DT-The Precept of Being Generous

Over the past ten months, Koshin Paley Ellison and Chodo Campbell at the New York Zen Center have been teaching a hybrid in-person and virtual course on the ten Zen Precepts. I have benefited greatly from my teachers’ insights and particularly appreciate their investigation of the eighth grave precept: “Do Not Be Stingy.” As Chodo puts it, “Give generously. Do not be withholding.”

The Buddha declared, “If you knew what I do about the power of giving, you would not let a single meal go by without taking the opportunity to give.” Whenever I attend a Zen sesshin (retreat), each meal is preceded by a long chant that begins in this way: “Seventy-two labors brought us this food. We should know how it comes to us. We must be free from greed.” The chant continues with phrases such as, “This food will pervade everywhere…. Thus, we eat to stop all suffering.”

Devoting their lives to serving others, Kohin and Chodo live contentedly with two big cats in a one-bedroom, rent-control apartment in NYC. Their chaplaincy work goes beyond the role to be fully available to each suffering patient they meet. Their 93-year-old meditation teacher Dai En counsels them: “Let the dharma present to you a wise course of action.”

When we get out of our own way, dharma riches appear. Our dharma practice prepares us to be generous and to be of help with acts of kindness. An impoverished mind thinks, “I don’t have enough. I’m not worthy.” To give to others, we must see ourselves with generosity. When we practice non-clinging, what we have is enough.

Koshin quotes Ann Frank: “No one has ever become poor by giving.” He says, “Participate fully in our precious life.” As he points out, the organ of the heart both receives and gives blood that nourishes the entire body. We’re part of a vast universe that inspires us to give our attention generously. Zen master Dogen taught about the circle of the way: “We can rest in the circularity of life.” To flow with life, we must give to receive. Moving beyond transactional exchanges, we engage in a natural cycle of generosity.

Many years ago, a spiritual mentor instructed me to give payment with my dominant right hand and to receive money or gifts with my left hand, on the heart side of the body. This subtle energetic practice helps the cycle of abundance to unfold naturally.

In our human exchanges, each of us has a responsibility to show up as fully as possible. Many of us are accustomed to hiding the inner light of our innate Buddha nature. By living half-heartedly and attempting to control how much we give to those around us, we rob the world of our gifts and talents.

On May 26, I participated with an intimate circle of eight dear friends in a psilocybin ceremony led by a music therapist named Jen, who has apprenticed for 15 years with a Peruvian shaman. Jen cultivates psychedelic mushrooms in her garden and attests to the purity and power of what she calls “plant medicine.” A couple of music therapists, Jim and Nannette, hosted the ritual at their secluded home, which overlooks serene woods in the appalachian mountains of rural Virginia.

I agreed to take part in the ritual because I trust my longtime friends, who are all music therapy colleagues; the setting was safe and surrounded by natural beauty; and I knew that the psilocybin was not laced with dangerous additives like fentanyl. Six months beforehand, Jen instructed each of us to prepare for our communal inner journey by monitoring dreams for significant symbols and by deciding upon a clear intention. My dreams were filled with auspicious portents for our gathering.

At the start of the ceremony, Jen asked us to sit on mats around an altar called a mesa. We summoned the four directions for protection and then stated our individual intentions. Mine was “to relax and receive love, trusting that the universe is unfolding as it should.” Our friend Alicia had traveled from Mexico with the intention to grieve the loss of her husband. Last August, during their vacation in the USA, Antonio had a sudden fatal heart attack. Traumatized, Alicia shipped his body to Mexico City for burial.

Jen gave each of us a small conch shell filled with liquid tobacco to snort into the left nostril, symbolically clearing away past obstacles. She refilled the conch shells for us to snort tobacco into the right nostril to clear the way for the plant medicine to be of healing benefit. Then she distributed to each person a plate of Mazatec mushrooms. Jen poured sweet raw honey onto our plates to sweeten the musty taste. We had the option to chew the entire plateful of “hongitos” or to eat a few at a time. With my Aries temperament, I ingested the entire portion at once. In retrospect, I took the same dose that my six-foot tall male friend Jim did—far too much for my 105-pound body and sensitive nervous system.

Our intimate group sat in silent meditation for a half hour. Then Jen asked, “Are you feeling the medicine?” All except Alicia nodded in affirmation. When she complained, “Nothing is happening,” Jen counseled patience. While we donned eyeshades and lay down on our mats, she started playing a beautiful soundtrack of chants and flute music. At that point, I felt bombarded by brightly colorful, quickly morphing visions. I consciously surrendered control and allowed myself to be curious about how the plant medicine was working.

