May 31, 2011 § 4 Comments
I’m back in green, lush New York after a week in the Mojave Desert, at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center. The desert landscape is wild and beautiful, and during early morning walks I thought of Don Juan, and also the Christian Desert Fathers. The power of the land and all its seen and unseen inhabitants strikes a newcomer. You can feel like Don Juan, accompanied by unseen forces and powers. But you can also feel a profound solitude. The unfiltered extremity of the sun and the darkness, the swift alternation of heat and cold, has a way of testing a person. I felt as if I were being exfoliated, as if the sand that is carried on the wind and works its way into everything were buffing away all that is false and or not really thought through, not really my own, leaving only what is essential and truly alive. I was aware that every flower and Joshua Tree had to have deep roots that reached down very far to living water. I was aware that every animal lived there also had to live very deliberately, to work at staying alive. And for a week I found a deliberate, deeply rooted way to live as well.
It takes a while to get to such a place. This was the second week-long retreat in the 2 1/2 year Community Dharma Leader Training Program I began last September. Offered through the auspices of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center (which was founded by Jack Kornfield and friends) the program aims to train experienced meditators to lead sittings and retreats in their own communities. But this 4th time out is also focussing on diversity, inviting people of many different colors, nationalities, and persuasions to learn to express the truth in their own languages. This time out, I found that my own language–or at least one of my own lanuages–could be silence.
I undertook the program because I wanted to step out of the observer role and be part of a larger life, to be part of a greater whole. Parabola seeks to be a meeting place for all sincere seekers, yet working for Parabola can feel a little lonely and locked in. Thinking of that last scene in the movie version of Meetings with Remarkable Men, I set out to test myself against the larger forces of the world that tell us who we are. Landing in the desert, it struck me (why do we forget this?) that when we leave our ordinary worlds and go somewhere different, it isn’t just our ability to sense and to see clearly that is heightened, but also our tendency to cling to habits–also our fear. I spent the first few days of the retreat spending what seemed to be a large amount of time checking and rechecking the little bit of gear I brought, checking emails hoping for little nuggets of news for home–clinging to the known. I talked with people when we were supposed to talk, feeling that I was in that early stage of the hero’s journey that often takes place in a saloon–finding friends and foes. I went through phases when I felt very much like an outsider, a mainstreamer pressed to hear the voices and stories of people who have been marginalized. Supported by the surrounding desert, I began to see the difference between seeking an external refuge and an internal refuge. Day by day, when I could, I practised finding an attention that can be inside and outside at the same time, open to a wildly diverse group in all it’s unfolding drama, yet attuned to the inside, to finding the qualities of mind and heart that could help me come into alignment with a greater awareness. I realized that everything can be taken as food for inner growth. It depends on our intention, and I discovered last week that I have a sincere intention to grow.
I didn’t say much in the big gatherings, yet I wasn’t passive. There were times of being very alert inside, “voluntarily passive” as Madame de Salzmann describes it, attentive and open to what was arising without rushing in to label and judge. In those moments, I felt reality unfolding–not in the linear way that is associated with white mainstream intellectual society but opening, revealing layers, surprising depths. In those moments, I felt the presence of unknown heights and depths inside as well as outside in the desert. I’ll go into more detail in a few days, but as I went around keeping my silence and just being no one, I came to glimpse that it might be true what Gurdieff and other masters have said, that our ancestors live on in us. That at moments when we are in alignment with a greater awareness it is possible to be human in a larger way, to be part of greater whole, to play a role in a conscious way. The price of entry seems to be asking (over and over in deeper and starker and ever-more-sincere ways) some form of the sacred human questions that don’t even need to be put into words: Who am I? What really matters? What do I really want to do with this brief and precious life?
May 21, 2011 § 6 Comments
Thoreau spent two years and two months living at Walden Pond in a cabin he built himself because he wished to live deliberately, to experience the essential facts of life. This morning, I’m packing to go to Joshua Tree. I’m very excited to see this desert, which I’ve learned may be in bloom. I’m excited to be a fish out of water, to uproot myself from the rainy greater New York area, and look out over a vastly different landscape.
I can’t resist sharing why Thoreau left the woods: “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten tracke for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite dinstinct. It is true, I fear that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.
I have learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unimagined in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; of the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the lecense of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness, weakness. If you nave built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
When we go away on retreat–or when we just go on a trip–we temporary simplify our lives. We uproot ourselves from an intricately woven nest of habits and associations. If we have an aim when we travel, we may see much–and not just much about the blooming desert in California, but about ourselves. We need not travel far. As Thoreau famously said: “I have travelled much in Concord.”
May 17, 2011 § 4 Comments
Among the tasks or “yogi jobs” a participant can volunteer for during silent retreats at the Insight Meditation Society, a major Buddhist meditation center in rural Massachusetts, the most resonant in every sense is the role of bell ringer. Before dawn and before every meditation session during the day, the bell ringers walk through the halls of a rambling brick building that was once a Jesuit seminary, striking a bronze bell that is held suspended by a thick strap. I remember being curled in bed in the dark in a solitary cell of a room, hearing it resonate deep and low in the distance, cutting through my dreams like a fog horn. As the “awakener” progresses on his or her appointed rounds, layer upon layer of reverberations build up. He or she literally strikes a chord that touches the heart—at least this heart–filling one with a longing to be part of a greater life, a life that you feel sure was lived by other beings in other times.
When I hear the sound of bells like the one at the meditation center, I remember that the great Zen master Dogen taught that spiritual practice is a circle. When we turn away from the pull of our ordinary habits, seeking the vibrant silence under the words, we join all the great beings from all times who came to show us the way. I remember the contemporary Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn striking an enormous bowl-shaped bell, saying “listen to the sound of the bell calling you to your true home.”
Yet I have never gone away on retreat expecting to feel a sense of communion with others—even others from distant places and times. It always comes as a surprise. I usually go with the resolve to be self-sufficent, thinking of that great American yogi, Henry David Thoreau, who lived alone for several years in a tiny cabin at the edge of Walden Pond: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. “
I do not wish to live what is not life. Sometimes one can start to feel like a ghost, haunting the world instead of really living in it. Riding down to Manhattan on the train or in the midst of a meeting, trying to make a point, I can suddenly have the impression that whoever is bustling down to the city or talking has no real substance or force, as if I am just a hum of thought, a stream of images and memories, a vaporous, shifting dream.
I have sometimes speculated that people from different cultures and nations might have different ways of approaching spiritual practice. At least I have a bent towards American rugged individualism. Like Thoreau, I want to be self-sufficient and to pare down life to the essentials: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
Yet, there inevitably comes a moment when I find myself sitting with in a shadowy hall somewhere, early in the morning or in the evening. Wrapped in shawls and blankets, sitting still with backs straight, we look like the earliest humans, I realize. At least in this essential sense: we seek to know life with our whole beings. I feel a sense of communion with the others, all of us coming so far to be together, away from habit—and not just New York and California but through all kinds of difficulties. And all of that common effort made just to risk knowing what it might be like to be completely aware in the moment–to have an attention that isn’t attached to memories and feelings and views, that isn’t separate from life by being attached to being a “someone.”
Almost anything can become habit, the morning rounds with the bell, the walk to pond to bathe– everything except the search for a greater awareness, a greater openness to the mystery that surrounds us. There is usually comes a moment when I am sitting in a room full of fellow humans, all of us drawing our attention to the essential fact of life, of being in a body, breathing. Returning to the body in such a moment can feel like descending into a vast subterranean cave full of forces and energies unknown to the ordinary thinking mind.
In such a moment I begin to grasp something that the spiritual teacher Gurdjieff taught, that we and our ancestors all the way back to the beginning of humanity are one. They exist in us. I realize why the aborigines call white people the “line people” because we think time is linear. They know is closer to reality to think in cycles: the day and night, the heartbeat, the breathing. They know that the ancestors live on in us, and that now it is my turn to try.
