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Offering song. October 31, 2014

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“My friend, I have given you these, behold them
My friend, I have given you these, behold them
The day has made it all possible to give you these offerings,
behold them.”

—Lakota Offering Song

I read this just this morning and was so amazed by the Lakota attitude toward giving. Most of us are raised with one of two attitudes about giving: “Oh, this is embarrassing, this implies that person is now indebted to me” or “I did this for you, now you owe me bigtime.” One makes the giver self-conscious, the other the recipient.

In the case of this song, neither “owes” the other anything: the giver urges the recipient to look at the gifts, to enjoy them, and then praises the day, not himself or herself, for making the giving possible. “My friend” makes it even more wonderful. In this season, I can see someone turning up on the doorstep with a pumpkin and some colorful corn and saying “behold them.” I can see them turning up with my favorite, a luscious, gooey, homemade pumpkin roll, plus some wonderful light-as-air dinner rolls or even a pan of steaming-hot cornbread and saying “behold them.” I can see handing out all the Halloween candy (and crying inside for not being able to hand out fruit instead, maybe next year we’ll try stick cheese), and saying “behold them.”

For once, it isn’t about us, and it isn’t about them. It’s about what I have managed to give you today, my friend, and about what you have managed to take, and to behold, and what today has made possible.

Just for today, behold what you have been given.

Let’s be creative. October 28, 2014

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“Creativity is in the process, not the outcome.”

So many of us seem to be afraid to be creative. Whether it’s because we’re afraid that it’s a childish waste of time or we’re afraid we have no talent and whatever we create will end up looking ridiculous, we just walk away from the paintbox or the poem or the song or the bookcase or the flowerbed. This quote reminds us that whatever it looks like doesn’t matter: The real creativity is in the act of creating, not the creation itself.

Let’s take knitting as an example. My grandmother was a fabulous knitter, and my sister takes after her. They could and can knit anything. I, on the other hand, can’t even purl, much less create hats or mittens or sweaters. All I can make are scarves. But I love working with beautiful yarns, and I find knitting relaxing. It sets my mind at rest. When the weather turns cold, I love to sit with the beautiful, warming yarn on my lap, loving the colors and textures, and watch it magically transform from a skein into a scarf. I don’t care at all that it’s a knit-stitch scarf and not an elaborate cable-knit sweater. Quite the opposite, in fact. My goal is not to have to count stitches, but to relax and enjoy the beauty of the yarn.

Cooking comes to mind as well. My food will never look like the food on cooking shows and in magazines and cookbooks and the like, because I don’t have—and don’t want—the equipment chefs use to make it look like that. I make delicious mashed potatoes, but instead of piping them out in intricate patterns, I just put a big dollop on the plate next to the green and yellow wax beans and lentil stew or whatever. But I still love the process of cooking, which I also find relaxing, and creating my own recipes, and people love eating them, whatever they look like, and that’s what matters.

I think it’s important to focus on process, especially in our Reiki practice. There’s a reason we use the word “practice” to describe what we do. It’s not a contest, it’s not a competition, it’s a process. In the moment, some may make progress more quickly than you, and some more slowly. Perhaps, at times, you will make progress more quickly or slowly than others on the Reiki path. That is not what matters. What matters is enjoying the process, looking at your feet on the path, not at how far ahead of you someone else is (oh no!) or how far behind others have fallen (see how much better I am than they are!).

I’ve always loved watercolors, their luscious possibilities, their fluidity and the surprising color combinations that permits. I’m pathetic when it comes to watercoloring; any first-grader could do better than I can. And I love Japanese calligraphy, such as the calligraphy of Kazuaki Tanahashi. So I’m thinking of trying to draw the Reiki symbols in watercolor calligraphy. Will they be horrible? Of course they will. Will I beat myself up because they’re horrible? No, I won’t. I’ll just enjoy the process and the beautiful colors. Creativity is in the process.

Just for today, let yourself play.

A new worldview. October 27, 2014

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The other day, I read this wonderful quote about practicing zazen while being in our all-too-human state of divided, chattering, judging mind:

“How can we go through this contradiction and continue to practice? It is like sitting on a cushion while trying to take away the cushion on which we are sitting.”
—Shohaku Okumura

Well, I don’t know about you, but I could instantly picture trying to pull the cushion out from under myself! Grunting and groaning to no good effect at all, possibly even pitching myself on the ground with the pillow on top of me.

This was brought home even more strongly last night, how we humans are so fond of fighting with ourselves and others over our beliefs rather than accepting them for what they are, calming ourselves (and our thoughts), and simply allowing ourselves to be part of the All, of the leaves, of the insects, of the birds, of the stones. I was rewatching a film called “Creation,” about Charles Darwin and his struggle to finish his masterwork, “On the Origin of Species,” because he was so torn between his findings and the Biblical creation story, and between his scientist friends and those who believed that the creation story was true in human-oriented terms.

