Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Chemistry


A discussion about chemistry and electromagnetism may seem out of place in a blog about spiritual matters, but in fact this is the most logical place in the world for this discussion.

The entire universe is chemical, that is, it is composed of elements which interact to form new compounds. These interactions give rise to everything we see and encounter in the physical universe. It is furthermore true that the fundamental origin of these chemical interactions is electromagnetic in nature, and it is true that electromagnetic forces govern interactions of chemicals. When we experience the world around us, we experience a world of electromagnetism and chemistry- nothing more. Even if we see God- and I am not being sarcastic or facetious when I suggest this, I mean it quite literally -- our experiences will be chemical and electromagnetic.

We don't have parts that function in other ways.

If you were wondering whether this means that God is chemical or electromagnetic in nature, I leave that pondering to you. Certainly His manifestations all are, even if He himself resides in some much subtler and far more esoteric territory, such as vibrating aggregations of cosmic strings smaller than the Planck length. And if you don't know what that means, don't worry. No one else does, either, although elegant, elaborate mathematics have been generated to put various attractive window dressings on our fundamental ignorance.

My consciousness, your consciousness, all arise from chemistry and electromagnetism. Everything we see arises from the same root source. So awareness is a function of this root source. From this understanding we can see that there is awareness in everything; even atoms are aware and respond appropriately according to their own level.

Much has been made in the sciences about the argument of what consciousness truly consists of. On the one hand, there are arguments that it is mechanical and mechanical alone, that is, that it can be reduced to a set of inflexible mathematical rules. On the other hand are the arguments that consciousness is something bigger than a machinelike set of responses.

This doesn't really matter. I could construct a long philosophical breakdown of these opposing arguments and point out their flaws -- they both have them -- but I'm not going to bother. The point for us right now is that we are in these bodies, having these experiences, and that all of this small droplet of individual human experience exists within a limitless sea of involutionary and evolutionary chemistry and electromagnetism.

We, like everything else in creation, are points where things blend.

If consciousness exists, which seems a reasonable presumption at this particular moment in time, this is what it is: It's consciousness and experience, not arguments about consciousness or experience. Not words about consciousness or experience. It's just consciousness and experience, arising everywhere from the inherent physical properties of the universe, and penetrating everywhere due to those same properties.

This idea touches, perhaps, on Dogen's discussions of Buddha Dharma. Go read him and see what you think.

It's interesting to consider our life consciously, in so far as we are able, as an experience of being a factory in which chemicals are created and processed. This, after all, is the absolute fact about what organisms are -- chemical factories. Gurdjieff explained this to Ouspensky as reported in “In Search of the Miraculous.” But this remains a theoretical premise for most of us. In order to understand its portent, we need to bring an understanding of this idea immediately into the presence and examine our organism from this point of view.

Believe me, if you manage to do this for a moment, things will look different. Emotions, thoughts, experiences -- all of them take on a different color when one uses one's consciousness and one's understanding to realize that they are all blendings of chemicals and electromagnetic forces. Right here we have the beginning of something that one might call objectivity. How invested can we become in something once we realize it is a laboratory process? Emotions are a bit less attractive when we realize that they are not us, they are simply chemical reactions.

And just what are we? Chemical and electromagnetic interactions that can see themselves for what they are.

In our struggle to stand back from our nature, separate from ourselves, and have a new experience of life, this can be a real tool.

I suppose this observation probably isn't reductionist enough for the scientists, and isn't romantisch enough for the priests. It has, however, the merits of being practical, since its fundamentals are difficult for anyone to refute. It has a room for both God and science in it.

That's the real world. The religious fanatics who seem to want to imagine a world without science, and the science fanatics who want to imagine a world without God, all of them are missing the point. That's because they have no awareness of the body, no awareness of the mind, no awareness of the relationship between body and mind. What they have are bodies crammed full of ideas that bash against each other like bumper cars, careening through the world with no aim other than to smash up against the opposition and produce satisfyingly crunchy noises.

