Everything depends on good motivation.
(His Holiness the Dalai Lama)
The unexamined life is not worth living.
(Henry David Thoreau)
Wild West Wanderings
August 1989. Cape Scott.
One Hundred tiny shorebirds skim the wavetops as one. They veer into the diamond reflections, their wings flash white, and vanish. Many sacrifices were made to arrive here, at the continent’s edge, the place of inner beauty and silent knowing.
It has been nearly five years since I sat in a windowless conference room, behind a closed door, facing my supervisor in the trust department of the bank. “So Jordan, where do you think you’ll be in five years?”
With an uncharacteristic surge of confidence in myself, having already sensed that I probably wasn’t going to hang around for the gold watch at retirement, in a monotonous job that drained my life essence away hour by hour, day by day, year by year, I responded quite candidly and without any hesitation: “I have no idea.” It seemed such a silly pointless question at the time, I mean, how can anybody know what the future will bring? And to pretend that mere mortals can know, what greater delusion is there?
Now, reflecting from their side of the table, it was a perfectly reasonable question, straight from the management handbook. My supervisor found out what she needed to know about me – I was probably not the best candidate for promotion. And I found out what I needed to know about myself – I wasn’t interested in climbing the corporate ladder, and with a tremendous sigh of relief, I stopped trying to be someone I wasn’t, the upwardly mobile yuppie chasing material success. I didn’t know who I wanted to be, but now, at least I knew, I wouldn’t be satisfied with anyone else’s answers. It was up to me to find out, not only the answers, but also, to define the questions.
I moved north, across the Canadian border, to a small island off the beaten track, where it didn’t seem to matter what was in your past. I was invited by new friends to take up residence in an empty cabin in a one room cabin with a deck that occasionally got swept with spray from the surf.
There, my life began again. For a while, I thought that I’d finally found my paradise, beneath fir trees, looking west across the inland sea to glaciers above Vancouver Island. I’d live out the rest of my life hauling seaweed to the compost pile, reading Tolkien, kayaking over to a friend’s cabin for an evening or two of chess, smoking the finest pipe weed in the West Farthing, watching clouds and waves move across the horizon. It all seemed idyllic, for a couple of months anywise.
“Why do those nasty loggers have to cut down so many trees?”, I would mutter to myself, watching a self-powered log barge steam past carrying a forest of corpses. I began to wander again, occasionally connecting with other seekers and crusaders out to save the Earth.
One summer day, after a brief spring romance again failed, like all other fantasies that had gone before, to produce my perfect happiness, I set out by kayak, paddling north, resuming the search. I still wasn’t sure for what I was searching, but I was beginning to see that if I gave up my search and settled for “good enough”, I would never discover anything new.
Instead, the burning passion for understanding would eventually turn cold with age, and I would content myself with a comfortable neurotic happiness. If I were lucky enough to live a normal life expectancy, I would probably die of some disease of western excess. Something told me I’d already taken that road before, in many previous lives perhaps, and seeing that it had only brought me to this present moment, a deluded twenty seven year old at war with the world and himself, I was growing wary of the lures of temporary comforts found in any particular place or person.
Smooth swells originating somewhere beyond the horizon, rise up, collapse in one final gasp. It is my own edge that I return to, again and again. And like the waves breaking endlessly, one after another, this present body and mind is merely a passing moment on infinity’s beach, part of an endless succession of mortal waves.
The dust from the bones of all my past bodies could more than fill all the world’s beaches, deserts, and river deltas. The name of the river changes, but where does it flow? Do I wish to know, or am I content to aimlessly migrate, blown by the winds of karma, like a stick adrift on the seven seas? Perhaps there is another way.
We must be true to ourselves, that takes courage. On the journey of life, one of our first goals must be to come to know ourselves. (Unknown)
Morning. Pushing off in the kayak, sand bottom fades into the transparent depths, like so many yesterdays. It is hours before dawn, and the transition from Earth to Ocean, heightens the awareness of traveling between worlds – inner, and outer, temporal and spatial.
A few strokes along the shore, I find a giant back eddy and enter into its domain, connecting with the force of the sun, moon, planets, and my breath… the great circle. Rounding the cape, the full force of ten thousand mile grandfather waves greet me. Launching off the top of the first wave, a herd of sea lions suddenly appears and charges towards me, a few paddle lengths away, roaring in indignation that I would dare to enter The Kingdom. Or perhaps they are welcoming me with all the pomp and procession of a visiting king. As drama and appearance explode, unfold, instant by instant, I notice tall cedars silhouetted against orange predawn skies from the corner of my eye. Everything is extraordinarily ordinary.
Ha, to enter the sea;
Do not look on from afar,
For the pearl is in the depths of the sea,
The foam on the shore.
Vast empty horizon and vibrant abundance in perfect balance. Great completeness is always here, within, around: The sun, moon, tides, a beach curving towards infinity, clouds, dreaming fog, drifting log. Dawn circles around again. I paddle south into the sun.
Two nights ago, paddling through the blackness of midnight, off a shore of dense forest and rock cliff, hour after hour into a cold wet fog, riding the ebb… What possessed me to journey at such an odd hour? Purification. It was simply time to move. But these “answers” are like dead bones, driftwood littering the shoreline against the Ocean of Truth.
Waves, Bears, eagles, ravens, campfires and sand, are my companions of late. The memory of “my kind” fades with each day, and with it, human identity sinks deeper into the depths. The one who remains resides ever more at the center of knowing.
Nuuchatlitz. Spirits of the ancestors lingers in the shallows. Their dance lives in the waves refracting off cliffs; their drums boom from the sea caves; their eyes from offshore ledges watch the orange kayak passing, and remember the great cedar canoes of yesterday, a mere moment ago in the mind of the Earth protectors.
Clayoquot Sound. The People still live here. They are called Ahousats. They are fishermen, trappers, artisans, healers, elders, mothers, fathers, children. Red people are gathering with their white, yellow, and black cousins in nonviolent resistance to the rape of the forests by the multinational greed machine.
A sweat will take place at dawn to purify warriors of peace. I have never been part of a traditional sweatlodge and hope this will be my opportunity. While gathering cedar driftwood for the fire, an elder approaches me and asks if I will tend the fire and move the stones for the others. I hesitate, momentarily disappointed, forgetting the unity of the circle of giving and receiving, forgetting that ceremony is not divided into outside and inside, and that all who participate are healed.
Today is my thirtieth birthday and for some reason, I decide to give myself the supreme gift, the gift of giving. Over the past months paddling the open Pacific alone, fire was my friend each evening, cooking rice and mung beans, warming the body, invoking elemental truth, allowing serenity. Each fire was an act of conscious creation – bits of wood carefully selected and placed, tiny flames sparked and nurtured until steady before the wind. Feeding the flame, I feed body and spirit.
Yes lodgekeeper, I will heat the rocks and make them glow with the intensity of prayer. Each breath, each footstep will be in synchrony with healing ways and pure presence. May this action bring goodness to all. May the people in the lodge purify all negativity and share in the blessing!
I strike a match and a tiny flicker quickly turns into a roaring blaze. “Firekeeper, bring the sacred stones!” I remove the stones one at a time from the searing heat and quickly brushing ashes away with a cedar bough, I carry them to the door and announce their arrival: “Stone!”
Seven times I repeat this journey, from the fire in the east to the darkness of the lodge-womb in the west. I am mirroring Father Sun’s journey through one week, one drop of Mind unifying with cosmic presence through ritual ceremony.
“Close the door!” I pull the flap across the east facing door and hear the hiss of water vaporizing on the rocks. Chanting, crying, the people release the grief, fear, and layers of dirt from their minds.
“Open the door!” I pull back the flap and step quickly to the side. The steam that rushes out is full of the discarded negativity.
Three more rounds of seven stones follow, one moon cycle, and then a final cleansing in Mother Ocean. The healing is good!
Seattle. Winter storms arrive with powerful winds. The summer ceremony has made my wings strong and graceful. I ride the currents effortlessly like an eagle circling the universe. A Hopi elder, Thomas Banyacya is here to speak of the ancient prophecies of his people:
“Earth is in the time of the Great Purification. The disharmony created by man’s ignorance of natural law is bringing closer the likelihood of a powerful planetary cleansing. If humans continue to act with disregard for the web of life, we will destroy ourselves and leave only the Ant People to wander over a scorched and barren wasteland. We must connect with the spirit of life within us, nonduality with all things. The Earth changes have already begun and time is running out.”
“Our ancient ancestors foresaw the ‘dropping of the gourd of ashes’ (Nagasaki and Hiroshima), ‘the Eagle’ (NASA spacecraft) landing on the moon, ‘the iron bird’ (airplane), ‘the spider webs crisscrossing the skies” (telephone and internet) and other harbingers of the end of this fourth world. But prophecy is not prediction. There is still time, if we act now.”
I walk outside to the street after the talk, as if dazed by a lightning strike from this old man wearing a red bandana. In the west, the clouds glow red. A tear drops from the corner of my eye. Life is beautiful; I am learning to die. I wander, seemingly without aim through the University District, until my eyes catch sight of a digital bank clock: 4:44(!) The Four Corners, the place of prophecy, the meeting place of world systems. Eagle wings take flight and be strong!
December 1989. Big Mountain, Arizona.
I am standing outside Roberta Blackgoat’s hogan at Big Mountain, Arizona. A few days after Thomas’ talk, I hopped a ride with a friend headed to the Grand Canyon.
I have come to offer support to the People who live in their traditional way of prayer, in the center of their four sacred mountains. The U.S. Congress passed a law in 1974 ordering the People to leave. Beneath the sacred land lies coal, uranium, and water. The urban auto-industrial world hungers for these resources and every day explosions rip open the veins of Mother Earth in a silent war of genocide, largely invisible in the corporate owned media.
I watch my friend turn around and drive away. I am in the middle of nowhere, with a seventy five year old woman who speaks little English, and her herd of thirty five sheep and eighteen goats, some fear, and a lot of trust. In the morning she takes me to the corral, points me in the direction of a creek a few miles away and instructs me to lead the animals there. “Come back around sundown.”
I have never herded animals before but discover that if you stand behind them and walk in the desired direction, they seem to catch on quite well. It is cold and silent most days, with only the wind and an empty landscape of rock, dotted here and there by juniper and pine. In time, I begin to know the animals individually, but Roberta is not so easy to fathom. I am ignorant of Dineh ways. Perhaps I speak too much for an elder used to living alone. Besides, white supremacy culture has made many words in broken treaties – what good are they now?
“We need rain, good corn seed, pure air without coal dust. We need our livestock, wool for our looms, food for our bodies. We need our land, our Earth. I don’t want to sit in the corner of a square tract house next to the electric heater. I want to pray next to the fire in the center of the hogan-universe where I was born.”
One day while out following the herd, I scan the sky and count fourteen airplanes all at once. Where are all the people rushing to? Are they even aware that there are people still trying to live a simple life in harmony with the Earth? Manifest Destiny lives on, waging a silent genocide, waiting for the last of the elders to die, or give up hope. Why is it is easier to acknowledge the dark side when it shows itself in a place far away, like Tibet, rather than in your own country, your own backyard, your own mind?
The silence feels oppressive at times. Stories circulate about BIA agents confiscating livestock in the middle of the night, low flying Apache helicopters, and the ever present rumble of explosions from the coal mine. These things gnaw at you in the cold desert wind where there is no easy escape from a troubled mind.
A month passes. One day, the forces of good will prevail, but for now, I struggle with these fears and sorrows, and in time I make myself overly weary. I decide to move on. Roberta practically begs me to stay. But this is a battle I am not ready to fight. I vow to return to the front lines when I am stronger.
June 1990. North Cascades, Washington.
I am in the wilderness again, listening to the inner voices. One morning, I rise early and begin climbing Early Winters Peak. Of the “ten essentials” I have none, only a few clothes on my back and the spirit of awakening within. Climbing three thousand feet above the valley floor, I sit naked on a large boulder, facing north, praying for strength in the coming times of difficulty.
Cold raindrops pelt my body, and I begin to wonder if maybe it will change to snow? I sit unmovingly, enduring a few shivers, then rise from meditation to descend. The edge is becoming more familiar. I am in the summer of my life, learning to play on both sides of the inner mountain divide separating austerity from foolishness, somehow remembering always to return to the place of balance.
Hitchhiking north, across the border to my cabin on Flower Island, I find a terse message at the post office in Vananda: “Leave the country in one month or a warrant will be issued for your arrest. Signed, Immigrations Canada.”
I cross back across the imaginary line separating two merely labeled nation states, drop off the piece of paper to the uniformed individuals. There is anger and indignation clouding the purity of my mind, but at least I am not acting it out physically. Beings everywhere simply want to be happy, and most of them are like me, quite confused. How can I help this situation?
“If you wish to be free of confusion, stop confusing yourself.”
Venerable Ajahn Amaro
The following day, I am north of the border again, listening to medicine wheel teachings from a native elder. The inspiration to undertake a traditional vision quest spontaneously ripens from within. A few nights later, I dream of being inside a sweat-lodge and the next day, I am hitching east on the TransCanada Highway, headed to a gathering happening in the Okanagan.
The Rebirth of Mother Earth. Arrow Lakes, B.C.
Arriving at the gathering site, a lone man walks across a field. “Welcome home”, he says with a smile, reaching out to embrace me. The full gathering is a week away and friendships blossom in the work of preparing the land. In the evening, we gather around the fire and share stories and visions.
Later, I approach a native elder, and ask for guidance on a vision quest, offering a pouch of tobacco as is customary. His eyes probe deeply into my face, seeking to verify my motives. “If it is your purpose to make this sacrifice in order to pray for the healing of all beings, then it has my blessing. Let it not be to seek personal knowledge or ego satisfaction. Others have already planned a vision quest, you must ask their permission to join them. If it is agreeable to all, I will accept your offering and help prepare you”.
We are four, an auspicious number. We begin by listening, studying, and meditating on the medicine wheel teachings. Later, we walk to a field where a rock bluff stands alone, like an island on a sea of green. I know this place. I have been here before. Here, on the south side of the bluff, in a tiny grove of tree is where my cabin sits on Flower Island, surrounded by the ocean waters of Georgia Strait. I have stepped through a magic door, into a parallel universe.
The elder circles the rock and detects no spiritual harm present. We return to the main camp and share our last food and water together for three nights and two days.
The following morning, we begin with a purification ceremony in the sweat-lodge. Inside the lodge, the glowing stones are passed through the door, cradled in deer antlers. The first is placed in the east, then south, then west, and north. A large rock in the center is for Mother Earth. The sixth is for Father sky, seventh for the Creator.
The flap is shut. Darkness envelops us. We are inside the darkness of the womb of Mother Earth, preparing to be reborn into a new dawn. Walking to the Grandmother Rock, I let the others choose their spots. Before I indicate any preference, the elder points to my spot, exactly where the my Flower Island cabin sits in the parallel universe. “Your spot is here.”
We build tiny shelters, bent willow saplings with canvas draped over the top and back, then hang bundles of tobacco from trees as offerings to the four directions. They will protect the mind by connecting it with the power of each direction. In a final pipe circle, the elder instructs us to begin by meditating on each of the four directions. “Do not move around much and avoid falling asleep. If you become weak, smudge yourself with sage and offer tobacco to the spirits. Go to your places now and pray.”
East…sunrise, warmth of spirit, purity, hope, truthfulness, guidance, leadership, clear speech, clarity of vision, peacefulness, self reliance, serenity, unconditional love, divine child, power of birth and beginnings, innocence, seed force, spring. A white tobacco tie flutters in the breeze, symbolizing clear pristine air. The Air is entrusted to the yellow race, seekers of emotional balance through meditation. The eagle, great in spirit flight, and the humble mouse, are twin teachers of the east.
South…summer, the place of the heart, power of action, growth, responsibility, a growing youth. A blue tie there represents clean water of the rivers, lakes, and oceans, guarded by the black race, a people of physical excellence, strongly connected to the Earth through their bodies, their dance and movement. The cougar with his graceful power, the willow, supple and strong, are teachers of the south. “The most valuable gift of the south is the ability to express feelings openly without hurting others.”
West….where one learns one’s unique purpose in life, the correct use of power, what the Creator would ask of us as a leader. West is the adult, autumn, sunset, the approach of darkness, rain, thunderbeings, the dream world, meditation, prayer, a place of testing. West challenges us to stick with our goals, to explore the connection between ourselves and the entire universe. It is the perseverance of the turtle. A red tie is there, symbolizing the creative fire of mind, a quality of the white race…keepers of the fire.
North…wisdom, foresight, synthesis, imagination, understanding, organization, discrimination, completion, wholeness, fulfillment, detachment, freedom from anger, hatred, jealousy, and fear. North is winter, the night, the buffalo, the elders, the unknown. A green tie hangs there, symbolizing Mother Earth, guarded by the red race, spirit seers through dreams and visions.
“These four directions are the basis of the medicine wheel which turns forever. The key to understanding and using the medicine wheel is that we must understand that we are the ones with the power to choose how we will act for ourselves, and how we will grow to fulfill our potential. No matter how hard anyone tries, they cannot make us be anything other than what we choose to be. The strength of will is the deciding factor in our success in any of the four directions as we journey on a path of our own choosing. The path is always patient. It is always waiting.
(The Sacred Tree, The Four Worlds Development Project, University of Lethbridge, Alberta).
Waiting and watching for a sign. Listening for a voice. In my seventeen years of institutional learning, nothing has prepared me for this experience. The mind is restless, struggling to see the truth, instead of simply relaxing into it. I am like a mad scientist, dying of thirst, my lips touching an infinite ocean of pristine water but unable to drink because I am obsessed with understanding its molecular structure.
Sun and moon take turns moving across the sky. In a sudden fit of impatience I implore “the Creator” to make himself known: “I am just a humble man before you Great Spirit, I bow down before your greatness. Please speak to me.” Two ant bites on my rear, the immediate response. Pain shoots through my body. It is the pain of the Earth. The humans, like mindless insects, pluck the hair from their Mother with buzzing saws, gouge her skin with giant shovels, drain her blood, inject poison into her waters. She knows no sleep as planes, cars, and machines, and five billion humans swarm over her.
Darkness. Heavy eyelids. The mosquito assault of early evening has abated and a hawk begins chirping. His wings sing as he dives, creating a beautiful, haunting sound. “Stay awake”, he seems to say. “Listen for messages. I am happy that you are here, praying for all beings.”
Awake… dreaming… half awake… My head continuously nods as I struggle to hold my body upright. A voice speaks:
“Stop! Examine your life. The moment of decision is upon the Earth, NOW. The future is in your hands. Paradise is possible if you act on your highest intentions. If you fail to act, unspeakable catastrophe is imminent.”
I peer into the shadows. Was I dreaming? Who am I? What voice within me has spoken?….is speaking?
Morning. The wind surges like surf through the trees. A tiny green worm crawls up my finger. His translucent body of pulsing liquid energy communicates the universal truth: All creatures desire life.
Stomach growls. Mind is clear like mountain spring water, spacious like infinite blue sky. Nearby, chainsaws suddenly roar to life. The torture machines do not rest until late in the afternoon. Again, little brother eagle returns in the evening to swoop and sing with his wings, glad for our presence
Darkest hour before dawn. Weak. Lonely. Afraid. I can’t go on. A voice: “You are not alone.” I feel the presence of the others nearby, encouraging me to join them in the ceremony of Life. “Live your dreams and you will have no regrets when it is time to finally leave this body.”
Light returns. A mist hangs over the valley. Suddenly a single thunderclap splits the sky directly overhead. The vision quest is over. It is just beginning. It is time to return to the full gathering.
We take turns sharing our visions during a final round of purification in the sweat lodge. Everyone laughs when I tell about the Creator manifesting through the ant people. After I finish speaking, the elder reflects for a moment and says: “The ant people are highly organized and disciplined workers. Strive for greater self-discipline.” A few days later, as I am preparing to leave, he looks at me with a gaze that is at once fierce and gentle, and he speaks: “It comes from the Heart.”
Having gained this rare ship of freedom and fortune
Hear think and meditate unwaveringly night and day
In order to free yourself and others
From the ocean of cyclic existence.
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.
(Togme Sangpo, The Thirty Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas.)
Seattle. I return to the concrete jungle once again. I could call friends and ask for a place to sleep, but I decide to experiment with not relying on privilege, at least for a while. In Steinbrueck Park, the People gather beneath their totems, sharing laughs, songs, listening to ghetto blasters, drinking beer.
As evening approaches, I notice a smiling dark skinned man with a smile. Our eyes meet. “Hola” (Hello). “Que tal?” (What’s happening?)
Struggling with my high school Spanish, I say “De donde pais?” (What country are you from?). “Honduras”, he whispers. I drop the pretense any fluency in Latino culture and ask “where is a good spot to sleep?”.
He says he will show me and leads me to a nearby city referral office. Even though it is June, a chill wind swirls through the line of huddled figures. The door is closed. As the evening sky darkens, my brown eyed friend smiles again, bidding me farewell. He will sleep on the streets tonight.
The next man in line, sensing my unfamiliarity with the street scene, begins to speak to me. He was in the navy, now waiting for a disability pension. “Good hot air duct at yonder alley. Cheap showers and razors at such and such a place.” His demeanor reveals a hunger for affection. Perhaps he is scorned, rejected, or ignored by the world. “We’re human beings too you know.” I smile with him and we pass the time together, our friendship sufficing for shelter from the wind.
The line lengthens and with it, the darkness and cold seems to bite a little deeper. The din of autos, buses, sirens, and jet planes drift in and out of awareness.
Finally, around ten p.m., the door opens. A thin elderly woman announces to the crowd that all the shelters are full tonight but free food (glazed donuts), coffee and clothing (thin synthetic shirts, no blankets) are available. She admits us inside in groups of five each, for five minutes. Inside, I ask her about the homeless situation. “Three thousand people, with beds available for half that number…eighty beds recently lost due to funding shortages.” In my pack I have two wool blankets and am wearing a woolen poncho, gifts from others. I place them all in the donation box and walk to a phone booth, shivering in my tee shirt, but warm with a smile in my heart. My friend arrives shortly in a shiny new Volvo. I sleep on the carpet next to the grand piano.
Please Call me by my True names
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow-
Even today I am still arriving.
Look Deeply: Every second I am arriving
To be a bud on a spring branch,
To be a tiny bird, with still fragile wings,
Learning to sing in my new nest,
To be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
To be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
To fear and to hope.
The Rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
Of all that is alive.
I am a mayfly metamorphosing
On the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
Tat swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am a frog swimming happily
In the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
That silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
My legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve year old girl,
Refugee on a small boat,
Who throws herself into the ocean
After being raped by a sea pirate
And I am the pirate,
My heart not yet capable
Of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
With plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
His “dept of blood” to my people
Dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm
It makes flowers bloom all over the earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
So vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names
So I can wake up
And the door of my heart
Could be left open,
The door of compassion.
Thich Nhat Hanh, 1978.
August 1990. East bound Greyhound bus somewhere in Montana.
A silver rivet head above the driver fixes my gaze. Ordinary appearances begin to dissolve, mind proliferations gradually calm, the steel box I am riding in, is a timeless temple. Shifting my gaze out the window, the landscape of Turtle Island reveals its infinite diamond faces, a living prayer, mandala home to infinite beings.
The passenger who got off at the last stop left his garbage on the floor. May he find the beauty way! A Japanese tourist sits in the next seat. I ask him to write three phrases in Japanese into my notebook: “Hello, Thank you, I love you.” Smiling, he grants my wish.
Parked in Fargo, North Dakota.
This is post-empire-decline-urban-sprawl. Dirty concrete industry juts above the earth as an orange sunrise blesses the day. On the north side of the bus, the traveler sits in the shade, cool with the awareness of here and beyond.
Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your own achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be; and whatever your labors and aspirations in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy. (Found in old St. Paul’s Church, Baltimore, Maryland, 1692.)
August 1990. North American Bioregional Congress IV, Lake Cobbosecontee Maine.
Early morning by the lake. Cobbosecontee breathes to the sky. A monster machine suddenly fires up nearby. Chainsaws buzz like vultures, ripping apart the entrails of another forest. The noise ceases for a moment; chickadees sing and the wind whispers across the tops of tiny wavelets.
People in committees discuss privilege, denial, listening, transformation, racism, sexism, bioregionalism, ism-ism. Four of us form the spirituality committee. Our concluding statement: “Do no harm to others. Do only good to others. Action needs rest, reflection.
If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.”
Jesus, The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels, ed.
September 1990. Midwest.
Bound for the Hindu retreat center. One hundred degree asphalt companion, a Caterpillar road grader parked in the grass, somewhere between country towns in Missouri. Many dump trucks going back and forth. I am weary, holding my thumb out. Why am I here, of all places?
A pig squeals, then another, and another. Suddenly a pickup with a bed full of pigs, pulls off the road nearby. “Heeya! Heeya!” The cowboy brandishes his voltage torture stick, inflicting pain. More screams. Why? More trucks, more pigs. The animals are led quickly from the trucks into a holding pen. Scorching noonday heat, not a car to be seen, only Auschwitz unfolding a hundred feet away. The cowboys drive past and I nod in acknowledgement. May the voltage of love melt open the heart and free it from darkness.
At last a giant perforated metal trailer towed by a pickup arrives and the four legged inmates are transferred from one hell to another – screaming and howling once again as they are prodded onboard, a one way trip to the slaughterhouse. Whining truck engine fades away into the distance, and then the screams. Moments later, a truck stops beyond my outstretched thumb. Nice guy with a smile opens the door. I hoist my half baked body into the air-conditioned cab. In the back he carries a load of shiny new cattle stockades.
Peace in every step turns the endless path to joy.”
Thich Nhat Hanh.
October 1991. Seattle. Saber rattling and flag-waving, patriotic fervor from the halls of power, dominate the public consciousness. After months of learning to walk again after knee surgery, I set off on a bicycle journey, intent on mending body and spirit. My goal is the “Sipapuni”, a Hopi sacred spot somewhere near the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado Rivers, deep in the heart of the Grand Canyon. At this spot, legend has it, the first inhabitants of this, the fourth world, climbed out of the perished third world below, ready to try once more to walk the “good red road”, in balance with all things.
Old Denio, Nevada. Bloodshot drunken gamblers caught in the web of their karma, here at the crossroads of desolation. I must live with greater diligence.
Winemmucca. After a day of rest, I am ready to peddle on, towards the place of emergence. A huge fire to the east, whipped by gusting winds, forces me to give up my external destination in the Canyon.
Just as Buddhist scholars speculate that the mystery of Shambhala may refer as much to a subtle mind plane, as to any physically manifest location, perhaps the Sipapuni is also like this for the Hopi seeker of truth. I spin my tires towards California, the wind sailing me along, into the deeper emergence zone where dotted white lines, wide shoulders, and open skies, become one.
South of Reno. Last night in my dream, the aged locomotive, full speed down the precipitous grade, leaped clear of the tracks, taking all cars over the edge, colliding at the bottom with another train. The earth shook and a town was destroyed. I held onto the cliff with my fingers and then dove off, becoming an eagle, flew away.
Tioga Pass. 9945’ Snowmelt lake, a blue glacial jewel eye, reflects the infinite. A big fish jumps, “plop.” Fisher-man turns his head. Casts his hook, sets his karma with his intention. Garbage is strewn everywhere across the ground. Finding a discarded plastic bag, I begin filling it with beer cans, pull tabs, monofillament line, plastic fish eggs, cigarette butts, tissue paper with excrement. I sense the present and future suffering of those beings who tossed these aside: a life in outer squalor reflects a life in inner squalor. Can I send them the diamond of compassion, not the garbage of anger.
No garbage can around, and my bike is already overloaded, but a warmth for all beings opens hearts and doors. A family on a camping trip greets me, almost sensing my predicament. They will take the garbage with them. Homage to the Goddess, whose tender skin gives rise to diverse beauty on this space rock.
Marin County. At the Presbyterian service, the pastor invites the children to come forward and gather around him. He tells them that if they ever have any concerns, someone who they know who needs praying for, it is good to raise a hand and speak up.
He shares Hebrew teachings on Earth stewardship: “We need to live more simply, conscious of all creation, aware of the importance of diversity. Our ozone and fossil fuels will be gone soon if we don’t think of our children and generations to come.” In closing he reads a poem by Wendell Berry, inspiring words about walking through the desert and facing the difficult things in life, envisioning a future of healthy forests, joy, and harmony in nature.
Half Moon Bay, California. I pass an elderly man hitchhiking, shouldering a heavy pack. The pain in his stooped posture and lean face is as obvious as a billboard. I wave, conveying a silent blessing, returning awareness to my breathing, the whir of my tires, and glimpses of the Pacific Ocean surf rolling in from the west.
Evening. I walk into the sitting room of the Santa Cruz Youth Hostel and there is the old man. He grins at me, as if to say, “what took you so long?” His name is Solomon Harris and he begins telling his story. He was aboard the battleship Arizona in December 7, 1941, the day of infamy. His two brothers were killed. He survived, but the inner war continued for him. One evening last winter he was stabbed four times outside the Seattle Youth Hostel. His lung was nearly punctured and his breathing is now labored and painful. He asks me if I will help him collect his bags at the bus station and I say “sure” so we walk there together. He looks happy. I am happy that he is happy.
Once Ananda said to the Buddha, “This community of spiritual friends is wonderful, surely this must be half the holy life.” “no Ananda”, the Buddha replied, “the Community of spiritual friends is all of the holy life.”
Solomon gives me a tiny clay flute, an ocarina. On one side is inscribed the word “IMAGINE“. On the opposite side are two stick figures dancing ecstatically beneath the sun.
“I made this in the VA hospital, but I could never make a tune with it, here, you have it.” I thank him, and tentatively blow my first few notes on the tiny vessel of baked earth. It makes a pleasing sound, like a little bird. In the morning, I bid Solomon farewell and head south towards Monterey, Big Sur, and the infinite horizon.
Days later, Santa Monica. I walk into the Youth Hostel and there is Solomon again, grinning and looking pleased to see me. He tells me that he is here to meet some war buddies before flying out to Pearl for the big fifty year reunion. “They’re holding my government checks”. But a bus trip out to Hollywood to find them is unsuccessful. He thinks they have gone to Mexico.
Out of money, he walks the eight miles back to the hostel where he is informed that his four day guest allowance has expired and that he will need to check out at once. The long walk has re-aggravated his chest pain. Tears fall as he despairs over what to do. He has no money and no place to go.
A familiar feeling of emotional torment rises within me: “The suffering of the world is so great, but I am only a single person, hanging on to what little happiness I can find”, or so the shadowy voice within speaks in muffled tones.
O mind, if you do not do this even when you are being told, then I shall subjugate you alone, for all faults dwell in you. Where will you go? I can see you, and I shall annihilate all your vanities. That was another, earlier time when I was ruined by you. Now give up this hope: “Still, I have my own self-interest”! Unconcerned as you are with much distress, I have sold you to others. If I do not joyfully offer you to sentient beings, you will undoubtedly deliver me to the guardians of hell.
Shantideva, The bodhisattva Way of life, trans. By Vesna A. Wallace, and B. Allan Wallace.
Pulling the thorn of miserly self-concern from my mind, I tell Solomon not to worry; “you will sleep under a roof tonight old man”. I carry his bags a dozen or so blocks to another place, pay for a nights stay, and wish him luck. On the following day, I peddle south, along the beach, and wealthy estates tucked behind tree lined boulevards, arriving at San Pedro in the evening. I walk into the hostel and there is Solomon again, grinning like an elf.
His lung pain has worsened though. I sleep in the bunk next to his. He looks like he could die at any moment. In the morning, one of the hostel staff drives us to UCLA Harborview Medical Center. At nine a.m., there are close to a hundred people in the emergency room, many in obvious pain.
Six hours later, after filling out forms, waiting in several lines, takingl paper numbers, Solomon’s name is finally called. We are led from a big waiting room to a small, private, waiting room. A few more hours pass. Around nine, Solomon, after moaning in agony all day, is given a few pills and admitted.
I visit him each day for the next few days, sitting with him while he snores, listening to his stories, and gripes, silently forgiving his prejudices. After two thousand miles of self preoccupation, thinking almost exclusively about my next meal, what sights I’ll see, where I’ll sleep, I am learning to let someone else into the circle of my heart. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, I am dismantling the prison walls surrounding my heart, stepping into a wider circle of universal compassion. Just baby steps, nonetheless, I am able to acknowledge them.
Is Solomon who he says he is, or just a drifter desperate for a friend, clinging to a difficult life? Another friend at the hostel attempts to contact Solomon’s friends in Hollywood, but the address Solomon gave him turns out to be nonexistent. It doesn’t matter. He is suffering, alone, maybe dying.
On the third day at the hospital, I sense that it is time for me to head north again. As Solomon breathes quietly, his eyes closed, I slip a twenty into his coat pocket and silently say goodbye. Walking through the door, I realize that I’ve come again to the emergence point, the inner Sipapuni for which I set out in search of – my own heart, the heart of service for all beings. This is a good way to live. I will walk this path.
Avalokiteshvara is like the moon, Whose cool light puts out the burning fires of samsara. In its rays the night flowering lotus of compassion, Opens wide its petals.
Breath and Death
It will be my first and last meeting with Glen. He is to be admitted to an AIDS nursing home tomorrow. I am here to help him and his mom pack, label his clothes, and because it is my job as a home care aide, my life-classroom on this day.
It is relaxing work folding clothes, and I’m amused by Glen’s taste in apparel: wild paisley pajamas! A nurse from a state agency arrives and begins asking questions: “Height? Weight? Next of kin? Power of attorney? Date of HIV diagnosis? Do you have any anxiety or depression over your illness?”
Glen answers the questions as peacefully as one might respond to a child inquiring about where the stars come from.
The phone rings. A friend. Glen tells the caller: “Please sing Somewhere over the Rainbow at my remembrance. A real queen song”, he chuckles.
Glen’s mom begins to weep quietly and the nurse reaches out with her hand and comforts her. My eyes are moist and I feel a little strange. I am an intimate stranger. The three of us have been connected since beginningless time. One of us will be leaving soon. We are all leaving, and arriving, each moment. Within the space of love, the illusion of death dissolves, and there is only This.
Now when the bardo of dying dawns upon me. I will abandon all grasping, yearning, and attachment, enter undistracted into clear awareness of the teaching, and eject my consciousness into the space of unborn Rigpa. As I leave this compound body of flesh and blood. I will know it to be a transitory illusion.” (from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche).
October 1992. La Push, Washington. Steve is dying. His two cats will miss him.
He who binds himself to a joy
Doth the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise
November 1992. Steve says that the Harborview doctors want to make him crazy. He was in “psych” testing all afternoon. He tells me: “I refused to cooperate once and they got on my ass. I’m 41 years old , been around the block and back a dozen times. They want to make me crazy because Medicaid pays $800/day to this place.”
December 1992. Karl has 2 dozen T cells left and his viral load is climbing. The doctors are amazed he is still alive. His attitude: “Love everyone that comes into my life, not a moment to waste.
Galaxy of dandelion seed clusters
Poised to fly
3-2-1, breathe, blast off.
January 1993. Met a man on the streets today. Scabs covered his face. Oh the pain! I shrunk from his filthy clothes and diseased body, afraid of getting too close to my own personal hell. I asked “Are you hungry?” “I’d like a foot long submarine sandwich.” C’mon let’s go eat.
After paying, I told him, “I gotta go now.” (Can’t get too close.) “Can I have another dollar, I want to buy…..“a l c o h o l”…he whispers. “At least you’re honest, but no, I can’t do that. Sorry, gotta go.”
Where is he sleeping now, with his cardboard blanket fighting the winter chill? A concrete mattress with a pile of rags from a dumpster for a pillow? Why couldn’t I have offered him a place on the floor at my home? I think of my roommates, and how man becomes imprisoned by his possessions, ever forgetful that the thief of death will snatch these from our grasp. Years later, living alone, with few possessions, I would invent a new list of reasons for keeping the distance.
If you’ve never visited your own hell, and made a kind of peace or safety net around it, you won’t be able to listen and encourage other people to share and find release from their hell. (Unknown)
Last night in a dream, I was the commander of a jet helicopter. Flying out over the west coast, blue ocean, yellow sand below, twenty to thirty orcas are playing. In a flash they are gone. I am building speed, breaking through the envelope. Lucid awareness dawns and I fly clear of the machine. Only the mind now, warp speed. Entering the void, Kathy greets me and I tell her I was Hope’s friend. The two of them left this world a few years before, at the base of Dragontail Peak in the Enchantments. Kathy to me: “It’s okay.” Another night. I am paddling down a river. Pulling into an eddy, I meet Hope. She tells me: “Everything’s okay.”
See the world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
Sweeping the dust
December 1992. In the neighborhood grocery store, I see the familiar face of a nun dressed in maroon robes. Earlier in the day, I dropped my bicycle glove on the floor there, and had to return. Now, recognizing Venerable Chodron, I am grateful for my apparent carelessness.
Is it mere coincidence that I am halfway through Open Heart Clear Mind, a book she has written on the foundational teachings of the Tibetan path to enlightenment? What is coincidence? luck? chance? These words are very familiar to us in our daily lives, but what do we really mean when we use them? The very fact of their existence, as commonly used words in the English language, is proof enough for most of us, of their authentic meaning. Again I ask, what meaning?
Do we really believe that events arise without cause? If you explore this reasoning with common sense, you can see that it is a ridiculous argument, fundamentally flawed. In fact, most scientists and Buddhist masters seem to agree, that effects, functional phenomena, arise only in dependence upon causes.
This is the principle of karma, but if your brain crashes upon hearing strange words, thinking, “this is only some Eastern mystical hocus-pocus”, there’s no need to get hung up on a label. Forget karma. Forget Buddhism. Simply explore how certain causes produce certain effects in your life: Rest and healthy eating produce renewal and strength. Acts of generosity and kindness produce friendship and mutual respect. Listening to pure teachings, reflecting, and meditating on them, produce wisdom.
When we reflect deeply on our use of words like “coincidence”, or “luck”, or “chance”, we see that in an ultimate sense, they refer only to phenomenon for which causes have not yet been fully understood. So, if one uses the words “luck” and so forth, to refer to “an occurrence not explainable by means of our current understanding or level of information”, then that is a valid usage, but if we use these words to mean “something that arises randomly”, then perhaps we are not really sweeping the dust out of our brain bins.
Often in our auto-pilot mode of modern living, we neglect this inner housekeeping, thinking perhaps that it is simpler to act first, and reason later, or not at all. If you wish to step out of this mind rut and move closer to freedom, Buddha’s teaching is that you have to patrol your mind with the every ready broom of mindfulness, lest you allow the dust of fantasy and fatalistic assumption, in a word, ignorance, to accumulate.
This reflection also points to the highly subjective use of language, and the delicate task of clear communication with others. It is very important not to assume that the meanings you give to certain words are universally held. Assuming that you know the intent of another, based on superficial communication, has resulted in more than one war.
When we understand directly, that nothing arises without causes, then it is clear that the spiritual teacher, a being who patiently guides us towards awakening our full potential, doesn’t simply stumble into our life accidentally. By our previous actions of mind, body, and speech, we have drawn them to us, as we similarly draw all people, things and situations to us through the force of our karma, and especially, the mental intentions underlying all action.
We must have previously developed some affinity for their teachings, practicing generosity, ethical conduct, kindness towards all beings, and so forth. In other words, virtuous effects arise from virtuous causes. Negative effects arise from negative causes. Again, it is not difficult to test this hypothesis yourself, so please, don’t believe me. Look and see for yourself. Then your knowing will be of the best kind, not merely inferential, but experiential, and therefore, unshakeable.
Consider also what intentions you need to act on in order to keep this precious friend near you in this, and future lives.
Back in the grocery store, part of me wants to approach the teacher and say something, anything, just to make the connection. I sense a precious opportunity. Possibly I have waited many lifetimes for this moment. But I feel shy, unsure of myself. Illusions of every possible kind are being projected, on myself, and on the teacher. I am ignoble, inferior, flawed. She is holy, superior, perfect.
Of course, I don’t see these delusional projections clearly. Only careful reflection flushes them out, and in the speed and intensity of normal daily life, the shadowy thought trains darting through the corners of my mind are all but invisible.
I wander around, stalling for time, filling a bag full of oatmeal. Walking to the counter, she appears again, this time directly in front of me. Without thinking, suddenly I am watching the words “hello Thubten” come out of my mouth. Where did the shyness go? Instead of facing the harsh spotlight of truth, a program based on early memories of grade school, it is more like being bathed in a gentle radiance.
I tell her that I am reading her book and that it is quite helpful in my process of coming to understand life. She smiles and says something polite. I don’t remember her words, just a sense of someone being very present, and kind. May all beings realize this presence and share it with others.
Shortly after Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment, as he walked through a town, his magnificent aura, the calmness of his stride, the clarity in his eyes, captured the attention of a couple of men. They asked him: “Who are you? A god? A deva? A brahmin?”
“No”, the Blessed One replied, “I am awake.”
June 1992. The ferry pulls away slowly from the dock. People wave from the boat. People wave back from the shore. We are all leaving, entering into a new adventure, life, the present moment, the death of everything that has come before.
The big blue ship blasts its horn and turns away from the shore. What is this dream like illusion I call goodbye? How does it feel in my heart now? And now? And now?
Am I willing to step off the rollercoaster ride, the obsession with life’s appearances, and simply watch the waves of mind curl off into the distance, like the foam curling up from beneath the hull, foaming, hissing, bubbling, dissipating into the distance?
The ship marches on westward towards the southern tip of Lummi Island, into a diamond sea. An afternoon breeze dries the tear streak on my cheek. I stand at the inner threshold of brightness, the place of letting go into what is, of not knowing, infinite possibility.
A L A S K A A A A A a a a… one great exhalation of the breath, sea kayaker’s mantra of freedom, draws me into the vortex beyond this and that, knowing, and not knowing.
I am leaving the familiar world of friendly faces and predictable comforts to paddle into the wilderness of “southeast”, the Alaskan panhandle, to listen to the voices of nature, the voice within.
Freedom has always called to me, as it calls in its own way to each of us. We all want to be happy. But our lives are so often awash in a sea of confusion. In the middle of this turbulence we seek escape, but find that running faster is of no use. Engineering a more sophisticated technology is of no use. Popping a more potent drug is of no use. These bring a brief respite at best.
The voice of freedom calls to me, and it says: “Come and listen for awhile. Observe the mandala of life. Merge with the grand cycles of stars, consciousness, and paths that lead beyond.”
“Come far away from the steady roar of the freeway, the urban jungle of commerce, electrical wires, hard wired twentieth century life and post modern angst.”
Hard wired circuits and angst will probably take some time to leave behind. A mere change in scenery is a temporary pill, an old strategy I’ve clung to since beginningless time. I have faith in my teachers though: The legacy of wise beings who have come before, and the still small voice within that aspires for wisdom, believes in infinite possibility, and knows these dreams are my birthright.
The three day cruise through the inside passage is one long visual feast of trees, seashore, and ocean, seasoned with warm companionship amongst fellow travelers. Arriving in Juneau at three a.m., it is rainy and cold. I accept the invitation of new friends to wait out the weather in an apartment downtown. For four days we tell bear jokes, laugh at the rain, meditate, practice yoga, shop for last minute provisions, and share hearty home cooked meals.
One morning, the sun breaks through the clouds. Light prisms dance on the water below and the glaciers above. It is time to follow the inner callings once again, to go far away so that I may return home, my true home.
Two days later, I am near the southern tip of the Chilkat Mountain Range, threading a necklace of islands, a solitary creature, practicing the yoga of breath and tide, going and arriving, movement and stillness, here and beyond.
Sunset. I pitch my tent on a triangular spit of sand between three islands. Bear tracks are everywhere and an icy wind blows down from the glaciers. Sometime in the night I wake to pee. Stepping from the tent, there is complete silence. The water is smooth, like a mirror. The islands sleep like so many children at the feet of the continent.
Deep in our hearts the Light of Heaven is shining
Upon a soundless Sea without a shore
Oh, happy they who found it in resigning
The images of all that men adore.
A soft glow dances in the northern sky. I wonder what time it is, but carrying no mechanical time piece, the thought quickly passes. The sun is over Italy now. The moon over China. Mind and ocean waters swing upon their cosmic pendulums. All within a vast still perfection.
Morning. I continue my pilgrimage, ever deeper into an unknown world. Rounding the southern end of the mountains, a stiff breeze and whitecaps greets me head on.
Intermittently, the mind gripes and grimaces about having to paddle into the wind. And then I laugh. This is paradise. It is only my own discontentment that ever keeps it from being so. The mystical splendor of the unfolding moment ever invites me to come home.
Sometimes I wander far away, into thoughts, fantasies, judgements, aches and pains, but always I remember to come home, to the present moment, this precious moment. Where else could I pretend to escape to? How long have I wandered like a lost child, searching for the one who searches?
I ride across mind’s mirror, surfing the waveless ocean, licking the spray from my face as the orange kayak bow unerringly knifes through the salty ocean waves, ever seeking the path of least resistance.
Wind ripples approach from a distance and I lower my head, leaning forward without breaking stroke. Hour after hour, the dance continues, traversing endless liquid mountain ranges.
Ten thousand waves later, I am rounding another point when suddenly a mighty peak blanketed in white comes into view, and then another, and another. A sudden gust of wind whistles through my ears, ceremonial percussion welcoming me to the courtyard of these great emperors of Earth, the Fairweather Range.
Exhausted from battling the wind, I pull up on a long sandy beach fed by a fresh creek. I look for bear tracks and find none. Pitching my tent for shade from the hot afternoon sun, I lie down for a nap. I am in the middle of a dream when I hear: “Hello? ….hello?”….
Huh, wha? Confusion. Panic. Oh my god it’s a bear! “Hey mate, is it okay if we share your beach?” Wait a minute, bears don’t talk with an Australian accent.
I poke my head out of the tent and a couple of paddlers have just pulled ashore. I tell them I’m happy to share the beach with them. My beach is your beach is bear grass, driftwood and creek’s beach.
She is a doctor, he is a between-jobs-kayak-builder and artist. I mention a friend who recently completed a whitewater river descent in remote Tasmania. “Oh yes, we met the bloke, quite an epic adventure he had.” Small world. We smile, share a few stories, some food, and allow each other the solitude we came for.
Waves crashing against the sand lull me to sleep. In the morning, I see that the wind and waves have not rested a bit. I launch into the chop and begin paddling along the shore, observing the patterns of the water, the sky, mountains, and the endless reflections of mind.
To the northwest, a group of islands rises out of the sea, like a school of porpoise. I check the chart and discover that they are named: “Porpoise Islands.” Did I read that this morning? Or was I the explorer who named them in a previous life?
It is a natural lunch stop, a name that evokes a sense of déjà vu, and a pristine beauty that is magical. Gliding into the smooth beach face, I decide to call it a day’s paddle and set up camp. After all I remind myself, I’m not trying to reach some external destination, only the present moment.
Sitting naked in the sun, the afternoon westerlies gust just out beyond the shelter of the cove, whipping up four foot waves with whitecaps. A seal pokes his head up nearby to check out the lone human. Eagles and seabirds note my presence with glances and calls, but mostly I am alone. It is not a lonely alone, but a taste of serene nonseparateness.
Awakening early the next morning, I pack up and push off the beach, hoping to make the last crossing before the thermal wind cycle rises against me. The water is smooth, like glass, only the wake of the kayak and tiny whirlpools spinning off my paddle blades. All is quiet. To the east, the sun’s golden rim begins to swell over the Chilkat Range. It disappears behind a layer of clouds out of which twin fans of light escape, spilling down both sides of a mountain, silhouetting a mile high pyramid.
Near the shore of Pleasant Island, I glide past the trees. Where forest meets ocean, there is a sense of two vast mysteries coming together. I witnessing this union, and simultaneously, am part of it.
A black bear is out for a morning stroll. Further along a pair of deer tiptoe down to the water’s edge and wade out for a brief swim, shaking off the ticks and flies. Birds in vast flotillas sit motionless on the placid water, awaiting the movement of herring.
Suddenly the drone of a plane fills the air, and then another, and another, and another. I am nearing Gustavus and its airport, gateway to tourist Mecca: Glacier Bay National Monument.
Midmorning, I am sitting in the cafe at Gustavus, eating pancakes, and starring out the window at Mt. Bertha, a two mile high white chocolate chip. It feels good to be in the company of other humans, a few anyways, not too many. I wander over to the general store and a woman says “Hi Paul” and starts to hug me, pauses, steps back, smiles. “You look just like Paul.”
Paddling west towards the entrance to Glacier Bay, humpbacks and minke whales are sounding nearby. I follow the long sandy beach marking the terminal moraine of the ice sheet which filled the bay only two hundred years ago.
The sun is shining high overhead in a cloudless sky. Beneath me the underwater mosaic of color dances through the undulating lens of the sea…brown kelp, green sand, blue mussels, red rocks.
At the entrance to the bay, powerful currents converge in broad swirling patterns. Microorganisms swirl on the ocean surface in thick patches, attracting schools of herring. They in turn attract schools of salmon, and birds by the tens of thousand. I am not part of this food chain. In the hull of the kayak lie plastic bags full of rice, lentils, and oats. They were purchased at the store in Seattle, with a mind disconnected from the circle of nourishment, sun, moon, rain, soil, and the sacrifices of other beings.
This recognition brings a sense of regret, seeing how I am so often divorced from unity, and yet in the very moment of acknowledging the regret, I am invited back into the circle. I am not an alien being. I belong here. I belong now.
Inside the entrance to the bay, the cool breeze dies, giving birth to a hot muggy calm. Sweat drips from my arm pits and horseflies circle and bite my exposed skin. I try to elude and wave them off, but the more I struggle, the more determined their attack.
Bartlett Cove. The body is tired after twenty miles of paddling and sleep comes easily. In the dark womb of a two hundred year old spruce-hemlock forest, I am awakened by an explosion. The sky is breathing. The sound seems to come from all directions. Pale moonlight filters through the tent walls. It is hours before dawn. Again, the whales punctuate the silence, exhaling………. inhaling………. a symphonic masterpiece, inviting all listeners into pure presence. There is no whale, no whale sounds, no listener, only This.
Morning. Life is in its infancy here, geologically speaking. The soil I stand on was deposited by a glacier that has retreated seventy miles in the past two centuries. Everywhere, the land, lightened of its colossal burden is rising, creating new shorelines, new communities of life. First come the grasses, wading boldly down the beach, tolerant of the salty ocean swirling about their knees. Flowering plants like dwarf fireweed, chocolate lilly and cow parsnip follow, and then the trees take up residence. First to arrive are the alder, then spruce, cedar, finally the hemlock. The succession is complete, for awhile.
The ice fields hover nearby in their mountain fortresses, alive, ready to surge forward at the slightest change in global temperature. Scientists, and Tlingit legend all seem to agree that the glaciers will come again, returning lush rain forest to barren moonscape, but nobody knows precisely when.
Evening. A grouse begins “drumming” just outside my tent sometime in the middle of the night. Mating season here is short, hence, calls for romance at any hour. Sleep returns until the musical chatter of a nearby raven calls me out. “You trickster, the dawn is still distant”, I chortle to him in his tongue. Sleeping, dreaming, dreaming within dreaming, waking to the sun’s warm touch, or is it a dream within dreams?
One day flows like a seamless mirage into the next. Private yachts drop anchor or tie at the wharf, move on. Visitors on package tours fly in from around the globe, zip seventy miles up to the glaciers in a few hours aboard a high speed catamaran, jet off to where they came from, or someplace else. If they are fortunate, the majestic presence of Glacier Bay will grant them a glimpse of a transcendent beauty beyond anything that could be captured on Kodachrome.
Hey 20th century man!
focus your being,
Not just your machine.
In four days, I am just beginning to know this place, not merely its flora and fauna, but its heartbeat, breath, and mystery. The forest floor is eerily level, as if a cosmic bulldozer had leveled everything, planted trees on the gravel, and left. Whereas older ecosystems have hummocks and the accumulated debris of millennia, this place is clearly an infant at two centuries. My anthropocentric conception of time is shaken, dissolving completely at times for a moment. No doubt I will return to believing in days, weeks, and similar human chunks of time, as defining absolute reality, but for now, I delight in the light, shining through a wide crack in that illusion.
Walking toward my tent, a hastily scribbled sign informs that Mama Bear and cubs have been cruising the beach today. Later that day, I meet Mama, cinnamon colored, about 300 pounds, with her three shoe box sized cubs trotting behind, about thirty feet from where I am conversing with a group of British paddlers. Mama sniffs at us, investigating our motives.
This is her home, and her second litter of cubs here. She keeps sniffing and gives us another look that seems to say: “don’t even think about getting near my cubs, and you with the camcorder, better be careful with that thing, I’m not fond of the media.”
The rangers are working hard to educate tourists on basic wilderness ethics, let alone its finer points, but it is a delicate balance. As the human tsunami surges into one of the last large pristine ecosystems on the planet, radical changes will happen, are happening, with each passing moment.
Love of wilderness by the masses threatens to trample it out of existence, a danger perhaps more significant than another Exxon Valdez, another Chernobyl.
Another day in Paradise. Tendonitis in both arms has clouded my ambitious kayaking plans but I feel no great urgency to move anywhere. I enjoy mingling with the other travelers, swapping stories and sharing in kind heartedness and humor around evening campfires. In the evening, a few of us walk on the rocks by the bay. An orca family swims past, the setting sun glinting off their dorsal fins.
The British team arrived yesterday evening, all five of them paddling red kayaks. They are members of the armed forces, here on “active duty”, receiving full compensation for a stint of “survival training”. The eldest, a soft-spoken man in his mid forties, has been leading groups of trainees for seven years, having pieced together a continuous journey from Vancouver, a thousand nautical miles to the south east.
I muse that military training is gradually being replaced by training for peace. Humanity, if it wishes to survive, will have no alternative but to learn to coexist peacefully, instead of trying to dominate each other and Nature.
Here, where forest, mountain, and ocean converge, multitudes of diverse beings live in balance, revealing the truth of interdependence. But we need not think that entering the wilderness is a prerequisite in order to access this truth. With five billion multiplying humans on the planet, a mass picnic in the countryside is not the answer. We need something more immediate and accessible, something that doesn’t leave a trail of toxic garbage and many footprints in delicate places.
The wise throughout the ages have made this journey by turning within. Sometimes they have gone to mountain caves and forests in order to still minds’ waters, but invariably they return to the gathering places of the human tribe.
This inner countryside is the true wilderness, the place of majestic discovery. Unless we go forth in search of this inner vista, our worldly travels, life after life, will never produce anything but fleeting happiness and dusty memories.
Morning. Towering snowy cathedrals beckon to me with celestial spires. Milky green fingers of the bay, like a silk carpet, unrolls to the edge of the sand. I push off and begin my long journey down the nave, bowing down with my heart, before the altar of discovery.
A flood tide is surging through the upper entrance channel, towards the open expanse of the lower bay. A vast expanse of ocean snatches up my boat like a twig and sucks it quickly towards a frenzy of waves and whirlpools. Eddy lines surge back and forth like the swishing of a dragon’s tail. Anticipating each surge, I lean away, downstream, with the flow.
Waves splash over the deck. I ride my orange steed through the turbulence, absorbed in the nuances of water language, entering a meditative zone that sees the harmony within apparent chaos.
A few moments later, the water smoothes out. Yellow sun blazes above the curving bay. Snow covered mountains tower in all directions, as far as the eye can see. In the distance, a humpback whale leaps from the water, landing with gargantuan splash.
I pass an island blanketed with hundred year old hemlock. The sixteen hundred foot summit is bare rock; scraped clean by the passage of ice. Approaching the shore beneath Marble Mountain (2365′), I behold virgin green slopes laced with waterfalls, dotted with eagles, ringing with bird song, rich with intoxicating flower aromas, and probably teeming with bears. Chilly down drafts funnel off the snow fields, pinching me: I am alive.
Jeweled mountains, forested regions, and other delightful and solitary places, vines shining with the ornaments of lovely flowers, and trees with branches bowed with delicious fruit, Fragrances and incenses, wish-fulfilling trees, jeweled trees, lakes adorned with lotuses, enchanting calls of wild geese in the worlds of gods and other celestials, all these that are unwound and that extend throughout space, I bring to mind and offer to the foremost of sages together with their children. May those worthy of precious gifts, the greatly merciful ones, compassionate toward me, accept these from me.
Cantilever, A Guide to the bodhisattvas Way of Life, trans. By Vest A. Wallace, and B. Allan Wallace.
“Life, life, life!”
Henry David Thoreau
At dusk, the mosquitoes stage an ambush during dinner. A short walk down the beach momentarily loses them. Stowing the food in a plastic bear canister, I walk back to camp and quickly zip myself inside the tent.
Though sometimes my sentimental attachment to “a simpler day and age” lashes out with anger towards modern technology, where would I be now without this marvelous bug free abode? I fall into a deep sleep to the steady whine of insects and the sound of melt waters rushing down steep creek beds.
Early in the morning I paddle past two black bears foraging on the beach. They don’t see me and I keep moving, observing them silently from the corner of my eye.
Hours pass, my visual senses enraptured by the constantly unfolding beauty. Rounding a point, Mount Bertha reappears, towering high above her massive apron of snow. I gasp aloud, mentally prostrating to the retinue of Brahma.
A pod of orcas surfaces nearby. They dance closer, the baby calf displaying particular exuberance in his playful leaps, in love with his shiny sleek black body. The orcas pass with no apparent concern or curiosity toward the lone kayak-being. I turn my eyes forward again, just as a lone spout, followed by a resonant “fffwoooshhh” marks the appearance of another humpback whale. He arches his back and flips his tail flukes skyward, dives deep, feeding intently in the short Alaskan summer, before the season long fast in Hawaii.
From a rocky landing point, I watch the lone “humpie” dive repeatedly in the same spot. Suddenly a cruise ship steams into view. The wake from the giant ship will pound the shore in a few minutes. I wolf down my granola bar, pee, and push off quickly to avoid having my boat smashed on the rocks.
Two ocean liners per day are allowed by the National Park Service into Glacier Bay. As they steam up the west arm, headed towards the Grand Pacific Glacier, long trails of smoke linger. The ominous vibration of the propellers, drums out from these hulking giants, announcing their presence before they are seen.
For the humans onboard, it is a brief taste of wilderness, served up on the deck of a floating Las Vegas. It is as close to Nature as most of them will ever venture in this life, or so I imagine. Perhaps it will make them a little gentler, a little more aware of something larger than man. May it be so.
What are the collective effects of humanity’s actions? It is difficult to know, so subtle and complex is the web of cause and effect, but generalizations are possible. An action that respectfully considers the welfare of all beings is more likely to have an outcome that brings benefit to many. A selfish motivation, one which considers only the welfare of one being, one class of beings, is sure to cause much harm.
Environmentalists, bureaucrats and industry lobbyists may debate for an eternity, and forests of legislation may be passed, and this is not necessarily a bad thing, providing there are forests remaining to make the paper on which the laws are printed.
What I want to know though, is where in the heart of man does respect arise and grow? Without respect, universal compassion, all of the legislative square dancing is much grand words and intentions, wonderful, noble indeed, yet lacking the power of commitment.
I paddle past more waterfalls and snow couloirs funneling off the 2400′ ridge of the Gilbert Peninsula. Boredom. No whales for almost an hour now, and even the enchanted scenery fails to satisfy a mind ignorant of the thorn of desire.
I busy myself with an attempt to pinpoint my exact position on the chart, studying contour lines and depth soundings on the chart. Suddenly I realize the ridiculous mental posture I’ve crawled into. For what purpose do I study a piece of paper to tell me my whereabouts, when all around me the answer is as obvious as the ocean meeting the sky? And besides, the Earth, the solar system, the entire galaxy, is hurtling through space at a zillion miles an hour, all within some nebulous entity called the universe, or perhaps it is a multiverse?
I am “here” and the time is “now”, and here and now are mere conventions established in dependence on the sun, moon, tides, clocks, and a mind that conceives of these conceptual labels. Paddling on, I ponder the ability of mind to know its own nature, to lay down the burden for all time. “Yes it is possible”, I decide. May I ever move closer to this dawn of truth.
I land at the end of a mile long beach. The wind and waves have piled all the smooth stones in this corner. At the top of the beach, I discover bear tracks. The prints are gigantic, and so are the mounds of scat. With a stick I poke apart a good sized bear pie. It is crusty outside but still moist inside. Mostly plant fiber, it is odorless and full of tiny worms. I guess that it is less than a day old, but more than a few hours. Nearby are trails of large round pellets, perhaps elk droppings. I’ll camp here amidst all this exotic poop.
Orcas pass at sunset, and gazing northwards, towards the upper bay, I spot a strange sight out in mid channel. It looks….like a shipwreck! I can make out two broken masts, or is it three? An outboard speeds towards it, probably Search and Rescue I guess, anticipating a dramatic scene unfolding, but it speeds right past, as if the ship were just a ghost. Iceberg!
It is a rare and precious moment in life when an illusion is suddenly shattered, seen through with utter certainty. Every hair on the body stands on end, shivers run through the spine, and the mind is as if suspended like a pearl in deep space.
My teachers tell me that the inborn view of the body-mind complex, the one that refers to a solid and separate “I”, or “me”, is an incorrect apprehension because it affirms the existence of an independent entity which is absent when searched for.
The analogy often given is that of a striped rope lying in a coil in dimly lit light. We think we see a snake, and fear arises, but it is just a coil of rope. Or an iceberg in the wilderness is seen as a ghost ship.
Applying these analogies to the ultimate riddle, the philosophical question of the ages: “who am I?” is a delicate operation. It is the philosophical question of the ages. And, my teachers tell me, it is a question we must answer, and answer correctly, if we wish to cross the threshold of freedom.
Exposing the illusions and abiding ever deeper in truth requires a level of inner commitment and joyous perseverance that is rare in the world. But what worldly pursuit could possibly be as meaningful? Again, it comes down to intention. Why am I here? Do I really expect to find true happiness in material things and personal identity?
A chill evening wind blows in from the north, raising a sudden chop on the sea. More icebergs appear on the horizon. The temperature on the beach has dropped from “bake”, to “refrigerate”, in less than an hour.
Morning. Perfect blue skies again. Cold fingertips grip the paddle; I head north, aiming to pass close to the largest of the iceberg beings. It is an ominous looking creature with a bizarre presence. Its head is balanced precariously atop a pillar from which a steady stream of meltwater trickles beneath the morning sun. I expect the whole thing to topple at any moment by the mere force of my gaze. I keep a safe distance, knowing that ninety percent of this beast lies hidden beneath the water. A tiny shift in balance and the sleeping dragon could awaken, bringing much trouble for this thin skinned kayak being.
Hmmm. I note the metaphysical parallels with the dangers of drifting across the sea of samsara – illusion. The karmic weight of ignorance ever threatens to topple my fragile mortal existence, and with it, all the momentary pleasures that I cling to.
Mount Fairweather (15300’), the reigning monarch of the snow giants, looms into view again. I’ve never seen a 15,300’ mountain before. Alaska is big. The world is big. Space is big. And in the silence of awe, I am one with that bigness. Around another point, the snout of a glacier rears up before me. Heaps of ice the size of houses lie jumbled all across its mile wide crystal blue ice front. Seals and birds cruise around the small bay, as if waiting for the next cosmic performance to begin. A chunk breaks off, stirring nutrients in the water to the surface. The gulls have a feeding frenzy, and the seals slap their tails in applause.
Around another point, Mount Cooper (6780′) rises like a giant knife blade thrust skyward…no trees, no bushes, just a few tufts of grass and flowers beneath a tower of rock, ice, and thundering water. Stripping naked, I step carefully onto a slippery rock in the middle of the creek, ducking my head under the icy water for my first bath in days. It is a bone chilling few moments as I shake off and wait for the sun to smooth out the goose bumps. The ice bath will catch up with me by the end of the day.
Deeper into the inlet, peaks rise almost vertically to six thousand, ten thousand feet, on both sides of me. Hanging glaciers crowd around like Earth mothers watching their baby bergs floating in a bathtub. I crunch through the tightly packed chunks, surprising dozing seals at rest on the icy rafts.
No more trees are visible, just the rubble of a vast moonscape beneath snow and icefields. About a mile from the face of the main glacier feeding the inlet, I stop on a beach beneath a waterfall. Black with silt, it thunders from high overhead, a fifteen hundred cliff that hides a tributary glacier lurking above. At the upper end of the beach, piled against the cliff, a pile of ice ten stories high and the size of a city block marks the remains of another glacier.
The cook stove hisses away as I study the face of the main glacier. Suddenly, a house sized chunk breaks off and disappears into the depths. An eerie silence follows for a few seconds, then a deep BOOOOM, followed by the aftershocks of mere car sized debris trailing after. The seals bark in surprise, or mock applause. A few minutes later, a long wave rolls up on the beach. I wonder what would happen if a whole mountainside broke off? Not an unheard of event in this locale. I begin to feel a sense of foreboding, as if I do not belong here, as if I’m camped at the wrong end of a titan’s bowling alley.
There is a sense of disappointment at turning back. But this is not a place for humans to linger. The only other conceivable spot for a campsite is a tiny bluff with a few tufts of grass, home to a family of gulls. Four of them are circling overhead, taking turns dive-bombing my head at sixty miles per hour, making sure I get the message that I am not welcome.
Orcas at sunset again, swimming beside me as the sun plays hide and seek behind the mountains, disappearing behind a summit, reemerging on the other side. I’ve been so enchanted by this place, that I’ve nearly forgotten about this mortal sack of flesh, blood, sinew, bone, delicate organs, and ephemeral emotions. I’ve been pushing it like a slave-beast since dawn, fourteen hours and thirty miles ago. How could I have been so unkind to myself?
Stumbling ashore in time to watch the sun set for the last time today, I pitch my tent amidst some scrub brush in a tiny nook next to a glacier. I listen to a twilight serenade of a songbird, grass swishing in the wind, and the occasional thunder of ice towers breaking off from the glacier, until sleep overtakes my wasted body, dragging consciousness with it.
Morning. As if in mock response to metaphysical speculations of a few days ago, looking into the ultimate meaning of “I”, the messenger of sickness greets me as I awaken. I am weak with a fever and congested brain orifices.
Hmmm. Sixty miles from the nearest human settlement, camped on an exposed, barren ridge, no fresh water, things are looking bleak today.
The body does not want to move but without water I cannot cook, and the body is hungry. Laboring slowly, I pack up camp and paddle eastward, across the bay, in search of a suitable place to rest for a few days. The sun is up again and the air is calm, but high, thin clouds hint of a change to come.
The diesel catamaran roars past, belching black smoke. After bobbing through the wake, I discover a dragonfly, lying upside down on the water, flapping its wings in vain, doomed to die. Probably it was cruising above the sea surface as usual, when suddenly the catamaran waves loomed up and caused it to crash. Catamaran waves on an otherwise flat calm day, must represent an evolutionary hazard not genetically programmed into the poor little guy’s brain yet.
Carefully, I cup my hand beneath the tiny creature, lifting him out of the water and onto my spray skirt. As I continue to paddle, the sun and wind gently dry him out. I stop paddling and coax him into my hand. Suddenly his wing engines start humming at full throttle and I throw my open hand skyward. He launches perfectly and flies straight up towards a high tree lined ridge. I watch him get smaller and smaller and smaller, until he disappears. Saving this tiny creature from certain death lifts me from my self-centered despair, returning me into the compassionate gaze of those exalted beings, who live solely to protect and care for others.
I paddle into a cove beneath a small forest nestled into a gently sloping valley. A creek empties through the middle of the beach. Yes, this will do. The body will be able to survive here for a few days.
Dinner is freeze dried noodles, rice, potatoes, broccoli, and carrots, a gift from a camper lightening his load for his journey home. One spontaneous act of kindness produces ripples that never end. The scientists call this the Law of the Conservation of Energy. As a Buddhist, without feeling any particular need to understand the mathematics, I find it simply makes good sense to view actions in terms of infinite consequences, otherwise, I tie myself to a limited world of suffering, denying myself the unlimited freedom of liberation.
Evening. I attempt sleep but the fever rages and I toss and turn restlessly, entering a fitful dream of someone dying. I think he has AIDS. I am holding his head in my lap, comforting him. I ponder the meaning upon awakening. Is it a sign of some sort?
Often I have asked my teachers about the meanings of dreams and they always encourage me not to dwell in a fantasy world. “If it has some meaning, you will come to know it; if you get attached to your dream, it will only become an obstacle. Just keep practicing.” Service work… death…the bardo, I ponder the dream some more and then remember to follow the advice of my teachers.
No appetite for breakfast, no appetite for busy thinking, I have surrendered to the messenger. What else can I do? I have no strength to move anywhere. Maybe I will die here. I am dying, each mind moment of life. How could it be otherwise?
“And you, vast sea, sleepless mother, Who alone are peace and freedom to the river and the stream, Only another winding with this stream I make, only another murmur in this glade, And then shall I come to you, a boundless drop to a boundless ocean.”
Mind is suddenly light and clear, freed of a terrific weight, as if in serene contrast to the hazy clouds which continue to thicken. A lone seal, a pod of orcas, a couple of gulls, these are today’s visitors. Evening brings more darkness than usual and a light drizzle begins to fall.
Morning. The drizzle continues. Fog creeps in and out, socking in, lifting to reveal muted greens and blues, then socking in again. An eagle meditates for hours in a nearby snag. In my mind’s eye, I watch the beads of water rolling down his feathers.
Testing my energy with a stroll through the young forest, I pause in a meadow of chest high fireweed to munch on a few of the tender young leaves. Under a tree, a small mound of scat full of shells appears to be the remnants of an otter meal. I am still fatigued, but my appetite is returning. I light the evening campfire, just large enough to cook a pot of brown rice, mixed with garlic, seaweed, and beach grass.
Another day. The body is recovering. The weather is clearing a bit, and the wind is from the northwest. I sense an auspicious invitation to paddle on. With the wind at my back, I set out from “Healing Cove”, riding the ebb tide. About two miles south of Blue Mouse Cove, I pull up on a smooth arc of sand, just in time to dry out my gear during a sudden sun break.
A pair of large sea lions pass close to the beach, surfacing every 100 feet or so, with a loud exchange of air.
Oyster catchers, a strange bird with a red eye, a high pitched squeaky voice, and a clownish personality, scurry around my colorful fabrics drying on the beach. They engage in an evolutionary behavior known as “decoy nesting”; When a potential predator approaches a nesting mother too closely, she flies away and pretends to nest somewhere else, leaving her eggs unguarded. It doesn’t seem that survival-smart to me, but they’re still here.
The color of the water in Glacier Bay varies from turquoise blue to jade green. It is misting again but the water sparkles in full sunshine to the east. A double rainbow appears. Transcendent play of the elements lifts the mind from mundane perception.
Why do I keep forgetting? Why is it so difficult to engage with the world without getting lost in it? Daily meditation helps me to maintain this deeper awareness, but sometimes the thought arises that I need to look for this inner peace elsewhere, in the wilderness, at a meditation retreat center, anywhere, but the here and now.
There is nothing to be gained, nothing to be found that is not there already. Truth is so simple; buddhahood is so simple. Bodhicitta (compassionate mind) is so simple. Truth is here, even in this monk’s cell. Truth is in you. The supreme silence, sunyata, infinity , is in you. You are the silence, you are the truth, you are the buddha. It is here at this very moment, so simple and unaffected, so near.
Yet we make it so distant when it is so near, so remote when it is so immediate, so complicated when it is so simple. Do you know what it is like to be at the roadside with your motorcar, but to have lost the way?
You are the buddha. Then why do you not feel it? Why don’t you know it utterly, through and through? Because there is a veil in the way which is attachment to appearances, such as the belief that you are not the Buddha, that you are a separate individual, anatma.
If you cannot remove the veil all at once, then it must be dissolved gradually. If you have seen through it totally, even one glimpse, then you can see through it all the time, wherever you are, whatever presents itself, however things seem to be. Simply refer to that everpresent, inherent spacious openness and clarity.
(H.E. Kalu rinpoche, 1970)
I feel blessed to have made this journey, to have survived and thrived in the wilderness, to have the leisure to reflect on the nature of existence. Soon I will be back at the campground. What next? Do I need to continue? What of the people I have left behind, a thousand miles through the myriad islands and channels to the southeast? What am I doing here? Everpresent, inherent, spacious openness and clarity. Ahhh.
Strawberry Island. About ten to twenty humpback whales are snorting and cavorting nearby. After dinner, I lie awake in the tent, listening to raindrops and the blowing, tooting, trumpeting, tail slapping, back flopping animals. I think they are enjoying their feast.
Morning. Tendonitis again. Yesterday’s twenty five miler pushed the limits. Maybe I should call it a summer, return to the city. I can savor the outer journey, continue the inner journey, and lick my wounds in comfort on the aft deck of the big blue canoe.
Another mind immediately rises up to dispute this notion. No, I must venture deeper into the wilderness, abandon these thoughts of worldly comfort while summer days and even an ounce of youthful energy remains. I will paddle northwest, from Cape Spencer to Lituya Bay, the outside coast of the Fairweather Range. No cruise ships, no humans, ten foot breakers and ten foot brown bears. It doesn’t get more radical than this.
After all, how many times in life do I get to be thirty two years old in Alaska. I am reaching for the best within, not out of self centered ego-attainment, but for wisdom worthy of sharing. At least, this is what I tell myself.
“Throughout our infinite lives we’ve done everything many times, except practice the dharma.”
Venerable Thubten Chodron
A lazy five mile paddle escorted by whales brings me back to Bartlett Cove. In the campground, I discover that my tent neighbor grew up in my hometown in Maine and is brother to a classmate I was close to throughout grade school. Small world.
In the Buddhist world view though, all beings we meet in any day, right down to the minnows and mosquitoes, have been close friends and relatives in previous lives. This is so because we’ve been wandering throughout the many realms of existence for infinite lifetimes. Enemy, friend and stranger are mere sandcastles of the deluded mind. Small world, big world, what is the difference unless you are free?
Wet days follow one after another and I huddle next to the wood stove beneath the camp shelter, open on one side to the forest. A group of youth from Juneau and their two counselors arrive, having paddled the distance. One of the counselors explains that these kids are “at risk youth”, with prior legal offenses.
They seem like a good bunch. That afternoon, my last eight dollars mysteriously disappears from the tent, along my stash of eight chocolate bars. I say nothing, accepting the unmistakeable wheel of karma. Perhaps whoever took it needs it more than I. Perhaps I needed a reminder not to think so possessively. Besides, “I” always seem to have everything I need.
An airport driver at the Glacier Bay Lodge lends me twenty dollars and writes his address on a scrap of paper. He likes being here in Alaska, especially on his days off when he can catch a free ride up-bay on the catamaran and get dropped off in the wilderness for a few days.
He confesses that the job is tedious though, a hectic schedule of taxiing tourists, back and forth all day long to the airport, over the same eight miles of bumpy dirt road. He plans on attending University in the fall, but he’s not sure why.
Before dropping me off near the general store, he invites me to a party in Gustavus. At the party I meet Paul, my look-alike, and together we cause a bit of a stir with the rest of the guests. “Wasn’t I just talking to you in that room, how did you get over here?” “My name is Jordan, pleased to meet you.”
Morning. Overcast sky. I decide to paddle on for Sitka, about one hundred twenty miles away, an eight days journey if all goes well. I stop for lunch at the western entrance to Glacier Bay. A light drizzle begins to fall as I resume paddling south towards Lemesurier Island.
Halfway across the four mile channel, the west wind begins to blow, and then a wave, long and low passes underneath, the first open ocean swell in six months. I feel like I am suddenly in the presence of an old friend, someone who has waited patiently for me to return.
I land on the smooth pebbles of Lemesurier Island under the steady gaze of an eagle at the top of a spruce tree. Fresh bear tracks on the beach alert me to the presence of the unknown, as I step out of the kayak. Does he watch me from a nearby thicket?
The faint swells take their last breath, surging up the beach, hissing into the dark sand. A trickling creek, and the hiss of drizzle, join the musical trio of water sounds.
Paddling on, the drizzle intensifies. Sheets of rain begin to fall, electrifying the sea surface with dancing droplets. Each droplet is like a tiny living thing; a micro universe, born, radiating outwards, dying amidst a billion other atom-raindrop universes.
In every atom are Buddha fields numberless as atoms, Each field is filled with Buddhas beyond conception
And each Buddha is surrounded by myriad bodhisattvas,
To all these dwellers in sublime ways I turn my attention.
Thus all atoms within the directions
Abide within the space of a single hair
An ocean of Buddhas within an ocean of Buddha fields
Performing enlightened activities for an ocean of eons.
The King of Prayers, transl. By Glen Mullin
Dark wind ripples race towards me; I press my torso forward to the deck, head down. I am an arrow flying into the heart of the beyond. I am the eye of the storm, snug within my kayak being, a mere observer of the elements. A faint glow of sunshine framed by scudding black clouds appears for a few minutes, disappears into the void.
Mile after mile, I press on, finally reaching the wind shadow of a dark cobble beach where I pull up underneath a cliff overhang. Hot rice and lentils and a tiny fire brings a brief respite. The wet stones are smooth and cold through the seat of my rain pants. A seal drifts by, unperturbed by wind and rain sweeping across the horizon. I am tired and want to camp, but there is no level ground, only storm tossed logs next to a cliff.
Crawling forward into the rising wind, I enter South Inian Pass, a narrow slot through which where hundreds of square miles of inland sea fills and empties. The current seems to be with me so far, but I might be in a back-eddy with the current against me just up ahead at the point….yup!
Pushing hard around the point, I check every dent in the shoreline for a potential campsite. Again and again, I discover only storm beaches terminating against vertical cliffs, unsuitable for tenting, especially with a full moon high tide due at two in the morning.
At last, I find a protected cove with a dozen or so fishing boats rafted at a fish buying dock, and a few cabins on shore. One of the men invites me aboard for coffee, I thank him but decline.
We talk a bit though. Human companionship is comforting after the long day alone on the stormy sea. The weather? “More of the same”, he says. He tells me that this place is known as the “Hobbit Hole”, and he points me to the most likely campsite. The tall grass is wet and it begins to rain hard, but again, modern technology saves me as I crawl inside the dry interior of the tent. Sleep comes to the steady drumming of drops on the tent fly.
Morning. The rain continues to fall heavily beneath thick gray skies. I pack my gear quickly, hoping that I will have a chance to dry it out later. Gliding across the calm water of the anchorage, I sing to the seals, otters, eagles, and flotillas of duck.
The current swirls and pushes me around. I realize I am paddling against a gigantic back-eddy. I search for an eddy to the back-eddy, find it, and ride a ways until I am drawn into the main current. Suddenly, I am zooming along at eight knots, roller coasting up and down over glassy swells marching against the current. A six foot wave in front of me begins to break. Launching off the top, I land in the Gulf of Alaska.
The current abruptly slows and I settle into my morning rhythm, four strokes per complete breath cycle. The fog rolls in, even thicker than yesterday. I have a compass on my foredeck, but am nervous about trusting it. A few degrees error could send me off to Japan. Suddenly I make out the faint outline of Three Hill Island. I thank the map makers for this apt name, allowing easy recognition on foggy days. Stopping for breakfast, the stove sputters and coughs, lighting on the third try. As the rice cooks, the rain falls harder.
The rain soon stops and I paddle on, into the wind, working for every paddle stroke. A jagged shoreline, the crashing surf, the eagles floating overhead, wild-living-blowing-Earth-Ocean inspires the mind with primordial energy. The storm does not struggle, it merely is, an ocean outbreath to the mountains. Muscle fatigue, yes, but struggle is extra, something mind adds, born of self-pity and fear. Morning ballet on the waves continues. I laugh at struggle.
Rounding the point, the fog begins to lift. A giant cape at the base of the Fairweather Range appears ten miles to the north. To my left, pillars of rock rise out of the deep off Column Point. Tiny clumps of green cling to their remote summits, thirty feet above the surge of the ocean.
Entering Lisianski Inlet, I paddle into a beach, desperately needing to pee. A large boulder covered in brown moss sits at the back of the beach, looking strangely out of place. I squint for a closer look and for a moment it appears to move. Setting down the paddle quietly, I drift, and observe, feeling the pounding of my heart, anticipating an encounter. Suddenly the great bear lifts it head and looks directly at me.
It is a brownie, easily four hundred pounds. He stares awhile and continues digging in the sand, pauses and looks, digs. I paddle on, exhilarated by the encounter, but still needing to pee.
Lisianski Inlet and Strait is a thirty mile flooded glacial valley, leading back to the open Pacific. The water is calmer, protected by the mountains from the full force of ocean storms. I feel nurtured by the old growth forests which continue unbroken on either side, as far as the eye can see.
A narrow pebble beach under a cliff soon appears and I step out slowly. My legs are wobbly. After relieving my bladder, I fill the water bottle at a creek and discover salmon berries hanging heavily from bushes.
Paddling on, a sea lion surfaces in front of me, but does not see me. I watch her surface repeatedly at regular intervals, sneaking a little closer each time. Finally she whips her big head around, raises half her body out of the water, as if to tell me who I am dealing with: no mere seal, but a thousand pound monarch of the deep! She is alone though, and seems more playful than aggressive.
She dives, surfacing in a different quadrant, dives again, surfaces in a different place. Each time she surfaces, her eyes are already looking directly at me, demonstrating her complete awareness of my whereabouts at every moment. But she quickly loses interest. I am unable to match her skill in an ocean game of hide-and-seek. Diving once more, she is gone.
Where Lisianski Inlet meets Lisianski Strait, I discover a tiny beach and a creek, prime grizzly habitat. Wisdom says camp elsewhere, but I haven’t seen a decent campsite since I left the Hobbit Hole and judging from the map and terrain, it could be another ten miles before another level spot presents itself. This is it.
I pull the kayak up next to the tent. Perhaps it will look like some kind of protector entity. At eighteen feet long and shaped like a knife, it just might make a bear hesitate for a moment. I pee on the overturned hull to add a convincing odor to the mirage.
During dinner, I hear something moving out on the water, making a sudden splashing motion. It is an eerie noise amidst a world of silence, like an underwater jet. I spot a pair of black dorsals. Porpoise, either chasing salmon or playing, or both.
As the tide recedes, the gradual slope reveals a minefield of barnacled rocks, a serious foe to the fiberglass kayak. In order to avoid a treacherous launch the following morning, I decide to push off at high tide, sometime in the middle of the night.
Sometime after midnight. Water lapping gently a few feet from the tent, wakes me. I stuff my gear into the boat and a few minutes later I am floating out into the pitch black channel.
Silence. The water is calm. I can barely distinguish the water from the sky. A beacon flashes in the distance, revealing strobe images of the shoreline. The current is ebbing strongly, carrying me quickly past the deep shadows. Snowmelt creeks splash down from the mountainsides all around. A solitary bird begins to sing somewhere distant in the forest. Some gulls, and then an eagle, glide by to inspect this curious kayak-being passing by so quietly, at such an odd hour.
Luxuriant fragrance of forests untouched by man wafts on the air. First light reveals the silhouettes of peaks in the three to four thousand foot range, dappled with snow fields. With every paddle stroke, I see the world from a different place. A cloud opening reveals a world of blue above, radically changing the living canvas. I am a floating artist, practicing brushstrokes of clear awareness.
Suddenly I detect the faint presence of an ocean swell again, slowly lifting me up, setting me down, cosmic respiration. Crashing surf in the distance heralds the end of the birth canal.
Emergence! The sun rolls up above the mountains to the east, just as I enter the open ocean again. Beyond the west coast of Yakobi Island, sixty miles to the north, the snowtipped Fairweather Mountains are pink with the rays of dawn.
Fractured black rock on the exposed coastline, gives testimony to the relentless pounding of the sea. No trees grow lower than fifty feet above sea level. Sleepy eyed and tired, I coast into the boulder beach at White Sulphur Hot Springs, and soon I am soaking in a pool of one hundred four degree water. Gazing across the sea, a heron glides by. Beyond his solemn wings, the infinite horizon.
Rain again. A few miles past the hot springs, I stop on a beach to rest and cook. The stove refuses to cooperate though, and my low grade flu has returned. All that remains of my food supply is one bite of cheese, a handful of raisins, and large bags of rolled oats, brown lentils, brown rice. I try chewing some uncooked rice grains but give up, retiring into my tent around noon to rest, resisting the growing urge to panic.
In the morning, I eat soaked oats and raisins, But my energy remains weak. In my passion for adventures of the spirit, I continue to overlook the fragile human vessel. My campsite is somewhat depressing, a thin strip of sand between the ocean and a dark, impenetrable forest so I gather my will power and paddle on.
Afternoon. Great clouds of steam swirl in the sky and the sun begins burning holes in the clouds, until blue sky is everywhere. I pull ashore on an island facing the open ocean and strip off my wet clothes, spreading my tent and sleeping bag on the hot stones of the beach. A small pile of sticks easily catches fire and soon I am enjoying my first hot meal in a day and a half.
Morning. I open my last liter of water and tip the bottle to my mouth, drinking deeply. Spitting out the wretched fluid, I cough and sputter for several minutes. I suddenly realize that yesterday’s water stop was an intertidal creek of brackish water. I am thirsty and weak, alone on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere, without water. I start looking for a puddle of rainwater, anything.
Wandering through an open glade of trees, I feel a deep appreciation for life, sensing the proximity to my mortal edge once again.
It is funny, and sad, that we live in such fear of death. By denying its presence, we imprison ourselves in a world that resists change. Total acceptance of the present moment is death, because the present moment must always die for a new moment to be born. Surfing this cosmic truth instead of fighting it, there is no rigid expectation, no holding on to “should-be’s.” There is only what is, this moment, and the next, pure presence in paradise.
Impassively, I observe my own body as it moves languidly across a spongy meadow of waist high grass beneath an open glade of spruce. This place is a playground for fairies and bear cubs and dizzy kayakers, a place to tumble and faint upon the soft earth, breathing the fresh ocean air, hugging tree trunks, sleeping in the tall grass.
Oh yes, I remind myself, must find water. I wander on, across a gravel bar that connects with a larger island. Suddenly… a blessed sound: “drip, drip, drip”. Following the sound down the shore, I find a trickle of water issuing from beneath the moss at the top of a cliff. In a few minutes, the drops fill my container, and I drink the delicious nectar, refilling, and vowing never again to take this precious fluid for granted, even if it only comes from a kitchen faucet in the city.
My body is still weak and I’m dependent on the sun and dry wood in order to cook my food, so I decide to move on. Adding to my concerns, the next section of coast, the Khaz Peninsula, is an eight miles traverse of shoreline cliffs, littered with offshore reefs, not a place to be caught in foul weather.
The sun gradually gives way to clouds as I sail down the mountainous coastline. Boomers break on either side every so often and I scan the horizon intently for the tell tale humps of these hidden monsters.
In the distance, a Fuji-like volcanic cinder cone rises off Sitka. I pull up on a boulder bar on the western edge of Leo Anchorage. The wind brings a chill here, funneling down Fortuna Strait, but otherwise, it seems a beautiful spot to camp.
Rice and lentils for dinner. Simple warm food in austere surroundings, more satisfying, I imagine, than a king at his banquet table. I turn to the task of finding a tent spot. Just behind the boulders lies a level clearing in the forest where others have camped before. Investigating further, a full gas can is stashed behind a log. A driftwood bench next to a circle of stones contains the charred remains of a campfire. The cliff is blackened with soot. The feng shui feels dull, heavy, angry.
almost decide to move my tent back to the beach and sleep on the boulders, but it is hard to forgo a flat spot of Earth so I ignore my intuition.
Night time. I dream that I am battling with the devil and his minions. Is it a personal devil from my own mind of fear and desire, or is it the memory of the earth, speaking to those with ears to listen? Both, I realize. All things are connected. I pack up and shove off quickly in the morning, feeling evil eyes from the dark forest upon me.
Salisbury Sound, nearing Sitka. Motorized gnats carrying caterwauling humans buzz by me every which way. I am nearing so-called “civilization”. I pull into a beach thinking to camp, only to be nearly shot by kids firing guns at beer cans on a beach.
At, another beach, I find a group with growling guard dogs eyeing me with fierce intent. They are sitting in lawn chairs drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. “Would you mind if I camped at the other end of the beach?” I ask. Pause. Blank stares dart around their campfire. Finally one of them reluctantly says okay but advises that I keep my distance. “The dogs aren’t very friendly.”
Another day of rain. I paddle to the campground by the ferry terminal, pitch the tent, and hitch a ride into town for pizza. A day later, I board the ferry for Seattle.
Sadness looms up as I cling to the memory of what has already become past. Will I ever live so richly again? The voice of many beaches, the voice of the far shore, speaks: “You are the one with the power to choose life.”
There is no suffering, origin, cessation or path; no exalted wisdom, no attainment and also no non-attainment. Therefore shariputra, because there is no attainment, bodhisattvas rely on and abide in the perfection of wisdom; their minds have no obstructions and no fears. Passing utterly beyond perversity, they attain the final state beyond sorrow. Heart of wisdom sutra
Living, Dying, Healing
February 1993. Dale, my client, waits for the transition, practicing the letting go of possessions, friends, memories, and breaths, each moment. Another friend drops by carrying an armful of technology, something called “Voyager”, complete with headphones, and sunglasses with pulsing red lights connected to a little black box.
According to the hype, by using this machine in conjunction with soothing new age music, deep relaxation through alpha wave production in the brain ensues. Meditation for couch potatoes it seems.
Dale politely, gently, indulges his friend, though he barely has the strength to put the glasses on himself. After ten seconds, he murmurs “why would anyone do this?” and finally, “take it off.” His friend does not realize that this is a distraction, tying the body to sense stimulation, only prolonging the difficult departure that must be made beginning with the dissolution of bodily elements.
Others come and go, revealing the extent to which they have come to terms with death through their body language. Some are choked with tears and inner torment. Others radiate joy and love. The parade of visitors lasts each day until nine p.m.
I’ve been here for three days, changing his diapers when his bladder uncontrollably lets go, fetching a glass of water, receiving guests. When not performing an objective task, I sit quietly in the corner, ready to serve, meditating, practicing my own death.
Dale seems ready to go, but lingers on to help others with their letting go, and the body follows its own agenda, in accordance with the cycles of cells, stars, and karmic law. When it ceases, the mind will flow on, like a clear mountain stream in the middle of infinity.
Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.
Early Spring, 1993. Standing on the Ave, waiting for the bus. It is a cold place, this sidewalk where the storefronts seem to push you into the street. The air is toxic and I am feeling oppressed by the dirty gray urban winter.
A young maple tree, just starting to bud, eeks out an existence through a little hole in the concrete. It calls to me so I move closer. Someone has torn off one of its main limbs; the raw wound is level with my eye. I feel angry, sad, depressed. I lift up my arm and place my hand over the trauma.
Do trees feel pain? I don’t know. Something in me says yes, though perhaps not in the same way we do. I listen with my heart through the palm of my hand, and it speaks: “You with the inner smile, please stand close to me, and I will stand close to you.”
I imagine rays of right radiating from my hand, soothing Young Maple, encouraging cellular renewal. The number forty four trolley bus pulls up to the curb and I say goodbye.
Months later, I’ve long since forgotten about “Young Maple” and I’m lost somewhere in a depressive state of mind, riding a bus across town. Why do human beings lose connection with their heart?
It is hot on the bus and people are reading their books or looking out the window. I want to connect but I don’t see an opening. Where can I turn to for strength?
Something makes my head turn towards the open window and there is “Young Maple”, dressed in full summer green and radiating the fullness of summer. A light breeze blows through its leaves and joy wells up within me.
Young Maple smiles and I hear her voice again: “You with the inner smile. Look within. Your strength and happiness is infinite when you turn within.”
March 1995. “So why am in acupuncture school?” I wonder aloud as I sit in the dean’s office, sharing perspectives. Surely at age thirty five I’ve gotten beyond unconscious habits like going to school in order to get a piece of paper (diploma) conferring the status of “A Great Somebody With Many Letters After My Name.” I think of the apple pie American phrase – “to make a living”, and how for so long my first thought on this was, “dollars and cents.”
I’m here to learn about healing, to practice healing, in order that I may be able to heal myself and help others. The dean of students reminds me that the best students, the ones who get the best grades, may not necessarily be the best healers.
In other words, academic success simply means one is good at memorizing and taking tests. Hence, the medical technician comes into being, one who plays the part well, and though usually having good intentions, may offer only palliative care. The true healer is one who can feel another’s imbalance and respond with sensitive wisdom in a way that person can understand and benefit from.
The dean continues: “Unfortunately, academia can only teach the technical skills, the deep listening skills must be acquired elsewhere. These skills are only obtained when one walks the path of self-knowledge.”
“My own awareness of mind suffices for all the books and teachings.”
I never let my schooling Interfere with my education.
May 1995. In a dream, walking across the freeway bridge, Sara says to me “if you’re in school for someone else and not honoring your own path, then you’re not following a heart path.” Suddenly the sky is flashing an error message. “Stop the war.” The God-computer is malfunctioning.
Fear courses through my sleeping body. I try to wake up but my eyes are locked shut, my limbs powerless. Finally, the energy breaks through. It is 4 a.m. Liver Qi is running wild, and unpleasant feelings linger in body and mind. But it is bearable, familiar. I see through the smoke and realize I’m not going insane. Or rather, I am, and that’s okay.
One of my friends would often joke: “Beware of sane,” a humorous play on the fact that so many words of the English language attempt to distinguish between “normal”, acceptable, socially condoned behavior, and everything else. For example: insane. psychotic, demented, deranged, mad, crazy, lunatic, maniacal, paranoiac.
The dictionary of course, represents one of those irreproachable sources of western cultural self validation, presupposed as an ultimate authority and definitive source of knowledge on all things, including the understanding of what constitutes a truly balanced mental disposition.
I lie in bed and allow the disturbance and its ensuing thought trains, to dissolve from my energy field. After napping a bit more, I climb out of bed and up a cedar tree as the sun is rising. Tattered clouds and swirling veils of silver and orange. Tahoma glows awake with golden rays to the southeast. Light is breaking through, moment by moment.
Last night, in the POW camp, hiding under the bed with fifteen other men. They come for us, even though we are silent. They are angry and vicious, beating us with sticks. It is bearable though. Then they throw wood dust infested with thousands of live red ants on our face and continue beating us as the ants begin to bite.
Last night on the precipice, looking down into the thundering chasm, a river churns between vertical rock cliffs. I am scared, but playing next to the edge.
Last night, I am riding in a spaceship coming in for a landing. Suddenly the air feels stuffy and I open a window which brings in a strong gust. I know it is a dream, and yet it seems to move up my spine. Winds are moving.
Last night, His Holiness the Dalai Lama gives teachings: “If you’re on a spaceship and suddenly the air supply is compromised, reaching for your space-helmet will not enable you to transcend death. That must be practiced in each moment of life.”
1996. In the student acupuncture clinic. The patient enters the room. Mind catalogues clinical impressions based on a quick visual examination. Our challenge as practitioners is not to force our impressions down the patient’s throat so that we can feel good about our diagnostic skill and so-called professionalism, but to hold up a compassionate, clear mirror, and to ask for guidance: “How can I help you help yourself?” If we resort to force, saying “you need to do this”, we cheat our patients, and ourselves, and we commit ethical harm by perpetuating subtle violence, disempowerment.
We cheat the patient by encouraging him to believe healing lies outside himself, in some medical authority, in pills, needles, herbs, a certain diet, whatever. These are not irrelevant, nor are they The Answer. We commit harm by using knowledge without sensitivity. How can disregard and callousness bring forth anything but more of itself? This kind of medical practice is one person pushing against another, instead of two beings connecting with a deeper unity.
All the wars are born of duality, the perception of “me” and “you”, as separate, independent beings. Having vowed to speak the truth, if I would even dare mention the words “healing practitioner” in reference to my name, I must constantly reflect on the truth of interdependence.
Kindness and Insight, Two Wings of Freedom
Have you ever deeply touched the present moment, been so intimately connected to experience that you felt utterly alive. Most of us have probably had at least brief experiences like this, and yet in all likelihood, the momentum of our complex and busy lives always pulled us away, burying those rare moments of clarity. Those moments are a reminder of our true nature. They offer us a glimpse into a way of being, which if consciously cultivated, can radically change our life, and the entire world.
We are far more fortunate than we usually recognize, born as humans with our sensory faculties intact and capable of developing discriminating wisdom. If one also considers that we have been born in a time and place in which there exists pure, clear, and systematic teachings leading to freedom, then you may begin to think of this life as very precious. We do not know when death will come. Maybe it will arrive before you finish the next breath or morsel of food. So what are you doing with this precious life right now?
Maui. August, 1998. I’ve come to a ranch on the slopes of Haleakala Volcano to meditate for a month, steeping my mind in the mental qualities of kindness (metta) and insightful wisdom (vipassana). I am here with thirty five other retreatants, two teachers, volunteer cooks, groundskeepers, caretakers, a pig, horses, ponies, donkeys, and the volcano.
The retreat will be almost completely in silence. By imposing artificial restraints on the habitually distracted, restless, desire-filled mind, we have created the conditions to discover inner freedom. The daily schedule supports this inner calming by radically simplifying our routine: Awake no later than five a.m., periods of sitting and walking meditation until ten p.m. or later, guided movement exercises, meals that are lovingly prepared, yet simple.
Does this sounds like an awful bore? Sometimes it is, yet that is why I have come, to see boredom clearly, and know it as part of my mental disease, to learn to see beyond it, and to invite the heart out of exile.
We live in a culture of overstimulation. Our lives are increasingly frantic and chaotic. Faster and faster we run, day after day, year after year, trying to avoid….what? A vague feeling of not okayness? It seems insanely silly when you really look at the treadmill we sometimes find ourselves on. We’ve simply forgotten that abundance and peace is available by touching the present moment with awareness, independent of external conditions.
The modern meditation retreat is an outgrowth of the monastic institution. It offers lay people a highly focused training session specifically designed to accelerate progress on the spiritual path. We haven’t come to escape our problems, or to socialize. At least, we are encouraged beforehand not to bring this type of motivation, lest we really wish to suffer.
At the basis of the retreat structure is ethics. We commit ourselves each morning to agree to a set of trainings based on non-harming. By honoring each other’s process in this way, and by guarding the doors of our body, speech, and mind, an atmosphere of gentleness and acceptance, an outer safety net unfolds. We will need this safety net in order to consciously open and release our inner hells, the difficult emotions and traumatic body memories we carry.
Upon this ethical foundation, and also supporting it, we practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is an observing of present moment experience without any mental reactivity of either pushing away, or pulling towards, the object, or objects, of awareness. It simply notices things as they are without any judgement, whether it is bodily sensations, like breathing, awareness of painful or pleasurable feelings, the moods of the mind, or other aspects of experience.
Mindfulness aims at understanding the process of awareness, rather than ruminating on the contents of our mind. For example, if we are mindfully aware of the sense experience of seeing, we perceive color, shape, and texture.
Our interpretation of this bare attentiveness is something extra, a mental process which happens countless times daily, usually unconsciously. Mindfulness brings all of these “extras” into focus, enabling us to see clearly what is happening, on ever-deeper levels.
Another example: If we carry an agenda into our meditation, such as the wish to attain psychic powers, then we are only reinforcing the energy of desire in the mind. We are grasping at conditioned reality, instead of allowing the unconditioned mind manifest itself. If we can notice the desire, and let go of it, then we are back on the path of allowing freedom to enter our heart. Attaching a list of conditions to our freedom only makes it more remote from us.
“Letting go” is not to be confused with laziness or apathy. This spiritual path is no less delicate than brain surgery, requiring a continual refinement of our skills, a balanced relationship to our practice. That is also why I am here. In my Yankee self reliant stubborness, I’ve tried to do this on my own for too long, and I’ve not gotten very far.
If you want wisdom, you need a teacher, one who has walked the path and has purified, at least to some extent, the defilements of their mind. This person, or persons, should live an ethical life, be kind to others, act in accordance with their teachings, and have direct experience of the teachings of the wise. How do you find such a person? Through careful analysis, and cautious self regard.
Having studied for a number of years with Steve and Kamala, the teachers leading this retreat, I have done the requisite checking and I know that I can trust my heart here, opening myself to helpful assistance as I seek to find the middle way between extremes.
As we meditate, day by day, understanding grows. Through mindfulness training, direct non-conceptual knowledge, or insight, begins to develop into three fundamental characteristics of existence.
The first characteristic to gradually emerge is that life is full of unavoidable challenges to lasting happiness. As human beings, connected with a body-mind complex, we all undergo various forms of pain and difficulty. Birth, aging, sickness, and death are stressful experiences. More than these obvious, gross forms of stress which visit us unbeckoned, are more subtle forms of stress, underscoring the extremely delicate and uncertain circumstances of our life.
For example, we must continually work hard to maintain our physical health, and yet we do not know the hour of our own death. Uncertainty surrounds our lives. We could be crippled for life at any time by an unforeseen accident. We work hard to accumulate material wealth and yet “acts of God” can intervene at any time, taking it all away.
Our moment-to-moment comfort is very tenuous and easily disturbed by countless circumstances beyond our control, the weather, insects, hunger, thirst, and so on. Pretending to ignore this extreme vulnerability which is the human condition, does not make it go away, but instead sows the seeds of fear, restlessness, and struggle, deep within our being.
This lack of a permanent and stable happiness is a difficult truth to open to because the modern culture of materialism has so successfully promoted the idea that happiness can be achieved through the continual manipulation of external conditions. Most of us, unconsciously, exert great effort to avoid meeting with any unpleasant circumstances rather than accepting them as part of life.
Faster and faster we run, searching for perfect happiness in a better paying job, a more fulfilling job, an exotic vacation, or a simpler, quieter vacation, a new and interesting hobby, the perfect relationship, the perfect spiritual teacher, a pain free meditation sitting, and so on.
There is nothing wrong with any of this, except when we force our present moment happiness to be a hostage to some external condition. Suffering arises when our present moment experience does not measure up to our rigid idealism of how we want things to be.
Emerging from the meditation hall after an hour of ever deepening peace, I step barefoot onto the lawn, feeling the subtleties of muscle movement in my toes, feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs, hips. I feel individual blades of grass touching the soles of my feet. In this moment, the mind is concentrated, balanced, light, joyful. “Lifting one foot, swinging it forward, placing, lifting, swinging, placing, lifting…
Suddenly I notice that the mood of the mind has changed. There is a faint twinge of depression that has appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. I look at the blue ocean filling the horizon, the landscape of paradise around me, hoping the unpleasant feelings will depart, but instead, I feel them growing more intense.
Then I remember, its okay to just be with whatever is happening, to let go of resistance. Can I simply be with this experience fully without superimposing a sense of self onto it? Can I be like the scientist who has just discovered a previously unknown species of life, intensely curious, free from any fixed conceptual interpretation that would obscure true understanding?
Can I simply take refuge in the fact that this unpleasant mental feeling is no different than a cloud in the sky. It comes and goes due to impersonal conditions. The sky is not harmed, or obstructed by the cloud, and still abides within the nature of spaciousness.
This moment is simply an experience, a temporary collections of conditions within this karmic package called “human being.” By opening to the truth of the moment, life takes on an entirely different flavor. Instead of constantly battling with my likes and dislikes, my fears and joys, there is a sense of being an explorer in the deepest, most remote wilderness in the universe, the human mind. What will be discovered next? Where am I holding on? Perhaps by my calm presence, I can invite others into this space.
The second characteristic that emerges when we still our minds and observe life from a process, rather than content-oriented viewpoint is that everything is constantly changing, unfolding. Granted, seasons come and go, the sun rises and sets, romantic love ebbs and flows, but this “impermanence” speaks to something much deeper.
If one looks very closely, with precise and sustained attention, moment by moment, into any dimension of experience, physical or mental, this fact of constant change is seen to happen with incredible rapidity. Everything appears to vibrate very quickly, and the unconscious assumptions we hold about the solidity of our bodies, our minds, and all relative phenomena, begins to dissolve before our eyes.
This can be a bit unsettling at first. We may even question our sanity. Fortunately, our alignment with this truth is usually a gradual process. It is revealed to us to the extent that we are ready to integrate it, though “spiritual emergencies” can occur when the opening happens too quickly, again underscoring the importance of having access to a qualified teacher.
The third characteristic to reveal itself in this blossoming of insight, the essenceless or conditional nature of things, develops in dependence on understanding the first two: When we begin to perceive that there is no “thing” capable of providing a stable happiness, and that “everything” is in a state of constant flux, the understanding of who “we” are undergoes a radical shift in perspective.
Instead of clinging to an image of ourself based on our species, gender, occupation, physical condition, family of origin, citizenship, race, religion, age, disease, sexual orientation, or whatever, we are able to acknowledge these relative distinctions without being limited by them.
The deepest understanding of who we are can be experienced by each one of us, but only in the present moment. It can’t be experienced by dwelling on the past or future. It can’t be adequately expressed, or known by the conceptual mind, which is bound by time, birth and death.
This is why we meditate, in order to uncover a pure knowing of our radiant, infinite, and timeless nature, until it is known so fully that it is always immediately accessible. A Buddha is one who is awake, one who knows the truth. This clarity exists within every living being, though temporarily obscured by varying degrees of ignorance.
A Hawaiian holy man leads our closing ceremony on the last evening of the retreat. He invites each one of us to share from our heart. I begin chanting the verses of loving-kindness from the Metta Sutta. As I am chanting, I notice a growing fear in the mind that I am going to forget a verse. I let go of the fear, somehow intuitively realizing that I’ll either remember the verse or not, the fear is useless. The words continue to flow but there is no longer any sense of an “I” who is chanting them. What peace there is in letting go of this sense of “I”.
Metta is translated as loving-kindness. This “quivering of the heart” understands deeply that all beings have the same wish to be happy, understands that as human beings we all inevitably must endure struggles and hardships. Seeing this universal experience that we share, we train our hearts to spontaneously wish other beings happiness and peace. This isn’t the sentimentalized or eroticized love of Hallmark cards or Hollywood, or the attachment of codependency, but instead, is a pure tenderness and openness that seeks nothing in return.
To cultivate this boundless love, we begin by choosing a person or being which allows this feeling to unfold easily, perhaps ourself, a dear friend, or a benefactor, maybe a small kitten, or an infant. When we feel our heart full to the brim, we allow this feeling to spill over to the next category of persons, in much the same way that a mountain stream flows through a series of pools and waterfalls.
As we continue the practice, eventually, all beings are included in our hearts, even strangers and difficult persons, our love continually flowing downstream, until it merges with the infinite ocean of all sentient beings, seen, and unseen, in all times, in all realms of existence. Metta, or loving kindness, balances Vipassana, or insightful wisdom. Together, they are like twin wings on the bird of freedom. Love is both where the path of wisdom leads to, and a means of realizing that wisdom.
Realization of higher truths does not happen in a vacuum though. Indeed the Buddha emphasized generosity (dana) and ethics (sila) as the pillars of the spiritual life, necessary supports for realizing ultimate truth. In much the same way, loving kindness fills our hearts with goodness, opens us, and aligns us with harmony that conduces to liberating insight. May all beings be happy and peaceful. May all beings be free.
Spring 1999. The youth trickle into the church basement on a Thursday evening, joking with each other and the volunteers as they await the food offerings. I am a newcomer here, in my second month as a “youth advocate” for homeless teens in the University Street Ministry’s Teen Feed program.
What does it mean to be a teenager and without a home? The mind creates stories and projections based upon brief impressions with the teens, and my training orientation. Generalizations are possible: often they come from a turbulent home life, many have been sexually abused, or rejected due to various forms of personal expression, but the direct understanding of their inner experience is unknowable unless you have been there.
At age seventeen, an entering freshman in a small college town in Maine, my room and board for the next four years was as guaranteed as anything can be in life. “Homeless” was not in my vocabulary.
Often I wonder how many of the stereotypes directed at the homeless, are invented by people of privilege, like myself, people who fabricate convenient assumptions for the comfort of their ego as readily as Lilly manufactures Prozac? In my short tenure here, I am learning the necessity in dropping all stereotypes if I wish to make authentic connections with others.
Establishing rapport with a homeless teen is no small feat for me. Sometimes the connections happen effortlessly. Spring flowers still blossom in a bitter wind and kind heartedness remains at the core of human nature. But at times, I feel awkward, out of place. I read suspicion in the eyes of some of the youth when I sit near them.
Though part of me desires only to sit with the flowers, those with whom I easily connect, another part knows the awkward tension I feel is the edge of my spiritual frontier. It is the border of my shadow world, the place where my inner prejudice, fear, and self doubt lurks in hiding.
I think of the Buddhas, and other holy beings, Christ, Mother Theresa, and how they are supremely capable of reaching out and touching anyone, regardless of social standing. How can I possibly be like them? The spiritual mountain towers above me, a vertical cliff rising into the clouds. I am here to climb, and yet, the blank wall reveals nary a crack. Except there, in the shadows, the faint lines of the flaws can be seen if we look carefully. In time, with practice in the art of seeing, the flaws grow more obvious, and we begin our ascent.
Do we dare to examine our shadow side without forgetting our awesome potential? What choice do we really have if our goal in life is to grow and evolve as conscious beings?
Each one of us, no matter what our situation, homeless or not, has the capacity to increase our wisdom and compassion infinitely. Acceptance, personal responsibility, and patience are our best friends on this journey. We can’t control the external world, but ultimately we are responsible for how we respond, how we shape the experience in our minds, And so the fabric of our lives is woven each moment.
More than once, while trying to connect with a youth, I have been ignored, stared at with hostility, or otherwise been not well received. How did I respond? A mixture of suppressed anger, resentment, and maybe a little wisdom borne from spiritual practice. Why did great masters of the past greet adversity, like harsh words, with delight?
Anyone can certainly parrot their words on patience, exchanging self and others, etc. We can admire their eloquence, exclaim “how wonderful”, and so forth, but to actually put these words into practice is another matter – not so easy.
How much of our service to sentient beings carries with it the hidden expectation of being appreciated, or grasping at observable results in order to assuage our self-centered ego? These attitudes are not compassion but only self-centeredness in disguise.
Henry David Thoreau once said that if he knew someone was coming to his door with the sole purpose of helping him, that “he would run for his life”. This is perhaps my most difficult lesson in this experience, to learn how to help others without oppressing them with my so-called “help”. Wise service involves a constant balancing act, taking into account many factors such as our own capacity to help, and the minds of others. A Buddha performs this work perfectly. Meanwhile, I am grateful for the opportunity to practice, planting seeds in the mind – mine, and others’ – that will ultimately bear the supreme fruit of perfect wisdom and compassion.
Everybody wants to be a somebody.
Nobody wants to be a nobody.
If there ever was a somebody,
Who really was a nobody,
Would really be a somebody.
(an old Burmese monk as told by Steven Armstrong)
May these stories inspire you to to share your life with all beings in the universe, to always look for ways to serve others with your life energy, and to seek to know the mystery that lies within you….the wisdom that brings liberation from confusion, anger, greed, and remorse.