A Firefly of Love
that in the depth of the ravine
of the mountain of my hidden heart
a firefly of my love is aflame.
This quiet Japanese woman’s confession to herself almost a thousand years ago tells us that the most important things begin so far inside we can hardly hear them ourselves at first. Or that we keep the most important things so tucked away that they barely have a chance to grow. Probably her sigh of heart bears witness to both. Please. Read her lines again. Now.
These are not just words, but the heartcloud of a living being, catching herself alive in a moment that has repeated itself in everyone who has ever known or wanted to know love. And, though I’m not sure how, we can, in the snap of a guarded moment, in the wince of an unexpected hurt, be a mountain away from what we feel. But if we own the separation, we then begin the arduous pilgrimage back to Oneness.
Somewhere along the way and often with good reason, we learn to fear putting our feelings out in the open, out in the weather of ordinary air, as if our small piece of love will die for exposure to the elements, as if our true feelings will not survive the gaze of others. Yet we all know so very well that without air nothing can grow. So what are we to do with our tiny little firefly?
It is a beautiful irony that in confessing her hiddenness, Abutsu-Ni has given us a way. For isn’t it her firefly that has fluttered all the way up from the ravine, up from the mountain of her hidden heart, flitting to moisten her eye and wag her reluctant tongue? Isn’t it her little firefly of love that has kept its tail lit for more than nine hundred years?
It doesn’t have to be pretty or smart, just honest and true. For many a dance starts with a trip, and many a song finds its opening through a cough.
- Breathe deeply into your own heart.
- Once there, breathe slowly and repeat Abutsu-Ni’s words aloud as if they are your own.
- Breathe deeply, and feel the small firefly of your love flitting inside the mountain of your heart.
- Breathe slowly, and with each breath, let the firefly flit up your ravine, up your mountain, and up your throat.
The Moon and the Dewdrop
Enlightenment is like the moon reflected in a
dewdrop on a blade of grass. The moon does
not get wet, nor is the drop of water broken.
. . . And the whole moon and entire sky are
reflected in even one drop of water.
The mystery—in love, in work, in any moment of oneness— is that, like the dewdrop and the moon, we are briefly ourselves and everything at once. Our essential nature is not changed, only enhanced.
The lovers and friends that have helped me stay alive and be more fully alive have come into my life like Dogen’s moon—all of their love, as big as the sky, fills my heart and yet I do not become them, but only more myself.
Anything or anyone that asks you to be other than yourself is not holy, but is trying only to fill its own need.
In truth, the smallest stem of a damaged heart, like a single blade of grass, holds the essence of everything alive. Enlightenment is the kiss of anything—moon, storm, or kindness— that opens us to that essence.
- Center yourself and bring to mind one moment in which you felt touched by life other than your own. It might have been in nature or in the arms of a loved one.
- Breathe deeply and consider how that touch has affected you.
- After a time, ask yourself, Where do you keep that touch of life? When do you need it most?
The Monkey and the River
It is said a great Zen teacher asked an initiate
to sit by a stream until he heard all the water
had to teach. After days of bending his mind
around the scene, a small monkey happened
by, and, in one seeming bound of joy, splashed
about in the stream. The initiate wept and
returned to his teacher, who scolded him lovingly,
“The monkey heard. You just listened.”
With the best of intentions, we often build false careers of studying the river without ever getting wet. In this way, we can ponder great philosophy without ever telling the truth, or analyze our pain without ever feeling it, or study holy places without ever making where we live sacred. In this way, we can build a cathedral on the water’s edge, spending all our time keeping it clean. Or we can count our money or say our prayers, without ever spending anything or ever feeling God’s presence. In this way, we can play music or make love skillfully without ever feeling the music or our passion.
The apprentice was brought to tears because the monkey, slapping and yapping its way in the river, had landed in a moment of joy, and the apprentice knew that all his reverence and devotion and meditation hadn’t brought him the joy of a monkey.
The river, of course, is the ongoing moment of our living. It is the current that calls us to inhabit our lives. And no matter how close we come, no matter how much we get from staying close with a sensitive heart, nothing will open us to joy but entering the stream.
I once was on a screened-in porch on a lake I used to visit every summer for twenty years. My friend and I were watching it rain, as we had done countless times over the years.
Suddenly, like that simple and beautiful monkey, my friend bounded up, slapped the screen door open, tracked his clothes, and jumped into the rain-filled lake.
I watched like the apprentice, feeling the pain of always being dry, and then I shed my clothes and jumped in too.
There we were: in the center of the lake, water from above in our mouths, in our eyes, pelting us, water entering water, lives entering their living. Each pelt of rain, on us and in the lake, uttering . . . joy, joy, joy.
- As you move through your day, notice your interactions with others and with the life around you.
- Notice if you are watching what is happening or if you are a part of it.
- If you are watching, place your heart in the stream of what is before you, the way you might dip your hand in running water.
- Do this by opening your heart with your outbreath and letting life in with your inbreath. . . . Watch and be. . . . Open and let in. . . . Listen and get wet. . . .
The Air after Pain
Live for the air after pain
and there will be no reason to run.
Hippocrates said that pleasure is the absence of pain.
Anyone who has ever suffered knows this is a deep truth. When I fell into the gauntlet of tests that awaited after the pronouncement that I had cancer, I was terrified of being in pain. I introduced myself to every physician and nurse as Mark-put me out-Nepo. But with every procedure, there was some medical reason why I had to be awake. I came to realize that there was nowhere to run.
Once I accepted this, which took some time, I understood that what was most terrifying about my pain was the prospect that it would never end, that life would somehow freeze in whatever moment of discomfort I came upon. The terror gained its power from not being able to imagine life beyond the pain.
The breakthrough moment for me came the day I had to have yet another bone marrow sampling. For some reason, these were the worst for me. But with the appearance that day of some deeper grace, I suddenly saw it differently. I recognized that this very uncomfortable procedure lasted at most forty to fifty seconds and I was arranging my entire life and being in anticipation and avoidance of those fifty seconds.
For the first time I realized I had a choice. The pain of those seconds would be the same, but I could ground myself, including my fear, in the very real fact that my life would resume after those fifty seconds. There would be light in the air, once again, after the pain. For the first time, I felt in my soul that I was larger than my pain. This empowered me.
So many times, in our despair, we see our pain as something that will never end. In fact, this often defines our moments of despair: when we believe that our pain contains the rest of us. In contrast, there is this sense of peace to work toward: the belief that our life contains our pain.
- Center yourself and focus on a physical or emotional pain that is with you.
- As you inhale, bring in all that is larger than your pain.
- As you exhale, release the pain into the larger air that is pain-free.
- As you repeat this, focus on the moments that are pain-free, and invite them to expand.
Against Our Will
As an inlet cannot close itself to the sea that shapes it, the heart can only wear itself open.
One of the hardest blessings to accept about the heart is that in the image of life itself, it will not stop emerging through experience. No matter how we try to preserve or relive what has already happened, the heart will not stop being shaped.
This is a magnificent key to health: that, despite our resistance to accept that what we’ve lost is behind us, despite our need at times to stitch our wounds closed by reliving them, and despite our heroic efforts to preserve whatever is precious, despite all our attempts to stop the flow of life, the heart knows better. It knows that the only way to truly remember or stay whole is to take the best and worst into its tissue.
Despite all our intentions not to be hurt again, the heart keeps us going by moving us ever forward into health. Though we walk around thinking we can direct it, our heart is endlessly shaped like the land, often against our will.
- Center yourself, and bring to mind one precious moment you’d like to preserve.
- As you breathe, let in the life that is presently around you—the quality of light, the temperature, the sounds coming and going.
- Breathe steadily and try not to choose one over the other. Simply allow the precious memory and the precious moment to tenderly become one.
Two Monkeys Sleeping
Tenderness does not choose its own uses.
It goes out to everything equally.
We wandered into a corner of the Central Park Zoo, and there, despite the dozens of tourists pointing and tapping the glass, two monkeys were squatting on a perch of stone. To our surprise, they were both in deep sleep, their dark heads bowed to each other, their small frames limp.
What was amazing was that their small delicate hands were touching, their monkey fingers leaning into each other. It was clear that it was this small sustained touch that allowed them to sleep. As long as they were touching, they could let go.
I envied their trust and simplicity. There was none of the human pretense at independence. They clearly needed each other to experience peace. One stirred but didn’t wake, and the other, in sleep, kept their fingers touching. How deeply rewarding the life of touch. Each was drifting inwardly, dreaming whatever monkeys dream.
They looked like ancient travelers praying inside a place of rest made possible because they dared to stay connected. It was one of the most tender and humbling moments I have ever seen. Two aging monkeys weaving fingertips, as if their touch alone kept them from oblivion.
I pray for the courage to be as simple in asking for what I need to be.
- Sit with a trusted loved one, a lover or a friend, and open yourself to everything that is older than you.
- Pray this way without touching.
- Now lightly entwine fingers with the simplicity of aging monkeys and open yourself further to the mystery of tenderness.
- Do not observe or keep track of what happens. Just stay connected and drift in what is unspeakable.
A String of Todays
If not now, when?
Since surviving cancer, there is a burning bit of truth I live with every day. Sometimes it doesn’t let me sleep, but most of the time, it brings me great joy. No one uttered this to me, and I didn’t arrive at it or work at it. It just revealed itself, the way a broken bone makes us re-feel the immense pressure of air. And this bit of truth is, If not now, when? It keeps coming down to this: There is no tomorrow, only a string of todays. Still, like most of us, I was somehow taught to dream forward, to fill the future with everything that matters:
Someday I will be happy. When I am rich, I will be free. When I find the right person, then I will know love. I will be loving and happy and truthful and genuine then. But almost dying seared the sense of future from me, and though I expect to live a very long time, though I make plans and look forward to the many things I plan, I have no choice but to dream now. I start out, as I always have, pouring the best of me into an imagined time yet to be, but then I hear, If not now, when? and the best of me floods back to the only place it truly knows—Now.
This all helps me understand a story about Jesus very differently. I’m thinking of the young, rich merchant who approaches Jesus after his Sermon on the Mount. He admires Jesus so, is truly touched, and wants to join him. So he asks with great sincerity what he needs to do, what arrangements need to be made.
Jesus opens his arms and says, “Come with me now. Drop everything and come.” The young merchant stumbles and cites his many “yes, buts”: He can’t leave his business so suddenly. He has to leave word. He’ll need to gather fresh clothes. How much money should he bring? With open arms, Jesus simply says one more time, “Come with me now.” How often do we all rehearse this moment, putting off love, truth, joy, and even God, citing our many “yes, buts” to ourselves, when all we have to do—hard and simple as it is—is to drop everything and come now.
- Breathe slowly and meditate on something dear to you that you have been working toward. It might center on being happy, knowing love, finding a partner, or learning how to play music, or how to understand the truth of your experience more deeply.
- Breathe deeply and, for the moment, dream about it now; that is, eliminate the efforts to build it tomorrow.
- For the moment, imagine that whatever portion of this work you are to know or achieve or inhabit can only happen today.
- Inhale deeply and take the energy of everything you’ve planned and put off back into your life today.
- Rather than feeling overwhelmed with all this, try to let this energy simply fill you as you move through your day.