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.
I’ve definitely NOT been writing consistently on this blog for many reasons, but the main one is that I am journaling, with pen, ink, and moleskine, my thoughts, insights and ideas. That means that the blog, or online journal, gets no attention because of the focus on my own work. What gives?
First, I’ve come to understand that posting on social media and blogs is an intense form of narcissism. I know. We try to rationalize the fact that it is not narcissistic, but we are pulled toward the ego-stroking that posting on a blog or media site gives us. I imagined, when I started this blog, that I was doing it simply for information, and for the most part I have pursued that goal. At the same time, I wonder at posting at all? Do we, as a society, really need to “put ourselves out there,” as folks say?
About 6 months ago, I started deleting my tweets on a regular basis. I’ve never really cared about having some number of followers; the people I follow, I’m genuinely interested in their ideas and insights. At the same time, if I didn’t have those insights, would anything be worse or better? Of course, the answer is a hard no. Online social media can bring a sense of connection to some folks in some ways; at the same time, those connections are illusory.
Deleting those tweets, I think I had some crazy number over 10,000, was wonderful. No one history of my responses to tweets or insights of my own. As I’m writing this note, in fact, I’m seriously considering just ending my association with Twitter. Same thing for Facebook; I rarely post, and, for the most part, it just doesn’t seem worth the time to glance at the pages that pop onto my wall, stream, whatever.
I know the argument that we can stay connected to those not near us, and that’s especially true for people I know who live on the other side of the world (literally). Maybe, what I’m saying here, is that staying on one platform and maintaining connections through that ONE platform is the best way to combine the connection with the distance. Posts, then, become like letters to a friend rather than a vomit of information about what I ate or did on any given day.
That’s where my journaling comes in; it’s my record of thoughts on a wide variety of subjects, and it’s only for me to consider or consume. I write for me and for no one else. The journal becomes a non-narcisstic train of thought…it is not for public consumption and does not stroke my ego with platitudes. It’s an analysis of my thoughts, feelings, and insights. Too, it keeps private what I want to be private. I’ve written A LOT over the past few years in my Moleskine journals…Most recently, about 300 pages since December. It has become, in some ways, my release.
Journaling, then, replaced the idea I originally had for this blog as a kind of expression of my thoughts and experiences. Too, it fits within the context of my Buddhist approach which says, basically, keep it to yourself. I’ve actually written on this blog about that idea; do I keep it all to myself and focus on liberating all sentient beings with my practice? I certainly think that is what my teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche, wanted, and what the teachers I now follow would want as well.
Hmmm. It is all pretty confusing. All I need to focus on is this one thing: everything that I imagine and think and feel comes from my mind and those mental formations. Maybe today is the day that I not only acknowledge that idea, but put it into practice.
I started on the path of plant-based eating about three years ago as a means of improving my health and wellbeing. In that time period I have monitored by blood chemistry as a means of checking in on my physical health. These tests reveal a fascinating change as a result of switching to a plant-based diet.
Briefly, important markers like A1C, LDL and HDL, Cholesterol, etc have all changed dramatically. My LDL hovers in the low 40s, HDL in the high 40s, Cholesterol around 100. Those markers, in particular, tell me something about my particular issue: heart disease. I face a genetic time clock related to plaque and the development of CVD in my veins and arteries. The diet has transformed my body to the point that, according to most studies I have read, results in very positive long term outcomes for my physical health.
I’ve used as my guide Dr. Caldwell Esseltsyn’s work on plant-based diets. His work http://www.dresselstyn.com/site/ is informative and has proven to be true in my case. So, weight loss, change in blood chemistry, etc. I closely follow he requirement for very low fat intake and that has proven to be an important path to physical well being.
Despite all of the positives, I have had set backs, some weight gain and less physical activity due to a grueling work schedule. Nevertheless, I know, based on the science, that what I am doing is paying off.
I am curious about many of the nutritional plans out there in the world, and with the high interest in the Keto and Whole30 diets, I wonder at the claims of each of these eating plans. Are those plans backed up by the kind of information I have in my own experience? If someone eats a high fat diet like the Keto, will that lead to CVD? The studies I’ve seen are a bit contradictory. A recent study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5452247/ revealed that weight loss on the Keto plan stops at around 22 weeks and then levels off. Studies also show a dramatic rise in lipids in the bloodstream, a problem that would be a death sentence in my case.
I’m not arguing diets here; I’m really just fascinated by the way food consumption and movement affects my body. So interesting.
Finally on these days, I am feeling pretty good about my physical health and barring a catastrophe, look forward to better days ahead.
