Archive | meditation

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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A Year To Live — 364 Days

Yesterday, during a somewhat innocent meditation class, I received a prognosis for an untreatable condition called Life. I have only one year to live. Perhaps less. The prognosis did not surprise me too much. I had been preparing for the class (which is based on the book, A Year to Live, by Stephen Levine) and for the prognosis for a few weeks now. What struck me, though, was the realization of how fleeting my life really is.

Eight years ago, I signed up for a trip which fascinated me to no end. It was a backpacking-and-mountaineering trip into the depths of the Olympic Rainforest to climb Mount Olympus. Who among us did not long, at least for once in their life, to visit the abode of the gods? I never wondered at the Greeks for believing that their gods lived on top of a seemingly unreachable, snowy mountain. Had I been a god, I would have wanted to live on a pristine snowy peak, with the view of a thousand mountains, valleys and plains around me. Best of all, reaching Mount Olympus required passing through all these mountains and Valleys. I loved the idea of backpacking 15 miles in order to reach the mountain. The remoteness, the scenery, the adventure, all appealed to me.

A few days before I was due to leave, my son fell off a slide and broke his arm, a moving fracture that looked terrifying and required a reduction at the hospital. For a moment, I was not sure if I would be able to leave for my trip, but then it was the day of my flight, and I was going. My son was alright with the cast, not really requiring any extraordinary amount of care other than, perhaps, with showering. His dad was to take care of him, and I gave myself permission to go.

I still remember getting to my hotel (it was a Holiday Inn Express not too far from the Seattle Needle). I remember having breakfast the next morning, inquiring about leaving my huge, now mostly empty white bag with clean clothes and some toiletries with the front desk till I returned, dragging my blue pack, so full of stuff that my ice axe and boots and crampons were hanging off the back like I was some medieval peddler. I remember seeing Pat and Alan, the two guides, and thinking they might be a father and son. I remember the equipment check on the floor in the Mountain Madness office, and what I thought when I first saw Mel, Mel who turned out to be my best friend on the trip.

And then we were away and driving and crossing the sound and driving some more and in the parking lot, checking equipment again and splitting up the food and group equipment, and I remember shouldering the heaviest pack I had ever carried, quite possibly 45 or 50 pounds to my barely 115. And then we were off, hiking fast through some of the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen, swallowing up the miles.

Seemingly, I remember everything about this trip: the rainforest teeming with green life, the Hoh River flowing merrily and twinkling next to the trail for most of the way, how cold it was in the early morning when we began our climb, and how steep Snow Dome was. I remember getting to know the other seven men in the group (I was the only woman), crossing the avalanche zone, the beauty of the Blue Glacier. And of course, the top of Mount Olympus, and rock climbing up and down-climbing and rappelling down. But most of all, I remember our last night on the trail. We slept on an island in the middle of the Hoh, except, I couldn’t sleep. I lay on the sand in my sleeping bag, and the echoes of the trip pounded in my blood and the river flowed through my veins, both calling to me to stay forever. Stay, every leaf whispered, every grain of sand. There was only the river and the forest and the wonderful people on the climb. Home seemed far away and unreal. Only the Here was alive and true, and it seemed impossible to me that the night, stretching starry and bright around me, would ever end.

On Snow Dome with the tip Mount Olympus peeking in the background.

Mel and I on breaking our first camp, comparing the various sizes of our packs. His weighed more than I did.

Mel and I on breaking our first camp, comparing the various sizes of our packs. His weighed more than I did.

 

I climbed Mount Olympus in August of 2008. Back in the car, we drove with the windows slightly open — everyone stunk after five days with no showers. We had lunch together (I remember the waitress asking Alan for an ID — he was twenty-two at the time), and then we were dropped off at our hotels. I showered and soaped several times before I was clean, wandered around Seattle for a time, and had dinner by myself at a pizza parlor near the Needle. The next day I flew home. The adventure was over, then it was gone, and then, before I knew it, it lay buried under the dust of many days, weeks, months and years, a shiny memory with mothballs.

This year, my last to live, I would like to live as I have lived on Mount Olympus, enjoying every breath, every smell, the sight of every blade of grass, feeling raw and real. Because this year, the last year of my life, is going to go by the same way as my trip had. Here today, with 364 days to go, it seems like it would go on forever, but as I blink, only 60 days will remain, and then 3 and 2 and 1, and soon a marker will be the only thing reminding you where you put the last physical remnant that I’d been here. And then, while you blink and take your breaths, it will be 2025, and you would wonder, could it really have been seven years?

Isn’t life surreal? Isn’t life just so, so real?

