March 27, 2011 § 12 Comments
Good morning! How is that for a liberatingly unoriginal first sentence? I’m sitting here drinking a good, strong cup of coffee, watching the sky brighten and thinking about our gathering, Parabola Live, at New York Insight at 28 West 27th Street in Manhattan this afternoon. I’m not nervous, or not too nervous, because I’m looking forward tobeing with others and sitting with other people. I once asked a good friend, the now departed Jon Rothenberg, how we were going to find our way forward into the future. “If we just keep sitting together we’ll be alright,” he said.
Last week, Iscrewed up my courage and undertook the experiment of having nothing with me except a guide book. It’s not like there are no books in Oxford, but I decided to take advantage of being in unfamiliar surroundings, of being a stranger in town. All week long, I kept glimpsing the true state of affairs, the way I’m a kind of cave with the wind blowing through it, the way I’m always trying to fill the unexplored depths of emptiness with ideas and stories. The image of Kate and Leo clinging to that spar of wood in the last scene of Titanic comes to mind—the way I was trying to find something solid to grasp to keep me from sinking down into nothingness. Naturally, I would find certain repetitive thoughts to cling to–I ate my porridge and stared up at the august and ancient portraits of men of substance in the Trinity College dining room, I just let myself sink and know that I was without substance. At moments I felt quite alone–alone in front of the unstoppable truth of impermanence, of time passing, of Alex growing up and passing on to a new life, and me? And yet, in the midst of that sadness there were moments of lightening and warmth. There on my own, wandering down cobblestone streets in dreamy Oxford, I realized that it is ok to let go of striving to be someone and sink into our common human nature. In a sense, what we aspire to is rooted in our origins.
Back home again, I happened to find this in The Reality of Being: “Each of us is alone and in our self must be alone–alone in front of our understanding, in front of the call of the divine and the fact of our human person. I become linked with others when I begin to recognize my original nature and see that we all have the same difficulty realizing it with the whole of ourselves. This brings a special energy, which allows the action of a finer, more subtle nature. The energy has the power to call and to irresistibly attract. This represents the true help that we can bring to each other.”
Madame de Salzmann was referring to special conditions, but what she says is true on some level whenever people gather and sit together with the intention of consciously giving and receiving. A special energy can appear, a sense of freedom to be ourselves. A friend of mine called Parabola a kind of spiritual National Geographic, reminding readers of this truth from Jesus, quoted in the Gospel of John: “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” (She used the modern translation which substitutes “rooms” but I prefer the koan-like mystery of many mansions being in a house.) Whatever we think the Truth is, as the Buddha said, it is other than that. It is larger than any human philosophy–yet it dwells in us. There is something in us besides thinking, a seeing, a receptivity, an awareness, a bodhi mind, that can relate us to this.
Last week, another friend told me he was very excited to learn that the word Buddha was derived from the word “bodhi,” which in Pali and Sanskrit means “awakening” and also “to Know.” He said “to Know” as if this kind of knowing was capitalized. I googled it myself and confirmed that the definition did capitalize “Know.” To my friend, this seemed to confirm that the Buddha was in on the same Gnosis, the same deep knowledge that Jesus and great human teachers from Pythagoras to Gurdjieff knew. He was excited to think that there is one Truth. For him this was a hint that there is one Light and one Way. I don’t know.
But I do know that giving up all hope of escape from my basic human nature frees me. I know that being with others and sitting with others is a good thing, and sometimes when I sit I feel I am sitting with the ancients. I know by now that I will never get over my thinking and dreaming and stories. But sometimes something more real seems to swim up through the dreams. There is a glimpse of something glittering up from the depths. Opening to receive it, I become capable of giving. I think this is what the great photographer and Parabola contributor Minor White was on to, when he said:
“Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms you presence.”
Come join us if you can! And come as you are.
March 24, 2011 § 5 Comments
I spent last week visiting my daughter and the dreaming spires and domes of Oxford. I spent much of the week in rooms in Trinity College (they rent rooms during the breaks between terms). Every morning I had porridge and eggs under the painted gaze of Cardinal (soon-to-be Saint) Newman, William Pitt, and other somber male figures in long white wigs or medieval dress. Out on the vast lawn of the Trinity quad, a Bollywood movie was shooting. Someone told me it had to do with an Indian prince attending Oxford who falls in love and romanced the girl of his dreams. One bright morning as I left the college to meet my daughter Alex, I walked right through the shooting of the exultant final dance number. The dancers pranced along to the beat of a boom box playing music that reminded me of the exultant final number in “Slumdog Millionare,” while rows of young students dressed in black pretended to play the violin. I was told that real Oxford students who happened to be in town during the break between terms were playing Oxford students, but I was fairly certain this American visitor would be edited out.
