Sunday, February 20, 2011

Another milestone....

In my afternoon meditation I reached a place similar in importance to the previous meditation milestone, but entirely different. The prior one came from mindfulness; this one was concentration.  Total, pure concentration.

This past week I've been listening to some online discourses by Sayalay Susila, who is teaching the Vipassana retreat that I am attending at The Bhavana Society in August.  I also ordered and have been reading a book by the abbot of Bhavana, Bhante Gunaratana (Bhante G), called Mindfulness in Plain English.  I also found and listened to some online teachings by him.

Between them -- and I'm sure the long meditation yesterday helped -- I've finally discovered that radiant place of pure concentration.  I've had plenty of mindfulness -- developed it over my four years in Eugene quite well -- but I no longer have concentration, which Bhante G says is equally important.  So, that's been my focus for the past week and today it all came together.  I sat and stayed with the breath for the entire hour, without falling prey to distractions. I entered a state that is difficult to describe. When my timer went off, I shrugged off my shawl, said my metta blessings, but the concentration was still so strong I simply sat there for another few moments, then forced myself to move. It felt too wonderful to leave.  Now, I know what they mean when they say that your breath is the most fascinating subject in the world to watch, if you do it right.  I can assure you that it did not make sense prior to today!

Ayya Susila says that once one reaches this stage the body will fall into it and rest happily for hours without realizing how much time has passed.  Bhante G makes a similar statement. I can say that it was certainly a blissful place that my mind was not ready to leave when the hour was up.  More importantly, future sessions should reach this stage more quickly.

It's a slow, patient process, but I feel as if my progress on the path has really sped up over the last month or so, and I'm going to go with the flow, see where it takes me.

By the way -- that little book of Bhante G's is wonderful!  I've been doing this for years, with live teachers and with lots of books, but he cut through the stuff and nonsense and taught me what it was all about.  Highly recommended reading for those who have an interest.

Friday, February 18, 2011

I told you sugar would be the first to get me!

Not to mention chocolate.  For you who don't know, I went cold turkey off sugar, coffee and alcohol at the beginning of the year -- supposedly for one month but after that month was up I'd lost the habit of all, so I opted to keep on keeping on. 

And I was fine as long as I had neither sugar nor chocolate in the house.  Bought some last weekend to make brownies for the boys at work.  It's no secret to me that having the stuff in the house makes me want it, but until tonight, I hadn't had a craving.  That container is a tiny souffle dish, about 1 cup -- so it's not much.  Seriously, ask me how you make one cake that small. :)  The fact that I can do it easily merely illustrates the experience I've had with such things. Not really flattering.

Tomorrow, off to almost-Atlanta for a four-hour meditation retreat. And a stop at Harry's Farmer's Market afterward for some Nancy's Yogurt.  Yum.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Mixed Blessings

We have sunshine again at last, with the promise of above-freezing temps for the next week! Spring is about to spring, I think.

There've been a few changes around here this past week, and one on-going saga that has yet to be resolved.

In anticipation of staying at the monastery, even for the 6-day retreat in August, I've tried changing my eating schedule to meet theirs.  Theravadan Buddhists do not eat evening meals -- not even snacks, unless there is a medical reason.  I've done this before at other retreats and it isn't an issue, but for some reason I wanted to see what happened if I went ahead and tried to live this way.  Surprisingly, I like it!  I think the biggest motivation for me is that I don't have to think about or prepare an evening meal, and I didn't expect that, since I like to cook.  But, after work and even on the weekends, this has lifted a burden.  Takes a little more effort to prepare and take a larger meal to work for lunch, but not all that much.  And, I haven't completely let go in the evening.  I still have a glass of warm milk before bed, but will eventually let this go if my blood sugar will allow it.  So, that's the big change.  I'm not switching to pure vegetarianism, however.

Another change that sounds smaller but is perhaps truly larger is that through my efforts back to meditation and mindfulness, I have begun to regain the peace that comes with this practice.  More study, more meditation, more mindfulness.  And I'm reaping the benefits (as do others who encounter me).

The on-going saga is that my roof needs to be replaced, sooner than I expected.  I've been talking to roofers and others for a couple of weeks now, and have pretty much learned what I want.  Now, I just need the $$ to make it happen, and settle upon a contractor.  I'm going with metal, for any number of reasons: it's more environmentally sound, it reflects sun and heat in the summer to keep the house cooler, it's lighter in weight than shingles, and so on.  We happen to have a really good manufacturer of metal roofing right here in Cedartown, so it's all local.

