Author Archive for Three Intentions

The Waiting Room

Read these weekly reflections on The Huffington Post and VividLife.

In November, Sounds True will publish a new, expanded edition of Inside the Miracle: Enduring Suffering, Approaching Wholeness, which gathers twenty-eight years of my writing and teaching about suffering, healing, and wholeness, including thirty-nine new poems and prose pieces not yet published.

One of the great transforming passages in my life was having cancer in my mid-thirties. This experience unraveled the way I see the world and made me a student of all spiritual paths. With a steadfast belief in our aliveness, I hope what’s in this book will help you meet the transformation that waits in however you’re being forged.

The following piece is an excerpt from the book.


The truth of things waits out of view ready to surprise us when we least expect it. I learned the truth of this while out in the marsh one day at twilight.

Lost Speech

The more that falls away,

the more knit I am to things

before they speak; drawn into

the waters of silence. When I

listen carefully, I am drawn be-

low the words of those speaking,

into the current using them, as the

wind uses a reed to get animals to

stop chewing and widen their

eyes. I once followed sunset

into a purple marsh and

stepping on a fallen log,

the tangled brush tugged

the trees to sway. Hundreds

of cranes lifted and I was un-

done. I am now devoted to

the lost step that brings

us into the open.

A Question to Walk With: Tell the story of a time when nature surprised you.

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The eyes of animals in paintings surround us. Their stare makes me confess that in the beginning, I believed I saw something no one else had seen, and that feeling of being another Adam fueled my days and sense of worth. Like most, I ingrew my own version of things: lamenting my lack of brotherhood while secretly exalting that I alone could see.

In truth, I was starting to shed all this stuff, but it took getting cancer to shake me of my need to feel special. And sitting here in a waiting room at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in a ship-wrecked part of New York, staring straight into this old Hispanic woman’s eyes, she into mine—I accept that we all seek the same peace of wonder, all wince from the same weight of knowing, though we each speak in a different voice.

Suddenly, but cumulatively, like the crest of a long building wave, I know that each being as it’s born, inconceivable as it seems, is another Adam or Eve, each of us unique and common. Now I understand. It is not my separateness that makes me unique, but the depth of my first-hand experience. Clearly, as I look around, the most essential things I sense and feel, we all feel. I meet you there. I believe this acceptance is helping me stay alive.

This burdened majestic Hispanic grandmother fighting her tumor looks at me across the waiting room without a word on this sweltering day, the way an old Egyptian slave at one oar must have looked at his younger counterpart three oars down: no pretense, no manners, no needed phrases, but simply with a tired soul that will not look away which says: though this body is chained, these eyes are your eyes and they are forever free.

A Question to Walk With: Journal about a time when the difficulties of life brought you instantly close to a stranger.

What Matters Is Unsayable

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The challenge of poetry is that the only things worth saying are those things that are unsayable. The joy of such work is that whatever we come up with is more than enough.



As a boy, my father introduced me to the sea. Something in it was his home. It held him and received him. He would sail on it for hours, days—weeks if he could get away. It was on that boat that I first saw the sun glitter up the sea. That sheen hypnotized me, as if the back of some luminous creature was just under the surface about to show itself. I thought if I could enter the deep, I might meet that luminous creature too big to name.

The sheen of the sun on the sea befriended me. But I would forget about it, and the enormity of the sea, and the endless dependability of the waves until the noise and tumble of life in the world would lead me back to the sea. Then, usually when exhausted, I’d walk along some patch of surf where the clouds would part and the sun would glitter up the sea again. And I’d remember, as someone waking from a long sleep, I’d remember all that is out of view, all that we stand on, all that holds us up.

When teaching creative writing at SUNY Albany in my late twenties, I shared the worst image I ever came up with, calling that sheen of sun on the sea, “liquid tin foil.” Though the image wasn’t right, I told my students that I used it as a placeholder, a visual bookmark that would bring the irreducible sheen of the sea back to me. This is the power of symbol and metaphor. Regardless of their clarity, they point to what is clear and unsayable, so we can remember and revisit what has meaning.

Buddha would remind his students that his teachings were only fingers pointing to the moon. His teachings weren’t the moon. He encouraged them not to get caught up in his gestures, but to look at the moon! And even here, the moon is pointing to the unseen source of light that paints its face. These are the very real depths we live in, day by day.

This morning, some forty years later, I’m again by the sea and the sun is high, the clouds are few, and there, the familiar sheen glittering up the sea—old guide, old friend. And still, after a lifetime, I can’t describe it or name it. I can only feel it.

I only know that what matters is unsayable. And yet, every attempt to reveal it helps us live, the way every plant grows by reaching for a light it can’t see or name. God is such a sun. Truth is such a sun. Love is such a sun. And each of these—God, Truth, and Love—is just a temporary name for something too big to stay named.

I only know that to be alive and to gather meaning from living, we’re asked to throw our words and feelings and questions, like wood, onto the fire of all that’s unsayable—to keep the shimmer of what matters before us.

A Question to Walk With: In conversation with a friend or love done, try to discuss a feeling or thought that feels unsayable.

