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".
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.”
Spring has arrived at Sogenji, and almost overnight the cherry blossoms have burst forth, bringing tons of Japanese tourists to the temple grounds looking for the peak-moment photograph. Spring blossoms and fall colors are like Christmas and Easter for the Japanese – real celebratory events.
My 64th birthday came on my last full day at Sogenji. I was hoping to slip it under the radar, but Chisan has a way of knowing about these things. So as tradition here has it, I was expected to offer a poem to commemorate the occasion. My poem was received with the reverent respect that is my due as an elder in the community. I’ll share it with you here:
Curse you Paul McCartney
Long ago you predicted that this would happen.
Now it has come to pass,
And I must learn the painful truth.
‘Will they still need me
Will they still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?’
But I will not give in to fear.
‘On top of Mt. Sogenji I have met the painful stick,
And there is still one more shout coming.’
‘At this moment, what more need I seek?’
I will wander the world as a beggar now,
At least until next Tuesday
When my plane touches down in Seattle
And I wake from this dream,
Wondering . . .
what . . .
happened . . .
(Commentary on the poem for those unfamiliar with the subtle nuances of Zen:
- Paul McCartney is a British singer/songwriter.
- The allusion to “meeting the painful stick” and to “one more shout coming” is from The Preface to the Saying of Zen Master Rinzai, which we recite every morning during sutra service.
- The “painful stick” is a reference to the kyosaku, a flattened wooden rod that the head monk carries around to whack any monk foolish enough to doze off on the cushion.
- “At this moment what more need I seek” is plagiarized from Hakuin Zenki’s Song of Zazen, which we also, unfortunately, recite every morning during the 4:00 hour.
Things changed for me at Sogenji when word got out that I had carpentry skills. I have been plenty busy during the daily work time, which usually lasts three hours. I’ve used my work practice to build two beds and three desks for the guesthouse, putting the final touches on them just as my last work period was drawing to a close today. This work has been a lot of fun, and it has given me the illusion that I am being “useful”.
The monks have generally found my woodworking projects entertaining, and they like to check in on my progress.
In fact, I have decided to start a new line of furniture. I’m calling it Sogenji Shaker. It is guaranteed made with inadequate tools, cheap materials, compressed work time, and no flat surfaces to work on. And it has given me something creative to not think about while I am on the cushion.
Probably two thirds of these students are from Eastern Europe; primarily Hungary, Poland and Russia. When I ask why they think that is, I’ve been given some fascinating answers. In their view, the Eastern European countries came out of the Soviet era spiritually starved, and they have had to reinvent a foundation for spiritual growth and practice. Many of them also carry a strong devotional spirit from their traditional Roman Catholic and Orthodox faiths, but without a sense of belonging within those traditions in the new era. Buddhism is turning out to be a compelling place to invest that spirit and passion.
They have also inherited a cultural identity crisis from the Soviet era, along with persistently lousy economies, and are having to rediscover who they are now within the matrix. So for these young people, finding this full-bodied place of practice has given them a new lease on life, along with a stong community of international colleagues. Almost all of them intend to return to their home countries after a few years of training here, and to express the fruits of their training in a life of service there.
Tomorrow I leave Sogenji for Kyoto for two days with my friend Yuho, an American Zen monk who runs a temple there. I am really looking forward to this time in the old capital of Japan, before I fly home on April 1st. Chisan informed me today that Harada is also traveling to Kyoto tomorrow, along with Sho-e, his senior German student, so I will take the bullet train with them. Being with Harada outside of the training environment is a little intimidating. But then being with him in the training environment is intimidating too. That’s just how it is with him. Chisan seems to think its a great idea, and besides, I’m not really being given a choice. So no doubt this will keep the adventure going.
Sogenji owns several hundred acres of forested mountain behind the monastery, which makes it feel far from the city of Okayama that is actually lapping at its front doorstep. At the top of the hill, about a half mile by trail and scramble up a steep ravine, sits a small hermitage. What a contrast to the great hondo temple at the bottom of the hill!
Students are permitted, by invitation of the roshi, to do a “doku sesshin”, or solitary retreat at the hermitage. The length of the retreat can vary from a few days to a full month. I was invited to do a short, three day doku sesshin this week, during the heart of my time at Sogenji.
During doku sesshin, the student comes down from the mountain morning and evening for sanzen (personal interview) with the roshi, and to retrieve food that has been left for pickup. It is all set up so that there is no contact between the retreatant and the rest of the community during doku sesshin, except for the essential daily meetings with the roshi. Back up at the hermitage, one can use the time for practice in whatever way one chooses, which is a great freedom, and opportunity for integrating practice into daily life, after the tight ritual structure that governs life at the monastery.
My doku sesshin, which ended this morning, was a deeply nourishing time for me. There is an intricate system of trails through the hills, laced with pilgrimage sites and small temples, that have been traveled by pilgrims for centuries. It felt great to include a vigorous hike each day, along with zazen, studying and journaling. It is not a time for zoning out though. The energy of the monastery down below wafts up the hill, and the meetings with Harada twice a day help hold ones feet to the fire.
It has been fifteen years since I was last at Sogenji. In between I have attended many retreats with Harada at Tahoma Zen Monastery on Whidbey Island. During much of that time, I have wrestled with strong feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy in my practice. Will I ever be “good” enough. Can I ever come up to this roshi’s standards? I worried a bit, in coming back to Sogenji, whether those old daemons might be here waiting for me.
But a lot has changed for me in the intervening years, and it feels like the tide is turning in the direction of acceptance and self-compassion. Some of that change is probably just the drumbeat of aging. My old habit of refusing to accept things as they are – in myself, in others, and in the world – of swimming against the current of reality, is simply running out of gas. I find myself able to turn toward things as they are these days, with less judgement and resistance, more openness and humility – even the most difficult aspects of my life. Maybe it’s fair to say that I am finally growing up.
Instead of always trying to practice harder, I’m learning to practice softer, as Michael Wenger has put it. “Practicing softer” is not in Harada’s vocabulary or cultural self-understanding. But it is in mine, and that shift toward a softer holding of things has made all the difference. It has even made it possible for me to practice fruitfully again in this difficult training environment that the young monks here like to call “Samurai Boot Camp”.
Working with some really good American teachers over the last decade has helped me soften these sharp edges in myself. Particularly fruitful has been my work with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Norman Fischer and Rodney Smith, who have helped immensely in translating these traditional Asian dharma forms into a vernacular that flows more fluidly, for me at least, as an American lay practitioner.
Teaching MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) has also been hugely beneficial to the integration of my practice into daily life. Learning to meet people where they are within my own culture, to present the basic tools of dharma practice without its traditional Buddhist scaffolding, and with the collaborating perspectives of Western psychology and neuroscience, has given a lot of fresh traction to my understanding of these emerging dharma forms.
The beauty, for me, of this time at Sogenji is its cementing of a “both/and” understanding, in place of the “either/or” approach that had me locked down for so long. The rigors of training here are a reminder that this practice takes strong motivation and commitment, and I can feel how the potency of the Sogenji training model is firming up my core motivation to practice.
But it is also reaffirming my core identity as an American lay practitioner. I am not called to be a monk. I am called to a life in the world, as a teacher, explorer, husband and father, and as a “kayaking guide” who is learning to ride the converging rip tides of many Buddhist tributaries flowing into a new dharma river in the West. It is a wild ride for sure.
Mostly, I’m feeling great gratitude for this time at Sogenji, and for the great good fortune of being able to train with such an extraordinary teacher as Harada, among such gifted and dedicated practitioners from all over the world.