Saturday, August 28, 2010

Against Death

Saturday night Barbara and I were watching a Masterpiece Theater production of Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent. The main character is 85, has just lost her husband (formerly Prime Minister), is stepping out of his long shadow, living on her own and taking great delight in making both new friends and a new garden. She's clearly following a deep thread now that she had let go of in the past. One of her sons visits and can't quite fathom why she's behaving 'so uncharacteristically'. Her husband, his father, has just died and she's moved on her own to Hampstead (the boondocks in those days). The implication is that she's not mourning suitably.

She slowly surveys the garden and her eyes begin to twinkle. "This is a time to lay back against death," she tells him, "and to examine life with the sound of bees in the background."

Finding the bee pictured above on what might have been her last night put me in something of the same frame, a strong feeling--two parts warm, one part chill. Most everybody at some point begins to realize, to sense somewhat profoundly, that life, our own life, inescapably, has limits. There's a sorrow that comes with this. And a deep gratitude--we will lose all that we have, but Ah, what we have!

It was grand to see this particular bee all covered with dew in the morning, slowly moving one antenna at a time, and not t0 see her at all later in the day, neither dead on the basil nor the ground below it. All her passion was not spent and perhaps she'll choose to wake up wet with dew again before her end of days.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A month to live

Bumble bees, however, unlike lichen, live such a short time, about 3 months. This one and I had a chance meeting last night at the lemon basil in the garden. I came to gather a few leaves for grilled fish; she came either to sleep or to die.

The working members of a bumble bee hive live about a month. The stay-at-home types live longer.

She let me get very close to take her picture. She was barely moving. Perhaps her month was up. Or perhaps she was preparing to sleep--worker bees sometimes choose not to go home at night but to sleep where they forage--which makes me very curious about how they decide.

Is it intentional? Is it random? Is it an innate feeling she has--I want to breathe lemony basil all night and wake up in the morning covered in dew?

I came back early this morning and she was still there, still moving. Alleluia. I'll be pleased to learn when I come home from work if she's gone back to her foraging.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Brother Lichen

The oldest lichen in the world has lived 4,500 years. It was a milestone for me this year to get to 59. My father died at 57. Neither of my brothers made it past 58. On Mt. Mitchell, where I took this picture, a 3x4 foot educational display put my 59 years in a different perspective.

Lichen grow about one millimeter per year. This one is maybe 8 inches (tall? long? deep? how do lichens prefer to be measured?) which means it's lived about 150 years longer than me. Made me want to kneel, like a person does at an altar rail in church.

Learning in and from the natural world is another way of practicing spaciousness. The space, measured in time on this earth, between me and this small silver lichen is big.

Yet here I am admiring you, brother lichen, and this simple exchange you and I are having enlarges my perspective. Just by reading the nature display and then looking up into the lower branches of the red spruce where you live, my world is instantly more spacious and neurons are flitting about in my head in a way that my heart indentifies as awe and gratitude and joy.

Thank you, brother lichen. I owe you.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mountains as Icons of Spaciousness

Mountains are powerful icons of spaciousness, ever-present reminders for those of us who live in western NC. Everywhere we look we see mountains, and they rarely look the same two days in a row or sometimes even two hours in a row. Sometimes fog drifts around their shoulders, other times you can actually watch billowing clouds form on the peaks. In cold weather just a few thousand feet above where most of us live it can be snowing. Five months out of the year we can watch the high ridges turning white while down here on the mountains’ feet it may not even be raining.

We human beings have our own weather patterns too, our own ecologies. Happy can turn to sad or mad in an instant. Sometimes anxieties linger in the gut even while the brain is processing some new information that makes us optimistic.

Carl Jung said that inner work can be like taking a long hike in the Alps. In the village where we start it may be raining. Lightening may be flashing and thunder echoing across the valleys, but after we’ve walked for awhile, we often come out of the storm. You might still see the lightening and hear the thunder behind and below, but we’ve moved on to another space. The storm hasn’t ended, only we’re not in it anymore.

The practice of spaciousness is regularly taking these kinds of hikes through the regions of our own hearts and minds. We learn not to ignore either the lighting within or the sun above the clouds. Both exist at the same time and in the same space—the same space when our perspective grows a little bigger. The practice of spaciousness is the growing of this very perspective, and it can be very exhilarating exercise.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Another habit mindfulness encourages is a growing awareness of spacious, a sense that whatever comes along, whether it’s a thought or a feeling or a person or an unexpected turn of events, there’s more room for it than we know.

