the heart of mindfulness practice – walking the mountain closer

DSC_0153I’ve been journeying. Nowhere special. Just these inner paths of tangled neural wiring, trying to unravel a few connections, solder others and snip out the truly fried ones. This work of un-self-making is a tough one. If I’m not careful, I end up more tangled and frazzled than I started. More often than not, I forget the intention (to drain the swamp) and resort to playing whack-a-mole (or alligator) in futile attempts to resist assimilation into unwholesomeness.

The great thing about having kalyanamitras is that one can spend a morning whacking moles and the afternoon having an hour of gentle guidance about how to cultivate compassion for the critters. After all, even moles suffer. If you’re looking for some of that gentle guidance, by the way, I do suggest you access my dear spiritual pal Maia Duerr who has a terrific new venture called Guidance & Encouragement Sessions.

The conversation with Maia folded neatly into a book I was reading, Walk Like a Mountain by Innen Ray Parchelo (published by Sumeru Books).  As much as I avoid my tangled mess of neural circuitry, I avoid walking meditation. However, Parchelo makes it very compelling from the start of the book where he lays out the framework of a journey (who doesn’t love a road trip) to the end where he brings us home to ourselves with a caveat of the necessity for humility. Walk Like a Mountain packs a wickedly dense amount of information into 204 pages. Not only does Parchelo draw together the threads of Buddhist teachings on walking meditation, he takes us down side roads and up mountain paths of archetypes and ecological history of landscapes he has walked. Furthermore, the chapters on preparation and adaptations to walking (disabilities) are seductive in convincing me that this might just be something I could do. The “Journey” chapters are really practice sessions; you could almost make them into a walk-focused sesshin.

As I read through the carefully structured instructions to cultivate wholesome movement through space, it became clear that a practice that contains even a smidgen of reluctance (i.e., my resistance to kinhin, indoors and out) is really a resistance to the totality of practice. More than that, it is a reluctance to enter the deeper aspects of practice. Parchelo writes frequently in the book of Jizo Bodhisattva who walks into the hottest of hells to save sentient beings. And it struck me that relegating walking meditation to the status of “grit your teeth and get it over with” misses the heart of practice.

To doubt the walking of the mountain means that one does not yet know one’s own walking. It is not that one does not walk but that one does not yet know, has not made clear, this walking.

Dogen, Mountains and Waters Sutra

The heart of mindfulness practice is to connect with our life just as it is. Sitting, standing, walking, talking, writing, eating, sleeping, defecating, urinating. It’s all movement – some large, some micro – that bring us into intimate connection with the emerging self. There can be, as Parchelo makes clear with respect to the “Zen of running/biking/tennis etc”, no substitutions.

Life. Just this.

The guidance conversation with Maia complemented Parchelo’s work on the power of navigating true to one’s intentions. In the case of entering the heart of mindfulness practice, it is dwelling in the space of our life that is vibrant and life-giving. It is a coming alive and bringing the mountain closer to our center.

Tomorrow, Frank and I lead our very first residential retreat in secular mindfulness practice. I may wear my rakusu anyway. Just because. It’s a frightening and exciting prospect of watching forty mountains walk six steps closer to the heart of an intimate life. I’m hoping Dogen will say a few words of self-making and that the labyrinth walking at nightfall will bring me in the knowing of the walking mountain.

being a time being: dogen, katagiri & the flight of vultures

timebeing1The sight of five vultures waiting at the end of the driveway can be a good thing. What is the good and what thing they point to is, of course, unknowable in the immediate. And yet. That single view is enough to send me wandering on time travels to worlds of worry, regret and wondering what if.

Vultures waiting are a powerful icon for time lost, frittered away. The body/mind unbinding with nothing left but the shell of a vessel poorly treated and meagerly used. I stepped out of the car quietly not wanting to set them on flight; that would have truly signalled the end. So I watched them as they watched something off in the northeast field, unmoving yet intimately related.

Dogen¹ writes exquisitely of time as inseparable from being, time-being or more succinctly being-which-is-time. Uji. It takes a moment to drop into what that feels like because the cascade of moments seems external, impenetrable and inexorably outside our control. Our perception insists that time moves relentlessly and mercilessly as we are dragged along in its wake. No wonder I quail at the sight of an icon of endings.

Katagari² describes “The Pivot of Nothingness” as this present moment – which doesn’t exist because past is vanishing and future has yet to unfold leaving a void, a turning point, a pivot into the next unfolding. For ease of communication, we tend to position ourselves through language. “Here I am.” But the terminology fractures when we drop into the “here” “I” and “am.” Each is a construction of something from the past and a reaching into the future.

In this “here” is a train station into which pulls all manner of locomotives taking me “there.” The room where this or that happened which lead to that or the other not happening. The city where choices ended and others failed to manifest. The bus, the subway where I choose this direction and not that, where one meeting lead to another but a different route missed the intersection of time and another being.

In this “I” are a hundred thousand variations that appear to be a seamless evolution from a past point and into a hopeful future. The aspiring astronaut, the acolyte of science, the lost and wandering characters who make up this play of fools. Examined closely, the appearance of an unbroken tapestry is so heart-rendingly false. More a wildly designed quilt with each patch having emerged from an unknowable confluence of causes, conditions and other beings-of-time.

As I “am” is not enough. There is always something taunting from the future that was planted by a promise from the past. Always something that is insufficient, undeveloped and wantonly wasting time. This am-ness is a counterpoint to what philosopher Evan Thompson³ calls “selfing.” It is an accreted stuckness that takes a wake up slam of vast proportions to dislodge it from the delusion of permanence.

timebeing2And the vultures took flight.

In this pivot of nothingness which contains all that is necessary and sufficient is what Dogen says is the complete moment. Like the firewood and ash¹, it “fully includes before and after and is independent of before and after.” To paraphrase, we cannot call here the beginning of there, I the end of you, or am the end of was.

When you are right on the pivot of nothingness, free from the pictures created by your consciousness, you see time from a universal perspective. There is no gap where you feel separate from time, because your life is the whole dynamic world of time, and all sentient beings are the content of your life. Katagiri, p.78

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¹Tanahashi, Kazuaki (ed), The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo, Vol 1. Shambhala 2010

²Katagari, Dainin (Edited by Andrea Martin), Each moment is the universe: Zen and the way of being time. Shambhala 2008

³Thompson, Evan, Mind in Life: Biology, phenomenology, and the sciences of mind. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2010