"When Rikyu, Japan's legendary Tea master, was asked the secret of the Tea Ceremony, he replied, 'Lighting the fire. Boiling the water. Whisking the tea.' 'Well, that seems easy to do,' said the student. Rikyu responded, 'If you can truly do this, then I will be your student.'
To act with an individual mind -- this is the secret. Nothing is left out. Nothing extra is brought in. It sounds so simple, yet the Tea Ceremony is known to be one of Japan's most subtle and exacting art forms."
A Zen Approach To Cooking and Eating
Living your life as a spiritual practice is to know that you never will never attain perfection and that this is okay. Life as a spiritual practice means acknowledging that we are students our whole life long, and that this, too, is fine. Today people strive for perfection to the point that they cause undue suffering for themselves, in their own life and in the world around them. I have tried to set the table for eating at the banquet of life and it's many courses by building a structure for my life that I seldom stray from, give or take life's uncertainties, surprises, and the monkey wrenches that will be thrown into the middle of the best laid plans, and through it all I continue to strive to live in the moment, to steep myself in the knowledge that everything around me is sacred, not just the pleasant, joyful things -- the things that make us happy, that lay the ground for the gift of peace in our life -- but also to treat as deeply important lessons the painful, scary, and unknown in life, for these are the things that truly forge a soul. This is why I write. I write to remember, writing is the rudder that guides me through life, and I am a devout student of all that is.
Why do I write what I write? -- deeply personal essays and stories about my own life which some have thought self-centered, have chastised me for, have puzzled over -- "Why not write novels, short stories, or non-fiction about other subjects?" I can tell you why, and I can tell you because I have spent these last many years as a contemplative, living a life of solitude, silence, prayer, meditation, and not simply to further my spiritual journey, but to discover what my true purpose is, what I was meant to do in this life that might serve others. I have long felt that I was meant to live a life of service, and yet because I am who I am, ill at ease in the outside world, afraid, often, I came to terms with the fact that I would have to learn how to serve from this sanctuary that is my home, living an almost completely cloistered life. This has been a very perplexing quandary, and though I have written since I was nine, publishing before I was twenty, and having written many novels (that didn't sell) and a number of poems (some of which did), and having written for newspapers and magazines as well as having my writing included in an anthology of women's writings, I finally came to realize that none of these were the road I should take, and that I could not serve others in this way. Some can, but this was not meant to be my path.
Unbeknownst to me it was the thirty years of teaching journal classes that were spiritual in nature, writing as a healing and contemplative art, and listening to the stories of my students who were also great teachers for me, that I began to realize that what mattered to me most of all were the lives that we all live, the little things that often slip by and get lost, to center my own life in the practice of celebrating the quicksilver, fleeting moments of our human lives through the practice of mindfulness (... which I have to begin again and again because I slip away and get lost and have to continually pick up the threads of my life and move forward once more...), and to help others realize, by offering my own journey up as an example, by sharing thoughtful reflections that come up in my meditation sessions, and the rounds of my daily life, that their lives are precious. I wanted to write, "Dear Reader, your life is sacred, it should be celebrated, you can live through the worst and revel in the best," and as I came through these last twelve years, most especially this last one which has been one of the most complex times of my life, I came to understand how I might move forward, within the constraints of a life lived mostly cut off from the world, by writing my own truth as I live it. This is what I wrote in my journal recently...
I care about your life. This is why I write about mine, so that it might open a door for you to walk through the words on the page with certainty that everything you do is important, even and especially the smallest details, that it is sacred, that it should be held gently in your heart so that without judgment, and with tenderness for your own human life, faults, foibles and all, you can live with compassion and loving-kindness, in as much as any of us can, and find peace in your own humanity, first and foremost for yourself, for without finding these things for yourself, you have nothing to give to another. We must tend the fires of our own soul so that we can light that of another, that we can perhaps illuminate the path of another so that they are not afraid of the dark. This is why I write, this is why I try, this is how I hope that I can serve others, from my own little corner of the world.
We are only as limited as we believe we are. The fact that I cannot live in the world in the "ordinary way" does not mean that I do not have anything to give, and you, too, have much to give, even when you can't see the way, living fully in each moment you will find your true path. It needn't be discovering the way to bring about world peace, a cure for a terrible disease, or any number of other things that are held up as lofty goals that we, in our inability to meet them, feel useless and fail to treat our own lives with the respect it deserves. We are not all meant to win the Nobel Prize, but we can all be kind to those around us. This is what I believe, what I try to live, what I have to offer, and what I will continue to share in the hopes that it might be a candle in the darkness for even one other person. I believe that this is a worthy goal.
My own rituals, routines, and practices are simple and to many seem mundane, but they lead me deeply into the knowledge, daily, that every moment of our often fragile lives are necessary to be whole human beings with the ability to have compassion for even the smallest creatures around us, to the person we pass on the street, the woman who checks us out at the grocery store, the bank teller that cashes our check, the little child reaching down to pick a dandelion with a sense of awe and wonder, a chickadee at the feeder, your mailman, elderly neighbor, for everyone and every thing in the world around us. It all matters and not a single second should fall through the cracks of our lives, at least this is the goal, and while we can live fully in each moment, remembering all of these things, if we continually strive to meet the goals that we have set for ourselves, whatever they might be, we will have found our true purpose, we will have lived the life we were meant to live, and we can be at peace within ourselves because we live in the knowledge that we have continued to pick up the thread when we drop it, and journey onward. What a powerful way to live.
So the structure of my daily life, each and every day with few exceptions, goes as follows:
I rise with my animals, beginning with my small elderly pug Harvey who has to go out and sounds the trumpet for the others, and we all greet the day together. If it is very early, 6 a.m. or before, I give them a little treat and we go back to bed. By 7 a.m. Harvey lets me know that he might cease to exist if breakfast is not served immediately. Now is the time our day really begins, and, oddly, the 7 parrots in the house seem to know that the first time we are up we are not really "up" but drifting through a few moments of a pre-dawn ritual that does not concern them. One hour later, however, before my feet touch the floor, every single bird in the house starts to chitter and chatter and sing and talk and Big Bird Flounder, my greenwing macaw, screams at the top of his lungs, "Good Morning Flounder, Good Morrrrnnnnnniiiiinnnnggggg." Every single day. It never changes.
Once the dogs are fed, and medications dispensed to these furry old folks, I make the rounds washing bowls and getting fresh food and water for the seven parrots. There is nothing more satisfying than knowing that my little ones are all fed and cared for. All seven parrots kiss me good morning, and I rub feathery faces and bellies and talk our secret language. Then, and only then, with all of the animals started on their day do I move into my own.
Making coffee is a ritual from the grinding of the beans, to the heating of the cup, the brewing of the espresso, frothing the milk and finally cleaning the machine. In the bitterest cold of our winter days I set the fire and light it, staring into the flames, drawn into the beginning of my silent routine.
With the over-sized mug in my hands, the first sip of my latte is divine, pure bliss, and I stop to say "thank you" for this most extraordinary moment. I say thank you all throughout the day, acknowledging the many gifts that I have in my life. In so doing peace flows through my being like blood through my veins, and these moments of gratitude are the connective tissue of each day, weaving together the threads of the tapestry that make up a single day of my life. No day goes uncelebrated, each are filled with grace, of this I am well aware, so that on the hardest, most painful days this practice of gratitude makes me aware that amidst it all I still have so much to be thankful for.
When I recently lost my precious pug Coco who died quite unexpectedly on the operating table, wracked with grief and sorrow so heavy that I could at first not see through it, I came home to three dogs dancing and crying and wagging their tails. They needed me, they loved me, they give me more tenderness and so many gifts with their simple presence that I cannot wholly allow myself to disappear into the darkness that grief brings. And there are the parrots singing and calling to me, a very large bird practically dancing off his cage wanting me to pick him up so he can ride around my shoulder as I feed the dogs and put all the other birds to bed. I hold his large beak in my hand and draw his face to me, kissing all over the silky soft skin around his bright macaw eyes. He croons to me and whistles. How can I be completely lost when I have so much?
My mornings are very quiet. I pray, I record the thoughts that arise in meditation, I make a list to organize my day, and then I follow the hour's rituals ahead with a sense of peace and safety, a kind of peace I had heretofore never known. Having suffered a lifetime of clinical depression when I felt lost, tumbling through space and time without anything to hold onto, with no safety net below me, I went through very dark times when I didn't think that I could survive. The seesaw-like imbalances of my Bi-Polar disorder could render me so off-kilter that there were days I was so frozen in confusion, sadness, and despair that I could not leave my over-sized chair that was as if a life raft that carried me through the days. But the day came when a kind of structure started to float up from the bottom to the surface of my life, and the rituals and routine that I now adhere to today became a spiritual practice that lifted me me up out of the darkness and into the light.
Yes, there have been therapy and medication as well, but the most stabilizing factor has been building a structure like a ladder that I climb through the hours of the day, and I am more at peace than I have ever been in my life. Spirit has led the way. If I can help one other single soul on this earth, everything that I have been through in my life will have been worth it, for the most painful times, the times I thought I could not bear, have become Phoenix times that caused me to crash, burn, and rise again, many times over. I no longer dwell on past sorrows, I look to the ways in which I might live fully in each moment and those moving me upstream through the rest of my days. I record the lessons learned. I share them with you.
When finally all seven parrots have been put to bed, the dogs fed and out for their early evening time stroll in the great wide world that exists within the safe confines of our large fenced yard, they settle into their beds and go to sleep before the crackling fire where the warmth radiates out making fur shine and feel warm to the touch. I put the kettle on and while the water comes to a boil I heat the teapot and my favorite vintage mug, measure out the tea leaves into my little infuser, and finally gently pour the water over the leaves watching the clock as the leaves infuse the water with translucent color and a fragrance that fills the kitchen. I carry the pot, the cozy to keep it warm, the cup and spoon, a napkin and glass of water to my huge chair and a half, my only new piece of furniture (I told the sales woman that I needed a chair big enough to fit a person and a pug...), and I settle in for the night ahead.
I love this time of night, the silence, save the snoring of the pugs and the crackling and popping of the fire, brings deep pleasure and a sense of contentment. As I sip my tea I take up any one of several books next to me and read and make notes, I set my pen on the table next to me and open up the computer to write, I bend down to kiss a soft sleeping pug, and I float on the hours until bedtime. I take the dogs out one last time, gazing up at the moon while they go down the deck stairs and into the yard to sniff and snuffle and do their business one last time. The fire is now out or nearly so, and I turn on the few lights I have on at night, preferring a small pool of light around my chair, candlelight, and the small colored lights glowing inside the old Moroccan lantern.
We go back to bed, the dogs and I, and I lift Sampson, the pug that sleeps with me, up onto the high, one hundred year old bed, and Big Dog Moe and Harvey sleep in their beds on either side of mine, and I go to sleep smiling listening to the soft snoring of the pugs, and the knowledge the my big old black dog is sleeping peacefully in his big bed. Sam moves up and snuggles into my back, often, with his back against mine, and his little head in the crook of my neck, and I drift off to sleep with the reverberations of his soft snoring like the old beds with "Magic Fingers" you used to put a quarter in that vibrated and relaxed your body in the most blissful way, and I offer up prayers of thanksgiving with my eyes closed, drifting into sleep, closing the curtain on another day.
These are my days, this is my life, I celebrate each moment, my cup runneth over. I would like to pour a cup for you. Instead, I write this blog entry in the hopes that it might bring comfort to those who find it, and make them realize that their own lives are sacred, share with you, dear reader, the beauty of life, even amidst the pain and sorrow that sometimes arise, and offer up the knowledge that there are miracles all around us if only we have eyes to see. Like the tiny wildflower that grows up through a nearly invisible crack in the cement below our feet, we are daily blessed with more than we know exists. I am coming to know this. I bow in gratitude.
And now a sleepy pug raises his head with eyes still closed, snuffling in his sleep and then snuggling up against me again. It is time for me to close here and sink into the cushion of silence that fills my final hours. Even when I watch t.v. I am aware of the way I am shored up in this restful place, and in this warm cozy room the day draws to a close.
Rest gently dear souls in the lives you are creating. Build a structure that can hold you up under all circumstances, carry it with you inside yourself when you must travel outside into the wide, wide world. It will stand you in good stead. Let us now move forward into our days.