I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Contemplating religion


I found this gorgeous picture on Facebook's Seeing Bellingham group. I don't remember the person who took it, but I was simply amazed to see "Grace," our resident mysterious statue, along with a rainbow that the photographer captured as well. Grace is the name of this interesting sculpture (or whatever it is) that appeared on this rock slag a few years ago. It then disappeared as suddenly as it had turned up, and recently has returned, slightly different, but still very much appreciated by all passersby at Boulevard Park in Bellingham Bay.

It was easy for me to recognize what Grace is doing, since I took Bikram Yoga years ago when this asana (posture) was incorporated into the practice. From standing on two feet, you carefully take one foot into your hand and begin to pull it up while stretching the other hand forward. I was never able to get to this incredible stretch, but it was the attempt that was important, not reaching the maximum. Now I practice Iyengar Yoga, which doesn't have any such postures in its beginning levels, any that I am capable of doing, anyway. I've tried this a few times, but these days it's too advanced for my ancient bones. 

All forms of yoga practiced these days in the US have some balancing postures, which help with maintaining a level of equilibrium that is important in everyday life. I practice tree pose and a few others that are much easier that what Grace is performing, and they contribute a great deal to my ability to keep up the level of fitness that I need for happiness. It occurred to me in my Zoom class yesterday to wonder where all those strange Sanskrit names come from. All forms of yoga seem to use them, and I learned that they come from India, mostly, based in Hindu philosophy.  In a cursory research into it all, I discovered that many of the concepts I have incorporated into my life come from religions I know nothing about, such as Islam and Hinduism. In yoga class, we say "namaste," which is a Sanskrit word:

If you take a yoga class in the U.S., the teacher will most likely say namaste at the end of the practice. It's a Sanskrit phrase that means "I bow to you." You place hands together at the heart, close your eyes and bow.

That caused me to wonder about Buddhism, my most recent interest, and I learned that it is a major form of religion, among others. It's interesting that it never occurred to me to wonder what that symbol inside my yoga studio is, where it comes from, and I learned that it represents Hinduism. What a surprise!

World religions is a category used in the study of religion to demarcate the five—and in some cases more—largest and most internationally widespread religious movements. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism are always included in the list, being known as the "Big Five."

 Yesterday I watched that wonderful 1982 movie, "Gandhi," which I have seen many times over the years and was once again moved by Ben Kingsley's portrayal of Gandhi. I had forgotten that he was eventually assassinated for trying to bring peace between Hindus and Muslims, which are both major religions in India. There was a line he spoke while walking with his followers, which struck deeply: that even though violence and ignorance can prevail for a time, love and truth will always win out in the end. It was something I needed to hear when contemplating the discord in the world today. Although I will probably not be around to see it, I believe in the truth of his words. 

I think the world going through this Covid pandemic will change everything in ways we cannot even imagine, not now while we are living through it, but the upheaval in the world is unmistakable and increasing. As I have learned through living one day at a time, there is no need for despair, and that there is something I can do to help us reach a better place: work on myself. It's all I have power over, and it's possible that it's the one drop in the bucket that will cause the change we need. Finding serenity in my everyday activities is an essential part of bringing it about. So, I will continue to spend some time every morning in meditation, because it makes me feel better and gives me perspective as well. I will continue my blog posts (like this one) and continue to grow in love and light for as long as I can.

After having injured myself again last week while trying to exercise, I am gradually recovering. Today when I woke to fix myself some tea, I realized that the constant pain in my right sacrum has lessened until I think I can deal with this much discomfort without any problem. And then as I walked around a bit more, I realized the truth that nothing stays the same, everything is constantly changing and that can be a good thing as well. 

As some of you might remember, last week I wrote about the passing of Thich Nhat Hahn and put a quote from the New York Times that might have puzzled some, since he said that he wasn't born and didn't die. I found another quote by him that might make it more clear. A stupa, by the way, is a shrine.

I have a disciple in Vietnam who wants to build a stupa for my ashes when I die. He and others want to include a plaque with the words “Here lies my beloved teacher.” I told them not to waste the temple land. “Do not put me in a small pot and put me in there!” I said. “I don’t want to continue like that. It would be better to scatter the ashes outside to help the trees to grow. I suggested that, if they still insist on building a stupa, they have the plaque say, “I am not in here.” But in case people don’t get it, they could add a second plaque, “I am not out there either.” If people still don’t understand, then you can write on the third and last plaque, “I may be found in your way of breathing and walking.” —Thich Nhat Hahn

This quote illuminates the Buddhist Five Remembrances and reminds me that the only thing that will last after I'm gone are my actions. I don't know how long after I die that these blog posts will still remain online, but they will probably be there longer than my body will. Who knows? I know that I am feeling content and happy to be alive and breathing today, and that I am ready for another day ahead. I hope that you will have a wonderful week until we meet again. Be well, my dear virtual family.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Contemplating life

Whatcom Falls

Yesterday morning Mel, Chris and I walked four miles in the Whatcom Falls Park area, and I quickly snapped this picture of the roaring falls. Over the years, I've seen these falls almost disappear during the dry days of summer, and sometimes they have been even more massive and powerful than they were yesterday. All that water! It never stops completely, just pouring over the edge and continuing its journey down to Bellingham Bay to join the ocean. As usual, I was again struck by the sheer volume of water. How does it keep on coming? Where does it all go?

Yesterday, I learned that Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Tibetan Buddhist monk, died at the age of 95, eight years after having suffered a severe brain hemorrhage and lost the ability to speak. He received plenty of treatment for his injury, and was eventually able to return to his Plum Village Monastery and live out the rest of his life. Although he was unable to speak, he was able to communicate through hand gestures and other means. 

Nhất Hạnh was active in the peace movement and deep ecology, promoting nonviolent solutions to conflict and raising awareness of the interconnectedness of all elements in nature. He was the founder of the largest monastic order in the West. He also refrained from consuming animal products, as a means of nonviolence toward animals.

I had been aware of him for many years, and he wrote an incredible number of books during his lifetime. He traveled extensively before his stroke and is just about as famous as the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhist circles. The New York Times published a collection of some of his most famous sayings yesterday, and I was enchanted to read them. I hope you can read them for yourself here. But just in case you cannot, here's one I think is timely:

The Buddha has a very different understanding of our existence. It is the understanding that birth and death are notions. They are not real. The fact that we think they are true makes a powerful illusion that causes our suffering. The Buddha taught that there is no birth; there is no death; there is no coming; there is no going; there is no same; there is no different; there is no permanent self; there is no annihilation. We only think there is. When we understand that we cannot be destroyed, we are liberated from fear. It is a great relief. We can enjoy life and appreciate it in a new way.

 Maybe it's because I have recently become so interested in Buddhism, but for whatever reason I was very much moved by learning of his death. I also wondered if he will be one of those "rainbow bodies" that I have heard of. It's when the body of an enlightened being simply shrinks away and leaves behind only hair and nails. It's one of the reasons that monks' bodies are supposed to be allowed to remain undisturbed for at least three days after death. One description (from the link above):

Generally, the individual, who entered meditation before death, continues to maintain the meditation posture — they do not topple, slump, or display rigor mortis. The body, particularly the area around the heart, stays warm. This was recorded by medical science in the case of the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, who died in a Chicago hospital in 1981.

 There is so much we don't know about what's real and what's not. Now that I am entering my eightieth year of life on earth, I am finding quite a bit of solace as I learn about different ways to look at my life and my eventual death. A few years ago, one of my favorite bloggers, Ronni Bennett, learned that she had pancreatic cancer and for the next few years chronicled her journey from a massive surgery to remove the cancer (which wasn't successful) to her final death. I still think of her often, and remember that although in the beginning she was terrified of death, by the end she said that she was no longer afraid. Although I was frustrated that I didn't get to know the nitty-gritty details of her passing, it didn't really matter in the long run because she taught me, and others, so much about how to approach our final days.

Through the long years of my life, I have lost many who were dear to me, and the suffering and loss stays with me even today. One of the lessons I've learned, though, is that as the years pass by and I recollect my loved ones, it is with joy and happiness, rather than with tears that I remember them. Not only that, but I am blessed with the loved ones who surround me in the present moment. My dear partner gives me so much joy every day, and although he is not the same as he was before his stroke more than a year ago, he still remains my favorite person to share my life with. He still struggles with language, but it's been long enough since that fateful day in August 2020 that I am still seeing him improve imperceptibly as he continues through his own journey through life. He has taught me that humor is an essential ingredient in getting through the rough patches we all face.

During this coming week, I will attend a reading by a local Zen Buddhist priest (priestess?) at the local Senior Center. She has written a book called Autumn Light: My Fifty Years in Zen. Through research, I've learned that Edwina Norton is a member of a Zen community here in Bellingham that I will probably get to know more about. They have closed their dharma center during the pandemic and are looking for a new place to purchase. I look forward to learning more about it all. 

For now, however,  I'll continue my early morning meditations and enjoy the eventual return of the light. We are gaining 2 and a half minutes of daylight every day now, soon to be at the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox (February 2). And I have been struggling to get this post written so I can get on with my day. It's not the same since I no longer rush off to the coffee shop or ride the bus to town. That might be changing soon, however, as I'm hoping we are on the downside of this pandemic. At least I am now in possession of some good N95 masks and feel I could venture onto the bus. But not quite yet; I'll wait and bide my time.

Until that occurs, I'll be continuing to enjoy my daily life, if not the usual regular routine. At least I'm getting a little exercise, and my back is almost back to normal, probably 95% healed and it no longer hurts constantly. Yay for that! And I do hope, my dear friends, that you are staying safe and free of illness. Please remember to give love and compassion to all you encounter: it will return to you in time. Be well until we meet again next week, dear virtual family.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

How Zen

Winter hike

In my desire to learn more about Buddhism, I recently wondered what is the difference between Tibetan Buddhism, which is really all I've read about so far, and Zen Buddhism. Do you feel like learning along with me?

Last week I realized that we are beginning the third year of disruption of our lives from the pandemic. It was about this time two years ago when the first Americans got the virus, and by mid-March we were all in lockdown, and the entire world was closing down with coronavirus. Now here we are, two years later, and we still are dealing with it in various ways. The omicron variant is so contagious that even those of us who are fully vaccinated and boosted are coming down with it, although those I know who have gotten it have only experienced mild symptoms.

As I have withdrawn from more and more of my usual activities in order to stay healthy, it's been really difficult to continue to get enough exercise. And then last week I managed to "throw my back out" (oh how I wish I could really do that) and even small movements became very painful. Fortunately by having a blog, I can go back and see when this first began happening. It was in 2011 when I had my first sacroiliac joint discomfort, to the extent that I couldn't get up and down without serious pain. It's happened twice more, this being the third time that I've been laid low like this.

That said, every day it seems a little better, and my fear that this is a permanent state recedes from my consciousness. Being in pain is never fun, but when you suddenly cannot walk much distance without being reminded of your limitations, it's hard not to get a little discouraged. I have many friends who also have had to deal with this feeling of falling apart and not seeing any light at the end of the tunnel. Getting older, as we have all heard, is not for sissies. But then again, it's the nature of things to wear out, and being alive is a gift even when we are not able to continue on as we once did. 

My continuing study of Buddhism has gotten me curious about what the different types are, as I have heard the phrase of something being "very Zen" and have not thought much about it, but Zen Buddhism is a form that is quite different from Tibetan Buddhism, which is what I know the most about. I keep learning new things almost daily, and realize that this could go on forever without ever becoming proficient in the practice or understanding of the religion itself. What is common to all sects and divisions of Buddhism are (1) the Three Universal Truths; (2) the Four Noble Truths; and (3) the Noble Eightfold Path. 

That's a lot of information, but I think we can all get behind the first part, those Three Universal Truths. They are: Nothing is lost in the Universe; Everything changes; and the Law of Cause and Effect.

In Buddhism, the law of Karma says "for every event that occurs, there will follow another event whose existence was caused by the first, and this second event will be pleasant or unpleasant according as its cause was skillful or unskillful." Therefore, the law of Karma teaches that the responsibility for unskillful actions is borne by the person who commits them. (From Buddhist Core Values) 

Apparently all forms of Buddhism believe in Karma, then. But it's different in Zen Buddhism. Zen is a minimalist way of following Buddhism, whereas Tibetan Buddhism is a more elaborate form. Zen is spread across Japan and Tibetan Buddhism is more well known in other Asian countries. I have discovered that there are plenty of places here in the United States that have followers from both forms. I also learned that there will be a reading by the author, Edwina Norton, an ordained Zen priest, at my local Senior Activity Center at the end of this month. She has written a book, Autumn Light: My Fifty Years in Zen. I will definitely make an effort to attend this one, and of course get the book on my Kindle, too.

One thing I know already: I am a much more serene person after having added a brief period of meditation to my daily routine. Once I get up and start my day, it's now become a part of every morning. How such a small little change can make such a profound difference in how I feel about the rest of life is simply amazing. Even through the back pain, I can find lots of ways to appreciate what's going on around me, and I am happier throughout the rest of my day. It will be interesting to see how I will fare once our lives begin to get back to normal, whatever that means post-pandemic.

And I guess that pretty much winds up today's post. Not much to chew on in terms of philosophical ruminations, but every day is a new beginning, and I do hope that we will be back here next week to see what emerges from the depths of my mind. By then I fully expect the back pain to be a thing of the past and not worth mentioning. That's the optimist in me coming out in full voice. 

