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A Meditation on Metal

“The world hath been much abused by the opinion of making gold; the work itself I judge to be possible; but the means (hitherto propounded) to effect it are, in the practice, full of error and imposture.”

— Sir Francis Bacon


Reconnecting to Nature through the element of metal was more difficult than I had anticipated. Where do you find metal in its raw form? I didn’t think meditating while sitting on my car or my laptop was going to do it and I am not a mole to go scurrying around an abandoned mine. None of the resources I have used up to this point have singled out or even mentioned the element of metal. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, metal is associated with the lungs and the large intestine. Metal = lungs and lungs = breath. Now we are getting somewhere. The association of metal with breath brings us back to the foundation of meditation, listening to the breath and letting all other thoughts and sounds dissipate.

Metal is also essential to the alchemical process of transformation. My son and I took a workshop at Arcosanti a couple of summers ago. Arcosanti is an experimental community designed by Italian architect Paolo Soleri with the objective of fusing architecture and ecological design for the future. While attending this workshop we witnessed the pouring of melted metal into molds to create bells. I had never personally seen metal heated to the point of liquification. The heat and energy exuding from the liquid metal was intense. This experience of witnessing the transformation of metal into a bell form returned to me while thinking about metal this week especially in conjunction with the alchemical process.

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The ultimate accomplishment of the alchemist was to create the philosopher’s stone, a stone capable of turning base metals into gold and producing the elixir of life, just ask Harry Potter. Alchemy is all about the transformation with metal being foundational to the process. The project that I have undertaken to reconnect with Nature is about transformation, transforming my relationship with Nature to one of harmony and in turn transforming myself. Like the alchemical process of creating the philosopher’s stone, each of us has the capability to transform into a better version of ourselves, inviting more peace into our lives (the elixir of life) which will improve our health and help us live longer. Personally I plan on living to the ripe old age of 120, gonna need more elixir. Like the quote from Sir Francis Bacon states, the transformation is possible but the means are flawed. Reconnecting with Nature improves our chances of success and a combination of all of our senses and each of the elements mixed in the alchemical process of personal transformation will create the possibility of real change.

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“Everyone eats and drinks, but few appreciate taste.”
-Confucius

Food is a necessity; we need to eat to survive. Every day we eat on average three meals a day with various snack times scattered in between. We eat to celebrate. We eat to console.  I purposefully scheduled the sense of taste for the week of Thanksgiving, a time set aside for Americans to stuff themselves as full as the turkey they consume.

My original intent for this week was to explore and scavenge for the food provided in the natural areas around my home. Sounds great only November is not the best time for harvesting even in a desert region like Arizona. No food was found. The prickly pear fruit is gone. Sigh! This summer I did actually try a prickly pear fruit that I plucked from the end of the cactus during a hike in Sedona. I squeezed out some of the juice and was pleasantly surprised at the sweet taste. Except for the tiny cactus barbs I was picking out of my hands for the next two days, I rather enjoyed one of nature’s treats. I looked all season for the stores to stock harvested prickly pear fruit but they never did.

Since I was unable to harvest my own food from the wild, the techniques I employed this week explored the concept of eating to connect to our inner nature. I believe that if we are connected to our inner nature, we may more easily connect with Nature.

Technique #1 – Conscious Eating

What did you eat for your Thanksgiving feast? Were you aware of the size and number of portions you consumed? One aspect of conscious eating is the awareness of what we are eating, how much we are eating, and specifically how we are eating will affect our overall health and well being. There was a time when I would eat a lot of breads and baked goods. At Thanksgiving this would mean rolls and pies. A few years ago I started to be more conscious of my eating habits and realized I had a touch of gluten intolerance. If I ate a lot of breads, which at the time included Krispy Kreme doughnuts, then I would have digestion problems for the next couple of days. I don’t know how long I suffered from gluten induced indigestion because I was never consciously aware of the cause and effect loop of my eating habits.

One aspect of conscious eating that I try to employ on a daily basis is eating as naturally as possible. My family and I changed our eating habits and strive to eat organically with locally grown produce when possible. There is a taste difference between locally grown produce and produce trucked into the stores. Both may be organic in nature, but locally grown literally tastes better. If you don’t believe me, next summer try an experiment and you’ll see, locally grown tastes better.

Eating naturally for me means that I refrain from eating meat and adhere to a vegan diet.  I don’t judge anyone for their choice of dietary restrictions, but each of us needs to look deep inside to our inner nature to decide what dietary lifestyle fits our health lifestyle most supportively. For me, giving up meat immediately gave me more energy. Taking dairy out of my diet had positive effects on my immune system and sinus congestion. And I already mentioned the gluten. In Ayurvedic medicine, individuals were divided into three doshas according to physical characteristics and temperament. Balancing your individual dosha included being conscious of what you were eating and how it would affect your specific dosha. Now I am not recommending you take a dosha quiz and plan your meals based on your dosha, but I do recommend becoming more consciously aware of your food, how it affects you, and making positive changes to support a healthier lifestyle.

Technique #2 – Ancestral Foods

Connecting with our inner nature would not be complete without an understanding of where we come from? I’m not talking the birds and the bees, but where are our ancestral roots. Growing up in the LDS (aka Mormon) church, there was a big emphasis on ancestors and genealogy. I am proud of my ancestral heritage. My ancestors come primarily from England, Denmark, Sweden, and Greece. Dr. Lendon Smith wrote about imitating the diets of our ancestors in his book Happiness is a Healthy Life. To be complete and balanced within ourselves, we must connect with our ancestors. I don’t advocate changing to a completely ethnic/ancestral diet unless you feel this would be an important step to improving your health, like going vegan did for me. Deciding to change any part of your diet takes a conscious decision (see technique #1 in case you missed it). But bringing in ethnic dishes from your ancestral roots will move you farther in the direction of this connection. For me, Thanksgiving has always had a Greek dish. My grandfather’s line is the Greek line, and my grandmother learned to cook tyropitakia (cheese triangles) a traditional Greek dish. Even after my grandparents passing, in my family we have continued to enjoy cheese triangles as part of our Thanksgiving feast. This year we went a little different and made baklava instead. Ethnic dishes serve as one connection with our ancestors.

Playing with Fire

“Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life.“
-Buddha

Fire!! I have to admit that I was excited for this week. I love fire, one of my favorite elements to play with; I am a bit of a pyro. Traditional Chinese Medicine the element of fire carries the capacity for transformation. One of the goals of this project is a transformation, a transformation to attain a connection with Nature. The organs associated with the fire element are the heart, the small intestine, and the triple heater. The triple heater is not actually an organ but in Chinese medicine it is a function within the body that helps to regulate the qi within the body and the flow of the meridians. Many people regard fire as a destructive agent. This is a narrow minded view of the importance of fire in our lives. Fire is an essential component not only for transformation but for fostering the passion of living.

Technique #1 – Qi Gong Fire Routine
Working with the description of fire as an element within the system of body functions, I purchased a DVD by martial artist Matthew Cohen designed to increase the fire element in the body to activate the body’s senses, strengthen the immune system, and aid in the detoxification of the body. It is a 40 minute routine that involves several tai chi like movements and yoga like poses. By the end of the routine my legs were on fire so my senses were definitely activated. I could sense the muscle strain by the vibration of each individual muscle in my leg. Okay, so the routine is not for the beginner. I completed the routine, cheating a little on some of the leg bends otherwise I might have fallen over completely and been unable to stand; and then I went to bed. The next day I discovered the benefits of the fire routine enhancing the body’s natural detoxification functions. To put it bluntly, I did not feel well at all. Within a day I felt better but I know the detoxification symptoms were a product of the qi gong routine.

Recommendation: Be careful and take it slow. A routine like this may be more than your body can handle at the time.

Technique #2 – Candle Meditation
My first mediation teacher recommended using a lit candle as the focus of meditation practice. The natural fire element assists the meditator to concentrate and focus more quickly and easily. There is just something about a flame that immediately catches my attention. I could stare at a candle for a long time without getting bored, and this is when I am not trying to achieve a state of meditation. But using the flame of a candle as a focus point for meditative concentration will assist the beginning and advanced student of meditation to look inside. The flame becomes the mirror of the soul.

The flame on a candle is a living presence. It freely gives of itself to light the way in the darkness and give warmth in the cold night. I started the post with a quote by Buddha comparing the lit candle to the spiritual life. Many spiritual teachers have used similar metaphors. Jesus Christ said not to hide a candle under a bushel but to use it to light the house. Transformation by fire allows an individual to not only light their own way but assist others in making progress.

For anyone beginning a meditation practice, get a candle. Don’t try and cheat by downloading a candle app onto your iPhone. I tried it and there is no comparison to the real thing. You need real fire to achieve the meditative focus that will allow transformation to occur.

The Sound of Silence

“A thousand trills and quivering sounds
In airy circles o’er us fly,
Till, wafted by a gentle breeze,
They faint and languish by degrees,
And at a distance die.” 

-Joseph Addison

Moving now to the sense of hearing, this week explored the sounds and silence of nature. Like our sense of sight, our ears are constantly bombarded with noise. Even during meditation while the outer sense of hearing may find silence, the goal of silencing the inner voices can be a constant battle. Two techniques dealing with sound and silence were explored this week.

Technique #1 – Walk of Silence
Earthwalks provides the first technique for this week. In the fast-paced life of our modern existence silence is a difficult commodity to find. Even in the wee hours of the night, the hum of electronics or the refrigerator can still be heard. Out in nature, airplanes never cease their endless travel overhead and traffic is nearly constant. This earthwalk goes one step farther (no pun intended) instructing the walker to walk in silence, even ending the crunch of gravel under your feet on the trail. Not as easy as it sounds. Intense concentration was expended on placing my feet in the correct spot to limit sound and I moved as if in slow motion. For me, this earthwalk did not pave the way to a closer connection with nature or with myself. I only felt connected in slow motion with my feet.
Technique #2 – Bringing Nature Indoors
The latter half of the week turned downright frigid with highs only reaching the high 30’s and low 40’s. The wind never stopped blowing and we had rain and snow on two different days. Not the best hiking weather. Nature had to come indoors because I was unprepared to go outdoors. It will take me a little time for the adjustment.

One of the meditation techniques I employ for my nightly meditation sessions is a visualization of an ideal relaxation spot. My ideal spot is on a private beach with the waves gently rolling in to shore and a perfect late summer temperature, quite unlike my current reality. On my iPod is an mp3 of ocean waves from a set of nature based CDs, this one titled Healing Sounds of Nature: Ocean Waves. Unlike some nature meditation tracks, no New Age or classical music accompanies the pure sound of the ocean waves. Listening to the ocean waves during my personal meditation sessions enhances the visualization of my relaxation spot, and allows for a deeper meditation. The perfect companion for an Arizonan stuck 6 hours from the beach during the first week of winter weather.

The Rhythm of the Earth

“The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth.”
― Chief Seattle

Traditional Chinese Medicine identified five elements in Nature with corresponding organs in the body. This week the focus is on the element of Earth associated with the spleen and the stomach. In Shiatsu theory the element of earth is also associated with stillness. I think of common sayings that express this thought like “immovable as the earth” or “build on a solid foundation.” Both of these sayings evoke a sense of strength and stillness but not on a level of contemplative stillness. The techniques I practiced this week opened my mind to the reality of an earth still but moving.

Technique #1 – Cultivating Curiosity
Dr. Daniel Deslauriers, from the California Institute of Integral Studies, shared with me an article from the New York Times titled “Finding Zen in a Patch of Nature” about biologist David Haskell that records his observations of a yard square area of forest ground. Mark Coleman in Awake in the Wild has a similar exercise called “Cultivating Curiosity” where the observer picks a square foot area of earth and meditatively observes the area for 20 – 30 minutes. So with two recommendations for this practice I set out to stare at a piece of ground for 20 minutes. I found me a nice piece of ground as you can see here.

At first, I kind of thought this was a silly exercise but as I began with the observations, the earth literally came to life. Ants, there were these really small ants all over the place. Busy with seemingly no place to go. I became engrossed in their work but could not find the main headquarters of this small army (pun intended). I think it was actually under the rock I was sitting on. Haskell visited his square yard of forest floor over the course of a year getting to know the area intimately. While I studied my square foot I was able to shed the worries of the day and thoughts did not crowd on my observations.

In relation to this project of (re)connection, we as humans should be intimately familiar with areas of Nature that surround us. Do we move through life without noticing the wildflowers by the side of the road, or the hawk sitting in the tree? One of the outcomes of this project so far for me personally is having my eyes opened at the amount of data that was processed and censored within the stores of my own brain. Hiking in Nature has taken on a different level of being for me and I am only half done with the project.

Technique #2 – Heartbeat
From Earthwalks by James Endredy, the earthwalk titled Heartbeat invites the walker to tune into the rhythm of nature through the medium of a drum. I have been learning the Djembe so I thought this would be a definite on my list to try. The Djembe was a little heavy for hiking through the granite outcroppings in my favorite hiking area so I took along a bodhran, an Irish frame drum. Endredy recommends beginning the drumming as you begin the hike but this did not feel right for me. I found a nice spot of earth and sat down.

After a few moments of contemplative silence during which I listened to all of the sounds around me and within me. I began drumming to the beat of the earth, or the small pulses of energy I could feel beneath my feet. I found that the base beat was matched be the flock of ducks swimming in the lake. I had never realized the rhythm inherent in the quacking of the ducks when in a group but it was similar to the steady rhythm of the cricket or the cicada. Now the songbirds were non-conformists, well I had one that would sing a syncopated trill after every second beat. She did this for about 20 seconds. We had a nice duet going.

Being an amateur musician myself, I had to go home and find out how fast the beat of the earth was on the metronome, 66 beats per minute. My heartbeat slowed to match this rhythm while I was drumming. I didn’t just play the beat but added my own rolls to match the trills of the songbirds, faster notes to match the flapping of the ducks wings as they took flight, and an expression of my own inner song. This technique is not for the self-conscious but it is for the amateur with an open mind and heart. I drummed for a good 30 minutes in 2 different locations. Both locations, though separated by several granite hills, matched in base beat. While hiking out, I played with each step as recommended by Endredy. If I went faster than the 66 beats per minute beat, I felt out of step. The drumming really did put me in touch with the natural rhythm of the area. I highly recommend this technique!!!

Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair. ~Kahlil Gibran

The sense of touch provides us a measure of intimacy with an object or an individual. Unlike the senses of sight or smell, touch demonstrates intention. If I want to (re)connect with Nature, I must become intimately involved with Nature’s space, I must touch the earth, the rocks, the water, and the wind. I went out twice this week to connect with Nature through the sense of touch but with two different techniques. The first technique was more intimate, laying myself bare to the connection. The second more playful with a youthful curiosity and sense of exploration. Both techniques provided moments of insight not only into Nature but into the subconscious realm of the self. I found a quote by John Muir that sums it up, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” Here is a restatement of the goal of this project, to (re)connect with Nature and by doing so create path of illumination to better understand and transform myself.

Technique #1 – Barefoot Walk

This first technique comes from the Earthwalks by James Endredy (see resources tab for more information). It is as simple as it sounds, take off your shoes and walk! So I went out to my favorite hiking spot and removed my shoes. I have never been hiking barefoot before, but I am no stranger to shoeless living. I never wear shoes in the house and don’t put shoes on for simple outside chores like taking out the recycle. Fall weather has arrived and while I was wearing a jacket, it wasn’t too cold on my feet. I soon discovered one of the challenges of hiking barefoot. With Fall the weeds have all dried up and dropped the thorns that house their seeds. No blood was drawn during this exercise but there was a thirty foot stretch of ground that was literally touch and go. I told Layna about my experience later and she asked why I didn’t just put my shoes back on for that stretch? Pride of course, I had already started the exercise and wanted to see where it would take me.

Hiking on familiar granite rocks and dirt paths, the experience was new and stimulating. Some might say over-stimulating due to the amount of neurons firing in the brain to process all of the touch stimuli. The experience was also exhilarating in a way, the freedom from the bindings of society had fallen away and I was free to explore the landscape on my own terms. My rate of progress was slower but I was much more focused on the ground in front of me. The concentration of where to put my feet to avoid the unpleasant occupied the whole of my concentration. It was a rejuvenating experience and my shoes felt extra tight as I put them on to head home (and yes I avoided the thorny patch).

Technique #2 – Texture Treasure Hunt
The second hike of the week was more intended to explore the textures in Nature and I turned it into a treasure hunt. Layna, my gorgeous wife, joined me on this hike. The goal, to touch everything (even the cactus). It is amazing all of the different textures you can find in nature. The hard, bumpy layers of the granite rocks, the sharp spines of the cactus, the fluffy texture of the wild grass, the textures in Nature span the spectrum. How did this connect me with Nature? Getting back to a sense of exploration and curiosity that most children possess allowed me to just experience Nature without preconceived notions or judgement. Sitting on the granite rocks, overlooking Willow Lake, Layna and I watched a spectacular aerial show. Strands of spider web or cottonwood fibers, or something as yet unidentifiable were floating on the breeze. I guess we literally saw UFOs. The strands were dancing on the wind, and floating to who knows where. There was one tree that had caught many of these strands, all stretching perpendicular to the ground waiting for their chance to detach and continue free-floating with the wind. It was stunning and we saw it because we took the time to look while we were exploring like children.

One of the questions that Layna and I talked about as we did the exploratory hike was the state of our society in relation to spending time in Nature and deriving its benefits. Is our society suffering from Nature deficit disorder? More importantly, are our children? With our urban society, Nature has taken a backseat to video games and other forms of modern entertainment. All of us would benefit more from immersion in Nature on a consistent basis. When was the last time you took a hike? Take some time this week and explore Nature even if in your own backyard. Look at Nature with the eyes of a child and see what Nature wants to teach you. Take your shoes off and explore.

In one drop of water are found all the secrets of all the oceans; in one aspect of You are found all the aspects of existence.”
― Kahlil Gibran

The elements of nature hold a fascination for me, particularly the element of water. I have always been drawn to water. Growing up my bedroom had pictures of surfers and I subscribed to Surfer Magazine. I knew the hot spots for the next big set and the statistics on the popular surfing spots on the West coast and Hawaii. Oh, and I lived 15 hours from the nearest ocean. One of my inquiries going into my dissertation program with the California Institute of Integral Studies concerns the elements and our individual affinity with one of the five. I have always thought mine was water but after this week I am beginning to question that preconception.

Water flows, what a beautiful concept. If an obstacle blocks its path, water finds a way around the obstacle. Water also has the power to break down obstacles given enough time. I live in the Grand Canyon State a testament to this concept; it is a majestic hole in the ground created by water. So my goal this week was to (re)connect with nature using the medium of water.

Technique #1:  Water Meditation

This first technique comes from the The Chakra Energy Plan by Anna Shelby (see resources tab for more information). Water is connected to the Sacral or 2nd chakra, the chakra located in the lower abdomen, governing the body fluids, emotions, and sexuality. Water is also associated with the kidneys and bladder in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The objective of the water meditation for balancing the Sacral chakra is to immerse yourself in water and focus your awareness on the sensations of the element and then to extend the awareness to larger bodies of water and the lunar cycles. Lofty goals.

When I first read this meditation I thought about my previous endeavors to learn foreign languages. I took 4 years of high school German but did not feel like I had mastered the language. I was then assigned to serve in the Korea Taejon Mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (better known as the Mormon Church). I had to learn Korean in a very short time. Total immersion into the culture and the language allowed for a much quicker grasp on the language. So what better way to learn about an element than total immersion?

Now I live in Arizona and monsoon season is over, so finding a body of water for this meditation was difficult and I chose the next best thing, our deep, oval bathtub. I immersed myself in the water up to my ears and tried to meditate and become aware of the water. What really jumpstarted the meditation was to go deeper and include my ears underwater. A whole new sensation opened up, I could hear and feel my heartbeat. The awareness of the water really took hold when I laid on my side in a fetal position with my ears submerged. I began imagining myself in the womb and all sounds muffled or non-existent except for a beating heart.

Coming out of the water into a more traditional seated pose, I felt refreshed. The water had a cleansing affect on my emotions and stress levels but left me a little drained of energy. I was also still reeling from the sensations and thoughts of the womb-like experience. I started concentrating on drawing in energy from the water on each inhalation and immediately my energy levels began to rise. The energy from the water was not an infusion of energy like a sugar rush, but rather a calm, refreshing energy.

Technique #2:  A Sensory Break

The second technique comes from Awake in the Wild by Mark Coleman (see resources tab for more information). The meditation focuses on the sound and sight of water as part of the meditation. I located a small stream (not easy this time of year) and settled myself in for a meditation session. Listening to the sound of running water, it was easy to shed the stress of the day. There is just something so calming about the gentle rippling sound of a small creek. I also observed the sunlight playing off of the water and the patterns created by this interaction. I did not go into a deep meditative state, but it was still refreshing.

The water observation did teach me an important lesson that only just hit me as I began composing this post. The creek water ran downhill and over some of the rocks creating the familiar creek sound but then the water entered a stagnant pool. Leaves floated on the surface but the water did not seem to be running out of this pool. However, the creek did continue down the hill but the water in the pool seemed unaffected. I wondered about this, how is there water running on both sides of the pool but the surface of the pool appears stationary? So I stuck my hand in the pool and had a revelation. The water underneath the surface was moving. Now the epiphany, Lao Tzu advocated individuals to be like water, calm on the outside but ever moving and changing on the inside.  I need to be like water. While the surface may appear stagnant, the underlying current should be continually propelling me forward. Working on a PhD is my undercurrent.

So be like water, continually flowing with cleansing, regenerative energy!!