Imagine you had a month to escape to the mountains, far away enough from society that you would seldom see people if at all unless you went to them. You would have the basics of the hierarchy of needs, food, water, and shelter. All of your concerns, societal inputs and life stressors are removed and of no consequence. What would you do with this type of being? How would you make the most of it? What would your days look like without screens, noise, air, or even light pollution at night? Can you imagine how much those 30 days could have the potential for you to break free from old ideas, thoughts and beliefs?
I am about to find out. My life, with no little support or help of my amazing wife, has presented me with a long time personal dream. I have the opportunity to take a month-long, solo retreat into the mountains. Over the years, I have been inspired by the likes of Thoreau, Muir, Whitman and countless Zen monks. The hermitage of solitude as a path for understanding oneself has always been an aspiration that I have had. To explore a vulnerability in my relationship with myself?
For the whole month of August, I will live in almost total solitude. The location is 80 acres of land tucked away in Park County, Colorado. There is a portion of pine trees, with rolling hills and a considerable amount of prairie land. (See photo below for a snap shot)
During this hermitage, I will be eating simple, healthy food, sitting in meditation, keeping a journal and doing a little reading too. I am allowing myself a few days to occasionally go out fishing in the area, and I will meet up with my wife and son every few weeks only to get provisions and to let them see how smelly and enlightened I am getting. To keep me occupied beyond that I will begin the construction of a platform foundation for a shed or hut that I can return to and visit again in the future.
The logistics have been in the works and I am now in the process of putting it all together over the next few weeks. There is a balancing act of taking too much and not taking enough. Of course, there is a near by town that I can run into for anything I need but I really want to avoid that as much as I can. As humans we do have a desire to have contact with others. Loneliness is as much a distraction in a retreat of this kind as being in our lives surrounded by people. So I have made the concession to bring my dog along. And by "made the concession" I mean, "My wife did not want to have to deal with him on her own while I was away". It will be good for him too I am sure.
Why am I doing this? I also keep asking myself this question… This last June, I turned 55. Which isn’t old but also isn’t young. I have been conscious of my own mortality for quite a while. Without a doubt, this was impressed on me in experiences during my time in combat during the Gulf War. Impermanence of self has made a home in the background of my life. I am conscious of relative brevity of life. As we get older, we blink, and a decade seems to go by. It would be nice to blink less and to be more connected to each moment of our lives and to savor life. To do this though is a process of unlearning and waking up. It is of learning to not let external aspects of life detract you from living your life truthfully and with integrity.
Thirty days will be a challenge. The longest I have been alone like this on a retreat was when I was in my late 20s. I spent 7 days in total solitude. The property I am doing this retreat at is fittingly the same. Since moving to Colorado I have pretty much visited this land located in South Park, to at least camp a night or a weekend every year. I know the property well and have shared my adventures there camping there with my son on Instagram.
Lately, our modern world has created so much conflict within me. I have kept my combat PTSD fairly well "in check" and managed. But, I have also seen myself become less capable of coping with the noise of everyday life and have at times found anger brewing inside of me. This retreat is a true gift that will allow me to shed the layers that have built up on my psyche and to find some clarity and direction for the continuation of my life.
Taking a hermitage retreat is about being alone and building an honest relationship with yourself. It is about removing distractions and honoring yourself with simplicity. In removing some of the comforts and as much of the distractions as possible we learn to see and listen to ourselves. We can find places of strength and clarity that we can bring back into our lives with other people.
I understand as well that with this journey I have already started to create ideas and projected onto the experience expectations. The practice I hope to follow though is to deal with each day as it is, to dive into the simplicity and face myself honestly. I have consulted with a teacher and friend who takes 90 day solo retreats himself. The best advice he gave me was to be gentle with myself, and don’t make things difficult (or easy).
He has also recommended to me the practice of "loving kindness" meditation.
Who knows what will happen? I know that taking this journey is something I really need. How often are we alone? How often do we find ourselves with the freedom of time and distractions to see ourselves and understand our place? Perhaps while I am away you will try to find those places in your life where you do get to be alone. Even if it is for just a few minutes each day. I look forward to writing a little about my story and discoveries when I return. Be well my friends and fellow passengers in life.
This post worked it's way into the forefront of my mind and meditation. I am sure that I had heard this story before but was reminded of it again at just the right time in my life recently. Funny how the thing we need to hear or be reminded of the most will just come along when it is truly needed. I love the different parables and stories that are shared among Zen teaching. They have a way of teaching us valuable life lessons through mythology. This parable is accredited to the late and wonderful Vietnamese monk and peace advocate, Thích Nhất Hạnh who has many wonderful and inspiring books that I can only recommend as "Must Reads" to anyone on a path of personal discovery through Zen and Eastern philosophy, or just how to be a good human being.
The Parable of the Empty Boat
A monk wishing to meditate away from others takes a boat and goes to the middle of a lake. He closes his eyes and begins to meditate. After a few hours of uninterrupted silence, he suddenly feels and hears a bumping of another boat hitting his.
He keeps on with his practice, with his eyes still closed, slightly disturbed though by the interruption of silence. He then feels the bump again. Now his thoughts rise and an irritation stirs within him. His anger rises to the point that he cannot contain it any longer. He is ready to shout at the boatman "who dares to disturb my meditation!"
However, when he opened his eyes, all that he sees is an empty boat, just floating in the middle of the lake… At that moment, the monk achieves self-realization and understands that anger is within him; it simply needs to hit an external object to provoke it.
After that, whenever the monk met someone or something that irritated or provoked his anger, he remembered: “Its just an empty boat...The anger is inside me.”
For several weeks now my evenings have been stirred into a tizzy with a mixture of anxiety, frustration, and anger. I have been so taken over by my emotions. We have been for months now trying to get our basement remodel finished. The project started last November and has turned our home and lives upside down.
Sadly, the contractors we hired weren’t very good. But in these times, it’s difficult to get a contractor, so they were who we could get, had a (now relatively) good price, and they had the basic skills to hang drywall better than I have... so we hired them. Over the months, each time I would go down the stairs with some excitement to see the progress they had made, only to find poor finishing work, shortcuts, a lack of quality of workmanship and almost total proper planning by the guy and his assistant. I would come back upstairs with a deep sense of frustration and remorse. This has gone on for months now too with several stops and goes and the usual hiccups of electrical and plumbing added into it.
And now let's return to the Empty boat and anger parable. Looking back now, I realized that a lot of the anger I was feeling each night had a source and it was not from the external things that were happening in and to our basement. It was not from my frustration and buyer’s remorse. My anger was coming from within myself.
Those external things were giving my anger something to awaken it.
For over a week now I have been really focusing on this point. Our anger nearly 100% of the time is triggered by an "empty boat." The emotion of anger is heavy and burdensome. It overwhelms us to the point that we cannot carry it and we like to throw it outward. We like to blame those things outside of ourselves. As heavy as anger feels though, it weighs nothing. Anger isn’t really a “thing” at all. It exists only in our minds and settles in our bodies as tension. Our thoughts pool up and become sticky. Scientifically speaking a chemical reaction is occurring , neurons are firing and all of that anger builds and sticks in our bodies as adrenaline. But this is all triggered by one thing. Thoughts.
I have been meditating on this “empty boat” philosophy and it has been very helpful in my personal anger management, and my relationship to the world around me. I have grown to understand better that all of our emotions come from thoughts and expectations within ourselves. We begin to think that those thoughts are "reality." But this is not true. We have the ability to be mindful of our thoughts and emotions.
While I am not suggesting that we can completely control the emotions that arise within us we can, with practice, recognize them as emotions made of thoughts and ideas that have no tangible form.
With this understanding we can take away the power they seem to hold over our lives and the way they influence our decisions. We can harness them for the good and not the destructive. Better choices, better outcomes.
So the next time you snag your line, get hooked in the trees, miss a strike, get skunked, have someone’s dog splash through and spoil your run of stream, or maybe you are just in traffic and someone cuts you off, remember the empty boat. Your anger does not come from outside of you. It comes from within you. Because you are the source of the anger you can also be the source of its resolution. Just notice and name the emotion. Recognize where it is coming from and that you have a choice with how you want to steer your own boat.
Speaking of Empty Boats…
It is only slightly ironic that concurrent to this lesson and meditation, that I have come into possession of a big yellow canoe. I have been walking my dog around our neighborhood. Nearly every day we pass a house with a canoe sitting unmoved and unused next to it's garage. I see that it is faded and not being used and I kept thinking to myself that if I ever happened to catch the owners outside, I might ask them if they were interested in selling it. Last week the stars aligned, and there was a kind older woman outside. I asked her about selling it to me and she seemed super happy to have me ask. It was a great deal for me and a relief to her. It didn’t come with paddles, life jackets or a trolley but those things I will be collecting over the next week or so. I look forward to making some memories with my son and dog on some great canoeing and camping trips. I will retell the story to him of the monk in the boat and hopefully he will appreciate the story of “the empty boat” as much as I do.
Last post we talked about "Mushin" or "No Mind". Which is about stillness and seated meditation. But we can't live our lives on a cushion. For this reason I now introduce "Imashin" which roughly translated from Japanese means "Now Mind". I like to refer to this also as "Only this" practice. Imashin allows us to practice meditation in our actions we make in our daily lives.
The Meditation of Action
Understanding “Only This”.
Here is a simple experiment to help you understand. Stop what you are doing and find something small and easy to toss into the air. It can be a set of car keys, a ball or some other small object that you can easily toss up and catch.
Toss the item a good 3 feet or so into the air (higher if you are outdoors or have a high ceiling) and catch it.
Repeat this action several times. Don’t think of anything else except the tossing and catching action. Watch the item as it floats in space and then comes back down to your hand.
Did you catch it? Did you get distracted between the tosses? Did you miss any of the catches? This simple experiment shows you the experience of being totally in attention to an activity. You have just experienced in it's simplest form, what “only this” practice looks and feels like.
Applying "Only This" to Our Lives
“Only this” practice can be applied to literally any activity we do and can be done anywhere we are.
Over time, with practice and attention, we gradually recognize that we are not merely voyeurs of the activities in our lives, but that we are connected and part of those activities. Our relationship to our lives should be of oneness in each moment.
But the more you pay attention to this practice, you will notice that your mind want to be the driver of your experiences. Our thinking mind has a way of distracting us. It seems to be on a mission to hijack each moment from us with thoughts, ideas and attachments that are not needed or even irrelevant. Our minds like to take the wheel of our lives and force us down roads of distraction.
Through “Only this” practice of mindfulness we learn to differentiate between what is mind and what is reality in front of us. We become aware of when our mind is trying to drive our lives and when we need to take the wheel back. Ultimately over time and with practice, the most that our thinking part of our mind should be doing is to sit in the backseat quietly, just enjoying the ride.
Taking this practice to the stream
Coming around now to how this practice is meaningful to tenkara, we can apply this practice to our fishing. Begin the practice as you drive to where you want to fish. Breath, watch the road and watch your mind as you drive. Be aware of your car, the traffic, the road, and the route you are taking. Decide if the radio is helping or hurting your experience of the moment, or just decide to drive in silence. Take in the sights along the way from your starting point all the way to your destination. You can then apply the principle of the practice to getting your waders on, checking your gear, and maybe drinking a little water.
Now as you head for the stream, you are walking, listening to the stream or birds, feeling the breeze, or smelling the air. This flows to the moment that you find you are standing by the stream. We can occasionally tell ourselves “Only this”.
You are seeing where you want to cast. “…Only this”.
You are casting. “Only this”.
You watch your line and fly go through the air… It lands and you watch the fly sink and move with the current. “…Only this.”
The fly gets gulped by the fish, and you are present for the strike, you set the hook, and work the fish in. “Only this.”
Fish to net, you take a moment to enjoy the place you are, the colors of the fish, the air around you, the sound of the water. You let the fish go, “only this”.
Smile and watch the fish swim away, shake the water from your hands “…Only this”.
"Gentle Attention" not "Intense Focus"
A big part of “only this” practice is just paying attention, appreciating details, and then letting go of thoughts that arise in the moment. This practice is not about intensely focusing but is more about relaxing and allowing things to be. If you find tension in your body, then you are focusing too much. Shake it off, take a breath and change your attention to something small. Pick up a stone, take a breath, or close your eyes and listen. By focusing on only one of our senses we bring ourselves back to a place of "Only this". In the end, this practice is about slowing down to see the detail of what is right there in front of you.
"Only This" Lets You Connect With Life.
As we go through our days, we can see so many opportunities to use this simple and gentle practice as our natural way to function and experience the world around us. With "only this" we pay attention to our individual senses of seeing, smelling, touching, tasting, and hearing.
For example, when eating, slow down, take smaller bites and smaller portions. Pay attention to flavor, texture and how the food makes your body feel. Notice flavors like spicy, sweet, sour, bitter, or umami.
When spending time with another person, be with that person in that moment. Listen to them, think about the relationship you have with that person. Enjoy each moment you get to have with that person. See them as they are and get rid of the ideas your mind has implied that they are.
When you are going for a walk use your ears, nose, eyes, sense of touch, sense of temperature, the season you are in and how that affects everything around you.
Or even when you are tying flies, just slow down and be present to that action too. Nobody says a fly needs to be tied at warp speed. Look at and appreciate the qualities of your materials and watch how delicately you can create a fly. Each wrap of a thread is a moment in time you can fall into presence with.
"Only this" practice seems obvious, yet so much of our time we don't make an effort to be present and pay attention to our lives.
"Only This" Your Natural State of Being
Once you have embraced "only this" practice, you will want to fall into it all the time. Watching our thinking and seeing how our minds can take over is about living a clearer life. Be gentle with yourself in the process of finding this way of practice. The concept of "mind" that keeps affecting us is a product of living in this world. It has been built up and thrust upon us over the years. We have bombarded by the fog of living in a big world full of all that overwhelms us. It comes at us as sensation overload, stress, media fixations, and even through our experiences with the people around us. Understanding this we can begin to appreciate the suffering this kind of mind causes for our world.
"Let the noise ,fog and chaos of your mind in this big world dissipate
and you will find your place in the real world in front of you."
If you have read this far, I thank you and hope that you try this new practice. I also hope that you will continue to practice seated meditation from the last blog post. That stillness practice will only contribute to the depth of your “Only this” practice.
Be sure to let me know in the comments below if you have any questions or observations you have found in your process. You can also send me a direct message if you have an idea for a blog post you would like me to write about.
Tenkara Path has new items in our shop!
I took the month of January to spend a little time updating the Esty Shop. I have added some great new stuff that you have to check out.
NEW River Driftwood Fly Displays
I have had this idea for a while and they turned out better than I even imagined. I will be loading more of these fly displays as I make them. I have been scavenging some beautiful pieces of river driftwood from the streams I fish. Each piece is unique and a delightful way to display your flies.
This begins my year long series of looking at how we can use tenkara as a teacher in our lives. Wherever you are in your personal tenkara story, beginner, novice, or veteran, I hope that you will benefit from this year’s blog articles and that you will be inspired to explore what I am going to playfully call “the tenkara way.”
Beginning your path - Meditation and Tenkara
Before we proceed, I would like to ask that we get rid of our preconceived notions and imagery of what meditation is. Please set aside the stereotypes and exaggerations that have been fed to us by the media and our western culture. We can better practice meditation without those tropes and with an understanding that fits and suits our modern lives.
Beginning a Basic Daily Meditation Practice
Meditation really is about putting yourself into a place where there is nothing but the moment. Like any exercise we do it strengthens us. In this case the muscle it strengthens is our “quiet mind” or "no mind". With enough practice in seated meditation, we can begin to apply meditation to any action we are doing such as washing the dishes, walking the dog, spending time with our families and friends, and yes, fishing a stream. Seated meditation practice is where we create focus, attention, and stamina to being present. Meditation helps us find that place of being where our minds are not dominating our every thought.
The instructions that follow are a great way to begin your seated meditation practice.
Create space and time to sit.
I have found that the early morning is a good time to start my seated meditation. I start most mornings by taking my dog for a walk, when we get home, I put the tea kettle on to get it hot, and and I go and sit. Over time, seated meditation gives us a familiar centering point to count on. With this practice we discover that we can nurture and cultivate the state of "no mind" and come back to it as needed as a default place of being. This gives us the ability to clear our minds in any situation and just be present to what is in front of us. This is specifically helpful in stressful situations but also helps us appreciate the details of joyful moments in our lives too.
It is important to be comfortable while you sit. You are going to be sitting still for several minutes at a time and need to be able to maintain a seated posture for that time. You can choose to sit crossed legged, kneel with a pillow or cushion under your legs or, just sit in a straight back chair with your feet flat on the floor. Whichever way you choose, you want to keep your backbones stacked on one another, keeping a straight and upright posture. In keeping your spine straight, it may be helpful to imagine you have a cord that goes up from your tailbone, through your spine and up out of the crown center of your head. The cord pulls everything up slightly and that makes your spine strait. Adjust your hips as needed so that your torso balances on top of your cushion or chair, “like stacked stones.” If seated on a cushion or bench your knees should touch the ground as a foundation for your posture. If your knees are up off of the floor there is a potential to roll or lean left or right.
Relax your head, neck, and shoulders.
Your chin can drop slightly down towards your chest. Your shoulders should remain straight and can be lightly shifted back allowing your arms to fall naturally down your sides. Sit gently now and let your eyelids rest, not closed but peering out softly to a spot on the floor 3-4 feet in front of you. I try to have the floor in front of me and around me clear of distracting things.
Find a stillness in your body.
Sitting still is really all that meditation practice needs to look like. Over time you will adjust as needed and be able to get into your sitting position with little effort or thought. Then you will find your place of stillness very easily. When we find our stillness, we are in a place of reduced physical stimulation, and our mind can begin to quiet itself too. In the beginning you will at times feel your body protest. A little itch on your nose, a sneeze, a cough, a cramp maybe? etc. Often this is just our mind kicking in to distract us a little. Its okay to scratch an itch, or readjust your position, just don’t be controlled by it. See what happens if you don’t scratch your nose…. Does it go away on its own? In stillness we are watching our mind and observing our bodies.
Learning to breath...again.
You may not know it but most of us do not breath correctly. Something changes in how we breath over time and be become more "mouth breathing" than "nose breathing". I can recommend a book called “Breath: the new science of a lost art” by James Nestor. If you want to learn more.
For our meditation practice I want to suggest you start with simply taking air in through your nose, filling your lungs. At the top of your breath, hold it for just a second (or two?). Now slowly begin to let the air go out through your mouth which is resting with our teeth apart and tongue floating lightly in place against your upper palate. Open your lips just enough to let the air escape. We breath the air all the way out and can hold again for a second before we begin to inhale again.
Meditation is simple...
...Our minds on the other hand, are tricky.
This practice takes time to really fall into with consistency and clarity where we only follow our breath. Our minds are so good at creating stories, thoughts, and questions. To this day I still find myself getting lost in some wonderful adventures of the mind while I am sitting. Other times you will feel other less positive or desirable emotions come up. Anger? Frustration? Impatience? When this happens, watch those emotions for a second or two. Identify them as sensation and just go back to paying attention to your breathing again.
How long should I meditate?
At the beginning try a week of sitting for just 10 minutes every morning (or mid-day, or evening.) Then the next week move up to 15 minutes, then 20 the next week. You can set a timer with your smart speaker, or I like to use an app called “Mindfulness Bell”. The app allows you to set a meditation timer that gives you 30 seconds to get into position before giving you three bell chimes starting your meditation period. At the end of the period there are two chimes ending the session. Over time you can extend your time sitting to even longer sessions. You can even take a break after a 15–20-minute session and just walk, drink a glass of water or tea and then resume for another 15- 20 minutes. This kind of resolve takes time to build but has great benefits.
Why do we do this?
Our motivations will all be different I suppose, as will the experiences we each have. The common thing about this practice though is seeing our minds and thoughts for what they are. We are so used to listening to our minds that we don’t even notice it slipping in where we don’t want it to. We become confused that our thoughts are “reality.” Thoughts happen in our minds and are not tangible in the physical world. Meditation practice though lets us identify and understand those thoughts, feelings, and sensations in a way that really lets us live in the moment and reality of our lives. One of my Zen teachers used to refer to "no mind" (or as she and her teacher called it "Don't know mind") as being like a clear button on a calculator. You hit the clear mind button and it zeros out all the mind noise and input. You are left then with clarity and an understanding of relationship to the situation before you. Having proper relationship to our lives, we can stop making decisions based on the things our mind wants us to believe and instead understand what our true situation is.
.Taking your practice to the river
Sitting meditation is the foundation for building connection to all things we do and even the interpersonal relationships we have. As we nurture it and build our practice of meditation, it settles into our active lives and becomes a natural way in which we live, work and see the world. Stillness meditation becomes active meditation.
When we go out on the water to fish tenkara it becomes an active meditation. Our process becomes one of watching one moment transition into the next. From standing in the water, to watching the stream, to looking for where we are going to cast, casting to that spot, watching the line move through the zone, and then maybe a strike, maybe no strike. We will see ourselves follow life while we become aware of our breath through all these steps. Sometimes this whole process of fishing meditation will lead our attention into a moment of pause, feeling the water around our legs, the wind on our face or the beauty of the scenery around us, appreciating the colors, patterns and life of the fish we just brought to hand.
I do hope that you will give meditation practice a solid try. It seems easy enough to do on the surface, but sometimes when we sit our minds will stir up thoughts, or possibly feelings of boredom. Remember that the time you spend practicing seated meditation is like any skill. The more we practice the easier it is to just be there present and aware. Don't beat yourself up for feeling challenged or for even "falling off of your cushion" for a few days, or weeks even. be gentle with yourself and get back up on that cushion again.
Finally, when you go fishing make time to stop, take a break, and practice seated meditation under a tree or in a meadow somewhere. Listen to the water, smell the breeze, and feel that connection to the world in front of you.
This was a longer than usual post I know but it was hopefully one that you will value and use. I look forward to hearing your comments below. Please take a moment to share a comment, thought or question and I will reply. Until then lets practice through the winter months so we can be sharp for the spring and focused in our practice of "The Tenkara Way".
