Driving this rusty vehicle of self…

What is this vehicle we call the self? Certainly, the infamous ego is a part of it, but is that all of it? What does that even mean?

From the perspective of our 21st century consumer economy, the self has become the repository for all that we try, over the course of a lifetime, to accumulate — think of the shopping cart icon on any of your favorite e-commerce sites.

There’s a famous Zen cartoon of a little man who is born into this world and proceeds to ingest the full contents of a massively rich cornucopia, to pass the residue, and then, in due course, to die, leaving behind nothing more than a sizeable pile of, well, you get it…

My friend and noted Buddhist teacher, Ken McLeod, often says that what we call the self isn’t a thing, it’s an experience (sorry Ken if I misquote a bit here – see Ken’s excellent website,  Ken Mcleod- Unfettered Mind ) Like a child’s flipbook, these experiences pass so fast that we mistake them for a continuous film, an entity with some sort of permanence.

And then of course we die.

As anyone who has ever had the duty of cleaning out the cherished possessions of a dead loved-one can attest, even the most closely held keepsakes are simple junk once we’re gone.

So, using this life, this self, as a cosmic shopping cart probably won’t work out.

But neither can we function without a self, an identity- we’re creatures of a relative world. The IRS insists that we maintain a self, and our significant others probably do as well. So how do we work with this self?

How best to drive this rusty vehicle?

One classic Buddhist image of ‘self’ is of waves in the ocean, each somehow distinct but each still entirely of the water, inseparable from it. I like to think of each of us as a local concentration of sentience, of mind, of life force. Why the universe has chosen to organize itself this way I have no idea; but I think it does — moreover, I think it’s through this manifestation that the universe expresses itself and looks to experience itself.

If I’m right about this, then our mortal selves remain essential, but in a rather different way — what if the point isn’t to see how much we can accumulate for our selves, but instead to see how much we can express of our selves?

This shift changes everything — instead of contracting and gathering, our life experience might take on the quality of a gift to be offered rather than a treasure to be hoarded.

This expression of self, of life, can take almost any form – an art, a skill, parenting, a job. The blood of the difference is in whether or not we’re subtly trying to bargain for a specific outcome from offering. Again, Ken McLeod talks often of the insidious nature of the exchange mentality, the bargain of the marketplace co-opting all of our human actions. For artists who need to sell their work to pay the rent, this is a perpetual quandary. Even in the spiritual realm, we’re so deeply conditioned to the exchange that we’re often subtly (or not so subtly) looking for a payoff. But that’s just another form of shopping, of using our precious time on this earth as some sort of coin.

 No, I’m suggesting here that the only “payoff” worth the race is the freedom to stop gathering, to stop hoarding.

 By “expressing the self fully,” I mean taking this life-stream as a gift to be given completely, as an offering of all of one’s talent

and all of one’s difficulties –

 as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, no privacy.

 Whatever our gift, we manifest it fully, without reservation,

no withholding.

 We live completely into our lives through the full offering of them

to this sacred world.

 We come to recognize our own basic goodness and that of the world

as being one in the same.

 We manifest sacredness and we offer that back to the source.

 No giver, no recipient, no gift.

 Outrageous, inscrutable

 and free.

old cars, old trucks, california

abandoned truck, sonoma california, 2014

 

 

©jafink/oldbones.newsnow.com

 

 

 

 

My Father

My father, Allen Medford Fink, died of lung cancer in 1986 at age 72. He was not an easy man. As I explained once to an adult nephew, he was our father, so we wanted to be close to him, but it could be a dangerous place to stand. He taught us to be strong. But as I grow older myself, I can see that if my brother and I are, in our own ways, more gentle, well, he must certainly have given us the seeds of this gentleness as well.

 My father was 42 years old when I was born, so he was dead by the time my sons Patrick and Nathan were born. But his presence remains. In the Buddhist cosmology, the “three times” of past, present and future and not as solid as we ordinarily take them to be. Perhaps this is how I know that if he were to meet my sons today, I am certain he would be amazed. I am certain that he would be most pleased.

My father with me, the baby, and my big brother Joe on the lawn of our small house in Detroit in 1958.

My father with me, the baby, and my big brother Joe on the lawn of our small house in Detroit in 1958.

Written April 2015 in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah —

rains

the wind

is beginning to howl

a late season snow coming in.

by morning, everything

will be blown back

into white.

 

I remember my father

staring out the kitchen window,

massive and simmering,

considering the evening sky.

 

he left the farm just before the war-

came North, but never lost the habit

of weather,

 

of watching the clouds

for signs of impending danger

of flashing from sun into thunder

with no warning.

 

we’re grateful for the snow-

it’s been dry here for too long.

 

redemption can come

through the blessings of rain

of a rain that falls hard all day

of a rain that might protect us

 

from the lightning

from rage without warning

from the flames

t

hat can race up from the valley

and sweep us all away

incinerating everything

 

 

 

©jafink/oldbones.newsnow.com

Singletrak Redux

This week I headed up a local trail here in Park City with a good friend- an hour or so of decent uphill, and I remembered this post from last summer. When I revisited it this morning, I decided to re-post it as the first of a series of “Reflections” that have been cooking for a few weeks here. “Old Bones” will always work with the interplay of image and word/ poetry and photography. But there’s more to be said, always more practice to to be done…

Singletrak- Redux

Image

The stillness of sitting meditation would seem to have little in common with the effort needed to power up steep single-track, nor for that matter with the rush of rolling downhill at speed through tall stands of aspens. But every time I head out on my dusty mountain bike, I get flashes of insight that feel like they reach straight from the cushion to the trail.   So this piece is about bikes, and it’s not. And it’s about meditation, but not so much.   In point of fact, its about mind, the one that both sits in shamatha and the one asks, “self, how did I get here,” as the trail angles steeply toward that ridge line way, way up there…

As a rider, I’m still pretty new to “real” mountain biking (i.e., in the mountains, at altitude with meaningful elevation gain and multiple miles of joyful, if sometimes difficult descents,) so it took me some time to see a basic truth—that to get the good stuff (strength, stamina, the joy of descending) I had to get over my resistance to riding up things. Without the effort, there’s no progress. Moreover, I needed to commit to climbing these hills over and over again. One big climb doesn’t make a season, or a rider.   The juice is in the consistency.   For me, climbing on a bike is a shamatha practice—get to the cushion, put in the time, develop the discipline. The masters that came before all had to do it. No shortcuts. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said (long before Nike…), “just do it.”   But climbing kinda sucks. It hurts, at least for me. So right away, I get to work with my mind in order to work with my body. This is the flip side of a long meditation retreat where I get to work with my body in order to work with my mind (because quite often there’s often bodily pain involved in long practice sessions.)   In either case, my ego comes alive and whining as, on the bike, I watch my more gifted pals leave me in the dust (I’m kinda slow…just like in meditation I suppose.) So here’s a chance to practice some serious gentleness with myself. As Popeye says, “ I yam what I yam.”

So be it. What I do have is doggedness- I can generally hang in when it starts to hurt. Recently, I’ve even been able to find a place of some peace amid of the pain. I find it helps here to try to shift to a larger perspective- to lift my gaze from the trail and check in with the incredible space I’m riding through. Just as in sitting meditation, being aware of the space seems to relieve the sense of claustrophobia, of compression that can arise in a long sitting session (or climb.)

If climbing is shamatha, then maybe descending is vipashyana. Here, it’s all about space, moving through it using more instinct and less discursive thought. Insights come often and at speed.   The first is to ride more, steer less. A mountain bike (and the mind) is designed to flow over the terrain and the rocks. If I can relax my grip, give up on over-managing the process, things seem to work out a lot more smoothly. The innate wisdom of the situation has a chance to emerge.   The second is closely related to space – raise the gaze, see down the trail. A proper view is critical. Caution (fear) can lead me to focus too much on the trail right in front of me, but it’s too late to react to anything there. The karma of the ride is going to blow me past these rocks before I could ever hope to react to them. So expand the view – the farther down the trail I focus, the smoother the ride passing under my wheels seems to flow. Again, see the space — trust the wisdom of the situation. Trust the path.   Number three is an extension of number two- ride through the changes. Tight switchback turns, abrupt changes of direction, can be sketchy. It’s ok to check some speed coming into a turn, but once its started, look through the change, not at it. View again- the larger the better. Ignore the stones under the wheels and look through and well past the turn, and allow the bike (and the mind) to pull itself through and into whatever is next.  

Finally, at some point a particular truth is likely to emerge that’s common to both biking and sitting- eventually, you’re gonna fall — beef it, dump it, wipe out. Comes with the territory. We can’t control how much a fall is going to hurt, and it will hurt. Even small falls hurt. But with luck, you get back up and carry on. For a while, you’re going to be a little shaky. You don’t want to fall again. But as long as this thought infects you, your riding sucks.   You can’t ride, or sit for that matter, if you’re trying to protect yourself all the time.   But eventually, the adrenaline fades, the discipline of your practice reasserts itself and the ride smooths out again. And then its over.   The trail ends, the bell rings.   For me, the hours immediately after a challenging ride are wonderful. My body is spent and my mind is blown open. Everything slows down and there’s all the time in the world.   Whatever thoughts were churning during the ride, or on the cushion (and as you can tell by this piece, there are often quite a few…,) pass away without a trace. The rest of life flows back in and on we go.   Until tomorrow. When it’s brand new and fresh once again. When the bike, and the cushion beckon.   The bell rings, and its time again to practice.   And to ride.

© oldbonesnewsnow.com/ J.A. Fink

Red Stone

Note- some poems are prompted by a word or a phrase, perhaps an experience. This was suggested by an impossibly beautiful tree deep at the head of the unfortunately named “Negro Bill Canyon” off of the Colorado Rive near Moab Utah.  

red stone

by the time we reach the top of the canyon

we’ve walked through most of our words

this trail of sand and stone, the solitary blooms

of tattered desert flowers. this deep in the canyon

all light is reflected, shattered light,

passed from rim to rim until it settles like mist

luminous dust, a dry and brilliant rain.

we never know what we’ll find in the deepest canyons

of our lives like these incandescent leaves,

such improbable green, or this stone, the rich red

of freshly oxygenated blood, the red of iron and of time,

of pressure and erosion, the true red of benediction, the hard,

hard red of redemption.

©jafink/oldbones.newsnow.com