Sunday, October 31, 2010

What I think I know now—Part 2

The second full day of the retreat was very similar to the first. I sat all morning and watched the trees and the light, the birds and the bugs, the colors and the shadows. I let my thoughts drift on through. I let the muddy water of my thoughts clear and settle. I felt clearer and calmer than I had in a long, long time. And yet I did not have a string of brilliant ideas, a sense of “yes, that’s it! That’s exactly what I’ll do.”

I left the retreat center about 9:30 and got home a couple of hours later. I dealt with the two immediate emails that I’d promised to address with a tight deadline, deleted many of the rest. Slowly unpacked and put things away. Spent a lot of time petting Frannie and Nellie.

Then I went to see my spiritual director. I did not know what I would say to her when I got there but I could begin to feel, now that I was out of the direct experience, that something extraordinary had happened to me. Usually, Anna and I talk back and forth. She asks questions, she makes suggestions, and I respond. This time I talked for the whole hour. I do not remember all, or even very much, of what I said. But here is what I seem to have decided in those many quiet hours of the retreat while I was doing nothing and not thinking.

• I really truly do not want to be in a hurry any more. I want my life to be spacious. I want to do all things with attention, with care. I want to be in the moment and notice the moments instead of waking up on the first of each month and saying, Where did October go? Where did November go? Where did 2010 go? I want to know where the time goes.

• I want to answer the four questions that Wayne Muller posits in his brilliant book, How Then Shall We Live. Who am I? What do I love? How do I live knowing I will die? What is the gift I have to give to the family and community in my life?

• I want to work less. I want concerns about money and funding the future to play a much smaller role in the decisions I make.

• I want to write more and do more art. Every day when I can. Every week without fail.

• I want to find a good place to give the gifts I have and know that that is enough.

• I want rest, contemplation, silence to have a real place in my life, not so I can do more but so I can be more connected to myself and to Spirit.

• I want to love more deeply and trust without reservation.

It seems amazing to me now that so much came from doing so little.

Friday, October 29, 2010

What I think I know now—Part 1

There were no big “Aha’s” during the recent retreat though I was certainly open for one to come along. I had gone with one intention: to connect more deeply. If that happened, I would get what I came for. In the back of my mind, of course, there were other desires: to learn the nature of my Higher Power, to have a tangible connection with whoever or whatever that is. To learn if my life direction needs to shift. To understand myself better. To have all manner of things made clear and definite. Forever and ever. Amen.

When I first got sober, I let the AA group and its program be my Higher Power for a long time. What we could do together, I could not do alone: stay sober and change my life. Then I began to explore Buddhism, and its wonderful moral and ethical teachings seemed a good fit for my values and beliefs as I moved into long-term sobriety and a more conscious spirituality. And it still does.

Both Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama have urged Westerners like me to return to the religions of our upbringing, but Christianity as an institution is not for me. I saw that very clearly in the Catholic services at the retreat and at the Presbyterian memorial service I attended last week in the church of my adolescence.

Yet I cannot seem to make a full-on commitment to Buddhism or, rather, to a Buddhist community or teacher, one of the essential principles. (I started to write “hard as I’ve tried” but the truth is I haven’t tried that hard.) I do meditate, and I belonged to a sangha for a while but it was rather conveniently far away and I stopped going when the weather got bad or I was out of town. The truth is AA seems a sufficient community for me to belong to. I support it with time and money. I offer my services freely. I believe in it. I do not seem to need another church.

At the same time, I need—and want—a Higher Power beyond the group. Buddhism’s idea of the Universal Mind, the Great Whatever, is too vague for me, too impersonal, while Christianity’s God the Father in his wrath and judgment and focus on sin does not speak to me. I am looking for a Mother/Father God, an androgynous god, an entwined spirit of loving kindness and gentle strength. I want to be part of that, now and when I die. And while I did not find it while I was on retreat, my longing for it became clear.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Retreating from food

The Trappist Abbey was the perfect place to forget about food. When I’ve been on Buddhist retreats, the food is simple but wonderful. The breakfast oatmeal is perfectly cooked as are the hard-boiled eggs. There are raisins, three kinds of sugar (brown, raw, honey), dried fruits, fresh fruits, four kinds of milk. Lunch is a stir-fry of fresh vegetables and a protein-rich grain cooked just right. Several good sauces have been lovingly prepared. Dinner is a big vegetable stew or soup with grated cheese to sprinkle on top. Someone works to keep freshly brewed herbal and black tea always available. We all look forward to the meals, eaten in silence but enjoyed in community.

Here’s the menu at the Abbey on Tuesday:

Breakfast (same each day): orange juice, milk, tea and coffee, little boxes of Total, Cheerios, Rice Krispies, Raisin Bran, overripe bananas, wheat bread, commercial peanut butter.

Lunch: Steamed yellow squash, green peppers stuffed with a tasteless undercooked rice and onion gruel, covered with unidentifiable cheese. White cabbage with bottled dressing. Wheat bread, commercial peanut butter.

Dinner: See lunch.

As you know, I’d been to the Abbey on day retreats years before. I knew the food was marginal, the kind of food that gives vegetarianism a bad name. And Monday’s supper was not very good. But Tuesday it was a time of surrender. I ate peanut butter and bread for breakfast, I ate peanut butter and bread for lunch. Miracle of miracles, I found some processed cheese slices in the fridge in the kitchen off the dining hall and made myself a bread, butter, and cheese sandwich for supper. I found apples in that fridge too and I ate some of those.

I stopped thinking about food as enjoyment, as treat, as salvation. Maybe that’s the point of what they serve.
But curiously, I also found myself not thinking about food. I had brought snack bars with me and I didn’t need them. I didn’t need food to slow down or de-stress or reward myself for a hard day or make a boring or difficult task palatable. I only needed it to not be hungry.

PS. I did stop for bacon, eggs, and hash browns in the first town I came to after I left the Abbey.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Doing nothing, doing everything

At the retreat, I fell into a rhythm. I’d sleep until it was light, get dressed, go over and make a cup of tea and come back and write in my daily journal until I was done. I usually limit my writing time in the morning as I have a date to go the gym with my buddy or need to get to work. To have two hours to reflect and write each day was a gift. Midway in my writing, I’d go over and get some breakfast, then write some more.

By then, the sun was full up warming the dew on the grass and I’d take my creative journal and a book and pen and head out for the morning. I’m not sure why I carried the journal and book. I didn’t open them. I sat and did nothing. I thought about things but I let the thoughts come and go. I didn’t try to solve any problems or sort anything out or make a mental list. I guess I had the journal there in case I had some brilliant insight but I wrote nothing down.

I watched the light dance in the trees as the sun moved across the sky to the south. I watched the shadows change on the water. I watched the dew dry. From time to time, I heard a leaf hit the path or the pine needles. A few late bees came by to see what I was up to. Occasionally another retreatant would walk along the path or take a seat nearby. Sometimes we would acknowledge each other and sometimes not. I sank deeper and deeper into the calm.

After the 12:30 service and lunch, I sat again outside for an hour or so, then went into my room and took up a seat in the rocker and meditated. Then out I went again, reading a page or two, thinking and not thinking. In the crisp cool of the shade and the Indian summer warmth of the sun, I moved around the pond, trying out all the seats, a bit like Goldilocks, except that each one was just right. A swarm of ladybugs awoke and filled the air, their tiny red and orange bodies on the screens of my room and occasionally on me.

After vespers and dinner, I sat in the rocker and watched the light change. Tuesday night, I had one rough patch. A deep sense of homesickness came over me as the moon came up. I felt alone, lonely. I missed Frannie and Nellie and Reinie, the three felines who share my life. I missed the deep connections I have with friends and family. And then that passed and I watched the night come on and sank deeper into the quiet.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Permission to do nothing

In my room at the retreat, there were four pieces of paper when I arrived. An envelope for a donation. I set it aside as I had written a check when I first arrived. There was a schedule of the services, meals, prayer times, a little bit about the Abbey and the life there. There was a map of the many acres with hiking trails and old roads and ideas for walks. And there was a goldenrod sheet of suggestions for a successful retreat.

