A Stack of Rocks

When I was 17, I went on my first backpack trip into the High Sierra. At that high altitude the terrain was solid rock. My companions and I walked for miles across bald, granite faces that supported only a few gnarly trees. It was a pristine, naked landscape.

My hiking mates kept talking about the region being carved by glaciers.

I learned that as a glacier expanded and advanced across the land, it picked up debris, small and large, from the surface of the ground and carried it along, embedded in the ice.  Then, as warmer weather returned, and the ice became thinner and finally melted entirely, the cargo of debris was lowered to the ground and left in the new landscape, perhaps hundreds of miles from its source.

As we hiked, we sometimes would see the results of this process. One day we came upon a large rock balancing in an odd place.  It could not have rolled into this setting, resting higher than all of its surroundings. It towered above, like a monument to gravity.  Everyone agreed it had been set down by a glacier. It was not granite, like all the other rocks – clearly not a local.  Its weight was so great that once it settled into its position on its perch, it was apparently very stable.

I really enjoyed my companions’ stories and explanations about things we saw along the path.  They knew so much. I felt lucky to be with them for my first serious mountain adventure.

Even though I was a new-be in the group, they made me the lead hiker occasionally.  I enjoyed the chance to have the open view, to see the path take a bend around a corner or disappear over a ridge. Sometimes, the path was barely more than a hint of wearing on a broad expanse, or a slight difference in color.

Once, as we made our way across a wide shoulder of granite, I saw in the distance to the uphill right, a stack of five small rocks atop of a bolder. It seemed both haphazard and magical, a pyramid of stones, each one balancing upon the one beneath. I stopped, waiting for the few of us to gather. I pointed to my find. “Look at what the glacier left behind! Isn’t that just amazing? A perfectly balanced stack of stones!”

My enthusiastic comment was pretty funny to everyone in the group. My buddies were kind, though. Everyone agreed heartily that I’d found a reliable trail marker. This type of marker had a name: cairn. Each hiker had something to say.

“A cairn is a mound of stones built as a memorial or landmark. It’s typically on a hilltop or skyline, just like this one.”

“Cairns are terrifically difficult to build and you should never rearrange or disturbed them. For that matter, you shouldn’t build new ones, either. That can confuse hikers about where the true path is.”

“Cairn is a Gaelic word. Sometimes they mark a gravesite, but this one is a trail marker. In Scotland, there are some huge ones.”

“Some are said to have stood for 4,000 years.”

I was embarrassed. Not knowing about cairns was understandable. And my friends were filling in my knowledge. But I had grossly over-estimated glaciers’ tricky powers to stack rocks. Furthermore, I had almost missed a directional signpost when I was looking right at it. And we really needed a marker at that point on the trail to guide us over the featureless granite slopes. That stack of rocks was my first cairn. I knew it would not be my last.

Continuing in the lead as we made our way across the granite and down into a ravine, I thought about landmarks, natural and man-made. I thought about how they can give vitally important information, even though the information is sometime so simple as “this way.” I thought about how life-saving knowledge is passed from one pathfinder to another. And I paid attention to the path ahead, alert for more cairns or any sign that would help us on our way through this landscape of rock.

 

 

 

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Autumn

The leaves of autumn in town have been a joy this year.  Our property being pretty much evergreen, the drive down the hill to town each morning was a visual delight during October with landscaping tucked into the original mixed forest.  There are many places along the road to peek out through the firs and oaks and see down into town or across the Santa Rosa Plain toward the green Sebastopol hills. The chances to see distant scenes are mere flashes of vision with so many curves in the road and such a rich canopy. There is never enough time to “see” so much as to realize that the world is much bigger than the steering wheel and dashboard in my immediate line of sight.

Deer are a common sight on the drive. They will bolt silently across the yellow centerline or trot several in a row just off the shoulder. They seem to move mainly in the same direction as the traffic.  A driver has to pay attention.

It’s about three miles down the hill, just long enough for the heater to get warm.  The final descent into town is through a tunnel of arching oaks.  Here, on these sunny autumn mornings, the sunshine breaks through the leafy branches blindingly and unpredictably. Navigating is a matter of memory and faith. The morning joggers and dog walkers just love this narrow stretch of the road. It’s steep, narrow, and winding.  They take the lanes as their own, as there is no gutter or shoulder to walk on, just a steep bank up on one side and down on the other side. The pedestrians must have a sense of the danger they put themselves in.  I stay as close to the center line as possible, hoping no car will come up the grade while I’m heading down.

