Thursday, April 30, 2015

Easy to Peel Garlic

Last summer's garlic has become so easy to peel. All winter long, i placed a knife flat against each clove and banged it with my fist in order to coax each garlic into shedding its jacket. All winter long, garlic held its white papery coat tight against its body.

Now that it is spring, i can peel each garlic clove with ease, as if the garlic is only too happy to take off its winter coat. Ahhh. Released.

Our minds hold onto certain stressful thoughts as if they are really true. Eventually, the mind sees through the thought. Eventually, the mind realizes that suffering does not keep it warm nor make us a better person by being right. Eventually, the mind lets go.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Merry Little Breezes Rake Leaves

The Merry Little Breezes were raking leaves yesterday--back and forth, back and forth across the lawn. Oh, how i wanted to clean up this flowerbed or that, but the old, tan beech leaves blew in and blew across. Raking was useless.

We rake memories over in our mind. Useless. We rake our grudges back and forth, forth and back, across our minds. Useless. We rake our worries through our minds. Useless.

Sit and wait till the wind dies down. Sit and wait till the Merry Little Breezes go to bed. Notice the calm mind. Useful.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Baby Chard

Rainbow Chard
I bought a 4-pack of tiny rainbow chard plants and planted them yesterday. It's hard to believe they will grow into an overwhelming amount of leafy vegetables.

Isn't that the way it goes? We buy some lovely something. Then it needs altering or maintenance. Every good thing has a problem hiding behind it.

In the case of chard, the "problem" is abundance. Too much of a good thing.

But for now, the chard is little and cute and full of promise.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sending a Notecard

I was driving to town yesterday when I remembered that my dear cousin Agatha hadn't sent me a card or flowers following my surgery in February. I love Agatha, but I am often exasperated by her. Sometimes I think I should stop working so hard to maintain our relationship. And now I had proof: she hadn't thought enough of me to send even a card as several other friends had. I was getting ready to get myself all riled up.

But I put my soon-to-be-rampage on hold. I paused. When I got home, I did The Work of Byron Katie, a process of inquiry. I turned the thought around 3 times with ho-hum results. Then as I was putting my worksheet away, I remembered: I had received an orchid from the meditation center where I teach, and I hadn't sent a thank-you note.

How sneaky is that?  I'm the guilty party, but since that's very unpleasant to consider, I slap my projection onto the nearest handy target: Agatha.

It's all projection. Our world is entirely made of our own fabrications. And the thing is, we believe them.

There's no "out there" out there. It's all happening in here. The things we call "out there" are actually "in here."

We love our dualisms--in here / out there, me/her, us/them. And really, it's all just Life unfolding.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The 3 Marks of Life

I got 3 tattoos yesterday. On my right breast. At the radiation department at the hospital. The tattoos are simply little black dots used to line up the radiation equipment when i start my daily radiation treatments 10 days from now.

Now i am "marked for life." These tiny tattoos remind me that cancer is a deadly serious opponent. They remind me that the cause of death is birth. The cause of death is life.

1 of 3 tattoos (plus freckles)
According to the Buddha, this very unsatisfactoriness is one of the 3 "marks" of existence, one of the 3 characteristics of life. This unsatisfactoriness causes us stress as we look away, resist, resist, and try, vainly, to find some other escape out of our predicament.

As much as we try to avert our eyes, our bodies are headed in one direction, and one direction only: Death.

Notice the unpleasant feeling of that word: Death.
Notice the unsatisfactoriness that arises from that unpleasantness.

I have 3 tattooed marks to remind me of the Buddha's wisdom.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Pleasant and Unpleasant

I drove 40 minutes to the county jail yesterday to teach a weekly meditation group on the women's block. I arrived to find the unit on lockdown, so I had to leave.

To assuage my disappointment, I stopped at the farm and garden store. I was looking for onions because a few friends have told me they've already planted their onions. I found fat bunches of Spanish onion seedlings and elsewhere I found 4-packs of Walla Wallas--a big, sweet, onion-ring type onion. 

But the item that got my attention was the potted tulips on sale for half price. I bought 2 pots of white tulips, and 3 pots of pink tulips. Oh, the front step looks so much better.

Did you notice what i did?

I felt disappointment.. Unpleasant.
Driving 40 minutes, "for nothing."  Unpleasant.
Without really paying attention, I shifted my internal thermostat (and maybe yours?) to pleasant by stopping to buy onion seedlings.
I saw tulips. Pleasant.
On sale! Pleasant.
I bought tulips. Pleasant.

Unpleasant does not equal "bad." Unpleasant is simply unpleasant.
Pleasant does not equal "good." Pleasant is simply pleasant.

