Jul 262012

Meditation is the glue that’s held me together for years. I honestly don’t think I could have made it through the last year without it. But over the last few months, something new and wonderful is happening inside, because of what I’m learning and bringing into my practice. Talking with one of my co-workers at lunch today, I realized that I can articulate some of this change. I want to write this down and share it, just in case it helps nudge one of you, my friends, to develop or deepen your own meditation practice.

Last January, I attended a six-week class at Sukhasiddhi called “Extraordinary Samatha”, and this month, I’m in a follow-on class called “Extraordinary Vipassanā”. This one-two punch is helping me find gratitude in most of the moments of my life, helping me feel relaxed and cheerful and appreciative and kind most of the time. I cannot tell you how precious this is, but perhaps you can imagine it for yourself. I rarely feel anxiety or depression, and I’ve gotten much better, even skillful, at following my feelings, speaking plainly, being completely honest. I remember that, even a few years ago, my inner experience was an almost ceaseless stream of thought, with a liberal sprinkling of contempt, upset, criticism and anxiety.

That experience is dissolving. Seriously. It’s almost as though my inner process is slowing down, becoming more spacious. Now I usually notice when I’m having a thought or a feeling, before I act on it. When something comes at me that is unexpected or painful, I can often choose my response. It’s different than the way I used to “edit” myself, stop myself from saying something because I was afraid of what would happen. This is more like “hmm, I feel a little angry, I wonder why?”…and I ask myself the question, and even get some insight, before I say anything. At the same time, my thought processes can be just as quick as ever, so it’s not like my thinking is slowing down. And when I need to focus, my focus is just as good, just as sustainable as it always has been.

Wikipedia has a nice article on vipassanā, which also describes the relationship with samatha. These are two types of meditation: basically, samatha is a meditation for getting grounded, quieting the mind, and becoming present; vipassanā is an inquiry or insight meditation on our own internal process, our senses, how we perceive things, and how feelings and thoughts arise.

I’ve been doing samatha for about 15 years, as this is the kind of meditation taught at the Pathways Institute workshops and retreats I started attending and facilitating in 1996. Vipassanā is fairly new to me, as I’ve only had a little experience with it at Spirit Rock events.

I’m learning that there is a progression inside, from sensory data (sight, smell, touch, etc.), to perception (labeling what I sense), to a feeling and perhaps even an emotion…and all of this happens before I have a thought process. I’m sure there are some people reading this who will nod and smile, and others who wonder why this is even relevant. All I can tell you now is that it is relevant, that this awareness is what is helping me to be more spacious, more kind to everyone around me, more kind to myself. This unfolding is just beginning for me. Hopefully I can write again about it in the future, with more insight and deeper awareness. In the mean time, I’m more joyful and content. It’s just that simple.

Oddly, this learning has brought a whole new level of grief to light. I wonder what would have happened if Nancy had been able to share this with me, if she had taken on her own sitting meditation practice. For the truth is, she never did, even though I invited her many times. Perhaps the tragedy of her passing would have been averted. Perhaps she would have found more ability to love and be loved and show compassion, who knows? The “what if” game is endless, and pointless. The reality is, she is gone, and my new-found self-awareness demands that I let these thoughts go, and be present with what is. So I let them go. But I continue to grieve what might have been.

So, if you are grappling with your life, your inner critic, your anxiety or sadness or lack of wonder in the universe, if you argue with your partner or say unkind things to your children, please find a way to sit and meditate. Please.

the perfect tool

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Jul 222012

Just look up “synchronistic” on google, and you will find a myriad of interpretations. But from inside a meditative practice, or from the point of view of dreamwork Jungian-style, we learn to pay attention when things line up. I maintain that the universe is perfect in every moment, and we are fortunate when we get to glimpse the perfection. I had one of those moments tonight.

So…. I stop at the Shell station on the Miracle Mile in San Rafael to gas up, and there is a lovingly-restored Ford F100 pickup nearby, perhaps a 1969 or 1970 model, and the guy is talking on his cell phone, trying things under the hood. Clearly, A Problem Is At Hand.

I wander over after filling my (hot-rodded, unassuming) BMW sedan with gas, and he tells me the story. He’s changed some parts, replaced the starter, and now…the starter is stuck ON, spinning helplessly. He has the battery cable disconnected (sensible!) and is trying to figure out how to get home to Inverness, out on Point Reyes. He thinks his ignition switch has gone bad, which is not a bad hypothesis for a 40+ year-old truck!

We check out the switch, which looks fine. I can pull the connections from the back, they look clean. And I take a good look under the hood, and realize his truck is old enough to have a SEPARATE solenoid switch from the starter. It’s mounted right up on the side of the engine compartment, and he says he just replaced it. Hmm.

The fact is, a stuck starter is caused when the solenoid is switched on, and it could be the ignition switch, or the solenoid itself. Solenoids can stick because they conduct a lot of electrical current, and the contacts can weld together for short periods of time. I only know this because I’m old enough…it used to happen on British sports cars from the 1960’s (don’t ask me how I know 🙂 Modern cars rarely do this, as the metallurgy of the parts has improved.

So…. I ask him if he has a hammer, which he does. You know the joke, right? To a child with a hammer, everything looks like a nail? I walk around to the engine, take one carefully-measured-but-serious whack on the solenoid, and ask him to try it again. He reconnects the battery. Lo and behold, the starter no longer spins out of control, and, with a turn of the ignition key, the truck fires up.

This is one of those magical “guy” moments. I feel so good about myself inside, it’s intoxicating. But it’s really not all about me, is it? I am fortunate to participate in one of those moments of perfection, where I decided to stop for gas, and had the bravery to ask a fellow traveller if I could help. I could. The universe is perfect. He is on his way home to the wilds of west Marin, and I feel…I feel…connected to the perfection. And happy. And smug that I happened to know exactly what to do. I’m giving myself a few minutes to enjoy the sensation, and pretend that it was all about me.

Which of course, it was not. Just perfection in operation.

Jul 122012

Some days are just emotional, and today is just such a day. It’s my birthday, and the rain of well-wishes from friends and co-workers has been steady and lovely. One of the Russian Goddesses who Secretly Run Engineering here brought me flowers this morning, and thus I have the pleasure of a split brain experience, as you can see in this picture of my desk. Hard core computation and graphing and Unix commands on the right, loveliness on the left. Much like the way my brain is apparently structured.

The little corner item behind the flowers is worth a comment. It’s my Nancy Altar at work. The card is signed by all the engineers I work with, and was sent to me when they found out she passed away in December. I treasure it. In front, a small carved crystal buddha, sitting on a tin of rare tea, and looped around them is the meditation mala (like a buddhist rosary) that I received when I took refuge in the Buddha a few weeks ago. I thought about having a picture of her, but it would be too much for me, even now. I can’t look at her photos without getting teary.

Or listen to a lot of music, apparently. I let the CD changer in my car do random plays this morning, and the One Song, the Song That Breaks My Heart, came on. I had to listen to it — I’ve been avoiding it for weeks — and I’ve been on the verge of tears ever since. Makes it hard to do hardcore performance data analysis. Here are some of the lyrics, and you can hear the song on ReverbNation, if you wish.

I Found a Heart, by Houston Jones (written by Travis Jones, 2010)

I found a heart that was almost broken, it was almost broken, it was torn at the seams.

I gave it love and it came back together, make everything better,

If you know what I mean.

I made her a promise we would stay together, it felt light as a feather, not a shadow of a doubt.

We had dreams that were full of forever, full of forever, within and without.

I built her a home that was warm and cozy, far from the city, with spaces in between.

It kept us warm when the cold wind was blowin’, with wintertime a stormin’,

If you know what I mean.

I lost her love on a night in December, in the dead of winter with no stars in the sky.

Without a word she was gone forever, she was gone forever….

Now I’ve got a heart that is almost broken, with memories unspoken, and full of empty dreams.

I’ve got a heart that is almost broken,

Won’t be put back together

Won’t be warm and cozy.

Now its lost its forever….if you know what I mean.

Damn, that hurts. And yet, today is filled with beauty and promise. My heart is full with all the birthday greetings, I’m looking forward to dinner with the woman I’ve been dating, whom I treasure. I have much to be grateful for, as I enter my next year.

happy birthday, Penny

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Jul 032012

Yesterday was my mother’s 77th birthday. Working a full day, I could not visit, but my friend Laurie was with her, and brought both a cake and her radiant presence. Laurie has been helping to care for my mother ever since I moved her to Marin county at the beginning of 2009, and she has been a delightful and steady source of support.

Penny’s Alzheimer’s is so severe now that she cannot do anything without help. She hasn’t recognized me in well over a year, she needs to be fed and bathed and dressed and moved. She no longer smiles. She is speaking a bit, but not making any sense. She uses a hospital bed and a wheelchair, and I have the support of Hospice By The Bay, a fine organization that has been helping to care for her the last couple of months. She is gradually losing weight, although her health seems to be fine.

The memory care facility where she lives, Alma Via of San Rafael, is as nice a facility as I’ve ever seen. The caregivers are attentive, there is singing and music and other activities, the food is pretty good. Penny seems as happy as she could be, but there is really no way to tell.

So the pattern of loss in my life continues, first Nancy, then her father Dick Jones in early February, and gradually now, my mother. My mother has been going away a little at a time for five years now, as this terrible disease runs its course. One book described it as “the long slow good-bye”, and I cannot disagree.

And her caregivers are radiant, thoughtful and hard-working. She is loved, not only by me, but by the people around her. I can only manage her medical care and her finances, and wait.