Sitting with a Broken-Open Heart

Report: Sitting for Peace on Sunday, August 2, 2015

When human beings can sit “at peace” with their own uncomfortable thoughts, images, feelings, and sensations, we will also be able to better understand and eventually welcome the differences we see in others. Bringing love to suffering will include loving actions.  Recognizing that it is always “hurt people that hurt people” goes a long way toward helping us separate the actor from the action. Certain actions need to be banished from human behavior yet human beings, in themselves, need redemption not banishment.

Sitting all day, (four, 2.5 hour periods of sitting and walking meditation) is both challenging and fulfilling. Some periods fly by with lightness and joy, some inch along very, very slowly. Of course the point of the day is not personal enjoyment or entering an extraordinary state of consciousness. Rather, the intention is to recognize that the sources of dis-ease and violence within myself and the greater world are one and the same.

Sitting with all that arises in mind and body, eyes wide open to the great injustices on this planet AND finding that uncomfortable, broken-hearted peace that comes through acceptance of “what is” is the practice.

How can one be at peace with social injustice and a broken heart? I don’t know. Yet I know it is essential. By “at peace” I do not mean that one is resting joyfully or without pain. I mean something like not adding to the hatred while returning to presence by grounding in the present moment and consciously acknowledging the various forms in which suffering arises.

Meditation Day

At the beginning of each quarter of the day, I offer a subject for our focus.

We start the day at 6:00 am. No words, rather we hold an intention to include the inner and outer world in our field of awareness. Sitting with whatever arises in body and mind is our task. Through simple, whole-hearted acknowledgment of each inner voice, we attempt to neutralize any mind states of conflict. We become the place of peace. This peace does not always feel wonderful, rather it is accepting, awake and aware.

At 9:00am, we focus on violence that is created through racial identity. Since many anthropologists do not even see the validity of a category called race, maybe we can more accurately say the violence that is perpetrated due to varying skin colors. Said that way, it seems even more absurd.

I suppose in our genes, connected to our tribal history, are strong forces of “us and them”, with all of “them” being dangerous and of differing worth.  Clearly, humanity will not be at peace until this confusion about skin color, tribes, and “us and them” is eliminated. A festering wound lives around our planet and is reaching a new boiling point in the United States. If Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War was the first wave of healing and Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement the second wave, then we are in the third wave of exhuming this obscene body of hatred from its shallow grave.

At the 12:00 pm meditation cycle, we focus on gender violence in all its forms. Its most obvious and pernicious version remains alarmingly, unbelievably prevalent in our world today. Women and children throughout our precious planet are, right now, being raped and brutalized. While violence is often expressed sexually, it is important to see that this is a subset of all desire to dominate. The “negative masculine” (often, but not always in the form of men) seeks DOMINATION. It is a hungry beast eating voraciously in a desperate attempt not to experience its own inner pain.

This can be seen in our relations to other people, animals and the earth itself. When we destroy the rain forest or the oceans without thought for the future, the same kind of domination that creates sexual slavery is at work.

At 3:00pm our focus shifts to violence in the name of belief. While this is often religious in nature, it actually includes any belief that seeks to justify violence toward others. We will not find peace on this planet until enough people can stand clearly and firmly for their values without “killing” the other. In my picture this killing can be in word or deed. Although there are clear, gross versions of this all over our planet, from Syria to Tibet, I want to include the more subtle expressions in our own minds and hearts. We need to learn to argue and disagree passionately but with respect, while listening deeply to the pain and needs living in the other.

- How do I use my voice or my logic to kill?
- When do I confuse cleverness with wisdom?
- When do I turn my values into a hammer in which I metaphorically beat others?
- Can we disagree without hatred?
These are questions for true peacemakers.

Gautama Buddha spoke of three poisons: greed, hatred and ignorance.
Greed is the unbridled, all-consuming state: “I want and I take”.
Hatred is the all-consuming passion: “I will destroy you, you are nothing”.
Ignorance is the “inability to open our hearts, minds and eyes to others and experience our interconnectivity with all of life”.

May we all continue to work to clarify our internal voices, confusions and sufferings as we also engage in actions toward social justice in the healing of our shared world.

Peace is our calling, our deep need. May we all work together in creating a planet in which greed, hatred and ignorance can be healed as we become truly humane and loving beings.  I believe we can choose this as our collective destiny.

HOLDING LIFE PRECIOUS: The Act of Bowing by Russell Delman From April 2009 newsletter

My friend James has cancer; a shortened life is now predicted. A student named Susan was misdiagnosed, her apparent cancer is gone.  Everyday in small and large ways our life moves from circumstances that disappoint us to those that bring relief and joy.

How can we live with this ever-changing reality?

In my seminars and in my life I enjoy, value and even depend on the simple inner/outer gesture of bowing.

The act of bowing is not just a formalized ritual.  It is the embodied expression of our intention to place the reality of Life above our hopes, dreams, and desires. This does not mean that we do not have these hopes, dreams, desires- they are also part of the fabric of our life. Bowing means that we place the reality of our life above these hopes/dreams/desires when they are not synchronous. Of course by ‘bowing’ I mean both the physical act and more importantly, the inner gesture of saying Yes to “what is” without denying ANY of the reactions that arise in relation to what is. This is called living out the reality of our Life/Self. It is also called humility.

Living out the reality of our Life means that EVERYTHING we encounter is our Self, which is exactly the same as saying everything we experience is our Life.  Normally we separate out our Life and our Self, as if we have this thing called a Self that lives in encounter with something called “my body” and that this Self meets what we call our Life.

Actually this is a big error and leads to a lot of trouble.  Everything you encounter is your Self/Life.  You are inseparable from the reality of your Life as it is arising in your personal circumstances.  Yet these personal individual circumstances are an expression of Life itself. This can be called UNIVERSAL SELF through which we are all interconnected and yet we each have our individual experiences of this grand interconnectedness.

Please do not think this is abstract philosophy. I am addressing the actual pain, worry, fear, self-judgments, anger and anxiety that arise in our daily life.  Just as the weather changes so do our circumstances.  This will be true forever.  How do we step back and remember the truth of this Self/Life that both includes and is free from these changing circumstances?  How do we enact this larger understanding?

When we bow, our heart is accepting our personal limitations as we simultaneously sense this Universal Self.  In the Christian world it is the gesture of saying “Thy will not my will”.  In the Dharma world it is acknowledging that right here, right now Buddha Nature (Universal Self) is functioning through me.  In both cases, even when there is pain or sorrow, there is no sense that something is fundamentally “wrong”.

My friend James has cancer. It is virulent and many thoughts/feelings arise from this diagnosis.  A student named Susan recently heard that a cancer diagnosis was inaccurate; her tests were confused with those of another person.  Clearly, we who love them feel sadness, concern, relief and elation in connection with the differing circumstances.  YET, beyond positive/negative and heaven/hell is the overwhelming truth that each is living the reality of Life/Self.  We do not need to downplay our feeling responses in order to ALSO place reality above our preferences. At a fundamental level, Love-Peace-Truth-Joy are alive within all these circumstances. This is the cutting edge of the awakening life!  We bow to Life itself!
Heaven or Hell, love or hate
No matter where I turn
I meet myself.
Holding life precious is
Just living with all intensity
Holding life precious.

-Kosho Uchiyama Roshi

A Drop in the Bucket

Thirty-one years ago, my wife Linda and I were working seven days a week with brain-injured children at Mother Teresa’s Mission in Calcutta. With a surprising sense of ordinariness and familiarity, each week we would walk down the street to Mother House for our weekly, private meeting with Mother Teresa in her small bedroom and anteroom, just big enough for her bed, dresser and a few chairs.

One day, with a light, joyful step we climbed the stairs to her room, exuding prideful happiness.  Pradeep, a blind boy of approximately 4 years had walked for the first time this week. In a remarkable neurological congruence, he also began saying his first intelligible words. All the sisters and helpers were gleefully thrilled. We felt so special. With her laser-like perceptiveness, before we said a word, Mother, who was helping so many, looked out her window at the masses on the street and said with deep sorrow, “there is so little we can do, we help one and thousands more are born." A humbling moment indeed.

The next week, we were in an opposite inner condition. Feeling the weight of Calcutta, surrounded by so much suffering, we trudged heavily up her stairs. Greeting us at the door, with a twinkle in her eyes, Mother said, “isn’t it wonderful, every drop in the bucket makes it that much more full.”

This expression, “a drop in the bucket” lives frequently for Linda and me. The dual reality that there is so little we can do to influence all the suffering on this planet AND every drop in the bucket somehow really helps is a true Zen koan.

People often use the phrase “it's just a drop in the bucket” to convey a kind of hopeless minimizing of the effects of one’s behavior. When I sense into this version of “just a drop” my chest gets tight and a kind of heavy resignation comes into my heart. From this point of view, with so many devastating problems in the world, any solutions: recycling, electric cars, meditating, eating less sugar, volunteering at the local shelter, donating to causes, etc. all seem so pointless. Simultaneously, I can see Mother Teresa’s twinkling eyes extolling the importance and virtue of each act of kindness. Living with both of these seems helpful to me. The former brings humility, the latter hopeful, inspired energy.
Intention and Action: Everything Effects Everything

Our every action is a drop in the bucket. Both our intention and ensuing actions effect the world in often unknown and remarkable ways. I like to tell the story of an ordinary situation that occurred ten years ago when I was driving on the highway, almost late for a very important appointment. There was much traffic, and anxiety flooded my body. All of a sudden I realized that my exit was very close and that I was in the wrong lane. In my mind's eye, I can still see the gracious smile of the woman in the next lane who waved her hand to let me go in front of her.  Many times since then, I have thanked her! Think of how many times each day seemingly insignificant behaviors create ripples of influence. These are drops in the bucket.

What is the effect of any particular action? Is it a life-giving drop? Are we adding, in some small way, to the goodness in the world? By goodness, I mean that there is more kindness, beauty, warmth, truth or genuine freedom as a result. These values can sound big or demanding yet my criteria include very small, seemingly insignificant moments. Holding a door for someone, offering a smile, radiating a moment of gratitude all fit for me. Having an intention toward small acts of kindness literally changes your world. Having an intention toward gratitude for the small gifts of everyday life also instantly changes your world. Even one’s inner state, without overt action permeates into and influences the environment.

Effecting and Affecting Each Other

When The Embodied Life School hosts our all day sittings for planetary peace, we are offering a “drop in the bucket”. Our inner state influences the atmosphere around us, we are always inter-effecting and inter-affecting. We never really can know the effect of our state on others and even the earth itself yet, since our entire life is a web of interrelationship, this inter-effecting is constant. Some neurologists speak of limbic resonance to help describe this transferring of states to each other. All pet owners and parents know this. While a day of sitting meditation holding the planet and all Beings known and unknown in our hearts might be helpful, even much smaller deeds are a true contribution to the emotional air we breathe together. This inter-affecting is also constant.

