An Empty Day
by Vivienne Lund


 I snuggle in the warm, clean
sheets of routine
and sigh to myself, "ah! an empty day
to count the colorful threads of
my blessings
to court and woo the many
happinesses that are my life.

Thought this life doesn't give
me sexy black-lace stockings
filled with wiry–healthy limbs,
straight, happy toes,
fertile, hilly arches,
the crafty spry silence of bending knees,

I can always leave them
locked in their closets
and plant myself in the
whirleygigs, corkscrews and
madness of life,
know that I belong,
to hear the flowers sing
their arias to the sky.

When darkness shadows
my heart
and I hunger for sunshine
to veil peoples' plastic stares
and all their wasted time,

My landscape is lit up
painted by the innocent
giggles of a grandchild's play
through heady fields
of bright flowers,

My imagined empty day
brims with the joy
of practice in creating
our symphony of two.

© 4/12/2013, Vivienne Lund

a six-hour, durational performance for a meditating audience



The Illusion & The Aftermath is a performance of live music that unfolds slowly over the course of six-hours for a meditating audience.

Meditation cushions and headphones are provided for the audience, who may come and go as they wish, staying for only as long as they would like. For someone in the room without headphones, the performance is virtually silent.

The audience has complete freedom to move about the space, stretch their legs and change where they are seated to experience a different view. As a metaphor for spectatorship, meditation is meant to evoke an appreciation of conscious awareness while experiencing live art. We are calling this approach: contemplative performance.

The performance itself provides the audience with a much-needed break from the addictive patterns of how smartphones, social media, and corporations are changing contemporary consciousness by monetizing our attention. The performance asks that we seek cultural experiences that help us reconnect with our ability to look and listen deeply, before the social,cultural, and political consequences of not doing so become too great.


As artists, we believe that a deep awareness of any experience holds within it the possibility of transformation; because, if we look closely, we discover the quality of all attention is a choice. The way we pay attention (and what we pay attention to) characterizes how we experience our life. In fact, what we pay attention to is our experience of life; therefore, if we can change the ways we perceive, we can actually change our lives. Realizing this potential involves cultivating opportunities for focusing and sustaining attention. We are calling this approach: contemplative performance.

The purpose of contemplative performance exists somewhere between meaning and being. The goal is to provide a potentially transformative moment for the audience by giving them the space, in their otherwise busy lives, to practice deep viewing and singular focus, in order to recognize the subtle ways we each engage with our perceptions that often go unnoticed. At the heart, is a belief in art’s ability to spark self-transformation through self-examination and understanding. The performance provides a break to see more deeply into our experiences than our workaday world often allows and the chance to bring that sensitivity of perception back into our lives with new ways of thinking.

Our work uses the performance event as an object of contemplation. The truth is: everything we experience, we experience through our minds, so contemplative performance involves working with the mind. On a day-to-day basis, most of us are working with our minds in a very different way. Those studying attention today are observing a new age of interruption and information overload. Along with multitasking, this has been shown to shift information processing from the memory center of the brain’s hippocampus to the rote task engine of the striatum, making it harder for us to remember or learn from the information we are processing. Multitasking, which we think of as doing two or more things at once, is really an act of the brain rapidly alternating between tasks, and has been linked to chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and an “artificial sense of constant crisis.” It has been associated with newly labeled states like “continuous partial attention.” Some have called this the meta-problem of our time, due to its capacity to ripple outward into industry, culture, politics, and our personal relationships.

Taking control of our minds opens up the possibility of choice. It trains us to see the power dynamics at play in how our experiences are labeled by others and reveals the true freedom we have over how we relate to ourselves and those around us. Now more than ever, it is crucial that we gain a better understanding of how our mind functions, for if we gain a greater awareness of how we perceive—how we assign meanings to things—we can leverage that awareness to change the way we deal with the world. This is a tool that can be used to recognize every situation in our lives is actually flexible, capable of being understood in a variety of ways, and holds within it the potential for change. Contemplative performance requires a different level of attention from us and can perhaps serve as (just a bit of) an antidote to these destructive cultural patterns.


Temporary Distortion explores the potential tensions and overlaps found between practices in visual art, theater, cinema, and music. The group works across and between disciplines to create performances, installations, films, albums, and works for the stage that have been shown in over 20 cities in Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Hungary, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Switzerland, and the United States.

Essays discussing Temporary Distortion’s work have been published in numerous international magazines and newspapers, including: The New York Times, Le Monde, Les Inrockuptibles, TimeOut, The Theatre Journal, The Drama Review, Contemporary Theatre Review, TheatreForum, Yale’s Theater Magazine, American Theater, and Chance Magazine; as well as in the books, Emergency Index, Performance and Media: Taxonomies for a Changing Field, Theatre Today, and Utopii performative: Artisti Radicali ai Scenei Americane in Secolul 21 (Performative Utopias: Radical Artists on the American 21st Century Stage).


The Chicago Cultural Center – January 19 to 28, 2018


The Illusion & The Aftermath will premiere at The Chicago Cultural Center on January 19, 2018, where it will run for two weeks (Wednesday – Saturday, 1pm to 7pm & Sundays, 10am to 4pm).

As the nation's first free municipal cultural center, the Chicago Cultural Center is one of the city's most popular attractions and is considered one of the most comprehensive arts showcases in the United States. Each year, the Chicago Cultural Center features more than 1,000 programs and exhibitions covering a wide range of the performing, visual, and literary arts.

Temporary Distortion has been invited to return to the Chicago Cultural Center in 2018 after the success of our six-hour performance, My Voice Has an Echo in It, at the center in 2016.

The Chicago Cultural Center is located on Michigan Avenue, directly across from Millennium Park.

Tears are Bundles of Love
by Sensei June Ryushin Tanoue

Puʻolo waimaka a ke aloha.
Tears are bundles of love. 

Love brings tears to the eyes.

~"Olelo Noʻeau - Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings #2750

Mary Kawena Pukui  


There is a crack in everything, thatʻs how the light gets in. 

~Leonard Jikan Cohen

Our Lady of Guadalupe.JPG

In early December, my husband and I traveled to sunny Quintana Roo, Mexico for two weeks of warmth.  This was our first trip to Mexico.  The plane ride was surprisingly short - just 3 hours from Chicago.  I found the warm sunny climate to be very similar to Hawaii. 

Renting a car was easy and economical.  Most people speak English and I tried out my high school Spanish (mahalo Mrs. Montgomery!) whenever possible.  We drove a half hour past Cancun to a smaller fishing community called Puerto Morelos.  We checked into to a basic hotel right on the beach.  Then we walked outside to swaying coconut trees, the cry of seagulls and the sandy beach.  Inhaling the salt drenched air was the first thing that really made my heart soar as did seeing the blueness of the sea and sky. 

The wind was brisk and the ocean choppy.  Black Iwa (frigate) birds glide about in the air currents.  There were mounds of sargasso seaweed on the shore emitting that special aroma that comes from being in the ocean.  Every morning, Mexican men came to pick it up using machines and rakes.  By afternoon the seaweed was back. 

By the time we left there 10 days later, the ocean was calm and the seaweed had stopped piling up on the beach leaving clear shores with gently lapping water.  We saw many different kinds of sea birds: sandpipers, pelicans, herons, cormorants.  There were gorgeous bright bougainvillea trees, delicate naupaka blossoms, and lovely plumeria trees.  We saw magnificent sunrises and sunsets. 

Our hotel was a block from the central square of Puerto Morelos.  There was an abundance of restaurants, shops and one small bookstore laid out around the square. There was also one Catholic church - Iglesia de San Jose.  We were there for the Feast Day of our Lady of Guadalupe so I decided to go to mass that day. 

I got to the small airy church early.  There were only a few people so I sat up front near the altar.  Pretty soon the deacon, an American from Indianapolis, came up to me and asked if I would be willing to do a reading during the mass.  I said sure, though I felt a little funny since Iʻm a Buddhist.  But I did go to St. Joseph High School in Hilo so I was familiar with mass.  He told me to read a passage from Revelations that was on his ipad.  It was entitled, "The Woman and the Dragon."  He pointed to the podium where I was to read with a microphone. 

My Buddhist name is Ryushin which means Dragon Heart.  My husband, who is also my Buddhist teacher, named me that because of the way I performed Hawaiian chants so of course I loved the title of the passage. 

The mass began.  I was the first one to do a reading.   I walked slowly up to the podium which was near the altar.  The deacon gave me the microphone and his ipad. 
I faced the congregation which had filled up with quite a few Mexicans families by then.   

I began to read, " A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head..." Suddenly, tears sprung to my eyes, and I choked up.  The image was so beautiful!  I managed to get through reading about the dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads and how itʻs great tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth and its encounter with the Woman. 

After the mass, I thought about the line that caused my tears to spontaneously arise.  What were those tears about?  They definitely had to do with the heart and beauty.  I finally realized the deep abiding love that Our Lady of Guadalupe represents is in each one of us, whether we see it or not. 

For me Hula and Zen are the practice of this love.  Hula and Zen practice include lifeʻs joy, anger and sorrow.  It requires patience and forgiveness, generosity and wisdom.  The practice nurtures and opens the sore and tender parts in our hearts to ourselves and to others.  Thatʻs how we heal. 

We who dance together are like a family because dancing is a very intimate thing.  Itʻs hard to dance when we hold mistakes, grudges, anger and insecurity in our hearts and thus close off to life.  These qualities freeze us into a certain mindset and keep us from finding our true purpose in this life.  

Finding our purpose and meaning is a deep spiritual practice and requires an intentional cultivation of patience, forgiveness and wisdom. The foundation of all these blessings is aloha (love).  Honor the cracks in life, for they let the light in. 

Best wishes for the New Year! 

Malama pono (take good care of your body, mind, heart),

June Kaililani Ryushin Tanoue
Kumu Hula and Sensei

P.S.  Warm up with our slideshow of photos from our trip to Mexico and the beautiful Carribean ocean!  Hauʻoli Makahiki Hou (Happy New Year) to you and your ʻOhana (family)! 

Saved from Freezing:
the Spirituality of Art

by Norman Fischer

Photo by Leonie Wise

Photo by Leonie Wise

I’m in my car, on the highway. I turn off the news reports and the baseball game I’ve been listening to and switch to a Beethoven violin sonata that’s loaded in the CD player. Listening to the music, my mind gradually starts to release, like a hand that had been grasping something tightly and is beginning to let go. Another mind appears, a mind completely engaged with the pattern the music weaves. A moment before, I’d been frozen into the shape of a self in a world. Now, the music has thawed me out. 

The world and the self really do appear to us as frozen. Our personal problems, our self-definitions, what we hear from those around us—all these convincing and compelling experiences invite us to clutch at concepts, positions, worries. We naturally build vast structures of ice to hold in place the world and the self, chilly and confined. But the experience of art can shake us free of all that. Art can save us from freezing. 

Spiritual practice can, too. It can provide us with a much larger view of our lives, a warming, melting view. At least this is the theory. But anyone who’s done spiritual practice for a while can tell you that it doesn’t always work that way. In fact, spiritual practice too often hits us with an arctic blast, icing us over, if we are not careful, into more grotesque shapes than the ones we were in before we began practice. Why? Because we tend toward ice: We crave a secure sense of self, a truth we can depend on, a world we can tame and understand. We want to be frozen, even as we long desperately to thaw. Religion is problematic because we are problematic. 

But that snatch of music, that poem, that picture—these can make a big difference. The imagination situates us in a reality wider, deeper, and more mysterious than we can directly sense or rationally know. Imagination can see into and through the apparent world to something luminous and significant. Without imagination there is only plodding on in a two-dimensional world, merely surviving, getting through the day. Without imagination we feel only the world’s dead weight, like an albatross around our necks, hanging there without rhythm, without quickness, without a beating heart. 

But imagination is tricky and wild. It does not play by the rules; it cannot be controlled or second-guessed. No surprise, then, that imagination is depicted as a goddess, a muse, who comes when she wants to and leaves without notice. From the point of view of the rationally organized world, imagination is dangerous, for it holds that world in supreme irony, as a mere backdrop for its colorful activity. No wonder Plato wanted to exclude the poets from his Republic. And no wonder religion almost always mistrusts and fears the imagination, which is forever evoking energies—sexual and creative energies—religion would just as soon forget: they are just so messy and hard to control, and they are not usually polite. 

Imagination draws its energy from a confrontation with desire. It feeds off desire, transmuting and magnifying reality through desire’s power. Fantasy does the opposite; it avoids desire by fleeing into a crude sort of wish-fulfillment that seems much safer. Fantasy might be teddy bears, lollipops, sexual delights, or superhero adventures; it also might be voices in one’s head urging acts of outrage and mayhem. Or it might be the confused world of separation and fear we routinely live in, a threatening yet seductive world that promises us the happiness we seek when our fantasies finally become real. Imagination confronts desire directly, in all its discomfort and intensity, deepening the world right where we are. Fantasy and reality are opposing forces, but imagination and reality are not in opposition: imagination goes toward reality, shapes and evokes it. 

So although spiritual practice seems necessarily to be, and historically has been, at odds with imagination, the truth is that spiritual practice requires imagination. If we really want to go beyond the surface of things to the deeply hidden, actual experience of being alive (as spiritual practice encourages us to do), we need imagination as an ally. The senses, reason, even our moral and emotional faculties are not enough.

Small children have an easygoing and natural sense of imagination. For them there’s no serious difference between the world of matter and the world of dreams; they crisscross and mix all the time. But children have to learn to freeze the world, to get it to hold still, so they can figure out how to be persons in it in some organized way. 

Spiritual practice ought to be childish. It ought to help us recapture something that gets lost in the process of growing up. It ought to foster a sense of play, a sense of magic, a sense of humor, so as to avoid the occupational hazard of freezing. Probably it’s too hard to cultivate these qualities within the normative forms of any spiritual tradition, so working with the imagination through art is good for spiritual practitioners. And the reverse holds as well: spiritual practice is good for artists. As a Zen priest I have been saved from freezing by my practice as a poet; as a poet I have been driven deeper by my practice of Zen. Zen has probably saved me from myself; poetry has probably saved me from Zen. 

Working with the imagination through art requires discipline. This is developed through an encounter with the materials. At first, you approach art out of passionate personal need to express your inexpressible feelings. But once you wade in, you find that the medium—the words or paint or sounds—is extremely resistant to your self-expression. Things don’t just fall into place. You have to grapple with the materials, reshaping yourself to suit them. It turns out that making art is not so much self-expression as a dialogue between what we think we want to express and the materials that seem to have their own demands. Engaging in this dialogue moves you to a degree of attentiveness and concentration beyond the private and the personal. It also moves you to encounter art’s own traditions, constructed on terms much different from those of spiritual traditions. 

Art practice gives us a path into the rich and unique content of our own lives. I don’t need art to know what I think and feel. But without art, what I think and feel quickly becomes circular, self-centered, and limited. Making or appreciating art gives me a way to start with what I think and feel and then to plunge deeply enough into it that it becomes not only what I think and feel but also what anyone thinks and feels and, even beyond this, what isn’t thought or felt at all. When I write or read poems I am met, through my own thought and feeling, by what’s outside my thought and feeling. In this sense, art practice promotes a profound empathy, a widening of my sphere of awareness. 

Art practice can help us overcome the weakness we all have for religious doctrine and dogma. Art provides a way to discover truth, but not the sort of truth that is handed to us already vetted. Instead, we must find it ourselves anew. This is a much more difficult and intimidating proposition. 

We who are engaged in spiritual practice should never forget how painful and destructive such practice may become when our enthusiasm for the truth of whatever tradition we are pursuing becomes exclusive. Not only does narrowness of view cut us off from others who practice and believe differently than we do, it also cuts us off from ourselves, as we slash away at our thoughts and feelings in an effort to fit them to the shape of the doctrines we hold dear. 

Art practice can move the inner life of the spiritual practitioner out from under the dictates of tradition and challenge it with a demand for freshness. This has been my experience. My lifelong involvement with poetry has kept me sane within a fairly narrow and rigorous life of religious practice. 

We need art as a form of recreation, re-creation of ourselves and our world, a freshening of what goes on day by day in our ordinary living. Viktor Shlovsky, the Russian formalist critic, arguing for attention to formal detail in art, said, “To make a stone stony—this is why there is art.” Art defamiliarizes the familiar, and thereby makes it new. Artists know this, but not only artists. We all sense that in looking at the world outside our own personal interests and habits we can feel something of the divine, of the whole. We can, therefore, approach our daily tasks with this heightened sense of things, taking care of our homes, our relationships, our communities, and ourselves with attentiveness and love—that is, as if we were artists grappling with our materials. 

Being human is a big job. So much to do! Taking care of body, mind, soul, taking care of ourselves and each other emotionally and physically, repairing the world, earning a living—it’s endless. There’s no use worrying about finishing the job or even doing it all that well. But to brightly begin, and then, having begun, to continue: that’s the great thing.


currents and portends
so many tears in the bogs
the rabbis continue to contend
and Syliva—where is Sylvia?—
who is Sylvia?

reward perhaps for the horses
around here, they look Korean
as only Chinese horses can

and cleaning up round the corners
myself the famous poet no one’s heard of
except to say there was a rumor

he was a poet, had crossed the line
in bridge when he came to that page
a monk tossed like a ball
in the streaming bumpy current

left with th eproblem of the practice
of how not to have faith in anything
sufficient regard
of course so as long as Jack agrees
and as long as the night is red

From Slowly But Dearly, © 2004 by Norman Fischer. Published by Chax Press in June 2004. Reprinted with the permission of publisher.

Mindfulness Road Map
by Susan Sensemann

photo by Susan Sensemann

photo by Susan Sensemann

At the Zen Life and Meditation Center we speak of mindfulness meditation as intentional awareness that is embodied and non-judgmental. 

Intentional means a course of action that is deliberate, purposeful and based on a willful decision to shift gears. Intention is the roadmap we design for ourselves to move us from being stuck in the same spot by the side of our perceived road to a new highway that moves us forward. Maybe that highway leads us home, or possibly, it leads us to adventure. Intentionality is not like requesting an Uber driver to take us somewhere as quickly as possible. Our teachers remind us that the map is of our own design. We’ve done some research and we need the discipline to sit down on the cushion and draw our map. Then we need the courage to trust our map and hit the road full throttle ahead.

Awareness doesn’t come cheap either - no easy drive-through at McMindfulness for a juicy burger.  And we won’t find True North at Awareness requires sustained focus. Awareness necessitates the discipline to practice seeing seeing what is outside, all around, and inside of us.  Awareness is also the practice of feeling our way through terrain that we thought we knew. We have unexpected roadblocks ahead. How do we alert ourselves to danger? How do we know when to put on the brakes or to drive free on an open road with our hair blowing in the wind? How do we learn to turn on a dime? How do we discern when to slow down and smell the exquisite pleasure of salt in the air of the Jersey shore?

Embodied means being willing to ask the body, the one that carries our heads from place to place, what it has been trying so hard to tell us. Our bodies cry out to us - they hurt, they ache.  The colitis, chronic colds, knee pain, the racing heart. These bodies that we have inhabited - young and vital and full of hormonal energies, middle-aged and aching from too much work and too many demands, and old and feeling the residue of many years of heart-ache and sorrow, pleasures and joy. Can we slow down and ask our bodies to share their wisdom?

Non-judgmental means cutting ourselves some slack. Being gentle with ourselves and taking a vacation from blame, guilt and shame. It means allowing ourselves a long-deserved rest, guilt free, into feeling new states of intention, awareness and embodiment. That means sending the inner critic, in my case, a scarlet red parrot who squawks on my shoulder to a beach in Puerto Vallarta for a sustained vacation. She will drink margaritas, chit-chat with the handsome young bartender, and enjoy a well-deserved break from me, too.

This is what we mean by intentional awareness that is embodied and non-judgmental - to make the space and take the time to sit on our cushion every day and count our breath to ten on the exhale. To notice when we mentally meander down a side street and then we come back to our breath and the count. To recognize that we sit behind the wheel that we steer. To know that we are, in fact, in the driver’s seat. On our cushion.

may 2018 be an open road.

Susan Keijo Sensemann

December 2, 2017

Your Own Heart, There is the Practice Hall
by Sensei June Tanoue

Brad Lewis volcano.jpg

Ua ola loko i ke aloha
Love gives life within
Love is imperative to one's mental and physical welfare
Mary Kawena Pukui

Iʻm on day 4 of a 7-day Zen silent meditation retreat called Sesshin.  Sesshin means to unify the mind-heart.  Iʻve noticed how far apart my mind and heart can become.  So Iʻm always thankful when sesshin time comes around. These retreats are so restorative and nurturing for me.  I can just sit and come home to my heart and spirit.

The first few days of sesshin can be hard as you transition from daily hectic life into a slower and more sane pace.  There are less distractions to pull your attention away from the core of the matter.  What is the core of the matter?  Thatʻs a good question. : )

So letʻs start at the beginning. Noticing how you feel is first.  I found I was exceedingly crabby the first three days of sesshin.  Nothing seemed to be right.  Everyone seemed to be doing something wrong or not the way I wanted it to go. I kept trying to find something or someone to blame for my discontent.  Itʻs an easy recipe to cook, and many people use it because itʻs really satisfying to blame someone else for your discontent.  But does it really work to end the distress that youʻre in?

Blaming others is not helpful because youʻre looking in the wrong place for an answer.  Plus, especially if youʻre a Buddhist, itʻs breaking the Buddhist precept to not speak of othersʻ errors and faults.  Itʻs not how to get to the heart of the matter.

In my case, I could easily project my discontent onto others and fall into a kind of victim mentality.  I was waiting for others to change so I could feel better about the situation.  But I have no control over others.  

I tried pushing my feelings away and hoped my annoyance would just disappear or magically change.  But your mess is still there if you donʻt clean it up.  Itʻs your mess after all.

I tried wishing my crabbiness away with thoughts like, "Iʻm a Zen Buddhist teacher not to mention a kumu hula (master hula teacher). I shouldnʻt be irritable and out of sorts!  I should be serene, magnanimous and full of aloha.  Go away crabbiness - I donʻt want you here!"  But of course negativity stuck to me even more when I tried to push it away.  It pervaded my body, mind and heart with its sticky tentacles.  I was the picture of suffering - like that guy in Peanuts with the dark cloud over his head all the time.

On the evening of the third day, I decided to face my discontent, instead of trying to wish it away. I remembered that our Zen practice is about including everything - even things we donʻt like.   

So I took a moment that night to say to my crabbiness, "Ok crabbiness, I see you.  Iʻm not going to push you away any more.  Iʻm going to bear witness to you, pay attention to you, and surround you with some loving kindness and empathy."  I focused on the feelings in my body and when thoughts arose, I noticed the thoughts but returned to the feelings in my body.

I realized that there was a hard little ball of irritation located somewhere in the middle of my chest area - inside my body.  I focused on surrounding this little dark ball with warmth and care.  Maybe just a few seconds passed - maybe more - and then the image of my heart came into my consciousness - a very sad and tender heart.  I really felt it.   

It surprised me because I didnʻt realize that my heart was so sad and tender until just that moment.  Thereʻs an exquisite, subtle pain that a sad and tender heart releases.  Something that we seem to want to avoid feeling at all costs.  But if we avoid it, we canʻt integrate it, canʻt welcome it into our experience and heal.

Such work with your heart is spiritual practice.  Itʻs about building patience, discipline, courage and love.  Itʻs important for waking up.  Your own heart, the practice hall.   

