Heart Of Healing – Nancy’s Story

For me, interviews have always felt like a conversation as opposed to something more formal. I’ve had the privilege of being interviewed throughout my career, and it’s within this audio format that the conversation comes across and offers more depth to the old question and answer formula.



Direct link: Heart of Healing – Nancy’s Story

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Seppo’s Pound Cake

He calls it Hummingbird, I call it delicious!

I opened Three Bowls this week to select a recipe for this week’s blog and when the book fell open to this page I realized that I had never baked this one. I don’t even recall ever tasting it, which is odd since I spent so many hours cooking with Seppo and helping to make his delicious food, both before and after working on this book together.

Pound Cake

So, other than the crushed pineapples, I had everything on hand try it out. Michael offered to run to the store for the missing ingredient while I got to work. In no time at all it was in the oven and we had a scrumptious dessert ready for dinner.

In Seppo’s words: “This fragrant, moist, fruit filled variation on a southern classic doesn’t contain the ingredients usually associated with pound cake, but its texture is similarly dense.”

I love finding new recipes in old cookbooks. This one is now on our favorite list. Enjoy!

Seppo’s Hummingbird Pound Cake

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Love Season

The love expressed between partners in our Imperfect Partners couples workshop and the trust and willingness they all have to be vulnerable in front of each other and the group, has been truly inspiring. Being witness to that is such an honor. So, in tribute to them, and to celebrate the imminent holy season (Passover, Easter, Buddha’s Birthday), here are a few quotes about love to reflect on in the coming weeks. Plus, my mother will be ninety years old on Saturday! Here’s to you, mom!

Twin Falls

“The most precious gift you can give to the one you love is your true presence.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh

“Because of deep love, one is courageous.”
― Lao Tzu

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” 
― Lao Tzu

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” 
― Anonymous, Holy Bible


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How Guys Talk About Love

Michael and I conducted the second session of our workshop for couples last night and it was fantastic. I think we’re learning as much as the participants. It is so inspiring and humbling to witness the love, courage and openness that everyone brings to the group. And sharing this experience with my life partner, Michael, is awesome. Conducting groups and coaching people has been a lifelong dream of his and he is definitely up to the challenge. So, I asked him to write a piece for the blog this week. I’m sure you’ll love it as I do. Makes me think we may have a book in our future together!  

Recently, Nancy and I had a couple over for dinner. Not people we know terribly well, unnamedparticularly the wife whom neither of us had ever met. The husband is a fellow with whom I’ve had some very nice conversations over the years while riding our bicycles.

Several weeks after this warm and congenial dinner, I was talking to the husband while he worked on my bicycle. In the course of the conversation he asked what I was up to lately, and I told him that Nancy and I were conducting a workshop for couples called Imperfect Partners: Making it Work.

In response, my friend, married twenty plus years, thoughtfully remarked that it was quite evident while in our company that not only did Nancy and I get along well, but that we “worked well together.”

It’s true, we do…. But it wasn’t always that way. We’ve come a long way.

In the beginning, we went through a phase that seems to be pretty normal for couples newly in love: The excitement of getting to know each other, the thrill of being so attracted to someone who appears to be “the one,” sex, romance, meeting each other’s families, and finally, some months down the road, the inevitable really getting to know each other. And getting to know ourselves in a committed relationship.

I recall a phrase I heard years ago: “The truth will set you free; but first it will piss you off.”

The truth in this instance is that fostering and maintaining a thriving and manageable relationship requires not just love, but patience, effort, attention, discipline and work. If you’re anything like me, you might think: Not very romantic!

I wanted easy, I wanted spontaneity, I wanted what I wanted, and I wanted Nancy to know it intuitively. She admitted to wanting the same things. We agreed that we both held these expectations in all our previous relationships. It never worked.

Over the course of our relating and loving we have discovered a few things that make our relationship work, that free us from the blocks that prevent intimacy, and help keep the aliveness ever-present.

