Upon this Dharma I Will Build My Church

In ways I have not felt since family church attendance and teenage religiosity, I’ve undergone a bit of a spiritual awakening of late. This surprised me, to be honest. After a solid 20 years as a set in my thinking atheist/agnostic*, I wasn’t planning for or seeking a change of pace. I would have considered myself healthy, wealthy, and wise doing what I was doing. But here I am, keeping a daily practice; attending weekly group sessions and talks; setting aside time for deeper all-day devotionals and longer retreats; and reading a number of books introducing me to facets of my new practice (that’s right, you get some embedded book reviews too!).

*I couldn’t scientifically disprove the existence of a higher power but I certainly didn’t live or share a worldview in which any such higher power had any vaguely interventionist or personal role in the modern world.*

So what exactly am I talking about? I have been moved by Buddhist-inspired mindfulness and insight meditation practice — and related activities, words, and fellowship — as a new spiritual center to my life. For much of the past 18 months as meditating and virtual sessions began to proliferate, I wouldn’t have necessarily considered this awakening spiritual in nature. I’m not sure I do now completely either. But there are some key similarities that are worth acknowledging. Whether or not my rational mind is fully willing to admit it, it is indeed something that moves me deeply inside and affects my relationship with the fabric of reality around me in ways that are more than just business as normal. My worldview and my daily life are changing, growing, and improving as a consequence.

Like all mention of religion and spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof), what I write here will mean different things to each and everyone one of you reading. I’d love to receive any follow up if you feel so moved. There are lots of questions here. What is mindfulness? Is it Buddhism? If so, what kind? Isn’t meditation a practical practice that has nothing to do with religion and spirituality, so why call it mindfulness and include it here as such? You get the gist.

I can say that for me, so far, several things have emerged: 1) Meditation moved from a focused breathing and structured time out period to the foundation of a bigger set of ideas and practices; 2) Buddhism is generally the platform upon which much of this is based, and indeed most dharma talks and related books quote from early Pali Buddhist texts or later Buddhist practices of all schools; 3) Vipassanā insight meditation is the more specific practice I’m delving into at the moment, inspired by the Insight Meditation Society, the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, and practitioners like Sharon Salzberg, whose books (including how-to of meditation Real Happiness, rumination on trusting your own experience Faith, masterwork Lovingkindness, and recently published Real Change, which addresses what it means to be in this world) have been a guiding light this year, and Jonathan Foust, whose weekly guided meditations and dharma talks have meant so much and have us eagerly awaiting Monday nights “together”; 4) Making this practice part of my daily life has enriched my quality of life and sense of community.

As someone steeped in amateur comparative religion and science, I have also explored “secular” writers whom I trust who have experienced similar awakenings, namely Sam Harris, Robert Wright, and Stephen Batchelor. Reading some of their books this year, including Sam Harris’ Waking Up, Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True, and Stephen Batchelor’s Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, have helped set the stage for my journey. There are so many more people, traditions, and books out there. Advances in evolutionary psychology, cultural anthropology, and neuroscience have brought us new ways of thinking and feeling about this. It’s exciting. I look forward to a lifetime of exploration and deepening of what I know and practice, what I think I know and practice, what I don’t know and practice, and what it all means to me. The human mind is an enormously powerful, if uncontrolled, entity.

I was blessed with a solid religious foundation thanks to a mother who made Sunday church attendance a fact of childhood existence. I was also thankful to have an extended family of Roman Catholics who helped me feel this part of my cultural heritage deeply and led me to attend the College of the Holy Cross despite not being a practicing Catholic myself. I also fervidly went through a wonderful period of evangelical christianity in my late high school years. Heck, I considered making a profession out of it at one point. (My first declared major at Holy Cross was religious studies.) Across the board, the individual Christians who populated my upbringing were fantastic, moral, genuine people. If it weren’t for a logical, educated personal realization that it makes little sense to live as if there is a higher power in general or a Christian god in specific, I could have seen myself continuing along some version of that tried and true path. But for a solid 20 years, this is how I have lived — and very much still live.

But. (Insight) Meditation, which to me has become both internal with my own mind and also external with a mystical connection to everything else outside of me, has stepped into a role that I once associated with prayer. Guided group meditation and dharma talks have replaced church services, in terms of hearing from a learned spiritual leader and doing so alongside fellow practitioners (even virtually). Sangha groups — like-minded folks gathering regularly to discuss their practice — have stepped in to substitute the bible studies or fellowships I once partook in. Retreats, ranging from virtual one day sessions to longer, possibly even silent, weeklong versions, are now a part of my life or a part of what I hope to regularly participate in. This little essay itself was inspired by a powerful Saturday I spent this past weekend that allowed me the space to really feel how this all came together for me — and what it means.

To save the best for last, I have been most inspired throughout this journey by my wife, Cheryl. Her years of prior meditation practice and mindfulness introspection inform the true foundation that I now share thanks to her. Our journey together has meant the world to me. Our relationship has improved and continues to grow deeper as a direct consequence. And in fact, my first a-ha moment came thanks to her. Cheryl brought me to the Feathered Pipe Ranch in August 2019 for a seven-day yoga retreat. The meditation practices briefly touched on throughout that week by Judith Hanson Lasater and the spiritual energy that infuses that magical Montana place touched me deeply. The importance of that week and its shamanic location still resonates powerfully within me as a personal Rivendell. We hope to return this summer.

Mindfulness is as good a single word or concept as it gets to capture the essence of this all in a concise manner with some degree of mutual understanding. That is thanks to the burgeoning movement that has emerged over the past 50 years into a household and workplace norm. I am careful, however, at this point in my journey to specifically characterize how Buddhism intersects with all of this. It most certainly does inform much of this practice, and profoundly at that. I am also very aware that there is some version of cultural appropriation at play here in the United States, even if it is very much encouraged by Buddhist priests and scholars from the various schools and sects, as well as propagated by public practitioners at home in both the East and West. I look forward to learning and exploring more on this in particular. But even as a hybrid version of Buddhism/psychology barely understood by me, it already plays a role similar to that of the Christian beliefs and practices once important to me. And in that, this is as profound a church as I have yet experienced in this world. It feels amazing to come home to a community of like-minded, moral human beings.

Backpacking 2020: A Review

[What a year! Enjoy a little overview with links to snippets of adventure that wend through 2020 in backpacking trips with DC UL and also solo (and duo). Total mileage for me came out to about 387 trail miles, which is probably just about average for a year spent living in the DC area. I made up for the three dead months with some longer three-day trips in the second half of the year. Here’s to many more in 2021 and beyond!]

January. 30 miles. Backpacking in 2020 started with a project. Technically beginning in December 2019 with our Shenandoah National Park Alpha Trip, my DC UL “Alpha to Omega” series was designed to backpack Shenandoah National Park using Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) rustic cabins as Saturday evening refuges while pushing the miles and exploring some infrequently backpacked trails. Our January 2020 “Gamma” trip was a fantastic way to start the year. Mostly because Claudio showed up to surprise us with a feast at Jones Mountain Cabin. With such an auspicious start, how could backpacking in 2020 go wrong?

February. 0 miles. It went wrong almost from the get-go. For our “Delta” outing planned for February 21-23, COVID-19 was still a distant though looming threat and we were all set to head out. The DC UL crew did indeed explore Hazel Country in Shenandoah as planned. But I was knocked out with a high fever and a week of body aches. I attribute this to the flu and tested negative for COVID antibodies later, mind you. But still. I guess we’ll just chalk this up to dramatic sickness foreshadowing.

March. 0 miles. Right, March. Our “Epsilon” trip was planned for March 13-15. I booked Doyles River Cabin with the PATC. Things began to get weird from there. First, work pulled me into its COVID-19 response team. Our focus was on the worsening pandemic in Europe and I bailed on the trip to help the flood of emergency work coming in over the weekend. Second, Kylie and Karan — who agreed to take over leading the trip — canceled completely as the week descended quickly from normal to chaos. You remember it: the NBA went down first; President Trump declared a national emergency and banned most European travelers from entering the United States; we all realized that there was no escaping COVID-19.

April. 0 miles. My April was spent much like yours, I presume. Hunkered down and masked up. It was the strangest month of my life. Cheryl and I debated food security and toilet paper supplies. Work was a busy torrent but interestingly (and surprisingly) accomplished at home instead of the office. No backpacking, however.

May. 90 miles. Cooped up but excited as spring sprung around me in Alexandria, I planned a [somewhat] solo hike of my beloved 70-mile Massanutten Trail to preserve our spring “Death March” tradition. It was amazing, though unseasonably cold. I also slipped out for a quick Memorial Day weekend trip to Dolly Sods Wilderness, West Virginia (also solo). Though I’m quite the extrovert and count trail camaraderie as one of the main reasons I love backpacking, these solo trips really fulfilled me.

June. 80 miles. Though in hindsight taking a couple months off from group DC UL backpacking isn’t a big deal at all, at the time it certainly felt momentous. Under Jen’s great leadership, DC UL came up with a COVID-19 mitigation plan and started group outings again, albeit with some necessary changes: 1) strict adherence to any and all federal, state, local guidance; 2) no carpooling or car shuttling; everyone drives individually to the trail head and we do loops instead of end-to-end hikes; 3) staying home if there is any chance of prior exposure or symptoms. I led a West Virginia trip out to Trout Run Valley and another to hike a loop we crafted out of some favorite Pennsylvania trails.

July. 70 miles. Claudio and I banded together for an eventful hike of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail that I’ll never forget. This really hammered home that backpacking was absolutely a COVID-19 friendly activity with nominal adaptations. Our UL style always has us in individual shelters anyways — and it certainly is no bother to stay six feet or more from each other in the woods.

August. 2 miles. I ended up taking some time away from the trail to recuperate from some foot pain. Sadly, I had planned a DC UL outing to St. Mary’s Wilderness that I had to hand over to others to lead, though ended up stopping by with Cheryl to join the crew at camp. After a trip to the podiatrist, I was surprised to piece together that all the work from home with bare feet on a hardwood floor over six months had not been kind to my body. Luckily, the fix was supportive house shoes.

September. 75 miles. I ended up back it at as a solo adventurer for the month. This included the 60-mile Loyalsock Trail and the much shorter John P. Saylor Trail. Both memorable. I felt blessed for these trail experiences.

October. 50 miles. A triumphant return with the DC UL crew saw us up in Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon during peak foliage season for Columbus Day weekend. We feasted and hiked and danced.

November. 30 miles. Though I got my hopes up of a return to Pennsylvania to continue hiking the complete network of PA state forest trails, we submitted to COVID-19 inter-state travel restrictions and stayed put in Virginia for a lovely weekend traversing some of the region’s most scenic overlooks.

December. 30 miles. I kept to a buck hunting season tradition and stayed in the protected confines of Shenandoah National Park to end the 2020 backpacking season. In December, the woods rightfully belongs to hunters. We had a pretty terrific time, though our original route had to be tweaked to ensure enough parking spots and to avoid any car shuttles. It was worth it. Just like that, 2020 concluded. It was a long ass year on every level. Three months of zero backpacking was assuredly “rough” — though in no way comparably difficult juxtaposed with the myriad hardships and tragedies of the year. It all reminded me of how damn important this hobby is to my mental, physical, and social health. As an outdoors activity, though, it rebounded better than most to the COVID-19 reality of 2020. Happy trails!