Thursday, January 29, 2015

Life Rings

Life Rings

Mesmerized by the rhythmic swell and subsiding of the sea as the sun popped over the eastern horizon, I became entranced by an enormous stump. Measuring not less than 2 ½ feet across and at least a foot tall, its dense body bobbed effortlessly atop the green waves. As the waves crested, it turned its many-ringed face to me, almost as if to say, “When you’re as old as I, see how easy it becomes to take life a little more lightly, to surrender, to relax into the flow.” I shifted foot to foot over many long minutes, curious whether the energy of a boisterous wave might dash the bulky form upon the sandy shore. Did I want it to, I wondered inwardly? And why? Why upset this perfectly secure marriage of heft and lightness, of fluidity and structure, of density and lightness? As if in response, the solid chocolate brown cylinder bobbed contentedly, untroubled by the lifting and dropping of the green sea.

I turned homeward, my eyes trailing the rocky jetty for sight of shiny cormorants or happy coots, their levity somehow more apparent to me. I regarded the length of the gray line of massive boulders placed to demarcate sandy beach and watery throughway. There, singularly perched like a trophy atop the hodge-podge of rocks, a tremendous stump of driftwood lay on its side. Exponentially grander in size than its water borne drifter, its smooth surface shone like white gold in places, the sea like a metal worker polishing it to a rich patina. Its growth rings smiled back of me. Curled within the, untold stories of a long and storied existence. I imagined the mature redwood standing in a magnificent ring of sister trees, their collective presence a cathedral, its circumference singly and the ring collectively marking sacred ground.

Whether felled by age, fire, or human hand, it had wandered a long, mysterious, aqueous route to this resting place. Its epidermis bore burls and knots now softened by age. I climbed atop the jetty to run my fingers along its smooth sun-kissed skin and discovered a cozy cradle of a seat carved out of the heaven-facing surface. My bum fit perfectly in a soft indentation where the trunk dissolved into the base of the tree and then into a glorious complexity of spirals and flourishes and curlicues where a tangle of roots had once been. Ah, Mother Nature – always the consummate artist!

I rested my back against the length of the stump, the wood smooth against my body, softened by weather and time. Why can I not allow myself to be so softened and made more exquisitely beautiful by the seemingly harsh weather in my own life – prolonged unemployment, personal griefs and disappointments, disconnection from loved ones, a prevailing feeling of uncertainty about my future?  I felt the driftwood stump embracing me. Abandon fear. Eschew certainty. Unfetter your mind. Open your eyes. Expand your heart, Mother Nature’s masterpiece of woodworking counseled.

Indeed, that mass of wind- and water-kissed wood had only to rest in the fullness of its expression:  all solidity, yet lightness of being. Had it not been pitched across watery surfaces for many moons to gain its white gold finish, its lighter than water state? Buffeted by storms, scorched by sun, shined by moon, hallowed by wind. Now here, speaking to me:  

Anything worth doing – even learning to just be – takes time. And everything ripens and blooms in Nature’s own time.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Make of Yourself a Light

I’ve been taken by the morning sky recently, the way that its palette reflects every distinct color of the orange, yellow, and pink range of Crayola’s largest box of crayons. The way it dances across Richardson Bay, anoints Mount Tamalpais, and ignites the underbellies of ascending birds. Winter light seems to have a particularly complex play of shadow and luminosity that calls forth this intensity of reflection. I’m breath-taken by the nuances and shades of light and its capacity to elicit moods - of elation or melancholy, inspiration or hesitation, hopefulness or fear.

In her poem The Buddha’s Last Instruction, Mary Oliver writes:

“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal – a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.

I’ve been trying to take that Last Instruction to heart. I watched a gull overhead in this morning’s early light, it’s body lit up with alabaster tones as it journeyed effortlessly through the air. Ah, to be that lit up, I marveled. What would it take? Shedding of shadow and heaviness, for starters. More time spent dwelling in what’s right rather than what’s wrong. A bent toward gratitude and an open heart for possibility. A commitment to optimism and always giving others the benefit of my doubt. Generosity. Humility in the face of unknowing or lack of understanding. And a whole lot of trust and faith in abundance, in the power of love, in human kindness and truth and justice.

Lest these seem lofty ideals, let me link them to what we do here each week, to the heart of why we come together and sit in silence, to why I strive to be faithful to my meditation practice. I’ve found that, left to its own devices, my mind tends to drift toward chaos and darkness, toward a jungle landscaped with looming hazards, screeching voices, slippery slopes, low-hanging branches and tangled thickets that present formidable obstacles to progress. There’s occasionally quicksand to navigate, too – suffocating heavy wet sand that deadens my limbs and occludes my perspective on life.  I only clearly see just past the end of my nose. My daily interactions become all about me: my needs and wants, my stability and comfort, my very survival. I walk right by the homeless person under a tattered blanket lying on the cold concrete. I bumble around doing mundane tasks while my spouse tries to share the trying events of her day. I grumble under my breath about life’s injustices and people’s greed and malice. My world becomes dark and small, a few square feet of suffering and personal injustices.

On days like this, I’ve learned to take myself outdoors, to Mary Oliver’s playground. There, my perspective widens. It catches the Great Egret tip-toeing throw the shallow water as if on high heels, its Phyllis Diller array of feathers testimony to its lack of concern about whether it’s having a good hair day or the currency and elegance of its wardrobe. I find the sparrows and the chickadees capably scavenging for their morning meal, chattering happily about the menu available in the bracken and driftwood. There’s the slowly-fading waning gibbous moon, too, a bright white linen circle pinned against deepening blue sky.

Allow a few minutes to pass. Now I see a child en route to school tumble from her bike; in a few strides I’m beside her, dusting off striped leggings, consoling, mending ego, sending her along with tears dried, confidence renewed. I recall that it’s the 80th birthday of a beloved friend, make a mental note to call and tell her how much I treasure her presence in the world. I come upon a discarded paper coffee cup, bend to pick it up. As I do so, a chocolate brown gecko scurries off for denser cover. Its awkward but effective four-legged waddle turns up the corners of my lips.

Other days, I sit myself down on my meditation seat, light a candle, close my eyes, and attune to my breath. I let the gentle cadence of my breath clear my head of images foreboding and terrifying. I invite the stillness to enter my head and slow my racing heart. I take up my mantra – “Openness and Trust” – marinating in the deep receptivity and surrender those words invite. With intention, I soften clenched jaw, release hunched shoulders, relax the furrow in my brow. My breath becomes deeper. Each exhale clears away a little more of the overgrown vegetation in my head. Despite closed eyelids, I’m graced with a soaring bird’s eye view, see myself floating atop a broad, comfortable life raft on the open ocean, body warmed by the sun, no need for navigation, destination, worry. I am right where I am meant to be.

Sometimes during these periods, sharks come and circle my raft – small, mean thoughts; echoes of angry words spoken or received; uncertainty about my future; fears about personal finances; anxiety about drought and floods, plane crashes and horrific terrorist acts. These powerful visions rev up my heartbeat. I lose my breath. My hands and underarms turn clammy, jaw tightens into a vise grip. “Openness and Trust,” I remind myself. I reengage my mantra. I feel myself held. My breath attunes to the ocean’s ebb and flow. I am once again cradles in a strong, sure safety net. My muscles soften as if baked by the sun’s glowing warmth. There is nowhere I need to be but here, no certain moment but now.

I learn over and over again that the project of becoming lit from within demands dedication, humility, surrender, and – at times – a robust sense of humor to surrender to the great mysteries of our human journey. In our meditation practice, we practice all of these, strengthening the muscles that are needed to live a life of awareness, kindness, openness, and focused intention to be of good use in the world. I take myriad lessons from our natural world about the significance of relaxing into the flow of things, of trusting in sufficiency – abundance, even – and of being in the world in ways that elicit inspiration and hopefulness. Each of you helps me to remain dedicated, and always to remember that I am not alone. Humility, too, comes from sharing honestly the ways in which physical and emotional pain can sear and tenderize us; from acknowledging the confusion and profound sadness at man’s inhumanity to man; from expressing to one another our concerns about the grave state of our living planet; and also from calling attention to the mind-stopping beauty of a perfectly-crafted infant, a masterfully rendered painting, a poignant violin concerto, a blazing pink-red winter sunset.

So as the sun descends each day and you, perhaps, quiet your mind, attune to the gift of breath, and settle into a few moments of meditation, I invite you to shine a light on the activities and engagements of the day. May you remember these words of poet Ben Okri (AN AFRICAN ELEGY):

We are the miracles that God made
To taste the bitter fruit of Time.
We are precious.
And one day our suffering
Will turn into the wonders of the earth.

There are things that burn me now
Which turn golden when I am happy.
Do you see the mystery of our pain?
That we bear poverty
And are able to sing and dream sweet things

And that we never curse the air when it is warm
Or the fruit when it tastes so good
Or the lights that bounce gently on the waters?
We bless things even in our pain.
We bless them in silence.

That is why our music is so sweet.
It makes the air remember.
There are secret miracles at work
That only Time will bring forth.
I too have heard the dead singing.

And they tell me that
This life is good
They tell me to live it gently
With fire, and always with hope.
There is wonder here

And there is surprise
In everything the unseen moves.
The ocean is full of songs.
The sky is not an enemy.
Destiny is our friend.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Human Nature, Mother Nature - On Surrender

The gale force winds that have blown on the bright, clear days in recent weeks have plunged me into reflection on whether my mood is influenced by Mother Nature’s state or, conversely, Mother Nature is just one of the many living things mirroring back my mood. Researchers, policemen, emergency room doctors, psychics, and mystics have waxed scientific and poetic on the direct correlation between the full moon and the spike in the incidence of acts strange, aggressive, paranormal, or otherwise mystical. There’s also solid data indicating that it takes about 20 minutes of sitting in silent stillness in the forest before the birds and animals will resume their normal activity, so deep is the disruption caused by humans’ typical incursions into their habitat, all chatter and heavy footfall or iPod-connected disconnection.  And perhaps you, too, experience a tendency toward gladness on glistening sunlit days, a more melancholic mood when the gray or wet weather sets in? So there is some basis to claim resonance between Human Nature’s inner states and Mother Nature’s outer states.

Lately, I’ve noticed that on the days on which tumult reigns in my head, it seems to mimic the high-tempered winter wind’s awesome force, terrific speed, and ever-changing direction. The very days that I find myself stymied in my job search, pierced by the delivery or reception of particularly hurtful or angry words, questioning the providence even the basic elements of a stable life absent a paycheck, the wind seems to reach crescendo pitches. It whips the Bay into a white-capped froth, tears limbs from trees, and nearly halts the progress of winged creatures.

I was sharing this observation with a friend recently. Well-apprised of my current endeavor to re-make my life so that it harmonizes more fully with my values, passions, and understanding of my particular path of service, she astutely observed that any good home remodel typically necessitates demolition.  “It’s as if Mother Nature is in sync with you, Caitlin, like She understands that you might need to knock a few walls down, to push out some boundaries. She’s offering her own special signature of affirmation, encouraging you to press onward into the chaos and trust that the wind storm will subside, that peace and clarity will meet you on the other side.”

In her poem The Journey, Mary Oliver shares her own experience of navigating the more stormy period of life:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

We each come to the practice of meditation with hearts and minds full of whatever calm or chaos our Human Nature has dialed in for that particular day and hour. At times, my practice can be akin to sitting down next to a crystal clear blue-green sea, a gentle breeze kissing my cheek, golden sunlight bathing me in warmth and comfort. My breath’s steady inflow and outflow harmonizes with the tide’s gurgle toward the shore and babbling retreat seaward. I drop deep into a state of openness, trust, spaciousness, connection – almost as if I am floating atop the open ocean perched on a secure, comfortable life raft.

Other times – perhaps closer to the majority of the time these days - I sit to meditate and the simple gesture of closing my eyes brings up a garish stream of painful memories, biting self-judgments, fearful prognostications about the future. I struggle to disengage the Super 8 movie reel that spews scenes of rejection, disappointment, wounding, anger, fearfulness. My breath is there, then it’s gone. When I’ve lost it, I lose all connection to the deep well of sanity and clarity at the heart of meditation. The wind scares up towering waves that pitch my life raft about, and I’m white-knuckling to keep my seat. I can’t wait ‘til the ride is over.

What I’m discovering is that what stands in the way of my enjoyment and nourishment from both types of meditation experiences – indeed, of my capacity to engage life’s challenges with certain knowledge that I have abundant resources to meet and overcome them – is my own perception, which is linked fundamentally to my capacity to accept what is, without judgment. Consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, just moments before he is seized by Roman soldiers, imprisoned, and subject to a horribly painful, slow, humiliating death. Testimony to His humanity, Jesus prays first that the cup of suffering He anticipates be taken from Him – He prays for escape. Moving more deeply into his period of silent prayer, Jesus acknowledging the unlikelihood of being spared the indignities and pain of His crucifixion journey. Next, He prays for acceptance – simply to be with what is, and to trust that He will have the physical and emotional stamina to meet each challenge as it comes. Jesus specifically chooses these moments to be in solitude and silence, to go inward and commune with the Divine in order to reaffirm His unfailing connection to the source of love and of life, to the wellspring of forgiveness, healing, resourcefulness, comfort, resiliency, creativity, and possibility.

These days, I feel as if my meditation practice has a lot in common with Christ’s prayer time in the Garden. I picture the wind howling through the olive trees with a force capable of uprooting them. I imagine the cheetahs, leopards, and squirrels taking cover in their caves and middens. I see the unwavering stream of moonlight illuminating Jesus as he sits, perhaps brooding on the turmoil present in his life. I see Jesus sitting silently, unmoving, dropping into a state of deep and open receptiveness.

Like Jesus, in my own moments of anguish, visceral fear, heartbreaking disappointment, in confusion and uncertainty, I am trying to commit myself to sit is stillness, in silence. I assure myself that Jesus took from this period of meditative prayer all that He needed to navigate the ultimate transition – the journey from life, through intense suffering, to death. So, too, I know that the Buddha’s own unwavering dedication to silence and stillness resulted in his attainment of Enlightenment, to his release from suffering.

In faith and trust, then, I’m striving to surrender within my meditation practice, to allow my life raft to float on the open ocean, whatever the weather. I’m choosing to believe in the practice’s life-sustaining and life-saving benefits and to have faith that clarity and peace do rest on some far shore that is, nonetheless, within reach.

I’ll leave you with a simple prayer, a set of Beatitudes for 2015 called The Greatest Gifts.

May we break down boundaries, tear down walls, and build on the foundation of goodness inside each of us.
May we look past differences, gain understanding, embrace acceptance. May we reach out to each other, rather than resist.
May we be better stewards of the earth, protecting, nurturing, and replenishing the beauties of nature.
May we practice gratitude for all we have, rather than complain about our needs.
May we seek cures for the sick, help for the hungry, and love for the lonely.
May we share our talents, give our time, and teach our children.
May we hold hope for the future very tenderly in our hearts and do all we can to build for bright tomorrows.
And may we love with our whole hearts, for that’s the only way to love.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Lessons I’m Learning from my Sit Spot

Each morning, I situate myself on the bank of Richardson Bay on a bench fortuitously positioned between two healthy sheltering oak trees. I try to hold my perch for 20 minutes, opening myself to whatever traffic comes and goes in my immediate environment, allowing my senses to keep their inventory. Here are a few lessons that I'm learning:

1.    We’re all flowing to and from the same Source. Gaze at any open body of natural water for just a few moments and it’s impossible not to feel the stirring of the fluids within your own skin. After all, we’re just a couple hundred gallons of water, blood, and other flowing substances enclosed within a human skin. Taking time to sit beside a tidal bay each day is reminding that we all flow from and to the same divine source, that the same molecules that unite to form the bay also join together within me to give me form and substance. Can I allow this knowledge to help me draw from a deeper well of wisdom, understanding, desire for connection, and healing?

2.    You may look or feel drab or small, but – WOW – can you sing a beautiful song! The small brown birds that inhabit the oak tree beside my sit spot delight me with their chorus. Their appearance is deceptive. Fist-sized and cardboard-colored, they appear rather generic when held beside the Great Egret or the Blue Heron. But one full-throated lungful of song advises me that beauty lies within.

3.    Stop, sit still, survey the scene, and take a rest from time to time. Hummingbirds provide a bird species metaphor to our modern day lives:  flitting from one enticing treat or activity to the next, hovering a wee while, and then moving on to the next greatest thing. But observe the hummingbird a while longer. See how she pauses, stock still, balanced gingerly on a bare branch. Looking. Resting. Allowing the fruits of her activity to be integrated within her. Readying herself for another period of activity. Then, from this place of profound stillness, she takes flight.

4.    Even something as mundane, unremarkable, or uninspiring as a playing field can serve an essential purpose and hold abundant nourishment. Vibrant emerald green turf holds a special place in the hearts of my neighborhood’s gulls and geese. They spread themselves by the dozens over the soft surface, either drawing into themselves for shelter from the elements or carefully plying the turf for nourishing morsels. The mundane surface of the playing field becomes a communion of beings, a source of safety and respite, a cafeteria. The gulls and geese ask me, “What comfort and nourishment can you find in the ordinary, the everyday?”

5.    It’s not necessarily how high you go, but how you get there. The flight of the turkey vulture provides eloquent commentary on artful journeying. Launching from bare earth or jagged edge of hill, wings spread impressively and – oh! – catch an updraft and propel its oversized body a bit higher. From a meaningful vantage point, the hulking yet graceful form turns in wide gyres as if blessing all beneath. Eagle or vulture? Only the studied eye can discern, as the gorgeous spirals of flight mask all perceived ugliness. So make your journey artful.

6.    Circling a destination or a course of action a few (or many!) times before your settle on it can be a useful, prudent practice. I watch innumerable gulls convene in seeming disarray and chaos in the steam rising from the wastewater treatment plant. A moment unfolds in which they place themselves head to tail with their kin until the whole twisted knot of gray-white feathers has become a gently revolving circle that mirrors the shape of the holding tank beneath. For dozens of seconds they rotate, with each rotation a few more birds setting off in their own directions or, dropping to cement surface, settling to rest, just so. There’s a certain wisdom in going ‘round and ‘round a few times before making a decision.

7.    Let the sun find you and catch your colors, dry out your feathers. The shiny ebony cormorant’s telltale gesture for drying its wings serves as a sort of sun salute. Chest lifts, wingtips lift skyward, head gently lifts up, arches backward in a graceful curve. Heart exposed to sun, wings at maximum spread, wind gently caressing the full surface of one’s body. Ah, how important to routinely allow nature to soothe and heal the cold, soggy parts of yourself that could potentially bog you down.

8.    Be utterly, irrepressibly you. Yesterday morning, I searched and searched with my ears and eyes ‘til I found the source of the happiest, most sincere and exuberant upwelling of song. They came to rest on a tiny bird feathered in shades of brown, beak turned to the heavens, belting out its own original aria. He seemed to counsel me, “Hey – all you can do is be utterly, irrepressibly you!” So get on with it, girl. Sing your song!”

9.    Be resourceful and also patient; work diligently, but also wait and watch. Every type of feathered flying creature has shown me the significance of resourcefulness:  from berry harvesting to collecting puffs of fur and wads of thread for nest lining, they’re wise users of resources. Their unique vantage points often give them a window onto opportunity that busy upright creatures may only rarely, if ever, be privy to. For many species, this resourcefulness seems coupled with an embedded capacity for patience. Simply watch a Great Egret or Blue Heron searching for breakfast and you’ll embrace a new understanding of patience. I’m trying to take the lesson that there’s a need to apply oneself diligently to one’s daily labor, and also to take things slowly, to survey the broader scene before plunging deeply into activity.

10. Even a minor miracle such as landing gracefully on water can come to be second nature with practice, which helps to transform self-doubt, fear, skepticism, and lassitude into polished performance. I watch the skinny-legged rail come to a skidding but graceful landing in a shallow pool beside the bike path. Grace triumphs over physical form, as its small football-shaped body, gangly neck, large almond-shaped head, and overly long orange beak do not trumpet, “Look at graceful me!” Clearly, practice has enabled the adult rail to alight and land with an artful polish that seems the result of committed practice (coupled with some wonderful assistance in the genetic realm from Mother Nature).

11. Bloom where you are planted. I tend to wait around until the conditions are “just right” before beginning something, especially a new endeavor. From the proliferation of all types of rather marvelous fungi, I’m taking the counsel to bloom in whatever soil or leaf litter or tree bark you find yourself, as you may just be able to nourish some souls from the nutrients you draw from whatever medium in which you find yourself.