The History of My Heart

Read these weekly reflections on The Huffington Post and VividLife.

During my cancer journey, I was able to see my heart on a screen during a test in which I was injected with radioactive dye, so they could trace the first pass of blood through the first chamber of my heart. It was an experience that changed my understanding of heart.


It has pumped strong since my first breath. At first it grew like a fish, no limbs, no eyes; just swimming in place while I tried to do what I was told. It knew nothing of where I would lead it or where I would be taken. As I grew, it spread into a red bird whose wings stirred me with a want for impossible things. But wanting, falling, loving, dying and being battered wore me down to life on Earth. Beating in the face of so many abrasions, it only toughened, its cords of muscle eating my heartaches like calisthenics; always whispering in my sleep, “Give me more!”

In my cancer, it grew very still. The doctors thought it was going away or back to where it waited while I was being born. It was only gliding beneath the storm. Now on the other side, it has morphed again. How to say it? I’ve become a mold hollowed by my sufferings: all to be filled by my heart which has slipped its casing completely, pouring itself into the contours of my being. Now it washes everywhere: behind my eyes, my lips, inside my fingers. Now, wherever you touch me, you touch my heart.

A Question to Walk With: Begin to tell the story of the history of your heart.

Relic from the Future

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The questions we ask of life and ourselves are archetypal, regardless of the gadgets we invent.



Questions found on an antique cell phone
discovered in 2086 in the ruins of an airport
when people traveled by plane: What if I let
love in all the way? Why am I always leaving?
What is it that stirs me about being caught?
Though I never wanted safe, why have I settled
for safe? Why do I keep running, when I have
no interest in moving? How do I say yes more
often? How do I stop reliving the past? How can
I learn to use my freedom? Having lived most of
my life in fear of what’s coming, how can I find
meaning where I am? How can I stop playing
small? How can I put down the upset of not
getting what I want? How can I better see the
unseen? How can I die to old ways of being?
How can I let what wants to be born in me
have its way? Now that I’ve been helped,
how can I find the strength to help others?
Just what is my work? And what will it
take to taste the honey?

A Question to Walk With: In conversation with a friend or loved one, surface and ask one question that no one can answer. Drift in this unanswerable space for a while together.

The Fifth Element

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Our job is to stay thoroughly human, not to perfect our way out of it. I admit I’ve lost years to refining myself when I’ve needed to deepen myself. I admit I’ve known the lift of the beatific ocean of Spirit and the crash of the world’s great wave. And no matter what is taken away, I try to accept everything as a blessing. I try to put down my mask and sword and keep entering life. But I confess, when I was sick, I refused the teacher and the teacher made me sicker until I could hear. This is how I was forced to learn that experience is the fifth element—insatiable and transforming as fire, clear and saturating as water, relentless and binding as earth, and necessary as air. Outliving those I love and outlasting things I’ve built is how I’ve been humbled to learn that grief is how we listen our way through loss. Opened, like a Russian nesting doll, to smaller and smaller shells I didn’t know I was carrying, I’ve been opened to the truth that obstacles are teachers and emergencies are rearrangers. Now I bless the wisdom in Rilke’s line:

The dove that remain(s) at home,
never exposed to loss…
cannot know tenderness…

A Question to Walk With: Describe one way that experience has revealed yourself to you.

Polishing the Heart

This fall, Atria is publishing my new book of spiritual inquiry, The Endless Practice: Becoming Who You Were Born to Be. It’s a journey that explores the difficult and rewarding aspects of being human, which are often inter-related, including how to restore our trust in life, when suffering makes us lose our way; how to begin the work of saying yes to life, so it can enliven us; and how to make our inwardness a resource and not a refuge. For the next two months, I’ll be previewing excerpts from the book.

Working to make peace with life will give your heart new eyes that will enable you to make more wholehearted decisions about the things that live close to your soul. Here’s one tradition’s practice in approaching this.

Polishing the Heart

The Sufis speak of polishing the heart into a mirror, so that through our love we can reflect the heart of everything. This is one practice that in time can help us make the necessary agreement between our being and our humanness. By its very nature, living in the world creates a film over our heart, while our thoroughness of being and our gestures of love remove that film. There is no arrival in this process. The goal isn’t to stay clean or get dirty, but to stay engaged in the unending transformative cycle of life. And when we can’t summon the effort or courage to clean the film from our heart, there is always the necessary rain by which life will clean and refresh itself. In this way, the work of being and the inevitable friction of becoming are inextricably knit together.

We all film the heart and we all polish the heart. We all move between these points of wakefulness and weariness. All the while, the resources of life wait like a great sea to cleanse us. This is why we polish the heart into a mirror—to open and touch the place within us where all life lives, where all hearts feel, where all things resound through the inlet of our soul. The endless practice here is to live out a constant commitment to aliveness, to stay engaged in the ongoing journey of being filmed over, only to be scoured into a clear vessel, again and again.

A Question to Walk With: What does it mean to you to polish your heart? Where does your heart need polishing right now? What small act can you take to begin to clarify what you feel?

