The Bug at Karma Dzong

I still regard my encounter with a bug at Karma Dzong -- a meditation practice center in Boulder, Colorado -- with wonder and awe. Up to a certain point, what the bug did might be interpreted as simple coincidence, having nothing to do with my presence, thoughts, intentions or projections toward it. What unfolded beyond that point, however, compelled me to question some basic assumptions about what's possible in humanity's relationship to nature and any individual being within that field.

Boulder_shambala_center_18-01-026The Shambhala Center at 14th and Spruce in Boulder, Colorado, known to me at the time of my bug encounter as "Karma Dzong". [Photo:]

Here's my account of this experience:

In the fall of 1989, I entered the master's degree program in contemplative psychotherapy at Naropa University, and had begun to practice meditation at Karma Dzong as a way of connecting with the Buddhist community in Boulder and seeing if Buddhism was a path to which I wanted to commit more deeply. This bug event took place during an evening sitting meditation. On that particular evening -- after two or three others had left -- I was the only one in the hall.

As I sat, eyes open, with lightly-held gaze cast toward the row of mats six feet or so in front of me, I noticed a bug moving directly and steadily toward me. When it reached the edge of the mat in front of me, it stopped. My practice for many years had been to greet -- in speech or in silence -- any creature whose path I crossed, and so I sent a silent "hello" to this insect. This individual continued to sit motionless in front of me, and I found myself wanting to engage with it further.

At the time I didn't know what kind of bug it was. Pulling up image fragments still available so many years distant from the original experience, I'm guessing now that it was member of the soldier beetle family. Among gardeners, these species are considered friends to be welcomed: they do no harm to plants, they feed on aphids and other garden pests, and serve as pollinators as they move around through flowers. I did not know any of this natural history back then, so it's interesting that the first thoughts to emerge in my exchange with this little being was that of feeling out of place.

We continued to sit in each other's presence. In my own mind, thoughts continued to arise. What might it be like to be so small a being in this huge hall, kind of at the mercy of human feet or bottoms that walked or sat here? Not that any Buddhist would intentionally harm a sentient being such as this, but I could easily imagine accidental squishings of one so small.

From this thought, facing the still motionless insect, another thought arose and I sent it silently to the bug: "If you'll crawl up on my pack [which I'd placed on the empty mat to my right] and wait, I'll take you outside."

Podabrus brevicollis on dFleaBane_4May11 (2)-1000Another species of soldier beetle that I found here in Tennessee: Podabrus brevicollis. This looks a lot like the bug I saw in Karma Dzong, but I'm still researching the range of P. brevicollis. [Photo: Cathie Bird, May 4, 2011]

I had no expectation that the bug would respond. To my astonishment -- and this is the place in my experience that threw so much into question -- the bug immediately turned and walked to its left. When it was in front of my pack, it turned back to the right, crossed the gap between the mats, and crawled onto the pack, settling quickly on the narrow ledge made by the zipper of the smaller outer compartment. And there s/he sat for 15-20 minutes, until I was done.

My exit from the hall was not that quick. I retrieved my shoes, walked to head of the stairs, stopped to put my shoes on, walked down the stairs, then exited through a side door to 14th Street, making sure the door locked behind me. Through all of this bumping and swinging, the bug clung to its spot on my pack.

I walked a few yards north on 14th Street to some plantings along the outer wall of Karma Dzong. Carefully de-shouldering my pack, I held it near a leafy bush. Without hesitation, the bug crawled to the edge of my pack and onto a leaf. I watched for bit as the bug went on about its business, then got on my bike and rode home, greatly energized by this wonder-filled encounter.

In my study of contemplative psychotherapy at Naropa, I learned about exchange, defined as direct experience of another person. Such exchanges have happened many times in connection with people, both in my practice and out in the world. I think it's likely that some parts of my experience with the bug in Karma Dzong involved exchange between human and insect.

It has not always been the case that the way I want to share about such things is more rooted in the experience itself. Post-Naropa, and meditations at Karma Dzong, I'm more inclined to let thoughts emerge, form, then dissolve, though they can, and often do, come back up in future reflections.

I happened across a wonderful piece in the New York Times this morning that led me to reflect further on this. In her article, Hard Knock Life: What Are the Turtles Telling Me?, Nashville author Mary Laura Philpott writes of her desire to make sense of her encounters with an Eastern box turtle:

It’s just that assigning meaning to events is so satisfying. I want themes, threads, a plot that proceeds toward resolution. I want people to learn their lessons and change their ways and for the moral of every story to make us better as a species. But look at the news — full of arbitrary injustices and disasters, human beings treating each other with cruelty. The part of my brain that wants the world to conform to a story that makes sense crashes against the rock of reality again and again. My soul sometimes feels as battered as Frank’s head must after banging on my door.

After sharing some of the wonderful speculations that came to her mind, Philpott concludes,

"This is the story of turtles who came and left for reasons of their own. They’re turtles. It’s not their job to teach me anything."

For me, the question of whether and how we can know another being directly -- beyond empathy, beyond manifestations of our own desires, histories and preferences -- is still worthy of full and openhearted exploration. It may not be a bug's job to teach me anything, but I do think all sentient beings are wired to relate to each other, and it's in the relating that we'll come to discover what's possible.

Mad Scientists? | ReligionDispatches

Army researcher Bruce Ivins commits suicide as the FBI closes in on him as a top suspect in the US anthrax mail deaths; University of Alabama biology professor Amy Bishop guns down her colleagues in a faculty meeting; top climate scientists’ hacked email reveals childish bickering and apparent suppression of research that goes against global warming; Nobel-winning UN scientist Rajendra K. Pachauri accused of serious financial conflicts of interest; top university psychiatrists under Senate investigation for not disclosing significant cash payments from pharmaceutical companies whose drugs they are also researching.

Good Lord! Seems like hardly a week’s gone by lately without some new revelation about scientists gone mad or bad or both.

What’s up?

On the one hand, we could say, “Scientists are just humans, and humans screw up.” But there’s more to it than that.


Interesting article -- read the rest of it here.

The author, Arri Eisen, is a Senior Lecturer in Biology, Director of the Program in Science & Society and of the Science, Ethics, & Society Initiative of the Ethics Center at Emory University. He leads formal "ethics training" for grad students there.

Bedside Manners: The Broken Spirituality of Contemporary US Medical Practice | ReligionDispatches

So strong is the spiritual dimension in healing that significant religious movements—Christian Science and (to some extent) Religious Science and Dianetics/Scientology—have grown up around it. Because these movements (along with faith-healing proponents within traditional Christianity) so often take the extreme position of denying the power of bodily illness altogether, sober realists and an overwhelming preponderance of scientifically-trained people, including doctors, have been inclined to move to the other extreme and to insist that pneuma (spirit) and psyche have nothing at all to do with soma (the body).

Hospital-based chaplains and pastoral counselors come up against a fairly brutal form of scientism all the time. In many health care institutions, these people are barely tolerated. They are pointedly not invited to participate in rounds or in patient evaluation sessions. I recall how, as a first-year seminary student doing what is called “supervised ministry” at a New Haven mental health hospital, I was somewhat shocked to see how patients’ behavior was interpreted purely in terms of reactions to their medications, whereas I could see plainly that many of these same patients were responding to the presence or absence of human connection—visits and phone calls from loved ones either made or not made, friendships with other patients either formed or broken.


Cathie's notes: An interesting article on what I consider to be an element of true health CARE reform.

Frank Schaeffer: Christian Right Is 'Trolling for Assassins' | | AlterNet

What we‘re looking at right now is two things going on. We see the evangelical groups that I talk about in my new book, “Patience with God,” enthralled by an apocalyptic vision that I go into in some detail there. They represent the millions of people who have turned the “Left Behind” series into best sellers.  Most of them are not crazy, they‘re just deluded.

But there is a crazy fringe to whom all these little messages that have been pouring out of FOX News, now on a bumper sticker, talking about doing away with Obama, asking God to kill him.

Really, this is trolling for assassins.  And this is serious business. 

via Alternet

In this interview with Rachel Maddow, Frank Schaeffer again advises Americans to take the "paranoid, evangelical group" of the Christian right seriously. He speaks to this issue in depth in his latest book, Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism).

The Gospel of Contradiction: An Interview with Mary Gordon | RDBook | ReligionDispatches

Why is the character of Jesus so powerful? Why is he such a hit? Bestselling writer Mary Gordon re-reads the Gospels, asking these questions, among others, and trying to figure out why fundamentalist readings of scripture, grounded in fear and rage, have come to dominate the understanding of religion in this country.


Hawk's Notes: I really enjoyed this article and hope to read Gordon's latest book, Reading Jesus. Some of the broader issues Gordon speaks to were the same ones that inspired the questions behind my paper, Reading Harry Potter. But the article also came in serendipitous time for a post I finished yesterday in which I explore some teachings from my spiritual tradition that have driven much contemplation about my work in social and environmental justice, as well as my interest in psychoanalysis.

Read my post, Cain and Abel in the 21st Century here.

Permalink for Reading Harry Potter (it's long!) here.

Link to Reading Jesus at

Atlanta Falcons “Defend the Dome”: Football, Religion, and Existential Power | Media/Culture | ReligionDispatches

The origins of fandom lie, in this view, not in the catharsis of violent instincts or in neurotic attempts to dominate a symbolic mother figure, but rather in the desire to connect with, appropriate, and experience as one’s own a significant source of power.


Hawk Notes: I elected not to look at this article the first time it appeared on my daily article summary from Religion Dispatches, but when it popped up again -- further down the list of recent articles this time -- I'm guessing that some signal from my (or the collective) unconscious led me to use the link.

I found the author's suggestion that fandom is an attempt "to connect with, appropriate, and experience as one’s own a significant source of power" to be an interesting idea for further contemplation.

I also found Kenny Smith's article to connect obliquely to another idea I am developing in a paper I intend to call "The Case of the Hysteric Hydrologist." In his references to interpretations of "fandom" by psychiatrist A.A. Brill and religion scholar James McBride, followed by his own take on the fan-experience, Smith evokes a larger question about how we come to know what we say we know.

As it is a larger question, I hope to come back to it in pieces over a series of future posts.

Frank Schaeffer: Glenn Beck and The 9/12 Marchers: Subversives From Within

Who are these people?! Where do they come from?! Ordinary Americans might wonder why anyone would stoop so low as to follow Glenn Beck, Fox News and Dick Armey (and their corporate sponsors masquerading as "FreedomWorks") as they organize their "9/12 March On Washington" to cynically exploit the 9/11 attack.

Patriotic Americans might question the organizer's aim to provide a media forum for dimwitted right wingers to scream "Liar!" "Socialist!" "Antichrist!" "Muslim!" "Death Panels!" "He's not an American!" and so on and on and on about the commander in chief charged with defending us from further attacks. And some people might even cry "shame on you!" to the more mainstream Republicans participating that include Dick Armey of FreedomWorks, as well as GOP Reps. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Mike Pence of Indiana, Tom Price of Georgia, and South Carolina GOP Sen. Jim DeMint.

Ordinary folks from Planet Earth may ask why the Republican Party, right-wing activists and members of the Religious Right seem so unreachable with mere facts let alone decency and decorum.


Frank Schaeffer's articles (the second I've posted on this blog -- see the two posts for September 9th) continue to fascinate and scare me. I'm still working my way through his memoir, Crazy For God, as well as Jeff Sharlet's The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.

I guess I could list a bunch of conscious reasons I'm interested enough to read further on the "Religious Right" and right-wing extremists.

First, I'm usually intrigued by beliefs, ideas and behaviors that seem alien to my own. Finding them triggers my seeking circuits.

I'm also curious about the emergence of attention by the media and people willing to watch or read about these particular manifestations of Republican politics, the Religious Right and right-wing -- and, for that matter, left-wing -- extremists in American culture.

The questions Schaeffer poses -- or offers to comment on -- are mine as well: Who are these people? How did they come to be who they are and believe what they do? Why do they do what they do?

I'm especially alert to the extreme negative emotional energy, foreclosure of debate, and rigid incivility that seems to flourish in their engagements with the rest of the world. These are dangerous symptoms in a supposed civil society.

I've had the opportunity to be in the same room with religious extremists and others who operate on a very primitive psychic level. I'm sure there are people like this in Tennessee, maybe some not that far away from where I live. I see them on TV and I monitor the Southern Poverty Law Center's Hate Watch blog and Hate Groups map. 

I have no doubt that digging into this issue is not comfortable. I put a fair amount of thought into what I was doing before I hit the publish button to share the first Schaeffer article. Any kind of helpful discussion we could have as a nation about this issue is just getting underway. I think we would do well to nurture that conversation and keep it as civil as possible, feeling the energy it arouses but not acting on impulses.

As I mentioned, Schaeffer's book scares me. I don't know all the reasons why, because -- yes, Virginia -- there is an unconscious. Because of my training in psychoanalysis, I read that fear as a clue to get curious about it, and dare to explore it further. After many years of practicing psychoanalytically, I trust the process. I'm sure I'll blog on about it.

Rachel Maddow: 8/7/09: Fmr Christian Activist, Frank Schaeffer: Right-Wing Healthcare Violence


I decided to go ahead and share this link (promised in the post below) instead of editing that post. This is one of several videos of Maddow and Schaeffer available on YouTube.

Frank Schaeffer: Max Blumenthal vs. The Far Right "God" Of Dumb Hate

For me reading Max Blumenthal's Republican Gomorrah--Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party, (Nation Books) is like looking into a mirror. That might be because Blumenthal extensively interviewed me and drew rather heavily on my book Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back as a reference for his in-depth exposé of what has gone so very wrong with the Republican Party. He's on my turf so I happen to know he's telling the truth as its not been told before. But there's more.

Republican Gomorrah is the first book that actually "gets" what's happened to the Republican Party and in turn what the Republicans have done to our country. The usual Democratic Party and/or progressive "take" on the Republican Party is that it's been taken over by a far right lunatic fringe of hate and hypocrisy, combining as it does, sexual and other scandals with moralistic finger wagging. But Blumenthal explains a far deeper pathology: it isn't so much religion as the psychosis and sadomasochism of the losers now called "Republicans" that drives the party. And the "Christianity" that shapes so much "conservative" thinking now is anything but Christian. It's a series of deranged personality cults.


I am really fascinated by what Frank Schaeffer has to say. I just started reading Crazy for God after seeing an interview of Schaeffer by Rachel Maddow (I think. It could have been Keith Olberman -- I'll come back later and add a link). After reading this article today, I ordered Blumenthal's Republican Gomorrah.

I was especially interested in Shaeffer's assessment that Blumenthal is the first "get" what's happened to the Republican party:

"But Blumenthal explains a far deeper pathology: it isn't so much religion as the psychosis and sadomasochism of the losers now called 'Republicans' that drives the party. And the 'Christianity' that shapes so much 'conservative' thinking now is anything but Christian. It's a series of deranged personality cults."

I understand the "psychosis" claim more in terms of Lacanian structural theory, and from that point of view I would have to agree with Blumenthal and Schaeffer. But I'd like to read more of both guys' books before I write more on this subject of extreme right and extreme left politics. Interesting stuff!