Learning How to be AWAKE!

Learning How to be AWAKE! 1/13/18
Every once in a while you have what is termed as an “a-ha” moment. I don’t get them really often, but I had one this morning while I was reading a book entitled, The Hidden Lamp. It’s a collection of stories or koans about Buddhist women. Here is the sentence that gave me my “a-ha” moment:

“A human birth is supposed to be an advantageous birth because only as a human being in a human body can one awaken.”

Now, I am not attached to the concept of reincarnation. I am not attached to any concept of life after death. The reason for my lack of attachment to any conceptualized idea of life after death or what happens, et cetera is that I personally just don’t know. And honestly that has been okay with me most of my life, that is until my mother passed away. She was the first person in my life that I watched take her last breath. It changed me forever, and I have not been able to let some things about that event rest. From that moment on almost three years now my biggest questions have been, why are we here?, where did she go?, and what is the point of all the suffering in the world if we just die?
Now, I am not trying to be all down and negative, although I have had my moments with these questions for sure, but I think over time I just gradually gain some acceptance of the fact that I won’t know, I can’t know….it just is. For me, that is what it’s been like so that I can continue on, survive and thrive as a human on this planet. I think I really came to a point that I am here to just do the best I can and help people whenever it’s possible. That means whether it’s mothering or grandmothering or being at work or being a good friend or a good sister. Helping people because we are all going through this together. We are all suffering in some way or another so helping each other with whatever we can is the reason. This thought and belief has gotten me through. It has helped me continue to try to grow and evolve with time.
And then there was this sentence…

“A human birth is supposed to be an advantageous birth because only as a human being in a human body can one awaken.”

Now, leave out the part about human birth and all that could be associated with that and just look at the part where it says…..CAN ONE AWAKEN. This is what got me. It dawned on me that the reason I am here, the reason I am human, the reason I am on this planet right now in time as a tiny little miniscule person in the galaxy is so that I can WAKE UP! Wake up to life, wake up to possibilities, wake up to suffering, wake up to knowing how to walk through suffering to the other side, wake up to other people’s suffering, just wake up to everything!!!
Zen Master Seung Sahn famously said, “What is it? Don’t know.” This is a koan that some Zen students study for years, even a lifetime. We meet each moment with exactly what it is, nothing more, nothing less. Being present, really present is part of being awake. When I read that sentence this morning, many of the painful moments of my life flashed before my eyes, and I had a new understanding about them. I had a sense and a feeling that they happen to help me become more awake. Each moment I have been through that has been painful, my natural instinct is to ask, WHY????? That word (why) can literally drive me insane. I want to know. I want to know now. I want all the details. I want answers. The not knowing is painful. But when I saw those moments this morning and realized that after walking through them, I am still here. I am still thriving. I am still trying my best. I am still living, taking my breaths that I am becoming awake. I am coming out of my birth fog. I am spreading my life wings and learning with everything that is. I am learning that becoming awake is life. That is the reason. For me the answer to the koan, “What is it, don’t know” is “BECOMING AWAKE!!!” Everything I go through…good, bad, indifferent is about me becoming awake. There is no other reason. We are all dying. There is no getting out of it. Learning how to live this life with love in our hearts and for others is what I think it’s all about. The more awake I become, the more love I will have in my heart for myself and for others.
Every little step I take in this life is a choice. I am human, and sometimes I make the wrong choices. Sometimes I am asleep and don’t notice I am still breathing and can make a difference today even if it’s a little one. I want to be AWAKE!. I want to make a difference. I want to leave behind the message that we are here to help one another, all sentient beings, spread love and peace, and take care of ourselves. With this knowledge, I will hopefully live fuller, be more open, and give more. Today I realized that the reason I am here is to BECOME AWAKE! Peace and Love, Everyone!

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Embrace the Suck!

Grapeyard Ridge/Baskin Creek Trail 8/5 and 8/6, 2017

This is a term that is well known on the Appalachian Trail for thru-hikers….Embrace the Suck!  That’s because so much of the trail is hard to do, uphill, strenuous, exhausting, etc.  Well, I was reminded of this on Saturday when I started the Grapeyard Ridge Trail. Several days before the hike, I asked our fearless leader (Mr. D.)  if he thought I was capable of such a “moderate” hike as it is labeled, and he said, “The question for you is whether 7 miles with a backpack is still too much at this point? Or are you willing to go for it and see what happens?”  To me that sounded like a challenge….well, challenge accepted!  I should have known better….but wait, there’s more….

So my friend, Eventually, (this is her trail name), gets to my house to ride with me.  I am pretty excited about it, but nervous as well.  I have meticulously planned, coordinated, researched the hike, my gear, printed my permit, packed, repacked and packed my backpack again trying to cut out any extras that might save some weight because you want as light a pack as you can have.  I think mine weighed about 30 pounds which is way too heavy.  I am feeling okay about my pack when I remember I hadn’t even added my food or water to the pack….there is a few more pounds.  We get all of our stuff together and head off.

On the way to the trailhead, I am looking at my phone trying to figure out where we are going to turn when I look in my rear-view mirror and see a police officer with his lights on in the far distance.  I said, “I think he might be after me.”  Sure enough, I was speeding, but there was nowhere to pull off.  He came right up behind me and turned on his sirens now, so I pulled right over on the road, got out my license and registration and prepared myself.  I had no idea what the speed limit was.  I hadn’t been to Gatlinburg in years, and honestly I was looking at my phone at Google maps.  I know it’s wrong, but I thought I was paying attention.  He said, “Do you have any idea how fast you were going?”  I said, “No, sir.” because I didn’t know.  Well, I was going 60 in a 35!  Yup, that’s right.  I had not been pulled over by anyone in so many years, I was completely flustered and bracing myself for the worst.  I deserved it.  I even held up my phone and explained that I was looking at Google maps, not the speed limit, which is even worse.  I wasn’t going to lie to him, so there you go.  He then went into helper mode and told us where the trailhead would be and told me to have a nice day.  HAVE A NICE DAY!  I couldn’t believe it.  I haven’t even gotten to the trail yet, and I have already had so much adrenaline pumping, it was ridiculous.  I learned my lesson and drove about 20 miles per hour the rest of the way…  SOOOOO GRATEFUL!!!

So that was how I started my hike….jump forward and we get to the trailhead and I have to pee.  Well, I better get used to going in the woods for the next 24 hours so why not start now.  It wasn’t that bad, and I had meticulously planned for all types of scenarios for that as well.  All set and here we go!  It quickly breaks up into the fast group and the slow group.  Mr. D. is our trail sweep and our teacher as well, and he hikes the whole way with us, one patient step at a time.  Seven miles pretty much straight up the first day and three or so miles the next day.  It was roughly 500 feet per mile incline which is really steep (at least for me and my unconditioned legs, lungs and body), and we were hauling ourselves up there at about one mile per hour…yes, you heard correctly one mile per hour….SEVEN-ish VERY LONG HOURS LATER….we reached our destination at Campsite 32!!!  Literally thought I was going to die…seriously!!!

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Before the pain…

Now, let me paint you a little picture of those seven miles….First of all, we see a bear first thing walking off in the distance.  Then not one mile in I step in a very large pile of bear poo.  Nice.  Got so nauseated from the ascent that I nearly puked several times, got multiple charlie horses so bad that my hiking buddy had to rub my knee from spasming so badly.  Every few feet having to stop to breathe and quit sucking wind, with constant (and I mean), constant encouragement from our teacher not to quit, keep going, you can do this, I was there where you are, etc. etc.!  I was so exhausted and sore I almost cried several times.  I really ruminated about how nice it might be if I could just lay down and have a bear come drag me off and eat me.  Seriously!!!  It would be cheaper than a helicopter picking my ass off the side of a mountain, and I just didn’t care!

So seven and a half hours later, we had climbed seven miles….yes, 7 miles!!!!  OMG!!!!  I was beyond exhausted.  I was having charlie horses in my knees, legs, and ankles – yes, I said ankles.  Have you ever had a charlie horse in your ankle?  Well, it ain’t pretty!  I was dehydrated, had a headache, and I couldn’t even eat.  I laid in my tent and fantasized about being home wondering what the heck I was doing.  I couldn’t wait to get home.  I laid there for about an hour and finally started doing some stretches in my tent and got up, ate a little bit of food and drank a little water, and I started to feel a little better.  Everyone else seemed to be doing just fine and having a great time.  I just sat there and tried to think positive even though I was wondering what kind of craziness my life had spiraled into.

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My wonderful tent!

As the night progressed I started to feel even better and I finally did some yoga, took some Vitamin I (ibuprofen), and sat around an awesome campfire.  We listened to stories and adventures and it was beautiful.  We had wonderful weather, a full bright moon, and cicadas singing really loudly.  As we wound down the night, Mr. D. told us to gather round the fire for the traditional “thorns, roses, and buds”.  This is a tradition where you tell your experience of the day: thorns = what was bad, roses = what was good, buds = what you are looking forward to.  Okay, so I know what you are thinking.  But by this time, I had a little bit better attitude and some time to think and gather myself.  Thorns for me, of course, was the fact that my pack was too heavy.  I was too heavy, and I was hurting…duh…no-brainer, but the rose was the fact that I had a great teacher and an encouraging friend to help me up the mountain; to never give up, to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  And the bud was that I now knew my limits and what I needed to work on, how I need to train, and that I need to find the Middle Path.  Another thing that was really awesome was that Mr. D. said that I was his rose for the day because I didn’t give up, and I was an example of what it means to keep going even when you think you can’t.  That meant so much to me!  He said that I would be a future story to someone else who was struggling with whether or not they could do this.

So off to bed…well, literally I pretty much passed out.  I only woke up once, but I slept really well.  I woke up very, very sore.  I could hardly move.  I didn’t want to get up.  I didn’t want to eat but I did, and I tried to drink as much water as I could.  We had about 3.5 miles out of the backcountry and we were informed that the first mile out was straight up and then it would be all downhill.  All I could think about was getting home.  Oh, yeah, and I didn’t mention we had about 8-10 small river crossings…yeah! That was fun, but it just slowed me down.  I was on a mission.  I wanted to get home.  I was tired, sore and now I was hungry.

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Whooped!

We had been told that a good steady hiking pace was about three miles per hour, so I asked Mr. D. to show me what that looked like because I wanted to hit that speed at least for a few seconds on the descent.  When I finally reached that pace, I thought to myself how cool it would be if one day I could catch the fast group who I knew was probably at least 30 minutes ahead of us, but it was a fleeting thought.  The next thing I know we come to a river, and I look up and there is the fast group.  We had actually caught them based on my pace.  I was pretty excited because every time we hit a flat spot on the way down, he would encourage me to pick up my pace.  It only lasted for a few seconds, but then the fast group was gone again.  I didn’t care.  That was the highlight of my trip, and I was on cloud nine.  The rest of the way down the mountain went pretty fast, and I was never so excited to get in a vehicle and be headed home in my life.

I know it doesn’t sound like I had that much fun, and I wouldn’t say it was fun.  It was truly one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life, but the sense of accomplishment that I have is pretty great!  I know what I need to work on.  I have new goals, and I also picked up a lot of new skills for the backcountry.  Even though it was extremely difficult for me, I still want to go back.  I want to work up to that, be smarter about my hikes, reduce the pack weight, reduce my weight, and work even harder on it.  Once I make my mind up, I don’t give up easily.  I still love nature.  I still love the quietness of the forest, and I always will.  It’s my temple.

