February 28, 2010 § 12 Comments
I’ve been touched by the ardor and range of responses to my last post. Somehow, a collective journey was made from a description of the joy that can come from sharing stories about our common humanity to an exchange about the reality of evil and God and the nature of love. One person wrote that St. John taught that we love because we have first been loved by God. The image of this–loving as a reminder of the ground of our existence–was particularly touching to me. In the midst of my grief after my own mother’s death, I remember realizing that my own love for her was holding me, guiding me, even in her absence. I have also recently discovered that the capacity to love and the desire to be loved in return may be a rich way to investigate and transform our experience–even about seemingly impossible propositions, like what happens to me when I die.
Although the Parabola editors didn’t plan it this way, it turns out the subject of “Love” leads naturally to “Life After Death,” our next theme. It turns out that love is not just an an emotion or feeling, or even a conviction. It is also a special kind of action. I’ve spent the last couple nights (during insomnia hours) reading The Life of the World to Come, an historical perspective on Christian hope about the life after death by religion professor and author Carol Zaleski (full disclosure: she is my sister-in-law). She quotes many interesting people including Miguel de Unamuno, a great Spanish philosopher-poet who wrote that we must believe in this life in order to give this life meaning but also this: “And we must needs believe in that other life, perhaps, in order that we may deserve it, in order that we may obtain it, for it may be that he neither deserves it nor will obtain it who does not passionately desire it above reason and, if need be, against reason.”
Love–and the desire to be loved–is a not just an emotion or a conviction or ideal. It can be a transforming action. Carol goes on to quote Cardinal Newman from one of his famous Oxford lectures. He has just quoted a dying factory girl who has basically demanded that there be a benevolent God, that her life have meaning beyond the noise and pain and misery she knew: “A mutilated and defective evidence suffices for persuasion where the heart is alive.”
I know that Christian hope for life after death flows from faith in the resurrection. But it is interesting to pay attention to the action of the heart. Love can reconcile us to what is beyond our knowledge and control. Love can carry us, hold us (and in the root sense of suffer as bearing) can suffer us.
February 21, 2010 § 54 Comments
Last Saturday, from 10 to 1, at the Katonah Public Library in Katonah, New York (what a coincidence!), I had the joy of leading a delightfully diverse group of people in a workshop in “Write Mindfulness.” The name was meant to convey what we were trying, first sitting quietly and letting life flow in through all our sense doors, then describing what was present right then and right there–and then, still grounding our writing in sense memories, we wrote about our names and times we have been lost or lost something. How lively it became! There were people there who had never meditated before (I could tell because they kept their eyes open, warding off group hypnosis)–and I’m sure it seemed odd to them, the suggestion to be still experience how the body links us to different places and times, different worlds. But as people began to share what the wrote about how they felt about their names, for example, laughter started to warm the room. France, Poland, England, Sicily, Austria, memorable relatives and other characters from all times (and the movies, including me. I was named after Katherine Hepburn in “Philadelphia Story”) came into the room. There was (for me anyway) a rollicking mutual recognition that we actually inextricably connected to others and to the whole of life, even though most of time we don’t remember this. It might have sounded mawkish at first– my aim and hope was to help everyone there see how gifted everybody is–gifted with eyes and ears and a heart (the most sensitive recording device). But by the end the room was full of rich, touching, funny evidence. We are gifted! If only we could know that more of the time.
Recently I learned that the Latin root of the word patience means to carry. I’ve long contemplated the word “suffer” — that it also means to bear or contain. I remember once hearing the formidable Madame de Salzmann say “You have to learn to hold a question, to carry a question (and she meant an essential question, like “Why am I here?”). The head can’t rush answer.
Patience. I’m thinking it’s a bit like easing into water (I live near a little lake and nobody in my little family likes it as much as I do). It can be cold and frightening at first, then the water carries you. Liberates you! Then new experiences outside the cage of your own ego come flowing in…You are not what you think you are…….you are more…….
February 17, 2010 § 21 Comments
“Everyone is gifted–but some people never open up their packages.” This quote, attributed to everyone from Anonymous to the late, great rocker Kurt Cobain, points towards the truth that each of our lives is a gift–and that gifts of perception, connection, love and insight are constantly coming to us–except that at least some of the time most of us miss the forest for the trees. How do learn to open up and receive what’s constantly being offered? What does it take to open up? When the ascetic Bahiya asked the Buddha for the way to liberation, the ultimate opening up to the unfolding of creation (It might seem like I’m mixing religious idioms, but I do think liberation is surrender…and surrender opens the door to grace). Anyway, the Bahiya, who had been the local eccentric, going around in bark clothes and otherwise making a huge big deal out of being a wild holy man, way different than the rest of us, was told by the Buddha: “When seeing, just see; when knowing, just know; when thinking, just think.” In other words, don’t be lost, be open to what is present here and now.
As I was writing this, my daughter Alex emailed me an article on how to be lucky. Unlucky people, the researcher discovered, tend to have fixed ideas and routines. They see only what they are looking for. Lucky people are more open and relaxed. They listen to their intuition, not just reason. They spot chance opportunities–indeed, they can even see the gift inside tough breaks.
I realized as I read this article from the Telegraph in the U.K. (Alex loves British stuff) that many religious practices–from the Buddhist Metta or Lovingkindness practice in which a person practices wishing another person well to Jesus’ admonition to treat others as we would be treated–is actually a way to open the heart and mind to the unexpected quality of reality.
A couple of years ago, for the “Silence” issue of Parabola, I interviewed Robert Kennedy, a Jesuit priest and a Zen Buddhist Roshi. We spoke of that point where prayer and meditation meet. We spoke of that moment on the Christian path where one accepts their inner poverty, where one gives up hope. At that moment, said the priest Roshi, a person can stop seeing God as a gift-giver, separate from ourselves: “They discover the great gift of God’s own Self to us. This is one meaning of the Incarnation, the unity of the divine and the human. It doesn’t just apply to Jesus, it applies to all of us. We are one with the Absolute, one with Christ who was one with the Father. And everything is given to us. At the moment of Creation, everything is poured out.”
How open can we be? Can we see and hear and know that the miracle of creation is here and now? Most days, no, I can’t. Especially on these winter mornings, I can sit coffee in hand feeling like I’ve been consigned to the cold margins of life. But I can work on it. I can take that practical British advice and crack open the door of my mind, my perceptions, and my expectations just a bit. Can I possibly tie this in to Avatar one more time? Wait for it…yes I can…try on a new body and assume new attitudes…leave your old paralyzed body behind for a time and move through the world like it’s a wondrous new Creation. Receive it like a gift.
February 9, 2010 § 16 Comments
In the current “Love” issue of Parabola, I interview David Rome, a senior fellow at the Garrison Institute who served as the personal secretary of the great Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche for nine years. Rome even took down the poetry that Trungpa spontaneously dictated and worked with him to edit it. This proved to be a perfect preparation for Rome’s later work with a meditative technique called “focusing,” which aims to guide people back to the “felt sense.” Rome describes the felt sense as the usually subtle experience of being in a body in a particular situation–it is knowing about your life in a bodily way. (Sometimes it isn’t so subtle, when a chill goes up your spine). This state of bodily presence that exists before experience gets filtered into words and defined emotions is where poetry and other forms of art come from–the stuff that isn’t mere contrivance and imitation. It is also the wellspring of symbols, myths, and the religious impulse.
In the past few weeks, since I’ve seen the movie Avatar, I’ve been reflecting on how mindfulness meditation and even childhood fantasy games (I was a jungle girl) can be like traveling back in time–not just in our individual lives, to a time of innocence, but back to a time when there was no hard and fast separation between art and religion. Eugene Gendlin, the University of Chicago philosopher and psychologist who developed focusing once said that the felt body is “part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people, in fact the whole universe. This sense of being bodily alive in a vast system is the body as it is felt from the inside.”
It can feel this way to sit down on a cushion and meditate. Returning to the sensation of being present can open us up again to the primordial mystery of life–and so can good poetry and art. It leads us beyond what is present to the sublime. In the old days, in days of the great cave paintings in Lascaux, there was no separation between religious and the artistic impulse. These days, however, art that is deemed good by the art establishment isn’t supposed to have anything to do with the spiritual. Yet sometimes the twin impulses can’t be denied. In an article about the painter Agnes Martin, Joanna Weber writes: “In 1764, Kant wrote ‘The sublime moves, the beautiful charms. The sublime must be simple; the beautiful can be adorned and ornamental.'” Martin’s work is simple and sublime. In her own description: “a work of art is successful when there is a hint of perfection present–at the slightest hint…the work is alive. The life of the work depends on the observer, according to his own awareness of perfection and inspiration.”
I find in my own life that this felt sense is usually completely drowned out by thought–or else I’m not aware of it until there is a big explosion of anger or fear. Yet I know there is something in me besides ego and mindless habit, something that yearns to be part of something bigger than my own piddling interests and subjectivity. How to make a practice of this? Drop everything the mind happens to be grasping. Sink down under all the layers of care and views and languages, be with the prehistoric one who knows what is right here right now.
February 2, 2010 § 1 Comment
In response to my last post about the film Avatar, someone commented that the film reminded him of the feeling of community with others and with all life that he had growing up in the country. Recently, I realized that it is just this sense of communing with life that comes rushing back vividly when I sit with others. Sometimes when I sit alone in my room with the windows open, bird song or the smell of snow or spring or even a car on the road, can bring me back to my senses but mostly when I sit with others. I remember that primordial longing to be part of life the way the Na’vi were portrayed as being part of life–each of them able to braid themselves into the whole of life and into individual aspects they loved.
Shortly after I saw Avatar at a suburban mall, I had the strangely complementary (braided?) experience of listening to Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi discourse on Sutta (or Sutra) #18, “The Honeyball,” from the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, at Chuang Yen Monastery. This sutta (so named because the truth it describes is as sweet and nourishing as a honey ball, which I believe is a yummy Indian dessert which is still served) describes “papanca,” the proliferation of thoughts and projections. What we perceive, we think about, which is natural enough–and so is the tendency to delight in what we think. And then comes craving, the yearning to be this or that, the projection of all kinds of views and opinions. This is the way it is for most of us most of the time, isn’t it? We walk around dreaming and talking to ourselves. With both of these experiences fresh in mind, I sat down to meditate with a group of friends in Manhattan. As the layers of thought and projection fell away and I returned to the sensation of being present in a room among others, it struck me that what was happening was something akin to time traveling. Supported by the energy of the group, I was travelling back behind the thoughts and feelings and the distorted perceptions that proliferate from hurt feelings and thoughts–back to the primal perception of being here now.
Recently, a critic wrote that the Na’vi woman warrior Neyfiri doesn’t deserve an Oscar because as fine a creation as she may be, there are nuances in real live acting that are lost. In the same way, of course, my childhood fantasy of being a jungle warrior princess, isn’t real life. But I wonder if there isn’t a connection between that longing to go back in time to a purer state, to be among the Na’Vi or fight for Middle Earth, and the desire to return to our original state, to the immediate felt sense of being alive.