Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Practising the Art of Letting Go of the Ego

"Letting go of the ego." That's one of the main developmental tasks of aging defined by Carl Jung, who called the later years the afternoon of life, quite a pleasant image, calling up the pleasure of walking along a beautiful path. Which we are.

I have been working on letting go of the ego since I became a Buddhist in my mid-30s. After 40 years I wish I could brag about my progress. But if I were bragging about how egoless I have managed to become.... well let's face it, that would be a tad egotistical.

It is a work in process. I still have not succeeded in transforming all that lead into gold. Understated, but true. I will spare you the gory details. I'm sure you have your own to contend with.

"Altruism is innate, but it's not instinctual. Everybody's wired for it, but a switch has to be flipped," says author David Rakoff.
Getting older does help with flipping that switch. One is aware that these are the final years of life. That recognition hopefully puts some wind in the sails.

The inner work that is a natural part aging sails us into waters that we could never have navigated earlier in life. We just were not experienced enough. Even in later life navigating these waters is challenging. Facing death, life review, healing old wounds, letting go of the ego--these are profound areas of maturation and self-understanding.

That's why later life is a real treasure chest for the alchemist who is willing to spend time in the laboratory refining lead into gold. It's natural to be in that laboratory as we age. Much more natural than the hyper-active busyness that some older adults ascribe to as a way of filling every inch of space possible while avoiding the inner life.

I love this quote from the famous author and spiritual leader Ram Dass who tells us, "I didn't have to be somebody..."And that from a person who has been a highly visible public figure for many years. How he came to not having to be somebody is his unique journey, one interesting to read about. It's the same for each of us. We all have our own path.

I notice that there is a great deal of freedom in not having to be somebody. Loosening up the bonds of attachment to identity, performance orientation, station in life. It's one positive aspect of being less visible, stepping back out of the action a bit, spending more time with the inner life.

I am weary of heroism. I am tired of doing. I am tired of great projects and frenzied efforts.  I have left the busy land of the middle-aged for a realm of deep inner stillness, quiet and sacred being." --John Robinson

Left to right Jeannie, Laurie and me at Tashi Choling
This quote resonates, because after decades of mighty Type A and semi-reformed Type A ambitions, I have been surprised at what it feels like to drop that kind of focus and perspective. It is different. I am another person really. Not having to be somebody, not having to accomplish something big to save the world, or some part of it. A different vantage point, something more panoramic.

Being more self-aware and quiet--letting go of heroic attitudes and ambitious great projects-- doesn't automatically mean disengaging from positive activity and engagement.

The process of letting go of the ego naturally propels older adults into more altruistic ways of thinking and being. We find ourselves asking ourselves, What is the most meaningful way for me to contribute now?  With a less constricted sense of self, freed up from the confines of having to be somebody, and knowing time is short, some older people can be great activists, philosophers and mentors.

I'm not saying it's easy, this business of self-transformation, letting go, and opening up in ways never dreamed of before. Letting go of the ego. I am grateful that I have a good strong ego to wrassle with. Seriously. But being ruled by the ego is too limited and limiting. Such self-fixation is a constricted version of who I really am, or could be as I go deeper.

So here I am, at the tail end of summer, navigating my boat in these beautiful waters. Hope this finds you well and happy.

P.S. Quotes from Ram Dass and John Robinson are from the Fierce with Age Digest, which you can subscribe to by clicking the link above. I look forward to receiving it, because it contains such thoughtful content about aging. You may enjoy it too.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Joy of Receiving Letters

Rogue Valley Road, photo by Larry Turner

What a wonderful surprise it was to receive so many letters via email in response to my last post from the summer solstice, in which I wondered who was reading my blog, and what readers were engaged in as they aged. 

Some folks wrote short messages, but a handful sent longer, thoughtful and descriptive communications that one could rightfully think of as bona fide letters. Now letters in this day and age are all too scarce, and I was touched and delighted to be gifted with a whole bouquet of them via email. I found it very meaningful to learn more about what others are doing, too. I want to share excerpts from some of the letters here, because I imagine you will also find them rather fascinating. 

