Religion and Spirituality

Grateful to have discovered this gifted teacher.

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Am so grateful to have discovered Mirabai Starr!In this half-hour video, she articulates my own spiritual yearning and perspective better than I can.

Gampo Abbey photos and video

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While Ziji and I were in our retreat, one of the other retreatants who is a long-time Shambhala practitioner shot some gorgeous video footage of the Abbey including drone shots and images of us in retreat mode and of Pema enthusing about the Abbey and its future. You’ll even get to hear us chanting. In some of the shots of the Shrine Room you’ll get a brief view of the backs of Ziji’s and my heads…woo hoo! And I make a cameo appearance as well: the mysterious guy in black shoveling snow. This will give you a better feel for where we were [the end of the earth!] and what we were doing.
Here are a couple of group shots as well:
I continue to be overjoyed to be home in my beloved Vancouver. I’m feeling a remarkable sense of serenity and groundedness as the world has a collective anxiety attack due to the Corona Virus. I attribute Gampo Abbey with my equanimity.
Our full retreat photo album is here on Google Photos.

Week 7: the finale

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We crossed the finish line!


~ this final week our schedule has gotten a bit lighter and gradually more social, with fewer sessions of meditation, and more open time. At first, it was hard to be in the dining room with all the chatter! A bunch of us got talking about American politics, all groaning. I retreated to my room, and so grateful to have it.

~ Meeting with Ani Pema one to one was a joy. [details below]

~ Maybe I’m finally beginning understand the enigmatic Buddhist idea that “Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form”. At least Thich Nhat Hahn’s explanation makes sense. [details below]

~ Am finding a combo of mantra meditation with Shamatha [observing breath without mantra] to be very helpful to get to a relatively thought-free state. Used mantra + pause to access Emptiness / Pure Consciousness, then let go of the mantra and simply stayed with the breath and PC. Will use that more often. It’s like having training wheels I can deploy or disable as needed! More details below.

~ In this and most forms of Buddhism there is great devotion to the “Three Jewels”: Buddha, Dharma [teachings], and Sangha [spiritual community]. There is also devotion to one’s own teacher or guru, and the entire lineage of gurus/disciples going back thousands of years. My Baba taught that Consciousness is drawing us toward Itself, and that “The Guru” is an energy in the universe we can access or be open to. Teachings are ever available if we are receptive to receiving them: from a bird, flower, sunset, a child, a homeless person, as well as from all the wise teachers we now can call upon electronically. Another focus for meditation can be to visualize inwardly [or actually look at an image of] any person or things that inspires us deeply. Let the attractiveness of that image keep our attention focused. For me it is remembering the infinite compassion in my Baba’s eyes. Details below.

~ The retreat officially ended yesterday, Sunday the 23rd, with a lifting of our temporary vows, a sweet talk by Ani Pema, and heartfelt thanks all around. We all really have gone deep together, and now we are emerging into the outer world.

~ Today is Losar [Tibetan New Years] which began at 6 AM. I definitely felt a sense of excitement: I woke at 3 and couldn’t get back to sleep. It’s been full of festivities and feasting: a huge change from our very inward 7 weeks. Details below.

~ Tomorrow we’ll be picked up here by a shuttle bus from Halifax, which will take Ziji and me to the airport hotel. On Wednesday we’ll fly out at 0750 by way of Calgary and should be on the ground in Vancouver around 1230. It will be very sweet to be back home.

~ As promised, here are the photos from our time away.

~ Here is a link to a PDF of a beautiful Buddhist prayer we all recited around the bonfire on Monday, to mark Tibetan New Years. It is called “Aspiration of Samantabhadra.” What I like is how is summarizes the essence of Buddhist philosophy and psychology in a deeply devotional format, expressing the bodhisattva aspiration to liberate all beings from the suffering caused by the delusion of separateness.

~ Here’s my “monk’s cell” which felt very luxurious: all the other guys were in shared room a 10 minute walk away, which I was in the Abbey itself!
Age has its advantages 😉

Thank you again for following this inner journey. Stay tuned to see who I am as I return to life out in the world.


