In Canada people are breathing

May 10th, 2017

In Canada people are breathing. I notice this the moment I step off the plane. There is spaciousness here, where people still draw full breaths down to the belly and then, in a natural and relaxed manner, release the diaphragm and gently exhale. In America it is different.

In America people breathe shallowly, fearfully. As if they are hiding under the stairs hoping the Gestapo will pass on by. Under the veneer of extroverted Americanness is a layer of subcutaneous anxiety. A readiness to duck and cover at any moment. The throat is constricted, muscles primed for fight or flight.

I step out of the tube into YVR and draw cool air deep, deep into my lungs. It has been been four months since I breathed so fully. Fully here, fully home.

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The perfect science of napping

March 18th, 2017

I am so all about the post-breakfast power nap.

Here’s the routine: 5am wakeup bell, zazen, kinhin, zazen, service, cleanup, breakfast, NAP! The nap can be up to twenty minutes, or as few as seven or ten if I’m in a rush. But that’s all—no longer, or else I feel groggy and am back to square one. When the alarm goes off I bounce out of bed and grab a shower and a coffee. I feel fresh and clear, and the burst of energy can motor me through the rest my day.

I think the trick is to totally commit to the nap. No feeble half-measures. I take off my clothes, arrange my bed, take a sip of water, set the alarm. I make sure my feet are warm. The moment when I climb in and hug my pillow is pure luxury. My skin gently tingles and my limbs relax. There is none of that agitated wakefulness I sometimes suffer when I go to bed at night. Naptime feels delicious, and, after a 5am start, well-deserved.

Knowing that I only have a few minutes to nap, there is no time for me to fool around. If I begin to fantasize or ruminate or plan, I yank my mind back to the task at hand—sleep. I am gentle but firm: down, mind, down— now! And down I go. I almost always plummet straight into deep sleep. I believe it is that drop—the sensation of  complete release—that really matters. I might only sleep for thirty seconds before my alarm or a car horn wakes me up, but that’s enough. It doesn’t matter how long I sleep. What matters is that I have that one moment of surrender, when body and mind fall away and I swing like a baby in a cradle. That’s the juice.

The power-nap is conducive to pleasant little micro-dreams. The other day I fell into dreaming that I was petting a shaggy dog. But because the duration is so short, dreams don’t develop into narrative. They exist as pure sensation and I am not jarred or left hanging by their abrupt end.

I must confess that I used to be kind of a snob about napping. I thought naps were just for toddlers and old people. Well, I’ve totally come around now—or maybe i’m just getting to be an old person. Not sure. In any case,  I have become a nap evangelist. Napping is my new most favorite thing.

Give up meditating

February 26th, 2017

Why would a person spend hours and hours staring at a white wall? I ask myself this question a lot.

On a spring Saturday sixty of us rise at 5am and hustle to the basement for the monthly one-day sit. We hunker down for another big day in the zendo—sitting, slow-walking, sweeping, eating brown rice from little bowls. At break time I dash across the road to Koshland Park, to greedily watch hummingbirds and dog-walkers in the San Francisco sunshine. Then the bell calls and it’s back to the zendo. Back to staring down the wall.

People have this idea about meditation that when we do this we float off on a little lotus blossom of bliss, leaving the cares and pains of daily existence behind. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. It is a masochistic endeavor. The cares and pains aggregate like mosquitos, buzzing and whining and sometimes landing to draw blood. The stings fester and itch. Memories. Ad jingles. Aches and pains. Shopping lists. Conversations with my lover, endlessly revolving, never resolved. Sleepiness, the head nodding then whiplashing back. Worries. What to do with my life. What to do with my hair.

Meditating sucks. It’s not fun and most of the time it doesn’t feel especially good. But then, sometimes after awhile, my mind just tires itself out and I give up. When I give up, stuff happens.

I learned this in my last sesshin at Loon Lake in November, in yaza — night sitting. I tried to sit through the night, trying, trying, to do this THING called meditation. Waiting with forced patience for the big breakthrough, while at the same time, sneaking peeks at my inner clock to gauge whether i’d done enough to pass and whether it would be ok to go to bed now. Finally, after some time that seemed far too long and yet not long enough, my mind moved from self-fascination through boredom and finally into resignation, and I said, fuck it. The hell with this meditation business. I give up. I’m not meditating any more. Check this out: I am sitting under a basketball hoop in a camp gymnasium, with several other weirdos in pajamas. There are painted stripes on the door. There’s an interesting hum in the electrical wires. Here I am. I am safe. It’s OK.

It isn’t easy to get to the place of giving up, but when I get there, stuff happens. Nothing stops or goes away. The memories and arguments and ad jingles are still there, but they float by like airplanes pulling banners through the sky. My breath is still here, and the birdsong, and the sirens and those irritating smudges on the white zendo walls—all flying by on banners behind airplanes. These too arise and fade away, along with the “I” that identifies them. For moments—sometimes whole strings of them laid end-to-end—there is nothing but animated space. And that, my friends, is as good as it gets.

At the end of a full day of sitting I am tender, peeled, a little bit shy. So what is the outcome, where’s the benefit? asks my nagging inner mother. Where is all this sitting going to get you? What, exactly, have you accomplished by all this staring at a wall? Nothing, I say. Nada. I don’t know. I give up.

Zen time is gold

February 19th, 2017

I want to say that the reason why I haven’t posted anything in the six weeks since I landed at San Francisco Zen Center is because I haven’t had time to write, but that would be untrue. The fact is there are  24 hours in every single day, with 60 minutes crammed into each hour and every minute packed full of moments. That’s as much time as there’s ever been and all the time I will ever have. I’ve got all the time in the world, and really, it’s enough.

If there is one overriding lesson to be learned by living in a Zen center it is that time is gold. Every second between every hit of the wooden han as it calls me to zazen—the hits increase in frequency but not in urgency. They all matter equally. From the 5am ringer Read the rest of this entry »

There is nothing I cannot afford

December 20th, 2016

“If you’re passing through the Bay Area,” I wrote to my Bicycle Buddha mailing list, “come visit me at the San Francisco Zen Center. Come sit zazen with me, then take me out for a fancy coffee—cuz I can’t afford lattes on monk’s wages.”

“Hi,” a friend shot back. “With an inheritance that allows you to travel to Mexico to get your teeth fixed and then fly kitty corner across a continent and then off to a zen centre for 4 months I truly think that you should give up this “cuz I sure can’t afford lattes on monk’s wages.” Read the rest of this entry »

Swimming with crocodiles

December 15th, 2016

img_20161212_105438Machito, a local fisherman, met me at the little thatch-roofed visitors hut in San Crisanto – a ramshackle itty bitty village on the long sandspit between the lagoon and the wide Gulf of Mexico. He rolled up on his bike, with a second bike in tow for me. I droppedmy beach bag and water bottle into his basket and we bounced down the sandy path to the boat launch, followed by two mexican women in a car who were also along for the 50-peso tour of los manglares.

Machito ferried us through the mangrove forest’s clear streams, pointing out trees and termite nests and giant ferns and fishes. After a dreamy half hour we docked at the cenote and I climbed down into the cool clear water, to swim with the giant tarpon fish that washed into the cenote during the hurricane of 2004, and got trapped there and bred. I asked Machito if it was OK to swim into the mangrove stream and he said sure, just try not to touch bottom and stir up the silt. I drifted through the clear shallow stream through schools of pretty little fish. No hay cocodrillos? I called. He laughed. Read the rest of this entry »

In the chair with Dr. Jesus

December 10th, 2016

img_20161206_161728I did two hours in the chair today w Dr Jesus and his dental tag team: wife Claudia, Gina, and the lovely Mar, whose Mayan eyes I have fallen in love with over her green paper mask. That was session number 4, with two or three more still to come. I recline in the chair to a wash of Mozart, Phil Collins videos, and easy Spanish banter. No pain, no heavy drugs.  Team Jesus are total pros.

I am a dental tourist. This is the main reason for my 3-week residency in Mérida, in the Mexican Yucatan. I am here, like lots of gringos, to get my teeth fixed for a smidgen of what i’d pay at home as an outside-the-box Canadian. I have standard MSP of course, but dental’s not included – I guess because, as my friend Chris says, a holdover from the day when teeth were a luxury. Read the rest of this entry »

Bici en Merida

December 5th, 2016

img_20161204_112908I am trudging down a back street in Merida, Yucatan, sucking a lime popsicle and dribbling sweat. I spot a handmade sign out front of a mom’pop storefront: Rentas Bicicletas. In the cool shade of the shop a family is stringing Christmas lights. I spy a sweet little wine-purple step-thru cruiser.  Papa Alejandro cranks the seat up a bit higher for me and I am sold. I rumble off down the cobblestones, cool breeze lifting the sweat from my skin. As if it could be any other way.

But in fact, I had actually almost resigned myself to navigating Merida on foot. Cycling in Merida looked terrifying. Buses and mini-buses, diesel-spewing trucks, cars, motorcycles, horsecarts, all crammed into the teeming downtown streets. Hibbledy-jibbledy pavement, potholes, cobblestones, random piles of trash. High curbs with no curb-cuts to the sidewalk, and treacherous foot-wide gutters alongside. Careening in and out between the buses and horse carts: bicycle cowboys on bmx’s and clunky mountainbikes, plus cargo-trike vendors loaded down with water jugs, baskets of fresh bread, loads of tomatoes and pineapples. Basically, chaos – in an unknown city, in a language i barely understand. Read the rest of this entry »

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