When I go on retreat (even if it is just a moment of turning inward during the day) I see that my own attention was weak, just a kind of dim, flickering light, but I realize that as weak as it is it is probably also the strongest force in me. It is my own life force. I am always certain that if I just keep following it, leaving the known world of my thinking for the unknown, I will come upon wonders. And then I am lost… and then comes the sound of the bell.
May 10, 2011 § 7 Comments
There was a blackout in these parts yesterday afternoon. It was the best possible kind of blackout, happening on a warm and golden spring afternoon. Also, I was alone. I didn’t hurry and call the power company and get as much information as possible as my husband would do, along with any number of other good citizens. I sat by the window and deliberately experienced not knowing how wide ranging it was and how long it was expected to last. I just let the light stream in and drank in the silence that descended like an unbidden grace. Suddenly, no white noise of electricity in the house or in the distance. Suddenly cut off from the outside world (since my cell phone was turned off). I thought of Henry David Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
In the quiet, I realized, again, that I live with a perpetual white noise inside as well out. There is a constant hum of thought, a stream of images, a vaporous, changeable dream that doesn’t have any real force or connection to the here and now. Like Thoreau, I have often felt that I was missing something essential. In the footage confiscated from Bin Laden’s compound, there are home movies showing him watching himself on tv–a frail-looking man with a white beard watching a perfected, macho image of himself with a dyed black beard, delivering a speech. It made me shiver to recognize something so familiar. At a benefit in New York right weeks after the attacks, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Gelek Rinpoche encouraged us to be brave enough “find the Bin Laden hiding in the caves of our own heart.” Or, as it turned out, the comfortable suburbia of our own hearts. In the golden silence that fell yesterday, I glimpsed how I usually am, all my awareness attached to thoughts, images, desires that are separate from the rest of me and split off from the nourishing reality of the here and now, all of it in the service of a phantom self that is projected at the rest of the world.
Most human beings are not as full of hate, delusion, and desire for destruction as Bin Laden–and not as self-conscious with the image they project– but the monsters among us can show us a thing or two because the fault lines in them are so pronounced (I think Freud may have said this). Most of us live most of the time at a remove from life, hiding out in a narrow bunker of the thinking mind, which isn’t really capable of immediate knowing, direct perception and insight. It meets life by coming up with speeches and judgements based on memory, stale rehearsal, incapable of revealing something new.
With her unique French-into-English precision, Madame de Salzmann describes this bunker mentality: “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….”
Yesterday, I felt for a little while how extraordinary it is to be aware in the moment, to experience an attention that isn’t separating from life in the service of a projected “someone”– even if it isn’t a grand and villaneous someone spouting hate on the tv. How wonderful it felt to pad around the house with the light streaming in, feeling the difference between that narrow fixation on the computer screen or the tasks in mind and this free attention that was in my body and feelings as well as the mind. And then, well, it became familiar and I went back to sleep.
“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one,” he wrote in the conclusion of Walden, which he published in 1854. Thoreau found that he wasn’t there a week before he wore a track between the cabin and the pond. In short anything can become habitual, and we find our way back into the deep grooves of our own habitual way of thinking and being. What can we do? It doesn’t work to be in the woods or on retreat forever. And let’s face, I was happy the power came back on in time for me to make dinner.
What works is being willing to see ourselves–and with the kind of nonjudging awareness and compassion we usually reserve for children, dogs, loved ones. There is a quiet, a collectedness, that comes just by seeing how lost in thought we usually are, how far away we live from our hearts and bodies and from the wild and precious life of the present moment. Strange as it might seem, getting down to the essentials of life doesn’t come from the thought resolving to get collected or get out of town and back to basics. It turns out that it come from an act of seeing, and the impressions that flow in and touch us in such a moment are fleeting. This kind of seeing often comes in a moment of shock, a moment of not knowing and urgently needing to know. When Thoreau moved to Walden, he was grieving the loss of his brother. He was seeking something thought could not satisfy.