Ani Pema one-to-one –

She began by complimenting me on my Tibetan vest, which was a perfect ice-breaker. Then she asked how the retreat is going for me. I told her of the sleep challenges, saying at home I need 9-10 hours in total to get enough sleep, meditating during the waking periods. She said she’s exactly the same, so I felt totally understood and validated. Then I said how blessed I feel to have had this time with her, how I’ve heard about her through several friends, and even watched a video, but was too busy to really tune into her then. I said I’ve experienced darshan several times with conscious beings and appreciate what a transmission there can be, so when Ziji told me of this opportunity to be with her for 6 weeks I could not resist. I said she embodies what she teaches with such humility and authenticity that I feel deeply touched. Her presence conveys even more than her very clear verbal teaching.
Then I asked my question about whether it’s okay to be a free-lance yogi: not following any one teacher or joining any sangha because I’ve never found a teacher whose organization I want to be part of. I explained how even my beloved Baba’s teachings around sexuality simply did not fit for me as a gay man. Nor have I felt sufficiently attracted to any other teachers or organizations to completely follow them. I asked if she thinks I’m deluding myself or have commitment issues or some sort of spiritual ego. She said if I was younger she would recommend finding one teacher so they can get to know me and challenge me, but she sees I’m doing quite well on my path, that my heart is quite open, and that I can just keep doing what I’m doing. I sense she’s able to read people pretty well after all these years, so I value her positive feedback.
She has found 2 teachers with whom to have personal relationships, Trungpa and another Rinpoche, and both have been able to dig into her underlying stuff, which she values. She’s doing some practice dying exercises because during that major transition the mind has an opportunity to wake up. So she wants to visualize her guru as she is dying. That made me reflect that is the perfect intention for me as well: to remember Baba’s eyes and loving energy when I’m taking my last breaths.
To my delight, her main support person asked me shortly before the interview if I’d be willing to walk Ani Pema back to her cabin, about 20 minutes away on icy roads. Of course I jumped at the chance.
I found her to be exactly the same on a casual walk: totally open, engaging, and sharp.
I expressed interest in how long she’s been a monastic: since 1975! She married young and had two children. It was a difficult period in many ways.  By her late 30s she was really ready for something different, when she heard about dharma, then ordination. “It still feels like the right choice.” At the edge of her stairs we bowed with much mutual love in our eyes: a moment I’ll always treasure. I definitely have had a transmission and feel inspired by her.

Form and Emptiness –

Buddhism teaches that all forms [things, beings, stuff] are impermanent: everything is made of and from other stuff and is in the process of turning into other stuff. Everything gets recycled and re-purposed! Nothing and no one has a separate, unchanging existence or “self”. “Emptiness” is the term used to describe that all is “inter-being or interpenetrating” with everything. There is remarkable agreement with the scientific notion of the conservation of matter and energy: nothing is ever destroyed; it merely changes form!
The Law of Dependent Co-arising says all forms are in interdependent relationship with all other forms. We give things names that describe only their current state of metamorphosis. For example we see a seed, then [with the right conditions of soil, sun, water] it “becomes” a sprout, then s seedling, a sapling, a tree, which becomes “dead” wood, and decays into soil, which will nourish other seeds, etc. All those stages of birth, death, dissolution also depend on sunshine, water, etc. A time-lapse video over decades or centuries would show that as an unbroken flow. Our mind perceives in short time intervals, erroneously seeing static “things” we name, only to have them change into other “things”.  The same with each of us! Because every “thing” is interwoven with every other “thing” inseparably, the seeming separation is merely a mental construct, or concept. What we call birth and death are simply part of perpetual transformation of every “thing.” No-thing came from nothing! No-thing becomes nothing! He uses the example of waves on water, which seem separate, are always changing, and are always water. To see this level we need to expand our sense of time, and also zoom in the the microscopic level and out to the macroscopic. Meditation helps free us from the limited views of ordinary perception.

My new hybrid meditation –

When mind is busy, I am discovering I can use a combo of mantra + pranayama [controlling the breathing] to access Emptiness / Pure Consciousness, then let go of the mantra and simply stay with the breath and Consciousness. It’s like having training wheels I can deploy or disable as needed!
First I tune into my breathing and heartbeat, noting the number of beats per breath. Then I synchronize my mantra with those beats on inhale and again on exhale: Om-Na-ma-Shi-va-ya is 6 beats, which is perfect for me. After a few rounds I insert a silent pause at the top and bottom for a few beats [for me typically 3 or 4 beats is quite comfortable]. I find when the breath pauses so do thoughts! Once I feel stabilized and can really dive into that stillness, I let go of the mantra and dwell in the stillness during inhale/pause/exhale/pause. If the mind is very stable I let go of any control of the breath, and simply ride it. If too many thoughts return, I add the mantra back into the mix until I again feel stabilized in mostly thought-free meditation. Am finding the stabilized Shamatha periods are getting longer.

