The Tip of the Ice Berg

May 30, 2009 § 2 Comments

A few weeks ago, I spoke with Ravi Ravindra about his new translation and guide to the Yoga Sutras.  Among other things, we spoke of what it means to be born to one path and to follow another–and/or  to follow more than one spiritual path.   Ravindra quoted Kipling to sum up how clarifying and reinvigorating it can be for a practitioner of one way to learn about another:  “What do they know of England who only England know?”

What does it mean to follow a particular path in an interconnected world?  Many of us (at least among Parabola readers and the readers of this blog) combine practices–we go to the Gurdjieff Foundation and to church or temple and/or a zendo.  We may be Zen Christians, like the Jesuit priest and Roshi Robert Kennedy, whom I interviewed in the Silence issue.   A little while ago, a friend of mine who is an editor at Tricycle:  The Buddhist Review asked me to think about  “Single-Practice Buddhism.”  This is a scholarly term for Zen, Nichiren, and Pure Land Buddhism, practices which arose during a turbulent period in medieval Japan and suggest that the whole of the dharma can be summed up and known through a practice like meditation or chanting.   My learned Buddhist friend observed that many Westerners like Buddhist meditation (or chanting) without the religion that went along with it.  Indeed, many people in the West who take to meditation have had quite enough religion thank you very much.

A few weeks ago, I went to interview Rabbi Steinsalz for our upcoming Future issue (after The Path).  I brought along a good friend who bravely told the great rabbi that she found growing up Orthodox in Brooklyn restricting when she was a girl.  To make a long, interesting Talmudic answer short, he compared her to a wild rose–that the laws and ways she had bridled under were meant to make her a special kind of creature, to cultivate roses in a way that ordinary life could not.   Deciding not to tackle the patriarchal tinge to these comments, I rushed right in and asked him why I didn’t get to be a special kind of creature (I am not Jewish).   The learned rabbi urged me to look deeply into my own heritage.  “What is your background, your name for example?”  My name is Scottish, but I’m also Danish, Dutch, English, Protestant, I told him.  But I like to meditate.   Sometimes a duck is born into a family of chickens, he said.  But don’t reject what you have been given.  He talked about visiting a Protestant Church that was completely bare, white walls, no cross even.   It dawned on me that maybe my single-practice of meditation was the tip of an unexplored iceberg.

Do you think it is important to know all your influences?

Scheherazade and Eddie

May 19, 2009 § 2 Comments

A few days into every silent meditation retreat I start feeling like Scheherazade of the Thousand and One Nights.   Married to Persian King Shahryan,  Scheherazade told a captivating tale to the king each night because her life literally depended on it.  Scarred by the infidelity of his first wife, the king had developed the bitter habit of having his brides executed after a single wedding night so none would live to betray him.  Dire necessity is the mother of invention.  Scheherazade learned to leave each tale she told dangling so that murderous husband would let her live the next day to hear how it came out.

On a silent retreat, a person can’t help but notice that the mind is perpetually telling stories about who we am–endlessly updating them with every fresh blip of experience, every insight.   The process is clearly mechanical–ideas keep arising in the brain the way the heart keeps pumping blood.  Being in silence day after day among others,  we also see how we cling to our thoughts, our stories about ourselves, as if our very existence depended on them.  Otherwise…we would just be…no one….just, well, someone sitting here…or drinking tea…or helping wash the dishes…or a floor sweeper…just whatever we happen to be doing here and now.   (A friend recently wrote in his own blog that Thomas Szasz observed in The Second Sin that the law of survival isn’t kill or be killed, it is define or be defined. )

Yet, after four or five days of desperately carrying around all this endlessly updated interior chatter meant to save me from dissolving into the nowness of it all, I find myself just dropping it.  Just like that.  My attention drops down from my head to my heart and I discover a different voice, a different brain.  I begin to be able to actually embrace the present moment, to become aware of how I feel.  Not my opinions.  Not my emotional reactions.  But how it feels to be here, right now.

Years ago I interviewed Mitch Albom about his first novel, The Five People You Meet in Heaven.  Literary people didn’t like the book (and it really wasn’t in any sense an artfully written book).  But it stayed in my mind because it attempted to show that everybody matters,  even Eddie, a rough maintainance man at an amusement park.   Albom attempted to show people that living a life that has meaning doesn’t have anything to do with great achievements as we ususally think of them–even spiritual achievement.   It has to do with those moments when we’re all here, connected to life, when, in the case of Eddie who rushes in to save a little girl, we have a passion to serve life.  Interviewing this “popular” novelist, I began to wonder if certain deeper stories might  not be innate in human beings, a kind of  hidden legacy of wisdom we discover when we stop the noise that keeps us bound up in isolation.  When we are quiet, we discover a capacity to know our interconnection with life, our yearning to serve.

Be Like Water!

May 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

A while ago,  I wrote that Zen master Dogen taught that  the practice of zazen is like a circle.  Each time we take our seat in meditation we are taking our place in a circle with all others who practice and have practiced, including the ancients and the Buddhas.   A person wrote in back that the aborigines called us moderns the “line people” because in our progess madness we have forgotten that life is a circle–and to the aborigines that we are not just linked with other humans but with everything alive, including presumably the living waters.  As I mentally prepare for the “Parabola Live” event that will be happening tomorrow evening at the Orchard House Cafe (from 7-9 pm, at 58th and First Avenue in Manhattan),  I can’t help thinking that we will all be sitting in a cafe that is just about on the banks of the East River.   We will be breathing in air that contains water from that river…and from the Hudson River…and from the Atlantic Ocean.  Indeed, we will be breathing in air that includes water and other elements that existed in Neolithic times in China, when the first Taoists studied the way the Yellow River flowed.  Nothing remains the same yet none of the elements that make up this world disappear completely.   The ancient Chinese Taoistsread the river like a book.  They made notes about it in the straight and wavy lines of  “Water Script.”   This became the straight and broken lines of the hexagrams that make up the I Ching:  The Book of Changes.  Everything changes.  Yet, amazingly, we breathe the same air made up of the same elements that have been here since the world began.  We live in a circle with the ancients, with the animals, with all life.

Taoism teaches people to be like water, without ego,  intention, fixed characteristics.   It teaches people to be like water and not avoid “the low places,” humbling experiences, pain.  When I was just out of college and struggling to be a grown up in Big City, I was cut to the quick to learn that a friend compared me to water behind my back.   The point was that I lacked a distinctive persona, that I flowed into situations, assuming the shape of whatever container I happened to be in.   At the time,  I longed to be more dramatic, more memorable, less, well, wishy washy.  Now I wish to be able to be like water which…to come full circle to Dogen Zen terms is not dependent on mind, nor body, nor karma, is dependent only on its own nature…is liberated.    Amazing what the ancients have seen in water.  May we connect with it and draw strength from it.

Fronting the Essential Facts

May 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” wrote Henry David Thoreau.   It rained on and off all day yesterday here, and  it’s supposed to rain for days to come.   The ground is soft and wet and I intend to get out and dig in it a little bit, turn over  soil, plant some seeds. I always get wayyyyyyy muddier than anyone else I know, even very small children, but I don’t care.  I’m not competing with anybody or any image of what a garden supposed to look like.   I dig in the soil from time to time because its a way  for me to live deliberately, to face the essential facts I often miss, like the miraculous effects that rain has on plants, especially in the spring.  If you garden, even like a clumsy perpetual beginner like me, it’s easy to understand why the archaic Greeks, say, made Zeus the weather god.   Digging in the soil you begin to see that what you are really doing is opening things up for the plants or the seeds.  You can’t make anything happen, in other words.  You can only clear the way for higher forces.

My daughter and my friend Liz (who wants to go to lunch and otherwise stay indoors today because it’s raining) don’t like to garden.  They don’t like to get dirty (and I admit, nobody has a knack for getting head-to-toe wet and muddy like I do….only if a person was blind and drunk and working without tools could they get dirtier….) My daughter Alex complains that everything seems to take forever.   But I like that gardening with hand tools goes at about the same pace that it has for thousands of years (or maybe a little faster.  Our ancestors would have starved if they gardened at my pace).   We inherit our bodies, including our hearts and minds, from ancestors who lived thousands of years before us.  We have in us the potential to receive the essential wisdom nature.  We have in us the same ability to sow and reap, to observe and participate.  In the current “Water” issue of Parabola,  there is an interview I conducted with the modern Taoist master Sat Hon who explains how in prehistoric times the earliest Taoists read the Yellow River like a book.   They sketched the way water flows as a way of conveying the way things go.  The straight and wavy lines of this ancient “Water Script” (there are some illustrations in the piece) later became the hexagrams of the I Ching:  The Book of Changes.

Isn’t life amazing?

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