The Great Unknown

February 28, 2011 § 22 Comments

I went for a walk in icy rain this morning and for some reason I thanked God to be having just that experience.  I wasn’t trying to change my attitude or reframe my thoughts, changing “miserable” into “bracing.”  I actually turned back when the rain grew too heavy.  But my vision opened up for a moment and a mechanical, ordinary thought–“At least it isn’t snowing again, thank God”–became the much less ordinary recognition that it was thoroughly good to be alive, to be feeling the sting of rain drops and smelling melted snow and the faint smell of earth, of coming spring.  Just for a moment, I tasted how life opens up when we don’t judge.

It’s a pretty good guess that the revered spiritual teacher Jeanne de Salzmann, who is not infrequently mentioned here, and the writer of popular books about addiction Melody Beattie have never been mentioned in the same sentence–not to mention Buddha and Jesus (just for good measure).  But here is something all have in common:  a sense of the crushing negative force of of our own judgements.   Judge not lest ye see little more than your own limited projections about life.  De Salzmann  teaches how judging what we see ends seeing, ends the effort to connect withhigher forces and a greater reality and–at the risk of bringing some severe judgements into this blog space–I have to say that there is a similar intuition behind some bestelling books on the secret laws of the universe and making miracles.  Admittedly, those secret and miracle books get off the track and into high weeds but, BUT, authors like Beattie have lived or otherwise stumbled upon a very powerful principle:  Not resisting our experience, learning to be thankful for everything, to receive everything without resistance, can be, well, miraculous.

Is it possible to see what is, even our own most cringe-worthy manifestations, and accept it without judgement, without repression?  Of course, I don’t mean acting out in violent ways or tolerating awful behavior in others.  It’s a good idea to come in out of the rain.   After all these years, I’m beginning to understand that way towards freedom and peace and happiness has to include freedom from self-judgement and self-repression…and that includes judging our own irrepressible tendency to judge all the time.  Last summer I was at a gathering where a friend spoke of what it is like to think you are going to die.  Years ago, doctors told her she was going to die.  Yet, laying in her hospital bed waiting to die, she discovered something extraordinary.  Her fear and concern about her self fell away and life became beautiful, fascinating, endlessly interesting and, well, life giving.   Knowing that there was no hope for things to be otherwise, she lost her concern about herself.  She stopped worrying about fixing this and covering up that.  She put herself in the hands of the Great Unknown.  This is the Way.

Of course what I’m proposing goes against the grain of habit.  But I’m really interested in practicing letting my experience in without feeling like I have to do anything about it. What if we learned to hold what arises in the light of awareness and compassion?  What if we actually regarded ourselves as my friend did in the hospital, as human, flawed, mortal…and in the hands of the Great Benevolent Unknown?


Cave Painters

February 22, 2011 § 11 Comments

“In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer”–these words by Albert Camus have resonated for me often this winter.  I was on retreat with an interesting group of people in Boston over the weekend.  Sitting and breaking bread and moving around with them in a beautiful, harmonious space that was once a harpsichord factory, I was very aware of the way the container of a retreat supports the effort to wake up and be present to our lives.   Meditating with others who have come from different places heightens the awareness that our bodies have come from somewhere and not just Boston or New Hampshire or New York but from the distant past, from ancestors who have braved all manner of hardships.  In the container of a retreat, supported by the energy and intention of others, the experience of sitting on a cushion and turning the attention inward is no small thing:  it can feel like descending into a vast subterranean cave or series of caves full of forces and energies unknown to the thinking mind.  In the flickering light of my attention,  I was filled with an unusual mix of awe and optimism, fairly that if I kept going I would come upon wonders.

This is a paradox of retreat:  I didn’t go away to be “myself,” still less to bond with a new group, to be “ourselves.”  I didn’t go to a new city to have the feeling of being at home, but to have a feeling of intentional exile, to uproot myself from home and all the props of familiar habits and ties, to seek a greater reality.  Back and forth, I went, between letting go and grasping, between emptiness and identification.  At moments when I wasn’t grasping, t a new inner spaciousness seemed to open up.  In those moments it seemed extraordinarily touching to inhabit a body, heart and mind capable (in spite of a misspent youth!) to explore and discern the working of larger forces and finer energies, capable of being still and knowing.

Here is another paradox that pops up on retreat:  you confront how much you long for the unknown and how much you long for the familiar.  Years ago, in the early days of a week-long silent meditation retreat when, telling myself I wasn’t breaking my vow of silence, I checked my phone messages only to learn that the scientists at National Geographic “Genographic  Project” had succeeded in tracing my matrilineal DNA back to our earliest common ancestor in Africa.  What a strange message to receive on a retreat!  I called home hoping for a simple “I miss you Mommy” or some other cozy bit of news from home, sticking to the shallows before I pushed off for the depths.  I didn’t expect news of this scale.

“It’s so moving to look this map and see the route my ancestors took out of East Africa and on to Greece and Italy,” exclaimed my friend Liz ” in her phone message.   “To realize that my people founded Athens and then went on to found Rome.”   As silly as her identification was–her voice swelling with pride as if she personally was there with Socrates and Caesar–it inspired me to walk out in the woods behind the retreat center and furtively called my husband for my results. I wanted to enlarge and glorify my sense of personal identification too!   “Why are you calling?  I thought you took a vow of silence?”  He explained that yes, yes, a large envelope came from the National Geographic Society but it was far too strange and complicated to go into.  The red line appeared to leave Africa and then cross Siberia and enter the New World.  Siberia!  Mongolia!   As I’ve written before, dear reader, my imagination seized on this extremely unexpected and improbable result and galloped away with it.  What there was living on in my very own cells the effervescent substance of those mysterious beings who brought esoteric knowledge to the early Greeks?

There is the map and then there is the territory.  Retreats have a way of revealing the way we move between moments (seconds?) of openess to a greater reality and identification with what was glimpsed.  It is extraordinary to see the speed with which we attach “ourselves” to whatever is received.  In recent years, further National Geographic research has revealed that one branch of my ancestral DNA strain actually split off from those heading towards Siberia and headed towards France, upending all my theories imaginings.  And I did receive a legacy–we all have.  We have inherited bodies and parts that are capable of knowing more than we can imagine.  In certain conditions,  I can come down out of my head and descend into the cave of sensation and see something glowing just around the corner, the hint of something marvelous, something awesome to be known.  In that moment I realize something that humans have probably always realized when conditions were right, that we were made for something more than mere survial.  Afterall, didn’t “my” prehisoric French ancestors paint the caves in Lascaux?

Regions of Unlikeness

February 13, 2011 § 13 Comments

Last Saturday, a group of us sat around a big wooden table in an art room in the Westchester Community College Center for the Arts,  practicing writing stories of things that touched us or shocked us as fast as we could and all in one long, breathless sentence.  Before we started, we practiced sitting with eyes closed for a time, allowing the body to be present, allowing ourselves to really be aware the breathing and the mysterious life in us that links us with the distant past and with worlds beyond us. We tried writing as we had meditated, allowing everything to happen, accepting what arose knowing that no thought or feeling was final.  A few people decided to read out loud what they wrote and we were amazed at the beauty and life in what we heard.  It seemed extraordinary evidence that we have the rhythm of story in us just as surely as the rhythm breath–and more: There were places in a couple of stories that opened up and let through a flash of pain and majesty of the greater human story, of loss and love and going on.  It was quietly thrilling, like seeing the moon and stars through the parting clouds.  I came away recognizing how important it is to be with others and exchange with others.   Through others, we can recognize our own deeper possibilities and finer qualities–we can glimpse something real.

In the afternoon, full of the sense that there was everything to be gained by leaving my winter-imposed solitude and seeking out the work of others–and work by living humans, not museum pieces–I drove down to Manhattan.  Braving the icy wind off the Hudson and the sense that I don’t know anything about art, I walked around the art galleries of Chelsea.  I came to a full stop at the show “Regions of Unlikeness” by the artist Celia Gerard at the Sears Peyton Gallery.   Gerard’s abstract, geometical works in black and white have the power of making a viewer stay.  “It’s amazing how they unfold,” said my friend, and I agreed. The triangles, spheres, and cones open into landscapes and unknown worlds in deep space.  What is really uncanny about the works is that they unfold the viewer, waking up the energies in the body and opening the mind and heart.   I felt like I could see and feel the ongoing search in the work, and it had the effect of calling to search along with the artist.   Gerard’s work woke me up, yet made me feel very concentrated and still, like looking inside a vast crystal or up at a mountain, or inside myself.   It gave me a feeling of nostalgia for places I have never travelled, a longing for a quality or state that is still unknown yet essential…home.

“I want to unfold/ I don’t want to stay folded anywhere/ Because where I am folded,/ There I am a lie….”  These lines by Rilke echoed through my head as I drove home from Manhattan last night, and this morning when I woke.

A Hero Isn’t Just A Sandwich

February 9, 2011 § 13 Comments

I was working on a story yesterday and the going got tough.  It struck me that I reach a point in any project–writing a story, taking a trip, household maintenance, anything really, but let’s keep the focus on writing–when the light of inspiration, interest, and joy goes out and I trudge on in the dark, feeling like a lonely and stubborn fool.  I wondered why I ever thought I could write. I tried taking a walk but in the cold and gloom, it felt a bit like a scene in Dr. Zhivago (which I recently watched, thinking it would be perfect match for this polar weather).   Sickened by war and desparately lonely, Zhivago turns his back on the red army brigade that kidnapped him to serve as a medical officer.   He staggers across icy snow fields alone in a tattered blanket, seeking the comfort of home only to find it abandoned when he got there (he goes on to have a passionate doomed romance with Lara, but that part didn’t fit my bleak scenario).  At some point during my walk, I became aware of how absurd it was to be comparing myself to Zhivago fleeing a bloody endless war, and yet I couldn’t help myself.  And yet, I found myself in a place that felt strangely familiar.  I longed for something–a state of engagement or connection or clarity or being–that I just could not muster at that moment.   I went home and trudged on through the desert of my writing until I could decently quit for the day.  By this morning I was sure–yet again–that there was an inescapable lawfulness–a necessary cause-and-effect mechanism–at work.   It seems I always go through this when I try to write a “true” story.  I haver to go through a painful phase of wandering lost and alone, in which I shed all my illusions and baggage,  all my hopes and dreams about how it could and should go, so that I can be truly alert and receptive to what is.

Here is E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel on the distinction between a story and a plot:  “A story is a narravive of events arranged in their time sequence.  A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.  “The king died, and then the queen died” is a story.  “The king died and the queen died of grief” is a plot….Consider the death of the queen.  If it is in a story, we “and then?” If it is in a plot, we ask “why?”

I’m going to go way out on a limb here and assert that most spiritual paths, including Buddhism which is forever telling people to wake up from the stories they tell themselves, are about discovering the great laws–the master plot–that governs all our lives.  In the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness,” the sutta in which the Buddha describes how to wake up from, he directs people to be mindful first of the body, next of the sensations that brand our experience, then of the moods and mind states that determine our experience–and lastly of the dhammas or dharmas or laws that determine the unfolding of experience. This fourth foundation includes many of the famous Buddhist lists, like the Four Noble Truths, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, and the Five Hindrances.  Gaining insight into any of them–or indeed any spiritual laws–requires an understanding that causality governs our experience.

In the Satipatthana Sutta (or Four Foundations of Mindfulness), the Buddha urged his monks to know when the five hindrances of sense-desire, sloth or sleepiness, restlessness and worry, anger or ill-will, or doubt was present–or not:

How, monks, does a monk live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances?
Herein, monks, when sense-desire is present, a monk knows, “There is sense-desire in me,” or when sense-desire is not present, he knows, “There is no sense-desire in me.” He knows how the arising of the non-arisen sense-desire comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen sense-desire comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sense-desire comes to be.
As obscure as this language is (the lilting repetition was for a pre-literate audience), we all really can learn what conditions trigger sense-desire (In from walk, cold and despairing, I tore into a bag of potato chips…ah, how cause-and-effect).  I recently wrote about what it might mean to consciously play a role.   It starts with knowing that a plot that is unfolding…or waiting to unfold.  It starts with agreeing to live out your role, agreeing live out your life as if you were taking part in a great unfolding drama (or dramedy).  What if we really did agree to play the role of hero, through every twist and turn?

Make-believe Animal

February 1, 2011 § 12 Comments

“Man is a make-believe animal,” wrote William Hazlitt.  “He is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.”

I am looking out at a white world through window framed with the uneven spikes of icecicles.”What are these daggers I see before me?”   I’m moving from Hazlitt to a reference to Macbeth not just because of the daggers of ice hanging from everybody’s house, but because the reports of the coming “monster storm” have taken such an ominous, apocalyptic turn.  It’s if the world has been knocked out of balance by ill deeds, which is what people feared in Macbeth’s time, and in Hamlet’s time, and in Julius Caesar’s time…and in most times.  The world certainly does deserve our care and attention.  But what gets in the way of our really seeing the big picture, not just reacting and projecting?   Today, because I am living in a little house in a wooded area that now looks like a fairy tale cottage, all framed in icecicles–today, because my neighbors and I are burrowing in in the face of  reports of a storm advancing like a great beast or monstrous army–today, I am aware that I am actually am living in a fairy tale.

I go walking through falling snow.  As I slip and slide down the hill and around the lake, I am full of plans and worries and desires to have this and avoid that.  Different scenarios well up and pass away.  P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins and a founding editor of Parabola said that everyone has to be the hero of one story: their own.   Whether we are or not we are almost always caught up in the narratives of our journey:  This is who I am and this is what life is like. Yet there are moments when we wake up,  moments when inner or outer conditions cause us to be here now.   Anything might pierce us, a bird call, the pristine beauty and silence of the snow.  This morning it was a kindly neighbor telling me part of her roof has collapsed under the weight of the snow.  No one will climb up and shovel it off in the storm, she told me.  What should she do?  I told her to call her insurance company, there are nice people there who can tell her what to do.  Hardly original, but just standing with her awhile and extending a little neighborly compassion lifted me up out of my own story.  It reminded me that we can change our story or our role within it.  We can learn to cultivate the “thin places,” those times when the dream isn’t so thick.  At those moments, I believe we may begin to move from scripted character to co-author of our lives.  At those moments, we may begin to learn how freeing it can be to act a part, to play a role.

“In order to be, we have to “play a role,” writes Madame de Salzmann.  We need to find a way to reconcile our aspirations to awaken to the higher, to Truth, with our natural desire to express ourselves, act out all our various perfectly good and natural strivings and intentions in life.  How can we do this?  We must strive to be present, taught Madame de Salzman, Buddha, God himself.  “To be present requires dividing the attention,” writes de Salzmann.  “Three-quarters must be kept inside and only one-quarter allowed to support the movement toward manifestation.”   By keeping the attention inside, I believe she means being mindfully aware of the body, feelings, thoughts moment by moment.  By one-quarter of the attention supporting “the movement towards manifestation,” I believe she means living consciously.  She means being with desires as they arise, neither repressing them or getting lost in them:  “At one moment, for example, I may experience a wish to indulge a pleasure like smoking or eating.  Either I immediately give in to the idea and have no contact with the desire, or I refuse and create conflict, again without contact because I have dismissed the desire.  And everything that arises in me proceeds like this.  The desire is life is life itself in me, extraordinarily beautiful, but because I do not know it and do not understand it, I experience frustration, a certain pain, in giving in or in repressing it.  So, the struggle is to live with the desire, not refusing it or losing myself in it, until the mechanism of the thinking no longer has an action on me, and the attention is free.”

In other words, we can be with the energy of desire for this or that, not identifying it with the mind but experiencing it as a manifestation of the life force–extraordinarily beautiful!  The movement to be made is not to repress or indulge but to invite or somehow kindle and keep lit an awareness that can accompany us as we seek to fulfill our desires.

Working this way we see that the realization of spiritual truth is situational, particular, a unique  moment of alchemy when attention turns the lead of usual sleep into gold.  We don’t obtain this kind of truth so much as give ourselves to it for a moment.  It is an act of seeing and service.

Today, as I bring in wood and lay a fire in the woodstove in case of the massive power outages that are predicted in the “monster snow” now advancing across the country like a blind beast of an army, I vow to try not to be completely taken by the story of the storm and my desires for, say, electricity and internet and hot water.  I vow to try to consciously play this role.

Where Am I?

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