Contemplating Age & Death

The Family CollageYesterday I got the news that my oldest living Aunt died in the morning. My Uncle, her husband, is the oldest living relative in my immediate family. He is the last of his generation and I quickly realized that once he is gone, I and my sisters and first cousins will become the family’s new oldest living generation.

I believe there is a responsibility that comes with that honor. It’s fascinating that we buy into a multi-billion dollar industry that not only helps us piece together our family history but for many, sheds new light (or perhaps the only light) on family members just one or two generations back. Information not passed down by the family Bible that contains the family tree or even an oral tradition of keeping family members and folk lore alive in our hearts and minds.

At sixty years old I’m looking at the world much differently these days. Death feels closer than ever before and the passing of time holds more and less meaning as I accept the inevitable. Whether it’s just a few days or forty more years, contemplation of old age and death is different at sixty than it was at thirty.

I hear many people saying, “I don’t want to be old!” And all I can think is, “Well, we are…”

And frankly, I like it.

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Bird Contemplations 18-52

IMG_8104At the top of this year I shared that I was taking sabbatical for an entire year and considered writing weekly blog post. I made it to 17. My plan was to, “live a contemplative life which means to mostly disengage from a social life and spend my time in study and meditation.” A friend recently asked me how 2018 will be different from 2017 and it’s something I’d been contemplating as I entered the winter of my sabbatical. As I enjoy my usual tradition of New Years Eve rituals, I thought I would share some of what the past year has taught me.

I observed four themes this year: 1 – I don’t resonate well with sarcasm, 2 – I tend to give my power away to spiritual teachers, 3 – Relationships are my most cherished gifts to receive, and 4 – Trust is the most important aspect of any relationship.

1. sar·casm, noun – the use of irony to mock or convey contempt. Oscar Wilde is quoted as having said, “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence.” And in my observation, most people who are very sarcastic also believe they are highly intelligent. Perhaps they are. Or perhaps they can only relate with others through passive aggressive behaviors. There is a lot of sarcasm on Facebook and a lot of people who claim to engage in “poking the bear” to initiate conversation, rather than share their own opinion. The more I noticed this on FB, the more I began to notice it in life in general. Perhaps sarcasm has it’s place. I recently posted a picture on FB that I felt was provocative due to its sarcasm. But generally speaking, I want to hear what someone thinks, how they feel, and what led them to their conclusions. While some sarcasm may be beneficial and perhaps even healthy, I don’t enjoy sarcastic people. I’m sorry if you feel you are sarcastic by nature and I’m talking about you. Maybe it is sarcasm without compassion that troubles me. I have no great insight really, except to notice that when someone is notoriously sarcastic, it leaves me wanting less engagement with them, not more.

 

At the beginning of the year I disengaged from all of my volunteer activities except for leading dharma talks/meditation at Asheville Insight Meditation. By June I realized it was time for me to resign from the leadership team and I gave my last talk but continued offering monthly sound meditations.

The year also began with weekly days of retreat. I unplugged (except for online dharma talks/courses) and focused on my practice. I went on a few short retreats the beginning of the year. I attended retreat in March and by that time I recognized that to go further in my studies, I needed a teacher and preferably a monastic. There is a person who fits that description whom I greatly admire and I asked if she would be my teacher. We agreed that it would be a challenge because of the distance between us (she lives on the West coast) and because of her many duties leading a women’s monastic community. The challenges proved to be too much. I made the decision to either find someone local, or take a different approach altogether.

2 – Asheville offers many Buddhist teachers, monastics, and laypeople to help guide one through the dharma. There were many local options. What I knew from years of experience with spiritual teachers is I’m best served by someone who walks their talk (aren’t we all?). I often hear of sanghas (Buddhist communities) who have difficulties with their teachers – monastic and not – just like any other religious organization. And what I hear most is that teachers are humans too…they are going to make mistakes and a sangha should not judge them but rather receive the teachings. Pema Chodron has said something similar in her experience with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche who suffered from alcoholism and inappropriate behavior.

I think of spiritual teachers in the same way I think of Math teachers. Sure, a math teacher might not get every formula or equation right, but most of the time, they do. And when they don’t, it’s very clear that the answer they came up with is wrong and it’s important that they understand where they made their mistake – then own their mistake and share it as a learning opportunity for others who want to learn math. They also have limitations in their abilities; not every math teacher is an Einstein.

It takes courage and leadership to do this. All too often spiritual teachers aren’t willing to reveal their own weaknesses. They work hard to prove they are on a higher spiritual level than others and they project onto their students which if not addressed, actually harms the student and the teacher. To me, this is a failure of the teacher because the only way to truly teach the dharma or any spiritual or religious way of being is by action, not words. And in that sense everyone is a teacher. If you want to teach kindness and compassion, show kindness and compassion.

So with this insight I spent the remainder of the year visiting Serenity Insight, Heartwood Refuge, and Asheville Insight. While my studies weren’t guided and therefore I was not as disciplined as I thought I’d be, I learned that I have a tendency to give my power to a spiritual teacher, believing he or she knows something I don’t know. And it’s true that they might be able to speak the dharma more eloquently than me or relate the Buddha’s words to some psychological concept better than I can. They might very well be more spiritually enlightened than I am. I admire those qualities and desire to further develop my ability to share the dharma in words that are easily understood. But most importantly and above all, I want to live the dharma. If my actions reflect the words I seek to share, then I am giving to the world what I most desire. So when choosing a teacher, actions speak louder than words is what drives my decision. And when I really think about it, this insight has little to do with teachers. I’m not sure I’ve really shared what I mean by giving my power to a teacher. That may be a future post. For now what I want to share most is that we each have a teacher within. And without judging others, we are best served listening to ourselves with an openness to the voice of others (teachers) who lovingly and compassionately support us on our journey and path of learning.

3 – Since I wouldn’t be socializing as much as I had been in the past (I had pretty much quit attending sangha and I spent more one-on-one time with others,) I wasn’t sure how my relationships at the beginning of the year might be different today, this last day of the year. I found almost everyone to be supportive of my plan. There were only one or two who had expectations of me…how I should engage in the world and how often we needed to visit to remain friends. Upon reflection, I know now that we were not friends in the first place. I have learned this year the true nature of giving and receiving. Relationships have nothing to do with time or time spent… it is what we hold in our hearts for one another. Some of you I have known for all or most of my life; at least well over twenty years. We may not talk to one another often but I hold you in no less regard than those who by virtue of geography, I see once a week.

The biggest relationship challenge of 2017 was manifested by the election of DT as President. I still don’t understand it. I don’t understand Christian support of the man. I don’t understand anyone holding the character of DT over Obama. (You might prefer his policies, but what he has shown to be his character?) I’ve learned that just because I don’t understand my friends and family with those inclinations, I love them dearly and they are important to me. One of the reasons I stopped posting this year was because so many of my contemplations were brought about by the current state of our country. And one thing I know for sure is that neither you or I have all the answers…and almost all of us need to take some deep breaths and speak to one another in person rather than social media, email, or even telephone which leads me to another insight…

3b – No matter what we believe, scientific proof or not, religious or not, political or not, we are all attached to our beliefs. What we hold onto is not what we believe so strongly in but rather our fear that we might be wrong…who would we be if we were wrong about something or everything? When we let go of that fear, we can allow ourselves to be wrong and if we are wrong, others might be wrong. I’m not suggesting we live with no opinions or beliefs, I’m offering the possibility that we are not our opinions and beliefs. We can believe anything we want…convincing others to agree with us doesn’t necessarily mean we are right and they were wrong. Accepting that we are all right sometimes and all wrong sometimes and we don’t always know the difference, can help bridge the gap in our relationships and give us peace of mind and joy in our hearts. Try it!

4 – Trust is really the foundation of relationships. I trust I will make mistakes and you will forgive me. I trust you will make mistakes and I will forgive you. Earlier this year a friend told me that I hurt her feelings. Her response to what I said was unexpected and the pain I caused her was unintentional. I apologized and took action to correct my mistake. I also explained that I did not mean to hurt her and would never intentionally hurt her. I asked for forgiveness. My request was met with an unwillingness to accept that I made a mistake. By the end I felt attacked and hurt and it seemed our friendship had reached an impasse. I even explained that I was feeling attacked and still, no kind words of apology or forgiveness. I know I make mistakes and certainly if I hurt you more than once and seem to have no regard for what I am doing, I don’t expect you to stay my friend. But when I share heartfelt thoughts in explanation to what I may have said or done and I ask for your forgiveness, I can only hope you will forgive me as I forgive you. Otherwise the only course of action is to let go of our friendship and trust that you find happiness. We have to protect ourselves from those who harm us. Boundaries are healthy and necessary to maintain good relationships. After a year of spending most of my time alone and somewhat disengaged from the world, I know the friends I can count on to trust me with their heart as I trust them with mine. As Brené Brown says, “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen… True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world…, Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

This past Wednesday was my final sound meditation at AIM and I am only offering two more full moon meditations here in Asheville. This is to give me time and space to prepare for my upcoming move to Burnsville, NC. The move is fulfillment of a lifelong dream as well as a result of my sabbatical; realizing how much I want to live in a small town and care for land, plants, and animals, while offering service by way of individual retreat space. I will definitely share more on that as it becomes more of a reality. 2018 may not be very different than 2017 in the level of contemplation and reflection. I suspect that once I’m in the new home I’ll spend more time with Buddhist studies and become even more dedicated to my practice. I miss being of service and I know that will manifest in different ways – some of which I’m not clear on right now. My relationships are strong and I commit to nourishing those…so many friends have shared that living an hour away doesn’t have to mean less time together, certainly no less love. It’s been a long time since I’ve kept a gratitude journal and I’m bringing that practice back into my daily routine as I already know I have so much to be grateful for.

I end this year with heartfelt thanks to everyone near and far who has supported me this year and all years. May each of you find inner peace and radiant joy.

With metta, Kate

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Bird Contemplations 17

[At the beginning of my sabbatical I planned to write once a week. But I have found that in the past several weeks…maybe a month or two…I just wanted to sit with my own thoughts…observe them…feel them…reflect. As we sit on the verge of another devastating hurricane hitting the U.S., the possibility of nuclear war with North Korea, and a very divided nation, I thought I would share my evening thoughts…]

IMG_7441Heavy contemplations on a rainy night…
I was raised by parents who sacrificed their own family to care for the children of others. That’s the number one value by which I was raised…
You see, my Mom and Dad had their imperfections but they never tried to prove their Christianity with talk. They didn’t tell people what good Christians they were. They didn’t need to. Because they lived in the world as compassionate, loving, and caring people. Kinda like Jesus (as my parents believed) told them to do.
And that is why it is so very difficult for me to comprehend people who want to throw the Dreamers out of the country, in the name of God and family.
Children who (the majority) grew up to be positive contributors to the U.S. economy and way of life.
I don’t know anyone at all who doesn’t have a job because a dreamer took it away from them. I don’t know any parent who wouldn’t leave their home country and give up everything to give their children a chance at a better life.
How can those loving parents not understand what the parents and Dreamer children are going through? How can they have no compassion? During a hurricane (and we haven’t seen the worst of it) when a hand reaches out to help, will those people ask if the hand is legally documented, Christian, or some other separator? Based on what I’ve seen reported from Houston, the answer is, “No.”
And if that is not enough, how do Americans who support the end of DACA justify it economically when the numbers prove just how much the Dreamers contribute financially?
Sometimes I struggle with questions. Not because I have no answers but because the questions are so foreign to my concept of humanity. And if that makes me a libtard or snowflake or some lost heathen soul, I guess I’m okay with that. I can live with it. There are those who preach the gospels with actions directed only toward what they judge to be good, right, and fair. I think I will take my parent’s approach and quiet my words with the effort of compassionate, loving, kind, and responsible action.
I know there are some who will read this and disagree, maybe get mad, or offended. That’s not my intent at all. The new American culture is to “say it like it is” and “say what we really think.” I still believe in kind speech and don’t agree with those who believe kind speech is only unnecessary politically correct speech. We’ve got to communicate which means we’ve got to listen. I’m happy to listen to those with a different point of view. I actually welcome the dialog.
With metta.
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Bird Contemplations 16 (Going Forth)

[If you’d like to listen to (rather than read) this talk, click here: AIM.]

Note: Last night I gave a final dhamma talk at Asheville Insight Meditation. I ended up writing a script and decided I would post it here since in it I provide an update on my year-long sabbatical, which is what my blog has been about this year.

Last AIM Talk

Tonight I want to introduce you – if you aren’t already familiar – to the concept of going forth. I will do that by sharing my experience of going forth and I especially want to share with all of you, some of the great resources I’ve discovered during my journey or sabbatical.

When I retired and moved to Asheville in the fall of 2014, I had a vision but not necessarily a plan. I knew I wanted to live differently and more wholesomely…more skillfully…to start a business with sound massage and singing bowl concerts. Not a bread and butter business but more a business of service to others.

I spent my first few months engaged in volunteer services like Brother Wolf and for the first time in my life, just waking up in the morning with nowhere I had to be…nothing I had to do.

Then I found AIM and all it had to offer…the teachings…the gatherings…the sense of community. It was so easy to connect with others because while our experiences were different, we shared a language, a value system…we took the five precepts and studied the four noble truths and eightfold path. I no longer had to explain why I wanted to go away for ten days and not speak.

I felt extremely blessed when Ronya invited me to join the Facilitator Training Program. She guided us through a deeper level of understanding the dhamma and introduced us to some of the resources she had encountered during her ongoing training.

Two years later, when the training program came to a close, I felt ready for something more…an even deeper level of experience and study. But I had made a commitment to avoid long retreats while my aging dog is still in my life.

I’ve shared before that in 2004, I gave away or sold most of my belongings. A dear friend agreed to take care of my cat until I returned. It was a time of letting go on many levels. One day while in Botswana I was talking to a friend in the states about some challenges I was having…challenges I had experienced here in the states but this time I had no safety net of known cultural norms…friends, teachers, or therapist who really understood the American psyche and my life in Botswana. I explained how many of my unhealthy life patterns were showing up. And told her that I felt like I was on retreat…I couldn’t escape myself and I only had my self and my practice to rely on.

Last year I found myself thinking a lot about that experience. And as the FTP came to an end, I considered how I might go forward. At some point it occurred to me that I was in a very unique situation. I’m turning 60 this year – great time to reflect on one’s life. I’m retired and if I live within my means – my pension – I don’t need to work. I’m responsible for no one other than my boys, Paz and Buddha Baby. And at the time I was only responsible to my volunteer engagements. What a perfect time to go on sabbatical…to take an entire year to do kind of what I did while in Botswana but to have resources here – the sangha, friends, the internet, teachers, retreats…

I really wasn’t sure what my sabbatical was going to look like. I disengaged from my dream circle and sangha circle, I resigned from the retreat coordinator position and my hospice service, and I told Ronya I wanted to reduce my facilitating or teaching schedule. I wanted as few distractions as possible because I wanted first hand experience without a lot of influence from others.

I began the year with a week-long retreat and I’m of course half way through the year having just passed summer solstice. I’d like to say I’ve lost 40 pounds, developed a four hour a day meditation practice, and become enlightened. But that’s just not the case.

As a teenager, I expected the worst and hoped for the best. After years of therapy and wisdom gained through life experience, (and maybe a healthy dose of the new age law of attraction) I learned to just be with the flow of life…to mindfully set my intention and surrender to the impermanence of life. To have an idea of what I want but not be attached to how it has to happen or what it needs to look like.

I have never interpreted Buddha’s teachings as all being must suffer. The first noble truth is simply; all beings suffer. And I feel fortunate to have suffered deeply in my early life so I could test the remaining noble truths…determine on my own if indeed create my own suffering…and do I really have the power to relieve that suffering. I am ever so grateful that through the fourth noble truth, Buddha gave me a roadmap or path on exactly how to navigate and ultimately relieve that pain and suffering.

I share this to introduce a couple of resources that came into my life through sheer synchronicity. With pure intention I put out into the world my desire for a year of contemplation and reflection and what hit my inbox? An email from our sangha sister Trish who suggested I read Journal of Solitude by May Sarton and a Tricycle course with teacher Andrew Olendzki titled, “Going Forth.”

