Dharma Talk

On Anxiety

July 1, 2020

Hosho Peter Coyote


A discussion of anxiety in these times and methods to extricate yourself from being trapped by mental movies.

[bell] Oops. [3 bells. Chico whimpers] Chico, don’t worry.

One thing I wanted to say: Do you all know the Jackson Browne song, “My Stunning Mystery Companion” I have one, and if you have messages, I mean if you have questions, you can send them to Facebook comments and she’ll be scanning them, and she’ll be texting me the questions that she thinks are most pertinent.

Don’t stop asking questions, and I’ll try to leave time today to do that.

You know, it’s a rough bloody time, and I’m going to talk about anxiety today after zazen. Because every place I look people are coming apart. I’m included.I had a meltdown the other day, which is comical in retrospect, but I have to tell tales on myself.

Get comfortable. Get a good chair. Get a good cushion. Face the wall. No need to look at me. You will meditate – this is for you. If you have some incense and a candle, light it. It’s really nice. I’m going to try one day to broadcast from my little zendo. I’m not sure that my Wi-Fi will get out there. But if that is the case, then I can bow in, and you can see my altar in the background. Of course, you’ll miss Chico and the barking when the bell rings or something, but other than that, we’ll be all right.

Actually, when I sit with people in my own little zendo, we face out, but traditionally the teacher faces out and everybody else faces the wall. That cuts down distractions, but I kind of like being in a circle, and some feeling that everybody’s attention is directed out. Or directed in but facing out.

It’s one of those distinctions that doesn’t really make a big difference.

It’s funny, when I edit these dharma talks, I cut all the “hellos” out. I cut the meditation out, and I start as if I came out of nowhere saying, “Good morning.” And I look pretty on target. But you would laugh if you saw what it takes for me to edit a little video online. There’s a lot of unseemly language and impatience – especially for a zen teacher.

Okay, it’s 9:48. Let’s start to get ready. We’ll start at 9:50. I’ll tell my phone not to turn itself off on display. Autolock never. Okay it’s about one minute to time zero. Well, it’s a great feeling to sit with you all.

Okay folks, I’m going to hit the chime. I’ll see you on the other side of emptiness. [Gassho 3 bells]

[3 bells gassho]

Good morning. I’m going to just change my phone over onto messages so that my “stunning mystery companion” can forward your questions. If you have questions, after I’ve finished talking, I’ll try to get to them. I’ll try to leave time for that.

Before everybody was signed on, we were talking about facing the wall or facing out. I was thinking that maybe the best reason that students face the wall is that you don’t catch the teacher sleeping. My great friend, the late great Darlene Cohn – fine zen teacher – described zazen as the perfect posture for sleeping. I got started at 4:00 am this morning, and I found myself keeling over. It’s like falling asleep during your own TV show. It’s a little embarrassing.


People are uptight.

My daughter made an interesting observation the other day. She was talking to me and she was describing how exhausted her family was. They had just come back from a little holiday together, and everybody was exhausted.

She posited that it’s because, normally, we go through our days, and we can afford to be on autopilot. We can just do what we’re doing and it’s highly efficient.

The mind is just glossing over the surfaces of things, and it’s “Oh, yeah, the shopping… get the dinner ready … do this … do that. Make my calls.” But with the pandemic, you can’t really be on autopilot. You have to be vigilant, and it’s actually a kind of hyper vigilance. Because Covid-19 is a serious illness.

I saw on the news this morning about a 26-year-old woman who is being intubated for six weeks.  She got sick even though she was young, healthy, in perfect shape.

We just don’t know. I caught myself the other day shaking hands with somebody that I had just met. And then I had to kind of “carry my hand aloft” until I could get back to my sanitizer, and then 30 minutes later I realized I’d forgotten to sanitize my hand. You know, that can engender anxiety.

I have to tell a story on myself because it doesn’t matter how much zazen you sit, or how “enlightened” you might be, if you’re not in tune – if you’re not paying attention, you’re in trouble.

An old friend got in contact with me. Somebody I hadn’t see in maybe 50 years, since 1964 or 1965, when I first came to San Francisco. We were in a theatre company together, and she had moved to Sebastopol. I made arrangements to go over and see her.