Communication is the key. Taking the time to sit down face-to-face and let each other know what we’re thinking and feeling is essential. Nothing provides clarity and intimacy like speaking one’s heart and being witnessed by one’s partner.

We affirm each other daily, with a kind word or gesture, a kiss, a hug, a thank you, to acknowledge our gratitude for our partnership and how it nurtures us individually. We take time outs when things get difficult, as they will in any relationship, allowing the heat to subside so that things can be more reasonably discussed. We plan our lives together, taking time to discuss finances, family, fun, sex, and vacations.

We also make sure that we take good care of our individual lives, so that we bring our best selves to the partnership. Sure, we continually turn to each other for support, listening, and guidance, but we don’t expect the other to be our sole source of happiness, nor do we expect that the other can “save” us from whatever individual challenges we face.

Meditation and prayer, separately and together, has become the bedrock of our relationship and a solid foundation on which our loving relationship is built. The practice of being in silence together is incredibly powerful.

All of this has led us to create the Imperfect Partners workshop. It is an acknowledgment of the power of truthful communication, the freedom of discipline, and the gift of a committed, loving partner willing to engage fully and passionately, one day at a time, in deepening and celebrating our commitment. To share this with our larger community is a joy, and only confirms that whatever or whomever we treat with care will always reward us. It is a sacred and adventurous journey.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Death

I have been preparing to die for five years now. Not literally, exactly. I have no terminal disease that I know of—except for the fact that I’m breathing, which is at first gasp a death sentence—and I rarely get sick. But death and loss, and the grief that always comes with it, have been informing my life and teaching me how to live since I first started thinking deep thoughts about God and eternity and the why of the universe when I was just a girl. So, five years ago, I decided I needed to learn how to die. I had been practicing on a meditation cushion for many years at that point, but I wanted to face death in a different way.Friends Discussion

One of my students told me of the One Year to Live course at the Village Zendo (with Enkyo Roshi, Koshin and Chodo) and then three more students became interested in taking it, so I decided to become a student again along with my students. The text for the class was Stephen Levine’s A Year to Live (which, after all this time I still haven’t finished reading, but more about that later) and our year long koan was: how would you live your life today if you knew you only had one year left to live?

During the course of that year I wrote my advance directives, visited a funeral home and cemetery, and thought about, talked about, and wrote about what sort of ending I would like to experience. Well, never being very good with endings, when the year to live class ended, the five of us who took the course together decided to give ourselves another year to live and have been meeting every month since then to talk about dying. (Perhaps we were the first death café?) And, to steal from Raymond Carver: what we talk about when we talk about dying is living. And fear and worry and getting old and change and business and wonder and joy and love and loss and what’s next. In a word: impermanence.

Some in the group of five have still not completed their directives, I have still not finished reading Stephen Levine’s book, some have all their paperwork done and stored in their freezer but haven’t figured out what to do with their life. There is always something left undone as there will be when I take my last breath. But as of this moment, my directives are complete, my funeral and memorial plans close to being complete, although those seem to change regularly and will continue to, I know where I want my ashes to be scattered and buried, my will is nearly ready for my signature, and I hold a healthy curiosity about how I will handle my time of death when it comes. What I wrote in my journal five years ago about how I would like to die and where still holds true today:

I would like to die slowly, gently, softly without too much pain, listening to the sound of the ocean or a gentle breeze through the trees. Or on a mountain. In nature. Or quietly at home (and why couldn’t that be at the beach or on a mountain?) in my own bed, holding Michael’s hand. Is that selfish of me? Wanting to die before him?

I want to experience my death, my dying, so sudden death would not be my choice. I want it to be my final meditation. I want time to say goodbye. I want to feel what it is to die, the actual physical passing away. I hope I have the courage for that. Sudden death seems too easy for me and harsh on loved ones.

My mother-in-law died a sudden tragic death a year after I wrote that. It was excruciating.

