The Stillness of Snow

January 26, 2011 § 31 Comments

Just past dawn, I went outside into the silence of falling snow.  Suddenly, I realized how fresh snow fall changes the order of things.  Usually, I turn inward to seek stillness.  I sit down on my meditation cushion in a secluded corner. When it snows, I am drawn outside into the world, seeking a greater silence.  A friend wrote me this week, saying how much she loves going on silent meditation retreats in the snowy, silent depths of winter.   I understand.   Inner stillness touches outer stillness.   Questions like “Why am I here?” and “What’s next?”   reverberate to heaven.

I co-lead a meditation sangha that meets in a yoga studio in Tarrytown, New York, on Sunday evenings.  Last Sunday was bitter cold, but a hearty eight of us gathered.  Sitting on chairs and cushions, some of us wrapped in yoga blankets,sitting in a semi-circle before a glowing candle, there was something  primal about gathering on such a cold night.  I really felt what the great Zen sage Dogen meant when he said that practice draws us into a circle, that when we sit down to seek stillness and enduring truth, we join all people in all times who have sought stillness and enduring truth.  And because it was such a cold night, I spoke about the ordeal of the British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, which is described by Shackleton in the rich new “Suffering” issue of Parabola (which you should definitely check out!).

Shackleton’s ship Endurance was crushed in the ice in Antarctica in 1915.   He and his men weathered an Antartic winter on the ship until it broke apart; then they lived on the ice; then they moved to isolated Elephant Island.  After a year and facing another winter, Shackleton decided to place himself and five others in a small open boat for a perilous journey throught hurricane-swept waters to the whaling stations on South Georgia Island, nearly eight hundred miles distant.  When they did hit land, which was a miracle in itself since they were navigating by stars and intuition, they hit the opposite end of the island.  Near death, Shackleton and two others had to march for thirty-six hours over unnamed mountains, through freezing waterfalls.  But they all made it, and all of Shackleton’s men were saved!   Why tell this story in a meditation group, much less include it in the “Suffering” issue of Parabola?  It  illustrates that there is something besides desire, aversion, or spacing out and being oblivious.  Sometimes when conditions allow, we can in Shackleton’s words “pierce the verneer of outside things.”  Shackleton reported sensing another presence walking with them, and the other men later reported to the boss that they had sensed the same.  Sometimes, in great stillness, we can sense this invisible accompanying presence, this greater awareness.  At such moments,  there can be a new possibility for us–a new spaciousness blooms inside us.  We aren’t just pulled along by a desire for what is pleasant and pleasing to the ego or an aversion to pain and what is unpleasant.  I’ve heard this third  possibility calledthe ability to serve.  It is characterized by clarity and it can descend on us like a kind of grace and allow us to fulfill even arduous obligations in a graceful, freely chosen kind of way.   I think when we sit down on our meditation cushions, when we pray, when we contemplate in nature, when we lovingly fulfill our obligations even when we don’t want to–all those times when we notice what is and how we are yet go on–we are practicing allowing this kind of spaciousness to appear.

And what is the alternative?   When my daughter was little and we were living in Brooklyn, she outgrew her little bicycle with training wheels and I encouraged her to leave it out on the street in front of our building so someone could take it, the way people do.  She made a pretty sign that read in purple crayon “Free Bike.  Please enjoy!”  Wait and see what happens, I told her.  Giving things away is a way to receive something else, something even greater.  Alex was skeptical but curious.

The next morning, however, she threw off her covers and clattered down the ladder of her loft bed and ran to the big living room windows as if it was Christmas morning.

“The bike is gone!” Alex shouted.  “Mom, come look!  The bike is gone!”  She looked as radiant as if it was Christmas morning.

“How wonderful!” I agreed.

We stood there beaming at each other, and I had a funny little inkling that it wasn’t this simple, instilling the notion a notion of giving without expectation, opening up wide to the unknown, trusting that something will come.

“Now when do I get something back?”

This is the way we usually are.  Our lives move from hope to hope.  Wanting defines us, and this is perfectly natural.  This is the way nature made us. We want to be happy and safe from harm.  We want our loved ones to be happy and safe from all pain.  But sometimes things happen that rock our boat–or lock it in ice.  Yet sometimes we are called to go beyond what we want.  Sometimes we know we can serve something greater.  Sometimes all it takes is the stillness of the snow.

Truth is a Pathless Land

January 19, 2011 § 19 Comments

There is a gap in the cold.  Tomorrow the Ice Age returns, but today I’m going walking.  I once read that Thoreaux liked to walk three hours a day to feel balanced and connected to life.   I may not be out three hours but I will take a good long walk.  I am such a slow walker that my daughter refuses to ever take a walking trip with me, which is a dream of mine.  But I don’t care.  Walking helps me feel connected to nature and the ancestors.  Everything is misty and wet and I know I will marvel at those who came before us, who came to know what it takes to keep the fires lit, no matter what the conditions.

Years ago, many years after I imagined that brave prehistoric tribe of Nordic Indian Yogis I wrote about in “Fierce Warriors,” I sent a scraping of cells from inside my cheek to the National Geographic “Genographic Project.”  This genetic population study is attempting to chart the migrations of earliest humanity based on the marking that sometimes get notched onto our DNA as it gets copied and passed down through generations.   How astonishing it was to receive a world map of one’s matrilineal DNA and see a red line that begins in East Africa and a human being who lived about 150,000 years ago, our common genetic Eve.   Incomplete and flawed as this study may be, it is still rich evidence that each one of us–everyone everywhere, in every possible condition of life–is related.   It turns out that our sense of separation from one another is as Albert Einstein said “a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.”

Einstein knew that we are inextricably part not just of each other but of the whole universe and that urged people to free themselves from the prison of separation “by widening our circle of compassion, to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”  I used to think that compassion was a matter of allowing the heart to open (not that this is simple).  But I’m beginning to learn that this practice of compassion–this practice of allowing the sense of connection in–takes letting go–moment by moment–of all that we identify with and cling to as “me” and “mine.”  We have to be willing to know nothing, to be no one, to begin to know how inseparable we are from the whole that is.

The very same map contained another surprise.  It turned out that my grandmother,who was born and raised in Denmark, had DNA that had a rare “X” maker found in only two percent of the European population–but in many more Lakota Sioux, Ojibwa, Navajo and other indigenous North Americans.  This seemed to be tantalizing proof that my wild imaginings had, well, a cellular basis. My map contained a red line that left Africa and crossed Siberia, the Bering Strait, the Great Plains and…trailed off.    The notes included with my map said my “X” type was controversial.  Much was still unknown.  For example, how did that “X” turned up in Denmark?  I had my own theory. I pictured fierce Lakota warriors sailing across the storm-tossed Atlantic waters in open boats, teaching prehistoric Vikings how to build great long ships and sail back to North America.  I confided to friends that I may actually be a missing link in our understanding of the evolution of our humanity– “me” personally.  “You’re not a missing link,” quipped one friend. “That lovable little monkey face of yours just makes you think so.”

The day after my mother died, I dreamed of a Viking funeral.  I watched a ship containing her body glide out into still water at sunset as I stood on the shore.   This became more evidence that something in me that came from the deep past, from those who have crossed great waters.  In cold weather, and at all times I have had to weather adversity and fear, when I have had to face the unknown, I think of my mother and Danish grandmother and a long line of human beings who had faced the unknown and found a way to keep the fires lit.

Sometimes I think of those among them who came to know more.  I think of those who painted the Paleolithic paintings found in a series of interconnected caves in Lascaux in southwestern France.  I remember reading that great spiritual teacher Gurdjieff visited Lascaux and reportedly looked up in wonder at the figure of a great stag with many antlers and other figures of bisons, horses, cows, and at least one Sphinx or unicorn-like imaginary figure–figures layered on top of one another as if by succeeding generations.  Gurdjieff reportedly said that the depiction of an imaginary looking creature was the emblem of a sacred brotherhood of seekers of truth that appeared seven or eight thousand years ago, and that the stag with many antlers was a way of depicting attainments in consciousness and being.   Gurdjieff strongly disagreed with the commonly accepted claim that the art was possibly 20,000 to 18,000 years old (a Metropolitan Museum essay dates them at possibly 15,000 B.C.E.).    The quibble about dates meant nothing to me.  What stayed was the impression that the prehistoric cave painters were humans who knew something extraordinary about our human possibilities.

Ever since humans arose, there have been those who knew and could express our connectedness with life, who sensed that something Greater that animates life.   Does that come to us as a genetic legacy also?  By now, I realize it can’t be realized through the imagination alone.  I know that clinging and attachment to any map is a way to miss the wild unknown of the present moment.   The truth really is a pathless land.   More and more, I think of  human beings in circles rather than lines.  When I sit or walk or pray, I feel the presence of those who have come before.

Fierce Warriors

January 12, 2011 § 15 Comments

Another blizzard visited us during the night.  It is early morning, and I am in the silence of the snow.  Nothing is moving.  I am looking out the window at snow-covered pine trees remembering that one winter in my home town in Northern New York, the drifts were so high, we could step up onto the porch roof.  Taking sleds off porch roofs was common that winter.  Seeing the world covered in snow instilled in me a sense of the vastness of life–and also a sense of intimacy.   Fresh deep snow fall has the smell of cold stone and the intimate acoustics of a great cathedral.   Even soft sounds carry a long way.  When I was young I loved to try walking on snow shoes,  and I loved to go outside at night and look at the stars over snowy fields.  Both experiences inspired me to marvel at our early human ancestors.  How hard it was to survive.  How lonely it must have been. They must have been aware constantly of mortality and the way conditions keep changing, the wind rises, the fire goes out, the temperature drops, darkness falls.  James Joyce called the impermanence of conditions the “grave and constant” in human sufferings.  Our early ancestors learned this in the Cathedral of Nature.

Igjugarjuk was the shaman of a Caribou Eskimo tribe in northern Canada. Joseph Campbell told journalist Bill Moyers that this shaman once told European visitors that the only true wisdom ‘lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and can be reached only through suffering.  Privation and suffering alone open the mind to all that is hidden to others.”

Snow or no snow, I think most children intuit that a greater awareness–a greater way of being–is possible, and that it comes out when we confront great essential forces, or shocking changes in conditions.  When I was young, I sensed that I was secretly capable of knowing the kinds of things that Igjugarjuk knew, that our earliest ancestors knew.  I sensed that if I was given a chance and the right kind of training, I might be able to know the freedom and strength they possessed.  I might be capable of great being.

My father’s ancestors are Scottish and English; my mother’s parents were from Denmark.  The early ancestors I thought most about were not Eskimo but Viking.  I knew little about them except that they were big, blond, and wild.  I skipped over the Viking reputation for pillaging innocents and pictured fierce warriors like Beowulf, men (and I added women) who faced down terrifying monsters like Grendal,  who crossed icy seas in open boats and told inspiring sagas in the mead hall.  I loved to think of their wildness and fierceness, their ability to relate to great forces, big truths.   My mother grew up in the Great Plains of western Nebraska, and I often visited there.  In my child’s mind I made no distinction between Plains Indians like the Sioux and the Vikings.  They were similarly fierce and brave and capable of deep knowing.  They had minds that included the body, Wild Minds that were not separate from nature and the cosmos and hidden things.  When I grew a little older and discovered the book Siddhartha, I started linking Vikings and Sioux and Indians from ancient India.  When I took a college course in Indian religion and learned of the Aryan migration that swept down into India from the North, I pictured big blond Vikings on horseback, riding like brave Sioux warriors into Mother India where they dismounted and perfected yoga and meditation.  I pictured them sitting with legs crossed under bodhi trees, channelling all that fierce warrior energy into awareness.   Somewhere along the way, I learned that “veda” meant knowing with the heart and mind together.  I pictured the Rig Veda, the oldest of all books channelling and refining that wild openness to life, that knowing that is not split off from Nature, from an awareness of the Whole.   Out of college, I read Gurdjieff and learned about lost libraries in Egypt, and lost knowledge, of extraordinary people in Central Asia, a secret brotherhood who knew things hidden to most others.  I connected them to my own ancient brotherhood of  fierce warriors.   I was astonished to visit a famous archeology dig site in Agate, Nebraska, and see photos of great Sioux warriors.  They looked like Tibetans and Mongolians (maybe not Vikings) Standing before those pictures out there in Agate, where signs of ancients seas were being excavated in the desert, I dared to believe that there was more to life than my patchwork philosphy, that their capacities buried deep in my DNA, in sleeper cells.

These days, life has punched some well deserved holes in my childhood sense of intimate connection with pan-Indian-Nordic ancestors.   I have had a bit of diversity training and I know that I have lived as a modern educated Western white woman.  I know that my perspective is painfully limited, and that my ignorance has caused harm.  And yet, there are hints…..

One cold winter day recently, I visited the Lohin Geduld Gallery on West 25th Street in Manhattan, and took in the numinous, intricate, spacious paintings of Laura Battle. When I walked into the gallery from the cold street, I felt as if an energy was activated in me,  a cellular recognition of the connection between infinite space and the intimate reaches of our own hearts and minds.   Exquisitely geometricate, full of symbols, her works looked like maps or astrological or alchemical charts.  The artist happened to be present.  Amiable and soft spoken, she told me that she spent part of her father served as an ambassador in Egypt and she spent her childhood playing in the ruins of Egyptian temples. She led me to a painting called Spell, an intricate hieroglyphic structure in shades of yellow.  I felt called to read it–not to decipher it but to follow where it lead.  What I read in it was a powerful wish for transformation.  What I read was that art can be a means to enter the “Great Aloneness” and know what is hidden to others.  Such people and such works are clues to me that we can be seekers–and maybe even shamans and fierce warriors of awareness–still.

Conspiring Together

January 7, 2011 § 13 Comments

Greetings!  It’s snowing again in the greater New York area.  I just came in from walking around the lake.  I wonder where the ducks and swans go when the lake freezes over?  I see people ice fishing sometimes, though not today.  The New York Times reported that Russians from Brooklyn like to drive up here and ice fish, but today the roads are bad.  The falling snow gives the air a metallic smell and an intimate hush, like the inside of a big stone church.  I walked around enjoying the intimate-feeling solitude, yet reflecting on how essential it is for us to conspire together.   To paraphrase that great song “American Pie,”  all the beings I have admired most, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost–along with Madame de Salzmann, Thich Nhat Hanh and many other extraordinary ordinary mortals–have emphasized the importance of the spiritual community.  A very powerful energy is generated when people practice together.  It is my deepest wish and intention that the Parabola web space grow and transform to become a place to channel this energy.  So I’ll just begin…

In response to my last post, we were reminded that the word “conspire” means to breathe together.  In the sutra called “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness,” the Buddha describes how to wake up, saying that it all begins–and ends–with mindfulness of the body.  This is a deceptively simple statement–even, let’s be honest, seemingly disappointing!  Don’t most of us wish to be liberated from the limitations of this one, at least somewhat disappointing body, this one, at least somewhat disappointing life?  I remember vividly sitting in my high school art room crafting little Siddhartha-looking figures out of clay and staring out the big windows at the snow falling on the road that wound up a wooded hill beyond (snow was/is frequent in Watertown, New York).  I remember pondering the way someone said the literary critic A.R. Orage pondered, the way kids do naturally:  Why was I here?  Why did I even have to have a body that had to make beds and do homework and other torments?  Why couldn’t I be a cloud or a vapor so I could get places effortless and see and know things without, well, friction and effort?   I smoked cigarettes then (it was part of my outlaw persona, but I quit over 20 years ago.) So I was acutely aware of the pull of habit, and I was also painfully, defensively aware of the narrow confines of my experience and point of view.  I was a girl from the North Country and I had a North Country accent (still do, a little).  I knew I wasn’t the jungle girl or the international spy I pretended to be when I was younger.   How I yearned to be part of something greater!

It turns out that the way to something greater is through mindfulness of the body.  It is through conspiring with others–with noticing that others breathe as you breathe, that the body and the potential you have inherited are not yours alone but your part in the common human condition.  Bit by bit, and quite reluctantly at times, life pushed out onto that road that led away from the high school, out of the known world of my familiar thoughts and associtations into the unknown world that we glimpse from time to time when we open up–the wild unknown of the ETERNAL NOW.   It appears again and again, when we are in question.  Even last night!   One day this week, everything went my way and I felt blessed–the next day, all bad news and I felt utterly unseen, all my efforts ineffectual and pathetic.  Finally, I just had to laugh–just seeing the ego scrambling to get the story sorted out, to insist on itself, it’s claim to be right and the best, whether I was playing the winner or loser!   I went out to sit with others in a local sangha, and as I was doing walking mediation, some wild spark of awareness and willingness in me allowed me to let go all that arguing and affirming for a second and just open up to life.  I felt the support of  the other around me.   For a moment, I felt as if I were stepping forward to volunteer for a brave and reckless mission, to be wide be stripped of the veil of thought, the armor of ego, to be open to what may come.  For a moment or two, I knew there is another way to take in impressions.  We can let them pierce us, rather than buffer them with the mind.  I also knew I would not have been able to make that moment of, well, appearing, showing up for duty for a second instead of being lost in thought, without the support of the others around me.

Another comment last time mentioned the old meaning of “gracious” as Godly, also acceptable, and merciful and compassionate.  In Lord of the Rings, the beautiful elf Arwen gives the hobbit Frodo a potion of the grace that grants her immortality as a gift for healing and strength.  Ron noted that this the way that love and compassion lays us open to grace, which can never be created by us, only received.  Yet we can lay ourselves open to what is higher–and Frodo’s pure-hearted willingness to undertake an impossible mission sparked Arwen’s compassion and allowed grace to enter.  I’ll never foret hearing Cardinal O’Connor of New York say that Mother Theresa once told him that he had to give God permission to enter his heart.

There are moments in life when we do give God and life permission to enter, either due to the thousand natural shocks the flesh is heir to or devoutly wished for and cultivated through prayer and meditation, when we abandon all false hope and enter life.  When we find ourselves simply sitting and breathing with others.   I am thinking of those who know what it’s like to sit with those who are suffering.  I am think of what it is like to wait in an airport or a train station, in a church, a meditation hall, and even writing in this space on a snowy day.  We really are all kin, and what we have much to offer one another.  We can show up.

Where Am I?

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