Pain

Pain. It’s all a matter of perception. Here in France, “pain” is bread (pronounced “pan” and make sure the word comes from the very back of your throat). Bread here is good. Very good. It’s the mind that assigns qualities to our experiences, n’est-ce pas?

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Decade

When you came, you were like red wine and honey,
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness.
Now you are like morning bread,
Smooth and pleasant,
I hardly taste you at all, for I know your savor,
But I am completely nourished.
–Amy  Lowell

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

People’s Parties

I was recently invited to party and I was told beforehand by the host, a French neighbor who speaks English quite well, that everyone else coming either spoke French or Spanish. “It should be interesting,” I emailed a friend.

I know hardly any Spanish and I landed in France three months ago with an 8th grade school year’s worth of French, from which I can remember only one complete sentence: “La neige est belle aujourd’hui.”  “The snow is beautiful today.” Not exactly a useful phrase in the south of France. In summer.

The party turned out not to be interesting at all because there was little I could say to anyone or they to me. I felt also rather timid about even being there. To compensate, I kept myself busy pouring the wine, serving the food, and helping clean up. That’s what I do when I am at a party and find myself bored or uncomfortable. I don’t leave it. I work it.

The next day my friend emailed back wanting to know how the party was. She said, “I find the idea of being in a country where you don’t know the language fascinating. For me, it makes me realize how much I depend on words not just to communicate but almost as a defense. Without them I feel very vulnerable. As a friend said once, it’s like being a child again who can’t express herself. Very frustrating. Especially when you’re a writer.”

Those were much my own sentiments as I was walking home the night before. I did feel vulnerable. And frustrated. And I realized something. I did not come here to socialize a lot, but I have been, more than I had expected.

Summertime in the south of France, I’ve found, is party time. Someone you know or someone you know knows someone who is throwing a party. I’ve yet to turn anyone down because I have felt privileged to be invited, which perhaps is one of the lessons I have, inadvertently, started learn about myself. Just because you don’t go to someone’s party doesn’t mean you won’t be liked or invited to another one some other time. True, at first, I wanted to meet some people, get to know a few. And I have.

But coming here to meet people and learn a little French were secondary to my main reason for coming here. The main reason I came here was to work on some long-neglected writing projects and to engage more deeply with my inner life, which, in turn, I believe, will help me find out how best I can contribute to the common weal in ever more meaningful ways. I had this idea I would go a foreign country where I would not be distracted by everything going on around me, as I often am at home in the States, and to disengage from the world I knew so well there and get lost in my own world for a while to see what I might find. Not speaking the native tongue of where I ended up, I figured, would be good in that sense; when you can’t talk to anyone then the only person left is yourself.

Which is pretty much what happened at that party I went to, and I didn’t like what I was hearing bawling from my depths. That party was for me perhaps a little like a drunk’s bottoming out. You wake up the next day and say to yourself: Enough.

I have gotten—and am getting—a lot writing done. And I won’t stop socializing completely with the month I have remaining here before heading back to the States in October. After all, I have developed some wonderful friendships here and I know my time with them, at least in this round here in France, is running out. And now that summer is winding down, perhaps there won’t be as much partying going on; the off-season quiet and cooler weather is already palpable as the vacationers pack up their cars and go home and those who live here seem to be just, well, partied out.

That said, I will be more conscious of my choices here. Which is a big part about learning about oneself. When you can be more conscious of your choices you needn’t be a slave to them, going to people’s parties, as Joni Mitchell once sang, fumbling deaf, dumb, and blind.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Rebuilding Trust From the Ruins

On the morning of November 1, 1755 the residents of Lisbon, Portugal were knocked to their knees by one of the world’s most powerful earthquakes. Depictions of the earthquake in art and literature were produced and reproduced for centuries following the event, which came to be known as “The Great Lisbon Earthquake.”

The triple depiction shown in the engraving here shows Lisbon before the earthquake and the central picture shows it immediately afterward. The bottom picture portrays the effects of the quake on the suburbs of Meknes. Although it is not dated, researchers say we can assume it was composed shortly after the earthquake.

The earthquake was centered in the Atlantic Ocean. The total duration of shaking lasted 10 minutes and was comprised of three distinct jolts. The worst damage occurred in the southwest of Portugal. Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, was the largest and the most important of the cities damaged. Severe shaking was felt in North Africa; lives were lost in Fez and Mequinez. Moderate damage was done in Algiers and in southwest Spain. Shaking was also felt in France, Switzerland, and Northern Italy. A devastating fire after the earthquake destroyed a large part of Lisbon and a huge tsunami destroyed sections along the coasts of Portugal, southwest Spain, and western Morocco. In some places the waves crested at nearly 100 feet high. A tsunami six feet high reach as far as Galway, Ireland,

The oscillation of suspended objects far from the epicenter indicated an enormous area of impact. The observation of seiches — standing waves occurring on rivers, reservoirs, ponds, and lakes when seismic activity from an earthquake pass through an area — as far away as Finland, suggest a magnitude approaching 9.0. The same magnitude as the earthquake that just devastated northern Japan one week ago.

A while back I was doing some research for a novel I’m working on. Although the novel has nothing to do with earthquakes, there is a thread that runs through it hinting at the destructive capabilities of the natural world and our vulnerability in the face of such power, no matter if it’s something as fast as a lightning strike or as slow as erosion. An element that made the Lisbon earthquake so devastating, I learned, was not just the wreckage and deaths it left in its wake. It also marked a dramatic change in how Europeans at the time saw themselves in the scheme of things.

With a population estimated at between 200,000 and 275,000 residents at the time, Lisbon was one of the largest cities in Europe. An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 of those residents died and about 85 percent of the city was leveled. This made Europeans then see how much human culture depended on the cooperation of nature. Up to then, history was thought to be progressive because people were capable of breaking from the cycles of nature in which other animals lived and of developing a culture that future generations could build upon. The destruction of Lisbon horrified people not just because of the extent of the damage but also because they were shocked into realizing that, in the end, they were powerless against nature.

What’s even more horrific now is to consider what we also know about how trauma affects the human psyche. People who suffer from trauma in its many manifestations — and Japan’s earthquake is certainly one of these manifestations — is a loss of trust in self and others and in existence itself. People in Japan who survived the earthquake there surely will suffer from this. And given the rapid spread of videos and photos of the earthquake and consequent tsunami, I wonder how far and wide this trauma and its effects has and will continue to spread.

Given the media saturation of such events now we all become affected by them. I was nowhere near the twin World Trade Center towers when they were attacked and destroyed in 2001. But I witnessed them come down time after time after time in photos I saw in newspapers and magazines and in the videos that captured the entire horrifying event on television and online. And believe it or not even still, going on 10 years after the event, barely a week — nay, barely a day — goes by when I do not see those ghostly images floating before my eyes in the most unlikely of hours and places — walking around my neighborhood, standing in line at the grocery store, and sometimes just before I drift off to sleep at night.

The same thing has already started happening to me with the hundreds of photos and videos I’ve seen within days the earthquake that struck Japan. The difference between the World Trade Towers coming down and the earthquake in Japan is that the towers were attacked by other people. The earthquake came from the earth itself. We all know we can’t always trust other people. But not being able to trust the very ground we walk on brings distrust and uncertainty to a whole new and perhaps indelible level. I think of what might be happening to the children who have not developed a strong enough psychological foundation to cope and who have experienced the earthquake themselves or watched it on TV, their limbic system now flooded with a level of fear and distrust that may never be erased. A psychic once told that me my crippling fear of flying goes back to my younger days when I watched countless WWII movies of war planes getting shot down out of the sky. Say what you will about psychics, this certainly makes sense to me.

The engravings that emerged after the Lisbon quake might have had the same effect on people then. Surely those who crawled from the rubble were never the same again. Perhaps in some way we’re psychically connected to that quake because that’s when artists and writers made the stark observation that we are ultimately powerless against certain events born of the natural world. Humanity has known since then — incorporated in us like a kind of DNA — that there is not one among us who can survive an earthquake, a tornado, a hurricane, or a flood when we are standing directly in their path. And now we’ve been given yet another stark and brutal reminder. And to my knowledge, despite the shrieking of apocalyptic rabble-rousers, there is no religious doctrine laid out in any scroll on any pulpit or tucked away in some cave somewhere that can truly account for such natural disasters.

Where do we turn for solace?

In the days after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, a friend emailed me to say she is always reminded of her favorite Hazrat Inayat Khan quote “when things like floods and earthquakes and tsunamis and reports of violence and war shake me up. He said, “Walking on the turning wheel of the earth, living under the ever-rotating sun, man expects a peaceful life.” It’s true. We do expect a peaceful life. Or least long for it. And sometimes we get it. But how long does it last? Even our own thoughts rarely give us such a precious gift. And where are we going to go to escape our own thoughts? Alcohol, drugs, compulsive shopping, sex, numbing out in front of the television are typical escapist behaviors. But their salve is temporary; the disquiet we always feel bubbles through and leaks out in various forms of impatience, irritability, and disrespect. In short, violence.

At around the same time news about the earthquake was spreading around the planet a short essay that appeared in the New York Times Magazine was making its rounds on the Internet. Titled “The Tire Iron and the Tamale,” the essay is about a man living in Oregon getting roadside help from Mexican immigrants after everyone else just blew right past him. It is a heartwarming story about people helping people who come from different countries and don’t even speak the same language.

I mention this essay here because I think at times like these when we feel overwhelmed by human suffering, perhaps the best — perhaps the most — we can do is just give someone you see a helping hand. Or call your mother or father. Or send a reconciliation email to an estranged sibling. Or wave someone through a 4-way stop sign instead of hurrying through first.

Aside from sending money or supplies to relief efforts in Japan, there is little we can do with our physical bodies here to help anyone there. But if we belong to our bodies as much as we belong to the earth, then we owe it to ourselves and those around us to put our bodies to use and show that, while we may be powerless against certain forces of the natural world, we are divine accomplices in the priceless act of creating a benevolent human community beginning with those standing right by our sides. Every religion and spiritual tradition I do know of charges us with the responsibility to be kind to one another, and this especially is true in moments like these.

In a letter he wrote to the people of Japan the renowned Vietnamese Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote: “An event such as this reminds us of the impermanent nature of our lives. It helps us remember that what’s most important is to love each other, to be there for each other, and to treasure each moment we have that we are alive. This is the best that we can do for those who have died: we can live in such a way that they continue, beautifully, in us.”

I think kindness can help us shore up our trust in each other and in life itself even if we can’t be sure that the ground we are walking on won’t one day open up at our feet or we won’t be swept away in a flood. At least we have that; at least we have our neighbors we can turn to and our neighbors have us to turn to, even if — or especially if — that neighbor is a complete stranger. This might just compensate for the insidious feelings working their way through us and seeping into our relationships that nothing and no one is to be trusted.

Trust doesn’t just happen; we have to make it happen. And we can. And starts with each of us.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Change Your Mind, Change Your Life

“If you become aware that death is right over your left shoulder and if you turn quickly enough you can see him there, that makes you alive and alert to decisions.”
—Brother David Steindl-Rast, Common Sense Spirituality

—10—

From time to time and completely out of the blue someone will say something and you feel your life change. This happened to me about a year ago when a Buddhist teacher and friend called sin simply a matter of being distracted. I still remember that moment, where I was, how I was sitting on a big sofa, the three others in the room with me, the dim shade of light coming through the big windows at the other end of a converted loft in New York City. There was probably a siren wailing on the streets 10 flights down. There are always sirens wailing on the streets of New York City.

The funny thing is that we were all just talking; no one was giving a lecture, no one was trying to make a point or win an argument. But what she said rang so true to me it felt like a critical lesson I needed to remember. I can even say it startled me; it felt like, well, a revelation. I think it struck me because what she said stands in marked contrast to what we normally think about when we think about sin. The word “sin” is freighted with so many meanings in our culture that chances are no two people are going to agree on what it is. Worse, religious zealots throughout the centuries have slaughtered untold millions over their own interpretations. But suddenly, what my friend said to me made complete sense. Sin is a personal condition and it requires a personal solution.

From time to time since that moment I’ve given the whole idea some thought, have reflected on it, and even went back to some of the books I’d read when I was a theology student. And what I found echoed my friend’s simple but profound remark. Interestingly, the Greek word in the New Testament that is translated in English as “sin” is hamartia, which means missing the mark when shooting an arrow or throwing a javelin. So when we sin our aim is off. We’ve a distorted vision of the world because we lack focus. We are distracted. There’s no judgment threatening you with death and eternal damnation. There is no hell outside of your own confusion, which is plenty to endure. It isn’t a place. It’s a state of mind.

What’s so liberating about this notion of sin is that we can correct our vision and intent just by paying attention. What’s troubling is that we can’t look to anyone to save us from ourselves. It’s up to each one of us to pay attention, to make this first step to creating a better world. Because when you pay attention you can’t help but notice not just the beauty all around you but also the suffering around you and inside you. And what can arise quite naturally and spontaneously, if you are really and truly paying attention, is gratitude and benevolence and compassion. The philosopher and activist Simone Weil wrote in her book Waiting for God that “every time that we really concentrate our attention we destroy the evil in ourselves.”

In the midst of all this reflecting I came upon the painting above in some long and untraceable thread of online surfing. It is Georges de La Tour’s The Repentant Magdalene. As soon as I saw it it stuck me as an apt image for what I’m trying say here. Painted in 1635, La Tour depicts Mary seated before a mirror, her profile illuminated by candlelight. She rests her chin pensively on her hand, and her hair is pulled back to reveal all of her face. The skull, a common medieval symbol of the ephemeral nature of mortal life, rests on a closed book, as if indicating that all the words in the world can now neither comfort or teach her. The book and skull are reflected in the mirror so that Mary cannot escape their haunting presence even captured in an icon of earthly vanity.

One can draw any conclusion one wants about La Tour’s intentions in this painting. Given that “repentance” is in the title, we can easily guess he is depicting Mary repenting how she has spent her days. The word “repent” is also a loaded word in our culture and it reeks with heavy moral feeling since the word has been blighted by the Latin background of concepts like penance and penitence. But most of the time in the New Testament the Greek word for “repentance” is metanoia. Etymologically, metanoia means a profound change in one’s vision of things; it’s what happens to people after a stark realization. It’s an awakening. Jesus experienced metanoia in the Garden of Gethsemane. Siddhārtha Gautama experienced metanoia when he sneaked out from behind his family’s palace walls to see the suffering—the dukkha—of life all around him.

Much the same thing happened to me when I decided to quit my job of 2o years to go out on my own, to make this leap. The decision did not come to me quickly, God knows (and some of my closest friends know). And when it came—when I handed in my resignation and saw it circulated to the staff in an email sent by the personnel director—I was shaking with fear more than I was jumping with joy about what I’d done and could not take back. But I knew it was the right decision for me. That’s when you know you’ve experienced metanoia; you feel you have made the right decision no matter how painful it is. The pain you are feeling is the pain that comes with just about any big change you make because you are redefining yourself; it’s emotional and intellectual surgery without anesthesia.

In this painting I see Mary reflecting on her life, feeling sad about how she’s lived so far—perhaps in as dark a place as she’s ever been—and wanting to make a big change. A decision is at hand; perhaps it’s already been made. She knows that her time is short by the evidence of the skull at her side and the ephemeral flame that lights the room dimly. And it’s nobody’s problem but her own.

I look at this painting in contrast to the religious fanatics around the world and down through the centuries to the present day, trying to bend the will of others to their own version of sin and repentance, projecting their own evil onto any available victim. I look at this painting and think of the thousands of paintings and statues of the Buddha sitting in the lotus position, one leg folded under the other, not moving a muscle, while the machinery in his mind and heart are producing tectonic shifts in how he understands the world, trying to hit the mark. I look at this painting and think how easy it is to miss the mark and, sometimes, how devastating. When you miss the mark with violent intent you kill the wrong target.

The Mary depicted here could be any of us at any time in our lives when we want to make a deep shift, if only in the way we see or understand a thing or a person. If only? No. This is big decision. This isn’t just about trying figure out what color tie to wear to the office or what new shampoo you want to try. Big problems require big decisions. If we are living in a way that is harmful to ourselves and others—holding a grudge or being envious or beating ourselves up about something we said or did or feeling trapped by nothing but our own fear, which are all a box full of big problems each one us has to deal with at some point in our lives—we can experience metanoia. And when this happens our task is to “live a different life, not just feel bad about the mistakes you have made and live in fear of punishment,” writes Thomas Moore in his recent book, Writing in the Sand: Jesus and the Soul of the Gospels.

Let’s be honest here. With the finality of death facing us, as it faces Mary in La Tour’s work, we’ve not much choice but to keep ourselves open to these sorts of big internal shifts, to make some big decisions, and to choose wisely. “If you become aware that death is right over your left shoulder and if you turn quickly enough you can see him there, that makes you alive and alert to decisions,” writes Brother David Steindl-Rast in his book, Common Sense Spirituality.

In other words, we don’t have all the time in the world. Every moment is ripe for seeing how distracted we are and for making a change of heart, to see death “over your left shoulder” and make a decision to live in the moment each and every moment, to pay attention.

I wish they’d told me all about the real meaning of sin and repentance back in Sunday school. Maybe no one knew, which I find hard to believe. Or maybe it was just easier to tell kids that they were going to get into heaven if they did what their parents and teachers told them to do. Frankly, I was always a bit skeptical, sitting in the back of the room and gazing out the window wishing I were out there riding my bike. And now the untold damage that must be repaired. It’s a big job and we all might was well dig in and get started. The thing to remember is that if you want to change your life all you have to do is change your mind.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Burning Man

“If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.” — Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness

—5—

One morning a while back I woke up with a woman I loved sleeping in bed next to me. She stirred awake for a moment. Sleepily, I rolled over so my back was turned to her and she rolled over and put her arm around me. I felt her soft, warm breath on the nape of my neck.

We lay there silently. She went back to sleep. Eyes wide open, I listened to the birdsong in the early morning light blazing around the hem of the curtains. Another day was dawning. Another day closer to what I’d been dreading for weeks. We’d been together for a little over a year and I knew the end of our relationship was near.

For weeks I felt her drifting from me, moving on. It made me sad. I desperately wanted things to be different. I wanted her to stay with me. But there was nothing I could do. It was as if she were being carried away by the ocean’s tide.

But, oddly—and for reasons I did not understand at the time—in those few still and silent moments that morning, I’d rarely felt happier with her. Rarely felt happier in my entire life, for that matter. My future with her was unclear, uncertain. But I remember feeling that I could have died then and there, completely, speechlessly happy.

—6—

“If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.”

I first read these lines in Donald Keene’s translation of a 14th-century Japanese classic, Essays in Idleness, as I stood on a sidewalk in Brooklyn late last winter. It was a balmy day, as I recall, the way it can suddenly really seem like spring is near, and people who had spent their winter hunkered inside and cleaning up, were now heaping things on the sidewalk to sell or give away.

I’d stumbled upon the book at one of these curbside sales. I’d never heard of the book, was enticed by its title, picked it up, flipped through its pages, and read those lines. They were hard to miss. They were underlined in bold, black ink by a previous owner to remind him or her of their significance and, perhaps, for me to find them, like a message in a bottle that had mysteriously washed up into my hands. I paid $2 for the book and went on my way.

Later that day on the train home to Upstate New York I read more of the book. In fact, I could hardly peel my eyes away from it. When I stopped reading I’d gaze out at the Hudson River on my left right there by the tracks and wonder why I had never heard of this book before. It just seemed like something I should have known about. But Buddhists have a traditional saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Maybe that’s why this book appeared in my life only now.

