Kurt's Blog: Conversations Around the Fire
Since 1994, Kurt has offered contemplative kayaking retreats in Alaska through Inside Passages. His work as a mindfulness teacher now includes regular mindfulness retreats and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes in the Seattle area. Kurt's book "The Circumference of Home", and other essays and writings, are also available on this site. He periodically updates his blog reflections on this page, "Conversations Around the Fire".
This reflection is offered to the Bay Area Dharma Seminar on Climate, led by Zen teacher Norman Fischer during Earth Month in April 2015. Norman invited me to share some thoughts on my personal climate change journey, and the role of my meditation practice in that journey, five years after the publication of my book The Circumference of Home.
Here is the most amazing fact to me about our climate conundrum. It is not that the climate is changing. It is that we are changing the climate. We humans have made ourselves into a geologic force that is changing the basic underlying conditions of life on our planet. Who could have imagined? And what on earth are we to make of that?
Most of us now accept the climate science, and can see with our own eyes how quickly our climate emergency is escalating, how quickly its hospitable temperament is turning starkly against our human prospects. The biggest challenge isn’t wrapping our minds around this fact. The biggest challenge is wrapping our emotional bodies around this fact. Or more to the point, unwrapping our emotional bodies from the traumatizing implications of this fact.
Our Buddhist practice teaches us, usually little by little and in great fits and starts, to free ourselves from fear and denial of death. We are all embedded in that denial. It is an attribute of our astonishing evolutionary success as a species. Denial has served us remarkably well in millennia past, keeping our focus on the near-at-hand, and metering out our emotional exposure to the harsh realities of life. As long as we can convince ourselves that we are okay personally, that our own death and the death of those near and dear to us lies at some unspecified future time, we feel safe, and we can go about our lives as if death applies only to others.
As dharma practitioners, we may acknowledge that our human life is embedded in transience and change. But we take comfort in the thought that our small, changing life is also held within an unchanging Nature. We have a psychological predisposition to look at nature as a great constant that anchors us in deep time, and that will carry our progeny on the ship of life far into the distant future. This thought has always been a great comfort to the human spirit when we are brought up against the reality of our own death.
Human-induced climate disruption is changing even that. We now have to make sense not only of our personal death, but of the unthinkable potential for the death of life as we know it, issued not by God but by our own hand. This new truth is very nearly unbearable to us. It has driven the wedge of denial deeper into our collective psyche. Almost nobody wants to talk about this, even those of us whose business it is to face such truths head on. The solution to this conundrum for a large block of American culture is to kill the messenger – to slay the science, and to assassinate the character of the scientists who are trying to bring this truth home to us.
Many deny the reality of climate change outright. Most of the rest of us deny it only in practice, continuing to live as if we did not know this to be true. Our deep psychological resistance and denial is a much bigger problem than the simple fact that we are filling our atmosphere with greenhouse gases. We cannot change as long as we are stuck in denial. And we cannot face our denial as long as we are lost in the psychological forest of fear.
Isn’t this the essence of our Buddhist practice? – learning to open to the miracle of our aliveness, moment-by-moment, by courageously and persistently facing the fear that keeps us trapped in denial? Isn’t it the unmasking of that fear that brings us back into the fountain of aliveness that was there all along, and that is not contingent upon things going our way? And doesn’t compassion naturally spring from that same immense fountain, once we have learned to tap into it? – compassion for the great suffering we all experience when we are lost in the ignorance of denial and fear.
So here is a little story that may shed some light on this path beyond fear, even when the odds feel overwhelming, as they often do now. All of us can say where we were on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was in the fifth day of a seven-day silent Zen retreat, or sesshin, with my teacher Shodo Harada Roshi at Tahoma Zen Monastery, on Whidbey Island near Seattle. We had been up since 4:00 AM, and were well into of our morning practice period when news reached us in the zendo. Our country was under attack. Jets had flown into the Twin Towers in New York. Thousands were dead. Nothing more was yet known.
Fifty of us were packed into the zendo, from several different countries. Some were from New York City. All of us were given the chance to make phone calls home. Anyone who felt they had to leave the retreat was invited to leave. Not one person left. Our rigorous schedule of zazen continued as before.
Over the final two days of the sesshin, Harada spoke in his dharma talks about how the world we would enter at the end of our retreat was a different world than what we had stepped out of a few days earlier. The deep insecurity of our human life had been made manifest in a traumatizing new way. When we left the retreat, Harada said, we would be entering a world of highly traumatized people. There was nothing we could possibly be doing that was a more valuable preparation for this fact than what we were doing right now on our cushions. What the world would need more than anything else in the weeks and months ahead was people who could stand firmly in compassion, in the midst of this trauma, without themselves being traumatized. And there was no other way to establish that capacity within ourselves than to practice, and to practice with renewed vigor and motivation. We were not meditating primarily for ourselves. We were practicing to be present to the pain and suffering of others. And we would not lack opportunity to provide such presence. There was no greater gift we could offer.
So while the rest of the world watched endless video clips of jets flying into the Twin Towers, heaping trauma upon trauma, we sat zazen. It did not lessen our own pain and confusion, but it built a foundation of calm abiding that changed how we were relating to that pain, and enlarged our commitment to stay present to this pain as we prepared to meet the profound distress of others. That beautiful teaching by Harada has remained a template and a touch stone for me as I walk deeper into the human trauma now being unleashed by climate disruption.
This trauma is not as graphic or locked in a particular moment in time as the September 11th attacks. It is a much longer emergency, bringing much more profound threats to our way of life over time. As a result it is much easier to deny. It is a much harder reality to engage psychologically, let alone politically. We are already suffering from intense disaster fatigue. We are in uncharted emotional territory.
Which brings home again the primacy of our practice. We have only moments to live. And nothing can cut us off from the resilient aliveness of our moments except our choice to lose ourselves, again and again, in the temporary solace of mindless distraction, or the false security of an unexamined denial. These are things we can work on. Denial and distraction cannot survive for long in the light of a sincere practice.
But neither can we find the courage to face this level of insecurity by ourselves. We need more than our own personal practice now. More than ever we need the solace and strength of practicing community – of sangha. We are finding our way here. Nobody knows what to do. But we know how to practice. We can trust the emergent wellspring of insight and creative flair that can only grow out of the soil of sincere, ongoing practice, and that is never completely bound to what has gone before. We can lovingly hold each others’ feet to the fire of our practice, at a time when it has never mattered more to the future of life on earth.
Next month, on April 1 – 3, 2015, the International Living Future Institute will hold its annual conference in Seattle. The theme of this year’s conference is one that is dear to my heart: Place and Community. I am honored to be one of the speakers at this conference. In preparation I was asked to write a brief response to the question “What Does a Living Future Means To Me?” I have posted my response here, which will also be featured in the Living Future March Newsletter.
A living future grows out of a living present. This is a truth that often goes missing in the fog of anxiety or overwhelm that can cloud a change-maker’s heart. In that sense the words “living future” form a useful but often self-limiting oxymoron.
Only humans, so far as we know, have been gifted by evolution with the capacity to voyage across time. This is an astonishing power. It allows us to house in our memories vast historical and cultural archives, bringing our past into our present. And through the power of creative imagination we can send our innovative footprints far into the future.
But strictly speaking, there is no such thing as “past” or “future”. They are potent figments of our uniquely human imagination. No part of the natural world exists outside the present moment, with the sole exception of the human mind. Like the rest of nature, the human body knows no other time but Now, performing billions of self-regulating processes every second to keep our bodily systems alive, tuned and thriving – always and exclusively in present time. In all of nature, the human mind is the sole outlier in this regard, leaving even its own body behind in the process, often at great cost to our health.
Maybe this is why we have such a powerful need as humans for connect with wild nature. Surrounding our senses in climax ecosystems brings the mind back into alignment with Deep Time. It brings the human heart into the presence of Presence. Experiencing the myriad ways that nature creates beauty by weaving transience and death directly into the heartbeat of life temporarily calms our fear of death. Life thrives in the flow of that elusive place beyond the fear of death. Nature shows us how to end our fruitless human war with nature, and with our own limits, by waking us up to the beauty of Now. Role models for radical, fearless presence exist literally everywhere we look when we can break the trance of human separation and control.
Because of this current of aliveness, the present moment is the place where gratitude and hope also thrive. In that sense, only the present moment can launch the choices that actually lead to a living future. Attuning ourselves to what is alive in the moment, within us and in the world around us, is a radical act of transformation. Knowing how to join the rest of nature in accessing the aliveness of the moment-at-hand is a profound gateway to resilience, restoration and homecoming.
I have been doing a lot of soul searching lately. Not that I am any stranger to big questions. I seem to be one of those people who was put here on earth to ask the biggest questions I can think of. Part of what feels different now is that the questions are becoming more intimate, more nuanced, more rooted at ground level. I’m not so interested in the big unanswerables these days, those cosmic questions have pulled me so often out into a world of abstractions. These thought trains don’t seem to be helping much anymore. I’m seeing more clearly how the toxicity of negative thinking in particular, especially of future catastrophizing, has too often led me into emotional exile. I’m really genuinely tired of that.
There are more good reasons now for catastrophizing than at any point in human history. The news is rampant with reasons for pessimism and despair. Every one of us has a front row seat on the most alarming developments around the planet on any given day and hour, constantly, without cease. Some of it is the usual natural disaster stuff. We get to be up close and personal, up to the minute, with human suffering that is in the “act of God” category. But the biggest stuff is our own doing. The climate isn’t changing. We are changing the climate, with consequences that dwarf the worst natural disasters. We are the architects of most social unrest, political extremism, human brutality, and ecological collapse.
How to be with all of that, without losing heart, without sacrificing our aliveness in the moment, and at the same time without turning away from the difficult truths? That is the Big Question I ponder these days.
David Whyte, in “The Poetic Narrative of Our Times”, wrote:
It may be that we live in a time of collective heartbreak, where for the first time in history we are being asked to witness the disappearance and reappearance on a global scale of what it means to be fully human; to give away our identity and see how it is returned to us through a sincere participation in the trials and necessities of the coming years. Part of that heartbreak is the sense that we might not be equal to the ecological, political and economic transitions that are necessary, that our own selfishness may be writ too deeply into our genes and that the future is therefore untenable and unreachable.
We do not as yet know if this is true, but the old humanistic story around ourselves as a successful species, always on the up and up and appointed to some special destiny, is fading and silvering into the night air, and we are left, at this point in history, contemplating the unknown immensity of the night behind it.”
These are tough words, but also honest and compassionate words, because they have the ring of a necessary truth. We never did control our destiny in the way that our ever-ascendant modern story has taught us to believe. And whatever modicum of control we did have has been squandered by our inability to gain control of that part of the natural world that has proven most destructive – namely, human nature.
The “collective heartbreak” that I feel in the air, and on the airwaves, daily now, is therefore appropriate. It’s not a bad thing at all. It is an opening into a deeper inquiry that is gaining traction beneath the radar of most media coverage, an inquiry that is beginning to grapple with the futility of merely political or technological solutions to the crises we face, the crises we are the authors of.
Ultimately it is the same “unknown immensity” that we have always been given to contemplate; the inevitability of our own demise, the smallness of our time in this passing human body, but set as always within the immensity of that abundant life force that flows through us.
This inquiry happens best, I’m finding, within the absolute nuts and bolts of daily life, on the very ground I tread – the smallest daily encounters, the most intimate choices that are continually being offered – to either be present to what is, with a full and open heart, or to turn away in fear and despair. That is never a choice that is bound to circumstances, or that depends on a particular outcome. It is a choice freely offered, freely taken (or not), in the deepest heart of our experience, here and now. Therefore I will continue to live and fight for what I love in that spirit. I will not allow the great losses of this moment in history to rob me of my joy, compassion, and expansiveness of heart, that is as real and accessible now as it ever has been.
And when I am able to do that, in those moments of actual presence, I have learned to expect surprises, possibilities I hadn’t imagined, aliveness in unexpected forms, immense beauty emerging all around, endless reasons for gratitude.
A guest post by Inside Passages facilitator Maggie Chumbley.
“I’ve chosen, like many people I know, to ensure as much as possible that my work is part of the work of building a just and sustainable world, and I know that this kind of life will be difficult.”
It was a sunny late August morning on Whidbey Island. Kurt and I sat down to tea looking out at the illuminated Maxwelton Valley. Just a few weeks previous we had returned from a retreat that wrapped up Kurt’s latest of many seasons on the Inside Passage in Southeast Alaska. It had been my first time to Alaska and my first time working with Kurt. I was the cook for retreat, and I was still glowing from the experience several weeks later. I started this cooking gig with a pretty empty tank as I arrived to Alaska exhausted after running a summer camp for international youth, but despite the hard work and long hours, to my great surprise I came back from Alaska renewed, and oddly rested.
Kurt met me at the tiny airport in Petersburg, Alaska with a big hug wearing his huge smile and iconic Alaska x-tra tuff boots. I had just completed seven weeks of working with international teenagers in New Mexico, one of my most direct ways to be in “the work” of building a just and sustainable world. I’ll often remark that I have known no deeper exhaustion than what I feel at the end of this work each summer. Our youth often confess and face some of their deepest fears and secrets during their time with us. They leave our program bonded tightly to each other across continents. I feel enormous gratitude for the privilege to do this work.
But, this kind of work is almost always heartbreaking and exhausting. It asks you to give everything physically and emotionally and can bear a 24/7 schedule. What surprised me this year was how Alaska shifted everything and how I bounced back so quickly. After just seven days in Alaska, I experienced what Kurt mentions in his book, The Circumference of Home, as the “scouring sand” of quiet time in wild country where my “hunger for silence” was finally satisfied and I felt the effects of deeper inner renewal. It brought me to a place of deeper renewal and perspective on my work than I thought was possible.
So, back to that sunny morning on Whidbey. Kurt invited me to convene a group that was different from the folks that frequently gather with him in Southeast Alaska to meditate and kayak. He wanted to bring more people like me, the folks he sees as young change-makers who are in the game, and doing “the work”. I couldn’t imagine a more relevant offering to the folks I feel share some of my story as a passionate and sometimes burnt out young change-maker. Kurt often uses an expression that I love, calling the mindfulness practice that supports our work in the world, “inner habitat restoration”, and that’s exactly what it felt like.
As we’ve begun to plan and promote this retreat, I’ve been asking what it means to be a young change-maker. What are the unique rewards and challenges we face? Why would going to Alaska to learn mindfulness and kayak in the wilderness serve us? What would we want to converse about? I began to think broadly through my own work as a school teacher, youth facilitator, and entrepreneur. At 31 years old, living in Seattle, belonging to a community of change-makers and working in the field of education and youth empowerment I am no stranger to the weight of disillusionment, the anxiety of climate change, and the frustration of what seems to be the central trade off for folks like me which says there’s no money in doing good. Or we’ll have to supplement our do gooding with corporate jobs. Now, even the availability of stable income is questionable no matter where you are willing to work. The landscape and modern inheritance for the millennial generation shows a very tough economic reality, and I have certainly felt this too.
The other side, however to choosing this life is that I am also no stranger to the joy and rootedness of being part of a loving and beloved community. I’ve enjoyed the spark of thinking of an innovative idea and knowing that I’ve created my life in a way that I can act on that idea. I know the rush of supporting and co-creating disruptive technologies, and the expansive feeling that what I am doing in this moment certainly is some of the most important work of humanity.
At this age, we the young change-makers can often be the ones calling the shots, running the organizations and voting with our dollars. So, most of the time, I feel like I am very much in the game, and in some ways even making the rules. It’s a dynamic landscape. We are living that tension between knowing that we are facing the most imminent and terrifying global risks like climate change, and yet we are also uniquely poised to utilize our highest creativity and innovation. Yet it is often difficult to make sense of our own efficacy in this paradoxical time we live in. Parker Palmer writes in Let Your Life Speak, “We are whiplashed between an arrogant overestimation of ourselves and a servile underestimation of ourselves.” I’m certain many like me know the bewilderment of that whiplash.
For many of us folks working to make a world that works for all, some kind of contemplative practice has also emerged from the same heart that brought us to our work in the first place. It had to emerge so we could, as Kurt writes, “know where we stand, and hold our ground” (p.117). Last August in Alaska, it was the immediate and deep plunge into the contemplative silence we practiced that revived me so quickly. It rebuilt my inner capacity. Kurt writes, “I teach meditation to activists, among others, because I am so convinced that our efforts to save the external environment will lead to burnout and despair if we do not include adequate attention to our inner habitat restoration. The two are not separate and never have been. Our failure to understand this connection, emotionally, as well as intellectually, can overwhelm even our noblest efforts as change makers”(p. 114). I know that disempowered state of overwhelm and I found that the community, rhythm, paddling, silence and wilderness of a retreat with Inside Passages gave me that essential restoration of my inner life so that my work in the outer world could continue with strength, passion and resilience.
Please see more about our retreat offering by visiting the retreat page.
Dec. 21, 2014
Happy Winter Solstice! Yesterday I led a Day of Mindfulness retreat with the Center Valley Mindfulness Community in Chimacum, WA, near Port Townsend, on the Olympic Peninsula. For the past five years I have been privileged to lead this Winter Solstice retreat in Chimicum. It has offered a wonderful way to counter the craziness and stress our current hyped up approach to mid-winter holiday festivities. We came together for six hours to sit and walk in silence, and to listen to the deeper stirrings of our bodies and hearts at this moment of primal pause in the earth’s annual journey around the sun.