Now, five years later, the group of five is talking about the inevitable death of the group. It feels like it’s time. And we will give it a proper funeral and memorial service as it transitions into its next life, whatever that may be. Perhaps this is why I took the Foundations course, to bookend my visit and conversation with death and dying, with Chodo and Koshin as my guides. And as I face the end of this course I look ahead to what might come next. What if I only had a year to live, how would I live it?

Here are a few notes from my journal five years ago:

There is so much I still want to do. Write a poem. Learn to swim, to dance.

“To fulfill my birth!” one chapter of the book at a time feels just right. In the stillness and quiet of morning, alone but for the chirping birds. How do they stay warm? Why haven’t they flown south? If I were a bird I’d be somewhere down there. Maybe Michael and I can take a long weekend in the sun before spring arrives here.

I’d like to take a poetry class and a dance class with Michael. I would like to get back to come creative writing—maybe the novel—but I’m afraid. I don’t have that inner fire to do it—the judgment (I suck!) and the fear (I’m a horrible, stupid writer) keep me from it.

I spend most of my time alone in the quiet. For the first time in a long while I want to put more music in my life.

Since then I wrote a novel, took a dance class, listened to more music, spent more time with friends and family, and took a vacation each winter to a warm and sunny place. So, as I’ve been dying, I’ve also been living. My self-talk about my skill as a writer is much less harsh these days, I am happy to report, so progress has been made on many fronts.

So, what’s left to do? Take a poetry class. That’s next I think. Maybe an art class. Continue doing what I’m doing. For the moment Clinical Pastoral Education is not in my future, but that could change. I’m thinking of volunteering in hospice. I wish I could continue the meditation/relaxation class in the Psych ward in the hospital. That has challenged and stretched me more than anything this past year. And sitting with other patients, perhaps I’ve been a comfort here and there. I wrote this note recently about how I’d like to be with the sick and suffering:

I would like to comfort them in time of worry, anxiety and fear. During the waiting and uncertainty. Help them to linger in the moments between the worry and sadness, the moments that hold love and grace and delight. All the breaths between and in and around this amazing life.

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Kale & White Bean Soup

This has become a favorite of mine and is always a big hit for a winter lunch at my all Kale and White Bean Soup Recipeday meditation groups. It comes via my good friend Ann Ogden who passed it along to me about four years ago. We cooked together many times at a Zen monastery in the Catskill mountains and now she teaches people who have been touched by cancer how to cook. Check out her website for many more healthy and delicious recipes. Not to mention it’s a good cause for donations.

Enjoy this delicious soup for these last days of March winter. Pair it up with cornbread and a salad for a complete meal or, as Ann suggests, a chunk of good wholegrain bread.

Kale & White Bean Soup Recipe

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Zen Quotes for March

Zen Quotes for March
Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself – Zen Saying

In the pursuit of knowledge, something is added every day. In the pursuit of enlightenment, something is dropped every day. – Lao Tzu

To a mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders. – Chuang-tzu


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One Hand Killing

As a treat for my faithful blog readers and e-mail list subscribers, I have a very special code for you to receive a free copy of my latest edition of One Hand Killing.NancyOHara_OneHandKilling_8x5_HiResFINAL2

One Hand Killing is my first book in the Alex Sullivan Mystery Series, and I’m pleased to announce, the second edition, Killing Sacred, has already been written, and will be released this year!

Enjoy this prologue from One Hand Killing, and beneath, the code for your free e-book edition!

“The uniforms had already strung the yellow tape. Alex couldn’t go past the shoe room into the basement, which included the lounge. Where is everyone? Where the hell is the dead body? And who the fuck is it?

She spotted Muin beyond the barrier and a sigh of relief that it wasn’t him swept through her. Their eyes locked. Muin spoke to the guy in blue with a Smith & Wesson 357 strapped to his hips. She was given access. He must have played my detective card. I have to see the body before Wolfe gets here, and he’s right on my tail. He’ll kick me out, as he should. But this is my place and I have to see it for myself, damn it.

Muin pointed to the boiler room. She made her way through the narrow door and into the small dark space. There the body was elegantly laid out on the floor next to the furnace. In his robes, hands clasped and resting on his belly. With a tree branch between his teeth, as if he’d been hanging on for dear life.

Her detective’s mind clicked into high gear. She remembered a koan about a man in a tree. Then she noticed his freshly shaved head. He hadn’t been a monk, but everyone knew it had been everything to him. Had Roshi denied him that path forever? Did that have something to do with the returned rakusu and the line from the heart sutra? Didn’t Sonja say Roshi had reconsidered? Did he kill himself? The questions came fast and furious, and with them Wolfe.

“Who let you in here?” Wolfe growled.

Alex said nothing as she walked past him and out the door lost in thought. How long has he been there? Was he there this morning when I stood next door in the lounge drinking coffee? Did the noise in the hall last night have anything to do with it? What’s with the tree branch?

Alex hadn’t had time in the boiler room for her turning-in-place crime scene ritual, so she did it on the other side of the tape. At the end of it she was willing to bet that the basement wasn’t the scene of the crime. And that it was murder, not suicide.”

One Hand Killing on Smashwords!

Coupon Code: WP57K

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Hakuin’s Great Doubt

“I am full of shit!” These are the five words I wrote in the middle of my shift at the hospital a few weeks ago, after conducting my first meditation/relaxation group in the Psych ward. On the way in that morning I listened to Pema Chodron talk about shenpa, which helped me to feel centered and prepared to handle whatever the day might bring. I’ve been “teaching” meditation for almost twenty years, I’ve known many people with mental illness who have been helped by meditation, and after witnessing J conduct a session with patients the previous week, I thought: “I’ve got this!”IMG_1879

Well, I did not “have” it. There were about six people who came, some came late, a couple left before the session was over, came back and then left again. One patient was very aggressive and kept interrupting the guided meditation section of the half hour. Two people, who had sat through the whole period last week, left this week because they were getting anxious. By the end there were two people left. I felt like I hadn’t helped anyone. I felt like a failure. I felt out of my depth trying to bring meditation to unstable psych patients. I had great doubt. Why did I offer to do this?

I thought if I had only said the right words, used the right tone of voice, been more like J, it would have been easier. So I did some research, listened to some guided relaxation/visualization videos, and brought some music with me the following week, which had me feeling a little better prepared. When I arrived on the floor, I was told that the room my group was supposed to meet in was not available. In fact, there was no empty room. They asked if I could come back in the afternoon. I couldn’t. Then it was suggested I do it in the day room/cafeteria. They would turn off the TV and ask those who weren’t going to join the group to leave.

Some stayed but didn’t participate. People, including staff, kept coming in and out of the room during the half hour. It was a bit chaotic, as that floor can be. In terms of numbers, it was about the same as the previous week. Six, with four coming and going, a couple not understanding English, with two left at the end. I did my best and maybe I helped someone.

This week was different yet again, but I’m beginning to leave all my expectations at the door, and am learning to have a new outlook on what “meditation” truly is and can be. It is definitely not one way fits all. And next week and the next and the next will be different yet again. So, I will just keep showing up and trust the dharma. As for trusting myself, well, there’s been a little more of that lately too.

Some of this was born from an experience I had at a recent weekend retreat. While doing something that I had been asked to do by the facilitators, I was addressed by one of the teachers in a very angry and abusive tone. It was quite shocking. While I understand that we can all become sensitive and vulnerable during sesshin, and the precepts can be breached without intention, it did not feel okay for a teacher to direct anger, perhaps meant for someone else, at a student and then not make amends. I do know the difference between a Zen wake-up shout and an abusive one. I’ve experienced plenty of both. It felt as if the Buddhist teachings that we were all there to practice together were meant only for the students and that the Zen teaching “no head higher than any other” was violated. After consulting with a few of my spiritual mentors, and reflecting about it in light of the precept about not speaking of other’s faults, there was no doubt left with this matter for me: this teacher behaved inappropriately.

