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A Cedary Fragrance

Updated: Mar 27

A Cedary Fragrance

Even now, decades after, I wash my face with cold water— Not for discipline, nor memory, nor the icy, awakening slap, but to practice choosing to make the unwanted wanted. --Jane Hirshfield

I have heard the poet Jane Hirshfield say that all her poetry can be summed up in this one poem of hers. In her 20s, she studied and lived in a Zen monastery. As a monk. In the tradition of Zen, the monks arise at 3:45 AM and proceed to the meditation hall for many hours of meditation, interspersed with time for work and eating and walking etc. The particular monastery where she studied had no electricity. Windows had only screens in summer and plastic over them in winter. She talked about what drew her there was to experience life as simply as possible. She talked about being cold, hungry, uncomfortable, tired, etc. And, that the process of willingly living there for seven years gave her the opportunity to understand what it meant to “practice choosing to want the unwanted.” All of us in our everyday life are given “unwanteds” all the time. We have no choice. People die. We get ill. People get angry at us. Accidents happen. Imagine what it could be like, if we were to truly learn to “practice choosing to make the unwanted wanted.”

One of the ways she did this while at the monastery – and that she continues in her everyday life today, is to wash her face with cold water each morning. She confirms that she does not like cold water. She didn’t like it then and doesn’t like it now – yet she continues the practice every morning. Not for the usual reasons she also lists in the poem. But sincerely to choose to practice making the unwanted wanted.

I think I may give this practice a try. To splash my face with cold water early each morning. Not because I must, or I’m trying to be righteous or spiritual or any other reason. But simply to remind myself that bad things are going to happen, and I am going to have to endure them. And I can. It’s a safe and minor way to wake myself up – in more ways than one!!

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