Tonglen for a Tortured Soul

The swinging doors bang open and the gurney is shoved into the Emergency Room. An elderly man is on the gurney gasping for air, his life ebbing away. I sit within six feet behind an opened glass doorway, watching as the paramedics work their magic on his frail body. Chest compressions, IVs, a tube snaked down his airway to provide oxygen to his rapidly declining oxygen saturation levels. The movement around this human is frantic in stark contrast to his body, unmoving, responding only to the reaction of the hands on his chest, the tube down his throat. Chemicals are injected into his body. No obvious physical response. He moans as they push down on his chest.

In the midst of these heroic measures to revive this dying patient, I wonder at his life, his family, his current situation. Are family members waiting for word of his condition just outside the room? Will he survive another day?

In those last moments of this man’s life, I turn to Tonglen, giving all compassion and love that I have and taking on any suffering this man has experienced. These first tentative steps in this practice in this “real life” are awkward. I reach into my mind for the structure of the practice and slowly, as if learning how to think for the first time, begin the offering. As the patient wheezes on the gurney, I imagine taking on his suffering as my own. I visualize the suffering as a kind of dark smoke lifting from his body and into my own. As it enters, I dispel the ichor into the bright, clear, luminous nature of my mind, imagining the cloud dissipating into nothing. In exchange, I breath out love and compassion as I hear the paramedics use technical jargon to refer to the passing of this man’s life from his body. I stay with the practice until they take his body away, wheeling the portable bed to another room in the hospital. After about thirty minutes, I rest.

Breathe in all of the pain and suffering; breathe out all of the love and compassion.”

Tonglen, taking on suffering and giving compassion, is one of the main practices in my meditation routine. I’ve followed this practice after hearing a teaching from Alek Zenkar Rinpoche. Rinpoche gave a concise talk on the nature of Lojong and Tonglen, and the need for such a practice in our lives. At it’s core, it is about ending the false sense of dualism in our lives; the idea that we are somehow separate from everyone around us. Tonglen helps us recognize that, at our core, we are all the same. We will all face the tragic end of our lives on a gurney, in a hospital bed, or in some other setting we rarely get to choose.

As I reflect on my own experience with Tonglen, I’m drawn into the strange and sad tale of our current state of existence in the United States. The stark and sharp divisions between political parties and, more importantly, families and individuals, it harrowing. In my own situation, distant family members have decried the “fraud” in the election and the spread of “fake news.” Their anger, unwieldy and disconnected from reality, is obvious.

It has taken me a while, and, now I begin the process of Tonglen related to my family. To genuinely and passionately take on that fear and anger only to release back love and compassion. I imagine going to a Trump rally and simply being in the place, doing this same practice for those around me. To ask nothing in return and to give without acceptance or recognition.

Dreamland

About twenty-seven minutes into the movie Travellers and Magicians, the monk says to Dondup to be careful of trying to travel to or search for a dreamland. The monk warns that when you wake up from your dreamland, the result might not be so pleasant. This moment in the movie strikes me as the kind of life I have lived; (and to a certain extent, still do) hoping for a better outcome than the one I’ve experienced so far. Within my grasp, I imagine, is a possibility of some alternative future.

Ahhh but as the movie shows us, hope can be elusive and is kind of like living in a dream in which everything that is in front of us (in front of me) gets pushed aside for some future possibility. Sounds like a clear definition of a dreamworld.

Duck Lake, Fall 2014

Too, searching for some kind of unknowable future state of being is, in fact, one reason for suffering. The kind of suffering that evokes mental and emotional pain and anxiety. Living in a constant state of what could be is a means of denying what is. At least, that is my experience.

So, the big question is, how to manage some imagined future possibility within the framework of no expectations. For example, playing a basketball game with no outcome in mind. Win or lose, the outcome does not matter; it’s playing the game and playing it well that is determinative of your accomplishment. Of course, the problem with this analogy is that our lives are not games to be played. As I can attest to here in COVIDland, these experiences are not playful. We are just trying to make it through without hurting ourselves and each other.

As I think on the idea of no expectations and imagining a possible future, I’m drawn back to the The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the section on “The Nature of Appearances.” In that section, Padmasambhava said, “Now, with regard to the diversity of relative appearances; They are perishable; not one of them is genuinely existent.” (53) In effect, all ideas, thoughts, emotions come from our minds and, as a result, are at their core are empty or insubstantial. The words, “not one of them is genuinely existent” sticks with me as I imagine a world outside of COVID and restrictions, of the chance to experience the world without hesitation.

And then…and then, I think about what my expectations for a non-COVID experience are like, and I suddenly realize the privilege and power implied in the “outcome” of not being under the threat of a virus and disease. What I understand, is that my privilege has given me the opportunity to choose a path unlike so many fellow humans in the world. I’ll have the chance to experience a multitude of moments after COVID, something that billions in the world will not face. My moments of inconvenience with this disease are daily occurrences in places all over the planet. For just one example, food insecurity for children and families represents the kind of restriction on behavior and choices I’m feeling now. Yet for those humans facing terrible questions about not having or finding food, their experience never goes away.

…on the way up to the Tiger’s Nest Temple, Paro, Bhutan 2013

So, I’m pulled back into the realization that this moment is passing for me but not for many in the world. I’m faced with the recognition that, when it comes down to it, having compassion for all of us going through COVID and extending that to all of us who are experiencing any kind of horrible circumstance is the path through this momentary inconvenience for those of us lucky enough to be born in a favorable circumstance.

I wish you well, fellow humans, on this path and strange existence. My wish for you is that you find your own, kind way through the pandemic.

The Words of My Perfect Teacher?

Soygal Rinpoche, the disgraced former spiritual director and leader of Rigpa International, was and is my teacher. His death in August 2019 came as a kind of sharp contrast to the effusive teacher I knew from retreats and videos of his teachings. For years I studied under Rigpa and Rinpoche going through the Ngondro teachings and finally moving into the heart of Dzogchen. The teaching I received were transformative and I came to find a sense of awareness in the way Rinpoche brought the dharma to me.

After more than a year and a half after his death, I am still learning from Rinpoche through the teachings I have on DVDs and on my computer. The messages and the information is remarkable in the way it reaches the core of my being. He did, in a very real sense, speak directly to me.

Last week, I had a series of dreams featuring Rinpoche and his teachings. In the dream, we sat in a room together, across from each other, he communicating information, ideas, and a direction for my practice. These dreams, three in all, were vivid the morning after the dreams and remain so to me on this Thursday in November. The messages he imparted I’m writing here as a way to try and work through the various ideas that came from the dreams.

Now, before you get all “it’s just a dream”, I know that whatever my mind produces in my sleep is supposed to be just another aspect of my ego mind. People in your dreams are, for the most part, just reflections or expressions of ourselves. I understand that. So, the teachings I received in the dreams are just me talking to me through Rinpoche’s visage. While my rational mind can and does understand those various elements of dreams, the interaction I had in the dream feels somehow meaningful.

Sogyal Rinpoche from the Lion’s Roar article

The first dream started in the middle of a teaching. Rinpoche was sitting slight askew to my position so that I was looking at the right side of his face, as if he was slightly facing away, only looking at me through his right eye. He was dressed in his gold-colored robe with a yellow button down shirt. His demeanor was casual but intense. Like he had to get out what he needed to say as quickly as possible. That sense of earnestness was palpable, and I tried hard to listen to each and every word in the dream.

As I think back on the words he was saying, they came out so fast that I couldn’t grasp everything. A sense of “I’m missing the important parts” of his words was a thought I had in the dream and I wondered if I would remember this all when I woke up. That sense of knowing that I was in a dream is something I have experienced before and this feeling was heightened in these moments.

As he spoke, I grasped that he was talking about the teachings in the Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche. The conversation we had was about the stages of the Ngondro and how to actualize those teachings into concrete actions in my life. I had written down, a few years ago, a practice guide, for myself, to help me focus on what I needed to do. In the dream, Rinpoche told me what I needed to change about my practice and where I needed to go, now.

Patrul Rinpoche

The rest of the conversations were like two acquaintances talking about the world and the situations we find ourselves in. The conversations were less like teachings and more about Rinpoche’s interpretation of the world we experience. Through all of this, I asked about his betrayal of some of his student’s trust. When I initially asked he demurred. When I pushed harder, he looked at me, directly now, and told me about his failure as a teacher and spiritual guide.

