July 19, 2010 § 16 Comments
Living in New York is a lesson in impermanence. For over a quarter of a century, I lived in Manhattan and all over Manhattan, in apartments ranging from a brownstone on the Upper West Side to a tenement in the East Village. After my daughter was born, I moved to a grand apartment with soaring pressed tin ceilings in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, named for the beautiful gardens the once mostly Italian residents created. I used to buy bread from a bakery around the corner that also served as a major set in Moonstruck, a hit movie about Italian-American life in New York starring Cher and Nicolas Cage (who played a baker). Camerari’s bakery is gone now. I left the neighborhood when my landlords, who happened to be named Gambino (and relatives of the once dominant New York crime family) sold the building to a Wall Street type. The once Italian neighborhood had moved from a kind of aspiring bohemian artsy family scene and then suddenly it was expensive and chic. Two Gambino men came to visit my little family and literally said: “We’re telling you as a friend. It’s time to move.” Conditions change. Nothing stands still and nothing is personal, this was the teaching I received from the Gambino family.
Now I travel down to the city from leafy northern Westchester on the Metro North train. When time and weather permit, I walk the roughly two miles to the offices of Parabola magazine on West 20th Street. Walking the city has the feeling of pilgrimage to me. The life streaming by on the streets of New York is like the holy Ganges is to some Hindus. I need to bathe in it, to leave the isolation of my life and let every human state pass by, joy, sorrow, love, hate, poverty, wealth, youth, age, beauty, ugliness, agitation and cool equanimity. New York reminds me that everything in our lives is impermanent, and that no feeling is final.
Keep walking west on 20th Street, and you come to the High Line, a beautiful aerial greenway that is built on a section of the old freight railroad spur called the West Side Line. Each of the several times I’ve walked on it, I recall climbing up there once long ago, when it was just rickety old abandoned railroad tracks. I remember looking out across the Hudson River, feeling a little like Charleton Heston in Planet of the Apes, an explorer in a city that fallen into ruin. I felt like I was witnessing the end of the civilization. Now I know that no feeling is final.
Now I am more interested in being a pilgrim than an explorer. I am not interested in going where no one has gone before. I am interested in seeing what others have seen. I’ve already described in a blog making a pilgrimage to the Danese gallery on West 24th Street, to see an exhibition of paintings called “Other as Animal.” Describing her aim for the exhibition, curator April Gornik evoked the British poet Ted Hughes who wrote that animals are our “emotional selves, our persevering selves” and that they are “gifted with the extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained….” Mourning the loss of my beloved black Labrador retriever Shadow, I was deeply moved by the paintings and sculptures of animals which expressed the otherness and fleetingness of animal lives.
In the midst of it, however, one image brought me to a full stop. Standing on a pedestal of limestone was a “Goshawk” made of handblown, pigmented glass. Somehow the artist Jane Rosen captured what is wild, fleeting, and unchanging all at the same time. This work of art helped me see that there is something beyond impermanence, something quick yet still that the wild presence of the hawk expresses.
“We need to see our childishness in relating to the life force, always wishing to have more. The child wants to have, the adult wants to be,” writes Jeanne de Salzmann, in the book based on her notebooks, The Reality of Being: The Fourth Way of Gurdjieff. I left the gallery aspiring to be able to just be with life like a healthy animal, allowing the life force to move through me without grasping at images or busily discovering facts. I wished I could see like a hawk…or like Jane Rosen.
July 15, 2010 § Leave a comment
I recently learned about Anuruddha, a cousin and one of the five head disciples of the Buddha. Anuruddha grew up in luxury like the Buddha and followed the Awakened One into the homeless monastic life, as did many of his relatives and countrymen. Far from being perceived as dropping out, there was status in Sakyan country in becoming a monk like that very famous Sakyan. But Anuruddha wasn’t making an empty gesture in becoming a monk. He went for it the way a modern young man might train to become a test pilot, then an astronaut. Extraordinary at meditation (an inner space program), he acquired “divine vision” and was foremost in this extraordinary power. He could see to the end of the universe and beyond, to other universes. He could see into others’ minds, literally see their level of attainment.
Even though Anuruddha had this extraordinary ability, however, he struggled to achieve arahatship, that state of being free the “defilements” — a Victorian-sounding name for all those ordinary states of heart and mind like anger and attachment that keep us locked in the cage of ego. This is the first thing that is interesting about the story of Anuruddha: It makes it clear that liberation has more to do with dropping attachment than with attaining a special, well, vision, which is the way we often think of it in this achievement-obsessed, driven world. At least I did for a long time. I approached spiritual life as if it was a kind of extreme sport, as if it was like summitting Everest without oxygen or sailing around the world solo in an open row boat. Freedom was for the few.
It turns out that attaining inner freedom does take effort, but not the kind we tend to fantasize about. Anuruddha turned for help to Sariputta, trusted senior disciple of the Buddha. Sariputta told the brilliant Anuruddha to go off and work on “the eight thoughts of a great man.” He worked heart and soul and achieved the first seven. In brief they are: to want little, to be contended, to be happy in seclusion, to be energetic, to be mindful, to be composed, to be wise.
But he couldn’t master the eighth thought until Buddha himself flew to him and helped him. The eighth thought is “The dhamma is for one who is free of impediments….” Especially, in Anuruddha’s case, the impediment of being attached to the proliferation of his own brilliant thoughts. Throw in his anxiety about not being liberated and add his pride about his gift of divine vision and other gifts and he was clearly, deeply stuck.
With the help of the Buddha, he came at last to see a truth that is right here and right now, all the time. Whatever we think we are and whatever we think the truth is, it is always other. As Madame de Salzmann says: “Truth cannot be thought.”
(Liberated, Anuruddha went to be a trusted and well-oved disciple the Buddha, even attending him at his death).
July 8, 2010 § 16 Comments
Because it’s summer and very hot here in the Northeast U.S.–and because we’ve been speaking about art as well as our aspirations for the highest–and finally, because it’s Henry David’s birthday on July 12–I thought I would be cool to offer everyone a little story about Henry David Thoreau, early American Yogi. According to an interesting book called The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, Thoreau read books about Asian thought, including yoga, esp. when he was living with the Emersons. He read these books not out of mere intellectual interest but as instruction manuals. He was looking for a new way to live. According to some, his decision to go to Walden may have been linked to his reading of the Bhagavad-Gita (which he quotes extensively in his book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers).
The author of The Subtle Body sites as evidence that Thoreau was a Yogi his ascetic life at Walden. He got up every morning and bathed in the deep cool pond (isn’t it cooling to think of that?). Also, he was vegetarian and lived very simply, although he was not extreme–which seems in line with Krishna’s advice to Arjuna to be moderate in all things. But here is where it gets interesting: After his bath, he sat in the doorway of his cabin (in his own words) “rapt in revery, amid the pines, and hickories and summachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness.” Thoreau was meditating. He said he sat from sunrise to noon like that not daydreaming but in rapt attention to what is. This was not “time subtracted from my life,” he wrote, “but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works.”
Thoreau got his ideas about meditation from books alone (“I have travelled much in Concord,” he famously said)–and books are not teachers. But here’s where it gets even more interesting. Far from quieting his senses and settling the mind, as breathing and other exercises aimed to do, Thoreau described being overwhelmed by his senses. “I have the habit of attention to such excess, that my senses get no rest but suffer from constant strain.” Although by his own account, he was restless and rude and “would fain practice the yoga faithfully,” the experience at Walden changed him. He saw behind conventional reality, intuiting “new, universal, and more liberal laws” and he saw that there was more to life than dualism–that “solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty, poverty, nor weakness, weakness.” But Thoreauexpressly did not want he called the ultimate aim of the yogi– the “consolation” of “eternal absorption into Brahma.” He wanted to be like an Indian in the forest; he wanted to be an artist.
“For Thoreau, the aim of yoga was creation, not dissolution, and at Walden another feature of Thoreau’s yoga took shape: he transmuted his work into an act of devotion, he made a religion of writing, ” writes the Stephanie Syman, the author of this history of yoga in America.
“If it is surely the means to the highest end we know, can any work be humble or disgusting?” asked Thoreau in a letter to Blake. “Will it not rather be elevating as a ladder, the means by which we are translated?” Thoreau’s brand of yoga affirmed his belief, repeated to Blake in another letter that God is always here, that all we need to do is learn to become a channel, “to bow before him in profound submission in every moment, and He will fill our souls with his Presence.”
Syman wonders if Thoreau’s resistence to the final act of the Yogi, the merging into the boundless force behind appearances, is American–and recently American–emphatic about the toleration of difference.
I come away from reading this, having just the other morning seen a hawk on a New York lawn that looked very much like the hawk Jane Rosen created–so much so that I realized that she had made herself a vessel and captured it, the way Thoreau captured nature in words.
Would Thoreau scholars agree that he was a kind of yogi? I’ve heard a Taoist master claim him as a Taoist. I don’t think it really matters. I wonder if it possible for each of us to live our lives as a similar act of devotion, so that we can be totally engaged in life and yet open to a higher force. Can we cultivate an attention to what is that can allow us to be “translated?” Can we know we are part of a greater sacred whole, really know it, even as we live our lives? Maybe for like a second?
July 1, 2010 § 7 Comments
“Man remains a mystery to himself,” writes Jeanne de Salzmann in The Reality of Being: The Fourth Way of Gurdjieff. “He has a nostalgia for Being, a longing for duration, for permanence, for absoluteness–a longing to be. Yet everything that constitutes his life is temporary, ephemeral, limited. He aspires to another order, another life, a world that is beyond him. He senses that he is meant to participate in it.” Madame de Salzmann, the foremost pupil of Gurdjieff, had her own strong, direct way of speaking. Those who listened to her in person had the impression that she knew exactly what she wanted to say about the experience of consciousness–and said it, even if it seemed imprecise. Her seemingly simple words express the awakened state that she calls Presence (needless to say, that capitalization is intentional). They have the kind of concentration people usually associate with poetry, only more so. They have the power to lead readers forward towards that other life she mentions to the extent that they are ready to see and hear.
What does that path lead ultimately? Coming from me, it can only be ordinary words–to the realization of our interconnection with the whole of life, to the love that flows from the marriage of being and knowing, to freedom. Perhaps it’s best that I stick with one word from the very beginning of the book, “nostalgia.” This choice seemed a little odd to me at first because I associate the word with the yearning for what is past, often in an idealized form. I looked it up and learned that the word is a learned formation of Greek compounds, consisting of “nostos,” meaning “returning home,” a Homeric word, and “algos,” “pain” or “ache.” Anyone with even a glancing knowledge of Homer’s tales knows that the desire to return home is the most powerful and galvanizing of all longings. According to this great teacher, we humans wish for Being the way Odysseus yearned to see his wife and house and homeland again. May all beings have that much determination and courage and creativity and skill (certainly Jeanne de Salzmann did). May all beings know inner freedom. May all beings find their true home.