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Wilderness Dharma: The Wilderness is Already Enlightened April 26, 2013

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The word “Buddha” means the awakened one, and the goal of Buddhist practice is enlightenment, or to become awakened. To be enlightened means to come to a full and direct understanding of the true nature of reality. The more time spent in wilderness, the closer one can get to enlightenment, especially if mindfulness is intentionally practiced while in wilderness. The wilderness is enlightenment itself because it is a physical manifestation of the Buddha’s teachings of the elimination of concepts, of non-self, of wisdom, and of awakening.

One reason I think I feel so comfortable in the Buddhist practice, or why I feel like I just fit right into the tradition, is perhaps because the wilderness already taught me the Buddha’s teachings. I was already learned everything at some point long ago, but just not in Buddhist terms. In a sense, I feel I already “know” the Buddhist interpretation of truth. My discoveries on the path have only allowed me to “remember” what I already knew, or to put into words what was beneath language. In that sense, I am coming home to the dharma when I return to what is most familiar and real for me.

The wilderness is enlightened because enlightenment is the elimination of all concepts. In the wilderness I see clearly that boundaries and lines used to split up or separate our reality into clear distinct parts and pieces cannot be truly applied here. Instead everything blends into everything else, and all things around me are wiggly and messy instead of square or straight. I can’t draw an exact line where the forest ends and the field begins, where the cloud separates from the sky, or when the snow stops and turns into rain.

Concepts are eliminated because no concepts can ever fully contain the sheer immensity of everything around me. Concepts draw clear boxes around reality and capture it into pieces of meaning, but when concepts do this they kill reality. The wilderness is alive, dynamic, moving, and flowing, always shifting, morphing, and changing. Therefore, it can never be captured in a concept because living things and life itself cannot be killed or contained. As soon as one concept is applied to it, it has already shifted into something else.

The wilderness is enlightened because enlightenment involves eliminating the concept of self. When I am in the wilderness I can rest in non-self. I feel the self of “Andrea” that is almost always present drop away, and instead I experience myself as just a human being, as a living being, and as part of life that is all around me. The constructed ego or small self drops away because in this place the labels and ideas that are attached to “Andrea” have no place to rest or no hold onto which to grasp. What do the concepts of “researcher,” “Buddhist,” or “Canadian” have to do with this place? While they might have weight in human reality, they cannot change the laws of nature that still exist here and still apply to me. Such concepts fall silent when they have no reality here to be reflected back at me.

The wilderness is enlightened because it is wisdom, the ancient, unspeakable wisdom of our Earth. There is such vast and deep wisdom already contained within our Earth that has been here longer than any living species. I might use the words natural selection to point to the way all beings and living elements come together to support life. Life occurs when the wisdom is being acted out and everything is just taking care of itself. This process doesn’t come from intellectual thinking but out of the knowledge and wisdom already contained inside of everything. A wonderful and unexpected adventure and discovery of the practice is learning to open myself to this wisdom and to put my trust in it. I know that the wisdom around me in the wilderness is the same wisdom inside my true self that is realized each moment I am alive.

The wilderness is enlightened because it is awake, already manifesting consciousness. And I am awakened when I go into the wilderness. My awareness opens up and expands to accommodate the vastness of my surroundings. I am awakened because I directly experience the physical reality of the changing conditions. I cannot stay asleep or ignore all of the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of shifting temperature and pressures.

The wilderness is already enlightened because it is a physical manifestation of the Buddhist teachings of the elimination of concepts, of non-self, of wisdom, and of awakening. I can tell that the more time I spend in wilderness, the more easily I come to realize these Buddhist teachings. In fact, I am not sure I am realizing them in the sense of learning them as completely new, but instead remembering them as something already learned long ago and now just putting into new words. I am grateful for my experiences of spending time in the wilderness

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Quote: Thinking Not Thinking April 26, 2013

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You might say there are two basic kinds of thought. There are thoughts that pop up unannounced and uninvited in our brains for no reason we’re able to discern. These are just the results of previous thoughts and experiences that have left their traces in the neural pathways of our brains. You can’t do much to stop these, nor should you try. The other kind of thought is when we grab on to one of these streams of energy and start playing with it the way your mom always told you not to do with your wee-wee in front of the neighbours. We dig deep into these thoughts and roll around in them like a pig rolling in its own doo-doo, feeling all that delicious coolness and drinking deep of their lovely stink. To practice “thinking not thinking,” all you need to do is ignore the first kind of thoughts and learn how not to instigate the second type.

– Brad Warner, in Sit Down and Shut Up

Quote: Stressing Ourselves Out April 19, 2013

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Nature equipped you with buttons intended for emergency use only, which were supposed to be pressed maybe ten or fifteen times throughout your life, yet some of us are mashing down on these buttons every single day. Why? Because its exciting! And, admit it, one of the main reasons we get so stressed out in life is because we’d rather be stressed out than—god forbid!—bored.

– Brad Warner, in Sit Down and Shut Up

Wilderness Dharma: Living in Harmony With the Seasons April 19, 2013

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Here is another post to follow up my last post on seasonal food that is also on the theme of living in harmony with the seasons. In many ways, I live in direct contact with the living world, and by extension the changing seasons. I have had the opportunity to notice how the seasons influence me. I notice both the teachings of dualism, and—somewhat contradictory, perhaps—of dualism, as well as the teaching of impermanence. I can also recognize the seasons of my life as part of the greater rhythms of the living world of which I am a part.

Because I have such a strong need to be outdoors and spend so much of my time in the living world, my personal circumstances are directly affected by the seasons. The time of year determines how I get around because I lack a vehicle, whether this is walking, biking, or taking the bus. My leisure activities are determined by the seasons when it affects whether I’m able to be biking, canoeing, camping, fishing, and picking berries, or whether I can be skating, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing. Finally, how I stay active depends on the type of year, or if I’m able to be running, biking, walking, or practicing yoga. As a result of my personal circumstances affected directly by changes in seasons, I have had opportunity to notice my reactions to changes in these natural rhythms.

When living closely with the seasons, I see the lesson of dualism: this is because that is. There is summer because there is winter. We define something in terms of its opposite. We know what summer is because we contrast it with winter. And I will love summer because I don’t love winter, or rather, the more I love summer, the more I hate winter.

However, I think that getting attached to one or another season can be problematic when we base our happiness on external conditions. In fact, buying a plane ticket to “escape” winter for two weeks in the Caribbean would make me hate winter to a more extreme! I would hate winter before I leave when I daydream and crave the warm tropical weather I expect to go to in the future. While I am there, because I just dropped hundreds of dollars just to be there, I would make darned sure I really enjoy the conditions: the exhausting heat and the hot blistering sun. I would hate winter when I got back when I would contrast my past memories of the paradise I was just at with being at home.

The trick is to love every season, or to at least love something or some aspects of every season. At any time of year, I can enjoy the lush green vitality of summer, the beautiful fall colours, gorgeous winter hoarfrost, or baby calves born in the spring.

Another dharma teaching I’ve noticed clearly in the seasons is nondualism. Nondualism states that we can’t draw a clear line to separate two objects or concepts when in fact they are both one. Both objects we try to label as separate are just two parts of a bigger whole, so “summer” and “winter” are two words used to describe the whole, which is “seasons.”

I notice nondualism in the changing seasons when I see that there isn’t a clear way to draw a line between the two seasons. It\s not the case that one day I wake up and one season is completely over, and the other season is completely here. They blend and blur into each other. Moving to another season isn’t like the way I would pull a new page open on a calendar to move from one month to the next.

Which leads me to my next observation, that living directly with the seasons teaches me the dharma teaching of impermanence. The seasons are always impermanent, changing, shifting, moving from one into the other. Each new day of one season is one step away from the past season, and one step closer to the next. We can never capture one season completely by stopping time, but instead they are always in constant flux. Also, when one season ends when we move into the next season, that past season isn’t permanently over. It will be back next year as the rhythms and cycles of the living world continue.

I also can apply my experience of the seasons to my own personal circumstances when I recognize the “seasons of my life.” I see that my personal circumstances and the situations in which I find myself are constantly and continually shifting, moving, and fluctuating. Over the few decades I’ve been alive, I’ve moved through the stages of “good” and “bad” of happiness and depression, of sickness and health, of success and failure, of doubt and faith, and of light and darkness. What’s more, I know that if I live long enough I will see the movement of this human life through more seasons of birth and death, of youth and old age, and of maturing and decaying.

I am able to see more and more each day Thay’s teaching that my joy and pain are one. I only know one side of these shifting seasons when I have already experienced the other. As just an example, I can only truly appreciate my health when I have directly experienced sickness. This gives me more confidence and encouragement to work with my suffering, to embrace it in order to transform it and be healed.

Living in direct contact with the living world allows me to notice very clearly and vividly both the teachings of dualism and nondualism, as well as the teaching of impermanence. I have also been able to notice the teachings of our Earth in my own personal circumstances of this human life when I reflect on the changing “seasons” I’ve lived. Hopefully by being able to accept the changing seasons of the living world as just the way things are, I can accept the changing seasons of my human life as gracefully and humbly.

