Nothing is Wasted (Tales of Trauma and Transformation / March 2013)
Shambhala Sun | March 2013
Nothing is Wasted
If you use your difficulties to create art, says RUTH OZEKI, it will give them meaning.
When you’re a writer
or an artist, nothing is wasted. Even the most painful and difficult
situations in life can be recycled into material for a project, and it’s
the artist’s job to be awake, aware, and opportunistic. This attitude
might sound a bit cold and calculating, but it’s not. Quite the
opposite. Art, when it comes from dark and difficult places, gives us a
means to fully feel our most powerful human emotions and transform our
suffering into something meaningful.
death of my grandmother was a painful and difficult situation. My
mother didn’t want to go to Japan for the funeral, so I went instead. I
arrived too late for the cremation, but in time for the interment of my
grandmother’s remains in our family plot at the temple cemetery. On the
morning of the ceremony, my aunt took me into the living room where my
grandmother’s urn was waiting. Using a pair of disposable wooden
chopsticks, she picked out three or four of my grandmother’s white bones
and put them into a small Tupperware container. This she sealed and
then handed to me, instructing me to take the bones home to my mother.
This tradition, called honewake—“dividing
the bones”—is pretty common in Japan but not in America, and fulfilling
my aunt’s wish was not easy. My mother, while ethnically Japanese, had
spent most of her life in the United States. She had no use for these
old Japanese customs, and in addition, my relationship with her was
strained and difficult at the time. When I called to tell her that I had
brought her mother’s bones back from Japan and wanted to take them to
her, she did not sound happy. So I dropped the subject, and the little
Tupperware container ended up on a shelf at the back of my closet. Years
passed, and my grandmother’s bones, this skeleton in my closet, began
to haunt me. Finally, I decided the only way to deal with the situation
was to turn it into an art project.
I made a film called Halving the Bones.
I bought a camera and filmed myself and my mother as I finally
delivered the bones to her. We talked about our family, our history, my
grandmother, and death. During the editing, I continued to interview her
and ask her questions, and when I finished, we watched the film
process brought us closer, so much so that later on, when she was
diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she agreed to move in with me and my husband
and allowed us to take care of her, and then to be with her when she
died. I don’t think any of this would have been possible if we hadn’t
made the film together. I realize this was a ridiculously complicated
way of dealing with what ought to have been a fairly simple problem. I
could have just gone and talked to my mother. We could have gone into
family counseling. But that solution never occurred to me.
I started writing novels about the difficult situations in my life.
When I was confused about workplace ethics, or sad about the deaths of
my parents, or angry about corporate malfeasance, or anxious about the
Japanese earthquake and tsunami, I used the long process of writing
stories or novels to sit with my discomfort and investigate it deeply.
I’d ask myself questions: What
does this feeling feel like? What kinds of stories am I telling myself?
What would that person think or do? What would it feel like to be
inside his mind? Her skin?
Writing is not unlike meditation in this way. In meditation, you become
intimate with your stories in order to see through them and let them
go. In writing, you become intimate with your stories in order to let
them go, too. But first you must capture them and make them concrete.
no need to be a professional artist or writer to transform difficult
situations into creative work. Poems, or journal writing, or quilts, or
collages, or songs need never be made public. They can be utterly
private, because in privacy is where the work is done, even for the
so-called professional artists. Humans, all of us, are boundlessly
creative beings, and as long as we recognize this and give ourselves
permission to respond to our difficulties artistically and intuitively,
not just medically or practically or rationally, then we can access this way of transforming suffering into something meaningful, which may benefit us all.
Ruth Ozeki is a bestselling novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest. Her new novel, A Tale for the Time Being, will be published in March by Viking.
When Ego Meets Non-Ego (March 2013)
Shambhala Sun | March 2013
When Ego Meets Non-Ego
Western psychology and Buddhism—together they offer us a complete diagnosis of the human condition. ANDREA MILLER talks to Tara Brach, John Welwood, and Barry Magid, three psychotherapists who are combining them into a powerful path to love and fulfillment.
The open sky, the
scent of pine, the smell of sea—summer in Cape Cod felt to Tara Brach
like her true home. As she was growing up, the family’s summerhouse
filled with relatives and friends, and later in her life with spouses
and new children. For her, happiness was the shared haven of the beach,
diving into the waves and somersaulting underwater.
one day in 2005, two carloads of friends and family had to go to the
beach without her. For twenty years Brach’s health had been mysteriously
and painfully declining. Now she had a diagnosis: an incurable genetic
disease affecting her connective tissue. She could no longer run or bike
or swim or walk on sand. Watching the cars pull out of the driveway,
she cried with grief and loneliness. The ocean would never again be her
realized that even if it wasn’t right now, eventually I was going to
lose everything,” Brach recalls. “We all are. So how do we find the
inner space of wakefulness and tenderness that’s big enough to hold it
the face of our suffering, many of us turn to quick, numbing
fixes—alcohol or television, overeating or shopping. But these never get
to the root of our discomfort; their effect doesn’t last and ultimately
they may make our problems even worse. In contrast, Buddhism and
Western psychotherapy attempt to provide a comprehensive model of the
mind and to address human suffering at its deepest level. While Buddhism
and Western psychology can conflict or complement each other in myriad
ways, today a growing number of professionals are appreciating the
synergy of the two disciplines. Tara Brach, Barry Magid, and John
Welwood are three prominent figures who believe that together Buddhism
and Western psychotherapy offer a complete package for mental
well-being, clear seeing, and healthy relationships.
asked what she views as the essential common ground between Western
psychology and Buddhism, Brach says it’s their understanding that
suffering comes from the parts of our being that are not recognized and
embraced in the light of awareness. “What the two traditions share,” she
says, “is shining a light on the
rejected, unprocessed parts of the psyche.” Brach is a clinical
psychologist, the founder of the Insight Meditation Community of
Washington, D.C., and the author of Radical Acceptance. The inspiration for her new book, True Refuge, was her illness.
she was mourning the loss of her physical abilities, she became aware
of a profound longing to love life no matter what. “I wanted the
awakened heart,” she says, “which would allow me to embrace this
world—the living world, the dying world, the whole thing.”
calls that kind of acceptance and inner freedom “true refuge.” It’s
true, she writes in her book, “because it does not depend on anything
outside ourselves—a certain situation, a person, a cure, even a
particular mood or emotion.”
to Brach, true refuge has three gateways: truth, love, and awareness.
“Truth,” explains Brach, “is the understanding or realization that comes
out of being present with the life that’s right here and now. Love is
bringing presence to the domain of the heart, the domain of
relationships, and the realization that arises out of that is
interconnectedness. Then awareness is when we bring presence to the
formless awakeness that is right here. When we discover the refuge of
our own formless being, that’s awareness waking up to itself.”
