Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A moment

The cherry is cold in my fingers. The stem comes off with a tug. I press the stem-hollow against a paring knife’s blade and the red-black skin and flesh part. The blade reaches the pit, and I turn the cherry. Knife akimbo, I twist the cherry halves and they part, one bearing at its center the convex pit, the other a glistening, concave hollow. My fingers stain with juice. I drop the finished half into a bowl and thumbnail the pit out of the other. Pit goes into the cup with stem, second half into the bowl with the first.

It is only when I start the next that I notice the wetness, the colors, the shine.

Tossed with the cherries, the yogurt pinkens.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

An evening meditation, mental illness, and emptiness

A recent Friday was busier than most days are for me. On Thursday, we’d had a heavy snowstorm that carried into the evening before tapering off. Since morning commutes are often ugly in the snow, I decided to forego a morning meditation and was on the road before six. Once I got to work, I managed a variety of matters, including a court hearing in the afternoon. I got in a yoga practice with a favorite teacher before getting home in the evening in time to run errands of various kinds. It wasn't until about 9:00 p.m. that I finally got around to meditation.

I sat peacefully for twenty minutes, watching breath, seeing thoughts, watching breath, seeing thoughts, focusing concentration, seeing thoughts, watching breath. The thoughts were random conjurations of links between memories and ideas and fantasies. As often happens, the meditative state crept in quietly, so quietly that I didn’t even notice it until I was drawn out of it by our dog coming to see if this oddly-timed sitting practice might yield food. Seeing no likely snack options, he went off to prod more likely providers. And I was left to finish my sitting slightly more aware of my own mind than I had been before the dog showed up. An evening meditation practice tends to end on an open, quiet note, while morning meditations end by launching me into my day.

So I went up to the bedroom and found my wife watching the second hour of A Beautiful Mind.

She asked whether I was willing to watch with her. If I’d not wanted to join her, she’d have ceded the bedroom to me and gone to watch the rest of the movie elsewhere. But there was more than a degree of courtesy in her question.

You see, mental illness runs in my blood. My sister was institutionalized for a time. She was, so far as I can tell, schizophrenic, though the shrinks she saw didn’t diagnose her that way. I think they hesitated in part because and she was, herself, a Ph.D. in clinical psych., and during the 1990s, a diagnosis of schizophrenia was a declaration of hopelessness for a debilitating, dimly understood, and largely untreatable condition. And that diagnosis didn’t really match Suzanne’s life. Did she hear voices of people who weren’t there? Yes. As she’d drive down the road, they’d scream in her ears to drive into the oncoming traffic on the other side of the road. But she also had an iron will. Did she show wild personality fluctuations, ranging from introspective and quiet to abrasive and antagonistic to unfocused and angry? Yes. But she also wrenched control of those personalities to impose on them her professional mask that allowed her to counsel and diagnose her own patients. And, as she acknowledged, sometimes it’s a bit easier to understand the mentally ill if you aren’t really mentally well yourself. So she Jekyll and Jekyll and Jekyll and Hyded her way through grad school in three years and into a professional counseling practice outside of Boston. Then, taking a break from practice, she spent several weeks in Utah, riding horses. One day she left to hike in a canyon, and didn’t return. Several days later, one of the several search parties found her cold body twisted and broken at the base of a cliff.

But it wasn’t only Suzanne who didn’t see only the things that were there.

* * *

I asked my wife whether the movie was past the scene where Nash is institutionalized, bound to a gurney, and overdosed on insulin to induce coma. She said, “yes,” so I figured I could deal with the rest ok. That had been the part of the movie that had made a mess of me when we saw it in the movie theater.

* * *

So the scene is Alicia, Nash’s wife, walking through the woods behind their house. She sees the door to an old standalone garage swinging open in the wind of a gathering storm. She goes to shut it, then glances inside. But instead of dusty old garage contents, she finds a paranoid’s collage of newspaper articles clipped and stuck to bulletin boards, bits and pieces underscored with markers, strings connecting one to another to another – an external representation of the bizarre, chaotic, pattern-making inside of a paranoid schizophrenic’s mind.

I see not only the movie’s story of Nash, and not only Alicia’s story-line realization that Nash is off his meds and can’t be trusted to bathe their infant daughter. What I see is the a visual depiction of a maelstrom of thoughts and ideas and concepts and assemblages that is troublingly like what I saw ten minutes earlier on the meditation cushion.

I turn away from the TV and see amassed in the bookcase at my bedside an ever-increasing collection of dharma books, philosophy, psychology. I see in my meditation practice, my yoga, a slightly frantic grasping. A bit of frightened aversion from depression. From the strange outside perspective of that moment, it all seems a little pathetic – even the grandiose notion that I’m pursuing enlightenment, rather than hiding in plain sight from imagined demons of the mind.

* * *

Me? Yeah. I’ve heard voices. Still do at different stages of meditation. Sometimes chaotic cacophony. Sometimes a thousand different voices all calling my name, some gently, some insistently, some annoyedly. You get the picture. But none really vindictive or destructive.

Seen things? Yeah, that too. Though what I’ve seen have been more like glimpses of a images from different dimensions. They didn’t strike me as “three-dimensional-world real.” More like overlays on 3-D real, making it simultaneously itself and something more. As real as anything I can sense is real. But not conventionally so.

Unconventionally? Yes, that.

* * *

So what about meditation?

Sometimes sitting on a block alone
is curiosity indulged.

Sometimes sitting on a block alone
is spacious awareness.

Sometimes sitting on a block alone
is superstitious genuflection.

Sometimes sitting on a block alone
is momentary rest.

Sometimes sitting on a block alone
is desperation embodied. And

Sometimes sitting on a block alone
is quietly empty.

* * *

What about seeing reality as it really is? I don’t know much about that.

* * *

In Arches National Park, there’s a gigantic boulder dramatically balanced on a thin fin of rock beneath it.

I remember the day it dawned on me that Balanced Rock was simply a result of largely disinterested mechanical processes that sometimes yield things that strike conscious minds as extraordinary.

* * *

One view of sanity is like that, too. An unexpectedly stable sort of awareness. One that lasts only as long as the substance undergirding it holds steady.

But that’s a bit too glib, too reductionist, too outside. Sanity is indeed a balance, and a precarious one, at that. But it’s one that can also shift, and jump, and dance from one stem of rock to another.

And sometimes to the ground.

* * *

As Neal Stephenson wrote in a recent novel, human minds are not only perceivers of sensory information, we’re nets that separate out some of the sensory input, and we’re lenses that concentrate it, and we’re communicants who distribute it. Awareness and community shape a cosmos awash in random data into form and order and beauty and balance.

I started meditating with the hope that I’d gain some clarity – that I’d better distinguish the real from the unreal. But instead of more certainty of the real, what I can lay claim to is seeing more clearly what there is to see from the inside of whatever it is that I’m inside of.

Is that the ground?

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Wild Foods

A short thought about life and living on others’ lives:

In sixth grade, we got to do an overnight field trip to a camp on the shores of Chesapeake Bay. The days were programmed with various things that entailed us heading in groups from one set of outbuildings to another along trails through the woods. I loved it.

Uncharacteristically, though, as the co-cabined students I was a part of headed over to the dining hall one afternoon, I ducked out of the group and headed toward the wooded shore, down the hill and a couple of dozen yards away. The others faded from sight and sound, and I was alone on the shore of an estuary, at low tide. Sheets of tightly closed black mussel shells glistened iridescent blue in the sunlight. What possessed me, I have no idea, as I’d never eaten shellfish before, let alone a mussel, but I pulled three of them away from their bearded moorings, built a tiny campfire of twigs, and laid the mussels on the top. As the heat grew, the mussels opened to me, and I ate shellfish for the first time in my life. The mussels, unseasoned by anything other than their own liquor, were perfect.

In later school years, some of my favorite books were written by Euell Gibbons, generally on wild foods. It was from him, if I remember correctly, that I learned to identify what was for many years my favorite wild food: the Indian cucumber (Medeola virginiana). But that’s just an aside. I first discovered Euell Gibbons in a National Geographic article that tells of a couple of weeks he spent on an island off the coast of Maine. It was intended as a bit of an austere retreat, but I recall him describing it as a failure, as far as retreats go, since he spent so much time gathering and feasting on the bounty he found at the edge of the ocean.

For reasons I haven’t discerned, I’ve been thinking recently about visiting the coast of Maine. I’d like to spend a few days doing what I imagined Euell Gibbons doing there, though I’m not sure I’d ever be able to persuade my family to join me in such an endeavor. But even if I did, I wonder whether I can justify harvesting life from nature for my own benefit.

Have I become so hide-bound in a vegetarian lifestyle that I wouldn’t want to eat oysters and clams and mussels? I find seafood delicious, but I want to live in a world brimming with life. Is there an ethic for one of 6.7 billion persons other than vegetarianism? Is a world devoid of blue crabs any worse than one devoid of Indian cucumbers?

I have a lingering sense that I’m missing something as I think about this – that there’s a different way of being that would show this question in a different light. But I can’t seem to get to the right angle of light to see it.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Haiku along Earth's Sky-Path

Fall’s day-stars now gleam
Through leafing willow twigs. Spent
Bud-shells crunch on Path.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Off the mat -- Taking what is not offered

(Another in a series of dharma talks)

During a recent meditation retreat, the other participants and I each undertook to live by the five Buddhist training precepts during our time there. One of those precepts is this:

For the purposes of training, I will not take anything that is not offered to me.

This is a common sense rule for those who will live in close proximity to one another – no “borrowing” your roommate’s shampoo, no swiping someone else’s flip flops. It’s a basic principle that is embedded in social systems everywhere – in the yoga tradition as the niyama of asteya – non-stealing. God told Moses a version of the same thing.

It isn’t wildly surprising that the precept forms a basic part of so many different cultures: it’s a simple way to maintain cooperation and minimize friction among humans. The training precept articulates the Buddhist version of the rule: unless it’s yours, don’t touch it, and it’s only yours if it’s specifically offered to you.

So on the retreat, we didn’t need locks on the doors. We didn’t have to wonder what would happen to the shoes we left outside the meditation hall. We didn’t have to hide our stashes of candy bars. My stuff was my stuff. Others respected that boundary. Things stayed where I left them.

They were safe.

I was safe.

* * *

I get up early. It’s still dark. I move quietly to avoid waking my roommate. He rustles under his covers and resumes his quiet snoring. I make my way to the small open closet at the foot of my bed. By feel I find clean clothes, make my way out of the room, down the hall, into the bathroom. I shower, towel dry, and dress. My mind watches each action, notices its own intentions. I brush my teeth at the sink, gather my old clothes, and return silently to my dorm room. In the dark I trade out the toiletries and old clothes for clean socks and a hooded rain shell, and I make my way to the bench just outside the building where I left my shoes the night before. It’s freezing outside, and foggy, the damp wood planking chills my soles. My breath billows around my head as I slip into socks, then night-cold shoes. I pull the hood of my shell over my head, and I begin walking slowly the hundred yards or so to the meditation hall. My attention is on the sensations in my feet – lifting, moving, placing, weighting, lifting, moving, placing, weighting, lifting, moving…

None of that quiet concentration would be possible if I were fretting over a missing water bottle or a jacket that wasn’t where I left it.

* * *

On retreat, the word-silent lunch seems loud with chair scraping, silverware clinking, and washing noises coming from the kitchen, the gurgle of hot water into tea mugs. My chores are later in the evening, so I have 90 minutes before meditation resumes. I find a path that twists and turns and switches back-and-forth up the steep hills. It’s cool but not cold except when the wind picks up. After fifteen minutes of climbing, my heart is pumping loudly, my breathing is strong. I reach a level spot about halfway up. Old rocks protrude from the grasses beside a laurel tree. I catch a leaf and crush it, releasing its royal scent.

I finish the climb, pause to admire the view, and begin to descend on a different path, past other outcrops. As I pass one, a tiny, perfect rosette of glaucous leaves catches my eye – an Echeveria – Hen and Chicks, but a kind I’ve never seen before – growing from a crevice in the rock. I think of the perfect spot for it in my garden in Colorado. I tug gently, the more firmly and the root pulls free, breaking off at the tip. I zip the plant into a pocket and resume my descent.

Then it dawns on me: who offered me the plant I’ve taken?

I can’t replace it in the crevice where it grew, so I try to replant it in a different spot, suspecting that the transplant won’t take without close attending that I can’t provide.

I begin to see more clearly that the training precept not only affects how others treat my stuff, but how I relate to the world around me.

* * *

Back at the meditation center, the Buddhist training precept of not taking what is not offered renders unnecessary my “I must protect my stuff” instinct. That doesn’t make it go away, of course, but it does draw the impulse into awareness: “Oh, I guess I don’t need to hide my water bottle behind the pile of zabutons after all.” And discovering how much of life has been devoted to protecting my “stuff” is at once a surprise, and a relief to be free of the worry. But after the initial freedom from the compulsion subsides, what begins to arise in me is an awareness of my raw attachment to my things – and my desires to be attached to other people’s things. And the closer I look at those impulses, the more they seem to be efforts to reinforce me, the one wanting, the one defining stuff as mine or wishing it to be mine.

At the heart of ownership, at the heart of property, at the heart of possession is the one possessed of the thing. For something to be “mine” is to define it in terms of a self. And whenever something is defined in terms of a self, that relationship also defines the self.

* * *

A couple of weeks ago, I learned that a dear friend and favorite yoga teacher was moving away from Denver. She had enriched my life significantly, and I found I wanted to give her something to reflect my appreciation. For several days, I debated exactly what might work for the purpose. After inventing and discarding half a dozen ideas, I thought of the perfect gift – an old Tibetan singing bowl that had been given to me years earlier and that formed an important link in the story-chain that led me to discover, practice, and teach yoga. Once I settled on the gift, I began formulating exactly how to present the story to her so she’d understand it in context – so she’d appreciate it as a part of me and my story. I imagined in my mind how I’d see her before the last Sunday morning class she’d teach, how I’d present the gift, how she’d respond, and how we’d be connected by the gift.

Of course, the actual giving didn’t go anything like I’d imagined it. I did see her before the last Sunday class. She was rushed and harried, greeting not just me but dozens of others who were also there to practice one last time and to say goodbye. I quickly handed her the unwrapped and tarnished bowl and dented striker, and all I managed to say was “there’s a story behind this that I’ll tell you later.” The opportunity “later” never materialized, and I never got to tell my friend the story of the bowl. And she never asked for the story behind it.

So instead of the bowl connecting the two of us as I intended, it’s probably just one more thing that got packed and moved. If it’s being used at all, tarnished thing that it is, each time it’s rung, its vibration and pitch don’t tie anyone to my story.

And the more I realize how much that fact bothers me, the more it seems related to the Buddhist training principle I learned on the retreat.

Because, really, my little sense of offense has nothing to do with what I was giving, but rather with what I intended to take. Though my actions were giving a gift to my friend, some part of my thoughts were all about me. Instead of “I give this to you,” it was “I want something from you, and getting it involves me putting this into your hands.” When we give in order to be appreciated, we often are taking what is not offered.

* * *

Once I saw this clearly relative to the bowl, I started to see it everywhere – in my dealings with my children (I get unhappy when I give them my Saturday afternoons, but they don’t clean up the kitchen), with my co-workers (I resent covering for them when they had sick kids, if they don’t cover for me when I was out), with my friends (I make time for them, but they don’t reciprocate as I want them to) –everywhere. It became disturbingly clear how often I was interacting with the world not simply out of a sense of love and generosity (though there was some of that to it), but out of a desire to control things – to get what I wanted by being perceived as generous and loving. I’d attached my wanting to the objects and devised ways to give them in order to assure myself some benefit.

Have you ever given a gift to someone, and then been disappointed by some aspect of the person’s response? When you gave a check to a nephew who was struggling to pay his college tuition, perhaps he spent all the money on iTunes, loading up on Italian goth metal music. When you gave your daughter a pendant for her birthday that you received decades ago from your grandmother, perhaps she looked at it briefly, said, “eh,” and dropped it on the table behind flashier stuff. Have you ever said (or thought) to one of your children, “You should do X for me because I gave birth to you/put you through school/fed you/sheltered you/whatevered you?” I have. And I was trying to take something that was not offered, just because I’d offered something – in theory – “freely” at some point in the past.

* * *

The Buddha taught Nothing is to be clung to as I, me, or mine, and Jesus warned against doing alms before men.

* * *

All of it, really, is simply a lack of letting go, a giving only half-completed. There is no giving without letting go. So long as I attach strings to the gift, there is neither giving nor gift.

So here’s my resolve: in giving, to give freely and to let go; in receiving, to receive only what is offered by family, friends, and existence.

* * *

…the world offers itself to your imagination.

-- Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”

Saturday, February 07, 2009

A quick note on going veg, three years in...

In response to a couple of questions from a couple of friends recently, I’ve been reflecting on my experience as a vegetarian. I went back over the posts I’ve written here, and as I looked at them, I realized that my experience has been different than I anticipated. The reasons I stopped eating meat are not the reasons I do not eat meat today. The practice has, to borrow a phrase from pgk, “opened up possibilities” that I didn’t expect.

As I wrote here, I stopped because once I learned the details, on a visceral level I couldn’t participate, even indirectly, in industrial agriculture practices. At the same time, I realized on an intellectual level that I’d be treading more lightly on the earth if I ate the plants, rather than the plant-eaters. As I wrote here, about a year after I stopped, I began to consider the similarities of consciousness in animals and humans.

Since then, I’ve found something else – more about myself than about animals.

When I was eating animals, I did not allow myself (quite literally, albeit subconsciously) to consider them as beings.

There is something about the way my mind works when it is in acquisition mode – I’m easily prone to unconsciously pursuing my wants, and as I do, I tend to objectify whatever it is I’m seeking. Placing animals outside of the category of “object to fulfill hunger” didn’t exactly turn off the basic grasping impulse, but over time, I think it has diminished it a lot. I no longer think of pigs as pork, cows as beef, deer as venison, chickens as Popeye’s ingredients. That’s not to say that I necessarily feel particularly warm and fuzzy toward them – I tend to think of chickens as small, feathered reptiles and domestic cattle as genetically mutilated deer. I allow that I feel a fondness for pigs, but those who know me well would insist that’s because of a basic affinity for mud.

But even without any particular attachment to them, I find myself recognizing in them and their lives, a fellow-feeling, one that simultaneously blurs the definitions of consciousness, identity, and self, as it expands the universe of “you”s available for relationship.

Might it be possible to open to that possibility while eating meat? I don’t know. To my knowledge, there isn’t an official rule book that says “no awareness of animals as beings without vegetarianism.” But for me, it would be hard to get from where I was then to where I am now without the vegetarian boat to get me across the river.

So the reasons I stopped: to decrease, if only by one person’s diet, the appalling suffering caused by industrial agriculture and to lighten earth’s load a little bit.

What I didn’t expect, or even reasonably expect to expect: that I’d find my understanding of self and other, me and you, changing so deeply as a result.

Yeah – there’s other stuff, too: I have more energy, I get better nutrition, I found weight loss and management a lot easier than before. Those things were nice discoveries, particularly once I figured out how to get the protein I needed to stay active. But the life-changing part is seeing consciousness –seeing god – through the eyes of a German shepherd in the back of a pickup, in the ear-twitches of a doe and fawn shuffling through leaf litter beneath live oaks in search of acorns, in the jittery reptilian stare of a lizard pausing between zigs and zags on sun-hot rocks.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Book Blink -- In My Own Way: An Autobiography 1915-1965 by Alan Watts

Somewhere in my psyche, there is a sense that book reviews should be something substantive, something constructive, something profound.

Somewhere else in my psyche, there is a recognition that I'm never going to write such a thing.

So here in the blog part of my psyche, I'll try out something else: when I finish reading a book, I'll post a Book Blink. Nothing as substantive as a book review. More like a thought upon finishing a book.

So here's tonight's:

In My Own Way: An Autobiography, 1915-1965, Alan Watts, New World Library: Novato, CA; 1972. 384 pgs.

I picked up the book because I love Alan Watts' exquisite articulation of Buddhist experience that I've found and followed in podcast form during the past several months. It took unexpected effort, though, to finish the autobiography.

Reading it, I realized two things. First, Watts' exquisite descriptions of satori and karma and impermanence and discrimination and interconnectedness and identity are as much an artistic rendering as an oil painting of a sunset. While the painting can remind me of a memory of an experience of a sunset, I usually admire the painting less for what it depicts and more for its intrinsic existence and the mind to which it provides a face. And while I love verbal expression above almost any other art form, I usually don't mistake the art for the thing. But maybe I have done so with dharma books, which I consume in large quantities. Watts' words, a bit like sirens' songs, are beautiful enough that I'm almost willing to lay aside the journey and retire to the island of his descriptions, instead.

Which leads me to the second realization I had while reading In My Own Way: Watts seems to talk a lot about rejecting spiritual discipline. At a couple of different places in the autobiography, he speaks warmly of Jiddu Krishnamurti's "no path, no approach" approach.

Was I practicing yoga? If so, why? I replied that this was my problem: I could not do any systematic or formal meditation because I had pondered too long his own reiterations of the point that methodical spiritual disciplines are merely highbrow ways of exalting the ego. Aiming at unselfishness is the most insidious form of selfishness

Thereupon Krishnaji picked up two cushions from the couch and said, "Look. On the one hand there must be the understanding that there is nothing, nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing you can do to improve, transform, or better yourself. If you understand this completely you will realize that there is no such entity as 'you.'" He then moved his hands from the first cushion to the second, and went on, "Then, if you have totally abandoned this ambition, you will be in the state of true meditation which comes over you spontaneously in wave after wave after wave of amazing light and bliss."

p. 112

This, of course, is a path of "no path," which is definitely a path, albeit a pathless one.

Get it?

Throughout the book, Watts seems to acknowledge (but only tacitly) that discipline actually does matter -- not because it produces insight so much as because it prepares the disciple by eliminating all of the other obstacles to insight -- including the disciple's own belief in discipline as a path.

A criticism: the book might have benefited from a stronger editorial hand. Apart from the dharma aspects of this relatively non-dharma book, as a memoir, it seems a bit more self-indulgent than historical. It's a very fine line to walk, presenting the style of a life and the stories of a life from the hand of the one living it. But the reason I had to work to finish the read was to convince myself that there was value to plowing through a fair amount of Watts' self-congratulatory "I'm not like the poor run-of-the-mill fools out there" musings.

Apart from that, though, I found the content of the book valuable. First, it connected a number of dots that I'd picked up from odd podcasts with respect to Watts' extensive knowledge of not only Eastern philosophy, but also Christianity (turns out he was an ordained Episcopal priest for a time); his discussion of Christianity as an outsider (his letter resigning his ordination and separating himself from Christianity is included in the book, together with some poignant correspondence that resulted from that letter). Second, the book tells of his interactions with the apparently very small world of the first Western flowering of the dharma in the 1950s and early 60s in the US -- from Krishnamurti at Ojai to Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert at Harvard to Shunryu Suzuki and Aldous Huxley in California to the founding of Esalen near Big Sur. Learning enough to put them in order makes it easier to remember who fits where and how their ideas relate and differ.

So I'm glad I've read the book. With Watts' historical framework, I have a better sense of order and relationships from an era that ended shortly after I was born. With his account of his attempts to fit a traditional religion's model, I have a different perspective on my own related struggles. With his sirenic renderings of satori, I have a kind of beauty that I instinctively want, even if it is one that, like Odysseus, I both desire and resist, tied to the mast with unstopped ears.

* * *

He gets all of this, of course:

My own work, though it may seem at times to be a system of ideas, is basically an attempt to describe mystical experience – not of formal visions and supernatural beings, but of reality as seen and felt directly in a silence of words and mindings. In this I set myself the same impossible task as the poet: to say what cannot be said.

p. 5