Solitude and Community

June 26, 2011 § 60 Comments

I’m beginning to suspect that the quality of a life is defined by how you deal with the gap between what you want and what life gives.   What did I want when I dropped all my work and went off on a retreat last week, agreeing to work in the kitchen all week no less?   I knew the working in the kitchen part would be a challenge, and believe me it was.  I think I went hoping for an insight or two that would help me open more to life, to be more creative.   Yet what I saw took me by surprise.   I realize has to be this way because moments of real insight–of really seeing into life–descend on a person like grace.   You can’t predict such moments because they aren’t on the same level as thought.   They come unexpectedly–and often, maybe especially, when we feel bereft inside.  Blessed are the poor in views and opinions.  They may glimspe a larger world.

One such a moment came to me when I found myself into a bee’s nest of reactions about the food and the cooking and the sense that I was perceived to be falling down in the junior managerial role I was expected to play.   The food was very lovely, and I don’t mean that in a good way.  Too much of it seemed precious, chosen from the pages of magazines, overly complicated, expensive.  The approach to the cooking itself seemed based on a chain-of-command model–and I was just not the first mate the captain expected.   I realized that I wanted to do way more with way less–to not not have all these complicated desserts (after lunch and dinner!)–to just work together and explore.  In a nutshell, my feelings were hurt and I reacted.

Then something happened.  Night after night, I lay sleepless, wondering why I was there.  I meant at a work period in the Catskills.  But Iwas also wondering what my life was for, what my real purpose or role might be.  Did I even have a role?   There came that electrically charged space between doubt and faith,  when it seemed that it was all a mistake, coming here, investing any kind of hope or meaning in life–and then the existential angst of the situation actually opened into a kind of vibrancy and freedom.  I was free from the burden of expectations.

Like someone else who commented here while I was gone, I too feel restive and uncomfortable when people talk too much and too reverently about what THEY say.  As extraordinary as our teachers may be, there comes a moment when we have to find our own next step.

The secret of motorcycle maintenance according to Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—and of living a life that has value—has to do with drawing our attention to the quality of what confronts us here and now. No matter what we are thinking about or doing, according to Pirsig, we can cultivate a double awareness—attentive to our thoughts and the work we are doing, yet sensitive to the quality of what is happening, to what is unknown.  The “dark night” moments I experienced last week were charged with a sense of the unknown.  It was like seeing a glow on the distant horizon.  There is more to know and more to be in this life, than are to be found in our fanciest thoughts and philosophy.

Sometimes life delivers great shocks that give us a taste of what it means to be open to quality, or a new quality.  Sometimes we just volunteer for the kitchen team.  Now I’m going to seem to contradict myself.  I had the incomparable gift of seeing that my perceptions and projections are not reality but I also came away with questions about the form, at least for me.  I have a question about solitude and community.  There is such an emphasis on the need to work together in the Gurdjieff Work, yet I need to know myself in solitude as well.   It seems a bit like breathing in and breathing out, like giving and receiving, like the tides.   At any rate, I feel that certain solitary pursuits like writing and walking lead towards that same unknown.

Into the Fire

June 18, 2011 § 29 Comments

I’m packing to go away again, this time to a camp on a lake in the woods in the foothills of the Catskills.  This time I was invited not by Buddhists but by friends in the Gurdjieff Work in New York.  And this time, I am volunteering to be a co-leader of the kitchen (this is way out my comfort zone since I have long regarded myself to be at best an “assembler” of very simple dishes, preferrably involving one big pot).   As if this isn’t enough, I also accepted the challenge of joining someone in giving a little talk about the work of the English author Peter Kingsley, who was interviewed in the “Beauty” issue of Parabola.  When she first called me with the proposition, I immediately thought of a cartoon I saw in the New Yorker recently: two people are driving in a car and the driver says to the passenger (I’m paraphrasing), “We agree we’re lost but the important thing is to keep the focus on who is to blame.”

At first glance, since Kingsley’s work rests on deep scholarship, on a knowledge of ancient Greek and presocratic philosophy, it seems there may as well be two dogs sitting  in the front of the room, barking as the pair of us.  Yet on further reflection,  after I reread A Story Waiting to Pierce You,  Kingsley’s brief poetic account of a mysterious shaman who emerges from “Hyperborea,” a word the Greeks of 2500 years ago used for “the beyond of the beyond,” a few questions and reflections are bubbling up in this ordinary, unlettered barking dog that do seem worth asking.  In his latest book, Kingsley describes a shaman from Mongolia who delivered an arrow of very special knowledge to the early Greeks–literally handing the arrow to Pythagorus.  Very consciously, yet in a special ecstatic trance, this Mongolian shaman brought a way to experience reality to the cradle of Western Civilization–as other “skywalkers” brought it to Tibet, and ultimately the New World.  To make a captivating story ultra short, we forgot this knowledge.   According to Kingsley some ancient philosophers, particularly Parmenides and Empedocles, practiced a kind of mysticism that drew on the whole being as a way to approach reality.  Overall, however, people began to rely on thinking.   Not so surprisingly, Kingsley’s reading of presocratic philosophy–and with the latest book, the history of Buddhism–is at odds with the experts in those fields.   Yet Kingsley maintains that many readings of esoteric and philosophical works are misreadings–that we must approach them with the whole of our beings, the whole of our lived experience.