Therein–or maybe herein–lies my tale. I once read that there are three different ways to visit a place: a very few in this world have the experience of being true explorers, going where no other or few other humans have gone. Many more of us have been tourists, visiting places that many people have visited, preferrably as comfortably as possible and with the aim of, well, visiting them. The first catagory is almost impossible these days and while there is nothing wrong with visiting the underground Cabinet war rooms or Windsor Castle and Westminster Abbey (I visited them last week), it is one thing to snap photos and quite another to rally the people during the blitz or kneel in prayer. There is a third way of travelling. One can be a pilgrim, following others, seeking to experience what they have experienced. My daughter Alex is at Oxford as a pilgrim. Not only is she an Oxford student, she seems to be fulfilling her childhood dream of being admitted to Hogwarts. Indeed, many scenes in the Harry Potter films–the great hall, the great stone staircases–were filmed at Oxford, and Alex took me to see them.
All week long, as I walked down cobblestone streets and into one beautiful college and chapel and cathredal after another, I wondered if I was any kind of pilgrim. Going to another country for a mere week is very tiring and it can make a person question whether there is much room inside for anything more than thoughts of survival, of making it from here to there. Yet sitting in the chapel at Trinity, an Oxford grad turned tour guide told me a story that cracked open a door. He spoke of the founding of Oxford, in about the year 1000 or so. The earliest students came as pilgrims to what was once a monastic center speaking French and Latin, not the crude English of the Anglo Saxons. These snooty interlopers were also dirty, poor, and in all ways disagreeable and oblivious to the life around them. Finally, 63 of them were ambushed and killed by outraged locals. What came of that sad and bloody deed? It turns out that the enclosed quad design of the Oxford colleges, which became the prototype of most college campuses everywhere, was actually a fort, aimed at keeping those first obnoxious, messy, know-it-all students safe behind stone walls and iron gates. Safe inside a timeless, dreamy bubble, away from the truth of impermance and the need to keep going no matter what and all the other implacable truths of life, which the local farmers and their wives surely knew.
A long time out of school and feeling like a bit of an outsider among insiders, I identified with the farmers (the nonviolent farmers). Yet I realized that farmers can also be pilgrims. There are paths and ways aimed at helping us practice being in the world but not of it–aimed at helping us master the art and science of not completely disappearing into the thoughts and inner and outer attitudes that arise to protect us from unpredictable life. There are schools in which the gates are open, so that the quiet of that green inner sanctum can enter the life outside. The aspiration to know a timeless truth, a greater life, can infuse our actions and relations with the outside world with an energy of awarenss and kindness. Last week, I realized that this is my wish and dream for Parabola, that it be a meeting place and record for people seeking out and following the ways of earlier others, who have lived in the world but not of it, who have lived with presence.
March 15, 2011 § 3 Comments
Is it possible to feel a nostalgia for a home we have never known? This is the paradoxical feeling that can hit when you sit down to meditate. Turning towards ourselves, sinking into the stillness under the thoughts and the endless pressure to act, you can feel an unmistakable longing to go home to your true nature. First comes a feeling of physical fatigue, like you have been caught up in a battle you don’t really believe in, like you’ve been armored by attitudes that aren’t really you. Then comes the deep longing, a deep ache, to find your way to your true home.
I recently learned from a book called Word Catcher that “nostalgia” was coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer, an Austrian medical student, who joined two Greek words, nostois, return, and algos, pain, to describe the longing for home of Swiss soldiers stationed in the mountains. I find the detail of Swiss people in the mountains poignant because it suggests a longing for something vast, something beyond. But Homer uses a version of the word, nostos, the homecoming stories, and even before Homer there were nostoi, the tales that sailors told of their homecoming journeys. Some scholars say that ancient Greek epics can be divided into stories seeking glory in war (the Illiad) and stories of seeking the way home (the Odyssey). Perhaps our ordinary lives–even our days–can be divided the same way: we long to go out and get things done (sometimes big things, sometimes at least the laundry). And then we ache to find our true home. Odysseus went through a years-long, well, odyssey to get home again after war against Troy–the pull of duty and the possibility of glory gave way to that deep, deep ache to be where he was meant to be. I wonder if this is the natural rhythm of life–to go out and to return, the out breath and the in breathe.
Often run down as sentimental, a feeling triggered by a song or a scent or a season, the ache of nostalgia can sometimes lead us to something unknown. That extremely unsentimental physicist Stephen Hawking says that we can feel nostalgia for the future, which is his definition of synchronicity. I think I know what he means. Sometimes, usually when you are more quiet and receptive, there can be the feeling that there is a larger pattern and a larger life that we are meant to be a part of. But how to break through?
