August 28, 2010 § 16 Comments
Welcome to my 100th blog post! Very recently, we’ve been talking about breathing, and about the beautiful experience that comes over us sometimes, especially in nature–wanting to just be in the present moment with the in breath and the out breath, knowing and accepting that we are part of a great shimmering whole of life. In those moments, like my moment watching the wind make waves on Lake Ontario, it’s not hard to allow that there is a greater Presence behind all our striving. But that beautiful, sun-dappled experience inevitably inspires an answering call. Breathing in the beauty of being in the moment, we wish to be our true selves from now on–to express our true heart’s desire. No more doing what we don’t want to do! And so it begins again, that striving to be, not to just be carried along passively by life, but to know we are alive. I travelled a long way from that rocky coastline where I sat breathing because I wanted to draw closer to the flame of life. And then I came back again, wishing to draw closer to the roots.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, is it nobler to try to be or not to try? It is better to seek to accept the slings and arrow and the 1,000 natural shocks that life throws at you. Or to take arms against the sea. Professor Harold Bloom of Yale and many books told me (as I rolled down Rt. 84, listening to my “Portable Professor”) that Shakespeare and brilliant Hamlet knew as well as any seeker on any spiritual path that a person stands little chance against an ocean, which is bound to keep on rolling in. He made the intriguing point that Hamlet is like a preternaturally aware character dropped into the wrong play–given the lowly, bloody task of revenge rather than the loftier, more suitable job of discerning great cosmological forces. Hamlet and Shakespeare knew the nature of life–that currents turn us awry, that there is a divinity that shapes our ends, try plan and act as we may. I’m no Hamlet. I was given no great or doomed task, just the vague persistent twin desires to be, to go out and make something of myself, and the desire not to be, to be no-self, to breathe, to come home to the present moment and the whole.
How can a person reconcile this? When I interviewed Dharma teacher Gina Sharpe (mentioned a few blog posts back) she spoke of equanimity. In Buddhism equanimity is one of the sublime emotions, the ground of wisdom and compassion. The Pali word for it is “upekkha,” which means “to look over.” Gina said this means observing the scene of a moment or a scene or a person so clearly that we see the big picture. I discovered that a second Pali word is also used to describe equanimity: “tatramajjihattata.” Trips off the tongue, doesn’t it? It’s a fusion of root words that fused together mean “to stand in the middle of all this.” It means maintaining our balance in the midst of wild life and outrageous fortune. It means being fully here and fully at home in midst of a Truth that is always moving, always now and now and now.
Thank you for reading this unfolding blog, friends. It’s wonderful to meet you here.
August 20, 2010 § 20 Comments
Still touched by what I wrote about last time–the wholeness or perfection that is present in each seemingly imperfect moment–I was invited up to visit some old high school friends in a cottage on Campbell’s Point on Lake Ontario. I couldn’t make the party. But I was able to participate in another extraordinary kind of re-union–of seeming opposites, of going out into the world and coming home, of rugged independence and our mutual interdependence on one another and on the Whole. Early one morning, my high school friend Scott (whose family’s cottage was the scene of the bash) generously drove me all around Point Penninsula and Pillar Point. I was searching for the site of a 60 acre farm once owned by my great grandfather Cade. I was also searching for the point where my great-great uncle, a sailing captain sunk his three-masted sailing ship. Although I know it’s impossible to time-travel, I had this longing to stand where earlier ancestors stood, to look out over the water the way they did, to maybe feel what they felt.
After driving around the coastline for a good long time, we decided that we had probably unknowingly crossed and maybe even re-crossed the place where Cade’s farm once stood (near the “Long Carrying Place,” where long-ago Indians portaged their canoes). We got out of the car and sat on a stone boat launch at the edge of Point Penninsula, looking out across the vast lake and the great river beyond. We talked about how this is the kind of view Cade looked at, about how hard it must have been to farm in such a place, how dependent you had to be on your fellow farmers and on forces and conditions beyond you. As I watched great fluffy cumulous clouds mass and change shape, I realized the sense I had formed of Cade was incomplete. I thought of him as a rugged individualist, stubbornly self-sufficient, travelling by horse and carriage long after others started driving cars, indifferent to a changing world. Yet, living here, farming here, he had to be constantly aware of weather and seasons and forces beyond any of our knowing and control.
The rugged individualist had to have lived with an awareness of interdependence. This may seem obvious to many people. A high school teacher friend told me that even Cade’s very presence there could be traced to a series of interconnected movements from the time of Jaques Cartier. But I had clung stubbornly to this idea of his stubborn independence. I thought my life stood in stark contrast. After all, it has come around to interdependence–to the “new” idea of sustainability (which a subsistence farmer on the edge of Lake Ontario could not be expected to know). As I sat on the stone boat launch watching the wind make white caps on the rocky shoals, I tried to describe my realization to Scott: that the drive outward into the world, towards independence, that longing for freedom from conditioning–it turns out it is not separate from the return home. Independence is not separate from interdependence. It seems that the end of all journeys outward, all searching, is the return, the letting go, the surrender to the inescapable knowing of interdependence. There is a rthymn to it, like the in breath and the out breath,opening to the world and then letting it go. “It’s really all one process, like breathing,” I said, fearing that I sounded a little, well, trippy.
Scott, who has been engaged in a deep Christianity, reminded me that for Christians real freedom consists in surrendering to the will of God–giving up our separation for interconnection with the Whole. As we sat there the beautiful sight of the wind on the water, he told me the Hebrew word “Ruach,” means Spirit and also wind, breath. The breath of God moved over the water and brought life. (The English word “spirit” comes from the Latin “spiritus” or breath).
Sitting there on that rocky shore thanks to the generosity of my friend, I glimpsed how every moment is determined by conditions, forces, mysteries that are ever out of our field of attention,no matter how sincere we are in cultivating awareness. I glimpsed how no matter how much we seek to know, to love, to be with life, what we can know is always partial in every sense of the word. Clinging to certain stories, elevating and cherishing a particular independent “I” — well, that’s missing what is really happening. The breath of the life force is moving through us. It does not belong to us but links us with our ancestors and with all beings. Stop grasping at knowing and open to the unknown. Moment by moment, Ruach moving over the Deep.
August 12, 2010 § 12 Comments
Yesterday afternoon, I had an extraordinary conversation with Gina Sharpe, a woman I have known for about a decade and now hold as a true spiritual inspiration. Once a successful corporate lawyer, Gina has been a longtime dedicated student and teacher of Vipassana meditation and Theravada Buddhism. The mind assumes it understands what a change in career like this means–or mine did. We do a kind of narrative math and depending on our notions of what is good and bad, we come up with a sum: a) Gina was tired of the pressure and opted out or: b) Gina was sick of the devouring greed for money and power that drives that profession and chose to jump into another stream of life or even: c) Gina decided to try to swim upstream against the swift currents of desire and the usual habits of mind. Talking with Gina yesterday–and really over years of listening and observering her–I learned this way of thinking isn’t remotely near the real truth. A real change in the heart and mind (in Buddhism the two are not separate) is not a matter of progressing from point to point. In a way, it has to do with stopping, with daring to be still and know what is in the present moment–and persistently enough to fully open, to really be able to receive the full mystery of what is.
I don’t mean to portray Gina as a saint or an angel above ordinary life (as we talked in the upstairs study of her pretty house in Westchester, she made green tea she told me was “the really good stuff.”) But what I glimpsed in her was how moments of being present can grow by dedicated practice into moments of Presence. Who we really are is not an isolated individual on an isolated journey but a being who is an inextricable part of a greater and perfect Whole, a greater living Presence. Like any living being, this Presence is always in movement, never static. The intricate, interconnected Mystery of it All, the real Truth, can never be reduced to thought (even a Great Thought). It can only be received like grace by a mind that includes the heart and body. We are meant to participate in theTruth, to contribute our particular lives to the workings of the Whole.
I haven’t yet transcribed my interview with Gina, but to reduce it to a few blunt and inadequate thoughts: the progress of Gina’s life has been towards excluding less and less from heart and mind, and towards including more and more. I learned from her that the more we we are able open to the present moment, the more we realize the truth is particular and irreducible. It changes moment by moment. How could she say being a corporate lawyer is bad and being a teacher of the dharma is good, or that former is greater and the latter is less? At a certain moments, knowledge of the law is just what is needed. Nothing can be excluded, sentenced, judged. And at moments, we can touch Presence, in which the fully Mystery and Beauty of life flows into the present moment. We learn in such moments that it here, waiting for us to receive and give ourselves to it in turn.
In the past week, a reader of my blog sent me a link to Wordsworth’s “Tinturn Abbey.” Thanks for the gift! This extraordinary poem captures something that Gina was trying to get across to me–that all the while we move through our lives in the illusion of isolation, there is a subtle and secret economy at work. And not the “shadow economy” we are learning about but the luminous web of life that we lack of better words call the Whole:
“Five years have past; five summers, with the length/Of five long winters! and again I hear/These waters, rolling from their mountain springs….”
In the midst of the city and the 10,000 troubles and burdens of this world, the “beautous forms” of nature bring Wordsworth feelings of “unremembered pleasure,” those acts of kindness and love that took place below the radar of his fixed aims and business. By the end of the poem, Wordsworth realizes that those “wild secluded scenes” that invited a deep inner seclusion–those moments of being fully present in nature had imperceptively opened his heart and mind to something vast: “While with an eye made quiet by the power/Of harmony, and deep power of joy,/We see into the life of things.”
August 3, 2010 § 22 Comments
It’s good to be back! I’ve been away visiting family and have had almost no internet time for almost two weeks! How strange but good it was to unplug from the web and plugged in to the web of life. I interviewed my 90-year-old father about his early life and every morning I walked for about an hour on the beach. Many mornings, I saw people carefully monitoring the sea turtle nests that have made part of Daytona Beach Shores a nature preserve–even lights have to be shielded since baby turtles are wired to follow the moonlight into the sea after they hatch.
Spending time in nature (and talking to my old father about his early life, spent partly on a farm and on the shores of Lake Ontario), inspired me to wonder what it really means to be an individual, to be original. My Buddhist friends would rush to say there is no permanently abiding self, that the sense-of-self is just an illusion of the mind. Christians and friends in the Gurdjieff work would concur that we are all inextricably part of a greater unity, that we really cannot stand apart from the interconnected mystery of life. I think originality flows from being in touch with this truth–with our common origins.
Not that this is a very original thing to say. As Thelonius Monk once said, it’s not the notes you play, it’s how much you mean them. There is no mistaking the sound of real authenticity. I’ve been rereading Hamlet, inspired by listening to Harold Bloom’s lectures on Shakespeare (I do a lot of driving). Bloom calls Hamlet “an absolute individual, a total original,” a man who was more real than anyone around him. This seemed like entertaining overstatement until I began to study the play and realized how studded it is with profound insights and observations about what it means to be alive. “Hamlet carries with him an intense consciousness of death,” says Bloom. His huge, penetrating consciousness grasps the fact that we are double creatures, part angel and part animal. “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
These words wereused as lyrics in a song from the Broadway show “Hair.” They were sung by a character questioning who he was and what world he belonged in, the “straight” world of the war and striving or a counter-cultural world. But they actually point to something more profound,vastly less culture-bound (Else why would we still read them?). What it means to be between two worlds, to be part of something vast yet limited, finite, bound by habits and desires?