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".
It is the open day after the osesshin here at Sogenji – the intensive retreat that happens one week a month, and I’m enjoying resting up, doing laundry, and visiting with some of the amazing people in training here. There is even internet here now, for these days when the schedule is loosened up a bit. It was pretty rugged having to dive right into osesshin coming straight off the jet, but on the other hand it was a good way to really get here. The osesshin schedule is more intensive that at Tahoma, sitting basically from 4:00 AM to 10:30 PM, with a few short breaks. It is also cold in a way you can’t escape here. There is no central heating in these three hundred year old building, so it is just as cold inside as outside. Temperatures near freezing in the early morning, then more mild into the afternoon. It feels a little like winter camping, but I’m getting used to sitting bundled up, and winter is starting to loosen its grip now. The temple grounds and buildings are drop-dead beautiful, and that beauty helps ease the cold. Now that osesshin is over, the schedule for the rest of my time here will be a bit less rigorous.
The intensity of the quiet, with so much scope given to that silence, penetrates even more deeply than the cold. It is hard to describe, because this scale of silence is so utterly absent from my ordinary life, even as a mindfulness teacher. A training environment like this is very hard find in the culture of distraction that is so rampant in America.
Mostly a younger group of people in training here these days – from Germany, Poland, Hungary, Great Britain and the U.S., as well as a few now from Japan. I am feeling my age for sure. But so far I have been able to find my place in the mix of things where I can work hard without trying to be as macho as the younger ones. The atmosphere in a Rinzai Zen monastery is very competitive by design, so it takes some gumption to let go of that competitive urge. Mostly for me that means sitting some of the time with my feet down in the zendo – chair-like -, or standing, rather than sitting with my legs crossed on the cushion for hours at a spell.
I have been able also to let go of expectations about why I am here, to forget about trying to accomplish anything, and just put myself into the training as best I can. Relaxing and letting go continuously, rather than getting tight and judging myself for being so flawed, as I have always been so good at doing in the past. I can feel the grip of that old habit really starting to let go. What a relief! As challenging as this is, there is also an ease and comfort that comes with being carried along by such a strong and ancient current, having the benefit of a powerful practicing community, and of an intimate routine that I know well from years of practice. The flow of rituals that are the same each day offer a lot of solace.
I have no illusions that this is anything but a short dip into intensive training. Most people have to commit to a full year of training in order to be allowed to come here. But as one of Harada’s students from Tahoma, I can come for a shorter visit, to taste the strong brew of traditional Japanese training. So far I’m glad I followed my hunch to come. It was time. After three and a half decades of dharma practice, I am only beginning to understand – and to feel – how this practice is moving into the marrow of my everyday life. A deep dive like this from time to time can really help to anchor that understanding. Nothing feels more important to me at this point in my life, and at this pivotal time in our shared life on earth.
As I write this, my jet is just lifting off from Seattle-Tacoma, headed for San Francisco and Osaka, Japan. Puget Sound is fading into the mist and fog and rain of this early March morning. It will still be winter when I get to Sogenji.
My final MBSR class with King County employees concluded last night. As always, I was moved by the quality and depth of closing reflections from participants as we went around the circle of twenty-five people, sharing what has been valuable about this eight-week journey into mindfulness. One said, “I used to be caught in my reactivity, and I didn’t even know it. Now I see that I really can turn my reactions into responses – that I have choices – and this has made all the difference.” Another said, “I am so much calmer now. I was really stressed when I started the class. Those stesses are still there, but I don’t get pulled into them nearly as much. It’s hard to put into words.” Another said, “It gives me comfort to run into colleagues from this class now, and to know that we share this bond. I don’t feel so alone, and I feel better able to be present to my work.” Another said, “I was really disconnected from my body before. It was like me and my body were two. Now I do the body scan every day on the bus when I’m riding to work. I feel more calm when I get there, and I am really learning how to listen to my body. It makes a huge difference.”
Watching these insights take root in my students is inspiring. But I have also been feeling a need to take a break from teaching, and to go deeper again into my own practice. This is a trip I’ve been wanting to take for a long time, though I feel some apprehension going into it – a full month of intensive practice, mostly in silence. I’ve never done more that a week-long silent retreat before.
