Post #3054: Life at low tide

I was a having a perfect little romantic walk along the beach at low tide yesterday afternoon, when we passed a neighbour with her reactive dog barely under control. Not a minute later, and that dog shot up the beach and jumped on our beautiful old dog, biting her and then running off again. We scurried up the beach together to get away because I was afraid the attacking dog would come back at us, so riled up it was, but we managed to get up to the road and home without further event. That’s when I realized that Charlotte was bleeding – only a little – but still, it made everything seem much worse. Fortunately I have many supporters on the Internet and even some on my little island – and with friendly online hand-holding and some firm instructions about cleaning the wound from my neighbour – I got everything cleaned up and still managed to get in the studio for a couple of hours last night.

Two realizations I had as a result of this:

  • At another time in my life, this incident would have sent me into paroxysms of anxiety and trauma. I would have felt isolated and scared (with Brian away), and sat inside those feelings quite willfully (not intentionally, but refusal to let go of a feeling is a powerful addiction). Yesterday, I got home with fairly little anxiety – some worry, but of a normal level – asked people in my community for help, got it, and then went on with things. I think that change comes from a variety of places, including aging, but I would pinpoint my daily meditation practice as the thing which has most helped me get less reactive over the last few years. One of my teachers told me early on that it wasn’t that meditating would change your immediate emotional reactions, but it definitely impacted how long you held onto the feelings afterwards – this came back to me last night when I realized that I quite effortlessly dropped the negative feelings once the attack had ended.
  • Like any abrupt or traumatic event, I am reminded that no matter what moment we are currently having, it can change in a nanosecond, and without warning. Which is why we can never get too smug about where we are, or how things are for us. It’s just luck that something hasn’t occurred to take it away yet (or luck that we were born into it in the first place) – nothing to be proud of, nothing to take for granted.

The dog and I are both fine this morning, she’s a bit more tired than normal but pretty much seems to be herself. I expect she’s sore from being jumped on, but the site where she bled doesn’t seem to be causing her any real pain, even when I run my hand over it. I’ll just keep it clean today with alcohol and watch for infection at this point.

My plan for today was to get back to blogging with a Dillardesque reflection on low tides and what they bring (birds! seaweeds! interesting rock formations normally under water!) but instead, it’s something else. It’s the real thing – the fact that life everywhere is changing at each moment, and if you don’t pay attention you miss so much of the unfolding, each second that is about to change the course of your life entirely.

Post #3050: Meditating the morning of….

I’m not going to say what it’s the morning of, because we all know, and many of us are unhappy about it, and the world seems inching closer to the edge as a result of what will happen later today.

And yet.

And yet when I rose this morning I got on my knees to meditate in the dark dawn of 6 am. I took refuge there in the stillness, the cushion supporting me, the trees of my island breathing in and out alongside me.

Towards the end of my sitting this quote bounced up into my mind:

Acceptance does not mean fatalism. It does not mean capitulation to some slaughtering predestination. Those who follow Tao do not believe in being helpless. They believe in acting within the framework of circumstance…. Acceptance is a dynamic act. It should not signal inertness, stagnation, or inactivity. One should simply ascertain what the situation requires and then implement what one thinks is best. As long as one’s deeds are in accord with the time and one leaves no sloppy traces, then the action is correct. Deng-Ming Dao

I take refuge for exactly this reason – so I can get up and face the world as it is, while still holding faith in the capacity for compassion, renewal, sanity. This is the only practice that stops me from becoming paralyzed by the grief held inward like a breath that can’t be properly expelled, decaying and stale.

I will not watch the news today – acceptance does not also mean that one must stare at the train wreck. I will knit a silly pink hat and plan to join in the collective of women around the globe tomorrow. Knitting, meditating, chanting, and changing. This is my world. The one I accept. The I take refuge in and from. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Post 3045: Opening the windows

In my meditation retreat a couple of weeks ago, one of my teachers said, “sometimes we figure out what our retreat is about after a few days of it, but often we don’t know what a retreat is about for us was about until afterwards”. After five residential retreats (not many, but enough for a sample), I know that this process of discovery happens in layers – a bit of understanding in the retreat, quite a lot more in the week that follows, and then more later, perhaps on the next retreat when something comes round full circle again.

