This is me…

This is me not knowing what to write; knowing only enough to know that I should just start clacking away and see what happens; knowing that if I allow my current state of I don’t feel like writing to continue that I’ll suffer more for it.

This is me amid a much longer process of inner recallibration than I would prefer, wishing I could just be onto the next thing already – whatever the thing is – with this clunky awkward exhausting stage behind me as something I could point back to and say I came out better for it in the long-run.

This is me, a usually very decisive, action-based dame, being un-nerved by not knowing what the heck comes next in the book of my life.

This is me being antsy & agitated on my meditation cushion in the mornings  (but at least still sitting); missing my time spent as a hospice volunteer; missing my time spent as a super amateur drummer for a local African dance troupe; missing spending time with my friends; missing gathering people together for the sake of helping to foster the building of community; missing the attending of music shows; missing the places I used to go and realize now I took for granted pre-virus; missing….

This is me wondering if I have what it takes to actualize my husband and I’s shared long-held vision of building a mindfulness practice center here in our much beloved home state of Montana.

This is me wondering if perhaps I could use a long stay at Deer Park Monastery, my home away from home, to help me refuel and re-hydrate and re-balance.

This is me wondering what my future holds, as I step back and away from certain roles I’ve been invested in for a long long time.

This is me wondering what comes next.

This is me, being human.

 

 

 

Paramita #5: Meditation

WEEK FIVE: MEDITATION
(taken and pieced together from Thay’s book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching)

Verse to read & reflect on daily:

Meditation consists of two aspects: stopping and looking deeply. We run our whole life chasing after one idea or happiness or another. Stopping is to stop our running, our forgetfulness, our being caught in the past or the future. We come home to the present moment, where life is available. Stopping is the practice of calming our body and emotions through the practice of mindful breathing, mindful walking, and mindful sitting; it is also the practice of concentrating, so we can live deeply each moment of our life. Looking deeply is to see the true nature of things. You look deeply into the person you love and find out what kinds of suffering or difficulty she has within herself and what aspirations she holds.

Unlike with the other paramitas thus far, this one brought up very little for me. The other ones spurred a lot of reflection for me but this past week very little has bubbled up for me around meditation and the daily verse.

The emphasis on looking deeply resonates for me and I appreciate how simply Thay broke meditation down to stopping & looking deeply. I think sometimes it can be easy to think meditation is just about stopping – but for me, if I practice stopping without also adding in the practice of deep looking, then I’m not so sure really much can change or transform; I’m not sure I can do much growing.

Deep looking is a necessary component of transformation, growth work, and skill building. In late March, I watched a Dharma talk online by Brother Phap Dung and I took notes during it (as I always do) and I jotted down something he shared: “ Deep looking is not analyzing, it means deep listening.” This really spoke to me. As soon as I heard him say that it made so much sense. So I’ve been keeping this teaching close to me: deep looking means deep listening. And I would add for myself: deep looking means being curious and asking questions.

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Living with Chronic Pain

I just spent an hour or so crafting an email to a young woman looking for some support that I was connected with through a mutual friend. A young woman who lives with chronic pain and has tried using mindfulness as a tool to work with better managing her pain levels, with little success.

Knowing how best to respond to these sort of inquiries has been a challenge for me in the past. In my view, trying to take up meditation for the first time while in the midst of great difficulty (physical or otherwise) is just extremely difficult, if not near impossible. But I wound up finding an angle to share from that I feel pretty good about. Here is the email in its entirety, in hopes that it may offer benefit to other fellow folks who live with chronic pain as well.

Dear ________,

My apologies for the delay in getting back to you. Thanks for writing and feeling comfortable to share with me a bit about what you’re going through and your experience with mindfulness in relation to living with chronic pain.

I myself have a nerve condition called CRPS, which I developed when I was in my late 20’s (I’m now 40-years-old). I was on meds for a number of years which, as you said, took the edge off. I also walked with a cane for a few years as a result of my pain and challenges in moving. I’ve been off my meds now for a few years and only use my cane once in a great while, on my high pain days. I’m on disability for my condition but I am able to work very part time.

