Friday, August 05, 2011


Yesterday and this morning, I became part of a long-standing tradition: I chose Chinese medicine to treat a health condition.

I've ended up over the course of the last 3 months with a really bad cough. I checked with my doctor and she noted that since my allergy meds, taken regularly, have done nothing to remedy the cough, it's fair to assume it's not caused by allergies. But I also have asthma. She thought that the really hot, dry and windy conditions we're experiencing here in Austin (and that I also experienced in Colorado, at least the dry and windy part of it) exacerbate asthma symptoms. She's been hearing a lot of complaints from her patients with asthma. So, she suggested I try an asthma inhaler that reduces inflammation, which I agreed to do. I have tried them before, and they really do improve my breathing.

My asthma herbs & other healthy things
But I also went to see Billy, my acupuncturist, got a treatment, signed up for a weekly series of them for awhile, and got three little paper bags full of Chinese herbs from the Turtle Dragon shop down the street from his office.

Billy prescribed Chinese herbs once before when I had a really bad case of bronchitis, and I recalled mainly that they tasted awful. These aren't the same ones. I brewed them up this morning and to my surprise, they tasted rather good. Well, maybe it was the three slices of fresh ginger I added to them (part of the recipe!). But in any event, the tea was very nice. I will take this medicine 30 minutes after each meal for the next 6 days. Then we'll see about that inhaler.

Chinese herb shop
CC*BY Jimmyhomeschoolmom
So, I'm not Chinese. So I've never been to China. It's still tradition. And I like tradition. And I would love for these treatments to tame this cough. If they don't, well that's ok. Best to try though, before I embrace the western approach. The inhaler contains an ingredient that, according to the mile-long insert in the box, "increases asthma-related deaths." Hmmm. I am pretty sure the inhaler will work, and I'm pretty sure that, odds are, I'm not going to suffer unreasonably with side-effects, but geez, some of them can be real doozies.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Getting a little perspective on your yard birds

As I packed for my summer trip to Boulder, I planned to bring my binoculars and bird book, but at the last minute, I put them both away, recognizing that I wasn't going to have time for birding. Boulder was not a birding trip. Nonetheless, when I first arrived, I noticed right away that there were many new unfamiliar bird sounds as well as some that I knew but which were slightly different, suggesting maybe a different but related species to the ones I was familiar with at home. I just listened.

Flatirons, Chautauqua
Little by little I got better at just listening, and on a day trip to Chautauqua, I sat in the woods along the trail into the Flatirons just listening. It truly was a musical delight. Only once or twice did my mind grab onto a label, or my eyes wander to the source of sound.

But I did find it odd that I couldn't see any of the birds.

James Good
Gradually that changed. I saw a Red-shafted Northern Flicker's flight feather on the ground on my walk home one morning and picked it up. I had heard them in the trees at the entrance to our building, Lincoln Hall, but I never saw them.

Coby Leuschke
Then one morning, a Hummingbird made an appearance, calling an alarm above the flowering plants around the trees at the entrance to Lincoln. I noticed that the leaves of the plants below her were waving in a pattern that at first suggested they were being fanned by her wingbeats. It took a few seconds for me to realize that something was on the ground at the base of those plants, hidden from view. Its movement along the ground caused the tops of the plants to wave. It had her quite riled up. I never discovered what it was, however, because I was about to be late to morning mediation, so I left the mystery unsolved when she flew away.

A few days later, a flock of Chickadees appeared in the trees visible through one of the windows of Shambhala Hall, our mediation room. I could tell that they weren't Carolinas, but unsure of what they were, I just listened and watched. Later, a female House Finch appeared on the roof of our apartments, in the courtyard.

Robins in Snow Lion Courtyard -- Liz Sloan
And then I noticed a female American Robin sitting on a nest in the courtyard. She eventually hatched and fledged three babies.

