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So my January staycation to date: so far, it’s felt like a month of Saturdays. Not Saturday in the sense of Wheee! A day off to relax and have fun! — I’ve actually been quite busy doing stuff for the business and around the house. I’m talking about the way Saturdays feel different from Sundays. On Saturdays, with the buffer of Sunday ahead, I usually enjoy a relaxed sense of time. On Sundays, there’s a subtle tension – a fear of running out of time to do all the things I want to do before the work week begins again.

More than anything, my January staycation has been a vacation from that time stress. I know that after this day there will be another day off, and then another one, and another.

Recently, I was looking over some of my past blog posts, and was appalled to see how much I write about Too Much To Do And Not Enough Time. OMG! I thought.  I sound like such a whiner! I must vow to never write about that topic again!

But after some reflection, I changed my mind. First, because I want to talk authentically from my life, and time-stress is a big part of my day-to-day experience. (I actually prefer the term time-hunger, which is kind of like air-hunger, the panicky feeling that arises when we can’t get enough air. I like it because it shifts attention to the bodily response I have when I think, not enough time.)

Plus, this stress is experienced by many if not most people in our modern world – you could call it a societal disease. As such, it’s worth investigating more deeply.

As my month off winds down, I’m sure I’ll be feeling more of that anxious Sunday feeling. So forgive me if I continue to go on about this topic. I don’t want to just complain, but to understand.

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In a parallel universe, I’ve just arrived in Delhi, and am spending the night at an airport hotel before flying to Rishikesh for a week in an ashram on the Ganges. My India trip was cancelled a few weeks ago, but the calendar on my phone hasn’t gotten the memo, and is continually updating me about what’s happening and where I’m heading next (Jaipur, Pushkar, Bundi). I could probably find a way to disable these messages, but I like knowing what alt-me is doing. I hope she’s having a good time, or at least isn’t scared.

It would also be good if alt-me were feeling well rested and ready for the intensity of India. But how could she be, having experienced the same grueling October/November/December as I have? The anxiety and woe of the election, the unexpected deaths and illnesses of friends, the fatigue and moderate insomnia? Also, the crazy busyness at work…we both would have worked non-stop right through Christmas Eve, closing the shop just in time to dash to the mall for a last-minute Christmas gift, and then home roast a tenderloin and take it to a party. Flying out four days later would have been nuts.

So most of the time I feel that the cancellation of the trip has been a blessing, because India requires a level of stamina that I’m not feeling at the moment. For Plan B, I’ve booked a tiny cottage in Provincetown for three nights, where I plan to nap, write, read, meditate, and reflect on life. And then I plan to take a substantial amount of time off in January – a staycation to sort things out that need sorting. I will do my best to appreciate each moment of ordinary life, and not go chasing after bright shiny objects.

But India still twinkles at me. Maybe next year??

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I’ve been coughing violently for almost two weeks. This has meant cancelling a slew of engagements, some of which were fairly important.

I’ve only recently come to recognized how much people appreciate my not bringing my germs into their airspace. They see it as considerate when I bow out of their dinner party, cancel the meeting, and skip yoga class.

Call me dense, but this comes as a surprise. I guess I thought I was being heroic when I popped some OTC drugs and soldiered on in spite of a minor bug. I was being a trooper, keeping the wheels of commerce turning! Heaven knows, I didn’t want to disappoint people, miss out on anything, or upend plans that had taken a lot of work to arrange.

These are not just my values, they are cultural values. The worker who stays home because of a minor illness is often viewed as a malingerer. A day or two for a cold – maybe! Any longer than that, and you’d better be in the hospital. “Don’t worry,” my boss used to croak when she returned to work wheezing and coughing, “I’m not contagious!”

It’s an example of our tendency to override the body in the interest of getting things done.

A line from the latest newsletter from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship: In a busy capitalist world, sometimes rebellion looks like rest.  Or to adapt it to my circumstances, Sometimes rebellion looks like staying home when you’re sick.

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For several years, I’ve been selecting a Word of the Year – a word chosen to serve as a touchstone, a reminder of my aspirations. In 2015, my word was embodied.

This year, it’s listen.

Sounds are one of the primary ways we receive the world. When there’s movement in our surroundings, waves are generated that touch us intimately, setting up vibrations in tiny, delicate structures that are passed to the brain and unfurl into vivid, colored stories about what’s out there and what we need to do about it. It’s pretty amazing.

Of course, hearing is not the same as listening, which implies a degree of intention and attention. To listen well requires a quieting of the mind, a stilling of the mental chatter that distracts us from the messages the world is sending. For this reason, sounds are often used as an anchor, a  focusing point in meditation.

This deep listening isn’t limited only to sounds. We can direct the intention and attention of listening to subtle communications from our bodies and our hearts. We can listen when a friend speaks, and receive the tightness, the sadness, the joy that underlies their words.

At the retreat in Burma this January, a group of pink-robed Burmese nuns came every evening to offer metta (lovingkindness) chanting. As the days passed, I learned how to make tiny adjustments in the heart that allowed me to receive this offering (I called it tuning into Radio Metta). I discovered how, with practice and remembering, that delicate tuning and receiving was possible at any time.

So listen! The spring peepers are peeping. Can your heart hear what they’re saying?

One reason I like to write is that my mind is a busy little metaphor machine. Comparisons come bubbling up all the time, and a really apt one tickles me and I want to share it – especially when it comes to Buddhist topics that can only be approached through metaphor.

Hence, The self is like the Red Sox, and I am a self-driving car. (More about these some other time.)

Here’s one that’s been lurking at the edge of my mind lately, begging to be put it into words: The Internet is a metaphor for annata (the non-self nature of existence).

The thought arose recently when I was working with our young website designers on Summer House Soap’s new site.

I studied graphic design way back in…well, never mind when it was, but let me tell you that when we wanted to position an image or some type on a layout, we had to glue it in place with rubber cement.

Even after I migrated to digital graphic design, (I was mostly designing for print) I could position things where I wanted them and they would stay there. Fonts, line spacing, etc. were under my control. And when everything was to my liking, I’d convert the file to a PDF, essentially creating a fixed solid object.

Not so with designing for the internet! It’s frustrating to see how different a design can look on different devices, depending on what browser is used, whether it’s mobile or laptop, and so on. What I had to get used to is how the design gets assembled anew in each setting. It’s a living aggregate of pieces, coming together in the moment according to conditions.

Isn’t that a nifty metaphor for the non-self (non-solid) nature of existence?

The young seem to take this fluidity in stride because they grew up in a digital world. I wonder if that makes them more able to intuit the dharma.

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I’m spending a week barefoot in a sand dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore. I’m here alone in my little shack, though there’s another inhabited shack nearby. It’s been several days since I’ve talked to anyone except a couple of short conversations with John on my cellphone. The quiet and space are a balm to my psyche, which has worn thin from too much of everything this summer.

The dunes of the outer Cape are an amazing landscape. They have a grandeur and yet such a feeling of  intimacy. I feel like I’ve found my “happy place.” During the daytime I take long walks on the beach. In the evening, I climb to the top of a nearby dune for a 360 degree view the sun setting to the west, the sea to the north, the moon rising in the east, and the endless undulation of the dunes in every direction.

The week is shaping up to be sort of a retreat/vacation hybrid.  I’ve been practicing in the morning and evening (bowing, chanting, sitting, walking) but giving the afternoon over to reading, napping, trying to write, and exploring my new camera.

Every night I listen to a dharma talk. Last night it was Pascal Auclair. A word I liked was specificity. This breeze, this wave, this bow, with its cracking of cartilage, pinpoints of sand underfoot, and flavor of surf sound and smell.  Specificity…a useful little talisman to carry through the day.

(One thought worth recording: God is in the details. Details like sweeping sand off the floor, feeling the breeze, hearing crickets, watching sandpipers skittering along the waterline. All very specific.)

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The past couple of weeks, I’ve felt like a giant to-do list walking around on two legs, full of jazzy anxiety and tension. Each day is a battle to slay as many items on the list as I can in the time available.

Nights are worse, because there are no distractions. No matter how tired I am, I am capable of lying in bed for hours, my mind cycling through undone tasks. That paperwork I should have filed! That order that’s scribbled on a napkin…where did I put it? I seem to be always on the edge of losing complete control of my life– and the to-do list is the only thing that stands between me and catastrophe.

But of course that’s not true. And in a couple of days, I’m daringly thumbing my nose at the to-do list. I’m going to a meditation retreat where I will immerse myself in non-doing, instead of doing. And hopefully reconnect with a sense of myself as a limited human being who is only capable of so much.

Sounds good!

(Of course, much of the reason I’ve had so much to do is because I’m trying to get away. There’s definitely some irony there.)

picture by Jill Ross, JustJillToday.com

Last year, I went directly from a meditation retreat in Burma to selling at the New York Gift Show, jet lag, bronchitis and all. Talk about a rough re-entry!

This month history repeated itself, though not so intensely. I returned from a week at the Providence Zen Center and immediately had to set up for the Boston Gift Show. It’s hard to go from sitting in silence to high-energy selling, but in many ways a Zen retreat is great preparation for any demanding life situation.

Just do it!  A lot of Zen practice is about showing up, paying attention, meeting the unexpected, and doing what needs to be done. Lots of opportunity to do that at a show!

Don’t know mind. I packed for the show with no idea of how our booth was going to come together. The organizers had just informed us that the booth drapes were going to be black instead of white, and I feared it would be weird and Goth and definitely un-Summer-House-y. There was no time to arrange alternate drapes…what to do? No choice but to figure it out once I got there.

Don’t make good and bad. As it turned out, our colors just popped on the black background – especially the turquoise banners — and the yellow daffodils and summery linens looked elegant. I was quite surprised.

Follow your situation. I was also surprised to find myself with a 10 x 35 ft. space to fill instead of our usual 10 x 10 booth. (There were a number of no-shows among the vendors.) I wrangled some piping for extra lights and spread our stuff out  and it turned out great.

Everything is no problem! All in all, I appreciated my new-found ability to chill when tensions were high and curve balls were flying. And during the long stretches where nothing much was happening? No problem when you’ve just spent a week sitting and staring at the floor for eight hours a day!

Don’t get me wrong…I don’t recommend this schedule if you have an alternative. But if you don’t? Just do it!

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The other day, I gave a talk at the Barnstable Senior Center about my meditation retreat in Burma. I showed slides of children in Mandalay and the ornate roofs of Kyaswa Monastery. I talked about our 3:30 a.m. wakeup bell, the pinked-robed nuns who chanted for us each evening, and the sunrise and moonrise over the Irawaddy River as seen from the porch of my kuti (hut).

But I know from talking about this retreat with friends that what people really wanted to know was, “Was it life-changing?”

Fair question! But a hard one to answer.

When one of the attendees asked if the trip changed me, I said it had, though I declined to say how. (I don’t even know if it’s true, except in the way we all change constantly in reaction to conditions.)

But if he had asked me what I learned…Well, THEN I could have bent his ear for hours!

I might have talked about how frequently I saw my thoughts being tainted with the  feeling, “I should be different.”

And about how the words, “Of course!” had the power to cut through a lot of this self-judgment.  Feeling restless, sleepy, inadequate? Oh sweetie…of course!  Of course you feel that way!

I’d talk about how things I expected to be difficult turned out to be easy, and how things I expected to be easy were difficult.

But, as is the nature of all retreats, many of the things I learned were quite small and mundane. Because once our mind starts to quiet down, the small things start to shine.

I learned about the pleasure of sleeping under a mosquito net bathed in moonlight. I learned about the natural social behavior of dogs from watching the pack that lived on the monastery grounds. (Turns out dogs don’t actually do it doggie style once they get hooked up.)  I learned about the taste and scent of clementines.

Last year, at the end of a retreat at the Providence Zen Center there was a sharing circle. One young guy who had been on retreat for three straight months  shared what he had learned: that oatmeal is really awesome with peanut butter mixed in.

Did the teacher think he was being  a smart ass? I don’t think so. He told the kid to try oatmeal with peanut butter and kimchee.  He said it was life-changing.

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10,000 mind-moments:
sleepiness
trying too hard
worrying
comparing
breath-holding
fussing
planning

10,000 mind-moments:
cool breeze, warm sun
roosters crowing
the smell of wood smoke
slow boats on the river
my feet touching cool brick
monastery bells tolling
deep contentment
relief

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