In the film, we see a lot of Darwin trying desperately to pull the cushion out from under himself. We also, at the end, see him finding peace within himself and publishing his book. But throughout, there is the tension of either/or. Either the Biblical creation account is true, or evolution is true. But I think that is a great arrogance on our part. The Biblical account says that God created the world in seven days. But what is a day to God? How dare we assume that it’s the same as a human day, when every one of us knows how endless our days were when we were children, and how quickly they pass when we grow older? How long is a day to a dog, to a goldfish, to an ant? Perhaps God’s days last a billion years. Perhaps the creation story and evolution are the same story, and Darwin needn’t have tortured himself.

Rather than trying to pull the pillow out from under ourselves, I’d suggest that all of us on the Reiki path give up “either/or” and take up “and.” It will be a lot more comfortable to keep that cushion under us.

Just for today, stop fighting with yourself.

The blink of an eye. October 22, 2014

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The other day, I had the most amazing experience. The sky was overcast, with large grey clouds. I was a passenger in a car riding towards the clouds. I love being the passenger rather than the driver, because I love looking out the window at all the birds and farm animals and plants and houses and pretty much everything. So it’s rare when I’m riding that I’ll look straight ahead. But that day, I was examining the cloud formations in front of us when I saw two big white birds against the grey clouds. Had the clouds not been grey, had I not been looking at that moment, I would have missed them.

My friend Rudy, an accomplished birder, later confirmed my conclusion that what I saw was a pair of swans. He said they could have been either tundra or trumpeter swans, based on my ultra-vague description. (“They were big white birds and their wing pattern wasn’t gull-like. Could they have been a pair of swans?”) Like most of you, I have sometimes seen swans on still water. But I’d never seen them like that, so high overhead in flight, white against grey like a Japanese woodcut. It was magical.

Many people revere swans as a symbol of fidelity, as they mate for life and mourn if their partner dies. But I have to say that the lesson that lone pair brought home to me was how easy it is to miss the most precious things life has to offer. If we’re not looking, we might miss a child smiling at us on the street or a wren’s nest in a hollow branch overhead or a small, brilliant, beautiful emerald or gold beetle or perfect jade-green monarch butterfly chrysalis.

If we’re busy multitasking, we might not notice how delicious our food is or how good it smells, mindlessly eating much more than we need while focusing on other things. We might not really hear what our coworkers, friends and family are saying to us. We might ignore our beloved dog or cat coming up for some much-needed attention, not even noticing when they dejectedly slink away. If I had been looking down, texting or changing radio channels or choosing iTunes or whatever, instead of looking up, I would have missed the swans. They were gone in the blink of an eye.

Just for today, savor what really matters in life.

Night rain and contentment. October 20, 2014

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It’s supposed to rain for the next three days and begin tonight. A cold autumn rain—it went down into the 30s last night—is not my idea of fun, I’m just not ready for it, so I’m freezing, and not pleased with it staying dark so late in the morning and getting dark so early at night. Not to mention it being too cold to sit out on the back deck, surrounded by beautiful plants and enjoying the slow descent of the sun and the rise of the stars and fireflies, as I did all summer.

But thinking of rain on the roof reminds me of one of my all-time favorite poems, which takes quite a different view. If the coming of winter has you a bit frazzled, don’t forget Ryokan’s wise words, which, of course, also apply to any frustration you might be feeling about your Reiki practice:

“Too lazy to be ambitious,
I let the world take care of itself.
Ten days’ worth of rice in my bag;
a bundle of twigs by the fireplace.
Why chatter about delusion and enlightenment?
Listening to the night rain on my roof,
I sit comfortably, with both legs stretched out.”

To steal a line from the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli,” I love to imagine him sitting there. I can smell his rice becoming aromatic over the warming, flickering fire, and see him with his cup of tea, perfectly content, stretched out comfortably listening to the rain, making no effort to sit in some contorted, miserably uncomfortable meditation posture, not debating others about the meanings and nuances of spiritual attainment, not competing. Instead, Ryokan was just learning how to be. And that’s a lesson we could all learn in today’s rush-rush, competitive world.

Just for today, listen to the rain.

Reducing self-will. October 18, 2014

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“Reducing self-will needn’t be a joyless deprivation—it can be so many little acts of love, performed over and over throughout the day.”

—Sri Eknath Easwaran, Words to Live By

I love this idea, of turning self-discipline not into deprivation but into love, consideration and kindness. Everybody agrees that reducing self-will is the key to enlightenment, satori, anshin ritsumei. By reducing self-will, you’re diminishing the ego and drawing closer, ever closer to merging with the All. It sounds like a great, noble goal.