One day Crows and Ravens showed their tails in flight so I could tell them apart without binoculars, even without glasses. And then, on an afternoon walk, I heard the sound of the Flicker in a tree above me and looked up and saw him in a hole in one of the branches of the tree. These occasional sightings always made me feel happy and present. But beyond the occasional squirrel or raccoon on campus, and these few birds, the wildlife in Boulder was sparse to say the least.

Home garden -- GKH CC*BY
I guess I got used to it. When I got home to Austin, my first morning in the garden astounded me with the variety and numbers of birds, squirrels, lizards, snakes and frogs I saw and heard within the first few hours of waking up! Critters were everywhere -- on the ground, in the trees, in the sky, at the feeders, on the bird baths. Unperturbed and raucous, they went about their business as though I weren't there. It was the best welcome home I could imagine! Well, that and the fact that Dennis had kept my garden alive and thriving, the feeders filled, and the bird baths clean and inviting the whole time I'd been gone. No wonder the critters were at home.

I had to remind myself that these were the same birds, lizards and squirrels that I had been noting somewhat dismissively before I went to Boulder, as my usual yard inhabitants. What a difference a little perspective can make.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Why Meditate?

From Center for Contemplative Mind in Society
Morning and afternoon meditation were a constant in our lives at Naropa University this summer. Coming to this as I did from having meditated "off and on" for roughly 40 years, the regularity (in the past I might have said "rigidity") of the Naropa schedule was challenging at first. It quickly became a comfort, however, like a base, a simple practice to return to from wherever I went spinning off.

Shambhala Sun,
Sept. 2010
One of our first readings was Matthieu Ricard's "Why Meditate?" (2010), which I read several times during the course of the semester, each time understanding it differently. By the end of the semester, I had come to appreciate meditation in a way I never had before. Ricard described its centrality with straightforward and powerful words: “If we want to observe the subtlest mechanisms of our mental functioning and have an effect on them, we absolutely must refine our powers of looking inward” and “… cultivate a way of being that is not subject to the patterns of habitual thinking” (pp. 41 and 86).

More simply put, daily practice on the cushion is necessary to sharpen the ability to notice. And noticing is the foundation of all learning, insight and wisdom. So, for example, meditation helped me better notice myself reacting in habitual ways in day-to-day activities. I noticed my thoughts while washing the dishes. I saw subtle complaints, clinging to opinions, nostalgic reminiscing, and many others. This "just noticing" allows for questioning, looking deeper into those habitual thought patterns, for "just noticing" what hides beneath the surface of things that “get me,” or take me off to the past, or into the future.

Refining my attention and practicing mindfulness enabled me to see that even within the impulse I have to help, to inform, to counsel and to solve problems (in other words, the impulse to teach and to counsel my clients) is a subtle aggression, a desire to make problems go away. This came as a real surprise. But noticing it allowed me to consider refining my approach to teaching and to counseling, to "cultivate a way of being that is not subject to the patterns of habitual thinking" (Ricard, 2010, p. 86). Sometimes problems will not go away...

And Ricard pointed out something else just as foundational about meditation -- that while we can read the words of scholars and practitioners who have devoted their lives to “observing the automatic, mechanical patterns of thought and the nature of consciousness,” ... “we cannot merely rely on their words to free ourselves ... We must discover for ourselves the value of the methods these wise people taught and confirm for ourselves the conclusions they reached. This is not purely an intellectual process. Long study of our own experience is needed to rediscover their answers and integrate them into ourselves on a deep level” (pp. 86-87). In other words, you can't think your way to everything.