Interbeing with Our Earth: Eating with the Seasons. April 12, 2013

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I would like to write a few posts about living in harmony with our Earth, specifically living gracefully with the changing seasons. This post is on eating seasonal food, and I plan to write at least one more post on other aspects of living connected to the seasons.

Eating seasonal food has made the activities around food into an adventure, and I feel more humbled in my abilities as a human being. Some other advantages of eating seasonally I have found are a deeper appreciation for the food when I have the chance to enjoy them, and feeling more closely connected to my ancestors, our entire Earth, and the whole universe.

I have made some changes to my personal circumstances the past few years to be more closely connected to the seasons. One change is eating seasonally. I try my best to eat only, or almost only, foods that are local and in season all year round.  In fact, some of the foods I eat I take directly off of the land, and I have no choice but to enjoy these in season. Wild berries, mushrooms, and nuts, as well as herbs for my teas, are only possible to harvest while they are fresh and ripe. I make an effort to eat seasonally out of respect for our earth and my responsibility to ensure my fellow human global citizens have access to resources. While in some way, this decision could be viewed as constricting, there are many advantages I have come to appreciate.

One advantage is that I have had to be more open to new experiences. My eating habits have become almost an adventure. There are so many new foods I have had to learn how to shop, buy, store, prepare, cook, eat, and preserve.

Another advantage of eating seasonally is that I am able to savour and appreciate the foods I do eat because they are only available for such a short time of the year. To take advantage of this opportunity, I am able to freely and completely go “all out” and eat my fill until I have had enough. Week after week I will restock on precious fresh asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, nectarines, eating every single day for weeks on end. Finally by the end I have satisfied my craving until the same time next year. I enjoy the foods more while they are in season because I know they won’t last. I might be eating the food and think to myself, for example, well, this might be the last nectarine I eat for another 10 months.

Another advantage of eating seasonally is that I’m able to recognize and appreciate the ability of plants to store energy and nutrients for me. When the ground is hard and frozen outside in winter and incapable of supporting vegetation, I can still be nourished by the healthy nutrients of the winter foods. They have been adapted and developed by my ancestors to store nutrients and keep me healthy all winter long.

An advantage of eating seasonally is that I am humbled by my need for food that comes from the earth. I realize the limits of my power as a human being when I see that, no matter how hard I try, I can’t make a strawberry plant grow in February. Such conditions are out of my control. Instead, I have to give my power over to our Earth to provide that for me. As a result, I feel more alive as a human being.

Eating seasonally makes me feel more connected to our earth, to the whole universe, and to my ancestors. I feel more connected to the countless generations of ancestors who had no other choice but to eat seasonally. They learned infinite ways to adapt themselves to the changing seasons in order to survive. They didn’t have the luxury of modern conveniences that allows my generation to preserve and ship out-of-season foods.

I feel connected to our Earth and to our entire living world around me that provides such wonderful food. When I am able to know and understand why certain foods only grow and bear fruit under certain conditions, I feel more connected to the rhythms of nature and the shifting life-giving elements. I feel more connected to the living fertility of our Earth that is always providing such abundant fruit.

I feel more connected to our entire universe when I am directly affected by the movement of our planet. The transitions of equinoxes and solstices have a salient reminder to me of how I am moving out of one season and the next. In between these landmark events, subtle changes that might seem so simple as air temperature growing colder or the position of the sun in the sky has a more real meaning for me. These signs mark a transition to shift or change a real and tangible part of my personal circumstances.

A few of the changes I have noticed since deciding to eat in season foods almost exclusively are a sense of adventure in preparing food, as well as deeper humility that makes me feel more alive. I have also found that I appreciate in season foods more when I only have a short time to enjoy them. Finally, my interbeing with my ancestors, our Earth, and the whole universe has become much more salient to me. I hope that these changes will only become more pronounced in the future as I plan to enjoy many more delicious in season foods!

 

Quote: Letting Go of Yourself April 12, 2013

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“Gurdijeff once said, ‘If anything would possibly save humankind from its idiocy, it would be the clearest possible recognition by every individual that they, and all others around them, are most certainly going to die.’ When this thought becomes perfectly clear to you, surprisingly it becomes a source of intense joy and vitality. When you have accepted your own death in the midst of life it means that you have let go of yourself, and you are therefore free. You are no longer plagued by worry and anxiety. You know that you are done for anyhow, so there is no need to fight constantly to protect yourself. What’s the point? And it isn’t just that people spend all their time doing something to really protect themselves, like taking out an insurance policy or eating properly. Instead it is what we do that doesn’t cause any action at all: the constant worry that leads to no action except more worry. That is what is given up by a person who really knows that they are dead.”

