The Rhythms Of The City

Seeing an advertisement the other day for a company that makes beautiful and expensive things reminded me of an afternoon I spent downtown, perhaps a year ago. I was meeting someone and going out to dinner, but went early to allow myself time to take photographs of the Financial District in low winter sunshine; the area was fairly quiet, since it was the weekend, but this company’s store was open, so I had a look around and chatted with a person working there. All the objects were tasteful and well-made, and would make wonderful gifts; I could not afford any of them, and besides, I didn’t feel that they would necessarily enhance my life if I owned them.

It is a couple of years now since I left residential practice at Zen Center; my life continues to feel fluid as I piece together teaching assignments and other work in a way that feels satisfying and also allows me to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
I have never wanted to completely trade my time for money earned; this article from a few months ago, and this one more recently allow me to feel some affirmation about the choices I am making, but even so, my monastic training and temperament have long steered me in that direction.

I have lived in San Francisco for more than ten years, and I still find joy in living here: the weather has been very stable for the past couple of weeks – clear skies with warm sunshine in the middle of the day, high pressure and an east wind, the last full moon bringing king tides. This allows me to ride my bike without worrying about getting soaked, and to plan hikes; to watch monarchs and hummingbirds flitting around blooming flowers as we approach the shortest day of the year – so different to my experience of winters growing up in England, and, I have to acknowledge, much better for my well-being. It also, of course, enables wildfires that are devastating large parts of southern California, at a time of year when things should be too damp to burn, and means that reservoir and snow packs will be depleted again.

Recently I had again been feeling the need to go downtown and take more pictures: each time I ride down to our lunchtime meditation, I have been watching the latest swathe of construction south of Market take shape – the biggest of them all, the Salesforce building, now looks finished from the outside, though I suspect there is a long way to go before it is open. If I think back to ten years ago, I could not count the number of empty plots of land that have been developed around the city – there were more than a dozen within a few blocks of Zen Center – and the sense of progress, crowding and enrichment (for some) is quite tangible, and almost claustrophobic, these days. And still there are also quieter, simpler, and more stable experiences of the city to be found.

On my thrice-weekly commute across the bay, I get to say hello to the other cyclist who regularly makes for the last car of the train; and if the regular driver is working (I hadn’t quite figured this out when I wrote the previous article, but I realised soon afterwards), I enjoy the warmth of her voice, which reminds me of Viola Davis, as she calls the stations. There are couple of other drivers whose announcing style I recognise, especially the one who likes to leave a dramatic pause: ‘The destination of this train is – – – – Richmond.’ When we emerge from the Trans-Bay tunnel, I always lift my head from my book to see what the skies are doing on the east side of the bay.
Running to Twin Peaks, I enjoy the ravens throwing themselves into the wind, and the comprehensive views across the city, before the rapid descent down steep staircases that take me back to the low-lying street where I live.
Shopping for food (pretty much the only stores I go into regularly), I enjoy seeing the same workers I have seen over the years – especially at Rainbow – and running into people I know, which reminds me that this is a small city.
Of course I don’t always feel spacious enough to enjoy what is going on around me, but when it happens, it always feels like life is rich.


Walking around south of Market last week, catching the light as it falls between the tall buildings.

A view of the Oakland docks on a recent morning, taken from the BART train.

Ravens always seem to rule the roost on Twin Peaks and Mount Sutro.


What I Think About When I Am Running

Over the weekend, having had a couple of sunny mornings out on the bike, I planned to go for a run on Sunday, when it was forecast to rain through the day. I was lucky in that the rain petered out around the time I was aiming to leave, and so motivation was not a problem.
What I noticed, though, as I was thinking about the route I wanted to take, was a familiar disconnect between physical distance and what I would call ‘psychic distance’. I wrote about this in connection with riding last year; right now I am pushing at those boundaries again, having made it out by bike to Fairfax on Thanksgiving morning, allowing me to feel ready to go further in the near future if I get a chance.

In terms of running, I had thought about getting to Mount Davidson. We had a very pleasant roam on Saturday afternoon, up to the top of Twin Peaks, where it was unusually free from wind, and talked about the possibility of revisiting the city’s highest point. There is a fairly direct route from where I live to the summit, via Market and Portola, but I thought I would save that for the return, which left me plotting an outward leg over Diamond Heights and down Glen Canyon. That part I have done enough times to feel totally okay with, but it was the stretch between Bosworth St and the top of Dalewood that added the sense of unknown – as I have noted before. The roads meander around as they climb the southern slopes of the mountain, making it seem much more arduous than it really is, though of course I had already climbed up two long inclines by the time I got there.
It was dramatically misty on the open spaces at the top of the mountain, with no real views, though eventually the looming shadow of the Salesforce building appeared on the horizon. Coming down from the top of Portola, the city stretched out in a wan wintry end-of-afternoon light, with a stream of car headlights marking the city side of the Bay Bridge. From that angle, the city looks pretty small.
And the entire loop took me just over an hour, much as the run to the ridge had the previous weekend, well within my comfort zone after all.

Under the Stars

I don’t remember how long it has been since I sat and looked at the Milky Way. At Wilbur and Tassajara, in the middle of the summer, generally speaking I do not stay up late enough for it to get really dark. Sometimes if I woke up in the middle of the night, or before it got light, I would go outside to be dazzled, but only briefly.

On Friday I arrived at Wilbur towards the end of daylight. The sun had been cutting into a few open spots on the Cache Canyon, setting the yellow trees ablaze. Once it had dropped behind the hills, you could feel the temperature dropping rapidly towards freezing. A far cry from the 112 degrees the last time I was there; in the morning, a hard frost was visible on the plants and the roofs.
The little tub by the fountain is a great place to sit at any time, with the valley stretching away in front of you. To watch the light drain from the sky on Friday after arriving, and have myriad stars come alive, including a few shooting stars – that beautiful space debris – was deeply peaceful, in a way that I last felt during my days in Sagres. I was glad to feel connected to that sense of spacious ease again, as it had felt in short supply in the city since my return. There was no hurry to be anywhere else, and so I gazed upwards for a couple of hours.

As often happens, I slept deeply, with manifold dreams, as if my mind was unraveling many stories I have been holding. During the meditation sessions I talked of boundlessness and the ‘body exposed to the golden wind’. I hiked in the morning sun under blue skies, and ran up to the ridge again as Sunday clouded over ahead of a rainy night, deeply quiet apart from a few small birds. On the way down I gathered a few chestnuts, and as my legs tired on the valley trail, I looked forward to one last soak.

Steam rising from the water as the morning temperatures hovered at freezing.

The creek in the early sun

Rain had turned some of the grasses green.

Autumnal colours on the valley sides.

Heading out on Bear Valley Road on a damp Monday morning.

The Weather Changes, The Clocks Change

It was ninety degrees the day I left San Francisco at the end of September, and ninety degrees the day I after I returned a couple of  weeks ago. My body had already navigated from the pleasant weather of Portugal to the storm-force winds of my last weekend in England, and then across eight time zones, but I could not have asked for better conditions to come back to.

As part of cranking myself back to fitness, the day after I got back I took myself off for a gentle ride down to Ocean Beach, just to remind my legs about pedalling, and to enjoy sweltering; on the Friday morning I took a spin around the Headlands, and found the bridge sitting on a bed of iridescent fog in the low-angled sun. Photographers were having a field day, and I enjoyed the contrasts between the warm slopes and the fresh valley bottoms, where the mist lingered before the sun rose high enough to burn it off.

And since typical weather systems in San Francisco tend to last five days, it was not a surprise when temperatures dropped at the end of that week, something else for my body to adapt to. On the Saturday I ran up to Mount Sutro, and found the usual divide between sun on the lee side of the hills, and dense fog in the woods on the ocean side. On the Sunday morning I intended to ride around the city, but the fog was so damp and pervasive I couldn’t bring myself to do it – remembering that it was exactly a week since I had put off running due to the challenging wind – and instead spent the morning finishing the editing of the thousand or so pictures from Europe. I made up for it last Monday morning, though navigating the rush hour is never completely stress-free, and I had a terse interaction with a driver about speeding through Golden Gate Park, when I would rather have been watching a coyote disappearing into the bushes with a raccoon in its mouth.

The forecast for this past weekend was not promising enough to schedule a roam, much to my disappointment; in the end, there was not so much rain about. I took a run over the southern folds of the city to Diamond Heights and back through the bare slopes of Glen Canyon on Saturday, and headed south on my bike to San Bruno Mountain on Sunday morning, under clear skies both times, the low sun warm, the autumnal breezes fresh.

When I went to join Zachary for the lunch-time sitting last Monday, I found the shadows under the olive tree had got much longer, and for the first time, rather wished I had been sitting in the sun, as the wind was a little fresh (not enough to actually move to a different cushion though). The shadows will be an hour further along when we are sitting today, and hopefully the sun will feel pleasant. If you are local, you are welcome to come and join us, and every dry Monday over the winter.


The Sea, The Sea

I managed to miss Storm Ophelia passing across the British Isles last week when I flew out to Portugal, but I certainly felt the effects of Storm Brian at the end of the week. I returned to London on Friday, and had my third visit with the Wimbledon group on Saturday morning. As with Hebden Bridge, the energy and enthusiasm, particularly of Alan the organiser, but of all the members of the sangha, is inspiring, and we had a great discussion of the Fukanzazengi. Afterwards I was picked up by my friend to go and spend a day down on the south coast at their beach chalet. We drove down into a fierce headwind, and took a walk along a spit comprising one part of Chichester Harbour, where we felt the full force of the wind blowing in off the channel, whipping sand along the beach.

Even though the chalet was very snug, it was getting buffeted all night by the gales, which did not make for a great sleep, and the idea of another beach run in the morning did not seem very sensible. It was still nice to be out in the elements, getting a big dose of fresh air, and some sunshine; we started the return journey with a decent waterside pub lunch, and a walk around Bosham, which is, as so many old English villages are, comfortingly pretty and nourishingly historic for me.

I had at least managed three beach runs in Sagres. The first had been rather curtailed by the rain, the second took in both of the town beaches at low tide, and the last on Friday took in the beach closer to the harbour and the cliffs beyond, just as the sky flashed pink with the sunrise.

There were few people out at that time, and up on the cliffs I only had the company of the sea birds, which were large, and the ‘land’ birds, which were all tiny. It brought to mind cliff running in Cornwall, though these paths were very rocky, and at one moment when I tried to look further ahead to determine which way I needed to point myself, I brought to life the line from the Fukanzazengi I had been chewing over (for its echoes of the Harmony of Difference and Equality): ‘If you make one misstep, you stumble past what is directly in front of you.’ And that is why I love running out in nature like that, the fact that speed is less an issue than effort and concentration.

Coming back along the beach, mine were still the only footprints across the hard sand; I resisted the temptation to try to outpace myself and take longer strides, though it can happen that I am more measured on the way out and pushing harder on the way back. This time I was content just to be out on a warm morning in such beautiful surroundings. Ahead of all the traveling to get back to San Francisco, it was a wonderful respite, several days when I was not tracking the passing of time, and had no need to.

I am writing this from the departure lounge at Heathrow, where I am tracking the time before my flight. I was about to write ‘ I have a lot of time to kill’, but I do take pleasure in this transitional space, sometimes people watching, sometimes doing a little meditation (as I often offer as a possibility when I am doing zazen instruction), and this time, seeing if I can wrestle pictures and links into a blog post on my iPad, which can be a real practice of patience…

I also had time on Friday morning for a final walk along an almost empty Tonel beach.

Late afternoon sunshine over Chichester Harbour on Saturday.

Not as warm as Portugal, and much windier, but equally dramatic.

It might not show, but there was a fierce wind whipping off the sea.

Bosham church, posing nicely.

The View From Here

The second week of my trip to England finds me in Cornwall, with a bright full moon rising as I type this. I stayed in London just long enough to get over my jet-lag, to run along the Grand Union canal, and to attend a birthday party for an old friend from the BBC, which gave me a chance to catch up with a few other old friends. The next stop was the south coast with more long-time friends, much more joyful chatting, as well as getting in a lot of walking, and another, unintentional, run to the top of Devil’s Dyke.

I had an unexpected opportunity to practice while I was in Hove: a local magazine came through the door, and in the listings section, there was a Soto zen group scheduled to meet on Tuesday evening, just a few streets from where my friend lives. I went along, and joined a handful of people sitting and chanting. They were in the Maezumi lineage, which, as I know from previous experience means that everything is familiar but just slightly different, so I didn’t know any of the versions of the chants that were used. Everyone was very nice of course. The next day I caught four different trains and ended up in Totnes to meet a few people from the sangha there again and to say hello to Ingen, who is starting a short sesshin in the new, to me, zendo.

The weather has been very kind, with warm days, and only short rain and grey spells, which has been helpful for all the time I have been outside. For want of anything especially exciting to say, I offer a few photographs frm the trip so far.

This day started clear, as we walked from Shoreham to Worthing, but it turned grey, and there was a headwind the whole way.

Looking along the shore from Worthing pier.

The following afternoon we are chips on the sea front at Hove and watched the sun set.

We timed our walk very well, and when we turned back, the moon was rising in the east.

I never tire of the stretch of the rail journey that takes me past Dawlish and alongside the sea.

My host in Totnes took me up onto Dartmoor on Thursday morning. There were rainbows. And ponies.

And also typically wonderful moorland views, which make me feel right at home.

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.

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

The ‘fountain of life’.

Morning sun in the indoor plunges.