Wandering with my eyes and heart open, searching for pieces to add to my own personal big picture.

Tag: book blog Page 1 of 6

Zen Habits and This How ’bout Heat, Man?!

Surprise! It’s hot! Damn hot! Can Zen Habits help me here?

Zen habits quote on a desert sunrise.

The heat stresses me out and no matter where I go, I can’t seem to escape summer temperatures. Yes, I know I live in the desert. That is what makes the heat tolerable. Because do you know what’s worse than heat? Humidity. By living here, I avoid that almost completely.

Yesterday, I started to panic. It was day two of a heat wave that is supposed to last a whole week. When it’s hot like this, I’m stuck indoors and there is nowhere to drive to get out of it. The mountains aren’t cool enough, the movies are closed during the day now. What else can I do?

And then something I’m reading came to mind.

Thich Nhat Hanh, simplified the rules in just a few words: “Smile, breathe and go slowly.” It doesn’t get any better than that.

I’m still reading “Returning to Silence” by Dainin Katagiri, but it’s getting a tad tedious. I want to scream, “Get to the point, man!” Everything is and isn’t at the same time. Everything is good and bad, wrong and right. I keep finding small bits floating around in that resonate with me, but it’s like fishing a piece of eggshell out of the egg you broke into the already hot frying pan. It scoots away as you reach for it, and the pan is hot, the egg is cooking, you’re running out of time.

But here’s one thing that captured my attention this morning.

“So I went to school to try to learn Buddhism and end my suffering, but the complete opposite happened. The teacher gave me many books on Buddhism to read, which I did. Finally, he gave me a book on the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness. It is a collection of many simple sentences, but if you read it, it is really strange and hard to understand. Finally I thought, “Why did I become a monk?” It made me suffer more.”

That’s exactly where I am with this book. He keeps saying, “Don’t try so hard.” “We’re already enlightened, we just need to realize it.” “Don’t use the practice to get somewhere.” It’s irritating.

Yesterday, as I was reading, I did find a few of those, “Yes! That makes sense!” pieces, but I kept thinking, “How can I remember and practice some of these ideas when I’m out in the world?” I tend to run high on anxiety and at full speed. I react more often than I respond and tend to get myself into trouble. Then I withdraw. Maybe I’m just not built to be in this world.

That makes no sense. What’s the point of being alive at all if all you do is sit at home and never experience the world around you?

Then I came across this article at Zen Habits called, “12 Essential Rules to Live More Like a Zen Monk” and it shifted my thinking.

Which brings me back to the heat. As I watered my plants and trees today, the early morning sun beating down on me (it was already 90), I started to grumble. It was 115 degrees yesterday and today’s weather report said it would a little hotter, peaking on Friday and Saturday. How was I going to survive?! Why do I live here?! Who lives like this?!

Yeah, I have been known to be a little dramatic. So?

Then I remembered Zen Habits, “Smile. Breathe. Slow down.”

I smiled. Yes, it’s hot. It’s always hot like this mid-June. It’s like the solstice has to announce that it has arrived. “Hello! I am the sun and I am here all damn day! Enjoy my brilliance!” It gets blazing hot for a week as a result. I smiled at the thought of the sun being so obnoxious.

Then I took a breath. The birds don’t seem to mind. They just continue. And there are lots of them. The plants survive. The rabbits, squirrels, and coyotes, too. I made sure the water dish near the bushes was full of cool water. I made a little oasis for them.

I slowed down. I moved my potted plants into the shade, so they only get morning sun, watered the trees nice and deep and was thankful for those big wide leaves. What if I change my thinking and wonder how hot it will get? Will we break a record at the house this year? Since we moved here, I’ve had an electronic thermometer in the yard. It keeps a record of highs and lows. The record high is 117 and it was made two Junes ago. Will we get to 118? Let’s find out.