I cried a lot during my sesshin at Loon Lake this year. I wasn’t expecting that at all, but I discovered in my first two days of sitting that all of my body was noise and it wouldn’t simply dial down. Noise about the US election, climate change, the turn towards hatred, the outrage and rawness and exhaustion I was feeling from all the months of yelling yelling yelling. It was all in there, and when I started to get silent, it came up and danced in front of me. And so I went to my meetings with teachers and cried, I cried on my cushion during the Dharma talks, I cried in my bed when a particularly crushing childhood memory came back to me in a jolt. It was in no way continual, but it was the punctuation to each day of the retreat. It was confusing, because I am not a crier, but I became curious about what would make me cry next.

On the last day of sitting, I heard someone across the room sniffle. At first I thought “damn, someone’s got a cold” because if one person has a cold at retreat then it means there’s a good chance other people will get it and take it home with them. It’s not the most compassionate response, but I have become an ardent hand washer at communal gatherings because I *always* get sick otherwise. Anyhow – my ears were perked up to just such a sign in the zendo….. At first one sniffle, then two…. and after a few more seconds I realized that I was listening to someone cry, not have a cold…. and even more, in that room of 70 people, I could identify who it was. The moment I made that identification, it was like a channel opened up, and I began to cry also, but not for any specific reason of my own but because I could feel the clear suffering of my fellow sitter pouring right inside of me as though it were my very own.

After leaving retreat, I went to visit my family and then drove home to Gabriola. Over the week following (much of which I was separate from Brian due to differing work commitments – and so had lots of self reflection time) I noted that I was feeling a lot of my interactions with people holistically, through my whole body and touching my deeply in the way they normally don’t. I’ve been writing more since that time, I’ve been reading more zen, I’ve been more open generally with my time, and feeling more honest and generous overall, even as the implications of being open are also to feel more pain – to feel the injury of others continuously. This opening was authentic, not the result of thinking I should do one thing or behave some way, just a natural transition from the cushion to everyday life. It’s been remarkable to note it, even as I also feel that flow begin to ebb.

I have had such experiences before – following retreats or periods of intensive daily meditation. I have had great washes of universal love, or radical truth-telling, or changes of my relationship to time – as a result of this practice. Thus far these have been momentary, a few hours, a day at most. This time was a bit different – an opening in full form for at least a week, and still somewhat with me as I write this entry. But I know it won’t last – this state, like all things, is impermanent.

When we meditate, we watch our feelings rise and fall, pass before us and slip out the door. We learn that our emotional states are literally seconds or nano-seconds long, that even if we are having a really deep meditation in one moment, the monkey mind can start throwing bananas in the next, and that the breath is a tenuous anchor at the best of times. In our work towards living in the world more fully, there is no linear path, and no constancy in our responses to the stimulus around us. But what keeps us, or at least me, coming back to sit over and over no matter how tedious it seems at times – is these glimpses of equanimity, these cracks in which the shining self waiting to be revealed leaks through.

I do not have a cosmic relationship with the notion of awakening or enlightenment. As I’ve written before, I believe these are purely psychological states that come with deepening our relationship and understanding – and so I ascribe nothing mystical to these openings of feeling or awareness that come following a retreat. I do believe, however, that they are the guideposts to where we seek to go in the fullness of ourselves, and in the right time.

I will note that after a week and a half of this window open to compassion and connection, I have spent the last 24 hours in an outrageously angry state. I had a political argument today on Facebook (about Castro, of all things), I yelled at Brian last night because he wasn’t *as* pissed off at the government as I am about electoral reform. Basically, I am picking fights for no reason.

I believe this anger is intrisically connected to the channel that was opened in me following retreat. And so I continue to discover what fruit that period of silent meditation will bring to bear.

I came across this quote yesterday and it resonates – so rather than coming up with a pithy ending to this post, I will leave it here for your consideration. It’s a deep commitment required of each of us.

Many of us have set out on the path of enlightenment. We long for a release of selfhood in some kind of mystical union with all things. But that moment of epiphany–when we finally see the whole pattern and sense our place in the cosmic web–can be a crushing experience from which we never fully recover.

Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. You can not turn away. Your destiny is bound to the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.

To seek enlightenment is to seek annihilation, rebirth, and the taking up of burdens. You must come prepared to touch and be touched by each and every thing in heaven and hell.
Andrew Boyd

Post 3044: Light time, night time

I don’t feel like working today. So much so, that  I briefly considered calling in sick, even though I work from my home studio on Mondays and arriving here is as simple as getting out of bed and crossing the driveway. I’m not really sick at the moment though, I’m just fuzzy and I would like more sleep, so I kicked myself out from under the covers and here I sit, watching the light rise around me. From my desk at home I have a clear view to the ocean, enough so that I can tell whether it’s a calm day out there or a choppy one, enough so that I can see the colour of the sunrise as it spreads across the sea.

Over the weekend it became apparent that with the summer foliage gone, we can glimpse the ocean from pretty much every room in our house during the wintertime. We can stand on our deck in the night and see the ferries sail by, lights blazing – and the cold air of winter carries the dark water in it.

When I moved here, a friend (who was about to get a divorce but didn’t know it yet), told me that the worst thing about living on Gabriola was the darkness of winter here. There are no street lights, and houses are set back from the road and surrounded by trees. The power goes off on the regular (it went out last night for two hours) due to windstorms and aging hydro infrastructure, and the coast is always cloudy in the wintertime. She moved off the island a month after I moved onto it, and I wondered then how much the darkness would affect me. Even in Gibsons, there was quite a bit of ambient light both from the town and from the city of Vancouver – which is not the case on our side of the island – it gets really dark here.

Thus far, all I can report is that I sleep more deeply, that a wool blanket has never been more welcome in my life, and that stocking the wood for the stove during daylight is essential if you don’t want to be scared by a raccoon in the woodshed at night. Granted, this is our first winter here, perhaps I will grow to dislike all these things immensely. Maybe the awareness of light or its absence will prove to be too much, and I’ll long for the city again. I’m  counting on that not being the case, but it could be.

Yesterday I went to a place called the Net Loft for a meditation gathering that happens every Sunday. An incredible spot, with windows to the ocean in a perfect and protected bay – I entered, bowed before the altar before sitting, and for an hour my knees touched the floor in the silence of becoming. It is true that the nights here are very dark, but the light from the water is always buoyant.

Post #3001: Moving toward moving.

Subsequent to my post last week, we are really doing this thing – and I’m feeling excited about it, after a weekend of looking at houses, and driving around the little island of Gabriola.

Up until this point I have been a bit ambivalent about the move, I have to admit. While the practicalities of the plan spoke volumes to me (get out of debt, live in a quieter place, be closer to family) – the reality of moving, leaving people behind, and having to pack and clean up our life in Vancouver was leaving me a bit torn in two. But after looking around homes, walking on beaches, and really connecting with Brian over the last few days about hopes/dreams/goals – I have come to a place of equanimity with the idea of moving, and true excitement about a new house and community to explore.

It doesn’t hurt that I came into work and received some good news about a new project that I might be tasked to for the next few years – one that would allow me to work from anywhere which means I won’t face having to work out of the Vancouver office for a good long time to come. That piece is still very much up in the air – but it looks like it will land firmly in my favour because I am so specialized for the proposal being made (and in some way have inspired it through my work – more on that in future post if it comes to fruition). Short story is, things are lining up in a way that makes this feel more possible than it did even four days ago.

There are two houses which we have in our sights at the moment, neither of which I am linking to here at the moment. The properties are both comparable in terms of house quality – with one having an incredible view, and the other being steps to the beach – with a large price difference between them. (Views are apparently more expensive than I thought they would be, and waterfront is downright unattainable). What we decide to do will depend on a number of factors, not the least of which is how much we sell our house for – and that we will likely know tomorrow night.

But what all of it – the selling and buying of real estate brings to mind – is how much it is purely psychological drama and nothing else which drives the prices on such choices. Or in other words – we find ourselves asking, how many tens of thousands (or hundred of thousands) extra is a view, or waterfront, or a super-fancy bathroom worth? And that question is only answered emotionally, because the practical *need* of housing (a place to sleep and cook) is served by far less than what is on offer in either place.

As both seller and buyer, I am aware of the heightened emotion that real estate purchases bring on. I remember buying our house on William Street almost seven years ago to the day – and how desperately I felt that I needed that house, the terrible emotional welling that occurred when it appeared that someone might outbid us, and how convinced I became that there was no other possible way forward than to get that, exact house. Likewise, when I sold my home on the Sunshine Coast, I dug my heels in over $5000 in the closing price and felt all sorts of terrible things towards the people who were trying to push the price down to something that would create more ease for them. There is nothing like the power we vest in land ownership to remind one of how in thrall we can be to our emotional states.

I might be speaking for myself only, but I find the energy around real estate to be hyper-charged, and unlike anything else I am aware of (except perhaps sex). And I wonder about that. I have felt more pride at “owning” a piece of land than almost anything else I have done in my life even though I rationally (and spiritually) know that there is no such thing as ownership when it comes to land and its living beings. One could say that its a symbol of hard work, and that’s what causes the frisson of ownership, but to that I would call bullshit also because there has been no hard work (for me) involved in things like the real estate market in Vancouver doubling in value, nor in the fact that I can get a loan from the bank. And while it is true that I have gone to work diligently my whole adult life, I recognize too that being born into the middle class and subsequently being university educated – is also a fluke, not the sign that I am more deserving than other people.

And so it is, that owning property is charged because in our culture we have allowed it to be so – to be somehow defining of adulthood and success – even though it is more likely an accident of where one is born and who they are born to, than anything else.

Back in November I had a very strong feeling during meditation retreat – which I can only describe as an overwhelming desire for merger with the natural world. The image that came to me over and over was the feeling of diving into a summer lake and the momentary sensation of being taken in by that body, fully enveloped by it, and losing the sense of the separation between one body and another. This drive for merger spoke to me of the artificial nature of the separation that we experience. My desire for merger was/is really just a desire for awakening to the true nature of being which is non-separation or wholeness – and the felt-experience on retreat was a glimmer, an inkling of that being state.

And so these feelings around the ownership of property, of land and beings – I have started to wonder if they have such power, because they replace our desire for merger and deep belonging. That is, many peoples of the world have lived easily without the need to *own* land, and with a sense of being a part of the land and its many creatures (that is, a sense of oneness) – is the loss of this oneness then replaced by another strong set of symbols which reside in power through control over/ownership of? Or to be simpler about it, are we so disconnected from the world that we no longer to be a part of it except through possession?

I will say that although I am aware of the feelings, the emotionalism, being present in this round of selling and buying – I am not as taken by them (at the moment) as I have been in the past. But I’m not immune by a long shot! And so I am working at remembering day by day – this desire for merger, and the delusion of ownership – in an effort to better understand and diminish the unpleasant roller-coaster of pride and anger and hope and frustration that arise in the process.


Post 2091: Sitting with discomfort.

If meditation has taught me one thing (or started to anyhow), it’s that sitting with discomfort is possible. And more than that, it’s often desirable. When we sit with discomfort without immediately trying to rectify it, we learn more about the cause, and we stop ourselves from doing more damage in the process of trying to fix it. I think about this a lot, both when I am successful at not responding to a trigger, and when I am not. Especially when I am not.

