Breathing Out

April 30, 2010 § 4 Comments

“Calmness of mind is beyond the end of your exhalation,” writes  Shunryu Suzuki in Not Always So. The great Zen teacher was describing how to practice sitting meditation (shikantaza), which involves calming our restless minds and coming into the present moment by watching the breath. Suzuki describes how far this simple practice can carry us:  “Your breathing will gradually vanish.  You will gradually vanish, fading into emptiness.  Inhaling without effort you naturally come back to yourself with some color or form.  Exhaling you gradually fade into emptiness….When you practice this in your last moment you will have nothing to be afraid of.”

In her article “Passed Away,” Joyce Kornblatt explores how the breath can serve as a guide to the mysteries of life and death.  Check it out!

I’ve been reflecting lately on how forms change–inevitably and very unpredictably.   Years ago, I visited the Maezumi Institute, the training center of the Zen Peacemakers Order, in rural Montague, Massachusetts.   The center’s land was once a farm, bought in 1968 by a collective of anti-war journalists, the Liberation News Service.  The group had split away from a harder-edged New York-based political faction to live together and find peace by turning inward.  Their credo was “change your mind, not just the government.”  The farm was also later the home of Sam Lovejoy, the leader of the anti-nuclear movement.

I thought there was beautifully fitting that this 60’s experiment in communal living, awakening, and environmentalism would become the home of an American Zen community dedicated to creating a global interfaith community, and to integrating spiritual practice with altruistic work in the outer world.  It also seemed fitting because the namesake of the institute, the Japanese Soto Zen master Taizan Maezumi Roshi, had been surrounded by hippie seekers after he founded the Zen Center of Los Angeles in 1967.

But a little reading and reflection revealed that Zen had been associated in Japan with the samurai, the military nobility (aka, not hippies.)  I also learned from Peter Gregory, a professor of Buddhism at nearby Smith College who happened to be at the Maezumi Institute that day, that the fortunes of  Maezumi Roshi’s family (all connected to the Zen establishment) drastically declined after the war.  The prestige of Zen itself was greatly damaged, since they had aligned themselves with the emperor and actively rooted for war.    Zen had been anything but counter traditional Japanese culture.  The outcome of the last world war made Maezumi counter cultural in the sense that the disastrous turn in his family’s  fortunes forced him to leave a defeated and down-on-Zen Japan to teach Zen to those most open at the time–counter-culture types and peace activists in America!  Being very pro war  actually ended up making Zen in America a vehicle for peace and inclusion.

The moral of this story?  Forms change.  Forms turn into their opposites.  Don’t cling to forms.   Seek formlessness.  Exhale into emptiness.  In the words of Suzuki:  “To take care of the exhalation is very important.  To die is more important than to be alive.”   In other words, think of what is to come.  Don’t cling.

The Artist is Present

April 27, 2010 § 4 Comments

On Saturday, I led a morning workshop of mindful writing (or “Write Mindfulness”) at the Katonah Library.   I had doubts about offering another one just two months after the last.   But the rich, “live” material people that people share is always new.   The key it seems (at least for now) is being willing to receive the inner and outer impressions that are always being offered.   One person told me he hit a wall, just went blank, during certain exercises.  It’s taken what seems like a thousand years, but I’ve come to see that this hard place can turn out to be a gateway.   A very important story and/or source of “juice” can sometimes be buried under such a rock.  The key (for me anyway) is to very gently investigate, circle the rock on tiptoe,  interview it very politely: What are you protecting?  What forbidden feelings or wildly contrarian views?  Could be really juicy and real.

When it was done, I  went  to the Museum of Modern Art to see the performance artist Marina Abramovic perform her longest and possibly her most challenging work to date.  “The Artist is Present” strives to make an art form out of that state that so many of us seek in the privacy of prayer or on the meditation cushion, and in the communal privacy of meditation halls, churches, and mosques.  The raven-haired Serbian artist is seated at a wooden table in an atrium and visitors are allowed to take turns sitting across from her for as long as they want, “becoming participants in the artwork rather than remaining spectators. ”   Wearing a long red Mortia-Adams-looking gown, Abramovic maintains a soft gaze and fixed pose no matter how briefly or how long a person sits opposite her (the guard monitoring the line of people waiting for their turn told me that one day four people held her gaze all day).   This ” art work” is meant  to distort “the line between everyday routine and ceremony; positioned in the vast atrium within a square of light, the familiar configuration of a table and chair has been elevated to another domain.”

