A Field of Potentialities

I am writing today from my small room in Crestone Colorado. An arctic cold front has moved through Colorado, providing us a foot of snow, and 10F (-12C) temperatures. I moved from Boulder to the Crestone Mountain Zen Center on October 1st. I feel as though I have written a blog post like this before – in fact, I did, in 2011!

9 years later, I am making a similar choice. A synchronistic set of circumstances came together to allow this to happen. First, earlier in the summer, my Zen teacher, Zentatsu Baker Roshi, who was forced to remain in the US due to the pandemic, decided to unretire and began teaching and managing the monastery again. There were some significant leadership changes this summer at the monastery and several of my closest sangha friends over the years agreed to support my teacher through this transition. Suddenly a space that had felt uninviting in recent years was very open and welcoming to me.

In June, Roshi invited me to live at the monastery in any capacity possible. As my health at that time was still very compromised, I knew I would be unable to make an immediate decision. All my advisors were very clear that making big decisions in a state of depression and ill health, was not a good idea! Therefore, I left the decision open as my health improved until I felt more capable of a decision requiring a big change. With time, I noticed my heart was feeling increasingly at ease with the idea of returning to a monastic existence, and there was some excitement at the concept of being invited to participate in a part-time manner, something I will discuss below.

This time, the circumstances are wildly different. First, I will not “be dancing on loves stage with a beautiful Dutch woman” as I wrote 9 years ago. One of the more difficult aspects of moving here was choosing to leave behind two deeply satisfying and nourishing romantic relationships that had developed in recent months. At the monastery, my risk tolerance for coronavirus merges with the risk tolerance of the entire sangha – and that is a very low tolerance. Essentially the group here is self-isolating to keep our residents safe (Three residents are over 70 and my teacher is nearly 85). Aside from essential medical or shopping trips, my only engagement with others outside the monastery will be outside walks or Zoom calls. Anyone with significant exposure outside the monastery must quarantine and test before returning to communal practice life. The positive side of this is that it is as-if the pandemic does not exist here – because of the group self-quarantine, we do not need to wear masks, we eat and work closely together, hugging and touch are encouraged and what was once normal to everyone outside, remains normal here. Today I shared practice and meals with a group of 18 people which feels incredibly nourishing and intimate after the long period of chemo and corona isolation.

Although nearly four weeks have passed since I arrived, a clear sense of timelessness has accompanied living here. The schedule, the first teacher, is repetitive and unforgiving. The wake-up bell rings at 4:30, although many of us need to stir even earlier to prepare for our various practice roles. I am finding such deep nourishment in my daily meditation. Post-chemotherapy, I took an unintended hiatus from regular practice, possibly for the longest period since I began meditating regularly a decade ago. Each morning, despite the cold and darkness, I eagerly seek that cushion, coming back home to one of the most intimate places I have discovered in this life.

I am experimenting with a part-time schedule here, participating in about 2/3 of the daily activities while allowing myself extra space for ensuring I get enough rest to continue my healing. This means I skip the afternoon work period and the evening meditation – I would prefer not to miss this meditation, but it means I would not get to sleep until past 9. Right now, I need a solid 8 hours of sleep to remain healthy and not deplete my immune system. Once I see the clock strike at 8 pm, it’s lights out for me, which seems unbelievable, although completely necessary!

The other benefit of being on a 2/3 schedule is that I have some flexibility to remain connected to the outside world with better frequency and I am continuing to pursue several threads that have become very important to me in the last year. Authentic Relating is one of the primary ones: I am teaching an online course in Authentic Relating and am also mentoring several people in a leadership development course. I have also headed up a crowdfunding project for the Realness Project where we are raising funds to get authentic relating workbooks into prisons to bring some light to incarcerated people who are facing much more difficult and isolated conditions than many of us. There are a few other threads I may describe later, but the point is that my agreement with the staff here makes it possible for me to occasionally miss part of the morning work period for a meeting or to take a couple of days here or there to teach or take an online course. Normally such half-time positions are not possible, but because I have a long relationship and a developed practice with this monastery, we have come to this seemingly mutually beneficial agreement.

I think I’ll leave it here – I had intended to reach into the subtle aspects, the emotional and spiritual shifts and reflections, however, the practical points took over!  I hope to continue writing more consistently and plan to take you all along on this next stage of my healing and evolution!

2020–A Flight Delay

January 2020 did not go as planned. Around the new year I was filled with ambition – beyond the usual new year’s resolutions. I found myself excited to create, to finally build a business and begin sharing my gifts. I bought a website domain, started whiteboarding all of my ideas, and was preparing to take flight. However just before take-off the captain informed me of a delay. A perfect time to reflect on the past half a year. 

Last June I moved back from Asia. I was recovering from a failed community, as my yoga and tantra school was crushed between the combination of a #me-too scandal and woefully weak and misguided leadership in the aftermath. I had not lived in the U.S. for almost a decade except a few short stays or time in my Zen monastery which is like being in no-country. In my mind, I committed myself to at least a year of being a U.S. resident, knowing that otherwise it would be too easy to return abroad at the next opportunity to teach or be in community. I was invited to participate in the creation of a meditation community in Bali and there were opportunities to teach under one of my meditation teachers in either Europe or Mexico. I considered these and other options, but in the end, something was calling me back to the United States. Unable to discern what that call was, all I can say is that it was stronger than the call to continue in the fashion I had been over the last decade.

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I found myself in Boulder, renting an apartment, shopping for a car, considering employment opportunities. It all felt surreal. Although I was in my element, many of my friends were now married, had children in elementary school and in general the community had changed – the Googlers, techies and entitled SJW progressive types seemed to be much more present. At least there was a lot more disposable income around for my new business ideas!

I spent the second half of 2019 in exploration mode – I joined circling and t-group communities in Boulder, I participated in a Men’s Retreat and even had the opportunity to assist one of my teachers, David Deida in an intimacy workshop in September. I did a vision quest for my 40th birthday, I was taking online psychology courses, volunteering at yoga festivals, hosting and joining various ceremonies and events and just simply trying everything. I became very interested in a practice called Authentic Relating, a community movement focused on increasing human connection. Its a loose community, with several affiliated groups in different cities, Boulder being a major hub along with Austin and the bay area. These practices resonated strongly with me. I had noticed over the years, mainly in my intimate and family relationships that I was repeating certain patterns, that left relationships strained and I liken it to having my tongue tied and feet stuck in the mud. Through Authentic Relating I was discovering tools to own and reveal my experience, to communicate more effectively, to resolve conflict and to meet others in more intimacy, something I had been craving and seeking for a long time. I drank the Kool-Aid, joined an organization called ART International, took and repeated several of their courses, culminating in a leadership training that prepared me to begin leading these courses myself. I became involved in a non-profit organization offering this precious work to inmates in Colorado. I saw firsthand that these communication and connection skills are applicable to everyone.

Throughout this period, an attribute of mine started to come more to light that genuinely surprised me – that I do not step into leadership or really take up space when opportunities are present. Fundamentally there was a collapse inside me, a sense of not having anything to say and a belief that no one would benefit from what I had to say. I assumed that as a rather extroverted, charismatic Leo it was easy and natural for me to lead. Yet, in retrospect I see that I often relied on the container around me, the systems I was in and was never fully comfortable standing in my own power. One weekend I sat down and wrote down all of the things that I was knowledgeable at, skilled or held significant training or expertise in. Holy Shit! That’s a big list. And then the shame of keeping it all to myself set it. So it was over the new year that I decided it was time to stop holding back.

I just had to deal with one little thing before taking off – a pesky little cough that had been growing worse since October. Frustratingly, it worsened when I was speaking, not the best situation for a teacher or coach. After a couple of failed attempts with my local clinic to troubleshoot the cough with antihistamines, I was referred to a hospital for a couple of x-rays.

And here my friends is the source of the flight-delay: On the way home from the hospital the doctor calls – “Something showed up in your x-ray, we need you to come back for more tests as soon as possible”. And those tests and their results have been the center and focus of my last 3 weeks.  I will continue with the details tomorrow.

Authentic Relating in Prison

I had never been to prison before. In fact, I had been avoiding them as much a possible. A subconscious fear of confinement had existed within me for most of my life. And yet here I am, entering La Vista Women’s prison in Pueblo, Colorado, walking through a metal detector. As you enter and exit the prison you have so spend a few moments in a space locked between too large metal doors. My heart quickened as I waited for the guard to unlock one of the doors. How did I get here?

Several months ago I attended a workshop called The Art of Being Human, which focuses on improving relational skills with other human beings. It is a highly embodied and experiential course, using exercises to help develop skills to create more profound connection, intimacy and trust with those that we are in relationship with. For me this course was like fresh rain after a drought. I had witnessed in myself how a lack of effective communication techniques had created misunderstanding and suffering in my relationships. And I witnessed first hand how several of the communities I had lived in over the years simply lacked these conscious relating tools, that over time led to an inability to navigate out of a number of destructive and painful situations.

After the Art of Being Human course I became inspired to register for the facilitator training in December and to volunteer with the companies non-profit branch which visits prisons in Colorado, offering a similar two-day workshop for inmates. Fast forward a month, and with a team of 5 volunteers, we traveled to Pueblo, Colorado, set ourselves up in a modest Air B&B and prepared to go into the prison the next morning.

The metal door unlocked and I found myself in the visitor room of the prison, a sterile space with many chairs and tables, several humming vending machines against the wall. Several of the inmates were already in the space, and very quickly I relaxed as I began to feel the welcoming and warmth of the women in the room. We shared some laughs as we figured out how to divide 10 stickers into 24 name tags and prepare the space for the two-day workshop.

The course proceeded and throughout the two days I was able to participate and help facilitate the growth and opening of this amazing group of women. It was incredible to observe the shift of energy from the first morning until the second afternoon when we closed. One of the biggest sources of conflict in women’s prison is rooted in personal relationships, and again and again the women shared how the tools and practices they were receiving were providing immediate relief and improvement in their relationships. For me, there was also a tremendous amount of learning and growth. During lunch or other breaks I was able to learn much more about prison life, the challenges and the some of the surprising sustenance’s and resources that exist within prison life.

During the exercises themselves, I discovered much more about the personal stories of the women – and I was really confronted with the assumptions I held in my mind of who ‘these people’ are and what they are like. Most of these assumptions were really challenged and had to be discarded as I saw that many of these women are just like you and me, except they may have made a mistake in their life, struggled with addiction or have found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A very profound moment for me was when I role played with one of the inmates who was being released in a week. In front of the entire group we practiced scenarios that she was soon to be challenged with as she returns to civilian life. There were so many subtle aspects potentially pulling her back towards prison, yet with the support of the facilitation team and the other inmates, I witnessed this woman gain a confidence and insight into how to proceed and I felt much more assured that she would be successful.

I left La Vista with a sense of great connection, humbleness and desire to continue working in this field and helping offer such profound tools to people who desire them and don’t typically have the means to access them. If you are interested in supporting this project, please consider making a tax deducible donation!

Here is a short video from a previous visit to La Vista prison: