Friday, October 28, 2016


A fascinating array of color and life forms inhabit this old windfall. Gnarly white bracket fungus oozes out of dark bark recesses...then doesn’t quite know what to do without a vertical surface on which to cantilever.

Emerald moss seeks out a bit more light on surfaces in brighter shade. And blue-green and gold lichen—a composite, symbiotic organism comprising both a fungus and moss’s more primitive cousin, an alga—likely took up residence here before either of its neighbors.

It is a study, too, of endurance. Fungi and mosses, surviving deep Minnesota winters, can live for years. Lichen, given a more durable substrate than this bark—which is being devoured by the fungus—can easily grow for centuries.

Friday, October 21, 2016


 TIP #12
Once in a while, look up.

You'd think this would be a no-brainer, wouldn't you? But, if you're at all like me, it's like breathing. You take it for granted; you forget that, occasionally, it needs your attention. Haven't you ever concentrated so much on something—you know, that body-and-soul concentration where you shut out everything around you?—that you realized you'd been forgetting to breathe?

PHOTO: Pixabay

Well, it's the same thing with looking up. We get so focused on what's right in front of our noses, or what's going on inside our heads, we forget that, of the 360-degree reach of our vision, about half of it—with all its wonders of wisp and wing, billow and beam—lies above eye level.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

THE ZEN ZONE – Twelve Ways to Know You’ve Glimpsed the Essence

Those of you who follow me here know I like to take occasional pokes at the arcane, seemingly impenetrable fa├žade of Zen spiritual practice. I just believe that one can reap the benefits of mindfulness—in a form not all that different from that practiced by serious aficionados—without committing to a lifetime of study, denial, nor a solitary stint on some icy crag in the Himalayas. This post is a reflection on that kind of...well...let’s just call it Zen Lite.

If you’re anything like me, you spend the vast majority of your waking hours either consciously or unconsciously pursuing someone’s—perhaps your own— agenda. It’s as if there’s this insidious, self-refilling to-do list; no sooner do you check off one task than another pops up to replace it.

Welcome to 21st century life in the western world.

Since retiring a few years back, I've been more or less free of the largely client-dictated schedule that used to drive me most weekdays. Even so, I’ve found it very hard to rise above other daily compulsions and expectations.

But then, in the past year, I’ve had to undergo a couple of surgeries—the first, to open up my sinuses and, I hope, avoid the frequent bouts with bronchitis I'd been suffering for several years; the second, major surgery to reinforce a crumbling spine.
         I’ve come to realize what a blessing 
         those operations have been.

And in the month and a half since the latter procedure, I've come to realize what a blessing those operations have been. First of all, it appears they may have cured both my recurring respiratory problems and my chronic pain.

Secondly, the spine surgery has forced me to make room in my daily busy-ness—much of which is really of little consequence—for my rehabilitation. And, for me, at least for the first couple of months, that has meant walking, lots of walking. I've already worked up to over two miles a day…and I plan to do even more.

And finally, the amazing success of my surgeries has given me a new—or perhaps I should say heightened—sense of appreciation for the many small miracles of life. Nowadays I celebrate each and every pain-free step, every single unimpeded breath.

For years I've aspired to be more conscious—of myself, of others, of this amazing planet…of life. Like most folks, I find this hard to do while preoccupied with workaday goals and deadlines. But my forced re-allocation of time, and the recent glow of awe and gratitude I’ve been feeling, has allowed me to renew that quest for consciousness.

One result has been more frequent encounters with a state of mind I’m lightly calling the Zen Zone—an extraordinary feeling of connection with my own body, with life and, dare I say, with the cosmos. And it’s changing me to my core.

So far, as a relative novice in exploring this stuff, I’ve found two ways to rather easily reach such a place of heightened awareness. One is by meditating (which, in the form of a kind of self-hypnosis, helped me immensely in preparing for and recovering from my back surgery). I continue to do it—though I could practice anywhere, I’ve been doing it mainly indoors. Through meditation I follow my breathing, turn deep within myself, and find there a profound sense of understanding, a place which feels like it encompasses all space, all time.

          It’s a place that is all places, that exists 
          not within myself, but beyond.

ART: Colleen Wallace Nungari

During this journey inward I have these extraordinary flashes of clarity. It feels like I truly get that everything—all this beauty, everyone I’ve ever known, all the love in the world, all life’s possibilities are connected, and they're all in there. I've heard it called a state of centered-ness. 

Then there’s another kind of Zen Zone, the one I occasionally find while outdoors walking. And, while the level of consciousness feels like that of my "inner" meditations, its location seems precisely the opposite. Again, it’s a place that is all places, a time that is all time, but now the expansiveness exists not within myself, but beyond. My essence, life’s essence, the Essence, seems to flow into me from somewhere, everywhere, outside of me—from that speck of soil under my sandal to the incomprehensible reach of the heavens.

Part of this happens simply because I want it; I’ve made room for it in my consciousness. But it's also because I'm deliberately practicing it. By doing so I’m able to find that outer-expansiveness more and more frequently every day. It may have started during those daily rehab walks, but now I encounter it at other times too. (Certain kinds of music seem to help put me in a receptive frame of mind.)

PHOTO: Pixabay

Here are the top twelve ways I know when I've found my Zen Zone:

1. I’m aware of human life going on well beyond the reach of my basic senses. It’s a poignant, deeply empathetic realization that, at this very moment, a baby is being born, someone is dying, a crew buried deep in a mine shaft somewhere prays for rescue, folks are experiencing triumph and heartbreak—around the world, in my city…perhaps in some of the houses I’m passing.

2. Strangers pass and I experience a sense of kinship. I wonder about her, what he does, what going home looks like to her, whether he’s happy. As we move on, it feels like we've blessed each other.

3. I believe I am one with other living things too. I regard a tree, a knot of wildflowers, a sweeping green lawn, as fellow sentient beings, each all-knowing in its own way, each my co-inhabitant in the Essence.

4. I feel my own body in a new way. I experience my weight, visualizing each horizontal slice of me, from head on down, bearing the cumulative load of all the slices above. I notice the circular rhythm of my breathing, absorbing each inhalation like water in a thirsty sponge. I’m aware of my blood flowing, from heartbeat to arterial pulsing to all those barely seeping little capillaries just under my skin. It makes my hands and feet pleasantly warm.

      I am myself at all ages, like I was as a boy, 
      like I'll be as an old man. All of it is now.

5. The sun, though a mind-numbing 93,000,000 miles away, warms me as if it were a cozy little bonfire at my feet, its warmth shining on me, in me, through me.

6. Bird song, squirrel chatter, even the rasp and whir of insects, feels like it has meaning, evoking a spontaneous urge to answer. When a critter is close enough, we stop and size each other up. I pray it  knows I mean no harm. And I know deeply that, while we may not have the same blood, and that perhaps ten or twenty percent of our DNA is different, we share the identical force.

7. Any fear, anger or negative thought I may have carried a few minutes ago is consumed in a calm sea of patience and certainty.

I am myself at all ages—like I was as a boy, like I'll be as an old man. All of it is now.

9. I am unaware of looking for wonder, joy, love; it all seems to find me...and then is me.

    I appreciate each blessing so poignantly that 
    I am aware, simultaneously, of its absence.

10. It’s not as if I’m without a mundane thought—little aches and pains, daydreams, my ever-present to-do list—but somehow they seem to just float lightly on the surface, above the liquid depths of my reverie.

11. I appreciate the blessings in my life—love, good health, peace, freedom…even that venerable cottonwood I just passed—so profoundly that I am aware, simultaneously, of their absence. Knowing they are not yet gone causes tears to well up in my eyes.

12. Finally—and this may well be the most telling of signs—as if any one of these sacred facets of consciousness weren’t spellbinding enough in itself, they all cast their radiance on me simultaneously. If I weren't so calm, I'm afraid it might be overwhelming.
                                            ~ // ~     ~ // ~     ~ // ~

Once again, I am a mere pretender at any respectable kind of Zen meditation. Yet I’m reminded that all of one’s abilities begin with pretense. With any new skill or awareness, what keeps you doing it are those first blushes of accomplishment—Hey, I could really do this!

Perhaps some day I’ll be able to find myself in the Zen Zone—where I am the Essence and it is me—at will. But for now, at least I know a few things to do and places to be where it is most likely to find me. And I know to open my heart and soul to it when it does.

My friends, I wish you such blessings.

Monday, October 3, 2016

HEAL! – How Dogs Cure Us

Nature is in every human animal’s DNA. It made us, sustains us and comprises us, body and soul.

No matter how much we may try to control or deny it, no matter how we presume to virtualize it, no matter how we smother it in busy-ness, we can’t escape it. Wherever we live, even if it’s a place where signs of life are few, our essential belonging to Nature is hard-wired into us. And at some level, whether we realize it or not, we all deeply long to embrace it—to bring it home.

This is why human beings have dogs. (Okay, I know dogs aren’t the only animals folks keep as pets, but what can I say? I’m a dog person.)

That reminds me of a joke: Know the difference between dogs and cats? Dog looks up at its person and thinks, My gosh, he pets me, feeds me, talks to me, gives me everything I could possibly need. He must be God.

Cat looks up at its person and thinks, Well let’s see, she pets me, feeds me, talks to me, gives me everything I could possibly need…I must be God.


PHOTO: Mario Sanchez via WikiMedia
From the ancient Egyptian grain trader relying on his cats—while also deifying them—to control vermin; to the medieval lord and his falcon, or the modern hunter or rancher trying to make sense of both loving animals and slaughtering them, our domes- tication of wild animals is as old as we are.

While most of these creatures, including dogs, were originally tamed to work for us, there are, as it turns out, other reasons we’re so fond of having pets; the blurring of the line between expediency and those other less practical benefits dates back at least 12,000 years.

Here are just a few of the reasons why we cynophiles want—and need—dogs in our lives:

Companionship – No matter how perfect we might feel our connection with another human being, personal relationships are hard. We try to be good mates, but we always end up hurting and disappointing each other. We see our own shortcomings reflected in them.
     But with a dog there is no guile, no misplaced expectation. They are what they are…and they love us for exactly who we are. In fact, we see in them many of the traits we wish we possessed.

    I sometimes wonder if dogs don’t feel sorry 
    for how we’ve forfeited our own child-puppy 

A Need to Nurture – Most humans, it seems, are so independent, so self-sufficient, that we won’t admit to wanting—much less needing—anyone to take care of us. But we all need to nurture.
     Sure, we do it instinctively with children and perhaps the aged, but what about after the nest is empty once again; what about for those who no longer have—or have never had—someone to take care of? Two words: bow and wow.


Entertainment – Dogs make us laugh…and cry…and sing and dance… We just love to watch them. We people are fascinating to watch too, but dogs are way more fun. It touches more than our funny bone; it touches a place that yearns to be that spontaneous, that genuine, that free.
     And I sometimes wonder if dogs don’t enjoy watching us too—maybe just to see our reaction to them…or perhaps feel sorry for how so many of us grown-ups have forfeited our own child-puppy spontaneity.

Exercise – You’ve heard dog owners say they’re not sure who’s taking whom for the walk, right? Well it’s true. We need dogs to get us off our big fat butts and thin little screens and out of the house.
     By the way, these folks we see now and then being hauled passively around on their bikes or skateboards by the slave labor of their poor crazed, panting pups…they just don’t get it.

     We have allowed our awareness to be steeped 
     out of us by a culture that can no longer dis- 
     tinguish reality from entertainment. Dogs, 
     thank God, can still tell the difference!

Role Modeling – We find much to admire in our dogs: their generous spirits and modest needs; their unbridled enthusiasm; their obvious empathy when we’re sad or hurting; their fierce loyalty; their ability to thoroughly inhabit the simplest moment.
     And then there’s the way they handle adversity. A dog doesn’t blame anyone if it gets sick or hurt, doesn’t feel sorry for itself when it loses an eye or a leg. Hell, most wouldn’t even blame their owner for abusing them. My wife and I call this “just doing,” and often notice how it educates our own dealings with life’s hard knocks.

PHOTO: John Hurd via WikiMedia Commons

Awareness – It seems more and more people are so captivated by their own mostly-inane thoughts—or, perhaps more aptly nowadays, their iPhones or iPads—that they don’t have a clue what’s really going on, often right in front of their noses…until their dogs show them.
     We humans have rather easily allowed our awareness, our attention spans, to be steeped out of us by a culture that can no longer distinguish reality from entertainment. Dogs, thank God, can still tell the difference! 

Social Lubrication – When it comes to ways of meeting and interacting with other human beings, we’ve all heard the tried-and-true tricks: sign up for a community ed. class; volunteer; hang out in the produce aisle at the supermarket and ask folks how to tell when a cantaloupe is ripe.
     But the best way, hands down, whether you’re a young single person prospecting for dates, a lonely elder or just someone who loves other people, is to walk down the street or through the park with a dog—puppies are most effective. The way I figure, anyone who doesn’t love stopping to pet your dog isn’t worth meeting anyway.


Centering – I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that dogs have a spiritual presence. Like sunshine on our skin or the smell of food, the presence of dogs causes things to happen in our bodies and minds. Something opens up; a hardness inside softens and melts. The toughest character—even, they say, a hardened criminal—turns into a cooing, caressing softie.

Have you ever seen the face of a hospitalized child or a dementia patient light up when that sweet chord of connection with a dog is struck? What is this chemistry, and why is it so powerful that I feel it change me even when I just look at a picture of a dog?

Healing – Pet dogs don’t just take us outdoors, don’t just show us how to be healthy and whole; they impart genuine healing energy to our bodies and spirits. Scientific studies have shown, for example, that petting a dog lowers people’s heart rates and blood pressures.
Therapy dogs provided through a number of treatment programs—for Alzheimers, autism, PTSD, hospice, and many others—are well recognized for providing obvious, measurable healing.

So how do dogs—yours, or perhaps those you only covet—make you feel? 
What do you most admire about them? How do they make your life better? How have they changed you?

We fellow, fawning cynophiles out here would love to hear from you!!