Presently flying quite high over states like Arkansas or Missouri. Tired-eyed. Wish I were not alone. Starving, I crave the peanuts and pretzel packets they’ll bring us in a moment. I’ll be in Denver, driving, in just a little while. I eat my two packets and stare jealously at others who simply hold but do not eat. Mississippi snakes through below, a blue-clad snake of water, Memphis nearby, and West Memphis, across the bridge. Boats make tiny white marks in the deep lapis lazuli of the snake. Sand-bars visible, and much of the land around the Big Muddy seems to have been touched by its wet hand. Some turbulence as we pass through a giant thunderstorm, but no rain and lightning that I could discern. Again I see the round formations in the farmland “heart of America” section – last time they were covered with snow, however. I am still wondering what man-made activity creates them – it looks like, from 7 miles high, a massive intelligence test for pre-schoolers. Round goes here: square goes there.
The Art of Meandering
Sidling, casting about, wandering: these are all synonyms for meandering. What do they bring to mind? These people I see outside my motel room near downtown Denver, shaky-looking old grizzle-headed guys, bland-face latinos, the pair of Oriental girls who were ahead of me as I walked to find coffee, early this Sunday morning – is it possible they too are meandering, like me? I would like to think so.
Val’s friend Elizabeth made her special burritos for us last night – yummy, and the odor of the cooking as we waited (did I doze?) not half the pleasure. Afterwards we went to the pool here and had quite a nice time. 51 years old, almost, and I had never been in a hot tub – can you believe it? Is this really possible? Slept well, perhaps from 10:30 – 3:30 and then again until around 6. I never sleep much, no matter where I am.
The Mystery of Stillness
So I am up and meandering, looking for good coffee. Walking directly into a very bright, unhazed orb of sun. In the West, walking East. When I first walked out into the utter solitude of the street (Colfax near intersection with Park), something greatly reminiscent of New Orleans – 28-1/2 years ago – bubbled out of the base of my brain, there where the memories gather and slither and recombine. The two Oriental girls turned abruptly and walked directly back toward me. Perhaps they’d reached some liminal point . . . at which meandering reins itself back into a specific direction of time and space. I find the good coffee (Starbucks) and return to my room where I get a message from E. saying Val’s grumpy and won’t get up to go to breakfast, so she and I meet at the vegetarian breakfast spot called Watercourse (I walk the 8 blocks or so from the motel, despite the car).
It’s a good talk. E’s someone you can open up to easily, and I appreciate that a lot out here so far from home and from the volubility of strangers.
A waitress has a bright orange t-shirt on which has written on its back, in garbled letters, something like this:
I ask the cute little thing if she’s into yoga – “the mystery of stillness” — and she says she is, but that the line comes from an e.e. cummings poem and was made for her by a friend.
Watching people, I realize just how much like Flaubert I am. I read in Botton’s book The Art of Travel a long quote from the great author of Mme Bovary, written during his trip to Egypt, in which he exults at the great thrill of simply watching people – in his case a woman on a boat going down the Nile, among other instances – and wondering about their lives, the quality and particulars of their core existence.
We go out to eat, near dusk, at a place called Racine’s, and wait for an outdoor table. E’s sister and brother-in-law are also with us – good people. Val and E. may be headed to Hawaii soon to stay with E.’s mother, since life is getting difficult for them here. My eggplant parmesan is just a bit too much for me to eat. I make a mental note to never again order more than I can eat, and to make Monday a day of eating less food. I’m ready to hit the sack fairly early, but for some reason I toss and turn and cannot sleep. I watch people walking by on Colfax, outdoors. Finally I do manage to get to sleep, near midnight. Sleeping hours for vacationers.
Time plus Poetry equals Love
Up not so early, no breakfast, and I drive to Val’s apartment pretty early in the morning and only buzz the buzzer once. Why wake the child? She’s still somewhat depressed, it seems, by losing her job and by their impending financial straits. I leave the car and walk circuitously toward downtown Denver, ostensibly the intersection of Broadway and Colfax. I take some pictures of statues and of stumblebums and soon find my way to the Sixteenth Street Mall, which, of all malls I’ve ever been in, I decide I like the most. There are all sorts of stores, of course, and venders of various substances – conzuela de fer? – and hot dogs and sunglasses – but it occurs to me as a sort of economic insight that, given the money worries of the girls, I should not spend money foolishly and extravagantly but should really go easy on that and make sure I can give them some cash before I go, to make their lives easier.
