My New Blog Address

October 6, 2011 § 11 Comments

From now on my blog address is tracycochran.org. I am very grateful to everyone who reads and subscribes. Please find me at my new address. Until soon!

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Harry and Jane

October 3, 2011 § 25 Comments

We are hard at work, pulling together a new issue on the many paths people take to find truth, and the articles in this particularly lively issue range from sacred music to the spiritual home that is Harry Potter.

Lately, I find myself pondering the similarity between Harry Potter and Jane Eyre. Jane, as some of us may remember (and as I am rediscovering) was an orphan who is grudgingly taken in by a resentful and nasty aunt. Little Jane is as viciously bullied by a fat spoiled cousin John as Harry was by Dudley, and is as wretchedly excluded and unloved by the whole family—she listens to Christmas parties while shut up in a little cupboard with only a doll to love. By her own admission (told many years past childhood), Jane isn’t as sweet or as loveable a child as little Harry. She is completely opposed to her adoptive family, “incapable of serving their interest, or adding to their pleasure; a noxious thing, cherishing the germs of indignation at their treatment….”

She doesn’t receive an invitation by owl that affirms what she knows in her heart to be true, that she is indeed very different than those around her. She is not whisked away to Hogwarts but to a wretched school called Lowood. And yet she finds in the depth of her misery, a spirit and a self awareness and self-acceptance that work a kind of magic. Banished to boarding school, abused beyond all endurance, she at last confronts her aunt as children never did in the Victorian age, calling her bad and hard-hearted.

“Ere I had finished this reply, my soul began to expand, to exult with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty.” Even though Jane later feels that this act of vengeance was like a sweet but poisonous wine, it is as necessary to her future development as Harry’s rollicking escape from his tormentors with its dash of sweet revenge.
As Jane’s nurse Bessie tells her, at least some of the scolding that comes to her is “because you’re such a queer, frightened, shy little thing. You should be bolder.” If you cringe and dread people, if you hide yourself “they’ll dislike you.” Jane and Harry both have to learn to affirm and express themselves.

“You have to be someone before you can be no one,” this statement is repeated in Buddhist circles, and it is equally applicable in Christian, yoga, Gurdjieffian or any other kind of circle dedicated to inner development. It seems like the biggest paradox. If the goal of spiritual life is to be liberated from a sense of separation from life, why value separating, becoming individuals? Why not stay in the cupboard and skip straight to transcendence?
What is the value of affirming a self, identifying the life force as our own—of getting out there in the world and proclaiming ourselves and struggling and trying? We need to really be ourselves, to really live without holding back, or nothing can really be known.   Transformation is not a thought. It is a drama that must be lived.  Also–and I’m really interested in what you think of this–I’ve heard it said that holding back, being timid, not daring to step up and show ourselves and be responsible, is really a kind of negative conceit.  What do you think?

Be Your Own Angel

September 26, 2011 § 39 Comments

Every other Sunday evening for the past year, I have been sitting in front of a group of meditators in big, light-filled Yoga Shivaya in Tarrytown.
Last night it was more clear than ever before that the best material we have to share with our friends is ourselves.   I was speaking about the role of energy and effort.  I shared that the Buddhist word “viriya” comes from a Sanskrit word that meant hero or strong man (virile), but that the radical Buddha turned all that heroic effort towards an inner quest.  The ultimate quest is to be open to what is, to disappear into the receiving, to be a vessel and allow life to flow in.
 We all have our memories of moments when life opens up and it seems clear that our highest human purpose is bearing witness to with love and attention.  But how can we get there on an ordinary day, mired with work and dukkha (the bumpy, sticky turning of many wheels).   Achieving this open awareness is a subtle kind of hero’s journey, but rather than delve into that last night it came to me to share something I once tried with a friend at a retreat.  If you feel like it, you can try it too.  When you think of it, see and sense everything that is happening to you.  Now think of it as if it is a memory or a dream that you are recalling.  “Sati” or mindfulness means remembering.  “Right” in “right mindfulness, etc.” means recollected and/or collected, pulled together and one of the meanigs of “right mindfulness” is “right memory” or even fully remembered memory.   I invite you to try remembering your life as it is unfolding.  This experiment has an extraordinary way of shifting our focus, opening the lens.
If you do the exercise, you may have the feeling of being accompanied.   I think of it as being accompanied by the better angel of our own attention.  The passage below is from my friend and Parabola colleague  Lee Van Laer:
“When you close the door of your dwelling and are left alone, know that there is with you an Angel, allotted by God to every man, whom the Hellenes call the spirit of the home. He never sleeps and being always with you, sees everything. He cannot be deceived, and darkness hides nothing from him. And be aware of that, besides him, God is present everywhere. For there is no place or substance where God is not present. He is greater than all and holds all in his hand.”
Antony the Great, from “Early Fathers from the Philokalia,” Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Faber & Faber 1954

Will and Grace

September 21, 2011 § 6 Comments

Last week I wrote about the experience of being lost in the woods around the Garrison Institute on the banks of the Hudson.   Someone commented that I were never truly lost, and this is true: we wandered just far enough off trail to have a nerve-tingling, sense-heightening experience of  waking up from the dream of knowing who we are and where we are going.   It was a shock, and shocks have a way of posing big questions like “Who do you think you are?”  and “Where do you think you’re going?”   Shocks have a way of showing us what we are made of–not just in the usual sense of revealing character traits like good humor and courage or the opposite, but that we are made up  parts that don’t quite mesh–we can be brave in one way and timid in another.  And at any rate, we don’t add up to an inviolate whole.

The Buddha compared people to chariots, and this analogy is very significant because it turns out that the Pali word “dukkha,” which is usually translated as suffering really means something like “bad wheel” and it refers to the hole in the hub that often got clogged with dirt and grease so the wheel didn’t turn quite smoothly–so there was always a slight bumpiness or unease: life is dukkha means that life rolls along in a way that is always a little less than smooth for us chariots, always a little bumpy and anxiety-provoking.  Gurdjieff compared people (at least those who tried to see themselves) to cars with their hoods up–the point was not only that we are actually a collection of parts but this mechanism is not a pretty or smooth-running sight when you see it up close (unless you are a skilled mechanic).   When I was lost I had a glimpse of this situation–that we are made up of parts like cars and chariots and these parts don’t purrrr along in perfect harmony with each other and the world around us.  I triggered a surge of energy, a definite sense of being here and now.  And now I’m reflecting on the experience of being found.

In Buddhism, the experience of mindfulness or “sati” (which literally means remembering) refers to a sky-like state of awareness.  Mindfulness can include everything that arises, inwardly and outwardly.  At different moments and in different instances, however, mindfulness may reveal different aspects or qualities.   One factor is investigation, which is that probing quality of attention that arises, say, when are lost in the woods and seeking the path–in classical Buddhist terms, it refers to investigating the way things are and the way things happen, the lawful unfolding of things.   Another factor is energy, which was referred to in anciet Sanskrit and its street variant Pali by the word “virya.”  In the Rig Veda and other ancient Sanskrit texts “virya” referred to a hero, one who was virile (you probably guessed that).  As in many other instances, the clever, radical Buddha recast or liberated this word to mean the special energy and effort it takes make the journey to liberation.

We still need to be heroes, but the quality of the effort required isn’t so, well, effortful.  It has to do with opening to what it is, to letting be.   I’m about to make what might seem to be a wild leap, but this is the fun of blogging and I do have a point, so please stay with me.   Towards the end of his journey, Hamlet becomes at last reconciled to his particular tragic situation.  His friend tries to talk him out of accepting the challenge of a duel that both sense is a trap.  But Hamlet has come to understand something profound about the nature of reality–that we really are not in control in the way we dream we are:

“If it be / now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be /now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The / readiness is all.”

Hamlet came to see and accept that reality was determined ultimately by a greater lawfulness, by God.  He came to see that our true freedom, our true sense of place and empowerment comes from letting go of our own will (Shakespeare knew a Bible that uses “readiness” for “willingness”) and being willing to take our true place.  We find ourselves, our true purpose and path, as we learn to stop leaning forward, effortful and anxious–when we fall back on God.

Lost in the Woods

September 13, 2011 § 19 Comments

Last week, I was at the Garrison Institute in the Hudson Valley, experiencing another retreat in Spirit Rock Meditation Center’s “Community Dharma Leader Training.”   Why an editor of Parabola would undertake such a training, what I have learned so far and what I hope to gain–the Parabola sangha I hope to create–I’ll be getting into that in the weeks to come.  For now, I would like to describe how I managed to get lost in the woods.

It rained for days.  The beautiful former monastery had begun to feel a bit like a gloomy English boarding school, and I had begun to feel a bit like Jane Eyre, doing my best to keep my chin up and my spirit alive.   Finally, there was a break in the weather and many of us went outside.  As stood there, feeling a bit lost and lonely (as one does at times on retreats) a friend came up.  “I’ve found the path you’ve been looking for,” she said.  She was referring to a conversation we had the first day, when we were both looking for a walk in the woods.   I knew this.  Yet, in the container of the retreat hearing “I’ve found the path…” was irresistable.  I set out after her.  We hadn’t gone far when we picked up a third hiker, also looking for the perfect path.

It was glorious, the perfect path through the woods, complete with a waterfall and tumbled down rock walls.  As we walked, we talked about life and about our lives…and the next thing we knew we had lost the trail and we were lost.  It was fun at first, and then we really couldn’t find the trail and we grew a bit frightened.  We worried that we would miss dinner, which is a huge source of comfort on retreat.  We fretted that the retreat organizer would have to call for volunteers with wildnerness skills to come looking for us.  I wondered about using the GPS app on my phone as a compass.

“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves,” said Thoreau.   This was another one of those times when the trance of the ordinary was suspended.  My true vulnerability, my true lack of connection to the real world was suddenly painfully exposed.   It was glaringly clear that I live mostly in my head and that I have very little in the way of practical knowledge.   I saw that I am a collection of parts not a whole, and that these different parts are often pulling in opposite directions, driven by different motives.  And yet I saw that this very act of seeing, this opening to what is, called up—literally recalled–a different quality of understanding and intention.  A more spacious quality of awareness appeared that was quicker and more sensitive than my usual thinking.   I didn’t magically become an expert tracker–it was my companion who found the trail–but I felt as if I was assuming an inner attitude—a way of being with life–that was more whole, more deeply human than the way I usually operate.

Not only did I feel that body, heart, and mind were more aligned and working together, I felt the three of us start pulling together.  I’ve written before about noticing a glow inside, the glow of our own life force and our own capacity for awareness.  I’ve written that it can seem very faint, like a candle or a nightlight.  But when I was lost in the woods around Garrison Institute, I discovered–or rediscovered–how we can pool our light and find our way.

After I made it safely back to the dining hall (and in time for dinner), I reflected on how important it is to have a journal and a community like Parabola–a place where people who are walking different paths or searching for a path can come together and have an exchange about what we have found.   Due to forces and conditions beyond the control of our loyal band, we are struggling as never before.  Please consider subscribing or make a tax deductible donation so we can continue to publish and become the sangha we know we can be.

Irene Lessons

September 1, 2011 § 14 Comments

In the wake of Irene, we lost power for four days.   For days, I collected sticks in the yard to burn as kindling in the wood stove, and hauled buckets of water into the house to flush the toilet and wash the dishes.   It was strange, being so cut off in one sense yet feeling so intimately connected with life and with the way much of the rest of the world lives.   Instantly, I was aware of how precious clean water is, and how much I usually waste.  Suddenly, I became aware that a house grows dark and cold at night without someone to build a fire and tend it.  I became the fire builder, the keeper of the hearth.  Anthony, my daughter Alex’s boyfriend from England, cooked food on the cast iron stove.  We all learned how long it takes to cook over a fire—hours!  And yet this was the center of the evening, the light and warmth from the fire, the promise of warm food, the common talk of how it was coming along, and then storieswe told as we ate.  We all learned what is elemental and crucial, and that these basic things can be hard work, yet there is something inherently good and right about it.  All beings deserve to eat and be warm and safe, and being mindfully engaged in this work can bring wisdom about life.  (For starters, a couple of highly educated young people here learned a little something about what it takes to build a good fire).

As the third day dawned to no hot coffee or tea (unless I got up and built a fire and waited for three hours), it began to feel like an ordeal.  Alex was sick with a bad cold, our water supply was almost exhausted–and I discovered that those little moments of good humor—that impulse to forget ourselves and help someone else are as crucial fire.   On the third night, as I was struggling to light a fire with damp kindling, the neighbors came by with big pales of fresh water:  “We wanted to give you the gift of being able to flush the toilet,” they said.

Another neighbor came by and asked from my email address so she could forward updates about the progress of repairs and availability of water to my iPhone.  I saw how technology can help in crucial and elemental ways.  I also marveled at the way this common humanity–this pulling together–just arose spontaneously.  We innately know we can’t go it alone.  We neighbors who rarely have the chance to stop and talk stood outside together laughing and talking.  We even looked up at the stars that we commented were so clear without ambient lights…and…

And we marveled together at the roar of some of our other neighbors’ gas generators!  “It sounds like a carnival!” said one woman.  And it did!  It sounded like the county fair, with all the motors that power ferris wheels and who-knows-what—and all of that sound and all of the gas that went into it to keep their refrigerators pumping and the ice cream frozen and the laptops charged.   “This whole experience would have a different quality without that din,” she said. And I’m not pretending to be Thoreau.  I took several long drives (dodging downed power lines and trees!) to charge my laptop and  iPhone at a friend’s house and take a shower.  And yet, I came away from this experience knowing body, heart, and mind that we don’t need to use as much energy  as we think.  I glimpsed how life can actually be richer and better with less.

When the power came on (bringing a blessed silence), I took a long hot shower, realizing moment by moment what a pleasure and luxury it is to have such a thing.  I wondered how long I would remember to be aware of this. I washed dishes and cleaned for hours, experiencing it as a luxury, aware that by the standards of history and the world today, I am very privileged.  Alex and her boyfriend left the house to go shopping for college (street lights! No danger of fallen trees and wires and flooding in the dark!)  And when they came home the house was bright and cheerful.   Instead of gathering around the fire, they took to their laptops, and I took to my bed for a bit of CNN and a book.  Witnessing ravaged areas here and abroad, I felt blessed.

May I remember what I learned about the preciousness of water and warmth and helping our neighbors. May I not use technology to go numb.

Feeling the Earth Move

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.


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