Losar, the Tibetan New Years –

The dawn was clear and calm, and mild @ +2C. With much blowing on conches and banging of pots and pans we prayed to the 4 directions for blessings for all beings in the new year of the iron mouse/rat. Then after breakfast we set up for the big potluck feast. About 40 “locals” arrived a bit after 9, many of whom drove up to 3 hours from all over Cape Breton to be with us. At 10 we had a liturgy that is very high-energy, then a talk by Pema. At 11 we went out around a bon fire for more new years chanting and parading. The Shambhala vibe is still way too militaristic for me: all about victory and warriors.
The feast at noon was sumptuous. Ziji and I spent hours yesterday stuffing mushrooms with goat cheese and various additions. It was fun to do, and a was big hit. All the food was great! It was fun to see the monastics cutting loose and chowing down! Then Ani Pema gave a sweet homily and gave us all gifts of calendars. We each went up to receive it from her hands: another moment of darshan, and probably my last. She says this year of the iron mouse is one of inwardness for her, who was born in the year of the rat in 1936.
Guests began leaving around 2:30 and we all swung into an amazingly smooth clean-up operation, washing all the dishes by hand and putting away very many yummy left-overs. The residents will have many happy culinary memories after we all leave tomorrow!
This evening I went for a solo walk around 4:30 and watch the sunset outside on a bench around 5:30. It was unusually warm and calm, and crystal clear, just as the dawn was at 6 this morning. It felt like an auspicious way for me to end this contemplative time here and bid farewell to this very sacred corner of Canada.

Week 3: Diving Deep into The Heart of Compassion

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The adventure into Inner Space continues!
Summary:~ Our third week began as the sun was moving from Capricorn to Aquarius. I am always surprised, exactly a month after winter solstice, how suddenly the light is brighter! Here is was especially thrilling as it came with clear skies for the first time since we arrived. Though it has stayed below freezing [-5C to -8C], the sunshine on the snow made for dazzling brightness, which has lifted many of our spirits.
~ There is a deepening sense of community, with much mutual kindness.
~ I’ve greatly appreciated a second full week of silence after our Free Day on Monday the 20th. Now again it is a Free Day: a wonderful to compare notes with Ziji and others, and make contact with the outside world. I so enjoyed hearing updates from many friends, and getting a glimpse of the ongoing political dramas.
~ For me the major theme for this week has been the practice of Tonglen, which I have loved for years. It is a visualization for taking in others’ suffering and sending them peace and light. Here we are taking it deeper [details below].Details if/when you have the time and interest. If you missed earlier episodes, they are  below.

Sleep and energy fluctuations have continued.

I had a conversation with my Meditation Instructor, a senior monk, 67, who has been living here the last 16 years. He shared he also has difficulty staying asleep. He says melatonin is a natural hormone that makes us sleepy; it declines with age, so supplementation helps. He gets to sleep fine but wakes after 4-5 hours, so that’s when he take 1 tab which lets him finish a full night’s sleep. Am just beginning to try it. Will report more next week. Do you have any suggestions? I welcome them!


Am amazed by how harmoniously we 23 are sharing this space. It comes in part from how well organized we all are, thanks to all the preparation of the resident monastics, who are building are many years of prior experience. Outside our practice sessions, all the chores are done cooperatively. After each meal we rotate through being on clean-up teams of 3 people. So I’ve generally gotten that job 2-3 times per week. Every morning from 6:40 to 7 we each have our regular assigned tasks to spiffy the house. My job is the men’s shower room: cleaning the shower and 2 sinks, the mirror and floor. Others are vacuuming halls and cleaning everywhere. Every afternoon from 1:30-3 we divide up into pre-assigned teams for other house-related tasks. I am on the Facilities team: we’re the Fix-it Folks. We’ve shoveled snow, measured one house for some new wiring, repaired doors and plumbing and loose hand-rails. The team leader [the older monk I mentioned] is aware Ziji and I are partners, and often assigns us jobs to do together, which is a sweet acknowledgement of our connection, and gives us a chance to hang out. Even though we are mostly in silence [except for “functional speaking” during task time], there is a lovely, loving energy among us all, communicated with smiles, bows and other caring gestures. The love is growing stronger every day.


I first learned about this ancient Buddhist practice about 10 years ago, reading the “Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche. It has the same intention as Maitri/Metta aka Loving Kindness Meditation, which I first learned from my beloved brother Eric Toozy over 40 years ago. Maitri uses words to send oneself or others loving kindness. For example, I most often use:


