Entries in inner work (5)

Thursday
May252017

Letting Go

You think you do right to hide little things in big ones, and yet they get away from you.
But suppose you were to hide the world in the world…

--Chuang Tzu

This trip began with a death and a theft.

The death was the death of my mother after a several-year decline. When she passed away, not only were my care-giving services no longer needed, but something I had taken for granted my whole life suddenly disappeared. The resulting emptiness was freeing and disorienting. I felt like a horse who had been hitched loosely to a post for a long time and now the post was gone, and there was no guidance about the many directions I could wander off in.

The theft came a few months after that, in late June of 2015, on a trip we took to the Oregon Coast. We had parked at a trailhead early in the morning to walk to the sand dunes, and when I got back to the car, someone had stolen my bags with all of my clothes in them out of the back seat. All that was left was what I was wearing and my pajamas back in the tent. Everything that was gone was either useful or sentimental—for example, the last crocheting project my mother was working on with me before she died. But though I felt angry and sad at first, I noticed that I felt a great lightness at not having bags to carry, or having to decide what to wear the next day, or having to protect things from getting stolen. The freedom I continued to feel from this simple loss made me start to wonder what the price was of owning things. How much did I want to own, and why?

So it shouldn't come as a surprise to me that this trip is turning out to be about letting go. At first it was about letting go of physical things—cleaning out our house of 20 years and selling or giving away (or throwing out) most of our belongings. Leaving my office and our familiar surroundings in Seattle. Being separated for a time from friends and family. But I am finding that it is also about letting go of inner things. Letting go of my plans. Of strategies for getting along in the world, like being helpful, accumulating knowledge, or staying busy. Of old reactions and habitual responses.

What I feel drawn to over and over again as we travel is a kind of inner emptiness. The kind of emptiness that is not so much precursor to something else, (the space in the bell / allows it to ring) but a state of awareness in and of itself. A condition of Being that comes before my plans and projects.

And yet it feels scary to watch birds without making a list, or to not have a plan for how we will get back to Washington, or to not be creating something. At my most doubtful, I wonder what is legitimate emptiness and what is just aimlessness. After I graduated from my master's program in June of 2011, I took a couple months off to rest before deciding what to do next. In September I started building my private therapy practice. Looking back on it, I can't remember what I did during the summer at all, while the fall is bright and clear in my memory. When I go back to my journal I see that I had lots of ideas that summer—I painted, I planned interesting workshops with friends, I took some trips, I thought about the future—but somehow that time off was not nearly as memorable as actually starting to create something that I loved.

This emptiness I am sensing now seems different, though. It is not just a void, it is actually something alive. When I woke this morning I remembered the poem I wrote in 2015 about what my work is: to guard the silence / at your center. It takes an alert vigilance to guard, and I notice that most of the time, I am not tending that silence—especially when I am feeling irritated with something or caught in some kind of mood. As soon as I begin to believe these feelings and act on them, it gets very noisy inside. If I took that poem seriously, it could be a guide for this time:

So lay aside your lists,
your plans,

and your intentions.
The silence

of this space
contains everything.

Its words
are your words.

This morning (May 1st) we are leaving yet another place that we have fallen in love with—another kind of letting go. Saying goodbye to the calming presence of Mt. Wrightson, to the Mexican jays, to the alligator junipers with their distinctive checkerboarded bark, to the Rincon paintbrush and the sycamores. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and I feel this in my gut as a kind of ache every time we leave somewhere.

But as I just feel this sadness (and let it go, too) there is an emptiness that replaces it that is expansive and full. After having over 50 different “homes” this year, I am getting used to endings. I am beginning to see that grasping onto things to try to keep them the same also creates an emptiness, but one that is fearful and lonely. This new emptiness is different. It resonates with energy. It is large enough to contain everything we have seen and done—and more. It is indefinable. And it requires trust, something that is easier said than done.

I can remember other times when I felt this kind of emptiness. When our cat Lionel died at home after a long decline, I sat with the body afterwards trying to feel what had just happened. As I sat there, I had the sense that what I considered Lionel was dispersing out into the universe. He wasn't there, and the emptiness of his passing was heart-wrenching. But now he was everywhere—in the trees and the grass and the air and the stars—and if I sat quietly, thinking of him, I could feel in that emptiness a connection to everything, if only for a moment.

Perhaps if we do not shut down when things are taken from us or when we are sad, there can be room for this. Perhaps this is one way of hiding the world in the world.

*****

This part of the trip is hard for me. We have done many of the things we set out to do. We don’t have a lot of plans between now and the end of August. In the absence of structure or purpose, I often find myself depressed. Or, to put it more exactly, I cycle between extremes: one day I feel a deep sense of awe or contentment. The next I find myself aimless and lost, unsure about myself or the point of anything.

Jim Corbett speaks to this difficulty in his book Goatwalking. He talks about these feelings as the natural result of the search for this emptiness, which he calls detachment or selflessness. Detachment requires an end to our addiction to social busyness, and in order to even see this addiction, we have to step outside of the usual social structures for awhile—which is not as easy as it might sound.

Wandering purposeless and without human companionship, one sometimes experiences emotional crises that are...similar to culture shock and cabin fever.... In the absence of socially supported identities we may discover ourselves possessed by naked demons who have the good manners to appear only in acceptable disguises when we are in polite society. During extended periods of isolation working as a sheepherder and cowboy, I discovered little of this kind of emotional conflict. After all, I was doing a job and earning a living. Each day had its work and objectives.... But in full solitude—free and easy wandering without purpose or schedule—the demons appear.

Society provides most of the make-believe that prevents one's hells from surfacing into full consciousness. But whoever leaves the world to wander alone...should be prepared to meet a devil or two, when busyness ceases to drown out the dream side.... Old wounds become fresh injuries. Unresolved terrors become immediate threats. I've come awake in the close darkness of a cloudy new-moon night, sobbing from an early-childhood rejection, so overcome with its lasting presence that I could only gradually remember my way back into middle age. I've come awake old and senile, awaiting death with dumb, motionless panic. (Corbett, p. 10-11)

Jim's descriptions of his experiences help me recognize the moods I feel for what they are and to understand how to continue to orient myself by naming them and re-focusing on the bigger picture. Without this perspective I would have headed back to something familiar long ago. But it is clear to me that this pain—though not the point—is necessary. That this breaking open is the first step in receiving the world.

*****

A few weeks ago I took a nap in the trailer in the heat of the day and woke up thinking that I was a child again on the farm and that my family was just in the other room. Then I started having sense memories of taking care of Mom at Manor Care—the smell of the building, the long faceless hall, all those blank hours in which she had to occupy herself. I felt groggy and disoriented from sleep and had a jolt of empathy for her confusion while she lived there—how difficult it would be to not be able to get up and walk, or to go outside to find your present self again. I was surprised at how fresh all of those memories still were for me, and how often these days I feel like I imagine Mom did during that time. Perhaps this is another kind of letting go—the need to let go of the past.

I think of all the letting go she had to do those last years. Letting go of her memory and her ability to make sense of the world; of her ability to walk or take care of herself; of her capacity to make her own decisions and of most of what was fun. Eventually letting go of her body and of her life itself.

When I think about this, I am pretty sure that I don’t fully understand the implications of letting go, or even what I am giving up. All I see at first are the positive aspects of living lighter along with a little collateral sadness, something along the lines of not having luggage to carry out of the car. But when I think about Mom, and I consider losing parts of myself that I consider central to who I am—memory, interests, skills, my home, my work—it is much more unsettling. I can feel the desire to clutch fiercely at these things, uncertain that what will take their place is worth it.

Then I feel the wind blow, I see the tips of all the trees move in concert like a green ocean, and I know that these trees are connected all the way back to the canyons of Utah, the sage brush of Nevada, the pines of the eastern Cascades, the great fir trees of the Olympic Mountains, and on and on. I feel the whole earth breath. I feel the pull to keep trying to understand what it means to hide the world in the world. I know there is no going back.

When you let go
you relax
open your hand—
everything falls to the ground.
You don't have to choose
any more.
This does not mean, though,
that you are bereft—
that things won't choose you.
That things with wings
won't land on your open palm,
or that little feet
won’t make the long journey
from the ground to your lap.
Just wait.
Open.
Everything
is a part of you.

------------------
Corbett, J. Goatwalking. (1991). New York: Viking.

Sunday
Jan152017

Day 114-132: Rest

In the past month and a half—spent mostly in the Mohave Desert—we have settled into a habit of hiking. Whenever we have free time, we go out first thing and spend the day wandering through washes and along the network of desert trails and roads. Sometimes we talk about what we are seeing: rocks, birds, plants, tracks, butterflies, a view. Sometimes we discuss what route to take when we come to a junction or lose the trail altogether. But more often than not, we are just walking in silence, often each at our own pace, settling deeper into ourselves as the miles pass underfoot.

This quiet is deeply healing for me. It gets in my bones. I can feel it, down in my core. As these long silent hours accumulate I can feel space opening up inside me in places that I didn’t even realize were full. I can start to see all the ways my mind keeps busy—thoughts and emotions, all the little pushes and pulls of a lifetime of experiences, the activity of life with other people. These long quiet days in the desert have made me think that perhaps the main purpose of this year for me isn’t “being open” or “learning,” as I thought before I left—perhaps the point is simply starting to rest.

A dear friend of mine gave me a book for this trip called The Relaxed Mind, Dza Kilung Rinpoche's thoughts about deepening meditation practice. I am drawn to the language of this book, as it is so different from the constant subtle pushing that is always in my own mind: that perpetual effort to achieve a goal, plan for the future, evaluate something, be more efficient, or learn and grow. This contrast is helping me see clearly the ways in which my mind is nearly always active.

When I was talking about my plans for this year with people before I left I could hear how even my best intentions had a partially false note to them. I knew that at times I was saying something not because it was completely true, but in part to justify myself or to do the right thing. The idea that the only point of this year is for my mind to learn to rest—that everything else is optional—is perhaps the first idea about it that has felt true for me all the way to its core.

I can see that this rest will make my actions more sustainable. Like a plant, I am stronger when firmly rooted in something still and solid. When my mind reaches far down into the earth for nourishment it can also stretch up into the light with flowers and fruit.

And that stillness is also where I find my source, that link to a deeper and broader wisdom than my own small perspective. In order to address the kinds of issues that face myself and the world, I need this kind of spaciousness inside me, or even my best intentions will likely mirror and perpetuate the difficulties around me. If I want harmony outside, I need to start with harmony within.

It would seem that resting would be simple. But when I see the barriers between me and real relaxation of mind, I can understand how it can be a lifelong goal. I feel grateful for my friend who understood that I needed this book, for Tom’s ability for silence and his willingness to share it with me, and for the time and space to just be alone and begin to listen past the everyday noise of my mind to the spaciousness we are all a part of.

 

          DESERT WALKING

     Blown clean by the wind
     of my future plans,
     I can feel the emptiness
     I was born to.

     Worry drained out.
     No where to go. The past
     just some grass 
     in a far field.

     That thought gone—
     just this hollow body
     making this music,
     this slow life-song.

--------------------

(After we left Lake Havasu, we spent three days at Mohave National Preserve, a couple days exploring Barstow and surrounding areas with Tom’s sister and family, then moved to Joshua Tree National Park and stayed eleven days exploring the rocks and hills and washes. We then moved down to a resort community in the Coachella Valley for showers, laundry, groceries, a haircut, and a place for Tom to get some work done. If I could only pick one place, Mohave National Preserve might be my favorite so far. It is more subtle than Zion, but I loved its wide open spaces and the varied terrain and plants. Oddly, I don't have any pictures from my time there that I like well enough to post, as I found it hard to capture its spacious, dry beauty. All the pictures in this post are from Joshua Tree National Park, except the fourth and sixth which are from the Coachella Valley Nature Preserve, and the fifth which is from Bill Williams NWR.)

Tuesday
Dec132016

Day 81-91: Why Black Rock, Utah is NOT a National Park‚Ķ

...and Zion is.

Ok, that is a cheap shot at Black Rock. After all, we didn't even get out of the car, and many things in this world are not all that interesting from a moving vehicle. But we were going south in a hurry to get out of the path of the first serious winter storm that was scheduled to hit Utah the next day (November 26.) The snow in Brigham City on November 17th that barely covered the grass blades and was gone by noon was just foreshadowing. This was the real thing. So we drove from Provo to Cedar City in one day, a long trip for us, then on to Zion the next. 

Oh. My. God.

I almost don't want to post pictures of Zion, because there is no way they can capture it. The scenery is spectacular, for sure. But it is so much more than just a pretty place. It is a place that inspires, challenges, and asks for deep reflection.

I think Zion affected me so strongly because I was unprepared. I knew it had something to do with rocks, but that was about it. I was not expecting such magnificence, and for the first few days, I swung between being breathless with wonder and flat-out depressed.

I think this intensity is something that comes with sacred spaces. When I say sacred, I don’t mean that God is more present here than in other places, as it seems to me that whatever we mean when we say God, is, by definition, everywhere. However, there are places where we become more aware of spirit and of our connection to the bigger picture. And this makes us ask questions. The big questions. Like what are we doing with our lives? And what do we spend our precious energy thinking about? And what is in our minds and our hearts? And who are we anyway?

Zion is someplace like that, and I think what its sheer canyons did for me was intensify what was already present inside me. My spirit, yes. My sense of awe and wonder, yes. But also all the sludge that I carry around, too—resentments, worries, fears. Heartaches and disappointments. All kinds of old news. I think this is partly where my depression came from. Zion helped me to see what was in my mind. All of it. And perhaps it helped me let go just a little.

I could see this the day we hiked Angel’s Landing (which after I saw the scramble we had to do at the end, I could only think of as “Angel’s Leap.”) This “hike” ends in a crawl up razor-edged ridges on slippery sandstone hung out over a few thousand feet of sheer-nothing drop off, with some occasional chains for assistance. Did I mention that I don’t like heights? Or that my overactive imagination can’t stop reminding me of what it would be like to fall? This next picture is the view down from the highest point I got to that day. These sheer cliffs were a good place to leave behind the extra baggage of any old, worn-out thoughts, so I could pay attention to my feet.

Zion also helped me drop further into poetry again. At Zion, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I went to the library and wrote. I sat outside and wrote. Even on hikes, I wrote, capturing lines of poetry that rose up as I walked. None of it seemed adequate to what I was seeing, but it didn’t really matter. It was just good to be immersed in language, to remember how important that is to me.

And there were surprises. One day after trying and trying without any success to describe the magnificence of the immense scenery, this poem came to me in a rush, almost complete. Like some gentle voice had said to me, in order to see the magnificence around you, you first have to see the magnificence in yourself.

LETTER TO MYSELF ON MY WEDDING DAY, OVER 28 YEARS AGO

Take root in the man of your life,
but grow your own branches—limber as willow,
fragrant as sage, joyous as penstemon
with its happy rockets of sunshine.
Do not be dour. There is no time
for it, no matter the circumference
of the situation or the annihilations
of morning. You, girl, are enough
and more than enough, with your dual
lungs and your long eyes and the angle
of your reflection. Stand up straight.
We are waiting for you. Take your whole
heart and fling it up, towards
the dizzying cliffs, trusting its return,
faithful as an echo, fierce as an eagle
trained for the fist. Do not put yourself
away in your pocket when he walks by,
but wave ever more broadly in his passing,
like teasel, or fescue, or wheat—
filled up with sunlight, abundant with life.

Wednesday
Nov232016

Day 78: Antelope Island meditation

Blue skies this morning after last night’s wind and rain, and I sit in the sun at our campsite facing Great Salt Lake.  It is nearly perfectly quiet here. If I hold my breath I can hear the faintest echo of a car on a distant road. A slight murmer of voices rises occasionally from another camp where three women are packing a tent into a car. Now and then a magpie chatters or there is a tiny tseep from a sparrow or the small flock of campground starlings passes through. But for long stretches of time there is no sound. If the salt flats and the wide stretches of rock and grass had a voice, this would be it—silence.

This silence is a palpable presence. Once I notice it, it becomes the steady backdrop to everything else. Every sound I hear falls into it like a light rain landing on the ocean.

A magpie makes a more determined squawk and draws my eye to what he is scolding—a single red-tan coyote moving in the red-tan field past my campsite as though the grass itself had grown legs and was trotting toward the water. In the distance, on the tawny hillside is a single bison, grazing. I have been told that “bison” is the correct word for this animal whereas “buffalo” is better used for Asian water buffaloes and such, but I still prefer the name “buffalo.”  I think of Janet Frame’s novel Daughter Buffalo and how different Turnlung’s long demented poetic ramblings about death would be if she had called it Daughter Bison. Sometimes the right word is the wrong one.

I draw my attention out of my thoughts and back to the landscape. Everywhere is space and more space. The brown grass fields sloping down to the flat plane of light-blue water which stretches away and away to the thinnest serrated edge of mountains. Overhead the blue sky reaches across the whole world, as if mirroring the lake below. Even the towering flank of the Wasach Mountains, with their long line of 11,000-foot peaks covered in fresh snow, seems insubstantial next to the land and sky opening out all around.

The space around me also opens up space on the inside. The constant activity of my mind—my fears and hopes and plans—dissolves into this great stretch of sky and lake and land. It is this spaciousness that has been tugging at me since the beginning of this trip, that has been half-hidden behind all the busy days. It is what I have been trying to capture in the hundreds of photographs I have been taking with my cell phone of the horizon line, wide bodies of water, and the sky at sunrise and sunset.

As I continue to sit, the space begins to fill again with daily life. The sun rises, warming the air and the back of my fleece jacket. With the warmth, the birds grow more active. Meadowlarks send their cascade of liquid notes back and forth from the tops of the sagebrush. The starlings have convened a heated committee meeting. Behind me a flock of chukars makes an escalating burbling like a pan of water slowly coming to a simmer. Two magpies pick charred remnants of food off the campfire grill, their bills clicking on the iron bars.

I am reminded of the stereopticon in my grandmother’s cupboard when I was a kid—a frame that held a piece of paper with two nearly identical photos at just the right distance from your eyes so that when you looked through it the two photos merged into one 3-D image. I used to be fascinated with how you could shift your focus back and forth to see either the two ordinary images or just the one image with its magical experience of depth. As I sit here I can feel that same shift happening inside me: how I can see in one moment my ordinary experience of life—planning and worrying and making sandwiches and folding the trailer and watching the birds—and then shift to this other experience of the silence and spaciousness that surrounds us all.

Like stereopticans, places like Antelope Island (or meditation retreats or temples) make it easier for us to make this switch. Hopefully, with enough time spent in places like this, I can also hear that silence and feel that spaciousness wherever I am and whatever I am doing—can see that there is no difference between the two pictures and the single image other than my point of focus.

--------------------

We stayed at Antelope Island on the east side of Great Salt Lake, Utah on Nov 20 – 22 and got to hang out with pronghorn antelope, bison, coyotes, mule deer, and a porcupine. There isn’t a large variety of birds here in this season, but tens of thousands of Northern Shovelers winter on the lake near the island and spend their days puttering back and forth in great rafts with their big bills in the water, filter feeding on the lake’s brine shrimp. A large flock will often take off all at once to move to another feeding area, and the sound of thousands of wings resounding like a jet engine or a distant landslide is always a thrill! We are spending Thanksgiving in Provo, Utah. Happy Thanksgiving to all our friends and family!

Sunday
Oct162016

Day 40: A pause for perspective

Before I embarked on this trip, a friend of mine told me of taking three years to travel around the world. Like me, she closed her business, left her home, sold most of her belongings. She departed her country eagerly and in high spirits, but a few weeks into her travels, doubts appeared and she began to wonder if she had made a mistake. She told herself that if she still felt this way in another two weeks she could go home. At the same time she also made plans to meet a friend farther down the road. And at the end of those two weeks she had found the confidence she needed to continue her journey.

Her story prepared me for uncertainty. Like her, I have had my share of those kinds of feelings during the last 40 days—doubt, sadness, worry, fear. I have at times felt lost and aimless, uncertain of who I am without my familiar work and surroundings. But thanks to the gift of her story, I can be gentle with those feelings while continuing to have faith in the path I am following.

As Day 40 approached, I realized that it felt like a symbolic milestone for me. I kept thinking of the story of Jesus going into the desert for forty days and forty nights to fast and pray. How at the end of those forty days he was clear enough to know who he was and what was important to him. The silence of the desert helped him not be tempted into thinking he was more—or less—than himself.

As I reflect back on the past forty days I can see that leaving behind my familiar world has brought up many things in my mind that were easier to avoid in my regular life. I can see the patterns and beliefs that arise under the stress of unfamiliarity and close quarters. And I also have the time to see that these are just thoughts, and that these thoughts are not all of who I am.

The gift of these first forty days has been the time and space (and triggering circumstances) to just feel these states of being—to simply know they exist. As I fully experience these well-worn mental pathways, I am not so upset by them when they show up. They may not be pleasant, but they are bearable, especially when I stay focused on what is important to me. I also remember that I have no idea, really, what function they play. Just as a swamp seems muddy and mosquitoey and full of smelly rot when you are in it but is essential to the fertility and renewal of the larger ecosystem, these thoughts that I would like to swat like biting flies are also part of some whole that I can only vaguely comprehend.

So today, on Day 40, as the rain hammers down on the roof of our trailer, I am taking a minute to be thankful for all of it. To realize that when one thought or another tempts me to think that it is everything, I can choose the broader view—to see this thought at home in the Whole, and to feel the peace of knowing who I am.

----------------------

(We have been staying in Salem, Oregon for the past couple weeks making several small modifications to our truck-and-trailer-home, and are just about ready to head back out on the road again. This picture is from kayaking on the Willamette River on October 12. Day 40 (October 15) was the day the Big Storm was predicted for the PNW, as the remnants of a typhoon brought high winds and rain to the area. We survived with no damage other than a few minor leaks.)