This simple meditation on pleasant and unpleasant focuses our attention on the motivation behind desire. (I don't want to feel unpleasant. Unpleasant feels unpleasant. I want to feel pleasant.)

I showed up at the jail and greeted 2 of the inmates. Pleasant.
I showed up for them. Pleasant.

Those women in orange pants are locked up with their minds. Now that is truly unpleasant. They need all the stress reduction they can get. Even if it is only knowing that one person showed up for them.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Thou Shalt Not...

A few years ago, i gave my sweetie a sign to hang up in his den.
Thou shalt not whine.

He never did hang it up, and now he has given it back to me (how generous!) and hung it up in my little greenhouse with a slightly altered message:

Thou shalt not wilt.

Oh, dear. Yes, sometimes days go by, and i still don't water my houseplants. The potting soil dries out. The plants begin to wilt. Occasionally one perishes.

Especially at this time of year, when the sun shines full force through leafless trees, the plants in the greenhouse dry out and dry up fast.

In meditation, our posture sometimes wilts. Our backs are so accustomed to slouching in comfy chairs that we've lost our back muscles. When our posture wilts, we can easily drop into a snooze. Or we might notice back pain.

 We want our bodies to hang on the erect column of the spine. I sometimes think of my shoulder blades as a coat hanger, off of which the entire torso hangs, just as loose as a coat hanging on a coat hanger.

A wilted posture leads to head-bobbing meditation.
A relaxed and alert posture leads to happiness.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Young and Old Hyacinths

In this season of  a "new arrival" in the garden every day, every morning, every afternoon, today i am planting my aged hyacinths, which bloomed indoors in February. Two months later--today--they are brown and bent, looking like decrepit old ladies. Into the ground they go, to rest in peace.

Our eyes do not rest for long on the old and the un-beautiful. We distract ourselves by focusing on the young and the cute and the oh-so-sweet who are so full of life. We give ourselves a transfusion by claiming the young for ourselves--distracting ourselves from our own slow diminishment, our own bending to the gravity of time.

We say "Age before beauty," but we privilege beauty and under-privilege age.

Spring! Drink in the anti-gravity of life welling forth.

The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

-- Rumi
    translation by Coleman Barks

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Gardening--A Cancer Preventative

A friend recommended Cancer: 50 Essential Things to Do. The author, a cancer survivor who at one point was told he had 30 days to live, has talked with thousands of cancer survivors. This slim, easy-to-read volume is the distillation of all those conversations.

He delineates 8 overall strategies, including medical treatment, diet, and community of support. He also includes Purpose & Play.

"Survivors balance this deep sense of purpose with play. It's more than fun; it's something much deeper, a cultivation of joy.... I am struck by the large number who enjoy gardening...."

That's you and me, my friend. We are cultivating joy. We en-JOY gardening.

Notice joy when you go out to the garden today, even if you are only walking by a flowerbed on the way to your car.

Feel the joy in your body.

We are playing in the garden, and Nature speaks to us silently, deeply, subconsciously of life and death. It happens every day, every minute. Life unfolding and changing.

Monday, April 20, 2015

What Brings Me Alive?

Poet Ann Gengarelly writes:

I am living in a season where anything or anyone 
that doesn't bring me alive,
I will not mark in my calendar.

One thing that is definitely on my calendar is gardening! And another thing is meditation, particularly meditation retreats.

I could tell you about the things on my calendar that don't particularly bring me alive. Some of those things cause me actual stress, "Oh, i don't want to...."

And how about the loved ones who cause me more stress than aliveness? What to do? For the moment, i am simply waiting, practicing patience, and loving them from a distance. Maybe that is close enough.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Compost from the Curbside

I went to the landfill to pick up a truckload of compost.

Where does all that curbside compost / garbage go anyway? Into a big pile at the landfill where it cooks at a hot temperature. Then they pour it through a giant sifter, and it becomes fine and crumbly.

For $30, my truck was filled with 1100 pounds of beautiful, brown compost. Maybe that's a problem with those truck scales at the entrance to the landfill--they tell you more than you really wanted to know.

1100 pounds sounds like a daunting amount to be wheelbarrowing to the side garden.  Yet, wheelbarrow load by wheelbarrow load, my truck was finally emptied.

11 minutes of meditation can sound like a daunting amount to a person just beginning meditation. Yet, even 11 minutes yields results. Day after day of a consistent 11-minute practice adds up to steadiness and persistence. After all those repetitions, you might decide to add another minute or two.

Whether you are meditating or pushing a wheelbarrow or being mindful while pushing a wheelbarrow, you are building strength of mind.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

My neighbor's greenhouse, attached to her house, has actual beds of soil. I offered her some compost to fertilize her little indoor flowerbeds. She wheeled her garden cart over, but my compost pile is an iceberg. She scraped off the top 3 inches before hitting permafrost. She went home with about a bucket's worth of compost, so she'll come back another day for more.

Many people just skim the surface of the Buddha's teachings and are entirely satisfied with the ease it brings to their minds and to their lives. The mundane insights we receive from our "insight meditation" works well enough to reduce our stress.

For decades, i did not realize that "insight" meant insight into the 3 characteristics of all experience: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self. Meditation offers us the opportunity to have a sort of x-ray vision to see deeply into our lives.

We might be satisfied with simply scanning the Buddhist teachings for that which makes sense to us. Some of us will want to dig more deeply into the richness and vastness these teachings offer. Some of us will come back for more.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Anti-Tick and Anti-Stress

I've sprayed my garden clothes with permethrin--an anti-tick spray. Spring finally arrived yesterday, here in the frozen North. I still have a small glacier (a former snowbank, now frozen to ice) at the end of the driveway.

Spring has arrived. And ticks have arrived. They like it cool, which it still is, at night and in the morning.

I hung my gardening shirts and pants on hangers in the woodshed (or the garage) and then sprayed. I used up the entire can of permethrin. I left the clothes in the woodshed all night to air out.

Stressful thoughts "bite" into us and won't let go. We can apply 2 sure-fire antidotes: mindfulness and loving-kindness. It's good to "spray" these onto ourselves beforehand every day, but sometimes we forget. Sometimes the bite of the stressor reminds us: notice the emotion in our body; notice exactly what the stressing thought is. Is that thought really true? Really, really true?

A helpful mnemonic is RAIN:
  • R   Recognize what is happening 
  • A  Allow life to be just as it is
  • I   Investigate inner experience with kindness
  • N  Non-Identification 
RAIN directly de-conditions the habitual ways in which we resist our moment-to-moment experience.

Protect yourself. Permethrin for ticks. And mindfulness for your mind.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Shopping for a Shirt on Retreat

I'm wearing gardening clothes! For the first time this year. The season has finally changed. Mud season ended yesterday. Spring clean-up begins today.

Today I'm wearing purple velour pants that i got from my mother when she died in 2000. I had packed these pants when i went on retreat, because i was leaving the retreat to fly to North Carolina to teach a weekend Spring Clean-Up retreat at Southern Dharma Retreat Center.

While meditating here in the frozen North, i realized i had failed to pack a gardening shirt. Oh shoot, i thought. I'll have to stop at a thrift store in Asheville. I wonder if there's a thrift store in Hot Springs?

A couple of sits later, i remembered: Down in the laundry room, there's a wall of shelves with lost, forgotten, and donated clothing, available for free. During the next period of walking meditation, i headed down to the out-of-the-way laundry room. The selection was much thinner than it used to be. But there was a pale purple long-sleeved cotton shirt with an embossed purple velour leaves on the chest. My color, my size. My "shopping" trip was done. A free shirt! Wow!

This unexpected gift of a shirt is an example of what happens when we slow down, take some solitude, and calm our minds. The gifts of Life are all around us. First, we have to notice them. Then we can feel the gift-ness of them and feel deep gratitude for Life's offerings.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Amaryllis Blooms

I received a distress call/email in late January from Stella who said her amaryllis were not blooming. What should she do?

Even though we give and receive amaryllis at Christmas, and often those bulbs bloom shortly thereafter, i find that the amaryllis that i keep from year to year bloom in late March and in April. Right now i have 4 amaryllis in bloom or bud.

Stella thinks her house wasn't warm enough; she gave the amaryllis to her mother, and it bloomed immediately. My passive-solar house has been baking every sunny day for more than a month, and the amaryllis are coming on like gangbusters now.

Life--and amaryllis--don't unfold as we think it should. We want it one way (a blooming amaryllis, for instance), but something else is happening (nothing, for instance). These aggravations, bothers, and harrumphs are called stress.

We can pile a lot of additional stress by creating a story about what a bad gardener i am or what a bad plant amaryllis is. Stop.

Look at your amaryllis bulb. The one with the strappy green leaves. Non-judgementally. Not wishing for anything different than what is.

Look at the aggravating person in your life right now. No story. Let your heart simply look at that person for one second. The story will quickly return. Notice where, somewhere in your body, something tenses up. Is the stress worth it?

Feel your own heart. Tenderly. And take good care of it. Your heart will bloom too.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Snow Mold from Old Snow

Snow Mold
When i went to my singing lesson yesterday, i had to keep clearing my throat. "Oh, yes," the voice teacher said, "singing unglues stuff you didn't even know you had in there. And at this time of year, the snow mold is really bad."

Snow mold? I am allergic to molds and mildews, but i never thought about being allergic to snow.

Snow mold on the lawn appears as the snow melts, which was happening earlier this week. Before it snowed again.

Gray snow mold grows on unfrozen ground, under the snow, and lies around on the cold and wet lawn until temperatures reach 45 degrees. Pink snow mold likes it warmer--32 to 60 degrees.
 Snow gets old and moldy, and so do we. Snow decays, and so do we. Snow mold is a fungus, and, at times, we too get fungal infections.

Look carefully at the receding snow. Snow mold is teaching us a lesson. Can we hear it?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Tat Soi Likes It Cold

It's a good thing tat soi likes it cold. Those seeds i sowed 2 days ago now have an inch of snow on top of them.

The directions on the package say to sow tat soi 8 weeks before the last frost. Where? i wonder. Under 2 feet of snow? On top of frozen soil? How do you even find the dirt in late February or early March?

Oh, well. I found the dirt in April, and that will have to do.

In the meditation hall on retreat, I like to plant myself in the coolest part of the room, near an open window, if possible. I sit down on my cushion and take off my light fleece jacket while other people are wrapping themselves in shawls. I take off my socks because socks = sleep for me. Yes, it seems a bit cool to start with, but soon enough, my body warms up with a bit of joy.

Some like it warm, and some like it cool. Like tat soi.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Tat Soi Soon

Tat Soi
I planted seeds today, and i think i'm ready to study Chinese.
Tat soi, pok choy, Chinese cabbage, and a stirfry mix of greens. My goal this year is to eat Brassica every day--broccoli, cabbage, kale, and these Chinese vegetables.

These greens like it cool. The ice cubes in the soil thawed yesterday. The tat soi should be ready to eat by the end of the month.

When we learn to meditate, it doesn't take long for us to harvest our first insight--whatever that might be. We might begin with little insights about our daily life--mundane insights. This is the "good idea" sort of insight. Just by relaxing our minds, creativity can surface. We get a new angle on the people and problems in our life.

For some of us, this is enough. It's sort of like using your new computer to play only computer games. Your mind is very powerful and capable of seeing deeply into the nature of the world.

But we start where we are. Harvesting little insights about our life. And soon, i'll be harvesting tat soi.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Rooted in the Practice

My geranium cuttings have roots! After many years and many methods, i have found a rooting method that works. Last month, i put my geranium cuttings in a pint jar filled with a mixture of sand, vermiculite, and a little perlite. I poured in as much water as the jar would hold. That's it. No more water.

A month later, 95% of the cuttings have roots--a lot of roots. None have rotted.

In the past, i have tried Rootone, which is okay, but doesn't yield these kinds of roots. I have tried water; about half the cuttings rot. I have tried plain vermiculite. I have tried dirt.

I feel thrilled to have found a rooting method that really works.

Where do we root ourselves in our meditation practice? We try this teacher or that teacher, this method or that method. When we find a practice where we can root ourselves to the cushion and stay there for a chunk of time, then we know our practice will soon yield results. As Shinzen Young says, "The longer we practice, the deeper we practice."

Are you ready to add one minute to your time on this cushion this week? And don't leave mindfulness on the cushion behind you. Can you root yourself in mindfulness as you go about your day?

Rooted in mindfulness, we will be able to really see a beautiful blooming geranium.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Elixir for the Mind

On my way home from the retreat center, i stopped at the garden store to buy a tap and a bucket so i can tap one of the sugar maples in my front yard. The sugaring season is essentially over, but the forecast calls for a few more freezing nights. I'm not collecting sap to make maple syrup. I just want to drink the sap straight. All those minerals have to be good for you--a spring elixir to clean out the winter sludge.

My month-long March retreat cleaned the sludge out of my mind. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu, an American monk, says: "The subconscious is like a flooded basement. When you meditate, the water level goes down."

We can detoxify our bodies. We can also detoxify our minds. Sign up for a retreat now.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Sweet Water

I returned home yesterday from a week at the retreat center. One of the new staff members has added a few side dishes to the usual delicious fare served in the dining hall. One of these was several pitchers of maple sap. Sweet water. Slightly sweet water. Delicious!

(It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.)

Sap composed of minerals from the earth and rain water from the sky passes directly into my body. Earth minerals are part of the earth. They pass into my body, but i cannot really call them "mine." Rain water fallen to earth passes into my body, but i cannot really call it "mine." Soon enough, i will pass water into the toilet. Soon enough, i will return my own earthy solid waste into the toilet.

Earth and water--from the tree, from the earth--are loaned to me for a short while. Then i pay the loan back into the toilet. Coming and going. Entering and leaving. Where is the "me" in this process? If this body is composed of earth, water, and wind, then Who Am I?