A river flows through Bend Oregon, from Little Lava Lake to the Columbia, called the Deschutes translated from French as “the river of the falls”. The Nez Perce people of the area refer to the river as Towarnehiooks, translated as “enemies” in reference to the Paiutes who lived along its banks. Like it’s Native name, the Towarnehiooks, brings to mind how our pervasive thought stream can be an enemy and lead us to suffering, or when recognized as having no substance, to freedom.
In its traversing through this region, the Towarnehiooks is a relatively narrow and shallow river that has molded the lavascape into smooth and pointed curvaceous forms like concretized whipped cream, in the same way that my habitual thought patterns have concretized my ways of being. As the waters lessen through the summer, the flowing of the river over these forms creates rapids that fill the area with a constant sound barrage of water tumbling into itself over stone. Adding to that, the sounds of children voices as counterpoint and harmony, as well as the slight river-breeze effect in the summer sun- heated desert air, and the river and its surroundings manifest as meditation teacher.
When I begin a sit, thoughts are so omnipresent that I do not notice them. They deafen my awareness. It is like when I first approach the river rapids; visual and audio discernment seem unattainable . After being near the water for a while, I begin to discern variations of white in the tumbling and an under flow of grey green, and different levels and qualities of sound. As with the water, when I settle into a sit and attend to something, either my breath, an image or a sensory experience, I begin to be able to ferret out gross and subtle experiences, images or thoughts.
When I attempt to focus on one aspect of the white or underlying green of the water, my vision is carried downstream until I cannot follow it any further, no matter how much I attempt to keep it centered in one point, similar to the cascade of thoughts that are present in the beginning of the practice. When I attend to a thought, it inevitably leads to another about that thought, and then a story, and a why, or another question, or just random sequencing until I become aware that I have traveled downstream in a thought river.
Concentration and attending become accessible at the rapids, when I center my sight or hearing or sensation on a stable unwavering manifestation, like a rock in the middle of the cataract, the underlying softer sound of the river, the deep grey green beneath the tumbling, or the coolness of the breeze created by its movement. Then the other sounds, or senses and the raging water itself move by as they are, swift or slow, green or white, loud or rumbling quiet. I can experience all of these things and, the more I allow my awareness to expand and include them and all of the sensory experiences in the environment without following them downstream, the more I “see” the river as a whole, and the innate ease in its flow, even welcoming the loudness, the riotous white and the heat of the summer sun as part and parcel of the quiet flow, the stable grey green and the everpresent coolness.
So it is with the practice. In the beginning, centering attention and concentration on the breath or an image or a sound allows my constant thought stream to flow by; at first loudly echoing off canyons in my mind, and it is challenging not to follow one of them just to lower the input level. The more I am able to attend to something consistently and the focus softens and broadens, the more the thought and perception streams flow by in my awareness without me attaching or following the threads. I am sometimes able to expand to include any and all thought streams without judgment or grasping. In this experience there is no attempt to stop the river, change it, damn it up, divert it or let it tumble me downstream. Feelings, perceptions and thoughts are just as they are.
When the children throw a leaf or stick into the river to cheer its journey downward, over white, spinning by boulders, and dipping beneath the grey green, the newly introduced object is sometimes snagged by a gathering of stones but swims easily around the largest boulders. If the newly introduced object is large enough, it may get trapped under or around the largest obstacles. These stuck ones are battered by the ongoing flow of the river but remained lodged, perhaps until the next flood or until they are decimated by the repeated assault.
When a fresh thought or an awakening is experienced in the practice, it floats easily on the surface of the thought stream and seems to not only ride it expertly, but becomes one with, it so to speak. Then a collection of memories or thought habits snag and batter the experience and my attention becomes fixated on the why-s and wherefore-s of the the thought, getting lost in fixing, or solving, or grasping, desperate to return to the newness and the freshness of the realization. If the thought is large enough it easily swims by the smaller jumbled obstructions but might be is snagged in something much older and more fundamental, even karmic or ancient. This happens for me with strong emotions like anger or fear often triggered by unconscious memories of experiences. Often it is so intense that I can feel it in my body. A memory of what it was like to be one with the river arises and I feel like the snagged branch on the great boulder. I experience a psychic ache to set it free once again but no amount of attention or longing releases it. Then there is a an idea that the boulder is an obstacle and must be recognized and, only when it is either dissolved or freed from its mooring, will the awakening return to the thought stream and experience. So then I invest in its dissolution only to become even more swamped by all of the adjacent thought patterns and the fixation on what I think freedom feels like.
When I am able to relax my focus more and bring my attention downstream to attend to where the river is going, the focus and attention just go away and there is a sense of space. I have a concept of its destination; the deep ocean, but it may end in a flood plain and evaporate, or be diverted to water the orchards, or to city plumbing to be processed and recycled, honestly I do not know. Allowing that unknowingness to fill the experience leaves an empty spaciousness. When I look up river to the origin, I also do not know it, other than there are probably infinite origins that feed the the springs, the creeks the streams, the falls, that cause the river to be as it is in this place, between these banks, under the juniper, on wind sanded stones, with children laughing in its coolness and its power.
When I am sitting at this point trapped under a karmic boulder in the thought river, I might look to where the thought stream is going or will lead; the future. Similar to the tumbling torrent of the Towarnehiooks, I do not know. In fact, I begin to experience an understanding that this thought stream has no knowable future. It seems to dissolve into that expansive all inclusive mind and there is a sense of its emptiness. When I look to the origin, or rather allow my awareness to experience the causality of the thoughts, it echoes out over an infinite stream of causality and eventually expands to seemingly include all thoughts ever thought in all minds in the cosmos. And for an instant, sometimes, there is the knowable yet inconceivable experience of the Three Times being all the same and yet empty. The mind stops striving, the sense of a separate self shimmers like a hologram, and I have a taste, wavering on a threshold of absolute freedom from suffering.
Sitting on one of those ancient obstructions in the middle of the river I observe how the river flows effortlessly around and that only things of weight or form get caught by the boulders or collections of smaller river stones protruding from the water nearer the banks. I see the water merging with the obstructions, and bouncing off or sliding smoothly past. Eons of time and infinite gallons of flow; carving, smoothing, and sanding them to billions of sub-sand particles that disperse in the soil or eventually the seas. The larger obstructions empowering the river to dash itself on their surfaces, carving them away, by lifting the river out of the flow and then channeling the river to the path of least resistance.
In the practice my thought streams get swept away when I lose attention, and deposit my attachments and desires on karmic obscurations, life imprints and self-ness (the boulders), but when I allow the stream to flow without judgment or diversion, I experience a steady eroding of these habits. I also begin to see that the larger ever-present thought habits, or unsourceable obstructions are like the Buddhas in their infinite capacity to know and to guide. As if the Great Sage embodies my obscurations and obstructions in order that they not only are revealed but can be entrusted to channel this river of self to the ocean of no-self.
Perhaps, when I leave the banks of the Towarnehiooks and get up from my sit, thoughts will no longer be the enemy and I will experience obstacles and obscurations as guides, revealers, and Buddha Nature. I ask that this teaching will not just be a clever metaphor or a lasting memory, but that I may be of-this-way in my life off of the cushion and away from the river.
I dedicate this practice to the Towarnehiooks and all teachers, seen and unseen, heard and unheard, known and unknown. May my actions, deeds, speech, thoughts and feelings be in fulfillment of their teachings and the end of suffering for all beings.
Practicing in this Nature with an inconceivable numbers of teachers from the other-than-human world without almost no contact with the human world.
While sitting one morning on the banks of the Nehalem River in Central West Oregon, after a restless night and waking to doubt, the teaching of Dakpo Tasha Namgyal from “Clarifying the Natural State” cracked open a non-conceptual experience of mind unified with thoughts, perceptions and feelings. I experienced wholeness, an at-oneness, and ease and freedom, similar to states elucidated by psilocybin or ahyauasca, but this had happened in the natural meditative state.
I went into the post meditative daily doings and thinking and it remained constant and stable. “I have made it!” I thought to myself. “This state (something like non-duality) can be achieved without the medicine plants and sustained with my own attention and mindfulness.” I could hear the blaring horns of the Tibetan monks blowing and the chorus of all enlightening ones and Buddha’s, or as Gangaji likes to say “All the angels, gods and demons had gathered ‘round to witness and get a piece of the action.” I was in awe, surprise, deepest gratitude, and wanting to share the joy and luck with anyone who was still, unlike me, suffering from ignorance.
While sitting by the river studying and experiencing my “enlightenment”, a large and persistent, beautiful, turquoise-eyed, golden-bodied fly had decided that I looked like lunch. I was marinating in the experience of my oneness and reveling the reading of the “Flower Ornament Scriptures” and kindly asked the fly to find another counter to feast at. They would have nothing of it. Clearly I was the only thing on the menu and they proceeded to land on a hidden part of my leg and partake, resulting in a mere instant of sharp pain. After a yelp and an angry “Hey!”, I began discouraging the beast with my hat, flailing at it when it got near, like an artistic gymnastic ribbon performance. Their persistence stirred an anger in me that was from somewhere deep in the shadows of my “non-dual” state. I leapt up grabbed my chair and gear and book and scrambled away from the water and up the trail to the safety of my tent where, after settling down a bit, checked to see if the state of being was still present.
Something was there but it was more similar to a strong echo than the actual presencing experience from the morning.
It was time for the midday practice and so I sat. The torment of awakened anger wreaking havoc in my being was like being ripped to shreds from the inside out. Shantideva references this demon-devastation-from-the-hell-realms when teaching about the karma of the defilements, like pride, arrogance, fear and especially anger. Not only was I experiencing this fire, I could find no way out.
After the sit I was emotionally and physically drained. It was late afternoon so I began my ritual of setting up the shade awning and preparing the space for dinner. Well, guess who was there to greet me? While bending over to adjust a tent stake, I experienced a solid two seconds of needle-sharp, hot pain in my butt (Go ahead laugh. Please!!, I did.). I thought Well, they got what they wanted and now I can be left in peace.” I thanked them for the teaching about anger and asked them to please move on. Apparently it wasn’t enough and our dance began again. I started to feel like I was on the losing side of one of those Matrix fight scenes. Finally, they landed on my calf just as I swatted it and I knocked them to the ground, dead. “Dead as dead”, as the crow in Ka likes to say.
I checked in with my experience and I wasn’t really angry, in fact it had felt like a game of teasing and jousting that just got out of hand. I sincerely apologized to the golden turquoise-eyed, compassionate warrior and set his body aside to be interned with honor after I finished my work. That was when I checked in with my “enlightening” experience and it was nowhere in sight, sound, sense, feeling or thought. There was just this dull, thick density like a non-porous obsidian sponge stone.
I buried my teacher near a stand of Japanese’s knotweed (which is where they seemed to come from), overlooking the Nelahem river in sight of the Buddha’s head and guarded by the stalwart Douglas Fir
and went on about the evening ritual of dinner, tea, practice, study and sleep.
By the time I was nestling into bed, I was in a state of immutable despair. I had the Indestructible Gem of Truth in my grasp and I let it go. I had allowed unconscious pride, arrogance, and anger to rise up justifying it by thinking, “After all, I got it and I shouldn’t have to be bothered with the mundane, much less a fucking fly“. At the heart of it I felt that I failed the teachers and the practice. I had been here before: As a son of disappointed parents, an all-nighter evening on a Texas beach when everything seemed connected, a retreat in Taize’ France, on my knees in pre-seminary, with the aforementioned medicine teachers, with Gangaji, on a monthlong silent Dhatun in the mountains of Colorado. It was like an inoperable karmic knot of awakening to truth then just as I grasped it, falling back into this reality of uncontrolled emotions, and self important thinking.
Waking the next day in dullness, I continued my daily rhythm, hoping, looking over my shoulder, lifting the lid on the pot of my mental bubbling to see if “It” was there. It was gone, for good, dead, “dead as dead”. I kept the rhythm of the day, the cleaning, the practicing, the studying, the resting, the relishing of Nature. All the while thinking, It’ll come back. It wasn’t that big of a faux pas.” Then after hours of diminishing hope: “If I continue to do it right (the practice), maybe I can end this perpetual karmic cycle of pride and anger in this lifetime. Or at least engrain the experience into my bones so that I’ll have a better chance of seeing it before it takes me over the next time.”
There were several moments of ease and joy throughout the day. The sits were uneventful but honest and I began entertaining ideas that I just was not meant for this practice. By sleep time I felt like I had experienced a death. A deep death and I went into the little death at ease resigned to it.
The next morning, I woke with a little tickle of joy in my solar plexus. Like the feeling I had, as a child, waking up on Christmas morning, or the feeling I have had in new love; anticipating their phone call or arrival for a date. I began the rhythm of the day.
I always begin practice, reading from “Clarifying the Natural State” and this day I read from Straying:
“… the basic straying is to regard the emotion (that you wish) to be discarded and the training as separate and so to use the training as a remedy against the emotion. Whenever a thought moves or when encountering a difficult situation, the temporary straying is (to believe that) one can only be composed in meditation after the difficulty has been overcome.”
And my heart wept in joy and Buddha head laughed, and stalwart Fir rustled slightly and a bald eagle soared down the Nelahelam at eye level as an exclamation point.
A teaching from the Flower Ornament Scriptures is that every moment of the three Times, every pore of every being of existence, every atom of the billions of mind oceans are permeated with the teaching of Universal Goodness. Every aspect of the precious human lifetime is a revelation of the true nature of reality and not one being will be left untouched by the enlightening Ones’ gifts.
I have always thought and still get trapped in thinking that It has to look, feel and sound a particular way. My expectations for freedom are insurmountable and ultimately merely concepts. And in moments like these and more frequently, as the practice becomes life and life becomes the practice, the reality of the nature of reality is just as it is, whatever that is, without the promise or hope of some future better place. Everything contributes.
Thank you for this teaching, Oh Great and Compassionate Warrior Fly, adorned with the gold from the Lion’s Throne and eyes bedecked with the lapis lazuli from the mines of the infinite Oceans of Wisdom and stinger anointed with the Nectar of Reminder.
I dedicate this practice to all the teachers, seen and unseen, heard and unheard, known and unknown. May all my words, deeds, actions, thoughts and emotions be a fulfillment of their teachings.
A good friend and teacher gifted me the novel, Ka by John Crowley. They have the intuitive insight for what is needed to support someone on their way and so it is with this book and my journey. Enough to say that it is about a Crow in the Realm of KA and the fundamental wisdom teachings from a crow’s viewpoint as they observe People over an arch of several hundred years.
From the book:
“How Crows do things that astonish People — appear where they shouldn’t be, come into possession of things they can’t have got — isn’t really different from how Rats, Raccoons, or even Cats do similar things by persistence, constant investigation, endless trial and error.”
Ain’t it the truth… for all sentient beings.
I am finding this to be the engine of the Practice. Persistence. Constant investigation. Endless trial and error.
Persistent sitting. This has been the first and most challenging part of the practice for me and seems to be the primary teaching in most wisdom traditions; making a meditation practice part of everyday’s rhythm and then gradually increasing the length and the number of practice times during each day. Over the thirty plus years of pathing (Pathing: the act of going on a Path specifically one towards self realization or truth seeking. Similar to “tripping”, “walking”, “hiking”, “journeying”), and trying all sorts of ways to avoid this first step, I have come to realize, for this body/mind at least, that stability and consistent unfolding awareness comes with dedicated regular practice.
Constant investigation: In the practice and during the application of lessons from the practice in life, a constant, open ended inquiry without expectation, and the pure curiosity of a child, is what allows doors that open to deeper realizations to become observable. In the Buddhist practice, I associate this with vipashyana practice. This vigorous practice, that with persistence, frees the mind from attachment, desires and expectations or promises of completion.
Endless trial and error: Walk through every door and even if it appears the new room or land is a mistake, keep walking into the mistake with an investigative mind. And if it is a place of ease and beauty, relish and absorb and keep inquiring about it, not out of doubt but, out if curiosity. When doubt arises, inquire into the doubt. It’s origin? It’s quality? It’s dissolution? Where is the ground of its being? Whatever arises be curious.
Thank you JS and Jonathan Crowley for making these points so simply clear.
Hiking, for me, has always been end point and return driven. Whether strenuous climbs or long level trails, I was always on the way to something spectacular or to accomplish something. I have done as instructed by Nature enthusiasts; to stop along the way to take in the beauty on the trail, to snack and drink water, but my thoughts and attention were always swirling away to the peak, swimming in the alpine lake, finishing the loop. Even while stopping, my mind was calculating time and distance to the the endpoint and the amount of time left in the day to take care of stuff, once returning home.
Or the hike was something to talk about afterwards, on the way home or with folks in the days to come, or to say “Yeah, I did that hike.” as if I had just completed a job or a sexual conquest. I have images in my mind of many hikes, and pictures to prove I was there. I even have some feelings of awe that rise up in memory of standing in stillness, dwarfed by majesty. But, most of what I recall is about having completed them and very little about the way there or back.
There was one hike, a pretty strenuous 10 mile round trip, peak hike, that I embarked on during a time when I was experiencing a deep pressure in my right leg and a bit of a catch in my left lung when I exercised for more than 20 minutes. The hike was relatively level except for the last 1.5 miles which were steep switchbacks to the peak through a dense forest that opened out above the tree line for the last 200 yards of elevation. For the first time in my experience, I found that I had to stop several times on the trail to catch a breath and ease my leg. Still I kept pushing through. I thought, if it gets too bad I’ll turn around. (Yeah, right!) I came to the final clearing and was breathing heavily, so I sat down in the shade to rest up for the final push. Rested, I began again and saw that the last stretch of switchback, that began about 100 yards away, was even more of an intense grade and seemed longer than what I had experienced up til then. I looked at the peak across this grass covered incline and thought that it would be easier to just trail blaze directly to the top. So, I went, at first upright, then lower to the earth, then slower until I was slothfully crawling, breathing hard, catch in the lung, leg throbbing. I kept pushing myself to a small copse of shrubs that would provide some shade near the peak where I could rest, eat and recover for the return hike.
By the time I was near the copse, I was dragging my body with the hope that I would reach the shade before lapsing into unconsciousness to die from exposure in the mountain sun. Arriving in the cool, I collapsed and after sleeping on the crunchy, stone strewn, incline, I woke refreshed with most of the pain and pressure subsided. I sat for a while and contemplated dying on a mountain. What a great place to transition; 360 degree views obscured only by a taller near peak to the South, dense ocean of sky above, deep, moss-like forest below. And, maybe for the first time in my agenda driven hiking life, I sat in quiet absorption; taking in what I thought might be my last perceiving in this life.
Then the mind set in: “Better get going.” It was a slow descent with many stops and time to take in the surroundings. My mind, all the while, calculating the distance and time until I would be home to soak in a tub and spend time on the Net researching leg and lung pain.
After that hike, I soon learned that I had deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary endema. One of the larger veins in my right leg was mostly occluded from calf to hip with possibly small clots in the lung. Both situations can cause strokes, and death.
Hmmm… Would I remember that lesson?
Three months ago while planning for this gratitude journey, I woke up with excruciating pain in my sacrum that radiated down to the ankle of my right leg. I could not stand or walk with out significant pain. Of course this trip was going to be a lot about hiking, scaling peaks and trekking deserts and forests that had offered teachings. I had imagined going on days long treks of 20 miles, scaling peaks or trudging through dense forests or striking out across the sands to get to those places that had shared teachings with me. Now after A very slow process of three months of care and therapy, I don’t have as much pain but my walking is hampered, and sometimes I have restless sleep from joint stiffness. My mind spinning out scenarios of how the trip would have to be different and how I would adjust or compromise or maybe even cancel.
I am writing this on the third morning of the Trial Run, leaning up against a moss covered hemlock friend that stands sentinel on the banks of the Hoh river, about 400 yards from my campsite. I had planned on a six mile hike up the river to a trail that winds through a forest of old growth moss giants. I made it to here, being forced to go slowly, seeing more deeply, absorbing the gifts of splendor that this place has. Its teaching orchestrated with river rocks playing the Hoh and the percussion of insects buzzing, accompanying a birdsong that I have never heard before supported by a chorus of my black feathered guides from the realm of KA.
I have arrived, I am always arrived. There’s no place to go.
While riding the third ferry of the first day, I was taken by the brilliance of detail in the engineering of the ships. These massive, solid iron boxes floating on water and being propelled by thousands of uniquely engineered moving parts. With thousands of little efficient details and others that do not seem to have any clear purpose except to fulfill some designer’s whims, like big round holes in the girders supporting the decks.
I am equally (no… more!), taken by the engineering of the small metal box, appropriately named ELEMENT, that I will be living and traveling in, off and on over the next year or so. It seemed as if the intent of the engineer(s) was to make sure WIlliam Gentner had all of the nooks, crannies, hooks and crammies (places to cram things you don’t know where to put; in this case a new word made up so it would rhyme with crannies) that he needed on this voyage. It is clear to me that it must have been a crew of bright minds that had watched “Road Warrior” or a “Boy and His Dog” repeatedly and realized that they needed to make a vehicle that could withstand the apocalypse, be sturdy enough for the inevitable desert climes and gnarly roads, as well as providing a space big enough to sleep, eat, play and meditate in.
Engineers turn concepts into reality out of love. Their intentions and the consummations, even when they seem selfish, are ultimately acts of compassion. The engineer looks into the world and sees where there is struggle, suffering, or lack of ease and they take a designer’s dreams and make them a reality using their understanding of how things work and also how to make things safe and easeful. At their best they realize all the things in a dream or design that may cause suffering and transform the dream so it fulfills the loving intent of the dreamer. It seems to me to be one of the most egoless professions one can do. There are very few international, national or even local awards or public accolades for engineers. Sure, they make beaucoup $$, but I have never met one who is motivated by that when they are deep in the work of engineering
One might say that this magician’s skill for turning metal into miracles has brought as much harm as it has relieved suffering. But I do not think that is the engineer’s fault as much as it is the culture of greed and dominance that turns potentially life easing ideas into tools of destruction. There undoubtedly has been a great deal of ignorance of the effects of some engineering marvels, but at the outset the intentions have been, almost universally, manifestations of love for human beings and a desire to lessen suffering.
And now, who will be the ones that ultimately create the tools to reverse the impending apocalypses and see unimaginable paths to prevent them…?
The Blessed Engineers.
Or at least they’ll keep improving on the ELEMENT, so that as many people as possible can ride out the coming storm with some ease and fun.
It seems like every day for the past three months has been a trial run for what is coming down the ‘pike. Each day brings another new pandemic of fear, courage, ignorance, awareness, intimacy and isolation. As I make final preparations for the trial run in the new home, I have been filling my days with purchases and what ifs? The purchases protect me from the what ifs? and the what ifs? protect me from settling into the nervousness that arises in the void of not knowing what is coming down the ‘pike.
I’ve been venturing out more into the world, coming out of my cave of COVID-convenient-isolation and I realize that I have forgotten how to navigate, dodge and weave, and shield my self from, the noise of civilization. There are body memories that initiate reactions of anger and frustration at traffic, avoidance of “individuals”, judgments of the impolite, and shame about my social faux pas. And I also notice that I have more tools for self observation and awareness, more capacity for patience, a broader sense of perceiving beauty, and some new skills that guide me to seeing beyond the habitual somatic responses to some kind of unified field of love, that pulls and goads, and initiates, and powers… everything.
A trial run for what?
In November I will jump in an Element that I have converted to a house and will begin a journey of gratitude. The idea forced its way into my thought stream about a year ago, when Jeff (my husband) made the final decision to move to Costa Rica (That is a great story in itself and I hope he will share that journey on here someday). As I started my own process for making the move to CR, I kept having images that sparked longings to connect with and kneel down, in gratitude before all of the teachers that have pointed the way, or shoved me off of cliffs, or sat in silent patience with me as I wrassled with my traumas, my attitudes, my arrogance and my egos. Gurus, lovers, canyons and mountains. Teachers, students, relatives, plant beings, oceans, deserts, both living and dead. As I write this they flood my memories and beingness and I weep with joy at this lucky, precious life that gifted me with them all.
And so on Sunday, July 26, 2020. I will go on a trial run, to work out some of the kinks of living and traveling in a 4X4X8 space before embarking into Gratitude.
(I’m new in the “blogosphere”, so any hints or ideas that will prevent this from being an obnoxious invasion of your inboxes, and yet remain an open forum for inquiry and exploration, shout ‘em out. Thanks!!! William)