What you shared in regards to when your mind quiets it then floods with emotion/grief makes so much sense, I can totally understand that based on my own experience back in the beginning of my journey with living with chronic pain. Meditation is not a one-size fits all approach – and especially when it comes to living with chronic pain, I think it’s important to be aware that meditation can bring up more discomfort in our mind than it helps to alleviate in the body.

I can share from my own experience a couple of things that have been incredibly helpful – and I’ll share too that both of these things took me a long while to really “get” and truly understand in a way that I was able to benefit from them and experience a reduction in my physical pain levels.

1. Mind/Body Connection. As a mindfulness practitioner since my early 20’s, I was grateful to have some background in the practices of mindfulness and sitting meditation before the onset of my illness and pain AND it also took me a long while to really see how closely and intrinsically linked the mind & body are. After my injury (which is what led to my nerve condition) as time went on, I saw more and more clearly that the more I generated stories of thought about how bad the pain was, how awful it was that I’d be in this pain forever, how I’d never be able to do X Y Z again, and so on, the more these thoughts and stories amped up my physical pain. As soon as I started thinking about how bad the pain was and started running with that story, my pain was immediately worse. So a big game changer for me with my pain levels had to do with making friends with my body and with my pain when it kicked up – prior to making friends with my body, I treated it like an enemy with which to battle and fight against. I would literally say (internally) to my body: I hate you, I hate this, NO! And this fight mode increased my pain, every time. So I learned to start making friends with my body and my pain – when I was unable to do something I wanted to do, when I was bed ridden with pain, I would say to myself: It’s okay body, I’m here for you, I’m going to take good care of you. And this befriending process changed my experience with pain almost right away, because I wasn’t adding to the fury of it by tensing up and hating and fighting against my own body. I would also put my hands on the high pain area and send it kindness through light touch, helping to care for my body. And as hard as it oftentimes was, I would smile to my body when my pain was unbearable. These friendly approaches to my body were very helpful and an important part of learning how to better manage my pain.

 

2. The Art of Resting. Gosh this one took me a hella long time to embody. Friends who have known me for a long time will often ask me what changed in regards to my condition, as they saw how bad it used to be for me, walking with a pain and being incredibly limited in movement with high pain levels and now I’m at the point where no one would know I’m someone who lives with chronic pain and physical limitations. And the answer I give them is this: the greatest thing that has helped my condition is that I’ve learned the vital importance and power of the art of resting. It used to be that I fought against resting tooth and nail – No! I shouldn’t be resting, I should be doing something more important & productive!! Resting means I’m lazy and selfish and and and!!! Despite what my body was telling me very clearly, I would rally against resting, trying to push through with the no pain no gain sort of approach (which is just death and destruction to those of us living with chronic pain). And early on, even when I was laying down (because I had no choice but to lay down because my pain was so bad) I certainly wasn’t resting – my body was laying down but my mind was super spinning and fighting and hating the fact that I was in pain and laying down in the middle of the day. So for me, I learned that the art of resting involves resting both body & mind. It became absolutely necessary for me to learn how to rest without feeling guilty about it; without feeling like I should be doing something else. It took me a lot of practice – and it was worth every bit of the challenges I had learning how to do it. For me still currently, I regard resting/napping as my super hero power. I am able to do quite a bit with my time these days and it’s largely because I diligently manage and balance my time every single day in between activity and rest. I put a great deal of importance on the art of resting in my life. And I regard resting not as selfish but actually as one of the most altruistic acts I can do. Self-care directly translates to my ability to help care for others. When I’m miserable, so is my husband, so are my friends when they’re around me. Resting is what gives me ongoing strength and fuel to keep doing the things I am still able to do, even though what I can do is in some ways very different than what my pre-injury self could do.

Additionally, I will share the importance of finding/appreciating/investing in activities we are still able to do. Cultivating joy is so important – so trying to activate energy in the direction of the things we can still do vs. what we can no longer do was really important for me. I have had many different kinds of gratitude practices I’d done over the years too and have gotten so much benefit from strengthening my gratitude muscle – I have a daily and active practice of connecting with gratitude and it deeply enriches my life and my relationship with myself and the world around me. Perhaps something fun for you to do is something I’ve done in the past where I had a gratitude buddy to share with once a week or once every 2-weeks – so we checked in with each other and each shared our recent gratitudes, with maybe a little commentary about why we were grateful for the things we mentioned.

I’m a big proponent of starting small to work big, as I like to call it. Starting with small small super doable steps sets us up for success when it comes to bringing on board anything new in the way of change work/growth work. And I would encourage this approach with meditation too, if that is something you are interested in cultivating in your life. Please don’t feel like you have to sit for some long hellish amount of time in order to do it right or that you have to sit in some particular position. If you do want to start a meditation practice, I would suggest you start with 2-minutes. And be in a position that is comfortable for you, or as comfortable as you can get. It might be laying down. It might be sitting on your couch. Set a timer for 2-min and see if during that 2-min you can offer yourself kindness and practice to enjoy your in-breath and out-breath for just a breath or two. If silence is too much for 2-min, put on some ambient music you enjoy and have that accompany you for the 2-min, to help your mind settle. If the 2-min feels doable, continue sitting (or laying) for 2-min maybe 3-5 days a week and then feel things out for yourself – maybe you feel ready to increase to 4 or 5-min after a couple of weeks, and maybe not. The point is to start with a really doable amount of time in sitting meditation and not to set goals that are near impossible to stick with – consistency is more important than the length of time you sit for. There are some meditation apps I’ve heard great things about too that might be helpful – Insight Timer is one of them. Smiling Mind and Stop, Breathe & Think are others I’ve heard good things about. These are also all free, or have free options involved with them. 10% Happier might also be worth looking into (which is an app and podcast). Having guided meditations (and keeping them short) can be helpful.

I hope some of this was helpful. Please know I’m happy to chat more with you and I’m here if you simply want to connect with another sister living with chronic pain, which can be helpful in and of itself, as those without direct experience with chronic pain, while often well-intentioned, can only understand so much and I’ve found that friends/family can say things that really show how little they get it (and how could they?!).

With care,
Nicole

 

Paramita #1: Generosity

Excerpt from The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh:

The Six Paramitas are a teaching of Mahayana Buddhism. Paramita can be translated as “perfection” or “perfect realization.” The Chinese character used for paramita means “crossing over to the other shore,” which is the shore of peace, non-fear, and liberation.

(1) dana paramita – giving, offering, generosity.

(2) shila paramita – precepts or mindfulness trainings.

(3) kshanti paramita – inclusiveness, the capacity to receive, bear, and transform the pain inflicted on you by your enemies and also by those who love you.

(4) virya paramita – diligence, energy, perseverance.

(5) dhyana paramita – meditation.

(6) prajña paramita – wisdom, insight, understanding.

Practicing the Six Paramitas helps us to reach the other shore — the shore of freedom, harmony, and good relationships. 

This past week marked the start of a 6-week, largely online based, self-propelled, group-supported reflection practice I put together in order to delve more deeply into the Six Paramitas. The group is free and open to our local sangha members and there are 6 of us participating. Each week starting on Mondays, we read and reflect daily on a verse I send to the group on the paramita we’re focused on and on Sundays we report back to the group, via a few typed sentences posted on a shared Google doc, about what was alive for us in relation to working with the paramita over the past week. I also send an audio recording for folks to listen to centered on the paramita at hand.

Here is the verse our group has been reading & reflecting on daily this past week, which I took and pieced together from the section focusing on the First Paramita from Thay’s book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings:

To give means first of all to offer joy, happiness, and love. The greatest gift we can offer anyone is our true presence. What else can we give? Our stability; Our freedom; Our freshness; Peace; Space; Understanding.

The practice of giving can bring you to the shore of well-being very quickly. What you give is what you receive. Whether you give your presence, your stability, your freshness, your solidity, your freedom, or your understanding, your gift can work a miracle. Dana paramita is the practice of love.

So for the past week, I’ve been focusing on Giving/Generosity. Here are some of my personal reflections & other things I penned down over the last few days:

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Don’t Try to be a Good Practitioner

No photo description available.

 

I posted this on my personal Facebook page this morning (along with the pic above):

Since January, I’ve been choosing a new card every Monday from Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Everyday Peace Cards: 108 Mindfulness Meditations” to read and reflect on for the span of one-week. Yesterday, I chose this card out at random: Peace is contagious. Seems a good fit for the times we find ourselves in.