~ May I/you/[name] be happy.
~ May I/you/[name] be free from suffering.
~ May I/you/[name] dwell in The Heart.
~ May I/you/[name] be healed into wholeness.
~ May I/you/[name] be at peace.
Instead of words, Tonglen uses images coordinated with the breath. After first centering in one’s own heart and grounding, one inhales another’s suffering visualizing it as dark, thick smoke, and takes it deeply into oneself. Then exhale some healing colors or light to them, seeing them bathed in that color/light, and repeat several times.
Here I am reading one of Pema Chodron’s books, “Welcoming the Unwelcome.” She includes a brief appendix about Tonglen, and makes it a 4-step process, which I am finding even more satisfying. I highly recommend it!
In general what I am most appreciating about Buddhist practice is its emphasis on relieving the suffering of others through the power of intentionally focusing thought/energy. Here, in this pristine environment, with the support of this community [sangha] of devoted practitioners, I feel the power of our practice strongly amplified. My focus is on several friends facing major health challenges, and on political leaders who are grappling with major existential questions which will impact everyone for a very long time: visualizing the thick, dark smoke of their confusion and pettiness being replaced by the bright light of true compassion for the well-being of all. It felt great to do Tonglen for Washington, visualizing all Senators and Representatives standing in a circle holding hands and breathing together surrounded by golden light. I wished them Wisdom and Compassion [not for Trump, but for ordinary people].
From Welcoming p. 156: “Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Use what seems like poison as medicine. We can use our personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.”Working With Difficult Emotions:Once each week on Tuesdays, Pema Chodron gives us a 2-hour talk/discussion about skilful means of working with our more challenging emotions, which in Buddhist psychology are called the “Kleshas”:

– Passion/craving
– Aggression/addiction
– Ignorance
– Pride
– Jealousy
– Greed/avarice

All 3 books on our reading list address that:

  1. “ Emotional Rescue” by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.

  2.  “Welcoming the Unwelcome” by Ani Pema Chodron

  3. “ Emotional Awareness” by the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekmans book

“Emotional Rescue” is a direct translation into simple, modern language of those ancient teachings.
She is inviting us to reflect and journal about our own emotions each week, and put the teachings into practice. Am finding, in this serene setting away from worldly stresses and stressed out people, not many challenging emotions are surfacing. Still, living in such close confines with 22 others, there are bound to be little frictions and annoyances. It’s a great opportunity to witness the contraction, the feeling of being separate, that is the basis of all our suffering. Then breathe and relax and let the contraction gradually expand like a bubble and gently float away! May I remember how to do that back home when I encounter people who are totally caught up in themselves and who do something that irritates me. That’s when the rubber hits the road!
Many of Pema’s talks are available free online, on YT and other platforms. Her delivery is disarmingly low-key. She models humble awareness of her own human foibles and struggles, and teaches with utter compassion for our inherent human challenges.

More Memories of past trauma:

The process of being here, living so quietly and mindfully, is allowing a kind of psychic/emotional house-cleaning to go on. Many memories from earlier times are coming into awareness, both during formal meditation, and during the night in dreams or when half-awake.
A few nights ago I was awake in the night and vividly recalled my tortured teen years when I was struggling with my bursting sexual energy, totally conflicted and confused. My attraction to other guys was then [mid-1950s to late 1960s] considered a perversion, a degeneracy, an “abomination”, a mental illness, criminal, and completely unmentionable to anyone. I struggled in utter isolation with my shame, guilt, and desires. I was “looking for love in all the wrong places”…for some kind of loving contact with other men. All I found was casual sex that was anonymous [I was terrified of being discovered], hurried and heartless. Remembering those encounters, the feelings of shame, confusion and intense loneliness were vividly present. So I did Tonglen for my teen self: breathing in the dark smoke, and sending “him” [me] the clear blue skies and pristine white snow all around us here. It felt deeply healing. Then I extended that Tonglen to others of all genders who [at whatever age] are now in similar struggles with the social condemnation of their deepest desires for intimacy. May it relieve their suffering and lead to deep self-acceptance and love, which can then be shared with others.
Also for Titanic [see last week’s email] it feels so good to have a tool to send loving and healing to all those traumatized: the victims, survivors, and family/friends. If indeed all times exist in The Now, then healing truly is possible. Certainly I feel lighter! Am just realizing the deep healing that is possible here, by doing this much inwardness, both during practices and at night. What a blessing! So grateful!

For balance, am happy to report that some memories are quite pleasant: I am deeply experiencing all the ways my parents loved me and were devoted to my well-being. At the time I was more inclined to see their short-comings, like alcoholism. Now I see their underlying love, and feel deep gratitude.

A model of aging gracefully:

It’s common among many of my contemporaries to complain to ourselves or anyone who will listen about our annoyance/frustration about our declining physical and mental abilities. What I am learning from Ani Pema: to accept age gracefully. At 83, she loses her train of thought and simply asks, “What was I saying?” She forgets words and without any trace of annoyance simply asks. When she got up from her chair to walk out she asked for support, smiling as she said “My legs are working yet.” What a gentle gem!
Throughout life, “stuff happens” that we do not like. She is showing that we always have a choice about how we respond to what simply IS: react against it and deepen our own suffering [and that of others if we complain] or simply take a deep breath, acknowledge the challenge, and move on.

