The Way of Halloween

October 30, 2010 § 11 Comments

This ancient holiday seems richly suggestive of what we have been exchanging about in this blog space lately, about daring to face and even touch things that scare us (rather than try to observe from a cool distance).  First a little refresher.  Halloween is typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-an or sow-in). The festival of Samhain celebrates the end of the “lighter half” of the year and beginning of the “darker half”, and is sometimes regarded as the “Celtic New Year”.   I’ve come to the point in meditation and in life where I see how important it is to embrace both the dark and light aspects in myself.

I’ve come to see how mindfulness practice must involves not just awareness but an active act of acceptance, of holding, all our present experience, including anger and pain. I recently heard a Buddhist nun describe the work of holding anger and with an intention to bear witness to it with complete honesty AND a commitment to harmlessness.  For me, the action of holding always involves compassion–at times I try to hold my anger or hurt the way I’ve held my child–not analyzing it but holding it with loving care.  Some psychologists, among them Tara Brach and Marsha Linehan, talk about radical acceptance—radical meaning “root”—emphasizing our deep, innate capacity to embrace both negative and positive emotions. Acceptance in this context does not mean tolerating or rationalizing abusive or destructive behavior. It means fully acknowledging just how much pain we may be feeling at a given moment, which often leads to an easing of pain, even sometimes its transformation into joy.   Really seeing, really listening to, really accepting ourselves and others can set us free.

The ancient Celts believed that the border between this world and the unknown became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits (both harmless and harmful) to pass through.  Ancestors were honoured and invited home while harmful spirits were warded off, often by the wearing of costumes and masks. The point was to disguise oneself as a harmful spirit and thus avoid harm. In Scotland the spirits were impersonated by young men dressed in white with masked, veiled or blackened faces.  Bonfires played a large part in the festivities–and there is beautiful symbolism here. All other fires were doused and each home lit their hearth from the common bonfire.  Sometimes two bonfires would be built side-by-side, and people and their livestock would walk between them as a cleansing ritual.  The image of lighting our fires from a common fire is extraordinarily touching to me.  A few days ago, I sat silently with friends with another friend who had just died.  How clear it was that there is something ineffable about being a human being–a spirit, a presence that animates us and leaves.  How clear it was that we nourish and support each other with our presences.

The word Halloween is first attested in the 16th century and represents a Scottish variant of the fuller All-Hallows-Even (“evening”), that is, the night before All Hallows Day, a traditional mass day of the saints (and I believe a traditional day of baptism in the Episcopal Church).   It makes sense, doesn’t it?  We must dare to sit in the thin place.  We must volunteer to die to the known and enter the unknown to know real love and life.   At my friend’s funeral, someone read a letter that Madame de Salzmann wrote that spoke of this–that it is only in the unknown that we know real love. Mysterious!

I’ve been reflecting lately on what a true way or path is, and what it means to find a way.  The more sincere I am in my questioning, the more I travel from my head to my heart, the more I feel that stepping onto a true path requires a major shift in attitude.  As counterintuitive as it seems, if we wish to be free, we must be like earthworms (a great Buddhist teacher said this, I forget his name).  We must not seek the light but dare to burrow down deep into life, into the felt sense of it, transforming the pain of it by voluntarily feeling it, voluntarily seeing it.  This is the source of illumination.  The path we must ultimately find is our own inner path–no more fear and flight–towards being with the real messy material of our lives.

There are many insights about this kind of work in Parabola’s great new “Beauty” issue–starting with the cover in which a toad seems to be discovering that he is beautiful, just as he is.  A story by Trebbe Johnson reminds us that Sir Gawain married the ugly Dame Ragnell, only to discover that his complete acceptance of her just as she was transformed her into a great beauty.  The fisherman in the Inuit tale of Skeleton Woman, pulls up a horrifying mass of bones in his net.  He wants to fling this horrible catch away–who hasn’t hauled up a catch like that!– but his humanity gets the better of him.  He takes the tortured bones to his house and carefully sets them aright.  He dares to handle this horrifying mess and handles them with great care.  They transform into a warm-blooded, sensual woman.  Active attention, active seeing, active caring–this is   the inner path to transformation.   As Trebbe writes in “Beauty”:  We have to begin the metamorphosis by transforming our own expectations of what it is possible for us to do.  We must move beyond the confines of what is safe and familiar, and even desired, and say Yes! to the scary, but compelling, possibility before us.  Or, as the contemporary schlar of myth, Roberto Calasso, puts it, it is necessary to touch the monster.  ‘The monster can pardon the hero who has killed him.  But he will never pardon the hero who would not deign to touch him.””

Dare to embrace the dark places, to touch the monster.

Stone Barns Sutra

October 24, 2010 § 26 Comments

There was a cartoon in the New Yorker a few weeks ago.  Two lawns sat separated by a fence.  One lawn was wild and full of weeds, while the other looked perfect:  “I’m greener, yes.  But am I happier?” mused the seemingly perfect lawn.  Yesterday, I had a very interesting little lesson in the way the mind yearns after a better life and self, the way the grass is always greener, yet is it happier?   It was beautiful fall day here in the Northeast.  Aware that the autumn leaves and soft weather aren’t going to hang around forever,  I tore myself away from all the work I thought I should be doing to spend an hour or so walking the beautiful lanes around at Stone Barns, a sustainable farm that overlooks the Hudson River.  We saw flocks of turkeys and crops and cattle and sheep on the hillside.  There were even a striking number of adorable puppies bouncing around, taking in the sights.  It was perfect…or almost…except that I suddenly thought of seeing photos of Stone Barns in a Martha Stewart Living Magazine  that I had flipped through recently…and that started this little subliminal hum of worry that I wasn’t being as industrious as others.  Why didn’t I ever seem to entertain?  Why wasn’t I accomplised and successful?  My friend and I left after awhile, and after deciding that we really couldn’t afford the pies and things for sale and Stone Barns.  Who did I think I was, Martha Stewart?   We decided to pick up food to cook at a market in the village of Katonah.   As my friend picked out chicken patties, I noticed a woman standing beside us, waiting for the butcher.  It was Martha Stewart!  My friend let her go ahead, since she herself could not make up her mind and Martha clearly knew what she wanted.  “Do you know who that is?”  I whispered.  “I know, I know,” whispered my friend with no particular interest.  “Now you can say you shopped with Martha Stewart,” the kindly butcher said to us.  I couldn’t help noting that Martha hadn’t looked particularly happy.   Suddenly, I found it extraordinary that I had thought of her at Stone Barns, as if she existed in a magazine photo paradise–as if Stone Barns itself was a world beyond labor, beyond suffering. As if all that beautiful green grass was really happier than I am.

The Buddha was radical–turning peoples’ attention to their lived experience.  He wanted us to investigate the way the mind works–especially the way the craving to have something and to be or not be a certain self  keeps us stressed and miserable.    The cessation of suffering that the Buddha offered can sound very small and uninspiring- like being promised an end to a headache enough but is that all there is?   But what the Buddha was really pointing towards was another way of living, anchoring our selves in the present moment where the true vibrancy of presence might open to us.   The Buddha offered a path and many different maps to this path, many qualities of heart and mind, of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, wisdom, compassion, etc. etc. that could help monks penetrate to this state of presence.  But I’ve found that for this ordinary worldling, it is often in a time of loss or disruption or uncertainty that my hopes and dreams for myself fall away and I come to rest in the present moment.  I let go of the worry and hurry, the incessant planning and business–if only for a short time–to remember what really matters: to be loving, to voluntarily participate in this life in a helpful, nonharmful way.   It has taken me a long time to realize that the Buddha wasn’t urging people to abandon and relinquish suffering in the sense of ridding themselves of life, running away or repressing themselves.  Just the opposite.  He meant know your life, really touch in with the feel of it, know the pull of craving, of the desire to run away.  Dharma practice is very personal, very humble and earthy.  We have to come down out of our dreams and check in with ourselves.   When there is no craving, no stress, no hope of escape from who we are in this present moment, what do you suppose we have?   I think it’s a special kind of faith that takes the form of openness, of a willingness to be here.

Be A Spark Unto Yourself

October 17, 2010 § 19 Comments

This past week, I’ve been noting how the desire to be this or that, the desire to have this or that.  I’ve been noting what the Buddha called ignorance.  The Buddha gave a teaching on how suffering arises and is perpetuated.  It is called “dependent origination,” and it describes the factors that condition and drive our heart and mind.  Ignorance is the first link in the chain, and it is always activated by a conscious or unconscious desire.  In other words, our craving blots out the sun (or Son, for my Christian friends) by placing an imaginary self smack in the center of the solar system.    Out of ignorance comes volition, the impulse to do.  We are vessels of the life force and we are always creating, but as we are conditioned to be we are not participating in Creation but preoccupied with creating a self in our own or another’s mind, puffing ourselves up or tearing ourselves down.  What if instead we chose to create a better, wiser attention.  What if we chose to stop and look at ourselves and the world around us?   But what really conditions–limits–the way we see?  According to the Buddhists, as we ordinarily are, we take in impressions and have feelings  that are not just based on sensory data, but on craving and clinging–and ultimately on the willful ignorance it takes to insist on being an imaginary someone or becoming someone.  This craving and clinging leads us to take birth in one state or another (I must be with this person, have that car, etc.) and all births inevitably lead to aging, death, sorrow, and the rest.

BUT!  BUT! BUT!  There is a way to stop the blind bus driver from driving us mad.  There is a way to just stop and see the sun (Son) and all the rest of life without our own huge imaginary selves blotting out the view.   I used to think that “cessation” meant something very nihilistic–barely living, being a wandering sadhu.  But now I think it means holding an activity or impulse so it can be known–touched, even for a nanosecond.    In English to suffer means to hold, to bear, and the promise in Buddhism is that we can hold our thoughts, feelings, desires, etc. in the light of attention.  What I’m learning to appreciate more and more is what it means to know, to suffer intentionally or voluntarily.  I hope I’ll have more to say about this, but one thing I know already:  love and compassion–towards what we see and experience–are essential.  Compassion is a saving grace.  It invites us to be part of a greater Whole.  We wake up with the help of something greater than ourselves.

A Light To Guide Us

October 10, 2010 § 28 Comments

We’ve been having a lively exchange about what it can mean to be the hero of your own story.  This is another way of investigating the “self” we take ourselves to be. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the four noble truths of the Buddha, about how suffering arises in this life, about how it ceases, and what the heck this has to do with being a self.  For a long time, I wondered why suffering was so central to the Buddha’s teaching.  It seemed life-denying to me– championing the need to pull back from life (even before it was fully lived!!!) I was attracted to teachers like Gurdjieff, who had brave adventures and feasted on life, none of this restraining the senses, limiting attachments.  Over the years, however, although I still love feasters and lovers of life, I’ve slowly come to understand the noble truths in a new way.  Now I understand that the “dukkha,” which is often translated as “suffering” includes that feeling of friction, unease, of being slightly out of balance with the world that comes with having a self.
The Buddha understood the way our habitual, reflexive ways of responding to life get entrenched and drive our lives. We see the world and experience everything that happens to us through the lens of our own attitudes, old hurts, our particular problems.  Our stories about who we are and what we’ve been through and what matters give us a way of relating to life but it also separates us from the experience of being fully present.   And part of what we might see if we weren’t so cut us off, so narrow and selfish in focus, is that we ourselves are inextricably part of the whole world, no clear separation between inner and outer–that those very feelings and thoughts of being separate require a physical nervous system and physical ears and eyes, not to mention the impressions that flow in from the external world.  Moment by moment by moment, we are receiving impressions and responding to those impressions, not observing life but participating in it.  Yet we don’t really take in the big picture.  We see what we want and don’t want.   The Buddha taught that the root of that experience of “dukkha” is our underlying craving to have this or or not have that–our yearning to be or become this and not be or become that.
In moments of radical honesty, we can taste that the “self” that we experience is not a fixed being at all so much as a powerful shadow longing that laces together all the feelings and thoughts and impressions.  BUT the Buddha does offer a greater possibility.  We really are meant to be something greater than a kind of ghost haunting the world, returning again and again to the scene of old hurts and lost loves.  In those moments when we stop and truly open to the here-and-now, we can experience a new kind of groundedness and balance.  After our craving or pining or thirst abates, a new calm and clarity can appear.  The Pali word for craving is tanha, which comes from a Sanskrit word with the same root as thirst, and when we see it for what it is and drop it (and sometimes life shocks us into dropping it for minute) another order of desire or wish may appear–the wish to help, to aspire, to be compassionate.  This order of desire is called chanda.   As the Buddhist monk Ajahn Sucitto writes chanda is “a psychological “yes,” a choice, not a pathology.  In fact, you could summarize Dhamma (Dharma) training as the transformation of tanha into chanda.”  Blind instinct and habitual grasping or aversioncan give way to the conscious choice to participate in the world.  Whether one is Buddhist or Christian or follows another way (Sucitto uses Nelson Mandel as an example) a sense of true self-respect or respect for one’s brief  and blessed life can cause one to chose to resolve to stop blindly identifying with the circumstance and conditions of life but to consciously relate to life.
Ironically, since the Buddha emphasizes how much a part of the whole we all are and how conditioned our experience is, the Buddhist path holds out the possibility of being more than the sum of our conditioning, of being in the world but not of it.  As Sucitto writes (taking inspiration from Mandela)  “We don’t have to drink the water we’re swimming through.  We don’t have to become the world.”   We can be more.  Some of us can even be true heroes.  Seeing through the selfish nature of self, can lead us to our underlying heart, which is able to let go, to relinquish, to open to life.  A sense of courage, inner balance, and generosity can grow within us as we learn to open more and more the truth of the present moment.  Some people can even take this inner strength into places of despair and great suffering and offer themselves in service.   And all the rest of us can learn that instead of separating us, our heartaches and disappointments can become a source of understanding and compassion.   Our suffering, our stories, are cravings and longings are “repurposed”–not so much “gotten over” as seen through, made into a light that can illuminate us to the roots of the situation–so that we can respond to the world (including ourselves) with generosity and compassion.

On Being the Hero of Your Own Story

October 5, 2010 § 42 Comments

“Everybody has to be the hero of one story: his own,” wrote P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, in the first issue of Parabola.  I just ran across a version of this quote in the little book The World is Made of Stories by the contemporary Buddhist teacher David Loy.   In Buddism, the underlying story we tell (in constantly updated versions) is the story of the self.  In Buddhism the self is experienced as not being completely separate from the world around us since it depends for its self sense on our perceptions, feelings, and consciousness of itself and the world it inhabits through myriad worldly features (hearing takes physical ears, etc.)  “Different stories have different consequences,” writes Loy.  We take actions (including thoughts) based on the way our feelings pull us this way and that.  Actions become habits, and habits become character–and finally destiny.  This is karma.  As David Loy writes:  “Karma is not something the self has but what the sense of self becomes, when we play our roles within stories perceived as real. As those roles become habitual, mental tendencies congeal and we bind ourselves without a rope.”

As we get older, even those of us who like to meditate or pray or be alone in nature or otherwise find ways to be still, we learn there is no end to this storytelling tendency.  It is an intrinsic to being alive as breathing.  There are moments when it stops, when we can stand still and be astonished or so touched a great stillness comes over us.  But before too long the narrative resumes.   We couldn’t function or relate to one another if it didn’t.  Still, what might be possible if we related to our stories in a new way?  What if we consciously looked at or listened to the stories we tell ourselves as if we were listening to a fairy tale or myth?   What might me learn about where we (or something in us) thinks we’re going and where we have been?

P.L. Travers essay was published in the first issue of Parabola in the winter of 1976.   The whole issue was dedicated to the Hero’s Quest–since that is the template of a search for meaning, even for Buddha who left a palace to strike out for the unknown.   Travers admitted that taking yourself as a hero did seem, well, awesome in every sense:  “All those dragons–give them whatever name you like; those journeys to our own dark underworld, all those imprisoned princesses to be rescued.  One would shrink from such an obligation if the alternative was not also so awesome.  Not to be the hero of one’s own story–could one agree to that? ”   In upcoming months, I’m going to be writing and even leading some writing workshops on just this subject.

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