Tag Archives | Awakening Happiness

Mindfulness Among the Redwoods in Thich Nhat Hanh Phrases

“Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.”

When first I came to live in California, the redwood forest seemed to me a dark, depressing place where few organisms lived. The tall, dark woods hid away the sunshine, and below all was muted, musty, moist. For a long while, I preferred the oak woodlands, the open spaces of Henry Coe State Park, where the horizon widens to include even the faraway Sierra Nevada’s snowy caps. Oaks and pines and the frequent sighting of wildlife in air and water and on land captured my imagination, providing me with a nostalgic connection to the Israeli landscape in which I had grown up.

“Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I am aware of my body.”

Over these past seventeen years — somehow, as though by magic — the redwood forest grew on me. I began to see it as a place of mystery and enchantment, holding its secrets close, so much of it existing far away from our human eyes. Up in the canopy, diversity thrives of mosses, lichen, trees, ferns, brush, and wildlife. Douglas firs have been known to grow on redwoods. Bay trees. Tanoaks. Berry-bearing brush, such as salal, huckleberry and gooseberry. Birds, like the marbled murrelet who only nests in the canopy of redwoods, Northern spotted owls, falcons and bald eagles. Salamanders, chipmunks, earthworms, crickets. But more than simply admiring the diversity of the forest, I learned to sense and love the trees themselves.

“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile.”

Tall. So tall they touch the sky, dripping down a gentle rain of fog onto a ground feathery with duff. A lone banana slug meanders by, its slime pushing forest detritus down. I stand below a redwood and feel the strength of its roots in the ground. A redwood’s roots go only about a foot down, but they can stretch as far as a hundred feet away from the trunk. Kurt, my guide a few days ago at Big Basin State Park, tells me redwood roots of different trees fuse together to form one web. I close my eyes and imagine them communicating through the soil, holding onto-and-resting-in each other’s stretching arms, shooting up safe and tall to reach the sun. If their roots are entwined, are they one tree or many? Do the roots make the tree or do the number of trunks? And do they know, these trees, if a bay tree’s roots plunge into the earth through their web of life, that the bay is an “other,” and that they should not meld their roots with hers or a tanoak’s, or a pine’s?

“Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is the only moment.”

I chatter circles around Kurt as we walk. I can’t help it. Telling stories, asking questions, repeating information I had heard about redwoods, wanting to know more and more and more. Kurt seems patient, content. We visit the two tallest trees in the park. Funny enough, they are young ones who had sprouted farther up to the sky than older trees because of a spring seeping at their roots. The forest fills with the sounds of birds. Some we know: pileated woodpeckers laugh their mad laugh and drill into trees. Acorn woodpeckers waka waka out of sight, their methodical hammering lighter, less frantic. Jays caw and hop, and little juncos chirp. We see one banana slug, and then… I miss another and step on it. I am heartbroken, leaning down to find the slug writhing in redwood duff. A direct hit, Kurt says. How can such a magical day include such a devastating turn?

“Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out I am home.”

Three days later, I sit at the foot of a redwood tree at Wunderlich County Park. We are meditating to Thich Nhat Hanh phrases which I have adapted into a guided meditation. Across the creek, young redwoods grow close together on a hill which had been logged and logged again in the last one-hundred-and-sixty years, as had most of the land around us. But this lovely park is now protected and safe. The ground is cold, the air is colder, and dawn is but breaking over the top of the trees. Beside me, Anne-Marie and Adelaide are quiet. We are feeling the connection to the earth. Suddenly, crushing through the vegetation, someone approaches our peaceful spot. As the meditation wounds to a stop, we open our eyes to find a young deer tiptoeing down the hill, her eyes a deep brown in her honey head, stretched wide at the sight of the humans she had not noticed before. She sees us seeing her and hurries away. A pileated woodpecker madly laughs high above, and my heart is at peace. It’s time for our mindful walk.

“Breathing in, I know Mother Earth is in me. Breathing out, I belong.”

I go to nature to find connection, to remember that I am nought but a collection of bits and pieces of earth. The biblical God, anticipating science, had fashioned Adam out of  dust, creating him from the very earth where he belongs. Whether walking or sitting, chattering away or so quiet that a deer misses seeing me nearby, I hold on to this sacred connection to all of life. Sometimes, I joke that being eaten by a mountain lion is the way to go, a way to ensure that I will not be embalmed and entombed or enshrined in a way that would prevent my returning to the earth. But in the coolness of morning, the redwoods permitting me to braid my human roots with theirs, death does not seem so bad, allowing me a glimpse of rejoining this land where every speck of soil is alive.

“Breath of Life” by poet Danna Faulds

I breathe in All That Is-
Awareness expanding
to take everything in,
as if my heart beats
the world into being.
From the unnamed vastness beneath the
mind, I breathe my way to wholeness and healing.
Inhalation. Exhalation.
Each Breath a “yes,”
and a letting go, a journey, and a coming home.

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The Center of the Universe

On Monday, I visited the dentist’s office. Mundane, I know, but bear with me. My dentist’s assistant, Marilyn, is a kind and compassionate woman who greets me with soft and welcoming words. I sat in the big dentist chair and waited for the dentist to come, and it suddenly occurred to me that Marilyn plays a small role in the drama of my life. I come into her office in the midst of my hectic rushing-about life, blowing in through the door like some wind of confusion. The intense energy of me pauses for these few moments on her chair, then moves out through door, corridor, waiting room, main door, and parking lot to continue its rushing about in the world, attempting to do no harm. And to me, that is all Marilyn is: these few moments of respite from rushing about while waiting for the dentist to come, her few kind words, the gentle touch of her hand.

Now this may come as a surprise, but Marilyn too lives a full and whole life. She does not exist in the dentist’s office solely to greet me once or twice a year and assist briefly in my care. To her, patients come and go, playing small roles in the drama of her life, which encompasses her relationships, thoughts, feelings, emotions, confusions, moments of happiness and moments of sadness, her own probable attempt to move through the world while doing no harm. In her life, I play a minor and probably somewhat inconsequential part, a tiny burst of wind and energy, now here, now gone, making room for another patient to come through the door.

Shocking, right?

As a teen, I often imagined us humans as bubbles floating through life. Some bubbles never touch, but some get to stop together for a while and interact so that for at least a few moments the bubbles nearly overlap. I still love walking after dark in the street and imagining how people live behind their curtained (or sometimes open) windows, living their bubble-life.

So yes, I am not the center of the universe. And most likely neither are you, even if you believe you are. It’s our minds that play this trick on us, pretending to be important and one-of-a-kind, filled with illusions about how everyone else is thinking about us, and how they act on purpose to affect us. How everything moves forward in the world to either accommodate us or hinder us.

Some years ago, a friend recommended I read a parenting book which, translated from the Hebrew, was titled Fly Little Bird. One of the points which struck me in the book was the idea that as a child becomes an adolescent, we parents find our place shifts away from being center-stage in our children’s lives. Instead, they are now the main actor, the ones in the limelight, and we are relegated to a smaller role. This, the author implied, was how it should be, the normal and healthy way for our children to grow up. I remember reading this all those years ago and thinking how true this was. When a baby is born, mom and dad are the most important figures in her life. She is totally dependent on them for nearly every need, her safety, health, nourishment, entertainment, warmth, even movement. But as she grows into a toddler, she becomes gradually more independent. She can now eat on her own, move herself from an unpleasant situation on her own, remove a layer of clothing if she’s too hot, or put one on, start using the bathroom independently, and more.

Then, seemingly overnight, the baby turns into a teenager, surprising the heck out of most parents I’ve met. Whatever role we had in their life is turned on its head. Some of the changes I’m finding in my teens are: they don’t want to eat my food, they don’t want to go places with me, they’re not interested in talking to me, they get mad if I don’t do what they ask, they decide what they’re going to wear or what they’re doing, and more: friends, how much water they’re drinking or not, whether to get boba tea 4 or 7 times a week, which movies or series to watch, what music to listen to, whether a full stop at a stop sign is necessary and with what speed to merge on the freeway. Crazy decisions, normal decisions, important decisions, everyday decisions, critical-to-the-continuation-of-life decisions. And I am (mostly) out of the picture, or just peeking in through the window, wondering about the bubble of their life and whether I’ll get to interact with them again after they turn 25.

It’s not necessarily easy or simple to accept that I am not center stage in Marilyn’s life, but it’s ridiculously hard to consider that from now on, while I’ll always play some role in my kids’ life, it is actually my job to set them free and allow them to fly.

Time to move out of the limelight, Sigal.

Curiously, I think some people would not agree with me. Many of us parents identify so deeply with being a parent that we really believe our children belong to us, are a part of us, and that all they do reflects directly on us. Some of us might believe that it is our responsibility and our duty to make sure that our children end up productive members of society, good and upright people, honest, successful and happy. Sounds seductive, doesn’t it? But do we really have this much control over another person’s life?

What I think is the truth sounds a lot less lovely than this, for it affirms the fact that we no longer have control over how our teenagers will turn out (and that perhaps the control we thought we exerted before was also an illusion). These newly-minted human beings are walking their own path, with a lot of minor actors in the drama of their lives of which we are only one or two. We can be present to them and as available as possible if they need us. We can be supportive and loving. We can hope and pray that we have given them a good foundation, that the schools we chose gave a good foundation, and that the choices they make now moving forward will be good ones. But no matter how much we try, we cannot make those choices for them, and definitely not for long. Not in a way that will, in fact, promote their happiness.

And so we let go and trust.

We set them free to be their own center stage and allow them to figure out on their own the fact that they too are not the center of the universe. (A humbling and wonderful insight which I wish on us all).

And we pray that they survive this crazy teenaged time.

So fly little birds. Mamma’s in the nest in case you need to find a safe place to land. But from now on you’re responsible for your own worms and direction in life.

Man, admitting that is hard.

May the Force of love, compassion, patience, and inner fortitude be with us all.

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Lil’ Corner of Joy

In one of my favorite Frog and Toad stories, Frog tells Toad how, as a young frog (or pollywog), he had gone to search for Spring. His father had told him: “Son, this is a cold, gray day, but Spring is just around the corner.” And so Frog had gone to search for that corner and for Spring. He turned several corners in his search: in the woods, a meadow, and along a stream, but he couldn’t find Spring. Finally, he got tired, and it started to rain. As he arrived back home, he saw another corner, the corner to his house, and when he went around that corner, there was Spring: the sun coming out, birds singing, his parents working in the garden, and flowers blooming. “You found it!” Toad calls, “You found Spring.” Turns out Spring was just around the corner, right there, where Frog had started, around a corner of his own house.

When I teach a meditation class, I often speak about the obstacles to mindfulness: dislike, desire, sleepiness, restlessness, and doubt; all of which have a common attribute: a wish for things to be different than they are. How often do we, in fact, wish for Spring when Winter reins (or rains, as my pun-loving boyfriend would point out) outside? Or perhaps we wish for more energy when we’re too tired to deal with the kids? How often do you doubt your choice of a route and wish you had taken another? Or that you were on the beach running instead of stuck at work? We think that if only our house was bigger (or smaller), our job better, our family more compliant, the government this way, and the world that way, then we would be happier, more satisfied, more at peace somehow. And yet most people agree that getting what we want is not the path to happiness. Research, in fact, points to other causes: developing gratitude, kindness, compassion, love and acceptance. And those, so I hear, are not around any corner outside in the world, but right here, inside us, living in a corner of our own soul.

Dharma teacher Ethan Nichtern writes: “Lacking the tools to get comfortable in our own skin and safe in our own mind, we get lost again and again in the existential transitions of life, blindly hoping that a true and permanent home lies around the corner, after just a bit more struggle to prove ourselves, a bit more time figuring out how to belong in our lives.” (The Road Home, 5). Searching for Spring around external corners may seem an innocent enough pursuit, perhaps even adventurous and exciting; but searching for ourselves, our true home, far outside of who we are, in other people’s opinions and reflections of us, needing to prove ourselves legitimate from the outside-in by someone else’s approval, and having our happiness depending on these external causes — is that how we want to live our life?

I admit it, though: I love corners. While hiking, I long to turn the next corner, go up the next hill or round the next tree or rock to see what’s there. I know, of course, that behind most hills are more hills, behind the next tree are more trees, and behind the rocky corner more trees and hills and flowers and lovely views, most likely not too different from those I already saw on the trail. And yet the attraction persists. I gaze soulfully at each trail that branches off the main trail and dream of following it. I plan to come back and visit yet another lake or climb another mountain, perhaps find more beautiful mariposa lilies which I can photograph in quest of the perfect lily photo. My desire to go on and on knows no bounds.

And yet, you might ask, in our latest hike on the Tahoe Rim Trail, what were my favorite parts?

A snack break by Fontanelles Lake, sitting on the rocks, watching the limpid color of the water, admiring the rivers of icy snow that still flow down the northern side of the hill, melting slowly into the lake.

Heart-stopping hues of orange, yellow and red in the meadow. Trees waving their branches in the breeze, some bare, some green. The sky a light blue that stretches on forever.

Sunset, colors deepening as the sun makes its way down through the clouds and below the mountains-behind-mountains-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see. The ground cold and hard, my breath catching as my mind conjures the image of a bear coming to attack me. Staying with it, sitting with it, trusting I am safe.

A rough-hewn picnic area by the river. Baby firs poking their heads up through the ground. The creek singing as it makes it way down little rapids that a woodrat could float on a woodratty raft. Tired. Hungry. Making our last breakfast on the trail and filtering pure water that will nourish my body’s cells. It is warm in the sun, cool in the shade, and I feel grateful for whoever made this beautiful camping and picnic spot, for whoever built this gift of a trail.

I love turning corners, but it’s this moment, the little moment, that counts. Sitting here, making room for myself within my own body, accepting that I belong here, now, in this chair, in front of this computer, with the sound of the boyfriend on the phone talking football to my son, a neighbor’s gardener blowing leaves outside, kids screaming in the pool down the road, the click of my fingers on the keyboard, and the alternating light and shade pattern of oaks shadows on yellow grass on the hillside outside. This is it: my legs falling asleep under the weight of the dog, my back warm, tiredness behind my eyes, ears pulsating with all this noise. This is what happiness is, inhabiting this moment, this little corner of joy.

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Reading by Savoring

This morning, I googled to see if the word voracious has a verb form. I couldn’t think of  one myself: to vorace? voracify? vore? Turns out that though voracious does not, in fact, come as a verb in English, its Latin origin was vorare, which means to devour. I guess, then, that I can say “I am a voracious reader of books,” but I am limited in English to, “I devour books voraciously.”

I used to be quite proud of my voracious appetite for books. My mother’s extensive library was filled with novels like Lin Yutang’s Moment in Peking and Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff, both of which tantalized me with their romance, tragedy, and promise of faraway lands. I would likely have gone through all our books in a year if it weren’t for the school library and the public library, both of which contributed to my reading addiction with such classics as King Matt the First by Janusz Korczak and Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott.

My love for books has not abated with the years. I often read 3-4 books at the same time, unless I get sucked irrevocably into one, and then I cannot put it down till it is finished. This happened to me most recently with A.C. Gaughen’s Lady Thief, the second Scarlet novel. I read the book in three seatings, rushing through it with baited breath, hardly pausing to turn a page. Now it is done, and I am left with a somewhat unsatisfied feeling. Had I even enjoyed the book? I ask myself. Was it good? And though I couldn’t put it down, I find I am not sure of the answer.

The word savor really ought to be the antonym of devour (or vorare). Savoring a book would be to enjoy the effect of its words, combination of words, collection of sentences. It would be to allow the trees of Sherwood Forest to rise in my imagination out of the snowy ground, to watch Scarlet slinking, nearly invisible, from tree to tree, barely leaving footmarks in the snow. It would be to change my reading habits, to pause, close my eyes, and be there on the scene. It would mean letting go of the need to know what’s next, of how the story will end.

I’ve been listening in the car again to Okay for Now, Gary D. Schmidt’s fabulous novel. Perhaps because I am unable to force the reader, Lincoln Hoppe, to read faster, perhaps because he reads so beautifully, and perhaps because I’ve read the book before, I’ve been able to savor every word, every moment. I even rewinded the story a few times to make sure I didn’t miss a word. I would very much like to change my habit and apply this savoring, this luxuriating in another author’s work, to every book I read. To paraphrase a suggestion from author James Baraz: I’d like to pick up each book and ask myself: why did the writer feel compelled to write this book, what made him or her invest so much time, attention, and love, into this particular creation?

Everywhere, we are inundated with messages telling us to enjoy every moment of life, to savor even time spent standing in line or being stuck in traffic. Thinking about my voraciousness as a reader made me wonder if the change in reading habits I am contemplating can also apply to my way of tackling life. In some situations, just as in listening to Lincoln Hoppe read, I can relax into the rhythm and savor life. In other situations, I get caught up in worry and fear and rush ahead in order to know what happens next, what will be the end. But the end is just that, the end. An end in which I am left with a somewhat unsatisfactory feeling and can’t really tell if I had enjoyed the book, the wait at the dentist’s office, or dinner with Dar, or if I just allowed the moment to pass me by.

Luckily for me, I am heading today to a National Seashore nearby for a backpacking trip, the perfect opportunity to slow down, savor the moment, reconnect with who I am inside. I am taking a book with me, of course, which I started reading with the intent of savoring. It is Terry Lynn Johnson’s Ice Dogs, and I don’t think I could have chosen a better book both for the adventure of being outdoors and the possibility of savoring life.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109