Just before the last hairpin curve straightens into a residential neighborhood, the full eastern skyscape floods my peripheral vision. Apricot and tender rose are the colors that fill the morning air lately. I always want to look at the big sky but I don’t dare indulge. The hairpin is calling for my eye to focus on its conclusion. There, where the road flattens onto the suburban grid, my country road  gloriously opens into a residential forest of Chinese pistachio and liquid amber.

As everywhere, our autumn hues have taken their time to intensify, their warmth increasing daily. Finally, in late October, gilded trees are everywhere. All kinds of color, bright and tawny, paint the scene.  There is a  different color on every leaf, no tree a simple yellow or red, but a collage of urgency to claim the day.  The eye wants to linger, to fathom how the umber, gold and scarlet can share the same space, how burnt earth, copper and rust can hang from trees. Not looking is a hardship, but the morning traffic demands attention.

A few blocks further along, I park in my usual spot and get out.  I am free now to absorb everything that I could not enjoy just moments before.  I give myself the time.  I look eastward into the distance to find the sun and the horizon, the early light flooding through the trees. There is a sparkling.  The air is wonderful.  I feel the gentle heat of the morning sunrays. It’s joyous! There are birds flying everywhere, making bird sounds.  People are walking their dogs here, too, but mainly on the sidewalk.  What a season. What a gift. Each morning is richer, more celebratory, than the day before.

Last Friday, two days after Halloween, the leaves were darker but not richer. They seemed tired, just a bit limp, I thought. By afternoon on my drive back home, the glow had dulled from the leaves.  They were beginning to fall to the ground, one color at a time. The leaves of autumn had come and would very soon be gone. The joy of seeing the daily changes would end.  But I know that another kind of awe will set in. Every season carries something bigger than one day, one person.  Winter is coming. With it, the dark, icy mornings and treacherous rains will pound into my heart a darker kind of gladness to be alive.

TWT

 

 

 

 

Sharing a Moment with the Quail in the Morning Sun

It’s summer, early in the day. The sun is still low in the sky but lots of light comes through the trees. Sparkle time, I call it, if there is dew mixed in the greenery. The birds’ songs and chirping sparkle no matter what. Birds, indeed, plenty and varied, they are nature’s sprites.  My favorite are the quail, pecking about in the dry grasses, their little chicks in tow, their top knots bobbing even when they stand still.  I see the quail family regularly on my morning walks. When they hear my footsteps, the patriarch leaps from his lookout perch, usually a big boulder, to lead their dash into the blackberry bushes and poppies.

The berry bushes have been here a long time, half a century at least. Maybe they started from seeds that sprouted from quail droppings of long ago, maybe from the ancestors of these very birds.  That boulder from which the male dominates his flock has been here for a long time, too. The massive chunk of basalt  came with the territory.  It has smaller cousin rocks all over this Montecito Ridge. They are everywhere, cropping out from the hard, clay soil. They are the fractured surface remains of a lava formation that is several thousand feet deep.  It formed some 2.5 million years ago, when super hot magma flowed up from deep in the earth through uncountable vents across the Sonoma region. The flows went on for close to a million years, vents opening and closing, new vents breaking through.

That big boulder of basalt, then, where the quail perch as regal guardians of the day, has been in this very place since the earliest of the Homo genus was beginning to show up – Homo habilis, the first tool user.  Modern humans were but a budding species only 400,000 years ago.  This ridge was not the home of early humans, of course.  But that quail perch, it was born here, and it has a place in the natural history of the region. It has been a harbor for life.

Rock is inert, having no experience to match its age, but life all about this boulder has, in contrast, persisted with great drama.  Poppies open and close here daily with the shining sun.  In the rippling heat waves, blue belly lizards do pushups, then give chase in male competition. Scorpions, lying in wait at night, capture the passing spider, mouse or reptile with claw-like pedipalps.  Such catches contain the only water scorpions consume. And if need be, scorpions can wait months for a next meal. The early peoples of the area, the Pomo and the Miyakmahs, lived here for 12,000 years collecting acorns to eat, hunting deer, having babies. Life has been here a long time, each life leaving something, changing something, having a mark on the future.

