Closed eyes meditating, my butt sitting on a yoga mat, the one I bought at Whole Foods, the one that my hands slip on when I sweat, which is usually. Class hasn’t started yet, but I can sense them, surrounding me, their mats slapping the floor, stretching in their Lululemon pants, the women. I don’t have to open my eyes to know they are there, flexible, strong, relaxed, focused. A few minutes later the teacher welcomes us, thank you for being here, for being present to yourself. I open my eyes, take a quick look around, sometimes see another me, a guy with hairy legs, but not this time. Ladies, what would you like to work on today? Ellen asks, then makes eye contact with me. Daniel, something you’d like to work on? She says with a smile. I’ve been at it for more than a year; Vinyasa, Flow, Kundalini, Restorative, each class an inner and outer adventure, a 75 minute voyage, breathing into tendons, muscles, discovering hidden recesses of my body’s stress. I make no suggestions for Ellen, soon find myself on my back, legs far apart, like I’m giving birth to twins. Downward Dog, Warrior 2, Plank, Happy Baby, Pigeon, names that sound like video games, my contorted limbs pressing into earth and air. Eyes stay closed, but occasionally I peek, we look like kids playing a sophisticated version of Simon Says. Minutes pass, life loosening its hold, I forget where I am. Shavasana, corpse pose, Ellen’s tranquil voice offers us simulated death, an ending. I hear sighs, relief, rest fills the space. My mind wanders off to the future, wonders how it will be with me, those final breaths, then namaste.
It took me 22 years to stay at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center by the Pacific Ocean. I’d passed it a couple of times while hiking in Marin County long ago, but there was an invisible barrier bigger than the 10 foot fence keeping me (and the deer) out. Hour after hour of silence, meditation in the austere zendo, no distractions apart from the sound of bees moving among long strands of lavender.
I walk into the Welcome Center, You’re Daniel, we’ve been expecting you, a woman named Lucy says with a British accent. I’m one of very few guests staying at the zen farm. My room isn’t ready so I walk to the zendo, remove my sandals and step inside. I’ve been in the zendo before, but on a Sunday when the space was filled with people. The wooden room is now empty, smells vaguely of incense, zafus (meditation cushions) line the floor in rows, two Buddhas watch over the wide expanse from an altar near the front. I try sitting on a zafu, but after a few minutes my aching back says no. I find a chair and meditate for an hour, then walk out imaging the years of silence that the room has absorbed. The long departed women and men who once sat where I was, content, grief stricken, finding their breathing over and over again.
I arrive at my room, it is mostly glass windows, sliding doors, no key. No locks, that is how we roll around here. Lucy said. For a split second I remember that tomorrow is Friday the 13th, but quickly stuff thoughts of Jason back into my brain (I’ve never watched one of those movies). My quarters have a private bathroom. Most meditation retreats emphasize the communal, shared rooms and toilets. In theory I’m not against being communal, but I almost always pee in the middle of the night at 3am and would rather skip the walk to wherever that toilet might be. I opted to do a retreat with no set requirements, no alternating hours of sitting and walking meditation, no dharma talks every night, no emphasis on complete silence. I appreciate all those things, but I had to make the retreat work with my family. Green Gulch is close to San Francisco and is usually available anytime for guests, unlike other meditation retreats that book up weeks in advance.
After getting settled I amble over to a pond, its edges filled with green vegetation poking out of the water. I sit on a bench and meditate again, and appreciate my good fortune. The whole scene has rustic fragrant beauty with abundant earthen sounds, like a summer camp aviary for peace seekers; a complete contrast to the noise and cigarette littered streets of San Francisco.
Two periods of meditation complete, I walk past penstemon and buckeye flowers, then acre after acre of plants rising through soil, the farm’s edible rainbow; purples, greens, yellows, all in rows, an oasis of curated nature stretching out almost to the ocean. Women and men till the ground, water plant roots, their unlocked bikes rest on the ground nearby. The farm is a miniature utopia, a perfect society, a Buddhist hippie kibbutz. Everyone smiles at me as I pass, hummingbirds dart in and out of flowers, rabbits sniff the air, then disappear. I feel like my five-year old self singing I’ve got the whole world in my hands, with my post-Vietnam War teachers smiling peace at me.
