Friday, April 18, 2014

Lenten Diary 11

Breaking Old Habits

Thich Naht Hahn
     As I write this on Thursday evening, April 17, it is a week since we arrived at the Oak Grove Plantation on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and settled into a three-day retreat designed to concentrate our minds on the practice of mindful living in the Buddhist tradition of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.
     Michael Ciborski, our retreat teacher, is especially qualified to lead such a gathering, having spent nine years as a monk at the Plum Village monastery in France, headquarters of Thich Nhat Hanh’s world-wide mission. He left the order, but not the teachings, to marry, and is now an ordained lay teacher of Buddhist thought with a home base in Keene, NH.
     And he’s good. That, at least, is my relatively uninformed opinion, which I suppose means that I got a lot out of his teachings. I also liked the guy and found we had more than just an interest in Buddhism in common. But I digress.
     When Jala and I arrived that first Thursday evening, I was not in the best shape. I was bothered by chronic pain in my hips and—a recent development—an aching shoulder. In addition, for some reason I’d slept poorly the night before, clocking three hours at the most, though I’d gone to bed early for me, around 1 a.m.
     But I thought that might be for the best because the retreat schedule called for us to go to our rooms at 9 p.m., observing “Noble Silence” through 9 a.m. the next day, which started with wake-up at 6, group meditation at 6:30, and breakfast at 8. This was a nearly 180-degree turn-around from my normal schedule, with bed time closer to 3 a.m. and wake-up as late as 11. I could only hope, short on sleep as I was, that I’d be ready to go to bed at 9.
Our Cottage, shared with four others.
     That turned out to be a false hope. I couldn’t sleep Thursday night. I couldn’t sleep Friday night! But finally, by Saturday night, bone-tired as I was, I adjusted at last to the early-bird schedule and slept like a happy baby Buddha.
     And that was just one of my less-than-ideal habits broken over the weekend.
     Another was consuming too much world news, which is a great molder of depression. It’s a habit left over from my days as a journalist, but it also runs in the family. My mother literally depressed herself to death with CNN on the television all day, and I guess I’d become her heir as town crier, staying informed and alerting others to all the evils of the world going down.
     To make matters worse, Jala and I were in the habit of eating dinner in front of the TV news. We’d usually turn it on at 5:30 to catch Charlie Rose on PBS, then switch over to the CBS Evening News, then back to PBS for the Newshour. On Fridays we’d extend the session with Washington Week. Usually I’d doze off at some point during this marathon, absorbing the toxins subconsciously. We often talked about turning the TV off at dinner, but we never followed through.
     At the retreat there was no access to news, and meals were taken in silence as we followed the dharma—the teaching—to eat mindfully. That means slowly, with deliberation, tasting each bite, chewing it fully, swallowing, taking a pause before lifting the utensil to gather the next bite.
     We ate our meals outside, with the vast sky above, meadows and forests surrounding us, and birds chirping and chattering in the trees on every side. It was the ultimate relaxation, in large part because no one was on the spot to make conversation. Many of us were strangers to each other, yet we got to know one another anyway, in silence, connecting with eye contact, smiles back and forth, and primitive sign language.
     Everyone had an assigned job, which helped create the harmonious communal environment I’d hoped for but was too immature to pull off in the 1960s. My job was in food preparation, where silence was observed except for minimal consultations about the work at hand. Jala helped with keeping order in the meditation hall, where we met two or three times a day to sit on our cushions or chairs for meditation or to listen to Michael’s insightful dharma talks on aspects of mindfulness, some of which I described in my last post.
     Each afternoon we had two hours of personal time, giving us the opportunity to visit the sheep in their pasture, cross the wide meadow from the house to the inlet opening upon the Chesapeake Bay, romp with the ground-keeper’s black Labrador retrievers, or whatever we fancied.
     I got a big kick out of the sheep, who aren’t shy. They lumber up to you, stick their noses in your belly if you let them, and can knock you over if you’re not braced against their  considerable mass.
     But the Labs won my heart completely. They pegged us at once as the dog lovers we are. One in particular followed me up the gravel road to the cottage where we were staying, waited for me while I went inside, and came back to the main house with me, as if he were my own dog.
     He wandered off then, and I lay down on the grass in the warm spring Sun to catch a nap if I could. But, without warning, a heavy tongue slavered over my lips and nose. I opened my eyes to see my Lab buddy’s big jokester face an inch from mine. I couldn’t resist his advances, didn’t even want to, and he washed my face like an English nanny—from neck to ears to hair line and back again. Then, for good measure, he lathered my arms and even my arm pits before he considered me done and trotted away, leaving me laughing in the grass, the happiest I’ve been since before we lost our beloved boxer Athena a year ago.
     I think at that point I fully grasped one of the key mantras of the retreat and of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings: “I have arrived. I am home.” Not at the Oak Grove Plantation, though that place is certainly conducive to such a thought, but in my own mind, in the present moment, wholly connected to Life as it is—not past, not future, but Now.
     And, of course, the original Thinking Dog, after whom this blog is named and whose picture appears at the top of the column opposite, was a black Lab.
     So how’s it going, a week after the retreat?
     Interestingly, I don’t feel as if the retreat has ended. I still feel the presence of the people we were with and the continuation of the activities we shared. We don’t turn on the news at dinner and don’t miss it. We eat our meals together mindfully (though not in full silence necessarily), and I’ve been getting to bed and waking up quite a bit earlier, giving me more time in a day. I meditate more deeply each morning, and I seem more attuned to people around me, less alienated and trapped inside myself, despite my various aches and pains. I’ve also lost five pounds.
     But the change that seems most telling to me concerns my interactions with our cat, Spookie, a homeless waif we took in after the guy next store moved out, leaving her behind to fend for herself.
     Before the retreat, she used to duck and run away from me when I’d walk through the room. It annoyed me a little, though I felt sorry for her, too, figuring her reaction was a product of her early insecurity.
     Not necessarily. Because now that I’m back from retreat and practicing walking meditation around the house, she doesn’t run away from me. And I realize it wasn’t she who was strange. It was I.
     That insight alone tells me as much about the effectiveness of this practice as anything else I can think of.
     And with that, I bring my Lenten Diary of 2014 to a close. I feel it has been a productive spiritual season for me. But without the retreat to imprint the Lenten duty to reflect and repent, I’m not sure it would have been. Too many tired, old habits would have survived the winter, making this April “the cruelest month” rather than the most hopeful in many a year.
Happy Easter!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Lenten Diary 10

