A Hike to Nowhere

hike#9 of 52, 40 miles in 10 days, walking in circles; 150 feet elevation gain; Dhamma Manda Meditation Center, Cobb, CA.

NCVC out gates

There was a small walking path in the woods, a circuit that took 3 minutes to complete, with a 150 feet elevation gain. I walked about 50 of them a day for 10 days. The walking path was at a meditation center in the woods of Northern California, where I had chosen to retreat from the world and do an internal hike of the mind, observing a Buddhist monastic code for living, which meant no killing, no speech, no food after 12:00 PM, no reading, no phone, no, no.… 

My small room was no bigger than the standard prison cells we assigned to young inmates I worked with during my professional career, when they misbehaved. A cot, a mattress, blanket and pillow, a small side table with a lamp, some hooks on the wall. Misbehaving inmates don’t get lamps they can dismantle and do dangerous things with, no hooks to hang themselves off, no shelf to use as a weapon, but otherwise…,not much different. A place to be, pace and sit, meals provided, lights out at 10:00 PM, wake up gong at 4:00 AM. Daylight entered through a window which I could open, not so for misbehaving inmates. I had daily opportunity for solo recreation in the outdoors several times a day. I went in this cell voluntarily, inmates don’t. Or do they? 

I remembered conversations I had with them during mental health check-ups, about turning their isolation into something productive, and told them about people who chose isolation to improve their life, to know themselves better. The inmate would look at me wondering, considering. Then he would turn his attention to the one book allowed, to escape the reality of the cell.

IMG_1418

I sat on my cushion to observe my monkey-mind for 10 days, 10 hours a day. I followed my mind meandering through the past. For variety my mind would switch to planning my next trip, my next hike, the future. Seldom did I find my mind at rest, attentive to the sensations in my body at that moment. 

How can something so simple, be so hard? How come, after having sat 17 or 18 of these retreats in my lifetime, am I still subject to the same repetitions, the same stupid useless mental detailing of events? “The path toward liberation is a very long path”, the teacher says in his evening discourses. No kidding.

With the lack of talking, the reduced visual stimulation, it gets better. At times, my mind stays focused for a minute or two, the restlessness in the body subsides, I sit with no need to change my posture every 15 minutes, I can be with the sensations of the moment. I still walk briskly during breaks in a small wooded area, grabbing on to the normalcy of daily movement, watching my breath move in and out at a different speed as the path climbs and descends, counting steps, how many to each breath? How many breaths in a day? How many breaths/steps in an hour? 

On day 4 the technique switches. I scan the whole body, and all hell breaks lose. If hiking up a mountain at 16,000 feet is a hard, mind-numbing task of putting one foot in front of the other until you get to the top, this task of scanning is no different, except I have no app that tells me how far I’ve come, tells me the distance I still need to cover before I get there. I’ve learned from sitting past retreats that, “this too will pass”. When and how, who knows. As I direct my wandering attention to observing of what’s going on in my body, like dragging one foot after the other up the mountain to the elusive 360℉ view of the world, my mind rolls out its paranoia: “This is a cult, why did I never see that?” What if this is all baloney and I’m wasting my time sitting here? I could be out hiking, at least I’d enjoy the fresh air, the views!” “Get a hold of yourself, this is just your monkey mind talking!” And then the real tricky stuff starts. My body produces sensations I’ve never felt before, my body is swaying. It’s like a drug. There is pleasure to be had. The technique teaches to ignore, to stay with observing, to keep the body still. Eventually, the druglike sensations pass; a deep, stuck piece of grief releases; my body and mind let go. By day 9, I can sit, centered on what is happening at the moment, no urge to leave, get up, plan the future, regurgitate the past. I’ve arrived.

IMG_1419

On day 10 semi-normal living resumes with a day of meeting and talking with fellow meditators, a few hours of meditation, still no access to our phones and the outside world, but there are smiles all around. The retreat is over; I have to return to ordinary life. This sit is just another hike in a string of hikes. 

I’m home again. I climbed the mountain to nowhere. I have no pictures to show you; I can only tell you my story to encourage you to take the hike. 

Fear, the backside of Joy

hike #5, Pilot Rock Summit Elevation: 5908ft, 1000 Ft elevation gain over 2 miles from the trailhead. Thursday Dec 14, 2017

IMG_1285

The trailhead hides in the shadows of the trees on the North-West side of Pilot Rock, a snowy/icy entrance. My car sits lonely in the empty parking lot. Even though it’s only mid-day, because of the shadowy light, low in its slant, it already feels like the end of the afternoon. I hike the incline, happy to be out, smell the pine trees, and feel the air and sun, thin as it is. A burst of joy erupts in my chest, as my body warms to the trail, and my senses take in the smells and colors of nature. I call it “happiness in my heart”. It’s a predictable happiness when I go out solo and surrender to the laws of nature.

IMG_1279

Dry trail follows an icy, snowy section, then more snow, melted and refrozen, a small meadow with dried grasses struggling to keep their bowed heads above the snow. It’s time for micro-spikes. As I struggle with muddy boots, and messy hands, I say to myself, why didn’t I put them on right away? But, no use crying over spilled milk. Fighting my wobbly stance, I get them on though, and feel more secure as the spikes crunch into the icy crust. Perfect tool for the job!

The trail keeps climbing. Onward and upward, rocks and ice, I wonder if my spikes will wear down on the rocks, so I step in the icy spots to avoid hitting the rock. I don’t want to trouble with taking the spikes off since I’ll need them on the way back down. The trees sway above me in agreement, letting light through from the South, showing a sunlit valley in the distance. I feel vulnerable with the sun not here to warm me, the cold air waiting in the shadows. This is December, not hot July.

With my senses on alert from finding my footing, my breathing sped up as I exert myself while climbing, the accompanying adrenaline releases a wild fear. What if I slip, what if I break my ankle, what if ….None of it is likely to happen, I know the trail well, I have a GPS device to call for help and yet, I’m here by myself, I am the one to take care of me. This is what animals must feel as they roam, always on alert for danger, even if part of a herd or pod.

I reach the top of the trail, stand at the bottom of the chute that leads up to the top of the rock. A top I can’t reach today. The last time I climbed to the top was with my husband many years ago when he gave me a boost to pull myself up through the chute. I tried it last year on a warm spring day, but couldn’t get up by myself, my legs not long enough to reach. With snow and ice on the rocky ledge, it’s foolish to try. My husband’s death anniversary just days ago still rummaging around in my mind, I realize I may never again stand on top of Pilot Rock. I call out in my mind why aren’t you here to give me a boost? To go with me on the trail?

IMG_1282

Since solo is my mode of living now, surrounded by friends and family but not tied to them, I go out in nature to feel connected, to feel joy. On this hike I know the fear that’s the other side of that connectedness: the quick turn life can take, an afternoon with a wrong step, the chill of a cold wind. I look out along the rock wall to the hazy, far away valley far below and know, it’s time to find my way back to the safe hollow of my house, like the shelter every animal finds when night falls, a hiding place from the danger of prey, a respite from the continuous search for food and water, when the senses can come to rest. I use my spikes and poles for support as I descend, retracing my steps, finding comfort in the momentary familiarity of the trail’s markings. Despite the fear lurking in the back of my mind, I am at home here. I carry that at-home-ness in my heart, next to the joy that burst out earlier. Later I drive in the late sunlight on the snow covered dirt road. This is my place. The gifts of nature will nurture me until the next time.

Travel to a room of one’s own

Virginia Woolf

I have a room of my own in my head. Like Virginia Woolf said, in her diary, just before her book “A room of one’s own” came out,”These October days are to me a little strained and surrounded with silence. What I mean by this last word I don’t quite know, since I have never stopped “seeing” people… No, it’s not physical silence; it’s some inner loneliness.“the impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,”
In the tunnel of silence Virginia talks about how she touches on her reality, a world more real than often the outer world, a world where ‘is-ness’, surfaces and needs help to be expressed. This world is the source of her creative work. As Virginia says: “and when I wake early I say to myself Fight, fight. If I could catch the feeling, I would; the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world…”
I often wake early and a thought, words from an inner world where things get created, a library of thought, arises and wakes me up to the reality of things.
This morning that thought was “I have a room of my own in my head”. This room is a reality I can’t share and need for myself, a source of inspiration in the literal sense of the word. Where I breathe IN, fill up with a new view on reality, however small sometimes. I need that room even though it has caused me agony, given me an existential experience of loneliness that no intimacy can shatter.  As a stranger living in a foreign land I used my foreignness as reason for the existence of the room, for the feeling of separateness. Now I know better, the room is my own, no matter where I am.
It doesn’t matter if I am family, or with friends, I feel the separateness. To touch reality, I don’t have to escape these people, I don’t have to go to far countries to belong. I  was the child who sat in the corner reading a book, near the rest of the family playing cards together. The book was more ‘reality’ for me then than the circle I belonged to. Living among people let me discover my belonging has a chamber, a bubble of my own in it.
As Virginia Woolf pointed out, original thoughts surface as the source of reality in a room of one’s own contrasts with the reality of living. I need both to find those thoughts, thoughts that color my actions, drive me forward in life. As a human I need the connection with other humans, the deep belonging. As a human I also need the separateness to infuse life with new thought, new inspiration to live creatively. A room of my own leads me to, as the Buddhists call it, “the sound of one hand clapping”, a deeper, more intimate understanding of the reality of things.

Toward a better 2016

Microsoft Word - The Paradox of our Age.docx
We know all these things the Dalai Lama mentions in the text on the picture, but do we live better because of it? Can you make a commitment to change just one of these facts in your life in the next year?
The statement that jumps out for me is, “We have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor”. This year I finally got the poetry box up at my house, it took me a year and a half to manifest the thing. The idea for it came on my travels, but getting it done was a process of finding the post,finding the just right moment to put the post in the ground, and finding the friend who wanted to build the box to put on the post. It could all have been done faster. I could have hired someone to put in the post, I could have ordered a three hundred dollar poetry box online and have some person for hire put it up for me. That is not how I felt about the project. This was a project of sharing, using materials I have laying around, utilizing relationships in my community to build the box, this was a project to bring people together, to slow things down, allow someone to stop, read and ponder, to say hello and ask questions, to let neighbors participate and share their poems.
The idea I had is working: people stop and read, people bring their poems to share, people now think about what they can do at their house to make contact with the strangers that walk by. I took the window of my room to the edge of the street. I share what I read in my room, what I think about and what I love. I am communicating with the people in my neighborhood through my poetry box. People have to walk a few steps to receive it, healthy steps. Poems are without judgment but full of awareness. Poems don’t take much time to read, but linger inside you, and infuse the next moment in a person’s life.
What if all you readers, shared this blog with one or two other people and these people shared it with one or two others and so on? Wouldn’t we have a pyramid of power that could change our world? Will you take one line of the Dalai Lama’s text and change it in the next year? The world in 2016 will be better for it.