19 – Heroine’s Journey with Sieve: All About Life and Death

Each day I have schemes, a to-do list, and problems I’m wandering along with, the way an elephant pushes a peanut around a circle. The mind of scheming lives in an everlasting future, it’s the hungry child outside the restaurant, apart from what I imagine my life is for. When we plan improvements to things we put ourselves outside of them, starve ourselves a little.

The implied task is somehow, in the midst of what we do and what is done to us everyday, to come inside the restaurant; to find a connection to what we love, a connection that is not deferred,. Last year’s schemes and problems are like dreams from a previous life; these dreams happened to someone other than the person I am now, and it’s easy to imagine that the same will be true each year until I die. We don’t live in the paradise of the now that last year’s schemes imagined but in the striving of this year’s schemes imagining next year. Underneath the scheming something larger is going on. It makes use of my thoughts and feelings but connecting to life is not dependent on the outcomes of schemes.

Sometimes the larger story is visible, the current of life just picks me up without being invited and carries me along. I can’t use this great current for any purpose beyond itself but at such a time there is no limit to the joy of being alive. Even reaching for peace is itself a kind of peace. Entering these moments is caring for life, not just my life but all life.

I woke in the night as I often do and sat in meditation looking out at the autumn garden. The dog sat beside. It was a foggy night and the moonlight had penetrated the fog and was reflecting back from it with a diffuse glow—as in Marianne Moore’s poem, “The Magician’s Retreat”:

It was cloudy inside but bright, like a moonstone.

The pale flagstones and vines were softly visible, along with the shoots of the lime tree. Everything was quietly alive. I was not clear about the edges of things or even my own edges and noticed a story that had been present in my sleep was continuing to repeat itself now that I was somewhat awake.


The story was the koan of the sieve:

A small group of people had a meditation salon; they used to meet and discuss koans. This seemed to work well. Then they invited a teacher to come and instruct them. The teacher told them that they could have a regular practice, develop a feeling of tenderness and appreciation for everything alive, and not be so caught up in their reactions to things. The explanation of meditation was like this: “Realize the light that runs through all things. Realize this wherever you are and whatever you are doing, so that meditation becomes seamless and you can’t tell the difference between meditation and anything else that’s happening in your life. It’s not hard. Fill a sieve with water.” Then the teacher left.

They followed with these instructions as best they could, different people being affected in different ways. Their lives changed and they were happier and less troubled by their thoughts, more open to what came to them. But there was one woman who was deeply touched by the image of the sieve and of the fairy tale task of filling it with water, and the story wouldn’t leave her.

So she traveled the day’s journey to see the teacher, arrived in the afternoon and told her story. The teacher said, “Well, you can stay the night and in the morning we’ll look into this.’” So she spent the night in the guest house and the next morning, the teacher said “Come with me,” and they went for a walk. On the way they made a detour through the kitchen where the teacher picked up a sieve. The house was by the sea and they went down to the beach; it was a calm morning, small waves ran up on the grey gravel and fell back. Without speaking, the teacher handed her the sieve. She was excited, as if something were trying to be born. Impulsively, she knelt down and scooped the cold water with her hand into the sieve. She was happy doing this and the bottom of the sieve glistened, but she was confused.

She stood up and passed the sieve back. The teacher took the sieve and took a breath and then threw it out far out into the sea where it rested for a while and sank. At that moment her heart opened, she wept, and an awakening came over her.

Having dreamed of this koan, I decided to teach it. The koan of the sieve is a journey; it draws the heroine along to the shore of resolution. We accompany her and as the images transform, they take the material of our lives and bring about changes in us. A woman said it brought recent grief to mind, all the watery losses—the marriage, the sister, the brother, the dog. And then something else happened, the sieve became a red colander which rose up in the sky and the sun shone red through it.

