Archive for December, 2010

What Makes a Resolution

What Makes a Resolution

by Susan Downing

Over the past couple of weeks, many of my friends have mentioned that this is the time of year when they set their goals for the next twelve months and make resolutions.  This is the traditional time for that, right?  I myself have never been a big one for making New Year’s resolutions.  But I got to thinking about it yesterday, both about my own sense of purpose and goals and about what it takes to meet the goals I set for my life, the goals each of us sets for our life.

Resolutions.  For some reason, I started off by thinking about the word itself.  Resolution and all its relations – resolution, resolute, resolve –  are a steadfast, confident bunch. No waffling here, just moving ahead without distraction, convinced of the rightness of the path.  They remind me of my Midwestern ancestors, both far distant, recent and current.  We’re right, damn it, and we are moving forward on this! I think that is the only way my distant ancestors were able to survive as pioneers. You can’t make that work if you’re half-hearted about it.  The strong, subzero wind that whips across the plains where my mother’s family settled (or where my daughter will be in college next fall) will not coddle the non-resolute and unresolved.

But what does that have to do with resolutions?  I think that at their best, resolutions – whether at the new year or other times – have at their core a decision to leap, to embrace a major commitment.  Maybe you risk your life to travel to unknown parts in the hope of being able to provide a more secure life for your family.  Maybe you take vows which unite you with a spiritual practice for a lifetime, or for eternity, even as you are unsure of all that practice will require of you. Maybe you meticulously pack your duffel bag for Quantico, where you will face icy waters and unknown challenges with a resolve born of the desire to test yourself and prepare to lead others in defense of your country.  Maybe you resolve to begin a regular practice – meditation, karate, a healing art, prayer – which will bring focus and discipline to your life and gradually help you be kinder to those around you.

But as we all know, stating a resolution does not a resolution make.  Maybe we think that if we just make a resolution, that will do the trick. But it can’t. So many resolutions languish on a discarded sheet of paper or in a discarded thought.  One possible explanation lies in a definition I saw today for the verb resolve: “to progress from dissonance to consonance.”

We make a resolution when we feel that we need change or transformation if we’re going to achieve the goals we’ve set for our life.  But to actually resolve dissonance in our lives – to find a new, hospitable place to settle, to grow spiritually, to become a leader – we’ll have to go beyond deciding that positive change would be a good idea.  We have to devise a plan (or ask someone we trust to help us devise one) and then give it our all.  Is it easy? Of course not. As Tom Hanks says in “A League of Their Own,” when some of the players were complaining that their task was too hard, “If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. Hard is what makes it great.”

It’s the same with our resolutions: if we give them thorough consideration and follow through over time with joyful, consistent practice, and careful, focused attention, then the dissonance of our lives really can resolve into a beautiful consonance – for both ourselves and those around us. A consonance we will appreciate all the more because we recognize that the time and effort we put into achieving it has been well spent.

The resolve to resolve your dissonances, and the happiness which arises as you do – this is my warmest wish for you in the new year.

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Christmas Message to my Friends in Practice

Christmas Message to my Friends in Practice

by Jeffrey Brooks

When you are young, looking toward the future, time seems unbearably slow. When young lovers arewaiting for the moment when they will meet, a minute seems like it will never end.

When you are middle aged, like the summertime, perspective is short. We act with calculation and urgency, each moment distinct in its character and its importance.

But time compresses in retrospect. All our days and decades of deeds, later in life, seem indistinguishably mingled like the grains in a bucketful of sand. In old age life seems brief.

The samurai in their early years were covered up in the struggle for power. They wanted it, they tasted it, and no amount of blood, as for their successor tyrants today, was too great a price to pay for it. They were overwrought. Attack could come at any time. The moment of opportunity could open and close in an instant. Hesitation meant death. Haste meant death. Passivity meant death. Preoccupied day and night with strategy, betrayal, opportunity and decision even the most disciplined ambitious mind became exhausted. They needed refreshment.

They found it in tea.