For ourselves, let us be quieter.

In cultivating experience and concept, in exploring our residence in this body and our relationship to our thoughts, our physical experiences, and our emotions, we can come to new conclusions about what we are.

They will not necessarily be what we expected.

But they will be beautiful.

Enjoy, for the time being, being a blend of chemicals and forces in a universe that is a blend of chemicals and forces. The consciousness that insists we are separate from creation is a falsehood. We are the most intimate part of it. There is no separation.

Love to everyone today. May your trees bear fruit and your wells yield water.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Water, Mountains, ice

In my last post, I promised we would discuss some earthy matters. Since then there has been a brief hiatus in which I attended to family matters, which consisted mostly of walking the famous dog isabel with my wife and generally laying around doing nothing.

There was the small matter of- believe it, oh ye incredulous ones!- a second dream, on Saturday night, in which I was in a house that was moved off its foundations to be relocated. This recurrence, which was not exactly the same dream, is just too unlikely and unreasonable to contemplate. So we will leave it for another blog, where dream issues and issuances can be addressed in greater depth.

Back to the rocks.

Near my house, there is a large glacial erratic, lying more or less at the base of the Palisades. in the Sparkill notch. (Yup, that's it, rat thar in the picture.) This erratic is composed of pegmatite, that is, a coarse-grained amalgamation of quartz, feldspar, and other crystalline substances. In this particular case, the pegmatite has smoky quartz and is shot through with schorl (massive black tourmaline. ) It is almost the size of a small car.

Whoa.

It's sobering to consider that rocks of this size were light work for glaciers. There are glacial erratics nearby that are, quite literally, the size of houses.

Rocks like this are called erratics because they have absolutely nothing to do with the surrounding bedrock. We now know (as people in earlier times, i.e. before they conceived of ice ages, did not) that it's certain this rock was carried many miles before it ended up where it is; it probably came from somewhere north in Connecticut (where pegmatites are relatively abundant,) or perhaps even further away.

All of this is a testimonial to the tremendous transformational power of our landscape. What we see seems to be static, yet it is in a constant state of change. It never looked before like it looks now, and it will never look this way again. In our brief lives, there may appear to be continuity here, but that is completely illusory.

Life works in exactly the same way for us. In fact, I often see strong analogies between geologic processes and the processes of life itself. From age to age, from infancy through childhood, into adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood and beyond, we build our individual mountain ranges of assumptions and beliefs and desires. These mountain ranges, like the mountains on the planet, are built by the intersection of massive forces, places where what we might call plates collide.

Here lies the tectonics of the soul. Our inner world collides with the outer world; mountains are pushed up, oceans filled with water, rivers flow, and weather systems emerge.

As we age, erosion takes place; every inner range we push up, ever hoping for a loftier view, is subject to forces beyond its control. We even use expressions like, "life is wearing me down," acknowledging that we are engaged in such a process. Parts of us explode, like magmatic eruptions. Other parts get ground down into sand and solidify in layers. Some parts harden and sit on our surface, forming an impermeable skin that prevents the water of our life from flowing into us. We form cracks, smooth places, and roughnesses. Taken together, all of this, which we refer to as personality, is the surface of our planet.

Every being is a reflection of this. Every process at every level in the universe is a fragment of the same complete truth. If we use our minds to ponder, we will invariably find that no matter where we look, no matter what we try to understand about ourselves, ultimately nature explains everything.

This analogy could be drawn a million times in a million different ways and it would continue to be valid, because reality is a fractal structure. The smallest part of reality is an exact model of all of reality.

As these tectonic, magmatic, and glacial life-processes take place, we end up with our own inner erratics; chunks of life sitting in places that they don't seem to belong, and are not in relationship with the surroundings. Everyone has parts like this; parts that are inappropriate in the context of current life. For example, we may be adolescently egoistic, or childishly grasping. The parts that are inappropriate, like the pegmatite erratic we are discussing, are fascinating and beautiful, so we don't stop to consider their lack of relationship. They are also big and heavy, difficult to move. In some senses, like the large boulders left behind by ice, we have to work around them. The landscape we inherit from our past has to be accepted. The amount of energy that it would take to rearrange it is probably not worth what we would get out of it.

Hence the advice:

When the rocks are big, go around them

Expanding the question, we come once again to Dogen's sutra of mountains and water, which is found in the Shobogenzo. This sutra is an absolutely towering piece of work which stands alone as one of the world's great religious texts. It is a brief piece; everyone interested in spiritual work ought to read it at least once per lifetime.

One of the things that strikes me about this piece is the way the Dogen explains we think the mountains will be populated by other people, but when we go into them, it is just us and the mountains. Not even the trace of our passage into the mountains remains behind us.

The mountains are God; in the end, every aspect of life, all of the events and everything that transpires, are all pointed towards one final moment where we enter the mountains--and there is no one there to accompany us.

Life's mountains are vast and magnificent; we are very tiny little creatures.

In every meditation, if I find the right relationship, I enter the mountains, even if only the foothills. There I see that there is no one but myself, and the mountains.

In fact, perhaps there is only the mountains. There is no "I," there is only truth.

And the way to the truth is through the heart.

As I point myself towards the inevitable fact of my own death, I ponder the question of water and mountains. I think about the ice that freezes within me and pushes me through my life, rearranging my inner landscape.

I think about what I could do to bring enough warmth into me to melt some of that force.

God bless all of you today. May your trees bear fruit and your wells yield water!

Lee

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Household dreams

Last night I had a quite extraordinary dream.

In the dream, I woke up in my bedroom. It was not a familiar bedroom; nonetheless, I clearly recognized it as home. It was a new home. I had just moved in, but was already well situated.

What was extraordinary was that the entire house was on a railway car, and in motion. Somehow in the middle of the night, while I was asleep, someone had lifted the entire house up off the foundation, put it on the railway train, and sent it off.

I was bewildered, to say the least. Accepting -- as we all do, in dreams -- the sheer illogic of the situation was the least of the difficulties.

First of all, it seemed impossible to me that all this could have taken place without even waking me up.

Secondly, I had no idea of where we were going or why it had been done.

Thirdly, everything that I cared about was in the basement of the house. My music studio, my computer, all my guitars. Admittedly somehow this seems like a limited scope of things; after all, I am interested in a lot more than just my music studio and computer. But symbolically they represented a specific and very important aspect of life which was now somehow lost. Everything that was "valuable" had been left behind.

I could not figure out what to do. Somehow I managed to stop the train, and get off in a woodland glade in a nondescript local municipal park. This did not really solve the problem at all. I still didn't know where I was. It turns out I was in Germany; this association provides some link between the dream and my earlier life, because I grew up in Germany.

So I realized then that at least I spoke the language. This didn't do me much good; I had no money, nothing whatsoever, not even identification, and no idea of how to get back to where the foundation of my house was.

I got into a car (don't ask me where the car came from, remember, this was a dream, so I presume I manufactured the car instantaneously when I needed it) and tried to drive back to the house. Unfortunately there was no GPS in the car, and I didn't know where I was going. I kept seeing small streets that looked like they might be the right ones and then realizing that they weren't, I was lost, and there was no way back to where I had come from. I did not even have a telephone number to call. Not that that would have done much good; after all, you cannot call a basement.

Somewhere in this timeline I bemoaned the disappearance of my guitars. The instruments are quite expensive, and it was utterly mortifying to consider their loss.I distinctly recall, in the dream, thinking to myself, "Well, the fact is that the house has been moved and the guitars are almost certainly stolen. I will have to accept that."

This dream has several different levels to it. Let's discuss two obvious and yet somewhat contradictory points of view on it.