Oh, but before starting that, I want to acknowledge these beautiful photos from a local photographer named Larry Turner. I love his work.  

Waldport, Oregon, photo by Larry Turner
I had had some contact with several of the folks that wrote. I met one of them some years ago through an international online community of older women. 

She keeps bees and some goats at her farm. We have never met in person, but we have had some nice talks over the years. 

In her letter, she talked about how good it felt to mentor another woman who wanted to learn about beekeeping. She also talked about the inner work of harvesting one's life and sent a couple of excerpts from the book From Aging to Sage-ing by Rabbi Zalman Schachter, which relate to that. Here they are:

"Up to now, we have gone shopping in all the world's markets, gathering the ingredients for a cake. To become an elder, we must stop rushing madly about, learn to get quiet, mix all the ingredients together meditatively, bake the cake, and allow it to rise in its own time. In this way, elder hood represents the crowning achievement of life."

"When as older adults we identify obsessively with our work role or with a youthful appearance, we find ourselves in conflict. The deep psyche wants us to harvest our lives, while our surface self keeps us obsessed with staying in the saddle."  

Lavender in bloom, photo by Larry Turner
Yes, harvesting--an important aspect of aging....

Another person shared the story of giving up her law practice at 57 and taking off in an RV, then resettling for 7 years in southern California before returning to the place she realized was home. 

This writer said that the journey and the return "has also left me with an enduring sense of gratitude for that realization, and for somehow miraculously landing on my feet, once I moved back here." 

I received a letter from an old friend who now lives across the ocean. He said,

"The awareness in my aging is that I should not carry things with me merely because they are not complete.  It is like books: people feel bad because they have not completed a "read" and that somehow the money spent on the book is wasted without the completeness.  Actually, often what was purchased was an opportunity to find an awareness of One Thing.  We would all like to feel that our life is One Thing Complete, and then spend some time enjoying the feeling.  That ain't gonna happen is all I can say.  The only real Completeness is when we meld back into the Field of Peace."

One writer said that she was enjoying painting, and two others said that they were writing about their lives. One wrote: "I am 68, an entrepreneur, artist (public art,sculpture) all of which doesn't  seem important anymore. I am happy to be alive and do whatever calls to me."

Some of the people who wrote told me that they felt that I was a kindred spirit, that they enjoyed my positive aging perspective or my willingness to take risks. Thanks for the feedback, and the friendship, too. I have had the real pleasure of hearing about your lives and adventures. I am so happy to have been gifted with these messages. 

Okay, are you ready for the 4th of July?  Sometimes I do think about the kind of holidays I would invent, given the opportunity. Wouldn't that be fun? Enjoy your bees, goats, friends, families, fruits, dances, forests, waters, beaches, dirt roads, parades, music, libations, loud fireworks, aero flyovers etc. Peace and love.


Monday, June 20, 2016

Full Moon, Summer Solstice: Contemplating the Archetypes

I find myself wondering who you are, reader. Who is it that continues to peruse my now very occasional messages here?

I would love to know.

Here, I find myself in a retiring kind of mood. Which has surprised me a bit, though it seems quite natural. Retiring in the sense of letting go of some projects, the push to accomplish.

Our society encourages us to continue in that continuous accomplishment style, even as we age. Active aging-- and in many cases overactive aging.

It's an overcompensation for the way our society denigrates aging--so elders are pushing to prove we are still viable, capable, worthy of notice.

I have been in this mold myself, but find that as time goes on, this heroic archetype interests me less and less. I have lost interest in some of the work that I was so intensely engaged in.

The musical review I wrote on aging, and the one-woman show on aging I have contemplated producing, they seem like such a lot of work. Too much work. And in fact I have to admit that I am just not interested in doing that particular work. It's not easy to spend years and years on a big piece of work and then drop it, let it go. Though I have have to remind myself that I have done just that many times in my creative life, and it seems I am doing it again.

Hallelujah--choice is a wonderful thing. And dropping things that took a lot of effort is good practice for dropping the body, which we will all be doing at some moment.

Perhaps it is natural, even inevitable, that I withdraw or retire even more. Six planets in the 12th house for one thing--bringing a strong tendency to value immersion in the inner life.  I have been a Buddhist for decades. I am in the final years of this life. What is it that I want to accomplish in these final years? What do I want to leave behind? How can I continue to mature my character and behavior so that I am more of a benefit? These are things I contemplate lately.

I just finished creating a book with a collaborator friend on the history of Tashi Choling, the Tibetan Buddhist center I helped to found in 1978. Now I am working on another book, the life story of my spiritual mentor, Tibetan lama Gyatrul Rinpoche.

The first book will be published by September, hopefully. It is very exciting to me, with over 300 color photos that illustrate everything we have done together there.

The second book is really still in its early stages. Of course it is a wonderful opportunity to write a book about the amazing life of my spiritual teacher and it is also challenging in many ways, as you might imagine. Both of these books are meaningful to me, and they are what I want to focus on in terms of creative work.

I had a turbulent period recently, really examining my impulse to move to Mexico, a place I really love. And I decided to stay put here in Ashland, where I have lived for so long. Oh how mundane.

People will give you a lot of encouragement for doing things they consider risky or adventurous, like fitting out a gypsy wagon and wandering here and there with a one-woman show--stuff like that, things they might never do themselves. I'm sure some elders will carry on that tradition, and here's to them and their vividness.

To me, the real adventure is within. In the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, when people grow older, they retire into a more contemplative way of life. It seems natural. I may not be moving out into the forest or into a cave (though who knows?) but I find the archetype of the prayerful forest-dwelling elder one that calls to me.

I wonder what elder archetypes call to you. I would love to know.

May you be blessed on this beautiful full moon day.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Still Here, Bless This Day

When I call my friend Philip and ask how he is, he invariably answers, "Still here" and I usually say, "Me too." I think Philip is 81. He used to be a Hollywood set designer. He has always been a rather colorful chap, prone to various interesting ensembles, including turbans, sarongs and other such items.

His daughter Tara took this photo of Philip "doing his Moses impression" on Mt. Ashland. Philip was the main builder for the Tashi Choling temple in the 80s. He spent summers living in a school bus and went back to work in Hollywood for the winters. Then he bought land near the temple and built an adobe structure and filled it to the brim with family and friends. He used to say that he was starting to grow a third world country there. His place did have some of that quality at times. After years of living that way, he built a bigger adobe house on his land. He is an artistic guy with a fondness for beauty and it shows in everything he does. 

I have a tender feeling about him these days, knowing that both of us are at the tail-end of this particular lifetime, and having a great appreciation for his determination, loyalty, and eccentricities, which once could be a bit annoying at times, but now seem to be endearing.

"It's a new day," as my Mother was fond of saying. Coming back up to the surface from the dream dimensions and waking again. Musing about the dreams and then meditating. Walking, writing, looking at birds and people. Reflecting on the state of the world, sperm whales dying with their stomachs full of plastic, the deranged phantasmagoria of politics. Memento mori. How good David Bowie looked even two days before his death. Fortunate in that way.

Yes, I have become this person about to turn 75, with a body verifiably older, my belly pregnant with wisdom or whatever, and so forth on the rest of the usual details re face, arms, breasts, neck and derriere which have not been subjected to plastic surgery or herculean exercises and are letting go into a far more relaxed, soft style. Acceptance.

I have gone from being a bohemian, beatnik, hippie and now bringing all that along with about 40 years of Buddhist study and practice, find I am an elder woman living in what I prefer to think of as voluntary simplicity, but which others might describe as low income. I am on the waiting list for a senior apartment. Which truly cracks me up at moments. But one never knows what is next, really.