Malama pono (take good care of your body, mind, heart),

June Kaililani Ryushin Tanoue

Kumu Hula and Sensei

P.S.  Hereʻs 2017 Halau i Ka Pono Year in Review slideshow.  Happy Holidays to you and your ʻohana (family)!


Blue Pancake
by Roshi Robert Althouse

painting by Robert Althouse

painting by Robert Althouse

Ummon said, "The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your robe at the sound of the bell?" Each morning, as we finish meditation, a bell is rung, and we chant the verse of the okesa as we put our rakusu robes on top of our head. We chant,

Vast is the robe of liberation
A formless field of benefaction
I wear the Tathagata teaching
Saving all sentient beings.

Don't you long to be liberated by this vastness? Isn't your deepest desire to be complete and whole in this way? We speak of this experience as spirit, knowing that all words and concepts get in the way. You must let go of knowing for this experience is beyond time and space. This is given. You will not attain it no matter how hard you try. You may discover it and if you do, it will change everything. It has always been here and it is your deepest, truest self. Here there is no coming or going. 

If you see this, you can answer the questions, "Show me your original face before your parents were born?" 

In the early years of my practice at Zen Center of Los Angeles, Douglas Harding came and gave a talk about a little book he had recently published called "On Having No Head". In a room of 12 people, he'd ask, "How many heads are in the room?" And someone would say "12". So he'd ask again, "How many heads do you SEE in the room?" And someone would say, "Well, actually I only see 11." And that is an intriguing discovery because now you are no longer in the room, but the room is in you. And this is a glimpse of spirit. 

I encourage you to try this out for yourself. It will be helpful if you sit still with yourself before and after this so you can take it in as deeply as possible. Trungpa said it very well: "The sky is a blue pancake that plops on your head."

I hope you glimpse this for yourself. It's not difficult really. Just let go of "knowing" and it's right here; has always been here. It was here as the light met your eyes for the first time, and it will be here as the light leaves your eyes with your last breath. 

© 2017 Roshi Robert Althouse

Clarity vs. Certainty

by Susan Sensemann

photo by Susan Sensemann

photo by Susan Sensemann

I had the pleasure of dining with two brothers who love each other and appreciate their family of origin. However, they do not share political, ideological or spiritual points of view. The younger of the two is a practicing Catholic and political conservative. The older has a meditation practice, forty years of TM using a mantra, and is a liberal/progressive. As the evening wound down, the older brother initiated a discussion about religion.

I sat back for a moment as I considered each man’s body language and tone of voice. The younger brother smiled. I could see that he was breathing calmly. The older of the two leaned in. His voice rose as he dismissed organized religion, calling it hokus pokus, ridiculous, and naive. The younger did not pick up the rope to engage in a tug of war to defend his beliefs. He was clear about that. Clarity is a focused awareness that is paradoxically expansive.  He seemed to be breathing into his faith and breathing out loving kindness to his argumentative older brother whose opinion was fixed. Closed - not only in disbelief, but with an edge of contempt for the religion. 

It occurred to me that a certain view is a closed view. Fastened tight and shut off. Certainty is fixed and frozen with no wiggle-room for engagement. I realized that the brothers would not have a discussion to share ideas. I did suggest Bernie Glassman Roshi’s adage: “It’s just my opinion, man.” Lighten up, bro. Certainty is boring, opined.

I have been in recent dialogue with a Catholic friend as we have explored similarities and differences between Catholicism and Buddhism. He explained the literal, the situational and the aspirational aspects of the Trinity: God, the Holy Spirit and the Son as an embodied man. I shared with him the Three Kayas (Bodies) of Buddha: Absolute, Energy, and Physical Body. We agreed that God/Absolute, Spirit/Energy and Jesus/Buddha ring in harmony.

Our conversations are both probing and laughter-filled. We have agreed not to be right. Not to hold our views and beliefs in higher regard than the other’s. We did not have to agree to disagree, because we know that disagreement would shut down the conversation - each to his/her corner. We are sharing a dialogue that helps each of us gain a clearer perspective of our own beliefs and doubts relative to the other’s. It’s not all theology - we’re having fun.

My friend explained the purpose of the story of the New Testament Doubting Thomas, a skeptic who would not believe without direct experience. He wanted proof. He told me of various Catholic rites, pilgrimages and rituals that are steeped in embodied physicality.

I told my friend that direct experience is what Living a Zen Inspired Life simply is. Embodied. Direct. On the ground. Domestic. He wanted an example of being Zen and I told him: wash a plate. Is it that simple? Yes. The smooth white ceramic plate is in your left hand, you adjust the water temperature and notice that water is wet. This is called Prajna Wisdom - things are as they are. Notice that. You take up the soapy sponge and begin to exert a small circular motion that starts in your spine to shoulder and moves to your fingers. You notice the sudsy water drip from the plate and the small yellow smear of egg yolk floats on the bubbles and disappears into the drain. What’s to doubt? You wash a plate. 

Susan Keijo Sensemann

November 16, 2017




Mindfulness: Ephemeral Art
by Susan Keijo Sensemann

photograph by Susan Sensemann

photograph by Susan Sensemann

I’ve made art everyday for fifty years. The accumulated racks of paintings, flat-file drawers full of drawings and stacks of photomontages weigh me down now. I continue to make ‘my art,’ but I have also begun to construct ephemeral art that requires no storage at all - mandalas of fallen leaves, flower petals, sticks, shells, stones and recently, colored sand and salt. My meditative art practice begins as I gather flowers, separate the petals from the stems, pick up fallen leaves, and sort everything by shape and color. I dye sand, salt, and lavender seeds with vegetable pigment for mandalas that are particularly intricate.

I place one flower in the center of the given space - yard, floor, table - and make concentric circles until I have used up my materials. Two feet to twelve feet in diameter for various kinds of celebrations and rites of passage: an eightieth birthday, a wedding, a passing, a remembrance. After I sit with the completed piece, I sweep up the component parts, put them in a woven bag, and release it all into a nearby river, ocean, lake or pond. 

I document the process and am surprised by what my camera catches: red rose petals floated into the shape of a heart the day my dog died and lavender seeds seemed to hug a reflection of a tree as I remembered the death of a friend’s granddaughter. In my tribute to Western medicine for saving a friend’s life, the wind carried one zinnia blossom out into a small lake and the flower’s soft landing created concentric ripples well off the shore. The petals and leaves eventually float with the current, but sometimes they cling to the bank or shoreline before they sail away. I sit on the water’s edge and witness transformation and ephemerality as what was tangible joins a greater ebb and flow until it disappears entirely. As an artist making pieces that are impermanent, I surrender my control and will to what is unpredictable, spacious and magical. I am always reminded to go with the Flow.

Today I gathered autumn leaves for a mandala to mark the one-year anniversary of the passing of Leonard Jikan Cohen - poet, songwriter, performer, scholar, prophet and ordained Buddhist monk. I began making my tribute mandala with a Buddhist verse that calls for benefaction and liberation of all other beings.  Then, I cranked up Jikan’s music and danced as I arranged the leaves to “Traveling Light,” “True Love Leaves No Traces” “Dance Me To The End of Love,” and “Hallelujah.”  Leonard wrote that everything is in flux. Nothing is permanent. Thank you, Jikan.

True Love Leaves No Traces, 1977, Leonard Cohen:

As the mist leaves no scar /  On the dark green hill /  So my body leaves no scar /  On you and never will /  Through windows in the dark /  The children come, the children go /  Like arrows with no targets  / Like shackles made of snow .  As a falling leaf may rest /  A moment on the air /  So your head upon my breast / So my hand upon your hair.  And many nights endure /  Without a moon or star /  So we will endure  / When one is gone and far .  True love leaves no traces /  If you and I are one /  It's lost in our embraces  / Like stars against the sun.



Mindfulness: Facing Fear
by Susan Sensemann

photograph by Susan Sensemann

photograph by Susan Sensemann

We face tests of one sort or another many times a day, some of greater consequence than another: the driver in front of us turns without a signal or our dog pushes through the gate. Other situations are more complicated: a family member wrongly casts blame, a partner gives us the heave-ho, an opportunity for a promotion requires a move to another city. Some decisions are met with a turn-on-a-dime reflex - our brain stems takes care of that.  Others require clear communication as well as thoughtful and skillful means to best sort through possible outcomes. 

When met with the unexpected, we might be flooded with fear. Will I make the right decision? What if I don’t? Why doesn’t the pro and con list add up to a clear answer? You hear a voice in your head “This is a TEST!” You panic and cringe away from the circumstance with a cold, grey feeling of dread. A possible response is to flee from the situation, to fill our time with more television, sports, food or drink. Carbs are good for distraction as we avoid our fears and push our sadnesses and discomforts onto the other end of the sofa and hand them adult beverages. Hiding from fear is not unusual. We don’t like the sweaty palms that accompany uncertainty. 

A mindfulness meditation practice trains us to be proactive rather than reactive. We take time to sit. Spine and head are tall as we breathe into the fear. We bear witness. We Name that Emotion like a 50s television quiz show. We breathe into the reality that our fear is not real. It certainly feels real. So, we name it again: Fear. Big old Medusa-headed Fear. What is the trigger for that basic human emotion? Do we need to recoil from a snake? Take shelter from a tree that’s about to topple? Or is our fear based in mental projections that the worst is bound to happen. We catastrophize.  A mindfulness meditation practice reminds our body to sit still as we count our breaths. And, within our stillness, the monsters in our mind’s eye head to the hills.

It is within this pause of sitting and breathing that we have the opportunity to become a Spiritual Warrior. Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche wrote that the term Warrior refers to one with open-hearted courage; one who embodies basic human wisdom that arises through relaxed confidence, joyful awareness and gentle, ever-loving generosity. Being an open-hearted warrior can hurt, but we bear that pain with gratitude, too. We are alive. Spiritual Warriors embody the courage to face fears and very possibly, to dance with them to the edge of the forest. 

Mindfulness and the Gap
by Susan Keijo Sensemann

photograph by Susan Sensemann

photograph by Susan Sensemann

The ups and downs that are inherent to being human come to us at break-neck speed. I wrote ‘to us’ and not ‘at us.’  Each event that causes us to stop, pause, take stock, evaluate a way forward and push on through is a lesson when we take the time to bear witness to what is happening at any given moment. What I mean by ‘bear witness’ is to sit with the feelings that arise within our bodies as we muddle through shock, grief, sadness, loss and sometimes the awe of something as ordinary as watching a red maple leaf pirouette to the earth in late October. We weep with the leaf - its perfect spiral as it dances with the wind or dances to its own music. We might weep because we know that winter is bearing down. Some of us prefer warm beaches to wrapping scarves and wearing boots, but the earth is simply asking for a blanket until she yawns, stretches and pops forth with shades of green in April. That is poetic. 

What about the conversation, one word, that changes the course of life as we thought we knew it? Famine or feast. Angel or beast. The unknown. The not known. That which is not prescribed pre-planned, prepared as we expected or hoped. The diagnosis. The simple word “not.” Maybe the words “I love you.” Maybe the last breath of a beloved dog. Maybe the first breath that a granddaughter breathes as we question what sort of grandmother we might be. It’s all new.

It is a matter of stopping, noticing, feeling what is occurring in that very moment. To see and feel what is happening at any given time is mindfulness. To appreciate the possibility inherent to any moment’s unexpected presence might be called the Gap.

Mindfulness, our practice of meditation, helps us learn to stop, pause, breathe, and pay attention. We learn to swim in the gap. Bask in it if we like palm trees and warm waters, 

dance in it if we love rhythm and music. Or, sit in stillness and silence if that is where we locate our hearts. The Gap is the unexpected. To be in the Gap is our practice. Not knowing, bearing witness to whatever arises, knowing within the sacred space of our open hearts what it is that is arising and choosing to move with the flow that simply is an open heart. Sometimes that open heart hurts so much that we can hardly bear it. The sorrows, the joys. Mindfulness prepares us to dance with the unknown. Leonard Cohen wrote: There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. That is the Gap.

Warm Data by Nora Bateson

We are grateful for Nora Bateson's permission to publish this ground-breaking article on our Zen Life Blog. 

Contextual Research and New forms of Information



Recognizing that complex problems are not susceptible to predetermined solutions, the International Bateson Institute has taken up the task of generating a category of information specifically dedicated to description of contextual relational interaction, calling it “Warm Data”. The units of knowledge by which reasoning and calculations are made namely, data, information, and facts, suggest processes of research into which we place our hopes for better understanding of the world we inhabit. But the subject being perceived must dictate the necessity of understanding in different ways, therefore producing different kinds of information. Warm data is the product of a form of study specifically concentrated on (trans)contextual understanding of complex systems. Utilizing information obtained through a subject’s removal from context and frozen in time can create error when working with complex (living)systems. Warm data presents another order of exploration in the process of discerning vital contextual interrelationships, and another species of information.

“Warm Data” can be defined as: Transcontextual information about the interrelationships that integrate a complex system.

Information can come in many forms, depending on what is being studied. There is a need now for a way to gather and impart relational information when what we need to study is relational in nature. Warm Data is a category of information to develop in tandem to existing forms of data. This kind of information is a slippery mess of variables, changes, and ambiguities. It does not sit nicely in graphs or models, and it takes longer to produce. Since Warm Data describes relational interdependencies it must also include the necessary contradictions, binds (double-binds and more), and inconsistencies that occur in interrelational processes over time. Warm Data is the delivery of these multiple descriptions in active comparison, usually in a form that permits and even encourages the subjectivity of the observer within which it is possible to make meta connections.

This essay is an exploration of how and why Warm Data is developing as a form of documentation of relational and contextual information. Here the discussion does not go into the ways in which Warm Data are produced, or what do with Warm Data in terms of “actions”.

Making Sense & Science:

In early 2012, I was at a session on Big Data at the SAS Institute in North Carolina when I declared to my colleagues that there is a need for “contextual information” and first referred to it as “Warm Data.” That moment marked the beginning of conceptualizing and exploring the possibilities of producing an approach to research, and then imagining what the delivery of “Warm Data” research might look like.

I was not clear what it was yet, I was only certain of one thing: that a new kind of information was needed to balance the information produced by research that decontextualized its subjects of inquiry. In short, the way in which we make sense of the world has everything to do with the way we behave in it, so I saw a need for another sense-making as a necessary component of shifting behavior. Five years later the International Bateson Institute is now utilizing “Warm Data” in our research and findings on addiction, how systems learn, health and ecology.

Science, the systematic pursuit of knowledge, is at the center of the post-trust, post-truth meltdown. It appears that information as a product of knowledge, is now on trial. Every research study it would appear, is perforated with holes of distrust and met with counter evidence. Research bias and funding-based conflicts of interest have undermined public confidence in scientific research results, even though good research remains the best (and only) possible way forward as we look for ways to reduce our negative impact on the world around us. Subsequent public confusion and division is resulting in binary argument fueled by information that has been derived without the complexity required to actually make sense of it contextually. The damage is vast.

In this era, it is nearly impossible to get through a day without contributing to the destruction of our world. By lunchtime most people have participated in: further disruption to the ecology, an increase in the wealth gap, the demise of social justice, and the vengeful division between cultures. Breakfast cereals are laced with chemical pesticides that are known to be toxic both to our bodies and to the soil. They also contain damagingly high amounts of refined sugar. Yet these harmful practices have been approved by the institutional authorities of science and society. How has it come to this? And how can new patterns of interaction in our societies be encouraged to emerge? Our social deference to authorized institutions in the interest of collective safety has evolved over centuries. But that safety has been contaminated, along with our trust in the institutions that are supposed to provide truth and justice. How can science evolve to contribute to greater trustworthiness of our socio-economic institutions? How can sense be made of this tangle?

Part of the problem is that, globally, nationally and personally, we face crises that can be described as “complex” or “wicked” problems. Complexity is recognizable in situations which have multiple variables in ever shifting contexts of interdependency. Some examples of complex living systems are oceans, cities, families, economic systems, culture, the health of our own bodies, and the medical systems we expect to support them.

In each of these systems, vitality is produced by multiple processes in contextual interaction. To study a jungle is to recognize that the jungle itself is not an isolated “thing” but instead exists in the interrelationship between soil, foliage, animals, weather patterns, bacteria and so on. The same contextual linkings can be found in all living systems; approaching the system without an understanding of this holism will create short circuits in the complexity and countless unintended consequences. Making sense of the vitality of a complex system is an inquiry into its way of making contact. A study of the relational patterns gives entirely different understanding of the way in which a system is cohering.

“At present there is no existing science whose special interest is the combining of pieces of information. But I shall argue that the evolutionary process must depend upon such double increments of information.

Every evolutionary step is an addition of information to an already existing system. Because this is so, the combinations, harmonies, and discords between successive pieces and layers of information will present many problems of survival and determine many directions of change.”

Gregory Bateson, Mind & Nature, 1979

Why Warm Data?

Although statistical data is useful, it is also limited by the common practice it often accompanies: decontextualizing the focus of inquiry. To study something is usually to pull it out of context and examine it in isolation. Rarely is the study re-contextualized to look at the complexity of its larger web of relationships. Warm Data circumnavigates the limitations inherent to statistical analysis by engaging a transcontextual research methodology, bringing not only context, but multiple contexts into the inquiry process. In order to interface with any complex system without disrupting the cohesion of the interdependencies that give it integrity, we must look at the spread of relationships that make the system robust. Simply using analytic methods focused on parsing statistical (cold) data will often point to conclusions that disregard the complexity of the situation at hand. Moreover, information that does not take into account the full scope of interrelationality in a system is likely to inspire misguided decision-making, which compounds already “wicked” problems. Warm Data is not meant to replace or in any way diminish other data, but rather it is meant to keep data of certain sorts “warm” — with a nest of relations intact.


Photo by Jeff Bloom

Photo by Jeff Bloom


Transcontextual Research & the Rigor of Ambiguity:

Warm Data provides cross-sector interrelational information because it is the outcome of a research approach premised upon the transcontextual interaction inherent in any system. This sort of inquiry is daunting and perpetually in its pioneering stages. This research is has as its basis humility for the un-knowability and ambiguity inherent in these forms of study. However, these inevitable uncertainties we recognize do not lead us to an abandonment of deep study. On the contrary, studying relational information from multiple contextual perspectives, produces more work, takes more time, and requires larger teams. The rigor of this research is not to be underestimated. For example, if one wants to study the ways in which food impacts our lives, a multifaceted study of ecology, culture, agriculture, economy, cross-generational communication, and media is needed. This transcontextual platform provides a wider contextual framework for further inquiry into what forms and constitutes certain international contemporary issues such as eating disorders, starvation, and other health problems associated with diet. Or in a family study, to better understand an individual family member the Warm Data of the family culture, and other contextual information is enormously productive. The meanings of behavior differ greatly from family to family and from culture to culture, therefore contextual information can provide needed insight into otherwise line item analysis, diagnostics and understandings of causation. People migration, the changing banking industry, and the challenges facing mechanical and civil engineering are all topics that would benefit from an increase in contextual, relational information.

Warm Data is generated through a Batesonian[1] approach of comparing interrelating processes in a given system. This approach needs us to reconsider our prevailing epistemology, to foreground the study of interdependency, to observe the observer and to look for “the pattern that connects”.


What is the pattern that connects? This question, famously posed by Gregory Bateson (father of the author), draws the inquirer and researcher to another level of description. It is an invitation to reach behind the perceived separations of knowledge to get to the contextual knitting together of definitively inseparable processes.


A majority of current scientific research tools and methodologies pull “subjects” from their contexts in order to derive detailed, specialized, quantifiable information. To complement, and yet support, this specialized type of science, a wider practice of science in the future might develop ways to utilize information derived from both detail and interdependency. However, for now, the cultural habit of decontextualizing information, or, reductionism, is the standardized, authorized, and empirical norm.

An evolution in the realm of science is needed to foreground, and find ways to communicate (and “deliver”) another form of information, one that is less likely to be riddled with errors deriving from hidden contextual consequences. But it will require a significant shift in epistemology to begin to perceive the interrelationality in addition to the parts and wholes of any given system. A shift in the way information is derived will, in turn, inform the actions we take to protect society and ecology.

The Scientific Revolution of the 1600s brought us the scientific method and the bounty of mechanistic thinking. It brought us the notions of induction, empiricism, hard evidence, quantitative measurement, and objectivity. All of these have been enormously useful: skyscrapers, aircraft, computers and EKG machines are all manifestations of this form of scientific research and development. But not all studies are served by the empirical and inductive quantitative method. There are some forms of understanding that resist measurement and elude objectivity: these can include understanding of what is necessary for raising children well or understanding the ramifications of culture on climate change. Reductionism, or the habit of isolating information from its context(s), has been good to us, and it has been deadly.


If there is a concerted effort and demand from the scientific community and from society at large, we may witness a shift in scientific practices to include another form of research that will deliver information that includes the interdependency within complex systems. But this is not an easy shift. The habits of studying things through silo-ed disciplines is deeply entrenched in our culture.

In the mid 1950s the beginnings of a new way of understanding systems emerged in the study of “cybernetics”. Cybernetics offered the tools to look at how the “parts” of systems came together. But this tool was not easy to bring into the fold of scientific notions of isolating objective truth. The logic of “cause and effect” within the study of complex living systems defies the confines of existing methodologies. Interrelationships whose combined processes create the conditions for a particular consequence, such as an addiction, or economic wealth gap, or racism are impossible to quantify without distortion.

Observing the observer:

It takes a team of people to study in this new way. It also takes an open-ended declaration of “outcome” because this form of scientific research will produce only unforeseen “deliverables”. Stabilized, standardized “objective” science is fine for the study of some subjects, but not all. In the case of living systems and complex problems the “facts” are not always enough. The facts according to whom? Through what cultural, and methodological lens were they looking?

The observer matters, and teams of observers matter. Since data are always derived through the particular lens of the researchers, descriptions of their filters of perception are vital information and must not be sterilized out of findings.

As we currently witness the melting of trust in science, politics, law, medicine, social systems and economics, it is clear that this era will require a reclaiming of trustworthiness. Lamenting the postmodern condition of multiple relative truths and impossible clarity is only partially useful in regaining trustworthiness. Beyond the cynicism that the postmodern dilemma delivers is the practical need for better questions, and more rigorous inquiry into complexity.

We can remember that at the same time as the scientific revolution of the 1600s there was a corresponding period in art in which the techniques for rendering perfect replication of still life were constantly improved. Yet in the ensuing centuries it became clear that perfection was not enough. Baroque still lifes may have pursued a photographic realism, but later art movements such as Impressionism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Modernism and Postmodernism were responses to a need for a different envisioning of information, as not only “about the chair” but about who is seeing the chair, and how it might be possible to perceive “chair-ness.” Now perhaps it is time for science in its turn to adopt a parallel course of discovery around what perception and information are.

Historical antecedents:

Warm Data is not really new. Throughout history people have used aggregated information toward a natural history approach. Often these findings were often metabolized into other forms of information more readily recognized by the society. It would seem that devolution of natural history is part of the natural history, as it gets sucked back into the cultural paradigms of credibility. The limits of rationale hold particular sense-making habits in place, while others remain threatening. However, there has been a stream of inquiry that has always existed in which relational information was produced. This introduction of the notion of Warm Data is offered here in response to the need for this type of information to be strengthened and honored.

The alchemists, Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe, William Blake, people producing case law, Pythagoras, anthropologists, and artists like Shakespeare, Hokosai, Bjork and countless others have used their own means of bringing together multiple forms of information and rubbing them together to find new perspectives. Currently qualitative research teams and methods are becoming increasingly popular. They may benefit from the naming of another form of information in which to place their findings.

Characteristics of Warm Data:

To more effectively meet the challenges of this new sort of rigor, we require studies that generate understanding of contextual systemic data. The information generated makes a difference not only in scientific research, but also in the contextual influences considered in decision-making. Here are six characteristics of Warm Data.

1. Multiple description: This is a way to illustrate processes and contexts of interdependency. Multiple description both blurs the distinctions between contexts, and describes them through difference, comparison and relational perception. While it might appear that this process would lead to an untenable and infinite collection of perspectives, the Batesonian notion of information as “difference that makes a difference” is way to study the relation between perspectives, through contrasting qualitative characteristics. The information is not located but diffused into the contextual contacts and boundaries.

2. Looking for pattern: We compare findings from one context with findings of similar patterns in other contexts, to generate hybrid information. This is very much in keeping with Pierce’s Abduction. The findings from pattern comparison across contexts are conceptual, and indirect. For example, the patterns of ecological relationships in a tide pool can be compared to the patterns of relationship in a family, but the needs of survival for the tide pool are clearly different in detail than those of the family. Understanding the patterns comparing ecological systems is useful for studies of other systems, even though the systems may be not be alike in their details.

3. Paradox, inconsistency and time: Scientific research premised upon the complexity of a system in relation to its environment will produce paradox and inconsistency, by necessity. In order to keep the complexity intact, results should feature these dilemmas without resolving them. In fact these instabilities are sources of information about the relationships that are highly generative. Relationships over time change, and aggregated relationship such as a forest or society must produce responses to responses that are disruptive. The disruptions are rich with Warm Data.

4. Holism and reductionism: Information derived by zooming out to study context is as important as the information derived by zooming in on detail. These two forms of information are not alike. One is relational and overlapping, the other is isolated and (sometimes) linear. Both are needed in relation even when they produce contradictions. Smaller and larger contexts are tangled up mutually calibrating interactions. They are not concentric nor are they separable; rather they are steeped in interdependency.

5. Cultural epistemological responsibility: Science and culture are deeply entwined. Development of inquiry that is simultaneously inclusive of multiple generations, cultures, and sectors is useful to keep observers’ frames relevant. Information is only as perceivable as the sensorial limits of the observer. A variety of perceptions lessens blind spots.

6. Aesthetic/mood/rhythm: In any inquiry of life, the aesthetic matters — perhaps above all else. This vital condition of any interrelational context is often ignored in favor of misplaced rationality. Given that complex systems are interrelational, the nature of the relationships needs to be noticed. The aesthetic is the conduit through which relation occurs. While the aesthetic need not be valuated, it must be noticed to better assess relational information. Keeping in mind that the opposite of aesthetic is anesthetic, it is clear that increasing sensitivity is preferable to numbness as it increases receivable information.

Just as the methodology for generating Warm Data is characterized by transcontextual research, the end-product and delivery of this information will be characterized by multiple description (though all aspects of Warm Data involves both transcontextual research and multiple description). I need look no further than my own hand for an illustration of how multiple description can increase the scope of understanding within a system and between systems of understanding. To illustrate this, let us ask, “What is a hand for?” Different contexts provide contrasting contexts for understanding. A violinist’s hands hold the muscle memory and learning of a lifetime of practice. But a sculptor’s hands know weight and texture and pressure in another way. People who use sign language express not only words but also emotion through their hands. In this sense, the contexts that the hand exists within, (anatomy, music, memory, language, cognition) each provide a realm of relational data to be explored. This is just one simple example of the possibility of transcontextual research. At present the International Bateson Institute is currently researching the Warm Data of: Addiction, Health Care Systems, Education, Climate Change, Emergency Population Relocation, Double Binds within Political Discourse and more.

The Theory:

There are several theories at work within this process. Here are a few:

Patterns that connect

2. Difference that makes a difference

3. Multiple description

4. Symmathesy: Contextual Mutual learning and calibration

5. Autopoiesis, and Mind (Maturana, Varela, Thompson and Bateson)

6. Systems and Complexity Theory

7. Ecology of communication

8. Double binds

9. Conscious purpose

10. Epistemological frames

11. Change in complex systems

12. Interdependency

13. Abduction (Pierce)

14. Transcontextual Research

Meet the Hydra:
Beyond the conventional problem solving techniques of reducing and resolving, problem solving in complexity further requires an understanding of the interdependencies that are generating the issues. We must address these even in addition to our ever more acute and urgent responses to rising situations. Like the heads of the mythological Hydra our crises are many now. But in our silo-ed world the crises that we perceive and address are also silo-ed, as is the habit of finding silo-ed solutions. Much like chopping off the Hydra’s heads, the resulting solutions that do not address the complexity seem only to generate more consequences.

The most serious problems facing us now are not in any particular institution, but rather in the relationship between them. If change is made it is a consequence of a shift not only in the problematized part, but in the combined conditions in which the system exists, be it a person, organization, forest, or society. Like an ecosystem the interdependencies of the institutional systems are interlinked and steeped together in patterns that make it difficult to create whole systems change. To address our socio-economic and ecological crisis now requires a level of contextual comprehension, wiggly though it may be to grok the inconsistencies and paradoxes of interrelational process. Far from solving these dilemmas or resolving the conflicting patterns, Warm Data utilizes these characteristics as its most important resources of inquiry.



The Hydra grows new heads every time one is chopped off.


Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2000. Print.

Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Cresskill: Hampton, 2002. Print.

Bateson, Nora, “Warm Data.” The International Bateson Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.

A Moment of Peace, A Day of Peace, A World of Peace


Today is the United Nations International Day of Peace (IDP). Each year this day is observed around the world on September 21. The United Nations Assembly has declared this as a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples. An invitation to all nations and people to honor a cessation of hostilities for the Day. 

"By opening our hearts, joining hands and reaching out to refugees and migrants, we can move closer to attaining peace, prosperity, and protection for all." UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

Please set aside a moment of silence at noon today and join millions of others around the world focusing their intentions on peace. 

Roshi Robert Althouse
Abbot, Zen Life & Meditation Center, Chicago

Wildflowers Grow Everywhere
by Sensei June Tanoue


This past Sunday Roshi Amy “Tu es cela (You are this)” Hollowell gave the dharma talk at our Sunday Morning Zen Program.  Amy leads our sister sangha (Buddhist community) the Wildflower Zen Sangha in Paris.  

We met almost twenty years ago when my husband and I, working with the Zen Peacemakers, went to Paris for a conference in September 2001.  We met in the wonderful conference center in Chartres, France where the famous Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres is located.  The cathedral, designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, is considered “the high point of French Gothic art.”

Even before the Gothic cathedral was built, the town of Chartres was a place of pilgrimage.  Some sources say, Chartres was a pagan site originally dedicated to the traditional Mother Goddess with whom the Virgin Mary is often fused.  The cathedral is perfectly proportioned and I remember sitting in it and feeling its strong, nurturing, peaceful energy - much like the energy I feel at the end of a 7-day silent meditation retreat.  I remember seeing a labyrinth painted on the old stone floor and imagined how many people had walked it in meditation.  Chartres remains a highlight of my spiritual experience.

I left Paris early on the morning of September 11, 2001, and in mid-air, somewhere over Idaho, thecaptain announced that our plane was being diverted to Calgary because the airspace over the United States had been closed.  That was the beginning of my, and the whole nationʻs, 9/11 experience.

Bearing in mind all of these events, it was wonderful to see Amy again.  She had been a serious Zen student then and is now an accomplished Zen teacher.  She guides students in France, Australia, Ireland, UK, Portugal and Spain. That day they, connected by the Zen Life & Meditation Centerʻs FaceBook Live page, all listened to Amy speak from Chicago!  I love technology when it works beautifully like this.

Amy mentioned in her talk why she named her zen community Wildflower Zen Sangha.  She said that wildflowers grow everywhere - in cracks of cement, in rocks, on mountainsides - everywhere.  Theyʻre all different according to their particular environment.  She also said , “Our nature, is also wild in the sense that we are not limited by what we think we are.  We can free ourselves of these identifications - we can be free.  we can be anything…”

Several times a month, I volunteer to go to the Cook County Department of Corrections to teach women meditation in Division 4.  Cook County admits roughly 100,000 detainees annually and averages a daily population of 9,000.  Last Thursday marked a year that Iʻve been teaching meditation there.  

I am aware of how comfortable I now feel walking through security and greeting the guards as compared to when I first began. I was very fearful back then.  

Entering, thereʻs a long concrete walk from the Security Office to where the women are housed in Division 4.   The walk has tall chain link fences on both sides topped by barbed wire.  There are also big bales of coiled barbed wire on the ground on the other side of the fence.

Last Thursday was a beautiful day. The breeze was cool and gentle with blue skies and puffy clouds.  I noticed blue wildflowers, that looked like chicory flowers, poking their delicate heads through the bales of barbed wire on the sides of the concrete walk way.  I thought, “Such beauty in a place of great suffering.”

My class is held in a room that has cement floors, artificial lighting, and tough plastic chairs stacked up in colors of maroon, gray and black.  I arrived first.  Then the women came in - mostly women of color - blacks and Latinas.  A couple had been to the class the week before and looked happy to see me.  They said that they had been practicing the meditation I taught them, and that it had really helped.  

That day twelve women showed up, most of whom had never been to the class before.  These women looked wary, like they were very stressed out but trying not to show it.  Some looked rather scary and it was these women whom I especially paid attention to.  My first thought was to not look in their direction.  But my meditation practice is about working with fear and not turning away.  I found by the end of class, these women looked absolutely different, “normal,” and not scary.

We began with Donna Edenʻs Energy Medicine exercises - about 10 minutes of breathing, tapping, and specific movements which really helped them to smooth out their energies.  Then I read them a powerful letter from Fleet Maull who co-wrote the workbook, “The Path of Freedom,” with Kate Crisp.  In his foreward, Fleet talks about developing emotional intelligence with the help of mindfulness meditation to free himself from the prison of his own making - his mind.  

Whenever I give meditation instruction I always talk about being embodied.  This is not an easy thing to do in America where the body is valued only in service to our consumerist culture.

So last Thursday, I added hula to my class. Hula is a wonderful way to feel embodiedwhen you begin to connect your mind and body while you dance.  The women were very excited to get up and start to move to the simple yet powerful steps of the Hula.  A few women were initially very uncoordinated, but I told them not to worry, to be patient because their neurological pathways were just getting connected.  It takes time.

Since we didnʻt have music, I decided to sing the classic Hawaiian song, Pua Mana, for them.  It was glorious, really, singing a Hawaiian song for 12 women detainees - all having a blast dancing their first hula in Cook Countyʻs Department of Corrections Division 4.  And when the dance was done, they all looked like completely different women.  Their faces were bright with smiles and excitement.  Wildflowers grow everywhere.



September Fund Drive for Texas


We have all witnessed the terrible floods and suffering taking place in Texas during this last week. The lost of life, of property and infrastructure to the Houston area is heart-breaking. To help support people in Texas, we are conducting a September Fund Drive for Texas. All donations we receive during the month of September will be sent to the Houston Food Bank. If you make a donation by check, please make it out to the "Zen Life & Meditation Center". We will add that to all other donations made during the month and send a check from our Center to the Food bank at the end of the month. 

Please give generously. 

Thank you,

Roshi Robert Althouse and Sensei June Tanoue
Co-Founders, Zen Life & Meditation Center, Chicago



ZLMC Statement, 8/16/17

It is with sadness and disbelief that we witnessed the hatred, terror, and intimidation of neo-nazis, racists and white supremacists demonstrating in Charlottesville this last weekend. There is no place for this kind of hatred and bigotry in our country, and they should not be given permits to gather in any city on American soil. There is no moral equivalency between neo-nazis and people protesting what they represent. The response of President Trump diminishes the presidency, himself and all Americans. We raise our voice unequivocally in support of all life and respect for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion. 

Abbot, Zen Master Robert Joshin Althouse
ZLMC Board of Directors - Sensei June Ryushin Tanoue, Mark Shishin Gelula, Diane Bejcek, Pat Teiko Farrell, Mike Fujii, Robert Demaree, Vivienne Lund, Susan Keijo Sensemann, and Barbara Ciancio

The Resistance is Broken Down at Last
by Sensei June Ryushin Tanoue

Hiola ka pali ku, naha, ka pali paʻa.
The standing precipice falls, the solid cliff breaks.
The resistance is broken down at last.

'Olelo No'eau #1011
Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings, 
Mary Kawena Pukui

To take full responsibility for your life.  What does that mean?

I think it means understanding your basic life affirming needs, owning your feelings and standing your ground.  It doesnʻt mean blaming others for your emotions, feelings, and thoughts. 

Iʻve been going to the Cook County Correctional Facility and teaching meditation to the women in Division 4.  They have made decisions in their lives that have lead to their incarceration.  Low self-esteem and blaming others are common habitual practices there.

Weʻre using an excellent workbook called "Path of Freedom - A Mindfulness-Based Emotional Intelligence Workbook for Prisoners," co-written by my friend Fleet Maull.

Fleet served a 25-year, no parole, sentence in federal prison.  He says in the workbookʻsforeward, "To find the Path of Freedom, you first need to realize you are in prison.  This may seem easy when you find yourself actually locked up - incarcerated in a jail, juvenile facility or prison.  But what about the prison of your own making ... what about the prison in your mind!"

Perhaps a third of the women who come to my class have found incarceration to be an excellent motivator for them to change something in their lives so they can move forward.  They have begun to take full responsibility for their lives by freeing themselves from the prison of their minds.  They come to learn whatever they can to help them on their path of freedom.

But Cook County detainees arenʻt the only ones imprisoned in their minds.

The first step to freedom is to notice how some habitual ways of thinking do not serve you.  Thoughts can be very subtle, and it takes intention and attention to see them clearly.  Mindfulness meditation is a foundational practice for your Path of Freedom.  It trains the mind to be awake, stable, peaceful, reflective and grounded in the present moment.  Itʻs a practice that takes discipline just as hula does.

One of my favorite ancient hulas is Ke Haʻa La Puna (Puna is dancing in the Wind). Puna is a district on the Big Island of Hawaii that is in the realm of Pele, the Volcano Goddess.  Puna also means spring (of water).  The title can also mean all life is dancing in the wind.  Iʻve often mulled over the meaning of the refrain thatʻs part of this chant.  Hula leʻa wale i kai o Nanahuki.  Hula leʻa wale (only to dance in utter clarity!) i kai o (in the sea of) Nanahuki (literally pulling away or drawing back). 

My manaʻo (thoughts) are that your life is in your hands no matter what your life circumstances are.  Itʻs not productive to blame others. You can always pause and take a backwards step to reflect before you act.  

In that pause, a lot of dancing and clarity can happen.  In that pause, you choose between being curious or being afraid.   Can you notice if your heart is opened or closed?  If closed, can you just breathe for awhile and reside quietly in your body instead of jumping to quickly into analytical thinking?  Such thinking to try and figure things out is an old habit that doesnʻt always work.

Can you be patient and generous with yourself instead and notice whatʻs going on in your body as if it were a dear friend?  Can you just be there for a few minutes, maybe just five minutes or more?  

Notice your thoughts flooding in and try to drop their storyline - let your thoughts go - and just be with your body, breathing.  Do this over and over, again and again.  This is the practice of meditation.  This is how you tame your mind and learn what taking full responsibility means. This is how the resistance is broken down at last.  

Malama pono (take good care of your body, mind, heart),

June Kaililani Ryushin Tanoue

Kumu Hula and Sensei (Zen Teacher)



My Journey Toward Writing the Arte of Now: Practice of Immediacy in the Arts
by Nicolee McMahon

Practice of Immediacy painting by Nicolee McMahon

Practice of Immediacy painting by Nicolee McMahon

My journey toward writing the Arte of Now: Practice of Immediacy in the Arts ® is a weaving of Zen, shamanic training, art, and not knowing. To best exemplify how a few of these threads weave together is when I got lost while camping in the desert with my family several years ago.

We all got up early to go bouldering about ten minutes away from the campsite. As I was climbing a large rounded, grainy boulder I began to feel dizzy. At the top of the boulder, the dizziness continued, along with nausea, and the desire to throw up. I shimmied down the boulder and we all waited for my dehydration symptoms to settle. The faces of my family were full of concern for me and also for the desire to go exploring. I told them I was feeling better and I’d stay behind. My children asked if they could walk me back to the campsite, but in my stoic, ‘I can handle this’ style, I said I’d be fine. They told me to follow the sandy wash path back to the campsite when I was ready. I sat on a rocky ledge in the shade of the boulder and watched them as they continued on their exploratory hike.

After sitting quietly for a while, I had a desire to see the beauty of my family walking together in the distance. I eased myself off the ledge and walked five to ten minutes on the path I believed they had taken twenty minutes earlier. I could not see them and walked up to higher ground to see if that would give me a better view. There was still no sign of them. Deciding to go back to camp, I found what I believed was the sandy path they had mentioned. I followed it but was led to boulders instead of the campsite. I knew to go south by following the sun, and continued looking for the path we had all walked on before. But each path took me to new boulders, and more dead ends. I had half a bottle of water, two protein bars, and an electrolyte mineral packet in my pocket. After two hours of walking, the terrain was becoming more and more unrecognizable. No humans, no human foot prints, just coyote, rabbit, sheep, and large cat tracks. At that moment I knew I was lost. I began yelling, “Help! I’m lost.” I drew two-foot arrows with the heels of my shoes, hoping they could be seen from the air should a plane come searching for me later. The arrows were also markers to let me know if I was walking in circles. It was dry and hot and I had no idea where to turn. I felt fear, but did not give into it. I needed calm steadiness to tap into my resources to get me through this journey. I was aiming west, as that was the direction from which we had entered Joshua Tree Park the day before. I had been walking about three hours judging by the position of the sun. I had one protein bar and poured the electrolyte packet into my water bottle, sipping only enough to wet my parched mouth.

I remembered how I had ‘lined up’ to find where to make my medicine wheel dur- ing the three vision quests I had done years before. Lining up is a very deep and practical practice where one can ask a simple question and learn answers from areas of the body. If there is no agreement among the areas, one can learn what that is about, but the main point is not to proceed until one is lined up. I applied that knowledge each time I needed to make a decision about where to turn in this convoluted journey west. Finally, I found a path full of human shoe prints and bicycle tracks, but no people. The sun’s position indicated it was at about 4 p.m. I felt such relief and laughed, as I followed what felt like the yellow brick road. The undulating line of the bicycle wheel was like a rope that could pull me forward. “Help! I’m lost!” The sun was getting lower on the horizon and I wondered how I could keep myself warm in the frigid temperature of the desert night wearing a light shirt and tank top. Eating half of the second protein bar and drinking a sip of water, I saw the weakness of my stoicism, and “I can do it” attitude. Realizing I could die in the cold desert night, while asking the universe for help, I surrendered to something very deep within. All of a sudden I felt my whole body fill with light.

Fifteen minutes later I saw a man, carrying his gear, walking toward me. His name was Marcos. He had not been to Joshua Tree in ten years, but had had an impulse earlier in the day to come and take pictures of the landscape in the full moonlight. When I told him I had turned seventy two days before, had been walking for five plus hours and was lost, he willingly helped me. We walked a mile to his car talking about our backgrounds and interests. Although he drove me to the campsite, he wanted to get back to the trail and quickly left. Reunited with my concerned and happy family, I sat before the firepit, slowly drank two pints of water, had dinner and rested in the warmth of family, as the cold desert night circled around us.

Getting lost, and finding my way, informed me deeply. The experience gathered my many years of Zen training, my decade of studying with female shamans, and my deep trust of the great unknown. It was one of those rare experiences that is so direct there is no time to wonder, no time to give meaning to a situation — just the raw immediacy of now. And that raw immediacy of now is what the practice of immediacy in the arts® (PIA) is about.

Writing a book about the practice of immediacy in the arts was like being called to participate in a dance with steps I didn’t know, and yet I knew the steps once I started writing. The structure of the book happened within the first two hours of my week stay in a writer’s cabin. The following ten months integrated writing, working, relationships, retreats and letting my mind wander. The book is an accumulation of twenty years exploring the practice of immediacy in the arts and discovering ways of accessing creative flow through the cacophony of what’s emerging within and without right now. The beauty of the practice is that it also cultivates awareness, openness, not knowing, broad inclusiveness, trust and curiosity.

PIA was born into my world in the mid-1990s. I had a profound experience during Stan Grof’s holotropic breath work. Shamanic drumming music is an essential ingredient of this practice. While doing the breath work and moving to the drumming, all my energy centers lined up and from the top of my head I felt a creative energy drop into my body, move out the bottom of my torso, and in my mind’s eye the creative energy circled the world. I had no idea what this meant, but I was intrigued and began exploring different ways of learning about it. As I had been training in Zen since 1980, the soil in which the practice of immediacy in the arts could take root was full of rich nutrients.


What was this soil like? Attending to the ever-changing unfolding moment had been developed through many years of daily meditation on my own, and later, in long Zen retreats. Meditation honed my attention, helping me to look into the fluid, interconnected empty nature of myself and the phenomenal world. I learned to open to not knowing, and became ‘stupid,’ by letting go of fixed notions through years of koan practice. What emerged was a deep appreciation of the wonder and ordinary oneness of living.

My Zen journey began at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. I lived a householder life two hours away, and needed a different model than what had been passed down for cen- turies: the belief that true practice cannot be done unless one leaves home—Dharma first and family second. Buddha set the example two-plus millennia earlier by leaving his wife and baby — before phones, cars, the Internet, planes and accessible teachers were as available as they are now.

To keep my family together and to pursue what was deeply true for me, I would need to find ways to live in both the everyday world of family life and the Zen world. The resolution came upon reading Dogen Zenji, a 13th century Japanese Zen master’s writing:

If [you] throw [yourself] into whatever the situation truly calls for then both the activity and the method by which [you] carry it out will naturally work to nurture the seeds of the buddha dharma.”

Seeing that the buddha dharma, the realization of the Buddha’s teaching, is each mo- ment of my life, resolved my inner tension — I was fully engaged in my family and in Zen training — they were not two.

Wanting to clarify my understanding and resolve my doubts, I was steady in practice and in letting go of how and when such clarification would happen. Thus began dedicated koan practice, weekly commutes to train with my teacher and attending six- plus weeklong retreats per year for fifteen years.

My Zen teacher, Maezumi Roshi, was very encouraging of women’s practice. I always felt deeply seen and supported by him and the Zen community. Women and men were mixed together in the meditation hall. Women were not prevented from training with men as they were in Japan. Of his twelve successors, four of us are women. He was a very good gardener in the actual garden, and with his students. He would clip, water, prune, and challenge. If I was sticking to oneness, he would throw me to everyday functioning — back and forth, back and forth, until there was no difference. He died in 1995, three months after he gave me Transmission (teacher empowerment). I’m number eleven of his twelve successors.

After his passing, I needed to find my way of sharing what I had learned and realized in the many years of training with Maezumi Roshi. The creative arts have been part of my life since I was a child — music, drawing, painting, and beading. But when I began Zen training, I put art aside as raising a family, going back to school to become a marriage and family therapist, and doing intensive Zen practice were all consuming. But now I wanted art back in my life. By the late 1990s, although struggling with breaking the format of retreats, I decided to bring PIA into retreats — especially as I could now articulate what the practice of immediacy was about.

In retreats, we noticed that PIA deepened meditation, participants were more alert, and the overall retreat environment was quieter. PIA seems to cut through the need to control, as whatever emerges in one’s awareness is included. Retreat participants

were discovering their creativity. One person found his poetic capacity. Another was a musician who hadn’t passed his masters exam. He took to PIA and practiced daily, opening up an inner space so that when he took his exam again, he didn’t freeze up — if he was self-critical he just included it. He passed his exam with ease.

The practice of immediacy in the arts organically teaches the uniqueness of each moment and that each moment is equal to the next—each moment is what it is, regardless of our views. You learn to swim in the midst of things no matter what your ideas, fears, opinions are, no matter what is going on in the environment. Whether one meditates or not, PIA offers an understanding we don’t normally get in our lives and can help us be more present.

The rich soil of Zen training brought forth essential elements of the practice of immediacy in the arts: opening to not knowing, attending to what is at hand, including whatever is occurring, and including expectations instead of being hindered by them. Another soil enrichment would come from my shamanic training: following how energy flows.


I believe it is important for a spiritual teacher to be a student in some area of one’s life. But after Maezumi Roshi died, I wasn’t ready to pursue being a student again for a while. When the time came, I wanted to learn about the shamanic traditions — I’d had a powerful dream in the late 1980’s that seeded this interest:

I am standing in a poorly lit room. Opposite me, sitting in a chair, is a shaman who is throwing a small round ball of light at me. I catch and throw the light ball back to him. Each time I am able to do this, he increases the strength of the light ball. We continue like this for about ten rounds. Finally he throws a light ball that I know is too powerful for me to return and I quickly go into a nearby bathroom and crawl out of a window. I awakened from the dream. I knew I needed to face the light ball I had tried to escape. I went back to sleep and was at the same place as before I’d awakened. The now large light ball came directly at me, but instead of catching it, the ball entered me and I became a body of light.

At the beginning of the new millennia, I heard about a female shaman, and began training with her, a training that did not involve plant medicine or any hallucinogenic substances.” As I was entering a tradition I knew nothing about, beginner’s mind and becoming a student by surrendering to this new teacher was how I began. With ‘soul retrieval’ (a shamanic journey method), she brought back many parts of myself from my birth to adulthood. I began to feel much fuller as a woman. I created a medicine wheel at the side of my house where I drummed and journeyed. Journeying is a powerful modality that brings a great deal of understanding and can enable rapid gathering of knowledge for one’s own life or another’s.

Through training with her, I learned about female power, capacity, and influence in a completely new way. She began a woman’s group with her other students where we learned many female practices, such as how to become the elements of nature, to hear and talk with the natural world, to gather information by ‘lining up,’ to trust life and what was unfolding, to make our home a place of well-being and beauty. We learned to deeply appreciate men and the differences between men and women. Instead of listening just at a mental and emotional level, we learned to listen at a deeper level to ourselves, men, children, others, and the natural world. She encouraged us to see that everything was sacred, to live with no regrets, to be fearless and open to what was scaring us (as it is probably ‘juicy.’) She emphasized that vulnerability and love are at the heart of female power and wisdom.

When she began taking us on vision quests, we trained for a year, doing daily cere- monies at our home medicine wheels. In May we would go to the La Jolla Indian campground near San Diego where we each stayed alone in nature for up to three nights and four days. On the vision quest, to find the location for creating my medicine wheel, I ‘lined up,’ using the practice the medicine woman had shown us. I had many experiences on my three vision quests and was profoundly informed beyond words. After over seven years studying with her, I knew it was time to leave. I gave her three gifts expressing my profound gratitude for all that she had given and done for me.

In 2011 I went to Peru and was very moved by a Q’ero shaman I met in El Valle Sagrado. A few years after I returned home, I found a woman trained in the Peruvian Q’ero shamanic tradition to study with and learned about the Q’ero medicine wheel. During this time I had another guiding dream:

I am standing, looking at the steep side of a desert mountain of rock and sand. The tan and earth colored striations on the side of the mountain were quite beautiful. Suddenly, the shape of a stone man began to emerge from the area I was looking at. He looked like a man made out of rock, walking in an angular, jaunty manner, waving to me to follow him. Walking behind him, we entered a well-lit cave that went deep into the earth.

The dream awakened an intuitive understanding of cuyas, sacred stones that are central to working with the Q’ero medicine wheel. I practice with them to this day, intuiting where the cuyas belong on the medicine wheel that lies on top of a red woven cloth purchased from the shaman in the Sacred Valley in Peru.

The shamanic traditions connected me in a new way to mother earth, to my deep knowing, to how energy flows, to the rhythms of the earth, to the animal and plant worlds, to the elements, to the directions, and to aspects of the unseen world beyond what the rational mind can hold. My Zen teacher might have called what I was learning ‘makyo,’ which means ‘illusion or hallucination’ in Japanese. Trusting my intuition, I knew I was not interested in being a shaman, yet I was learning ways of perceiving that were helping me in my life, my art, my work, and with my students.

The shamanic practices broadened my understanding of how to pay attention to the flow of energy, and that extended to the practice of immediacy in the arts in following a creative flow ( to witness PIA). Of the five simple directions for PIA, creative flow is the last guidance:

  • find the medium you want to work in
  • open to not knowing
  • include and express what you are aware of as it shows up
  • express expectations as they are occurring
  • if you enter a creative flow, follow its unfolding

These directions emerged as I explored what PIA was about. By practicing with the above directions, my own art has deepened and released creativity I would never have imagined. A friend who was visiting looked at the paintings hanging on the walls and asked, “Who are all the different artists?” He didn’t know I had painted them and rather than answering, I asked him what his impressions were of the art. He remarked that the paintings were all so different from one another. The differences are what amazes me too—by following the PIA directions, what emerges is a unique coming together of the moment in creative form. This also happens with writing, music, and dance/movement.


To study without applying what’s been learned is like eating a meal without digesting it. But how is what we’ve digested applied? Over the years, PIA has taught me so much, and even though there is a website where anyone can see how to do the practice, I kept having an inner push to write a book about the practice of immediacy in the arts. I’ve never thought of myself as a writer, so I resisted this “hand on my back” pushing me into an unknown direction. But I knew at some point I needed to apply what I’d learned in book form so that PIA could be available for others to learn about. There’s a Zen koan: How do you step off a 100’ pole? Stepping off the pole captures what writing the book initially felt like. The answer to the metaphorical question, of course, is: just take that step.

I began my journey toward writing the Arte of Now: Practice of Immediacy in the Arts by saying it is a weaving of Zen, shamanic training, art, and not knowing. Although not knowing is an essential part of both Zen and shamanic understanding, an experience when I was ten created a profound sense of how not knowing can lead us right to where we need to be:

My mother, stepfather, and I moved to Acapulco before it was developed. We were staying at a friend’s apartment. I was in school but barely understood Spanish. I knew we were going to move to another place and my mother had told the school bus driver to drop me off at the new locale. Her Spanish wasn’t very good yet. Instead the bus driver dropped me off at our friend’s apartment. I thought that maybe there was a change in plans, and got off the bus. When I walked up stairs, all the furniture was gone, no one was in the apartment and no one else was around. I truly did not know what to do, but I started walking. Three miles later I had walked right to my mother who was waiting for the bus to drop me off. She was shocked. I could not explain to her how I found her.

The not knowing of this experience was pregnant with all kinds of possibilities. Anything could have happened. But at ten years old, it opened in me an understanding that we really do not know what is going to happen next. We live in possibility.

The threads of not knowing, Zen, the practice of immediacy in the arts and my shamanic studies taught me to dance with the energies at hand. Zen training created good growing soil, and the shamanic studies helped me feel how the energy was moving so I could be a better gardener for this simple yet powerful creative practice.

Let me end with a famous Zen story in which two old teachers were asking and answering one another’s question

“Where are you going?”
“Around on pilgrimage.”
“What’s the purpose of the pilgrimage?”
“I don’t know.”
 “Not knowing is the most intimate.”


Nicolee McMahon

Nicolee McMahon, Roshi, is a Dharma heir of Zen Master Taizan Maezumi, Roshi. She is co-founder of the Three Treasures Zen Community in San Diego, California. She is semi-retired but continues to co-lead retreats several times a year. She has been creative throughout her life, and after an unusual experience, she developed the Practice of Immediacy in the Arts (PIA). She is married, and has two grown children, a stepson, and four grandchildren. She is also semi-retired as a Marriage and Family Counselor.

Read more articles by Nicolee McMahon.

All original work attributed to Nicolee McMahon © 2017 Nicolee McMahon.

Seeking Refuge
by Mary Grace Bertulfo

“’One is one’s own refuge, who else could be the refuge?’ said the Buddha.” – Walpola Rahula

Monday night. 6:10 p.m. Alone.

I drove down Lake Street in our worn, twelve-year old mini-van. Hot fury heaved in my chest and shoulders and transformed into a high-pitched scream that poured out of my throat for two whole blocks. I screamed until I had no more energy. I screamed until my voice was hoarse. Had I been a superhero, Wonder Woman say, the scream would have been a siren shattering every van window. But I was just a regular woman, terrified and furious and grieving, trying not to speed or do something reckless as I drove.

I was already ten minutes late when I finally decided to go. It’s rude to walk in and make noise when everyone’s already started. But pain stormed my mind and I had to end it.  I’d do more damage than good if I stayed turbulent. 

The Zen Life & Meditation Center, evening meditation.

 Inside the spacious room, lights were dimmed. Seven bodies sat silhouetted on blue and gray zabutan and zafus, meditation cushions, and black chairs lined the walls. Most of the cushions and chairs were empty. It was dinner time, after all. Seven stalwarts occupied a few, scattered ones. A pillar candle flickered on the altar. A delicious silence permeated the room, the sounds of slow breathing, the spaces between the bodies infused with a calm energy. I was home.

I clicked the door shut as softly as possible so I wouldn’t disturb their flow; the click seemed to echo anyway. I crumpled into the closest chair, leaving my boots and jacket on, happy to have made any part of the evening session. Time slowed. 

Breath. My immediate view was the legs of the wood table, the corner of the rug, and refreshing shadows falling on the bookshelf.

Breath. The exchange of air between, now, eight people, was the same air dinosaurs breathed 230 million years ago; tonight’s oxygen, a refreshed gift from maple, oak, and hawthorn trees. Respiration connects people to distant beings and to each other.

Breath. A white, navy veteran walked into a bar and shot two Indian Americans and the white American who tried to stop him. Breath. News reports say he was looking for Middle Eastern people, immigrants with no visas to work in America.  The two immigrants, Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, had been working legally as engineers in the U.S. for over 10 years. Breath. Kansas is far away from Chicago. Breath. Kansas is everywhere in America if you are brown – and angry white men with loaded guns can’t tell the difference. Breath.

 Murder solves nothing.

I must fight the tears; I can’t break down. When I meditate in morning sunlight, dust motes rise, turn, and sparkle. They are specks of my skin, my arms and legs breaking down. They float, leaving shimmering trails as the world spins on its axis and “I” disintegrate. 


My sixteen-year-old boy will soon live on his own. I want to fall down in a heap on the floor and wail at the world’s stupidity and violence.


Last summer, a boy from my son’s high school, Elijah Sims, was shot and killed. He was eating and hanging out, laughing with a friend at a fast food joint in Austin, the Westside of Chicago. We stood with other parents weeping at his vigil.


Too many guns. Too many furious hands. Boys gone too soon.


The Bell-ringer intones a small bell for Walking Meditation. I quickly unzip my boots during the transition and, jacket still on, I join the line. 

Our socked feet walk from one corner to the other of the sitting area, creating square formations across smooth Pergo. Cars zip past the Zen Center as rush hour traffic heads home for dinner. Headlights cast our shadows across the walls in a beautiful interplay of light, darkness, and the silhouettes of seekers. This is the Walking Meditation Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse and Sensei June Ryushin Tanoue taught to help us alleviate our own suffering.

Walking Meditation always helps my flow. It doesn’t matter if we may look like Zen Zombies; we’re mindful instead of mindless. I slow down my movements. Raise my left foot, balance with my right, an exaggerated arc of footfall slows down my thinking, slows me down until I can be here, right now. Here. I walk and exist in this one place. Fury and sorrow ease their grip. The world inside me extends, grows vast again, and loosens.


A light bell intones, once, then twice. Our sangha of eight, our small evening community, bows to each other. The rest of the meditators return to their cushions and I sneak a seat against the far wall across from a tall, elegant bell.

A floor bell intones, one, two, three times, and calls us back to our second sitting meditation. Now the fury and sorrow are moments, fleet-footed sensations that zip through my interior world and take up residence in different parts of my body.

Somewhere I’d read that labelling these fleeting sensations was one way to detach, to hold them at a distance so that they could be observed lightly. Is this Vipassana practice? I’m still a novice to meditation after all these years. I fumble my way; fumbling is all right.

Sensations: Pressure behind my eyeballs, the flare of my nostrils. Fury pulses there. Hello, fury, I say trying to make friends with it.


I have long hair past my waist, a mix of brown and threads of silver, earth turning to starlight. Even other Pilipinos sometimes confuse me with being Indian or Mexican American. Nowadays white Americans, strangers, glare at me on the street just as they did after 9-11. The day after our presidential election, I was pushed aside in my gym elevator by a white man a head taller than me who glared and said, “I go first now.” I was appalled and shocked. I’d been going to that gym for years and nothing like this had ever happened before. When his friend, another tall white man, made moves to step over me a second time, I blocked his way, glared back and took my rightful place in line. He shrank back a little. The body language, these micro-aggressions between us, reflect a social war brewing, all sides saying, “This is my America.” I don’t want to respond to white men’s hate and entitlement by becoming hateful myself.


What is lodged in our bodies? What family history do I still need to release? My father and many Pilipino men served in the U.S. Navy in the 1960’s, passing ingenious tests of language, culture, and physical fortitude. But once they were admitted, they were restricted to serving in the galley, the kitchens. “I peeled a lot of potatoes,” he said. My dad, uncles, and their navy buddies were called “brown monkeys” by their white superior officers, threatened, and harassed. This was their pathway to citizenship. Racism was a rite-of-passage.

My mother left the Philippines during the Brain Drain Era, like thousands of Pilipina nurses, to work in the United States. The white doctor she worked for harassed her about her accent. My uncle stood in his driveway in suburban Detroit after a long day of work. Three white teen boys pulled up in a car and threw beer cans at his head. “Go back home!” they yelled at him. He was a full American citizen, standing in front of his own house. He was home. My aunt, the undisputed matriarch of our Michigan family, went shopping at the mall one day with our young cousins in tow. White teens spit in her face. She wiped off their dribble, summoned her dignity, took my young cousins, and walked away. How many things did our elders endure? We know they didn’t tell us the half of it; they didn’t want to speak about it at all.


Skinheads chased and harassed my cousins when they were in high school. So what did they do to respond? They learned to be tough so they wouldn’t get beaten down, continuing the karmic cycle.


My litany of grievances against white privilege and white supremacy manifests as the pressure behind my eyeballs, the flare of my nostrils, my heart drumming – fury.

Return to breathing, follow the breath through the tunnels of my nostrils, into my lungs as my chest fills and empties.

Every time I have a sensation of fury, I label it: “Sensation, sensation, sensation.” This is a game of masking and detaching so that I don’t get caught up in feeding the fury with my attention. I say that as many times as I need to until the feeling subsides. Tendrils of tension unstick from the inside of my skin.

Sensation: My throat hurts from screaming in the van. It feels raw, stretched, and scratchy. I want to cough and a realization arises, “My own anger can hurt me.” 

I let that moment fall away, too.


I feel a new sensation: My jaw clenches and tension tightens the top joints. The energy feels like a solid casing of stress. I breathe and encourage my jaw to soften, soften. But it won’t and that stresses me out more.


I remember the first guided meditation Roshi did with my group. He had us close our eyes, visualize being under water, somewhere deep and still. The waves crash above us, but we’re so deep the turbulence can’t disturb us. I close my eyes and go there.

Under water, shafts of light pierce the darkness and illuminate a sandy sea floor and living coral. Schools of slender, blue fish swim past. My hair floats outward like a mermaid’s, my limbs lighten, and the sense of heaviness leaks from my body. My breathing loosens and finally so does my jaw.

I name the feeling that’s been jangling my skin. “Anxiety.”

Thoughts arise like mosquitoes buzzing. When I travel internationally this summer, will they let me back in to America? Or will the government detain me for hours until they “ascertain” if I’m a citizen even though I was born in America on a U.S. naval base? Will they make me feel like a criminal because I’m a brown woman? Will they prod my hair again, my hair which is private and intimate? In my lifetime, only my lovers, my mother and sister, my husband, and our family’s children have touched my hair. Now, the U.S. government pulls me aside and searches it for weapons. It’s so degrading.


Will a random white man shoot me, too, because I’m brown and his fury is unchecked and misdirected? How can I let my boy go out into this world and be a man here? How do we protect our children from what we can’t control? Can I shrink him, turn back time, scoop him onto my lap and guard him with the strength of my arms? I hurt with a mother’s love.


I let the tropical waters of the visualization leach the anxiety from my jaw, my arms, and legs until my real body feels like a wet noodle, languid and relaxed.


It’s less than 45 minutes since I walked through the Zen Center door. I’d watched the thoughts and feelings rise and fall, rise and fall away. I needed to sit and stop my mind from freaking out. The pain, the shock, and the trauma are real. But I don’t need to perpetuate my own suffering by dwelling.

The gunman’s face swims to mind, a picture from the news. He looks angry, disheveled, his hair askew. He’s 51 years old and I can’t help but wonder if it was his fury and hatred that caused him to decide to shoot three people. Witnesses heard him say, “Leave my country.”

Pity rose and fluttered in my chest. What kind of mental hell was this man in? Who fed his fears with images of brown people and people from the Middle East as dangerous enemies to America? Who told him that America, first the land of Native Americans, now means white America?

The skinheads, the gunman, the spitters, the racist doctor, the naval officers, the three beer can throwers, the two men in the elevator – are they locked in fear and fury, too? Unchecked, unbalanced and bolstered by white privilege and white supremacy? Suffering?


Near the end of meditation, a few images fell, like petals tumbling in my mind: my son’s hair, long and shaggy, his sweet face, and the gentle way he tosses back his head when he laughs.

The floor bell rings, its voice a deep base vibrating across the comfortable dimness of the room. Slowly, the silhouettes of the other seekers shake their legs and stretch, and the lights come on.

The seven other meditators are white. We created peace together during this meditation, breathing as one community the way we do every week. This reminds me concretely that not all white people are gunmen or spitters or pushers or racists. One white man, Ian Grillot, a real hero, tried to stop the Kansas gunman.

My eyes well with tears. I feel gratitude for these white Americans and the peace our sangha practices. In this moment, I am incarnated as a female body, marked by Pilipino and American cultures. I have just practiced a 2,500 year old Indian tradition in a Center that grew from a Japanese lineage and which lovingly supports Hawai’ian dance and hula. Race is a great illusion, one we embrace, live through, and solidify as our bodies flake away into sunlit dust motes.

We meditators stand and give hugs all around.

The Bell-ringer, Pat who is a Catholic Sister, and I go out afterward to a bar. The bar is boisterous and packed. Tennis and soccer blare from the TVs while laughter and chatter spill easily from table to table. She has a glass of red wine, I have a cup of coffee, and we break bread, a couple of hot buttered pretzels on an unseasonably warm February night. We have the kind of fumbling, sweet, searching conversation new friends have in these times and talk about white privilege, racism, violence, parenthood, how much I love my boy, a universe we have no control over, the need to do what matters, students, and the wonder of snow. 

“I knew from your hug that something was off,” Pat told me. So she invited me out, listened, and gifted me with her steady, warm presence. She gives me her no nonsense advice to face the illusion of control, looks me in the eyes, and adds, “I care.”

This, too, is healing.

I look around the restaurant. Tonight is Trivia Night. The crowd is mostly white except for me and a few other people of color. From the bar, I watch the door open and close. White men enter as I enjoy time with my friend – just as Srinivas Kuchibhotla had been doing before he was shot and killed in Kansas.

The men walking through the door are unarmed, so far.

I watch them…and I breathe.


Seeking Refuge was first published in Riksha Magazine's 2017 Inaugural Issue.


Mary Grace Bertulfo has written for television and children’s education in such venues as CBS, Pearson Education Asia, and Schlessinger and for conservation magazines such as Sierra and Chicago Wilderness. Her fiction has appeared in Growing Up Filipino II, Our Own Voice, The Oak Parker. Her essays and poetry have appeared in various anthologies. She was a 2016 NVM & Narita Gonzalez Fellow. Mary Grace works from Calypso Moon Studio in the Oak Park Arts District and teaches creative writing to children through her program, Taleblazers. She is currently at work on a novel.

We Crave Dark Nights
by Diane Wilson

On Cancer, Turtles and Your Very Own Bedroom

Who doesn’t love the excitement and color of city lights at night? But recent research shows we need true darkness for our own health and for the animals who live among us.

On Earth Day, my husband and I watched the film (recommended by Lisa) called “The City Dark.” It was an award-winning documentary shown at the Adler Planetarium from the One Earth Film Festival. In the film, Director Ian Cheney bemoans the fact that constellations are no longer visible in large cities due to light pollution at night. We lose something fundamental spiritually when we no longer see ourselves in relationship to the grandeur of the cosmos, according to experts.

Increased Risk of Cancer

In “The City Dark”, Cheney assembles scientists from numerous fields to weave together the premise that night darkness is important to our physical health.  Recent studies show that exposure to light at night can actually increase tumor growth. Melatonin production is suppressed and normal circadian rhythms are interrupted. There is a link between low levels of melatonin and cancer, specifically breast, ovarian, and prostate. For example, breast cancer was found associated with women doing shift work.

Disoriented Turtles and Birds

Cheney shows an adorable endangered species: sea turtle hatchlings in Florida. They have a limited amount of time to find the ocean after emerging from their eggs in the sand. City lights can confuse them so much that now lighting is regulated along some of these beaches.

Here in Chicago, birds fly into skyscraper windows throughout the night, confused by abundant lights and glass windows. This problem occurs primarily in the spring and fall during migration seasons, with thousands of birds dying yearly.

A wonderful organization called Bird Collision Monitors advocates for and rescues injured birds throughout the city. In the wee hours of the morning, volunteers scour the streets for injured feathered friends.

Actions We Can Take: About Your Bedroom

  • The lesson learned here is to turn off all your devices before going to sleep: TV, computer, cell phone, and reading light.
  • Leave all devices 3 to 5 feet away from you in order to avoid electromagnetic radiation at night. Put your Internet devices on Airplane Mode.
  • Use room darkening window shades to get complete darkness. If you must have a light at night, use a red bulb (which will not affect melatonin production).
  • Consider helping your friends become aware that all night light isn’t helpful. For example, as beautiful as this picture of Las Vegas is, lights turned upward to the sky are potentially wasted lights. Cheney notes more directed light with shades to funnel light downward is best.
  • If you work in a tall, glass building downtown, try to convince building management to treat the glass with applications to block a view of the interior -- it confuses birds. Also, ask them to extinguish or dim all lighting at night. Learn more from Bird Monitors.

The future of lighting will be in designing ways to illuminate the areas we need without polluting the rest of the world. If your next door neighbor has a flood light outside your bedroom window, this will intuitively make sense.

Thanks Lisa Files for recommending this fine documentary (also now available on and for helping me write this up.

In CancerBrain Tags darknessEarth DayThe City Darklighttumorsmelatonincircadian rythymssea turtlesbird migration

- See more at: