Tuesday, 31 January 2012

An Abundant Life

This life is a gift.
I welcome it fully.
I share what is given
With others.

About eight years ago I published Learning to Swim: Reflections on Living. The book is a collection of nonfiction stories, all drawn from my years as a competitive swimmer and coach. Its back cover claims the contents “affirm the potential in everyone, and offer lessons that illuminate the lives of both athletes and non-athletes alike.”

I did a number of interviews supporting this release. These were print exchanges mostly, plus one television appearance and a handful of radio slots. In this latter category, was a discussion with Lynn Thompson, host of Living On Purpose.

We sat together near Naniamo’s outdoor swimming pool on a warm Saturday morning, she and I, talking about the book and the journey that lead me toward it. The resulting interview was aired on Malaspina College’s Radio CHLY shortly thereafter.

Two years later, I heard her voice again. “I’ll be in Victoria soon and thought we might catch up,” she said during a phone call. In the time since our last meeting, my work life had fallen apart: I left coaching after twenty years, book sales dribbled toward nothing, and the speaking career I hoped would emerge didn’t.

Riding these waves became the focus of our conversation. Over a long pot of tea, Lynn and I explored how my meditative training had helped me navigate the waters I found myself paddling through - giving me a practice to work with during the tumult and a perspective with which to understand unfolding events. Once again our conversation was aired and that, I thought for the second time, was the end of it.

Recently, however, I heard from Lynn again. She wanted to rebroadcast our second exchange on Zeus Radio, home to her new show, Lynn Thompson’s Light Feed. Her intention was to put it out under the title ‘Living An Abundant Life’. “Will you listen in order to make certain it’s okay?” she requested. A bit skeptical of the heading, I did listen and was struck by a couple of things.

The first is the crucial role my wife’s insight played in what happened after my work world collapsed. This is often the case. Her words sometimes seem to come from ‘elsewhere’, propelling me into territories I would not otherwise enter. “You’re trained to teach meditation,” she offers. The implications continue to resonate.

Also striking is how clearly the span since our previous interview is seen as a time of abundance. “Life gives us what we need,” I often say during classes and workshops. To be honest, I sometimes lose sight of this. In this interview, however, these words ring with truth. For this reason, I am glad to have had the chance to hear it again. I hope you enjoy listening.


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Thursday, 19 January 2012

In Galvin's Meadow

“The real world goes like this:”
- James Galvin, The Meadow

A friend lent me a copy of The Meadow. I was facing a long day of travel, wanting something to pass time. “I love this book,” she enthused. “It’s one of my favorites.” Written by poet James Galvin, the book watches a century pass in the high mountains of the Colorado-Wyoming border. In an act of literary meditation, the author rests his attention on this place, a lonely oasis of grass and hay, while a cast of characters - homesteaders and hermits, families and renegades - comes and goes in the manner of passing thoughts.

A central insight of the novel concerns the primacy of land in human life. Though Galvin does not draw unnecessary attention to the fact, the meadow emerges as the central character in this work. The meadow is the constant. It is the presence that lingers through all the years we witness - there before certain players appear, there after others leave, die, vanish, are forgotten. Buildings rise and fall; the meadow remains. Relationships begin and end; the meadow continues.

This relatively small piece of landscape is also the most demanding character in the book. Though few of the people we meet count flexibility or submissiveness as significant personality traits - most are fierce, stubborn, independent - the meadow forces all of them to bend to its rhythms and moods. And when ‘city folk’ arrive from nearby Fort Collins, intent on ignoring the demands of place in favor of their own whims and fancies, the results are predictably disastrous.

As often happens when reading works like this, The Meadow quickly had me longing after a way of being in which land’s primacy is honored. Anything composed by Wendell Berry draws me into this territory. Wallace Stegner, too. Now Galvin’s book. There seems something woefully disconnected in modern living. The asphalt speed, the high-rise distraction, the urban immersion feels so complete I sometimes forget that, even in the city, I am necessarily, irrevocably part of the natural world.

Which is a curious state of mind: believing that city living, living at this time, necessarily precludes involvement with the phases and patterns of a greater world. It’s quite an ignorant conceit, actually, believing my living circumstance precludes a sense of, a relationship with the natural world.

I recently spent a month meditating near the same country Galvin inhabits in his book. Much of this span was passed on my back, as any familiar with the process of ‘meditating with the body’ will expect. For those who aren’t, a fair portion of this practice involves laying on the earth.

If this sounds like no big deal, I would argue otherwise. For many years I was involved in Victoria’s Iyengar Yoga community. From the first, the teachers in this collective impressed me with their presence. It wasn’t that they were remarkable in any extraordinary sense of the word. They were, instead, remarkable in a very ordinary fashion. They seemed rooted in a manner I was not at that time familiar with. Like trees or mountains they seemed in some quiet way fundamentally, basically themselves.

“Do you attribute this to yoga?” someone asked not long ago. My answer came without consideration. “No,” I replied. “I attribute this to the fact their feet touch the earth for several hours each day.” After this exchange I started looking at the feet bared about me in class. There was a notable sense of connection between those soles and the earth. There was a sense of continuity.

In the meditative tradition of which I am part, humans are considered aspects of the earth. We are born of the earth. We live as the earth. Our journey, it is said, unfolds in relation to the earth. There is an inherent continuity between ‘us’ and the planet - and there is that word again. ‘Continuity’. Curious in light of the fact this tradition is rooted in the tantric lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. Another term for ‘tantra’? Continuity.

So what of our modern sense of discontinuity with the natural world? Just because we don’t live in the same way as Galvin’s characters, just because our behavior tends not to honor the pulse of the place in which we live, just because our actions seem in so many ways to threaten this pulse - none of this necessarily means we are disconnected from the earth.

Disconnection speaks of relationship broken or lacking. The continuity mentioned above, on the other hand, whether described as the continuity of tantra or the continuity in those teachers’ feet - both of which may amount to the very same thing - strikes me as unconditional. We can no more break this relationship than we can break our relationship with our parents. We can ignore this, certainly. We can deny or rebel against this. We can obstruct and delude ourselves about the bedrock nature of this relationship. But I don’t know that we can break it in any true way.

When we go to a meditation retreat and are asked to lay down, backs on the floor, feet planted and knees raised, we are being given a chance to experience this continuity in a relatively immediate way. It doesn’t matter where we come from or how we make our living. The manner in which we conduct our days is irrelevant, as is whether we have ever practiced in this way before. When we arrange ourselves on the ground like this the opportunity is always the same: to feel connection.

The fact we often encounter tense muscles and a wandering mind in this position does not negate what is being revealed. As the suffering encountered in the First Noble Truth is more deeply understood as our retraction from the sharp nearness of life, the discomfort and distraction that appear when we lay down actually betray our minds’ panicked reaction to the inescapable truth every body knows: we are of this earth.

From this perspective, rather than reflecting hopeless separation, such experiences evidence the unwavering continuity we are born into. If our lives ask us to travel a path of ever-increasing recognition of this fact, physical holding and psychological discursiveness inform us we are on the right track.

Which gets me wondering about the ease, familiarity, and fidelity evidenced by the people who pass through Galvin’s one hundred year meditation. Even though their lives are difficult, there is a certain grace in how these qualities manifest. An enviable grace, in my opinion. Doesn’t connection with place necessarily give birth to these? If modern city-dwellers are, in fact, connected, don’t we get to see some of these appear in our experience too?

Pema Chodron comes to mind at this point; her oft-quoted phrase, “Start where you are.” We must, she insists, start where we are. There is no other option. “The real world goes like this:” The Meadow opens, using different language to affirm the same. “The Neversummer Mountains, like a jumble of broken glass. Snowfields weep slowly down. Chambers Lake, ringed by trees, gratefully catches the drip in its tin cup, and gives the mountains their own reflection in return. This is the real world, indifferent, unburdened.”

Our relationship with the land of our lives is irrevocable. In this sense we are all indigenous, “occurring in a particular place.” For most at this point in history, however, this irrevocable relationship is complicated by ignorance and mistrust. Whether this is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in many ways is irrelevant. It is just where we are; so here we begin.

We lay our backs on the ground, plant our feet, raise our knees. We let the body surrender, allow the earth to rise. Whatever we experience here is as it should be, as right and as natural as the snow falling outside my window this cold January morning. Do we find tension or ease? Anxiety or welcome? It all speaks of connection and relationship - perhaps not in the way we expect or would like, but then how important really are our hopes and preferences? Quite small against the vast blue of a Colorado sky, the sharp chill of winter wind. “The real world,” indeed, “goes like this:”


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Sunday, 15 January 2012

While the Iron's Hot

It is not uncommon to watch eyes widen during introductory workshops. We have meditated for the first or second time, and something has happened. Someone has felt, seen, sensed in a new way. “That was the most profound moment of my life,” one participant confessed. She had briefly touched the fire of life and was understandably moved.

Toward the end of that gathering I provided some suggestions for continuing. I talked about home practice. I mentioned the Dharma Ocean website, Reggie’s books and CDs. I encouraged everyone to take part in the classes and workshops I offer. “It’s a great way to stay plugged in,” I said, looking at the woman whose eyes had widened earlier. “And it’s important to stay plugged in. We don’t often experience this directly without some sort of ongoing practice.”

Then I handed out feedback sheets and a short practice overview. “See you soon,” I waved as folks headed out the door. “I’ll think about it,” some replied. “I’ll look at my schedule,” the wide-eyed woman offered. I haven’t seen her since.

We typically live inside a bubble. ‘Cocoon’ is the word Chogyam Trungpa used to describe this. We typically live inside a cocoon. This is a shield we erect in an effort to protect ourselves from uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and memories and insights. It is a means of dulling experience “so that nothing sharp or painful can touch us.” Only trouble is, this dulling keeps out the fresh as well as the sharp, the brilliant as well as the painful. It, in other words, keeps out a sizable portion of our lives.

When whomever wrote of “living lives of quiet desperation”, this is likely what was being pointed toward - lives lived entirely within the known and familiar, the safe and tolerable; lives in which piercing highs and difficult lows have been edited out. There is, of course, an element of comfort to this. There is a sense of security, predictability. Often, however, there is also a feeling of absence. What is absent here is the dynamic, uncertain, vibrant, terrifying, electric feeling of being fully alive. “I have everything I’ve ever wanted,” a student once told me. “But still feel like some important thing is missing.”

The good news is that this ‘missing’ piece really isn’t missing at all. We have simply walled ourselves off from what we long for in our efforts to stay safe. Life, in truth, is always banging away at whatever we erect to protect ourselves; we simply don’t hear or acknowledge the knocking. And on those rare occasions when we do hear, we misinterpret the message. We perceive threat where, in fact, there is really invitation.

Reggie once said, “We need to practice devotion to the disruptions in our lives.” What was he talking about? He was suggesting that those moments in which our plans and expectations are upended are, in fact, moments in which life has cracked the thick, tangled shell of our cocoon and come streaming in like a sudden burst of spring sunlight. For this reason, such instants are to be cherished, attended to, respected.

From this perspective, the flat tire I found on my bicycle yesterday was nothing less than life shouldering her way into my awareness and saying, “Hello!” So too the fact that my internet access has been down all day. I had things I wanted to do today: emails to answer, a project to research, but life had other ideas. “Hello!” she announced cheerfully. “Instead of losing yourself in what you hoped would happen, how about paying attention to this?” ‘This’, in the current instance, being frustration, annoyance, uncertainty - plus a bit of excitement about the uncharted day I suddenly find myself sailing through.

This kind of disruption happens with increasing frequency when we meditate. Once we slow down - and meditation does slow us down - the cracks in our façade are that much easier to find and penetrate. The light of life gets in through these cracks, revealing the everyday in wonderful new ways. Hence those eyes. Hence the profundity. This is one of the tremendous gifts of the practice, though it is a gift that does not linger long. Often the crack opens - whoosh! - and we see for an instant. Then - whoosh again! - the crack closes like thick velvet curtains on an old Broadway stage.

Let’s go back to the internet situation mentioned above. For several minutes after realizing I was temporarily ‘cut off’ from the day I expected, a sense of openness and possibility was experienced. What was I going to do? What did I want to do? The unknown was not just irritating, it was also exhilarating. “Fresh” as Rinpoche observes.

Then plans flooded in. There were ideas about how I was going to ‘salvage’ this day, hopes I still might achieve this and this and this. The sense of contracting possibility that accompanied this process was tangible. I could feel it in the body, in a sudden and dramatic loss of openness and potentiality. But I kept on doing what I was doing: constructing an apparently knowable and certain world where, only moments before, there had been something far more vibrant and interesting.

“Am I supposed to never plan, then?” This question was raised by a student some years back. It’s a good inquiry, one that points toward a valuable observation. It is true, as she sensed, each of us does have things we must accomplish in our days: work, groceries, phone calls, meetings - the list goes on. And it is helpful to sketch these out for ourselves. ‘I’ll return those calls at lunch, pick up food on the way home,’ and so on.

What is striking to me, though, is how reluctant we can be about suspending this sort of mental activity. Sure I had some things needing attention today, but did I really have to begin hoisting a new agenda on my day only minutes after the old one collapsed? Wouldn’t it have been a bit more interesting to hang out with the frustration, annoyance, uncertainty, and excitement for a while? What might have happened had I done this? Had I been curious enough to explore a day - let’s say just an hour - suddenly, unexpectedly stripped bare of plans and expectations. Had I, to conjure Reggie again, practiced devotion to this disruption.

We are all so quick to re-establish normal after life cracks us open. Think of how often we say things along the lines of, “When I get myself together” or “As soon as I have (fill in the blank here), then I’ll (ditto).” This is one reason I am not surprised to see so few of those wide-eyed people again. Something remarkable shines at us for a moment and, then, as we glance at our schedule and see all the hockey practices and work meetings and family gatherings, clouds begin to form. Our vision hazes over and darkens. Soon we can’t recall what we had glimpsed and life goes on...

There’s something this dynamic has added to the comments offered toward the end of most classes and workshops now. “Strike while the iron’s hot,” I say while overviewing ways in which people might continue the journey. I am talking about meditation when I utter these words, of course. Right now, however, I realize I am really talking about life - about anything that finds its way through one of those cracks that occasionally opens in our protective shields. Meditate. Dance. Paint. Rage. Weep. Call the friend you haven’t spoken to in years. Take the day that is presenting in unexpected ways. Fulfill that promise or write that blog post - and do this before you take a look at your calendar.

Just strike while the iron’s hot, while the opening’s there. For if experience is in any way reliable, that blast of inspiration, unless seized in this moment, will soon vanish. Like exhaled breath on a cold winter morning, it will rise and disperse and never be seen again.


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