our fear to be present - claude anshin thomas

What does it mean to be present? How can we become present when our lives, and our societies, are constructed to keep us distracted, to constantly turn us away from just being here in this moment? Before embracing Buddhist practice, I tried a lot of different ways to distract myself from the present moment, and I experienced the consequences of that. This way of living only increased my suffering and confusion.

There are four significant teachings from the historical figure we call the Buddha. These teachings are referred to as the Four Noble Truths, and all the Buddhist teachings grow from this source. The First Noble Truth states that there is suffering. Suffering is a natural condition of life. This might seem like a grim view of life. Who wants to suffer? Everyone wants to be happy! And most of us have the idea that happiness is achieved by turning away from suffering. But if you look deeply at your experience, you come to see that most of our efforts to be happy actually create more suffering. We chase after our ideas of satisfaction: “Well, if I had the right car, I would be happy. If I had the right house… the right career… the right partner, then I would happy.” But then what happens is I get the right car, and after about two weeks I am no longer satisfied. I want something more, something else, to be happy. The feeling of satisfaction quickly turns into dissatisfaction, into craving something else.

This idea that acquiring or changing something outside of us will make us happy--this is suffering. Our very idea of happiness, of wanting or expecting the world to provide us with positive experiences, certainty, and stability--this is suffering.

The Second Noble Truth identifies the causes of suffering: selfish desire, or craving, grounded in ignorance. Ignorance means thinking that we know what will bring us real happiness, when we don’t.

The Third Noble Truth states that if there is a cause of suffering, there is a remedy. Release from our suffering is possible, and the Fourth Noble Truth describes the path of liberation. This is called the Eightfold Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

What is right mindfulness? The moment I think that I know, this is not it. Real knowing doesn't happen through the intellect. Knowing exists in a place beyond the intellect. This is a place that we can begin to know, to understand, through the practice of living in the present moment, which is a result of a disciplined spiritual practice rooted in self-reflection.

Right mindfulness involves a willingness to stop running from what is present in this moment. To stop distracting ourselves. To give up our attempts to make the world conform to our ideas and expectations. A lot of what fuels our distractions and avoidance of the present moment is simply our fear of it, our fear of what will arise if we become quiet and still. The fear of being present is often rooted in our fear of letting go—of letting go of all those things we think we need to be happy. True happiness unfolds as a by-product of directly experiencing the nature of our suffering.

Our fear keeps us from living in the here and now. Yet we are ignorant to the reality that nothing really exists except the present moment--just now, nothing different. There is no past, and there is no future; there is only right now. Consider this: Can you live two seconds ago? Can you live one second from now? You may think you can, but in truth this is simply not possible. There is nothing but now. Then the important question, how much time do we spend living now? Most of our life is spent trapped in the past or in the future, having regrets for what was or wishing things were different.

So, how do we manage to live in the present moment? We don't have to manage it. It is already happening. We simply need to realize it. And how do we realize it? This is very simple, and this is the wonderful thing: we realize it by simply being aware that we are breathing. Being aware that we are breathing in and being aware that we are breathing out. Absolutely the most important aspect of our daily life is our breath. And how often are we aware that we are breathing? How much attention do we pay to our breath? How often are body and mind in the same place?

To live in the present moment, being aware that we are breathing in and breathing out, this is the most significant and important thing we can do in our lives. This is how we stay present. This is how we don’t surrender to our fear of being present: by not rejecting our fear but also not allowing the fear to dictate our choices and run our lives.

reflections from recent veterans retreat

What a healing experience at Magnolia Zen Center's Veteran's Retreat! As it was my first retreat ever, I had no idea what to expect. The accommodations and food were top notch. I learned so much; about myself, others, how I relate to other veterans, and how I relate to my overall time in the service. As I begin to understand these things, then I can start to reconcile my past with who I am today. And I can begin to change and I can begin to heal. Thank you AnShin and KenShin for facilitating a tough but healing experience in my life. 
- Female Airforce Veteran, 1991-2014

Veterans retreats at the Magnolia Center always bring in surprises, the insights, the food and being able to witness our veterans’ growth during the retreat is a gift. Personally, I can also see the impact on my life, and I appreciate the space to dive into tough subjects.
- Female Iraq War Veteran, US Army 2003-2012

The Zaltho Veteran Retreat April 2023 was very beneficial in many ways.  It aloud me work/time in a unique setting to focus on my specific ongoing PTS while nurturing my spiritual growth. Through different forms of meditation, wonderful facilities, and natural nourishment; I have the time to share experiences clearly and openly on my post military journey. Continuing my journey, I was able to connect with other veterans from my online zoom group as well as meet new veterans.  The silence, mindful speaking, living accommodations open my world always with the skill, care, and guidance of Claude AnShin.
- Male Army Veteran, 1982-2016

