Thursday, November 30, 2006

Inhabiting my life

I used to be driven.

I grew up wanting to be an artist, and for many years I pursued that vocation with formidable intensity. There was a tyrant in me that demanded I produce art. Lots of it. It had something to prove and, damn it, it was going to prove it.

All this began when I first saw Hieronymous Bosch's painting, "The Garden of Earthly Delights" at the Prado in Madrid. I was all of 9 years old. (That was the same year I saw the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a subject we'll have to leave for some other time.)

In any event I was determined to do massive art, and I did. I got a degree in art and off I went, sometimes even making a bit of money at it. I kept doing art even after I realized it was not much of an income producing option and entered the business world. My friends would tell you I was very productive- true- and very talented- of that, I am no longer so sure.

This dictatorial engine drove my life until I was forty-five years old. It was my constant companion through ten years of alcoholism, then twenty years of recovery, serious spiritual work, and meditation.

I was enslaved. Convictions like this one, you see, justify themselves in ways impossible to resist, because they are part of an intense delusion: that we create our personal value by doing things. That is, the value in life lies outside of ourselves, and we have to create it. To leverage it, to show everyone- but above all ourselves- how we're valuable.

Then one morning I woke up and everything was completely different. I don't know quite how to explain that. But something fundamental had changed inside me, and for the first time I can ever recall in my life, I understood I was valuable without doing anything.

I walked around feeling positively ecstatic for a number of weeks, because I started out every day already being worth something. When I breathed in my first breath of the morning I was grateful for this very beautiful life (I still am.) The very act of just breathing was a blessing (it still is.) Touching the sheets in bed was a blessing. It was a time when I began to understand that Christ's "Peace of God which passeth all understanding" is real; within us we carry the seed of a magnificent flower.

All this, paradoxically, took place at what was possibly the very worst time of my life (short of my recovery.) I had just gone through an incredibly destructive marriage and divorce where I had lost custody of my children, lost my house, been fired from my job, and had lost all my financial reserves. I was alone, back in the New York area, eight hundred miles away from my kids, and starting a very demanding new job.

There was absolutely no reason to feel so good. But I did.

Of course this state changed. Everything does, and trying to hold on too tight is a sure way to crushing the blossom. But an undercurrent of this understanding has stayed with me.

What it has helped me to do is to make more efforts to inhabit my life.

I see that becoming more whole in an inner sense has little to do with the outside world. It starts from inside and works its way outward, whereas what I had tried to do for my entire life was start outside and work inward. My life-understanding was upside down all along! (Fortunately, I continue to discover that's not unusual with me. The times when I find out I'm completely wrong and accept it are always the most valuable, because then I really do learn something new!)

One meaning of inhabit is to wear, as in a monk's habit. I express this understanding as one of inhabiting my life, because the outer conditions of my life are like clothing. We take clothing off and put it on but the clothing isn't us.

For me, this is a way of understanding non-attachment. We wear clothing, but it is just a garment. It can be dirty or clean, afford us more or less protection or status, but it isn't us. Our inner self- the essence, that spark of divinity indside each one of us- is already the fundamental value, before the first "sock" of our life goes on in the morning. So when I make the effort to inhabit, I'm "inside" this life, accepting its conditions, wearing each one of them as it comes along -but organically knowing in a part of myself that the life-condition is not me.

This experience comes from what I call the "organic sense of being"- to me, that's attaining the marrow- inhabiting the very bones of my life.

I don't do much artwork at all anymore. I do play music, but I'm pretty relaxed about it. I spend a lot more time these days devoting time to attempts to simply inhabit my humanity- all part of the effort to become, as Gurdjieff used to say, "a man without quotation marks."

In attempting this practice of inhabiting my humanity, I discover a new possibility: to retain a hidden, positive and joyful core of being, right down in those bones-- no matter what happens.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Wood and trees

Day before yesterday the local fire department cut down a beautiful old juniper tree next to the local skating pond in order to erect a massive flagpole.

I liked that bush. It had a presence and I'd been walking past it for years. From what I could see, there was room for the bush and the flagpole. In fact from my point of view it's the flagpole that seems superfluous. You can walk a hundred yards - maybe less- to the fire department itself and there's another huge, almost identical flagpole. Just how many assertive displays of patriotism do we need in a hundred yard radius?

I guess sometimes we can't see the trees for the wood.

Men like to make things out of wood. In our modern cultures of personality we cut trees down and then make objects and worship them. Buddhas, Christs, Shivas. Poles with flags on them. What have you.

In the old days, in the primeval cultures of essence, men used to worship living trees, not dead ones. They would go out in the woods and create the allegory of their spiritual food from the living roots and branches and leaves of the tree itself. Not a static, dead symbolic representation of a living truth- they fashioned their inner myths from contact with life itself.

Simon Schama wrote a great book about this called Landscape and Memory. Go check it out, it is very much worth reading. You'll discover that the origins of all human cultures spring from a deep relationship with the living earth, and that the earth shapes our cultures in subtle forms more than our cultures will ever shape the earth with machines. We are the earth- or rather, one particular expression of her. As we slowly hack her into pieces, we dismember ourselves.

In the early cultures of mankind there was an understanding of relationship with the planet. Not a romantic, naive one in which nature was a benign, compassionate Gaia. It was tougher and more resilient, and much more frightening and powerful, I think. There was a humility in it. We've progressively trivialized mother nature as we-in our imaginations, at any rate- grow more distant from her. It's only the occasional event like the tsunami of 2004 that remind us we're not in control- and then only for a moment. All too soon we succumb once again to that hypnotic sleep induced by technology and artifice.

Deepening our relationship with our practice involves reawakening an awareness of that connection. It is an awareness that extends not just upwards but downwards, until our cells themselves vibrate in an awareness of our connection to the planet. Extending our consciousness downward into the living roots it springs from creates a foundation for us. Without that foundation, the trunk of our inner tree is weak, and the leaves are feeble. So when I sit, I like to reach down inside myself seeking that living relationship first.

Then I wait to see what the heavens might show me.

The deepest heart

"There is no "I"- there is only Truth. The way to the Truth is through the heart."

One of my ongoing habits is to believe I can think my way into being loving and compassionate.
I am probably not alone. Mankind in general seems to believe this.

Our concepts of love and compassion are born of the ordinary mind, and our attempts to reach them are born of the ordinary mind. This leaves our love and compassion weak, because the ordinary mind is weak.

The emotions want to have their say in the matter, too, and that's equally confusing. They contradict the mind a lot of the time, and the mind and the emotions end up waging an inner war where we feel crappy and act crappy, despite the fact that most of us get up out of bed intending to act noble and feel noble. When it becomes apparent to us that the whole mess isn't working, instead of admitting to ourselves that we're without any real understanding in this area, we create elaborate mental constructions that support our emotional negativity by outsourcing the responsibility.

Where' s the nobility? Paramahansa Yogananda taught us that we should try to cast ourselves in the role of a hero in our lives. Let's face it- heroes don't sit around whining like I usually do. They uncompromisingly confront the truths of their reality and use right action to overcome adversity.

Trying to work through my heart-- my essence, the innermost being-- requires that I give my negativity up, and I am very greedy inside. I don't want to give anything up, especially the myth that I am already basically OK. Seeking life through the heart requires, first and above all, admitting I'm powerless. That is, alone, my ordinary mind can do nothing.

I think our lack of love and compassion stems in part from a kind of denial similar to what alcoholics go through. I know a little bit about this, because I am one. After 25 years of sobriety, I am still working on admitting that "I"-- meaning this thing we call mind-- is powerless over my state- whether that state is one of alcoholism or a lack of compassion.

Other parts have to get involved for anything to change. The whole organism has to get in on the act. Turning this matter of love and compassion over to a higher power, as is said in AA, and discovering the heart involves overcoming an inner obstacle that is physical in nature, not psychological.

Why do I say that? In my own inner practice, I have discovered that-- for me, at least-- there is a literal, physical blockage where my heart is that prevents me from breathing in what would be needed to change anything ...I have to be willing to use my attention and my intention to go to that place and help it to open. After that I have to be willing to suffer the consequences, which is to let something entirely new and perhaps even frightening enter. To surrender all that garbage I carry around in me which I love so much.

So what's that all about? I think it has something to do with centers.

In tantric art, one convention is to depict inner centers as flowers. These floral images are not allegorical. They represent deep truths about what we have in us. There truly are such flowers within our bodies. They are so hidden, however, that mostly we do not even know they exist. It's as though they were buried under the sands of Egypt.

Right now they are all closed up tight- just the tiny buds of plum blossoms, waiting for winter to end-- or even perhaps to bloom in the winter-- who knows! However, we can attempt to change that through diligent practice. Our inner flowers can be encouraged to open- to participate in a new kind of exchange. Furthermore, each flower contains a nectar which is specific to its own work.

If we meditate with enough diligence, we can begin to understand that more practically for ourselves. Then perhaps we can sip some little bit of that heavenly nectar.

The heart is one of those flowers. If I can help it open a little, then I may be able to experience a little real- as opposed to psychological- love and compassion. But in order to do that, I have to go against everything "I" am- I have to, as it were, destroy the ego. Not with a hammer, but by the gentle, gradual action of clouds and water.

And that's a long term job.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Morning on the hudson

This morning I took a walk down to the Hudson river at daybreak. At this time of year, the salt marsh at the mouth of the Sparkill creek is mobbed with huge flocks of migrating redwing blackbirds. There are so many of them the sound of the flock out in the marsh sounds like the roar of a stream rushing over rocks. This is the second day I've walked our dog Isabel down there as the sun rose, just to appreciate the impressions.

It was a serene beginning to what turned out to be a very hectic day. I was bombarded from every side. I work as an executive in a fast paced business, and as if that weren't enough, there were important personal issues to deal with as well. Business and personal life don't tend to wait for each other.

Time may well be "the universe's way of preventing things from happening all at once," but time didn't seem to be doing its job very well today.

The only thing I have to fall back on in a situation like this is the sense of my body. It's a constant companion and a reliable reminder that I am here. Even if my mind is unable to remember that- it's weak to begin with, and distracted by the relentless demands of corporate multitasking on top of that- my body knows something more. It's smart that way. Like the emotional part, it's very powerful and well equipped for the kind of work it has to do.

So at every opportunity as things hammered away from the external side I tried to remember to breathe and to invest in sensation of my body. It repaid my effort by working with me off and on all day long. With that kind of companionship, things didn't seem so bad, really!-- which is the catch phrase of what I call my Stupid Man's Zen. No matter what comes along, at some point during its development I try to say to myself:

"It's not so bad, really."

There may be times when it IS rather stupid to say that, of course. No tool is universal (except Love, and none of us seem to be very expert in its use.) However, on examination, most everything I think is really bad and take personal offense at isn't so bad if I examine it a bit. And at least if I tell myself it's not so bad, I give myself permission to try and confront whatever it is in a more positive way.

Throughout my life, a lot of my work has consisted of this: finding little tricks to help myself get over the negative bumps. For example, I remember how, when much younger, I used to lie in bed every morning after I woke up and give myself permission to blow off work that day. Eveery day I would do that, and every day, as soon as I had given myself permission to be a total flake, I got up and went to work.

It may sound stupid, but whatever works, works.

That's what the stupid man's zen is all about: just working.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

esoteric practice

It's sometimes argued, in exoteric practice (for example, the Christian church) that esotericism is unworthy. Unnecessary. Folded in upon itself. In some cases it is even scorned as opposite to proper Christian practice. The active wants life to point outwards. Everyone ought to be out there saving the world, not sitting in a passive meditative mode, treading water.

In today's world, exoteric institutions cultivate an aggressive outwardness that is distasteful to esotericists in the same way. For the contemplative, everything points inwards. Not for us, the crass commercialism of contemporary religious culture! We're more organic. Those outward folks are missing the whole point.

The two sides of the question spend much energy objecting to each other. Such disagreement misses the point; what is forgotten is that a balanced work requires three types of "directional practice": exoteric, mesoteric, and esoteric. We could call them outward, convergent, and inward if we wish.

Left to itself, any one of these paths becomes a dead end. It's the exchange and dynamic between them that creates a living structure. Monasteries can't get membership without churches and congregations. Churches can't attract potential monks unless their practice is informed by a vital esoteric core. In the middle stands the congregation- the community. At any one moment one or the other of these forms of directional practice may need to be the chief center of gravity.

Our own inner lives are no different. We need our esoteric, our deeply inner, practice. We also need an attention to our mesoteric practice, that is, the place where inner and outer intersect (the place where our many "I"'s congregate.) Then we need the exoteric practice, when we live and work outwardly. The blending of the three elements creates a whole that informs itself by the inward flow of the outer towards the inner, and the reverse process, whereby what is formed inwardly reciprocates by informing the mesoteric self in its response to the outer ("wisdom.")

So my inner work (centered around essence) needs to discover its right relationship within an effective mesoteric and exoteric side. This isn't too easy. My exoteric side (personality) is very dominant.

In this very daily life, inhabiting this organism, I want to be come more sensitive to what third force might mean in relationship to this question of the esoteric and exoteric- of essence and personality.

Dogen's extensive record

Today's picture is the andromeda galaxy. see the APOD web site for terrific daily photos of the universe.

I've been reading Dogen's Extensive Record (Eihei Koroku) translated by Leighton & Okumura for most of the year. Can't say enough good things about this book!

Much of what Dogen has to say can appear, at times, to be impenetrable. As is the case with many teachings, his words arrive from a thousand years and an entire world away.

Nonetheless, I continue to sense that they speak of matters that are directly next to me in this very moment.

The following passage is from p. 594, "All going together:"

"Wearing hair and sprouting horns, go together with others
In the boundless kalpa-ending fire, do not turn your head
Even withered ash and dead trees are scorched completely,
What face do you have that begrudges these conditions?"

"Wearing hair and sprouting horns" relates to the Zen practices of attending to the energies at the middle, right and left at the top of the head. In doing this, we attend to the inner relationships between our parts ("going together with others.") We attempt to form a new inward relationship. This relationship, if cultivated, acquires a sustaining force which can carry our being.

No matter what happens- in the endless and eternal moments that we meet, in which everything arises and is instantly is consumed by the fires of time- we must remain resolute in practice, never turning our heads.

"Even withered trees and dead ash are scorched completely." Nothing is excepted from this process- even death itself is consumed by time.

What face do we have that begrudges these conditions? Indeed. we have no choice but to accept-- to accept completely, to accept unconditionally-- every arising, every condition we encounter, including this absolute condition of transience.

I continue to make efforts to found practice on an acceptance of conditions. In doing so I see more and more how conditional I am. I find it's only through participation in an informed inner relationship that I can inhabit my conditions, instead of trying to control them.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Information Age

There seems to me to be an irony implicit in calling this the "information age." Mankind has more data available to him than ever before, but we're faced with the same problems we have always had- and far more of them.

Unsurprisingly, individual lives mirror this collective problem. At every moment, we have input pouring in from ten thousand sources, and it's hard to sort it out. It's as though we were a construction site where the trucks were pulling up every eight seconds with another pile of building materials and finding out the foreman isn't there. The result? Every truck just dumps its load of materials any old place and moves on to bring in the next load. Our inner workers frantically try to keep up, but the site is in chaos and every structure that begins to rise up doesn't follow the intention of the architect. The crews themselves become desperate- they know there is something wrong. They can't get a grip--they don't even speak the same langauges, to borrow from the famous parable--so they try to become architects themselves. New structures get thrown up and torn down right and left as competeing crews try to deal with the influx of material. They argue with each other. There's too much of some materials and not enough of others.

What we end up with is a huge pile of disordered rubble, all of which was intended to build something, but which goes terribly astray.

The idea of in-formation, to me, is not just data. It is the idea of forming something inwardly. In order to do this someone has to be in charge. There has to be discrimination- we can't just pile up materials on our inner construction site willy-nilly, we have to select materials intelligently. We need to know something about building and the site, and there has to be a plan. We're never going to get a tenant to move in if we can't create a suitable residence.

The process of in-formation invoves informing our inner parts. They're discombobulated: they don't talk to each other and in many cases they don't even know their partners are on the building site with them. So we need to get in touch with them and let them know there's an aim.

Increasingly I rely on my breathing to inform me. Every breath I take, if taken with attention, has the potential to help my construction crew remember what it's supposed to be up to.

With the help of my breathing, all day long I can remind them:

We're always on site, guys, and we are working against a deadline.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Zen and man's two natures

This line of ponderings arose as a result of a discussion I had with my wife Neal about a reading of Mme. de Salzmann's in which she stated that man has two natures- an animal, and an angel.

Many people are familiar with the two famous Zen koans:

Does a dog have Buddha nature?
What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Now, it's widely presumed that koans have no answers. However we already know that that presumption is false, because answers are, essentially, responses (check the dictionary on this one, you'll see that's one of the primary definitions of the word answer), and it's definitely clear that there can be responses to koans.

Over and over again in Zen, we see it's the immediate quality of the responses that matter. The logical intellectual content is apparently secondary. So koans do have "answers," although perhaps not necessarily in the way that we usually expect an answer to be understood.

Perhaps- just perhaps- these two koans both point to the issue of man's two natures?

In the first one, we see a redundant question. Why is it redundant?
Because according to both dogma and technical understanding in Buddhism, it's already understood by default that all of reality has Buddha nature. Buddha nature penetrates all matter because the state of is-ness itself is Buddha nature. So the question is rhetorical right up front. The answer is so obvious there is no need to ask it. This points to a suggestion: the question is not at all what it appears to be!

So, I asked myself- what if the Koan were about man, not about a dog? We are all "dogs-" that is, we have an animal nature that is not in relationship with our higher nature.

When we ask the question "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" we see that the answer can be either yes or no, depending on whether or not a man has formed within himself a relationship to his higher nature.

So there is an avenue to understanding this koan which seems perhaps unconventional until one considers its relationship to Mme De Salzmann's words.

That insight got me pondering koan number two. I asked myself- perhaps the second koan has the same intentionally allegorical direction in it? It, too, poses an apparent conundrum: What the heck IS the sound of one hand clapping, anyway?


Well-- I pondered-- one hand cannot clap, so this koan, like the other one, must be pointing to something other than hands and clapping, yes? Or so I reasoned.

Maybe the one hand represents man's animal nature?Then I realized- TWO hands CAN clap. That is, no "objective result"- sound - can arise from the action of one hand (one nature.) It is only if there are two natures in relationship that an answer can be obtained. When the Zen student "responds" to the koan it is the quality of the response that determines the master's acceptance. If it can be seen that the responses arises from an immediate relationship between the two natures, the response is valid- no matter what it is.

So like those of us in the work, the aim of the Zen practitioner is to form an inner bridge between his natures.

One other note- even if there is a higher nature present, without the lower, there is only one hand-- so-- no clapping.

Seems as though God's applause is reserved not for the angels alone, or the animals, but rather for their reunions.