Monday, May 07, 2012

Hi friends.

Just a quick note to let you know that I've begun putting some of my thoughts into podcasts available from iTunes under the name Virtual Refuge podcasts as a part of a facebook group titled Virtual Refuge Sangha.  If you're not an iTunes subscriber, you can also find the podcasts here:

I'd welcome your feedback, here, there, or on facebook.  If you'd like to be added to the FB group, please friend me or message me on FB (my name: Sean Lindsay), to let me know of your interest.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Thoughts on a flight after a friend's funeral

A dear friend died recently.

Sometimes I go to funerals for the sake of others – the survivors who will live with a hole in their lives for years to come. But this one was for me.

The hole is in my life.

Not gigantic – not the sort of hole that would be left without my wife or sons or brothers. But yes, a hole.

A Zen chant:

All things are impermanent.
They arise and they pass away.
Living in harmony with this teaching brings great happiness and joy.

In every moment, there is change.

Not so much a truism as a definition: there is no moment without something changing.

It took me several weeks of study, of knocking my head against the wall of my own mindset, to finally “get” special relativity. Conceptually, I could accept that the nearer one draws to the speed of light, the greater one’s mass.

I even thought I was ok with the idea that the greater one’s speed, the slower ran one’s clocks, relative to an identical clock at the point of origin. And I generally could work with the idea that the difference in clock time of the rocket and the earth was a calculable function of the velocity of the rocket.

But I made a mistake in my original conception.

I understood the idea that time would run more slowly for the astronauts in the rocket.

But the way I understood that was that those travelling in the rocket experienced those peculiar effects because they were in a peculiar situation that made their clocks move more slowly. *Real* time continued to click away right on schedule.

Eventually, I realized a mistake in my understanding: how did the clocks know how slowly to go? Which was the wrong question, but kind of right, nonetheless. Because the clocks don’t go more slowly. They measure each and every second, exactly as a second. It wasn’t just the clocks that went more slowly: the molecules and atoms and subatomic particles of the clocks moved more slowly, too.

*All of existence* that moves in that direction at that velocity moves at the same speed -- exists at the same speed.

For that to make any sense at all, *time itself* had to be defined by change.

From within a system, no change=no time.

It’s nighttime and moonlit. I’m walking barefoot on the concrete pavers of the courtyard. As a foot presses into the stone, the residual heat of the absent sun warms the skin of the sole. As each foot lifts, the warmth disappears and the sole feels the barest whisper of cool, night air. My gaze is soft, resting on an invisible spot in the air ten or twelve feet ahead of me. With each step, that spot never changes. But with each step, all of the visible world in the periphery flows and fluxes. Parallax motions work their changes with mathematical precision, responding to my step. If there were an I, it would be the center of the flow of space and time. But there isn’t. That sense is quiet. Missing, yet not missed. There is only the flowing. The changing. The arising. The passing.

Robyn was one of those people who was gently, insistently kind. When she’d walk in a room, she’d look for someone who needed attention. Who needed a hug. Who needed love. Her actions were modest. She wasn’t particularly interested in herself, but fascinated by the world. Committed to a particular way of living.

At the funeral, one of her daughters told a story. Shortly after they’d moved to Colorado, the daughter was walking home from elementary school. Some boys started to throw rocks in her direction. Then, bolder, they threw rocks at her. One hit her just below the eye. She ran home with an ugly welt, crying and scared. Robyn hugged her and comforted her and cleaned her up. Then Robyn got two chocolate suckers out, and led her daughter to the boys’ house, to share the sweets with them.

Love your enemies.

And teach your children how to love their enemies.

There’s lots about the meditation that I practice and teach that tends to be misunderstood. I suspect that the misunderstanding must have something to do with how I’m teaching it, but whatever. One of those misunderstandings is that there’s something to be thinking about – or that there’s nothing to be thinking about. But as far as my meditation practice is concerned, thoughts are just the sensations of the mind.

As I sit in this moment, I smell the dry, processed scent of airplane ventilation system. In the next moment, I see sunlight angled in on the seat-tray of the passenger next to me. I feel the pressure of the soles of my feet against my socks, shoes, and floor. A particular hair follicle on my left cheek. The blue of the computer screen background. The vibration of the airplane’s engines coming through my seat cushion. The sensation of the air I inhale as it crosses the edge of my right nostril. The pressure on the pad of my left ring finger against the keyboard. The taste of Diet Coke. A thought of my wife at home. Anticipation of New York City. Stomach. Thought. Sensation. Thought. Dit. Dit. Dit. Ditditditiditditditditditdit…………………………………………….

Each perception is a change relative to the prior state. The very definition of a moment.

One of the most important meditation instructions I ever received was this: “It doesn’t matter what arises in your experience; it only matters that you notice it."

“And then speed up your noticing.”

I considered the instruction, and thought, “ok, I’ll try it.”

Then I got the next part of the instruction: “With diligent practice, you can notice dozens of perceptions each second.”

Each second?!!? No way. Uh uh.

And in a way, I was right: it was impossible to do what I was doing dozens of times per second.

Eventually (and this took years), I began to realize several things. First, I realized that in a normal conversation, at normal talking rates, I was already perceiving, processing, and making use of at least a dozen inputs per second. Think about it. “Think” “about” “it”





“- -“






“- -“



In a single second, a dozen sound changes, to say nothing of assembling the sounds into conceptual words, to say nothing of associating the words with meanings, to say nothing of understanding the meaning ,to say nothing of formulating intention with respect to the meaning, to say nothing of acting on the intention.

So I realized that in fact, a dozen is more than possible. I remembered that movies run at about 30 frames per second, giving even the fastest-noticing people the illusion of motion pictures.


So what was the meditation secret? Getting out of the way. Letting go. Why was I only able to notice two or three things per second? Because I was holding onto them. Sometimes only a split-second or two; sometimes longer. Long enough to recognize them, name them, assign some content-meaning to them, relate to them, attach to them or avert from them. Lost in thought.


So how am I getting in the way of Robyn’s death? Attachment. She was – she is still – interwoven in my experience. My mind formulates certain meanings with her role in my life assumed, steady, essential, permanent.

And yet, she is not.

If I simply notice that, there is a sense of change. If I try to argue with reality – the reality that does not include her – suffering arises. Disappointment.


All is unsettled. Anicca.


Even Robyn. Even “I.” Even even.


Anicca: impermanence

Ken McLeod: What is the one thing you know about every relationship you have? That it will end. So what should you do with every relationship? Savor it.


Several years ago, I worked at a company that was in the final stages of being sold to another company. Because there were a lot of government regulatory approvals that were required before the deal could close, there was a gap of about a year between the time the deal was announced and the time it was expected to be completed. As is usually the case with such events, many of us working there expected to lose our jobs within a few days of the deal closing.

Toward the end of the process, a group of us decided to have a celebration dinner at a nearby restaurant. We reserved a private room, and had some fun sharing food and stories and laughs from our time together. Toward the end of the evening, Tom – a lawyer I’d worked with for several years – asked for a moment to speak. We quieted down. He brought out a bottle of port, and said, “I like to collect bottles of port when I can, but it’s harder to find the right moment to open a old bottle of port than it is to find a really old bottle of port. When I learned that the company was being sold, I realized that this was the occasion and the group to share this with.” He then uncorked a bottle of 130 year old port. The room we were in was large enough for the 14 or 15 of us there that evening, but not much larger than that.

As soon as he pulled the cork, the entire room was filled with an incredible fragrance of pears and walnuts. We breathed it together. It lasted only a couple of moments, then disappeared.

And ten years later, I still remember it clearly.


When I think of savoring the impermanent I think of the brief scent of Tom’s 130 year old port, reconnecting with the outside world, blossoming briefly, then done.


A blessing – not a curse:

Every building ends in ruin.
Every meeting ends in parting.
Every aggregation ends in dispersion.
Every birth ends in death.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Upside of Emptiness

Usually, when we lose someone or something that has helped us defined much of our lives -- whether a lover or a belief, a job or a home, an ability or a skill -- we feel a sense of loss.

Sometimes, it's more than that.

Or rather, "less."

Sometimes rather than just feeling a void where previously there was a treasure, there is a sense of emptiness that reaches well beyond the contours and borders of the parts of life defined by what has been lost. That sense of emptiness affects all of our experience -- we discover through its sudden absence a now-missing sense of belonging and warmth, confidence and meaning. It seems that we see through new eyes, and they reveal everything to be artificial, a bit contrived. What used to be our sense of belonging and meaning, we now see as structures of a mind that we no longer occupy.

Sometimes there's just a hint of that seeing. But at other times, it's so strong that it's overwhelming.

But it's always disturbing.

* * *
The Heart Sutra, a core text of the Mahayana Buddhist scriptural canon, uses a four-part framing to express this experience:

Form does not differ from emptiness. Emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness. Emptiness is itself form.

* * *

We often associate the sudden, jarring sense of emptiness -- the sense that things and experiences and life itself are hollow or lacking an essential stability and solidity -- as a sense of loss of something we value profoundly, even if we didn't know it until it was gone. But that isn't the only way that most of us have experienced emptiness. All who've lived to adulthood have experienced a time, a moment in our teens or twenties when we just as suddenly had the sensation of seeing the life of grade school -- all the competitions and dramas and dilemmas and challenges and failures and misery -- of seeing all of that suddenly empty of meaning. For most of us, that discovery of emptiness was accompanied not so much by a sense of loss, though that can be a part of it, but rather more as a sense of freedom. And because it feels lightening to move beyond those structures of life, we might not have even paused to consider the discovery of emptiness where we'd previously found meaning and purpose and definition to be a loss of any sort. Giving that up felt good.

Similarly, many of us who've been through depression can remember a time when we realized that the downwardly-spiraling thoughts that were carrying all our life into the depths of misery were, themselves, empty. We remember realizing, "oh...those are just thoughts; that is the way my mind behaves in these circumstances." And rather than feeling that discovery of emptiness to be a loss, on the contrary, it felt like a glimmer of light in the darkness, like a place where we could stand while everything around us was unstable, like remembering in the middle of a horror movie, "oh...this is a movie."

* * *

So the experience of emptiness isn't always a bad thing; though experiencing it in connection with the loss of something we identified with, something we adored, something we depended on -- that experience of emptiness *does* feel like a wrenchingly bad thing.

When I've found myself in that kind of strange, uncomfortable, disquieted mind state, there are three basic ways that I've responded. Since it's an uncomfortable feeling, I've often sought to bring it to an end as fast as possible. One way is to instinctually return to the things that I'd valued previously. Reattach myself to what the momentary perception of emptiness has made seem hollow. I tried this approach the first time I experienced emptiness in connection with my believing and faithful worldview. And I repeated it again and again. But despite my efforts, I never quite forgot afterwards that I'd seen its emptiness. Another response I've tried was to instinctually turn away from what I'd seen as empty and replace it with something that seemed sturdier -- more solid and essential. From my spiritual life, I turned toward scientific materialism. Hard-headed facts that seemed much more trustworthy than my hollow religious beliefs. Seemed. But there came a day when I saw the emptiness of that, too -- when I saw the mind-contrivances that I was engaged in, that the science writers I followed were engaged in. And I saw that scientific materialism, too, was empty of something essential, of solid, irreducible bedrock. Which led me to a third way of responding to the perception of emptiness: rather than turning back to old attachments, and rather than turning toward new attachments, to turn instead toward the emptiness itself, and to allow my eyes to see emptiness in all things.

I had actually become aware of this potential response *long* before I ever attempted it. To my western-shaped mind, "turning toward emptiness" sounded frightfully like nihilism, frightfully like despair. And I wanted nothing more to do with those demons. But eventually I came to see that emptiness only looked like nihilism to an egoic mindshape. And so I ventured. But in the actual *doing* of turning toward emptiness, there was not the weight of judgment condemning existence as vacuous and void that I'd felt when I'd been nihilistic. Instead, there was a little hint of lightness. Of freedom.

But it was only freedom for so long as I was willing to allow the emptiness to be, while seeing all the forms that filled my sense perceptions and my mind.

* * *
bardo (bar-do) (noun)

  • (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person's conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.

  • an indeterminate, transitional state: wandering adrift in a bardo of intense negativity, blame, disappointment, criticism and denial.

Despite the sense of liberation, it isn't easy to stay in that equipoise, seeing the Heart Sutra's form and emptiness equally in all of experience. It's like standing on a tightrope while the wind gusts at me and the sound of the neighborhood ice cream truck tantalizes off in the distance. I've given up that perception almost as many times as it has arisen in my life.

But I've come to consider those moments when I am able to stay with that sense of emptiness as powerful times. When I'm in -- and allow myself to remain in -- that sense of emptiness that sometimes arises, I find myself comfortably recogizing the death of one life, of a worldview that once was "me." But I've also come to recognize that I'll eventually enter another life. I know that I'll soon re-enter experiences that will seem solid and tangible and essential from which I'll build a new life, a new worldview. And even knowing that that will eventually happen, I can still stay in equipoise in the experience of emptiness while it is what is.

But after that's happened again and again, I've discovered that I enter the next life a little bit aware that it is both form-and-emptiness, emptiness-and-form. And I think maybe that background awareness lets me be a little bit less rigid in my thought patterns, in my certainty, in my waking dreams. I'm more aware of my own mind's contrivances, of my mind's own role in creating my experience of reality.

* * *

The discovery of emptiness is a kind of falling in love. There is a
vertigo in it: we step off the cliff of what we know and are certain
about. -- Zen Abbot John Tarrant

These insights aren't unique to Buddhism, though I found them while looking through the lens of Buddhist teachings and practices. After I found them there, I went looking for them elsewhere. I was surprised to find them in the teachings of the Catholic saints, Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross. I found them in the teachings of the Advaita school of Hinduism. I found them in the Sufi poetry of Hafiz and Rumi. And I even found them in the temple endowment ceremony of Mormonism.

* * *

In Mormon terms, the gist of it is this: the perception of emptiness can be profoundly disturbing to a mind that has become accustomed to attachment to a specific form of thought -- especially to a particular belief set that promises comfort and success by following a prescribed set of actions; but the very same emptiness is profoundly empowering when we do not resist it, because the very emptiness ("...there is space here...") empowers us to create meaning from the actions of our consciousness in the context of the experiences we have. It takes the endowment's "yonder is matter unorganized" and it brings the truth of that statement to the center of the heart of each individual.

Where there is emptiness, there is potential.

The experience of emptiness brings to our conscious minds the choice that we previously never knew that we had.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Haiku for departing summer

Bird-pecked, black racemes
Of chokecherries gleam among
The not-yet-red leaves.

Sunday, January 02, 2011


At the end of a painful retreat (about which, click here), Laurie came to pick me up.

She brought Echo, a rambunctious Samoyed, who, she informed me, was disappointingly not named Moksha.

We walked the dog around the outer grounds of Spirit Rock. Up the hills, through the winter-brown weeds and grasses. She tugged and jumped and played. She started at a tall, white marble Buddha standing in a grove of trees, was only wary of a small seated Buddha halfway up the hill, and by the time we encountered another figurine at the foot of the hill, she was
unimpressed, sniffing along the fringes of the dirt footpath.

Coming off this retreat, my heart was a bit raw, but relievedly open.

* * *

The first several days had been a painful, pain-filled retreat for me. The only relief I found was in walking meditations – under the overhanging eaves during heavy rains, under the bay laurel and live oak forest when the rains lightened. On one of the most difficult days, I found a stretch of forest trail to serve as my walking path. Fifteen slow steps from a young fir tree to a huge, head-level oak branch, covered in bright green moss and grey lichens. Then back. Then back. Then back. Then back.

The deep sound of the far-off courtyard bell signaled the return to seated meditation and the pain I was unsuccessfully struggling to overcome. I paused at the overhanging oak limb. Pressed my face against the cold, rough, damp moss. Inhaled the scent of cold, wet life. I turned my head toward the trunk, pressing my cheek against the moss. Deep in the moss-lined niche where the limb joined the trunk, sat a two-inch statue. But unlike the blissful, peaceful icons of Buddha-nature that dot the grounds of Spirit Rock, this one is rendered inexpertly in clay. Its face is more of suggestion than a rendering – eye sockets and a closed mouth. The effect is a gaunt and troubling figure.

That isn’t the Buddha. It’s a starved yogi.

* * *

I heed the bell and return to the meditation hall, rotely bow to the standing Buddha at the front of the room to acknowledge my effectless resolve to seek liberation, and resume my pain-filled and increasingly desperate sitting.

* * *

The next time the rains lighten, I return to the bit of trail for walking meditation. At the end of the slow slow slow walking, I look again at the clay statute. It is still gaunt. It still seems to say more of warning than of enlightenment. I walk. The distant bell sounds. I approach the tree limb end to my path.

I turn to walk away. Then I feel a slight desire well up. In the quiet, the mind turns toward the desire, and I see a want to offer something. “No. Foolishness.” my mind says. I turn to follow the bell’s call back to the meditation hall. The same up-welling arises. I look to the forest floor and find a bit of oak branch with tiny, ungrown acorns barely emerging from scaled caps. I place it before the gaunt little statue.

* * *

On our walk, Laurie and Echo and I approach the last statue of the Buddha from behind. As we near, we see strands of weathered mala beads hanging from the statue’s neck. We round it and stand, looking. Someone has clipped a barrette to a strand of mala beads. Someone else has hung a pendant around the statue’s neck. In the statue’s mudra-nestled hands someone has put a piece of flint, several have put coins, another has placed a smooth, red stone. At the base of the statue are arrayed impromptu offerings – more coins, a house key, a cracked nerf football, stones, bracelets, a corroding piece of folded paper clipped with a wooden clothespin, an earring. I bow toward the statue, feeling this time in my raw, open heart, the acknowledgement of the path, of the pain I’ve stopped resisting. I let go of the form, and gratitude wells up. The bow offers my complete awareness.

* * *

Fetters of I, me, and mine fall away, veils of time and place pull open and the gratitude of the mala-bead offeror is present. The gratitude of the house-key offeror is present. The gratitude of the barrette offeror is present. The gratitude of the bead-purse-offeror, and rock-offerors, and the feather-offeror, and the coin-offerors, and the football offeror is present. And the gratitude of countless people who have bowed before the statue is present. And all of us in that moment without ourselves are realized in one offering, one gratitude, one bowing.

And as I’ve done countless times on this retreat, I weep.

Laurie unclips a tag from Echo’s collar and places it gently beside someone’s house key.

(Cross-posted at, which has some of Laurie's pictures from that day)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


I went to Spirit Rock a couple of weeks ago.

Sometimes I retreat out of curiosity – to see what can be seen from silence and intensive meditation practice.

Sometimes I retreat for community – to be with people who sit quietly, companionably, as another messily pounds away at an emotional barrier.

This time, though, I went out of need.

In recent months (and months) my meditation practice has led me to deep and wide pools of fear. Fear of loss. Fear of mistakes. Fear of inadequacy. Fear of failing my loved ones. Fear of not becoming what I most desire.

It’s hard to hold a fearful heart open. It’s hard to see clearly through filters of fear. It’s hard to love in the face of fear.

* * *

Snorkeling in shallow water over a tiny section of the Great Barrier Reef, I’m floating over a mosaic of colors and textures – whites, yellows, oranges, reds, purples, blues, greens. Anemones. Hard corals. Soft corals. Seaweeds. Fish. And giant clams (some of them not-so-big). The giant clams anchor the hinge of their shell deep in the reef, the sides of the shell extending upward, concealing all but the mantle’s edge.

Set like sparkling decorations, all along the fringed edges of the mantle are iridescent blue dots – light-sensitive patches that serve the clam as eyes. As I drift above a clam, my body obstructs the sun, my shadow darkening the clam’s day. Though it has grown far too large for the shell halves to close entirely, the two shells draw toward one another nonetheless, insufficient shielding contracting away from the threat of dark shadows in daylight.

* * *

So for the past months (and months), I’ve felt contracted. Agitated. Unable to open fully. Each time meditation takes me deep enough, I find the same fear pools. I practice. I work. I try to open to it, allow it. I find neither key nor door.

So retreat.

* * *

As I have come to expect, the first day is very hard. The mind jumps from one fragment of conversation, one shard of thought, to self-evaluation, back to the breath. From memory to analysis to reawareness and the breath. From physical pain to fear that it will worsen to despair to reawareness and the breath. From cramping muscles to planning ways to shift to alleviate the cramps to dismay at not holding still to how motion might affect those sitting on either side of me to reawareness and the breath. And so on.

As the first day moves into the second, I get up early. Very early. I make my way through the coastal mist and darkness of still-hours-away dawn to the meditation hall. I light the candles on the altar, and I sit. The body refreshed from sleep, the cramps and aches and pains are manageable. The mind is quieter. There are moments when there is more to the breath in and the breath out than I’ve ever imagined. But by the end of the first hour, the aches and pains crescendo. I struggle to keep the attention on the breath, finding both conscious and subconscious mind trying to problem-solve away the back pains. I concede and go outside for walking meditation. It is raining steadily. I find a sheltered space beneath the eaves. And I walk slowly slowly, sharing the attention of motion and balance with the breath. The fears of mind and body arise. I’m aware of the mist-laden darkness of night, unabated by stars or moon, yet not entirely imperceptible. I remember reports of cougars in the hills. I feel the pressure of body on the sole of my foot as I take another step. I pause at the edge of the eaves to turn. First I breathe the darkness, the mist. One curtain of mist shifts, only to disclose another behind it. I turn and walk.

I return to sit again. Same pains return, faster, sharper. I continue to struggle to find a solution to them, trying to dispel the pain. I change position. Wiggle. Make imperceptible shifts of breath and muscle engagement. The pain grows. I feel the right rhomboid muscle cramp solidly. The top of the right trapezius begins a burning sensation where it connects just below the occipital lobe of the skull. I weep. For the umpteenth time.


After a complete morning of this, unabated, I meet with Mary Grace Orr, one of the teachers leading the retreat. We talk about my current state, the continual arising of fears, home life, my current meditation practice. The frustration I feel. I tell her I’ve been stuck in this dark night for months. She asks some questions. I respond.

Mary Grace tells me she doesn’t think I’m stuck, just going through a hard transition. She recommends I moderate my vipassana practice by starting or ending with several minutes of metta – of lovingkindness meditation – directed exclusively toward myself. I groan, audibly, and remark that I’d rather do anything else. But the truth is, I’m willing to try anything. Even that.

