September 25, 2012 § 22 Comments

I grew up with the surf and ocean as part of my life.  My mother used to say that the first day of each summer season, I would always run screaming directly into the surf- full sprint- undiluted joy.  I still feel that way about the ocean.

In my adult life, it is my sanctuary.  A place of peace, a spiritual place.

I now understand that the ocean is also a great teacher.

When you are trying to paddle out against a strong surf, you soon discover that you can’t just bust through the big waves.  You must learn to maneuver yourself and your board to create the least possible resistance to the wave and allow it to wash over you.  Even the strongest surfer cannot bend the wave to his will.

And when the surf presents itself like a roiling cauldron, as on the eve of a great storm, and you go out without the board, you must give yourself over to the surf.  You swim and struggle to get out but once in the midst of the raging surf, you’re best off just letting go.  Letting the crashing and ricocheting waves bounce you around, push you under, and have their way.

The ocean is a mighty thing.  When it rises up, resistance gets you nowhere.  But letting go, accepting its power, can bring moments of great bliss.

This is true in life- everywhere, always.  We do not achieve our moments of transcendent bliss by wrenching them out of the cauldron of our busy lives.  Effort, thrashing about, resistance- not the path.  Those blissful moments come to us only when we are open to the wonder and energy that surrounds us.

So I try to live the lesson the surf has taught me.

It’s effortless.


September 13, 2012 § 40 Comments

I sometimes feel like a fraud in this work.  Peace, strength, presence.  Who am I to speak of such things?

These past few days have been like that.

I’m going through a period of what I call feeing “unsteady.”  Like walking across an icy sidewalk in dress shoes.  Having to consciously hold on to my balance.

The thing about feeling unsteady is not so much the risk of falling.  Nor is the pain really in the fall itself.  The great cost of the feeling is that so long as I am feeling unsteady, I cannot be at peace.

I say to myself- you’re okay, just breath.  And I pretend that the calm this induces is peace.

There are long stretches where I’m not consciously anxious or bereft, where I’m holding myself together.  And I think that in this effort I have found peace.

But all that time where I am watching where I step, where I project calm and composure, where from the outside all looks well, I am not well, really.  All that conscious effort blocks any hope of real peace.

And so as these unsteady days roll on, I sometimes wonder what I am doing writing about peace and strength.  Someone who lives the lessons with such inconsistency.

I have no pat answer to this.  But I do believe that anyone who seeks self-awareness and to live an authentic life will struggle.  And I know that among my great teachers have been those who struggle, who battle their demons with awareness and honesty.

So I’ll just have to feel unsteady until it passes.  Then I’ll regain peace, the true peace that is natural and effortless, not falsely manufactured, just lived.

Struggle, peace, struggle, peace   My life from here forward, I imagine.  But a real life, not a fraudulent one.


September 6, 2012 § 41 Comments

I step out this morning just before dawn. I notice first the air.  It feels cool and rich to my skin, a mixture of the cold night and the warmer, humid advancing day.

I look to the sky.  A bright half moon, stars emerging to my vision.

In the dim light the towering trees that encircle my house appear nearly black and two-dimensional- like abstract paintings propped up against the sky’s gray backdrop.  As I turn to the east, I notice that in just that moment the pinkish blush of dawn’s promise is starting to push its way in.

Birds calling to each other, a staccato interruption of the hum of night.  The silent dark houses of my neighbors.   And just then the distant sound of a truck starting up in the valley below.

Before I step back in, I close my eyes and feel that place and moment one last time.  All of it- the air, the moon, the stars, the sky, the trees, the birds, the silent houses- existing for me right then.


In that moment between night and dawn, the awareness filled me up, leaving no room for worry, doubt, or fear.  No space for anxiety.  Quieting my busy mind.

I know that this awareness and peace can be mine at any moment, in any place, not just that quiet sanctuary where I stood this morning.

If only I can live what I know.

Against the Cabin Wall

September 3, 2012 § 34 Comments

I am not sure what it means to believe in God.  I cannot offer any clear definition of spirituality.   But this I can say.


Thunder Lake sits in a bowl high in the Rockies.  It is a natural amphitheater, ringed by peaks.  Breathtaking grandeur.

That day a storm had blown in.  Deep snow.  Nearly whiteout conditions.   Howling winds across the lake.

The small wooden patrol cabin locked.  No shelter inside.  I huddled against the cabin wall on the side away from the wind. As I pressed my body against the wood, I felt fear.  Alone.  Isolated.

I looked across the lake, through the swirling snow, and saw the mountains, rising up into the gray sky.  In the next moment, the wind died, its howl drifting down into the valley.  The quiet came.  A dim, filtered sunlight pushed its way into the bowl.

Fear left my body like a sweat.  Washed away, gone.  In its place came a sense of well-being, a preternatural calm- the sense of safety and security that I can only imagine last belonged to me as a small child in my mother’s arms.

I felt no anxiety.  I wanted for nothing.  I was right where I was supposed to be- still huddled against that cabin wall, still hours from the trailhead, still deep snow ahead.  Still alone.  But not alone.


These words are as good as I can do to describe that moment.  But they’re not good enough.  That feeling that day was more.  Beyond words.  Not to be pinned down with language or explained by reason.  Just to be felt- and to be lived.

The Icy Bridge

August 30, 2012 § 19 Comments

He only earns his freedom and existence

Who daily conquers them anew.


I am staring at a narrow log bridge spanning a raging mountain stream.  Covered in ice and snow.  Three hours from the trailhead.  The wind howls.  I think, if I slip and fall, I probably won’t make it back- hypothermia.

I step on the bridge.

I am staring at my beloved.  The room is warm and safe.  I have something important to say.  Something hard.

I ask about something else- anything else.

Physical fear is powerful but it is linear, simple- if I fall, I die.

The fear that inhabits our relations with others is different- messy, not simple.  It percolates up from a cauldron of guilt, anxiety, and self-loathing.  Fearful, we endure relationships that make us feel small and lost.  Or we let those we love drift away.  This fear separates us from our sense of self.

That day in the mountains, I was seeking something on the other side of the bridge.  Something important.  The spiritual experience that day brought me.  And so I stepped out- with care and with commitment- focused and fully present.

Each moment is like that icy bridge.  Calling us to find the strength to step out in this strong and present way.  Calling us to overcome the fear.

It is difficult, often we falter.  But what awaits us on the other side is something with value beyond measure.  A life that is authentic, true to our sense of self.  Without separation from those we love.  The place where we become who we are, truly.


A Hard Peace

August 23, 2012 § 53 Comments

I often refer to “peace.”  I say that peace is “always there.”

Sounds good and works so seamlessly when life’s ordinary ups and downs knock you sideways.  Stuck in traffic and late for an appointment?  No problem.  Just take a breath and feel the peace of acceptance.

But when you confront real loss, the kind that takes your breath away- a child dies, a parent disappears into dementia, a marriage unravels- what does it mean to say that you should seek the “peace that is always there”?  How exactly does that work?  What possible consolation could exist for such loss?

I don’t know the answer.  But this I believe.

If I can spread my arms wide and hold that terrible loss in my embrace, if I can stop all the avoiding, all the thinking, and just let that howling grief come in, I will feel for a moment nearly undone.  Standing on the edge of a terrible precipice.

But it will be there- in that horrific and unfiltered embrace of loss- that acceptance will come.  Not made up acceptance.  Not “all things work out for the best” kind of acceptance.  Not happiness, not even contentment.  And certainly not free of the loss and pain.  But free of all the resistance and all the pretend consolations.  Free to find and hold my strength again.   Free to go on.

It’s a hard kind of peace.  But when unspeakable loss comes crashing in, it’s the only kind I know.


August 20, 2012 § 46 Comments

I have only hazy memories of my paternal grandfather.  Grey hair, angular face.   A serious man.  He sent his son to a military boarding school- to toughen the boy up, I imagine.

I have vivid memories of my father.  Cropped salt and pepper hair, dark eyes.  Whip smart, a great writer, socially graceful, desperately in love with my mother.

My father taught me many things- how to play tennis, how to catch and eat blue crabs, how to take care of dress shoes.  But amidst all the great and wonderful things, he taught me something else- something wrong and terrible.

In our house there was a right way and a wrong way to do everything- mow the grass, get a haircut, drive the car, park the car, pack the car- you name it.  I knew that because of my father’s appraising, critical, and relentless gaze.

When something wasn’t done the right way, I received that lacerating look, sometimes joined with a few short brutal words, but mostly just the look.  More than enough.

I learned the lesson.  For most of my life, I was ruthless in my self-appraisal.  Each moment, each choice, each thing.  Right way, wrong way.  Judging, judging, judging.

I turned it outward too.  Judging everyone and everything around me.  A ferocious critic of all I surveyed.

The worst thing, the most terrible thing, was to see the reflection of my critical gaze in the people I love the most- to understand how I had fed their self doubt all those years.   How I had harmed those I loved so deeply.

Father to son, father to son, on and on.  Our affliction.

Now I know.  No right way/wrong way, no judging, no look.  Just to love and to be.

I’m trying.

Gone But Not Gone

August 15, 2012 § 55 Comments

“You may think that when you die, you disappear, you no longer exist.  But even though you vanish, something which is existent cannot be non-existent.  That is the magic.”

Shunryu Suzuki

My mother does not know who I am.  She lives in a locked down wing of a facility that she will never leave.  She cannot hold anything in her mind for more than a few seconds.   She will die there.  I often hope it’s soon.

My mother is gone.

Before she was gone, my mother would often say to me, “You’re such a good writer.”  She meant it as a compliment I know but there was something else.  It was as though she thought that I didn’t understand, or wasn’t using, my talent.

But all those years my mother kept saying this to me, I was writing.  Along the way I published dozens of articles, several book chapters, even a book.  And still, I would hear from my mother that same admonishing compliment- “You’re such a good writer.”

What I now understand is that amidst all those pages of published work was hardly a single page that really meant something to me.   Mostly cold, academic stuff.   Hundreds of pages where I was not to be found.

That’s changed.  Now I write what I feel- not what’s expected, not out of any ambition.  Writing now because I can’t see any other choice.  Drawn to the work with all my heart.

My mother patiently waited all those years for me to believe in myself.   By the time I did, it was too late for her.  Now she’ll never read anything I write- ever again.

But she’s here, right now, in my work.

Gone- but not gone.  Never gone.

Be There

August 13, 2012 § 45 Comments

The first mile of my run is always the hardest.  Before I find my rhythm, before my mind clears.  Painful, labored, difficult.

But soon I’m just running.  I am aware of my surroundings- I hear the birds, feel my foot strike the ground- but I’ve shed the dualistic and busy way of thinking of the first mile.  No me and the birds, or me and the ground- just me, running.  Feeling strong and sure.

I am drawn to simple, elemental sports.  Running is the paradigm.  But also snowboarding- a board, the mountain, and gravity.  And surfing- a board, the ocean, and waves.  To be just running, just boarding, just surfing is to be in that transcendent place where you are fully engaged physically but somehow utterly at peace.

You do not have to be on a wooded trail or a mountain to find this feeling.  It does not come from the place or the nature of the activity.  It is available to each of us in each moment, wherever we are, whatever we are doing.

When we lose the dualistic way of thinking, our mind clears and we settle into whatever we are doing.  Just reading, just cooking, just being with the other person.  The peace comes upon us.

So wherever you are, whatever you are doing, just be there.

Demons in the Night

August 7, 2012 § 31 Comments

The transition from sleep to awareness feels instantaneous.  My mind has leapt into full alert- heightened in its capacity to catalog and elaborate on tonight’s list of difficulties and failings.  Down each rabbit hole my mind plunges until I hit bottom- always a conclusion stunning in its simplicity and harrowing in its implications.  Hopeless.

When I try to think my way out, I only get more entangled.  Maybe it will work out for the best because of this or that, I say.  But my ferocious mind pounces on that consolation, ripping it to pieces.  Turning my pathetic efforts to climb out of the hole into further reason for my self-loathing.  My nighttime mind can be horrifically brilliant in this way.

Night or day, trying to outthink your busy, ferocious mind is always a mistake.  It will tear you to bits every time.  Resistance only feeds the busyness.

The demons are always right outside the door.  So when they knock, don’t try to bar the door or throw them out.  Be the imperfect host.  Welcome them in- and then pay them no mind.   Soon the demons will retreat.  Soon peace will come upon you.

They’ll be back.  That’s for sure.  But you’ll be ready.

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