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Not all Buddhists agree with Sitagu Sayadaw’s militant message

Home > Asia Pacific > South East Asia > Myanmar

By Jacob Goldberg, Coconuts, Nov. 2, 2017

Yangon, Myanmar -- Myanmar’s most revered Buddhist leader gave a speech on Monday in which he urged hundreds of military officers to not to fear the sinfulness of taking human life. Despite building a reputation on his interfaith and humanitarian activities, Sitagu Sayadaw has long made excuses for the military’s abuses against Rohingya Muslims. This week, critics said the monk veered into promoting genocide.

<< Sitagu Sayadaw prepares for a speech to military officers on October 30, 2017. Photo: Facebook / Venerable Ashin Nyanissara (Sitagu/Thegon Sayadaw)

During his speech, which was delivered at a military base in Kayin State and broadcast live in Myanmar to over 250,000 viewers, Sitagu Sayadaw shared a parable about an ancient Sri Lankan king who was assured by Buddhist clerics that the countless Hindus he had killed only added up to one and a half lives.

“Don’t worry King, it’s a little bit of sin. Don’t worry,” Sitagu Sayadaw said. “Even though you killed millions of people, they were only one and a half real human beings.”

The monk distanced himself from the characters in the story, saying: “I’m not saying that, monks from Sri Lanka said that.” But he then added: “Our soldiers should bear [this story] in mind.”

The monk’s support for Myanmar’s government and military in the face of international accusations of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya have compounded the public admiration he has enjoyed for years. Earlier this year, he was awarded the title “Honorable, Excellent, and Great Teacher of Country and State” by the government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

But Sitagu Sayadaw’s stature and erudition have not been enough to protect him from the ire of some Myanmar Buddhists, who believe his coziness with the military is drawing him away from the principles of Buddhism.

“This was a shocking speech,” said Thet Swe Win, director of the Centre for Youth and Social Harmony, an interfaith organization. “It was totally against the Buddhism I understood. Buddha teaches about love, kindness, and compassion to every human being, regardless of race and religion, and also teaches that killing is a sin. But this speech said killing non-Buddhist people is not a sin.”

He went on: “It’s like mixing up religion up with the army. It’s kind of saying the army is here to protect race and religion, and it encourages them to kill people from different religions. I condemn this kind of speech.”

Thet Swe Win compared the message of Sitagu Sayadaw’s speech to the doctrines of the so-called Islamic State.

“ISIS also says killing non-Muslims is not a sin.”

Khin Zaw Win, director of the policy think-tank Tampadipa Institute, made similar comparisons in his reaction to the speech, which he shared on Facebook.

“It’s utterly irresponsible of a senior monk to preach such things. It reminds me of bishops who fought in the Crusades and the medieval practice of selling indulgences and absolution.”

In another post, he said: “It’s sad, but there might soon be a Burmese equivalent of ‘Sieg Heil!’ What happened to democracy?”

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Celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the Long Beach Buddhist Church

LBBC sign



The Reverend Kosai Osada came to the United States in 1950 as a Soto Zen Buddhist missionary. Settling in Long Beach he met with a number of people who had met across sectarian lines at the internment camps during the war. He shared his vision of a “pure” Buddhism beyond sect, and was met with enthusiasm.

In 1951 he conducted his first non-sectarian services at the Long Beach Japanese Community Center. By 1957 the congregation was ready to formally launch and with the groundbreaking for the new campus the Long Beach Buddhist Church was officially born. He served among them faithfully until 1970 when Sensei Osada retired and returned to Japan.

This past Sunday the congregation celebrated its sixtieth anniversary. While the church has faithfully continued Sensei Osada’s nondenominational approach, the church remains officially connected to the Sotoshu and is one of five officially recognized Sotoshu temples in the continental United States. And so the principal celebrant (Doshi) for this service was Bishop Gengo Akiba, head, or Shokan of North American Sotoshu.

Long Beach Buddhist Church dedication

In addition to the members of the congregation, two retired ministers from the church were present as well as many other guests. The current incumbent of the Church, Sensei Gyokei Y0koyama invited several Blue Cliff Zen Zen Sangha members to participate. Sensei Gesshin Greenwood sang the Goeka, opening the service. Gensan Thomson served as Shoten, ringing the densho. Gesshin and I were invited to sit with the mucketymucks on the Ryoban.

The service was pretty long by the clock, but actually ran by quickly. Moving words from the retired ministers and Sensei Yokoyama. After, people were invited to a banquet.

A lovely time among some lovely people doing some important work…















Sensei Gyokei Yokoyama, minister of the Long Beach Buddhist Church

Kosai Osada









Sensei Kosai Osada, Founding minister of the Long Beach Buddhist Church

LBBC altar













The altar at the Church.

LBBC dedication clergy









Clergy officiants and guests at the 60th anniversary celebration


Contemporary photographs by Chris Hoff…


Original author: James Ford
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Three Zen Teachers Teaching Online





In case there is no Zen teacher in your area, or if there is but there isn’t a heart alignment, here are three teachers who have web presence that I can recommend.

First, Sensei Domyo Burk. She is my dharma niece within the Soto tradition, a successor of the renowned late Zen master Kyogen Carlson. She offers guidance through Zen Studies Podcasts, which can be accessed here.

Second, Sensei Konin Cardenas, who studied with the San Francisco Zen Center complex, as well as in Japan with Sekkei Harada, who ordained her. She is a dharma successor to Shosan Giegen Victoria Austin. Konin Sensei also teaches in Spanish. She teaches online through the Ekan Zen Study Center, which can be accessed here.

And, third is Roshi Dosho Port. He studied in both America and Japan and is a dharma successor to the renowned Dainin Katagiri Roshi. He then went on to complete the Daiun Sogaku Harada Soto reform koan curriculum with me. He is widely considered one of the senior teachers of our North American Zen. His online study program, Vine of Obstacles can be accessed here.

I hope this is helpful.

Original author: James Ford
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In the Valley of the Shadow of Death: A Small Zen Meditation That Eventually Gets Around to What Zazen Really Is




Yesterday we went to the Bowers Museum to see the special exhibition of Frank Hurley‘s amazing photographs of the catastrophic 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

I came away with several images burned into my heart, as well as thoughts about a range of issues. One had nothing to do with the photographs.

It was a display of Shackleton’s Bible that most riveted my attention. The caption explained that it had been presented to Shckleton by the Queen. And that at the direst moment facing the likelihood of death and the thinnest chance of survival, he tore out three pages ahead of abandoning the book. The Bible itself was then salvaged by a crew member who carried it through the harrowing they endured. Both Shackleton’s choice of those three pages and the crew member’s choice to include the whole book in that same dire moment touched me.

But what caught me most were those three pages. One was the title page which had been inscribed by the Queen. Another was a page including Job 38:29-30. “Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath/gendered it?/The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.” A naked admission of powerlessness in the face of terrible and overwhelming forces.

The third was the page containing the 23rd Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He taketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leaders me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leaders me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art
with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

What was especially interesting to me was that while the page with the inscription meant nothing in particular to me, and I was curious as to what part of Job was chapter 38, verses 29 and 30, as it and the psalm were only cited and not quote – nonetheless I immediately knew what the 23rd Psalm was, and even was able to recite a good part of it.

Me, someone with virtually no memory to speak of. Never had. I probably know by heart a grand total of five or ten pages of text from all that I’ve read over the years. I know a couple of verses of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and I know “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Maybe there’s another song I can be prompted to sing. But as I type these words, can’t think of what it might be.

As a Zen practitioner, I need prompting, but do have the Heart Sutra by heart, as well as a handful of other texts, most notably the meal chants. And one version of the verse of the kesa.

Vast is the robe of liberation,
A formless field of benefaction.
I wear the Tathagata’s teachings,
Saving all the many beings.

As a Zen teacher I’m often asked “how do you meditate with a koan?” To which I have to respond, “I have no idea.” I have no idea because during the years when I was formally engaging the practice, the convention is that you have to memorize the case and present it to your spiritual director, who then digs into the critical points. And, for most of those years I was mainly busy trying to memorize the case barely well enough to present it to the teacher, and so beyond that the whole of the koan encounter took place in the interview room.

Today, after having walked through the practice, having memorized much of the collection, and it is voluminous, I can recite exactly one case:

A student of the way came to Zhaozhou and asked, Does a dog have Buddha nature?
Shaozhou replied, No.

Usually that “no” is rendered as “Mu.”

So, that I can recite it, if imperfectly, it’s always imperfectly, clearly the 23rd Psalm has a special place in my heart.

I am aware of two Zen-inspired translations of the 23rd Psalm.

One is from the old Zen hand and poet Stephen Mitchell:

The Lord is my shepherd:
I have everything that I need.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters;
He refreshes my soul.
He guides me on the paths of righteousness,
So that I may serve him with love. Though I walk through the darkest valley
Or stand in the shadow of death, I am not afraid,
For you are always with me. You spread a full tables before me, Even in times of great pain; You feast me with your abundance
And honor me like a king, Anointing my head with sweet oil, Filling my cup to the brim.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me All the days of my life,
And I will live in God’s radiance Forever and ever.