6pm the dinner bell clangs slowly, then faster, letting everyone know it’s time to gather in the dining hall. The food is served buffet style, pinto bean stew with sauteed onions, garlic, tomatillo sauce, grilled corn, and steamed leafy chard. It goes without saying that everything is organic, of the earth only yards away. As mindful as I try to be, my wife is the first to say that I eat too quickly. I blame it on being a teacher, always cramming in my food before class, or maybe I’m just like most Americans steeped in a fast food world where eating rapidly is the norm. This is my chance to be different. There is a clock on the wall, I tell myself, you’re not leaving here for 40 minutes. The pinto stew mixed with brown rice is delicious, I make a point of laying my fork back on the plate after savoring each bite. I don’t take another forkful until my mouth is completely empty. 35 minutes later and the food is gone. I slowly get up, walk to the front and pour myself a cup of peppermint tea. I sit for another 10 minutes, completing a 45 minute silent dinner. We are short of volunteers in the kitchen, a young woman with red curly hair calls out after ringing a bell. I have nowhere else to be so I find myself in the dishroom with Santosh, a 70-year old woman originally from the Punjab region of India. She does the first scrubbing, I dip the dishes into a tub of soapy water, then into a drying rack. Santosh’s daughter invited her to Green Gulch as a birthday present. When we first meet we bow to each other, then work in silence for several minutes, occasionally bowing to other people as they leave their plates and utensils.
After dinner I hear coyotes crying out into the night, they live in the low mountain ridges that surround Green Gulch, a chorus of loud lonely barks and howls, high pitched and haunting. The evening brings more meditation, some writing, then reading a Buddhist text by Ajahn Chah. His words remind me that my body and life are not permanent. At 9pm a monk claps blocks together, telling everyone that it is time for slumber (the monks and zen students will be up at 4:30am the next day to meditate).
I arise the following morning at 5:45am, do an hour of meditation, then a few push-ups, and more reading. I won’t go into all the breakfast details except to say the blueberries are bursting with sweetness, bringing the oatmeal to life. I sit with a woman named Janet, also a teacher, married with two adult daughters. We are grinning ear to ear, both incredibly happy to be in this place. She is staying in the guest house. Is it full? I ask. No, only three other people. She tells me. We can hardly believe that Green Gulch is empty compared to all the other spots around San Francisco that are overflowing with tourists. Remove TV, booze, and meat, add a little silent Buddhism, and I guess that is all it takes for the zen center to remain mostly unknown to the public.
After breakfast I walk the 20 minutes to Muir Beach, meditate on a bench, listen to the waves crash, then watch a woman dive into the ocean with all her clothes on, laughing, supremely happy with her decision. I smile, she feels the way I feel, covered, drenched in elation, very thankful for another day of tranquility at Green Gulch.
People schedule SoulCycle, mani-pedis, evening cocktail encounters with friends. I schedule spiritual growth. Very American of me, I know, but I live in a world of kid carpools, grocery shopping, laundry, and taking the dog out to poop. My daily calendar is always filled to the brim with bills that need to be paid and emails that must be returned. If I don’t make time to listen to myself, everything else takes over.
For years I knew there was a spirit in me, a writer in me, a poet in me, never fully free, always bound by external obligations. I have figured out a formula for expressing my inner being. I begin each morning reading a spiritual text that helps guide me on my journey. I meditate at least 45 minutes a day, scheduled breathing, in, out, trying to be as present as possible. Most Wednesday nights I meditate for an hour with a small group of friends, we then read and discuss the writings of Thich Nhat Hahn for another hour. I spend daily minutes (often hours) writing, reflecting on who I am with words, my words, on a page or computer screen. Every two months I plan intensive meditation weekends (Friday-Sunday) where I meditate multiple hours a day either at home or away. Each day I also do some form of yoga.