Has it?  The reactions I heard ranged from a person scoffing “Narcissism!” and walking away to others marveling how anyone could go day after day for months just sitting, not eating, not going to the bathrooms.  The friend I went with was enthralled.   I was interested but my heart wasn’t touched. My mind kept floating back to the people who had hours earlier dared to sit quietly together in a library, allowing themselves to be present body, heart, and mind, and sharing from there.    What was missing in “The Artist is Present” for me was any indication of real vulnerability.   I felt she had gone deep inside herself, like a prisoner–she even had the days of her show marked off on a white wall like a prisoner.  I want to dare to be free.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

— C.S. Lewis (The Four Loves)

Life after Death

April 21, 2010 § 5 Comments

The latest issue of Parabola is appearing here and there and in my completely biased opinion it is very beautiful and rich.   Please buy it!   Please talk about it and post and twitter about it!  Thank you! We really need your support! Among the other riches I’ll be blogging about is a fascinating article about Carl Jung’s Red Book by Jung biographer Claire Dunne.  What is the meaning and significance this mysterious work, which was hidden from the public for so long?   In the words of author Dunne:  “Cary Baynes, a former patient who was asked by Jung to transcribe the text, called it a ‘record of the passage of the universe through the soul of a man.’  It records the search, experiences, and initial findings of a man who at age forty had, by his own account ‘achieved honor, power, wealth, knowledge and every human happiness,’ yet had somehow lost his soul.”

Many of us have had at least a fleeting sensations of losing our real selves, if not our real  souls–of being carried along passively by habits and deadlines and pressures, losing the thread of what we deep down feel we were meant to be.   It’s a truly haunting feeling.   There used to be this strange expression you would say when someone shivered: “Someone step on your grave?”     That’s a pretty good description of what it can feel like to be gripped with the sensation that you’ve lost track  of your inner life, stopped caring about the development of your own soul, letting it be drowned out by the din of outer life.  How do we begin again?  How can we see into our lives as if for the first time?  In the words of T.S. Eliot (and continuing a thread begun in a previous post):

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)…..”

Jung chronicles how he passed through that gate (and pays the price of not less than everything).  Interestingly (in light of the poem), his journey began by rediscovering child’s play, remembering what he loved to do as a child.  What did you love to do?  Build things?  Draw?  Stare at clouds and daydream?  Investigate.  Follow whatever it is.  It can lead you from shallows to the depths.

How to Wake Up

April 14, 2010 § 22 Comments

Tradition has it that once the Buddha went to stay in Sakyan country, which happened to be the country of his birth.   The Buddha had turned his back on his home and his life of wealth and power–he was to be the lord or warrior prince of the Sakyans–to live the life of inner and outer homelessness.  No outer trappings of success.  No inner attachments and identifications.   He was not actually dropping out but tuning in to his life–doing away with all distractions so that he could pay close attention to life, to every breath, until he woke up to the nature of reality and the cause of our suffering.   To a Sakyan named Dandapani, however, the Buddha looked like a kind of hippie bum.   This Sakyan came upon the Buddha while he was out walking for exercise in the Great Wood.  The Buddhas was sitting at the root of a sapling, having finished his daily begging and meal.  After a little amiable small talk, Dandapani leaned on his walking stick,  a very slouchy, disrespectful posture, and let the Buddha know what he really thought of the way he turned his back on his own people:  “What does the recluse assert, what does he proclaim?”   In other words, what are you all about anyway?  What is this whole act about?

“Friend,” answered the Buddha (kind of like saying “Dude,” treating his questioner a bit like he himself was treated) “I assert and proclaim [my teaching] in such a way that one does not quarrel with anyone in the world…; in such a way that perceptions no more underlie the brahmin who abides detached…without perplexity, shorn of worry, free from craving for any kind of being.”

What the hell kind of strange, obscure kind of thing is this to say (or write in a blog)?  Indeed, after hearing it, Dandapani “shook his head, wagged his tongue, and raised his eyebrows until his forehead was puckered in three lines.  Then he departed, leaning on his stick.”   You get the picture.

Later, the Buddha explained to his monks that what he was talking about was the way perceptions and notions come to limit and control a person.  Thoughts proliferate.  The moment we receive an impression, a feeling about it appears.  It is pleasant or unpleasant; we like it or dislike it.   This colors our perception, and then we think about what we perceive.  And the thoughts proliferate, coloring and limiting our future perceptions–even our past perceptions.    The Buddha saw that we are almost always lost in thought.   We wake up for a nano second, only to have a thought like “Hey, I’m awake”…and away we go again.

How do we wake up?  How can we break through this fog of thought and perception so that we can be touched by the Higher.   According to the Buddha, the trick is to stop delighting in, welcoming in, and holding on to our thoughts. Make that those that flow from the underlying tendency to crave things or want to push away other things, from an underlying tendency to be ignorant or aggressive, to want to be this or that.   Those thoughts that flow from an incessant preoccupation with “I, Me, Mine.”

You know what else might underlie us, support us?  Another kind of question or wish or prayer…to be open to something higher or finer or greater than ourselves.   Also there could be a kind of will that is not a kind of pushing but a willingness to try to see what really is and to be seen.   It takes courage.   But otherwise, a person could end up like that Sakyan, walking away, wagging our tongues, chuckling to ourselves, impervious to the fact that the Awakened One was right there, offering the way out.

Meeting At the River

April 8, 2010 § 10 Comments

“Only connect,” wrote E.M. Forster.  I’ve been very touched by the comments–by the conversation–emerging in this blog.  It gives me faith–not just that Parabola can been made new for new times–but in that mysterious process that allows like-minded people to find one another.  Earlier this week, I spoke on the phone with Bob Toth from the Merton Center for Contemplative Living.  He told me that he can’t think of another journal out there that is a better vehicle for Thomas Merton’s own vision of helping people find a way to a more contemplative way of life.   How wonderful to hear this!  But it struck me as he spoke that Parabola really is a community–and part of a larger community.

A parabola (in our context) is the bridge, the arc, the covenant that connects the Highest with the individual.   It is the promise that life has meaning–and that the Highest can make itself known in depths of individual lives.  It’s been my dream to make the journal Parabola vibrant and relevant, deep but practical–really meant to be used in peoples’ lives.  But I see more and more clearly that what we really need to do in this world is make ourselves available,  empty ourselves, so we can serve a purpose greater than our own.   So please comment, if you are inspired.   Or blog and twitter.  If you have talents or interests you would like to share, let us know.  And tell your friends!  Let’s let this be a different kind of community, the place where spiritual traditions meet.  (I can’t help thinking of it as meeting at the online river).

Have a beautiful weekend.  Here’s a great quote from Merton:

“Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness, and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, an awareness of the reality of that Source.”

Religious Imagination

April 6, 2010 § 22 Comments

This  gorgeous, warm, blue sky, green grass, pink and yellow blossoming spring weather here in the Northeast, is stirring after such a long harsh winter.   I know it can even be wrenching,  if  it’s been a rough year for you; it can be a reminder of the way the force presses on with you or without you.   Anyway,  I had particularly vivid  memory last week that sparked a question about what I’ve heard called “religious imagination.”  I remembered lying in the grass in my yard looking up at blue sky (I believe we had the afternoon off from school for Good Friday, which reveals that I went to school in the old days, before separation of church and state).  Of all things, I was thinking and yes even singing about Thumbelina.  It must have been prompted by  looking at the new grass or up at the budding trees.   In the midst of this little childish pagan celebration, however, my mother told me to come inside because it was time to be still (there used to be certain afternoon hours set aside to contemplate the crucifixion).  I remember not knowing what to think about Good Friday.  Was it as if it was still happening?  I asked my mother, who really didn’t want to have a theological discussion.  “Just be still,” she said.  Blunt, inadvertent profundity was her style.   On Saturday, again,  I experienced the sense that I was supposed to embody a story, a drama–not knowing how to embody it.  Finally, on Easter, I got the basket and got all dressed up (including white gloves and a hat)  But even through the chocolate bunny haze,  there was another trace.   There was a question in me about what it meant to embody this drama, to engage it, to  die and go to depths and then have a new life.

Strangely, last Friday also turned out to be Hans Christian Andersen’s birthday (and a friend told me that Google had a little Thumbelina character on their search page.  I wonder if there was a Google debate about which image would be more innocuous.  What a world!)

I told a friend who reminded me that Kenneth Koch said (and she heard this from the saintly Mister Rogers) we are not just the age we are, we are all the ages we ever were.  When she was a child, she believed the ashes from Ash Wednesday, which come from the burning of the palms from Palm Sunday, came from the ashes of the dead.  What a powerful reminder of the reality of death that would be.

This also raises the interesting question of what “religious imagination” might be.   Are we meant to enact a kind of inner drama that brings about inner transformation?

The Generosity of Easter

April 1, 2010 § 18 Comments

“Give so you have no regrets.” All year long,  I’ve been contemplating this statement, which I heard attributed to the Buddhist meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein.   Someone asked Goldstein how much they should give in “dana,”  which is the Pali word for “generosity.”  In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, there is basically no set fee for teachers or retreats.  Students and retreat participants are to give what they can in the spirit of “dana.”  Not surprisingly,  many students find this challenging (which is why they have had to impose a minimum).

“Give so you have no regrets,”  answered Goldstein.   Beautiful, right?  Don’t give so much you can’t pay your bills and cause yourself all kinds of suffering, including resentment.  Don’t give so little you suffer remorse later over what a cheapskate you are.   All year, I’ve considered what it can mean to give so you have no regrets, in money and life.

Now Easter is here, and once again I find myself thinking of the boundless love and generosity of Jesus Christ, giving himself as a sacrifice for the whole world.  What an utterly free act, no guarantees, every attachment relinquished in the moment of sacrifice.   This year,  however, I have a heightened awareness of the difference between that act of divine love and the way we must love, giving (and taking) so that we have no regrets.

Here’s how Richard Smoley puts the issue in  “Love and Money”  (from the current “Love” issue of Parabola: “What, then, is love? Here is one answer: love is that which unites self and other.  This is as simple and naked a characterization as I can imagine, but even so one refinement may be needed.  After all the lion loves the lamb so much that it wants to make the lamb one with itself.  Perhaps, then, we should add this modification:  Love is that which unites slef and other while maintaining the integrity of each.”

Where Am I?

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