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Saturday, April 2, 2016

Make This Practice Your Own

My friend Dave Slater and I recently co-led a meditation retreat for teenagers at Shambhala Mountain Center, in the Rockies of Northern Colorado.  Dave teaches at a private high school near Boulder that one week every year offers various field-trips to its students, one of which this year was our retreat.  

I had been to Shambhala once before with former Still Point abbot Ango Neil Heidrich, driving out in August 2001, two months after they opened the largest stupa in North America.  

As beautiful as the center had been, I'm not sure I was adequately prepared for how breathtaking when blanketed by so much snow that we actually started to wonder if we were going to make it off the mountain on schedule.

Not wanting to throw too much at the kids, I nevertheless tailored instruction to include in addition to basic Zen sitting practice some Thich Nhat Hanh-influenced gathas -- "mountain/solid," "space/free" -- where I asked them to create their own versions.  We did some visualization based on the work of Daniel Siegel, and body scans especially for one of the participants recovering from an eating disorder.  I even threw in some square breathing, which has demonstrable effects on the nervous system (breath in for a count of four, hold for four, exhale for four, hold for four, repeat).  Was very interesting to check in over the week and see what stuck for some -- the theme:  make this practice your own.  Some loved certain practices; others others.  

When the week began, most could barely sit still for ten minutes, and half were terrified of the prospect of twenty.  By week's end, they all sat up in the stupa like mountains for twenty-five.  I mention this not to fetishize time, but to suggest something of the rapid growth of their belief of their own abilities.  In fact, one of our ongoing discussions was how the duration of time wasn't the important thing -- some of the boys, especially, kept wanting to turn everything into a "see who can sit the longest" sort of competition (it happens in monasteries, too).  A primary appeal of measuring anything is the illusion it then offers us of intimate knowing and so, possessing.  Sincere Dharma practice, though, always resists our ownership -- and that may even be its first virtue.

There is a balance for each of us:  on the one hand, we are unique in history in that information about every single meditation practice ever is a Google click away.  To borrow from my first Zen teacher, what this means is we can easily end up digging a bunch of shallow wells.  We try a certain practice and fall in love with it, our heart seems to be opening, this is it!  And then in three months, it gets boring, like all the practices do if we stick with them.  So we try a new practice, new honeymoon, ad nauseum.  But these practices are for digging deep wells.  We need to stick with them.  We need to know how to be bored; how to "plateau" and keep going anyway.  They'll get interesting again, and then boring, interesting . . . and in this way, we learn to appreciate the entirety of our experience.

That said:  the wisdom of your own heart is your true teacher.  What do you need; which practices feel right to you?  And if you absolutely need them, there are ways to measure:

"The other day, someone visited me and asked, 'I wish to practice zazen [Zen meditation] under your guidance. But because I live far away, I can't come to [your temple] very often. I'd like to practice zazen at home. What should I keep in mind to avoid doing zazen in a mistaken way?'

I responded, 'If your wife and children say, 'Daddy has become nicer since he began to do zazen,' then your practice is on the right track."

--Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (1912-1999), from The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo

Friday, April 1, 2016

I Never Know

I never know how it's going to hit me, only that it will. Twelve years ago today, my mom died after years of surgeries and struggle. She held on just long enough to meet my daughter and then she let go. At five weeks old and 5 pounds, Jaya would naturally cry if she were hungry or tired or she needed a diaper change, and we would always handle these things like clockwork, except for the times after we'd finally gotten the green light to travel with her to visit her grandmother in Massachusetts. We just didn't know how much time we had left, and so we would always put her in Nonnie's arms first thing in the hospital, however fussy Jaya was. And for the duration that they were together, both were the very definition of peace. But as soon as we separated them for a feeding, Jaya would start crying again. Every time. 

