Monday, February 22, 2010

Seeking Back-Alley Seamstress, No Questions Asked

I don’t know if I mentioned here that, besides my ailing hospice lady, since deceased, I had a co-worker in Des Moines whose cancer had recurred. I had never met this co-worker in person, but we had had some nice conversations via email, so I got inspired to go visit her, and asked my team lead if she would be interested in joining me. She said she did want to do that, and obtained our plane tickets (not a business expense, of course).

I was under the impression that Des Moines was approximately halfway across the country, which I thought meant it should take about two hours to fly there. Turns out it’s in the Midwest and there’s no such thing as a direct flight from San Francisco, so it takes as long to get there as it would take to get to, say, Ypsilanti, MI.

My team lead described the seats we’d ended up with and I asked if she might be able to get me an aisle seat for one flight. She said, “I’ll try, but there are only 13 rows on the plane.” When I told my mother that, she said, “Oh, it’s probably one of those little regional carriers that crashes all the time.”

(Lisa C. later reminded me that I had, in her very company, flown in a plane with fewer than 13 seats.)

After we had the flight reservation all squared away, my team lead unfortunately got a terrible case of flu and our co-worker’s doctor nixed our visit, so we arranged to go in March. Then our co-worker took a turn for the worse and we decided to make the trip the weekend of February 27, which meant my trying to rebook the flight with Expedia when the original reservation was made by my team lead, employing the credit from that trip. I won’t go into how difficult that was; I will merely say that if you are tempted to have someone you’re not related to buy you a plane ticket on Expedia, just don’t do it.

I was grumbling to my mother about the daunting nature of communicating with Expedia and she replied “Inner circle travel lip.” Huh? She explained that in the world of the cartoon character Pogo, “inner circle lip” referred to jargon that the uninitiated couldn’t understand.

Eventually, our new flights were booked, but it was too late—about two days after my hospice lady died, so did our co-worker, 15 minutes after a hospice worker had prayed with her. My co-worker was remarkably upbeat through so much of her illness and I trust was at peace at the end.

I lately decided to break down and buy some pants recognizable as such by others and obtained some from Lands’ End that seemed OK. I told my mother they were nice and baggy, so all I needed was to have them hemmed up so they’d end several inches above the floor.

She wrote back, “Hemmed up real short? I am afraid that, just as an ethical surgeon will not do just any operation (‘Move my kidneys to my knees’), an ethical seamstress might refuse to ‘high-water’ your pants. You have to find a sleazy, back-alley, low-down cheese-ball sort of seamstress. Be careful!”

Good advice there. It reminds me of a friend, a lesbian, who told her hairdresser that she wanted something that was short on top and long in the back, but he said that he would not “perform the lesbian bi-level haircut.”

I have really been enjoying being at the San Francisco Zen Center. I have long wanted to know more people who meditate—to have friends who meditate—and it is marvelous to be able to visit this beautiful (Julia Morgan) building that is chock full of such people. They also have many ways for the public to get involved—you can go meditate there, hear talks, take classes, do periods of intensive practice, eat dinner, and I’m sure much else.

I am there lately for the meeting of my own small group every two weeks, for Paul Haller’s Thursday night class (for a few more weeks), and this past Saturday, I did a one-day sitting there, from 5:40 a.m. to 9 p.m.

I went the evening beforehand for orientation and dinner, which was fun. I got to meet some of the people I’d be sitting with the next day, which included two folks from my EPP class last year.

As for the sitting itself, it was unbelievably difficult. There was probably not one second free of physical and/or emotional pain, and at 9 p.m., I was amazed I was still there. At some point, I promised myself I wouldn’t cry in the zendo, but after the fifth time I did that, I settled for merely trying not to sob audibly.

The mantra for the first half of the day was, “Just one more second, one more second,” and the mantra for the second half of the day was, “I will never, ever, NEVER EVER do a one-day sit here again.” Which I will not. If you ask me, one day in the zendo is harder than a month at Spirit Rock.

Yesterday I meant to cook, but I spent the whole day recuperating from the day before. By the time I did my journal and wrote down my dreams, it was five p.m., which means I got to see my young friends at Chipotle today and will do the same every day this week.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Who Are You Calling a Hypnic Jerk?

I’m starting to experiment with the other main lucid dreaming induction technique, WILD. The one I’ve been working with is MILD: Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams, which involves doing reality checks during the day, and, during the night, combining auto-suggestion with picturing yourself back in a recent dream realizing you’re dreaming.

I did have a little lucid dream—I think—last week where I simply realized I was dreaming, apropos of nothing, which I think is a good sign: nothing particularly odd had to happen for me to know I was dreaming.

I remembered some things I wanted to do upon becoming lucid and did them, but was completely unable to get another dream character to appear. Prior to this dream, it was as easy as saying, “I would like so-and-so to walk through that door,” so I wondered later if I was dreaming I was lucid rather than actually being lucid, which can happen. Whatever it was, it ended very quickly, which is slightly frustrating, though I know I will get better at prolonging lucidity.

In the longest and best lucid dream I’ve had, I saw something weird, thought I might be dreaming, confirmed it with a reality check, and then jumped up and down for a while, and went on to have a very satisfying little adventure. I suspect that jumping up and down may end up being the best way for me to prolong lucidity, but I’ve been trying other things since then, too, which have not worked at all.

Anyway, I’m now experimenting with WILD: Wake-Initiated Lucid Dreams, where you try to get your body to go to sleep while your mind stays awake. That is, you try to go directly from the waking state to the dream state while remaining conscious. There are a variety of techniques for this, one of which is identical to an instruction that is sometimes given for meditation: to count your breaths.

Apparently it can be difficult to learn to WILD, and many report that the experience is frightening—you may pass into sleep paralysis while conscious—did you know you’re almost always paralyzed when you’re dreaming?—but if you can get the hang of it, having a lucid dream is much more certain to result, and I have read that WILD lucid dreams are longer and more stable than those that result from MILD.

I haven’t even really come up with an initial WILD technique to try yet—there is much to read about this—but this morning, when I woke up two hours before the alarm was to go off, I tried lying on my back, focusing on my breath in my belly, and counting breaths: “One, I’m dreaming. Two, I’m dreaming.” I was just reading online about this technique; some fellow was saying, “Don’t worry if you get to 400. That just means you’re 400 breaths closer to a WILD.” I thought, “Four hundred breaths!? My goodness, these people are zealots,” but then I remembered that I’m also a zealot, so I resolved to count 400 breaths if necessary.

I actually thought I would probably just fall asleep at about breath number ten, but in fact I counted to maybe 130 breaths without too much distraction, and then I felt a very strange physical sensation and it did scare me. I reminded myself that there was nothing to be afraid of, that it’s all produced by the mind, and that I could stop anytime I wanted.

I continued counting, but then absolutely had to move, or, at any rate, felt so much like moving that I did.

Then I experienced a hypnic jerk or three. A hypnic jerk is “an involuntary myoclonic twitch which occurs … just as the subject is beginning to fall asleep [Wikipedia]." A myoclonus is the “irregular involuntary contraction of a muscle,” per Merriam-Webster Online.

So there was a jerk or so, and in my new position, it was harder to stay alert, but I was still pretty much counting, I think, and then two hours had gone by, and I decided just to go back to sleep, which I did.

But here’s the thing: I was asleep for only 54 minutes more, and in that time, had two very vivid dreams, one of which was kind of frightening and involved physical motion: I dreamed I was in an elevator that started moving sideways with the door open. Then the door shrank to a square opening and the elevator went faster and faster and I had no idea where I was going to end up and I was all alone and I was afraid. That was a dream about doing WILD, which I think is great. I consider that a cooperative dream. I think it means I’m on the right track.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Last Glimpse of the Sun

Last Saturday, a week ago, I went to see D., who was mostly asleep, though we did also take a brief trip to a chapel-like room on the second floor of her facility, and I did my cooking and Tom and I watched Killshot, starring Mickey Rourke and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I had never noticed before how attractive Mickey Rourke is. Of course, I have seen hardly any of his films. Now I’ll have to see some of them.

On Sunday I was going to go to a beginners’ day of meditation at the Zen Center, but when I got there, I found it had been canceled. However, five other participants were there, too—computer glitch—so the teacher said we would receive credits for future use, and he hung out with us, anyway, for about half a day. We did a couple of periods of sitting in the zendo, with walking in between, and then we all had lunch together and Mark answered a lot of our practice questions, so it ended up being a very nice thing.

Was that only a week ago? It seems like a month has passed since then. On Wednesday evening, I got to have dinner with Lisa C., in town for work. We went to Chef Jia’s for our favorite dishes and a very pleasant conversation. She told me about a podcast she’s been listening to that features a male reader with a wonderful voice.

“Kind of like Mickey Rourke in Killshot?” I asked.

“Uh, yeah, just like that,” Lisa said, adding, “Actually, nothing whatsoever like that.”

On Thursday, I went to see an acupuncturist I used to see years ago, Kelly, and I’m going to see her every two weeks until various aches and pains have subsided. During the off weeks, I’m going to see Jack for his brand of bodywork and also some lessons in the Alexander technique—I think bad posture habits are now causing problems faster than Jack, Jeff and Kelly can fix them.

However, I have finally established what may be a durable stretching practice. My whole routine takes a minimum of 30 minutes, which almost never is possible, but I can certainly find 10 minutes, so I’ve just been doing that every morning, for the better part of a month now, without missing a day. It takes three days to get through the entire sequence, but I can absolutely feel the difference even so.

I had an extraordinarily busy day this past Saturday, starting at 6 a.m., at which point I was already half an hour behind schedule. I wrote down my dreams, meditated, did laundry, went to Rainbow for groceries, and went to see D. at the hospice. I was shocked at how altered her appearance was from just one week prior.

She was in bed and intermittently asleep, but she also asked to go outside for some fresh air. A nurse bundled her into a wheelchair and we went out back, where D. turned her face to the small bit of February sun with a look of pure joy and contentment. We sat there for some time, holding hands. She told me, “You’re quite a gal.”

“Likewise,” I said.

I stayed for about an hour and a half, until one of her daughters arrived. Then I walked home, took a shower, and went with Tom to Sacramento for a birthday dinner for Chris, preceded by a short visit to Ann and Mac’s so Tom could drop off a Valentine’s Day card for his mother.

The party was wonderful. The food was fantastic, as always, and we watched some of the Olympics on TV and generally hung out. Steve made me laugh harder than I can remember laughing in months. We had to leave a bit earlier than we would have liked because I’d reserved the City CarShare Honda Fit until midnight only; I’ll make it later next time. Tom is generally a very sedate driver, despite my exhorting him at intervals to “Floor it!”, but he kept up a brisk pace on the way home and even with stopping in Suisun for gas, we made it with about seven minutes to spare.

All of that happened on Saturday!

Yesterday, after sleeping for about ten and a half hours, I caught up on some chores and then made lentil-potato-tomato stew and caramel oat bars.

This morning, I found out that D. died yesterday, Valentine’s Day, at about 10 a.m., while I was still asleep. She was conscious off and on right to the end.

When I saw her two days ago, she was fretting about why she hadn’t gone yet, wondering what was holding her back. She faced her own death with remarkable bravery and acceptance. She was so ready to go that I can’t wish she was still here, but I’m still sad, and sorry for her daughters, who are only in their 20s. She was just 57.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Inspiration at the Zen Center, of All Places

I called D. last Thursday to make a date for this past weekend and found she had taken a severe downturn and couldn’t get out of bed. That was startling and somewhat upsetting, as she had been up and around just four days prior.

I felt rattled for a short while, as if there were something I should do. I worried that maybe she would die before I saw her again, and then I reminded myself that there was nothing in particular to be done, and that whatever was going to happen was going to happen.

After work that evening, I went to the Zen Center and meditated in the zendo and also had dinner there prior to the first meeting of an eight-week class I’m taking, taught by Paul Haller. That first session was extremely helpful.

I tend to think that being mindful—aware of a chosen object—is something I can aspire to do and have more and more success with over time: I want to do this thing, and I remember to do it as often as possible.

However, on a day with many mindful moments, I don’t think, “I’m really a mindful person,” and on a day when there are few, I don’t think, “Well, I’m just a mindless person.” Instead, I think, “Wow, the whole day passed with hardly any mindful moments! But I can be awake in this moment, and I can try again tomorrow.”

In contrast, I assume that things like being kind or generous (i.e., things that seem to pertain to emotions) are just ways you fundamentally have to be as a person, or at least, that you have to be in a certain mood. When I fall short, I attribute it to not being in the right mood or, worse, and most of the time, I berate myself for just not being a kind person or a patient person or what have you. Besides being yet another instance of unkindness in and of itself, this hardly sets the stage for success in the future.

Something Paul said in that first class made a light bulb go on over my head: While it’s true that being in an affable or calm mood is very helpful, and while it is certainly true that if you practice harmful actions over and over, you will give every evidence of simply being that type of person, I realized that I can undertake the practices of behaving in certain ways just as I undertake the practice of noticing things.

These behaviors can simply be things I try to do as often as possible, with more or less success from day to day, regardless of mood and without taking success or failure personally.

On Friday night, I received a work-related call at 11:30 p.m., well past my bedtime, which kind of threw the whole weekend out of whack, since I then got up three hours later than planned on Saturday. I didn’t see D. this weekend, but she had perked back up and was well enough to go out with friends yesterday.