– Alan Watts in Eastern Wisdom Modern Life

Quote: Perfection April 5, 2013

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You are all perfect the way you are, and you could use a little improvement.

—Suzuki Roshi

Wilderness Dharma: My Love for Trees April 5, 2013

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Developing mindfulness while outdoors has allowed me to have a greater appreciation for trees. I love trees because they offer me safety and refuge, they are my good friends, and they symbolize perfect self-acceptance.

Last week as part of a presentation I did for a group of students, someone who was co-presenting with me said proudly, “You can call me a tree-hugger, I’ll gladly admit it. I love to walk up to a tree and wrap my arms around it. I take energy from them.”

They could have taken the words directly from my mouth. I feel exactly the same way. I’m a tree-hugger and I love trees.

I love trees because they give me safety and a source of refuge. Going into the forest is a way I take refuge, and I take refuge in these places regularly. I walk into a clearing, lie down on the soft moss or bed of fallen leaves, and stare up at the tree tops and the sky. I watch the trees dance for me in the gentle breeze, trying to hear their silent music.

Forests are a place where I can truly rest. I spend time in forests to rest, and not only to let go of what is causing me stress and anxiety. I also take something away from the forests. I absorb the energy and vitality of these sacred spaces. I am enlivened by the presence of the living beings and living elements around me.

Forests are the ultimate place of safety for me. For my lovingkindness practice, the phrase “may I feel safe and protected” automatically elicits an image of being in a forest. The highest most perfect feeling of safety is sitting on the forest floor, my back against a trunk, completely surrounded in every direction by trees. The wind can be blowing hard above the forest and make the tops of the trees sway, the sound of roaring wind noticeably loud. But I am safe deep in the shelter of the forest. I am protected from the elements of sun by the shade, of heat in the coolness of a thick tree cover, of wind by the study trunks and boughs and leaves, and by rain from the roof overhead.

To be surrounded by trees is to feel a warm loving embrace, a close warm hug. My heart is nourished by the presence of all my plant and animal sisters and brothers. I am restored by the sounds of the birds singing and of the trees breathing in the wind as my outer lungs.

I love trees because they are my good friends. I appreciate their friendship the most while living in the city. While I walk or bike down long, straight, paved city streets and sidewalks, I feel the presence of these fellow living beings. At the same time, all of the harsh fabricated buildings and fences are surrounding me in all directions. I can still sense the life energy of the trees. To have their thick, gnarled trunks beside me is to feel my friends are standing firm and tall beside me and with me. They comfort me and reassure me that I can be okay in this foreign place. They let me know that not all life is killed, destroyed, taken or captured in cement and steel.

I have to rest my awareness on trees when I am surrounded by human constructions of straight edges and square angles. I need to keep my attention on something alive and fluid. I can breathe more easily when my eyes can rest on the living patterns of tilted trunks, twisting branches, twigs, and spreading leaves.

The trees offer me a symbol of how I wish to be. They are fully alive, completely rooted deep into the life energy of our Earth and reaching up to the sky. I long to be truly closer to our Earth, and at the same time reaching up to the sky away from the cement and pavement.

Finally, I love trees because they teach me perfection. They help me understand Thay’s teaching of accepting ourselves when he says the rose is already perfect. I look to the trees as an example of a model of how to embody this self acceptance.

When I look at a tree, I see that it is already perfect just as it is. It might be leaning or lopsided, it might be turning brown or losing some needles or bark. But it is still perfect exactly as it is. It still stands there, proudly displaying and proclaiming its wonderful tree-ness to the entire world. To me, I can’t imagine that the tree has any feelings of inferiority, of needing to change or fix itself to be a “better” tree. It probably doesn’t feel bad about what it is and doesn’t try to change anything about itself.  It probably doesn’t try to be straighter or taller, more lush or any different than it already is. A pine tree probably doesn’t spend its days wishing it were a poplar tree, or even an animal or another species altogether.

When I look at trees this way, I try to accept myself for who I am instead of trying so hard to make myself into somebody different. I try to remember that there are so many aspects of myself that I ultimately cannot change. Instead my energy could be better spent in a humble acceptance and trying to work with what is present.

A few reasons I can capture in words for why I love trees so much is that forests are a place where I can feel safe and take refuge. I also love trees because they are my good friends standing firm and tall beside me in the city, and they embody the spirit of self-acceptance. This post can’t quite capture all of the ways that I love trees, but I am happy to share with you in hopes you feel the same.

Quote: Piglet and Pooh April 4, 2013

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