I do hope that the coming week will bring you all good things, and that you will have plenty of joy and beauty surrounding you. Until we meet again, be well, dear friends.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Mystery of time and space

Spiral galaxy 56 million years distant

Every morning when I first get up, part of what I start the day with is a glimpse of the current Astronomy Picture of the Day. It helps me to get some perspective on what is happening here on Earth, to see reminders of the enormity of the Universe as we know it. When I saw this beautiful galaxy, the light of which takes 56 million years to reach Earth, I wondered what it looks like today. We'll never know, because we are stuck in a tiny bubble of time, and what does "today" mean in galaxy terms?

I feel very fortunate to have lived during a time when the Hubble Telescope (which took this picture) will be replaced with the James Webb Space Telescope, which is currently on its way to a distant spot at least a million miles from Earth. What will it be able to see?

Webb will be able to see what the universe looked like around a quarter of a billion years (possibly back to 100 million years) after the Big Bang, when the first stars and galaxies started to form. (NASA)

I find that fascinating, since time seems to be a constant from my little human point of view. But obviously it's not. The year when I was born almost eighty years ago will be lost in the mists of time. But it will be the first number in my very own lifespan, with the second number being the year when I will die. The only thing I know for sure about it all is that I will have been blessed with a full lifespan, going from birth through a well-lived full life. Not everybody is given such a gift, and I do want to acknowledge that, even if my life ends today, it has been a complete and full one. 

This past week Sidney Poitier died at the age of 94, having also been given the gift of a full life. He saw so much change in the world from the time he was born until he died. He fathered six daughters and made numerous movies that gave him the opportunity to be the first Black actor to receive the Best Actor Award in 1964. 

We are imperfect creatures. We are, that's what it is. But we should try reaching for the better you, the better me. There is pain and difficulties, and there is fear and all the kinds of things that we live with. But it is through them we have to reach. We have to reach out, not just to each other, but to the universe. —Sidney Poitier

He only received a year and a half of schooling and taught himself to read and write. Not only did he excel at acting, but he ended up writing his own memoir, which I intend to read in the near future. He's someone who will not be forgotten soon, and part of that is because he was given the gift of a full life. I remember how devastated I was when Chadwick Boseman died at 43, a man filled with promise in much the same way as Sidney was. But he was not given the full measure of life. It's truly a gift to have been given more time to live, but we all must deal with the finality of our short lifespan.

And looking out at the stars and distant galaxies certainly changes the way one looks at things, at least for me. What does my tiny life mean in the full scope of that galaxy? Not much, really, but it's everything to me. It's all I've ever known, and I also have been reaching out to the universe to find some meaning in my own life. My most recent endeavor has been learning more about Buddhism and its philosophy, and I find the concept of a continuing mindstream to be fascinating, although my skeptical self considers it unlikely. Not that it matters, really, because what is true and real is that the self that writes here, that drives my consciousness, is very much limited in time and space. What happens after I die will not matter much in the full scheme of things, but each one of our individual lives is all we have known, and what comes after isn't really relevant to our living each day to the fullest.

One of the concepts in Buddhism that I really resonate with is living one's life with loving kindness towards all other living beings. Every morning when I meditate, I say a Buddhist prayer for all sentient beings to be free of disease, pain and suffering. It's a very good reminder that although I cannot solve all the suffering in the world, I can point myself in the direction to remember that each of my own actions has consequences, and that if I act with loving kindness, I have done something good in the world for today. In my own small way, I am reaching for the stars.

Gosh. I have been sitting here for awhile now, with the light from the screen staring up at me from the laptop, wondering where to go from here. And nothing is coming to me, so it must mean I've finished this post for today. Even if it's not much, not very profound, when you write from the heart, sometimes the chambers don't quite fill to the top before the next heartbeat comes rushing in. I feel the call to begin the rest of my Sunday routine. I overslept to begin with, so I didn't get the chance to ponder about what to write for long. 

My dear partner still sleeps quietly next to me, my tea is gone, and the day beckons. I am sending you, my dear virtual friends, love and light and a fervent wish for you to have a wonderful day and week ahead. Be well until we meet again.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

An auspicious beginning

Taken on my 79th birthday

Melanie took me out for lunch on my birthday and also snapped this picture of me looking, well, 79.  Not much different from the day before, I guess, but it's symbolic that I have entered into my 80th year of life, and that today, the Sunday after the New Year begins, I am settling into this new chapter of life. I can no longer pretend that I am not old.

The weather began to deteriorate around here right around Christmas Eve, with the temperatures falling lower than I ever remember since we left Colorado behind. And yesterday, New Years Day, the temperature climbed above freezing for the first time. Yes, an auspicious beginning to 2022. As the wind shifted from the frigid northeast and began blowing (hard) out of the south, the temperatures have only continued to climb. Here it is early in the morning and it's already warm and above freezing. I am delighted to welcome normal moderate weather back!

Mel and I usually walk on Thursdays and Saturdays, but the past ten days of terrible weather, plus the holidays, put all of that exercise on hold. And we not only had a white Christmas, but a white New Years as well. With the wind, snow, and the cold temperatures, walking has been unusually unpleasant. I managed to plow my way through snowdrifts on buried sidewalks for short distances, but it was very slow going. Almost everyone has been walking in the streets, dodging cars, with the sidewalks remaining difficult terrain to navigate. Perhaps with the warm southerly wind and above freezing temperatures, all that will now improve. I'm hoping.

Yesterday afternoon Mel called me to see if I would go for a downtown walk with her, and I readily agreed, since I haven't managed to close my exercise rings on my iWatch for days, and I thought it sounded like a good idea. We walked past all the closed shops and enjoyed walking on mostly cleared sidewalks until we got to the South Bay trail that goes along Boulevard Park and heads towards Fairhaven. It was well packed down from all the previous travelers, and I found it to be pretty easy going, considering. The uneven snow, however, made it hard to walk very fast, and we enjoyed being out and admired the steely gray water in the bay.

Unfortunately, we lost track of time, and I realized that the sun was going down just as we were beginning our return. Ooops! That meant walking back in the fading light, on mostly packed snow (which gave us some reflective light). By the time we got back to downtown, and lights, I was very tired and asked Mel to go on ahead to her car and come back to get me as I struggled with the snowy streets. I took the opportunity to call SG and let him know I was all right, since I knew he would be worried. He was indeed, but in just a few minutes Mel showed up and took me home. It was at least an hour past sunset when I walked into the apartment.

What surprised me is the difficulty I had walking on the snow, but then I realized how much I need to keep exercising every day: my right leg was injured badly in 2000, when I fractured my pelvis in six places and shattered the right sacrum. It has two pins in it that held everything together as it healed. But in the accident, I lost the internal iliac artery down my right leg, and the only thing that keeps everything healthy is regular exercise. By the time I saw Mel's car coming to get me, I could barely keep from dragging the right leg rather than walking on it. It was a perfect storm: more than a week of missing exercise, uneven surfaces, darkness, and me not willing to admit my weakness.

The good part is that I made it in one piece, got home and drank a glass of wine as I chronicled my adventure with my dear partner, who was indeed very worried about me. So, the first thing I did in the new year was have a real adventure! I think my friend Melanie thinks I'm stronger than I am, and it was my own fault for not turning around sooner. But if I hadn't done it, I wouldn't have a good story to tell this morning, would I?

As I struggled walking back in the fading light, I remembered times in Colorado when I would join friends for a midnight cross-country ski trip under a full moon and clear skies. We had places we loved to ski, and I well remember realizing how difficult it was to tell where the bumps were as we skied downhill, and how I just had to slightly bend my knees and navigate the terrain by feel rather than by sight. It was exhilarating, but not that different from the sense of accomplishment I got from making it home safe and sound last night.

I think we build resilience to prepare for whatever adversity we'll face. And we all face some adversity - we're all living some form of Option B. —Sheryl Sandberg

It is interesting to examine how each of us deals with adversity, and to take lessons from others who have dealt with this situation themselves. So many of us have strength and resilience that we don't realize we have, because we don't ever get challenged and take the easy path instead of the one that heads straight uphill. I am very fortunate to have in my life people who like to try harder and steeper paths, like my friend Melanie, who ends up pushing me until I find my own limitations. And they are often much farther away than I imagine them to be. Is that true for all of us? Do we need to attempt hard things to find out how strong we really are?

Perhaps this new year will give us all a chance to find our strengths, ones we don't realize we already have. Now that I've had a chance to rest and enjoyed a good sleep, I'm feeling happy that I am as strong as I am, for an old person at least. And I've been reminded once again how important regular exercise for this old body of mine. Hopefully, we'll be together in this virtual room for the coming year, and we can share our stories of how we managed to cope with it all. I fervently wish that we will be here again in a year's time, telling stories of adventure, resilience, and joyous victory over adversity!

And now it's time for me to wrap up this first post of the new year, as my tea is gone and my dear partner still sleeps quietly next to me. I don't think I'll be heading to the coffee shop this morning, since covid has made gathering inside places like that not much fun at all. Perhaps the coming year will bring the end to our pandemic. I'm really hoping it will. Please remember to give your loved ones a hug or a pet, a phone call, or whatever you need to let them know they are loved and cherished. I do cherish my time with you, dear friends, and I wish you all good things until we meet again next week. Be well.