I put on my mask and I came in. She lives in a kind of little magical trailer that’s covered with shawls and blankets. She’s a tarot reader. I came up in my mask, and she came running up to give me a hug, and I said, “Oh, no. I’m just not sure how careful you are being.”

She laughed and she said, “Oh, I’m not careful at all! Just take that damned mask off!”

I had to say, “No, I’m being careful.” I’m almost 79-years-old, I’m blood type A positive. If Covid19 “gets me” I’m likely to have a death warrant with it.

We sat outside, and I maneuvered myself upwind, and she’s a very emotional person. She’s a great storyteller, so she was talking with a lot of emphasis, and a lot of projection, and I was sitting there feeling, “Was I okay? I don’t know.”

Then she went in to cook lunch, and she said, “Well, come in the house. Keep me company while I cook.” I went in the house. I was wearing my mask, but it was a small place and I was thinking, “Well, she’s told me that she’s not careful at all. What kind of a toxic broth am I sitting in here?”

We went outside again, and we ate, and when I was leaving, I began to unravel, thinking, “Wow, this is really a risk that I took. Wow, this was not smart.”

And I have allergies so usually I have a post-nasal drip and a little dry cough. Of course, the more I thought about it, the more exaggerated these symptoms began to be. Within 20 minutes I was coming down with a lethal Covid-19 case.

By the next morning, I was going through insane lists, like, “Well, if I die, I want to get the house ready. I want to take all the stuff out of the attic and the garage and put it so that people will know to whom it should go. I want to make sure that my son will get my watch, and my daughter will get this and would get that …” And I caught myself. I realized I was not in the world at all.

I was completely in my own mind, and I just stopped and did one of those little one-breath practices: where you just put all of your attention on the edges of your nostrils as you’re exhaling.

I came back into my own body, and I realized how out in the “ozone” I had been.

I think that is happening to a lot of people. I think that a lot of couples who are not used to spending lots and lots of time together run into friction points and disagreements and sticky areas. People are stuck home with their kids. Their kids are genetically prepared to be transferring their loyalties from the nuclear family to their peers, and they are unable to do that.

I’m hearing about a lot of meltdowns and a lot of difficulty.

I’m reminded that if you look at statues from the Aztec and Mayan empires as they were breaking down, all the characters are filled with anxiety. The mouths are like this [grimace with clenched teeth]. There’s rictus of tension.

There were supposedly great droughts that wrecked the corn crops of the Mayans. Also, after Columbus landed, diseases began to spread through North America – even before Pilgrims and those European people came. Indian tribes were supposedly decimated.

There’s a book called 1491, which describes what life might have been like before Columbus. They think that one of the reasons that Cortes could overcome the Aztec was because the tribes were beginning to fracture and fall apart under the pressure of disease -- pandemic, we can call it – and lack of crops and lack of wealth.

It won’t be the first time that great civilizations and cultures have stressed and collapsed. If you have ever been to Machu Picchu or if you have ever been to the Pantheon, there are buildings that, I’m sure, if you were living in those cultures, you would think would never crumble.

What could be more permanent that the “Twin Towers” [in New York], but we know – don’t we?

We know how intangible and how transient everything is. 

If we haven’t really accepted that, and it’s really hard to accept it when it comes to your own existence. Especially if you think of your existence as a fixed, solid thing that is separate from the rest of the universe, then you are always at peril. Then your attention is always fixed on “winking out”.

I go back again to this metaphor, my favorite metaphor of a choppy ocean with lots of little wavelets (not big rollers), and I think that each little wavelet is like a person. You can have a little timid wave. You can have a brave wave. You can have a wave saying I’m the cutest wave in the ocean. Each wave could actually be a named thing in the universe…. Could stand for a mountain range or a culture or a flower or a hummingbird or a species of animal. Whatever it is. A human life.

It rises up into form for a while. When it’s in form, we say it “is living” and when it falls back into the ocean, we say it “is dead”. But it is really a pretty vague demarcation. The one thing that the waves forget (and I think that we forget) is that we have never not been part of the ocean.

Again, you have to repeat it over and over: Buddha’s understanding of the central delusion of humankind is the fact that we think that we are a fixed and separate entity. When, in fact, we are completely interdependent. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “interbeing”.

With everything. That there’s no sunlight, [then] there’s no us. There’s no water, there’s no us. If there’s no pollinating insects, there no us. There are no microbes in the soil, there’s no us. If we poison the soil, there’s no us.

The idea that we have a separate existence is an illusion.

Yes, of course, we have a specific form for a while, and we have an awareness from that form, but that is only half the equation. And if we forget the other half, which is we are part of the ocean, then we are really prone to anxiety. Because then we are this tiny little separate integer, completely naked and undefended against the enormity of the universe.

Because we’ve forgotten that we are the enormity of the universe. We are the impossible heat of the sun. We are the coolness of the moon. We are the dew. We are the birdsongs.

The reason we call it a practice is because it takes some concentration and some dedication to overcome this habit of thinking that we’re just “me”. I’m just “I”. The person who has been told who I am by other people their entire existence. Just like all of us. Then we begin to imply things about ourselves. When we do it long enough, we develop this idea that we have a fixed identity. Almost like it is another organ.

But there is no organ for the self. The self is just an awareness. That, in itself, could be a great liberating comfort, because there is nothing but our habits which are restricting us and making us unhappy.

Remember, I talked once about “dukkha”. Dukkha is exactly that kind of mental suffering that I was going through: “Oh, my god, I was careless. I’m going to die. Let me put my stuff out in the yard.” It sounds crazy but how much crazier than going into a bar in the midst of the pandemic because you can’t stand yourself anymore. You can’t stand your thoughts and you just need a few “yucks” and a drink, and don’t want to see anybody in a mask.

This was completely predictable.

It’s anxiety, I think, that is driving people both to wear masks and not wear masks.

The people who are not wearing masks are anxious about being afraid. They are anxious that the pandemic could be as real as the newspapers say it is. “It’s not bothering the President, why should it bother me?”

When we begin to identify with those “mental movies”, or when we begin to watch those mental movies and we stop realizing that we are out in the warmth of the sunlight. In this present moment, we are fine. I mean, there is such a difference between this moment and emptiness.

Remember I read the Heart Sutra once:

Therefore, in emptiness no form, no feeling, no perceptions, no impulses, no consciousness.

No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.

No color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind.

No realm of eyes … until no realm of mind consciousness.

No ignorance and also no extinction of it.

No suffering and also no extinction of it.

The ocean is emptiness. The ocean is total formlessness. Fundamentally, that’s what we’re made of. Whether we’re a projection of emptiness? I don’t want to say that emptiness is the reality and form is not.

Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. We can only understand emptiness or perceive it through the multiple varieties of its forms[mts1] . However, if emptiness had “characteristics”, then it would be limited, but emptiness is everything.

When we find ourselves feeling anxious, it’s really good to have some kind of a touchstone, whether it is sitting zazen and exploring it. Finding out where in your body it is. Finding out where the tension is. Finding out what the specifics … [Barks] Chico, are you anxious? … of your mental movies are.

Reminding yourself, “Oh, wait. I’m in my body. I’m breathing in this moment. In this moment, I don’t think I’m sick. Even if I am sick, in this moment, I’m still here in this body and everything this side of pulse and breath is ‘gravy’.”

If I were lying in a muddy ditch with my nose an inch above water and bullets flying over my head, I would still be glad to be alive.

I think we have to be careful when we listen to the news. When we listen to the anxiety of the broadcasters. They are uptight. Part of their job is to “amp up” the drama so that they glue our eyeballs to the television and media and then they can raise their advertising rates according to the numbers of people watching. 

I don’t think it’s just cynical. I think they are actually freaked out. I watch a lot of news. Usually 20 minutes at a shop when I’m eating. People are in despair. Nobody believed that the United States was so fragile that it could fall apart so rapidly. That so many of its institutions could be dissolved by an oaf. An analog to a warlord. People are really frightened.

That so many of us don’t know if they can trust the election. They don’t know if Trump will leave office. They don’t know what’s going to happen. They don’t know if their jobs are going to come back. Their jobs are probably not going to come back.

They are also aware that the government is doing nothing prepare them for whatever the new future is. No money is being spent on retraining workers.

Not to inject politics, but I’ve actually had the insight that the pandemic is actually killing “conservatism”. Maybe not real intellectual conservatism, but the way it is understood colloquially but most people.

By Ronald Reagan who said, “Government is not the solution. It’s the problem.” And Grover Norquist who wanted to make government “small enough to drown it in a bathtub”. And Newt Gingrich Republican who declared open war on the other party Democratic.

Since the time of Ronald Reagan since the 70’s, conservatives have been putting judges in courts and putting people in office that basically disrespected government and had an ideological “stake” in it not working.

And now, the pandemic has come, and we have no institution with which to fight it. The [federal] government has relinquished its authority co-opt manufacturing to make masks, to make swabs, to make reagents, to demand of the states that everyone wear masks. It’s not a question of opinion. If I go outside and see somebody who is not wearing a mask, I see somebody who is more concerned with their own comfort or image than my safety. Who’s the referee?

Normally, government, if it’s a fair broker, would be the referee, and we would be trusting it to bring the states in line, to organize the country and make our reaction to the pandemic consistent. 2,850,000 have tested positive, 132,000 have died to date, and the federal government is basically doing nothing. It’s been left to the states.

This is generating a lot of anxiety on every level. Republicans are now that they are going to be out of office, and they are starting to wear masks. Democrats are wondering, “What can they do?”

What we can do is take care of ourselves and our states of mind, and not transmit that anxiety. We can learn to sit every day. We can learn to dissolve into emptiness, and disappear, and calm down, and be relaxed. So that when danger comes, we’re actually relaxed. We are actually ready to do something. We are not hysterical.

When people talk to us and they are frightened, we can see it, and our bodies will be telling their bodies, “It’s okay. It’s okay, yeah. There’s danger. Yep. There’s plenty to be concerned about and vigilant about, but right in this instant, do we need to admit fear into it.  Does that really help anybody?”

I’d say no.

We call this a practice. We call Buddhism a practice. We practice this over and over and over again. We have a lifetime of indulgence – of indulging in our thoughts, indulging in our emotions, indulging in our feelings. Not really monitoring how we respond. We just trust what we think and feel and go with it.

Now the stakes are really high. One of the best gifts that we can give to others is by showing them – modelling a way in dangerous, anxious times.

I’m going to look and see if I’ve received any questions here.

Q1: One of my dear ones informed me that people are sneaking being-not-careful. All human behaviors are here all at once, as usual, in world crisis times, which are in all times. Plagues are ever with us. Good to think and feel and be aware and love as a verb all at once. And it’s both possible and not possible, yes?

A: Yeah, it’s possible and not possible. It’s possible to fix your intention on being kind, and being loving, and being straightforward, and being helpful. And you’ll fumble. You’ll make mistakes.

Oh, look. Messages are coming back.

Q2: Someone asked me, “Are you describing Buddha nature, and does Chico have it, too?”

A: You know, that’s a very famous koan of a student who asked their teacher, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”

The teacher, Joshu, [Zhaozhou] answered by going, “Mu……….” And “mu” was the Japanese term for “no”, but the student knows that the dog has Buddha nature. And Joshu knows the student knows that.

What is he showing him? He’s showing him a way to be with that answer.

So, yes. Everything is Buddha nature.

…Power came back on. Keep going.

More questions. I’m just going to look and see. I’m going to keep going a little bit in case there’s some more questions.

I’m happy to take any questions about anxiety or to hear if you thought this was useful. Straightforward enough. Helpful. Because, if it’s not helpful, you shouldn’t listen to me. But, for myself anyway, as someone who was once really ridden with anxiety – I mean, I carried a pistol during the 1960s. Peace, love, good vibes and “six” in the small of my back.

I can’t think of a better technology and a better practice than meditation. Meditating on emptiness. As an antidote to anxiety and reminding yourself to bring yourself out of your mental movies. Out of your attachments to your own narratives and drama, and attachments to those fantastically interesting stories. Just come into the reality of your body, and the reality of what’s around and the people you are with.

Q3: Buddha means?

A: Buddha is your own innate wisdom. Buddha nature is emptiness. You have it. You are composed of it. When we bow to Buddha, we’re bowing to wisdom.

Wisdom is the understanding that reality “is both/and”, and it’s both singular and plural. They don’t contradict each other. I’m here, and I’m also all of it. Both/and simultaneously. That’s the Buddha. You’re the Buddha. This is why we say, “Put no head above your own.” Everything you need is coming over your “spinal telephone”, if you can be disciplined enough, and calm enough, and quiet yourself enough. To hear the soft way that it communicates to you. That’s Buddha. You don’t need me.

Love the discussion on anxiety.

Q4: Is there a way to gently tell a sibling that your negativity does no one good, especially when nightly calls have become a habit?

A: That’s a really good question. So, a sibling calls you and they are frightened. They’re upset about something and they call and talk to you.

Well, I have had cases where I’ve had to recognize that meditation doesn’t solve everything. I’m a big believer in therapy for certain problems.

Sometimes you have to say to somebody, you know, “I can’t help you. I would like to help you. I can’t help you. I’m not doing you any good. You really need to get some therapy.” And if that person keeps calling back and hasn’t taken those steps, I think you have the right to get a good night’s sleep. You have a right to live anxiety-free.

Because some people sort of discharge pressure by talking out their problems, but they are asking you to be a sounding board. They’re asking you to be the one that listens.

I think that after you have made all good efforts to be helpful, you have to confess that “I can’t help you. I find that these kinds of discussions too disturbing. I think you need professional help for this, and I’m not a professional. So, call me. Talk about anything [else]. I love you, but I can’t talk about this.”

I’ve had to do that in [some] cases and it is not always appreciated, but it works for me.

Q5: Playing music has been the greatest help to me to deal with my own anxiety.

A: Great. But it’s tough to play music while you’re doing shopping. So, you might want to have something that’s a little smaller and a little internal than a guitar that you can turn to when stuff comes up. I play guitar every day, but they are big to carry around.

Q6: A student who had to perform on stage suffered from stage fright. He asked his teacher, “How do I stop the fear?” The teacher replied, “How does a tree stop the wind?”

A: That was a great teacher. Okay. Because I used to teach stopping stage fright, I’ve thought about this a lot. I think that the teacher’s response, “How does a tree stop the wind?” is the best response, because it doesn’t. When you are an empty pipe, you just let the fear blow through you. At a certain point, when you face it, you realize that fear can’t stop you. And then, it just kind of withers away.

But I did borrow a technique once from these guys Bandler and Grinder, Neurolinguistic Programming, that actually works, and I’ve taught a lot of people to conquer stage fright. I’ll just tell you because it’s a quick exercise.

You imagine that you are standing on a stage in front of an auditorium. In front of lots and lots of people, and you are starting to be overcome with stage fright. I guarantee you, in your mind’s eye, there is someone in that audience, in the first couple rows that you are afraid of. You should look, and you should find that person. Might be an aunt, might be a mother, a father, a brother, an uncle, a teacher. Somebody who frightened you, whose judgments you’re really afraid of.

So, you want to find that person. Then you want to notice their age. Whatever age they are at, you want to ask yourself, “What age was I when they were that age?” Usually it comes out that it’s somewhere between six and eleven, twelve years old. You were that age.

That person is frozen in the mind’s eye at the age that they were at when they inflicted a judgment on you. Then, what you do is you fast-forward them up to the present day. You look at them and you see if you are still affected by them.

If you are, move them into the back row. See if you are still affected by them. If you are, change the picture to black and white. See if you are still affected by them. If you are, send them out into the lobby. There’s no need to carry this person around with you.

That’s kind of a psychological approach. The questioner’s example is the zen approach. The tree and the wind are not mutually exclusive. They are not in combat. You and fear. Fear is just like a wind blowing through you. Soldiers are afraid, but they have to do what they have to do. First responders are afraid, but they do what they have to do.

How are we doing here? I’ll see if we have a few more questions.

Q7: I have a friend who is a doctor at a Sonoma hospital and is sad and stressed over his Covid-19 and other patients. What can I say to ease his pain?

A: Well, his pain is coming from empathy. I mean, he sounds like a great person. But, if his empathy leads him to not take care of himself, he’s not helping his patients.

I would suggest he practice meditating every day. It’s going to make him feel better. It’s going to make him more open to the rising and falling of lives and deaths and births. There’s not much he can do except take care of one patient at a time. And not hold onto the result. He can just do his best, and that’s all he can do.

To identify with the defeats and the failures will actually make him less effective at helping other people.

And, I would give him cookies. I’m a big believer in cookies. Everything goes better with cookies!

Let me see if there are more questions. Here’s somebody.

Q8: Folks comment on my exuding a good attitude.

A: Well, good. That’s special. 

Oh, here’s a good one.

Q9: How to deal with beloveds who are into the conspiracy theories and won’t wear masks?

A: I have a really good friend, who, I mean, I can barely talk to on any common political problem, because he refuses to accept anything that comes from the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal. I mean, professional journalists who, yes, they may have an establishment bent, but they are also in competition with one another. There are standards, and if they break the standards, they are called out for [breaking] them.

I guess the first thing I would do is I would just not fall into the weeds of the conspiracy theories, and just say, “I don’t want to talk about that.” And then I would set some boundary about if you are not wearing a mask, you’re not coming into my house.”

I have a women friend who has moved out of her house until her husband and daughter took Covid-19 and began cleaning up and washing the surfaces and their hands and wearing masks. This is your life, and your affection for somebody should not give them the right to put you at risk. Especially serious risk.

So, how beloved is that person if they’re threatening your life?

I know it is difficult to set boundaries sometimes. I don’t like to say, “No”, but if you don’t, then you are just a leaf blown before the wind. You’ve given away your center of gravity.

I would take that one on.

Let’s see if there are any others.  So here is somebody.

Q10: I’m not sure what the question is so I will relate an experience. My first introduction to meditation was in a 10-day Vipassana retreat. I was young and about to lose myself in addiction. In hindsight, I realized I had used the ideas of “everything is changing”, “there’s only now”, and the like as a strategy to not be present. To hide “tricky mind”. Does this bring up anything for you that you feel like sharing?

A: Well, there’s a guy named John Welwood who worked out a field of psychology that posited a kind of internal family system. That we didn’t just have an ego, an id, and a super-ego. That we had lots and lots of people “in there”, and we needed to name them, identify them, and bring them to the surface.

He had a term (which I’m forgetting at this moment) but the term described people who are trying to be too “enlightened” to admit their feelings.

You are having an argument with someone and this person is being deliberately unemotional and insisting that they are not angry or insisting that they’re not feeling anything because they’re too enlightened. [Spiritual] bypass.

There are all sorts of tricks. I don’t know how you did that. “Everything is changing.” “There’s only now.” I don’t know what you hid behind. It’s hard for me to know. I was an addict for a long time.

I just hid behind heroin, which was very good at blocking out everything. Thought slowed down to like a bubble coming through molasses.

I can’t exactly answer your question, because “Everything is changing” to me is remembering that flowers and people and things are dying as we watch them. They are unrepeatable experiences, and their passing and changing makes them precious.

So, if you didn’t know that you were changing, if you felt like you were still, and you were some fixed thing hiding behind an idea, I don’t know. How successful was that? But you seem like you are a different person now, so obviously whatever you did, didn’t work.

Anyway, I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful because I don’t get the dynamic.

Q11: Okay to meditate multiple times a day?

A: I think so. I think certainly twice a day is great. And if you want to take a day once a week or once a month and sit a period.

And then walk very slowly, taking a slight sliding step at each breath, moving you foot forward on an inhale, and then shifting your weight on the exhale. Walk for five or ten minutes, and then sit again.

Do that three or four periods and then maybe take a cup of tea. Maybe do that three or four more times. If you sit five or six periods in a day, you’ll be surprised. You’ll be in a very, very different place.

I try to sit long periods at least once a year. I think it’s good.

Let’s see what else. I’m not getting anything from … Oh Rona Weintraub just saw that Kay Hayward said hello. Okay.

I don’t see many more questions. It’s 10:50 am. I don’t want to just burn you out. I’m just going to double check. I may have worked up … people coming up with other ideas. Ruby Lee says.

Q12: Stage fright. I was taught to consider every person in the audience as a good friend.

A: If it works, there’s no right way. We say put no head above your own. So, if somebody has something that works, please do it.

Someone else is suggesting humming to yourself. Simple low tones for self-soothing.

But you can’t do that in the zendo because that intrudes on other people’s silence. But you can certainly do it a lot.

Q13: At the beginning of the pandemic, the wealthy retail organization I worked for was not doing enough quickly enough for my comfort. We were lagging behind even small businesses. We’re in a high exposure area. I was afraid for myself and co-workers. I could go home and care for myself – refused to work, but I wanted to speak for them as well. So, I wrote to the management of the company, explaining my concerns, and asking what their plan was to help us. I suffered some uncomfortable conversations with that but was glad that I did it. I’m always conflicted about the balance between looking after myself and being socially responsible and acting externally. Do you have any thoughts on that?

A: “Having uncomfortable conversations” -- That’s like stage fright.

Yeah, my thoughts are that you should teach that because that is the balance. That if you forget both halves of it, you become an ideologue, or you become so convinced of you own reality that you stop taking in the environment and the concerns of other people.

There’s a great term in Buddhism called “upaya”. Upaya signifies “skillful means”. Skillful means is [such that] it is not enough to be enlightened. It’s not to see the solution for a problem. You have to explain the solution in a way that the person in front of you will hear. No one-size-fits-all.

I think it’s always good to be checking back and forth. “What am I feeling? What does that person in front of me seem to be feeling? How can I close this gap? How can I find a way?”

Because when everything’s changing, it’s like trying to cross a body of water by stepping on floating logs. Everything is moving. To me, the model is to watch a fox cross a clearing.

If my dogs go out … my dogs get fed every day. They have energy to burn. I live in a place where they don’t have to be on a leash, and they are just running around and nosing down. They can chase every squirrel. They can chase every cat because they have energy to burn.

But if you watch a fox, it’s as delicate as a hair. I mean, it walks, it stops, it looks, it sniffs. It is always checking between the environment and its own hunger. The environment and its own wants and needs. I think particularly as Americans who’ve been told how special we are and been overfed to the point of obesity and privilege and all that stuff – that that kind of hesitancy and delicacy is well worth emulating.

To really plug in more fully to the environment and the other people that we’re with. Soften our own agenda. Receive other people’s agendas. We don’t have to commit to action until we have a direct communication from our intuition.

Q14: My dog is dying of cancer. You once said, “Aim beyond birth and death.” How do you do that?

A: Well, [gassho] you know how to do that. It’s terrible to have a dog die, or a cat or a pet. It’s heart-wrenching.

But you still have to take care of them, even while you are grieving that you are not going to see them anymore. You have to look to their comfort.

The dog is ungraspable. The dog is emptiness. You are emptiness, even while you are you, and while it’s a dog. Grief is the admission price for love, for attachment, because it is always going to include loss. And loss is stage fright. Stage fright is loss of self-confidence. Stage fright is loss in the belief that you’re worthy. Stage fright is loss of your dog. Stage fright is loss of your comfort.

Breathe with the dog. Sit zazen with the dog. Match your breathing to the dog. Love it.

That’s all you can do. It’s out of your hands.

If you are asking me how you can not grieve, you have to grieve. But you can burn grief up like ash. I know you know this. You can burn it totally.

I once wept for an entire sesshin, seven days on my pillow. Sniveling and weeping, and the monks were sitting like oil paintings either side, and I was just bereft. But once it’s burned up, it’s burned up.

I’m sorry you are losing your dog. I really am. I worry about that with my dogs. I carry a card in my wallet, attached to my driver’s license saying, “I have dogs at home. If something happens to me, please call so and so.”

Q15: You mentioned one-breath meditation. How can we do something physical to contain anxiety and what suggestions do you have?

A: Well, what makes you think that anxiety can be contained? What would you think the container is?

If your container is closer to a colander than a pot, just let the anxiety leak out. You leak it out by shifting your attention. Put your attention on something else. You are snagged by a mental movie.

The one-breath meditation, the one-breath exhale is a way of shifting and capturing your concentration again.

You develop tricks. But if you sit in zazen, and you put part of your awareness on your posture, and your breathing, and your mudra, and you trust that solidity of that posture, you can just let the anxiety go and burn itself out.

