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Time is passing (what does that actually mean?) and the state of the world is as dire, if not more dire, than it was a year ago. Confusion reigns, and the recent elections won’t help. But I am grateful for our practice and our friendship, and confident that we are making a difference, person by person, heart to heart.

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These last few months I have been contemplating emotions and feelings, how they work to help or harm us, and what our practice has to do with them. These reflections have been occasioned by work I've been doing recently with my good friends at the Center for Understanding in Conflict, both here in California and in New York, where we practice with conflict resolution professionals to help them access feelings skillfully for more effective and more heartfelt work. Also, I've been reading an excellent book that touches the question of emotions: Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain by the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.

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Letters, words, sentences. Paragraphs. Chapters. Books... I often joke that I have an incurable reading and writing habit. That’s a Zen joke. Gary Snyder’s emails used to come with a little self-mocking motto after the closing, lines from Japanese Zen Master Ikkyu (also a poet!) to the effect that literary people are the lowest scoundrels on earth. But the exact phrase “writing habit” comes from my dear teacher, friend, and fellow poet, the late great Philip Whalen, who used it all the time in reference to himself.

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.. was in Washington for a Mindfulness "summit meeting" with the U.S. Army and assorted others, sponsored and organized by Mirabai for Contemplative Mind in Society. To explain what mindfulness is, report on mindfulness research, talk about how mindfulness training might be of use to the army. The event is in part a preparation for the retreat for army chaplains and caregivers I am to give (that has been scheduled and postponed twice now). The army people seemed pretty decent open-heated and open-minded people. I was impressed with them.

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Mel has been an inspiration, a guide, and a friend for me since I was a young man. I am one of the old Dwight Way crowd. Recently I drove by that old place. It is still there, but the yucca and monkey puzzle trees in the front yard that were of modest size in the early 1970's are quite large now, dwarfing the house. I was struck at how different the place looked. I attribute the difference to the fact that the practice - Mel's practice and spirit - vacated the space so long ago. Then, the place had a simplicity and a dignity it doesn't have now. A quiet but insistent presence. Having felt these things then - in the actual physical space - and not feeling them now, makes me understand better the virtue of Mel's teaching. These are the words I would use to describe it: simplicity, dignity, a quiet but insistent presence.

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March 27, 2009

Mar 27, 2009

In Dharma seminar last month we studied Hamlet. We had all read the play years ago, but reading it again together turned out to be an emotional experience. We commiserated with poor Hamlet's pained and honest subjectivity as he looks with anguish at his own confusion. We could see ourselves in him: just as we are sometimes too smart for our own good, and turn that intelligence into merciless self-critique, so is Hamlet scathing in his self-assessment. We suffered too with Hamlet's agonizing compulsion to act - we too sometimes become paralyzed, not knowing how or when or what to do, even though we know we have to do something. We sympathized with Hamlet's grief. Most of us had missed this when we first read the play, but now, after suffering many losses ourselves, we could see how painful it is for Hamlet to have no one to share his grief with.

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lum today. Covered with, coated in, saturated by sorrow. I'm surprised this has been so sad for me. What's so sad? I miss Alan, yes of course, and it's bad, but somehow grief is always - and in this case too - more than this. It evokes life's strangeness. Its basic fleeting ungraspability. We have no idea, I have no idea, what is going on, and a death like this makes that clear, destroys any illusion of life's making any solid sense. All the reasons for the sadness, understandable enough, don't actually explain it.

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This is not a speech I ever wanted to give. Alan and I spent our lives contemplating death, and we both felt that that we die is the essential fact of life, of religious life. We taught about this together, and often discussed it privately. I always insisted that he should be the one to speak at my funeral because I did not want to job of speaking at his. But though he always had more to say than I did, he was quite definite that in the end I would speak, and he would be silent. I am deeply sorry that he was right about this point.

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This newsletter comes to you at the end of an exciting and trying year. 2008 featured an uplifting National Election and an horrendous economic downturn, offering us, as always, a full and complex reality of joys and sorrows.

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Abbot’s Journal Vol 65 August 14, 2008 Tassajara I’ve been tired last several days here – tired also at home before coming down. Both there and here staying up late reading, sleeping later there, getting up earlier here. Not, it seems, a physical fatigue. Maybe emotional. Still, I am managing to swim my 75 laps in the pool every day, though I’ve been tired beforehand and afterward. As if still worn out from the book tour (though it is now several weeks ago) or from the effort of solitude and writing and thinking at home. Anyway, don’t really know why. It’s not so bad. Just have to go a bit more slowly, do a bit less. And the heat; yesterday in zazen sat just feeling the sensation of the air’s temperature on the body; it’s as if with the strong heat there’s a weight – but it’s not precisely a weight – pressing on the body. An unmistakable, startling sensation.

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