Sunday, April 21, 2013

Songs of Spring

Look who showed up at the monastery today! 
Spring is singing its song. 

centers of all centers, cores of all cores
almond self-enclosed, and growing sweet--
all this universe, to the furthest stars
all beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit.

Now you feel how nothing clings to you;
your vast shell reaches into endless space,
and there the rich, thick fluids rise and flow.
Illuminated in your infinite peace,

a billion stars go spinning through the night,
blazing high above your head.
But in you is the presence that
will be, when all the stars are dead. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mind All Around

If you think you just think with your head, think again! An interview from Sun Magazine with Phillip Shepherd. 

I MET PHILIP SHEPHERD when I cast him in a film I was directing. He was amused to learn that I had written a book called The Way of the Screenwriter. He was just finishing a book he’d been working on for eight years, originally titledThe Way of the Actor. But, he explained, it had become about much more than acting. I asked what it was now about.
“Everything,” he said.
Good luck getting that published, I thought.
But it did get published three years later, in the fall of 2010, as New Self, New World: Recovering Our Senses in the Twenty-First Century. I bought a copy more out of loyalty than appetite. I’ve read plenty of books about “everything.” Each of them diagnoses the ailment of living and proposes a single cure. I had become skeptical of such unified-field theories, which seem to constitute a retreat from the world’s problems under the guise of trying to solve them. It wasn’t until more than a year later, when illness suddenly gave me ample reading time, that I took Shepherd’s book off the shelf and began to turn the pages.
New Self, New World explores the implications of the little-known fact that we have two brains: in addition to the familiar cranial brain in the head, there is a “second brain” in the gut. This is not a metaphor. Scientists recognize the web of neurons lining the gastrointestinal tract as an independent brain, and a new field of medicine — neurogastroenterology — has been created to study it.
According to Shepherd, there is a good reason that we talk about “gut instinct.” If cranial thinking sets us apart from the world, the thinking in the belly joins us to it. If the cranial brain believes itself surrounded by a knowable world that can be controlled, the brain in our belly is in touch with the world’s mystery. The fact that the second brain has been discovered, forgotten, and rediscovered by medicine three times in the past century suggests how complicated our relationship with our bodily intelligence is.
Although Shepherd feels that his claims are consistent with scientific findings, his primary concerns are cultural and philosophical, and his primary frame is not medical but mythic. Weaving threads from disciplines that are normally treated as separate, his book treats art, religion, and science as facets of a single story. Whether giving a deep reading to an academic article on the implications of brain transplants or parsing the work of the early Greek philosophers, Shepherd reminds us that all human endeavors are modes of encounter with the world, rooted in one or both of our brains. He argues that we, as a culture and as individuals, have become walled off in our heads, losing touch with the intelligence of our bodies. We have reached a point, Shepherd tells us, where the cranial brain’s efforts to solve our problems are the problem. Only by leaving the “tyrant’s castle” of our heads and entering into a profoundly embodied relationship with the mystery and beauty of the world will we successfully turn our planetary crisis into an “initiation.”
The insights Shepherd shares in his book emerged from his own life. Born in 1953, he grew up in a suburb of Toronto, Canada, on the fringe of wilderness and farmers’ fields — and then watched as nature was flattened and paved to make room for more houses. A spring-fed creek nearby was turned into an underground storm sewer. These transformations left him wary of the adult world. When he turned eighteen, he left for England to undertake a solo bike trip across Europe and Asia, eventually to arrive in Japan to study classical Noh theater. Since then he has worked as an actor on stage and in film and television, and also as a director, writer, editor, and communication coach. He’s occasionally made a living using his skills as a carpenter, electrician, and plumber, and he has designed and built several houses, including his own.
After I’d finished reading New Self, New World during the chill of a Toronto winter, I took one of Shepherd’s weekend workshops. With patience and persistence, he guided about fifteen of us through a series of exercises designed to bring our awareness into our bodies and to connect our heads to our “pelvic” intelligence. The outwardly simple yet inwardly challenging exercises took us on a journey deep into the unfamiliar roots of our own sensitivity.
Shepherd lives with his wife and two teenage daughters in a small, car-free community on Ward’s Island in Lake Ontario, a ten-minute ferry ride from downtown Toronto. Our interview took place at my home just outside the city in the other direction. It’s about forty-five minutes from the ferry on a highway by car, but Shepherd arrived on his bike. We sat to talk by a summer pond full of life.

Buchbinder: You’ve said that we have a misguided cultural story about what it means to be human. What does that story tell us?
Shepherd: It tells us that the head should be in charge, because it knows the answers, and the body is little more than a vehicle for transporting the head to its next engagement. It tells us thatdoing is the primary value, while being is secondary. It shapes our perceptions, actions, and experiences of life. It separates us from the sensations of the body and alienates us from the world. And there is no escaping this story; it’s embedded in our language, our architecture, our customs, and our hierarchies. It’s like the ocean, and we are like fish who swim in it and barely notice it because we’ve lived with it since infancy.
By interpreting reality for us, stories frame and give meaning to our actions. But there’s a danger to living by a story that you can’t question, because you start to mistake the story for reality. And that’s where my work starts — in formulating questions that can expose that story and hold it to account.
Buchbinder: Where did this story come from?
Shepherd: It dates back to the Neolithic Revolution, which was underway in most of Europe by 6,000 BC and gave us a new way of living: agriculture, permanent settlements, domesticated animals. We started taking charge of our environment. When you domesticate an animal, you become like a god to it. You determine with whom it will mate, and you own its babies. You choose what it will eat and when. And you determine the moment of its death.
So at the start of the Neolithic Era humankind was radically altering its relationship with the world. The unforeseen consequence of that, which our culture hasn’t yet begun to appreciate, is that we also began to take control of the self in ways that created within us the same divisions we were creating in our relationship with the world. If you go back to the Indo-European roots of the English language, which date from the Neolithic, you find that the word for the hub of a wheel came from the word for navel. The hub is the center around which the wheel revolves. The metaphor suggests that the center of the self was located in the belly.
The idea of being centered in the belly shows up in many cultures — Incan, Maya. There is a Chinese word for belly that means “mind palace.” Japanese culture rests on a foundation of hara, which means “belly” and represents the seat of understanding. The Japanese have a host of expressions that use hara where we use head. We say, “He’s hotheaded.” They say, “His belly rises easily.” We say, “He has a good head on his shoulders.” They say, “He has a well-developed belly.”
Buchbinder: This isn’t just a semantic issue, is it?
Shepherd: No, it’s deeper. These cultural differences point out that we have lost some choice in how we experience ourselves. Our culture doesn’t recognize that hub in the belly, and most of us don’t trust it enough to come to rest there. Our story insists that our thinking happens exclusively in the head. And so we are stuck in the cranium, unable to open the door to the body and join itsthinking. The best we can do is put our ear to the imaginary wall separating us from it and “listen to the body,” a phrase that means well but actually keeps us in the head, gathering information from the outside. But the body is not outside. The body is you. We are missing the experience of our own being.
To get a sense of what we have lost, it helps to appreciate the forces that carried us into the head. The Neolithic Revolution spawned two major changes in our story: the experiential center of the self, which had been located in the belly, began to migrate upward to the head; and the spiritual center of our culture began to migrate from the earth goddess up to the sky god. In mythological ways of thinking, the body and the world of nature generally are associated with the feminine, while the head and the realm of abstract ideas are associated with the masculine.
By around 700 bc, we find the Greek poet Homer making frequent use of the word phren, which translates as both “mind” and “diaphragm.” So by Homer’s day the migration of our thinking was about halfway to the head, balanced between male and female. Some rich developments came out of that ancient Greek culture: the birth of Western science, philosophy, literature, theater. But by 350 bc or so the philosopher Plato locates the center of our thinking in the head. In his dialogueTimaeus the title character explains that the gods made us by fashioning the soul into a divine sphere, the cranium, and then gave it a vehicle, the body, to carry it around. So the head has the spark of divinity, and the body is a machine. That’s been our metaphor ever since.
Our culture has been intolerant of attempts to reclaim this lost center of consciousness. In the early 1900s a Chicago anatomist named Byron Robinson wrote a book called The Abdominal and Pelvic Brain in which he describes the neurology of an independent brain in the gut. His work was quickly forgotten — it had no relevance to our cultural story. Then, in the late 1920s, Johannis Langley mapped out the autonomic nervous system. He said there were three divisions: the sympathetic, the parasympathetic, and the enteric. The enteric nervous system, which governs the gastrointestinal functions, is exactly what Robinson called the “abdominal brain.” Langley’s book became a classic, but the enteric nervous system was widely ignored, and students were taught that the autonomic nervous system has just two divisions.
Finally, in the 1960s, Dr. Michael Gershon rediscovered the brain in the gut. In his book The Second Brain he describes how it took him fifteen years of presenting his research and answering refutations before his fellow neuro scientists capitu lated and agreed that the neuro mass in the belly is indeed an independent brain. [Gershon is a professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University. — Ed.]
Robinson, who first discovered the pelvic brain, was much freer in his assessment of its importance than scientists are today. He talked about it as the “center of life.” I completely agree with that. It is the center of one’s being.
Buchbinder: How does it meet the cri teria for being a brain?
Shepherd: We shouldn’t imagine it as a lump of gray matter. The enteric brain is a web of neurons lining the gut. But it perceives, thinks, learns, decides, acts, and remembers all on its own. You can sever the vagus nerve, which is the main conduit between the two brains, and the brain in the gut just carries on doing its job.
So they are both brains, but they are radically different. The enteric brain exists as a network that suffuses the viscera as a whole — which mirrors the way the female aspect of our consciousness feels the world around us as a whole, enabling us to exist in the present. The cranial brain, by contrast, is enclosed in the skull. And that mirrors the way the male aspect of our consciousness can separate itself from the world and create a subject-object relationship, enabling us to think abstractly. These two ways of engaging our intelligence reveal two different versions of the same world.
Buchbinder: Why bring “male” and “female” into it? Why associate “doing” with the male and “being” with the female?
Shepherd: The terms are imperfect, certainly, because people will tend to hear “men” and “women” — but I’m not talking about men and women. I’m talking about the complementary opposites that exist in each of us. Whether you are a man or a woman, there is both a masculine aspect to your consciousness and a feminine aspect. To come into wholeness is to realize the indivisible unity of these parts. At this point in our culture the male aspect has eclipsed the female aspect. I see this in both men and women. We have been taught to mistrust our bodies, to mistrust our intuition, to mistrust any information that is not analytical.
This head-based, masculine perspective gives rise to three serious misunderstandings that drive our culture: we misunderstand what intelligence is, what information is, and what thinking is. Take our understanding of intelligence. We think it’s the ability to reason in an abstract fashion, something you can measure with an IQ test. So we remain blind to the impotence of reason in areas of vital concern to us. You cannot reason your way into being present. You cannot reason your way into love. You cannot reason your way into fulfillment. If you wish to be present, you need to submit to the present, and suddenly you find yourself at one with it. You submit to love. There’s that great quote from the Persian mystic Rumi: “Your task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
Buchbinder: If intelligence isn’t abstract reasoning, what is it?
Shepherd: It’s sensitivity — specifically a grounded sensitivity, because a reactive sensitivity isn’t able to integrate information. A sensitivity to music, to the flight of a swallow, to arithmetic relationship, to a child’s tears — all of these are forms of intelligence. And your sensitivity isn’t a static, permanent condition. Anything that increases it increases your ability to live more intelligently. Conversely, the constant noise and distractions of modern life have the opposite effect. The jackhammer you walk past on the street diminishes your intelligence by blunting your sensitivity.
Buchbinder: If this focus on the head began in the Neolithic, are you saying that we need to go back to the Mesolithic? What if the rise of consciousness to the cranial brain was an important part of our development as humans?
Shepherd: Our task at this point isn’t to go back. It’s not a matter of giving up the ability to think consciously or abstractly; it’s a matter of coordinating the two brains. Picture the first astronaut who went into orbit and took a photo of our planet. He brought that unprecedented perspective back home and showed it to people. Suddenly they were newly sensitized to what it means to be a citizen of the planet. They became slightly more intelligent about their relationship with it. I think that new sensitivity contributed to the range of environmental initiatives, such as the Earth Day movement and Friends of the Earth, that sprang forth in the years following that first photo of the earth from space.
That story of the astronaut stands as a metaphor for the evolution of our consciousness, but we are only halfway through the journey. We have left our home in the belly and are now “in orbit” in the head, viewing the world from a new, somewhat remote vantage point. Just as the astronaut gains perspective by separating from the earth, we gain perspective by stepping back from the body, separating our consciousness from its sensations and dulling our awareness of them.
The problem is, we don’t know how to bring those perspectives back home so they can be integrated. Without that integration our abstract perspectives can’t sensitize us to the world. They merely abet our ability to assert control over it. Our culture has a tacit assumption that if we can just gather enough information on ourselves and our world, it will add up to a whole. But when you stand back to look at something, there are always details that are hidden from you. The integration of multiple perspectives into a whole can happen only when, like the astronaut bringing the photo back to earth, we bring this information back to our pelvic bowl, back to the ground of our being, back to the integrating genius of the female consciousness. The pelvic bowl is the original beggar’s bowl: it receives the gifts of the world — of the male perspective — and it integrates them. As you bring ideas down to the belly and let them settle there, they sensitize you to who you are and eventually give birth to insight. Our task is to learn to trust that process.
The central theme of my work is that our relationship with the body shapes our perceptions, which in turn direct the actions we take and guide the theories we generate. The atomic theory began as a philosophical concept that was first expounded by Democritus around the same time Plato declared the head to be the soul’s container and the body its vehicle. Having individuated ourselves from the world, we saw a reality made of individuated bits, a shattered universe of random pieces that have no real relationship with each other. And we still see it that way, because we live in the head. But that’s an alienating impoverishment of reality. Quantum mechanics has revealed that not even an electron exists as an individuated bit. It exists as part of a web of relationships.
Our relationship with the body has similarly affected our politics, our corporate culture, our language, our cultural values — all of human history. Language tells us explicitly that the head should rule. You’d better have a good head on your shoulders. You need to get ahead. The bosses work in corporate headquarters and head up committees. Chief, captain, and capital all come from the Latin word for head, so Washington, DC, is literally the “head” of the U.S. We call the pope the “head” of the Roman Catholic Church. We could call him the “heart” of the Church, to emphasize that it’s an institution based on faith. Or we could call him the “lungs” of the Church, because spirit means “breath.” The Church might look to its original model, Jesus, who did not live from the head. Instead it’s organized as a top-down tyranny, with the pope as its “head.”

Monday, April 8, 2013

Next Step

would like to make a joyous announcement that I, Kelly Anne Non-Commitment Graves, after searching rejecting, and delaying going to graduate school have finally decided to commit to a graduate program.

This is a noteworthy and long overdue occasion, not only because this decision process has been so drawn out, but also that I will be in ONE place for TWO whole years! This is a big deal, considering how long and far stretching the road these past 6 years has been— from the East Coast, to a trans-American bike trip, to the deserts, jungles, cities and farmlands of 32 countries. I could not be more excited to announce that, amazingly, the road has finally led me to my own backyard. In the fall I will be attending graduate school at Colorado State University to earn a degree in Anthropology with a specialization in Health and Wellbeing.

Now. I know this may come as a real surprise to some of you, both as a school and a program. It certainly has come as a surprise to me. But rest assured, after a long decision process I feel like this is by far the best option for what I am moved to do. I will be working with Dr. Jeffrey Snodgrass, who conducts research in a field known as ‘neuroanthropology’ and looks at the relationship between religious experience, environment and the mind. We will be working with EEG/ERP data, but also (which is a very important but) the most appealing part of this program is that not only can I work at the level of brain activity, but will be using a mixed-methods approach, looking at 1st, 2nd and 3rd person analysis.

This may not carry weight for the average person reading this, but this is a really, really important thing! Rather than just looking at someone’s brain or performance on a cognitive test— something that, although helpful in meditation research over the past decade, is incredibly limited in scope— we will be using a mixed-methods approach to look at experience from more vivid mediums that may animate the data, including story, art and media, with first person narrative being of primary interest, rather than secondary or nonexistent.  This is super duper exciting, and a common theme that has surfaced in my work with monks and nuns in Sri Lanka and at the monastery where I am currently living: research about meditation is helpful because it acts as a “dharma gate” for those who would not usually approach contemplative practices, but its fruits are far greater than a merely materialistic point of view can point towards or that the dominate model of MBSR fully encapsulates.

The more I practice the more dramatic the shift I sense in my aims when conducting research around meditation. Rather than trying to validate meditation through scientific method (something that I and many others have nobly been striving to do and to some extent “accomplished”), I am more interested in sharing the transformation it has had on people as a source of inspiration for others to realize their own potential. This is a subtle difference, but I think a rather important one.

In terms of a thesis there are lots of ideas flipping around in the skillet of my brain, but one that is looking particularly tasty is the process of surrender and how it can connect us to the natural world and increase wellbeing. More on that in the next two years….

But overall moral of the story is HEY FOLKS I’M A COMIN’ HOME! Yay for Colorado, yay for mountains, yay for being close to family, and yay for have the opportunity to study something that I feel can truly help others. I am also going to be a TA and be able to start teaching, which is something I look forward to.  I am most likely going to be moving to Fort Collins in a month and a half, finishing up two more sesshins here and saying goodbye to this beautiful part of the world.

Any of you who will be in Colorado this summer, give me a shout out! I would love to see you. Also… I am looking for a plot of land to rent in the Fort Collins area (if that seems unnerving to you, then you probably know me well. Yet another wild idea is a’brewin’). But seriously, let me know.

Love, goodness and happiness to you all.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

So beautiful

why is it all so beautiful
this fake dream
this craziness—why?


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

On Dying

A star at dawn
A bubble in a stream
A flash of lightening in a summer’s cloud
A flickering lamp
A phantom and a dream
So is this fleeting world.
--The Diamond Sutra

This is a verse we have been recently chanting before bed. There are many things that this Buddhist verse is pointing to, but mainly it is the fact that we are going to die. That our lives, no matter how permanent they may seem, will one day come to an end. Inevitably and unpredictably. We have been told this over and over again throughout our lives. But how easily we become numb to this truth. How easily we go about the world in delusion that there is constancy, a stability, to our being, to this particular narrative, that we forget entirely how vulnerable and absolutely fleeting we truly are.

Sometimes it takes a tragedy, a death that cuts too close to home, to remind us of this tremendous fact. I know words can’t change or heal the sadness that many of my friends and family, myself included, have had to face with the loss of Peter Carver, but I feel like it is important to write about, especially given the happenings here this past week here at the monastery.

Right after the news reached me (aka 10 minutes) I had to go into a 2-hour meditation sit with the Zen Community of Oregon followed by a dharma talk. It was interesting to have to sit down with such awful news and look directly how it was transforming my body— at the level of sensation. In some ways this was incredibly hard, because my gut reaction was first: to cry and second: to run away, escape at all possible costs. But I could not move my body, I was forced to sit perfectly still as the waves of emotions passed through me. In retrospect I am not sure if there was a better way to deal with it, because it forced a direct interaction with my emotions, rather than a stuffing away of them as per the norm. The dharma talk that followed was, ironically, about losing a dear one and how to deal with that from a Buddhist point of view. Again, difficult to hear, but also probably the best thing the universe could offer at the time.

The next day was the first of a 7-day silent retreat on the theme of Pari-Nirvana (the death of the Buddha). The week was centered around death meditation and looking at what happens when this particular-body mind composition takes its last breath, and in turn, what it means to be still breathing. Where is the life? Where is the looker, the viewer, the self that is aware and thinks about the breathing, that thinks about the thinker? Given the circumstances there was a lot of energy behind this investigation. I haven’t had to face death very much in life, especially of someone who I have known since preschool. One interesting part of this investigation was looking at the birthing and dying of self, self notions, and reality between moments. In short, we die all the time. Knowing this on a conceptual level is one thing, being still enough to look at it from a point of quiet awareness is quite another.

It is particularly difficult to talk about experience, especially those of the religious or spiritual type. So I will spare much of this detail. I think that this retreat, however, has marked a significant change in my understanding of Buddhist practice with regards to the pervasiveness of awareness, that that is undying. Over the working meditation period of the day during the retreat I was in charge of rebuilding a wall that forms the base of the Buddha statue at the front gate of the monastery. Much of the things that I find are shifting in vantage at the moment can be paralleled to this endeavor: reconstructing foundation. Which, if there is confusion, is a very good (whatever that actually means) thing.

Another realization I have had is there may be a need for me to stop writing this blog for awhile. This one is also hard to explain, but it has to do with being able to let go of some thinking-tendencies that I can see may be obstructions of my current place in practice with Zen. I am feeling this one out, and it may mean shorter and less “event-related” (like the fact that the Roshi threw a snowball at someone during breakfast last week! And that there is no snow to been seen in all of Clatskanie) passages or maybe a prolonged break. Either way I look forward to sharing the coming days with you all in whatever way feels fit. I have just recommitted for two more months here and have been given an option for work-exchange that may allow me to stay here longer that originally planned. We shall see how the cookie crumbles, however. I am still awaiting hearing from graduate programs and am still feeling out what the next best step may be for this small amount of time that has been given to me.

With all of that said, I guess my primary point is:

Rest in peace Peter.
And please, friends, give those you love an extra call/kiss/hug today if you can. Our time is short together.


Monday, January 28, 2013

Third Week at Great Vow

Two weeks have passed since my last update. The first of those two was spent in retreat, known as sesshin, which is a monthly practice of long hours of meditation. At this monastery each sesshin is themed with a particular Buddhist teaching. This month, akin to the monastery’s name: Great Vow, was about vows. At first, as you may be, I was a bit confused about what this entailed. As I found out through the retreat, it was essentially a koan practice on “What is our purpose?” What drives us, why are we here and how to use out life energy to manifest this intent. Unlike most of the sesshin retreats this one was peculiar because it had a 2 hour dedicated period to cohort groups (allowing close contact with Zen elders/teachers and a practice in absorptive listening) and a venue to work with the koan. Throughout the retreat we had what is known as Sanzen with the teachers, a one on one interview about our practice and our formation of vows (often which tend to be very formal and at times quite intimidating). Being able to go deep into practice and honing in on awareness, I was amazed how much wisdom (without needing to think about it) came up around this koan. It is fascinating how when you let go of cognition and open your awareness to the present how much creativity and effortlessness surfaces.

My vow was (much to my dismay):

I vow to awaken.

Now, I understand how cliché-Buddhisty this is, trust me, I tried my darndest to come up with something more creative, profound, wordy ect. But every single one of those that I formulated (especially through the process of Sanzen practice) was cut down, chopped away to this essential building block of this particular vow. So, alas, I was stuck.

To me this means a lot of things, most of which I will not (and probably could not) encapsulate here. However, one of them is the flexibility of the word “awaken.” I realized that there were three veins of thought that kept resurfacing for me: the desire to be part of truth, which involves considerable waking up, waking up others to the beauty of this truth, as well as be involved in a creative process (ranging from teaching in some sort or another in the future, writing, or planting seeds). The first two are conveniently part of the Bodhisattva vow: to awaken yourself in order to relieve all beings from suffering. The last is in regards to awakening not myself or others, but potential. There is also a temporal flexibility to the idea of awaken. It can be both momentary, as well as a fixed goal, which I appreciated.

Since this was a large (probably impossible) vow, the teachers and I decided that I needed subsidiary vows (means). These were as follows:

To become inwardly simple.
To keep heart and body active.
To admit softness.

That’s all I want to say about that for now.

This past week has been one of sinking in deeper to practice and monastery life, as well as realizing the incredible idiosyncrasies of the place I have come. To name a few (and keep in mind this is a Zen monastery!): I am part of a Zen marimba band, have gone square dancing with the abbots, and days often end with a hot tub and laughter. Yesterday Roshi passed around a dead bird during breakfast as part of her teaching. The day before she set up microscopes with poinsettia leaves and told us to see the science AND art of nature. I have been swimming with the postulants at a local elementary school pool and have been spending hours a day in a Jizo garden (Bodhisattva of travelers, women and crossroads) picking up sticks that have fallen from large trees as my work practice. This past week I was assigned the potential task of heading up the creation of a Zen mushroom garden and the possibility of keeping bees. I feel like this experience is not just one of spiritual deepening, but one of deepening a lifestyle.

Another exciting event that has transpired this past week is I have now been asked to be part of the temple rituals (since I came at the same time another long term resident was leaving). Because of this I get to dress in a samuegi, a traditional Japanese work robe and be part of the morning and evening services, which entails lighting candles, offering incense, ringing a massive hanging bell in a specific sequence, and bowing with the teachers before chanting. It is super exciting.

Aside from that I am just learning bits and bits every day. It is wonderful to be living in community with people who all share a similar vow. I have found myself engrossed in conversation about lucid dreaming while washing spinach with a Buddhist nun and sharing a sunset with a stranger in complete, comfortable silence. So much goodness, so much learning, so much gratitude. 

Oh and p.s. Another great teaching: "the skillful means of caffeination." Matcha, you are my beloved. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

First Week at Great Vow

I have just finished my first week at Great Vow Zen Monastery in Oregon, and like with many new adventures, it feels like a century has already passed. Whoa. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact every day here is long. Wake up is as early as 3:30 in the morning, followed by several hours of zazen (sitting meditation), kinhin (walking meditation), follwed by oriyoki (a silent breakfast that follows a strict Japanese ceremony), a group discussion on an article that the Roshi picks out (usually from Scientific American, Discovery or National Geographic, which I find hilarious and awesome) chanting Buddhist texts in Japanese, Pali and English, prostrations in front of the Buddha (which is quite a workout), working meditation (tasks have included: scraping moss off of the parking lot, trimming blackberry bushes, weeding Roshi’s garden, working in the library, putting together oriyoki packages for guests, sweeping pine needles, and clearing out ravines in the forest), followed by another session of chanting, lunch, a break, zazen, prostrations, interviews with the teachers and on Wednesdays and Sundays a dharma class. Lights out is at ten when a group of people come around with a lantern and two wooden blocks chanting and banging the blocks together.

I live in the residential part of the monastery in a dorm with the other residents. Since this monastery is known for primarily being a place for ordination training most of the residents have been here for several years and are planning on becoming priests. Much to my surprise most residents are also quite young! Which has been really refreshing, since in many sanghas I am usually one of the youngest members. As a result there is a vivacity and creativity here that is also unlike most places I have been. There is a literary magazine, art projects, a library full of not only Buddhist scriptures, but also modern day books, and movies nights (Last week was Princess Mananoke, yessssss). There is also a large emphasis here on community and absorptive listening. Although it is a bit intimidating coming into a setting where people know each other very well, at a heart level, everyone has taken time to meet me and get to know who I am. As community becomes something I am increasingly interested in, I value this presence here a lot. 

One interesting aspect of a Zen monastery is most communication happens non-verbally, there are wooden blocks, bells, chimes and even things like hitting ground, holding your hands in a certain way, and different ways of bowing that all indicate very particular meanings. Being here has been a test in implicit learning at its best, considering you are thrown into this complex matrix of rituals and expected to adhere without anyone explaining what to do or when. As you can imagine this can be quite intimidating and embarrassing, which is most certainly has been. Luckily the confusion and bit of fear seems to imprint the information rather quickly, making it a pretty fast learning curve. After a few days of this though, my typically rational mind started asking questions: “Why do I have to do this? What is the reason for all of this ceremony?  This is silly, this is stupid, I hate this” etc etc. But now I have come to the realization that all of this ritualization makes mundane tasks like eating or even walking a practice in mindfulness, you HAVE to become aware of the present moment or else. Haha. After I realized this I have started taking great joy in the process. It also allows me to be in relationship with others and my environment in a fresh way, making me appreciate those relationships as if I was a child learning them all again. In a lot of ways I find this exciting, that I am able to look at breakfast or working in a garden with curiosity.  

My second day here I partook in a practice known as tangaryo, which dates back to a tradition in ancient Japan when a person wanted to join a monastery they were put through an intense meditation period (often around 5 days) where they were expected not to move in order to show their sincerity and strength of mind. Luckily it is the 21st century and the tradition has soften here in America resulting in a 12 hour period of not moving and meditation practice. After completing this session, I was asked to memorize a complicated ceremony and perform it in front of the entire sangha, asking to be accepted into the community. After completing both of these tasks sucsessfuly (phew) I was then officially given permission to stay at the monastery by the presiding Roshi, Chozen Bays.

Roshi Chozen Bays is a former pediatrician and has been a Zen teacher for 30 years. I couldn’t like her more. Not only is she a potter, painter, author, speaker, teacher, and doctor, she is also incredibly funny and down to earth. This weekend I sat in 3 day “Mindful Eating workshop” by her and was amazed by her teaching and openness. It is not uncommon for rooms of people here to be full of laughter or discussion of the philosophy of science— an atmosphere promoted by Roshi. In the morning chants we worship great Buddhist teachers of the past, which Roshi has insisted should included the great Buddhist women of Indian, Sri Lankan, Japanese and Tibetan history. Like I said, I couldn’t like her more.

The other teacher I am excited about here is the forest. Behind the monastery is miles of wooded trails, surrounded by Oregonian rainforest. I cannot express the beauty of this place. The trees are covered in thick, bright green moss, huge ferns line the path, and every rock and patch of earth is totally, almost impossibly, inundated with life forms. It feels like the entire landscape is inhaling and exhaling. My first day here I took a night walk up into the trails and found a large, moss covered maple tree that I climbed and sat in. When I was getting down I found a sign that had some history about the place and how Lewis and Clark and written about this tree in their journals! I was amazed by how many people had walked underneath its branches. There is so much wisdom in nature. On my way back to the monastery I saw something on the path ahead of me that had stopped and was looking at me. As I got closer I realized it was two huge coyotes who, much to my surprise/dismay were totally not afraid of me, but were instead watching me from about 12 feet away. I stood there in total amazement for a few minutes before my fear got the better of me and I ran away getting my shoes stuck in the mud all the way back. Awesome. 

Yesterday I drove a group of the residents here down to Portland where we attended a workshop that will go on for the next 4 weeks on “Mindful Dating” taught by one of the ordained members here. As funny as this was to me, I actually learned a lot. We are being trained in the principals of Non-Violent Communication and how to communicate in a way that is more authentic. Me gusta this.

 Starting this afternoon is a monthly practice known as sesshin, which is a 7 day period of long meditation (9 hours) that is conducted entirely in silence. I am really looking forward to this opportunity and feel lucky it is right at the start of my stay here, because it will be a way to hit the ground running. At the end of this first week I cannot express how lucky I feel to be here. Although there are often moments of difficulty, both in meditation and learning the rules of a new and complicated environment, this will be a good place for me. I know that already. In the time being, I am constantly nudging myself to remember to keep an open and flexible mind in the introduction of all of these new ideas.

The only days I can really use internet is on Monday, so I hope to write a blog post over the week and have weekly updates every Monday. So stay tuned y'all! So much love to everyone!