What’s the Deal With Anger?

mini mushrooms

Red Headed Soldiers, photo by Celia.


“When anger comes up in us, we should begin to practice mindful breathing right away: ‘Breathing in, I know that anger is in me. Breathing out, I am taking good care of my anger.’ We behave exactly like a mother: ‘Breathing in, I know that my child is crying. Breathing out, I will take good care of my child.’ This is the practice of compassion.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“If you aren’t feeding the fire of anger or the fire of craving by talking to yourself, then the fire doesn’t have anything to feed on.” ~ Pema Chodron

“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”

~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dear Friends,

As a child I often heard the expression, “everyone is entitled to their opinion.” Maybe that was because back in the day, there was a tacit agreement of civility around expressing one’s opinion. I don’t think it’s my imagination that the level of social discourse has fallen into an extreme mosh-pit of bullying, shaming, and terrorizing those who don’t share our views. It’s all very angry and the loud shouting leads to louder shouting. It makes me wonder how to use our awareness of suffering and injustice in a way that doesn’t resort to hatred and violent words and is consistent with the Buddha’s teachings on Right Thought, Right Speech, and Right Action.

In the Buddhist texts, anger is always unwholesome and labeled as one of the ten fetters that must be undone to find the way out of suffering. There is a clear categorization of the Buddha’s classification of anger as unwholesome and negative. Anger is consistently associated with hatred and ill-will (dosa) and always an obstacle to spiritual progress. Buddhist teacher, activist, and author,  Donald Rothberg (2006), in his book, The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World, defines when anger and hatred are at the base of intention, the resulting action, and kamma or karma, will be harmful to self and others (p. 152). This single interpretation of anger as a vehicle for actions rooted in hatred, vengeance, and the desire to harm another, is the basis of the Buddha’s prohibition. This type of anger is akin to blind rage and causes damage to the one lost in anger.

The Buddha warns of the ruinous rage that makes blind in an excerpt from the Kodhana Sutta: An Angry Person, “A person overwhelmed with anger destroys his wealth. Maddened with anger, he destroys his status. Relatives, friends, & colleagues avoid him. Anger brings loss. Anger inflames the mind. He doesn’t realize that his danger is born from within” (Thanissaro, trans. 2010). In the early Buddhist texts, the word for anger is often “khoda,” translated as anger, this leaves little room for the range of intensity that presents itself in anger. Anger, in western culture runs from irritable sniping on Twitter, righteousness, and condemnation, to full-blown assault, aggression,  and violence. The Dalai Lama and Donald Rothberg (2006), consider “afflictive emotions,” “ill will or hatred,”(p. 152) to be more accurate translations.

The western view of anger is more nuanced, ranging from outright retaliatory rage to a feeling of moral grievance at the ill-treatment of the weak. Rothberg (2006) writes that anger in the ancient Greek world and in the West is seen “as an appropriate response to what is socially inappropriate, immoral, or unjust” (p. 153). The interesting thing about anger is that when it is used as a catalyst for action, and there is an intention of loving kindness and compassion, it ceases to be poisonous.

The Buddha said that the discernment of what is wholesome or unwholesome thought, speech and action rests on our intention before, during, and after producing the thought, words, or act. Kamma, or karma, in Sanskrit, means volitional action and its implied consequence. All kamma is made through the intention of the actor, “Intention I tell you is kamma. Having intended, one performs an action through body, speech, or mind” (AN 6:63) (Rothberg, 2006, p. 60). Someone who sees injustice and feels anger at a system of oppression, or at the treatment of oppressed people can act in a variety of ways. What separates wholesome from unwholesome kamma is the mind of compassion and goodwill or the mind filled with anger, revenge, and hatred.

Kamma is not like a restaurant tab that accumulates and is presented for payment as a tool of reckoning. We can experience the result of our kamma in this very moment. We can feel into the body’s response to judgmental thoughts of meanness and blame, or how our body responds to thoughts and words that arise from the kindness of an unbound heart. One way to do this is to call attention to bodily sensations of pleasant and unpleasant while watching the news. It’s not hard to find the kernel of bitterness and resentment that fuels many political groups who look to hurt and shame those with opposing views.

Anger is a strong emotion that calls for us to pay attention. When we can utilize anger as a wakeup call without letting it pull us into hatred or ill will, we see it can be used as the fuel for action in social justice actions that are based on non-violence and compassion for the poor and powerless. In the struggle for India’s independence, the US Civil Rights movement, and Catholic worker movement, anger at the systemic discrimination did not result in ill-will but catalyzed marginalized groups to act with non-violence and sought to liberate both the oppressors and the oppressed.

This week I invite you to check in with your own intentions before, during and after, thinking, speaking and acting. Ask the questions, “What is my true intention? How is my heart? Is compassion and understanding present?” Once we know that we have a choice of the root of our thoughts, speech, and acts, we can choose to cultivate only the beautiful blooms that grow from a wide-open loving heart.

May we all trust our light,


Relax your body


Thanissaro, B., trans. (2010). Kodhana Sutta: An Angry Person (AN 7.60). Access to Insight: BCBS Edition. Retrieved from: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an07/an07.060.than.html .

Rothberg, D., (2006). The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World. Boston, Ma: Beacon Press.



The awakened heart of action

Samantabhadra, the bodhisattva of great action

Samantrabdra the Bhodisattva of great action

Three Translations of the Bodhisattva Vow

The awakened way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.

However innumerable beings are, I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.

However inexhaustible the states of suffering are, I vow to touch them with patience and love.

However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to explore them deeply.

However incomparable the mystery of interbeing, I vow to surrender to it freely.

~Thich Nhat Hanh, trans.

Creations are numberless, I vow to free them.

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.

Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it.

The awakened way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

~Upaya Zen Center version

The many beings are numberless; I vow to save them.

greed, hatred, and ignorance rise endlessly; I vow to abandon them.

dharma gates are countless; I vow to wake to them.

Buddha’s way is unsurpassed; I vow to embody it fully.

~Robert Aiken, trans.


Dear Friends,

What a beautiful day here in CT. The sun is out, daffodils are blooming, bees are busy and we are alive to witness the patient rewards of spring. It is Earth Day and I am truly glad to be an inhabitant of this generous earth today. The story of human life is one of connection and interdependence. We can easily see this in the food we eat that needs sun, soil, earth, and rain to thrive. Unless we are in denial, we know that our planet and all life that depends upon its wellbeing is in danger. In Mahayana Buddhism, there is a practice of taking a vow to protect all life, including our own. This great vow involves compassion, wisdom, non-judgment, action and begins with Bodhicitta, the mind of love. It is called The Bodhisattva Vow.

In Mahayana tradition, a Bodhisattva is a being who has cultivated the six perfections or paramitas, generosity, morality, and patience, energy or zeal, meditation, and wisdom, over many lifetimes. Instead of choosing Nirvana, a Bodhisattva remains earthbound and vows to help all beings to enlightenment, freedom from oppression, and suffering. Bodhicitta, the awakened heart, is the foundation of all compassionate action for one who walks the path of a Bodhisattva.

Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron describes the awakened heart as a measure of our capacity to feel with others. The awakened heart resonates with the suffering of the other and the deep desire to relieve it. She writes, “An analogy for bodhicitta is the rawness of a broken heart. Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic; sometimes to anger, resentment, and blame. But under the hardness of that armor, there is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved. This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we’re arrogant and soften us when we are unkind. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all.” When we truly know the pain of another, we can offer the great gift of empathy and compassion and the desire to save them from pain.

In the three translations of the Bodhisattva Vow, we see that living beings are innumerable, they keep being born, and the bodhisattva vows to save all, or as Thich Nhat Hanh writes, to meet them with kindness and interest. This is not an unrealistic assignment we are condemned to fail. Saving all, is the active component of Bodhicitta, the wide open heart. All includes just that, no exceptions. It is this awakened heart that can lead us to act. If someone asks me to be brave, I find that a frightening invitation. I’m a shy activist, not at home with charging into conflict. If someone asks me to show that I care, that is a totally different intention. Caring for others, opening to their pain, is the ground that cultivates the seed of action. When my actions come from caring, I do not need to armor myself or brace for a battle. They are organic extensions of the woken heart.

So on this weekend when we turn our attention to the world we steward, to the animals on the cusp of extinction and the violence, hatred, and delusion we see in the world, I invite you to stand beside the pain, to witness and know how the heart of the frightened trembles. And… to act with the heart of a Bodhisattva made unafraid through caring. Compassionate action doesn’t mean we need to be heroes in a big way and rescue people from burning buildings. Maybe we take a lonely person to lunch or bring some spring flowers to someone who is ill. Perhaps we call our representatives when environmental regulations are threatened, or have a car-free day. I hope you rejoice in the intention of goodness and care and take delight in your determination to be a Bodhisattva, easing the pain of ourselves and all beings.

May we all trust our light,


protecting our planet

Getting Sick

Isley Woolen Mill

Isley Woolen Mills, Scotland. Photo by Barbara Richardson

The Five Remembrances (Thich Nhat Hahn, trans.)

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.


Dear Friends,

We are all of the nature to be sick, that was my teaching this week. This was an especially bad flu season and I had been congratulating myself on escaping the influx of nasty ailments this year. There was some pride that my immunity had taken me into spring without so much as a head cold, but this week, my humanity caught up with me. Not only did I get sick, but all other members of my family were sick, which meant that I couldn’t actually act like a sick person. I used the experience to work with the intention to bring compassion into all moments of life.

The first obstacle to compassion is the troubling doubt that others who have chronic pain and serious diseases are more worthy of sympathy and my chills and sinus pressure are really baby stuff. There’s the habitual tendency to dismiss our own suffering because others have it worse. We each have a body that we are entrusted to care for and keep as well as possible. When my body is sending me messages that it needs attention it is not wise or kind to override it and ignore. This habit of shutting out the body sets up the pattern of distrust and we parcel out compassion only to the most deserving and innocent as if there’s a compassion test we must pass….am I truly worthy? Am I miserable enough? Are there others who are worse off? Maybe this is just a tiny thing? Of course! The answer is yes to it all. There are always those who have more suffering than we do and those who have less. It is not the degree of suffering that makes one worthy of compassion, self-compassion is an unremitting act of generosity. It is the ability to bring compassion into all areas of life, from the papercut to stage four cancer—we are taught to bring our care and kindness to hold all of what arises. Some key elements that stand out for me are acceptance, choice, capacity, impermanence, and universality.

When we bring acceptance to our body and mind that is suffering, we stop resisting, the body softens and there is less struggle. There is still discomfort, but not the added pressure to deny our experience. When I relaxed and gave up the fight to “feel normal,” I could get curious about what was arising, the heaviness in the eyes, the skin rippling chills, the pressure beneath the cheekbones, the cloudy feeling that threatened to tumble over my forehead and the mask of sleepiness that pressed in on me.

As I went about my days, driving to presentations, speaking to co-workers, caring for animals and family members, I remembered that even though I felt sick, it was my choice to stay vertical and take care of others. Respecting that my capacity was diminished, I came home early and let myself feel what was happening in the body. I told myself that this was suffering and that we all suffer. It is part of life; we all get sick. I recognized the impermanence of this moment, which is inherent in all moments, not just those that grab our attention because they are unpleasant. And I recognized the wisdom in taking care of myself.

Sickness is a great equalizer and reminds us that although we may believe we are the stories of self we weave, we are our achievements, our careers, our thought and ideologies, the reality of living in an undeniably shifting state, one that we do not control, is a wake up to the nature of how things really are. In sickness, there is also the tendency to fall into fear, imagining the worst possible future and outcome. In the space of seconds, a head cold becomes the flu. I’m hospitalized, unconscious. My dogs don’t get fed and perish from starvation while I’m in the intensive care ward, or maybe it’s neurological Lymes disease and I will never understand when to use affect or effect correctly. This type of thinking is called papancha, or mental proliferation that creates a further story with me as the star. Allowing myself to be pulled into the future takes me away from the reality of this changing state.

When we ascribe a permanent state to an impermanent situation we live in a delusion. When we label ourselves sickly or healthy, we also put a permanent label on a condition that is constantly shifting. Buddhist scholar Andrew Olendzki (2010) writes, “The self is a flawed strategy, born of ignorance, nurtured by craving, and perpetuated by endless moments of grasping in which we pull towards us what we like to consider part of ourselves and push away what don’t like” (pp. 135-136). If we label ourselves as sickly, or flawed, what are we believing? What is the conditioning that we are perpetuating and why? What is the reward for thinking in these terms? When we keep a notion of ourselves alive, we do so for a reason. My “superior immunity” label was enjoyable. It gave me a false sense of safety and invulnerability. Letting go of that and recognizing that I, just like 100 % of bodies, will get sick. With luck, I will age and eventually die. Understanding the impartiality of this body and illness gives me humility and exercises the muscle of compassion for myself and for all of us who get allergies, head colds, cancer, for all of us who suffer.

Although, I hope you aren’t sick—if you are so fortunate to have this learning opportunity, try some acceptance and curiosity. How is your body and your mind? Can you bring your care to the unpleasant without pushing it away and leaning into the future? Can you find a bit of ease even in the painful? Recognizing that the state is impermanent can lead to equanimity and balance. Knowing that there is sickness all over the world, we include all those who are in pain and feel hopeless in the wish for ourselves and all beings to be free from suffering and the roots of suffering.

May we all trust our light,


Be Still and heal

Olendszki, A. (2010). Unlimiting mind: The radically experimental psycology of buddhism. Somerville, MA: Wisdom.

The Strength of Vulnerability

spring flowers

Spring Flowers. Photo by Celia


“Sorrow, fear, and depression are all a kind of garbage. These bits of garbage are part of real life, and we must look deeply into their nature. You can practice in order to turn these bits of garbage into flowers.”  ~Thich Nhat Hanh

“…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.” ~Pema Chodron

“In Buddhist meditation, you do not turn yourself into a battlefield, with good fighting against evil. Both sides belong to you, the good and the evil. Evil can be transformed into good and vice versa. They are completely organic things.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh


Dear Friends,

I hope you are having some moments to sit and enjoy the changing weather, feeling the softness of the sunshine and stepping into days where we feel safe outside. We can unlayer from our winter coats, let our heads be bare and open to the air, and our fingers don’t get stiff and raw from the wind. In winter, it can feel like the world is a fierce and unforgiving place and going outside could kill us, but in spring—if we fall down and can’t get up, we’ll probably survive and not get hypothermia, or frostbite before we are rescued. This change in temperature helps the body relax and we have reason to celebrate this benign world. This change in seasons points to allowing the body to be more unprotected and vulnerable. That can be a difficult word—vulnerability. It is often thought of as weakness, but often what we consider vulnerability can be real strength.

Recently, I’ve been spending time with high school students practicing mindfulness. I intercepted one young man, a freshman, who was very close to a physical fight because he felt attacked. After we did some calming practice, he told me that the most stressful thing in school was that he had to hide his true feelings. It wasn’t safe for him to let others see that he was hurt. In that situation, the only acceptable emotion for this young man was anger. In our culture, we allow girls to feel hurt, but boys have to keep it all buttoned up or they are perceived as weak. Shame researcher from the University of Houston, Dr. Brene’ Brown tells us “The number one shame trigger for men is being perceived as weak. Men walk this tightrope where any sign of weakness elicits shame, and so they’re afraid to make themselves vulnerable for fear of looking weak.” The observation made by this high school freshman is the truth; males in our society are shamed for expressing their full range of emotions. Our work together allowed him to see that he was hurt, to recognize what he was wanting and needed, including physical safety and to allow all his emotions and underlying needs to be ok. There was no blame or shame in feeling hurt or afraid. It’s the strategies we employ to try to escape from those mind states that gets us in trouble.


In our practice, we have the unique opportunity to recognize, investigate, and be with all of our emotional terrain. There is nothing that is off limits or too shameful. Learning to develop the capacity to be with what is pleasant, and what is very far from pleasant is a process. We can gradually open to staying present with what is mildly irritating and practice building the resilience to stay when we feel the trembling of our heart. When we can hang in with ourselves, and utilize mindful awareness, there is part of ourselves that doesn’t get flooded with emotion. This is the part of us who can tell us to take three breaths, to recognize that we are scared, to explore where the fear lives in the body and to bring our compassion and care to this feeling. When we deny our full emotional life and range, we cut ourselves off from the possibility of transforming. We make parts of ourselves unacceptable and in doing so, we create prisons of shame that are too painful for us to look at. This suppression and exiling of our emotions will not make them go away but actually convinces us that we are not capable of handling these big emotions and they become more powerful.


This week, as part of the process of strengthening our capacity to stay present with ourselves, we can utilize mindfulness of vedana. This is noting the feeling tone, either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Pleasant and unpleasant are automatic responses, either an “ahhh,” or an “eww.” There is no need to analyze, these reactions are right up front, similar to the way people feel about cilantro—either we love it, or it tastes like soap. Neutral is a bit slipperier as we tend to ignore or space out neutral since it is neither what we grab ahold of or push away. Just check in, if possible each hour and notice what’s arising in the body and mind. Noticing what’s unpleasant, can we stay, even for three breaths investigating the pain that is in us? Where does it hurt? Is it consistent, or does it fluctuate? What is the pain asking for? Recognizing and allowing create the ability to relate to our pain, both emotional and physical, in a new and competent way. Are there moments of pleasant that shift to neutrality? Noticing the neutral, often I find that when there’s nothing wrong, that moment can become very pleasant. There is an absence of pain and I am not hungry, tired, or upset. What seems very neutral, shifts with mindful awareness into gratitude and the joy that arises from mindful presence. This week, please listen to your whole self. There is nothing to get rid of, just recycle what we think of as garbage into new spring flowers of understanding and compassion.

May we all trust our light,


No mud no lotus


The Remedy for Doubt

Daffodil Buddhas

Buddhas among the daffodils, BlueCliff Monastery. Photo by Celia


“To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

“The roots of all goodness lie in the soil of appreciation for goodness.”

 ~ H.H the Dalai Lama

“Each person has inside a basic decency and goodness. If he listens to it and acts on it, he is giving a great deal of what it is the world needs most. It is not complicated but it takes courage. It takes courage for a person to listen to his own goodness and act on it.”

~Pablo Casals

Dear Friends,

Wishing you lots of joy this Passover and Easter season. This is the time of year when many of us, especially in New England after a long winter, feel the effects of worldly joy, the sun on the skin and the warm air. We see the flowers grow and bloom. Bees get busy and all the birds agree that it’s time to start serious real estate inquiries for the future. Spring can be a time of great rejoicing, but it can also be a time of doubt, both personal and societal.

In spring it may appear that the whole natural world is moving forward, while we are still here, treading water with the same amount of delusion and obstacles we had last year. We may come up short in our assessment of where we want to be spiritually, professionally, and personally. Our government may have us doubting its commitment to bettering the world as we watch our administration veering into the dangerous territory of reactive and punitive legislation and creating a country that cannot sustain itself peaceably.

There is benefit to doubt. It helps us get unstuck and look at what we doing objectively. It allows us to question our means and methodology and check in with the course we are setting for ourselves. This is a healthy constructive doubt. The doubt that the Buddha speaks about is the doubt that leads to confusion and immobility. It can convince us that nothing will get better and lead us to abandon the path out of despair.

For many of us, inclining the mind to what is wrong through comparing and projecting actions and results into the future can fuel our doubt. Doubt is one of the five hindrances that obscure the mind from progressing towards enlightenment. These five are the desire for sense pleasure, aversion or anger, sloth and sleepiness, restlessness and agitation, and doubt. Doubt is one of the stickiest.

The Buddha describes doubt as a “bowl of water that is turbid, unsettled, muddy, placed in the dark. If a man with good sight were to examine his own facial reflection in it, he would neither know nor see it as it really is. So too, brahmin, when one dwells with a mind  obsessed and oppressed by doubt, and one does not understand as it really is the escape from arisen doubt, on that occasion one neither knows or sees as it really is one’s own good, or the good of others, or the good of both” (Aṅguttara Nikāya, V 193, Bhodi trans.) The remedy offered by the Buddha to escape from the oppression of doubt that has arisen and doubt that lays in wait is to use clear seeing and to know the goodness of one’s actions and of the goodness and kindness of others. This is the way to remove doubt about our progress and the fear and doubt of others.

We see this recollection and belief in one’s goodness in the enlightenment story of the Buddha. According to Buddhist tradition, when the Buddha was an unenlightened Bodhisattva, and close to enlightenment, he sat beneath a Bhodi tree and vowed to stay in meditation until he achieved liberation. As he sat, he was tested by the embodiment of sensual desire and evil, the god Mara who wants to keep people trapped in rebirth and delusion. Mara sent his terrifying armies to the Buddha to frighten him while the Buddha sat. Unable to upset the Buddha to be, Mara sent his three beautiful daughters to tempt the Buddha into abandoning his quest, but the Buddha was not swayed. In a final push to keep the Buddha from finding the way out of rebirth and suffering, Mara threw the final dart of doubt and claimed the seat of enlightenment for himself, saying his spiritual achievements exceeded the Buddha. But the Buddha sat and reached out his hand and touched the earth with his fingertips, calling upon the Earth herself to witness to his goodness and his spiritual achievements. In this remarkable moment, the Buddha relied upon the wisdom and witness of this earth and the continuum of his goodness in his past. He understood the interdependent life he shared with and through the earth and calling upon the accrued wealth of kindness shown to those who dwell on the earth and to the earth herself was the last task for the Buddha. This brought his clear seeing and freedom.

We all are gifted with Buddha nature, the promise of clear seeing and the ability to wake up. Whether we believe it or not, we all have a luminous mind and purity of heart. This week, I invite you to spend time reflecting on your goodness. Settling into attending to the breath and body, bring to mind your deepest aspirations and intentions. How have you lived these beautiful qualities in the world? Maybe you looked with understanding eyes upon a co-worker who was caught in frustration, gave financial support to someone in need, noticed and spoke to a homeless person who is commonly treated as less than human, or spoke out against injustice raising your voice for those who aren’t heard.

Allowing ourselves to witness to our goodness in the past and commit to practicing our intentional life in the present can dispel the doubt and inertia we all encounter when we don’t see the fruit of our practice. This week, let yourself be touched by your own kindness and rest in the refuge of your care and compassion. We can stop looking for beauty outside of ourselves and return home to claim our birthright, an awakened heart.

May we all trust our light,


we are already what we want to become


Impermanence creates potential


Last summer’s gardenia: Photo by Celia


“We are all practicing to become the person we will become next.”    ~ Andrew Olendzki


“Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“Impermanent are all component things,

They arise and cease, that is their nature:

They come into being and pass away,

Release from them is bliss supreme.”

Aniccaa vata sa”nkhaaraa — uppaada vaya dhammino

Uppajjitvaa nirujjhanti — tesa.m vuupasamo sukho.

~Mahaa-Parinibbaana Sutta (DN 16)

Dear Friends,

I hope you are well and enjoying the goodness of impermanence. We see this in the spring that is causing the daffodils to emerge and the birds making plans for new families. Witnessing change and the moment to moment shift of living is a central part of the meditative path. Impermanence (anicca) is one of the three marks of existence, the inescapable truths all beings encounter in life, from the smallest single-celled animal to the complexities of the human experience. Everything changes whether we like it or not. The things that bring us happiness do not last and holding onto the pleasure we encounter on this worldly plane will not give us liberation and freedom but ties us to a continued enmeshment in searching for lasting happiness where it doesn’t exist. And we are not permanent. This idea of self that we see as a separate and discreet is really the confluence of systems and cooperation that stretches wider than my mind can grasp. I am constantly in the process of cellular birth and death and will one day, “wake up dead,” and transition into a new and unknown form of being.

Impermanence is not personal and can sound like a tremendous bummer, but this understanding is also a way out of the suffering of attaching to what is a chimera. The last instructions of the Buddha to his sangha stressed the importance of minding the change in what appears unchangeable. He told his sangha ‘”I exhort you, monks: All fabrications are subject to decay. Bring about completion by being heedful.’ Those were the Tathagata’s last words”’ (SN 6.5, Thanissaro trans). Given the weight of timing, we could argue that contemplating impermanence is where we should spend our time.

In the Sutta, The Eight Realizations of Great Beings, translated from the Pali to Chinese, then to English by Thich Nhat Hanh, “The First Realization is the awareness that the world is impermanent. Political regimes are subject to fall. Things composed of the four elements are empty, containing within them the seeds of suffering. Human beings are composed of Five Aggregates and are without a separate self. They are always in the process of change – constantly being born and constantly dying. They are empty of self and without a separate existence. The mind is the source of all confusion, and the body the forest of all unwholesome actions. Meditating on this, you can be released from the round of birth and death ” ( 2006, Taisho Revised Tripitaka, No. 779). This teaching illustrates the hope and reward associated with contemplating impermanence.

Indeed, beings comprised of the five aggregates, form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness are not independently arising and subject to birth and death. When we see this truth we can stand apart from our identification with political ideologies and our quest for becoming somebody. When we see that the government—even ones as powerful as the US, Russia, or China are impermanent and we have witnessed or know about turnovers in these regimes before, yet it seems unthinkable that there could be a paradigm shift in something so solid as the US Constitution or the House of Lords.

When we look with our dharma eyes we see that we aren’t the Democrats or Republicans we think we are; we are transient phenomenon inhabiting a temporary construct, this society, and even this earth. The Buddha recognized that his teachings here on earth are subject to change and dissolution. There is nothing that will not change. Socially engaged spirituality teacher Donald Rothberg told about his own practice of contemplating impermanence for five minutes every day. We can do this through noticing the shifts in our body, mind, and emotions and also noting the beginning, middle and ending of sounds around us. He did this daily exercise for years and recommends it as a way to free us from delusion.

Reflecting on impermanence in my day, I see that the morning is now a sunset. Grey clouds are gathering on the horizon. My body is different than it was. I am not hungry the way I was around 4:00 today. I’m a bit sleepy and I need to turn on a light because it’s now dark in this room where I’m writing. I hear the refrigerator make a noise, then stop. There’s an engine, now it’s gone. My spouse just came in through the garage door. I hear footsteps, now I don’t. Even as I write this I see changes in my surroundings and in myself. My mind is returning to an earlier email that caused some concern and moving ahead to the two tasks I need to do before bed.

Looking into the past, I can imagine myself as two cells, then four, eight, and a developing fetus. I know there was a time I was pre-verbal (there are photos to prove it!) and now I can speak English and poor Spanish. With impermanence, maybe I can speak better Spanish, or if I don’t practice, it will be worse Spanish. Impermanence makes learning possible. My dog’s leg can heal in an impermanent world, babies grow and buds become leaves to feed the trees.  With impermanence, we can affect change, but we are not owned by the conditions of this embodied existence. We are free to become what we choose. When we get comfortable with impermanence we can see the preciousness of this time in this body, on this earth, in all the pleasant and unpleasantness. This lifetime is our classroom for waking up from the so serious ideas of ownership, and identity. When we see through the veil of permanent we lose identification to the I, me, and mine and recognize that we are all just visiting here—let us take good care of these borrowed bodies, this lovely home—our planet, and our beloved ones we get to appreciate right now.

May we all trust our light,


A cloud never dies



Generosity is giving to ourselves


Snowdrops: photo by Celia


Therefore the wise give gifts. Seeking bliss,

they would subdue the stain of miserliness.

Established in the three-fold heavenly world,

they enjoy themselves long in fellowship with the devas.

Having made the opportunity for themselves,

having done what is skillful, then when they fall from here

they fare on, self-radiant, in Nandana.

There they delight, enjoy, are joyful,

replete with the five sensuality strands.

Having followed the words of the sage who is Such,

                                 they enjoy themselves in heaven —

          disciples of the One Well-gone.

Siha Sutta: To General Siha (On Generosity), AN 5.34

translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu © 1997


Dear Friends,

Here in New England, it doesn’t feel much like spring with three Nor’easters in the past three weeks and the possibility of more snow this week. Despite the bitter wind, the Earth knows that spring is coming. There are daffodil stalks pushing through into the sunshine and I saw my first cluster of snowdrops blooming on the south side of an old Maple tree. This is the truth of living, there is always change—some we enjoy more than others. Spring is an especially joyful time after a long and draining winter. This celebration of the return to warmer and brighter days is the gift of impermanence.

In Buddhism and life, we often think of impermanence as loss or the painful change of separation from what we love. Spring is a reminder that impermanence is also possibility and opportunity. Impermanence is present in us as neuroplasticity, or the ability to shape our thoughts, our brains, and manifest change in our lives. If we cling to the notion of permanent selves and relationships, we may unwittingly shortchange our capability to grow our care and compassion. This is one of the reasons that intentional actions and reflection are so profound.

We are alive in a time where we know more about the human biological phenomenon than any other time in the history of the world. We are also alive in an era where we can access the wisdom teachings of millennia from our laptops while lying on the sofa. We have more access to the Pali canon and great teachers than any other generation—yea, impermanence again. We have the teaching and trainings to make our minds a safe place. I can actively create a mind where I want to spend time, a resilient, loving, and kind refuge for myself and all I encounter. We are the artists and authors of our mind states.

The first paramita-Sanskrit [parami-Pali], or perfection that leads to liberation is dana or generosity. The Buddha knew that giving and generosity were essential for creating a peaceful society that valued all living beings. Neuroscientists found another reason to practice generosity—it feels good. In a generosity study, subjects who practiced giving showed activation in the medial forebrain pleasure circuit. This cluster of neurons in the brain is responsible for the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine which produces the experience of pleasure and is also activated when using narcotics, alcohol, or through sex. Even contemplating generosity, regardless of the magnitude of the act, created a response in the pleasure center of the brain.

To enhance a state, we bring intentionality to the act and pause to take in how it feels in the body. Contemplating the act before we do it. Staying present with the experience afterward we imprint this is our explicit memory and create more neural connections to support happiness through generosity.

Recently, I was in New York to attend a Buddhist meeting. I told my friend who lives in Manhattan that I often felt conflicted about generosity and giving to people on the street since I didn’t know if I was contributing to addictions and enabling their illness. This is called “stupid compassion,” trying to please everyone without discernment. I asked her how she practiced generosity.

My friend said to practice the gift of attention. This involves speaking to the person who is asking for money and regardless of how much you give–it could be a nickel, look into their eyes and find out something about them. I put her advice into practice on the next block and spoke to a woman sitting against a building wrapped in a blanket on a frigid February morning. I asked how she was doing and she told me that she needed money to pay a legal bill so she could move and be free from an abusive partner. I listened to her talk about the fragility of position and with the wreck of a hurricane or getting fired, anyone could be where she was. No one was immune. She reminded me of impermanence.

I asked her directions and as I walked to the bus stop, I was full of appreciation and wonder. The exchange was far from what I thought I’d find. This woman understood suffering. She understood the delusion of judgment and she helped me find my way. It didn’t matter if her story was true or not. I gave her a dollar and she gave me an experience of loosening my judgment, and the beautiful gift of recognizing shared humanity with someone who is overlooked and often despised.

This week is an opportunity to practice creating and noting the loveliness in our intention of generosity, staying present with our gratitude for giving the gift of a smile, the phone call to listen to a friend, or making eye contact with someone who is ignored. As we linger in the pleasure of our own generosity we create the foundation of habit. Noticing our goodness and good feelings leads to more willingness to practice this open-hearted risk that gives so much in return. When we see our own goodness, we are unafraid.

May we all trust our light,


th (4)

The hard Work of Being Lazy

Alloway Kirk, stone

Gravestone from Alloway Kirk, Scotland. Photo by Barbara Richardson

“Don’t just do something, sit there.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

“Be Yourself. Life is precious as it is. All the elements for your happiness are already here. There is no need to run, strive, search, or struggle. Just Be.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

“May all beings be happy in themselves.” The Buddha, from the Metta Sutta


Dear Friends,

When was the last time you observed sabbath? Traditionally, the Sabbath is a day set apart to practice the art of enjoying family, life and caring for our human spiritual nature. Exodus 20:8, states, “Remember the Sabbath, keep it holy.” On the Sabbath, the most rigorous Hebraic observance excludes discussion of everyday matters and day to day work. Rabbi’s advise congregants to slow down and walk slower reflecting the quality of leisure. There is no rushing on the Sabbath. Observant Orthodox Jews do not engage in reading or writing and are forbidden to make future plans. The emphasis is on stopping and resting instead of doing.  For Christians, the Sabbath was set aside to give time for worship and reverence, without the distraction of work.

In the Plum Village tradition, there is Lazy Day. This is a day to practice non-doing. Thich Nhat Hahn says, “this isn’t a day when you can just do what you like” (Happiness, 2009, p. 104). To truly practice laziness is very difficult for most of us. In non-doing, we must stop and confront ourselves. We have an opportunity to see the directions we are pulled in and how we are with others and see the quality of our dedication to practice. For some, this is an opportunity to release some of the tension and tightness around the practice, for others, a day of deep looking can give more energy and commitment to continuing practice.

Lazy day is counter-culture to our societal pull that tells us we need to be busy to be valued. This constant engagement hides feelings of boredom and loneliness, “When we do not have something to do we get bored and seek for something to do, or for entertainment. We are very afraid of being there and doing nothing. The Lazy Day had been prescribed for us not to be afraid of doing nothing. Otherwise, we have no means to confront our stress and our depression” (Hanh, 2009, p. 103). When we stop doing, we stop running and we discover that our difficult feelings cannot hide in activity. Without distractions, we encounter ourselves in a more stark, honest way. Renouncing doing offers the opportunity to meet our suffering with care and compassion and to turn towards ourselves.

Trying to not do, we may find that we encounter the societally rampant belief that we are not worthwhile when we are not busy. There is an implicit attachment to our status as busy, in demand, and someone who is sought after. We unconsciously place our worth in our achievements and the conditional love and success of our career highs or latest good deed.

For many people, this unexamined construct of worthiness comes crashing down when there is illness, or we retire and are no longer capable of meeting our expectations. We have lost touch with who we are by ourselves and may feel worthless without our title or profession to give us meaning. This version of the self is an illusion of value based on how well we comply with societal demands. We fall into the mistaken belief that we must be good and productive citizens instead of attending to the moment to moment unfolding truth of living in a sensitive embodied form.

When we do the very difficult job of not doing, we may see the habits of desiring praise and achievement clearly. We can offer ourselves a different way to be that is rooted in who we really are, a precious human life with the unique opportunity of waking up to the possibility of befriending ourselves at each moment. When we stop doing we can become still enough to hear what our heart is longing for and begin to care for the one who is so close, and so often overlooked.

May we all trust our light,


I have Arrived, I am Home

Escape From Time Prison

Eagle leaving nest

Eagle Leaving Nest. Photo by Jerome


“I wanted to figure out why I was so busy, but I couldn’t find the time to do it.”

~Todd Stocker

“People say time is money, but time is life.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“If you take time to enjoy dishwashing, then dishwashing can become meditation. If you think of the time of washing as the time that you lose… then you lose yourself. It means you continue to lose your life.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

Every day I hear someone say, “There isn’t enough time,” or “I’d like to do mindfulness, but I don’t have the time.” I know. There is never enough time to do everything. But somehow, we manage to have enough time to do what we value. Thich Nhat Hanh notes that we organize our lives around what is most important to us. This past week was super action-packed for me and I started to feel stretched thin. All this doing has led me to two ways of thinking about time and busyness. They are not new or complex, but they are both a radical departure from our culture of rapidity and stress.

The first thing I realized was the more I looked into the future and saw the big list of all the things to do, the less capable and trustworthy I became. This is the first realization of taking hold of your time—keeping our view small. Buddhist peace activist and organizer, Bernie Glassman writes, “Just because things are overwhelming doesn’t mean they have to overwhelm you. If you realize that things are not under your control, you can go step by step. You simply stop long enough to ask yourself, ‘What do I do with my time for the next hour’” (Instructions to the Cook, p. 77). When we break our time into small moments and focus what we commit to doing, we shift the lens and suddenly we are capable and competent. An hour is a different prospect than a day or a week.

Shrinking our window of planning is good and there’s that expression we all know, but few practice doing one thing at a time. Ahh, the essence of Zen, attending to just this moment. Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, that our very connection and presence depends upon our ability to drop into this moment of experience, otherwise, we lose our connection with life. Thay reminds us that “while drinking the cup of tea we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked into the future—and we are incapable of actually living one moment of life” (The Miracle of Mindfulness, p. 8). When we spend our time focused on the big list of “to do,” we shift our perception of time and lose the time we have now.

It’s revolutionary to read, Bernie Glassman’s line, “There’s always enough time.” Glassman is not ruled by time, instead, he chooses to set his priorities to get done what needs to get done and using time as an ally instead of a master. His common knowledge secret is the wisdom from Zen master Maezumi Roshi, who told him, “when you walk, you walk.” It’s that old, one thing at a time practice. This is the spirit in which Thich Nhat Hanh describes two ways to wash dishes, “The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes. The second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.” We can extrapolate that direction in our own lives to when we drive, we just drive, when we sit, we just sit, when we make breakfast we just make breakfast.