A very dear friend of mine asked me when I got back and she saw how sore I was and how hard it was for me to move, “What got you into hiking?”  I told her it was the solitude, the quiet, being in nature, and just really getting away from it all, and that still holds true.  I love it back there.  And the more I do it, the better I will get.  To me, the mountain is a metaphor for so much of my life…life is hard.  It is a lot of uphill with bumps, twists, turns, roots, rocks, snakes, bears, and so much more.  It hurts and sometimes you want to quit and give up, but I don’t.  And when you reach your destination, what you have accomplished feels so good, makes you feel stronger, and lets me know that I am way more capable of things than I think I am.  This is the mountain.  This is life!  This is hiking, and that’s why I Embrace the Suck!

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NEVER GIVE UP!!!

Happiness Doesn’t Exist!

Sermon given on 10/25/16

Image result for happiness and flowers

I was so honored when Rev. McKee asked me to talk to you this morning about happiness.  To be honest, I was nervous, too – especially when I decided to call my sermon, “Happiness Doesn’t Exist.”  So let me ask you…How do YOU define happiness?  Is it money?  Is it a big house or a fancy trip to exotic places?  Is it family?  Is it health and well-being?  What is it?

From a Zen perspective, happiness doesn’t exist. You can’t go buy happiness.  You can’t order happiness on Amazon and have it shipped to your house.  You can’t pick up happiness.  You can’t borrow it from someone else.  Happiness is an inside job.  It comes from within oneself, our own Buddha nature, our true self.

I have been thinking a lot about what I wanted to say to all of you about happiness, and I have thought of all the different Zen aspects that apply to this topic.  I have written this talk over many different times trying to get it just right and say just the right thing, but that is not really how I do things.  I have to do them from a feeling place.  I have to speak from my heart.  What it really boils down to for me is perspective.  When I was younger, I was a pretty angry young adult.  I felt that there was a lot of injustice in the world.  I wanted to make things right and change people.  I wanted to bang my drum and stomp my feet.  I thought if I threw enough fits, yelled the loudest, protested the most, people would change their ways.  What I really wanted was for everyone to think like I did.  I thought I was right.  I always thought I was right; that my way was the only way, and if you didn’t see it my way, well, then you were narrow-minded, close minded, or better yet, you were down right wrong.  My perspective was very messed up, and the truth is I didn’t love myself.  I didn’t think I was good enough, so I overcompensated in other areas.  I never looked outside myself.  I never put myself in someone else’s shoes.  I never thought about how it was for anybody else, what their life was like, how they grew up, what their belief systems were; that there might be more than one way to look at things.  My mind was so closed to anything else, it just didn’t matter.  The world had done me wrong.  The world was wrong.  Poor me.  I was angry and very, very unhappy.

Material things didn’t make me happy.  Money didn’t make me happy.  Happiness didn’t exist for me at least not the way I thought it should.  I wanted to make myself happy by changing my surroundings, changing people.  I was looking outside myself for happiness.  People who agreed with me might have made me somewhat happy, but nothing really changed my heart until my perspective on life and the way things are.. changed.  And believe me this did not happen overnight.  It has taken me a long time to make the decision to change and to work on myself.  Some of it has come with age, but a lot of it has come with a willingness to want to feel happy, to bring happiness to others, and to show my children happiness.  I have to be willing to change.  I had to work for it.  I didn’t wake up one morning and boom I was happy.  Bad things still happen and there is still suffering. Life keeps on going.  People die.  People get sick.  People lose jobs, people move away.  Things in life change, and there is nothing I can do about that.  I can’t change other people, but what I recognized was I don’t need to change other people.  All I need to worry about is myself.  I need to work on me.  I need to focus on how I can make myself better, because if I don’t love myself, take care of myself, learn to be happy myself, how can I help anyone else?

Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, would say that we have to water the seeds of happiness.  This means I have to work at being happy.  I have to do things that bring happiness to me and my life, and to others, but he would also say being able to enjoy happiness doesn’t require that we have zero suffering.  It just means that my perspective on how I deal with any given situation is up to me.  I am not saying that we have to smile all the time or “act” like nothing is wrong when it is.  I am saying part of having a happy life in general for me is to honor my feelings, no matter what they are, when they come up.  It’s about being present in the moment and trying to learn how not to live in the past or project about the future.  It’s about right here, right now.  It’s about learning to be awake to this very precious moment that is all I have.

Rev. McKee said in the first sermon at the beginning of the semester, “we only have to recognize the gift and see it as good and respond to it.”  Recognizing it is the key here, and it made me think of the Bible verse from John 13:34, where Simon Peter and Jesus were talking.  Jesus said, “A new command I give you:  Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  Simon Peter said in response:  “Lord, where are you going?”  One could say or argue that Simon was not in the moment perhaps; that he didn’t even realize that Jesus just gave him a fabulous, awesome new commandment….to love one another.  He was worried about where he was going and completely missed the point.  He didn’t recognize the gift.

A Buddhist story along these same lines is the Flower Sermon given by the Buddha.  He said absolutely nothing in this sermon.  All he did was hold up a single flower and waited and waited and waited.  Everyone was trying to figure out why the Buddha was not saying anything….except one, Mahakasyapa.  All he did was look at the Buddha and smile.  The Buddha knew at that moment that he understood, and that he was the only one that understood.  It was about being in that particular moment fully awake and recognizing that there was nothing else but the Buddha holding up a flower.

Being present and awake to this moment with loving kindness toward myself and others, I believe, is the cornerstone of happiness.  When I am able to apply this to my life, with attention to this moment, I believe this is when I am the most happy.  Recognizing the absolute energy of right now is pretty huge.  Smiling to someone else and really smiling to their heart, meaning it.  Helping anyone I see that I can if they need it.  Being grateful for every.. little.. thing, my children, my family, friends, my breath, my health, a job, food, clothes.  I could go on and on.  These things may seem little to some, but I am truly, truly grateful for every one of those things.

I believe we are all one big sentient family, and if I have loving kindness at the center of my actions towards my fellow Earthlings and practice this with as much skill as I can, I believe this will bring me happiness and my family, and for others.  I believe that is the Zen of happiness….everyday life with loving kindness, filling our lives with love.  Do I do this all the time, definitely not!  But being open to the fact that I don’t have to live in negativity all the time and that I have a choice.  I can be miserable and negative all the time or I can try to be positive and uplifting.  I can open my heart and mind.  I don’t have to create opposites with my opinions. I can make amends when I do something wrong.  There is no “us” and “them”.  There is just us.  I can put it all down and just ask, “how may I help you?”

It hurts me to see all the anger, hatred, and negativity in the world today, and quite honestly I know that I cannot fix the world’s problems by any stretch, but what I can change is myself.  I can be as happy a person as I can.  I can work on myself, better myself, spread love wherever possible.  I can help my fellow family which is each one of us whenever and wherever possible.  I can always, always choose LOVE!  It’s like a ripple effect.  It starts with me and ripples out to my family, my street, my community, my country, the world.  It’s about building bridges, not tearing them down.  It’s about not creating opposites, not knee-jerk reacting to every little thing.  It’s about finding similarities.  We all want to be happy.  All of us do not want to suffer.  We are all one.  We are interdependent on this planet with everyone and everything else, and it’s up to each one of us to be LOVE.  I aspire to be this.  I want to be Love, and when I am not, I won’t give up.  I will try harder the next time because I believe happiness is on the path of love.  Imagine if we all looked at everyone, every sentient being, as a member of our family that we loved and cherished.  Just imagine that for a moment!

This summer I had the honor and privilege of seeing His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, with my Great Teacher and his wife.  This was truly a bucket-list moment for me.  His message was, WE ARE ONE…we are all brothers and sisters on this rock…all sentient beings matter! His main message, of course, was love.  It takes a strong and courageous heart to love those who are not very lovable.  That is the only thing that will work in the long run. Stand taller and rise above all the stuff that only brings people down. His Holiness said it doesn’t matter what your faith is as long as love and compassion are at the core. He said you have to be determined to BE love.  “Happiness is not something ready-made.  It comes from your own actions.”

So if no one has told you today that they love you, then I will.  I love you all.  Peace, love and happiness, Everyone!!!