The theme of my dharma talk was “Paddling In the Dark”. The talk was inspired by an experience I had last summer on one of my kayaking meditation retreats in Alaska. I stole the title for this talk from my friend Gordon Peerman, who was part of that retreat, and who subsequently gave a powerful talk to his Insight Nashville group by that title on his return from Alaska last summer.
So I want to begin by telling a bit of Gordon’ story. Gordon is an Episcopal Priest and psychotherapist in Nashville with a long-standing and deep dharma practice. For the last ten years, he and his wife Kathy Woods have led a thriving weekly insight meditation group in Nashville, something that has grown from a handful of people to an average of 150 participants each week.
Kathy developed breast cancer some years ago, and despite some periods of remission, it continued to grow in her body. As her cancer advanced, both she and Gordon have lived and taught fearlessly from the center of Kathy’s dying experience. Late last July, her moment of death arrived. Almost to the end, she took her place beside Gordon at their weekly meditation gatherings, and spoke radiantly about the miracle of her awakening from within her dying process.
Gordon had hoped to come to Alaska with me last August for a special trip with a group of male colleagues. But the uncertain timing of Kathy’s death forced him to cancel that trip. As it turned out, she died three weeks before that trip was to take place. 700 people filled the chapel at Vanderbilt University for her memorial service. Her last instructions to Gordon were for him to go on that trip to Alaska, bringing his 24 year old son Alex with him.
Gordon’s mere presence on our kayaking retreat was a powerful teaching. He was fully in his grief during that time, of course. But he was also cracked open, filled with gratitude for Kathy’s continuing presence with him, in a way that was stunning to behold. There was nothing indulgent about his living into that grief. He was just simply and fully in it, with his whole heart, even as he was radiantly present to the rest of us.
During our week together, we spent two nights camping on a wilderness island. Those nights out camping were unusually clear and calm for Southeast Alaska. It was a great opportunity to experience paddling through the phosphorescence, or bioluminescence, in the water, so I decided to lead the group on a late night paddle around the island.
As the warm glow of our campfire faded into the distance behind us, we entered a darkness that was filled with uncanny light. The Milky Was was fully deployed above us, and fully reflected in the calm immensity of the inland sea below us, so that it felt as if we were suspended in the middle of the stars, paddling through them. Then there was the phosphorescence. Light from the bioluminescence in the water exploded from each paddle stroke, and the wakes from our kayaks were made out of fire.
We paddled in silence, seeing only glimpses of the other boats in the darkness from the fire in our wakes. Each boat was assigned a number, and periodically I shouted out for everyone to stop, so that we could count off, so that we could confirm that everyone was still there, and still reasonably close together. The forested edge of the island was a looming, ghostly shape that was just enough to keep us on a vague course of circumnavigation. Otherwise, each stroke was an act of blind faith, moving into a darkness laced with nothing but stars above and stars below. And then the northern lights kicked in . . .
We were eventually guided back to our campsite by the fading embers of our campfire. As we pulled our kayaks back above the high tide line, Gordon later reported that his son Alex said, “Dad, that was the coolest thing I have ever done.”
On returning to Nashville, Gordon gave a talk at his first meditation group without Kathy being present. Her cushion was still laid out beside him, and he titled his talk “Paddling in the Dark”, and he told the story of our paddle that night as a metaphor not only for his own journey through grief, but as a metaphor for how our lives actually are.
The truth is that we don’t ever really know where we are on our journey, and whether our personal journey will end today, tomorrow, or twenty years from now. We only know that it will end, surely and without a doubt. Our egos lead us into an endless war with that truth, and so we suffer. We suffer from our attempts to nail down our lives, to plan everything out into an illusory future that we think we can control. We suffer from our fruitless attempts to banish what we don’t want from happening, and to hold on just as fruitlessly to what we merely want. The beginning of freedom happens when we recognize the fruitlessness of this battle against reality, and begin a new journey that accepts the necessity of letting go. Letting go of our need to control what we cannot control. Letting go of our need to know what is beyond knowing. Letting go of our need to always have things our own way, and opening instead simply to how things are in any given moment. What a relief! Yes, this takes bravery. We are left with nothing, strictly speaking, but our next paddle stroke in a darkness that only hints at the true shape and scope of our lives. But when we are truly able to let go in this way, and to trust that our next stroke will bring us where we need to go, a mysterious freedom and joy has room to emerge out of the apparent darkness of a life previously bound by fear and anxiety.
The winter solstice, with its literal leaning toward the dark, is a great time to remember how rich this darkness can be, and how important it is to our journey of awakening.
May we bring the fruitfulness of this darkness with us as the earth begins its turn back toward the season of returning light.