Hunt for Bin Laden

August 11, 2011 § 10 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?

The Dharma of Harry Potter

July 17, 2011 § 20 Comments

Harry Potter mania is in full swing.  In this house, too.  I recently saw the movie with my 21-year-old daughter, who happens to be the same age as Harry, Ron, and Hermione.  Harry Potter was her childhood.  It was very poignant to see these now beloved and familiar characters and the one in the seat beside me now grown up.  I cried.
     From the time my daughter and Harry were both 10 years old, the great contemporary fantasy saga about the “boy who lived” were a refuge and inspiration.  That a kid could  seem to be ordinary–and not just ordinary but very lacking in the eyes of the unseeing and uncaring adults around him–yet turn out to have magical powers this was, well, magic for Alexandra and for millions of readers who suspected as much even in the midst of the rampantly materialistic and crazy world we live in.
     It is good and natural in such a world to reach outward for a greater idea or unifying principle to guide us.  Yet, seeing Harry Potter reminded me how important it is to open up fully to our own experience.   Unclasping the grip of our identification with the thinking to really investigate the senses and the feelings and our awareness of the whole of our experience can give life a magical quality.  Deeper ways of sensing and knowing can open up.
     Times when we feel lost or times when we face great challenges can naturually loosen our grip on what we think we know.  Other ways of sensing or intuiting or feeling can suddenly appear–and these little glimpses can feel like invitations to enter a broader and deeper ways of experiencing our lives.  These moments of seeing or intuition are not as spectacular and irreversible as having an owl appear telling us that we’re meant to be at the Hogwarts School to receive a different kind of training.  But they can still be indelible.
     Let me tell you a wee little story.  Many years ago when I was a young person living in Manhattan,  I came to be completely disillusioned with my supposedly cool job chasing books to turn into movies and with the life I was living–chasing images of what it meant to be successful and cool.  I suddenly felt desperate to find out what life–what was behind it.  I would come home from work and lie on the couch and think about the cosmos and wonder what it was all about, just like a little kid.  Suddenly, it was my priority in life,  knowing for myself what the meaning of life was–what the purpose of my small life was–and I didn’t care what anybody thought about it.   I stared reading books about Buddhism and Taoism and the Gurdjieff Work, and one night I had a very strange dream.  There appeared a symbol that was unlike anything I was reading about or unlike anything I had ever seen.  It looked a bit like the dharma wheel except that it looked Celtic or Nordic.   The spokes looked like waves.  I would draw if for you if I could (and maybe one of you will see it on a pottery shard in a museum).  The message in the dream was that this symbol–and the understanding behind it–has always existed–and always appeared and disappeared.  The message was to look for it–to learn to be sensitive and alert and search.  The message was that there was a way of living that leads to understanding that pre-dates any known religion or school and that it somehow lives on in us.   It welled up from the depths of my human being.
     Someday I may find this wheel.  In the meantime,  I have learned this: A wheel with eight spokes is the symbol of the Noble Eightfold Path, which the Buddha described as the way leading to the cessation of suffering and to awakening. It is used to develop insight into the true nature of reality…. and to eradicate greed, hatred, and delusion.  According to discourses found in both the Theravada and Chinese Buddhist canon, the Noble Eightfold Path was not invented but rediscovered by the Buddha during his search for liberation.  The scriptures describe an ancient path which has been followed and practiced by all the previous Buddhas who have sought self-awakening and liberation. The path was taught by the Buddha to his disciples so that they, too, could follow it.  Here (according to one account) is the Buddha:
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.

The Path Through Pathlessness

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.


Beloved on the Earth

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?

I did.

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.

Solitude and Community

June 26, 2011 § 60 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Fire

June 18, 2011 § 29 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gobekli Tepe

June 13, 2011 § 2 Comments

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

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

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

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