Shunryu Suzuki’s words on the practice of bowing come to my mind when reflecting on this experience. “Bowing is a very serious practice. You should be prepared to bow even in your last moment. Even though it is impossible to get rid of our self-centered desires, we have to do it. Our true nature wants us to … Sometimes the disciple bows to the master; sometimes the master bows to the disciple. A master who cannot bow to his disciple cannot bow to Buddha. Sometimes the master and disciple bow together to Buddha. Sometimes we may bow to cats and dogs.”

This “teacher” who directed anger at me was clearly unable to bow to me as student. On the other hand, this experience was probably just what I needed to help confirm for me what kind of teacher and caregiver I want to be. It was somewhat akin to the sound of a bell, or the shout of a word, or the call of a bird that triggers the moment of enlightenment in many old Zen stories. And it is always something like this that reminds me: in pointing my finger there are always three fingers pointing back at me. And so, though wary, I am grateful for the “teaching” and will keep digging in and going deeper toward self-forgetting. Which reminds me of one of my favorite prayers from St. Francis of Assisi.

Lord, make me a channel of thy peace—that where there is hatred, I may bring love—that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness—that where there is discord, I may bring harmony—that where there is error, I may bring truth—that where there is doubt, I may bring faith—that where there is despair, I may bring hope—that where there are shadows, I may bring light—that where there is sadness, I may bring joy. Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted—to understand, than to be understood—to love, than to be loved. For it is by self-forgetting that one finds. It is by forgiving that one is forgiven. It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.

“I am full of shit!” may not be the most eloquent way to express the doubt I was having about my ability to lead a meditation session in the Psych ward. But it did help to wake me up to the fact that it matters to me to do my best and there is always more for me to learn. I liken it to Hakuin’s great doubt, without which we cannot awaken. So this exhortation to myself was my inner Zen master shouting at me to wake up, pay attention to the shit, and take advantage of it. You are not a piece of shit, but now that you notice its presence, allow it to fertilize your heart-mind. Or, as Thich Nhat Hahn would say: “There is no lotus flower possible without the mud. There is no understanding and compassion without suffering.”

I am glad I am often full of shit. For how else would I be able to cultivate such a lovely garden?

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Myochi’s Pumpkin Bread!

When the weather won’t let up, stay warm by baking a delicious pumpkin bread! This delicious recipe comes at the perfect time for you to surprise your loved ones this Valentine’s Day!

Heat oven to 350º. Lightly oil (or butter) two large loaf pans or three small ones.Pumpkin Bread

1 cup honey
1 cup maple syrup
3 eggs
1 cup oil
I use a mixture of olive and canola. And if you don’t want to use so much oil, substitute some of it with unsweetened applesauce.
1 15oz. can pumpkin
¼ cup water

3 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. cinnamon
3 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 cup nuts or raisins or chocolate chips/chunks.
You can use up to 1½ cups of a combination of these. I usually use a 4 oz Ghirardelli 100% Cacao baking bar and ½ cup walnuts.

Pumkin Bread

1. In a large bowl, whisk together the honey, maple syrup, eggs, oil, pumpkin, and water.

2. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt.

3. Fold the dry ingredients into the wet with a rubber spatula. Don’t over mix. Fold in the nuts and chocolate pieces.

4. Pour the batter into the pans. Bake for about 60 to 70 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out dry.

5. Set the pans on a rack to cool for 10-15 minutes, then remove from pans and cool some more.

As with many of the sweets I make and love—with no refined sugars or flours—this can be cut up and frozen so that there’s always a treat waiting for you.

Download a printable version of the recipe here: Myochi’s Pumpkin Bread

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