My favorite type of book is the memoir. I am extremely interested in the process of life and how others manage their way through it. I’m not nearly as interested in the lessons someone learned, as I am their experience of learning those lessons. And since May was sharing her journal of a year so similar to what I desired, I found the book perfect to kick off my own year of solitude.

Andrew’s course is an eight-week course that is still available although its of course no longer live. The course offers everything I was looking for to guide me on sabbatical…Andrew teaches from the suttas…something I wanted more of…he provides commentary on what the suttas meant in the day of the Buddha and how we might interpret that meaning in modern life. He offers practical guidance on how we might experience the act of going forth in our own lives and at the time, offered space for discussion groups. I don’t mean to market the course but if going forth interests you, I highly recommend checking out the course.

Andrew began the course by reviewing Discourse 27 from the Middle Length Discourses – the Majjhima Nikaya. Here the Buddha encourages us to go forth…basically to leave our lives as householders and become homeless. To live a wanderer’s life, dedicated to the experience of the dhamma. This way of life is a bit unrealistic for most of us. It’s not something our culture encourages or even supports. Although I know many people who have found “their version” of going forth…hiking the Appalachian Trail or Camino with nothing but what they can carry…teaching English as a second language in countries other than the U.S…. and even going on a year long sabbatical in their own home.

So hear I’d like to talk about the suttas…the Pali Canon or Buddhist scriptures. I’ve always been intimidated by them and find them hard to read. I don’t like the redundancy of writing. But once I learned that the redundancy had a purpose, I was more able to open up to them. I mean, I can read Jack or Joseph’s interpretation or I can read translations by noted scholars like Bhikkhu Bodhi and develop my own interpretation – not to deny the benefit of teachers, I love reading books by those guys and Tara and Sharon and others. But when I gave up the intimidation and began to read the discourses on my own, my level of understanding really did go deeper. I had to learn how to skim the redundancy and not be annoyed with it, and how to consider practically word by word, the meaning of each lesson.

If like me, you have some challenge reading the text or believing that what you’re reading is actually true, I offer this…during the time of the Buddha, oral communication was much more valued than writing. We’ve all probably played the telephone game where I whisper something to someone who whispers it to the next person and so on until the last person shares out loud what she heard and it’s nothing like what I said. We’ve developed skills through evolution that we value the most, and accurate verbal communication is not necessarily one of those skills. We’ve learned to depend on the written word. So the repetition we find in the Pali Canon was intentional to ensure consistency and accuracy of what was taught and what continues to be taught. You might be interested in an article titled, “The Authenticity of the Early Buddhists Text.” I don’t remember the authors but Google will tell you.

If you go on Amazon you can find the discourses as translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi. While he himself is a scholar, his writings and teachings are very accessible to us common folk. Many of us here tonight had the honor to sit with him a couple weeks ago as he took us through an entire sutta, explaining its context from the time of the Buddha and in our modern times. It is so important to understand that ancient scriptures of any religion or belief were written for that time period and culture. While we easily find relevance to our daily lives, it’s important that we are able to critically analyze its relevance and not blindly follow a teaching. It’s that blind following that will manifest in extremist views.

I’d also like to share some thoughts on solitude…for me and many of you, solitude is easy. Our friend Nancy has an awesome shirt about it being “too peoply” out there. For others, solitude is a bit more challenging…less is more. My intention was (and is) to live a life with more solitude, allowing deep contemplation and reflection. This meant disengaging from most social and service obligations. I made the determination of what I felt would serve that desire and what wouldn’t.

When I walk with the same friends every day or most days, I tend to talk out loud about things I haven’t really processed – I’m processing out loud which is not my natural strength. I tend to take on the projections and judgments of those with whom I am so comfortable. I also tend to project on and judge them. I had observed this pattern very clearly. I didn’t feel the need to completely disengage, but rather choose my walking partners and visits discriminately.

I found most of my friends extremely supportive; again, the joy of being in sangha. We might see one another less often or when we do see one another like for a walk, we might not talk so much; respecting the desire for solitude yet maintaining connection. For those who couldn’t support me, I made a conscious decision to let go. This has been scary because there is a part of me that can worry about disengaging too much and people letting go of me. But that’s the practice…can I be with the fear of people letting go of me…can I clearly see the patterns of my life…the abandonment issues…and without a therapist or a teacher or a good friend, turn toward those fears all by myself in a healthy way?