So that evening, I start with metta, then sit in vipassana misery during the evening. But I notice an unexpected resistance inside myself to practicing metta. Resistance is interesting whenever it arises, because it signals that there’s something already trying to occupy that mind-space.
* * *
I dream that night. I'm working in an industrial harbor, and I'm assigned to go retrieve some equipment that is needed. I start off. It soon becomes clear that I'm going to have to go through the canals to get where the equipment is. I begin wading, chest-deep. The water is filthy.
I look to the banks of the canal, and I see raw sewage pumped into the water. My dreaming mind thinks, "Great. Shit. Just great." But the fact is, I'm a parent. I've dealt with fair quantities of it in my life. Not hardly pleasant, but no reason to stop. I press on.
The thought occurs to my dreaming mind, "At least there aren't any alligators here."
I swim-wade around a bend in the canal and see a very slightly cartoonish-looking alligator slide off the bank and into the dark waters.
"Shit and alligators," my dreaming mind says, "shit and alligators." And I push on.
* * *
Just then I awaken. It's 4:20 a.m.

I return to the meditation hall. I practice metta, then vipassana, sitting for most of an hour. When the pains begin to arise, I practice metta. Then in the spirit of metta, I give myself a break and walk slowly through the darkness down the hill to the dining hall, where I fix some herbal tea. Then I walk back to the meditation hall and resume practice. By mid-morning, my mind is a curious blend of quiet and muscle-pain-shouting. I repeat metta phrases. The pain continues.

I go to lunch, then return. The pain resumes, amplified.

So after metta, I allow the pain to become the center of the vipassana practice. I evaluate for a moment whether the neck or the back hurts more. I decide that it’s the neck. So I allow the sensations of the neck to become the focus of my attention. I watch them. Surprisingly, they are not constant, but rather pulse with my heart, with my breath. Sometimes they feel like burning, sometimes like aching, sometimes like tightness, sometimes like cramps. For a few moments, they dull, then brighten.

And after most of an hour, something happens. My conscious mind is aware of a kind of subconscious shift. I can’t tell you exactly what occurred subconsciously, but consciously I realize that I’ve stopped resisting the pain, and that something deep that had been anchored to there being a way to become free of the pain has released, and now accepts that the pain is a part of the constellation of experiences of this meditation practice. "Shit and alligators," my mind says. The pain is just shit and alligators. It is most surely is not gone. Still there, just as bright as ever. But suddenly I’m aware of all the other stars in the sky of awareness, as well. And I’m ok with that.

I’m not free from pain. I’m free in pain.

Never expected that.

More tears. This time, of relief from the excruciation of resisting what is.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Dawning body awareness

A few weeks ago, I stood sun-lit on hard, wet sand in a deep redrock canyon, the edgewaters of Colorado River washing over my feet. I drew my body into Virabhadrasana 2: a deep lunge, right foot forward, the sole pressing into the sand, right knee at a right angle; left foot back, angled open and slightly forward, the leg straight from the hip, the outside edge of the left foot building a deep, still pressure wave of sand behind it. My shoulders were square over my hips, torso open, spine vertical; arms extended wide: right forward, left back. My head was turned forward, eyes focused upriver, just beyond the edge of the nail of my right, middle finger.

* * *

Yoga asana – the physical aspect of yoga – is the conscious forming of embodied patterns. Mind working with matter that responds to it, feeds it, becomes it. Is it.

There is an essential integrity of the mind, that sees everything outside itself as object, and body, that just feels and senses, sometimes feeling both sides of a touch sharply, sometimes less clearly, sometimes only one side, sometimes that, dimly.

But whatever objectifying lines the mind draws to cordon off the world like a crime scene, the senses nonetheless reach awareness. Emotions, too. Thoughts are not unique.

The classical yoga postures, and some of the newer ones too, are patterns, old trails traced in new bodies each generation. Yoga teachers familiarly tell fretful students that all they need do is practice and all else will come – mindfulness, peace, liberation, clarity. Just practice. But how, I’m asked and I wonder, can simply putting your body into shapes and holding them, breathing them, singing them, panting them, chanting them, gasping them, being them – how does that do anything except exercise (and that quite oddly) muscles to the point of trembling fatigue?

* * *

On the river trip, to cool off, to clean up, even just to play, I’d walk into the river. Almost everywhere we went, the river was the very definition of placid – flat, calm, slow, smooth. The river flows through most of Meander Canyon at about 2 miles per hour. Ankle-deep, it’s a gentle caress. Knee-deep, a swirl around my shins. But once I’m halfway in – waist deep, my body squared to face upstream, the river presses me downstream. I lean into it slightly. We oppose each other, we support each other. But in up to my waist, if I ignore the river’s slow push, I’ll lose my footing. As I work my way deeper, the slow, slow, slow press of river equals my own strength. To go deeper, I have to turn my body sideways to the stream – aligning myself to present a narrower profile to the current that then slips easily around me.

* * *

As I understand Albert Einstein's insights, matter is simply one manifestation of energy; time and space are two ends of the same stick; and – with the insights of general relativity – matter/energy shapes space/time. Every experience we have is a manifestation of energy transforming in, while simultaneously itself shaping, both space and time.

* * *

Yoga asana is about consciousness perceiving and responding to energy. And energy, as anyone who’s ever stubbed a toe against a rock (pretty dense and stable as far as forms of energy go) can attest, is not the same everywhere, all the time. It forms. It flows. It concentrates. It dissipates.

As I stand in Virabhadrasna 2, I feel three distinct axes of energy. A kind of dense, stable strength rises from the connection with the cold, wet sand at the soles of my feet. A kind of elevating verticality comes through the crown of my head, downward. And my heart expands outward in five directions at once; head, hands, and feet.

I’m not the first to find those energy channels. Virabhadrasana 2 was created by human awareness finding those channels – the pose is an expression of them.

That wasn’t obvious to me the first time I moved into the pose. That day, whenever it was, my attention wasn’t focused on the energy alignment of the pose, about which I knew and perceived nothing, but rather on assembling the verbal instructions into body language. And it wasn’t the second day I did the pose, either. But after a dozen, or maybe a dozen dozen dozen times, I began to become aware of those lines of energy. Noticed them not as lines of zappy, jittery electricity, but rather as a kind of energetic ease, fluid power. Prana. At first, I didn’t take any thought of them – just a random sensation in a body filled with random sensations. But going back to the pose again and again, resting in it’s trembling exertion, settling my jumpy mind, the energy lines became more distinct, like stars in a darkening sky.

Why’d it take me so long to notice?

* * *

The third day on the river, we paddled into the heat of midday, then beached the canoe on a mudflat. After slogging through the mud to dry land, we hiked a winding trail through the verge of willows and beetle-killed tamarisks. We made our way up a low cliff to some ruins – a couple of ancient granaries nestled under a high outcropping of sandstone. After a bit, I climbed out along the same shelf, looking for more. Dad stayed behind, sitting at the base of a pictograph of hand outlines in spattered white – an adult-sized right and left, and a child-sized right and left, the child’s right hand missing the fourth finger. I strayed upcanyon for longer than I’d planned, finding no other ruins in that direction, returned and then struck out around the other side of the promontory. Eventually, I worked my way back to the pictograph and my Dad. He’d been sitting quietly there, noticing. And in noticing, he’d found pottery shards, white flint chips – things I’d never seen.

* * *

Yoga was my first introduction to meditation.

Or rather my second, as I’d noticed the unusually clear and lucid mind-focus that arises in rock climbing years earlier. Though the word “meditation” carries so much baggage that it’s hard to believe anyone ever actually ventures to try it out, it really just starts with noticing. Yoga’s like that too, after you get started; not a thing to be completed – more of a practice. After you get the pose instructions more or less settled into your body, yoga’s first the intention, then the motion into a pose, the awareness and noticing while in the pose, the new intention, and the motion out of the pose into some other. Intention, body, motion, and awareness.

And awareness is subject to an awful lot of refining. The more you persist at it, the finer the details that become evident.

Like my Dad’s seeing the pottery shards and flint chips on the ground where I saw only gravel.

With time, through dozens of dozens of dozens of repetitions, those energy axes of Virabhadrasana 2 settled into my awareness.

And for kicks, I’ve tried variants of the pose that mess with those lines and aligns. And I got what I got – a sense of the absence of alignment, the tension of not being in that posture, that way, that Tao.

Like turning my body square to the flow of the river. Opposing energy directions, rather than aligning with them.

It isn’t a sin.

It’s just turning counter to the river’s flow – it’s being out of alignment. To my sense now, it feels incomplete, like an [url=]unresolved augmented seventh chord.[/url] Sometimes, the best part of a piece of music is the tension of that unresolved chord, the awareness of mind patterns and cravings that it apocalypses. Sometimes, it’s the whole: the engendering of tension in the quadriceps strength of a deeply lunged knee, or the evershifting balance of the grounded leg in dancer’s pose, or the just-this-side-of-painful ache of extended hamstrings in a seated forward bend, all resolving to stability: the lunged leg straightening, the balance calming as the second foot reaches the earth, the hamstrings releasing as the torso rises out of the forward bend.

Once we know where to find light and where to find dark, we can begin to draw.

Once we know the lines of energy in our skin and thoughts and muscle and intention and organs and bones and emotions and sinews, we can begin to practice yoga.

* * *

The assemblage of atoms and molecules and proteins and structures and energy of a human stands at the edge of the Colorado River, breathing quietly and seeing a slow-to-retire bat dancing on the ripples of air above the river that itself reflects the bat’s silhouette against a brightening sky and fading stars. The human feet press into the riverwet sand, connected to the grains by the plunging shape of gravity-carved space, twisting itself toward matter. The human feels simply a draw earthward, and shifts his weight slightly, realigning the sensed mass of his body to the vertical planes of femurs and spine, which changes, ever so slightly, the shape of space that he is.


Friday, June 25, 2010

Tripping through prana

I lie down in savasana, arrange my arms and legs. I adjust the position of my shoulderblades. Readjust my head to reduce the bend of my neck. Open my eyes once more, then close them, drawing the gaze inward to the space between my eyes.

Darren Main begins calling the breath instructions. Heidi, assisting him, moves through the room.

Five breaths in, I’m curious.

Five more, no change.

Five more, I feel a tendril of difference, of opening. I register the briefest sensation of aversion and fear. I choose to allow it.

Five more, and a sense of elation arises, lightness.

The breathing continues, but the opening moves to the foreground.

A slight tingling at the tip of my nose.

Nadis in the thumbs and forearms energize and brighten.

A sense of the separation of being high.

Darren calls for five deeper breaths, then, on the exhale, hold until the need for new breath.

At the fifth, breath enters deeply, then out. Then I move into the upward lift of navasana.

Everything ignites. Blazes upward.

St. Theresa.

* * *

Breath brings me back to earth.

Then draws the heart higher.

An image of matsyasana, fish pose, arises in my mind.

My heart lifts, spine arches.

Root bandha engages. Navel bandha locks.

The throat widens and prana moves out with each exhale. I draw the chin toward the chest.

* * *

Heidi presses her thumb into the center of my forehead.

The trembling in my arms and heart cohere into rapid pulsing.

The light coming through my eyelids flashes bright/dark, then pulses.

The sounds of Heidi’s breath penetrate my sensory rock concert.

Then I realize she’s reaching out to me with the sound of her breath. Suggesting.

My mind slowly thinks to match her breath, but there’s no purchase for the mind on the self-driving breath.

Heidi’s thumb slides up the forehead, toward the hairline.

All mind connects to her thumb, focus narrows to it, tendrils of mind, of wanting, wrap around the connection, wanting more. Wanting.

Trembling and pulsing grow to all.

Heidi releases and the mind hears her moving to a nearby person.

* * *

The connection gone, the grasping remains.

Darkness, disappointment, rejection, suffering, anguish all arise. Grasping at loss is all.

The body twists and contorts, spams.


* * *

Heidi returns, now in first aid mode. Her touch channels the prana.

A dark phase of matsyasana emerges. Hands clenched. Resistance increases.

Heidi’s breathing re-enters my awareness.


She unpeels my fingers from my fist.

The mind sees her calm.

The body arches toward the ceiling.

Then entirely quiet.

Mind quiet.

Body moves into stillness.

* * *

New cycles of breath.

New openness.

Badda konasana. Mula bandha, Uddiyana bandha, Jalandhara bandha all lock.

Then release.

More savasana.

Quiet mind.

Gentle witnessing awareness emerges.

* * *
The first time I participated in a pranayama workshop with Darren Main, I felt like the experience was more than mildly dangerous.

From a flatlander’s perspective, it seemed to me to be simply hyperventilation and the disorientation and high associated with it, resulting in some laughter, some sobbing. And though I categorized it and labeled it so, how could that really be as dangerous as I felt it was? With time, I became more interested in the connection between breath and emotion and joy and sorrow that was apparent from the experience.

So by the time Darren came back a year later, I decided to try it again.

Second go-around, less dramatic, less worrisome. Similarly interesting. I was more curious.

Sometimes, three’s the charm.

* * *
Like the first two experiences with pranayama, in my third just last week, I again experienced the loosening of the grip of the conscious mind that results from hyperventilation. But rather than shifting into seemingly random emotional or mental states, this time there was enough mindfulness beneath the conscious mind to hold the order and openness.

The explosion of ignition that came first was elemental.

But what I find most interesting now is how clearly I felt then and remember even now the grasping for more of the fireworks, the reaching out, wanting, clinging to Heidi’s touch, and then the huge wave of darkness that followed the separation, the clinging with nothing to hold onto, the completeness of misery and unhappiness. Complete and utter dukkha.

So now – back to pranayama. I think I understand its potential a bit better than I did before. Yes, it involves changing the body’s chemistry. Yes, its effects can be rightly characterized as unstable. But at a finer level of granularity, for me this time, it reduced the energy usually drawn by the thinking mind, increased the energy channeled through the body, and increased the brightness of my feelings to Klieg lamp levels.

At that level of brightness – where feelings/sensations were all in all – I saw more clearly and sharply both the grasping of wanting more that impeded my experience of what was happening, as well as the inundating darkness and suffering that came from the grasping once the wave of experience subsided.

Not only is it clear that that Buddha guy knew what he was talking about when it came to that Second Noble Truth, it’s also clear that in the trippy altered mind state of that pranayama practice, what is see-able is not always as random as I’d guessed.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Nothing holy; all emptiness

Have you ever had the sense when you walked through a doorway, or the space between two trees or, really, anywhere, when you just noticed that your body – maybe your eyes or your brain – were not exactly yours, but rather were a particular concentration of consciousness occupying a particular place, and as you walked through that place, that very location in the universe became more aware because it was occupied by the arrangement of matter comprising your mind/body, but really, you weren't different in kind from the molecules of air that your face nudged out of the way, but the fabric of the space that held first those oxygen molecules and nitrogen atoms and the rest also later held, just as gently, the protein chains and water-based solutions and calcium deposits of a conscious body/mind, just as gently letting go of them as they moved on, but before they did, for just that tiny moment, that place in space/time was aware of itself?

* * *

Buddhism is profoundly confusing.

Bodhidharma declared to Emperor Wu: “Nothing holy; all emptiness.”

The Diamond Sutra makes the same point, a bit more elaborately: “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Form is not other than emptiness; emptiness is not other than form.”

When I first encountered each of these teachings a few years ago, I found them quite off-putting. How could emptiness be anything other than nihilism, a demon that had nearly done me in in prior years? I chewed on that for a time, and then I set it aside, unable to make heads or tails of it.

* * *

My next encounter with emptiness occurred during my first retreat. I was on a four-day yoga-
and-meditation retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center, a place in the Colorado high country run by Tibetan Buddhists in the Kagy├╝ lineage of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I wrote about it here. My memory now is that I found the sitting parts of the retreat very hard, with back pain and discomfort and a sense that I really didn’t know what I was doing. I recall thoroughly enjoying the yoga practice (an easy comfort zone for me then), but trying out the meditation nonetheless.

About halfway through the retreat, the meditation teacher, David Nichtern, taught us the Three Characteristics – the three basic insights that arise at the beginning of the meditation path – and not coincidentally, the three experiential doors that stand at the end of the meditation path, as well. Those three characteristics, he said, were suffering, impermanence, and no-self or, he said, “emptiness.” By then, I’d come to understand something about suffering, and my back pain during that retreat was more than enough reminder of it. I thought that I got the notion of impermanence reasonably well. But emptiness/no-self – that triggered my by-then usual aversive response: “Don’t understand it; don’t get it; I’m doing ok; things are getting better; best not to think about it.”

Yep. I’d replaced the nihilism demon with an aversion-to-nihilism demon.

In hindsight, I think that I wasn’t really whole-hearted on that retreat. There were half a dozen reasons for it, but that’s the gist of it.

The meditation hall at Shambhala is situated in a small valley between a range of high foothills that are, themselves, nestled up against the east side of the Rocky Mountains. As the place is run by Tibetan Buddhists, there are strings of sunburnt and faded, tattered prayer flags scattered about, wherever a breeze might re-embody their devotion. In particular, I could see in the distance, prayer flags stretching up the slopes of the nearest high crag. In a kind of escape, I rose early one morning and climbed through the ebbing darkness. I worked my way up to the base of the crag, first along a roadcut, then along a plainly-evident trail. This was classic, dry Ponderosa montane environment.

From the top of the low mountain, the rocky crag rose another 75 feet or so. I scrambled up, found a level spot on the east side of the crag, just below the top, and sat.

I’ve never been to the top of a Colorado mountain when there wasn’t a wind blowing. On this one, it was mild – a steady pre-dawn breeze. I looked east. I was high enough that I could see all the way out of the mountains to the high plains beyond Fort Collins – a long, flat horizon. The sky glowing.

Six or seven birds sailed through the space above the valley, suddenly turning that space, which I’d been looking through, but never seeing, into a specific place of dimensions, the birds, a passing thought carried on the breeze, disappearing behind the crag.

The breeze pressed against me, around me. I breathed, and it entered. Exhaled.

* * *

I wrote some time ago about my experience with lovingkindness meditation. I worked out my own formulation of the prayer: May I be healthy, may I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be clear.

Clear is the word I use to remind me of the transparency I felt sitting on that crag – clear – the light of the rising sun shining through the transparent sky, through my body/mind. The breeze pressing on its way past me, through me. Not capturing, not converting, not insisting, not nothing, but no-thing.

* * *

Sitting on the crag was free and freeing. Liberation is nothing more than the simplest clarity.

Form and emptiness.

* * *

The yoga students start on their backs, shoulderblades drawn together and shifted down the spine toward the hips, holding firmly the space between their hearts and the earth. I call them through a slow and easy first series of sun salutations. We begin the second series with Warrior 2.

“Allow your vision to focus on the tip of the middle finger of your right hand.”

“Shift your vision from that fingertip to your right eye in the mirror in front of you.”

“Now back to the fingertip.”

“Holding that focal distance, allow your right hand to drop, and see the space your hand no longer occupies. See the space. Not through it, but just it.”

* * *

Years and years ago, I and a colleague walked through Central Park one morning. We were talking about consciousness, and as we walked we stepped onto some of the rubbed-smooth granite patches exposed above the lawns there. He remarked, “I think the rocks have an awareness of their own.” I disagreed, convinced that if it were so, it was a kind of consciousness inaccessible to me.

But now? As for me, I’m beginning to think that everywhere and everywhen is aware, just as aware as "my" body is. I just tend not to notice awareness much, except when it manifests in a form that interacts more or less readily with us. Rocks? Aware? Sure. Awareness is just aware. If it's awareness of a rock, it doesn't have much to communicate with, doesn't have much to remember with. What makes humans tick? We're evolutionarily complicated assemblages that have developed memories and communications and elaborate sensory devices. And we're aware. Not two different things, because everything has an inside to it – the aware part – and an outside to it – the part we can (in part) perceive through senses.

* * *

We do not walk upon the ground. We are as much the fabric of existence as the ground we walk upon, as the thoughts that fly through our minds like birds carried on the wind, as the water crashing down mountain riverbeds as spring run off, as the air we breathe, as the space through which we move.

Awareness, this exact instant, is all in all in all.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Disappearing and Reappearing

It's been a bit since I posted.

As you might have noticed, if you've read much here in the past, my practice (my habit? my karma?) has been to write from a particular stance, a particular view from a particular position -- geographically, conceptually, all that.

A while ago, it became increasingly clear that writing from that stance was a reinforcement of ego. It was bolstering the I/Me/Mine of the writer. Nothing wrong with that, per se. But that practice was making it harder to see beyond the I/Me.

German scientists recently reported success with a cloaking technology -- they managed to create crystals that coated a bump on a bit of gold so that the bump couldn't be seen. A kind of cool ability, when you intend it to happen.

Maybe I've discovered that my writing had turned into a cloaking technology for my ego -- but not only did it conceal it, the very act of concealing it bolstered it.

So every time I started to write, it soon became apparent that I had actually been writing.

It was funny, in a way. Once awareness of my own ego-capture would arise, the smaller I would resume the essay, usually along a tangent, only to have the process repeat.

As you might imagine, the actual words that get generated in such a process are pretty awful.

Rather than argue, I practiced contentment.

* * *

Then, after going blog-silent for six months or so, the urge to write arose again. The dilemma that had sent me into silence was right there where it had been left, still needing attention. Maybe it was the time to be deliberate, maybe it was movement in other aspects of life, maybe it was just a thinning of karmic build-up, but now -- today -- it feels like there may be ways to write that are simultaneously conscious of the self who is speaking, the world spoken of, the inextricable unity of them both, and the beautiful emptiness of all three.

At any rate, it's time to try.

Thanks for being patient.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A moment

The cherry is cold in my fingers. The stem comes off with a tug. I press the stem-hollow against a paring knife’s blade and the red-black skin and flesh part. The blade reaches the pit, and I turn the cherry. Knife akimbo, I twist the cherry halves and they part, one bearing at its center the convex pit, the other a glistening, concave hollow. My fingers stain with juice. I drop the finished half into a bowl and thumbnail the pit out of the other. Pit goes into the cup with stem, second half into the bowl with the first.

It is only when I start the next that I notice the wetness, the colors, the shine.

Tossed with the cherries, the yogurt pinkens.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

An evening meditation, mental illness, and emptiness

A recent Friday was busier than most days are for me. On Thursday, we’d had a heavy snowstorm that carried into the evening before tapering off. Since morning commutes are often ugly in the snow, I decided to forego a morning meditation and was on the road before six. Once I got to work, I managed a variety of matters, including a court hearing in the afternoon. I got in a yoga practice with a favorite teacher before getting home in the evening in time to run errands of various kinds. It wasn't until about 9:00 p.m. that I finally got around to meditation.

I sat peacefully for twenty minutes, watching breath, seeing thoughts, watching breath, seeing thoughts, focusing concentration, seeing thoughts, watching breath. The thoughts were random conjurations of links between memories and ideas and fantasies. As often happens, the meditative state crept in quietly, so quietly that I didn’t even notice it until I was drawn out of it by our dog coming to see if this oddly-timed sitting practice might yield food. Seeing no likely snack options, he went off to prod more likely providers. And I was left to finish my sitting slightly more aware of my own mind than I had been before the dog showed up. An evening meditation practice tends to end on an open, quiet note, while morning meditations end by launching me into my day.