At the heart of the suggestions was quietude. Just being so that God could find us, God could plug into us, and not the other way around. You may have come with problems to solve, it said. Just rest and be and the answers will come. You may have come to find something. Just rest and be and it will arrive.

In so many ways, this page seemed written for me. This desire to do little, this desire to wait and be spoken to. This desire to rest easy and see what might happen. I have been on perhaps a half-dozen Buddhist retreats. All lovely and soothing. But I had always wanted to get somewhere. To deepen my practice, be a better Buddhist, improve somehow. I had come with problems to solve and with each meditation when it didn’t feel solved, I felt frustrated. Each time I meditated and fell asleep, I felt unworthy. I was longing then too but figured I had to do something with the longing, not just wait.

When my spiritual director spoke of her retreat during seminary, of doing relatively nothing, the idea both frightened me and called to me. And I knew, in that moment, that it was something I wanted and needed to do. That I needed to let go of my identity as an overachiever, as the one in charge, in control, and responsible for the universe, if only for a few days. To see what that was like. To learn by not doing. To see what contemplation and rest could do for me.

And here in these suggestions was all the permission I needed.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Stoned on silence

I left the retreat center at 9:45 this morning. The first few miles of countryside were lovely and peaceful and with no one behind me, I felt okay driving slowly, taking my time. Then the town appeared and the traffic and the four-lane highway of commercial and industrial businesses and I felt lost and weird and a bit dizzy by it all. Maybe old people don't drive so slowly because they can't feel the speed but because they can and they're in no hurry to get the trip over with. I felt that way this morning, in no hurry to get the trip over with.

I hadn't been to the Trappist Abbey for 6 or 7 years and it was as lovely as I'd remembered. My room was D-1 (there are 5 guest houses each with a room lower and upper with a bath at the midway landing. I had the lower with corner windows out onto the large duck pond and no other buildings in sight although they're connected by a maze of stairways that would have pleased M C Escher. I carried in my bags, went to park my car in the lower lot, and then came back and immediately sat down by the pond. I was in no hurry to pack and get organized. In fact, I was prepared to be in no hurry at all.

I spent all of Monday afternoon and evening doing nothing but sitting by the pond. I'd move position to get a different angle or to find a little more sun or a little more shade. I sat just watching and filling my eyes with the beauty for 2 and 1/2 hours. Then I went to Vespers and listened to the lovely voices of the monks chanting their prayers and psalms. In all the times I had been there, I had never ventured into the chapel (plain on the outside, extraordinarily beautiful on the inside--white and wood and glass with a vaulted ceiling and simple decor). I ate dinner in silence with others.

Then I spent another hour in my room, in the rocker, watching the light fade over the water and watching the moon come on full and begin her dance across the sky.

Compline at 7:30--lullabies as the monks sing themselves to rest. Service in the near dark. Magical.
I read then for an hour but spent as much time gazing off into the distance as reading.

Those of you who know me as a get-it-done kind of person may find this as amazing as I did.

I'm unsure as to what all has shifted inside me, much I think, but for now, this is how I got started.  More tomorrow...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Preparing for a silent retreat

Tomorrow I leave about noon to go out to the Trappist Abbey in the wine country southwest of Portland. The Abbey is on a lovely 800 acres in rolling hills. I used to go there for a day retreat every few months and then somehow that slipped out of my calendar. Now I'm scheduled for three days of quiet, rest, reflection, and not much else.

Last Wednesday I spent my session with Anna, my spiritual director, talking about guidelines and parameters for these three days. At first I felt a lot of trepidation. Would I go crazy (and I don't mean in a cute way) if I had nothing to do for three days but be with myself? Would the restlessness, the boredom, the lack of connection through email, drive me around the bend? What if I failed at doing nothing (even I could hear that old black and white thinking?). I realized how easy it would be to set myself up to fail, as if this were some kind of contest, not simply an opportunity to rest and reflect. I had to laugh at my extreme thinking.

Anna helped me set an intention: to seek deeper connection. With that in mind I've chosen some books, my journal, and my watercolors. I had, in true addict fashion, picked six books for the three days. And now I'm down to three: Wayne Muller's Having, Being, Doing Enough; Mark Nepo's Facing the Lion, Being the Lion, and John Fox's Finding What You Didn't Lose. I'm also taking a journal and my watercolors and a sketch book.

Anna's advise rang true: "If it helps you connect more deeply, do it. If it takes you out of connection, set it aside and go back to being."

So that's my goal. I'll be back on Thursday and will report in.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A memorial service

This afternoon I attended the memorial service for the brother of an old friend. Susan and I have known each other since high school and reconnected about a decade ago with great success. I met her brother several times but in the 1960s and so didn't really know him. But I know Susan and Larry's wife was a student of mine for a while. So I wanted to support them.

As an interesting coincidence, the service was held in the Presbyterian church where I went as a teenager. I was quite into church in high school and was a youth minister and preached a sermon from that very pulpit. I had not been back in that church since 1970.

I long ago gave up any Christian affiliation, though I appreciate that it is a belief system that works for many people, and I have a great deal of respect for the teachngs of the historical Jesus. Since I got sober, my own leanings have been Buddhist and shamanic in a mixture that works for me.

I was curious how I would feel in that church and at a service there. The actual physical structure was vaguely familiar (clearly renovated not too long ago) but the evangelical spin on the service from the female associate pastor was, for me, really offensive. She seemed to assume that everyone there was deeply Christian or wanted to be and the service seemed more about Christ than it did about Larry. I was grateful for the poem that Larry's wife, Andrea, read and the poem that Susan's husband, Doug, read. His daughter also told a couple of great stories about her dad, which gave me some insight into him.

I do not remember the Presbyterian ministers I knew years ago as so fervent in their desire to bring people into the fold. As Larry was 11 years sober when he died, there were many AA members. I wonder if the minister thought we needed saving. Of all the people I know, AA members are some of the most in tune with a higher power. I'm so glad the program stipulates that we can believe in the God of our understanding, not the baroque version of the afterlife that that minister wanted to paint for us.

Monday, October 11, 2010


I attended a wonderful workshop on Saturday on generosity and giving. A real opportunity to sit in circle with women, listen to some interesting readings, and then discuss what is and isn't generosity. We were encouraged, if we chose, to adopt a week-long practice of 5 unplanned/spontaneous acts of generosity each day.

That sounded pretty easy to me but after today, I'm not so sure. One, you have to pay attention. You have to watch for ways to give or it's not spontaneous. I could sit down and write five cards to friends. That would be a generous thing to do but it's not spontaneous, it's not watching for opportunities.

Yesterday I was more attuned. I met with two strangers to discuss a course we're taking (I was chosen to be in their group) and I sat back and let it be what it was going to be without controlling it as I probably would have. Then I stopped to listen to a young Palestinian who wanted me to convince the management of a local food chain not to carry Israeli produce. I wasn't sure how I felt about his request, but it seemed generous to let him make it. Before Saturday's workshop, I wouldn't have given him my time and attention.

But after that I came home and I worked and was by myself. And most of today I was by myself. I did practice generosity with myself. I told a client I couldn't take her rush project, which would have made me crazy. I gave myself some good breaks, and got some good rest. But I can see that I need to get out in the world to practice being generous.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Is one step at a time a half-measure?

I'm getting myself ready to take the plunge. Changing my eating in front of the TV habit. I've already confessed my abuse of low-sugar snack bars (3-4 at a time means I'm looking for a sugar low) and cheetos (hey, they aren't dessert!) to my wonderful counselor Anna. So the first step is to stop buying those things. If they aren't here, I can't eat them and no one I know has ever served me either item--ever, so I'm unlikely to run into them out in the world.

My internal debate centers around whether I can continue to eat my dinner in front of the TV and then not eat again as a step in the right direction. Or whether I need to stop eating in front of the TV period. Nada! Nothing! Sometimes easing my way into changes is helpful. About four months before I gave up sugar and desserts, I gave up ice cream,the worst offender. I consoled myself with candy and cookies and cake and pudding and pie but no ice cream. And then I was ready to just stop.

Now I'm getting ready to confront the restlessness of my evenings and eating a lot more than I need. I'm not going to give up my TV, as some people have suggested. I watch about 2 hours in an evening and that doesn't seem excessive to me. What is excessive is the jumping up and getting something to eat every 20 minutes (if I'm lucky it's only 20 minutes)!

In the AA Big Book, there's a famous line: "Half-measures availed us nothing." And I've been thinking about that. What is a step in the right direction? And what is a half-measure? I guess I'll know if the step takes me down the right path or back down the wrong one!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A poem about eating

The poem below was written by my friend and wondrous poet Eileen Elliott in response to my post on eating and TV. Enjoy!


the act of eating is a holy rite
pure in its routine, unacknowledged ordinariness

this miracle of taking in potato
or broccoli
and converting it to poetry
or a clean sink
or weeded garden
goes unnoticed
crowded out by more robust occurences
easily seen, brazen events:
sun breaking through clouds
sizzling orange of Monarch wing
splash of trout in glittering stream

amazing, nonetheless
if only through a pause of fork
a contemplation of possibilities
between bites of holy provision

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The next hurdle

Much as I don't want to admit it, my next hurdle in the food and overeeating conversation is clear to me. I wish it weren't clear because then I wouldn't have to do anything about it. I could pretend to be in the dark, but I'm not so good at pretending anymore. So I just have to face it and decide if I want to do anything about it.

I'm talking about the intimate connection between watching TV (in my case Netflix) and eating. This habit has been going on for several decades, probably since I started living alone in the late 70s. I was used to eating with others and so to create an "other," I'd get absorbed in a book and then eventually in a TV show or an old movie or a video or a DVD or now Netflix.

I eat mindlessly, getting up every so often to get another piece of fruit, a snack bar, a sugar-free popsicle, a handful of crackers, a piece of cheese, a piece of toast. I'm not hungry but I'm needing. What exactly I'm needing I don't know. I don't know how much is habit, kneejerk-so-many-minutes-have-gone-by-get-up habit or ingrained programming from the old days of TV and commercials every 7 minutes and getting up to avoid the boredom of the commercials.

The pattern is very similar to the way I drank. Finish the glass, stop the video, get another glass.

I don't savor the food, I don't even taste it, but I have huge resistance to giving this up.

(To be continued)

Friday, October 1, 2010

A thoughtful reading

The thoughtful essay below is from one of my favorite web sites I liked this so much I wanted to share it with you. Jill

When we listen from our heart, the logical grid of our brain tends to soften and melt.

Most of us were born and raised in cultures that value the head over the heart and, as a result, we place our own hearts below our heads in a sort of inner hierarchy of which we may not be conscious. What this means is that we tend to listen and respond from the neck up, often leaving the rest of our bodies with little or no say in most matters. This is a physical habit, which sometimes feels as ingrained as the way we breathe or walk. However, with effort and awareness, we can shift the energy into our hearts, listening and responding from this much deeper, more resonant place.

The brain has a masterful way of imposing structure and order on the world, creating divisions and categories, devising plans and strategies. In many ways, we have our brains to thank for our survival on this planet. However, as is so clear at this time, we also need the wisdom of our hearts if we wish to continue surviving in a viable way. When we listen from our heart, the logical grid of the brain tends to soften and melt, which enables us to perceive the interconnectedness beneath the divisions and categories we use to organize the world. We begin to understand that just as the heart underlies the brain, this interconnectedness underlies everything.

Many agree that this is the most important work we can do at this time in history, and there are many practices at our disposal. For a simple start, try sitting with a friend and asking him to tell you about his life at this moment. For 10 minutes or more, try to listen without responding verbally, offering suggestions, or brainstorming solutions. Instead, breathe into your heart and your belly, listening and feeling instead of thinking. When you do this, you may find that it’s much more difficult to offer advice and much easier to identify with the feelings your friend is sharing. You may also find that your friend opens up more, goes deeper, and feels he has really been heard. If you also feel great warmth and compassion, almost as if you are seeing your friend for the first time, then you will know that you have begun to tap the power of listening with your heart.