This past Fall, I started drawing. It was an attempt to get out of my thinking mind and into another space. Let me say, right here, that I cannot draw and have no real artistic ability. At the same time, I wanted to try something that, to me, was and is a huge challenge. In a sense, my attempts have been the path to letting go of all of that detritus of negative thoughts and emotions and just be in the moment of drawing with a pen or pencil.
Like most things I do, I took the most difficult path (without really knowing it) and dove right into a picture I took on my travels in Bhutan. I chose landscapes and then gravitated to buildings (which is where I am right now). I am drawn (no pun intended) to the architectural and design style of buildings and nature. The lines and shapes created in natural places fascinate me. I love then taking those images and turning them into something I interpret.
The funny thing is, my vision is my own and, to my mind’s eye, somehow missing something. I cannot grasp the exact curve or line of a space and it clearly shows, to me, when I produce the drawing. I cringe, actually, at my own lack of skill. And STILL I draw. It’s like I am trying to accept that part of my self that is somehow my own.
OK, yea, I’ve written about self and am well aware that I have no self in the terms many folks imagine “self” to be. I am a collection of thoughts, emotions, experiences, nothing more. What I think of my self are those collected identities that change over time. Maybe with the art/drawing, however, I can tap into a true nature. That connection to the world; a non-binary way of seeing things. Hmmm. Anyway. Here are my drawings.
So, what have I learned through these various permutations of drawing? Well, I can say I was completely in the world of drawing while drawing. I definitely dropped my mind. That one benefit – no mind – was my goal. I definitely achieved that one thing. Small glories.
Planning a long backpacking trip is second-hand to me at this point in my life. I’ve done a few backpacking trips (somewhere in the 100s at this point) and am comfortable in the wilderness. Going alone, however, is more of a challenge. Imagine that moment when you walk out of the car at the trailhead, your mind filled with all kinds of thoughts about animals, treacherous trails, crazy people, literally every kind of fear that CAN arise!
Using a paper journal, I planned my trip: food and equipment I had to take, a route plan using maps and the like, as well as thoughts about what I needed to do to be as safe as I could in the wilderness. All of these steps and all of these actions were built around the idea that I would find the kind of space necessary to “add wood to the fire.” To put myself in an uncomfortable place that would, simply put, stimulate my mind in ways that I couldn’t do in the world I’m in right now. This retreat was my chance.
As I planned and write and thought about the trip, I had serious doubts and concerns. What would come of me? About two years ago I faced a serious health crisis and I was, willingly, headed into the wilderness with no access to medical care, support, or phone service. I was, literally, going to be along in the forests of southern Colorado. If something happened, a health issue or whatever, I had not way of contacting anyone. I would be completely alone in the world.
Choosing this path is one that I both feared and relished. I wanted to test my mettle against the world as it was. I had no way to control the environment I was going to be in; I was completely in the hands of nature. Sure I made sure I had a tent, food, water and the like, but when it came right down to it, I was putting my life at risk.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche stepped out into the world with just a backpack a note telling his friends and family he was leaving. I stepped into this trip telling my family what was happening and what, likely, I would be doing. In a very real sense, I identified so much with Rinpoche on his journey. I read every word he wrote and asked myself similar questions about my purpose and point, the direction I was headed and what going into the “unknown” was going to be like.
Rinpoche’s father, early in Rinpoche’s life, asked his son “what makes you Mingyur Rinpoche?” I had that question for myself. What makes me Thomas Gentry-Funk. What characteristics or thoughts make up what I consider to be “me”? Was there a me at all? As I’ve come to uncover, there is not a self, a me, aside from the various thoughts and emotions that are cobbled together to shape a kind of me. But those thoughts and emotions change all of the time; one day I want this thing, the next that. One day I’m sad, the next happy. My thoughts and ideas come and go like the ocean tides. However, the tide is always there…it always remains even though literally everything around it changes: sand, the quality of the water, what’s on the tide and in the tide, all changes…hell even the strength and quality of the tide comes and gos. And. And the tide remains. That constant movement, that motion, reminds me of what Aristotle said about the soul “anima” or, simply put, what animates or moves us.
What was that thing that was moving me? My true nature? The collection of karma? The influence of Mingyur Rinpoche?
I can feel, in every moment I’ve been alive since November 7, 2017, a sense of being thankful for each day I have been alive. The gift of life is so precious. My gift, this year, as been revealed to me every morning I wake up and walk through the day. This precious human birth, so remarkable, so unique, is a gift that allows me to experience love in myriad ways.
Of course, I’m speaking here as a person who had excellent medical care in my moment of need. Many of us do not have access to the resources available to me on that blustery November day in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Many of us face huge hurdles in having basic care, never mind the medical aspects of such care. Just having clean water, a place to live, food to eat, and a life not filled, each day, with the question of life or death. I am, to say it mildly, lucky in this world.
