I love the surprising and timely ways in which ancient Zen teachings, modern poetry, and our lives intersect, inform, and most of all point the way to greater appreciation for being alive.
A core Zen teaching or “koan” (and the second of 100 teachings from an 11th century Chinese collection known as The Blue Cliff Record) is:
The Ultimate Path is without difficulty
Just Avoid picking and choosing.
Just don’t love or hate,
And you’ll be lucid and clear.
I’m feeling particularly reflective and curious as 2021 comes to a close. Of course, I’m picking and choosing as I consider this past year and the year to come. These reflections are contextualized by just over two years of living in a global pandemic, with more than 800,000 deaths here in the U.S alone. If these words seem mysterious and impossible, perhaps that’s the point. Our lives are mysterious and impossible. So much to love. So much to hate. And yet, so much to appreciate beyond loving and hating.
What is this practice of not picking and choosing? How might we work with these oblique instructions?
A poem by David Whyte helps me in working with and penetrating these words. The poem is about Camino de Santiago, a sacred journey in Spain. It’s called: For The Road To Santiago:
For the road to Santiago, don’t make new declarations about what to bring and what to leave behind.
Bring what you have.
You were always going that way anyway,
you were always
going there all along.
From Still Possible
The opening of the poem, to me, says not to pick and choose. Instead, notice what I have. Notice who I am. Notice that we are alive, here, now.
“Bring what you have” encourages me to appreciate everything. It’s like starting over, letting go of my usual narratives, my usual stories about my failures and successes, and seeing what emerges fresh, new, and unknown.
“You were always going that way anyway” says to me: let go, trust, take a look at your life from a larger vantage point. See the threads and connections of our deepest sense of our lives that don’t change, that carry us from birth until death.
Right now, see what you have. Let go of picking and choosing. Bring what you have. From this place, what’s next? What do you have to appreciate and what do you have to offer?
Wishing us all a New Year of light, love, and appreciation.
Here are a couple of photos from a recent walk in the Marin Headlands.