How The Light Gets In

I’ve been thinking lately about mementos—those things we collect to set around our house as a way to remind ourselves of our deepest values when we get too busy to remember them on our own—and how often we forget to look at them!

Recently, the host of one of our sangha’s monthly potlucks asked each of us to bring a memento from home and to share our stories about them. I didn’t think too much about it, but that evening, as we sat around in a circle and started to share, I slowly became amazed at what we were doing: each of us was allowing the others to peek beneath the thick dark blanket we often place over our hearts, and witness what we hold most dear. I learned so much about my dharma brothers and sisters that night, and felt a much deeper connection with them.

To be honest, I'm not even sure what my memento is, exactly. It’s heavy enough to hold down a small stack of papers, yet small enough to hold in my hand. It’s round like a wheel, and rusty, with a little knob at the top. Inside, enclosed by the rusty “wheel,” is some broken glass, smoothed now by the weather, and sparkling light blue at its center.

I found it one fall many years ago in a small parking lot at the top of a mountain my husband and I were planning to hike. That day, a week day, I was purposefully taking some time off to take care of myself because, for whatever reason, I’d been experiencing an old familiar feeling - that of being broken, damaged, and “unfixable” due to the abuse I suffered as a child.

And here, at the top of this sunny, autumn-topped mountain was this odd little object, which caught my eyes because it was sparkling so intensely in the sunshine. Almost immediately, it reminded me of some lyrics by Leonard Cohen that I think about often:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Today, I use this “broken thing” as a paper weight, and it reminds me every day not only to practice being incredibly kind to myself, but that something broken and old can still be useful, and beautiful, and perhaps even more beautiful in its age and imperfection. It also reminds me of my own deep suffering, and how facing it, accepting it, and working with it has helped me to become more compassionate towards others, because I know what that pain can feel like.

In this vein, I’d like to ask you to consider: What are your mementos? Have you noticed them lately? Have you shared them with your friends?

Your Mind Is A Crowded Party

ENTERING FORMAL MEDITATION PRACTICE, especially in the beginning, can often feel as if you’ve stepped into an extremely cramped and crowded party, with many voices talking loudly and all at once, maybe even over some raucous music that keeps skipping on the same annoying words . . . again and again and again. You feel awkward, hemmed-in, uncomfortably self-conscious.

This party is not what you expected. Inside, you’re standing in the very center of the crowd, and each and every person is facing YOU—there’s your mother and father and boss and coworkers and kids and neighbors and every single one of your friends and family members—all of them pushing and shoving against one another, arguing, fighting for space. Some of them may actually be shouting. And, to your surprise, you might discover that you, yourself, are shouting the loudest.

Everyone here has an opinion, and each voice (including yours) is trying to tell you, in some way or another, all the ways in which you’ve messed up in the past, and about how you can now do it better, and “fix” yourself. There may be several voices suggesting that you can’t do this at all. “You’re no good at this,” you might hear them say. “You’re not doing it right. This is boring. This is too hard. You’ll never get anywhere. What’s the point? Why are you even bothering?”

You may even begin to feel as if you’ve had too much to drink: everything’s a little cloudy, fuzzy, confusing. You might feel dizzy or sick to your stomach, or frustrated that everything’s so loud and that too many voices are talking all at once. You may even begin to regret that you agreed to attend this party at all, and find yourself making up some excuse so you can hurry up and leave.

At this point, I would like to be that calm, friendly hostess, the one who sidles over, gently sets her hand on your shoulder, and begs you to “please, stay.” I will lead you to the most comfortable chair in the house (your best posture), bring you a tall glass of water (your precious breath), and the most delicious dessert I can find (the words of the dharma).

Once you’ve settled down and relaxed a bit, you can gradually begin to slow down, sober up, and take a good look around. 

Some of the people may still be standing around you, trying to get your attention, but many others might now be talking amongst themselves—and not about YOU. You might even begin to notice that the people who are talking to you aren’t making much sense anymore, or, that their mouths are moving, but you’re no longer listening to their words.

Over time, and with practice, you can slowly begin to stand and walk away from all these voices - and their opinions and advise and stories - through smaller and less densly-packed rooms, until you reach the door that leads to the outside, into the crisp, clear night air, where the words become muffled, or even fade altogether. Here, it can be just you, your breath, the warm breeze, and the bright, full moon of your mind.

