Category Archives: nature

What I’ve been reading lately

I’ve taken a couple of weeks off from teaching, so no dharma talks to post, but an opportunity to recommend a few books I’ve read lately!

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
It gives me great hope for the human race that this book remains on the top of the bestseller list! It is a story of our interconnection with nature, with a main character who raises herself in the marshland of North Carolina. It is beautifully written and stays with me still though I read it months ago. The author creates a world that lets me breathe deep and take it all in. This is not to say it is without story-line or suspense, for those who need such things!


The Mama Sutra: A Story of Love, Loss, and the Path of Motherhood by [Cushman, Anne]

The Mama Sutra,  a Story of Love, Loss and the Path of Motherhood by Anne Cushman
Anne was a yoga/dharma teacher of mine for many years and we have recently reconnected in a poetry class we both take. Back when she was my teacher and I was the class manager at
Spirit Rock Meditation Center, her now college-age son was a newborn who once came and showed us how to do the cobra and other natural positions that came so easily to him and were often so challenging to us. Before her pregnancy with her son, she had shared with us her painful experience of losing her daughter who died in utero just days before her due date. So reading the book brought back the great joy and deep sorrow she shared in such a way that we all really learned deeply about life’s impermanence and why really living in the present moment fully with gratitude matters.
Anne has always been a very deep and funny writer, willing to lay it all out there for the sake of reminding readers that it’s okay to be human. She’s fearless in both sharing her most vulnerable moments and brilliant in exploring and sharing the dharma.
So I highly recommend this book which has rave reviews from notable dharma teacher authors Tara Brach, Lama Tsultrim Allione and Natalie Goldberg, among others.

Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California edited by Lucille Lang Day and Ruth Nolan
This thick volume is such a celebration of the beauty and vulnerability of the most diverse state in the US. What makes it so approachable and rewarding is the way it is divided into sections by habitat, so the reader gets immersed in the coast, the hills, the lakes, the mountains, the cities or the desert, as a variety of poetic voices come together in a symphony of deeper understanding. Brilliant! With over 150 poets, including past and present poet laureates of counties and the US, sharing their deep love of nature in this special place, this book is a true celebration of California.
I am pleased to say that one of my poems is in the book, and that it was one of six poems nominated for the Pushcart Prize! 😉 But that’s not why I’m recommending the book. By the way, all profits from the sale of the book go to non-profit environmental organizations.

(Although I include links to Amazon for purpose of further information on each book, I encourage you to support your local independent bookstores if you plan to buy copies.)

So those are a few of the books I’ve been reading lately. I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading!

The earth teaches us true compassion

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is earth-blue-planet-globe-planet-87651.jpeg

The earth provides us with everything we need to live. It’s a model of compassion. How different is the earth’s compassion from the way we fashion our own?

First, consider that the earth is there for all beings. It doesn’t pick and choose who is worthy to walk on it. And you never see the earth running around assessing needs, trying to be all things to all people. The earth is just there — here — fully present and supportive.

Can we be compassionate like the earth? Can we relax and simply be present for those around us? Can we be solid enough for them to lean on, receptive enough to listen to what they have to say, to accept their tears, without trying to be two steps ahead, figuring out what to do for them? Compassion definitely isn’t about telling people what they should do, is it? But that’s how it comes across when instead of listening, our thoughts leap ahead to how we will save the day with our oh-so-clever solutions. Oh stop! Relax. Let the earth support you and model good behavior.

This may be a real challenge for us if we are used to being in charge, putting our agenda first, thinking we can fix everything. It may be hard to let go of that identity of hero-savior-problemsolver, in order to tap into deeper, more effortless compassion. It helps to realize that our urgent need to help is often rooted in aversion. Except in emergency situations, it’s usually our discomfort with how things are that makes us rush around to implement changes. We cannot bear for a loved one, or maybe for anyone, to be unhappy, so we do everything in our power to alter the situation. How can this not be a good thing?

If we pause to be present with our own experience, we may be able to notice aversion there. Recognizing it allows it a voice in the conversation but not a dictatorial role in what words and actions we choose. It’s just an unpleasant feeling that wants to change the channel ASAP.

True compassion doesn’t try to change the experience of another person. It definitely doesn’t say Look on the bright side. It doesn’t try to take their mind off what they are experiencing. Can we pause to recognize that the impulse to impose that on them is just our own discomfort trying to make the unpleasant experience go away? True compassion is patient, allowing for what is arising to exist without commentary or re-configuring.

True compassion is infinite in nature. It has nothing to prove to anyone. It doesn’t have a to do list. It isn’t trying to gain points or likes on social media. When we feel compelled to solve other people’s problems or prove our love for them by taking on their burdens, we are likely to be operating from a shallow fear-based place, and our energy will soon be depleted. We will exhaust ourselves and the person we are trying so hard to help.

The caregivers among you know full well how challenging it is when another person’s needs dominate your life. How does this sense of earthy infinite compassion help parents of small children and family members of those who are unable to take care of themselves? As a young mother and later a primary caregiver for both my father and brother in their passing, I have experienced the stress of losing myself in trying so hard to do all that was required. But, thanks to my regular practice of meditation, I also found precious moments of being fully present with them. I noticed with my father how the more I relaxed into a receptive mode, letting him have his experience, the more he relaxed his natural defenses. I reminded myself not to exhaust him by making ‘helpful’ suggestions or trying to direct or commandeer what he was going through. He needed every bit of his limited energy for the huge transition he was making.

For perhaps the first time, my love made no demands on him. It was way too late to ask for anything more than he had ever been able to give me. For this time together, I let myself become like the earth, receptive, ever present, available to meet his needs, to let him set the tone and decide whether to have a conversation at all. This quiet way of being with him allowed him his own space for his experience. Behind the scenes I was making sure he had everything he needed to take care of him, but our time together was restful.

While my father’s care was relatively easy and I could provide all that was needed without disrupting his life, my brother’s care was much more intense. It took a whole assembled family team, and visiting hospice professionals, to meet his many needs. And he had needs that could not be met, which was painful for us all. He didn’t like us rushing around, tending to the requirements of the noisy equipment that kept him alive. He wanted us to sit and just be with him. As much as we could, we each found sweet moments of just being there. Giving that kind of compassion also feels like a gift to ourselves.

And that’s an important thing to remember: Cultivating earthy compassion, that sense of just being a supportive receptive presence, also gives us the ability to provide that same compassion for ourselves. When we can support ourselves in this way, we are able to provide for others. When we beat ourselves up over the many ways we have not ‘measured up’, who benefits? No one. Ever.

We can’t offer what we don’t have to give. By becoming aware of the way we treat ourselves, and accessing that deep stillness within, we can become the very earth under our own feet. Through our regular practice of meditation and living mindfully, we come to a level of deep compassion that is infinite and accessible.

And while we are embodying the earth’s compassion, can we develop deep compassion for the earth? Can we stop poking, prodding, fracking, paving, stealing, degrading and destroying this wondrous compassionate place we call home before we render it uninhabitable?

Happy Earth Day! Today and every day.

Clock Time :: Both convenience and delusion

clock-new-yearsWe are beginning our exploration of Delusion, one of The Three Poisons that keep us from awakening. (The other two are Greed and Aversion.) As we count down to midnight on New Year’s Eve, the concept of calendar and clock time seems a perfect place to start our investigation — not because we are beginning a new topic, but because calendar/clock time is a kind of delusion! Wha??? Why? Consider that time is a convenient agreement we made as a human community, an agreement we rely on. How would we have meetings and travel on planes and trains without it? But it is just an agreement. When we take it to be absolute reality, that’s a powerful delusion that doesn’t serve us.

The natural world of which we are an intrinsic part is all rhythms, cycles, seasons, circular patterns of arising and falling away — all of which, if we pay attention, teach us about the nature of impermanence and the interconnectedness of all life. This deep understanding is key to awakening.

But in our culture we distract ourselves with a made up system of linear time. Instead of appreciating it for the convenience it provides, we perceive it as a solid reality, as if we are all on this timeline that stretches into the distant past and distant future. Does it run left to right? right to left? up or down? Stop and think for a moment how you perceive your own timeline and world history.

Calendar and clock time were never meant to supersede nature’s rhythms. But it has done just that for so many of us, fostering a forgetfulness of our intrinsic nature. We have come to see ourselves as separate from the rest of nature, operating on a totally different wavelength. Of course this varies to a great degree, person to person and culture to culture. But for most of us it takes effort to stay connected, doesn’t it? It takes a conscious choice to give ourselves the gift of our own natural rhythms that our ancestors took for granted. Otherwise we succumb to the easy effortless drone of the distinctly human construct of the clock and calendar time world we have co-created. Can we appreciate the great gift of what we have created without falling for the delusion that it is reality?

If we can’t see through that delusion, we set ourselves up to be shocked when the natural way of things makes itself known to us. How resistant we are to the rhythms of nature, whether it’s the seasons coming and going or our own very natural mortality.

Clever as we are, we create workarounds like electric lighting to extend daylight into the night, reinforcing our feeling of being apart from and impervious to nature. Our scientists work to extend our lives because we can’t face the thought of aging and dying, making room for generations to come.

So as we approach the ‘New Year’, if we believe it is real, we vest it with almost magical powers. Resolutions are only for the New Year. Say you make a resolution to start eating healthier or exercising more in the coming year. Doesn’t that set you up for gobbling up the chocolate cake and being a couch potato up until the stroke of midnight on December 31st?

And if on January 2nd or 3rd you find that the habit of gobbling and lounging is harder to break than you thought, do you feel like you’ve blown it? Maybe next year, you say.

I was thinking how many years ago I was able to give up smoking on New Year’s. So I have believed that, whether a real thing or not, the concept of turning over a new year and turning over a new leaf are intertwined. But the friend I quit with didn’t manage to do so for more than a few days, may she rest in peace.

So what was the difference? The main difference is that my motivation was to get my body into healthy hospitable baby-making mode. I wanted to get pregnant. It was that deep biological intention that sustained me and kept me from ever smoking again. New Year’s was a mere convenient starting point.

Understanding that calendar/clock time is a convenience and not a reality helps us to recognize our own delusion when we, for example, ‘can’t wait for this awful year to be over’. We throw away whole days, weeks and months when we say things like ‘I’m having a bad week.’ Or ‘I got up on the wrong side of the bed and now this day is shot.’

We can see how firmly we believe in it when we ask the clock instead of our stomach whether it is time to eat. It’s skillful to notice all the ways we put this made-up system in charge of our lives instead of staying in tune with nature’s rhythms, cycles and seasons. How much more skillful it is to stay present in this moment, resetting wise intentions again and again, instead of waiting around until the clock or calendar dictates your efforts.

Notice if this collective useful agreement about the clock and calendar takes on the semblance of absolute reality in your life. See if there’s any room for acknowledging nature’s cyclical seasonal arising and falling away. If so, see if that helps you to embrace the nature of impermanence and your intrinsic interconnectedness with all life.

And, oh yes, Happy New Year!!!

Caught up in an internal windstorm?

windstormEach moment of each day teaches us something new about how to be in relationship with life. So many opportunities to see, for example, fear arising to tear things apart, and love arising to bring seemingly disparate hearts together.

Our practice is to live our intention to be present and compassionate with ourselves and others. To be present and compassionate with whatever arises, giving it space to transform, allowing ourselves to let it be, and to be enriched, informed and enlivened by the experience of even the most difficult emotions and experiences passing through our field of awareness.

Can we engage in the dance of life without getting entangled, strangled, or wanting to strangle? Can we allow ourselves to befriend even that irritant that torments us? We can if we can see it for what it is.

Over the past weeks in my life there seems to be a roller coaster of new sometimes scary and sometimes jubilant information coming in, all tied up in deep fraternal love (and annoyance and petulance — oh yeah, it’s all still there!) Here is the challenge my meditation practice has primed me to handle with equaniminity. Somehow I pictured equanimity differently, but hey, letting go of self-judgment for taking the bait, taking the low road is part of the process. Remembering to take time off, to unplug, to keep up my dependable practices that sustain me: that’s how equanimity looks in this moment.

Recently we have had so much windy weather. Gales really. I wonder is that normal for June? Is this the new normal? Anxiety sets in. I loath wind! Oh yes, I get grumpy, and the seemingly endless wind has been the convenient target for all my worry and discontent. ‘If only’ the wind would stop howling, then I could be happy. And eventually it did, and I was in fact somewhat relieved to fling open the doors and enjoy the still air and bird song. Ah!

Then I went to my poetry class and, wouldn’t you know it, the teacher played a recording of howling wind. She said wind is her favorite element. She should live at my house! Grrr. Because the speakers were right behind me, the wind was blowing in both ears and down my neck, tensing my body…again! She had us sit in meditation with the wind for a bit. So what choice did I have but to recognize the opportunity to do a little inquiry into my tormented relationship to wind?

Then she read something that has stayed with me: ‘It is not the wind that makes noise, but the objects in its way.’ And I heard it this way: It is not the wind that makes noise, but all that resists it.

Hmm. Is that true? How do I know that’s true? The wind pushes the objects. The objects move and make sound vibrations. The wind that meets no resistance is not howling, but perhaps dancing. Hmm. Bah, humbug. Sounds like a fairy tale, just making excuses. But this is the practice. So I continue.

Having made a kind of enemy of the wind, there are many other questions I could explore that might be helpful, scientific, philosophical and psychological: How does air become wind? What is the value of wind? What would life be like without wind? Is it really the wind I am upset with?

This kind of investigation is useful when we see we have made an enemy out of anything: a person, group, situation, condition or in this case an element. We might practice loving-kindness, sending metta. Inquiry might also be helpful when we meet a lot of inner resistance, and our offerings are grudging at best.

If we really pay attention we can see how we may make enemies everywhere. It is not to torment us that the enemy arises. It is to challenge us to practice opening our hearts and minds, befriending when we are able, doing inquiry when we are not, and eventually finding the door through the heart of the ‘enemy’ to the truth of our experience.

This truth, or dharma, is the fruit of our practice. We find it by being present and compassionate. It brings a quiet balanced joy that allows us to dance with even the most tumultuous chaos.

In this week’s meditation class I shared an extended passage from the book Old Path, White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh, that, due to copyright laws, I can’t share here. But I highly recommend the book. Then we did a valuable exercise, walking in nature, inspired by the sharing. I encourage you to walk mindfully in nature and find something of interest to linger upon. See what happens! Be open to nature’s wisdom.

And if you find yourself in a windstorm, emotional or otherwise, rely on your daily practice discovering your own inner wisdom, the wisdom teachings and your fellow practitioners. This is called taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

After the election

oceanI am sitting here at the edge of the ocean trying to be present with all that is arising like waves within me, not trying to placate, not trying to talk myself out of any feeling that comes up within me, not trying to do anything except create room for it all and the compassion to hold it buoyant as the ocean.

The ocean’s waves are so large right now, as if tailor made to hold the heights and depths of what I am feeling.

The ocean is so vast. It teaches me how to be vast.

The ocean meets the sky as a friend, reflecting it without changing its own nature, in a gentle exchange. Can I find a way to be with the atmosphere around me with compassion while still staying fully seated in my being?

The ocean is a healer. So are the prairies, so are the mountains, so are the forests and the meadows, the lakes, the rivers and streams, the rolling hills and the desert sands. And those who dwell within them, the fish, the birds, the mice, the deer, all of us living as best we can.

 

Home now, I sit looking out at the mountain, remembering my walk by the ocean, up on a bluff and down on the dune and onto the wet sand where the surf raced to greet me. And the mountain tells me it will be here long after I am gone. That Li Po poem: ‘…Here we sit, the mountain and I, til only the mountain remains.’ That is a comfort, yes. Both the mountain and the ocean will be here. But in what state?

I begin to see the real core of my sorrow: that try as I might, I am failing to keep the healer safe, failing the mother that holds us all.

I know it is not all up to me. But there is some responsibility here, to work with those who also recognize the way nature needs us to play fair and find ways to live fully without desecrating life itself. And to somehow reach out to those who don’t see that in a way that speaks to them more deeply than the fears that blind them.

But even in saying that, I am not greeting the sky, am I? I am telling the sky to be like the ocean. Yet if I say ‘Que sera, sera” what happens then? To all of us, and the generations that follow. And that is the heart that is broken here: my grandmother heart. For whatever comes to pass may not impact this woman in this body overly much, who knows? But my children and their children and their children. There are babies whose lives I am passionate to save, as avid as any ‘right-to-lifer’ in my desire to keep the planet healthy so that those generations of babies may live! I feel in this loss of an election, I have failed. Babies of our species and others as well. All the plunder and poison.

So I am disheartened. That’s what I am. Just as my mother before me would get disheartened that all her efforts — and she did work hard — sometimes felt for naught. But the waves in the ocean tell a different story, how they slap the shore a little further each time, and then with equal grace recede for a time, only to come again.

Having lived decades beyond her, I can see that my mother’s efforts were not for nothing. She played a small part in a big arc of history. So I can be disheartened, and I can be blind to my part, but I can trust that living my intention with spacious presence and compassion will be enough. That I am not in charge of the outcome, only my way of being in this world.

‘Love the One You’re With’

‘Love the One You’re With’. These song lyrics from Crosby, Stills and Nash in 1970 always seemed like really bad advice, a sure way to get in trouble when traveling without your true love. But taken a different way, it’s spot on.

I am looking out at the view I have from the place I sit in meditation every morning. It is raining, the fog is cloaking the mountain and softening the trees on the ridge and even those nearby. Our neighbors’ deciduous oak is where my eyes naturally rest. Over the years I have seen this tree in all states of bud, leaf, and each winter in this bare sodden state. It has come to seem like an old friend, naked and vulnerable. Surely, it’s an acquired appreciation of a peculiar beauty. In the distant past it had an unfortunate encounter with an aggressive tree trimmer on an off day. I can see how the tree is slowly over the years recovering its natural shape. But even at its most awkward, it has been a beloved perch for a variety of birds, including owls in the middle of the night.
view out my window

Having my own morning perch to meditate and view the world, or a regular walk in nature, helps to tune me to the seasons, and remind me that only change is constant. Whatever the season, whatever the state of this tree, I can have a deep abiding appreciation for it. I can ‘love the one I’m with’. Whatever I am going through at any moment, whatever discomforts I am feeling in my body or mind, I can be present with them too in a compassionate way. I can love the moment I’m in. I can ‘love the one I’m with.’

Come Home to the Senses — Day Long Retreat

In the midst of a series of extremely cold windy days, the morning of our daylong retreat started with more of the same, but by the time the students arrived, the wind had quieted down, and by the end of the first sitting practice, the birds were singing, a sure sign of a calm day ahead.

We were able to spend much of that mild sunny day doing walking and sitting practice in the garden. Being able to practice outside isn’t just pleasant; it provides a bounty of nature’s dharma lessons. The Buddha and his students practiced almost exclusively out of doors, even though there were undoubtedly followers who would happily have provided regular shelter.

The retreat seemed to be timed perfectly since our last dharma talk had been about the Sense Spheres, and here we were with a full day to practice resting our awareness in the Sense Sphere portal.

We had lots of things to smell, touch, taste, hear and see. Indoors I provided mint and basil clipped from the garden and set out on the counter to sniff, along with a bottle of vanilla. A student brought roses we put on the table, and there were more roses in the garden as well as a bounty of flowers, birds, trees, leaves, vistas, including the mountain.

I encouraged them to do traditional walking meditations, but also to take time to use all the senses to experience the garden. So they reached out to touch, leaned in to smell, closed their eyes to listen. They became totally enmeshed in the life of the garden, noticing everything, and in that noticing the garden came more intensely to life. We noticed, among other things, how the bees buzzed with such joy in the trumpet vine flowers, the way the trees and the day lilies opened their arms wide to the sun, inspiring us to do the same. The way light danced in the long grasses, the happy song of the waterfall. The colors, the interplay of light and shadow. Yes, indeed, it is a ‘high’. But it is not induced by ingesting chemicals, but by pausing in our lives to simply be alive to our senses. And to sense ourselves as natural expressions of life as well.

Resting awareness at the sense portals, we have the choice to be present or to get lost in all the patterns of associative thoughts, emotions, memories, judgments that the senses might trigger. We always have that choice, wherever we are. The dharma shows us the map of where we are in any given moment, and gives us the way to come home to our senses, again and again.


Drawing of Buddha by Mary Wagstaff

The next day was Vesak, the Buddhist celebration of the life of the Buddha, so I had created cards featuring a drawing of the Buddha by friend, artist and wise surfer Mary Wagstaff. Each retreatant received a card to write their insights and gratitude for the Buddha’s teachings.


At the beginning of one meditation, I passed around a basket of shells and each person felt around and chose one to hold through the meditation, to rub the thumb against the rough or smooth surface when the mind wandered to bring them back to the present moment. Communing with the little shell in hand, the realization of oneness, of life formed of stardust, expressed in all its variations, but always kin, always the same at core. One student allowed the shell to take her to a sense of gentle lulling wave action in her meditation.


At one point we lounged around in the studio and listened in silence to Missa Luba. This African choir sing a Catholic mass in their own language with such beauty. It was a perfect choice because the glory of the mass and the earthy drum beats, reminded us that the spirit of being is in the very pulse of the earth and our own bodies. Our aliveness is an expression of that spiritual nature.


Towards the end, we came out of silence to share experiences in the garden communing with flowers, the view of the mountain, hummingbirds and the waterfall. Several reported momentary or extended periods of feeling one with everything.


To help the students develop their own meditation practice at home, I led a short visualization exercise: Imagine your home. Imagine the place where you meditate or where you could meditate. It’s a quiet private place, etc. etc. Now imagine a time of day when you do or could easily meditate, etc.


How do we find time in our busy lives for this kind of relaxed awareness practice?
First we recognize it as a priority. We see how when we meditate it benefits the things we say we care about most: our health, our family and friends, and a sense of natural aliveness, not alienated or isolated.


Then I used the same shells from the previous experience and took my bell bowl and began to fill it with all the tiny shells that represent all the little bits and pieces of life demands — emails, errands, obligations, hassles —  they rattle around making a lot of noise and there’s no room for the big shell, that thing we say is so important: the practice that enables us to be healthy and loving. When I dumped the little shells out and put the big ones in first, they made no sound except to ring the bell on contact. Then I poured the little ones in, and they all fit right in, nice and snug, settling into the open spaces the big shells had created. A good lesson for us all. It is so easy to fill our time with the little things, putting off the big thing that matters, the big thing that would make all the little things so much easier to manage.


So as I share this experience of a retreat with you, I hope there is inspiration to spend time resting your awareness at the sense portals when you take a walk or sit in nature. May you give yourself many opportunities to do so. May you establish a regular daily practice of meditation to develop a strong muscle of mindfulness. May you put that practice first so that all else will fall nicely into place in your life. And if the Buddha’s teachings have value for you, may you open to the gratitude for the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha.