FR: wind, rain, fog and the groundless ground

March 16, 2024

I am just back from a wonderful reunion with the sweet New England woods in central MA and two weeks on retreat at Forest Refuge. As usual, the early spring weather in March was wildly variable with cold, windy rain, fog and even a dusting of snow one morning, as well as a few days of warm sun, singing birds and budding flowers. The more muted environment was a welcome antidote to the overwhelm of Paradise in Hawaii last winter. Rebecca Bradshaw was teaching again as always in March. Her teaching partner was Devon Hase, one of the new generation of recently launched IMS teachers whom I didn’t know at all. I trust Rebecca and have tremendous respect for her guidance without any sticky attachment. In contrast, I could feel myself falling in love with Devon almost immediately. She was warm and heartful, while also brilliant and nerdy in her presentation of the suttas, translation of Pali terms, and discussion of different lineages and teaching styles across varied Buddhist schools. She was only a few years older than Emily, also an only child, also married to a zen student, also with a father 13 years older than her mother, a writer and an athlete, so many common threads. She had spent many long stretches on retreat, including time on Maui with Steve and Kamala, and was extremely skillful at helping me understand some of the strange experiences I have had on recent retreats. I knew it would be a mistake to try to look for that experience of nothing I had had last year. Devon agreed and encouraged me to notice what was absent and be playful with awareness.

As usual, in the early days of the retreat, I didn’t sleep well and had some vivid and crazy dreams. At my first meeting with Rebecca, I recounted a dream in which I was a passenger in several strange vehicles that were not proceeding easily along their paths. Then, I was chased by a group of tiger cubs who I think wanted to play with me. We decided that I was having some doubt about my practice and needed to relax and play more. Yes, that’s what Devon had said. Rebecca recommended dropping all labels and commentary. Don’t chase after objects, just rest in receptive awareness. When I met with Devon a few days later, I described a lot of calm stillness and quiet. I asked her about the difference between equanimity and dullness in my regular life. She said what I was describing didn’t sound like dullness to her, but a more quiet, easeful joy and appreciation of life – better than intense passion. I agreed. She said I could check to see that the enlightenment factors were balanced, and maybe bring in a bit more energy or investigation. Wow, I had been doing this for a number of years, but this was the first time a teacher had articulated it to me.

After that meeting I actually decided that I would be totally OK to spend the retreat resting in the calm, quiet equanimity I was feeling. What a relief not to be checking the enlightenment factors, or maintaining continuity of awareness, or on the lookout for some special experience. Devon gave an incredibly inspiring talk that night and I slept really well for the first time in a week. The next morning as I came into the hall early to sit and lead the metta chant, I could tell the sky was clear for the first time and we might actually have a sunrise. I rang the bell at 6:20 and as I got up to turn on the lights, I saw the sun just peaking through the trees in the east. The early morning crowd in the hall did a great job chanting and my heart felt happy and full as I walked back to my room before breakfast. As I opened the blinds, I saw a shaft of sunlight coming through the trees and falling on the frosty grass in the meadow. A voice in my head said, “oh, the groundless ground,” the phrase Devon had said at the end of her talk. I could clearly see the ground deconstruct and there was nowhere for the shaft of sun to land. Yet it was also completely there, just as it looked. Humm, form is emptiness, emptiness form. No big deal. I made my bed and did my yoga stretches. As I came into the dining room, there were shafts of sunlight falling everywhere and I saw the groundless ground again and again. My heart started to swell. The lady who always scuffed her slippers on the floor even walked by quietly and my heart soared. Ahhh, I saw it, this practice is amazing and really works, wowwwww. I have to tell Devon!!!

I was floating and flying and so joyful. It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed playing outside after lunch and taking a long walk in the woods on all my favorite trails. At some point, however, I started to notice that the joyful, flying feeling was actually starting to feel sticky and agitated. My thoughts were racing with plans for the future and inviting Devon to Princeton. Woa there, this is clinging and actually causing more suffering than that quiet calm I was feeling yesterday. Interesting. I had signed up for an extra interview for the next day. By the time I arrived, the revved-up state had started to wind down and I could describe the insight, and the high, and seeing the clinging. Devon said that was more important than seeing the groundless ground. One of the last fetters to release is the sense of self, the one who has the insight. So interesting to work with.

The next few days were pretty ordinary: some quiet, some thinking, some music, some hip aching, clouds, rain, fog. The next time I met with Rebecca I described the whole up and down and told her I felt like I wasn’t really doing anything. And you’re not supposed to hold onto special experiences or pleasant meditative states, but those things are good, right? She nodded and said meditative insight comes from not doing. You just put your body in the form and let the practice run the course and unfold on its own. OK, sure. A few days later, someone left me a note on the bulletin board. Her plans had changed and she was leaving Friday, the same day I was, and heading to Boston and could I give her a ride to Worcester. Yes, it’s good to have an opportunity to help, I could probably give you a ride to Worcester, but I really don’t want to think about this yet. More notes, maybe Springfield would be easier for you….so many words. OK, I will get out my phone and look at the directions to Worcester so I can give you a short definite answer. After all that commotion, I sat in the hall Wednesday afternoon and felt stirred up. When I get home, what will my practice be? What is my intention? What am I doing????? And the voice said: “there is no one; not doing anything at all.” Really??? and the sun came out from behind a cloud and filled the hall with a warm glowing light. 

The rest of the day and the next, I had periods of knowing that there was no one doing nothing at all and it didn’t feel unsettling or scary, just quiet and still, but ordinary, like a tree standing in the woods. There were also periods of me doing my practice, resting in the sound of silence and some peaceful stillness. I met with Devon again and she said that when I was home I could orient towards that stillness which is always available. I’ll try to not try to not do that…. I invited her to come to Princeton. We’ll see how that intention unfolds.

Gain and Loss, Pleasure and Pain – Take a Break!

August 15, 2023

It has been a busy year of traveling, biking, and agility training and trialing with Louie. Luckily, I have been in great physical shape for all of it, until now. After a pause over the winter, Louie and I got back to trialing in the spring, and he earned his Open Jumpers with Weaves title at the Princeton trial in April – hurray! On one hand it is great to earn a new title and advance to the next level, on the other hand, then you have to advance to the next level where the courses are longer and harder and you are allowed fewer, or no mistakes. After Greece and Idaho, I had us registered for three weekend trials in a row in the hope of getting our Open Standard title at one of those events. It was a tremendous high to have a clean run and get a qualifying score and the third needed leg for the title on the first day back in the competition ring. The next weekend, we were finally with all the “big kids” in the advanced courses, and even though Louie did really well and stayed with me with minimal mistakes, we didn’t qualify in either the Excellent Jumpers class or our first time at Excellent Standard. The third weekend was a bust for Louie and for me.

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Mountain Biking Adventure in Idaho

July 15, 2023

It has been a whirlwind year of travel for me! Back in April, a girlfriend of mine from my bike club told me about a trip she was planning to complete her “50 in the 50’s challenge” – a physically active trip in all 50 states while she was in her 50’s. Idaho was the last state she needed, and even though she was now 61, she was allowing for the lost years of fires and COVID. It sounded like a great adventure and I signed on. We would be camping with mountain biking, hiking and white-water rafting, quite a challenging itinerary. My attitude at this point is, “if I am in good physical shape, I might as well do it while I can!”

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40th Anniversary Trip to Greece

June 11, 2023

We had this trip mostly planned for June of 2020 and my 60th birthday, but COVID struck, and we cancelled it along with everything else. Luckily, we hadn’t bought plane tickets or paid any money to the tour organizer. Then, one January afternoon in Maui as I meditated on the hillside overlooking the sea and islands, the thought floated into my mind, “I think it is our 40thanniversary this June…we should take that trip to Greece!”  It was very easy to reconstruct the itinerary with the incredibly helpful travel agent, Takis, who plans trips for the Hellenic Studies Department at PU. Prices were more expensive than they were in 2020, but still very reasonable compared to the rest of Europe. Traveling in early June we were also very lucky with the weather, which was cool and cloudy before the blistering heat of the summer set in.

After an uneventful direct flight from Newark to Athens, we arrived in Greece on June 11, our anniversary day. We were met at the airport and taken to our lovely hotel, the Herodion, only a short walk to the Acropolis Museum and charming Plaka district. We walked around a bit and rested in the afternoon before a delicious cocktail at the hotel’s rooftop bar, followed by a magnificent dinner at the famous Dionysis Restaurant overlooking the south face of the Acropolis – a suitably grand way to celebrate this major milestone in our relationship!

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Bike Trip to Spain with MAFW

March 10-20, 2023

I learned about this trip a few days before I was leaving for Maui for a month. It seemed crazy to make plans for another adventure, but the dates were perfect during Spring break, a lot of my bike friends from Morris Area Freewheelers would be going, and you couldn’t beat the very inexpensive price, so I put down a deposit. Emily would be accompanying Michael and the PU Orchestra on tour to Sofia, Belgrade and Budapest, and the pet sitter we had for Maui was available again to stay with Louie. After three years of not traveling at all, I guess it was time to start making up for it.

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Retreat in Paradise: A Month on Maui

December 18, 2022 – January 15, 2023

I am writing this a number of months later, so the experiences have settled and softened. I have practiced with meditation teachers Steve Armstrong and Kamala Masters for almost 20 years and have always wanted to visit their retreat center on Maui. With all of Michael’s health issues, it has been challenging to find a time when I could be away for a month, but December/January looked like it would work so I made the reservation last June and hoped for the best. As the holidays approached, everyone was healthy, including Steve, who was doing miraculously well five years after a glioblastoma diagnosis. Michael, Emily and I planned a family vacation for 4 days before my retreat. We arrived on Maui in a terrible rain-storm that diverted planes and cancelled flights. Luckily, we landed safely and stayed in a beautiful condo near the beach in Kihei. We only had one good swimming day after the storm, but we did a lot of driving around the Island and visited our old Princeton friend Maida Pollock. She had retired to her son’s farm in Kula, which was, amazingly, right down the dirt road from the retreat center! Michael and Emily went on to spend Christmas on the Big Island at Volcano National Park, and I started a monthlong retreat in Paradise.

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Beach/Bike Vacation in MD

August 6, 2022

I rented a cool and funky house in Berlin MD for a family beach get-a-way this summer. I was very happy to avoid a complicated trip to Europe, or anywhere that involved flying, especially after the travel hassles of Utah. I was even happier that Emily could join us. The house was attractive and comfortable with a fenced in area for Louie, AC, WiFi, and beautiful outside garden areas to cook, eat and even watch TV. The host lived in a trailer at the back of the property, with “Boyfriend” and three dogs. Louie made friends with Laurie’s dogs through the fence, and “Boyfriend,” a chef at a local restaurant, even shared some fresh off the boat tuna with us one night. Laurie was a warm and generous character with unending helpful advice about everything.

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Backroads Trip to Utah

June 7, 2022

Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks have been on my bucket list for a while, and I finally got to see them on a wonderful Backroads bike trip. I still had a deposit with them from the Greece trip that I had to cancel the first summer of COVID. I have been hesitant about traveling in general, but I made the reservation back in January when I was safely nestled at home. Cases were down in NJ in the early spring, but started to pick up again as the warmer weather approached.  I did the best I could to stay healthy before the trip, and would hope for the best while traveling with 16 new friends on the trip itself.

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FR – Return to the Scene of the Crime

March 14, 2022

I just got home from 12 glorious days at Forest Refuge and feel much revived and restored. It was the first time back in almost exactly two years when I was one of the last yogis there before the beginning of the pandemic shut the world down. Rebecca Bradshaw was teaching again, and it was also her first time back since March of 2020. At my interview with her the day after I arrived, she said “so, we return to the scene of the crime!” Yikes. The preparation for being away on retreat is always quite involved, but this time was especially stressful due to the strict testing protocols necessary to even enter the IMS buildings let along stay for 12 days.

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2021 Recap – mostly biking

I have been remiss in adding blog posts for the second half of 2021. Maybe it is because the pandemic seemed to be ending, which was scary and stressful as we went back to more normal activities, but then it came roaring back and kept on going. Life continued with both a sameness that was discouraging as we just made the best of it all, and a new anxiety as we tried to integrate a return to regular life in the midst of an ongoing pandemic and a changed world. Maybe what I thought was equanimity was actually a dullness masking anxiety. Even so, Michael and I have a lot to be thankful for: we remained healthy and safe and I enjoyed a lot of lovely bike rides on my new bike. Here are some highlights:

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