Clear water for the well must first run fast like you, it rushes, stumbles over boulders in the way tin cans rusted weeds and roots rotting under broken bridges failed dams flooded your obstacles thickly mud-filled darkened In stagnation you sink surprised by the lotus before the flow downstream swept clean under the sun clear water arrives stilled where you’ve stopped on the bank to see.
That is creative life. It is made up of divine paradox. To create one must be willing to be stone stupid, to sit upon a throne on top of a jackass and spill rubies from one’s mouth. Then the river will flow, then we can stand in the stream of it raining down.
― Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype
That got me thinking…
We are segregagated not only from diverse humans, but also from wilderness.
I am dog sitting downtown in St. Pete, Florida. My view is a city street, a gated condo, high-rises in the distance. There is also the park and Tampa Bay a few blocks away–pretty, but tamed. A stiffened, stifled kind of beauty. The only wildness left are the trees, the birds, the fish and occasional dolphin in the bay. Our downtown is more tree-friendly than most cities, so the bay and trees are it’s saving grace. A reminder of what is missing.
Unless we can afford to travel to it, many of us city dwellers have never been in wilderness We do not understand it, we have never gotten to know it, and so we fear it and belittle it, as is true of all segregation. Just as we force out diverse populations, we do the same with meadows, plains ,animals, mangroves, wetlands, sand dunes. In so doing, we expose ourselves to the threat nature feels from us, we are surprised by it’s push back to survive. What is unbalanced, will be balanced regardless of our wealth. The result of our need to control and tame results in poisoned manicured lawns, weirdly box-shape shrubs, flowers of one kind restricted to small mounds. All man-made, nature excluded.
What does all this cutting and pasting of wildness done to us? What I see downtown is linear and orderly, meant to make us feel secure, protected. I do not feel safe, only contained. Feeling policed and restricted by the rigid concrete and steel city squelches creativity; writers seek retreats from this in coffee houses with art on the walls, music playing, all reminders of the more rounded, integrated, nurturing spaces we lack.
Natalie Goldberg coined the phrase wild-mind to describe the creative process. A wild-mind flows like a river, making its way past boulders and branches of the controlling ego, of perfectionism, of the man-made. Creativity explores wilderness, trusting the directions given by that spirit. The creative spirit is in the miracle of grass growing without our planting. From wilderness we learn the power of mystery, of growing, blossoming, adapting according to life’s urging. We breathe only because the live oak breathes. Our cities have asthma, our breath is constricted.
In the Zen tradition, dukkha is often translated as “suffering,” although more often it means dissatisfaction or the nagging sense that something is off, or sometimes even existential angst. It seems that dukkha is discussed more explicitly in American Zen than it commonly has been elsewhere in the Zen world.~~Konin Cardenas, “Understanding Dukkha,” Lion’s Roar 2017
That got me thinking…
Dog sitting is my part time job. While walking Paco, the Min-Pin-Chihuahua mix, in the sauna-like humidity of Florida summer, I was experiencing dukkha, because my bum hip hurt and I was uncomfortable. I was also feeling guilt about my cat, Gus, home alone even though I went back daily for a few hours with him. Then there were the nagging questions common to dog sitters: what did I need from home that I forgot and what did I leave at the other condo that I need at home.
I happened upon an acquaintance, a resident of the building where I was staying. “How are you doing these days,” I asked. She answered “Going to Maine soon. I just bought a condo in Portland.” And I felt the hammer of dukkha come down hard on my mind. Envy. Dissatisfaction.
As everyone knows, Buddha said life is full of suffering. What people misinterpret is what he meant by suffering. in addition to suffering death, disease and old age, there is the suffering brought on by our desires. This suffering is called Dukkha and is less about actual suffering, but more about unease, a sense one doesn’t have all they need. It’s about being attached to certain outcomes, desires and being disappointed when they don’t come to fruition. It’s also about the niggling little irritations, the small pains, the irritations of bad traffic or bad weather, aversion to inconvenience and craving for pleasure. And change. Most people will avoid change like the plague. We wait until our ass is on fire before we finally change what the problem may be. Dukkha can be defined as difficulties.
Some of my friends are on vacation in cool, beautiful places. Some even have lovely second homes in those places. They have financial well-being. I have Dukkha.
I’m not proud of it. I’m not homeless, I just have a lower income than my better-off friends. I don’t have much to complain about.
Like so many others in the United States, I suffer from dissatisfaction. It arises out of a belief that I should be happy. That something is wrong with my life if I am not happy. This is the burden we inherit from the myth of the American Dream. We suffer from having too much and not enough. We even have the house, the car, the income we are told will make us happy, and yet…
So…because I am a writer, I write to face and understand things. I have ample opportunities to practice lessening the impact of dukkha on my life because I am an American. What helps other than writing? Seeing through the myth of the need for constant happiness.
Try the attitude of accepting difficulty instead of getting aggravated by it. It’s a lot more peaceful.~~Rick Hanson, Phd. from “Just One Thing”
To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening.~~Alan Watts
That gets me thinking…
Gus jumps up on the window sill. A bird or fly has flashed past.
I find myself gazing out the window with him, notice the sky, the clouds, but in the next second I have left–gone into the past or the future. My body sits in the chair, but I don’t know it. I am looking at the sky, but do not see it. There are sounds outside, but I do not hear them. Gus is tuned to the vista, its colors, shapes, movement. I am not here.I come back to the present with a start–as if an alarm went off to wake me. I do not know what alerted me to life again, but usually it is nature or some creature. We acknowledge that we need dogs and pets for their unconditional love (well, maybe conditioned in Gus’s case…) but we may also need them because they bring us into the present. They offer us their presence in a way most humans cannot, see us as we are now, not as we were or could be.
I stroke Gus’s soft fur and come back into my body as I notice his warmth on my lap. Gus, I think, must always sense his body and mine. I, however, do not inhabit my body while I am lost in thought, and I am almost always lost in thought.
Gus and other creatures, it seems to me, are examples of minds that are in tune with the “primary consciouness” that Watts describes here and that Buddhists would recognize as an awakened mind:
The “primary consciousness,” the basic mind which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future. It lives completely in the present, and perceives nothing more than what is at this moment. ~~Alan Watts
What if the present moment is full of pain or grief? Ahh…That is for the next blog…
With Brutus at His Water Place
Brutus is a big, bulky lab mix with a weight problem, but he is also graceful. And slow.
He is a slow walker who usually trails behind me.. It’s not that he is too old or sick to walk. He is just slow. Periodically he stops to say, with his big brown eyes, “Which way now?” However, when we are heading for his special water place he becomes a fast dog trotting in front of me, pulling me down the blocks across a small bridge, and through the neighborhood to a street that ends at the bay
He climbs down the crumbled pavement into the water, over the stinky piles of seaweed until the water covers his belly, then stops. He stands and gazes out into the bay, occasionally turning his head to check that I am still there. His tells me how much he loves this place. He says he wishes we would come here daily. I hear him. We all know how clearly dogs can speak. I take a breath and follow his lead into the present moment: sky, water, seaweed, dog. Peace plenty.
Mindfulness with Meeko
If you came to this earth as thousands of cells that want the experience of being an American Eskimo dog, you are snow-white and have a fan-like tail. You are alert to the smallest gnat that flits past. Your ears stick up straight and open, so no sound can escape your hearing. You zoom around your big yard on dainty, thin legs and feet, but you are not a dainty soul. You take no guff from passers-by, especially other dogs, and bark in short bursts of passion.
You are like Buddha in that you dwell in the present moment and watch life with exquisite mindfulness. Your ears twitch, small black eyes search and scan the air, the ground. You love the outdoors where everything is happening, almost too much to take in. You love being outside so much that you leap into the air at the closed kitchen door until I open it.
Meeko and I love being outside, looking around. Nature reminds us to stop.Be attentive. It says here is beauty, check it out. Here is life living itself, notice. A yellow butterfly flits past Meeko’s black nose. A mockingbird swoops down to keep us away from her nest. A lot is happening but humans in houses tend to miss it all.
The exact balance of sun, air, living and decaying things settles us. Where can there be more peace than here where Meeko and I are held in the hammock of nature? No hurry, no achievements. Just being.
The Western mind draws a sharp boundary between humans and the rest of the world….for the Western mind, it is hard to recognize mind in animals, whereas for the Japanese mind, it is hard not to do so.~~Semiotician Yoshimi Kawade, written in 1998
That quote gets me to thinking…
Brutus, the lab mix that I often dog sit, sends me love with a look. He and I look directly, usually silently, into each other’s eyes each time we want to tell each other something. It’s simple. Direct. Clear. A type of mind reading. I’ve learned from dogs and cats how much can be said by the eyes.
With Brutus and Gus, the tiger-striped cat, words are seldom necessary even though I use them out of habit. Brutus and Gus hear me make sounds. Brutus looks at me patiently until I make myself clear.; Gus walks off unless I add a treat to the sounds.
I think, this is one of the reasons that people need dogs and cats—we get sick and tired of talking.
Or we can’t stop talking around people and can only be quiet with our pets. Words are hard to come by. The right ones. Words can be so difficult to find. Those we speak are often the ones we repeat out of habit; they aren’t the words available, or even appropriate often, in the present moment, if we took the time to notice those.
People don’t listen for the most part. Dogs listen. They learn the meaning of words.directed to them. When I say “car” or “beach” or “cookies” to Brutus, he comes to a happy attention. Have we learned any language from other animals in the same way?
Our words come from minds filled with past and future, so how accurate are they? How wise? Meanwhile, my stock and trade is, ironically, words; I’m a writer and a teacher. However, I’ve been investigating the mind in the way of the as a Buddha and I am starting to see its limitations.
The book Intelligence in Nature, An Inquiry into Knowledge, by Jeremy Narby, an anthropologist, is filled with words for 243 pages. Since they are written instead of spoken, they have been carefully chosen and re-thought many times; writing can be a more clearway to use words than speaking. Narby writes about the intelligence he and other scientists, have discovered in creatures great and minuscule, like nematodes. “A slime mold,” he writes,” in a maze has the capacity to apprehend its situation and act on its knowledge.”
He makes the point that there are more forms of intelligence than we ever dreamed of. A Western mind has to overcome hundreds of years of the myth of human intellectual superiority.
Recently I read in Narby’s book that “Information of one kind or another is consistently circulating in nature, in particular in the form of biochemical molecules. The world is streaming with signs. Not so long ago, some people considered the use of signs a specifically human trait.”
All this is to say, that I am searching as I write: what is nature telling me? What is it I am missing? Can I become better at reading the signs life is posting? We’ll see…
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Work with what you are
If you are a fawn
stand still as wood
in a field of tall green grass
at the edge of a forest
your dark eyes wide open
flit and fly home
through the twilight.
If you are a fawn
your soft brown ears
upright will catch sounds
of wind through the pines.
If you are a field mouse
scurry, slipping between
If you are a human
see the fawn, the pines, the wildflowers
feel you breath as wind,
how your heart beats as
bird mouse, fawn
then and only then
your tender work
ten ducklings scurried next to their mother
on the grass bank of Tinney Creek.
It’s the time of year for births at the creek
and on the wheel of birth’s
death for all but a few of the ducklings.
Helpless I watched
hoping the crow’s kill was quick
hoping the duckling felt only soft grass and sky
Being human this seems a loss to us
until we arrive at the meal.
This evening in a restaurant a person will order duck
for their dinner.
Talons or forks
the same but
One is choiceless, the other chooses.
For feathers or skin
made of ducks and ducklings
we ought bow in gratitude
Tinney Creek, St. Petersburg, Florida
Tinney Creek runs past
the TJ Max
It travels back and forth
from Tampa Bay
rises and falls daily with the tide
feeds Egrets, families of Muscovy ducks and Mallards
who seek tiny prawns, mud crabs, bugs.
Feathery Java fern
grow in it’s rich mud,
as if this was still The Garden.
Between snaking highways,
the creeks and their residents
as if this was still The Garden.
Down the busy street a ways
atop a pole advertising Beer and Low-Cost Cigarettes,
an osprey has built a roomy nest,
designed in the contemporary open sky plan.
A lone Roseate Spoonbill sometimes visits Tinney Creek
always in company with her Egret.
I watch as
Spoonbill lifts it’s comical Dr. Seuss face
twitches its white and rosy feathers
lowers its wide paddle-like beak into brackish water
side to side
The ducks, Ibis, Egret, crows and I claim
this creek and the remaining
Royal Palms, oak trees, iridescent sunsets
“I used to see many Roseate Spoonbills here once,”
a neighbor tells me.
My heart aches
as it beats
at these all too familiar words:
There were many here
At night, arriving home,
my headlights sweep over the banks of the creek
lighting up a line of ducks, like fat-buddhas
heads curled into their downy breasts
asleep despite ambulance sirens,
the roar of traffic.
At dawn they will wake
waddle like drunks
raise their chicks,
the Osprey will hunt,
the Spoonbill and Egret will visit
I will marvel at how they float and splash
and the creek
feeds us all
as if this is still the Garden.