August 26, 2011 § 8 Comments
Like many people in the greater New York area, I am preparing for Irene. I was up early cleaning and tidying up and doing laundry—the prospect of power outages lasting for days and flooding and apocalypse makes a person want to start out as clean and neat as possible. A few days from now, I might be cooking beans and smoked sausages over a fire bowl in the yard, wearing rubber boots. We just don’t know, and that’s a very interesting place to be. My daughter’s boyfriend is visiting from England—first trip to New York–and in less than a week he will have experienced an earthquake and a hurricane. We like to show our out-of-town guests a really interesting time.
We’ve been talking about solitude and community in this space, about what times or conditions allow us to feel fully alive and aware—that can even sometimes allow us to resonate with a sense of the Whole. As I was bustling around making preparations this morning, I thought of all the other people up and down the I-95 corridor who were doing something similar. I thought of those haunting reports of the animals fleeing the tsunami before it came, relying on some mysterious ability to sense or feel that we have lost or never had. Stunted as we are compared to them, however, situations like this do awaken a bit more presence. Preparing for basic survival, storing water, stacking firewood, will do that.
One thing that can be said about a hurricane isthat you know you aren’t in it alone. You feel connected to not just to the people facing this storm now, but to people in all times who have faced storms, who have faced the unknown. Times like these are really interesting opportunities to watch the mind. We think we know how to prepare as well as we can and then let go and let God as they say. But we really actually tend to think ahead and try to control outcomes–try to think our way past things–all the time. We can’t help it. We are story-spinning creatures, and we want things to turn out well. While we’re waiting and while we still have power, let me tell you a little story about this.
When my daughter Alexandra was four or five years old (she is now 21 and thinks I’m making too big a deal about the hurricane), we lived in Brooklyn, and it was the custom to put things out on the street for others to take (as it is in many places). When Alex outgrew her little bicycle with training wheels, I encouraged her to give it away. She made a sign that said “Free bike! Please enjoy” in purple crayon, and we taped it to the bike and carried the down the wide steps of the brownstone one last time and set in near the curb. It felt so freeing for both of us to leave it sitting there in all its sparkly purple glory, no lock and chain. I told her that giving things away can be as wonderful as receiving. I told her that the universe works in mysterious ways and that giving actually gives us something in return.
The next morning she clamored down the ladder of her loft bed and ran to the big living room windows that overlooked the street. “The bike is gone!” She exclaimed with a smile I associated with Christmas morning. I told her that was wonderful, and we beamed at each other. “Now when do I get something back?” she asked.
Most of us are like this. We move from hope to hope, from fear to fear. This is perfectly natural. We want to be safe and happy. Many of us are good-hearted human beings who other beings to be want to be safe and happy. But we really need to open up what we take real happiness to be. The Middle English root of the word “happiness” is “happ,” which means fortune, chance, happenstance, what happens. In virtually every Indo-European language the root is the same. It is built into the language and perhaps our genes to equate happiness with what happens to us.
Yet no matter how well you plan or how privileged you are, things happen that are outside your control. There really is no higher ground, no absolutely safe place to stand. My dear departed mother always told me to remember that no matter how rough a hurricane is (and my mother lost a house and a beach-side condo in a hurricane one year) it is always the poorest among us always suffer most: “They don’t have much to start with and then they lose that.” (When I asked my mother if she didn’t mind losing so much herself she said she could stay in my sister’s nice house while she rebuilt. “And I’m too old to cry over things.”)
And yet we are all subject to the same forces. The ground is moving under all our feet. Without denying the reality of injustice (even in this storm some will suffer far more than others–and may all be safe and well), I’m beginning to realize that the only real source of security and happiness we have is touching the earth of our common human experience. There is no escape from our common human situation; there is only healing, only helping, only grace. There is only participation.
Blessed are those who know they have no answers, who have empty hands, for they may be given something—including something practical to do to help others. There is a light inside each of us that doesn’t depend on outside circumstances. We don’t tend to notice it when things are going well. It can seem like little more than a faint glow, which may be why it is most visible in a state of inner stillness or in the midst of widespread power outages. A person wouldn’t notice a night light in full sun, would they? But a small light can illuminate the darkness (as many of us in the I-95 corridor will soon know).
Certain kinds of suffering, including waiting and uncertainty, can give you the feeling of resonating with the Whole, with other beings and with the earth itself. These situations also have a surprising intimacy about them, a kind of open solitude. They help you touch another source of understanding and intention, something deeper than our ordinary self-centered and socially conditioned minds. As tiny and undeveloped as it may sometimes seem, there is in each of us (or most of us) a deep wish to be part of life and a capacity to resonate with it, to understand. Remember what has come to life in you at times when there was an emergency, times when you had to “snap out of it.”
Smirti in Sanskrit, sati in Pali, and Drengpa in Tibetan. All these words mean to remember. They point towards a kind of understanding that isn’t thought up in the head but lived through (stood under, like standing in the rain and letting it soak in). This kind of remembering means to “re-member” or “re-collect” and it means having the head and heart and body all in alignment, all present and participating together. To have real presence means remember what it means to be fully human. It means gaining the power that comes with coming out of our isolation and joining the whole human race. This seems a pretty good way to prepare for a hurricane. Although it’s good to have batteries and drinking water and a few other things as well.
Wish us luck! I’ll let you know how it goes.
August 23, 2011 § 9 Comments
As I was writing this blog on my laptop—which happens to be about how oblivious we usually are to our interconnection—the sofa started to shake. “Earthquake,” I thought, suddenly really aware that I was in was on the earth and that it was trembling beneath me. I thought of the earth shaking in recognition of the Buddha’s awakening. It was as if the earth knew that Buddha was awake and fully perceiving its life.
“It is fairly obvious by now that life on earth forms a vast interconnected and interdependent network,” writes Christian Wertenbaker in the “Seeing” issue of Parabola. This really has become general knowledge. Most of us accept (however grudgingly) that we live inside an ecosystem—and that we ourselves are ecosystems: just as birds keep a hippopotamus clean, intestinal bacteria help us digest. We are used to hearing by now that the building blocks of life—carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and the rest—“were formed in the nuclear furnaces of stars and distributed by the explosions of supernovae, as part of vast cosmic cycles of stellar formation, growth, and death.”
We are deeply embedded in life and we are made to participate in life. Most of us get this, yet Wertenbaker reminds us that something more is possible. We are also capable of resonating with (and therefore discovering) the underlying mathematical forms or laws of reality. Wertenbaker draws on Gurdjieff who draws on a very ancient idea: By perceiving consciously instead of in our usual state of unawareness “we are, or can be, part of a great cosmic ecology of consciousness….” Just as our bodies are made of atoms, our inner life in the form of our conscious perceptions and reflection connects us to the Whole.
Many of us resonate with this. Yet many of us treat having an inner life as a solitary pursuit, something we keep to ourselves. Is that not strange? I wrote last time about being young and learning that it was best to be a kind of secret agent, to keep my innermost thoughts and perceptions to myself, to keep my vulnerability hidden under a cloak of cool (or at least an attempt at cool). None of this is unusual in this culture. Nor is the love I had of outlaws who were secretly pure and innocent—from the Kerouac to Count of Monte Cristo (who was intent on revenge for his wrongful imprisonment, but that’s another story). This is a pretty standard part of growing up. But it is also intensely ironic, because even these romantic figures (certainly Kerouac) were seeking a sense of interconnection and resonance with higher laws.
Solitary as the spiritual search might seem, there inevitably comes a moment when I find myself sitting with in a shadowy hall somewhere. Wrapped in shawls or yoga blankets, sitting still with backs straight on cushions, we look like the earliest humans, at least as I imagine them. Or maybe we just look like earliest humans in the sense of being like children again, facing life with our whole beings. At those times, I know that for all my shyness, all the defenses I have picked up over the years, I am still capable of real connection with the others, all of us coming so far to be together—and not just New York and California but through all kinds of difficulties. And all of that common effort made just to risk trying for greater awareness–for a consciousness that isn’t attached to memories and feelings and views, that isn’t separate from life by being attached to being a particular “someone” who needs to be defended.
“There is no way out; there is only healing,” a teacherwho really knows what she is talking about said to me. There is no escape from our situation. Everyone has their reasons, their wounds. There is nowhere to go but down into our common humanity. There usually comes a moment when I am sitting in a room full of fellow humans, all of us drawing our attention to the breathing (among the most basic and easy to track exchange with the outside world), when we can feel like we are descending into a vast subterranean cave full of forces and energies unknown to the ordinary thinking mind with its obsession on protecting and defending.
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 am always certain that if I just keep following it, leaving the known world of my thinking for the unknown, I may come upon wonders. In such a moment, I begin to grasp something that the great spiritual traditions teach, that we and our ancestors all the way back to the beginning of humanity are one. They exist in us. We resonate with the same rhythms: the day and night, the heartbeat, the breathing. And some of us we have another possibility also, to resonate with the laws under reality, to be the eye that reflects the Whole.
August 18, 2011 § 15 Comments
In college I read a book that was modeled on Dante’s Inferno. Charting the progress of a young African American man through various American cities, the tale made the point that we have rings of hell right here and right now, and that we have our own poets and storytellers (Dante travelled with Virgil) to bear witness. By now (thanks to the lectures I listen to in my car) I realize that Dante was radical himself, filing his tale with bold examples of corrupt popes and officials but the image from that masterpiece that stays lodged in my aging brain is the image of the deepest ring of hell and Satan frozen, utterly incapable of movement. The idea that evil was being outside the flow of life and that freedom had to do with being in alignment or obedience to the higher laws of life—freedom as obedience–this was a huge paradoxical news flash. But I intuitively knew it was true; think of addiction, think of dreary nowhereness of life on the lam.
What stayed lodged in my heart and mind from the modern urban inferno was an image of a young black man sitting in a rough bar, playing the tough guy, harboring a secret asceticism under his ragged coat. I was a dreamy white girl from the sticks and I identified with him!
I realize now that I have treated having a spiritual like being in a rough bar. Picture the bar in Star Wars or any other archetypal rough bar, full of strange characters. My sense of having a spiritual life was that it was best lived as a kind of secret agent—outside seeking to be a woman of the world, learning things go, finding a place, a craft, then being a worker among workers; while inside seeking truth, exploring what it might mean to be in alignment with higher laws. The sense that having a spiritual search was best kept under wraps was born of a sense of how quickly consciousness gives up its freedom, attaches itself to images, memories, thoughts—especially thoughts about self. I was wary of identifying with a spiritual path, of assuming the role of follower or teacher of any particular way, because even as beginner (especially then) it was easy to see how people lost the openness of beginner’s mind as they identified with a role. It seemed to me that it was best to live a double live, to be a kind of secret agent of transformation. I longed to know a greater life, a life that I felt certain was lived by other beings in other times. But I didn’t want to deceive myself, to lose the life I was seeking by grasping at it.
It took a long time and many experiences of loss and gain to realize that we find the path to freedom in those moments (really, in moments) when all separation falls away. Almost everyone has had a few “if I get out of this alive” moments. In those moments, for me at least, there is no more inside and outside, no self and others. There is just the understanding that life is fleeting, burning–it really is an inferno! There is no time in such a moment to care about who we are–there is just a wish to join in and be helpful, to be one more pair of hands on the bucket (or broom or sandbag or feeding) brigade. Separation is hell, and there is a way out.
August 15, 2011 § 3 Comments
Unexpectedly and at short notice (which is the best way to do many things), a friend invited me to see “Romeo and Juliet” performed by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Park Avenue Armory, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. From the moment I filed into the cavernous Drill Hall, I felt I was participating–not just passively observing but actively engaging–in something very special. I climbed winding stairs to a tier overlooking a stage in a replica of its main theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon–shipped from England in 46 shipping containers (“Millimeter for millimeter, it’s pretty much the same as what we’ve built in Stratford,” said Michael Boyd, artistic director of the RSC, told a New York journalist). Surrounded by beautifully dressed people (one young woman nearby wore a dress that seemed to be made of silken white petals and sky-high white heels) I witnessed a drama that was more than a spectacle in space: what unfolded was an event that reminded me that human lives can contain moments of “timeless time. ”
The Yale professor and author Harold Bloom teaches that there is no greater portrait in the Western tradition of literature of a woman in love than Juliet. Her constant generosity is a model of the utmost capacity of the human heart to hold and give a force, an intelligence beyond what we humans know as feeling. In describing Juliet, Bloom quotes the modern philosopher Wittgenstein, who came up with this aphorism: “Love is not a feeling. Love is put to the test, pain not. One does not say: ‘That was not a true pain, or it would not have passed away so quickly.'”
This RSC production put Romeo and Juliet in slouchy, sloppy modern dress while all around them are players in Elizabethan garb. This decision underscores the way Shakespeare smashes stereotypes and explodes easy summations. He took a well-known story about the rebellious impulsiveness of youth and made it a celebration of the possibility of transcendence in the midst of lives doomed by the mechanical turning of many wheels. He put into the mouth of a 14-year-old girl lines of extraordinary wisdom and beauty; and he showed how Romeo’s very being was changed by her capacity for love. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.” I left out the customary slash marks and capitalizations so you might better appreciate the insight under the poetry. She understood what it might mean to enter the timeless.
Naturally, the New York critics had any number of things to say about this production and I agreed with some of what they said–I too wanted the transforming purity of Juliet’s love to rise up and be a still point in the turning world. And yet the RCS production came at just the right moment for me, a “teachable moment.” Flames and smoke shot up when the Montagues and the Capulets circled one another in the heat and passion of anger; flames and smoke shot up when the men and women at the Capulet’s masked ball circled one in a courtship dance–while powerful drum-driven music evoked the playing out of inexorable laws of nature, of blood and tribal loyalty. And in the midst of it, something brighter than fire, a timeless moments of clarity, of love. There I was, heavy-hearted about the riots in England and the seeming hopelessness of the way things are going here and here in the midst of the doom and gloom–and in an American armory of all places–were 41 English players and the Globe itself unfolding this timeless event–the opening to true love. I remembered that such a moment can change a life. I remembered why Shakespeare stays fresh and why his work calls people to make such extraordinary efforts.
“The path of all buddhas and ancestors arises before the first forms emerge; it cannot be spoken of using conventional views.” Translated from the great Zen master Dogen’s Treasury of the True Dharma Eye by Kazuaki Tanahashi, this mysterious line appears in the current “Seeing” issue of Parabola. Reading this line late at night after “Romeo and Juliet,” I felt certain that there always is hope for us, always a higher source of wisdom and compassion, and that Shakespeare knew this. In his introduction in Parabola, Tanahashi explains Dogen uses the word “dream” to describe enlightenment. Shakespeare knew how to dream.
August 11, 2011 § 9 Comments
“I suppose journalists try to look deeper into the pond,” says Mark Boal in the current “Seeing” issue of Parabola. “Sometimes they find ancient, brutal fish down there, sometims they just see a reflection of themselves.” The investigative journalist and Oscar-winning screenwriter is very much in the news today because the current film he is working with Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (the pair made The Hurt Locker) on a film about Navy SEAL Team 6’s hunt for Osama bin Laden.
New York Republican Congressman Peter King has called for an investigation into the Obama Administration’s cooperation with the untitled movie after Maureen Dowd wrote a column in The New York Times reporting that the film received cooperation and help in describing a mission that was classified. The filmmakers released the following statement:
“Our upcoming film project about the decade long pursuit of Bin Laden has been in the works for many years and integrates the collective efforts of three administrations, including those of Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, as well as the cooperative strategies and implementation by the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. Indeed, the dangerous work of finding the world’s most wanted man was carried out by individuals in the military and intelligence communities who put their lives at risk for the greater good without regard for political affiliation. This was an American triumph, both heroic, and non-partisan and there is no basis to suggest that our film will represent this enormous victory otherwise.” Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal.
The film will be released in Oct. 12, 2012, in the midst of the U.S. Presidential campaign. Politics–ephemeral, dirty, venal politics–very likely motivated King’s charge. Yet the night that President Obama announced that bin Laden was killed, Boal and Bigelow were already working on a film that focused on an earlier attempt by the Navy SEALs to hunt down the Al-Qaeda leader. The pair are passionate seekers of truth in their way and they had already done a great deal of research on the ground, so it didn’t take long to change the movie, especially the ending.
A White House spokesman called the charge that Boal and Bigalow were getting secret information or preferential treatment “ridiculous.” I believe it is. Boal, an investigative journalist, used contacts in the military and the Middle East to add veracity to The Hurt Locker. Why would they be less interested in helping shape a movie about the hunt for bin Laden? Indeed, I know that the military has cooperated with many movies. I wrote a story about a meditation club in the Pentagon years ago (perhaps I’ll share it here), and my contacts there proudly spoke of the military cooperation in many movies, including The Hunt for Red October, Top Gun, and other films.
Now to the important point. Why should someone like me, working at a journal like Parabola comment on this uproar, so fleeting and soon to be replaced? Why should I write about the riots in England for that matter? Because we can reflect on the news in a different way, not reacting but reflecting deeply. I’ve begun to see how we can learn to be still and let the stirred-up murk of the news cycle settle down so that deeper truths and longings can appear. It is possible to be in the midst of a turbulent world with equanimity, to seek more awareness, not just more facts. At a meditation group I lead on Sunday nights, a man described this quality of equanimity as being like a flow-through tea bag, allowing life to flow through us without resistance. What can come from such an attitude, which I think of as stillness-in-the-world, non-resistance to all that is arising, joy and terror? It is a preparation.
“The question is not what to do but how to see,” says Jeanne de Salzmann in “Seeing” (probably the first time that name has been linked with the leaking of U.S. military secrets). “Seeing is the most important thing–the act of seeing.”
Don’t shrink from the world; seek to see what is really happening. Seeing clearly, insights, even noble truths can appear in the midst of this burning world.
August 10, 2011 § 9 Comments
Earlier today, my daughter showed me an internet picture an army of people holding brooms aloft, marching into areas of London that were looted and burned during the night. Like many other people, I imagine, I was heartened, moved. Here in America, we are watching the riots through the pall cast by the latest sign of societal slippage, of the disintegration of this empire. Many of us are musing about what we have lost–not status or a triple A credit rating– but hope. We looked at images of the looting in England with bewilderment and sadness. There is no denying the widening gap between rich and poor here and in England and all over the world. Yet this wanton destruction of neighborhood businesses just seemed so, so, unEnglish. And then the broom brigade. Tom Robbins once said it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. It’s also never too late to be a spiritual warrior, to take to the streets to take a stand for kindness and common human decency and compassion. We might not be able to cure hunger, but we can feed people. We might not be able to end loneliness and desolation but we can help one another. We may not be able to stop violence or the general upheaval we seem to be involved in, but we can pick up a broom. We can refuse to hide or be cowed.
I write a great deal about meditating and mindfulness and , but the English broom warriors, remind me that any life worth living–including the pursuit of a mindful life–takes a capacity to imagine, to dream. Indeed, a piece in the new “Seeing” issue of Parabola about the great Zen master Dogen explains that Dogen uses the word “dream” to describe the enlightenment of the Buddha, and the meditative experience of all practioners. In other words, that wisdom-of love and compassion, of our interconnection–is real while much of the other stuff that drives us is transient and extremely unreliable. Did you ever feel glad years later that you acted on an impulse of rage? Me neither.
People speak of mindfulness as a way of waking up from the stories and dreams that entrance us. This is true but mindfulness of “sati” in Pali literally means to remember–and remembering ourselves, coming to our senses–also requires a capacity to dream bigger dreams, Buddha-like dreams, dreams of participating in a greater life. When we are young, if we are lucky there are often books, movies, music that remind us that our lives can be more than they seem to be on any given bad day, that they can be magic. We tend to remember these influences, these dreams, when we undertake something new and scary, join a couter-insurgency of goodness, join the line to become one more pair of hands on the bucket brigade in this burning world. It was telling to see a bookstore left untouched and alone in the midst of burned rubble.
Thanks for being dreamers, broom-wielding Londoners. You’re not the only ones.
“Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.”
–C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,”
August 3, 2011 § 11 Comments
Last week, my daughter and I stayed in a little ocean-side condo in Florida. Every morning we walked on the beach, and at least some mornings we let ourselves be buffeted about in the vast jacuzzi of the ocean. Every evening, we cooked, laughed, and talked with my 91-year-old father, sister, nephew, and their loved ones. Every day I was reminded of what is constant by the waves, and every evening I was reminded of impermanence by my father’s growing frailty and my own growing sense of not having unlimited time.
I had a very limited ability to be online. When I did, I was very touched and interested in the activity in this blog space on the subject of what is a path or what does it mean to follow a path. One line and comment in particular captured my attention and imagination. Elizabeth wrote of doing contemplative reading of passages from the Bible each morning, giving as an example Jesus teaching his followers that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field. She offered the insight that the field or ground might be the ground of our own being. I walked on the beach in the morning reflecting on what kinds of conditions have to be present to explore that ground and find that treasure.
One of the things that came up as I walked on the beach in the morning or lay in bed at night thinking about the way life melts away was the Third Noble Truth, the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering. When I was younger, I wondered why the Buddha bothered to make a separate truth about the end of suffering. Why not skip straight from the craving and ignorance that causes suffering to the Fourth Noble Truth, the Eightfold Path that leads to liberation? It seemed pointless and even negative to me to emphasize the cessation of craving; the rejecting, relinquishing, leaving and renouncing of it. It seems clear to me now that my aversion to this particular truth was/is rooted in the fear that it is life denying. Be as aloof and austere as a monk or nun, that’s the way to avoid suffering: abandon all craving, even, especially, to that seems lovable and gratifying.
Now I’m beginning to understand that liberation from suffering is like a treasure buried in a field. It is the discovery that there is something richer to be found when we are ready. There must be a real need–keen enough to an attitude that is calm and alert, able to drop the objects, people, and opinions we think we have to cling to. Relinquishing our usual certainties, we become able to look into and over the situation, to scan the field. In a state of even the most temporary cessation, given the briefest pause from our usual automatism, the mind discovers it actually can open to investigate–our suffering itself and the craving that causes it becomes a field of investigation.
How and where can we find relief from the suffering that flows from the inescapable impermanence of life, and from the sense that nothing happens quite as we dream or expect? There is an open-mindedness and an inner attitude of investigation and search that come from far afield. The treasure is found by relinquishing belief in our own thoughts, forsaking our own will, becoming poor in spirit so that we may receive what lay waiting for us with open hands.
Jesus and Buddha urged their followers to practice a way of homelessness, especially of psychological homelessness. Can this be practiced by lay people in the midst of this anxious, materialistic world? Yes, in the moment. We can practice the renunciation of fixed views and prejudices. We can relinquish our attachment to the pursuit of ever more information (including spiritual information) and control. We can stop running and turn and look at our own suffering and reactions, gently investigation and inquiring how it feels, what it’s true nature is. That questioning, if its sincere, can be like a diving rod, leading us to living water.
So there at the beach, I investigated my fear to time, my pangs of love and worry for my father, my sense that I should do something hard and substantial, build something that will stand against the onslaught of time, be like the little pig who build his house of brick. One night, my eyes fell on these words from Sabbath by Abraham Heschel–and the Sabbath is of course about the holy day of cessation: “Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space. As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face. Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives….The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information [or any other kind of material wealth which is a forgery of happiness, according to Heschel] but to face sacred moments.”
I begin to suspect that the deathless, the kingdom of heaven, is to be found in cessation, in stopping and turning to face sacred moments.