December 30, 2010 § 20 Comments
I was at JFK airport last night. On the way, I passed many vehicles abandoned in snow banks and on the side of the road. In the international departure terminal, the crowds were huge and a bit heart-wrenching–so many tired-looking people from so many parts of the world standing inlong, long lines with luggage. I couldn’t help but think about the hero’s quest and the human journey, especially since I spent much of the past week (some of it snow-bound and without internet!) helping my daughter Alex prepare for her own big journey. I was at JFK dropping her off for her flight to England. She will be studying medieval history and literature at Oxford University, also travelling around, visiting friends here and there, having a grand adventure! The Lord of the Rings and Tolkein turned out to be a mentor to Alex in the classic sense. The great man introduced her to a vast special world and to her own deeper human possibilities. He showed her that there is something greater to serve in this world, and that valor and adventure and even greatness is possible.
My own path was, well, different. I didn’t fall in love with LOTR like Alex did, and I didn’t go to Oxford to read Chaucer–or anywhere– junior year. I moved to New York after college with no prospects, no skills, no connections, no friends, no money, no clue, just guided by the blind sense that I should draw closer to the fire of life. I guess the most important book guide I had was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, or Carlos Castenda, with a dash of the Count of Monte Cristo. I had the sense that I had to find my true place or calling in life playing different roles in outer life, first as a kind of hippie, a self-styled dharma bum, and then in New York as a worker bee in various underpaid jobs the great buzzing hives of publishing and film. I kind of blundered along in the dark, seeking a direct experience of the truth. I had the sense of being an undercover agent assigned to a mission I didn’t yet know, a sleeper agent who would wake up one day and have a complete feeling and understanding of what it means to be alive.
Weeks and weeks ago, I wrote about questioning Miss B., my biology teacher, who locked up some of the parts in the male anatomy torso because “she wasn’t paid to teach pornography.” Didn’t truth demand all our human parts? I learned that even asking that question could get you kicked out of class. Around that time I realized that school wasn’t necessarily about penetrating to the truth–at least not the truth that could pierce you and make you realize your place in the whole of life. It was about learning mere facts, and worse: it was about learning the rules of the game–the biology game, the history game…I remember wondering who wrote the history books, who judged the deeds of nations and great men.
I was touched by the exchange that followed my last post. Nick wrote that he was “drawn now to the plight of young people with both a spiritual heart and scientific mind….They have come to see what Socrates did that all around them are BSing. Unlike Socrates they haven’t yet acquired the confidence to admit their own nothingness. Help is needed and they are deprived of it….” Nick reflected on what it takes really to be helped by a myth, to read it like a map to Reality.
Quoting from The Shaking of the Foundations by Paul Tillich, Ron described how grace can come, how light can pierce the darkness just when all seems lost. As the new year approaches, the quote Ron shared bears repeating:
Chapter 19: You Are Accepted
“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.”
It struck me reading this that I barely know how to begin to value this life. After all these years, I am still a sleeper agent! Even when I’ve had a piercing insight or moment of grace I go right back to sleep. I still mostly measure my life in terms of my needs and desires. How often do I remember to say “thank you!” for the pain and restlessness, the dark valleys and stretches of meaninglessness that gave way to light? This is natural, I suppose–we have many parts, Miss B! But what if instead of the usual list of resolutions I spent some time reflecting on what came unbidden, just when everything seemed to be going wrong? What if I accept the whole of my life, just as I am accepted by a force or intelligence greater than myself. What we call awakening or enlightenment is not separate from the movement or state of acceptance. To understand is to accept, and to accept is to truly love. Happy New Year.
December 21, 2010 § 23 Comments
“We need to see that there is no ‘thinker,’ that this imagined ‘I’ which thinks ‘me’ and ‘mine’ is simply an illusion.” writes Jeanne de Salzmann in The Reality of Being. “In order for us to receive truth, this must be dispelled, as well as all the other illusions of the thinking, including those behind our desires for pleasure or satisfaction. Only then can we see the real nature of our ambitions, struggles and sufferings. Only then can we see through them and come to a state free of contradiction, a state of emptiness, in which we can experience love.”
Last week, I wrote about Scrooge and I’m still thinking about that great teaching. I see Scrooge dining alone in a restaurant close to Christmas. The waiter asks him if he would like bread with his soup. The penny extra it will cost is too much for the brilliant businessman. The hurt he experienced earlier in his life has closed his heart not just to others but to himself–to his larger capacities and possibilities. The ghost of Marley, Scrooge’s miserable old business partner, appears to Scrooge in the middle of the night and shows him how we make chains of habit out of our thinking and our desires for pleasure and to avoid pain. Even single-pointed concentration can become a habitual way of avoiding pain and a chain to bind us. Habit can become character and finally destiny, but habit can change. We can wake up to the true nature of our ambitions, struggles and sufferings. After Marley, three spirits–three moments of greater awareness–appeared to Scrooge. The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge how the hurts he suffered early in his life led him concentrate on making money to the exclusion of all else. The Ghost of Christmas Present introduces him to the reality of others and his impact on others for good or for ill. From Ghost of Christmas Future he comes to grips with his final destiny and what it means to live a life untouched by love. At the end of the night, Scrooge says “I am not the man he was”. He has seen through the embattled fortress of the self. Awakening, he is determined to keep Christmas well, to live in the light of love.
“What is important is to live with this void in which the self is abandoned,” writes Madame de Salzmann. “With this abandonment arises the passion to be, a wish beyond thought and feeling, a flame which destroys all that is false. This energy allows the mind to penetrate the unknown.”
A higher consciousness or greater awareness can sometimes visit us. This greater awareness can have a penetrating wisdom and insight and it can reach us, chained as we are with our habits and striving for plearure and the avoidance of pain. Really seeing ourselves as we are can bring about a state of emptiness–and the stillness of the grave. Love can find us there. It can descend into the void where all seems lost and reconcile us to Reality.
“No movement from the periphery toward the center will ever reach the center,” writes de Salzmann. “A surface movement trying to become deeper will never by more than of the surface. In order to understand itself, the mind has to be completely still, without illusion. Then with lucidity we can see the insignificance of ‘me’ dissolve in an immensity beyond all measure. There is no time, only the present moment. Yet to live in the present is wholly sufficient unto itself. At each moment one dies, one lives, one is. Free of fear and illusion, moment after moment we die to the known in order to enter the unknown.”
Past, present, and future all here and now. This Christmas, may we all be still and know ourselves as we really are, and know Love and the Peace that passes all human understanding. Bless us everyone.
December 14, 2010 § 7 Comments
As I write this, I am looking out my picture window and noting that it’s still dark at 7 a.m. A fresh snow fall increases the sense of expectant hush this dark time of year has, especially in the cold states. There is a feeling of waiting, of advent, and also sometimes a feeling of hybernation, of sleepiness and weakness, even if you aren’t sick. Sometimes, I feel a little like a hybernating bear dragged out of a cave and made to deal with tasks I’m just not up to–deadlines and gifts to buy and parties. Yesterday, on Monday, the most tired day of the week, I dragged myself like a drowsy bear over to my local post office to have a passport picture taken so I can get my passport renewed in time to visit my daughter at Oxford in February. There, before a grim audience of people waiting to mail packages, I stood against a grimy wall and let a well-meaning postal employee take my picture (“Wait, I’m not pushing the right button…oh dear, that one’sreally not good, let’s try again….”) The resulting picture, the best of three, chilled me to the core. The holidays coming around again themselves can remind a person of the inexorable way time passes, but this, well, I felt a bit like Scrooge encountering the Ghost of Christmas Future.
It wasn’t just that I look much, much older than I feel, who doesn’t? It was the expression on my face. Even though I stood there trying to be present, sensing my feet on the ground, willing my heart to be open to the postal worker and the impatient customers and all beings–even though I wished very much to show some evidence of my true humanity when I cross borders, I looked, well,really under the weather. Literally. I looked like a creature who is carried along passively by the life, blown by the winds, washed away with the floods, crushed under the great wheel. There was no denying the truth, dear reader. The evidence is overwhelming, and has been for years. Take that train trip that I described last week, right after 9/11, when fear was so strong in New York. A perfectly nice young woman sitting next to Alex and I asked us to watch her insulated lunch box while she went to rest room. Alex and I agreed, but after she didn’t come back for what seemed a long, long time we began to stare at each other. We were afraid of it, dear reader! Even though it looked like a perfectly ordinary lunch bag, we thought it might be a diabolically clever bomb planted by a very cleverly unlikely terrorist! If you wanted to know the power of fear to strip you of your own senses and intuition, those were days, my friends! I remember screwing up my courage to open the thing I wanted to show Alex her mother could be brave and noble!) when the nice woman came sweeping back into her seat and thanked us.
It was one of the many moments in my life when I have been aware of the truth in this quote by C.S. Lewis, which was recently posted on the Parabola Facebook wall: “Five senses, an incurably abstract intellect, a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them–never become conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?” I no illusions about my capacities on the train that day, or in the post office yesterday. Yet, at the same time I was–and am– aware that there is another power source in us, a heart that glows and assents to things unseen and even sings while the mind (what we usually call the mind) struggles to keep up.
Sometimes, there is a clear seeing awareness that can visit us like an angel–or like one of the ghosts in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. It is not something that we conjure up. It is a greater awareness that we sometimes allow in–sometimes we can feel like a reluctant hero in a movie or a myth, pushed into stepping out of the cramped old world and onto the path of the unknown. Like Scrooge (or a bear, dragged out of it’s cave). We are not ready, no able to be part of the great adventure that is offered. Except the heart is ready. The heart has not been sleeping. It has been waiting for this moment.
“Be helpless, dumbfounded,/ Unable to say yes or no./ Then a stretcher will come from grace to gather us up,” writes Rumi. The heart stays awake and opens the door and lets grace come in and gather us up and make us Whole.
This Christmas, consider giving away all your illusions about yourself, all your cherished ideas and opions and assumptions. Give away the best of yourself too, give big, like Scrooge. Open up the doors and the blinds and see who or what comes in. “Where one is emptied of self, ideas, concepts, assumptions, images, and all else; God pours himself into the soul, and the light at the core of the soul grows so strong, it spills out holiness and radiates through the whole person.” Meister Eckhart.
December 7, 2010 § 15 Comments
Yesterday, I met a new friend of Parabola for tea at the Rubin Museum. We talked about life and about the way it can take on a miraculous quality in those moments when we remember to stay open–when we observe and listen deeply to the person before us, granting them sovereignty. My friend liked a story in the current “Beauty” issue that retells the way King Arthur’s noble knight Sir Gawain married fearsome Lady Ragnell, granting her full sovereignty to be herself, no conditions imposed. How amazing, to think of this act of radical acceptance attributed to an Arthurian knight known for of his courage and purity of heart! What a cool kind of heroism! Yet in those moments when we are mindfully present to another,open and receptive instead of simply waiting to speak, it can feel like recognizing their sovereignty, as if there is a pre-existent wholeness and complex, imperfect perfection to them that we are allowing to emerge. We can grant life itself sovereignty, practising being open to what arises instead of seeing everything through the haze of our own needs and fears, our own narrative of who we are and how life should go.
As we spoke of this, a mutual friend at the Rubin surprised us by sending a plate of vegetable momos and a plate of cake to the table where we sat drinking tea! It doesn’t always go this way, of course. Life serves up more than momos. Yet there can be magic in this mindful openness or allowing even in the most painful circumstances. It can bring insight and compassion. This mindfulness, this capacity for openness, can grow only through patient acceptance, by gently bringing the attention again and again to what is arising, allowing it to unfold without interferring or wishing it were different.
We have to find an attention that is generous enough to embrace our inner experience as well as the being before us. We must patiently accept ourselves as we sit there stewing in the juice of our impatience, selfishness and fear. Including ourselves in the sphere of our open attention can seem strange and selfish at first, but it is only when we can allow ourselves to be present that we can fully perceive, receive and engage authentically with another. We must be like noble Sir Gawain and whole-heartedly embrace the whole of our experience, even when we judge it to be hideous. Over time, we may find that we are far more than we thought we were–we may touch our own pre-existing sovereignty, our capacity to see and receive others and the whole of life, before we became subject to the cruel rule of our habitual thoughts and fears. We begin to realize thatthis mindful awareness is not separate from our innate capacity for wisdom and compassion. It is not separate from generosity.
As I walked to the subway through the dark, cold streets, past the village of market stalls set up in Union Square for Christamas, past the twinkling with Christmas lights and people rushing past in boots and hats (knit animal face hats on big burly guys), I reflected on the generous nature of mindful awareness and the power it has to transform our lives. On the train home, I remembered another train ride on another cold December day, now over a decade ago. My then 11-year-old daughter Alex and Iwere going to the Met to look at the vast Christmas tree decorated with Florentine ornaments. We were going to look at medieval armor–and finally we would sit on a bench in a vast nearly empty hall and take in some majestic Buddhas. This was my secret agenda. I want to nudge Alex towards an experience of something deeper and finer than all the voices and drumbeats of war and terror we were all hearing in those days. It was sad, fearful time in New York, and in our own lives. The attacks of 9/11 had happened just a few months before. A sense of impermanence–the sense that something terrible might happen at any moment–permeated the city. I remember we sat facing a brand new poster with a picture of a bag sitting alone on a train platform that read: “If you see something, say something.” These signs are part of our ordinary life now, but then they–and National Guard troops and bomb sniffing dogs in Grand Central Station–were signs that the world we knew had come to an end. On top of that, we had recently moved from Brooklyn to Northern Westchester, and Alex mourned the loss of what she considered to be her true home, the home of her childhood happiness. I desparately wanted to steer her towards what I took to be enduring truths.
“I wish I had been born in the Age of Middle-earth!” Alex said, after the conductor took our tickets. He wore a black arm band with a tiny American flag stitched on it and didn’t kid around like he used to. “I don’t belong in this time and place! I really hate it!”
As much as I wanted to be the kind of mother who gives a kid the space to be, I just couldn’t do it! I knew that Alex had developed a passion The Lord of the Rings, and Peter Jackson’s gorgeous film adaptations of Tolkein’s trilogy. I knew that she also loved Harry Potter and the Narnia Chronicles. I knew these works were her refuge and her source of wisdom and inspiration. But my own fears–that the times were really scary and unpredictable, that she might be overtaken by that hatred and her desire to live in a fantasy–caused me to lean into her space so to speak, to “be the voice of reason.” I reminded her that life in Middle-earth was no picnic, that there was war and plague and few hot baths or changes of outfit.
“But I might have been a gentile!” Alex said.
“Good news, honey,” I said. “You are a gentile, and in a time and place of indoor plumbing and hot running water.”
Her face fell for just a second, and I felt a little lurch in my own true heart–was that me, being so sarastic? But Alex took a stand for herself, for her own sovereignty.
“You don’t know what I mean,” she said.
I told her that I really did know, that she meant gentry, nobles like King Aaragorn and the other members of the Fellowship who were courageous even in the face impenetrable darkness. She granted me a cautious nod that indicated that she wasn’t at all convinced that I knew.
“This is hard to say because you’re my mother, but I don’t mind hardship. I don’t think I mind pain even.” Alex was generously letting me in a little bit on her inner life, on the secret sense she had that she may be capable of more than our daily life offered–that she may even be capable of participating in something great and magical. In the years to come, I would learn about Sir Gawain and his courageous openess and acceptance. I would learn that what saved Frodo from the power of the Ring was his capacity for compassion for Gollum–as though that compassion connected him to the force of the Whole. I learned that the Truth cannot be thought, as Madame de Salzmann once taught. Many of the great ideas we cherish are actually meant to be lived. They point towards inner attitudes or postures–of openness, of willingness to be present and receive–that we can practice any time and anywhere. And Alex was right about Middle-earth. When we practice this posture of opening and accepting what is rather than fussing with everything with our thoughts, it can feel like remembering something ancient–like recalling our true role in a lost world. It also resides in the middle place in us, that point of full presence where the body, the heart, and the mind all come together, each part alive and aware.
I know now that she was also remembering or intuiting her way towards something important when she was groping for a word along the lines of gentile or gentry. The modern English word “generosity” derives from the Latin word generōsus, which means “of noble birth,” which itself was passed down to English through the Old French word generous. The Latin stem gener– is the declensional stem of genus, meaning “kin,” “clan,” “race,” or “stock,” with the root Indo–European meaning of gen being “to beget.” The same root gives us the words genesis, gentry, gender, genital, gentile, genealogy, and genius, among others.
Most recorded English uses of the word “generous” up to and during the Sixteenth Century reflect an aristocratic sense of being of noble lineage or high birth. To be generous was literally a way of complying to nobility.” During the 17th Century, however, the meaning and use of the word began to change. Generosity came increasingly to identify not literal family heritage but a nobility of spirit and actions associated with the ideals of actual nobility: gallantry, courage, strength, richness, gentleness, and fairness. When Alex said she might really be a gentile, she was expressing the sense that she might really deep down have a noble nature. She sensed that she had the capacity to be what I thought I had to impose on her from outside, what I had wanted her to glimpse in those Buddha statues. When the Buddha referred to the Noble Truths and addressed his listeners as “Nobly Born,” he was pointing them to their own true natures, reminding them that we all have it in us to be much greater than we think we are. We can be heroes like Sir Gawain. We can grant each other sovereignty. There exist in us ancient inner postures of peaceful abiding, of receptivity, of generosity. Remember that. Be generous.