Prairie Meditation: Part IV

Being Present  

I have walked our pastures/fields hundreds of times in the years I've lived here. They change with the seasons and with the wind, snow, rain, cold and extreme heat. It’s easy to be tricked into thinking the changes I see in the land are solely due to these external forces. I often forget that this experience of walking the land is co-created between the two of us:  what the land is presenting and in equal measure what of me I bring to the land.  

At times, I have walked with distraction, thinking or talking so much I hardly notice anything at all. During morel season, I only have eyes for mushrooms, greedily searching the ground for that unmistakeable hint of grey, gold or tan. And even then, moving instantly to imagining the feast that will come later.

I have walked in anger, trying to “cool off” and finding irritation in each branch I bump in to or with Hunter the cat tangling into my legs to trip me.  

I have walked in joy, smiling serenely at each flower and butterfly I encounter.  Painting the environment with my happiness,  seeing each leaf vividly in “hi-def”. Rose-colored glasses firmly planted on my nose despite what is being presented to me.

Today, Dave and I joined our friend Cheryl to walk the land. And today, as best as I was able, I simply walked and was present. Emotions of all kinds came and went, at times, as fast as the shutter speed of Dave’s camera documenting the event. I let them be, trying not to engage with the emotions or repress them, simply letting them be and walking. I noticed the arising feelings inside of liking certain plants and not others. I let those preferences be, too, and simply stayed present.  It was Cheryl's first time walking our land, so it was fascinating to see it through her eyes. I noted this and likewise let it be.  

This was an experiment I was running to see what would happen by just being present with all that showed up. Would I feel flat, detached? How would it feel to give a break to constantly evaluating everything?

What, I experienced, it turns out, was much more. By not grasping on to everything -- “I like this I don’t like that. I want this, I don’t want that” -- I began to recognize a deep connection to the surroundings. And with that arose a pervasive happiness and sense of wellbeing. This connection was not created by preference nor by intention of any kind. I recognized it as a natural state waiting to be discovered, resting underneath internal chatter. I was able to experience with more detail and clarity what was being presented to me.  

I know Muir, Emerson and Thoreau have said and done this all before and with way more eloquence than me, but that doesn't matter. This is my discovery and exploration. And the fact that it has been done thousands of times before doesn't make it any less extraordinary.
There is a subtle, deep and profound joy I found simply by connecting with the present.

Meditation: To Cultivate Part III

In the Garden of Your Mind…

I have heard people say -- “I don’t need to sit to meditate. My life is my meditation.” I admire that approach, although it would never work for me.  Or it would work for me as a meditation, if I would be content with a life full of confused thinking, anxiety and bursts of inappropriate anger. Not really what I’m going for.

One common definition I have heard for the word meditate is to cultivate. And just like a garden, what is cultivated in the mind are the seeds you have planted. 

Mr. Rogers knew all about this. Take a look, I’ll wait.

Meditation can seem mystical or otherworldly. Sitting still in a formal posture of some kind, eyes closed or partially open, gazing into nothing. Some people wear robes or meditation shawls when they practice, adding to the mystery. Truthfully, meditation in one way can be thought of as nothing more than intentionally cultivating and tending the garden of the mind. 

I have often heard that meditation is a tool used to help one relax. That is true, but there is so much more meditation can offer. Relaxation is a vital first step in any type of meditation. But from that foundation the possibilities are endless. There are meditations to cultivate relaxed, stable focus; meditations to cultivate lovingkindness, compassion, empathic joy and equanimity. There are yet other practices to help one gain insights of various kinds. 

What determines the meditation(s) one practices is based on the question: “What is it you would like to cultivate?” Greater focus? Learn one of the many meditations to cultivate focus. More empathy and compassion? Then practice one or more of the meditations used to cultivate qualities of the heart. Seek to gain insight? Again, depending on your intention, there are a myriad of practices to help gain insight. 

For example, in 2011, I attended a five-week teacher training certification program called “Cultivating Emotional Balance”. This course was designed at the request of the Dalai Lama by Dr(s) Paul Ekman and B. Alan Wallace. The training program integrates Buddhist contemplative practices taught in a secular (non-religious) way with Western techniques for dealing with negative emotional experiences. It is designed to help people gain insight into the nature of negative/destructive emotions and how to manage them through learning a series of meditation practices.

Research showed that participants who learned these techniques were able to reduce destructive emotions and enhance compassion and empathy for others.

It would be great to be able to set an intention to focus, be kinder, more empathic and so on, and then simply “make it so” by intention alone. However, I have never seen that work in practice.  The other end of the spectrum is to think we are simply at the mercy of our lack of focus, irritability, anxiety etc. with no ability to change. This is also untrue.

As countless research studies support, we are in fact able to learn new skills of attention, emotional intelligence and insight. What is true across the board is that to create these new skills what is needed is a daily practice of meditation. If one really seeks to hone and deepen these skills, it is necessary to set aside more time to practice each day. This is the intention of a meditation retreat. 

Just as Olympic athletes train full time to hone their craft, to become truly skilled at the practices taught in meditation it is necessary to go into practice full time... at least for a period of time. It is easier to train without lots of of other stimuli competing for your attention. 

Oh and by the way, about the shawl thing, I do wear a shawl when I meditate. For me, it is very practical. It helps keep me warm in the winter and helps keep flies and mosquitos off in the summer. Mine is striped, which means I am a householder (not a nun) and indicates the type of meditations I practice. 

Happy Cultivating!

Easing Into Silence: Part II

Making Friends with Blue Lizards

Question:  How can you be in retreat and writing a blog? Answer: I can’t unless I can.

One thing  I quickly became aware of when I began going on retreats years ago is that  I (and others) had many ideas about the “right way” (and wrong way) to retreat. 

What I’ve discovered for myself is that things go better if I ease in. Moving from full engagement in regular life straight into strict solitude is to too stark and shocking for me. So I move into solitude and silence gently and by degrees. And I make adjustments in my day-to-day schedule as necessary.

During one retreat years ago, I found myself really strung out. I was holding a strict schedule of meditating many hours every day and not talking at all. I got very uptight about any noises around me. I developed a very antagonistic relationship with a blue lizard that lived on the porch of the cabin I was renting. I was sure just to torment me, each time I sat down to practice, he would walk and scratch his claws on the wooden boards of the porch. It drove me crazy and completely disrupted my practice. I got upset about “failing” my retreat, like it was some kind of test.

I began to develop tension headaches during this retreat (big surprise there!). In an email exchange with the teacher who was helping to guide my retreat, I asked him what I should do. “Things weren't working out well at all. My meditation was lousy. I had headaches. I should be meditating more than I was and couldn't get there. And then there was this stupid blue lizard blah blah blah….”

His wise and perfect response is burned into my memory. He wrote back that I needed to “Chill”. It was the perfect response to this incredible twist I had worked myself into. I laughed out loud and unraveled into relaxation immediately. The guidance was spot on. He went on to share ideas of different types of meditation I could try in addition to other practical suggestions. What the teacher saw and I hadn’t yet, was that I had (as the saying goes) missed the forest for the trees. I forgot what brought me into retreat in the first place. And got fixated on the tools meant to support my intention. 

My intention for retreat isn’t about logging marathon meditation hours. It is mostly about learning to stop, really stop. Get still and let myself come up to meet the present moment.  To be relaxed, stable, vivid and present with what is being presented to me without telling stories about it, getting hung up with wanting more or less of what is showing up and most of all being kind and present, with myself and others. Including blue lizards.

So, I will be writing this blog for the first part of my retreat until I go into silence and offline. Unless I don’t. If writing here disrupts my ability to be silent and present then I will stop. But if I find that it is helpful for my practice intentions, I will keep at it. I am learning to chill and make friends with blue lizards. 

Journey Into the Nature of Mind Part I

Retreat or Expedition?


I am going in to retreat. That is what I have been saying to people since about January 2016. It has been easy to say, as I having been taking yearly retreats to meditate and reflect for the past 6 years. These retreats have been from 4 to 12 weeks in duration. I have used the time to quiet my mind, cultivate more patience and compassion as well as seeking to gain insight into a number of things, not the least of which is insight into the nature of my mind.

This year is different, though. As of May 25th, I quit my job as a bodywork/energywork therapist -- a job I’ve held for almost 25 years. I usually take time off for retreat during the summer when people are busy and my schedule is lighter. As I got closer to my scheduling the actual days of my retreat, a small inner voice said: “Go all in. Don’t set an end date.” I initially tried to negotiate with this voice, offering to continue my retreat until the end of the year. It would not be moved. I tried to reason with it: “This is a BIG step you know. We don’t know what will come next.” Again, the voice was implacable, “all in” it said. 

Then I remembered, this was not the first time I’ve heard this voice. The first time, I recall vividly, was when I was a banker with a “good, stable job” that included benefits and retirement. It told me: “Quit this job and become a massage therapist.” This was the first time I remember, and she has spoken up now and again over the years. Each time I have listened, she took me exactly where I needed to go. Incidentally, the one time I didn't listen, I nearly died. But that is another story.

The past 25 years have brought me more success, joy, learning and growth than I ever could have dreamed back when I was that banker. And it was all due to following that small inner voice when she said: “Do this now.”

So, as of June 1st, I have been slowly moving into full time meditation retreat mode with no end in sight. As I have shared this information with people, the responses have been varied. Some of the responses I have received from people have been: excited, horrified, confused, angry (that one surprised me), appreciative, supportive and more. 

But the most common response I have gotten from people is genuine curiosity. From family, friends, clients & students they want to understand what exactly I will be doing in this retreat.What is the point? What do I hope to gain by meditating full time? What does being in a full time retreat even mean? Fellow meditators have wanted to know where I will be retreating. Who is guiding me? What format am I following. Will I be talking at all? How many hours will I sit? And so on.

This blog, I hope, will help answer those questions. In the coming weeks and months, I will make periodic posts to respond to these questions as well as to relate my experiences.

One thing I can tell you for sure right now -- this is an expedition, not a retreat.  I am going “all in.”