I don’t usually see all these facts and processes that have happened here. But today, I paused, and I began to notice the particulars of time, as if stacked up, layers in an archeology dig.  Today’s particulars I share with the quail.

As a young woman, I visited the oldest known wooden structure in the world, Hōryū-ji Temple in Japan.  This man-made feature is not as old as the quail perch, but it has been a busy place since it was built in the year 607.  For hundreds of years, people have come to the Horyu-ji Temple to study, to live monastically, to meditate, to feed the residents, to be a part of the commitment to understanding truth. The wooden beams and floors have an aura of having borne witness to ages of human drama. If walls could speak, right?  Of course, walls don’t talk. They don’t know what is going on about them.  But they do stay put.  The ancient temple marks a space where thousands of personal stories have been lived out over 14 centuries.

As for the favored basalt perch, it has been in place for millions of years of biological activity – seedlings, hatchlings, fawns and larvae. Oh, if the boulder could talk!  This one would have some perspective on the forces of nature.  It has been a steady feature around which changes happen: endless chains of soil microbial life, slogs of seasonal cycles, sudden meteorological events such as quakes and volcanic explosions.

And there are the wild adventures of the native inhabitants, a story book of life.  Rattlesnakes, lying in wait for prey, know something will come along for them to sink their fangs into, unless, of course, they are snatched up first by the coyote or a large king snake.  Foxes and cougars, active hunters, stalk their prey. They depend on their aggression and their patience to make a kill. Circling overhead are vultures and hawks, their senses keen. They search, one for the quiet carcass, one for the fleet-footed.  Hummingbirds, masters of high metabolism, do not eat flesh, relishing, instead, the nectar of flowers such as the tiny pink lanterns of manzanita, and gulping down tiny insects during mid-flight. The blues of the ceanothus hide away the birds’ tiny nests, sticky with spiderwebs.  Here, too, are anise swallowtails, flying on heavy wings, seeking out their favored wild carrot and parsley. Nothing is still or isolated. Even poppies share the soil with oat grass.  And every evening, deer bed down, trying to be invisible.  Small groups are safer.  

On this day, I see the twinkling sunlight.  I imagine its rays having colored every day of this ridge for eons past, glinting off of leaves, glowing through fog, casting long shadows at end of day.  I imagine the rocks having been a part of the earth’s surface, pushed and buckled and broken by the force of nature.  Cute quail come and go, generation by generation, and a new crop of berries is enjoyed by wildlife each year.  The big basalt rock is worn down with each deep freeze. It breaks when tree roots pry at it, and it settles differently with each earthquake.  But some things stay the same, too.

In this morning’s sunshine, all of that is here, visible. Nothing here would be as it is without everything that has gone before. Everything that has ever happened here is still here, and always will be, until the planet is once again star dust. Then, all of this will always have been. Oblivion collapses time, obliterates the record, but not the simple truth of what has been.

Here, along this path I walk, insects, birds, reptiles, share a spot in time and space. Today, which of them will escape the overhead hawk?  Which vole’s burrow will foster a sprouting acorn?   For these particular creatures and plants, and for the simple, silent matter of an inert bolder, this is their morning, a particular morning, a point of impact, where causes meet effects.  They will mark this ridge with their movement, their responses, with their volition or instinct, and with their stillness. This is their time.

TWT

 

Blood Donation

I had given blood five times the year that I stopped giving altogether.  Six times was the max you were allowed to give in a year. That’s about once every two months. I was proud of my record, and of my body’s ability to recover.

But something unpleasant happened the last time I visited the blood bank. It didn’t end with the easy get-up-and-go feel-good that previous draws of blood had inspired. The experience was so impacting that I gave up donating blood.  I was scared.  I didn’t want the experience to repeat itself.

On this last visit to the blood bank, the whole process of check-in and blood draw took the usual 20 or 25 minutes. Not that long. They checked my blood pressure and pulse rate. As always, I was proud of my numbers.  The pin prick for the hemoglobin test was quick and showed me to be a glowing candidate for giving.

There were a few people ahead of me, but several phlebotomists were working. When I was called, I was glad to see the same phlebotomist I’d had previously.  She spoke in a deep smooth voice that rounded out all the hard sounds.  She was pleasantly personal in her demeanor and calming.  Her gaze fell gently on her work while she maneuvered my arm without embarrassment.  And her technique with the needle must have been excellent.  Nothing hurt.

My phlebotomist got all the lines and clamps and bags hooked up.  She dropped a white paper towel over my arm so that all of “that” was discreetly out of my view.  She stayed by my side during the draw. We talked a little. Just enough to pass the time. I could see that she had begun preparation of a couple of sample vials that would be used for testing the blood. We were almost done. I felt several mild tugs as the blood giving paraphernalia was being rearranged – all par for the course.

Then, I thought I heard little sounds, faint tapping sounds, inside my arm. I hadn’t been watching the goings on, but suddenly I was paying attention.  I felt the phlebotomist do something along the tube, and suddenly again, there was a little rhythmic sensation at the point where the needle was still in my vein.  It was a tiny soft tapping on the inside of my vein.  It didn’t hurt, but it was a little spooky.  I told her, “Whatever you did down there, I felt it inside my arm.”  “That’s a bit of suction your body is doing,” she explained.  The valve in my vein was trying to do its normal work even though the flow was being disrupted.

I was okay with that explanation.  It made sense.  But my body and mind began to lose touch with each other. I spoke to the phlebotomist, “I feel a little faint.”  I thought I should let her know.  I rolled my head away from her toward the wall in a reflex of modesty. My senses were dissolving by the millisecond.  The ceiling was very far away, and all points were merging.

“I think I’m going to faint,” my voice reached out for her. What a strange thing to say, submitting to a kind of death – perhaps death itself.

I doubt people say, “I’m going to faint” very often, even when they are going to.   First off, nobody wants to faint, so to declare it is going to happen goes against instinct.  It’s giving in.  It’s possible, sometimes, to stay present by demanding it of oneself.  All the ER and trauma scenes in movies show someone saying, “Stay with me! Stay with me!” as if there is a choice.  Sometimes, I suppose there is.  Indeed, to say “I’m going to faint,” implies the absence of a determination to “stay with it.”   But fainting has its way with a person. It disables the will, then the senses.

While the senses are blacking out, the mind may still be fully awake. In the fading out, for a glimmer of time, the distinction between yourself and your ability to perceive and engage is obvious.  You may not be able to move your body, or even feel it, but you are there being aware of the inability. For a moment, awareness is all you have. Then, that is gone too.

Of course, you don’t experience or remember the part of fainting when awareness is absent, that is, the period of “being out.”  The mind is out of commission at that point.  There is no support for it from the brain. You are temporarily not a conscious being.

Once, years ago, long before my donation years, I came close to blacking out.  I’d fallen full force, smashing the bony back of my hand on the edge of a door jam.  The pain was intense. It seemed that part of me jumped out of my body.  In a kind of third person way, my knees buckled, and my torso rolled onto the floor.  I could see and hear, but my body had collapsed and lay still. I never totally lost consciousness, but I didn’t feel normal. My mind had separated from all my sensory perceptions. Even the pain in my hand was not a problem. I had no ability to communicate or respond to questions my family was asking of me.  I was in a different frame – separated from everything.  The paralysis lasted only a few seconds. Then, I came to my senses.  My injured hand was screaming.  Able, again, to direct my body, I rolled to a kneeling posture on the floor to assess the damage.

That was my only fainting experience other than the many times when, upon getting out of a hot bath, I would see stars and feel like a big frothy wave was softly cresting between my ears. That’s common. You simply get your head low.  I look hard at something in my view and anchor my awareness to it.  I “stay with it.”

Being out in the sun for too long, hiking or doing yard work, can do a number on me, too.  Too much sun or heat, as even the medical professionals say, is distressing.  When I get too hot, I feel heat radiating from me like a light bulb emits light.  I feel my skin flush.  Everything I touch is shockingly cold. I notice my irritability, but I can’t moderate it.  My brain is overheated, so it just doesn’t work well. A lifesaving intolerance kicks in. I want to whimper. I feel vulnerable.  But I am driven by a mad self-determination to get my body cool. Shoes and hat come off. I put my drinking water all over me, especially my face and scalp.  I have to. I have to do something to cool myself immediately.  Being overheated commands the strength of my will to engage and survive. It demands action of me.

