Monday, March 30, 2009

Silent Illumination

As I prepare to sort through the piles of paper and other sundry items collecting in the alleys and byways of my apartment, I wonder how they piled up. How did they get here? Not a big stretch to grasp the bigger question, How did I get here?

A line from a Chinese Zen text, Guidepost for Silent Illumination, comes to mind:

From the beginning to end the changing appearances
and ten thousand differences share one pattern.

Like a lot of folks, I get caught sometimes in anxiety and confusion, usually coming from a sense of overwhelm by details and lack of clarity about what to do next. I notice it as constriction, specifically my chest tightening and my field of vision narrowing. It could be hours or days until I realize having lost touch with the bigger picture.

Then something shifts.

Like earlier this week, walking down the street thinking about how to begin a talk I was scheduled to give that day, I passed by fifteen or so teenagers heading into an adjoining community garden, rakes and shovels in hand. I heard a neighbor say loudly, "we can start here." I smiled, then heard these youngsters laughing, poking fun at each other's clumsiness with the tools. I laughed at my clumsiness. Here they were, city kids clearing out broken branches and other accumulated debris to make way for new plantings. Here I was, doing the same.

The day before, during a group I facilitate as a clinical chaplain for folks living with HIV, called, Moving On, a client shared his experience in prison. Newly diagnosed with HIV, he wondered how he got there. He said, "That was me crying out like Jesus, Why have You forsaken me?" Right after this, another participant stated fervently, "I don't believe in God. I'm responsible for what happens to me. And those pyramids weren't built by slave labor. They were built in gratitude to Pharaoh, who was a god to the Egyptian people."

What is the pattern in such a moment?

For me, coming back to the breath and intention helps.

Like five days earlier when a patient for whom I was caring at a nearby hospital died. Standing at the funeral home days later, greeting her loved ones, I wondered how to provide a healing and widely accessible container. She identified as Buddhist. Her family and friends were a mix of secularly and religiously identified people. Some Catholic, some Muslim, a few Buddhist, and many "unaffiliated" (as I often hear this category of people labelled). Some described themselves as "lapsed" or "non-practicing." One elderly woman held a rosary.

I attuned, then spoke about how during her final days and hours, the woman they called daughter, sister, niece, aunt, or friend affirmed what mattered to her most. She had said, "to feel cared for." I spoke about how she had shifted during those days to recognizing that caring for and cared for are inter-connected. Breathing in, caring. Breathing out, caring. This became her focus. She died peacefully surrounded by family and friends.

During the funeral, I offered a song with a simple melody that expressed a form of loving-kindness meditation, which she practiced:

May all beings be free from suffering.
May all being be free from fear.
May all beings be happy.

I was surprised and thankful as most everyone began to sing along. As we sang, I felt something shift in the room. I felt her presence. People cried, then smiled. It was a moment of deep caring.

Days later, Friday evening with sunset approaching, I joined friends at a teashop in Chinatown. We celebrated a young friend's birthday and another friend's visit, a former employee who now lives in the midwest. The birthday girl blew out the candle and made a wish. We took photos and guessed ingredients in the cake. Everybody laughed.

Today at the supermarket, I saw boxes of chocolate-covered matza and chocolate easter eggs. It's in these details that I see our shared journey. Expressed in different forms, posing different questions, all of them point to what matters most.

Sitting now beside the window, questions fall away. Coming back to the breath, I listen to the hum of cars passing, kids playing, and a few birds chirping. I feel my body relaxing and expanding. The afternoon light begins to sparkle.

Who can say what this is?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Girls' Day

Yesterday was my birthday. It also was a day of celebration in Japan called Hina-Matsuri or Girls' Day. 

I knew where I wanted to be to celebrate both occasions - a beautiful teahouse called, "Cha An" in Manhattan's East Village. Cha An is tucked away along a street affectionately known as "Japan row."

I had not been there in many months. Thanks to my sister Evelyn's generosity, I had funds for the occasion. Evelyn lives in California. She sent me a card saying, "do what makes you happy" enclosed with a check.

Talking on the phone that day, she told me a story that poignantly brought that point home.

Once, as Evelyn was talking with a friend and struggling to authentically express herself, this friend put out crayons and paper. Evelyn began to draw.  She discovered (as she said to me) that, "I needed to be served those crayons." She needed this because she couldn't serve herself, offer herself the time and space to follow a free-flowing impulse.

She encouraged me to play. Heeding her wisdom, I followed that impulse and walked. Bright sunshine and a cold wind kept me moving along the Hudson River Park on through Soho and Chinatown. Then, I hopped on a subway train as daylight faded. Within minutes, I landed in the East Village at Cha An.

When I arrived after the afternoon of joyful wandering, the women working there greeted me as a long gone sister, happy and relieved to see me. I felt an impulse to share with them that it was my birthday. These dear friends showered me with affection.  We exchanged bows and in some cases, gentle hugs.

The joy in this space is palpable on any day. Even so, on Girls' Day, there was a touch of playfulness and warmth that felt fresh. On each table lay a gorgeous and understatedly elegant flyer describing the day. The origins and traditions fascinate me. One of the customs is to place straw dolls out on a flowing body of water such as a river or ocean to free oneself of hindrances and particularly with focus on protecting children. Families receive gifts of these dolls in honor of their young daughters.

On each table in the teahouse, there were two origami "dolls" reflecting another theme of the day - partnership. I watched my friends serve, these women gliding through the cozy room clothed in earth-toned uniforms, which reminded me of those dolls and of partnership. I felt an earth-meets-water pulse accompanied by a graceful, quiet dignity flowing through me. I thought about family and about community. I contemplated sisterhood and how marvelous it feels to instinctively care for and be cared for. A gift that keeps on giving.

Sipping Genmai cha, a mix of green tea and toasted rice, the texture of time and space softened. My breath deepened and the room brightened even as the light outside continued to dim.

Simplicity and attention to intention opened a door. I wondered how to keep opening, keep flowing. How to recognize home as this body, this boundless body?

Just then, the crayon moment arrived. I reached for a napkin and wrote these words:

          I open my eyes and smile.

              Love is this moment,

            dancing with sisters on Girls' Day.