I have a couple of cups of coffee, walk until my feet are beginning to tire, and cannot fathom what the “Writers Square” section of the mall has to do with literature or writing. Again, I am infatuated with simply watching people, imagining what their lives might be like or might not be like.
After this jaunt, I go back to Val’s apartment and she’s up, so we go to a place called Jerusalem for lunch. I have a yoghurt drink – unusual – and hummus with pita bread. We meander in search of music, talk, come back and pick up my UPS package containing my camera and sleeping bag (essential for the trip to Shambhala). Back at the room, I read and rest and dip into the spa and pool before Val and I again meet to play some pool at a very manly bar. The pictures on the wall would make John Wayne very ashamed. E. comes by after leaving her workplace. We decide we’ll go to see The Manchurian Candidate and do. I have a warm soft pretzel covered with garlic, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my whole life. Streep and Washington are excellent, and the Candidate guy looks just like his predecessor in the original John Frankenheimer production.
Deep dreamless sleep.
Four Yoginis and Two San Franciscans on a Mission
I can’t get hold of the girls all day, so I am on my own. (It turns out later that Val is not feeling well.) I decide on a very light breakfast, one biscuit and hashbrowns, at the Cafe El Senor Sol here at the Ramada. The waitress seems amazed, and keeps asking me if this is all I want. She has a look that is almost offended, as though she had made me eggs and bacon with green chili topping and I refused to eat it. “That’s all?” – “Yes,” I say and then try to explain but she just gives me a scornful slanting look as she walks away with the coffee pot. I spit on you. You do not like my food. I don’t need your stinkin’ appetite!
I probably nipped back into that outdoor spa before I went back downtown.
I found a one-hour parking spot in front of the Art Museum but wound up losing a lot of that time talking to a girl sitting in a chair in front of a bus whose side is emblazoned VOTE in cursive lettering. “Are you registered to vote?” “Oh sure. Um, can I take your picture? I’m real nervous about asking people to let me take their picture…y’know, I take shots of landscapes and stuff but –” “Sure, are you a photographer?” “Somewhat, I guess. These will probably wind up on my web site; let me give you a card…”
She sighs, scratches her dark henna hair as I find my little Mere Fiction card. “Just as long as I don’t show up naked.”
We get into a discussion about what this is all about. They are traveling across the country on a route that matches somewhat the cursive-lettered word, attempting to get people registered to vote in the upcoming election. I digress into a story I read recently about the brother of a black man who was murdered by the local KKK thuggery in Mississippi during the Evil Years; this brother, a troubled man himself, had begun a trip somewhat like the one these SF girls were on, though he focused mostly on minority voters in impoverished and rural areas of the middle and deep South. I promise to check their site, and I fill out a questionnaire which will probably wind up on their site as a scanned image. Note my glyphic handwriting.
An excellent museum, but I shall have to visit the other floors later. The brass Shiva Nataraja (dancing Shiva) took up much of my time, as did four quaint and intriguing yoginis, one of whom had a boar’s head. The dates were about 900 CE and the informative brochure mentioned that they figured into the movement in India at that time of “enlightenment via the body” (i.e., Tantra). Among the works of Buddhist art were several remarkable Quan Yin statues that I had seen as photographs in books, but never up close and in person. They sat in comfortable postures and looked over the top of my head.
The One You Can’t Escape
After a day of flooding, with the temperatures beginning to drop, I am nearly ready to head north, and west, to Red Feather Lakes and Shambhala Mountain Center.
Yesterday, a window-cleaning employee of the Ramada Inn narrowly missed the singular trauma of seeing me doing my morning yoga in a, well, semi-nude state. Weather was extreme yesterday, pouring most all day and negating my plans for perambulation – I used the time well, however. Sitting in an outdoor spa in the pouring rain is a very pleasant experience. Breakfast also at the Denver Diner with my beloved daughter, who’s sick with the asthmatic bronchitis she suffered from so very often as a child. She talked to her mother back in Alabama and discovered that her brother finally got his driver’s license, after a couple of tries. It scares us both a little. Like our talk about working and how the 9-to-5 grind is bad for human beings, such considerations soften my vacational mood and reminds me that I haven’t escaped from anything or anyone, and when I return to Alabama nothing within other people will have changed very much, even if, perhaps, my travel has lightly changed me. It goes without saying (yet I say it anyway) that we cannot escape from ourselves, no matter how nor where we travel. But it is time for me to put away such discursive thoughts, to pack and leave the city.
I arrived at Shambhala Mountain Center around 1 p.m. after about 2 and ½ hours of driving, half of which was interstate and pretty unremarkable, aside from a near-miss with death as I merged back onto the highway after stopping for gas. At one point I took a detour and made a circle, going through the small town of Laporte, but the sublimity of the scenery made it worth seeing twice. Rumpled, grassy slopes to my right, stony hills to my left – bright orange cuts of earth towering up on my right and then a valley vista of grassland off to my left. I stopped several times to try to capture these scenes with my camera; I hope I succeeded. I reached a log-cabin restaurant called “The Forks” and paused to buy a map of the locale as well as a cappuccino (my last for a while). Assuming the cutoff to Shambhala was close, I started driving again, but the road went on and on and on. I turned on my Phish CD, rolled the windows down, and felt an inner set of goose-bumps as I drove. No-one really knows where I am and I don’t even know very well myself. The cracked-up cloudy sky descends as I ascend into high fog … the elevation shoots up … behind me for the longest way was a Frito-Lay truck, but by the time I discovered the Shambhala sign I had lost even him. (What a marvelous route he must have!)
Ghostly muddy dirt mountain road
High up and you’re all alone now
Aren’t you? Aren’t we?
In the fog one can see nothing
In the fog the self is not even a non-self
I try to focus my camera on a
Poignant chiaroscuro but
It will not focus –
— there’s nothing to focus on –
Contemplating the Dung of Small Creatures
I arrive, however, get registered, and am directed to my tent. I am in my tent now, somewhat cold, sitting in dandasana as I type. The rain has picked up again; water pours down the side of my tent. I wonder if it might even snow up here? I wonder just how cold I am going to be tonight when I put on all the clothes I can and curl up in my sleeping bag? It’s a deluge, 3:30 p.m. Thursday August 19 2004, just like in Denver yesterday evening. The registrar, a slim girl named Jennifer who used a yoga ball for a chair, said people would soon be lined up out her office trailer to sign up for the Sharon Salzberg deal this weekend. Retreat and renewal people will also be allowed to listen to her talks, however. There is yoga at 6:15 a.m., 10 a.m., and around 5:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday (I plan to partake fully). In the soggy meadows now are a zillion types of wildflowers, where last February the only flowers were ice blooms. A large tent has been erected as a meal tent, and I understand I will be bathing in a bathhouse with bunches of other people.
As I get settled in, rain begins. It does not stop. It goes on and on and on, and I feel for the 180 or so people who have to stand in the rain and wait at various spots; I stay in my tent, reading by daylight as long as I can, and then I just drowse. It’s quite enjoyable, except for the fact that I can’t seem to get my head situated. At one point a mountain chipmunk, snazzily striped, creeps up to my doorstep. I watch, not quite asleep. I notice as I stare desultorily around the room that the floor is almost covered – as is the rough plywood table – with miniscule black footballs: mouse droppings? Chipmunk dung? The answer awaits a visual confirmation. The tent is large enough to move around in comfortably, floorless yet erected atop the wooden platforms I noticed last February when I was here. A spongy ochre piece of mattress lies naked atop a wooden bedstead; atop this I have laid, first, my yoga mat, and then my yoga blanket, and then the sleeping bag. The deluge seems interminable. Where does the water go up here? At 6 I rouse myself from my komodo-dragonesque torpor and mosey down toward the big tent where food is served. Noble silence is not observed, except by me and a few others. I guess they didn’t get the word. Unlike last February, when there were but a few tables of diners (mostly workers), this big tent is filled with people. The magnificent salad I recall from before begins to work its nutritive magic on me; the noodles + tomato & veggie sauce is okay, but not a culinary delight. I could’ve survived simply on the salad.
The rain has finally stopped. I take a walk almost to the Stupa but turn around before arriving. I simply needed the movement. I lie down after closing up all the windows in case of further rain, but sleep does not come easily. Something happened (while I tossed and turned and tried various devices for pillows) that illustrates the best trait I have: adaptability.
