Sunday, August 03, 2008

Great Earth Retreat, and Softball

Good grief, July is already gone, and I'm officially 59 years old. My birthday was last Sunday, and I spent much of it out at the monastery at the end of a week-long silent retreat. This week since then has been really busy, and I'm coming up for air a little today.

The retreat was glorious. The theme was "Grasses, Trees and the Great Earth," and we spent probably 50% of our meditation time outdoors (the weather cooperated beautifully). Some of that was lying down directly on the earth (in the case of those of us wearing robes, we had a tarp and sheet to protect our clothing) on the generous grounds surrounding the monastery. A lot of that was in the various grassy meadows. In my case, I took a hat to protect my head and wore socks to keep the bugs away from my feet and ankles (they love me). All of that worked. I did fall asleep early on during one period, but woke up before the bell, feeling refreshed, and after that found that it was easy to keep the mind of meditation throughout.

The other thing we did as the week progressed was to sit in the woods (we were encouraged to pick out a tree to sit beneath) on cushions on tarps, and the last three evenings we did that in the dark after 10pm. I say "we" loosely here, since Thursday night I took off and came back to Portland for a meeting here and then went back late that night, so didn't get a chance to do outdoor night sitting that night. Friday I did, though, and it was delightful. I kept waiting for it to get dark, and figured it was really taking a long time (no watch, no flashlight), and finally decided that this was as dark as it was going to get (I had heard others talking about it being pitch dark, and was waiting for that). Even though the moon hadn't yet risen, there was still a faint luminosity to the sky so I could see branches against it. That meant I wouldn't get disoriented no matter what.

We were told that sometimes it's scary to be in the woods in the dark, and I suspected this would not be true for me. I was right. In fact, I enjoyed the experience profoundly. I also found it true in the zendo (meditation hall) itself that when they turned the lights off I could relax in a way I found difficult when the lights were on. There's something comforting to me about darkness. That was interesting. So anyway, I just enjoyed myself out there in the woods until I started to think about going to sleep right there in the woods. But ... the tarp I was sitting on was maybe a tidge too small (I wasn't in robes by this time, had changed to samue [work clothes]), and the cape I was wearing wasn't going to be quite adequate as a blanket all night. Otherwise, I would totally have done it. Finally, I got up and went in, and it was plenty dark in terms of seeing the trail or obstacles in the path, and I did have to feel my way a bit until I could see the lights of the monastery. When I got in, I found that it was almost midnight and everyone else was in bed.

We were getting up at 4:20 every morning once we started night sitting (before that it had been 3:50), and Thursday night I didn't get back to the monastery until 12:30am, so you can see that I had two nights of not very much sleep (though there were a couple of opportunities for naps during the day). By Saturday night, the last night, I just decided that I needed to go to bed rather than go back out into the woods. I did so, and woke just ahead of the wake-up bell the next morning feeling that this had been a good choice.

What I learned in this retreat -- well, I found the earth as an ally. Lying on the earth, being in direct contact with it, I found a presence I could ask questions of, a presence that is very accepting and wise, a place to take refuge. That was nice. And it was nice to realize what I did about my feelings about the darkness as comforting and familiar. I'm going to pay attention to that.

The rest of this week has been pretty busy -- another newsletter issue to get ready. On Thursday morning, several of us went and spent a couple of hours practicing for a softball game coming up in a couple of weeks. Friday and yesterday, I felt the results of that -- oh, my, muscles I haven't used in a very long time. What I discovered is that I can still catch (except when the ball disappears into the sun), and I can still hit the ball. Running is okay, though my wind (lung power) is really toast, worse than I ever remember it being. Need to do some cardio work. And I still can't throw (never have been able to with any power or accuracy). My best throwing is underarm, so that's what I did. That kind of semi-crouch stance where you're getting ready to catch the ball or run for the base? I found that it uses very specific muscles that I don't usually use, and so does underarm throwing. Did you know that slicing bread and underarm throwing use a lot of the same muscles (only of course throwing stresses those muscles much more)? Who knew?

This coming week looks pretty busy as well. Tomorrow evening I'm going to the hospital to visit a friend who is getting surgery for a tumor on her kidney, and probably I will check in with her on Tuesday as well. Thursday morning we have an excursion planned to go to MtHood to pick blueberries, and that evening is our annual outing at Oak Amusement Park (the same one where I broke my wrist roller skating last year), and yes, I'm planning to go roller skating again. And there are meetings, and lots of things to do, take care of, etc.

Overall, I'm doing very well. Summer is supposed to be a lighter schedule for us, and so it is, but I'm supplementing the Dharma Rain schedule with the Zen Community of Oregon schedule, and am pretty involved with both groups. Between the two groups and my own continuing sitting meditation practice every morning at 6am, I'm staying plenty busy.

I'm planning on taking a vacation break September 14-18, going to the coast to camp for a couple of days and then going to Cottage Grove and Eugene for a couple of days to see family, hopefully visiting with grandkids in Corvallis on the way back up to Portland. I'll rent a ZipCar, which of course will cost me some money, but should be worth it for those days. Now that I've sold my car, I do have some limited funds to tide me over until I can access one of my retirement funds next January. Money is tight, but fortunately, my needs are few.

The beginning of October several of us will go to San Francisco to attend the Soto Zen Buddhist Association annual conference for 4 days -- this year they have one for teachers and for the first time one for "associates" (junior priests or novice monks, depending on what different places call us) like me. Looks like I can drive down with one of the teachers (My teacher Kyogen has to go early with special responsibilities, and I think junior priest Domyo does as well as one of the conference organizers), and the temple will pay my registration. I'm looking forward to seeing the two San Francisco Zen Center places, as this is a huge center of Zen in America, and may in fact be a place where I will go to do a training period at some point in the future.

The other place associated with SFZC is Tassajara, which survived a massive fire this summer. We won't be going there, but I see on their website that they are planning to re-open today. Pretty gutsy, since the fire basically burned out the entire valley, and they lost two outbuildings. Five people, including the abbot, stayed behind against the firefighters' advice, and fought the fire to save the most of the buildings themselves. They managed to do it, and survive, which is amazing. An incredible story, really inspiring. If I go for training at some point in the future, Tassajara is the most likely place I will go, though Green Gulch (where we will be staying this October) is another possibility, I gather.

Wow, this has gotten pretty long, so I'll quit for now. Hope everyone is doing well.


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