Welcome

Offering photoThis blog is a place to gather my stories, thoughts, photos, and lessons learned as I move  towards my wise old age.  I want to share years of psychotherapy, being a psychotherapist, meditating, teaching meditation, studying Buddhism, traveling, and all-around living. Unless otherwise noted, I took all the photos using my small point-and-shoot camera or my iPhone.

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Any stories I tell will be with permission and altered to protect people’s privacy. Any concerns can be sent to me via the email contact which is private, never posted to the blog.

Photo: an offering at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

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A Gift

I have a tendency to get a bit serious when I am doing something that is good for me, like hiking or cooking a good meal. Between moments of full presence and enjoyment, I am going through the motions.

Consciously bringing my awareness into my heart when I am engaged in such activity has brought a sense of juiciness and pleasure. While I was reveling in this on a recent walk, the thought came to me, “this is a gift to myself.” I’d already been playing with giving to my future self by doing the dishes so I didn’t have to the next day, and even going on those walks so I’d be more likely to be mobile as I aged, but this gift was one I was giving and receiving in the here and now. 

Now I find myself asking, “in this very ordinary activity, is there a gift being given right now?” It can be to myself and/or to someone else. For instance, I enjoy being kind to and interested in people as I meet them at their jobs; wrapping this kindness and interest as a gift makes it even more enjoyable. Generosity is a foundational practice in Buddhism, so it’s great to find an easy way to practice it:  look for the gift in everything I do.

These amazing cupcakes were one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.  Thanks, Trish!

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Pure Enjoyment

Snowshoeing up a hill on a beautiful sunny day, it was so much fun to notice a dog’s pure enjoyment as she played in the snow.  Her energy seemed boundless, though her human said she would later pay the price.  She’d be stiff and sore, unable to jump up onto the bed, one of her favorite resting places. Clearly she was not moderating her activity to try to avoid that outcome.

As I trudged up the hill in the heavy wet snow I kept reflecting back on the dog’s enjoyment.   I too was enjoying being out under that gorgeous sky, walking on snow, but I can’t say my enjoyment was pure.  It was tinged with thoughts of the future—I knew I too would be stiff and sore later on—and with thoughts of the past—if only I had exercised more in the past so I could easily go up the hill. Some of those future thoughts were lighter, too—I kept going in part to see if I’d get to another view point. Some of the thoughts of the past were wise—feeling gratitude for those who had broken trail before me.

           The doggie’s owner commented that he wished he had a jar of that “pure enjoyment” to open when he needed it.  I realized mindfulness was that jar for me:  the ability to notice all the changing thoughts, physical sensations and emotions that came and went without landing on any one thing as “how it is.”  And the choosing, again and again, to notice enjoyment.

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Can We Talk?

This is an edited version of the guest column I wrote for the Nevada Appeal. 

My living room

“That’s it!” he said, “I’m not talking to you anymore; you’re not listening to me,” and he turned away.

“Humph,” I thought, “I’m a trained professional listener; what does he know?”  And I took myself to the shower to get away from him and cool down.

It worked.  After a few minutes, I was calmer, and could begin to actually think about the interaction, not just react.  And, I realized, it was true—I wasn’t listening to him.  Of course, he was not listening to me either, but I had to admit he called it first.  So, armed with this insight, and a willingness to put my own views aside for the moment, I went back and told him I was ready to listen.

I no longer remember the content of what we talked about, but memory of the process lingers.  We went from having what I call an A/B conversation:  “It’s A!”  “No, it’s B!”  “No, it’s A!”  (and on it goes) to a productive exchange where we both felt heard.

I often think about that incident because I see this kind of thing happening more and more in our public, political sphere.  I worry that we’re never going to be able to solve the problems that we face if we can’t talk to each other and find common ground. It can feel satisfying to feel that we are right and the other wrong, but ultimately the ground gets poisoned by our righteousness, and we drift further and further apart.

Years ago someone asked me if I want to be right or happy. Many of our arguments seem to be about being right, and they do not seem to bring happiness.  Recently there has been a lot written about people not being swayed by facts (even if the facts can be verified); facts need to be built over a scaffolding of emotion.  That emotion is not anger, but empathy, if there is to be any possibility of being heard and hearing.

Among the most fundamental needs of humans are safety and belonging. And as mammals, humans need contact; we are social beings who rely on each other for support and to create meaning. If we don’t feel safe, we are constantly scanning for danger.  We tend to see those who are different as Other, and band together against them.  Then the shouting, and worse, begins.

I’d like to invite you to a different way of communication, one in which we care for each other and work to understand, rather than be right. I recently learned about a project called Living Room Conversations (LRC), where two people with opposite views of an issue each invite two other people to come together; then the six people have a conversation about the topic.

Ground rules provide the safety required to have a meaningful conversation.  The process only works if the people attending are genuinely interested in developing understanding and relationships with people who are different in their views and/or experiences.

Recently Terry McLaughlin wrote a column in the Union, a paper serving Nevada City, CA, about her experience in an LRC:  “Could we share opposing outlooks without belittling each other? Could we hear uncomfortable truths and own the paradox they might create in our own worldview? Could we accept, as one of my friends said, that ‘none of us have horns coming out of our heads?’  I found that the answer to those questions, on a personal level, was yes, we can.”

And I believe we can too, whether we do if formally in a program such as LRC or informally as we go about our days.

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A Heart as Wide as the World

To have a heart as wide as the world—a phrase I first heard from meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg—is my aspiration.  In Buddhist psychology the heart is not separate from the mind, which is known as citta in Sanskrit.  This heart-mind of mine would be wise, compassionate, equanimous, grounded, joyful, receptive, active—you get the picture.

When I place my awareness (my mind) in the center of my heart with that loving intention, I can feel how connected I am, to myself and to the entire universe and all it contains.  Sometimes the image comes to me that my heart is bigger than my body and that I am held within it.

I have to be careful when I play with that energy, however.  Sometimes it can be overwhelming and I find myself with a familiar feeling of spacing out rather than connecting.  I’ve been given the nickname in the past of “Space Cadet,” which can be fun if it’s purposeful but not so much when I’m just drifting.  That’s when I need to get grounded, sometimes with the touch of a hand in yoga or a massage, a good long walk, or time spent with loving and wise friends.  Then I come back to earth to do the everyday work of living with an open heart.

In this last photo, I am grounding my little cut-out self on a rock which I found on retreat at Lake Tahoe soon after walking on sacred Mt. Kailash in Tibet.

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Refuge in Laos

The Coroner’s Lunch, first in Dr. Siri series

As part of preparing for my recent trip to Laos I read a series of mysteries by Colin Cotterill that take place there in the mid-1970’s, just after the communist Pathet Lao came to power.  The main character is the delightful Dr. Siri who works and lives with an engaging ensemble of people.  Of course, each book has at least one murder, often several, and mostly pretty unpleasant (what murder wouldn’t be?).  But I wasn’t repulsed by the murders until a later book when Dr. Siri and his friends go their separate ways to solve the mystery, because I was so entranced by the relationships among the recurring characters. I realized then that their smart, humorous, loving, and respectful interactions provided a refuge from the murders that was lacking when they were separated. 

Spirit house at a bus rest stop in Laos

Another delightful aspect of the Dr. Siri books is the integration of the animist beliefs and practices of Laotians into the stories.  Dr. Siri himself is inhabited by a 1000 year old shaman, whom local people recognize when he is out in the field investigating a death.  As in Cambodia and Thailand, when buildings are put up a spirit house is placed on the property to provide a refuge for the spirits that have been displaced, thus avoiding the difficulties that can come if they have no where to go.

Made from metal from bombs

Laotians have had to deal with plenty of death with the bombings and land mines of the seventies which still litter large swaths of the countryside and are often detonated when stumbled upon.  But just as Cambodian youth are healing through the power of their art, as I wrote about in January, Laotians are transforming suffering by using the metal of the bombs to make spoons, elephants and peace doves.  By selling them, they gain some income and tourists are educated about this tragedy but can also contribute through their purchases.

A noodle restaurant is featured in the Dr. Siri books

My young great-niece recently asked me why I travel—is it for fun?  While that is an important part of it, for me these connections to people and their cultures is why I go.  Continuing to find ways to meet and relieve suffering, while finding refuge in the inspiring and beautiful efforts of people as they celebrate life and show up for each other, keeps me going.

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Elephants

While in Laos, my friends and I spent the day at an elephant rescue camp.  These were elephants who had worked in logging camps, where they are routinely pushed to the point of exhaustion, unable to reproduce.  To replenish their herd, the loggers then capture wild elephants who are also endangered due to being hunted for their tusks and because of the loss of habitat.

These elephants would not be able to live in the wild after their years of servitude.  They are purchased from the loggers (for $50,000 each we were told) and they eat enormous quantities of food.  The fees tourists pay enable the camps to support these majestic beings.

An ethical camp like we visited has a veterinarian on staff who examines each elephant every day to be sure they are able to work.  They only work (carrying tourists like us) for half a day, then are taken to a forest where they have room to roam.  They are ridden bareback, rather than with the wooden platform called a howdah which injures their backs.

We were taught the commands the mahouts (handlers) use to guide the elephants, but not one of us was able to remember any except “how” (stop!).  Luckily, most of the time the mahout was with us except for the photo opportunity.  I was grateful for his supporting hands on my back as we trundled down a hill.  Rule number one in my Core Align exercise class where we are put into very unstable positions is “don’t fall off;” it applied here too!

At the end of our time with them we bought bananas to feed them which they clearly enjoyed.  We were all deeply moved by our time with them.  May they and all beings be safe and happy!

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Finding Refuge

Siem Reap, Cambodia, January 19. Tonight I watched a dozen talented artists paint, play music, dance, and do amazing circus routines as they told the story of their country’s descent into genocide and its ongoing recovery from those horrors. These young performers are the grandchildren of the Khmer Rouge and its victims, best known to Americans as the perpetrators of the killing fields. They come from difficult backgrounds and attend a performing arts school that gives them skills, but even more important, a way to work through their inevitable grief and anger, developing a bond with each other and a confidence in their own abilities that will serve them their entire lives.

  1. I arrived in Cambodia a week ago, as a tourist on the first leg of a month-long trip. I had been feeling both relieved and sad to be away from the US during the 2017 presidential inauguration, but also happy to re-visit this beautiful Southeast Asian country. It felt good to have a break from the intensity of the scene at home. Although wi-if is ubiquitous, it’s easy to avoid staying current with the news. Visiting the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, eating delicious Khmer curries and mango shakes, riding tuk-tuks through the countryside, getting a massage–I could feel I was taking refuge in an exotic country where I had no responsibilities and could just play.

But that fantasy bubble is easily burst if you are tuned into what is around you. Outside many of the temples are small orchestras of amputees who lost their limbs to the land mines dropped by the US during the Vietnam war and which still pose a danger. There’s a war museum where people are encouraged to hold weapons and feel what it’s like. People everywhere are well aware of the change in US leadership, and some initiate conversation about it, having questions and opinions. Some say that our president-elect is an angry man; some of them fear an outbreak of World War III. Others express confidence in Americans who have so many years of experience with democracy.

So where is there refuge, a place of peace and safety, when we cannot escape the consequences of past injustices nor the worries of a future to come? Taking refuge often means to go into a protected space, to turn our backs on the world. Although I can do that when on an occasional retreat, that’s not how I want to live in the world. For me refuge means stopping to breathe and listen to the beauty of the music, not turning away from the amputated limbs. It means attending a performance where pain is expressed and then transformed through art, connection and courage. There’s refuge in noticing people’s good hearts, exchanging everyday kindnesses. Refuge is created when we work together with open-heartedness for the benefit of all. Refuge is no longer a way to hide from the difficulties of the world but to join together in solidarity and love, through art, engagement and action.

Published as a guest column in the Nevada Appeal.

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Beginning Again

Beginnings lead to endings and endings to beginnings.  Maybe that is part of the romance of  sunsets—not only are they beautiful, but they end the day and begin the night.

As a long-time meditator, I have trained in noticing the beginning and ending of a breath, again and again. One technique that helps sustain the attention is to closely observe the middle of the breath, and to the gap that is often there at each end of the in and out parts of each breath.

So now we have beginning-middle-end-gap-beginning-middle-end-gap, and with any luck, it starts up all over again!

Inevitably the mind wanders off to fantasy, memory, planning, and a myriad of other mental activities. This is a different kind of “middle,” the space between mindful awareness and being lost.

Recently my nephew and I got lost taking a walk in his neighborhood of curved, winding streets.  Absorbed in our conversation, it took awhile for us to notice, just like in meditation it may take awhile before we notice our attention has wandered.  What to do in that moment?

Living in a culture of constant assessment and criticism, it can be easy to get lost in questioning and doubt:  Why didn’t we bring a cell phone?  Why don’t you know your address?  Why didn’t we pay better attention? Why did I let my mind wander off the breath?

A better idea?  Celebrate the moment of awakening and begin again!  We’re lost; how will we find our way home?  What resources are available (a vague memory of the street name, yard workers and neighbors, the confidence that family will come looking if we’re gone too long)? And, oh, I lost the breath; how wonderful to notice.  I wonder, where is it now—beginning, middle, end?

And on it goes….

Photos:  Sunset over Gulf of Mexico at Redington Beach, Florida

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Haiku

Recently I went on a walk with friends from our Buddhist study group. An artist in my long-time book club had invited us to write a poem for our December meeting, which is the one where we don’t read a book. I awoke the morning after the walk already composing haiku. I checked, and, sure enough, the traditional format is 5-7-5 syllables. Somehow that became “word” instead of “syllables,” so I am calling these little poems sort-of-haiku. One thing I found interesting was that the first two lines came rather easily (with a little editing); the third line took its time presenting itself to me. It was fun to create in a new way!

Clouds pretending to be spaceships

Rocks sliced like a loaf of bread

Dharma buddies observing with delight



Hiking slowly with a geologist

We ply him with question after question

And Tom has answers—enlightening!


——-

Buddhists hiking in the hills

Come across the corpse of a coyote

Death—entry into the mystery

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Relaxing Relentlessly

VPF Meditation signThere have been times in my life when I awoke feeling so overwhelmed I’d wish the world would stop for awhile so I could catch up.  It’s relentless, I would say, sighing.

That’s why I found it especially funny on my retreat earlier this month when our meditation teacher U Tejanaya asked us to relax while meditating, to not stop relaxing—in fact, to relax relentlessly.  What an oxymoron, I thought!  Yet he said it was one of the two most important things to do when meditating; the other was to remember that all that we observe is nature and impermanent.

U Tejanaya and translator Ma Thet

U Tejanaya and translator Ma Thet

His emphasis was on noticing what we are aware of without trying to change or fix anything.  Not much energy is required to do this (see if you are aware you are reading right now—did it take much energy?).  If we get tired while meditating, we are trying too hard.  Practicing this way—whenever we remember, noticing what we are aware of—leads naturally to a strengthening of awareness.  And not trying to change or fix what we observe can help us relax, and we tend to be calmer.

As our mind calms, and we notice equanimity, we can then also observe wisdom qualities such as interest, confidence, mindfulness, curiosity, acceptance, compassion, and so on.  These are helpful to note; reflecting on these benefits of practice can help us arouse the energy to continue our meditation practice.

Path to meditation hall

Path to meditation hall

Since the retreat, when I feel that familiar energy of the modern world rushing along relentlessly, I smile and shift that energy to relentless relaxation.  And then I can bring the attendant calm and wisdom to the situation at hand, perhaps acting more skillfully.

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Soft and Strong

Where are we going?

Where are we going?

This morning in yoga Amy asked some questions:  What do we need/want from the class?  What is our intention for the class?  Then she guided us to quiet our minds and use our breath to tune into our bodies and hearts.

My first thought was that I wanted some power poses.  Like many people, I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me by this week’s news, and I need some support.  Next came the words “soft” and “strong.”  I want to come from an open-hearted space without being a pushover.

Throughout the class Amy kept prompting us to return to our inner focus, checking in to see how our intention was manifesting in our bodies.  We practice in a physical therapy office, so a lot of attention is paid to correct alignment.  When we’re aligned correctly we don’t use extra energy to keep us in the pose.  We can feel both our strength and the softening that correct alignment allows.  Sometimes we want to look “good” in a pose, and push too much.  Feeling the tension this brings helps us to realize that we are pushing (or our teacher comes by and corrects us!), and we can soften and relax.  For someone like me who tends to “effort,” this has been very helpful in class and in life.  On the other hand, we can collapse or not fill our bodies with energy, which can leave us feeling weak or spaced out.

Amita is strong and joyful!

Amita is strong and joyful!

Tenderness and strength

Tenderness and strength

Similarly, when we have clarity of intention for meeting challenges in our lives, we can feel both our strength and softness, and we can adjust the balance of the two.  Strong emotion is appropriate in dangerous or stressful situations; it can provide energy when we feel overwhelmed.  But it is not always the best way to meet others, so knowing how to maintain the strength that comes with the emotion while balancing it with compassion, curiosity and creativity can help us navigate difficult terrain.

As we move into this new post-election territory, may we all find our direction, get support, and balance our open-heartedness with resolve and strength!

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Quiet Mind, Open Heart

Kathmandu Diwali guide for light to enter home

Kathmandu Diwali guide for light to enter home

As we approach this important election, like many people I find myself nervous and stressed.  Last week I enjoyed photos of the Hindu festival of lights, which I was fortunate to attend in India and Nepal.  In Nepal people make an offering on wet mud; it’s meant to be a guide to the light of nearby candles to enter from the dark on the mud path into their home.

Lighting candles and making offerings are beautiful symbolic gestures, but I wanted something more.  And then I remembered the talk Ram Dass (of Be Here Now fame) gave in Reno many years ago.

He began by listing all the terrible things that were happening in the world (you can fill in the blanks here).  People would say, See Ram Dass, everything’s getting worse!  He would reply that he really didn’t know, but perhaps they were right.  What to do? he wondered. And he answered that it seemed he should quiet his mind, open his heart, and do what he could to relieve suffering.

Hindu offering

Hindu offering

And then he listed many wonderful things; people would say that all is getting better, asking for his agreement.  Again, he didn’t really know.  But if they were correct, what would be his response?  To quiet his mind, open his heart, and do what he could to relieve suffering.

So that’s my plan, come what may.

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Cat Consciousness

Calico Downloading Buddha

Calico Downloading Buddha

Calico arrived in my home almost eight years ago after living as a barn cat in central Nevada. Though too scared to allow herself to be touched, she used to follow the family around the ranch, so when they moved away the children insisted she be brought with them. They already had three cats, so they gave her to me.  She arrived on the same day as 6-month-old Rocky, who immediately set about turning her into a play pal.  Though it took some time, she eventually relented, and they are good friends.

It took much longer for her to relax and warm up to me.  About six months after she arrived, I awoke one night to find her perched on me, purring.  Next she began allowing me to pet her when she was on her condo.  She always hung around when there were people present, but would not let us near her.  Fast forward seven years to last summer when she jumped up on my lap for the first time.