Only My Cats Were Missing

Here in the garden is where it hit me.

     It was the afternoon of the first full day on Buddhist retreat when I realized, in a wave of emotional connection with myself, that I wouldn’t mind leaving everything behind and just stay where I was indefinitely. It was as if everything of true value in my life was consolidated in that place at that time, including the first sustained, beautiful weather of the season after winter’s long, gloomy, chilly hangover. Only my two cats were missing. I’d have to go back for them.
     The truth is, I am not, first and foremost, an actor and writer, as I tell people when asked what I am, but a spiritual person attempting to look deeply enough into myself and my relations to find lasting and satisfying meaning in my life. That’s been true since I was a teenager.
     Coincidentally, the formal theme of the spring retreat—sponsored by the Salt Marsh Sangha at Oak Grove Plantation on Virginia’s Eastern Shore—was Looking Deeply.
     (A sangha, for those who wonder, is a community of people in solidarity with the practice of a mindful way of living. The spring retreat included members of the Mindful Community of Hampton Roads, whose twice-monthly meetings Jala and I frequently attend in Norfolk.)
     As I wrote in an earlier Lenten Diary post, I didn’t know if I was ready just then to break away from my busy life and go on retreat. But I sensed that I needed to because I’d allowed too much negativity over too long a time to capture my mind with insidious tentacles until I was mildly but consistently depressed. Not the least of that depression arose from chronic pain left over from a broken hip, partially replaced in a surgery over three years ago.
     The doctors I saw offered little comfort beside pills and possibly more surgery. I didn’t like either alternative. Eventually I found I could continue day-to-day functioning with the help of certain physical therapy exercises, yoga poses, ibuprofen on occasion, staying off my feet as much as possible, and just plain gritting my teeth. I’d learned to live with the pain, but increasingly I wanted to ditch it. I just didn’t know where to turn. I sometimes wondered if my best alternative was death.
     At the retreat I didn’t miraculously lose the pain. I continued to manage it, largely as I had been. But in that environment, encouraged by a radical deceleration from the usual pace of  modern life, I found myself experiencing surges of extraordinary happiness—often to the point of tears—and it worked like an anti-depressant, a pain pill, and a joint all at once, not eliminating all pain but easing the stress in my body causing the pain.
View from the garden to the Chesapeake Bay.

     For instance, I was able to walk with little or no pain all over the plantation—a large and beautiful historic estate with a vista overlooking the Chesapeake Bay—so long as I maintained a pace known as walking meditation. This is part of the Buddhist practice taught by Thich Nhat Hanh, the noted Vietnamese monk whose take on the Buddha’s teachings have gained a large following in the West.
     A walking meditation is a slow, deliberate walk with maximum attention paid to the present moment—each step, each breath, each sight and sound along the way—and minimum attention paid to destination, even though you might have one.
     It is mindfulness in motion rather than seated with eyes closed, and it is a very useful tool in daily life, especially mine.
     Meanwhile, the retreat teacher, Michael Ciborski, offered insights that turned my mind around concerning the pain I experienced. Rather than trying to ignore, overcome, or, for that matter, succumb to suffering, he suggested we should attend to it as a part of ourselves crying out for our recognition, for acknowledgment, comfort, and healing. We should embrace our suffering self and comfort it like a hurt child rather than try to drive it away like an intruder invading our otherwise happy lives. We should look deeply into it, asking it what it needs, what’s missing for it, why it feels so damaged, and, taking it seriously, try to find ways to accommodate it in its fright, anger, or frustration.
     And I found it true, that there was relief from pain if I adjusted my perspective to view  my pain positively, helping me reorder my priorities, centering my mind on my spiritual life, where I want it to be, rather than on my participation in a seemingly mindless world of stress. The pain gives me a real incentive to slow down, let go of stress, and fully experience where I find myself—even if that condition contradicts my idea of the self I think I should be.

Approaching the main house at Oak Grove Plantation.

     Of course, that was not so hard to do on a beautiful spring weekend among friends of like mind, old and new, in a gorgeous place remote from the stress of a collapsing civilization. There was no place I had to be, nothing I had to do, which demanded speed or even much accountability. It was like being on a structured vacation, like camp or the reunion of a clan.
     The challenge would be to bring back what I’d learned and apply it to the daily life which I’d allowed to stress me out so much in the first place.
     Perhaps I need to make some significant changes to maintain the meditative lifestyle I experienced in such clear focus on my Buddhist retreat.


Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Lenten Diary 9

On Packing Up for Retreat

      Of the many things I dabble in, one of the longest-lived is the study of Tarot. I learned to read the cards in 1975 from the late Rusty Smith Carnarius and have worked with them on practically a daily basis ever since.
      One card I pull frequently is The Chariot. In fact, I pulled it just this morning. Most people would recognize it, even if they don’t know Tarot. It shows a virile warrior figure driving a chariot drawn by two steeds, white and black. In my deck the steeds are sphinxes.
      Most “tarotologists” interpret this card as “victory.” Some add that the victory is material only, as if the charioteer has a ways to go before attaining spiritual maturity.
      But my favorite interpretation of the card comes from the classic occultist Paul Foster Case. He sees the chariot as the physical vehicle for the spirit, represented by the charioteer, and interprets the card as a reminder that we are all capable of serving as vehicles—conduits, channels, proxies—for what he calls “Universal Will” in one place and “cosmic forces” in another.
      Such powers cannot be used for destructive purposes or they will implode and destroy their user. The point Tarot makes is that they exist, and human beings can learn to express them with miraculous results, if only they will it so.
      So why, over the past few years, have I drawn this card so often?
      This question becomes material because The Chariot lies on my desk from this morning’s draw as I prepare to leave tomorrow for that weekend Buddhist retreat I mentioned in Lenten Diary 6.
      The purpose of a Buddhist retreat is to connect—or reconnect or simply refresh—the individual mind with the vast universal forces which sustain it. This calls for several sessions of meditation, long periods of silence, including at meals, and group discussions of Buddhist principles.
      Meanwhile, I feel—that is, my personality feels—that this retreat isn’t coming at the best time for me. I’m all caught up in events for National Poetry Month. I even have an event on the retreat’s last day and will have to leave early to get back for it. My mind is filled with endless details I have to remember to take care of before we go. I also have performance pieces of my own I definitely ought to practice. Will there be an appropriate time and place for that?
      Clearly I’m feeling a conflict of duties between spiritual well-being and worldly obligations. And I pulled The Chariot.
      Also, it’s Lent. There is solace in knowing I’m supposed to feel this way in April, at one with the calendar clock.
      And finally, looking more deeply, I realize my life has gotten crazy without my even noticing it. I need a Buddhist retreat!
      This will be my last entry before I get back. Just in time for Easter. 

Friday, April 04, 2014

Lenten Diary 8

Can We Outgrow War?