Even the most ambition-devoured Hollywood producer, with a carbon footprint big enough to hold the Sasquatch family reunion, needs a break. And whatever else they may be these powerful achievers who are making their mark on the world, are smart. And they know bullshit when they see it. And they know the genuine article as well.

So a small spare simple room in an uncultivated rustic environment with nothing to distract the mind or stimulate the senses where time can expand and nothing is needed and nothing can be done is something to value.

In the simple familiar gestures of the ceremonial form there is no need to be special, to be novel, to be distinct, it is enough to be.  It is a relief to just be, just to live as natural and unaffected as the lilies of the field.

And to drink from a simple raku bowl and taste the field in the fragrance of the tea, its warmth permeating your cold body and the flavor sharpening your dull and distracted mind is a good thing.

For a moment everything is in place. And you are where you should be. And for that moment nothing need be done.

It could be the longest night of the year. The longest night of your life. With all the universe suspended by a delicate thread. But still. Here you are. Like the light of a star.

We can see from the example of these titans of desire, of all people, and of our own lives, that time is not a thing. It is a perspective.

William Blake augured this same aspiration to innocence when he wrote:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

I am so honored to share this world and this eternity with you.

May your every moment be blessed.

Jeff Brooks taught karate in Northampton, MA, daily from 1988 to 2009, and led Mountain Zendo from 1994 to 2009. He now lives in a vast ocean of mist covered mountains rising to the sky, working in law enforcement. He can be reached through Mountain Zendo or at “jbrooks882@gmail.com.”  His articles and books are collected at www.jeffbrookskarate.com.

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How Did It Happen?

How Did It Happen?

by Susan Downing

The past few days, I’ve been thinking about how this Christmas season is different from every one since my kids have been alive.  Sure, I am making all the same holiday goodies I always have – the non-negotiables are panettone, sugar plums, biscotti and pecan puffs, and, for the past two years, peanut brittle – and we have gotten a Christmas tree (more on that a bit later…), but suddenly, this Christmas, the kids are grown up and starting out on their own, individual paths in life.  Mike is 23 and Emily is 18.  How did that happen?    Isn’t that the question all parents ask? But this question is particularly relevant for me right now, because this holiday season has been punctuated by two big events, one for each child:  two days before Thanksgiving, Mike learned he has been selected to enter Marine Officer Candidate School in January, and just this past Monday, Emily found out that she had been accepted to Carleton College for next fall.

And as I have been going about my Christmas baking, I have thought about the fact that although  both of the kids have passed many milestones growing up, there has never been such synchronicity, at least not that I remember.  And no matter how many big steps they’ve taken before, it’s only now that I look at both my children and feel that they are poised to step into true adulthood.  They have both achieved something toward which they have been moving essentially their entire lives.  I have watched as Michael has trained intensely and with amazing sense of purpose in the past 6 months since returning home after graduating from college, moving from academic achievement to a new personal challenge.  And I have seen Emily’s equally purposeful dedication to her own academic work, her careful attention to preparing herself for her own big step.  The fact that they are seeing the fruit of their efforts ripen nearly simultaneously means that they can rejoice both separately and together, both for and with each other.  And see themselves in each other.

You might think that going through your senior year in high school would have little in common with preparing to enter the Marine Corps officer training school, but I know my kids, and I know that at their core they are very similar in both their way of living, and their ability to focus and work toward their chosen goal.  And today, as we all ate lunch together, I listened to Mike advising Emily to do everything at college in the most challenging way possible, to strive to be the best, not to wimp out.  It was the Marine officer candidate talking, and his little sister was listening and nodding her head.  She got what he was saying.  I think it is already the way she approaches life.  But what was so touching to me about this interaction is that it is just the latest version of what has gone on all their lives, when Mike has advised her on matters both serious and frivolous – from how to place the wooden blocks so that a structure won’t collapse, to how to squeeze a pomegranate seed so that it attains maximum velocity and altitude, thereby staining the kitchen ceiling, to how to … the list goes on and on. So, although the content of today’s conversation was different, the interaction was familiar – Mike sharing whatever expertise he’s gained that he thinks will be relevant to his sister in the present moment.