A National Geographic photo from the 40s, Texas bluebells

The lilacs are in bloom. I am in the midst of my annual lilac yearning. This year, I have no garden with big old lilac bushes as I did at my flower cottage or at my friend Kate's place last year and I find myself walking along the back alleys in Ashland wishing I had brought my clippers to take a bit of lilac here and there for a bouquet. This could well happen. I may be a flower thief this year, unless somebody reading this brings me a lilac bouquet before I set out to quench my lilac thirst.

Everything is blooming much earlier than it did years ago. Lilacs always remind me of the day long ago when I took Refuge, agreeing with myself to enter (or re-enter) the Buddhist path. I brought a big bouquet of lilacs to Sister Palmo that day, which was May 13th, some year in the past, maybe 1975? Somewhere in that region. I wrote about this in my book Songs of the Inner Life. The book chronicles my adventures only to my early 30s.

I guess my current book project provides some kind of followup, though not in the memoir format. I helped to start Tashi Choling in 1978 and now I am collaborating with my sangha sister Lisbeth to create a book about Tashi Choling, a project I avoided for years, but which now has a kind of sweet inevitability about it. I feel quite lucky actually.  I have finally relaxed into the sweet inevitability, how I as a writer and as someone there from the beginning am a natural person to engage in writing this history. People tell me, "Oh, you're the perfect person to be doing this." Perfect, not. But definitely a likely suspect.

In fact, I feel more content than I have felt in a long time, working on this book. If all goes well (translation: and I live long enough) after we finish this book, I will go on to write a book about my teacher Gyatrul Rinpoche's life. I have already begun on that effort, but have to finish the Tashi Choling book first.

You would never find me doing this tightrope walk. At least not physically. I am a real flatland type of gal, strongly favoring solid ground over vast chasms.  And yet.....

I have been reading Chogyam Trungpa's brilliant book The Myth of Freedom again. In it, Trungpa opens up topics like boredom, restlessness, simplicity, mindful awareness and the various ways in which we use credentials to confirm or prove our existence. The last item is one I contemplate these days. The tightrope of identity. Or just being a lot more open. Work in progress. Letting go is Sage's Play, and practice for the upcoming journey out of this particular body and life.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Zihuatanejo: Mariposas, Mangos and Margaritas

It's lush, fragrant and green on the way to the beach
I just returned from a 10-day trip to Zihuatanejo. I was on my way to my Saturday morning yoga class yesterday, when one of my many fans (and it's mutual dude) rode by on his bike and told me that he was looking forward to what I had to say on the topic of Zihua.

Since a writer cannot be read without readers, and because I truly enjoy sharing travel experiences, along with ongoing musing about aging, art, creativity and life on the earth plane, here goes.

I decided to take a seaside holiday in Mexico to celebrate my 75th birthday. Which is not happening until the end of April, but these days the ship I operate is flying the flags of Choose Joy and Eat Dessert First. In that spirit I think it was logical to start celebrating my birthday early.

The entry to El Tamarindo
I had never been to Zihua, or Z if you really like to be succinct. It is "not a village" as my old friend Mitzi L. points out. Located north of Acapulco, its population is around 100,000.

Zihua is remembered by some folks as a location in the film The Shawshank Redemption. I still haven't seen that film. Therefore, I had no prior concepts, except for my ongoing Tropical Beach Fantasies, which are a longterm condition with me. And for this lingering thirst, I found Zihua quenching. Its wide bay sparkles with clear, calm water--warm salty water perfect for delicious swimming that is freeing, relaxing, utterly marvelous.

And of course, in counterpoint, unseen bugs are making their marks on one's flesh.

Processions of gringos in variegated regalia pass along the beach. Mexican families appear with their children. Solitary locals wade out in the water with their fishing nets.

Boats, ships and sailing vessels of various shapes and capabilities come and go. And everywhere, butterflies of all sizes and colors flutter through the air, their luminous, fragile bodies igniting a sense of joy and delight.


