I mentioned pranayama the other day, and I’m grateful for it again today. Another wonderful class this afternoon on focused, intentional breathing to raise chi in the body. I definitely feel more energetic after doing this practice. I’ve been forgetful about adding it into my daily mindfulness routine, but hope to do better this coming week. I’m grateful that my dear yoga teacher came for a visit after class, and we sat outside and talked about pranayama, meditation, the January 6 hearings, and many other things. I told her about The Good Liars and their subtle/not subtle satire at the NRA convention a couple weeks ago. I’m grateful for intelligent comedians, and their refreshing perspectives, a breath of fresh air if you will, in congested times.
Yesterday was interesting. I was too tired to write about it last night, and probably won’t do it justice tonight, but want to express my gratitude to the imaging technicians at Delta Hospital. Everyone was so kind, from the receptionists on. There were some little glitches, at intake and with the MRIs, that would once have really frustrated me, but my growing capacity for accepting things as they are instead of thinking that they should be different served me well.
I may have never met a more tender, compassionate, and sweet tech than Toni, the woman who did the bone density scan. We were practically in tears of loving-kindness by the time she led me back to the waiting room. The MRI tech was very business-like, though also considerate and kind. I remembered Deb’s encouragement to ask for what I needed, so asked for extra pillows to support my knees to reduce sciatic strain; and when the classical music station wouldn’t play, I squeezed the ‘stop’ bulb. Remarkably, the only stations that would play were country, and something called ‘soft rock,’ which was horrible. I experienced extreme aversion during the first MRI as the DJ blithered on and on, and when there was ‘music’ its beat clashed with the machine noises inside my head until, despite a concerted effort to remain focused on my breath, I was completely rattled. I squeezed the ‘stop’ bulb again when anxiety rose to unbearable-verging-on-panic, and fortunately that was the end of the first session. I continued in blessed internal silence for the next three tests. It was a lengthy exercise in conscious relaxation, first my face, then abdomen, then shoulders, back to abdomen, back to face–as one area relaxed another tensed up, and I cycled through one after the other, consistently returning attention to the breath. Nothing like a long MRI to strengthen meditation practice.
During the whole second scan, there was a little lump in the pillow, which bored into my head. I breathed through that, but it got worse and worse. It was fascinating to watch my mind deal with all these sensational challenges. She wanted me to keep my head perfectly still when she pulled me out to inject the contrast dye, but I had to insist that she smooth the pillow. It wasn’t really a pillow, just a folded cloth. She was exasperated, and in a hurry. I said calmly, as she prepared my arm to stick a needle into it, “I need to not feel anxious, and I need to feel that you’re not in a hurry.” She softened instantly, apologized, and explained that there were two emergencies waiting and there was only this one machine, and one of her. This put things in a different perspective for me, and we both calmed way down. She thought to put a little lavender patch on my chest, which actually helped a lot. This experience, which was stressful and could have been really horrible, was transformed by my ability to accept things as they were each step of the way, do what I could to change them, and then accept again. And again, there was much tenderness and well-wishing between us as she walked me out.
I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I left the hospital, for the emotional skill with which I’d navigated the morning, and decided to treat myself to a deli sandwich. But there’s no deli near the hospital, so I stopped at Sonic to see what I could find. At the drive-up menu, I realized I couldn’t bring myself to order factory-farmed chicken or beef, so I left; but circled back and ordered three fried sides. I was glowing with acceptance when the little girl brought my limeade and a small bag, and was only mildly disappointed to find inside the bag just one little wrapped burger. I accepted the error with good cheer, and she said she’d be right back with my order. Way too long later, two more “Welcome to Sonic, may I take your order” queries, and finally my bag of sides, I almost lost it when I opened the bag to find they were small instead of medium, and there was no mayo. Acceptance out the window! Attachment in high gear: I wanted what I wanted and I wanted it NOW! But still, I managed not to be too grumpy. When the manager brought a double handful of condiments and apologized, she said “It’s just the two of us, people didn’t show up…” My perspective adjusted itself instantaneously, all frustration melted, and I assured her it was no problem. We smiled and laughed and wished each other happy holidays.
The food was a big disappointment. But I accepted that easily. Fast food is what it is. I drove home filled with compassion for the people who worked at the hospital, the patients who needed emergency MRIs, the harried staff at Sonic, and deeply grateful for the skill of acceptance.
