Friday, December 27, 2013

Winter and the Rising Morning Star

What happened to 2013?

I'm not sure. I think I spent the year trying to be present to the moment. And now the end of 2013 is here.

Zen flower arrangement
18 months since Dad died; Grandma before that. 12 months since Father-in-law died. So many other deaths in 2012/2013. How does one adjust to such loss?

I got to hold a friend's newest grandson this fall. He was just a few weeks old. So much love. So much beauty. What gorgeous new life. I didn't want to hand him back. But that would be an old person's greed.

There are new grandchildren from an emerging blended family. We got to spend a week's vacation at the ocean. It was the family vacation that we had been planning but weren't ready for until this year. Fishing, swimming, playing, eating, sleeping, watching the moon and ghost crabs on the beach at night. Adjusting to the newness on a land with shifting sands.

Work is settling into a nice rhythm. I have long-term clients with whom I cherish the opportunity to nurture. I feel very fortunate.

Music continues to be an important part of my life.

Home life is interesting with assorted friends and family in and out (human and other sentient beings). Loving the flow and companionship. Grateful for a patient partner.

A few visits with cherished friends. So important for perspective from what one friend once called me -  provincial for having lived in the same area my whole life.

Going on seven years now, I continue to sit with a meditation group loosely affiliated with the Vipassana tradition (loving-kindness practices). I tell people I've ordered my life around this group. They meet on Wednesday mornings. It's the glue that holds me together throughout the rest of the week. The depth of meditation, the tender and humor-filled sharing afterwards, all point toward loving kindnesses that expand the heart and mind.

We spent the first half of the year going over Gil Fronsdal's The Issue at Hand on meditation concepts. (You can download a pdf file of this book at ) The second half of the year, we've been reading Stephen Levine's "Healing into Life and Death."

As we continue to deal with those three unavoidable pains in life of aging, illness and death, this practice becomes so real. We lost our first member the summer of 2012 - just 6 weeks after my dad died. We continue to have close calls. I only half-jokingly say that we are in graduate school for living in this group.

Each one of us is watching the grains of sand slide through the hour glass quickly.

This sense of time and timelessness was evident when I had been accepted for a Rohatsu retreat scheduled for the first week of December just a few weeks prior to the event. Rohatsu is a Japanese Zen celebration of who we think of as the Buddha, the man Siddharta, and his awakening after trying out all kinds of ways to seek enlightenment or realization.

The story goes that Siddharta was sitting for 40 days under a bodhi tree and as he saw the morning star, realized the interconnectedness of all beings and things across time and space. From there, he did what he felt called to do, help others seeking a better way of engaging in life.

There was an open slot just a few weeks prior to the retreat. Yes, I would figure out how to get there.

Somehow, in honor of my father, I found myself taking the train out to the retreat in New Mexico from the eastern seaboard. Heading west,  I listened to people's stories of suffering and could offer a listening ear, a prayer, a kindness. Also, unknown people kept asking me: why are you going to this particular center. Even when I got to the Zen center, I kept running into people asking me why I was there. It seemed to be a question that I couldn't shake.

Why was I there? I was interested in a particular zen teacher. I loved how she embodied the stories she told. Tone of voice. Pithy, concise stories. Laughter. Hand gestures. Her whole body spoke the message.

Soon after arriving, I realized that there was something at this point and time in this retreat center that was off. The teachers had been jet-setting and were exhausted, running on empty. This was also a very important celebration/retreat - almost like a homecoming for long-time students and priests. The week was filled with lots of ritual practices, including practices saved for special occasions. This was a retreat for insiders. The very first night, the lead teacher announced that they would no longer offer the retreat on a first-come basis. It would be by application only.

As a newbie, I was tested in a multitude of ways. No problem. I can clean toilets with Bon Ami and no gloves. Why did you wait until I cleaned them before telling me where the gloves were? Oh, the women's dorm's heater is broken? No problem, I brought a wool shawl, a blanket and warm socks. But why aren't we allowed to use the space heater when everyone else has heat? Two elderly women from the local community dropped in to meditate. They were rudely asked to leave. On and on. If this is zen practice, yuck.

Of course, this could just be more material to work with. Yet, at the deepest level, I could hear the story of Joshu and the request to come in for refuge at the gate, eat if one is accepted and needs nourishment (including spiritual teachings) and then wash the bowl and break it (clean out residue and break old thoughts/containers about how one believes about their spiritual tradition). And then, go out and back out into the world. For what other purpose is there except to be oneself in the web of interconnectedness?

I decided that while I could stay and experience the retreat as it unfolded, that the realization was that I was awake - or awake enough - or awake now and later would fall asleep, as is the rhythm of life. No matter where I am or what I am doing, I have a community and network of friends and teachers. Every moment is a teacher.

So I took the train back two days after arriving and washed and broke my bowl.

As a result, I got to listen to and help others with their joys and sorrows all the way back home. I gave away my sleep on the first night back to deal with an ill elderly woman sitting beside of me. The train car's heating and a/c was broken. It was either extremely hot or frigid. The next morning I gave away the blanket to an underdressed blind man going from sunny California to wintery upstate New York. Over the period of the next day, I gave away food from my backpack and two lucky pennies to a mother of five children in shock from the realization that she would be on the train for three days and that she didn't have enough money for food for the trip.

I listened to stories of sisters living together in their later years, either during or after caring for an aging parent. I heard people shut down when they heard something unfamiliar or didn't jive with their world view. I saw a drunk man removed from the train after passing out and missing his stop, only to awaken enraged. Several individuals and couples were traveling east on vacation and to visit family. I got to sleep the second night after my seat partner got off the train late at night and got to spread out across two seats until I awoke the next morning.

And an amazing thing happened, when I got home midday about 48 hours later, a friend picked me up from the train station while another fixed soup. The three of us got to share a meal together in the most ordinary and sacred way that seemed to be both in the moment and across time and space.

We carry "home" within us. No matter where I was, I felt both at once at home and a visitor. It seems to be something I am training in.

Someone from the meditation group later asked how all of this helped me connect with my father, knowing that my dad's ashes had been scattered at the train station where I departed and returned.

I responded that he was both a troubled and a generous man who reached out and connected with peoples of all kinds. He specialized in talking with outcasts, but would talk to anyone. He took the scripture literally in the section that asks of us: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” The response goes like this: “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

The journey, it turned out, revealed that I am awake enough. I was given the opportunity to connect with the goodness in my father on this trip. Coming to terms with my dad was like landing on the moon and seeing the earth. Beautiful. How sad that we have all these geo-political-interpersonal conflicts on such a beautiful globe in the universe. And yet, that also seems inherently human.

It is my wish that each of our own great awakenings be realized. That no matter how dark the night, the morning star is revealing more than we know. It is this message that the best of all winter spiritual traditions point towards.

Dad, where ever you are, thank you.


  1. Thanks to you and your Dad and Mom for the gift of you!

  2. Some folks would not have the gumption to leave a retreat that they either because they paid for it or they assume that they are to be treated in such a way. Beautiful writing.