Like Words Together Reflections from the deep end of Practice.


My Dad’s Inhaler

In the May 2009 Bronchitis Saga I've had to break down and use an albuterol inhaler again.

This feels really bad, like some kind of defeat. I haven't needed to use albuterol for my asthma in years. Since changing to a vegetarian, then vegan diet it hasn't bothered me nearly as much. I went from having to use it for emergencies about every other month, and daily if I had bronchitis (usually twice a year), to not having used it since 2002.

Until this week. I've been so out of breath and coughing really hard. The one I still had kicking around was really old (2001) so my doctor prescribed a new one for me. We both agreed that I should have one regardless of the bronchitis in case I did have an emergency.

Yesterday, feeling incredibly short of breath, I finally broke down and had the prescription filled. The little excursion to the pharmacy left me utterly exhausted & shaky for the rest of the day. I also was coughing a lot yesterday and stayed home from the Dharma Center again, which feels unsettling having been away two weeks.

When I got back home and opened up the package I realized why the brand-name, Proventil, sounded familiar. After dumping out the contents of the box my hands held my Dad's inhaler. This felt pretty creepy.

My Dad died December 11, 2009. I was there. Well, actually I was outside when it happened, fixing the wooden reindeer in his yard that had fallen forward on its nose, something that would have bugged him. He died while I was outside taking care of his Christmas decorations.

The death certificate would say that the cirrhosis (alcoholic) beat the COPD (smoker) as the cause of death. I don't keep bottles of Seagram's around the house, not sure if I would. But it felt unsettling seeing same inhaler he used, the ones I'd see around his house, by the side of of is bed. Especially since I was using it.

So much of my life is driven to not become my family. Sometimes our greatest lessons in life come from watching teachers who show us what not to do. My family members represented all of the six realms of existence - distracted by desires (human), anger (hell), craving (hungry ghosts), at the mercy of instinctive response (animal), envy (jealous titans), and pride & indifference (gods). Having spent the past decade plus separating myself from years of unhealthy training it feels like something of a failure to be using the same inhaler my Dad used.

Yeah, totally unreasonable. There's a big part of me that knows that and I'm trying really hard not to let that part beat me up about the fact that I'm still kind of creeped out by using the same inhaler as my Dad before he died. It isn't a failure, it is just bronchitis.

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A Vegan Way

It was in 2006, after being a vegetarian for a little over 5 years, I really decided to just switch to a vegan diet. Primarily I was making a final attempt to get my high cholesterol down. I also had started to seriously look at the way dairy cows are treated. It was bothering me.

When I started teaching yoga in October 2005 I also began to incorporate the other "limbs" into my practice. I started attending zazen, somewhat irregularly at first, with the Zen Community of Oregon. This helped me look closely at the cultivation of concentration, meditation, and wisdom. It was while I was taking a class on Life Vows from Hogen that I vowed to uphold the Yamas, the "Rules of Life" in yoga practice.

The first of the Yamas is ahimsa, non-harming. I'd read some things about the Buddhist Precepts at ZCO and found that the first Grave Precept is to not kill, but to affirm life. I also had spent a lot of time reflecting upon Thich Nhat Hahn's book Anger which begins with a discussion of diet. He felt that it was important that we not consume, nourish these bodies which practice, with the panicked, dying, suffering energy of an animal slaughtered for food.

In the spring of 2006 those things came together for me after listening to Howard Lyman speak at the NW Veg VegFest. After spending a day listening to people talk about dairy I finally committed myself to doing what had been considering doing for months, I stopped eating all dairy products the next day. That was the last step, I became a vegan.

Because I live in Portland this was a fairly easy transition. I just became used to assuming that most places I went to, most gatherings I attended, would not have food I would eat. I would make dishes and bring them to share to be certain I would have something as well as show how tasty vegan food was. Most of the time it didn't matter, sometimes it hurt to feel the way this choice put me even further outside of the mainstream.

