Winter Solstice Reflections from the Port Townsend Day of Mindfulness Retreat led by Kurt Hoelting at Quimper UU Church, Sat., Dec. 9, 2017
The poet Galway Kinnel writes: "I know that I love the day, / The sun on the mountain, the Pacific / Shiny and accomplishing itself in breakers, / But I know I live half alive in the world, / Half my life belongs to the wild darkness."
We are on the cusp of the Winter Solstice, in the trough of the long wave of a slowly-shifting tide of daylight and darkness here in the Northern Hemisphere. Strictly speaking, at this latitude, in the weeks that surround the winter solstice, two-thirds of our life belongs to the wild darkness. What wisdom dwells in this dark time of year that we need to pay open-hearted attention to? How does our practice of mindfulness help us open to that essential wisdom?
The winter solstice season offers a built-in natural invitation to renew our intimacy with the wisdom of the dark. In the coming days and weeks, when the earth's axis is tilted away from the sun to the greatest degree in our annual cycle around the sun, it can feel as if time stops, somewhere in the heart of darkness. It's as if we are holding our breath in the moment when darkness dominates the cycles that we are all inseparably bound within. The daily change in daylight slows to a moment of cessation, like the moment of slack tide, or like the moment of pause in the breath itself as it shifts mysteriously from inhalation to exhalation. It is as if time stands still in these precious moments of pause.
This is the season when we are offered an important opportunity; to listen to our bodies, and to the pulse of the earth itself within us. In our practice, it is a good time to notice also the seductive currents present the culture around us that pull us back into the glare of spotlights that try to stamp out the darkness, that pull us into a frenzy of activity that leans away from what our bodies and our hearts actually need during this time of natural pause.
Each of our choices to come to this retreat today – whatever our specific reasons, or our particular tradition of practice, reflects that pull toward pause that our bodies and hearts long for now, that reclamation of a practice of presence to counter the tide of busyness. In that sense, it reflects a pull toward wholeness.
The poet Rilke writes; "I love the dark hours of my being. / My mind deepens into them. / There I can find, as in old letters, / the days of my life, already lived, / and held like a legend, and understood. / Then the knowing comes: I can open / to another life that's wide and timeless."
I want to talk about the place of darkness in our lives from several different standpoints. I am a Zen practitioner, but I am also a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teacher, in the non-sectarian lineage of Jon Kabat-Zinn and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine. This approach to the dharma is rooted in the teachings of Vipassana, or Insight Meditation, and specifically based on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. In Vipassana we are taught to pay close and detailed attention to how experience manifests, from moment-to-moment, in four distinct but always related ways; in our bodies, our emotions, our thoughts, and our relationship to the wider world. We are taught to move from the dance floor to the balcony to witness these different domains of experience from a less judging and reactive place, less caught in the changing weather blowing through the surface conditions of our lives. There are seasons of light and seasons of darkness, moments of ease, and moments of intense physical or emotional distress. None are to be banished. In our practice we come to see and trust, as the poet Rilke says, that “No feeling is final”. Each will pass. Therefore each can be welcomed as a temporary guest and teacher.
That is maybe especially true of the dark times, since it takes conscious effort and courage to open to what we do not want. It is an always counter-intuitive way of saying “Yes” to our lives. In this exploration of the transformative power of darkness, I want to start with the body. We are creatures. We are primate mammals. During the dark time of year, if we are tuned to our bodies, we can feel traces of our deep ancestry in the pull toward hibernation. We can feel the earth's own yearning for pause. There is a kind of physical and emotional solace that can come in the moments when we give ourselves to the slower pulse of a planet bathed for lingering weeks in half light and darkness. But we have to choose to give ourselves to it, to notice the ways that we resist it, and by knowing how to welcome the fallow times with a listening heart.
In a culture that doesn't know how to pull back on the throttle of our doing and our striving, we may feel caught in the dissonance between the rest that our bodies need, and our endless To-Do lists that keep us caught in the turbulence. We may feel claustrophobic, anxious or fearful in the presence of the dark, which can send us scurrying again for the glare of artificial lights. As with everything that arises in our practice, it is important simply to notice when this urge us upon us, to recognize it without judgment as simply another form of reactivity, and to use that knowing as an invitation to return awareness to our bodies, as our most intimate expression of now
What do we miss physically when we try to banish the darkness, when we try to leap across the dark hours of our being?
Perhaps we miss the deeper physical rest our bodies are craving – the longer hours of sleep, the days and weeks of non-doing and non-striving that was built into the lives of our indigenous ancestors during the dark time of year. We miss the chance to hunker down in the company of people we love, to gather around a fire telling stories, reciting the poetry that is the story of our people, making art, making love, laying fallow for a time with the rest of the earth community.
We may miss also the pleasure of choosing to live more fully in place, exploring our home terrain more often under our own power, with our senses more fully deployed. More than most American's, those of us who live here in the Salish Sea bio-region are still a People of Place. By developing a practice of presence, we become intimate with our place on earth in the same ways that we become intimate with the people we love, by building that love through the marrow of all seasons.
This is also what we are doing internally when we take our seats in meditation. We are choosing to come into our lives as they actually are in this moment. These periods of extended pause, of deliberate non-doing, bring us back to ourselves, back to our senses, rooting us literally into the ground upon which we sit and stand. It roots us back into the primacy of the moment we are actually inhabiting. We learn to see this very moment more realistically as the only moment we will ever have, and therefore as precious beyond measure.
So the longer darkness of the solstice season invites us back into that practice of presence. It invites us to re-commit to a listening heart, to a renewed intimacy with our own inner life, to the magic that is alive always in this very place, and to a renewed friendship with the transient nature of all life from which beauty and aliveness endlessly low.
Psychologically and emotionally, the dark time of year echoes the darker emotions that lurk in the human unconscious, and our primitive fear of the dark that triggers such a visceral, embodied resistance to what we can't see. The literal and metaphorical dark brings us up against the unknown in a direct and primal way. In times of grief, uncertainty and loss, the whole world can feel dark, echoing St. John of the Cross's “dark night of the soul”. The poets and saints teach us that this upwelling of fear is actually a great moment of opportunity. It is the time not to flee into an artificial light, but to persist in the darkness, to face directly what we can only learn from the darkness.
The poet Theodore Roethke wrote that, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”
The Zen teacher Joan Halifax tells a powerful story that as a young child of four, she contracted a condition that caused a temporary blindness that lasted for two years. She recounts how stark that moment in her young life was and remains for her to this day. The external world that had been the raw material of all her adventures and explorations, suddenly disappeared. What she discovered in its place, in the weeks and months that followed, was a vast inner world and inner light that she would never have seen otherwise, never have noticed. Even though she eventually recovered her sight, this experience re-shaped the whole rest of her life in the direction of exploring the inner life of the spirit, and the tactile life of other senses beyond sight. She had to face her primal fear of the dark, and her helplessness in the face of it, very early in her life. It left her much less afraid of that elemental darkness, and much more willing to dwell in the presence of unknowing, which is in many ways the essence of our practice.
Learning to turn toward rather than away from the places that scare us, the dark corners where fear lies in wait, is the beginning of freedom from fear. It takes courage and gumption to stay put in the dark, rather than fleeing when darkness is upon us. All of us, I'm sure, can think of times when we chose to face our fears rather than running from them. Perhaps take a moment to bring to mind such a time in your own life, when you faced into your pain or fear without running from it. These are often the transformative moments in our lives, when we find out that we are bigger than we thought we were, stronger and more resilient than we thought we were. In this sense, our practice is much more than simply self-care, or the quest for more balance in a life we still think we control. It is actually more interesting than that. And more terrifying.
And this brings me to that wider domain of our practice, where our daily lives meet the complexities and wounds of a world that seems to be coming unravelled. How do we navigate our own stress and difficult emotions in relationship to a world that seems to have lost its bearings, even lost its mind?
After the 9/11 attacks my father went into his room and closed the door, refusing to talk for two days after. I wasn't around at the time, but as my brother Kim tells it, this scared my mother enough that she asked him to go talk to Dad. My Dad was a proud WWII veteran and lifelong Republican, who had struggled mightily with the changes we all went through in the '60's. Kim found him in his room, sitting in a chair and staring at the floor. He told my father that this was hard for all of us, that his silence was scaring mom, and that these are the times when we need to be there for each other. At that point, Dad raised his head and met Kim's gaze and said, “Son, I'm sorry I had to live to see this.”
I wonder if there is anyone in this room who hasn't had that thought or feeling, at some point in the midst of our daily news cycles that keep us riveted to the latest global tragedy, the latest political scandal. Whether we are talking ecological extremes, political instability, global terrorism, resurgent racism and xenophobia, the assault on Democratic institutions, we are living through changes on a scale that no previous generation of humans has had to contend with, global changes on an existential scale. Just bringing up the topic can trigger anxiety, fear and outrage. It is hard enough to deal with our personal challenges and losses. What do we do when the very ground on which we stand reveals itself to be fluid and beyond our control?
Once at Tassajara Zen Monastery, a student asked Suzuki Roshi if he could please just summarize Buddhism in one phrase. Without missing a beat he gave his answer. “Everything changes.” Even with monumental changes like the ones we are living through now, the Buddha taught that it is what we do with the inevitability of change and loss that matters. It is our resistance to change that causes suffering, not change itself. The Buddhist entrepreneur Paul Hawken, in addressing the specter of climate change, asked a really interesting question: “What if this isn't happening too us? What if it is happening for us?” What if we, of all the thousands of generations of humans, are the ones who have been privileged to be here at just this time, when the need for kindness and compassion – toward ourselves and others - is not just a good idea, but a matter of survival. On the eve of the winter solstice it is fair to ask, what if the dark times in our lives are for us, rather than against us?
My father went through his Dark Night of the Soul on 9/11. He died not too long after. It was never clear whether he found the inner peace he was looking for before he died. Not all of us do. But when it feels like the changes are too much to bear, that is when we most need our practice. That is when we need to open our hearts, rather than closing them. That is what our practice invites us into, one precious moment at a time. Turning toward rather than away from what is difficult in our lives, with curiosity rather than resistance – that is what our practice invites us into. What we discover, whenever we take refuge in the aliveness of now, is that this peace was here all along. Nothing can take it away from us except our own forgetfulness.
The 14th Century mystic Julian of Norwich was excluding nothing in the human condition when she said, “All shall be well. And all manner of thing shall be well.” May this season of darkness be a time of remembering – and experiencing for ourselves again – how true this still is.
As I prepare for my season of Inside Passages kayaking retreats in Alaska this coming summer, I want to share this essay that I wrote twenty years ago, in 1997 for EarthLight Magazine. The essay was later included in the book Earthlight: Spiritual Wisdom for an Ecological Age, edited by Cindy Spring, and published by Friends Bulletin in 2007. It gives a picture of what we do on these trips that is still relevant today. Maybe more relevant than ever, given the rapid acceleration in the pace of our lives that have occurred over these two decades.
We are several days into our kayak journey now, and the pace is slowing. We are finally getting here. As agreed, we have been paddling for an hour in silence, threading the island tapestry toward a seemingly impenetrable wall of ancient forest that looms ahead. Our group of twelve travellers, coming from all corners of the continent, have settled into a remarkably cohesive community in the few days we have been together. Now, as we round a bend into the estuary, almost miraculously, a gateway appears in the forest, and even the sweep and cadence of our paddles are laid to rest.
Only now does the full force of the silence truly descend on us. It is a potent presence, pouring into our senses as palpably as the tidal current that carries us into the gate of the forest. Early in the trip the silence had felt strange, a little disorienting. But as our days unfold, we are falling under its spell. There is a deep sense now of being held, both by the silence and by the flowing water, which grows even more luminous as our kayaks settle to the pace of the tide. Our gaze is drawn downward, beneath the surface, where schools of pink and chum salmon circle and scatter below our kayaks. The splash of leaping salmon echoes in the silence every few seconds. Each splash seems to linger in the air, almost as if a bell has been struck.
I smile to myself, thoughts circling and scattering like the salmon beneath me. It feels so right for me to be guiding this trip, here in this coastal wilderness of Southeast Alaska. For years I have fished these waters commercially for salmon and halibut. Now I am seeking to be here in a new way, a way that accords more closely with my Zen practice. I now invite people to this pristine wilderness to explore meditation, in a setting that adds a new dimension to the Buddhist notion of "Original Nature".
In unexpected ways my life has come full circle. My thoughts drift back in time to the early 1970's, when as a young theology student at Harvard Divinity School, I wrote a thesis paper entitled Wilderness as an Ethical and Spiritual Imperative. In it, I suggested that the ecological crisis is at root a spiritual crisis, and that our reigning belief systems are dangerously out of step with the way ecosystems actually work. It was a perspective conspicuously absent from theological education at the time, one which seems only now to be finding a voice in our established religious institutions. These days I have plenty of company in this conviction. Still, I wonder to myself where I would have gone with that thesis if I had known more about Buddhism then.
In retrospect, my ordination as a Protestant clergyman, and my brief career as a university chaplain, were an awkward and unsettled time for me. I was sincere enough in my aspiration to the ministry. I was definitely responding to a call. But I know now that the call was toward a different path. I was swimming against my own inner current, frustrated in my yearning for an Earth-honoring spiritual tradition.
A new commotion on the stream bank calls me back. Up ahead, where the estuary narrows, and the spawning salmon are concentrated in a large pool, a black bear has emerged from the forest. Oblivious to our presence in the silence, she plunges into the stream and quickly retreats with a ten pound chum salmon struggling in her jaw. Finding what she wants so easily, she withdraws back into the safety of the forest, carrying her lunch with her. She never saw us, or heard our astonished gasps. Soon we pass the spot where the bear snatched her meal. The surface of the pool is still roiling with hundreds of agitated salmon. I have seen this spectacle before, but rarely at such close range. I am wide awake now. This is closer than I like to come to a fellow predator who is clearly the one in charge here. I think of Daniel Goleman's observation that, through most of our evolution as a species, the big theological question has always been, "Do I eat it, or does it eat me?". At the moment the question feels uncomfortably relevant. Edging the group to the opposite side of the stream, I comment that, until the very recent past, this kind of wild encounter was a normal part of the experience of every human being, everywhere.
Further upstream the estuary widens again, and we breath a bit easier. Ancient moss-draped Sitka Spruce and hemlock trees give mute testimony to centuries of standing watch over this place. A pair of bald eagles, a family of mergansers and a flock of Canada geese all retreat deeper into the watershed as we approach. Where the geese had been, a dusting of goose down feathers float lightly on the water.
What we are seeing here is rapidly becoming, in Christina Desser's words, an "extinct experience". By driving this kind of wild nature to the far margins of our world, we have placed our own psychic lives on the endangered experience list. My evolution toward Buddhism has turned continually on this awareness. The tradition of my youth has offered scant protest or leadership as we consume and discard the biological bedrock of our own souls.
As a college student, working summers on a salmon seiner in Southeast Alaska, I stumbled on the writings of Gary Snyder and Thomas Merton, and my Christo-centric thinking took a hard turn toward the East. From Snyder, a poet and ecologist, I found the bridge between human nature and wild nature. From Merton, a Trappist monk, I caught the scent of something essential in the life of disciplined solitude. Both drew heavily upon Zen Buddhist thought and practice. Both recognized an ecological spirit at the heart of Buddhism.
To a degree that is unique, I believe, among world religions, Buddhism has from its inception incorporated a kind of Deep Ecological view of the nature of Self. The Thirteenth Century Zen Master Dogen, in his Mountains & Rivers Sutra, declared: It is not only that there is water in the world, but there is a world in water. It is not just in water. There is a world of sentient beings in clouds. There is a world of sentient beings in the air. There is a world of sentient beings in fire. . . there is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass. (Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild)
Buddhism has long understood what we are only now learning in the West, that the self includes the entire material universe. The notion of a separate self is pure fiction, an invention of the human ego. As the Buddhist thinker Joanna Macy wrote in an essay, "The Greening of the Self":
"The conventional notion of the self with which we have been raised and to which we have been conditioned by mainstream culture is being undermined. What Alan Watts called 'the skin-encapsulated ego' and Gregory Bateson referred to as 'the epistemological error of Occidental civilization' is being unhinged, peeled off. It is being replaced by wider constructs of identity and self-interest; by what you might call the ecological self or the eco-self, co-extensive with other beings and the life of our planet. It is what I will call 'the greening of the self'." (Dharma Gaia, Parallax Press)
This "ecological self" fits seamlessly with what Buddhism has been teaching for 2,500 years. Paticca-samuppada (dependent co-arising), together with anicca (impermanence, ceaseless change), both core concepts in Buddhism, provide a perfect spiritual counterpart to the view of the universe now emerging from the ecological sciences. Albert Einstein declared that, "If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.". Here, the world is seen, in Allan Hunt-Badiner's words, as "a massive interdependent, self-causing dynamic energy-event against a backdrop of ceaseless change". (Dharma Gaia).
In such a universe, how can we be "separate"? Where does "nature" leave off, and "I" begin? Wu Wei Wu put it bluntly when he asked, "Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9% of what you think, and everything you do, is for yourself. And there isn't one."
Western religious traditions are certainly not indifferent to this problem. In many ways they seek to mitigate our excessive preoccupation with the ego-based self. But in my view, they do not dig deeply enough to the core of the self and its delusions. The Judeo-Christian streams, for all their inherent beauty and depth, essentially leave intact a concept of the self as separate, an entity that stands apart from and above nature, that can somehow be "saved" or "lost" independent of its fellow creatures, independent of its total environment. They also substantially fail to disentangle themselves from the legacy of anthropocentrism, from a moral universe that Theodore Rosak has said "stops at the city limits". Many individual Jews and Christians care passionately about the Earth. However, because of this fidelity to a human-centered world, leadership in confronting the full implications of the environmental crisis has been slow to emerge from our traditional religious institutions.
Buddhism, on the other hand, recognizes these errors up front as core delusions of the human mind. It intuitively grasps the tenacity with which the human ego seeks to advance its own flawed agenda, and offers practical, no nonsense tools with which to confront and transform the delusions of the mind. These tools form what is commonly called "practice". They are experientially based in meditative discipline, in the cultivation of intimate, non-judging engagement with the present moment.
Pascal has said that, "All of man's difficulties are caused by his inability to sit alone in a room by himself.". (Pensees) Our fear of being alone, of ceasing activity and opening to the voice of silence, is fundamentally a fear of intimate contact with the real, ever-flowing and transient world. In fact, a word that is sometimes used interchangeably with "enlightenment" in Zen is "intimacy".
Buddhism recognizes that intimacy is a prerequisite to love, that we cannot truly love that with which we are not intimate. And real intimacy can only be achieved by a kind of deep listening that stills and transcends the mechanisms of our ego-based mind. The despoliation of the natural environment that we have loosed on the world in our time is thus no accident, in the Buddhist view, but an extension of our limited view of self. It is an inevitable result of our failure to identify deeply enough with the world's "interbeing", to watch and listen in this fundamental way. As we wake up in the West to the magnitude of the environmental crisis, and recognize in it a challenge that supersedes all merely human crises, Buddhism steps forward with important missing tools and perspectives for the task at hand. Though I am far from this level of knowing myself, I feel the spaciousness of my mind opening bit by bit as I learn to just sit and listen to my world, as I gradually wean myself from the "inner newsreel" of my own mind.
Even these thoughts are a digression from the essential moment at hand, which calls me back now in the guise of a loon's lilting voice. I look around again at this place that feels ancient and new at the same time. I gently stroke my paddle to bring the kayak back into alignment with the current, then sink back into a place of deep stillness.
Over and over I wake up thus, or try to anyway. There is no end to it, no real "enlightenment", no point at which the ego's hold on my mind is finally overcome. I don't know why, but I know it's so. Somewhere in me the conviction grows that my desire to "heal the Earth" is no other than my desire to be present to myself, to be truly alive in this precious moment. It is one and the same work.
Buddhism has been a great help to me in claiming this deep intention. In spite of every digression, every setback, every unthinking act or unkind word, it always comes back to this. Where am I now? What is needed now? What is to be done?