“Truth, love, and awareness” is Brach’s secularized articulation of the three jewels of Buddhism—the teacher, Buddha; the teaching, dharma; and the community, sangha.
She’s opted for this nonreligious language because she feels the search
for true refuge and its three gateways are universal. In the context of
Buddhism, truth is dharma, love is sangha, and awareness is Buddha. But
in Christian terms, claims Brach, “the Father is awareness, the Son is
the living truth of this moment-to-moment experience, and when awareness
and moment-to-moment experience are in relationship, there is love,
which is the Holy Ghost.”
help us connect more deeply to our own inner life, with each other, and
with the world around us, Brach teaches a technique called RAIN. This
acronym, originally coined by Vipassana teacher Michele McDonald, stands
Recognize what is happening;
Allow life to be just as it is
Investigate inner experience with kindness; and rest in the
Natural state of awareness or nonidentification.
her own life, Brach began regularly implementing RAIN when she realized
how much separation she created between herself and others whenever she
judged, resented, or blamed people or situations, even subtly. To
explain how RAIN is practiced, she offers an example from her own life:
Brach went on holiday with her family and found herself “down on every-
body for all their different neuroses, even the family dog for begging
at the table.” So she put on her parka, headed outside for a walk, and
started with “R,” recognize. Annoyed, irritated, blaming—she recognized
how she was feeling. Moving on to “A,” she allowed those feelings to be
there, without adding more judgment. Then she engaged in “I” and
investigated the tight knot in her chest. “I asked that tight knot what
it believed,” says Brach. “And its views were that nobody was
cooperating with my agenda for having a harmonious time and I was
falling short. It believed that my son is the one who’s not doing
such-and-such and it’s my fault that so-and-so is not getting along.”
breathed into the place that was upset and sent a message of gentleness
and kindness inward. That enabled some space, some tenderness, to open
up inside. Then the “N” of RAIN—resting in the natural state of awareness—was able to unfold effortlessly. Now when she brought to mind the
different members of her family, Brach could still see their neuroses
but no longer felt aversion or judgment. These family members were her
invites a shift in identity, says Brach. It helps transform an angry,
blaming person into a tender presence that gently holds whatever’s going
on. “That’s the gift of Buddhism,” Brach concludes. “The whole fruit of
our path and practice is to wake up from who we thought we were, which
is usually separate and deficient in some way, and to rest in the
vastness of heart and awareness that is our true nature.”
When couples come in to see psychotherapist John Welwood, they often begin by complaining, “We’re so different.”
guess what?” says Welwood. “That’s called relationship.” Both globally
and personally, we tend to feel threatened by difference. Yet it’s
possible to celebrate it and learn from it.
Welwood is a longtime Vajrayana Buddhist who is the author of groundbreaking books such as Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships and Toward a Psychology of Awakening.
Like Brach, he believes that humanity’s fundamental problem is that
people are disconnected from their true nature. He adds that while this
is a spiritual articulation, it is also accurate psychologically. He
believes that this disconnection from our true nature happens in
relationship, starting when we are children.
up, we are dependent on parents and other adults who are themselves
disconnected. Through neglect, abuse, or simply lack of attunement, they
transmit disconnection to us. “This is the beginning of relational
wounding,” says Welwood. “The child doesn’t feel fully seen, valued, or
loved for who they are. Now, you could say, ‘Well, it’s an imperfect
world and nobody gets the ideal love,’ and that’s probably true, but not
getting it does leave psychological scarring.” For some people, the
wounds are minor and readily workable; for others, the wounds are deep
and lead to complete dysfunction.
wounding creates a sense of deficiency inside, which we try to
compensate for by proving that we really are loveable—that we really are
good or strong or smart. Theoretically it is possible to heal these
wounds without the help of a therapist, but practically speaking, says
Welwood, “it’s not realistic—just the same way the spiritual path isn’t
easy to do on your own.”
healing power of therapy, he asserts, lies largely in the relationship
between the therapist and client. It’s so rare for us to experience
being truly seen and related to by another human being that the
therapeutic relationship “is like stepping into a healing bath,” he
says. “You’re suddenly in an environment where it’s all oriented toward
supporting you, hearing you, being with you, valuing you. Because that’s
so much needed in our body and mind, we soak it up.”
is therapy’s focus on me and my personal story at odds with the
Buddhist teachings of no-self? Welwood doesn’t think so. Most of us
believe in a false self—the conditioned separate self or ego structure,
which defends itself against threats and is a purely conceptual
construction. When Buddhism says there is no self, that’s what it’s
referring to. But then, says Welwood, there is the true person. Open and
boundless, it grows out of the understanding of no self, yet has the
capacity to lead a full, personal life that’s attuned to relative
you just live in the realm of no self,” asks Welwood, “then how do you
work with relative situations? The essence of our humanness is
relatedness. If you’re in a human relationship, you’ve got to process
that relationship. You and your partner have got to talk about what you
each like and don’t like, what is hurtful, and what is most important or
meaningful to you. From the point of view of pure being, there’s no
self and no other—there’s just being. But on the level of the person,
you’re different than I am. If we’re going to be able to relate to each
other, we really have to get know each other. That’s part of learning to
be in a relationship.”
asked why intimate relationships so often press our buttons, Welwood
turns the question around. “What is the button?” he says. “The button is
our relational wounding. If your buttons are pressed, the question is,
what is getting triggered? So instead of focusing on the other person
and what they’re doing to you or not doing for you, focus on what aspect
of the wound is getting touched.” If you understand how things that
happened in the past are feeding your feelings in the present moment,
then you might find the situation to be more workable.
in Welwood’s words, can be like a crucible or alchemical container in
which substances are mixed together and transformed. In marriage as a
conscious relationship, the container is the commitment to stay with it
no matter how difficult it is, the willingness “to bring awareness to
whatever is going on, rather than acting out your conditioned patterns
from the past. You take everything, all the challenges in the
relationship, as opportunities to become more fully awake, to become
more fully present, loving, and giving.” The transformation generated
between the two people leads to a deep transformation within each of
critical ingredient for healthy intimate relationships is a realistic
sense of their limitations: relationships cannot in and of themselves
fill the hole of love created in childhood. In Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships,
Welwood teaches that we need to learn how to be there for ourselves and
recognize that our lives are held in an absolute love. To tap into this
love, he offers this six-step exercise:
(1) Settle into your body. Sitting or lying down, take a few deep breaths.
Turn your attention toward some way in which you feel cut off from love
in your life right now and see how that lack feels in your body.
Without trying to get anything from anybody in particular, open to the
pure energy of your longing to feel more connected. Deeply feel the
energy in this longing.
See if you can feel the longing in your heart center and soften your
crown center, which is at the top and back of your head.
