My Father’s House

April 26, 2011 § 11 Comments

“My father’s house has many mansions.”  I always loved this sentence from the Bible.  It is little like a Zen koan, a confounding statement that galvanizes the attention and makes we realize there is more to the truth and to reality than we think there is.  Truth unfolds. I remember hearing it when I was a little kid and picturing an ordinary smallish house where each room turned out to be a mansion.  I remember hearing or reading in college that Jesus had a special way of using language that wasn’t just poetic but “giantistic” (I think that was the phrase).  He filled his speech with unforgettable metaphors–a camel going through an eye of the needle, the tiny mustard seed that becomes a faith that can’t be uprooted–that drove home the  scale of reality.  There are modern translations that read “My father’s house has many rooms.” But I like the fancy King James version because it captures the way seemingly simple, humble things open up and become grand when you grant them attention, when you open the door and enter.

These days, the sentence about the house that contains many mansions makes me think of my actual father, who is 91-years-old and still living on his own in Florida.  He is a World War II veteran, and in a few weeks he will be flying up to Washington D.C. to visit the World War II and other memorials, on an “Honor Flight” tour, courtesy of a local Rotary Club.  The Honor Flights are the brainchild of a non profit group intent on honoring veterans, especially World War II veterans and critically ill veterans.  “There aren’t that many of us left,” my father told me, when he announced that he had been chosen.  I’ve since read that they are dying off at the rate of more than 1,000 a day.  My father has been walking regularly to get ready for the trip (one of the requirements is to be able to walk the length of a football field).  And unbeknownst to him, the loved ones of these vets are invited to write letters appreciating their service or their lives that will be given to them during the flight (someone will come down the aisle announcing a “mail call” and handing the letters out).

There are many things I could say.  But I’m thinking of one fascinating detail I learned one day when I “interviewed” my father about his early life and  war experience. Like many young men, he enlisted  and received training and anxiously waited to be sent overseas.  Finally, he shipped out only to be issued double gear–a woolen overcoat and other woolly things for the war in Europe and tropical weight clothing for the war in the Pacific.  The troops (as we call them now) slept in hammocks and were served two meals a day. Only when they were many miles out to sea did they learn what their fates would be.   My father was ordered off the ship in Panama, to be among the troops dispatched to protect the Panama Canal. It turned out he was lucky and he was quick to say this.  “But I was ready to go wherever they sent me,” he told me.

I asked him what it takes to be ready to face the unknown like that.  He spent summers on his grandfather’s farm growing up and he told me that commanding officers counted themselves lucky if they had farm boys among their troops because “farm boys know how to do things.”   He meant basic surival things–build shelters in the forest, fix machinery,  find good water, tell which way is north.  But over the many years of knowing him, he also showed me that this simple phrase unfolds to be a mansion.  By example, he taught me never to confuse active intelligence with book learning.  He taught me how, well, interesting it can be to be interested in life, to observe closely and ask questions.  As he grew older and pain became inevitable, he showed me the importance of maintaing a sense of humor, of meeting life with a realistic but optimistic expectation.  He showed me what it can look and sound like to live in the moment. “I know I haven’t got forever, but I plan to roll with life and see what I can as long as I can.”

I’m very grateful to my father for making it impossible for me to stay a “cliff dweller” (as he called people in apartment buildings, especially in Manhattan) or a cube dweller in a tightly controlled corporate environment.  My father showed me there is a way of being awake and alive to your life that involves more than one dusty little  room in the house, more than the thinking mind and its clutter and attachments.  He showed me that true intelligence draws on the senses and feelings and the whole of a person in the present moment.  It means being more interested in process than results and seeing what to do when you don’t know what to do.  My father actually built much of the brick ranch house I lived in when I was young.  He showed me that volunteering for the life you are given–being willing to face the unknown and then digging in and finding it interesting, bringing the whole the intelligence you were given to it–makes even a simple task or house open to reveal mansions.

