Being Zen

By | July 12, 2015

If I were allowed only two words to describe the Way of Zen, they would be conscious living. Our modern lives tend to be quite un-Zen like: we tolerate a humdrum existence on the promise of a peak moment at some point in the future. It might be a concert, a movie, or connecting with an old friend. If nothing else, there is always the weekend or a distant vacation to dream about. Yet these events are over all too soon; and again, time drags on.

The stories in this book have helped put me and others back in touch with another way of living, where every event and every conversation becomes a peak experience. For me, it’s like being a child again, always engaged and finding fun—and mischief—wherever I find myself. I lost much of that in school, and in the process of becoming a responsible adult. It wasn’t until I started living life the way it is presented in the following stories that I was again able to be fully engaged in the moment and revel in its gifts.

My transformation didn’t happen overnight, and it often manifested in ways that took time to recognize. Yet in retrospect, I see how step-by-step I reclaimed my life from the doldrums of mere existence. With these stories’ guidance, I have been able to convert seemingly insignificant events into conscious ones. In doing so, I have gifted myself an awakened life.

And so I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Zen stories  in hopes that you too will garner some wisdom to hold as you walk through your day.

Leave Everything Behind

A story is told of an old man who was coming to the end of his days. He didn’t think he had anything to show for his time on earth, yet that’s not the biggest thing that troubled him—he wanted to become Awakened before he left. In despair, he went to a Hermit for help.

She met him at the gate to her garden and welcomed him. “My only request of you before entering,” she stated, “is that you leave your followers and belongings outside the gate.”

“But I have no followers,” he replied, “and I have no baggage. I have nothing but what you see.”

Still, he listened to her. After a time of reflection, he understood. In that moment, he became Awakened and entered the gate.

Why Harleys Rock

By | July 2, 2015

Three Harley-Davidsons just went rumbling by, and they enlivened something deep inside of me. No, it wasn’t the lure of the road or the biker mystique, and it wasn’t even the desire to get attention. It was something deeper than that.

I quit thinking about it and let myself feel. Right away, I came to realize that iconic sound of a Harley and the thumping bass line of a rock song hold something in common with the beat of a traditional Native drum. Then I had an Aha! moment—I bet that to the limbic process (the deep, nonverbal portion of the mind), these sounds are one and the same. The deep, steady, pulsating rhythm is our mother’s heartbeat. It is the rhythm of the earth. It is the methodical rhythm of our footsteps taking us on our life’s journey.

Back to Harleys. I wasn’t immediately sold on the idea that Harleys were part of the equation. The ever-doubting rational mind, you know. Yet nearly everybody responds to the pulsating rumble of a Harley. Whether they love it or hate it is a social response, or maybe a judgment, but not a gut response.  The same is true of the primal rhythm generated by a rock band.

I knew that to the limbic process, there is no difference between love and hate; they are flip sides of the same core emotion. Along with that, I speculated that our response to rhythm is organic and impulsive; our connection with it is imprinted in our DNA.

In other words, we have no choice in the matter. Whether we embrace the rumble or rail against it, it’s all the same; we are responding. There is no middle road, no neutral ground. The primal rhythm tears at our souls and shakes us up. We are going to come together to either dance around the fire or stomp out the fire, but either way, we are going to dance. It is the pack called to come together to rub bodies and howl before the hunt. It is the herd congregating and milling around before the start of the great migration. It is a gathering of raptors circling together while riding a thermal. It is the universal rhythm that all life responds to, each in its own way. And when we come together around the drum or on the dance floor—or when we turn our heads as a pack of Harleys goes by—we are there with our ancestors and those yet to be born, paying homage to the primal rhythm and the continuum of human life that honors it

Abundance Everywhere

By | June 16, 2015

Recently, a woman asked what I would do in an extreme survival situation, such as being stuck in a place where I couldn’t find food or shelter. I thrive on challenge, so right there I looked out the window and caught sight of the big white pine tree about thirty paces out from the house. I pointed to the tree and said, “Do you mean something like me being chained to that tree like a dog?”

“That would be extreme,” she admitted.

“Piece a’ cake,” I told her. “Shelter, water, food, it’s all there, and I’ll show you, in that order. Let’s go out there.” She looked at me incredulously. All she saw was barren ground covered with a solid layer of dry, sterile pine needles. Obviously being chained to the base of the tree, I couldn’t climb high enough to get at the eggs or young birds in the several nests up in the tree. “I would just sit here and let the food come to me,” I told her. I then proceeded to show her how I would first rake up a pile of dry needles to burrow into for a makeshift warm sleeping bag. I didn’t have to worry about rain protection, as most conifers shed water quite well. Their drooping branches channel water out to the drip line, which lies out at the farthest reach of the branches. I demonstrated how to look up and find the densest cover of water-shedding branches under which to locate my bed-shelter.

My second consideration, I told her, would be water. Depending on the weather, I could go for a few days or so without needing to drink. If the water table was high, such as it was on this particular site, I could dig down with a stick to reach water. If it rained, I’d have two ways for getting a quantity of water, or in should say, of letting the tree get me water. Sometimes the upper branches will funnel water down the trunk, and one can either lap it up directly or soak it up with a piece of clothing and wring it out directly into the mouth. Another possibility is to find a place along the drip line where the shed water comes down heavily, and again either drink it directly or soak it up and piece of clothing.

“What about food?” she asked. “I don’t see any way, but I have a hunch you’re going to prove me wrong.”

I began by telling her that we don’t need to worry about food unless we’re going to be somewhere for an extended period of time. “But why fast if I don’t need to,” I told her. “If I don’t know how long I’m going to be there, I’m going to start eating right away to keep up my energy.”

Lying around us on the ground were a number of immature pine cones that the red squirrels were nipping off from the uppermost branches. “Here’s food,” I said.

“How can that be?” she replied. “They’re not even half-formed; how are they going to have any seeds in them?”

“Break one open,” I replied.

She did, then made a sour face and said, “Worse yet, they’re wormy!”

I smiled, and she got it right away. The squirrels were dropping cones to then come down, gather them up, and chew them open to get at the worms. They are a good protein source and have a high fat content. And they taste pretty good, along with having a nice, creamy texture, which of course wouldn’t be a primary consideration in an actual survival situation.

“What if there were no pine cones?” was her obvious follow-up question.

I gave her a number of potential options. Over the day, a number of small animals would likely come wandering through and be within my reach. Snakes, toads, pine voles, and inquisitive chipmunks would be fairly easy for me to either grab or whack with a stick. “Yet right now,” I told her, “we have an even easier food source.” I showed her a couple of green caterpillars who were descending from the branches on their silk threads. “They’re not near as tasty as the pine cone grubs,” I commented, “yet they’re just about as nourishing.”

“There are many more possibilities,” I added, listing fungi, salamanders under the bark of a rotting log, worms, and insects of all kinds. There might even be a few plants that I could reach at the far reach of my chain. “If you can see what’s possible here in this supposedly sterile environment, where all you see is old brown pine needles,” I told her in conclusion, “imagine what would be possible in a more fertile location.”

A vague smile came over her face as she pondered a new world of possibilities.

The Original Symphony

By | June 12, 2015

One of my most memorable early-morning experiences occurred recently as I sat out in the backyard to await the dawn. Before I could detect any light, a single White-throated Sparrow broke the silence by singing his species’ classic pure-sweet-Canada-Canada-Canada in an Aspen grove bordering the yard (last year I heard a White-throated repeat Canada twenty-seven times in a row—a Guinness record, no doubt). About 15 minutes later, a distant Robin warmed up with his familiar cheerio, cheery-up, cheery-up, and then another joined in. A group of raspy sounding Crows in the high Pines adjacent to the Aspens seemed to take the Robins’ cue, although my impression was that they had things to talk about among themselves and didn’t need to be prompted by anybody.

The Crows flew off and it quickly grew lighter, with one song after another breaking out in rapid succession. They combined to form such an uplifting chorus that I lost all interest in keeping track of who was singing when and from where. Red-winged Blackbird’s conk-a-ree blended with rough-voiced Phoebe calling his name. In the background, the haunting oh, holy, holy of Hermit Thrush echoed through the woods, along with Veery’s cascading, ethereal trill. Piercing it all was the periodic crescendo of Wood Thrush’s flutelike fri-to-lay.

As dawn melted into day, the players one-by-one packed up their instruments and let the chorus dwindle to a loose ensemble. I left too, going to join my family and staff for breakfast. We ate outside, enjoying the occasional trill and warble of the backyard Birds. While we listened to the mealtime serenade, it no longer mattered to me that it was just the wind-down of a grand orchestral performance put on to greet the dawn.

I’ll Take Shubert

By | September 10, 2013

I participate in a Zen blog, where we’ve been exploring whether or not we separate ourselves from something by labeling it.

I replied that the question took me back to a discussion I had in college with a professor and another philosophy student. We were trying to get a Handel on whether Mo’z art reached Bach to the Brahms Age, and we went on in this fashion ad nauseam, in an effort to show that what we perceive is also something other than what we perceive.

Another example: a few years ago several of us were driving home from an evening party, and someone in the back seat said, “Look at that beautiful moonrise up ahead!” Maybe she forgot her glasses–or was it the Polish vodka?–as the only thing the rest of us saw was the upcoming stop sign. So who got separated from what?

On the blog, we’ve been Wagner tongues over this for a while–not that there’s anything the Mahler with that–it’s just that we’re Offenbach on the same topic and can’t figure out how to Schumann or woman away from it. We can Rach-‘m-an-in-off, but I’m afraid they’re mostly on.

Yet rather than Straussing out any more about it, I was Chopin’ I could just come up with something. Then I Haydn inspiration: whatever I dreamt up couldn’t be Verdi definitive anyway. There simply is no separation–it’s like Schubert, which comes in so many flavors and it’s so easy to become one with any of them.

I say we just Ravel in the now and not stoop to Bartok over this, because I really don’t give two Fuchs Weber or not you agree with me.  So if you don’t flip me the Byrd, I won’t flash my Heinrich.

Staying Hummel,


More on a Child’s Need for Discomfort

By | September 6, 2013

In my last post I mentioned that children need to experience discomfort in order to learn how to find comfort. Leah, who maintains this blog, suggested that I elaborate on that statement, as it could be misinterpreted, and it is an important topic.

It must be, as parents regularly ask me for guidance on just how much they should or shouldn’t provide and protect. Just last night a woman called who is a dedicated and loving mother: she is with her children full-time, she wears her babies (keeps them next to her body), she practices elimination communication (the diaper-free method), and she responds right away to her baby’s needs rather than letting him cry.

All went well until he turned 3 1/2. He began to fight with his friends, no longer wanting to share his toys or his space. And he got possessive over his mother, attempting to shoo other adults away so that he could have exclusive time with her. What went wrong?

Actually, everything was going right. He reached the developmental stage where it was time to expand his world by using trial-and-error to start developing sophisticated relationship skills and a worldview that included others.

Prior to this time, he led a very straightforward cause-and-effect life: he’s hungry, he gets fed; he’s scared, he gets cuddled. However, the more mobile he became, the less his mother was the be-all and end-all of his existence. Where he relied on instinctive relationship skills as a baby, he must begin developing cognitive relationship skills as a toddler.

Here is where parents–especially first-time parents–often get tripped up. If the child is going to transition from a nurturing mother to a nurturing world, his mother needs to start letting him venture out into that world–and experience the discomforts inherent to that world. If she continues to mother him into his 2s and 3s as she did when he was a baby, he will end up feeling deprived and victimized, and cope by developing controlling and self-protective relationship patterns.

Here’s what happens: baby has learned to stand with support and is ready to take his first step. Mom is right there to take his hand, catch him if he falls, and lavish praise upon him with every successful step he takes.

What a beautiful picture, we tend to think. Only it’s the worst thing we could do for our child at that age. We would actually serve him better by acknowledging the times he falls. In the outside world–the one he is in training for–he would learn best by falling than being held by the hand. When he falls, he finds out what doesn’t work–perhaps the most important part of the learning experience. At the same time, he is recharging himself with the desire to get up and try again.

When he is held by the hand, he learns that he is not adequate to do it on his own. Right here is the beginning of what could be his endless struggle with codependency. Lifelong behavioral patterns are firmly established in a child by age 3, so what we do and don’t do at the time of that pivotal first step is critical.

If continuing to mother a child in the manner described above is so growth restricting, why do we do it? Because we are an achievement-oriented, rather than growth-oriented, society. When we encourage and reward the goals our children achieve, they get the message that what they accomplish is more important than what they learn on the journey.

So what is a poor parent to do who finds it so hard to not reach out when his/her child is in distress? There’s the codependency red flag–seeing the situation as your child being in distress. If we were truly considering our child’s well-being, we would be grateful for the situation and see it as a learning experience–we would sit back contentedly and watch it instead of jumping to the rescue.

Our child’s first steps are a metaphor for all of his first steps toward expanding his world beyond mom and establishing a nurturing relationship with the greater world. We can best support the process by helping our child to help himself, by allowing him to explore and stumble without intervention–while at the same time keeping a watchful eye on him.



One caution: our child’s learning experiences need to be naturally occurring. Setting up scenarios might seem to be helpful, where in actuality they are just another expression of codependency. Besides, children soon figure out that they are being manipulated, and that is the lesson they get from it rather than acknowledging us for our noble intentions. How often have you heard, “it’s for your own good,” and just seethed at the blatant lack of understanding and empathy the statement implied?










When the Tracker and the Tracked Become One

By | August 26, 2013

We modern trackers envision ourselves as enacting a drama between the hunter
and the hunted.  We are clearly the tracker–we have studied the science of
tracking, we have honed our skills and sharpened our senses, and we focus
all of our attention on the track that lays before us.

A Native person sees himself more as a part of the track rather than as an
observer of the track. To him, tracker and tracked are intrinsic parts of
the Hoop of Relations. He thus knows the track because it is his–he walks
inside the animal who laid the track.  By being a part of, rather than
separate from, he knows the humility and selflessness which help sensitize
him to keen eyes of  Raven, the telling voices of Squirrel and Jay, and the
emotional temper of Deer.  They are far sharper than him, and thus better at
finding and describing the track being laid.

The Native tracker routinely becomes the tracked. The trail of the hunted
mirrors the hunter, to the point that the hunter  feels directly related to
the hunted. When this happens to me, it sends a chill up my spine–a feeling
that I am being followed, being shadowed, by the maker of the track I am

In effect, the modern tracker studies the past, while a Native tracker is
immersed in the present. How did this come to be?  I think it is because of
our culture’s emphasis on the individual. Because of it, I naturally think
that I am the tracker, I have the skill, and the task of the hunt is mine.
What results is a black-and-white perspective that isolates: it’s him and
me–I am the pursuer and he is my quarry.

A Native is both tracker and tracked, and he is neither. He dwells both
within and beyond himself–he and his relations are as one being,
collectively perceiving and responding for the good of all.  Both are part
of a great interactive web based on a mutual trust and awareness, which
gives each many eyes and ears as they see and hear for each other.  Together
they are both observers and creators of the track, as though they are organs
within the same organism.

In other words, we follow a trail, while a Native is the trail.  We track to
get something we want, and a Native opens to receive something that is
already his.

The Roots of Codependency

By | August 26, 2013

During a question-and-answer period at the end of one of my
childrearing workshops, a participant sheepishly admitted that he was
envious of all the attention children had received in the workshop.  I asked
what his childhood was like, and he responded that he had a perfect
childhood–his parents gave him everything he wanted.  When he asked for
something special to eat, they got it for him.  He could have friends over
whenever he wanted, and whenever he felt like going somewhere, they arranged for it. So he couldn’t understand why he was feeling as he did.

“I see,” I replied thoughtfully. “It sounds as though you had quite
a deprived childhood.  No wonder you’re jealous of the children we’ve been
talking about and wish you were one of them.”

My answer perplexed him, so I explained that it appeared as though his
parents had disempowered him by providing for his every whim. In effect,
they disconnected him from the means and ends of his own existence.  The
result is that he became a passive receptor, which did not give him the
opportunity to learn how to meet his own needs. In fact, he probably often
didn’t know his needs well enough to meet them, because he was catered to
before he was allowed to fully experience his yearning. So now as an adult,
he is left feeling needy and incapable of meeting those needs–when he can even
recognize them.

I’d be surprised, I told him, if he wasn’t yearning for the comfort
and security of his childhood.  Yet, I went on, it’s the last thing he
needed now–he needed to feel just what he was feeling so that he could
connect with his yearnings and learn how to fulfill them.  In the workshop,
we explored how children become self-actualized and develop the tools to
provide for themselves and others by experiencing discomfort. For it is in
discomfort that children find the passion and motivation to become engaged
in the processes that bring them comfort and self-knowing.

Zen Tracking

By | August 6, 2013

Tracking is in our blood. It is the first skill we practice — find mother, find the breast. We track instinctively, because tracking is as old as animal life itself — picture an Amoeba seeking a Virus to engulf or a Snail searching for a bed of succulent Algae. We are designed to track — the set of our eyes, the shape of our legs and the way our brain functions have evolved to make us more efficient Trackers. As Humans we were Trackers before we were anything else; it was our first profession. When we hear the Voice of the Track, even for the first time, a familiar feeling comes alive deep inside, as though we were experiencing a deja vu.

As with our Ancestors, Native (foraging-hunting) People are tracking throughout the day. Whether gathering firewood, looking for berries, or hunting, the Native is employing the skills of the Tracker. Although not as obviously tracking, we who live the Civilized Way are also continuously employed in the tracking profession. Shopping, driving, surfing the Internet — all are manifestations of the Tracker within, all employ the same innate, intuitive abilities.

This innateness is reflected in my response to someone who once asked me to help follow the track of an animal: “Why waste the time? I feel inside where she is; we can just go directly there.”  Like the mother who often knows the whereabouts of her children even though she may not see them, so does the Native frequently know the location and involvement of his unseen animal kin. So when tracking he may not need to study visible sign of the track. Rather, he hears the lingering spirit voice of the animal, which he can often sense even though animal has long passed by. This is called Native, or Zen, tracking. Zen is plainly defined as “essence”; Zen tracking is connecting with the essence, or heart, of the track.

A Native connects with the Zen of the track because he knows that the animal he wishes to track is not just, or only, the animal he sees. The animal is a ripple in the wind, the color in a blade of grass. She is last summer’s drought and autumn’s bountiful acorn crop and the way the Hills roll into the Bogs. She is tomorrow’s pups and yesterday’s carcass. She is the fiber of her nest and the spirit of the animals she hunts. She is the reflection in our eye, she is the shadow we cast. Whether she hears it or not, her heart jumps to the stone we accidentally kick, and her mind catches the thoughts we dare think. In communing with this Zen of the animal, the Tracker can know her unseen, ethereal self and gain a feel for her moods and temperaments, and thus be able to track her more effectively.

If  he does not know these things, he does not know her. If he does not know her, he can only track her as one would search for a commodity on a store shelf.

This “searching for a commodity” approach is the common contemporary way of tracking. Developed for law enforcement and military use and subsequently adopted by nature hobbyists and hunters, it relies upon the study of animal traits and sign (footprint, broken twigs, shed hair, etc.). I call it the technical approach.

Let me tell you how I learned to track, as I think it will help in the understanding of the two tracking approaches and how they came to exist. Perhaps my story will also help soften the distinction between the two that some hold, as the Zen approach has a technical aspect as well, and the technical approach evolved from the Zen. The difference, from my perspective, is more a matter of emphasis. After all, the tracking ability in each of us is intrinsic and springs from the common Ancestral Well.

When I was younger I had the honor of living with a pack of semi-domestic Wolves. They trained me as a Tracker, and then allowed me to track with them. Like the Aboriginal Person, they are natural Zen Trackers. They move within the Greater Movement of the track, with their heads up and attuned to everything else around them. Like the Aborigine, their faces would be to the ground but occasionally. What they taught me of track analysis was what could be picked up at a glance, while on the move.

While I was living with the Wolves I yet had two of my Alaskan Sled Dogs. Watching them track side-by-side was a revelation to me, because their techniques were quite different. The Dogs would often track with their “noses set to the ground” in classic hound fashion. They do so because we have bred them to be incomplete Wolves — to have accentuated abilities such as sight, running, or smelling, leaving their other abilities underdeveloped. This has pulled them out of Balance; no longer are they complete unto themselves. So when functioning within the mode of their hyper ability they tend to become oblivious to their surroundings. This makes it difficult for them to hear the Voice, so they seldom flow within the Greater Movement of the track.

Later in life, after I became exposed to technical tracking, I came to realize that Civilized People had bred their Dogs to track as they do, perhaps so that their Dogs would be compatible with them as hunting companions. (The Aborigine, like Wolf, is a Tracker complete unto himself, so seldom tracks with a Dog.)

In the same way that the technical aspects of a Wolf’s tracking have been exaggerated in the Dog, the technical aspects of a Native Person’s tracking have been exaggerated in the modern approach.

Native Trackers are Zen Trackers. Through my involvement with Eastern philosophies, which I was drawn to because within them survives some of the Ancestral Way, I came to realize that the Native tracking way was also known as Zen. Before the dawn of Western Civilization, Zen tracking was all that existed.

The Zen, or living essence, of the track is gained not by study of the track — it is deeper than that, bigger than that. To know the life of something one must become it. This “becoming” cannot be captured by study because the tracking intuition already lies within. Study is little more needed than a mother needs it to know her child. Also, the Zen Tracker requires the clear vision that comes from direct contact with life, so he must learn by the most direct and experiential means possible. Practice and the use of his entire being as an instrument bring him the clear realization of the track as it actually exists. This unfolds through meditative focus, envisionment and intuition rather than by study. Years ago a Native Elder helped me understand this difference in approach when he pointed out that he sees Civilized People learning by science, whereas his People learn by listening.

The means of learning is most important because it becomes the means of tracking. If we learn by study, we will track by study; if we learn by becoming the track, we will track by becoming the track. Abstractions — texts, diagrams, formulas, computer programs — may help with the technical facet of the art, but in using them we risk them becoming the art. So study is employed in the Zen approach only when it is a part of the approach and not the approach itself.

The Abstractions of study give a distorted view of what it is to be a Native Tracker, and they limit the tracking experience in the same way that a Dog is limited in relation to a Wolf. And abstractions cannot capture or convey the ethereal, intuitive aspects of tracking that the Native primarily relies upon.

As a learning tool, observation carries some of the same risk as study. It objectifies tracking by separating the Tracker from the Tracked. In that sense, observation is study. The Native prefers immersion — becoming and shadowing the animal, to learn her Voice. As with study, observation yet has its place if it be a part of the learning process rather than the learning process.

All this considered, let us remember that a component of Zen tracking is technical; it is the emphasis on that aspect, rather than the aspect itself, that causes limitation in tracking.

An Elder Describes the Old Way of Tracking

By | June 3, 2013

A few years ago I presented a course on feather reading at a traditional skills gathering. At the same gathering, a colleague offered a workshop where the participants would attempt to follow the trail that he created by walking through the landscape just before the workshop.  The trail began on a sandy beach, where his tracks were easy to pick up and follow, and it got progressively more difficult as it meandered up through sedges, woods, and wetlands. At the end of the trail, he left a note so that people would know they had succeeded in following the trail to the end.

Participants were given tracking sticks, which were calibrated to the length of the instructor’s stride.  When his trail seemed to disappear in the forest litter, they could use the stick to project where the next track should appear, thereby increasing the likelihood of finding it and staying on trail.

The gathering was held on the Bad River Ojibwe Indian Reservation on the south shore of Lake Superior.  Tribal elder Joe Rose came by to check in on the tracking workshop, and he thought the tracking stick trailing technique was rather quaint. He described how he and his cousins would go Deer hunting with his uncle when they were kids: they would fan out and get the Deer moving, and then his uncle would check out the trails they made to pick the Deer he wanted.

Joe said the Deer would often take off on a well-worn trail.  Even though there were a lot of other tracks on the trail, his uncle was able to follow the Dear he chose. “We kids would have to run to keep up with him,” said Joe. When a Deer cut off the trail, this uncle—without slowing down—somehow knew whether or not it was the one he had chosen.

How did he do it without stopping to study track and gait?  Joe didn’t say. To explain it, he would have had to get us to understand the culture of his people.  There were no tracking workshops when he grew up—no explanation for why the animals did what they did.  He and his cousins learned by experience and the example of the hunters. The kids spent time with the animals and listened to their ancestral memories. They came to know the land and the vegetation and the weather. Like you and I not needing to nose-trail someone through town to find her when we already know her routines, likes, and dislikes, they didn’t have much need for tracking sticks, field guides, and analytical techniques.

I sometimes wonder if Joe and other traditional trackers are merely amused by our obsession with study and detail, or if their sighs are more a sign of resignation at the passing of the old ways.