Tuesday, May 27, 2014


A week or so ago, I was sitting in my folding chair on the sidewalk outside the laundromat around the corner from my apartment building, reading while my clothes went for a swim. Suddenly it began to rain, but only where I was. I looked up to see a woman wielding a garden hose from atop her garage. “Hey!”, I yelled. “You’re getting me wet.” “Sorry!”, she said.

The woman emerged onto the sidewalk and continued with her watering. Neither of us said anything, but the mood didn’t seem unfriendly. Then I said, “Your roses are very beautiful,” which they are, a rich yellow-pink. She thanked me and said she worries they’re not getting enough water. I added that they smell good, which they do, and then I told her my name and she told me hers and it ended up being a very pleasant interaction. Now if I see her again, I can say hello to her by name.

The following day, a Saturday, Howie led us in a half-daylong—four hours of mindfulness practice—at the Mindfulness Care Center, on Gough St. just south of Market St. There were about ten people from Mission Dharma there, about 30 people total. Howie gave us meditation instructions and we sat, and then had a bit of discussion, then walked, sat, discussed, walked, sat and left. The four hours flew by. I was slightly beset by nearby laundry detergent, but it was tolerable, sometimes evident and sometimes not, depending on the movements of the air.

During walking periods, most people did the standard slow walking back and forth, it looked like, but I, the new devotee of Sayadaw U Tejaniya, was free to walk anywhere at any speed, so, with the very slightest of mental smirks, I went off around the block: Gough, Market, 12th St., Otis. Someone had put a squished dead bird into a blue recycling bin. There are a lot of auto-related businesses around there, satellites of the large dealership (Honda, I think) at Market St. and South Van Ness.

When the four hours were done, I walked—windy!—down to Ananda Fuara and had a cup of dal and a green salad for lunch. Then I briefly went to the Civic Center, where the Asian heritage festival or some such was underway, then walked over to REI to look at and in fact purchase a sun hat or two. Mine is twenty years old and really is disreputable looking, though it still does its job faithfully. Even Carlos thought its day had come and gone.

Next I headed for Sports Basement to see if they had different or better hats, which took me past Dandelion, which I’d never been in before. It is two floors bursting with books and kitchen-related things, including many Japanese ceramics, and lots of things that are just a few dollars. It’s like the nicest parts of Sur la Table, plus a huge library. If you’re stuck for a gift for someone, try that place. It’s on Potrero St. at 15th.

(Another good place for a beautiful gift is Currents on Valencia St. at 20th. They have a back room with a lot of nice Japanese bowls and cups in it. Huh! If you didn’t think this was going to be all about shopping, neither did I! But as long as I’m on the subject, there are probably three other good places for gifts on Valencia St. between 19th and 20th, on the west side of the street.)

Leaving Dandelion, I passed the soup kitchen where I have just started volunteering and stopped in briefly. A couple of people I’d not met before were doing something or other. I chatted with one of them for a few minutes. His face was radiant with joy, which seems to be quite common around there.

As it turned out, Sports Basement had about the same hats as REI, but cheaper.

Next I thought I’d go try one of the many new restaurants on or near Valencia St. and ended up at Radish, on 19th St. halfway between Valencia and Mission, the source of a mild resentment every Sunday, when I’m cycling to Rainbow and see what seems to be a big crowd of “new Mission” people standing outside it. When I got there, the three or four tables outside were empty but for a lone woman. I asked her, “If I eat here, will I be happy?” and she said it’s pretty good, so I went in. It’s medium sized, with an expansive, open feel. Indoors, there are tables to seat about 16, and seats at the bar for eight or 10. Seated at the bar were a gay male couple and a gay female couple in their 20s or early 30s; the latter seemed to be friends with the lady proprietresses (the cooks were Mexican men), and I concluded it may be lesbian-owned? A large swath of wall is purple and another is red, and there are decorative glass vessels here and there, and three pleasing photographs on one wall and some paintings on another. The ceiling is quite high.

The remaining patrons were late 20ish and casual in appearance. Possibly they are tech workers who make handsome salaries and live in places formerly occupied by people who have been evicted and now have to live in Antioch, but who knows? Up close, I couldn’t really detect any hint of evil.

I had a spicy, almost crunchy veggie burger that was quite good. There may have been a tad too much Dijon mustard. It comes with greens, but I got an enormous pile of salty fries instead, for three dollars extra. It really was too much food and of course I ate it all, while reading my New Yorker, so maybe it would be better to stick with the greens next time. The woman behind the bar thanked me when I left, with a very pleasant smile. I imagine I’ll go back to Radish.

Thursday, May 22, 2014


Last week we had another little heat wavelet. The first day I worked from home and hid indoors all day with the shades down, and went to Howie’s in the evening. There I spoke with a kind and friendly young woman, one of our volunteers, who works for one of the foremost tech companies (not Google) and, yes, takes a bus to get there! This is very good, to balance the faceless “them” with this person I know and like. I told her, honestly, that of course it’s good for people to take buses to work rather than for each to travel by car; that the buses have become a symbol of the difficult changes in the neighborhood, and that it would have helped a lot if Google hadn’t ignored the criticism for months, which allowed ill feeling to take root and spread.

At the first whiff of trouble, they should have responded by showing they understood people’s distress (about having lost their place to live) or anxiety (about potentially doing so) and they should have given a million dollars to a Mission-based non-profit and pledged to be a partner in finding housing solutions. Instead, they pretended nothing was happening, and when it got so bad that protesters showed up at one of their events, not to mention the various protests against the buses themselves, they treated it as an opportunity for a mindfulness exercise. That’s always appropriate, but willfully blocking out context is never helpful. It made them look clueless and raised the ire of at least one blogger.

I forgot the part about parallel transportation systems being created for those who can afford them while the municipal services rot away, but then, that’s not my sangha member’s doing.

That evening, I finished reading On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, the first of her works I’ve read, and considered starting over at the beginning right away. Her gift for speech and dialogue brought her characters so vividly alive that I felt kind of lonely for them when the book was over.

A week ago, I went back to the soup kitchen for another four-hour shift and once again loved being there, though I may not be cut out to be a production vegetable chopper, as the symptom I’ve spent a small fortune trying to get rid of in physical therapy flared up severely. I could hear my PT’s voice in my head saying that if I’m doing something that is causing the symptom, I should stop doing it (before the brain gets rewired to think it should always produce that symptom in that situation), but I felt it would be weenie-ish to walk away from the mountain of raw carrots I and four or five others were working on. But that was not so smart. I decided that next time, I would just say that I’m happy to chop up peppers, greens, and herbs, but can’t do root vegetables. I suspect that kind of limitation would not be a problem at all—that whatever people are able to offer is welcome—but I’ve thought of an even better solution, which I’ll get to in a future post.

It’s a completely disorganized place, in the nicest way. There is evidently no email list of volunteers, no schedule showing who is coming when: the new day dawns, and whoever shows up shows up. They don’t do any fundraising, either. There is a core group of people who live together—extremely frugally—and work at the soup kitchen day in and day out (not necessarily every person every day). Once you hear that, and hear that they don’t do any fundraising, you want to give them money and items they might be able to use, and you want to volunteer.

My second time there, I liked already recognizing a number of the guests and being able to say hello to them by name. One said something like, “This is why I like talking to you—because you understand what I mean,” as if we’d been chatting for years. I also got to talk for a while to one of the people who lives in the associated intentional community. I can see that once my company’s 16 paid community service hours have been exhausted, I will have to find some other way to be there regularly.

Once again, it brought Carlos close to mind. There was a fellow there who reminded me so much of him—smallish in stature, with a white halo of hair and white beard, and a colorful artistic shirt. From the back, that was Carlos. And there was another who smiled in that very kind way he had.

And then there was the fact that it wasn’t exactly the way it had been the week before, of all things. It turns out that the soup kitchen is just as subject to impermanence as any other place, so I got to observe my mind’s array of reactions to that. Like last week, it was a bit hard to leave when I had to go back to work, and the afternoon seemed a little empty once I wasn’t there. As I passed the bus stop on the corner, one of the guests, a woman, called after me, “Bye bye, sunshine!” That sweetness makes me feel a little teary, as does the simple humanity of all who come to eat, and their vulnerability.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

All of Us Together

Before going on retreat in April, I had started to try to do all day what I did while sitting in meditation, with beneficial results, so I was perfectly primed to learn Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s style of teaching. (Again, how lucky that I ended up on that retreat!) Prior to the retreat, when I sat, I was keeping about a third of my attention on sounds, a third on the sensations in my chest, and a third on thoughts or lack thereof, and it was a nice, spacious feeling, with less thinking, because thoughts were usually noticed pretty soon after arising.

After the Tejaniya-style retreat at Spirit Rock, I began to do a brief check-in with each sense door after sitting down to meditate: what do I see, smell, taste, hear; how does the body feel externally and internally; how is the mind? This probably took about 60 seconds, and then, for the rest of the 30 minutes, I would notice what was most prominent, which is usually sounds and the sensations in my chest, plus I was trying to notice my attitude of mind. That is, pretty similar to before the retreat, except that if a certain experience was more prominent on a given day or in a given moment, I would notice that, and I was trying to discern attitude of mind.

Now, after hearing Eugene Cash on a recent Sunday night, I’ve dropped even the brief initial tour of the senses and instead just, per his instructions, do nothing and notice what is noticed. Eugene also said we could make an explicit point of noticing that which is being aware (i.e., the mind, or awareness itself). I like this new approach because it’s even simpler and even more applicable to any moment of the day. Soon after the instruction to myself to do nothing and to notice what is noticed, I tend to become aware of the sensations in my chest and of a mild unease, which is good, because if that’s what’s there, I want to be aware of it. Then I can notice my attitude toward the unease, which is generally that I’d prefer to have a blissful experience of peace, physical pleasure and cosmic oneness. Great! If that is the attitude, I want to know that.

Thereafter, I just notice whatever there is to be noticed: am I noticing anything at all or am I lost in thought? What sense experiences are calling attention to themselves? What is my attitude toward those sense experiences? Quite often there seems to be a correspondence between attitude and physical experience: the mind is jittery and can’t settle, ditto the body. The mind is peaceful and happy, same with the body. Sometimes, over the course of the half hour, there is a progressive settling and opening, as body and mind are noticed and accepted, with greater and greater peace and contentment. Sometimes not.

I am loving this Tejaniya-style practice, but would like to mention that for years and years, I simply practiced mindfulness of breathing, and consider every single second of that time well spent. I heard Eugene say many times that mindfulness of the breath will take you all the way to liberation. It should not be regarded as a junior or preliminary method. It is a profoundly transformative practice that can be undertaken with confidence.

On the retreat in April, someone asked about practicing metta. Are we not to do that, and if so, will our hearts snap shut for good? One of the teachers said that bare awareness and metta are both excellent practices and both lead to the same place: when you see clearly, your heart will naturally be open, and if your heart is open, you’ll see clearly. Accordingly, in thinking about my new neighbors, which I do rather often, I decided one day that when taking a walk, which is when I have the most ill feelings, I would either just be aware of my experience or cultivate good wishes, to be decided in the moment.

“May you be happy” is beyond me in this situation, except as awkward-feeling lip service, but this wish is always sincere: “May my heart be open to my neighbors.” There are many times when I feel judgmental and unfriendly toward these people, whoever they actually are, but no time when I wouldn’t like to feel warm and friendly toward them.

So I set out on my walk that day intending, maybe, to practice awareness when walking alone and maybe to deploy the above wish—“May my heart be open to you”—when another citizen hove into view. I’ve gotten into a horrible habit of sorting people into old or new Mission based on how they’re dressed, and it’s a short hop from there to thinking about who has over-consumed while others (ahem) were making a point of not owning a car and living in a modestly sized space and eschewing meat (fortunately, without any self-righteousness whatsoever). Soon enough, I have determined who is mostly to blame for the impending environmental collapse.

Though lately, seeing that collapse is actually coming (exact time not yet known) has made me feel that it’s past time for blame. We lived in different ways and had different priorities, but we caused this problem together, whether through action or inaction, and we’re going to suffer the consequences together. Yes, those with money will have six months’ more canned fish and water, and will have armed guards fending the rest of us off and maybe coming to steal our provisions (I hope they won’t want to eat my cat!), but the ultimate result will be precisely the same for everyone. But deciding that blame is inappropriate is theoretical. Wanting to let go of it is an inkling of a gut feeling, but not enough to prevent a wave of aversion when someone goes by in a certain car or dressed in a certain way.

So, anyway, on that walk, it turned out that I fell into the groove of practicing only awareness, and when I saw another person, especially someone who struck me as being “new Mission,” I immediately inquired—here words were useful—“What is it like to see this person?” I felt the clenching in my gut and chest area, and—that’s about it. I felt a knotting sensation, I noticed it, I walked on, it abated on its own, I saw another person, I inquired what it was like, I felt a knotting sensation … . And that was all. 

This is post number 700, in case you’ve lost count.