The impressions we receive in a moment of seeing are fleeting but they can fill us with a conviction that there is something really valuable to find–and that we really make something of our lives. In the light this conviction, it turns out that thoughts and dreams and images have their place. They help point the way. Assessing the value of what he had accomplished, Thoreau added: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success in uncommon hours.”
May 3, 2011 § 7 Comments
Why be good? Why seek a greater consciousness, a source of non-egocentric and non-violent thoughts or feelings? I’ve been pondering this question since I read a statement by a Vatican spokesman on the death of Osama bin Laden: “Osama be Laden, as we all know, had the very grave responsibility of spreading division and hatred amongth the people, causing the death of countless people , and of instrumentalizing religion for this end. In front of the death of man, a Christian never rejoices but rather reflects on the grave responsibility of each one in front of God and men, and hopes and commits himself so that every moment not be an occasion for hatred to grow but for peace.”
I remember well the shock and terror and grief bin Laden brought to New York. I know people who lost loved ones. I remember riding trains and subways and planes feeling hunted. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the news of his shooting by brave U.S. Navy Seals didn’t bring a feeling of completion and relief, a sense that an inevitable karmic justice had been done. And yet–and who could have predicted this 10 years ago?–I feel it is my “‘grave responsibility” not to rejoice in this death but to resolve not to be like him.
One of my friends on Facebook added this glorious quote by Martin Luther King Jr. (who was paraphrasing Buddha at the end): ”I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
What can we find inside to help us find a lager consciousness, a way turn towards non-violent thoughts and feelings? How can we be responsible? One thing that can help, strange as it might sound to contemporary people, is the idea that our ancestors live on it us. This can seem most unwelcome, even in small things. Sometimes I hear myself talking the way my mother talked and, worse, walking the way she walked. It’s a funny walk. People sometimes ask me why I’m limping. But lately I’ve come to see that the point is to keep walking. At moments, I even walk consciously.
In The Forgotten Language of Children (which I reviewed in “Giving and Receiving”), Lillian Firestone asks Henri Tracol, a one-time sculptor and respected leader of the Gurdjieff Work in France, where were her parents now that they had died. Did they exist in a realm outside her? Tracol said that he did not know, but he was sure that they lived within: “’I heard Mr. Gurdjieff say three or four times over the years: ‘You and your father and your grandfather all the way back to Adam are one. They exist in you. You have the possibility to free them, or the opposite. The idea of linear time is a great obstacle. It is closer to reality to think in cycles: the day and night, the seasons, heartbeat, breath. If time can be understood like that, in cycles, then I see that it is simply my turn. My parents exist through me; only now it is my opportunity to experience for them. It is my turn to try.’” Gurdjieff spoke about repairing the past and preparing the future. He taught that it can only be done now, in this moment: “Do not do as you have always done.”
Isn’t it wild to think that we do not live for our selves alone, but for all our ancestors –and not just our parents and grandparents but all the way back to our common mother in Africa? Isn’t it awesome to think that ultimately we are all one and what we do has an impact on each other? We can add light or darkness, elevate or drag each other down. Peoples’ reactions vary. I tried the concept on a friend on Saturday who pronounced it “creepy” and said she had enough trouble being responsible for herself and two kids. I find the notion that I am not literally not myself but the green shoot on a tree very grounding, supporting. As earthy Gurdjieff put it (by way of Tracol and Firestone): “‘ You are not the tail of a donkey. You have responsibilities, a family. All your family past and future depend on you…all of your family depend on the way you repair the past.'”
It can feel like stepping across an inner threshold, realizing that we really can live for others, that we are all one in the deepest sense, and that our actions can repair the past. What does it mean to do not as you have always done? For me, it means holding the pain, yet not being ruled by it. It means learning there is a conscious, “empty” way to do what needs to be done. It means knowing that we we have all come very far to be here—and not just from New York and California but through all kinds of difficulties. It means that we can stop and do things in a different way, a way that bring a little light instead of more darkness. In the words of Parabola contributor Mary Oliver: “Tell what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”