Off-Leash Writing

Posts in Buddhism
Does Ego Get A Seat At The Table?

Twenty-odd years ago, I raised my hand in the large hall at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, and asked the renowned Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield a question.


“Is there a role for ambition in the Buddhist cosmology?” 


“That’s a good question,” said Jack, and silly as it sounds, the memory of that compliment warms me to this day. Jack said I asked a good question!


He had been talking, as Buddhist teachers do, about the fact that according to the Buddha’s teachings, desire—alternately translated as grasping or clinging—causes suffering. This concept, one of the Four Noble Truths at the core of Buddhist philosophy, had resonated with me ever since I picked up Sharon Salzberg’s book Lovingkindness: the Revolutionary Art of Happiness in my early thirties and plunged headlong into Buddhist teachings. Desire or grasping as the root cause of suffering spoke directly to my experience. 

At the time, I was working as a regional theatre actor in the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of the West Coast. I related intimately to the pain of desiring to snag a particular role or work with a particular company. The desire itself was painful—I could feel it in my body as a visceral ache. Often the waiting period following an audition—the days, weeks, or even months when I didn’t know if I’d gotten the job—was worse than the disappointment on the occasions when I didn’t.  And the feeling never stopped. Even when I had an acting job that I loved going to every day, I would hear about roles others were playing and feel a stab of envious longing. I felt it even when the shows they were in conflicted with my own. I wanted to be every place at the same time, and because I couldn’t, I was never satisfied. 


When I discovered the Buddha’s teachings, I immediately recognized myself in the image of the Hungry Ghost, a voracious apparition with an enormous belly and a tiny pinhole mouth, who eats and eats but is never full.

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Death Crashes In

I was celebrating my son’s birthday on Mackinac Island when Death crashed in.

Death was not invited. The clear blue sky with its scudding clouds, the bright yet tender sun, the gentle breeze, the crunchy tang of deep-fried pickles, the waves, the rocks, the lighthouse, the bikes: all of these were on the guest list, but Death was not. Nevertheless, Death showed up.

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The Hardest Thing

As a parent, the hardest thing I do is witness my children’s suffering.

Four months ago the Buddhist monk Ajahn Amaro—an elvish man with protruding ears, a wicked grin, and a British accent—came to speak in Ann Arbor. He spoke of three principles, espoused by an ancient sage:


1.     Don’t push; just use the weight of your own body.

2.     Don’t diagnose; just pay attention.

3.     Don’t try to help, but don’t turn away.


Since then, I think of these principles regularly with respect to parenting.


As I said, I find my children’s suffering excruciating. So if they’re crying wildly, claiming people don’t like them, or they don’t like themselves, or they don’t like their lives, all I want to do is fix it, as quickly as possible. I want their suffering to stop, and I want the expression of it to stop. Because I can’t stand it.

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After the Giddy Plunge

How to describe the beauty and challenge of that day? How high and steep the dune, how fine and bright the sand? How the ocean—no, Lake Michigan (ha, I wrote ocean!)— spread out below us, an impossibly pure colorscape, gradations of aqua, turquoise, teal leading out to a deep true cobalt?

We were at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, in the Northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. We were traversing the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive when we stopped at #9, the Lake Michigan Overlook.

At first I tried to stop D and E from rolling down the nearly vertical dune, fearing they’d lose control, plummet over the edge and disappear. They started rolling anyway, tentatively at first, stopping and starting, looking back. I glanced uncertainly at my husband—I’ll call him H—and he, ever the cautious one, shook his head. I called, half-heartedly, Boys, come back. They ignored me, of course, and I discussed with nearby adults whether it was safe to go down. A couple with toddlers shook their heads and left. But then a man with two young kids, maybe 7 or 8 years old, appeared on the horizon as if by magic.

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