There is a beautiful poem by Rumi that goes…

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival. 

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!…

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Here, Rumi is talking about what Buddhists refer to as Mara; basically a demon who tempts us…a metaphor for dark thoughts or our shadow side. I think of the many stories I’ve heard of or read about Mara. In Jack’s book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry he says, “the Buddha regards Mara not just as a guest, but as a friend:

“Oh, my old friend has come,” says the Buddha, as he warmly greets Mara, inviting him in for tea.

Solitude gives us the space to invite Mara to tea…without the worldly distractions of TV, radio, internet, and yes… conversation. We find ourselves alone with only our thoughts. And if we are committed to the practice, we can skillfully be with those thoughts turning toward rather than away. Finding our deepest truths rather than accepting the projections or judgments of others.

Please know that I’m not at all telling you that therapists, teachers, and friends aren’t important and helpful. Far from that…when I look back over my life I’m not sure I would be alive today if I hadn’t trusted others to help me. And I may find myself in need of that help again in my life. Who knows? But having done all of that work and having the resources that are available to us now, and having faith in the four noble truths and eightfold path, I can trust that when Mara visits there is something for me to learn AND that as surely as that visitor arrives, it will subside or maybe even go away. I also want to make very clear that I’m not talking about clinical depression here, which I have experienced and found to be the embodiment of Mara; having no ability to rationally experience my pain and suffering without help.

In Andrew’s course he shared that, “The entire science of early Buddhist psychology is a way of understanding our own inner life. Buddha told us to Hear the Teachings, Learn the Teachings, Remember the Teachings, Investigate the Teachings for ourselves, and Put the Teachings Into Practice.”

In the Middle Discourse 82, we learn the typical reasons why one might go forth. We might experience great loss or tragedy, reach a stage in life when it feels natural to go forth, or find ourselves a slave of desire and consciously choose to break free. For me it was a bit of all of those reasons but mainly I wanted to step out of the conventional world and live in a more existential state. I want to sit on the deck and contemplate aging, illness, and death – the losses I’ve experienced and those yet to come. I want to watch CNN and look on Facebook to observe how I feel when faced with current politics and the health of our culture, economy, Mother Earth. I’m not disengaging with the world; I’m merely changing the way that I engage.

In the Middle Discourse 39, the Buddha laid out seven qualities of going forth…

  1. Commitment to intentional practice
  2. Conducting oneself with self-respect and respect of others
  3. Purifying the mind
  4. Guarding the sense doors
  5. Being moderate in eating
  6. Being devoted to wakefulness
  7. Being possessed of mindfulness

These qualities might be seen as just living the practice and one might ask what’s the difference in a daily practice and going forth. My only response is that in going forth, we intentionally set up a discipline or structure that support these qualities a bit beyond a daily intention of practice. Each of us has probably made some commitment to intentional practice. I’ve meditated for a long time. Sometimes I’m very disciplined and sometimes not so much. For me, in going forth I’ve extended this quality to mean meditation and study. I’ve attended several retreats since I began my sabbatical and I’ve put forth more effort to attend talks from various teachers, I subscribe now to Audible on Amazon…so I can “read/listen to” books while I drive or walk. I love reading and I am a very slow reader. So the Audible app helps me. It also motivates me to walk alone – I love walking and hearing nature. I also love that I can walk for an hour or more while I listen to a good book. This is my commitment to intentional practice.

I have spent many hours contemplating respect for myself and others. Recently I’ve managed to spend time with several people I truly love and who are very conservative. A friend I worked with in the Department of Defense came for a short visit and last week I visited friends and family in Georgia. Many of those people are Trump supporters.

It would be quite easy to call them all idiots and have pity on them for their ignorance. (As they may feel for me.) But is that respectful? I recognize we have differences and honestly, I’ve learned to have more compassion than judgment for those who get caught up in the fear machine of FOX news and radical right radio. By experiencing my own fear that our country is going straight to hell, I’m able to understand and have compassion for their fear. I may not understand what they are afraid of, but through love and respect for these people, and experience with my own possibly irrational fears, I’m able to let go of my need for them to think just like me and I can relate to feeling fearful.