At the same time, I am always in awe of my fellow human beings and their ability to withstand the storm. Facing the prospect of death, I too turned into the storm and faced the weather as it pounded my body.
My mind is drawn to that moment, sometime around 3:00AM, November 8th, when an elderly man was wheeled into the emergency room, the doctors racing to save his life. The flurry of activity as his arms were poked and prodded, a doctor administering electrical shocks to his body as they worked to revive this man. The team of nurses and doctors worked and worked to bring this man from the brink of death. And yet, he gradually died, his heart not responding to the measures brought to bare on his situation. I heard, as clearly as I can hear the wind gently blowing outside of this room, the last escape of breath. Too, I felt the deep release of his body and his life ended.
I sat, in meditation, offering what I could to this man, laying prone on the gurney, his very essence slipping into the bardo states. I will, for the rest of my life, remember this man and the end of his life as I sat a couple of feet away wondering at my own experience. Was this my time? Would I follow this man into the dark?
Of course, as I am writing this now, I give thanks to that patient, that man who did not see another day, another morning. Not seeing the bright sunshine of Albuquerque, New Mexico or feeling the soft, clear air, blowing through this valley, mountains rising 10,000 feet, the cloudless sky revealing the truth of it all.
Tonight, with the sun descending in the west, the light playing across the Sandia Mountains, the bright pink hue the wilderness is named for spreading across the folds of the mountains. The clear, light blue sky showing me that my mind is equally clear, open, spacious. This very moment I am thankful. Completely consumed with the feeling that, whatever happens in the next moment, this moment represents love – the expansive love that exists within us all.
It starts with me going back to a particular moment in time. The moment I said something, did something, acted on something that caused emotional pain for someone I knew. I recall each word I said, each action that led me to lash out in anger or resentment. I wonder at the causes and conditions that led me to say something rude or mean. Through my thoughts, I recall my state of mind and look, curiously, at the person who I was, in that moment, that caused such pain and anguish to one I knew and/or loved. As I examine, like an observer, my own negative thoughts and actions, I reach out in compassion and both that old self and the person aggrieved. I pray for forgiveness and fervently make the following statement: I will not use negative thoughts and actions to hurt another single human being.
To truly regret what happened in the past and to bring my mind to a place in which I will no longer cause pain to any human being, I have to regret those past thoughts and actions. I have to let go of my attachment to guilt, and to end the constant play of thoughts in my mind, perseverating over and over on the pain I caused. I have to have compassion for BOTH my thoughts and actions and the impact they had. Further, I have to offer my love and compassion to that person with no expectation of outcome. Simply put, I have to accept that I cannot fix some past wrong; what I can do is resolve, moving from this point on, to never cause such harm again.
These thoughts are in my mind today as I go back through my own past and wonder at what brought me here, to this point in time. The interdependence of our lives with others, our impact on all the beings we encounter, whether human or not, is deeply connected to our thoughts and actions. As I examine interdependence in my own life, I see the steps that led me to physical pain…the bad food choices, the decision to eat something I knew was bad for me, and, lacking the resolve to change, continuing the pattern until the choices made resulted in physical problems: being overweight, having other health problems, and the resulting self-recrimination and blame.
To break the cycle in my life, I had to do what folks have been telling me for years: to own your thoughts and actions. Without recrimination and guilt, accept what happened and resolve to change. The key, the one thing that unlocks the door to change, is regret and resolution. To clearly accept what I have done and then leave it. I come back, over and over again, to the words of Sogyal Rinpoche: to simple drop those thoughts and actions. To let them go. To not dig deeply in the shit of our lives, and recognize the problem and resolve to change it.
This past year, I have changed so many aspects of my life. It was the sense of resolution; the realization that I can change. The change, though, was not actions (Although actions are part of it). The change was in my own thoughts. I had to change my mind and not be held back by my own thoughts.
I guess what I’m saying is that we can change our thoughts; the very nature of who we think we are. We are, as Sogyal Rinpoche has said, not who we think we are. I am NOT who I think I am. I am a collection of impressions, emotions, thoughts, family, culture, race, class, sexuality, and a multitude of other things all smashed together and organized into some kind of coherent thoughts in my mind. My ego, that driving force behind it all, creates a voice that directs my actions BASED on all of that stuff in my mind. However, once I realize that all those thoughts are, in fact, not my own, I am set free.