My motivation for going to Sogenji is still a bit murky. I’m a little surprised that I’m actually doing it. Mostly, my decision stems from my retreat with Harada at Tahoma Zen Monastery on Whidbey Island last September, when I felt a fresh connection to my teacher – fresh motivation to stay within the Zen stream. For the next month I will go by the name that Harada gave me. I will be “Shinkai”, which means “mind of ocean”. Chisan emailed me from Sogenji yesterday that Harada has mentioned several times to her that, “Shinkai is coming,” each time with a smile. The story I have been telling myself for so many years that I am a lousy Zen student, that Harada doesn’t take me seriously as a student, is obviously not true. Harada takes me much more seriously than I take myself. My job on this trip, and in moving forward from here, is to get out of my own way, so that the deep possibilities that Harada sees in me, and that are in everyone, can find freer and more heartfelt epression in my life. This is important not just for me, but for everyone that my life comes in contact with.
As both a Zen student and MBSR teacher, I feel myself perched on a rich, fertile intersection between traditional Buddhist training, and the exploding world of applied mindfulness in Western culture. It is messy and chaotic and beautiful and absolutely necessary. The discontinuities between the two feel much smaller to me than they used to. Could it be that all this elegant form and effort comes down to simply learning how to do this continuously in our everyday lives? I think so. But as the “mindfulness revolution” kicks into high gear, the question of integrity looms large. It is not nearly as easy to do this as pop culture is prone to suggest. Through my own ongoing practice and teaching, I have developed a more visceral understanding of how challenging it is to bring mindfulness into the marrow of our everyday lives, because I see how hard it is for me to do it skillfully and continuously. The layers of resistance and delusion never give way to clarity for long.
I have no idea if this trip to Japan will yield fruit, and what form that fruit will take. I’m simply following a hunch that this is what I need to do right now. I am trying to enter this time, as Suzuki Roshi used to suggest, “without a gaining idea.” And while reading and writing will mostly be on the back burner during this time, I’ll try to weigh in a couple times in the coming weeks with some of what I am learning.
In addition to some excellent skiing, and my ongoing work as a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher at Seattle’s VA Hospital and the Samaritan Center of Puget Sound, I am teaching a first-ever MBSR class for King County employees in Seattle this winter through Mindfulness Northwest. The work of bringing mindfulness training into such a rich diversity of settings is continually engaging and energizing for me.
I have put my four MBSR practice CD’s into podcast format now on my website, which is available here to either listen directly, or to download. The CD’s include a body scan, a simple yoga routine, a qi gong movement series, and several tracks of mindful sitting. If you are not a part of one of my classes, you will probably find the mindful sitting tracks to be most accessible.
I am also actively involved as a founding member of the Cascadia Climate Collaborative, in partnership with the Whidbey Institute. Our planning team is getting ready for a climate conference this April 11-12 at the Whidbey Institute, designed for climate leaders and community activists within the Cascadia region. We have a powerful cast of visionary speakers lined up, including Kathleen Dean Moore, KC Golden, Alec Loorz and Tzeporah Berman. While this is an invitational conference, there will be a public talk given by Kathleen Dean Moore at the Whidbey Institute on Saturday evening, April 12, 2014.
Our planning team has also released an inspiring nine-minute video on the theme of “Moral Power for Climate Action”, produced by the award winning PBS documentary filmmaker Phil Walker. This film can be freely accessed here.
I will be stepping back from this work for the month of March, during which time I will be doing an intensive Zen training period with my teacher Shodo Harada Roshi at Sogenji Zen Monastery in Okayama, Japan. During that time I will have very limited access to email and internet, so I apologize if that makes it difficult to contact me during that month. It is my longstanding conviction that the kind of work I feel called to do, as both a teacher and an activist, requires periods of deep restoration and resilience training, if we are to be fully present to those we serve, and if we are going to sustain our commitments over time. I look forward to this time at Sogenji, and to all the wonderful opportunities for collaborative work that have been given me to do.
Last week I attended a Zen Rohatsu retreat in Bellingham. The Rohatsu commemorates the Buddha’s enlightenment, which tradition says happened at this time of year, when the Buddha took his seat beneath the bodhi tree and vowed not to move until he had gotten to the root of enlightened mind. His enlightenment moment happened at dawn after sitting all night, when he saw the morning star, and was struck by the full, wide-open insight that life, all matter, all form and experience truly is woven together at its core. All is alive. There is nothing whatsoever to fear.
Within the Zen tradition, Rohatsu is the most important retreat of the year. Often it includes at least one all-night sit, where students take upon themselves Buddha’s commitment to become awakened, no matter what.
The silent Rohatsu retreat I attended lasted three days instead of the usual seven. The schedule was not so rigorous as it is in the Zen monasteries of Japan. But there were still long hours of sitting each day. As the final day of the retreat came to an end at 9:00 PM, we were invited to sit longer into the night, as the Buddha did long ago, if we felt so moved. I was tired. My knees ached. I was ready to call it a day. But when the last bell had rung, I decided to sit just a bit longer. I joined the half-dozen or so other Zen students who stayed in the meditation hall as the others quietly left for the night.
I didn’t stay to prove anything. It wasn’t a contest or a marathon. I just felt like it. One hour became two, then three, then four. Time melted into a vigil, held within the deep darkness of a mid-winter’s night. Somewhere in the night I napped for a couple of hours on my cushion, then resumed sitting for the last two hours before dawn. I sat with all the things that feel so wrong about the world, and all the things that make no sense about my life. I sat with all the things I have yet to accomplish, and all the things I have given up trying to accomplish. I sat with a deep knowing that my time left on this earth is short, and my life – all life – is precious beyond what anyone can truly comprehend.
It felt as though my snarky contentions about right and wrong became tributaries of a much larger river. All my fears and hopes, insufficiencies and self-doubts, just kept flowing into a great river that was big enough to hold it all.
This is the raft I want to ride on. But it is arguably not as easy as it used to be. And it was never easy to begin with. So much is dying now, so much more to let go of than just my own small life. In his recent NY Times piece, Learning How To Die In the Anthropcene, Roy Scranton has written:
In the epoch of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality — “What does my life mean in the face of death?” — is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. What does human existence mean against 100,000 years of climate change? What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?
These are questions that haunt me in the night. Where is the river that is big enough to carry life forward beyond humanity’s end, beyond the end of the bio-sphere that gave birth to us? Can I drink even that down, stay in the rapids of that, without losing heart or hope?
Maybe it wasn’t so different in the Buddha’s time. No doubt it was this same fierce beauty and wonder at our transient passage through Time – this same drinking it all down – that shined through for the Buddha when he glimpsed the morning star all those centuries ago. It is that same fierce beauty and wonder that offers to break things open again in our own hearts – and again and again. Endlessly, forever.
If I were in the Tavern tonight, / I would buy freely for everyone in the world
Because our marriage with the Cruel Beauty / Of time and space cannot endure very long.
Death is a favor to us / But our minds have lost their balance.
The miraculous existence and impermanence of Form / Always makes the illuminated ones
Laugh and Sing.
I came home from Alaska recently after two months on the “long wave”. Over many weeks I lived unplugged, which allowed me to fall under the spell of direct time, and to fall out of virtual time.
This is very bad for business. I should be more concerned. I am as aware as anyone that if I’m not on Facebook or Twitter for more than a couple weeks consecutively, I’ve effectively ceased to exist. I’m gone. Disappeared. Poof!
Yet here is what it feels like on the inside. It’s more like I’ve “fallen awake.” I’ve “come to.” I feel myself immersed again in the world that actually gave birth to my body, the world that will receive my body back into itself when I die. The world to which my mind and senses have the possibility of a direct relationship in real time.
Maybe that’s good enough.
I realize that I’ve squandered whatever momentum I may have achieved with this blog, for example. It’s been two months since I offered a fresh entry. But maybe that’s okay too. To be honest, these blog posts often feel like putting a note in a bottle and tossing it into an unknown sea. Occasionally a boat picks one up. But it’s not the same as actually being on that boat.
There is something thin about online communication. It is a powerful tool, for sure, and I will continue to use it. But it is never the same as actually being with someone, sharing the same piece of ground beneath our feet, feeling the same wind and sun on our faces as we exchange words and body language, hold each other’s gaze, sharing our struggles and our successes in actual living presence.
So my goal this fall and winter is to stay on the long wave as best I can, even in the turbulence of a short wave world. To pull this off, I realize I am going to have to do less, to say “No” to more things, and “Yes” more robustly to the things that I still feel called to do. My family and friends certainly deserve that from me. My teaching is also at the center of what feels important to me these days. I love the direct connection with my students. The in-person nature of our encounters, the aliveness of our connections. Let there be more of that.
I will need to give less attention to the menu of daily distractions that keep me from my real work, and to the open-pit mine of psychological manipulation that masquerades as the daily “news”. I will need to meet my restlessness and anxiety “at the door laughing, and invite them in”, as Rumi put it, not fleeing into busyness or distraction to escape them. This is the hardest work of all for me – to turn toward what is difficult in my life, and invite it in as the essential teacher it surely is. There may be no other way, and I am learning to welcome the challenge of it.
So this is what I plan to do with this next season of my life. Whether it is good for business or not.