My Naropa journal came to contain many examples of my noticing that it wasn't all about thinking, that things happened in the gap, in the space between thoughts, and while I wasn't thinking:
I notice coincidence, repetition, and synergy here. For example, I hear "Heart Sutra" three times over the course of two days, so I Google, 'Heart Sutra commentary,' and up comes an amazing talk by Dr. John Crook, whom I've never heard of, posted on a UK site called Western Chan Fellowship, equally unknown to me. I read a little and then I leave it alone. I read more and then I leave it alone. It takes two days to finish it. I don't think about it. I am very present while I am reading. I feel my breathing slowing down, I feel my shoulders relaxing, my back straightening, at times I feel filled with energy, other times I am more empty and open. Some of his words trigger memories. There is recognition at times. And then there is ‘I don’t know.’ Then there is Richard (our instructor) saying, "you have to find out what is there before you worry about the fact that it's not there.” The Heart Sutra is about not here, not there, not anywhere. I don't want to think about it, I just want to hear it. Today I heard (noticed) this:
‘The essential feature of this approach is to realize that it is based in meditation. Thought can raise innumerable objections and create endless metaphysical speculation. The Buddha is speaking out of his enlightenment. He is sharing it, transmitting it. To receive it one has to follow the same path’ (Crook, 1992, part 2, para. 13).
I can't think my way to this (Personal Journal Entry, July 9, 2011).
Even more to the point:
We repeated the same improv performances in Presence class today three times, focusing on the same element each time. I got bored (predictably). The third time, Lee (our instructor) added an audience, and suggested that "we" get out of the way this time ("I've done every thing I know how to do in this role with this element"). She was right. Wow.
The element was fire. I may have undervalued and diminished it's power in my life somehow. But it is there. My performance of fire came from somewhere other than thinking it up. Lee would say, it came from nothing, from space, from the ground. I discovered three things about fire by thoroughly being fire for that third time, for those six minutes.
1. It is explosive. It uses things up. It takes one thing, combines it with another, and transforms both through explosion. Nothing is the same after fire touches it. 
2. It is passionate. It is heat, lust and desire. It consumes and exhausts in its uncontrolled raging energy. 
3. But harnessed, it radiates warmth, life-giving energy and the spark that starts things growing and changing. 
It relates the things it consumes to each other. It joins them in energetic exchange. Fire only exists through connections: fire connects the earth element of fuel and the heaven element of air. It is the dynamic connection between heaven and earth. Its hard to imagine that I am or even have that connection inside me. But I was fire today. I have fire and can call upon and use its energy (Personal Journal Entry, July 4, 2011).
Given my careers in academe and in law, where logical thought is so highly valued, Crook's and Ricard's words, and my experiences with the Naropa summer learning intensive, are stunning confirmation of the importance of intuitive understanding. The Heart Sutra presents a very esoteric understanding of the nature of reality, and it’s pretty hard for me to grasp, but I'm convinced I won't get there by just thinking my way to it. “This approach is … based in meditation. Thought can raise innumerable objections and create endless metaphysical speculation..." (emphasis mine).


So, it's trusting more than just that part of my being that is analytical and strictly logical. It's about giving a say to Jill Bolte Taylor's, "Stroke of Insight." Theoretically, I get this. But where the rubber meets the road, it is not easy to trust beyond what you're comfortable trusting.

That's when it's back to the basics. Seeing how dramatic a difference being present makes, and how effectively meditation is sharpening my ability to see things I simply have not seen any other way, I am very reassured. Maintaining a regular meditation practice is absolutely essential to this seeing. Trust in the process is essential.

And today I read, by a sad coincidence perhaps, that Dr. John Crook died on Saturday, the last day of our semester. I am learning to bow to and trust those who teach. They know what they're talking about.

Crook, J. (1992, November). The heart sutra - A commentary - Dharma talk by John Crook. Western Chan Fellowship. Retrieved July 9, 2011, from
Ricard, M. (2010, September). Why meditate? (How to meditate). Shambhala Sun. Retrieved July 23, 2011, from
Taylor, J. B. (2006). My stroke of insight: A brain scientist’s personal journey.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Naropa summer learning intensive: Welcome to contemplative education

I had little on which to base any expectations about the Summer Learning Intensive, my introduction to Contemplative Education at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. I had the overall character of the schedule (from early in the morning until late into the night, 7 days a week, for 3 1/2 weeks); some summer readings (Turning the Mind into an Ally; Sacred World, and East Meets West, an essay about the formation of Naropa in the early 70's); and a basic understanding that the program enabled teachers and others to integrate mindfulness practices into their lives at work.