You can’t keep a good mood. The only reason you keep the anxiety is because you fight it and it gets stronger. You are feeling something you don’t want to feel. If you accept that that is what you are feeling, and begin investigating it, it’ll change while you are watching it. You won’t be able to hold onto it.

I would not think about containing. I would think about the example of the wind blowing through a tree.

Q16: Anxiety in the middle of the night. Awakening with a fear response.

A: Well, that may be a healthy thing, you know. They say that one of the things that dreams do is resolve important issues that we didn’t have time to address in daylight. It may be that when we sleep and dream and we have anxiety dreams, and stuff like that, it’s just the mind shaking off anxiety like my dogs shake when they stand up. They shake off tension.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a sign of anything wrong. I think your body is taking care of itself, and your mind is taking care of itself. You maybe didn’t notice the thing that made you fearful in the daytime.

A psychiatrist once told me that “It’s always this morning in the unconscious.” It has no sense of time. He urged me to talk to it. I found that to be really useful.

You talk to that part of yourself, and you explain, “You know, when we were kids, I didn’t have the power and I didn’t have the skills to take care of you. But now I do. You can relax. Honestly, I’ve got this. Thanks for watching out for me.”

It sounds loopy. But this is [Richard Schwartz and] John Welwood’s internal family systems, too. It actually has a lot of energies that you know, you recognize. You name them: “Nasty Nancy” and “Simpering Sam” and all these little voices. You invite them to the table, and you give them all their say. It comforts that part of us that’s, you know, unconscious.

What is the unconscious? It’s things that are too important to forget, and we lock them in our body.

One of the things that happens when you sit a lot of zazen, is that a “ligament” breaks loose and softens and you’re flooded with stuff that was locked in that ligament. And then it’s gone.

Q17: CBT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

A: My daughter is a PhD therapist, and it’s her belief that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Digital Behavioral Therapy are the two most effective therapies around right now. They have workbooks. They are short form. They’re not long-term psychoanalysis. She’s a great believer for them. Especially for anxiety.

Q18: Though I can’t sit and listen intently throughout your teachings, I find that to hear your voice in the background, it’s comforting. I feel your honest caring for us as fellow human beings.

A: Thanks. Well, thank you. Maybe what I’m saying is not so interesting to you, but if the sound of my voice is comforting, thanks. I’m fulfilling my intention to be helpful.

Q19: How to deal with people trying to defraud me, steal my home via forged papers? They trespass, show my home when I leave the house to shop, pay bills, even during the pandemic. Don’t want them in my house. Unsafe, illegal. They’ve monopolized all local attorneys. Need help. Makes it hard to focus on meditation.

A: Well, I have heard about people forging papers on the Internet and changing your deeds. I don’t know if that’s this [situation] or not.

But this is beyond my remit. This sounds like a police event. If people are trespassing in your home, and when you leave, I think you need to go to law enforcement. I can’t really help you on this.

I will say that meditating will help you see the situation more clearly, but I can’t tell how much of this is your imagination and how much of this is really real. But I do know that you need some help, and you should get your evidence together, and make a file of what you have. Your deed, your stuff and maybe go to Legal Aid. Legal Aid is free legal help for people and see what they say. They’ll be better able to assess it than I am.

I’m so sorry, it’s obvious that you are suffering, but I just don’t know enough to be of help.

I think maybe we’re okay here. I’m not sure that I have anything else to offer. Thank you all very much for tuning in. I’m going to say my little prayer and hopefully I’ll see you all again next week. [Gassho]

May all beings be filled with lovingkindness.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings be happy and at peace.


May all beings be filled with lovingkindness.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings be happy and at peace.


May all beings be filled with lovingkindness.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings be happy and at peace.


Please take good care of yourselves. Please be careful.

I’ll leave you with my favorite little essay on anxiety. Mel Brooks used to talk about Dr. Haldanish. Dr. Haldanish was a great psychiatrist, a great specialist.

In this little riff, he says, “You know, Dr. Haldanish, I tear paper. I don’t know. I tear paper. I tear napkins. I tear menus. I tear things. I’m anxious. I’m uneasy, so I’m uneasy so I tear paper. What should I do?”

Dr. Haldanish looks at them and says, “Don’t tear paper.”

Don’t be anxious. [Bow] See you again. Thanks.