Honestly these aren’t people I want to spend all my time with…Of course I enjoy being with like-minded individuals. But my heart is capable of holding space – and visits – with those who think differently than me. In fact, it is respect for myself that I open my mind to the possibility that not every single thing they say or believe is wrong. And out of respect for one another, we’ve learned how to focus on our sameness or oneness, rather than our differences.

All of that said, it really is important for me to purify the mind…to stay away from unwholesome experiences and people. I’ve found myself in toxic relationships with people I consider liberal and in very loving relationships with those who are very conservative. Is it possible that the mind’s need to categorize and label and experience a world of duality is actually toxic to our happiness?

Guarding the sense doors is one way in which we might purify the mind. The sense doors are those that allow information into the brain…seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, sensing, and thoughts too are considered a sense door. I enjoy watching TV. There is a LOT of judgment around that statement. Some believe it is fine to watch Masterpiece Theater but if you’re watching a reality show, you’ve got issues. And it’s true that paying attention to what we watch on television or listen to on the radio – and how much time we spend on those activities – is critical to a calm and peaceful mind. We can become addicted to the distractions we take in.

I was out at Heartwood Refuge several months ago and two teachers were talking. One teacher mentioned watching a dharma show on television with Pannavati, the head of the Refuge. Pannavati laughed as she does and we were all curious what dharma show she was watching on TV. It turned out to be the very dark and demented political drama, Scandal. I loved when she admitted this! Because I love watching TV shows, movies, and live theater through the dhamma…what makes that person tick…how did her choice set in motion a series of events? Character development. Still, I have to be mindful to guard the sense doors – how am I processing the information I’m taking in? I can’t watch horror films because the content gets stuck in my psyche. I have nightmares and feel completely out of whack when I’m doing deep spiritual work. One way I guard the sense doors is to not watch horror films.

I love that one of the qualities of going forth is to be moderate in eating! One of my reasons for sabbatical was to finally understand my relationship with food. I’ve given up drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, spending money I don’t have, and sexual promiscuity. But the same drivers that manifested those unskillful behaviors serve my relationship with food. And I know how to deny myself to lose weight…only to gain it back. But what if eating was something I did to nurture and support a healthy body rather than how I deal with emotions or to make my self skinny enough to be loved or wanted by others? A resource I’d like to share with you is a book titled, “The Mindful Diet.” It’s written by doctors who work in the Duke Integrative Medicine program. I swore I would never buy another diet book. I don’t like that it has the word diet in the title. But…it’s helping me put mindfulness into practice. And isn’t that what our meditation practice is for…learning mindfulness so we can take it off the cushion and into the world?

The last two qualities of going forth are being devoted to wakefulness and being possessed of mindfulness. Like all of us, the Buddha was a seeker. He was a human being who wanted to be happy. The word Buddha means the Awakened One or to wake up. He tried various spiritual paths available at the time and he finally realized none of those paths could deliver him to liberation; freedom from pain and suffering. So he finally went out on his own and when he woke up, he shared his experience with us. We are all capable of waking up. But maybe enlightenment is too lofty a goal for some of us, right now. Maybe we’re able to get intellectually that we’re capable of our own enlightenment but it doesn’t really feel real to us…it isn’t easy to become enlightened on the way to picking the kids up from school. So what if we just practice mindfulness and trust that enlightenment is possible but not a required goal. Think of it like yoga where our goal isn’t a perfectly posed asana but rather meeting our body where it is right now, in this present moment.

When Andrew spoke of mindfulness he said, “the content of what is happening in our mind isn’t important, the process of what is happening is important.” Are we completely lost in thought or are we mindful of our thoughts and feelings?

Many of us use a resource called Insight Timer. It’s for smart phones. I’ve created a preset for mindful walking. When I go into the forest, it’s easy for me to get lost in thought. I notice the beauty and sensations of the walk but I probably miss more than I observe because of mind. So I created a preset called walking. I’ve set alerts – bells – that go off every ten minutes. These bells remind me to remain mindful of my experience…and lately I don’t just observe what feels pleasant or unpleasant but I notice the neutral experiences of my walk…what my clothes feel like on my body – I don’t usually pay attention to that…how my legs feel when I’m walking on flat ground rather than walking up an incline.

I’ve shared that going forth is a bit more than our daily mindfulness and meditation practice. I’ve touched on what I learned in the Going Forth course – there is so much more in that course! I’ve learned so very much in this first six months. And now I’m taking the opportunity to consider what I might want for the next six months. Can I deepen my commitment even further? Am I willing to spend even more time in solitude? Can I spend less time in passive engagement – less TV, Facebook, Radio? Is this how I’d like to spend the remainder of life?

I am definitely realizing that solitude suits me…my relationships are actually much stronger, my connection to nature is stronger, and my relationship with my self is stronger. Maybe I’ll take the opportunity to spend more time in silent retreat – I don’t need to go on retreat to do that, although going on silent retreat where all of one’s needs are met and the only thing I need to do is meditate is like a mega boost to my practice.

One thing I’ve done to support the next six months is resign from our leadership team. This is my last talk at AIM, at least for now. I am humbly and deeply grateful to Ronya and to all of you for your support and encouragement. My professional role before retirement was that of a facilitator, to help make things easy for others. And I’ve always seen my talks as an opportunity to possibly make the dhamma – the work – a little easier by sharing that no matter who we are, it’s hard work…don’t be discouraged… give yourself lots of breaks… and most of all, be kind to yourself.

And as with every talk I’ve given here at AIM I will end with these words of the Buddha…

“Believe nothing just because a so-called wise person said it. Believe nothing just because a belief is generally held. Believe nothing just because it is said in ancient books. Believe nothing just because it is said to be of divine origin. Believe nothing just because someone else believes it. Believe only what you yourself test and judge to be true.”

 

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Bird Contemplations 15 (Bear Reflections)

[Given that the bears were making themselves far too comfortable (on my deck) the bird feeders have been put away and my daily contemplations/reflections while watching the birds, squirrels, and chipmunks have come to an end – for now; offering bear reflections on impermanence, the cycle of life, and the very small yet large part I play in the web of life.]

Peace Is Every Step

Today is Memorial Day. And while I plan a fun filled day with a friend who is usually working on Monday, I also take time to reflect upon the men and women throughout history who have given their life so that I might have the life I live today. We speak of their sacrifice and thank those living and dead for “their service.” And then we send the next generation to war.

My Uncle, a Pearl Harbor Survivor, once said to me, “Anyone who has been to war and is willing to send someone else is crazy.” Albert Einstein said that insanity is, “…doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me…

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Bird Contemplations 14

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Relief

Surrender arises like the moon on the horizon

allowing relief to reflect upon the earth

just in time to receive clarity in the warmth of sun’s rays.

Anger finds its voice.

Sadness dries its tears.

Personality meets inner being.

Sanity returns, giving way to peace and contentment.

 

No pleasant.

No unpleasant.

Only neutral.

 

At least for the moment; until she rises again.

 

Perhaps stronger.

Or maybe weaker.

Maybe slower…or faster…

 

Never the same…always impermanent.

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Bird Contemplations 13

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13,000 Pound African Bush Elephant

Anger sits on my chest like a 13,000 pound African Bush Elephant.

Constricted.

Unable to breathe.

Seething with unexpressed pain and suffering.

Today’s or yesterday’s? I am not sure.

Or am I?

Was it her words?

Or his words?

Was it the fucking cable customer service rep’s words?

Feel it in my whole body?

How…when it doesn’t move out of my chest?

To express it is to cause more pain and suffering.

To deny it allows it to grow inside because no matter how heavy the elephant, anger won’t just leak out of my body. It won’t be squashed out. It sits there. In the chest. Leaving me to wonder where that damn elephant came from. Knowing that’s not the right question…

No matter who puts it on, or how one wears it, anger isn’t pretty

…and yet it can’t just be removed…discarded like an old shirt that no longer fits.

What would Buddha do? Or Jesus? Or any enlightened one? It’s in the scriptures. What was it again?

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