So, what exactly is "happiness?"

The teacher welcomed the student and offered him a cup of tea, which the student greatly enjoyed. When he finished the tea the student pleaded with the teacher.

A Zen student begged his teacher, "Please teach me the truth of this life and how to find happiness."

The teacher smiled. "Did you just drink your tea?" he responded.

"Of course," said the student.

"Then go wash your cup," the teacher replied.

The simple instruction, go wash your cup, is actually a great teaching. And it was delivered by the teacher in a wonderful way. He used the activity of the moment, the condition life presented to him, instead of preaching a sermon derived from somewhere else.

The tea itself was the sermon and also the student drinking it. Happiness is right here under your nose, the teacher was saying, in whatever condition life presents. Be fully aware of it. Drink your tea, enjoy it, and then take care of the cup. (Take care of whatever surrounds you).

Don't leave your teacup for someone else to clean. See what has to be done right now and do it. Honor the cup for offering the tea and wash it carefully. Nothing is too simple or ordinary to be overlooked in Zen. By seeing what is needed and doing it immediately and full heartedly, happiness is right here.

In fact, happiness is both drinking the tea and washing the cup. It is the gratitude that accompanies it. Happiness resides in the very action itself. No need to look somewhere else for it. Happiness exists in the simplest actions of your life, when done without complaint or resistance. When you stop wanting to hand over the tasks of your life to someone else, stop refusing them and just do what is here before you now.

Happiness is not some state of euphoria we achieve that hits for a little while and then passes. That can be like a drug. If we chase that kind of happiness, we'll always be going up and down on the merry go round looking for the next thrill or delight. However, when we both drink our tea and then wash our cups carefully, a life of completion and fulfillment is right here at hand.

Staying Still

When It's Cold Freeze!


What condition, person or experience in life are you avoiding? How much time, thought, and energy has it cost you to do so? What toll is this taking on you?

Let's try something different today. Accept that situation, person or experience completely for a moment. And whatever you're feeling about it.

If it's cold, freeze. If it hurts, hurt. If you're scared, feel that. Stop fighting it.

The moment we stop fighting what life is giving, the moment the sting is taken away. And the person, situation or experience, loses the energy you've given them through the fight. It fades away naturally, or changes for the better.



Mindfulness of feelings

We do not have to be a slave to our emotions.  They don’t have to control us, and they most certainly don’t have to last forever.  Yes, it is true that unpleasant emotions when they arise feel like an eternity, but I wonder how much of that is due to the negative way in which we interpret our experience and less with the physiological emotion itself.

The practice of mindfulness can help us learn how to cope more effectively with our emotions.  Consider the following:

•    We experience emotions continuously throughout the day. Emotions are passing body sensations NOT inherent aspects of our selves.
•    Emotions often start out as a small nudge that gradually increases in intensity and then decreases.
•    Learning to watch our emotions come and go, we see how our mind works.

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Learning how to tolerate distress

Pushing away unpleasant emotions 

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) from Dr. Marsha Linehan offers a behavioral intervention most of us have probably done at least once in our lives and didn’t even think about it. The skill is called “pushing away” and refers to the act of making a mental or concrete note of an unpleasant emotion and its trigger (person, place, or thing) and setting it aside temporarily.  

Here’s an example from one of my clients that worked especially great for her: 

Sally (name has been changed) was going through an ugly divorce from Tom (name has been changed) and could not help but break down in tears or begin hyperventilating at the mere thought of her estranged husband and the loss of their 20-year marriage. She was having trouble sleeping, could not eat, and felt like she was walking around in a fog.  Sally knew the marriage was over, but no amount of words could shake the emotional turmoil she felt inside.  Her emotions were overwhelming and debilitating.  We both agreed she needed to find some relief from her pain, and fast. 

And so, one day during a therapy session, we agreed to do something different.  Sally wrote down her and Tom’s name on a piece of paper like so:


As illustrated above, Sally noticed how intricately linked her identity had become with her husband’s, an emotional attachment that was keeping her literally held hostage.  Sally and I then decided to tear the paper in half so that her name and his name could be separated like so:
Sallya | ndTom

We then placed each piece of paper in a Ziploc baggie with some water and stuck it in a freezer.  I encouraged Sally to go home and plan a shopping trip to her local gardening center where she could buy some seeds to her favorite spring flowering plant.  

The following week we removed each of the Ziploc bags from the freezer.  We went outside to the back of my office building and carried out the following ritual.

First, we removed Tom’s ice cube paper from his bag and decided to throw him away, literally.  After showing Sally where the trash receptacle was outside, she walked over, opened the lid, held her nose to keep from breathing the stench of garbage inside, and tossed the ice cube with Tom’s name on it inside.  

Second, we removed Sally’s ice cube paper from her bag and set it aside carefully on the ground.  I had brought a small shovel with which I encouraged Sally to dig a hole in the ground and place the seeds she had bought at the store since her last session.  I then told Sally to carefully place the ice cube containing her name into the hole after the seeds and to cover the hole with potting soil. We put a place mark over the planted seeds so that we would know where to look for the flowers come the springtime.  

Sally reflected on her experience after this experiment and identified feeling lighter and stronger, and more capable of focusing on her recovery from the breakup of her relationship.  In addition, she looked forward to witnessing the birth of her favorite flower, a metaphor she felt was perfectly in tune with the kind of rebirthing process she herself was going through. 

Pushing away is a skill from DBT’s Distress tolerance module, a set of behavioral skills designed to help us survive an intense emotional crisis without making the crisis worse; to hold on like a rock on the shore of an angry ocean, until the waves settle.  


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On Becoming

On Becoming

I love the song by Tenth Avenue North that goes:

You are more than the choices that you've made,
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,
You are more than the problems you create,
You've been remade.

Today I find these words especially applicable to the news from a friend in my transplant support group who after two heart transplants over a nearly fifteen year span of grit and fight, she now needs a kidney transplant to stay alive. Her ordeal is nothing she can’t handle; in fact, she is one of the strongest and resilient human beings I have met so far along my own journey with a heart transplant.  What makes this challenge different is that this time it’s not just herself she is fighting for.  Two years ago she and her husband became parents together after adopting a baby girl. More than ever, I am reminded by my friend’s struggles that our bodies are only a small part of who we really are.

Not just flesh and blood, our bodies are the vehicles we are given here on Earth to experience feelings, spread love, and enrich our spiritual journeys.  Remembering who we really are at our core and sharing that understanding with others is at the core of our self-actualization. 

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Do you have Permission?

"Do you have permission to do this?"

The question still echoes within. What a wonderful koan. From whom must I get permission to live and express the fullness of my experience? Who is the Ultimate One who can or should validate my life and efforts to express its meaning? Where does the true validation come from when we feel deeply good about something we have offered?

This koan goes deeper. It asks whether we must fit into a pre-planned system. Who and where is the true authority we must answer to?

We set up authorities of all kinds, and then seek permission from them to be who we are. So often these authorities fall from their pedestal. We then blame them for our own unwillingness to step into life and make the contribution that was right for us.

Isn't this the very reason we practice zazen, to reclaim the authority and wisdom of our true inner self? It can be argued that when we do that, we can then make big mistakes. Are big mistakes bad? Aren't they simply a step towards our next unfolding? If we fear making mistakes, fear being rejected, if we always seek permission, this itself causes our life force to be cramped and distorted in many ways.

Isn't this craving for approval, permission and external validation the very force that stops us from trusting ourselves and what is possible for us? Can we just take our next step naturally and bravely, making it our own?

"Do not shoot with another's bow
Do not breathe breath through another's nostrils."

Zen Saying


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