Well… It's been a full week into 2020 and it's been quite a year so far in world news events!
Certainly valid evidence that there is no shortage of greed, hatred and delusion and plenty of suffering to be had by many through the actions of the few. Our sincerest wishes are for ease and peace for all in these strange and difficult times and for wisdom and compassion to prevail. Though our own practices, to cultivate inner peace and through insightful, mindful outward expressions into the world we live in.
Last week, Wednesday 1/1/20, we celebrated our Sangha and ourselves in surviving all that each of us had 100% successfully survived so far in our lives.
Taking a look back through the last four seasons we contemplated what was worthy of carrying forth and what was best let go of, as it no longer served us.
After I gave a talk, we took a bit of an imaginative journey in the form of a visual sort of guided meditation (a version of The Backpack Journey – available on the “Sounds” page here) and in reflection, set our intentions for the year ahead.
We also had the beautiful gift of individually hand-painted stationary by Emily to write down our visions and intentions to ourselves on. We then sealed the envelopes, addressed them to ourselves and piled them into the middle of the room. These letters will be mailed out in one year.
I suppose after you do something a couple years in a row, it becomes a tradition, or ritual. So this is a repeat of last year’s The Day after Xmas Party’s events to some extent and beyond in other’s. I heard some people were very pleasantly surprised to receive last year’s letters they’d forgotten all about.
This year, the ‘food thing’ got bigger and better too! We had our Sangha’s finest bringing: vegan black eyes peas and sausage with collared greens, amazing minestrone soup, vegan corn bread, coleslaw and more. We hung out enjoying each other’s company, eating and listening to tunes for another half hour after we closed the sitting group. It was a lot of fun and truly one of the most comfortable holiday “family” experiences I can remember.
Please check out the “What’s Happening” page to learn about upcoming plans and ideas for this Month and the rest of the year!
I’m figuring out how to get a a decent recording of some things I’d like to add on the here and don’t feel like it’s there yet. So, I thought I’d just share my transcript of the talk I gave on New Years night (below). This piece was followed by a short description of how several other traditions go on pilgrimages, or spiritual journeys in search for guidance before we did our own version in meditation.
Enjoy. And Happy New Year!
Punk Perceptions and Gratitude - Just as rivers (1/1/20)
This December I went on a special ten-day silent retreat. It was special in a number of ways. It wasn’t like most any of the western insight traditional retreats, this was a Monastic retreat. Meaning that, first of all it was organized and led by monks. Like the real deal; Ajahn Passano is the senior most disciple of the venerable Ajahn Chah (a hero of mine, the grandfather of ours and my teachers) in the Western Hemisphere and one of only a few remaining alive today.
The retreat for us laypeople would be a taste of what they do for three months starting tomorrow (Jan 2). We take 8 precepts there, which means in addition to the traditional five*, we don’t eat after noon, don’t adorn or entertain ourselves and don’t sleep in great comfort. I followed these rules.
It was also significant in that I had just foregone a pretty significant opportunity to lead a dharma talk on a retreat with my training cohort at Joshua Tree. This was a major milestone on my path, but a story for another time. I had to line up everything just right in my life coming up to this event as I have a business to run and tying up all the loose ends according to plan (to disappear completely for 10 days) is no small feat. This happened as well as assuring my personal life, health and mindset and full support from my home life would be in place.
It was also known that it would be raining and cold in the Sierra foothills, uncomfortable, to not only be away from my cozy and happy home, but that I had this feeling like I just needed to “veg out” from working and stressing lately. Knowing enough about intensive silent retreating, especially done in this very traditional, ritual and pretty religious way would be stressful in and of itself. Nevertheless I was as ready as could be.
So I come to you here with two tales that seem to meet each other to me in some way at this point. And an experience of what it means to have gratitude and a way to express it.
On the first day of retreat, you get there and check in, awkwardness is the general weather pattern for the day for me. Finding my room, setting up my stuff just right, dressing up my thin, narrow mattress and awaiting the other body that would soon be cramping my style for the foreseeable future in here with me.
Enter “Povel”, a mid-thirties, heavy Russian-accented gentleman. Very polite and orderly, who also very deliberately alerted me of his tendency to snore! OK, no problem I am prepared for this.
At 9 p.m., after the excitement of the first “Puja” and orientation, the very light evening meal I had in my belly from 5:00 and a day of travel and transition, I remembered I had in my bag a pair of earplugs and a handful of melatonin.
I have rarely used melatonin in the past when I had long periods of difficulty sleeping, and usually tried it when I didn’t have to get up early the next day.
But the thoughts were that I had to have a good night’s rest to be the best Yogi I could be - beginning tomorrow. Especially since the cushion and mat I had dropped off in the shrine room upon arrival, was placed all the way up in the front row, just right of center stage.
Fast forward to 6:45 a.m. the next morning. I had over slept! Nearly 3 hours after the time I had set my alarm and the yogi bell ringers had come and gone to wake us all to make the trek downhill to the first Puja. A significant one too, the first bowing to the Buddha, and senior monks, the first set of chanting. All that I had ambitions for experiencing up to now – had come and gone without me.
Alone in the dorm, a bit panicked and feeling like a total failure. What the fuck could have happened? Whose fault is this? Why didn’t my roommate help me out here? Everyone is going to know I’m a total amateur, a slacker, and just here to vacation. I made it down in time to get in line for breakfast at 7 am.
Feeling like a total turd, not being able to tell anyone what happened. OH sure the thoughts of ‘fuck all this, I’m crawling to my truck and leaving right now’ were there. But then a soft voice of my inner knowing arose; ‘fuck ‘em, bro. You just do you. It was an accident and you probably really needed the sleep. Let this experience inform you. Get it in gear and push on.’
I did. For the next 9 ½ days, I really absorbed all this retreat had to show me. It was everything you can (or can’t) imagine. And on day ten, I was very happy to not only have pulled it off in stride, but very happy to be packing it up and heading back to the lap of luxury.
Back now to Povel. With whom I had only a very brief, interaction of formalities on day one. We said our goodbye’s and he asked if his snoring bothered me. I was polite about it and honestly told him that I had dealt with it well enough, it had subsided some and it became a part of my practice (of metta and forgiveness).
He told me that he sat behind me in the shrine room, sitting in meditation for those many hours and admired my stamina and diligence of practice, but what really blew him away – did me too!
He said that he noticed my Dharma Punx bumper sticker upon moving in and had some preconceived notions about me. Which proved valid to him when I “just decided to fully rebel against the stigma of looking good and getting up early on day one to go to the first Puja”.
“That was radical, man! I mean you just said fuck ‘em, I’m gonna seep in today and do shit my way! I was so fucking impressed, I mean, I could just never do that. Totally punk rock, dude, I loved that!”
Oh, sure, I considered being the guy he thought I was in his mind for a minute, but no, I humbly confessed to the truth. I did however, also share that I was feeling good about a quick recovery, which in a way did come from this attitude, but in a more self directed way I guess. More like “Fuck my mind, I’m just not going to know how to do everything right and be ok with it”
So that’s tale number one. This group. Soma Dharma is tale number two.
If some of you know the back-story, and me, the parallel might make sense already. The cliff notes go like this though; Many of us had come to know and love a sangha called against the stream, some of us had grown up on our dharmic paths through the earlier version of this sangha known as dharma punx, then the back of the bus crew, led by Vinnie Ferraro.
Well, some things happened involving allegations of sexual misconduct and the founder, (Noah Levine) wound up with his organizations falling apart and divisions happening within the sangha itself. The center I and so many other came to rely on as their sanctuary and place of community and spiritual friendship (our own special brand of it), the place I personally had put a lot of time and effort into building and becoming a facilitator of, had abruptly slammed it’s doors shut.
In the midst of the stormy weather of feeling betrayed, disappointed, divided and abandoned, some folks were working on restoring the status quo of the center at 23rd and Folsom. With a new mission statement, visions boards, nonprofit status, all that I didn’t know much about or have any faith in. I was also somewhat verbose, given the opportunity, about not being in the camp of hating or abandoning anyone for anything. Especially not the one whose home we were sitting in discussing these things, and the one who unlocked the door to the dharma for me and saved countless lives through his efforts in the world of teaching, writing and working with recovering addicts and the incarcerated.
I just wanted to do something. Anything, if even just a crutch for a while until shit got normal again. Shit never got normal again. I went and rented a weekly space for a couple hours over on Howard street (SoMa) and invited all my favorite teachers to come and fill the head seat for us to continue to hear the teachings and get together like we used to. I intended to go retro a bit, hoping to sort of hit a reset button of some kind, Bringing it back to the old dharma punx days, the room even kind of looked like that one did.
But instead, what I was met with was questions about my affiliation with the founder, how I felt about sexual misconduct and whether I condoned it! That my offer was even a statement of apathy for the afflicted in those cases. I responded with a plead to come and tell the group and me how their perspective would be helpful and lead to an understanding that would foster wisdom and compassion. Eventually, not one of them would come here it seemed, they turned their backs and when other places started back up again, saying all the safe, right and popular things to say, that’s were they landed
In the meantime, I had a meeting with Noah while on retreat with him in November of 2018, the former founder, who had mentored me by proxy through Vinnie and Joanna, the guiding teachers of the time. When I told him about my intentions and the dilemma ensuing, he reached over the table and said; “you do this. You’ve got he training and the passion for it, I don’t think you need to bring in all these people to speak for you, just jump in and see what happens”.
Here’s what happened. Here we are. The closest friends I’ve ever known are in this room. In my opinion the ones who really got the Buddha’s message of love, equanimity and forgiveness. Arie, Erika, Scotty, Cheryl, Brian and others; rode the waves of this group of well-meaning misfits all the way here from the first few meetings.
My wife, Emily. She is truly the foundation my building sits on, and the local rescue department of my heart and mind over the last year and a half. She’s able to pull me out of the mud and fill my tank all at once, and does it all the time. If I have a crazy idea (Like soma Dharma) she’s the executive director of the outcome. “You can totally do this, follow your heart – or- uh… you sure about that, maybe sit on that one for a minute, dear”.
When I say that Emily is the strong, silent type, the reason we’re really a family here and appear to have our shit together most Wednesday nights. I’m not just throwing that around. It’s true. And trust me when I say, she got hit with plenty of shrapnel from that fallout too.
Are there some false perceptions out there about my motivation, intentions or abilities? Maybe. Do I need to confess my truth to whom I might guess is holding them? Nope. Are we living breathing truth about what it means to find a refuge in our sangha? Yes. Where a practice can develop in the most authentic ways, where we find our kalyanamittas? Yes, absolutely. It’s done, it’s happening now, and stands as it’s own witnesses to be true.
This has truly been the most meaningful venture of my life. And I’ve been on a few!
How do we share our gratitude for this? I’ll tell you how WE do, and about a couple of the ways the MONKS do.
How we keep fuel in the tank here, and what I’ve come to know as the corner stone and key to real revolutionary transformation and spiritual growth: it’s generosity.
The pinnacle of which is just showing up here. Really. Without the action you all take to dedicate time and energy to get yourselves here on a Wednesday night, if not for your own practice, then to be a guide for others seeing you continuing to arrive – just for them, is the greatest act of generosity and gift to yourself that you can contribute to foster our growth collectively.
Another is in the form of contribution that may seem really practical. We have expenses to cover and hopes for things we’d like to create, which takes money and other efforts. My hope is that when you help in this way, it comes from the same spirit of generosity that’s in offering good advice to a friend, giving a gift to a loved one, or buying something you love to eat or wear.
It’s also part of belonging to the oldest continual barter system in the world. The Buddha, and the order of monks and nuns, in an unbroken lineage have been dedicating their lives to spreading the teachings for free and living on what is only freely and willingly offered in return. Everything from their housing, to food, clothing and medicine.
Now, that’s not me. I don’t live that way at all. I work my ass off as a building contractor and hope to get PAID for that work. I’ve been at it a long time and have managed to live good enough – to fairly well through the years.
This here – I don’t get paid for and I don’t want to. The perspective for my part here is that through your generosity, I get to continue training as a meditation and dharma teacher; it’s an ongoing internship. Money we collect here goes directly back to this group (and I keep track). So I hope that my part in this this group is also viewed as an act of generosity, just like every one of us who walks through the door.
That’s us. The monastics, like the ones I just spent some time with – total dedication to generosity and renunciation. They don’t even get to ask for their preferences.
When I got to be part of the daily alms round, I was moved deeply.
In the setting I was in there on retreat, there’s a buffet line, it’s kinda the same at the monastery, and you’re all welcome to go join them there too.
But to get a closer look at the ritual, I had to volunteer to “Offer the meal” along with a few other yogi’s. As they can’t just take anything without it being offered, and we can’t just put things in their hands, it need to be put in thier bowls. So for them to do this themselves it has to be offered somehow.
I learned that when they come in, and walk down to the buffet line, to offer it: I was to touch one side of the dish or tray, then they touch the other - then it’s been offered and we move on to the next. Then they go collect their bowls and serve themselves up.
At the end of all this, they all line up at the end of the table, bowls in hand, with all of us yogis standing there in Anjali (hands together). And the monks begin this most beautiful chant to us. Offering us their gratitude and blessings. It’s called “Just as Rivers” and I’d like to read it now to you all.
>>>Read from the chanting book page 50.