A footnote attached to the above passage explains that Adashino is a graveyard outside of Kyoto, and in Japanese poetry it is often employed as a symbol of impermanence; the word adashi is Japanese for “impermanence.” Toribeyama is a graveyard in Kyoto and the smoke mentioned in these lines is supposed to suggest that bodies were cremated there. I can tell you that there is no better representation of life’s coming and going than a crematorium. I can tell you if you stand outside one you can see in the plume above the chimney how the human body is reduced to smoke and ash in minutes. So one thing this book was making me realize–or remember–is that life is damn short and whatever it was I really, really want to do with it, I’d better get at it.

Getting at it for me was starting to look like I wanted to leave my job and stop, be idle for a bit, to reflect and let my life catch up to me. The idea of idleness I had forming in my head was not about killing time; it was more about stopping long enough to figure out what was killing me. Not that I was dying. But it didn’t feel entirely like living, either. At least not to the degree I felt summoned by from my depths. Maybe it was more like the world I had made for myself was just getting too small for me at this point in my life. Comfortable and enjoyable, to be sure. But not entirely enough room to breathe some new life into myself, and it was starting to look like I was going to have to make some sort of leap into the unknown to make that happen. As I said in my post last week, a leap into the void can involve danger but a timely leap can also lead us out of danger.

—7—

The author of the book is Yoshida Kenko, who lived from 1283 to 1352. He was a Buddhist priest, a reclusive scholar, and a poet who had ties to the aristocracy of medieval Japan. Despite his links to the Imperial court, Kenko spent much time in seclusion and mused on Buddhist and Taoist teachings. Essays in Idleness is a collection on these thoughts and observations. From what I can tell after a little research, I learned that the work was written in the zuihitsu (“follow-the-brush”) style, a type of stream-of-consciousness writing that allowed the writer’s brush to skip from one topic to the next, led only by the direction of thoughts. Sort of like a blog with ink on paper.

That a man who lived such a vastly different life, in a vastly different time, in vastly different culture than me and yet spoke to my heart, is spooky. I think he spoke to me because what Kenko writes about in the book has a timelessness to it, like certain passages from religious scriptures. His thoughts about how to live a meaningful life are as true to me now as they were to him 700 years ago. Kenko is saying the same thing to me that he said to his readers back then. It is counter-intuitive, to be sure. I think we all have to admit that uncertainty is not a precious thing. It feels more like a threat, thin ice, something that goes bump in the night and wakes us up, and keeps us awake until the alarm for another day at work goes off. And off we go.

But what if I was to say that uncertainly is not merely to be coped with or accepted? What if I was to say that we are almost duty-bound to be completely aware of our tenuous existence all the time because that is, paradoxically, not the route to madness but to complete sanity. More than that, what if I was say we are summoned to court change because that is where life is really lived and where our most profound growth occurs? What if I was to say we need to make a leap into the unknown from time to time, to live with a sense that there is no ground beneath us. Would you call me crazy? “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest,” writes the renowned Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön in her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. “To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.”

Crazy, yes. Crazy wisdom, as her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, often espoused. He writes: “The process is one of going further in and in and in without any reference point of spirituality, without any reference point of a savior, without any reference point of a goodness or badness–without any reference points whatsoever!”

The good news is that throwing ourselves from the “nest” does not always ask much of us because a nest can be a habit or a routine just as much as a place. We can simply take a different route to the office, hold the fork with our left hand instead of our right, see the glass half full instead of half empty, give into our doubts, change our opinion about someone or something. Sometimes, though, there is much more involved. If asked, I would have to say it depends upon the degree to which you have fallen asleep at the wheel or how deep and persistent your longing to change and grow becomes. If asked, I would have to say I am at the much more involved phase.

I used to have a Zen saying on a yellow Post-It stuck to my bathroom mirror. I’ve long since taken it down–maybe because there was a part about it that irritated me–but I think of it almost every day as if it were still there. I like it and loathe it. It’s: “Wake up. It’s later than you think.” When that comes to mind now, two things happen to me. One, I get anxious about everything I want to do before I die. Even when I was in my 20s, I’d wake up in the middle of night in a sweaty panic thinking there was always too much to do and too little time to do it. It was like a switch that got thrown on that I could not shut off. This still sometimes happens to me. And that’s what I loathe about it.

But having studied and practiced Buddhist teachings for past 20 years now, I have learned how to be calmed by the idea because “waking up” in the Buddhist world is just about paying attention. So I stop whatever I am doing and wake up to whatever’s all around me. I stop time, in a way, and remind myself to be grateful that I’ve made it this far. And that’s what I love about it. It’s how I felt in bed that morning with my girlfriend. I was not only grateful I’d made it that far. I was also grateful for what I had then, in that moment, even as the morning, and she, were about disappear like the dews of Adashino. And therein was the root of my wonder that morning. “When you fall in love,” Pema Chödrön writes in When Things Fall Apart, “recognize it as impermanence, and let that intensify the preciousness.”

This is what Kenko was driving at seven centuries ago: It is life’s uncertainties that not only keep us on our toes but also awaken us to the preciousness of the ever-present but fleeting moment. If we were to linger on forever in the world, Kenko reminds us, “how things would lose their power to move us!” The poignant beauty of life lies in the fact that life is ephemeral. Lovers come and go. We witness the life and death of friends and family. The sun comes up and goes down. The moon waxes and wanes. The ocean’s tide sweeps in and out. There’s a wind in the white pines and then the air is still again. Lightning flashes and thunder rolls across the sky, and then the sun comes out and the trees drip with rain. A fabulous meal is spread before you, there are friends gathered all around, and then, by evening’s end, everything and everyone are gone.

But what you realize, if you’re lucky, is that all our wonder and longing are contained in a moment that is fully lived, fully absorbed. And I think if we can be somewhere or with someone or alone and feel utterly content, so content you feel that you could die happy, well that’s something to strive for. To die for. Not necessarily give up our lives for, but let former ways of being pass away so we can be born into something, someone new. To die over and over again, as Pema Chödrön writes.

—8—

Since my post last week—the first I made on this blog—I spent a lot of time (when I wasn’t outside shoveling snow) reading comments posted on the blog or sent to me by email. I was excited about the similar journeys that others have found themselves on and wrote to me about. It’s amazing to me that once you tell somebody what’s really going on in your life, suddenly you’re surrounded by others going through the same thing.

One woman wrote about her own leap: “I struggle with it. I want certainty, I want to know, I want a sense of place and home and roots and belonging, something to hold on to. The vulnerability of the void is a hard place to be. At the same time, I think there is a part of me that welcomes it.” Such is the nature of making leaps into unchartered territories, and the dialogue that comes from the lived tension between wanting certainty and living with uncertainty—a dialogue with others and within one’s own self—is the place of personal growth and spiritual development, the place where we mature. And it is a place where we can find a sort of home.

I also spent part of the week reading Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places by Jungian analyst James Hollis. Reflecting on the existential loneliness that inevitably haunts all of us at some time in our lives, he writes: “While it is true we can’t go home again, it is also true that in a universe of exiles, when people’s paths intersect, the journey itself may seem like home…. No small thing.” And, he writes, “It is precisely our aloneness that permits our uniqueness to unfold. The more enmeshed we are with others, the less differentiated, the less individuated we are; the less individuated, the less we serve the greater purposes of the cosmos for which we were so mysteriously generated.”

—9—

On June 11, 1963, a Vietnamese monk, Thich Quang Duc, burned himself to death at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon to bring attention to the repressive policies of the Catholic regime that controlled the South Vietnamese government at the time. It was not a protest against the Vietnam War, as is popularly believed. Buddhist monks then had asked the regime to lift its ban on flying the traditional Buddhist flag, to grant Buddhism the same rights as Catholicism, to stop detaining Buddhists and to give Buddhist monks and nuns the right to practice and spread their religion. (If you are not old enough to have seen this in the news at the time then you might recognize the photo from the cover of a 1992 Rage Against the Machine CD.)

In the Buddhist tradition the symbol of a burning house relates to life in this world. How quickly it can go up in flames. What was once there is there no more. So too our lives; we are in that burning house. Or more to the point, we are that burning house. And we are meant to use our lives—to burn them up—in an ongoing effort to wake up and to help others to wake up, too. “Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might.” So says the unnamed teacher in Ecclesiastics. It is meant to inspire its readers to live with passion because life is God’s gift, even in light of the perceived senselessness of existence that is famously woven into the text.

I stare at that photo and try to fathom what that monk was thinking and feeling as he burned to death or in the moments as he prepared himself to die. We can guess that he was frightened; he could not know what was going to happen to him as two other monks poured gasoline on him and in the final second before he himself struck the match he knew would end his life. And yet he braved his fears and uncertainty, and did what he felt he most needed to do with his precious human birth. We do know he did it with dedication. He had prepared himself for it through several weeks of meditation and had explained his motivation in letters to members of his Buddhist community as well as to the government of South Vietnam in the weeks before he gave up his life.

We should be so bold as to live our lives like he did, to be consumed by our own deepest passions, what theologian Paul Tillich called our “ultimate concerns,” no matter what we fear, no matter how uncertain we feel going into them. Or, as a friend so simply put to me recently: “Life is too short to be chicken.”

Tell a wise person, or else keep silent,
because the mass man will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive,
what longs to be burned to death.

So wrote Wolfgang von Goethe in the opening lines of his poem, “The Holy Longing,” translated from the German by Robert Bly. Years ago a good friend of mine fell in love and married a man who gave her this poem. She passed it onto me and now I am passing it onto you, paying Goethe forward. He continues:

In the calm water of the love-nights,
where you were begotten, where you have begotten,
a strange feeling comes over you,
when you see the silent candle burning.

Now you are no longer caught in the obsession with darkness,
and a desire for higher love-making sweeps you upward.

Distance does not make you falter.
Now, arriving in magic, flying,
and finally, insane for the light,
you are the butterfly and you are gone.
And so long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.

Jack London writes In The Call of the Wild: “There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame….”

I’m thinking these days that this is how I want to live, what I want to be. A man caught up and out of himself in a sheet a flame. A burning man. I have stopped running for a time to let the flames of what used to my earliest passions and strongest desires catch up to me. I know I want to spend more time writing and I will be (I have been) doing plenty of that. But there’s more, I know. And when I do find these passions—or if I do—I want to burn with the light coming from within, stoked by all that I no longer want to do or be, like a great funeral pyre, out which will come someone I can only call my true self.

