I’m on the ferry

I’m on the ferry, traveling from Ketchikan to Bellingham, WA. I’m bringing my car out; my car, which I bought new when we moved to Ketchikan in 2009.

My Subaru Tribeca has just over 14,000 miles on it.

Ah, the beauty of living on a small island! Well, the miles will add up quickly enough now.

As of Wednesday, I don’t live in Alaska. I’ll still be working there on a regular basis, part of each month. But I don’t live there any longer.

It’s a beautiful state, and I’ve learned so much during my years there. I’ve gained and I’ve lost. I’ve known joy and sorrow.

A lot of my reasons for moving my hub back to the lower 48 are about family. I want to be closer, and I want travel to be easier and less expensive.

I’m appreciative for the good that came out of my Alaska time, and regretful for the things that weren’t good. But to be fair, good and bad happens throughout life, regardless of location, and I don’t want to irrationally blame an entire state for the ups and downs I experienced there.

Still, I think my frontier adventures are more behind me than before me. The work that I’ll continue to do is very structured, and will likely be time limited.

Today I’m watching the water and mountains of the Inside Passage go by from the upper deck of a state ferry, and I’m thinking about so many things…people and amazing experiences that were part of life in Alaska.

Was it a good thing to move there in 2006? Or would I have been wiser to continue life in Colorado?

Impossible to know for sure…but I’ve learned that good things come and pass, and bad things come and pass…it is my task to keep my balance, to respond to events with love, grace, and calm, and to recognize that sometimes we are only seeing the middle of the story when it looks like we are seeing the end.

The choice is not to be passive; it is to be intentional and deliberate, to be responsive rather than reactive. There is a difference in the two.

One of the things I was challenged to do at the November meditation retreat is to be patient, just observe, and then do the right thing. That’s it. That’s all I can do, and even that I can only do as I have ability. I don’t always get the waiting right…and I don’t always make the right choice.

But that is the intention, and that’s where I find myself today. I don’t know how the next chapter will unfold. There is no definite decision as to next home or hub. For right now it is Seattle, partly by default and convenience. But that could change.

As I sit each day, practicing the art of meditation, I remind myself that this is part of the work of life…sitting with patience, giving events opportunity to develop, and then choosing a path.

Sitting on the ferry, watching the water flow past, I’m in the right place.

Too busy to choose?

You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.   ~ Old Zen saying

I find it easy to be busy. Easy to let the tasks of life fill the days and create a sense of pressure. And though I’ve streamlined my holiday plans, December is not a month that lends itself to a slower pace.

Well, let’s be honest…is there any month that slows down? Not on my calendar.

And if I’m already busy, how am I supposed to carve out extra time to sit and meditate? Or find the quiet for reading and reflection?

It’s like so many other paradoxes in life:

The more love you give away, the more you have.

Without darkness there can be no light.

The pursuit of happiness makes people unhappy.

What is this strange logic that works in spite of itself?

The way I make sense of it is to understand the power of deliberate choice.

I can’t tell you how much time I’ve lost doing useful things that were unplanned. I sidetrack myself when I sit down to online work and before I begin I have to check email, my bank balance, my credit card charges, my this, my that, my other….All helpful, but not necessarily helping me to the end point, the goal of why I sat down with my computer in the first place.

Other times it’s errands. I have something that I need to do, but I tack on other stops since I’m out. Sometimes I lose whole afternoons to things that didn’t have to be, just because I was out and about anyway.

That may sound like good planning, batching running around and being efficient.

But the busyness also gives me a false sense of accomplishment. It’s easy to get to the end of one of those days and kid myself that I’ve done a lot, when in fact I’ve done very little that I needed to do, or wanted to do.

I’ve done what was in front of me to do, just following the line of busyness right into exhaustion.

But when I choose and stick to my choices, I control the game. When I set aside an hour to meditate, or an hour to read something powerful, I know I won’t have time to check all my favorite sites, or watch a casual hour of TV. I’ve chosen, I’ve committed myself. The decision is made up front, and I’m not even tempted to the things that nickel and dime my hours.

