Jean Marie Gunner

Jean Marie Gunner
We are all basically good.

Friday, February 8, 2013


“Everything and everyone is speaking to us.”

There was once a prince who had at his disposal every worldly desire one could imagine, yet, Siddhartha Gautama knew that something was missing.  It wasn’t so much an emptiness as it was something just not quite adding up, a nagging feeling of being trapped, trapped by one’s own confusion.  The confusion was resulting from a mind that was ignorant, ignorant as in not yet realizing something.  The world beyond his grand palace was not even a world that existed for him.  Like the view once that the world was flat, this prince went around thinking that his world ended at the palace’s door.  There was nothing beyond it, nothing that he could yet relate to anyway.  The prince’s world was completely filled up, or so it seemed.  Still, he had a nagging doubt and became inquisitive and started to explore the world beyond the castle walls.  Just at that moment, the prince made room for the world beyond his narrow view to begin speaking to him. 
I tell this story because it gives me insight into my heart and the experience of loving another.  When we meet someone, when there is mutual attraction, there is this sense of moving parts, of a dynamic experience rich with unknown actions and words and feelings and sensory experiences.  New love is fresh and has infinite potential; we are the artist upon which we will create the masterpiece of our love.  In love there is a second co-creator painting the mural, and it is our beloved.  The actions and feelings and thoughts and words to be spoken cannot be known because they have yet to occur in the new experience.  Vast is the potential of the love, of the mural.  With the painting of the mural, color begins to fill up the space on the canvas; the emptiness that existed prior to the love beginning is filled up with experiences.  Color emerges. Form takes shape.  Images  appear.  It is mysterious, but the mystery begins to become defined.  As space is taken up it, we may have the thought or feeling that that the experience taking place becomes less interesting, because it is no longer new.  Actually, this is precisely when opening our hearts further can lead us out of our own little confined palaces, like the prince, to discover that which we were fundamentally ignorant of before; we begin to let ourselves go deeper into our life's truly magical experiences.   

My sense is that when we overlay the raw, in-the-moment experiences with expectations, hopes or fears, is precisely when the love, the mural, loses its freshness, its oxygen.  Colors begin to fade or dull.  We begin to expect something different, like a particular result, and forget the wide open space that had heretofore existed on the canvas.  The freshness of the experience is somehow lost. We may experience disappointment, and be let down.  The unknown, which we before felt drawn to, now begins to frighten us.  Ironically and profoundly significant is that the nature of the experience that drew us in the first place was its fresh poignant impermanence, its momentariness, its presence.  We could never have known what would take place on the canvas, in our hearts, beyond the castle walls.  If we begin fixing a point, defining our love, suffering occurs.  We try to freeze love for fear of it dying or of our beloved leaving us.  How could we ever possibly go on without him or her?  Forgetting that we were going on before, we begin to crush the love, suffocate it, muss up the beauty and images, and the colors all run together and lose their natural elegance. In our ignorance and confusion, we suffer.

Here is something we have forgotten.  We are responsible for our happiness.  When things in love start feeling claustrophobic or even too distant, the whole thing begins to either implode or explode.  The love that was once there so vibrant and healthy, seems to have disappeared or even worse never existed in the first place.  Was it ever present?  Was it ever real?  Like the volcanic mountain of Mount Nevis by which I am sitting as it breathes its living force of both the fire of its teeming core or its cool refreshing water source of its deep natural spring, I sense magic, a very ordinary life giving sacred energy.  I cannot hold it.  I cannot define it.  I cannot capture it and contain it.  I can only let it run through me and feed me as I then in turn feed the rest of the world that I touch and encounter throughout my day. 

In this world, I comport myself with a code of conduct; it is with the sense that I am meeting the sacred world with a strong upright dignified posture and a soft and tender heart.  I, like the prince, knew there was something worth investigating beyond the four walls of the castle, the cocoon of my own mind's narrative and patterns, and it has taken me a good deal of living to get to some semblance of a code that fits with me, my being, as well as my interconnected being in the world.  The presence of gentleness, combined with fearlessness, gives nutrients to a life that is founded on basic goodness, and a wisdom derived from our human natural intelligence.  The life spark seems to have always been; I derive my confidence and well-being from being present in my moment-by-moment existence in our phenomenally beautiful world.  I then in turn can offer back to the world my experience of basic goodness in the form of deep listening, profound kindness and open hearted compassion, all synonymous for love.

As we sense our goodness, and risk being touched by the world and leaving our little palaces or cocoons, there are infinite moments when we can wake up throughout our day.  Each and every encounter, even if it feels contrived or placed with obstacles can awaken us.  As we go through our lives, and if we are blessed enough to wake up a bit through a mindful-awareness practice that we have been taught, we can more readily avoid the river of obstacles of our own making.  This does not mean that we will not be sad.  Impermanence is a fundamental truth.  We lose our loved ones; things are in constant flux and change.  Life would not exist without change, existence would not even be.  We would not be.  This does not mean there is less love, there is just less fixation and more awareness of our life and its fleeting nature.  There is the truth that there is a path to wake up, and waking up tenderly and bravely brings us to touch our own genuine heart of sadness.  It is genuine because it is always changing and transforming us.

I am spending a week of retreat from my everyday life, although this experience of being here by virtue of the fact that I am here is now my everyday life.  I am here with a friend from long ago.  I had no idea what to expect when we came together.  Expectations would have only built concepts and a narrative around an experience that had yet to be lived.  So, I remained open.  I knew that I wanted to have a week-long experience of being present to myself and my friend.  After years of touching my basic goodness, of mindfulness practice, I have come to the realization and profound awareness that friendship itself can become intensely intimate.  Either way, showing up as who we are to the other and deeply listening to them and the world around us as we move through space and time is an expression of generosity, of basic goodness, of our essence.  I have become aware that the simple act of listening, with an open mind and a willingness to be heartbroken, bridges the distance between two human hearts.  This is true love, truly loving another human being.  On this island as I see goats, pigs, cows, sheep and monkeys living symbiotically and at peace with human beings, I see that we can take a lesson on how to live with our earth in all its naturalness in a more sane and joyful way.

As in our case, we both have experienced marriage, the birth of children, divorce, uncertainty, heartaches and breaks, and still we are willing to take this journey to our centers, to our hearts, to our foundation.  My friend has opened his heart to me on this journey we are taking together for this short while.  Many things he has been generous and openhearted enough to share with me will remain with me for my life time.  One I wish to share is about listening.  As we sat together one tropical evening by the seafront in Nevis having a drink, he had a realization of when he knew his marriage had ended; it was when the listening between the two of them had stopped.  That was so simple and real.  It made sense and it was spoken with such genuine truth and sadness that I felt, as I looked into his eyes deeply listening without filter or self-consciousness, that I was looking into a mirror and seeing the ancient, ageless nature of what we are. 

As we drove through the beachside yesterday, the clouds began to form in the east and we traversed a rather rough and rock strewn road to come upon a raw strip of beach.  We passed bales of wool on the side and a dilapidated horserace course, to end up in front of a donkey that stood tethered to a wooden post.  The donkey had wound himself good and tight around the pole and both my friend and I immediately had the very human empathetic response to assist this animal in need.  With the help of our sense perceptions and even a force more primordial than our eyes or ears, we knew that this fellow sentient being was suffering.  We had a visceral response in our core to relieve the suffering.  Without really pausing he jumped out of the car and tried to get the stressed out animal to unwind itself.  With a heart of goodness and love, my friend responded and not really knowing how the animal would in turn react, this sad animal managed to further wind himself up.  From my spot, I could only feel my aching heart, helpless, completely and utterly helpless to do anything useful.  The only thing I could do is express my compassion and feel the immense sadness in my heart, to feel my good human heart so raw, so broken. 

Sensing that the donkey would not unwind and would only work itself up more and hurt itself, we drove off to a beach which by this time had become overtaken by wind and a grey storm cloud drawing closer from the east.  We decided to return and as we passed the donkey, he had managed to completely hook himself to the pole, with no room to move and with a hoof now caught in the little bit of rope that was slack.  It was one of the saddest sights I have ever witnessed.  Neither of us talked for a bit.  Words seemed hollow and superficial in the face of the realization that our happening upon that animal, and willingness to do good, may have caused more harm and suffering, however unintended. 

This morning as I sat in front of my island meditation shrine, spontaneously tears welled in my eyes and spilled out for that animal, for my friend Eric, for my son Kailen,  for old and new friends in my heart, for my own broken heart, for my beautiful world in all its true forms both of suffering and joy, love and fear, confusion and stability. 

I could not have been more in love with my world and everyone in my life, and everyone around my life than I was at that moment.  And I gave thanks for the teachings of truth and goodness that have been offered to me without our time’s transactional mindset.  The wisdom has been transmitted so that I, like so many others, might remember and awaken to all that is good in me and all that is good in everyone.

I ended my meditation sitting practice with a poem by David Whyte, “The Winter of Listening.”  I share with you now reader this poem which expressed in its unique medium that which I felt this morning, that which I have been feeling through this whole experience with myself and my friend, that which I am experiencing as I open my heart to touch love again, to touch my world again, to become vulnerable yet made whole by opening up to the forces of the world, its life force and its inevitable heartbreak.    Poetry is a doorway to that which we need to hear and the truth which we may ourselves be unable to speak.  It is the voice of our primordial goodness.



By David Whyte


No one but me by the fire,

my hands burning

red in the palms while

the night wind carries

everything away outside.


All this petty worry

while the great cloak

of the sky grows dark

and intense

round every living thing.


What is precious

inside us does not

care to be known

by the mind

in ways that diminish

its presence.


What we strive for

in perfection

is not what turns us

into the lit angel

we desire,


what disturbs

and then nourishes

has everything

we need.


What we hate

in ourselves

is what we cannot know

in ourselves but

what is true to the pattern

does not need

to be explained.


Inside everyone

is a great shout of joy

waiting to be born.


Even with summer

so far off

I feel it grown in me

now and ready

to arrive in the world.


All those years

listening to those

who had

nothing to say.


All those years


how everything

has its own voice

to make

itself heard.


All those years


how easily

you can belong

to everything

simply by listening.


And the slow


of remembering

how everything

is born from

an opposite

and miraculous



Silence and winter

has lead me to that



So let this winter

of listening

be enough

for the new life

I must call my own.


Every sound

has a home

from which is has come

to us

and a door

through which it is going


out into the world

to make another home.


We speak

only with voices

of those

we can hear ourselves

and the body has a voice

only for that portion

of the body of the world

it has learned to perceive.


It becomes

a world itself

by listening


for the way

it belongs.


There it can


how it

must be

and what

it must do.




in the tumult

of the night

I hear the walnut

above the child’s swing


its dark limbs

in the wind

and the rain now

come to

beat against my window

and somewhere

in this cold night

of wind and stars

the first whispered

opening of

those hidden

and invisible springs

that uncoil

in the still summer air

each yet

to be imagined


Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Beautiful Place

Hmmm, where to begin?  How about begin at the moment in which I find myself, sitting here crossed-legged on this dusty country love seat in a beautiful place, all my senses alive.  My body awake, my mind precise and directly connected to the rest of me.  The classical violins strum and serenade our collective moment.  The aroma wafting from the stove, another homemade vegetarian pizza gently layered with mushrooms, fresh mozzarella, sweet basil, onions, and green olives.  The fizz and bubble of the dry sparkling wine mixed with the never, ever “Not-From-Concentrate” orange juice, five women soon to toast the sunny Autumn Saturday and the vibrant colors that awaken the optic nerve. 

Five working women with busy lives mothering children and ailing parents, running companies, running households, running lives and minds and hearts somehow manage to find a weekend to be together to transcend all the living that must be done back home.  We packed four “Zsa Zsa’s” (not my word but our friend Sharon’s second husband’s name for us) into a sedan with a weekend’s worth of clothes, jackets, food, and accoutrement (perhaps there would be some meditation time, some study time, some yoga time, perhaps it would all be wine toasting).  Our fifth friend would be along the next morning to join.  In rapturous joy to just be together for this weekend, we headed through the fall scenery waving to us from the side of the thruway to the Finger Lakes Region of New York for a wine tasting weekend (and food love fest!).  The trip to A Beautiful Place went by in a dash with conversation, connection, and shared love between friends of the heart.

Exiting the New York Thruway, we wended our way through Geneva on the Lake, past Hobart and William Smith College, toward Keuka Lake and our rustic home for the weekend.  Two hours from departure, we all stood perched on the front porch fiddling with the lock box.  Opened, key in hand, we moved like a collective wave into the cabin and were greeted by "the beetles," hundreds of them teeming, scurrying, black and red things scampering every which way as we four women entered disrupting their nest under the door’s jam.

After we cleared out the nimble little critters beneath our feet, brushing them out the doorway back onto the outside porch, we entered the cabin and deposited all of our bags and groceries and homemade dishes.  I went into the bathroom and quickly realized that there was no hand towel, it occurred to me that my memory did serve me earlier that day when I phoned Sharon to ask, “Do we need to bring our own linens?”  It ended being a fleeting thought that never entered the realm of worry or concern, and lo and behold, the no hand towel moment of recognition in our sweet little cabin moved from minor annoyance to all out panic, 'what no hand towels, no bath towels, no bed sheets, oh gosh, what else?'

I lifted up the bedspread and informed the crowd, 'no sheets, no bed linens either.'  Maureen moved into full action and high tailed it to the nearest Wal-Mart.  There was no big box, cheap sheet place to buy linens within 100 miles. So we ended up with 1200 count nylon thread (not a stitch of cotton) sheets from the local drug store.  Better than nothing we all agreed.  Problem solved, we moved right into the prepping of assorted flat bread veggie pizzas for dinner.  Munching on pistachios and chips and salsa and guacamole, we poured out glasses of wine.

The evening was full of merriment, joy, dance, wine, food and assorted pestilences. After rocking out to AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long,” we changed the tone to something more subdued yet still 80’s, Barbra Streisand’s Home Concert with Barry Gibb’s on duet vocals.  We eventually settled into our respective country couches, in soft muted worn tones of pastel blue, pink and beige, and a couple of us curled up our minds and bodies with good books.  Maureen as she passed our little reading nook glanced down at the lampshade on one of the end tables and commented on the attached Walking Stick decoration ever so delicately gracing the edge of the shade, really only barely hanging onto the rim.  She asked, “Isn’t that real looking?” and, gently blew on it amazed by its impressive, realistic looking appearance.  As I glanced up from my computer screen, I saw the Walking Stick’s delicate body move to her outbreath, and knew within a fraction of a second that it was alive as any of us in that room, including those beetles from the afternoon.  After a few moments of excitement and surprise followed by double over belly laughter, I got up with a tissue in hand and gingerly took our latest bug friend for a ride outside into the lovely fall night.

As the weekend went on, I was the savior of small insects throughout the cabin, rescuing them via tissue capture and release.  Spiders, Walking Sticks, bees, beetle bugs, any little critter that crawled, flew or walked found safe passage back to the great outdoors.

On Friday night, we four settled into our respective bedrooms, Maureen and I upstairs in the loft and Sharon and Lora downstairs in the bedroom right off the bath.  Just as I was finding a fix on a comfortable position and ready to fall asleep upon the scratchy heat of the nylon sheets, someone below let loose a blood curdling scream which was shortly followed by two adult women in their forties very rapidly ascending the loft stairs.  Out of breath and in a panic which was frankly from where I stood, or rather lay, tremendously funny, they asked, “Did you hear that noise, there is something clearly in the walls which is trying to gain entrance into this cabin?”  I had not heard anything other than the Psycho-style shriek which had no doubt terrified whatever would-be intruder whom in my mind would certainly not be returning too soon.  Getting out of bed, knowing it was the right thing to do; I went down with them to check out the situation, went into the bathroom and found nothing amiss.  Just in case, I took a dining room chair and barred the downstairs cellar door which did not lock and brought up the painfully dull butcher knife to keep on the bedside table between the second loft room bed that they had decided to sleep in that night.  All settled, we eventually went to sleep upon what felt like great big nylon stockings, laughter mixed with a bit of unease in our minds and hearts.

The pestilences aside, we knew we were surrounded by the stunning beauty of a fleeting fall weekend.  We were breathing in each moment, in each other, in our joys, in our irritations and sensibilities and wave lengths.  It is not easy to make yourself vulnerable to other humans and that is exactly what happens when you allow yourself to be taken away with others.  There are plenty of laughs but also annoyances, uncertainties that come from our individual habitual patterns rolled up into a collective of five women away.  It is funny because it is so true the statement “best pick your battles.” 

If something just doesn’t mean a lot to you than it is important not to cling to it.  If you know it means a great deal to another, give space for the other person to step in and just go along with them.  Being right is not the way to make and keep friends, particularly friends of the heart.  And, who knows when a weekend like this will happen again for all of us to be together in this way.  Life moves and it moves quickly and the gift is found in the present.  The important thing may be to let the other person tell their story or apply their skillfulness but when it starts to move into fear and continuing the perpetuation of cocoons and defenses, it is best to not say anything at all.  Find a way to stop feeding the fear and drama and realize that showing compassion for other’s neuroses and fears starts with allowing space for all this human stuff to simply be. 

Our Saturday morning started out rainy with overcast gray skies yet that didn’t not present an obstacle to hiking on a trail along a creek and wooded path.  We traversed a trail of fallen black walnuts and at the outset of our walk one such nut speedily fell to the path below hitting Lora on her hand and muddying up her sneakers and pants.  We took it as a sign to find a different path. After our morning walk, we came back to the cabin ravenous and to meet Jan who would be joining our weekend and the wine tour we had planned for the day.  Each with a Mimosa in hand to toast our good fortune and the celebration of color outside, we enjoyed more veggie pizzas and then headed over to the neighboring Finger Lake, Seneca Lake, and wineries, a distillery and a craft brew pub.

Back to the cabin, we made dinner of chicken vegetable stew, salad, peach cobbler and more wine.  We talked late into the night, then nestled into our beds to sleep.  Jan decided that the night was ready to end, so came up to the loft and inspired us to dance, extending the night until we all finally fell asleep tired, content, at peace with a smile still on our faces despite those damn sheets.

The morning came after once again feeling relieved to not have to endure yet another night of the nylon abrasion from those hastily purchased sheets (we later found out after reading the note on the fridge that “If you forget your linens, just call us.  Proprietors of A Beautiful Place”), and as there can be with a group of humans, there was some drama that inevitably came up.  A few of us went on a long walk to release any built up tension, while I hung back with Jan to write, read, and sit quietly.

As the time came to set out, we tidied up "A Beautiful Place," our small, rustic, insect-ridden cabin without linens, and headed home.  A weekend for five women who carved out enough time to rejoice in our strengths, our differences, our joys and our collective struggles in this beautiful place and in this beautiful world of ours.