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".
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.
A few helpful hints for the Standing People from the Salmon People:
1. Show off your beauty. Know how beautiful you are. Leap. Surge. Mingle. Dance.
2. Have grand adventures. Cross the North Pacific all the way to Kamchatka and Hokkaido. Move under your own power. Navigate by the stars.
3. Be intimate with the tides and currents. Play the edges constantly. Find your joy there.
4. Hang out with charismatic megafauna. Congregate with humpback whales and bald eagles and sea lions and humans among the tides rips and upwellings, and where the herring come to spawn.
5. Know where you are going, and let nothing stop you. Remember in your bones the exact location of the stream where you were born. Know where you are, always, in relation to that stream.
6. Turn for home when your body tells you it’s time. Trust that you will find the way, and don’t be daunted by any distance.
7. Give yourself away to the creatures who need you, who have waited expectantly for your return: the Swimming People, the Flying People, and the Standing People whose lives are bound so closely to yours’.
8. When at last you reach the home stream, head straight into the current and start climbing. Climb the rapids. Climb the waterfalls. Climb the very mountains. Bend yourself to that final act of love that will keep it all going.
9. Let go of any thought of preserving your beauty now. Let your body morph, sprout humps and fangs and rainbow colors. And in that final act of union, pour yourself out with your lover into the stream that will be your progeny.
10. Let it all go now. Feed the animals with your spent body. Stray far into the ancient forest as you swim down their bodies and back into the soil. Become the very flesh of the forest itself. Climb to the tops of the trees.
(As transcribed from the Salmon People by Kurt Hoelting during the Blue River Writer’s Gathering, Andrews Experimental Forest, McKenzie River, OR, Sept. 25-27, 2014)
I have just finished Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I found it revelatory – almost exhilarating at times – because of the way it refreshes and validates the cultural importance of the introvert temperament. Quiet explores the personality poles of introversion and extroversion as the “north and south of temperament”. It does so in a way that showcases the downside of America’s unbridled extroversion, while reclaiming the power of introversion as a grounding, sustaining force within human culture.
Most political and corporate leaders are drafted from the ranks of extroverts. George W. Bush’s uber-extroverted, “bring it on” approach to our invasion of Iraq – his “shoot now and aim later” approach to the politics of war, was an example of extroversion at its most destructive. In finance, this kind of reckless hubris led to the Wall Street abuses that nearly toppled our global financial institutions in 2008. In both cases, more introverted and thoughtful voices who urged caution in our ramp up to war, or who called attention to patterns of financial abuse prior to the crash, were simply brushed aside as naive, inconsequential nay-sayers.
In contrast, Al Gore is, by most accounts, an introvert, and his recent work on climate change has shown some of the classic powers that introverts possess. As Cain writes, “On the subject of global warming, Gore has a clarity of voice that eluded him as a politician. For Gore, immersing himself in a complicated scientific puzzle comes naturally. Focusing on a single passion rather than tap dancing from subject to subject comes naturally. Even talking to crowds comes naturally when the subject is climate change. Gore on global warming has an easy charisma and connection with audience members that eluded him as a political candidate. That’s because this mission, for him, is not about politics or personality. It’s about the call of his conscience.”
I love working alone, and my choices of lifestyle and livelihood have taken me as far from the New Groupthink and social hive as I can get – to the wilds of Alaska for several months a year as a fisherman and wilderness guide, into the contemplative solitude of the writer’s craft, and to Buddhist monasteries for regular silent meditation retreats. These are the places I have felt most fully alive, and where my best work has been seeded. Cain has helped me understand, and put to rest, the unconscious residue of doubt about the value of these introvert tendencies in a rampantly extroverted culture.
Quiet has reaffirmed for me the ways that both creativity and conscience are core fruits of the introvert temperament, and how crucial they are to our survival. Without people to carry these values forward in the culture, Cain says, “we will, quite literally, drown.”