Donut holes and redemption.

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With Easter around the corner, I’ve been looking back on childhood memories of this holiday, most of which revolve around the small Community Baptist church that I grew up attending. I started singing in the children’s choir the same year I started piano lessons, so I was enlisted every year (and most Sundays, in fact) into musical duty – either singing, playing piano, or playing the recorder. While I never did accept (and still haven’t accepted) any of the theology, I loved and savored my involvement in the music – the harmonies, the melodies, the prosody, the connection with the other singers and with the congregation as we shared our talents and efforts.

Some of my most vivid memories of Easter are of the sunrise services I attended growing up. They were held at a congregation member’s farm, and while we all shivered and struggled to read our programs in the pre-dawn light, we would listen and sing a cappella and greet the sun that was meant to signify the resurrection of Jesus.

(When I was a teenager, my insatiable curiosity led me to learn how the date of Easter is chosen every year – and that, for me, threw the entire exercise – and all the rest of it – into question. This is the event upon which I am supposed to pin the redemption of my immortal soul, and y’all can’t agree on when it happened? Oh, wait… you were just trying to run the pagans out of town? Well. That seems… hostile.)

Anyway…

One year, Mrs. Crist, the beloved church organist and wife of Reverend Crist, asked me to play my Native American flute at a sunrise service. I had done this sort of thing at sunrise service before, with my voice in the choir, or on the recorder – but the idea of playing this flute really excited me. I was, at that time in my life, dabbling in Native American spirituality and increasingly noticing my love and affection for Earth based spiritual practices and the environmental movement. Without hesitation I agreed to do this.

And wow, did I suck.

I don’t know if it was the cold, or my confidence, or the lack of light to see what the hell was going on with the flute or my hands, but I just kept squeaking on the thing. I did manage to relax and do an okay job – I do remember folks saying how much they enjoyed it. But I also remember thinking I was letting people down. Here we all are out in the freezing cold, either embodying piety or pretending to be, and here’s this kid who doesn’t even believe in this stuff squeaking out a melody on this flute.

And yeah, a flute from a culture that was persecuted historically by the culture into which it’s now being pressed into service. Talk about original sin…

But I wasn’t thinking that deeply about it at the time. I was just thinking, I sucked and everyone noticed.

My redemption came, not from the sunrise or the kind words from congregants. It came in the form of the relief of finally seeing the red ball of the sun rising through the sky, and then feeling those rays of warmth as we all turned our backs and headed into the house for coffee and hot chocolate and donuts and munchkins from Dunkin Donuts.

That warmth, both physical and communal, was the thing that I looked forward to the most. The quiet early morning chatter. The smiles and nods. The smell of the coffee and cocoa. The tingling return of warmth into my fingers and toes.

And that sunrise, for me, pointed to the most significant of all miracles – that every day is a new day. Every moment is a new moment.

That was all the redemption I needed.

Sure, I still had to go home and have the rest of my breakfast and put on my best dress and go and sing in the 10 a.m. service and smell all those potted lilies and hyacinths.

But first things first – hot chocolate and munchkins.

One bird at a time.

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I heard someone remark recently that, instead of January 1, she thinks of the first day of spring as the first day of the new year, and I immediately resonated with this. Noticing a group of robins landing in the yard in the late afternoon of the last full day of winter this year seemed to affirm this – a group of red breasted birds gathering like revelers in Times Square, waiting for the equinox ball to drop.

One of my pandemic proclivities has been bird watching, and the last couple of weeks have been a flurry of activity here. The chickadees that survived the winter with us have in recent days been joined by the aforementioned robins, plus a family of goldfinches, and a number of pine siskins, nuthatches, titmice, and an occasional downy woodpecker. Just this past week we heard, then finally saw, the first pair of mourning doves of the year, as well as a single red-winged blackbird.

With practice, the bird visits are becoming the perfect way to punctuate my work hours – and all hours – with moments of mindfulness. One bird at a time, I notice their arrival, notice their beauty, notice my excitement, and willingness and even longing at times to be distracted from whatever I’m working on, notice my joy at their arrival, notice the occasional brief glimpse of disappointment when they fly away.

Happy New Year, everyone!

What now?

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After spending the last ten weeks writing about my experience on retreat, I have arrived at an interesting moment in which I find myself asking: Do I have anything left to say about anything?

I know that sounds hyperbolic, but in so many ways, the retreat experience pares life down to the absolute essentials:

There is just this.

It’s just a thought.

Be here now.

Seems like a wrapped kind of deal, huh?

Well, there is theory, and then there is application.

At some point, the retreat metabolizes in some way, and then you find yourself angry at someone tailgating you, or annoyed that you can’t find the packing tape, or a thousand other tiny grievances that can seem as large as the world itself.

I am lost in thought most of the time. Hell, even as I’m typing these words, I am thinking things like Who gives a damn other than you about your navel gazing? and It’s just about time to make breakfast and holy shit am I hungry and Oh yeah I gotta pay my cell phone bill.

Yeah I know, it’s just a thought. Yeah I know, there is just this, blah blah blah.

So, what now?

Everything is humming along. The news from the wider world is distressing and overwhelming. And I still have my work to do.

I learn this week about a dear friend whose sister is dying. Suddenly, the world seemed a narrower, darker, more immediate place. My heart aches for him, for his whole family. I picked up the phone and left him a voicemail that may seem trite, and I mean every word. I love and care about and miss and feel sad for him. I started thinking about the family I still have left – people I love, and with whom I connect far less often than I do.

Again – life being pared down to the essentials.

Yes indeed, there is just this – the world as it is, and the story I tell myself about it. My friend and his sister. The beautiful sunset at the pond the other night. The war in Ukraine. The first purple finch of the season. There is this never-ending flow of thoughts, and the follow up intentions and motivations, that all appear out of nowhere, vying for position in the front of the queue. And here ‘I’ am – whatever that means, right? – making choices about how and where to spend my time and attention.

None of us is alone in this wondering, in this strange place between wanting to communicate and wanting to hide. And I sure as hell ain’t no life coach – I’m just a wondering, wandering soul too, doing the best I can to cultivate peace and connection in my own moment to moment experience. And I have found that sharing helps. Even when I’m feeling afraid and vulnerable. Especially so, in fact.

So, what now?

Publish this post, finish my coffee, eat breakfast, work on my various creative projects, go for a walk, play with the neighbors’ dogs, watch the bird feeder, continue to find those delicate balances between wisdom and trust, openness and resistance, gratitude and desire, truth and illusion.

And linger at the pond, and squeal with excitement at that first purple finch.

Day 10: First and last, change and no change.

My last morning on the retreat began with a mix of both excitement and exhaustion. That last night proved to be the worst night of sleep for me of the entire ten day experience. I was so excited for post-retreat life – to see Shawn again; to bring my hands to an instrument; to write; to metabolize and share this whole experience.

I began the day as I did all of the others: I went to the bathroom. I drank my water. I went downstairs and did my yoga and movement practice. I went upstairs and sat in the middle chair in the Bodhi sitting room (pictured above) and watched the light slowly return to the world until just before the breakfast bell. I went and got my tray from my room. I got in line for breakfast. I brought the oatmeal and tea back to my room and ate it. I washed and returned my dishes. I performed my morning service – sanitizing all handrails, doorknobs, and common touch points in all three dorms.

Then, finally in the departure phase, I cleaned my dorm room, packed my suitcase, and returned my key. I rang the bell for the final sitting at 9:15 a.m.

As I did each one of these tasks, I was aware that I was doing them for the last time – on retreat, and possibly ever. I noticed that I was taking even greater care in my attention to each step, each bite, each silhouetted tree branch, each shirt folded, each swipe of the washcloth, each sounding of the bell.

Alan Watts said it this way: Are you here now? Are you really here? You see, most people aren’t. They’re bothering about yesterday and wondering what they’re going to do tomorrow. [You need to be] completely alert, and available for the present—because that’s the only place you’re ever going to be.

The retreat ended at 11:30 a.m., and conversations began to bubble up around the center. I checked my phone for the first time in ten days, feeling overwhelmed and unnerved by the weight of it in my hands, and by the flurry of messages that were lighting up the screen.

At moments, my heart was racing. Worry about Shawn’s safety had kept me awake for part of that last night. There had been an announcement from the teachers the night before about a forecast for a snowstorm – the same one that Shawn was now driving through that morning to come get me. He had not yet arrived, and so I quietly walked with my worry through the entire campus – alone, silent still – and took all of the photos that have accompanied all these weeks of blog posts. I stood in many doorways and at many windows. I breathed and walked and greeted fellow retreatants with smiles and a few quiet words. I took photos of several favorite recipes from the cookbooks that the kitchen staff always set out on the dining room tables at the end of every retreat.

Finally, I was near the main entrance, my belongings waiting in the foyer, in conversation with the husband of one of the retreat teachers. My phone rang. The sound of Shawn’s voice after ten days was music to my ears.

Another retreatant near the main entrance, an older woman, had been watching me closely when I answered the call. She must’ve seen my unabashed excitement, and she followed me outside and sat on a bench, watching from the main porch as I made my way towards the car. I spotted Shawn as he got out of the car, his smile beaming. My pace quickened. I forgot everything – the bells, the teachings, the snow, the worry, my suitcase and backpack – and as a volunteer picked up what I had dropped and brought it towards the back of the car, I ran to Shawn and laughed as we hugged and murmured to each other.

The woman who had been watching laughed and shouted, ‘Ah, love! What a beautiful thing to see!’ We both turned towards her and smiled, still in each other’s arms. She asked how long we’d been together. I shouted back, ‘Twelve years this summer!’ She smiled and said, ‘That is wonderful!’

On the long drive home, we talked and listened. We experienced a beautiful sunset. We stopped at a music store and bought a new keyboard!

The next morning, I went to the bathroom. I drank my water. I did my yoga and movement practice.

Change – and no change at all.

The next day, I wrote:

1-9-2022

I did it. Ten days at IMS. Where to begin.

To write about this seems to cheapen it, and also to undermine the intention of and, if there is one, the goal of the experience. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire life. Moments of deep clarity and peace and then others of deep sorrow and despair. It might take me the rest of my life to unpack it all. And yet, it all boils down to the fact that there is just this.

There is just this.

That is all.

I fell in love with Shawn all over again when he picked me up on Friday. The love and the joy that shined from his eyes and his smile took my breath away. I fell in love with me as well, with my precious flaws, and turned to this body and this mind and this sphere of aliveness with more compassion and care and love than I remember ever having done before in my life. I feel lighter and freer, renewed.

And hey, it’s just a thought.

Day 9: Give it one more day.

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On the morning of day 9, I could hear one of my favorite refrains ear-worming through my mind:

Give it one more day
One more day
Just when your faith is gone
Give it one more day

Throughout day 9, the last full day of the retreat, the anticipation of post-retreat life was starting to flood my mind with so many ideas for songs and people I wanted to reach out to and plans I needed to make… so many trains of association, whisking me away from my final day on retreat.

I was looking back and ahead – back at a beautiful, and sometimes harrowing, retreat experience; ahead to what would no doubt also be a beautiful and harrowing post-retreat experience!

I noticed lots of emotions bubbling up and falling away – sadness about leaving the tranquility of this place; excitement about reconnecting with Shawn; anxiety about the barrage of emails and messages I’d be juggling in the coming days; inspiration to write and create and think about this whole experience.

And then I would remember, in the voice of one of my favorite YouTubers: ‘It’s just a thought.’

And then, I would walk to the main hall, or fill my lunch bowl with soup, or take a sip of my tea, or tie my boots for my afternoon walk, and remember: There is just this.

I even jotted down these words in my notebook:

Maybe I’m crazy, but I think I’m ready for what the world has in store.

And maybe I *am* crazy, but I still feel ready.

Day 8: There is just this.

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On day 8, Yanai asked us to imagine being a wave on the ocean. You are made of, and surrounded by, water, moving along, compelled by the moon—by outside forces beyond your control. Then you just barely start to notice something on the horizon.

Hmm. What is that?

Oh shit it’s the shore!

*crash*

And now you’re no longer a wave… but you are still water.

This is not forever — but this is for now.

Something about the simplicity of this image really moved me. And when he later said, ‘There is just this,’ I felt the truth of that so deeply that it I find I am still metabolizing it, two months later.

This cup of tea. There is just this.

Titmice at the feeder! There is just this.

I’m walking down the hallway. There is just this.

The car won’t start. There is just this.

I’m worried about getting to the gig on time. There is just this.

This wrap tastes delicious! There is just this.

My friend is really disappointed about what happened at her work. There is just this.

Am I able to access this clarity at all times? Um… no, of course not! I still have lots of moments throughout the day when I lose contact entirely with the present moment. In those moments, I’m usually planning or worrying about the future (I need to remember to email so-and-so back, oh shit, I hope she’s not upset with me) or ruminating about or relishing in the past (things were so much easier yesterday when I wasn’t dealing with my sore shoulder).

Then I will remember to find my feet, or my hands, or my breath, and remind myself: There is just this.

I am feeling worried because I really need to honor agreements.

There is pain behind my shoulder blade.

So simple, and not easy.

Practice makes… easier, not perfect.

‘Time past and time future / What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present.’ -T.S. Eliot

Day 7: That’s how the light gets in.

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Down the hall from my dorm room on the way to the bathrooms, there was an empty dorm room whose door was slightly ajar when I first arrived, and each day of the retreat, I noticed that the door was a little more open than it had been previously.

I looked upon this daily scene as a metaphor for my experience – slowly opening to what is.

Day 7 started as an itchy eye morning. I’d slept poorly the night before, and there was a weariness clouding around me that I was noticing – and also an eagerness to rid myself of it. My body and mind were feeling so tense and exhausted. I really yearned for rest – or so I thought.

I had a brief one-on-one meeting with one of the teachers that morning, and afterwards I was planning to join the sitting that was already in progress in the main meditation hall. In order to do this in the least disruptive way possible, I needed to walk through the lower walking hall and come up the back stairs to take my seat in the back of the meditation hall. So, I made my way down the stairs from the lobby area to the lower walking hall, and as I walked across this giant room, with its high ceilings and linoleum floor, I stopped in my tracks and looked around.

Holy shit, I’ve got this whole room to myself!

Suddenly, I was no longer tired. With my favorite wool socks on, I began skating around the linoleum floor like the kids at the beginning of the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Back and forth, round and round, spinning and swinging my arms around, smiling widely and wildly, giggling with delight.

FUN! I realized. I’ve been longing for some FUN and laughter and play!

Retreat life is so SERIOUS!

I probably spent a good ten minutes doing this – swishing my feet around this big room, the sounds of the furnace rumbling in the background, reflecting on the hush of the hall full of folks above me who were, well, not doing what I was doing at the moment. I giggled a little more.

I had a BLAST!

Then, I was really tired, again, haha!

I slowed myself and caught my breath, feeling completely energized again, and made my way up to the meditation hall.

Naturally, the fun and excitement of having that whole lower hall to myself for those few minutes faded away, and I found myself again feeling exhausted and weary.

I began to take particular notice of the statue of Quan Yin (pictured above) that lives in the back of the main meditation hall, especially in the evenings when the light in the hall was just so.

Cracked down the middle, ravaged by time and entropy, and still she sits.

By the late evening of this day, even in the midst of so many people so dedicated to their practice, I was feeling very lonely. I didn’t want to eat another meal or have another cup of tea or take another walk in the beautiful woods by myself. I wanted to get back to actively sharing my life and my joy and gratitude! As much as I appreciated (and still do appreciate) the experience I was having on retreat, I was giving in to all my longings for home and non-retreat life.

Just before the last sitting, I was in the upper hall with a few others practicing my walking meditation, and as I approached the wall, I let go of whatever thoughts were troubling me and simply looked at what was in front of me. What I saw was my shadow on the wall, and running down through the center of the shadow was a crack in the paint.

The statue of Quan Yin, cracked and resolute.

This image of me, cracked and resolute.

And then I remembered one of my favorite Leonard Cohen lyrics: There is a crack / a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.’

And then I thought, I can do this.

A relief washed over me. Every muscle relaxed. Levity returned to take its place alongside my weariness, and I slept better that night than I had since I’d left home.

Day 6: An expression of the earth.

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At some point on the morning of the sixth day, after a night of very little sleep, I jotted down these words in my notebook:

Everything hurts right now.

Cara said to us in the morning instruction, ‘You are an expression of the earth.’

To which I thought, Well, sometimes that expression is a tsunami.

After that instruction, I found myself alone in one of the walking halls (pictured above) and I decided to take a different instruction to heart – the one that invited us to walk precisely how we felt. So, instead of the slow and careful steps I’d been making in my walking meditation practice all week, I picked up the pace a little. I was walking as if to run an errand, and then I was pacing, and then nearly stomping. Back and forth, back and forth. No stopping to pause at the end of the line. No regard for the amount of noise I was making – no need to. I was alone in this room with at least a dozen well cared for plants and a view of the gray sky, which seemed to reflect precisely the doubt and storminess I was feeling.

Wave after wave of doubt-filled thoughts filled my mind:

I did what I came here to do. I slowed myself down. I got away from work and screens and stimulus for a while. Alright that’s it. I miss Shawn and my bed and my instruments and writing and reading and creating. What the hell am I still doing here? Tears of frustration and sadness streamed down my face. Back and forth, back and forth.

And eventually, my pacing slowed, all on its own. My tears dried, all on their own. My breathing slowed, all on its own.

What finally stopped me in my tracks was the sight of a single birch tree out the window, weighed down dramatically by ice and by winter itself, its branches nearly touching the dirt road below – and yet there it was, still rooted, still standing, still reaching for the sunlight.

Later that night during the dharma talk, Catherine talked about our ‘precious flaws’, and I was immediately reminded of the Japanese art form of kintsugi. I imagined my being as a fragile vessel that had been shattered that morning by attachment to the imagined future and then gilded back together by awareness of the present moment.

Sadness, grief, anger – these each rise up and pass away.

The end of sadness, grief, anger – these too rise up and pass away.

That’s what I was there to do – yes, to remember that I’m an expression of the earth – wild and tame, calm and chaotic, tranquil and torrential – and to notice and pay attention to every gust of wind that howled through me and then set me safely back down.

Day 5: Feeling grateful for gratitude.

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At the halfway point of the retreat, I had surrendered entirely to the whole experience. I was feeling light and relaxed, and the nature of the things I jotted down in my notebook that day (and there were only a few throughout the whole retreat) were reflections upon specific people at specific moments in my life – people that I wanted to thank, either with a phone call or a letter.

I was, in short, awash in gratitude. Gratitude for the kindness or the friendship or the lesson that one or another person or experience had shown me or taught me at some point in the past.

And then I noticed something else – that I was grateful for the feeling of gratitude itself. It was a very freeing sensation, similar to the experience that is possible when you simply turn your attention upon itself. This deepening of practice invites more curious questions:

Who or where is the one who is thinking/asking/feeling/remembering?

What or where are the thoughts/questions/experiences/memories?

Everywhere and nowhere.

Simply put, there is only now.

That’s it.

That’s always been true, and will always be.

Letting go and remembering this simple fact was and is a revelation, the importance and preciousness of which cannot be overstated.

That’s it.

And I’m grateful to you for reading this and giving these ideas a chance to germinate in the soil of your awareness.

Day 4: Four truthy things and two tricky ones.

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By day four, I was starting to look more deeply at two tricky things: attention and curiosity. Some questions bubbled up:

To what or whom am I paying my limited and precious currency of attention, and in so doing, what need am I trying to serve?

and

What is the nature of my curiosity? Is it in service of problem solving, or simply a bright, open interest?

The teachers reminded us of the Four Noble Truths, which I render here in my own vernacular:

  1. Life can suck.
  2. There are reasons that life can suck.
  3. Life doesn’t have to suck.
  4. There is way to ensure that life doesn’t suck.

First truth – No argument there.

Second truth – For sure. Death, disease, old age, heartbreak, rotten fruit, cold coffee, traffic, taxes, just to name a few.

Third truth – No argument there either. Health, love, friendship, fresh fruit, hot coffee, empty roads, taxes (okay, okay, not the time and place, I get it…)

Fourth truth – TELL ME TELL ME TELL ME what it is, PLEASE!

And that’s where those two tricky things – attention and curiosity – come into play.

Rather than constantly riding the old familiar see-saw – grasping at the experiences of good health, love, hot coffee, and pushing away thoughts and reactions about death, disease, and slow traffic – I can get off that ride and pay attention to and be curious about the thoughts, emotions, and sensations as they arise. I can notice that I really enjoy fresh fruit, and notice my disappointment when it goes bad before I eat it – and then begin to cultivate a genuine curiosity about it all. To respond with, ‘Wow, isn’t that interesting?’ rather than react with the ‘I gotta figure out how to keep this/let go of that/be better/do more’ rat race.

And yes, I want to learn from past experiences – clear seeing and wise discernment and all that. The key is to go easy on myself as I do so.

Notice, and then let it go. Notice, and then let it go.

Simple, but not easy.

It takes practice.

Which is why going on retreat has been and continues to be so important for me. To set aside distractions and slow down my nervous system for long enough to really notice these things for what they are – impermanent features on the landscape of consciousness. It can open the door to simple and profound insights that usually whiz past all of us at the light-speed pace of every day life:

I’m paying attention to the sadness I feel right now, and I feel sad because I need laughter.

I’m paying attention to the happiness I feel right now, and I feel happy because I need beauty.

I’m paying attention to the annoyance I feel right now, and I feel annoyed because I need support.

And just like that, every emotion – pleasant, unpleasant, neutral – rises up and then falls away again.

And how lucky are I that I get this chance to do any of that?

The way to ensure that life doesn’t suck is to remember that it doesn’t, in fact, suck. It doesn’t anything. Life just keeps moving along. It’s the stories we tell ourselves about it moment to moment that determine the amount to which it appears to suck. Or appears to not suck.

The answers to those questions that bubbled up are going to change just as often as experience itself. Even the mere asking can calibrate my mind and gently point it towards the promised land of equanimity.

But first – I gotta check on those blackberries.