(And the baby cut a tooth last night,
which is actually a bigger deal.)
Category Archives: Shambhala Buddhism
(And the baby cut a tooth last night,
Travels with Owl, a new blog from Samantha Claire…
There are days when OWL naps beautifully, his mouth relaxingly puckered in sleep as he ghost-feeds, perfect child’s pose. I shower. I meditate. Wash the remaining breakfast dishes. He awakens in giggles and I find him surrounded by books he’s pulled off the shelf that’s bolted to the wall of his walk-in-closet-turned-bedroom. We walk slowly & deliberately to the grocery store, cook dinner, and dance to Leonard Cohen or Dolly Parton, his tiny feet on my mine as we move slowly & deliberately, mindfully & with love. We hike & camp. Ride the buses & trains. He loads the dryer while I fish for quarters. He says noodle and turtle and thank you. And it really cannot get any better that.
Pearl Nelson, a Mississippi White Trash Girl, a collection of poetry and musings from Pearl Nelson….
(from “Walking in the dark around the pond”)
I wonder aloud if the raccoons and deer
and all the other song-less creatures
wish everyone would just shut up.
Not me. I especially love the frogs
who bleat like newborn lambs.
and the old grandmother crickets with
rusty worn out summer voices. And you
when you tell me about your day.
Turning the Mind into an Ally, a book by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche
What we call ‘war’ is a series of calamities arising from beliefs and opinions, which are always subject to change. What we call ‘peace’ is the absence of aggression, a tenuous state. When it is winter, summer no longer exists. We organize our life around the concept of a solid self in a solid world, even though all of it is simply ideas and forms coming in and out of existence, like thousands of stars flickering in the night. … Contemplating impermanence can be a liberating experience, one that brings both sobriety and joy. In essence, we become less attached. We realize we can’t really have anything. We have money and then its gone; we have sadness and then its gone. No matter how we want to cling to our loved ones, by nature every relationship is a meeting and a parting. This doesn’t mean we have less love. It means we have less fixation, less pain. …We’ve learned to look at what’s in front of us. 149-50.
From my garden
A few weeks ago I leaned on the servers’ side of the kitchen window to let the heat from the lamp warm my face and hands. It was quiet in the restaurant, business-wise, so after glancing at each of my tables to ascertain that they had what they needed, I flipped to a fresh page in my orderpad and scribbled.
“Its hard to see the poetry in this anymore.”
Maybe it seems strange, but there have been times when observing the patterns brought me some satisfaction. The nights when every table in my section ordered an ice tea and a lemonade, when every child requested an apple juice and every woman ordered the portabella and I wondered about the possibility of some underlying stream of universal human consciousness. There have been days when I served people their fries and beers and thought about desire and satisfaction and the temporary solace of food, watching it evaporate as the crumbs went cold. There have been moments when being invisible to the people I waited on made me feel privvy to fascinating moments of human nature and tiny poems of society. Marital strife laid bare, eating disorders lurking under napkins, couples on dates that spoke nary a word, but spent all their time pushing buttons on their phones. Declarations of independence made over diet cokes and tears falling on ice cream sundaes.
All I see lately is human smallness. All I hear is demands. All I witness is monotony. There isn’t any poetry in my perspective, just tiredness. I spend the first three hours of my shift slowing my thoughts down, transitioning into worker bee mind, and the last five hours slogging. I get home and sit on the couch at 1 am and wait for a creative thought to resurge, because it is the hour when they have always visited me, but things are numb. Which is a blessing, I guess, cause I am hungry for sleep these days.
I took some time off work this past weekend. Let go of the three hundred or so I knew I’d make in cash from Friday dinner and Saturday lunch. Let go of worrying about my savings fund for my upcoming maternity leave. Folded up my apron. And went off to sit on a cushion.
There were moments at the beginning when I pettily wished I’d skipped the meditation weekend and used the time off to do something less demanding. Watching movies, perhaps. Walking to the beach with my dog and my husband. Baking something sweet. Sleeping in in the morning. Moments when I thought about the way I try to empty my mind of thoughts at work so I can be a Good Waitress, and here I was seeking to quiet my mind on a cushion, when I could have been curled on the couch, sipping tea and trying to spark creative thought with a pen and a blank journal page. There were moments sitting there on the cushion, when I remembered vividly the physical pain of my last meditation weekend, when my shoulders rebelled at the sitting and knotted into a ball of sharp ache that took over all of my attention.
But they were only moments. In between them, I found myself sitting in a new, open space. In that new, open space, my mind still ran wild. I thought about laundry, food, writing, love, and the tiny person living in my abdomen. I also paid attention to my body, and shifted my sitting position before the ache had a chance to settle in. I followed my breath. I followed the person in front of me during walking meditation, and I returned to the cushion to attend to my body, and follow my breath. I thought about thousands of things, inconsequential and pivotal, and labeled each item “Thinking.” Liberated my gerbil wheel mind from the responsibility of dealing with the pivotal things. Smiled at the democracy of Thinking, in which laundry and home-buying and croissants and parenthood and birds flying past are of equal significance. no matter how profound or inane or life-altering or petty the thought, it is only that: a thought. A construction of my habitual mind. I felt like I was following myself through a park laced with trails, and noticing the ones I favored every day, trails I stepped into without realizing I was choosing them.
The meditation instructor talked about cocoons, the way we enfold ourselves in habit to protect ourselves from being fully present. How we keep our talents and our deepest kindnesses locked away inside those cocoons, because bringing them out honestly into the sunlight makes us vulnerable in the present moment, and we would just as soon save vulnerability for some other time.
It occurred to me that waitressing is one of my cocoons. A safe place to make money without laying bare my desire to be creative professionally. There is no chance of failing at being a Writer if I forestall any chance of failure by never trying, by claiming “its impossible to make a living that way and look, I have waitressing.” It’s my smelly little refuge from the creative job market, a source of professional-level income that asks nothing of my intelligence. I claim to hate the way customers don’t see the person behind the apron, but on some level, I crave that anonymity, because its much safer than writing something and sticking my name on it.
During the Saturday break, Ryan and I walked through the arboretum nearby the meditation center. Held hands. Let our dog tear around the hillsides and noticed spring emerging everywhere. Marveled at the tiny green buds making their way out of bare branches, which seemed even more astounding than seeds sprouting from the earth, when I thought about it. We spent the walk back to the meditation center in silence. Returned to the cushion. Practiced walking meditation at the gong. Sat again, deluged with thoughts. Labeled them thinking, and went back to the breath.
Sunday afternoon, I left the meditation weekend early. Somewhere else, across the country, two football teams were going to duke it out for an athletic title, and I was needed at work 2 hours early to serve game-watchers massive plates of hotwings and pitchers of beer. I’d tried to get the shift covered, but no one was able, and so a week prior to the meditation workshop, I resigned myself to leaving the cushion prematurely, and picking up the order pad once more. Resigned myself to combining two activities I’d come to resent tremendously: waitressing and professional football. As the weekend neared though, I began to see the humor in my scheduling conflict. I could virtually hear long-gone Buddhist teachers chuckling at my predicament.
I talked about my early departure, and my fears connected to it, with my meditation discussion group on Sunday morning. We all acknowledged how difficult it can be to take this quieter mind back into the big world, away from the safety and structure and respectful quiet of the meditation center. When the time came, I said goodbye to friends, and Ryan and I drove back to West Seattle. I put my apron on, and I waited on a group of perfectly kind people who were there to watch the game. Yes, they shouted and cheered. Yes, they demanded beers without always making eye contact, and asked me questions while leaning out to look around my body to see the tv. When my anger surged, I noticed it. When I let it go, I noticed it going. Many people said please and thank you, and when I felt kind toward them, I noticed it. When I saw a regular and brought her the lemons she likes with her beer, she was genuinely grateful to have been remembered. I noticed her gratitude, and was grateful for it. When the game ended, they left. My section emptied, my shift ended, and I cleaned up and went home.
Nothing profound has changed in my life because I went to meditation. But I am practicing.
On the cushion, and in the apron.
I’ve been particularly attuned to the weather for the last few weeks, because I planted my autumn/winter garden seeds at the beginning of September. Walking to work on nice days, I’ve been guessing at the heat of the light and the number of hours its been landing on the garden, warming the seeds. We had lots of days like that, interspersed with gentle September rainbursts, which I gloried in, imagining the droplets seeping down through warm soil to nourish emerging seeds. It was the perfect weather for starting a cool-season garden.
Witnessing vegetables sprout from seeds is one of my favorite things, so I watch my garden like a hawk in the days after I plant it. When they’ve had enough time to germinate, I start checking every few hours, increasingly giddy and paranoid. Giddy because I know tiny green shoots will appear at any moment. Paranoid because I know as soon as the shoots appear, the snails will come. They decimated my spring starts, migrating into my garden under cover of darkness by the hundreds and chomping the plants down to the dirt. So, as I took satisfaction in the garden-friendly September weather, I also because increasingly neurotic, imagining hordes of gastropods converging on my garden to destroy everything I’d planted and yearned for.
As the day neared when the seeds would sprout into the daylight, I became increasingly obsessed with tactics to protect them. I could use poison to keep the snails out. Or something less toxic; say a beer trap for them to slime into and drown. I could even follow the example of New Zealand grandmother Oriole Parker-Rhodes, who decided to one-up the helix aspersa by harvesting them right along with her garden veggies and serving them up in butter and garlic.
But weirdly enough, even though the snails destroy something I love SO much… I can’t bring myself to kill them. For a couple reasons.
First: its hard for me to kill anything, honestly, which is part of the reason why I am mostly vegan. [I eat fish maybe once a month, cheese once a week or so, and meat once or twice a year. Every meal I cook at home is vegan.]
Second: I’ve come to realize that each of my actions—particularly those that involve consumption—have far reaching consequences. I recently discovered that, in addition to creating a carbon footprint, I am also creating a water footprint. Josh Harkinson recently published a fantastic article on the subject in Mother Jones. Chew on this:
[Farmer] Shawn Coburn, turned toward me and demanded if I knew how much water it took to grow one almond, a cantaloupe, or a pound of tomato paste. (I didn’t. Turns out it’s 1 gallon, 25 gallons, and 55 gallons, respectively.) “The people in the city, they don’t know what their footprint on nature is,” he scoffed. “They sit there in an ivory tower and don’t realize what it takes to keep them alive.”
Farmer Shawn is right. We have no idea what it takes to keep us alive. After reading Harkinson’s article, I did some research and discovered that being mostly-vegan also enables me to reduce my water footprint by nearly TWO TONS every year. Once I learned that, I became obsessed with my two tons of not-wasted water. Where was it? I started imagining a tiny, two-ton alpine lake, ringed with talus slopes and huckleberry plants. Every day in the year I abstain from consuming animal products, the lake gets a little deeper. If I’m dawdling in the shower, I picture my lake-level dropping, and I turn the water off. I try to only water my garden at night or in the early morning, and if a dry spell goes on for too long, I will stop watering altogether and let my garden die until the rains come again.
I suspect that, akin to the imaginary lake filled with water I have Not wasted, there is an unseen ecological consequence of all the snails I have Not killed.
I’m not against using scare tactics. The other day, while helping me rake leaves and fill holes our dogs had dug in the yard, my friend Gretchen picked up a snail to study it more closely. Her chocolate lab puppy Butters darted up and licked the snail, top to bottom.
Gretchen turned the snail to face her and informed it seriously: “Tell all your friends. This is what we do to snails around here.” Then she tucked it safely in an empty potting container, from whence I deposited it in the (covered) compost cone later that day, to live out its snail-life in a paradise of rotting vegetable matter.
I’m too lazy and squeamish to pick them off my garden at night with a flashlight, like Thich Naht Hahn does at Plum Village. Some online gardeners suggest lining your garden with hair clippings, but I don’t have any at the moment. I have lots of dog hair, but I’m sure it would blow away. Eggshells are also supposed to dissuade snails from crossing into your garden, but being a predominantly vegan household, we don’t generate any eggshells. Copper is also rumored to dissuade snails and slugs via a tiny shock to their tender bellies (vaguely Guantanamo, but still non-lethal), so I tried lining my garden with pennies. It seemed to be working, but then they started getting knocked off the edge of the bed by unshocked and/or braver snails, clearing a path for their legions of followers.
By the time I’d pulled together a little extra cash to buy copper wire to wrap around my 36 foot garden perimeter, it was too late. The snails had made short work of my babies. Six rows of winter greens, chomped all the way down to the root. And despite all those hours of obsessing over my seeds, weather patterns, and non-lethal slug aversion techniques, I wasn’t angry at first. Just sad and frustrated.
I comforted myself with the concept of coexistence. I thought of a conversation I had last week with Dharma teacher and organic gardener Dan Peterson, who reflected thoughtfully that the snails probably enjoyed eating his garden just as much as he did. Staring ruefully at my decimated garden, I thought about Aldo Leopold, who noted in the Sand County Almanac, that humans are simply “plain members of the biotic community.” Who’s to say those snails’ pleasure is any less important than mine? I’ve identified philosophically with deep ecology since my early twenties romance with the writings of Gary Snyder. I agree with deep ecology’s founder Arne Næss, who wrote in 1973: “The right of all forms [of life] to live is a universal right which cannot be quantified. No single species of living being has more of this particular right to live and unfold than any other species.”
Still, this was MY garden! Those winter greens belonged to Ryan and I. We were going to use the kale in soups, as and bake it in olive oil and salt. The spinach was going to get drowned in peanut sauce and served up with tofu, and the rainbow chard was destined for hundreds of breakfast scrambles. I clambered into the garden and knelt down, searching in vain for any surviving green. There was none. Now I was mad. I shouted at the alley, and retreated into the house.
Later, I listened to a recording of a talk Dan Peterson had given at the Seattle Shambhala Center on mind terma, the treasures of Buddhist teaching passed from teacher to student through the generations. I’m not a practicing Buddhist, and I have trouble sitting still, so a lot of Buddhist teachings sail straight over my head. But Dan tells great stories, and his talk pulled me in. He talked about “how we wake up, moment by moment.” I thought of all those days I’d taken note of the weather and the light, and all the times I’d knelt by the edge of the garden to watch for the tiny miracle of green sprouts pushing their way up through the dirt. Moment after moment of awakening to my surroundings, to the intimate process of growing food. The moment of discovering decimation by snails contained an equal amount of awe— awe at destruction, not creation. But in that destruction, the snails thrived, and something else was created. Dan told a story from his own garden:
In the morning I go out into the garden in my barefeet to water, and I had the experience of stepping barefoot on a slug. It felt like electricity. It was a sentient being! So I would gather the slugs in a plastic container and carry them to my compost heap. I kept it moist, and they were fine there. Later, I found literally fifty to eighty slugs coming out of the compost heap, and they were all lined up in the same direction, going back to the garden! Our regard for what we call slugs can be east. We can be facing east when we look at a slug. There’s no enemy.
By facing east, Dan was referring to a Shambhala chant. “Radiating confidence, peaceful, illuminating the way of discipline, Eternal Ruler of the Three Worlds, may the Great Eastern Sun be victorious.” He explained:
The East represents richness, brilliance, and is the quality of unconditional experience… Peaceful means that there’s no aggression, which means there’s no territory. There’s complete openness. With no territory, there is primordial confidence. There’s nothing to defend, no enemy. This is a lot of conceptual load to put onto the simplicity of direct experience, but I think its helpful to point out that’s what happening. There’s no enemy… Radiating confidence, peaceful, is east.
I tried facing east. Watching snails destroy my planting, after all those weeks of tending and watching and waiting, was an opportunity. A pile of direct experience to wade into and consider.
There is no territory. The garden Ryan and I built belongs no more to me than it does to the snails. The land the garden sits on belongs no more to my landlord than it does to me. We are all of us only dwelling here for a little while. Here, in my decimated garden, was my deep ecology philosophy made real. How could I be angry? There was no enemy. I took deep breaths. Felt peaceful.
A couple brussel sprout plants were large enough to survived the snails, so today I planted some company for them. Stopped by the West Seattle Nursery and picked up small starts of red cabbage, kale, broccoli, winter greens mix, and some onion and garlic bulbs, all big enough to (hopefully) survive the oncoming snails and frosts.
It begins again.