I’m still working on the discipline to set a specific time to read, and a time to meditate. I’ve been traveling, and that’s never a time to create a new routine.

But the paradox is also…if I put off until it’s convenient, it will never happen.

When I tell myself I’m too busy, I’m not always truthful. I may be filling my time, but I’ll acknowledge there’s a big difference between busy and productive.

Not that I think there’s no room for down time in life. Of course I need the down time, the lazy afternoons or slow mornings when I feel the luxury of a change of pace or the joy of the unexpected.

I try to get around this with lists. Yes, I’ve written about the power of lists before, and how as a list maker I’m compelled to check off things as they’re done. But here’s the thing…if I’m deliberate about sticking to my list, I’m better about avoiding the time-suckers. Because you know what never makes it on my list?

Funny, I never list browsing on Pinterest.

I never schedule time for catching up on Facebook.

I never set aside time to aimlessly wander the internet.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, she hastened to add!

But you know what I mean. It’s ok to do it now and then. But too many of those side trips and I’ve eaten up my hour to sit, or my time to read something inspiring, given away all my opportunity for real, and substituted illusion.

Do you ever catch yourself doing that? Give up real for illusion?

One of the words I heard over and over again at the meditation retreat was “balance.” The need for balance is a struggle for most people, and that’s pretty well acknowledged. There are whole book store aisles devoted to time management and work/life balance, personal/family balance, etc., etc., etc.

However you manage it, here’s my tip: Choose, and choose wisely. Be deliberate. Be intentional. Be picky. Be focused. Be honest with yourself and with your time.

And maybe, just maybe, the next time you’re really busy? You’ll find yourself sitting for an hour, and you’ll know it was just what you needed to do.

Hope overcomes doubt.

No guilt, no telling yourself you don’t have time.

Seek freedom and become captive of your desires. Seek discipline and find your liberty.  ~ Frank Herbert

Hard days

It’s December 4th and I’ve not been able to raise any Christmas spirit to welcome the month. Too much disruption of life, too many unanswered questions fill my thoughts.

These are hard days.

I’ve had some of these in the past, but mostly I’ve lived a life of joy and simplicity, and I’ve been grateful for what I’ve had.

But I’m learning…still, or again, I’m never sure which it is…I’m learning that hard days have a way of making life worthwhile when you let them do their work.

The hard days make you stop, help you know what is important and what is irrelevant.

I just want to go shopping for presents under the tree, stop for a coffee and enjoy the Christmas lights, sing the old favorites, and snap photos of everyone. I want that, but that isn’t the rhythm for this year.

This is a year of digging deep. I ask myself every morning: what good thing will happen today? What’s already happened that I didn’t notice because I was too busy feeling anxious?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the anxieties of life took the month off, and just let us have the holidays in peace?

But there’s something important happening, even when it doesn’t feel fun, doesn’t feel right.

I am growing, and changing, not because I’m focused on myself, but because the time is right, the student is ready, and the teacher has appeared. The teacher is experience, and the knowledge that comes from hard days.

Something tells me I needed to get to this place…a place without the noise of decorating a house or getting caught up in the usual round of holiday traditions…I needed to stand without my props around me. I need to face my challenges, and without the distractions, it’s easier to do that.

Meditation teaches me to be still, to find balance, to accept. Experience teaches me that life will sort itself, right itself, and that there will be richness I can’t begin to imagine that will come from my uncertainty.

Uncertainty is where the answers of tomorrow are forged. When you’re in the in between, the options are all before you. You can’t see the way things will work out, but you know they will.

Like an adventurer, I try to tell myself…I’m like an adventurer, wondering what amazing thing is around the corner.

I’m learning that uncertainty can be a fuel to help me look for possibilities. If I knew the answers, I wouldn’t be searching. And if I didn’t search, I would accept life just as it’s been…no opportunity for the new, the exciting, the beautiful that will come out of the questions.

If this seems like a philosophy to comfort myself…it is that. But I’ve seen it work in the past, so I know that it will work in the future.

This is a time to trust: life will work itself out. I have a role to play in that, but for now, my role is to be open, to be a student of the process, to be expectant, and to keep faith.

