Post #3060: Every day sitting

Brian cleaned up the shrubs in front of the zendo yesterday and now I have to decide what to plant – I had been thinking of a Katsura tree, but a friend online told me that they aren’t drought tolerant and now I have to decide whether to risk it or not. Our spot on the island is a wet one, but in high summer it can get pretty dried out.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, my sitting practice has gotten more regular again, for the first time since last June when we moved. While I have sat lots since moving (3-5 times per week plus retreats) – it has not been a daily practice. In the last 33 days (yes, I keep track), I have managed to re-establish daily practice even with travel to the cities and a hectic schedule – which just goes to show that daily practice isn’t about how busy I am, but how dedicated I am to doing it.

If you don’t meditate, you might wonder – is there really a difference between sitting five times per week and every day? While to a seasoned practitioner of meditation (twenty years or more), perhaps there is no difference – in my nascent state (of only three years), I deeply feel the difference.

And I suppose that makes sense – zen isn’t something that we just practice when we feel like it, it’s something we try to embody in all our dealings every day – and as the core of the practice is zazen (sitting meditation) – it makes sense that sitting every day helps us to work with zen principles in every day life too. That means accepting and letting go of anxieties, being with impermanence and change rather than resisting, cultivating equanimity – and so on.

In one of Brad Warner’s books on zen he tells the reader at the outset “if you don’t have a daily practice, don’t bother reading any more of this book as it’s a waste of your time” – that’s my paraphrase because I can’t find the quote right now – but it pretty much sums up the feeling that you can’t really do zen without practice.

Another way of saying that is we can’t intellectualize our way to enlightenment.

For me, this is not dogmatic or about what I “should” do – but based in the fact that every day that I sit, my grounding points are strenghtened for that day. Morning practice in particular helps me step into a the day with awareness about my starting block. Am I more tired than normal? Grumpy? Giddy? Anticipating a heavy work day?

When I come to myself in silence for even a brief period – it brings the day into focus, my reactivity, what I am bringing to my work and my life off the cushion.

Which is not to say that I have some kind of horrible time when I don’t meditate for a day, but I’m just not as well integrated on the inside, and it’s noticeable. If several days in a row go by without practice, that’s when I notice a lot more difficulty – my old anxiety flares right back up, and I am quicker to anger and criticsm.

There are many reasons that I told myself my daily practice dropped off, but mainly it’s because I allowed it to happen in the flurry of uprooting and resettling. I take this return of solid zazen as a sign that I have actually landed back in my life and am settling on Gabriola for real. And now that I have regrouped in one place again, I see how free I am to leave it and take my daily exercise of silence with me, wherever I go – even if it means practicing on a crowded city bus on the way to work (as I had to early last week).

We are ten months here and I am just finding my seat again – and what a lovely little zendo to explore this in!

Post #3059: Introducing the tiny zendo

I was away from home for two weeks doing all the things (friends, jukai, work, training) in both nearby cities (Victoria then Vancouver). It was a wonderful break after being alone for much of the time this winter (not lonely though) – and I think in the two weeks of travel I saw pretty much all of my closest friends and was more than grateful for the many nice meals and visits (and all of that time spent with Brian as we travelled and stayed together in Van).   Though I returned home last Wednesday, it’s taken me a few days to come back to ground and reintegrate into my home life. Being “on the road” and at the city condo is fun and all – but for a homebody like me, it’s also a little unsettling. I am a person who creates a bit of a fortress wherever I live – from the days when I only rented a room in a house, up until now with our half acre and home – I tend to surround myself with the things of my life and then spend a lot of time in that space. It’s not the comfort of material things that I seek in doing that, but a sense of personal space and the arrangement of it that’s most important.

One of the things that happened while we were away, was some work on the outdoors of our property – including work on a little outbuilding that was here when we moved in. This 9×9 “shed” was dank and full of detritus when we moved into the house – it smelled so foul (from some rotting carpet in the loft) that the dog wouldn’t even go into it. But even so, we quickly realized that it was way too overbuilt to be a simple shed – with power (four outlets, two overhead lights), insulation, two windows, and a poured concrete foundation – it had all the makings of a usable studio building or guest cabin. Last summer Brian and I cleaned it out and he threw a coat of white paint over everything to freshen it up in time for friends to stay in it during our summer party – but otherwise it needed some finishing work.

Because we already have studio space (and lots of it for both of us), we decided that this would be our tiny zendo, or meditation hall – and also double as guest space when needed. While away in March, we hired someone to come in and put up some shiplap to finish the walls and the loft, and on our return this past weekend we whitewashed those walls and bought flooring and a new light fixture. Yesterday, Brian installed the fixture and finished putting in the flooring and I nailed in the finishing strips along the edges (minus one, I ran out of material) – and voila! It’s a tiny zendo!

There are a last few additions still to come, including a shelf, and a wall heater, and some loft finishing including a piece of carpet and a ladder that hooks on for stability. Plus, I plan to landscape the outside a bit more and bang together a rack for shoes by the front door – but I’ve got a sitting space that feels light and airy, and a pleasure to be in. It’s *such* a great space that even Brian might be tempted to meditate there with me – he’s feeling mighty happy with how it turned out also.

I haven’t had a chance to sit in it yet, though I plan to do so tonight after returning home from work. I have returned to a rock solid daily practice for the first time since moving, and am reminded of the unmatchable benefits of sitting every day. So if you come visit me, and would like a sit while you are over – I will always affirm that desire – for sitting together strengthens all of our intentions. More cushions will soon be on order to accommodate guests.

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 #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.

MikeLow

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 #2060: When it comes to creativity, “to be everywhere is to be nowhere”.

Brian left on Saturday morning for a 9-day hunting trip up North, which coincided with the start of my intensive Zen practice period, and so the house has been very – very – quiet. While I normally fill the empty spaces by listening to podcasts, music, and sometimes netflix while working in the kitchen or sewing room – I started out on the day that Brian left by turning on nothing at all in the early hours before I went to the Zen-do. This was repeated on the Sunday morning, when I rose at six to work in the sewing room before attending another day of sitting – watching the light rise outside in the silence of morning as I worked on the bits and pieces that have been catching my interest lately. The photos above represent my work of the weekend and last couple of days – prepping the embroidery piece, natural fabric dying with some textual experimenting, binding the seams on the Cappuccino dress after basting them by hand. I have done most of this work in silence.

Sometimes the story in my head tells me that I must multi-task, or without *entertainment* the process of making is otherwise boring. I don’t know where that story came from, but it is lodged there, and so I keep a stash of podcasts and audiobooks just for when I’m sewing. I do most of my knitting at night while watching netflix or on the bus to work. My making is rarely done without the influence of other activities, in other words, and I rarely stop to question that impulse.

But in the last few days of minimizing other distraction in the sewing room, I’ve noticed how much my work style changes when I am simply on my own, listening to the voice in my own head, instead of channeling someone else’s words, ideas, or sounds. Sometimes I sing to myself during the rote parts of making (I’m working on memorizing some songs for an upcoming show) – but otherwise I have allowed myself to simply be in the moment with whatever I am working on. What that seems to mean is that rather than staying in one place (sitting at the sewing machine, tracing out a pattern, etc) there is much more flow to my working style and I am inclined to work on something as long as it captures my interest and then seamlessly moving onto something else, and then back again. So I do a bit of rote work like tracing, then I get up and go to the kitchen and mix up a batch of whatever natural dye I am experimenting with and cut up cloth to go in it, then I jot down some notes for a letter I am writing (and hope to incorporate into some textile art), then I organize supplies for a project that is in-process, and then perhaps I trace a bit more of my embroidery pattern before finishing up. Each task takes as long as it takes, without any other task overlapping – the nature of hands-on work.

This is counter to what I think of as my normal work-style, where I pick one task, turn on a program of about the length of the task and then sit and listen/work for the time period I have allotted. There is rarely time for creativity in that process, and I don’t find myself inspired to pick up another thing or intersperse activities. I am simply sewing/knitting/stitching and listening – and my brain is too full to do much else (like allow an idea to float in and then make some notes about it – which would be two other brain tasks in addition to the two already going on). This is not to say that I am not creative, but I tend to think about projects when I am in other modes of life, without my hands on the tools, rather than letting intuition guide my next movement in the place of process-making.

There have been a rash of studies and articles that demonstrate that most of us can’t really multitask as much as we think we can, and that our brain is just rapidly switching between one thing and another, which gives us the idea that we are able to handle more than one thing at a time. This means that we are forever balancing one brain process against another, and while it doesn’t matter much when doing a rote task (like endless rows of stockinette stitch on number three needles), it’s not conducive to the process of having new thoughts and then being able to follow them up with an action. That is, it impedes our ability to move fully into a creative mode, even while we are in the act of making. This experiment of the last few days – of intentional silence – is a reminder of that for me anyway.

I am not saying that I am going to give up listening to podcasts and music in the sewing room – we all know how much rote work we must engage in that truly does become tedious. Hand-basting miles of bias tape to seams is definitely made better by watching a bit of television! But part of my practice focus right now is to spend more time being *just* creative, and that means more time in silence when I’m at work on some or another project. I have some deep creative welling going on at the moment, and I figure the least I can do to honour that (and myself) is to listen deeply to that process rather than another round of This American Life.

(Quotation in the title is Seneca, the famous Roman Stoic and statesperson – he meant this in the physical sense – the full quote is “To be everywhere is to be nowhere. People who spend their whole life travelling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships.” – but I think it applies psychically as well.)

Post #2055: Autumn Zen

In the Zen tradition that I am involved with, there is a custom of intensified meditation and contemplative practice in the fall – known as Fall Practice Period – which opens this Friday. Beginning with a two-day non-residential meditation retreat (where we go to the Zen-do and meditate all day and into the evening, but return home to sleep), we craft the following six weeks around a self-designed program with the goal of deepening our commitment to zazen (meditation), sangha (community), and dharma (the teachings and philosophy of the Buddha). At the end of this time is a seven-day silent residential retreat with the head teacher, and then a closing ceremony.

For my period of practice, I have made the following intentions known to my teachers -as a way of holding my own intention out and asking for support:

  • increased daily meditation length
  • increased attendance at the Zen-do – although I can’t make many of the Sundays, I have committed to weekday early mornings and volunteered to help open the meditation hall if others are unavailable to do so
  • limiting intake of alcohol (not that I drink a lot – but you know how it is….)
  • attention to healthy life practice (food/exercise)
  • gratitude practice

I have also decided to undertake a craft project as a mindfulness practice – and since I already do a lot of handwork, I have chosen something that I don’t do a lot of – embroidery. As I bought the book and the materials for this project sometime ago, it also fits the criteria of using up items that I already have:

10327

This bag by Naoko Shimoda features the artwork of Heather Moore – for a piece that I think will make a good focus in October. I am going to try to prep the piece tomorrow so that I can focus on the hand-stitching starting next week.

The dress pictured above, is a nearly finished garment for meditation – the Cappuccino Dress which I wrote about here. I have some finishing work to do still – including seamwork, sleeve cuffs and hemming. I used a French seam where the dress allowed for it, and I am thinking of ribbon-finishing the other seams as an added touch. This is a way I think garments should be in essence – very simple in appearance, but with attention paid to the details that (mostly) only the wearer would notice. I’m going to the fabric store today at lunch to see if I can find some seam tape – otherwise it’ll be zig-zagged by tomorrow and ready for wear once I hem it.

And of course, all of regular life will continue during this time – work, the band practices, the family visits, a trip to Las Vegas (more on that later) – it’s not as though I am suspending it all to go sit on a mountaintop. Rather, I hope to bring a greater attention and ease to the work I undertake during this time. We’ll see how it goes!