I was able to attend this Aprils Veterans’ retreat at Zaltho in Mary Ester, FL. and it was such a wonderful experience. I'm a veteran of the Iraq war and my service has really shaped my life in ways that are difficult to describe. Opportunities like this have really supported me in making sense of my service and finding some degree of peace in my life in the war after the war. I would say the one thing that was nice about it was how experienced AnShin and KenShin are at offering these retreats. Clearly it is not their first rodeo. This creates a space that feels safe. It feels like I am on a path that is well worn and walked by many others before me. The opportunity to connect with other veterans in this space really allows me to feel not alone with the challenges of my service. I would say that one thing I found really challenging, was slowing down the pace of the retreat. Sitting is not something that I am accustomed to. It took me a few days to feel like I could drop in, and really be in that container. Once I did, though, I was able to be present in the retreat space and keep my worldly responsibilities separated from the retreat activities. This was a wonderful experience for me overall and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity.
- Male Iraq War Veteran, US Army

The following delineates my experiences about the retreat; the setting in general; grounds, accommodations, food and events were all conducive to opening up and sharing about our military experiences.  The aspects I found most difficult were silence and writing.  Sometimes being in my own head can be trying.
- Vietnam Veteran, US Marines, 1974-78

It was a pleasure for me to be on retreat with a diverse group of combat veterans representing all branches of the US military and several different conflicts. Their courage to face the ongoing effects of their military service in their lives bolsters my own courage to face the effects of violence and trauma in my own life. The stories/sharings of retreat participants were often raw and intense. These stories sometimes brought me into contact with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. I was glad to have the container of practice, community, and teacher to help me hold them. As tenzo (head of the kitchen), I had long days and seldomly had the time to take a break. But working intensively in silence to meet frequent deadlines was also a major opportunity to for me to wake up to my own conditioning and suffering around performance, expectations, approval, love, and belonging.
- Female family member of a veteran

get to know our sangha - eden myoshin steinberg

When and where was your first encounter with Buddhist practice?
I first encountered Buddhist practice in 1987, in a college course entitled, “The History, Religion, and Culture of Japan.” When the course came to the point in Japanese history when Zen arrived from China, our professor gave us brief instruction in silent sitting meditation and invited us to try it. I knew immediately that I needed this practice, and I tried to continue sitting on my own, but without the support of a Buddhist teacher and community, I soon stopped.

What do you like best about your Zen Buddhist practice?
From my perspective, it’s not about liking or not liking it. Honestly, I often don’t like sitting meditation, especially on my own. I sometimes experience feelings of dread when it’s time for me to sit on the cushion or begin a formal retreat. But I value how this practice supports me in not avoiding my discomfort. Slowly, over time, this practice has helped me to become more stable, reliable, and able to be present with others. I notice that I’m becoming more comfortable in my skin, more open and flexible, and more at peace with my unpeacefulness.

What has been a challenging aspect in your Zen Buddhist practice?
Really, all of it challenges me. Staying connected with my breath throughout the day, keeping my mind and body in one place, not rushing. The phrase “the fire of practice” often comes to mind because when I engage fully with the practice forms, for me there’s often a burning or scorching quality to it. As I quiet down and slow down, I get to see how my mind works—my obsessions, my fears, my sadness, my intrenched conditioning and my suffering all become more evident. I see how challenging it is for me to sit just to sit, walk just to walk, work just to work. Practice is deeply humbling.

But I’ve learned that I can trust this process. AnShin told me a long time ago that if I want to pursue this path, I have to be willing to be uncomfortable. Continuing to do what’s habitual or natural to me only gets me more of the same confusion and suffering that I started out with.

So for me, for now, the process of waking up often feels like getting scorched and burned. Maybe what’s burning off is my conditioning and my resistance.

Name one thing you changed as a result of your Zen Buddhist practice?
I make my bed every morning, first thing, as soon as I get out of bed.

What would be an ordinary moment in your daily life that feels truly joyful for you? 
Sitting down at the breakfast table with my morning coffee. Walking the dogs through our neighborhood on a bright spring day, with the trees and flowers in bloom. Lying down in bed at night after a day full of activity, experiencing the quiet and stillness that comes over our apartment and neighborhood.

What is something that you are deeply grateful for at this time?
I am grateful to have found meaningful work that allows me--and challenges me--to manifest my Zen practice in the context of serving others. I am also grateful for the Zaltho Zen community, where I feel a sense of belonging and connection that is healing and precious to me--and that gives me the support I need to be able to serve others.

the real costs of war series: residue by dave myoko edgar


In the mid 1980s, I served in the US Army in a high-performance, rapid deployment unit. The mission of the unit was to conduct combat operations during peacetime, among other things. My experience of those three years was a blur, as if I sprinted through them with no time to catch a breath. It wasn't until I was out of the Army, and at relative rest, that I was visited by nighttime experiences that left me questioning my sanity. The nightmares were related to the death of my platoon leader on the border of Nicaragua and Honduras in 1984 and to searching for the body of a soldier who had fallen 9000 feet to his death in the woods of Fort Lewis, Washington, the result of a parachute failure.

The experiences I have while I’m unconscious each night feel alive, more real than reality. I wake into my body, aware of the space I am in yet frozen, paralyzed. Often the residue of the nightmares feels like gravity pulling me to the ground, as if into a grave. Not having the ability to move feels like death. This is the soldier’s worst fear. To freeze is to die, to flee is to lose.

Recently at a meeting, a man seated behind me got up and opened a folding knife to puncture a foil topped can of hot chocolate mix. The sound and movement of his body in the periphery of my awareness triggered a shock of adrenalin; I was instantly overwhelmed with heat under my skin.

This state of arousal is something I am familiar with, where my body reacts to cues that are sometimes beyond my conscious awareness. The man did it again, several minutes later, flicked open the knife with urgency. I filled with violence and rapid-fire impulses. The images flashed through me quickly: stand up, kick the back of his knee, pull back on both shoulders to the floor, lunge my knee on his throat, break the knife from his grip, pound that knife blade into his chest.

Without any thought, I sprang up from my seat and stood behind him, my words on his neck, telling him to put the knife away. I was escalating, something in me was begging to explode. I write this now, almost a week later, and still there is something activated in me, charged up. My sleep has been fitful and unsettled, and my gut is raw and unsatisfied. Like a switch turned on, my physicality is wound up like a compressed spring, tensed and twisted through my core, waiting. Ready.

With that switch turned on, around the same time, I woke up screaming, on my feet, and rushing toward a silhouette at the threshold of my bedroom door. The sound of my voice echoed against the walls of the room as I came to consciousness, mid-rush, arms up, a quickening fear coursing through my body. I woke up to the silhouette of my son, now 18 years old, and larger than me, hands up in surrender, wide eyed, imploring, “It’s OK, dad, it’s me.” How to express the feeling of shame that lingers still, shame about my powerlessness over the processes of my body, its storage and expression of fear and violence.

During a visit to Nicaragua, a few years after the Army, I was walking in the dark with a group of North Americans. We were in a small mountain town, building a school for the Sandinista’s, a result of my idea of social activism at the time. That night, some attackers with AK-47’s fired on us as we headed up the road from the school toward the town. When the firing started, my body reacted to the gunfire by turning toward it and barreling down the slope off the road toward the attackers. As my legs and arms wheeled me forward, inside me was a rage-filled conviction to find them and kill them. What was missing was my weapon, team mates, grenades. Despite what I lacked, the drive to kill overpowered any sense of self preservation.  Much like the arousal at the meeting described earlier, charging down the slope felt like freedom.

The firing stopped and I came back to myself at the urging of the others at the road. That moment was pivotal for me. Even though my head told me I was crazy, I knew in my heart that I needed to reconcile something. I needed help. How to integrate my desire to be a peaceful civilian, one who would help build a school in the mountains of Nicaragua, with the fierce and violent impulses that live just under the surface of my skin? What felt shameful was being seen by the others who, up to that point, perhaps had no clue about the animal that lived inside me. I felt exposed and, frankly, done with living.

We retreated to the safety of the town and the streetlight at the main intersection of two muddy roads. I returned to the house where I was staying, where the family provided an AK-47 to keep by my bedside. Sleep felt dangerous, and as I lay my head down, I collapsed into the nightmare, into that frozen space, and I gave up everything. My willingness to live was muted, and I surrendered to the dream space fully knowing I was going to die. When I came to the next day, I felt fundamentally altered, my sense of self retreated into a small space. I experienced a numbness far beyond anything I’d felt before. This is the point in my life after the military that I sought help.

As I continue with Buddhist practice, I learn how deep not only my service has impacted me, but how the foundation of my identity, growing up as I did in this culture, contains self-destructive elements. Disarming myself is not just about putting down my weapon or sitting on my hands, it includes looking at all the ways I harm myself. While I may not be suicidal in the dramatic sense of the word, what I come up against today is how I limit myself and how I take out on the world my feelings of failure and smallness.

Courage has become something different for me over time. It’s my effort to go against the inertia of the easy way and act into something new and unfamiliar. To stay connected with others and step over the gravity of isolation, to call someone, to get honest with myself and speak of my guts with others, to act in ways that are productive, all of these are exercises that require a strength that does not rest.