One point of view is that the story line is about inner evolution. As we change, we lose our old self. We leave behind everything in ordinary life, and we find ourselves in a new landscape which is quite different than the one we left behind. If we truly change, we can never go back to where we came from. This kind of significant, concrete inner change is what we all claim we seek. Yet if we find ourselves on a railway car that is truly carrying where we live away from where we came from, it is distressing and frightening. We can't help but feel that we have lost something enormous and that we no longer have a place to rest our head. I felt that way, for example, when I lost my impulse to do artwork.

Another interpretation is that I am not connected to my lower story. I have lost the connection to the fundamental parts of myself that support me in this effort of life. In seeking something higher than myself, I have forgotten my roots. Even if I find myself where my roots are indisputably located -- Germany -- it is not enough. I need to be planted firmly right on top of what feeds my impulse towards the higher in order to go anywhere real.

Today I went out for a walk in the morning with the famous dog Isabel. The snow is melting everywhere; green plants are poking their noses up through wet leaves, and local rivulets are swollen with the icy blessings of cold water. The sun found, and warmed, the imposing basalt cliffs of the Palisades; birds warbled comfortably of love, and future nesting.

While I was in the woods, I sought out a boulder that I saw a little over a week ago, just as the last storm had deposited its first thin coat of snow. Today I got a better look at it. The boulder is a huge glacial erratic. It has stories to tell that can instruct us.

Tomorrow, we will talk about ice, water, and land. And erratics.

Did you take the time to remember how you breathe today? To see what it connects to?

To take the time, even once in the day, to see how the breath enters the body is a good work.

Give it a chance, and see what happens.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Frozen images

I took this picture in Italy in 2001. It is a bust of a Roman woman, probably close to 2000 years old. I have always liked this bust because the woman displays so much character. The image has a vitality that sternly bespeaks our carnal nature, while still managing to convey a sympathy for the subject. The bust does not seem idealized; it seems pithy and close to the earth to me.

So here is this woman; frozen in marble, staring at us down through time. This stone represents a real human being, someone who led a life, probably loved a man, had children, raised a family. She is long gone, and this stone is not even an organic trace of who she was, but it represents the idea of her. In this sense her life has had an impact that has lasted for 2000 years, even though her name is totally forgotten and no one can ever know who she was.

We all carry frozen images of ourselves within us that get in the way of seeing what we actually are. As Gurdjieff put it, we crystallize. It's only too true: our inner parts are crystalline: even our DNA itself is a crystalline structure. And it's true not just physically, but also psychologically.

We do not know what we are; what we think we know about ourselves is a huge mass of lifeless assumptions--a marble bust. It looks like us, but the resemblance stops there. What we are lies buried deep inside where it cannot be touched by our ordinary mind. That's probably not a bad thing, either; our ordinary minds have a sad way of damaging a great deal of what they come into contact with, be it planets or people.

In almost every case, when our crystalline sugar-coating of assumptions gets tested, it turns out that as soon as the surface is scraped, unexpected things appear. Often they are shocking to us; this is why all of us develop protective devices to help us to avoid seeing ourselves. In the case of pathological conditions such as alcoholism, the mechanisms are powerful and visible. In cases like this we call them "denial."

What I don't think we see is that denial functions on all levels of life, in everyone, everywhere. There is hardly a person alive who is not in denial about some aspect of themselves or another. More often than not, it is an aspect which is blatantly obvious to everyone around them. And if anyone points this out to them, the emotional reactions are immediate and severe.

I certainly know this, because I am this way. It constantly surprises me to see how many parts of me I know nothing whatsoever about. This happens a lot to me in business; I am a senior executive in a large privately owned company, and I frequently find myself under intense kinds of pressure that are unexpected and bewildering, even for someone with the many years of professional experience I carry. The pressure arises not only from business situations, but also from the characters of the people around me.

Let's face it. People don't get jobs like mine by being mellow. My superiors are intense, driven, type A personalities. I share some, all although perhaps not all, of those characteristics. It is certainly true that I am highly competitive. In any event, here I am in this environment, which is a pressure cooker. The people I work with are unbelievably intelligent, excellent business people, and share many fine characteristics. I do not say this sarcastically. The caliber of people at the company I work at is exceptionally good. Nonetheless, every single one of them has personal aspects that can be very difficult to deal with. The emotional volatility that arises when business pressures intensify can be difficult to manage.

It is in precisely these difficult conditions that I see aspects of myself that I am in denial about. Above all, I constantly come up against my emotional reactions, which are frequently negative and despairing, at least in an inner sense. I am an expert at multitasking, and used to handling vast amounts of data, yet at this moment in my work I am repeatedly meeting situations which seem to be overwhelming. Actually, they are not -- there are ways of managing these things. Nonetheless, parts of me which are identified with the situation continue to insist that I am facing the impossible.

Somehow, I manage to stand up and soldier on in the face of these imaginary adversities. In the background lurks a part that is not attached, but it is relatively weak. I am left with questions about just how much I know about myself, who I am, what I am capable of, and what this whole mess is about.

Objectively, I am constantly dealing with situations where most of the problems are being invented. If we pared away the things that do not absolutely need to be done, if we took the "Dilbert" out of the situation, we could focus far better on the essential tasks we have to accomplish. But of course that isn't possible. The world is the way it is. If I want to succeed in this job, I have to confront the realities and meet every situation with a yes, even the ones that I completely disagree with. There are many moments where I have to consciously swallow both my pride and my ego and accept comments and sometimes quite unreasonable criticism which I do not really want to have to participate in. In these cases I train myself to agree and say yes, no matter what my inner reaction is. This is not easy; it is good work for me, because I have to continually go against myself. On top of that I have to maintain a positive, cheerful outer attitude.

All of this has to be considered in the context of the fact that the job I have is really a very good job, and I am usually happy in it. The reality is that I want everything to be perpetually comfortable, and life is not perpetually comfortable. I am in denial about that.

There is only one way to overcome denial, and that is to see what is true. Seeing what is true need not be painful; it takes intestinal fortitude, perhaps, but it can be done. I remember one of my teachers (God rest his soul) , who many years ago remarked how he saw a man he was working with, and saw how that man was better than he was at what they were doing together. It was just true; he realized that he would never be as good as this other man even though he wished he were.

He saw what was true and accepted it. Even though it went against what he believed about himself.

Just seeing what is true is a big deal. It trumps denial quite handily. If we were more willing to do what I did over 25 years ago when, as an alcoholic, I looked in the mirror one morning and said to myself "you are going to die if you keep doing this," we would make more progress. But first we have to be willing to look in the mirror and admit to ourselves that we do not know what we are doing, and that we are mortal.

Over the years, a lot of my images of myself seem to have dissolved. The biggest lie I ever constructed was the lie of Lee as "the artist." The fact that I managed to construct a truth out of this lie is immaterial. How many other constructions I carry around me are invalid? I can only know this by constantly testing who I am, where I am, and what I am doing, with the famous question, "what is the truth of this moment?"

Okay, once again I have gone on quite long enough. We will leave it till tomorrow, one together we can embark on another set of musings.

Try, today, to stop in the middle of life once or twice and see who you are. Who are you, really? Do you know?

Do any of us?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Orchids, time, evolution

This winter has been a particularly good winter for my household orchids. They have been generous in their blossoming.

We will be looking at more pictures of them in the near future; I am going to the orchid show (for the second time) at the New York botanical Garden next Sunday, where I hope to garner a good deal more spectacular photos of orchids in bloom.

Orchids are pretty cool flowers. There are any number of books extolling their virtues and passing on the more colorful tales that accompany their exotic appearance.

What interests me about orchids is they come in all shapes and sizes. They come to us as travelers out of time itself; orchids have been evolving for many millions of years, are found on every continent except Antarctica (and were probably found there when it was warmer,) and manifest a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes.

