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Transmuting All Things in Life into Wisdom

Redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. From
Redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. From

I hear so many people say, “It’s all about balance.” When people talk about balance, they’re talking about more time for their families, for nature, for themselves, for exercise, for contemplation. Balance seems to imply that when there’s more of something there’s less of something else; it’s a zero-sum game that we cannot win. And if we did strike the right balance for a little while, everything around us moves too fast for it to last.

I believe in integration rather than balance. I want to suggest that rather than competing with each other, the worlds that I move in nourish each other and permeate each other. We actually intuitively know what it means to integrate on many levels. Today, we all inhabit different cultures and realms at the same time.

I grew up in China, born in a time and place where the standard of living was akin to that of the Victorian period. When I think about how much human progress I have seen with my own eyes, I am more than 100 years old. Now I am a director of user experience design at LinkedIn with all the busy-ness of a Silicon Valley life; at the same time, I’m a resident at a Zen center, called Jikoji, or Compassion Light Temple. It is an hour from the heart of Silicon Valley, yet feels as far away as Japan. 

Before I started living in Jikoji, I didn’t think I could make it work. I was already strapped for time. How would I find time for meditation, to the longer commute, and the responsibilities of being a resident? But like so many things in life, you just don’t know until you try it, the mind cannot imagine the possibilities. I do have less free time, but both of my worlds have become richer, feel more spacious, fuller with possibilities, and my life has changed from the inside out.

I’m lucky to have a Buddhist practice as well as a Native American practice, where there is ritual, a strong sense of community, and earth-based medicine. They have taught me that spiritual practice is the integration of the relative and the absolute, and the realization that they’re one and the same. Instead of balance, the picture is more like ink in water. The beautiful swirls quickly reach all of the water, and the ink and the water are not separable. We’re the ink, and we’re the water. When one’s practice and one’s life become one and the same, that’s what I mean by integration, and by Buddhist alchemy. Alchemy is the transformation of baser materials into precious materials. When we practice from an integrated place, what we touch turns into a sort of gold, which is wisdom. And it is not just for our benefit, but also for the benefit of all beings.

I have the experience of integration, and I know what’s it like to be not that. For much of my life, I didn’t know what it meant to feel connected, to myself, to life. I was a very shy child, and struggled to connect with my parents and others around me. In my preteens, I had so much anxiety in my body that I started to lose control of it. I had a stutter. I felt I was looking down at a life of unspeakable hardship and isolation. What connected me were little bits of nature. Water droplets on lotus leaves gave me a deep sense of joy and wonder; the tall arches formed by the sycamore maples uplifted me and brought to stillness to my heart.

The secret of life, as experienced by a kid, was that if I looked carefully enough, I could see dazzling rainbows of colors in every facet of everything. It was like honey on the tip of my tongue. The secret is that beauty is synonymous with meaning, and it is all around me in perfect abundance, anytime that I want to return to it. I tasted, without consciously knowing, the sweetness of existence, which taught me everything I have always known.

I have learned a few things that helped me on the path of integration.

The first is to see everything as practice, and practice simply. Few people can live at a spiritual center, and not everyone can or want to go on silent retreats. However, the purpose of rigorous practice is simply to have the experience of being present with what is. At the Zen center the day starts with 6 o’clock meditation, zazen. I’m not a morning person by any stretch, so this is and will continue to be challenging for me, but I do it with simplicity; I also initially resisted but now enjoy the ritual that follows it, which gives me a sense of humility and openness for the day.

The word simplicity does not mean monastic starkness, or the 1950s. By simplicity I mean an attitude, a vital straight-forwardness. Do one thing at a time and do it with the fullness of your awareness and your abilities. Treat whatever is in front of you, whatever is given to you to do, as the best assignment of all, and something unexpected may emerge from that.

My work has also changed from the inside out, and makes greater sense to me than before. I’ve learned to trust my response-ability. On the surface, my work looks very similar to so many in Silicon Valley. I was surprised to find myself thinking much less than before. While my work and life have gotten fuller, they’ve also become easier. Situations happen—for example, disagreement arises in a meeting, tension quickly follows—people seem to be at an impasse.

I have no idea what the solution can be but I’ve learned to trust my actions. I offer the beginning of a suggestion, or a recognition of what’s happening, or maybe some kindness. Most of the time someone else will then offer something, and the group will start to shift as we respond to each other. In the middle of everything, a “knowing” comes, not a solution, but a way of navigating the territory. In coaching my young Asian staff to speak up more, I bring up phrases like “basic goodness” or “rightness,” and share how these ideas have changed me. In the conversation, I see a twinkle in their eye, and over time, I see them becoming more resourced individuals, able to creatively try different ways of interaction. More so than before, I realize that I’m in the transformation business. I remove barriers so that people can become anything they want to be.

If I did not know how to connect with others before, being a part of sangha has certainly taught me a lot about that. One of my main discoveries living at Jikoji is how much one benefits from being put into close quarters with those you may not have chosen to be friends with! As Georgia O’Keefe said, seeing a flower takes time, and having a friend takes time. I have learned as much from the differences and frictions and moments of laughter and connection as in all the rest of my practice. It is not easy in our very busy days. Don’t give too much power to the maximizing, materialist mind that calculates what’s worth your time, and practice non-separation with others, Create situations where you share whatever you can. Over time, a deep bond is created, and from all that love, understanding.

A simple landscape can seem the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, unpretentious food can be the most delightful experience, and a guileless connection the most magical moment. I know that it’s not that the world has changed, but that I have changed. Or rather, as I can recognize that I have returned, to that open secret of life, to the sweetness of existence.

Of course, life does not always feel sweet or easy. My next suggestion is to step up to your karmic work. By that I mean the really, really hard situations in life for you. “Why me?” is a natural question. Sometimes when there are these situations in our lives, you feel so much alive, you feel like a warrior—the challenge requires all of you. Because this is how life purifies you, sometimes the heart needed to be broken, so that it can open, and life can pour in. By facing your challenges, you purify life. Karmically, we’re all here to do something that no one else can. And having faced one’s challenges, we can then be of help to others.

We take everything in fully, purify it through our being, transform it through our actions in the world, and return it to its source. This is what nature does, and so should we. Furthermore, let yourself be known in all your realms, and you will facilitate integration for others. I must quote everyone’s beloved Rumi at this time: “Now, close this book. You know enough to close all books, nor listen to any more talks. All words and stories are foreplay—I have something else in mind for us now.”

Our spiritual journey must be the joining of the relative and the absolute. It is the human journey from birth until death, and in that process finding out what life is. It is a shared journey that must also be done individually. At times it can feel incredibly alone, but know that the separation is just an illusion. Our lives are both ordinary and extraordinary, the most mundane and the most magical . . . and it is so in every moment.

This is alchemy: we take everything in fully, purify it through our body, mind, spirit through our meditation, transform it through our actions in the world, and return it to the source. This is what nature does, and so do we. Though us, life transforms everything into wisdom. I thank you for all the wisdom you have created, and all that you will create, by being what you are. You, me, we are life, we are love, we are alchemy, we are the source. To live from that place, to practice continually and quietly: that is integration.

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