Limp

Limp,

Tossed about by nature's breathing,
When not too busy or indifferent
To spare me even a breath.

Cold, exposed to elements attracted more
to the colorful parade than I,
Faded and tattered remnants
hugging a cold, stiff pole
on an unseeing street corner.

Ignored, eating the meals tossed by
"empty" ghosts, glittering shells,
begging bowls filled with nails
and crosses.

The winter cold and snow freeze my
very foundation,
sleet starches the very flow of me
and makes of my heart a
cold, icy thing dressed
in fearful shivers.

Carers whiz by en route to their
emergencies
while I flail my prayers, my
hurts, my forgottenness to the darkness.
Sirens scream, horns blast, 
onlookers curse the noise but love
the adventure of it all.

Bright lights shine satin upon
patches of still clean snow
but all I see are crusty,
dirty dog-peed stains
carelessly allowed by
angry mongrels.

I'm left endlessly fluttering,
reaching for what?
a rainbow over there
offering some hope,
some beauty to my world of
beggars, hustlers, "thieves"

Who have stolen the dance
that was once mine?

Limp,
the heavy flag
has hidden my jewels
in locked closets only to be
displayed on special
holidays.

What's next, Valentine's Day?

by Vivienne L. Lund

(written during Winter Solstice Retreat 2015 at Zen Life & Meditation Center, during Practice of Immediacy in the Arts®, inspired by looking out a Zen Center window and seeing a flagpole with a limp hanging flag, mirroring my emotions at the time. 

Meditation Without a Plan

"When you practice meditation, you should sit without a plan. It should be meaningful without it being a big deal. You simply sit on the floor or in your chair. If you question whether you are sitting properly or not, then you might begin to perch. Instead, just sit, very simply and directly. If you are waiting for something to happen, that is a problem of future orientation. If you are oriented to the present, you just do it. It's a very blunt approach to life, blunt and realistic. There's no romance involved, except for the joy of the present." Chogyam Trungpa

Include Everything

meditation at ZLMCJust go into the room and put one chair in the center. Take the one seat in the center of the room, open the doors and windows, and see who comes to visit. You will witness all kinds of scences and actors, all kinds of temptations and stories, everything imaginable. Your only job is to stay in your seat. You will see it all arise and pass, and out of this wisdom and understanding will come. Achaan Cha

Shine Light Inward

“Put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light around and shine it inward. Your body and mind will drop away of themselves, and your original face will manifest. If you want to be in touch with things as they are, you - right here and now - have to start being yourself, as you are. You met the Buddha Way in this life - how could you waste your time delighting in sparks from a flint stone? Form and substance are like the dew on the grass, the fortunes of life like a dart of lightning - emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash. Please, honored followers of Zen, long accustomed to groping for the elephant, do not doubt the true dragon. Devote your energies to the way that points directly to the real thing. Revere the one who has gone beyond learning and is free from effort. Share the wisdom of Buddhas with Buddhas, transmit the samadhi of ancestors to ancestors. Continue to live in such a way, and you will be such a person. This treasure house will open of itself; it is up to you to use it freely.” from Fukanzazengi by Eihei Dogen

Waiting

I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. T.S. Eliot

True Home

He hele pilali 'aina maoli no.A sticky going, as if stuck fast to the land. Said of one who is preoccupied and forgets to go home.

'Olelo No'eau - Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings, #574 Collected, translated and annotated by Mary Kawena Pukui

Spring is here!  After coming out of a long, hard winter,  the sun and warm weather are especially welcome!  I just completed another seven day sesshin - silent meditation retreat.  Some people cannot imagine being quiet for more than a few minutes or maybe an hour, but never a whole day.  It takes getting used to.  When I first started doing sesshin some fifteen years ago, I didn't know that it would become something that I would love doing today.

Our sesshin is not complete silence.  The precaution is no unnecessary talking because talking can be a distraction. Sesshin is a time to shine the light inward and do some listening instead.

Our Zen Center does three of these sesshins a year.  It's one of my favorite ways to come back to my true home - something like coming home to Hawaii. Home is also wherever you are.