Notice if there is any presence of love available now. Don’t think
about it too hard or fabricate what isn’t there. But if there is some
love or warmth at hand, let it enter you. Give yourself ample time to be
with whatever you’re experiencing and keep in mind that the presence of
absolute love may be very subtle, like being held in a gentle embrace.
(6) Instead of holding yourself up, let love be your ground. Allow yourself to melt.
came up with this practice because of his own needs. Working with it,
he quickly felt profound changes— so much so that he believed he’d never
again need love from people in the same way. “I experienced a new kind
of trust and relaxation in knowing that I could have my own direct
access to perfect love whenever I needed it,” he writes. “My investment
in grievance diminished, along with tendencies to expect others to
provide ideal love.”
this practice did not prove to be a panacea—nothing is—and Welwood
eventually found himself slipping back into old relational expectations.
It did, however, leave him with the genuine knowledge that something
else was possible. “This served as a polestar,” he concludes, “in
guiding me toward seeing what I still need to work on to free myself
people ask Barry Magid what the difference is between psychoanalysis
and psychotherapy, he wryly asserts that psychoanalysis doesn’t help
dovetails with the idea of no gain in Zen,” says Magid, who is a
psychoanalyst, a psychiatrist, and the founder of The Ordinary Mind
Zendo in New York. “Psychotherapies in a broad sense can be thought of
as problem-solving techniques and are very useful as such. In contrast,
Zen is not a technique and is not a means to an end. Zen may literally
be the only use- less thing we do, and this uselessness is actually the
essence of Zen being a religious practice. We experience the moment,
our- selves, and life itself exclusively for its own sake, and this is
the basis of reverence.” Zen is an expression of who we are.
psychoanalysis—the classical technique developed by Freud—is an
open-ended process in which we stay with our experience without any idea
where it’s going to lead. This is the opposite of self-help or
self-improvement. Yet paradoxically, it’s profoundly transformative.
Once we really give up trying to change, real change can occur.
to Magid, both Zen and psychoanalysis stir up feelings—good and bad—and
offer a stable container in which to face them. on the analysis side,
the container is the analyst-client relationship. In the zendo, the
container is the structure, the set- ting, and the sitting. Zen students
literally sit still with whatever comes up, whether it’s physical or
emotional. Both disciplines, in essence, are about staying with a bigger
range of experience than we usually want to tolerate; they just do it
in two different contexts.
Magid’s opinion, “No matter what anyone says, the reason we come to
Buddhist practice is that at some level we’re doing it to get rid of an
aspect of the self we don’t want to deal with. We might say our aim is
to become wiser and more compassionate, but usually what we really want
is to get rid of our anxiety, our vulnerability, our anger, and those
aspects of sexuality that are troublesome. Practice then becomes a way
of having one part of ourselves fighting another—one part is trying to
throw another part overboard in the name of selflessness.”
people practice meditation in this way, says Magid, “something about
them ends up feeling dead. They feel like they’ve practiced for a long
time, but have failed because they’ve never been able to get rid
of...fill in the blank.” Yet practice isn’t intended to get rid of
anything. Practice should be a way to let everything stay just as it is.
In his book Ordinary Mind,
Magid says practicing zazen for the purpose of affecting change is like
exercising because you think you’re overweight. If your motivation is
to squelch an aspect of yourself that repels you and to actualize an
image of yourself that you desire, then you will have to exert continual
effort. Yet if you practice or exercise because you feel that doing so
is a natural part of the day and because somehow it makes you feel “more
like yourself,” then no gaining idea will be necessary to motivate you.
Magid sees it, neuroscience has been used to fuel the idea that
meditation is a means to an end, and he finds this worrisome. “If we
think that what we want is to be in a particular brain state, then
meditation becomes a means to get into that state, and we start asking
if meditation is indeed the most efficient means,” he says. “Maybe we
start to wonder if we couldn’t just bypass a lot of that really boring
sitting by taking the right pill. And now we’re down a road of thinking
that what we’re trying to do is get into a particular subjective state
and stay there. But in meditation—and in analysis—we’re trying to learn
to not prefer, to not cling to any one state. Similarly, happiness or
enlightenment is not something that takes place in our brains. Happiness
and enlightenment are functions of a whole person living a whole life.”
in the face of depression and anxiety, Magid does not eschew
medication. The real issue “is what someone needs in order to sit still
and stay with their own experience. If someone is obsessively ruminating
or chronically anxious, that blocks any other kind of experience.” So
the use of Prozac or another medication may allow some people to
experience states of mind beyond the ones they’re stuck in. “I think
people are often worried about not being able to do it all on their own
or being dependent on medication,” Magid adds. “But nobody’s doing
anything on their own. There’s no such thing as autonomy. To enable us
to practice, we all rely on the group, the teacher, the tradition—all
sorts of things. If for some people medication is what enables them to
practice, I have no problem with it.”
Beck, Magid’s late teacher, received the Japanese name “Joko” from her
Zen teacher, Maezumi Roshi, yet she did not continue the practice of
giving students Buddhist names. Magid, however, has adopted the
tradition—with a twist. In a ceremony, he gives his students not a
special, foreign name, but rather their real name. The one they already
use every day. This is his reminder that practice and ordinary life are
one and the same.
Mind Training for Today (March 2013)
Shambhala Sun | March 2013
Mind Training for Today
Norman Fischer on why 52 sayings formulated almost a thousand years ago are more relevant than ever.
Times are tough. We need a way to cope. Halfway measures probably won’t work. We need to really transform our minds—our hearts, our consciousness, our basic attitudes.
Such transformation has always been the province of spiritual practice, but these days cognitive science also tells us “the brain is plastic.” Our personalities, our default tendencies, our neuroses—they are not as fixed as we once thought they were. We are not the inevitable products of our genetics and childhoods. We can change.
The trick is that we have to work at it. Just as training the body takes more than proper equipment and good intentions—it takes repetitive work over time—training the mind/heart takes patience and practice. Compassion is the goal of such training. Surviving—and thriving—in troubled times requires compassion and the kindness, love, and resilience that it fosters. Caring for and working to benefit others is also the best thing we can do for ourselves. In the twelfth century, the Tibetan sage Geshe Chekawa Yeshe Dorje composed a text on the lojong, or “mind training” practices. Based on the Indian pandita Atisha’s original list of fifty-nine pithy sayings for repetitive practice, this text has been taught extensively ever since, and there are a number of translations and commentaries now available in English. It has become one of the best loved of all Buddhist teachings for generating compassion.
I decided to write a “Zen” commentary to this text for two reasons. First, because the plain-speaking tradition of Zen might lend something to the power of the text, and second, because although Zen is a Mahayana school (and therefore based on compassion teachings), it is nevertheless deficient in explicit teachings on compassion. The great Zen masters of old focused on other things; they assumed the compassion teachings but did not necessarily discuss them. So we Western Zen students must go outside the confines of our tradition to find them.