On the day at the blood bank, none of that happened.  On this day, fainting was out of my control. Just a little tick, tick, tick feeling inside my vein, and within 20 seconds, the world would be unavailable to me.  Trying to see the wall with eyes that could no longer see, I said to the phlebotomist, “Bye, bye.”  I was gone.

I did not dream. I was out, cold.  It was the coming back into consciousness that was terrifying.

My return to awareness was sudden and partial. I was pulled sharply into consciousness. I seemed to be falling.  Nothing else.  I felt to be in a black void that was caving in beneath me.  My senses were not “on.”  There was no input of sound or sensation.  Worse, my brain wasn’t “on” either.  There was no conceptual orientation.  No words.  No meaning. No up or down. I felt my aliveness, but there was nothing to grasp onto cognitively.  Nothing to “stay with.”

I would not say that I was aware of myself. Rather, I had simply regained rudimentary awareness, isolated in terrible, total disconnection. There was emptiness. Nothing more. There was no talking myself through it.  There was a desperation to latch onto something, but there was only nothing. My mind was fighting to be somewhere, to find a point of reference.

In that lost-ness, I was there, but without a world. The “me” that was experiencing being lost was the same me that experiences being overheated, the same me that felt itself to have popped out of my body when I fell on my hand. It’s the me that watches my living.  But in my lost state, there was no “sense” of me.  I just was – as if just born, nothing coming into emptiness.

I can say this: that little self could not have existed for very long in that lost condition, convulsively grasping. It grasped for something, for anything, to lock onto, to stay with.

Suddenly, there was something. Severe cold. Intense, painful cold. The sensation was precise. It had meaning.  It was the only meaning in that moment.  Its intensity had a solidity that my searching mind leapt to. This raw shock was the tether that led me back into the world. I found my eyes. Lifting my lids was slow work. The light was harshly bright.  Another demanding link to the world.  At last, my eyes fully opened.  And there she was, my phlebotomist, caring for me.

My right arm moved automatically, awkwardly, to find the coldness. I could not feel my movement, and there was almost no energy available for the labor of the movement.   But I found the cold cloth on my neck.  I thought to remove it and I did.

A voice was talking to me.  It was hers. “Welcome back.”  I remembered having said “bye, bye” to her.  The phlebotomist’s gentle voice was wonderful.  She’d been there the whole time I was gone, she told me.  She had put the wet cloth on my neck.  “We couldn’t get you to wake up! You were gone for close to 15 minutes!” She sheltered my eyes from the lights. I could only speak slowly.  “I’ve been here,” I told her, “but I couldn’t find my way.”

After a few minutes, I was led to the area where juice and snacks are available for donors to help them hydrate.   I accepted some apple juice and a few crackers.  The staff was watching my behavior, and I was, too. I stayed about 20 minutes. I practiced walking to the juice dispenser to build up my confidence.  A mild feeling of disconnectedness lingered.  My mind was working better than my brain.  I must have just seemed quiet, but in fact I could not speak my thoughts. I didn’t even have many thoughts, except to be watching myself regain normalcy.

On the drive home I stopped at a supermarket parking lot to give it some time.  I walked about a bit and bought a bottle of water.  When I was sure, I got myself on the road home.  I sipped the water.  I drove carefully, leaving space ahead of me.  I chose a route that had little traffic. Then, once home, I went to bed and slept for three hours straight.  Everything was normal after that.

Normal, except that I haven’t given blood in the 15 years since.

It’s about time, I think. Time to no longer be afraid.  Time to give, again. Time that I find my way back to the blood bank.

Postscript.   

On August 9th, 2018, at 6:15 pm, I successfully gave 480 ml of whole blood. The body is able to replace the plasma after a donation within about 24 hours. It will take about four to six weeks to completely replace the red cells.

Once again, I’m a normal, proud, blood donor. 

 

TWT

 

Seeing the Surfaces at the Supermarket

I was in the check-out line of the supermarket. Just another trip to the store.  A couple of people were ahead of me in line. A tall, dark-haired woman was just finishing up her exchange with the cashier.

“Bags?”

“Use mine, please.”

It was a pleasant voice.  She had strong cheek bones. And her tresses bobbled, a little like Shirley Temple.  She was a man, though.  I felt this immediately.   I corrected myself for a split second. Surely, I was mistaken. She did not look masculine – she was a perfectly female person. Somehow I was sure, though. There was something more than her appearance showed.  Obviously,  I could not see beyond what my eyes saw.  Maybe I was seeing accurately.  Maybe not.  She was a woman by every marker of her identity.  What upset me was this: everything that I could see about her would never be enough by which to see anything more.

She was walking away from the cashier, toward the exit, her shopping concluded. The checkout line moved up.  I moved with it, but I was thinking about the woman, about seeing her.

My eye took in the magazines and candies for sale on the racks alongside the checkout line. There were helium balloons bobbing overhead and in the aisles behind me the shelves were full of food and supplies.  The people, the paper bags, everything was all strangely empty.

A haze developed between my brain and all these things.  Everything was very familiar, of course, but appallingly so. Everything was known to me, known in a routine way, and worse, everything was known to me mainly for the coverings I could see or hear. I already completely knew all these things surrounding me, having seen them my whole life. But I didn’t really see any of it at all.  Everything seemed to be an icon of the assumed substance.  Gum, the sound of the register closing, even the bottled water, which I often purchase, and the bananas.  My brain was registering all that I saw and heard as conceptions, as pre-formed assumptions. I watched my eyes and ears just skimming the surface of everything. I was knowing my world by superficially scanning.

I was seeing everything as having a sort of wrapper around its entity. My entire life, perhaps, I’d been seeing only the wrappers, and now, I wanted to see inside, but the wrappers were impregnable.

The carts, the sliding doors at the exit, the aprons worn by the clerks. This haze I was in made all the details of the environment something other than what they looked like. Item by item, sound by sound, my feelings dulled as I became increasingly aware that I could only take in exterior characteristics.  This kind of vision made seeing all the normal everyday stuff all around me mortally sad and lonely.

It was like seeing on TV an astronaut walk in space. It’s real, but it’s not, but it is.

The groceries of the customer ahead of me moved forward on the conveyer belt toward the cashier.  The clerk chatted with him while he processed the groceries. Then it was my turn.  He rang up my groceries and asked, “Need some bags”? “Yes, thank you.”  As we finished up, I looked at him squarely. He had dark skin, thick torso, an easy smile. I wondered if he had noticed the woman who was a man. I wondered what, actually, I had noticed? Had I somehow seen something true about the tall woman, or had her wrapping simply confused me. It didn’t really matter as much as the effect I was feeling from noticing her. . . him.

The clerk handed me my receipt and wished me a good day. I took my bags and headed slowly toward the exit.  I knew that whatever I was sensing here in the store would leave me as I went into the next moments of my life. I wasn’t ready to move on, though.

Back in my car, I wept silently. Those last minutes in the supermarket had opened up such a mystery, they had exhausted me.  My sense of reality had been ripped open for a brief time.  I’d seen something worth seeing, but it was not about the deep nature of reality. Just the opposite. I’d seen the surface of reality, how simplistic it is, how deluding.  And what had brought me to this temporary lens of perception was that, somehow, I had seen something, maybe, of the inside of the woman. First, I had seen her physical features, her way of moving. And then without warning, I had seen, maybe, through the packaging.

My eye and brain, released for a few moments from its habit of assumption, had taken in a landscape of facades – facades that were not so much crafted by the entities, but rather, manufactured by me, by my brain, by my brain’s need for simplicity.  The packaging was actually of my own brain’s making – and my brain always believes itself. That’s my reality.

By myself, in the car, I was taken by a dread that there might be, really, only emptiness inside all the externals. Everything felt terribly empty because I had not been able to see inside, as if I’d found the glass boundary of a mirror but could not grasp the depth within the mirror.  In this shocked mental opening, I had become aware of my blindness, aware of my false and superficial vision, aware of only being able to engage the wrappings of my world. The shapes and colors, the garments of the world, I’d been mistaking, forever, as the substance.

That woman, something about her and that moment had cracked me open.  Somehow, I had been let in on my own delusion:  that the woman might not be merely what I assumed.  Nor, perhaps, might anything else be merely what my eyes and my brain had decided it was.

A Session at the Gym

When I go to the gym, the elliptical is the piece of equipment I use most regularly. I like it because it counts calories burned and measures my heart rate.  But mostly, I like the elliptical because I don’t have to pay attention to what I’m doing.  I just step up onto the elliptical foot platforms, set the incline and resistance, and I’m off.

I use the handles that can be pushed and pulled to build upper body strength.  With my hands well attached to these handles, I am free to watch a video on the private digital screen, or listen to music or a podcast. Or I can read a book.  Usually, though, my exercise session is a kind of meditation.

The physical effort needed at the start of my workout is pretty low.  My legs are pumping happily. It just feels so good to move.  I like to close my eyes.  It’s liberating to be safe while moving boldly without the normalcy of sight.  My mind registers the rocking of my body.  I notice my posture.  I pull my spine up long and tall, my head lifting.  With my head raised high, a soft dignity comes over me.  I’m sensing myself from the inside out.  My deeper breathing expands my ribcage. My heart is beating smoothly.

I think about how there are people across the planet doing their workout, right now, feeling how their bodies warm up to the exercise, feeling how the air about them brushes across their skin as they move. People have been exercising their bodies for thousands of years, feeling their muscles strain to pull or push the resisting weight. My sense of here and now expands as I consider the many enthusiasts of exercise over time.  Some of them surround me in this very gym. I do not work in isolation.

My legs are working the elliptical easily now, and my mind is free from any demands.  I turn from words toward silence. I am sightless and wordless, and I feel very alive. I just listen, feel, move, breathe. I enjoy the peacefulness of the mental calm.

I hear the person on the machine next to me stepping off of their elliptical.  My mind wonders what their mind did while they peddled.  I wonder how many people in the gym meditate regularly. Probably a few at least.  Noticing that my brain has started talking about the world surrounding me, I follow that focus and shape it.  What is there outside of my body?  Sensations fill my inner body and then stretch across the surface.  I direct my awareness outward, regaining silence.

I feel my shoes encasing my feet. They are outside me. They connect to the peddles.  The elliptical machine is outside of me, moving mechanically, like my joints.  The whirring sound of the gears and belts in the elliptical are outside of me. The room spreads out from this rhythmically working body of mine. I check that my grasp is steady. Confident, I let the size of the entire gym into my awareness, then grow the awareness out to the neighborhood, then to the town, the planet, and beyond. So much space all around.  If images arise, I let them go.  I let myself be willing to be very big.  I feel the rocking and pumping of my body working the elliptical while my awareness is also holding the bigness of the world outside of my body.

It is hard to hold a dual focus for long.  When my attention breaks down, I return the focus to the space within the gym and to my feet. I gradually work my way out to the big picture again.  After a few repetitions of this mental exercise, my mind is tired.  I relax.

The peddling has become very easy. I’ve been at it for a while and my muscles are eager for harder work.  I open my eyes to increase the resistance. The timer tells me I’m close to halfway through my 20-minute session. I’m surprised at the time passing. Closing my eyes again is a relief.  It’s quieter with my eyes closed. Less for my brain to notice and chat about.

I decide to settle my mental focus behind me about five feet back, as if I see myself from behind, but not with eyes.  I’m working for a sense of awareness from a perspective other than from my body.  I move the “seeing” further behind me, and then raise it up some.   This, again, uses the imagination, and my brain can slip into imaging.  Any images generated by this effort are set aside, just as words get set aside.  I have to set aside mental activity over and over again, both words and images.  I return each time to quietly sensing, seeing without seeing.

After a bit, words have taken over again.  I realize I am talking to myself about my workout, but not to the self I want to keep engaged.  I remember that my attention had been behind me. Now all my attention is on my body.  All of my energy is going to the physical work, and to directing that work.

My metabolism has heated up.  My breath is very deep now, bringing more oxygen rich air into my lungs.  It’s almost a sucking of air into my chest.  Calories must be burned for the harder push my legs are producing.  That burning requires oxygen.  Breathing pulls it in.  All this work going on inside my flesh.  My legs peddle.  My arms pull.  My lungs heave.  My heart beats.  There is a system.  It’s working.

My sense of presence is in my chest.  It’s very warm and very alive here, a counterbalance to all the work. So much to feel. So central. Balance is in constant play. My hips sway, the spine lilting along, even my neck. My shoulder blades move with each pulling and pushing on the handle bars.  They adjust with each stride. But they are not working as hard as they were. They’ve gotten tired. My legs have taken up the slack.

I direct my arms to work harder against the handle bars.  They are reluctant. I need them to expend their maximum strength so that my exercise session can be effective.  Directing them to do the work takes all of my focus. I am aware only of needing to task my muscles.  My mind is focused.  There are no words, no images, no mental wandering.  Concentrated discipline, that is all that can be allowed. The mental exercise of quiet awareness has given way to focused struggle against fatigue.   My mind’s command must match my body’s drive to let up.  Intention is everything.

I decide to increase the resistance on the elliptical for the last few minutes of exercise. My entire body leaps into gear to make it happen. The burn is deep. The lungs burn, too. There is resistance not just in the elliptical. My body wants to rebel.  I set aside each muscular complaint, each lapse in forceful energy, each emotional plea. No fuss about it. I merely re-up the required focus each time it falls off.

The demanding physical effort colors my relationship with both body and mind.  I hold steadily the purpose for taking on the challenge.  The strain is in the mental work as much as the physical.  Indeed, I was wrong to say I don’t have to pay attention to what I’m doing while on the elliptical.  Once I’m really pushing the limits of my body’s strength, the exercise demands total attention, which is just fine with me. As before, it’s quiet here.  This is another kind of meditation. One focus. One purpose.

I listen only to the part of me that directs my energy.  This is the same part of me that directed my mental exercises just minutes ago.   This is my trusted partner, my lifelong self.  It is me, myself, who directs these exercises.  Only I can.  Only I can put the head-talk and the resistance gently outside of my attention, somewhere, anywhere, out behind me, outside of my interest.  I do not care about distractions except to dismiss them.  I care only to complete my exercise session.

I breathe. I burn. I am calm. I carry on.  I peddle with my feet. I push and pull with my arms. I keep my eyes closed. Being present. Being silent. Staying with it.  This is practice, not perfection.  Work now.  The session will end soon.

TWT

Walking in the World

When you are ill, you know you are alive. With the flu, you feel your flesh, the inside of your lungs, the space between your skull and brain. This is inaccurate, medically, but true. Your nerves can pinpoint where there is still slush in your gut. The temperature of everything you touch is extreme. It is painful to be alive.

I was ill recently. For days.  Nothing concerned me except my body. It seemed I had no mind, no emotion, no care, only a body full of screaming nerve endings. As long as I slept, I was free of the illness, and free of the remaining sliver of awareness that monitored everything, and reminded me that this, too, would pass.

Just let it pass now, I begged silently to myself. Let me sleep.

So much sleeping seemed wrong.  How could I want to disappear from myself.  That’s like asking for death. But so be it. I slept. And I slept.

Finally, maybe a week later, and with a degree of recovery, I answered the inner call to be in the normal world, outside my home.  I drove to a nearby market.

Walking across the parking lot toward the front doors of the store, I saw the many cars, pulling in, parking, leaving. They followed the arrows and lines on the asphalt.  Blinkers and brake lights signaled from car to car.  All was orderly.

Across the way, on the sidewalk bordering the parking lot, someone in a bright hat marshalled three small, colorful dogs on leashes. The dogs were playful with pretty collars.  They seemed like four-footed ballerinas doing a ribbon dance, over there, beyond the hard, shiny, well-behaved cars.

I noticed my legs moving, right-left, right-left, a steady, quiet pulling of me closer to the store, through the traffic.  I noticed other things, too – my wanting to see more of the colorful play of the trio on leashes, my bruised lungs rebelling against the cold air, my fatigue doubting my ability to carry a bag of groceries. I noticed the people moving toward and away from me, toward and away from their own shopping, each carrying their own preoccupations, their own bodies and minds, their own grocery bags. I wanted to notice it all at the same time. I couldn’t. But I did my best. It was beautiful – dogs, cars, people, all moving.

It was amazing to be moving across such a great distance as this parking lot. The world was big and it seemed good, all the shapes and activity.  My body did not hurt as badly as it had. But it still had the odd warmth and ache of illness. My breath was a constant sensation.  And I was glad to feel myself, my body, in this strong, direct way. It made me pay attention.  It kept me here, inside my skin, while I watched the drama of motion flow around me.

I felt fragile, and that kept me practical, simple, calm.  I had no extra energy for excitement.  My mind was free – without clutter or demands. I didn’t feel strongly about anything. I was more like an artist seeing objectively.  Moving was plenty to focus on. Witnessing absorbed my mind. Being alive, walking in the world, and being willing to be aware, that was quite a lot.