A Personal Retreat on the ICW

Dateline: Anchored in the Herb River, near Savannah, GA, headed south on the ICW. 

To have finally begun the life that I have been striving for was such a personal milestone; a psychological victory. Further, having spent the last ten days alone on my boat, my mind has had the room to finally open, to rest, and to heal. There are more travel days ahead, but I have already had a quite massive personal realization. 

Motoring through the Carolinas into Georgia on my own has been a busy time. In the last several years, I have been fairly active on social media; often as a distraction from the hard work I was doing to prepare Ruth Ann, my boat, for this journey. The last week or so, I certainly wasn't inactive, but - preciously - the in-between time has been mine. I've been reporting on my journey but I haven't been 'doom scrolling' my news feeds. 

As I slid down rivers, through acres and acres of salt marsh and sweet grass, past little hammocks of trees, surrounded by osprey, dolphins, and other wildlife, my brain was finally free. Free to wander where it wanted to go. My heart/mind came home. 

For many years, really since I formally became a Buddhist, I have struggled to balance my politics and my Buddhism. I've often been noisy online about politics, but doing so left me conflicted. There are at least as many approaches to politics by Buddhists as there are flavors of Buddhism. I've felt compelled to express my political self, but my Buddhist self (ironic) was not always comfortable with how that played out. The two aspects of me didn't always seem to fit together. 

I marched against Monsanto with a group from the Grand Rapids Buddhist Temple. I helped found the West Michigan Buddhist Peace Group, connected with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, an international organization. I facilitated many of those meetings and I am proud of all that work. It was when I was speaking out, radically and personally, that didn't always feel right. Moreover, I don't think anyone has changed their mind based on something they've run across on social media. The perfectly selfish modes of our media allow people to consume what they already agree with and that which only reinforces what they already believe. And I've grown tired of shouting into the void anyway. 

I have been alone for the last week or so, except for the few times when I've stopped for fuel or laundry. It has been like a personal retreat and I have come to realize that I've been making a mistake in trying to balance my politics and my Buddhism. By setting them as equals in my mind, my focus became the balancing rather than either side. I knew immediately that by concentrating on the space betweeen I was not focusing well on either the politics or the Buddhism. I also knew right away where I should aim my attention. 

I am a voracious reader and for years I have been studying, in depth, both politics and Buddhism. I could hold forth on either the political economies of the modern world or the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. However, if I don't choose which is primary to me personally, that choice will be made for me. This precious time on my own, relatively disconnected for a time, has made me realize - or realize again - that I am a Buddhist, first and foremost. 

My politics have not changed. I am not taking anything back or regretting anytthing I have said. I am changing my approach. 

I am a Buddhist. To me, the highest form of compassion, the holiest of service to the universe, is to strive to reduce the suffering of all beings. This begins within me, inside my heart/mind, and flowers forth in my speech and actions. This is how I must live my life. It is therefore that I am fundamentally opposed to Capitalism and therefore also fundamentally opposed to both the Republican and Democrat parties. I am just going to shut up about the politics for now and allow myself the space for my politics to manifest, and to influence the world from within my Buddhism. This can only be in the world, of the world, the real world, person-to-person -- the only political influence that matters. 


Curds and The Way

The Coastal Clean Laundromat in Leland, NC has pretty good WiFi and nice cool air-conditioning. Tonight, I didn’t get to enjoy either one for very long. Thursdays, I do laundry. The side gig has me working the dusty shelves of the shop at a construction equipment rental place. It’s six or eight mechanics, a couple managers, and me in a pole building, in Carolina summer, with a bunch of big fans, but no air-conditioning. It’s all right, but it’s dirty and hot. 

After work this afternoon, I drove back across the river to Leland, picked up my supper and parked out behind the strip mall to peel off my work clothes. I pitched them in with the rest of my laundry, and got into flip flops, shorts, and a t shirt. Laundry night is the one night during the week I usually get something to eat rather than cooking. This week I chose to get some Chinese. I’ve hit and I’ve missed with the local Chinese place, but it’s across the road from the laundromat and probably the healthiest of nearby options. I got a couple veggie spring rolls and Szechuan-style Curds (tofu). The spring rolls were excellent and the curds were pretty decent too.

I got my laundry started but the mask mandate was back and I didn’t feel like eating my Curds inside anyway. It was already cool enough compared to work that I could sit in the van and eat. A bowl and some chopsticks were waiting for me. The spring rolls didn’t make it across the road and were already gone, so I got set up with some rice in the bowl and then ladled tofu and veggies on top. It was good.

Then the guy I had parked next to came back outside as well. He started talking to me about Van Life and Boats. I can talk for hours about either one. Then, somewhat abruptly, he asked me if I knew about the Gospel. He said he could explain the gospel in … (two sentences, three minutes, or something, I don’t remember).

“Well, I’m a Buddhist, but if you need some practice, go ahead,” I said with a friendly smile and continued to eat.  

Then he went at it, full spectrum fire and brimstone. All the meetings, the trials, the second comings, the judgements, and the dispensations were paraded before me.  

“Sounds complicated,” I said, “I like to keep it simple.”

Then the alarm on my phone went off. My washing was done. He followed me inside and began folding his neglected clothes out of the dryer.  

“So who do you think Jesus was?” he inquired from across the expanse of the dryer area.  

“A historical figure from the Middle East,” I said and smiled. 

A little later he asked if I had a bible. “Oh, somewhere,” I said non-commitally. And then fearing a Super Christian bearing gifts, I added “but I don’t need one. I have no interest.” 

With my clothes drying, I went back out to the campervan and had the rest of my Szechuan curds. Soon enough my pious new friend arrived carrying his tote tub of folded clothes.  

He offered more proofs and rebutted himself without noticing. I smiled. Then he offered that Israel the country was a proof of some kind for something that god did or said (I don’t care enough to remember the details). I smiled and stated flatly that if god was in favor of the actions of the current regime in Israel then I was done with all of them.   

“Well, no. God doesn’t condone anything humans do." Blah, blah, more contradictory self-rebutting.  

After an hour and a half, he was testing my Zen. When he re-emphasized the fact that we are all sinners, born of sin, and that we don’t earn grace, it is granted to us by the whim of his creator dude, I said “hang on.” 

“Anyone who has ever looked into the eyes of a child cannot square that with the so-called Original Sin. I categorically reject the original sin.” 

“Well, see.  So does God. See, there is this period when a child is too young to know sin and if they die, they will go to heaven." Blah, blah, [some story about David losing a child]. 

“Cool,” I said, “so God agrees with me that there’s no Original Sin.”  

“Well, no.”  And on and on … and on again.  

He offered again, that I should study the bible to really understand. I said that I was fine, thank you, and that I was completely comfortable and confident in my own spirituality. And that I was comfortable that he had his own too. 

“In my opinion, the bible is rife with contradictions,” I said, trying to measure the pace and pitch of my words. I was having fun and smiled while continuing to speak slowly. “That is good stuff for you because you obviously know the bible very well and you can wiggle out of any corner by plucking a verse from hither or yon.”  

“Well ...” he started seeming to tire of trying to save me.  

Then my alarm went off again; clothes were dry.  

“Well, bless you,” I said, “I hope you get your dispensation. I’ve got mine already and I’m set. Thank you. It was nice meeting you.” 

“You should think about the New Testament,” he said as his voice trailed off (It seems cool to me that I don’t have to read it, I can just think about it). 

I started to walk toward the door of the laundry, but spun around and caught him, defenseless, closing his car door to leave. 

“Remember that you told me that god would remember all the people he had sent to witness to me when I stood in judgement? And remember that you described Science as humans figuring out the wonderful work god has done?”

“Yeah,” he said quizzically. 

“Then how can you think that god didn’t send the vaccine?!? I think loving your neighbor means doing all that you can to slow the spread.”

He gave me a look; like a kid being caught cheating at Yahtzee     ... again. 

“That’s what my daughter says," he said, almost to himself, "she’s a nurse.”

“Well, you should listen to her,” I offered, “that’s most important of all.”

And then I left him to steep in the weak tea of all his arguments; including trusting in god to get him through the Pandemic.


oops ...

A blog was posted here earlier this week that was intended for my Bubba the Pirate blog. 
Check it out here


Market and New Centre Drive

I don’t claim to be a good person, least of all better than anyone else. In fact, I am not as good as I should be more often than I’d like to consider. However, I would like to illustrate how an average schuck like me can do some good once in a while. After I had let my heart open more fully to someone else’s humanity. 

A major intersection in Wilmington is the corner of Market Street and New Centre Drive. Not only is Market Street one of the main routes into the city, but right near that corner are a half dozen motels, a Hooters, a Bonefish Grill, an Olive Garden, a KFC and a Chic Fil A, a Target, a Petsmart, an Academy Sports, a Dunkin Donuts, and the plaza with my favorite little family-run sushi place. Not that far away are Costco, Walmart and Lowes. It’s never not busy around Market and New Centre. 

Market is the main drag and New Centre the feeder. On each side of Market, where people are waiting to enter the stream, a couple of guys always stand there with their cardboard signs. Lately, I have been sizing them up and they have not qualified for my sucker fund. Learn about the sucker fund here. Both guys are fairly clean shaven, neither is sunburned, and their shoes are decent. These are things that I look at before I pass some cash. 

Another reason why I haven’t tapped the sucker fund is that I am out of cash. I’m not out of money, though I run leaner than most of my friends could stand to know. It’s just that I have very little cash; next to none. Two Fridays ago, someone tried to use my debit card number in Florida. My credit union is great about fraud and I got a text asking if a certain transaction had been me. I replied “NO” of course, but what that meant was that my card was locked ... turned off. The Fraud Department let me get some cash the next morning. It was like a Bond movie. I called them, standing next to an ATM: “I’m here at the Walgreens in Leland.” They turned my card on while I took out some cash and locked it back up as soon as I told them I had it in hand. 

This was all a pain in the ass because I still ‘bank’ with a credit union in Michigan. They said it might be as much as two weeks for me to get a card in the mail. And … they will only send the card to the address on the account. Guess what? I still use an address in Michigan! Mostly because my CDL has to have a residential address and I’m not going to be in one place at a time for very long for the foreseeable future. 

Along comes my sweet sister. When I was on the road truckdriving, I put my sister’s name on my account in case something needed to be handled at the credit union while I was out of town. After a few days of trying to figure out what to do, I was lamenting my situation with her and she volunteered to get me a debit card in person at the branch and mail it to me. In the days of ‘chip cards’ I wasn’t even sure that was possible, but it worked. 

Superb! Thanks, sis!! 

I just had to last a week and a half on one daily limit ATM withdrawal. 

So, even though I was shamefully judging the guys standing at the corner, it had been about nine days without a debit card and I didn’t have any cash to give them anyway. 

Further, we expected that I would have the new card by Friday or Saturday. But mail is weird around here. Not only are we served by a rural, small town Post Office, but where I can get mail, two businesses share the same address and mailbox at the end of a dead end road. Friday afternoon, the boatyard office closed before I got back. However, I saw the office manager on her way home. She offered to go back but knew that I hadn’t received an envelope yet. She encouraged me to check the mailbox on Saturday as she knew my situation. 

It didn’t come Saturday either. 

On Monday, I made it back for the usual office hours, but something was up and everyone had already left. The mailbox had been cleared. I had a little food left and a little gas, so I wasn’t worried. I had money. I just couldn’t get to it. 

This morning, I was down to a couple peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch at work and didn’t have any more fruit, but I had a revelation. My Dunkin Donuts app is connected to my Paypal, not my card! Yes, I’m too old to be a hipster, but occasionally I use their stuff. I could order lunch and then go get it; walk-in service, grab and go. However, the menu is all breakfast stuff except a section called Snacks. “Snacks” sound small. 

I’ll take two of those. Oh, and two of those and an Iced Matcha Latte. A little crazy but it beats PB&J … again. 

I hit “Place Order”, squared my clipboard on the shelf I was counting, washed my hands, waved to the boss, and took off for lunch. As I mentioned, Market Street is crazy at all hours of the day; especially lunch time. But I had taken an early-ish lunch and managed to make my way down to the nearby Dunkin in no time. As I walked in, I spotted my bright green latte and watched the girl lift this large bag, stuffed full of food up to the counter. 

It was then that I thought about cheese. 

Lately, I don’t eat a lot of animal products. I’m not perfectly plant-based now, but I’ve been plant-based before, and I’m working my way back. It’s just that the boat and my side gig take up so much of my week that I take shortcuts and make compromises. I get lazy and make poor decisions. Most often I regret that I don’t have a few more hours in a day and a little more discipline. Anyway, I had ordered two cheesy croissants and two ham and cheese snack sandwiches to go with my latte. All that cheese was already weighing on my mind [pun intended]. I hefted the bag, grabbed my drink and pushed back out the door. 

The corner is so busy that you have to plan your approach based on which way you’re headed. I drove around the Dunkin building, crossed a motel parking lot, and approached New Centre Dr. in a way that I could easily turn left on Market and get back to work. And … I began munching on a Cheesy Croissant. 

I jumped through a gap in traffic to cross two lanes and get into the left turn lane. It was then that I saw the usual guy standing there with a particularly large cardboard sign which I didn’t read. My first reaction was to avoid eye contact, but I also decided not to munch on my ridiculously bougie snack while I was in front of him at the red light. Then I remembered it had rained on my way over. The guy was soaking wet and so was his sign. Granted, it had been an unexpected southern summer squall. It had come and gone, but he was still standing there. His expectant, yet humble expression was still the same. And here I was, all judgy, sitting in my campervan with no money, but also no air-conditioning in the dash. Hence, my windows were down. We were five feet apart and sharing the same air, thick from the recent downpour. Even if he was running a scam, I was a fool to judge him. Up close, he wasn’t that well groomed. His shoes were dirty and his clothes were decent but just presentable. 

He probably didn’t expect much from a guy driving an old campervan who obviously couldn’t afford to fix his air conditioning. Everyone else he meets is probably obscured through window tinting. I was sitting there, right next to him, with my arm out the window. 

I have a good heart but sometimes it gets buried in all the sawdust and epoxy. It took a while for me to realize that I could do some small thing for this guy. It doesn’t have to be money. Sometimes just a hello. An acknowledgement. A little humanity.

I nodded to him and smiled. He smiled back. 

Then I thought of the sandwiches. I didn’t need all that ridiculous food that I was going to regret anyway. 

Just before the left turn arrow went green, I reached into the bag. 

“Hey, man. How about a sandwich?”

He lit up, gave me a much better smile, and, thanking me, took the sandwich. God bless you, he said. As I pulled away, I watched him put the sign under one arm, and stuff the sandwich into his backpack. 

It occured to me that he might be saving it to share. 

My lungs emptied. I should have given him the whole bag.  

Back at work, I ate too much of that bullshit bougie fast-food. PB&J would have been such a better choice. All afternoon, I carried the weight of all that damn cheese and some heavy thoughts too. I know better than to look at someone’s shoes and decide I know their game. Hell, I don’t even know mine most of the time.  



Tuesday. For the second day in a row, I left work at the stroke of 16:00 like some rotten clockwatcher. But I needed to buzz through traffic to try and get to the boatyard while the office was still open. I called to check. This time there was a box of boat parts and an envelope waiting for me. 

I had had five bucks in hand for the last 36 or so hours. I had enough gas to get to work Wednesday, but I wasn’t sure about getting back again. I wasn't going to starve, but my pantry was lacking. 

US74, 117, and I-140, three bridges and two counties to Cedar Hill Road and I made it. 

With card in hand, I ran into town for some gas and some lunch materials. 

Life is back to normal; whatever that is. 


Indra's Net; the ultimate net neutrality

“Zen pretty much comes down to three things: 
everything changes, everything’s connected, pay attention.” 
Jane Hirshfield, poet, translator, Buddhist

The myth of Indra’s Net is used to illustrate the Buddhist concepts of emptiness and dependent origination. Everything in the universe, including each of us, is a pearl at an intersection of Indra’s giant net. Looking closely into an individual pearl, every other pearl is reflected in its surface.

According to the Buddha’s Dependent Origination, everything that exists, exists only in relation to everything else. My biological existence depends not only on each of my parents, but each of their parents and all our ancestors. Additionally, the person I am today is the result of everyone I’ve ever met, and all the things with which I’ve come into contact. This soaks out into the whole universe through the ancestors of everyone I’ve met and all the other things and people that they too have experienced.

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches looking deeply enough into a tangerine to see the grocer, the trucker, and the farmer. And then deeper yet to see, and even taste, the sun, the rain and the soil in the fruit. When I consider the causes and conditions that bring about the sun, the rain and the soil, I can begin to sense that everything indeed relies on everything else. When I look deeply enough at any one thing, I can see everything else.

In emptiness, the Buddha teaches that nothing has an intrinsic, permanent nature; everything changes. Intellectually and emotionally, I am not the same person that I was when I was ten years old. All my cells have a finite lifespan; all gradually die off and are replaced. Physically, I am not the same person I was just a few weeks ago; or even a few minutes ago.

Nothing, and no one, is permanent and the whole process of Dependent Origination begins again with everything and everyone now in my life. This unending process folds the entire universe in on itself with each passing moment. We are continually created and are helping to create everything else, every moment.

In my travels I often see a person standing by the road with a cardboard sign. If I’m caught by other traffic or the stoplight, often I sit uncomfortably in my truck, staring straight ahead waiting for the light to change. Much of the time I don’t have any cash on me anyway. I know I am not alone in this discomfort. I’ve walked through big cities and I’ve sensed my noticing of everything else, anything else, but the abject neediness. And what of the groups of people who are now being actively targeted and oppressed by the current establishment? Am I doing more than simple lip service? How can I be an effective ally? How do I not become overwhelmed by the avalanche of hate? How do I effectively and fully recognize the existence of all the other pearls on the net?

I believe that there is a latent sense in each of us that we exist only in relation to everything else. It seems obvious that some behaviors, like jealousy or embarrassment, come from some understanding that who we are is intricately dependent on the others around us. What must it feel like for someone that we choose not to see? Or to see differently? What ache must there be just to feel fully existed? Indra’s Net shows us the illusion of separation. When I don’t see the full humanity of that person on the street, there is a part of me I don’t see. When I think that someone who looks different or dresses differently is somehow actually different from me, I lose sight of myself.

Dogen wrote “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.” I believe he was speaking directly to this illusion of separation. He was pointing to Indra’s Net; pointing to everything I am, everything you are and everything that is that guy with a sign or anyone else. To ignore any one of those pearls rends our connections; tears at the net. Further, impermanence shows us that the pearls are a part of the illusion. Without a permanent self, our only real existence is in the connections of the net. Tearing at the net is tearing at ourselves. When I fail to offer someone the dignity of a recognized existence, I miss fully existing myself. My path to the Buddha way is directly interrupted.

Martin Luther King, Jr. practically paraphrased the Buddha in his book “Strength to Love” when he wrote “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” There may not be any words more important than these in our current politics. We are stuck in this quagmire specifically because of hate battling hate. Eight years ago, we had an election that some could not accept. The loss of decorum began right away; from Joe Wilson’s “You Lie!” to the near complete obstruction that followed.

Now we are faced with an administration chock full from the top on down with people who have never had to be empathetic. They’ve never had to deal anyone they didn’t want to; never had even one of a whole variety of problems that most of the rest of us face every day.  The new president is a creep and certainly has never had to treat a woman with any respect. Yet, how are the cries of “Not my president” any different from “You lie?” I don’t like the man nor most of his policy prescriptions, but just like eight years ago, there was an election and he won. Lord help us but it is a constitutional fact that he is our president.

So what are we going to do about it? None of this is permanent. We are not stuck with this current situation indefinitely. Most of the people who voted for Donald Trump will not be forever loyal to him. I think many of them simply struck out at a system that had failed them; striking in the only tangible way that seemed available to them. And there really were a great many reasons to not support the other candidate.

In the long run, I propose that we need to break free of the two party system; or at least the two parties that we’re stuck with right now. In the short term, however, we have this less-than-perfect representative republic and this constitution. In order to move forward as a nation, we have to win some hearts and minds. We need to find ways of talking to  and working with people with whom we don’t agree. Not only does this take us right back to “Hate cannot drive out hate;” it takes us right back to Indra’s Net. It takes us back to seeing those others as a part of us and allowing them a recognized existence.

If I accept that a homeless person can sense my not-seeing them, then certainly in the emotionally charged arena of our politics our opponents know it when we dismiss them; dismiss their fears and aspirations. We cannot work together to solve this country’s problems without granting there are people and ideas we strongly disagree with which nonetheless have validity in a democracy. Certainly not all the ideas we’ve heard should be tolerated, but we cannot say that there are no valid concerns in the rank and file of those voters.

I am not saying that we should support President Trump and his administration. They, along with their allies in the Congress, are undoubtedly in the process of overreaching. They act as if they won a mandate when the Republican president lost the popular vote -- again. I am suggesting that democracy is messy and it functions only through compromise.

Those friends and neighbors of ours that supported the other side have valid fears and aspirations that are different from ours. We need to give them the space to feel comfortable. They must willingly come back to negotiating with the rest of us toward shared solutions to our shared problems. They must be allowed to exist in this messy world along with us. The only way forward is working together. The success of this American experiment depends on wholesale changes from the current unresponsive system. Massive changes will only be successful if we have well more than fifty percent of the country behind the movement.

I am more confident in the ultimate strength of our core principles of democracy than I am afraid of this new regime. This Republican unity is fragile. It won’t take much to upset their giddy honeymoon. Nevertheless, we need all the help we can get to change the dangerous course on which our country suddenly finds itself.

My biggest concern is the aftermath when Trump defaults on most of his myriad campaign promises. The objective reality is that he cannot accomplish all, perhaps any, of the things he has promised. Some of the bigger promises, like the return of manufacturing jobs, are so far beyond his control that a many of his supporters will soon be disillusioned, disappointed and angry. I fear that in that fragile bewildered moment, some truly nasty character we haven’t yet imagined will step in to replace Trump as the savior of so-called white working class. Whoever that might be will be worse, and stronger, than Mr. Trump. The bewildered and frustrated remnants of Trump’s movement will be in no position to think clearly and that moment will be ripe for things to get much worse. Our greatest duty in the coming months is to create a comfortable space for those people turning away from Trump to fall toward the center so they are not drawn further to the right.

For those voters bitterly disappointed by the status quo, there was clearly one candidate that was a continuation and another that was a break from the past. The more we howl at the horrible choices that were made, the more likely those hearts and minds will bind up and those ideas reflexively defended.

And, of course, if Indra’s Net includes everything and everyone in the universe, it includes Trump and his gang of deplorables. Regardless, they must not be allowed to tear the net in half. We must vigorously oppose the regressive policies of the Trump Administration while simultaneously allowing many of those who supported him to live and breath among us. I believe we must strive to strengthen the safety net of our human connections in order to maintain room enough for those who seek to rejoin us. When they turn away from the abyss, we must fully welcome them.

“Everything changes, Everything’s connected, Pay attention.” This isn’t permanent, we can make it better; we need to work together in a broad coalition; and we must carefully distinguish between vigorously opposing the policies of this new administration while being careful to be inclusive of those who will begin to turn away from supporting the President.

image used without permission from https://www.scienceandnonduality.com/the-indras-net/


Thunderous Rain Ovation

Way cleaner than my truck.
A penny lay on the floor, in the sand and dust below the steering wheel. Two long sleeved shirts and a couple jackets hung over the passenger seat attesting to the varied weather of the last week or so. The cabinets and cubbies were packed. Work boots and a variety of occasionally used items were under the shelf on my left. A stuffed laundry bag leaned out of the hanging locker to the right. My little electric cooler hummed quietly. Not so quiet were the trucks moving around in the truck stop. The evening rush was on and everybody was looking for a spot to park for the night. I could hear a refrigerated trailer or two braying away at the warmth of the Georgia evening. Shifting colors and flashes of chrome slipped around the edges of my privacy curtain. I straightened the sheets and blanket on my bunk and sat on the edge. A bad knee and a truck cabin with nearly no floor both preclude a traditional meditation cushion. After a deep breath, I relaxed my shoulders and back.

On the little pull-out tabletop over my knee, I set out the tablet with the meditation app and my kindle; because I don’t quite have the Heart Sutra all in my head. Three deep breaths and I adjusted my feet to began the process of slowing down. Down through the dirty truck stop rag rug, through the floor of the cab, into the springs, shocks and air bags of the suspension, past the big rims of the wheels and through the air and rubber of the tires, I try to feel the ground under my feet. With another deep breath, I pushed with my mind through all that equipment to, at least by memory, settle my feet against the earth.

I spoke aloud my minimalist English version of the three refuges and then chanted the Metta Sutra. Picking up the Kindle, I recited the Heart Sutra, almost from memory; forgetting to turn the page until near the end where I almost lost my place. I poked the touchscreen button on the meditation timer and I returned, for the moment, to my breath.

The first temple location in Grand Rapids was a tiny storefront between a Chinese Restaurant and a Hot Dog stand. Without fail, about halfway through our evening meditation sessions, they would start chopping tomorrow’s vegetables next door. Two or three Chinese cleavers going chukka, chukka … chukka, chukka, chukka. Tension filled the room as all of us novices struggled to lose the distraction. The rumbling trucks, slamming doors and grinding reefer units outside my sleeper cab zendo remind me of those days and I smiled.

This particular evening was a few evenings after the great struggle. I just followed my breath again, only counting when I needed to return from a strong distraction. The time went by and I just kept returning to the present, almost as soon as I left it. I couldn’t have cared less about the timer. I had no jumpy limbs; no slimy ball bearings, no separate entities. I just sat.

And then it began to rain - hard. The sheet metal of the truck roof was drumming like some tin-roofed cabin in the woods somewhere.  I was aware of the forecast but the rain was thunderous; like roaring applause. It was as if the entire universe was joyfully clapping for me.  I hadn’t done anything admirable; hadn’t achieved anything of merit. I was no better than anyone or any thing else. And yet the universe was indeed applauding me. Every single other thing was cheering me on, not for anything I had ever done except the simple choice to be there, to breath and, if only in small moments, to allow the boundaries between me and all those other things to begin to dissolve.


Slimy Ball Bearings on the way toward Enlightenment.

Just a few years ago, after more than fifteen years as a hard core atheist and scientific materialist, I was on the cusp of shedding the crusty shell I had been living in. After the long and winding road of my seeking, I was convinced that neither spirituality nor materialism, on their own, could answer all our human questions. I was working with a life coach, and one of my goals from those sessions was to re-read Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.’ I was curious to revisit a book that had once been extremely important to me, but one that I felt I had left behind for new ways of thinking. The book had practically ruined my sophomore year at Michigan State. I didn’t want to talk or think about anything else. Seeking out that book was an early sign of Buddhism returning to my life. All the other books on Buddhism that I had collected back in my dorm days had been lost along the way.

Another more recent important book was Eckhart Tolle’s ‘A New Earth.’ My coach, Kathy, had sent me a copy. In ‘A New Earth,’ Tolle describes his theory of the Pain Body; a psychic parasite made up of self-destructive habit patterns. It is a powerful unconscious force with great momentum that seeks to continue those bad patterns and bring us pain. He described this thing like a separate entity inside us, laying dormant waiting for a trigger to set it off. It’s main mission is to absorb and magnify the negativity in our lives. Tolle described the ‘behavior’ of the pain body and how even other people can sense it. His most compelling example was about someone walking into the room and changing the mood in a way that everyone notices. I think we have all experienced something similar. Tolle would say that person was suffering from a particularly active Pain Body. A strangely disturbing recent experience had reminded me of this kind of other entity.

Now any good atheist would scoff at a concept like the Pain Body. Luckily, I was no longer a very good atheist. There were moments, however, when I wanted to throw the book across the room. Mostly out of respect for Kathy, I kept reading. I knew I was learning excellent skills from her that were already helping me change my life.

Honestly, Tolle had convinced me this pain body did indeed exist in some form. It was useful to talk about the pain body like it was an actual separate entity even if, in practice, one only believed that it was a good explanation. The helpful explanation was more useful than quibbling about the biological facts or metaphysical proofs. When the thought rolled through my head that if a concept, like the pain body, could accurately explain something experiential and even lead to good hypotheses about how to deal with those experiences, then it must be considered to be true in some sense of the word.

This loosy goosy interpretation of ‘truth’ would have been deeply offensive to my former atheist sensibilities. It was literally that thought -- that moment -- when I knew for certain that I was no longer the same as I had been before. I knew for sure, right then, that I was no longer an atheist. And further, I was pretty OK with that. I hadn’t fallen down on my knees before some unearthly power, but my view of the universe was expanding.

Fast forward a few years, I found a temple during my time in Grand Rapids. I began to take Buddhism rather seriously and took part in the new temple’s first lay ordination ceremony when I accepted the Precept Vows with several others. Taking the Precepts is similar to a baptism or a confirmation. It is essentially a public ceremony in which one declares their intention to live a Buddhist life. The Grand Rapids Buddhist Temple and Zen Center is still a very important place for me. I have been practicing meditation, on and off, ever since.

When I went back on the road driving a truck, I was back on completely irregular life and sleep schedules. Lots of simple things like sending a card or paying a bill are much more complex from the road.  As a result, my sitting practice went on hiatus for a time. I’ve just written about my joy in getting back on to a regular practice schedule.

Just recently, I had a very strange experience while meditating. One disadvantage of having moved away from what I still consider my home temple, my teacher and my sangha family is that I am far away from any guidance or discussion. The onus was on me, however, and I haven’t called anyone or sought out any help. Nevertheless, I feel it ended well anyway [keep reading].

I’ve had bad times on the cushion before; everyone has. My knees have cramped, my legs have gone restless, my brain has been either foggy or like a monkey on meth. It’s rather amusing to come off a 14 or 15 hour day, exhausted, and try to meditate. I’ve come close to just tipping right over dead asleep.  

This particular day last month, however, was different. My body was restless. Pain and cramps appeared here and there. A leg or an arm would spontaneously and autonomously jerk out of place and I had the willies under my scalp. There seemed to be nothing I could do to stop it; and it seemed to be coming from some “thing” than me.

Holmes Hall
It wasn’t unlike an unfortunate night in the dorm. I don’t remember what was going on in my life. Better yet, I do remember that it didn’t take much of a reason to need to lose control in Holmes Hall in the mid-Eighties. That night I didn’t ‘pick a poison,’ I chose them all. It was a shock and awe chemical invasion; beer, whiskey, tequila and who knows what else. At some point in the evening I realized that I really didn’t feel very well if I was sitting still. It was better, or at least tolerable, if I was moving around. I distinctly remember a feeling like thousands of slimy ball bearings moving around under my skin; surging and flowing. It was kind of gross, but it was way worse if I was sitting or standing still. I started to wander the halls just to maintain my sanity. Sometime around 4:00am, my none-too-amused roommates tracked me down on the fifth or sixth floor of the dorm building next door to ours.

Back to my recent afternoon, sitting in meditation in a sleeper cab truck at a truck stop, I was feeling things inside me again that were not natural; not a part of me. I don’t know if my reading about the pain body contributed to my imagination or whether, in the long run, the reading helped me name it and then deal with it, but I had the sense that my ego was trying to sabotage my practice. It was rather scary but I could feel something -- something else -- writhing inside me like it was trying to regain the upper hand. Even writing it now, I don’t know what any of this means or if it needs to “mean” anything at all.

In previous meditation sessions, if I was going to fall over asleep, I would just stop the meditation timer and go to bed. Other times, when it was a just sore knee or the monkey mind, when I should have stayed at it, I often quit and did something else. For some reason, as this thing within me squirmed and silently howled in anguish, I decided to keep at it; to just sit there.

I might not have been able to stop my limbs from moving around, or stop the gyrating mental distractions, but I was going to stick it out. I was going to just keep watching my breath. Isn’t it funny that when I breathe in, it’s just ‘air,’ but when I exhale, it’s ‘my breath?’ Still, right then, my breath seemed like like the only thing that I knew for certain was me. I was going to stay with that until that god damned chime went off.

I was exhausted when my meditation timer finally chimed. Why it had been so difficult, I had no idea. I didn’t feel any emotion, not jubilant or relieved etc. I didn’t really think about it that much once it was over. My breaks on the road are only ten hours or so. Often when I’ve been doing something else on my break and realize it’s getting late, I just need to drop what I’m doing and try to get some sleep. That’s what I did that night. Sleep came easy after the mental wrestling match.

It wasn’t until I sat down again the next day. When I returned to meditation after that strange session I had a whole new sense of it. Meditating had not always been easy for me; bad knees and a creative mind. I just do what I can when I can, but have always felt like I should sit more often. There was something else, however, that I didn’t recognize. My meditation had an incomplete sense that I had not been aware of. Sitting again, suddenly, it was just me, just sitting. It was as if I had finally left everything behind. I hadn’t known it before but until then, on my own or even all my time at the temple, my meditation had been me … and the timer, and my schedule, and all the stuff in my life and in my head. I had always meditated with my whole life sitting there in my lap. And now, at least in that one moment, it was gone.

This new aloneness was freedom. I don’t have it every day, but I feel like I’m sitting by myself now. I can sit through the session, just me, until I hear the chime. And then life comes back gently. It seems to be much less like two separate mindsets; one in meditation and one living a life. I’m not trying to brag or teach, I just wanted to share this new opening I’ve found; perhaps encourage others who seek such openings. Then again Kodo Sawaki always insisted that meditation was good for nothing.


Hack my news feed, please!

Indulge me to share some positive news from today. It will all make sense in just a bit.

Today was an auspicious day. Just as many good days throughout history, it started like crap. Yesterday afternoon, I had a major flat tire on my cab which lead me to staying put all night rather than running the highway at night as I like. Staying put shifted my schedule and caused a late start this morning. Nevertheless, I managed to get to one of my familiar neighborhoods this afternoon and I was headed to the grocery store. I travel with a bike hanging on the back of my cab, but when I got it down, the threaded cap on the quick release of my front wheel was missing; it must have vibrated loose. The bike was out of action.

None of this sounds like positive news yet, but hang on. Luckily, the grocery store is only about seven tenths of a mile from the truckstop. Even better luck, when I googled “bicycle shop near me” there was one right between me and the Kroger store! I got out my knapsack rather than my bicycle saddlebags and trudged off for the bicycle shop and the grocery.

I expected to have to buy a whole skewer rod assembly or maybe even an entire rim at the bike shop. Yet when I explained my trouble, the bike tech dude grabbed a gallon-size zip lock bag full of random skewer assembly parts out of a drawer. He dug through and found me the threaded cap and the spring that I was missing. After discussing some options for hanging the bike in a better way, I bought a bike fork mount; something I’ve been considering as a solution. With that he threw in the skewer rod parts for free!

So I hiked on to Kroger and picked up several days worth of provisions. At the checkout counter, the sweet older southern lady asked if I had a Kroger card. I checked my wallet but didn’t, so she suggested I try a phone number. I thought about it for a minute and entered a number literally four phones ago; the last time I remember shopping regularly at a Kroger. “Yep, there you go, it took it,” the sweet lady said. “Saved you $8.74!”

After walking back to the truck stop with a full knapsack on my back and eight or ten pounds of fruit in two grocery bags -- one in each hand -- I was a little warm when I got back to the truck. I just happened to be at a truck stop chain where I rarely fuel. I wasn’t sure that I had a shower on my card [truckstops have loyalty cards just like grocery stores and give a free shower with a fill-up]. The back of my shirt was soaked through from the heat of carrying the pack and I was soaking through a couple spots on the front of my shirt. When one of the clerks saw me walking in -- really needing a shower -- he handed me a key freely without checking my card. “Here ya go, man”, he said with a nod and a wink.

So, critical bike parts free, a good grocery discount and a free shower all in the space of two hours or so!  And now for the meat of the project -- hack my news feed, please.  

Some of you may recall that Facebook got in some hot water in June 2014 when it was revealed that they had run a social experiment on almost 700,000 people without notifying them.

From an article in the Guardian at the time:  “One test reduced users' exposure to their friends' "positive emotional content", resulting in fewer positive posts of their own. Another test reduced exposure to "negative emotional content" and the opposite happened.”

A little creepy perhaps, but without taking a side on the issue, this is great news! What an excellent hack: your positive posts lead to your friends being more positive with their own posts, which will lead to all of their friends [including you] being more positive. This is viral by definition; scientifically proven.

We are in control of this and can change all of our lives together. Let’s resist getting mired in the negative bullshit that is so easily trafficked online.

Let’s infect our social media with positive posts!

So, it may sound like I've gone over the edge and I'm singing about unicorns and rainbows in a straitjacket, but ...

                          ...  it could still work. Let's try it.


Hey, y’all, I’m back. [cricket, cricket … ]

Um ... wait ... 
I deactivated my Facebook profile back in August in order to take a personal retreat into my analog life. I wanted to reset the way I was consuming social media and get back to prioritizing those things in my life that align with my intentions and aspirations. I wanted to reinvigorate my meditation practice and I needed to spend more time writing.

Facebook can be an excellent distraction. I drive a truck for a living and can only accomplish other things once I've stopped somewhere. I’m often only stopped for a few minutes, and it was so easy to decide that all I had time for was a quick check on FB. Soon, it was just a bad habit; almost an addiction. I was always hip deep in my news feed, strenuously arguing politics and keeping up with all kinds things that don’t matter me. There was always something else interesting to read. And while it wasn’t endlessly interesting, it was an endless supply of things that seemed
interesting. I have always been a voracious reader but I wasn’t reading things I wanted to read; I was reading the next shiny, interesting thing that came by. After a while I could tell it was only a felt sense of interesting; something artificial. One friend once told another, “you can find Todd on Facebook, he’s always there.” While I am back and a bit ambivalent about being back, I won’t be back in the same way that I was before.

I am working the road hard lately, with the goal of being able to quit by late summer to work full time on my boat. Most truckers don’t have a regular schedule; I am one of those for sure. This has made it tough to maintain a regular meditation practice. Moreover, it’s pretty easy to blame the irregular schedule and get lazy. My meditation became catch-as-catch-can for the last couple years. Even though I actually take Buddhism quite seriously, I had become the proverbial night-stand-Buddhist; I was mostly
Buddhist in what I read at bedtime. With a little extra effort during these analog days, I have managed to return to a regular practice. In fact, I may be sitting more now than I have since the time of the precept ceremony I participated in. I didn’t realize how much I had missed it until it began soaking back into all the corners of my life.

Habits have to be cultivated. Life is good, and quite settled right now, because I’ve taken back control of my habits. When I’m not paying attention to my intentions and the good habits I’ve developed around them, they are easily replaced by habits not of my own choosing. Someone or something else is deciding what direction I should head. I cannot achieve my goals without maintaining habits that contribute to that achievement.

This is the time of year when people talk about resolutions. New Year’s Resolutions are really about developing and maintaining good habits. However, I believe that habits can only be cultivated with daily discipline -- not an annual review. Wresting control from external forces and taking responsibility again for my own navigation was not easy, but it is my only chance to keep making good decisions and get Emma in the water to go vagabonding.

The same effort to live more inline with my aspirations has got me writing regularly again too. There are new posts here at the Zennish Boy blog as well as on the Bubba the Pirate blog. I have also started work on a sailing memoir that will stretch from my very first sail at a boy scout camp in northern Michigan to the present day on the cusp of escaping to sea from the Atlantic Coast of Florida. I'll let you know when it comes out as an ebook. There are also bits of other writing soon to appear over at the Secret Other Blog.

I miss my Grand Rapids Sangha Family.