What exactly is spiritual growth? For me spiritual growth invites my internal quiet to speak loudly with truth. When I grow spiritually I learn things like love is everywhere, more is learned by listening than talking, there is good in everyone, anger is always reactive. Wisdom I’ve heard before, known before, but I need reminding, over and over again. Am I sitting enlightened under the bodhi tree? No, but I’m keeping a channel open, my spirit touching a timeless stream.
plant seeds in fields
knees in wet dirt
rabbits watch and twitch
sun and fog above
lunch bell starts slowly
come and get it
what they have harvested
the ones who meditate
they smile with peace
bow to each other
cut bread, scoop soup
some sit in silence
voices of children sing
small feet on earth
present moments at play
grateful for this day
Japanese maple tree, its delicate leaves shade the pool where my son teaches himself to swim. Jumps from the edge with his sister, free in July air, the two tumble into clear water splashing. Adonis, my wife calls me jokingly, as I lie tanning in the sun, meditating, absorbing the warmth of summer. Afternoon breeze blows the camellia and purple princess flowers, while hawks and crows circle overhead patiently watching the earth below. A baby deer trots up nibbling grass, then jolts off. Hardly seems real, these moments away from the city, away from computers and planning. No past, no future, only dragonflies navigating the present wind.
The French Club in San Francisco, where wealthy men eat, drink, and smoke cigars. Perfect spot for a teetotaling, mostly vegan, meditator like me. Why do you go? You might ask. I probably shouldn’t, but I’ve never been one of those righteous, vegan, meditation people, the kind who constantly judge others. I have a close friend who’s a member of the club and usually go when he invites me, maybe three times a year.
I went last Friday for lunch. Daytime at the French Club is jacket, no tie, with no women allowed. The elevator opens on the 8th floor, a large black and white photo of Paris greets us, followed by image after image of tuxedoed men with contented smiles, leisurely cradling drinks. Over a hundred years old, the club is a throwback to a time when genders were separated. Tall men, big men, greet me, shake my hand firmly, ask about my family. Cocktails before lunch, white wine, rum, vodka tonic, whatever you want. I opt for a sparkling water. I always opt for some version of water. Tap water, still water, water with ice, bubbly water.
All the members bring expensive wine bottles to share at the meal. I sit down at the main table, ten empty glasses greet me, five for whites, five for reds, like crystal ships waiting to transport me away for the afternoon. The servers come around with the white wines. I’m not drinking today, I say, as they are about to pour, a half second of awkwardness, like telling someone I have four toes. The glasses fill up around the table, about 24 other men, and me the lone dry guy. Conversation starts out like trading baseball cards, my Pacific Heights home, your golf game, my Master’s from Dartmouth, your daughter about to get married in Lake Como. After the lobster risotto the wine has softened the men up, they circulate around the table, grab shoulders, laugh more freely. Then comes pheasant on a bed of potato puree and carrots, the red wines flow.
I’m surrounded by swirling pinots, burgundies, sipped, caressed, quaffed. The younger me would have looked for conversation, inserted talking into the scene, but I now know I have nothing to say. Instead, I find my breath and start meditating. Short inhales at first, my stomach a bit too full. But after about a minute, I’m back in me. I sit for quiet seconds there, my eyes open, focused on the sun’s light coming through the window.
Eventually the chocolate flourless cake arrives to end my meditation. I take slow bites, listen to the buzzed euphoria of the room. I wonder if they are all happy, really happy underneath the food and booze, but then I let them be, focus on my breath again.
Writing words made (makes) him whole. Cleared out the zombies with meditation, confronting the addiction (addictions) again and again. On a boat bobbing with empty gangster dreams, streams of thought, thinking about tortured bodies, here and there. Homeless writer has a home in pages, roaming with parents now dead, alive in photographs, in words, in questions posed unanswerable. The bullshit, the ticking, the suicide, the fire. Somewhere over the rainbow, his rainbow, bright colors out of darkness.
Social Pragmatic Communication Disorder, just saying it makes me feel as alone as my son. I’ve become an extension of his brain, a place to store all his esoteric knowledge about hummingbirds and basilisk lizards. I try to pretend the repetition is normal, the constant cataloging of information, but I find myself inundated, overflowing with facts I’d rather forget.
His world exists in paper animal masks that he meticulously designs and colors, then wears, embodying each creature. I time him running around our block, his peregrine falcon wings flapping off his seven-year old imagination. I vacillate between fully joining him, wearing the mask he made me, and living in fear that he will never change. That tension between what is and what I want, exists always.
Meditation has helped me navigate parenthood. The breath only knows one moment, this one, now. When I detach from my dreams of him playing basketball and having abundant friends, I get lost in the beauty of his being. His seconds in space are unencumbered by my expectations, he is free.
My son has become my teacher. I no longer dwell on his future, schools he will attend, careers he might explore, that is gone. Instead, I’m with him, all of him, in this very second.
Not until the screen in the hand becomes a screen in the head. Think inserted microchips storing relevant information, foreign languages, memories; as we go from unofficial to certified cyborgs. Apps to meditate, take pills, track the dog’s walk. We don’t know how to be free anymore. To just close our eyes, breathe in, breathe out. We need the screen to tell us when and how. Efficiency, the better way, more exact, controlled.
We sell it to each other, make ourselves dependent on it, use it to alleviate boredom, to entertain, to advertise. We text, rarely call, occasionally FaceTime, an image of person, flat on a device. But do we need it? Is it natural? Is it a tree? A sperm touching an egg? A summer rain shower? No. It is a bragger, a consumer of hours, a window into violence, a distraction from what truly is.
Where does technology end? Not until virtual reality is ours, all the time, as we become surrounded by curated unreality. It is our gold, our diamonds, our oil, extracting time and synapses, the new rich. I say no, watching the cursor blinking on the screen.
I love it when friends tell me they are going to do a little writing, maybe spend some time thinking poetically. It’s like they are going to drink a glass of chardonnay. I’m happy for them. I am. For me, writing is the equivalent of starting with an IPA, then quaffing a bourbon, then a whole bottle of cab; I get obsessed, addicted even. I’ve tried doing Natalie Goldberg-inspired timed writes, but I just turn off the timer when it rings and keep going. You might find this impressive, but my wife and kids think I’m annoying. Even when I do turn off the computer, I’m still thinking; about words, sentences, plotting when I can sneak back on and write a bit more. It really can be a problem, which is why I stopped writing for 6 months. During that time I meditated, read, spent more moments with my family. But recently I got published in a magazine, won a prize in a national poetry contest, and the writing bug is itching.
It is a little voice whispering, you have some talent, nurture it, hone it, own it. And I have to admit, I do like identifying as a writer/poet. It is mine, something I control, something I can do alone, like meditation, but very different. But how do I tame the beast? I’ve learned not to blog everyday, I did that for awhile, it drove me crazy and the quality of my work was precarious. One day I produced something halfway decent, the next day I’m writing a recollection about eating sugary cereal and watching Saturday morning cartoons as a kid. The discipline of writing that way was great, but the self-induced pressure to publish something all the time was ridiculous.
There is also the intense reading involved with writing. To all of my friends out there who want to write, I adhere to Bill Roorbach’s adage, reading is writing. Meaning, time spent reading definitely adds to one’s writing mojo. I don’t mean like People Magazine or even the San Francisco Chronicle. You say, I want to write poetry. So who are you reading? Or do you create poems from memories of Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein? Nothing wrong with that, but that’s not me. I have to take out volumes of Jane Kenyon, C.K. Williams, Li-Young Lee, Frost even, and actually read them, alot, before poems start to arrive. Yes, I can have poetic impulses, but full poems? That comes from me reading a ton.
So do I stop writing? The better question probably is, did I ever stop? If reading is writing, then one could argue that observing life is writing too. During those six months I didn’t stop reading, and I didn’t stop creating internal narratives to go along with people, observations, and experiences; they just weren’t going into a Google Doc.. What is the answer? The words don’t lie, fingers on the keys, ideas in the brain, I’m writing, can’t stop now.