Monday, May 19, 2014

International Movie Star

Saturday a week ago, my friend and co-worker Venkata came to town from Fremont, attired in tan cargo pants, a red form-fitting long-sleeved t-shirt, red shoes, and mirrored sunglasses, looking like an international movie star. He favors a formidable-smelling cologne, so I had to tell him beforehand that I’ve become ultra-sensitive to smells and need to avoid perfume and cologne, and he graciously said he’d skip that aspect of his toilette.

Venkata and I had brunch at Boogaloo’s on Valencia St. at 22nd, where I’d never been, because there are always a lot of people standing around outside at that time on weekends, so I assumed the wait would be lengthy, but after Venkata wrote his name down, it was only ten minutes or so. The atmosphere inside was low-key and pleasant, with children’s artwork on the walls, and the only noise was conversation—no loud music. My homefries and biscuit were superb. Scrambled eggs with avocado, mushrooms and yellow onion were kind of dry. If there is another occasion, maybe it would be better to get plain scrambled eggs. The prices were very reasonable. Recommended as a breakfast spot. Venkata had the desayuno tipico (Spanish for typical breakfast), with scrambled eggs, beans, salsa, tamarind sour cream, and a sort of corn cake. He said all of it was good.

After that, we walked for a bit on 24th St. east of Mission St., but not very far. Venkata doesn’t believe in walking for even ten minutes, and doesn’t go to the gym or ride a bicycle or anything like that. Fortunately, he never overeats and so he remains a slender, fit-looking young man. I hope he’s that rare person who can maintain perfect health indefinitely without exercising.

I came home and called my father to wish him a happy mother’s day—he was just going out to do an errand—and then my mother. We talked for about 45 minutes. Her spring gardening has begun and she has acquired an add-on for Firefox. We discussed a couple of things we’d both read in The New Yorker. Then David and Lisa and I had a very extended chat on the phone, which we do every now and then, and which is always fun. We discussed work and non-work and their newish and very cute cat, JoJo.

I’d thought I might go out for a proper walk, but by then the wind had really picked up—it had been very windy for several days in a row (which I think is going to be more and more of a problem as the climate changes)—so I made dinner and then watched A Teacher, which I was very impressed by. It’s about a high-school teacher in Texas who is sexually involved with one of her students. You know that’s not going to end well, but several times when I thought I knew what was going to happen next, I was wrong, and my initial assumptions about the relationship were not entirely correct. The two lead actors, Lindsay Burdge and Will Brittain, were superb. Both have the ability to project tremendous charisma and attractiveness, and both, especially Burdge, also have the ability to appear plain and even ugly. Her face is remarkably expressive.

The next day, Sunday, I cooked green split peas and buckwheat, and chopped up vegetables, and in the evening, Lesley and I went over to Eugene Cash’s sangha, where I would go every single week if it were at a more convenient time of week, but where I haven’t been in a year or so. He was fresh back from a retreat with Sayadaw U Tejaniya, at Insight Meditation Society, which is in Massachusetts, the sibling of Spirit Rock. (IMS was started by Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield, and then Jack came west and started Spirit Rock.)

When Eugene was giving us meditation instructions at the beginning of the sitting period, he said something like, “Do nothing. Do nothing, and notice what you’re aware of.” (You can probably hear this talk online at some point and hear what he actually said.)

As for the retreat, he said that Sayadaw U Tejaniya said it was fine to sit with your eyes closed or open—he wants intensive practice to mimic daily life as much as possible, for maximum utility. If everything on retreat is different from your daily life, it can be hard to figure out how to bring your practice into your life, or, as Howie thinks of it, to bring your life into your practice. If on retreat you do many of the things you do while not on retreat—go here, go there, decide what to do next, have your eyes open—with encouragement to sustain awareness throughout, that should translate more readily to daily life.

Yogis were invited to walk at a normal pace and there was even a bit of chatting, since we do do some of that in the course of most days, and Eugene reported that not a single dharma talk was given and no bells were rung. (Really—none? We had fewer bells on the Tejaniya-style retreat at Spirit Rock, but not none. But then, Sayadaw himself was not there.) He said that Sayadaw would come into the morning sitting and everyone would bow, as is customary and respectful, and he would give some instructions or share some thoughts while people sat, and then he would leave, sometimes unnoticed, and if people began to bow as he left, he would discourage that.

Twice a day, he met with groups of about 15 people, and Eugene said that is where the bulk of the teaching took place, via those questions and answers.

