the great matter of the poppy & the peony

imageThe garden is flourishing in these endless cycles of wet and heat. It has exploded brilliant blooms of irises and poppies which were short lived in the relentless downpours of May. And now, in the muggy days of June, the peonies are surging out in giant fireworks of white and pink.

I’ve always hated peonies, and these in particular for having been planted in the most awkward of places on what passes for lawn. It took me a decade to uproot every last bulb only to find them skulking back into the interstices of my favoured flora.

Now, 20 years later, I’ve transformed my irritation into a marginal peace about them but, I claim, it’s only because they once belonged to Roger whose father built the farm in 1932. Roger is gone now, predeceased by his wife Blanche who had painted the living room the same shade of rose I did a generation later.

The poppies flank one side of a small garden (small being a relative term for something less than 8 by 30 feet) while the unrepentant peonies flank the other. This year they seem to be the punctuations of the Great Matter of Life and Death.

Perhaps my mother’s passing is resonating further with me as we divest ourselves of the material aspects of her life. Selling the house in Montreal, sorting through the final remnants of her collections, and falling over pictures and portraits of her journey in this realm, I find myself wondering what might have been different had on petal dropped this way or that, had one bud opened in June and not May, had one rose bush blossomed blue and not white.

Or perhaps I am feeling more and more the karma of aging as I trip and stumble over bumps and uneven ground in my path. Sitting on my zafu at the retreat Frank and I lead, I felt a piercing through my knee which the mind tackle to the ground and pummelled into an admission of stupidity for allowing it to happen. I marvelled at the logic that says, in retrospect, you should have known it would happen and prevented it. The talks at the retreat were on equanimity and compassion, the former being key to Dogen’s admonition that we examine the constructed selves and the latter to being illuminated by the myriad things as these masks drop to the ground. And through it all that mind-mask howled its misery and portended death of a broken kneecap – of independence, of living, of ever amounting to anything worthwhile.

The poppy stripped of petals and bloom is saying the same thing and the peony still in its naively held breath of birthing is saying the same thing. All things end, begin, end. But they don’t howl. Or clutch at the soreness. Or winch at the fire piercings. They seem animated by the truth of life and death, being and ongoing being. Voicelessly punctuating  here and now.

Perhaps it is time I allowed these myriad things of the Great Matter to pierce me truly, really.

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.