Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Way

by Dennis Hunter
January 7, 2020
San Carlos Retreat Center
Delray Beach, Florida

"The Way"

The way the hummingbird seeks out
the color red, tasting the nectar
of flowers, its tiny heart beating
twelve hundred times per minute.
The way the green grass feels
on the soles of your naked feet.
The way the spider's web is built
of filaments almost too fine to see,
the shocking symmetry
of its architecture, the way
it bends and stretches, holding
to the branches as it twists
in the breeze: its strength
arising from its flexibility.
The way the sound of the water
flowing from the shower head
changes pitch when
the water becomes warm.
The way the warm water soothes
your naked and fragile body.
The way water, softest substance
on earth, also carves valleys
in the stone, eroding mountains
and reshaping the beaten earth.
The way the seed dropped by the tree
carries inside the genetic code, the DNA
for creating a whole new tree.
The way the code remains locked
inside the seed, until the seed
is convinced to extend roots
down into the beaten earth,
and offered water and sun from above.
The way the new tree will bear red flowers,
seducing the local hummingbirds just as its
ancestors have always done.

Friday, January 10, 2020

On How to Be

by Dennis Hunter
January 5, 2020

Be like the water of the lake:
Calm and steady, but fluid,
reflecting the clear sky above.
Let the cool morning breeze make ripples
Across your surface and pleasant goosebumps on your skin.
Watch the ripples come and go
without disturbing the nature of the water.
You do not need to climb down in the lake
with the alligator and the catfish,
and try to smooth out the water's wrinkles
with your hands, like a bed sheet.
Be like the sky above,
clear and bright and open,
the low Florida sun beaming across it,
warming your bones and reflecting
on facets of the rippling water like glittering jewels,
inviting the trees and the grass to stand up straighter,
to reach higher, towards the life-giving light.
Here, there, a cloud dots the sky, lingering,
passing across the open expanse.
The sky doesn't mind.
You do not need to stand up
and wave your arms at the clouds,
gesticulating like a madman, trying
to chase them away.
Only stay. The way the lake stays,
ripples not disturbing its deeper stillness.
Only stay. The way the sky stays,
holding space for clouds to come and go.
Only stay, the way the sun stays,
bringing light and life to each part
of the turning world, this part then that part,
each corner waking and sleeping, sleeping then waking again.
Each new day that breaks is an invitation
to root down in stillness like the water
and to stretch open in welcoming like the sky,
to both root down and stretch open like the trees and grass.
But look, now. You stood up too fast,
and startled the catfish
in the muddy shallows at the water's edge,
where she had come, like you,
to warm her scales and blood
in the morning sun.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

How Are Your Alligators Doing?

I've just returned from a 5-day silent meditation retreat, and I want to share the first meditation instruction I received when I arrived at the retreat center, before the retreat even began. This sage advice was posted on several signs surrounding the lake behind the retreat center: 

"Do not molest or feed the alligators." I never saw an alligator while I was there, but it's practical advice, given that we are in south Florida. This is gator country.

As the lessons of this retreat rippled within me, I realized that this pragmatic warning is also a teaching. The theme of our retreat was the Five Hindrances — the five cognitive and emotional blockages that, according to the Buddha, keep us from being fully mindful and present, both on the cushion and in our lives:

  1. Sense Desires (the attachment and craving that arise from them — the grasping state of mind)
  2. Ill-will (aversion and anger — the pushing-away state of mind)
  3. Sloth and Torpor (the dull, murky state of mind, like falling asleep or being in a fog)
  4. Restlessness (agitation, anxiety, and the worried, fidgeting mind)
  5. Doubt (the confused, hesitant state of mind that doesn't know which way to go)

These Five Hindrances are the alligators in our minds: the creatures that attack from the dark depths of our unconscious, thwarting our practice, upsetting our lives, holding us trapped in their powerful jaws. When these alligators attack, there is nowhere to run and no way to escape, because the alligators are us. At times it can feel like we are under assault by all five alligators at once, the hindrances in our minds confounding us from every direction. We joked during the retreat (during the times we weren't in silence) about "multiple hindrance attacks," but our laughter was a way to diffuse the tension of recognizing how often we all fall under the spell of the hindrances, and how much suffering they cause for us in our relationships and our lives.

"Don't molest or feed the alligators" is good advice. We are the ones who molest our own minds with the Five Hindrances, and our afflictive emotions only have as much energy as we feed to them. 

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and this advice is not of much practical value when we find ourselves under attack by the alligators in our minds.

Here's the thing about alligators, though. Their ghastly jaws are fearsome and strong when they chomp down on their prey. But the opposing muscles of their jaws, the ones that open the mouth, are quite weak. The powerful jaws of the alligator can be held shut with a simple rope or elastic band.

That rope or elastic band is our meditation practice. To the extent that we are able to be mindful and stay present with our experience and fully open ourselves to its energy — even if it's painful and chaotic, or perhaps especially if it's painful and chaotic, because life so often is — letting go of the storylines and drama that we habitually attach to our experience, then we are able to at least partially subdue the alligator's attack by binding its jaws. 

I came back from silent retreat to the news of Iran launching ballistic missiles into Iraq, attacking U.S. bases, and the devastating earthquakes in Puerto Rico, already afflicted so much by the hurricane two years ago. The president is being impeached, while at the same time instigating *another* war in the Middle East by ordering the assassination of one of Iran's top generals. This world we live in is angry and confused, full of sloth and ill-will and worry and agitation — ravaged and devastated, in other words, by the Five Hindrances.

When Thich Nhat Hanh was fleeing Vietnam, he said that the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats would sometimes encounter storms or pirates on the journey to safety. During these crises, everyone would start to freak out and panic. But he said that if just one person on the boat could stay calm and centered, not freaking out, it could diffuse the panic and, as he stated, "show the way to survive."

I am that person on the boat. If you've read this far, *you* are that person on the boat, too. It's up to us to bring the mindfulness and compassion we cultivate in our practice into this aching, burning world of pain, and offer it to those around us, showing the way to survive. Each of us who lives with conscience in this suffering world bears a huge responsibility. This is the world we are in. This is the world that needs the healing gifts each of us can bring. 

As one of the teachers at the retreat, Piero Falci, kept reminding us, "This moment is the first moment of the rest of your life." What are you going to do with this precious moment? And this one? And this one? And this one? And this one?