My focus all along has been to improve my health. To avoid as many as the diseases that plagued the women in my family - diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attacks, angina, and obesity. Once dairy was taken out of my diet I began to lose weight again, finally dropping the last 40 pounds to have my weight fall into the "healthy" range for my height.

The weight loss alone caused my doctor to shake his head and smile, but when my cholesterol started to drop dramatically he told me not to change anything I was doing. By 2008 my cholesterol had dropped 100 points and I was still losing a few pounds. I went in for a chemical stress test to get a clear picture of how my heart was doing and was told that people 10 years younger than me should have a heart working as well. This spring my doctor called me "skinny".

I feel as though my commitment to changing my diet to improve my health has created space for me to appreciate the choice of being a vegan even more. Over the past several years I've moved more and more to trying to buy organic products, local ones where possible. I have never lost the lessons of the Outdoor School program, of the interconnectedness of everything on the planet and how the choices I make do matter. A vegan diet is an environmentally responsible one that makes a commitment to improving the health of the planet.

When I was at the Loving-Kindness sesshin this past April I had a lot of opportunity to think about this. Because the sesshin really awakened some emotions long buried during my childhood the feeling that I was not included was rather intense at times, especially on nights where during formal tea everyone else would be served a beautiful, fancy cookie while I was served the same store-bought ones I'd brought out to the monastery. One night there were steamed carrots, but only a very small portion without butter set aside for me and it brought up sad feelings.

Later that night, in the dark, cool zendo I would have time to breath through and comfort the child inside of me who felt left out, hurt. In my mind I talked with her about the importance of not having the fancy cookie, that the cookies I'd brought from the store were ones I liked and that I still got a cookie with everyone else. By the time I was served the same cookie I had most of the week that child inside of me and I were both OK with.

What had hit me through keenly feeling the separateness of my vegan diet was that I have been slowly moving my life towards peace. That is what the path of yoga and zen is for me. It is the cultivation of tranquility and calm-abiding. For me there is absolutely no question that the literal foundation must be nourished by food that supports this path. Since we are constantly in change, our cellular structure constantly going through the death/birth cycle, then the base components for that structure must nourish peace. This is how my practice is built, it begins with what I put into my body.


Settling and Healing

I think I'm improving a little today. I didn't wake myself up coughing last night and felt a little more rested this morning. I'm still coughing, pretty hard at times, but I just felt like I had a little more energy today. I worked from home again just to take it easy and because I had a session with GM this afternoon.

The effects of the sesshin are still sinking down. At times I'd feel the deep silence there and I'd feel so deeply connected to my lineage at those times. Supported by nothing but my breath and those ancestors from both Zen and Yoga. Then out of the silence some bubble of trauma would come crashing up to the surface. I'd see some of those traumatic moments clearly for a moment, like looking down through still water. Now I'm still settling down the turbulence caused out of those brief glimpses of clarity.

The sesshin and all the energy of moving, CK here and AM to his flat, created lots of unsettled feelings. GM asked me today how I was feeling being back in the house all the time, with CK here, and I said that it felt good. In that regard it is really nice to feel like I'm not really living anywhere, to feel like I am getting to work on my home again.

I still don't really want to see my Mom all that much. Hard because I finally spoke with her on the phone yesterday and she mentioned how she wanted to see me this weekend. I hedged on any commitment, noting I wanted to wait and see how I was feeling. She thought that was reasonable given that she heard me coughing.

What makes it all feel kind of hard is that those momentary glimpses of clarity only have served to have me really see just how inappropriate and wrong things were during my childhood, adolescence and into my twenties. Hard, sharp moments of clarity. Sometimes, seeing the edges of these moments revealed hurts still.

I guess it is progress. I don't curl into a ball of stuttering and muscle spasms as often, in fact it hasn't been that bad in a long while. I'm able to stay present even to some very small degree when it feels the worst and that's while I'm looking at the causes of the turbulence clearly now, instead of being merely thrown into panic by the turbulence itself. My Zen and Yoga practices often feel like they have kicked all of this processing into some turbo gear.

GM told me today that I'm her hero. It took me a moment to realize she was serious. Then I went right back into my discomfort with being looked up to in anyway. Shying away from the responsibility of being a teacher. I don't feel any of the confidence in my voice unless it is describing yoga, not yet.

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So the cold that arrived last Tuesday manifested into a hard, dry cough by Friday. Monday I phoned my doctor's office to see about some more samples of the new allergy medication. I mentioned the cough, shortly there after I actually coughed and my doctor's nurse said, "So, we'll see you at 11:30, OK."

Not really a question and 11:30 found me waiting at my doctor's office. His nurse frowned when she heard me cough. He frowned when he heard it.

I was complaining about the lousiness of my health this spring. A sinus infection and now mild bronchitis. My doctor was quick to point out that I was not nearly as bad sounding as I had been in the past and that I'd not had bronchitis in nearly 4 years.

I was born with asthma and upper respiratory allergies. Not seasonal allergies, I have things that trigger me all year round. Growing up this constantly left me short of breath and prone to illness. Through my 20s I regularly got bronchitis in addition to really suffering from allergies. Sometimes 3 times a year. I would spend autumn through spring battling bronchitis and other types of upper respiratory infections. The only time I've been hospitalized as an adult was for a viral pulmonary infection I got one August, right after the first full WOMAD festival. I've even manage to crack a couple of ribs coughing.

This all changed when I stopped eating meat and has only continued to improve. My respiratory allergies and tendency toward bronchitis has gotten so much better that at times it has felt like I don't have asthma anymore. It has seemed miraculous to me, my doctor, and my mother. So much so that a couple of years ago my doctor made a point to conduct a breathing test on me when I felt great.

I was feeling so optimistic about this test but it triggered a mild asthma attack. I didn't need any medication for it, just space to breathe. My doctor smiled, noted that I was amazingly improved, but I still have asthma.

The past few days have been an unwelcome reminder of it. I feel so tired and short of breath that it is hard to do much of anything. I even took a nap in the middle of the day today. I hardly ever take naps! Deep, yoga breathing causes me to start coughing. The coughing makes my whole body ache. On top of that I feel anxious that I'm not getting enough done.

I'm sure my teachers would point out that when sick, just be sick. I find this tedious and difficult, to just be sick and I've been fighting it for a week now.

Tonight CK went to some developer groups. I usually teach, but I'd phoned Dishman earlier and they canceled tonight's class - extending the last spring series out a week to make up for it. After she left I mindfully took a long, hot bath with bubbles and I read from the novel she got me for my birthday, 'Lavina'. Afterwards I had some dinner.

I don't feel cured by just relaxing tonight, which some part of me is mildly annoyed at, but it did feel good to just relax into the quiet of the evening. I'm really hoping I feel better tomorrow.

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Noise Irritation

Ugh. I am day two into a spring cold and am none to pleased about it. It makes everything feel like a bit too much to take on. In addition to the whole body "ick" sensation I am sneezy, headachy, itchy, cranky, and probably a few other of the Dwarves of Spring Colds.

Tonight the neighbor, who spends the majority of his time meticulously maintaining his yard, used a pressure washer to clean his drive way for nearly 3 hours. The same neighbor yelled at me Sunday for the state of my yard when I suggested we find a compromise on the tiny strip of earth between our properties that didn't involve him spraying toxic herbicides that then run down onto my property.

After the Loving-Kindness sesshin I can feel the way my heart hardens, closes against the neighbor. Generally I feel mostly some compassion for him, tinged with a sadness that I suppose is rooted in judging the circumstances of his life. Today it was challenging to offer him anything resembling a kind thought at all. He's a good candidate for when I choose to work on Loving-Kindness practice for someone who irritates me.

The noise of the pressure washer felt oppressive with the congestion-amplified pain in my head. On top of that our water bill had arrived today. There's the very realistic cost of that water, financially and environmentally. I feel aware of him literally spraying resources into the sewer system.

Dinner managed to get made and the noise was still this heavy weight as we recited our meal chant. We smiled, joked, rolled our eyes, and commented on the neighbor's behavior. Finally I burst out to CK, "That noise is what my chronic pain sounds like!"

Several years ago I started to use noise to help people understand what chronic pain is like. A constant noise, part of every moment of your life, and not even in sleep can it be fully escaped - that's what it is like to have chronic pain. Some days it might only be slightly irritating to have the constant noise vibration; those are the good days. Other days it feels like the noise vibrations are an oppressive and heavy weight that makes it hard, if not impossible, to wade through the day-to-day; those are the bad days.

He's stopped now. I am feeling a lot better since he has. I was thinking about how irritation & aversion are merely low-level anger. Anger all usually comes back to fear. What do I fear in the neighbor's noise?

Maybe I find the noise of his many power, yard tools to be so awful because I already have what feels like some level of constant noise chafing in my life from my pain. Do I fear the additional weight of the noise in my life?

There are small, puffy, rose-hued clouds hanging in the still-blue, twilight sky. The sunset is so lovely from the upstairs of the house. Now, now that there is some quiet I'll go sit zazen for a little and offer Loving-Kindness practice for myself and my neighbor.


Accidental Vegetarian

Several people have heard the story of how I "accidentally" became a vegetarian and I've talked with a few people about why I'm vegan. During the Loving-Kindness sesshin in April I had a lot of time to deeply look at how important my veganism is to my life. I commented on this during the sharing time at the end of the sesshin with my fellow retreatants, but it really seems like something worth sharing with a much larger audience. This is a part one of two posts that cover over 8 years of my changing my diet from the Standard American Diet to a very healthy, vegan diet.

How does one "accidentally" become a vegetarian?

Back in 2001 my cholesterol was 290. On top of that the "bad" cholesterol was really bad, the "good" wasn't anywhere close to good, and those pesky triglycerides were just as sad. Yep, those levels where the doctor starts to use words like "statins" at visits. My blood pressure and blood sugar levels were OK, but when you added those bad numbers to my weight and a family history of women having heart problems -- well, it wasn't good.

I'd lost some weight, about 30 pounds, but was still obese and those numbers weren't budging. Yes, "obese", I'm not going to say "large" or "heavy" or any other of the nice words that take the sting out of it. At not quite 5'5" I weighed about 260 pounds even having lost 30 pounds.

Facing all of this and the knowledge that statins can often have a side-effect of joint pain (since I already have chronic pain in my back I didn't want that added to the list) I decided to stop eating as much meat. Meat is loaded in cholesterol and the foodie in my just saw trying vegetarian options as sampling a type of new cuisine. I was still eating sushi. This was back in 2001.

In 2002 the sushi fell by the wayside one afternoon over a spicy tuna roll and some seared salmon. These were two of my favorite things and sushi was the only flesh I was still eating. I was happy when I was presented my little plate of fish, took a bite, and while chewing my mouth reacted strongly. Chew, chew, chew.... "Ick, what is this!? We don't want this in our mouth! EEEEW!"

A few weeks later friends were over for dinner. Some lovely smoked salmon ravioli had been picked out for the evening and I was looking forward to it. Great conversation, nice wine, yummy veggies... The ravioli? Same mouth reaction, only more insistent. Chew, chew, chew.... "Ick, what is this!? We don't want this in our mouth! EEEEW!"

I honestly thought the ravioli were rancid. Something seriously wrong with the meal. I looked around the table and realized everyone else was happily munching away. I was the only one fighting the urge to gag as I spit out my second bite into a napkin. At that point it seemed obvious that I'd become vegetarian without even trying. My body just found meat gross.

In 2003, while answering a craving for scrambled eggs, my body reacted the same way to eating eggs. I knew the signs immediately. Chew, chew, chew.... "Ick, what is this!? We don't want this in our mouth! EEEEW!"

By now I'd lost nearly 100 pounds. People were amazed. In a way it didn't really feel amazing to me at all, I was there just eating differently, exercising more. It wasn't until my shoes were too big that I really was able to acknowledge how dramatically my body had changed with the weight I'd gained. I certainly was feeling better, so I didn't feel inclined to return back to the way I had been eating.

Cheese was the last great hold out. Particularly Gorgonzola, brie, Stilton, and strong Cheddars. I loved cheese and would happily have entire meals of nothing but an assortment of cheese with some bread. Yep, still vegetarian. Made sure everything I got was not made with animal rennet.

The side effect of this cheese love? Well, my cholesterol had started to inch down a little when I first switched to a vegetarian diet, however, the increase in all that high dairy-fat cheese in my diet sent it right back up again! Once that had happened my doctor was really wanting me to see a nutritionist and go on drugs. I asked him for one more year.



The 2007 Fall Ango Zen Community of Oregon reflected upon a teisho from my teachers' teacher, Maezumi Roshi. The particular teaching we studied was entitled, "Close the Gap Between Yourself and Yourself". Hogen suggested that I really look at how to cultivate pride and appreciation for my accomplishments.

It struck me as "pretty un-Zen" at the time. When I talked with GM about it during that Ango she said she wasn't surprised I didn't get it. One of the things she notes is an area that could use some improvement is my ability to really appreciate my accomplishments. I downplay my achievements all the time.

Really most of the time it doesn't feel like I'm doing anything extraordinary. It just feels like I'm chugging along, humming & drumming through each moment.

So I struggled with this topic and a few weeks into Ango I went back to Hogen and asked for help. It struck me as somewhat comical that I was asking my Zen teacher just how one goes about cultivating pride. He suggested that I consider the task of digging a 100 foot ditch, irrigation or some such thing. He said that when one is digging a really big ditch it is necessary to turn around after the first 5 feet and recognize the effort that has gone into that work. Not to just keep feeling overwhelmed by the 95 feet yet to be dug.


GW agreed that I spend most of my time worrying about the other 95 feet. CK, after she got to know me weighed in with her agreement of this assessment.

This spring for some reason I'm finally starting to get it. In most things in my life I've been a quick learner, adapting with speed to new things. Sometimes Zen makes me feel like a rather poky student.

My doctor, the same physician I've had for over 15 years, called me "skinny" when he saw me last month. He checked out my blood pressure & pulse statistics, shook his head and smiled. Maybe it is that his reactions are so candid, so human that it is finally sinking in that my weight loss is something unusual. There have also been friends and teachers who have been telling me again and again that the changes I've made in my life, have maintained in my life, are unique.

This takes me to the berry patch at Great Vow Zen Monastery. Last week at sesshin my work duty was out in the gardens. In particular, the berry patch where another retreatant and I had been asked to remove pepper cress. There was a lot of pepper cress, it is very successful at sending seeds spraying out in all directions. It seemed like an enormous task.

The first work period I just sat down at the far corner and started pulling pepper cress. By Friday I realized I'd cleared nearly half the berry patch! I stood up looking at the ground, cleared of the invasive weed (although it is edible). I nearly started to laugh as I stood there feeling a great deal of pride in what I'd finished. On Saturday my silent partner and I finished the last 3 feet in a great flurry of weed-pulling after the clean up bell had rung. We closed the gate, laughed together merrily, and I performed a small celebratory dance, waving my 5 gallon bucket in the air. We grinned at each other and continued to chuckle while emptying our buckets before heading back in for more zazen.

I still feel a little uncomfortable with this new sensation. But I can feel the way pride is good. That it is OK to look at something I finished and really let myself feel the accomplishment, the appreciation.