Wednesday, March 8, 2017


     From an early age, we are shown the world as a place defined by labels. "That's a ball. This is the color blue. This is called a computer."  Everything is given a name, and often a judgement is attached to it: "She is a good mother.  He is a bad student." Labels become our identity and how we identify others and our relationships to them.  Moms hang out with moms. Good moms bake cookies from scratch. Dads hang out with dads. Good dads barbecue. Bikers hang out with bikers. Good bikers party. Spiritual people meditate together.  Good spiritual people are peaceful and don't use exclamation points!

     Labels are easy and neat and comfortable, at least on one level, because they give us a simple road map for our lives.  Pick your labels, we are told implicitly  (and sometimes bluntly!) and stick with them. Keep on the main roads and follow the rules. Ignore the back roads that are lulling you like moths to a flame. It's too dangerous, we are told, and too terrifying, and people will look down on you.

     Except it is in our nature to look longingly at the back roads, to explore them, to go off the map. It is our deepest essence to seek the meanings of existence beyond our prescribed and manicured labels, beneath our unease, and beyond words themselves.  

     When I got my Master's degree and Ph.D. candidacy in Oceanography, I could impress anyone by spouting off the scientific name for pretty much every marine animal in the Gulf of Mexico.  While outwardly I looked like an expert and got a temporary ego satisfaction out of this ability, inside I knew I was a fraud.  Being able to label a thousand--even a million--marine animals brought me no closer to really KNOWING them, knowing the ocean, or knowing myself. No words could touch these levels of knowing, and I longed for them as a thirsty woman longs for a tall glass of water.

     My mom has this great saying: "The easy way gets hard and the hard way gets easy."  One can spend decades staying on the main roads, ignoring the siren song of inner exploration, distracting oneself from really diving in to sit with the demons and dragons of that are stuffed inside to get through to that place that isn't bipolar anymore. Or, they can start now, and keep starting in every moment they remember, finding presence in this moment, softening into this one, allowing this next one, gently and lovingly watching and holding as labels and unease dissolve away into pure awareness.

     In the twists and turns of life, we come to a place of realization that there is only one ride--the ride of this one life--and it is most intimate.  We can label ourselves all we want through our various stages from child to teen to college student to mom to biker to Jewish Buddhist Yogi and beyond. But labels are only pointers at best, reminding us that there is a deeper identity we are really after. There is an earnest realization that we've got this one precious ride and an urgency to find clarity, peace, connection and wisdom within its mortal borders. And while your story is deeply personal, the path of conscious seeking is in fact everyone's story.  We each have a delicious invitation to pursue and personalize our own path.

     My teacher, Valerie Forstman Roshi, Associate Zen Master of Sanbo Zen and teacher at the Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas, leaves these parting words at the end of every teaching: "Go straight on." There is nowhere to go but here, and yet there is clearly a path and an inner fire that stokes our pursuit of it. May you savor every organic, nonlinear, authentic moment of it,  as you go straight on.

     This blog was inspired by the reading of Becky Pourchot's latest book, "Ride."

Shana Smith
Author, Meditation for Moms and Dads: 108 Tips for Mindful Parents and Caregivers
Director, Gainesville Retreat Center, Gainesville Florida
Student of Sanbo Zen (10 Years) under formal guidance of Valerie Forstman Roshi 

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