Next week, the weather will cool again. The high 90’s are not bad at all when the humidity is so low. It usually hovers around 10%. I will go back to talking a long walk in the morning, just before the sun comes up. Besides, the changes are what make life interesting. The hot summer breaks into a cool fall and the cold winters warm into a beautiful spring. I stood there watching a dove on its nest wondering if we’ll get any rain later this summer.

Zen habits win! Nothing changed but my thinking, my realization that all is as it should be, as it always has been. Katagiri says that we are all buddha already, we are born “enlightened,” we just need to accept it. For a moment, I caught a glimpse of that and there was peace.

Mao – The Unknown Story: New Read

Mao – The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. Six hundred and sixteen pages. I’m going to be here a while!

Mao book cover on a desert background.

I found two very different reviews of this book, at The Socialist and at The Guardian.

I’ve wanted to know more about Mao for a couple years now, mostly because I’m so fascinated by the communist revolutions in both Russia and China. It’s interesting to me that now we can read books by and about these leaders like Trotsky, Stalin, and Mao when for so many years so much was hidden away. I wrote a few posts about The People’s Tragedy last year.

But I wonder how much of it is true, how much is glossed over by one group (like The Socialist in the link above) or demonized (like The Guardian’s review). Reading some of Trotsky’s work and Stalin’s, as well as Marx himself, makes it even harder to believe anyone can think these men’s tactics were a good idea. “Cringe-worthy” is the newfangled term I’d give much of it.

I’m only thirty pages in this morning and I can tell this is going to be the version that vilifies Mao as and evil straight from the bowels of hell from birth. I’m reading it thinking, “This makes it seem that you could known he’d be a mass-murderer right from his early school days.” I’m sure that wasn’t the case.

It’s always curious to me that leaders like this, the ones that say they are here to protect and support the “workers,” that they never seem to BE workers themselves. They always seem to be university professors and young students.

And what about the people that follow and support them? Do they have any responsibility? I mean, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, didn’t come out of nowhere. They were set upon this earth with power over humanity that none other possessed, a supernatural gift so to speak. How do these things get rolling and keep rolling?

Which makes me think of the show I’m watching on Netflix right now. Have you seen Colony? I’m only at the end of season two, so don’t ruin it, but like The Walking Dead, it’s an interesting take on society and how we get into these messes.

Like I said, I’ll be reading this book for a while. I’m not fast reader, but at least it reads nicely. If you’ve read it, let me know. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Lord Jim & This ‘Cancel’ Idea

Lord Jim book review

I really got into Lord Jim even though there were times when I wasn’t sure what was going on. Joseph Conrad tends to ramble, say things that seem to have no cause or effect, and then come back around to them. I liked it.

Poor Jim. He made a mistake when he was just a boy by our standards, and he felt guilty about it for the rest of his life, right up to the end. It made me think of a lot of news stories I’ve been seeing lately. This person went to a party and was a racist. That person did drugs. This one made sexist remarks. All accusations made about events at least twenty years in the past.

We all do things we regret, every single one of us, and not all of us dwell on it for the rest of our lives. I don’t think we are meant to. We learn from our mistakes (or not) and move on with our lives. Thanks to our new permanent and worldwide media, we can’t escape our past and our culture seems to lean into and celebrate that.

Now that I think about it, that’s not a new thing, is it? It’s just that we have more opportunities to record and bring up proof of the past. Throughout the ages, we’ve ostracized people for their past discrepancies: bad business deals, sexual infidelities, where people were born or to whom.

What good does it do? If I do something to offend someone when I’m twenty years old, does that mean I’m a terrible person and unfit for service when I’m forty? Jim thought so. He fell into a big mistake, following along with the people around him, and ended up being the only one that paid legally for it. Then socially, too. He was ruined, not only in society, but in his head and heart.

A friend believed he was a good man and helped him start a new life. It was good one. He did well, helped people, made a life for himself, but in the back of his mind was that fateful deed. He never forgave himself and ended up paying for it again and again until he died.

Is that what we want today for everyone? Is that what seems like justice, community, progressive thinking? I think what we’re doing is harmful to our society. We expect people to be perfect right from the start, never make a misstep, and to be clairvoyant enough to know what a misstep will look like in the future. All we’re going to get is a neurotic society, afraid to step out of line, afraid of the people around them, afraid to make any remark, create anything, or to let go even a little.

Jim’s story was a sad one, echoing now from 120 years in the past.

If you want to read more posts based on quotes from “Lord Jim”, you’ll find a list of them at the bottom of my first post, “Joseph Conrad is my Next Read: Lord Jim”

Peace in The Motion of the Waves

Peace in the motion of the waves.
Photo by Derek Story on Unsplash

Peace comes and goes, like the waves, I guess. Maybe I’m just watching for stories in the clouds, but it seems that things just come together in impossible ways if you just sit back and wait a bit.

This photo is in honor of my youngest son, whose wave is building up again. May he ride it well, accept the break, and rise again with tide.

So may we all.

“At the first bend he lost sight of the sea with its labouring waves for ever rising, sinking, and vanishing to rise again – the very image of struggling mankind – and faced the immovable forests rooted deep in the soil, soaring towards the sunshine, everlasting in the shadowy might of their tradition, like life itself.”

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Did you find peace in that quote the way I did?

We think mankind is always moving forward, but in reality, over the thousands of years our kind has been on this planet, we rise, sink, vanish, over and over again. Individuals, families, clans, and civilizations, nations all have come and gone, only to build up and rise again. The next time I see the waves, I’ll think of that.

There’s no need to lose our minds over the state of society. We do what we can to enjoy the time we have here, to leave our space a little bit nicer than how we found it, if we can. And then we’re gone.

The only thing that continues is life itself, that immovable forest. People talk about humans destroying the earth, but really, we can only destroy the environment to the extent that we finally go extinct. And if humans are gone, the earth remains, life goes on as it always has since the beginning of time.

No one person’s life is that important in the grand scheme of things. It reminds me where to put my own focus. The place any of us can make the biggest impact is right at home. It starts with our relationship with ourselves, moves into that of our family and friends, and into our co-workers (or in my case, those people I see at the grocery store, or you).

If we all spent our days making our immediate surroundings more pleasant, wouldn’t the whole world be a bit more pleasant? What if we stopped fighting the crashing of our waves on the shore and enjoyed the ride, found peace in the cycle? Life will go on no matter what you choose to do.

If you want to read more posts based on quotes from “Lord Jim”, you’ll find a list of them at the bottom of my first post, “Joseph Conrad is my Next Read: Lord Jim”

Listen Like You Mean It: Final Thoughts

Listen Like You Mean It book cover

Listen Like You Mean it by Ximena Vengoechea was a strange journey. It started strong for me, started to peter out, and then picked up again at the end. The author used her experience in business, as a researcher for apps, to explain how to better listen in conversation. It makes sense. Her job was to listen to people’s first thoughts, experiences, and usage needs of an app to make it work better for them and for the company.

I suck at wrapping up what I think of a whole book. Bottom line of this one was that I liked it. I got some good bits from it. And I hope I can practice some of the things I learned in it. That’s the key. Most of it was the stuff you always hear about how to be a better listener, but if you don’t practice new ways consciously and often, you’ll only fall back into your old routines and habits.

How does one practice better conversation techniques? Especially now.

One thing I noted to myself in the margins of this book was that much of these listening skills could really be used in self-discovery and self-talk as well. How we talk to and listen to ourselves is how we look at the world around us. Can I make some useful reminders to practice these techniques on myself at home? If I can master a few of them, make them a habit when alone, maybe I can use them more readily the next time I’m out to lunch with a friend?

Halfway into the book, I started to get frustrated. Some of it seems too technical and businesslike. Maybe these would be great for someone that was around a lot of people all the time, at work or school. I don’t feel like they apply to my lifestyle. I read but glossed over much of those chapters and kept reading instead of giving up and not finishing.

I’m glad I did because the chapters on difficult discussions and resting and recharging between conversations were especially inspiring.

“We can express ourselves with humility, admitting what we do and do not know, and with curiosity, staying open to how others may receive us in conversation. We can practice patience, become aware of when our body language is telling us we are closing ourselves off, and quiet our minds when our thoughts and fears get in the way of being honest. We can make the necessary space to be ourselves, just as we do for our partners.”

Listen Like You Mean It

See? Conversation is a give and take thing. We are all in need of that intimate connection with another human or two. The first step, like everything we wish to achieve, it ours to make.

Was the book worth reading? Yes, and it would be even more so if you happen to be in a situation where you work or live closely with a lot of other people.

Pop back to my post “Listen Like You Mean It” – Another New Read, to start at the beginning of my journey and find other posts about this book.

Classic Crime Drama: Prayer for the Dead

Remember that book I started a few days ago, Prayer for the Dead? It turned out to be a classic crime drama that I couldn’t put down.

A Crime Drama Classic

I wasn’t all that impressed with the first chapters, but as I read on, I started to see its charm. And then it got creepier…and then there I was, yelling at the book, “No! What the hell?” and “Don’t go in there!”

My son came in the room right as I started the last twenty pages, and I was forced to tell him that whatever he had to say at this time would have to wait. I held the book aloft, my thumb in the crack just pages from the end, and pleadingly looked at him. “Just a few more minutes? I can’t stop now.”

He shook his head at me, “Nothing changes around here. Well, except my room.” He laughed and walked into the kitchen to make more coffee. It’s a running joke right now that I took over his room the moment he left for University. In my defense, I warned him what I was planning, and he was all for it when he left.

But that, my dears, is another post. What I’m here to talk about is the draft…no, wait…the book I just finished!

I’d say, “I love it when a plan comes together,” but there was no plan. I’d never heard of the book or the author. I only picked up because the cover and title were appealing. Yes, I judged a book by its cover! And I was not disappointed.

The shy and quiet serial killer with a reason behind his madness, the retired special agent with a checkered past, the bumbling local cops and police chief. All the strings coming together at the end. Perfect.

If you like crime drama tv shows, you’ll love this book. Classic characters and a great story. Go find it at Thriftbooks.com!

Prayer for the Dead – New Fun Read

Prayer for the Dead book cover on an end table.
“Prayer for the Dead” by David Wiltse (1991)

“Prayer for the Dead,” a cheap paperback thriller novel? Really, Michelle?

Yep. And what brought my attention to it? The chilling title and it was free. What can I say? I’m easy.

I’m on page 108 and it’s exactly what I thought it would be. Not a bad book, but it’s fairly predictable so far, like watching a Netflix crime drama. It starts off with creepy suspense, there’s some cat and mouse, some sexual tension and release, and, of course, any leads that they find, no matter how obscure, are exactly what they need to catch the bad guy. That last bit is what makes me roll my eyes. I’ve been on the receiving end of police work like that. It’s a sore spot.

It is entertaining, I’ll say that. And since I’m already reading two informational books that I’m trying to digest slowly, this will help give me a break between the more difficult reads. I don’t have to think much about this book. It’s the one to read for half an hour with my coffee. It’ll wake me up before I get to the meat, an appetizer.

I don’t think there will be many posts about this book in the coming days. I haven’t underlined or starred a single sentence. I have made the occasional comment about its crime drama similarities and the obvious, the good guy shares some of the same mental traps as the bad guy, hints.

I’ll keep reading it though. Maybe there will be a surprising twist to it?

Do you read novels for fun? I usually read horror, like King or Koontz, when I’m in the mood for entertainment. Horror/thriller novels are fun reads, scarier and more suspenseful in print than on the screen almost every time. Have you read Prayer for the Dead or anything else by David Wiltse? I’d never heard of either until I saw it in the free pile. I honestly just loved the cover. It reminded me of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. Jeez…that reminds me. I read that when I was in high school and it terrified me. I should read it again!

Read my final thoughts on this book at the post, Crime Drama Classic: Prayer for the Dead. Yeah, I liked it.

Renewed Practice of Emptiness

Considering the idea of “emptiness” during my meditation time. The most enlightening explanation of how to meditate was when I heard that we were not clearing our minds of thought, we were simply staying focused on one activity and letting thoughts go for the time being. That’s when I first began a serious practice of sitting in mediation each morning.

Over the past few years, I slowed and then stopped that practice. I felt like I didn’t have time and maybe that it was a waste anyway. And now here I am unable to step between the trigger and response again. This book is reminding me to return to the practice.

Notes on emptiness and meditation.

Side note: I wonder if you could track your moods and reactions to things by tracking your penmanship? The top part of this picture is from the day before yesterday. The bottom part is from today. It’s like two different people writing. And I feel like two different people most days, sometimes three.

A few days ago, my energy was flowing outward, searching for connections and input. Today, it ebbs, seeking peace and solitude. I need time to process and recharge.

From “Returning to Silence” by Dainin Katagiri,

“After careful consideration, just do it! Next, forget it! All you have to do is return to emptiness, which is pure activity.”

Thinking on the idea of emptiness as pure activity. I never would have put it that way, but that’s what we are practicing when sitting in meditation. We are not “emptying” our minds, we’re simply sitting.

We made the plan to sit for so much time, we’ve created the environment, and now…we sit and let everything else go for a moment.

Interruptions come. A dog barks, a siren blares, a housemate is doing something in the kitchen. Those things are not sitting, I let them go.

A thought comes to my mind. Hello, thought, we’ll talk later.
A feeling stirs in my heart. Hello, heart, take a rest.

It can be the same with going for a walk, doing the laundry, or washing the dishes. Nothing else matters at the moment. I am not hyper-focused on my activity, just deliberate about what I’m doing and only doing that activity, not planning ahead, judging the activity, or reacting to outside stimuli. It is a rest.

I just did it while I was writing this. I made the plan to spend this half hour writing these thoughts, but the phone is there beside me. “Oh, yes, I should remind him that today is my day off.” Text. Set it down. Write again. “Buzz. Buzz.” My train of thought is interrupted, and I pick up the phone to see the response, smile and set it down again.

That is not emptiness, not pure activity. I am not only writing, but I’m also thinking about the people on the other end of the phone, the chores I think I’ll get to later, and whether or not it will be too warm to be outside tomorrow.

Emptiness will be my practice this week: set aside blocks of time to do only one thing and let all else go. Start with quieting my phone. Cliché, I know, but being alone here so much, I tend to use the phone as my lifeline. I keep letting it interrupt my moment. For now, I will set it to silent and leave it on my desk. I’ll have a note on it to remind me. My friends and family love me and will not stop loving me if I don’t answer immediately to every inquiry.

Read more about the book in my first post about it, “New Read: Returning to Silence.”

Listen Like You Mean It: Another New Read

“Listen Like You Mean It – Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection” by Ximena Vengoechea is my next read and I’m very much looking forward to it. It seems to be exactly what I need right now!

"Listen Like You Mean It" book cover on a desert background.

Something I have very hard time doing is listening in a conversation. I’m a talker. I’ll talk all. Day. Long. Non-stop. In fact, just yesterday I spent literally all day talking. I talked on the phone with one person as I drove down to have breakfast with another. I talked on the way to lunch with another friend. And then on the drive home with someone else. Once I got home, I talked about the whole day with my husband and talked with my son about his day as well.

Did I run out of words? Nope.

Can you guess what my biggest complaint is about the world? My immediately family will laugh and tell you, in my voice, without hesitation, “No one is listening to me! I feel so disconnected!”

Enter, “Listen Like You Mean It.”

Will this book help me out? Thirty-five pages in and I’m thinking, yes.