The dreams and the experiences of the dreams were interesting and, in some ways, bizarre. This experience of Rinpoche was not the only time I have had dreams about him and his teachings, but this was the first that spoke directly to me and my practice.

Surely my experience was another way for me to center and ground my practice. Too, it was a reminder that I have been lax in staying focused and attentive. Finally, whether Rinpoche came to me or not, the fact is that his teachings were meaningful to me. The challenge, really, is how much of the teaching I keep, considering his behavior in this life. That part of my learning, I’m still trying to understand.

Living with Fearful Thinking

My sister dropped me on Instagram having heard enough, I suspect, of my support for individuals on the fringes of society. Maybe it was my post on children in cages at the border, or maybe it was the lack of a pandemic response? I’m not sure what her last straw was (we haven’t spoken, yet), but I suspect it is the fear-based thoughts about the coming American apocalypse as promoted by the current Administration.

In recent days, the president has proclaimed that seniors would have no air conditioning, that projects will be built in suburban neighborhoods, and that crime was coming to the doorstep of families far and wide with the election of Democrats this year. The fear mongering is impressive in the hysteria promoted by the current president and from my conversations with my sister, it’s clear to me that she and her family have bought into that mindset.

Really, however, it’s not the current moment that has so many people spooked in the United States. Fear-thinking has been around for a very long time in this country and has been used by many people to encourage actions as broad as violence toward groups of people to voting for a candidate. Fear, it seems, is a powerful motivator for some.

In my own lifetime, I can remember Ronald Reagan scaring the public with the threat of Russians threatening global extinction through their nuclear arsenal. Reagan, using the language of war, claimed that his election would turn the tide on the rising conflict and help prevent the kind of destruction the nation might see with the election of Carter. His fear mongering, similar to the current president, promoted the idea that people must vote based on their fear of what could be. In a famous ad “The Bear in the Woods” Reagan suggested that a bear (a Russian bear) was lurking in the woods ready to attack. This ad displayed, as clearly as any, the fear that some force was coming for America.

Why, then, are people acting based on fear? Why is fear such a powerful force in this election and in the United States?

While we can name numerous factors that play into the current state of fear (COVID spreading, economic catastrophe, murder hornets) one core piece of the puzzle is the role racial politics play in the way Americans see themselves and the world. The deeply ingrained fear of the “other”; Native tribes, black men, Irish, German, and Mexican immigrants, thugs, robbers, thieves in the night, the boogyman, or gay men marching in a Pride Parade are all threats to the structure of a civil society in American cultural history. It only takes a famous person or powerful government official to fan the flames of fear, bringing along with it the commensurate reaction of an easily manipulated populace.

In this context, those of us not driven by these various societal dog whistles watch in astonishment as those around us are driven to panic. Offering compassion and kindness seems to illicit an equal and opposite response of hate and anger. Staying in that moment with a loved one filled with such resentment is hard. In most cases I’ve witnessed and been a part of, the situation only resolves when one person leaves the situation (aka my sister dropping me on Instagram).

Too, avoiding the smug reaction of indignity and sense of entitlement at having the “right” response in this moment is the wrong approach. Those who are caught in thinking things will be worse after a candidate is elected or that some group of people will tare down their homes, fall into the trap that our lives are based on some mythical perception of how things could be better “if only” this happens. In fact, we know that even in some of the worst cases in the world, lives move on and the world continues to spin. (I am NOT saying that elections or social changes don’t matter; they do have an impact AND our power to resist is more broad and effective than we imagine)

As I contemplate what I am going to say to my sister, I think about how, given her situation, what chance does she have to escape the fear she lives with in her life? Watching Fox television and buying into the various conspiracy theories about our world that feed the fear she feels is almost impossible to stop. I am not, it seems, a savior.

What I can do, however, is be present to hear those fears and listen. Not to change her mind, but to repeat back to her the thinking she is articulating. Maybe, by helping her hear her own words, she can hear the fear that captures her imagination. I’m not sure what the answers are for our family and friends. What I do know is not having an answer is, actually, the best place to be.

