Group Practice in Decatur, Hitchhiking to Florida

Saturday January 20, 2018

I guess to increase the chance that I actually post once a week during this trip, I’m going to allow myself to write a little bit at a time, in the style of journaling, and then edit the post only lightly before I publish.

As I write this, I’m all set to head to two meditation practice groups: The Breathing Heart Sangha Mindfulness Practice Center (MPC) for their once-a-week practice session and The Zen Center of Georgia, both in Decatur (near Atlanta). The later is planning a one night mini-retreat, complete with 3 hours of practice tonight and a 4:30am restart of practice in the morning. A perfect way for me to end my stay in this area!

Tomorrow (Sunday) I’m getting picked up by a new couchsurfing.org friend named Jim who just happens to be traveling north to south on return to his home in Warner Robins, GA. I’ll stay one night at his place, and then continue down to Sanibel Island, Florida to visit my sister Becky and her husband John at their vacation rental there.

On my last two days in Decatur, I finally got to spend some time with the children that my daughter Anna cares for in her nanny job.

I was planning on going to Koinonia Farm next, but they have had a crisis with their drinking water system and are also welcoming their new interns, so they asked me to reschedule. I may visit there later in the winter, we shall see. As I’ve been saying for this trip, I’m uncertain of everything, so anything is possible!

Sitting with the small MPC group last Sunday was sweet. As usual, this group practicing in the Plum Village tradition was friendly and welcoming. The following Saturday, I returned to practice with them again and the facilitator asked us for suggestions of what to talk about during our dharma sharing time. I suggested happiness and was encouraged to say what I thought about that subject, so I gave a mini version of the basic view of happiness coming from within and so on, as I also write about in my book. I don’t think I actually mentioned my book to this group except when we were sitting snacking Sunday. I think I’ve got a bit of a tendency to shy away from it, perhaps because of a (mostly unconscious) concern about being seen as self serving through book sales. I’d like to release that tendency and the underlying fear!

The main patron and host of the MPC group shared many interesting stories from his life as a former Christian minister who was very involved with the civil rights movement. He married a woman of color, so knew first hand the challenges of racism in the south. I am lucky to have met him and have already spoken to him on the phone to get his help discerning the direction my life might take next! After hearing a bit of my story, he recommended I look into the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, in Conyers, GA.

This Monastery is Catholic Trappist and from the photos on their website, amazingly beautiful! The church was built of concrete starting in 1944, but the photos make it look more like an ancient cathedral than a modern day church. I look forward to visiting there and have applied for a one month minimum stay through their Monastic Guest program. This would allow me to be of some service, as participants work along side of the monks 5 hours a day, and help me discern if re-engaging with Christian one or more communities feels right for my future. I’ve received a reply that the monk in charge of these applications has the flu, so there will be a delay processing my request. That will give me time to get the required letters of recommendation lined up.

Every time I’ve visited a Christian church for Sunday service, I’ve felt the spirit strongly enough to require breathing through the ecstatic reaction that wells up in me. This ego reaction to my blissful state, which used to be triggered by particularly beautiful scenes in nature, has mostly been released, so having it rise again feels like a signpost worth noting!

Evening of Sunday, January 21

My new friend Jim has taken me right from Anna’s apartment to his home, and we just got back from a light dinner at a local brew tap that features lots of craft brews. We met his friend Beth, who had lots of interesting stories of her own to tell.

As soon as I got to Warner Robins, it was so warm I had to take a walk with bare, “happy feet!”

One Night Zen Retreat

Last night’s mini Zen retreat was similar in some ways to my experience with the Upper Valley Zen Center. Both centers are in Rinzai lineages, but not the same branch, evidently. I know little of these historical details! We sat, walked in step with each other, and sat some more in a quite rigorous schedule that was mostly on the cushion with about 5 minute walking “breaks,” as I started to think of them. Not that I dislike fast walking, it was just a fairly sit-intensive rhythm. In the morning we did some chanting. One of the chants seemed to be the same as from our book at the UVZC. The rest didn’t “ring a bell” in my memory at all. But the “flavor” was basically the same: ancient Japanese syllables the meaning of which is unimportant because it is meant as a vocal meditation practice more than an affirmation of any Buddhist beliefs.

For me the highlight of the retreat was the calligraphy practice, as this was new to me. We each took our turn using a very large brush, to copy a three part Chinese symbol, one part at a time, on sheets of newspaper. We all rotated around the work area and the person immediately on the left of the one doing their art was in charge of snatching the top sheet up as fast as it was used, to clear the way for the next set of strokes to be made on the clean sheet below.

I was told that I should move the brush from my core, not just my arm. The stroke order was not indicated on the sample we were copying, so I did my best to memorize it from the people that had their turns ahead of me. We didn’t all use the same stroke order, but evidently the process was partly interpretive and partly prescribed and at least for this practice, the resulting artistic product was unimportant: it was immediately discarded.

I left this short experience of calligraphy as a meditation practice both intrigued and hoping to have an opportunity to do more. I suppose I could practice on my own with a bit of equipment, but the group aspect of the practice was certainly an important part of the magic for me. Perhaps I’ll suggest that we try it at one of our future Center for Transformational Practice retreats.

Hitchhiking to Florida
Tuesday, January 23

My first day of hitchhiking was quite a success. Jim drove me to Interstate 75 so my first wait, which was over 2 hours, was at the south entrance ramp. At some point while I waited, I realized the nice opportunity I had to send a silent blessing to the each of the folks that passed by, that they have a great day. This changed the tone of waiting from a basic current moment meditation, to a nice connection with each person as they rounded the corner onto the entrance ramp! I intended to make eye contact with them, and often got a friendly wave and a smile in the process. I think I was only doing the well wishes “Metta practice” for 20-30 minutes before I got that first ride from Scott. He took me about 70 miles, to a rendezvous with his brother at the diner where he works, where we had lunch together. Before we said our “farewells,” we friended each other on Facebook.

Heading towards Sanibel Island to visit my sister Becky.

I continued the “Metta practice” while waiting for the second ride, and after about 30 minutes I was picked up by Gary. It was a short ride, but the new interchange had much more traffic so I was grateful for for his generosity for picking me up. Once I hopped in, I recognized him from when he drove by me earlier. When I asked about that, it turned out he had actually turned around at the next exit off the highway to go back to give me a ride!

I set myself up at the new busier on-ramp, and after about 15 minutes I heard a voice behind me, calling me over to a fence that separated the ramp area from a coffee shop parking lot. The young woman said, “I know it isn’t safe to pick people up…” as she looked at me somewhat apprehensively through the fence. As her voice trailed off I said, “I’m safe!” and I patted my “Faith to Practice” sweatshirt. “See, I’m all about faith to practice spiritual practices, like meditation, so you are safe with me.” She seemed fairly well convinced and agreed it would be best for me to come around the fence to meet her in the parking lot.

We had a very nice conversation on our 40 mile ride. She asked me about my beliefs, providing an opportunity to describe some of the basic ideas in my book. It turned out she is unsure of her beliefs, though she was raised in a Christian church. She is only 18 and just starting college to study natural resource management. As we parted, I gifted her a signed copy of my book and she thanked me, saying that she was very glad to have met me. That’s good, because when I shared that the previous man had turned around to pick me up, she told me that she had done so as well! This one interaction was worth the whole day of standing by the side of the road, all by itself, but the day wasn’t over yet.

Next to the next entrance ramp, a work crew was building a new bridge over the highway. I was waiting there, continuing my “Metta practice” for over an hour before I got my final ride of the day. During that hour, I noticed one of the workers glancing my way from time to time. During one of his short breaks to get a drink of water off the back of a truck, he came across the street to greet me. We exchanged our names and a few pleasantries, before he asked if I had money. I said I have some, but am saving it by not buying bus tickets. He handed me $10, saying “Here, I can use all the blessings I can get, so take this.” I said, “You already have all the blessings in the world and are showing it by giving me this money!”

Shortly after this nice interaction, something very strange happened. I big black van came up the off-ramp from the highway, crossed the road to the on-ramp at which I stood, and pulled over to pick me up! Later I wondered if he could have even seen me standing with my sign wayback at the end of the long off-ramp, as he rambled along at his usual 80 MPH? The driver didn’t speak much English, so I had to mainly communicate through his wife, who said she had no idea what he was doing when he left the highway. She said, “Maybe God sent us to you!” Of that I’m (of course) sure, but I still wonder what was going through her husband’s mind as he turned off the highway!

This last ride, which came only an hour or so before dark, took me all the way to a Flying J truck stop, just south of Fort Pierce, FL, where we stayed the night. They in their van, and me in a pasture a mile away down a dark dirt road where I was pretty sure I’d get away with pitching my tent just for the night. I did get away with with it, but the residents came to check me out in the morning. They luckily didn’t seem to mind, or they might have come at me with those pretty deadly looking horns!

Luckily the residents of the pasture in which I pitched my tent didn’t seem to mind that I was there, as I broke down my one night camp.

In the morning I found my new friends at the truck stop and they took me the rest of the way to a highway that would take me in the direction of Sanibel Island, if I could just get a ride. I waited in what seemed like a pretty ideal location, where a car could easily pull over to pick me up and there was lots of traffic, to no avail. After two and a half hours, I decided to go to the bus fall back plan. My sister Becky and brother-in-law John were willing to pick me up in Fort Myers, so paying $30 for the bus looked pretty good, given the risk that I could end up in a city environment at dark, with no couchsurfing.org friend lined up to stay with. It would have been pretty hard to find a place to pitch a tent in Fort Lauderdale, and even if I could get myself to a commercial campsite, it would have cost me as much as the bus fare.

This sign didn’t work for me. After 2.5 hours attempting to get my first ride out of Fort Lauderdale, I headed for the bus station.

As I finish up this post, my stay at Koinonia Farm has been confirmed to start next week. They have grape vines that need pruning, which sounds like a great opportunity for mindfulness practice to me! I’m looking forward to morning chapel and the other worship routines at the farm, and reconnect with friends I made when I interned there in 2015.

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