Friendship Rocks

It seems that most people who speak of friendship rocks these days are referring to smallish stones hand-painted with designs and such intended to be given to somebody special. Yes, the rocks are special too, but it’s the personalized decoration that makes them so. The friendship rocks that I recall from my days spent at summer camp, on the other hand, were already made special by the process of their creation. They were stones which, by some process that I can’t begin to articulate, were formed with holes all the way through them – perfect for stringing with a length of cord and wearing around the neck. Being rare, as they were, made searching for them an endeavor of excitement. And finding one meant that the person sharing in the search was a true friend to be valued.

Friendship Rock

I was reminded of friendship rocks not long ago when I found one without even trying to in the riverbed not far from our home. My wife and I are blessed to be able stroll the river’s banks from time to time, looking for interesting stones and enjoying the sense of childlike wonder that always visits us as we do. Thankfully, some things don’t change. No matter how old we might get!

Perhaps past, present, and future are all here in this moment – the infinite potential of the pregnant emptiness of now?

That same riverbed is also good for crinoid fossil hunting. Crinoids were plentiful during the Ordovician Period some 450 million years ago. They were ocean dwelling animals that looked in most cases like flowers blooming on raised stalks rooted to the seafloor. Upon their demise, their segmented stalks frequently separated, leaving an abundance of disk-like pieces strewn about which then become trapped in layers of sediment to eventually become fossilized. Interestingly, those disk-like pieces of fossil would one day be strung onto cords and worn as so-called “Indian bead” jewelry. Inspiration for those friendship stones of my youth? Perhaps.

Crinoid3

Talk about stones made special by the process of their creation! Is it possible to even fathom the full reality of holding a stone in your hand that contains the bodies of animals that lived 450 million years ago on a warm ocean floor in the very spot that you’re standing? It’s too bizarre to even comprehend. Perhaps the Zen way of looking at time makes much more sense than the way we usually think about it. Perhaps past, present, and future are all here in this moment – the infinite potential of the pregnant emptiness of now?

In case you’re not aware of it already, rock hunting is a meditation of sorts. While not the Zen form that I usually engage in, it has much in common with some others. Rock hunting requires us to keep an archetype in mind of whatever it is that we’re looking for – the object of our meditation – whether it be a rock with a hole in it, a nice flat skipping rock, a fossil of some type, or a nice smooth stone for painting on. With the object of our meditation firmly seated in our awareness, blocking out extraneous mental activity, we scan our world looking for similarity. It’s peaceful to simply be in the world without so much stuff bouncing around in our head. With a little practice, we can enjoy such peace whenever we may choose. The pregnant emptiness of the now is always close at hand!

 Crinoid5

 

Copyright 2018 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

The “Kerthunk” of Truth

Morning’s cool rain did wonders to dispel the stifling heat of the previous evening. I opened the window to my meditation room so as to welcome its gentle pattering sound into the room. Oftentimes I begin a meditation by “watching” my breath. On occasions when my mind is especially scattered I will even count them – from one to ten, and over again. More often than not, though, it is the sound of my surroundings that eventually becomes the object of my meditation. On this particular morning my mind was fairly still to begin with. I took to listening to the patter of the rain from the moment I’d finished ringing the bell.

WetRedbudLeaves

In the latter stages of meditation sound will simply wash over me, or even “through” me if I’ve allowed myself to become sufficiently still. Early on, though, with my intellect still engaged, I will notice things, perhaps, or make discernments of one type or another. And so it was that I noticed a pattern to the rainfall and its accompanying sounds: There was the higher-pitched sound of raindrops splashing on the eves and on the leaves of the trees outside. There were many drops, of course, and not all of them had the same pitch, but their dripping and dropping and pattering was largely confined within some unmeasured range. Less frequent, and of a much lower pitch, was the gurgling of water flowing through the gutters and down the drainpipe. And even less frequent than this was the occasional sound of rolling thunder – deep, distant, resonant.

Deeper still, though, were the sounds that I heard when I held my breath and submersed myself entirely in that gushing stream.

Before finally allowing this mental activity to subside, a memory popped into my conscious mind: I was soaking in a fast-flowing stream after a hard day of riding through the mountains. The surface waters rippled and splashed, much like the raindrops in their narrow band of sound. But there were branches hanging in the stream, as well – pushed downstream by the rushing water, only to spring back so as to be pushed back down again. These sounds were lower and less frequent than those of the surface waters. Deeper still, though, were the sounds that I heard when I held my breath and submersed myself entirely in that gushing stream. Somewhere were boulders rocking back and forth in the current – kerthunk, kerthunk…; kerthunk, kerthunk. Clearly the pattern of the morning rain sounds had brought to the surface that wonderful memory.

RockIvy

As I write this, I’m reminded of the practice of Lectio Divina, “Divine Reading,” engaged in by some Christian contemplatives. Beginning with a scriptural reading, the practitioner will then settle more deeply into prayer – perhaps allowing all activity of the intellect to coalesce around a phrase, or a single word, before finally settling into wordless contemplation. Thus, there is the higher frequency presence of the more readily recognizable worldly phenomena, the reading of the recorded words. What follows is a deeper, lower frequency utterance of some sort of distilled meaning. Ultimately, though, the contemplative rests in the presence of the Divine – perhaps even in oneness with the Divine.

Returning to my morning meditation, however: I eventually settled into a wordless contemplation of my own, allowing the sound of the very world from which I arise to wash over me…, and through me. I can’t for the life of me articulate a difference between where I “end up” via the practice of Zen meditation and where the Christian contemplatives “end up” with theirs. And therein is rooted my sense of kinship with contemplatives of various stripes. The “kerthunk” of Truth is of a language all human beings may understand.

 

Copyright 2018 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

Water Teaches Us the Way

FromOutOfTheHills

 

During heavy rains water flows across our side yard and out into the road. It finds the gulch beyond and tumbles without encumbrance into the valley there. It filters through the turf out back and pools beneath the pines behind our neighbor’s home. Eventually, though, it seeps into the shallow cut nearby – thence to meander ‘neath the pine boughs, and the road leading into town, to marry with the waters of more distant field and wood.

The waters wash bare the earth, leaving tree roots standing out like dark veins on the back of an aging person’s hands. They make the hillsides sag and droop, as if shrugging off the deluge. And yet those hillsides give mightily of themselves as they do, supplying the bottomlands with the nutrients that make them the rich farmland that they are. Perhaps the leaves that I raked into the low spots over the course of the last two autumns will slow this process down a bit. In the grand scheme, however, I’ve merely created a convenient way station for the detritus to accumulate for a time before continuing on its journey down below.

May we all heed water’s lesson of the Way!

I can’t see the river on a brilliant sunny day without seeing the rains beyond. I can’t see the fleshy crops sprouting along its banks without seeing those wooded hillsides up above. If life is indeed a collection of individual beings, then surely water must be that which connects us all. But when I see these flowing waters in the deepest way that I am able, I see only one body, one being, and one Life – with water being the blood ever flowing in its veins.

I studied with a now deceased Ch’an teacher for a time by the name of Ryugen Fisher – referred to by some as Old Frog. At the close of meditation retreats he made a habit of reciting a concatenation of two passages from the Tao Te Ching, one from Chapter Eight and one from Chapter Chapter Seventy-eight. I’ve been reflecting on these passages for the past month or so, reading various translations and bringing them to life in my mind. One way that I do this is by using new words to convey my internalized understanding of the collective works. So, what follows is Ryugen’s recitation, reimagined by this author after benefiting from translations by Fisher, Legge, and Feng/English:

Water teaches us the Way.

It benefits each and every living being,

But seeks nothing in return.

It simply keeps on flowing downward

To places we refuse to go.

Nothing on earth is more supple and yielding than water.

Yet nothing is hard enough, or strong enough,

To contain it or stand in its way.

May we all heed water’s lesson of the Way!

 

Copyright 2018 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

The Presence of Life

When is life not present? I know, this might be an incredibly tough question to ponder for someone who’s just lost a loved one; but the answer is a positive one, I think. Microorganisms were recently found in sediment a half mile beneath the surface of an ice-covered lake down in Antarctica. And in the latter part of the last century, chemical-harvesting microorganisms were found to be giving rise to teaming ecosystems in the vicinity of hydrothermal vents deep undersea where tectonic plates meet. It also appears possible that the precursors to life are regularly slung around the galaxy by comets on their celestial rounds. Might it be the case then that life, rather than being a rarity, is actually an eventuality?

ForsythiaSprig

It was a humble shrub that prompted me to consider such things once again the other day. You see, late last summer I pruned back an overgrown and tangled cluster of bushes at the side of the house. Part of what I found was a scraggly forsythia trying to reach its way out from underneath an overbearing spirea that had all but smothered it. I decided to transplant what I could to more hospitable areas, but it was far from a surgical procedure. Though I did manage to extract a couple of specimens with fairly robust and intact root balls, a half dozen or so others didn’t leave me with a huge amount of confidence that they would ever bloom again. The last of my charges, however, was in especially pitiful condition. It was little more than broomstick with a stringy little root hanging off of one end! I was so close to simply throwing it on the burn pile and moving on, but something prompted me to put forth the effort in order to give it another chance. I used a post hole digger to quickly excavate a narrow shaft that could accommodate the motley broomstick and its modest little root, and then I went about my ways.

There is a life force ever striving to remain and blossom forth.

It got hot and dry last summer and early autumn. I tried to keep the faith, though, offering up a bucket of water to each of the transplants from time to time – thinking to myself whenever I came to that last one that there really wasn’t much hope for it to rebound come next spring. On top of that we had a long, long winter before spring finally did arrive, and one far colder than I’d ever experienced. And so, as the weather warmed I’d stroll the grounds looking for tentative signs of life beginning to sprout. Sure enough, those two robust specimens bounced back with gusto. Yes, and those half-dozen others subsequently began to show signs of life as well. I’d likely have to trim some of their dead branches away before they would look really healthy once again, but they were definitely going to make it! That broomstick, on the other hand, didn’t surprise me in the least. It looked as dry and lifeless as I thought it was. But it cost me nothing to simply let it be. The spring rains had taken over where my buckets left off. Que sera, sera!

Imagine my delight last week, then, when I strolled the grounds yet again and spied a sprig of life on the end of that broomstick! Who can say when life has taken leave for good? Who can say when there’s no longer any hope? There is something very mysterious going on all around us and deep within. There is a life force ever striving to remain and blossom forth. There might be times when it appears to have disappeared for good, but that little forsythia bush has made me much less certain that that is so.

 

Copyright 2018 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

Flyover Country

Approaching Rain Storm with name

Many people think of contemplation in much the same way that they think of flyover country…

fly·o·ver coun·try

/flīˌōvər kəntrē/

noun

“Parts of the United States which many people only see when they fly over them on journeys to the other coast, but which they would never visit.” Cambridge Dictionary

Perhaps it goes without saying that no two people think of flyover country in precisely the same way – being so charged with subjectivity, as it is. I’m also pretty certain that the oft-true warning about within-group variance being greater than between-group variance applies in this case as well. For instance, I used to live in a multimillion person metropolitan area in the middle of flyover country, but I now live just outside of a 15,000 person town in the middle of same. Clearly those are two very different experiences – as are the differences between a big coastal metropolis and one of its tiny satellite villages somewhere between it and the hinterlands. Notwithstanding that reality, however, there will always be the possibility (if not the likelihood) that someone from one of the coasts will fly over the whole vast area in between the east and west coasts whispering the lyrics of Talking Heads’ Big Country under their breath:

I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.

I couldn’t live like that, no siree!

I couldn’t do the things the way those people do.

I couldn’t live there if you paid me to.

Why is that, anyway? What’s so appealing about the hustle and bustle, the endlessly trending cultural developments, the multitude of options for recreation and employment, the wide array of new dining experiences, and the seemingly unlimited opportunities to meet like-minded individuals? Okay, never mind! I really had no intention of convincing you otherwise. But you don’t go to a place full of distractions when you want to devote yourself to contemplation, do you?

It occurred to me recently that many people think of contemplation in much the same way that they think of flyover country, and for many of the same reasons. Contemplation is boring, austere, isolating and confining, to the point of being claustrophobic. Ask someone to be still for a time, without the benefit of their smart phone or something else to distract them, and you just might get the same response as David Byrne’s character singing in Big Country:

I couldn’t meditate if you paid me.

I can’t be still like that, no siree!

I’ve got no time for things that the sages used to do.

I couldn’t meditate if you paid me to.

And so I’d like to introduce you to Heartland Contemplative – a means by which I hope to bring a little of the beauty of flyover country to a broader audience than might otherwise be the case. Perhaps I can encourage you to visit from time to time! Look for Heartland Contemplative on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as well. Thank you!

 

Copyright 2018 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.