Other campers, walking behind my tent enroute to the Red Feather camping area – there are a large number of these tents erected – were carrying flashlights to help them along their walk, and these lights cast a variety of different shadows across the ceiling of my tent, at first annoying me but then, as I gave in to it, intriguing me. Who knew pine needles could cast such a wide variety of magic-lantern shows? My mind drifted back to the days when, as a teenager, my parents took us and most of the nearby relatives to Wind Creek State Park, near Alexander City, Alabama. The same thing had happened there. No sound aside from feet crunching pine straw or dirt: only the bounce and swirl of flashlights or lanterns casting shifty shapes. Eventually I slept, dreamless and deep, to wake just before dawn in frigid temperatures with a neck that needed to be unstiffened by yoga.
Mighty Eructations of Wind in the Middle of the Night
I gather my toiletries, dress for the intense cold that already has my ears and nose icy, and trudge down the trail toward the bathhouse. There’s not much going on at this time of morning. Do I hear a garbage can turn over? Must be in my head. An odd musky smell? Sweet. Yesterday’s depleted rainclouds seem to have bunched up at the eastern horizon, like gray socks shoved down into the bottom of a bed.
Very quickly, and alone, with much shivering, I take my shower and re-dress. The 6:15 a.m. yoga class will be starting soon.
Sunrise seems to be stalling. Above the horizon, southerly of Marga point’s dark profile, the palest yellow light provides enough discrimination (viveka) for me to see, just next to the Sacred Studies Hall, three mule deer having an early repast. I think they are eating the things I saw people planting there yesterday.
Large black nostrils puff out some air. Ears like mules, big black eyes. I stand stock still, afraid they’ll run away when they see me, but I need not worry: the larger of the two does looks directly at me as if wondering What are you doing here? They too practice noble silence. The elegant creatures turn to check on the younger (or at least much smaller) animal a little further away. I am tempted to walk toward them – would they lick the salt from my skin, as does my dog Karma? – yet I dare not spook them. I feel very fortunate, and share my fortune with a man who’s walking toward me with his bathing stuff: “Three deer right over that fence there.”
The class is held in a rather small Community Shrine room, which last February was the lunchroom for the schoolkids who were staying at Shambhala during the same time I stayed. Crimson zafus are piled in a corner. The style is one I hadn’t heard of: Mysore. Basically this comes down to the idea that we do what we want, and the instructor comes around and makes suggestions or adjustments. I work myself into a sweat, and the room is not overheated. As is my habit, I don’t pay too much attention to the other yogis, but for the sake of writing this account, I did see that there quite a few older folks, only one or two other guys (why?), and several younger girls who seem to know exactly what they are doing and, I suspect, are yoga teachers themselves.
The breakfast gong rings. “Is that what that means?” says a woman who reminds me of Jane Trechsel, a yoga teacher back in my hometown. “I thought somebody dropped a pan.” People have now gotten the word on the noble silence aspect of meals, and there is no talk of any kind. I can tell some people feel odd with it, but most of us enjoy it. I don’t talk much during meals anyway, and, since I am not the extraverted type, I ordinarily don’t speak unless someone first speaks to me. All types of people are represented – I wonder to what extent this is a snapshot of the faces of western Buddhism: men who look like accountants, sad-eyed ladies who seem to be ill, dread-locked young dudes and a guy in black silk Viet Cong pajama pants — couples and also some children. There are a few kidlings here, and I suppose it is perverse of me but I appreciated, somehow, their raucous violation of the adult silence rules.
Of course, who could resist telling Mommy when the brazen magpie, elegant in his tri-colored feathers (blue, black, white), leaps into the dining hall and perches atop the divider separating we Retreat and Renewal tables from the Sharon Salzberg tables. Now the magpie, impatient for us to finish I suppose, breaks the noble silence rule also with a little burbling pipe-like song. The kids babble on – and how proud I am of the mother and father for not attempting to stop them! – they shriek and giggle and try to catch the bird when it drops down to the floor for a bit of rice. Dozens and dozens of adults sit all around her, quiet as chipmunks. I wonder if the child will remember this experience…
“Mommy remember when none of all those people talked and that big black and blue bird came in and – and – ”
At the Gift Shop, which is only open for brief periods of time, it was too crowded to look for books, though there were some good ones and I may get Feuerstein’s Tantra book yet. More importantly, I saw a broom leaning against the wall and later came back to temporarily borrow it. My tent needed sweeping out in the worst way. Now I don’t have to tread on tiny field-mouse turds.
Before one knows it, there’s another yoga class at 10, taught by Zett, who’s also coordinating this weekend’s events and seems a bit frazzled. I dedicate my practice (it’s a good one, held in a different place called the Red Feather lodge, not far from my tent) to her and to my wife, who I am beginning to miss. I try to call before lunch but the phone’s not working. Lunch and more magpie-and-child show. I think of taking a hike…nah. Storm clouds loom off to the west, and when the splatterings come I head for my tent and wind up taking a long nap after catching up on my writing and reading. By suppertime, the rain has finally ceased – isn’t this the sort of pattern we find in, say, Florida? – and I revel afterwards in the Restorative practice. Then to sit in the foyer where Sharon Salzberg’s giving her talk, making notes:
A friend of hers said giving the Dalai Lama a peace prize was like giving Mother Nature an art award. Ms Salzberg didn’t say whether she’d met the Venerable Lama, but she did say that when he was talking to you he seemed to give you his full attention, “he doesn’t act like he’s waiting to get to the next person.”
She told a story involving plane travel that I really didn’t need to hear. It seems that Sylvia Boorstein, a friend of hers (and author in her own right) was flying from Chicago to San Francisco; after the plane took off, however, the pilot said there was a problem with the hydraulic system and they’d have to return to O’Hare rather than try to make it over the Rockies with the problem. Boorstein started her metta practice, using whatever words she uses but focusing on her closest family members first and going right down to a great grand-kid. Every five minutes or so, the pilot would say, we’re 35 minutes from Chicago…”25 minutes from Chicago…” and so forth, and Boorstein did the “familial” metta practice all the way up until that last five minutes. At that point, she related to Sharon Salzberg, Boorstein was figuring, well, in five minutes I’ll either be dead or I’ll be alive. But the remarkable thing was, her meditation changed: she could no longer limit it just to the family and people she knew well – she could not help but extend it to the entire world. The plane landed just fine, and Boorstein went on to California.
(I began to stare at a tile on the floor in the foyer. It seemed to be as expressive as a Japanese print…I could discern a tawny roundish mountain, a flat place, the sun a dark brown spot up above…slopes. Perhaps this is a sign that I need to go to bed. 8:45, 9:45 CDT.)
She also touched on the four brahmaviharas: metta (sometimes translated as love but without, S. says, all the goofy sentimental and romantic layers we westerners put on the word – really friendliness is closer to the meaning); lovingkindness; sympathetic joy (joy in another’s happiness – and isn’t it interesting, she said, how we might always be happy if we actually too joy in others’ happiness – even when we ourselves might have no happiness directly in our lives); and equanimity (about which more in tonight’s talk).
I hope to be a bit closer and be able to give some visualization about tonight’s talk.
I came back to my tent, snuggled into my sleeping bag, read for a very long time, and managed to get to sleep fairly quickly. But around 2:22 a.m., I was awakened.
First there were the winds. They wound through the upper atmosphere like space-ships passing over – a mighty whooooooooooooooshing noise that seemed to go on for a great while. And then a sudden silence, the “other shoe waiting to drop” silence. Just when the mind is used to that silence – and tonight my tent is totally dark, windows all zipped up – here would come another, sounding like the mighty eructations of some fast-moving Supreme Being. The pines around me seemed about ready to uproot. Alabamians will know these sort of gusts as, according to our meteorological presenters, “straight-line winds.”
Okay. That died out, or at least I got used to it enough to drift back to sleep. But around 2:50 (watch checked with tiny flashlight), there’s another sound outside. I know others heard it because I heard the tell-tale zipping up or down of tents. It sounded like a small, perhaps immature carnivore playing with an empty plastic bottle of water. (I had several of those, but I had put them all up…hadn’t I?)
I could see, against the utterly lightless interior of my tent’s roof, a vision of a bear goofing around with a plastic bottle, trying to get into a Coke perhaps that some thoughtless person had left out. Or perhaps it was a mountain lion? All around, after that one zipping of the tent, was silence…except for the intermittent sound of the beast trying to get purchase with its rough paws – claws in those paws could easily tear this tent apart – in my hyper aesthetic state, like some Poe villain, I thought I felt something run across the top of my pillow. I flicked on my flashlight – nothing. It might’ve been the pillow – my rolled-up yoga mat – moving. It might’ve been the flashlight itself, rolling. It might indeed have been a harmless small striped chipmunk, like the dozens I’d seen in just a day or so. I kept the flashlight on for a little while and I did not sleep for a little while – but the light seemed to have mysteriously quelled the happenings outside the tent. Or – or! Was all of this connected?