The adventure, so soon to end, begins, and it was only appropriate, you know, that it would begin with a blog post.

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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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Thoughts on a Meditation Cushion

Sitting in meditation this morning
Watching my thoughts churn
Muted turbulent clouds
Barging into my head and each other
An uneasy, silent movie of a stormy sky
High school registration
March trip planning
Friday dinner
Basketball practice
My training session
The Brahmaviharas
Custody schedule
Sadness, the kids go away today
My bike, is the wheel inflated?
Perhaps I can go riding today
Stomach grumbles, what’s for breakfast?
The meditation retreat last day’s dance
A thought arises out of the mess
How confusing the world is
How confusing
And a counter thought smiles
How simple
To be sitting here
On my meditation cushion.

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Morning Dog Meditation

Clearly, the blue mat on the floor is a sign
The heavens have opened and the time has come
An opportunity unfolds that cannot be missed
An propitious moment of canine bliss.

I merely thought I would sit for a while
Let my thoughts pass me by like clouds in the sky
Instead I find myself besieged
By four chihuahuas desperate to kiss.

They come, tails a’wagging, ingratiating looks in their eyes,
Warm tongues searching for my first careless exposing of lips,
Unrolling themselves, belly up, fur inviting,
On top  of my legs and my feet and my hips.

Chico nudges up my hand, Chaim bites my nose,
Percy sits, heart in eyes, patience, gentleness and soul
Nati growls in playful tones, he doesn’t understand
Why, he wonders, am I sitting down but not petting them at all.

I think to myself, don’t be attached, let it go,
Mindfulness is the point, not stillness or eyes closed,
I reach out my hand to caress a dog
And chaos ensues till I’m bowled over, bulldozed:

So many of them, and all of them struggling
To get in the best position for loving
But I, sadly, have but two hands,
I can barely keep up with their popular demand.

Everyone wants to be loved in this family
The puppies, the kids, even the chickens and kitty
There’s no time limit, there’s never too much
Love is the reason we all are alive.

Chaim jumps right up to my face,
Licking and biting my nose and my cheeks.
Chico starts barking, a high nervous bark,
His little claws digging right into my thigh

Chaim and Nati fight for better access, the best spot,
Shoving each other’s head from under my hand,
While Percy gets shoved far to the side,
He practices his best look of pathetic and sad.

I try to stay mindful within this juggle,
As the dogs frantically up their struggle,
Finally, enough, it’s time to lay some laws
My dog meditation obviously has flaws.

I ignore them for a while as they fight and they bark.
Finally, they realize they have a better tactic
As I sit there with my eyes closed, in the back I hear
Their little nails clicking as they each pee right near.

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My Television Dukkha (Suffering)

Sometimes I look at my children, and it seems to me they lead very strange lives. They go to school for most of every weekday, leaving home at 7:30am and returning only around 4pm — almost the equivalent of a full-time adult job. Once at home, they need to manage their time between after-school activities, such as basketball and football practice or gymnastics, and their homework, which could take as much as an hour-and-a-half every day. After the homework is complete, oftentimes the kids elect to sit in front of the television, the xBox or their iPads, staring at the screens for hours at a time.

Here’s what my and my sister’s life at their age looked like:

We had school from 8am to 2pm at the longest, often coming home at noon. We had homework, and I sure read a lot, but I spent a lot of time outside, in our garden or the street, playing. I also played the piano. My sister went to jazz and aerobics classes and took karate lessons. But we often played with friends. There was only one channel on television in Israel. For some two hours each afternoon the programming was only in Arabic, and in the evening, it was more for adults. And so, though we watched some television, our life was not focused on it, except perhaps somewhat during summer vacations, when there was more programming oriented to our age. But even then we spent most of the day playing with friends outside, reading (me), or going to the beach and the pool. We did not have a computer till I was in my teens, and even then, games were limited and the internet not invented yet. Our lives were focused on friends and on being outside, and, for me, on books.

When I look at my kids, I wonder what this indoor, screen-oriented life would look like when they’re adults. I worry that they are self-numbing. That they don’t really know what to do with their time other than this digital easy choice. The fear that as a parent I ought to control this better seizes me, and I feel desperate and hopeless at the same time. Somehow, whenever I talk to other parents, they don’t have this problem at all. “We hardly watch television,” one mother told me the other day. “She’s too busy with soccer practice,” said another.