Meditating As A Ghost

“Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing? You know you will die, but you really don’t know how long you have to wake up from the cocoon of your habitual patterns. You don’t know how much time you have left to fulfill the potential of your precious human birth. Given this, what is the most important thing?” – Pema Chödrön

Almost twenty years ago, I had an unusual experience while falling asleep on a couch in Naropa University’s student lounge that has forever changed my meditation practice—even though, at the time, it had nothing at all to do with it.

I very rarely, if ever, take naps; nor do I fall asleep easily. However, for some reason, on this warm summer day in the middle of the university’s rush and bustle, I allowed myself to briefly slip into sleep—sort of. In this weird awake/non-awake place, I had the odd notion that I was an old woman who had died recently and now, as a ghost, was revisiting a time in my life when I felt unusually peaceful, youthful, and content.

In that moment, all of my senses felt extraordinarily, well . . . alive. The colors of the room and everyone’s clothing had suddenly taken on an almost florescent quality; the scribbling of pens and pencils on paper sounded as if students were writing directly onto my eardrums; the sun filtering in through the blinds felt like bright warm fingers, massaging my skin; and I could almost taste the cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom of the chia tea brewed daily by the student café.

Ever since, that strange experience has been indelibly stamped onto my meditation practice. What if, I thought, I had died? And what if, having been dead for a while, I had been given a precious forty-five minutes to return to my life to just sit, listen, and breathe? Would I be thinking about what I needed to accomplish that day, week, or year? Would  I be contemplating all of my relational difficulties, or wondering what I was going to eat or do after the sit?

Absolutely not. Simply experiencing my body (in whatever condition), and my glorious breath!, would be exquisite, indescribable ecstasy. I would be thrilled to be listening to the sounds all around me, even if some of them were loud and shrill. And what about my thoughts? As a ghost I could encounter them with delight, too: “Oh, it must be spring 2011, when I was worried about . . . !”

Perhaps because of my background (I’ve moved 40 different times), this technique seems to serve me well: with my eyes closed, I like to pretend that I need to figure out how old I am by sensing my body, and where I’m living now by listening to what’s around me. I don’t cling to this fantasy for long, but it does help me in the beginning—and throughout when I become lost in thought—to pay a microscopic attention to my practice.

This was especially interesting a few years ago when I lived in two different places: a small apartment in Brooklyn, NY, and a tiny farmhouse in the middle of a cattle farm in Virginia (where I live now).

In Brooklyn, I was almost constantly bombarded by the noise of my neighbors (thumping footsteps, slamming doors, blaring TVs and fights and music) and the never-ending street noise (car alarms, sirens, buses, and horns). Yet, instead of fighting this incessant racket, I embraced it by recalling my invaluable forty-five minutes of life beyond death. “Wow!,” my thought process went, “my grouchy neighbor is stomping across the ceiling! Yay! I must be in Park Slope! And, wow, listen! There’s a siren screeching down 7th Avenue! Yipee! And man, is it boiling in here! There’s the old radiator, rattling away! Perfect!”

Now, in Virginia, it’s even more enjoyable, since I’ve lived in this same house twice, in two different decades (long story.) To discern where I am, and what year or decade I’m in, I concentrate closely on every little thing: when I hear the swish and click of the cat door, I remember that we didn’t own one of those when we lived here with our old cats, so it must be our second time in this house, not our first. Or, when I hear the sound-canceling machine in the bedroom, where my husband is usually reading, I remember that we bought that in Brooklyn, so again, it must be our second time here.

And what season is it? I wonder. What is the temperature like? Is the fireplace crackling? Are the windows open? Can I smell grass and hay, or leaves, or firewood? Can I hear birds, crickets, or night frogs?

I also meticulously investigate every aspect of my body—sensing all the extra aches, pinches, and sags—and guess that I’m older now, too, but perhaps not as old as I might be if I were in my 80s or 90s. I also like to suss out the state of my mind by investigating my body: am I agitated, stressed, content? What clues are hidden there?

Whenever I use this technique, the simple act of breathing feels implausibly luxurious, each sip of air a blessing, a miracle, an incredibly rare treat. Each breeze, sound, smell, or even ache feels like bliss, too, merely because I’m alive and experiencing it. In the Majjhima Nikaya (the Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha), the Buddha explains the extraordinary preciousness of human birth. It is as rare, he said, as a blind turtle who rises from the depths of the ocean once in a hundred years, only to put its head through a wooden cattle-yoke floating on the waves.

Sometimes, when I’m practicing this way, I’m reminded of one my favorite movies, It’s A Wonderful Life, and of all the “Yay!” moments Jimmy Stewart has after he’s given another chance at life. He cries “yay!” when he sees his car crashed into a tree; shouts “Merry Christmas!” to the people attempting to jail him, and stops to kiss a broken stairway knob that had previously represented for him his poverty and intractable “stuck-ness.”

And don’t we all feel like that, most of the time: that something is amiss, or missing, in our lives, or that we could or should be doing better?

What if, right now, everything was absolutely perfect, just as it is? What if you were already astonishingly rich, simply because you exist in this world? And what if you could take this same attitude away from your meditation cushion and into your daily life, examining and treating each minute, each and every precious second for what it actually is: a rare, fleeting, never-again-retrievable moment of your life.

Something As Simple As Chinese Chickens

"How do you check your mind? Just watch how it perceives or interprets any object that it encounters. Observe what feelings—comfortable or uncomfortable—arise. Then check, 'When I perceive this kind of view, this feeling arises, that emotion comes; I discriminate in such a way. Why?' This is how to check your mind; that's all. It's very simple."  -Lama Yeshe

THIS WEEK, someone I know from the church where I lead a meditation group every Tuesday night wrote the word ICK! on my new profile photo in Facebook, where all my friends and their friends and so on could see it.

Try to imagine my reaction: this simple, three-letter word carries enormous weight. According to, ick is a slang term that means:

1. A nasty substance;
2. The exclamation “Nasty!”;
3. A disliked person, as in, “Tell that ick to leave. He’s polluting the place.”

Mind you, this is a photo I took of myself in a sort of height of giddiness—a storm had blanketed the farm with snow the night before, and the sun had finally come out to play. On a whim, I’d decided to leave my home office to join it, and had taken my camera with me, since lately I’ve been obsessed with snapping photos of the farm. Often, when I’m in nature, the little kid in me kicks into high gear and I find myself doing things like holding onto a tree, lifting all my other limbs and pretending that I’m a tree, too. It was with this type of exuberance that I snapped this funny photo, in which the long blue shadows of the trees mix with my own, and I appear to be waving a scarf in celebration.

I liked this photo so much, in fact, I made it my new profile image. The next morning, I was confronted with the big ICK!, along with two “likes.”

Of course, I barely glanced at the "likes." The sheer awfulness of the word ICK! bit me as if it were a spider: At first I was a little dazed, then found myself becoming more and more entangled in the Eight Worldly Dharmas—four pairs of opposites that in the Buddhist teachings are what keep us stuck in samsara (or suffering): praise/blame, gain/loss, pleasure/pain, and fame/disgrace.

After quickly deleting the ICK!, my thought process went like this: The two friends who had clicked “like” valued me (not simply my photo, but me), and were wise, good, honest, likeable people themselves. This other woman, obviously, was mildly insane. Who would be so rude? I would never write something so mean. And why say anything if you have nothing nice to say?

My stories didn’t end there, though. Right off the bat, I started searching for reasons to blame her, even though the sane part of me knew this woman to be kind, intelligent, and rational. In that emotionally-charged moment, though, I considered a variety of explanations: Evidently, she had some sort of mental disorder and hadn’t taken her meds. Or maybe she was drunk when she wrote it. Or maybe she was a little blind and thought she saw something horribly phallic and inappropriate in my photo. Maybe she was so delusional, she thought she could decipher a nasty word in the shadow of the trees.

Then, as is my habit, I started to blame myself: Oh, no. Maybe there IS something phallic in there, and I’ve now presented myself to all of Facebook as a huge penis! Or maybe she thinks I’m incredibly narcissistic for posting a photo of nature that includes me, like I’m somehow worthy of the glorious trees.

Within minutes, I’d clothed myself in the shameful identity I thought this woman had placed on me, and began to think: you know, maybe she’s right. I AM narcissistic. And sick, too, since clearly I’d taken a photo of myself as some sort of reproductive organ, and hadn't even realized it! In a moment of awareness, I also recognized with great sadness that these thoughts felt familiarly like the ones my father had clothed me in as a child, and I tried to push this sharp pain away by blaming my church friend again. For several more minutes, my thoughts went back and forth like this: “How mean!,” followed by, “No, wait, she’s right, I must be totally icky . . . ”

Because I was on shaky ground, I experienced the strong urge not only to push my feelings away, but to solidify my identity by reaching out through email to a couple of close friends I thought could A) assure me my photo did not include a penis, and B) shore me up by agreeing that this woman was off base and incredibly rude—which eventually, they did.

In the meantime, I’d finally slowed down enough to recognize my need to sit, breathe, and confront my feelings about the ICK!, and to allow myself to remain present with the initial sting of old wounds. This included investigating some well-grooved, ancient beliefs, and the feelings that always seem to arrive with them—the sharp pain in my chest, a queasiness in my stomach, and a sort of shakiness throughout my whole body, along with other sensations. While I was doing this, some tears appeared briefly, and I allowed myself to feel them while they were present, and to dry when they were finished, without conjuring up more stories or beliefs that would invite them to keep flowing. Then, I reminded myself that the beliefs my father had once tried to clothe me in weren’t real, and that I didn’t need to keep the ones I thought this woman had given me, either.

I was also mindful enough to stop myself from posting some covert diss of my accused taunter on my Facebook status in an attempt to gather even more support for my ego. I did, however, at the suggestion of my wise husband, send her an email to ask if she wouldn’t mind explaining the ICK! I was thoughtful to be kind about this request, and to nurture compassion towards her, since the calm, saner part of my mind had finally settled in, and I realized there could have been some mistake.

Which, of course, there had been. In less than an hour, I received an extremely sweet letter from her that included “profuse apologies!” - and an explanation. My friend had meant to comment on another friend’s post about importing Chinese chickens, and must have accidentally commented on mine instead. Ah ha! As if someone had tapped a magic wand to my mind, my image of this woman as the kind, lovely, talented person I know from church was instantly restored, and so was my ego.

But, wait. Hold on a second. What if she’d written, “Yeah, that’s right! I thought your photo was disgusting!” What then? Would I have spiraled even further into blame, of both her and myself? Would I have tried to gather an army of allies to disparage her reputation and build up mine? And what type of story would I further formulate about her, to pin her down with an identity I could then hate? It’s so interesting to notice how quickly we feel threatened, and can then blame and make up stories about someone—or another political party, culture, or even an entire country—when we don’t have all the facts.

Also, I began to wonder: who am I when people “like” my status updates or photos? Do I construct an entire self around the issue of them liking or not liking these posts? Or can I drop these judgments entirely and just let the posts and photos be, without trying to create a solid self that seizes onto an identity for some sense of grounded-ness. Praise, for example, seems like a great thing to enjoy, but I need to remember that, along with blame, it’s one of the Eight Worldly Dharmas, and can cause me to suffer if I grasp onto it and create an inflated identity out of it, or expect it and don’t receive it.

One of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Pema Chödrön, writes in When Things Fall Apart, “We have a concept of ourselves that we reconstruct moment by moment and reflexively try to protect. But this concept that we are protecting is questionable. It’s all ‘much to do about nothing,’- like pushing and pulling a vanishing illusion.”

Throughout the years, my meditation practice has taught me to keep an open mind about things—to realize that most of my stories are completely made up and constructed from my own misguided perceptions, beliefs, and history. It’s also taught me to become acutely aware of both my mind and body when I experience that first sting, and to work with the Eight Worldly Dharmas when they arise instead of trying to push them away. Then, they become my greatest teachers, and can let me know when I’ve constructed an entire novel out of something as simple as Chinese chickens.

Questions to Consider:
1 In what ways do you make up stories about things when you don’t have all the facts?
2. In what ways do you run away from your pain when it arises?
3. In what ways do you try to solidify your identity when someone criticizes or blames you?
4. What stories do you make up about other people when they’ve hurt you?