My example of this crazy idea is something pretty simple: in terms of diet, I had heard for years that we must eat massive amounts of protein, specifically animal protein, to be healthy. My thoughts were collected around that idea and I ate food based on that principle. Those actions led me to a physical disability. I recognized, because of a physical ailment, that the message I had heard and incorporated into my thoughts and made into action actually was a masterful lie. Once revealed as an illusion, I was free to change my thoughts and actions, no longer bound by the voice in my head, the one that actually led me to experience physical suffering.
Once i realized that I was being lied to or that I had created a kind of delusion, I let it all go. As I released these thoughts, I found that I questioned just about everything else I had been taught, told, and held onto. I was, literally, free to take a completely new path.
So, my hope for everyone is two-fold: first that you come to recognize that your own thoughts are a problem in what happens to us in our lives. Second, that we all have the ability to fundamentally change our thoughts and break free from social conditioning. Once we can recognize those lies we hold dear in our own lives, once we realize that our thoughts are not our own, only then can we be free from suffering and help others find that same freedom.
On November 7th 2017, death reared its ugly head as I walked my dog on a trail in Albuquerque New Mexico. Jogging up a slight hill my breathing became labored, sweat poured from my body, and my throat felt like it was closing as if hands wrapped around my neck, squeezing the life from my body. I slowed to a walk and tried to catch my breath to no avail. I mentally stepped into meditation and forced my breathing into slow, regular breaths. I could a hear a wheeze coming from my lungs and airway as I passed people on the trail, trying to catch my dog, Kona, zipping between people and dogs.
Fear rose in my mind and I frantically searched for the causes of this condition. Anaphylaxis? The classic symptoms of a heart attack were not present. No chest pain. No radiating pain down my arms. No numbness or other effects of that dreaded event. I deliberately slowed my walking to a very timid pace, deliberately taking one step at a time.
I called my partner and asked her to pick us up. I was about a 1/4 mile from the trail exit. I felt a bit more calm, but the tightness in my throat did not subside. We drove home and I sat outside on the porch, pouring water down my throat. I took a benedryl thinking this pill would alleviate what I thought was an allergic reaction. After three glasses of water, I felt a little better.
And then. I cannot explain the feeling exactly. I knew, completely knew, that I was going to pass out. The feeling in my head was like a kind of blurry sense of self; I was feeling the onset of syncope, as I was told later. I told my partner to call 911. She did. I passed out.
I was A+Ox1. Verbally responsive with a grunt, clutching my throat, breathing heavily. Then, in about a minute, I was back. I felt better. Not just better, restored. The fog lifted, the tightness in my throat gone. Just as I woke an ambulance appeared, then two, then a fire truck, sirens blaring. Paramedics came up to me, asked me questions, and fitted me with a blood pressure cuff, and set up an EKG. The paramedic searching for my pulse said, “He doesn’t have a pulse.” Dude. Really? I am moving, talking, responding to questions and I don’t have a pulse? Not likely. The EKG looked roughly normal; maybe a depression, maybe arrhythmia. Inconclusive results, as they say. They asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. I said, very clear, yes.
The short ride to the Heart Hospital included taking 4 baby aspirin. I was hooked to an IV, fluids poured into my veins. The paramedic talked about what was happening, radioed “probable MI”. I arrived, and doctors surrounded me. More questions. Blood taken. Within about an hour, everything was normal: heart rate, EKG, BP slightly elevated. One doctor said, “He converted on his own.”
The hospital stay was quick; I sat in the ER for about 24 hours while they decided what to do. Found one marker in my bloodwork that showed a possible MI. Heart cath. Stent. Sent home the next day.
Since that day, I have felt like death is following me around. It’s a completely new feeling, but one I should have been aware of much sooner. My Buddhist practice is all about the reality of death and how we do not acknowledge it or prepare for it. We go about our days oblivious to the fact of death. Some see this focus as nihilistic. Instead it’s very much part of life.
In my artery, the so-called “native artery” I have a lesion. It’s blocking some percentage of that artery. It’s in the artery known as the “widow-maker.” My doctor said to me, “It’s just a matter of time.” Isn’t that so true? Just a matter of time for us all.
In the meantime I have changed my diet (plant-based), excluded oils, dairy, and all meat from my eating plan. Watching triglycerides (they can be a problem even on a vegan diet) and monitoring my blood work. Too, I am on a self-proscribed exercise plan doing what I love to do: riding my road bike. Last weekend, one year since the great unfortunate event, I rode about 62 miles in the Day of the Tread. I planned to go just 50, but felt good and decided to make it longer.
Here I am. A survivor. Someone who is attentive and aware of what I face. Someone who, in the face of all of the potential gloom am seeking out the silver lining; the sun light in the midst of the rain.
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
William Wordsworth, Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798