Roasted veggies -- a treat for the senses.  Look great, smell great, taste great.  Sweet potato, garlic, red onion, mushrooms, asparagus, red bell pepper, yellow squash and probably some things I've forgotten.  Yum.

Right now, I have a big pan of mixed veggies roasting in the oven as part of lunch. The aroma is wonderful! After that, I need to blend up about a gallon of veggie peelings and cast-offs to go into one of the new garden beds as a quicker form of compost, something to feed the critters out there. And after that?  Maybe a walk, maybe some laziness.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Buddhism: retreat and beyond

You'll think this is coming out of the blue, but nothing could be more false.  I have blogged about it once, almost two years ago, and the thought has never been far from my mind for at least three years.  Truly, it's been closer to seven years although initially at a different location.

Meditation Hall in the Spring
What's she talking about?  I want to explore becoming a resident at the Bhavana Society in West Virginia.  This is a Theravadan Buddhist monastery in the Thai forest tradition. Lay residents perform work that monks and nuns are not allowed to do -- handle money, for one example.  None of that is what draws me.  My time spent at the Vipassana Center in Onalaska, WA gave me the greatest sense of peace I've ever known.  I loved the supportive community centered around meditation and teaching.  But, while I appreciate the training they gave me, their particular technique for concentration does not appeal to me and it's not something I practice on my own, so becoming a resident there or at a similar center doesn't make sense to me.

Several of these Kuti Huts are scattered around the property and I think it would be wonderful to be allowed to dwell in one of these for awhile.

 The Bhavana Society is another story entirely.  This is where I can find teachers, along with the supportive, spiritual environment.  That's important to me at this stage of my practice and this age of my life.  I am so drawn to deeper learning and understanding and advancement, and it's very difficult to structure my life independently so that I can be without the distractions and worries that inhibit concentration.  I want to immerse myself in the study and teachings. In my initial post I wondered about the winter weather in WV -- snow -- but I've had a fair amount of snow to deal with here this past year and I now know I can live with it.

One of the forest paths that travel through the 50-acre property, for use of visitors and residents at any time.

 I've never been able to visit the Society -- I had to cancel my first scheduled retreat because it conflicted with the Track & Field Olympic Trials in Eugene, for which I'd volunteered but forgotten dates.  I had to cancel the second one because it was scheduled based on me being in Georgia in 2009, and that didn't happen.  Now that I'm here, I've scheduled another for this August and hope to be allowed to attend a two-week end of year retreat in December.  For that one, they require that one has attended a 9-day retreat, which they are not offering this year.  The abbot is in retreat until March, and the registrar will ask him then if he will waive that requirement, since they aren't offering a longer retreat.

As I mentioned in my first post on this subject, I may attend a few retreats there and decide that it's not right for me after all, and that would be OK.  But I want to find out.  I've figured out how I can do this within a year or so.  I wouldn't be able to sell the house at that time,  but I can leave it unoccupied and keep it as my official address.  Those details can be worked out.

I can't see that I'll ever take vows to become a nun, but I can see living there for at least one year, then deciding if I want to stay longer.  The house will still be here if I wish to return, or I can sell it.

This will be my first retreat actually taught by a monastic.  She's a visiting nun named Sayalay Susila, from Malaysia.  I'd like to attend one taught by the abbot, and may well sign up for one if I won't be allowed to attend the year-end retreat, which he also teaches. He's getting old, so I'd like to take the opportunity while it exists.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


My very talented sailing friend Lew Decker has written a wonderful book by the name of Fingerprints that is essentially a memoir, and Lew's life has been interesting.  I first read the manuscript several years ago, and just now finished reading the final product, which is available on Amazon.  While much of the early part revolves around his childhood in Myrtle Beach, SC, a large portion follows his life as a cruising sailor in the Caribbean, in and around Key West. Throughout, he battles his relationship with his father, mourns his broken marriage, and follows a sailing life that I longed for in my youth.  There's nothing like the freedom of the wind on open seas.

Lew manages to weave insight, wisdom and meaning into every chapter, beyond merely reciting what happened.  The book is poignant, deeply honest, and his use of language is lyrical and beautiful.

The manuscript and the finished product.
Lew's a good guy.  The forty foot trimaran on the cover is Sun Flower (two words), which he built by hand in his backyard in San Diego, then sailed through Panama and into the Caribbean.   His adventures were many and interesting. Each story will leave you with something to think about.

Buy it!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

One year later...

At the Polk County line a sign reads "where people are friendly".  On a street entering Cedartown, lies another sign that reads "a good place to live, visit and do business".  As of today (or yesterday, depending upon whether you go by the day of the week or the date of the month), I have been here for one year and I can say without hesitation that I agree with both signs.

Oh, I grumble about being so far from stores that carry produce other than okra, squash and collards, and I grouse about it taking so long to get to the mountains or almost anywhere else from out here in the boonies, but those are minor issues.

What matters is the experience of life in a small southern town that hasn't changed all that much since I lived here as a child.  It's spread out, certainly, and there are bigger highways and strip malls and the inevitable WalMart, but inside, where it counts, the town hasn't changed.  People are friendly.  We know our city officials, police, commissioners and such by name and they're just neighbors.  The local radio station still reads obits and has a 15-minute call in time every morning to wish people a happy birthday or anniversary or whatever. No angry white men spewing the politics of fear, just pure, local programming that's sometimes corny as hell. But that's what makes it so endearing.

The things that needed changing have changed -- when I last lived here segregation was in full force, with separate stores, schools, water fountains, and everything else.  I missed out on the intervening years, but I'm happy to say that Cedartown seems to have had a happy experience with desegregation, and that blacks and whites co-exist in apparent comfort and equality in all areas. Crime is rare and petty, the city is responsive to needs of citizens, and an air of peace and contentment prevails.

And so, on the morning of February 8, 2010 I awoke in my motel in Bremen, 30 minutes south on I-20, then drove home, filled with all kinds of mixed feelings.  My first step was to drive to this house and see it for the first time, although it would be later before my real estate agent would meet me and I would see the inside.  I suppose I could have backed out at that point, but I would not have done so, nor did I want to.  After the closing, when the house was mine, I hit up WalMart for an air mattress and a few other necessities, unloaded my car and tried to settle down.  That was tough after six days of steady driving.

Was it the next morning that I woke up to snow, or the one after that?  I don't remember, but I know I had some fun with it.  Two or three weeks of sleeping on the air mattress and I had my furniture, finally.  Life began to take shape and continues to do so.  I've answered some of the needs of the house and it has a few more, but it's a solid home that keeps me warm and dry and safe. What more can I ask?

Would I do it all again?  Yes and no....

I would have left Oregon.  I think my need to be there had simply run its course. I'm still really glad I took the extra year on the south coast to do a bit of traveling, say 'goodbye' to San Francisco and the Napa Valley and the redwoods and the Oregon coast.  That year made the move easy, emotionally.  I filled my senses and my heart with places I loved. Enough to last.

Would I have come here? I have no regrets about returning to Cedartown, aside from the unexpectedly cold winters, but I think I might have simply rented an apartment so that 1) I wouldn't have to work; and 2) I'd have more free time to do some 'retirement' kinds of things.  But -- there are no do-overs on buying the house.  I have two more years to live here before I can sell or rent, without having to repay the government for the tax credit.  Will I want to move then?  Haven't a clue.  Ask me in a couple of years.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sunshine again...

As generally happens, after my month of forced withdrawal from alcohol, and in this case sugar and coffee as well, I feel no need to return to any of them.  I don't know if I feel any better or any worse without them, but none of them is particularly good for the body, so I choose to leave things as they are.

As expected, the hardest to give up was the sugar, and a few days ago I had a real craving for a cup of good coffee,  but didn't indulge because it was too much effort.  My coffee maker and grinder are stashed away and I didn't want the coffee badly enough to get them out.  I don't miss the wine or brandy.  I don't expect any of this to be a life-long effort, but I also feel no need to rush out and indulge in any of them.

The sweet tooth will get me first.  With Valentine's Day coming up, the urge to cook something wonderful and chocolaty will get the better of me.  My new Bon Appetit has brownies that look absolutely mouthwatering.  I will bake some, take them to work to share, and try not to eat too many.

My blood test results showed good improvement in most areas, which shows that my dietary efforts aimed at boosting my immune system have worked.  Unfortunately, I still show signs of some kind of anemia, despite added iron and B-12.  I have a minor auto-immune issue with my thyroid, and this may be what is skewing these results.  It's too bad I don't have a doctor who understands looking for root causes of disease, rather than treating symptoms.  It's not his fault -- MDs are not trained to do anything else.  He seems to feel that my problems are minor -- which they may be -- compared to the 'really sick' people he sees all day long.  I, on the other hand, care about preventive medicine.  I want to stay healthy, rather than wait until I'm 'really sick' and then have my symptoms treated with a drug cocktail.  Thanks, but no thanks.

