Category Archives: buddhism

There for the whole show

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For  day or two after leaving Spirit Rock, I find myself sometimes looking at a clock and reminiscing about what I was doing at that time while on retreat. For instance, it’s 7:04 am right now. Yesterday at this time I was walking down the hill to the dining hall for breakfast having  just finished the 6:15 meditation session.

I now find comfort in the regimentation of retreat. This was probably my first one where I went to every single sitting, and did at least some walking during each session of walking meditation. Since I brought neither book nor journal, there was no running back to my room during the walking sessions to record my profound thoughts about how, for instance, I was dead sure Ann Coulter was on this retreat. (Seriously, I was entirely convinced that this very tall, thin, rather hard looking blond woman was Ann Coulter infiltrating our blessed retreat just so that she could make fun of us on FOX News. As it turns out, she was not Ann Coulter, but a very nice woman named Diane. And while I understand she can’t do much about her build and general features, I would advise her to do away with the straight blond hair if she wants to stop frightening gentle souls and woodland creatures.)

There two events that occurred while on my retreat that ended up hijacking all my hopes for a blissed-out few days (which, yes, I realize is not the point, but let’s face it, no one goes into a retreat hoping to see how fucked up their mind really is. While your teacher may be pleased about your insight into your obsessive monkey-on-a-mixture-of-alcohol-meth-and-prescription-drugs mind, it doesn’t always make for a pleasant experience.)

The first event happened right out of the gate. On the first morning, I came back to my room after breakfast to find my phone blowing up with text messages. This was surprising on two fronts: first, I’ve never had any connectivity before up at Spirit Rock. It has been one of the rare times I am grateful for AT&T’s shitty service. But, apparently that has improved, therefore the texts; second the texts were all wondering if I was OK and how was the weather in Scotland.  Finally, it became clear – my Gmail account had been hacked. A message went out to everyone I have ever emailed in the last 8 years saying something to the effect that I was stranded in Scotland after having been robbed at gunpoint – please send money.

I went to the manager’s office to plead to be able to use their computers to change my passwords on not only my email, but some of my other accounts. After a quick chastisement from one of the retreat managers about having phone turned on, she let use one of their computers to go in and stave off any further damage.  As far as I could see, they had only messed with my email account despite my being a very bad bad internet user and having the same password on multiple accounts.

So, having done all I could do to secure my accounts, that should have been the end of it, right? But, noooooooooo. When you’re sitting silently for over 5 hours a day, your mind has the opportunity to really make up some totally mad shit, and then rehash that over and over and over . . .  Plus, the texts kept coming in: my brother contacted the FBI; a friend of mine played with the hackers and agreed to send them the money, all the while bcc’ing the Edinburgh police in hopes they might nab them while picking up the imaginary transfer at the Western Union office; and someone asked me to pick up a kilt for them. But, when I realized I was just getting hooked into the amusement and drama, I decided to give my phone to the manager to hold on to for the duration of the retreat. It was time to let go.

My head settled down a bit for about a day, but then another drama decided to take my mind for a joyride. My “yogi job” (a daily chore all retreatants do) this time was dinner prep, which is mostly chopping vegetables. That should be nice and meditative right? Unlike my preferred yogi job of housekeeping, which is an individual task, supper prep is a group event.  There were five of us chopping veggies, scooping dough, or squeezing prunes (I never want to touch another prune in my life).  On day three, one of my co-yogis was watching me as if she was waiting for me to spit on the food or something. At one point, she went in to talk to one of the cooks, who then also came out to look at me.

Oh lordy lordy me, paranoia will destroya, ya know? My mind started to go ape shit. I was already extremely uncomfortable doing the task. Standing for long periods over a cutting board does a number on my back, which was already feeling challenged from the long periods of sitting, which was probably exacerbated from a sleep deficit. For the next 24 or so hours, my mind spun out over my imagined infraction mixed with back pain. And thanks to the joys of mindfulness, I was there for the whole show.  Great. Fucking great.

By the end of this short retreat however, I was weepy that it was over, and was fomenting some long-term plans to one day sit a three-month retreat.  Despite, the physical and psychological pain these retreats sometimes bring up, I know, on a deep level, this is what I need to be doing.

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Giving up the written word

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The other day when I was meeting with my Kalyana Mitta group (basically a Buddhist support group and book club), one of my sangha mates said. “I have to confess I was naughty and brought a book with me on retreat.” I looked around the room to see the reaction to his revelation. For the most part, everyone looked understanding and sympathetic to his disclosure. On the other hand, I probably looked fairly puzzled. Doesn’t everyone bring books with them on retreat? Oh god, am I the only one?

Of course, I have read and heard teachers advise against reading or writing during retreats. It breaks the continuity of mindfulness. The oft-used analogy is if you put a kettle of water on the stove and then take it off, then put it back on and take it off, the water is never going to boil. Same thing with our mindfulness. If we keep losing it by getting lost in words (written or being written), it breaks the continuity of the mindfulness and we’re never going to get the full benefit of the extended practice period. OK, yeah, I get it. But, honestly now, are people actually holding to that?

Apparently, people do.

Tomorrow I’m off on retreat again – five days up at Spirit Rock at a silent retreat co-lead by my golf club wielding teacher. When I met with him yesterday, I wanted to get some clarity on the reading thing.  He confirmed what I had heard before and whipped out the ol’ kettle analogy. I get it, but what I can’t understand is what people do in their rooms after the last sitting and before they fall asleep.  We have no access to electronic media – there is no cell or WiFi signal out there. And certainly no TV. Do people simply sit in their rooms staring mindfully at the walls?

My teacher looked at me rather gently as he told me the obvious: after the last sitting, people simply go to sleep. Oh right. Sleep. At 9:30 at night. Sleep. With no need to wind down, no transition. What a concept.

I have often marveled at how many of the dorm windows are dark when I come out of the last session at 10 or so.  I’m usually one of the last to leave the sitting, so I know all my  fellow yogis aren’t in the hall. Maybe they’re down in the dining hall enjoying a nice rice cracker and a cup of tea.  Doubtful. So the only other option is that they are already in bed. At 10 o’clock. Does not compute.

As you may have surmised, I’m a night owl. I tend to go to bed between midnight and 1 am.  Trust me, I’ve tried to go to bed earlier, but it doesn’t work.  I even diagnosed myself with a mild case of Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder.  I’m fortunate, it doesn’t impact my life that much since I tend to stay away from jobs where I have to be at work early or where my boss is a stickler about tardiness.

I’m also one of those people who cannot simply hop into bed and fall asleep no matter how tired I am. I need time to wind down. Even if I get home really late, I watch a little TV to let the mind know it’s time to stop thinking. So, on retreats with no access to mind-numbing TV, I will spend some time journalling and then take a dharma book with me to bed and try to read myself to sleep. And even that doesn’t always work, especially when I’m struck with anxiety or energy surges from a long day of meditation. As much as I love Spirit Rock and being on retreat, I’ve had plenty long dark nights of the soul there when I’ve found myself battling anxiety and sleeplessness.

Since this is a short retreat and with my teacher co-leading, I’ve decided to push myself a bit. I’m giving up the written word for the duration of the retreat. No reading, no writing.  I’m going to keep my kettle on the stove. If that means I’m still in the hall meditating at 2am, so be it. Basically, I’m going to meditate until I’m exhausted and can hopefully fall asleep without my routines.  (Though, don’t expect me at the 6:30 am sit.)

It sounds a bit extreme, I realize. But, worry not, I’ll still have a book tucked away in my suitcase if my plan doesn’t work out.

Struck by the golf club of wisdom

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Years ago now, back when I was still deeply involved in the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), I felt I was very firmly “on the path”. I had my bags packed for Enlightenment, or at the very least, some Pure Land.  I had my map, which we chanted at the beginning of each class – Prayers for the Stages of the Path. I trusted that my Spiritual Guide knew how to get to the top of the mountain, I just had to be willing to make the schlep.  I was going was to a place beyond suffering where I would abide in bliss and emptiness and hang out and radiate blessings to all the poor suckers still stuck in samsara. Or at least I thought it was something like that.  The only model we had for enlightened beings were old Tibetan dudes, most of whom were dead.  Enlightened beings never looked like me.

When I stepped off the Mahayana path and started down the much more mindfulness oriented path of Vipassana, my spiritual goals changed.  I stopped fetishising Enlightenment as the end all and be all. That may come eventually, but for now I was simply trying to stay present, right in this moment.  And by going on retreats, I was able to get a taste of some of the bliss that comes with a highly concentrated mind, and experience the peace that comes from mindful attention to my moment-by-moment experience.

