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!

Embodying the Truth

Last weekend my Zen Teacher was in town leading one of his twice annual seminars at the Chautauqua Community House in Boulder. I’ve attended several of these over the past couple of years and while always very opening and stimulating weekends, this one in particular was very much aligned with my practice and deeply insightful.  Roshi continued a series of teachings on Yogacara that began unfolding during our 7-day sesshin several weeks ago. In an effort to summarize several of the key teachings I thought I would write a little about them.

Embodying the Truth was the title and Roshi began by describing Zen as a Yogic practice of embodiment.  Paraphrasing Patanjali, who is believed to have written many of the foundational texts for Yoga (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali), Roshi stated: Yoga is the removal of the fluctuations of the mind, fluctuations also being considered as “thought impulses”.

A powerful observation and distinction he made at this point was that not all mental formations are what we would consider thought impulses.  Basically, thoughts that distinguish the world are very different than thoughts that push us out of immediacy. Distinguishing appearances in the world is very different than comparing them. Comparing them implies a judging observer, and therefore comparing takes is out of immediacy into self-referential thinking.  This is a very important observation. I often hear people describing meditation or Zen practice as stopping all thoughts or thinking, however this isn’t accurate, as thoughts are of the mind as sights are of the eyes. We are simply trying to stop self-referential and over-conceptual thinking, not all thinking.

We then explored immediacy in greater detail, Roshi’s term for what popular Buddhism has coined as Mindfulness Practice. Roshi defines immediacy as the energetic engagement in experience and breaks it up into three aspects:  

     1. Situated Immediacy (Emphasizing Noticing)

     2. Body/Mind Immediacy (Emphasizing Feeling)

     3. Engaged Immediacy (Emphasizing Doing)

For me, this was a helpful tool in opening up the practice of immediacy as more accessible. I think I may have overemphasized noticing as the primary practice of immediacy over the other two.

Next, Roshi posed the question: Are you holding the present (immediacy) that you are receiving?  We have a choice in each and every moment, towards wisdom or delusion. Not a conscious choice, but one cultivated through Yogic practice. To remain in immediacy is the choice of wisdom, to stick to our usual practice of viewing immediacy though self-referentiality is delusion. This is echoed in Dogen’s Genjokoan

Conveying the self to the myriad things to authenticate them is delusion; the myriad things advancing to authenticate the self is enlightenment

For most of us, our concepts of self are so much stronger than our concepts of the situational context or field that it takes time and practice to begin to shift our views.

Roshi then delved deeper into this moment of choice, developing a teaching around the chain of sensation <-–> perception <-–> conception that is our usual way of experiencing the world.  For example, imagine walking down a dirt path in the dark of night with only a small flashlight. In an instant, your flashlight may illuminate a rock in your path. At this moment the rock is in your sensorium, as a sensation. As soon as the light leaves the rock, the rock becomes a perception (oh I better not trip on that rock), no longer a sensation coming through any of your sensorial channel (unless of course you trip on it!). The perception of the rock functions within a concept of going somewhere or doing something (why are you walking in the first place?).

This is a very simple example, but you can imagine countless others: you hear a piece of music, and you immediately conceptualize and start recalling memories. Ooops, you’re no longer in immediacy! What happened to the perception in this example?  Well, the perception is this critical moment of choice as described above. Do we allow our perception to remain in the uniqueness of immediacy, or do we allow it to be conditioned by cognition, leading towards discursive, self-referential thought? The percept in the music example is simply a pleasant set of tones that influence you physically. How quickly we miss this.

Ironically, most often, it is our concepts that influence our perceptions, that actually go on to influence our sensations. This is sort of radical. Many people believe what you see is what you get. But what they don’t realize is that what they see has been completely altered by their cognizing mind and conceptions of the world.

Basically, the moment of percept is where this critical choice comes in: The percept can belong to the senses rather than coming from our conceptual framework.

A Yogic conception is a non-conceptual perception and this we cultivate through zazen practice.  Our adeptness of Yogic practice determines our movement towards sensation or conception from perception. We are cultivating Dogen’s Backwards Step, stepping back from the habit of conceptualization, not labeling sensation, which is beginning to see the world non-conceptually (non-dually), and the basis for realizing Buddha Mind.

We can begin to define our world with sensation more than visual separation, practicing sensorial articulation by separating the senses, practicing with techniques like hearing hearing, seeing seeing, etc.  This is at the heart of Yogacara practice.  An adept practitioner limits him or herself to experienced cognitions, those that proceeded from a sensory –> perceptual input, not those created from other conceptions. 

One of the most profound moments for me was at the end of this teaching, where Roshi reminded us that we also need to not conceptualize the conceptualizer or perceiver.  All of the above can subtly hold an implicit view that there is a self or agent working through this chain of sense->percept->concept, but the light must be turned around to apply the same practice to the perceiver, not conceptualizing the perceiver and resting in sensation…

Off I go…Thanks for listening…

Our Pilgrim is on the Move

Two years ago I built this website for the purpose of documenting my travels abroad and here I am again, on the cusp of leaving home and seeking something unknown abroad. In one week, I depart for Koh Phangan, Thailand, where Agama Yoga awaits.

My initial pilgrimage sought to explore the world, to uncover hidden corners of the planet, to create new experiences and memories.  My trip in 2009 allowed me to exhaust a long-held myth I had about discovering some form of realization through the accumulation of experience.

Today I have a much different aspiration: Unwinding all of this experience, the false identification of self and my delusion about the actual nature of reality. I realized over time that my journey was much more an inward one than anything external or material. My search has narrowed significantly from the entire world, to the spiritual practices of Zen Buddhism, Tantra and Vajrayana. I’ve discovered that this unwinding process is best accomplished through a life not filled with experience, activities and commitments, rather through self-enquiry and meditation. As Yuan Wu so eloquently stated in my last post:

Sit upright and investigate reality. Within an independent awareness, you must constantly step back from conventions and perceptions and worldly entanglements. Look to the void and trace its outline. Take your head out of a bowl of glue!

If all one needs to do is sit upright and investigate reality, why am I traveling half-way around the globe?  Fair question that I will attempt to answer. Let me back up a bit. 

Almost one year ago, on May 16th 2010, I returned home from India, completing a year (mostly) abroad. The journey brought me back to the same place I began, yet things had shifted significantly within me. I vigorously began practicing Zen, both at a monastery in Crestone and at the Boulder Zen Center, developing strong relationships with the Sangha (group of practitioners), and the teachers. After spending a month in a rigorous monastic setting in the fall, I considered a longer-term stay, considered joining the annual 90-day practice period in the winter. Yet, worldly entanglements and my own fear of such a practice prevented me from moving forward. I was involved in a romantic relationship that has since dissolved, a relationship that I believe represented many of the aspects of worldliness that I refused to let go of.  Once again ignoring intuition, I was drawn towards societal ideas of what it means to live in this world, to relate to another person and basically all of the shoulds that are based on nothing but one’s own projections of society and ego.

Part of me wants to say that I’ve been idling the past 3 or 4 months, drifting in this sort of purposeless manner. This is true when examined from the lens of normal that society and we produce for ourselves. I have to step back and remind myself that this is all part of a greater process of renunciation for me, detaching from ideas of self and the world that do not benefit anyone, that only seek to perpetuate a process and mode of existence that perpetuates a world of suffering and discontent.  I meditate a lot, I sit upright and examine my experience. I am constantly trying to step back from worldly entanglements and perceptions.  I examine all the presumptions and ideas of how the world works, what is reality and why I am here.  I attempt to infuse intentions of compassion and wisdom into my body, speech and mind.  Despite on paper being a 31 year old unemployed guy from Boulder with nothing going for him, I feel this tremendous sense of change within, of a new world unfolding before me, filled with Possibility, Beauty and Love.

This still has nothing to do with answering my initial question of why go anywhere? My teacher has told me that practicing in a single stream provides the best results- why swim in another? My answer to this is that my exploration of Agama is, while primarily spiritual in nature, also an opportunity for me to pursue a vocation in the world that has meaning for me. I am considering a meditation teachers training in 2012.  My idea involves bringing meditation and self-enquiry to more people, via any channel possible: Yoga, Corporate Training, workshops, seminars, private consulting, blogging, etc.  It is very loose and evolving at this point, but there is a sense of momentum and purpose for me right now. My intention this summer is to explore the school, evaluate the teachers and the programs, to ensure this is the type of commitment I want to make in early 2012.  This summer I plan to take a number of courses, including Vira Training, Hridaya Meditation Retreat, Kashmiri Shaivism and Naturopathic and Yogic Healing, in addition to continuing my second and third month of studies in the Agama curriculum.

There you have it.  I have a one-way ticket to Thailand, a new Yoga mat and a big heart.

Get Your Head Out of a Bowl of Glue!

What follows is a quote from Chinese Zen Master Yuan Wu, the original compiler and commentator of the The Blue Cliff Record, 100 classic Zen Koans.  My seminar last weekend with Zentatsu Baker-Roshi focused on the third paragraph. My own commentary to follow soon 🙂

 

Mostly Yuan Wu:

Sit upright and investigate reality. Within an independent awareness, you must constantly step back from conventions and perceptions and worldly entanglements. Look to the void and trace its outline. Take your head out of a bowl of glue!

Observing the reality of physical existence is the same as observing the Buddha. Worldly phenomena and the buddhadharma are fused into one suchness. Go directly to your personal existence in the field of the five clusters of form, feeling, perception, associative mind, and consciousness – and then turn your light around: your True Nature, your Buddha Nature, will be still and clear and ‘as-is’, through and through empty. Accept It. This Mind is Buddha’s Mind. The myriad transformations and activities of the sensory world have never shaken it. Thus it is called imperturbable and the fundamental source.

Whether walking, standing, sitting, or reclining, concentrate on this fullness of mind. Be naked and pure without interruption, so that no subjective views arise and you merge with this Buddha womb. This is your own fundamental scenery, your own Original Face.

When the ancients employed their hundreds and thousands and mullions of expedient teaching devices, it was always to enable people to go toward this and to penetrate to freedom. As soon as you penetrate deeply to the source, you will case aside the tile that was used to knock at the gate.

Practice at this level for twenty or thirty years, cut off all verbal identifications, creeping vines, and useless states – until you are free of conditioned mind. This will be the place of peace, bliss, and rest. If you seek a time when you finish, there will never be a time when you finish.

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.

No place to go and Nothing to do

This has been my mantra as of late. Of course there are many things to do and places to go, but what I’m after is the state of mind that accompanies such a phrase. If you examine your thoughts, you’ll find that your mind generally is wanting to do something (eat, sleep, talk, etc.) or go some place.  When you are unemployed and wondering where your life is headed, this tends to happen even more.

Where have I been and what have I been doing?

First, the usual apology – why haven’t I been writing? Some of you know I spent six weeks this fall at the monastery, undergoing a rigorous spiritual practice. Wasn’t this full of juicy, bloggable insight?? Well yes, and no. A feeling has developed for me around sharing my spiritual progress (Is there such a thing?) that feels somewhat counterintuitive.  Zen is often described as a practice of meeting and speaking, and I have found outlets here at home that I never had while traveling – my sangha, my teachers, and my very close relationships. Its through these relationships, these meeting and speaking’s that I can explore the teachings, practice the radial views that the Buddha provided as a hypothesis to meet the world and free oneself from discontent.  I however still feel a strong need to express myself creatively, specifically through writing. I’ve gone through a goal-setting process for 2011 and have selected writer as one of my major focuses. I’m enrolled in a couple of writing classes and seminars this winter and I hope to become much more regular on the blog scene. I’m aware that all blog posts do not have to be deeply personal and profoundly insightful, but rather interesting and contain something that appeals to people. Longer-term, I am hoping to expand into a wider field of writing that includes yoga, wellness, meditation, simple living,  stress reduction, responsible investing, etc. As I re-read the above excuse about why I haven’t been writing, I find myself feeling this is not completely true, that there is another element at play beyond just being usurped by a community. There is also the shear fact that my life in America, in Colorado, is filled with baggage (good and bad), that seems to fill my day. Or more clearly, misdirects my energy from a place where I can get quiet enough to write. An example of this is my addiction to technology which will require a future blog post to decipher… Yes its clear that the world here runs on a much different wave-length than the holy cities of India or the mountain villages of Laos, but what is still needed, and this is something I’ve spoken of in the past, is the development of my own posture to maintain my own wavelength despite external circumstances. Its not as though I don’t have idle time – I have loads of it! Its more the undercurrent of motion or pressure that persists in my environment, as if it has some form of life or energetic pull of its own. I’ve discovered this is especially true of material objects( I will address these thoughts later on my technology addiction…). These energetic pulls do not allow for as much pure space with ones Self.  I am fully aware that this is my own minds perception of the circumstances, not an actual fact, yet I must slowly work on these habits, impulses and perceptions to be free of them.

What exactly has an unemployed vagabond been doing the past half a year? Often I wonder this myself, wavering between feeling that I’ve done nothing at all and a feeling of having done quite a lot.  First, the big changes. No, not a job! Since I’ve last written, the ever-amazing and beautiful Autumn, has reentered my life in a major way, as we’ve deepened a partnership begun two years ago, this time under new light and circumstances.  Last weekend we moved into a house (its yellow!) together in Denver, providing a significant shift for me (and us). First, leaving the town where I spent the last 8 years (and most of my adult life), and second, living with a woman. “Taking the plunge” as several people have called it recently. 🙂 We’ve moved into a neighborhood called Berkeley, an up and coming (aren’t they all?), neighborhood in NW Denver that is only a 25 minute drive from Boulder: at least at 5 in the morning when I’m often making it (more on this later).  The decision to move to Denver was not a light one. Upon examination of my priorities and values, which include spending more time with Autumn, having a comfortable, affordable space, and simply being open to the current circumstances in life, such as being unemployed and with a partner with a full-time job in Denver, the timing felt right. My heart is still in that yuppie mountain town and if we can ever figure out how to earn enough money to live there comfortably, we will definitely consider it.

And how does one afford living anywhere when they’ve been approaching two full years of unemployment? I am very grateful for the fortune and generosity the world has provided me.  I’ve been funding my mini-retirement or consciousness sabbatical through a generous severance from IBM, unemployment insurance, intelligent investing and a simplistic lifestyle. Due to the market improvements since early 2009, I actually have more net worth than I did the moment I was laid off. While this has been providing me a nice level of security, it has done little for stoking the fire under my ass to get me back into a career. I find myself seeking more engagement with my world, yet still balancing this with the fact that I don’t want a simple exchange of money for my time, which is the traditional method of working. One major step I’ve taken recently towards this end is to create a set of goals.  Based on a book recommendation called My Best Year Yet, originally published in 1994, I worked through a set of worksheets to cross-reference the roles, values, and priorities in my life to create a summary sheet of goals for the year. I highly recommend this book – ultimately it is 5 to 10 hours of work which will provide you clear and simple way to prioritize your year into a one sheet summary. I’m debating sharing my summary as a way to remain accountable, but for now it’s a little too personal. One of the main purposes of the exercise is to really examine which aspects of spending your time actually move you forward towards your goals. Its sort of like a quick gut-check for your day… (Does this activity move me towards or away from what I’ve set out to do in 2011?) that has been useful (albeit frustrating at times) in keeping me on task.

One of my focuses this year is on Zen practice. As many of you know I spent the greater part of October and much of November on retreat in Crestone for something called the study month. This was a powerful time for me to deepen my meditation practice, re-center, and forge a deep connection with the practice and our lineage (the focus of our month). There is a lot to say about this month that I may return to, but the point today is that when I finished and returned to Boulder, there was absolutely no question that this practice, this way of life is paramount to everything else I do. I began sitting 3-4 mornings a week, spending more and more time at the Boulder Zen Center (which operates the Briar Rose B&B – a fabulous place to stay or just stop by for tea next time you’re in Boulder). Someone found out I had an MBA and was good with math and next thing I knew I was elected to the board as treasurer. I often call my mornings at the Zen Center my “old man retired time”.  After meditation and service, those of us that can, usually stick around for tea, shooting the dharma or just catching up on life.  Despite the fact that we aren’t all old, retired or men, I see what the lives of old retired men are all about. I love it!

January came around and two of our pillars at the Zen Center headed to Crestone for Practice Period (90 day intensive practice) and suddenly several mediation periods needed a Doan (person who holds the space, rings the bells and runs service). Despite the upcoming move to Denver, I decided to formally commit to being here on Thursday mornings, Thursday evenings and Friday mornings.  Its sort of like having a mini-retreat every week. As I type this I’m sitting in the Briar Rose living room after tea, enjoying my weekly vagabond day in Boulder.  It has also been a nice way to ‘break-up’ with Boulder, still getting to the gym, my favorite coffee shops and spending time with my friends.

In addition to Zen, there is skiing, working out, reading, and a growing commitment to writing. I’m taking a series of writing courses this winter to get me kick-started on writing more effectively, hopefully at some point this year creating a new blog and website directed towards future income. One of my goals this year is two blog entries a week so watch out!

I hope everyone is off to a great 2011, and I look forward to being much more communicative this year!

Negotiating the Way

Is what I have been doing for the past couple of months. This is a Buddhist term for balancing our everyday world with the non-dual nature of the universe. Sounds deep but its really what we are doing in every moment. The difficulty comes in remaining aware of this continual negotiation. Negotiating the Way is often described as striking balance between the two truths – ultimate reality and worldly or relative reality. They are not different, not the same, inseparable yet distinct.

medium_diverging_pathsI’ve been home for a little over two months, finding myself swirling around in a state very unlike those of my past. While I was traveling in India I had many ideas and images of what life would ‘be’ and ‘look like’ when I came home. As life tends to do, it destroyed my expectations, wishes and ideas and completely threw everything up in the air when I first arrived home. Its things like this that place one right back to the present reality of this moment. Clichéd, but true. People left my life, others entered, many changed, but one thing was for certain, is that despite the many changes of scenery, the pulse of life is always calling one home.

Despite an urge to remain off the grid, I’ve slowly made some moves to reintegrate into society; I recently paid my first rent check in over 12 months, bought a car and a laptop. There are simple realities of living in America that I’ve discovered are easier to adopt rather than go against the grain.

I started this entry during the middle of my last 10 day visit to my Zen Center in Crestone, Colorado. Today I’m a few days away from returning for my forth week this summer. In retrospect, I would have preferred to spend a single, longer period of time there, instead of multiple experiences of back and forth between a very disciplined life and the one of complete non-discipline, but what this back and forth has provided is very clear insight into certain patterns in my life that are not conducive to awakening.

When I talk about Zen practice I mean much more than just sitting meditation (zazen) or chanting and bowing – ultimately I’ve come to learn that is the easy piece.  The harder piece is practicing compassion with fellow residents when you are exhausted and upset, dropping petty desires and attachments; Addressing subtle shifts in consciousness before they disappear behind attachment or aversion or ignorance; Practicing compassion and patience inwardly, not judging oneself for absolutely detesting the 4:30 wake-up call or 3 hours of work in the hot sun followed by cleaning toilets. A strange phenomenon occurs for me in my drifting in and out of the monastery: despite the absolutely rigorous schedule, lack of sleep and fantasies about how much freedom I will have when leaving and returning home, as soon as I do return home there is a slight sense of deflation, of the volume being turned down on life despite the overwhelming amount of stimulus and choice(“Free Will” available. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it completely, but its as if our world of physical freedoms and choices masks our ability to see our Self or true nature. In a place where you are denied these freedoms, even to the level of your own time and sleep, transformation can take place.

Zen practice provides a framework, not a dogma that so many religious institutions are so quick to provide. A quote from that as I recently read so brilliantly in Hee-Jin Kim’s Dogen on Meditation and Thinking:  “[Dogen] challenged and urged practitioners to critically reflect on how to practice their own religion for the sake of alleviating suffering for all sentient beings in the world.” Zen is notorious for not allowing practitioners to grasp onto teachers, teachings, holy objects or otherwise. It is designed to return you to yourself, to force you back to developing your own religion(or of you don’t like that word – try your own path, process or world view).  Throughout the summer and my weeks at the Zen Center, outside of an occasional discussion group, there is no formal training, but subtly there is a lot going on. Rituals are designed to bring you back to yourself – 3 hours of meditation a day, sutra service, silent breakfast ritual (Oryoki) and probably most important, the support of the resident sangha for your practice. The teaching can be in the form of words, but more often it is by example – watching senior sangha members do dishes, prepare food, work on the property or simply communicate with each other. Speaking from first hand experience in India (and also some observations from home), it is easy to see how one can become too holy (focused on the ultimate reality), neglecting the world, this body, attaching to those things that are unspeakable and supreme. BUT, as the two truths doctrine states, there is a middle way, a delicate balance between these two aspects of our Self.

On a more practical side, I’m now officially considered one of those long-term unemployed you hear about on the news, surviving on a couple hundred dollars a week. I’ve been trying to stay within my means and enjoy the gift of not having to work to put food on the table. Today I’m spending time with my favorite baby Eva, working really hard to count 5 and repeating various animal sounds. Woof Woof!

One would assume with all of this additional time that I’m getting out to climb, doing all of those things that I was unable to while slaving away to Corporate 50 weeks a year for the past 8 years. But I’m not. I’ve dabbled in climbing, Yoga, backpacking. I’ve been very careful about not jumping into any single activity – moving slowly, slowly. I’ve yet to get a gym membership and have not spent much time in the going out scene. While I still love doing these things, several as a wonderful expression of myself, I find that I am dis-identifying with them.  Some my take this as a disheartening approach to life, but I’m taking more of the  “Nothing Special” approach: while certain activities no longer completely consume me, I’m finding that in general all of my daily activities are heightened with more interest: simple time with friends, extra time in the car because I forgot my keys and had to turn around, doing dishes or simply sitting quietly and watching the world go by. Which will lead me to my next blog post – this strange sense of standing still while everything else around me is moving…  But for tonight I leave you with a heady quote from Eihei Dogen (The Great Zen Master from the 13th century):

image

In the Shobogenzo, “Bendowa” (1231), Dogen succinctly enunciates his Zen: “The endeavor to negotiate the Way (bendo), as I teach  now, consists in discerning all things in view of enlightenment, and putting such a unitive awareness (ichinyo) into practice in the midst of the revaluated world (shutsuro).” This statement clearly sets forth practitioners’ soteriological project as negotiating the Way in terms of (1) discerning the nondual unity of all things that are envisioned from the perspective of enlightenment and (2) enacting that unitive vision amid the everyday world of duality now revalorized by enlightenment. Needless to say, these two aspects refer to practice and enlightenment that are nondually one (shusho itto; shusho ichinyo). ~Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen On Meditation and Thinking