MattAndJojang's Blog

God. Life. Spirituality.

Posts Tagged ‘Suffering

What Do I Do With My Pain?

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Photo: Fr. Laurence Freeman, OSB

May I be the medicine and the physician for the sick. May I be their nurse until their illness never recurs.

–Shantideva

Last Easter Sunday, I received a viber message from An [1]. It was an invitation to a virtual dokusan [2] with Sr. Sonia [3]. I was pleasantly surprised and, at the same time, elated by this invitation. Come to think about it, it was probably 20 years ago since I had my last dokusan with Sr. Sonia!

Among other things, An asked me if I’d like to take up a koan [4] with Sr. Sonia during dokusan.

These days I just sit. Overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, I just sit with the uncertainty, fear, isolation, pain and suffering that most people are going through nowadays, myself included.

Somehow this became much more personal to me after I found out, a few hours before I got An’s message, that my 2 sisters, who are nurses in the U.S., got exposed to the coronavirus. And they couldn’t even get themselves tested because there are no testing kits available.

A few days ago, I was reading an article written by Fr. Richard Rohr. He asked the question: “What do we do with our pain?” I don’t know if you can call that a koan. But it clearly articulated to me what I’m sitting with these days.

Faced with so much suffering and pain, I’m left with no words. I can just sit.

Just sit until I calm down.

Just sit until I’m fully in the present moment.

Just sit until the ego drops.

Just sit until the sense of fear and isolation dissolves.

Above all, just sit for those affected by this deadly virus, as well as for the protection and safety of family, friends and neighbors.

As the 8th century Indian Buddhist monk and scholar Shantideva puts it, “May I be the medicine and the physician for the sick. May I be their nurse until their illness never recurs.”

In the movie Zen, which is about the life of Zen Master Dogen [5], there was a scene where a woman brought her sick and dying baby to Dogen, asking him to save her child. Dogen said, “There is only one way to save the child. Visit every home in this area and try to find a home where no relative has died. And have that family give you a single bean.”

Of course, no such home was found.

No one is left untouched by old age, sickness and death. Perhaps this is what the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us.

During dokusan I was struck when Sr. Sonia said, “It is God who gathers our sadness.”

It is Christ who gathers our every pain. It is Christ who suffers in us. Our tears are Christ’s tears.

“Christ has no body but yours,” St. Teresa of Avila says.

St. Paul cries, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me”(Galatians 2:20).

I am every man, woman and child.

I am every sentient being.

I am Kannon [6], the perceiver of all the cries in the universe.

I am Christ, who heals every broken heart in the world.

Yet, as this deadly pandemic rages all around us, it is strange… I feel a deep sense of equanimity and profound connection.

Perhaps the Zen Master Unmon [7] holds the key when he says, “The whole earth is medicine.” Yes, the whole earth is medicine, because the whole earth is my True Self.

And there is just One Body. One Life. One Breath.

As I end this short reflection, let me leave you with these words from Ruben Habito Roshi:

“There is no one and nothing that is not an essential part of myself… Just as the pain in my little finger is felt by my whole body, I cannot but be concerned with all that is going on in this world of ours, with all the pain, the suffering and cries of anguish of so many living beings. They are my pain and suffering.”

–Matt

Notes:

[1] An Mercado Alcantara is a senior member of the Bahay Dalangin Zen Community, a Zen group based in Metro Manila.

[2] Dokusan means private interview with a Zen Teacher.

[3] Sr. Sonia Punzalan is a Catholic nun and Zen Teacher.

[4] A koan is a paradoxical statement taken from the biographies of Chinese Zen Masters, usually from the Tang or Sung Dynasties, and is assigned by a Zen Teacher to a Zen practitioner as an object of meditation.

[5] Dogen is a 13th century Japanese Zen Master.

[6]  Kannon is the bodhisattva of compassion. A bodhisattva is a person who delays enlightenment to help suffering beings.

[7] Unmon is a 10th century Chinese Zen Master.

