Coming Attractions

Happily, I am starting 2021 with three new (or newish) dharma offerings, and I hope that you will be able to tune in to one or more of them:

On Saturday 2nd, I will be giving the dharma talk at Zen Center at 10:00 am PST. It will be available via the online zendo. This will be my first talk for Zen Center in a shade over a year, and I am still thinking of exactly what I want to say.

The following evening at 7:00 pm PST, I will be offering a guided meditation for Core on the Chalk app; I love the intimacy of doing an audio-only talk, and this one wiill probably be focusing on ‘new beginnings.’

On Wednesday evening, at 6:00 pm PST, I will be making my debut for Within Meditation, with an online, somewhat guided, sit.

Just to make the post a little more pretty, here are a couple of pictures from the bike rides I took over the holidays.

Looking down San Bruno mountain towards Lake Merced and the ocean
A pelican takes off near Oyster Point

Midwinter

When I type the word midwinter, I think of scenes of old England, cold, dark and snowy, as per the hymn, which is not really how it is in San Francisco. Weeks of mostly sunny weather, gradually getting colder, finally gave way to the season’s first serious rain over the weekend. I took this as an excuse not to get out on my bike as I usually would, and instead found myself keen to try a run, which, aside from a few outings in Kansas during September, I have not tried since March. Luckily things did not hurt too much, and with the forecast promising more rain, I will have a chance to try a few more of that soon.

I find myself not counting the days down to Christmas so much this year, even though I am looking forward to it – and have decorations, in our new place, for the first time in my years out of Zen Center. Instead, I am thinking about the number of days until the solstice, and the subsequent promise of slowly increasing daylight. There is also the countdown to the Inauguration – even if the outgoing incumbent is intent on throwing tantrums every day, it does seem like roadblocks to the orderly transition of power are melting away, one by one.

And then there are the two faces of the pandemic – soaring numbers, even here in the Bay Area, which has fared as well as anywhere in the US until now, and the imminent distribution of the vaccine. It does feel like a time for holding tight, staying safe and isolated and indoors as much as possible, with the hope of things being different next year. I hope that you feel this possibility of renewal too.

Two views of leaves in the city, pre- and post-rain

The Health Of The People Is The Highest Law

On Tuesday night, what with the clock change and everything, I went to bed after Florida had been called for Trump. I woke up early on Wednesday morning, and even before checking the news, my body remembered the sinking feeling I woke with in 2016 – not once but twice, with the Brexit vote and then the US election.

Since it was a sunny day in San Francisco, and I had time in my schedule, I went out on my bike to gather my thoughts. I made it up to Sweeney Ridge, more settled, and glad that I had worked my legs hard to get there. As the day wore on, it did at least seem likely that Biden would be assuming the presidency – unless there are court interventions.

What caused the sinking feeling, for me and I am sure for many others, was the fact that this was not a blow-out victory – that the senate is still up for grabs (as I write). I had a notion, a wish, that there would be a massive repudiation of the shocking norm-shattering behaviour seen from the current president and the Republican party in power these past few years. It shocked me that fully half the people in the country I live in do not care for others to feel safe, healthy or supported, that they choose to continue to be represented by venal, self-serving liars. San Francisco may seem like a bastion of sanity in this country – and I would love the notion of secession to be explored if the culture war that are evident in almost every answer given in the exit polls truly represent the state of the nation – but I fear for the many people who don’t have the privilege of the safety we might feel here.

Of course, our practice asks us to keep going, to start from where we are and keep heading in the direction that reduces suffering and promotes well-being. Maybe, one day, there will be a government that cleaves to the phrase in the title, which I have written about before, and which stays clear in my mind.

On the ridge, the moon was waning, and sinking towards the fog that lay over the ocean. We trust it will rise again, and wax again.

From the top of Sweeney Ridge, a view across to San Bruno Mountain and the city.

Shaking Off The Dust

Notwithstanding what I wrote a few days ago, October really is a great month in San Francisco. The temperatures did indeed rise last week, so I had my third heatwave since moving to our new place. I had time to go and sit on the beach, and to be out on my bike early morning before it got too hot, to fmy current favourite locations – Ocean Beach, Sweeney Ridge, San Bruno Mountain, and the Crystal Springs trail.

That time was a result of not having a huge amount of work on. I got to lead an evening meditation for Core on Chalk, and it was great to have the time, and the intimacy of an audio-only format, to explore a theme – something I have missed since the Hebden Bridge sessions finished. I have noticed some second-guessing going on: do I really have anything to say, or to teach? What is my practice now? But these are more invitations to keep exploring rather than notions of despair.

I know that I miss the regular reading time I had when I was commuting in normal times; it somehow feels harder to carve that out even when I have space in my schedule. And I know that has a knock-on effect with what gets posted here, so I apologise if it has sometimes felt a little lacklustre. Seeing as we have just ticked past the fifth anniversary of this blog (with more than 1800 posts published), I thought it might be time for a refresh – only the second time I have changed themes. I hope that it is easy on the eye, and that the posts continue to be taxing to the brain for a few more years yet.

A warm still morning close to Candlestick Point on Saturday

Step By Step

As I mentioned the other day, when I moved into my previous place, it was the middle of winter, a day of non-stop rain, and I was sick. This past weekend we were in the grip of an intense heatwave – luckily without the accompanying thunderstorms this time – and I was just tired.

The two guys who came along on Saturday afternoon worked tirelessly, and, with a little help from me running a few boxes down stairs and up, it was all done in just over a couple of hours. And then I was surrounded by boxes again.

On the Sunday, the temperature in my part of the city got up to 102 in the afternoon; there was precious little breeze, and the air was moderate to smoky. I unpacked slowly, though I was motivated to have things looking somewhat civilised.

Monday was barely cooler – I rode for a few hours early in the morning, having gone up San Bruno the day before, and I was totally wiped out afterwards, which slowed down my unpacking considerably. More was done on Tuesday – the heat had dissipated, and the fog felt good. This morning I am due to get on a plane for the first time since February, which is a source of stress all by itself. This trip has been discussed since April – back when I had pushed my abandoned UK flight booking back to August, which seemed like it would allow enough time for things to settle… That’s a trip I don’t envisage making until next spring at the very earliest, but three hours to the mid-west seems bearable. Let’s hope I make it back here unscathed in a couple of weeks.

The scene in our new place on Saturday night

Sunrise over McLaren Park on Monday morning.
Hard to tell where the water ends and the sky begins on the bay trail at Oyster Point

Here We Are

There has been a heat wave this past week in San Francisco. That’s unusual enough for August, when we expect the fog to dominate, but the intense thunder storms that rolled through early Sunday morning and roiled for a day or so are even more so. And of course, lightning strikes bring fire, so by Wednesday morning the air was streaked with smoke. The times being what they are, it feels like portents for an apocalypse.

We have been here before, of course. No-one in the Bay Area has forgotten the smoky skies of recent years. We know there is more to come. The pandemic continues with no end in sight. Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope about the upcoming US elections, but there is no guarantee that it will not devolve into anarchy and civil unrest.

Our practice encourages accepting the reality of the present moment – and there is liberation in not struggling against reality – but that acceptance, and the resilience to move forward, is not the same as acquiescence. We do what we can to promote well-being and diminish suffering, in whatever arena we found ourselves in.

I decided to ride early on Sunday, thinking the storm had mostly passed through – and ended up with thunder swirling around and getting pretty wet.
The skies were pretty spectacular throughout the ride
A wan sunrise on Wednesday morning’s ride
I had to ride up through layers of smoke in Visitacion Valley to get to the clearer air on top of San Bruno Mountain

The Longest Day

The summer solstice seems to have sneaked up on us somehow – no doubt an effect of having been in lock-down since the spring. Nevertheless I have enjoyed the longer days – with my eternal caveat that they are longer in my native country, though I will always concede that not having the shorter days in winter here is more than enough compensation. Right now it is getting light around five, and dark around nine, which, as was true in my years at Zen Center, is pretty much the time I get up and the time I go to bed.

The weather has been a little hit and miss – there have been strong winds and some milder temperatures, but also a few clear, still warm days. I have been glad to ride on those, less so when heading into the dampness of the fog, as I did last Sunday, and to a lesser extent very early on Friday – having been woken by the bin men while it was still dark.

The solstice is not the only notable occasion right now of course, with Juneteenth in the forefront of people’s minds, and fathers’ day, and an eclipse. However, after the tumult of recent weeks, there does seem to be a sense of pause, as people gather their breath and figure out their next moves.

Giving a talk to the Hebden Bridge group this past Wednesday, continuing to develop the conversation in that sangha, in tandem with Catherine Gammon, it was hard to pinpoint a theme – though the word disruption came to mind during the zazen beforehand. So many things have been overturned since the beginning of the year, and we have somehow dealt with that, and try to figure out how we move forward when everything is so different.

I have also been thinking about The Whole-Hearted Way, since I am offering an online class at Zen Center on Dogen’s Bendowa next month. So I have a sense of the continuous practice that we undertake – and that to do that, we have to let go of notions of enlightenment as a one-time cure-all, such as I suspect many of us start our practice with. We continue to practise, doing the work when we don’t know how to do the work, which aligns with our bodhisattva vow. We strive to help, or at least not cause more harm, and we sit with all the discomforts that arise, as best we can.

Maybe it is always like this, but it feels particularly tender right now.

IMG_5769Even as other streets get busier, Great Highway is still thankfully closed to cars. The sun was more or less up, but it was obscured by fog on Friday morning, and the wind was strong.

IMG_5776Further east, a little while later, the view from Billy Goat Hill.

 

 

 

 

The Heart Of Spring

The other day, I realised that I couldn’t remember the last time I got in a car – certainly not since we started sheltering-in-place. I often say, when I am at Tassajara or Wilbur, that slowing down to human speed is deeply restful. And my body seems to have settled into that pace.

That said, I went out on my bike on four consecutive days over the long weekend – two hours on Friday afternoon and Monday morning, three hours on Saturday and four on Sunday. The weather was just too good not to. I still haven’t crossed the bridge for a couple months, but I have been happy heading out on local roads, hills and waterside, long highways and car-free stretches, extending my mental map of good roads to choose down the peninsula.

This is often the most beautiful time of year in San Francisco, and we are getting the benefit of it right now; clear skies, warm air, and often very little wind. I have been glad to get out very early on my morning rides, not just enjoying the light traffic, which allows me to take busy roads I avoid at other hours, and the general quiet, but also not to be constantly hot and worrying about dehydration.

The roads have been getting steadily busier in the last couple of weeks, after the relative tranquility of March and April, and now there is just the hope that the increase in bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets will remain in force.

I have continued connecting with the Hebden Bridge sangha, the consistency of which allows for a wonderful ongoing conversation, and a strong sense of sharing honestly and openly. And, on Friday (before I got on my bike) I officiated a Zoom wedding. This was a real treat: the couple were international, and had friends and families all over the world – New Zealand, Singapore, Estonia, Miami, Sheffield. I had the chance to put my robes on (I don’t remember the last time I did that, either, seeing as the April ceremonies I would have attended did not take place). I didn’t get to sign the marriage licence this time, so they will have to have another ceremony with City Hall, but it was certainly a celebratory occasion. And we do all need that in our lives as well.

DA563FC3-479B-48A9-8C52-761D81D3642E_1_201_aAfter the main part of the ceremony, I stayed online to hear the congratulations from all over the globe.

E159A5DB-5477-49BD-9386-D1EF1C080324_1_201_aPart of a city ride on Friday afternoon, the new bike path in Mission Bay.

295F86D9-FCE3-477F-AB0E-ED126EB65CCF_1_201_aOn Saturday I went over to Pacifica, and up to Sweeney Ridge. That is Mount Diablo across the bay.

3C3A1252-5C6F-4582-926D-35F95CAB242D_1_201_aDiablo was also visible from the high ground on Sunday morning, around Hillsdale.

E28AE115-4C90-4764-BD97-6E70A3E9AECE_1_201_aAnd from the top of San Bruno Mountain on Monday morning.

 

In The Thick Of It

Being able to offer the teachings in various venues is one of the main comforts of lockdown life for me; the other principles ones were also in plentiful supply over the past last week, namely warm, sunny weather and being able to get out on my bike.

I think I worked the bike metaphor hard enough last time around; another week on, we are all still in this flow of unknowing, much as we would like to know how it will all turn out. One of the participants in my student group mentioned how he felt enraged at those who were trying to ‘liberate’ themselves from the lockdown, but how he also felt vulnerable. I suggested that these people also felt vulnerable, but only felt able to express the rage. Another, who was clear about her desire to observe all the restrictions, said she had felt entertained by her bitterness at those who were not. Again, the ability to find that space, and not merely be consumed by the bitterness, is how practice can offer us moments of grace.

For all its imperfections – and there was a piece in the New York Times by Kate Murphy, who I have quoted recently, explaining well how it limits our necessary tendencies to mirror emotions of those we are interacting with, which is the kind of material I used in last year’s talks – there is a wonderful intimacy of the sharing I have been a part of on Zoom these past few days.

Apart from the many sweet observations from my students on Tuesday evening, I participated in the weekly Hebden Bridge sitting on Wednesday – their evening, my lunch-time. Catherine Gammon was offering the dharma talk this time; I know her from Tassajara almost fifteen years ago, and in the years following at Zen Center. She has visited England to teach many times, and reminisced fondly about working in the kitchen on retreat with several of the people in attendance this time. There were also other familiar faces from around the UK who had tuned in this time, and it was lovely to see them as well.

Since I am giving the talk next week, I wanted to hear what Catherine had to say, to be able to stay in the flow of the conversation. She in turn had listened to the recording of the talk I gave last week, so in that sense the flow was ongoing. I found myself nodding to the points she brought up, and to many of the responses that people had. I could probably build a talk just on notes I took of people’s observations this time around, though hopefully I will find something new and helpful to add for these times.

I also offered the zazen instruction for Zen Center on Saturday morning, something I have done many times, but never from my own bedroom, using my own cushions and chairs as props. Normally I get to see the effect of the suggestions I am giving on the people attending, and also get to gauge the energy level in the room, but that was not possible with everybody on Zoom, many of whom had turned their video feed off; I trust that something got communicated. It was sweet that the first question came from someone who was joining from Turkey – a very smart question about samadhi that I struggled to answer coherently. As with other events I have participated in on Zoom, we can be grateful that we have the opportunity to join the practice from anywhere in the world, and be intimately connected that way.

IMG_3872.jpgOne of the bright days last week – looking south east from Twin Peaks.

IMG_3929.jpgThe warmest day was Friday – this is the car-free approach to the foot of the bridge.

Taking It Easier

Over the years, as I have exercised, either on my bike or running, I have found it hard to take it easy on the route that I have chosen. Obviously, if I am going a shorter distance, I will be pushing harder; if I am going longer, I will measure my effort in accord with how long I need to keep going. If I don’t know the route, then I have to keep more back in reserve, just to be able to last the distance and navigate whatever hurdles there may be.

I was musing on this on Sunday afternoon, as I undertook a planned long ride: on the way out of the city, I wanted to tackle the Guadeloupe Canyon Road running up San Bruno Mountain (it features in the famous Bullitt car chase – any of the segments that are obviously not urban). If I were just going up the mountain and back, as I sometimes do, I would be working harder up the climb; this time since I was going further, I put my bike in the lowest gear and took it easier.

The next climb on the route was up from the Camino Real in San Bruno to Skyline. The road I chose is one I have only ridden once before, but quite recently, so I was well aware that the hardest sections were near the top, and paced myself accordingly.

I was aiming for the Sweeney Ridge trail; once out on the trail, which was paved from the end of Sneath Lane (as far as I had ventured before), to the summit, I had no idea what to expect, beyond seeing the ridge line some way above me. It turned out to be a great climb, tough in the middle, but very doable. There was a great sense of accomplishment – not to mention outstanding views – once I reached the top. To add to the adventure, I had decided to try the dirt trail to get down from the top to Pacifica, which I wasn’t well equipped for, but managed, more on foot than not. And then I had one big climb left to get home, but this was one that I knew well enough, and knew I could manage, even with tired legs.

With the shelter-in-place world continuing without a clear sense of the exit (however much some people are trying to “liberate” their states), I feel like I will have to adapt a similar approach to this unknown duration. And some parts of it are going to be hard. I get texts from friends expressing how depressed they are, especially from lack of physical contact – having devoted much time in my most recent talks to highlighting the nourishing aspects of in-person interaction, I can entirely sympathise.

Finishing up articles from a New Yorker of a couple of weeks ago, the descriptions from the novel phase of the lockdown already seem passé. We know how this feels now. And we will keep on knowing new dimensions of it as it continues, even if we don’t know exactly what those are now. Sometimes the future looks grim, and sometimes the present might not be as scary as you may think. We can learn fresh ways to discover how interconnected everything is, and also learn more about what it is that some people are experiencing.

In this fluid world, I do trust that our practice helps us: having few desires, being more attuned to interiority and living in the moment. Hopefully using skillful means and compassion to navigate the complexities and unpleasantness.

While I was waiting in line at Rainbow the other day – one of those things we have just somehow accommodated to – I was also reminded of something I have already posted from La Peste:

‘Tarrou added: “Query: How contrive not to waste one’s time? Answer: By being fully aware of it all the while. Ways in which this can be done: By spending one’s days on an uneasy chair in the dentist’s waiting room; by remaining on one’s balcony all a Sunday afternoon; by listening to the lectures in a language one doesn’t know; by traveling the longest and least-convenient train routes, and of course by standing all the way; by lining up at the box office of theaters and then not buying a seat; and so forth.”‘

So our time continues on, and we don’t know the course, so we have to try to manage our energy for the duration, and hold a little back just in case.

In ways I am hoping to help this week – beyond apparently having steered a few people to take roams – there is a Zoom talk to the Hebden Bridge group and friends today, starting at 11:30 PST, and this Saturday, the 25th, I will be offering the zazen instruction for Zen Center’s online zendoThat starts at 8:10 PST.

IMG_3789.jpgAlmost at the top of Sweeney Ridge.

IMG_3801.jpgAlmost back down at sea level.