Grinding It Out

My wheels spin on this blustery day as I speed past the multicolored autumnal view in front of me. The day is warm, too warm for a late October ride, and I pedal my bike with a kind of fury I haven’t felt in a few days. The riders I pass smile through masks and sometimes wave. I feel a sense of urgency and the need to please as I encounter each rider, slightly raising my left hand in a common “Hello” as we pass each other. The headwind makes me really work for my progress and, on this day, I’m feeling prepared for it’s onslaught.

This Sunday ride, the kind of ride I’ve taken for the past three years, is my long, slow pedal around Albuquerque. The day moves slowly and the ride seems to drift or float as if it’s not really me pushing the bike forward. I slide in and out of daydreaming, recognizing that I’ve traveled miles not aware of exactly what has passed. I always wake from my slumber to half-raise my left hand at a passing rider, jogger, or skater. That one act is my only acknowledgement of the world around me. I am, as they say, in the zone.

On this particular Sunday, I’m wearing my Day of the Tread jersey. This one piece of attire represents so much in my present and past. I’ve survived a Heart Event, three years in the past, and this ride is significant in that it marks a milestone in my life. On this day three years ago, I rode about 50 miles on the annual Day of the Tread event in Albuquerque. Think of the event as kind of a party ride; people dressed in costume on their bikes celebrating everything from Halloween to the Day of the Dead, Dia De Muertos. We start in downtown Albuquerque to the sound of music blaring and riders excited at the prospect of a day in the saddle.

Day of the Tread, 2017

In that ride, now in my distant past, I felt good, pushing my Cannondale with my friend Rocky on that morning. It was the first long ride I joined that year. My body did not revolt, as I thought it would, and I came home feeling energized and happy about my progress. A week later, I was in a hospital bed in the ER, wondering if I would survive the night.

Fast forward to Sunday, October 25th. I’m riding along the trail thinking about that past and wondering about my future.

Day of the Tread, 2018

My heart and its physical health is one of the things that propels me forward on this windy morning in Albuquerque. The ride feels like a rescue effort, a personal reflection on the chances of death that I face on a daily basis. And. And. The reality is that we are all in that moment. We just don’t think about it, do we? At any time we can face the ticking the clock; you know the one, that big one ticking down your life. It is, unfortunately, inevitable that the clock will tick one final time for us all.

So, I ride. I ride for myself. I ride for my family. Literally, I ride for my life. The miles i Put in, the stress I put on my heart is a good thing. With each pedal stroke I think about all of these things that have happened and the reasons I ride. I imagine that each push on the pedal is me one step closer to being healthier. Each time I raise my leg and force it back down, I’m supporting my two daughters and hope for the chance at long years with them as they grow up and find answers in their own lives. Too, I’m working for my parents and the opportunity to step in when they need my support. For all of the reasons stated above, I am on this trail on October 25th in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Day of the Tread, 2019

Sometimes, it’s the easiest path to fall into the feeling of that grief reality of death. By contrast, however, I have the choice, we have the choice, to open up to compassion. Yes, we all face our own ends. In that knowledge we can take hold of that common experience and extend ourselves into the feeling of compassion for all folks facing this one stark reality. We are all in this boat, all of us alive today, and we can extend a hand of friendship and support to each other in this moment.

My ride, then, has become something much greater than me on a bike on a trail. Me on a bike represents the move toward something much greater than myself. It’s a meditation on impermanence. Everything changes. Maybe, in this moment, I can make a difference in the lives of those around me. I think that’s what my ride on the Day of the Tread ultimately was all about.

Day of the Tread, 2020

To See Yourself As You Really Are

Students are streaming into the Zoom call as I begin a lesson on Ancient Greek Philosophy. The “faces” that look out from their bedrooms, desks, or black screens with bright white letters are dull, virtual representations of students. Reactions are delayed; attempts at laughter or reaction fall flat. Screens click on and off a live view. We are all caught in this moment together; trying to learn something about the distant past in the present personal and community crisis we face.

Who do these students see? What image an I projecting out into their worlds? My screen is always live, active, talking or cajoling them into some kind of response. How do these fellow humans see me and how can I see myself as I really am? Not as some kind of projection, but as some kind of authentic me?

Captured in a room prepping for the next class…

I think about how the COVID experience has changed the way I think and feel. We are all, I believe, subject to dependent arising; that what happens around us shapes our understanding and reaction to the world around us. We are caught, for better or worse, in these shifts in society and changes in the world around us. In fact, in a very post-modern sense, we are shaping each other around the world. For example, I planned to lead a trek in Bhutan this coming summer…the chances of that happening seems impossible. Not taking students to Bhutan will affect the folks who are counting on that income. Many people will be affected, economically, from the decisions we make in COVID land.

But it’s beyond all that, isn’t it. We are affected economically, and it’s the human interaction that is being reshaped by these quarantine and distancing rules. Who we ARE is molded by every decision in every moment by people we know and many who we do not. Who we really are is changing, moment to moment, into something else entirely.

Still, I haven;’t answered my own question: who am I to these students? What am I projecting to them? Doubt? Fear? Self-loathing? Or hope, a sense of calm, awareness in the now? Maybe, more directly, that talking about ideas can be a balm in these very difficult circumstances.

So, in the Zoom class, I pose questions, I ask about the connections between Plato and us…his idea of an individual verses how we now perceive the world. Can we find some way of making those contacts to the distant past and learn something from it? On this day, in this class, no. We don’t. Students are silent, dulled by their experience, driven to distraction by the very low hum of the computer screen and the glare of the LED lights brilliantly flashing into the eyes of those held captive by the classroom meeting. It’s the early AM and those blank screens shouting back at me, “leave me alone” are oppressive.

I struggle to make contact, emotionally, intellectually, anyway I can. And yet. And yet….the screens send back their forceful message…no, not today, sir. I imagine my students saying, “not in this moment as we are forced to endure this class by the powers that placed us here.” Tragically we both are struggling with these virtual spaces, each of us wondering at our own selves.

We all see the limits of human interaction in this electronic medium. At the same time, we experience the very question that is now a part of our daily existence: who am I in this virtual sphere? Where am I in this COVID land? Am I who I was or am I somebody else.

It is without question in my own mind that, yes, we are not who we were and, more importantly, we will never be who we were. That lesson could lead to a glimmer of hope: if I am not who I was, who CAN I be?

The Many Forms of Meditation

First and foremost, I do not claim to be anything or anyone but myself. What I mean by that statement is that I have no special expertise or knowledge in the areas of meditation and meditative practice. Like many of us, I am a practitioner without a degree, so to speak, in meditation. That being said, I have experienced meditation in a number of ways and some of those ways have been very valuable to my mental health.

Meditation, as traditionally taught and practices, involves sitting on a floor on a cushion for some period of time. At its root, meditation is a practice of recognition; recognition of your thoughts and emotions as they sweep across our fragile mental state. Once recognition occurs, then the practitioner can begin o play around with methods for understanding where the root of these thoughts and emotions is. As I am sure you have heard, at the core of this recognition is the knowledge that thoughts and emotions are, at their root, of empty essence. They are not tangible, hard and fast things that are permanent fixtures. Once we become aware of the fact that our thoughts and emotions are NOT ourselves, we are freed from the kinds of suffering that comes from those same mental formations. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.

The thing is, sitting on a floor on a cushion is just one way to find the kind of recognition and awareness that meditation offers. We can, for example, find similar experiences in a variety of different methods that help us reach that same place. As the teacher say, of course, nothing really compares to just sitting and not moving for an extended period do time AND I can offer my experience as a kind of balance to that one idea about meditation.

One Method for Students and Ourselves

As a History teacher in middle and high school, I’ve had the chance to use these methods with students to help them become a bit more aware of themselves. For example, I’ll often find, when teaching 8th grade, that some boys will often poke, touch, or physically mess with other boys in a class. Some of that behavior is so automatic that they don’t even know they are doing it! Getting them to have awareness of their bodies is something that teachers have done for millennia. We don’t call it meditation practice nor, I imagine, would meditation teachers refer to the method of changing a behavior in class as a meditation practice. Nonetheless, here is one alternative method to sitting meditation.

I’ll often call for a break in class to reorient the room. Then, we will, together, walk in circles in the class, saying nothing. I make it a kind of game….stay an arm length apart, don’t touch the person in front or behind and just walk, slowly, around the room….I’ll gradually speed up the exercise. The students start giddy and silly, and as the speed increases and the rule about not touching gets harder to accomplish, they concentrate on NOT touching and on walking quickly. Soon, the room is silent expect for the patter of feet on the ground. Heavy breathing happens and in some students they start to sweat a little. After a couple of minutes we slow down the pace, walking ever more slowly until we are barely walking. Then we will find our seats and sit quietly for another minute or two.

Once the students are seated, a quiet calm extends over the room. Of course, it doesn’t last long…in 13 and 14 year olds NOTHING lasts very long and if it does their minds and bodies go crazy. Still, in that moment of calm I notice that the deed is done; they are now aware, for a minute, of who they are in their bodies.

Mild Exercise as Meditation

Moving or doing a physical activity is ONE method for entering a meditative state. It can be as simple as walking slowly and then faster and slower, changing speed and movement, until our thoughts are slowed and our minds are more clear of rising thoughts and emotions. It’s that GAP, that moment when we slow down, that the thoughts are still and we can feel the space between constant thought and emotion. It’s the very moment of awareness of that space where we can recognize the concept of emptiness. In that moment, we are not nothing, we are, in fact full. Full of potential and awareness, ready to take the next step in our practice.

Strenuous Exercise as Meditation

If you have ever played a sport competitively, there is a point in which your thinking mind turns off and you are one with the game, the team, the moment. It takes a bit of training and effort to reach this point. The training is really in getting your body to move in the ways it needs to to accomplish the game. So, in basketball, learning the shooting motion or dribbling the basketball without loosing it, those two actions, when learned well, allow the player to no longer think about the action. It’s in those moments that our minds empty of thoughts and the action becomes automatic. The trick is to stay in that moment of empty thoughts and emotions, and recognize that it is present. That moment in time is part of that same idea of recognizing the GAP between thoughts and staying with it.

With practice, the space between thoughts can grow to the point that any form of movement can bring about this experience…the space between thoughts…and expand the awareness of the present moment.

My Experiences with Meditation

I use many methods for meditation. When I first stepped into the stream of Buddhism, I read Thich Nhat Hanh. In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, he said,

If while washing dishes we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us… then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes’. What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes… If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands.

Meditation can be, in fact, washing dishes, vacuuming the house, mopping the floor, mowing the grass, weeding a garden, or any other daily act we do. Meditation can be the focus of any act in our lives.

What this all means is that rather than thinking of meditation as a separate activity, we bring the meditation to any activity. In those moments, meditation is an ongoing, constant state of mind rather than a cordoned off moment sitting in a shrine room in our house or attending a meditation practice in a place other than our own homes and outside of our lives.

Meditation becomes the source rather than the addendum. It can be the center of our lives.

For me, I ride bicycles. It’s my chosen form of exercise. I ride and ride and ride. It serves multiple purposes for me; to be exercising as a means of maintaining my body and a place of silence and stillness. A couple of weeks ago, I entered a complete state of meditation to the point that I had ridden many miles and they passed in a moment. In a blink of an eye I was miles down the rode in a state of mental stillness. I was surprised when I broke the meditation and found myself somewhere far down the road. Probably not the BEST thing to do on a crowded street, but on a country road outside of town, a perfect chance to just be in the moment. Riding my bike and doing nothing else.

Be well, my friends. Take good care of yourself and each other.

The Non-Buddhist version of emptiness…

As evening rolled along, a creeping moment of sadness opened up in my mind, filling the spaces with a sense of grief and exhaustion. As I sat in this moment and recognized these feelings a sense of emptiness pervaded and I felt stuck in a kind of void, an absence. This growing tremor of emptiness, of being numb to the circumstances that surround me is profoundly subtle in the day to day existence that is COVIDland.

The typical things that lift my spirits and the spirits of those around me failed to move the needle and as I made the Pumpkin Bread with my daughter, we both looked at each other and I realized, suddenly, that we were in the same moment; a moment where the experiences we have previously enjoyed felt hollow, lifeless, and without a moment of solace from the world around us. We were, together, caught in that very place of absence. It was and is very strange, and, honestly, quite common in the past few weeks.

A bit later that evening I cracked open the Rye Whiskey and hit the sauce, pouring a strong two fingers into a glass. I sipped rather than drank and sat attempting to release my tattered mind from the bonds of the day. As I sat and sipped, I did not feel the tension unwind in my back, and I stopped consuming the vile drink and turned to watching basketball. Too, the effort of the players on the court did not move me into reaction. That outlet, too, failed to revive my inner strength, my hopeful character lying there, waiting to be shocked into awareness.

The Rio Grande, Summer 2020

As I write these words, transcribed from my journal, it might FEEL like these words are an expression of depression. It’s hard to use words to describe the feeling, but I can say, pretty adamantly, that these moments are not about feeling “low” or “down”; they are about recognizing that the life we are leading is not really getting us to where we need to go. This emptiness is not the Buddhist emptiness that is a recognition that we are freed from grasping; that we see the love and compassion in us and can express that to those around us and to all sentient beings.

The feeling I’m having, and in conversations with colleagues and friends what they are experiencing as well, is a unique place in time in this country and in this moment. We are feeling the existential dread of a possible continuation of the Trump Presidency. We are seeing the pain and suffering of those around us on video every day. We watch the challenges faced by people of color and the struggles of every day life, and weep at the terrible nature of our shared existence in the United States, a country based in racism. We try to recover our previous lives only to find them wholly unimportant and recognizing that it was all a system built on distraction and delusion.

…And so, I wrote, in my journal, a simple statement: “it could be that I really need to let go, I mean really let go…to abandon my ego mind and release all ambition and direction. To no longer seek for some solution or resolution. To place an offering into the Universe; a kind of gift to those all around, and then to welcome the unknown.” As I reread these words days later, I felt strongly that it is the grasping at what was that has led to the emptiness I feel. Those old patterns and actions are no longer real enough to support the now collapsed sense of self. We are, it seems, unmoored, no longer tied to some place of solace and free from the constant worry of life. We are adrift, floating with no real direction, wondering if we are the next to get the virus, the next to face the grim, the dark, and the deep.

In this new tarnished life, the one where those bright shiny objects used to hold my attention, I’m wandering, going through the motions, trying desperately to find that solace. Each day has its own struggles and illusions. Sometimes, I even wait for a sign, a signal that this morass is coming to an end…and…and there are moments, fleeting, uncultured moments in which I can see the chance at the kind of freedom I seek. The freedom from the emptiness, replaced with the fullness of mind, the awareness of the struggle, and the compassion to see it through.

Yes, I wander…but for now, it doesn’t quite seem as aimless.

Finding Awareness in the Strangest Places

The title of this post is an odd one simply because the word “awareness” has so many different meanings in so many different cultures. I hesitate to frame the understanding of awareness here, and I need you to get my point.

Awareness, in this context, is the state of knowing the source of just about anything we are doing, and the motivations and intentions behind that thought, emotion, action. To recognize when something happens and it triggers a reaction, you are aware of the reasons or sources of your reaction…the emotion or thought or action that rises in response.

In a sense, awareness is a recognition of what you are doing, creating, thinking, and/or being in a moment. To make this idea more plain, if my partner says something that triggers a reaction in me, I understand, in a moment, where that reaction came from, what arose for me and then, hopefully, be able to not react negatively to that statement or thought or action by my partner. It’s really about knowing something about myself….(DON’T get caught up in the self-word I just used).

Of course I’m speaking in terms of ideals…like idyllic behaviors based in our best selves.

This version of awareness I’m talking about came to me in a few different ways this summer and during our long COVID confinement. I’ve been drawing (badly), but I’ve been drawing nonetheless. I wanted to express something I saw or felt. Toward that end, I chose a very challenging image, one I took on my solo trip a few weeks ago. The scene, for me, is remarkable…a place where organic and inorganic matter collides. Where plants are dancing with stone. That moment of conjunction. Here is the image…

The interplay of trees and stone, dirt and grass, earth and sky.
The flat surfaces that appear here just don’t do justice to the vibrancy of the photograph

In the drawn image, you can see the choices I made that do not correspond to the photograph. And. What I found is that it really doesn’t matter…as I created the piece I was in the moment of creation, aware of my choices without personal judgement. Then, after it was done, I can analyze where I need to go in my drawing; how I need to adjust and develop; again, no judgement, just recognizing that I need another skill to actually represent the scene as I see it in my mind.

That’s it, isn’t it? The moment we do not need to grasp on to the outcome of a particular situation. That we don’t need to grasp on to the negative emotions or thoughts…or really any thoughts…so, don’t grasp on the sense of accomplishment (I did it! woo hoo!). Yea, I did it and that’s enough. Improving the scene, then, is my next task; making subtle or profound changes that can move my drawing in a direction closer to what I want to see.

Here’s to hoping we can all find that place where we can accept what needs to be accepted and grow where we need to grow.

Leaning in to the Places that Scare You

As I’ve worked with my mind over these past couple of weeks, I’ve found some time and mental space to help integrate the experiences I had in the wilderness. Part of that process has been writing and reading. The other part has been creating. My creation process involved writing prose and poetry (bad poetry, actually) about those moments in the wild, and pencil drawings of moments I captured on my camera. It is these images that have most sparked my creativity and imagination.

Pardon the lighting and the odd curvature

This scene from Elk Creek has captured my sense of wonder. AS I hiked along the trail, I was always drawn to these places in which stone, trees, and plants intertwine; the organic and the non-organic. The animate and inanimate. The plants hug the sides of the stones where they settled. These rocks, in fact, fell from a cliff hundreds of feet above the floor of this particular meadow. If you could see through the trees, you would be able to make out the spot where these boulders fell.

Yes. My interpretation is exaggerated and unusual…but it feels like the place.

Glancing at the scene again brings me back to the moment of respite I found on the trail. A moment in which I drank water, ate some snacks, and wandered around the area hearing the tug of the creek, the twitter of birds, and the breeze that made the day bearable in the heat.

What I cannot stop thinking about with this scene is the inevitable process of wearing down the stones. I can imagine their adamantine mass, sitting in the soil below. At the same time, the plants, wind, and water gradually breakdown these boulders into smaller and smaller pieces. See the lichen clinging to the edge of the rock? Those tiny plants are powerful, eating away at the places they land. How long will it be until the stones break into smaller parts and eventually disappear?

Those thoughts, inevitably, make me think of my own eventual passing. Like the stone, I am being weathered away. Slowly chipped away over time to the point when I too break down into my component parts. That final process, cremation, will happen much more quickly for my body than the stone, but I will, nevertheless, end in tiny little pieces.

Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going — 
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.

Kozan Ichikyo, 1360 C.E.

Now, this blog post is really not about death and the end of us all. The scene I illustrated captures the life of the moment and the entanglement of these objects into a beautiful dance. When I am gone, this scene will remain, with a few small changes. As Kozan might have said, these things are bound together for ages. Entangled. Such a great word.

These ideas bring me to something I read in the past few days: Dilgo Khyentse’s commentary on the Seven Point Mind Training originally written by Chekawa Yeshe Dorje. In the opening of the root text “Consider all phenomena as a dream…” Those words fit these images so well. The dream-like quality of the place, the images in my mind shaped around my ideas and feelings. The place itself becomes a kind of beautiful delusion trapping me in a samsara.

Yea, OK, I am extending these ideas out to the extreme. The only thing about the place that is samsaric is my attachment to the scene. Spinning out the many feelings and ideas about the physical place leads me to a kind of suffering: emotional suffering, in this case, for the loss of that place…having to leave the moment and return to my life. I believed, in that one moment, the scene represented a kind of perfection….AND IT DID…but grasping at the moment and holding on to it evokes suffering. I miss the place! I am in pain as a result. Sure it’s not A LOT of pain, but it is a small representation of how samsara works.

So, working through those feelings and thoughts requires me to find a method. Meditation works; what I’ve done it take the meditation to drawing and representing. In a strange way, it allowed me to let go of the attachment. If this image disappeared, I would be OK because by drawing it out I no longer have the attachment to the idea. Make sense?

Abandoning negative thoughts and emotions is a way through. Finding a method to help with the process is a positive step. Releasing my inner struggle by expressing the struggle in the image is a kind of letting go.

In this blog post I’ve wandered around a whole bunch of ideas packed into a few words on the page. Rereading these thoughts, it strikes me that what I’m doing, here, is an elaborate way of releasing my inner demons and painful experiences. Then to find a still mind…the calm abiding that I seek. May you too find that moment in your own life.