Doing one thing at a time, with a small window of planning sounds so supremely simple, but then why is it so difficult?  One reason is that the mind can develop a strong habit of taking care and get a bit overzealous. This hyper-vigilant mind state can become reflexive, giving us less than helpful reminders, “Have you thought about what you’re going to say at the meeting? You know you have a due date, shouldn’t you be further along?” This nagging, hurrying, protecting mind does all this out of love for us and the deep desire to keep us safe. Sometimes, it’s wise to thank our mind for trying so valiantly to be our guardian, and then, with promises of calling and visiting this anxious warden, we come back to the small circle of momentary engagement, right here right now. It is not easy because the mind convinces us we will risk everything if we ignore the hurry up message.

There is hope for the chronically overscheduled. Bernie Glassman gives this explanation of how we can free ourselves from the idea of the time prison, “when we eliminate the gap between our expectations and what we’re doing, our energies all go into what we’re doing at the moment. We’re not wasting our energy on what we think we should be doing. At that point, all of a sudden, the notion of time disappears.” When we set up our lives to include what we value, focus on what is achievable in a short amount of time and then stay present with what we are doing, with our mind and our body, that is about as good as it gets. Then we can find that we too have all the time we need for what is needed.

May we all trust our light,


happiness is here and now

Joy is a Process


Friendly Goldfish. Photo by Celia


“Happiness is available. Please help yourself.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”

 ~ Anne Frank

“Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”

But I say unto you, they are inseparable.

Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is

asleep upon your bed.”

~ Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet


Dear Friends,

I’m recognizing the real need for joy in my life. This joy is not exuberance or dependent upon someone else, or even upon the sunshine, or external conditions. What I am describing is the quiet joy that is existing even when there is so much suffering in the news, pain in the body, and those in the world, who act in dangerous and harmful ways. This joy is not always obvious. It lives in the mundane and small moments of every day.

There is always a degree of joy when we stay present to ourselves and do not abandon ourselves. There is joy when we bring the intention of caring to our difficulties. We may see joy against the backdrop of suffering and we may find joy in our willingness to be present for our pain. When we are short on joy, we look for something to help us bolster ourselves and may take refuge in unwholesome coping mechanisms to try to escape from our pain. As Insight teacher Jill Shephard says, “being with pain won’t kill you but running from pain will.” We have the most drug addicted, overweight, depressed civilization in the history of the world and despite our technology, medicine, and conveniences, there is a big deficit of joy. To my thinking, developing the habit of noticing joy is a better coping mechanism than opiates.

For most of my life, I believed that some people had joy, and some had bad luck. I believed that joy needed to find me, I shouldn’t have to look for it or try to manufacture it. That seemed artificial and contrived, putting a smiley face on a terrible disaster and pretending that everything was fine when it wasn’t. But joy does not deny pain. Nor is it a suppression of our true feelings. Joy is present even in the moments that feel so difficult. Joy is in the small things, in noticing the dust motes floating in a shaft of sunshine, in the birds that cling to the side of trees and wear no shoes even in the coldest months. Joy is there in the easy breath I take without aid from a ventilator or an inhaler. Joy is present in the plate of food, warm from the stove, abundant and savory, obtained without sacrifice. Joy is made of noticing the softness and ok-ness in the exact moment where things may be very unpleasant. Joy can come even in death when we witness the release from pain. Sometimes joy is a bright flash at the moment when the pain abates, the joy of the shifting experience that needs the pain as a backdrop. It’s not like a muse or sudden inspiration that falls upon the lucky ones, joy is a process and a training.

My thinking about joy has changed. Dharma teacher Chas DiCapua talks about the joy that gives perspective to suffering and helps to balance it and create equanimity. Chas speaks about cultivating joy the same way we do any wholesome mind state that’s arisen, we become aware of it. We know it as it is happening by staying present with our experience. It is one of the seven factors of awakening the Buddha described: mindfulness, inquiry, joy, energy, calm, concentration, and equanimity. These seven factors co-create conditions for awakening. We need the joy to provide us with energy and equanimity. If there is only struggle and suffering, we can find ourselves overwhelmed and listless, swallowed by the vastness of what is wrong in the world.

There are people in pain and reduced circumstances who are very joyful and seem to find the goodness in every moment. This tendency may be because of conditioning, but it demonstrates the ability of the mind to seek and find. When we stop and give permission to see the beautiful and the good, even in a painful moment, we are able to directly experience it.  When we train in turning towards the joy in our life, we create the solid foundation that gives us the strength to turn towards the difficult. Joy is here to be found, and it’s important to experience joy, even when there’s suffering, especially when there’s suffering.

May we all trust our light,



Mindful by Mary Oliver

Every day

I see or I hear


that more or less


kills me

with delight,

that leaves me

like a needle


in the haystack

of light.

It is what I was born for –

to look, to listen,


to lose myself

inside this soft world –

to instruct myself

over and over


in joy,

and acclamation.

Nor am I talking

about the exceptional,


the fearful, the dreadful,

the very extravagant –

but of the ordinary,

the common, the very drab,


the daily presentations.

Oh, good scholar,

I say to myself,

how can you help


but grow wise

with such teachings

as these –

the untrimmable light


of the world,

the ocean’s shine,

the prayers that are made

out of grass?