I found myself ruminating about an upcoming stressful event, and getting more and more physically uncomfortable, feeling flushed and short of breath, anxious, shaky, even angry–all from my thoughts alone. I am grateful I’ve been practicing meditation for years, and recognized a good opportunity to use this skill to calm myself. I lay down and played a 24-minute recorded meditation by B. Alan Wallace called “A Tour of Shamatha Practices,” which focuses the mind on the breath. In no time, my breath calmed, my mind calmed, and I let go of unskillful thoughts and projections. I certainly don’t know what the future will bring: why waste precious time fretting over it? It could as easily go well as poorly, and the attitude I bring to it will largely determine how stressful, unpleasant, or comfortable it will be for me. I’m grateful meditation restored mental balance tonight, and grateful I had the presence of mind to turn to it instead of letting monkey mind ruin my evening.
At the risk of seeming maudlin I am remembering, reviewing, calling to mind the details of Stellar’s last days. How time lost its linearity.
I shared my life with him. There is no one now to turn to and smile. I would finish writing a bit at the desk, and turn to him, and smile. Wanna go for a walk? I’d stoke the fire, close the glass stove doors, turn back to the living room and there he is watching me from his bed, and I smile. Sometimes I’d move on to my next step in the day, or the evening, or sometimes I’d drop to all fours, crawl to lie down beside him, stroke his luxurious living coat, and notice, really notice, the feel of his scruff, rolling the folds of his neck flesh in my fingers, his thick silky fur… the pliability of his white chest star… the specific warmth of the breath from his nostrils across my skin, the hairs on my own forearm… I savored every living moment with him. I’m grateful for how much I learned during this extended interaction, this meditation with death.
I may have made mistakes, made some choices based on less than accurate understandings of reality, but I believe I did the best that I could: stretching, giving, surrendering, loving with less and less condition… What I did next always involved him, whatever choice I made, to go in or outside, a short or long walk, watch TV or read, what I ate sometimes, where I was at every waking instant always involved him. I’m grateful to be able to recall vividly now, because I paid attention at the time, how he slowly settled when I stroked his shoulder, his back, how he relaxed onto his side and lay down his sweet head; how I held those acupressure pulses in his feet til he stretched his back legs with a big sigh. Later, that last month, how it soothed him when I whispered the mantra. And my attention was riveted on him even in my sleep, waking and analyzing the slightest sound from downstairs. Living in dedication to him brought out the best in me. He made it easy to embody my highest values. He was an inspiration, a Buddha dog.
May Stellar enjoy positive conditions,
High rebirth, happiness and peace,
May he meet the perfect teacher,
And quickly attain perfect enlightenment
For the benefit of all living beings without exception.
I’m grateful today for our countywide healthcare provider group, Delta Health. Today I visited both the hospital and the West Elk Clinic to get some tests run prior to an intake with a new primary care provider. It was a challenging trip for me. It was only the third time in the past year I’ve driven that far: I know realistically that the chances of a car crash are greater than the chance I’ll get Covid now that I’m vaccinated, but I managed to keep that anxiety at bay for the forty-five minute drive down there. At the hospital, I girded my loins, double-masked my face, and strolled bravely into the lobby.
Things have changed since the last time I was there. A new intake desk with a touchscreen checkin, wiped with disinfectant before and after each use, and a greeter taking temperatures with a wand to the neck. Everyone waiting in the main lobby both for admissions, and for wherever they were going next. I had grabbed a New Yorker from the mail pile in the car, and when I sat down to wait I opened it to a page of LL Bean’s menswear. Oh no! I had grabbed an LL Bean catalog, not The New Yorker! I flipped through the catalog, then opened Kindle on my phone and picked up where I left off months ago in The Compassionate Mind.
It was half an hour before I got into an admission office, and during that time I was dismayed to see several employees walking around half-masked; other people pulling their masks down to speak, and so many gapped masks. But I practiced patience, and felt safer being vaccinated, and reasoned that these people probably get screened daily and act cavalier because they know they’re Covid clean.
In the office, I was mesmerized as usual by the clerk’s fingernails. They were even longer this time. I’m always grateful when I get this lady, because her nail art distracts me. She seemed subdued, distracted, not her usual chirky self. She said, “Things are gonna get much worse.” The pandemic obviously getting to her. I really felt for her, and this helped me keep equanimity. I was stressed being there, but hey, I’m grateful I get to work from home. I felt for all of them. She sent me back to the lobby to wait for Radiology to come collect me. I wished her well. I felt that my being calm, pleasant, and expressing gratitude for her work gave her a lighter moment in her day.
I changed seats a few times in the lobby, as people with droopy masks passed too close for comfort. Myself wore a ‘non-medical grade N95’ (whatever that means) that my cousin gave me, with a cloth mask over it. Time plodded on: I looked up every time someone came through the double doors from the main corridor. I started getting short of breath, and couldn’t bring myself to take a deep, full inhalation. It wasn’t the mask, it was the anxiety. Finally I walked back to the intake desk and said, “I’ve been waiting for Radiology for a long time, and I’m starting to feel anxious…” I was met with such a compassionate response I immediately felt better. One and then another attendant checked in the main office, and the second one explained that there had been some emergencies and they should be with me soon, and would I prefer to wait in the chapel by myself. That sounded good. As she was escorting me back there, the X-ray tech passed us and called out my name.
After waiting an hour, the X-rays took about ten minutes. I found myself holding my breath as the tech stood close and positioned me, thinking, If I can smell his breath (which wasn’t bad, just warm and moist and slightly scented) then he’s too close! I think I would have thought that anyway, even pre-Covid. The whole episode was a trial. I know that makes me sound like a weenie, but we all have different anxiety and risk thresholds. It’s been so long since I’ve been that close to that many people I felt a bit like an alien. Anyway, he escorted me back out to the corridor, and we parted with sincere well-wishes. This is a silver lining of Covid I’m grateful for: People really mean it when they wish you a good day, or to stay safe, or to take care.
Then I got to the clinic, and there was no order for the bloodwork. But the kind young lab tech spoke to the upcoming new doctor and got an order then and there, stuck the needle without sensation, got what she needed, and I was on my way home. I’m grateful for all the kindness that was shown to me during this adventure, and for the kindness I felt in my own heart, instead of the frustration, resentment, and irritation I might have felt had I still been an earlier version of me. I’m grateful that the fruits of daily mindfulness and meditation practice led me more or less serenely through the day, and allowed me to relax quickly after returning home, tossing all my clothes into the wash, and decontaminating in a hot shower. I’m grateful that my little blue car got me there and back safely, that Stellar was happy to see me when I got home, that hot water came out of the tap, that I had clean comfortable clothes to put on, and bread to make a grilled cheese-beans-and-bacon sandwich, and the rest of the day to enjoy this precious interconnected life.
I’m grateful today for this community of online/telephone meditators called Telesangha, and for our teacher Cynthia Wilcox. Cynthia has been leading this half-hour morning meditation virtually every weekday since September 6, 2016. We are in our fifth year doing this together. Just a couple of the meditators have been there since the beginning, and more have been there almost as long, and some are fairly recent in the past year. Altogether there are about 18 of us, coast to coast and two in London. It varies day to day how many of us are on the call; there were times in the first year or two when there might be only three or four of us.
You can get to know someone pretty well, and care about them pretty deeply, with just a few words every few days, consistently over several years. We’ve been through some milestones together, including one woman having her first baby, several deaths in various families, health crises, travels (including one fellow calling in at two a.m. from Australia), moves, accomplishments, and breakups. It’s a genuine community, with a lot of love and concern among us, even though most of us have never met in person, or even seen pictures. Just voices, and a committed intention to meditate daily.
(I’m grateful for the technology that allows us to gather from around the world in one virtual space, day after day. (How I’ve come to rely on the world wide web through the years!) I’m grateful for the electricity that allows me to turn on a computer every day and connect with the world in any way I wish to, and grateful to get my electricity from the sun, and grateful to have a computer, and…)
Cynthia teaches in the Insight tradition of Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield, and also leads embodiment meditations in the style of Judith Blackstone. Certain days we have a recurring focus: Tuesday is Embodiment, Thursday is Central Channel, Friday is some kind of Heart meditation. Mondays and Wednesdays the meditation responds more or less to the checkins of participants. I am always grateful for the community (the sangha, on the telephone = Telesangha), and some days I’m especially grateful for the meditation, and for the kind, wise heart of our guide, whose articulate counsel this morning helped me skillfully navigate a fraught situation.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to spend two days in silent retreat, grateful for the teachers and the teachings that guided me through this unusual adventure, and, grateful to be done with it! And, I still want to do it again once or twice a month, though maybe for only 36 hours the next time. I stocked up on necessities in the days ahead of the retreat, preparing snacks, sweets, and meals, to minimize distractions. Everything went according to schedule on Saturday, spent in frequent meditation and constant deep reflection. Sunday got a little off kilter by mid-afternoon, and by dinnertime I was exhausted. It was as if I had glimpsed myself in the near future, close to the shore of another sea change, and I chose not to go there yet. I cut short the introspection, uncomfortable somehow with the intensity of it.
Saturday was so mild that we walked all the way to the rim, knowing there was a storm coming that might keep us home for a few days. Indeed, Sunday morning saw the biggest snow yet this winter (if I remember correctly!). Stellar did great on the first morning walk around the Breakfast Loop.
As snow kept falling, we walked again later, up the driveway. He was full of spunk, trotting ahead, eating snow, coming back to get me. The snow brought utter peace into my silence, first, for its primal beauty and its own pervasive silence; second, for the comfort of moisture to this parched land. Grateful, as always in the desert, for precipitation. Grateful for the dog’s good energy and mobility.
This was shortly before his back feet turned under, and he couldn’t get them to work at all. He walked halfway home on the tops of his back feet, hips dropped low, practically dragging his back legs. I kept pulling his hips up and setting his feet right but another step or two and they flipped over again. After a few tries I realized it was futile and we had a long way to go yet, so I slung my scarf in front of his thighs and limped him the rest of the way home, essentially carrying his back end. It was good I was in silence: kept me from talking myself into a state. I figured if I could get him home and rested he’d be fine, as long as we stayed out of the deep snow. This proved to be the case. He’s walked up and down the plowed driveway several times since without incident. I think his feet turned under and seized up, or just got too cold to function, from being ankle deep in very cold snow for too long. I’m grateful this wasn’t a ‘new normal,’ not yet.
I’m grateful to Philip for going out of his way Friday to deliver the coconut milk I required for this exquisite dish, which I indulged in making Sunday night, baked tofu with coconut lime rice. Unexpectedly one of the most delicious meals of the year; I’m grateful for the good sense to clip and try the recipe. I’m grateful that my days of silent solitude were flanked by gifts of friendship, grateful for loving Valentine messages from friends who didn’t know I was on retreat, and for silence from friends who did. I’m grateful for this web of life that supports me on an unconventional path, and grateful for each step no matter how challenging or painful.
I’m grateful for every single breath, whether or not I’m aware of it, and I try to be aware of my breath many times during the day. Sometimes just a single breath, sometimes a few, sometimes for five minutes, or twenty-five, I focus on the sensation of the breath.
My friend Kim and I try to meditate spontaneously together once a day. One of us will text an invitation, and usually within a few minutes we’ve both settled somewhere quiet with a guided meditation, or just a silent timer set for five or ten minutes. “The joy of each breath” comes from a meditation we did this evening, led by Peter Harper, The Drunken Monk, on Insight Timer. The joy of each breath. It really is a joy when you can breathe fully, and take a moment to pause, notice, and really feel a single inhalation-exhalation cycle. Or give yourself ten minutes to truly allow yourself to relax, release, let go. Relaxation is a skill not well known nor practiced in this predominant culture. It’s so much more than kicking back on the couch with a beer watching TV, or sitting on the deck with a martini savoring sunset, or having a great time pursuing any kind of sensory stimulation. It’s letting go of all that, resting in the stillness of nowhere to go, nothing to do. Each breath really is a miracle.
Because several people asked for the Cheesos recipe, here are the sources of inspiration for both Cheesos and the Shells. I’m not entirely digital – I still love actual cookbooks, and have a few reliable go-tos besides my own 3×5 card file, a folder of printed recipes, my mother’s lifetime recipe notebook, and two staples that forged my appetite: mom relied on The Joy of Cooking, and the Colonel swore by Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School bible. I’m also grateful for cookbooks!
Sometimes during the day, after I notice something like these cookbooks, and pay attention, and take stock of the luxuries in my life, I take a deep breath – a big sigh – and am suddenly aware of this breath – and then this breath – and I recognize the astonishing chain of events that led to my being here, in this moment, holding this cookbook that is older than I am. Each breath is a miracle. Oxygen is the real drug; breathing, the ultimate high.
I am grateful for silence: in the woods, in my house, and in my own mind in those elusive instants when the noise in my head settles.
Yesterday was challenging for me, as I know it was for many people. The domestic terror attack on the US Capitol shook up a lot of Americans, even some who had been sleeping as the groundwork for it was laid by the president and his enablers. But it wasn’t the event itself, or even the government’s and media’s whitewashing of the egregious double-standard of law enforcement response when compared to crackdowns on Black Lives Matter peaceful demonstrations across the country last year. It was one word that undid me: Proud.
Like many meditators these days, I participate in a virtual meditation group, or sangha, that meets over the phone every weekday morning. I’m grateful for those who were there with me in the beginning more than four years ago, and for those who have joined since, grateful for our commitment to balancing our own minds, and trying to bring balance into the world with our daily practices of stability, kindness, and insight. Our teacher brings great skills to leading us in contemplation day after day, and has a remarkable capacity to respond to the needs of the group in the moment. Some mornings we do checkins, some mornings we jump straight into meditation. Some days checkins can be lengthy, and some mornings we do the ‘two-word checkin’, which is what she asked for yesterday, in light of events in DC.
Those two words yesterday morning from a dozen people included longing for safety, numb, hopeful, upset, startled, grateful, disappointed, anger, disbelief, and proud. The last word was spoken by the only Trump supporter in the group. I spent the whole meditation trying to figure out a positive interpretation of that word, and I couldn’t do it. I was gobsmacked by the idea that anyone could be proud of what transpired at the Capitol yesterday. I spent the rest of the day turning it over and over in my mind and heart, discussing it with a few friends: maybe she was proud of the Capitol police for not escalating the violence? maybe she was proud of… what? else? could she possibly have meant?
I exercised mindfulness skills in directing my attention elsewhere, but I still couldn’t shake the icky feeling that someone I know was proud of the white nationalist terrorists who attacked, looted, and contaminated the Capitol in an effort to subvert constitutional order.
I walked the dogs to the top of the driveway, where our neighbor has hung a Trump flag, and on the way back it struck me, Maybe he is also proud of the white nationalist assault on our nation’s capital… This sinking feeling was amplified this morning when I read that 45% of republicans approve of this terrorist act; but yesterday, I continued to try to redirect my attention, looking for gratitude, making Pad Thai for lunch, digging under snow to find a few feeble tips of green onion, which tasted extra sweet.
… and baking focaccia crackers for the first time. I’m grateful for the magic of YEAST! I’m grateful for fresh rosemary growing in a pot in the sunroom. I’m grateful there are recipes for anything and everything online.
As more clarity comes from the professionals who are unpacking what actually happened at the Capitol Wednesday, I’m grateful for the alert congressional staffers who whisked the certified electoral college votes to safety, precluding even more chaos if they had been burned or stolen by the Republican terrorists. I am now not so grateful to the Capitol police, some or many of whom appear to have abetted the attackers; though I’m still grateful that there were undoubtedly some or many who tried to do their job well in a terrible situation. I’m grateful to R. Hubbell for calling out the truth with this cogent assessment:
The relevant differences are that those who attacked the Capitol areHe goes on to call out the Department of Justice, the ‘Problem Solvers’ Caucus, congressional Republicans, and others, for the same thing, normalizing white supremacist terrorism by refusing to call it by name, when ‘terrorist’ is routinely applied to people of color in more benign protests.
White. Republicans. Future voters for Cruz, Hawley, Cotton, Rubio, et al.
… The media are normalizing terrorism by refusing to call it by name.
Yesterday, our meditation teacher responded to our two-word checkins with a meditation called “Seeing Truth Clearly.” Cynthia Wilcox rose to the occasion in a way that I can only aspire to at this point in my mindfulness studies. I’m inexpressibly grateful to have reconnected with this high school classmate, ten years ago around our common interest in Buddhism, through the (qualified) magic of Facebook. Grateful for her wisdom and generosity of spirit, for how she can hold the same confusion I have with far more compassionate presence, which incidentally was the meditation she brought to us today. I invite you to set aside about 25 minutes sometime, settle comfortably into a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, and follow one of these meditations. Maybe both. Make some time for mental health the same way you do for physical health, and cultivate balance, clarity, understanding, and compassion for yourself and all beings.