Variety of meditations:

I have found myself struggling with Shamatha [just watching the breath and witnessing thoughts in a detached observing way]. Am amazed how hard it is. It’s like I’m taking off the training wheels: suddenly my meditation feels wobbly. I’ve been so comfy with mantra for decades. Without that steadying influence, mind wanders a lot! Inspired by Pema, instead of saying “Thinking” I am saying “Forgiving” [my mind for wandering]. I see the value: I need to train myself more to tame the “monkey mind.” As the week progressed, Shamatha was easier. Thoughts were few and fleeting.

Over the decades I’ve learned many kinds of meditation. Am most drawn to visualizations, and/or mantras; either focuses my mind and energizes me. Yet I wonder if it’s some sort of spiritual ego that wants a light show or other inner entertainment instead of being willing to go into Emptiness. I’ll continue to experiment. Am finding I can do a combo…if I’m awake enough. Now I am alternating Shamatha, mantra, kundalini, then Tonglen the way Ani Pema describes in 4 stages: beautiful.

In one meditation, I invited images, and immediately I was sitting on a white lotus feeling held; the lotus morphed into loving hands [of God/Guru]. Then I truly felt grace! Did Tonglen for most of the time, again following Pema’s 4 steps. I sent out the white petals tinged with gold to loved ones who are struggling with health issues. Then I focused on Congress. This is such a crucial, decisive week. I pray many senators are moved to consider history and the future of the country/world, not just this election cycle.

I was deeply moved by the Saturday evening practice called Maitri Bavana: like Tonglen but specifically intending to inhale the illnesses of others and exhale spaciousness and peace. Apparently it’s done monthly on/near new moon. It is described on the Gampo Abbey website: “We invite you to send names of those suffering from mental or physical pain to be included in our regular Maitri Bhavana practice. Maitri Bhavana meditation practice cultivates compassion by being willing to take on the sense of suffering of others, acknowledging our deep inter-connectedness. A sense of spaciousness is directed to those who are suffering, with the intention of providing relief from the claustrophobia which suffering creates. This is intended for those who are ill as well as for their family and friends. Along with names, please send the nature of the pain, for example, cancer or depression.” The ceremony leader read a list of names we had each submitted, which was long and comprehensive: a vast array of ailments among people we know and care for. Then we chanted a lovely text on Friendliness which brought tears, and did the special Tonglen. I could fairly feel my heart opening and getting larger as I/we took in all that suffering of sisters and brothers all over the world. It was the clearest and most heartful practice yet: like we all dove deep into the heart of compassion.

Conclusion: It’s now Monday, our weekly Free Day. We arrived 3 weeks ago today. What is most striking is how so many strangers can come together is such harmony and peace. It has to do with us largely setting our egos aside to commune in a larger shared consciousness. I pray all of us humans learn these simple and profound skills.

Thank you for following my adventure. I welcome your comments, questions, and insights! 

Week 2: Buddhist Boot Camp

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Warm greetings from wildly windy wintry Cape Breton!Summary of Week 2:

~ We spent the entire week in silence…and I loved it!
~ Am still struggling with getting enough sleep at night and then staying awake during meditations.
~ Am surprised by some memories surfacing [details below], and having glimpses of total stillness: just being present.
~ Am having more experiences with snow shoveling than I expected…or needed 😉 Makes me feel like a real Canadian, eh?
~ Am gradually getting more comfortable with the whole scene here. There is a lovely, predictable rhythm to each day, and a wonderful simplicity.
~ Mindful eating is clearly something I need to learn, and this is the perfect opportunity!
~ Ani Pema Chodron’s presence and teachings are indeed a blessing. She is translating the arcana of Tibetan Buddhism into something human and immediate. She is the very embodiment of egoless humility and total compassion…with humor as a bonus!
~ Overall, after a full week of silence, am feeling more in my deepest heart and soul. It’s not new; no big surprises. After so many decades of meditation, I seem to know myself pretty well. This deeply peaceful environment is supporting my hanging out there again. Perhaps in the remaining 2 silent weeks there will be further deepening into vast, spacious, loving presence.

The details are below if/when you have the time and interest to climb inside my head. It’s definitely “inner space” explorations!


The Power of Silence:In our second full week of Winter Retreat, we have moved into almost total silence. The first week we could speak socially during/after lunch until the afternoon practice period began at 3:30, then silence was kept through supper and breakfast and the morning practice. This week, and the following 2 weeks we’ll do lunches in silence in a ritual way in the Shrine Room with chanting before/after we eat a “one bowl meal.” So the only talking all week is “functional speaking” during work periods when we need to coordinate our tasks. Ziji and I are choosing an additional brief verbal exchange at the end of each day: he comes to my room and we compare notes on our experiences of the past 24 hours, then have a long standing hug before saying good night. We’re all observing a vow of celebacy, so that’s as intimate as we’re choosing to get. It’s very sweet!