Running the Table

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This fall, Sounds True is publishing a box set of teaching conversations based on the poems in my book Reduced to Joy. The poems are the teachers and unfold the journey from our head to our heart. For the next two months, I’m happy to be previewing poems and reflections from the box set.


We each have these stories in our own journey that have shaped us—either positively or negatively, either as affirmations or cautions. But we seldom are aware of them or how to use them for what we face now. This poem holds such a story for me, from my youth. My father’s father was one of four sons born in Russia and living in Brooklyn. This is the gift they gave me as a boy, that I return to often.


Running the Table

On certain Sundays in the late fifties,

my father’s four uncles would sweep into

our home like a tornado of laughter and

take us to the local pool hall. They were

weathered immigrants from Russia—Max,

Al, Norton, and Axi. They’d sharked their

way through the Depression, running the

table, throwing money in a jar. Once Axi,

hit by a car, broke his thumb, but cursed,

played and won, before having it set. That’s

how he got his name: Axi, for accident. My

father always opened up a little more around

them. I used to wake on Sundays and hope,

the way quiet children pray in secret for

gypsies to arrive. But what I remember

most is being knee-high, not quite able to

see the table, their laughter circling like the

gods of Olympus tossing their losses into the

sea. My brother and I would run through their

legs. We couldn’t make out all that was said.

But the smell of chalk, and swift strokes scat-

tering bright balls, the thunder of resilience

that parted life’s harshness—it made me feel

happy and safe. Sometimes I’d grab one of their

legs like the tree of life itself. Now, when beat

up and sad, I find myself drifting into some

bar, looking for a cue. Then I take the years

off like a coat, chalk up and sigh; leaning

over the felt table, waiting for their

laughter to swallow the world.



A Question to Walk With: Tell the story of a now mythic moment in your youth that has helped to shape your understanding of resilience.


Coming Out

Read these weekly reflections on The Huffington Post and VividLife.


This fall, Sounds True is publishing a box set of teaching conversations based on the poems in my book Reduced to Joy. The poems are the teachers and unfold the journey from our head to our heart. For the next two months, I’m happy to be previewing poems and reflections from the box set.

Both being and doing are necessary, the way two hands are necessary, or two legs, or two eyes. It’s our job to discover the very personal way we use both being and doing to see, to walk, to hold and build, to care. Like the mind and the heart, I’ve found that my doing is healthier if it comes from my being. This poem explores the power of being.


Coming Out

While there is much to do

we are not here to do.


Under the want to problem-solve

is the need to being-solve.


Often, with full being

the problem goes away.


The seed being-solves its

darkness by blossoming.


The heart being-solves its loneliness

by loving whatever it meets.


The tea being-solves the water

by becoming tea.



A Question to Walk With: Tell the story of a time when your presence alone contributed to solving a problem.


Without Knowing

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Our first encounters with love shape us and have a lasting impact on how we meet the world. Triggered by a young couple in a café, this poem helped me look back and understand the gift we give each other as we’re just beginning to form both inwardly and outwardly.


Without Knowing

Lifting my second coffee to my lips,

I see a young couple near the window.

They’re falling in love. I can tell by the

way he brushes her hair aside, so he can

see her face. Before I can sip, there you

are, across from me, more than forty

years ago. I did the same thing. Parting

your auburn hair, I fell into your eyes.

It undid me, which meant I could no

longer follow the path others had set

for me. Isn’t this the purpose of love?

We only had a few years of opening

what we could in each other, before

you fell into another. You broke my

heart. It took a decade of poking at the

ashes to accept that we sent each other

on our way. Now, in my sixties, after

losing and finding what matters, enough

times to realize that the losing and find-

ing comes and goes like surf that shapes

the sand of our heart, I know I fell through

your eyes, so many years ago, into the sweet,

resilient place only opened by love, where

we get to see our own worth, unformed

like raw material. It takes years of ham-

mering and being hammered to see

what we can shape from what we’re

given. Strange to pick up this conver-

sation now. I take another sip, and

through the steam, can see the young

woman glimpse her worth briefly in her

jittery, young man. I sip and feel the gift

you were without your even knowing. I

don’t even know if you’re still alive. But

in this café, from another continent

of time, I can softly thank you.


A Question to Walk With: Tell the story of an early love or friendship that allowed you to see your own potential.


Turn Around

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It was in a dream in my sixtieth year that I realized that for all my efforts to protect my inwardness from a brutal world, my inwardness is the source of my strength and resilience.

Turn Around

I’ve spent too much time
protecting my spirit from the
world, close but with my back
to it. Now, when I’m too old to
remember what I was afraid of,
my spirit rises behind me like
early light to move the dark
along. Its warmth turns me

Facing my soul, its aliveness
is unending. It can take the
shape of anything. I can drink
from it like a lake. Its waves can
rise and turn into birds. Stars
drop into it and I can drink
their light. Bowing to it, it
mirrors the face below my

I’ve had it backwards. My
soul protects me, the way the
sun without moving causes
every thing to grow.

A Question to Walk With: What is the nature of your conversation with your soul?