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.

A Trip in Reflection

It’s been a few days since my adventure into the wilderness and my attempted retreat into the backcountry. I am reminded of last year’s trip and I’m analyzing the differences between the experiences. What I have learned and what I know is that I’ve been – hiding, protecting, not acknowledging – the various struggles I have experienced over these past few years.

As I mentioned in a previous post, preparing your mind for retreat and a solo trip is really important. Is the ground fertile for a retreat? Are you ready for days and days of silence? Once the crazy mind emerges, how will you address the experience? Those questions all come to mind as I think about the past week or so. Here’s what I learned:

  1. I went into this retreat with a crazy mind and came out with a crazy mind. The isolation from COVID has been a real bear on my mental state. I knew it, in some part of my mind, and now I know it as plain as the clear, blue sky I wake to every single day. (more on this idea in a later post)
  2. As the emotions and thoughts built into a crescendo of anguish, my tools failed me. Even distraction failed to allay my fears. I was raw in so many ways and could not bring my meditation or journaling practice to aid in my being. So, I went through these events with no support. As a result, I struggled.
  3. Once I made the decision to leave the retreat, my mental anguish shifted. The strength I felt on the hike out was both a physical and mental moment.
  4. I now know where my meditation and practice must focus.

Leaving It All Behind

Years ago at a retreat in San Diego with Sogyal Rinpoche, he said something to me that I will never forget: it’s of course important to reconcile your past AND digging too deeply in that past tends to dig up sh*t that then you need to find a way to rebury. His advice was simple: drop your thoughts. Don’t attach to whatever past you are trying to heal; in fact, to heal, turn your mind away from what you consider your “self” and focus on extending compassion and kindness to all. That loving-kindness will, ultimately, benefit your being.

So, as I sat on the benches surrounding the Karmapa’s Stupa in Crestone, I wrote:

“I will consciously let things go. One by one, I will consciously pack my pack, take one step at a time, and make my way through this experience by letting it all go,”

Now, as you are reading this diatribe, you’ll find that I haven’t really let it all go; I’m still trying to establish what my practice will be after my retreat. How I will move through and let go.

Walking and Practicing

Walking meditation is a wonderful practice and is available to us all. This week, I walked in meditation and returned, mentally, to the place I was about a week ago. I re-experienced the fear and trepidation I found in the wilderness. The anxiety grabbed me again. I found that place; I know what I need to do. As Pema Chodron has said, the places that scare you are, sometimes, the places you need to be. I will reread her text, The Places That Scare You for some support as I go into that particular place in meditation.

Finally, I’m not going to distract from the feelings I’m having and try to just be in the moment when those feelings arrive. That is, I feel, the best way for me to address what I’ve experienced in these past months. Too, understanding how COVID has impacted my mental state is, I think, something that I need to address. That will be my next post on this wandering thing I call a blog.

Farewell friends.