Larger ideas can help (at least until we get attached to them and start confusing the map for the territory). One large idea handed down from the days of Buddha is that there are inner attitudes or postures or mental formations, call them what you will, that lead us away from our true nature. Among these postures are the “five hindrances”: 1) desire or greed, 2) anger or aversion, 3) sloth, torpor or boredom (and this can include compulsive doing, which pushes away boredom), 4) restlessness and worry, 5) doubt. Lately, I’ve been trying to see how often I am carried away by this attitude or that. Sometimes it really does seem as if a mechanical habit that has nothing to do with who I really am or what I really deeply long for is picking me up and running away with me, speaking words that have nothing to do with my essential wish, engaged in actions that feel hollow. How amazing it is to catch myself before I speak in anger, before I walk out to the kitchen. How amazing it is to just sit down and be still…and feel that ache for a life I haven’t yet known.
March 7, 2011 § 5 Comments
Sometimes life can unfold like a teaching. This is what happened to me last night. I lead a meditation at Yoga Shivaya in Tarrytown. I had a few qualms about going and if anyone would come out because of the heavy weather and the storms that were predicted later. But it was wonderful to sit with others and listen to the rain. After the sitting and walking meditation, I spoke a bit about the reflexive tendency to judge our experience all the time, and about the deeper tendency to see things in terms of I, me, and mine. I read a poem by W.S. Merwin, “To the Face in the Mirror,” about how, well, strange it seems sometimes to be to try to find a permanent self: “Because you keep turning toward me/ what I suppose must be/my own features only/ backward it seems to me/that you are able to see me only by looking back from somewhere….”
I spoke of those rare and liberating moments when we are filled or accompanied by a finer awareness, an awareness that may be with us in suffering as well as exultation. True compassion can blossom at such times, when we are between judgements, between “yes” and “no,” when we are more in the present.
Most people seemed to find the talk somewhat beneficial, but not everyone. A man spoke up and said that the practice itself was so simple, just letting go. Why had I put all of these words on top of that utter simplicity? He added that he just couldn’t get his mind around the words I was saying (He kept gesturing like he was raking in a bounty, only clearly not). His reaction filled me with a deeper question. Is it possible to be really present? Even if we clear away the obvious obstacles, fear, anger, delusion. Is presence possible?
This is the paradox that really hits you on a long silent retreat. You watch the workings of the mind. You watch how layered your defense against the present moment really is: “There are experimental studies that suggest that we do not become consciously aware of a sensory stimulus until about a half a second after its onset,” writes Christian Wertenbaker in the “Imagination” issue of Parabola. Since many of our reactions occur more quickly than this, it can be argued that our conscious choices are illusory, after-the-fact rationalizations, and in many circumstances this can be clearly shown. So ‘free will’ does not exist. But this does not take into account the power of the imagination. We can anticipate various possible reactions to a stimulus, and prepare the brain to react in one way rather than another…..One can observe in oneself a constant interplay between perception of and reaction to external phenomena, and imaginative anticipation and prediction.”
This is what made Wertenbaker’s interesting article thrilling to come upon after a hair-raising drive home on flooded roads last night: “In Gurdjieff’s Movements, or sacred dances, one is asked to maintain a constant awareness of bodily sensation and at the same to visualize the next position to be taken. Thus the present comes into existence.” Most of the time we are lost in the distant past or the possible future, but there are certain conditions like the Movements that act like a Zen koan, confounding us and pushing into a more vibrant, embodied state of awareness, pushing us towards presence: “One can speculate that the constant interplay between the immediate past and the immediate future that occurs when the present is consciously attended is also a vibration, serving a mysterious role in the self awareness of the universe, and made possible by the proper use of imagination.”
Imagine that! Most of the time we are constantly predicting the immediate future, suppressing its unpredictability or incorporating the unexpected into our self story: I knew it would happen that way. But last night driving home from the Tarrytown Sangha, the rain became so heavy, the Sawmill Parkway was closed because of flooding. Almost home, my car was overwhelmed with water. No visibility, no traction, I sat gripping the wheel and sensing my body, grateful no one else was on that patch of road, imagining what would come next. Visibility cleared, I watched myself begin to tell a story about the immediate past–Boy, that was close!–only the story was cut short because something similar happened again. A great wave of water splashed up over the windshield, then another way, then the tires losing traction. I sat sensing myself sitting and breathing and trying to imagine what would come next. Even as I type this, I can remember the stillness in that moment, the clarity of being between sensing what was and predicting what would come. There was the attentive state of not knowing with great vigilence, there was waiting, there was knowing the unknown, knowing that certainty that that safety and control is mostly an illusion. Knowing that what we call presence is open to Mystery.