Tis The Season

December 16, 2008 § Leave a comment

This is the season of giving–and of anxiety about giving.   Every night on the TV news, there are cameras trained on the malls and at least one shot of a cash register opening and change being made.  In addition to the darkness of December in the Northeast (I wrapped the deck railings with Christmas lights and decorated a tree with pagan zeal–let there be light!)  there is this atmosphere of anxious anticipation.  It is a little bit like waiting to hear if a sick relative is going to pull through.  Will the body politic rally and go on consuming?  Or are we all about to witness/undergo an extraordinary transition?  There is a sense of…fear, yes…but also possibility.   People are questioning, how can we live more simply and economically?  Why don’t we skip the gifts and just be together this year?

This season tends to remind people of the passage of time, of holiday’s past, of loved ones who have passed away.   (My zeal for Christmas lights kicked in after the death of my mother a few years ago.  She loved Christmas.   Me, not so much).   After my mother died,  I suddenly realized that my love for her was a source of light and warmth in itself–it informed me, mothered me, even now that she had slipped out of my world.  Giving love gave me love.  I realized that we really are connected to others energetically–that separation is a fiction (supported by our (my) limitless capacity for being distracted by thought).  All I really want for Christmas this year is the ability to stay awake more often, to perceive the giving and receiving that is always happening in the present.   This greed and grasping and the fear that is riding high in the news…it occurs to me that it may be the illusion of isolation (and not money) that is the root of all this suffering.

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The Man With No Story

December 7, 2008 § 2 Comments

On  December 2, 2008, Henry Gustav Molaison, who was 82, died in a nursing home in Connecticut.   He was known to most of the world (or the part of  world that cares about brain research) only as H.M.  But his passage made the front page of The New York Times this past Friday, because H.M. emerged from an experimental brain operation in 1953, with a permanent inability to form new memories.  Reports the Times:  “For the next 55 years, each time he met a friend, each time he ate a meal, each time he walked in the woods, it was as if for the first time.”

H.M. became the most important subject in the history of brain research. Up until now, with the advent of brain imaging and other sophisticated means for seeing the brain in action, this patient and gentle amnesiac was the biggest source of evidence that researchers had about the difference between explicit and implicit memory–the difference between conscious memory and instinctive learning (that is, he would master difficult mechanical tasks after many trials only to experience that long process of learning as having done the task for the first time and finding it  “easier than I thought it would be.”)  By many accounts sensitive and open to a good joke, H.M. nonetheless had to move to a nursing home when he was 54 and his loved ones had died because he could only navigate through a day doing rudimentary things like making his bed and helping rake leaves by drawing on a few early memories.   Otherwise, he had only scattered snapshot memories, “gist” memories, no narrative.

Clearly, even those of us who meditate and engage in other practices to cultivate mindful awareness of the present moment, need our narratives.  We just need to take them with a large grain of salt.   It seems to be the case that those of us who are seeking to wake up from what we sense is ego-driven illusion…are seeking to wake up to a bigger story, a universal story, a story that rings true for all people in all times…a story that will last perhaps?

A friend emailed that she was going to stay for a time with her mother who has lately become afraid to go to sleep.  The older woman is afraid that she may not wake up.  This touched me very much because I recognize that I carry a similar anxiety about forgetting who I am…and being forgotten.  How is it that lettling go of notions of self can seem the easiest and most natural thing in the world and also the hardest–liberation and annililation.

To be continued….

Doing Justice To Our Lives

December 3, 2008 § Leave a comment

I drive more than I like.  I find I can make crawling along in heavy traffic much less stressful by listening to college lectures on CD.  As somebody once said, “You can always find a way to learn something.”  Thanks to “The Great Courses” series or the “Portable Professor,” I can use a handy mechanical means to lift up my thoughts (or my associations) from the red brake lights in front of me to the unfolding of Western Civilization, for example, or the life of the Buddha.

Somewhere down the road, I registered how much inspiration I draw from the stories of peoples’ lives, including Siddhartha Guatama, the historical Buddha.  When I was younger, I always wanted to get right to the essence of things.  I wanted the great vertical unchanging truths, the Four Noble Truths and all the other Sacred  Numbered Laws of Reality.  Now, I realize that the profound truths of life unfold over time and through experience.  The price of understanding certain truths–and the mastery or balance or inner freedom that comes with them–is revealing yourself utterly.  Ouch.

This is what I learned in the car:  In his introduction to course “Buddhism,” Professor Malcolm David Eckel of Boston University, referred to Buddhism as a religion of stories.  Of course it is…and so is Christianity and ever other great tradition and teaching.   It suddenly hit me that stories show us how to be fully human–stories impart a kind of truth, a kind of intelligence, that philosophy or practice alone can not reveal.   In Buddhist practice and in other ways of awakening, great emphasis is placed on waking up from the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.  Indeed, profound moments of awareness often come to people in the midst of shocks that suspend our endlessly updated and revised narratives, our comforting certainties.  But Professor Eckel echoed something that P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, described in “The World of the Hero” in the founding issue of Parabola.

There is a myth-making capacity in everyone, wrote Travers.  The intelligence that guided the lives of the ancients “miraculously survives and is ever present in the subterranean layers of ourselves.   It can be tapped as one taps the waters under the earth; it can be questioned as once our forefathers questioned the oracles.”   Travers described the way certain factual stories pick up truth over time and offered the example of Galileo.  Pressured to recant his assertion that the earth moves around the sun, Galileo is said to have muttered into his beard: “Epppur si muove” (“Nevertheless it moves”)–mythologically the heroic Galileo was required to say it.

The mythmaking mind goes to work on the facts, pitting the heroine against a villian,  insisting on “both ends of the stick–black and white, good and evil, positive and negative, activine and passive.”   The hero or heroine, according to Travers is one who volunteers to face the unknown, setting out not so much on voyages of discovery as rediscovery, seeking “a treasure that was lost and has to be found, his own self, his identity.” The hero is human and flawed, just as creation is flawed–and the flaws turn the wheel, summon the perfections.  Achilles pride led to courage in battle.  Buddha’s human vulnerability led to awakening (and couldn’t it really be called a rediscovery of a timeless dharma?)

Like a lot of young people, I think I was secretly hoping that I by reading many books or making great efforts in the meditation hall I could skip over some of the steps that Travers outlines, of going from the mud to the mountain top.  Now I know we can’t.  We have to be the heroes of our own lives.  There is just no other way to learn the truth.   Each in our own way, we have to live ferociously, as Damien Echols puts it.

Where Am I?

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