Knowing Ourselves


In New Hampshire, we know ourselves by winter.  – Robert Frost

I don’t live in New Hampshire.  I did, for a long time many years ago, but I have since moved back to my native Massachusetts, just south of the Granite State.  Not so far south, however, that we’re not given occasion to slow down for two or three months every year, to go inward, to reflect, to take stock, and, in the words of local hero Henry David Thoreau, “to front only the essential facts of life.”  I would amend Frost‘s words, if I may be so audacious, to read “in New England, we know ourselves by winter.”  And this year, in this corner of the United States, winter is not going softly into that proverbial good night.  Though the calendar tells us that spring is a week away, as I sit here now looking out my window at the woods outside of Boston, snow has been steadily falling for the past twelve hours and is expected to continue for another twelve, and the view is nothing short of sublime.  Practically everything in my field of vision is white save for the flashes of crimson, black, and muted gold of the cardinals, chickadees, and goldfinches that jockey for position at the thistle seed feeder hanging from the cherry tree outside the window.  Except for the snowflakes and the birds, there is no movement; time has stopped, and I’m left with the simple silent beauty of a forest snowfall.

The meditation comes easily, effortlessly.  Awareness becomes whittled down to only this moment as the cosmos so generously hands us what we endeavor so diligently to create in the Dharma Room: a sparse and calm environment free of distraction where the mind is ultimately left to itself.  It occurs to me that I’m in the same space of quiet expansiveness that I was blessed with seven years ago when I sat a week-long silent retreat at Diamond Hill Monastery on the grounds of Providence Zen Center, the international headquarters of the Kwan Um School of Zen.  Snow had just started to fall as I drove down there with Sung, a sangha member from Open Meadow Zen.  It was beginning to accumulate as we walked up the dirt road to Diamond Hill.  “If you have anything to say to me, say it now,” she half-jokingly said, “because we won’t be talking for a long time.”  And with that, we disappeared into the silence and routine of Korean-style practice.

It snowed every day for the entire week.  We began each day sitting in the 4 a.m. darkness of the large Dharma Hall, and my fondest memory of that week was opening my eyes as the chukpi was sounded to signal the end of the morning sitting period.  As breakfast was brought into the hall to be eaten temple-style, while still seated on our cushions, the light of false dawn illuminated the surrounding woods just enough to show us freshly fallen or still-falling snow.  I felt the awe, excitement, and happiness of a child waking up on Christmas morning.  During periods of outdoor walking meditation, the temple became the world, fresh and new, each step an act of creation, every wooded path untrodden.

That’s the hook of the snowfall:  the freshness, the unfamiliarity, the profound sense of interest I feel in looking out of this window I’ve looked out of a thousand times.  Gone is the false belief that I’ve seen this moment before.  I never tire of watching the snow fall.  With awareness, there is no boredom.  How do I hold this awareness, this appreciation, this sense of interest in this present moment when the skies clear, when the snow melts, when the flowers bloom, and when the air is full of activity and distraction?  Perhaps this is the question that Frost alluded to with his observation that “we know ourselves by winter.”  He didn’t say “we know ourselves in winter;” he said “we know ourselves by winter.”  To know myself by winter doesn’t mean that the snow has to be falling for a day straight in order for me to find this sacred center.  Having experienced this, it is available to me at any time of year, and at any point on the globe.  As Black Elk said of his Vision Quest, “Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the hoop of the world.”  John G. Neihardt, Black Elk’s biographer, offers the following footnote: “Black Elk said the mountain he stood upon in his vision was Harney Peak in the Black Hills. ‘But anywhere is the center of the world,’ he added.” [1]             Joseph Campbell remarked that this gives us an indication that Black Elk had a clear understanding of the relationship between symbolic reference and direct experience.

To borrow a phrase from Campbell, the epic snowstorm that I’m in the middle of right now is a “reference point,” meaning that it has deep intrinsic value that is not limited to the experience itself.  Peak experiences are called “peak experiences” because we don’t get to stay there.  We have to come back down sooner or later; that’s Impermanence.  A true practitioner develops the innate capacity to incorporate those experiences into his or her daily existence when the snow stops, when the silent retreat is over, or when the Vision Quest ends.  Very easy to write.  Not so easy to do.

The good news about impermanence?  I won’t have to shovel my car out for another nine months.



The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

– Robert Frost, “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”

[1] Neihardt, John G., Black Elk Speaks. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska         Press, 1932, p.43.


The Only Thing You Need to Know…


20141005_114106“The only thing you need to know about God is that you’re not Him.”  – Anonymous

This time-tested battle cry of the old-timers of Alcoholics Anonymous echoes down through the ages, reverberating off of the painted cinder block walls of floor wax and bad coffee-scented church basements across New England and beyond.  I’ve heard it so many times over the years that I stopped hearing it for a while, relegating it to the status of a trite, folksy cliche, of which there are so many in AA.  Upon entering more deeply into zen practice and 12 Step practice, however, I’ve come to appreciate and embrace a more boots-on-the-ground, head-where-my-ass-is approach to the whole “spiritual component” of AA, as it is so frequently and oxymoronically referred to.  Spirituality, of course, is not a “component” of anything, but rather the totality of everything.  This notion that spirituality can somehow be compartmentalized is simply a sleight of hand that the ego employs in order to substantiate its own existence and keep itself in control of things.

The “you’re not him” platitude isn’t simply a call to humility; at its best interpretation, which, for the moment, I’ll assume that I’m making,  it is a call to action and an admonition against launching a flight of fancy into the world of concepts.  How easy, how comfortable, how convenient it is to think about God, to ponder Greater Meaning and Higher Power from within the safety of my own intellectual framework, as was so often done during those late nights in the conversation pit, a drug-addled tradition immortalized long before my time by the characters of Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, who so often stayed up late into the night talking – wild! – and drinking wine – great!  How useful was that endeavor in my own journey some thirty years after Ray Smith and Japhy Rider graced the bungalows of Berkeley?  To be honest, it was extremely useful insofar as it informed my process of cycling through the seductive labyrinth of ideas and substances to land on the meditation cushion and in the aforementioned church basements.

Buddhism is, to my understanding, less of a philosophy or a religion, and more of a psychology.  It offers us nothing more or less than the opportunity to develop the capacity to look at our own minds.  Not a promise, just an opportunity, an opportunity that holds the key to ending our own suffering,  not forever, but moment to moment. Also known as Forever.  The Buddha offered sort of a bottom-up approach to this problem of being human, rather that the top-down approach that was on the table prior to his enlightenment under the bodhi tree.  The practice isn’t so much about connecting to a Higher Power as it is about connecting to our own experience.  In other words, our heads tend to already be in the clouds, so to speak.  Our work consists of coming back into our bodies.

It comes as a shock to many of us that we create the overwhelming majority of our own suffering.  We seem to believe that we have no agency in that suffering, lacking, as so many of us do, the understanding that it isn’t the circumstances or events of our lives that create suffering, but rather our response to them.  “Pain is inevitable,” I’ve heard echo off of the painted cinder block walls.  “Suffering is optional.”  In other words, it’s how we relate to the pain of our lives that determines our degree of suffering.  It’s our job to decide how we relate to our pain.  The world is full of others who can help us make that decision, but no one else is in a position to take away our suffering.

What is problematic about the “Higher Power” approach to the “spiritual component” is that it feeds the illusion of duality and sets us up to search for a solution outside of ourselves, which is the hallmark of addiction.  Our suffering arises out of this idea of separation, which creates the notion that something outside of me will fix me, fill me, heal me, or complete me.  It’s a fools game, of course, because there’s really nothing “out there.”  The self is looking for itself outside of itself, and guess what?  There’s nothing to be found.

There’s nothing to “get,” which is good news, because both Buddhism and Recovery (which, in this writer’s humble opinion, aren’t different) aren’t about getting things; they’re about getting rid of things.  Getting rid of all the stuff that stands between me and the direct perception of reality as it is in this moment.  And the biggest chunk of stuff that stands between me and the direct perception of this world?  The unfounded belief that “me” and “this world” are two.  Ego will do everything within its power to substantiate this belief.  It’s this desperate attempt to control our experience that gives rise to what the old-timers call “playing God.”

So I can take it as read that I’m not God.  What, then, am I?  Zen Master Seung Sahn referred to this as Great Question.  The first time I sat down for a koan interview with his student, Zen Master Bon Haeng, he asked me, “What are you?”  It’s a no-brainer , I thought.  He’s starting me off with the easy ones.

“I’m a human being.”

He hit me with a stick.

There is nothing to grasp…

p.s. please excuse the gender bias of the old-timers. They are, after all, old-timers.

top photo: summer reflections on a pond, Pisgah State Park, Hinsdale NH