Alicia walked to the bathroom and returned to lie on her mat. Suddenly, she was convulsed with sobbing. Jen placed her hands on Alicia’s back to support her grieving. I sat up, sensing Alicia’s grief in my own heart, sharing her pain at losing her soulmate of over 60 years. I wept copiously.

Looking around the circle, I realized that all of our companions were sitting up and resonating with Alicia’s mourning. I felt as if she were teaching me about the impermanence of the most intimate relationship in this lifetime. I rehearsed the excruciating pain of what it will be like if Mark predeceases me. Eventually, Alicia calmed down and reported that she sensed Antonio holding the soles of her feet. She recognized that he is still present as her foundation, even from the Great Beyond. All of us felt her relief in our own hearts.

I called Jen over to ask for help because my nasal passages were too stuffed up from crying to breathe. She brought me more tobacco juice to snort into both nostrils from my conch shell. The tobacco cleared my sinuses and led to fits of giggles. I caught the eye of my friend Sierra, who was sitting on my left side, and she burst out laughing, which provoked more gales of mirth. The two of us roared with guffaws and rolled around on our mats, giggling irrepressibly. Our giggles were contagious, and everyone, including Jen started to laugh. As Jim was delighting in our fun, he reported fully experiencing sympathetic joy. We all participated wholeheartedly with no limits to sharing our emotions communally. Throughout the six-hour journey, a spirit of generosity pervaded the ceremony.

For forty-nine days after the sacred mushroom ritual my heart and mind were still in a very expansive state. My days were filled with creative ideas and synchronistic events, and my nights were restless. To stay grounded, I drew on decades of meditative and body work practice. At night, I woke up at about midnight with severe pain in my joints and muscles. My body hurt from striving to contain intense waves of energy. My neck and lower back ached, and my digestive system was so rapid that I had diarrhea. My overheated body erupted with an itchy rash on my chest.

Quietly, to avoid waking Mark, I got up to write dreams in my journal and to take  long hot baths filled with soothing, muscle-relaxing Epsom salts. I calmed my mind by going through a cycle of Metta prayers for the wellbeing of loved ones all around the world. Chanting the Zen verse of Atonement and the Bodhisattva vows centered me as I practiced forgiving myself and others for our human errors. I renewed vows to be of service in my community and felt grateful for the many blessings in my life. Slow, mindful Qigong exercises calmed my overcharged nervous system and help to bring energy down from my head towards my feet.

Each night I tiptoed to the kitchen and heated a soothing cup of caffeine-free ginger tea topped with a dollop of frothy almond milk. I toasted gluten-free bread and slathered it with butter, local honey, and ground cinnamon. I recited prayers of gratitude for the food I ingested. At daybreak, I took vitamins and nourishing supplements. 

Even though my appetite was minimal during this spiritual emergency, I ate hearty breakfasts to bolster my strength. As my steady ally, Mark insisted that I sit down with him for three meals a day. When we went grocery shopping and cooked together, he helped me to focus on our present tasks and to reign in my expansive interest in whatever was crossing my path. At the store and in the kitchen, I used my pendulum to assess whether various foods were good for my health. Already gluten, lactose, and soy free, I became aware of my hypersensitivity to other ingredients. I was especially careful to avoid sugar, caffeine, and alcohol.

I have learned to ask for help from various sources. Without knowing what I was experiencing, Travis generously responded to my exhausted plea for him to lead Qigong at last week’s sangha meeting. With deep bows of gratitude, I have benefited from the generous assistance of a caring circle of healers. From various friends who are skilled practitioners of traditional and holistic medicine, I have been receiving deep tissue massages, acupuncture, chiropractic, aura clearing, and chakra realignment. Every few weeks, my Chinese acupuncturist Cai tapes tiny seeds onto a variety of soothing pressure points in my ears.

I arranged a two-hour virtual video consultation with Alejandro, a Colombian shaman who had guided me through a powerful ayahuasca ceremony when I was training music therapists near Bogotá. Alejandro congratulated me on my initiation to an expansive and inclusive view of life. He predicted that my inner senses would gradually open to provide me with greater sensitivity in relationships.

Generously, Alejandro offered to bilocate and enter my dreams to help me integrate insights from the plant medicine ritual.

Four times daily, I’ve been taking dropperfuls of herbal tinctures under the tongue. One called “Holy Mama” is a stress formula that purports to support my capacity to “adapt to change gracefully.” The ingredients are Holy Basil, Motherwort, Wood Belony, and Blue Vervain. Every evening I drink chamomile tea and take a tincture called “Dream On,” which contains Valerian root, Oats, and Catnip. I rub soothing Lavender oil on the pulse points of my wrists and temples and wear elasticized bands snuggly around my wrists. Compression stockings help with grounding.

Before dawn, I take my faithful dog Amanda on a slow, peaceful walk around our leafy neighborhood under the moon and stars. I tried to be mindful of each step I take, appreciating the support of the Earth beneath my feet. A fluffy, 10-year-old Maltipoo, Amanda appreciates walking early enough to be protected from the worst effects of Houston’s intense summer heat wave. When the temperatures soar to 102 degrees, we take refuge inside our air-conditioned home. There I take restorative siestas, napping whenever a wave of exhaustion hits me. Each evening, Mark, Amanda, and I gather in our den to meditate together for about 30 minutes.

I have found relief and spiritual inspiration in the structure of attending zoom classes about Buddhist Ethics and listening to virtual dharma talks broadcast by teachers affiliated with the New York Zen Center’s 90-Day Commit-to-Sit program. My Zen teacher Koshin Paley Ellison has been meeting with me weekly via FaceTime for dokusan interviews, repeatedly reminding me to ground myself by breathing into my hara. He has agreed to mentor me as a formal Zen student. The legacy of eighty generations of the Soto Zen school and the strict discipline of Zen zazen practice provide me with comforting dharma containers. 

During this 49-day bardo, it has been clear that only by attending generously to my own needs can I spread generosity to others. Aside from writing extensively in my journal, I have continued to write dharma talks to present in my role as Community Dharma Leader of Insight Meditation Houston sangha. Every Wednesday afternoon, I follow my routine of volunteering as a chaplain at Omega House hospice. With my heart still open and vulnerable from the plant medicine ritual, I resonate compassionately with patients who are dealing with AIDS-related terminal illnesses.

This week, as Mark and I travel to Lake Sunapee, NH to celebrate my father turning 97 on July 15th, I sense that this will be his final birthday. I have worked diligently in psychotherapy and on prolonged meditation retreats to forgive my dad for past harsh judgments about my pursuits of music therapy and meditation.

Last week when I phoned him after volunteering at hospice, he surprised me by saying spontaneously, “Ginger, you have lived well.” Even though it’s likely that I will never again receive such a blessing from my father, I take it to heart. I feel that there has been a genuine shift in our relationship. His caregivers are aware that I would like to accompany Dad through his dying process. After years of sitting at the bedside of terminal patients, I feel prepared to be with my father during this transition. I wish to honor him and the peaceful reconciliation of the most challenging karmic relationship that I have experienced in this lifetime. 

I feel infinitely grateful to Mark, who has been at my side for 46 years. His faithful presence has withstood my past uncomfortable episodes of bipolar highs. His generous loving attention is an invaluable treasure in my life. After decades of practicing meditation and mindfulness, I now have enough spiritual maturity and internal resources to ground myself as I integrate the recent sacred mushroom ceremony.

The Three Refuges of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha steady and guide me on the dharma path. Taking refuge regularly allows me to manage my bipolar, highly energetic state without taking medication or dealing with related uncomfortable side effects.

I take seriously Koshin and Chodo’s teaching about the generosity of showing up fully—not hiding parts of our whole self from shame or fear that they will be unacceptable to others. I respectfully disagree with my psychoanalytic siblings, who urge me to take sedative medication to treat what they consider to be a pathological medical condition. They remind me about our family’s legacy of mood disorders—that our maternal grandfather committed suicide and that our mother had a suicide attempt. 

From my viewpoint, my recent period of expansive energy and elevated mood is a spiritual emergency to face and to learn from its lessons. After a 49-day bardo of integrating the insights from the psilocybin journey, I sensed myself slipping back into my body and I received the blessing of a good night’s sleep. Now I’m taking regular siestas to catch up on seven weeks of sleep deprivation.

For me, it’s empowering to know that I have the inner resources from decades of disciplined practices to bring myself down to earth. My prayer is that you will receive this dharma talk as a generous gift, encouraging you to courageously show up fully for life.