Marvelous Illusion

Last night as I was sleeping I dreamt — marvelous illusion —
that there was a beehive here in my heart.
And the golden bees were making white combs
and sweet honey from my old failures.


This is a snippet from Antonio Machado’s poem (translated by Robert Bly). It seemed to connect nicely into some of the discussions I have had recently with friends and colleagues regarding mistakes and failures. I offer this poem as a Koan intended for meditation.

This translation is from the original Spanish, which uses the word “illusion.” It has also been translated as “error” which is actually how Robert Bly translated it.  I prefered the use of illusion as our dreams seem illusory and mysterious.

The experience of being a human being carries with it the great adventure of not knowing.  So, if we navigate our lives from a place of “not knowing,” are there really any mistakes? Mistakes and failures tend to be an assessment from the perspective of looking back. What happens to that idea if you meet each event, each move or action from the present moment? It seems to me that we often consider an action or outcome a mistake when something happens that we didn’t plan, expect, want or it didn’t accomplish what we intended or needed. But is that really a mistake or a failure?  That just feels like life unfolding. That feels like the adventures of living. What would your life be like if there were really no mistakes or failures? Then is a divorce a failed marriage? Is betting on an outcome that turned out differently than you intended or expected a failure?

This poem/koan also speaks to me of community. Bees are one of the great teachers of what it is like to live, work, love and die in community. They are incredibly well organized, social and intelligent according to Google. They are all organized around one central member of the community – the queen!  As I was reading about bees I had a thought – I wondered if bees ever question their role, their duty, the quality of their work or their worth?  I figure not! Which makes this koan all the more exquisite for me.

So as I continued to contemplate bees and community, failures, mistakes, blunders and inadequacies, I realized that community is one area I often struggle with.  Recently, I noticed I sometimes feel outside when I am in a group.  When I am sitting on my meditation cushion with my Zen community, I am clear about my place, and feel connected. However, there are many times when I also notice that I feel awkward and sometimes lonely when with groups. Might that be true for you?

Once at a meditation retreat, I was struggling and feeling very disconnected. I was actually feeling tortured at the time. My mind was in a state of comparing, measuring and judging.  I decided to go into the kitchen (in those days we did a work practice and the kitchen was one of the places where help was always needed).  I asked if they needed help and they did – that tortured feeling left immediately. I felt connected and useful and strangely enough – happy. It was a moment of sweet honey for me.  Now this is an experience that recycles for me time and time again.  You might think that with enough practice, meditation and cultivating the practice of noticing, all your struggles in life will one day vanish. After 11 years or more of meditation practice, I can testify that that has not happened for me – struggles that I have had over my lifetime are still with me and visit from time to time. Frustrations and beliefs have certainly diminished but there is something about being human that includes these kinds of experiences along with the discoveries that they bring us.  Those discoveries, for me, are what make the adventure of living so remarkable.

This poem/Koan speaks of a kind of acceptance. Perhaps it suggests that if, like Zen practice instructs, we turn toward what we perceive as failures or mistakes we might find them to be sweet honey – both the acceptance is sweet tasting but also the lessons learned, the discoveries made are priceless in our human life learning.

We often get entangled in the trance of unworthiness, growing accustomed to caging ourselves in with self-judgment anxiety, restlessness and dissatisfaction. The way out of our prison begins with accepting absolutely everything about ourselves and our lives, by embracing with consciousness and care our moment-to-moment experience. This, of course, is an inner process of accepting our actual, present-moment experience. When we recognize what is happening inside of us, and regard what we see with an open, kind and compassionate heart we might find acceptance.

When things are going well, we often question whether we deserve it, or we might fear that now something bad is bound to happen. No sooner do we take a bite of our favorite flavor of ice cream, for instance, than we start calculating how much more we can eat without feeling too guilty or piling on the pounds. So often, our enjoyment of life is tainted by our anxiety about keeping what we have and our compulsion to reach out and get more. These two parts of acceptance—seeing clearly and holding our experience with compassion—are both essential.

Compassion, is your capacity to relate in a tender and sympathetic way to what you perceive. Instead of resisting your feelings of fear or grief, you embrace your pain with kindness and you regard your grasping with gentleness and care.

Both clear seeing and compassion are inseparable; both are essential in liberating you from your trance. They work together, mutually reinforcing each other.

The very nature of our awareness is to know what is happening. The very nature of our heart is to care.

And that is the sweetest honey of all.