Saturday, August 31, 2013

Summer's End at Teaching Drum

It's the end of August, and the weather up here is warm during the day, with cool nights, and few mosquitoes. There's a lot going on right now.

The blackberries and bunchberries are ripe. I've never had bunchberries before until now. They are small red berries that grow in a cluster, on the floor on the woods. They taste mildly sweet, and have a creamy texture. They're fun to just grab when I'm going for a walk.

I am holding a small handful of blackberries. I'm standing still, and the mosquitoes aren't biting! I'm enjoying the weather. There's so much to look at, and I've been taking a lot of photos, as you can probably tell from this blog post.

The wildflowers are blooming, too. When I moved in, I was welcomed into my room with a bouquet of wildflowers.

Some are starting to wilt, now.

I've been working on deer and bear hides, and cooking a lot. I really like the meals here. We stick to a paleo diet. A basic meal at Teaching Drum consists of deer or fish, vegetables/greens, and wild rice. For breakfast we have fruit and nuts. We eat eggs for some meals, that we buy from the neighbor down the road. We cook in bear fat. Yesterday we rendered bear fat, and what's leftover is crispy chunks of fried fat that pretty much everyone loves eating.

I'm at Nadmadewing, in this photo, salting one of the hundreds of deer hides that get donated to the school from hunters, roadkill, or taxidermists. Some are sent out to the students of the wilderness immersion programs for hide tanning.

Ricing Moon begins soon. This is when we gather wild rice, in canoes, out on the river. I started carving my ricing sticks yesterday, and I am almost done. I've never riced before, so I am excited to learn how to do it, and then I can give more detail about the process.

Almost everyone who lives here is really into running in the woods. A few weeks ago, I was training for a 10k. I was running on pavement or gravel. I could not have imagined how fun it is to run in the woods. Before, running was a practice for blowing off some steam, putting on my headphones, getting that endorphin high, escaping from daily stress. With woods running, it's about awareness, and fun. We practice "wolf running." One person leads, and the other people follow behind, mimicking the leader's steps. I went with someone today, and I felt like a kid on an adventure. We were balancing on logs, jumping and ducking branches, and sometimes crawling on the forest floor under tree branches and between ferns.

One aspect that I really appreciate about Teaching Drum is the healing circle. Anyone can call a healing circle to get support from the rest of the community. A circle was recently called because one person asked another person to stop flagging them. "Flagging" is a term used when someone points out that another person is victimizing themself, externalizing, or enabling someone else. We talked about why someone wouldn't want to be flagged. The intention behind a flag, etc. Interesting stuff.
I learned that I have lots of victimization patterns. I've been aware of it for years, but I never called it that. I struggle to empower myself, and let go of thoughts that I'm not good, or don't have anything to contribute.

There's a lot to learn here!

One more picture, and then I'll go.

Friday, August 30, 2013

This is anicha

I finished my first vipassana course a few days ago. A vipassana course consists of ten days of silent meditation, for approximately 10 1/2 hours each day. I had the intention of doing emotional healing and developing a stable meditation practice to help me cope with chronic, and sometimes paralyzing anxiety that I've experienced ever since I was 13. I imagined the course would be difficult, but I could not have imagined how incredibly emotionally painful it would be, and the realizations I could only have by fully experiencing the pain.

I shared a piece of land, a meditation hall, a dining hall, and a dormitory with about 40 other people. At the beginning of the course, we turned in our electronic devices and reading and writing material. We agreed to not in engage in physical exercise, and we agreed to practice noble silence, except to ask questions to the teachers. Noble silence means to abstain from communicating with others through speaking, eye contact, or touch. These guidelines were set in place to make it easiest for us to clear our minds.

On the first day of the course, I rose at 4am and walked to the meditation hall to begin my sitting practice, as according to the daily schedule, and directed by the teachers.
By the afternoon, I was in the midst of a battle in my mind to stay awake, and I was failing. I was forcing my eyes to stay open, even though we were instructed to sit with them closed. My whole body ached intensely. A heat and throbbing pulsated in my head. My neck and back ached, but the most pain was in my legs. My stomach began to turn, and I felt the urge to throw up. I wanted to run out of the room screaming and crying. When I was almost to my breaking point, a gentle bell rang for a five minute break. I pulled my body up and out of the room, crying, my mind wrapped up in fearful thoughts of my possible inability to complete the course, and guilty feelings for wanting to give up so quickly.

I approached the assistant teacher, asking for guidance, and when she was available I entered her room. She sat on a mat on an elevated piece of the floor, and I sat on a mat below her. Her room was cold, and lit with an orange light. She smiled down at me.

"How are you doing, Wren?"
"I am struggling a lot. I can't stay awake in the meditation hall, and when I am awake, my whole body aches intensely. The pain in almost intolerable."
"If you have this much physical pain, you must have experienced a lot of emotional pain in the past. There's a lot in your subconscious, and it is coming out, like pus."
"But, the pain, I can't handle it..." I start crying again.
Then she said, "Why did you come here?"
"To.. learn to relax."
"Then you have to do the work to get there. You have the tools. Don't give up. Give this technique a fair trial, complete the full course, and then decide afterward if you want to keep practicing vipassana."

I thanked her, and then left. Something clicked in my mind. I understood that the only way I could heal all my emotional pain of anxiety, anger, and sadness, was to observe it completely, in my body, and in my mind. I thought of the phrase, "The only way out if through." I felt a lot of empathy for anyone who had ever run away from something good for them because they were afraid of facing the work that would have to be done to get there.

I returned to the meditation hall after a tea break. I feared my lack of ability to focus, and handling of the physical pain. I pulled up my strength, and sat, my back and neck straight, my eyes closed, my mind focusing on the air entering and exiting my nostrils. I did not fall asleep. I did the work because I knew then how important it was.

Lessons in Meditation Become Lessons in Life

Over the next few days, I learned some important lessons. The first one was about equanimity. In meditation, it’s a tool used to observe bodily sensations, and not make the pain "my pain." I was told that equanimity means not wishing for unpleasant sensations to cease, and not wishing for pleasant sensations to continue.

I also learned about Anicha. Anicha is Hindi for impermanence. I think of the phrase, “This too shall pass.” While we sit, we learn to practice scanning our whole body for subtle sensations, such as itching or tickling. I observed many intense urges to scratch an itch rise and then fall away.

On the 6th day, almost all my bodily pain was gone, and I started experiencing pleasant, subtle, vibrating sensations sweeping all through my body. I felt like my body was dissolving into everything around me-an experience I’ve never had.

By experiencing all of these different sensations in my body, I could learn to use the tool of Anicha when emotions come up. When I am experiencing anxiety, my breathing is very rapid, and I feel like I cannot get enough air. I’m overtaken by a handful of negative, self defeating thoughts. I remind myself, “This is anicha.” It will pass, and it does.

I learned that I have spent most of my life living in the past, or worrying about the future, not experiencing reality as it is, and wishing I was somewhere else, doing something else.

The head teacher of the course was a man from India, named SN Goenke. Goenke said that it is easy to logically understand the concepts of impermanence and equanimity, but they cannot be applied in day to day life unless they are experienced through the body, because the body and mind are linked.

We're not Alone in the Darkness of our Misery

On the last day of the course, Goenke recited the meditation, “May I be happy. May all beings be happy. May I pardon anyone who has ever hurt me. May I be pardoned for ever hurting anyone.” Many people cried; releasing hurt feelings, forgiving, and extending love and compassion.
I felt so much compassion for those 40 other people surrounding me, who I never spoke with until the tenth day. I felt sadness to say goodbye to these people with whom I had shared this healing experience with, and after talking with others in the course, I found out that everyone else was struggling too. How often I think I am alone, but I’ve come to realize that we all have the same needs and the same struggles.
It was when I reached Chicago, to catch a bus, that I realized that I would be surrounded by the same kind of people.

We’re all just walking through life as though in a darkened room, grasping for something to hold onto, or looking for light, so we can come out of our darkness.

For me, my house is often filled with darkness, but now that I have some tools, I think I will open the window and let some light in.

When my bus arrived in Wisconsin, I went to the green bay and put my feet in Lake Michigan for the first time. The weather was cool and windy. I found myself wondering about the future-the next months I would spend at Teaching Drum, but then I drew myself back into just appreciating being at the green bay.

The future is always unknown. This is anicha. This is the change and flow of life.

Monday, August 12, 2013

I had intended to keep updating my blog throughout my travels, but my inspiration to write started being expressed through written letters to friends back at Twin Oaks.
I deleted my facebook yesterday, and now I think I will put more energy toward writing, and more of the connections I am looking for.

When I left the Possibility Alliance months ago, I continued my sitting meditation practice, even though I didn't have others to share it with, and I was longing for that. I guess I would call it spiritual community. Unfortunately, that need doesn't feel fulfilled for me in religious churches, though I can get something out of it when I attend.

My practice slowly waned when I was at Teaching Drum. There was no one to sit with. When I'm alone in my practice, I have trouble focusing, even when I know that regular meditation and spiritual practice in my life benefit my mental health hugely.

I started running again-it became my practice. It takes patience and steadfastness as meditation does. When I am running and practicing sitting meditation regularly, I am doing really well. But, I struggle to keep these two things in my life regularly.

My unhealed emotional stuff was revealed to me in a way it never has been when I was at Teaching Drum. Teaching Drum is a small community that hosts a wilderness immersion program every year. I spent about a month there in June.

I was surrounded by people who had lived in the woods for at least a year. The learning curve was huge, and I couldn't meet the expectations others had of me. I'm a gardener. I have skills in lots of other areas, but I am no way a master in anything. I would say I am most skilled working with plants.

I didn't know how to start a fire without matches, or hunt and butcher a deer, or even poop in the woods. I didn't know I was going to be almost constantly surrounded by mosquitoes, and the only way to keep them off was to rub a thick layer of deer fat on my skin. I didn't know that people enjoyed cooking with the deer fat, and that it would be so difficult to swallow down a meal of fish and ramps stew when my throat was coated with the waxy fat. I felt intimidated and overwhelmed, but then I saw that it was okay for me to talk about how I was feeling, and communication and healing was an important aspect of life at Teaching Drum. With the way people were coming and going so much when I was there, it was hard to see that, at first.

The difficulties I faced there were opening me up to painful growing experiences. I needed more structure, and I needed to motivate myself to learn things I'm passionate about. It reminded me that I have to bring into my life what I want, and if I don't know how to do it, I have to figure it out. I also learned that I still have a lot to learn about communicating with other people. No one's going to make me break all my unhealthy patterns. No one's going save me, or heal me. It's up to me. This reality is empowering, and also, really scary!

I remember my first day gathering wild leeks (ramps) with a camp. The day just sort of flowed. The were no watches. The sun rose higher in the sky, and we set off to gather ramps after breakfast. We spent all day gathering and packing ramps into bags, and I noticed I kept wondering what time it was, but after a while I just let the thought pass, because it was useless. Once we arrived back at camp, I was incredibly hungry, and we cooked fish on skewers over the fire. Afterward, someone encouraged me to boil water for drinking. Everyone else there had gotten accustomed to the bacteria in the wild water.

The sun started to set, and I felt calm just listening to the different animal sounds around me, and letting night fall. I looked toward the spot where I would be sleeping. My bed lay on soft branches of balsam fir, a deer pelt, and my sleeping bag to crawl into. I wanted to memorize the distance between the fire and my bed, because I knew when night fell, I would have to remember it with my feet. No flashlights here.

Something felt incredibly right about all that, even the scary aspects of it.

Quite a bit has happened since I left Teaching Drum. I spent a week back at Twin Oaks. Mostly events have occured that continue to remind me of all the healing I have to do, and that have shown me where I'm stuck, and the harmful patterns I repeat again and again.

Years ago, I thought I would be further along than this. I haven't met the expectations I continue to set for myself. It has only taught me not be be so harsh on myself, and not expect myself to be somewhere I'm not.

I'm taking a bus to Chicago tomorrow. I will be attending a ten day silent meditation course north of the city. I hope I gain more ability to look at myself and be okay with it. After the ten days is over, I'll return to Teaching Drum. I will arrive in time for the wild rice harvest.

p.s. more photos I have taken at Teaching Drum can be viewed here: