Monday, July 27, 2015

What's happening with me

In case anybody's wondering, I am alive and well. The depression issues mentioned in the last post have not grown in strength and were relatively mild to begin with -- just something to work on and watch. Besides that, they've faded into the background as my poor old body has suffered an onslaught of digestive issues over the past 10 days or so, starting prior to leaving the forest (but not having anything to do with being in the forest).

Details aren't important. I will say that for the first 5 days or so things were uncomfortable, but that's all. Nothing to worry about. Starting Wednesday evening and really hitting Thursday morning, my whole body seemed to hit 'reject!'.  I haven't had an appetite or desire to prepare food since then, so I've survived on easy-to-eat foods that required no preparation. I stayed in bed for most of 4 days, had trouble sleeping, had no energy, felt nauseous, while my gut and bladder screamed with inflammation and signs of irritation. I did manage to get to the supermarket on Friday, and the library on Saturday, but that's the extent of my efforts.

All systems are well on the way to recovery and I am determined that today I will get out of bed and take care of some stuff, get life back to normal. More or less, anyway. I slept about 4 hours last night, went back to bed after breakfast but realized I wasn't going to sleep and I refused to stay in that bed for another day. So, up and about, taking care of my Quicken and budget stuff. Still a bit nauseous, gut still a bit irritated, but I'm determined to eat something different for lunch. Determined to go for a walk after lunch to shake out the legs a bit. Determined to hit the shower, wash my hair, change clothes, do laundry, all that. I wouldn't mind an afternoon nap, but that's unlikely to happen, too, even if I try.

So that's what's been happening with me. Maybe in a few days I'll come up with something more interesting.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Stress, Anxiety and Depression

Those of you who've known me for a long time will know that I struggled with deep, serious depression for many years. Like, 25 years. A really long time that I really wanted to die, although there was only one time when I came close to making that happen, and that was in early 2000. Scary.

After that I escaped to Orcas Island, WA, a place that I thought would help me heal. And it did. But what really started the ball rolling was an early spiritual book, The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukov. I'd had the book for years, had read it countless times, underlined in different colors as each reading brought new understandings of the contents. Then, I chanced upon a paragraph that began the change. Something to do with the idea that we are able to choose how we react to any situation in any moment. What I took from that, after several careful readings, was that I could, and did, choose to not be depressed.

It wasn't that simple, of course. I could only sustain the 'not depressed' state for a few seconds, but those few seconds grew as I made the effort over and over, and then I could feel depression-free for minutes at a time, which also grew into longer periods. I guess it was my first experience with the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, although I didn't know that at the time. Pay attention to what's happening inside, choose how to react. Don't grasp at it or reject it. Just observe it with the understanding that it's impermanent. All that came years later, but this first effort was the beginning. I had some nasty reactions to a variety of anti-depressants along the line, including a couple of panic attacks, but then I learned that I could choose whether or not to allow a panic attack to take control. Not grasped at, or feared, or rejected, the attack would simply go away, and then stopped coming altogether. I stopped the meds forever -- worse than the depression!

By then, I was back in Oregon, but while in Orcas I'd also developed an interest in meditation, which eventually led me to Buddhist meditation, after trying other styles which simply didn't resonate for me. Another book, Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzburg, led to the next significant advance. And other than some brief periods when I could feel it wanting to return but remembered to just observe it, depression hasn't been part of my life.

All this as a preface to what happened last week. I knew and had known for awhile that I was experiencing a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety, and that only increased when I was in the forest (which is normally a very calming and healing place). Part of my troubles may have been lack of sleep, another was undoubtedly a resident with an attitude -- I could feel the anger and confrontational vibes coming from her. After a really tough day of driving and shopping and such, a combination of things made me want to leave, right then! But, Ayya Sobhana was out of town on a teaching tour and I didn't feel that I could abandon the place or the young anagarika (first stage of becoming a bhikkhuni) who was on a retreat in her kuti, and who I had to feed every 3rd day. The panic was awful, although it subsided quickly enough. But the need to leave stayed, and so on Friday morning I drove away. Sadly.

Fast forward to today. I'd written a note to Ayya and mentioned to her that I suspected the depression was returning, as I'd noticed a couple of early symptoms (poor sleep, crankiness). She sent me a link to a talk by Stanford Professor Sapolsky, on the subject of depression, which he says is as biological a disease as is diabetes, and connects it strongly with stress and anxiety characterized by the body's release of glutocorticoids, one of which is the dreaded cortisol that I've been trying to control for years. The talk was a real eye-opener for me, as he cited many other symptoms that I have that I never related to depression (including stress and anxiety, the lack of energy).

Unfortunately, he didn't offer any solutions, but Ayya has wanted to find a meditative solution to the various components he cited that are a part of depression. I volunteered to be her guinea pig if she comes up with any ideas, although I don't expect that to happen overnight. In the meantime, I feel a bit better simply knowing what's going on. I'm an old hand at depression, I once had great coping techniques and I remember what they were. I can cope, while I explore my own ideas and methods for beating this nasty state once again. Gratefully, I'm just at the early stages, not deep into the bad stuff.

My instincts were right, in that I knew stress, anxiety and cortisol were in control and causing me lots of problems. I just didn't connect them with depression. I've tried controlling cortisol with food, but haven't had much luck. I'm still not sleeping well, which certainly lowers the cognitive abilities, the thought processes. But this time, unlike the past, I have the luxury of not having to go to work, make a living. I can plan my time as I wish, according to what I feel the body needs. Right now, the body needs rest.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Tiny, wriggling, burrowing sea critters

I finally got my bare feet on a beach yesterday -- but it was an Oregon beach, not a California beach! 

What you can't see in the surf in the first photo is these thousands -- probably millions -- of small, wriggling creatures that washed up in every wave, burrowing immediately into the sand. I haven't a clue what they are, and they weren't inclined to hold still for a photographer. I will say that when I stood in the surf and they washed around me, I could feel them tickling my feet. Weird and cool at the same time. Anybody have a clue?

I always love this particular beach, have visited it often. The sand patterns are always fun, and at low tide there is a richness of sea critters clinging to the big rocks. It never disappoints.
Looking back from whence I walked. The wind had been at my back walking down the beach, and of course when I had to walk back to town, it became a headwind. A very strong headwind! Sand blowing everywhere. In fact, today I found (and still find) grains of sand in my eyebrows, for example, and of course in my hair. But it was awesome to walk down here again, see the mysterious wriggling critters.

Back in my motel room, a slightly more civilized ocean view, but not nearly as satisfying.
So naturally, you're wondering why I'm at an Oregon beach when I'm supposed to be in California. Or not. I'm still having a hard time trying to formulate why I left into a few words that make sense, but I decided on Tuesday that I needed to leave. I was (or felt) obligated to wait until others returned to the forest, rather than just bolting, so I ended up leaving Friday morning, opting to make an overnight trip of it and then opting to take the scenic route. I'll try to explain more about the 'why' when I get it figured out.

The beach is at the small town of Port Orford, which is always one of my favorite places to stop when I drive along the coast. That beach is always awesome, and the town itself is kind of cool, in a quaint way. It's home to a large and active fishing fleet, but doesn't have a harbor. Figure that one out!

Rather than reinvent the wheel here, I'm going to take the lazy route and refer you to these articles on the town that I wrote over on my Southern Oregon Coast blog a few years back. I don't think I've ever written about it here.

It's also home to what was (and I emphasize was) one of my favorite crazy food joints. Again, refer to the above link, but the place used to have the best fish&chips I've ever tasted. Last night, not so much. Not bad, but the fish looked (and tasted) nothing like that in the photo on the other blog. The breading was always what made it so delicious -- fluffy and crisp and staying on the fish. Last night, bland, soggy, and falling off the fish. Bah. One more food fantasy derailed. Guess I'm gonna have to amend the article about that place.

From there it was an easy drive into Eugene -- could have made it in 3 hours, but I was goofing off, stopping, actually stalling for time because I didn't want to arrive too early and awaken my housemate, who tends to like to sleep in on her weekends off.

I'm really tired. Haven't slept hardly at all the last 3 nights, and not too much for most of the time I was down there. I dozed a bit earlier, watching TV, so I suspect that being home will help me get a little shut-eye tonight. Maybe tomorrow my brain will have a little more energy, work a bit better. For now -- it's good to be home.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Solitude and bare feet on a beach

The day is drawing to a close (or, a close to the time I'll be in the kitchen where the computer is!), and I'll soon be wending my way up the hill to my kuti, with laundry and water (hot and cold) and assorted other items. I'll spend the rest of the day there, hopefully doing something useful.

Yesterday was not fun. I was stressed for unknown reasons, all day, woke up feeling about the same as I generally feel later in the afternoons when my body and mind and brain all kind of shut down. At that point, I'm toast! Today was much better. Peaceful, busy, but pleasant. Weather is more of that chamber-of-commerce sunshine and blue skies, with a light breeze. Lovely!

The upcoming week will be a combination of busy and peaceful. Tomorrow I drive Ayya into Santa Rosa in time for lunch, which means leaving here around 9am. After that, I need to do a lot of grocery shopping (cupboards are somewhat bare here) and return here. I won't be having lunch at the Vihara, as right now I want/need to not be around groups of people, even kind and well-meaning people that I know and love. I'll just drop Ayya off, say hello to everyone and be on my way.

The timing is perfect for me to relish yet another In-N-Out burger for lunch! I had to do a quick change of plans awhile ago from the Santa Rosa location to the Rohnert Park location, since I need to pick up something specific at a market in that area, and will thus do the rest of my shopping at the same place. No worries -- I just had to find where that location was, and it's not far from the market. Lunch first, shopping, home to the coast. I need to stop and walk barefoot on a beach on the way home, too -- if only for a moment.

Wednesday I'm here on my own, no kitchen work other than what I choose to eat for myself. There may be one or two other people here, but neither requires having a meal served. Thursday, back to the Vihara to pick Ayya up after lunch. Sunday she leaves again (all teaching events in the Bay Area) but only wants me to take here to the bus at the highway, then pick her up again on Monday in town after lunch.  It's 100 miles round trip from here to the Vihara, so while it's a pleasant drive, it's not a quick drive.

Time to go 'home' for the day. Hope y'all have a great day/week. Talk later!

Friday, July 10, 2015

More magic mountains

By the time I arrived at the kitchen yesterday morning around 5am, raindrops were starting to fall! It continued all day, sometimes good and strong, sometimes a drizzle, but fairly steady. The nice kind of rain that soaks in, doesn't run off. A very welcome event for an area so parched.

The prospect did not, however, deter the monastics from the planned pindapat rounds in Sebastopol. Pindapat is the Pali term for alms rounds, which is the way the monastics survived for centuries. All monastics from a monastery would walk through the nearby town every morning, where the townspeople would wait in front of their homes with food to place in each alms bowl. This was all the food they would eat for that day. It's a tradition sometimes practiced at monasteries in this country as well from time to time, and Ayya Sobhana has been instrumental and determined to establish the tradition here, as a way to bring the monastics into the community, and the community together with the monastics. They've been doing it twice a month in the summer hours for about a year now, but this is the first time I've had the privilege of going with them. The child was so entranced that he made his dad go and buy a container of juice so he could offer it.

This woman didn't have food to offer, but did offer a little money, which they normally don't accept. I spoke up too quickly, offered to accept it for them. But, no harm done. She felt better about offering something, and for the blessing she received in return. They schedule this for every two weeks, and each time they meet both old and new supporters along the way.

Back to the coast already? Nope, just a mural, a little fun and trick photo set up.

We walked all over town, winding through the streets for about an hour. Quite a humbling and inspirational experience for me, I have to say.

This Thai restaurant always cooks up some food to offer, as their culture is wrapped around supporting monastics as much as the monastics are dependent upon the lay people for their livelihood. It's a good, symbiotic arrangement where everyone feels good.

Walking back to the park to eat, this store owner popped out with an offering -- the first time he's done so, they tell me. Fitting, though, since it's a spirituality bookstore!

This young woman is a serious supporter, has helped establish this tradition. She always brings good food for them. I understand that there are generally more supporters here at the park, but there was a conflict with a really-big-deal Thai monk who is in town for a few days, and the others understandably went to that opportunity.

At the behest of the monastics, I assume, the anagarika (novice) in the white robes collected a plate of food for me from that supporter, then shared the papaya and other things from the Thai restaurant with me, from her bowl. A woman had put a whole loaf of freshly-baked bread into one of the bowls earlier, and we all shared in that bounty!

Really a super day.

But, that wasn't the end of it. After lunch we and the woman from the park went for coffee indoors where it was warm, then the monastic groups all went to the Vihara and on to view a property that was a potential new permanent home, to be purchased rather than rented. It was a lovely place -- I'd love to live there and they liked it too, but it has serious accessibility issues and they need to consider those things both for supporters as well as themselves as they age.

And then -- some time to kill until 6pm when they did a Skype video-conference with a young man who lives elsewhere who had requested a memorial service for his recently departed uncle. I was ready to crash -- serious melt-down coming on -- so I went upstairs and lay down and got warm until it was almost over, then drove home, grumbling all the way because I've told them over and over on previous visits, pleaded and begged with them not to make me drive after late afternoon, and this had been sprung on me at the last minute. I was not a happy camper! I'd slept well the previous night, from exhaustion, and felt great, but this old body is too depleted, physically and emotionally, to recover from the stress of an 11 hour drive that quickly. I made it home with both bhikkhunis, safely, and of course I didn't really grumble all the way, only part of it. They got the message this time, however. I told them that I simply won't do it again. If they have an occasion that needs a driver that late in the day, it'll need to be somebody else. Period. I think they simply didn't realize previously how difficult it really is for me function after about 5pm. They, of course, were very kind and apologetic and are going out of their way today to continue the kind compassion. I love 'em all!

Then -- as we drove up the long driveway home, just of Hwy 1, we turned a corner and saw wispy fog drifting in, wafting all through the hills, just beautiful. My camera didn't capture the full beauty, but here's the best I could make happen.

Not a bad place to live, even temporarily!

 But by the time I climbed the hill and crawled into my sleeping bag, it was 9:45pm, and I was cold. Couldn't wind down quickly,couldn't really warm up, couldn't sleep. Finally, around 11:30 I got up and lit the fire in my stove, tended that for awhile, then managed to doze off maybe around 12:30. And up at 4am, of course. Today I'm resting again, other than cooking. Another big day here tomorrow with an unknown number of visitors coming to join in a day-long meditation retreat.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Magic Mountains -- and other stories

Mt. Shasta, from afar
You can argue with me all you want, but you'll never convince me that big mountains don't have magic. Prior to 1996, when I first experienced that magic at Mt. Rainier, I'd have probably been in the other camp myself. Magic? Hah! I'd spent two months riding my bike through Colorado's rockies, even climbed one of the fourteeners, but I'd never felt any magic.

But back in 1996 as I sat in my car in a pullout on that mountain, inside the park at the top of the road, I felt that mountain's energy. It filled the car and permeated my body. It was real, not imagined. I never saw the mountain itself -- it was shrouded in fog, but I sure could feel its presence.

Mt. Shasta, up close and personal, near Shasta City
Not all mountains seem to have that magic, or perhaps it's merely that I'm not picking up on the vibes of all mountains. However one chooses to feel about that, I personally have only experienced that magic at two mountains: Rainier, and this beauty, Mt. Shasta. I've driven past countless times, ridden past on a train, but it never fails to speak to me somewhere deep inside. Kind of hazy today, but at least not hiding in the clouds.

My craving for this baby was delayed by many hours -- had trouble finding the location in Redding, and by the time I found it I passed the entrance and the traffic was such that I couldn't get back to it without a lot more driving. I'd already driven all over town, so I gave it up, had another nut bar and some almonds for lunch. By the time I got to Petaluma, CA around 3pm I was feeling the need for food (almost 9 hours after leaving home). I am stubborn, refused to stop at any other fast food (read: junk) place, but I remembered that there was an In-N-Out on the map where I was routed to cross 101 in Petaluma, so I beelined there like a magnet. I gotta tell you, it was well worth the wait. I've eaten at In-N-Out several times in Santa Rosa, but never ventured past the basic burger and while it was OK, it was never great. This baby is the double-double animal style, medium rare with grilled onions and chiles. Juicy, delicious, my hands were covered in it afterwards. Ahhhhhh. Bliss.

Of course, Buddhist teachings would probably consider my issues finding the Redding location to be a type of karma -- a quick lesson in the suffering brought on by craving! And I can live with that.

I'm here, of course. Exactly 11 hours, door-to-door, with only a few brief stops before the 30 minutes or so for lunch.  I'm still tired, but happy. Weather is that perfect, welcome to California stuff the tourist bureau likes to talk about. Even here on the coast, the sun is warm, the breeze refreshing, and even the night wasn't particularly cold.

I've been given today as a day of rest, which is much appreciated. The others have gone into town for the afternoon. Tomorrow, I'll make that trip with Ayya, for some pindapat (alms-offerings from lay people to monastics) on the streets of Sebastapol. This is something she's started doing since I was last here, so it should be fun. It's scheduled, the route she walks is published, and people stand along the route with offerings for her bowl. This is how it's been done for centuries, in Asia, and it's a good tradition to keep alive even when it's not required.

I love my kuti. This is the view from one side in the early morning sun.  That bright spot is a bunch of Pampas grass, primarily.

So I'm here alone -- lunch is over, I've washed my hair and the dishes (although not in that order) and after hitting the 'publish' button on this, will wend my way back up the hill for some rest and reading.

A slightly closer view of the sunny area, with some detail. It's so pretty up there. A trail winds past the Pampas grass through some open areas, across a wooden bridge and to another kuti, eventually. I walked that this morning, re-familiarizing myself with my surroundings. Sat in the sun on the wooden bridge for awhile. It's nice to be here and be lazy -- rarely happens for me!

More when more happens.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Ocean mist-cleaned air

Home, for the next month, starting Monday! This is Ratana, or Jewel, kuti. Coincidentally the very first place I stayed during my first visit, several years ago. Exquisitely private, gets some nice sun, very open-woodsy setting, and no serious uphill walking required to reach it.

Inside is simple, but adequate. Lots of natural light, windows open only to the forest, no trails or other sources of other humans. This is what it looked like a year ago -- things get moved around, but usually they are the same things! I don't imagine it'll be much different now.

Heat source for those cool nights. Tiny little wood stove that really will heat the place nicely. I never really got the knack of keeping it burning low for a long time. With the drought down there, I don't even know if I'll be allowed to use it.

The view from one end of the deck. The other end is about the same -- this one leads to the trail to the landings, kitchen, and all other development.

I am really looking forward to being there. A month of total peace and quiet, nobody else in the house, no yappy little dog. Now, I live in a very quiet, very wooded space that would be hard to top despite the dog, and I have a really cool roommate. No complaints there, but the redwood forest, and a kuti with no electricity (i.e. no electronic distractions or noises) is a whole different thing.

I'm also looking forward to having something to do with my time. I'm bored, again. Life swings that way, for me, it seems. I am fairly well (not 100% but largely) convinced that much of my ennui and lack of energy comes from boredom, as much as or more than anything physical. I'll be cooking there -- at least part of the time. Don't know if I'll be doing all of it, but there will be other chores, including some driving.  All that is good. Keeps me busy. And somehow, this forest always energizes me. The head nun wrote to me the other day, in her inimitable poetic fashion, 

Our hermitage forest is so rejuvenating, with its ocean mist-cleaned air and the breath of so many herbs and soft fragrant earth beneath the trees.

She is so right! It's magic, in its own way, and it always works its magic on me. I expect it'll do the same this time.