You know that uncomfortable feeling that you just can’t take anymore of something? Like your mind and gut are crowded or tight or swollen? A practice of spaciousness encourages us to take these feelings as valuable and in some way true--just not take them as the whole truth. There's more.

One summer I was rafting on a rain-swollen river with some friends and we got swept under two huge pipes that spanned the river. The collision and force of the water dumped us out and the raft got stuck between the pipes. When I tried to come up for air I smacked into the bottom of the raft and freaked out, pushing back down and flailing around for a space where the raft wasn’t blocking my way to air and sky and life. I made it. Whew! Two of my friends were holding onto the pipe and gave me a hand, but another friend was apparently still under water.

In a minute he popped up. Somebody said to him, ‘You sure can hold your breath a long time!’ But he told us he hadn’t been holding his breath. He came up under the raft like me but instead of panicking, he searched around under the raft for trapped air, took a moment to breathe, then pushed back down, and out, and up.

Practicing spaciousness is like that. Not freaking out. Having a certain trust that somewhere there’s air enough for another breath, another try.

Our feelings and the thoughts associated with them are powerful. They’ve helped teach us about where danger and pain and heartache lie. But life is always bigger than what we’ve experienced so far. Even when we're convinced we've run out of air or time or options, when we have powerful feelings that this is so, it's probably not so, and if we create a mental space to explore the possibility of this we often find a corresponding space in our situation. Over time we begin to trust this, to count on it, even to laugh about it.

It feels good to be wrong about our limits. We feel better as we get in the habit of not asking life to only be as big as we can currently tolerate. We do better as we learn to trust that our minds and hearts can grow to encompass more and more of the challenges and richness of life as it comes.

Friday, August 20, 2010

This is my Practice


Every morning first thing after splashing my face with cold water I march out to the big oak in the front yard and fall on my knees repenting for all the trouble I cause in the world carbon dioxide spuming from every pore I fall face down and grieve till tears bead the grass like dew!

Right after this I leap to my feet and lift my arms to the heavens shouting “Thank you, thank you, thank you” to the Creator of Everything whom I cannot see or even know all that well but to whom I am so grateful for life and love and being!

And after this I run down the hill to Walmart where I embrace every person at every register saying very precisely and from my whole heart “How glad I am you are in the world how very very glad!”

This is my practice. Or at least it could be.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


One of the practices of mindfulness is ‘refraining’ – to simply hold back from doing what we usually do. You know the tongue-in-cheek definition of foolishness: ‘to continue doing the same thing while expecting a different result’? If we really want a different result we should try a different action. I’m naturally yangy—I tend to act first and consider later. Yin is being more open to letting things unfold on their own, letting them come to us.

When Ruth came home one night long past curfew I was waiting up for her, anxious and angry. Our conversation began as usual with me reminding her how she was supposed to be behaving and with her blowing it off. At some point I remembered the advice about refraining and so I just stopped talking. After a few minutes Ruth stopped talking too. Then she said something like, “Well, this is pretty stupid. Why aren’t you saying anything?”

I didn’t have anything to say so we continued for a minute in awkward silence. Then I said something like, “I’m being quiet because I don’t know what to say and I don’t want to say something hurtful.”

The awkwardness lasted another five minutes or so, with me stammering an attempt or two at a different kind of approach. (One of the things I loathe the most in life is being inarticulate.) But then something shifted and we wound up having the most open conversation we’d had in a long while, heart to heart and head to head.

My first attempt at ‘practicing’ refraining was not pretty. Nevertheless, it was profound.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Engagement without Attachment

Eight or so years ago our daughter was going through a tough time. At the same time I was teaching a course, Eastern Religious Traditions, at WCU. I had long known that attachment and detachment were important spiritual concepts in the East but had never really grasped the essence of what they were actually about. Love and fear and a stubborn commitment to my daughter brought me to an epiphany.

Love is a wonderful thing. Love is a terrible thing. Love makes you want with every fiber of your being to help people you care about. I kept looking for signs that Ruth was getting better. When I didn't see what I was looking for I just tried harder!

That didn't work out well.

One evening standing on our screened porch wondering where she was and what she was doing, an awareness jolted me. It took awhile to figure it out, but the experience of it was really very precise from the beginning. I was so attached to my idea of what help should be and what the results should look like, and so committed to helping this process along, that I was often being incredibly unhelpful. The very things I so ardently hoped for I was in many ways sabotaging. I was witnessing how meddlesome love's 'natural' actions can sometimes be.

So...what to do?

It took me awhile to be confident about this, but something in me recognized that it had to do with the very wisdom of engagement without attachment that I had been studying (and, alas, teaching). A person can love just as much and be just as committed without being so damn committed to particular outcomes.

To be a positive force in Ruth's life I was going to have to learn how to let go in a big way. That night I signed up for a full immersion course in engagement without attachment.

(To be continued....)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Focus on the Family

Some of us ‘spiritual types’ often wish we could spend more time at a quiet retreat. Maybe even that we’d gone to India to train when we were younger. Yet there’s no better place to train than in our own families. All the ingredients are here—love, commitment, and never-ending challenges! All we lack is a certain trust in knowing how to do it. A little ordinary mindfulness can be a huge help here.

The great gift of a mindfulness practice is that it reminds us over and over that whatever our reality is it can be better understood and more deeply appreciated. When we practice mindfulness it doesn’t take long before we begin to trust that the circumstances of our own lives work like teachers for us. This means we are, in a certain way, going to India or Tibet or Canterbury or Jerusalem or Mecca to train.

I plan to follow this theme over the next few weeks and welcome comments about your experience in ‘family’ spirituality.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Blueberry Season

It's blueberry season in western North Carolina. Cars are often parked on grassy edges of the Blue Ridge Parkway. People with buckets or widened plastic milk jugs are pressed into tall bushes or bending over short ones. Last year toward the far end of a long hike two women in long working dresses from what seemed like another century asked me, 'Vere ahr blueberries?'

Barbara and I pick them every year, too, but they never taste as good at home as they do just off the bush--not that I don't bring a few quarts home every summer to put on cereal.

Toward the end of August most of the berries are gone. People too. But the blueberries are around even into October, sometimes like raisins, dry but sweet with concentrated flavor. I often don't bring water with me on shorter hikes, and stumbling across a berry patch in September is a little like finding a spring. In October it's more like finding a candy store.

To love where you live is a grace. Making the acquaintance of mountains and trails and berries and people in search of them is enriching. Curiosity and appreciation are simple and fruitful habits.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

First thing

Waking up means entering the day in an almost dream-state. And the brain's ability to be otherwise is a bit fogged. How are we most helpfully mindful first thing in the morning? As always, it's dicey to carry over an habitual pattern without noticing what it is.


Hiking up the east flanks of Rough Butt Bald you come to a place where the red spruce have grown tall apparently at the expense of the old oak trees, many, very many of which have died and are dying. But they leave behind such beautiful wreckage.

This old hollowed out tree is still standing, at least 15 feet of it, though it leans against a red spruce which grew up robust and tall 10 feet away. There's a long gaping crack not big enough for a head but for a hand holding a camera to get through. I wouldn't have this picture otherwise.

When I try to figure out the age of things (this oak was surely over a hundred years old when it began to die--dying took years--slowly being hollowed out by bugs and birds took many more) and when the numbers begin to add up, I feel an accumulating respect. I want to say, God bless you, old fellow.

I'm glad my hand fit through the crack so I could see the lovely symmetry the years, the elements, the bugs and the fungi and the old oak itself have come to. It all reminded of a Leonard Cohen lyric--Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.

Prayer Beads and a Spider’s Web

Back CameraI went out early this foggy morning to water the shade garden. Just the least bit of light was poking through the dogwood from the southwest and the most receptive thing it found to light up was this spider’s web. The spider stirred when I bent down to have a closer look, probably interrupting its spinning and weaving. Maybe that’s why there are a couple of holes in the web.

I realized that a person could count circles in webs instead of beads, and since this web is so near the ground we might naturally take a prayerful posture just getting close enough to get a good look.

I’d probably never finish counting because I usually get distracted  by a mix of wonder and wanting—wonder at the amazingness of creation and a felt need to run get somebody to come and marvel with me. I think most likely at the core of both those distractions is just a raw and poignant gratitude for simple beauty and our capacity to recognize it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mountain Monasteries

I've seen stunning pictures of monasteries in China suspended on mountainsides. Makes me want to go. But I probably won't. Yet that desire somehow travels with me through the mountains where I live, and pulls my attention toward things that are related. When I saw this mushroom cluster clinging to a tree on the Mountains to Sea Trail, a connection, a bridge appeared, and I knew it was possible to get there from here.

And for a few moments I was there. One part of me was simply delighted--to see something simple and beautiful, to have had enough sense to stop and be still (I was also rather pleased with myself for having an enlightened moment).

One part was just deeply grateful to be alive and to have eyes and mind and heart.

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