 

Written by MattAndJojang

April 20, 2020 at 10:33 am

Stepping in the Dark: How to Practice with Koans

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Walking in the Dark

Photo: ProStockMedia

Step by step in the dark, if my foot’s not wet, I’ve found the stone.

–Zen Koan

When you’re walking in the dark, it’s good to have a friend to keep you company. And sometimes your friend will say something you hadn’t thought of, and that’s helpful. And sometimes they will say something that you don’t quite understand, but it makes you curious, and aware that there’s something going on you hadn’t noticed. Keeping company like this, while walking in the dark, changes how you experience your life in a way that stays with you.

From a few moments after language blinked into existence, humans have tried to hold onto the words that accompany such mysterious moments of insight. We have etched them on bones, written them on papyrus scrolls, attached them to the refrigerator with a magnet. A bit more than a millennium ago people in China started to call these sayings koans. Koans are records of conversations, bits of verse, and stories. Soon there were great collections of koans and people discovered they were a transformative meditation practice. It appears that koans came out of a very old tradition of improvised spoken word poetry, art that crystallized out of a particular moment. Koans came to be a way of communicating understandings about the nature of reality and of having experiences of awakening.

As a teenager I’d write down poems or the words of a song and keep them with me where I could look at them. When I’d repeat the words to myself, I’d see something I hadn’t seen before, understand how to get through this dark patch or how to grow up. I still find those bits of paper in boxes and old wallets. I also discovered meditation around that time and it helped too. I could sit still and let the world have its way with me, put my doomed thoughts on hold and allow what was mysterious to reveal itself to me in the light through the window.

It was 20 years later when I first heard about koans. Initially I imagined them as an obscure spiritual puzzle for argumentative monks, which wasn’t very appealing. But then I met an actual koan. I had no expectations at first, but it was good company. I liked it. I wondered about it and turned it over and over in my meditation. I let myself be inside the world of the koan. Slowly, unexpectedly, it started to soften me up and I become fond of my actual life, even the difficult bits, the grumpy children, the impossible problems. The French poet Paul Eluard explained it: “Il y a un autre monde, mais il est dans celui-ci” (there is another world but it’s inside this one). Later on, my intense curiosity about the koans gave my practice a new kind of energy. And as I went along, I found there was something in me that understood what they were talking about. Ever since I’ve always had a koan with me, meditating, walking around, in my sleep.

A koan: Step by step in the dark, if my foot is not wet, I’ve found the stone.

A koan is made of evocative words and images. It’s not generalized spiritual advice, or even a good idea, it’s a response to a specific moment, and that moment is happening now. Each koan is different and takes me on its own journey. In the case of the koan above, you can enter through the stone, the dark, the water. And when you do this it’s possible to see how this moment is like so many others. “I’m in the dark again, looking for a stone. I’m walking through it, taking one step after another.” and I could also see that difficult situations are part of the condition of being a person. We find ourselves in the dark because it’s in our nature to be this way. And it’s also in our nature to find our way. It’s clear that the eternal and the ephemeral are connected, your individual life is part of something vast and shared.

Koans will show you something, and it will never be about how you or the world is wrong. Your criticisms and judgments, your ideas about how deeply flawed you or the rest of humanity are, your plans for escape or revenge or redemption, none of that matters at all to the koan. It will show you the vast web of everything, the net of jewels that you are a part of. Koans will teach you how to practice and they will be a gate into the never-boring world of everything you don’t already know.

Here’s how to do it: Step by step, in the dark, if my foot is not wet, I’ve found the stone.

1. Take a step:

Find a koan for yourself. You can use this one, about stepping in the dark, or if it holds no appeal, find another. I’ve included a short list below. Or perhaps you’ve already found a koan, or one is eyeing you from across the room. You can meditate with the koan, or take it for a walk. You can repeat the words to yourself, or not. Even one word is enough. What you remember consciously may not be up to you. Trusting the way you naturally work with the koan is the beginning of making a relationship with it.

2. Be in the dark:

We like to know things. It makes us feel safer, not vulnerable to criticism from ourselves or others. Koans don’t work like that. They reward the vulnerability of not knowing. The effort of working with the koan is in letting go of the ways you usually use your mind, the plans, the judgments, the image management. If you like, you can even let go of the koan. Once you’ve heard it you can’t lose it, it will stay with you, anchored below your attention. You don’t need to explain it to yourself or figure it out. What is required is to allow yourself to go to the edge of what you know and look beyond. This curiously delicious darkness stretches out in all directions. Transformation comes from this place.

3. Get wet:

Take the koan into your life. This means take it to the store, take it on a long commute, to work, take it to the woods, the circus, and holidays with your parents or your children. Repeat it. Allow it into your heart when you’re late for an appointment or in the midst of a hard conversation, when you’re sad or bored or disappointed in fame or fortune. Just recall the koan to mind and notice what happens. Really look. What you saw before won’t be what you see now. You may see the light in people’s faces that you had missed before. Something annoying may turn out to be funny instead.

4. Find a stone:

This koan, “Step by step in the dark…” points to the way that you have the capacity to find a moment of ease, a dry place to put your foot. Notice when that ease comes, maybe that’s the stone. The koan also provides you with places to step in the form of potent words and images. Let yourself rest in these. Use the word or image as a focus, lean into it. Explore what it’s like. Feel it in your body. Actually walk in the dark and notice how it is for you. Find out what kind of stone is your stone, and how it is for you to step there. Notice when you’re at peace.

5. Start again:

When you lose your practice, when suffering appears again, impenetrable and literal, you can always start again. Find your koan. Shake it a bit and ask, what now? This is a practice that will be there when you need it.

You can do this anytime, in any condition. You can do this in meditation, sitting quietly, in a pool of sunlight. And better still, take it where you don’t think it can go. It’s there whenever you need insight or a new way of seeing your situation or a hand to hold in the dark. There won’t be an answer, not directly, but you will start to see something new, or more clearly. The world (the argument, the traffic) will be visible in a different way, perhaps brighter, or perhaps it will bring tears to your eyes, or make you laugh out loud.

Postscript:

There is a Zen practice of working on koans individually with a teacher as a curriculum, which is based on a traditional Japanese method. The technique I give here is also useful in that context. There are many ways to practice with koans, and you will discover your own. Fortunately koans are robust, durable, and impossible to break.

A very small selection of koans to choose from:
1. There is a true person of no rank, always coming and going through the portals of your face.

2. There is nothing I dislike.

3. The heart-mind turns in accord with the ten thousand things. The pivot on which it turns is very deep.

4. Put out the fire across the river.

5. What is your original face before your parents were born?

6. Heart clouded, heart unclouded, standing or falling, it’s still the same body.

7. Who am I?

8. Question: Why did the first ancestor come from the west? Answer: The oak tree in the garden.

9. There is a solitary brightness without fixed shape or form. It knows how to listen, to understand, and to teach the dharma. This solitary brightness is you.

–Rachel Boughton

Source: Lion’s Roar Magazine

Written by MattAndJojang

October 29, 2019 at 9:13 am

“Welcome!”

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Zhaozhou's Bridge

Zhaozhou’s Bridge in Hebei Province, China. Named after the Zen Master Zhaozhou Congsen (Jap.: Jōshū Jūshin), it is the oldest bridge in China. (Photo: mafengho.cn)

When times of great difficulty visit us, how shall we meet them? Zhaozhou said “Welcome!”

— Zen Koan

Written by MattAndJojang

October 27, 2019 at 10:47 am

What The Buddha Taught (In One Sentence)

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Photo: io747/Flickr

Life sucks – BUT you can do something about it.

~ Nicolas Buxton

Written by MattAndJojang

July 3, 2017 at 10:05 am

Scars Into Stars

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Kintsugi

 

He said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples…

–Mark 6:41

There is a beautiful Japanese art called kintsugi. It is the art of fixing broken pottery with gold-imbued resin.

If you see a finished product, you will notice that no attempt was made to hide the crack. Rather, the crack became part of the design.