Of the many important teachings presented in the lojong text, none is more useful than those discussed under the heading “Turning Difficulties into the Path.” As I often tell students, “If your practice only works when things go well—if you turn away from it when things fall apart, if you don’t know how to turn your difficulties into strength and wisdom—then your work probably won’t be very effective.” If, on the other hand, you are able to increase your forbearance and open your heart even more in the face of serious setbacks, you will have achieved the most prized of all spiritual accomplishments: the ability to continuously deepen your strength and love, no matter what happens.
Life is Tough: Six Ways to Deal With It (March 2013)
Shambhala Sun | March 2013
Life Is Tough: Six Ways to Deal With It
ancient set of Buddhist slogans offers us six powerful techniques to
transform life’s difficulties into awakening and benefit. Zen teacher NORMAN FISCHER guides us through them.
There’s an old Zen saying: the
whole world’s upside down. In other words, the way the world looks from
the ordinary or conventional point of view is pretty much the opposite
of the way the world actually is. There’s a story that illustrates this.
there was a Zen master who was called Bird’s Nest Roshi because he
meditated in an eagle’s nest at the top of a tree. He became quite
famous for this precarious practice. The Song Dynasty poet Su Shih (who
was also a government official) once came to visit him and, standing on
the ground far below the meditating master, asked what possessed him to
live in such a dangerous manner. The roshi answered, “You call this
dangerous? What you are doing is far more dangerous!” Living normally in
the world, ignoring death, impermanence, and loss and suffering, as we
all routinely do, as if this were a normal and a safe way to live, is
actually much more dangerous than going out on a limb to meditate.
trying to avoid difficulty may be natural and understandable, it
actually doesn’t work. We think it makes sense to protect ourselves from
pain, but our self-protection ends up causing us deeper pain. We think
we have to hold on to what we have, but our very holding on causes us to
lose what we have. We’re attached to what we like and try to avoid what
we don’t like, but we can’t keep the attractive object and we can’t
avoid the unwanted object. So, counterintuitive though it may be,
avoiding life’s difficulties is actually not the path of least
resistance; it is a dangerous way to live. If you want to have a full
and happy life, in good times and bad, you have to get used to the idea
that facing misfortune squarely is better than trying to escape from it.
is not a matter of grimly focusing on life’s difficulties. It is simply
the smoothest possible approach to happiness. Of course, when we can
prevent difficulty, we do it. The world may be upside down, but we still
have to live in this upside-down world, and we have to be practical on
its terms. The teaching on transforming bad circumstances into the path
doesn’t deny that. What it addresses is the underlying attitude of anxiety, fear, and narrow-mindedness that makes our lives unhappy, fearful, and small.
bad circumstances into the path is associated with the practice of
patience. There are six mind-training (lojong) slogans connected with
Turn all mishaps into the path.
Drive all blames into one.
Be grateful to everyone.
See confusion as buddha and practice emptiness.
Do good, avoid evil, appreciate your lunacy, pray for help.
Whatever you meet is the path.
1. Turn All Mishaps Into the Path
The first slogan, Turn all mishaps into the path,
sounds at first blush completely impossible. How would you do that?
When things go alright we are cheerful—we feel good and have positive
spiritual feelings—but as soon as bad things start happening, we get
depressed, we fall apart, or, at the very best, we hang on and cope. We
certainly do not transform our mishaps into the path. And why would we
want to? We don’t want the mishaps to be there; we want them gone as
soon as possible.
the slogan tells us, we can turn all of this into the path. We do that
by practicing patience, my all-time favorite spiritual quality. Patience
is the capacity to welcome difficulty when it comes, with a spirit of
strength, endurance, forbearance, and dignity rather than fear, anxiety,
and avoidance. None of us likes to be oppressed or defeated, yet if we
can endure oppression and defeat with strength, without whining, we are
ennobled by it. Patience makes this possible. In our culture, we think
of patience as passive and unglamorous; other qualities like love or
compassion or insight are much more popular. But when tough times cause
our love to fray into annoyance, our compassion to be overwhelmed by our
fear, and our insight to evaporate, then patience begins to make sense.
To me it is the most substantial, most serviceable, and most reliable
of all spiritual qualities. Without it, all other qualities are shaky.
practice of patience is simple enough. When difficulty arises, notice
the obvious and not so obvious ways we try to avoid it—the things we say
and do, the subtle ways in which our very bodies recoil and clench when
some- one says or does something to us that we don’t like.
practice patience is to notice these things and be fiercely present
with them (taking a breath helps; returning to mindfulness of the body
helps) rather than reacting to them. We catch ourselves running away and
we reverse course, turning toward our afflictive emotions,
understanding that they are natural in these circumstances—and that
avoiding them won’t work. We forestall our flailing around with these
emotions and instead allow them to be present with dignity. We forgive
ourselves for having them, we forgive (at least provisionally) whoever
we might be blaming for our difficulties, and with that spontaneous
forgive- ness comes a feeling of relief and even gratitude.
may strike you as a bit far-fetched, but it is not. Yet it does take
training. We are not, after all, talking about miracles; we are not
talking about affirmations or wishful thinking. We are talking about
training the mind. If you were to meditate daily, bringing up this
slogan, Turn all mishaps into the path,
in your sitting, writing it down, repeating it many times a day, then
you could see that a change of heart and mind can take place in just the
way I am describing. The way you spontaneously react in times of
trouble is not fixed.
mind, your heart, can be trained. Once you have a single experience of
reacting differently, you will be encouraged, and next time it is more
likely that you will take yourself in hand. When something difficult
happens, you will train yourself to stop saying, “Damn! Why did this
have to happen?” and begin saying, “Yes, of course, this is how it is.
Let me turn toward it, let me practice with it, let me go beyond
entanglement to gratitude.”
you will have realized that because you are alive and not dead, because
you have a human body and not some other kind of a body, because the
world is a physical world and not an ethereal world, and because all of
us together as people are the way we are, bad things are going to
happen. It’s the most natural, the most normal, the most inevitable
thing in the world. It is not a mistake, and it isn’t anyone’s fault.
And we can make use of it to drive our gratitude and our compassion
© 2013 by Norman Fischer. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications.
2. Drive All Blames Into One
The second slogan on transforming difficult circumstances is famous: Drive all blames into one.
It, too, is quite counterintuitive, quite upside down. What it is
saying is: whatever happens, don’t ever blame anyone or anything else;
always blame only yourself.
is tricky, because it is not exactly blaming ourselves in the ordinary
sense. We know perfectly well how to blame ourselves. We’ve been doing
it all of our lives. We don’t need Buddhist slogans to tell us to do
this. But clearly this is not what is meant.
Drive all blames into one
means that you can’t blame anyone for what happens. Even if it’s
actually some- one’s fault, you really can’t blame them. Something
happened, and since it did, there is nothing else to be done but to make
use of it.
that happens, disastrous as it may be and no matter whose fault it is,
has a potential benefit, and it’s your job to find it. Drive all blames into one means that you take full responsibility for everything that arises in your life.
is very bad, this is not what I wanted, this brings many attendant
problems. But what am I going to do with it? What can I learn from it?
How can I make use of it for the path? These are the questions to ask,
and answering them is entirely up to you. Furthermore, you can answer
them; you do have the strength and the capacity. Drive all blames into one
is a tremendous practice of cutting through the long human habit of
complaining and whining, and finding on the other side of it the
strength to turn every situation into the path. Here you are. This is
it. There is no place else to go but forward into the next moment.
Repeat the slogan as many times as you have to.
3. Be Grateful to Everyone
Be grateful to everyone: this is very simple but very profound.
wife and I have a grandson. We went to visit him when he was about six
weeks old. He couldn’t do anything, not even hold up his head, much less
feed himself. If he was in trouble, he couldn’t ask for help. Unable to
do anything on his own, he was completely dependent on his mother’s
care and constant attention. She fed him, cuddled him, tried to
understand and anticipate his needs, and took care of everything,
including his peeing and pooping.
were all at one time precisely in this situation, and someone or other
must have cared for us in this same comprehensive way. Without one
hundred percent total care from someone else, or maybe several others,
we would not be here. This is certainly grounds for gratitude to others.
our dependence on others did not end there. We didn’t grow up and
become independent. Now we can hold up our heads, fix our dinner, wipe
our butts, and we seem not to need our mother or father to take care
us—so we think we are autonomous.
consider this for a moment. Did you grow the food that sustains you
every day? Did you make the car or train that takes you to work? Sew
your clothing? Build your own house with lumber you milled?
need others every single day, every single moment of your life. It’s
thanks to others and their presence and effort that you have the things
you need to continue, and that you have friendship and love and meaning
in your life. Without others, you have nothing.
dependence on others runs even deeper than this. Where does the person
we take ourselves to be come from in the first place? Apart from our
parents’ genes and their support and care, and society and all it
produces for us, there’s the whole network of conditions and
circumstances that intimately makes us what we are. How about our
thoughts and feelings? Where do they come from? Without words to think
in, we don’t think, we don’t have anything like a sense of self as we
understand it, and we don’t have the emotions and feelings that are
shaped and defined by our words. Without the myriad circumstances that
provided us the opportunities for education, for speech, for knowledge,
for work, we wouldn’t be here as we are.
it is literally the case that there could not be what we call a person
without other people. We can say “person” as if there could be such an
autonomous thing, but in fact there is no such thing. There is no such
thing as a person—there are only persons who have co-created one another
over the long history of our species. The idea of an independent,
isolated, atomized person is impossible. And here we are not only
speaking of our needing others practically. We are talking about our
inmost sense of identity. Our consciousness of ourselves is never
independent of others.
is what nonself or emptiness means in Buddhist teaching: that there is
no such thing as an isolated individual. Though we can say there is, and
though we might think there is, and though many of our thoughts and
motivations seem to be based on this idea, in fact it is an erroneous
idea. Literally every thought in our minds, every emotion that we feel,
every word that comes out of our mouth, every material sustenance that
we need to get through the day, comes through the kindness of and the
interaction with others. And not only other people but nonhumans too,
literally the whole of the earth, the soil, the sky, the trees, the air
we breathe, the water we drink. We don’t just depend on all of this; we
are all of it and it is us. This is no theory, no poetic religious
teaching. It is simply the bald fact of the matter.
So to practice Be grateful to everyone
is to train in this profound understanding. It is to cultivate every
day this sense of gratitude, the happiest of all attitudes. Unhappiness
and gratitude simply cannot exist in the same moment. If you feel
grateful, you are a happy person. If you feel grateful for what is
possible for you in this moment, no matter what your challenges are, if
you feel grateful that you are alive at all, that you can think, that
you can feel, that you can stand, sit, walk, talk—if you feel grateful,
you are happy and you maximize your chances for well-being and for
sharing happiness with others.
4. See Confusion as Buddha and Practice Emptiness
The fourth slogan, See confusion as buddha and practice emptiness,
requires a bit of explanation. This goes beyond our conventional or
relative understanding to a deeper sense of what we are. Though
conventionally I am me and you are you, from an absolute perspective, a
God’s-eye view, if you will, there is no self and other. There’s only
being, and there’s only love, which is being sharing itself with itself
without impediment and with warmth. It just happens to look like you and
me to us, because this is how our minds and sensory apparatus works.
This love without boundary is emptiness practice.
See confusion as buddha and practice emptiness
means that we situate ourselves differently with respect to our
ordinary human confusion, our resistance, our pain, our fear, our grief,
and so on. Rather than hoping these emotions and reactions will
eventually go away and we will be free of them, we take them to a deeper
level. We look at their underlying reality.
is actually going on when we are upset or angry? If we could unhook
ourselves for a moment from the blaming and the wishing and the
self-pitying and look instead at the actual basis of what is in fact
going on, what would we see? We would see time passing. We would see
things changing. We would see life arising and passing away, coming from
nowhere and going nowhere. Moment by moment, time slips away and things
transform. The present becomes the past—or does it become the future?
And yet right now there is no past or future. As soon as we examine
“now,” it is gone. And we cannot know how or where it goes.
may sound like philosophy, but it doesn’t feel like philosophy when you
or someone close to you is giving birth. If at that moment you are
standing in the delivery room or are yourself, in pain and joy, giving
birth—in that first bursting-forth moment, you are amazed. This small
life you think you have been living, with its various issues and
problems, completely disappears in the face of the miracle of visceral
life springing forth in front of your eyes. Or if you are present when
someone leaves this world and enters death (if there is such a place to
enter), you know then that this emptiness is not just philosophy. You
may not know what it is, but you will know that it is real. You know
that this reality is powerful and makes you see your life, and the whole
of life, quite differently. A new context emerges that is more than
thought, more than concept. When you view your daily human problems in
the light of actual birth and actual death, you are practicing with this
slogan. Every moment of your life, even (and maybe especially) your
moments of pain or despair or confusion, is a moment of buddha.
do attend births and deaths whenever you can and accept these moments
as gifts, as opportunities for deep spiritual practice. But even when
you aren’t participating in these peak moments, you can repeat and
review this slogan, and you can meditate on it. And when your mind is
confused and entangled, you can take a breath and try to slip below the
level of your desire and confusion. You can notice that in this very
moment time is passing, things are transforming, and this impossible
fact is profound, beautiful, and joyful, even as you continue with your
5. Do Good, Avoid Evil, Appreciate Your Lunacy, Pray for Help
the slogans bring us back down to earth. If spiritual teachings are to
really transform our lives, they need to oscillate (as the slogans do)
between two levels, the profound and the mundane. If practice is too
profound, it’s no good. We are full of wonderful, lofty insights, but
lack the ability to get through the day with any gracefulness or to
relate to the issues and people in ordinary life. We may be soaringly
metaphysical, movingly compassionate, and yet unable to relate to a
normal human or a worldly problem. This is the moment when the Zen
master whacks us with her stick and says, “Wash your bowls! Kill the
the other hand, if practice is too mundane, if we become too interested
in the details of how we and others feel and what we or they need or
want, then the natural loftiness of our hearts will not be accessible to
us, and we will sink under the weight of obligations, details, and
daily-life concerns. This is when the master says, “If you have a staff,
I will give you a staff; if you need a staff, I will take it away.” We
need both profound religious philosophy and practical tools for daily
living. This double need, according to circumstances, seems to go with
the territory of being human. We have just been contemplating reality as
buddha and practicing emptiness. That was important. Now it’s time to
get back down to earth.
First, do good.
Do positive things. Say hello to people, smile at them, tell them happy
birthday, I am sorry for your loss, is there something I can do to
help? These things are normal social graces, and people say them all the
time. But to practice them intentionally is to work a bit harder at
actually meaning them. We genuinely try to be helpful and kind and
thoughtful in as many small and large ways as we can every day.
Second, avoid evil.
This means to pay close attention to our actions of body, speech, and
mind, noticing when we do, say, or think things that are harmful or
unkind. Having come this far with our mind training, we can’t help but
notice our shoddy or mean-spirited moments. And when we notice them, we
feel bad. In the past we might have said to ourselves, “I only said that
because she really needs straightening out. If she hadn’t done that to
me, I wouldn’t have said that to her. It really was her fault.” Now we
see that this was a way of protecting ourselves (after all, we have just
been practicing Drive all blames into one) and are willing to accept
responsibility for what we have done. So we pay attention to what we
say, think, and do—not obsessively, not with a perfectionist flair, but
just as a matter of course and with generosity and understanding—and
finally we purify ourselves of most of our ungenerous thoughts and
The last two practices in this slogan, which I have interpreted as Appreciate your lunacy and Pray for help,
traditionally have to do with making offerings to two kinds of
creatures: demons (beings who are preventing you from keeping determined
with your practice) and dharma protectors (beings who are helping you
to remain true to your practice). But for our purposes now it is better
to see these practices more broadly.
can understand making offerings to demons as “appreciate your lunacy.”
Bow to your own weakness, your own craziness, your own resistance.
Congratulate yourself for them, appreciate them. Truly it is a marvel,
the extent to which we are selfish, confused, lazy, resentful, and so
on. We come by these things honestly. We have been well trained to
manifest them at every turn. This is the prodigy of human life bursting
forth at its seams, it is the effect of our upbringing, our society,
which we appreciate even as we are trying to tame it and bring it gently
round to the good. So we make offerings to the demons inside us and we
develop a sense of humorous appreciation for our own stupidity. We are
in good company! We can laugh at ourselves and everyone else.
making offerings to dharma protectors, we pray to whatever forces we
believe or don’t believe in for help. Whether we imagine a deity or a
God or not, we can reach out beyond ourselves and beyond anything we
can objectively depict and ask for assistance and strength for our
spiritual work. We can do this in meditation, with silent words, or out
loud, vocalizing our hopes and wishes.
is a powerful practice. It is not a matter of abrogating our own
responsibility. We are not asking to be absolved of the need to act. We
are asking for help and for strength to do what we know we must do, with
the understanding that though we must do our best, whatever goodness
comes our way is not our accomplishment, our personal production. It
comes from a wider sphere than we can control. In fact, it is counter-
productive to conceive of spiritual practice as a task that we are going
to accomplish on our own. After all, haven’t we already practiced Be grateful to everyone?
Haven’t we learned that there is no way to do anything alone? We are
training, after all, in spiritual practice, not personal self-help
(though we hope it helps us, and probably it does). So not only does it
make sense to pray for help, not only does it feel powerfully right and
good to do so, it is also important to do this so that we remember we
are not alone and we can’t do it by ourselves.
would be natural for us to forget this point, to fall into our habit of
imagining an illusory self-reliance. People often say that Buddhists
don’t pray because Buddhism is an atheistic or nontheistic tradition
that doesn’t recognize God or a Supreme Being. This may be technically
so, but the truth is that Buddhists pray and have always prayed. They
pray to a whole panoply of buddhas and bodhisattvas. Even Zen Buddhists
pray. Praying does not require a belief in God or gods.
6. Whatever You Meet is the Path
This slogan sums up the other five: whatever happens, good or bad, make it part of your spiritual practice.
spiritual practice, which is our life, there are no breaks and no
mistakes. We human beings are always doing spiritual practice, whether
we know it or not. You may think that you have lost the thread of your
practice, that you were going along quite well and then life got busy
and complicated and you lost track of what you were doing. You may feel
bad about this, and that feeling feeds on itself, and it becomes harder
and harder to get back on track.
this is just what you think; it’s not what’s going on. Once you begin
practice, you always keep going, because everything is practice, even
the days or the weeks or entire lifetimes when you forgot to meditate.
Even then you’re still practicing, because it’s impossible to be lost.
You are constantly being found, whether you know it or not. To practice
this slogan is to know that no matter what is going on—no matter how
distracted you think you are, no matter how much you feel like a
terribly lazy individual who has completely lost track of her good
intentions and is now hopelessly astray—even then you have the
responsibility and the ability to take all negativity, bad circumstance,
and difficulty and turn it into the path.
Illustration by Keith Abbot.
The Best Place (March 2013)
Shambhala Sun | March 2013
The Best Place
RICK BASS showed
Scott the best places, the secret places, of Montana’s remote Yaak
Valley. Together, they fought to protect the wilderness and dreamed of a
new Atlantis in the mountains.
Houma, Louisiana, there were big gray battleships every- where,
bristling with howitzers, cannons, machine guns. They were made in
Gulfport and mobile, then anchored at the mouth of the Intracoastal
Waterway, awaiting dispatch, bobbing in the gulf amid the deepwater
oil-field rigs, on which all the men and women of Houma worked.
an old story: my friend Scott was small as a child growing up in Houma.
He was not chosen for various teams. He had, for whatever reason, a
tender heart and was appalled by the filth that came out of the mouths
of his classmates. He imagined that there might be a better place, a
place where children did not curse like sailors, a place where children
could still for a little while longer inhabit the strange, wonderful,
subaqueous world of childhood, with its beautiful muted melodies heard
only by them and that strange and lovely shimmering light—the slow
lulling dappling that seems to promise that everything that is good will
stay that way forever and ever.
Scott’s mind, he imagined that farther north kids did not swear;
northern kids did not sweat as much, did not roll around in the mud as
much, did not splash through the black muck of a sinking bog with every
step. He imagined that northern children carried a shining light in
their hearts and concerned themselves only with doing good.
his father announced they were moving to Pittsburgh, to work in the
steel mills, Scott was excited. he knew he would find peace and
tranquillity in Pennsylvania. He just knew it.
2. The Steel Curtain
was 1976, the year the Pittsburgh Steelers would go on to win the Super
Bowl with mean Joe Greene, baldheaded Terry Bradshaw, the elegantly
named Lynn Swann, and Franco Harris with his terrible scowl. Every man,
woman, and child in Pittsburgh had bought into the ethos that it was the
natural course and order of things to hit one another as hard as
possible: to knock out each other’s teeth, to gouge eyes, to crack
heads. Scott came to be disappointed by his dream delayed.
cousin Rodney lived in Pittsburgh. Rodney was a seventh grader and a
tough guy. Scott, in the fifth grade, had never really been introduced
to his cousin but had watched him from afar and hoped that here was a
potential friend and guardian, if only Scott could crack the code. One
day he saw Rodney talking to the teachers—just shooting the shit with
them, like a little adult— and he wanted desperately to connect and
communicate. So, as Scott was riding past on his wobbly little bike, he
cheerily gave Rodney the finger the way the kids back in Houma used to
meant it only as a gesture of solidarity, but Rodney didn’t take it
that way. Rodney stared at him, then took off running after him, a great
blubbery bear of a boy. He couldn’t catch up with Scott, but Scott
could hear him cursing and knew that at some point Rodney would catch up
and that he would have to be ready.
3. The Yaak
Because time is so short, let’s skip ahead thirty-five years, to get to who Scott became in his new life, here in the Montana mountains, behind his castle walls, up in the fortress of the Yaak Valley. He became my secret sharer, my shadow, and from these lovely mountaintops—these blue hills—he and I have fought many amazing battles.
We haven’t really won any yet, but neither have we lost any. It’s been a pain in the ass, but I’m here to tell you it’s been glorious. We’ve been following our hearts, and sometimes it’s almost as if we were chosen for these battles. There is a plan. We spend our lives wondering if there is; I know that there is. Scott came here to the Yaak ten years after me, and he wanted to learn everything. He was new and raw, and I took him on hikes, showing him the best places: where the bears clawed the giant cedars; where the glacier lilies and fairy slippers first emerged in the spring; where the elk had their calves. Still haunted by his childhood dream, Scott wanted to build a new civilization. He wanted to bring in the nation’s best writers and artists to talk about the finer values of life to our hardscrabble, alcohol-fueled community, a place the ice had left so recently that the stones still seemed cold from the leave-taking. And Scott did bring the writers and artists in.
He wanted to keep things the way they were, but he couldn’t help but see places where—if he shoved hard, as if straining against a boulder to position in his stone wall—there might be room for a touch of improvement.
I had two daughters, and Scott and his wife, Sherrie, had two daughters. We moved into the future not so much side by side, but staggered. In sight of one another. He wanted to be a writer—wanted to create, to replicate perfect worlds that neatly imitated this perfect one he had found.
But sometimes I had the sense that the long-ago muck from Houma had dried around his ankles in such a way that the last residue of it might never fully wash away, no matter how robustly he postholed through the deep snow on winter ski trips, no matter how many times he bathed in the falls.
Scott fell into the Yaak River once. He was leaning out over the wooden bridge below the West Fork Falls, as if seeking a fountain of youth—and maybe, for a while, finding it. But he was wearing a heavy pack and, top heavy, he peered over a little too far and pitched forward, freefalling into space, with the shallow, stone- studded braid of the river some twenty feet below.
What else to do but go with it? He gave himself over to the falling, leaned even farther forward, astronaut-in-the-forest now, and allowed himself, despite no acrobatic training, to rotate two full times—his life depended on it. Then, as he was cartwheeling, he grabbed the rushing-by leafy fronds of a green alder and held on for dearest life. The alder bowed all the way down with him, as if spring-loaded, leaves shredding as he plunged toward the stones, but the green living whip of it slowed him down with each microsecond he hung in there.
He could feel the miracle happening, and in the end it was perfect. As gently as a ballerina on a bungee, the c-shaped arc of the alder lowered him onto a dry stone mid-river—the shower of those green sunlit leaves still drifting down atop him as if in a parade. A hermit thrush called somewhere in the old forest. Scott looked around. No audience, only God.
What to do?—what else to do?—but gently, daintily, release the whipcord of his salvation to spring wildly back up into the canopy with a whistling sound. More leaves tumbled slowly and landed in the trickling shallows before spinning lazily down- stream, while Scott stood there balanced on his rock, young and strong and damned lucky. And saved, for now.
The harsh children in Houma and the ruffians in Pittsburgh were nothing compared to what Scott found up here in Yaak Valley. Everyone, or almost everyone—save for me and a couple of others—was anti-government, anti-wilderness, anti- peace, anti-flowers. It was the era of the Oklahoma city bombing and Waco and the shootout at Ruby Ridge, just across the border in Idaho, and also the federal building attack in Spokane a few hours away. It was a strange, twenty-year segment of our nation’s history, like a dark blemish in a long strand of DNA.
I have to confess something now: it was my stories about the beauty of this place that pulled Scott west. Just as I had done, he and his girlfriend left their old life and drifted here. But I’d arrived without a road map; I’d just set out one summer on the longest day of the year. He, on the other hand, had had a road map. I’d led him into paradise. The old Atlantis was long submerged, yet here was a place where the foundation could be built anew. Even here, a billion years ago, there had once been an ocean, but it was long gone now, and we ran and played in the mountains as if it had never been, or as if we had left the swampland and entered a dream.
Like me, Scott became an environmental activist. He went down to the bars in the long summer evenings, and the loggers didn’t like that he liked me. He was always getting in fights, defending my good name and my goals—wilderness designation in the Yaak—while I stayed home with my family, grilling asparagus, grinding home-made ice cream, and working on pretty little stories. For that, our paths diverged ever so slightly.
He kept going to the bars. He loved to socialize, loved the idea of community, even one that fought. He was scrawny but never lost a fight. They say his punch was like being kicked by a mule. People had no idea where the strength, the fierceness, came from.
They hated him. They hated his ebullience, his irrepressible joy, his creativity. He had such a genius for creating a civilization hewn into the rough mountains. He helped orchestrate a parade of giant puppets through the heart of the little town—dragons and lumberjacks, a swaying Yaak Ness monster, a winged angel—and he started a native-plant-restoration company, planting seedlings and stitching back together much of the natural beauty that had been taken away.