Like all flowers, they are sex organs. We do not really think about this very often; to us, flowers are just flowers. We do not open botanical publications and realize that they are a form of vegetative pornography. We do, however, recognize the extraordinary exuberance and beauty that is found in them -- an exuberance and beauty that could probably only come from sex itself, which is one of the most exuberant and beautiful activities in the biological world.

Biologists have often wondered why sex exists at all; after all, it is not strictly necessary for reproduction, not at all. My own personal opinion is that it exists because the universe itself enjoys it.

Aside from their blatant sexuality, what interests me about orchids is this trip through time that they have all taken. Somewhere back in the distant past, we might imagine there was a single orchid, or something thereabouts. Evolution, however, does not work that way. If we tried to examine the evolutionary history of flowers in order to put a pencil down on one particular spot where the orchid came into being, we would not find it. Evolution is a process of continuity where the delineation between species is never 100% clear in any given moment.

For millions of years, in various environments all over the globe, orchids have evolved in all their peculiarities. They have done so in intimate concert with other organisms; most, if not all, orchids have special relationships with insects that pollinate them and cannot reproduce without exactly the right kind of insects around.

This kind of precision is common in the natural world. Biological relationships fulfill each other in remarkable ways; all over the planet there are trillions of keys that fill trillions of locks in just exactly the right way. Molecules fit other molecules; appendages fit into orifices, mouthparts into flowers. Biological life is a clockwork machine of a complexity so immense it defies human understanding.

And it is a clockwork machine, a timepiece. Biological life has swum forward relentlessly through oceans of time to arrive at the present moment. We find ourselves within it, examining the results, taking them for granted. The incredible amount of time and effort that it took to bring us to where we are--the moment where we see an orchid, know that it is "orchid," and appreciate its essential beauty--that is beyond our understanding.

Not only that, the process is all but inevitable. In this universe, carbon is the only atom suitable for the assembly of molecules flexible enough to produce the chemical reactions that support life. Not only that, the strict constraints of said chemistry, along with simple mechanical physics ,all but guarantee that life will look about the same anywhere on finds it- even in the next galaxy, fish would loook like fish, trees like trees, birds like birds. Time has shown us over and over that the forms life exhibits are remarkably consistent, even when separated by hundreds of millions of years. Take icthyosaurs and porpoises, for example: one a reptile that lived a hundred million or more years ago, another a contemporary mammal: yet nearly identical in body form, because in this universe, that form is what works.

So if you were wondering whether all those weird creatures you see in science fiction movies are pretty much ridiculous, there you have your answer.

We take part in a magnificent process so much greater than ourselves. How much do we consider this, as we occupy ourselves with our acquisitions, and our politics, and our revenge? None of these things have anything to do with the journey that biology embarked upon some three or more billion years ago. Alone among all the creatures on the planet, we find ourselves obsessed things other than relationship; things other than nature.

Even the hard-core atheists of the biological world such as Edward O. Wilson assert that man's true purpose is to take in impressions of nature; this is what we evolved for, this is how we evolved. If we surround ourselves with impressions that are not natural (such as we do in all of our great cities) it actually causes us to fall victim to psychosis, because the impressions that are falling into our bodies are not the impressions we evolved to receive. In constructing our grand societies and adopting our immense technologies, we have accidentally engineered our own psychic downfall.

The more impressions of nature we take in, the better it is for us. The more deeply we feel a connection to nature through this organic rootedness I frequently refer to, the healthier we become. Everything about life for man was originally meant to be about an organic relationship to nature and to the planet.

Admittedly, it is too late to turn back the clock and completely fix this. It does, however, behoove us to cultivate a respect for this fact, and to seek a deeper understanding of just what nature is. A time machine which life travels within; an ocean of events that reaches back through history, washing its sediments into the rocks of the planet, processing its surface in a spectacular frenzy of molecular engineering.

A time machine which we have, on behalf of sacred and higher forces, become the principal witnesses to at this particular moment in the planet's evolution.

