Motel Dharma.

Dear Friends,

Neon Motel Sign and Arrow

I met a Buddhist monk last week. The encounter made me laugh, it made me think, it made me feel heart-full.

Like Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) in “As Good As It Gets,” I believe the highest praise you can give a person is to say he or she makes you want to be a better person. I left my conversation with the Venerable Pannavati aspiring to do so much more in this world, to radiate her kind of warmth and wisdom on all souls in my orbit.

The part that made me laugh: Pannavati was traveling through my town on her way to a larger city for a meditation retreat she is hosting this weekend. I mentioned to you a while back that I recently joined a local Sangha (a sanskrit word for a Buddhist community) and our leader was kind enough to arrange for several of us to have individual consultations with Pannavati at a local motel. The motel is on a busy thoroughfare and is more than a little “tired.” (I’m being kind. It’s the biggest dive in town.) Anyway, I showed up for my midday meeting, dressed to the nines because of an important work engagement, and ended up having to stand outside one of the rooms for several minutes while the monk finished a previous appointment. I’m pretty sure the heavily tattooed man in the parking lot who complimented my sports car and my clothes wondered why the person I was meeting didn’t immediately let me in the room. I’m also pretty sure a drug deal went down in the parking lot while I stood there. And, I feel quite certain at least a handful of townsfolk drove by the cheap motel, saw me standing outside one of the rooms, and felt sorry for Mr. Mom thinking I have a thing on the side. The whole scene was like something out of a Cohen Brothers movie and was NOT the kind of setting in which I expected to seek enlightenment.

On the other hand, it was probably just the kind of place Jesus would have gone to minister to the needy. In fact, I think he would have consorted with the cast of Motel Dharma so — in the words of my favorite Pope — “Who am I to judge?”

The part that made me think: Our entire conversation. I can’t explain it except it was like reading and absorbing five different holy texts in less than a hour. Actually, it was more like chugging all the wisdom in the world, if all the wisdom in the world could be poured into a beer gong and you could gulp it in a matter of seconds. (Disclaimer: I have never drank from a beer gong but I’ve observed the activity in my younger days and can appreciate the “intensity” of the experience.)

I wish I would have taken notes but I didn’t and so I’m still remembering and reflecting on many parts of our conversation. One thread of our discussion that still has its grip on me has to do with the nature of blame and forgiveness. I’ve spent a good bit of my life contemplating forgiveness (what it means, how to cultivate it, how to make it sincere) and yet it never once occurred to me that blame is a necessary antecedent to forgiveness. No blame, no forgiveness.

That little nugget rocked my world for a minute. (Or several thousand.) As Pannavati put it — and I’m paraphrasing liberally here because she was way more eloquent than me but my mind was too blown to capture it all — in any given situation involving two or more people, we each come to the intersection of our encounter with our “stuff” (where stuff equals our fears, anxieties, anger, desires, aversions, etc.) And we may think our stuff is really the other person’s stuff, but it’s not. It’s ours. We can do with our stuff what we will, but we only control our stuff, not the stuff of others. We may think the other person’s stuff is the root of our problem, and that of course causes us to blame the other person and their stuff, but the root of our problem is our stuff. If you own your stuff, meaning if you acknowledge it and deal with it, there’s no need to cast blame. And if you’re not blaming, who’s to forgive?

During a subsequent meditation on this theme, I thought of it this way. Does the flower forgive the clouds for stealing its sunshine?  Of course not! Therefore, can I approach the next situation where I might be tempted to assign blame and instead conclude that just as I am a flower striving to bloom, the clouds of unfortunate circumstance are merely trying to move along their path?

Yeah, it’s deep. I’ll let you know how I fare.

The part that made me heart-full: By the way, heart-full is my own made-up word because there was no other way to describe how overwhelmingly grateful I was. I am.

I live in a small town in a rural part of a flyover state. (Not so different from the small town in the rural part of the previous flyover state I lived in.) How I came to this moment, in this place, with this Sangha, to this intersection of earnest souls and wisdom and love and openness, Lord only knows.

It’s a gift like no other.

With gratitude {for what is},

Joan, who will never be venerable so she’s shooting for practiced




Thoughtless. But not heartless.

Dear Friends,

Recently, I’ve been on both ends of a complex equation. And both times, I failed to add it up correctly.

Not long ago, I hurt someone’s feelings.  S/he told me about it via text and I have to admit I was surprised – both at the news I had hurt the individual, and that s/he chose to inform me via text. (Ah, the vagaries of modern life!)

I apologized via text but, looking back, I’m wondering if I did more explaining than apologizing. After all, when a slight is unintentional, isn’t our first impulse to explain it away? The individual texted a conciliatory response to my explanation/apology, so I figured the matter was put to bed.

Then a few days later, I received a note from the individual, apologizing to me and attributing the sensitivity to difficult personal circumstances.  And, interestingly, instead of feeling vindicated, I felt worse than ever.  I had been thoughtless, even if unintentionally so.  Had I also been self-righteous in my explanation/apology, enough so to prompt a return apology?

My association with this individual is longstanding, so I sat down and wrote a letter saying that no further apologies are necessary and that I was grateful for a relationship that had weathered far worse. I hoped s/he found my letter to be as warm and sincere as I tried to make it, and that my reassurance would prompt the individual to release any remaining guilt or worry.

We’ll see.

Not long after that series of interactions, somebody else (actually, more than one somebodys) hurt my feelings.  Instead of saying something immediately, I stewed. I’d like to think I’m tough as nails and rarely get my feelings hurt, but the truth is, I’m just more reluctant to speak up.

However, in this case, my hurt was obvious, so it wasn’t long before one of the somebodys broached the subject. Once the door was opened, I delivered a calm but lengthy analysis of the thoughtless act and of why I found it so disheartening. The listener attempted an explanation, in addition to an apology, but I wanted no part of it.

I can’t say the conversation ended well. It wasn’t ugly, by any means, but I think it’s fair to say we both left with the feeling that the matter was unresolved.

And today, all I can think about is the fact that — in the course of a week — I’ve been on both ends of the hurt stick and each side feels utterly miserable.

I can’t help but notice that in both situations, the perpetrators were thoughtless. But I, as well as the folks who offended me, was far from heartless. And that must be what stings most – knowing that no matter the intentions of my heart, I’m still capable of blundering my way through someone’s life in a way that is hurtful, just as others are capable of hurting me.

And explanations and apologies are the just the beginning of putting the pieces back together. Because what really has to happen is that both sides have to muster enough humility to admit one of two things:

I’m not perfect. I am capable of really screwing things up in ways that cause others pain and/or harm. The only way to make it better is to find the courage to admit it and ask for forgiveness. Then I must be gracious and forgive me.

— or —

I’m not perfect. And the people around me aren’t either and when they screw up, I must realize it takes courage for them to admit it. Then I must be gracious and forgive them.

Notice how both situations are resolved with forgiveness? For some of us, forgiveness is found in that region of the heart that is most remote and difficult to penetrate.

Like gratitude, though, forgiveness is free. And it comes more naturally with practice.

So excuse me. I have some practicing to do.

With gratitude {for difficult lessons, patient teachers, and the fortitude to endure both),

Joan, who wants desperately to make an A in Life, but had no idea it takes so much study