Leonard

As I’ve adjusted to retirement, it’s been yet another opportunity for personal growth and coming to know myself. I’ve become more aware of my need for connection and interaction with others. Also, I need a reason to get up in the morning – I need to interact with other living beings on a regular basis. This may sound odd for a person who’s been divorced for 33 years, and often described as a “fringe personality”, but it’s true. Fortunately, in the last few years I’ve come to interact with dogs well, especially my German Shepherd, Bella. In the process, I’ve come to enjoy other dog people. Given this segway, I decided to embark on training dogs as a retirement adventure. I found a school for dog trainers close to my house, that was accessible and affordable, and eagerly waited for several months to begin the 12 week intensive course in an Academy for Dog Trainers.

The course was divided into three main segments of four weeks each. The first was Basic Obedience, next was Intermediate Obedience, and the last was Advanced Topics. My initial intention, and enrollment, was for the entire course. I was committed for the “whole enchilada”. I was told, and it was clearly stated, that the course was demanding. This became a reality quickly as 32 of us, some from as far distant as India and the Bahamas, came to the Academy with a common love of dogs. As my days settled into a pattern synchronous with the Academy, I quickly found myself putting in 12 to 14 hours each day, about 70 to 80 hours per week. It can be amazing to fall into a routine where one’s heart is the driving force. However, these demands, no matter how hearty, can become overwhelming to the point of imbalance at best, perhaps dangerous to personal safety or well being.

Initially, Bella was given a pre-course assessment and deemed unsuitable for the first session of the course. She had already been trained, and was proficient at Basic Obedience. I was then assigned two rescue dogs, each of different temperaments, in order that I experience as much of a variety as possible in terms of dog training. The dogs that I was assigned, that I would get to know intimately, were purely a roll of the dice. And so it was that one of the dogs was a maniac, the other a neurotic. My maniac, estimated to be 10 to 14 months, appeared to be a Husky/Chow mix, and was incredibly outgoing, confident, and full of himself. He was extremely curious, driven, playful, and loveable. He was a handful at every turn. The second dog I was assigned, Leonard, was a neurotic, shy, and fearful character. The cards in the hand that I was dealt were from two polar opposite ends of the spectrum.

I was initially told that Leonard was a “fence jumper”, an escape artist. He had raw sores across his front legs. I was told that the sores were probably from someone putting a cone on him backward, in order to keep him from getting out of the fence. Eventually, as I got to know him, I realized that he was extremely frightful. The slightest shift in the environment could startle him, and in that state of excitement he was capable of jumping and running. I figured that the frightful element was probably part of what had determined his plight as a rescue.

It’s easy to cap, or redirect, an exuberant dog that is highly motivated, such as my maniac. It’s difficult, and can be nearly impossible, to generate drive in a dog where there is little or none. Taken a step further, when the shy and nervous dog has been “shut down”, their life force repressed and abused, they may never come out of it fully. It was obvious that Leonard was of the latter ilk. As I came to know him, I realized that he had been “shut down”. His effort at life had been quashed to the point that he was in a deep shell, hesitant to experience or try anything new. I decided to take a different approach with him, over and above simple training. I decided to focus on our relationship, I wanted to engage and encourage him. I put most, at times all, of my effort into pulling him out of that shell. I probed the course of chiseling away at, and opening up, the core of who he really was.

His name wasn’t initially Leonard. But we changed it. It happened one day while waiting to go out onto the Agility field. We were sitting around, several of us with our dogs, and the remark was made that he was starting to look better. I shared a few details about what we’d been doing together. We had walked in the field, and he started to run. In the field was the only time I ever saw him take interest in a toy. He was, for a few brief moments, playful and capricious. It was true, there was a brilliant side to him at times. It was in stark contrast to the side of him that seemed to take over any time we entered the Training Building. I could tell that he hated the Training Building. He became his old self, the one that was shut down. He did obedience when asked, mostly. Actually, obedience training was something he endured. At any rate, several of the girls noted that he had changed, and was starting to shine. They decided that his name should be Leonard. And so it was, from that moment forward, that we called him Leonard.

There are many approaches to dog training. Each approach becomes a school of thought for the trainers that embody the methods therein. There is the “old school” of “yank and crank“, which is becoming outdated due to it’s use of pure force and pressure, seen as inhumane by evolving standards. There is the purely positive approach, which has its place, albeit limited in certain situations. Then there is the balanced approach, or “Balanced Trainers”, supposedly somewhere in the middle, incorporating a variety of tools from rewards to corrective measures. The Academy where I was enrolled was of the Balanced Trainer approach. However, when considering that there was a rank and file of novice trainers, matched with a full spectrum of rescue dogs that were thoroughly green and raw, then given four weeks to bring all of the above into the harmonious rhythm of a marching band, one can surmise that there would be disharmonious moments.

Leonard had a knack for creating disharmonious moments. It wasn’t that he was unruly, much to the contrary. He was always personable and connectable. However, he came to dislike being trained in Basic Obedience. In fact, as I stated above, he hated it. He was resistant to some of the commands, and as he came to trust me his position of choice was at my feet. I continued with the approach of gaining his confidence and trust, hoping that he’d continue to emerge from his shell. We walked in the woods, and he slowly came to prance and dance. I took him onto the Agility field, where I was able to coax him into negotiating each and every obstacle. Agility is an excellent sport for dogs, it engages them and builds confidence. Leonard had a difficult time with the tunnel at first, but soon came to like it. In fact, he would go in and refuse to come out. Finally, in a moment of exasperation, I crawled into the tunnel with him. From that moment on, we were BFF, best friends forever.

One of the training tools, a method of communication with the dog, is pressure. They are systematically taught that forms of pressure on the collar can be released and removed by their compliance with the request being made. Leonard did not respond well to pressure, in fact it tended to push him further into his shell. Therefore my use of pressure had to be very judicious and compassionate. I took extreme care in this balance of coaxing him out of his shell, using rewards, and the light punishment of pressure that he would respond to when necessary. This was the most difficult part of our relationship.

Dogs are inherent gamblers. Their wager, in any interaction, is “how much can I get away with?”, “what’s in it for me?”, or “how far can I push it?”. I came to realize this syndrome with Leonard. I realized that he was playing me as far as he could in some of the obedience commands, particularly the “down”. Granted, it’s a difficult position for most dogs, it is a position of vulnerability. In all this, dogs also crave, demand, and respond to certainty, routine, and authority. And so it was between Leonard and I with regards to the “down”. He pushed me to my limit, and I finally pushed back. Given all of the above, I came up with a plan. My plan was to take Leonard for a walk in the field behind the Training Building and “generalize” the down command. So, one bright and sunny morning, away we went. We walked for about a quarter mile across the field, reinforcing the mechanics of the down command, about every 10 paces. I would command “down”, then mold him into position. When we were all the way across, we turned around, and repeated the entire process for the full quarter mile back to the kennel. Finally, at the end of this process, his resistance to this command faded and he performed on cue. We had “come to Jesus” on the “down”.

And so we came to the day of reckoning, the four week Obedience Test. I arrived at the Academy at my usual 5 AM. After my typical roll out, I worked each dog lightly, more of an effort to review, reinforce, and connect with them. I decided to test Leonard in the morning while he was still fresh. I rationalized that my more energetic “maniac” would still have plenty of steam for the afternoon test. If all went well, this would be a light day, and we’d spend the weekend celebrating our triumph after all the effort and grind that we’d endured. It had not been an easy trek. Indeed, the long days and mountain of information had brought us into many difficult moments. At any rate, I felt confident that I had done my best, that I was well connected to my dogs, and that we would do well.

The beginning of the test seemed to go well. There was a slight hiccup in the “place” routine, but Leonard sat upon command and stayed for the duration of the trial. Then came the “down” part of the test. Leonard was in a sit at my left side, in the standard heel position. Upon request, I authoritatively issued the “down” command. I could see from the corner of my eye that he did not move. I was told to “down” him again. I turned in his direction, and our eyes met. More authoritatively, I said “DOWN”. Neither his eyes nor his body moved, we remained with our eyes locked for a brief moment. He simply refused to “down” upon demand. I was told to remove Leonard and myself from the training area. We stood contritely on the sideline, and watched in disbelief as the test proceeded for those who were more successful.

I could tell, when the test was finished and we were at the moment of Final Reckoning, that something was terribly wrong. I had gone over the math in my head, and had calculated – on the edge of panic – that we were sure to have passed with enough points garnered from our stronger sections of the test. However, when the assistant tester took us aside for a conference, I knew that we were doomed. We had scored 52 points out of 100. We needed at least 60 to pass. Both Leonard and I were now members in the Rank and File of Life’s Failures. I was told that we could retest in 48 hours. I was too shocked to have a reaction other than quietly leaving the Training Building and finding a reclusive place for the both of us to cower.

Life has a way of periodically shaking and shocking us out of our comfort and predetermined expectations. I had just been forced into one of those moments. I was in a complete state of exhaustion from all the effort I had put into this failing endeavor. My entire world had been rocked. I was at the point where I could only think of what to do next, within the framework of the immediate moment. I managed to put Leonard back into his run in the kennel. I then made it to my truck. I took Bella out of her crate, and the only thing I could think of was to go down to the creek. I had previouysly found a remote and refreshing place down by the creek that had become my sanctuary. I often took Bella down there to grab a moment of solitude and communion. I was now direly in need of one of those moments, so away we went to the creek.

Some decisions make themselves. One’s position within a set of options becomes more and more limited based upon seeing clearly those options that are not workable. So it was for me at this particular moment. I was fixed in clear memory of the moment that Leonard and I had locked eyes, and he had refused to down. I didn’t realize it at that specific moment, but he was showing me the clear path forward. It was as if the entire Force of the Universe was embodied within his 52 pound frame, and melding into me that we were of One Mind and Heart. He was telling me that, no matter how I approached it, he did not like, nor could he be forced, to do Basic Obedience. As I weighed my options, I realized that there was no amount of force, or pressure – nor coercion of any type – that I could apply to him within the next 48 hours that would change our position in the Rank and File of Life’s Failures. Further, I realized that if I went that route, it would be OVER AND ABOVE the 70 to 80 hours per week that I was already enduring. All these conclusions came effortlessly within about 10 minutes of clarity by the creek. I was on a hell-bound burn out course, and I could not bring myself to force Leonard to crash and burn with me.

Still in a state of shock, and capable of making only one single decision or three minutes of action, whichever was smaller, I put Bella back into her crate in the bed of my truck. I then walked directly into the front office of the Academy and requested to withdraw. I filled out the paperwork, and returned to my truck. Bella and I drove home, and I took a nap. It was WONDERFUL to relax. It took days to decompress from the pressure cooker that I endured at the Academy. I have not looked back, but I have thought about the dogs and my classmates. I can only hope that they fare better than Leonard and I. Or should I hope that they fare as well as we have?

Alone

Being alone never felt as alone as it did on the Sunday afternoon that I arrived at the Tucker-Johnson shelter on the Vermont section of the Appalachian Trail. It was late September, well past the peak hiker season, and the leaves were starting to fall. The shelter was about a half mile off the main trail, which meant that even weekend and local hikers would be few. Typically, I took refuge in knowing that other hikers would be staying at the shelter. Even if we didn’t connect, there was a sense of safety in having other eyes, ears, feet, and hands around. The place was desserted when I arrived.

I had recently slowed the pace of our hike to savor the colorful change of the season in Vermont. The red, orange, yellow, rust, and brown hues of the leaves had been slowly creeping into the summer greens making the transition to Fall beautiful and dramatic. The wind was washing through the trees sending them swaying to and fro, shaking loose waves of leaves that slowly floated to the ground. Birdsong was sparse, not like the vocal dominance that is typical in the Spring, when the earth comes to life. Fall is the season of decline, gateway to the silent dormancy of Winter.

There had been copious warnings of bears in the vicinity. Typically, Fall sends them into heavy feeding in preparation for hibernation. After an early dinner, I sat for a few moments and watched Bella keenly tuning her senses to the area. Her ears were erect like dish antennae. I’ve come to rely on her senses of acute hearing, smell and sight. I had come to read her various postures of awareness, with her moans, groans, and growls. As the sunset faded toward darkness, I stuck with established bear protocol by hanging our food with a PCT style bear hang.

On the one hand, I was glad to be away from the sound of cars and other intrusions to the natural order. The forest is a welcome refuge from the imposition of aggressive drivers, the ubiquity of capitalism and advertisements, and other plagues of modern civilization. However, on this particular afternoon, I was visited by a sense of aloneness, one not touched by loneliness and not blessed by the wekcome sense of solitude. I simply felt alone.

Through that aloneness, I looked ahead to the dark uncertainty of nightfall. I struggled to not think of the night as a long eternity, with hours of anticipation of dawn and the safety of daylight. I knew I could depend on Bella and her keen senses to help allay any overwhelming threats. I turned on the phone and switched it out of airplane mode. There was about half a bar of signal, and not even the dreaded 1X roaming network was available. This further drove home the sense of aloneness, bordering on isolation. So I sat, alone, and listened to the overwhelming silence of the deep Vermont forest.

Later, lying in the hammock waiting for the blessing of sleep to arrive, I realized that with the onset of Fall, our hike for the season would soon end.  Faintly I heard, in the distance, beyond the safety of the mountain, the rumble of trucks on the Interstate. They were, at best, two miles away. I wasn’t sure if I should be comforted, or if it was the imminence of a system of life that I’ve forever struggled to accept and call home.

The Zone

Stop complaining about all that. Just ‘get into the zone and walk‘”. This was a chastisement that I overheard one hiker give to his buddy. It’s not uncommon to hear something like this, as it’s easy to focus on the difficulty of the trail and let it overwhelm the pleasure. However, what is this “zone”, how does one get into it, and why?

For the purpose of this article, I’d like to define this zone as “a mind state wherein an activity or involvement seems to move or flow automatically, without undue stress or effort“. There are benefits to being in this zone. I once did a study of several athletes and musicians who were extremely good at what they did. They were artists of creativity in their respective field. They could make their effort seem to be easy, free, and distinct. Knowing how difficult it is to do what they did, one was left to wonder at the hours of preparation and practice that they had put into their craft.

The “zone” that’s being referred to is a mind state, or a shift, that everyone makes at one point or another. Some become aware of it, even familiar, and can call upon it at will. Others never learn what it is, what it’s good for, nor how to summon it and use it to advantage. Like most mind states and/or emotions, it’s hard to describe or map, but I’d like to take a stab at it.

Within the zone, the mind works differently, especially with regards to the rational thought process. The focus of the mind shifts, and the activity that has been engaged seems to go into auto-pilot. If you’ve ever watched a dog engaged in chasing a ball, you’ve seen the zone in action. If you’ve ever been absorbed into watching a movie, or reading a book, to the exclusion of where you are physically within present time and space, you’ve experienced a zone (of sorts).

What is this “zone” good for? It’s helpful to know that the zone exists for the task at hand, to have experienced it, and to be able to repeat it. My experience in walking the Appalachian Trail was made much easier by being aware of, and being able to go into, the “walking zone”, and to stay there. Walking, day after day, for weeks or months on end, becomes the sole focus during an extended hike. Consciously entering the zone, and using that awareness and what it opens, to ones advantage, helps with planning, preparation, prevention of injury, and many other aspects of the hike. The enhanced awareness of my surroundings helped me spot and identify many animals, plants, other hikers, etc.

Is the zone a meditative state? It can be. That’s what I used it for. The mental process is what makes the shift, and using this shift as a doorway to meditation is possible. Some people choose to “zone out” as they enter the “walking zone” by plugging in their ear buds and listening to podcasts or music on an electronic device. Others choose to be stoned on marijuana, which provides its own meditative-like state and zone, complete with the drugged side- and after-effects. I chose to use the “walking zone” to expand my awareness into the surrounding environment, learning the language of the birds, the forest, the rivers and streams. Within “the zone” the forest opened up to reveal a deeper meaning, a communion with Nature. It was my doorway to mindful walking meditation.

How does one get into the zone? Can it be repeated upon demand? The process that got me into the “walking zone” was to put my breath into cadence with my steps. I’d take an inbreath with a certain number of steps, perhaps two, or four – or maybe one. Then an equal number of steps to the outbreath. Yes, it can be repeated upon demand. The key is to pay close attention to the activity, learn the subtleties involved. Use the rational thought process to advantage, don’t let thoughts of before and after the activity dominate the thought process. Stay focused upon the activity. Remain open to what is happening in the moment, and learn from it. Learn more from the activity in each moment, and each time the activity is repeated.

The interesting part about the interaction that I overheard is that tomorrow, or perhaps later in the same day, the person who did the chastizing may well become the person who receives it.

The Refuge

If you’ve read my previous entries about the difficulty of hiking the Appalachian Trail, and my reasoning process for quitting, at least for a while, you’ll understand this post a little better. In short, I lost a lot of weight and could not continue the hike in safety. Many people had told me that I was looking gaunt and needed to lay up for a while and take care of myself. However, it took a moderately frightening fall to bludgeon the truth into my head. As I was crossing a water dam on logs, one of them rolled and I did not have the physical prowess to deal with it. I stood there, watching one of my trekking poles drift down the fast moving water, making it’s way toward the North Atlantic. At that moment I realized that if I did not get off the trail, the next fall might well put my unconscious body in the water headed toward the North Atlantic. Therefore, I decided to change course.

I stayed at the Caratunk House, a hiker hostel modeled in the style of a typical New England Bed & Beakfast, the night before my incident. The owner had mentioned that he was having personnel problems, and was looking for help. So I hiked back to Caratunk, found the owner, and asked if he was still taking applications. He hired me on the spot. I laid my pack aside, and immediately went to work in the hostel.

Caratunk, Maine. Zip code 04925, population 55. Various sources list the population in the 60’s or 70’s, but it’s not difficult to get a current and accurate count. There is no wireless phone signal, from any carrier, available – so lay your devices aside. The town was in it’s prime, population about 350, around the turn of the 20th century. It’s claim to fame was as a logging town. Several of the original homes still stand, with what were barns attached to the houses, typical of heavy snowfall areas. As one sits in the town, the pace of life slows to a screeching halt. In fact, time moves so slow the clocks seem to turn backwards.

In this backward sense, the Caratunk House is an antique museum in full functional regalia. I was blessed to have spent several weeks working in the hostel. The owner, Paul Fuller, is a seasoned hiker and was an antique dealer for most of his life. He rolled his life’s treasures into the hostel, and it’s arranged tastefully and with impeccable character. I felt not that I was stepping into my grandparent’s home, but back into their lives. We cooked, ate, sat, and lived in a world fully adorned as it was in yesteryear. There were land line phones with rotary dials. One hiker remarked “I love the way you have all these antiques.” I responded “they’re not antiques to us, they’re our normal life.” And so it was that I found refuge to heal my aching body and weary spirit.

It took two weeks of ravenous hunger to finally feel like some of the food I ate was staying with me. My body needed a lot of replenishment. It was about this time that I started to think of the trail again. I was beginning to feel the original desire to walk the trail, and I was becoming strong enough to take action in that direction. The time I spent in the hostel exposed me to a lot of hikers, some of them about to finish their trek. I learned many “tricks of the trade”, especially with regards to food and a lighter pack.  Finally, after a section hike from Stratton, Maine, back to Caratunk, I took the plunge and packed up my gear. I struck out, SOBO (South Bound), on the Appalachian Trail with renewed vim and vigor.

More About Zero

It rained today, all day. I’d checked the forecast last time I had phone connectivity, and – once again – the weatherman was incredibly accurate. The rain started about 5 AM, and continued all day. The forecast called for 5-8 inches, and while I don’t have a way to measure it, I’m sure that was accurate, too.

I didn’t regret the rain, not in the least. It gave me a chance to catch up on writing about some ideas I had. I tried to write last time we stayed in town. Although the hostel where we stayed was incredibly nice, it didn’t provide a place to focus on what I wanted to say. The rain gave me the opportunity, and I siezed it. I stayed under the tarp most of the day with Bella, while she slept. Somehow, she understood perfectly what a rainy day was for. I took a nap, too. I made a second round of coffee and enjoyed the lake, the fog moved in gusts as the wind blew. I did yoga to stretch out the kinks in my back that came from carrying a heavy pack. I realized, and fully enjoyed, the rain and the water. I don’t have a way to measure or know with any sense of accuracy, but I’ve had the sense that I’ve seen more water in three weeks in Maine than I saw in 10 years in Texas.

The Appalachian Trail is a world class trail. Not only for the terrain it occupies, but also for how it’s managed and maintained. There are shelters every few miles that are havens in times of need. Sometimes Bella and I stay in the shelter, sometimes we stay under the tarp. When we arrived at the Moxie Bald shelter, there was already someone inside, so we didn’t stay there. I don’t feel like it’s fair to expose others to sleeping with Bella and her habits. Also, I’m addicted to my hammock for the comfort it provides, and hanging it across the shelter unnecessarily intrudes on others. So we spent the rainy day under the tarp, it was a “Zero Day”, no mileage gained.

A friend I made on the trail and hiked with for several days introduced me to a practice that I’ve continued to embrace. Even though we didn’t stay in the shelter, in the evening we took our cook kit and food up there at dinner time to enjoy the company. It’s a nice practice, a wonderful time for conversation and exchanging information about the trail.

Last night, when we went over there, I found the conversation difficult. It was lively, and everyone was talking, but I couldn’t join in. The topics weren’t anything I cared to embrace or comment upon, and the points of humor weren’t my style. So I listened, cooked, and ate in a personal silence.

Hikers come in all shapes, sizes, and demeanors. There are young and old, short and tall, heavy and thin, fast and slow, etc. There are “gear heads” who have the latest, greatest gadgets. There are ultra-light weight types who brag about how light their packs are. There are those who carry lawn chairs and super duper mattresses for comfort. There are those who measure their time on the trail by how much mileage they cover per day. I’m somewhere in the middle of all this, having honed my approach to compromise for as little weight as possible, but not over-compensating for comfort, safety, or necessity. Also, I’m of the old, slow sort. I’ve found myself at times in a comparison mode, but when I lapse into that attitude I lose sight of why I’m here.

The truth is that I’m not trying to get anywhere. I already am where I’m going, I’ve arrived at the destination of where I want to be. I’m deep in the forest in Maine, someplace I’ve never been and – likely – never to have the opportunity to be again. It’s an enchanted place, with pine trees of so many sizes that there are thousands of acres of Christmas trees in all directions. There are birds in all directions, many of which I’ve never heard before. Yesterday, while filtering water by the lake, a snake crawled slowly between my legs. And I embraced it’s presence. That, too, was a sacred experience.

It’s not easy to stay out of the comparison mode. But there is a personal freedom to being true to myself, and to be grateful for who I am. For the first time in my life, I’ve embarked on a journey that I just show up for and participate in, one piece at a time, and watch closely where it leads me. I’m very eager to follow the inner process. My final comment at dinner last night was “This entire thing for me is a gigantic retirement party, and I’m not about to turn it into a competition of any sort.”

The Wind, the Water, and the Whippoorwill

I once officed next to a man who was an outdoor enthusiast. Our “Holy Grail” was to find a place, or places, where there were no man-made sounds. We often shared our experiences along this line, the pursuit is not an easy one in this day and age.

Having endured and survived 10 days in the 100 mile wilderness, I came close to this ideal several times. The sound of a distant airplane was often the only intrusion to be found. However, it occurred to me that there is a parallel pursuit that may be just as worthy. Is it possible that, no matter what the external noise may be, there is a part of the human psyche that can remmmmain undisturbed?

This is an interesting question which begs a bit of clarification. The pursuit of an environment or location that is void of man-made sound is an external endeavor. The search for a mind space that is free and undisturbed is an internal undertaking. For a very brief few seconds, the two came together in a memorable moment that I’d like to share.

When I’m out backpacking, I like to get an early start on the day. Usually I get up at the first light of dawn, perhaps before. This is a habit that I inherited, I’ve often wondered if it’s genetic. My best walking for any given day happens before noon. During the early morning hours it’s a true blessing to listen to the forest come alive, from the sound of the first bird to the chorus that follows.

On one particular morning, while making coffee, I noticed that – externally – it was a clear moment when there were no man-made sounds. The moment was delightful, and I savored it, but then something happened that made it even more remarkable. A whippoorwill flew into a tree near me, and started her song. To those who have never heard a whippoorwill, it’s something that – once heard – is never forgotten. These remarkable birds have been part of my outdoor experience since early childhood.

At the moment the whippoorwill started to sing, I sank deeply into the present moment. I felt the cyclical spinning and grinding of the thought process of my mind come to a halt. When the internal chatter stopped, and I focused fully on the whippoorwill, I felt like I was swirling and submerged into a deep inner stillness. In that stillness, I heard the wind gently brushing past my ears, and the water of the stream flowing behind me. The song of the whippoorwill was before me, and – for a brief moment – I was able to completely and thoroughly match my inner world with the outer. It was a precious moment of clarity, a profoundly peaceful and sacred experience. I’m convinced that this internal space is in each of us, our birthright, the door to who we are.

As I’ve moved on from that moment, I’ve come to understand more fully what it means to let go of the inner chatter and remain in the present moment. While I know that I can’t always have the wind, the water, and the whippoorwill with me in every moment, I can have the clarity of what they showed me. Access to the experience isn’t always readily accessible, sometimes I must consciously make the effort. However, I know where it is and how to get there. A path, once trodden, is then known. Also, I don’t need to go back and retrace the 100 mile wilderness to find the still, peaceful place inside myself.

The Zero Day

Bella and I came to an excellent stopping place in a remote location atop a hill, and took a “zero day”. In hiking circles, this means that there is no mileage made, it’s a day of rest and recuperation. Even though we were still working into our “trail legs”*, we needed – and deserved – the respite. For me, for us, it was also what our meditation circle calls a “Day of Mindfulness”.

We camped on a large balded rock atop a hill that overlooked  a lake. We were miles from the nearest paved road, but there were occasional – actually rare – people on horseback or fishing. The immediate area, about 30 yards in diameter, was clear and relatively barren, except for the occasional tree root that scraped to find even the tiniest repository of earth. A small puddle, near the center of the sandstone landscape, held water from the recent rainfall. There was a woodpecker overhead hammering out his existence, and in the distance is the sound of water flowing through the dam, in vast abundance. We knew the abundance of the water intimately, because we’d spent our days walking in it, enduring it both on the ground and from the sky. It was a magical experience.

The day also had an overtone of fasting, unplanned yet welcome. As we’d negotiated trail life, learning it’s nuances, the art of getting and having enough to eat had been one of the many lessons to be learned. Both Bella and I had been extremely hungry at times, due to the tremendous demand made on us as we learned to endure trail life.

I decided to take this day as a zero because we were a short (6 mile) walk from our resupply rendezvous, which will be the next day. We’d be back on the trail at first light, which is typical. The spot where we stayed is one of my favorite places to camp, both for the environment it provides, as well as the solitude. As I sat there, wiling away the hours of the day with menial tasks, the stillness of the lake amidst the forest was nearly overwhelming. It called one to a natural, effortless, meditative state. There was absolutely no rush to finish anything, or to be anywhere, other than the very here and now. The day happened at its own pace as I filtered water, repaired and cleaned gear, brushed Bella, and dodged the occasional rain drop. In the distance the sound of an occasional passing train reminded us that civilization marcheed on, waiting for us when we inevitably emerged from the forest.

In my city life, it takes effort to realize and remain attuned to that which came without effort. Even though the meditative state, a state of joyfulness and equanimity, can be realized anywhere, it flowed naturally, in that place. It was a state of fullness that neither required, nor wanted, anything other than itself. It called, as well as sprang from, us, from within and without. Just to be in the moment, within the day, with no requirements, and asking nothing in return.

*The term “trail legs” refers to a physical state. It means that the hiker has become accustomed to walking every day. It takes about 2-4 weeks to get into shape to the degree that one can carry the pack, negotiate the trail, and walk several miles each and every day. In essence, it comes down to what Nike says: just do it.

Circling the Drain

I recently found out about the death of a good friend. This was an old friend, we served together in the military, and were very close for a short time. We didn’t stay in touch after the military, and I was shocked when I googled him one morning and the top return listed was his obituary. It sent me into a tailspin, and it’s taken weeks to pull myself up out of the feeling of circling the drain. I always knew our friendship was significant, and the grief process has shown me just how deep that significance goes.

The friendship we shared was very much one of having come from vastly different backgrounds. I was from a very conservative, red-neck, racist small Midwestern town. He was from a large city, and had a college education. I barely survived High School due to boredom and restlessness. He understood the (then current) social and political issues that the 60’s presented. I had been taught to fear and resist them. He was an avowed Agnostic, I forged a meditative practice during my military stint and have consistently drawn upon that practice in all the years hence. He went back to his big city and resumed his life as if the military was only an intrusion, a temporary encumbrance to his previously scheduled program of fun, frolic, and friends. After my military tour ended, I could not return to, nor remain in, my home town for any enduring length of time. However, due to the causes and conditions that we shared for a brief moment in time, we forged a significant bond that, I am sure, affected us both for the rest of our lives.

The grief process is the epitome of the the curse: “May you live in interesting times.” For reasons beyond our desire and control, we are thrown into a state of profound sadness and despair. Recent development has shed a ray of light on the process of grief, but – to the grief-stricken – this quasi-itinerary offers little relief from the confusion and tumult that is imposed on an otherwise stable and predictable world. Some losses, of close family members or those we see and know routinely, bring on a functional loss, the loss of a familiar face and presence. However, in my case, it has been a different kind of loss. That loss is one of major significance. The friend I lost was one who provided a steady and steadfast sense of stability during a time of major upheaval. And based upon that sense of stability, I realized at the time how unstable and shallow had been my life before that moment. It was a matter of simple consequence to look forward from that point in my life and see that there needed to be a change of course, and the friend that I lost was the fulcrum in the shift of my personal universe.

Cogito, ergo sum” is one of the pillars of Western Philosophy. Translated directly it means “I think, therefore I am.” It’s a deductive statement, one that affirms one’s existence by the presence of mental activity. In Buddhism, the opposite is the case. It could be restated as “I am, therefore I think.” This restructuring puts our essential presence at the core, so to speak, and one of the constituents of individuation is thought. This is an interesting conundrum, one that could be argued, if one deems that much mental and psychic activity necessary. It has been suggested that Buddhist practice, when applied consistently, is one of “psychological deconstruction”. This is, in essence, similar to psychoanalysis, but the process with Buddhist practice goes a bit further and deeper, into the underlying space of existence itself. With psychology, we look toward analyzing and restructuring our nodes of thought. With Buddhist practice, we  look at the mechanics of thought itself. We look not so much at the content of our thoughts, but at the fact that we’re even thinking them.

We all seek a mix of security and stimulation. A purely stable and secure environment quickly becomes boring and stagnant. A constantly changing and random environment is chaotic and unpredictable. This mix, at best in a balance, usually manifests in episodes with twists and turns, rarely does it come as a perfectly melded and evenly dispensed tube of toothpaste. Whether deemed fortunate or not, relationships are this way. We’re constantly learning about ourselves, most often, and crucially, through the vehicle of our relationship with others. When our world is turned upside down by the loss of someone close or significant, we get a chance – welcome or not – to review not only that relationship but also that part of ourselves that we applied (or didn’t) to the relationship. Quickly one realizes, in the grief process, that there is no predictability. There is no map, there are no mile posts, there are few rest stops. The best directions one can accept are those of acknowledgment and acceptance of that which becomes present as each moment and experience unfolds. It is in this blessed state of openness that the deeper meaning of a relationship may reveal itself.

A common point of wisdom is that “happiness is a matter of giving up all hope of having a better past”. This axiom becomes acutely true when it presents itself during the grief process. In many crucial relationships, it becomes a matter of letting go, feeling the pain, anger, and confusion, and then taking steps to disengage and move on. Circling the drain does not have to be a terminal state, much can be learned from its teaching. Indeed, when compassionately challenged and looked at head on, it becomes apparent that there are Turtles all the Way Down.

Connected at the Core

 

One of the key concepts in Buddhism is that of interconnection. While there have been many attempts to explain this concept in terms of our Western understanding, I’m convinced that it’s become  a quagmire. I’ve looked into the phenomenon and various interpretations, the result being that I have come away confused. I’d like to slow down, back up a notch, and push in a different direction.

Bob & Kosho at the ready.

Recently I’ve become extremely close to my dog, Kosho. I am not always sure where Kosho begins and I end, or where I begin and Kosho ends. I’ve learned to read his every gesture, every movement, the turns of his head and the intensity of his lunges. When on the trail, if I watch him closely, I can tell if and when there are other animals around us, what they are, and how far away. He has become an extended set of senses for me, senses beyond those which are innate to my physical composure. We are connected, and it’s a two-way connection. I get the sense that he can read me much better than I can read him. For him, with this thorough lack or cranial capacity to intellectually complicate things, his senses fill that void far better than my concepts and mental activity substitute for the reciprocal lack of senses. This is connection at its core, a true living, malleable, fluid relationship.

Bob & Kosho getting set.

Typically, a connection can be thought of as being a link or relationship between two distinct entities: two people, a person and an organization, two organizations, an idea, etc. An interconnection can be thought of as an extension of a connection. While, technically, an interconnection can be between two entities, it becomes more interesting – even enriched – if there is more at play. While Kosho has taught me well how to use the senses that I have, within their limitations, he’s also shown me the extent to which he is interconnected via his senses to his environment. I once asked a dog trainer what she thought was the greatest difference between the dog and us, and without hesitation she responded “his nose.” I didn’t have to think about this long to see the depth of the truth of the statement. If I place Kosho on a leash, and walk him across an asphalt parking lot, I can watch his actions and reactions and I have one specific version of the dog. If I then take him across an open, grassy field, he becomes a completely different dog. Going further, if I continue the walk into a wooded area, I get, once again, a completely different dog. His senses, particularly his sense of smell, has brought about a vastly different response to each of the environments. His interconnection to each of the three environments by the acuteness of his senses has produced completely different responses to each of the environments.

I, on the other hand, with a limited, or complete lack of, connection to my senses, tend to walk around swirling in the miasma of my own thoughts, the stories inside my head. This gives me a limited response to my environment due to my lack of connection to my interconnection with that environment. This contrast is the reason we have a difficult time understanding the true meaning of interconnection, we have too complicated a mental process to fluidly come into touch with such a natural phenomenon.

Bob & Kosho on the go.

So, what is the bottom line? What is it that the Buddhists are trying to get across? What’s the big deal, anyway? Yes, it’s true: the concept of interconnection is one that is the very core of Buddhism. But why? The answer, although simple to state, is virtually insurmountable in its practice. Our lack of connection to the basic interconnection of the world around us is the very source of all of our suffering. The solution, once again simple to state but difficult to embody, is so very obvious in Kosho himself. Where he lacks the mental capacity to create a psychological problem, he also lacks the suffering of it. We, on the other hand, often spend years in monasteries undertaking austere practices, to learn to slowly and mindfully walk across a parking lot, a field, or a woodland – and simply enjoy the sights, smells, and the warm glow of the sunshine. We are all inextricably interconnected to everyone and everything around us, all the time. This is completely a matter of submersing into experience and practice, not one of intellectual theory. The more one looks into this “rabbit hole”, the more one sees and experiences the vast web of life. Indeed, nothing – from the mighty to the minuscule – can stand alone without interconnection to all else.

Then again, how many of us would apply ourselves to this if we could? Who among us would completely and unreservedly look directly at our interaction with the world around us, and confront the actions that we undertake while non-judgmentally observing the results? And if we find the results unacceptable, would we accept that unacceptability to the degree of releasing the initiation of the action? How many of us would undertake this journey? Just take a look around. Just watch, and keep watching. Don’t judge, conclude, or  justify, just watch and observe the action- and watch what happens.

Mindful Eating

I recently began to suspect that I have a food allergy. The symptoms have been present for several years, but it seems that things like this left unchecked never get better with age. So, as always, the first step toward a solution was to “Google it”. The results alone were inconclusive, but there was enough information to let me know that I was on the right track. Also, I was able to determine a way to proceed.

There are a couple of broad routes to take if one suspects food allergies. The first is to go to an allergist and get tested. When my natural mistrust of the medical establishment combined with the penchant for personal control, I took the other route. This option has a couple of approaches: a) eliminate foods one by one until the symptoms disappear, or b) eliminate everything but the most basic food, and add things into the diet until something sets off the allergy. Option “a” took forever, and had no tangible results. So I was left with option “b”.

Green leaf salad with salmon and bread.
Green leaf salad with salmon and bread.

It seemed like it took forever to reduce my diet to some very basic elements, yet get a full plate of nutrition. At times it seemed like I was on “celery & water”. I went for many days, even weeks, eating just a few types of vegetables and a small amount of organic, grass-fed beef. I also started to fast one day per week and use a natural salt water laxative. Finally, after my system started to flush toxins, the symptoms of the allergy began to fade.

As part of the process, it was important that I not only limit what I ate, but how much I ate. I needed to cut back on snacks and other non-essential consumption. It’s amazing how much we tend to eat that isn’t necessary. I realized that a lot of the food we eat is for emotional reasons, and it’s a long way from actual physical sustenance. We tend to stuff ourselves over anything that’s uncomfortable: anger, stress, disappointment, etc. The list can be as long or short as one wants.

An Unexpected Realization

There came an interesting moment in the process when I was several weeks into the restricted regimen, and I went into an emotional bind. I forget exactly what the situation was or what caused it. However, I do remember sitting at the table, and an entire procession of mental images went through my mind, much like a parade of options. I thought: “I could eat this, or that would be tasty, or what if I put this mix together.” It continued for a few minutes, one image right after the other. Each mental concept had an attendant physical craving. In other words, first came a mental picture, then – after some indeterminate period of time – there was an associated physical craving. My mouth watered, and I could almost taste the food during this process. Deep from within my gut my body said “I WANT IT NOW”.

Fortunately, the pain and discomfort of the allergic reaction was greater than the luxury of acting on these food cravings. Then, the next part was what I consider to be the most important. I was able to see this entire process simply as a process, a parade of mental images that were accompanied by emotional cravings that were habitually followed by commitment to physical action. And when I took no action at all, just let the process go, it all went away. Truthfully, this phase was one of liberation. I never had an upset stomach or indigestion on this reduced diet. I even learned how to be satisfied with a glass of water.

Mindfully Speaking

The core realization of this process came as an unexpected bonus. As I was reducing what and how much I ate, there was a high degree of planning and thought that went into the process. Additional thought was focused on the actual practice of eating. I became much more aware of not only what and how much I ate, but how I ate it. I started to eat very slowly and with deliberate intent. I realized that the amount of attention I was giving to the entire process was indeed Mindful Eating. It’s paid off, too. I no longer have the allergic reactions that I once suffered. I’m in the process of rebuilding my diet to see what my body can tolerate and what it doesn’t want to deal with. The process and outcome has been rewarding in several ways, notwithstanding the frustration and discomfort that brought it about. It’s been a journey, one that was long overdue.