Aahh, I feel better already. I feed myself the words of hope, the words of expectation, and those little seeds flower as soon as they touch.

Yes, it will be a quiet season this year…family and a few traditions. But this is not a year for all my usual festivities. It will be a season of quiet, and a season of gracious expectation. And that is a good place to find myself.

“Come out of your miseries!”

“Come out of your miseries!” This is the calling of the meditation retreat I attended.

Did it work? Did it help? Yes. I don’t know. Yes. I don’t know.

First, let me say that it was an amazing experience. To keep silence for nine days, and sit still for many hours of each day in a group effort was unique, of course. The things I thought I would struggle with were easy, and the things that I expected to be easy were surprisingly difficult.

The retreat was held in a rural camp in the Sierra Nevada foothills, a short distance from Yosemite Park. Imagine a kid’s summer camp, only one with no swimming, no arts and crafts, no team competitions. The men and women attending the event were housed separately, ate separately, and only saw each other at group sittings, three times a day, and during the evening program. The silence began on the first evening and lasted until mid-way through the ninth day. Then the silence was lifted so we could discuss joint clean up efforts and end-of-event logistics.

The silence was easy. The sitting was hard.

When I thought about group silence, I thought about it in the context of how it is to be silent in normal life. When you’re silent in a crowd, you either feel anti-social, or a sense of loneliness. But in this setting, because we had all agreed to be silent and to maintain that at all times…no chatting except to ask questions, very softly, of the staff…it didn’t feel awkward at all. In fact, on the ninth day when we could speak and the atmosphere was full of voices, I missed the quiet. It felt like something precious had been lost.

The schedule was rigorous, up at 4:00 am and meditating by 4:30. Breakfast break at 6:30, with the first group sitting from 8:00 to 9:00. There were additional meditation hours when you could choose to meditate in your room or in the hall, and a lunch break, then a rest time between noon and 1:00.

At 1:00 there was another period of private meditation, followed by another group sitting from 2:30 to 3:30. We had a simple tea at 5:00, just fruit and hot tea or beverage of choice (no carbonation though). The evening sitting began at 6:00, followed by an evening “discourse” on the techniques and the philosophy behind them. There was another short sitting after the discourse, and then lights out by 9:30.

I can’t do justice to the whole event in a blog post, so I’m not going to try. I’m going to write a book about it, sharing the details of the days and some of my personal struggles that prompted me to attend.

It was powerful. I can’t claim to have perfected the meditation technique, and I’ll also be honest to say that I think the silence and being disconnected from the electronic world (another thing I thought would be hard, but was surprisingly easy) were as important as the actual meditation for me.

The sitting was hard. We sat in rows, eight across and eight deep, everyone sitting on large foam cushions, piled with more cushions, bean bags, some using special little wooden stools, or even stadium chairs to give better back support. It was still hard. For the group sittings we were asked to maintain our positions without movement if at all possible: these were called “Sittings of Strong Determination.” The first few minutes of sitting still were not difficult, but it’s amazing how you begin to stiffen even in a short period of time, or how you begin to feel an itch or tickle or some other distraction of sensation.

The whole point was that we were learning to observe our respiration and physical sensations and to recognize: this too shall pass. The idea is that you retrain your mind to not react to the sensations you feel…you keep a calm and balanced mind as you sit and ignore the impulse to move or scratch a tickle. I sneezed twice and had to wipe my nose…couldn’t help those movements.

We used no mantras, no visualization…just silence and our bodies. As the hours of group sittings went by, you could hear soft creaking noises as people tried to shift ever so slightly to relieve their positions, without a real motion of movement. You would hear coughs or throat clearings, and occasionally someone would get up and leave…you could hear footsteps and then the door to the entry area open and close.

But for the most part we sat. We sat and sat and sat.

And between sittings, (sittings themselves were not supposed to be a time to think about your miseries, or your life issues, or the big questions, just focus on your breathing and sensations). Between sittings and the times of private meditation, I did think.

The process is supposed to help you master your mind and purify your mind. The whole program is based on a universal code of morality and goodwill and compassion toward everyone. If it sounds hokey, it wasn’t. If it sounds simple, it certainly wasn’t.

But neither was it difficult.

It was a rich experience of clarity and creativity, and I found that surprising, though I’m not sure why. I think it is that I had no idea silence and sitting could be so powerful.

Am I glad I participated? Yes! I don’t know if I would do that same event again, but it has made me curious about other events of this nature. I learned that there are many different styles of meditation, so I assume there are other resources for learning and experiencing.

One of the things I came away with was the realization that although I regularly read and have a quiet time of reflection, I have never had a set time or a disciplined approach to my quiet time. Meditation is not something you do between reading emails or getting a second cup of coffee. This made me want to be more intentional and deliberate about my quiet time, choosing a time of day to sit and focus, and creating a goal of being disciplined about keeping that routine.

I’ll have more to say I’m sure…after nine days of silence, I feel words pouring out of me! But for now, that’s the quick version. I need to have some time to sort out some of what I learned, some of what I thought, and some of what I hope to gain.

And hey…even though I didn’t work out once during that time, missing my cream in my daily coffee and eating only fruit at night was a pretty good diet! Though the scheduling was pure coincidence, I think I’m in pretty good shape to head into Thanksgiving. Well, that’s one immediate benefit, to say nothing of the ones to come as I make sense of the whole experience.

More to come!

~ Sheila

Wisdom in Silence

I’m attending a meditation retreat for the next 10 days, beginning this afternoon, and it’s likely to stretch me in unknown ways.

Nine of the 10 days will be spent in silent meditation. As I understand it, there is some instruction on technique…focus on breathing and other aspects of the art of meditation to help participants fully engage. You can also ask questions of staff, but there’s no chit-chat, no between sessions getting to know the group, no morning coffee warm-up and sharing of life stories.

The daily routine begins with a 4:00 am wake up call, and the first session starts at 4:30. The day is divided into group and individual meetings, with lights out at 9:30.The 10th day there is a return to speaking to prepare participants to ease back into their normal lives.

The setting is a rural northern California community, and as best I can tell from the website information, I assume this is a type of camp environment, so I’m expecting very basic accommodations. You bring your own bedding, leave behind your cell phone and other technology, no books or journals, and come prepared to sit and think.

I’ve been doing some reading on the subject, but to be honest, I’m not sure I can articulate the differences between meditation, contemplation, and deep thought. Although I believe they are closely related, meditation also incorporates a focus on physical processes like breathing, over a prolonged period, to go to a deep internal state, shutting out the surroundings of place and other people.

I’m alternately curious and eager, nervous and intimidated. I’ll be honest to say that though I see myself more on the introvert side of the aisle, I enjoy talking one-on-one or in small groups. I’m not shy, particularly. I can be quiet and self-contained in a large group, but I don’t know how it will be to keep silent for nine days. I hope I can do it…I certainly plan to follow the guidelines that are laid out for the retreat, and that are clearly spelled out…no surprises, they do a very good job of listing expectations. The question is: will I be surprised at how easy it is, or how difficult?

Closely connected, giving up my phone and internet access is challenging as well. This one is less about an absolute need to be online, and more about feeling cut off from family. There is a phone number for emergency contact, and I’ve shared that. But still…

One small irony, the food is vegetarian and styled as “simple.” Not sure what that will mean, but the contrast between 10 days of eating in this style, back to back with the week of Thanksgiving and all the traditional festive dishes, will be interesting, I’m sure. I’m not much of a meat eater, so I don’t anticipate the food will be the hard part.

In spite of my nervousness about all this, after several months of topsy-turvy living, major upheaval, and to-do lists that seem never-ending, I’m looking forward to a time of stillness, quiet, and reflection.

And maybe as I experience the art of meditation in person, as opposed to reading about it, I’ll be able to answer the questions more clearly…what is the difference between this art and other types of deep thought?

I’ll share what I’ve learned when I’m back, if indeed I can find the words. Nine days of silence may be an experience that defies expression, at least in the usual ways. I hope to gain some wisdom, insight, and come out on the other side with clarity and balance.

Until then! ~ Sheila