Not that she always welcomed his input or always took his advice when she was little the way she does now.  How did this habit form?  How were they able to grow into these thoughtful individuals who take good care of each other and appreciate each other’s advice?  Well, as Mike told me the other day, when I asked, in awe, how he could do 22 pull-ups seemingly effortlessly, “Practice.”  Oh.  Of course!

And I guess it has been the same process with the two of them developing respect for each other’s views and ways of doing things.  A gradual willingness to give some ground in a discussion or decision.  Take the Christmas tree as an example.  When Mike and Em were little, the choosing of the tree was an almost agonizing trial, because whichever tree caught Em’s fancy was rejected by Mike, or vice versa.  Each year’s hunt was a lesson in compromise and negotiation.  In recent years, it has become very easy to pick a tree. Last year I think it did not take us more than 45 seconds.  ”How do you like that one?” Mike: “Fine.”  Em: “Great. Let’s do it.”

Of course, it wasn’t as if we suddenly one year just got to the point of an effortless tree choosing, any more than Mike suddenly woke up one morning able to do 22 pull-ups when the day before he’d been able to do only 17, or any more than Em would have been able to write the essay that helped get her into Carleton without consistent meticulous attention to her writing all along.  How did it happen?  It has been a gradual path.  I have seen both of them stretching little by little, pushing to extend themselves while simultaneously learning, with practice, to allow and encourage each other to grow, too.  And in the past few weeks, I have had the pleasure of seeing them rejoice simultaneously in both their own and the other’s achievements, Mike as happy for Em as he is for himself, and she as proud of her brother as she is of herself.  My two children choosing a Christmas tree as close friends, not rival siblings.  And I fortunate enough to be present to see their strong branches spreading outward.

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The New Elite

The New Elite

by Jeffrey Brooks

As you practice your life will change. If you practice meanness you will find that the world around you and the world far off are getting cruel and cold.

If you practice strength, kindness and courage your life will also change, and the world around you will appear to change too.

If you are vain and mean the elite of this world will appear to you to be movie stars and millionaires. It will appear to you that the world runs on ambition; that people can’t be trusted, that luck governs fortune, that fame and pleasure, money and power are great to have and that they are mostly in the hands of undeserving others. It will seem that way no matter how rich or poor you are, how famous or obscure. Envy and dissatisfaction will goad you relentlessly.

If you practice strength, courage and kindness, and you place your achievements in the service of others, then the elite of this world will appear to be a group not defined by status or ambition, wealth or power but by their accomplishment in service, honor and virtue. You will recognize in the crowd and in the faces of the people around you, something warm and trustworthy, something to love and admire, something to lean on when you are in need, something to protect when you can, something to emulate for the rest of your life.

Seeing the ordinary beauty of the members of this new elite you can feel nourished in their presence, by their words and example. There will be no question of being alone in this world; you cannot be alone when you are connected through the heart to the lives of these noble beings.

As your own practice of virtue deepens their accomplishments will become more admirable and clear to you. And at first it may seem stunning that their achievements go unrecognized and are not universally praised. But little by little it is clear that their reward is their action and the condition of their own life; that they are repaid in kind many times over, with every act of kindness, clarity and strength, with every move they make, every breath they take; they are with you and you are with them. Throughout space and time, unbounded by disturbance or fear, unlimited by accumulation or desire, you can see this new elite make ready the means and act.

Join this elite if you can. Practice well. Guard your body against error and your mind against ignorance.

Take good care of the people around you.

Jeff Brooks taught karate in Northampton, MA, daily from 1988 to 2009, and led Mountain Zendo from 1994 to 2009. He now lives in a vast ocean of mist covered mountains rising to the sky, working in law enforcement. He can be reached through Mountain Zendo or at “jbrooks882@gmail.com.”  His articles and books are collected at www.jeffbrookskarate.com.

