Where else could I be?

sagebrush buttercups
Slow down and just breathe
take a breath, in and out
then take another breath
in and out.

Calming, connecting, timeless
and right, right now.

Slow down and just bow
bow deep and low
to the mountain, the river
to the person in front of you.

Gratifying, grateful, humble
and right, right now.

Slow down and just notice
wonder, joyful and freely
about the buttercup right at your feet
and the clouds way up in the sky.

Compassionate, kind, beautiful
and right, right now.

Slow down and just feel
the body sitting here, still
the mind moving and swaying
like a fluttering aspen leaf.

Feelings, perceptions, sensations
right here, right now.

Where else could I be?

By David LaFever

Shadows of Light and Dark

Moonlight caresses the river
only its surface, its skin
as moon-glow and coyote song
mingle, separate, mingle again
in a melody of light and dark.

I follow her down river
mesmerized by sparkling waters
confused by quick changes
here wide and bright
suddenly narrow and shadowy.

And I think that my life is like this
dazzling and muddy
delightful and damning
wondrous and wrathful
always changing, ever impermanent.

And I think, I want the good to stay, and the bad,
well, you can have the bad, the shadowy things.
And then I think, I love my shadow and
I was just playing with it last night, hide
and seek, as I stood outside looking up at the moon.

by David LaFever

Bearing Witness to Homelessness

Street Retreats were started in the 1990s by Bernie Glassman in New York City. As they have evolved three tenets have arisen that underlie the practice we’ll be engaging with:

  1. Not-knowing: letting go of fixed ideas about yourself, others and the universe.
  2. Bearing Witness: to the joy and suffering of the world.
  3. Taking Action: rooted in not-knowing and bearing witness.

The practice of Bearing Witness is central to how and what I will be engaging with in Seattle and I want to share the following words from Joshin Brian Byrnes who will be leading the retreat. He describes the practice of Bearing Witness in relation to a Street Retreat and homelessness:

“A central practice of socially engaged Zen Buddhism, Bearing Witness is a process of opening our hearts and minds to take in the joy and suffering of all beings.  In meditation we do this by allowing ourselves to let go of attachments to thoughts, opinions and ideas. Doing this, we begin to drop the differentiation between self and other. In bearing witness we see our connection with the world outside of our own minds and bear witness to the wholeness of life.

On street retreat we will sit with the reality of homelessness. We will bear witness to all of the personal, biological, social, political, and economic complexities surrounding the issue. We do this by plunging into the environment of the streets as part of our practice of seeing the whole interconnected nature of life. We are not spiritual tourists; rather we are practicing with intimacy and all that keeps us from it.

The street retreat will include eating meals at the soup kitchens, sleeping on sidewalks, begging for money, and of course, relationship building with people who are experiencing homelessness.  We will come into contact with people with homes, people without homes, people seeking support, and the volunteers and staff that provide it. We will witness bystanders and others who, wittingly and unwittingly, remain a part of a system that deprives people of basic necessities and nurturance. Needless to say, we see ourselves as part of this mandala.

In bearing witness we plunge into a setting that may be overwhelming or confusing to us, and in doing so we may find that we have no choice but to drop our conditioned and habitual thought patterns. We may also confront our anger, our numbness, our sense of injustice and our tendency to divide so-called bad guys from the good-guys, us versus them; we may find ourselves wanting to turn away, or we may also become aware of our own discomfort with directness, being associated with others, or feelings of impotence in the face of such huge forces.

We are endeavoring to cultivate a not-knowing-mind, one that is open and receptive and not limited by our ideologies, agendas, and assumptions. In this way we become intimate with every aspect of the situation. We welcome everything and push nothing away. We may ask, how do I take it all in and see the world for what it is, in its systemic complexity? We allow the situation itself to inform our actions.

In bearing witness you may notice that a range of feelings, emotions and thoughts arise – identification with some group, reactivity and discomfort, rage, indifference, and sadness. Whatever arises, we notice it and attempt to not identify with it, letting it arise and fade away so that we can have some unobstructed view of the entire situation. This can be very challenging, and the challenge itself provides a valuable instruction.  We don’t stay in empathy; rather we allow empathy to prime or fuel compassion – the ability to show up for any being with an open heart and a strong back.

Bearing Witness is not passive, nor is it quietist. We bring to it the vivid awareness that we bring to zazen (zen meditation) and actively engage in each moment, moment by moment. It is a way of developing personal and systemic insight and moral sensitivity. In Bearing Witness we attune to the cognitive and affective features of another individual or system in a way that connects with our own deepest character and in alignment with our values. Therefore, we may in time become aware of the right action to take as an engaged practitioner who experiences intimacy with the situation rather than an outsider’s analysis of it. We are working from the inside out.

But, as we like to say, there are many dharma doors that any one of us can walk through. The ways of engaging in loving action are endless, and we seek ways that align with our values and with the needs of others. Loving action is that natural, uncalculated place where one’s open heart and strong back meets the world’s great need. Trust in the bearing witness practice to lead to action is an act of faith.

The way each of us bears witness and takes loving action will be unique to each person. We have to do it from a place of freedom and insight and context. The way you feel into the moment will be unique to you; what you see will be shaped by your own experience and the chemistry of the specific encounter you are having; and what you choose to do with it will also be born of the insight that is unique to you, and the resourcefulness that you find within yourself. It won’t follow a prescribed code, but rather it comes from a place of very deep integrity as well as intimacy with the situation. In the days, weeks, months and years ahead you may find that compassionate action emerges as a result of your bearing witness practice. For now, while we are on the streets, we encourage you simply to cultivate a mind that un-knows what you know, endeavor to see as many aspects of the situation as you can, and set the intention to, as Bernie says, “groc” the situation – become it.

Some people on street retreat can feel uncomfortable witnessing such suffering – we have to differentiate between the practice of bearing witness and our tendency toward voyeurism. Bearing witness empowers those we are bearing witness to. It allows them to explore and expand, to go deeper and become bigger. The questions that arise in bearing witness are not about gaining an answer for yourself or to satisfy a personal or intellectual curiosity; rather you bear witness to help yourself and the others open up to the truth as it presents itself in this particular moment, with all of its unique context. We are dropping the self to become present to all things, to become open and vulnerable and porous. In becoming porous we become the thing itself while preserving our own being.  

Throughout the week we will engage in Council practice, Gate of Sweet Nectar liturgy, and renewal of the precepts as a way to frame our practice in the context of the Zen Peacemaker Order and Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community. We will wander aimlessly, sleep with our shoes under our heads or our feet, and we will beg for our livelihood.

In the end, bearing witness practice allows us to open our awareness to the joy and suffering of the universe, and to realize and actualize the oneness, diversity, and interdependence of all aspects of life for personal and social transformation. We do this with the intention of liberating all beings.”

Continue by Continuing

My wish for you is that you continue.
Continue to be who and how you are,
to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness.
Continue to allow humor to lighten the burden of your tender heart.
In doing so, we heal and become stronger.
We can interact with one another without hesitation
and our communities will be nurtured. 
We've all been reminded of how tentative we all are; how short our time is.
May the footprints we leave in this world for our youth and those not yet born lead to healing, wholeness, and fulfillment. 

~ Maya Angelou "Continue"

As I read these beautiful and poignant words by a great Black writer, I am reminded of how simple it really is. Just continue to continue what has been started and what is yet to be. Pay attention, be humble and full of gratitude. We did not start all this and we will not finish it. We are just continuing and carrying on but we do have the choice of what to continue, what to carry on. Do we keep carrying pain and the wounds of the past? Do we continue to bring forth hatred, bigotry and small-mindedness? Or do we let go of these ghosts of the past and continue that love, kindness and beauty that also is a part of our common humanity? The choice is ours but we cannot make it if we aren’t paying attention, if we don’t know ourselves, if we are distracted all the time.

A friend wrote to me today and said “It seems odd and too bad that if we are condemned to think all the time that we can’t at least think about miracles rather than problems.” What we think all-too-easily becomes the world that we (think) we live in. Can you focus on the miracles? Can you let the world delight you? Do you see beauty and connection everywhere?

If not these things then I know that I can continue to remind myself that there is more to my life than I think or that I am even capable of thinking. And if that doesn’t work, I can simply focus on breathing, which makes me wonder, “what is breathing and where does the oxygen come from?”

Out of tiny holes, which we call stomata, comes
all the oxygen we could need.  Breathing in
breathing out.
Amazed at the ease
of plants appearing from, where?
out of thin air
the atmosphere
they grow
connecting earth, water and
Fiery oxygen
fuel, food and heat.

by David LaFever

Takin’ it to the Streets

In June of this year I will join a small group of Zen practitioners to experience homelessness as first-hand as we can think of during a four-day retreat on the streets of Seattle. I will only be able to take $1.00, a blanket, a poncho and the clothes I am wearing. I will have to beg for money, find places to shelter, get food, and figure out how to use the bathroom without getting arrested.

Now at this point you may be thinking, “you are nuts, why would you want to do something like this!” Yes, I am a little “different” as I like to think of it, but as to why I am doing something like this, well, that is a complicated answer. I bet I will understand it more clearly as it unfolds over the next several months and after the retreat itself.

I don’t really know why, but I know that I have wanted to do this for a number of years now. There is some part of me that wants to experience things that are, well, beyond me or at least beyond the usual, everyday me. To stretch myself in order to understand myself better I guess you could say. To see myself reflected in others, especially in others that I may have thought were quite different, and to recognize common humanity.

Also there is a part of me that wants to understand lives much different than my own, which I have learned over the years makes me much more open and compassionate. Living in this way for a few days, I suspect, will have the affect of forever changing the way I see, react to and relate with a homeless person. The the root of the word understanding is “standing with” or “standing among”, not standing beneath as many believe. Standing, sleeping, walking, eating, and begging with will likely engender great compassion and understanding thus changing the nature of my relationship with homelessness, and probably to myself as well.

To begin practice begging, which I will need to do on the street, I am asking for money. Whatever money I raise will be given to the organizations and charities that support the homeless in Seattle. At the end of the retreat, as a group we will decide where that money goes. I ain’t keeping any of it. My goal is to raise at least $500, so you got any spare change? Can I bum a ten-spot or a twenty off of ya?
With each donation I will put a wooden bead on a string thus making a mala (prayer beads). I will take this with me on the Street Retreat so that you will literally be with me and I will feel your love and support, which I will surely need. My hope is to take as many of you with me as possible so just give a little and come along for the adventure!

Let me know if this is something that you are interested in supporting and I will let you know how you can do that. Please check back for updates, both before and after, to see what I am thinking and what I experienced on this street retreat.

by David LaFever

Stepping Outside Myself

That moment when the door
opens, over the threshold
I go
stepping outside
into the cool mountain air
instantly refreshed
face meeting face
lung breathing into lung
oh sweet, beautiful rarefied air!

And the sound
of quiet 
not silence
relaxing my mind
and every muscle
in my face.
I smile.

Sounds so true
as to hold silence within
and aliveness too
voices within voice
river-bird and wind-horse

Voices come 
all around
sparrow and sparrow-
kiik kiik kikkikki!
flicker and eagle
boink boink 
of raven.

An aliveness that
moments ago
while inside
I could not detect
did not notice
did not know existed.

But now
oh sweet NOW!
Now I know
I am flush 
with knowing
standing with
leaning into
listening intently
to this.

What is it about this moment?
Yes, yes I mean this moment
this exact moment
when I step across
feeling the ineffable
lightness of 
being outside.

Cold winter air
river cry 
eagle call
deep stillness
poised on the brink
of wonder and mirth.

into the brilliance of another day.

by David LaFever

Hai, hai, hai – kooo!

Since the first of the year, for some reason, I have been writing poetry, especially haiku, every single day. I wonder if it is just part of my seasonality with subtle cues and responses of my internal landscape to the external rhythms of energy. For whatever reason I have been really enjoying writing again and have been practicing writing haiku both within prose and as a stand-alone journal entry. I hope that you enjoy the haiku below and that they give you some sense as to my life – both the inner and outer geographies and where they meet.

Six from Portland

Inside and outside
Neither true nor false
A warm cup in my hands
Pacific lamprey
450 million years and counting
no bones about it
Rain slanting sideways
Misty masses of movement
Blows me inside
A restless spirit
Moves in all things unsatisfied
Or is it the coffee?
Cold, gray Portland streets
Harder than the hardest rock
Cardboard for a bed
What is it I feel?
The power of Multnomah
Misty eyeglasses

From Home (the Methow Valley)

Cold sparkling night sky
A full moon illumines all
Shadows pass quietly
Snowed lightly all day
Where does it all come from?
Kids tracks everywhere
Sledding party fun
Joy echoing through the woods
Snowflakes lightly falling
A bitter cold wind
Blows from the north, then the south
The snow squeaks underfoot
That which I call pain
Takes all my concentration
And then dissipates
Snow started mid-morn
Cold air crystals floating down
like cottonwood seeds
Earlier today
A rodent met its demise
Where talon met snow
Sweat lodge on the rez
Coyote tracks in the snow
Where to go from here?
Stepping outside, night
Looking skyward from earth, stars
Standing on my head
Quiet evening at home
Lights are low, kids are asleep
A great horned owl hoots
Wet snow falling down
Up and down we go, up
and down the slopes once more
A kind of fun, a
distracted fun. They said,
"You're a good skier."
Around the fields, I
skied. Goat Creek, Coyote and
back to Mazama
Gray and cloudy days
Slushy streets and dripping roofs
Where has the cold gone?
My girl all curled up
on my chest, weighing me down
Lifting me up too!

Delight Me

If you are anything like me, you have a daily, if not constant struggle with expectation. Expectations are a total set up. As adults we seem to be incapable of functioning without expectations and at the same time incapable of regularly fulfilling them. On the positive side, when I ask you to meet me for coffee at 10:00am, I expect you to be there and lo and behold there you are. Right on time. Thank you very much.

But hidden within expectations is another seed that must sprout, that comes with the package. Herein lies the set up: my expectations are regularly unsatisfied and if I am truly honest, unsatisfiable. Why is that? I think it is because they are inherently wrong. When it comes right down to it, how can I expect the world to behave exactly as I think it should. That is absurd and incredibly self-centered and yet, that is precisely how I go about my day. And I bet you might do this too. So expectations have an inborn self-destruct button and there is another pesky problem with them.

Again, if you are anything like me, you are constantly changing your expectations. I raise them, I lower them, I drop them (almost) altogether, and I add a new one with such regularity as to be as autonomic as breathing. We expect things to go well, we expect them to go poorly. We expect things to be smooth, we expect them to be rough. On and on.

As the saying goes, “we can’t live with ’em and we can’t live without ’em,” so what do we do with them?

I suggest that we each try returning to something that we once knew but seemed to have forgotten. As Courtney Martin learned from her daughter, approach the world with “only one giant, indiscriminate expectation: delight me.”

It isn’t about getting something or being greedy and grabby. Rather it is about opening up to what’s actually happening, not what we want or expect to be happening. It is about being open to the possibility of delight and being delighted by what’s right here with you.

As a practice I encourage you to keep this phrase in mind, again in an open-hearted way. Think of it as a reminder of what’s possible rather than a goal to achieve. When walking from your house to the car or your car to work, simply keep saying “delight me.” When out hiking or sitting in a quiet place, keep saying “delight me.” Like a mantra see how it affects how you feel, see, perceive and relate to the world. As a form of focus or mindfulness or meditation, simply keep this in your mind and see what happens. I bet you will be delighted by the results!

Remembering to Remember

Snow douglasia (Douglasia nivalis)

Annual rituals are a wonderful thing. Whether we consciously plan them or not, we all have them. For some it is an annual family trip or a reunion like my family has every July in upstate New York. For others it is a writing or meditation retreat, a sporting event or a car race like it is for my father. Whatever form it takes, we all have them and they give shape to our lives and shape the way we think and behave. How many look forward to that summer trip to the cabin by the lake? We count the days and make sure we have enough vacation time to be able to take it off. We say no to other opportunities in order to make this one thing happen, and we anticipate it. There is something comforting about returning to the same place or activity year after year. It allows us to see how we have changed, if nothing else.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, an Indigenous scientist that teaches at the School for Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, wrote in her delightful book “Braiding Sweetgrass” that “ceremony focuses attention so that attention becomes intention.” Ceremony, ritual, and pilgrimage all have this flavor to them. This is a powerful reminder that the rituals and ceremonies that we engage with have a power to shape our we see and engage with the world.

Having moved to a new place a couple of years ago, I began focusing attention on annual rituals, ceremonies, and pilgrimages. It is the latter that I want to share today. For me a pilgrimage comes into being at the intersection of intention and travel, and may or may not involve ceremony. If it is repeated then it is very much a ritual also. Here in the Methow Valley there are several annual or seasonal ceremonies that we have plugged into and some that we have created ourselves – Summer and Winter Solstices, Autumn and Vernal Equinoxes, Ancestors’ Feast, Coyote Camp, and Native American First Foods ceremonies, to name just a few.

Upper Eagle Lake.

For decades now a friend has been trekking into the mountains to visit a diminutive alpine plant, called the alpine forget-me-not. There is only one place in Washington where it is found and we are lucky to have that place in our backyard, albeit high atop a rocky mountain massif. Last year, I joined this annual botanical pilgrimage and had such a good time that I wanted to do it again this year.

And so we did. He used to visit the plant around July 4th but this year we went in on June 17. Something is changing and the plants are well aware of it. Three of us, two botanists/farmers and myself, spent one night out in the mountains and countless hours exalting at the beauty of the world around us, especially the plants. It was delightful for me to be around such knowledgeable and joyful plant folks.

Alpine forget-me-not (Myosotis alpestris)

These alpine plants are hardy folks. They live in a rocky, thin world, where snow lingers long, winds blow fierce, and the growing season is all-too short. In a sense, the pilgrimage is about paying attention to the changes in the world around us, but it is also about honoring the tenacity of life in the high mountains, and to check our own fortitude against theirs.

Annual rituals, ceremonies and pilgrimages are also about “remembering to remember” as Robin Wall Kimmerer said. The forget-me-not pilgrimage then is a perfect way to do this. There is something different about remembering rather than “not forgetting” and I am not quite sure what it is. Perhaps it is that remembering feels more active. And remembering to remember brings attention, intention, and ceremony into being in a way that simply not forgetting does not.

We remember to observe the changes in the world around us and by doing so to notice the changes in ourselves. And we remember that there is a whole world “out there” beyond our own little world and that it is beautiful, vibrant and resilient beyond our imagination. We remember this tiny alpine plant and the beauty it shares with the world and are grateful to be here.

Star Peak.

by David LaFever

Right Out Back

Setting forth, out the back gate.

The girls and I slung our heavy packs onto our backs and headed out the back gate. How can it be that I live someplace where I can literally head out my back door and hike and hunt and backpack? My what privilege I have stuffed into the pack along with my tent and sleeping pad. No wonder it feels particularly heavy.

There is an ease and a freedom in heading out back to an unknown destination. No trail, no destination, no problem. We know that we would be called to the right place and that our feet would not lead us astray. I love not having to drive to a trailhead. Hell there ain’t even a trail here. We follow our own path out back and that is a beautiful thing.

We started out by hiking across an old alfalfa field, which had been part of a large ranch, when such things were the norm around here. Weedy, scratchy and annoying could be an appropriate description of it, but soon we reached what we call the “shrub-steppe,” that is the beginning of mostly native plants and natural habitat. At this point, the land rises at a 30 degree angle up to a flat, glacial terrace. Our little side valley of the Methow Valley, is called Booth Canyon and gets more “canyony” farther up. Booth canyon is hemmed in by two nearly identical terraces created by huge continental glaciers that were several miles thick in this area. We paused at our the up on top of the terrace, where we often gather during Friday homeschool days and just sit and pay attention to the world around us. We call this our “Sit Spot.”

Gazing down the Methow valley from our Sit Spot.

After a short snack break, we continued up canyon, winding our way through sagebrush and bitterbrush. Not much was flowering except for some lovely little daisies and buckwheat. This is rattlesnake country so we paid attention, listening and looking as we stepped.

A bit farther on, we encountered an old two-track road that led back down to the valley bottom. It got weedier again as we neared the old ranch houses and areas where cattle grazed most heavily. Our dog was alert to something, which turned out to be a dead western racer, a bit stinky and already covered with flies. We named this road “Dead Racer Road.”

A bit farther on we neared the creek and found the campsite that we were looking for. An open grassy glade right down to the creek with nearby apple trees that provided a perfectly cozy spot, which my daughters immediately loved. We shared flowers from the shrub-steppe with this spot as a way to thank it for welcoming us in and then quickly set to trimming back dead apple branches so that we could set up the tent underneath their boughs. Before I even had the tent out of my backpack, the girls were climbing the tree and the dog was exploring the creek, lapping up its cold water happily.

Creek Camp

A small campfire, tended by the girls crackled away as I cooked a simple dinner. The fire provided the right amount of heat to make ‘smores and, more importantly, gave the girls a chance to learn about fires and how to take care of them. We cut marshmallow sticks from an apple tree, which the girls mostly did themselves. It brought up childhood memories of doing this very same thing with my dad on one of our many camping trips. Before bedtime we made sure we put out the fire completely. They learned to check for hot spots by holding their hands over the coals.

This past winter, Maddie and I camped beneath a ponderosa pine in the snow. We called it the Sheltering Tree and that campsite, “Winter Camp.” This new spot, right on the creek, was given the name “Creek Camp.” Naming things is powerful and should not be done lightly. I feel the connecting power of getting to know places so well that we have our own intimate names for them. Our Sit Spots, the Sheltering Tree, Winter Camp, Eagle Rocks, Dead Racer Road, and now Creek Camp. These are our names for the places that have meaning to us. Come on out and visit and we’d be happy to take you to these places. They’re just right out back!

By David LaFever