The Art of Homecoming: Place, Presence & the Practice of Peace
Talk by Kurt Hoelting, Oct. 9, 2016, Interfaith Peace Vigil, St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, Freeland, WA
It's an honor to be here with all of you. Our theme today is "Making Peace with the Earth". I want to begin on that note, but with this caveat. Our bodies and minds are themselves a manifestation of wild nature. Just to have a human heart, mind and body is to be immersed in wildness. Any assumed separation is a figment of our imagination. So the art of peacemaking is founded on a capacity to make ongoing peace with ourselves. Learning to navigate and transform our sometimes destructive emotions is a corner stone for making peace in the wider domains of culture, politics and society.
As many of you know, I spent the year of 2008 doing radical surgery on my lifestyle in an effort to re-align my life with the realities we face of a disintegrating climate, and to do so in a way that re-connected me to this extraordinary place on earth that we call home. I took a vow during that year to never get into a car, and I drew a circle on the map with my Whidbey home at the center of the circle. During that year I stayed within that circle, exploring my home ground on foot, by bicycle and kayak. Otherwise I used only public transportation. It was a powerfully transformative year, one I'm still learning from. The book I wrote about that experience is called The Circumference of Home, and I've been asked to share some of what I learned in my travels around Whidbey, what impact it has had on me, and how we all might find inspiration to make effective changes in how we live, for the sake of our imperiled earth.
More than ever, these are important questions, ones that I continue to wrestle with daily as we all move dramatically deeper into the Age of Climate Consequences. Never have our lifestyle choices mattered more than they do now. Never have the stakes been so high. Never have out prospects for peace been more deeply sabotaged by our refusal to live lightly on the earth, and joyfully in place.
But I want to talk first on a more personal level. I want to talk about how our inner habitat of heart and mind and spirit relates to the process of outward change.
This is important because my experience is that no real change occurs that is not preceded by a change of heart. I have been a practicing Zen Buddhist for 35 years, and a mindfulness teacher for over two decades. The practice of mindfulness, and the Buddhist tradition that underlies it, is an elegantly down-to-earth, pragmatic discipline. That is one of the things I love most about it as a way of life. I want to start with a personal story about my inward journey toward the practice of peace, and see if I can work my way back to the themes of today, and the necessity for personal action that reconnects Earth and Spirit, Peace and the Practice of Place.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was in the 5th Day of a 7 day silent Zen retreat at Tahoma Zen Monastery, not far from here on Double Bluff, led by a Japanese Zen Master named Harada Roshi. I'm sure everyone in this room can say exactly where you were on that morning when you got the news. I had been up since 4:00 in the morning doing silent meditation with 50 others in the meditation hall when the news came to us. Hijacked jets had flown into the Twin Towers. The Towers had collapsed, killing thousands. Another jet had flown into the Pentagon. The meditation hall at Tahoma Zen Monastery on that morning was an international gathering of people from all over North America, Europe and Japan. Everyone was given the chance to leave the retreat early if they felt it necessary. Not a single person did.
For the remaining two days of the retreat, while the rest of the world was being traumatized by endless repetitions of video clips of jets flying into the Twin Towers, we continued to grind away on our cushions, to hold silence, and to sit with our raging fears and bewilderment. In his dharma talks those last two days, Harada told us that the world we would be returning to when the retreat ended would not be the same world we had left at the beginning of the retreat. We would be walking into a deeply traumatized world, filled with people in pain and confusion. He told us there was nothing we could possibly be doing during these two days following the attacks than exactly what we were doing on our cushions right now. The world waiting for us was going to be desperate for the kind of stability, equanimity and wisdom that we were cultivating here. A stability that could withstand these scouring winds of fear and trauma, without being blown over by them.
I will never forget the power of those teachings, in that pivotal moment of our shared history. I will never forget what it was like to stick it out, diving straight into the painful emotions we all were swimming in that day, and to put those teachings into practice in the weeks and months that followed, as we ramped into disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This was some of the hardest work I've ever done. And that work is just getting started. It is not just the Twin Towers coming down now. We are witnessing the collapse of whole nations, the collapse of Rule of Law, the collapse of ecosystems, the collapse of the very climate upon which our life depends.
I think that is what Gandhi meant when he said that “We must be the change that we wish to see in the world.” There is nothing soft or fuzzy about that aspiration. It requires the deepest kind of courage, the hardest kind of inner work. It is an act of bravery, and an act of love to hold ourselves accountable not only to the “long arc of history”, but to the small daily choices and actions that add up to manifestations of peace in real time.
What is it, in light of this story, to be peace activists? What is the work of making peace built out of? As a mindfulness teacher, I believe it is built not out of ideologies, but out of moments. It is built out of the ways in which we choose to inhabit our moments. It is built out of the joy and aliveness we are able to manifest in our everyday lives, one precious moment at a time.
Back in run-up to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, some of you may remember an anti-war movement called Not In Our Name. Their tag line at the time was a catchy one. “If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.” God knows that we live in a world brimming with opportunities to feel outraged. But think about the implications of that sentiment for those seeking the conditions for peace. “If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.” Is this really true? Is it true that there is no option but outrage available to us if our goal is to pay attention, to look honestly at our world? What a tragic view of the nature of reality! It often seems that our activist culture in general feeds on outrage as a strategic motivation for action to make change. Anger is the gift that keeps on giving, the strategy that so many change-based organizations rely on to leverage action against injustice and destruction of the earth. And so we activists can become habituated to anger as a way of life, and a measure of the strength of out commitment to the cause.
Believe me, I am as well acquainted with outrage as most anybody. I worked my whole life to heal social and environmental injustice, participated in many protest marches. There are times when it is necessary to say, “This far, and no further!” But I have always been uneasy with this reliance on anger and outrage as the primary driver of social change. There is a saying that “If the only tool we own is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail.” As a carpenter for years, I know that there are far subtler and more interesting tools available in the tool kit if my goal is to create objects that are both beautiful and useful. If peace is our goal, and beauty is central to our menu of possibilities for what is worthy of our attention, we need to apply the widest range of tools available to us in service of those ends.
What about compassion, whose root meaning is to “suffer with”? Where does compassion come from? How do we pull it from the marrow of abstractions into the heart and soul of our lives. What about forgiveness? What about wonder, and the capacity to be astonished? What about gratitude? What about humility, and the willingness to admit that there are things we just don't know or understand? What if our strength actually issues from a willingness to not know?
As a Buddhist, and as a mindfulness teacher, I work with the art of paying attention in a very different kind of way? I work with paying attention non-judgmentally, in the present moment, in a spirit of consciously-cultivated kindness, curiosity and open-heartedness. Truly paying attention in that way is the hardest work I've ever tried to do, and I am only beginning that journey, because that journey always starts right from here. And we never actually know what is going to happen next. It is this spirit that I invoked during my Year in Circumference, when I sought to transform my own fears about the future into a call to adventure, right here, on my own home ground. And right now, in the vibrance of my body, mind and senses, as I walked the rivers of home, one step at a time. I am still on that slow walk, wondering what I will discover next. I hope I always will be.
This is a steeper trail to climb than the one that issues from anger and outrage. Anger and outrage live in the reptilian part of our brain, and are much more easily aroused and pressed into service than tolerance and compassion. We don't have to look far, in this campaign season, to see how completely this reptilian strategy has taken hold of our political culture. There is so much I could say on this topic that I am going to say only this. With the Trump candidacy, and the shredding of any pretense at civil discourse that has accompanied it, we may be closer to a catastrophic rupture of American civil society than at any time since the election of Abraham Lincoln that catapulted us into the Civil War. The Trump phenomenon has many parallel expressions of Right Wing resurgence around the globe, but the visceral anger that drives it has been strongly evident on the Left as well. in the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Though I am not in any way equating Sanders with the demagoguery of Trump, I think his candidacy traded heavily on the same anger that has fueled Trump's success. We see the same circular firing squads erupting on both the Right and the Left in this most contentious of election cycles.
As peace makers I believe we have a sacred obligation to refuse this path, and to entrust ourselves to a deeper faith in what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”, even when it feels futile, and as if we are alone in that effort. We have choices to make each day and each hour, about what we give our attention to, and whether we will join that rising chorus of outrage, or stand our ground in the practice of peace, compassion and kindness, no matter what. That path has rarely seemed longer or steeper, but I think that is the path where true bravery lies.
I recently stumbled on another quote that says, “It is not a betrayal of the future to love the present.” Think about that for a minute. (Pause) It is not a betrayal of the future to love this afternoon that brought us here together in hope, to feel ourselves sitting here, breathing, exploring and praying together. It is not a betrayal of the future to feel the aspiration toward peace of mind and heart that is shared by each of us here, even if we know that the way forward is long. It is not a betrayal of the future to remember to breathe, right now.
It is not a betrayal of the future to feel ourselves surrounded by the natural beauty of this place, and to know in our bones that we are part of that beauty. It is not a betrayal of the future to trust emergence, to trust that life knows what its doing, even if we don't. It is okay to not know, it is okay sometimes to be afraid, if we remember, as the poet Rilke said, that “No feeling is final”. It is not a betrayal of the future to remember that we are bigger than our fears, bigger than our outrage, and that life is here waiting for us, in infinite beauty, right now, if we can remember to suspend judgement and Just . . . Look. The present moment, fully engaged with an open heart, and the opportunities to manifest peace in action within this living presence, is never exhaustible, and may be our most powerful refug
I am often asked, “What did I learn in my wanderings around Whidbey Island and Puget Sound during my year of living car-free? What has stuck with me? It is mostly pretty simple. I learned that I have everything I need to be happy right here. I learned that when I am content with where I am, and what I already have, I am not flailing around, using tons of carbon, looking for that elusive happiness somewhere else. I learned that this kind of contentment is a political act as well as a personal one. It is as much a refusal of consent for what we don't need, as it is an affirmation of what we already have in complete abundance. I learned that beauty is everywhere when I remember to look, and that outrage is never my only option. I learned that there is no “Me” that can exist apart from the natural world that created and sustains my life. I learned that gratitude and peace well up from this place where my life meets the life of the world, and the beings who share my life, right here, right now, endlessly, always.
May we bend our hearts to the task of learning to be the peace we wish to see in the world. And may we do that together, in joy.
Thank you very much.
When I founded Inside Passages twenty-two years ago, in 1994, I wondered if anyone would respond to my crazy idea of doing meditation-based kayaking trips in Southeast Alaska. Would anyone accept this unorthodox invitation? Sixty trips, and 600 clients later, I am still leading these trips, and still loving it. I am getting excited about my season this summer in the heart of the Tongass National Forest. The allure of Alaska's awesome solitude, combined with the art of deep listening, mindfulness practice, and wilderness exploration, only gets stronger and more precious with time.
Over the years, my work as a mindfulness teacher and guide has grown and deepened in a variety of contexts. I've been teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in Seattle's VA Hospital, and other venues around Puget Sound, for ten years, and have led contemplative retreats around the Puget Sound area for nearly twenty years. All this has been loosely under the auspices of Inside Passages.
This winter, with colleagues Janice Sack-Ory and Jonas Batt, I've formed a new mindfulness company called Cascadia Mindfulness Institute to serve as a home for this growing work. This brings me into community with other teachers here in the "winter grounds" of Puget Sound, while allowing Inside Passages to return to its roots in Southeast Alaska. I think of the two initiatives as housing my work in different seasons at opposite ends of the Northwest Coast passage from Puget Sound to Alaska.
This article in Northwest Dharma News will give you a flavor for our emerging work with CMI. We are privileged to have landed a contract to teach 18 classes a year to veterans through the Puget Sound VA Health Care System. This is the fruit of ten years of MBSR teaching and research headed by Dr. David Kearney at Seattle's VA Hosptial. CMI also teaches regular MBSR classes to the community through the Samaritan Center of Puget Sound.
The basement of Seattle's VA Hospital is a long ways from the Alaskan wilderness. Yet I am always struck by the parallels between the two where mindfulness is concerned. I think of mindfulness meditation as the art of "inner habitat restoration" - learning to navigate that vast domain of the human heart and mind that can feel like wilderness travel much of the time. The courage it takes a veteran to stay in the storm of his PTSD without either running from it or being swept under by it, in a spirit of mindful awareness and acceptance, may be as brave an act as entering even the most daunting outer wilderness.
Cascadia Mindfulness Institute is the latest way that I get to do this wonderful work in the heart of the city.
I've recently returned home from a great summer in Alaska leading my annual Inside Passages kayaking mindfulness retreats.
One of those trips was with young change makers; emerging leaders who are passionate about working for the common good. This retreat was co-facilitated by Maggie Chumbley. The average age of participants was 30, which made me more than twice as old as anyone else on the trip. It was energizing to be with so many younger leaders, and inspiring to
I want to share two lovely blog reflections by members of that trip, Jenni Conrad and Dan Mahle.
Here is Jenni's post: titled Coming Home to Alaska's Mountains
Here is Dan's post, titled Practice and Presence with Inside Passages
Our flotilla of several hundred kayaks was appropriately led into the Duwamish River waterway - Chief Seattle's home ground - by five native canoes representing Puget Sound First Nations people. On Saturday, May 16th, I joined a flotilla of several hundred "kayaktivists" to say "S-Hell No!" to Seattle's back room decision to provide home port facilities to Shell Oil's fleet of Arctic oil rigs. Shell's first rig - the "Polar Pioneer" - arrived on Seattle waterfront on Thursday. It's progress down Admiralty Inlet past my home on Whidbey Island, under tow of several large tugs, had the feel of Mordor itself arriving in our midst.
It is difficult to describe the scale or the audacity of this venture by Shell to profit from the destruction of the Arctic ice cap - a catastrophe that is itself the direct result of our runaway addiction to fossil fuels. In his guest editorial in the Seattle Times last week, titled Shell and high water: the climate battle of Seattle, KC Golden of Climate Solutions put it this way. "If you had to pick a logo for the campaign to wreak climate havoc, you could hardly do better than Shell’s Arctic drilling rig, the “Polar Pioneer.” Climate denial has reached its fullest expression when the melting of the Arctic ice cap is greeted as a signal to drill for more oil where the ice used to be."
As a city, Seattle has staked its identity on leading the nation in its quest toward carbon neutrality, and Shell's deal with the Port of Seattle has generated a storm of moral outrage here. As Golden put it in his editorial, "Shell has stirred up a hornet’s nest. Their lease to establish a “home port” in Seattle was negotiated under a “verbal nondisclosure agreement,” which allowed Shell’s hired guns to campaign aggressively for approval, while opponents were kept in the dark. Citizens are incensed, and the mayor and City Council are trying to assert the overwhelming opposition of the community they represent. Even Port of Seattle commissioners who approved the lease profess to oppose Arctic drilling."
My experience on the water last Saturday brought home to me more viscerally the truth in these words. Gazing up at the towering monstrosity of the Polar Pioneer from my tiny perch on the water in a kayak, I was able to connect more directly to the towering hubris that is behind it. I felt much less alone in my sense of moral violation. I was both appalled by what I was seeing, and uplifted by being part of this spontaneous outpouring of resistance.
Yet as a practicing Buddhist, my motivation for being there was more complex than simply outrage. I cannot know whether my presence there, or this creative expression of moral concern by so many, will actually make a difference. I cannot know whether Shell's audacious plan to continue profiting from the climate chaos it has been instrumental in creating will pay off, even in Seattle. I don't know if our technological hubris will once again win the day.
Zen teacher Bernie Glassman has three tenets for his Order of Zen Peacemakers. They include, 1) Not knowing, 2) Bearing witness, and 3) Compassionate action. I was there primarily to bear witness. My Buddhist practice tells me that these are wise precepts, and I do my best to live in this spirit. I have a commitment to show up without attachment to outcome. I do my best to show up without fixed ideas about who is to "right" and who is to "blame". My experience tells me that we are in this fix for reasons that are far more complex than anyone can fully understand, and that no one is exclusively to blame. It tells me that compassion is more powerful than anger and outrage as a motivation for action - and ultimately more effective. This is often hard to explain to other activists.
I hope we win this historic battle with Shell and the Port of Seattle. I hope this marks an important moment of turning away from the economics of self-destruction that has us all in its grip. I am fully with KC Golden in his hope that Seattle chooses not to "service drilling operations that recklessly stoke the climate crisis and mock our community’s values." I passionately agree with Seattle's Mayor Ed Murray that, “It’s time to turn the page. Things like oil trains and coal trains and oil-drilling rigs are the past. It’s time to focus on the economy of the future.” In support of that vision, I will continue to show up. But I refuse to do so in a spirit that breeds animosity and discord in my own heart, and spreads that dischord to others.
It's not easy, in these times, to keep compassion at the center of our efforts to show up. The losses are so great. The heartbreak so palpable. The anger and outrage so alluring. The delusions of grandeur so infuriatingly dominant in our culture of endless growth and consumption. Holding to a compassionate center in relation to our climate debacle is one of the most challenging things I have ever tried to do. But bearing witness in a spirit of of compassionate action - actually keeping my heart open, when I am able to pull it off, has consistently left me feeling more powerful, rather than less so. It has shown itself to be the most effective strategy for opening new doors of possibility and of connection. And, frankly, it just feels better, and is more fun.
This reflection is offered to the Bay Area Dharma Seminar on Climate, led by Zen teacher Norman Fischer during Earth Month in April 2015. Norman invited me to share some thoughts on my personal climate change journey, and the role of my meditation practice in that journey, five years after the publication of my book The Circumference of Home. ************************************
Here is the most amazing fact to me about our climate conundrum. It is not that the climate is changing. It is that we are changing the climate. We humans have made ourselves into a geologic force that is changing the basic underlying conditions of life on our planet. Who could have imagined? And what on earth are we to make of that?
Most of us now accept the climate science, and can see with our own eyes how quickly our climate emergency is escalating, how quickly its hospitable temperament is turning starkly against our human prospects. The biggest challenge isn't wrapping our minds around this fact. The biggest challenge is wrapping our emotional bodies around this fact. Or more to the point, unwrapping our emotional bodies from the traumatizing implications of this fact.
Our Buddhist practice teaches us, usually little by little and in great fits and starts, to free ourselves from fear and denial of death. We are all embedded in that denial. It is an attribute of our astonishing evolutionary success as a species. Denial has served us remarkably well in millennia past, keeping our focus on the near-at-hand, and metering out our emotional exposure to the harsh realities of life. As long as we can convince ourselves that we are okay personally, that our own death and the death of those near and dear to us lies at some unspecified future time, we feel safe, and we can go about our lives as if death applies only to others.
As dharma practitioners, we may acknowledge that our human life is embedded in transience and change. But we take comfort in the thought that our small, changing life is also held within an unchanging Nature. We have a psychological predisposition to look at nature as a great constant that anchors us in deep time, and that will carry our progeny on the ship of life far into the distant future. This thought has always been a great comfort to the human spirit when we are brought up against the reality of our own death.
Human-induced climate disruption is changing even that. We now have to make sense not only of our personal death, but of the unthinkable potential for the death of life as we know it, issued not by God but by our own hand. This new truth is very nearly unbearable to us. It has driven the wedge of denial deeper into our collective psyche. Almost nobody wants to talk about this, even those of us whose business it is to face such truths head on. The solution to this conundrum for a large block of American culture is to kill the messenger - to slay the science, and to assassinate the character of the scientists who are trying to bring this truth home to us.
Many deny the reality of climate change outright. Most of the rest of us deny it only in practice, continuing to live as if we did not know this to be true. Our deep psychological resistance and denial is a much bigger problem than the simple fact that we are filling our atmosphere with greenhouse gases. We cannot change as long as we are stuck in denial. And we cannot face our denial as long as we are lost in the psychological forest of fear.
Isn't this the essence of our Buddhist practice? - learning to open to the miracle of our aliveness, moment-by-moment, by courageously and persistently facing the fear that keeps us trapped in denial? Isn't it the unmasking of that fear that brings us back into the fountain of aliveness that was there all along, and that is not contingent upon things going our way? And doesn't compassion naturally spring from that same immense fountain, once we have learned to tap into it? - compassion for the great suffering we all experience when we are lost in the ignorance of denial and fear.
