Monthly Archives: October 2018

There Go I

Seventeen days out from my hip replacement surgery, I am feeling very grateful — for my husband of 49 years and his devoted caregiving; for the support of my family and friends; for the skilled and kind hospital and home care team at Kaiser Terra Linda; for living at a time when this surgery is so well developed that, as one relative put it, it’s just like being dropped off at the dry cleaners — in at 7, out at 5. What great good fortune to have the end of my long pain be such a run-of-the-mill fix!

woodyThis awareness of my good fortune came into even sharper focus yesterday, when I saw a man outside our local Staples, a ringer for Woody Harrelson, limping in pain. Such a presence in my life has walking pain been, I could feel it as I watched him hobble along. Although his pain was clearly so long-term that his whole body was thrown out of whack by how he had to accommodate it while getting on with the challenging business of getting by. I thought about how that pain affects his whole life, his relationships and his ability to do things. I could almost see the shattering ripple effect of it. Because no pain can be contained. None of us live in isolation.

After he passed by, I couldn’t help but be aware of the contrast: There I sat in the car feeling positively coddled by my excellent health care, including an expensive surgery that cost me next to nothing. While he, if my hasty assumptions about him and his condition are correct, may have to live with severe pain for the rest of his life, and all the ramifications of the lack of options available to him.

So, nestled in my field of gratitude blossomed forth a sense of outrage that he and so many others must suffer because of the unnecessary inequities that exist in our system here in the US. How can anyone justify it?

It is justified by people who think not only that another person’s problems are not their own, but that those problems are the result of some personal failure, and are therefore deserved. Meanwhile they’ve got theirs, so where’s the problem?

They’re the problem. Not them per se, but their myopic take on the nature of being that gives them a sense of deserving what they have because of all they have done to get it. They lack the ability to see how anyone else contributed to their good fortune. They don’t credit the taxes and labor that built and maintains the infrastructure that carries them and their business. They discount and would happily be rid of those hardworking people who assure that everything they eat and drink is safe, as well as the air they breathe. They scoff at any value from those who educate them and their children so they have sufficient understanding and skills to make their way in the world. And they are blind to the easy pass they may get because of their ethnicity, gender, zip code or inheritance. It’s much more satisfying to say they did it all themselves. Because self-sufficiency is the admired American way.

We are told we live in a land of ‘rugged individualism’ where people ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’, ‘the early bird gets the worm’, where ‘might makes right’ in a ‘dog eat dog world’. I’m sure you can think of many more of these sayings. Please ‘reply’ with them. It would be great to have a whole collection to look at. It’s so important to pay attention to how our words shape our perspective.

As we become — through science and our own experience — increasingly aware of the interconnection, the interdependence of all life, those who are trapped in this isolated mindset become more fearful. No one likes to have their heretofore clear understanding upended, even if it promises to bring relief from suffering, a suffering they don’t dare acknowledge. Isn’t it easier to make fun of others, blame others, and doubt the science? Isn’t it more satisfying to have their fears reinforced wholeheartedly by the powers that be and to come together only to fight, defeat and conquer the ‘other’ they prefer to blame? Depending on their mental stability, doesn’t it feel justifiable and even heroic to take that sense of feeling threatened and follow through with rash acts of violence?

It’s quite possible that the man I saw for whom I felt so much compassion, is trapped in this sense of isolation and anger. Perhaps he even supports the politicians who actively deny him access to the healthcare he deserves, just for being alive. But that doesn’t make me want that access for him any less. He is of this world. He is not his situation, his behavior, his condition nor his beliefs. He is the same stardust expression of life loving itself as am I, and you are. There’s an old expression ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ There’s merit in that recognition that any one of us could be in such a position at any time. But doesn’t that just make me go phew! I’m glad that it’s not me in his shoes? How much deeper and truer is the understanding ‘There go I.’

The outrage I feel doesn’t undermine my gratitude for the wonderful care I have received. But it does make me more determined to vote, to be a fully-engaged citizen in this country and the world, so that all of us have the opportunities that I have.

Hip, hip hooray!

In recovering from surgery, I instinctively decided to hone my life down to only those activities that were prescribed by the medical team: a clear regimen of rest, ice, exercise, repeat. This choice was challenging, especially since my surgery date was a cancellation with only a six day notice. I had a lot of events on my calendar to cancel, including reading my poem at a book launch of Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry in California today in Berkeley. Hard choices, but necessary.

Ten days out from the operation, doing so well, I decided to keep one thing on my calendar: getting together for a meal at a restaurant with a few old friends, one of whom is from out of town so I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. Only as I sat down at the table on the deck overlooking the Bay and the hazy twinkling lights of San Francisco in the distance, did I realize how foolish I was to stray from my initial plan for recovery. I was in pain. The chair was too low, too small, too hard, too much. As excited as I was to spend time with my friends, it became instantly clear I couldn’t stay. I wouldn’t be fit company, and I could set my recovery back or even do damage. I felt terrible to break up the little party, but had no choice. And of course they had a fine time without us (my husband had to leave as well) in spite of the awkward start.