Yet, I still had this sense that I would never totally have my spiritual shit together.  All the teachers I had come to admire had traveled to Burma, Thailand, India, etc. and did long retreats. Instead of old Tibetan dudes, my new spiritual role models became the prototypical Spirit Rock teacher – a Marin-dwelling, Jewish psychotherapist.

One day, not so long ago,  I was on my way to see my therapist – a Marin-dwelling, Jewish Spirit Rock teacher. As I drove up to his home office I saw him remove a set of golf clubs from the back of his car. Golf clubs? Gurus don’t play golf. I was completely thrown. We probably spent half the session talking about why I was having such an averse reaction to the fact that he played golf (nay! loved golf). No conclusion was reached by the end of the session. I left as baffled as I was when I arrived.

The next morning as I was driving to work I was still mulling my rather extreme reaction to the golf clubs. Then it hit me. Seeing my teacher with those golf clubs pretty much shattered the picture in my head of what a person who has their spiritual shit together is like.  So, I mulled, if that picture is false, then who is to say that I can’t have my spiritual shit together? Why does my awakening have to look like an old Tibetan dude’s, or  my Marin-dwelling, Jewish therapist/teacher’s?

Those golf clubs struck me like a vajra.  For the rest of the trip into the office,  my ordinary view of other drivers and pedestrians shifted, and I saw them as potential Buddhas (beings who totally have their spiritual shit together).  The hipster girl walking across the street talking on cell could have been a Buddha. The old Chinese lady getting off the bus with her bag of groceries had a Buddha nature. Even the cabbie who cut me off may have been fully enlightened. So why not me?

I never realized how much I had been holding on to these pictures of what a person who had deep spiritual realizations looked or acted like. Nor did I know how much I had excluded myself from that picture.

But, no more.

Tears for Aurora

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I blame my metta practice for how easily and frequently I find myself tearing up.

As I watched Anderson Cooper tonight interviewing victims of the Aurora, CO theater shooting,  I noticed I had stopped breathing. I recognize too well the look of shock and horror in the witnesses eyes. My heart breaks for them. I cry for them. I know from experience their lives may never be the same. A trust has been broken. While there is no written contract stating that your life will never be touched by violence, you certainly never expect to be just minding your own business in the relative safety of your home or a movie theater and then be confronted by someone with a gun.

That happened to me over 30 years ago and there are still reverberations. I was at a friend’s house and two men burst into the home threatening to shoot us. They didn’t. They did other things. My body still holds the memories. The event still occasionally revisits me in my dreams. This even after years of psychological and spiritual work. I feel fortunate to have therapists and teachers who have helped me turned that shitty event into the manure in which to grow my compassion.

But through the tears there is also anger and outrage. But, it’s not directed at the shooter. I don’t feel pity for him, yet I know it takes a very sick, deluded person to do what he did. No, my anger is at the NRA and its supporters who think it’s OK to be able to legally sell assault rifles to the general public and who have fought tooth and nail for people to be able to buy as many guns and as much ammunition as they please. No red flags were raised about this guy and his recent weapon buying spree. It was all legal. And it makes me sick. And I want to get on a soapbox. I want to blame some “other” for allowing this. But, I know it will do no good. Already online I can read the gun control debates. Everyone just spouting “I’m right, you’re wrong” with no true dialogue.

Tonight as I was doing my metta practice I did a round for everyone affected by the events today in Aurora. And while I certainly wish them happiness and peace, health and strength, and ease of well-being, I wish with all my heart for them that one day that they may once again feel safe and protected. It may take some work, but I want to hold them and tell that it is indeed possible.

If it’s not one thing . . .

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A few days ago, the last of Binkles’ foot drama was over. The vet removed the pin in his foot that was used to reset the bone that had fractured.  I felt relieved that not only was my Binks as good as new, but I was looking forward to a period of time where it didn’t feel like I was dating my vet, so frequent were my visits.

As I pulled into the driveway with my newly-pinless bunny, I noticed that Pretty, my pet feral cat, was limping pretty badly as she came out to greet me. When I got out of the car, she came up to me, gave me a plaintive meow and held her paw up. Part of me was thinking “oh no, you poor thing” and the other part (the cheap, less compassionate part) was thinking “oh for crying out loud! Seriously?”

I took a look at her paw and could see nothing obvious. It clearly wasn’t broken as she was putting weight on it, and there was no visible or felt object stuck in it. She was moving around (albeit limping a bit) and eating just fine, so I figured this was a watch and wait situation.

The next day, she seemed better. Still slightly limping, but definitely in better spirits. I was relieved. However, the day after (on a Saturday, of course) I could see the paw had definitely taken a turn for the worse. It was swollen to twice its normal size, and her limp had become much more pronounced. No more waiting and watching. She is a feral cat, after all, and if it got worse she may go into hiding and I would never be able to get her.

Fortunately, she does let me touch her, so I petted her a while as she ate.  Then I betrayed her by quickly scruffing her and then stuffing into a carrier. She complained loudly and mournfully as we drove to the emergency vet.

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The question

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Since I left the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) close to five years ago, I’ve been spiritually promiscuous. I’ve tried on a number of Vipassana teachers and sanghas in hopes of finding some place that feels like home. I’ve toyed with a local Dzogchen teacher, studied Mahamudra with a Vajrayana teacher and earlier this week, I returned from a six-day retreat that combined Dzogchen and Vipassana.

Usually when I return from retreat there is a bit of an afterglow. The real world seems rather harsh in comparison to the quiet I feel inside. That wasn’t the case this time. It was an odd retreat. Not bad. Just different than what I’m been used to at past retreats at Spirit Rock.  This retreat was co-led by two heavy hitters in the Dzogchen and Vipassana worlds (whom I’m not going to name simply because I don’t want this blog to show up when someone Googles them).   The main draw for me was the Vipassana teacher who literally wrote the book on Metta/LovingKindness. But, since I had been dipping my toes back into the world of Tibetan Buddhism, I was also interested in what the Dzogchen master had to say.

I wish I had been warned that this was primarily a Dzogchen retreat with an emphasis on the teachings (approx three-to-four hours a day from the Rinpoche and another hour from Ms. Metta).  In the past, I’m used to four-to-five hours a day of sitting meditation, plus another two-to-three doing walking meditation. During this retreat I barely broke two hours of meditation per day, and the walking meditation breaks were really just 15 minute stretch breaks.

Which is not to say the teachings weren’t amazing. They truly were. All the things I loved about Tibetan Buddhism – the intellectual rigor, the precision, and the magical infusion of “blessings” – came flooding back to me. Ah, why did I ever leave?  But, then in the evenings, when Ms. Metta gave her teachings based in the Theravada tradition, I was reminded why I had changed direction. There is a beautiful simplicity and practicality, a psychological resonance, and a strong sense of morality.  I have found a teacher and a sangha I connect with and my practice is strong, why would I want to stray off this path?

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Lost

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I’ve got a couple of pieces that I’ve been working on. And is the case with postings that turn into opuses, they may or may not ever get finished. So, for the sake of trying to maintain some momentum, I’ll share something I wrote  recently for a class. The writing prompt was “Lost”.

Sitting in a chair whose history is long and poignant, my eyes gently shut. Feeling my body vibrating, parts pinging their presence, settling in. And finding the the breath. As usual, it’s a bit shallow, never quite reaching my belly. And with attention, it lengthens, deepens into the belly and through the back. And again. And again. Its pace slowing on its own. Unwinding, breath by breath. A scene starts to play out in my head. A movie I must have made in my sleep. Characters arise fully formed. Bits of dialogue. Lost.

Finding the breath again. “Start again” as one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs advises. I wonder when Leonard Cohen is coming back to town. The man puts on a damn fine show. “Don’t dwell on what has passed away” I start to sing to myself, “or what is yet to be.”  Lost.

Coming back yet again to the breath. Finding my home in the equinimity of a quiet mind. There we go. That’s it. Damn, I’m such a good meditator. Shit. Lost again.

The pain in my lower back sidetracks the trip back to the breath. That’s OK, I can investigate that. Stupid pain. Can’t it see I’m trying to meditate. No, sense it. What is it? Tight? Sharp? Deep? Shallow? Ouch. I don’t like it and I want it to go away.  Lost.

Oh. Where did that pain go? OK, back to the breath. Feeling the coolness of the in breath right at that spot between my nose and lip, and reaching for some sensation there on the out breath. Opening once again to this moment. I really should write about this sometime. Lost.