Brief moments of aligning with peace become small transmissions into the atmosphere. If we connect intentionally to the core Embodied Life practice of PAUSING, GROUNDING, BREATHING and then allow this moment of “peaceful abiding” to connect with the outer world, we are functioning as emissaries of peace.

I want to call this the “drop in the bucket” practice. Whether sitting all day, for a half hour or just finding our inner neutrality for a few moments, this is a contribution to our collective well-being. One key ingredient is the inclusion of the outer world in our attention. In my opinion, we have a much more potent influence when the condition that we cultivate within our personal bodies is offered in humble hopefulness to the greater body that we share.

A Drop in the Bucket Practice

At least once each hour, and ideally more often, I intend to pause in this way. When caught up in the demands of my inner and outer world, this pausing is the greatest gift I know for everyone, including myself. Even when I feel generally in harmony, I intend to offer this moment to the earth and all her creatures, including you and me. I wonder, will you join me in the “drop in the bucket” practice?

Loving Questions
(learning to love questions AND asking questions lovingly)

“How do we know the right thing to do”? she asked earnestly.
“What if we make a big mistake”? he replied hesitantly.
“Am I too old to have a baby”? she wondered.
“Can I earn enough to support a family”? he thought.
“Should I get a new job?”
“Should we move to a new city”?
“Am I working too much or not enough”?
“Do you still love me” (“do I still love you”?

Our life is full of questions. For the important ones there are no simple answers. In fact I have given up on answers except for one- Love is the answer.  What does that mean?

For me it means three things: First, that Rilke was right when he beseeched us to love the questions. This means to live with uncertainty and deep questioning. To embrace “not-knowing”, as challenging as that can be.  Second, it means bringing our warm-hearted caring, i.e. our love, to our life situations is the most reliable and effective way of finding the right next step. Third, it means a willingness to humbly ask for help from all known and even unknown sources. Opening to the unknown in this way is, in my opinion, an act of courageous love.

The important thing is not to stop questioning.
Curiosity has its own reason for existing.
One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the
Mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.
It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend
A little of this mystery every day.
Albert Einstein

When seeking answers to any important question, it is essential not to look through the lens of thinking and reasoning alone. Our thoughts must be imbued with: 1) feeling, 2) a strong physical presence in the present moment and 3) deep connection with the seen and unseen world around us. When all of these ways of knowing are alive together in the light of awareness, we can call this “integrated knowing” or wholeness. This integration of thinking (symbolizing), feeling, your physical presence and connection to the environment (including all the people and places involved in your question) allows your “wisdom body” to inform the next step. 

From my perspective when we are in deep, integrated connectivity like this, we naturally are guided by Life and our actions will tend to take care of Life. For me this is a deep, profoundly exhilarating mystery. Guidance comes through our interconnectivity! I believe that these moments of inner and outer congruence, open us to suprising, serendipitous events that help inform us - the unexpected phone call, the article in the newspaper that speaks to us in deep and important ways. We learn to bring the warm heart of caring to the moment. Awareness is a shining light that illumines the darkness. My experience is that when this awareness illuminates the entirety of a moment- the four levels described above- then the right direction arises. We do not actually “make decisions”, though it often feels like that, rather decisions are made and they call us to our “next” places.

Fifth, gently sense how these places want you to be with them. In soft ways ask questions like: how do you need me to be with you?, what makes this so hard?, what are you worried will happen?, what would feel just right in this moment?

As you do this, keep returning to your grounded physical presence of steps one and two. Rather than getting lost in the feeling or symbols keep circulating between the more neutral awareness of ground and environment. You ARE a vehicle for the light of awareness that illuminates this whole process.

We can be grateful for the questions.  We can learn to live lovingly into the questions in two ways: one is to value the questions that live in your life situations, they are trying to guide you and two is the warm-hearted way of being with the questioning itself.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” Rilke


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San Francisco Street Retreat: A Christmas Story

Once upon a time four curious, somewhat fearful and very excited people decided to join the homeless population in San Francisco for three days and nights in the Christmas season.

Some people thought this idea was quite strange.
Some thought it heroic.
Some thought it disrespectful to the “real” homeless.
Some were inspired, others grateful.

In this, the darkest time of year, in which many world traditions from Pagan, to Christian to Jewish, to Hindu, to Kwanza and others celebrate the season of Light, we decided to live without money and only our clothes plus a light blanket to experience life on the streets. We had no illusion that we were really homeless, we were simply wanting to learn from living in this way.

The learning was and is profoundly moving. The essence can be described as meeting the generosity and oneness of life in very basic ways or great generosity and infinite kindness amidst the deprivations. Sharing cardboard with others, exchanging food at the missions, looking for something to give back when given something, this was the etiquette of the people living on the street that we met.

Some Discoveries:

- The street, both the ground itself and life on the street, is very hard.
- Dry cardboard is a life-saver for protection from the cold.
- Getting wet in pouring rain is uncomfortable.
- People on the street help each other.
- People love to give.
- Being really seen is more important than receiving material gifts.
- People deeply appreciate and long for being heard and valued.
- Giving and Receiving are a pair that create each other.
- One cannot distinguish who is giving and who is receiving.

This last point is most important to me and in a way sums up the whole experience. When receiving a cup of coffee or a dry pair of socks on wet days, one gives their gratitude.  Humbly asking for help, gives the possibility of service and connection to the “giver”.