Back home, tucked into bed with my ice pack, I was completely content. And I realized the wisdom of my original decision to do this one thing and do it well.

That is a form of concentration, isn’t it? In a life filled with so many choices, choosing to pare down to what is necessary for this moment for a certain purpose? It reminds me of why we go on meditation retreats. Theoretically, there’s no reason we couldn’t ‘retreat’ at home. How hard is it to turn off the phone, computers, television, etc., cancel all appointments, have no social interaction, go on no errands, not answer the doorbell, do no work except simple chores, etc.?

How hard? Near impossible, wouldn’t you agree? How do you switch off the patterns of your life, take complete control to filter out all extraneous distractions, and simply sit?

On retreat, everything is set up to limit external distraction. The mind may still range far and wide, but at least the environment completely supports quieting down and being fully present. Having stepped out of regular life, there are no expectations from anyone else. And everyone on retreat supports you completely in this concentration.

In my post-op phase, I am so fortunate to have a helpmate who is especially skilled at being single minded. If he is set the task of taking complete care of another person, in this case me, and he is given full instructions, he will follow them exactly. He will make sure everything is set up just so, make sure medications are taken at the right times, and make sure the space is uncluttered so I don’t trip on my walker-rounds. (No, sorry, he doesn’t rent himself out!) He has a life as an artist and enjoys gardening and other activities, but for the few weeks of my recovery, and especially the first few days when I was totally helpless, he has been amazing at nursing.

Among my family, friends and students, hip replacement surgery is all the rage. Several have had one in the past few months ago and one is scheduled in a few weeks.

Thinking about her situation, in particular, where a young child lives in the home with her, I realize that she will have a bigger challenge assuring the focus of her post-recovery period. Young children come with Legos and all manner of other detritus that gets left about, so just keeping the area clear for her to walk safely will be difficult for her designated caregivers. But there’s also the heart-tug habit of keeping a child’s needs uppermost. Suddenly grandmother can’t do all the things she’s always done? Explain that to a preschooler. It will undoubtedly be discomforting, maybe even scary, and at the very least hard to adjust to and maybe grumpy making. Oh boy!

I recognize that in my moments of sitting at that restaurant table, my thoughts were more about how to get along in the situation and not make a fuss than they were about what would be best for my healing. Even though these old friends only wanted what was best for me and implored me to make decisions based on my healing and that alone, I wanted what was best for them, for the evening to be pleasant and fun.

I bring this all up because we have been looking at the Seven Factors of Awakening, and most recently at Concentration. This was such a good example of how our desires, fears, and other Hindrances can knock us off our course. And how rewarding it is to reset our intention, to be present again for our own healing of a hip or, perhaps, awakening.

Bare attention, interconnection and the artist Will Noble

In a recent article in Tricycle magazine, Cynthia Thatcher looked at George Seurat’s neo-impressionist painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, as an example of the nature of our interconnection. In her rich exploration, she said that her meditation teacher, Achan Sobin Namto, once wrote, “If we could focus precisely on the present moment…the eye would not be able to identify objects coming into the area of perception.”

If that flies right over your head, you are not alone. But let’s look closer. Her sharing of her experience with Seurat’s dots reminded me of the art of my painter husband Will Noble, whose works are almost all made up of little dots or circles. He draws and then paints each circle over a period of many months — a meditation in itself. But instead of getting caught up in the whys and hows of his process, I’d like to focus on the finished painting.

Phoenix-Will-Noble-ptg

Phoenix, oil painting by Will Noble

In class I had my students take a few minutes to choose one of Will’s paintings (our home is also his studio/gallery) and really look at the painting, first from a distance and then up close. They seemed to enjoy the exercise.

From a distance, people often mistake Will’s paintings for photographs. They note its subject matter, composition and colors, and have whatever response they have to what is represented — usually an intimate waterscape.

But if they take a moment to step closer, they have a surprise in store.

will-noble-circles-closeupThe landscape dissolves into patterns of circles, each circle less than a quarter inch in diameter, unique yet similar to its neighbors. The closer the viewer gets, the more abstract the painting becomes.  The overall image – the initially recognizable subject matter – disappears. Then the viewer steps back, further and further, until the image reassembles itself, coming back into a recognizable pattern that can be labeled as ‘cascade’ or ‘pond’. If the viewer is really paying attention, they may never look at the world the same way again.

When we look at anything, there is a nano-second of bare attention before the mind labels what we are looking at. In that brief but potentially expansive mental space we are just looking. For example, I just glanced out the window, and automatically registered ‘mountain’. All the things I know about mountains in general and that mountain in particular — all the memories of times I have walked it, camped on it, scattered my mother’s ashes on it — are all activated almost instantly. Almost. If I really pay attention, before registering ‘mountain’ I might allow myself to notice colors, shapes, textures, values, light and shadow — all primary concerns of a painter. The artist Chester Arnold once said that he painted in order to be able to see in that way. “If I could see that way all the time, I wouldn’t need to paint.” I don’t totally believe him, because there are many reasons why a painter paints, but it was a very insightful comment. Can the rest of us see that way? Can we give a little space to seeing, hearing, etc. before needing to label and file away all the sensory phenomena that comes our way?

But wait, isn’t seeing color, shape and texture just another way of labeling? ‘Green, round, rough.’ These are all observations based on learned labels for experiencing the world around us. Is that really as bare as our attention can get? In Will’s paintings composed of little molecular shapes, we are seeing even deeper. We are reminded that elementally we are all composed of tiny infinitesimal bits of life coming together in a seemingly infinite ways to shape what we believe ourselves and the world around us to be.

In the last post, I shared the story of the Buddha meditating under the bodhi tree, and his second insight upon awakening: that anyone can awaken. But what was his first insight? Everything is interconnected. There is no separation anywhere.

Today’s science completely supports this fact, but we tend to forget it. We are caught up in the illusion of separation, and  although it can be useful for practical matters in our lives, not being able to see its illusory nature causes us and those around us all manner of suffering.

If we practice this kind of real seeing we will arrive at real understanding — how there is no ‘other’. When we notice a habituated pattern of other-making in our thoughts, we can challenge it. We can step a little closer and practice bare attention. We can step back and see the amazing patterns of life that we had previously interpreted as solid separate objects. How liberating, how wondrous, how comforting to recognize the intrinsic nature of all being.

And if you are in the Bay Area and would like to see Will’s paintings for yourself, contact him.

You can focus like Siddhartha under the ficus

ficus-buddhasTwenty-six hundred years ago, under a tree, a seeker named Siddhartha Gautama sat in meditation, determined not to stop meditating until he awakened.

In his meditation he was taunted, terrorized and tempted by all manner of thoughts and emotions that came in such convincing guises that it was a challenge to not believe they were solid and true.

Instead  of engaging, chasing after or battling them, he recognized them for the passing illusions they were, and each time he greeted them in a friendly way with the words ‘I know you.’ Because of the deity-rich culture and times he lived in, he saw the hand of Maara (aka Mara, Maya), the tempter. Maara manifested thoughts of self-doubt, of the hopelessness of awakening and even of his right to try to do so. Maara also tried to activate desires and cravings, and to scare him into giving up his seat under that tree.

Again and again Siddhartha reset his intention, stayed grounded, and, thanks to six years of practice, he was able to stay fully present and see through these manifestations to their fleeting and illusory nature.  His awareness of the nature of impermanence and interconnectedness grew so strong within him that Maara couldn’t gain a foothold. And Siddhartha awakened. He became a buddha, which simply means awakened one. On occasion, throughout his long life, Maara tried again to seduce him to give up struggles, even for life itself when he was in a physically weakened state. Maara advised him to keep the wisdom he had learned to himself rather than sharing it. And, of course, Maara seized any opportunity to bring doubt into the Buddha’s mind that he was truly awakened.

The Buddha was a human being, with all of the struggles and suffering we all have at times. We honor the Buddha not as a god — he was the first to refute such an honorific — but as an inspiration to us to practice meditation as he did under that tree, with gratitude for his ability to see through Maara’s taunts, and share his teachings over many decades, so we benefit from them all these centuries later.

In class, I passed around little Buddha statues (gifts from students over the years) for class members to hold or to put in front of them while we did a few minutes of meditation with the image of Siddhartha sitting under that tree, his intention so strong, his concentration so clear. Perhaps you have such a statue that could at times be incorporated into your home practice. One student said it was easier to stay focused with the statue in front of her, reminding her of her purpose.

‘Now I understand why people have altars,’ she said. I teach what I call a ‘portable practice’ that can be done anywhere without drawing attention to oneself. But that practice doesn’t preclude having an altar at home for daily practice. It just means not becoming reliant on it, so that when it’s not there you can’t practice. Even traveling, one can bring to mind that young man so long ago with all the temptations we ourselves face, sitting under that tree with such skillful effort.

When he completed his marathon meditation and awakened, one of the first things he said was that all beings are endowed with the nature of awakening. This is important for us to remember, because our thoughts and emotions will likely try to convince us otherwise, that somehow we are uniquely incapable of awakening.

If Siddhartha can wake up, you can too.