Archive for December, 2008

Note: Location of retreat has changed to the Port Townsend Yacht Club.

Heather Martin, Vipassana teacher from Salt Spring Vipassana Community, will lead a two-day retreat in Port Townsend, WA in January.  Several sangha members have attended retreats led by Heather and are very enthusiastic.  I’ve found her Dharma talks to be excellent.  Teresa and I are looking forward to the retreat.

Reservations are requested so that we know how many people to plan for.  The following is the announcement message from Selden of the Port Townsend sangha.



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This Monday was a lot easier than last Monday!

As I wrote last week, I have proliferative diabetic retinopathy.  This is being treated by pan retinal photocoagulation (PRP), or lots of laser pulses to the retina. On my treatment last week, I was able to tolerate only 200 laser pulses.  I slept like I was drugged for the rest of the day and did not feel well the next day.

This week, I had 700 laser pulses.  My discomfort level after 700 was less than my discomfort level last week after the first 100!  After the treatment, I was full of energy, active through the remainder of the day, and felt fine the next day.

What has made the experience so difference this time?

There are three major changes between last week and this: physiology, medication, and preparation and mindfulness.

Physiologically, sensitivity of the retina is not uniform.  Some areas are nearer to nerves and some farther away.  It’s possible that the first treatment hit the most sensitive areas and the second treatment hit less sensitive areas.  While that’s possible, the doctor gave me no reason to believe that was a factor.

Last week, I took a Vicodin after the treatment to alleviate pain.  I don’t know that it did much.  This week, I tried one before going in for treatment.   Comparing the most intense pains from both weeks, I would say that the Vicodin may have dulled the pain slightly but that it was not a significant factor.  This agreed with the doctor’s observation that she had  not found Vicodin to be helpful.

I see preparation and mindfulness as the key changes.  Last week, I drove an hour to the appointment, so my mind was very busy before the procedure.  I was also complacent about the pain, having been through the experience twice before—forgetting that the first time was four years ago and I was sedated and numbed the second time. Last week, I paid no particular attention to my posture, breathing, or to the sensations.  Every laser pulse felt like pain—some of it very intense.

This time I did it very differently!  Teresa drove to the appointment while I listened first to a guided meditation on healing and then to an excellent talk by Gil Fronsdal on Pain.  When I sat in front of the machine, I arranged some back support and made my posture as erect as possible.

During the procedure itself, I had to stay very still and keep my eyes focused straight ahead.  I paid regular attention to my breath to be sure I was breathing regularly and deeply.  I watched my posture to be sure I didn’t curve my back and shoulders to slouch—postures that would reinforce feelings of pain and fear.

Most importantly, I watched carefully the sensations accompany each laser pulse.  I watched with a sense of curiosity, asking myself “what, exactly, is this sensation, and this one, and this one, and this one….” If you’ve ever had an eye exam with a slit viewer, you know how bright and uncomfortable a light can be.  Every laser pulse was a flash of ultra-bright light.  Most of the pulses were accompanied by a sensation I can best describe as the back of the eyeball being pricked with a needle; the experience was sometimes more intense than others.  Some of those pinpricks were accompanied by a strong shooting pain, like a lightning strike from the eye to the left forehead.  (I speculate that the shooting pain was the result of a pulse hitting on or very near a nerve.)

I had nowhere near the pain as I did a week ago.  We were able to do 700 laser pulses before the discomfort level made it seem advisable to stop.

Now that we have a cumulative total of 900 laser pulses, it’s time to wait and see how my eye responds.  My next appointment is in early January.  After an exam, we’ll decide whether more laser pulses or whether another shot of Avastin might be the better treatment.

What is pain, anyway?

This experience has led me to a new understanding of pain.

In the Bahiya Sutta, the Buddha says “let sensation simply be sensation….”  In other words, don’t add anything to the sensation.  It seems to me that what when we say pain, we always include an element of aversion.

Dharma talks typically distinguish between pain and suffering.  To me, it seems that the important distinction is between sensation and pain, with suffering just more mind accumulation around pain.  I now see pain as sensation plus the emotional experience that the sensation is unpleasant.

If you “let sensation simply be sensation,” then anything added is just mental proliferation.  Add unpleasant, and the sensation becomes pain.  Add pleasant and the sensation becomes pleasure.

Now that’s a thought with unexpected ramifications!  Is pleasure a mental proliferation just as pain is?

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Jigsaw Puzzles

Teresa and I enjoy working on jigsaw puzzles as one of our winter activities.  With the early dark and cold and wet weather, we like finding something we can do together inside.  Jigsaw puzzles have turned out to be something we both enjoy.

We work on relatively easy puzzles—500 to 700 pieces.  Difficulty varies a lot, even with similar sized puzzles.  We recently spent a week of off-and-on time completing one.  It was as if each piece were challenge. (The puzzle had subtle colors and repeating patterns.) Today we finished one in less than two days as all the pieces fell into place with little effort.  The visual design on this one was much simpler and after sorting pieces by color they just fell into place.

We always start by finding the edges, so we like square puzzles.  Irregular puzzles are more difficult that we like.

We get our puzzles from thrift stores, so missing pieces are a hazard.  The challenge is always: was the piece missing in the box or did we lose it under a chair?  When we complete the puzzle, we often spend some time looking for a “lost” piece, and we did that tonight.  The missing piece hasn’t shown up yet.

When I was buying puzzles last week, I also got a monster 2,500 piece puzzle.  And it’s a hard puzzle too with repeating patterns and subtle colors.  We won’t tackle that one right away!

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I used to get massages regularly, but have been dissuaded partly by my current insurance not covering it and partly by my focus on recovering from cardiac bypass surgery in April. I finally feel completely healed from the surgery and scheduled a massage last week.

When I get a massage, I focus my attention on sensation while keeping my breathing deep and regular. I view the sensation as a way to bring my attention to exactly what is happening in my body—in essence a mindfulness exercise. I follow the the moving hands, noticing which muscles are tight, which are relaxed, and how everything feels. It’s as if the moving fingers were continually saying: “Notice this. Notice this. Notice this.”

I track and notice sensation for about half of the massage. About half way through, I seem to tire of noticing and fall half asleep. But then it’s time to turn over and do the other side, so that wakes me back up—for a while anyway.

After a massage, I am much more aware of body sensations and posture. I find that I sit differently and hold myself differently. These changes last for several days, until habitual patterns reassert themselves.

I’ll get another massage in two weeks or so to refresh my body awareness.  I’ve found that as I get beyond the second massage, the benefits seem to be less.  It’s as if I were getting used to the massage and no longer receiving the same benefits.  I think that the massage penetrates the defenses until the defenses learn how to keep themselves intact.

The bottom line is that I’ll get a couple of massages then wait for perhaps six months before getting another one.  Changing masseuses “restarts the clock” as each masseuse has her own style and that reaches through defenses in different ways.

Anyway, I feel physically more relaxed.  That’s good, because tomorrow will be my next laser eye treatment!

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Smaller than a credit card, only 1/4″ thick, it holds 1,500 hours of Dharma talks—more than I’ll listen to in many years.  That’s my new mp3 player: a Sansa Fuze with 16gb of memory. (more…)

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Teresa and I drove to Sequim this morning.  Near Blyn we saw fields of grass glinting with a white covering of frost.  The frost reminded me of the crisp fall and winter mornings when I was growing up in Illinois.  I always loved walking in the snow in the woods—everything was so quiet and peaceful.  I felt my worries drop away from me.

Not much snow here!  It probably snows enough for a few inches of accumulation less than once a year here.  Each time it’s happened, we’ve been out of town on a winter vacation.  Maybe this year will be different?

We went to Sequim so that Teresa could be fitted for a new set of orthotics.  I have had intermittent problems with shooting pains in my ankles for several years.  Inserts customized by my now-retired podiatrist solved that.  This year I’ve also experienced some low back pain and minor knee problems.  On a day to day basis, I hardly notice it, but every few months it’s enough that I see the chiropractor.  Since these problems may all be related, I decided to be fitted for orthotics too, replacing my worn inserts.  I’ll get them in two weeks but it may be several months before I know for sure whether they alleviate these pains.

With respect to pain, mindfulness means an objective awareness of sensation and not getting caught up in it.  It means not letting the mind run amok with fear of all the possible consequences of the pain—from “I’ll never walk again” to “I’ll die tomorrow.”  Neither does it mean denying or ignoring the pain.  Both getting caught up in and denying the pain results in suffering needlessly.  The Middle Road would be to take action when appropriate.

The trick is to find that middle road!


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As part of my practice, I listen to Dharma talks.  It’s hard to do that in person, given how far we are from any center.  We are able to have occasional weekend retreats by various teachers—our sangha invites Rodney Smith and other guest teachers for weekend retreats once or twice a year.  For longer retreats, Teresa and I can go to Cloud Mountain or other retreat centers.

On a more daily basis, I turn to Dharma talks on the web. As you might guess from my earlier post about my problems with listening, I find recorded talks helpful as I can listen to them again and again to hear those parts my mind skipped over the first time!

The quantity and variety of talks available on the web is increasing rapidly. Every time I search the web for Dharma resources, I find more sites I hadn’t seen before and existing sites that have more and better organized information. My focus is on Insight Meditation/Vispassana and the Theravada Forest Tradition. There are extensive resources for other Buddhist traditions but this is the one I follow.

The first teacher I sat with regularly was Gil Fronsdal of the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, CA.  So that’s where I look first for talks, and IMC’s Audio Dharma library is extensive.  The largest online collection is probably the Dharma Seed library, with talks from 1974 to the current time.  The Seattle Insight Medication Society is the center closest to us and they have a collection of talks by Rodney Smith and guest speakers on their web site.

In the Theravada Forest Tradition, the teacher that I have been most attracted to is Thanissaro Bhikkhu of the Metta Forest Monastery.  The monastery has a large collection of his talks, although I prefer the audio quality of his talks in the Insight Meditation Center’s library.

To help people find talks, I have compiled this list of the sites I have found most valuable.  In the list of pages on the right, click on Dharma on the Web for list of sites and links to them.

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