December 28, 2009 § 3 Comments
“Cooking has many functions, and only one of them is about feeding people,” writes British food writer Nigella Lawson. Lawson’s wonderfully forgiving recipe for coq au vin was simmering on Christmas Eve. I wanted to fill the house with a delicious and comforting smell for all kinds of reasons–including one Lawson herself provides in her cookbook Feast: “When we go into a kitchen, indeed when we even just think about going into a kitchen, we are both creating and responding to an idea we hold about ourselves, about what kind of person we wish to be.” The kind of person I wished to be on Christmas Eve was solid, enduring. I wasn’t just wishing to create a Christmas-y atmosphere for my home-from-college daughter who passionately loves Christmas–I was trying to whip up a loving, cozy atmosphere that would protect me and everyone I cared about from the impermanence of life. The serious nature of life–the way that people and times we have loved disappear and never return becomes terribly clear to me this time of year.
Julia Child once said that dining with family and friends is one of “life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal.” The older I get, the more I tackle the holidays like Scrooge on Christmas morning–as if cooking and candlelight and glasses raised in a toast can save me from the kind of vision that Gabriel Conroy had at the end of James Joyce’s story “The Dead:” “His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling. ”
On Christmas morning, I found my daughter in the kitchen making pancakes, dressed in a skirt and jewelry and looking she thought (and I did, too) “a little like the wife in MadMen” (minus the cigarette, thankfully). Her retro outfit reminded me a little of very early memories of my mother, whom I especially miss at Christmas since she loved it so much. I wondered if she had done what I do–making merry for her children’s sake. “One by one they were all becoming shades,” reflected Gabriel Conroy. “Better to pass boldly into that other world in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” Surely my mother who had lost her own mother my the time I was five must have known the truth of impermanence, yet she was always like a child herself at Christmas, overflowing with excitement and generosity, reminding us that life was full of unforeseeable possibilities and magic.
In 2010, may we all open to life’s unexpected gifts and highest possbilities.
December 20, 2009 § 3 Comments
Yesterday morning, yearning to get out before the big snow storm hit, and wanting buck the tide of Christmas-shopping crowds, I drove up the Taconic to Chuang Yen monastery in Carmel, New York, where Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi’s is teaching classes in some of the sutras (or “suttas” in Pali) in his translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, or Middle Length Discourse of the Buddha. First, the assembled group of us meditated for half an hour, most of us in winter coats and shawls since the monastery is as cold as a castle on warm days and yesterday was freezing. At the end of the meditation, we bowed, including several full bows, head touching floor. There is something about the forehead touching the stone floor of a monastery that can remind a person that another way of relating to reality is possible. As a Westerner who was raised Methodist (you weren’t supposed to wear your spiritual heart on your sleeve), bowing used in this style used to seem a little wild to me. But now I love it because it reminds me that there is an inner posture as well in which the egocentric thinking isn’t on top. Lately, it seems to me that what Madame de Salzmann calls “voluntary passivity,” has to do with surrender my allegiance to the false self–with seeing that the momentum of what I take to be myself is largely driven by what the Buddhists call the “three poisons” of craving or grasping, aversion or ill will, or delusion or ignorance. Sometimes I can see and feel that what I usually take myself to be is largely made of tension and pain. What a relief to let go, even just for that second the head touches the floor. No self, no problem. Just life and the wish to take a place in life, to serve somehow.
Venerable Bodhi is a great scholar in addition to being a warm-hearted human being (he is just back from Copenhagen, where he was part of a group of religious leaders speaking out for taking better care for the earth). He parsed what it meant in the early days of Buddhism to have unwavering confidence in the Buddha, the dharma, the sangha. “Noble ones,” in the time of the Buddha were those who had done their own inner work, who could look back and reflect and gain inspiration and unwavering confidence (lin her upcoming book, Madame de Salzmann talks about faith coming from conviction based similarly on real attainments). The Pali word “dharmaveda” indicates that unshakable confidence and Ven. Bodhi explained that “veda” which was so important in India at the time of the Buddha (and long before) means “both to know and to feel.” He said that he settled for “inspiration” in his translation although it didn’t really cover it. Veda means to know and to feel at the same time–it is knowledge accompanied by elevated feeling or an inspired or exhilerated feeling accompanied by real knowing. Such inspired or exhilerated knowing leads to the kind of rapture or gladness that leads to tranquility, to the mind settling down and becoming concentrated and clear, resting on the only solid ground in this shifting world which is the Truth. I once heard Madame de Salzmann (a true Noble One) say that Ouspensky never understood that the Truth is in movement, like the stars and the planets. The Truth also encompasses impermanence and all the other laws that determine our lives.
Wishing you much “veda” ….a Veda Merry Christmas!
December 13, 2009 § 2 Comments
“It is only when we get beyond fantasy, beyond wishing and dreaming, that the real conversion takes place and we awake re-born….for reality is the goal, deny it how we will,” wrote Henry Miller (and thank you to Josh Baran who posted it on Facebook so it could circulate in the world anew). “When the individual is wholly creative, one with destiny, the god-feeling is so intense everything beats with divine rhythmn. ”
In the documentary “My Architect,” a Yale professor describes the architect as artist, as someone who had the feeling and capacity to wish to serve what we call god without sparing himself (my paraphrase). When I watched this scene last year I wondered why I had never before thought of Madame de Salzmann as an artist–she was a musical prodigy as a girl. Why had I never thought of Gurdjieff as artist? Not just the Movements but all the forms he brought were created. It occurs to me that to make the kind of effort that Madame de Salzmann describes in The Reality of Being it is necessary to live experimentally, like an artist, willing to abandon fantasy and allegiance to the false self to risk a greater wholeness. Miller sounds strikingly like de Salzmann when he speaks of “the moment of supreme individuation, when the identity of all things is sensed.” In such a moment “the umbilical cord is cut–there is neither longing for the womb or for the beyond. The sure feeling of eternality. Beyond this there is no evolution, only a perpetual movement from creation to creation.”
Isn’t this what it must mean to serve God, to help His Endlessness, however you conceive it, to be one with Reality?
December 3, 2009 § Leave a comment
Is it possible to develop greater being and not become a more loving and generous human being? Some esoteric paths don’t concern themselves much with conventional morality. According to Gurdjieff and Madame de Salzmann the Fourth Way is a demanding and exacting work. “The level of being is determined by what enters into one’s Presence at a given moment, that is, the number of centers which participate and the conscious relation between them,” writes Madame de Salzmann in an excerpt in the current Parabola, “The Future.” Establishing a conscious relation between the different realms of the mind, body, and emotions (the different “centers”) is an extraordinary inner accomplishment, requiring who knows how much patience and diligence. And yet…and yet…there is another way I understand the cultivation of a spiritual life and that has to do with the giving up and giving away.
The Buddhist writer John Tarrant writes that bodhisattva path, “in which we want everyone to share in the joy of understanding….comes from losing things more than from gaining things. If you lose everything, you may also be lucky enough to lose who you thought you were, along with any fear and despair that goes with that identity. It might be that what we have to learn is to play in the world like someone who really did run away to join the circus when she thought about it as a child. We are part of something vast, and generosity is an effortless consequence of discovering that.”
In times of grief and loss, there can be moments of wild freedom, a loosening of the slip-not of identity, a sense of play in every sense of the word, of give. When I’ve lost who I thought I was, I’ve also noticed the arising of a desire to be generous and kind. Since the Christmas season is upon us, I will go ahead and call it a Scrooge-like awakening–the realization that grave awaits us, that everything we usually cling to turns out to be impermanent, and that our real purpose and meaning is not fixed but fluid, relational. All I truly want to be such a moment (“if I get out of this alive”) is useful as I can be, one more pair of hands on the bucket brigade in this burning world.
What does this ordinary kind of insight or wisdom have to do with the realization that a master like Madame de Salzmann achieved? A great deal, actually. At the end of her book, she speaks of love and about discovering a real “I” that knows that we are not independent, not alone. Her work ultimately has to do with becoming available and with being useful in life.
Why not always include this attitude, this intention in our efforts? Is it ever too early to learn to lose?