How Not to Become a Zen Master

“That’s right. Blame it on Zen,” my neighbor, Grace, says.

With Zen, I just don’t hold onto names or nouns anymore was what I was thinking, aloud it seems.

Grace is a Zen master not because she is 90 but because she is contemplative in all ways. She was born to it. And she attends tai chi twice a week. Her whole life is a practice. She would never label herself a Zen master.

We were in the middle of a project that began simply enough but soon involved another neighbor. Specifically, I opened a package that was not mine.

The package was one of four I was expecting but as you can see, there are five packages. The shocking pink garment stunned but it was the thank you card that intrigued–one American meme of gratitude after another, the length of a paragraph.

I read the card aloud to Grace.

“Which company?”

“Doesn’t say.”

All these packages were dumped in the mailroom of our apartment complex on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. They were there for the taking and so I did.

It was not until I straightened the cardboard boxes Grace had so beautifully broken down with her seriously sharp knife that I saw the name on the box of great gratitude was not mine.

And now I was writing a card of explanation to a woman whose name I kept forgetting. Grace selected the blank note card, rejecting the polar bear in favor of the fir of a mountain. Appropriate for any occasion.

“Well, when you decide to get dressed, I’ll take you.” Grace was sitting on my leather loveseat, waiting, with her small knife lying next to her.

She wasn’t taking me anywhere in a red polo shirt so large and so long it was more skirt than shirt, nearly covering my khaki shorts. The logo read Elder Affairs.

I finish writing the card and read it to Grace. “That’s classy,” she says.

“I want her to know what I did in case she’s not there when we return the package.” And with that, I pick up the flat cardboard box that is not addressed to me.

“You’re not going to tape that back up, are you?”

“Trust me, Grace. Perception is everything. I’m admitting my guilt but I’m returning a taped package.”

Just another of the many ways I avoid becoming a Zen master. I was born to it.

KMHuberImage; St. Mark's Wildlife Refuge; Florida; USA

And so, we began our journey to Grace’s car. I with my three-wheeled walker and the re-wrapped package tightly cornered into my walker’s lower bag, and Grace with her walking stick in one hand and under her other arm, four cardboard boxes now flat.

Grace decided who took what. She is Sicilian. We do things her way.

We drove halfway across the apartment complex before I told Grace, “I forgot the card.” We look at one another and then, Grace turns the car around.

Again, we drive across the apartment complex and we score the nearest accessible parking spot, the one near the elevator. As we ride to the second floor, I try to channel Grace, but I am who I am. Still, my focus remains mountain.

I tell the woman what happened, as it happened, all the while holding her package. She does not take it from me.

“Do you know how many people would not even bother to do this?”

I wasn’t clear. She doesn’t realize I opened her package. I should not have taped up the box.

As I look into the kind face of the woman accepting her package, I am determined not to burst into her life but I tell her my story, again, with profuse apologies and my concern about the boxes being left unattended.

“You’re an angel,” she says. I assure her I am not and introduce Grace who smiles and stays silent. We leave.

As we drive back, Grace says, “You know, I think she would have difficulty getting to the mail room.”

“I’m no angel.”

Grace laughs.

On this day I have Grace, and for that, there are not enough expressions of gratitude in any form.

Of Arugula, Alarms, and Available Lenses

Mostly, I meet the energy of the day. What other lens is available? It’s not always what I want, the energy or the view, so sometimes, I look elsewhere.

These are the moments I am the center of the universe, as if I were a match for the energy of any day. Sometimes, the reminders that I am not are fierce.

Like my apartment filling with smoke or my garbage disposal clogged with arugula, sprouts, and spinach gone sour. Who wants to be present then?

I ignore the mundane at my peril. I set myself up.

KMHuberImage; Wood Stork Fishing

The “smoke” in my apartment is a slight exaggeration, more like opening the freezer on a summer’s day. So, vapors. Enough to set off the smoke alarm, which did get my attention. Some of it, anyway.

I opened my front door, certain it was the fire alarm for the building. No one else was in the corridor.

“I wonder if anyone else hears this,” I say, realizing I am the culprit, as my smoke alarm continues to go off. Quickly, I shut my front door.

It is true the vapors were only in my living room, not in the bedroom where I work. There was nothing to notice other than the faint aroma coming from a small saucepan cooking pasta (gluten-free because I must not because I want).

And I had set a timer for the pasta. It had not gone off, just the smoke alarm. Nor was the pasta burned. There were drippings in the burner pan, obviously oil from?? Fresh so perhaps from the morning’s baking. Cleanup was quick.

No memory for moments I am not present, and sometimes, absentia becomes a boomerang. Something starts, and I am unaware, ignoring the energy I am. Mind elsewhere makes for thoughtlessness, fertile ground for boomerangs.

Such as arugula, sprouts, and spinach meshing with a green scrubber in the garbage disposal. Rarely, any of my food meets the garbage disposal but again, awareness.

This time, arugula getting shoved to the back of the refrigerator, along with the sprouts. In my mind they were still fresh–I had plans for them–alas, that was not the energy of the day. The handful of spinach was sour.

Nor was I particularly present as I shoved the greens into the garbage disposal. Promptly, the sink filled with swirling, green water, a whirlpool. What was to clog? Arugula, apparently.

I have battled with this garbage disposal so my kitchen has its own plunger. Such force in suction, the clinging and the letting go. So it was to be with the arugula, finally separating from the green scrubber, indisposed but not yet disposed, only drained.

In some past moment, the green scrubber found its way down the garbage disposal. What choice for the arugula except to wrap itself round the scrubber? The disposal was doing what it does. Same for the plunger.

Not sentient beings, those things, but all at my whim, like the energy I bring into the space of every day. Will I look through the lens available or stare elsewhere in longing? And when I look away, what change will I effect?

No doubt, it will find me.

KMHuber Image; St. Mark's Refuge, FL; mirror

The Grace of Acceptance

I continually grasp at life, clinging to what will not be held. I want to lie in the arms of acceptance, wrap myself in its grace.

Because once in a while I get a glimpse of Buddha nature, the backdrop against which the chaos of our everyday lives plays out.

I want to define what defies definition.

I suppose I just want to know where I stand, to which Pema Chödrön would remind me that only in groundlessness do I find my center. And that’s where acceptance is too, I think.

There is a lot of worry in that word, acceptance. I know it is a long moment and has nothing to do with approval, agreement, or acquiescing. Acceptance is living the every day with grace, embracing the daily risk.

That requires acceptance of circumstances–as they are for as long as they are–with “unconditional friendliness” toward ourselves. Who we are, as we are. That is Maitri. That is grace.

It moves us to deeds we once thought impossible. It unlocks us, and each day brings us “new grace” as Eberhard Arnold tells us.

I am a risk taker. Won’t settle for satisfactory. Never have. That doesn’t sound unconditionally friendly, does it? It sounds more like someone in search of a key for a lock.

Yet, I am not inflexible. I know the future is limitless. It is mine to explore the full experience of being alive. I really try to do that, no matter how many times my life lens changes.

I am most engaged when I’m completely present to my task, immersed in risk without ever a thought to it. Mine is not to control but to experience.  Without fail, the more groundless I am, the more centered I feel.

While it seems impossible at first,

you soon recognize that with everything

there is a point of balance

and you just have to find it.

(Amy Tan)

I suspect this is how we effect change everywhere–in tiny touches–surprising feats of strength all on their own. They allow us to enlarge our sense of things.

Far too often, I get lost in the minutia.

There is an oft-told story about a Hindu master and his apprentice who–I think–had a similar problem. The Hindu master sends the apprentice to purchase salt.

He tells the apprentice to put some salt into a glass of water and drink it. The apprentice says the water is bitter. The master agrees.

They go to a lake where the master tells the apprentice to throw in a handful of salt. The Hindu master instructs the apprentice to drink; he says the water tastes fresh.

Life is bitter the Hindu master says, “pure salt.” The taste of life depends upon whether we sip it from a glass or a lake. “The only thing [we] can do is … enlarge [our] sense of things.… become a lake.” (Version of Hindu story from Mark Nepo’s Book of Awakening).

This is why I meditate, to sip from something larger than life. Not to escape its bitterness but to become a lake, as comfortable with chaos as I am with constancy. To live where grace resides, in impermanence.

St. Mark's Refuge; Gulf of Mexico; KMHuberImage

Whether we confine ourselves to a single glass of water or become a lake depends upon how “friendly” we are with ourselves, whether or not we drink in our confusion as readily as our sanity.

Accepting that what fuels our fire creates the circumstances of our lives. May we live in the grace of that acceptance.

Life is like that.

We don’t know anything.

We call something bad;

we call it good.

But really we just don’t know.

Pema Chödrön

Making Lemonade, the Patient Pause

“What else might this mean?”

Recently, I came across the question in this context: how different the world might be if we asked that question when facing a tense moment, when feeling anger or aggression, whenever there is pain.

To ask the question is to pause, creating a distance from the situation, preventing an immediate and perhaps pointed reaction.

We have given ourselves the opportunity to make the compassionate response.

Juggling for space 0414

Rather than clinging to the pain of the moment, we release it. We are not boxed up in a mindset or limited in our choices. In the compassionate response, we are open to the unimaginable.

We are not relinquishing our beliefs or changing our goals. We are not giving up or accepting less. We are standing in the reality we have, taking a moment to step back and make the choice that suits the moment.

We find ourselves less concerned with identity, the beliefs of “I,” and more concerned, maybe even intrigued, with how we might offer more to many.

Good Neighbors 0214

Asking what else might this mean reminds me of a well-worn meme—when life gives you lemons make lemonade— there was a time that I would roll my eyes whenever I was told this, which was rather often.

At some point, and I have no memory of any “aha” moment, I considered what it might mean to experiment with life’s lemons. It is an exercise in patience. In making lemonade, I found curiosity and grew to trust it.

Was I lowering my standards?

These days, I live a routine of no routine, relieved of the stress of tasks assigned to specific times. There is enough freedom so that on the days when life is one lemon after another, lemonade seems more than sufficient. I never know how tart or naturally sweet the lemonade might be.

I sip and stay curious.

Stork and Joy 0313

In the last two months, I produced more solid writing than I have in the last year and a half.

Physically, I am markedly different. I am not referring to walking with a cane or wearing a soft neck collar. These are temporary conditions of myelopathy.  Once again, the question of lowering my standards drifted through my ego. That required more than one glass of lemonade.

In short, myelopathy relieved my suffering for I had no choice except to slow down. Myelopathy accomplished what nearly 40 years of autoimmune disease could not. That is the difference.

In slowing down, I gained life anew. I have just begun to consider what this might mean for me.

KMHuberImage

Although my pace of life is slow, more measured, it is now possible for me to comfortably complete two or three errands in one outing, something I have not been able to do.

In rest, I find awareness, options never imagined. No longer am I pushing through to the end of a task, exhausting all of my resources.

In exhaustion, I find energy. To me, they are opposite ends of the same spectrum. I aim for even. The day does not dawn to certain tasks, it lights up with curiosity.

Still, there are the daily lemons.

My biceps feel as if there are weights on them; little has changed since the spinal cord surgery. The same is true for the numbness/tingling in my hands, particularly my index fingers and thumbs. They are unpredictable.

I use voice recognition software so that the frustration of typing does not impede the writing. My thumbs and index fingers have difficulty pinching or picking up small objects such as pens or pills, a mushroom slice, coins for the laundry.

Daily, I do dexterity exercises for my fingers and thumbs, a bit of yoga for my arms as well. There is no pushing just gentle flexibility. There is a lot of lemonade as well.

For all those moments when the world rages, as it does for all of us, if I ask, “what else might this mean,” I choose the compassionate response. It is not about having an answer. It is about asking the question.

The Rhythm in a Routine of No Routine

Of late, I am pursuing a routine of no routine. As much as I would like to do away with all artificial constructs of time,  the best I can do is settle into 24 hours, immersing myself in the amount of time most assured to me, a single day.

Watercolor 0815

Within these hours, I am not pushing, shaping, or molding a future outcome. Rather, I focus on the rhythm, the beat of the moment and what it requires. I cut up vegetables to put into scrambled eggs, slice ginger root for my daily tea.

There is also the daily revising of words, working a single sentence round and round only to realize its moment has not yet come—or has.

More and more I am aware of the flow in being. It is all but palpable. There is a rhythm in a routine of no routine, momentary and impermanent. Labels float by, never overstaying their welcome.

Often, it is only when I stray from the moment that I sense its flow. The past gives me a sense of the present. As Mark Nepo reminds, it is not that we stray from the moment that is important—that is part of being human—what is imperative is that we return to it.

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Regaining a sense of the present through the past is valuable but I have noticed it also opens the door for my ego. And as I recently discovered, my ego is like the Hydra, the mythological beast of many heads and thus, many voices.

Ego can take many different forms and shapes. It is like the hydra.

You cut off one head and another head replaces it.

You cut off that head and see a third head and a fourth head ad infinitum.

This is because in the manifest dimension, ego identity is the root of life, and if the ego identity is lost,

then life as we know it no longer exists.

It exists as light; life becomes light.

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Val Boyko introduced me to this metaphor in a post on her wonderful blog, Find Your Middle Ground. Far too often, I strike at my ego, as if I might actually conquer it once and for all.

In cutting off one head, I only create another.  As Val advises, what is the point of that? She reminds that the new ego may be even more deceptive.

It is a powerful incentive to float on the rhythm of a routine no routine, allowing the moment to reveal its rhythm. There are fewer heads, fewer strikes.

The rhythm of a routine of no routine encompasses body sensations as well as the emotions of the mind. They are signals, physical points of light. Their intensity varies but sometimes a signal is the total experience of the moment.

It is not for me to escape or suppress it. Like not cutting off the head of the hydra, I observe the sensation. It will only still if I sit with it. It is the well of energy available to me.

Some days, the bottom of the well seems close; other days, the well seems bottomless. Either way, if I sip and do not gulp, the available energy will sustain me.

Watercolor III 0815

Every day, there are requirements that must be met for a routine of no routine is not without its responsibilities. If and how I meet those responsibilities depends on whether or not I sip to the moment.

If I take large gulps–as if to anticipate the day–I will be back at my well sooner and more often. These are days frenzied with energy, brimming with new Hydra heads. They are laid waste, unproductive and exhaustive.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of a routine of no routine is that it is available in every moment, as close as the next breath. It relies not upon expectation but upon showing up.

It is a rhythm in which the mind does not squeeze itself; the body does not constrict its vessels. Always, there is the breath that will release as well as renew.

There is no reason to cut off the heads of the Hydra. It is just as easy to allow them to nod to one another.  After all, they are my identity, the life I have as a human.

When I am without identity, I am light.  In this moment, I am human.

 

Ponding: Pooling of Unwanted Thoughts

Sometimes, rather than practicing mindfulness, we engage in an exercise in focus. We are casting about the past and future rather than “living richly in the present” (Sylvia Plath).

I call such an exercise ponding. In nature, ponding is the pooling of unwanted waters. In being, ponding is the absence of mindfulness, the pooling of thought outside the present.

As Plath reminds us, to live richly in the present is the “hardest thing” to do.

It is a lifetime practice.

Spending days kmhuber imageI grew up in a high plains desert where rivers rush, streams gush. Ponds are few. In the Rocky Mountain West, water is on the go, impermanence on the fly.

Now, my home is the meandering rivers and ponds of the Florida panhandle, subtropical lushness.

That both the West and South offer life opportunity opposites—mile high to sea level—once occupied much of my thought and time.

Then, it was location, location, location rather than living richly in my present. I spent years pooling unwanted waters for the future, trying to re-create past ponds.

It never works, even as an exercise.

This past week I found myself at Chapman, a pond I once visited daily as my life in the South began.

I missed the rush of water, having little consideration for the life that teems within a pond.

All that changed within the comfort of Chapman, contained under canopied, moss-draped oaks and towering Ponderosa pine. Daily, I focused on the peace I attributed to Chapman pond, unaware the peace was within me, always available.

Of course, I was ponding, unaware of my life as I was living it, pooling up thoughts, the unwanted waters of my past and future.

I was fishing, a practice I began in childhood.

Always, I searched any and all waters to see if they supported fish. I had to know if there was life. Fishing would occupy me for decades. I practiced consistently.

KMHuberImage; Wood Stork Fishing

As I aged, casting a line with no hook replaced catching a fish. With each cast, I did my best to imitate a fly afloat to tease a fish.

Whenever I went fishing, I was living richly, completely confined to the cast of the moment.

Perhaps it was the beginning of a mindfulness practice; perhaps, it was just fishing.

I gained a sense of the tide of time, the fisher and the fished, impermanence at its best.

There was no ponding, no thoughts of bigger or lesser fish or even the one that got away—only, the energy of the experience, the sensation that never stays.

I have not owned a rod and reel in years but still I fish.

On Birthdays, an Advantage of Aging

Laziness 010514I do not mind growing older. I do not believe I ever have nor do I remember wanting to return to a previous age in the belief it was the best time to be alive. As a friend said not too long ago, “it has been pretty good so far.”

And it has. This third act of my life presents new challenges—as did the other two—it seems to be a natural progression.

Do the challenges fit each act? In retrospect, the answer is yes, unequivocally.

What has been true with each act is that aging has its advantages. That assurance keeps me curious. And the handmaiden of curiosity is often celebration.

This past week I marked my 63rd birthday. It was a week of gifts–each thoughtful, unique. It is humbling, this great exchange of good feeling. The joy lasts more than a single day or week. It is what fills the years of a lifetime.

Every birthday reaffirms how fortunate I am in the life I have. The older I am, the more advantages I have. Aging is a list of gifts. Each year, some are unique to that birthday while others are forever.

Unique to the age of 63, I am now past the pregnancy test protocol for women who still have a uterus and have not had a tubal ligation. This surgery protocol may be unique to where I live. Nonetheless, it is on and off my list.

While the number of my chronic illnesses seems to have increased, I have finally accepted the great advantage they provide: I can sleep whenever I am tired, eat when I am hungry no matter the time of day or night, and write when I have sufficient energy, when my mind is clearest.At Rest 0215

What chronic illness has given me for the rest of my life is the routine of no routine. It is a lifetime gift that I finally recognized in my 63rd year.

Many people fear retirement for the lack of routine. I am here to tell you do not fear it. It is up there with the greatest gifts you ever receive. You will never be more present in your life. Mindfulness gives you all the time you need. You need not wait for retirement. 😉

As one day slides into another, the trappings of time that we have contrived—calendars, alarms, agendas– appear for what they are, our attempts to box up and label each moment.

Life is impermanent and neither boxes nor labels will hold.

Perfect Shell 0514I no longer am concerned about being awake during the dark hours that begin each day. It is a great time to listen to a recorded book. I do not disturb the dark with unnatural light. I do not disturb the day turning into itself.

These night-morning hours of opalescence are also prime “hunting” hours for feline EmmaRose. The prey is a catnip-filled “mouse” that is as easily airborne as it is grounded. The chase is a vocal one, high-pitched meows and a growl that seems much too large for a 5.5 pound cat.

The “hunt” was my birthday eve present from EmmaRose and later in the day, dear friends called and sang the birthday song. Both of these birthday eve gifts are unique to my 63rd birthday.

My birthday dawned as I sat on my favorite bench in Waverly Park, my first visit in many months. I shared the moment with three geese.

Animals, it seems, would mark my birthday in ways I could not have imagined.

Unique to this birthday was the gift of becoming a foster for an older elephant named Kora. Regular readers of this blog may remember a post on elephants reading hearts. The post featured the Sheldrick Trust in a video. Kora and I will age together.Kora older 2015

The same thoughtful friend made sure that another animal was part of my birthday, my favorite pit bull. I was treated to a video of Frisbee catching and happy birthday dancing. Ever available for viewing, it is a lifetime gift.

Also unique to this year, just before my birthday week dawned, I was given a surprise, living-room concert by my favorite local singing duo, Hot Tamale. All I had to do was sit back in my recliner and listen. For an hour, I immersed myself in their story songs, sometimes reminiscent of the ’60s, sometimes just great blues but always Hot Tamale.

Every gift I received— food, spirits, cash, and so many words of joy–was its own card, offering its unique celebration of a day. Ageless, the day resides in memory, celebrated as an advantage of aging.