Tag Archives: Buddhism

A Call to Presence

My winter held a unique tour of the spiritual traditions. I attended a neuroscience workshop at the Upaya Zen Center before working with Presbyterian ministers/trainers, then on to a workshop on indigenous wisdom with Patrick O’Neill. Last, as you read earlier, I supported a conference of primarily Muslim participants in Morocco. That’s my version of wonderful season!


This special tour deepened my understanding of cross-tradition beliefs. I began February sitting in meditation twice a day, which included hearing the following advice sung each evening, “Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance. Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost. Let us awaken, awaken take heed. Do not squander your life.”

The minister trainers all engaged in communal prayer multiple times a day ending in a short, but profound service. Indigenous practices include the use of morning prayers and drumming, and of course, every day in the Arab world was framed with 5 calls to prayer over loud speakers beginning before sunrise to sunset. Study the world’s religions and you must study ritual.

Rituals very practically call us to stop a busy mind and be in the moment. Cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien described this cross-cultural goal as “Show up, choose to be present.” We don’t want to squander our lives and ritual is our crutch to make this a habit. Whether it is breath, a service or bowing with our head to the ground, the religious traditions figured out that a daily requirement of committed ritual can help us get back to the here and now.

When we understand how precious each moment is, we can treat each breath, each moment, as a newborn baby.
Michelle McDonald

I had a long layover in Minneapolis as I returned from Morocco, which gave me 5 hours reconnecting to my childhood haunts. A ritual walk around the lake near my growing up house with a friend of 39 years called me to show up where I now stood and notice from where I had come. Some rituals may be prescribed by our cultural traditions, but we can develop others to support our wellbeing.   For some it might be saying “I love you” while looking in the eyes of a child or spouse every night before sleeping. For others it might be appreciating the sunrise and sunset each day. IMG_3513

What might bring you back to the present? Where might you commit to making a simple ritual your daily centering habit? Life is short, let’s play this well.


Say Yes

Life is movement. The more life there is, the more flexibility there is. The more fluid you are, the more you are alive. – Arnaud Desjardins

Ask a Buddhist what we can count on and he will probably explain that nothing is permanent or, as Desjardins says, “life is movement.”

Sometimes that precept is welcome news. It’s great to know that homesickness or a sore back will eventually end. That your toddler will someday not need diapers and will learn how to dress herself brings a smile to your lips. Yet, as you look across a table at a dear friend, at that beloved toddler or at an aging parent, you’d probably rather forget that everything changes including our favorite people.

So, how do we come to terms with the axiom of constant and sometimes heartbreaking change?

This question has been accompanying me closely as our cousin Charles Bach passed away from congestive heart failure last month. Six months my senior, Charlie assumed the role of elder brother by providing relentless teasing and instruction throughout my childhood, which I usually resisted. Our extended family’s favorite memories include Charlie and me arguing for hours rooted literally and metaphorically in the spot where we began.



So, fast-forward to today, I’m still balking at the presented topic — I’m not a big fan of impermanence right now, thank you very much. I would love the opportunity to battle with Charlie over introducing it. “Sometimes people need to leave,” I could hear him saying…

Some of Charlie’s last words were, “Yes, yes, yes!” and “It’s an amazing world of yes.” I am told that he died happy and very much at peace. As one of my lifelong teachers, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that he left behind answers on how one is supposed to cope.

Since he was a gifted musician and actor, Charlie’s statement reminds me an improvisation rule — “say yes to whatever appears.” For example, what if on stage your partner suggests making spaghetti on Mars? Go along with the program. And if the clarinetist wants to riff in a new direction? Follow her lead. The scene calls for you to now to be ninety-year-old hip-hop star? Fantastic – start dancing.

Patricia Madson, author of Improv Wisdom expands, “The world of yes may be the single most powerful secret of improvising. It allows players who have no history with one another to create a scene effortlessly, telepathically. Safety lies in knowing your partner will go along with whatever idea you present…Seize the first idea and go with it. Don’t confuse this with being a “yes-man,” implying mindless pandering. Saying yes is an act of courage and optimism; it allows you to share control. It is a way to make your partner happy. Yes expands your world.”

A deliciously talented improv actress, friend and teacher Katie Goodman reframes this concept in her book Improvisation for the Spirit as “don’t negate.” She writes, “If someone offers a tidbit of information to move the scene forward (such as “Oh man, I left the money we stole from the bank, um, at the bank,”) and I negate the offering (“No! It’s right here!”) it would do several things: First of all, it would be a power-play over the other actor, which is really not fun for the others and over time makes people not want to work or hang out with you…Secondly, the energy of the scene would have fallen flat – if you outright negate and say no to an idea the scene comes to a screeching halt. And most importantly, I would have just blown an opportunity for a creative challenge, which brings energy and enthusiasm to our lives.”

Not only opening us to exciting new opportunities, saying yes is an act of recognizing reality. We accept even that to which we want to say no. On stage it might be easy to say, “yes, we eat spaghetti on Mars” and yet in real life we are called to say, “Yes, atrocities are being committed against innocent people in the Congo,” “Yes, you think I’m a jerk,” or “Yes, there is racism and misery in the world.”  We see what is, we center into the facts, and then can decide what must be done.

A fighter by nature, I was never happy when it looked like Charlie won an argument. But here, yes, he gets the last word (Charlie would have teased me for choosing that figure of speech so I’ll leave it.).  Yes, I stand silently vanquished not only because I admit that he made another excellent point, but also because as Seneca once said, “Light griefs are loquacious, but the great are dumb.”

Shifting focus to overcome challenges

With the Thriving Through Tough Times tip,  “Give to your community so you can fully recover,” I have been trying to justify it a bit backwards. With the other techniques, I noticed their appearance in many different traditions and thought, “Ah ha, a theme!” For example, surrounding yourself with a caring community is a widespread practice when tough times appear. However, with “give back to recover,” I noticed this by watching clients, effective leaders and how I was able to bounce back after difficult circumstances. As I wrote in my last post, to make my case I have been looking for standard multi-cultural practices to back up what I believe to be true…and had come up short!

 But, I’m now wondering if I had been approaching the research wrong.  Perhaps I am not finding “giving back” as a required cultural practice because helping others has to be a very personal choice. Showing back up in your community after a major loss is an individual test of courage and optimism. Jerry White of Survivors Corps and I were talking a few years ago about how perplexing it is that some people against all odds are able to recover and survive terrible circumstances while others who have all sorts of resources get knocked down and never get back up. Neither of us could point to one factor, other than a firm personal decision that the person wants to get up and involve herself in her community. It seems like a foundational spot where we all have free will.  I can’t make you get back on your feet again; you have to choose to do so.

 Tibetan Buddhism has an interesting take on how we can choose to return and how this relates to giving.  Buddhism believes that our soul comes into being and then is reincarnated potentially multiple times. During each lifetime, we are born, we learn stuff and then we physically die. Yet, after death and before rebirth, we always have a choice. If we need to learn more, we can choose when and to which family we want to be born into the next time. Also, we have reached a level of wisdom, we can elect to instead head off into nirvana or we can choose to return to earth to help others reach enlightenment.

If we don’t understand how the reincarnation process works, according to Buddhism, we aren’t aware that we have choices. Depending on our development, we may instead fearfully jump into the first body available and can land myself in a worse situation than before. However, if I understand the death/rebirth process, I can select a better existence. If I have taken the Bodhisattva vow to help others, I can then decide to be reborn in a place where I will be of most help.

 When things fall apart –we lose a great job, marriage, loved one or our health for example — we experience what Buddhists call “little deaths.” While processing the loss there is a time where I am grieving and not in the world. Tibetan Buddhist call the place between death and rebirth the bardo state (bar –“in between” and “do” – island or mark). Like in the bardo state, during tough times we often land on an “ in between island” after loss and before recovery.

 “In Between Island” living isn’t easy. Bardo states are described as potentially terrifying since there we face what most scare us. Our inner demons appear as visions or nightmares. Similarly, on our between islands we come face to face with our greatest fears. Phrases like,  “I’ll never find another job and will be out on the street,” “My husband will leave me” or “I will never heal and will die,” creep into our heads.  We feel pain while mourning and our worries create additional suffering.

 As with the Buddhist death/rebirth process, if I don’t understand that every difficult circumstance is also an opportunity to reincarnate into a better me, I might jump at the first solution I can find to try to avoid the pain.   I might choose a life where I drink heavily to run away from my suffering. Or I quickly marry so I am not alone yet land myself with an abusive spouse. 

 However, if I am aware that with difficult circumstance, I can back up for a bit and consciously choose my next step, I’m ahead of the game. In transition lays possibility and opportunity to become more authentic and expand. All major religious traditions advise in these junctures if we base our decision on how we can help others as well as ourselves, we will learn to be unafraid of death/rebirth and better play the game of life. Sounds flowery and sweet, but it actually practical when you see it applied.

 Buckminster Fuller, after losing his business and daughter to illness, found himself on the brink of suicide. In that moment, he made a choice to stay and to serve humankind. As a result, in his biography he wrote of deep joy throughout the rest of his life as he developed inventions like the geodesic dome, agricultural strategies and  the dymaxion car. In looking for solutions to serve the greater good, he was undaunted by failure and tragedy.

 I was lucky enough to interview Nadwa Sarandah and Robi Damelin when writing Worst Enemy, Best Teacher. Each had faced horrid opponents. As an Israeli Robi’s son was killed by a Palestinian sniper while in required military service and Nadwa’s Palestinian sister was stabbed to death on the West Bank while walking down a street. Both had been knocked down, but through the Parent’s Circle, an organization committed to create peace in their region by refusing to seek revenge for the loss of loved ones, they returned to life. Through their focus on helping their community, they both had found purpose and a degree of peace. Robi explained, “I can speak in front of 60,000 people without fear.”

 If we can shift our focus from our personal pain to how we can be of use, we paradoxically we will relieve our suffering.  Pick a tradition and I find this concept hidden. Hmmm, perhaps this is the daily practice for which I have been searching.