When we are honest, this whole life is a total and complete and beautiful mystery. There are these moments though, when we get glimpses into whatever it is behind the veils of our delusions and certainties (which are often the same thing). In his heart of hearts, the part of me that likes to know has no idea what the hell any of us are doing here to begin with, spinning around in space on this little rock in the middle of nowhere. But those moments I just described were not the first time my mom gave me glimpses beyond before, and my daughter since. You find me better things to worship than love and our always already present connection to each other and everything else in the entire universe, and I am so in. In the meantime, tonight my family and I are going to eat at Nonnie's favorite restaurant, tell old stories, and then go hold hands somewhere in a dark movie theater, eating popcorn, in love with each other and this entire fact of being alive.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Observations On, and Tips For, the Run Woodstock 50K

If you camp in a tent, and you should, you will not sleep much.  You will probably assume Friday night will be one of respectful relative silence for all those awakening early to spend the day hopefully not dying, but you will be mistaken.  This is Woodstock.  You will look forward to what everyone seems to assume will be Saturday night's bacchanalia.  And while Saturday night ends up fun as hell with friends, you will be wrong.  Few remain up past 11 p.m., and you too will slip happily into your own tent much earlier than expected, marvel at how quiet the sprawling pop-up village is tonight, and fall immediately asleep.  This you will do, you've made certain, only after another handful of Advil.

The Cyborg and The King.

This being your first ultra (or even marathon, for that matter), you will consult the blogs of the more experienced about what to put in your drop bags.  You will read one person's opinion that V8 juice can turn your whole day around, all that salt and potassium.  You will gag a bit, imagining V8 in any context, let alone a warm can of it miles into the longest run of your life so far.  You will nevertheless procure the elixer for each drop.  At each aid station, you will listen to what your body wants, and find yourself puzzled when some part of you begins searching for the V8 a quarter of the way through the race.  You can't believe how good it is, and how good it makes you feel for a little while longer.  You mentally thank the author of that blog, wherever she is.

Drop bags.

The morning of the race, you will scramble looking for the van that will transport your second drop bag to the far end of the sixteen-mile loop.  As you do so, you hear the announcer say that if you miss the start of the race, you must check in with the timing guy before heading out.  You miss the start of the race, and you check in with the timing guy before heading out.  "Which way?" you ask, and he points, and so you run.  You run around the campground looking for the entrance into the woods, which you cannot find.  You run some more.  The person you then frantically ask tells you you're going in the exact wrong direction.  You run back around the whole campground and ask the timing guy again, and he again says go the way you came.  You ask someone else.  They tell you to go the other way, so you do, mostly because it's the only way you haven't yet tried.  You are alone, ten or fifteen minutes behind everyone.

You run in the dark, following the spot beam of your headlamp.  You have never done this before, and you're instantly hooked.  Whatever energy and time you just wasted quickly fade into utter gratitude.  Without others around, you are free to ease into your own pace, and to revel in the silence and the simple task at hand, the sounds of your footsteps and breath, the forest slowly awakening.  You are free.

Your body slowly warms against the 50 degree temperature, more gratitude for the forecasted high of sixty.  Perfect running weather.

You will soon start inching through wobbly columns of headlamps and making new friends.

You will keep calling the headlining band "Lemony Snicket" all weekend, mostly by accident.  You make a note to Google "Lemony Snicket," because you're not sure what that is.  You find out that what is a who.

Your phone will be mostly dead all weekend, and that will be mostly good.

After the race, you will avoid the shower trailer because of the rumors of non-adjustable scalding water.  You will instead use a pile of camp wipes.  Maybe two hours later, you will try the shower anyway, because you just can't stand how you feel.  There will be a rotation of scalding and cold water, but you find you can adjust the cold somewhat with short bursts of warm.  It will simultaneously be the worst and best shower of your life.

Saturday night, you will enjoy perfect porters and IPAs from Velvet Elvis Cycling Team sponsor Liberty Street Brewing Company.  You will realize you are so.  f**king.  lucky.  The sky will also be clear.

Best.  Brewery.  Ever.

Almost every band onstage all weekend will have a Hendrix fetish.  You love Hendrix, but will not want to listen to Hendrix after this weekend for maybe another six months.

The Who covers from the stage renew you halfway through.  You are running two loops of a 15.5 mile course, so you have kept a drop bag near the start/finish area.  You will arrive to the warm smell of colitas and the strange tale of a deaf, dumb, and blind kid through stacked amps.  Your shoes and socks will be filled with sand although you've done a quick empty at every aid station, each four miles apart.  Here you will baby wipe your feet, apply new layers of Trail Toes anti-blister cream, and don fresh socks.  As you do this, you will listen to the first and second place finishers discuss their race.  It will not bother you that they are already finished.  You will remember the winner from slightly earlier on the trail, as you hiked up one of the severe sections of singletrack in single-file with a dozen others, and suddenly this guy blazes by all of you, running.

The Dude will abide starting Saturday.  He will proceed to earn all the love.

You will notice with envy these colorful little gaiters some people have to keep debris out of their shoes.  It won't matter to you that you could have potentially saved, easily, 30 minutes on the day if you had had them.  You will think only of the misery in running with a beach inside your shoe.  You will make a mental note to check out Dirty Girl Gaiters online when you get home.  When you do, you will order the Movin and Groovin print to remind you of this weekend.


Halfway through your race, you will leave the campground for the woods once again.  With the change of socks you will feel like a newborn baby.  And while, barring an injury, you'd planned on finishing no matter what, you will now note how much better you feel this far in than you had expected to feel.  You will at some point not too far in finally fire up the iPod.  For eight miles, you will kill it, sinking into a samadhi at one with the trail, with each rock and root.  You will bomb downhills because you are alive, and this is where.  For the last seven miles of the race, you will pay for this, but you won't care.  Life is not always the same as preservation.

For an hour, you will remove the Velvet Elvis armwarmers you'd been wearing since morning.  It is sunny now, almost warm, and in front of you is a stretch of rolling dirt road.  You will put them back on before too long, and it will then rain for the duration.

You'll be wearing a GPS watch, but you won't set it to track you because the battery won't hold up for the whole run.  Halfway through, when you will have planned on using it, you will realize that it's been so nice running without a little temporal tyrant in your brain, why invite him in now?  Just to finish, and to enjoy or endure whatever comes in the meantime, that is your goal.  You still have your watch with its vague sense of measure, and that is enough.  Approximately an hour altogether on average between each aid station, running plus stopping to eat and stretch or whatever.  Although simply finishing was the goal, you would've liked to finish somewhere around eight hours, start to finish, and you will end up moving through the course from 6:15 until 2:20.

Around mile 28, you will run alone and be overcome with emotion.  Images of the women in your life will flood you.  Your grandmother will visit, as will your mom and mother-in-law, each deceased.  You will think of your wife and daughter, and you will mourn the loss of our elders.  You will survey your own attempts in life to transcend much of what you have known, to live in ways that shield your daughter from violence and uncertainty.  You will run to know something more about your own capacity to suffer and to translate whatever you find there into helping you and anyone near you heal and continue to do so.  You will run for awhile with tears in your eyes and snot pooling in your nose.

Around this same time, a new pain will enter your right foot, around where the outside metatarsal meets your heel bone, whatever that's called.  You will finish in agony, and be forced later that day and early the next to limp around the campground in pain.  You will worry a bit about stress fractures until you're able to sink into a hot bath of epsom salts at home, down a handful of Advil, and take a nap.  You will wake up still limping, still nursing whatever it is, but far less debilitated.

On your run, you will pass 100 milers going the other way who headed out the day before around 4 p.m.  They will have run all night and are still at it.  You will say "hi" or "good work" like you always do, but many of them will not even be able to lift an arm in return.  Many just shuffle forth like zombies, and you will marvel at the human desire to seek out limits, stare them down, and vehemently disagree.

You will silently thank Raghu for Sylvan Esso.

You will try new things at the aid stations.  In addition to your favorites -- Gu gels, Gatorade, and boiled potatoes with salt -- you will fall in love with watermelon dipped in salt, chicken noodle soup, and PBR.  And you will allow yourself Advil from your drop bags, unlike on training runs.  And you will be so happy that you do.

After the race, you will go and order all the food.

The last few miles will have you anticipating many things.  First is seeing one of your best friends ever at the finish line.  You've been on pilgrimage to Korea together, and long road trips out west.  Went through the seminary together; have basically grown up together.  And now he's somewhere nearby, standing in the rain just to tell you "good job."

You will think of this past year, of being 40.  You will think of learning a few songs on the ukulele, your first year of grad school, the coming year at the Zen temple and your graduate assistanship at school.  As always, you will think of your wife and daughter (in Columbus for the weekend).  You will feel you are right where you need to be, and you will mentally check this day off from a constantly-revised bucket list.

When you finish, all you will want is water and food, in that order.  And you can't wait to see your family.

Monday, June 15, 2015

This is What You Came Here For

I've been getting ready for September's 31 trail miles at Run Woodstock by, of course, running a bunch, with at least one long run a week in the woods.  In April, I signed on at the last minute for my first trail half, and then last week ran a back-to-back 5K and 10K on singletrack at Flirt With Dirt.  My longest run prior to this last weekend was approximately 18 miles of singletrack, solo, at the Novi Tree Farm / Lakeshore Park, which left me feeling good enough for a late switch with a teammate from 10 to 20 miles at the Michigan Ultra Team Trail Run (MUTT), a fantastic relay event in middle-of-nowhere Harrison, Michigan.

Slept four hours for an early drive up, which had us braking hard at one point to watch a deer no shit floating 25 feet in the air after being struck by the car just in front of us.

My thoughts en route were consumed by my sick daughter, who has recently seen the inside of an ER way too frequently.  Since we thought she was on the mend, and this was a relay for which three other people depended on me being there, I went through with it.  Physically, if not mentally.  And even physically, my taper consisted of sleepless nights and very little running.  I arrived at the relay with a recent hip issue, an old knee issue, and an even older toe issue (from Brazilian jiu-jitsu in another life).

That's me at the start nursing my hip already.  Second from the left.
The MUTT format is you all stay together.  The five miler peels off at 2.5, the 10 miler at 5, and so on.  I felt like shit for at least four miles, but tried not to hold anyone up too much.  After 5, it was just me and my man Alex, a cyborg in it for 31.  My goal was not to hold him up too much until we parted ways at mile 10.  I still held him up.

At my turnaround, I got into a more relaxed pace, but the damage was done (days before the race, even).  By mile 15, I was a mess.  All I could think about was finishing to call my wife about our daughter, but my body wouldn't cooperate.  I learned a whole new meaning of slow, eventually shuffling, occasionally walking.  Even if you prepare well, which I didn't, you never really know what any race will throw at you.  Maybe an old injury rears its ugly head; maybe you can't keep food down; maybe you're in a more general world of hurt.  Maybe you're all three, as I was.  When everything distills into a world of suck, what I find myself saying internally is this:  "This is what you came here for."

Doesn't make it enjoyable or even just suck less, but it does remind me that the test is what I'm after.  I don't give a shit how fast I am or where I place.  And I don't try to manufacture that moment of suck, either.  I do everything I can to stave it off, but sometimes life gets in the way and you can't prepare well enough, and it comes and then . . . what?  Whatever answer I might have for that question is every reason I have to be doing any of this (well, that and fun; maybe a beer at the end).  And the thing you don't realize from the couch is that distance isn't always an indication of it coming:  anyone who has done a 30 minute cyclocross race knows something legit about pain and the voice that keeps saying, "go quit and have a beer.  All you have to do is stop."

Physically, it was my worst day since the Hilly Billy Roubaix bike race a few years ago.  Mentally, it was easily my hardest event ever.  By the end, I just wanted to float over to my family and be done with all of it.

I finished fully fucked and just thinking of the call I'd make to see how my daughter was doing.

Took a turn after the finish up a hill away from everyone and almost lost it.  My friends Mike and Josh met me with some words of encouragement.  I headed to the car, my phone, the frantic texts from my wife about our daughter, and lost it for real.  Our daughter was now in the hospital with suspicions of bacterial menangitis [since dispelled].  Alex was still on the trail, and home was another three hours away.  There was nothing I could do but tell my wife I'd be home ASAP.

When I found the Elvis encampment, Mike asked first thing, "How is she?"  Josh had earlier gone out for cigars, and gave me one.  Our team is known for beer and hijinks, but when it sucks, you can lean on any of them for real.

Alex made it through as always, a machine.

Thirty-one miles and bloodied from a dump onto some rocks.  No biggie.
We did our thing:  Liberty St. beer, hot dogs, and chats with the guy who hit the deer.  I headed home to a quick shower and the hospital.  In the two days since, there's been much to be scared about, including what no one should go through:  listening to your child scream through a lumbar puncture.

Turns out, our daughter is basically okay.  A sinus infection had moved into her blood.  Two weeks of oral antibiotics at home on top of what they've given her at the hospital should do the trick.

Regarding the MUTT, on Facebook, a friend had written, "savor the moment."  I haven't, and don't know that I will.  My daughter being okay is the only thing I've cared about before, during, and since.

And it would be easy to say -- especially if you haven't done them -- that events like the MUTT are frivolous.  Ancillary to real life.  In a sense, they certainly feel that way to me.  Especially now.

Yet, I know what they give me, as well.  Know the potential they offer to learn, and the carry-over from them to whatever we decide real life to be.  We create so many problems when our default is to retreat into comfort; I think it matters to sometimes seek discomfort and whatever you might learn about yourself there.  Sometimes these races can distill the whole human condition into each individual moment:  sometimes it's enough to keep moving forward; to put one foot in front of the other, with no guarantee of the outcome.

Because life is exactly like that, as well, at least as often as not.

Monday, May 25, 2015

50K, Day by Day

Eleven weeks in, and I think I just got into my groove training for the Run Woodstock 50K in September.  Not gonna lie, I've been a little scrrrred about the whole prospect:  not so much the race itself, but the volume of training required.  Just kind of finding the time, and making sure this body holds up, especially after a couple years of IT band / knee issues.  And up until recently, my longest run was at last year's Martian Half Marathon on the road.

But often, as soon as I know I can for sure do something, I lose interest -- at least a little.  So this September thing has me entranced, to say the least.

I love trail running.  Love being out there for a long time, with or without anyone, maybe a single earbud in so I can still listen for mountain bikers' "on your left."  I love how meditative it is knowing that I have to be as efficient as possible just to finish what for me is a particularly long run; love how time evaporates into running as gently as I am able, reminding myself over and over again not to spend anything unnecessarily.

Last year in Zion.

For trail ultramarathons, at least at my level, the advice is to walk the hills.  Four weeks ago, at the Trail Half Marathon at the Potowatomi Trail, I found wisdom in this.  The whole "race," which for me was really just a happy, supported run, people who insisted on running the whole thing would pass me on the hills.  And then, no problem, I would soon pass them as they tried on the flats or downhills to recover from their efforts.  One tactic is perhaps not better than the other, but by the end of the race, so many were dropping off like flies, and I still felt . . . well, not "good," exactly, but.  It taught me so much about the need for efficiency; what dividends you have to pay:  bombing downhills makes use of gravity for speed, but at what cost to later muscle fatigue?  For all my long runs here on out, and for the 50K as well, my job is just to cover the distance.  I don't care how fast or who I beat.  And I really can't explain how nice I find it to run this way.

It's been awhile since I've done any endurance distance that caused me to really pay attention to what and how I eat during the event.  Maybe West Virginia's Hilly Billy Roubaix bike race a few years ago, the last time.  I've been doing well with a GU Gel every half hour, and water as needed.  I'm remembering / realizing, though that after three hours -- four, tops -- I need something solid, too: a PBandJ or something.  And then I can go back to gels and water.  Paniagua. 

Anyhow, that trail half was a decent jump up in distance for me this year, as was the 14.5 I did two weeks later.  Dead legs after that, still too sore to run even two days later (so I walked a few miles instead).  Two miles into the following day's group run, I started to feel okay again.