But most of us aren’t great, noble people, we’re just people. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I went to a tribute meal for a friend who’d recently died. His widow, who surely had thousands of other things to think about while setting up this meal, remembered that I was a vegetarian and asked the chef to take special care of me. As a result, I found myself holding an entire plate of delicious vegetarian appetizers—a plate of appetizers that everyone near me pounced on and ate while I held it, stupefied, assuring me that they were much better than their appetizers. I couldn’t believe that people would act like that.

I was crushed, since not only did I not get any of the wonderful appetizers, but I was unable to save most of the spanakopita (spinach and feta-filled Greek phyllo turnovers) for my partner, Rob, who was at the other end of the room and who loves spanakopita more than pretty much anything. He assured me that the one he did get was the best he’d ever eaten. Since I didn’t even get one, I’ll never know.

Today, I’ll have another opportunity to eat appetizers and try to perform “little acts of love.” I love Indian food, and am heading far away to meet a dear friend for lunch at an Indian restaurant with my partner Rob in tow. It’s been SO long since I’ve actually been to an Indian restaurant—there really aren’t any in my area—and this one appears to have a great selection of vegetarian appetizers. The thought is enough to make me drool. But this time, I’m not the recipient, I’m ordering. I’m not going to sit there watching everyone eat what I wanted to eat, I’ll just order enough for everyone. Watching my friend and partner enjoy their food will be so enjoyable! Not to mention enjoying my own. Hardly a “joyless deprivation.”

I think it’s important for those of us who follow the Reiki Way to remember that we’re not supposed to be superheroes. We’re not supposed to be subjecting ourselves to joyless deprivation. We’re supposed to be helping others through little acts of love.

Just for today, be kind.

Gifts are waiting. October 14, 2014

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October 11 is my birthday, and as you can see, it falls on Columbus Day weekend. Most people, including my friends and relatives, are busy enjoying the holiday and trying to get a last nice weekend in before cold weather makes it impossible. At my house, the corn is gold and, when the wind blows through, talking in the fields in front of and behind the house. My birthday is usually a quiet occasion.

This year, it wasn’t quiet, as my partner, Rob, was hit by kidney stones on Thursday and we spent that day in the ER, followed by several unrelenting days of agony at home. I was crushed, since we’d planned a little outing that I’d looked forward to. And of course, it wasn’t fun to see Rob’s suffering, either. (He’s okay now.)

So there I was, thinking “Well, okay, one friend has come through with a present—a lovely present—and several friends have e-mailed birthday greetings, and Rob couldn’t possibly get up and go out to get a present in his shape (he did as soon as he could), and no one in my own family could even be bothered.” Yikes!

And then, I got a call from the next-door neighbor, saying that she was coming over with presents. She brought a French tablecloth, beautiful napkins, apple turnovers, vanilla and pumpkin ice cream, and a jug of apple cider. I really couldn’t believe it. What an incredibly generous gift! What a reminder not to be selfish and stupid!

Good things happen in their own sweet time.

Just for today, savor the good things.

Another great fortune. October 8, 2014

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Last night, we had Chinese/Japanese/Thai takeout for supper. (Thanks to the miraculous rise of Pan-Asian restaurants.)This included two fortune cookies (much appreciated by our black German shepherd, Shiloh). I’ve never understood why anyone would want to eat a fortune cookie (Shiloh excepted), but I’ve always been fascinated by them.

When I was a child, fortune cookies told fortunes: You will be this, you will do that, this will happen to you. But for many years now, they have contained maxims, proverbs, truisms, rather than telling fortunes. An example is my all-time favorite, “There’s more to balance than not falling over.”

I still miss the good old days of “You will win the lottery this week” or “A handsome prince is heading your way” or “Stay inside on the next full moon.” And I still wonder why it seems like all fortune cookies suddenly changed to maxim cookies. (Market research?) I’ll admit, however, that for those of us on the Reiki path, these latter-day cookies occasionally turn up hidden gems that can prod us to think and act in new ways.

Last night, my fortune was “There is no one so rich that they don’t need help or so poor that they cannot help.” What a wonderful point! And it was really timely, too. I’d been sitting here staring at a stack of bills thinking “Yeesh,” and feeling demoralized because it seemed like everyone I knew was traveling, going on cruises to fabulous places, while I was sitting here moping. Then I got an e-mail from my undergraduate school asking me to donate money to help endow a fund to send students to France!

I would love to go to France, to Normandy, my ancestral home (ca. 1066), to the Loire River Valley, to Provence (so I can pretend to be one of my heroes, Julia Child), to Chartres, to Paris and the Louvre. But I could never afford such a trip. And here’s my school asking me for money!

“There is no one so rich that they don’t need help.” Blessed Mother Teresa said that the greatest poverty she had ever encountered was not in the gutters of Calcutta but in the arid, isolated emotional lives of the well-to-do in America and other first-world countries. As Pope Francis puts it, “The great threat in today’s world is the loneliness of hearts oppressed by greed.” Clearly, these people desperately need help getting back in touch with other people, with animals, with nature. Think of the people who run companies of horror like Monsanto: Could they really poison the world if they were in touch with it? Could the monsters who pay people pennies to work in mines and sweat-labor factories that fall in on them and kill them do such a thing if they were connected to other people?

“There is no one…so poor that they cannot help.” I found this part of the fortune especially affecting. It made me think again about the e-mail from my school asking for money. The fund was going to be named in honor of one of my own French teachers, Scott Bates, who has apparently now died. I remember Professor Bates for his kindness and for how much he loved that I wrote poems in French. Now I feel sorry that I didn’t send him some of the English translations of French poems I did in grad school; I think he’d have been far more impressed by those. I can’t give the school money; I don’t have any. But I’d like to honor Professor Bates in some way. Maybe I’ll write a poem, or translate one, and send it to the French Department in his honor. Maybe they’ll find a way to use it that will “help.”

There is no one so rich that they don’t need help or so poor that they cannot help. Offering a free Reiki session to an ailing neighbor, or offering to get groceries for elderly neighbors, or spending a few extra moments with your dog or cat or adopting a dog or cat or bunny from a shelter, volunteering at a soup kitchen, suggesting that your Reiki share end with sending Reiki to the world: All of these cost nothing, yet they give so much. And recognizing that we all need help, we all need connection, we’re all interdependent, and that this is the mortal condition, not some sign of weakness or failure, will set all of us free.

Just for today, offer help and take it.

A lesson in humility. October 6, 2014

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“Life is a long lesson in humility.”

—James M. Barrie

This must have been especially true for Barrie, whose character Peter Pan never wanted to grow up, instead preferring to live in Neverland. “I know a place where dreams are born and time is never planned.” Sounds pretty idyllic to us overworked adults, of whom Barrie was one. (The movie “Finding Neverland” was an interesting biopic of Barrie, showing a far more complex character than the creator of cartoon classic Captain Hook.)

Far from never being planned, it seems like all our time is double- or triple-planned, resulting in stress and stress-related illnesses that arise inevitably when we’re continually asked to take on more, to multitask, until we know that actually completing all our tasks, much less completing them well, is an impossibility, and we’re sinking, sinking, while Captain Hook’s crocodile is waiting for us just below the surface. Now who will we say we are when we encounter a new acquaintance who asks what we do for a living and can’t say we’re the manager or executive or VP or whatever, just somebody who was laid off and is trying to scramble along? How quickly they look away, not knowing what to say! A lesson in humility.

If you’re a parent, now expected to accompany your kids to all the post-work activities they’re expected to attend and get meals on the table and take them to buy all the latest fashions and gadgets, the pressure builds even higher. And now they’re supposed to be overachievers, multitaskers from the day one. What if you’re caring for children or parents with disabilities, people you’ll be responsible for until your death or theirs, people you may be responsible for providing care for after your death? And what if someday you’re reduced to the nursing home, the adult diaper, and the wheelchair in the hall?

James Barrie probably wasn’t thinking of such dire situations when he said “Life is a long lesson in humility.” He was possibly thinking of getting bad reviews for his writing, or great beauties who were celebrated in their day fading to wrinkled (now Botoxed) parodies of their younger selves, or performers and athletes aging and no longer being able to do what was required of them. Now, they had to sit on the sidelines and watch while the next generation dazzled with their beauty or talent. And by the next generation, no one even remembered who they were. Films like “Stage Beauty,” TV series like “Game of Thrones,” and songs like Mark Knopfler’s “Punish the Monkey” all address this.

Well, isn’t it a great thing that Usui Founder gave those of us who follow the Reiki Way a method to turn the humiliating times of life into opportunities to strengthen our practice: the Five Reiki Principles (aka Precepts, Ideals). Every time we’re able to pass humiliation by, to see what we can learn from it, rather than to become enraged and set all our focus and strength on fighting it, “defeating” it, we take another step forward in defeating our ego, the “I,” and coming closer to merging with the All. This is the secret of attaining enlightenment, satori, anshin ritsumei.

“Life is a long lesson in humility.” Things change. It’s up to you to decide whether that change is for better or worse.

Just for today, embrace the change.

Small but beautiful. October 5, 2014

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“It is true that the number of people striving ardently for the right and worthwhile things is small. But the existence of these few is what makes life worthwhile.”

—Albert Einstein

“You’ll never see the beauty in a chaotic world if all you’re doing is looking at the disasters instead of the sprouting flowers underneath the falling tree.”

—Quang Tri

Just for today, don’t forget the flowers.