Twenty-six years ago, I gave up a soaring banking career to work full-time for the Lord.

Since then, my life has never been the same.

Sure, it is not a problem-free life. The road is paved with thorns of persecution, trials, and suffering that have scarred me. But God, in His goodness, has imbued me with His golden grace that heals me and forms me into a new person.

Indeed, I have been blessed.

I have been broken.

It is my prayer that He will continue to use me and my life for His greater glory.

He has turned my scars into stars.

–Jojang

Written by MattAndJojang

January 5, 2016 at 10:38 am

Behind Every Easter Is a Crucifixion

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Easter

The trees on both sides of my street in New York City have bloomed with tiny white flowers that create a canopy under which I walked on this fine Easter weekend. The trees do this every year in spring, and I wait for it, knowing that the cold, grey branches only appear to be dead and lifeless; and that the flowers are waiting for the right moment for revelation.

The white blossoms are a sign for me that new life is coming, that spring will not be thwarted, that Easter has come.

Those of us who are Christian celebrate Easter with joyful and victorious choruses of Hallelujah because Christ rose from the dead and triumphed over the grave. “Where is your sting o death?” I sing at the Easter vigil where we light the Christ candle to shine within the darkness. Easter is a glorious celebration of new life, new beginnings, new hope.

However, Easter is not, must not, be a time of amnesia. We do not, cannot, forget the journey of Jesus when we sing the Hallelujah chorus. Easter, if it is to mean anything, must always stands face to face with the crucifixion of Good Friday — because God knows the crucifixions did not stop when Jesus’ resurrection happened. And God knows that suffering and oppression will not stop in 2014, just because Christians will be celebrating Easter.

I was reminded of this when my partner told me that the white flowers signify to him the anniversary of the death of his first partner who died of AIDS around this time in 1989; just blocks from where we so comfortably now live together as a married couple. For Brad, just because Easter happened in 1989, and is happening again this year, doesn’t mean his heart did not break. Easter did not, cannot, erase the fact of devastating loss Brad experienced, and the grief that accompanied it.

Easter does not erase crucifixions of oppression and personal trials that humans face. It does not have that power, nor that goal.

Easter also does not erase the crucifixion of hunger, fear, war, violence that too many will know today. Easter does not erase the crucifying greed, sexism, racism, domestic abuse, or homo and trans hatred that so many will experience today. Easter does not erase the cross of gun violence, destruction of the environment, the distrust between religious traditions, the unjust prison system, the monied corruption of political systems that plague our country and the world. Easter does not erase the agony of physical disease, Alzheimer’s, loneliness, depression, addiction, despair, heartbreak that are part of many of our daily lives.

Easter does not erase any of it — instead it shines a spotlight on those crucifixions and proclaims that the power of death and sin can and has been shattered by the power of love.

Easter only matters because it is the story of God taking the form of a human in Jesus who experienced the crucifixion, dying for and with us, and then rising to proclaim that death and destruction are not the end of the story of life. Easter matters because it reminds us that God is with us, and loves us, even amidst all of our sufferings. Easter matters because it proclaims a faith that even in 2014, God is pouring forth the powerful spirit of new life to resurrect our personal lives and our world.

Easter is a call upon the Christian to turn to face the crucifixions in our lives and in the world; encouraged and emboldened by Christ, to believe that we too can rise.

May we be blessed and bless others with new life this Easter Sunday.

— Paul Brandeis Raushenbush

Written by MattAndJojang

April 21, 2014 at 1:19 pm

On Being More Than Ourselves Alone

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Photo: maxelmann/Flickr

Photo: maxelmann/Flickr

Housebound, mostly bedridden and in my nineteenth year of an incurable illness, my condition is a difficult one. I’m in a great deal of pain. My contorted body radically restricts all aspects of my mobility. I type these words kneeling on a chair outfitted with pressure sore pads, the only position from which I can use a computer.

People sometimes ask what keeps me going. Long before losing my health, there was the spontaneous mystical experience that awakened me from my youthful despair. It seems to me that the rest of my life has been a matter of learning how to receive what was implicit to that experience.

One of those teachings is often called “nonattachment.” That word, however, can be misleading. Whether nonattachment to our smaller selves comes to us more by way of joy or pain, it’s an entirely positive matter: as we die to the lesser, we live to the greater.

It’s hard to put this process into words, and of course the details are different for different people. But I’ve tried.

Whenever I refer to “the One” I mean the greatest context for our lives including and beyond our ability to comprehend — the ultimate story that holds all our stories. You will want to understand the One as referencing God or being itself according to your views.

The core element in my own thinking about spirituality is that faith is an articulation of love that does not depend on religious or spiritual beliefs of any kind. Faith is existential and one on One: deep down, each of us already experiences an unmediated and absolute faith in relation to being or reality itself. In my writing, I refer to becoming aware of our faith-full love and taking direction from it for our lives as learning to speak the Word in our own names.

When I speak of the path of joy, I don’t mean a life that features especially exciting or happy events. Great joy means paying attention to the joy that your love can readily find in life. In family and friends. Work. Play and relaxation. The “little” things that include what it feels like to have a clean body, adequate shelter, and enough food.

The natural world is especially helpful for nurturing our love’s joy in relation to the whole and only One. Sights and sounds like the broad sky, the wind’s sweep, and the outreach of branching trees expand the soul.

To notice your joys instead of minimizing or discounting them is to become joyous. Notice joy, nourish joy, consciously take advantage of your opportunities to experience joy. Joy known over a long period of time takes you beyond yourself, deepening and expanding your mind beyond the boundaries of your disconnections.

Then you notice how very much about the world there is to love, and this becomes the space that you inhabit. Over time, the normal reading on the scope of your love’s desire for the well-being of others enlarges to include beloved individuals in totalities of concern: your community, nation, species, planet, and even, to borrow from Paul, the only One in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

You could say that home, as a sense of self, is where the heart is. The more you care about something, the more that you identify with it. When you discover that you ultimately care about the greatest context for all our lives, then the power of this larger and more inclusive caring exceeds that of your caring for your separate self. You come to identify more with the One than with yourself alone. (Notice that you do not identify the One with yourself, but yourself with the One.)

You’re likely to outlive some of your greatest joys. Don’t let that be the only period in your life when you become highly aware of them. Notice joy now and it will help you become a person of peace, integrity, and strength when there is less joy in your life.

Crow’s Word
His note, dawn’s foil —
One blow to fill her pale blue bell with sound,
One impulse to deliver; that serves to sever bonds
Of all things that entangle, sully, soil.

This is the Word that blasts the sap,
The sound of force
That lifts the arms of trees;
That fashions-forth the branches from within
To raise this world of darkwood iron all around;
This the rising sound
Of the very juice by which the ground toils,
Becomes each massive trunk and slender tendril coil
Upright, upreared, at prayer.

Bright above, the morning sky awakens,
She blues and beckons like a mother’s eye toward which
The sun climbs, wings beat a path, while feet
With new-found ease
Like light along the spangled grass self-hurl,
Fast follow down that one windfall trail
Being blazed toward Canaan by what lives.

Let this day go gray, grow disenchanted:
I know the crow.

There is depth and even mystery to your love’s joys. They carry a significance that seems to point not so much beyond themselves but down deeper into themselves, further down than you can peer. You end up recalling the joyous times and events of your life in a certain way that hints of how you are more than yourself alone.

It’s less like remembering something that happened to you than like remembering something that happened. It’s like recalling some wonderful event that you happened to witness. You feel a sense of appreciation and privilege at having been there.

Finally, you recall the joys of your love not primarily with the satisfaction of your having experienced them, but with a real joy in their having happened at all. Our love’s encounters with the world seem to have a rightness and significance that’s more than the memories they leave behind in us.

You can lose everything. Health, mobility, freedom, and independence. House and home. Family and friends. Suddenly or gradually, through accident or disease, crime or warfare, you can find your quality of life and your further opportunities in life terribly reduced. If you live long enough, simple aging will do it.

Great pain and difficulty, especially when it’s permanent, can drive you over the edge, or nearly — and drive you instead to identify less with your disconnected self and more completely with the One. Either you find a deeper basis for life once you lose life as you knew it or you complete your destruction with your own anguish.

Of course, it takes time. Anyone faced with such a situation goes through anxiety, outrage, and grief. But if it goes on long enough, then instead of self destructing you can find yourself at or pretty near the end of complaining.

Under great and sustained adversity, and with enough restrictions on your capacity to enjoy life that can’t be removed, you reach a point where you no longer have the luxury of adding to your burden. You find that you genuinely no longer feel like complaining and begin to engage in your struggle and responsibilities without the anguish and agitation that you once experienced. Even if your struggle is physically painful, exhausting and mentally demanding, the process becomes simple and in a way, easy.

One with One, there is a lack of inner contradiction that imparts an effortlessness even to struggle. When you draw back to take your stand inside the wider circle, there is no frustration or discouragement, just the doing of what you can while you can because you can. You are equally ready to live or die not because you imagine a future heavenly reward but because you have already lived and died into your integrity with the One.

Carolina All the Time
Strings untangling their notes
Tentative then growing sure
When just before the intro ends
A lifting bend intones the way ahead
Curving like a road in me. And in my mind
Somehow I know that Carolina’s
Where I’m going all the time.

In my mind I’m going to Carolina
Once upon a time seemed only
Time to time. But now I find a way
Inside of me, ahead of me, behind,
The only road I’ve ever known in me
Right now with me;
It’s been there all the time.

Geese in flight and dogs that bite
Sometimes it seemed so easy and so right
At other times much worse
Than anything I ever had in sight.
The deep of dark turned steeper than the rise of light
The road so rough
It really seemed to me I’d had enough

Until at every turn I came to hear the strings
Untangling their branching notes
To play a winding song in me I would have said
I knew by heart except the melody
Knew me. It was a song
Of going to Carolina all along,
An undercurrent with a sweet and lustrous sheen –

Like brownstream snowmelt swiftly through the park
Or moonbeams crossing highbeams
Driving down a highway through the dark.
You can call it destiny or chance or fate
But you don’t start early and you can’t leave late
When something tuneful tells you that you bear no weight
And Carolina carries you along

If you solve the problem of living, the problem of dying takes care of itself. The love you seem to own is owned from the center by a wider sphere of ownership. You don’t own the love that is yours only to own up to. Underneath it all, your personhood is stark and simple and beautiful. It takes up where the night sky leaves off. You are awesomeness knowing itself from the inside.

~ Paul Martin

Written by MattAndJojang

March 23, 2013 at 10:27 am

Brokenness

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Photo: David Shield/Flickr

Riven means broken, it means shattered or wounded or unhealed, and I think that notion is very important to me and my notion of God and of religion: that we are broken creatures, very broken creatures. And I don’t think of God as necessarily healing that brokenness as much as participating in it.

~ Christian Wiman

Written by MattAndJojang

August 28, 2011 at 9:46 am

The Most Beautiful People

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Photo: selvin/flickr

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.

~ Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

Written by MattAndJojang

July 26, 2011 at 7:28 am

Coping With Depression – A Story

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I had folks coming to me, of course, who wanted to be helpful, and sadly, many of them weren’t. These were the people who would say, ‘Gosh, Parker, why are you sitting in here being depressed? It’s a beautiful day outside. Go, you know, feel the sunshine and smell the flowers.’ And that, of course, leaves a depressed person even more depressed, because while you know intellectually that it’s sunny out and that the flowers are lovely and fragrant, you can’t really feel any of that in your body, which is dead in a sensory way.

There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. He was a Quaker elder. Somehow, he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just, you know, in a way that I really don’t have words for, kept me connected with the human race.

And it became for me a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.

Parker Palmer

Written by MattAndJojang

November 10, 2010 at 8:56 am