I did not get a lot of sleep, but when 5:30 a.m. came, I was ready to get out of the tent and into the cold bathhouse again. Several rabbits, no predawn deer this morning, but after the yoga class, which generated a lot of heat, it was so packed, as I walked across a meadow, I saw a deer come bounding down toward the main building. I took a picture but was probably too far away.
It’s my last full day here, and my mind has begun to think about departure, although my body seems still to be enjoying what has turned out to be a yoga intensive. Three classes Friday, a total of about 5 ½ hours – three classes today. I must leave early in the morning, in order not to run late driving to Denver and to the rental car counter.
Have I missed the Internet? Have I missed the news for three days? Noooo.
Have I missed the people of my life, my son and daughter and wife? Not to mention the poor hound who mourns for me on a driveway in hot August Alabama. Yes, yes, and yes.
At the morning class, a teacher mentions something that sinks in only as I lie in savasana. “We all have reptiles, birds, other creatures in our evolutionary pre-history . . . ” Yes! Thus these asanas, so many named for animals or with the movement of the animals in mind – Shiva of course being known in some quarters as “Lord of the Animals” – are perhaps connected with our being on a far deeper level than we know. When we do eagle pose, is that evolutionary ornithological bird within flying or perching? When we move into lizard, are cells, deep down in the base of the brain, resonating?
The day passes calmly. A storm drifts in, drops its load, moves on out. I try to catch up on lost sleep, I read, I rest my legs. Sitting in front of the dining tent, I notice a hummingbird busily sucking up the energy it will soon need as it migrates over the Gulf of Mexico – a little vacationer itself, yes? Like my mind in sitting practice, it leaps from flower to flower and pokes its little beak down, incessant, almost as though (I have walked up to within three feet of the shimmering jade bundle) it was afraid the flowers would not be there tomorrow. Draw in the energy now! Can’t wait! Now! This blossom, that one, the blue, the red, the pink. Like me, the tiny bird does not know the names of the flowers. It reminds me a lot of my mind when I am sitting.
There seems to be a different set of people at each yoga class, I being the only recidivist. At the evening yoga session, my last, I thank Zett the teacher for her classes and ask if anyone there might know the name of the sweet-smelling, ubiquitous grass or shrub that grows throughout the meadows in the area. No one knows, but it might be sage. It is a pale hunter green and the bushes are shaped like cedars, only much smaller. I pinched some up and the odor was so lush it was hard not to take a bite or at least smear it over my face. As Zett gives me a ride back to dinner – I admit it, my leg muscles are too weary for the walk today – we talk about Erich Schiffmann. “He’s my hero,” she jokes; I tell her about the Monteagle workshop each spring and how much I learned his book. I also remember to borrow paper and jot down some new things I’ve learned from her classes – yogic souvenirs for my classmates at home.
“Look over there.” She points out two people in parkas standing within 40 feet of two large deer. I tell her about my experiences with the deer in the early morning hours, how I was afraid to move.
“This land has been under the hand of ahimsa for thirty years or so now. All the creatures here are utterly tame.” I inwardly hope they don’t wander into the hunting areas. “You could probably have walked right up to them, perhaps even fed them something.”
Eyes of the Bear, Are They Upon Me?
Eating my last meal at Shambhala, in silence although inwardly I wonder about the lives of the people around me – the kid with the dreadlocks pushed into a Jamaican cap (didn’t I see him in February?); the tall, elegant dark-haired woman in sweats; the various types of couples.
It strikes me that when one’s food is as nutritious and tasty as this, one doesn’t need to eat all that much of it. I look down at my belly, the one that makes my sarvangasana so difficult, and wonder if I’ve lost weight or it just feels like it. (Editor’s note: it was true.)
Before Ms Salzberg gives her last talk, a spokeswoman goes up to the mike in the Sacred Studies Hall and makes this chilling announcement:
“If you are near downtown [this is what they call the area where the dining tent is erected, where finance offices are located and a couple of other buildings] around 5: 30 in the morning – ” my ears perk up: that’s where I am when I go to the bathhouse before early yoga – “please remember to make some noise. Hum, or whistle, or click sticks together.”
Uh oh. “A mother bear has been seen trying to maraud the dining tent…”
Due to the noble silence, there are no mumbles of discontent, no verbal expressions of dismay, but I can feel them.
“Now, she’s not a grizzly bear. She almost tore the back of the tent apart trying to get away from a person who saw her here once before. But just be aware if you’re out around that time of morning. Thanks.”
Yeah, thanks! I feel in hindsight the eyes of the bear on me that first morning. So that was that odor? My own fur ruffles up in numinous awe and yes a little fear. Ursa mater eyeballing me as I strolled to the bath-house, freezing, staring up at the line of the horizon, still half-asleep. Perhaps I just didn’t smell good enough to eat.
Direct from the Hindsight Meditation Society
I take a blue zafu in the western part of the hall and await Ms. Salzberg’s arrival. People are getting comfortable; one girl actually lies down on the mats. When she arrives and settles into her chair, I am astonished to realize she looks a lot like what Val, my daughter, might look like in mid-life: short, straight, dark-brown hair, just like Val; same endomorphic body-type, and also the same intelligence striated with a dry sense of humor.
Her talk centers on the four brahmaviharas, which, loosely translated, means: best (or expansive) home. She also discusses the “far” enemies and “near” enemies of the brahmaviharas. Sipping from a cup from time to time, Ms Salzberg smiles wryly but rarely laughs as she tells the stories that have her audience roaring. The stories are excellent, illustrative in often indirect ways of the concepts she’s trying to get across to us: love and love’s far enemy of aversion, the near one of attachment; compassion and cruelty, with the near enemy of pity or grief (“when we are so debilitated by the suffering we see that we are useless”); sympathetic joy, whose far enemy is envy or jealousy and whose near enemy is comparison; and equanimity – reactivity being the far and indifference being the near enemies.
She tells a lot of stories, but one of the best is about the time the IMS, newly formed, asked certain people to come give talks, and, surprise, they did! The Dalai Lama was one of these, back in 1976 (or perhaps 1979). She told this story as an elucidation of the vihara of compassion. She’d done a lot of work, she said, arranging the visit by the Dalai Lama, but she’d sustained a broken foot before it happened, and when he was about to walk into the place they had fixed up there, she was standing back toward the back of the hall, on crutches, and feeling pretty miserable and very sorry for herself (one of my crucial flaws, also).
If only I didn’t have this broken leg, if only I wasn’t on these crutches, I could be right up there at the front and speak to him and perhaps ask a question – she’d be more in the middle of things. But the bad break had left her relegated back in the back of this huge crowd of people and unable to get any closer.
When HHDL walked in – and Salzberg pointed out that she discovered later that this was not unusual for him but something he did quite often – he walked directly over to where she stood on the crutches.
“What happened?” he asked. “How did you hurt yourself?”
I wish I could remember some of her other stories. She was quite the raconteur.
I went back to my tent and wrapped my blanket up around myself in a somewhat bearable seated posture, and I did a metta meditation of my own devising.
With a faint feeling of sadness, mixed a bit with pleasant anxiety, I again rise early, but later than the bear, and I do not bathe. I pack my stuff, decide to stay long enough for one more delicious bowl of oatmeal, and thereafter hit the road. Before I leave I run into Zett; she wishes me Godspeed.
It’s about 108 miles (fortuitous number!) from Shambhala Mountain Center to my daughter’s apartment in Denver, and the trip this morning is different from the trip three days ago because there is no fog. Everything that was hidden from me before is now revealed. It feels very much like a Sunday, and I take my time, stopping to take my last batch of photographs and just to breathe the air. I know I am descending, and it takes a little creative decompression to make the adjustments – sort of like coming down out of headstand slowly and with the stomach muscles engaged . . . . I almost leave the road a few times as I stare at the configurations of the land around here – at one point some treeless slopes resemble nothing so much as the toes of a very large foot, ravines down between each one – many miles behind me, visible only occasionally, is the whitened face of a glacier. I bid this land farewell after I pass the Forks store for the cappuccino, fixed for me this time by the proprietor, who tells me “this is as much green as I’ve seen around here at this time of the year.” The sky arches out before me and the land flattens…high plains begin here, a sign could truthfully read.
Two hours later, I’m back in Denver. Val and I try to find a place to eat breakfast, eventually do, and discuss her imminent move to Hawaii, where her girlfriend’s mother now lives ($1500/month!). They’re selling everything they have for the trip, and should be leaving by the end of next month. My firstborn child seems less sick this morning, and I’m very glad to see her. She seems a bit apprehensive about the move, but also excited. We discuss the foibles of our other immediate family members as we eat omelets slathered in green chili, and in a little while, after repacking, I am en route to the airport. Here a bit of trouble ensues.
The security wait is much longer than the DIA (locals call the airport DOA because of the troubles that occurred before it was built), and I realize I’m going to miss my plane, if it leaves on time. Some people urge me to go ahead of them, and I do, but by the time I reach the gate, it’s too late. The plane is gone. A blonde woman with flashing eyes is deeply angry, almost to the point of screaming at the relatively calm people behind the AirTran counter (are they really? Or do they just see this so often that they have become indifferent? Are they indifferent – 4th brahamavihara – or equanimious). When I see her anger, somehow my own stress is defused or perhaps becomes more diffuse. I concentrate on what I can do to get home quickly. “Check Delta and Frontier,” says the counter clerk. I ride the shuttle-train back and forth for a while and eventually, after a phone call, make some arrangements, get a ticket and then have to go back through the security lines again. Will there be enough time? I can only hope.
The lines move fast, but this time I must fit some terrorist profile, because I am singled out to a checkpoint off to one side. My socks are checked with the wand. A woman pulls my folded yoga mat out of my backpack and looks carefully at my books. Of course they eventually let me go, and as I glance at the clock I realize I’ll make it. I relax. Now the only thing to worry about is the plane crashing, and there’s not much point in worrying about that.
I begin to realize that nothing back home will have changed: the grass a little longer in the yard, the dog’s fur a bit nappier and tangled, a few more bills to pay. All the things that make home not-home come swarming in, but I try to doze anyway, without success. The stewardess, in a thick but pleasant Scandinavian accent, asks if I would like some Chicken Pasta.
“Do you have any vegetarian dishes…some vegetables?”
“No!” she adamantly replies. “I’m sorry.”
Evening falls at 39,000 feet. I try to get interested in the patterns of the earth and the clouds – far, far to the south of Oklahoma City there are some stacks of cumulo-nimbus that one might mistake for skyscrapers – but it’s difficult. I am actually a little hungry, having had my last meal over 12 hours ago. The guy next to me works diligently on his laptop – I can tell he’s doing work, not fun stuff, by the things I read over his shoulder. Jeez, the whole world is so busy. People driving and talking on the cellphones. Guy flying can’t even take a moment to look out the window, so busy he is with preparing tomorrow’s work. My spirits begin to flag. The stewardess brings my friend his Chicken Pasta, plus a redolent roll and a decent-looking salad. I try to read, but my attention drifts toward the fairyland lights of Memphis, Tennessee. I play a game with myself, trying to figure out which city is easing by beneath me as we proceed toward Atlanta, where by now my wife is waiting for me. This plane was late leaving.
“Would you like my salad and roll?” the worker with the laptop asks me. “I’m on a low carb diet and they’re really just temptations to me….”
I am surprised. “Sure, thanks, man, you must’ve read my mind!” I munch the salad and roll and also the tiny slice of pie.
It occurs to me: here’s a gratuitous act of kindness, one stranger being nice to another. And I had written him off as a workaholic – I had pigeon-holed him in my mind, just as Sharon Salzberg said we always do when we’re angry. Sometimes we even pigeon-hole ourselves.
Every year around the second or third week of August, I have noticed, there begins to be a noticeable influx of bright yellow tourista butterflies. They always fly from north to south, so I assume there’s a migration going on. They pause only to nourish themselves at local flowers, and somehow they know which way is north and which is south. You sometimes see them in pairs. For me, these butterflies are consolatory harbingers, reminders that the hot summer is almost over and soon we’ll start getting the cool mornings, the dropping sycamore leaves, then the maples, then the black walnuts, then the oaks. They are my own personal anicca emblems, yellow flying symbols for the transience of everything in our lives.
© 2004 Thomas N. Dennis