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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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 Trainingoriginally 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.
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:
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)
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.
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.
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.
In a past life, I studied and consumed the ideas, art, and teachings of Medieval scholars, artists, and writers. I read everything I could get my hands on from Maimonides, Ibn Sina, and Thomas Aquinas. I delved deeply into the ideas of these medieval scholars and was drawn to their questions about life, G-d, and the world they lived in.
One late medieval, early modern poet from Spain, St. John of the Cross wrote some remarkable poetry. His poem called The Dark Night of the Soul resonated with me in my early incarnation as a student of the medieval world. This short poem is a powerful statement about the darkness we live in and the light we seek. For St. John, he sought out a connection to G-d. For me, I found a broader meaning in the poem…the search for light in our own mental darkness.
“On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings–oh, happy chance!– I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.”
As I settled into a night along Elk Creek, I was overcome with fear and doubts. Every possible negative thought and emotion crept into my fear-addled mind. I wept, deeply, constantly, at the despair I felt. I was overcome with grief and self-loathing. I tried meditation, writing in my journal, and even tried music to push away these feelings. None worked. I was deep in it. Deep in the complexity of a mind adrift. I imagined that stomach pains I felt were the beginnings of a heart attack, that I had some internal disease. I went through every single possible negative action I had done in my life and mentally beat myself over and over for those mistakes, failings, short comings.
I played the 100 syllable mantra, recited the Benza guru mantra, and generally tried to ease mind off of this proverbial cliff. Nothing worked. So, I stayed in it…I was overcome with this powerful grief and nothing, it seemed could shake it. I was in it.
When relating some of this story to folks after the trip, everyone has said, “That experience must have been a real catharsis!” Yea. No. No relief, no catharsis, no end. The experience was one I have read about for a long time; many of the Buddhist scholars I follow comment on the fact that once you open the door to the kinds of meditation that unlock the conflicts that ravage our minds, there is no going back. It is true. The beast is out of the cage; the subtle and elaborate ego protections I assembled no longer functioned. They were gone and what was left was the raging torrent of my crazy mind.
The Dark of the Night
I spent the night in some physical pain. My right knee is a constant source of pain with little to affect it. I don’t take NSAIDS as they are terrible for my body. I use a CBD cream that works well for about 30 minutes. Laying on the ground in my tent, I flipped back and forth seeking a comfortable place to sleep. My mental state combined with my physical one was rough. I could not find sleep until about 3:00AM…I finally passed out. I woke at 6:30AM to a sharp pain in my hip. I dosed again for an hour only to have cows trampling around my tent, mooing incessantly.
I climbed out of bed, prepared tea and planned a small meal. My goal was to stay in place and then day hike West to the 2nd meadow and scout a good camping spot somewhere in the vast expanse.
My mind was groggy, tired, and still in the throws of the madness I went to bed imaging. As a means of ameliorating the situation, I packed my daypack and planned to exhaust myself on the trail. The hike out of the First Meadow is steep and I climbed my way up and out.
The day’s temperature and climate could not have been better. A slight breeze followed me along the path and the sound of the creek and leaves was a salve to my weary mind. I walked slowly but deliberately West. I passed one person on the trail, a fellow solo traveler who was coming out from a distant part of the wilderness. We exchanged hellos.
After two miles, I stopped for a snack and water. I captured one of the most moving scenes (to me), rocks and trees in an elegant dance. The perfection of this natural scene struck me in my odd state of being. I was drawn to the juxtaposition of stone and tree, the inanimate and animate. While I do not practice Shinto, I idea of kami came into my head as I admired the essence of this particular place.
As I approached 2nd Meadow, the ravages of the night and my exhaustion took hold. I was just 1/2 mile from the meadow and I decided to turn around. I was spent. Exhausted. I headed back on the trail, making a slow walk back to camp. At this point, I felt completely alone in the wilderness and I stopped off and on to capture that feeling of being in a place completely by myself. Rather than feel any terror many miles away from the laughter of people, I felt, in a strange way, at ease. My mental state was not, as I discovered, the result of being alone; it was something else entirely.
The Second Night: A Slight Reprieve
It took a while and I made it back to camp. It has become my habit to record my heart rate on a check strap I wear on these longs hikes. I checked my vitals: 1300 kcals burned, 5 miles hiked, almost 4 hours of moving time. The trail was a bear; up and down over and over again. I had climbed a few thousand feet over the course of the day…my feet felt the stress of the ups and downs.
I rested at camp, sitting without thought for about two hours. I did not attempt a traditional meditation. I just sat. In that space, no thoughts came to mind, none of the raging anger and fear consumed me. I was completely silent. Time passed and I watched the flow of the water.
I picked up my journal after a time and started to write…I wrote and wrote for a couple of hours…I had no sense of the passage of time and when I finally stopped, I checked my watch and found it was about 6:00PM. Hungry and thirsty, I started a meal and pumped water from the stream. I felt this incredible hunger and once the meal was prepared, a rice, quinoa, veggie dish, I ate it all. I immediately regretted the decision. My stomach groaned as I had forced too many calories into my stomach too fast. I was in pain. The cycle I experienced the night before began again.
