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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Don't Kill the Buddha on the Trail

I met Jason at a Zen group, 24 years ago.

I wasn't even interested in Zen, at the time. I was just looking for a group that did spiritual stuff, i.e. meditation. They'd do their thing and I'd do mine. I'm not sure what I was doing except sitting still for 30 minutes at a time. Eventually, I found Zen.

I haven't seen Jason in 17 years. He was at the birth of our son, but then I went one direction to start a family, he went the other. Next thing you know, 17 years go by.

In the turbulence, so still. So present. (Linville Falls)

A week ago, we got together to hike the mountains in North Carolina, a halfway point between our homes. I arrived at the campsite first and have a couple hours to kill so I hit the trails of Linville Falls. The weather is beautiful and the views glorious. I'm an hour up the mountain when I pass a small contingent of folks, one of which is a Buddhist nun decked in full regalia: orange robe, shaved head, eyes thoughtfully downcast.

Okay. All right. A Buddhist nun, hiking. A Buddhist... when do you ever see a Buddhist nun... hiking? EVER?

I think that odd.

Jason arrives. I'm quickly reminded 17 years has passed. His beard half gray, eyes aged. He still flashes the contagious smile, but now one tempered with years of living. Experience. It's clear he's become a skilled counselor. We spend the next 3 days hiking. At night, we return to the camp for a cigar, talk about family, Zen practice, and all the years between now and then. The space in-between our words rests easily, contentedly.

In the morning, I drink coffee. He, tea. Then we climb into his tent for a half hour of zazen before hiking. The men camping in the lot next to us form opinions about what we're doing in there. At least, that's my thoughts. Can't say the proof doesn't seem a little dodgy.

We end the weekend at the top of Wiseman's Pass, smoking our last cigar and laughing until our guts are sore. He asks, a bit demurely, if I'd like to end with a session of co-counselling. He's told me about the process, but I'm not clear. He starts by asking to hold my hand. So here we are, two men, sitting in the grass, holding hands, talking about feelings. Cars passing.

We get in our cars. He turns left. I go right.

Maybe it'll be another 17 years. If it is, we'll pick up right where we left off.

Sometimes, time seems so irrelevant.

More on Practice: Joko BeckAH Almaas, and Bruce Tift

Foreverland is Dead (Coming soon!)

Friday, May 3, 2013

Dharma Bummed

Meetings. Not my favorite.

This one, however, has potential. I'm part of a small group applying for a month-long trip to Japan. Expenses paid. You have my attention.

The minutiae of grant writing, however, takes the shine off. It's not like they're handing out money to whomever is standing in the Japan line. We need 40 pages of why and how and where. In that order.

At some point, Zen temples are mentioned. One member, sitting across from me, says, Would you like to sit meditation? Sit on a cushion facing a wall?

I said, Yeah. Yeah.

He doesn't take me serious, doesn't believe me. Figures I'm just going along. And why not. I'm probably the last person that looks like he practices Zen. I'm not sure what a Zen practitioner looks like, it's just not the guy with a Chicago Cubs ball cap, I'm thinking.

Wait till I tell you about Mindfulness. He raises his eyebrows. It'll change your life. 

Here's where practice starts. The first step is to notice thoughts, notice the ever-present inner dialog, the contents of our beliefs that continually go unnoticed. Joko Beck taught to label thoughts, as in,

Having a thought [fill in blank]

For instance, having a thought...
...I already know about mindfulness.
...I already know how to sit.
...I probably know how to sit better than you.
...dude, I'm pretty sure I'm more mindful than you.
The more we pay attention to our inner dialog without judging, just observing, the more absurd and irrational and, often times, childlike some of our beliefs appear. It becomes apparent we're clinging to systems we learned as a child or toddler. Perhaps even an infant. As AH Almaas once stated, We see everyone and everything as a giant boob.

So labeling is the first step, thoughts are just thoughts. The second step is the work: being present. Paying attention to bodily sensations, experiencing subtle tensions, where and what they feel like, allowing them to unfold. Hell of a lot harder than it sounds. Be fully present with the experience we label embarrassment, shame or fear. Arrogance. In some cases, we're going against instinct ingrained in our DNA. It can be terrifying, earth-shattering. Feel life-threatening.

Joko Beck described emotions as a thought connected to a bodily sensation. Expressing anger is not the same as experiencing it. This distinction, or lack thereof, is what gets most of us in trouble, makes our lives messy. Hurts those around us.

It's painful, sometimes, to see how infantile my beliefs still are. How absurd my systems still operate. Case in point, the story in my head before the meeting ended:

Our entourage ascends the steps of a Zen monastery at the peak of Mt. Everest (Yeah, I know, Everest isn't in Japan). The teacher sits at the head of the temple and, with eyes closed, senses there is one among us that is further along the path than the rest. He opens his eyes, gestures to the cushion. I take my place next to him. 

Having a thought... I want to punch myself in the face.

More on Practice: Joko Beck, AH Almaas, and Bruce Tift

Foreverland is Dead (Coming soon!)