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!

Zen Again

Last weekend I returned from a 7-day sesshin, an intense meditation retreat in the Zen Buddhist tradition. As a fellow-practitioner recently said, you are either in the Zendo or on your way to the Zendo for 7 days straight. You are sitting in meditation (zazen), eating meals (oryoki) or listening to the teacher give a lecture (teisho) for 13 to 14 hours each day. If you go to sleep immediately after the final sitting period ends you may sleep from 10 pm until 3:30am when the wake-up bell rings, although many practitioners choose to sit yaza which is open-sitting into the evening. To give you an idea of how much sitting this is, if you meditated every day for 20 minutes, it would take you nearly 300 days to sit as much as one does during a sesshin. Clearly this is quite a radical practice. What exactly are you doing sitting there on a cushion for 14 hours a day?

The intensity of the schedule is intended to take away choice. Without choice, we can begin to develop a sense being preferenceless, becoming disinterested or non-attached from the world and the results of our work. This may sound sort of pessimistic or nihilistic, but in reality it is great freedom. According the Buddha’s teachings, whenever we are interested in something, prefer something over something else, we will eventually lose the object of our interest, experiencing dukkha, often translated as suffering but more realistically translated as un satisfactoriness. Apparently dukkha literally translates to a wheel out of kilter (picture a 4-wheel cart with one flat tire rolling down the street).

This was my second sesshin, and probably the second hardest thing I’ve ever done (the first one being the most difficult)! It was very different this time. I have an established practice, the novelty of the forms and rituals have worn off and I have the ability to actually sit without moving for long stretches of time, really allowing me to delve into the more subtle aspects of myself. It’s quite incredible how relatively quickly thought is exhausted. When the sesshin began, I was carrying in a few large items that I thought might derail my meditation, but truly after a day or two of sitting with them; you simply exhaust all angles and manners of thinking about them. You begin to look at things from a non-self-referential perspective and watch as these things simply dissolve. It’s in this dissolution that you see how such thinking can come to dominate our minds, to define us and to consume us at times. Yet when given careful attention, these thoughts truly are just a small wave in the ocean covering up something so much greater.

Writing about practice is interesting, first I’m not really qualified, and second there is something utterly personal about it that can mislead and confuse others. So I guess I will stop for now- what I can write about is more of my personal experience, the difficulty since returning home I’ve had, feeling vulnerable, a little lost and quite sensitive to the world. I’m taking the recommended advice, avoiding stimulation, social situations, continuing to sit frequently. Nurturing myself and what I need right now. My body, my mind, simply feel different. Something within me has shifted; it’s not something clearly recognizable by me or others. I feel myself slowly drifting towards a life of contemplation, losing interest in my more worldly activities, generally holding this desire for truth and awareness higher than all others. A week removed now, I sense the pull back towards the world and its many tantalizing aspects, its long fingers wrapping around me. I think that is part of the sensitivity I feel – slipping back into states of lesser-awareness…

I guess all I can do is take the advice my teacher once gave me:

“Sit with others regularly. When the bell rings, just get up.”

Rain in the Desert

It has been a quiet, contemplative past month. I’ve been trying to pick up the pieces and nurture a broken heart. I’ve been reviewing life notes, looking for more blind spots that might exist in my perception of the world and my relationships. This past weekend I returned from a weeklong meditation retreat with my Zen Teacher at Crestone Mountain Zen Center where I had an opportunity reflect deeply on the past and felt the urge to update you.

Returning to March, once the decision was made for me to move back to Boulder, events occurred at an incredible pace.  I was offered a place to stay in South Boulder by my good friend and dharma buddy Jamie and his girlfriend Cheryl. I quickly began to pack up my things as the little yellow house in Denver was just an overwhelming symbol of a failed relationship and it was energetically not a place I wanted to spend time.

I did what I should have done two years ago before my long trip abroad: sold off or donated over half of my possessions.  Using Craigslist, I managed to sell almost every large item of furniture I owned, painfully saying goodbye to a nearly brand-new mattress, the faithful IKEA furniture that has been with me since my first apartment in Pittsburgh and a number of odds and ends that I have simply been dragging from storage area to storage area without ever using. What didn’t sell went out on the curb or to Goodwill. When it was all said and done, I managed to pack everything I own into a van and drive it up to Boulder.  The general rule of thumb was that it if it didn’t fit into a Rubbermaid bin and it wasn’t a pair of skis or a bike, it had to go. My material life now neatly fits against the basement wall in Cheryl and Jamie’s basement, about 20 such bins of assorted colors containing books, clothing, a few kitchen items, camping and climbing gear. 

Why would I sell off everything you ask? Doesn’t one need a kitchen table and mattress and a chair or two? Well yes, I do, but, with the horizon for me containing a lot of uncertainty, including several open-ended international trips, it simply made sense to consolidate. Craigslist works two ways, and when I am in need of such items, I will find nice, recycled furniture for a fraction of the cost of something new. For now, I feel a sense of relief, as I will not be dragging items around or burdening friends with my stuff.

But enough about stuff.  One thing I did learn through this process is that it is quite easy to divert attention from one’s heart and emotional body to one’s material and physical body. Part of this was a coping mechanism, being in shock, hurting so badly it was simply easier to turn a way, to focus on the material details of living and my possessions. Once the dust settled I found myself in Boulder with nothing to distract myself with, I decided to try the opposite approach and just sit with everything. I’ve renewed my commitment to the Boulder Zen Center, sitting frequently during the week and becoming more involved as treasurer of the board of directors. I cook regularly, experiment with new Indian Chai recipes and often take Sherman the dog over to the park to sit in the sun and reflect. I have been able to untie some emotional knots, to shed light on several serious misconceptions and worldviews of mine, ever so subtly developing a feeling of growth and moving forward. My network of support has been incredible, always providing me someone to listen or to provide kindly advice.

With some hesitation around interrupting such a simplistic pattern of living, I agreed to accompany Jamie on a road-trip through the deserts of Utah and Nevada to tackle some slot canyons and meet one of his friends at the Red IMG_5038Rocks Park outside of Las Vegas to rock climb. We had a wonderful adventure, battling an unseasonal cold front that brought many frigid evenings and rain several times. Luckily, neither of us were attached to a specific itinerary and we simply adjusted. When the temperature is in the 30s you can’t really explore the slot canyon full of water or when it rained last night you can’t climb on brittle sandstone… so you improvise.  A couple unplanned nights in a hotel and some shifting plans yet we still had a wonderful time. Jamie being a fellow Zen practitioner, my favorite part of the trip was our endless discussion on the human experience and all the great questions that accompanies it.

I was able to get my first intimate look at the deserts of Utah, driving through and exploring Zion National Park, Jamie’s proclaimed favorite place on the planet, and one that I will be sure to return to when I have more time and a better weather outlook. 3000 foot walls of sandstone surge out of the ground straight to the heavens in one of the most dramatic settings you can imagine!

So while rain in the desert can negatively impact ones trip (wet rock, impassable roads, flash flooding, on and on)…. it does hold the key for life-anew. I’m sure the rain of that week and the warm temperatures of the next would result into beautiful dessert blossoms.

In my next post I will attempt to go into my experience at sesshin (meditation retreat), and my spiritual life in general as of late.

New Crestone Mountain Zen Center Website

Does a website plug count as a blog entry? Probably not 🙂 Well, over the past few months a small group of us slowly baked the new DharmaSangha.org website. As Roshi stated when he saw it: “It feels like someone invited you into their nice home but isn’t trying to sell you anything”.  This is exactly what we were going for.  The center has a long history of not marketing or self-aggrandizing, yet we wanted something that was modern and a nice introduction to the center for new visitors.  We’ve stepped into this century with the ability to accept credit card payments for events.

Please comment with your feedback, suggestions or ideas for improvement. Good or bad!

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For the techies out there, the website is built on WordPress 3.0.5 and Thesis 1.8 Framework.  We paid $87 for Thesis and $40 for an event manager plugin. Outside of this, all the software used on the website is free.  I highly recommend Thesis on WordPress for anyone looking to get a website up and quickly. I only had to write a few hundred lines of css to customize the site – most customization is managed by Thesis and freely available plugins.

You can check it out here.  Why not register for the next seminar while you’re visiting?