Once school is done for the day, most kids around here head to sports practices, music lessons, horseback riding lessons, and many other after-school activities. Their time is so tightly scheduled that it is impossible to make plans for playdates during the week, and even the weekend is often tough. While admittedly riding horses or playing soccer does sound much better in every way (healthier, more educational, morally more correct perhaps) than watching television, I wonder sometimes if all these activities are simply another symptom of our non-stop society that is so afraid to pause for a moment and get bored.

This morning, I went to meditation practice at Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City. I was tired, and my head kept whip-lashing as I fell asleep and woke up sitting on the pillow. I had looked forward to coming, eager for a half hour of uninterrupted quiet, a half hour of not needing to talk, not needing to do anything, a half hour of simply being in the moment, even if that moment was full of sleepiness. After the meditation, Robert Cusick spoke about the Eightfold Path and how to end suffering (dukkha in Pali). As he spoke, my listlessness transformed itself into a panic about this television issue. I was ruining the kids’ lives. I was not doing my duty by them. What kind of a parent was I? The image of my daughter staring at the television last night came to my mind, and my chest filled with such tightness, such desperation, such helplessness, that I wanted to jump out of my seat, to do anything except experience that.

In my mind, action was paramount. I was going to go back home and sit the kids down for a talk. No more television. Ever. Not on weekdays at least. I was going to talk to Dar about not getting Uri the Playstation he wanted for his birthday. That’s it. No more. I was done with screen time. I was going to be better this time. I’ll make them check-in their iPads in the kitchen. I would be on top of making sure the TV was always turned off. No computer for me either. Possibly not even for Dar. I will let them be bored. It’s better than this digitalization of our life. We’ll go to the pool instead, or I could schedule them some music lessons again. We will be a screen-free home. In my frenzy, I was no longer at the meditation hall. Instead, I was fighting the kids, fighting, in a way, against this awful sin it seemed to me that I was committing against their life.

Fortunately, Robert Cusick’s words interrupted my self-torture, bringing me back to the hall. He was telling a story about something that happened in a class he taught the other day. The class began, he said, with a guided meditation. As everyone was sitting, and he was already guiding them in the meditation, late-comers trickled in. The door opened and closed. Chairs creaked and scraped. Bags thumped down on the floor. Sound was happening, but he noticed some of the meditators were opening their eyes, glancing back. In our heads, he explained, a simple noise transforms into stories: who is coming? why are they late? don’t they know the class started already? don’t they know they’re interrupting the meditation? But it was just sound that was happening. Only sound. Nothing else. The rest were stories that were going on in people’s heads.

As Robert Cusick spoke, I suddenly understood. What was happening for me, thinking about the digital usage at home, was fear — fear that I am not a good enough mother. The rest was just stories that I was telling myself that I thought could happen in a future that hasn’t even happened yet. The need I felt to act, like the need the meditators felt to see who was coming, was a reaction to the fear, but there was no real, urgent need for me to act. If I acted now, I’d be acting from that fear and ignorance, from a place of heaviness and helplessness and despair. Instead, I can do what I’ve heard people talk about countless times in meditation: I can simply be with this fear. I can hold this fear and myself with compassion. I can experience it and see that it is just a fear, even if it does seem to me such a terrible, scary fear. And let go of the need to react.

Perhaps, once I’ve learned to hold my fear (this fear of not being a good enough mother) with compassion, I will be more capable of acting wisely with regards to the television/ipad/xbox situation at home. Right now, I realize I cannot. Right now, any action I take will not really be an action, but a REaction, and as such will probably go the way my resolutions regarding the TV had gone before: to guilt and more helplessness and fear. I have a long way to go in learning to hold this fear. It’s a big one for me. And so, for today at least, I’m not going to do anything except be kind to myself about it as much as I can. I’m going to trust that the sense of urgency I feel is a passing sensation. That this situation (which is largely in my imagination anyways) is not critical. That I cannot build or destroy anything in one day, and that the kids, god willing, will not be quite as irretrievably ruined as I fear by another digital day.

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The Rainbow on the Turkey’s Tail

Spirit Rock Meditation Center is at once removed and far too close to civilization. It sits close enough to Sir Francis Drake Blvd that traffic always hums, but is also nestled into hills from which several rough trails are cut, climbing out to the ridges around. Perhaps it was leaving my cell phone in the car, the vow of silence, or just the isolation inside the community, but home seemed many thousand miles away, and not a ninety-minute drive across the bay.

Wild turkey dawdled along the road leading from the dining hall to the dorms, seeming not to care about the yogis staring at them. Lizards, less enlightened maybe, skittered in and out of the road, nearly causing accidents that could be fatal only to themselves. These last, especially, were everywhere, either streaking from the bushes or performing their daily dose of push-ups on a sunny surface. They seemed to watch us yogis without much curiosity, as though once they’ve seen one of us, we are all pretty much the same.

Before coming to the retreat, I’d been worried about my ability to sit and meditate for a whole day. I wasn’t sure how I would handle the silence, or the accommodations. And I was worried about breaks for peeing, most specifically because we were going to spend quite a lot of time in nature, and I wasn’t sure if the question would even be addressed.

My worries about the retreat, however, were not more numerous than my expectations. I had noticed, watching people who had come back from retreats or hearing them talk, that participants tend to become a bit addicted to the experience, going back again and again, year after year. I had heard that while the first couple of days were hard, the rest of the retreat seems to pass in a rosy haze of concentration and presence. I also heard that people have all kinds of mystic experiences, such as clearing of past burdens, moments of understanding of past dilemmas or conflicts, and other forms of enlightenment. That all sounded deliciously good to me.

So here I was, in this far-away, humming-with-echoing-traffic retreat center, worrying about details and expecting miracles. Perhaps you can already imagine what happened in the week I was there.

Nothing.

Yes. Exactly, perfectly, nothing.

Turns out, I did not have trouble sitting or walking in meditation. The occasional restlessness, sure, and the occasional sleepiness. Peeing was less complicated than I feared. The silence was softer, less harsh and all-encompassing than I expected (and I may have even enjoyed it as a relief). The accommodations, the bathroom most especially, were clean and comfortable. Sure, I was not crazy about sharing bathrooms with 11 other women anymore, but it was really fine, and everyone was considerate and clean.

I was able to be present some of the time, but presence, or concentration, never became easy, not after two days and not after three days, not for a whole sit or even part of a sit. Throughout the week, I experienced the usual struggle to stay present that I experience at home when I meditate. Some fears plagued me (the most annoying ones being the not being able to go pee fear and the fear that I’ll never hike the PCT, both of which seemed to me huge and petty at the same time), and they stayed on, at some level, throughout the retreat. No really big moments of enlightenment there, or in any of the other dramas of my life.

Quite simply, I just sat there. Or just walked. And that was all.

Toward the last day of the retreat, I started feeling a bit upset. Was I a failure at this too? Did I do something wrong? Perhaps I don’t know how to meditate, after all? Maybe I’m not supposed to just sit here and struggle to be present. Maybe there’s a secret ingredient I’m missing. I grew more and more irritable — no rosy haze for me. The end of the retreat was a relief. I really wanted to come back home.

Safe in the comfort of home, I happened to listen to a Jack Kornfield podcast talk about what inspires us in spirituality. I had watched him every day during the retreat as he was getting lunch. He’d walk mindfully from bowl to bowl, and as mindfully serve himself. He looked shorter than I expected, more Jewish somehow. The noble silence edict, unfortunately, made it impossible for me to go all mushy and tell him how much I admire him and how his books have helped me shift my life. But I sent him thoughts of it, hoping they’d somehow invade his presence of mind.

In the podcast talk, Jack Kornfield told a story about a friend of his who has been meditating for 30 or more years with nothing much happening. The friend had confessed that after a while (the first 10 years especially were hard), he had to come to terms with the fact that nothing was going to happen to him while meditating. No mystic experiences. No enlightenment. After thirty years, however, and reflecting back on his practice, the friend noticed that he had become kinder, more present, and a better listener. More, he said, like himself.

I listened to this story and felt a burden shift. If this is all I can expect to receive from meditation, then it is already more than the whole world. Kindness alone would be enough. Presence alone would be enough. The ability to listen to another fully would be enough. Becoming more myself would be enough. Perhaps, after all, I was not such a failure as a meditator. Perhaps, I was exactly where I most wanted to be: sitting and trying to still the mind into presence, being in the meadow surrounded by other people, all of whom, too, probably just yearn to be kinder, better listeners, more like themselves.

One of the days of the retreat, as the sun was rising above the hills, the turkeys were walking by the road. I paused in my walk down to breakfast to watch them. They walked on the grass, nodding to themselves wisely, pecking mindfully at the ground to search for food. As I watched, a ray of sunshine hit a turkey’s tail and a rainbow formed, flickering, glittering on the feathers in bright colors, as luminous as emeralds, rubies, and sapphires, as soft as just-fallen snow. My heart stopped with wonder. The turkey ambled along, oblivious to the miracle on its tail.

It seemed to me, at that moment, to be the culmination of my life’s work, as though my whole life I had been waiting only for that, the appearance (and then the disappearance) of the rainbow on one turkey’s tail.

One moment it was there, gleaming in the sunlight. Then next, I blinked, and it was gone.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109