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".
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.
As I look out from the lodge onto Keene Channel this morning, I can barely tell where the line is between water, forest and sky. I can barely tell where my own body leaves off, and this wild world begins. I’m writing this by hand. Later, when I load the skiff with laundry and head to town for supplies with my crew, I’ll transfer these words to my computer and send it along your way. Consider this a letter, then. “Blog” is one of the least alluring words ever consigned to the English language, in my opinion.
I’ve just completed my first Inside Passages kayaking retreat of the season, with a terrific group of Courage & Renewal facilitators. My co-leaders on this trip have been John Fenner from the Center for Courage and Renewal, Noel Stout as assistant guide, and Emily White as lodge chef. What a great team.
For a week I haven’t checked email. I haven’t heard a stitch of news either, and yet I feel flush with the news that matters; that I am awash in a still-vibrant world, that there are good people all around doing extraordinary work. William Carlos Williams wrote, “Look at what passes for the news / You will not find it there.”
So I have been busy this week listening to the news that issues from silence, from words carefully chosen, and from the ground beneath my feet. Sometimes it is delivered in human voices. Sometimes in the voice of raven, harbor porpoise, the wind in the spruce forest, or the sheets of rain pelting the water. There is a great deal to ponder here.
In her poem Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does it End?, Mary Oliver writes,
“There are things you can’t reach. But you can reach out to them, and all day long.
The wind, the birds flying away. The idea of God.
And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.”
It is a strange thing, how my stubborn conviction that the world is tragically flawed can suck the life out of me, and make this a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thought, in my experience, has a bad habit of going negative, almost by design, and it is not a habit that can be cured by more thought. On the contrary, I have been learning to question my thoughts ruthlessly, take them on as the snarky, unruly crowd that they are.
The best way to do that, I’ve found, is to let my thinking mind hammer away at its grievances, if it must, and in the meantime climb back down into my body, re-establish contact with the ground I stand on, or the flowing water beneath my kayak. That is what I have been doing all week during this retreat. My body knows what is needed, and what to do. Take the next step, or the next stroke of the paddle, but do it consciously. Feel myself doing it. Let go of the physical tension I hadn’t noticed I was carrying. Soften my senses. Open back up. Listen deeply. The mysterious thing is that if I keep at this for awhile, if I stay with the sensations of my body in a direct, immediate way, sure enough the mind lets go of the bone it’s been chewing on, and the world around me comes back into vibrant focus. The world that was alive all the while comes back alive in me. There it is again. Here I am again. Now, what does the world need from me?
I love the title that Basho gave his travel journals: “Narrow Path to the Deep North.” What I feel as I prepare to sail up the Inside Passage for another season of kayak guiding and commercial fishing in Alaska must be similar to what other migratory animals feel, when the urge for going sets in. There is a physical yearning for the “Deep North” that has been woven into my annual cycle now for over forty years. The salmon are returning. The great migration of birds and whales and humans is in full swing, pulled by the long days and warm weather to a place of Pleistocene plenty.
For most of these years I’ve been a commercial fisherman, chasing salmon runs from Bristol Bay to the Panhandle, and halibut from Chatham Strait to the Gulf of Alaska. Now my commercial fishing gig is down to a single halibut trip in Southeast Alaska in August, after a month of guiding kayak trips. I’m starting to pull back on the throttle.
But I love both these ways of being in the wild – as a guide and a fisherman – expressions of livelihood, not leisure, played out in a still-primordial landscape. There are stakes involved, and risks. But being a commercial fisherman also has a powerful contemplative strain to it, which links it to mindfulness; a need to be fully present, and a visceral sense that I am a small player in a vastly more-than-human world.
I’m well aware, as a student of the dharma, that commercial fishing contradicts a core Buddhist teaching against taking the life of other creatures. But many indigenous traditions think about this differently. I’ve always felt a powerful bond with Northwest Coast cultures, whose survival hinged for millennia on a deeply respectful dependence and reciprocity with the “salmon and halibut people”. I understand, as Gary Snyder has said, that one day the table will be set around me, and my flesh will flow back into these other creatures. I don’t have a problem with this. It gives me comfort, really, and a sense of powerful belonging on this coast. My work as a mindfulness teacher and fisherman are excursions onto the same wild edge, one inner, one outer. Both edges are alluring and untamable, bound by the poignant, transient nature of all our lives.
I will not be updating these posts often while I’m in Alaska. I need this annual cycle of “time outside of time”, to lay my heart back out on the long wave. I don’t think we’re better for being at the beck and call of our media tools every waking hour of our lives, and I will be on something of a media fast over the coming weeks. May you also find yourself sailing on the long wave from time to time during these long days of summer.
Wherever you may be reading this cyber-message-in-a-bottle, I hope it finds you well.