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The First Easter Week Musing

April 18, 2011 § 7 Comments

This morning I went to funeral for a woman who died at 103-years-old.  It took place in a little, old Episcopal church in a bucolic, horse-country part of Westchester this morning, and the service for her was dignifed but brief and spare.  There were no personal stories, and only reading beside the classic offerings, psalm 23, St. Paul, the Gospel.  This strikingly impersonal quality had the effect of giving the service a universal quality.  Everything that was said could have applied to any one of us.  As I watched people I’ve known for a long time mingling on the lawn afterwards, I thought about time passing and I thought about something in that one reading that stayed with me.   It had to do with conscience, a special, even sacred kind of intelligence or inner voice that knows the true value of things.  To paraphrase it down to what I took to be the essence, it said that conscience requires an ability to hold or suffer opposing things, desire and nondesire, what the body naturally wants and an awareness of the whole of life, of the suffering inherent in creation.

There is a moment in the drama of the Buddha that I think about often.  He was near death from being such an extreme ascetic, all his efforts to find liberation now dust and ashes.   Split off from his fellow ascetics, he lay near a river, remembering a very special moment from early childhood.  His father the chieftan of the Sakyan tribe took him to a planting festival, leaving him under a tree in the care of nannies.  It was a fine spring day just like today, and as the baby Buddha pretended to sleep the nannies went a little way off to watch the men plow, leaving little Siddhartha to experience well-being in solitude.  He sat up (and spontaneously assumed a meditation posture according to legend).  He felt very well.  The day was beautiful, the air soft and sweet.  Just at this physcially blissful moment, however, he looked at tilled soil and noticed that insects were being destroyed by the plowing, their homes and eggs destroyed.  Bliss and the reality of suffering and impermanence could be experienced at the same time, he realized. Serenity and compassion could co-exist.   Just as the Buddha had this crucial memory, a young woman came along and spontaneously offered rice porridge, and the Buddha ate.  Restored, he sat up under a tree again as he had when he was a little boy, and this time he sat until he reached full enlightenment.  Nourished by that impression of another possibility,  he sat the chains of desire were broken, the pole beam of selfing little self snapped in two.

I have thought so often of the little Buddha, feeling sublimely alone and self-sufficient and then opening his heart and mind to the world beyond him, realizing the truth of our interconnection.  We do influence one another, and we are influenced in turn–and not just by other people but by all kinds of  beings and events known and unknown.   Yet as often as I’ve thought about of the little Buddha experiencing this attention that could be inside and outside at the same time, I’ve never before connected this with the old-fashioned word “conscience.”  In Shakespeare’s day “conscience” meant “consciousness.”  ( “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,” said Hamlet, meaning that out consciousness of the unknown nature of death keeps us living).

What would it be like to fully inhabit two worlds at once, to be human yet to be aligned with a greater world, not driven by myriad desires related to our own comfort and wellbeing?  So many great teachers have spoken of the value of what I’ve heard described as a “voluntary passivity,”  allowing everything to be, being so alive in conscience/consciousness that we no longer seek to change the world for our own sake.  Buddha faced all the armies and temptations of Mara, the Devil, without moving so much as an eye lash.   And since it’s Easter Week, I’ll risk this:  when Jesus was on the cross I believe he was taunted to save himself, to use his great powers to come down, to reveal who he really was.

Who or what would that have served?

The Tail Light Lesson

April 11, 2011 § 6 Comments

I was tired on Sunday evening,  too tired to go out, let alone to drive down to Tarrytown to meditate at the fledgling Sunday evening insight meditation group at Yoga Shivaya.   And yet out I rushed, and I realize now that I was pushed out the door by memories and thoughts about what had happend the day before.  I was sitting in a sun-washed room with billowing white drapes with a couple of dozen other people,  listening to the stories they wrote of their own journeys–they wrote of times of separation from their own home tribe, from the known, of the times of initiation or the sudden unveiling of the way life is, of times of return.  Some of the stories were wrenchingly beautiful.   Hearing them, anyone would believe that it was true, what Joseph Campbell claimed, that there is a natural arc to the way humans experience the unfolding of meaning in our lives, just as there is an in breath and an out breath.

Looking back, there was something else that made Saturday seem magical.  There were moments of being with what is, being  “voluntarily passive” as Madame de Salzmann describes it, attentive and open to what was arising without judgment, without filling the moment with a thought or an image.  In moments like that, reality unfolds–not in a linear way but opening, revealing depths.  In a moment like that, you can feel the energy in life-and in you.   You feel the presence of the unknown in you as well as outside, and you can believe that it might be true what Gurdieff and other masters say, that our ancestors live on in us.  That now is our turn.

I ran out the door and into the car, picturing how nice it would be to put myself in those conditions again, to sink into the stillness below the words,  to find my way to a greater life, a real and whole life.  I was so distracted by everything contained in my memory as a whole–thoughts, desires, disappointments, sensations–that I backed up into a car that was parked across the street just opposite our driveway, smashing a tail light, denting a fender, and possibly damaging the other car (called and apologized and I’m still waiting to hear).

It seems now that I had been trying to outrun the return of my ordinary state (not that I ever really left it behind).  Smash!  What a lesson in the difference between a truly free kind of awareness–which I experienced a whisper of when I allowed things to be–and the “awareness” that propelled me out the door and into the back neighbor’s daughter’s monster-truck-like vehicle.

I meditate and spend days helping people engage in mindful writing and things because I know what it’s like to feel like a ghost, floating over the surface of things, without real aim or purpose. Riding the train, walking through the city, talking at dinner and trying to make some point, I will suddenly have the feeling that I had no real substance or force or sense of direction, as if I were just a vapor or a hum of thought, a stream of images, judgments, desires, and disappointments.  I know what it’s like to have the sad feeling that I am missing something essential, that I can’t really touch life or be touched by it.  And yet, last night I saw that it is very, very possible to go to a sangha or engage in the Gurdjieff Work or go to church and have it all be just another dream.

Yesterday I received a painful and hopefully not-too-expensive lesson in is described in The Reality of Being as “the difference between a fixed attention coming from only one part of myself and a free attention attached to nothing, held back by nothing, which involves all the centers [or parts of myself, thinking, feeling, sensing] at the same time.  My usual attention is caught in one part and remains taken by the movement, the functioning of this part.  For example, I think about what I am feeling, and my thought responds in place of me.  It answers with a knowledge that is not true, not an immediate knowing.  My thoughts are merely the expression of what is stored in my memory, not revelations of something new.  This thinking is enclosed in a narrow space within myself.  Always preoccupied, it holds back my attention in this space, isolated from the rest of me, from my body and feeling. With my attention continually projected from one thought to another, from one image to another in a flowing current, I am hypnotized by my mind….”

What would it be like to be completely aware in the moment–to have an attention that isn’t yoked to a particular memory or feeling or deeply held attitude?  What would it be like to perceive without judgement, without separating from it to attach a “someone” to the perception of being here?  I have an inkling in those moments when I can be with what is without rushing in to change.  Last night, however, I sat on my meditation bench picturing the smashed tail light and imagining my husband’s righteous indignation (as I went out the door, he warned me there was a car all but blocking the drive way) and fearing how much it was all going to cost and fretting about money and then making all kinds of resolutions for the future.

Suddenly, I felt like Scheherazade, the Persian queen who told the stories of One Thousand and One Nights.   Married to a king who was so bitter from a past betrayal that he defended himself against feeling by marrying a fresh virgin every day only to behead her and marry another the next morning, clever Scheherazade learned to save herself by telling stories.  Every evening, she told extraordinary tales to the king and stopped before they reached their end.   Each night, the king for spared her life so he could hear the end of the story.  There is something in me that yearns to drop the stories and dare to open to something more subtle, more risky, more vibrant, to feel that energy of connection.  Yet there is also a fear of being no one and having nothing, and the current of stories, of attachments and habits, sweeps my awareness along.

