Doing nothing is not over-rated

It would be a bit of a stretch to call my current life stressful, but last week was fairly full by my standards (teaching twice on Monday, three days spent editing video – a skill I am acquiring slowly – and teaching a class on Thursday night, as well as finishing off two hundred photo cards), so I was more than ready for a long weekend at Wilbur, and I fully engaged in the process of relaxing on Friday afternoon, in 100 degree sun by the pool, where the above thought came to me. It is always a privilege and a luxury to get to be there, one that it is hard not to enjoy fully.
Leading five meditation sessions over the weekend – extending into Monday morning – I did not prepare anything to say, but allowed the spaciousness of being at Wilbur to provide the inspiration. There is always something to spark an idea – the breeze blowing through the pine trees; heading out for a run in the cool stillness of Sunday morning and seeing a bobcat a few yards ahead of me on the trail to the medicine wheel; surrendering to the intense heat, of the kind that I never knew growing up in England; moving at human pace – something I always like to highlight at Tassajara as well.
The theme for Monday morning was ‘stillness is not stuckness’: exploring how being grounded in meditation means allowing the constant flow of reality to shift around us without wanting things to be a particular fixed way, with the values we have assigned to it. It made sense at the time, in any case, with the breeze blowing over the yoga deck.
I have been leading these sessions for a year now, a full cycle of seasons, and am glad to be a part of that community and that wonderful landscape, thanks to the generosity of people who make it possible for me to be there.

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The evening sun setting on the long valley upstream from the baths.

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The ‘fountain of life’.

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Morning sun in the indoor plunges.

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Enkyo O’Hara

‘We can’t control joy. It is something that bobs up when we are truly alive and meet the whole world in an instant. We can experience joy in every aspect of our life, in working, in caring, in creating, and even in suffering. I think the key to experiencing joy is, as we say so often, being awake… What is “being awake”? Isn’t it our capacity to let go of our grasping onto what we think we want, what we think is happening to us, to drop all of those presumptions and be exposed and intimate with what is here, right now? I believe it is our resistance to what is right here, right now, that blocks the natural flow of joy.’ (Most Intimate)

Recently I was out on a run, and had got to the top of Portola, warmed up and settling into a rhythm. I was heading for Mount Davidson, the highest point in the city. As I trotted along a quiet street, I smiled at an elderly woman who was weeding her front yard, sitting in a chair and bending down. A car drove by, seemingly much too fast for a narrow road, which irritated me. Then I saw a perfect rose bush in another yard, an instant of joy. I still had to run up a mountain…

What I think about when I am running

‘If we go somewhere on foot, we know the way perfectly, whereas if we go by motor car or airplane we are hardly there at all, it becomes merely a dream.’  (Chogyam Trungpa – Meditation in Action)

This was a fine quote to find, and I shall doubtless use it at the head of a Roaming Zen email soon.

The trails at Tassajara are familiar terrain for me, even as I have seen them shift and change over the last fifteen years or so, especially in the wake of the 2008 fire. It is always nice to share them with people, as I did on the retreat with Ann, to tell a few stories, read some appropriate Dogen, identify flowers and birds as far as I can. When people ask me how long it takes to get around them, I have no real answer. I have run them many more times than I have hiked them, and the times I have hiked, the pace of the group has been so varied. But I know almost every turn, every slope.
When I got to run them in my second week at Tassajara, I could feel the extent that the trails were embedded in me: my body knows the various hardships of climbing up the Horse Pasture cut-off past the waterfall to what I call the bobcat meadow, after I saw one bounding up through the long grass on my first solo outing there in 2002, and then up the switchbacks to Flag Rock ridge. Going up to the Wind Caves you are climbing for the first two miles, until you are below Lime Point, and then you have to drop down into two gullies and come up the other sides before you get to your destination. There are the spots that reside most deeply in me, the ones of greatest effort, and the ones I don’t keep such clear recollections of, as I coast to the next challenge.
I have a mental map of the places where poison oak is more likely to be a problem, and the places where I have to pay even more attention to my footing (although every moment on the trail is a practice of constant attention), as well as a vivid map of where I have encountered rattlesnakes (I was almost disappointed not to see any this time, though I heard of several sightings close to the bathhouse over the course of days, and saw several other snakes alongside the creek – there was one that seemed to have its home right by the steps I was working on, which I saw every day; this was alright as long as I caught sight of it before it slithered right by me in the water, something which is always most disconcerting on an instinctive level).
Each time I ran the trail in one direction, and took photographs on the way back, sometimes trotting, sometimes stopped in wonder, sometimes just walking along. By normal standards, that is not a lot of distance to run, but there was enough elevation to make it count; unless you are living there, it is hard to have that much climbing in your legs. I toyed with the idea of trying to run up to the bath-tub (three miles up the road), but was tired enough to let that go.
I chatted about running with some of the current residents who have that practice, and reminisced about how, when I was living there and taking vacations in San Francisco, running in the city seemed ridiculously easy. I half-hoped I would have that feeling when I went out yesterday to cover the course of today’s Roaming Zen. I always aim to do this scouting run before taking people out on the route, even if it is a part of the city I know well; it just gets it into my body in a way that means I don’t have to think about it during the roam itself.
The weather has been fine all week, so it was pretty warm, though the breeze took the edge off the heat. Getting off the bus at Alta Plaza I made my way down to the Palace of Fine Arts, across to Crissy Field, up to the bridge, then along the cliffs. The Battery to Bluffs trail was still closed off at the same point as it had been several months ago, but I decided to risk it, and there was little peril in doing so – going down the sand ladder subsequently to Baker Beach seemed more treacherous. And on to Land’s End, feeling a little uneasy (I have a theory that I prefer to run and ride in a clockwise direction, which I certainly prefered to do in London when I would run up to the Thames, always along the South Bank, long before it was fully developed as a pedestrian thoroughfare, from Vauxhall to Bermondsey rather than the other way around) and eventually pretty tired.
Having arrived at the N Judah turnaround for the streetcar which would take me home, I had a very long wait. Again, I toyed with the idea of running all the way home, but since I was not in a hurry to be anywhere, I thought better of it. I hope the service is better tonight.

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At the Wind Caves the trail runs along the ledge of rock.

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The first meadow up from the road on the Horse Pasture, sinuous but almost flat.

What I think about when I am riding

The day after I returned to California, I officiated a very small wedding out in the redwoods north of San Francisco. I often say that while I appreciate the vastness of the redwoods – and standing at the foot of several majestic trunks in soft afternoon light last week took my breath away – I don’t have the same response to them as I do to English broad-leaf trees. In last week’s post I outlined some of my conclusions about my trip, but left out a part I had written about taking refuge in the landscape, the familiar locales, flora and fauna that help me feel rooted. I was lucky enough to be in a number of places where there was quiet and space, but where nothing felt too wild for comfort: Kit Hill and Cadsonbury in Cornwall, Heptonstall and Calder Water in Yorkshire, the Wye Valley in Hereford, Lagan Meadows and Malin Head in Ireland, Devil’s Dyke and the South Downs north of Brighton. Sheltered by oak, chestnut and beech; listening to robins, wood pigeons and gulls almost everywhere, skylarks, pheasants and buzzards in the more remote spots; savouring the flowers, ever-present bluebells, campion, blackthorn, gorse, cow parsley.
The weather has been up and down since my return, with some warm days, but others cooler with strong winds, and the traditional San Francisco rolling fog. Trying to find my cycling legs after a month off the bike – and with an eye to a future climb of Mount Diablo – I have been setting off on short rides not straying much past the city. On the first ride, perhaps because of the time of day, I felt like I had nothing in my legs, even after fifteen minutes; eating all my energy snacks helped get some strength back, so it may have been that I just wasn’t ready for that amount of exercise at that time.
Over the weekend I set off early to the Headlands. Through the Presidio, the gentle morning mist thickened until it was condensing on my arms – and more to the point, on my wheel rims, causing the brakes to be less efficient. There were, typically, pockets of sun as soon as I crossed the bridge, and photographers happily capturing the tips of the towers emerging from the white. A couple of days later I rode through an even low fog cloud down to the ocean, as we will on the next Roam, across the morning rush hour in Daly City (where I generally find the drivers to be very accommodating), and up San Bruno Mountain. Once you turn off the Guadeloupe Canyon Road, to the summit road which is closed to cars, there is a real sense of stillness, punctuated on this occasion by many rabbits and a few ravens. The fog persisted until a corner about two hundred yards short of the summit, where I suddenly came into clear blue. Parts of the airport and other bayside areas were visible; otherwise, just the other peaks, Diablo and Tam, and then the two tallest structures – the Sutro Tower and the cranes atop the Salesforce Tower. I zipped up my tops as I descended back into the much cooler fog, but at least my legs held out all the way home. After two weeks at Tassajara, I will be almost back to square one again.

Taking Refuge in Sangha

In contrast to the previous flight on my trip, when I landed back at Gatwick after the stay in Belfast clouds were piling up as a new weather system moved in. That evening, as my friends and I set out for an Indian dinner, we needed umbrellas in a sudden downpour, and rain re-appeared throughout the weekend, especially overnight, though much of the remaining time was sunny.

It was a fairly packed few days, with many miles of walking, artist open houses, a film, a concert, a joyful parade for the local football team who have been promoted to the Premier League; we also watched a fair amount of football and the Eurovision Song Contest (not an event I have much cared for over the years, though my friends do; it is largely an excuse for drinking and exercising critical faculties over some of the entrants). There was also a day spent sitting with the local group – eight of us were there, of whom I knew all but one, some from Tassajara, some from previous sits in England, and I felt warmly welcomed; I noticed that seven of us had rakusus, and that mine was the only one that had not been bestowed by Reb.

I did manage to repeat my run to Devil’s Dyke; with the memories of the route still in my body, it seemed less intimidating than before. Perhaps I was just a little fitter as well, but I had the measure of it. On the Sunday, since I was awake earlier than the others, I also went out for a run in the sun, back up the lovely Three Cornered Copse, awash with the subtle fragrance of cow parsley, a sentimental smell for me, past the windmill, and then back down to the sea and a few miles along the front from Brighton to Hove – which we also walked at midnight after the concert, as the moon came up, to end my last night away. Monday morning was also grey and drizzly, and I felt glad to leave that behind, though the California weather was not so great for the first day or so.

Now that I am back in San Francisco, I have a chance to reflect on the trip as a whole. One theme that came up for me was renewing acquaintances: all of the zen events I took part in were with groups I have met once before, mostly on my last trip, with Belfast, which I visited a few years ago, being the exception. It has felt great to reconnect with people, to hear more about where the groups are, and what they are hoping will happen in the future. Sitting and sharing the practice was rewarding each time; meeting people in England with whom I had done practice periods at Tassajara almost fifteen years ago gives a wonderful sense of the mahasangha, which as I often say to people, never dissipates, even if we are different places.

When people talk about taking refuge, it can often seem like a sense of retreat, of hiding away, but I got to see how taking refuge in sangha can feel like uplift and support – perhaps most especially with the joint talk we did in Belfast, and the effect it seemed to have on the participants.
I also got to see how communities of people can retreat and isolate: I remember when I first traveled to Spain, in the early eighties, I would look at the old people with wizened faces, invariably dressed in black, and wonder what they had seen and known of the civil war, which they had lived through fifty years previously. In Belfast, I looked at people my age and older and wondered what they had seen and known of the Troubles, a generation or more ago. It was poignant to watch The Journey while I was there, even more so to be taken around the city on my last day by a sangha member who had first-hand experience of life during those years, and vivid memories of events that took place in areas whose names I had heard on the news over many years as the epicentres of violence and death – the Falls Road, the Ardoyne, the Shankill Road. When I met people in Ireland I could not tell Protestant from Catholic, but locals knew many clues and cues, and the divide is still strong: I heard of painful fights over attempts to integrate schools just a few years ago, when the violence was supposedly in the past. This sense of segregation was reinforced by watching the deeply moving I Am Not Your Negro on the plane home, with its perhaps better-known scenes of violence around school integration, and an equal sense of the deep schisms that retrenchment has caused, with roots, like the Irish conflict, that go back several centuries as one group asserted power over another. From my position of safety and privilege, it is hard to know how to speak of healing and the wish for all people to be able to join together and feel safe. I do know that I can offer some help as a teacher, wherever I am, and whoever I am with, and this trip has reminded me of the value of that.

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Divided roads in the heart of Belfast.

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The joyful parade for Brighton and Hove Albion’s promotion reminded me of the Giants World Series celebrations.

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The sea front at a quieter moment.

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It is always a joy to see Greenland from the air, even if the ice is vanishing.

The Shipping Forecast

The skies cleared as I flew over the Welsh coast and Anglesey on Sunday morning, which set the tone for my time in Belfast. I was collected from the sleepy airport by some sangha members who were also attending the jukai at Benburb; we arrived in time for lunch, where the sesshin participants were partaking of the last silence. I was very happy to see a couple of St Bernards at the priory, the dogs we had when I was growing up, and of course even happier to see a number of friends, many of whom I had not expected to be there: Djinn and Richard, Garret and Esther, Ann, Myles, Nuala (who kindly hosted me for my visit and, along with Myles and three other sangha members, was receiving the precepts from Paul), Andre, Heather, Bai and Annette.

Last week I had a few very quiet days with my mother in Hereford; the weather was mostly sunny, but there was a persistent east wind that felt cold. I got outside every day, running my familiar loop along the Wye, past blossoming fields of apple trees and flowering riverside meadows, as well as exploring trails alongside smaller brooks at the edge of the city that were new to me. On Friday I returned to London, for a rewarding return visit to the Wimbledon group, with a full room of people getting their head around the Genjo Koan. After being taken to lunch with some of the group, I went to Alan’s house to record a podcast with him, which was a lot of fun, and which I will link to when it is up.

This week I have been sitting every morning with the Black Mountain sangha, and joining the relaxed tea and chat afterwards. On Tuesday, when Djinn usually gives a talk, she suggested that she, Ann and I do a round table discussion in the zendo, which was well attended and nice to participate in – we all riffed off each other easily, and had some great questions to ponder. I added the Lagan to the list of rivers I have run by – my limited geographical sense of the city was aided by starting to walk around, and I felt confident enough to do a loop of Ormeau Park and then head to Langan Meadows on the towpath cycle route, and back via Belvoir Park, all of which felt a long way from the city.

On Wednesday, the last full day, we went up to Malin Head. Ann and I had independently had the idea of wanting to see it (I had watched a television programme while staying with my mother which featured it, and of course know it from its role in the shipping forecast), and Djinn was willing to drive the hundred miles each way with us. We stopped in Derry for lunch and a walk around the walls, then drove across the increasingly rugged terrain to Ireland’s most northerly point, which was uncharacteristically warm and sunny, with very little wind.

The last leg of this lengthy journey is going to be in Brighton (Hove actually), to stay with old BBC friends, and to sit with the Brighton group on Saturday, where I expect to meet some old sangha friends, and hopefully run up to Devil’s Dyke again, before the long flight home.


The cathedral at Hereford from the banks of the Wye.


Fields of rape seed outside Hereford 


The sesshin group at Benburb on Sunday afternoon, featuring some brand new rakusus.


A patch of bluebells in Ormeau Park.


One of the many beautiful views at Malin Head.

Mountains and Rivers and Planes and Trains 

It’s not often I get to set foot in four countries before lunchtime, but that is how my day was on Friday, taking two cars, two planes and two trains from France to England via Switzerland and Germany. 

From Cornwall I had taken the train up to Bristol, had a cup of coffee with my sister and her husband who happened to be in the area, then flown to Geneva, where my friend was visiting for a few meetings, staying in her chalet on the slopes of Mont Blanc. Arriving in pouring rain, we only had the fireplace for warmth as the heating and hot water were out. I spent Wednesday exploring Geneva on foot, as my friend took care of her business, and was glad of the hammam at the Bains Paquis at the end of a cold day – I also jumped briefly into the lake after the sauna there. The overnight rain turned into snow, and Thursday we hiked through the snow-laden mountain woods to the nearest town, where most things were closed, though we managed to get a hearty lunch at an open restaurant. 

On Friday morning, getting up before first light, everything was covered in fresh snow. Luckily the LandRover used to get us down the dirt road, and the rental car, both started first time. In the valley autoroute into Geneva, it was raining heavily, as it had been on the other journeys to and fro. My first plane took me to Dusseldorf, and was running a little late. I was sweating a little about missing my connection (as I had briefly sweated when we had left the autoroute and had run into a long line of traffic on the way through the city). We disembarked onto a shuttle bus, I ran up the stairs, marched from one end of the terminal to the other, through passport control, down the stairs, onto another bus… and back onto the same plane I had just been on. As I said to the cabin crew head, if I had known that as I got off, I would have been a bit more relaxed going from A to B to A.

Then I ended up in Newcastle, took the metro into town, grabbed some lunch at the station and got on the train to Leeds, taking care to avoid the boisterous stag party that was already enjoying their weekend. The last stress had been about a strike on part of the rail network, but happily I arrived in Leeds just as the expected train to Hebden rolled in. It even had functional wi-fi on board.

It felt great to be back in Hebden Bridge again, and I managed to navigate from the station to Rebecca and Dave’s house, where I was welcomed as warmly as last time. After a shower, a rest and some food, I was ready for the first part of the weekend, a couple of hours studying the Genjo Koan. Saturday we had an all-day sitting, which felt very well contained, though I didn’t find my talk especially convincing, and on Sunday a very intimate half-day, followed by joining the regular Sunday evening sit, where I faced the wall with the rest of the group. There were also chances to have discussions with my hosts, and with Wendy who I had met at Tassajara almost fifteen years ago, about the current state of English zen and what the next steps might be for the various groups.

There was also time for me to repeat my run of last time, up the stingingly hard climb to Heptonstall, along the top, through the fields and the bluebell-covered woods to the little bridge across Calder water, and back down along the other side of the valley, cutting over to the canal to get back into town. Again, it was satisfying to have my body remember the terrain from one previous encounter, and it was a wonderful run. Next stop is my mother’s house, and hopefully a chance to run along the Wye valley.


The sky over Lake Geneva.


Geneva from the Bains Paquis pier after a little dip.


A clear mountain stream in the Alps.


Beginning the half-day journey taking in four countries.


The bottom of the Buttress at the beginning of my run in Hebden Bridge.