“I embrace emerging experience.
I participate in discovery.
I am a butterfly.
I am not a butterfly collector.
I want the experience of the butterfly.”


--Oregon poet William Stafford

In the patio of the large casa

I stayed in a very pleasant studio at El Tamarindo, which I booked through Airbnb. It's located about two blocks from Playa La Ropa, which is considered to be the primo beach in the area. El Tamarindo studios are part of a lovely large home which contains a variety of rental units. It's a beautiful, clean, friendly place, very well run by Carol Juk, who has been living in Z for 20 years now. She and her husband John took me into El Centro one day and showed me some restaurants, markets and other local places of interest.  They and everyone on their staff are so relaxed and kind.

A street for strolling in El Centro
There was a wonderful collection of books available, too and I enjoyed the pleasure of galloping through several of them in between the pleasures of swimming and sunning, exploring, and eating. No computer, no phone, no email. Just those books.

I read a wild travelogue by Peter Moore titled The Whole Montezuma. I finished two novels--Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver and The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. Both marvelous. And then there was Configurations, a wonderful book containing the poetry of Octavio Paz in both Spanish and English. While in Z, I was thoroughly drenched with the magic of words.

Speaking of words, it's said that one possible meaning of Zihuatanejo might derive from the Nahuatl language, referring to the "place of women" the western paradise of the Nahuatl universe, "the home of the goddess women."

I just leave that as a seed for the imagination. And there is some evidence. For one thing, there are seven statues of women scattered through El Centro and they are meant to represent the seven areas of Guerrero.

I took photos of several of them. Beautiful, no? Yes. I think you will agree.

Last January when I was in Ensenada in northern Baja,  I took a photo of a large statue that ornaments one of the city's oldest parks. The statue depicts a breastfeeding mother. Unfortunately it is hard to imagine finding one like it in the US. But I will not get into that right now....

Mexico is different. And that is one of the things I love about it. Because after all, women are half of the human experience.

No doubt there is plenty to be said about each of these statues, but I am not an authority on the topic, so you will have to find somebody else to say it. All I can report here is that they are quite lovely. And I am glad that they grace Zihuatanejo.

La Barra de Potosi, a village near Zihua


Two friends from Ashland were staying up the road while I was in Z, and we swam, explored and enjoyed some tasty meals together. I enjoyed their company. One day we took a ride out to La Barra de Potosi in a taxi driven by the charming Antonio, who was born in Z. "And so was my father and my grandfather," he told us.

La Barra de Potosi is a small fishing village with about 600 inhabitants. The village faces an expansive bay, and includes a lagoon area which has a large mangrove estuary filled with birds. In the winter season the bay hosts humpback whales, which can be seen leaping from the water with their white fins outstretched like wings. What a tranquil, wonderful place.

La Sirena Gorda

I had to stop at  La Sirena Gorda "The Fat Mermaid" for a meal one day. Well, just because....

The food was good and there were many paintings and sculptures of zaftig, voluptuous, chubby, fat mermaids adorning the walls.

I like the Mexican sense of humor. And it's refreshing to be in a culture that appreciates the fleshly contours of women.

These are just two of the many paintings of plump mermaids I saw there at La Sirena Gorda.

Having a Good Time

One day I was in a small fruit stand outside of the Mercado Campesino. I tried to move aside to let an old woman pass. She was petite: the top of her head came to my heart area. Her gray hair was pulled back into a bun. Her thin brown face was well wrinkled. She was carrying an umbrella and wore a loose cotton dress that would have been at home in the 1930s.

I stepped to one side, and so did she. I stepped to the other side, and she did too. Then she raised her umbrella in a flourish, looked up at me and smiled. She began to dance, gracefully and in earnest. Of course, I had to dance too, not just to be polite for heaven's sake, but because when two old women meet that way among the mangos and tomatoes, it's good to celebrate the moment. And I wish I understood what she said to me when we ended our dance together. Here's what I think she said. "Nice to meet you, sister. May the Dance be with you." And with you I told her with my eyes.