In Every Place


A mountain always practices in every place.
~ Eihei Dogen (12th Century Japanese Zen Master)

It was cold but not too cold when we woke up in our tent beneath a lone pine growing in a mountain sea of sage and bitterbrush. Snow was lightly falling from a gray sky, which muffled all noises, giving a hushed tone to the world around us. We had a small fire, which crackled and stirred, and breakfast of oatmeal, hot coffee and hot spiced cider. As we took down the tent, I asked her to help stuff a sleeping bag, which she tried but couldn’t. “She is just not trying hard enough,” I thought to myself and may have said something to that effect. Not my nicest words but also not my worst.

A bit later, I could see that she was upset and crying. I immediately felt guilty about my harsh words and was hit by a rush of shame. My mind raced between blaming myself and weakly justifying my poorly chosen words. Then I took a couple of deep breaths and stopped. I just stopped and looked at her, and then wiped off her tears before they froze to her cheeks. I just looked at her and then I listened. Often in these moments, she clams up, especially if I push her to talk, so I just sat with her and did nothing.

“My feet are cold,” she said. “Oh,” I replied. “Do you want me to warm them up?” She nodded, I took off her boots and socks and held her small cold feet against my very warm belly. As her feet came back to live so did she. “Was this why you were crying, sweetie,” I asked. She nodded again.

The wildlife biologist George Shaller once wrote while trekking in the Himalaya to study blue sheep that “The condition of ‘homelessness’ is the maturity of relying on nothing and responding to whatever turns up at the doorstep.”

We may not be familiar with this concept of homelessness whereas many eastern religions like Zen Buddhism are steeped in this idea. Leaving home, literally or figuratively, are important parts of a monks pathway, yet we can embrace this in our everyday lives as well. If I had continued to assume that she was upset because of my ill words then I would not have been able to respond to the actual moment, to what turned up on my doorstep. I may have reacted from a place of inadequacy or feeling bad about myself, which is never a great place for me to react from.

This much I know and have experienced enough times to have learned from it. Respond with openness and inquisitiveness, don’t react from fear, inadequacy or habit. By not-relying on what I thought was going on, I was able to be open to what I didn’t know, which allowed me to respond to what was actually going on. Responding rather than reacting is crucial. When I react, it is habitual and usually not very wholesome. When I respond, however, I root my action in not knowing what is going on and remain open to the endless possibilities that each moment offers. From here, I can welcome anyone or anything that shows up on my doorstep and then just see what happens. This is the mountain (myself) practicing in every place. No matter what happens, from here may I respond to the moment.


by David LaFever

A Little Practice

Practice

noun

  1. the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it.
  2. the customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing of something.

verb

  1. perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency.
  2. carry out or perform (a particular activity, method, or custom) habitually or regularly.

It’s approximately seven miles on a paved road from town to our land. The road winds it’s way around the hulking block of McClure Mountain, in whose shadow lies the town of Twisp. We seem to drive this road everyday, following the Methow River downstream, which is just a part of rural living these days. Driving the same road can be boring, habitual, something to ignore. Our bodies seem to do the driving while our brains wander aimlessly. Mindless. But it can also be a chance to re-engage, to pay attention and to be mindful. The ever-present possibility of a deer running out in the road should make us pay attention, if nothing else. And yet it is all too easy to be lost in my thoughts as I drive this stretch of known road.

When I was growing up in rural upstate New York in the 1980s and 1990s, people waved to each other on rural roads. This was certainly true on our road which was not properly paved until much later. I remember watching my dad wave at neighbors and seeing them wave back. Sometimes it was a full wave, emanating friendliness in its fullness, while other times it was simply raising the hand or a couple of fingers in habitual movement. I vividly remember old man Donny Driscoll, who lived down the road from us, in his white Ford pick up truck driving basically down the middle of the road, two hands on the top of the wheel. He was pretty near-sighted as I recall his coke-bottle thick glasses. He just raised his index finger, nothing more and nothing less.

You always waved on our road, that’s just the way it was. On other roads, however, the rules of engagement were a bit different. Perhaps you waved at everyone, if you were particularly friendly. You always waved at tractors. And if you were driving a pickup truck, you waved at other pickup trucks. Such was the culture, at that time, on the back roads and byways of upstate New York.

Since moving here to rural North-Central Washington, I have re-engaged with this practice. As I drive the seven miles to and from town, I wave at everyone I meet, and I do it for two reasons. First, I want to cultivate rural friendliness and neighborliness, which I do not want to see go away in our country. It is a simple way to connect with each other, like saying hi in the post office. Secondly, I do it as a practice of both mindfulness and connection.

Doing this everyday gives me the chance to see my own mind, my own preferences and my own prejudices more clearly. Because I try to wave at everyone, I notice more astutely when I do and do not wave. When I don’t wave at someone, I realize that my mind has been wandering. I am lost in thought and this practice helps me to return to the present, to what I am actually doing. Driving and being neighborly.

I also notice who I do and do not want to wave at, which shows me the subtle and, I have to say, idiotic, judgments I make based on the car that someone is driving. Do I wave at that big-ass redneck looking truck? Do I greet the all-too wealthy looking BMW-driving liberal city slicker? You betcha I do! I get to see my prejudices and how quickly I make distinctions and then let them go with the wave of a hand. Yes, I get to say, this car too I will wave at. This person too, regardless of my opinion, I connect with ever so briefly as we zoom past each other. Getting to practice with myself in this way, everyday, is an important way to see myself more clearly and to let go of it with a kindly gesture. Some days I just go through the motions while others I am more kindly.

What I am realizing is that simple acts, like waving on rural roads brings me more fully into this very real and present moment. It shows me where I am dividing the world apart and where I am reconnecting it in its natural wholeness. Awareness and present-mindedness are cultivated and most importantly practiced. Over and over and over again, the never ending practice of being human.


by David LaFever