Last Sunday evening, I drove straight from staffing a weekend meditation retreat in Salt Lake City (Shambhala Training Level 2 – Birth of a Warrior) up to the top of Guardsman’s Pass above Park City. With camera and tripod in the back seat, my plan was to grab some pictures of the famous “blood moon” eclipse that was to happen that night. Rich with visions of the solitude of the mountain ridge beneath a disappearing moon, I was more than a bit surprised by the mob scene that greeted me at the top. Cars and people were EVERYWHERE, hundreds of folks brought out by the relentless press coverage of this “once in a lifetime” celestial event. Oh well, the sky was still the sky, so I beached my car (which later yielded a modest parking ticket…) and headed up the hill in the dark.
Below us, the entire Salt Lake valley was shrouded in clouds, but up here, all was clear, except for one thin band of clouds that seemed designed to obscure the rapidly eclipsing moon. Bright as this overly large moon was, it was completely hidden. Looking at the rest of the sky, one could tell that the cloud would eventually move on and that the rising moon would eventually emerge, but the crowd around me wasn’t in a waiting mood.
The local press had publicized the exact time of the total eclipse, and dang it, this moon was late! Cars began to pull out and families to leave. As the clouds began to part, there was still more disappointment – “I thought it would be bigger” I heard. “It’s not very red, is it?” said a teenage girl standing with her friends. Slowly, the hill began to empty, the air growing colder as it neared 9 pm.
In the Shambhala teachings, we talk a lot about hope and fear. In the Sacred Path teachings on the qualities of an enlightened being, it is said that the Garuda, symbol of outrageousness, of freedom and authentic response to the world, can only be captured by driving it into the valley of hope and fear. These narrow valley walls, each the inverse of the other, are how we struggle to constrain the future into the specific outcomes that we desire.
Through hope and fear, we’re basically saying I’ll be fine if THIS happens, but not if ANYTHING ELSE happens (hope, as used here, doesn’t mean optimism, but rather a kind of greed for a specific outcome.) Over time, I’ve become acutely aware of how this mechanism of hope and fear, of expectations, is clanking along almost constantly in my subconscious mind and coloring my experience of the world.
Like a mental map of acceptable possible futures, my mind is always scanning this imagined future and comparing it to whatever is actually arising. Like so much dharma, I think this is probably an evolutionary adaptation that serves us well sometimes, but often gets in our way in a modern world. Specifically, it gets in our way by triggering a sense of poverty, or disappointment, when the real world fails to comply with our often-unstated preconditions of hope and fear.
Just becoming aware of this machine can be huge- the other day I had a real sense of disappointment about something that happened, but I couldn’t put my finger on why that was. Only when I stopped and asked myself what it was that I thought I expected could I see how I’d created a narrow valley of hope and fear and then tried to push the rich world of experience into it. Didn’t fit.
Back on the hill, the night was growing cold and the moon, doing what it would, was now in full eclipse. The hillside was nearly empty with only a few of us still there to witness the moon’s eclipse and its gradual emergence from the shadows. My earlier thoughts of solitude on a mountain ridge beneath a vanishing moon were coming to pass. Camera shutters clicked. The wind began to blow and the moon to brighten. It was big, and very red, and very much worth the small parking ticket.
Yesterday, I really felt a need to get up into the mountains, so I took my dog and headed up to the Uintah National Forest. As always, I stuck a camera in my pack, but unusually for me, I set out with intention of NOT taking pictures. Rather, I just wanted to walk, throw a stick for Jack, and look.
About halfway through the hike, we came to a deep alpine lake at about 10,500 ft. In the shallows, the grasses were curling, undulating with the small waves.
The whole time I shot, I thought “I can’t believe this is being given to me…”
Recently, a Shambhala teacher told me “I’m going to give you the secret ingredient.”
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…
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.
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.
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,