So here is a little story that may shed some light on this path beyond fear, even when the odds feel overwhelming, as they often do now. All of us can say where we were on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was in the fifth day of a seven-day silent Zen retreat, or sesshin, with my teacher Shodo Harada Roshi at Tahoma Zen Monastery, on Whidbey Island near Seattle. We had been up since 4:00 AM, and were well into of our morning practice period when news reached us in the zendo. Our country was under attack. Jets had flown into the Twin Towers in New York. Thousands were dead. Nothing more was yet known.
Fifty of us were packed into the zendo, from several different countries. Some were from New York City. All of us were given the chance to make phone calls home. Anyone who felt they had to leave the retreat was invited to leave. Not one person left. Our rigorous schedule of zazen continued as before.
Over the final two days of the sesshin, Harada spoke in his dharma talks about how the world we would enter at the end of our retreat was a different world than what we had stepped out of a few days earlier. The deep insecurity of our human life had been made manifest in a traumatizing new way. When we left the retreat, Harada said, we would be entering a world of highly traumatized people. There was nothing we could possibly be doing that was a more valuable preparation for this fact than what we were doing right now on our cushions. What the world would need more than anything else in the weeks and months ahead was people who could stand firmly in compassion, in the midst of this trauma, without themselves being traumatized. And there was no other way to establish that capacity within ourselves than to practice, and to practice with renewed vigor and motivation. We were not meditating primarily for ourselves. We were practicing to be present to the pain and suffering of others. And we would not lack opportunity to provide such presence. There was no greater gift we could offer.
So while the rest of the world watched endless video clipsof jets flying into the Twin Towers, heaping trauma upon trauma, we sat zazen. It did not lessen our own pain and confusion, but it built a foundation of calm abiding that changed how we were relating to that pain, and enlarged our commitment to stay present to this pain as we prepared to meet the profound distress of others. That beautiful teaching by Harada has remained a template and a touch stone for me as I walk deeper into the human trauma now being unleashed by climate disruption.
This trauma is not as graphic or locked in a particular moment in time as the September 11th attacks. It is a much longer emergency, bringing much more profound threats to our way of life over time. As a result it is much easier to deny. It is a much harder reality to engage psychologically, let alone politically. We are already suffering from intense disaster fatigue. We are in uncharted emotional territory.
Which brings home again the primacy of our practice. We have only moments to live. And nothing can cut us off from the resilient aliveness of our moments except our choice to lose ourselves, again and again, in the temporary solace of mindless distraction, or the false security of an unexamined denial. These are things we can work on. Denial and distraction cannot survive for long in the light of a sincere practice.
But neither can we find the courage to face this level of insecurity by ourselves. We need more than our own personal practice now. More than ever we need the solace and strength of practicing community – of sangha. We are finding our way here. Nobody knows what to do. But we know how to practice. We can trust the emergent wellspring of insight and creative flair that can only grow out of the soil of sincere, ongoing practice, and that is never completely bound to what has gone before. We can lovingly hold each others' feet to the fire of our practice, at a time when it has never mattered more to the future of life on earth.
Next month, on April 1 - 3, 2015, the International Living Future Institute will hold its annual conference in Seattle. The theme of this year's conference is one that is dear to my heart: Place and Community. I am honored to be one of the speakers at this conference. In preparation I was asked to write a brief response to the question "What Does a Living Future Means To Me?" I have posted my response here, which will also be featured in the Living Future March Newsletter.
A living future grows out of a living present. This is a truth that often goes missing in the fog of anxiety or overwhelm that can cloud a change-maker's heart. In that sense the words “living future” form a useful but often self-limiting oxymoron.
Only humans, so far as we know, have been gifted by evolution with the capacity to voyage across time. This is an astonishing power. It allows us to house in our memories vast historical and cultural archives, bringing our past into our present. And through the power of creative imagination we can send our innovative footprints far into the future.
But strictly speaking, there is no such thing as “past” or “future”. They are potent figments of our uniquely human imagination. No part of the natural world exists outside the present moment, with the sole exception of the human mind. Like the rest of nature, the human body knows no other time but Now, performing billions of self-regulating processes every second to keep our bodily systems alive, tuned and thriving – always and exclusively in present time. In all of nature, the human mind is the sole outlier in this regard, leaving even its own body behind in the process, often at great cost to our health.
Maybe this is why we have such a powerful need as humans for connect with wild nature. Surrounding our senses in climax ecosystems brings the mind back into alignment with Deep Time. It brings the human heart into the presence of Presence. Experiencing the myriad ways that nature creates beauty by weaving transience and death directly into the heartbeat of life temporarily calms our fear of death. Life thrives in the flow of that elusive place beyond the fear of death. Nature shows us how to end our fruitless human war with nature, and with our own limits, by waking us up to the beauty of Now. Role models for radical, fearless presence exist literally everywhere we look when we can break the trance of human separation and control.
Because of this current of aliveness, the present moment is the place where gratitude and hope also thrive. In that sense, only the present moment can launch the choices that actually lead to a living future. Attuning ourselves to what is alive in the moment, within us and in the world around us, is a radical act of transformation. Knowing how to join the rest of nature in accessing the aliveness of the moment-at-hand is a profound gateway to resilience, restoration and homecoming.
I have been doing a lot of soul searching lately. Not that I am any stranger to big questions. I seem to be one of those people who was put here on earth to ask the biggest questions I can think of. Part of what feels different now is that the questions are becoming more intimate, more nuanced, more rooted at ground level. I'm not so interested in the big unanswerables these days, those cosmic questions have pulled me so often out into a world of abstractions. These thought trains don't seem to be helping much anymore. I'm seeing more clearly how the toxicity of negative thinking in particular, especially of future catastrophizing, has too often led me into emotional exile. I'm really genuinely tired of that.
There are more good reasons now for catastrophizing than at any point in human history. The news is rampant with reasons for pessimism and despair. Every one of us has a front row seat on the most alarming developments around the planet on any given day and hour, constantly, without cease. Some of it is the usual natural disaster stuff. We get to be up close and personal, up to the minute, with human suffering that is in the "act of God" category. But the biggest stuff is our own doing. The climate isn't changing. We are changing the climate, with consequences that dwarf the worst natural disasters. We are the architects of most social unrest, political extremism, human brutality, and ecological collapse.
How to be with all of that, without losing heart, without sacrificing our aliveness in the moment, and at the same time without turning away from the difficult truths? That is the Big Question I ponder these days.
David Whyte, in "The Poetic Narrative of Our Times", wrote:
It may be that we live in a time of collective heartbreak, where for the first time in history we are being asked to witness the disappearance and reappearance on a global scale of what it means to be fully human; to give away our identity and see how it is returned to us through a sincere participation in the trials and necessities of the coming years. Part of that heartbreak is the sense that we might not be equal to the ecological, political and economic transitions that are necessary, that our own selfishness may be writ too deeply into our genes and that the future is therefore untenable and unreachable.
We do not as yet know if this is true, but the old humanistic story around ourselves as a successful species, always on the up and up and appointed to some special destiny, is fading and silvering into the night air, and we are left, at this point in history, contemplating the unknown immensity of the night behind it."
These are tough words, but also honest and compassionate words, because they have the ring of a necessary truth. We never did control our destiny in the way that our ever-ascendant modern story has taught us to believe. And whatever modicum of control we did have has been squandered by our inability to gain control of that part of the natural world that has proven most destructive - namely, human nature.
The "collective heartbreak" that I feel in the air, and on the airwaves, daily now, is therefore appropriate. It's not a bad thing at all. It is an opening into a deeper inquiry that is gaining traction beneath the radar of most media coverage, an inquiry that is beginning to grapple with the futility of merely political or technological solutions to the crises we face, the crises we are the authors of.
Ultimately it is the same "unknown immensity" that we have always been given to contemplate; the inevitability of our own demise, the smallness of our time in this passing human body, but set as always within the immensity of that abundant life force that flows through us.
This inquiry happens best, I'm finding, within the absolute nuts and bolts of daily life, on the very ground I tread - the smallest daily encounters, the most intimate choices that are continually being offered - to either be present to what is, with a full and open heart, or to turn away in fear and despair. That is never a choice that is bound to circumstances, or that depends on a particular outcome. It is a choice freely offered, freely taken (or not), in the deepest heart of our experience, here and now. Therefore I will continue to live and fight for what I love in that spirit. I will not allow the great losses of this moment in history to rob me of my joy, compassion, and expansiveness of heart, that is as real and accessible now as it ever has been.
And when I am able to do that, in those moments of actual presence, I have learned to expect surprises, possibilities I hadn't imagined, aliveness in unexpected forms, immense beauty emerging all around, endless reasons for gratitude.
A guest post by Inside Passages facilitator Maggie Chumbley.
“I’ve chosen, like many people I know, to ensure as much as possible that my work is part of the work of building a just and sustainable world, and I know that this kind of life will be difficult.”
It was a sunny late August morning on Whidbey Island. Kurt and I sat down to tea looking out at the illuminated Maxwelton Valley. Just a few weeks previous we had returned from a retreat that wrapped up Kurt’s latest of many seasons on the Inside Passage in Southeast Alaska. It had been my first time to Alaska and my first time working with Kurt. I was the cook for retreat, and I was still glowing from the experience several weeks later. I started this cooking gig with a pretty empty tank as I arrived to Alaska exhausted after running a summer camp for international youth, but despite the hard work and long hours, to my great surprise I came back from Alaska renewed, and oddly rested.
Kurt met me at the tiny airport in Petersburg, Alaska with a big hug wearing his huge smile and iconic Alaska x-tra tuff boots. I had just completed seven weeks of working with international teenagers in New Mexico, one of my most direct ways to be in “the work” of building a just and sustainable world. I’ll often remark that I have known no deeper exhaustion than what I feel at the end of this work each summer. Our youth often confess and face some of their deepest fears and secrets during their time with us. They leave our program bonded tightly to each other across continents. I feel enormous gratitude for the privilege to do this work.
But, this kind of work is almost always heartbreaking and exhausting. It asks you to give everything physically and emotionally and can bear a 24/7 schedule. What surprised me this year was how Alaska shifted everything and how I bounced back so quickly. After just seven days in Alaska, I experienced what Kurt mentions in his book, The Circumference of Home, as the “scouring sand” of quiet time in wild country where my “hunger for silence” was finally satisfied and I felt the effects of deeper inner renewal. It brought me to a place of deeper renewal and perspective on my work than I thought was possible.
So, back to that sunny morning on Whidbey. Kurt invited me to convene a group that was different from the folks that frequently gather with him in Southeast Alaska to meditate and kayak. He wanted to bring more people like me, the folks he sees as young change-makers who are in the game, and doing “the work”. I couldn’t imagine a more relevant offering to the folks I feel share some of my story as a passionate and sometimes burnt out young change-maker. Kurt often uses an expression that I love, calling the mindfulness practice that supports our work in the world, “inner habitat restoration”, and that’s exactly what it felt like.
As we’ve begun to plan and promote this retreat, I’ve been asking what it means to be a young change-maker. What are the unique rewards and challenges we face? Why would going to Alaska to learn mindfulness and kayak in the wilderness serve us? What would we want to converse about? I began to think broadly through my own work as a school teacher, youth facilitator, and entrepreneur. At 31 years old, living in Seattle, belonging to a community of change-makers and working in the field of education and youth empowerment I am no stranger to the weight of disillusionment, the anxiety of climate change, and the frustration of what seems to be the central trade off for folks like me which says there’s no money in doing good. Or we’ll have to supplement our do gooding with corporate jobs. Now, even the availability of stable income is questionable no matter where you are willing to work. The landscape and modern inheritance for the millennial generation shows a very tough economic reality, and I have certainly felt this too.
The other side, however to choosing this life is that I am also no stranger to the joy and rootedness of being part of a loving and beloved community. I’ve enjoyed the spark of thinking of an innovative idea and knowing that I’ve created my life in a way that I can act on that idea. I know the rush of supporting and co-creating disruptive technologies, and the expansive feeling that what I am doing in this moment certainly is some of the most important work of humanity.
At this age, we the young change-makers can often be the ones calling the shots, running the organizations and voting with our dollars. So, most of the time, I feel like I am very much in the game, and in some ways even making the rules. It’s a dynamic landscape. We are living that tension between knowing that we are facing the most imminent and terrifying global risks like climate change, and yet we are also uniquely poised to utilize our highest creativity and innovation. Yet it is often difficult to make sense of our own efficacy in this paradoxical time we live in. Parker Palmer writes in Let Your Life Speak, “We are whiplashed between an arrogant overestimation of ourselves and a servile underestimation of ourselves.” I’m certain many like me know the bewilderment of that whiplash.
For many of us folks working to make a world that works for all, some kind of contemplative practice has also emerged from the same heart that brought us to our work in the first place. It had to emerge so we could, as Kurt writes, “know where we stand, and hold our ground” (p.117). Last August in Alaska, it was the immediate and deep plunge into the contemplative silence we practiced that revived me so quickly. It rebuilt my inner capacity. Kurt writes, “I teach meditation to activists, among others, because I am so convinced that our efforts to save the external environment will lead to burnout and despair if we do not include adequate attention to our inner habitat restoration. The two are not separate and never have been. Our failure to understand this connection, emotionally, as well as intellectually, can overwhelm even our noblest efforts as change makers”(p. 114). I know that disempowered state of overwhelm and I found that the community, rhythm, paddling, silence and wilderness of a retreat with Inside Passages gave me that essential restoration of my inner life so that my work in the outer world could continue with strength, passion and resilience.
Please see more about our retreat offering by visiting the retreat page.
Happy Winter Solstice! Yesterday I led a Day of Mindfulness retreat with the Center Valley Mindfulness Community in Chimacum, WA, near Port Townsend, on the Olympic Peninsula. For the past five years I have been privileged to lead this Winter Solstice retreat in Chimicum. It has offered a wonderful way to counter the craziness and stress our current hyped up approach to mid-winter holiday festivities. We came together for six hours to sit and walk in silence, and to listen to the deeper stirrings of our bodies and hearts at this moment of primal pause in the earth's annual journey around the sun.
The theme of my dharma talk was “Paddling In the Dark”. The talk was inspired by an experience I had last summer on one of my kayaking meditation retreats in Alaska. I stole the title for this talk from my friend Gordon Peerman, who was part of that retreat, and who subsequently gave a powerful talk to his Insight Nashville group by that title on his return from Alaska last summer.
So I want to begin by telling a bit of Gordon' story. Gordon is an Episcopal Priest and psychotherapist in Nashville with a long-standing and deep dharma practice. For the last ten years, he and his wife Kathy Woods have led a thriving weekly insight meditation group in Nashville, something that has grown from a handful of people to an average of 150 participants each week.
Kathy developed breast cancer some years ago, and despite some periods of remission, it continued to grow in her body. As her cancer advanced, both she and Gordon have lived and taught fearlessly from the center of Kathy's dying experience. Late last July, her moment of death arrived. Almost to the end, she took her place beside Gordon at their weekly meditation gatherings, and spoke radiantly about the miracle of her awakening from within her dying process.
Gordon had hoped to come to Alaska with me last August for a special trip with a group of male colleagues. But the uncertain timing of Kathy's death forced him to cancel that trip. As it turned out, she died three weeks before that trip was to take place. 700 people filled the chapel at Vanderbilt University for her memorial service. Her last instructions to Gordon were for him to go on that trip to Alaska, bringing his 24 year old son Alex with him.
Gordon's mere presence on our kayaking retreat was a powerful teaching. He was fully in his grief during that time, of course. But he was also cracked open, filled with gratitude for Kathy's continuing presence with him, in a way that was stunning to behold. There was nothing indulgent about his living into that grief. He was just simply and fully in it, with his whole heart, even as he was radiantly present to the rest of us.
During our week together, we spent two nights camping on a wilderness island. Those nights out camping were unusually clear and calm for Southeast Alaska. It was a great opportunity to experience paddling through the phosphorescence, or bioluminescence, in the water, so I decided to lead the group on a late night paddle around the island.
As the warm glow of our campfire faded into the distance behind us, we entered a darkness that was filled with uncanny light. The Milky Was was fully deployed above us, and fully reflected in the calm immensity of the inland sea below us, so that it felt as if we were suspended in the middle of the stars, paddling through them. Then there was the phosphorescence. Light from the bioluminescence in the water exploded from each paddle stroke, and the wakes from our kayaks were made out of fire.
We paddled in silence, seeing only glimpses of the other boats in the darkness from the fire in our wakes. Each boat was assigned a number, and periodically I shouted out for everyone to stop, so that we could count off, so that we could confirm that everyone was still there, and still reasonably close together. The forested edge of the island was a looming, ghostly shape that was just enough to keep us on a vague course of circumnavigation. Otherwise, each stroke was an act of blind faith, moving into a darkness laced with nothing but stars above and stars below. And then the northern lights kicked in . . .
We were eventually guided back to our campsite by the fading embers of our campfire. As we pulled our kayaks back above the high tide line, Gordon later reported that his son Alex said, “Dad, that was the coolest thing I have ever done.”
On returning to Nashville, Gordon gave a talk at his first meditation group without Kathy being present. Her cushion was still laid out beside him, and he titled his talk “Paddling in the Dark”, and he told the story of our paddle that night as a metaphor not only for his own journey through grief, but as a metaphor for how our lives actually are.
The truth is that we don't ever really know where we are on our journey, and whether our personal journey will end today, tomorrow, or twenty years from now. We only know that it will end, surely and without a doubt. Our egos lead us into an endless war with that truth, and so we suffer. We suffer from our attempts to nail down our lives, to plan everything out into an illusory future that we think we can control. We suffer from our fruitless attempts to banish what we don't want from happening, and to hold on just as fruitlessly to what we merely want. The beginning of freedom happens when we recognize the fruitlessness of this battle against reality, and begin a new journey that accepts the necessity of letting go. Letting go of our need to control what we cannot control. Letting go of our need to know what is beyond knowing. Letting go of our need to always have things our own way, and opening instead simply to how things are in any given moment. What a relief! Yes, this takes bravery. We are left with nothing, strictly speaking, but our next paddle stroke in a darkness that only hints at the true shape and scope of our lives. But when we are truly able to let go in this way, and to trust that our next stroke will bring us where we need to go, a mysterious freedom and joy has room to emerge out of the apparent darkness of a life previously bound by fear and anxiety.
The winter solstice, with its literal leaning toward the dark, is a great time to remember how rich this darkness can be, and how important it is to our journey of awakening.
May we bring the fruitfulness of this darkness with us as the earth begins its turn back toward the season of returning light.
A few helpful hints for the Standing People from the Salmon People:
1. Show off your beauty. Know how beautiful you are. Leap. Surge. Mingle. Dance.
2. Have grand adventures. Cross the North Pacific all the way to Kamchatka and Hokkaido. Move under your own power. Navigate by the stars.
3. Be intimate with the tides and currents. Play the edges constantly. Find your joy there.
4. Hang out with charismatic megafauna. Congregate with humpback whales and bald eagles and sea lions and humans among the tides rips and upwellings, and where the herring come to spawn.
5. Know where you are going, and let nothing stop you. Remember in your bones the exact location of the stream where you were born. Know where you are, always, in relation to that stream.
6. Turn for home when your body tells you it's time. Trust that you will find the way, and don't be daunted by any distance.
7. Give yourself away to the creatures who need you, who have waited expectantly for your return: the Swimming People, the Flying People, and the Standing People whose lives are bound so closely to yours'.
8. When at last you reach the home stream, head straight into the current and start climbing. Climb the rapids. Climb the waterfalls. Climb the very mountains. Bend yourself to that final act of love that will keep it all going.
9. Let go of any thought of preserving your beauty now. Let your body morph, sprout humps and fangs and rainbow colors. And in that final act of union, pour yourself out with your lover into the stream that will be your progeny.
10. Let it all go now. Feed the animals with your spent body. Stray far into the ancient forest as you swim down their bodies and back into the soil. Become the very flesh of the forest itself. Climb to the tops of the trees.
(As transcribed from the Salmon People by Kurt Hoelting during the Blue River Writer's Gathering, Andrews Experimental Forest, McKenzie River, OR, Sept. 25-27, 2014)
I have just finished Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. I found it revelatory - almost exhilarating at times - because of the way it refreshes and validates the cultural importance of the introvert temperament. Quiet explores the personality poles of introversion and extroversion as the "north and south of temperament". It does so in a way that showcases the downside of America's unbridled extroversion, while reclaiming the power of introversion as a grounding, sustaining force within human culture. Most political and corporate leaders are drafted from the ranks of extroverts. George W. Bush's uber-extroverted, "bring it on" approach to our invasion of Iraq - his "shoot now and aim later" approach to the politics of war, was an example of extroversion at its most destructive. In finance, this kind of reckless hubris led to the Wall Street abuses that nearly toppled our global financial institutions in 2008. In both cases, more introverted and thoughtful voices who urged caution in our ramp up to war, or who called attention to patterns of financial abuse prior to the crash, were simply brushed aside as naive, inconsequential nay-sayers.
In contrast, Al Gore is, by most accounts, an introvert, and his recent work on climate change has shown some of the classic powers that introverts possess. As Cain writes, "On the subject of global warming, Gore has a clarity of voice that eluded him as a politician. For Gore, immersing himself in a complicated scientific puzzle comes naturally. Focusing on a single passion rather than tap dancing from subject to subject comes naturally. Even talking to crowds comes naturally when the subject is climate change. Gore on global warming has an easy charisma and connection with audience members that eluded him as a political candidate. That's because this mission, for him, is not about politics or personality. It's about the call of his conscience."
I love working alone, and my choices of lifestyle and livelihood have taken me as far from the New Groupthink and social hive as I can get - to the wilds of Alaska for several months a year as a fisherman and wilderness guide, into the contemplative solitude of the writer's craft, and to Buddhist monasteries for regular silent meditation retreats. These are the places I have felt most fully alive, and where my best work has been seeded. Cain has helped me understand, and put to rest, the unconscious residue of doubt about the value of these introvert tendencies in a rampantly extroverted culture.
Quiet has reaffirmed for me the ways that both creativity and conscience are core fruits of the introvert temperament, and how crucial they are to our survival. Without people to carry these values forward in the culture, Cain says, "we will, quite literally, drown."
Spring has arrived at Sogenji, and almost overnight the cherry blossoms have burst forth, bringing tons of Japanese tourists to the temple grounds looking for the peak-moment photograph. Spring blossoms and fall colors are like Christmas and Easter for the Japanese – real celebratory events.
My 64th birthday came on my last full day at Sogenji. I was hoping to slip it under the radar, but Chisan has a way of knowing about these things. So as tradition here has it, I was expected to offer a poem to commemorate the occasion. My poem was received with the reverent respect that is my due as an elder in the community. I'll share it with you here:
Curse you Paul McCartney
Long ago you predicted that this would happen.
Now it has come to pass,
And I must learn the painful truth.
'Will they still need me
Will they still feed me,
When I'm sixty-four?'
But I will not give in to fear.
'On top of Mt. Sogenji I have met the painful stick,
And there is still one more shout coming.'
'At this moment, what more need I seek?'
I will wander the world as a beggar now,
At least until next Tuesday
When my plane touches down in Seattle
And I wake from this dream,
Wondering . . .
what . . .
happened . . .
(Commentary on the poem for those unfamiliar with the subtle nuances of Zen:
Things changed for me at Sogenji when word got out that I had carpentry skills. I have been plenty busy during the daily work time, which usually lasts three hours. I've used my work practice to build two beds and three desks for the guesthouse, putting the final touches on them just as my last work period was drawing to a close today. This work has been a lot of fun, and it has given me the illusion that I am being "useful".
The monks have generally found my woodworking projects entertaining, and they like to check in on my progress.
In fact, I have decided to start a new line of furniture. I'm calling it Sogenji Shaker. It is guaranteed made with inadequate tools, cheap materials, compressed work time, and no flat surfaces to work on. And it has given me something creative to not think about while I am on the cushion.
Probably two thirds of these students are from Eastern Europe; primarily Hungary, Poland and Russia. When I ask why they think that is, I've been given some fascinating answers. In their view, the Eastern European countries came out of the Soviet era spiritually starved, and they have had to reinvent a foundation for spiritual growth and practice. Many of them also carry a strong devotional spirit from their traditional Roman Catholic and Orthodox faiths, but without a sense of belonging within those traditions in the new era. Buddhism is turning out to be a compelling place to invest that spirit and passion.
They have also inherited a cultural identity crisis from the Soviet era, along with persistently lousy economies, and are having to rediscover who they are now within the matrix. So for these young people, finding this full-bodied place of practice has given them a new lease on life, along with a stong community of international colleagues. Almost all of them intend to return to their home countries after a few years of training here, and to express the fruits of their training in a life of service there.
Tomorrow I leave Sogenji for Kyoto for two days with my friend Yuho, an American Zen monk who runs a temple there. I am really looking forward to this time in the old capital of Japan, before I fly home on April 1st. Chisan informed me today that Harada is also traveling to Kyoto tomorrow, along with Sho-e, his senior German student, so I will take the bullet train with them. Being with Harada outside of the training environment is a little intimidating. But then being with him in the training environment is intimidating too. That's just how it is with him. Chisan seems to think its a great idea, and besides, I'm not really being given a choice. So no doubt this will keep the adventure going.
Sogenji owns several hundred acres of forested mountain behind the monastery, which makes it feel far from the city of Okayama that is actually lapping at its front doorstep. At the top of the hill, about a half mile by trail and scramble up a steep ravine, sits a small hermitage. What a contrast to the great hondo temple at the bottom of the hill!
Students are permitted, by invitation of the roshi, to do a “doku sesshin”, or solitary retreat at the hermitage. The length of the retreat can vary from a few days to a full month. I was invited to do a short, three day doku sesshin this week, during the heart of my time at Sogenji.
During doku sesshin, the student comes down from the mountain morning and evening for sanzen (personal interview) with the roshi, and to retrieve food that has been left for pickup. It is all set up so that there is no contact between the retreatant and the rest of the community during doku sesshin, except for the essential daily meetings with the roshi. Back up at the hermitage, one can use the time for practice in whatever way one chooses, which is a great freedom, and opportunity for integrating practice into daily life, after the tight ritual structure that governs life at the monastery.
My doku sesshin, which ended this morning, was a deeply nourishing time for me. There is an intricate system of trails through the hills, laced with pilgrimage sites and small temples, that have been traveled by pilgrims for centuries. It felt great to include a vigorous hike each day, along with zazen, studying and journaling. It is not a time for zoning out though. The energy of the monastery down below wafts up the hill, and the meetings with Harada twice a day help hold ones feet to the fire.
It has been fifteen years since I was last at Sogenji. In between I have attended many retreats with Harada at Tahoma Zen Monastery on Whidbey Island. During much of that time, I have wrestled with strong feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy in my practice. Will I ever be "good" enough. Can I ever come up to this roshi's standards? I worried a bit, in coming back to Sogenji, whether those old daemons might be here waiting for me.
But a lot has changed for me in the intervening years, and it feels like the tide is turning in the direction of acceptance and self-compassion. Some of that change is probably just the drumbeat of aging. My old habit of refusing to accept things as they are – in myself, in others, and in the world – of swimming against the current of reality, is simply running out of gas. I find myself able to turn toward things as they are these days, with less judgement and resistance, more openness and humility - even the most difficult aspects of my life. Maybe it's fair to say that I am finally growing up.
Instead of always trying to practice harder, I'm learning to practice softer, as Michael Wenger has put it. “Practicing softer” is not in Harada's vocabulary or cultural self-understanding. But it is in mine, and that shift toward a softer holding of things has made all the difference. It has even made it possible for me to practice fruitfully again in this difficult training environment that the young monks here like to call “Samurai Boot Camp”.
Working with some really good American teachers over the last decade has helped me soften these sharp edges in myself. Particularly fruitful has been my work with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Norman Fischer and Rodney Smith, who have helped immensely in translating these traditional Asian dharma forms into a vernacular that flows more fluidly, for me at least, as an American lay practitioner.
Teaching MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) has also been hugely beneficial to the integration of my practice into daily life. Learning to meet people where they are within my own culture, to present the basic tools of dharma practice without its traditional Buddhist scaffolding, and with the collaborating perspectives of Western psychology and neuroscience, has given a lot of fresh traction to my understanding of these emerging dharma forms.
The beauty, for me, of this time at Sogenji is its cementing of a “both/and” understanding, in place of the “either/or” approach that had me locked down for so long. The rigors of training here are a reminder that this practice takes strong motivation and commitment, and I can feel how the potency of the Sogenji training model is firming up my core motivation to practice.
But it is also reaffirming my core identity as an American lay practitioner. I am not called to be a monk. I am called to a life in the world, as a teacher, explorer, husband and father, and as a “kayaking guide” who is learning to ride the converging rip tides of many Buddhist tributaries flowing into a new dharma river in the West. It is a wild ride for sure.
Mostly, I'm feeling great gratitude for this time at Sogenji, and for the great good fortune of being able to train with such an extraordinary teacher as Harada, among such gifted and dedicated practitioners from all over the world.
It is the open day after the osesshin here at Sogenji - the intensive retreat that happens one week a month, and I'm enjoying resting up, doing laundry, and visiting with some of the amazing people in training here. There is even internet here now, for these days when the schedule is loosened up a bit. It was pretty rugged having to dive right into osesshin coming straight off the jet, but on the other hand it was a good way to really get here. The osesshin schedule is more intensive that at Tahoma, sitting basically from 4:00 AM to 10:30 PM, with a few short breaks. It is also cold in a way you can't escape here. There is no central heating in these three hundred year old building, so it is just as cold inside as outside. Temperatures near freezing in the early morning, then more mild into the afternoon. It feels a little like winter camping, but I'm getting used to sitting bundled up, and winter is starting to loosen its grip now. The temple grounds and buildings are drop-dead beautiful, and that beauty helps ease the cold. Now that osesshin is over, the schedule for the rest of my time here will be a bit less rigorous.
The intensity of the quiet, with so much scope given to that silence, penetrates even more deeply than the cold. It is hard to describe, because this scale of silence is so utterly absent from my ordinary life, even as a mindfulness teacher. A training environment like this is very hard find in the culture of distraction that is so rampant in America.
Mostly a younger group of people in training here these days - from Germany, Poland, Hungary, Great Britain and the U.S., as well as a few now from Japan. I am feeling my age for sure. But so far I have been able to find my place in the mix of things where I can work hard without trying to be as macho as the younger ones. The atmosphere in a Rinzai Zen monastery is very competitive by design, so it takes some gumption to let go of that competitive urge. Mostly for me that means sitting some of the time with my feet down in the zendo - chair-like -, or standing, rather than sitting with my legs crossed on the cushion for hours at a spell.
I have been able also to let go of expectations about why I am here, to forget about trying to accomplish anything, and just put myself into the training as best I can. Relaxing and letting go continuously, rather than getting tight and judging myself for being so flawed, as I have always been so good at doing in the past. I can feel the grip of that old habit really starting to let go. What a relief! As challenging as this is, there is also an ease and comfort that comes with being carried along by such a strong and ancient current, having the benefit of a powerful practicing community, and of an intimate routine that I know well from years of practice. The flow of rituals that are the same each day offer a lot of solace.
I have no illusions that this is anything but a short dip into intensive training. Most people have to commit to a full year of training in order to be allowed to come here. But as one of Harada's students from Tahoma, I can come for a shorter visit, to taste the strong brew of traditional Japanese training. So far I'm glad I followed my hunch to come. It was time. After three and a half decades of dharma practice, I am only beginning to understand – and to feel – how this practice is moving into the marrow of my everyday life. A deep dive like this from time to time can really help to anchor that understanding. Nothing feels more important to me at this point in my life, and at this pivotal time in our shared life on earth.
As I write this, my jet is just lifting off from Seattle-Tacoma, headed for San Francisco and Osaka, Japan. Puget Sound is fading into the mist and fog and rain of this early March morning. It will still be winter when I get to Sogenji.
My final MBSR class with King County employees concluded last night. As always, I was moved by the quality and depth of closing reflections from participants as we went around the circle of twenty-five people, sharing what has been valuable about this eight-week journey into mindfulness. One said, “I used to be caught in my reactivity, and I didn't even know it. Now I see that I really can turn my reactions into responses – that I have choices – and this has made all the difference.” Another said, “I am so much calmer now. I was really stressed when I started the class. Those stesses are still there, but I don't get pulled into them nearly as much. It's hard to put into words.” Another said, “It gives me comfort to run into colleagues from this class now, and to know that we share this bond. I don't feel so alone, and I feel better able to be present to my work.” Another said, “I was really disconnected from my body before. It was like me and my body were two. Now I do the body scan every day on the bus when I'm riding to work. I feel more calm when I get there, and I am really learning how to listen to my body. It makes a huge difference.”
Watching these insights take root in my students is inspiring. But I have also been feeling a need to take a break from teaching, and to go deeper again into my own practice. This is a trip I've been wanting to take for a long time, though I feel some apprehension going into it – a full month of intensive practice, mostly in silence. I've never done more that a week-long silent retreat before.
My motivation for going to Sogenji is still a bit murky. I'm a little surprised that I'm actually doing it. Mostly, my decision stems from my retreat with Harada at Tahoma Zen Monastery on Whidbey Island last September, when I felt a fresh connection to my teacher – fresh motivation to stay within the Zen stream. For the next month I will go by the name that Harada gave me. I will be "Shinkai", which means "mind of ocean". Chisan emailed me from Sogenji yesterday that Harada has mentioned several times to her that, “Shinkai is coming,” each time with a smile. The story I have been telling myself for so many years that I am a lousy Zen student, that Harada doesn't take me seriously as a student, is obviously not true. Harada takes me much more seriously than I take myself. My job on this trip, and in moving forward from here, is to get out of my own way, so that the deep possibilities that Harada sees in me, and that are in everyone, can find freer and more heartfelt epression in my life. This is important not just for me, but for everyone that my life comes in contact with.
As both a Zen student and MBSR teacher, I feel myself perched on a rich, fertile intersection between traditional Buddhist training, and the exploding world of applied mindfulness in Western culture. It is messy and chaotic and beautiful and absolutely necessary. The discontinuities between the two feel much smaller to me than they used to. Could it be that all this elegant form and effort comes down to simply learning how to do this continuously in our everyday lives? I think so. But as the “mindfulness revolution” kicks into high gear, the question of integrity looms large. It is not nearly as easy to do this as pop culture is prone to suggest. Through my own ongoing practice and teaching, I have developed a more visceral understanding of how challenging it is to bring mindfulness into the marrow of our everyday lives, because I see how hard it is for me to do it skillfully and continuously. The layers of resistance and delusion never give way to clarity for long.
I have no idea if this trip to Japan will yield fruit, and what form that fruit will take. I'm simply following a hunch that this is what I need to do right now. I am trying to enter this time, as Suzuki Roshi used to suggest, "without a gaining idea." And while reading and writing will mostly be on the back burner during this time, I'll try to weigh in a couple times in the coming weeks with some of what I am learning.
In addition to some excellent skiing, and my ongoing work as a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher at Seattle's VA Hospital and the Samaritan Center of Puget Sound, I am teaching a first-ever MBSR class for King County employees in Seattle this winter through Mindfulness Northwest. The work of bringing mindfulness training into such a rich diversity of settings is continually engaging and energizing for me.
I have put my four MBSR practice CD's into podcast format now on my website, which is available here to either listen directly, or to download. The CD's include a body scan, a simple yoga routine, a qi gong movement series, and several tracks of mindful sitting. If you are not a part of one of my classes, you will probably find the mindful sitting tracks to be most accessible.
I am also actively involved as a founding member of the Cascadia Climate Collaborative, in partnership with the Whidbey Institute. Our planning team is getting ready for a climate conference this April 11-12 at the Whidbey Institute, designed for climate leaders and community activists within the Cascadia region. We have a powerful cast of visionary speakers lined up, including Kathleen Dean Moore, KC Golden, Alec Loorz and Tzeporah Berman. While this is an invitational conference, there will be a public talk given by Kathleen Dean Moore at the Whidbey Institute on Saturday evening, April 12, 2014.
Our planning team has also released an inspiring nine-minute video on the theme of "Moral Power for Climate Action", produced by the award winning PBS documentary filmmaker Phil Walker. This film can be freely accessed here.
I will be stepping back from this work for the month of March, during which time I will be doing an intensive Zen training period with my teacher Shodo Harada Roshi at Sogenji Zen Monastery in Okayama, Japan. During that time I will have very limited access to email and internet, so I apologize if that makes it difficult to contact me during that month. It is my longstanding conviction that the kind of work I feel called to do, as both a teacher and an activist, requires periods of deep restoration and resilience training, if we are to be fully present to those we serve, and if we are going to sustain our commitments over time. I look forward to this time at Sogenji, and to all the wonderful opportunities for collaborative work that have been given me to do.
Last week I attended a Zen Rohatsu retreat in Bellingham. The Rohatsu commemorates the Buddha's enlightenment, which tradition says happened at this time of year, when the Buddha took his seat beneath the bodhi tree and vowed not to move until he had gotten to the root of enlightened mind. His enlightenment moment happened at dawn after sitting all night, when he saw the morning star, and was struck by the full, wide-open insight that life, all matter, all form and experience truly is woven together at its core. All is alive. There is nothing whatsoever to fear.
Within the Zen tradition, Rohatsu is the most important retreat of the year. Often it includes at least one all-night sit, where students take upon themselves Buddha's commitment to become awakened, no matter what.
The silent Rohatsu retreat I attended lasted three days instead of the usual seven. The schedule was not so rigorous as it is in the Zen monasteries of Japan. But there were still long hours of sitting each day. As the final day of the retreat came to an end at 9:00 PM, we were invited to sit longer into the night, as the Buddha did long ago, if we felt so moved. I was tired. My knees ached. I was ready to call it a day. But when the last bell had rung, I decided to sit just a bit longer. I joined the half-dozen or so other Zen students who stayed in the meditation hall as the others quietly left for the night.
I didn't stay to prove anything. It wasn't a contest or a marathon. I just felt like it. One hour became two, then three, then four. Time melted into a vigil, held within the deep darkness of a mid-winter's night. Somewhere in the night I napped for a couple of hours on my cushion, then resumed sitting for the last two hours before dawn. I sat with all the things that feel so wrong about the world, and all the things that make no sense about my life. I sat with all the things I have yet to accomplish, and all the things I have given up trying to accomplish. I sat with a deep knowing that my time left on this earth is short, and my life - all life - is precious beyond what anyone can truly comprehend.
It felt as though my snarky contentions about right and wrong became tributaries of a much larger river. All my fears and hopes, insufficiencies and self-doubts, just kept flowing into a great river that was big enough to hold it all.
This is the raft I want to ride on. But it is arguably not as easy as it used to be. And it was never easy to begin with. So much is dying now, so much more to let go of than just my own small life. In his recent NY Times piece, Learning How To Die In the Anthropcene, Roy Scranton has written:
In the epoch of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality — “What does my life mean in the face of death?” — is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. What does human existence mean against 100,000 years of climate change? What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?
These are questions that haunt me in the night. Where is the river that is big enough to carry life forward beyond humanity's end, beyond the end of the bio-sphere that gave birth to us? Can I drink even that down, stay in the rapids of that, without losing heart or hope?
Maybe it wasn't so different in the Buddha's time. No doubt it was this same fierce beauty and wonder at our transient passage through Time - this same drinking it all down - that shined through for the Buddha when he glimpsed the morning star all those centuries ago. It is that same fierce beauty and wonder that offers to break things open again in our own hearts - and again and again. Endlessly, forever.
If I were in the Tavern tonight, / I would buy freely for everyone in the world
Because our marriage with the Cruel Beauty / Of time and space cannot endure very long.
Death is a favor to us / But our minds have lost their balance.
The miraculous existence and impermanence of Form / Always makes the illuminated ones
Laugh and Sing.