One night, after being awakened by two kind-hearted, twenty-something people who were distributing gift bags, I knew the great joy THEY were feeling in helping us. I am usually them, the person caring for others. True receiving requires an open-hearted humility, in some ways it is easier to say “I don’t need that, thank you”.  I know this habitual response very well, there is an arrogance in “I do not need any help”. Receiving from them was a double gift - opening to their kindness while enjoying the material goods AND knowing that they were receiving the opportunity to touch that place in their hearts that wants to give. This is humanity at its best. We fulfill each other. We cannot separate the giver and the receiver. We are one.

I am also one with the young woman who cannot look at me as she goes into Starbucks for her latte, I am her too. Or the dapper man in his fine suit who fearfully averts my gaze as his body tightens, I know this in me as well. The angry, meth-addicted, ranting man turning over garbage cans is also me when I am consumed by my personal “hungry ghosts”.  And then I meet the Street Ministry who have not missed a single night in fifty years of caring for homeless people, I see that they are me also.

I do not want to romanticize the experience. There is danger on the streets, one needs to be awake and aware. And yet, if one is paying attention there is much more kindness than danger. As one fellow retreatant said “I take days during a meditation retreat to get really present, connected and quiet, on the street it was almost instantaneous”.

When we told people that we were not really homeless but simply joining them for a few days to experience life on the streets they were so grateful that we were interested in knowing this directly. One woman, Mercedes who most called Mercy, said she felt so safe talking to us that “we were like a Christmas present” for her. When I gave her the candy cane that the street minister had given to me, tears welled up in her eyes. “I love candy canes and this is my first this year” she said. Then she gave us her wisdom about safe places to sleep.

Each person is doing their best given the ingredients of their life.  We are all always cooking the meal called “our life”. Ingredients include mental capacity, life history, bodily condition, personality, possessions, everything. Before this experience I had unconsciously created a category called “homeless people” which allowed me to ignore the uniqueness of each individual. After many personal conversations and encountering similar challenges, I experienced truly seeing each persons individuality come alive.

One more thing- the street itself is ALIVE. The ground, though covered in concrete radiates support. It says, “You are here. Stand on me, sleep on me, sit on me. I am here to confirm, validate and honor your presence.” Sleeping on the street in a city, putting one’s whole body on the ground, created a surprising sense of deep connection to the earth itself.

Once upon a time, amidst the holiday shoppers and decorations, a group of economically privileged people received the deep honor of being accepted into a community of individuals who live in very different circumstances. A truly remarkable Christmas present that I suspect will stay with me for the rest of my life.


A Caring Heart

And the light shines in the darkness…

This is the season of Light in many traditions.  As the days shorten and the outer world becomes darker, our inner light can shine more brightly.  Perhaps our potential is moving us toward becoming Beings of light in which love fills our hearts and informs our actions.  Imagine a radiant center like a sun in your chest. Is this what the great teachers from Gautama Buddha to Jesus Christ are modeling for us? Yet there are so many examples of the opposite, of violent actions darkening our world. How do we manifest this light amidst such darkness?

Today I also read about a young girl, Malala Yousafzai who stood up for life by fighting for the right of Pakistani girls to go to school. A Taliban gunman shot her in her head. Many caring people from around the world, doctors, nurses, politicians, bus drivers, village elders, worked together to save her. She continues sharing her gifts and her love with the world and recently won the Nobel peace prize. How do we make sense of the brutal darkness that lives in humanity and the light-filled love of which the human heart is capable?  What do I mean by ‘love’?  For me in this context, it is simply a quality of caring that includes goodwill, kindness, deep listening and positive actions toward all of life. 

An imagination of the Future

Imagining the future, I picture a global community in which love is the norm.  We extend our generosity beyond our immediate circle towards all.   The web of our caring includes the planet, the atmosphere, seas, plants, animals, people and all the rest.

The suffering of others produces a caring response in each of us. The joy of others is experienced as warmth in our hearts. In caring for life we spontaneously include the entirety of each situation: our personal needs, the needs of others, the social setting and the environment.

Beauty is deeply valued.  Humor also, though not the cynical kind.  Truth is earnestly sought though not as a weapon. Creativity is encouraged. The uniqueness of each person is valued.
Children have opportunities to bring their unique gifts into actualization.

Is this a utopian fantasy?  What about our biological proclivity toward self-protection and tribal identity?  Certainly, it will take time to balance the “fight for survival” impulse in our DNA with its lesser known companion “cooperation for survival”.  We have both tendencies. 

Since going to Rwanda these questions live within me. My long term inquiry into forgiveness, redemption, gratitude, self-responsibility and interconnectivity have been going deeper and wider than ever before.  A fundamental question for me, not abstractly but in a profoundly personal way is, who do I exclude from my field of care? Are there any individuals or groups that I do not include in my goodwill, i.e. my love? 

The Complexity of Caring: A Personal Example

Most recently, while guiding a Gratitude and Forgiveness retreat, I was investigating this question of exclusion through a process called  “Embodied Listening”. I discovered that I carried unacknowledged hostility toward a particular group of people: aggressive, narcissistic young men. I could also sense a deep fear lurking inside that was masked through my judgments and anger toward them. As I continued to listen to the ‘felt-sense’ under the surface, I found a feeling of shame toward myself as a young man.

Though never violent toward women, I carried many of the thoughts and images that were fed to boys of my era and indeed throughout most of human history.  Two examples of many, I remember as a 15 year old in prep school, sneaking out for a night away when the man in charge of my dormitory who was colluding with my unauthorized adventure said “don’t come back if you don’t ‘get any’”. Even younger, at 12, I remember the brother-in-law whom I idolized saying in profane language that rather than seeking love, I should “try to have sex with anyone in a skirt”. Messages like this were rampant in my formative years and I internalized them.

