Practicing Love

“What are your values, and what is on your bucket list?” The woman sitting across from me at the coffee house pays attention as I begin to answer. I met her in the swimming pool and since then we’ve been meeting for conversations like this one. I give her the answer I’ve given others in recent years – I have three guiding principles, and an anti-bucket list. We decide after some talk that my guiding principles aren’t values, they are what rises up from my values. I rephrase, saying maybe they point me toward things I want to be sure to value. I also tell her I know some things I am “against.”

Two days ago I was invited to Trudy’s house for a gathering of Buddhist women. We watched a brief interview of Thich Nhat Hanh, ate salad and berries on the back patio, and talked about practices that sustain us. We did a walking meditation, circling her house.  One of the women shared she meditates in the morning using Angel cards, and we talk about rune stones and the Aquarian Tarot. Trudy tells us how she does heart infusion meditations before she gets out of bed in the morning. My aunt talks about a loving kindness meditation, in which you first picture someone you perceive as easy to love, and wish them happiness, wellness and equanimity. From there you begin picturing people less easy to love, and wish those same things for them, in an effort to open your heart.

One of my spiritual guides is teaching me a path of embracing the heart, and I am watching for signs on this route. I remembered hiking with a friend as he was breaking in his new boots, preparing for his upcoming backpacking trip into the Maroon Bells. He was working on his posture and stance as he was walking, and said something about leading with the heart. He looked stiff at first, thrusting his chest out in front, arching his back and tucking his chin.

When I was walking a very long distance last summer, I worked on surrendering everything, good and bad, to God. I surrender the sunrise. I surrender the rock in my shoe. I surrender the river water alive under the bridge. I surrender my anxious thoughts. This year, walking long distances on the shore, I am using a similar technique, bringing everything I notice or think about to my heart. There, with attention and breath, whatever is brought there dissolves in love.

Walking the eastern edge of the country requires attention. The surf has brought in all manner of risk to the soles of my feet, from brilliant blue jellyfish to jagged shells. After a certain number of miles, my ankle may start to cramp, or the bottom of one foot ache, or my hip may start sending me messages. I then try to focus on the movement of walking – am I leading with my toes? Does the pad of my foot touch down first, or my heel? What is the length of this stride? And this one? And this one? Sometimes a small shift can ease a developing pain.

Long stretches of beach are empty, and I am fortunate to be walking under astonishing skies, listening to my thoughts, and trying to convert their currency to love. I am a baby at this, a beginner, and my mind and heart are often cloudy and distressed. I think of Duke leading with his chest, and thrust my own heart space forward, shoulders back, walking slower in order to concentrate, and try to let my awareness reside in my heart, and my consciousness shifts in that way that feels like an act of grace, and I feel for a few minutes as though my heart is my essence, and everything else–my rib cage, and torso, and muscles and ligaments and legs—is just a vehicle to carry my heart through the world.

Duke looked stiff at first, and complained how quickly he would forget to walk heart-first. I am clumsy in this practice, easily confused by a roving mind that is determined to tip my heart from its center. I try picturing my body as a ceremonial chair, a litter for royalty, carrying the precious heart in a space both accessible and protected. Seen that way, the attention I bring to the care of myself becomes holy work. I am in the Altar Society.

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