Oprah has this thing where she says what she knows is true for sure. Here’s what I know what’s true for sure: We each have our own light we are insane for, a sheet of flame into which we long to plunge—our work, our family, our art, our campaigns to save the disappearing rain forests, our cooking, or even our own awakening. Especially our own awakening. And closer we get to that flame the more we realize what it is; the distance between you and it collapses, and then, if you are lucky, you and it become one. And I believe that’s what love is. And this is your ultimate gift to the world.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Hello Goodbye

“The Master of Zen says, ‘Jump into the foaming waves of the whirlpool below!’ The monk jumps, and finds himself on his feet, walking along the road that leads to his own home.”
—R. H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics.

—1—

In 1960, French avant-garde artist Yves Klein created a photomontage of himself leaping from a wall over a quiet Paris street. The black and white photograph, called Leap Into the Void, was Klein’s way of embracing the irrational and celebrating groundlessness in an increasingly industrial era bound by convention. The photograph captures both the eye and the imagination because it does not conform to expectations. It captures an act of defiance both against what any sensible person would do and against gravity itself.

In each our own journey toward self-discovery, we can sometimes find ourselves leaping into the void, the great terra incognita—the unknown land—of the soul. Our own leaps might involve making a big career change, starting a creative endeavor, attending to the care of a dying friend or family member, going on a religious pilgrimage, leaving a marriage or getting married, having children, or packing a bag and getting a one-way ticket to a place you’ve never been before.

A leap can also involve nothing more—and nothing less—than a dive into the depths of our own unconscious. Or kicking a bad habit or addiction. Or being vulnerable, like telling someone you love them. Or coming out. A leap is something that scares us and draws us at the same time, and no matter what we do or where we go, we often cross thresholds with fear and trembling, flee from certain psychic death, make unbearable choices, and find ourselves lost and without a map.

But we have an inner territory we can turn to if we pay attention to its many manifestations—intuition, hunches, dreams, and, most important, the soul’s own deep and undeniable calling—to guide us on this often harrowing but always rewarding journey. A leap into the void can involve danger but a timely leap can also lead us out of danger. “The Master of Zen says, ‘Jump into the foaming waves of the whirlpool below!,'” writes R. H. Blyth in his book, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. “The monk jumps, and finds himself on his feet, walking along the road that leads to his own home.”

—2—

Today, February 1, is my first day of jumping into the foaming waves of the whirlpool. Yesterday was my last day as a full-time employee at Omega Institute after working there for more than 20 years. So it is a day of first and last things. I am continuing to work for Omega as a programming consultant, managing two large Pema Chödrön events this year and developing a few select new programs for the years ahead. Other than that, I am on my own.

I’d been restless for a while before now, maybe years if I were to be honest with myself, which I often find difficult to do, try as I might. Until now, however, the time just wasn’t right to make this leap. When I look back it’s hard to say why. Maybe fear had won the day—day after day. Maybe I was happy with the routine of my life. Maybe I was confused and didn’t know where to turn. Maybe it was all those things. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what was going on.

I opened my resignation letter with that paragraph about Klein’s Leap Into the Void because it seemed to capture how I was feeling at the time. I was defying convention and logic by leaving a job and a place and people I loved simply because I wanted to do something new and different. I say the word “simply” not as an almost meaningless reason; it was the only reason. And it was a powerful enough force gathering within me to push me out the door even as I was trying to convince myself to stay. After my resignation letter made its way to the entire staff via a group email from Omega’s human resources director, many of my colleagues bounded into my office to congratulate me, to say how happy they were for me. But in those first few hours while all that joy floated all around me, I was so nervous and frightened about what I’d done that I wanted to hide in the bathroom and throw up. Although I still feel as though I am making a leap, I have now opened my arms, as Klein is pictured in his photomontage, embracing the space all around him, clutching at nothing that might hold him back.

We can all live in between objects and realms of desire for a long time, not knowing if the messages we hear sometimes bawling within us should be heeded or ignored, embraced to shunned. For the longest time I clearly had no idea. I could not take any baby steps, could not even make a list of pros and cons about any choice. Mystics of all stripes will tell you that the voice of God and the voice of the devil sound a lot alike. The only difference between the two is that God will not tell a lie. Then it’s up to us to make the distinction between a lie and a truth. This is called discernment.

What I discerned when I looked within I saw what I eventually saw outside myself: A void. It frightened and enticed me. Was it heaven or hell? All I can say is that I wanted to step into that void. I did have a sense there was something good waiting for me there. Still, the void has a sort of aimlessness to it. It’s what you see between the stars, distances so huge they can only be measured in millions of light years. But I’m thinking it’s not so much a point of coordinates here on earth or out in space. I think the void is an orientation of the self, a willingness to be open, expansive. One Buddhist tradition calls this idea “big sky mind.” So I’ve come to think that this is what I am seeking. Some way to open my mind—my life—completely to everything and anything that can show me who I am and, ultimately, the nature of life itself.

Which is not to say there is no guiding star. A few years ago before I was admitted as a matriculated student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, I audited a course on the life and times of St. Augustine, that theological giant whose shadow still informs much of religious culture throughout Christendom. For the class we were reading St. Augustine’s Confessions. Written at the end of the 4th century C.E., Confessions is perhaps the world’s first autobiography. The professor was an aging American but spoke with a slight British accent like an Oxford don, an attitude and accent that was perhaps leftover from his years as a student at Oxford. One day were talking about St. Augustine’s longing to know God as much as he longed to know his own inner life. Then, all at once, the professor said, “For St. Augustine the search for self and the search for God are one and the same damn thing.” I loved hearing that, wrote it down in my notebook, let it sear into my brain. I never wanted to forget it. And I haven’t.

—3—

In our culture the past several years there has been a lot written and talked about women making big changes in their lives, reorienting themselves in such a way that they reclaim their lost souls after years of feeling responsible for the well-being of others–their husbands, their children, their parents. I’ve found little about the struggle men face in similar circumstances, as if we’re somehow more content and accepting of our lot. But it’s just not so. We too give up a lot, if not to our families then to our jobs and communities. And we too often have the same urge to bust out, to try something new and different, to find out who we are beyond the trappings of our families and careers and possessions. And that’s what I am doing.

In this blog I am going to be writing about this search. I want to explore the inner landscape of life, not only in myself but also in others, including those from history who have gone before us and from the world of myth and religion. I will also offer tips on how you, too, can make your own leap, and reflect on the highs and lows that come as a result of taking such a risk. If you subscribe to this blog (see the box in the upper right) you will get an email notification every time I post something new.

As I see it now (when you are in the void anything can happen) my immediate future is going to evolve in three ways that will offer me some structure in the vast and uncharted landscape of my yet unlived life. It may seem like a lot. But for someone like me who has spent decades in school or been employed by a company, an organization, or the government, I feel I am creating something out of nothing.

First (February through May) I will be here at home in upstate New York cleaning up and organizing everything I own (including heaps of newspapers, magazines, memorabilia, and other stuff), which will both hold up my life for some scrutiny and get my house ready to rent so I can hit the road. I will also be making occasional short trips to see family and friends. Next (June through September) I am going to take up residence in small house in the south of France a friend has offered me. When I am there I hope to complete two books, start a third, and enjoy the many things that the south of France has to offer. The third part (October through …… ) is, at this point, an open road. I’ve no idea where I will be or what I will be doing then. Even now this–just the thought of this–is the biggest leap I’ve ever made. I have never lived without a plan. A deliberate man who is very comfortable with certainty, I am stunned by my own audacity to believe that somehow it’s all going to work out, that I am not going to end up broke–and broken–and sleeping under a bridge in Irkutsk. Then again, if I do, at least I’ll have a good story to tell.

I do know this: I want to help others in the way only I can help them. I really do believe each of us has a unique mission, a purpose, a way to be of use. We all long to be of use. And right now and in the days ahead I want to take stock of my life, to pull back from the daily grind, and to come to grips with how I can best use the rest of my life to better the lives of others. I am not fond of self-indulgence. But I do believe in the value of self-reflection to help us locate in the world in ourselves ways in which each of us can best contribute to the common weal.

All during this time there will be one constant day after day, one place to which I will return to again and again: my meditation cushion and an attempt to be mindful in everything I do when I am not on the cushion. I will no doubt stray from time to time; I ain’t no saint, God knows. But I feel I owe it to myself as much as I owe it to the world around me and even to the tradition itself. Buddhism and meditation saved my life when I first started practicing it in the early 1990s, it helped me get though some mighty tough times since then, and I know it will help me in the days ahead. Up to now it has helped me worry less, be more kind to myself and others, let go of things and people and ways of being that needed to be let go of. “Letting go and moving through life from one change to another brings the maturing of our spiritual being,” writes Jack Kornfield in his excellent book, A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of the Spiritual Life. “In the end we discover that to love and to let go can be the same thing. Both do not seek to possess. Both allow us to touch each moment of this changing life and allow us to be there for whatever arises next.” When we live this way we come to rest in the present moment, Kornfield writes, and that is “the beginning and the end of spiritual practice.”

Perhaps this is the void, then. The present moment. I like to think of Yves Klein in that photo montage being in the present moment, letting go of his fears about what will happen as he makes that bold leap. I know it’s not real; I know it is art. But what is real when you live in and for the moment? And what is more important than making our own lives a kind of beautiful and meaningful work of art?

I also want to hear about what the leap into the void means to you–if you made a leap into the void, how you coped when you were in it (or how you are coping now if you are in the free fall), and how you found your way into the new life you’ve discovered. Please leave comments and let me know. Or email me at the contact information you can find by clicking on the link above.

—4—

I want to close this first post with a quote from the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi based on a translation from Camille Helminski and Kabir Helminski:

The worm is in the root of the body’s tree;
these unhealthy roots must be dug out and burned.
Travelers, it is late.
Life’s sun is going to set.
During these brief days, while you have strength,
be quick and spare no effort of your wings.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments