July 26, 2011 § 9 Comments
“I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck,” wrote Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The Eightfold Path always struck me as a bewildering exercise in circular logic—beginning where it ended, if on a different level, with a certain understanding and intention. All on your own, you were to glimpse the true nature of life, enough to motivate you to wish to perceive and live in a different way. But if a person could accomplish this kind of seeing and feeling following their own lights, I reasoned, why would they need to follow a path? Why would they need to practice the moral precepts, right speech, right livelihood, and all the rest? Wouldn’t they already innately understand the why and the how of that as well?
Go away on a silent meditation retreat or go camping in the wilderness or (for the artists and writers among us) attempt to express something true–anything that temporarily shuts down the ambient noise and light of everyday ordinary life. You will begin to understand. When you wake up under the stars or bend over your work table, you can sometimes remember perceptions and feelings that are usually buried under the known: that we are not meant separate from life, meant to be part of a greater whole. We can remember a special kind of feeling that is usually covered because it is more still than emotion–a willingness to open and receive life just as it is. I remember lying in bed in the dark on a silent retreat, waking up to a sound of a bell. I realized suddenly and simply that the sound was not separate from the silence, that each drew out the other, made each other known.
We wake each other. A friend who was a bell ringer on a silent retreat told me that he felt he wasn’t just waking others but himself and also the bell. We sound the depths in each other. We give the search for awakening the living material of our own lives. We bring the search to life. And when we embark on the quest (which can be just for a moment, for the space of a question) we join other beings, not just from contemporary times but from ancient times who sought a way to wake up. The path really is a circle.
I have never gone away on retreat or sat down to struggle with a piece of writing, expecting to feel as if I were with others. I usually go with the resolve to be lonely and self-sufficient, often 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. “
And yet, when we seek to know and live and express the truth, we are accompanied. The Buddhist scriptures describe the Buddha glimpsing “an ancient path, an ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times.” He didn’t invent the Noble Eightfold Path. In his passionate quest for enlightenment, he rediscovered it. I picture the path rising up to meet him. May we all rediscover the way to truth. May we all wake up together.
I’m writing this near the ocean, an influence that inspires me to realize there is something we human beings have always shared. But what do you think? What does it mean to follow a path or a way?
July 17, 2011 § 20 Comments
In the same way I saw an ancient path, an ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. And what is that ancient path, that ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times? Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration…I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of aging & death, direct knowledge of the origination of aging & death, direct knowledge of the cessation of aging & death, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of aging & death…Knowing that directly, I have revealed it to monks, nuns, male lay followers & female lay followers…—Nagara Sutta
The spokes of the wheel, the steps of the pathhe speaks of have to do with living in an awakened wayin every aspect of our experience. In my experience, this wheel appears to us when we are open and ready. It is like a door that swings open and shows us a magical new world.
July 11, 2011 § 5 Comments
“Neurotics are people who refuse to suffer,” said Carl Jung, referring to people who will engage in all manner of mental analysis, obsession, and delusion rather than actually experience painful feelings like grief, disappointment, and loss. Most of us are trained to think more than we are trained to feel or sense, and life serves up all kinds of opportunties to think neurotically–trying to think their way past the experience of being lost, not knowing which way to turn, suddenly losing interest or momentum. I’ve experienced this as a writer, getting stuck working and reworking a few paragraphs rather than forging ahead into the unknown. I’ve experienced it in the much larger project of seeking the best way to spend a life. What should I do next? What should I do so can I connect with reality in the most complete and vibrant way?
I’m thinking of these things because my daughter is home and debating about what to do after her senior year of college. But this state of facing the unknown–and trying to paper over the feeling that brings with all kinds of fretful thinking–is pervasive. When are concentrating on work, when the writing or studies are flowing along, say, or when we are meditating or practicing yoga or running or otherwise concentrating, we may feel as if we have left our cramped ordinary lives for a much larger world. But what happens when we leave that special state? As much as I thought I would never say such a precious-sounding thing, I’m beginning to realize that what we call a spiritual path or practice–and what we call life–really is a journey. A journey includes the call to adventure, the call to go find a better, larger world, and sometimes a refusal of the call to enter a new world. And after the initial marvel of it, it includes the need to scope out the territory, to find allies and guides, and also enemies.
Sometimes (often) neurotic (habitual) thinking is the enemy. Thinking cannot bear the suffering of being lost and finding a way. I once read somewhere the word “lost” came from a Norse word that means to disband an army (readers are welcome to confirm or deny). After we enter the special world, whether it’s morning meditation or a university, there comes a time when we must wander defenseless, not sure what comes next. The body might be willing to be here now like good old loyal dog but the head can be very unwilling or incapable of focusing on what on the present moment. It wants to skip ahead and think about the future, or think about what might have happened if only this happened and that didn’t happen. It might think everything would be better if there were scrambled eggs instead of granola or be restless and worried, or angry, or full of doubts. In other words, here we are seeking out a better, larger life and the head still wants to behave in the habitual neurotic way, running the show, filling every space. This has to be accepted.
The body seeks to protect us from being defenseless against a river of suffering that doesn’t seem to stop with me. It seems to stretch back in time, that was inherited with this body from our ancestors. It can be very frightening to think of facing and potentially expressing this much suffering (even for people whose ancestors were not savage Vikings). Thich Nhat Hahn has said that suffering and ignorance live in every cell of our body. It can be very frightening to feel that there is so much potential to hurt in us–even if you don’t worry that if you let it out you could go, well, Viking.
From a Buddhist perspective, all kinds of understandings and truths live coiled in us like icons waiting to be triggered or (to Thich Nhat Hahn) seeds waiting to be watered. When someone or something triggers an icon or seed of hurt or anger, a seed of anger or hurt will manifest in consciousness as the mental formation of anger. A formation is anything that is created by many conditions coming together. It can be a physical formation, a sensory formation, mental formation. As conditions arise that trigger these formations, the world we experience is created. There are moments when we sense this, especially moments when we are in between things, moments when we feel lost. This state can be extremely disillusioning. It can be like scenes in the movie The Matrix where Neo wakes up to the way reality is artifically generated.
How can we relate to such a state? What ally or guidance can help me–beyond the pale and repetitive mirage of thought? According to the Buddhists, the first steps on the path towards waking up are understanding and intention–we have to own the nature of reality and we have to resolve to be free in the midst of it. How on earth can we do that?
“But just as suffering is present in every cell of our body, so are the seeds of awakened understanding and happiness handed down to us from our ancestors,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh. “We just have to use them. We have a lamp inside us, the lamp of mindfulness, which we can light anytime. The oil of that lamp is our breathing, our steps, and our peaceful smile…”
I don’t have such a peaceful smile, but I take his point. We can try, even for a minute a day, to glimpse what is really happening. While we are walking or eating or doing or not doing anything that puts us in that “in between” place, we can embrace what is arising–including neurotic thinking and the hurt or anger or fear that is under it–intending to investigate its true nature. What can carry us forward is the intention and understanding that there is bound to be more–that there must be more tobe discovered about reality than what is contained in our usual thoughts.
How can we be sure of this? According to discourses found in both the Theravada and Chinese Buddhist canon, the Noble Eightfold Path was rediscovered by Gautama Buddha during his quest for enlightenment. The scriptures describe an ancient path which has been followed and practiced by all the previous Buddhas. The Noble Eightfold Path is a practice said to lead its practitioner toward self-awakening and liberation. The path was taught by the Buddha to his disciples so that they, too, could follow it. But isn’t it amazing to consider that he discovered it in this very body, in this very life? I mean, the seeds of enlightenment are in each of us. The way isn’t up and out of this mess that our life can sometimes seem, but down, down, down under the thoughts and into the heart of it.
July 4, 2011 § 20 Comments
I was at a summer picnic on a beautiful day at a home on a hilltop in the Hudson Valley recently, when out onto the veranda walked a group of people dressed in black, fresh from the funeral of young woman who died suddenly a few days before. You couldn’t help but be struck by the grief on their faces. At least one of them had been up for days, creating a moving memorial montage set to Bach, and all of them looked stricken and pale, especially against the blue sky. You would catch their eyes staring off into the far distance, not resting on the rolling hills that spilled out around us, but as if they were searching for something that wasn’t there.
One of the group sat down next to me. She spoke of how fragile life can seem, and also how wildly random. “I don’t know whose driving this thing,” she said, speaking of this rattling old heap of a cosmos of ours. “But I’m pretty sure they’re drunk.” I started to say something and trailed off, realizing that what I was about to say was just, well, a thought–a nice thought but just a thought. Then a real question arose. “Knowing life can be like this, how should we live?” She repeated the question and told me it would require some reflection. Then she got up and fetched a drink.
Life can be like this, utterly beyond our knowledge and control, random. Things can come “out of a clear blue sky.” Recently, I wrote about how much I love the sound of the bell on meditation retreats, the way it seems to call us to a greater way of life, a way clear of the confusion and strife. When I’m meditating or alone in nature sometimes, there can be a glimpse of the stillness beneath thought, of a state that is not emotion or even a very fine feel but of obedient, watchful receptivity. Being the type I am (which is not much of a cook) words come into my head from Thoreau: “My truest, serenest moments are too still for emotion; they have woolen feet” ….Thoreau goes on to describe this state, which the Buddhists would call samadhi, as being like a lake untouched by a breath of wind. It is a state when all is calmed and clarified “by some unconscious obedience to the all-just laws,” and the unknown depths of life and of ourselves are revealed.
But what about when the lake is not calm? What about when a gale is blowing or you find yourself in the midst a perfect freaking storm? What about when there no “all-just laws,” just ice cold turning of cosmic wheels? Leave aside the heart-rending tragedy of the sudden death of a child. Just working in the kitchen and getting the message that you aren’t so swift at it can break your heart and make you feel like crazy Mrs. Rochester raging around in the attic. I mean, in such instances you can see yourself and your life as a collection of broken parts–and what in better moments may seem to you free consciousness is grasping at broken little spars of thought or images or memories, anything to keep you from sinking into that wreck and that stormy lake.
“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves,” said good old Thoreau, who admittedly did not travel very far, at least in an outer sense. We understand that we are in pieces, every of us, and at the mercy of unknown forces. What can possibly help us then? Years ago, when I was in the place my friend is now, I noticed something. I was beyond all comforting thoughts, even grand ones from great beings. I was beyond hope. I sat in a numb way–no, I think I was even lying down, staring. Suddenly, I noticed a small light inside me, a very weak light like a night light. You would never notice it in the blaze of full sun and good times, only in total darkness. It occured to me that even though it seemed to be very weak there was something indominable about it because it didn’t depend on outside conditions–it wasn’t a mere reflection. My so-called thoughts and dreams and hopes were all up and down on the wheel of life, slavish things, but here was this little glow that kept on, serene as Thoreau’s wilderness lake. Recently, I saw a quote from my old friend and teacher William Segal who described seeing the same little light when he meditated. He called it our own life force and said it is our salvation–which he described as living beyond ego. Think of it as living beyond devastation, after the power grid has collapsed, and you are powered by a tiny solar battery.
You can’t see far on such a light but you can see to the next step, or to the next person who is also equipped with their own solar-powered life force night light. We can pool our light, and together we may be able to make out a greater light behind the forms and happenings of this world. The light that gave us our light, a light that is not separate from love and compassion, that binds us and all things together. And here is a scrap of proof that. There are people who stay up three days making memorials for young women who die suddenly.
When the great writer Raymond Carver knew he was dying from lung cancer he wrote “Late Fragment”:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”
The young woman who died was beloved.
May all beings know that they are beloved on this earth, even when they are in darkness. May all beings find the light. May all beings be free.