Here are some questions that arise:  some friends in the Gurdjieff Work seek the source of Gurdjieff’s teachings and Kingsley’s work seem to point to a source.  But isn’t there always a deeper source, a “beyond of the beyond” ?  Last time, I blogged about a temple unearthed that was built about 11,000 B.C.–long before this Mongolian “Skywalker” sky walked to Greece 2500 years ago.  And lately I’ve been thinking again about the ancient cave painters, who lived many thousands of years before the temple builders.  And so on, back to God, as they say.   Is it possible to leave the divine with the Divine?

Also, Kingsley speaks of the Mongolian shaman being in a state of ecstasy, and a state of one-pointed focus.  In the Buddhist tradition, not just Tibetan but Theravada, ecstasy is not the highest state.  Equanimity–and the clear seeing beyond all forms, all states of being–is.  Here also, is it possible to just stay open, to seek what is beyond even ecstasy?

Also, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the wild shaman who showed the saintly Padmasambava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet, that there is a state beyond what he thought was awakening happened to be a woman.  Her name was Yeshe Togyal, and they called her the “arrow maker” and the “one who flies on arrows.”  She showed him that there is a higher state of unity. Kingsley accuses other historians and philosophers of glossing over facts they don’t quite know what to do with.  Perhaps he does that with female shamans?

The great gift of Kingsley’s work is to show us that there is a radically different way to hold facts–not to grasp them with the mind to explore them with our whole being, with our whole lived experience.   For me, this includes a kind of faith the Buddhists call “keeping the heart open in the darkness of the unknown.”

I’ll let you know how the cooking and the barking goes.

Gobekli Tepe

June 13, 2011 § 2 Comments

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of having tea with Parabola contributing editor Trebbe Johnson at Alice’s Tea Cup, a fantastic tea room on East 64th Street, just off Lexington Avenue.   It was a day of oppressive heat and equally oppressive national news:  more extreme weather was on the way, the old economy was unlikely to recover.    Yet sitting tucked away in an upstairs corner, in cool bit of England in the steamy city, we were also struck by another very different kind of breaking news.  In the June 2011 issue of National Geographic, there is is news of the world’s first temple, a vast complex of tall pillars ala Stonehenge only larger and more elaborate–and built circa 9600 B.C.E.   Built when humanity still lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, the discovery topples old notions about the genesis of civilization.  Rather than arising much later out of settled agrarian civilization and serving the aims of an increasing production-oriented civilization, the temple in Turkey suggests that civilization arose from the impulse to reach out to what is beyond.   How astonishing it is to picture bands of hunter-gatherers coming together to build a great sacred place to come together.  How amazing the juxtaposition seemed to us–the news of the faltering of the old way, based on producing and accumulating. What if there was another impulse, another kind of questioning, behind the rise of human culture.  What if we are at the point now where we are being directed to return to that initial impulse to seek and worship that has been lost?

“Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel.  How can we turn away from doubt–about the future of the economy, about the future of the planet, about our own future–to wonder?

At Gobekli Tepe, wonder and a sense of the sacred lead to a leap of knowledge and an extraordinary dedication to work.  The pillars erected in circles are big!  The tallest are 18 feet in height and weigh 16 tons.   Scientists have no idea how the stone got to the site but there are more flints–knives, choppers, points–than most have ever seen.  The ancient men who made the pillars hadn’t mastered engineering, according to experts.  But this didn’t deter them.  Interestingly, the men who came later began to falter, building smaller, weaker temples.

Wondering together, coming together to sit or pray, or to find communion reading a journal like Parabola, is not a luxury, something to do when the work of day is out of the way.  It is the light and the way.

In the Long Boat

June 7, 2011 § 6 Comments

By tomorrow,  New York will be embraced by record heat, which is nothing compared to the environmental apocalypse that seems to be unfolding in other parts of the country and the world.  The old economy doesn’t seem to be coming back and most of us lack the farming and do-it-yourself skills we may need to survive in the new smaller economy (including boat building and tornado shelter building, given the weather).  Having just returned from retreat, I’m feeling humble about mypowers of attention and observation, my ability to really see what is needed and help…except once in a while when seeing and responding just comes like a stroke of grace.

Yet, I also came back from the desert with a new appreciation for my mother.  My mother grew up in a town on the prairie in western Nebraska.  Although she born and raised by prosperous Danish immigrants, she had a kind of laconic conversational style that I associate with the Great Plains.  It was plain spoken, and it left much unsaid  I never remember my mother using the word “parenting” much less “mindful parenting.”  She believed that babies were born with particular characters and that it was a mother’s job to love them and do the best she could.

“I didn’t always understand you,” my mother said.   The old get honest.  They boil things down to the essentials.  Understanding wasn’t the most important thing to my mother.  Acceptance was.  Showing up just as you are is.   Shortly before she died I asked her what she considered to be the most important thing in her life.  “Relationships,” she said without hesitation.  “Love.”   She told me that other things can come and go pretty fast, and I’ve seen this happen.  “Let Alex be a kid,” she advised me, meaning that I should allow my daughter to burrow into  Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings trilogy the same way she let me imagine my way into life.

At her best, my mother could swoop down on a suffering child or grandchild like a rescuing angel.  She had a way of throwing her whole being into a  hug so that you felt completely seen and saved.  Towards the end, frail and frequently in pain, she entered what I called her “reclining years.”  She spent most of her waking hours in one of four bug cushy recliners placed near phones and in view of various windows.   I loved her calls.  “Honey, ever since you were five years old you wanted to put your face in the lion’s mouth,” she said one time.  “You want to test how brave you could be. ”  She asked me if I remembered wearing her dome-shaped Jell-O mold on my head like a medieval helmet.  I did.  I remembered pretending to go forth into some righteous battle, being lion-hearted while others fell back.   She asked me if I remembered being a spy, and a jungle girl with an invisible black panther named Striker.  She claimed that she didn’t understand me, that she was just an ordinary person who wanted ordinary things, a home, a family.  But I see now that she understood the amazing power of caring acceptance.

At the very end, it was as if winter came over my mother.  The life force slowly withdrew from her weakening body, and she gently withdrew from us.  It was like the sun pulling away from the earth.   She wanted to know that her children and grandchildren were well but she didn’t revel in the nutty details anymore.  I understood that she was preparing for what was to come, but it still broke my heart.

Here’s the strange thing:  The day after my mother’s funeral, I woke up to a waking dream.  I was standing on a shore full of sorrow, watching a Viking long boat carry my mother out to sea.   As I watched it disappear into the sunset, I understood something I couldn’t quite open my heart to when I was awake in the ordinary sense–something about impermanence.  At the desert retreat, six years after my mother’s death, I saw that Viking ship again.   This time I was standing in the ship, preparing to land in the New World, preparing my heart and mind–not to take this time (as my Viking ancestors tended to do) but to receive.

What does it mean?  It was just a dream.  But sometimes, especially when we are calm and accepting, real insights and inspirations swim up through dreams and daydreams.   I saw that I hadn’t yet lost that inner attitude I practised when I wore the Jell-O mold on my head–a willingness to face the unknown.  I came home from the retreat a little bit more ready to accept the whole of myself, the parts I like and the parts I dislike, understand and don’t understand.   “Be like an earthworm,” one of the teachers said, quoting her teacher’s teacher. Go down into your life and see what you find.

The Inexpressible Privacy of Life

June 4, 2011 § 8 Comments

At any given moment, we can transform our relationship to life.  How?  Pay attention.  Pay really, really, really close attention.  I know.  We’ve all heard this a million times, but really, try it!  It’s transformative!   I glimpsed this last week, choosing to try to be mindful inside and outside while I was on a retreat  in the high desert in Joshua Tree, California.  Since a theme of the retreat I was on is diversity and finding a true voice for what is usually suppressed and oppressed, a lot of pain was getting expressed.  I decided to be very quiet and watch and listen, allowing everything to arise and unfold without rushing in to label what was happening or insert my opinion or reaction.  What would Jane Austen or Tolstoy make of this?  What would any great-hearted, spacious-minded person do in this situation? Let alone Buddha or Jesus.  I decided to be voluntarily passive and attend, attendez, really practicing the patient waiting that comes with real attention.  As Trungpa once said (I’m paraphrasing), patience is really being.  I practised being with what was happening (naturally, I don’t mean all the time, just when I wasn’t distracted by the usual self-centered preoccupations with dinner, etc.)  I discovered that reality has a way of unfolding all by itself, without any coaching from the stands.   A reality that is far richer and more subtle than can be reduced to words can enter and bring light when we are prepared to receive it.  Even painful events are transformed by the alchemy of really seeing.

Early every morning last week, I prepared for the tumultuous day ahead by taking a walk alone in the high desert.  Below is a passage from a journal entry by Thoreau, sent by a friend, that perfectly describes the way life can unfold and enter when we are willing to receive:

When I detect a beauty in any of the recesses of nature,
I am reminded by the serene and retired spirit in which it requires to be contemplated,  of the inexpressible privacy of life – how silent and unambitious it is.The beauty there is in mosses will have to be considered from the holiest, quietest nook.
My truest, serenest moments are too still for emotion; they have woolen feet.
In all our lives we live under the hill, and if we are not gone we live there still.

To be calm, to be serene!
There is the calmness of the lake when there is not a breath of wind;
there is the calmness of a stagnant ditch.  So is it with us.
Sometimes we are clarified and calmed healthily, as we never were before in our lives,  not by an opiate, but by some unconscious obedience to the all-just laws,
so that we become like a still lake of purest crystal
and without an effort our depths are revealed to ourselves.

I awoke into a music which no one by me heard.
Whom shall I thank for it?  I feel my Maker blessing me.
To the sane man the world is a musical instrument.
The very touch affords an exquisite pleasure.

~ Henry David Thoreau, taken from a journal entry, June 22,1851.

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