October 6, 2011 § 11 Comments
From now on my blog address is tracycochran.org. I am very grateful to everyone who reads and subscribes. Please find me at my new address. Until soon!
October 3, 2011 § 25 Comments
We are hard at work, pulling together a new issue on the many paths people take to find truth, and the articles in this particularly lively issue range from sacred music to the spiritual home that is Harry Potter.
Lately, I find myself pondering the similarity between Harry Potter and Jane Eyre. Jane, as some of us may remember (and as I am rediscovering) was an orphan who is grudgingly taken in by a resentful and nasty aunt. Little Jane is as viciously bullied by a fat spoiled cousin John as Harry was by Dudley, and is as wretchedly excluded and unloved by the whole family—she listens to Christmas parties while shut up in a little cupboard with only a doll to love. By her own admission (told many years past childhood), Jane isn’t as sweet or as loveable a child as little Harry. She is completely opposed to her adoptive family, “incapable of serving their interest, or adding to their pleasure; a noxious thing, cherishing the germs of indignation at their treatment….”
She doesn’t receive an invitation by owl that affirms what she knows in her heart to be true, that she is indeed very different than those around her. She is not whisked away to Hogwarts but to a wretched school called Lowood. And yet she finds in the depth of her misery, a spirit and a self awareness and self-acceptance that work a kind of magic. Banished to boarding school, abused beyond all endurance, she at last confronts her aunt as children never did in the Victorian age, calling her bad and hard-hearted.
“Ere I had finished this reply, my soul began to expand, to exult with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty.” Even though Jane later feels that this act of vengeance was like a sweet but poisonous wine, it is as necessary to her future development as Harry’s rollicking escape from his tormentors with its dash of sweet revenge.
As Jane’s nurse Bessie tells her, at least some of the scolding that comes to her is “because you’re such a queer, frightened, shy little thing. You should be bolder.” If you cringe and dread people, if you hide yourself “they’ll dislike you.” Jane and Harry both have to learn to affirm and express themselves.
“You have to be someone before you can be no one,” this statement is repeated in Buddhist circles, and it is equally applicable in Christian, yoga, Gurdjieffian or any other kind of circle dedicated to inner development. It seems like the biggest paradox. If the goal of spiritual life is to be liberated from a sense of separation from life, why value separating, becoming individuals? Why not stay in the cupboard and skip straight to transcendence?
What is the value of affirming a self, identifying the life force as our own—of getting out there in the world and proclaiming ourselves and struggling and trying? We need to really be ourselves, to really live without holding back, or nothing can really be known. Transformation is not a thought. It is a drama that must be lived. Also–and I’m really interested in what you think of this–I’ve heard it said that holding back, being timid, not daring to step up and show ourselves and be responsible, is really a kind of negative conceit. What do you think?
September 26, 2011 § 39 Comments
September 21, 2011 § 6 Comments
Last week I wrote about the experience of being lost in the woods around the Garrison Institute on the banks of the Hudson. Someone commented that I were never truly lost, and this is true: we wandered just far enough off trail to have a nerve-tingling, sense-heightening experience of waking up from the dream of knowing who we are and where we are going. It was a shock, and shocks have a way of posing big questions like “Who do you think you are?” and “Where do you think you’re going?” Shocks have a way of showing us what we are made of–not just in the usual sense of revealing character traits like good humor and courage or the opposite, but that we are made up parts that don’t quite mesh–we can be brave in one way and timid in another. And at any rate, we don’t add up to an inviolate whole.
The Buddha compared people to chariots, and this analogy is very significant because it turns out that the Pali word “dukkha,” which is usually translated as suffering really means something like “bad wheel” and it refers to the hole in the hub that often got clogged with dirt and grease so the wheel didn’t turn quite smoothly–so there was always a slight bumpiness or unease: life is dukkha means that life rolls along in a way that is always a little less than smooth for us chariots, always a little bumpy and anxiety-provoking. Gurdjieff compared people (at least those who tried to see themselves) to cars with their hoods up–the point was not only that we are actually a collection of parts but this mechanism is not a pretty or smooth-running sight when you see it up close (unless you are a skilled mechanic). When I was lost I had a glimpse of this situation–that we are made up of parts like cars and chariots and these parts don’t purrrr along in perfect harmony with each other and the world around us. I triggered a surge of energy, a definite sense of being here and now. And now I’m reflecting on the experience of being found.
In Buddhism, the experience of mindfulness or “sati” (which literally means remembering) refers to a sky-like state of awareness. Mindfulness can include everything that arises, inwardly and outwardly. At different moments and in different instances, however, mindfulness may reveal different aspects or qualities. One factor is investigation, which is that probing quality of attention that arises, say, when are lost in the woods and seeking the path–in classical Buddhist terms, it refers to investigating the way things are and the way things happen, the lawful unfolding of things. Another factor is energy, which was referred to in anciet Sanskrit and its street variant Pali by the word “virya.” In the Rig Veda and other ancient Sanskrit texts “virya” referred to a hero, one who was virile (you probably guessed that). As in many other instances, the clever, radical Buddha recast or liberated this word to mean the special energy and effort it takes make the journey to liberation.
We still need to be heroes, but the quality of the effort required isn’t so, well, effortful. It has to do with opening to what it is, to letting be. I’m about to make what might seem to be a wild leap, but this is the fun of blogging and I do have a point, so please stay with me. Towards the end of his journey, Hamlet becomes at last reconciled to his particular tragic situation. His friend tries to talk him out of accepting the challenge of a duel that both sense is a trap. But Hamlet has come to understand something profound about the nature of reality–that we really are not in control in the way we dream we are:
“If it be / now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be /now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The / readiness is all.”
Hamlet came to see and accept that reality was determined ultimately by a greater lawfulness, by God. He came to see that our true freedom, our true sense of place and empowerment comes from letting go of our own will (Shakespeare knew a Bible that uses “readiness” for “willingness”) and being willing to take our true place. We find ourselves, our true purpose and path, as we learn to stop leaning forward, effortful and anxious–when we fall back on God.
September 13, 2011 § 19 Comments
Last week, I was at the Garrison Institute in the Hudson Valley, experiencing another retreat in Spirit Rock Meditation Center’s “Community Dharma Leader Training.” Why an editor of Parabola would undertake such a training, what I have learned so far and what I hope to gain–the Parabola sangha I hope to create–I’ll be getting into that in the weeks to come. For now, I would like to describe how I managed to get lost in the woods.
It rained for days. The beautiful former monastery had begun to feel a bit like a gloomy English boarding school, and I had begun to feel a bit like Jane Eyre, doing my best to keep my chin up and my spirit alive. Finally, there was a break in the weather and many of us went outside. As stood there, feeling a bit lost and lonely (as one does at times on retreats) a friend came up. “I’ve found the path you’ve been looking for,” she said. She was referring to a conversation we had the first day, when we were both looking for a walk in the woods. I knew this. Yet, in the container of the retreat hearing “I’ve found the path…” was irresistable. I set out after her. We hadn’t gone far when we picked up a third hiker, also looking for the perfect path.
It was glorious, the perfect path through the woods, complete with a waterfall and tumbled down rock walls. As we walked, we talked about life and about our lives…and the next thing we knew we had lost the trail and we were lost. It was fun at first, and then we really couldn’t find the trail and we grew a bit frightened. We worried that we would miss dinner, which is a huge source of comfort on retreat. We fretted that the retreat organizer would have to call for volunteers with wildnerness skills to come looking for us. I wondered about using the GPS app on my phone as a compass.
“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves,” said Thoreau. This was another one of those times when the trance of the ordinary was suspended. My true vulnerability, my true lack of connection to the real world was suddenly painfully exposed. It was glaringly clear that I live mostly in my head and that I have very little in the way of practical knowledge. I saw that I am a collection of parts not a whole, and that these different parts are often pulling in opposite directions, driven by different motives. And yet I saw that this very act of seeing, this opening to what is, called up—literally recalled–a different quality of understanding and intention. A more spacious quality of awareness appeared that was quicker and more sensitive than my usual thinking. I didn’t magically become an expert tracker–it was my companion who found the trail–but I felt as if I was assuming an inner attitude—a way of being with life–that was more whole, more deeply human than the way I usually operate.
Not only did I feel that body, heart, and mind were more aligned and working together, I felt the three of us start pulling together. I’ve written before about noticing a glow inside, the glow of our own life force and our own capacity for awareness. I’ve written that it can seem very faint, like a candle or a nightlight. But when I was lost in the woods around Garrison Institute, I discovered–or rediscovered–how we can pool our light and find our way.
After I made it safely back to the dining hall (and in time for dinner), I reflected on how important it is to have a journal and a community like Parabola–a place where people who are walking different paths or searching for a path can come together and have an exchange about what we have found. Due to forces and conditions beyond the control of our loyal band, we are struggling as never before. Please consider subscribing or make a tax deductible donation so we can continue to publish and become the sangha we know we can be.
September 1, 2011 § 14 Comments
In the wake of Irene, we lost power for four days. For days, I collected sticks in the yard to burn as kindling in the wood stove, and hauled buckets of water into the house to flush the toilet and wash the dishes. It was strange, being so cut off in one sense yet feeling so intimately connected with life and with the way much of the rest of the world lives. Instantly, I was aware of how precious clean water is, and how much I usually waste. Suddenly, I became aware that a house grows dark and cold at night without someone to build a fire and tend it. I became the fire builder, the keeper of the hearth. Anthony, my daughter Alex’s boyfriend from England, cooked food on the cast iron stove. We all learned how long it takes to cook over a fire—hours! And yet this was the center of the evening, the light and warmth from the fire, the promise of warm food, the common talk of how it was coming along, and then storieswe told as we ate. We all learned what is elemental and crucial, and that these basic things can be hard work, yet there is something inherently good and right about it. All beings deserve to eat and be warm and safe, and being mindfully engaged in this work can bring wisdom about life. (For starters, a couple of highly educated young people here learned a little something about what it takes to build a good fire).
As the third day dawned to no hot coffee or tea (unless I got up and built a fire and waited for three hours), it began to feel like an ordeal. Alex was sick with a bad cold, our water supply was almost exhausted–and I discovered that those little moments of good humor—that impulse to forget ourselves and help someone else are as crucial fire. On the third night, as I was struggling to light a fire with damp kindling, the neighbors came by with big pales of fresh water: “We wanted to give you the gift of being able to flush the toilet,” they said.
Another neighbor came by and asked from my email address so she could forward updates about the progress of repairs and availability of water to my iPhone. I saw how technology can help in crucial and elemental ways. I also marveled at the way this common humanity–this pulling together–just arose spontaneously. We innately know we can’t go it alone. We neighbors who rarely have the chance to stop and talk stood outside together laughing and talking. We even looked up at the stars that we commented were so clear without ambient lights…and…
And we marveled together at the roar of some of our other neighbors’ gas generators! “It sounds like a carnival!” said one woman. And it did! It sounded like the county fair, with all the motors that power ferris wheels and who-knows-what—and all of that sound and all of the gas that went into it to keep their refrigerators pumping and the ice cream frozen and the laptops charged. “This whole experience would have a different quality without that din,” she said. And I’m not pretending to be Thoreau. I took several long drives (dodging downed power lines and trees!) to charge my laptop and iPhone at a friend’s house and take a shower. And yet, I came away from this experience knowing body, heart, and mind that we don’t need to use as much energy as we think. I glimpsed how life can actually be richer and better with less.
When the power came on (bringing a blessed silence), I took a long hot shower, realizing moment by moment what a pleasure and luxury it is to have such a thing. I wondered how long I would remember to be aware of this. I washed dishes and cleaned for hours, experiencing it as a luxury, aware that by the standards of history and the world today, I am very privileged. Alex and her boyfriend left the house to go shopping for college (street lights! No danger of fallen trees and wires and flooding in the dark!) And when they came home the house was bright and cheerful. Instead of gathering around the fire, they took to their laptops, and I took to my bed for a bit of CNN and a book. Witnessing ravaged areas here and abroad, I felt blessed.
May I remember what I learned about the preciousness of water and warmth and helping our neighbors. May I not use technology to go numb.
August 26, 2011 § 8 Comments
Like many people in the greater New York area, I am preparing for Irene. I was up early cleaning and tidying up and doing laundry—the prospect of power outages lasting for days and flooding and apocalypse makes a person want to start out as clean and neat as possible. A few days from now, I might be cooking beans and smoked sausages over a fire bowl in the yard, wearing rubber boots. We just don’t know, and that’s a very interesting place to be. My daughter’s boyfriend is visiting from England—first trip to New York–and in less than a week he will have experienced an earthquake and a hurricane. We like to show our out-of-town guests a really interesting time.
We’ve been talking about solitude and community in this space, about what times or conditions allow us to feel fully alive and aware—that can even sometimes allow us to resonate with a sense of the Whole. As I was bustling around making preparations this morning, I thought of all the other people up and down the I-95 corridor who were doing something similar. I thought of those haunting reports of the animals fleeing the tsunami before it came, relying on some mysterious ability to sense or feel that we have lost or never had. Stunted as we are compared to them, however, situations like this do awaken a bit more presence. Preparing for basic survival, storing water, stacking firewood, will do that.
One thing that can be said about a hurricane isthat you know you aren’t in it alone. You feel connected to not just to the people facing this storm now, but to people in all times who have faced storms, who have faced the unknown. Times like these are really interesting opportunities to watch the mind. We think we know how to prepare as well as we can and then let go and let God as they say. But we really actually tend to think ahead and try to control outcomes–try to think our way past things–all the time. We can’t help it. We are story-spinning creatures, and we want things to turn out well. While we’re waiting and while we still have power, let me tell you a little story about this.
When my daughter Alexandra was four or five years old (she is now 21 and thinks I’m making too big a deal about the hurricane), we lived in Brooklyn, and it was the custom to put things out on the street for others to take (as it is in many places). When Alex outgrew her little bicycle with training wheels, I encouraged her to give it away. She made a sign that said “Free bike! Please enjoy” in purple crayon, and we taped it to the bike and carried the down the wide steps of the brownstone one last time and set in near the curb. It felt so freeing for both of us to leave it sitting there in all its sparkly purple glory, no lock and chain. I told her that giving things away can be as wonderful as receiving. I told her that the universe works in mysterious ways and that giving actually gives us something in return.
The next morning she clamored down the ladder of her loft bed and ran to the big living room windows that overlooked the street. “The bike is gone!” She exclaimed with a smile I associated with Christmas morning. I told her that was wonderful, and we beamed at each other. “Now when do I get something back?” she asked.
Most of us are like this. We move from hope to hope, from fear to fear. This is perfectly natural. We want to be safe and happy. Many of us are good-hearted human beings who other beings to be want to be safe and happy. But we really need to open up what we take real happiness to be. The Middle English root of the word “happiness” is “happ,” which means fortune, chance, happenstance, what happens. In virtually every Indo-European language the root is the same. It is built into the language and perhaps our genes to equate happiness with what happens to us.
Yet no matter how well you plan or how privileged you are, things happen that are outside your control. There really is no higher ground, no absolutely safe place to stand. My dear departed mother always told me to remember that no matter how rough a hurricane is (and my mother lost a house and a beach-side condo in a hurricane one year) it is always the poorest among us always suffer most: “They don’t have much to start with and then they lose that.” (When I asked my mother if she didn’t mind losing so much herself she said she could stay in my sister’s nice house while she rebuilt. “And I’m too old to cry over things.”)
And yet we are all subject to the same forces. The ground is moving under all our feet. Without denying the reality of injustice (even in this storm some will suffer far more than others–and may all be safe and well), I’m beginning to realize that the only real source of security and happiness we have is touching the earth of our common human experience. There is no escape from our common human situation; there is only healing, only helping, only grace. There is only participation.
Blessed are those who know they have no answers, who have empty hands, for they may be given something—including something practical to do to help others. There is a light inside each of us that doesn’t depend on outside circumstances. We don’t tend to notice it when things are going well. It can seem like little more than a faint glow, which may be why it is most visible in a state of inner stillness or in the midst of widespread power outages. A person wouldn’t notice a night light in full sun, would they? But a small light can illuminate the darkness (as many of us in the I-95 corridor will soon know).
Certain kinds of suffering, including waiting and uncertainty, can give you the feeling of resonating with the Whole, with other beings and with the earth itself. These situations also have a surprising intimacy about them, a kind of open solitude. They help you touch another source of understanding and intention, something deeper than our ordinary self-centered and socially conditioned minds. As tiny and undeveloped as it may sometimes seem, there is in each of us (or most of us) a deep wish to be part of life and a capacity to resonate with it, to understand. Remember what has come to life in you at times when there was an emergency, times when you had to “snap out of it.”
Smirti in Sanskrit, sati in Pali, and Drengpa in Tibetan. All these words mean to remember. They point towards a kind of understanding that isn’t thought up in the head but lived through (stood under, like standing in the rain and letting it soak in). This kind of remembering means to “re-member” or “re-collect” and it means having the head and heart and body all in alignment, all present and participating together. To have real presence means remember what it means to be fully human. It means gaining the power that comes with coming out of our isolation and joining the whole human race. This seems a pretty good way to prepare for a hurricane. Although it’s good to have batteries and drinking water and a few other things as well.
Wish us luck! I’ll let you know how it goes.