Tag Archives | Jack Kornfield

A Year to Live — 361 Days

Holding Onto Grudges

A deer at Rancho from a few years ago. I thought it appropriate to the idea of freedom and letting go.

A deer at Rancho from a few years ago. I thought it appropriate to the idea of freedom and letting go.

On Tuesday, I went for a hike with a new friend, J-N, who I met that morning for the first time. We were supposed to hike with another woman, a mutual friend, but since she couldn’t come, J-N and I found ourselves in the funny position of meeting for a hike without ever having seen each other before. Despite our lack of familiarity with each other, we quickly dove into the depths of a rather personal conversation. From talking about love of the outdoors, to sharing how we met our life’s partners, we soon progressed to speaking about life itself, and through that, to my year to live and my death in (now) 361 days.

As we talked and walked, I found myself time and again complaining about grievances from my past. “Wow, I am still bearing a grudge,” I commented each time, wondering at myself for my ultra-long memory in keeping resentments. I was carrying my usual, regular backpack, as I always do, but as one grudge after another flickered to life in my memory, it occurred to me that my physical backpack was not the only one I was carrying. There I was, in the greenness and beauty of a gloriously wild place, in the sunny clarity of a California summery winter day, carrying on my back a gaggle of grudges, seemingly without any intention to let them go.

Our walk passed through rolling meadows, low oak forests, and inside the brim of a gorge almost completely overrun by fallen and uprooted trees and shrubs (perhaps the result of the last storm). Still-green trees and shrubs lay in the path of the creek, creating what could almost be a dam, and we wondered what would happen in the creek bed when the rains came again. “Erosion,” J-N said, looking at the destruction around us. We couldn’t help but imagine the violence of the storms that brought about so much collapse, that worked their way by wind and water around the roots of these trees, till finally those mighty beings could hold onto the ground no more, and even they, the giants of the earth, succumbed to the inevitability of the circle of life.

Grudges work the same way, I thought. They insidiously wear away at the foundations, exhausting good will, trust, and peace of mind. Even the tallest tree or the hardiest shrub cannot withstand the repeated corrosive efforts of resentment. I looked in the face of each one of my grudges as they came up, and I was surprised to see how little true emotion was left in them. Rather, these grudges I was holding onto, as though my world depended on them, were like a frayed tale, told so many times that it no longer held any meaning.

“As you hike,” a friend once suggested a meditation, “imagine you are carrying with you a backpack filled with all your sorrows, upsets, ill will, and anger. While hiking up a mountain, pause once in a while, perhaps during switchbacks in the trail, and imagine yourself opening the backpack and taking something out. Leave these by the side of the trail, one at a time. You can always pick them up on your way back, if you need to, but perhaps by the time you hike down you will realize you no longer need those burdens you’ve carried, and you can leave them there to be recycled back into the earth.”

In these last 361 days which I have before I die, I would like to let go of as many grudges and resentments as I can. For a moment there, during my hike with J-N, I could see with utter clarity what it would be like not to carry these grudges anymore, to hike without the backpack of resentment. If you’ve ever gone backpacking before, you know the relief of setting your pack down after a long day of hiking. The backpack, containing everything you need to live in the woods for a while, becomes a part of the body, turning you into a big turtle who is carrying its house. Setting it down is like a revelation, a release, a freedom that can only be experienced, impossible to describe.

I have carried my grudges long. I have brought them with me so far. But now, I think, it is time to set them down, one at a time. Like ultra-light backpacking, or like John Muir hiking only with his tin cup and a blanket, so do I too wish to complete the journey of my life with as little baggage as I can. Whether this means forgiving myself, forgiving others, or begging others for their forgiveness, I am getting ready to step into the creek bed and allow the water and the wind to wear the foundations of my grudge-constructs down. These stories I’ve been telling myself for so long, unlike the trees downed that I saw in my hike with J-N, were never really alive. It is time, as Jack Kornfield says, to let go of all hope of a better past. I like this idea. Wish me luck.


The class “A Year to Live” is offered by Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society in SF. It is based on the book A Year to Live by Stephen Levine.

The Silver-Lined Cage

My mother sent me yesterday a story by Israeli author Shlomit Cohen-Assif. The story tells of a yellow bird that had been caught by a hunter and was being kept in a cage near the window. Unable to fly, the bird soundlessly sings inside her heart her longing for the open, free sky. One day an old woman passing by asks the bird to sing for her. While the bird sings, the old woman weaves her silver hair inside the bars of the cage, making it lighter-than-air so that the bird, though still in the cage, can fly again.

The story saddened me. Sure, the bird can now see the world, but she is still trapped inside the cage. She cannot move her wings. The cage, though silver-lined, is still around her, and for as long as she is inside, she will always see the world through its bars and be forever limited by its size and shape. She will never be truly free.

I, too, like the bird, live in a silver-lined cage. Some of the bars of the cage are of my own making: my responsibilities as a parent and my responsibilities as a daughter, sister, cousin, and granddaughter, my social obligations to friends and acquaintances. Some of the bars I have accepted because I wish to fit in the society in which I’ve chosen to live: moral and ethical rules, social norms, and other societal expectations. My perceptions of these bars change. At some times the bars seem more rigid, less able to give way. The bars can be light as air, allowing me some illusion of freedom or they can be inflexible, appearing to trap me in a small and cramped cage.

Jack Kornfield tells the story of a tiger in a zoo who lived most of her life in a small pen. As the zoo began to shift its animals to larger, more natural living areas, this tiger too was moved to a much bigger yard. Despite having all this new space to explore, the tiger spent the rest of her life pacing a small area, the size of her former pen, never venturing away from it. Like the chickens who always return to their coop and the cows who return every night from the meadows to their barn, even when there’s a chance of freedom, we often choose to stay in, or return to, the place where we feel safe, even when we perceive it as a cage, even if we feel trapped inside.

That is the secret of the silver-lined cage and what makes it most difficult to escape: its door is unlocked. We can get out any time. The tiger, the yellow bird and I are the only ones with the key to our cages, and we are the only ones who get to choose when the door stays open and when it is shut. Despite its disadvantages, inside the cage we are safe and can pretend to be anything we want to be. We can fly over the moon (remember, the bars are light as air with the woven silver hairs), without ever needing to risk the strength of our own wings.

But this flight is not a true flight — it is a flight by the same standards as reading a book about climbing Everest would require heavy mountaineering boots or watching a movie about glass-blowing would produce a pumpkin or playing a football video game would make us sweat. If this kind of freedom was true then I would have made three touchdowns during Wednesday night’s game against the Browns when I played with my son on his playstation. In order to fly in truth, I must unlock the door, open it, and acknowledge that I am the one who has made this cage, and because of that, it is for me to decide that I can leave it. Perhaps I will never climb Everest or get a touchdown in an NFL football game (the last, especially, seems unlikely, because at 5’1” and 120 pounds I am possibly too small, even if I was the right sex and age), but there are many other adventures freedom allows. I did get to play a flag football game two years ago, and I ran the ball once. My flag was pulled almost before I started moving, but it doesn’t matter. People, I played in a football game! For a moment, I was a high-flying running back!

The buffet of life is extensive, limitless. All we need do is pick what it is we’d like to have. But perhaps its very boundlessness, its very infinity of choice, are what make this buffet so frightening, so unnerving. We humans like limits and rules. We like the safety that lack of freedom gives, because… imagine the chaos that would ensue if everyone was free, if everyone took from the buffet whatever they wanted without caring about any one else’s needs! We cannot fathom the true limitlessness, the true infinitude of the buffet. We cannot fathom that there is enough space for us all to be free.

For this new year, I wish you and me a chance at liberation. I wish us a chance to see the world outside the bars of our cages, even if they are silver-lined. Take a chance this year. Do something you love. Plunge into the unknown. There is a lot in the buffet of life for you and for me to enjoy. Perhaps this year will be the year to climb a mountain or to hike the longest trail, to start your own company or get your own apple orchard farm. Perhaps this year, 2015, is the year for our dreams to come to be.

It’s a beautiful world out there. Open your windows and doors and come with me outside. Come out, come out, wherever you are. Smell the air. Touch a flower. Fly like a bird. Live a little. Live a lot. It’s a good life.

The Rainbow on the Turkey’s Tail

Spirit Rock Meditation Center is at once removed and far too close to civilization. It sits close enough to Sir Francis Drake Blvd that traffic always hums, but is also nestled into hills from which several rough trails are cut, climbing out to the ridges around. Perhaps it was leaving my cell phone in the car, the vow of silence, or just the isolation inside the community, but home seemed many thousand miles away, and not a ninety-minute drive across the bay.

Wild turkey dawdled along the road leading from the dining hall to the dorms, seeming not to care about the yogis staring at them. Lizards, less enlightened maybe, skittered in and out of the road, nearly causing accidents that could be fatal only to themselves. These last, especially, were everywhere, either streaking from the bushes or performing their daily dose of push-ups on a sunny surface. They seemed to watch us yogis without much curiosity, as though once they’ve seen one of us, we are all pretty much the same.

Before coming to the retreat, I’d been worried about my ability to sit and meditate for a whole day. I wasn’t sure how I would handle the silence, or the accommodations. And I was worried about breaks for peeing, most specifically because we were going to spend quite a lot of time in nature, and I wasn’t sure if the question would even be addressed.

My worries about the retreat, however, were not more numerous than my expectations. I had noticed, watching people who had come back from retreats or hearing them talk, that participants tend to become a bit addicted to the experience, going back again and again, year after year. I had heard that while the first couple of days were hard, the rest of the retreat seems to pass in a rosy haze of concentration and presence. I also heard that people have all kinds of mystic experiences, such as clearing of past burdens, moments of understanding of past dilemmas or conflicts, and other forms of enlightenment. That all sounded deliciously good to me.

So here I was, in this far-away, humming-with-echoing-traffic retreat center, worrying about details and expecting miracles. Perhaps you can already imagine what happened in the week I was there.


Yes. Exactly, perfectly, nothing.

Turns out, I did not have trouble sitting or walking in meditation. The occasional restlessness, sure, and the occasional sleepiness. Peeing was less complicated than I feared. The silence was softer, less harsh and all-encompassing than I expected (and I may have even enjoyed it as a relief). The accommodations, the bathroom most especially, were clean and comfortable. Sure, I was not crazy about sharing bathrooms with 11 other women anymore, but it was really fine, and everyone was considerate and clean.

I was able to be present some of the time, but presence, or concentration, never became easy, not after two days and not after three days, not for a whole sit or even part of a sit. Throughout the week, I experienced the usual struggle to stay present that I experience at home when I meditate. Some fears plagued me (the most annoying ones being the not being able to go pee fear and the fear that I’ll never hike the PCT, both of which seemed to me huge and petty at the same time), and they stayed on, at some level, throughout the retreat. No really big moments of enlightenment there, or in any of the other dramas of my life.

Quite simply, I just sat there. Or just walked. And that was all.

Toward the last day of the retreat, I started feeling a bit upset. Was I a failure at this too? Did I do something wrong? Perhaps I don’t know how to meditate, after all? Maybe I’m not supposed to just sit here and struggle to be present. Maybe there’s a secret ingredient I’m missing. I grew more and more irritable — no rosy haze for me. The end of the retreat was a relief. I really wanted to come back home.

Safe in the comfort of home, I happened to listen to a Jack Kornfield podcast talk about what inspires us in spirituality. I had watched him every day during the retreat as he was getting lunch. He’d walk mindfully from bowl to bowl, and as mindfully serve himself. He looked shorter than I expected, more Jewish somehow. The noble silence edict, unfortunately, made it impossible for me to go all mushy and tell him how much I admire him and how his books have helped me shift my life. But I sent him thoughts of it, hoping they’d somehow invade his presence of mind.

In the podcast talk, Jack Kornfield told a story about a friend of his who has been meditating for 30 or more years with nothing much happening. The friend had confessed that after a while (the first 10 years especially were hard), he had to come to terms with the fact that nothing was going to happen to him while meditating. No mystic experiences. No enlightenment. After thirty years, however, and reflecting back on his practice, the friend noticed that he had become kinder, more present, and a better listener. More, he said, like himself.

I listened to this story and felt a burden shift. If this is all I can expect to receive from meditation, then it is already more than the whole world. Kindness alone would be enough. Presence alone would be enough. The ability to listen to another fully would be enough. Becoming more myself would be enough. Perhaps, after all, I was not such a failure as a meditator. Perhaps, I was exactly where I most wanted to be: sitting and trying to still the mind into presence, being in the meadow surrounded by other people, all of whom, too, probably just yearn to be kinder, better listeners, more like themselves.

One of the days of the retreat, as the sun was rising above the hills, the turkeys were walking by the road. I paused in my walk down to breakfast to watch them. They walked on the grass, nodding to themselves wisely, pecking mindfully at the ground to search for food. As I watched, a ray of sunshine hit a turkey’s tail and a rainbow formed, flickering, glittering on the feathers in bright colors, as luminous as emeralds, rubies, and sapphires, as soft as just-fallen snow. My heart stopped with wonder. The turkey ambled along, oblivious to the miracle on its tail.

It seemed to me, at that moment, to be the culmination of my life’s work, as though my whole life I had been waiting only for that, the appearance (and then the disappearance) of the rainbow on one turkey’s tail.

One moment it was there, gleaming in the sunlight. Then next, I blinked, and it was gone.

Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109