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My partner and I recently returned from a north woods vacation. I should know better, but I left home with very specific expectations – cool temperatures, a lot of hiking in old growth forests, plentiful wildlife, quaint little shops in friendly, small towns – my favorite almost-off-the-grid type of trip. We did find most of this – eventually, but the trip certainly was not what I planned or expected.

The trip north was relatively uneventful and I was excited when I saw a fisher (a large member of the weasel family) running across the highway as we neared our resort. I was certain this was a good omen for the trip. Twenty minutes through the National forest later and we pulled into our resort. As we drove in, a lovely sight greeted us, a cleared area that contained a very small resort on a quiet lake just as the sun was setting. We were surprised to find that our unit was an entire house facing the lake. We enjoyed the beautiful view as we unloaded the car and ate dinner.

As we settled in, the “not exactly what I expected” part began. I had been told there was wi-fi in our unit. It turns out that there was occasionally immensely slow wi-fi in our unit with the right computer when everything is working properly and nobody else is online. My partner then discovered there was no cell phone reception. Upon further inspection, we discovered that there were no phones in the unit and the only available phone was inside the main resort on the wall in a hallway. I decided that being a little further off the grid than anticipated might not be such a bad thing and let it go. I opened several of the windows and enjoyed a good night’s sleep in the cool forest air.

When I left home, I knew I was fighting some sort of virus. I woke that first morning feeling refreshed but not at my best. The plans for the day was to do some driving in the area, take in a free rock / blues concert in a local park, have dinner, and return via a scenic drive at sunset. It was a very warm day. As the temperatures rose, the virus progressed. By mid-afternoon, I was feeling nauseated and had a horrible headache. We were back at the resort before the concert ever started. We also saw no wildlife with the exception of a few songbirds and ravens. There went most of my expectations and it was only the first day of vacation.

The next day we headed into town for some Sudafed. Once my head cleared up, we enjoyed a five-mile hike in the National Forest. It was again hotter than anticipated and a storm blew up about half way through the hike. We could hear the distant thunder and talked about waiting it out in a ski shelter. We opted to continue and were grateful when the rain passed north of us. The trail was beautiful and wound around a lake, hills, ferns, and large trees. We were in the middle of a National forest and there was barely a songbird to be heard. The only wildlife found were insects, a few small birds, and a lone leopard frog that I almost stepped on. I did enjoy the hike, but the virus was taking its toll – I was exhausted. The medicine certainly helped with my sinus symptoms, but did little to help the rest of me. I napped the rest of the day, made dinner, and then went to bed. Day two widely missed the mark of my expectations.

Day three started with a dose of Sudafed, deep fog, and some hiking close to the resort. There was a beautiful 1.5 mile nature trail nearby that promised a stand of 400 year-old hemlocks. Skepticism turned to stunned awe when we reached the “Avenue of the Giants”. We live in the center of the Midwest where the old forests were logged and razed for farm fields over a century ago. We have new growth forests, but they feel so different. Standing in the presence of 400-year-old trees was amazing. There is a profound sense of peace and calm in an old growth forest that is very hard to describe. A comfortable coolness and sense of timelessness permeated the area.  The smells of ancient loam, pine, and hemlock were enthralling. A very deep part of me just wanted to sit down and breathe it all in, indefinitely. It was a very damp day and more awaited us on this short trail. One of our finds was this tree covered in dew coated spider webs glittering in the sun. The trail then led through new growth forest and a pretty bog. As we left the area, we came across some wild turkeys along the road – our first “real” wildlife. A great deal of this trip was to be back woods hiking and this short hike was almost too much. We headed into town, found a local coffee house, checked in with friends and family, and headed back. By the time we reached the resort, I was very disgruntled at being ill, angry about my lack of endurance, unhappy with the lack of wildlife encountered, and frustrated at still not meeting any of my self-imposed expectations.

Day four and on Sudafed yet again, the plan was to head out through a series of small towns for some shopping. We hoped to find some birthday / holiday gifts and chat with some friendly shopkeepers. I have to admit I found the entire trip utterly depressing. As we drove through the towns that once catered to tourists, we found only a very few utilitarian businesses. The places that had obviously been art galleries, antique stores, and other tourist shops were vacant and dark. A few of them had been turned into thrift stores for the locals. As we drove through town after town, my thoughts centered on what might have happened to the artists and storekeepers who made their living this way. I had some hope that the storefronts had been replaced by the internet, but I really felt that most had likely failed in the recession. I was not certain if it was the virus or something I ate, but now my belly hurt. I was again exhausted and my headache was back worse than ever. Honestly, I had difficulty not crying all the way back. And…nothing more than a few ravens and other small birds the entire trip. I really was just about ready to pack everything up and head home.

I woke feeling much better on day five. Yippee – no Sudafed. The temperature had dropped, too. I had now given up on most of my expectations and was determined to just accept and appreciate whatever I found. There were several waterfalls located about an hour north of the resort and I was determined to see them. The first stop was the ranger station to check on parking requirements and obtain maps. I was never so happy to have the foresight to pick up a detailed map of a national forest. This map was huge and even included the ATV trails. We headed off to see the first falls. It was pretty, but not spectacular. The roughly drawn overview map showed the road going straight up through the forest to the next falls. Nine miles down the quickly deteriorating gravel and sand road we stopped to review the big map. We had just passed the only crossroad for miles and there was no waterfall. It turns out that we were fairly far from the waterfall and that last turn had been the best option for us to get there. We turned around and headed down the not-better-than-the-last road that has now been dubbed “the infinite back road of no bears” by my partner. I might add that there were no eagles, fishers, wolves, buzzards, or anything other than a few insects and small birds. The second waterfall (pictured to the right) was beautiful and very much worth the trip. I even found a lovely little black frog that graciously stuck around for several close-up photographs. We had three more waterfalls on the agenda. The next waterfall was spectacular. Unfortunately, there was no sensible way to get to the base for pictures. The last two waterfalls were not noted as exceptional, but they were on a circular route back. The fourth waterfall was really no more than a tiny rapids, but the area was beautiful and the water crystal clear. We continued on and made the turn onto an “unnamed road” to the last waterfall. The road turned out to be no more than two grooves in deep grass down a steep hill into the forest. While I love my car, it was not designed for off-road driving. We then headed home down beautiful a National park forest road and I was able to take this photograph. If things had turned out as expected, I would never have been able to stand in the middle of the road to get this shot.

It was now the last full day of our vacation and I had completely come to terms with the idea that I would not be seeing any wildlife other than ravens, turkeys, frogs, small birds, and insects. I even took a picture of the caution sign in our unit stating “there are bears in these woods” as a joke. I was certain that this was the closest we were going to get to a wild bear. The forecast was for rain so we headed into town to access the internet and get a better sense of the weather. As we headed towards the main road, a large hawk flew just over the roof of the car. Having just finished a delicious cup of tea and checking the radar, I thought we could get in one more hike, but was not sure about which trail to take. As we were driving along and watching the clouds build, my partner said, “Stop the car”. I pulled over and asked what was wrong. He said to turn around and slowly drive up the shoulder on the other side of the road. In the ditch was a deer that had been hit by a car. Next to the deer stood an adult bald eagle. It was only 25 feet in front of us. At that moment it began to pour and the eagle flew up into the trees. We sat there in the rain in hopes that the eagle would return. The rain stopped and the eagle remained in the treetops. I decided to walk down the road to try and get a good picture. Just before I left the car, a doe came out of the woods and quickly bolted back into the forest. I was able to take a few long-distance photographs of the eagle. Here it was our last full day and we had just sat a few feet from one of the world’s most spectacular birds of prey.

We resumed our drive and stopped at the first set of hiking trails. We had trouble deciding whether or not to take an unfamiliar trail in questionable weather. I was reminded that that we were prepared with emergency gear, waterproof boots, and heavy ponchos. We opted to take the new trail. Most of the hike was an uneventful, pretty trek on an intermediate cross country skiing trail. About three-quarters of the way into our hike, I heard a loud rustle, saw movement, and looked up. I was just in time to see the hind end of a black bear as it shouldered its way through a young pine tree and raced into the woods. We kept hiking and startled some large ground birds. From the size of the disturbance and the calls, I have to assume either pheasant or wild turkeys. Then, while laughing about finally seeing a bear much closer than anticipated, we came up over a hill and rounded a corner. Standing in the middle of the trail was a second adult bear. I am certain it must have heard us as it was already turning away to run into the woods. I did not even have time to turn the camera on. After taking a picture the bear’s paw print, we finished our hike. The day’s encounters ended as another large hawk flew over the car as we returned to the resort.

There is a romantic part of me wants to say that the appearance of such spectacular wildlife magically occurred when my attitude changed; that the forest and its animals waited until I attained the right mind set to appear. I do not really think that is the case. However, I do believe that my altered outlook had everything to do with us being in the right place at the right time. We almost went home; we almost called off the hike; and we almost took a different, easier trail.

This was certainly not the vacation I expected, though it may have been the vacation I needed. I was able (or maybe forced) into getting some much-needed rest and have hopefully learned some important lessons. I need to be more accepting and less judgmental of my own frailties. I need to remember that I am not nor do I need to be in control. I need to return to my fundamental nature more often and truly experience nature in its glory, on its schedule.

I awoke to a brilliant orange sunrise the morning we were leaving. We also saw another bald eagle next to the road as we left the park. It was almost as if nature was saying, “Goodbye, but you are always welcome”. That only happens in fairy tales, right?

the circle of life endures for eternity
the only permanence tolerated, change

predator and prey reprise their endless dance
the demise of one bequeaths life to the other

dark, ancient giants offer shelter and peace
skeletal remnants prepare the earth for regrowth

golden birch leaves dance brilliantly in the sun
promises of a spring yet to come

It is so true that those who aggravate or disturb us often act as mirrors, reflecting our own undesirable behaviors and thoughts. As is taught in Tibetan Buddhism, I try to view these individuals as not so gentle teachers. I find that I learn important lessons when I analyze unsettling encounters and identify what I find troubling.

While revisiting an unsatisfactory online interaction, I found a painful insight. It started with an open message to several vegetarian friends. Here is an abbreviated version my note.

I do my best to be mindful of your wishes, choices, and sensitivities. I refrain from sharing pictures of the meat I eat, I make a special effort to consider your choices when dining with you, and I greatly respect and admire your passion for living your beliefs and ethics.

There are a host of problems related to industrial agribusiness of all types and I know that we agree on many fronts. Please note that the repeated exposure to grotesque images of large-scale meat production will not alter my food choices. I am delighted that you can thrive on a vegetarian diet. Some are not as fortunate. Please remember that some individuals are truly unable to live a healthy existence without meat products in their diet. You might find it of interest that even the Dali Lama eats meat once or twice a week due to medical need (documented in his own biography).

With that said, I would like to respectfully ask that you return my consideration and refrain from sharing grotesque images of animals treated in inhumane ways in an effort to “educate”. Not only is it documented in the psychological literature that such tactics are counter-productive, but it often feels like a personal attack.

Thank you for your consideration.

I received a large number of positive indicators from those on both sides of the issue and several friends stopped posting grotesque pictures. I only received two formal responses. Both were from a psychologist who frequently shares pictures of inhumane treatment of farm animals in an effort to convert others to vegetarianism. This individual wrote a small dissertation justifying their behavior. They even went so far to agree that using such images could be counter-productive, but that their specific selections were within acceptable limits. This individual went on to indicate they would not be offended should I disregard their future communications. This highly educated and normally people oriented person very clearly stated that their agenda outweighed any perceived disrespect or harm to others.

The purpose of my letter was to convey a message of acceptance and esteem while attempting to gently encourage others to limit harmful behavior. I did not expect all of my acquaintances to comply with my request. I fully recognize that each person has the right to their beliefs and can share them in any manner they choose. I ended the encounter by publicly acknowledging this person’s right to free speech. I immediately followed that acknowledgement by limiting my access to their communications.

Nobody “wins” in this type of interaction. The individual above lost the opportunity to further educate me. They also lost a great deal of the respect I had for them. In turn, my access to the sometimes beautiful and educational material that this individual also shares was limited.

Unfortunately, this type of behavior occurs in almost every area where contention is found – politics, religion, and responses to injustice quickly come to mind. While my request was kind and respectful this time, the interaction reminded me that I am often the one with the agenda and the one justifying my behavior. I become excited when the proverbial light bulb moments occur and I feel I have changed for the better. I very much want to share the benefits of concepts learned so that others can make their/my/our world a better place. I also abhor injustice and have a propensity to react without adequate consideration of how others may perceive my words. There too often comes a point where enthusiasm or outrage turns to proselytizing and people feel compelled to defend their personal beliefs. As discussion turns to argument, it is easy to take more severe measures in an effort to help others see the error of their ways. Once individuals feel forced to defend themselves, the ability to effect change has been lost, along with much regard.

The reminder of my own culpability is very difficult to accept and humbling. As I continue to make changes in my own life, I need to more cognizant of my tendency to impose my personal values and ethics on those around me. Intellectually, I know that it is enough to act as a living example of my values. In reality, I keep finding myself standing on that well-worn soap box and wondering how I managed to find my way up there yet again.

I have found that those who truly inspire me are engaged in service to others and promote their ideals with great respect and care.  Sharing positive experiences and being passionate about ideals is admirable and can serve to encourage and motivate others. Nothing truly worthwhile would be accomplished without passionate effort. However, to be long lasting, that effort must be tempered with kindness and genuine concern for the feelings of others.

I will continue to celebrate the changes I experience through this blog and elsewhere, but with the recognition that others will join me in that celebration as it is useful to them. This life is not about forcing others to change. It is about learning to accept and love others as they are.

The Nyung Nye retreat this last weekend was a truly amazing experience. There were only 14 of us, which made for a very comfortable and intimate retreat. Most of the weekend was exactly what I anticipated – good Dharma friends, effective and beneficial learning, the taking of vows, and the chanting of mantras intermixed with numerous prayers and prostrations. The weekend was truly a dedication to purification and accumulation of merit during this most auspicious time.

Something unexpected happened on Sunday. Six simple words have changed me. I would like to think our precious teacher looked me in the eyes as he said them. I will never know for certain as I do not speak Tibetan, the language in which he teaches. It could simply have been our interpreter’s translation. It does not matter. The phrase “like stars in the daylight time” was uttered and my world changed. This phrase continually echoed like a mantra in my head until I could write it down. Luckily, the main topic under discussion was review. I honestly recall nothing else from that session.

There are numerous stories throughout Buddhism illustrating the miraculous insights that can occur with the convergence of the right teacher, the right circumstances, and the right student. I swear that this was one of those moments. I am by no means claiming to have found enlightenment. It was more as if a thin veil was lifted and I am now able to see a bit more clearly.

“Like stars in the daylight time” was used as a metaphor to illustrate how most people view the world and how we perceive so little of what actually exists. Our teacher was explaining that if we could access our inner Buddha nature, we could see the best qualities of all beings. He wanted us to understand that we have the ability to change our perceptions; that if we can find our own path, our daily world has the potential to become as rich as viewing the cosmos through the Hubble telescope.

I also found another, more subtle analogy in these words. We do not need to ascribe motivation or stories to events, things, or people. The stars exist in their own time and place. They do not cease to exist when we fail to acknowledge their presence or when our myths about them dissolve. If we can eliminate our made up stories and justifications while accepting things just as they are, we can escape our need for duality and better grasp the Buddhist concept of emptiness.

The personal changes I experienced as a result of the retreat are hard for me to describe, but I will try to do so here.

ImageI feel that I am noticing smaller details, such as this tiny mantis; something so small my camera had difficulty focusing on it. This creature could easily stand on a U.S. dime with room to spare; yet I found it and another with ease as they hunted in my garden asters.

I find myself feeling more positive about my interactions with others. I have been making a concerted effort to smile at and make connections with people for months. I do feel that I have had a positive impact, but the exchanges often felt hollow in spite of my intentions. It may only be that my perception has changed, but I now feel  I am more frequently able to make genuine interpersonal contact through a shared smile or simple wave.

One of the more profound changes may be that I am beginning to see beauty where I once saw misfortune. I happened upon a mother and her three girls while walking at lunch the other day. The children were dressed similarly and two of the girls closely resembled their mother with stunning facial features and an easy athleticism. The third girl appeared to be physically weaker, walked behind the others, wore thick glasses, and, while cute, was not as physically attractive as the others. The old me would have shaken my head and felt sorry for the third child. This time was different. Instead of passing them, I slowed my walk and simply observed them. Suddenly, that third young lady noticed the middle-aged woman walking quietly behind, turned, gave a shy wave, and shared an exquisite smile. I felt an instant connection and had no choice but to smile in return. There is no doubt which child was the most beautiful to me at that moment.

The purpose of this blog is to share my journey and I feel I have taken an enormous step on my chosen path. These subtle changes are difficult for me to put into words, but it is my sincere hope that others might find this post helpful.

I have come to the conclusion that our pets can teach us much if we would only pay attention. I know I have been learning a lot from my senior dog lately.

I am truly grateful for every day I have with my girl, as I know she will not be with me much longer. I had a scare several years ago and thought I was going to have to let her go due to pain related aggression. I was allowed a reprieve with the help of a holistic veterinarian and acupuncture. Then, a few years ago, she developed a serious and untreatable heart murmur. In addition, cataracts have taken much of her eyesight and she has been slowly losing her hearing. As her body slowly fails, I keep expecting her behavior to once again deteriorate. She has definitely changed, but she has become surprisingly sweeter and more tolerant. Even her veterinarian is happily perplexed.

Watching my girl progress through the aging process has been eye opening and the instruction she provides often comes with tears and/or laughter. I am certain I still have much to learn from her, but want to share a bit of her wisdom.

My Teacher

Humans talk too much. Dogs and other animals communicate a wealth of information without words while humans seem utterly dependent on them. As my dog’s sensory world shrinks, I have found other ways to communicate with her – a light touch on her shoulder to get her attention, a slight pat on the rump to ask her to move, a treat in front of her nose to have her follow me, etc. As she becomes more reliant on touch and smell, I find that our bond deepens. My continual use of words was an impediment to our relationship. Scent and touch can mean so much more than words to humans, as well. I need to remember that there is great comfort to be found in a favorite smell or a hand gently resting on a shoulder. Words come so easy and often sound hollow, but just being present can have a profound impact and often says more than any words could ever communicate.

Impermanence is the only constant. Unless one keeps parrots or tortoises, one of the hardest parts of having a pet is their limited life span. They give so much during the short time they are with us. While it is hard to let them go, each pet’s death is a lesson in impermanence and a reminder that death is a continuation of life. Each loss serves to remind me that I should strive to make every interaction with living beings a positive one. Many interactions last only seconds; however, I know I leave a part of me with each individual I encounter. I need to be mindfully aware of this and endeavor to make each person feel cared for and loved, even if only for a moment.

Growing old gracefully and with acceptance is beautiful. My girl has aged so magnificently. With huge outlined eyes, a soft red and blond coat, long legs, deep chest, and tiny waist, she has always been my “Barbie doll” dog. Her muzzle and face are growing grey, but the glow of her colorful coat remains. Even as they grow cloudy, her large brown eyes still sparkle. Though her body slows, her lovely doggie grin retains its joy of life. It may sound odd, but my dog reminds me of a neighbor’s grandmother. My memories of this woman include long silver-grey hair falling down her back like a waterfall, her generosity as she shared her time and knowledge with three young girls, and how easily she laughed. I always found her extraordinarily beautiful and I very much wanted to be like her when I grew up. I think I still have a lot of growing to do. There is a lot of beauty that comes to light only with age. I hope that our culture can regain a respect for the aging process and remember how truly lovely growing older can be.

Though at odds with the first lesson mentioned above, I think I will close with this little poem that woke me at 2:00 am trying to be heard.

Talking to Old Deaf Dogs

I still talk to my old deaf dog
Once in a while my voice gets through
And she runs to me like the wind
(Or, as fast as her thin, frail body allows)

I still sing to my old deaf dog
Maybe it’s my body language
Can she feel vibrations in the air?
No matter, she follows me as if she hears

I still whisper to my old deaf dog
Ears perk and eyes light up
As delicate hair moves with my breath
And…I swear…she laughs.

I am very much looking forward to an upcoming retreat offered through our Buddhist center. I fully intend to write about my experience, but wanted to share some of my research into the basics of the retreat.

Our precious teacher has generously agreed to offer a Nyung Nye retreat in the traditional Tibetan with English translations provided by our skilled translator. This retreat is not often available to those in the west and I am immensely grateful to be able to participate and take these vows from such a gifted and revered Geshe.

One of the holiest times for Buddhists is Saga Dawa (also called Vesak in some Buddhist lineages). It consists of the entire the fourth month of the Tibetan calendar. The full moon of this month celebrates the birth, death, and enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha). It is believed that the merit of virtuous acts multiplies 1000 fold during this sacred time. Tibetans traditionally abstain from meat, give alms to the poor, and make offerings to religious teachers and institutions. It is also common to engage in a Nyung Nye retreat, a meritorious and intense purification practice.

Magnolia Blossom

The Nyung Nye retreat consists of taking vows to protect the Eight Mahayana Precepts for a 24-hour period. The vows can be taken for a longer or shorter period, but 24 hours is considered practical for most lay people. This is a serious commitment and one that should not be undertaken lightly. In addition, these vows should only be taken under the tutelage of an ordained teacher or guru when taken for the first time.

The vows taken are very much in keeping with the basic Pratimoksha vows, which I have already taken and follow as best I can. However, the intent and purpose behind the vows take on new meaning within the context of the retreat. The eight basic precepts contained in the vows are generally outlined in The Commitment Prayer to Keep the Precepts.

From now on I shall not kill, steal others’ possessions,
Engage in sexual activity, or speak false words.
I shall avoid intoxicants, from which many mistakes arise.
I shall not sit on large, high or expensive beds.
I shall not eat food at the wrong times.
I shall avoid singing, dancing and playing music,
And I shall not wear perfumes, garlands or ornaments.
Just as the arhats have avoided wrong actions, such as taking the lives of others,
So shall I avoid wrong actions such as taking the lives of others.
May I quickly attain enlightenment,
And may the living beings who are experiencing the various sufferings
Be released from the ocean of cyclic existence.

There is much subtlety contained within these vows. Social context and personal intention play a significant role in understanding their full meaning. For instance, it is permissible to sing while at this retreat as long as it is in the context of paying homage to or taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, or Sangha (such as when chanting mantras). The contextual interpretations are why it is so important to have an ordained teacher bestow these vows for the first time.

The retreat is to be silent with no speaking outside of prayers, mantra recitation, and instruction. Those participating in the full retreat will be following a strict liquid diet for a large portion of the retreat. To read more on Nyung Nye, please visit the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive at http://www.lamayeshe.com.

As the purpose of this retreat is to ultimately seek the cessation of samsara for all sentient beings, it seems only fitting to end this post with a translation of the bodhisattva Shantidiva’s dedication.

May all beings everywhere
Plagued by sufferings of body and mind
Obtain an ocean of happiness and joy
By virtue of my merits.

May no living creature suffer,
Commit evil or ever fall ill.
May no one be afraid or belittled,
With a mind weighted down by depression.

May the blind see forms,
And the deaf hear sounds.
May those whose bodies are worn with toil
Be restored on finding repose.

May the naked find clothing,
The hungry find food;
May the thirsty find water
And delicious drinks.

May the poor find wealth,
Those weak with sorrow find joy;
May the forlorn find hope,
Constant happiness and prosperity.

May there be timely rains
And bountiful harvests;
May all medicine be effective
And wholesome prayers bear fruit.

May all who are sick and ill
Quickly be freed from their ailments.
Whatever diseases there are in the world,
May they never occur again.

May the frightened cease to be afraid
And those bound be freed;
May the powerless find power
And may people think of benefiting each other.

My favorite places in the world are forests. It really doesn’t matter what type of forest or where it is located, but I always seem to be most at peace with the world and myself when surrounded by trees. That being said, my second favorite place on this planet has to be Disney World. Yes, Disney World, a place that epitomizes crowds, fantasy, consumerism, and extreme commercialism.

By no means is Disney World a perfect place. I would love to see Disney invest in more people-friendly manufacturing, move their factories out of China, and seriously limit their marketing efforts towards children. I recognize that a place like Disney World is not inexpensive to run and they do need to pay the bills. However, with so much corporate greed in the boardroom, there is a tendency to move away from encouraging dreams and focus only on revenues.

There is also a tendency for visitors to get caught up in all of the merchandising and clinging to material things. The individuals sitting in that boardroom count on this. You can watch children and adults alike get excited about having the newest toy only to become unhappy when it breaks or when they find something better they are unable to afford. The encouragement of this type of clinging is a major shortcoming and at the heart of suffering in Buddhist teachings.

While there are many things about Disney that are counter to Buddhism, there is a lot that supports Buddhist concepts.

Disney’s involvement in earth-friendly initiatives is impressive. They reclaim waste water and reuse it throughout the park systems; they maintain several wildlife refuges; they fund many international wildlife projects through the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund; and they are involved with international food research focused on sustainability. Here is a link if you would like to see a more on Disney’s commitment to ecology and environmentalism. http://thewaltdisneycompany.com/citizenship/environment-conservation

The main reason I love Disney is the Magic. Not the glitz and fakery or the genie and the lamp type of magic, but the real magic you see when eyes light up with wonder, inspiration, and hope.

I also appreciate the inclusiveness found here. I see little to no ethic, religious, or other prejudice when in the park, even from guests. It is difficult to be hateful towards others when immersed in a bias-blind world – even when that world is a constructed artifice. There is no room for discrimination in the world Walt Disney envisioned. The character actors hug or shake the hand of every single person who wants to see them. Yes, it is his or her job to appear to like everyone. I know that. I also know several people who have worked as Disney performers. I know that people with serious biases fail here and those who truly love people and diversity thrive. For many cast members, the pay is minimal and often barely enough to live on. The cast members who enjoy their jobs obviously find an intrinsic reward through their interpersonal interactions.

As repeatedly stated by the Dali Lama, we live in a degenerate age. Our societal and inner worlds are full of busyness, fear, and uncertainty. Disney goes out of its way to make people feel safe and cared for. Even if it is only for a short time, it seems easier to let go of our fears and worries while visiting the parks. I find it mesmerizing to watch obviously stressed people as they begin to relax, play, and laugh with each other.

Mickey kissing our guest’s hand at dinner

On a more personal note, we had the opportunity to bring with us an older lady who had never taken much in the way of a vacation and never visited any of the Disney parks. She had watched The Wonderful World of Disney and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color on television and had always wanted to visit. For various reasons, she never made the trip until we offered to take her with us. Watching her experience the things she saw on the television through the years was amazing. The sparkle in her eye when Mickey Mouse bowed and kissed her hand, the excitement on her face as she rode the tea cups and carrousel, the look of elation as she exited the Mars Rover… There are just so few words to describe how it feels to have been able to facilitate this trip for her. The next time you have the opportunity, mindfully watch an older person’s face as they ride a carousel or Ferris wheel. It is an incredible experience.

Many may say that Disney World is a horrible place for those seeking spirituality. I would argue otherwise. For those with the right mindset, Disney encourages young and old to view the world with fresh eyes and a sense of innocence and wonder. It encourages sharing, compassion, and loving kindness to all who enter our lives as a living example of how our world could be. It can also encourage us to take a look inside, dig out those old dreams stashed away in the basement, dust them off, and give light to them again. This is not always a painless process and can involve regrets and tears. It is also a place where Buddhism and Disney meld nicely. By dusting off those old dreams, taking an honest look at where and who we are, and recognizing the truths of our lives, we can then be inspired to make positive changes as we look to the future. In a world so full of conflict, selfishness, and divisiveness, I find myself inspired by this place time and again.

It has been a long time since I have been physically active due to asthma and progressive knee pain caused by an old injury. As the knee deterioration progressed, I became more and more cautious and gave up one dearly loved activity after another. This process occurred over ten years and my mental and physical world became smaller and smaller. I had become afraid of hurting my knee, afraid of triggering an asthma attack, and, if I am to be honest, just plain afraid. Because of the slow changes, I also did not realize how isolated I had become. I now have the asthma mostly under control and have had surgery to repair the knee. Attending Buddhist teachings helped address some of the mental and social aspects, but there was still something missing.

I was prompted to restart my yoga practice when a sangha member taught a yoga workshop. This workshop focused on the history of yoga and the parallels to Buddhism. The instructor ended the workshop with some asanas and integrative energy work. I left the session literally tingling and seriously craving yoga again. I rediscovered a sheer joy in extended movement I had completely forgotten.

I now had the desire to participate in yoga, but where to begin? The wonderful lady who taught our workshop does not teach at a place or time when I can attend. When I participated in yoga prior to my injury, I practiced at home with VCR tapes by Lilias Folan who taught basic Hatha yoga in a calm, loving manner. These tapes were balanced, one-hour sessions that combined breathing, strength, relaxation, focus, and flexibility. I knew that this was exactly what I needed again, but I really wanted to join a class, as the group dynamic had been a fundamental element of my workshop enjoyment.

In looking for an appropriate class, I was overwhelmed with the types of yoga available today. Other than knowing I did not want to attend hot or power yoga, the choices seemed a bit overwhelming. It appeared no one was teaching basic Hatha yoga anymore. While researching styles of yoga and local studios, I found a studio offering several different types of yoga in a package that would let me “bounce around” to try different classes at a reasonable price. In addition, this studio has a focus on accommodating students at all levels and those with special needs. Their teaching philosophy and proximity to my home would allow me to try various types of yoga and meet individual instructors so that I could determine the best fit.

The first class I tried was Kundalini. The timing of the class was good for me and it was a community class, available to all levels. I loved the instructor and enjoyed the class. However, it was too much too soon. I was very sore for several days after the class. It is just more than I can handle right now. I intend to participate in this class again when I am physically ready.

The next class I tried was Slow Flow (Vinyasa), but we will save that for the end.

In searching for alternate options, I also tried a class centered on yoga for stress relief. The instructor is known as one of the best in the community and regularly teaches advanced classes. Her dynamic personality may not have been the best fit for me – at least in this particular class. She seems to be a genuinely caring and knowledgeable person and I hope to study with her on a more advanced level in the future.

Now, back to the Slow Flow (Vinyasa) class. The day and time of this class are not ideal, but I decided I could get up and moving early on a Saturday morning to try it out – once. Once was all it took. The instructor and style of yoga are exactly what I need right now. The class is challenging and the instructor provides individualized adaptations as necessary. The class is also balanced and includes controlled breathing, strength training, flexibility, and focused relaxation.

I believe one of the most important benefits of the slow flow class is setting a personal intention for each session. I have found that the intention I set on Saturday stays with me for an extended period and bleeds over into my daily life. I was determined to add flexibility and strength during my first few classes. Throughout the subsequent weeks, I found myself more able to deal with challenges in my workplace both mentally and physically. I also found it easier to be more accepting of others and better able to embrace their differences (something I have struggled with). Two weeks ago I decided I should be more courageous. The next day I felt able to attempt two hiking trails I had avoided for years because of the knee. Not only did I succeed in completing the hike, I left the park entirely pain and limp free with renewed confidence!

Another significant benefit relates to my mental outlook. I had come to view Saturday mornings as just another day with little significance. I rarely slept in and almost never accomplished anything useful until late morning. I would eventually get around to the chore of grocery shopping and then rush off to Buddhist teachings. I find that my Saturday morning mindset has changed completely.

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I now begin each Saturday with joy and anticipation. Here is what a typical Saturday has become.

7:00 am     Take the dogs out for necessities and play while trying to keep them quiet

7:30 am     Make a homemade breakfast for my partner while I try to let him sleep in (Unfortunately, the dogs are not always helpful when it comes to the “letting him sleep in” part)

8:45 am     Travel to and attend yoga class

10:30 am   Shop for groceries with focus and intention

12:30 pm   Drop off groceries, let the dogs out, and eat a light lunch

1:30 pm     Attend Buddhist teachings fully prepared to thoughtfully integrate the concepts presented

Evening     Prepare a very nice homemade dinner for two

I want to be certain to give credit where credit is due. I could not participate in any of these activities without the support and encouragement of my partner. He is not a Buddhist and has no interest in yoga. Even though he does not wish to participate in these activities, he has been exceptionally supportive as I travel this path of growth and development. I want to be certain to publicly express my heartfelt gratitude to him.

It is now seven weeks since that yoga workshop and I have attended six classes. I am so enamored with the benefits of adding yoga to my life that I can scarcely imagine beginning a Saturday morning without it. I am now finding renewed flexibility, strength, focus, and courage slowly trickling into my daily life. Yoga has become a treasured jewel in my life once again. As with all things truly precious, it should be nurtured and shared. I sincerely hope that this continued journey will help me benefit all who choose to grace me with their presence.

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