The other is from the Zen teacher and poet Norman Fischer:

You are my shepherd, I am content
You lead me to rest in the sweet grasses
To lie down by the quiet waters
And I am refreshed.
You lead me down the right path
The path that unwinds in the pattern of your name.
And even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will not fear
For you are with me
Comforting me with your rod and your staff
Showing me each step.
You prepare a table for me
In the midst of my adversity And moisten my head with oil.
Surely my cup is overflowing
And goodness and kindness will follow me All the days of my life
And in the long days beyond
I will always live within your house.

While I find both helpful, Roshi Fischer’s version is my favorite. That subtle turn into addressing the ultimate rather than singing about it brings the visceral truth of the song right to the fore. As I contemplated these things I began to wonder if other people of Zen have a relationship with the psalm. And, so I googled it. Using the search terms “Zen” and “Psalm 23.” I found a lot, mostly unhelpful. But, some, very much so.

The wonderful lay Zen teacher Susan Moon writes about developing her own practices. “Prayer was something I missed in Zen practice as I knew it, so I imported it from Christianity and other Buddhist traditions. I prayed to Tara, Tibetan goddess of compassion, to fly down from the sky, all green and shining, into my heart. I prayed to Prajna Paramita, the mother of all Buddhas, who ‘brings light so that all fear and distress may be forsaken, and disperses the gloom and darkness of delusion.’ These words (from the ancient Prajnaparamitta sutra) reminded me of the 23rd Psalm: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.’ I said this too.”

And that opened another point for me. I’ve been thinking about prayer a lot. As someone who does not believe in a deity in the sense of a being with a human-like consciousness whom I can petition to get out of one jam or another, I have to ask myself what prayer might mean. And I have been.

Then I stumbled upon a memoir that touched on that very question. “The Tender Bud: A Physician’s Journey Through Breast Cancer” by the pseudonymous Madeleine Meldin has a page that has those search terms “Zen” and “Paslm 23” both included.

First she cited a “Zen anecdote.” “Meaning is there where you are fully where you are.” While I don’t know the source, the teaching is true. And then with that resting in our hearts Dr Meldin tells us:

“In being born and in dying we are alone. From now on, I began to understand, I had to live my everyday life with its every delightful and annoying detail, while trying to advance, in darkness and in light, on the road to uncompromising meaning.

“I also became a pilgrim in the many corridors of the hospital ward. The doctors recommended that I walk and exercise my arm to help the recovery. It was the oncology war. Looking at all of us, some young people, half eaten by cancer, some courageous, terminally ill old gentlemen, and others, I recalled the 23rd psalm: ‘The Lord is my shepherd… Even though I walk in the vally of the dead I shall not fear.‘”

She then adds, “But I felt fear, the fear of death, of protracted illness, of losing mastery over my life.” I found that very important. No fear. And, of course, fear…

Continuing my google search I found a former Catholic priest and psychologist, Ron Roth commenting on the 23rd Psalm, “The Zen master Rinzai, who lived in China in the ninth century, would hold up a finger to his students and ask, ‘What, in this moment, is lacking?’ Perhaps his greatest interpreter, the 18th-century Japanese Zen master Hakuin, wrote, ‘At this moment, what more need we seek?'”

Here a lot of things began to come together.

So, if it isn’t petition, what is prayer? I think Dr Roth gives as good a pointer as we might want. If there is no place to go, if this place, whether it is dinner with friends or a walk down a cancer ward trailing gone’s meds on a pole, what about this place? What about our own heart? My heart? Your heart? What about fear and fearlessness?

Here is the secret place of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Here is the meeting of heaven and earth. Here in the broken place, in the valley of the shadow of death; this is where we meet the divine.

And for those of us who walk the Zen way, this is pretty much exactly what shikantaza is. Zazen is the song of our longing.  Zazen is the invitation into the secret places. It is the raw facing into our own death. And, coming to presence within our fully lived lives.

Right here. Right here.

A  mysterious and terrible joy.

Original author: James Ford
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The Goddess of Reason Is Enthroned

goddess of reason





It was on this day, the 10th of November, in 1793, that the revolutionary French Convention proclaimed the investiture of a goddess of reason and a new state sponsored cult designed to replace Catholic Christianity. The deity’s image was installed on the high altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

The goddess and the cult were the brainchild of Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, one of the leaders of the French Revolution and the first president of the Commune. He was also a chief architect of the Reign of Terror, and like many others sooner rather than later would find his own neck cut by madam Guillotine.

The Wikipedia article on Chaumette observed his philosophy put “a greater reliance on our instincts and a greater embracing of the apparent world, instead of Christianity’s concern with the afterlife. In his philosophy, he is rather critical of human beings stating that ‘everyone knows that humans are nothing more than what education makes of them; […and thus] if one wants them just, one must furnish them with notions of fairness, not ideas from seventh heaven […] because the sources of all of human’s grief are ignorance and superstition.'”.

Sadly short lived, the atheistic cult of the goddess was suppressed by order of Maximillien Robespierre as he secured power, who was himself a deist, and who wanted a cult of the supreme being instead of the atheistic cult of reason…

And perhaps, of course, what could have been a very interesting experiment in rational religion devolved quickly into mob reactions to the excesses of the Roman church, and mainly featured acts of desecration, quickly descending into bad theater, and more blood spilled on the ground.

As the great Kurt Vonnegut once observed, “So it goes…”

Original author: James Ford
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In Memory of Leonard Cohen




A dear friend passed this on to me.

I now pass it on to you…

Original author: James Ford
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A Fierce Joy: A Small Zen Reflection on the Work of Angels

Archangel Michael




As I was perusing Wikipedia’s calendar of things that happened on this day, the 8th of November, I saw that it is the “Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and the other Bodiless Powers of Heaven” within the Orthodox Christian churches.

I was caught up with those bodiless powers. And, so, I had to do a little more research. A Synaxis is literally a “gathering together,” but is understood as a gathering for liturgical purposes. Within Christian Orthodoxy it is a celebration following a feast day. Cool. I thought. Then Michael. The fierce Michael. He is featured in the deliciously hallucinatory Book of Daniel and is honored in all three religions of the Book, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In Christianity he was originally an archetype of healing, but somewhere along the line becomes the general in the armies of God.

Me, I like that terrible aspect. There is something true about it.

But the line I liked best, that sent me off to dig deeper were those “Bodiless Powers of Heaven.” This term seems to apply to all angels. Angels are many things, but most importantly they’re conceived of as intermediaries between God and the world. And so the word itself is derived from the Latin “messenger.” Which itself seems to come from Greek. And, just to keep it really, really interesting appears to have originally been borrowed by Jewish writers from Zoroastrianism. Both traditions use the same “Malak” for angels, and used in that same sense of messenger.

Later and critically in some ways the ever interesting Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopigate worked the whole angel thing into something like a map of that path between heaven and earth. At least as I read his hierarchies. As someone without a deep sense for the supernatural I tend to look for the natural within such things. And, here, we find a compelling invitation.

Me, I am a fan of James Hillman, who is said to have advocated a radical deconstruction of empirical psychology. As I’d first been attracted to the great empiricist William James, Hillman showed me how to appreciate while breaking free of James’ reductionism. And there is more. Hillman offered tools for me as a Western Buddhist to understand both the teachings I’ve received and my own experiences.

So, for instance Hillman tells us “Words, like angels, are powers which have invisible power over us…” Me, I love the connection between words and angels, both as mysterious entities with powers that we are not necessarily aware of, or totally understand. And I continue to think of angels in that way.

Thinking of Hillman, I began to search around the inter webs and found some quotes from him on angels. Several I thought particularly helpful.

But, also, I find him and his angels a bit of an invitation that turns some traditional Buddhist insights inside out. And gave me some real guidance as I began to deeply explore the Zen dharma. “Open your heart, your gaze, to the visitations of angels, even if the gifts they bring may not be centerdness and balance but eccentricity and a wholly unfamiliar sense of pleasure called joy.” For me the great project of insight, of wisdom has not been a path leading me to calm depths. Rather it has been Mr Toad’s wild ride. And, fortunately I’d been warned.

No doubt Zen has been a path to a certain mysterious joy. That joy that arises in the face of seeing how everything and everyone is in fact dying from the moment we birth into this world. Of course there is sadness. Of course longing. And hurt. And loss. Of course all the range of emotions. No wonder one of the traditional images of the spiritual path is war. A dangerous image. But one we completely discard at our peril.

That said, at the heart of it all, coming from the side, from the corner of the eye, well not an eye, my eye: something never quite capturable is that mysterious joy.

Joy. Coming like an angel. Joy. Coming like a message from God. Joy. Coming as a fierce joy.

And with that one last quote, a pointing for all of us on our various spiritual paths, but very much to those of us who walk the Zen way.

“We would like otherworldly visitors to come as distinct voices with clear instructions, but they may only give small signs in dreams, or as sudden hunches and insights that cannot be denied. They feel more as if they emerge form inside and steer you from within like an inner guardian angel” To which there is addendum. “And, most amazing, it has never forgotten you, although you may have spent most of your life ignoring it.”

So, my advice. Be ready for the unexpected. Be ready for heartbreak. And, be ready to be surprised by joy.

A fierce joy. A terrible joy.

Like an angel appearing from heaven…

Original author: James Ford
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The Intimate Way: Thoughts & Prayers & a Small Zen Meditation on Ends & Means

Jizo forest

In my little corner of the social media universe, particularly on Facebook, pretty much as soon as one of these horrific and now ubiquitous mass shootings happen, many of my friends pretty much immediately begin posting notices mocking those who’ve called for “thoughts and prayers.” That immediate visceral and hostile response is usually in response to some politician whose own immediate response to the horror are those offers of thoughts and prayers, but who has an ugly history of adamantly resisting any meaningful gun control here in the United States.

I get the frustration. And anger at the obvious hypocrisy.

But. There is a straight forward issue, a hard correlation between a country being awash in guns and mass killings. And with that some pretty obvious fixes. But, all of a sudden that isn’t the issue. Instead it becomes about people who believe in a god. Here’s a little American politics 101: You do that and you lose. Lose. Lose as in not winning. Lose.

That observation made, there are any number of directions one can go reflecting on how we choose to engage the questions of our lives. And with that I find myself thinking about the unity of action and consequence.

Actually I find myself reflecting on that whole mess of means and ends a lot of late. And it is about more than parsing various issues and keeping one’s eye on the ball. As important as that is. Ultimately, however, for me it is all a spiritual practice. Actually pretty much everything is for me. In part this has to do with my age and temperament. But, also, it is about my original vow as a Zen Buddhist.

This attending to everything is rooted in my own visceral experience of our fundamental unity. When there is no separation, what does that mean in how I meet the various events that arise in my life? A question you might find of use, as well.

I find an interesting example of how this works in a rubber hits the road way reading the Hindu spiritual classic the Bhagavad Gita. And, yes, I do understand even though the nineteenth century writer Ralph Waldo Emerson praised the text as a wonderful example of Buddhist wisdom, it is not. It is Hindu.

That said it touches the issue of our fundamental unity and does it in some very interesting ways. Ways I think we who are Zen Buddhists can learn from. The Gita calls us to action while cautioning us to let go of the results. Not rocket science. But.

I find something quite important in that small assertion. The Gita correctly observes how “action alone is within your control.” The point is bare and hard to avoid. Our control “never extends to the fruits.” That’s just the way it is in a world where things are verbs not nouns, and our actions are currents in a great stream rushing headlong to a distant sea. And this is true whatever we call ourselves, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, pagan, atheist.

Social activist and sometime Unitarian Universalist minister Fred Small observes how this deep understanding inspired Mohandas Gandhi in his actions. Mr Small writes “By letting go of results, Gandhi could devote all of his attention to the quality of his action without agonizing over every possible consequence, which he knew he couldn’t control anyway.” He then makes the essential point “…means and ends (are) the same. So long as the means (are) sound, failure and defeat (are) inconsequential.” Everything is connected. We cannot know how what we do will play out. But, also it means we are what we do.

So, gun control? Climate change? Race? Economic disparity? Grab the corner of that most calls to your heart and give it your effort. And do it without hope or fear. Or, assuming there is anything specific that will follow. The play of things are too caught up in too large a mess for us to predict outcomes.

And with that a cascade of suggestions. First, just bring my, your, our attention. And, with that something to note. What is love but attention? So, of course attending to what we are doing means bringing love to the matter. And here the dance of authentic spiritual practice is fully engaged.

And with that the hard truth that means and ends are the same becomes an invitation into intimacy. And intimacy is our experience of the connections, of our ultimate unity. Noticing this invites us into something other than salving our own egos and prejudices. Instead with intimacy, with attention, with love our actions become the great work.

And the great work is the healing of this world.

Sort of actualizing our thoughts and prayers.

Two cents on a Tuesday morning…

Original author: James Ford
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My Three Years on the Soto Zen Buddhist Association Board: a Brief Reflection

szba 2012


Here I am at the Oakland airport waiting on my flight home to Long Beach. Yesterday I completed a three-year term on the board of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association. Now, I’m jumbling through my thoughts and feelings about the experience.

I’ve devoted the majority of my life to the Zen project. My heart aligns most closely with Soto Zen Buddhism informed by the koan curriculum adapted from the Hakuin line Takujo system by the great Soto master Daiun Sogaku Harada at the turn of the last century. I was first ordained unsui close to fifty years ago and later received dharma transmission from the late English Soto priest Houn Jiyu Kennett. My practice continued under the lay koan master John Tarrant, and later as a collaborator in the formation of Boundless Way Zen.

This ranging experience has meant while I am deeply on the inside of the Soto Zen ordained way, I viscerally resist clericalism and advocate for unambiguous acknowledgment of lay practice and that lay practitioners can be full masters of our way. Today, I am working with other Soto Zen priests and lay leaders in forming a Soto sangha in Long Beach and Orange County.

And, most of all, I’m concerned about the possibilities of Zen for a fulfilled life. I see it as one of the true ways. It is powerful. It is lovely. And it is a most human enterprise. So, it is also dreadfully frustrating. And, always, it appears, always totters at the edge of collapse.

And it is from this perspective that I find myself thinking about the SZBA.

It is only twenty-two years old. In 1995 representatives of the Sotoshu suggested to some senior American priests that it was time for Westerners to organize their own Soto alliance. The following year the Soto Zen Buddhist Association was formally incorporated. Sojun Mel Weitsman was the SZBA’s first president. However, it wasn’t until 2001 that the organization began to take shape. In 2004  Jisho Caroline Warner became the third president and the SZBA held its first conference.

It was at this conference that a Dharma Heritage ceremony was initiated to replace the Japanese Soto zuise ceremony for North American practitioners. Twelve American priests who had completed the zuise ceremony officiated at the ceremony, initiating thirty senior American priests. I was honored to be among that number. And doubly so when invited to be Doshi, principal celebrant at the fifth Dharma Heritage ceremony in 2012.

Since then the SZBA has offered a variety of services to the practicing community. This has included a webpage, list serve, intensive workshops, and training periods. In 2008 the SZBA formally adopted a critical document, “Guidelines for the Formation of Soto Zen Priests in the West.” In 2010 the SZBA approved a new document honoring women ancestors. In 2011 an SZBA Ethics Statement was issued. In the same year the SZBA reincorporated with new bylaws. It has continued to be the only organization with which the Japanese Sotoshu maintains connections, even if largely informally.

Today there are approximately two hundred full members and another hundred, plus, associates. We represent lineages derived through Tozen Akiyama, Kobun Chino, Betsugen Joshin, Dainin Katagiri, Jiyu Kennett, Taizan Maezumi, Daito Noda, Tesumei Niho, Guido Nishijima, Seido Suzuki, and Shunryu Suzuki. And more. We keep growing.

SZBA bord 2017

One of the early leaders of the SZBA the late Kyogen Carlson envisioned the SZBA as a proto-denomination, an organization that might bind the various individual lineages that have come to North America and the West. And with that to create expectations of preparation as well as ethical guidelines and networking.

The need for some commonly understood training standards has become increasingly important over the years. Unlike in Japan with long established forms, here we are literally the wild west. And something unusual has happened here. Because of the romance of Zen’s dharma transmission there are a growing number of people who have been given Zen titles, but who have had little and on occasion no training.

This has happened before. In Japan. And in China. In Medieval Europe this phenomenon occurred around Christian ordination and such people were called hedge-priests.  Some of these Zen priests also show characteristics in common with the Christian Episcopi Vagantes movement.

As with Episcopus Vagans, a few of these people are amazing practitioners and teachers. And, I like that there is the possibility of creativity at the edges of a tradition. But, mostly, this is simply a problem. Inadequately prepared and often inappropriate people are using titles, and frankly, misleading people about what Zen is and can be.

For the sake of our emerging Western Soto Zen those of us who are seriously committed, finding common ground among practitioners and teachers is critical. And that includes finding standards of preparation. It means the difference between an authentic spiritual tradition taking root here and a beautiful discipline dissolving into a playground for egoists seeking approval without doing the work. So, while Kyogen Roshi’s hope for a denomination is not on the immediate horizon, seeking commonly accepted objective standards to underline what dharma transmission should mean is critical.

And during my tenure our principal struggle focused on one thing. This was finding accord on a standards component to the formation document. The sticking point was intensive monastic training. In Soto Zen this is usually experienced in the form of ango, ninety-day cloistered practice. The Japanese Sotoshu ordinarily requires two ango as part of priestly formation. This question and how it should apply to the SZBA has taken up nearly a decade of discussion.

Part of the problem is coming to agreement as to what precisely Soto Zen ordination is. Normative ordination throughout Buddhism’s history has been vinaya monasticism. So normative in fact that the word sangha, which today in the West is understood in much the same way as “church,” to mean both the local gathering of Buddhists and the larger Buddhist community, was originally meant only the vinaya ordained community.

However in Japan starting in the ninth century a reformed ordination system based in the Bramajala Bodhisattva precepts was introduced through the Tendai school. While initially simply meant as an alternative form of full monastic ordination, through those mysterious accidents of history, something new emerged in Japan. Today Soto Zen clerics ordained through the Sixteen Bodhisattva precepts are not expected to be celibate, be vegetarian, or shave their heads.

The great Shin founder Shinran Shonin spoke of this new ordained way that has evolved in Japan as being “neither monk nor lay.” Instead of monks, but also not lay people, Japanese Buddhist clergy are sometimes called “married monks,” but probably are best called “priests.”

In a recent article on this blog I used that term “married monk,” attempting to capture the unique quality of Soto ordination, how it has monastic components but is not celibate. The intensity of the negative reactions on the inter webs, while magnified by being on the inter webs, shows that the term is probably not adaptable into normative English.

The word “priest” is associated with leading ceremonial functions, and that certainly is an aspect of the work and discipline of a Soto priest. But, also it can mean a “technologist of the spirit.” And within the Zen tradition, this would suggest a certain mastery of one or more of the Zen arts of contemplation. And that works. Finally, if we consider how the word priest literally means “elder,” from the Latin presbyter, a Zen priest would be both a trained technologist of the spirit and an elder with the community.

And when it comes to a Zen priest, a Soto Zen priest, there are a number of things one should be able to expect. In my view the number one thing is that person should be a competent meditation teacher. This person should have had extensive experience and have been assessed by others to be able to guide people on the path of zazen. Less important to me, but historically very important, and critical to many, and I believe important to the establishment of Zen here, the Soto priest should also be competent in the leading of Soto Zen’s various rituals. A Soto Zen priest in the west to have teaching, counseling, and spiritual direction skills. And, increasingly there is need for traditional Western ministerial skillsets.

But most of all this person should be a dedicated practitioner of Zen. Without this the rest cannot follow. But, how to establish this? Fortunately in more serious Zen circles fewer and fewer are tangled in the myth of dharma transmission and see it as sufficient. Some want to acknowledge the need for preparation but resist any institutional markers. Others see the need to continue that monastic formation found in extensive monastic residency, or, at the very least in the form of an ango or two or three or four.

The problem included the fact many people who are Soto Zen priests have not had this experience. Also there is a legitimate concern that as many people as possible who feel the “call” of ordained life be given the opportunity to do it. In an era where people who ordain cannot expect to be professionals, that is be paid as priests and teachers, what training demands are reasonable? Especially when monastic formation removes one from the opportunity to earn money and to save for one’s old age. And depending on when that monastic experience is taken on, this can have dire consequences for people’s future lives. There are also questions about people with minor children or other obligations.

I came on the board having served for ten years on the membership of the only other substantial group of Zen teachers in the West, the American Zen Teachers Association. While it has no aspirations beyond being a forum for mutual support among Zen teachers it did run up against the question, “Who is a Zen teacher?”

What we found was that whatever else might be true about the formation of a Zen teacher, whether a layperson, a priest, or a monk, or a nun, whatever other experiences or training led to their obtaining a title what everyone who “felt” one of the group to the others had extensive Zen meditation experience. Trying to put a number to that the membership committee established one year of intensive meditation experience. What in Japanese Zen we would call “sesshin” days, days with between eight and eleven hours of meditation. And, so my strongly held position was that we should forgo the ango requirement in favor of sesshin days.

We struggled mightily with this.

And in the end like Horace sings to us:

And don’t start like the old writer of epic cycles:
‘Of Priam’s fate I’ll sing, and the greatest of Wars.’
What could he produce to match his opening promise?
Mountains will labour: what’s born? A ridiculous mouse!

Basically we agreed that normative formation for a Soto Zen Buddhist priest should include as a minimum one ango. As a compromise with the circumstances of our times this ango expectation can be met with four three week residential intensives.

It was hard for me to vote for this, but I did. I felt, and actually, still feel that a single ango is both too much and not enough, in that that residency requirement means a lot of people will simply not be able to meet the expectation, and at the same time a single ango is no where near enough to make a priest. As to that second part, this isn’t meant to be sufficient, merely necessary.

As to the first part, that’s where I struggled. I looked at my own life, and while I completed approximately four ango (I no longer can count precisely. It was nearly fifty years ago), the truth is that I would not be teaching if it weren’t for the twenty years I spent doing koan introspection with a number of teachers.

But, there is something about Soto Zen ordination that is more than preparing a minister, or even a Zen teacher.  And here that difficult term “married monk” keeps returning. As unsatisfactory as it is. Maybe better “neither monk nor lay.” But it is something. We who walk this path are joined together within what I guess I would have to call an order, a community of practitioners with some few things in common. And, that monastic element, I reluctantly acknowledge, is authentically part of the package.

It was also important for me to clarify in my own mind that ordination as a Soto priest is not the only way to acknowledge mastery of our way, and not the essential parts. I can easily give full authorization as a teacher to a lay person. Well, not easily, that person must walk the way for many years, have sat at least that year of sesshin, and probably have completed the Harada reformed koan curriculum. I can only hope this truth of lay mastery will be accepted within our Western Soto in time. It certainly happens here and there now. One of the largest streams of Soto Zen in the West the White Plum acknowledge lay masters. More will follow.

And for me knowing that allows me to open more fully to what it means to be a priest.

That said, embracing the Soto Zen priest way means we do need to find ways to foster the whole of it, and that does mean including monastic formation. Precisely how, I suspect is still open. But, the obvious way is through ango.

And that’s that. Three years. A mouse. But, who knows what this mouse might become?

Its not long before my flight home.

I am tired. A little disappointed I couldn’t have done more. And grateful for the opportunity to share in this amazing work that is planting Soto Zen here on Turtle Island.

May all beings be well…


Original author: James Ford
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Space To Heal, Thuy Nguyen

Healing requires space. As we plow through day to day life, we dream about finding a time when there will be space to heal, rejuvenate and refuel. Some of us are holding off until the weekend, while for others the breaks are fewer and farther in between. When we can’t find that space in time, we fall sick. Then we are forced to have some bed rest, some space, some time to heal. Sometimes it is just a few days we are in bed, sometimes it is much longer than that.

We think of space as if it were a far-off destination or something we create. But really, space is ever present and everywhere. A room crammed full of stuff doesn’t have less space than an empty room, It just has more stuff in it. We are not creating space when we take stuff out, space is already there. There is nothing but space.  
Inside us is space as well. Like our external space, our internal space can become crowded with stuff that might impede our ability to move around and do things efficiently. Our internal space becomes more and more crowded with thoughts, beliefs, and judgments that keep us from healing, movement, and growth. Much like a hoarder who crowds his life with material things because he fears he may someday need them for survival and well-being, we hoard and crowd ourselves with unnecessary beliefs and judgments.

“Should” thoughts and “can’t” thoughts and “have to” thoughts and “never/ always” thoughts are dis-empowering and create impossible conditions for our healing, depleting us of our energy. Thoughts like “I will never have enough time, space or resources to fulfill my needs.” Or thoughts like “the only way to feel better is to have or do x, y and z” set us up for failure time and again. These thoughts crowd our internal space and become externalized in the form of judgments of others and the world.

We have the internal space to heal. We only need to be willing to let go of some of the discordant clutter and noise of our minds. We need to trust and accept ourselves enough to let go of the stockpile of unnecessary thought weapons and defenses that are weighing us down every day, every moment. This acceptance in and of itself creates space and expansion. A spacious and trusting internal world can positively affect both internal and external environments in subtle and miraculous ways. De-clutter some outdated thoughts right now. Replace them with: I have the space to heal, I have the capacity to heal, this very moment....
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I Will Never Abandon You: The Zen priest Hozan Senauke sings

I can’t date it precisely, but something in the neighborhood of fifty years ago I wandered into the recently launched Berkeley Zendo. Today, I am going to its successor organization the Berkeley Zen Center for my last meeting as a member of the board of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association.

The Berkeley Zen Center is one of those minor centers of the universe, a place where many people have found their hearts. I can’t think of it, either the old zendo or the now long established Zen center without thinking of my gratitude to their founding abbot, the Reverend Sojun Mel Weitsman. But, of course, this is no one person’s show.

And in the moment I find myself thinking of their vice-abbot, the Reverend Hozan Alan Senauke. In addition to being one of the senior Zen priests in North American, Hozan is a poet, social justice activist, and, oh, he sings…
Original author: James Ford
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Enter Will Rogers

Will Rogers




William Penn Adair Rogers, better known to posterity as Will, was born on this day, the 4th of November, 1879 at the Dog Iron Ranch in what was called Indian Territory near Oologah, Oklahoma. His father was a rancher and a Cherokee judge, interestingly also a Confederate veteran.

After completing the 10th grade, Will dropped out of school, working for a couple of years at the ranch. Then he and a friend sought their fortune in Argentina. It didn’t work. He returned home. Then another attempt at international adventure in South Africa. Then he joined Texas Jack’s Wild West Circus as a trick roper. With a couple more false starts he launched as an entertainer.

His would be a wildly successful career. His gentle aw shucks style bound up together with an astute read on the human heart won the English speaking world. Even eighty-two years after his death he is still recalled fondly.

Original author: James Ford
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The Global Mental Health Crisis + Other Stories

Every week, we corral the best wellness stories from around the internet—just in time for your weekend bookmarking. This week: how snails could help save the environment, our global mental health crisis, and an unexpected way of producing diamonds.

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The Stage Opens: Julian is Declared Emperor



It was on this day, the 3rd of November, in the year 361 of our common era that the Emperor Constantius II died. In his will he name his cousin Julian his sole “legitimate” heir.

A golden child of the Constantinian dynasty, and ultimately that last child of the dynasty, Julian had previously served as Caesar of the western provinces. His own army had proclaimed him Augustus 360, and with the death of Constantius and with that will, Julian was acknowledged universally. He would rule for a mere two years.

Most notably Julian was the last non-Christian emperor. The Christian tide had already probably ebbed past any subsiding, but Julian gave it his best efforts. And his best was pretty  impressive. While raised an Arian Christian, he converted himself to a high version of the ancient pagan traditions.

The Wikipedia article on him outlines his beliefs.

“Julian’s personal religion was both pagan and philosophical; he viewed the traditional myths as allegories, in which the ancient gods were aspects of a philosophical divinity. The chief surviving sources are his works To King Helios and To the Mother of the Gods, which were written as panegyrics, not theological treatises.

“While there are clear resemblances to other forms of Late Antique religion, it is controversial as to which variety it is most similar. He learned theurgy from Maximus of Ephesus, a student of Iamblichus; his system bears some resemblance to the Neoplatonism of Plotinus; Polymnia Athanassiadi has brought new attention to his relations with Mithraism, although whether he was initiated into it remains debatable; and certain aspects of his thought (such as his reorganization of paganism under High Priests, and his fundamental monotheism) may show Christian influence. Some of these potential sources have not come down to us, and all of them influenced each other, which adds to the difficulties.

Julian coin“According to one theory (that of G.W. Bowersock in particular), Julian’s paganism was highly eccentric and atypical because it was heavily influenced by an esoteric approach to Platonic philosophy sometimes identified as theurgy and also Neoplatonism. Others (Rowland Smith, in particular) have argued that Julian’s philosophical perspective was nothing unusual for a “cultured” pagan of his time, and, at any rate, that Julian’s paganism was not limited to philosophy alone, and that he was deeply devoted to the same gods and goddesses as other pagans of his day.”

As emperor Julian repudiated various benefits that had been bestowed upon Christian bishops, including generous stipends and the right of consultation on matters of state. He declared that teachers of the pagan classics be pagans, which was seen as a major move to marginalize the Christian hegemony over education. He didn’t outlaw the Christian church, but instead in 362 through an edict he legalized everyone’s freedom of religious conscience. He supported the Jewish community, and undertook a project to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, which like many other of his projects ended with his premature death.

Julian established a state pagan religion, which he hoped would not only rival but supplant the now enormously powerful Christian church. To this effect he tried to adapt the most successful aspects of the Christian organization to his own religious community. He appointed high priests who were marked out for their deep learning and high moral character. While they were accountable to him as pontifex maximus, they supervised the many priests who served the community. He restored and endowed numerous temples.

Something very interesting was taking shape.

And it all ended abruptly with his death in 363.

I find it a sadness. And one of those moments in history, where it is hard not to think, what if?

Of such stuff as dreams are made on.

Original author: James Ford
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Those Zen Christians: George Herbert Puts His Finger on the Great Matter

George Herbert
Okay maybe he would never think of himself as a “Zen Christian.” But, I have trouble not doing so. The poet and Anglican priest George Herbert sings into our hearts:

I struck the board, and cry’d, ‘No more;
I will abroad.’
What, shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free; free as the rode,
Loose as the wind, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit?
Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did drew it: there was corn
before my tears did drown it.
Is the years only lost to me?
Have I no bare to crown it;
No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted,
All wasted?
No so, my heart; but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.
Recover all they sigh-blown age
On double pleasures; leave they cold dispute

Of what is fit and not; forsake thy cage,
Thy rope of sands,
Which petite thoughts have made; and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw
And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and would not see.
Away! take heed;
I will abroad,
Call in thy death’s-head there, tie up thy fears;
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need
Deserves his load.
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wilde
At every word,
Me thought I heard one calling, ‘Childe’;
And I reply’d, ‘My Lord.’

The great R. H. Blythe commented on Herbert’s poem, “This is the essence of all religion; the hardness of iron, the softness of wool, the blueness of the distant mountains, the coldness of water, – it is the will of God, the will of Nature, receive it without hesitation.”

Me, I am more inclined to thinking of this as the song of the dark night. Which, of course, is the threshold to our heart’s awakening…

And if you prefer to hear it, well, here you go…

Original author: James Ford
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3 Tools for Finding Love


Deganit Nuur, a professional clairvoyant, certified herbalist, and licensed acupuncturist, is brilliant at connecting the invisible dots: Feeling stressed? She’ll examine the color of your tongue, pinpoint blocked qi in your liver meridian, channel an event from your past that powers a habit that doesn’t serve you today—and practically tie a bow around it all, so you see how inextricably linked your mind, body, and soul are. Given Nuur’s gift for identifying how to get people unstuck, she sees a lot of clients who feel blocked in various aspects of their lives. (Her practice, Nuurvanna, has outposts in NYC and LA, and Nuur personally does virtual sessions around the globe.) But the department she’s most often consulted about? Love.

“Hands down, the most frequently asked question I get is, ‘Will I ever find love?’,” says Nuur. But concerns of the heart are not unique to single people: Nuur says she fields as many love-centric questions from clients who are in relationships—both happy and not. “The ageless desire to love and be loved unifies us all,” says Nuur. “I don’t know a single soul who couldn’t use more love in their life. Do you?”

Here, Nuur shares a few easy tools that anyone can use to help resolve issues of love—whether it’s attracting it, keeping it, or getting more.

Creating More Love

The three simple suggestions below will help open yourself up to more love. Whether you’re single or in a relationship, they can help call in the kind of love you desire and deserve, as well as resolve conflict with greater grace and compassion. In implementing the exercises, you’ll feel more connected and unified with yourself—and with your loves. These tools are based on my clinical experience and draw from behavioral psychology, cognitive science, and traditional Chinese medicine. When practiced regularly, they’ve proven really effective for clients looking to rewire their systems, elevate their energy, and surround themselves with greater love.

Tool #1: Sandalwood on the Heart

Applied to one’s chest, sandalwood is an incredible essential oil, used to help break up stagnant energy around the heart. It’s best for letting go of old baggage and being more present for love.

I see wonderful people in healthy relationships all the time who are relating to their current partners from a place of disempowerment due to past pain and trauma. A client will feel frustrated or stagnant, but it has nothing to do with his/her current relationship. Their partner might be unable to text in a timely manner, and they’ll go straight to the worst-case scenario—and to anger, devastation, disconnection. Meanwhile, this is the healthiest relationship they’ve ever been in, the love is strong, the communication is great, and the romance is vibrant. We’ve all been there. When triggered, it’s like all that is good is forgotten, and the actions that follow become a reflection of fear and anxiety, not love and connection. Living from the past, limiting beliefs around love, or hurtful associations with particular actions all have the potential to cause pain and harm to both parties.

“We’ve all been there. When triggered, it’s like all that is good is forgotten, and the actions that follow become a reflection of fear and anxiety, not love and connection.”

Sandalwood will help clear all that out, so you may dive into love courageously, with an open heart and a more innocent, elevated perspective. It releases triggers and associations and courses qi so you’re able to relate to love in realtime and remain fluid in your current experience. (Sandalwood has been studied for effects on arousal, the central nervous system, healing skin, et al.) Like a gentle clearing, working with sandalwood allows for new beginnings in love—whether with a new person, your boo of many years, or, most importantly, yourself.

How To: Apply 1-2 drops of sandalwood essential oil in clockwise circles on your upper chest, twice daily. (Clockwise directions are used to call love in and counterclockwise circles to help you offer love.)

Next Level: To maximize the benefits of this medicinal, fragrant wood, couple it with a mantra and a visualization. An example is: “I accept and receive all the love that life generously offers me.” (For affirmation ideas, see Louise Hay’s book, You Can Heal Your Life. The fairy godmom of affirmations, Hay has said that she repeats, “Everybody loves me,” throughout the day and whenever meeting new people. Give it a go and see what it does for you!)

While you’re doing this, visualize all your loved ones. (Pets count!) You can visualize them hugging you, or maybe they’re smiling at you, telling you how much they love you. Challenge yourself to really let the love in. Should you get weepy, it’s totally cool. Tears are the effect of the heart and suggest you’re moving through some old energy. Healing happens when love meets pain.

Try this exercise twice daily, for 2 minutes each, for a total of 40 days. Clients notice greater unity and cohesion with their current relationships and a greater sense of belonging. Side effects may include, but are not limited to: increased self-confidence, reduced self-judgment and judgment of others, feeling more inspired, feeling lighter and happier.

Tool #2: Giving Thanks

It’s incredible how unlovable and lonely we feel sometimes. Clients walk in asking if they’re cursed or doomed to be alone forever, wondering what’s wrong with them. While these feelings are valid, the second I go into their energy fields, the fears usually seem almost laughable. “You are SUCH A LOVER!” I’ll exclaim. (I’ll sometimes even see a line—as if wrapped around the block—of potential lovers, friends, and admirers.)

So what gives? How can one be surrounded by love and yet totally disconnected from it at the same time? We’re often not fully allowing the love, praise, compliments, kindness, help, and support in. We dismiss love—it goes something like this:

Person A: “You’re looking good!”

Us: “Yeah, a pound of makeup will do that, but thank you!”

Person B: “Let me help you with those boxes.”

Us: “Oh, I got it—I’m almost there!”

Person C: “That was a really smart call. I would have never thought of that!”

Us: (Eye roll, possibly in judgment of others—idiots!) “I guess? Thanks?”

You get the gist. How we do anything is how we do everything: If we’re having a hard time allowing praise, help, or acknowledgment in, we’re keeping the door sealed shut on love. Kind words, touch, helpful gestures, and desiring your time are acts of love. They’re like love’s messengers. When we shoot the messengers over and over again, love will be cautious when considering sending out the next messenger.

“How we do anything is how we do everything: If we’re having a hard time allowing praise, help, or acknowledgment in, we’re keeping the door sealed shut on love.”

Ready to open your heart and life, mind, body, and soul to more love? It’s so simple you’ll want to dismiss it at first.

How To: Say, “Thank you.”

That’s it. Don’t follow it up with, “you too!” or “that’s sweet of you to say,” or anything at all. Just say, “Thank you.” When you’re being offered love, be mindful to let it in, allow it to land, and do your best not to deflect or minimize it. May “thank you” be your new knee-jerk response to love.

Next Level: When we deflect messages of love, the person doing the offering feels a little bummed out, too. It’s like immediately tossing out a gift without even unwrapping it first. Giving thanks is like opening up the gift and getting excited over it in front of that person. It completes the exchange. It creates a bond for both parties and enhances unity and connection, so everyone is feeling loved. All of life is an exchange of energies. Completing the exchange affirms our interdependence on this planet and reinforces the idea that we’re all in this together. Stopping the exchange leads to separation and division. When we feel like we’re in it alone, we’re more likely to feel protective, defensive, guarded—and to block love. Giving thanks opens up the doors, lets love in, validates all parties involved, and helps us remember that we are not alone.

By no means am I suggesting we all do things, or date people we’re not really into. I’m suggesting you acknowledge your infinite reach and all the love offered to you. Say thank you for the message, even when you’re not vibing the messenger. The message is love. The messenger is just love’s humble servant. For example, if someone asks you out on a date, say thank you. You can say yes or no to the offer, but remember to accept and receive the broader message of love.

“Giving thanks is like opening up the gift and getting excited over it in front of that person. It completes the exchange.”

Love is always a nice thing to acknowledge, and it shows up in so many different ways and forms—look out for it! Doing so helps reinforce the notion of interdependence on a subconscious level, so we feel more unified, connected, loved—and way less lonely. Say thank you more often, and you’ll be vibrating with love and gratitude, which is a magnet for more love and gratitude.

Tool #3: Romance Your Senses

It’s easy to become super heady and place greater emphasis on our thoughts than our senses and feelings, but we’re so much more than our analytical minds and intellect. Overthinking (whether because school or career demand it, or because of worry or fear) can get qi trapped in our heads, creating a disconnect between body and mind. I see this far too often in our healing center. This disconnect can contribute to all sorts of imbalances, like mood swings, anxiety, insomnia, and neck and shoulder pain. Once qi gets trapped in the head (or anywhere in the body for that matter), it can remain trapped and reinforce some uncomfortable patterns. We’ll feel like a hamster on a wheel, or like we’re living life on auto-pilot, zombie style. It’s the opposite of living in love—limited and fixed, whereas love liberates and expands.

“We’re not designed to be so compartmentalized. All our pieces are parts of the whole.”

I’ve seen this disconnect also show up as low libido and lack of enthusiasm for life. Basically, your body isn’t getting enough love. We’re not designed to be so compartmentalized. All our pieces are parts of the whole. It’s not simply our heads that fall in love! With limited qi flowing through the heart (or groin/second chakra) space, we’re limited in our abilities to love and be loved.

If this is resonating, know we all have a tendency to land in this position. Especially in such techy times when we’re hunched over most of the day—constricting qi and blood flow between head and body-and so focused on the tiny details of the screen and not on the big picture. Think about your posture (is it guarded?) and what that suggests psychologically, and also what that’s doing for your muscles and circulation biophysically (do you have pain, discomfort, misalignment?).

It’s not your fault. Being a disconnected robot is highly reinforced in our society. But if you’re down to liberate your qi, let it course through you, and spread back down to your heart and body…

How To: The trick here is to engage your senses. For example, take time to smell the roses—literally. If you’re not already buying, or picking, or checking out flowers every week, start now. Take a moment to smell the flowers and revel in them each time you pass by.

A warm bath with candles, wine, incense, music, is a lovely way to reinforce the senses and inspire greater sensuality.

At Nuurvana, we’re all about essential oils. Besides the countless health benefits (from their potential to help lower anxiety, enhance mood, reduce pain, improve sleep, support digestion, and more), they’re so luxurious and euphoric. Diffuse some ylang ylang, rose, geranium, or lemongrass to work that sensual second chakra space. Rub some vetiver or sandalwood into your feet each night to descend the qi, reinforce the body, and get reconnected with desire and pleasure.

When you’re applying oils or lotions, massage them in slowly. Be tender with yourself, as you would be with a lover. Make it a sensory delight, rather than a functional task.

When you’re eating, chew slowly and savor every morsel of flavor. Wear clothes that are so soft and comfortable that you want to pet yourself. Invest in great sheets.

Next Level: Let yourself indulge in sensory overload. This will help you feel deserving and worthy of the love, admiration, and adoration available to you, through you, and through others.

If you’re in a relationship, this practice can decrease feelings of neediness, so your relationship can thrive from a powerful place of desire, rather than one limited by feelings of need or obsession. You may find yourself more effusive and loving—and receiving greater tender loving care on account of it.

If you’re single, this practice can work in much the same way—helping you feel fulfilled, sexy, and grounded, so you attract love from a place of desire and interdependence, rather than a place of desperation or co-dependence.

This sensory practice is a great step toward putting all your eggs in your own basket, which is a game-changer. (It’s the basket you have the most power over.) This is you consciously creating your love life, reinforcing your beautiful body, and ALL the wonderful sensations it offers you. Life and love are bound to get a bit more passionate and euphoric when we do these things.

Practice makes permanence. Practice these tools until they become your habit and lifestyle—so you’re high on love, all day every day. You deserve it!

Deganit Nuur is a certified herbalist, licensed acupuncturist, and intuitive. As an acupuncturist, she prescribes herbal potions and essential oils to clients as a complement to healing sessions. Nuur offers virtual sessions to clients around the globe. Her growing practice of clairvoyants, Nuurvana, has home bases in NYC and LA.

The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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Why Daydreaming Is Productive


Time spent dreaming is every bit as valuable (if not more) as time spent doing, says psychotherapist and psychological astrologer Jennifer Freed, Ph.D. But many of us are quick to dismiss our imagination, or to dismiss those who we consider to have their heads in the clouds. Freed finds that many women have internalized patriarchal messages that devalue both their inner longings and creative ideas, and on the flip side, sees the imagination as the key to unlocking your unlimited potential. Below, she explains how and why this happens.

Just My Imagination

There are many ways to be free. One of them is to transcend reality by imagination, as I try to do. — Anaïs Nin

Consider that the only place we are truly free to feel what we feel and to desire what we desire, without consequence or reprisal, is in our imaginations. The phrase, “That’s just your imagination,” underestimates the power and energy of a robust imaginative life.

What we imagine affects our bodily chemistry. When we imagine doing something novel in our lives, it primes the brain to provide opportunities to actualize that wish—in fact, the very act of imagining stretches and strengthens the capacities of our brains. (On the other hand, worry—negative imagining—can leave a trace of psychological battery acid.) When we imagine something positive—whether it be sexual, athletic, creative, or artistic—we activate positive predispositions and chemicals in the brain and body. Our sexual imagination, for example, produces healthy amounts of dopamine and oxytocin in the brain, which increases pleasure and feelings of attachment. Dopamine also influences well-being, alertness, learning, creativity, attention, and concentration. This is how sexual fantasy and creative image-making enhance many aspects of our functioning, and bring us more happiness and life satisfaction.

Women’s Imaginings vs. the Patriarchal Narrative

The act of imagining is universal and inherent to human nature; and yet, many of us—women in particular—are embarrassed or ashamed of our sexual or creative musings. We come from a history of women’s imaginations being colonized by a patriarchal narrative that equates female longing and desire with the biblical Eve and the destruction of Adam’s purity. Men have been chronicled as the powerful virile visionaries and women for the most part have been recorded as merely seductive or adjunctive. Women have often been seen as the “femme fatale,” the “harlot,” and the “muse,” but are rarely singled out in a congratulatory way for being outrageously powerful, prophetic, and tuned in to their divine knowing.

For too long now, women have been taught to regard our inner longings and imaginations as evil, disloyal, corrupted, and insubordinate. We are taught to see our non-conforming reveries as harmful or endangering.

Our capacity to re-imagine and recreate ourselves frequently is fundamental to our happiness. And yet, even my most enlightened feminist friends will sometimes shut down their imaginations in favor of some construct that feels more politically correct. They don’t recognize that they are letting the wildness that is intrinsically theirs be repressed—to be regarded as shameful and wrong.

“For too long now, women have been taught to regard our inner longings and imaginations as evil, disloyal, corrupted, and insubordinate.”

As women seeking to maximize our vitality, we need to actively refuse to suppress ourselves; to say a firm NO to subordinating our authenticity and imagination to lifeless, conformist social norms and dictates.

Why do women talk so much about their lives in mundane terms? Why do they pay so little attention to their dreams and imaginings? What if we started each of our social conversations with questions like: “What are you longing for lately? What is centermost in your imaginative life?”

Any woman who has achieved greatness has dared to reach beyond the existing narratives and courageously pursued audaciously imagined ideas. These visionary women dared to dream despite constant noise from detractors who wanted to shut them down and shame them for not toeing the line. The hard line women are warned not to cross has been drawn by societal expectations that women should be controlled, contrite, and contained—expectations that we, unfortunately, may have internalized enough that we imprison ourselves. Suppressing the real wildness of our dreaming is one way this happens.

Imagination & Creative Expression

When we dismiss or shame ourselves for what we desire and what we fantasize about—because it is not “real,” “reasonable,” or “righteous”—we lose our vitality. We lose our way. We can become numb and complacent.

Find me a woman who complains of being bored, disconnected, or dull, and she will also be someone who has given up on the expression of her desires and dreams. Even where it is impractical to live out these fantasies, desires, and dreams, it kills the soul to not host them through some form of creative expression.

“What happens when we recover our imaginative life; when we dare to feel our longings and name our deepest desires even to just ourselves? We do not sleepwalk through our lives.”

When we stop up the river of imagination with dams of self-denial or censorship, we cut ourselves off from the generative flow of life itself. No mastery of artistic expression is required to playfully channel our imaginations into writing, drawing, dance, improvisation, or other forms of creative expression. What’s needed is for us to resist the dominant culture’s noisy hijacking of our attention, and for us to take time to honor our inner muses.

What happens when we recover our imaginative life; when we dare to feel our longings and name our deepest desires even to just ourselves? We do not sleepwalk through our lives; instead, we experience a sudden and undeniable surge of love and energy. We become animated and engaged. We become curious and defiant. This world needs to be dreamed anew to make it hospitable for all living beings and the Earth itself.

Jennifer Freed, Ph.D., M.F.T., psychotherapist and author of PeaceQ, has been teaching and consulting worldwide for thirty years. Freed is the executive director of AHA! which specializes in transforming schools and communities by focusing on peace-building peer-led initiatives. She is also a psychological astrologer.

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Saint Death: Noticing a Feast for Santa Muerte, Our Lady of the Holy Death

Saint Death




In the Christian calendar today is the feast of All Saints.

However, within some circles, often called “folk Catholicism” this is also the feast of Santa Muerte, Saint Death, or Holy Death, or most formally Our Lady of the Holy Death.

Santa Muerte is a female saint of a folk sort, certainly in no way official, and possibly, and in my view pretty obviously, actually a deity. She is the personification of death. And with that a figure of enormous power.

In the face of repeated and vociferous condemnation from the Roman Church her cult has spread throughout Mexico and now well into the American Southwest. Some see her as a modern incarnation of the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuati, and that may be true. There are pretty astonishing similarities. Me, I see her as an indigenous American corollary to the Hindu Kali. I’m wary of any casual use of the term “archetype.” But. Whatever the historic roots, she seems to be a manifestation of some deep sense of the human heart.

I admit while I am fascinated with religions, until relatively recently I’ve given this spiritual phenomenon no particular attention. Okay, and with whatever attention it has been accompanied with some slight revulsion. The cult is sometimes considered the religion of the cartels and prison gang members. Actually she is of particular interest to prisoners. And their families. To make matters worse, there have been rumors of human sacrifice. Frankly, I think some of them are true. Again, I think of the cult of Kali.

And, there is something more to this spiritual phenomenon. I watched one of birthright Muslim, and Sufi Reza Aslan’s Believer series that addressed “Saint Death.”

While there are legitimate criticisms of Aslan’s approach in that show, he did challenge us as viewers to reconsider what we think we know of the cult of Saint Death. And, I certainly have.

The unsettling figure, the skeleton of a woman, is the central visual image. She arises as a figure to help the lost and forgotten. And, with that she has a large and growing following. According to the Wikipedia article about the cult, “The cult of Santa Muerte is present throughout the strata of Mexican society, although the majority of devotees are from the urban working class. Most are young people, aged in their teens, twenties, or thirties, and are also mostly female. A large following developed among Mexicans who are disillusioned with the dominant, institutional Catholic Church and, in particular, with the inability of established Catholic saints to deliver them from poverty.”

For me, I realized she has a lot in common with Kali. And, in addition to the Thugs, Kali was also the principal call into the heart for the great Nineteenth century Hindu saint Ramakrishna. And I can’t say how important Ramakrishna was to me.

Until I’d discovered him through the writings of Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood and their associates, my idea of what gods looked like was informed by my conservative Baptist upbringing modified by my father’s bare and no doubt reductionist atheism. Ramakrishna prayed constantly for a vision of his goddess, Kali, the Divine Mother. He wanted to know her as she was, desperately. I personally understood this prayer. It was my own longing from some aching place in the pit of my being, to know whether God was true, was real.

I never got that response to my prayers. But his were answered. One day unbidden, she came to him. In a vision as he watched she arose out of a river and walked toward him. As she walked the goddess swelled out in pregnancy, gave birth and then ate her child. Witnessing this he slipped into a fever of ecstasy. As a young man, really, still a boy, I was shocked that this would be a turning point in this revered saint’s life. It seemed so awful. However, I filed it away in the depths of my heart, and never completely forgot it.

Shortly after I’d left the Buddhist monastery I’d been living in for several years, I went to Oregon to visit my brother. He lived in a rural area, and I found myself at the edge of a genuine wilderness. I sat down in the shade beside a creek. I can still taste the air from that day; I can smell the warmth and the vegetation. At the very same time the area was deeply silent and abuzz with life. Then in the midst of it all something caught my attention. On a sunny spot on a good-sized rock in the middle of the creek I watched as a large fat toad, hopped up, settled down, and sunned itself.

All was right with the universe.

What I didn’t notice until just as it struck was the snake. My heart leapt into my throat, I was frozen to the spot as I witnessed it all happen. In a bloody moment snake and frog fell behind the rock, mercifully for me, out of sight. Minutes later the snake slithered up onto the rock to the same place, with a large swelling in its middle, and lazed in the same sunny spot.

In another unbidden moment, I recalled Kali and Ramakrishna and that horrific, and now somehow for me, personally, deeply beautiful vision. I felt my heart grabbed like that snake grabbed the frog. And, more important, most important: I felt myself swallowed whole by the goddess of life and of death. I realized sitting there in the shade witnessing it all, that I, too, was swallowed by the world itself.

I think Saint Death is Kali.

Of course, she is fiercely opposed by the Roman Church as well as Evangelical Christians. Of course she gets very bad press. And some of it, well, it is deserved. But, she is followed by increasing numbers of people. Originally her followers came from among the poorest of the poor, and with that those who have been imprisoned, and with that, her association with criminality.

However, she is proving to be something more. For instance her is becoming a religion for Millennials. Although not generally prosperous English speaking North American Millennials. Although, that said she is beginning to find followers among  more prosperous Spanish speaking Millennials. And she has a strong following in the Spanish speaking LGBTQ community.

Something is going on. Something powerful. It might be worthwhile noticing…

For a longer reflection on her cult, here you go.

Original author: James Ford
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Save a Ghost: A Zen Meditation for Halloween

woman holding a devil mask





Today is the 31st of October.

In the Western calendar today is Halloween. While in my corner of the world Halloween is basically about small children, and sometimes not so small putting on disguises and hoping to extort candy from their neighbors and for some adults costume and alcohol driven parties, at the same time there is something thing more important to our human psyche being offered. This is my small reflection on that other offering.

Halloween is also called All Hallows’ Eve, and these days much less commonly All Saint’s Eve. It is the beginning of a three-day celebration within the Christian church, Allhallowtide, which leads tomorrow to All Saints Day, and then, the next day to All Souls Day.

Fall seems to inspire us to think about our connections between the living and the dead, of the veil that separates us, and how thin that membrane actually is. How, in fact, it sometimes frays and breaks and connections appear. Sometimes frighteningly. Sometimes soothingly.

Of course most all religions have something comparable. For instance, and most interesting to me, Buddhists and Daoists have similar holidays, the Ghost Festival and perhaps more familiarity Bon.

Although, I also find it interesting, neither is observed in the Fall. Me, I suspect as Buddhism becomes indigenous in the West this celebration may migrate to the fall perhaps mapping Allhallowtide. Or, not. Life is mysterious, and if we want to make fools of ourselves, one sure way is to try and predict human behaviors…

But, whatever season is best, it is good on occasion to turn to the mystery of life and death. For me what immediately comes to mind is a minor koan. It goes “Save a ghost.” Within my Zen community it is included in a collection called “Miscellaneous Koans,” and is part of a short course on how koans are used as a spiritual discipline.

The miscellaneous koans are introduced after someone has successfully engaged what is called a “first” or “breakthrough” koan, and has tumbled to the essential matter of our identity within form and emptiness. So, in the short course we are learning how to deepen and widen our encounter with the most intimate things of our lives. And, perhaps, obviously, one of those questions should be “save a ghost.”

Not only is the membrane between the living and the dead in fact as thin as gossamer, the membrane that separates us from all other things, alive and inorganic is vastly less certain than we usually think. And, it turns out this includes all the different things that weave together and create that temporary whole I call me. And you call yourself.

The koan way particularly rubs our noses in that reality. From all sorts of angles. Among these minor, or maybe I should say so-called minor koans are invitations to “count the stars in heaven” and to “go straight on a road with ninety-nine curves.” Some of the intent in these cases, as we call them, is to learn the language and to avoid conventional linguistic traps as we bare our hearts and find the contours of our minds. But, more importantly it is a constant calling to finding our true identity. Or, maybe thats identities. Many strands in that one thing, in each one thing.

And so ghosts. Ghosts. I don’t believe in ghosts. But, I’ve encountered them. In those two sentences I have my invitation. And, perhaps you do, as well.

Three words, each rich with meaning. “Save.” “A.” And, “Ghost.”

First. What is save? The Unitarian Universalist minister and more importantly poet 0f the true Lynn Ungar sings to us.

By what are you saved? And how?
Saved like a bit of string,
tucked away in a drawer?
Saved like a child rushed from
a burning building, already
singed and coughing smoke?
Or are you salvaged
like a car part—the one good door
when the rest is wrecked?

Do you believe me when I say
you are neither salvaged nor saved,
but salved, anointed by gentle hands
where you are most tender?
Haven’t you seen
the way snow curls down
like a fresh sheet, how it
covers everything,
makes everything
beautiful, without exception?

For me save is salve, most and all about healing.

And, then there is that magical word “a.” It’s the sillies of things, as Edward Lear tells us.

A was once an apple pie,
Nice insidy
Apple Pie!

It means “one.” It also can mean “toward.” And, it also means “not.” It’s a mess. And for me it sings. “A” is the first part of the alpha and the omega. It is the beginning that is also an end. It is our ability to parse and separate. And, it is the mother of ten thousand lies.

And, then we come to ghost. The word in English goes all the way to Old English, “gast” and means breath, or soul, or even being. Once I notice a word that ties into breath I intuit I’m moving into sacred ground.

There are primary metaphors, like standing, and walking, and, well, breathing. Humans use metaphors like birds have wings. And these primary metaphors are the common stuff of all humans. And breathing. Well, breath is the very image of life, of God, of all that allows us to be.

Of course at the same time when we use the word Ghost in English we mean something specific. We mean something left over after a person has died. We are speaking of something lingering. Something that haunts. Gary Snyder old Zen hand and another poet who sings true tells us:

Lew Welch just turned up one day,
live as you and me. “Damn, Lew” I said,
“you didn’t shoot yourself after all.”
“Yes I did” he said,
and even then I felt the tingling down my back.
“Yes you did, too” I said – “I can feel it now.”
“Yeah” he said,
“There’s a basic fear between your world and
mine. I don’t know why.
What I came to say was,
teach the children about the cycles.
The life cycles. All the other cycles.
That’s what its all about, and it’s all forgot.”

We are talking about our dreams. We’re talking about the separations and the connections. All of them. All of it.

So, how do we save that thing?


Please consider this question as something that has come to us from beyond the veil, think of something that was someone, that was me, or you, or from the past or perhaps the future. But, from the other side it beckons. It calls. It winks.

Save a ghost.

Original author: James Ford
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Megan Tries It: I goop My Sleep Routine



Ask Jean

Megan O’Neill is new to goop—and the initiation process involves a pretty fantastic learning curve. Here, her adventures in onboarding, goop-style:

I’m a month into my new gig as the senior beauty editor at goop, and already my life is changing: I’ve always had a crunchy, alterna side, but as you might imagine, this is next-level. At some companies, you become a wiz at building Excel matrices; at goop, you need that, too, but you also need to know the most beneficial bacteria for your gut, which essential oil to use for what, and how to resist the siren song of chef Thea’s oven-fried ghee chicken as the scent wafts from the goop kitchen to the adjacent edit office.

I get back from my introductory week in LA (I’m in the New York office) determined to goop my sleep routine: I don’t get enough, and the bright-eyed LA staff had some suggestions for me. My issue is that to avoid feeling like all I do is work, eat dinner, and dissolve into bed, I tend to put off the last step—going to bed—until late. Which is no good for someone who aims to wake up at 6:30 am three times a week for yoga.

I’ve lugged home some products, along with a determination to create a new, healthier sleep routine. I can’t wait to try the first: Sleep Inner Beauty Powder from The Beauty Chef. The idea is an instant, turbocharged golden milk—the turmeric-milk-honey elixir that has purportedly calmed nerves, minimized inflammation, and supported digestive health in the Ayurvedic tradition for centuries. In this golden milk, botanical extracts like lemon balm and passionflower (both are clinically proven to bring on drowsiness and used in Western medicine to combat anxiety) mix with sour cherry (a powerful source of melatonin, which helps regulate sleep), gut-balancing probiotics, and of course, antioxidant-rich, famously anti-inflammatory turmeric. Each ingredient is fermented, not only to increase potency but also bioavailability. The idea is improving skin with nutrients, along with extra (or better) sleep.

An hour before my idea of what my bedtime should actually be (the powder apparently takes an hour to really kick in) I warm a cup of almond milk (any milk will do, but make it warm, not hot, as hot kills the probiotics in the powder), pour it into a mug with a dram of farmer’s market honey (the mixture is faintly sweet, but I love a little extra honey) and a teaspoon of sleep powder and mix until it’s a creamy yellow.

The clove-, cinnamon-, and ginger-infused concoction is the healthiest comfort food I have ever tasted: creamy, unctuous, deeply soothing. Instead of fiddling around the house or YouTube-ing music videos into the night, I go straight for my nightly shower—which tonight I find even more pacifying than usual.

image The Beauty Chef Sleep Inner Beauty Powder goop, $60 image UMA Pure Calm goop, $85
Megan Tries It: I goop My Sleep Routine The Beauty Chef Sleep Inner Beauty Powder goop, $60

Sooth-Calm-Sleep. A delicious blend of herbs and spices, with anti-inflammatory properties, created to aid deep, restful sleep and help manage the stress of sleeplessness. A tired body needs rejuvenating for the skin to appear less fatigued. This formula supports the body’s natural antioxidant activities, which are increased during the sleep cycle. Lemon balm is used to help promote sleep as well as to offer relief for nervousness and restlessness, to soothe, and calm; passionflower provides extra support during times of stress. This sleep-boosting formula also contains bio-fermented papaya and turmeric, along with 1.5 million probiotics per serve to encourage digestive health.

I stumble from the shower to my bed, where the second sleep-enhancer from goop HQ, Pure Calm Wellness Oil from Uma, awaits. The bottle is gorgeous and so is the lavender, jasmine, and vetiver scent; I smooth it between my toes, where the skin is thinnest and thus most absorbent, and on the soles of my feet.

Megan Tries It: I goop My Sleep Routine UMA Pure Calm goop, $85

When you’re stressed, this aromatherapeutic oil is (literally) essential: vetiver helps relax muscles, Roman chamomile calms nerves, and lavender soothes the mind, leaving you in a peaceful, restorative, ready-to-face-the-world mode.

It’s now 10:45 pm—two hours earlier than my usual bedtime, but the creamy turmeric cloud is impossible to resist. I peel back my sheets and open Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (new member of the #goopbookclub!) to read for an hour or so. But the next thing I know—impossibly—my alarm is buzzing: 6:30 am. I feel uncharacteristically alert for this hazy hour, not just ready for yoga and suspiciously smooth-skinned, but most incredibly, not wishing with all my might for five more minutes on the snooze button. My bedside lamp is still on, my book is askew in the sheets beside me. There wasn’t even time to dog-ear the page.

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