November 30, 2010 § 14 Comments
Advent is here. I always loved the word “advent,” and the notion of preparing ourselves for the coming of something extraordinary, something that is yet to be. Advent has a special resonance for me today because I’ve been reflecting about what it means to observe ourselves and to be open to others. In the “Love” issue of Parabola, I interviewed David Rome, a student of the technique called focusing and a teacher of a Buddhist version called Deep Listening. Since then, I’ve become more and more aware of the potentially transforming power of this seemingly humble, seeming passive act: Listening and watching deeply makes it possible to bring down the walls of separation between self and other. Like Advent, this way of being is quietly miraculous. It calls what is beyond the ordinary world of appearances towards us. It hinges on the ability to be patient, to be with what is, to let experience unfold as it will without poking and prodding at it in any way (even with the best of intentions). It requires that we be able to make a space inside for the stranger to enter. At the risk of making another Christian allusion, we have to make room in the inn. The readiness is all.
To come out of our usual isolation and welcome what is coming towards us we need to practice noticing how own needs and interests color everything we see. Everything we take in is tinged with an automatic bias. We like or don’t like or are indifferent to what is happening or what is being said based on how it affects us. Oftenwe interrupt (or find other ways of hurrying the speaker along) because we already know what we think and are just waiting for a chance to say it, or we’re uninterested in what is being said and want to change the subject. When we do respond, we’re often either repeating something we’ve heard or read before or we’re scrapping to argue and prove we are right. One way or another, we want to win, to affirm ourselves (even though that might take the pervers form of being the worst). How rare it is to sit back and take in what someone is saying, listening not just to the words but to where the speaker is coming from–to the longing or aspirations beneath the words. Rarer still are those times when we are so grounded and still inside–so free of self-interest and attentive of heart–that we can see or hear an ordinary person or scene before us and see in them the advent of a much greater truth about interconnection or divinity.
The poet John Keats described this state of openess and preparedness for the advent of extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary “negative capability.” He defined this as “when a man is capable of of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” What might support such a state? For me, the first step is coming down out of my thoughts and settling down in the sensation of being present. Next comes a very gentle movement of allowing everything to be as it is, inside and out. This takes faith that is an opening outward, an acknowledgement that more is coming, maybe even something wondrous. This also takes acceptance and kindness towards oneself, an acknowledgement that no bias or limitation is final. More is possible. As Rilke said: “Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart. And try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions.”
This Advent, I intend to try to watch and listen deeply, to see what it takes to be open and prepared to receive.
November 25, 2010 § 17 Comments
I’m writing this on Thanksgiving morning here in the Northeast United States. My daughter Alex and her friend Rhiannon (who is English, which gives us a heightened sense of the holiday) are sleeping. I’m looking out at a grey sky and mostly bare trees, reflecting on the meaning of the turkey and the Nigella Lawson flour-free Clementine cake that Alex baked and all the rest of the food that I will inevitably (and probably incessantly) eat. I’ve learned a few facts thanks to the generous beings at Wikipedia, and they feel intuitively right. Thanksgiving is also a feast of safe homecoming, safe passage. The first Thanksgiving in this country may actually have been celebrated by the Spanish on September 8, 1565, in what is now Saint Augustine, Florida. A day of thanksgiving was also observed in Virginia in 1619.
While not the first feast of thanksgiving on the continent, the traditional origin of modern Thanksgiving in the United States is generally regarded to be the celebration that occurred at the site of Plymouth Plantation, in Massachusetts, in 1621. The Wampanoag Native Americans Native Americans helped the pilgrims who arrived in Massachusetts cultivate the land and fish, saving them from starvation. What an extraordinary act of generosity and compassion! And how did the white settlers repay this gift? Since my daughter and I vowed to dwell on wholesome and uplifiting subjects this week, I will just stick with that extraordinary reverberating gift that keeps on giving, year after year. Julia Child once famously said that if you wish to know eternity, to partake of the eternal, cook and eat dinner with loved ones. To cook well requires an extraordinary feeling for the way things are, the properties of things, the way heat and other elements effect them. It requires attention and sensitivity and patience and curiosity and humility. It probably requires all of what the Buddhists call the Seven Factors of Awakening. Gurdjieff once said that if a man or woman knows how to do anything very well–even just making coffee–they know something about the workings of the universe. I know what he means, don’t you? Watching them, or learning yourself, shows you something about the way things work in the real world, about the play of forces. Just imagine how much those Wampanoags knew about Nature, about the land and water and the plants and animals who lived here. They had much to show and teach the white people who showed up on their land, and the early settlers took in a bit of it, enough to take care of themselves. May we return to that original feast, willing to learn all they had to offer, which may have been knowledge of living in harmony with the Whole.
It was not just the knowledge of Native Americans. This morning I learned that the harvest celebration may have been modeled after harvest festivals that were commonplace in Europe at the time. The Pilgrims may have been influenced by watching the annual services of thanksgiving for the relief of the siege of Leiden in 1574, while they were staying in Leiden. In Canada, the celebration of Thanksgiving goes back to the explorer Martin Frobisher, whose celebration was not for harvest, but for homecoming. He had safely returned from a search for the Northwest Passage, avoiding thegrim later fate of Henry Hudson and Sir John Franklin. In the year 1578, Frobisher held a formal ceremony in Newfoundland to give thanks for surviving the long journey.
Last week, I was blogging and reflecting on the interplay of mindfulness and concentration in spiritual practice and in life. This Thanksgiving morning, I see a bit more clearly how these two practices and properties of attention work together–and how we work together. Yesterday, when I was preparing something to be cooked today, I had to concentrate, to note when bubbles started to arise in the milk, to turn off the heat before it boiled, to stir the sauce until it thickened. It never did thicken. We’ll see what time and the cold of the fridge and the heat of the oven will do….let’s be honest, I had to face my lack of deep knowledge of cooking, the fruit of long-term attention. I also had to face the liability of having a college student assistant who was on twitter with her friends and taking pictures of the cake she baked to send around the world at the same time she read the recipe to me. Still, I could see the satisfaction that concentration brings, the grounding force it is. When Alex bakes, she likes to work in silence. It’s a kind of concentration practice for her. It settles and grounds her.
But cooking is also a means to remember. When I interviewed Nigella Lawson years ago, she told me she began cooking to remember her mother and her sister who died. Cooking the recipes that they loved was a sensual, visceral way to literally recollect the experience of being with them, eating with them. While engaged in the act of cooking we can also open our field of attention to remember the tastes and smells of other Thanksgiving feasts. We can remember those who cooked this, even back to those who first showed us how to roast turkeys and cook squash. When we cook and eat we can be mindful of all those who were generous, who concentrated and learned, who suffered and became mindful of the way the universe works. Finally, I am very thankful of all those who have taken the time to read this blog. I’m very aware this Thanksgiving of how we all influence one another–how we guide one another home. Happy Thanksgiving.
November 21, 2010 § 21 Comments
What does it mean to find a way and follow a way, whether it is Buddhist or Christian or an esoteric path that pre-dates both? Real knowing, real direct engagement is necessary. This is what makes a path something other than a college course. Yet direct knowing has it’s limitations. Think of the tale the Buddha told about a group of blind men exploring an elephant. The one touching the trunk described as being like a snake; the one touching his leg compared it to a tree trunk–none of them had the whole picture. The Buddha himself emphasized the importance of direct experience, without de-valuing a connection with the knowledge handed down from the past–and from a higher source–and without discounting some ability to reason and reflect on great ideas. The Middle Path, always and everywhere.
Lately, it’s struck me that the practice of mindfulness itself brings together all those elements–being grounded in direct experience in the present, yet open to past and future–open to the influence of the unknown. Mindfulness is a practice that brings higher and lower worlds, angel and animal together. The word “sati” or mindfulness is related to the verb “sarati,” to remember. “Sati” or mindfulness is connected with recollections from the past–recollections of the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, and even heavenly beings (and moments). Sati connotes the ability to remember one’s own past lives–or one’s own past insights and more open, balanced moments. Most miraculous of all, however, sati is the ability to remember the present moment. It is the capacity to know we are here now, the capacity to actively engage in the present moment.
The quality of mindfulness, the ability to remember or recollect, is granted extraordinary power and importance in Buddhism. It is listed in all the major lists of the powers and qualities that help one on the way to full Enlightenment. It is accorded many similies and images–a cowheard, a high tower from which one can see far and wide in a calm and objective manner, a surgeon’s probe, the ploughshare of the farmer, opening the ground of our being for insight and understanding. Of all of the similes, the one I find most galvanizing at least today is the elephant’s neck (the part the blind men never touched). The neck supports the head and connects the body with the head. To the early Buddhists the nect connected the knowing of the body to the wisdom of the mind. Also, in this case, it doesn’t move. Apparently, it was a characteristic of elephants and Buddhas to turn around by turning the entire body, not just the head.
What does it mean to really remember who we are? First, bowing to the Buddha’s wisdom and those long-ago blind mean, it means that we cannot know it all. We must bow to the unknown. We must open to the possibility that we play a role in a greater Whole, of which we are not yet aware. And that image of the Buddha turning his whole body around and giving his full attention to the being or situation at hand is a powerful teaching. We are meant to pay attention with the whole of ourselves, body, heart, and mind. We cannot truly be mindful–we cannot truly remember–otherwise.
What is it or how is that we are supposed to remember? That deep body, mind, heart awareness that we are here and now give rise to a finer sensation of how good it is be alive here on the Earth–and even a finer awareness of the surrounding mystery of our lives and of the Whole of life. Mindfulness is broad and open. It is related to the unknown. The Buddha and his early followers thought that vast ideas of the impermant nature of phenomenon and the interconnected nature of everything was paramount. They were to mediate and note the impermanent and partial nature of the body internally (our thoughts and feelings arise and pass away; our very bodies are made of different parts). They were also to observe and reflect on impermanence in others and in life–no thought or feeling is final. But the impermance of the body and all phenomenon also brings down the walls of separation between self and other, linking us with each other and with the whole of life. Everyone is subject to certain laws; everyone gets sick, ages, and ultimately dies. Our bodies are not ours. They come to us from the distant past–and they are made up of elements that make up the stars and the whole universe. We are all inextricably part of a greater Whole.
In early Buddhism, it was considered a very great attainment in meditation to lose the sense of separation between internal and external experience–to be able to observe unfolding phenomenon in an impartial way–and ultimately discern the working of great laws in the organic material of our own lives. Why not start now? Open to thenew/ancient knowledge that this body is made of star stuff and that our very individual experience might echoe something universal. Why not dare to glimpse that in the movement of our breathing, in the story arc of the myths and movies we love, in what we find beautiful, there is evidence of the laws the stitch together the Whole, that reach back to the origin of human beings and the world. Be mindful of the intelligence of the body. There might be a deeper significance in the delight we take in something done well, for example, a physical movement or a craft, even watching football on telly. The great theater director Peter Brook once said that watching something done quickly and well gives people a sense of the spiritual. The body is waiting to be remembered. The way is openning, to the past, to the higher, to our capacity to pay attention and reflect on what it means.
In the words of Mary Oliver:
“You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting./You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
Only see it, experience it directly with the whole of yourself and know that it is part of the world–and the world goes on.
November 12, 2010 § 19 Comments
When my daughter Alex was in high school, she used to lament that she should have been born in the age of Middle Earth. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Peter Jackson’s three brilliant films of the same depicted a life that corresponded to a greater Reality–a world where a person could be brave and serve something greater than themselves. When I was in high school, I dreamed about being a seeker like Siddhartha in ancient. According my inner logic, being like Siddhartha was also like being akind of modern Dharma bum. I remember sitting in a big broken down chair in the rec room of a friend who liked to go by the nickname Shiva Gonzo (subtle, I know). Gonzo could always have friends over, and an ever-changing group of us would smoke cigarettes and listen to bands like Blue Oyster Cult and Ten Years After, surrounded by big drippy candles. I once read a line by Leroy Jones/I. Baraka, about being the secret ascetic at the end of the bar. That was what I was like, secretly monkish, hiding among the psychedelic crowd, hiding my extreme idealism under hippie clothes. We would talk about books like Be Here Now by Ram Dass. When I grew up, I would interview Ram Dass for a magazine. I told him that his book had been a kind of life line to me during adolescence. It was proof that a person could seek and find a way. I asked him if he heard that a lot. He laughed and slapped the arm of his wheelchair and basically said that if he had a nickle for every time someone said that to him, he would be a rich man.
How vividly I rememberthat adolescent longing to penetrate to a life that felt more Real. As I said, I would play at being a kind of hippie outlaw. I think for a lot of kids, even now, there is a lof of trying on personas, a lot of seeking extremes–of love and hate, heat and cold–as if that’s what it takes to break through the dreaminess and numbness of the age. Here’s a strange and revealing little story. One day I drove far into the Adirondacks with my then boyfriend. His father owned a hunting lodge along with a small group men. It stood on a vast track of untrammeled woodland. It was an authentic rustic hunting lodge in every way, meaning it contained rifles, and I took one. M boyfriend and I walked and walked through the snow, enjoying the vast solitude, and (in my case) the thrill of having a loaded rifle on my shoulder. To be armed and dangerous and possibly a little under the influence, how real! We sat down on a high ridge and looked out at the untouched beauty around us. Breathing in and breathing out, surveying untouched wintery vastness, like pioneers, right down to the loaded rifle resting across my lap. Without warning, a tiny figure lurched out of the woods and into the open meadow below us. He lurched, hunch-backed, like the abomindable snowman. Without a thought, I raised and aimed the rifle–and I saw myself do it. I saw that I was in pieces, and that the instinctive part of me was quicker than my ability to make out a figure in the distance. I was full of wonderment about this–that I was made of such different and unrelated parts. And who saw this? Who awareness that could take it all in?
The figure drew closer. It was a local mountain boy who had crashed through the ice while crossing a stream on his snow machine. He was shaking from head to toe. We helped him tow it out of the creek and offered him warm clothes, which he refused. Amazingly, he got the machine started and drove off. He said he didn’t live far. I stood there, looking after him, feeling like he had been a kind of herald. He showed me that the quest wasn’t far, far away in India. It was right here and right now. It was in me. The mystery was right here–and so was the path. This is what gets hard to put into words–and it goes to the heart of what Parabola is about. What does it mean to find a true path or a way? It isn’t just subscribing to a particular tradition, like the Middle Way (or the Way of Middle Earth, in my daughter’s case). It has to do with finding the way to Reality, with help (we can’t do it alone), but for yourself.
P.S. I haven’t carried arms since.
Have a great weekend!
November 7, 2010 § 14 Comments
When I was about 16-years-old, I had a biology teacher named Miss B…well, lets just call her Miss B. so I can be completely free with my recollections. Thin, with a salt and pepper pixie hair cut, Miss B was prim and grimly disapproving of the secular culture of public high school. School legend had it that she was such a religious fanatic that her fellow nuns had drummed her out of the order for being too severe and literal in her understanding. One day I swung open the door in the plastic anatomical torso we had in class, to find a huge cavity in the lower section. I asked Miss B. where the missing organs were and she snapped that they were gonads and that she had locked them in her desk drawer because she wasn’t being paid to teach pornography. Iwas a bit of a smarty pants in those days but I managed to resist the impulse to ask her why she was so testy. But I couldn’t resist asking her if she really thought it was serving knowledge to lock up these parts. She suspended me from her class for being a smart-mouthed hippie (I was secretly thrilled to be an outlaw!). Under pressure from the administration, I was allowed to return and because I happened to be good at taking those tests where you filled in circles I got a perfect score on a New York State biology achievement test. The only one in my school. Miss B was very chagrined, and so was I, for a different reason. I knew I wasn’t really a budding scientist. What had that test really measured? I was full of a kind of questioning I could not articulate. What did it mean to really know something, to not just repeat what others have told you, not just to be good with words, but to know something?
I was one of those kids who believed she had been born in the wrong time and place. I was full of longing to find my way to my true home. I read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. I would sit in the art room and make little clay meditating figures and stare out the window at the woods on the hill behind the school, dreaming about going on a journey of awakening like that long-ago young Brahmin. For those of you who haven’t read this classic quest tale, Siddhartha leaves his home and family and becomes a Samana, a wandering ascetic. He meets the Buddha (this is confusing for many people because the Buddha’s birth name is Siddhartha. It’s like a young man named Jesus meeting Jesus of Nazareth). Siddhartha believes the Buddha Gotama is unlike anyone else he has ever met. He sees that the Buddha is awake to life, yet he cannot become a follower. He tells the Buddha that his doctrine is perfect except in one place–the place of Buddha’s own liberation. In other words, this did not come about by following the teaching of others but by the Buddha’s own seeking, his own meditation, his own direct knowledge, his own enlightenment. Hesse portrays the vertical leap of awakening as a gap in the horizontal stream of cause and a effect: “through this small gap there streams into the world of unity something strange, something new, something that was not there before and cannot be demonstrated and proved….” In other words, a voluntary action–a voluntary suffering is necessary.
In other words, the Buddha could not really convey by words and teachings what happened in the hour of his enlightenment. The teachings conveyed many good and wholesome things, but what is essential cannot be taught. At least not to Siddhartha, and not to me at 16-years-old. I often thought the same was true–infinitely more so–for Jesus. How could his experience be known by us? Siddhartha set out to discover the truth for himself and after many adventures he found his own way to a first-hand knowledge of the unity and goodness of life. And me? At middle age, I’m back to realizing how mysterious it is to be here, to be given a body (not plastic one) and a life. I still want to know what it means to to know.
And after all these years, I discover that the Buddha taught in the Satipatthana Sutta that the direct path to liberation was the four satipatthanas or foundations of mindfulness: “What are the four? Here, monks, in regard to the body a monk abides contemplating the body, diligent, clearly knowing and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to the feelings he abides contemplating feelings, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful…In regard to the mind he abides contemplating mind…In regard to the dhammas (phenomenon of all kinds) he abides contemplating dhammas….”
The Buddhas advises us to contemplate the body, the feelings, the mind, and all everything that arises “internally…externally…internally and externally.” To watch the arising and passing away of sensation, feeling, thoughts, to be independent, not identified yet to be with our own experience. This is what we’ve been talking about here lately, about not seeking to escape from our own lived experience, about surrendering to our true broken state, being with it. The nanoseconds I manage it, it can bring a kind of grace.
November 4, 2010 § 7 Comments
“Everyone is gifted–but some people never open up their packages.” This quote, attributed to everyone from Anonymous to the late great rocker Kurt Cobain, points to the truth that just by being given a body and senses, that just by being given this brief and precious life, we have a unique perspective to explore and share. What does it take to open up this gift? When the wild hermit Bahiya asked the Buddha for the key to inner freedom and true wisdom, the Buddha said: “When seeing, just see; when knowing, just know; when thinking, just think.” If any of you happen to be in or near Westchester tomorrow, November 5, from 10 to 1 pm–OR on Tuesday evening, November 16, from 7 to 9:30 pm, a group of us will gather together to enjoy returning to our senses. Our sensations and perceptions give rise to thoughts and sometimes real insights. Long ago sights and smells and sounds can carry deep feelings and rich healing and transforming meanings. Sometimes they just need a bit of space to come through.
I’ve led similar groups before and it’s been a joy, like warming and cheering ourselves around a campfire. How good it can be to peel ourselves away from the computer and smart phone from time to time and plug in to the vast mysterious web of our own experience and our own stories. No fee (though donations are welcome!) And, even more importantly, NO FEAR. No one needs to read out loud to enjoy being together for a few hours, just seeing, listening, remembering, knowing what a gift it is to be alive.
Westchester Community College Center for the Arts, Westchester County Center, 196 Central Avenue, White Plains, NY 10606. Call 914-606-7500 to reserve a seat for either session.