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!

Moving to the Monastery

Its early October, yet summer lingers here in Boulder. Fall is sneaking in slowly with its changing leaves and cool nights. Snow is in the forecast soon. I find myself in transition along with the seasons. After a whirlwind of travel from Thailand, Holland, Crestone and Seattle, I finally settled in Boulder in mid-September.

I traveled to Thailand with the pure intention to deepen my spiritual practice, to explore different paths and simply to get away for a while. My experiences this summer were incredible. I traveled differently than I ever had in the past. I simply went to one location and stayed put. I rented a house and integrated myself into the local community. I became active in the Agama Yoga school, taking several workshops, two months of intensive Yoga study and practice as well as two 10-day silent meditation retreats. I experimented with fasting and cleansing. I lived simply and slowly.

I set a clear intention that this would be a summer of inner work, that I would not seek social gratifications or female companionship.  Yet one cannot deny the human existence and the powers at play between certain individuals. The most extraordinary element of my summer, and possibly my life to this point was meeting Ingrid at the conclusion of a ten-day meditation retreat together. I could fill this page with all that we’ve experienced and explored together, but as a general rule, I try to keep relationships out of my writing. I must however say that our meeting has coincided with an opening of my heart, with a deep yearning to to be united with someone as inspiring, beautiful and amazing as she is. A wild set of circumstances have collided that have allowed an American man and a Dutch woman to dance on loves stage together.

I find it difficult to articulate my experience this summer, as much of what occurred for me was very subtle – shifts in my world views, my relationship to myself, others and the world. Aspects of my personal experience I once had taken for granted or simply dismissed are now accessible to me. There is a sense of surrender to the unknown ahead, a diminishing need to control the uncontrollable future. I consider much more often what is nourishing me in this very moment rather than in some projection of the future. In a practical sense I have no idea where my life is headed, yet the clarity of simply trusting my heart and intuition is very powerful.

Throughout the summer I weighed a large decision for early 2012 – would I participate in a 90-day Practice Period at my Zen Monastery in Crestone, or would I travel to Mexico to participate in a 90-day teacher training program in Yoga and Meditation? Over time the decision became very clear for me – I found myself longing for time in Crestone, to be immersed in the stream of ancient teaching passed down over the past 2600 years. A teacher’s training program might very well be in my future, but right now my path is asking me to spend more time practicing, deepening my meditation practice more so than gaining an intellectual understanding of what meditation is. Helping others bring meditation into their lives and bring their lives to meditation would bring me tremendous of joy, yet right now I feel the most nourishing way for me to move towards such a vision is to live and practice in a monastic setting.

imageIngrid will be joining me for the move to Crestone in a couple of weeks, where we will practice together at the monastery this fall.  In January, I will begin Practice Period and she will travel to Mexico to help organize and teach the Teacher’s Training I nearly decided to attend. You can see this was no easy decision for me! In all I will be at the monastery for at least 6 months, finishing the practice period in mid-April. Other then the desire to reunite with Ingrid at that time, the world is a blank slate, full of possibility.

Return to the Zendo

This year I decided to do something a little different on New Year’s eve. I sat on my cushion. Literally.

IMG_0802I actually spent much of my week on my cushion. On Monday I traveled to the Zen Monastery in Crestone Colorado to participate in a 3-day New Year’s seminar where Abbot Roshi-Baker led a seminar on the teachings of Shunryu Suzuki. Suzuki Roshi was Roshi-Baker’s teacher and the first teacher of Soto Zen Buddhism in the West.

Generally, most Buddhists are well asleep by midnight, but the 31’st was special – not only was it the final day of the decade, there was also a full moon. I participated in an ancient Buddhist ceremony which consisted of ringing the densho bell 108 times leading up to midnight, as the sangha members practiced zazen (sitting meditation) intermixed with chanting and bowing. We finished with a toast of sake in the kitchen (yes Buddhists can drink!) and as I slowly walked to my room the bright full moon overhead gave me a few minutes to reflect on the transformative days I just experienced.

As many of you know, I spent a week at the Zen Monastery in April prior to leaving for Asia. That week I undertook my first intensive meditation retreat and was introduced to the formal practices of Zen Buddhism and the teachings of Richard Baker Roshi. Despite leaving the country for almost 7 months, returning to this sacred place high in the mountains above the San Luis valley I felt as though I had never left. This week’s seminar was much less formal than a sesshin, which is silent and grueling physically. However, we did sit for 3-4 hours a day, in the morning, evening and prior to Roshi Baker’s discussion periods. There were about 22 of us attending, some full-time residents of the monastery, others of us very new to the practice. What I enjoyed most about this week was time spent talking to others about the Dharma teachings of Baker Roshi. During breaks and transitions I would often find myself walking in the woods or sitting quietly in the main hall with another, talking opening of our experience in relation to the Dharma teachings and themes that were being developed and explored throughout the week. To connect soul to soul with another person, without boundaries, ego and fear, even if only for a few moments, is for me, one of the most precious and beautiful aspects of existence. As I rebuild my life in Boulder, my few days in Crestone helped create a new intention in my life; that is directing my life in such a way that it supports my practice. Practice being the craft of Buddhism, learning to relate to an interdependent, momentary existence.Teachers-Winter_ZENDO

It is often difficult to explain the teachings and my experiences of the week due to the nature of them often being very individual and momentary, but I would like to comment on a few tangible things that I am taking away with me.

First, this week we developed and explored a topic called body fullness, or perceptual immediacy. This is essentially an ancient yogic practice of giving order to the mind through the body. The job of our consciousness is to make the world predictable, and to give us a sense of continuity (ego, existence, memory, etc). But consciousness alone can take you into a place of idealism, fantasy and untruth. Consciousness demands order in a world that is not moving towards entropy. Our practice in this Yogacara/Buddhist manner is to embody teachings, to embody truth, to understand the bodily aspects of every state of mind. This is using a concept or intention to help the body, through the mind, to bring order to the body. Eventually a monumental shift can occur, where you are no longer living in self-referential or continuity-based thinking but finding identity in your immediate existence.

Chew on that for a while 🙂 For me, this is in alignment with the direction my practice was taking towards the end of my travels – getting back into the body, or “establishing a mutual body” with the world, exploring my chakras and intricate workings of my physicality through breath, silence and stillness.

Adjacent to this teaching is the effort to identify ourselves in the world as  activities, not entities. We (especially in the West) tend to view ourselves as distinct entities, separate from everything and everyone else, acting upon or being IMG_0759acted against. A very simple example of this is the use of chopsticks or drinking tea from cups with no handles in Buddhist cultures – the chopsticks serve as an extension of the hands and therefore aid in the activity of eating. As for tea cups, most Asians use both hands, holding the tea cup at the chest first and then raising the glass to their mouths to drink. There is no entity drinking tea, there is simply the action (imagine your experience the moment you raise a mug of tea to your mouth). I don’t think I’m doing a great job describing this – but to return to the chopsticks – we see food, we see a table, we see a fork and spoon and we see ourselves. We then tend to act as an entity to move and manipulate these entities in order to get the food into our stomachs. What I’m trying to do is view the entire process as an interdependent, simultaneously inseparable and yet unique experience of eating.

To take the above to a relationship level – if you relate to someone only through a mental process (as an entity), they will feel contained. We all know what this feels like. Can you relate to someone bodily? I’m not talking about only physical touch, but with your entire being (senses, emotions, posture, etc. Can you relate without boundaries and in the particular moment of existence? This is the beginning of love.

I think that is enough for today. I will end with a quote Baker-Roshi gave us that I thought was quite beautiful ( I can’t recall the author):

"I enter the broken world through the paths of love”

Happy New Year everyone.

Zen Sesshin

The very next day after returning from Mexico I headed to Crestone, Colorado to spend a week at the Zen Mountain Center participating in a Buddhist Sesshin, a silent meditation retreat. Sesshin literally translates to “gathering the mind”, which is exactly why I went.  I’m undergoing a major transition in life and before I move forward into the next phase I want to ensure I am centered and acting from a place of truth and self awareness.

This retreat was the most difficult thing I have every done psychologically, probably the second most difficult physically (hiking the 500 mile Colorado trail IMG_0790in 2005 was #1).  The schedule each day consisted of waking at 3:30am, sitting zazen (meditation) for 10-12 hours, walking meditation, work and lectures interspersed throughout the day. I didn’t get to sleep until 10 each night and the breaks were designed to not give you enough time for a nap!  We ate all meals in the Zendo Oryoki style, meaning “just enough”, which synchronizes the mind in body by bringing mindfulness to how we eat.  On the first evening the head Monk told us all: “give yourself over to the schedule”, meaning do not let your ego drive your thinking about what you do or don’t want to do.  I likened it to the practice of choiceless awareness which is characterized by being aware of whatever is present without choice or preference. There was no bathing or distractions such as books, television, food or exercise. You simply had to be where you were. “No other location” is how Roshi Richard Baker spun the original expression, “be here now”.

This was an extremely personal experience for me, many things I do not feel comfortable sharing on a blog, but too simplify (if I may take the liberty!), the week was an exercise in remaining present.  It took about 2-3 days for me to get past the physical pain and mental chatter to a place where I could be deeply contemplative and aware. You would gasho (bow) to everyone you passed, walk slowly, when working focus directly on the task at hand. When eating, just eat. When sleeping, sleep. When walking, walk.  You get the picture.IMG_0812

In addition to the Roshi’s afternoon teisho (lecture) and evening koans, we had the opportunity to meet privately with him in a formal interview called dokusan, where one could ask questions and seek guidance. I found this very helpful as sometimes the mind would get stuck in a ‘loop’ and having the insight of a teacher to change my perspective or focus allowed me to deepen my practice. I could go on and on about the details of the week, but will spare those that aren’t interested… I’d be more than happy to talk in much greater detail for anyone truly interested!

I am now back in Boulder, attempting to find my posture, something the Roshi told me to focus on when I asked him for practical advice about returning home to a world that will be exactly the same yet vastly different after such an experience. Finding one’s posture is a powerful metaphor as it translates to both my daily living and my sitting practice. We are always squirming, feeling uncomfortable and before one can truly deepen in practice, whether in mediation or daily living, one has to sit like a mountain, finding that posture.  If you see some guy trying to be a mountain, say hi. 🙂