I observed that my current commitment to supporting groups that are working for ending violence against women was connected to an unacknowledged sense of connection to the perpetrators.  I too objectified women and learned to ignore the person and just see a body. I am grateful to the many sources of consciousness growth, particularly the women’s movement, for helping me to see past this numbing, heartbreaking conditioning . Finally, as a 62 year old relatively conscious man, a husband/father, I could see that my hostility toward this group of young men was connected to the reality that “this was me also”.

Everyone reading this probably agrees that violence against women whether on a university campus or in the Congo is horrendous and we must do everything in our power to end the complex conditions and conditioning that make this possible. Sexual violence is connected to and an instance of all forms of violence which are in essence the attempt to dominate another through force. I can imagine living in a world where acts of domination in any form are unthinkable.  Human beings are currently far from this state. What steps are needed to heal our collective wounds?

Collective Responsibility

Growing out of this inquiry is my first true sense of collective responsibility. Twenty-five years ago I first heard some of my German students speak of collective guilt over their countries history.  Though understanding of their pain, I could not truly see how the “sins of the father were visited upon the child”. Now, something different dawns in my sensibility. My circle of care includes a sense of collective responsibility. As a man I am connected to the actions of all men. As a citizen of the United States I am part of the violent actions of this nation. As a White person I hold particular responsibility for actions against people of color. As a human being I am also responsible for the destruction of the earth perpetrated by my brothers and sisters. I am part of this whole system, not just the parts I agree with.
In my recent article on Forgiveness, I wrote about Simon Wiesenthal who as a prisoner of war lost most of his family to the Nazis and was being asked by an SS officer for forgiveness. After the war, Wiesenthal managed to visit the mother of the officer. A question arose for one of the commentators in the back of the book: what about the mothers responsibility? What about ordinary people who knew that something terrible was happening to their neighbors and did nothing?  This week, reading the report about the CIA use of torture after the September 11th attack, I ask the same question of myself: what is my responsibility for these actions? What is ‘right action’ for me now?

At this moment in the United States there are many protests about the unfair treatment of Black people by various law enforcement agencies.  We need this kind of collective outrage, as long as it is non-violent. Still, we must not create more fear and hatred by casting the perpetrators out of our hearts. This is an incredible challenge for angry, hurting people. Our future must include this capacity.

Diverse people of many social groups are wearing tee-shirts that say “I can’t Breathe” in memory of the dying words of a Eric Garner in New York at the hands of a “peace” officer.  As one Zen teacher said, “if he can’t breathe than we can not fully and freely breathe either”. Can we accept that we too are part of the system that led to this moment? Without absolving the policeman at all, can we see that he is part of a larger system that includes all of us? The danger and stress that the police live with everyday is included in assessing the whole situation. Extending our field of care to the police officers as we hold them responsible for their actions is essential.  Imagine if the protesters could include this sentiment in their hearts.

Similarly, what about people who “side” with the police? Can they also extend their caring to include all those who have been systematically victimized by domination systems, in the case the criminal justice system? Expanding our capacity to shine our light on injustice, to stand tall in its face AND not cast anyone out of our field of caring is the potential future of humanity. This is the hard, at times excruciating work, we all must do.

Responsibility vs. Blame

How do we live with awareness of collective responsibility at a time when we have access to so many of the horrific events from the whole world?  It is not helpful to be paralyzed by self-incrimination and guilt. One key distinction for me is the difference between taking responsibility and blaming. In my inner language, responsibility is literally the ability to assume new responses to circumstances.  How does my caring for all of life express itself in any particular situation? In addition to bearing-witness, prayer, communicating with others, perhaps sending money, what other actions are called for? To find helpful, non-violent ways of standing up for life is an essential, efficacious enactment of self-responsibility.

Blame is quite different, it has an implicit violence toward the target of the blame, whether self or other.  Blaming oneself invites ineffective self-flagellation producing unhelpful guilt, rarely leading to effective action. Blaming others, as Buddha said, “is like picking up a scalding rock and throwing it, we get burned first.” Blaming creates unintended negative consequences that linger in the health and vitality of the person.

Moving beyond blame and ineffective guilt, how do we engender self-responsibility, radically condemning certain behaviors while not closing our hearts to individuals or groups? Separating the action from the actor seems key to me. Seeing the systemic, historical, biological and social antecedents of behavior while simultaneously holding each person accountable asks us to walk a courageous tight rope. Honoring the understandable anger of marginalized populations without exiling the perpetrators is our moral task. As the old expression goes, “to understand all is to forgive all”.

As my investigation continues, I see how those sexist, young men do not benefit from my derision or my exiling of them from my heart. They need my clarity, my care and my courage to shine a light on their faulty conditioning. Standing up in this way to the unconsciousness that perpetuates violent dominance is incredibly demanding and this is the potential of humanity.

Similarly, when we exile the other perpetrators of violence in the world today do we help them to heal? Since the terms “healing” and “whole” derive from the same root, I believe that unless all of life is included as part of our collective whole, as part of our field of care, then we are incomplete. How do we include members of ISIS in the human family, understanding their pain and their needs while simultaneously doing all we can to stop their brutal actions. Demonizing the enemy is the classic way of making it possible to exclude certain people from our caring and to treat them as sub-human. We must learn to evolve further if we are to survive and heal this planet. Can ALL of life be included in our circle of caring?


