The Extraordinary Retreat

It’s been more than a week since I left the retreat with Edward Espe Brown, the Zen priest and beloved chef who has been such a inspiration and spiritual mentor to me for the last 10 years. Ed was the first head cook at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and many people will know him from his bread making bible “the Tassajra Bread Book.” Even though we had never met before, he has been like a friend reaching out to me through his books and online talks, so finally being on retreat with him was something very special.

Writing about retreat experiences, generally, is difficult. Even profound experience, in fact especially profound experience, is usually subtle and beyond words.

What is common for us humans is to seek out extraordinary experiences. This you could say is the ordinary wish. What is extraordinary therefore is to be content yet engaged, utterly at peace with the ordinary. That really is extraordinary, and in many ways, that is what Ed offered on his retreat. Continue reading “The Extraordinary Retreat”

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The Heart of Practice

Last night I was sent a link to a TED talk – the researcher Brene Brown was talking about connection and love. She had spent around 6 years analysing 1000’s of stories and 100’s of in-depth interviews, looking into people’s responses to belonging, heartbreak, love and connection. She found that there was only ONE variable between the people who claimed they felt a strong sense of connection and belonging, and the rest – the ‘connected’ people had the courage to be imperfect and vulnerable. Brown concludes that meaningful connection happens as a result of authenticity.

I’ve heard the Zen teacher Ed Brown greet a room of students on the first evening of retreat, and share that he is feeling, in that moment, anxious. “But you’ve been doing Zen for 40 years and you still feel anxious, what’s your problem?” he mockingly berates himself. “I’m a human being” he reminds us. Don’t you love it when senior Buddhist teachers are comfortable in revealing their human-ness?!

I have started to notice a theme – Brene Brown calls it the Power of Vulnerability.

At Wangapeka we have just finished a 5 day retreat which ran with the title “Choosing Freedom”. There was a lot of deep contemplation of what those words might even mean – what is choice, and what does it mean to be free?

Language is so clunky a lot of the time. I wondered, eventually, if ‘choosing freedom’ was a potential red-herring. As soon as I choose freedom, there is something controlling, ego-driven about it. I think the purest, freest moments have been when freedom has chosen me. Or rather, freedom has chosen itself and I have gotten out of the way.

Suzuki Roshi said that our dharma practise is just to be ourselves. When we do not expect anything we can be ourselves. That is our way, to live fully in each moment.

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Continue reading “The Heart of Practice”

But First… Radishes.

Yesterday I felt I pretty numb. The murder of the priest in Normandy, the inconceivable violence in Germany, it all just broke my heart. So much hatred and confusion in the world right now. Classic “comfort food” can sometimes ease the heart-ache, but yesterday anything ‘man-made’ felt inappropriate in light of the man-made mess the world is in.

For lunch, in silence (aside from the crunching) I simply ate my way through a bowl of exceedingly fresh radishes. Yes, radishes. Expressing nowt but their untainted, uncomplicated, unashamed radishness. I am 100% certain that this is the first time I’d eaten solely radishes. I’d never appreciated their lipstick-pink, perfect, firm, roundness before, let alone their crunchy juiciness. Why are radishes often sliced paper thin and hidden in a salad, when devouring them whole is the only way to fully know them?

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I remember the Zen teacher Edward Brown once saying something like when radishes aren’t good enough, pretty soon nothing is good enough. Everything falls short. Nothing measures up. Yet when someone can pick up a radish and be delighted… all beings benefit.

Why has life got so complicated? Continue reading “But First… Radishes.”