Just as a virus is contagious and transmittable to others, so too are such things as fear, panic, worry, and despair. And, thankfully, such things as peace, joy, ease, understanding, and solidity are also contagious and transmittable.

Please know that I am here for anyone in need of extra support. Dear friends, I am here for you. We are here for each other.

_____________

In case you can’t read the card above in the pic, it says:

If you have been able to embrace your in-breath and your out-breath with tenderness, you know that they in turn embrace your body and your mind. If you have practiced meditation, you have already discovered this. Peace is contagious. Happiness is contagious.

___________

A little while after posting,  I thought to myself: Hmm. Oh dear. What if certain people read that post and receive a different message than I’m intending? A message people translate into: “Oh great. Now in order to be a “good mindfulness practitioner” it means I can’t be stressed out or worried about what’s going on in the wake of covid19. But the things is: I AM stressed out and worried, so I’m totally doing it wrong! I’m not a good mindfulness practitioner!”

The above scenario is a worse case situation to my heart’s calling, as someone sincerely invested in helping to support other mindfulness practitioners in the Thich Nhat Hanh tradition and simply people in general. Whenever I write something practice related and post it on one of my many online platforms –  which is to say: pretty much every day – I am actively aware of how people might misunderstand or misinterpret what I’m saying. It’s a risk I choose to take, but I do not take it lightly.

So, this is me wanting to send out the bat signal to say:

Sweet community, whether we know each other or not,

whether you are a mindfulness practitioner or not,

please do not try to be a “good practitioner.”

Please do not think that to worry or to be fearful

translates to your being a “bad Buddhist” or a bad anything.

 

The teaching on Peace is Contagious

does not preclude us from experiencing feelings

of worry, upset, fear, or distress.

This is not an either/or situation.

Every time we take good care of our fear when it arises;

every time we take good care of our worry when it arises;

this too is a way we practice to cultivate peace.

Here is a short poem I wrote this morning and posted on my writer’s Facebook page:

Imagine I were lone paddling
in a kayak towards you,
growing larger and larger
as I drew closer and closer.

Imagine, as you began to see my face
with more detail,
you could feel my great affection
for you;
see it in my naked, shining eyes.

Imagine I docked my humble craft
on the pebbled shores
where you stood;
joined you on the solid ground;
greeted you with a warm smile,
and wrapped my arms around you
and never let go.

Deer Park, Departure Day

Tuesday February 25th, 2020
Departure Day

My departure day
Back to my winter mountains
With joy in my heart

5:10am (DH)

I slept fitfully last night and decided to sleep in a little past my alarm. Today is a big travel day for me and I want to go into it as well rested as I can. I’m looking forward to my travels and winged journeys today. I’m looking forward to landing in Missoula when the day ends, where my people and my sweet little house reside. I’m turning in ocean for mountains; warmth for cold; blooming flowers for snow – and I’ll tell you: it’s a good trade.

___________

One moment, here.
One moment, elsewhere.
An imprint of energy,
a momentary lingering,
a reminding fragrance
of something long ago.

I am a guest in this place.
I will be a guest in the next.
Just passing through.

____________

6:40am (DH)

My mental landscape was very much angled in the direction of home this morning during my sit. Few and far between were the moments when I was fully with my breathing in the present moment. Sometimes that happens.

The rising sun is slowly alighting the hillside situated out the west facing bank of windows here in the DH. It’s a blue sky day here in southern California. When I lay my head to pillow tonight, I’ll be in my own bed, in my own dwelling place, in my own town. And I’ll need to adjust on a few levels: of being back in the world of stimulus; of being solo without Mike; of having many things to do and places to go and people to check in with.

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Deer Park, Day 17

Before

After

Monday February 24th, 2020
Day 17

Solitude broken
Two brothers in the kitchen
Quietude no more

5:10am (DH)

Since it’s Lazy Day, I opted to venture down here to the DH instead of the TR, figuring some of the Earth Holder retreat staff might use it for a morning hangout spot. I’m particularly covetous about quietude and solitude in the early morning. When my mornings are compromised – absent of Q & S – I feel a mild strain on the whole of my day that follows.

I was planning to get a little more sleep this morning and didn’t set my alarm. But I woke naturally at 4:45am and then was unable to get back to sleep on account of our snoring neighbor on the other side of the wall.

As I write, I’m feeling a bit sleep-spacey.

Last night after dinner, Mike and I fetched a deck of cards and a magnetic hangman game from the TR and brought them back to our room to play them. We had such a good time playing games and drinking tea.

Before dinner last night, I decided to take on a small project in the Big Hall. While retrieving my headphones for the Dharma talk yesterday, I noticed what a tangled mess all of the extender cords for the headphones were. So I set to the task of discombulating them. I spent an hour emptying out one of the bins and wrapping all of the individual cords back up in an orderly fashion (see pics above). I’ll go back for part two sometime this morning. I probably have another hour’s worth of work left. I’m sure it won’t stay neat and organized for long but it was satisfying work all the same.

___________

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Deer Park, Day 16

Sunday February 23rd, 2020
Day 16

Dharma is the path
Of understanding and love
Sangha is the way

Early morning, time un-jotted down (tearoom)

Something I just read and enjoyed from Wisdom Within, teaching and poetry of Zen Master Tue Trung Thuong Sy (1230-1291):

“If you follow a routine and don’t truly live the profound meaning, you will become a robot. Tue Trung just tried to take them out of the land of robots.”

The land of robots. Love it.

Walk in Zen, sit in Zen,
then you will see the lotus blooming in fire.
When your will becomes weak, strengthen it.
When your place is peaceful and suitable, just stay there.

– Tue Trung

___________

Being an island unto our self and practicing the better way to live alone (both teachings in our tradition) might sit in paradoxical confusion for many of us when paired with our tradition’s pronounced focus on community building and taking refuge in the sangha. Thay has said: “even the Buddha without a sangha cannot do much.” What then are we to make of this? Non-duality is a tricky, sticky mess for most of us.

Both things are true. As practitioners, we apply effort in both directions: cultivating self-sovereignty AND cultivating community. It’s not one OR the other, it’s both.

I think this can be especially confounding to us because we so easily get caught in form. But as from the book in the mention above, if we follow a routine and lose the meaning and spirit of it, we become like robots. Form is beneficial and important but only so much that we keep it infused with the spirit of why we’re engaging with it.

___________

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Deer Park, Day 15

Freshly mulched Circle Garden :)

Saturday February 22nd, 2020
Day 15

I finished a book
Free to pursue other things
A small weight lifted

4am (tearoom)

Mark the day, mark the time. It’s 4am and I’ve done it. I just finished Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I made it all the way through. It’s a miracle. Okay, well, not a miracle but it is astounding. If someone were to ask me what the book is about, the honest truth (my truth) would be: I really have no idea. If pressed (which: who does that about a book?), I guess I’d say something seemingly meaningful but actually avoidant like: it’s a coming of age story; a finding who we are story; a story about running until there’s no where left to run.

So I read the book and this morning I finished the book. So, that’s a thing that happened. In two-weeks time spent at a monastery, I read the 530-page book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

__________

Percolation: The other day, as our work crew was readying to fill the 1988 Toyota with mulch down at the gate, someone mentioned having a preference of shovel. He said he’d been working with it the last few mulching times and gotten to know how it handles, and thus, preferred to use a particular one. Someone else joked: Ah, so you’re attached to it, to which I lightly (and surprisingly) chimed in: I think there’s a difference between attachment and making efficient use of a tool, or something to that effect. As Buddhist practitioners, I think this is a topic that is in need of unpacking. Tossing around the word ‘attachment’ doesn’t do us any favors if we don’t know what it means for our own self and what our motivation or end-game is with it.

Too often, this word gets used with a jilted tone or in a snide manner in a skewed context. It’s not at all helpful to tell someone else when you feel they’re attached to something. It’s also not helpful to patronize someone about it. “Now, now, be a good Buddhist and don’t be attached.” Blech. Who wants to be treated like that? (And I’m coming from experience here. I’ve heard long-term practitioners chide people, myself included, like this.) Spiritual whitewashing is something I have very little tolerance for. As soon as I get even the slightest hint that someone isn’t being sincere or isn’t well-grounded or is caught in the form of the practice, I high-tail it the other way.

In my way of thinking, connecting with others and gravitating towards certain people and certain things is not necessarily attachment. I also don’t think all preferences equate to being attached. For me, attachment is a rigid structure for denying the truth and reality of impermanence. It involves relying on someone or something or some experience to be a certain way in order to make us feel a certain way. When we’re attached, there’s something we want to have stay the same and not change. So, in my view, I think there’s potentially a way to be in close relationship with others and to have likes and interests without being “attached.”

And, as with most things, there’s a spectrum when it comes to attachment, so in a sense, preferences are an attachment, they’re just on the low end of the spectrum. Where any particular attachment falls on the spectrum I think depends on how quickly we are able to shift gears when something unexpected happens. If we prefer a certain shovel, for example, but our shovel is unavailable, we might say: Oh darn. Well, that’s okay, this other one will do. Sure we would’ve liked to have had access to the other shovel but it’s not a big deal to use a different one. It’s on the very low end of the attachment spectrum.

It’s this low end of the spectrum area that has me thinking that perhaps to label it all as attachment, does the actual strong-natured, unhealthy style attachment a disservice. It’s kind of like if we use the word love and say I love you to our BFF and then also say I love this hamburger. When the same word is used to describe two very different situations, doesn’t the meaning of the word suffer? I think it does.

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Deer Park, Day 14

Full moon deck @ DP

Friday February 21st, 2020
Day 14

Coastal and black sage
The hills alive with purple
People arriving

5:20am (tearoom)

When I waked into the TR this morning at 4am, the smell of popcorn greeted me upon entering. I reckon the microwave in here is used almost solely for that purpose. Popcorn plus the two family sized packages of Mega Stuf Oreos that turned up in here yesterday, coupled with the fact that it was Lazy evening last night and Lazy Morning today, I deduce, made for a lively gathering of the lay friends in here last night.

We’re getting low on green tea bags here in the TR, perhaps I’ll try to remedy that today. I’ve been carting up green tea from the DH to resupply the stock here but there’s a pre-aspirant whose job it is to tend to the TR so I think I’ll chat with him about it, to acquire a more stable supply. What we do have in here like gangbusters is hot chocolate. 7 boxes to be exact (I just checked).

___________

Peace of mind (my own definition): the feeling one receives as a result of being in close communion and at ease with one’s environment.

___________

2:54pm (roomside)

A warm and sunny morning has turned into a nice cool and cloudy afternoon. I sat on my own in the Small Hall and did stick exercises before breakfast with the bamboo pole Mike cut to size for me. For work meditation, our mulch team was reassembled with its original cast plus two more. It was our biggest crew yet. The Circle Garden with its fresh coating of mulch is looking really nice. It’s satisfying work. One of our crew mates even spotted a super neat skink today while we were spreading mulch. It had a bright blue tail, which is what drew his attention to it.

It’s Friday, which means it’s an arrival day. Three lay-friends departed from here in Solidity and I overheard a Brother at our work meeting circle say we were getting 9 new lay friends arriving today. An organized retreat starts next week on Wednesday. The Earth Holder retreat. So the folks arriving today are staff for the retreat. And by “staff” I mean that they’re here to help assist with the programming. I believe how it works is that folks can register to staff a retreat and then if they’re accepted they get to attend for free. But they don’t get paid and they also have to pay their way to get here.

Arrival day is always a little sticky for me. I’m sure it is for all of us here, especially the monastics, as of course they live here and routinely go through these energetic mix ups of people coming and going. Given that the folks arriving are staff, though, means they’re experienced practitioners and not brand new folks to the practice and I’m sure that will make a noticeable difference. And our most challenging layperson –  who I’ve often referred to as the talker – has left today. He was challenging for many reasons, talking was simply the biggest one. I don’t mind telling you that I am relieved. I’m sure most/all of us are. I sincerely wish him well. I hope he finds what he is looking for.

We have sitting meditation and sutra service at 5pm, followed by dinner at 6pm.

Perhaps I’ll go wander up to the stupa.

___________

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