Thursday, December 29, 2011

Can a Tiger Change Its Stripes?

Lately some TV shows have me thinking about character and integrity. Yes, I have been enjoying some entertainment lately… But I always am very reflective about it. There are dhamma lessons to be learned sometimes in certain stories that are meant to entertain us.

In the show “Lost,” the Nigerian drug smuggler, Eko, has ruthlessly killed many people. However, in a Robin Hood style, he offers the Church money for vaccines if his priest brother will agree to help him dress as a priest in order to smuggle heroin out of Nigeria. His brother reluctantly agrees. But when the drugs are being loaded onto the plane, the military comes. His brother is shot and killed, and Eko doesn’t make it onto the plane in time. When the military find him there, dressed as a priest, they address him saying, “Father, are you alright?” He then takes his brother’s place, living and practicing as a priest from that day on.

In the TV/comic book series, "The Walking Dead," a virus has caused the dead to walk and bite the living in order to pass on the virus to create a world of zombies. The few living left are struggling to survive and avoid becoming one of the walking dead. I had a dream last night that the living character Rick was bitten by and became a zombie. But he was a unique zombie. He still had a moral compass. He could feel the urge to bite, but he was able to restrain himself. He was able to stay peacefully among the living. Of course, the living were cautious around him. What if he were to run out of restraint?

The character of Rick is a strong leader with a good heart and ethics. And because he is such a good person through and through, the zombie bite did not bring him completely down. He looked like a zombie and had urges like a zombie, but he was true to his inner goodness in spite of it. People were suspicious that he was not good, but he actually was. “I’m a zombie, but I’m not going to bite you,” is what he said.

Good souls are not affected by evil, because nothing can break that goodness that is deep down inside. Just ask Angulimala. Angulimala, Pali for “finger garland,” was a cold hearted killer who took a finger from each of his 999 victims and strung them into a necklace which he wore. His goal was 1000 fingers. As he waited in the forest for his one thousandth victim, his mother came through the forest. He would have killed his mother, but the Buddha knew Angulimala’s heart and he intervened. Angulimala was ready to kill the Buddha instead.

“Then the Blessed One performed such a feat of supernormal power that the bandit Angulimala, going as fast as he could, was unable to catch up with the Blessed One, who was walking at his normal pace. Then he thought: ‘It is marvelous! Formerly I caught up with even a galloping elephant and seized it; I caught up with even a galloping horse and seized it; I caught up with even a galloping chariot and seized it; I caught up with even a galloping deer and seized it. But yet, though I am going as fast as I can, I am unable to catch up with this monk who is walking at his normal pace.’ He stopped and called ‘Stop, monk! Stop, monk!’
‘I have stopped, Angulimala. Do you stop, too.’”

“Then he addressed the Blessed One in stanzas thus:

‘While you are walking monk, you tell me you have stopped;
But now, when I have stopped, you say I have not stopped.
I ask you now, O monk what is the meaning of it;
How is it you have stopped and I have not?’

(The Blessed One:)

‘Angulimala, I have stopped for ever,
Foreswearing violence to every living being;
But you have no restraint towards things that breathe;
So that is why I have stopped and you have not.’”

“Angulimala: A Murderer's Road to Sainthood” by Hellmuth Hecker

This was Finger Garland’s wake up call. Upon hearing these words, he was able to see the pure heart inside of himself that had been covered up by hardness and evil. He was so moved that he asked to become ordained as a monk and a follower of the Buddha. The Buddha, being an excellent judge of character, agreed.

Some say “A tiger cannot change its stripes,” but I beg to differ. There is a seed of goodness even in the most heartless murderer. Redemption is available to anyone and everyone. All one has to do is see their own goodness inside, make the choice to stop doing evil things and water the seed of goodness inside.

The path of the Buddha is simple:
Do good
Refrain from wrong
Purify the mind

Monday, December 5, 2011

You and Me Against the World

It just occurred to me today that in an individualistic society such as the one in which we live, it is no wonder why anxiety and depression are so rampant. The majority of us are not meant to be so “independent.” Based on all I have read about attachment theory, it is clear to me that humans of all ages thrive better when they have a primary object of attachment. They are more happy, content, and less anxious.

From my own experience, I certainly had a more difficult time getting my attachment needs met when not in a committed relationship. I managed just fine on my own. I am as independent as they come in this society. And I have a good support network of family and friends that I can count on in times of trouble. But still it felt like something was missing. There was no one looking out for me on a daily basis for all the little things. Someone personally interested in and invested in my welfare. Someone to be a sounding board for my ideas and mundane concerns. Someone to feel really connected with and safe with.

I suspect it is possible to have a feeling of connection and safety like that if you are devoted to spiritual practice. I know that I have felt this way during times of intense meditation practice and times when I have been immersed in nature and away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. But I can’t be on meditation retreat all the time. I can’t leave my children to join the monastic community or become a hermit in the forest. I must be part of the world. And it is rough out there. Two heads are better than one in dealing with the demands of daily life in the world. A loving and committed relationship is like a safe haven.

For three years after the break-up of my marriage, I tried to find safe haven in myself. I took to heart all the advice that stresses the importance of “being happy on your own,” and that you don’t need a relationship to be happy. But I can honestly say now that it is not for me. I reached a certain level of independence and happiness as a single person, but there was always a nagging feeling underneath that I could not fight. The feeling that something was missing. The feeling that I belonged in a relationship. This is my nature. This is my karma.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Our True Teacher - Reality

“Laypeople live in the realm of sensuality. They have families, money, and possessions, and are deeply involved in all sorts of activities. Yet sometimes they will gain insight and see Dhamma before monks and nuns do. Why is this? It’s just because of their suffering from all these things. They see the fault and can let go. They can put it down after seeing clearly in their experience. Seeing the harm and letting go, they are then able to make good use of their positions in the world and benefit others…

The laypeople live in a certain kind of thoroughness and clarity. Whatever they do, they really do it. Even getting drunk, they do it thoroughly and have the experience of what it’s like. So, because of their experience, they may become tired of things and realize the Dhamma quicker than monks can.” Everything Arises, Everything Falls Away, Ajahn Chah, p 145-146

Wow. What an inspiring teaching from a great Master.

Throughout my years of following the teachings and practicing meditation, I have often had a strong desire to leave the world behind and become a Buddhist nun. I understand why this desire comes up. It is because I do see the suffering that worldly life can bring. I can see the suffering in me that results from complicated worldly and self-centered dramas. Drama from my daily activities trying to make a living and raise children. Drama from living in a society where everyone is trying to sell something, whether it be an object or an opinion. Everyone has their own idea of how things should be and that is what causes such conflict and drama in the world. The difference between how we want things to be and how they actually are, causes so much suffering.

This suffering is what causes us all to run to the churches, synagogues, temples, bars... One of my favorite scenes from The Simpsons is when the end of the world is coming to Springfield and all the people at the church run to the bar and all the people at the bar run to the church. We have this error in thinking that relief is somewhere out there. But wherever we are, that is where our practice is. We don’t need to go anywhere. When will we learn this? If we stop trying to escape this suffering, this suffering is what can actually wake us up.

We can take great pilgrimages to India or Thailand, we can go on three month retreats at Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts, we can climb Mount Everest or hitchhike across Tibet, we can seek out great teachers and meditation masters in caves, but our lessons are not to be found out there. Peace is not to be found out there. It’s not actually even found in meditation or prayer. These are good tools for preparing the mind for peace, but it is not where it is actually found. Peaceful feelings in meditation are only temporary.

True peace is found in seeing and understanding the truth of the way things are, and having no battle with it. This is Dhamma, the truth of the way things are. And only we can see it for ourselves.

“Others’ words can’t measure your practice. And you don’t realize the Dhamma because of what others say. I mean the real Dhamma. The teachings others can give you are to show you the path, but that isn’t real knowledge. When people genuinely meet the Dhamma, they realize it directly within themselves. So the Buddha said that is is merely the one who shows the way. In teaching us, he is not accomplishing the way for us. We have to the that ourselves. Don’t wait for the salesman to do it. Once he’s made the sale, he takes the money and splits. That’s his part.” Everything Arises, Everything Falls Away, p 146

“Just this Dharma is the true teacher.” Everything Arises, Everything Falls Away, p 141

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Welcome Change if You Want Love in Your Life

Things are changing. Love changes things. Love is changing my daily/weekly/monthly routines and habits. It is changing my thoughts about the future: thoughts about family structure, thoughts about living space, living habits and schedules. It is making me consider what is appropriate to share with my children and when and how do I do this right??

Since the separation over 3 years ago and the divorce being final over 2 years ago, I have gotten used to being a family of three – my two daughters and me. I have gotten used to doing everything myself: keeping house, cooking, shopping, fixing things that get broken, caring for the kids 5-6 days per week, etc. I have gotten used to having time to fill on the weekends I don’t have my kids and in the evenings when they are asleep (alone time that is sometimes desired, sometimes not). I have gotten used to being single. I have gotten used to making plans to do things by myself or with friends. I have gotten used to the dating scene. I have gotten used to keeping my kids out of my dating life. I have gotten used to being a little lonely and frustrated in the search for a beautiful man to share my life with.

I have gotten used to saying, “Next!” again and again in the dating scene, paging through profiles on internet dating sites, scrutinizing each potential candidate, ruling hundreds of men out, meeting a select few that passed my initial scrutiny to find some big incompatibility or to find there is no chemistry. The few men that I did choose, did not choose me in return. I was starting to think maybe I was being too picky. That my ideals were too high and perfectionistic. But I don’t think I have been too picky.

What I have been looking for is fairly straightforward and simple. All I have wanted is someone who is honest and responsible, has similar values and lifestyle as me with a mutual level of attraction. Just basic but critical qualities.

And just as I was about to take another break from dating, perhaps indefinitely, to go into a sort of sleepy hibernation all alone for the winter, I met the man who has woken me up and finally given me hope that what I have been wanting and waiting for actually exists! Not only does he meet my very basic criteria, he exceeds them and on top of that, he is just as crazy about me as I am about him.

I am 38 years old. I have had several great loves so far in my life. I am ready for the greatest love of my life. I am all grown up. I know what I need and want. I know what marriage means – I’ve been there already. I know what “happily ever after” actually is in reality. I am realistic about what a future with a man might be like.

I have no idea what the future holds for me, but I do know that I am willing to take a chance on love and find out. Let the transformation begin!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Right Understanding

I have been neglecting my blog a bit lately. I had such a fun and busy spring and summer with amazing experiences to write about and now I am settling in to fall, getting ready for the long Minnesota winter coming soon. The last several months were very busy and extroverted for me and now I am turning back inward. I am due.

My spiritual practice has been very informal and private for awhile now. I still feel well connected to the Buddhist path. It is the right path for me. But I have been taking a bit of a break from the sangha, the spiritual community. I have been feeling the need to reflect on my own true, personal understanding of the path and the practice.

I've been following this path steadily for the last 8 years. I have learned so much and experienced many moments of deep, true happiness. I feel like I should be cautious and not rest on my laurels too much, but at the same time, it is a good idea to stop and smell the roses once in awhile. My practice has truly made me a better person. It has made me a happier person.

There are so many important aspects of the practice. Generosity and morality being two key values. But even more important is the right understanding of these values. Personal understanding of the teachings that the Buddha gave us. Personal experience of the teachings.

For me, every life experience helps me better understand the teachings which help me better understand life experiences. I feel the pain of craving and I understand it. I feel the happiness of letting go and I understand it. I have a keen awareness of cause and effect.

It is this understanding that relieves suffering.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bliss in the Wilderness

Stepping over rocks.
Feeling the weight of a canoe over my head, rising up and down.
Feeling the tension in my shoulders.
Breathing. Stepping.
Finding a rhythm.
Feeling the stretch of my arms above me steadying the canoe.
Lightly stepping to the music in my head:
“I’ll dance, dance, dance with my hands, hands, hands above my head, head, head, like Jesus said…”
Hidden in a private world under the canoe.

It was a rush to portage the canoe in the Boundary Waters. It was scary and challenging and ultimately a secret pleasure. I am so fortunate that there are canoes now made of such light Kevlar material that a person 5’2”, 105 pounds, 37 years old, and only in moderately good physical shape - can actually carry one successfully and with relative ease. Twenty years or so ago I never would have considered even trying to carry a canoe. Twenty years ago I don’t think my Dad would have considered letting me try.

Every year, like clockwork, my Dad would go on a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with all his buddies. I had sheepishly told him long ago that he should take me sometime, but I never pressed the issue. I was not crazy about the idea of having to carry stuff over portages. I didn’t think I’d be able to keep up. Didn’t think I could carry my weight. Didn’t think I could paddle well. Didn’t think I could cut it. I certainly was not interested in hanging out with a bunch of old men. My Dad and I could have gone on a trip on our own, but I wasn’t sure what I thought of that idea. What would we talk about? Both of us such introverted people. By the time I realized that it was ok for us to just hang out without much talking, he would be leaving the world in just a few short years thanks to pancreatic cancer…

My recent trip to the BWCA was a sort of pilgrimage. The woods and water were my Dad’s chapel. This is the place that he honored and longed for always. This is the place where God is. God’s Nature Creation, he called it.

Here is his list of “tips” that inspired me to take a trip to the BWCA at Sawbill:

How to Succeed at Fishing – by John Thielen

1. Stay dry and warm. Layer your outer gear.
2. Always have a back up rod & reel ready to go.
3. Have a “Lighter Side” attitude at all times.
4. Keep your Fillet Knife sharp.
5. Bring a propane torch to light fires in
any weather condition.
6. Getting “Skunked” doesn't
mean the fishing was not fun.
7. Make sure someone is
taking pictures.
8. Enjoy Gods Nature Creation
to the fullest.
9. Leave no trace.
10. Enjoy friends around the campfire time
11. Plan a trip via Sawbill to fish and camp
On Burnt Lake.
12. Cut out and eat the Walleye Cheeks.
13. Pack as light as you can, not like this...

A few months ago I decided I wanted to take this trip because my Dad had just done it in May of 2010, right before the cancer started to get the better of him. I figured if he could do it with cancer brewing inside his body at age 57, certainly a young woman of 37 in good health would have no trouble taking the same path that he did. This would be my first time paddling and portaging in the Boundary Waters. I decided to invite some companions for the four day excursion. I sent an email out to my friends in my meditation circle, a group called Dharma Friends, and the response was overwhelming. Only 9 are allowed in one group for a BWCA permit and there were several people that expressed interest but couldn’t go. So we had a solid group of nine people signed up to go. Some with BWCA experience and some without. All of us with a common aspiration of mindful living. Several of us would be meeting for the first time.

We started out at Sawbill Outfitters and picked up our rented canoes. The young guy working there showed us how to lift and carry them. He demonstrated it several times and made it look incredibly easy. After what seemed like a long time, we finally had everything packed up and put in the canoes. We didn’t do a very good job following my Dad’s advice about packing light. Several of my companions were excited about eating well on the trip and that made for some heavy packs. Ultimately though, it was SO nice to have such good food along with us. It was a good eating weekend!

We had about four miles between the outfitters and our destination, Burnt Lake. Three lakes and two portages. We started out on Sawbill lake, the longest distance of the three lakes. We were fortunate to have some folks with us skilled with map and compass and finding the portages went smoothly. Our plan was flexible since I didn’t know how long it would take us to get to Burnt Lake. We had all spent about six hours in the car to get up north so there was only a portion of the day left for paddling. I wanted to get to Burnt Lake before sunset, but we would be cutting it close. I didn’t want anyone to feel pushed if it turned out to take longer than expected. The back-up plan was to do just one portage and camp on the middle lake, Smoke Lake.

The first portage was tricky. For several of us, this was our very first attempt at portaging. The distance on land from Sawbill to Smoke was 100 rods, which is approximately 100 canoe lengths or 1/3 mile. That sure didn’t seem like much when I was planning the trip (I did a 24 mile hiking trip over 3 days last year so 1/3 mile seemed like nothing), but when we were actually there, unloading the canoes, putting packs on and picking up canoes, the short hike over rocks and hills seemed a bit treacherous. We had enough gear to make two trips back and forth. My canoe mate carried the canoe first. I followed her and picked it up half-way. She held up the canoe while I ducked underneath it. I still had my pack on and would be attempting to carry the 50 pound boat along with my 30 pound pack – a good 75% of my body weight! And I don’t work out or anything so this was a bit crazy. It was unbelievably heavy, but I gave it a shot. I walked slowly and was mindful of my breathing. I think I made it at least a good 10 rods and had to put the boat down to take my pack off. I put the boat back on my shoulders and it was much more manageable. I had over-exerted myself with both the pack and the canoe though so I took it easy and reached Smoke Lake with much relief. My face was red from the heat and physical exertion. Most of us had to go back to Sawbill Lake to get the rest of our gear. Going back I felt so light! I practically skipped back to get my pack. I felt a sense of accomplishment at having carried the canoe for the first time.

It was an awkward and clumsy re-loading of gear into the canoes. It seemed to take forever and I thought, “Oh my God, we are going to have to do this again several times there and back! So much work!!” Everyone looked a bit pained and tired already. But Smoke Lake was a small lake. It was was a quick paddle to the next portage and we were doing good on time. When we all finally got back on the water, people seemed to be in pretty good spirits as they paddled so I decided we were going to go for the next portage and make it to Burnt Lake.

Our scouts found the portage between Smoke and Burnt quickly and easily. This portage was 90 rods. I decided to carry the canoe right off the bat. My canoe mate lifted it up for me and I walked underneath, this time without my pack. I balanced it and started off on a nice pace. I was pretty tired at that point, but a second wind kicked in and I made it to the end of the portage all on my own. Those that didn’t carry canoes made the trip back for more gear. Loading the canoes again went much more smoothly this time. We were already starting to get a groove on with loading and unloading. And we were so close to our destination. I was getting excited! I was so proud of my friends for all their hard work over the portages. Our trip time from the Outfitters to camp was about four hours. We did a great job.

The first campsites were fairly close to the portage. The one on the south end of the bay was occupied. We headed off to check out the one on the north side of the bay. I had thought about checking out the island site, but it was already 6:00 pm. I knew it would take time to set up camp, get supper cooking and hang the food. We were all pretty exhausted from a long day of traveling, paddling and portaging. I got off the boat to scope out the site. It had four good tent pads with one that could fit two tents. There was a nice rocky shore for us to pull the canoes up to unload.

I had no idea which site my Dad and his buddies used to go to on Burnt Lake. I know that they went to the same one every year and I had seen pictures a long time ago but had no memory of what the site looked like. Since I was exhausted and not confident we would find the island site quickly, I decided we should go ahead and set up camp on the northern peninsula. A week after our trip, I looked through my Dad’s old BWCA pictures and the site they used looked a bit like the one we stayed at. Afterwards I found out that my Dad's group usually camped on the southern peninsula, but had also camped before at the island and at the northern peninsula which we stayed at this trip.

We got the gear unloaded over the rocky shore and pulled up the canoes. People looked pretty wiped out. I could feel myself becoming very irritated and frazzled. I suggested to everyone that before we start unpacking, we take a few minutes to re-center ourselves. The majority agreed. We sat on the logs that were set up around the fire grate and on the grass. I set the timer for 10 minutes and all was silent. It was unbelievably silent. I’m not sure I have ever experienced such silence. There was not even the remotest sound of traffic, planes, wind, not even any sparrows chirping at each other. There were very few mosquitoes or flies around us at that moment. I sat with a scattered mind and a migraine brewing, breathing in and out. This is how it is now… Near the end of our 10 minutes, some loons called and flew over us. I could hear the very loud swishing of wings directly above our heads. I opened my eyes and smiled. The bell rang and then we all went back to the chaos of camp set-up.

Even with our common aspiration of mindfulness, we were people with different personalities, backgrounds, and preferences. At the start of the trip, things were a bit chaotic and disorganized. Packing, portaging and setting up camp was a little complicated and tense. But mindfulness helped us get along most peacefully and establish beautiful new friendships among us. I loved being with a group of such mature and mindful people. Rather than seethe about conflicts that arose, we were able to re-group and talk about it. We worked through it and made sure everyone’s needs were cared for. Once camp was set-up and our duties assigned, the days that followed were easy and just lovely.

We had perfect weather and did day canoe trips, swimming, eating lots of good food, laughing, singing and drumming around the fire. We only had a few hours of rain one evening but got the tarp up just in time to huddle under and cook dinner. One of my afternoons was spent lounging in a hammock alone on the peninsula looking out at the trees and sun-sparkling water. It was blissful Samadhi (concentration, one-pointedness of mind, peace). At the bonfire, I thought of my Dad and felt like he was there with us. I took out the paper with his picture and biography and tossed it into the fire during a moment of silence and remembrance. Then we had fun turning the canoe upside down and using that and other items such as an aluminum water bottle as percussion, pounding out beats with hands and sticks around the fire as the moon rose.

By the end of the trip, we were a well-oiled machine. Monday morning pack-up went smoothly and easily. We already had the canoe-packing down and the portages on the trip back to Sawbill went so much more smoothly and easily than on the way out. I carried the canoe again for half of one of the portages and all of the final portage. The final portage I didn’t even have help lifting the canoe or setting it down. I got into a blissful zone under the canoe and it was easeful. I know Dad would have been proud of me.

We tried to take our time paddling back. We sang songs as we paddled. The scent of the water over the breeze was intoxicating. The sun reflected brightly on the water and we paddled joyfully. It seemed all too soon when we reached the shore at Sawbill Outfitters. But as we unloaded our gear and brought the canoes up on land, I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment, for myself and for all of us. We had a group picture taken, all of us dirty and stinky with proud smiles on our faces. We loaded up our cars and started the long drive home. We stopped at the famous Betty’s Pies for our celebratory lunch, then parted ways. Later in an email, one of my companions summed up the awesomeness of our trip perfectly: “The bliss of being in that wilderness and being with good friends is so amazing!” Until next time, my dear Dharma Friends!

Monday, June 27, 2011

It’s Just Vedana: Reflections on the (Rain) Forest Retreat

There is a sound I hear when my mind is clear and focused. It is not a high-pitched ringing sound like you might hear when you are underwater or leave a loud rock concert… It is a musical note that is sustained and continuous, like an organ pedal tone. When I concentrate on the sound, sometimes notes are added to it, as in a chord of music, or overtones of that note. I usually hear the sound during times of rigorous meditation practice. Sometimes it is faint, and sometimes it is so strong that there is no other thing happening in my mind. Sometimes it goes away completely. It is interesting, but no big deal really. I don’t think it means anything special. It is just an interesting experience. There is some pleasure I take from it though. It is very calming and at times very joyful.

I returned two days ago from a 7 day meditation retreat. I am still hearing the sound here and there, in-between the distractions of work, bills, keeping house and taking care of my kids. It is a pleasant reminder of those few days of stepping away from the world.

I was actually surprised that I did hear the sound this time. For this retreat, I had a management role so there were a lot of things I had to take care of in-between the periods of sitting and walking meditation. I didn’t expect to reach a very deep state of concentration since there were many retreat logistics to take care of. I had never managed a retreat before so I didn’t really know what might come up. I helped set-up, take-down, welcome people to the retreat, make announcements, keep an eye out for issues that might need to be addressed and address issues that were brought to my co-manager and me, usually via notes tucked into the manager’s folder on the bulletin board.

I love noble silence while on retreat. I love having the pressure off to be someone. It takes the pressure off to make good impressions socially. The silence makes it easier for me to see what is in my heart and mind. But as a manager, I had to do a lot of talking in order to make sure things were clearly communicated to the retreat participants and other staff. Even then it was still difficult to communicate clearly and well sometimes, as I tried the best I could to protect the atmosphere of silence.

Mistakes were made, some things were missed, and there were some things I neglected to bring to the retreat that I should have. It reminded me of putting on a theatrical production. Props go missing, people forget lines, people get sick… but the show must go on! Flexibility and improvisation keep the show going. When you forget a line in the play, you make one up and then keep moving forward. And later the cast and crew have a good laugh about it. Usually the audience is oblivious to the errors, or have a good laugh along with the cast and crew. In my experience of theater, there is a lightheartedness about it all. We put on the show because we love putting on the show.

I felt lighthearted and joyful managing the retreat. I took care of things that needed to be cared for, but kept it as light as possible. There were some people that needed some help during retreat and I took that very seriously. But things forgotten or minor things that went wrong were no big deal to me. My co-manager and I improvised. I did my best to take all feedback in stride and not take anything too personally. There was a bit of work involved in that regard. There were a few notes that pushed my buttons. And on retreat, when we are really looking deeply inside ourselves during long periods of quiet meditation, there really is nowhere to run from the defensive feelings that naturally popped up for me at times. But the beauty of not being able to run away is that when we examine the afflictive state closely, it loosens its hold on us more quickly. I sat with those feelings and realized how strong the urge is to protect my precious ego. I just wondered about that. I just held myself in compassion for being such a normal and vulnerable human being.

Perceptions are relative. People have different perceptions about things based on their conditioning and personalities. I am always careful not to label my own perceptions as absolute truth because of this. And I am careful not to take either praise or blame too much to heart. I received a bit of both of these as a retreat manager. I did my best and I learned some things. I served joyfully. I am happy with that.

Ajahn Chah used to ask the people that came to his monastery in Thailand: “Did you come here to die?” This practice is about destroying our self-centered points of view. It is about learning how to become self-less. It is about learning how to stop taking everything so personally and stop worrying about how I look to everyone else. The first step is to catch ourselves doing these things. Observe without judgment. Observe with compassion.

I was able to find some peace and clarity this past week - even as a retreat manager, even with mosquitoes, even with five straight days of nearly constant rain (yes, I said five). There were unpleasant physical sensations and pleasant physical sensations. “It’s just ‘vedana,’” Ajahn Chandako would tell us, about these pleasant and unpleasant sensations arising due to the conditions around us. We will not find true happiness by chasing down pleasant experiences and running away from unpleasant experiences. Only by accepting these experiences as the way it is, can we have peace. So I will end this little reflection with a section from the Vedana-Samyutta, translated by Nyanaponika Thera:

6. The Dart
"An untaught worldling, O monks, experiences pleasant feelings, he experiences painful feelings and he experiences neutral feelings. A well-taught noble disciple likewise experiences pleasant, painful and neutral feelings. Now what is the distinction, the diversity, the difference that exists herein between a well-taught noble disciple and an untaught worldling?

"When an untaught worldling is touched by a painful (bodily) feeling, he worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps and is distraught. He thus experiences two kinds of feelings, a bodily and a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by a dart and, following the first piercing, he is hit by a second dart. So that person will experience feelings caused by two darts. It is similar with an untaught worldling: when touched by a painful (bodily) feeling, he worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps and is distraught. So he experiences two kinds of feeling: a bodily and a mental feeling.

"Having been touched by that painful feeling, he resists (and resents) it. Then in him who so resists (and resents) that painful feeling, an underlying tendency of resistance against that painful feeling comes to underlie (his mind). Under the impact of that painful feeling he then proceeds to enjoy sensual happiness. And why does he do so? An untaught worldling, O monks, does not know of any other escape from painful feelings except the enjoyment of sensual happiness. Then in him who enjoys sensual happiness, an underlying tendency to lust for pleasant feelings comes to underlie (his mind). He does not know, according to facts, the arising and ending of these feelings, nor the gratification, the danger and the escape, connected with these feelings. In him who lacks that knowledge, an underlying tendency to ignorance as to neutral feelings comes to underlie (his mind). When he experiences a pleasant feeling, a painful feeling or a neutral feeling, he feels it as one fettered by it. Such a one, O monks, is called an untaught worldling who is fettered by birth, by old age, by death, by sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. He is fettered by suffering, this I declare.

"But in the case of a well-taught noble disciple, O monks, when he is touched by a painful feeling, he will not worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. It is one kind of feeling he experiences, a bodily one, but not a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by a dart, but was not hit by a second dart following the first one. So this person experiences feelings caused by a single dart only. It is similar with a well-taught noble disciple: when touched by a painful feeling, he will not worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. He experiences one single feeling, a bodily one.

"Having been touched by that painful feeling, he does not resist (and resent) it. Hence, in him no underlying tendency of resistance against that painful feeling comes to underlie (his mind). Under the impact of that painful feeling he does not proceed to enjoy sensual happiness. And why not? As a well-taught noble disciple he knows of an escape from painful feelings other than by enjoying sensual happiness. Then in him who does not proceed to enjoy sensual happiness, no underlying tendency to lust for pleasant feelings comes to underlie (his mind). He knows, according to facts, the arising and ending of those feelings, and the gratification, the danger and the escape connected with these feelings. In him who knows thus, no underlying tendency to ignorance as to neutral feelings comes to underlie (his mind). When he experiences a pleasant feeling, a painful feeling or a neutral feeling, he feels it as one who is not fettered by it. Such a one, O monks, is called a well-taught noble disciple who is not fettered by birth, by old age, by death, by sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. He is not fettered to suffering, this I declare.

"This, O monks, is the distinction, the diversity, the difference that exists between a well-taught noble disciple and an untaught worldling."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Anxiety Meditation

We don't sit in meditation to calm down. We sit in meditation to be with whatever mess is there.

Any goals we might have for results in meditation must be dropped in order for meditation not to be a struggle.

When feeling stressed, instead of reaching for something to get rid or or ease the stress, we can just decide to sit with it and let the anxiety happen. The anxiety is here now, it has arisen now, so all we can do is be with it. All we can do is sit with the headache, the fatigue, the tightness in the chest, the racing heart, the racing mind. Let it all play out and run its course completely. Breathe with it and into it. Relax into it, really let it be there. Allow it in. Experience it fully. Hold yourself with compassion. Care about the pain. Care for yourself.

This is the training to stay. Stay with whatever is present. Don't run, don't rush, don't reach, don't grab. Just stay.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Alone in the Woods = Bliss

I love the woods. I feel most whole, complete and happy when I am out in nature. I’ve enjoyed many camping and hiking trips with others. I’ve enjoyed many day hikes by myself. Last year I went on my first backpacking trip with some friends using borrowed gear, and it felt like I had been doing it my whole life already. This spring I decided I would invest in my own backpacking equipment. I had fun researching gear and coming up with the most minimalistic, light and economical set of equipment. I had everything I needed in a pack weighing approximately no more than 25 pounds. I could hardly wait to use it. I planned a trip to the Superior Hiking Trail for the three-day Memorial weekend holiday. I’m pretty sure I had the smallest and lightest pack of all the other backpackers I encountered on the trail the weekend of my trip.

It took about a month to find and purchase all the gear and plan the trip. I had time and could have found others to go with me. But I decided I really wanted to do this trip by myself. I would get to make all the decisions, do everything exactly the way I wanted to and have some blissful solitude to boot. And I wanted to test myself – how alone can I get? What fears and challenges would come up? Could I overcome those fears and challenges? How self-reliant and resilient am I?

I took every precaution for my safety. The route I was going to take was remote, but well-traveled, well-marked and I had planned my route to the detail. It was in cell phone range. I had a pocket survival kit, a first aid kit, pepper spray, pocket knife, a whistle and a loud, street-smart voice and attitude (that’s what I get for growing up in the inner city of St Paul!) I had a bear-proof canister for my food.

As a planner and a perfectionist, I have done better over the years, since I started practicing meditation, of letting go of planning more and more. Nearly to the point of being too spontaneous at times and not planning enough. So I pulled in the reins a bit and put my planning skills to work again for this solo backpacking trip, all the while knowing that once it was planned, I would need to let go of my expectations that all should go according to plan.

That proved difficult, of course, when I ended up having to change my entire plan at the last minute due to very wet weather conditions. I can’t plan the weather. That is something that is definitely not within my control. I was a bit optimistic (read: delusional) that weather conditions would be fair, despite the forecasts for rain that started at 30% and then gradually became about 70% chance of rain and thunderstorms.

I had a good rain jacket, water-resistant pants and a tarp, but I was in denial about my shoes. They are somewhat water resistant and I sprayed them with a waterproofing chemical, but there was no way they would stand up to the amount of water and mud I would encounter on the trail. The last time I hiked SHT, weather was dry and the boots I wore were hot and uncomfortable. I thought I’d be more comfortable in my Columbias, which are higher quality and better fit than the old, borrowed boots I wore last time that were a size too big.

I’m not sure the boots were more waterproof than my shoes, perhaps slightly more, but that actually wasn’t the biggest problem. My Columbias actually fit too well and there was not enough wiggle room for my toes, especially with the nice toe socks I had bought. I suffered from some pretty large blisters. So the Columbias were a pretty big error. Can’t hike very long or far when your feet are blistered! But I still did get pretty far. Let me start at the beginning.

I left the Twin Cities at 5:15 PM Friday evening. I figured I’d be getting to the Lake Superior North Shore pretty late, so I’d already pretty much planned to roll out the sleeping bag in the back seat that night rather than do the one mile hike to the nearest camp site at the Castle Danger trail head.

Rather than the usual 3-1/2 hours, it took about 5 hours to get to Castle Danger due to the Memorial Weekend rush to get up north, and it rained the entire time. It was just after 10pm when I got on Castle Danger road. I had a hard time finding the trail head parking lot on the gravel road and I had to back track. It was still pouring rain outside. It was hard to see in the dark and rain.

I finally found the lot and there were five cars parked there. I had a sinking feeling there may not be enough camp sites for the everyone this weekend. And I’m pretty sure I was not the only one camping out in my car that night. Since I was alone, I checked out each vehicle and noticed that one van had a window cracked open. Most likely other fellow, peaceful backpackers, but I just took note to be aware.

I took some deep breaths and prepared my back-seat bed for the night. I was feeling pretty anxious because I’d had trouble finding the parking lot and because of seeing all those vehicles. I guess I wasn’t surprised to see them all since it was a holiday weekend, but I had sort of hoped that particular lot would have been less busy. Then again, perhaps it was safer with more people around. Less likelihood of any one of them stirring up trouble with all the other people around.

I cracked open the car windows and laid down to the sound of rain pounding on the roof for the rest of the night. I looked at the silhouette of pine trees against the stormy night sky. In my mind I chanted the metta (lovingkindness) phrases: “May I be safe and protected, happy and peaceful, healthy and strong, and may I live life with ease and joy.” I went to sleep in my cozy down sleeping bag. The back seat of the Camry wasn’t bad. I’m so short I barely noticed bending my knees all night, since I tend to sleep that way anyway. But I wished my Saab wagon was still running. Then I could have stretched out in a luxurious car bed!

I felt like such a vagabond that night. And the whole weekend, really. I had my car and a tent. I could have gotten a motel room that first night, I suppose. I was surprised to see quite a few “vacancy" signs on the drive up. But I was trying to keep this trip low cost and simple – and have a sense of renunciation rather than indulgence.

In the morning, the rain was still going strong and even that car bed felt incredibly comfortable. I found myself not too crazy about the idea of starting out my hike cold and wet. I craved comfort. I really noticed that craving for comfort. I fancy myself to be a pretty tough minimalist. I like to push myself sometimes to see just how much I can do without. I suppose that was truly my goal for this trip – to see where my limits are in making do and going without – including going without a companion.

I had planned to take a shuttle from that lot at 8:30 AM to Split Rock, but I looked again at the forecast on my phone and there were no signs of the rain stopping any time soon. I studied my maps and ran through all the options in my mind. I decided to choose comfort. This was a vacation after all, and I was in charge of it 100%! There was no one around to debate about anything with. No one to try to talk me into taking a different direction with my plans. No one for me to blame if the choice turned out to be wrong. No one but Me!

I packed up, cleaned myself up, and started the car. I headed over to Betty’s Pies for warm and yummy coffee and a hearty breakfast. I emailed the shuttle service to cancel my reservation. I lingered in the restaurant to relax and come up with a new plan.

I had a nice chat with the waitress and an outdoorsy-looking woman who had come in for some food to go. I mentioned that I should know better than to plan a hiking trip over Memorial Weekend. It always rains Memorial weekend! The outdoorsy woman laughed and nodded. I felt comforted by the good food and some women companions to commiserate with.

It was still raining after breakfast so I headed to Duluth. I stopped at Walgreens to get cash and a cheap rain poncho. I didn’t have a rain cover for my pack so I thought I could use that thing to throw over myself and the pack. What a great $7 investment! It ended up being quite the multi-purpose tool: rain jacket, pack cover, tarp, cushion, blanket. Highly recommended. Small and light too.

Next I headed over to the Glensheen Mansion to take the tour. I’ve been to the Superior north shore countless times, driving by that mansion countless times – and never went there. On the drive up, I was thinking to myself that maybe I would have time to visit the place on my way home. It ended up working out best to do it before I even started my hike. The rain created the perfect opportunity.

I bought my ticket and waited in the carriage house for the tour to start. I didn’t know anything about the mansion or its history. Just standing in the huge brick carriage house, I was taken aback by the wealthy extravagance, and I started to wonder how this show of indulgence was really going to fit in with my goals of simplicity and austerity for the weekend. I started to feel like maybe I’d gone in the wrong direction.

The tour started and I learned about Chester Congdon, a well-educated school teacher turned entrepreneur in the iron ore business. He used his money to build this fabulous castle of a home with the finest of everything. Clearly he had a vision of the place to be enjoyed by many, in his day and in the future. It was willed to the U of M after the death of his last remaining child. The many rooms were filled with visitors then and now. People today can go there for weddings and social gatherings and take pleasure in its elegant beauty and interesting history.

The tour came to the master bedroom. It was plainly appointed. There were no fancy art glass light fixtures or $100 tiles. The wood furniture was plain. The tour guide said that the room was purposely made plain for Chester and his wife Clara so that they could always remember their humble beginnings. An island of austerity in a sea of indulgence. Did that really work to help keep them humble? I can’t say. But I thought it was a good idea just the same. We all need an island of humility and renunciation to keep ourselves in balance in the indulgent society we live in.

The tour ended and so did the rain. After some deliberation, I decided to head to Gooseberry State Park. I would park there and just do a good long back and forth hike that day, Sunday and Monday. I would try to hike from the Gooseberry picnic area at Lake Superior where I would park my car, to the Crow Creek Valley campsite near the Castle Danger trail head.

I parked and set out hiking at noon. Gooseberry State Park was really busy with tourists. I felt funny walking along the river path with my big pack, behind all these clean and well-dressed people with nice hair, make-up and cameras. It was a about a mile long hike to the visitor center from where I was parked. It would be an additional eight miles to the campsite I had in mind. I was fresh and full of energy so I decided to go for it.

The falls at Gooseberry are truly beautiful, especially the upper falls where there were fewer people. I had some trouble getting on to the Superior Hiking Trail. There were so many trails within the state park so I had to be careful not to veer off onto the wrong one. I had to back track a little just to figure out how to get on the pedestrian bridge at highway 61 to get over the river. Once I got over though, I just made sure to stick close to the river. I met some other backpackers coming the opposite way and they had veered off the SHT a bit. So I didn’t feel so bad about wondering if I was on the right trail.

At the Fifth Falls bridge, I met some other backpackers and had them take my picture. The sun was peeking out and suddenly it was feeling like a whole new day. I was surprised by far it was to the state park border. From my car to the border was about three miles. Six more to go!

I had some really nice miles that day. The sun was warm, the spring leaves fresh and gree, and the river was sparkling. I loved how the trail followed the river for quite a few miles. It was very pleasant. I was getting used to the pack on my back and my body felt good.

I reached the Middle Gooseberry campsite and sat down to rest. It was hard to stay still. Once you get moving on the trail, it feels good to keep up the momentum. I get into a flow. And when I sat down, I had a sense of, “Well, now what?”

Hiking is so busy. At least it is for me. I tend to be a bit goal-oriented more than just enjoying the journey itself. I gave myself a break on this though. This was the first time I’ve ventured out to do such a trip by myself. I had to consider logistics very carefully. There was no one around to call me on any errors of judgement. I know too well that my delusional nature can get me into trouble sometimes, the “everything will be just fine” thoughts, when in reality everything is going to hell. Positive thinking is not helpful when it is out of touch with reality. Everything can be fine even when it goes to pot, but I still have to look at the pot.

After my short break, I pressed on again. I passed the East campsite which was occupied and then to the West site which was also occupied. A man was there with his son and he gave me a heads up that the trail I was going toward was ankle-deep mud. I paused for a moment. I could go back to the Middle site and set up camp, or I could see how bad the mud really was and contue on to the site I’d planned to get to at Crow Creek Valley.

I decided to go for it. I wanted to go my long distance that day, Saturday, then take my time going back Sunday and Monday. If I stayed at the Middle site, I wasn’t sure what I’d do with myself. In hindsight, it may have been that going back to the Middle site probably would have worked out fine, but what I ended up actually doing worked out fine too. And I doubt I could have avoided muddy feet anyway.

I continued on. Most of the mud I was able to navigate around. I got into a flow of mud avoidance maneuvers. I watched every step carefully and my feet stayed dry. I met up with 2 couples coming from the opposite direction. One of the women had given up trying to keep her feet dry. The mud stains on her pants were calf-level. They asked if there was an open site ahead and I said there was. I asked about the site I was headed toward and they said it was taken.

I had a bit of a sinking feeling (not just my shoes sinking into mud) that there would be no camp site for me. But I was glad the foursome would have the site I would have gone back to. A larger group would not be able to make their own site in the woods so easily. I on the other hand, could. So I contemplated this as I hiked on.

Mud, mud and more mud. The trail was more like swampy marsh. Still amazingly, I was able to keep my feet pretty dry. Finally I came to a steep climb on rocks that pulled me out of the muddy area. I reached the landmark of Mike’s Rock. I continued on about another half mile and reached an awesome overlook.

It was about 5:30 PM and definitely time to set up camp. There had been some sporadic thunderstorms that afternoon and more were expected. Fortunately, the few showers that had come through that afternoon had been warm and short-lived. I was still dry and warm.

It was very woody west of Mike’s Rock and a bit of a challenge to find a clearing suitable for setting up my tent. I settled on a spot well tucked away out of view of the trail. I cleared a spot and set up. There were a lot of mosquitoes, little baby ones. I did my best to send them love and compassion so they would not make me have to get out the deet. I put my hood up and got to work.

After getting my tent up, I gathered up my pasta primavera pouch meal, a spoon, my GSI cup and my Esbit stove, fuel and lighter and walked to the overlook to cook dinner and enjoy the view. My water boiled perfectly on that tiny stove and the rocks I had set it near acted nicely as a wind shield.

Just as I started to enjoy my meal, some storm clouds rolled in and it started to rain. I packed up my dinner and headed back down the trail towards my secret campsite in the woods, when it started hailing. I hauled ass down the trail and jumped through the brush as fast as I could to get to my tent. I’d left the tent flap open and my pack out and everything was getting wet! I quickly tossed everything into the tent and closed the rain fly. I stood out in the rain in my rain jacket, and then it stopped. I stood there and finished eating, trying not to rush. Then I got my tarp and rope out.

I’m not a good tarp hanger. But there was no one around to laugh at my tarp hanging skills or do it better. I strung the rope through the holes as I weaved the rope around several trees. I was surprised that it actually looked pretty sturdy and functional. But I still didn’t take a picture because you would probably still laugh!

That gave me some dry space outside my tent. My tent is too small to just hang out in. It is strictly for lying down and nothing else. I gathered some wood and started a small fire. I warmed my hands. I had gotten a bit wet that last rain and was starting to feel cold. The fire was short-lived though, as it started raining again. This time the rain was here to stay. I was so grateful that I’d been able to set up camp and cook my dinner before the serious rain came.

I was sitting under the tarp using the rain poncho as a dry cushion on the ground. But the wind was starting to blow the rain under the tarp and I was getting wet, so I finished off the fire and retired to my tiny, one-person tent to lie down for the night. It was only 7:30 PM. I passed the time by looking at my trail maps and checking the weather. Then I just laid there and meditated during the thunder and lightning until I fell asleep. Being in the back country by myself at night during a thunderstorm was pretty scary. I managed my fear with meditation. I was able to stay calm. I felt safe and was able to sleep well.

In the morning there was no more rain. I woke to a strange sound – a multitude of whining voices (that were not my children!) I wondered about it awhile. Then after some silence I heard the long howl of a wolf off in the distance, quickly followed by the cacophony of yips and yelps of the pack. Wow.

Everything was pretty wet outside. It had rained most of the night. I dreaded how the trails would look after all that rain since they’d been bad enough on the way out. But first I had to take down my wet tent and tarp through a cloud of mosquitoes. I thought longingly of the mosquito net jacket my late father had so kindly left in the trunk of the car I inherited from him. The car was about 7-1/2 miles away. The jacket was kind of bulky so I had decided not to bring it. I would have to make do.

I packed up fast then went out to the lookout, hoping to sit down on the rocks and have breakfast, but the swarm followed me out of the woods. I scrambled to get out the insect repellent, slathered it on and started walking. I had to be content with a Cliff bar for the moment as I tried to outrun the swarm.

I did finally get clear of them, and then came the stretch of muddy trail that was no longer muddy trail, but straight up swamp. I did my best to maneuver around it as I had the day before, but the rain had made it impossible to step in anything but ankle-deep water at many points. I took a deep breath and stepped in, watching my shoe disappear into the water and mud. I would experience wet and squishy feet for the next few miles.

I was happy when I reached the river, as I knew the trail ahead would not be quite as squishy. I found a sweet spot to sit on a downed birch whose bark had dried over the hollow, wet trunk. It was a perfect dry seat. The sun was shining and the river sparkling. I made a point to linger there awhile. That was a blissful moment. I washed my face, brushed my teeth and had some dried fruit to eat. There was a slight breeze blowing away the mosquitoes. I enjoyed having that spot and the river all to myself. I felt like it was my own private river.

I debated about my plan for the day, Sunday. My revised plan had been to camp that night at the Middle campsite. But more rain was forecasted for that evening, meaning another early bedtime in my tent and no fire. It was also supposed to keep raining in the morning, which would mean packing up in the rain and hiking back the remaining 3 miles or so in the rain. I decided to hike on it.

I squished on. The trail was much drier, but my feet were soaked. When I reached the Middle campsite, I took off my wet shoes and socks and had lunch. I laid out the rain poncho on the ground like a blanket and laid down to warm myself in the sun. It was so early in the day yet. It seemed too soon to set up camp. So, after a long rest, I decided just to hike the rest of the way back that day while the weather was nice instead of through the rain the next day. Then I could either camp at the state park campground or just get in my car and start heading home.

I felt unsettled by the constantly changing plan, but on the other hand, what reason did I have to strictly follow any particular plan? And why stay just to get rained on and then go home? Why not skip the getting rained on part? I remembered again that this was supposed to be a vacation. There was no need to stay for the unpleasantness of cold and wet weather if that could be avoided. The way I figured, there are plenty of unpleasant experiences in life that are inescapable. I don’t have to be a kamikaze on a holiday weekend, gritting my teeth and snarling, “Feel the burn!!” I’ll save that for other life challenges. I decided I would enjoy the rest of the beautiful day on the trail and then head to my car. I put on dry socks and makeshift shoe liners made from a plastic bag I cut up and voilà! Dry feet.

But my feet were pretty crowded and blistering. The last three miles through the state park were pretty painful for my feet. My legs and back were in great condition. In some better boots, I could really go far. And of course I realized how silly it was that I spent a good chunk of change on lightweight gear that I wore on my back, but minimal consideration was made for my feet.

I had been tempted to strap my hiking sandals onto my pack but decided against the load, figuring one pair of shoes was enough. But those sandals are on my revised checklist now. I could have waded through the swamp easily in those and my feet would have dried out fast. I had figured my feet would be safer from rocks and sticks in shoes vs. sandals, but now I’m not so sure that is a valid case for not wearing them on the trail. There are some people who actually do barefoot hiking. I’d say that sandals are safer than bare feet, especially sturdy, grippy sandals made for rough uneven ground like mine are.

As I got into Gooseberry State Park, I started seeing more and more people again. Now instead of mud, I had to watch out for all the tourists. I was hot and greasy and hopefully not too smelly as I made my way back to my car, along with the crowds of fresh, clean people.

My feet were so happy when I reached the car and pulled off the squishy shoes and freed my poor squished toes. I took off my muddy trail pants and put on clean capris. I was glad I had thrown some sandals in my car before I left so I didn’t have to put my shoes back on. The straps of the sandals fit perfectly around my blisters and I suddenly felt like I could actually walk a few more miles! Ha ha…

So in my clean pants, fresh sandals and greasy hair, I went to check out the visitor center. There was an exhibit showing all the wildlife of the area. I looked at the wolf display. A woman was taking a picture of it. I smiled and thought, “I don’t need a picture of a wolf in a glass case. I heard them with my own ears this morning!” And then I saw the case displaying wild cats. I felt a chill at the discovery that there actually have been some rare cougar sightings in the area. I knew about wolves, moose and bears, but there may have been some wild cats watching me too. I hope they felt my love for them and all the creatures of the forest!

I walked back to my car, got in and drove away. It was only about 4:00 PM so I made a few stops along the way. I didn’t feel like leaving the North Shore quite yet. There is an overlook at Silver Creek Cliff that seems to always be deserted, so I decided to stop there and gaze at the Great Lake for awhile. I was the only one there, blissfully alone, and I thought to myself, “Is this just wrong? To so completely enjoy being by myself?” But even in my bliss of solitude all weekend, a twinge of longing would pop up here and there. The longing for an intimate partner to share journeys like this with.

I had cell phone service all weekend so I shared status updates and pictures on Facebook as I went along. I have a suspicion that if I’d had a partner there with me, I wouldn’t have felt as much of a need to share things on Facebook. I think I still would, but it would be more of an after-thought.

Our existence here in this life is to share. Share ourselves, share our experience, our joy and sorrow. We are all in this human life together doing the best we can to be happy. I like to be alone to figure things out, but then I like to share the insights that come up for me during my time in solitude. I want to share my joy.

As I walked along the path at Silver Creek Cliff, absorbed by the expansive lake and sky, deep in contemplation, feeling peaceful, it started to rain. As I ran back to my car, I felt validated in my decision to head out.

I stopped for dinner at the New Scenic Café and had a lovely, tasty gourmet walleye sandwich. And the handsome waiter was a little eye candy for me too. And even though I looked pretty messy, I didn’t care. I was radiating love and joy.

On the drive home I checked out some different internet radio stations to keep me awake. I kinda liked Soma FM – Secret Agent. You know, like stuff in a secret agent movie soundtrack.

At home I had a nice long bath and a nice long sleep and then a leisurely Memorial day to reflect on my journey. And feel grateful for how comfortable my life is.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

We Are All Solitary

When I was a child, my inner world was magical. I had a blissful, private world full of delights. I was full of feeling and imagination. My parents loved me and cared for me well. There was nothing missing. I was whole and happy.

When I became a teenager, as I separated more from my parents, I discovered loneliness. It was sort of bittersweet, but it also seemed like a problem to be solved. The world told me that if I were to find a boy to love me, that problem would be solved.

So here I am, at a ripe age of 37, finally completely understanding through experience, that not only is a boy not the solution to the problem of loneliness, but that loneliness is not even really a problem. That loneliness comes and goes on its own and the more connected I am to myself as a solitary being, the less lonely I feel. It took awhile to get here because for most of my life, there have been so many boys available to me and eager to try to help me solve the loneliness problem. In my late 30’s, with a full time job and kids to take care of, opportunities with boys just aren’t as plentiful as they used to be.

At first that fact was frustrating to me. Apparently 1 in 5 couples these days have met online, so I tried online dating for awhile. I’ve met several very good men that way. But for whatever reasons, nothing has worked out. Maybe it is because people my age just aren’t as open and carefree as we used to be. We have some baggage and may be overly cautious. Or maybe we are too picky. We have a better idea of what we want in a mate and since there are so many people online, we may be too quick to pass someone over and move on to the next person. Or when we do find someone we like, maybe we move way too fast and it becomes uncomfortable for one or both people. Just add water and there is your instant relationship!

So now it is time to take a break from all that. It was fun for awhile, but now it is time to re-group with myself. Time to spend some quality time with my best friend - the magical, blissful, delightful, full of feeling, imaginative, loved, whole and happy solitary being that is me.

When I write that down, it looks like incredibly cheesy self-help pop-psychology or a Stuart Smalley-ism, but really it is true. The reason that I haven’t been feeling lonely lately is that I have been feeling in touch with my inner girl. I’ve been feeling connected with the part of me that existed prior to knowing loneliness, prior to knowing the mating urge, emptiness or incompleteness, danger or sorrow.

We are all solitary. There is no getting around our physical separateness from one another. Or our mental and emotional separateness. No one will ever know us as well as we know ourselves. No matter how many friends and loved ones we have, no matter how well connected we are socially, each of us is still on our own. When that fact is not scary to us, we have incredible power in our lives.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Mindfulness of the Body (One of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness)

I don’t know why it is such a surprise to me, but I feel happy and content lately. Aside from the restlessness that pops up again and again with the storyline that I am missing something because I don’t have a mate, my life is working quite well. Maybe that restlessness really isn’t about that. Maybe it is just restlessness.

I used to feel panicky often. I used to wake up in the morning and freak out. I would lie there and analyze, “Why am I feeling this way? There must be a reason! And if I can figure out the reason, maybe I can do something about it.” After many years of that, I realized that the anxiety was just anxiety. The stories were constantly changing but there was always anxiety, no matter what the story about it was. I realized then that it was more just a physical sensation in my body. It had no reasonable explanation whatsoever. It was out of my control.

So I changed my strategy for dealing with it. I stopped looking for an explanation, a story about the anxiety. I stopped trying to do something about it. Instead I would just lie there and say to myself, “Wow, just notice how the body is feeling now. The body is tense and worried.” I let the feeling be and when stories started to try to explain the anxiety, I would remind myself of what I knew to be true, from experience, that there was no real story to explain this. I focused on the sensations in my body – the heart pounding, the sweating, the nausea, the mind racing to pin down what the danger was – and I just let it happen. When it was really bad and my mind got out of control, I would breathe in and say to myself, “Body.” I would breathe out and say to myself, “Calm.” Saying “Body-Calm” gave my mind something to do other than search for an explanation.

Recently I’ve realized that a lot of the time I am catching the panic before it even starts! I suppose I probably practiced this way for a good year before that happened. It did take time and practice. Now I wake up in the morning and I feel that hint of panic start up, but it is immediately crushed by the knowledge that it is just the same ol’. It is nothing new, nothing special, nothing important. It does not have any power over me any more. The mind has been trained not to go there. The mind has less of a compulsion to try to explain it. It has already been explained. Over and over and over. There is nothing new to panic about (well, unless my life was truly in danger for some reason).

Now that I have had some success with working with anxiety, I think it is time to apply this theory to restlessness. Restlessness is not as worried or afraid as anxiety. It is just a nagging sensation of something not being quite right. It is an urge to fill space. It is the feeling that maybe I should be doing something else. It has an element of doubt. It is discontent. It is not being entirely satisfied with the way things are, even when things are going pretty well. Restlessness also has distinct physical sensations, though much more subtle than panic and anxiety. There may be twitchiness, nail biting, the compulsion to move, the compulsion to do, a feeling of heaviness in the body, tightness in the chest, or tightness in the shoulders.

This stuff is subtle. But the key is to focus on the body instead of the story in the mind. The story I hear to explain the restlessness is, “I don’t have a mate.” My goal is to label that as a thought rather than believing the broken record that wants to play over and over. Perhaps another story might try to take its place. That too is just a thought and should be labeled as such.

The mind/ego wants to be real. It can really beat us up in an effort for us to believe it all and believe it is who we are. But the brain is just doing its job. The mind thinks. It isn’t always right and it isn’t me. The mind creates thoughts. The brain is just an organ that sends electrical impulses around. When we look at all the stuff that passes through our minds on a daily basis, we can see how messy it is! Sometimes we might wonder who it is that is thinking all that. Some of it can be really shocking. If I believe it is me thinking such horrible thoughts, I might have a great sense of shame or self-judgment. But the answer is that it is not me thinking all that. It is just my creative brain coming up with this stuff based on what is coming in from the senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. And our minds also react to what the mind creates, resulting in circles of thoughts.

We can’t always stop what is coming in through our senses. But we can recognize that our brains are just reacting to whatever it is that is coming in. It is not personal.

It is all pretty complicated. We have information coming in from our senses that trigger body, mind and emotional responses. Our bodies react to our minds and our minds to our bodies. But the biggest way we get tripped up is in believing everything that happens in the mind. When I focus on the sensations in my body and just feel the physical sensations of what has arisen instead of getting my mind all wrapped up in it, the crisis passes much more quickly.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Protecting Your Inner Solitude

One thing that keeps ringing in my mind since my time at Aranya Bodhi was a teaching given about protecting your inner solitude. It involves staying present with yourself and even withdrawing from certain social interactions that are not conducive to spiritual goals. The teaching was focused toward monastics protecting their solitude and protecting their ability to keep their many precepts. But this teaching also applies to lay practitioners as well.

It is hard enough for a lay person to keep five precepts. The world and society we live in is geared toward getting more, staying distracted, and trying to achieve our fantasies. It is geared toward constant stimulation and social interactions full of fluff (small talk, gossip, etc).

One thing that has been very difficult for me to work with is the bombardment of entertainment that is hyper-focused on romance. 99 out of 100 songs on the radio have something to do with romantic love in some form or another. It seems like there is not a single blockbuster movie that doesn't include some sort of romantic storyline. And it is so far from reality! But we see it so often in Hollywood that we become convinced that this stuff is real. This just makes us feel like we are missing something in our lives if we don't have a romantic partner. Like there is something wrong with us if we don't experience that fantastic romantic story in which we are the star. I do love this song by Metric called Sick Muse. She sings, "Watch out Cupid, stuck me with sickness, pull your little arrows out and let me live my life." and "Everybody, everybody just wanna fall in love. Everybody, everybody just wanna play the lead." Yep.

This is why I don't watch a lot of movies and don't listen to the radio much. Most of the music I do listen to is instrumental. But my kids like to watch movies and even all those so-called family movies tend to have "happily-ever-after" type romantic themes! It is just impossible to avoid. And it is very tough to try to teach my kids that this is not reality. I can't just take away movies from them altogether. But we do have conversations about them in an effort to help them think critically about the things they learn from entertainment.

It is easy to start thinking that romantic love is our highest goal, our highest purpose in life. But romantic love of any kind is ALWAYS temporary. Even those that make it a lifetime, lose each other eventually in death. Intellectually, it doesn't make much sense to devote our entire lives to something that is fleeting. I think the reason that so many of us do is that we feel that a higher and eternal love and happiness is unattainable, or that it is only available to us in heaven when we die. We have a sense that since this highest love is not attainable, we may as well just give in to that fleeting, earthly, romantic love. And then we try to hang on to it and we suffer. Suffer dearly.

Don't get me wrong. I am actually not against romantic love. I still long for a beautiful companion to enjoy pleasures and pain with. But the lesson I am learning is that this is only an after-thought in comparison to my highest goal, my highest purpose for my life. My highest goal is solitary happiness. This solitary happiness is my rock. Resting in the reality of the way things are in perfect equanimity is my goal. I find this equanimity through solitude and meditation.

When I am alone, it is easy. I can dwell in mindfulness. When I am with others, I find that I need to do a better job of protecting that mindfulness and inner solitude. It is easy to get pulled off course. To get pulled away from my purpose. To get distracted. To get pulled into stories that spin off into proliferation in my mind.

Just having a mind of spaciousness when I am with others helps me to stay true to this inner solitude. It is possible to be with others and to have a mind of solitude. It is like abiding at the bottom of the ocean where it is calm, while the waves swell up above at the surface. Here is where I should abide when I get distracted by the search for romantic love.

Recommended Reading:
Nothing Higher to Live For: A Buddhist View of Romantic Love by Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano

Friday, April 8, 2011

Women of the Awakening Forest

My daughters and I just returned from a 6 day retreat at Aranya Bodhi Monastery in the forest of Northern California. We were immersed in the beauty and tranquility of the forest, taken away from our usual distractions, and had the incredible honor of being in the presence of some of the Buddha's noble disciples - bhikkhunis who are practicing well each and every day.

I was both excited and nervous to receive the invitation from Ayya Sobhana to visit the monastery AND bring my children with me. I worried about how they would manage without the comforts and distractions of home. But it turns out that the kids were more flexible than I ever imagined. Our daily schedule was: breakfast at 7, puja (chanting) at 8:30, lunch at 11, dhamma talk after lunch, errands, outings and art in the afternoon, puja at 6:30pm, bedtime for kids and meditation time for mom at 8pm. We were free from the distractions of TV and internet. We took the five precepts. We had long walks on the forest path back and forth between the kuti (small cabin) that we stayed in and the hermitage grounds. We picked flowers for the Buddha. We heard Jataka stories (Buddhist fables). We learned about how to be happy through the Noble Eightfold Path. We visited the ocean. The girls collected rocks in the creek. The girls drew beautiful pictures with crayons and markers and created beaded bracelets with some craft supplies their Grandma had sent them.

This was the first family retreat held at Aranya Bodhi. None of us (the residents nor I) really had a plan or knew what to expect, but I have to say I think it was a huge success. My 7 year-old daughter especially enjoyed the dhamma talks and puja and is looking forward to practicing at our meditation center community on Sunday. My 5 year-old daughter was crabby and disinterested at times, but she seemed to enjoy resting her head on my lap during puja and lots of hugs and love. They both greatly benefited from the quiet and natural beauty of the forest. They were more imaginative and creative all week than I have ever seen them. And there is no doubt in my mind that they will never forget this experience.

I will not forget either. The experience has inspired me in many ways. I have so much admiration for those that have dedicated their life to following the way of the Buddha.

The Buddha said that both men and women are equal in their capacity for enlightenment. This was said at a time in history where this point of view was unpopular. Even now, more than 2500 years later, there are still so many who hold the view that a woman cannot become a fully ordained monk. But against common views at the time, Buddha established both the order of bhikkhus (male monks) and order of bhikkhunis (female monks).

The Theravada tradition has held true to the most simple teachings and practices of the Buddha in the original Pali language in which they were taught. It is considered "the oldest surviving Buddhist school." Its strongest roots are in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand. In the Theravada tradition, the order of Bhikkhunis ended in Southeast Asia and there are many that claim the order cannot be revived.

Since then, women have settled for practicing as siladharas, who undertake 100 precepts. But for those women who want to take the practice to the highest level with 311 precepts, practicing in the same way that the men do, opportunities have been limited and not without obstacles. There are very few places in the world where a woman can train to become fully ordained in the Theravada Buddhist tradition as a bhikkhuni. I had the incredible good fortune to be invited to visit such a place at Aranya Bodhi.

Why bhikkhuni? Why not be content to practice as siladhara? Here is an excerpt from Bhikkhuni and Siladhara: Points of Comparison FAQ on the web site for the organization called Dhammadharini, which supports Aranya Bodhi:

"There are many in South and Southeast Asian Buddhism, both leading monastics and laypeople, who have said that the full ordination and keeping the precepts of the bhikkhuni discipline is just too hard and strenuous for women who are by nature softer and weaker. They may also suggest that, especially in this degenerate age, 8 or 10 precepts are much more comfortable and conducive to a woman's nature and practice. However, we are left to wonder then, if this is true, why it is that women such as the Siladharas most willingly undertook greater discipline. And why the Buddha himself said nothing of this sort, but rather suggested that the bhikkhunis should train themselves related to the precepts as the bhikkhus train themselves. Or why the Buddha would have instituted precepts for the bhikkhunis at their behest. We are led to the conclusion that there are those women, just as those men, both ancient and modern, sincere in the monastic discipline, who have found a thorough and complete monastic discipline supportive, beneficial and conductive for their practice of the path as well as for the short-term and long-lasting welfare of the Sangha."

Essentially, women are up to the challenge of a rigorous spiritual discipline and deserve the opportunity to practice it. The Buddha said that this discipline leads to happiness and well being for ourselves and for all beings. Women deserve the chance to test out these teachings and find out for themselves if this is true. Not to mention that there is a real need for women teachers and leaders to pass on the teachings of the Buddha in a way unique to women. As a laywoman, I need strong women teachers of the Dhamma that I can really relate to. I need a model for how to practice. I need to see what is possible. I have seen the peace and love that is possible with this path in the bhikkhunis I have had the good merit to encounter.

The Aranya Bodhi monastery is in its infancy and is extremely "rustic," to put it nicely. Generators for electricity are only turned on when absolutely needed, they have wood stoves, outhouses, propane for cooking and heat only when necessary. The trailers on site are very old and barely functional. The trailer that was being used for the kitchen had to be abandoned due to extreme mold and mildew making it unsafe. At the moment, they are doing all their cooking outdoors under a tent. They have one water heater that they use for washing and showers in a tent outdoors. I don't mind living that way for a week, but these women live this way every day! And they do not complain. They are dedicated to living pure lives according to the teachings of the Buddha. They are beautiful.

Please support the women of Aranya Bodhi and help set the stage for a future for women in Buddhism and the Bhikkhuni path. Dana (generosity) to support the monastery can be made with the Dhammadharini organization through Network for Good.

Click here to donate.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Loneliness vs Aloneness

It seems to me that the message I hear over and over from the world is, don't be alone! Aloneness=loneliness=bad. The message is that the cure for loneliness=being with people.

I'm here to tell you that this is not true. At times when I am feeling my loneliest, I feel so much better when I can be alone to care for and pay attention to myself. My loneliness is eased by being alone. Aloneness can be helpful or not helpful depending on how it is framed. When I frame my time alone as time well spent re-connecting with myself, I certainly don't feel lonely. If I frame my alone time as time for self-pity (poor me, I am all alone), then I feel lonely.

I have so many options this weekend to spend time with people and be busy. But I am really feeling the need to be alone instead. I may choose to hang out with myself this weekend. When alone time is a choice, it doesn't allow much room for loneliness. And alone time can always be a choice.

When I am feeling the need to connect with people, there are always more opportunities than I could ever take advantage of. I have friends, family, a meditation community. There are events taking place around the city every day. There are lots of people to interact with and lots of busyness to take part in.

But so many times I would rather be alone than have casual and insignificant interactions with people. These just increase my sense of loneliness and disconnection. If I had a significant other, that would be time well spent with someone. But I don't. So my time alone is time well spent with my significant self. Time spent with myself sometimes carries loneliness, but it can be a cool, bittersweet sort of loneliness, not the crushing and hopeless kind. As long as I allow loneliness to be my friend, it will not overwhelm me. I care about this loneliness.

More about "cool loneliness":
Six Kinds of Loneliness, from When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Grief and Joy

My dad passed on 13 days ago. Time to share some thoughts now. I spent the last few days just sitting. And it was good.


So today, yet another day of sitting here looking out the window all day. This is what I wanted to do, but it is getting old. I'm looking forward to getting the kids back. I can't be so lazy when they are around.

I do think sitting here with boredom and restlessness is helpful, even though the benefits are not always immediately apparent. I tried to put on a movie, but that was no good. It took way too long to decide what to watch and then I just couldn't focus. I suspect the same would be true if I tried to read. I really should go for a walk since it is melting outside at 34 degrees, but I just can't get motivated. Even 34 degrees is not good enough for me today. I need 80 degrees and a beach. Can I just sleep until the snow melts?

I'm grateful for this day of solitude, good food, music, a warm bath, sunlight streaming into my window, snuggly kitties three in number, and a pen and paper.

It's ok to be this way. This is how it is now. This is how my body is now. This is how my mind is now. This is how my heart is now. All due to causes and conditions that are guaranteed to pass. This torpor will pass. All is in flux in every moment. The earth is moving around the sun, making the sunlight on my paper move and change.

The seconds tick on the clock, and something is changing. Furnace comes on. Song ends. Kitties sleep. Light moves. I am right here in the middle of all the motion. Thoughts churn. Hand moves to write. Body feeling warm in the sun. Feet moving to music. Breathing. Putting the book down to remove my sweater. Body feeling fatigued. Relaxing with that sensation. Not trying to fight it or change it. Just being right in it, entirely submissive to the moment. Thoughts pop up, worries about what I might not be getting accomplished while sitting here. Feeling like I will never want to go out into the world again. I have the urge to be a hermit here in my house, listening only to my own soul.

Being alone, spending endless hours just sitting in contemplation. This feels natural to me. This is what I long for all the time. When I do have this time though, I get worried that I am simply being lazy.

But there are so many thoughts and feelings in me that want to be sorted out. i feel like if I could just sit here a little while longer, I will figure something out. Figure out the mystery of my being. See who or what I really am.

Light and joy, even when the body is sluggish and the mind restless. It seems like it shouldn't be possible, but it is.

How different is it to sit here like this all day at home than on the porch or beach at the family cabin? I need to think of this time as a vacation, not lazy-I-should-be-getting-something-done time.

I have a cozy chair, big windows, light streaming through the forest, a cup of tea and my journal. Yes, just like the cabin. Just like it. This is my winter retreat.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Solitude as a Career (Part 3)

The Brahmaviharas (Divine Abodes)

metta - lovingkindness
karuṇā- compassion
mudita - sympathetic Joy
upekkhā - equanimity

Thank you to Ayya Sobhana for your comment about how "the monastic life is really equal parts of seclusion and deep love." That brought about very beautiful images and feelings in me. Ayya Satima, who was the monk who gave the dhamma talk I attended last Saturday, is bursting at the seams with lovingkindness! It is so joyful just to be near her.

I have only met a handful of monks and nuns and it is interesting how being a "thinker" or a "feeler" impacts the emphasis of their practice. The thinkers are mostly interested in analysis and concentration. The feelers are mostly interested in cultivating the beautiful qualities of the heart. Our personalities play a big part in the way that we view and understand the practice and the goal.

Most definitely love is the focus of my practice. And my life. Pretty much everything I have done in my life, I have done it because of love. We all want and need love. And it is so easy to make mistakes in terms of how to get and keep love, like it is a limited and scarce thing. Throughout my life, there have been so many times when I did not feel like I was loved enough or had enough love. So many people suffer because they can't find the deep love inside themselves.

The funny thing is, that love is always there inside each and every one of us without exception. It is unstoppable. It is boundless. We get stuck in delusion sometimes and that love gets covered up. But sometimes we experience deep love spontaneously. Perhaps many do not recognize it for what it is. It is difficult to describe too. Perhaps the Buddha would describe it as the absence of ill-will.

Sometimes we need to pray or meditate to find it again, but we can trust and be certain that it is always there.

You Got the Love - (Originally by Candi Staton in 1986, performed by Florence and the Machine in 2009)

Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air
I know I can count on you
Sometimes I feel like saying, "Lord I just don't care"
But you've got the love I need to see me through

Sometimes it seems that the going is just too rough
And things go wrong no matter what I do
Now and then it seems that life is just too much
But you've got the love I need to see me through

When food is gone you are my daily meal
When friends are gone I know my saviour's love is real
Your love is real

You got the love

Time after time I think, "Oh Lord what's the use?"
Time after time I think it's just no good
Sooner or later in life, the things you love you lose
But you got the love I need to see me through

You got the love