My first note in this book was, “I wonder if I can make reminders for myself, like a tattoo on my hand or a button on my purse.”

Two quotes from the first pages that have shown me that I’m on the right track:

“When we are on autopilot, we hear enough of what the other person is saying to hold a conversation, get our work done, keep in touch with our friends, and stay polite with our neighbors and shopkeepers.

…we tend to react based on how we wish to be treated, rather than respond to what our conversation partner is actually saying or in need of.”

“We may, for instance, assume that others relate to things in the same way we do, our of a desire to bond over a “shared” experience (You had a pet as child? Me too. It was great, right?).”

That’s me. I know I’m doing it and I’m believe that I’m doing it to show you that I’m just like you. We have something in common! But not everyone is telling their story to connect that way. They may feel upstaged or not heard.

Another thing I don’t do well is ask questions and get people to explain what they mean or how they feel. And that is a direct result of my surface listening. I’m only listening enough to connect what you’re saying to something I have done or felt, then getting ready to tell my side.

The very thing that I do to connect with others is the thing that makes most people feel unheard and discouraged from adding to the conversation. I’m creating my own feedback loop!

Listen Like You Mean It is going to be a game-changer for sure…if I can only remember to implement what I’m learning!

If you’d like to read along with me, go get the book at Thriftbooks.com and leave me a comment. I can’t wait to hear your stories!

Read more posts about this book!
Patience and Trust: Not Every Thought Is Essential
Listening Skills to Practice
Final Thoughts

New Read: Returning to Silence


I’ve been looking forward to reading Returning to Silence!

The question is: Can one return to someplace they’ve never been? “Silence” is not a word anyone would associate with me.

Returning to Silence book cover on a desert background.
Returning to Silence
Zen Practice in Daily Life
by Dainin Katagiri (1988)

From the Foreword:

“It is not a book to ‘get through.’ It is a book to live in. Many books are read in pausing from life, when you take some time off, when you escape, put everything on hold. This book is such; when you live in it you are more outside it, more in life. Read it a little and keep it near your places. Let it be a friend. Let it help you to keep the trivia in perspective.”

And that is what I’ll be doing with this book. I have started a new reading journal just for this book so that I’m not rushing to fit it into my current one, along with others. I have it here with my journal and instead of reading Medium or other blog posts and news after breakfast, I’ll take a dip in this pool.

I’ll also be trying something new here. I feel like I’ve lost track of my purpose for blogging. I’ve begun to chase something, instead of experience a journey. In the coming week, I plan to revisit my “About” and “Home” pages and attempt to communicate exactly why I’m here, or at least create something less restrictive than what is currently posted.

On that note, here’s the first quote from this book that caught my eye.

“If you study Buddhism thinking that it will help you, that means that you use Buddhism for your ego, for selfishness. No matter how long you do this, it is egocentric practice. If you continue to practice like this you will never be satisfied, because desire is endless.”

Why else would you read something, other than the hope that it will help you or others? What I’ve read of Buddhism in the past seems like one contradictory statement after another. Let go to hold on. Quiet to think? Or quiet to let thought go? Focus to unfocus. I’m confused, but I keep reading.

Small snippets, like “desire is endless” comfort me. The more you get, the more you want. We all know that deep down. There is no perfect or enough, always the drive to more and better. Isn’t that the drive that has gotten the human race where it is now? And contrary to popular belief, I think we (in general) are better off now than we were when we lived in caves and grass huts.

How do we return to a silence that calms our hearts and helps us appreciate the world we live in? How do we learn to love the world around us and everything in it?

Have you read Returning to Silence? You can find it at Thriftbooks.com if you’d like to read it with me. I’d love to hear your comments.

Read my next post about this book at “Renewed Practice of Emptiness.”
“Attachment Thoughts on Returning to Silence”
“True Nature, Driving, and New Podcasts”
“Connection and the use of Rituals”
“Zen Habits and This How ’bout Heat, Man?!”

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