And this past Thursday, looking at 16 miles of singletrack, I was kind of thinking, "shit, man, is spent for days how I have to feel after every long run from now until September?" since every long run will be my longest distance yet.  Ever.

I headed out alone, just to cover the distance.  Mellow twelve-minute miles (would've been ten-and-a-halves on the road), the little iPod shuffle in one ear; the other ear attuned to the occasional human, the more-than-occasional ribbon snake retreating, chipmunks, birds . . .   Stopping to stretch every six miles or so, I actually sat down for a minute after 14, and then ran through daggers of frozen pain for the first mile after that.  Avoid sitting down at aid stations if I can help it.

I headed back into the woods after the 14-mile refuel, and was happy to know for sure that I'd finish sixteen.  Miscalculated, though; ran too far in.  Seventeen-point-five miles by the time I was done, three over my previous longest distance, last week's, which killed me.  After sixteen miles, running out, I had picked up the pace, even all beat to shit.  I remembered something I have known before:  that while you can't fake the physical aspect of the thing, nothing trumps the mind for moving forward.  That morning, I would not have agreed to 17.5, and now here I was hammering (for me) the end of it.

What was maybe even more surprising to me was how good I've felt since.  Maybe an indication that with each week that passes, I get stronger for this thing.  But I also think I've got my recovery protocols down pretty well.  Near-daily appointments with the Rumble Roller are probably the main thing: 

Stretching too, especially following runs (and even during my longest runs).  And I'm utterly in love with double-doses of Vega Recovery Accelerator following long runs, maybe even washing down a Hammer Recovery bar with it even before I've changed clothes.  If I can manage two or three pounds of pasta for dinner later on, all the better, especially if sprinkled with some source of protein.  And as horrible as it is for the first minute or two, I don't think anything can replace the 15 or 20 minute ice bath as soon after the run as possible:


Next week, I've got the Flirt with Dirt 15K at the Novi Tree Farm / Lakeshore Park, which has been my trail home base this year.  I love the place, and Flirt with Dirt's 10K last year was a really fun race for me -- it might have been my first trail race on foot, come to think of it.  And then the following week, I'm looking at 20 miles as part of a relay team for the Mid-Michigan Ultra Team Trail Race with some homies from Velvet Elvis Cycling.  A unique event:  four-person teams, and one of you runs five miles, another 10, another 20, and the final member does 31.  You stay together until each respective runner peels off.  Up until two days ago, I was doing the ten mile leg.  I'm doing 20 now, and it'll be my longest distance yet.  Nice that I get to do it with good friends.

The first half of training for the 50K ends just after that with the forced recovery week of Still Point Zen's Summer Retreat.  I feel now like I can crush the second half, and that's a new feeling for me:  since Thursday actually, when my whole life distilled into running every rock and root as gently as possible for longer than I have ever in this life run before.


Friday, April 24, 2015

Zen Koans and OODA Loops

Trauma experts speak of something called the OODA loop to describe the process of decision-making. First, we Observe a situation: What is this? We then Orient ourselves to it: What is my relationship to it? Next, we Decide on a course of action, and finally we Act. We do this all the time, often seamlessly, but where it gets really tricky are situations that are both stressful and novel, where we can get stuck in orientation. We wonder why this person is attacking me instead of defending ourselves or trying to flee. We freeze when gunfire erupts. To borrow a classic Buddhist metaphor, we wonder who shot us with the arrow; wonder why; who made the arrow; take pains to understand its construction, all while bleeding out.

In the interview room at Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit, I sometimes ask people “What color is this?” as I point to a meditation mat that’s clearly brown. Rarely do people say “it’s brown,” and if they do, rarely will they stick by it. They wonder what else I may be asking them, what Zen sleight of hand is happening. Analysis in our lives is useful, of course; even necessary. But we get stuck there; get stuck in the past and future and learn to trust neither the present moment nor our relationship to it. Sometimes, though, the cushion is just brown in no uncertain terms, and it doesn’t matter who says otherwise.