I think I’ll experiment with the “Do nothing” instruction. I really appreciate the simplicity of this approach, the draining away of strain and tension.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Shift at the Soup Kitchen

A couple of weekends ago, Lisa M. and I took a glorious walk in Tilden Park on a sunny day. Dinner was a shocking amount of extremely delicious garlic noodles with soft tofu at Sunflower, on Valencia near 16th. In the evening, I took my Bianchi up to Tom’s so he could start getting it ready to sell. A couple of days later, I took a broken shredder to e-waste, at Howard and 2nd St., and I gave away, on Craigslist, a nice, sturdy card table that I never use.

That week, Howie was away, and Elad Levinson was our guest teacher.

On Thursday, using four of the 16 community service hours my company pays for each year, I walked over to the soup kitchen I donated the kitchen stuff to and met a kind and friendly crew of volunteers preparing soup, salad and bread to serve for lunch. I chopped vegetables—lettuce, cilantro, cucumbers, celery, kale—which was simple, satisfying work for a worthy cause, and when that was done, the crew chief said I should go out and mingle with the guests, who were in the courtyard with their shopping carts and dogs and collections of stuff, and, in one case, a frightening-looking knife, unsheathed. There were a handful of women, but it was mostly men.

I got a chance to chat with the executive director later and he said that if he’d seen the knife, he would have asked its owner to put it away. He also said that some volunteers like to be with the guests, while others never leave the kitchen. As the self-appointed greeter at Mission Dharma, I was delighted to walk around saying hello and chatting. I had extended conversations with a man from Arkansas with lovely blue eyes and also with a fellow who started by explaining that his fit and trim appearance was due to a low-carb regime he adopted some weeks ago. He said he was planning to have one bowl of soup, and no bread or salad. He was extremely friendly. I enjoyed talking to both of them, as well as to a man who told me he thanks God each morning for giving him another day. It is always humbling to meet someone who has so few resources and yet so much gratitude. It makes it seem particularly ridiculous that I should ever feel dissatisfied about anything.

Knowing that Carlos used to have lunch there (and also avail himself of free massages, should the massage lady be there), that he’d eaten soup with some of these exact same people, he seemed very near, as if I’d catch a glimpse of him if I turned my head fast enough. I could picture him so vividly, in the crowd with everyone else, moving serenely along in his baggy Tibetan pants.

Vegetable chopping took from nine until about 10:15, and then socializing was until noon, when lunch was served. The guests lined up and received their fresh-cooked soup—chicken or vegetarian bean, both full of vegetables—and a rectangular paper cup of salad, and stopped by a counter piled high with sliced bread, and then sat at a table indoors or outdoors, most eating slowly, no doubt enjoying the chance to sit and to be with others (or maybe just to sit) in a safe, welcoming place. One woman fell sound asleep with her head next to her soup bowl, bread still clutched in her hand.

I walked around fetching guests more soup and salad, if they wanted it, and taking away empty bowls. I really loved the whole thing: simple work that is needed and appreciated, and getting to meet both the volunteers and the guests.

On my way there in the morning, I received a proposal of marriage, and as I walked home, another fellow said, “When I see you, I’m in love!” On top of those unusual occurrences, I spotted Lynn Breedlove, former front lady of Tribe 8, on Mission St. I’d seen her in the mesmerizing documentary about the band, but never before in person, so that was exciting. I said hello to her. She was friendly.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Extra Good Mood on Tax Day

(My photo editing skills extend only as far as removing stuff. Click photo to enlarge.)

Thursday, May 08, 2014

The Cat Man

A week after getting home from Spirit Rock, I went to the Sacred Grounds café for their weekly poetry night. This one was a memorial for the much-beloved poet Don Brennan, Carlos’s closest male friend, who died one year and one week after Carlos did, of pneumonia. The memorial was packed, standing room only. Don’s wife and family were there, including a couple of his grandchildren, whom he helped care for. Don’s wife recently had both knees replaced and is still recuperating from that. To lose her husband at such a moment seems particularly lousy.

It was a wonderful evening of hearing many of Don’s poems, and poems in tribute of him, or poems that he had liked. At Sacred Grounds, readers sign up upon arrival and each gets a small number of minutes, three or four or five, and then there is a featured reader, who gets 20 minutes. The featured reader was Roy Mash, who explained that he was probably the only person in the room who hadn’t known Don. He had been scheduled to be “the feature” before Don passed away. I loved his poems and bought two copies of his book, Buyer’s Remorse, one for me and one for a friend. Here’s Roy on pants: “their loony ductwork rising to the illogical crotch.” He read very expressively and beautifully. One of the poems in the book is about a child who gets locked in an abandoned refrigerator. It works backward from the sick realization of being trapped to the initial thrill of finding a neat thing to play in.

There is a nice age range at Sacred Grounds. I imagine some readers were in their late 70s or 80s, and the final two readers looked to be about 18 years old. Most read in the traditional manner, but some of the younger poets rapped, with those who liked their work snapping their fingers in appreciation, and all were welcomed. It was good to see Greg Pond, Clara Hsu, and Stephanie Manning. Greg gave me a ride home, so we had a chance to get caught up.

Friday of that week, I went to an open mic at the soup kitchen I donated all the kitchen stuff to. I noticed a man with a guitar case and a black cat that he petted constantly and twitchily. I wondered how the cat liked it, but concluded it must be very used to that form of affection. It turned out the man was one of the performers, and when the MC introduced him, he said something like, “And next—no offense meant at all—we have the Cat Man,” who I guess had not otherwise provided his name.

The Cat Man played the opening chords of “Stairway to Heaven” over and over, absolutely beautifully, and eventually the rest of the song, and then a song he said he’d written “to my cat.” Later I saw him outside, repacking his shopping cart before setting off to find a spot to huddle through the cold night. I saw several other aggregations of stuff that were clearly all their owners had in the world, that they would sleep beside on the sidewalk somewhere. For them, the soup kitchen is not just a source of food, but a place of warmth, kindness and companionship, a haven before being alone again. Carlos, despite not being homeless, liked to eat there pretty regularly.

The next day, Tom and I went back to Berkeley Rep to see Tribes, about a deaf man in a hearing family, and then returned to the Mission for Thai food. My sense of smell, always acute, has gone off the charts due to meditation and/or menopause, and, alas, the no doubt delightful gentlewoman sitting behind me at the play had atrocious-smelling feet, which she kept extending so that they hovered in the vicinity of my face, a disagreeable experience that persisted throughout the entire show, off and on. Certainly one may have to stretch one’s legs—there is nothing to be done about that—but this extreme sensitivity to smells is getting to be rather a problem. I’ve decided I have to swear off Esperpento because there is a waiter who is almost always there who is soaked in laundry detergent, and every time he passes by, he brings a little wave of misery with him.

Sunday at Rainbow, I received a coupon good for twenty percent off one grocery bill from a very nice young man in the produce department, and then my favorite cashier gave me two more, and when I stepped out of the parking garage, a fellow with the Street Sheet started to ask me for money and then said, “Never mind—it’s you,” meaning that I was free to move along unsolicited, on account, he said, of having been kind to him in the past. He offered a fist bump or two. I gave him some money, anyway, and left the area feeling like a minor celebrity, an agreeable feeling.

Less so was the highly unflattering question put to me the very next day by the manager of my apartment building. Apparently San Francisco landlords get a break on their property taxes if they have tenants who are seniors, so my building manager sent a note to inquire, as delicately as possible, if I could possibly fit into this category, as neither she nor the landlord had any idea how old I am. I told her that I’m 52, turning 53 in June, and embarked on a period of brooding over being mistaken for a 65-year-old. Eventually, I came to these two points of clarity: The building manager thought I might be 65. But I am in fact 52.

I could be 65, but I’m not, which means I have 13 extra years to do with as I will! Probably I won’t do anything in particular with those years, but for a moment there, I felt a sweeping sense of exhilaration. Yeah! A thrilling expanse of time, full of possibility! However, a few days later, I was looking ahead in my calendar and discovered that I’m actually 51, turning 52 in June, which means that I actually have 14 extra years to do with as I will, which is good, but also that I may as well quit worrying about my appearance and start worrying about a possible brain tumor.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Kind Wishes for an Early Death

Upon arriving at home from Spirit Rock on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon in April, I found myself asking of everything, why do I have this? Why is this stored here? Why do I have two of these? I went through my kitchen cabinets and piled up a small mountain of items to give to a local soup kitchen. It’s amazing how, in a studio apartment occupied by a person who hates clutter, there is always plenty more to get rid of.

I also decided to sell my second bicycle, which I almost never ride, and have turned it over to Tom
(my tall, handsome ex-boyfriend and best friend). He’s going to clean it up and handle the marketing; in return, I gave him the rack, which he was coveting, and will give him twenty percent of the proceeds.

I spent that first afternoon quietly at home, and Thursday was also a simple day, devoted to doing laundry. On Friday I went up to Novato in a City CarShare car, and Carol Joy and I had brunch at Toast and to see Transcendence, which neither of us liked very much, and then we played cards in a cafe, followed by dinner at La Piñata. It was excellent to see Carol Joy, as always. She told me all about her trip to Scotland.

Saturday must have been cooking day, because on Easter Sunday, Tom and I went over to Berkeley Rep to see Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Beforehand, we had lunch at Gecko Gecko, half a block away, where the food seemed way too sweet, almost sticky with sugar.

Tom works as a special ed teacher with high school students, so he is used to directing traffic and having to get people’s attention in chaotic situations, so I have from time to time found myself shushing him in a restaurant. I don’t mind his volume so much myself, but I worry that someone nearby is getting irritated. During that lunch, I indicated my desire for him to speak more softly, and he gave me a rare dirty look. This, by the way, was a perfect example of evasive action. I heard his loudish voice, I registered it as unpleasant, I felt mental and physical discomfort (or would have, if I’d been paying attention) and instantly took action—to change Tom’s behavior so that I wouldn’t have to feel the discomfort I hadn’t truly registered in the first place.

During a handful of silent moments, when he was looking at me with annoyance and I was looking back at him with guilt, chagrin and no doubt defensiveness, the person at the next table said, “I thought it was very interesting what he was saying!” If this blog went in for emoticons, I’d put a smiley face here. That was awfully kind on the part of our neighbor, but also rather proved my point.

The neighbor turned out to be Deb Janes, whose name I’ve seen here and there for years. Like me, she was on the board of directors of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition for a time (we didn’t overlap) and she works at Bike East Bay (formerly the East Bay Bicycle Coalition). She was accompanied by a nice woman I’ve encountered in a variety of milieus over the years. Tom happily told Deb all about whatever it was while I marinated in a degree of shame, exposed as a mean person, and we finished our lunches and went to the play, which was absolutely delightful and drew attention to terrible true-life events I was hitherto ignorant of. My friend Lesley joined us for the play, using Ann’s ticket, and then we all had dinner at Esperpento.

As Tom and I walked home after dinner, we saw a fellow riding a very ingeniously designed bicycle in the shape of an enormous wooden cross, no doubt in honor of the holiday. Now and then you see someone pedaling along carrying an entire bicycle wheel or other good-sized object in his hand, but a few days before we saw the cross-bicycle, I saw a fellow carrying an entire second bicycle! It wasn’t rolling along beside him, but hoisted clear off the ground.

On Monday, when I was cycling home from work, I found a block of Valencia St. near Market St. closed to traffic by the police, who said I would need to walk my bike on the sidewalk. I asked what had happened and an officer said, “Someone jumped.” I did not walk by the scene of this dreadful occurrence, but instead went over to Mission St. I can regard a squished pigeon with dispassion, but avoiding the sight of a squished human seemed both respectful and like good self-care.

The next day, continuing with the project of evaluating ambient possessions, I donated an expensive digital camera that I never use to the Mission Cultural Center. On my way home, I gave a fellow a couple of dollars, and in gratitude, he assured me that I’m going to “go” (meaning die) “before whatever happens to the earth. Don’t thank me, thank Him!”

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Proliferation Investigation

This is the final bit of my report on my retreat at Spirit Rock last month in the style of Sayadaw U Tejaniya.

In a dharma talk, one teacher told us that grasping and aversion (the “defilements,” to use the classical term) are products of restlessness—the mind that is not calmly abiding, the proliferation of thoughts—and that either grasping or aversion is always accompanied by delusion (wrong understanding) or ignorance (simply not knowing). Our work largely consists of working with defilements: seeing what happens more and more clearly so that wisdom can naturally uproot them, and not getting lost in justifying stories (e.g., why I have a right to be angry), and not taking what this teacher called “evasive action,” such as acting out the feeling. It
might be odd to think of taking action as being evasive, but as a teacher at the Zen Center said, “Reaction is a way of not fully experiencing.”

Other evasive actions are repressing the feeling, or applying a technique such as metta, though of course at other times we consciously practice metta to great benefit. Instead of avoiding the uncomfortable sensations and feelings, we can drop the story and have a direct encounter with what is happening, including noticing the attitude of mind. Our thoughts can often provide a clue to the latter.

Besides having almost no emotional disarray on this retreat, which I attribute at least in part to the group interviews, I also had very little physical pain. Physical pain is very common on retreat, largely due to accumulated tension from daily life, as well as to injuries or chronic conditions, or even the attempt to sit in a certain pose due to a mental picture of the perfect meditator. Regarding the first, a teacher gave the analogy of a fist that you clench for ten years. By then, you don’t perceive it as painful any more, but when you finally open your fist, it will hurt. I have often had excruciating shoulder pain on retreat, and am heartened at the idea that maybe I’m getting the hang of being more relaxed the rest of the year. I’m sure the Alexander Technique is helping with that.

One bright afternoon, I saw a rather unhandsome medium-sized lizard near the meditation hall, ensconced in the trough-like crack between two squares of sidewalk. It must have been an agreeably toasty spot, allowing his belly and sides and tail to rest against the sun-warmed concrete, and his head to loll casually on the sidewalk itself. The next time I passed by, alas, its little head was flattened. It had almost certainly been stepped on by a dreamy yogi (wearing shoes, one hopes). It wasn’t all squished, because most of it was in the gully between the paved squares, so I hope its death wasn’t lingering, though I guess a collapsed head has pretty decisive health consequences. I had a good cry during the few minutes spent walking down to dinner: why didn’t it get out of the way? Every time I passed by thereafter, I noticed the little red splotch where its head had been, and a patch of striated skin.

A much nicer thing was Franz Moeckl teaching qi gong, the first couple of days in the meditation hall, and thereafter in the sunny courtyard. Franz was at the very first retreat I ever went on, at Yucca Valley in 1996, serving as the retreat manager, I believe. At that retreat, I interviewed with Howie (Howard Cohn) and with Carol Wilson, so being with Carol again is always wonderful, and of course Howie is seen most Tuesday nights in the Mission. Franz now travels the world leading retreats and teaching qi gong, and he is beloved by yogis for just being his charming unique self, the effect enhanced by English not being his first language. The hour you spend with him is likely to be very agreeable. In giving an instruction related to the head, he mentioned “the little people in there doing their work.” He also sat in on some of the group interviews.

In the closing session at the end of the retreat, one woman offered such a lovely tribute to Franz that Carol joked that she and Steve should thank Franz for letting them teach with him. It was clear this sentiment was widely shared. After the retreat closed, I was at the dining hall, waiting for my ride to come along when he appeared. He went into the dining hall and emerged a bit later with Carol, and they walked off toward the parking lot. I watched them go and then noticed, nearby, the woman who had said all the nice things about Franz. She, like me, was looking somewhat forlornly after him: there he goes.

Then I had the conscious thought, well, he’s gone, but she’s here—I guess I’ll talk to her. She proved to be utterly delightful, with a joyful laugh, freely deployed. She told me she chose this retreat specifically because Franz was going to be there. I myself chose it because Carol Wilson and Steve Armstrong were going to be the teachers; that it was in this different style was a lovely and very lucky surprise. It was also a pleasure to meet new teacher Alexis Santos, who has studied with Sayadaw U Tejaniya in Burma.

My pet topic, lucid dreaming, even arose, as one teacher mentioned more than once that when mindfulness becomes sufficiently continuous, you can even find yourself mindful in your dreams.

Herewith, possibly the last thing I’ll say about the retreat itself. I suspect that a lot of yogis, especially on their first retreat, think, “Wow! When I get home, I’m quitting my job, getting a divorce and going to Burma! I’m going to shave my head and get a tattoo of the Buddha, and from now on, I’m only going to wear saris!” And the like, and at nearly every retreat I’ve been on, a teacher has made a point of saying not to make any big decisions right after returning from retreat: do not quit your job and do not get a divorce. (But if you are going to get a tattoo, maybe follow the example of the Zen Center teacher who has a pair of eyes on the back of his head.)

In marked contrast, on this retreat, one teacher gave an entire talk about following one’s heart—how he had a successful business but realized the main place it would lead was to even more material success. So he closed his business and went to Burma, which by all accounts is wonderfully drenched in the dharma. The same teacher recommended frequent life inventories: Does this relationship still serve me? This way of doing things? This job? After hearing his talk plus several other remarks in this vein over the days, I almost started to think he was trying to say to me personally, “Quit your job and go to Burma!”

I am not going to quit my job or go to Burma (I don’t think), but ever since I’ve been home, I’ve found myself asking a lot of questions: Why do I have this item? Why am I doing this activity? Do I genuinely want to make plans with this person? Why am I going here or there? This retreat really encouraged this kind of observation and questioning, both in what was said about life inventory, but also in the instructions to notice in detail what we do when sitting and walking: macro and micro.