He spent a lot of time digging in the ground and he spent a lot of time in the nearby city of Libby. you might have heard of Libby—hundreds dead, thousands sick from an invisibility in the air, nano-fine asbestos fibers swirling, the toxic legacy of W.R. Grace. The tumors started out in Scott’s hip and lungs, spread to his spine. For a while, he was able to keep up with the ones on his lungs by having them cut or frozen off.
Back when he first got sick, he and I took our daughters to a recreational park in north Idaho called Silverwood, a junior-league Disneyland kind of place, with roller coasters, log rides, waterslides. He was uncomfortable—he’d already had a big grapefruit chunk of bone taken out of his pelvis—but was not yet in steady, deep pain. Eco-warriors and woods savages from the Yaak, we were silly to spend a summer day at such a place, with its sunblock, frozen slushies, water cannons, flip-flops, and hokey fiddle theme-park music. Yet it was as full and wonderful a long summer day as I can remember.
We went on all the thrill rides and screamed, laughing, all the way down. At one point, standing in line, he said that he sure wanted to be around long enough for the basics—to see his girls graduate from high school, then college, then get married, etc. You always bargain, I guess. We start out so boldly, owning everything, and then—at the peak—we want to hold on to what we have and keep it all just the way it is. If my memory serves me correctly, we went there on the longest day of the year.
I did not invite Scott to this place—to paradise—but still he came here as if bidden by me. For him, I opened the gates, shared and showed him the best places, the secret places. I cannot tell you how wholly he threw himself into the valley, wanting to experience it all, as if trying to make up for lost time. As if Houma and Pittsburgh had not been part of the world’s plan, but a waste, a loss, a sickness—one he had gotten over.
He helped me pack out a huge cow elk one Halloween, beneath a full moon. We got lost, burdened beneath our meat-laden backpacks, each of which weighed over 150 pounds. We hiked down the steep mountain from far in the backcountry— the wayback of the wayback—and found ourselves down in a phantasmagoric cedar jungle, a series of holes and ravines where we kept losing our balance and falling down into earth-scented tree wells so deep that we couldn’t get back out without each other’s help. Sinking beneath our great bounty.
Blood soaked our backs, leaking through the packs and advertising us to bears and lions, but we passed through that valley of darkness undisturbed. They say you can’t recall pain and I think that’s mostly true, but I also remember how our hips burned, toting that load, trudging through forests so dark that not even the reflected light from the October full moon could make it down through the canopy to land softly upon us.
The opponents of the wilderness up here were not kind to Scott; they were not kind to me. When the woods near my house caught on fire, the politically charged fire department would not come to service the call. When an undetonated pipe bomb fell out from beneath a Forest Service truck, they said I had put it there. They set Scott’s truck on fire, and there were of course occasional death threats. We carried pistols under our seats, kept shotguns by our doors. It was not a healthy time but we came through the other side. Now we have a wilderness bill introduced in congress and, perhaps as important, we have a finer civilization, a community where people no longer believe it’s a communist threat to have a local farmers’ market or a conservation education program in the elementary school or poetry readings and music festivals, but instead view such things as the joys of life.
The project closest to Scott’s heart was a community radio station. Untypically, his first dream was small. he envisioned a pirate radio station that would operate out of the back of the saloon or from a mobile unit on his truck and would broadcast all sorts of pro-wilderness messages, maddening his opponents and wearing them down psychologically. Into the thick fog of the Yaak, the word wilderness would fall again and again like snow upon the valley, day and night, blanketing it softly.
But then it was like he grew up or something. He went all traditional—got a 501-c-3, wrote and secured grants, applied for licenses and permits, and finally started broadcasting from just across the state line, over in Idaho. A big-time public radio station with local progressive reporting, alternative music, and community service, it was a steady and continuous voice promoting nothing but good things, nothing but tolerance and hope, and slowly, steadily, it helped secure the community, the frightened little mountaintop civilization he had stumbled into. Scott didn’t single-handedly dream the civilization’s new architecture or build its framework and foundation, but almost. With the ocean waters still so far away—a thousand miles away, and thousands of feet below—how can such a civilization go under? Such a civilization can never go under.
This is how it went after Scott gave the big guy—his own cousin— the finger and made his getaway: the next day, after Scott’s father and uncle had gone off to the mill, his cousin knocked on the door. How Scott must have dreaded the wait, waiting on that knock.
I’ll tell him now what we told the girls at Silverwood: don’t be frightened. It’s natural to be afraid, but don’t be. The path has been traveled before and is safe on the other side. The ride’s rails from here to there are well worn and maintained. For all its thrill and terror, it is a safe ride. Those of us who are still standing in line, waiting, will turn away, for a while, when the park closes.
I wish I could give Scott one more green day in the Yaak, up in the fortress of his making—a light south breeze up on Mt. Henry, with the green world resting below him. If I had ten or twenty thousand dollars or whatever it would cost, I’d rent a private jet and whisk him and his hospice provider and family out here for another look, another long summer day. How would that day differ from any of ours, the bundle we still hold, you and I, in our wealth and in the moment? Is not each and every day irreplaceable and valuable beyond compare or accounting? How often we forget.
After he leaves us—and he is leaving us—we intend to push on without him for maybe another forty years or so. It is an old hope but I have pretty good faith that I will see him again, that we will be up on a mountain again, a mountain much like the ones he has worked so tirelessly to protect here below.
Are we below?
And can we fight in heaven? I used to hope not, but with Scott moving out ahead of us, I don’t think now that I’d mind it too much.
What is our responsibility? What is our culpability, our complicity, in the lives of those around us, particularly those we love? In every first breath there is the template of destiny; the seed of all stories contains the preview of the end. Now I, who helped lead Scott, find myself behind him on the trail. Forty years behind, I hope, but following and tying up loose ends, helping finish what we started, and—who knows—maybe starting some new things.
I believe the ground will be firm beneath him. I do not think there will be any more sinking. I think he has found the secure place that was made for him, a very long time ago. It gives me a chill to think that I helped make his path for him, even in some small way, and from here on out I know I will feel as if I am doing the work for two. You can’t shake a shadow, a secret sharer, like Scott. And who would want to? In a sense he is leaving, but in the more real sense he can never leave, will never leave. The sea can come in over the mountains and the town, but some things, surely, can never go away.
I feel bad, feel guilty, for having told him about this place and bringing him here, but I’m glad he got to see it. Sometimes I wonder if there is another who feels the same way about each of us. Surely we are not alone with this feeling.
Rick Bass lives
with his family in Yaak and Missoula, Montana, where he has long been
active in efforts to protect the last roadless lands in one of the
wildest landscapes in the northern Rockies.
His latest novel is 2009’s Nashville Chrome, which looks at the music
business and the destructive- ness of fame; 2012 saw the release of
three nonfiction works by Bass: The Black Rhinos of Namibia, A Thousand Deer, and In My Home There Is No More Sorrow.
|<< Start < Previous 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Next > End >>|
|Results 28 - 36 of 1285||