Merrily We Roll Along

October 29, 2008 § 2 Comments

In one way or another, human beings have always been involved in scientific search and spiritual search–in the search for knowledge and for meaning.  I came away from my interview with the Indian-born, scientifically-trained Ravi Ravindra (in “Man and Machine”) with the impression that it is a quirk of Western culture to imagine that spirituality–which must be experienced–must prove itself to science–a realm of truth which is general, not contextual and personal.  Or, as Karen Armstrong explained in her interesting book on fundamentalism,  the doctrine of Creationism would seem bizarre to those who lived in biblical times because they just didn’t think that way,  insisting on the literal factualness of a story from the transcendant realm of the sacred.

An unmanned spacecraft from India–the Chandrayaan (or “moon craft”)–is on its way to the moon:  “For the first time since man and his rockets began trespassing on outer space, a vessel has one up from a country whose people actually regard the moon as a god,” writes Tunku Varadarajan, a professor of business at New York University in an op ed piece in today’s New York Times.  He includes the fascinating detail that the Web site of the Indian Space Research Organization (which launched the vessel) includes a verse from the Rig Veda, a sacred text that dates back some 4,000 years:  “O Moon! We should be able to know you through our intellect,/You enlighten us through the right path.”

Varadarajan’s point is that there is no disharmony between ancient Vedic beliefs and contemporary scientific practice.  Indeed, he relates that in the sacred Indian city of Varanasi, days after Apollo II landed on the moon, a model of the lunar module was placed in the courtyard of a venerable Hindu temple to honor man-on-the-moon.  There was no awkward gap, no friction, no problem bringing together both inner and outer kinds of truth, both private and general kinds of search.

Lately, as we witness the global financial crisis, I’ve been wondering why we aren’t more interested in a spiritual truth that is right under our proverbial noses.   Isn’t it time to acknowledge that we don’t know what we think we know?  On yesterday’s op ed page in The New York Times (which is not not really my Bible but it is a good stepping off point for blogging)  the op ed columnist David Brooks proposes that the economic meltdown is also an important cultural event.  That is, it is a moment when people are forced to recognize  that even the so-called experts don’t perceive things as they are but as we wish them to be.  People spin “concurring facts into a single causal narrative,”  patting ourselves on the back for “skill in circumstances when we’ve actually benefited from dumb luck,” writes Brook (drawing from the popular book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb).

Long, long before any of this hit the major papers, the great mystic G.I. Gurdjieff taught that we humans are always glossing over the truth of how we really are, of how we really operate.  We dream we are actually doing what just passively happens.   At certain historical moments this truth comes close o the surface.  These days, it’s clear that the high rollers among us have just been, well, merrily rolling along.  Brooks proposes a new era of “behavior economics” and that can’t hurt.  But isn’t it ultimately the realm of spiritual truth, to , to experience, to really understand the way we are almost always and every where being carried downstream experiencing life as a dream?

What does it take to wake up?  I suspect knowledge and meaning.

A Way To Be Wild

October 20, 2008 § 4 Comments

“‘I think of my territory as that which I have walked in person and know the weather at a given time of year, know a lot of the critters, and know a lot of the people,” the Zen poet Gary Snyder told reporter Dana Goodyear in a recent issue of The New Yorker.   His territory is the whole Pacific Rim.  As “Japhy Ryder” in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, he introduced the Kerouac to Zen Buddhism, which he had studied rigorously in Japan, and mountaineering.  In the book, the pair climb to the peak of Yosemite’s Matterhorn.   “He’s the wildest craziest sharpest cat we’ve ever met,” says “Alvah Goldberg,” the Allen Ginsberg character,  “a great new hero of American culture.”  Besides his deep knowledge of Zen and Asian culture, Snyder knew Indian lore and knew how to do down-to-earth things and knew the land.  Published fifty years ago 1958, “The Dharma Bums,” inspired a “Rucksack Revolution.”

In 1959, a year after Kerouac/Ginsberg proclaimed him a new kind of hero, Snyder published Riprap, a book of poems he said were composed to the rhythms of the physical work of laying down stones on a Sierra  trail crew–he writes of setting down words, solid and specific, “before the body of the mind.”

The great paradox is that by inhabiting our specific worlds more fully we can come to feel like we belong in the universe.  As we get engaged with the world around us, we shake off the sense of lonely isolation, the sense of being the skeletons in our own closets.

At least I feel happiest and most myself when I work hard.  Then I stop being just a story, a ghost wafting over my life.  Then I stop being a destination (always disappointing, a kind of ghost town) and become a vehicle for exploring the world, an experiencer, a human being.   Then (at moments) life can be wild.

Lately, it’s occurred to me that my search has changed over the years.  I want to take root in my life rather than yearning for peak experiences.  I never thought I’d say this, but I’ve begun to see the value of a life less (extra)ordinary, a life lived at close range, no saving my efforts for special occassions.

How has your search changed over the years?  Put another way, how to you do justice to your precious, fleeting life?

What Is This?

October 13, 2008 § 2 Comments

“What is this?” Recently, I’ve learned that koan practice began in sixth-century China, an answer to a trend toward seeking academic answers.  Stories of monks’ awakenings became a source of questions that would draw the light of inquiry back onto the self and one’s experience in this very moment.  In Korean Zen a classic koan is “What is this?”

The aim of the practice is not intellectual inquiry but questioning itself:  “We are trying to develop a sensation of openness, of wonderment,” write Martine Batchelor , a former Korean nun, in a recent article in Tricycle.  “As we throw out the question What is this? we are opening ourselves to the moment.  There is no place we can rest.  We are letting go of our need for knowledge and security, and our body and mind themselves become a question.”

The words of the koan are repeated like a mantra or a prayer–the words themselves are not sacred:  “They are just the diving board from which you dive into the pool of questioning.  By repeatedly questioning with the energy and interest of someone who has just discovered she lost something, you evoke a brightness in your whole being.  This questioning gives you energy, because there is no place to rest, and it allows for more possibilities and less certainty.”

Lately, I’ve been especially aware of the way the mind and body–at least my mind and body–grasps at certainty, at habit.  I have my beliefs–even a belief in the importance of openness, in inquiry.  I know perfectly well that beliefs have a way of disappearing at close range, yet they come tumbling at the dinner table, on the page, whenever I’m in a state of repose, “on solid ground,” not “at sea.”  I love the Zen ideal of being with a question, being a question right down to the marrow of my bones–but I hate the experience….at least until I get used to being plunged body and mind into that cool pool of inquiry that Batchelor reassures us is refreshing.  The sensation of losing something or someone essential, car keys, and old friend, is stressful, dreadful, the very definition of suffering.  Being in question is voluntary suffering.

Yet  I am old enough to know that certainty and habit are a kind of self-made coffin, a living death. Plus, even if I wanted to cling, it’s no use.  Car keys, dear ones get lost.  A few days ago, my husband and I learned of the sudden death of an old and much loved friend.  Indeed, he was exactly the kind of full-of-life person you couldn’t wait to tell your cherished views and beliefs to just to hear him roar with laughter and knock them all down.  He had a way of egging a person on, urging them to go father.   Once he asked me why I didn’t to open up and explore life and share what I experienced through writing.  Are you try to be spiritually correct? he asked.  Are you waiting until you’re all wise and realized to commit yourself to print? Maybe you’re really just being like a squirrel hoarding nuts, saving up these little stories and insights.  Maybe it’s better to just share them, story in, story out, just nuts, no big deal.

Where did that friend go?  What is this?

As the Zen saying goes:  Great questioning, great awakening; little questioning, little awakening; no questioning, no awakening.

The way I see it now, there really is wisdom in insecurity.

“An Unsolved Mystery Is a Thorn in the Heart”

October 2, 2008 § 2 Comments

The author Joyce Carol Oates uses the above statement as a prompt for students in her creative class at Princeton.  Twenty people and I tried this exercise at the loft space of the New York Meditation Society last Saturday in Manhattan, and the results were amazing.  We had spent the earlier part of the day coming to our senses, rendering what we could see, hear, smell, taste, and sense of the world around us on the page, letting our observations speak for themselves.  After lunch, we trained our sights on an unsolved mystery in our lives.  The result reminded me of line I once read on a plaque in a diner near the St. Lawrence River about a boat being a hole n the water that a person throws money into.   In other words, it turned out that even the most stalwart, what-you-see-is-what-you-get person in the room is a walking mystery, a hole in the flowing river of life.  Even if a person started with a mundane mystery–in my case, “I wonder who dented my car and drove away?”–the questioning spiraled down deeper and deeper.   No matter what people started writing about, everyone seemed to end up questioning what is objective and what is subjective, what is outside and what is inside.

I wondered about a ghost I saw once.  Had it been a strange and particularly vivid kind of dream?  Others who stayed in the old house where I saw (dreamed?) that apparition had their own ghostly experiences.  Was is possible then that I was glimpsing a vaporous something that was really “out there”? I questioned other wonders in my life, including a near death experience in which I felt seen and embraced by a white light that was also exquisitely grave, pure form of love and compassion.   Had that been a neurological event triggered by shock or a lack of oxygen or could I really have been glimpsing the luminous force that exists behind the separate appearance of all things–a finer energy unifying all creation, rendering the experience of inside and outside an illusion.

Last Saturday for a little, a group of us reconnected with our inherent human tendency to wonder–and it was surprisingly wonderful.  We saw that the “facts” of our lives tend to give way under intense questioning and that none of us really knows what we think we know.  But that heightened state of unknowing that we all seemed to share wasn’t terrifying or confining.   For a little while, the biggest of all questions quickened our attention, enlivened our senses, filling us and the space between us.  Who are we?

As the Zen saying goes:  Great questioning, great awakening; little questioning, little awakening; no questioning, no awakening.

Where Am I?

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