After two (plus) years of meditating through illness, exhaustion, and occasional distress, I’ve noticed bit by bit, that it’s become easier to be uncomfortable psychically and physically in my everyday life. I don’t mind being caught out in the rain quite as much, I don’t have to scratch every itch, I don’t have to respond to every hurting thing. It makes it easier for me to imagine riding my bike to work in the winter, I don’t care so much about letting go of friendships that have gone sour. Which isn’t to say that none of these things affect me – I am no master of detachment after all! But I am a little less impacted, and when any feeling (good or bad) arises, I am able to mind the state I’m in with greater attention. Not to mention with wider perspective. Which in itself is a kind of relief – this ability to get outside of my own state a little bit and just witness it.

And speaking of meditation – is there anything more zen than a heron? I think not.


Photos taken at the Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Ladner, BC this past weekend.

Post #2070: A death, a visit to the past, a meditation.

Sometimes when we meditate, the ghosts come knocking. This morning at the zen-do was one of those sits.

A friend from years past – Mike Low – died over the weekend, hiking the Cerise Creek trail outside of Pemberton. When he didn’t arrive at a friends for dinner on Saturday night, the RCMP were called and on Sunday search and rescue found his body in a crevasse. It’s been in the papers here, of course, though hiker deaths are not infrequent on the west coast so it would be easy to miss. I had glossed over the story about it yesterday morning, not realizing that I was reading about someone I knew until much later.

I hadn’t seen him in ten years – and it had been a full twenty years since we were anything approximating good friends. But there was a time during which he was a very good friend to me, and so his passing stings – because he was one of the good guys, the ones who *shouldn’t* die as young as 49. The fact that he no longer exists in the form that I might run into on the street is troubling – even though it’s very likely I would have never bumped into him again – so different were our social circles.

This morning during my sit, the memory of how he supported me when I was twenty and flailing – once driving me from Victoria to Port McNeil where I was starting a job, once taking me aside to counsel that my intelligence should probably get going to college instead of just dissipating in coffee shops and bars – came to me strongly. And with that slideshow, came all the other ghosts of that time in my life: the person I was, the moments I shared with others, that crew you see in the photo above (Mike is the furthest left in the photo – leaning backwards) who pretty much epitomize 1993 for me. And though everyone in that photo is still alive except Mike – the moment in which this snapshot was taken (late after a party at a bar called Rumors) is a ghost. It became one the second after the image was taken – that moment passed on, for the next one, and the one after that.

Twenty-two years (and millions of moments) later – I am looking at a snapshot of myself and others who no longer exist. Those selves *existed* but the present incarnations of them (right this second) exist.

And so I feel a tug at my heart for Mike’s passing, but more than that – what came sailing through during my practice this morning – was a gentle grief for all of who we were together many millions of moments ago. And who I was, at twenty-one – flailing, brash, unafraid of the world – replaced by the person I am now (who I also like quite a lot, really, if that old me had to pass on to become me now, it’s all for the best)…..

I’ve been reading Brad Warner’s book There is no God and He is Always With You  in which he talks about this relationship between death and meditation – the moment by moment nature of being and non-being – and this came back to me in part this morning:

One of my favourite stoner rock bands, Om, has a song called “Meditation is the practice of Death.” It’s an interesting phrase. It sounds sort of morbid. Or else it sounds like it’s implying that meditation prepares one for death the way practicing bass prepares one for playing bass onstage.

But there’s another way to interpret that phrase that neither sounds morbid nor implies that we are preparing ourselves for something that will occur in the future. Meditation is how we practice death as it occurs in the midst of life. It’s how we see for ourselves our own annihilation and what it really means. It’s how we learn that annihilation isn’t some scary thing that happens at the end of life. Annihilation occurs all the time, faster than we can even be aware of it.

We imagine that we are a single being and that we exist across a series of moments. But that’s not really what happens. There is no real different between the moment in which we exist and we who exist within it. “Each moment is the universe,” is how Katagiri said it. It makes no sense to fear annihilation when we experience it every moment. Annihilation is nothing to fear. Annihilation is the meaning of life.

And so it goes. We sit. The ghosts come to speak to us. And then we let them go.

Peace to you Mike – the world is less without the fact of you in it.


Mike and Pagan – circa 1993.

Post #2067: A small realization after morning coffee

Sometimes I find myself spun by anxiety. Am I good enough? Fun enough? Doing the right thing? Am I a good enough partner or friend? Do I live my life in the right way?

Today I am feeling that. Like I am not any good, even though I can look at my life with an objective eye and see that yes, I have made and been granted a very good life, full of brilliant people and material comfort – and that my own self and choices must have something to do with that. But anxiety isn’t objective, it just comes and goes, no matter how much I try to control for the factors which trigger it.

But then I also remember that no matter how I feel about these things – I just am. Am here. Am me. Am an expression of the life of this planet. And the feelings that bounce around inside are both real and unreal, can be set down and picked up again – and are hollow in the context of my knees touching the meditation mat, my butt perched on the bench as I let the space around me grow larger than my feeling. This moment, I think, this moment, with every out-breath I enumerate each second in which I am alive and just being. Alive and no one. Alive and everything.

Post #2061: Silence is the easy part

Returning from meditation retreat on a Monday morning, the workplace conversation goes something like this:

Co-worker: So, what did you do this weekend?
Me: Spent it at a meditation retreat, you know, meditating.
Co-worker: Really?
Me: Yup
Co-worker: Wow, you must be really relaxed now then!
Me: Um, not really
Co-worker: Or…. well-rested?
Me: Nope, not that either
Co-worker: Oh. Was it a silent retreat?
Me: Yes, for the most part we are in silence
Co-worker: That sounds challenging!
Me: No – not really. In my experience, silence is easy – sitting still and concentrating for long stretches of time, that’s hard.
Co-worker: So why do you do this again?
Me: Good question…..

But the answer really, the one that sounds too corny to give to a co-worker, is this: I practice meditation because I am pretty sure that by doing so, I am developing a tool (not to mention the neuro-pathways) that will help me to face life’s suffering with more grace. Because my goal is “lighter and lighter” despite the heaviness of time and living. And because this life demands us to be fully present, but our culture discourages it.

I think it’s probably best if I just don’t let on though. No one wants to hear this at 9 am on a Monday morning. It’s easier to just not talk about it all sometimes.

(Speaking of relaxation, I badly need to get back to Breitenbush Hot Springs – silent pool pictured above).




Post #2056: Somehow just being….

All the things I want to do, and all the things I have to do – aren’t exactly lining up these days. Partly it’s that slump thing I wrote about recently, but partly it’s because I feel so inspired to knit and sew and go for long walks in the mountains – and my days and even my weekends aren’t allowing for as much of that as I would like.

But at the same time – I feel like my wants are crazy big at the moment even though I have (almost, literally) everything in my life that I want – and that anyone could ever want.

And here I find myself smack dab in the middle of the Second Noble Truth. Again. Desire and craving for something else, until the something else comes along for enough time to get bored of it – and then desire and craving for another thing, and another. “There is the origin of suffering…. attachment to desire. Desire should be let go of.”’

Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden – their needs were met, and yet still they were tempted into the one novel experience left to them. They bit into that apple, and thus all of human history is suffering – and the apple stands in for desire forever more.

My desires are not lustrous, nor far-fetched. I can attain all the things that I want, and yet I am held back by the desire to have more time, more energy, more leisure  – and then rushing from one project to the next as though the only point is to finish in order to start anew. It makes me restless just thinking about it.

Can I step back for one second and just be? Just be here at my desk making my earnings, or just be kneeling on my meditation mat in the mornings, or just be sewing the seam-bindings onto my new dress. Just be one of those things at a time.

That’s the practice, I suppose. Counting the breaths in one place at a time.