So I went up to the bedroom and found my wife watching the second hour of A Beautiful Mind.

She asked whether I was willing to watch with her. If I’d not wanted to join her, she’d have ceded the bedroom to me and gone to watch the rest of the movie elsewhere. But there was more than a degree of courtesy in her question.

You see, mental illness runs in my blood. My sister was institutionalized for a time. She was, so far as I can tell, schizophrenic, though the shrinks she saw didn’t diagnose her that way. I think they hesitated in part because and she was, herself, a Ph.D. in clinical psych., and during the 1990s, a diagnosis of schizophrenia was a declaration of hopelessness for a debilitating, dimly understood, and largely untreatable condition. And that diagnosis didn’t really match Suzanne’s life. Did she hear voices of people who weren’t there? Yes. As she’d drive down the road, they’d scream in her ears to drive into the oncoming traffic on the other side of the road. But she also had an iron will. Did she show wild personality fluctuations, ranging from introspective and quiet to abrasive and antagonistic to unfocused and angry? Yes. But she also wrenched control of those personalities to impose on them her professional mask that allowed her to counsel and diagnose her own patients. And, as she acknowledged, sometimes it’s a bit easier to understand the mentally ill if you aren’t really mentally well yourself. So she Jekyll and Jekyll and Jekyll and Hyded her way through grad school in three years and into a professional counseling practice outside of Boston. Then, taking a break from practice, she spent several weeks in Utah, riding horses. One day she left to hike in a canyon, and didn’t return. Several days later, one of the several search parties found her cold body twisted and broken at the base of a cliff.

But it wasn’t only Suzanne who didn’t see only the things that were there.

* * *

I asked my wife whether the movie was past the scene where Nash is institutionalized, bound to a gurney, and overdosed on insulin to induce coma. She said, “yes,” so I figured I could deal with the rest ok. That had been the part of the movie that had made a mess of me when we saw it in the movie theater.

* * *

So the scene is Alicia, Nash’s wife, walking through the woods behind their house. She sees the door to an old standalone garage swinging open in the wind of a gathering storm. She goes to shut it, then glances inside. But instead of dusty old garage contents, she finds a paranoid’s collage of newspaper articles clipped and stuck to bulletin boards, bits and pieces underscored with markers, strings connecting one to another to another – an external representation of the bizarre, chaotic, pattern-making inside of a paranoid schizophrenic’s mind.

I see not only the movie’s story of Nash, and not only Alicia’s story-line realization that Nash is off his meds and can’t be trusted to bathe their infant daughter. What I see is the a visual depiction of a maelstrom of thoughts and ideas and concepts and assemblages that is troublingly like what I saw ten minutes earlier on the meditation cushion.

I turn away from the TV and see amassed in the bookcase at my bedside an ever-increasing collection of dharma books, philosophy, psychology. I see in my meditation practice, my yoga, a slightly frantic grasping. A bit of frightened aversion from depression. From the strange outside perspective of that moment, it all seems a little pathetic – even the grandiose notion that I’m pursuing enlightenment, rather than hiding in plain sight from imagined demons of the mind.

* * *

Me? Yeah. I’ve heard voices. Still do at different stages of meditation. Sometimes chaotic cacophony. Sometimes a thousand different voices all calling my name, some gently, some insistently, some annoyedly. You get the picture. But none really vindictive or destructive.

Seen things? Yeah, that too. Though what I’ve seen have been more like glimpses of a images from different dimensions. They didn’t strike me as “three-dimensional-world real.” More like overlays on 3-D real, making it simultaneously itself and something more. As real as anything I can sense is real. But not conventionally so.

Unconventionally? Yes, that.

* * *

So what about meditation?

Sometimes sitting on a block alone
is curiosity indulged.

Sometimes sitting on a block alone
is spacious awareness.

Sometimes sitting on a block alone
is superstitious genuflection.

Sometimes sitting on a block alone
is momentary rest.

Sometimes sitting on a block alone
is desperation embodied. And

Sometimes sitting on a block alone
is quietly empty.

* * *

What about seeing reality as it really is? I don’t know much about that.

* * *

In Arches National Park, there’s a gigantic boulder dramatically balanced on a thin fin of rock beneath it.

I remember the day it dawned on me that Balanced Rock was simply a result of largely disinterested mechanical processes that sometimes yield things that strike conscious minds as extraordinary.

* * *

One view of sanity is like that, too. An unexpectedly stable sort of awareness. One that lasts only as long as the substance undergirding it holds steady.

But that’s a bit too glib, too reductionist, too outside. Sanity is indeed a balance, and a precarious one, at that. But it’s one that can also shift, and jump, and dance from one stem of rock to another.

And sometimes to the ground.

* * *

As Neal Stephenson wrote in a recent novel, human minds are not only perceivers of sensory information, we’re nets that separate out some of the sensory input, and we’re lenses that concentrate it, and we’re communicants who distribute it. Awareness and community shape a cosmos awash in random data into form and order and beauty and balance.

I started meditating with the hope that I’d gain some clarity – that I’d better distinguish the real from the unreal. But instead of more certainty of the real, what I can lay claim to is seeing more clearly what there is to see from the inside of whatever it is that I’m inside of.

Is that the ground?

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Wild Foods

A short thought about life and living on others’ lives:

In sixth grade, we got to do an overnight field trip to a camp on the shores of Chesapeake Bay. The days were programmed with various things that entailed us heading in groups from one set of outbuildings to another along trails through the woods. I loved it.

Uncharacteristically, though, as the co-cabined students I was a part of headed over to the dining hall one afternoon, I ducked out of the group and headed toward the wooded shore, down the hill and a couple of dozen yards away. The others faded from sight and sound, and I was alone on the shore of an estuary, at low tide. Sheets of tightly closed black mussel shells glistened iridescent blue in the sunlight. What possessed me, I have no idea, as I’d never eaten shellfish before, let alone a mussel, but I pulled three of them away from their bearded moorings, built a tiny campfire of twigs, and laid the mussels on the top. As the heat grew, the mussels opened to me, and I ate shellfish for the first time in my life. The mussels, unseasoned by anything other than their own liquor, were perfect.

In later school years, some of my favorite books were written by Euell Gibbons, generally on wild foods. It was from him, if I remember correctly, that I learned to identify what was for many years my favorite wild food: the Indian cucumber (Medeola virginiana). But that’s just an aside. I first discovered Euell Gibbons in a National Geographic article that tells of a couple of weeks he spent on an island off the coast of Maine. It was intended as a bit of an austere retreat, but I recall him describing it as a failure, as far as retreats go, since he spent so much time gathering and feasting on the bounty he found at the edge of the ocean.

For reasons I haven’t discerned, I’ve been thinking recently about visiting the coast of Maine. I’d like to spend a few days doing what I imagined Euell Gibbons doing there, though I’m not sure I’d ever be able to persuade my family to join me in such an endeavor. But even if I did, I wonder whether I can justify harvesting life from nature for my own benefit.

Have I become so hide-bound in a vegetarian lifestyle that I wouldn’t want to eat oysters and clams and mussels? I find seafood delicious, but I want to live in a world brimming with life. Is there an ethic for one of 6.7 billion persons other than vegetarianism? Is a world devoid of blue crabs any worse than one devoid of Indian cucumbers?

I have a lingering sense that I’m missing something as I think about this – that there’s a different way of being that would show this question in a different light. But I can’t seem to get to the right angle of light to see it.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Haiku along Earth's Sky-Path

Fall’s day-stars now gleam
Through leafing willow twigs. Spent
Bud-shells crunch on Path.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Off the mat -- Taking what is not offered

(Another in a series of dharma talks)

During a recent meditation retreat, the other participants and I each undertook to live by the five Buddhist training precepts during our time there. One of those precepts is this:

For the purposes of training, I will not take anything that is not offered to me.

This is a common sense rule for those who will live in close proximity to one another – no “borrowing” your roommate’s shampoo, no swiping someone else’s flip flops. It’s a basic principle that is embedded in social systems everywhere – in the yoga tradition as the niyama of asteya – non-stealing. God told Moses a version of the same thing.

It isn’t wildly surprising that the precept forms a basic part of so many different cultures: it’s a simple way to maintain cooperation and minimize friction among humans. The training precept articulates the Buddhist version of the rule: unless it’s yours, don’t touch it, and it’s only yours if it’s specifically offered to you.

So on the retreat, we didn’t need locks on the doors. We didn’t have to wonder what would happen to the shoes we left outside the meditation hall. We didn’t have to hide our stashes of candy bars. My stuff was my stuff. Others respected that boundary. Things stayed where I left them.

They were safe.

I was safe.

* * *

I get up early. It’s still dark. I move quietly to avoid waking my roommate. He rustles under his covers and resumes his quiet snoring. I make my way to the small open closet at the foot of my bed. By feel I find clean clothes, make my way out of the room, down the hall, into the bathroom. I shower, towel dry, and dress. My mind watches each action, notices its own intentions. I brush my teeth at the sink, gather my old clothes, and return silently to my dorm room. In the dark I trade out the toiletries and old clothes for clean socks and a hooded rain shell, and I make my way to the bench just outside the building where I left my shoes the night before. It’s freezing outside, and foggy, the damp wood planking chills my soles. My breath billows around my head as I slip into socks, then night-cold shoes. I pull the hood of my shell over my head, and I begin walking slowly the hundred yards or so to the meditation hall. My attention is on the sensations in my feet – lifting, moving, placing, weighting, lifting, moving, placing, weighting, lifting, moving…

None of that quiet concentration would be possible if I were fretting over a missing water bottle or a jacket that wasn’t where I left it.

* * *

On retreat, the word-silent lunch seems loud with chair scraping, silverware clinking, and washing noises coming from the kitchen, the gurgle of hot water into tea mugs. My chores are later in the evening, so I have 90 minutes before meditation resumes. I find a path that twists and turns and switches back-and-forth up the steep hills. It’s cool but not cold except when the wind picks up. After fifteen minutes of climbing, my heart is pumping loudly, my breathing is strong. I reach a level spot about halfway up. Old rocks protrude from the grasses beside a laurel tree. I catch a leaf and crush it, releasing its royal scent.

I finish the climb, pause to admire the view, and begin to descend on a different path, past other outcrops. As I pass one, a tiny, perfect rosette of glaucous leaves catches my eye – an Echeveria – Hen and Chicks, but a kind I’ve never seen before – growing from a crevice in the rock. I think of the perfect spot for it in my garden in Colorado. I tug gently, the more firmly and the root pulls free, breaking off at the tip. I zip the plant into a pocket and resume my descent.

Then it dawns on me: who offered me the plant I’ve taken?

I can’t replace it in the crevice where it grew, so I try to replant it in a different spot, suspecting that the transplant won’t take without close attending that I can’t provide.

I begin to see more clearly that the training precept not only affects how others treat my stuff, but how I relate to the world around me.

* * *

Back at the meditation center, the Buddhist training precept of not taking what is not offered renders unnecessary my “I must protect my stuff” instinct. That doesn’t make it go away, of course, but it does draw the impulse into awareness: “Oh, I guess I don’t need to hide my water bottle behind the pile of zabutons after all.” And discovering how much of life has been devoted to protecting my “stuff” is at once a surprise, and a relief to be free of the worry. But after the initial freedom from the compulsion subsides, what begins to arise in me is an awareness of my raw attachment to my things – and my desires to be attached to other people’s things. And the closer I look at those impulses, the more they seem to be efforts to reinforce me, the one wanting, the one defining stuff as mine or wishing it to be mine.

At the heart of ownership, at the heart of property, at the heart of possession is the one possessed of the thing. For something to be “mine” is to define it in terms of a self. And whenever something is defined in terms of a self, that relationship also defines the self.

* * *

A couple of weeks ago, I learned that a dear friend and favorite yoga teacher was moving away from Denver. She had enriched my life significantly, and I found I wanted to give her something to reflect my appreciation. For several days, I debated exactly what might work for the purpose. After inventing and discarding half a dozen ideas, I thought of the perfect gift – an old Tibetan singing bowl that had been given to me years earlier and that formed an important link in the story-chain that led me to discover, practice, and teach yoga. Once I settled on the gift, I began formulating exactly how to present the story to her so she’d understand it in context – so she’d appreciate it as a part of me and my story. I imagined in my mind how I’d see her before the last Sunday morning class she’d teach, how I’d present the gift, how she’d respond, and how we’d be connected by the gift.

Of course, the actual giving didn’t go anything like I’d imagined it. I did see her before the last Sunday class. She was rushed and harried, greeting not just me but dozens of others who were also there to practice one last time and to say goodbye. I quickly handed her the unwrapped and tarnished bowl and dented striker, and all I managed to say was “there’s a story behind this that I’ll tell you later.” The opportunity “later” never materialized, and I never got to tell my friend the story of the bowl. And she never asked for the story behind it.

So instead of the bowl connecting the two of us as I intended, it’s probably just one more thing that got packed and moved. If it’s being used at all, tarnished thing that it is, each time it’s rung, its vibration and pitch don’t tie anyone to my story.

And the more I realize how much that fact bothers me, the more it seems related to the Buddhist training principle I learned on the retreat.

Because, really, my little sense of offense has nothing to do with what I was giving, but rather with what I intended to take. Though my actions were giving a gift to my friend, some part of my thoughts were all about me. Instead of “I give this to you,” it was “I want something from you, and getting it involves me putting this into your hands.” When we give in order to be appreciated, we often are taking what is not offered.

* * *

Once I saw this clearly relative to the bowl, I started to see it everywhere – in my dealings with my children (I get unhappy when I give them my Saturday afternoons, but they don’t clean up the kitchen), with my co-workers (I resent covering for them when they had sick kids, if they don’t cover for me when I was out), with my friends (I make time for them, but they don’t reciprocate as I want them to) –everywhere. It became disturbingly clear how often I was interacting with the world not simply out of a sense of love and generosity (though there was some of that to it), but out of a desire to control things – to get what I wanted by being perceived as generous and loving. I’d attached my wanting to the objects and devised ways to give them in order to assure myself some benefit.

Have you ever given a gift to someone, and then been disappointed by some aspect of the person’s response? When you gave a check to a nephew who was struggling to pay his college tuition, perhaps he spent all the money on iTunes, loading up on Italian goth metal music. When you gave your daughter a pendant for her birthday that you received decades ago from your grandmother, perhaps she looked at it briefly, said, “eh,” and dropped it on the table behind flashier stuff. Have you ever said (or thought) to one of your children, “You should do X for me because I gave birth to you/put you through school/fed you/sheltered you/whatevered you?” I have. And I was trying to take something that was not offered, just because I’d offered something – in theory – “freely” at some point in the past.

* * *

The Buddha taught Nothing is to be clung to as I, me, or mine, and Jesus warned against doing alms before men.

* * *

All of it, really, is simply a lack of letting go, a giving only half-completed. There is no giving without letting go. So long as I attach strings to the gift, there is neither giving nor gift.

So here’s my resolve: in giving, to give freely and to let go; in receiving, to receive only what is offered by family, friends, and existence.

* * *

…the world offers itself to your imagination.

-- Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”