Calico on Retreat

Calico on Retreat

Recently she has been climbing further up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (modified for cats–she’s not self-actualizing).  Having achieved satisfaction of physiological needs, safety, and love and belonging, she is now working on self-transcendence.  Her new favorite napping spot is on my meditation cushions. When outside she likes to be under the Buddha, downloading directly from him.  And, like me, she sometimes needs solitude, so she retreats to her meditation cushion in the closet.

Ever calmer, ever more at ease, Calico is a true bodhisattva!

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The Schnoz

Kindergarten silhouette

Kindergarten silhouette

When I was nine years old, an artist friend of my parents told me I had a classic Roman nose and profile.  I wasn’t sure I knew what that meant, but almost fifty years later I remember it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my nose the last ten days, as I am recovering from surgery to repair a deviated septum.  My nose and its non-stoppable mucous production have been at the center of my existence as the need for rest and a fuzzy mind have precluded much else from consideration. (Surgery went well, and there’s been no pain, just discomfort and tiredness.)

Portrait age 11

Portrait age 11

By the time I got to high school, I was well aware I didn’t have the kind of beauty celebrated in the media, and it was painful for me.  I made my best attempts to “fix the problem” with hair style and makeup, but was never very skilled so that didn’t work.

High School Senior Photo

High School Senior Photo

Salvation (at least to some degree) came from an unlikely source:  my mother’s subscription to Vogue magazine.  In the mid sixties, during my high school years, Barbra Streisand and Cher became popular, and Vogue often featured them in multi-page spreads, with full-page facial portraits, including in profile.  These were immediately cut out and taped to my bedroom wall, reminding me that there is more than one archetype of beauty. In fact, it was clear that Barbra would have had a nose job, except that it could change her voice—too big a risk! Still, Vogue clearly considered her beautiful.  So that when people told me I looked like Barbra, I could smile and say “thank you.”  My senior photo shows my homage to her in hairstyle and (softened) makeup.

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Legs

Lake of the Woods Trail, Desolation Wilderness, CA

Lake of the Woods Trail, Desolation Wilderness, CA

I was walking on the trail last week feeling puny (love that word), slogging along, when I heard a voice from decades ago:  “You have strong legs—use them!” said the Aikido sensei to me during the brief period when I studied that wonderful, non-violent martial art.

I felt a jolt of energy, my speed naturally picked up, and my mood shifted.

When I shared the insight with my hiking buddy, he said “yes, I imagine my legs are the driver wheels of a steam locomotive.”  Another friend uses the image of the tracks of a (non-military) tank gliding along, effortless rolling over any obstacle.

For me simply being mindful of my legs has been enough to power my walking.  As I learned with meditation, the mind keeps wandering off; the trick is to notice it sooner and come back.  On this week’s hike it was my negative, worried thoughts about my fatigue or feeling my posture resume its old slumping position that cued me to re-focus.

Upper Velma Lake, Desolation Wilderness, CA

Upper Velma Lake, Desolation Wilderness, CA

Hike on!

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Sacred Waters

Dawn under full moon, Lake Tahoe

Dawn under full moon, Lake Tahoe

Last week on a meditation retreat I was inspired to swim in Lake Tahoe at dawn under the full moon.  Joined by my friend Christy (if she hadn’t said yes to my invitation, I might have slept in instead!), we braved the cold water to fully immerse ourselves.  It was interesting to have an hour-long meditation period afterwards to explore my cold body as it slowly warmed up.

Lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash, TibetIt reminded my of several times I was fortunate to be in or near sacred waters in Asia.  Lake Manasarovar, at the foot of Mount Kailash in Tibet, is one I sat near and later dunked in. 

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

The Ganges (Ganga in India) is probably the most sacred river in the world; its headwaters are at Kailash. Indian pilgrims bathe in it in various cities along its course. 

Holy man, Sun Kosi, NepalAnd the Sun Kosi, which I kayaked in Nepal, feeds the Ganges. This man was at our take-out, where there was a temple.

Full moon or not, I may make it a tradition to bathe at dawn in Tahoe at our annual summer retreat!

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Accountable

Larry and meGretchen Rubin posits in Better Than Before that we tend to fall into one of four tendencies, depending on how we hold ourselves accountable.  We are generally accountable internally (Questioners—we’ll only make external commitments if we understand and agree with what is being asked), externally (Obligers—we’ll follow through commitments to others, but not always to ourselves), both (Upholders—we keep our agreements with ourselves and with others), or neither (Rebels—we need to think that what we do is our own idea).

This explained a lot to me. I am mostly an Obliger.  I find it hard to keep my commitments to myself. “I’ll only eat one cookie”—then eat four.  “I’ll write my blog early”—then find myself, like now, writing it two hours before the time it’s due in the queue.  But I AM writing it, because I made a commitment to send it out to the world every Thursday, barring vacation or technical difficulties.  That is why I am nearing my hundredth post!

Last fall I discovered that my friend Larry is also an Obliger.  And like me, he is single and self-employed, so there is no boss or family member compelling him to act.  And, like me, he can get lost on the computer and avoid doing what needs to be done.

So we made an agreement.  For six weeks or so we texted each other every week day with our action plan.  We didn’t particularly follow up with the other’s commitments nor shame or praise each other—we just reported daily.  And it worked.  We were both very productive.  Recently I heard from him, and his timing was great.  I’d hit a trough and my Inner Slug (who is a Rebel:  “I’m going to do what I want, and that is to sit around and play solitaire!”) had taken over.

So we’re back to our daily posts, and I’ve already done more today than I have in too long.  Feels great!  Thanks, Larry!  Now, what to do when he leaves for Mexico in 2 weeks…

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Reunion

Lembert Dome, Yosemite

Lembert Dome, Yosemite

I should have known better.  When I casually announced I’d like to go up Lembert Dome in Yosemite, I imagined a relatively easy switch-backing trail to the top.  It does exist, but that’s how we went down, not up.

Version 2

Tenzin, Dick, me, Christy

This was a reunion of sorts.  Thirty years ago on an adventure in the Himalayan dragon kingdom of Bhutan, I bonded with our guide Christy, tent mate Dick, and logistics manager Tenzin.  All mountaineers, for them there was only one way up the dome:  directly up the face.

I’m a water girl, not a granite scrambler, or at least that’s my old story.  This was a 700-800 feet gain, sometimes so steep Tenzin had to haul me up.  Thirty years ago he had carried me up a high pass trail in Bhutan when I was sick; I joked that thirty years from now he’ll be spooning pablum into my mouth (with a shaking hand, he joked back).

Tenzin helping Heidi

Tenzin helping Heidi

There were nine of us.  The youngest, age 15, declared near the beginning that she couldn’t do it, but she conquered her panic and was the first one up (on mismatched sneakers, to boot!).  The oldest, age 86, walked on a badly hurt ankle and beat me to the top.

Sammy and I getting centered

Sammy and I getting centered

The lesson I’d first learned in Bhutan thirty years ago still held.  When I entertained negative or fearful thoughts I’d become unbalanced.  When I stayed positive I’d find the hand or foot hold, be able to look down the steep slope or out into the view, and carry on.

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Hope

Bodh Gaya, India, 2007

Bodh Gaya, India, 2007

I think Anne Frank said what is in my heart this week:

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.

Guides in Thailand, 1087

Guides in Thailand, 1987

I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too,

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Bodh Gaya, India, 2007

I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

Guides, Galapagos, 2014

Guides, Galapagos, 2014

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Alert and Relaxed

Rocky sprawled w.Cali

Rocky and Calico are very relaxed

When I hit menopause, I lost my excellent ability to nap—gone, gone, gone.  I’d lie there totally alert, practicing breathing and relaxing to no avail.  Recently I’ve had the luxury of more down time.  Those who know me will know my Inner Slug has been delighted—she’s discovered that I am sometimes able to sleep again when I nap, which has led to more napping, but a concomitant feeling of lethargy, drifting, and purposelessness.

Cali is very alert

Cali is very alert

Bali thru Heather 844

Rocky is very alert

Too alert, too relaxed—my napping behavior perfectly embodies two extremes the Buddha talked about 2600 years ago as hindrances to meditation (and, I would say, a balanced life).

When we are too alert, it’s like we have some feeling of danger, and we’re trying to pounce on every little thing that pulls our attention: an itch, a task, a worry.  When we’re too relaxed, we’re prone to sloth and torpor.

Bali thru Heather 890

Rocky and Cali are alert and relaxed

It’s not like we’re trying to maintain some impossible middle ground all the time, more noticing if we’re stuck in one pole or another and having ways to come back into balance.  Kitties can be excellent teachers!

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Moving Meditation

Seeing

Seeing

At a meditation retreat years ago I mentioned to my teacher that I was taking a long walk every day. He didn’t see that as a distraction, but rather an opportunity to practice another form of meditation.

When practicing concentration meditation, we direct our mind towards a single chosen object, bringing it back again and again (with kindness) every time we realize it’s strayed away.  Over time, the mind tends to settle down and is able to maintain this focus more easily.  Familiar forms this practice takes include working with a rosary, repeated prayer or mantra, or staring at a candle or other object.  My practice usually takes the breath as “home base.”

Hearing

Hearing

What my teacher suggested that day was to use four different objects to pay attention to, one at a time.  They were:

seeing

hearing

moving through space

touching (or gravity)

Moving through space

Moving through space

With seeing, it is a soft-focussed awareness of what is seen, not a searching out each thing we see.  With hearing it is similar, simply noticing sounds arriving at the ear.  Moving through space is a full-body awareness, and touching can be any felt contact, though I tend to focus on the feeling of my feet with each step. 

Touching

Touching

At no point are we to make judgments, tell stories, or otherwise get lost in content.  When that inevitably happens, we gently bring our mind back to the object we strayed from.  Since one of the ways my mind would generate thoughts is to think about when to shift, I find a landmark up ahead which will be the place where I change focus to the next object/process.  When I get there and change, I look ahead for the next transition spot.

Sometimes one’s concentration can be so strong that they all merge, and one is present to all experience as it comes and goes.  This can’t be forced, but is lovely to enjoy if it happens.

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Love is Love

IMG_2841 This week a young friend felt compelled to come out on Facebook as gay after the mass killings in a gay nightclub in Orlando. After apologizing for not telling his family and friends in person, he went on to say:

“Of course I am afraid. I have very good reason to be afraid. I am also angry. The murder was and still is despicable. But I will not let that get in the way of my life. The best way to fight these crimes is to stand up for ourselves, and that is what I intend to do. June is pride month, and the best way to show our pride is to unite against crimes against humanity such as these.”

I am glad he gave me permission to share his words.

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Remains of a wall around Rajgir, India

The temptation to demonize others and to build walls when we feel or are threatened is not new to our times.  But I think my friend would probably agree with Rumi, a Muslim poet born in Afghanistan eight centuries ago, who himself was a refugee, forced to flee the violent invasion of Genghis Khan: 

Rumi wrote:   “Why struggle to open a door between us when the whole wall is an illusion? Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”  And I would add, “and join with others—to give and get encouragement and support—who are also doing this work.”

And then my friend ended his post with “Love is love.”  I couldn’t have said it any better.

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MOMs

Bodh Gaya, India

Bodh Gaya, India

A few days ago I was sitting on my soft, camel-colored chair in my usual morning trance, drinking coffee and absorbed in reading or playing a game on the iPad.  Suddenly I was fully present; it was like a light came on or a window opened and I could see clearly (now!).  I was at ease, so it was a very pleasant feeling.

One of the fruits of practicing meditation and mindfulness (including a willingness to be open to mindfulness of the unpleasant) is that I’ve learned how to soak myself in a pleasant Moments of Mindfulness such as this one, noticing all my senses, including the quality of mind, taking in the experience, until, like all things, it faded and passed away.

Cuzco Market, Peru

Cuzco Market, Peru

Each time we are able to be fully present to a positive or skillful experience, we deepen the neural networks that support this type of experience, making it more likely to happen again.  And  indeed, I’ve noticed that I’ve been a little more alert, a little more aware the last few mornings.

It was fun to come up with this acronym, seeing that each MOM is the parent to more such moments, and to find photos that illustrate what I’m writing about.

Bodh Gaya, India

Bodh Gaya, India

May you too give birth to many MOMs!

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Healing Art

Salvador Gonzales

Salvador Gonzales

I listened recently to a veteran describe how doing art helped her heal from decades of PTSD, after being raped and then discounted and humiliated while she was in the service.  It brought to mind the wonderful community art projects we visited in Cuba.

Hamel's Alley, Havana

Hamel’s Alley, Havana

Art, including music and dance, of course, is everywhere in Cuba.  Paintings and sculptures can be seen in alleys, on the street, in restaurants and hotels, in people’s homes, in galleries, and in museums.  The post-revolution section of the Museum of Art in Havana is one of the best collections I’ve ever seen.

El Tanque/Muraleando, Havana

El Tanque/Muraleando, Havana

Cubans seem to understand the place of art in society, not just for self expression, but also for community development and cohesion and celebration.  I’m sure it’s used for healing as well.  Certainly there is always a place for children to do art.

El Tanque/Murealando, Havana

El Tanque/Murealando, Havana

Here are a few photos from 2 community art projects we visited in Havana, including Hamel’s Alley, founded in 1990 by Salvador Gonzales Escalona, and El Tanque/Muraleando, which converted trashed-out neighborhood and abandoned water tank into a vibrant community center.

 

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Five Daily Recollections

Bodhnath, Nepal

Bodhnath, Nepal

Recently, inspired by the meditation retreat she had just attended, our beloved yoga teacher Angela recited the Five Daily Recollections given to us by the Buddha in one of his sermons.  There were two typical types of responses:  “wow, that’s grim, depressing,” and “wow, I’d like a copy of those; they seem wise.”

Clinic Bulletin Board, Cuba

Clinic Bulletin Board, Cuba

Why do they elicit such strong and contradictory reactions?  We are being asked to go against the stream of much of our unconscious daily life, where we act as if we can be in control of our bodies and health, other people, events, the future.  It can be painful to truly acknowledge that all things are impermanent, including us, but when we do acknowledge the truth of how things are, it is actually quite liberating.  The preciousness of this human life is seen deeply, and we also see that our actions do count.

Royal Cremation, Bali

Royal Cremation, Bali

Here are the Five Daily Recollections:

A woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth (nun or monk), should often reflect thus: 

1. I am of the nature to grow old; I have not gone beyond aging.

2. I am of the nature to grow ill; I have not gone beyond sickness.

3. I am of the nature to die; I have not gone beyond death.

4. All that is mine, dear and delightful, shall vanish and be gone.

5. I am the owner of my karma (actions); I am born of my karma; I am supported by my karma. All that I do, skillful or unskillful, so shall I inherit.

 

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The Four Worldly Winds

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village in Bodh Gaya, India

Last week I tuned into Fresh Air on National Public Radio; Terry Gross is in her fourth decade interviewing people in this highly regarded show, and yet she was saying, “…if somebody gives me positive feedback, I feel like yeah, I’m really OK. Give me [negative] feedback, and I think, like, oh my God, I’m such a failure. I’m so horrible.”

Kapok Tree, Key West

Kapok Tree, Key West

She was finding herself blown around by one pair of what are called the four worldly winds, states of mind that can take us off balance if we believe our thoughts and identify with them.  The pair she was reacting to is usually known as praise and blame.

Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand

Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand

One pair that I am particularly susceptible to is often translated as fame and ill-repute.  But another translation that I found is closer to my experience of this pair—recognition and disregard.  At some point in my childhood, I developed the coping strategy of being agreeable, following the rules, and generally keeping the peace to avoid criticism or conflict.  But then I suffered because I felt unseen and like an outsider.   So when I’m recognized or praised, I feel that glow that Terry was feeling; and when I’m not included I can (less and less, I’m happy to report) feel bad about myself.

The other two pairs are gain and loss, and pleasure and sorrow.  When we get too attached to any of the positive experiences, we can get a bit full of ourselves, and then more easily knocked off balance by the negative.  And vice versa, if we identify too much with the difficult states, it can be hard to let in the positive.

Buddha under bodhi tree

The advice the Buddha is reputed to have given:  know that these worldly winds come and go and rest like a great tree in the midst of them all.

 

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Self Health

IMG_0382I walked past the nondescript storefront in my neighborhood for two months before I opened the door one Monday night and went in.  I’d been to my first celebration of International Women’s Day and seen a demonstration of what the class I’d be attending would be about, knowing it would be scary and possibly life-changing.  I walked in, and didn’t leave until six years later. I had found a home, a community, a way to look at myself, other women, and the world; this led directly to the career I would later pursue as a psychotherapist.

At the San Francisco Women’s Health Center, we taught self-health.  We began with the introductory class on cervical self-exam, using plastic specula, flashlights and mirrors to see the most private parts of our bodies.  We did this in groups to break down the isolation and self-criticism that plagued many of us.  After each woman put in her speculum and looked at herself—a surprisingly thrilling experience—others looked too.FullSizeRender

We taught class series which included breast self-exam, and we did bi-manual exams on each other to feel the uterus and ovaries.  We talked about the social context of medical care, inspiring women to enter medical school at a time when it was mostly men; looked at the role of pharmaceutical companies before the term Big Pharma; and pressed for patients’ rights to information, support, and options.  We had a menopause program at a time when talking about it was taboo, and had a program for pregnant women too.

Most of our work was volunteer.  I learned bookkeeping, taught classes, wrote and produced pamphlets, spoke at medical conferences, and participated (silently for the first two years!) in our weekly meetings in which we collectively ran the center. I brought the excitement for personal growth to my new career as a therapist, and have used many of those skills in my private practice and in co-founding and helping organize Dharma Zephyr Insight Meditation Community. 

PS As I was already mentally writing this post, I learned that this is National Women’s Health Week—so I’m happy to celebrate it by invoking this very moving and significant part of our history.

 

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We Get Around

P1000693Before I went to Cuba I had an image that most of its vehicles were vintage American cars.  Wrong!  There were vehicles of all kinds, including generic small Asian sedans. Most of the transportation was local; the “highways” between cities were sparsely used.  Cubans traveled in converted trucks of various kinds.  As tourists on a land and sea trip, we traveled first class, and of course had a ride in a Fifties convertible.

Havana traffic cops in purple

Havana traffic cops in purple

Our Greek cruise ship

Our Greek cruise ship

Our bus

Our bus

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bike with wooden booster seat

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In Cienfuegos

In Cienfuegos, and not just for tourists

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Color

With a wet winter and spring, Nevada has turned green, and the wildflowers are bringing bright splashes of color to the hills.

It led me to reflect on the importance of color; when the day turned gray yesterday I was so happy to look out over my colorful art boards in the back yard, and to the petunias and geraniums in the front planters.

I love the bright colors that I see as I travel around the world.

Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

Burma train station

Burma train station

Bathing on the Ganges, Varanasi, India

Bathing on the Ganges, Varanasi, India

Hotel La Quinta Avenida, Havana, Cuba

Hotel La Quinta Avenida, Havana, Cuba

Recently I learned that an American hotel chain has signed a contract to refurbish and manage some of the old hotels in Cuba that are showing their age and lack of upkeep.

While I’m glad that the ratty rugs and dirty staircases will be upgraded, I wonder if the charm of their fearless use of color will be whitewashed away…

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