     Now that I’m taking a few vacation days off from my job—my grueling 10-hour work week cleaning our neighborhood Methodist church—I have extra time to practice my poetry for a number of performances coming up 
     It’s an instructive experience. One thing I’ve learned is how little I’ve changed my mind in the last ten or fifteen years.
     The earliest poem on my refresher list, “Letter to an Activist Friend,” was written in 2002. In it I apologize to an anonymous activist for turning down an invitation to join him in Washington, DC, for “an exuberant uprising against the politics of fear and the policies of greed.”
     I main point I make in this poetic essay is that fighting—violently or nonviolently—will never bring peace. But perhaps peace can bring peace.
     My most recent poem, which I’m currently committing to memory, is called “Expand Your Mind.” Its main idea is that the contentious bickering among human beings across society has never changed and never will unless we consciously make ourselves outgrow it.
     The only thematic difference between the two poems is in degree. Both find confrontation ineffective as a strategy for peace. But the current poem is more urgent in its call for a cease-fire.
     I suppose I can give myself some points for consistency. I grew up anti-war and I’m anti-war still. I only defected for a few years when I lived in the country in a house of ruffians who liked to pick fights with other ruffians, and for those years I became a ruffian, too, and enjoyed a few scuffles with people who pissed me off.
     But I found no lasting pleasure in it. I usually got hurt, for one thing, even if I came out on top.
     For another, I found it was a backward way to make friends.
     And for a third, I didn’t write any poetry then. I didn’t write anything. I was creative sludge.
     It became clear to me that peace was the better way to go.
     But of course we’re not trained to make peace to anywhere near the extent we’re trained to make war. Life is a battle. Isn’t that what we’re told? We can’t let our guards down.
     Or can we? Is it possible to face the world with no defenses—and survive?
     So many of my poems, I realize, talk about this. If we would just make up our minds to live in peace, there would be peace. I don’t know if it’s true. It may be too hard—even impossible—to accomplish. Can we outgrow war?
      Aren’t we obliged to try?
      I’m sure the brilliant minds who designed our total war machine, if given that problem to solve, could find a way for people to live harmoniously with the rest of this planet. Maybe they’re working on that now, in some west coast think tank funded by an anonymous donor.
      But until their results are announced, I must find my own way through the killing fields, through the urban jungle, on the road to my own Jerusalem at the start of this fifth week of Lent.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lenten Diary 7


      There’s a New Moon today at 2:45 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. It will begin a lunation cycle that ends April 29, with the next New Moon. It promises to be one helluva ride, the most significant New Moon “in decades,” according to one astrologer I consult.
     I’m a mere dabbler in the planetary arts myself, but from what I can tell the most intense times will be leading up to the full Moon (“true Easter”) on April 15, then doubling down for a major assault on Easter Sunday and the few days after.
     Rapturists, take note.
     I’m not a rapturist, but I do believe in higher dimensions of consciousness than I normally experience during my waking hours on Earth. So I can kind of see the rapturists’ point. But I’m with those who say our average human awareness is but a sliver of all that’s going on around and within us in worlds we’ve only glimpsed in dreams and thought streams we barely notice or remember. Traditional Heaven and Hell are only two of those possibly infinite dimensions, and it’s odd we spend so much time speculating on just those two.
     That being said, I can feel the pressure building. It’s no exaggeration to say we’re in a crucible on this planet. Just turn on the news. Meanwhile, the astrologers are saying April is the month when tensions will peak. I’m inclined to agree.
     In other words, it’s put-up or shut-up time.
     I’m putting up. It must be part of my Lenten work. I’m helping to organize a month-long event of grass-roots poetry and music at The Venue here in Norfolk. We’re featuring social issues, to let local artists let off some steam and share their visions of a better world.
     That project has led me back to my own work over the last several years–poetry I’d written but only read in public once or twice, then moved it to the back of my notebook. Turns out I had three of those notebooks with many poems I’d nearly forgotten I’d written.
     I found some real winners in there. I mean, poems that animate me, that I know I could perform and bring an audience with me.
     Fortunately, with National Poetry Month on the horizon, I now have that chance.
     I also have my work cut out for me.
     But I have backing. The other night my original guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, came to me in a vision. I thought he’d forgotten about me long ago. But there he was, in the most beautiful, glimmering, colored lights, smiling. Simply smiling. He reminded me of all the teachings that I hadn’t exactly forgotten, but I couldn’t find a place for them in the world any more. He brought them up-to-date.
     This was not a big revelation, like seeing God on acid. But it was a deep one, reminding me that when I can’t see where Divinity is in the world or in myself, I need to take a toke on my pipe, pour myself a glass of Carlo Rossi Paisano, sit down in my rocking chair, turn on the jazz, and close my eyes.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Lenten Diary 6

The Fourth Week Begins

     It’s hard to believe the fourth week of Lent has begun. I’ve been so distracted by dreams and schemes I nearly forgot that the whole purpose of Lent is to deepen one’s spiritual life. Spiritual life? If only I had one!
     Well, that’s going to change, though I fear the contrast may be abrupt. Jala and I are going to a Buddhist weekend retreat on the Eastern Shore in a couple of weeks. It’s the sort of thing where time stops. If you’ve been going fast, it could be a shock.
     But that’s a topic for a later post. Right now we’re on vacation from our shared part-time cleaning job at our neighborhood United Methodist Church. Nice place. Clean, too.
     That means temporary relief from having to show up at one of our part-time jobs, and I’m thankful for the break. It gives me more time—paid, no less—to work on my core beliefs. Isn’t that what a spiritual life is all about?
     But restless doubts intrude. In our hopelessly conflicted world, where do I get off pondering my individual, core beliefs? So what if I get my core beliefs straight? How is that helping anything?
     This is part of the wintry hangover burdening my Lenten experience in this protracted season of delayed spring.
     Then, early this week, I got a cold. Strange cold. Caught me off guard. (Don’t they all?) It came on in a day, my nose ran like a faucet for the next 24 hours, then, abruptly, the faucet shut off, and the cold is now fading away.
     I’m superstitious about colds, especially since we all get them. Surely it’s subtle evidence of our human solidarity. Who hasn’t been miserable with a cold?
     That makes me wonder if we create our colds out of our unspoken, perhaps unconscious need for permission to withdraw, to feel sorry for ourselves, maybe to lie down in bed and cry.
     So what am I crying about as this inhospitably chill, fourth week of Lent now begins?
     I have to say, in the wake of my strange head cold, mortality has me down. Unless I look closely, I don’t notice the softening of the ground or realize the Sun stays longer each day. It’s hard to be patient and keep the faith when the northwest wind howls off the Bay for days at a time, driving cold rain up my sleeves and down my collar, numbing fingers and toes. It’s easier to drown in my tears for the missing and the dead when my spirit, trapped in my rocking chair, longs to break out and play.
     But though today sparkles outside in a cold Sun, more rain is forecast for the weekend. At this mid-point in the season of waiting for rebirth—with or without reverence—the Sun and the Wind are at war. I hardly know what coat to put on.
     Pregnancy with a new growing season shouldn’t be taken lightly. I guess that’s why we have Lent.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Lenten Diary 5

Spring First!

     Spring arrived exactly on time, to the day, here in coastal Virginia and, according to forecasts, continues through Saturday. Then temperatures fall again. Tuesday there could even be snow.
     But the good news is we got to try out our fledgling spring wings for three whole days. That’s a decent practice session. Already my pale white man’s face and hands are turning ruddy and brown again.
     Thanks to the weather, I’ve also gotten out of myself more. I started cultivating my garden, stripping it down for spring plantings. (Not yet, though. Too soon.) Friday I took a long bike ride and stopped for a swim at Northside Pool. I saw green buds on some of the trees.
     And a mocking bird has moved into our woods! I think it’s the first to nest there in all the seven years we’ve lived here. We always had them in the bay oaks around our cottage at the beach. They give me so much pleasure, listening to their concerts of voices.
     We haven’t seen much of the coons. I think they come around late at night. They’re a different bunch from last year, when they came right up to the door in broad daylight to beg. One of our cats, Spook, is familiar with them. She goes her way and they go theirs. No problems.
     It’s amazing to me how much wild life there is around us at the edge of this scruffy woods—what’s left of once-verdant wet lands. For instance, when I go out to toss bird seed on our strip of back yard between the house and the woods, I hear the birds gathering in the trees. I can’t see them. They’re concealed in dense thickets of vines entangled throughout the branches high above me. But the trills, whistles, and chirps among themselves as more and more voices join in...!
     It’s music to my ears.
     I have a fantasy—engendered, I think, in my early exposure to Walt Disney. I imagine myself in a clearing in a wood, sitting on a stump with all the different creatures of Nature gathered around to tell me their stories and hear mine. I can’t explain the fantasy except that it’s another way of saying there’s magic in the woods that can’t be explained by either science or religion. A magic more powerful than either.
     This is far afield from what I thought I’d write about at this point in my Lenten Diary. I thought I’d linger longer on spirituality and mystery. But I realize now there is no greater mystery or more tangible spiritual reality than what happens on our Earth in the spring every year.
     If something like climate change, for instance, were to wipe out or permanently alter that progression of seasons—upon which all our myths of culture and religion are based—what will we believe in then? What mythology could serve as a model for civilization if there were no spring, no season of rebirth after a season of death, as we have always known things to be?
     All that we hold dear depends on our planet staying as friendly as she always has throughout our human history. And who among us can control that?
     I’m just grateful that spring this year, though chilly and often inclement, is definitely coming on. Whatever surprises lie ahead will have to wait their turn.