In the Woods

April 5, 2011 § 12 Comments

Looking back, it seems that some unknown part of me–some questioning part deep in the heart rather than the answering part of the mind–was/is looking for a new direction, a way forward.  Some submerged and unknown part of me knew that it was time for a change. Recently, I mentioned being in England without a book to get lost in.  I visited Blackmore’s, a quaint book store next to the college I was staying in.  But I didn’t settle on a title, and as the days passed I realized that this state of book-less-ness was a quiet, imperceptively radical act against the status quo–of reading myself to sleep at night, of reading in buses and trains, of turning away from myself and any parts of reality I don’t like.

“I am poor in the material of impressions of myself,” writes Madame de Salzmann in The Reality of Being.  “What I have is so little, it has no weight.  If I really want to know something, to be sure of something, I first need to be ‘impressed’ by the knowledge.  I need this new knowledge.  I must be ‘impressed’ by it so strongly that I will at this moment know it with all of myself, my whole being, not merely think it with my head.  If I do not have enough impressions, enough of this being-knowledge, I can have no conviction.”

I took in a few impressions of myself while I was in England.  I don’t know if they were indelible, but they were quiety shocking.  I saw that I actually spend a huge amount of time thinking about what I would like to eat and how I would like to go to sleep and sometimes how well I feel and how I would like to take a walk or sit quietly.   This is the truth, I realized.  I’m pretty much a baby, just not as cute.  Yet,  I also saw that by accepting the humble ground of my being (as someone wrote in response to my blog last time “humble” and “humus” –earth–and maybe hummos–are all related) another possibility appeared.  In rare moments (when I was not obsessing about eating and sleeping) it struck me that there is another way to live–even as we go about our daily rounds.  There is a wild and unknown reality above the known world,  and we can touch it and be touched by it.  What it takes (to start) is just a willingness to see and be seen.

As I write this, Alex is off in Rome, having what I hope is a great romantic adventure.  And I’m home again, feeling as if I’m about to embark on an adventure of my own, not outward–or not just outward–but towards myself, my true nature.   I feel a little like a fire was kindled in England, somehow those humble impressions of myself, which included also the sense of time, of the energy this body has left.  I thought of Mary Oliver’s indelible poem “The Journey:”   “and there was a new voice/which you slowly recognized as your own,’that kept you company/as you strode deeper and deeper into the world….”

I also thought of a scene Lillian Firestone shares in The Forgotten Language of Children.  She describes a trip to an Onondaga Reservation, in upstate New York, to attend a PowWow or general assembly of tribes where visitors were tolerated.   There, Firestone met Henry, a tall, tanned Micmac from the Shubenacadie reservation in Nova Scotia, who asked Firestone in a kindly way “why you people want us to be like you?”    Firestone invites Henry to talk to the children she is chaperoning and he gives them a glimpse of another way of being, in which words don’t count for much and the greatest gifts are not things.  He described being taken away from his parents at 8-years-old, forced to go live in a big Catholic orphanage in Quebec, basically because it was standing empty.

“’Now before they take me away,” he said, ‘my Mom and Dad, they want to give me a present, but they are poor and they got nothing to give.  So they take me 100 miles away from Shubie in the forest and they leave me there and they say, ‘Son, find your way home.’”

It was all his parents had to give, Henry explained to the incredulous children, and it was intended to him a feeling of competence, of being safe in the midst of the unknown.  “When I get home, they know I will feel like I can do something hard, like I’m a man.”

I never was in a situation where I had to give Alex such a stark and serious gift.  But I’m tempted to give it to myself now. It’s really an extraordinary gift to give oneself, isn’t it?  Permission to be lost, to be not smart, to be not much of anything, to be bereft…left to find our own way home.

Where Am I?

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