moving the river home

Fleet Maull & Jimmy Santiago Baca’s talk, which is available here, was rich with Baca’s stories about his encounters with disenfranchised youth who attended his writing retreats.  One retreat was held at a ranch where previous (wealthy) owners had moved the river that flowed through the property closer to their ranch house so they could enjoy a cooling swim without having to go too far.  The original course of the river had dried up and the land became a dead zone.

Baca pointed out that this is often what happens to us.  Somewhere in the course of our lives, the river of our growth is re-channeled, sometimes through the direct actions of others, sometimes through unintended tragedy or catastrophe.  The ground where it might have nourished a different growth dies and we feel misaligned with our landscape.

I know that dead zone intimately.  There are words, scents, textures that evoke a deep grief that runs from the center of my chest up to the edge of my shoulder.  I used to think I was having a heart attack but now I know it’s just a flash flood in the riverbed of grief.  Both Baca and Maull punctuate their teachings that one way we cope with the dead zone is through addictions that give us the edge of feeling alive; we can be addicts to physical substances as well as the drugs of greed, ignorance, and anger.  This is dharma at the edge: the dark edge between who I was meant to be and who I am.

This is also where dharma can slice across the edge to give light to who I am as a creative, generative and prosocial being – if I can remember the antidote practices of generosity, wisdom, and tolerance.  Maull speaks of this, our luminous Buddha nature, who we really are, and points out that we lose sight of it because of our tendency to flip into survival mode when we are on the dark side of the edge.  I felt that flip over and over through the week as I contracted into the solidifying, narrowing, and rejecting mind to prevent falling into the abyss of the dead zone.  Then slowly, I found a way to meet the contraction with respect for its power to dislodge my footing and to say a quiet “farewell and well met, my friend,” as I moved a little less fearfully along the edge,  a wobbly but willing warrior.

I haven’t figured out how to move the river home.  Perhaps, after all these lifetimes, it doesn’t matter.  As I noticed in the New Mexico landscape, there is a powerful beauty in the volcanic rocks that hold up the sky – and on some are tufts of living green.

Thank you for practising,


Note bene: The title of this post is borrowed from Baca’s documentary of the same name.  for more information go here.

day for day

Jimmy Santiago Baca wrote A Place to Stand in 2001.  It is a recounting of his childhood and young adulthood arcing from familial to prison violence, evoking intense images of survival.   Baca lived in one form of imprisonment or another from the age of 5 years finally being sentence to serve five years “day for day.”  He explains that “day for day” meant there was no chance for parole or shortening the sentence through good deeds.  The tone of the book is a bit righteous and Baca seems firmly fixed in the victim role.  One of the participants in the Zen Brain retreat had written an article that suggests our self-righteousness is directly proportional to our need to protect our innocence.  Given Baca’s history, I can certainly let the tone slide and meeting him in person, it’s clear that the marks of abandonment and its attendant need for self-protection are vibrant in his body.

The concept of serving “day for day” however was compelling.  I thought about the “day for day” I’ve been serving through my self-sentencing, judgements laid down for my repeated offenses.  Then Fleet Maull in his retreat teachings opened with the question: What are the three life sentences you have given yourself?

Did your brain just come to a screeching halt, there?

What are the three life sentences I have given myself?

Be invisible

That was the first one I wrote down and I thought it related to that now-wearying song about being an immigrant, a minority, a woman in a male-dominated profession, being anti-feminist in a female-dominated profession, ad hominem infinitum.  As the week wore on (and at times that was literal), I began to see how I make myself invisible under certain conditions: when the presented and visible self was not acknowledged, I tended to disappear.  It was something that arose out of a dynamic and not a prescription for being.

So I changed the sentence:

Becoming invisible

And here I stand, serving this life sentence day for day…

How about you?

Thank you for practising,