Archive | Letting Go

Meditation on Eagle’s Wings

Tuesday, in a forward-hurtling metal hunk of a car, I glance through my open window at the sky. Raptors soar overhead, circling in currents of rising air. I fully expect them to be turkey vultures or red-shouldered hawks, but still I scan for my favorite bird. Then, I see it: long straight wings, head so white it reflects the sun, white tail a stark contrast to the dark body. Huge, huge and monarchical and impressive against the blue sky. A bald eagle. Here! In our sky! My heart pounds in my chest as I try to tell Dar that he must stop, that I must get out. My whole body aches with the wish to pump my fist and yell hurray, to jump up and down, to spread my own wings, to fly, to join that eagle, that miracle survivor of humanity’s impact on nature, in the sky. My head and hand out of the window, I stammer and babble until finally I manage to call out, “A bald eagle!” Too late. The forward-hurtling car is so far, I can’t see the eagle anymore, but I know it was there. A bald eagle! In our Bay Area sky!

Red-tailed hawk above Coyote Valley

One of my favorite Buddhist teaching is the idea that enlightenment, or true freedom, comes through the cultivation of two wings: the wing of compassion and the wing of wisdom. Wisdom on its own is not enough, nor is compassion, one too cold, the other too warm. Like the wings of a bird, compassion and wisdom must balance each other for true freedom, true flight, to occur. Perhaps I love this teaching because of my longing for more wisdom and kindness, but perhaps, too, my love for the wings of enlightenment comes from a much simpler dream: the wish to fly.

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I remember moments in my life, feeling like I could fly.

Eighteen years old, at the completion ceremony for the primary army training, waiting to receive the Hebrew Bible with all the other young women, a gift which symbolizes our national heritage and beliefs: strong Jews, capable of protecting ourselves and our country. I feel as though the whole wide world is open before me, vistas innumerable, opportunities galore. I realize I’m becoming, have become in a sense, an independent adult.

Thirty something, at Asilomar during a writers’ conference, I stand by the railing on the beach, waves breaking below me on a rocky shore, water and sky merging in a splash of blue and grey, the wind under my arms whispering: “Let go, let go, and you can fly.”

Emigrant Wilderness, above Buck Lake, my shadow lingering long over the cliffs, above the water. Feeling the solitude, loneliness, the utter desolate, magnificent distance from other human beings. Enjoying the tantalizing fear of death that comes with the knowledge that a leap is possible.

Point Reyes, surrounded by aspiring California Naturalists, watching a juvenile peregrine falcon perched on a jutting rock, its young feathers as fluffy as a bunny’s fur, the ocean invisible below a thick fog. I’m cold but longing for my own peregrine-falcon wings, strong and powerful and fast. I sense the freedom that comes from being in the body, beating those wings, frolicking in the air between ocean and fog and sky.

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I meditate because I wish to be wiser and kinder, because I wish to live from the heart and to act with intention and love. But I live for the connection with nature, for the chance of coming closer to merging with the sky, the ocean and its waves, the birds, animals and bugs. Every day I move closer not just to who I am but to who we all are, creatures of the earth, like spiders, deer, falcon and eagle, hummingbird and giraffe. Our body is made up of the water, soil, gases, and nutrients of which this world is made, of which gorillas are made, or ants. Living in houses, sleeping in beds, covering ourselves with clothes — we forget that. We call them wildlife and ourselves human, we pretend that we don’t belong to this sweating, pooping, burping, slurping, chomping, dirty, messy congregation. But we are. I am. You are.

Today I read that the president has moved forward with his plans to open the Arctic Refuge to drilling. There is something ridiculous about this, the thought of going so far to seek for oil, of how much work and money will have to go into just getting there and then getting the oil out. And there is something horrifying about it, the thought of spoiling this place which so far has remained pristine and wild, the invasive outreach of the human hand, how nothing is sacred, how the greed for more money, more resources is so all-consuming, how we think we have a right to every place, no matter how unique, no matter how lovely, no matter how important to other people and species, to the balance of the fragile ecosystems of our world.

The thought which really shakes me to the core, though, is how far removed we are from our own wild nature, from our belonging to this wild earth. We too, like all other animals, depend on a habitat, no matter how varied or diverse that habitat may be. Instead of appreciating and taking care of our habitat, this living earth, we are slowly destroying it, sucking it dry of water and food and air. We do this because we don’t really believe we need it. We do this because we believe we’re somehow superior to our habitat. After all, surely there are other planets with life, and if we find them (and we’re looking), we could go there. We delude ourselves with thoughts of how smart, inventive, creative, innovative, and technologically advanced we are.

My heart breaks as I think of what we do to this earth. Drilling in the arctic and the oceans, opening up public lands for coal, how we build more and more housing and manufacturing plants and pave more streets. We’re surprised when a sandstorm comes, or the ocean rises in a tsunami to flood our streets. We install another air conditioner if the weather gets too hot. The oceans will rise? We’ll desalinate them and have more water. The soil or ocean will be polluted? We’ll spray it with chemicals to make it right again. The dodo’s extinct? Let’s see if we can genetically recreate it. We think we can do anything, all powerful, masters of the universe. We don’t need nature, because this is humanity’s planet, god-given, provided for our enjoyment and use.

On Tuesday, Dar and I are flying to Alaska, to the Arctic Refuge. I want to see it with my own eyes, feel it under my feet and in my lungs and blood. There is something humbling about this trip, about the amount of gear that we need to prepare in order to survive there, about how many flights we need to take in order to get there, about the fact that we would not have been able to go without a guide. I go to the Arctic Refuge to cultivate my two wings. Compassion and wisdom to me are part of one wing, the wing of our Humanness. The second wing I wish to cultivate is the wing of Wildness, of being Nature. It’s a tough wing to develop, especially with all that human gear that we are carrying. Despite that, I aspire to strengthen my body-and-heart connection to nature in the most intimate of ways, to become not more of myself but more of It, the planet, the universe, the cosmic and microcosmic sharing of breath and cells and waste, a part of all wild things.

Golden eagles fly over the Arctic Refuge. I hope, in a few days, to be sitting in my pack-raft, floating on the Aichilik through the last untamed landscape on earth, meditating on the eagles’ flight.

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Bearing Witness

I always thought that El Capitan and Half Dome will long survive me. I took comfort in thinking that, even if us humans die off, the redwoods, most likely, will survive and continue to thrive, their trunks thickening and their canopy reaching high to a sky that will look more or less the way it does now. I believed some life will go on, even if it is different from what we know today, and some things, some features of this world we love so much, will linger on: perhaps the San Francisco Bay, or the Pacific Ocean, or Mount Rainier. The world will live on, in some shape or form. Life will go on.

Joanna Macy said to walk the razor-edge line between hope and despair. I try, but it is tough advice to follow, sometimes, when so much of what I hold dear is being threatened, and so few people around me seem to care. I care about people, but if it’s us or the world, it’s clear to me who is the one who needs to make way. As long as the world continues, I repeat as a mantra. As long as there’s El Capitan, or Mount Starr King, or Shasta, Mount Olympus, Rainier. In my attempt to hang onto any little bush on top of that razor-edge line, I forget that rocks and mountains, oceans and trees (no matter how long-lived they can be) are also subject to the rules of impermanence. Nothing stays the same. Not even the razor-edge line underfoot.

An Israeli professor, I read in the newspaper, predicts that the earth will turn into Mars or Venus in 200 years (unless we follow the Paris agreement, he says). Edward O. Wilson, the famous myrmecologist, predicts that by 2050 50% of all the species in the world will be gone. I have read accounts that claim that 8 years from now the Central Valley in California will be so hot humans would no longer be able to live there. There’s other, similarly dire theories, but why repeat them all? Joanna Macy said not to believe any of these prophecies. She said to continue to do our work. To walk that razor-edge line. It’s not that we fight for as long as there’s hope, We fight for as long as there’s a cause for which to fight. As long as there are pandas, hummingbirds, ants. As long as there’s Bears Ears. As long as the Colorado River still runs.

A year ago, a young friend was diagnosed with cancer. He began treatment, encountering set-backs one after another, but not losing hope. At least not for long, at least not for a while. A few weeks ago, his mother let us know that he was now in hospice care. To me, heart sinking, heaviness in the chest, contraction all over the body, brain shouting no, it meant that life is almost gone. But it turns out my understanding was inaccurate. Hospice care means living as well as possible and with compassionate care the life we have left. Instead of planning for a faraway future, it means living this moment fully. It doesn’t mean we stop treatment or lose hope. It means opening up to the love — and the life — that’s here.

Joanna Macy said to walk the razor-edge line, but I can’t. I teeter-totter between hope and despair, between sadness and joy, between anger and acceptance. Only one constant stays: I love this world. I love the hummingbirds which come buzzing around my flowering abutilon plant. I love the deer and the rabbits who eat the plants which I plant for them in my garden. I love the flowers cascading down a madrone and the spritz of perfume that accompanies the flowery bouquets of the buckeye. I love this beautiful light blue sky and all the weather that comes with it. I love the sticky sand on the beach, the breaking waves, and the gorgeous pod of dolphins which rode them today to the horizon. My heart, little, fluttering, fearful, opens up to touch these miracles, to hug them, to bear witness that they are here. And I think to myself: we all live with impermanence. We all, the world included (and whether we realize it or not), have the life-limiting condition which is life itself.

A mother, diagnosed with lung cancer, wrote about the irony if she died of a car accident instead of her cancer. I think to myself: our young friend may be sick. He may not live to be 80. But neither might I. We none of us know the day of our death, and neither does the earth. In some ways, we all ought to live with the compassion and love of hospice care, bearing witness to our time here in this life and to the life all around us — to the beauty which surrounds us, the miracle of life which is here. Opening up to the fragility of this world.

My partner said last night: I am sure life exists on other planets. It might, I wanted to say, and it might not. Instead of turning our thoughts once again outwards, why not focus on what is here right under our noses, under our feet, beneath our hands, and to this earthy air breathing in and our of our lungs. This touch, this smell, this sound. This beautiful earth whose day of death may be near or far. We don’t know. We walk the razor-edge line. We fall into despair, and we desperately hope. We sign petitions. We go to vote. We write a blog. And maybe one of these treatments will work, and the earth and its creatures and all the life on it will live on for another day. Maybe the cancer that we have inflicted upon the earth will heal, and maybe it won’t. For now, there is life. That’s all I know for sure. There is this flower and this bit of ground, this humid air, this birdsong, this crush of a wave on the beach, and the laugh of a human child as she runs from the wave along the shore.

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For the Love of the Ocean

In my imagination, the ocean is a shadowy mosaic of colors and movement. Sharks dart around dark corners, hunting prey with single-minded ferocity. A red octopus slithers along the bottom, its tentacles sweeping the sand, its mind quiet, unwaveringly open to vibrations and sounds. Silvery fish hung motionless, perhaps swimming casually against a light stream. Dolphins frolic, and seal lions dive deep. The seaweed harbors secrets, and the coral swarms with life, while giant eels peer unhurriedly at the dark depths below the last touch of light. Deep in those canyons, blind sea creatures loiter near the bottomless-bottom of the ocean, while far above blue whales lumber light-weightedly from Mexico to Alaska, gulping at krill, spewing out salty water, confident in their huge, magnificent size.

The ocean is the last great mystery on earth, a mystery which covers 70% of our world. To this day, we have explored less than 5% of it. “A troubling nautical reality,” the National Geographic calls it in an article from 2005, referring to an accident in which a submarine crashed into an unknown underwater mountain. Several submariners were wounded in this accident and one killed. Even safety aside, we humans are fascinated by the ocean, by the yet-unknown but easily imagined uses we could make of it, the wealth of both money and progress we could gain. From mining, drilling, fishing, and shipping, to building floating solar farms, offshore wind turbines, and possibly floating cities, our collective human imagination is ready to expand into the ocean, uncover its secrets, and stop this wasteful and ignorant underutilization of its resources.

At Sunset Beach, I look out toward the uninterrupted horizon and imagine the pods of dolphins which I cannot see. The ocean seems simultaneously empty and full, incomprehensibly vast, compelling and dull all at once. I have no interest in taking a cruise or leaving on a year-long yacht voyage to the West Indies. My weak eyes prevent me from taking up diving, but the truth is that this hobby was never a yearning or a desire I had to have. I peek, that is all, into this tiny, limited corner of the ocean and enjoy far more the sight of sanderlings running in and out of the reach of waves, the rare snowy plover pecking in the wet sand, the gulls staring at me, unmoving, through one eye. I love watching pelicans nonchalantly skim the tips of waves as they glide in a line, like ocean liners with wings. And I laugh whenever I get a glimpse of a cormorant drying its wings. I am a land woman. I like feeling the ground beneath my feet. I like the stability of a non-earthquake-moving earth, the grounding of it, the safety. The ocean feels to me dangerous and foreign, uncontrollable and unexpected, predatory and forever wild. I am content to let is stay unexplored and unmapped.

The United States has over 95 thousand miles of shoreline. The number continually changes and shifts with the tides, with erosion, with landslides, hurricanes — the forces of human development and nature combined. As a nation, we exercise control over the water of the ocean that are by our coast, to the distance of 12 nautical miles from the shore. The first three miles are under state control, the rest under federal. But we also exercise economic control over more than that, up to 200 nautical miles from our shore, what is called the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, “coastal nations have sovereign rights to explore, exploit, conserve, and manage marine resources and assert jurisdiction over: i. the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations and structures; ii. marine scientific research; and iii. the protection and preservation of the marine environment.” There are rules defining every aspect of the exploration, exploitation, conservation and management of the marine environment, but as always happens with human language, those are subject to interpretation, or, we could almost say, the rules themselves are subject to being explored, exploited, and managed, depending on the wishes and desires of whoever is in control.

It has been a few weeks now since I committed to writing an article on off-shore drilling off the California Coast for the Loma Prieta eNewsletter, and I’ve been progressing at the rate of an old and decrepit sea-slug. I’ve interviewed two people, discovering the depth and breath-taking breadth of this subject. I read articles and took notes. And yet the writing itself fumbles, grinds to a stop. Guilt bubbles in me for neglecting this assignment, for postponing writing about this important and time-sensitive issue. I yearn to write, and yet I can’t. I sit, and the words do not come. And then, like lava boiling deep in an ocean trench and hitting the coldness of water that has never seen the sun, fear and pain rush into me. Fear and pain for our ocean and the creatures who live in it and over the development already done and already contemplated. Fear and pain for the impact our actions on land, even far from the coastline, have on the corals, the water, and the aquatic magnificent life. And I realize I have counted on the ocean remaining apart, untouched. Ever mysterious and wild. I imagined, like the incorrect image of an ostrich hiding its head in the sand, the the ocean can stay safe from the long-reaching human hand.

Joanna Macy, environmentalist, activist, Buddhist scholar and teacher, says we must walk the razor-blade edge between hope and despair, that we must act to protect our world without needing hope and without heeding despair. Bringing gratitude in to strengthen us, she opens the door for the pain to come, allowing us, as a result, to see our place in the world and our duty to it with new eyes, inspiring us to the fourth step: action for the world. Having jumped directly into unexpected and unexplored pain, I am frozen from action. Sadness flows and ebbs in me like the tides. Fear rolls me over and around, crashing into me like a tsunami. Knowing the ocean is in danger, has been in danger since long before I was born, liquidates the stable ground beneath my feet, and my mind, as yet not well-trained, needs to be wrenched away and forced…

…to remember and be grateful for:

Hilton Head, sandy beach, standing in early dusk and watching a pod of dolphins in the water. “They are teaching a baby dolphin to hunt,” Dar speculates.

On a boat back from the Channel Islands, seeing a Blue Whale rising up from the ocean and diving in again. A single sighting. A miracle. My breath taken away.

Plovers in Florida. Looking formal and elegant in their white-tan-and-black-feathered suits.

Manatee tails creating a square of depressed water in a channel off the Melbourne, Florida Coast. The joy.

Otters blinking in the sun, lying on their backs in one of the twists and turns of Elkhorn Slough. Bobbing in the kayak, staring at them staring at us.

Myself and the kids, floating up and down gentle waves in the Mediterrenean Sea off the coast of Tel Aviv, little fish nibbling at our bare feet.

The sea lion following us through the surf as we trudge from Alamere Falls back to Wildcat Campground on a warm day in June.

Rainbows twinkling in the horse-galloping tops of waves crushing on Bodega Bay rocks.

The forests of kelp undulating beneath the kayak, my son capturing a red crab on his paddle.

Los Osos on an early morning, pelicans flying by.

The feeling of sand rushing off into the ocean from under my feet, the coldness of wave-water around my ankles.

Every sunset, every sunrise ever viewed.

Relaxing on a beach in Hawaii in Waipi’o Valley with my cousin, hoping to see some whales.

Open-mouthed, momentarily torn between the California zebra and the feeding humpbacked whales just below Hurst Castle. The whales win hands-down. It’s a much better show.

And as I write, my heart eases. Not yet able to handle the pain, but calmer, I take a deep breath. There is much to be loved, much to be appreciated, and yes, still much to be saved.

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A Year to Life — Day 343 — The Strenuous Life

This fall, I took an Intro to Park Management class at a local community college, thinking that I might get back to my youthful dream of becoming a ranger. Already in the first meeting, I knew I was in the right place. The class was not only fascinating, but inspiring as well. I got the impression that no matter their age, the teacher believed in each student’s ability to find work in public land management.

The class introduced me to an entire world of history, politics, literature and art that has to do with our public lands. I was fascinated, scribbling down each book recommendation the teacher mentioned and then reading them one by one. My favorite, so far, is Wilderness Warrior by Douglas Brinkley, an environmental biography of Theodore Roosevelt.

Douglas Brinkley's wonderful biography of TR

Douglas Brinkley’s wonderful biography of TR

Roosevelt was an avid hunter and naturalist, a champion of land-and-wildlife preservation and conservation. During his presidency, he set aside nearly 230 million acres under federal protection in 150 national forests, the first 51 federal bird reserves, 5 national parks, the first 18 national monuments, and the first 4 national game preserves. In 60 years of life, Roosevelt was active not only on the conservation front. He was a prolific author, a dedicated letter writer (who wrote an estimated 150 thousand letters), social activist, military leader, adventurous explorer, rancher, nobel peace prize winner, and more.

Roosevelt believed in something he termed “the strenuous life.” Articulating on this concept in an address he gave in Chicago in 1899, he said: “I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

Roosevelt, it seems to me, certainly lived the life he preached.

The strenuous life, I confess, is also the life I had always wanted to live. Roosevelt described it: “…the higher life, the life of aspiration, of toil and risk….” Roosevelt’s address, intended to raise public support for war in the Philippines, would have stirred the 18-year-old me to the core. I too believed in public service to one’s country. I did not yet think of war as something to be avoided, but as an opportunity for glory, heroism, and self sacrifice. I longed to live the strenuous life, to prove myself worthy. As Roosevelt said in his speech: “We do not admire the man of timid peace. We admire the man who embodies victorious effort.” I, too, wished to be that man… or, er, that woman.

Some historians believe now that Roosevelt’s energy came from having had bipolar disorder — without ever suffering from the depression side. To me, whether Roosevelt’s energy was due to a mental disorder may or may not be an important point. I recognize in Roosevelt’s philosophy the highest ideal which I have placed before my eyes throughout my life. Knowing that this philosophy may be what we could call insane is a moot point. Most of our beliefs, after all, tend to seem illogical, unreasonable, even crazy to other people, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to stop believing in them. As a society both Israelis and Americans seem to live a life of yearning for this principle, that work will save us, that work is the highest ideal of all.

I have lately developed the belief that a lot of my suffering is caused by putting work, or the strenuous life, if you will, up on a pedestal. The other day, my therapist said that rather than try to let go of always pushing myself to be doing more (and thinking I was never enough), I needed to accept the part who always pushes me to be doing more. Perhaps for affection’s sake, I should name that part Teddy, to remind myself that it is just a part, not all of me, who wants to live this strenuous life. And it is not all of me. There are parts of me who long for peace and ease, for acceptance of things as they are. There are parts of me who are overwhelmed by this constant pushing for more and are feeling mowed over and need a break from all this doing in order to figure out what, if anything, wants to be done.

Practicing life in the face of “A Year to Live,” I find myself less willing to rush and more interested in savoring. I find myself wanting to cherish moments rather than chase through them. I begin to understand that living this year as though it is my last is not about doing more, or doing at all. As a beginning, at least, it is about understanding that nothing needs to be changed, and that my life is right and whole just as it is. In a way, the bucket list can wait for after my death. For now, I’m just going to live as though I am, in fact, going to live today.

 

To read Theodore Roosevelt’s 1899 speech given in Chicago, click here, “The Strenuous Life

A lot of the information in this article came from this page in the Theodore Roosevelt Association website.

Some interesting discussion of the possibility TR was bipolar can be found in this article.

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A Year to Live — Day 344 — Flowers at Coe

On Wednesday this week, my friend and I made our way to Henry Coe State Park to see the wildflowers. The rain had pummeled our area for several days, and the morning of March 9th dawned cloudy, misty and drizzly. Despite the bleak weather, we did not lose heart. Instead, bringing with us enough rain gear to make a New Zealand explorer feel sanguine (and leaving dry shoes and socks in the car), we waded out into the water-logged Coe wilderness.

The hills, as Julie Andrews could have sung, were alive with the sound of damp greenness. Light rain fell on us when we passed beneath the sopping leaves of trees. The trail led us up through the clouds, and though I knew the view stretched miles to the south, we could not see farther than a few feet of the slope below us.

In the meadow above Monument Trail, a few irises radiated their gentle purple-blue leaves like a three-pronged compass, looking fragile and battered and wet. A glorious perfume wafted from the just-opening flowers of the madrone; its red trunk, as yet smooth and un-peeling, looked fresh and bloody after the rain. Farther up, shooting stars, lupine and Indian warriors covered the sides of the road, colorful against the fertile brown-green background of the slippery-slopey trail.

Hound's tongue growing at Henry Coe State Park.

Hound’s tongue growing at Henry Coe State Park.

Down below Frog Lake, a fork of Coyote Creek blocked our way, the water flowing clear and cold over the trail. We took off our shoes and waded, barefoot, to the other side. We climbed, exhilarated by damp, muddy feet, the 0.2 miles to the lake. Expanding wave-rings in the water and a “plop” gave the only hint of frogs jumping into the lake one by one, like a tumbling line of invisible dominoes. My friend had brought a birthday picnic: egg and avocado sandwiches, baby bell peppers and cucumber spears, roasted chestnuts, chocolate, bananas and tangerines. A feast. We dug in, hungry already, not minding the cold, wet ground.

The trail back to the visitor center led us up in a gentle slope through meadows of wildflowers, under oak trees, and through a low manzanita forest. On a hillside, I sought out the elusive purple mouse ears. I’d heard this tiny flower grew on Corral Trail on one of the grassy slopes, but I had never seen it. On this trip, however, like a nature birthday gift, we found several of them hiding in between the grasses, all purply and fat, their ears laying wet and heavy close to their heads as they stared at us above their crown of chubby, light-green leaves.

Driving home, now in unforeseen sunshine, I thought of my expectations for this birthday and my hope that I will celebrate, for once, a happy day. I thought about the purple mouse ears, about the frogs diving into the lake, and the other wildflowers, abundant as they came alive, so ephemeral, with the rain. Next February, as our year to live winds down, these flowers will be but a memory, pictures in the mind’s eye, but together with this last birthday they will have left a pleasant, treasured feeling in my heart.

At home, Dar arranged gifts on our dining table. Yet another surprise. A huge bouquet of flowers towered above wrapped boxes for me and the kids. I look at it now and the impermanence of all around me strikes me hard. This bouquet with its bold colors looks so solid and real, but in the next few days the flowers will begin to fade and die. They too, as Stephen Levine says in his book, began to die on the day their seeds were put in the womb of the ground. I long to take a picture of the flowers and restrain myself. Let them be, I whisper to myself, and let them, peacefully, easefully, naturally, die.

Click here to view the picasa photo album for this hike.

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A Year to Live — Day 350

Getting Things Done

My daughter had the day off on Friday, and this meant I had a little more time in my usually-hurried-and-stressed-out morning. Most weekdays, but especially on Tuesday when both kids need lunches, I often feel  as though I am juggling pans, lunch boxes, chickens, dogs and my own needs under Jupiter-gravity conditions. On Friday, however, I leisurely set the alarm for a 45-minute meditation. I could have found, all too easily, other chores in the house that needed attention, but I forcibly subdued the urge to get one more thing off my list. Don’t Just Do Something, Sit there, is the humorous title of one of Sylvia Boorstein’s meditation-instruction books. I made the conscious choice to just sit there and not do.

When I came back to the kitchen 45 minutes later, however, my eyes fell on the to-do list, the one that’s been sitting on the counter for the past week. My heart sunk. That list’s been haunting me, remonstrating and reminding me I have not yet began to do several of the items on it. “When will you start?” It harangued me. “When will you finish?” And in an irritable tone: “You should have folded the laundry instead of sitting like some kind of bum.”
todo list
Perhaps the meditation had worked it’s magic and my mind was clear enough to see this, but as I breathed in and out, the realization struck me like lightning: No matter how much I work on my to-do list, it will never be completely done. There will always be more items that can be added to it. Whether it is small daily tasks like walking the dogs, cleaning the chicken coop, and unloading the dishwasher, or larger one-time tasks like coordinating the 7th grade bake sale or finishing my Bridge to Emergency Medical Responder class, the to-do list will never, ever stand on zero items. Never.

So why do I expect myself to get it all done?

When people die, I often hear relatives speak about the unfinished business the deceased had left behind. Some times it’s a messy house which the children need to clean up, pack up and dispose of. Some times it’s the details of the burial or the inheritance. I too, if I died today, will have died before signing my new will, which I’d been postponing for about a year now (though it is ready and waiting for me to sign). I wonder, though: does anyone ever die with all their business done, all the bills paid off, all documents settled, all chores completed, every single loose end tied?

This past week felt very stressful to me. Hassled and harassed, no matter how much I did, there was always more to be done. Like a clown trying to keep all the juggling balls in the air, I strove to extend my arms so I could reach all the chores at once. There may be times, I suppose, when it really is necessary to juggle more than one task at a time. Often, however, I wonder what is making me feel this desperate-and-all-encompassing need to “get things done.” What will happen if some balls/tasks were never picked up? What would happen if I picked some up and then dropped them? What would happen if someone else picked up a ball that I dropped? Will these be the big disasters I expect?

The clues to my struggle with the doing/non-doing are rooted deep in my cultural heritage. My maternal great-grandparents arrived in Israel with the reactionary immigration wave known as the Second Aliyah. These immigrants arrived steeped in socialist-zionist ideology, and many of their ways of seeing the world have lasted to the 21st century, creating the cultural environment, moral values and religious ethics with which I grew up. The Second Aliyah Jews believed in becoming a new kind of Jew whose spirituality was tied up with working the land. This belief, expounded by A. D. Gordon in the early part of the 20th century, eventually came to be called “the religion of labor.”

Labor as a religion. Get it?

If getting things done is akin to religious dogma, small wonder that I struggle so much with how much I get done. If I believe in the absolute truth of Doing, then even my just sitting there in meditation must show concrete results and consequences. Rest is dangerous. A nap is mortal sin. Letting someone else do my job is opening the door to the devil and all his brood.

And after all these words that I’ve just piled, I realize only three matter in the end: compassion and non-judgement. These words offer not a solution, but a truce of sorts: Can I be with the pain of the conflict between how I’ve been raised and how I choose to live my life without judging myself? Can I look on with compassion at all the tasks still gobbling up the space on the to-do list? And when I cannot take better care of myself in the midst of all these judgements and tasks, can I at least be compassionate for and not judge that?

….to be continued.

whitetara

White Tara, the goddess of compassion.

This exploration of my relationship to Doing is inspired by the class “A Year to Live” which I am taking at Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society in SF.

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A Year to Live — Day 357

On Noting

This morning I got up and reminded myself that I need to keep reading the book A Year to Live for class. The book, after which the class is named, was written by meditation teacher Stephen Levine. It is a short but dense and lyrical book, with long windy sentences that seem to dance around themselves, the words entwining and looping so that I often need to reread sentences to make sure I understand.

Ever since I wrote my last blog post a few days ago, I’d been thinking about my backpack of grudges. My therapist, with whom I proudly shared my understanding about letting go of grudges this year, surprised me by not quite entering into my enthusiasm for this Letting Go Project. Basically (I am loosely paraphrasing her) she said that with my history of suppressing anger, it would be a better idea not to concentrate on the end result (letting go), but on the process (exploring where this anger lives in the body, how old this part that feels the anger may be, what does it need from me, etc).

As you can imagine, I was righteously indignant at Jeanne’s implication that my beautiful realization about letting go the backpack of grudges is really another attempt to avoid facing the issue. But, of course, Jeanne was right. I would very much like just to let go of all my anger without dealing with it. I don’t do anger very well, and any opportunity, spiritual or otherwise, of getting rid of it makes me (metaphorically) want to jump up and howl with unrestrained joy.

“Fine,” I said. “Whatever. I’ll feel the anger, if you insist. I’ll turn into a red, whirling Tasmanian devil. I’ll destroy all my relationships, only to rebuild them on healthier grounds. I’ll go through the storm in order to come out a calmer, more-at-peace woman.” This declaration was followed by a pleasantly meditative period of resting in the now-righteous-happiness of having passed through all the —excuse my word — excrement, and having come out all-healed-up, a quiet, peaceful, concentrated woman. This only lasted for a few seconds, until Jeanne interrupted to remind me that, actually, I haven’t yet gone through the — excuse my word — excrement. That step is still before us, she said. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

So for the past few days I’ve been trying to see what is going on for me when I remember one of my grudges, and let me tell you, the answer to this question is, “Not much.” I have gotten so good at suppressing and depressing all unpleasant emotions, that when the time comes to feel them, my mind will go everywhere but to the pain. This feeling and investigating the hard stuff is turning out to be, well, hard.

"Letting go a little brings a little peace. Letting go a lot brings a lot of peace. Letting go completely brings complete peace." Ajahn Chah.

“Letting go a little brings a little peace. Letting go a lot brings a lot of peace. Letting go completely brings complete peace.” Ajahn Chah.

Back to this morning and my determination to read some more of Stephen Levine’s book. Once again, as I read, I found myself somewhat detached from the actual content of the chapter. Levine was repeating in it something which I’d heard Jack Kornfield and other teachers talk about often: as we sit in meditation, we allow thoughts to come and go in our mind, noting them as they come but not becoming attached to them. The noting can be simply, “thinking, thinking,” or a more specific noting like ”sadness, sadness.” After about three paragraphs of the chapter, it dawned on me that Levine was offering this idea of noting as an important practice for our last year of life. He was suggesting that I actually do this practice when I sit in meditation. Ok. I regrouped, and, deciding I would try this for a few moments (Levine suggests starting with five minutes), I closed my eyes and allowed myself to follow my thoughts.

A moment later I opened my eyes. Here are the thoughts and feelings I noted in about five in-and-out breaths: pain, sadness, constriction around my heart, my contracted belly, heaviness, stress, pressure, tight shoulders, aversion to feeling so many unpleasant emotions, yearning to open my eyes, the thought that continuing to read the book will distract me from all this pain.

I opened my eyes, kept reading, and felt what could only be described as a minor earthquake. It turned out I had only one short paragraph left in the chapter. Here is what it said:

“How many states of mind in five minutes, in five hours, in five days, in five lifetimes? How often has our life passed unnoticed? How soon will we accept this opportunity to be fully alive before we die?”

I think, perhaps, I finally understand what Jeanne had been saying for years now. By suppressing my anger and all other negative emotions, hiding beneath the depression, sending as outcasts my parts which are trying to express these emotions, I have, in a way, been only partly alive. By feeling the unpleasant emotions, even though they are unpleasant, I will be allowing myself to live, truly, for the first time.

Sadness at so much time lost. Heaviness around the heart. Exhilaration and hope. Tears starting to burn the edges of my eyes. My breath, in and out of my chest. Tingling in my fingers with the urge to write. Sadness again, and anger at having lost time. My throat constricting with the effort to express myself. The space around me, and my heart beating, quietly, softly, with the passage of time.

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A Year to Live — 361 Days

Holding Onto Grudges

A deer at Rancho from a few years ago. I thought it appropriate to the idea of freedom and letting go.

A deer at Rancho from a few years ago. I thought it appropriate to the idea of freedom and letting go.

On Tuesday, I went for a hike with a new friend, J-N, who I met that morning for the first time. We were supposed to hike with another woman, a mutual friend, but since she couldn’t come, J-N and I found ourselves in the funny position of meeting for a hike without ever having seen each other before. Despite our lack of familiarity with each other, we quickly dove into the depths of a rather personal conversation. From talking about love of the outdoors, to sharing how we met our life’s partners, we soon progressed to speaking about life itself, and through that, to my year to live and my death in (now) 361 days.

As we talked and walked, I found myself time and again complaining about grievances from my past. “Wow, I am still bearing a grudge,” I commented each time, wondering at myself for my ultra-long memory in keeping resentments. I was carrying my usual, regular backpack, as I always do, but as one grudge after another flickered to life in my memory, it occurred to me that my physical backpack was not the only one I was carrying. There I was, in the greenness and beauty of a gloriously wild place, in the sunny clarity of a California summery winter day, carrying on my back a gaggle of grudges, seemingly without any intention to let them go.

Our walk passed through rolling meadows, low oak forests, and inside the brim of a gorge almost completely overrun by fallen and uprooted trees and shrubs (perhaps the result of the last storm). Still-green trees and shrubs lay in the path of the creek, creating what could almost be a dam, and we wondered what would happen in the creek bed when the rains came again. “Erosion,” J-N said, looking at the destruction around us. We couldn’t help but imagine the violence of the storms that brought about so much collapse, that worked their way by wind and water around the roots of these trees, till finally those mighty beings could hold onto the ground no more, and even they, the giants of the earth, succumbed to the inevitability of the circle of life.

Grudges work the same way, I thought. They insidiously wear away at the foundations, exhausting good will, trust, and peace of mind. Even the tallest tree or the hardiest shrub cannot withstand the repeated corrosive efforts of resentment. I looked in the face of each one of my grudges as they came up, and I was surprised to see how little true emotion was left in them. Rather, these grudges I was holding onto, as though my world depended on them, were like a frayed tale, told so many times that it no longer held any meaning.

“As you hike,” a friend once suggested a meditation, “imagine you are carrying with you a backpack filled with all your sorrows, upsets, ill will, and anger. While hiking up a mountain, pause once in a while, perhaps during switchbacks in the trail, and imagine yourself opening the backpack and taking something out. Leave these by the side of the trail, one at a time. You can always pick them up on your way back, if you need to, but perhaps by the time you hike down you will realize you no longer need those burdens you’ve carried, and you can leave them there to be recycled back into the earth.”

In these last 361 days which I have before I die, I would like to let go of as many grudges and resentments as I can. For a moment there, during my hike with J-N, I could see with utter clarity what it would be like not to carry these grudges anymore, to hike without the backpack of resentment. If you’ve ever gone backpacking before, you know the relief of setting your pack down after a long day of hiking. The backpack, containing everything you need to live in the woods for a while, becomes a part of the body, turning you into a big turtle who is carrying its house. Setting it down is like a revelation, a release, a freedom that can only be experienced, impossible to describe.

I have carried my grudges long. I have brought them with me so far. But now, I think, it is time to set them down, one at a time. Like ultra-light backpacking, or like John Muir hiking only with his tin cup and a blanket, so do I too wish to complete the journey of my life with as little baggage as I can. Whether this means forgiving myself, forgiving others, or begging others for their forgiveness, I am getting ready to step into the creek bed and allow the water and the wind to wear the foundations of my grudge-constructs down. These stories I’ve been telling myself for so long, unlike the trees downed that I saw in my hike with J-N, were never really alive. It is time, as Jack Kornfield says, to let go of all hope of a better past. I like this idea. Wish me luck.

 

The class “A Year to Live” is offered by Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society in SF. It is based on the book A Year to Live by Stephen Levine.

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Simplifying the Complicated Life

It’s 7:30am, and I’m already tired. Partly it’s because I didn’t sleep well last night. You could say I was besieged by strange recurring dreams concerning gorillas and high schools. Since I’m in the process of registering my son to high school, that might explain the second part, but I’m still not sure about the gorillas. Partly, however, I’m so tired because I’ve contemplated my schedule this week, and I am dreading what I see.

Ever since I’ve come back from the meditation retreat in September, I’ve become more aware of how overwhelmed I feel inside my own life. So much happens every day. I feel responsible for so many things and people. The driving… don’t get me started on the driving. And all of it, I confess, is by choice. My choice. And the question begs, if this chaos is my choice, why am I not choosing otherwise?

My brother-in-law once told me a story about a teacher’s example for good time management. The teacher placed a large glass vase on the table and fit large rocks inside, up to the top of the vase. He then asked the students if the vase was full. Yes, they answered. The teacher took smaller rocks and let them tumble into the spaces between the large rocks. Is the vase full now, he asked the students. Yes, they said. The teacher poured pebbles into the vase. How about now? He asked. Yes. Then he poured in sand. Full? The students, now wise, wondered if maybe not? The teacher poured in water. Now the vase was truly full. The moral of the story was simple: we have to fill up our time with the biggest rocks first, what is most important, and only then down in size to the water. If we fill the vase with water first, then sand, then pebbles, we have no room for the big rocks.

So what are my big rocks? I always come back again and again to this question. The kids, of course, hiking and being outside, writing, spending time with Dar, my meditation and qigong. I also have smaller rocks that I do not wish to be without: reading, spending time with the dogs, cleaning for the chickens (I know this sounds strange, but it actually makes me feel more connected to the essential me, the earth-me), making music, spending time with friends, connecting with my family, exercising.

Then there are the things I do which are harder to classify: cooking, for example — is that a small rock or a pebble? It is important to me to eat healthy and organic. I would prefer not to eat at restaurants, but cooking takes up so much time, seemingly more than its share in the order of importance. And, to make everything more complicated, it is also closely related to the much bigger rock of spending time with and still taking care of the kids, in, once again, two opposing forces. I guess some of my rocks are just not so black and white in the size department.

Then there are other things, like doctors’ appointments, for example. If it was up to me, those would be sand, or maybe even water. But what if it’s a doctor’s appointment for the kids? And paying my bills, whether sand, water or pebble, is essential to living an orderly and responsible life with direct implication to my peace of mind and the well-being of the kids, myself, and Dar. Unlike my brother-in-law’s story, I have not been able to find a way to make all of my rocks come together snugly in the vase of my life. It’s always an either/or. Either I take the kids to the dentist, or we can go home and spend time together. Either I cook dinner, or I help them with homework. Either I write or I go for a hike. It is always choice.

I remember one of my first conversations with my therapist. I described to her all of these things which I would love to do and explained how if only I was more methodical, less lazy, more organized, more efficient, then I would be able to do all of them every day. Jeanne thought that it sounded exhausting. Sadly, she turns out to be right.

Here is a schedule of my dream day:
5am wake up
5:20-6:30am meditation and qigong
6:30am breakfast while reading
7:00am-9:45am hike
9:45-10:00 clean for chickens, water plants in yard
10:00am-11:30am write
11:30-12:30 play the ukulele and sing
12:30-1:00pm lunch
1:00pm-2:45pm prepare dinner
2:45-4 pick up kids from school
4-6:30 spend time with the kids, walk dogs
6:30-7 dinner
7:00-7:30 read french
7:30-8:30 showers, spend time with kids
8:30 go to sleep

Here’s what I didn’t put in there:
My Reiki stuff: sessions, planning classes, promoting my business, connecting with people
Hanging out with friends
Resting or even just pausing
Talking with my grandmother in Israel, connecting with my family
Writing this blog
Laundry
Loading and unloading the dishwasher
Registering Uri to high school
Exercising
Doctors appointments
Date night with Dar
Massage
Answering emails
Volunteering at school
Grocery shopping
And so much more.

As I am writing this, I am wondering if perhaps I could look a week in advance and schedule in some things which are important to me. I would love to write every day, but do I really need to hike every day? Perhaps three times a week is enough, and perhaps I could assure myself of having that time by physically penciling it into my calendar? Perhaps I could play the ukulele in the evening instead of the morning, freeing up an hour and sharing that activity with the kids? That hour could be used to put in-between activities, for much needed pausing or, perhaps, for the laundry.

Jack Kornfield often reads a poem by the poet Ryokan:

BEGGING
Today’s begging is finished; at the crossroads
I wander by the side of Hachiman Shrine
Talking with some children.
Last year, a foolish monk;
This year, no change.

I tend to agree about that for myself. Last year, a foolish Sigal. This year, no change. The more I live and the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. I realize how some things which seemed so ultra-important to me in the past are not necessarily that important at all. I find myself getting back to the essential, that which truly is important to me: to love, to share that love with people around me, to be at peace and share that peace with people around me.

Perhaps that, in truth, is my one big rock, living with the intention to love. Everything else, whether I hike or write, whether I play or talk on the phone, whether I answer email or water the plants — do these things ever truly matter if they are not done from the heart? And is not even folding the laundry the most important thing, the biggest of all big rocks, if done with love?

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NaNo Update

Today is day 8 of NaNoWriMo, and so far, so good, I’ve been able to write 17,245 words. That’s an average of over 2,000 words a day! I am making an effort to write first thing in the morning, when I’m at my best and when I am less likely to be interrupted. Usually that means I am sitting here at my computer between 6-8am.

I’ve been writing and only writing, not reading over what I previously wrote, and I think this method is working well for me. If I start reading back at what I wrote before, my inner critic becomes engaged, and all of a sudden it is not about being creative but about excellence and perfection or, worse, embarrassment and shame. I find that I really work much better if the critic is off to the side, minding his own business. Every once in a while he rears up his head and comments on my progress, and I politely ask him to back off. I don’t need him right now. I want to allow the words, unhindered, to flow.

I hope that when I am done with the first draft (as I feel fairly confident I am going to do) I can engage the services of my inner critic not as a critic but as a “feedbacker.” I think there’s a lot he can help me with, as long as he remembers that his job is to support and build and not to crush and shame. My cousin told me a good quote in Russian for this (and I’m using her translation): The first pancake always comes out in a ball. Similarly, I expect that this first draft is not going to be the end of the process. There’s going to be a second, and a third, and maybe a number twenty-third draft as well. There’s going to be revision. But the only way I can move from a ball to a beautiful pancake ready-to-be-served is with encouragement and love. It’s impossible to cook a nicely-shaped, yummy pancake — or a magical novel — with censure and hurt.

Other than discovering that NaNoWriMo does in fact motivate me to write, I’ve also noticed something else. I have more self discipline than I used to. I think all this meditation and qigong and Reiki practice is really paying off. I am better able to concentrate and to sit down for something that I know deep down inside to be very important to me. I am also, somehow, better able to let go. I put down the words, and whether or not the critic mumbles something from his place of semi-exile, I let my written words flow. There will be a time to review them later.

Having written one novel before, even if I did decide, after who-knows-what-number version, to leave it, I feel both awed and overwhelmed by the thought of what comes after the first draft. I know the task that is ahead of me, and I know what it feels like to have put so much effort into something meaningful to me only to discover that it is just not going to bear fruit anytime soon. I try to let these thoughts go too. Right now there are only two things I am doing, and they are allowing the story to tell itself and myself to feel the fun of it without thinking too much ahead.

Tomorrow I am going to a meditation daylong at Spirit Rock about releasing the inner critic. Very apropos, I think. I hope it will help with the writing as well. I have dreamed about writing a novel for so long, I’ve written and hoped, cried, shut down, avoided writing for months and months, and then found myself trying again and again. A part of me wants so, so much for it to happen finally, but I’ve decided to let go of expectations and hopes, and even of dreams. I have decided to let whatever happen, happen, and to stop interfering.

Many years ago when I was a student at Stanford, one of my professors said to me that in order to write a doctorate you need to have a fire burning in you. For me, the fire has always been in writing a novel. Sometimes it was on low heat. Sometimes on high. But it was always there, burning away, sending desire after desire into the sky. So we will see, won’t we, what will come of this new endeavor, this new concept for my novel. I will keep you updated as I continue following the NaNo path. For now, all is well. I hope all’s well also in your life.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109