After the first silent day I journaled: “The stillness is getting both thicker and clearer. It’s deeper than any I’ve experienced. The outer environment is totally still today: no wind at all. We’ve been in silence all day: wow! It’s a dream come true! I had tastes of this at a couple of ashrams, and this is way deeper and more thorough. We’ll be in silence all week…yay!”

Now, as our Free Day is approaching tomorrow, I imagine it will be a shock to go back to regular conversations. Ziji and I both want to practice We Space Meditation on our Free Day. I am curious what will arise between us in the We after so much deep inwardness all week.

Energy is unpredictable:

Am still struggling with being too awake during the nights and too sleepy during the days. Some of that is to be expected at my age, yet it does make it difficult to fit into this demanding schedule of meditation. If I participated in all sessions of meditation [alternating sitting and walking] it would be 6.5 hours per day plus over an hour of chanting! So far, I have needed naps during meditation period at some point every day.

Meditation images:

Ani Pema gave a talk on a Buddhist way of working with the emotions. One image really spoke to this former pilot: to remember that above all clouds and storms the vast blue sky is always there. It helped with the drowsiness. I “see” that the drowsiness is in the energy body, like a layer of clouds. I can be aware of Consciousness going way beyond that. In the second sit I saw the vast blue sky stretching over an endless plain of snow: white below and blue above…forever! I again saw the red/orange fire rising up through my root and out the crown. This time instead of white light coming down, it was golden: like a single ray of sunlight meeting the earth fire in my heart. So the sky was Consciousness; the fire is Energy. Even though the sky seemed horizontal, I sensed the vast space between earth and sun and beyond into all the galaxies: unimaginably vast “emptiness” full of Consciousness. Then I saw/felt the vast galaxies [bones, organs, etc.] within this body similarly full of the Consciousness. This body is a passing shell containing merely a drop of Consciousness. Yet “I” am all of It: beyond time and space.

Overall, am feeling a deep clarity now, and so appreciating the collective container we are creating with the guidance and support of Ani Pema and this lineage. I bow to The Guru in this form and pray for guidance along the path.

Soul memories:

Surprising things are coming up during these meditations, including old memories, many quite vivid. I enjoy them, then just let them evaporate. The most vivid and striking was a couple of days ago when the winter winds were howling with great swirls of snow and wildly churning waves on the ocean. It evoked a strong visceral memory of deep sadness.

Some of you have heard about my history with the story of the Titanic, which has intrigued me since age 11. Ten years ago I had a vivid past life recall session in which some details emerged of my experience in the lifeboat and during rescue. Perhaps because here on the north tip of Nova Scotia I am only 400 miles from the site where she went down I am now having a strong recollection: Titanic had sunk and I was sitting in the life-boat, shivering with cold, fear, and unutterable grief at all those still crying for help and the others already silent. What a shockingly powerful lesson in impermanence! One moment we were living the good life on the finest ship in the world, and moments later she had sunk and we felt doomed to freeze to death on that heartless, icy black ocean.
Now I am recalling the time after arriving in New York on the rescue ship. Again, as on the lifeboat, I was plunged into grief and wonder. I stood in the wind looking east over the vast Atlantic, sobbing. I now recall so vividly feeling “why was I spared?” and wondrous gratitude for the grace of God. Perhaps it was that experience that gave this soul such deep trust in divine guiding love. I do seem to have had this trust my whole life, though that could be my mother’s devout influence.
Besides instilling a deep trust in grace, that horror also left a lingering mistrust of large corporations, who put profits above people. Now it is Boeing acting that out unconscionable greed. Again I am appalled and outraged.
As I sat in the Shrine Room, aware it’s now 2020, I could so feel that heartbreak and how it shaped the later portion of that lifetime and now this one. Having been spared that death in 1912, how did I relate to World War I a few years later? More heartbreak for sure: profound sadness at human folly.
Somehow that grief and the sense of divine grace guiding me led me to this lifetime of seeking greater connection with a greater consciousness.
I do appreciate this Buddhist orientation of acknowledging and working consciously with human suffering. I do agree that the heart needs to be broken to fully open. Maybe that’s the process that began for me with Titanic: such a sudden and shocking display of suffering!
As I sat in meditation, and now as I write, I can fairly “feel” my soul: that part of me that carries both the depth of sadness and a strong longing to make the world a better, more conscious place, to help uplift humanity. I so appreciate that is also the aspiration of Shambhala and was Chogyam Trungpa’s vision. Am grateful that Ziji deeply shares that vision/yearning as well; it is one of our deepest bonds.Mindful Eating:So far one of the biggest takeaways is getting to practice eating as meditation…what a concept! All my life I have treated eating as a task to get done quickly, usually while carrying on a conversation or reading or looking at news on the web. Sure, I’d enjoy the taste, albeit briefly…efficiently. Here I am with 22 others, all eating silently, mindfully…wow! I am learning to slowly move my spoon toward my mouth, pause to smell the food, then take it in without chewing at first: just savor the sensations of texture and taste. Then chewing slowly releases many more layers of flavor. It’s almost orgasmic! Instead of preparing the next shovel-full to be inserted as quickly as possible, I pause after I swallow, and take a breath or two to savor that experience, then fill my fork or spoon, and repeat. I truly am in awe how much more pleasure I am having! I’ll probably eat less and enjoy it more after this retreat.

Digesting Tibetan Buddhism:

Shambhala is a complex amalgamation of 2 major lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, which is itself an amalgamation of original Indian Buddhism with the earlier Tibetan shamanic practices dating back to unknown antiquity. So I am finding the language and images both rich and very hard to understand, even though I have 40+ years in the Yoga tradition from India, which arose from Hinduism, and is itself replete with a vast array of arcane language and images. I’m in a steep learning curve, which has ironically put me more into my head and ego: worrying I’m not getting it, feelings of failure, and general stress.

The spiritual teachings I like best are the simplest ones. The teachers I most respect and resonate with convey their teachings in almost child-like simplicity. If the ultimate truths are beyond words, I prefer pithy poetry to elaborate erudition. Think Rumi, not Nietzsche.

My favorite poet-philosopher is my beloved friend/mentor James Broughton [1913-1999]. He sums up reams of philosophical treatises with these succinct lines:

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So as I am attempting to translate all this new liturgy and iconography into a digestible form, I’m finding it helpful to review what I now understand from all I have learned and experienced thus far over all these decades of study and practice:
~ Formless Pure Consciousness [“Emptiness”] is the ground/source of All Form.
~ Sant Kirpal Singh taught, “Each embodied soul is a drop in the Ocean of Consciousness.”
~ To take it further, water vapor is everywhere and invisible. It gradually forms into clouds, then into separate rain drops [birth in a human body]. Each drop begins a mysterious and frightening journey of falling out of control toward an unknown obliteration [death]. All drops feel separate from one another and afraid of their fate. Some land on mountains, some on tress, cars, houses, and have many varied experiences before merging with the streams, rivers and the ocean [home again as simply water!]. All eventually evaporate back into the invisible vapor of Pure Consciousness.
~ The challenge is to become aware, while we are a falling rain drop, that we always were and always will be the same water vapor of Pure Consciousness.
~ Then fear evaporates. Love is all.

Learning to meditate beyond all doing: to Just Be.

For 46+ years I’ve been using mantras as my main tool to focus the mind. Here I am learning to let go of mantra, or any doing, and just be: to not resist whatever arises in the mind, yet not entertain it either. We can just notice the play of the mind and let it go and become aware of their source: the field of Consciousness out of which all the thoughts and images arise then dissolve. They are of no substance: totally ephemeral. Only Consciousness IS…our ultimate identity.

I am reminded of a metaphor that may work for those old enough to remember when “movies” actually involved a moving strip of film being projected onto a screen by a light bulb. In meditation, I am the movie-goer being aware of the bulb in the projector instead of getting caught up in the drama on the screen. The light of Consciousness is the source; all the images are merely its play.

I continue to ponder the Buddhist denial of a self, even though they speak of an ego. At least Trungpa does. What is the difference? To me, the ego/self is a necessary part of being in a body. It contains all our memories of experiences and learning, and so guides us. The problem is the ego sees itself as separate, and concerned with MY survival and well-being, without awareness that we really are all one. So the ego needs to be cleansed, educated. The mind needs to be calmed so the light can shine through. Today I meditated on the projector: I “am” the bulb, and my ego/self is the film, with my thoughts/emotions on the screen of mind being my projections. The light shines through the film of my ego to create my thoughts/emotions, which are not “real”. I am not them, nor the film. I am the light! Maybe that’s what Buddhists are trying to say.

Week 1: Buddhist Boot Camp

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Wow! This is about as close as I’ll ever get to Tibet [see map]. It feels nearly as remote and wintry, with mostly sub-freezing temperatures and oodles of fresh snow almost daily, mostly of the wildly windy variety.
It’s perfect being in a cosy warm monastery with 22 sweet souls ranging in age from 20s to 70s. Half are monastics; 2 are “life-monastics”, and the other 10 are “temporary monastics” who commit to at least a year of living the vows. Most of the rest are long-time “Shambalians” who’ve been in this tradition founded by Chogyam Trungpa in the 1960s. I feel like I’m visiting a very foreign county with an unfamiliar language and exotic customs. There’s a lot to learn!
Happily last week we eased into the very full daily schedule which has us engaged from 6 AM to 8 PM every day except Mondays. Am savoring a day off, and internet access. I feel like I’ve come up for air!
Overall I am surprise how much I am enjoying sharing a big house and all meals with 22 others: quite a change for someone who cherishes solitude and autonomy. The people are truly lovely, gentle, open-hearted and kind. I feel immersed on love.
I do find the schedule daunting though. The nights are too short. The mornings are way too early, and the meditation times do not align with my natural rhythms. So I am fighting drowsiness during meditation which is a new challenge. I hope my system will soon land in this time zone!
A major irony for me here: I feel in some ways like I’ve come full circle back to [a much more enlightened version of] Catholicism of my roots. The practices here are highly ceremonial and liturgical. We chant many chants in monotone, and move from sitting to standing to kneeling on one knee, with much bowing and many prostrations. The decor is bright and uplifting, as is the energy of the place and people.
Now all I need to do is figure out how to get enough sleep so I can be awake enough to fully enjoy and engage in it.
There is a great sense of reverence for this ancient tradition and lineage, dating back 2,500 years to Buddha, and further back to the Bon tradition in Tibet which apparently originated in remote Syberia! The reverence and devotion is ultimately toward the consciousness that underlies all manifest reality. Theistic traditions would call this God.
Pema Chodron is directing our training, and leading some rituals. At 83 she looks like a frail bird, yet speaks with a wonderful dry humor and deep compassionate wisdom. I feel blessed to be in her presence and tutelage. She is focusing on working with emotions in meditation, and is recommending we read:
  1. “ Emotional Rescue” by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.  

  2.  “Welcoming the Unwelcome” by Ani Pema Chodron

  3. “ Emotional Awareness” by the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekmans book

Overall, the effect of being in this remote location in such a consciously constructed and maintained home is that the energy feels amazingly pristine. Am loving being in such a conscious community of caring aware beings! There is such mutual consideration, kindness, gentleness…so sweet! It affirms who I want to be and who I wish we will all become. The bodhisattva vow is to dedicate my life to uplifting all sentient beings. These practices affirm that intention again and again, sinking deeper roots in that soil.

Because of lack of sleep, most of my meditations have been either dull/drowsy or “busy mind.” But one brought up an inspiring image: “…fiery orange/red rising up from earth through root and up/out crown while white light descended like water flowing over me, and the combo creating a golden egg-shaped aura that morphed into a flame. Then all our flames were like candles on a cake: each separate, yet each made of the same wax and flame. So each was unique and all were the same! Our separate flames grew larger/brighter gradually becoming one. Then I saw the whole globe as the “cake” with 7.5 billion candles…all growing, glowing brighter becoming one flame of love light surrounding the planet.”

Arriving for Yarne Winter Retreat

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Ziji and I arrived yesterday into snowy Halifax. Our landing in blowing snow went slightly awry: we slid off the runway! Though it sounds dramatic, it was imperceptible from the cabin. The approach was turbulent in gusty blowing snow, but the landing and roll-out seemed normal. Then we stopped for a minute or so until the captain explained “uh, folks, we’ll be here for a while. We ran off the end of the runway, and will be needing to get towed in.” He gave us regular updates as he was informed a tow was not possible from that location, and buses would be dispatched to fetch us. 90 minutes later we walked down slippery steps in wildly blowing snow to waiting buses.
Then we wondered and inquired when our bags would be retrieved. No one knew. We waited another 4 hours. I happened to speak with the airport manager at 6pm who said “we’re still trying to figure out how to get equipment and lights out there to safely unload all that luggage”. We then concluded it was unlikely they’d unload them [by hand] until daybreak. We went into Halifax and had a relaxing evening in our hotel, including a nice dinner and sauna. Phoning Westjet we were assured they’d send our bags to the Abbey today: a 6 hour drive!
We had a scenic drive today: 4 hours by a taxi from Halifax with 2 other retreatants, then we were met by one of the monastics for the remaining 2 hour trip, which was very scenic: a beautiful winterscape.
Now all is well. Here by 3, we received a warm welcome.
Am loving the energy here! [See website and video.]
The stillness is palpable: not only in the external environment, but in the orderly calm of the place. Everyone in residence [about 14 I think] is very warm-hearted. Most are Americans with bright spirits exuding kindness.
I feel deeply grateful for this opportunity for solitude in community: so grounded and clear!
The schedule this week will be a gentle introduction, and we’ll get into the full rigors next week.
Mondays will be “wifi day” and I’ll do my best to give you updates about our journey of exploring “inner space.”