So there are two fundamental conditions: In the first, I’m separated from myself, desolate, uncared for, far from home, trying to fill a sieve with my hands. In the other situation I’m immersed in the world, everything I see, hear, taste, smell, and touch comes bearing its own meaning and beauty. When we experience this, it’s as if we are always immersed in the world and playing our true part in it, but we don’t always notice this. Sometimes extreme situations make everything clearer—that external circumstances and outcomes, whether we strive for them or whether they are great sorrows inflicted on us are not themselves the main thing. To be carried by life to be immersed is itself a kind of song that is its own justification.

Sometimes everything seems backwards, disappointments and moments of unreserved acceptance can appear in circumstances that are the opposite of what we might expect. When you are finally getting everything you thought you wanted you can find yourself a stranger far from home, nose pressed against the glass of the restaurant, with no way into the lights and company. Here is an example of the condition of separation.

At the height of my career as an artist, an important collector in NYC bought a few of my pieces. I was invited to a party at their brownstone in Manhattan, along with a number of artists whose works they had recently acquired. Jeff Koons was one. Also included were many writers, critics, curators and trending gallery owners, as well as just very curious people. it’s difficult for me now to describe the kind of terror and alienation I felt walking from room to room, all the little groups, nowhere to simply be or rest. I left early. The sensation of either withdrawing deeply inside my body, or being divided from it, was intolerable. Paradoxically, this life I built with purpose, commitment and passion became the worst place I could be.

At the same time in the worst of circumstances, perhaps because all the scheming disappears, our contact with the immeasurable life might be plain and luminous. Here is the same artist in the condition of being at one with the world.

Winter, an isolated, vacant beach on the North West coast. Grey cold day, low misting, spitting clouds. My brother and I instantly found ourselves in a dire situation, alone. In an instant, our 13 year old niece was pinned face down under a black water-saturated log which was 25 feet long and 3 feet thick. The surf had disturbed the log which rotated just enough down the inclined sand to settle on her back, where it rested. It was as bad and surreal as it sounds. Skinny blond girl facedown in a foot of water, hair floating gently around her unconscious body. An uncanny and impossible vision. Although my brother and I were reacting with extreme speed, I also had a heightened sense of my surroundings and myself. Everything appeared so clearly – the feel of the wet log as we struggled to roll it off her, the sounds of the waves, the cloud articulations, the atmosphere on my skin, deep love for everything and it all revolving around an axis with one end being my niece. A kingfisher streaked over us, setting up another axis at a diagonal, another line of energy in what felt like an extraordinary web of connection between all things. It came to me also the words “this is a gift”. This could be considered a kind of sick thing to think. But I felt honored to be there in this place of deep fear, love, beauty, pain and loss. I wouldn’t ever will it, but was happy I was the one to be there. Hard to make sense of it, to have all these thoughts and sensations during a catastrophic event. We got the log off of her, she wasn’t breathing, we shared bloody mouth to mouth. She regained consciousness, but died a short while later after being hoisted up into the hovering orange rescue helicopter and taken to the hospital beyond the mountains.

It’s not lost on me now that my fear was a cocktail party, and my sense of connection was during a nightmare accident. But not to diminish the party, or to glorify the accident.

lake washington water 004Each life is complete but sometimes it’s hard to let it be so. It is the strangest, most difficult truth that life gives us what it gives us without regard for our intentions, our kindness, or our devotion. We can accompany each other but there is no protection: we are always sinking into the ocean, and though our schemes are part of life they don’t protect us from it. And in the midst of this nakedness we can be at home, we have no other home.

Whatever appears, it is ours, it’s for us and if we say “No” to one part of life that “No” gradually seeps into everything. There is no life without holes; even if we try to fill the sieve with our hands, the starlight, the wind, and the sea pour through us.

As I sat with the border collie that autumn night, the great horned owl called, as it went hunting, I heard its wings inside me. I had the feeling that something had already arrived or was here even before I’d finished wondering if it was here.

And I remembered some lines that had come into my dream shortly before:

The sieve is in the sky now,
and filled with the stars.

The dog and I continued to look out into the garden, the fog, and the moonlight.



  1. When have you been outside of the world, at odds with yourself, unable to find any place in the scheme of things?
  2. When have you had moments of connection, of immersion in the world, undoubtedly at peace or illuminated?