Sometimes You Think You Need a Compound When What You Really Need Is a Monastery
At the foot of a massive rockfall, sits the panabode, as much a part of the landscape as the ferns and mosses that surround it. Through floor to ceiling windows, the towering cliff and ancient cedars are visible, though at the moment I am concentrating on getting the pins and needles out of my feet as I rise stiffly from my knees to stand in preparation for kinhin. Along with 24 other people I bring my hands into prayer position and we bow towards each other. Two wooden blocks clack together, and we file one at a time out the door. We have thirty minutes to slow-walk the trails, one step and then another with attention wide and yet focused on the breath, in and out, in time with our footsteps.
We have come here during an early summer heat wave and temperatures are pressing into the mid-thirties. Earlier today my teacher Michael removed his black priest’s robes and is wearing simpler cotton garments instead. At the close of lunch, I had noted a few of the younger practitioners rushing to leave the dining hall in order to take advantage of the brief break in our meditation schedule to swim in Daisy Lake. I had considered joining them, imagining the relief a plunge into the glacial water might bring, but I hadn’t brought my swimsuit on this first trip to the retreat centre, and the walk down to the dock seemed daunting in the heat and my sleep-deprived state.
Instead, I had retreated to my shaded tent to attempt a nap—something that proved impossible given the continuously intruding thoughts provoked by a dream from the night before.
Meditation retreats are notorious for producing active dream states, an effect of being in silence for days at a time, and all day I had been thinking over last night’s doozy. In the nightmare I was grabbed on a crowded city street by an unremarkable-looking man with intentions to drug and kidnap me. He threw his arm around my throat from behind and pulled me into the opening of a parking garage, not so far in that the people passing by couldn’t see, but off the sidewalk proper. While he pinned me on the ground and prepared to sink a syringe into my neck, I begged the people going along to help me but no one so much as glanced in our direction, and I had a panicked realization that I was on my own. As my assailant fought to hold me down he said over and over “no one can save you; no one can save you,” and I knew he was right that no one was going to intervene. I woke up at the moment the needle broke the skin of my neck, shaking from the intensity and unable to settle back to sleep.
That recurring voice has nagged my meditations all day, and even though my teacher Kate has counseled me not to get hung up on it, I can’t help but try and analyze. I think, perhaps this dream is a form of self-protection, a reminder not to rely on others when in crisis, lest I forget the feeling of what loss of trust and cohesion with others feels like.
It’s been ten years since I lost my community of environmental fellowship to something called Operation Backfire, an FBI operation that indicted eighteen eco-radicals on multiple criminal offences, and sent close friends of mine to prison and on the run. The aftermath of those events further alienated me from my wider activist community in Vancouver, and by the time I found meditation practice I had put many years in between myself and that community.
But here, in this retreat centre, I am reminded of days spent in a forest action camp not far down the road; the landscape and flora are identical. I think back on the many trips up rutted logging roads into the mountains, and the time I brought some fellow musicians up to Mile 68 in the Elaho Valley to play a show for those living out among the giant hemlocks and firs in order to defend them from chainsaws. I miss those days—their sense of purpose and a united camaraderie which for some reason the crowded zendo brings to mind.
There are other similarities of course, which I noted the very first time I went on meditation retreat two years ago: a reverence for the natural world; a belief that humans can do better; a sense of shared community values, including the building of intentional communities; a wry and sometimes dark humour about the state of the world as it is. But what resonates most, is the sense of simultaneously being apart from society while also seeking deeper relationship and interconnectedness. Both groups, holding open a question—through taking one's seat on the meditation cushion or on a logging road in front of a bulldozer—of how best to live. Pressing towards a kind of Eden, whether that be an internal or external pursuit.
In Buddhism, not only is there a tradition of sages on mountaintops, but if meditative practice can be said to have a purpose, it is to free oneself of the constraints of mind and body. To awaken is to be free from samsara (the cycle of birth, death and suffering) through recognizing oneself as already perfect and whole. A similar drive in some politically radical communities is towards intentional living—apart from the constraints of mainstream capitalism—in order to create a free and just society of like-minded others. The people I once knew were driven by dreams of off-grid and out-of-bounds living, convinced that the world we lived in was ailing and could no longer be repaired without a massive (and unlikely) economic and social overhaul. Although there are vast differences between these two communities, there are archetypes in both of the totally liberated self, free from attachment in a world of delusion.
So I suppose it should be no surprise that this Buddhist retreat centre is the epitome of what I once dreamed of creating as a young activist. Fortressed in a valley at the foot of Garibaldi Mountain, the sign for the turnoff from the logging road consists of four letters painted on a piece of 2x4 and nailed high up in a tree. Despite being given specific directions to the place, when I drove in I started to question whether I was on the right road as my car repeatedly bottomed out on the narrow track above the lake’s edge. A tour on arrival revealed this place to be well-organized with several cabins and wall tents to accommodate guests, a micro-hydro facility generating all the power required, and a spring high up in the mountain channeled through a series of pipes to provide abundant drinking and washing water (not to mention a waterfall and pond).
This type of refuge was at the heart of my fervent dreams for many years, representing an escape from a world I believed I could not live in—perfect in its seclusion and self-sustainability, not to mention the wilderness all around. So many years after leaving one kind of activist life behind, I have found myself in exactly the place we had wished to manifest. The place where all the inlaws and the outlaws would come together for one last bonfire before turning ourselves wild as the world collapsed in on itself.
As I take my first steps onto the trail and into the forest for meditation, I reflect on how much this escape fantasy was borne from grief at watching human recklessness and its impacts on the natural world. The friends who took long prison sentences, or simply disappeared are never far away from my memory, but the intervening years had taught me that past hurts can only be addressed through abiding. The ever-crumpling world is still at hand, though as the words from last night’s dream remind me, no one person, nor any sheltering place can change that.
For this kinhin session we have been instructed to walk slowly, and stop regularly before another presence—be it boulder, tree, fern or bird—bow towards it, and give it our full regard for some period of time before bowing again to conclude. I am relieved to be off the mat and out of the hot zendo, and decide to separate myself further by pushing deeper into the forest of tall conifers and huckleberry. The trail I am on winds past deadfall and over gnarled roots, finally depositing me at a lookout above the lake. Here I squat down, leaning myself against a massive fir tree, and turn my attention to the mosses at my feet. My breath cools the sweat on my upper lip as I focus on it going in and out.
A mosquito buzzes close by but doesn’t land, an ant crawls across my toes, but otherwise there is no movement besides my body moving slightly with the rhythm of my own heart and lungs. I sink deeper into a state of open awareness. Occasionally someone comes down the trail to my left, reminding me that I’m not really alone out here, but then they carry on in silence as is the etiquette of such encounters.
That doesn’t stop my own mind from interrupting itself with “no one can save you, no one can save you.” The dream. It’s still pestering me.
I refocus. Breathe. In and out. “No one can save you, no one…” Refocus. In and out. The tree bark against my back prickles through my t-shirt and I come down from my squat and into a cross-legged position. Grounded. I shift my attention to sensations: a twig poking my ankle, the moss cushioning me, the rising breathlessness of last night’s dream. I can’t shake it and it feels more real out here where I am alone. “No one can save you…” A breath in. A breath out.
And then it happens. A voice from behind me says firmly, “But everything can.” It is as clear to my ear as if someone were speaking directly into it. As if the tree I’m leaning against had started to talk. Now I’m holding my breath and I hear it again: “No one can save you, but everything can.” Everything can. Everything.
I look around, but there is no one out there on the trail, I am accompanied only by the wild beings of tree and ant—and then as though I’m being held, all the sorrow and the grieving for a life I once believed in, for the people I once loved, comes rushing into the moment and I’m broken wide open. In classic meditation-retreat breakdown style, it’s coming out in sobs and gulps, the tears flowing. Even in this sorrow I recognize I am a retreat cliche, but still, I can’t hold it back. Everything can save me. No one can. And everything I shoved away ten years ago is flowing. Through me. Unstoppable.
In Zen we talk about spiritual practice as a container. We learn the forms and rituals—how to bow, how to sit, how to eat, how to chant—not as an end in themselves, but as a refuge to which we can always return. On retreats the expectation is that no matter what is happening (barring serious illness), you show up in the meditation hall, at the dining table, in the interview with your teacher, or else someone will be dispatched to find you. As much as you might want to hide out in your room, the discipline doesn't allow for that. No matter what you are feeling, how intense it is, you come to the zendo and you sit. You do not avoid or run away. You sit because you are accountable to the sangha. You sit because you are accountable to your own experience.
Out in the forest, I hear the bell ring marking the end of this meditation period and calling us back to the zendo. Still crying, I push my back into the wall of tree behind me and lever myself to my feet. I would much rather lie down on the moss and nurse my emptying soul than return to sit on my knees in a room full of people—but I don’t have a choice and my feet scuff in the dust of the trail as I make my way slowly back. I continue to cry as I enter the hall, grabbing some tissues as I head to my seat, feeling foolish now that I am in front of others. I know this happens, having seen other people have similar meltdowns. The one comfort I have is knowing no one will try to console me. Instead, we will all sit together and I will try not to distract anyone with my distress.
The bell rings three times and we settle with an intention to open our awareness and focus, in and out, on the breath. My breathing is unsteady, sometimes in gulps and silent sobs rather than the continuous presence I rely on when trying to empty my mind. In and out. My tears continue. I breathe in and notice a slight release. I breathe out and feel the coolness of air on wet skin. My mind won’t obey. It races with grief and anxiety. Despair. Self-pity. But I don’t move except to occasionally wipe my eyes.
After about fifteen minutes I notice the tears have subsided and I am gripping a soggy tissue tight in my fist. Suddenly repulsed by this remnant, I tuck it under my cushion and bring my hands into the Zen mudra - an oval created by right palm resting on left, thumbs touching. That light pressure between the tips of my thubs feels familiar, comforting. In and out, my breath comes back into focus. My mind doesn’t empty, but is no longer clinging as strongly to to the outrage and sorrow my memories have evoked. Instead of becoming each thought, I being to watch them travel through.
Our teachers often say, “we all come to this practice for a reason,” but when I first came to meditation and then to Zen I didn’t know exactly what that reason was. Though grief is a pretty standard driver towards spirituality, I hadn’t really understood the magnitude of my loss—of a community in which to plan, to dream, and ultimately in which to take refuge. As I kneel in the zendo now, flanked on either side by my co-conspirators in this sesshin, I am held up again in solidarity with all beings, and I haven’t felt that way for a long time.
* kinhin = walking meditation
* sangha = meditation or spiritual community
* sesshin = retreat
* zazen = sitting meditation
* zendo = the place where one does zazen, the meditation hall
Two ways to call retreatants to the meditation hall: The bell (Tibetan and other traditions) or the mallet and wooden block called the Han (Japanese).
February recipe: Black bean and corn salsa (pressure canning)
I recognize that pressure canning is something that scares people—but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the only reliable way to store foods through extended power outages (well, that and drying but there's only so much beef jerky I want to eat). Put up foods seasonally, or when they go on sale and you'll always have a full larder just "in case".
This is my all-time favourite pressure canning recipe. Although it is labeled “salsa”, I almost never eat it with chips. This gets used as a base for ground beef hash, an addition to refried beans for rice-and-bean bowls, and an additive to either vegetarian or meat chili. I make about 20 pints of this late in the summer when corn and tomatoes are inexpensive; if you feel like trying it now, make a half batch with grocery store tomatoes and frozen corn and then put this in your canning plans for August.
Makes 8 pints
4 cups chopped tomatoes (you can use canned, but drain them)
1 ½ cups red onion
½ cup jalapeno pepper, diced
10 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp black pepper
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tbsp red chili flakes
1 tbsp non-iodized salt
⅓ cup apple cider vinegar
2 cups tomato sauce
2 cups dried black beans - soaked overnight
2 cups fresh corn niblets
Start by covering the soaked beans with four cups of water and bring to a simmer for 30 minutes. Don’t boil them.
While the beans are cooking, prepare your jars for canning (wash with soap and hot water - no need to sterilize them).
Drain the black beans, and then return them to the pot. Add the rest of the ingredients from the list and cook for ten minutes until boiling.
Take the pot off the heat and ladle the salsa into your jars, leaving a good 1-inch of headspace - this gives room for the beans to expand on absorbing liquid. Affix the lids and rings and put into the pressure canner.
Process in the canner for 75 minutes at 10 pounds pressure.
This recipe *must* be pressure canned—making it versatile—so feel free to add bell peppers, other veggies, or different spices.
In the studio
This month, I'm sharing a work in progress titled "I have something to tell you." Mixed media: textile, bone, wood, plastic, thread. A response to #metoo; a commentary on how stories are shared and received.
You can find more of my textile work on Instagram @birdsongtextiles.
I admit to owning a fashionable filtration mask—by which I mean it's got a floral print. I bought it not long after my former urban neighbourhood experienced a chemical fire at the port which created a "shelter in place" situation that I had to walk home through. At this year's fashion week designers Milk and Luka Sabbat unveiled a new collection aimed at exactly this kind of catastrophe called Unfortunately Ready to Wear.
My fellow apocalyptarian Rueben over at A Small and Delicious Life has some interesting thoughts to share on the potential ecological damage of Universal Basic Income. I feel like I have a longer response coming on, I'm not 100% in agreement, but I think it opens up an essential discussion about how we increase true wealth in ways that don't further destroy the planet.
A significant factor in the re-greening of China is central planning and directed government resources. Go figure. This study released last week show that China and India are leading in greening of the world through land-use management. This brings to mind Emma Marris's book The Rambunctious Garden which suggests approaches to stewarding nature in a time of climate change. All is not lost - but directed efforts are required.
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See you next month and if you want to read more of me in the meantime you can find me at red-cedar.ca.
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