Recognizing my situation, I decided to “walk it off.” I walked around the meadow, I photographed cows and trees, and water. I found a perfect hiking stick and carried it around. Thoughts now tumbled out of my brain: I should pack up and leave, I should make my way back to the car. I reasoned, at 7:00PM that I could make it out in 1:45 minutes if I pushed it. My body moved in the direction of the campsite and, in a moment, made the decision to stay. To stop. To continue the experience. To remain in the moment and not distract my mind with the packing and hiking that such a move would take…I decided to remain still.
Instead of fleeing, I stayed in place and began chanting a mantra: Benza guru. I kept it up for a long while as the sun went down.
As darkness fell in the meadow, I headed into my tent and chose, on this night, to rest. The pains were all present in those moments and I chose to accept them as they were. I fell to sleep, woke, fell back to sleep and finally woke at 6:30AM. I crawled out of my tent and stared a cow in the face a few feet from the door. I stood up, the cow looked at me and then went back to eating grass.
Mindful of my queasy stomach, I ate very lightly and contemplated my next move. I felt much better, emotionally. Should I stay? I knew I was in a better place, overall, but after a quick inventory, I made a decision: I would travel to the Karmapa’s Stupa in Crestone, Colorado. I would go to that place and meditate for as long as I could.
I packed my gear carefully and by 9:30AM lifted my pack and hiked out of the meadow and toward the car. As I hiked, I noticed something quite remarkable. I was physically very strong on this day. I noticed that I had no trouble climbing or moving down this rocky trail. Too, I was moving faster than I had ever hiked in the past. As it turned out, I arrived at the car a solid 20 minutes ahead of my previous time. I felt physically good. Hmmm.
Travel to Karma Thegsum Tashi Gomang
From the trailhead to the Stupa takes about two hours. The drive takes you through Antonito, Alamosa, Mosca, and Crestone. On the way, my mind was empty, silent, quiet.
The roads to the Stupa wind around the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Going from paved asphalt to improved gravel, to rough gravel is a typical experience in the Southwest. I moved slowly up the side of the mountains, contouring around until, finally, I found a spot to park.
No one was present when I arrived and I headed to the stupa for prostrations and a walk around the structure 108 times. As I walked, I chanted the Benza guru mantra. After I sat in the shade, pulled out my journal, and wrote down much of my experience. Finally, I sat in meditation. Tears welled in my eyes and streamed down my face. The sight of a local nun increased the tears and I sat, crying in meditation…one of the strangest experiences of my life.
As the sun started to set, I ambled back to the car. I filled my water bottle and drove back to Albuquerque days early from this experience. My reflection on what transpired and any understanding of the experience will come, I imagine, in the coming weeks and months. Needless to say, these moments are carved deeply into me and I wonder at it all.
I take an annual retreat into the wilderness alone. This experience has been something I have craved and looked forward to for the past 20 years or so I have been heading into the wilderness of New Mexico and southern Colorado. These moments have been precious and allowed me to reinvigorate my heart and mind. I typically choose a meditation for the retreat and try to stick with that approach for the days I am alone…it has been a remarkable series of experiences. On this trip, I chose the teachings related in the book Enlightened Courage by Dilgo Khyentse.
With plans in place, this year turned out to be quite different. As I began my preparations doubt creeped into my mind. I felt a sense of fear and trepidation as I worked through my checklist of things I had to carry. My list was short and my pack relatively light for such an excursion; nevertheless, a sense of dread filled my mind as the day came closer to depart. I was, as I would come to discover, not ready for this experience.
One aspect of a solo retreat or solo backpacking trip is to get your mind ready for being completely alone; or, rather, completely away from people. It’s a misconception that you will be alone on a solo journey. You bring your entire life with you; family, friends, enemies, fantasies, positive and negative thoughts, and, in fact, every single thing you have ever imagined. It’s all with you. You are, in fact, not alone at all.
My mind was crazy in those days leading up to the trip, and I knew I was struggling. I saidto myself, “it’s just the nerves of being in the wilderness, alone, nothing more…” Those words filled my mind as I pushed aside the thoughts and emotions I faced.
Driving to the Trailhead
The four hour drive was uneventful, but in retrospect I made some bad choices that enhanced my crazy mind. I eat a vegan diet and have done so for the past few years; on my drive I made a bad food choice, eating some food I normally would not have eaten. The thing is, sticking to a plan, staying disciplined and focused is one KEY to doing well on a solo retreat. Allowing for the possibility of change and unexpected events is FINE…making bad choices is, actually, not the best way to go…so, when I ate the vegan tacos that were fried in corn oil, it hit me hard; my stomach was queasy and I felt gross.
This one errant choice made a big difference in my experience. I had stomach pains that lasted for a couple of days….it made my mind spin into a crazy place…too, that one choice kept me from getting into that deep place of meditation, constantly distracting me and keeping me unsettled.
As I approached the trailhead, I knew that a solo trip was probably not the best idea. I stopped at a couple of campgrounds to find a place to camp. On this Thursday afternoon, sites were available AND they only took cash. Since I had only $10 for the trip, owning to my current state of financial difficulty, I could not reserve a site. I reluctantly decided to press on.
At the Trailhead
The hike I planned is one I know. The well-trod trail leads into the heart of the South San Juan Wilderness. Almost entirely lined with Aspen, Pine, and Spruce, the path is as close to an idyllic Rocky Mountain hike as any I have ever seen. Wandering along Elk Creek, the way leads to high country meadows in this part of the San Juans. The creek meanders and rushes through the canyons and its sound is never far from the hiker’s ear. That pleasing and melodic sound I craved, and as I packed my pack for the final time, I felt a slight sense of relief. As I would discover, the feeling of calm was fleeting.
Distracted by packing and checking my gear, I filled my water bottles for the last time. The parking area was filled with day hikers, I imagined, and that gave me some comfort. I donned my pack, or rather lifted the beast on to my back, fifty some odd pounds of clothing, food, shelter, and water. I was off.
On The Trail
The hike along Elk Creek, as I mentioned, is idyllic. I signed into the trail log and found just one other group headed West into the wilderness. They were hours in front of me and I knew I would not see that group on the trail. I was, as it turned out, alone as I walked into the wilderness.
A solo backpacking trip is a singular event in one’s life. (Pun not intended) Most folks that I know are either astounded or horrified that anyone would travel alone into the wilderness. The most common comment is “what about bears?” I’ve heard and seen many bears in my travels; not one could give a rat’s ass about my presence in the backcountry. The snorts of a bear around a campsite are not an uncommon experience. One night I opened my tent to the sound and flashed my headlamp at a decent sized bear. The animal looked at me from about ten feet way and then went back to snorting around the area. Bears are the least of a backpacker’s worry (at least in the lower 48).
The second most common comment is “what about mountain lions or cougars?” Now that one animal does give me pause. Mountain lions, unlike bears, are on the prowl for a live meal. In the Southwest, a reader can find plenty of stories of mountain lion encounters with humans. At the same time, those encounters, when put into the context of ALL encounters with animals and humans, is a very very tiny fraction of catastrophic events in the backcountry.
The truth is that the most common experience and danger for a backpacker is their reaction to changing climate conditions and terrain. Simply put, our own choices are the real danger. On many occasions I’ve gone through rain storms, snow storms, wind storms, and on and on. I’ve shivered my way through a night, using emergency blankets to warm me when snow and temperatures have fallen. I’ve had to wake in the night to warm water for students in the midst of hypothermic reactions, and have aided folks with broken arms, legs, toes, and fingers. Burns from cooking are also common incidents in the backcountry as people are bold about their expertise at creating and maintaining a fire. I cannot count the number of people I have helped who have burned themselves on a backpacking stove or at a fire! The real danger, as it turns out, is ourselves.
As I made my way on the Elk Creek Trail headed West, I listened to the sound of the creek, found solace in the breeze, and reveled in the delicate motion and sound of Aspen leaves. I paused, occasionally, and simply watched the leaves flutter in the breeze. The feeling of serenity that came was fleeting and welcome.
The Elk Creek First Meadow
After exactly 3.06 miles I descended into the meadow to locate a site for the night. At the far end of the first meadow on Elk Creek is a cluster of Aspens and Spruce. In those trees I searched for a site. As I wandered the small area, came through a tight copse of trees to see a line of Alpacas. A small group with two HUGE tents were camped in an open area, the first time in all my experiences I found fellow campers. I exchanged pleasantries with their trip leader and searched for a more distant site. About 300 yards away, to the East of the meadow, I found a spot along the creek….a downed log between two trees made for a perfect resting spot and a small open area, just enough for a tent, allowed me to pitch the tiny (and LIGHT WEIGHT) backpacking tent. I found my spot.
In past years, the good luck of finding a new camping spot with a perfect place to prepare food would have made my heart sing. On this night, a sense of dread creeped into my mind. Slowly, gradually, painfully I felt a real sense of despair.
On these kinds of excursions, we take with us exactly what is on our backs and in our minds and bodies. If we bring a distracted and terror-laden mind, those feelings will grow and spread. If you bring in a sore ankle or knee, a pounding headache those physical traumas will become overwhelming.
In my distracted state, I prepared my food, a new backpacking meal from Patagonia Provisions. The food was exceptional (and vegan). At the same time, my stomach pains resumed from the earlier meal, and while the food provided some sustenance, it added to my unrest as that queasy feeling overcame me.
After I ate, I wandered the meadow, pushing back my crazy mind with photography. As the sun went down, I captured the place as best as I could…
I walked back to my campsite and sat down with the intention of mediation. This first night in the backcountry was going to be one I will always remember.