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.


The Ascetic at the End of the Bar

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.

She Teaches the Torches to Burn Bright

August 15, 2011 § 3 Comments

from the NY Times

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.

Hunt for Bin Laden

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.

London Calling

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,”

A Treasure Buried in a Field

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.


Waking Up Together

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?