What if you thought of it as the Jews consider the Sabbath— the most sacred of times? Cease from travel. Cease from buying and selling. Give up, just for now, on trying to make the world different than it is. Sing. Pray. Touch only those to whom you commit your life. Center down. And when your body has become still, reach out with your heart. Know that we are connected in ways that are terrifying and beautiful. (You could hardly deny it now.) Know that our lives are in one another’s hands. (Surely, that has come clear.) Do not reach out your hands. Reach out your heart. Reach out your words. Reach out all the tendrils of compassion that move, invisibly, where we cannot touch. Promise this world your love-- for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, so long as we all shall live. --Lynn Ungar 3/11/20
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
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:
- Not-knowing: letting go of fixed ideas about yourself, others and the universe.
- Bearing Witness: to the joy and suffering of the world.
- 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.”
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? no-where out of thin air the atmosphere they grow connecting earth, water and air. Fiery oxygen fuel, food and heat.
by David LaFever
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
That moment when the door opens, over the threshold I go stepping outside into the cool mountain air instantly refreshed enlivened face meeting face lung breathing into lung oh sweet, beautiful rarefied air! And the sound of quiet not silence deep stillness flowing 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- hawk 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. Simply stepping outside myself into the brilliance of another day.
by David LaFever
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!
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!
Doing things right means living as though your grandchildren would also be alive, in this land, carrying on the work we’re doing right now, with deepening delight.Gary Snyder (from the essay “Reinhabitation”)
Walking out the side gat, into the south hayfield to move irrigation around this morning, I passed by a gravestone. In simple letters it said, “white-crowned sparrow,” which were accompanied by a child’s drawing of a bird. Found the songbird a few months back, dead and lying in the grass. We got to it before the ants did and buried it. Two days ago we buried five baby bunnies and a young rattlesnake, in two separate graves, now marked with rocks upon which flowers have been placed.
The practice and act of living-in-place may not begin with death but it certain deepens there. You know that you have settled in a bit when during your daily chores you pass by gravestones on your land. Been here long enough and care deep enough to have burial spots.
These become places to pause and reflect on the life-and-death nature of this thing we call existence. Places to stop and bow or say a prayer or whatever feels like an appropriate acknowledgement. And these are places to remember loved ones and to “remember to remember” that lives come and go, come and go, that living isn’t separate from dying. They are also places where we all, daughter and parent alike, learn to say hello and perhaps most importantly, good bye.
I just killed a rattlesnake. It is the first time I have ever done that and likely the first time that I have killed any snake period, except for the few that I have inadvertently run over with a car. That didn’t feel good, and it doesn’t feel good today.
I found it in one of our rabbit’s cages. The doe, who we call Misty, was up on top of her nest box and nine kits (baby bunnies) were inside. The rattlesnake’s head was inches away from them. I had hoped in the moment, as my heart raced and I got a snake noose (length of pvc pipe with rope going through the middle and tied in a loop) from the shed that I had gotten there early enough to avert major heartache.
We just buried five bunnies, eyes not yet open but furred and getting cuter by the day. My older daughter cried, hard, and so did I, softly. Even though we were raising these rabbits for meat, this still hurt. Still does hurt. I am surprised by my feelings. Very sad and also pissed off. I am also thinking of how many times my kids hang out in the rabbit area and I am so thankful that it was bunnies that got bit. Emotions swirl and an ache sits deep in my chest. A gravestone and flowers mark the place where our bunnies lie and where our tears fell, moistening the dirt.
We buried the snake too. Near a tree so that its body and energy can nurture new growth. I regret killing the snake. I easily could have just put it in a bucket and taken it someplace far enough away to ensure it would not return. That would have felt better. The girls put flowers on top of the burial spot. That felt good.
I am surprised that the snake killed so many kits when it really could only eat one or two I would think. It was not a big rattlesnake – four rattle segments only – and how could it have thought to eat so many? It seems so wasteful, so gluttonous.
Then again, I think of how much I take from the earth, and how wasteful I am. Five little bunnies doesn’t seem so bad when compared with all the death and destruction that our people have wrought on this sweet, dear earth – to the earth itself, to other people and cultures, and to all the other beings that live here with us. Gluttony seems to be our way of life.
So why does this piss me off so much? Why am I so sad right now? Can’t I share this planet with others even if they seem so different from me? Don’t I have room in my heart for all beings even if it feels full to the bursting with sorrow? Why am I so rattled?
I don’t have any answers to these questions right now, and maybe I never will. I think I just need to ask them.
by David LaFever