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Flooded

Flooded

by Susan Downing

There’s a spot in the woods not far from my house, along the Manhan River, where I often sit.  Quiet, except for the birds and occasional squirrel-snapped twig and the distant sound of the traffic flowing along Route 91. I have never seen any other human on this trail, so that’s a plus, too.

I almost never discovered this spot.  The first time I walked this trail,  a giant hickory tree had fallen across the path, and when I came upon this mass of thick trunks and foliage, it didn’t seem I could make my way through this obstruction.  But a few days later, I saw that I could climb through without much trouble.  That’s when I saw the spot, fallen leaves bright in the October sun, surrounding trees reflected in the gently flowing water.

tree #1

I have never liked sitting on the ground in the forest, but for some reason I plunked myself down here, right on the low bank of the riverlet – because the Manhan hardly seems a river, compared to the adjacent Connecticut.  Whenever I visit this spot, I never see the same view twice.  Either the water is still, while is was flowing gently and leaf-covered the day before, or the cloudy sky lends a dark cast to the trees’ reflections.  One day, as I went to sit down, I noticed, right next to the spot where the leaves are flattened down from my weight upon them, a dirty golf ball peaking out from under the leaves.  How had I not seen it the day before? Or any of the days before?  Because it looked like it was not just newly flown there.  I picked it up and was surprised by what I saw written on it: Precept 11.  As a Buddhist, of course, this intrigued me.  I observe ten basic precepts.  What is the 11th?  I am still mulling that one over.

So, not only my sitting spot, but the whole path through the woods, is different each day. Well, that’s kind of a cliche, isn’t it, to say that the world is always changing?  To see the world as an ever-present illustration of the law of impermanence?  Of course it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful for me to have that awareness as I move through the world. And through the woods. And so, I have noticed that in October some wildflowers still bloomed amongst the first yellow fallen leaves, but now there is frost – and even a dusting o snow, last Friday. Some days, the parts of the path that previously looked clear and easily-traversable appear packed with brambles.  Other days, like today, a new side-trail will appear, as if out of nowhere, for me to explore.  This morning, in the middle of the path, I came upon a circle of pheasant feathers. Had a coyote gotten it? Or a human hunter?  I don’t know. And although I swore it hadn’t been there yesterday, it might have. I might just not have noticed it then.

But back to my sitting spot. Yesterday, as I made my way down the trail, I was surprised to see that the Manhan had flooded across the low-lying areas along its banks.  I hadn’t realized it had rained quite that hard on Wednesday.  Suddenly the lowly Manhan was quietly dominating the landscape.  Including my sitting spot!  As I made my way over the fallen hickory and down to the water’s edge, I saw that the water now reached precisely to where I always perch.

tree #2

Certainly, I wasn’t going to sit in the water, and the forest floor was damp anyway from the rain, so I stood there, the toes of my shoes at water’s edge.  How considerate of the Manhan, I thought: one reason that spot by the tree had appealed to me in the first place was that the earth there led right into the water – there was no high bank to separate me from the river.  I could sit right by the water and watch its swirling flow, which seemed to me symbolic of my life’s flow.  And yesterday, as I saw my flooded seat, it seemed to me as if the river was rising to meet me, inviting me into its flow, showing me that there was no real separation between us.

On every day until this, it had seemed to me that there was me on the bank and the river between the two banks.  And even though I have seen that bank change subtly – or dramatically – since I began visiting it in October, I had always persisted in seeing a distinction – river, tree, bank, leaves, golf ball, me. I am sure this is not the first time the water has flooded that spot.  I just hadn’t witnessed it before.  And today, the waters had come even further up onto the bank.  I still didn’t sit down in the water.  No need to. Because the spot where I stood toe-to-water yesterday, was submerged today.  Even standing on an as-yet still dry patch of forest floor, I felt  part of the river’s flow, embraced and absorbed by it as fully as if I had been sitting in my spot as the water rose gently around me.  River and life constantly flowing and transforming, unearthing golf balls and pheasant’s feathers and new trails to follow.

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