Goodbye 2021 and hello 2022.
A new year, no matter how arbitrary in its history, should be a celebration of hope and possiblity. A new year gives us motivation to do new things or to do the things we have been doing better. I am every bit as vulnerable to the sentiments that it stirs in our cultures.
A year of adventure and learning awaits.
This coming year I have decided to take on really applying the principles that tenkara teaches to my life in a way that I have never done. It is my hope that I can share this journey with others interested in seeing tenkara as a personal practice. Tenkara offers us a great model for living, thinking and being. To be clear, I am not writing anything as an expert. I am by no means as enlightened as I would like to be… but rather I write this blog as a fellow traveler on the journey. I want to welcome discussion and hear other’s perspective along the way. My posts for this new year will be heavily influenced by the art, culture and teaching of tenkara as well as the practice of meditation and mindfulness. We will explore tenkara as a meditation and see how the practice applies to and inspires our daily lives too.
We need to get lost a little.
I learned in my 20’s with the help of a friend, that sometimes the best way to learn and experience things when you travel is to get lost a little. I am not talking about getting lost in a reckless way, but in a way that is safe and still challenges us. You must give yourself permission to get lost because this gives you the freedom to explore, see and learn about your world and how you fit in it. “Getting lost” is both literal and figurative. It is about taking a different path or going beyond where you usually go. The whole purpose of getting lost is really to slow down to the speed of life. We stop taking our lives for granted. These experiences make us stronger
My goal is to do at least one post a month.
Goals are always a good thing and while I hope to do at least one post a month I will try to add even more to my blog this year with interesting content including food and fly recipes, book reviews, and I will look at doing some interviews along the way too. Whatever comes up in my experiences, I hope that we can all learn together about ourselves, about living a good life and about challenging ourselves to go beyond our perceived limitations and about finding a healthy and connected way of living.
I wish you a happy and healthy new year!
Some snapshots to catch you up on my busy summer...
I don't know about you but this summer I have felt the need to go and do as much as I can. Maybe its a side effect of dealing with COVID last year. I have been aware of the need to live and do things while I can. So, I've been pretty busy and I have had quite a bit that I have experienced in those days, weeks and months. I am going to try and do just a quick blog post to maybe catch myself up as well as you my readers.
Adventures with Fezzik!
Fezzik, my amazing river pup just turned 6 months old and I have been working to train him to accompany me on my camping and fishing outings. He is doing a stellar job at sticking close to me and sitting at my feet while I cast to runs. Only occasionally does he slip close to water for a drink or to test the water temperature. He is a great companion at night in giving me someone to talk to and share the excitement of each day. One other thing he is good for is waking me up so he can go out and pee and I can see the open sky full of unfiltered stars. He does great on our trips but is a bit more trouble at home. One thing you don't take into consideration when you get a puppy is how much damage they will do chewing up things. His potty training has been a challenge as well. He is doing okay but the days we don't have to wipe up or pick up a mess are fewer still than the days we have to. He certainly has more training to do in the socializing department. Being mostly German shepherd he acts really protective of the house and seems to think he needs to bark at every stranger he meets. I foresee more training for him in a few weeks. I have learned a lot about dogs from the training classes we took. I suspect there is a lot more to still learn.
Learning Japanese Calligraphy for Fun and Meditation
I really believe that we need to keep learning new things. We need to spread our interests in ways that enrich our lives. I had the oportunity to take a couple of Japanese calligraphy classes, on-line through the Student Arts League of Denver. The instructor, Mamiko Ikeda, was a fantastic teacher. I learned a lot about brush strokes, the order they are done in and I am excited to work in practicing calligraphy as a meditation too. Those who have purchased spools from me recently have each received one of my practice sheets as a packaging wrapper for the spool. I just had so many pages from practice that I hated to just dump them off into the recycling bin. If my skills improve I will look at posting some originals on my etsy page. I have ordered a couple of books already on kanji to continue my study and I am learning to really appreciate both the symbolism of Kanji as well as the practice it takes to brush symbols correctly and with a natural flow.
My NEW Favorite Camp Stove!
I have made many of my own versions of an alcohol camp stove in years past. Most worked pretty well. They are fairly simple to make but the effectiveness of them is sometimes less than perfect. I am doing more backpacking and camping this year and when I was surfing etsy I came across a seller "Whatsinmypack" who had a design I had not seen before. At just $12, the price was great So I made the quick decision to purchase one... Well, I was impressed with this mini alcohol stove! The design was new to me from other designs I have made and the function of it was superior to anything I have ever used before. I will let you check it out here for yourself. I used "grain alcohol" for my trips recently but you can also use 91% rubbing alcohol and get equally good results. Denatured alcohol is also a good choice. I prefer the grain alcohol because it is slightly safer in that it can be ingested. It can also be used for cleaning wounds. If you have ever purchased "Everclear" brand grain alcohol in the liquor store, you will know that it is relatively inexpensive and easy to find. I used about an ounce each time I fired up the stove and it boiled a couple cups of water at elevation pretty quickly.
Well Wishes to My Friend Daniel Galhardo.
I would like to give a very special thank you and best wishes to my friend Daniel Galhardo. Without a doubt, we in the tenkara community owe so much to him and his company. He was the pioneer who had the vision to bring tenkara to the rest of world outside of Japan. Daniel took a passion and made something amazing from it. I consider him a very good friend. Over the years, Daniel has been a wonderful teacher and has supported my work in my writing and in my spool turning. Recently he announced on social media that after 12 years he decided to sell his company, Tenkara USA, to a new owner and will be moving on to do other things. I must admit that I felt a little gutted and beside myself at the news. There was a rush of mixed emotions. I am foremost happy for Daniel starting a new chapter in his life. I am saddened a little reminiscing about the experiences, events and community surrounding Tenkara USA. It was an honor to write both for the Tenkara Magazine as well as a an article or two for the Tenkara USA Blog. I think Daniel has accomplished all he set out to do and now will have the time to enjoy a new adventure ahead. Good luck Daniel and I hope that we cross paths again soon on a stream or off.
South Dakota Here I Come!
I feel a little rushed to complete this post so that it doesn't fall by the wayside in my busy summer. This Sunday we travel to Custer, South Dakota and I will be fishing one of my most favorite streams, French Creek in Custer State Park. It has been a few years away from those waters. I expect I will be documenting the trip a bit while I am there. It is always a great trip with my family and there is certainly a lot to do when you aren't fishing too. In the past we have camped out and stayed at simple cabins. This year we are hitting the Airbnb's for our lodgings. One for sure stop will be the "pie shop" in Custer. (If you know, you know and if you don't you had better find out.) Look for a future post and trip report in mid to late August.
Okay then! I will close out here with this classic quote from Ferris Beuller.
"Life moves pretty fast.
If you don't stop and look around once in a while,
...you could miss it."
The minimalist approach of tenkara doesn’t require you to put on the whole “Captain Angler” superhero wardrobe. Nobody needs a 106-pocket vest, filled to the brim with stuff you will never use. It is simply fishing, and not a fashion show. Your choice of gear should be, above all else, practical. Every item you carry should serve a purpose if not two or more.
Gear management on the stream is a big deal to me. Most times I leave my sling pack behind unless I am going in deep and want the security of certain extras. I usually just stick to the basics and keep my tackle stowed in my shirt pockets. We all fall in love with fishing shirts, don’t we? I like the ones with the vertical, side access, breast pocket. But even these have their shortcomings.
Near the end of last year’s season, I was fishing the shallows in a side stream. After landing and releasing a fish, something in the water caught my eye. Three feet from where I was standing, I saw something small and rectangular at the bottom. A familiar light green color… “Uh-oh, somebody lost their driver’s license.” I pulled it up to see the face of the “loser” on the license…. Yup, it was mine. I forgot to zip the pocket up and the license fell out at some point. On another occasion, I dropped my phone into the stream in this same way. Thankfully, my phone is water-resistant to a foot or so. Shirt pockets are nice but are not perfect.
A simple design…
The whole unit is compact and can be folded up when not in use. It can be worn on either side of your belt or even close to dead center of your belt depending on your belt buckle. The basic design of this pouch Puts everything in one pocket that is easy to access and yet also can be closed tight with its drawstrings, so nothing falls out.
Easily attaches to your belt with snaps.
The utility of this pouch is in its simple design consisting of a few straps of leather with some snaps attached all connected permanently to a waxed canvas bag. The leather strap is designed to attach to your belt with two solid ½” snaps. The snaps open and fit around your belt so that you can add and remove the pouch easily. When not using the bag you can fold it into thirds and then thirds again and snap the pouch closed into a nice square packet.
Waxed canvas pouch with drawstrings
The bag is 9” deep and 8” wide. Sturdy and well made. It can easily hold a sandwich, your phone or camera, line spools, water filter straw, etc. The wax adds a level of water resistance as well as a stiffness. On the version I purchased there is a double drawstring set up with small leather leaves at the knot ends. Pulling on these tightens the mouth of the pocket and closes the bag. I made one modification. I felt the drawstrings were a little longer than they needed to be, so I trimmed them down. Now when the bag is fully open the strings are inside the bag with just the leather leaves hanging out. When they are pulled the bag closes and the tags and cordage is longer. The cordage that came with my bag is probably going to get changed out for some paracord down the road, but for now I am happy with the ones that are on there.
A field test
I took my tenkara pocket out to field test it and it worked better than I could have imagined. I previously had a 18”-20” length of paracord that I had tied my hemostat to one end and my nippers to the other. I was able to attach this line to the cover flap that snaps inside the bag when in use. (See photo.) My hemostat stayed in the pocket and my nippers could dangle out until I needed them.
Where to buy a tenkara pocket?
I mentioned earlier, I found mine on an ad on social media. I have since done a little research into sources for these “foraging bags.” I figured I might want to add them to my etsy store. I found several by doing a google search for “foraging bag” including etsy, ebay, and Walmart’s website. Walmart had the best price I could see at just $12.99. I can't compete with that kind of pricing and there are already a few places to get these. I try to keep items on my etsy store "unique" to me. In my search I found some different colors that I liked better than the olive drab one I purchased. I may get another for comparison or to loan to someone who I am introducing to tenkara. Wherever you purchase yours from, look closely to make sure about what you are getting. Look for quality leather and a double draw string. I hope that you find this new idea useful. Let me know what you think in the comments below. These really seem like a "no-brainer" hack that everyone could find useful.
See you on the stream!
Ahhhhh! Springtime in Colorado. Well, one of the many false starts to springtime that is. This morning I woke to 5+ inches of snow in my yard. But this isn't a freak snow, this is the norm. I have been fooled every year I have lived here into believing that spring was happening. You would think that after more than 20 years living here that I would be a little more used to to the springtime here. My wife has lived here her whole life and I think gets a little satisfaction (or is it irritation?) at this point of reminding me that "this is how spring is in Colorado".
Just last week we had t-shirt weather and I even got out for a few hours to cast a line and get the smell of a creek in my nostrils and the sound of water rushing in my ears. It was a good day. I brought along my new puppy and future river buddy, "Fezzik" to get him used to riding in the car. Maybe the problem is that I love spring so much that when it arrives I fall under it's spell. I get drunk with the green grass popping up and the blossoms that start to pop out on my peach tree. But this is Colorado. We have temps in the upper 70's and then a drop to 50's then up to 60's and down to 40's. The days get warm and I start doing yard work, planning out the garden and my thoughts wander off to flowing streams and mountain hikes and colorful fish. But springtime comes to Colorado like waves that bring warmth in and then suddenly take warmth out, over and over again until the tide is all the way in. Each wave of spring taunts me and plays with my hopes. I don't like this game.
I wouldn't trade living in Colorado for anything though. It is truly my "home". I have now lived here longer than any place I have ever lived in my lifetime. Roots are planted firmly. I will have a good late spring and a great run though summer fishing. While the population increases here I get frustrated with the crowds in the "usual places" I fish getting larger, but I also know that most won't go the extra distance to seek out the deeper high country. Tenkara is made for those mountain streams and therefore so am I. In just a short few weeks I can expect my biggest struggle to not be the weather and with figuring out not "Can I go fish?" but rather "where will I go fish?" I have already started a notebook of new places I want to explore and blocked off days on my calendar.
Flowing with the seasons is a practice in patience worth observing. Knowing I can rejoin the streams again soon is comforting to me. There is time at hand still to organize a few things, tie up a few more flies (just in case), patch my leaky waders and break in my new river shoes. The pandemic is waning here slightly too it seems. I have my vaccination and with that I feel better about my life and the future than I did last year. When we watch the seasons as our main calendar I think time goes by smoother and our troubles are less burdensome. Keep looking to the basics of life. Keep connecting with it in a natural world kind of way. The modern world offers little in the way of peace and comfort.
Thanks for your continued support. I hope our paths cross on a stream some day soon.
Little did I know that after saying this we would quickly become the (proud?) fosters of a mamma dog and her SEVEN Puppies. I was thinking at the time she mentioned it that it would be a mamma and like 4 pups. As first time fosters we learned a big lesson. It was work but had its share of rewards. The experience is one that we know we only want to do once. In the chaos that it was I was drawn to one puppy who stole my heart. I knew immediately that I would not be able to let him go anywhere. So now here I am 12 weeks later, still picking up poopy piles and learning all I can about training a dog. I expect he will learn the limits and rules for going fishing and that he and I will have some great trail adventures.
TenkaraPath Braided Level Lines
Many of us have spent a bit of our time learning to read the river for its clues. We read its surface, judge its flow and look for places a fish may be taking refuge. We look for undercuts, shadows, obstructions, rocks and boulders. These features come together to tell a story in our minds and draw a picture about the stream we are fishing. How much of this do we do with our lives though?
In my life, I know there are times when I don’t slow down long enough observe the important details. What is the flow? What are the obstacles? Where are the snags? How cloudy is the water? Where are the opportunities that I need to cast to? I sometimes even forget that I am not fishing alone, that I have people I can turn to and who can maybe offer advice on my technique, or tell me about the water up or down stream.
Our lives have these similarities to a stream. If we don’t slow down to read the stream, we will inevitably find those snags and get hung up and find ourselves casting aimlessly. Only when we slow down can we get an understanding of life's flow, we can see those subtle opportunities and become better in tune with it's challenges.
For several months this winter I have been struggling to slow down enough. This winter, like many winters, I find myself with a case of acute, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). According to the Mayo Clinic this is “a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons. SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year.” SAD symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Our winters run funny in Colorado. We get hints of spring early in the year that are quickly dashed away when winter says “Not quite so fast spring. I have one or two more fits to throw.” Learning to slow down and be accepting is the real challenge.
The moodiness we feel often affects those around us too, in less than positive ways. This darkened veil in our minds taints our perspective on life and is certainly seen and felt by others around us. An outward facing, bad attitude can make us horrible people to be around. We lose our ability to let things go and we dwell on the latest snag or inconvenience of the world in front of us. We internalize the world we see and make broad brush judgements. We only see the negative and fail to see the beautiful. The worse part of this type of moodiness is that it doesn't support our health or allow for positive things to happen in our lives.
Whenever I feel this way I know that I have NOT been “reading the water of life” very well. I am told that one of the best things we can do during the winter months is boost our vitamin D, Vitamin B12, and get our butts outside into the clean air and sunlight. I think though that there are also other things we can have immediate effects IF we recognize ourselves as being disconnected from the river. If we stop long enough to slow things down we can change our perspective and let go of the negativity.
Listen to the sound of the stream.
How much noise is being made in your life? When I speak of noise, I am talking not just bout audible noise, but I am also talking about mental noise we are listening to. We tend to trap our thoughts and feelings in a cage of analytical thinking. Meditation practice has been a great help to me. I try to meditate every morning I can. Meditation lets me recognize, stop and release the negative feelings occurring in my analytical thinking. Practicing any form of meditation to quiet our minds is a wonderful tool to have. When we can remind ourselves that thoughts and feelings only exist in our heads and are temporary sensations, we become familiar with a process of releasing them and not allowing them to push or pull us in any direction. When we find those noisy conditions, we can use a short meditation to slow down and get right with the relationship to our surroundings and situation. We can be mindful of our own noise and mindful of the noises around us.
We can also find an actual quiet place to just be.
"The wind has settled, the blossoms have fallen;
Birds sing, the mountains grow dark --
This is the wondrous power of spiritual practice."
~ Ryōkan Taigu (1758-1831)
Watch, learn and appreciate the stream.
There is a lot to be said for stopping to appreciate the view. We so often become focused and zoned out on the big picture of things that we forget that the world we live in is much bigger than our limited view. We can’t always see around the next bend and we may not even pause to see the snow on the mountains above that hold promise for a healthy stream in the months to come. Are you making a point to be grateful for the way the river flows through your life? Are you appreciating its finer features? Who do you share the stream with? I enjoy some days fishing alone, and some days I share the river with someone else. It is important to have our personal space, and occasionally a little solitude. But it is equally important to have others there to connect with too. Acknowledge the stream of life as a gift and blessing to be aware of and a part of. Give mindful thanks to those who are there with you with moments of gratitude. Gratitude is important and we express that gratitude through actions and not just words.
Keep your own stream clean.
I am overwhelmed by the amount of litter and junk that falls into the cracks and crevices of the rocks along the banks of some of the streams I fish. Stuff that is placed there by the stream itself but that is inevitably traceable to the negligence of others. Life is like that too. Sometimes it seems like a futile process of picking up after others. But we are each guilty in some way of adding to the problem. It is important to look at the things you have in your life that you are unintentionally allow to fall between the rocks. Where are the rocks in our lives holding all the trash? Look no further than your bookshelves, closets, drawers, garages etc. We may be careful not to litter the stream but we are still guilty of overt consumerism, wastefulness, and hoarding. How much garbage needs to be picked up out of your stream? Where does our garbage (both figurative and literal) go? The only way we can keep our lives and our life streams clean is to make mindful decisions on what we buy, why and how we will dispose of those things. We have to realize that others are not going to do the right thing every time and so we will have to pick up the slack. This is our service to the planet and it can be the service we have to our immediate world as well.
As spring in Colorado approaches, I am starting to thaw out and I am breaking free of my fight with Seasonal Affective Disorder. I am waking up from a slumber of sorts, like a grumpy bear coming out of hibernation. As I leave my cave of darkness, I want to be sure to take notice of the stream that is there before me. I need to accept it just as it is and not be overwhelmed by the changes the winter has made to it. I need to also be patient and not let my imagination get caught up in the things that “might” be under the snow yet to thaw. I hope that this week is the last week I will have to shovel my driveway of snow. I hope that spring will actually show up. I can be sure it will in time.
CRAP! It is mid -February already and I still don’t have a first blog post for the year. SIGH… well…until now. I could go into a lot of the reasons I have not been posting. Top among them is that I have been doing some soul searching and assessing what I want for this next chapter of my life.
For the month of February I have been doing an exercise in digital minimalism. More or less it is cutting off my social media habit and finding other things to focus on instead. I could do a blog post on that sometime down the road. I am observing in myself some disturbing programing that I am sure you too likely are affected by too. I will eventually return to my social media hopefully with a different relationship and approach to using it more like a tool than as entertainment or as I have come to think of it "info-tainment."
Though you would not know it by the lack of new blog posts, I have been writing a lot. Sometimes though when you sit down to write you find yourself down a rabbit hole that starts as a question and then turns into a messy blob of self-discovery and mental detritus. That said, I have learned a lot about myself writing these things out, but I don’t believe that you, as my readers, need that kind of peek inside my sometimes-tangled brain. I want to write about things I think you will find helpful, relevant and in line with to purpose this blog serves for me. So sometimes we wait.
Let me share a little bit about what I have also been looking at with my own changing life. Thanks to COVID-19 I have, for now, retired from my work as a magician. Leaving any career is difficult but leaving your career performing magic has a lot of challenges of its own. There is a lot of identity wrapped up in owning and living the title of “magician”. You get used to the attention and the reaction of disbelief you get from others when you say what you do for a living. I admit that I liked getting a little ego boost for having that title. Magic is something I do though and not something I am. That has been the main lesson. None of us should be wholly defined by our occupation or any one skillset that we are notable for. There is a deeper person inside. I will continue performing magic casually, but will not be performing for hire for a while it seems. So what fills that vacuum?
While I used to say that “magic is my real job” now I will have to be cool with my other job being my “real job”. The work I do at the University of Colorado Health Sciences is creative and rewarding in other ways. I am technically on the front line of medical school workforce as I work directly with medical students. I am a clinical educator. I teach communication and exam skills to medical students through simulation. Not as sexy as "magician" but maybe as unusual?
I have been able to find a lot of sanctuary and security in my world of tenkara. Tenkara continues to be a guide and center point in my life. It does infuse and influence my work in the wood shop as well as my lifestyle and goals. I do really enjoy working and creating in my shop. My tenkara line holders, fly bench spools, and tenkara level lines, continue to be available. I have also started working on some other products that I hope to offer in the spring. My dear wife also has plenty of work for me to do in my wood shop too to support her Etsy store. I expect that with the down time ahead still I will be updating my Etsy store
I am hopeful and intent on approaching a post-COVID world with a new outlook. We all have an opportunity to create some positive changes our lives. We are well beyond the point of needing just a little healing. We need some deep healing, fresh air and a fresh outlook. This is a good time for change in our personal and/or professional lives. We can focus on what is important and give those things our attention. We can change our outlooks and remove the negative practices and habits we have picked up and replace them slowly with healthier living. I hope that you will join me in discovering how to live our lives better and with more intent and responsibility to each other and the planet.
I close here for now but will be filling this blog with lots of good stuff. I hope you will join me on this journey and I also thank you for your support over the years. I return to instagram in March and I am planning a big sale of all the cool things I have been making in my shop. Let's take on this new year with renewed hope, healing and a clear direction for the future.
Dennis Vander Houwen lives in Colorado with his patient and supportive wife, talented artist son, a smart older dog, a new river puppy, and a very lucky cat.