There are no simple answers or formulas. One key is learning to listen deeply to self and others. If we can enter into any important dialogue with a truly open mind, i.e. not assuming to know the truth or the answers and really hold presence (bearing witness) for all elements of the situation then person by person, we will forge our way into this evolving ethos.  Through reflection and growing awareness, the painful contractions of our hearts will be sensed and overcome. Assuming responsibility and eliminating “us and them” mentality will help a great deal. In my vision, we will stop blaming anybody for anything while still holding self-responsibility as a high value. Extending our self-identity to include all of Life will lead us forward.  Kindness will guide our way. From an integrated, Embodied Life perspective doing this requires the ability to sense deeply into our bodies for the contractions and patterns that underlie our thoughts and feelings. To be whole requires integrating bodily sensations, feelings, images/thoughts while simultaneously being permeable to the outer world. This outer world includes what I call “the greater body” which transmits the transcendent or spiritual world. “Embodied Listening” is one path to opening our contracted hearts.

We can feel great encouragement from leaders like the current Dalai Lama, Malala Yousafzai and Pope Francis.  Heroes like Mahatma Gandhi , Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King also pointed in this direction. These capacities need to grow one heart at a time.

I am inspired by the Buddhist concept of Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is an awakening being (Bodhi=awakened or awakening, Sattva= Being) who dedicates her-himself to the awakening and healing of all life. Rather than entering the nirvana of endless bliss and liberation the Bodhisattva vow says: “I can not be free until all others are free because I am not separate from any part of life”. This is our direction as human beings.

Today, the great challenges on our planet, both in terms of ecology and human behavior will push us either over the brink or into a new world with love as the basic operating principle. This is our potential. This journey is the most compelling and dynamic trip we can take. For some of us maybe it is the only journey worth taking. In this season of light, we can dedicate ourselves to the hard work of growing a caring heart. Let’s move forward in creating the kind of world we wish for our children’s children.

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The Possibilities of Forgiveness

As I prepare for my upcoming “Gratitude and Forgiveness” retreats, I am resounding with the transformative potential living in each of these qualities. In the past I have written about gratitude numerous times, today I want to write briefly about perhaps “the most profound expression of love possible”- forgiveness.

We carry the past in our bodies. All that is unresolved in our heart lives in the tightness of our tissues, in the heaviness of our movement, in the cast of our eyes and in the tone of our voice. Unprocessed guilt lives as a weight and often includes a need to remain hidden from view. We don’t want to be seen or to see ourselves. Within forgiveness lives the possibility of resolving our past. It holds the potential for freeing past karma. The radiance of our life-energy, our aura is transformed through this noble act. If there was no forgiveness on this earth, we would live mired in hatred, pain and untold sorrow.

Do we carry self-blame for our inability to act differently in the past and for the pain that we have caused?

Do we carry blame toward others for the pain they have caused?

What are the “right”, effective and life-enhancing ways of acknowledging our errors?

At what point is forgiveness for our own misdeeds acceptable and helpful for a maturing conscience?

What does it really mean to forgive yet not forget?


It seems to me that when we are “off the mark” (which is the original definition of “sin”), regret is an important part of that acknowledgement. That human beings feel sorrow for causing pain to self and others seems a necessary evolutionary step in consciousness. When we cause hurt, it is “right” to feel the pain of those actions. Moral learning requires this capacity. The question becomes one of timing and amount- when do we allow that energy to transform through our forgiveness?

Simon Weisenthal the famous “Nazi hunter” wrote a tremendously moving account of a profoundly disturbing event while a prisoner during World War 2. He had lost many loved one’s and experienced unspeakable atrocities. One day while being forced to clean up refuse at a military hospital, he was invited into the room of a young SS officer who was dying. The soldier had a deep need to repent for his sins and to receive forgiveness from a Jew. In agonizing detail, he told of his participation in horrific deeds. At the end he asked Wiesenthal for his forgiveness
so that he could die in peace. What would you do?

The last half of the book, “The Sunflower”, consists of many deep, thoughtful people writing about how they might act in such a situation. This is an instance of humanity struggling with an issue that confronts us all. Everyday we cause some kinds of harm to ourselves and others through our thoughts, words and actions. What is the accurate role for forgiveness in relation to the large and small misdeeds that inhabit our lives? Are there limits to forgiveness? Is “blame” ever necessary or helpful? Can one hold oneself and others responsible without blaming?

While in Rwanda last April these questions arose deeply for me. Listening to the stories of brutality that my new friends had experienced, hearing of their struggle to live amongst the people who killed their families and listening to the killers trying to make sense of their own actions and find ways to live as ‘normal’ people again brought new levels of anguishing reflection for me. While the situation in Nazi Germany and Rwanda are obviously extreme, can we see these as hyperbolic examples of our own challenges?

Forgiveness is essential for freeing our burdened hearts and adding light into the world. Self responsibility is essential for our true maturation as human beings. Acknowledging our mistakes, our sins against life, feeling deeply for the pain we have caused AND freeing ourselves from the life-killing aspects of the unforgiving heart is a necessary task for evolving humanity. If gratitude is the front door to the loving heart then forgiveness might be considered the back door. I invite you to join in these reflections.

