Down from the Mountain

September 28, 2010 § 8 Comments

I’m home from my first week of “Community Dharma Leader” training at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, and I’m very glad to be home.  The rainy, cool weather in New York right now is the perfect soft balm after some scorching heat–inside as well as outside.  Since the organizers of the program understandably asked us to honor the confidentiality of others, I’ll stick to my own experience (I always do anyway). 

It was surprisingly painful!  “Contact! contact!” wrote Henry David Thoreau in the concluding pages of The Maine Woods.  Dag Hammarskjöld was of the same kind of person, not content to just think about life, wishing to experience it in the body, heart and mind–wishing to live in the largest possible context.  So off I went, heart on my sleeve–and learned that before we can really make contact with reality we have to learn to pick our way through what the Buddha called the “thicket of views.”   I came away with such respect for someone like Dag Hammarskjold, who was capable of maintaining an inner silence and calm in the midst of the most heated conflicts.  I came away wishing to learn what it means to live within. 

The most profound experience I had last week came one morning after I climbed down from the top of a mountain on the Spirit Rock grounds.  I had a moment of being truly present, aligned inside body, heart, and mind, on a mountain top in California, surrounded by pine trees, feeling “I’m here! How amazing!” –and I made an offering of myself in return.  In exchange for the gift of being there I gave up all my stories and cherished heartache and allowed the light of a finer attention to pass through me. I was willing to be still and know there is an infinite.  Soon enough, this state of willingness and receptivity turned into wishing to always be like this, and you know the rest, thinking about it, etc.  I noticed the way mental phenomenon, feelings, life keeps moving along like water in the stream and flowed back into the meditation hall and took my seat.  The talking about differences resumed.  Just for a moment as I sat there a persona I happened to be facing seemed filled with that same light I had glimpsed on the mountain. Only they couldn’t see it or feel and I couldn’t convey it.  I felt like an angel in Wim Wenders’ lovely movie Wings of Desire.  I thought of that quote from Gurdjieff that you can’t fill a hungry man up with bread just by looking at them.  What can we do for one another?

I tried this way and that way, overcame my shyness and spoke in the big crowd, in little groups, etc. etc.  Through it all I really felt the need to cultivate a way “to live within” in midst of life.  It saw how easily I get knocked out of balance.  I’m really interested in that special kind of willingness and receptivity that comes to us when is in alignment inside.  It’s an ability to receive things in the light of awareness–imbued with a kind of grace.

I suspect it takes being willing to live a big life in the ordinary sense.  As Ric Ocasek of the Cars said:  “It doesn’t matter where you’ve been as long as it was deep.”

My Dharma Initiative

September 18, 2010 § 18 Comments

Tomorrow morning, I’m going to the Spirit Rock Meditation Center, in Woodacred, California, to join with over a hundred people from around the world who are embarking on a two-year “Community Dharma Leader Training.” (Having watched the late great TV show “Lost” with my daughter, I can’t help but think of it as the “Dharma Initiative.”)  Sometimes, I think of it as volunteering for an impossible task–training to help create an awakened society.   But at other times, I feel there is nothing more obvious or practical for me to do.  It feels like it’s time–past time–to step out of the circle of Parabola, the circle of ideas, and get engaged.  I want to learn what others care about.  There will be people in this program who are fighting AIDS in South Africa, others trying to bring peace into the prisons.  What great themes and practices and insights sustain and interest them?  What is needed now?  I also wanted to dare to live according to what I think of as “awakened values” — to find out how I might help bring a little peace and sanity to this suffering world.   I was very touched by Roger Lipsey’s article on the extraordinary inner life of the great peacemaker Dag Hammarskjold in the current “Desire” issue of Parabola.  It strikes me more and more powerfully, that life needs each of us, the world needs us.  We are meant to contribute as we can, to contribute the little bit of truth or insight or understanding we may have to the world.  We come to know our true natures and possibilities only by giving ourselves away, testing ourselves against the forces of the world.  What is inside must shine out and what is outside must be taken in (and even maybe break our hearts) and finally maybe no inside and no outside, just one life.   For now, maybe it’s enough to say that the world is on fire and I am volunteering to be trained to be one more pair of hands on the bucket brigade.   To do otherwise just seems like a horrible way to grow old.

A Class of Birds

September 13, 2010 § 24 Comments

During the last few years of his life, I paid many visits to William Segal, the painter, philosopher, and publisher.  He was the subject of a series of films by Ken Burns, which aired on PBS this past weekend, and along with Burns I regard him as a great teacher.  Segal embodied the possibility of living an extraordinary double life.  In addition to publishin innovative magazines, promoting trade with Japan after WWII, being a connoisseur of art, wine, fashion and life, Segal was a true seeker of truth–first as a student of P.D. Ouspensky and G.I. Gurdjieff and, later, D.T. Suzuki, who wrote Segal letters of introduction that allowed him to be the first American to sit in Zen monasteries in Japan right after the war.   I used to sit with Segal in his Upper East Side apartment, mindful that I sat at the table where Suzuki often sat,  and so many others.   Although I got to know him well in the last years of his long life, he still conveyed an inner stillness and light:  “Bill was a man of many layers and if the outer layer was the man of today, the innermost core was an opening to eternity, ” the great theater director Peter Brook wrote of him.

Segal often told me he admired the Zen ideal of the “old man in the marketplace” — conveying by his quiet presence an opening to the true beauty and wonder of the whole of life that is hidden within seemingly ordinary things.   Before he died at 96, he had become that old man, trailing stillness and wonderment in his slow and deliberate wake.

I find myself thinking of Segal now because of an experience I had last Friday evening.   I drove down to the art opening “A Class of Birds” at the Sears-Peyton gallery in Chelsea, with the usual mix of happy anticipation and social anxiety.  As I’ve written here before, I was very moved by one of Rosen’s hawk sculptures, and I looked forward to seeing more.  Yet there was traffic to drive through and it turned out that many galleries between 24th and 25th Street and 11th Avenue were having openings that night. People poured out into the streets, clustered in groups talking about huge prices, about bright new things.  I entered the Sears Peyton Gallery feeling overwhelmed, wondering if I should have slipped in another day.

Then I came to a full stop.   Jane Rosen’s birds made my heart ache, literally, and stilled all my gnat-like worries and fears.  I stood before them as I sat before William Segal.  These glass birds had a presence.   They brought something wild and fine and utterly unworldly to the gallery, which was  wisely spare.  Since I don’t have to write like a sophisticated art critic, I can just come right out and say it:  I had the impression that Jane had been used by the force that created and animated real hawks–that the wild spirit of nature had come through her.   The sense of eternity that comes to us in nature was in the presence of these birds.   Art can be a way.

Later, I had a chance to tell Jane my impression.   “You feel them in you heart? For me, I think it’s bit lower,” she said, placing a hand on her solar plexus.  She admitted to a group of us that she had the sense  that her birds were alive.  Although she was that crazy about being away from her California ranch, she had the feeling that the birds would be able to hold their own, that she didn’t need to explain them and hover near.  She is right.

One impression that especially surprised and touched me is the way the monk birds looked from the back–slightly bowed like Buddhists monks, in contrast to their proud hawk fronts.  It was as if there were making a deliberate effort to be who they were, and as if they had for a long, long time.   It was like the Buddha touching the earth, bearing witness to the lifetimes of effort that had earned him the right to be free.  But the bowed backs were also humble, like true monks and animals are humble.  It filled me with an unaccountable feeling of homesickness.  I remembered that C.S. Lewis had described such a feeling in nature, coming upon some grove or clearing that was ordinary, but wabi-sabi ordinary, William Segal ordinary–that had a glow about it from another world.   I wondered if that was what the monk birds had to teach,  that there are two sides to effort, noble wildness and humility.  Perhaps it is this that attracts grace.

“A Class of Birds” is at the Sears Peyton Gallery from September 10-October 30, 2010.

Still Waters

September 7, 2010 § 18 Comments

Late this afternoon, after many distractions, I went down to our local lake for a swim.  Although the air was a touch cool by 5 pm, the water was warm once you got in.  Anyway, I couldn’t turn back because there was a gorgeous smiling baby girl under 1 year old being dunked by her parents and laughing a big infectious full baby laugh:  “Your baby girl makes me feel like a coward, plunging right in like that,” I said to her parents.  “Ah, but she has no choice,” her beaming father said.  Hmmmm.

She couldn’t chose whether to go in or not, I thought as I swam out to the floating raft for one last time this summer.   Yet, as I dog-paddled around in my flippers, doing a kind of slow water yoga, I had an experience I’ve had a few times recently. I really had no choice to be in that lake at that time.  Unlike that smiling, splashing baby, I had an illusion of choice.  A veil of thought was spread over the simple yet mysterious fact that I was there.

Through some combination of conditions– late afternoon sun dappling warm water, green trees beginning to turn, being alone in the lake,  myriad other conditions known and unknown, I had the experience of dissolving into, well, just experience.   It was as if the “self” I usually carry with me–a self that feels as if it has soooooo many miles on it by now, yet is constantly being tinkered with, updated–well, it had temporarily fallen away.  It was a glimpsed of what the Buddhists call “no-self,” an opening outward towards life.  Recently, I’ve been reading a book called Turning the Wheel of Truth, a commentary on the Buddha’s first teaching by Ajahn Sucitto, the abbot of a Buddhist monastery in England.  In it, he describes the “middleness” of the Middle Way:  “The ‘middleness’ of the way a Buddha teaches and exemplifies points then to a balance of presence and nonattachment.  Through this we are encouraged to see clearly and insightfully what is happening now rather than reject of adhere to experience.  And the results?  They are peacefulness and true understanding, nibbana (nirvana)–the cooling of the fire, the calming of the wind, the settled quality, and the sensitivity of still water.”

I’m beginning to realize how we much we are, like it or not, inextricably stitched into life.  As the Buddha said, there is a way to be free from suffering, from stress and dissatisfaction.  It is not unlike the way I was dog-paddling today between raft and shore–not unlike that baby, just being there, not avoiding, not grasping, feeling well but turned outwards….

And now the beach is closed for another year.

Where Am I?

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