Boulder Creek flooding
 from snow melt
Well, that just doesn't give you much to go on. So I just went. It was like stepping into a raging river.

There's not much you can do but just hold on for the ride. And you're going to get bumped, scraped up, and if you're not careful, you'll drown. Assuming you survive, it's quite an experience.

Thursday was the first full day and it was filled with orientations, introductions, getting settled in. Friday was my first immersion experience. I went under for the first time at Amy Howard's thesis project presentation.
Tradition; trust; natural loveliness 
Amy's talk was about opening to being awake, and redefining the meaning of your life. She asked us to file by two long, low tables of nicely matted photographs and just notice each one. When we returned to our seats, she asked us to think about which one had appealed the most to us, moved us in some way. We returned to the tables, took the picture that had affected us the most, and returned to our seats. I chose the one to the left. She asked us to take a moment to reflect on and write about what about that photograph had affected us.
This image reflects qualities that I wish I had -- grace, strength, comfort in your own body, and a natural beauty that seems to come from a connection to something larger than yourself, in this photograph, a tradition that probably goes back many many years. And trusting in your larger community. My feeling was one of sadness. I often feel sad when I see something so achingly beautiful. It's like my heart just breaks open and sadness flows out. I have always wondered why this happens. Why doesn't love and beauty and grace and connection bring about joy, rather than sadness (Personal Journal Entry, June 23, 2011)?
Closed enso
I didn't have to wait long to find the answer to that question, one that had puzzled me for decades. But before that question got its answer, Saturday came: Graduation for the outgoing class. The ceremony was stunning. Seven students in their turn, each creating an enso brushstroke, a circle representing everything, all at once. Poetry, storytelling, the ringing of the gong, tears and joy everywhere. This was no ordinary graduation ceremony.
The ceremony completely exceeded even my wildest imagination of what it might be like to complete this program. The level of compassion, caring, love and commitment, support, energy and passion that everyone, everyone brings to this endeavor is simply unprecedented in my experience, anywhere, for anything. I can't believe I am sitting here, a part of this process. I know it's a university. I know there will be difficulty and adversity and frustration here and there. But that's true everywhere. This love and support is not everywhere. That I recognize. Never do the challenges end. You just meet them differently. That makes all the difference (Personal Journal Entry, June 25, 2011).
Thus began my getting to know a part of myself that I had long ignored -- my heart. It wasn't a matter of "what's going on here," or "why," or of fixing anything. I just started to notice. That's all. The practice for noticing was, first and foremost, meditation. At Naropa, meditation is primarily Shamatha practice, or mindfulness of the breath. You simply, repeatedly, notice what comes up while you sit, and return to observing your breath: in.....out. Thoughts come up, you think them, you go off with them, you notice that you've gone off and you return to Shamatha. Twice each day, 50 minutes in the morning and evening.

"And how might that help?" most everyone wonders.
Shamatha is not an endurance test, nor will it suddenly solve all our problems. But it does help us see how our problems arise, because it trains us in recognizing thoughts and emotions. It also trains us in letting them pass without acting on them. Even when we’re bored, we can work with our minds. This helps us cope in daily life. Because practice has enlarged our perspective beyond identifying with our thoughts and opinions, we’re less likely to act from a tight, self-protected space. We have more patience, more tolerance. We’re more able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. In this way, meditation matures us (Mipham, 2003, p. 83).
So meditation was the constant in our lives. Always there.

Every morning on my
way to class, I stopped by
 the raspberry bushes...
But we also went to work that first week strengthening our practice of noticing through class activities of every kind. We explored our senses, our connection to the world, in fact, where we let the world in. We fine-tuned our ability to observe, and broadened it to include observing the observer, our feelings, our sensations, and our thoughts in response to what we saw, heard, felt, tasted and smelled out there.