So I rumble along, wanting more blood tests but never sure Medicare will pay for them, and I certainly can't pay for them, so I do without.  And do what I can on my own to stay healthy.

What's your weekend been like?  Mine has been semi-lazy.  I ran my errands, made attempts at housework and yard work, but mostly, haven't accomplished much.  This morning, I put my old heater on Craig's List as a freebie and a man from Dalton drove down to get it.  It's a natural gas heater and he has propane, hopes he can convert it since the only heat he has in his house is electric and he can't afford that.  He has several hundred gallons of propane in a tank.  I hope he can convert it and make it work.  It's off my back porch, finally.

The Brat and I are enjoying the sunshine.  Each day without rain or snow or bitter cold is a gift.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

It was kind of a "duh" moment.....with huge ramifications

The type of Buddhism I follow is a called Vipassana, or Theravada. The term has been somewhat Americanized as 'Insight Meditation' for use in countless books and a couple of wonderful meditation centers on the east and west coasts. The practice comes from the original core of the Buddha's teachings as transmitted for 2,500 years in the Theravadan tradition of Thailand, Burma and other southeast Asia countries, as opposed to the Buddhism of the north such as Tibetan Buddhism, and is very different from Zen Buddhism.  There are, of course, different methods taught even within the terms Vipassana and Theravada but I'm not here to go into those. All have the same goal and the differences are minor.

The Buddha did not wish to be considered a god, or to be worshiped.  He offered a philosophy, a way of life that would lead to happiness.  Thus, the practice is suitable for people who follow any religion, or no religion. At the Vipassana center in Onalaska, Washington where I attended my first 10-day silent teaching, a Catholic nun was among the students and, in fact, it is common for nuns to join these groups.  There is most certainly an order of monks and nuns living and teaching at Theravadan monasteries around the world, but suffice it to say that for me, and for many followers of Vipassana, Theravada or Insight Meditation, Buddhism is not a religion. It is, however, deeply spiritual.

We focus on the breath as a way to hone our concentration and still our bodies and minds.  Once we've managed to do that, we observe the thoughts that arise as we sit quietly. We call it awareness. You'd be surprised at just how powerful it can be to sit with yourself in silence, once the monkey chattering of mind-thoughts is quelled.  Beyond these basics, there are many more advanced meditations one can use to focus upon specific questions or life issues.

The ultimate goal of all this is liberation -- understanding ourselves and our life from deep inside through the experience of meditation, and attaining the peace that comes with that.  Now, beyond this we can go a step further if we wish, to the more 'woo-woo' philosophies such as rebirth, where the belief is that we each have a consciousness that lives on when we die, and which will continue to be reborn into another body (human or otherwise) until it is fully liberated and is free from the process of rebirth. In one theory, we choose our parents because those parents will provide us with the greatest opportunity to learn the lesson we incarnate in order to learn. Please don't fault me on syntax here -- I'm trying to find the simplest explanation of my personal philosophies, not speak for any one group as a whole.

Over the years I've made great strides in understanding myself and my life.  I've seen parts of the puzzle for years and over the past couple of years even when I haven't been meditating much, little pieces have fallen into place. I understand why I had the parents I had and why the details of my life happened as they did and why it was all necessary.  I even understood how they were all related.  I had the pieces -- but what did they mean? Now that I've been meditating regularly once more, and after a month or so spent simply with the basics of breathing and concentration, I've begun asking questions again and on Monday I had that Eureka! moment when it all clicked together.  I got it! 

It was the most amazing moment, and of course the answer was so simple, in the end.  Am I liberated?  Not by a long shot.  But I now know (or think I know) what the lesson is, and knowing the lesson one can take steps to put it into practice.  It won't be easy.  After all, I've honed this trait for a good 68 years in this lifetime, whether or not there are previous lifetimes to consider.  It's the primary urge/meaning of my life and it's what has brought me so much sorrow.

Once I began realizing just what it meant and thinking differently about my life, the proverbial heavy weight on my shoulders seemed to lighten.  Contentment flashed.  It's not a permanent condition, yet, and probably won't be for a long time.  But now that I understand, I can turn my thoughts in the right direction again and again until it becomes permanent.  That's what it's all about. And it's a really big deal.