You can get so far from home, from your center.  We get involved in too many activities and are constantly too busy doing things.  There seems never to be enough time in a day to get everything done on the ever expanding list.  Yet important things like taking care of ourselves always seem to fall by the wayside.

Many of us can have a gnawing sense of insecurity that we are not good enough, and, as a result, we spend a lot of time propping up who we think we are or should be. And this takes a lot of energy too.  Because of this we find that we hate to be wrong or at fault, and we always want to be right and look good.   We work very hard not to be criticized, and, if we are rebuked, our world is crushed.

Regular meditation helps me work with these feelings of shame or low self-worth.  It builds resilience and courage.  Asesshin absolutely brings me home to my true essence.  I see clearer and am more focused. There is more space between my emotions and me.   Sitting quietly every day is critical for my well-being.  It strengthens my insight that we are all deeply connected - humans, trees, birds, squirrels, sky, elements - everything.

This sesshin followed our first major collaboration with the American Indian Center of Chicago (AIC) in a performance called "Many Traditions - One Heart, An Afternoon of Native Dance, Song and Storytelling."  It was part of AIC's NativeEschikagou (Chicago): Powwow 60 series.

We shared the stage with our Native American sisters and brothers from many tribes - an inter-tribal gathering.  We learned about the sacredness of Grandfather Drum, the different dances and what they meant.

For example, the Men's Grass dance told of a disabled man who's handicap showed him that, although he couldn't dance like the others, he could dance like the prairie grasses.  With this insight, he created the Grass dance and joyfully joined the others on the ceremonial grounds. The Women's Jingle Dress dance is one for healing the ill.  The dress was envisioned in a dream and is from the Ojibwe Nation.

AIC's dances are similar in many ways to our Hawaiian hula.  We dance like the breezes through the trees or the ocean caressing the shore or the vastness of mountains as we tell different stories through hula.  Our dancing reconnects us to nature which helps to soften and open our hearts.  Sometimes love is there.  Sometimes sadness, fear or anger.  We realize then that all of these feelings are what make us who we are, and we honor them.  We become resilient enough to include and accept whatever arises.

We come home when we realize that we are enough, beautiful, strong and full of aloha.

Malama pono (Take care of body, mind and heart),

June Kaililani Tanoue Kumu Hula, Dharma Holder

P.S.  Here's a slideshow of our "Many Traditions - One Heart"performance with photographs by Ed Leinartas, Robert Althouse and Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom's song Napua.

Keeping the Faith

I recently had a birthday. I usually meditate at home first thing after waking. But in a burst of birthday resolution, I got up earlier in the winter cold and went to the Zen Center for the 6 AM sitting. The center was dark, but then I made out a single candle burning. By its light I saw a handful of folks already meditating. I went in and sat and watched my breath. Gradually, the sky lightened (I'm not giving us credit!). By the time we left at seven, the sun was up. I went home and showered, dropped my daughter at school, and got to work on time. All day long, I felt a 'bump' in energy and clarity from having sat longer and with others. Since then I've wondered, why don't I go more often? After all, in fifteen years of regular meditation, I've almost never been sorry (I can think of only two times) when I exerted myself to extend my practice.  Whenever I've done extra evening mediation, give a dharma talk or written a blogpost like this one, I'm always glad I did it.

So then I really wondered, why don't I? Where's my faith?

You don't run into 'Faith' much in Buddhism. It's all over the place in Christianity. The Bible defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, conviction of things not seen”(Hebrews 11:1, ASV). With Buddhism, faith doesn't appear to enter into it. Buddha's last words were “Be a lamp unto yourself.” Another Buddhist saying is, “If you meet the Buddha on the path, kill him.” Being a little anarchist in disposition, I like that one. It means to trust yourself, your own, immediate experience. And Zen is all about not missing the forest—the present moment, indivisible reality—for the trees, all the concepts, duality, this and that.

Could these two traditions, Christianity and Buddhism, be any different? Is there no faith in Buddhism?

The Sakyong, the leader of the Tibetan Shambhala tradition, teaches that even when we don't sit on a cushion and count our breaths, we are still meditating. On what? On 'Me', the Sakong says: 'How can I get everything I want for Me—and avoid what I don't want?' All day long, year in and year out, we cling to this Me with religious, fanatical tenacity. Our most hard-wired faith is the concept of an unessential, unchanging Self which needs to be satisfied and defended. Intellectually, culturally, it's our single Big Idea: ego. Every day we struggle to win the zero-sum game of 'Me'.  But it's a rigged game. Because nothing is static; nothing is permanent. No 'thing' exists, not even Me.

Meditation tends to lessen the grip of 'Me.' How? In meditation, by constantly returning to the breath, the volume of noise in our mind gets turned down. We keep having thoughts, but they tend to slow down or don't hook us as often into neurotic narratives. If we keep at it, an interesting thing happens: 'Me' seems less solid. We are more genuine with ourselves and with others. We still have needs, but our ego-needs seem less urgent. We catch ourselves before we create dramas in our own minds—blaming others, worrying about recognition. We still have individuality, of course, but we perceive that 'Me' and 'I' are a mask, a useful social fiction, not something solid and eternal.

For me, this is not a sudden, clean switch, but a tendency to freedom and real choice, a definite change in how I go about life. In my experience meditation is dependable. You can have faith in it. After all, you're not actually changing anything; you're just seeing things as they already are: both distinct and indivisible, two and one.

And yet often I don't—have faith. I'm still trying to win Some Thing. I'm still making and taking ego excuses for not doing a practice which has clearly borne fruit in my life.

So what to do? Maybe this is where the leap of faith comes in. In Christianity, there's a willful attitude toward belief: if you only believe, if you only have faith, God will reward you with grace or salvation. Belief comes first. In fact, there is the story of Doubting Thomas—the apostle who put his fingers in Jesus' crucifixion wounds in order to accept that Jesus had arisen. Doubting Thomas is not a Christian role model; he's a more of a negative moral example. Jesus gently chided him, saying Thomas believed because he saw, but blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.

Buddhists are encouraged to be like Doubting Thomas: don't take it on somebody's word, check it out yourself. Or, at their most directive, Buddhist teachers say something like: Try this. It's made others happy, over millennia. Maybe it will make you happy.

I'm like Doubting Thomas—after the fact. I got no excuses: I've doubted; I've checked it out. I've put my hand in my own wound, touched and tasted it—the experience of no-Me, of freedom, wisdom, and compassion.

Now the thing is simply to get to it, get serious. Leap. Practice and practice. Like the Heart Sutra says: go beyond, way beyond, beyond the beyond. Which I've resolved to do. On faith.

by Daniel Giloth

Fresh Start

January is the month you often feel inspired to make some kind of fresh start. Maybe it's that diet you've been trying to begin. Or maybe it the new gym you join to begin working out and taking care of your health. Perhaps you enroll for a class at our Zen Center or sign up for a class at a yoga studio. It's wonderful to use this time of year to get a fresh start on some aspect of your life. If you haven't already, I encourage you to seriously consider making  the practice of mindfulness meditation a regular routine.  It can have a profound and transformative impact on the quality of your life. Mindfulness can help every moment and every month be fresh and new.

Life can be challenging. You might have a very stressful job. You might be overwelmed by financial worries. You might feel down because your life has lost its purpose and meaning. These problems can weigh you down. You begin to feel stuck and something in your life begins to feel stagnant. Zen and mindfulness become important tools and practices for getting unstuck and moving forward again. It's like cleaning your house. If your office is too cluttered, if you clean it up, you'll immediately feel better. If your clothes are dirty you wash them and enjoy their fresh feeling on your skin. When you take a shower, you feel fresh and alive as you step out of the shower.

Mindfulness can also help you sweep out your mind. Your thoughts and feelings can drag you down. You may obsess and worry about a problem, and as you do this, your thoughts about this situation become very solid and large. Essentially, they become unworkable. Mindfulness helps you to come at these thoughts in a fresh way, with more spaciousness. And it's practice will help you work with those thoughts in a way that doesn't solidify them. In this way, it can bring a  freshness to the problem and give you a new way forward.

Zen and mindfulness are very direct and to the point. They help you appreciate this very moment where your life is actually taking place. In the singularity of this moment, you are whole and complete, and nothing is lacking. Everything in your life is constantly changing and shifting. You can begin to relax and be at home with this. The good news is that even your suffering is impermanent. The bad news is that the pleasures you try to hang onto are also changing constantly.

So while January may be here and its an excellent time to get a fresh start, from a Zen perspective, this moment of your life, regardless of the month, is always an opportunity to experience your life with new eyes and ears.

If you're looking for a place to find support for your burgeoning meditation practice, the Zen Life & Meditation Center of Chicago offers you many opportunities for getting started.

Happy New Ears!

Robert Althouse

 

 

5 Ways Mindfulness Can Help You Manage Stress

We are living in a complex, digital age. It's hard to keep up. And somewhere along the way, we lose track of our bodies. I believe our increasing disembodiment is contributing to much of our stress and anxiety. Many people come to our Zen Life & Meditation Center of Chicago to learn how to practice mindfulness meditation because mindfulness can help you learn to better manage and decrease your stress levels. Because mindfulness is an embodied awareness without judgement it can help you get reconnected and grounded. So I'd like to give you 5 ways to use mindfulness to begin more effectively managing and decreasing your stress levels.

1. Breath

This would seem obvious, but when you are anxious and overwhelmed, you are not usually aware of your breathing at all. You are often preoccupied with some thought pattern. Often that thought pattern has to do with anticipating something or worrying about something that has not yet happened. At such times, your breathing is likely to be shallow and short. So bringing awareness to how you are breathing can help you re-connect with your body and give your over-taxed brain, a rest. When your phone rings, instead of answering after the first ring, take a moment to breath, and then answer it. If you find it hard to remember to do this, tape something on your phone that says, "breath".

2. You Are Analog, Not Digital

I think it's becoming very important these days for us to differentiate between analog and digital. Human beings are analog. We tell stories. It takes us time to know what we are feelings. We need context to make sense out of our lives. Computers on the other hand, are digital. They don't take time. That why we value them so much. They have no context and they don't tell stories. I have nothing against computers. I use them all day long and they are valuable to me in running our Zen Center and even in creating my personal art work. But human beings are not digital. You are not meant to be. So when you don't differentiate the two, you end up much less patience for the time it takes you to know what you are actually feeling. And when you don't have the full contextual experience of yourself, you are easily overwhelmed, and taken over by stress and anxiety.

3. Pause

Pushing for a result can not only increase your stress, but cause your work flow to be less efficient and effective. So learning to pause and step back from your activity can be helpful. You can of course, do this through meditation, but you can also do it by taking a walk, or taking five minutes to sit on a park bench. Your brain has a chalk board area for short-term memory. When you memorize a phone number that's where you put that information. And that chalkboard can gets filled up. It only holds so much information. And when it gets filled up in this way, you are likely to feel tired and much less effective in taking in any more new information. So taking a rest, a walk or a cat nap can be a good way to refresh the chalkboard and give you a renewed energy for continuing with your task.

4. Approach What is Difficult

We generally avoid what is unpleasant or difficult. That's natural. But it often doesn't serve you well. Such avoidant behavior has been shown to increase stress levels. There is an area on the left side of your your brain called "executive functioning" that is strengthened through the practice of mindfulness meditation. When that area is strengthened it actually helps you approach things you would normally avoid. So when difficult things arise during the day, instead of avoiding them, learn to approach them gently. With a regular practice of meditation, what seems problematic in your life will begin to seem more workable.

5. Wake Up Calls

Strong judgments or over-reacting to something are opportunities for you to be mindful. Your strong, negative inner critic can be very toxic. So if you give this voice in your head authority, you will increase your stress levels dramatically. Such moments can be wake up calls. They are opportunities to stop and reflect about what is going on. Re-framing these moments as wake up calls, gives you the opportunity to have a more empathic, embodied experience of yourself. Practicing mindfulness meditation and practicing skills such as nonviolent communication can really help you learn to let go of judgements and replace them with a kinder, embodied experience of yourself.

by Robert Althouse

 

Mindfulness and Beyond: Resting in Intimacy and Aliveness

We are living in a revolutionary cultural moment. The term “mindfulness” and related practices are becoming common language. For the first time in history, masses of people are learning to stand “next to” their mental creations and notice them. Rather than immediately believing in or being identified with these impressions, people are actually witnessing and observing them. The significance of this cannot be overstated. Throughout human history most violence and intolerance came from people’s inability to question their own thoughts and feelings. This is a truly remarkable moment in the evolution of consciousness. Our minds/brains are constantly generating impressions. This is what they do, this is their healthy functioning. The Zen Master Uchiyama Roshi called this  “secreting thoughts”. I would say, we are secreting thoughts/feelings/sensations or what I call “impressions”. We can say that from the infinite potential of the next moment “some-thing” is created. Mindfulness is the process of observing these creations. One does not empty the mind, one notices the “somethings”.

While mindfulness is extremely helpful in cultivating a different relationship to mental phenomena, the meditation that I practice and teach emphasizes something quite different. Though we still notice the various ‘arisings’ of mind and body, this noticing is not the center or the purpose of the practice. While this meditation, called “just sitting”, is not the same as mindfulness practice, it is not-not mindfulness. We sit with the paradox that while polishing the mirror (i.e. mindfulness) is essential, the mirror (our true nature) has never been tarnished.

This mirror image is based on a powerful and important story in the history of Zen. This historical event involves the choosing of a successor to the 5th Ancestor.

One day Hung-jen challenged his monks to compose a verse that expressed their understanding of the dharma. If any verse reflects the truth, Hung-jen said, the monk who composed it will receive the robe and bowl and become the Sixth Patriarch.

Shen-hsiu (Shenxiu), the most senior monk, accepted this challenge and wrote this verse on a monastery wall:

“Our body is the bodhi tree And our mind a mirror bright. Carefully we wipe them hour-by-hour And let no dust alight.”

When someone read the verse to the illiterate Huineng, the future Sixth Patriarch knew Shenxiu had missed it. Huineng dictated this verse for another to write for him:

“There is no bodhi tree Nor stand of a mirror bright. Since all is void, Where can the dust alight?”   

This illiterate monk knew that true realization was beyond any activity of his mind.  Rather, it arose from intimacy with his True nature. Although this intimacy cannot be created by any meditation practice, it can be encouraged by the practice of “just sitting”. As modern Zen teacher Baker Roshi has said, “enlightenment is an accident and zazen (“just sitting”) makes you accident-prone”. Intimacy comes from directly experiencing life itself.

Intimacy, Aliveness, Wholehearted Welcoming

For me, meditation is learning to be intimate with our lives, this intimacy is radically alive. Saying “alive” I do not mean to imply that it is pleasant or unpleasant, exciting or dull or anything in particular, rather that it is authentic and directly experienced. Before our opinions, beyond our preferences, life “just IS”. This “IS” can be sensed directly.

This “is-ness” is dynamic! You learn to surf the waves inherent in the movement of life. If carried off by thinking, one is committed to returning to the living moment. The core practice is wholeheartedly welcoming the moment. This is the practical ground for learning deep acceptance. This is the practical ground for just being yourself.

When there is a voice inside that fights or hates the moment we wholeheartedly welcome that. This meditation requires an attitude of generosity toward the moment, toward the self. We are not “doing” meditation, meditation is alive in itself. How can we know the experience/non-experience of intimacy and aliveness?

Confidence helps. What can we have confidence in? •    Confidence that you are much more than the voices in your head. •    Confidence that this moment is impermanent and always changing . •    Confidence that your habitual, conditioned self is just a small part of you. •    Confidence that you are directly connected to a vast field through awareness.

How do we get this confidence? I suggest many, many short moments of pausing and sensing into the background of the living moment. Let go of accomplishing something; sense how you know you are alive right now. This sensing is most directly felt as a bodily experience. Our body is always vibrating with the aliveness of the present moment. Even tiredness or dullness have qualities that can be felt. Sense what is alive right now! This requires a kind of listening and welcoming. Direct experiencing is always ‘right there’ yet it needs our invitation, our participation.

During a daily meditation practice of “just sitting” one can emphasize this resting into aliveness. Directly sensing the way life is known right now, we can rest in the awareness that notices. Mindfully observing the particular phenomena in the moment can be included with a light touch. Do not form the sense of a “solid observer”. Allow a feather-like noting of the momentary impression. Even when you notice a long, involved ‘story’ do not take it so personally, treat it lightly. The impression then dissolves like a snowflake falling into a mountain lake.

Turning the Light Around

When zazen does zazen, you are you. When you are you, zazen can do zazen. This knowing is simple, authentic and direct.

We have the expression “effortless effort”. This means it takes a clear, strong committed intention to rest in the light of “just sitting”. When we turn the light around toward the experience of being alive, the experiencer and the experience dissolve and all that remains is bowing to the intimacy with living.

The point of meditation is not to control the mind or to be mindful. It is to be intimate with self and life. This intimacy is alive because you are alive. You do not “do” meditation. Warmhearted welcoming creates the conditions in which meditation can reveal you to yourself.

I will end with a famous, wonderful dialogue.

It’s Alive!

A student asked Master Chao Jo (Zhaoruo)

What is zazen?

“It is non-zazen” he replied

“How can zazen be non-zazen?

“Its Alive!", Chao Jo replied

by Russell Delman, January 2013

We Are Loved

"Prayer is talking to something or anything with which we seek union, even if we are bitter or insane or broken. (In fact, these are probably the best possible conditions under which to pray.) Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up." Anne LaMott

Getting a Fresh Start

We are living in turbulent and chaotic times. We are challenged with complex problems we do not yet know how to solve. As a country we seem to be paralyzed in gridlock unable to agree even on what the problem actually is. So to begin this year, I'd like to continue to draw on some findings in neuroscience to help us find our way together. The Core Curriculum we offer at Zen Life & Meditation Center of Chicago can offer you a rich set of practices and skills for becoming more creative, adaptive, flexible and grounded during these times of uncertainty and change.

I've listed here what seem to me to be some common distortions and misconceptions that contribute to stress and suffering in our lives. I've then listed some practices and suggestions for transforming them.

Some Traps and Common Cognitive Distortions When your attention is divided and fragmented it's easy to be manipulated by some of these nonconstructive habits.

  • Polarized Thinking - black and white, all or nothing, good or bad. "Let's give the good people the guns, and keep them out of the hands of the bad people."
  • Over-generalization - taking one bad experience and jumping to conclusions about your entire life as a result of that one incident.
  • Personalization - interpreting every glance or comment made by someone as a negative reflection about who you are or who you should be.
  • Mind Reading - negatively assuming you know what other people are thinking.
  • Should's and Should Not's - making rigid and inflexible rules that don't allow you to flexibly adapt to rapidly changing circumstances
  • Catastrophizing - perceiving any event as a major catastrophe or a sign of one on the way by anticipating the worst possible outcome.
  • Emotional Reasoning - Basing opinions based on how you feel without considering facts or objective observations.
  • Pessimism - seeing a negative outcome for almost any event.

 

Practical Suggestions for Rewiring Your Brain Instead of worrying about your limitations, harness the power of your intention to imagine new possibilities. The daily practice of mindfulness meditation can actually help you begin re-wiring your brain in a way that will support more constructive and creative habits.

  • Think in Shades of Gray - By seeing all possibilities along a continuum, you don't get caught so easily in the extremes of black and white thinking.
  • Context Checking - Learn how to adjust your opinions and perceptions to the particular context you are in.
  • Detaching - Disconnect yourself from repetitive negative beliefs.
  • Change your intention - if you feel depressed and would normally withdraw, screw up the courage to ask someone to lunch and get out of the house. Do you remember how well this worked for  George Castanza in Seinfield? Following the realization that every instinct he had ever had in his life was wrong, he decided to try doing the exact opposite.
  • Externalizing Problems - When something unfortunate happens, rather than interpreting it as a reflection on your self-worth, consider it a problem that needs to be solved.
  • Optimism - Consider every situation in your life, not as a problem, but an opportunity to grow and learn something new.

 

It's no surprise, given the increasing complexity of our culture, that there is a resurgence of interest in mindfulness meditation, because this simple skill of awareness has the potential to help you work through places where you get stuck. If you need support to learn how to meditate, please consider coming to the Primer classes at our Zen Life & Meditation Center.

by Robert Althouse

 

Meditation on Hay River

He ho'okele wa'a no ka la 'ino A canoe steersman for a stormy day. A courageous person.

from 'Olelo No'eau - Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings, #592

I just returned from a seven day silent Zen meditation retreat at the North Woods Retreat Center on the Hay River, Wisconsin. The Hay is ancient and winds through a fertile valley in Prairie Farm. It is a tributary of the Red Cedar River, part of the Mississippi River watershed. People live simply there, surrounded by the beauty of the hills and white pine forests, the clean water and pure air.

During the retreat, we practiced no unnecessary talking as well as sitting still for 4 - 5 hours a day. We listened to the quiet and to sounds of the wind, birds and chipmunks. We heard fire crackling in the wood stove and noticed our thoughts bouncing all around.

Meditation is an opportunity to shine the light inward and work on balancing mind, body and spirit. Research has shown that mindfulness meditation strengthens neurons in parts of our brain's neocortex that improves emotional balance, fear modulation and impulse control.

As we quiet our minds and bodies, we can start to notice things that we do or think that we're not usually aware of such as how we can distort our self-image and thereby give our power away to others. We do this because of personal feelings of shame or inadequacy. We can also notice how we blame or judge others, how we express our irritations in an unskillful way when we're tired, how we fail to see our part in the equation.

Meditation is also a way to be more embodied. Most people in urban environments tend to live just in their "heads," stressed by too much electronic sensory input and compulsive multi-tasking. During Zen retreats we work on doing one thing at a time and putting our heart fully into whatever we do. If we're sitting, we're just sitting. If we're eating, we're just eating. If we're sweeping, we're just sweeping. This is a way to lessen judgments and to ground ourselves in our bodies in the present moment. When our minds wander, we simply come back gently to whatever we are doing - without judgment. It's an ongoing practice.

We always have a mindful work period during our retreats. Part of our group helped cut invasive buckthorn to restore the forest on the land. Retreats help strengthen our spiritual core and build courage to be ourselves. We realize that we are perfect as we are.

A few times during the rest periods, I lay on the 'aina (earth) and looked up appreciating the endless blue sky. I watched geese floating on the river or flying in formation overhead, honking. I saw a bald eagle and hawk fly over the river. There were small turtles that gently swam underwater in the river along with numerous little fish.

By the sixth day, I felt in tune with myself and the land. That last afternoon I spent sitting on the banks of the Hay River as I played my ipuheke (double headed gourd). I decided to do the Practice of Immediacy in the Arts and to make random ipu (gourd) beats reflecting how I was feeling. Pretty soon, a little song about the Hay River just bubbled forth. It honored the beauty of the place and the joy it brought to me. I will teach it to my keiki (children) hula students to remember this beautiful place that nurtured me so greatly. I give you photos of our time there set to the music of Daniel May's "Chi."

But it is not all idyllic there. Trouble is brewing that threatens this paradise. At our retreat's end, my dear friend Elizabeth Allen told us,

"We who live here, have traded the opportunities of city life for the beauty and simplicity of nature. Our land also holds silica sand for use in fracking. In the last year, huge mining corporations have begun offering millions of dollars for farmland, making some people rich, and destroying the homes of their neighbors.Our weakened DNR has refused a petition to regulate silica particulate, exposing families to the threat of fatal silicosis. Many of the local governments here have opposed zoning in order not to interfere with small farms, but are now finding themselves with gigantic mines close to our towns, exposed to perpetual noise, stadium lights that can be seen for miles, and massive amounts of water usage that lower water tables and dry up personal wells. Mines that level the beautiful forested hills, cost us millions in road repair annually, and destroy the natural filtering system of the sand over our aquifers."

Tears quickly came to my eyes when Liz told me this and that a company had bought land for just this purpose nearby. I had grown to love the beauty of this place deeply during my seven days there. It's hard to see it possibly destroyed in the name of "progress." When will we understand that what we do to the environment, we do to ourselves?

Courage helps us bear witness to this destruction of our rapidly diminishing wild places. It helps us to be open and remain connected when all seems hopeless. And it's important to know that we each can do something - even if it's just meditating and staying aware or pule (praying). We can also bring light to a hidden issue by telling others about it. Stormy days are coming. Let's all work to be good canoe steersmen.

Malama pono (take care of body, mind and heart),

June Ryushin Kaililani Tanoue

Making Room for Something New

Spring is a time when something new arrives. New shoots emerge from the soil. New leaves appear miraculously all at once. When you think of something new, perhaps you imagine buying the latest iPhone or iPad. You might approach spirituality this way too, collecting sacred objects to comfort you and ease your troubled mind. Buying bright, new and shiny objects is enticing, but it doesn't make room for something fresh because it actually fills up your psychic space with more stuff. What is genuinely new only arrives when you begin doing some spring cleaning. When you live a Zen-inspired life you begin a spiritual journey. The trouble with this kind of trip is that it comes with no itinerary or pre-existing answers. It comes with no guarantees or insurance policies. You don't know how the journey will turn out, and you won't unless you actually take the journey yourself. The journey begins as an inquiry. Zen is an ancient tradition but the role of that tradition is not to restrict or limit your search but to open you to your own journey. Tradition should inspire you to keep going or challenge you when you get stuck.

Meditation is the boat you use to take the journey. It's purpose is to more fully engage you with your own experience, with your suffering and with your world. Myths can provide some helpful hints. The journey will be hard. It may be dangerous, so you'll need all the help you can get. If you meet animals, dwarfs or strangers at the side of the road, slow down and show them respect. They can help you. They are a grace that arrives unexpectedly. Don't try to figure it out. Accept it when it comes with gratitude and joy.

Your journey will be uncomfortable. You will often be tired, sleepy and hungry. Open to the discomfort. Open to your body. The task of some myths is to retrieve a precious jewel at the bottom of the ocean. Remember, this is a spiritual journey so you won't find the jewel somewhere outside of your own experience. You'll find it by descending into the darkness of your own body. The jewel is something new that arrives when you fully inhabit your body and surrender your conceptual mind's need to know, control and objectify. This kind of surrender and letting go is the way you begin cleaning house.

Corporate culture rewards those who can keep up. It values efficiency and being in control. It easily dismisses the wisdom that arises from your embodied experience–the intuition and empathic awareness that help you listen and open to yourself and others. You might be successful in business by putting yourself on this kind of treadmill, but you'll pay a price for it as well. As Henry David Thoreau said, "Most men leads lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them."

The spiritual journey teaches you how to re-inhabit your body. You are not a separate object floating in space. Your objectifying mind knows only things and turns every process into an object, a dead concept with no value of it's own. This is how you become disembodied because you live your life primarily through your discursive mind. You begin treating others as if they were expendable objects. And this leads to much suffering. Here there is no space for anything new to arrive at all. No journey is taking place. You may be in control of your life and it may be safe and predictable, but the joy has mysteriously disappeared. And sometimes you wonder where the grace has gone too.

Your real life is full of uncertainty and paradox. Your discomfort or embarrassment is actually an opportunity to open further. Rather than avoiding it, approach it with respect. You may find such experiences surprisingly enlivening and refreshing. A steady diet of meditation is an excellent way to keep yourself company and make space in your life for the strangers the show up at the side of the road. Enjoy the spring!

Robert Althouse