from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Monday, 20 February 2017

'meditation begins when you get off the cushion'

– was the reminder that my Zen teacher Ken Jones used to bring to our attention from time to time.

Truth is, it's hard enough to sit, simply sit, doing nothing, on the cushion. In Zen meditation, unlike many other forms, we're not even substituting affirmations/positive thoughts/creative visualisations for the kind of fragmentary chatter of so-called thoughts and emotions, the white noise of 'monkey mind' that is our habitual mode; we're simply sitting, being with how it is right now. 

We're also watching the breath, and the mind, until, perhaps, a little oasis of tranquility arises beyond that. 

The practice is sometimes described as 'big sky mind', where thoughts and emotions arising are simply noticed and left to drift on past, like clouds, and we return our attention to 'sky mind'.

To do this day after day can sometimes nearly drive you nuts. Other times it's so crucial to wellbeing that if I haven't sat first thing, even if only for ten minutes, I feel something akin to what people describe as 'having got out of bed the wrong side', I imagine.

Even after forty-plus somewhat erratic years of this practice, which brings me firstly face-to-face with myself, and then, after that, perhaps, with the vast emptiness beyond thought, beyond self, beyond ego, it's still hard to dissolve the 'me' that wants to see results (to be a better person, to live a calmer more ordered life, to not get stressed etc), that needs something measurable from the practice.

Instead, I have to let go – keep letting go – and simply let spaciousness take me; trust it to gently displace the thoughts and emotions that keep me small, keep me selfish, or mean, or unkind; in fact keep me experiencing the separative 'me' altogether.

This is what 'waking up' means; the Buddha's most concise injunction. Being aware how much of our lives we live sleepwalking. Waking up to the reality that resides, if it resides anywhere, in this whole amazing invisible but deeply interconnected web of being. Waking up, too, to the great beyond: the nameless Mystery. Waking up to the fact that we are indivisible from What Is: that our egoic separateness is an illusion, the greatest of all of them.

The Zen quote in my inbox yesterday from Shambala Publications which was from Natalie Goldberg's The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and the Zigzag Life*, spoke to me of such things. It was a relief to hear her say that no she didn't manage to sit every day; and yes it still made her knees ache, and yes she still found that turbulent thoughts and emotions arose after all her time meditating (40 years in her case too).

So that's already hard enough, to sit in a dedicated period of stillness in a dedicated place on our zafu, meditation cushion. Every single day.

Nonetheless, it's what happens off the cushion that's the test: can we maintain that practice of mindfulness, of calm clarity (because of course there are moments, even minutes, even long minutes, in each meditation session when we do and can float beyond individual mind into something like clarity and shunyatta [great emptiness – a 'good' thing, by the way!]) when the phone goes as we're in the middle of something, when we're late, when the baby won't stop crying or the dog won't stop barking, when someone needs something from us and we have no resources left, or someone speaks sharply to us, before we open our mouth to say something less than skillful, less than kind?

Can we bring ourself truly present to this moment, this one and only moment, which is all we have both of past and future?

Can we watch our mind, the tricks and illusions it offers us as 'truths', in the middle of the speediness in which most of us non-monastics live?

Can we be sufficiently aware as to remember to stop and breathe when one of our habitual habits or unconscious patterns threatens to ride us?

Can we carve out just a few moments' space to really experience spaciousness when everything about our lives is screaming that we need to do everything but that right now before the world falls apart?

Can we afford not at least to try? – The darkness around us is deep.

* PS: I see Goldberg's official publication date is today for the book mentioned.


  1. Thanks Roselle.I was told about a monk who said that mediating made life only slightly better than not meditating! Still as you say who wants to see people suffering if there's anything at all we can do to make any kind of difference? Thanks for this. very nourishing!

    1. Thank you, Su. Lovely to have your comment. Rx

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