usual is that I felt confused. There are so many conflicting and troubling news items swirling around, so much tension in the US on the eve of mid-term elections and the 24-hour news cycle that keeps feeding fear and speculation about the future. Much of me wants to hide out and remove myself from the growing divisiveness in the political process through some pleasant distraction. Paying attention to what is going on in me, I recognized that this tension is driven by the desire to know how things will be and imagine that this knowledge will keep me safe. I wanted clarity before I began to write and what came through as truth is that I don’t know. I am 100 percent certain that I do not know what will happen. Just writing that helps my nervous system relax.

This is part of the Buddhist practice of “Don’t know mind.” There is a release and clarity when we stop trying to grasp what is unknowable. We cannot know the future. Each day, I hear pundits talking about what will happen if interest rates rise, if a different political party is elected, if there is a spike in oil rates, if house prices rise and fall, if the stock market leaps or plummets. There is an endless stream of “what if,” thinking. The only thing that is certain is that the future is unpredictable, fluid, and the law of impermanence applies to it all. When I allow myself to fall into future speculation around the construct of me as a small individual self, this is called papañca (Pali). Papañca is described as mental proliferation. We’ve all had that experience of picking up a particular worry or concern and twisting it about in our minds, turning it to view the best case scenario, then the worst, and all possibilities in between. In the words of the Greek philosopher Seneca, “There is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness it is in your expecting evil before it arrives!” Even when we do anticipate misfortune, we anticipate something. We expend lots of energy and time defending against or preparing to engage in what we think will happen. This habit of leaning into the future not only takes us out of the present moment, vigilance also activates a stress response in the body, which robs us of our wisdom.

There is a wonderful clarity to not knowing and opening to the idea that I can rely on myself to respond wisely as events unfold. There are strength and confidence in neither leaning into the past or future, but returning to center in the present moment. So, what is the best way to prepare for the unknown? Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that the future is made directly from the present. The amount of peace, clarity, and discernment I possess right now creates the next moment. We see this in the way we answer a text or email when we are triggered and get a defensive or hostile response, or in the way we take the time to meet someone’s eyes and let them know they matter and receive a smile in return. The amount of peace, happiness, or fear and resistance in my heart when I act is directly linked to my future and the conditions I create around me. This week, I invite you to come back to the present moment, to remember that preparation for the future begins with each breath as an opportunity for fear, speculation, and tension, or for stillness, insight, and wisdom. Let’s not forget the power we do possess—the choices we make for a heaven or hell in this moment.

May we all trust our light,


The country of the present moment

Putting an End to Hatred


Ginko and denim. Photo by Celia

“I entrust myself to earth,

Earth entrusts herself to me.

I entrust myself to Buddha,

Buddha entrusts herself to me.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh, from Being Peace.


“Without being

peace, we cannot do anything for peace. If we cannot smile, we

cannot help other people to smile. If we are not peaceful, then

we cannot contribute to the peace movement.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh, from Being Peace.


“Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law.”

~Dhammapada, Verse 5, Narada Thera trans.


“We are committed not to kill and not to let others kill. We will not support any act of killing in the world, in our thinking, or in our way of life.”

~The Twelfth Mindfulness Training. The nuns and monks of Plum Village.


Dear Friends,

Yesterday I took refuge in the three jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha sharing a day of mindfulness with the Greater Hartford Sangha. I left with deep gratitude for the gift of sharing my day with a community dedicated to alleviating suffering in the world. I was so glad that I had the nourishment of the three refuges yesterday as I learned about the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill. I felt huge sadness and grief for the families and victims of the shooting. As I sat with these feelings, I was aware of the rage in me fed by the desire for all beings to be safe and valued. I saw my thoughts go into blame and judgment and turns towards punishment. I’ve grown up in a society that believes punishment equals justice and that punishment is a useful strategy for getting people to change their behavior. If we are a parent we know what punishment does; it teaches our children to be afraid or to be sneaky. Punishment, isolation, and shame are enculturated ways we believe we can effect social change. But how effective is punishment? The U. S. Bureau of Justice in a 2018 update reports that 5 out of 6 state prisoners were rearrested within 9 years of release. It seems that punishment is an expensive and misguided attempt to create change that ignores the basis of violence and hatred.

Buddhist scholar and monk Bhikkhu Bhodi writes that it is the root of ignorance or delusion (avijja/ Pali, avidya/ Sanskrit) that leads to suffering.  Ignorance is not a pathological condition. It is not evil or bad; it is simply a misperception. This is the ignorance that creates the mental confusion or blindness leading to separation and hatred and forgets we inter-are. It is the ignorance that creates in-group and out-group distinctions. It’s the “I making and my making” that leads us to grab hold of the disastrous strategies of greed, hatred, and violence with the mistaken belief they will keep us safe. Writing this I am grateful that I know the usefulness of anger AND extremely grateful I have entrusted myself to the care of the Dhamma which teaches me what to do with my anger so it does not need to become hatred. Anger is a powerful message that something needs our attention. Anger, just like pain, is signal to us that there is something harmful and hurtful going on and we need to take wise action to alleviate suffering in ourselves and others.

The Buddha had a profound understanding of human nature and the innate desire to protect oneself and one’s clan. He gave a teaching on five ways to put an end to hatred that tells us when someone is acting and speaking with violence and out of the delusion in a separated protected self, it is as if they have fallen severely ill, are alone in a strange place without food or medicine and shunned by all others. “And as for a person who is impure in his bodily behavior & verbal behavior, and who does not periodically experience mental clarity & calm, how should one subdue hatred for him? Just as when there is a sick man — in pain, seriously ill — traveling along a road, far from the next village & far from the last, unable to get the food he needs, unable to get the medicine he needs, unable to get a suitable assistant, unable to get anyone to take him to human habitation.…” (Aghatavinaya Sutta: Subduing Hatred). The Buddha tells us that viewing those who act with hatred and delusion through our veil of ignorance and condemnation will only enforce the belief in separation and fuel the cycle of hatred and violence. He tells us it is our task as practitioners is to pick up this ill and isolated person, provide food and medicine to help restore them to health and wholeness of body and mind and most importantly to put down our ignorance and do what feels so counter-culture—to understand that violence is a sign that someone is sick and suffering and care for the person who does harm.

This is a life-altering practice and requires some deep and honest looking at how we create a dangerous “other” and feed the cycle of violence and hatred in our own lives. Ask yourself who is it ok to hate? The KKK? Nazis? White nationalists? Terrorists? Joining together in our communities, who do we hate? When we practice hating, just like any skill, we get better at it. This week please look to see the usefulness in your anger, the beautiful desires for equality and justice that lie beneath anger and judgment and then, go deeper. See how we can act to remove what is the real danger—ignorance. On Tuesday, please take your compassion to the polls and do your best to elect those who can transcend the delusion of separation, those who remember that we all belong to each other.

May we all trust our light,


           Wrong perceptions


Showing Up

Oct. Bluffs

Mohegan Bluffs, Block Island. Photo Barbara Richardson

“As a species we should never underestimate our low tolerance for discomfort.”

“Transformation occurs only when we remember, breath by breath, year after year, to move towards our emotional distress without condemning or justifying our experience.”

“Attending to our present-moment mind is and body is a way of being tender towards self, towards other, and towards the world. This quality of attention is inherent in our ability to love.”

All quotes from Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times.

Dear Friends,

It’s a chilly October evening as I write this. Today I saw vermillion sugar maples and the rain is reminding me that in not so many weeks it will be snow. Recently, I’ve caught hold of some germs and found myself feeling shivery and waking up with painful sinuses. The cold symptoms don’t bother me much, but I do find it’s much harder to meditate when I am sick, breathing is harder and the body doesn’t feel so wide awake or keen on sitting. But I still do it even though my mind is not serene and my body would rather be in a bathtub. I am wondering why do we meditate? Isn’t it easier and more time effective to find a therapeutic medication to take the edge off the anxiety and give a little glow to our reality?

I know from experience that meditation is the way to come home to myself. Pema Chodron calls it, “learning to stay.” Human neurobiology is programmed to run away and avoid when things get difficult. There is a reason that flight is the first response to threat when the sympathetic nervous system is activated. If we just could get a snack, get more comfortable, find a really good ergonomically designed chair so my neck wouldn’t hurt, then I would be able to meditate. Meditation is the process of dropping in and befriending the self. When we practice meditation even on those days when it’s hard or simply another task to get through, we are doing two things. The first is the act of stilling the mind, beginning with calming the body. Secondly, the act of repetition encourages the body/mind to feel safe because we continue to show up despite external and internal conditions, when it’s cold and rainy and when the sun is shining.

If you’ve been meditating for a while, you probably have set a certain standard for your meditation and will discern if this was a “good” or “bad” meditation. We get particularly enamored of those good meditations when we feel solid and connected and the body is easy, tranquil, and strong. And we are equally dismissive of those meditations where the mind darts from the supermarket to the email we need to finish, to the necessity of finding a roofer, or maybe the dog has lymes disease, or the kid does, or I do and what about the neighbor who has a sign up endorsing the wrong political candidate…

What I have learned about these sub-par meditations is that they are testimonials to showing up for ourselves non-judgmentally just as we are. We are not trying to squeeze ourselves into the mold of a Buddha or saint. When we meditate, it’s an opportunity of connecting and accepting ourselves as we are in this moment. There is nothing to get rid of. The anxious mind is noted and seen with compassion—of course it’s busy; it’s afraid to get things wrong. We can be equally accepting of ourselves when we have a “good” meditation and recognize that there are innumerable conditions, our circumstance, our teachers, our physical health that all contributed to creating this transitory experience of calm and stillness.

When we meditate we also remember that we have a body. Most of us, most of the time, are disconnected from our bodies. If we are a person of color working in an historically white institution, a single mother trying to support her family and care for her young children, a person of non-conforming gender, someone who comes from a Muslim country and is categorized as a threat, or living with a chronic illness, all of these conditions create an internalized vigilance and an often unconscious fear which may manifest as physical tension. When we continue to show up and inquire about how we are, we encourage the body to relax. We engage with our un-recognized fear and actively let the body know it’s safe and let go of our vigilance even for a short amount of time.

How present we are with ourselves influences how relaxed and safe we feel. When we train to bring compassionate, loving acceptance to our situation, to the feelings in the body/mind we lay down the neural pathways that support continuing this activity of checking in, getting curious, and accepting what is. This week, I am saying, “this is how it is right now.” This phrase comes from meditation teacher and mother, Kalama Masters, who gives retreats on equanimity and impermanence. Showing up for ourselves regardless of our internal weather develops our trust in ourselves and our ability to befriend ourselves no matter what the outside conditions. Recently a friend told me, “there’s no good or bad meditation. There’s only meditation.” It’s about showing up, showing up, and showing up some more.

May we all trust our light,


Relax your body

Changing Habits of Change

Buddha and the artichokes

Buddha and the artichokes in Judith’s garden. Photo by Celia

“If we take something to be the truth, we may cling to it so much that when the truth comes and knocks on our door, we won’t want to let it in.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth”

~Pema Chödrön

 When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

“As long as our orientation is toward perfection or success, we will never

learn about unconditional friendship with ourselves, nor will we find

compassion. ”

~Pema Chödrön

Dear Friends,

I hope you are well and riding the waves of change with some amount of ease and equanimity. This past weekend, several sangha members and I attended a retreat titled Bringing Mindful Speech to Life offered by Plum Village tradition dharma teacher and Nonviolent Communication (NVC) trainer Peggy Smith. The retreat combined Plum Village practices of mindful sitting, walking, and eating with NVC training. For many of us, this training really rocked our world. We learned that we are communicating in a system grounded in right and wrong thinking, based on blaming, punishing, and manipulation to get our needs met. Waking up to recognize our compliance in this systemic enactment of violence was a shock. We saw examples of how our habitual responses to suffering, even ones we thought of as mindful, or compassionate, actually blocked the necessary empathetic resonance that allows true compassion to take place.

After the retreat, many participants left feeling both exquisitely grateful and exquisitely confused about how to practice right speech. Some may have been discouraged and wondered how to begin after having these entrenched societal patterns hard-wired into our brains after twenty or fifty years of communicating. If only wanting to change meant change would happen. The truth of changing habits is that it takes time, diligence, and lots of determination.

When we first begin to make a change in our lives, whether its conscious speech, awareness of our bodily responses or watching the judging mind, we introduce the mental suggestion to take note…and we do. We may find ourselves horrified at how many times during the day we fall into blaming others for our emotional response, or how often we think of Chinese food, sex, a new car, or give out our diagnoses and judgments of others as if they’re the truth. Pema Chödrön tells us that at the beginning of changing patterns we will see our habits all the time repeating with glaring consistency and vigor. We can start to believe that we are deeply flawed and incapable of change. But Pema tells us that seeing our habits is actually good news. It’s not that we are more judgmental, greedy, or mean-spirited than we ever were, it’s the fact that we are so sensitized to our actions. We have woken up to our formerly unconscious habit patterns.

One way to re-frame this thinking is to celebrate the times we catch ourselves in our old ways of thinking, speaking, and responding because this is our first step towards freedom—noticing. Buddhist monk, Anam Thubten, considers this step so essential he writes in No Self, No Problem: Awakening to Our True Nature, that each time we catch our minds wandering during meditation instead of lamenting and feeling despondent at how bad a meditator we are, we should celebrate and give ourselves a piece of chocolate. The noticing and returning the mind to the goal, whatever the goal is—staying present in meditation, or giving our self warm accompaniment when we feel the familiar shield of defense and the desire to retaliate—that is the very movement that creates the new habit of change.

This is a shift to compassion and changing two habits at the same time. When you find yourself messing up and doing the thing you don’t want to do, judging and responding from a place of fear and lack, yelling, or eating that piece of cheesecake, give yourself a reward of self-compassion for paying attention and gently return to what you do want to do. You can offer yourself Peggy Smith’s simple “of course.” Thich Nhat Hanh uses the phrase, “Darling, I am here for you,” or  you can try out “I care about this.” Experiment and find which words comfort and soothe the nervous system that tries so hard to keep us safe and happy. Of course, we fall into habits and repeat behavior. Of course, we do what we know best. It is hard work to change. Giving ourselves the gift of open-hearted acceptance can make changing habits a gentler and comforting process that leads to our greater freedom and connection with all beings.

May we all trust our light,







The Surprisingly Powerful Practice of Patience


“Forbearance is the highest observance. Patience is the highest virtue. So the Buddhas say.” ~Dhammapada, verse 184

“And how does one, in protecting others, protect oneself? By patience and forbearance, by a non-violent and harmless life, by loving kindness and compassion.” ~Satipatthana Samyutta, No. 19

“There is no evil so great as anger. There is no religious practice so powerful as patience.” ~Shantideva’s Bodhisattvacaryavatara

Dear Friends,

Recently I heard an interview with Derek Black, a man raised by white supremacists and the subject of the new book, Rising Out of Hate. As a child, Derek was active in perpetuating the white supremacist message of division and intolerance. When he went to college he was befriended by Jewish students who invited him to Shabbos dinners—for two years. While there weren’t open discussions and debates to point out the mistaken ideas in Black’s thinking, these friends used patience and diligence to allow Derek to see his beliefs through the eyes of those he was taught were less than human. Today Derek Black speaks out about the erroneous foundational beliefs of white supremacy and must live with his earlier history of inciting hatred and violence. What so impressed me about this story was the courage, open-heartedness, and patience of Black’s Jewish friends. They did not use shame, blame, or recrimination, but with patience and their kind presence, they transformed the heart and mind of someone steeped in a lifetime of dualistic and discriminative ideologies.

In Buddhism patience is one of the perfections or paramis (Pali) / paramitas (Sanskrit). The Buddha spoke of patience as the highest virtue we can cultivate. Patience is the necessary ingredient for our lives that leads to the jewel of equanimity and the power to stay the course. In our Western culture patience doesn’t look like a virtue or strength. If we are patient in our lives and desires, we are seen as weak and passive. Patience is not a popular trait. We want results, action and one of the best compliments in management is to be pro-active. In a world of “nip-it-in-the-bud” and “get ‘er done,” we do not look favorably upon patience. Patience is the virtue for wimps and the helpless who are incapable of taking action while things get worse and worse. Being patient is not only suspect, it is actively discouraged.

The story of change in Derek Black has me thinking about patience and the ability to affect change. Lasting change does not happen slowly. Think about the patience of the earth, the patience of the orange blossom that metamorphosizes into fruit, slowly over months, the patience of a drop of water that wears away solid rock, and the patience of the trees that take years to develop their heartwood.

The patience the Buddha spoke about has three facets, the first is our patience with others that allows us to maintain our mind of peace even if someone else is being…you know, an idiot. We can use what is translated as “forbearance,” to restrain ourselves from anger and meet our experience with understanding, compassion, and the mind of love. Patience reminds us that our priority is to maintain our own friendly and calm mind state, despite what others may do or say. We use our understanding and acceptance, our tolerance of others to help us speak and act from a place of balance and wisdom. This is not to say we are inactive or passive when we see injustice—but patience gives us the understanding that this view, or action from another wasn’t created in this instant. Patience takes the long road to create change as we saw in the transformation of Derek Black.

The second facet of patience supports our engagement with our spiritual path. We all know what it feels like to try all the time. We can become tired and lose our confidence that anything will ever change. This second type of patience encompasses what Dharma teacher Joanne Friday calls, “gentle diligence over time.” It is the patience that allows us to move forward with joy instead of pain. If we do not enjoy our spiritual path and integrate our practice into our lives, how will we ever sustain it enough to transform? Patience allows us to honor the pace of our lives and allow the natural order to unfold in its own time.

A few years ago on retreat, a friend shared one of his insights. I loved it so much, he wrote it for me and I put it next to my bed. His words, “Even on the same tree, all the flowers do not bloom at once,” reminded me each day to have patience with others and with myself. My journey does not look like anyone else’s. I am progressing in accord with my own karma—not someone else’s’ expectations.

The third type of patience is the patience that contains trust in own abilities and natural goodness. This is the patience that believes I too can become a Buddha. Looking at the path of renunciation and transformation, the whole enterprise may seem so vast and insurmountable we can easily doubt our abilities and become discouraged. There is the attitude of why even try because I have so many years of conditioning. It’s just too big. I am not worthy, or capable of such high goals. It’s safer to do what everyone else does and save the disappointment of trying. Patience gives us the willingness to do what seems insurmountable, in small daily increments that include kindness and joy to nourish our journey. This type of patience gives us the courage to say that I am worthy of ultimate happiness. I am worth the effort. Patience directly supports the next paramita of diligence in our lives and practice.

This week, you may like to reflect on how you have included patience in your life—and where it could help shore up your commitments. We all need to trust in our goodness and ability to wake up and live in the best way we know how. This can include the patience that gives us the strength to undergo chemo treatments that leave us depleted or make phone calls to politicians about policies that threaten the environment when it seems no one is listening. Patience is a wonderful companion that can wrap us in the protective cloak of kindness, knowing each action we do lessens suffering in the world and in ourselves.

May we all trust our light,


           The flower is made of non flower elements

A smile of gratitude to David Nelson for taking this photo and generously sharing it online.

The Unreliable Nature of Nature

Scottish Long View

Scottish Long View, photo by Barbara Richardson

“Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers

“‘All conditioned things are impermanent’ — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.” ~The Dhammapada

“Better it is to live one day seeing the rise and fall of things than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the rise and fall of things”. ~The Dhammapada

Dear Friends,

It’s been a while since I last wrote and much is different now. I am reminded daily of annica, or impermanence, one of the three marks of existence. I found out recently that the Pali canon records the Buddha teaching on annica over 100 times. Learning that, I don’t feel badly repeating this theme. The word we translate often as impermanence has a slightly different flavor in Pali, the language of the Buddhist scriptures.  The root word is nicca which scholar monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates as constant and dependable. The prefix a is used to indicate the opposite thus anicca means inconstant or undependable. These words contain the seeds of disappointment and frustration much more than recalling the natural condition of impermanence.

The last reminder from the Buddha before his death was an exhortation to keep impermanence in the forefront of our minds and to remember that everything we see, think, feel, and experience is made of composite things that depend upon the whole universe to support their existence. This includes our thoughts, our bodies, our emotions, all people, all regimes, all ideologies, every bank, every government, and country in the world. They will all change and they will all end. Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates the Buddha’s last words as ‘“I exhort you, monks: All fabrications are subject to decay. Bring about completion by being heedful.’ Those were the Tathagata’s last words.”

The Buddhist worldview sees everything in a constant flux of shifting conditions. I have noticed my tendency to create groupings of years: this was my childhood, spent in this house with these friends, and then this is where I lived as a young adult with these interests and friends. The next phase was as a mother with children growing up in a new town. Each portion of my life is packaged into a manageable chunk, separated by location and time. In reality, there are no demarcation lines, no separation the day we stop being a child, or change the day we turn 21, get married or divorced. We create these mental compartments which we assign time and place to. If we look at our lives, they are unfolding against a fluid and inconstant backdrop. And we share in this unpredictability.

Our bodies, minds, and emotions are constantly arising and passing away and we are powerless to hold back the aging, sickness, and ultimate death of these bodies. We can clearly see that when we focus on the unreliable nature of the world and ourselves, we touch suffering [dukkha] and anatta, or not-self. These three, dukkha, annica, and anatta comprise the three marks of existence or three characteristics. They are basic truths of living in these bodies we cannot control and being part of the system that constantly falls into balance and out of balance. One teacher summarized these three teachings as, Everything changes. It will shake you up and it’s not personal. Buddhist peace activist and teacher, Donald Rothberg recommends reflecting on impermanence for five minutes a day, noting that everything we see, the house, the car, folks in a hurry to get to work, all the infrastructure and everything that meets our eyes is subject to change and decay. It’s all going away—even us.

This understanding can help give us the long lens of equanimity to see how things really are and to unclench from what seems so important, fixed, and permanent. The notion of change and fluidity means that although what we love will change, what we don’t love will change also. As Thich Nhat Hanh points out, we have infinite possibilities because nothing is forever—and we can be part of this wave of change, for the better.

May we all trust our light,