Then we studied conceptual approaches to characterizing emotions, and discussed and experienced the different patterns of responses within ourselves that each characterization evoked. For example, Welwood (1983) notes:
In Western culture we have a history of treating emotions with suspicion and contempt, as alien, "other," separate from us. The "passions" have usually been viewed as our "lower nature," from Plato onward. Viewing the source of the passions as Freud did, as an "it" (translated in English as "id"), "a primitive chaos, a cauldron of seething excitement," makes it more difficult to befriend emotions and accept them as part of ourselves" (p. 80).
Welwood (1983) goes on to contrast the Western view with the Buddhist meditative approach, "which considers that it is precisely our alienation from emotions that makes them become so domineering and uncontrollable" (p. 80). I'm quite familiar with the first approach, and quite ready to try something else. So I embraced the practice of staying present with feelings and emotions, befriending them, as Welwood describes it. In short order I began to see this practice as the life-preserver it was. It is what keeps us afloat in the stream. You always have it. You can always just become present with what you are experiencing. Becoming present means observing your felt senses (tightening in the chest, warmth in the throat, pressure or burning in the shoulders, or whatever you sense in your body), your feelings (fear, happiness), your emotions (magnified feelings) and your thoughts. Just see them, notice them all.

Finally, we learned several key buddhist concepts describing the practice of integrating intellectual and intuitive understanding, with awareness of body, felt senses, and mind, to create insight and wisdom. We had been using this practice in our classes and as we prepared our assignments. It's called prajna. Judy Lief (2002) says of prajna, soon as you enter the Buddhist path and start practicing meditation and studying the dharma, you are picking up this sword of prajna. Now that you have this sharp thing, this sword that skewers and cuts through ego trips of all sorts, you have to deal with it (para. 9).
Prajna is represented iconographically by the feminine deity Prajnaparamita ... with four arms. Two arms are folded on her lap in the classic posture of meditation, and her two other arms hold a sword and a book. Through these gestures, she manifests three aspects of prajna: academic knowledge, cutting through deception, and direct perception of emptiness" (para. 18).
Leif (2002) says that we cultivate prajna through refined practices of hearing, contemplating, and meditating. We take what we read, listen to, discuss with others with an open mind; we analyze it, turn it over in our minds and look at it from every point of view we can, and then we sit with it for a time until it becomes something that we know deeply; finally, we live with it for awhile until it is part of our very being, no longer something that we must "recall."

Our final week put all we had been studying, discussing, and practicing to the test in two performances: the Warrior's Exam for Mindful Teacher Class, and Final Performance for our Presence in Teaching Class.

Shambhala rocks
The Warrior's Exam is a form of traditional questioning. Each of the nine of us would have our turns seated on mediation cushions in the center of a circle of witnesses to be the questioner of a student, and the student who answered the question. We had ten questions to study. We would have five minutes to respond to our single question, without notes. After a brief follow-up question of the questioner's device, we would have 2 minutes to respond. Then we would return to our place as witnesses in the circle for the other students. So, each of the nine questions we would answer were drawn from a bowl, along with the names of the questioner and responder for that question.

Prajna was perfect preparation for the exam: we had already heard, read and discussed, with our minds open and non-judging. We had had time to analyze and think about what we had read. We had begun to see how it applied to our own experiences, to begin to incorporate those parts of what we had heard that were meaningful, that were true, for us. And now we were ready to sit with it for awhile longer, to see what became part of us, our very marrow, because that is what was to be our response to our questions. Not a memorized script. Not a fainthearted attempt to explain. But what came from within us, from the place beyond "thinking it up."

It was an exhilarating experience, for all of us. We did the absolute best we could, for all of us. It was the most extended period of time for which I have been present. Not 100%, of course, but for nearly 2 hours, I returned again and again to being there. For everyone. And they were there for me.

HillyHilly trades for a horse
The Final Performance for Presence Class asked from our bodies that same experience of bringing forth form from space, the place beyond thinking. In other words, "let's do a play!" Being present in this context meant struggling with a predictable set of urges -- most notably the urge to run as far and as fast as I could up into the Rocky Mountain foothills. Once I committed to stay present instead of checking out, a myriad of other urges cropped up in the place of the big one. One by one, I faced them all down. I sang, I spoke, I waited for and gave cues, I played my parts, changing costumes, being conscious, taking and giving feedback, getting better each day, being there. I would have to say that I was there just about 100% of the time during the play. I could not let a stray thought take me off. There was absolutely no room for wandering. It was pretty cool.

MM sings HB to CB
Our play was called, Meditation Self-Evaluation, and it presented a series of vignettes representing the thoughts that meditators have as they sit on the cushion, illustrating their successful efforts to let them go (short bursts of thoughts that wander in and easily leave, sometimes of their own accord), and their not so successful efforts (the longer vignettes that spin out a storyline or indulge the meditator in a fantasy): Like a memory of parents arguing; a breakup; a childhood morality tale; a student driver experience; and Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday" to the meditator.

That one was my idea. So I played it. It was transformative. It brought up every fear, anxiety, and condemnation I could possibly harbor, and I faced them all. That's what in the Shambhala tradition they call being a warrior on this path. Never abandoning yourself.

Thomas's photo of his summer family
So, it was amazing. Practically impossible to convey in a blog post, but making an effort is a good practice. It converted two dozen people from "strangers I've never seen or heard of before" to what one participant called his "summer family." Mine too. I have arrived. I am home (Hahn, 2009).

I flew to my Austin home a day later, had Sunday to relax and readjust, and went to work on Monday. It's Wednesday now. Warrior's Exam was a week ago. I'm still impressed. This is just the first semester.


Hanh, T. N. (2009). Happiness: Essential mindfulness practices. Parallax Press.

Hayward, K., & Hayward, J. (1998). Sacred world: The Shambhala way to gentleness, bravery, and power (2nd ed.). Shambhala.

Lief, J. (2002, May). The sharp sword of prajna. Shambhala Sun. Retrieved July 14, 2011, from 
Mipham, S. (2003). Turning the mind into an ally. Riverhead Hardcover.

Welwood, J. (1983). Befriending emotions. Awakening the heart (First Edition.). Shambhala.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Spring migration

Migrating Storks, by David King. CC*BY

Every year, about the middle of April, spring migration reaches a crescendo of species and numbers on the move. Birders get pretty busy too. Watching wildlife in beautiful places is a great way to spend April, much better than stressing out about end of semester papers, grades, and life transitions. I've done both, and believe me, it's no contest.

So, this year I met up with a friend from Seattle, and visited my favorite spring birding mecca, Southeast Arizona, then drove out to West Texas with birding buddies for a week that ended with a couple of days in Big Bend. And there were local trips to see Golden-cheeked warblers, participate in breeding bird surveys, and take friends' grandkids to state parks. Plus, there's always backyard birding. All kinds of surprises show up this time of year, along with the summer residents who've been wintering down south.

Having just finished up the beta test of my Zen Birding course, all this spring birding that is, by nature, quite focused on identification, presented an interesting challenge. It took me completely in the opposite direction. In Zen Birding, the challenge is to just be with the birds or whatever else I might be seeing and hearing (that is, to continually return the mind from its chattering about wing bars and eye rings, to simply being present and wordlessly observing). During these spring migration birding trips, the challenge is to bring every skill and ability I have to bear on the question of "what was that?"

Turns out that having two seemingly opposing objectives at the same time is, itself, very much a part of Buddhist seeing and understanding the nature of existence. After all, the sine qua non of insight is that everything is empty of self, and is, instead, a part of everything else. And yet, the experience of self is, well, pretty hard to just set aside. We experience ourselves as selves. We might be mistaken on some level, but in the everyday world we live in things are, as a practical matter, separated from other things in time and space. You and I are not the same thing.

Evidence of this seeming contradiction presents itself constantly, once you recognize that it exists and can't be dismissed. The question becomes, "how do I touch each understanding lightly enough that I can move easily from one to the other, as life requires?"

I am continually reminded of the Buddha's response to the first person he met on the path after he experienced enlightenment, about which I have blogged before -- the interchange in short was: "how did you wake up" -- Buddha drops his bag; "what will you do now" -- he picks the bag back up again and goes off on his way.

It's not that we don't or can't have things, but that we must be able to let them go, to drop them. But life requires that we get from here to there and take our things with us. We must do both.

So, during birding to identify, I was present, I was the birder who knew the names (often enough). But I wanted to be able to drop it instantly. And I wanted to be aware of what I was doing regardless of which approach I took. Because I will forget some day which bird is which, I must be able to let go of the bag in which I define myself as a good birder. I have a preference for the comfort of knowing who I am, but I have to be able to let it go to see what else I might be.

Maybe I am at least a little bit like the birds that probably love the warm south, but let it go to take up epic journeys across thousands of miles to arrive (many, but not all of them) here in North America, where folks like me celebrate their arrival by being here with them.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Watching the Wheels Go 'Round and 'Round

A sunny Wednesday morning in Austin, Texas. Birds are singing, dozens of kinds of flowers blooming in the garden, the doors open, the air fresh and sweet with the scent of Mountain Laurel. And just a few centimeters below the flowers blooming in the beds is rich and rotting compost, dead leaves and insects and molds, all thriving. Ah, life. What we call the good and the bad, it all keeps keeping on.
It's the same eternal keeping on of the Google Book Search project. It has its blooms and sweet breezes and its rot. The cycles seem longer and slower than my garden's, but things do roll around. Another one rolled around yesterday. The NY district court rejected the parties' settlement agreement. A limb got blown off a tree, so to speak. Everyone's talking about whether to let it lie, pick it up and maybe prune it a bit and root it, or just cut the whole tree down. But there's rejoicing that at least something happened. We are so impatient for the next phase. Even though it's never the end of anything, just another step down the path of ... keeping on keeping on.

I read the court opinion rejecting the settlement. I get it. Perhaps because I don't fear Google (all companies have their trajectory, up -- and down), or the processes that allow companies and individuals in them to test the limits of what's possible, and to succeed and to fail, my main reaction was simply recalling Steve Jobs' commencement speech to Stanford grads about 6 years ago, when he used the rejections he'd received in his own life to make the point that bad things aren't necessarily bad. What may seem bad to us can make things turn a different way, and we find something that we never would have found if we hadn't had the bad turn of events making it impossible for us to do what we thought we should do. Jobs strongly urged the grads not to give up, ever, on what they believed in, even if it was not "working," in that others rejected it. Maybe that's what's going on with copyright these days. Many people believe in ideas that others keep rejecting. But the believers keep turning away from the rejections, the failures, and trying other paths, even though it just doesn't seem to ever work. Actually, you might apply this theory to either side's efforts, and it seems to hold true. Things keep breaking, one way or the other, now good for one side, now bad, over and over.

In truth, it is not an all or nothing thing. Jobs does what he does in a world where many people still vehemently reject him and his ideas. But he found a path where he can do it. And we are fortunate to live in a world that allows him to be creative, along side those who disagree and create what they want too. Something like that might happen with copyright too. Creative Commons is a good example. It exists as a result of the failure of efforts to change copyright law through legislative and judicial channels. The architect of the effort that failed didn't give up; he just invented another way. And copyright law didn't change. People just have an easy way to exercise their choice now, to keep for themselves exclusively only a subset of the whole bundle of rights.

So, will the orphans just have to be lost -- a century's worth of works that no one will ever feel safe using? I really doubt that. There is a way. No one has invented it yet, that's all. But I won't be surprised if it's not what anyone is imagining today. Things have a way of taking very strange and wonderful turns. Even if they seem bad at some point along that way.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Zen Birding

Beyond names -- To see, hear, & be with birds
Blue Dacnis (Honeycreeper) by Dario Sanchez: CC*BY 

“Words can express no more than a tiny fragment of human knowledge, for what we can say and think is always immeasurably less than what we experience.” --Alan Watts’ “The Way of Liberation”

Last year I decided to develop a course about Zen birding. Birding beyond naming, beyond identity. I developed a framework and the basic ideas, and then tried to practice the kind of birding that I was preparing to teach. My annual spring Arizona birding trek was the perfect outdoor laboratory, because though I know the birds in some sense, there's always a "relearning" curve because I visit only once each year. At the beginning of each trip, I always have those moments where I hear or see a bird and don't know what it is, though I think I should. The idea of Zen birding is to expand just such a moment, to lengthen and be comfortable with the time of not knowing, to just observe the bird in all its aspects. What happened in practice, however, was that my mind would race to close the gap between seeing or hearing, and naming the bird. My mind wanted so badly to identify the bird, as though that mattered more than anything in the world. Of course, the premise of Zen birding is that it does not matter more. I was there only about 4 days when the gap was down to a minuscule fraction of a second for most birds. Naming became instantaneous. I couldn't not do it. That's when I had an "ah-ha" moment. Zen birding wasn't actually about not naming. It was about observing the mind's desire to name, and letting go of the name as soon as it materialized. That's just basic meditation practice applied to birding -- watch the mind and let thoughts go. Don't grab onto any of them.

As usual, simple enough, but not easy.

It's not easy because learning requires discernment and discrimination, so naming is certainly functional. In short, the ability to name and learn serves us in everyday life. Still, this kind of learning is not necessarily the most we can achieve, the height of accomplishment. Meditation can take us beyond ordinary thinking to a wordless awareness that unites us with all phenomena in the all-encompassing process that life is. Larry Rosenberg, author of Living in the Light of Death, notes that when we cultivate what he calls comprehensive alertness, and learn to recognize a thought as just a thought, to let it go without attaching to it, we are better able to see what our experience really is. That by itself might be a very good reason to let go of naming. But Rosenberg's insight about how the self is reborn every minute out of our attachments really nails the difficulty of letting go of naming birds: it's hard because it's letting go of the self I make out of my attachment to being a knowledgeable birder. "I know this bird. I am a good birder." To not name is to give up the self that prides itself on knowing!

Letting go of words that come to mind in the midst of daily life is hard because the ego creates itself out of those thoughts, minute by minute. It's absolutely astounding how desperate the clinging is. To be, without grasping, for even a second or two, lets me glimpse that I exist as part of the process unfolding in front of me. But in the next second, the ego jumps up and names something, and I am back again to observing it grasping for its identity, creating itself every second, over and over, again, now again, and again. I want to turn everything into a static event: "That's a Wilson's Warbler. Two Wilson's, a Townsend's and an Arizona Woodpecker all flew into the tree at once." The ego makes itself up from these events -- frozen as discrete, graspable things. It just can't exist in the ocean of process; rather, it exists in the momentary repeated events that separate the birds from the air and the trees and the flowers, the soil and rain and sunshine, and of course, that separate me from all of that.

Zen Birding is designed to help us see process and our connection with nature and the amazing diversity of plants and animals. By slowing down, by looking and listening in a very different way from how we usually do, we can actually experience our environment differently. The course is about going deeply into the space between our first awareness of a bird and the moment when we name it. It's about learning to expand the time that we don’t know by simply being with the bird, observing everything we can with our unaided senses, and letting go of names or other words that come to us while we observe. The purpose is to open up that which naming tends to shut down – our curiosity.

We actually see and hear differently when we quiet the part of our brains that analyzes, classifies and names. When we’re not analyzing, classifying and naming, we can see flux and flow, constant movement. Nothing is frozen into an “event;” nothing labeled, put in a box and dismissed; nothing judged unimportant. This way of seeing and listening presents us with a different mix of information about our environment and what’s happening in it, from the information we get when we look and listen with our analytical brain switched on.

So, there's nothing wrong with naming birds. But, it is limiting. And in Zen Birding, we go beyond that limitation. Watts describes the inherent limitation of language and naming in The Way of Liberation, like this: "Words can express no more than a tiny fragment of human knowledge for what we can say and think is always immeasurably less than what we experience. This is not only because there are no limits to the exhaustive description of an event, as there are no limits to the possible divisions of an inch; it is also because there are experiences which defy the very structure of our language, as water cannot be carried in a sieve.” I can't say it any better!