Dear Friends,
Last month I announced a new experiment for the Embodied Life School. December 17-20 we are hosting a Street Retreat in San Francisco in conjunction with the Zen Peacemakers.  The response has been intriguing. A few people want to join us, a few have reservations about the whole undertaking and many have expressed gratitude for the way their perception of homeless people has been influenced just from reading the invitation.
Today, I am writing to tell you more about the retreat and to invite you to join us. In addition I will respond to some of the questions that have arisen.
The street retreat was created by Bernie Glassman Roshi as a way of expanding the usual Zen practice of meditation in cloistered settings to experiencing life on the streets in metropolitan areas around the world.  Zen is the study of living and dying. Bernie saw that living in more vulnerable, insecure ways could be illuminating for his students. 
After starting in New York, these retreats have taken place throughout the world for the last twenty years.  All participants live without money, dependent on the goodwill of others for three days. Living in such dependency and without any goals other than simply living can be quite challenging for most of us. Also, the requirement that each retreatant raise at least $500.00 to be donated to homeless organizations from friends and family and not from their own funds creates quite an challenge for many. Most participants are economically comfortable and often self-identified as the people who take care of others.
First, my favorite questions: what is the point?  Why put yourself in such an uncomfortable and dependent situation? Do you think you are really experiencing homelessness?
The first and most accurate answer is “I don’t know”.  I imagine that the learning will be different for each person. The "point" may reveal itself after the retreat, right now I just have some ideas. I see that there are many potential opportunities for learning while living on the streets. There is no illusion that this is the same as actually being homeless. Homelessness usually includes a sense of hopelessness. All the retreatants know that a warm bath, plenty of food and a comfortable bed await them after these three days. There is no illusion that we will know what true homelessness feels like.
For me the most important experience that comes from meditation is not  bliss, it is the sense of interconnectivity with all of life. To be “One with All” is not an abstract concept, it might become a living experience. The street retreat is an opportunity to experience one’s connection with all of life. What is it like to depend on others for everything? What is it like to be ignored, scorned upon or given to? What happens when “those people” who seem so dirty and dangerous are not “other”? Is it possible to include all beings in one’s field of care?  This is not a sociological experiment.  This is not to show that we can do it.  This is a way of growing our capacity for connection to life.
Don’t you disrupt the lives of the actual homeless?
This is a key question for me. I have connected with a few people who work with the homeless and learned a bit about life on the streets. People on the streets often have their own corners for begging. We always respect these territories.  While we learn about free meals and beds offered by churches and other organizations, we are mindful of the needs of the truly homeless. We will access these offerings with consciousness of the needs of others.
Where do you sleep and what do you take with you?
Part of the day is finding cardboard and locations for sleeping in the cold winter night. We use shelters if there are enough beds. We only have the clothes on our backs, plus a thin blanket and possibly a poncho. We don’t shower and men don't shave for the week before the retreat and we all wear old, dingy clothing. We don’t take anything else other than prescription drugs and one piece of identification.
Where do you find toilets?
Anywhere we can.
Is it safe especially for women?
In the twenty years of doing these street retreats no one has been harmed. We all travel with a buddy so we are not alone and we don’t wander too far from the whole group. In addition we meet at least twice a day in parks to share our experiences, meditate and do other practices together.
What do you hope to learn?
My hope is to learn about living without any direction or goals other than living. In most of my life there is an intention, a direction, a purpose to my day. Even on vacation I am intending toward enjoyment or relaxation. What is it like to just live? Isn’t this the main purpose of Zen retreats, to discover what it is just to be alive?

Who can join the retreat?
All are welcome.

If this feels right for you, please contact my office at office@Russelldelman.com

Why do you collect $500.00 per person?

The idea is to ask your circle of people to support the retreat. The intention is two fold: first the money is sent to organizations working with homelessness. This benefits many. Second, as I am discovering, it is challenging to the "ego structure" of many relatively successful people to ask others for money. It would be easier for most of the participants to pay for themselves. Each participant creates a mala- a string of beads- as a remembrance for the retreat. Each donation becomes a bead on the string thus we carry our supporters with us.

If you want to donate to my mala please see the following instructions. Maximum donation I am accepting is $20.00.

  1. Send a check made out to Russell Delman and send to 2836 Bloomfield Rd Sebastopol, CA 95472 OR
  2. use PayPal and send to office@russelldelman.com (note "street retreat")
  3. Transfer funds to German Account:

Stadtsparkasse Muenchen
Account (konto.) 90122987
Account name: Russell Delman
IBAN: DE15 7015 0000 0090 1229 87

Wishing you well.....Russell

December 17-20, 2014  San Francisco, California
Led by: Roshi Grover Genro Gauntt
Retreat Coordinator:  The Embodied Life School (Russell Delman, Founder; Valerie Nordby, Administrator)
To Sign up:  Please email office@russelldelman.com


A street retreat is a plunge into the unknown. It is an opportunity to go beyond our imagined limits. It's the barest poke at renunciation. We will live on the streets of San Francisco with no resources other than our true nature, experiencing homelessness first-hand, having to beg for money, find places to get food, shelter, to use the bathroom, etc. By bearing witness to homelessness, we begin to see our prejudices and boundaries directly and to recognize our common humanness. It is a way to experience our interconnection and realize our responsibilities.

"When we go... to bear witness to life on the streets, we're offering ourselves. Not blankets, not food, not clothes, just ourselves." -Bernie Glassman, Bearing Witness

In doing a ‘street retreat’ we are not under the illusion that we know what it is to be homeless. Having homes with showers and beds to return to is quite different than living on the streets without these possibilities. As Bernie has made clear, if asked, we do say that we are homeless rather that we are part of a spiritual retreat of people from many faiths living on the streets for a few days. Our intention is to bear witness to: 1) asking for help, 2) the people in our community who live on the streets and 3) learning from the streets.

San Francisco Streets Preparation- “Taking the Plunge”

Meeting Point: We will meet in Dolores Park at the corner of 18th and Dolores Ave.

Duration: The retreat starts on Wednesday December 17 at 3:00PM and will end on Saturday the 20th by noon.

Street Retreat Logistics: Our group will be together most of the time, breaking into packs for short times during the day and always secured by buddies. We will meet twice a day for meditation, liturgy, and council. Partial time participation is not an option. You can only join for the entire retreat. At the beginning of the retreat, we will conduct an orientation. You will meet your street cohorts and facilitators. We will discuss what to expect, but the unexpected will be our root teacher on the street.

Retreat Guidelines:
1.    Do not shave, nor wash your hair for five days prior to the retreat. This will also start your street experience prior to leaving home.
2.    Wear old clothes, as many layers as you feel appropriate for the time of year, and do not bring any change of clothes for the retreat duration, except, possibly, for an extra pair of socks. Be prepared for weather extremes.
3.    Wear good, but not new, walking shoes. We walk a great deal.
4.    Bring one piece of Photo ID only - your Driver’s License or a government issued I.D. with your picture on it.
5.    Bring a Poncho for rain. Mandatory.
6.    Do not bring any money, illegal drugs, alcohol, weapons, or cell phones. Do not wear any jewelry including earrings, bracelets and watches.
7.    Besides the clothes you are wearing bring only an empty bag (shopping, plastic) or small (not new) day pack for collecting food from shelters, etc. Women may bring one change of underwear.
8.    You should not bring any books or personal items such as a toothbrush.
9.    Necessary prescription medication of course is permitted.
10.  Be sure to practice rooting through garbage cans and picking up pennies on the street. It keeps us humble, and, truly, the treasures are unbeatable.
11.  Bring a water bottle if you like. They are available in trash bins.
12.  Bring a light blanket that will roll up - or you can wear it.

Raising a Mala

On this street retreat we will be supported by social service agencies and public non-profit organizations. Since we are not truly homeless, we need to make donations to those who will be supporting our lives. For all of the street retreats that organized by Zen Peacemakers, a donation has been requested of the participants in order to be able to offer donations to the social service agencies that support us. Prior to this retreat we ask that you each beg of your family, friends, associates or just on the street for $500 – to be distributed to those social service agencies that have helped us.

We as a group will decide at the end of the retreat where two-thirds 2/3 the offerings should go. One-third of the funds will go to the social service activities of the Hudson River Peacemaker Center.

It is not acceptable for you to use your own funds for this purpose. To sincerely engage in this experience we need to humble ourselves at the outset, attempt to explain to others our reasons for participating and beg for their support. This is a hugely challenging and ultimately hugely rewarding experience. You need to ask at least five people – more would be great. Your donors could give you cash, or give you checks made out to the Hudson River Peacemaker Center.

In our Zen Buddhist practice we call this assembling a Mala – prayer beads. If you assemble a Mala of 18 or 108 beads, for example, you could beg proportionate donations for each bead. Your mala could also be, say, five or ten beads. Sincerely promise your donors that they will be traveling with you on the retreat and you will personally tell them about your experience when you return home. It is a lovely gesture to label the beads with your donors' names and wear them during your time on the streets.

Once you have raised the funds, make a check to "Hudson River Peacemaker Center" and mail it to:

The Embodied Life School
c/o Russell Delman
2836 Bloomfield Rd
Sebastopol, CA 95472

To give others the opportunity to give is a true gift. Don't doubt it. When we are truly and selflessly motivated, people will support us. Trust in this all your life.

Thank you for considering joining us on this retreat.

In peace,

Roshi Grover Genro Gauntt

Russell Delman

Dear Friends...
"One of the opportunities that I value most in my life is witnessing the experiences and realizations that people have during Embodied Life retreats. I can say, without exaggeration, that each day brings new learning for me. As people authentically open to and share their inner life, my inner world expands. Many others in the groups feel the same way. We become a true "community of learners". It is not a cliche to say, we share this field of consciousness- this One Mind. 

The following story is an example. Enjoy and hopefully be inspired.........

The Golden Buddha and other Friends

This is a moving story told at a recent retreat by one participant after an"Embodied Listening" practice. In these practices, we learn "listening- speaking" in which we give voice to the feelings, images and 'felt-senses' that emerge through listening with a welcoming attitude to our inner world.

" For quite some time, I have been struggling to find a deeper sense of my life. Although not depressed, my inner world has felt dark,small and cold. I was shocked when during this process, I saw and sensed a Stone Buddha. It is an image I might have seen in a picture from somewhere- large, gray, cold, beautiful in an austere way. I remember feeling disappointed that even the 'felt-sense' of "enlightenment" living in my inner world seemed dark and cold. After a while of just being with my images, feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations as you instructed us, an amazing change occurred.

Inside the Stone Buddha was a Golden Buddha. It was so clear, one Buddha housed in the other. This incredibly beautiful, vibrant, warm and radiant Being was living inside the Stone Buddha. At first I thought with joy and relief, 'ah, this is the real me, I am seeing my True Self'. Then with great clarity and a sense of wholeness, I realized that I was all of these: the Stone Buddha, the Golden Buddha, the one witnessing both of these images AND all the voices, opinions and reactions to them. In this moment everything inside me seemed to have value and importance not only the Golden Buddha (though I must admit THIS Buddha was especially welcomed)!"