Spring has begun; the energy of the planet in this hemisphere is flowing anew. Here is a moment where the tides of life turn once again, where the energies we can receive increase, and the impressions we can take in blossom into new glories which we call leaves, and animals, and flowers.

I will miss the winter and its chill darknesses, but as the flow of my own inner sap quickens, I will accept and celebrate the arrival of warmth, and new life.

May the bees fly high, may the worms dig deep, may the fish swim far.

On a final note, the third visitor to this blog who reads this post will be the 1000th visitor since I began to keep track last year!

Welcome to you, whoever you are, and thanks for reading!

With love to all,

Lee

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Roots of Being


There are times when it occurs to me that the analogies we can draw between creatures in the biological world and the nature of the universe at large are extraordinarily strong.

In "Beelzebub's tales to his grandson," Gurdjieff speaks about how every three brained being -- that is, in our own case, man, -- is an exact reflection of the cosmos. I think that this idea extends to other creatures as well.

Plants in particular have several specific features that can help us to understand the nature of existence. Our own existence is built on the existence of plants; that is, without photosynthesis, the majority of large scale biological life on this planet would not be able to exist. (We will except life around sulfur vents, which is a subject all its own.) There could well be life, but it would probably consist largely of microorganisms -- and even those would probably, in some cases, be engaged in photosynthesis.

So this act of transmuting photons into stored energy, which is a kind of extraordinary alchemical magic, lays down the basis we all live off of.

Put in other terms: everything alive on this level feeds on light.

And since all complex matter in general is created by the actions of suns, with many of the heavier elements being created only in supernovas, we can say with some confidence that everything is actually made of light.

There is one lesson we learn from the nature of plants. But it is another feature which I'd like to examine today, and that is the nature of roots.

Plants draw nourishment from roots which extend downwards into a substrate below them. This is the flip side of their relationship to light. Without the roots, which hold them in place and collect the minerals and water they need for their work, the ability to come into relationship with this "higher substance"-- or rate of greater vibration-- we call "light" and engage in photosynthesis would not exist. So we see at once that in the universe, higher functions absolutely depend on lower ones. Put another way, in the creation and maintenance of reality, higher orders arise from and depend on lower orders. And all of it depends ultimately on light.

It's the roots that reach down into the lowest level that collect the information and provide the connection that allows the relationships with the higher functions to exist.

OK, you may be saying. Interesting, perhaps, but what does that mean to us in the context of a spiritual work?

In my experience, it is this question of growing roots into our being that is essential to our work. By this I mean physical roots that connect us to our body. I mean this in an absolutely concrete manner; I am not referring to an abstract analogy of some kind. In man, there should literally be roots that connect the consciousness to the body itself. These roots, of a very fine nature, extend throughout the body and enter into the cells. Generally speaking, however, human beings have completely lost the ability to sense them and kind of connection that they form. If a man wants to learn to draw a new and more solid kind of nourishment from his life, he must discover his roots. Not the roots of generations and countries and circumstances, but the biological roots, the subtle channels that connect him to his organic being.

I have pointed out before that the image of the Lotus as a symbol of enlightenment is not about the beautiful flower. It is about what is hidden, what is unseen; and what is unseen is the long stem that reaches down into the mud, and the firm roots that anchor the flower to the bottom of the pond, so that the disturbances of the wind and water do not disrupt the nature of the plant.

When Dogen speaks in "practice period" of reality being "to go into the mud and enter the weeds," he is pointing us in this direction. Reality begins at its roots, and an experience of reality cannot begin with angelic visions. It has to begin at the roots.

Mr. Gurdjieff once said that if consciousness develops it must not only develop in a direction that reaches upward--it must, at the same time and in equal measure, reach downwards, so that there is a wholeness.

So in seeking ourselves, if we seek first the relationship with this physical root of being, this organic sense of ourselves, this vibration and sensation from which consciousness itself actually arises, we acquire a new relationship to gravity. I do not speak of a relationship that lightens us and allows us to float around. I speak of a relationship that helps us become more aware of the fact that we live under these conditions, in this mortal flesh, standing on this planet, and that for us, this is all there is, and it is now.

Time and time again, if we turn to the lessons of biology, we discover that science and spiritual quest are joined at the hip. Even today, I was reading an article about dark matter and dark energy in which prominent physicists admitted that we don't know what these things are. Apparently they are absolutely necessary in order to explain things that we don't understand about the nature of the universe, but the words actually mean nothing. We do not know if there is "dark matter" or "dark energy" at all. The words are conveniences to indicate that there is something out there which we just don't know doodley-squat about.

The Zen of not knowing weds itself to the mysteries of physics. Dark matter? Dark energy? We might as well speak of God. We may even know a little bit more about God than we do about these two subjects.

Every word I write in this blog, no matter what it is, is also, in a certain sense, a convenience to indicate that we just don't know. We make efforts to know, but the nature of the universe itself is so mysterious that we cannot know, no matter how hard we try. We are all on a search to know, and that may be all that we do know.

Some few things I do understand. One of them: just as we have inner flowers, so also these roots dwell in us. I do not know what they are, where they come from, or what would make it easy to find them. All I know is that they are there, and they feed this thing called Being if we find them and come into a deeper relationship with them. The roots feed the flowers.

My wish for all of us is that we can awaken to a greater rootedness of being, based in the organism, that will lead us one step further down the path in the development of compassion both for ourselves and our fellow men.

blessings to all of you today.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Some thoughts on emotion



One of the things that strikes me about human nature is how volatile we all are emotionally. I run into this all day long, not only in myself, but in everyone else as well.

We literally live in a sea of both inner and outer emotion. It is easy to see the physical objects around us--but we quickly forget, because we are identified with it, that the emotional content of the world we inhabit is equally material. Emotions are as supple, changeable, and exotic as pigments in the skin of a cuttlefish: constantly changing, shimmering, adapting to the conditions around them, expressing things in a language all their own.

They are beautiful, alluring, and dangerous. It’s hard not to get caught up in the drama.

The emotional part in ourselves, which reacts very quickly indeed, is constantly taking the temperature of every event around us. We are so invested in us that we do not even know it’s happening. In order to have any awareness at all of it, we need to maintain some kind of a connection with the body. Otherwise the situation is hopeless.

The difficulty with the emotional part is that it is relatively imbalanced. As I put it to my wife when I first met her many years ago, we should not believe in our emotions. They lie to us constantly. Although they are powerful and quick, they lack rationality and frequently respond to situations in an inappropriate manner. This is true of almost every single human being; it is rare to meet people who are emotionally balanced in any meaningful sense.

I have a lot of strong reactions in the course of the day. It frequently surprises me, how absolutely physical, intense, and visceral they are. It is a real work to be present enough to have any degree of relationship with them. And it is only if I have a relationship with them that there is a chance of them not dictating the course of events.

This takes place, in my experience, in both an inner and an outer sense, because the emotional reactions dictate the way I exchange with other people, and they also determine the inner tone of my attitude towards my life. This means I need to take a careful measure of exactly what the value of various emotions is as they arise. Especially with negative emotions, when they come up, I need to examine them critically right away instead of signing on to them.

There are times when I just go ahead and sign onto them anyway after a brief period of examination. The reality is that I am negative; I have these parts and they have baaaaad attitudes. I am not some Christ-like guru filled with groovy love. In fact, people who behave in that way always leave me a little suspicious. It doesn’t seem real. If we want to experience who we are and know who we are, we have to experience and know the negative parts as well as the ones that are warm and loving.

Another way of looking at this is to say that we need to experience the full range of our emotional being in order to understand any of it. In self-knowing, we can’t just parse our emotional being out into the bits we like. It’s all or nothing.

It’s a good thing to perform an inner “stop” when we see ourselves having a strong emotional reaction. Before we take any rash steps, it’s a good thing to review the reaction and see if it is based on anything real. More often than not, in my own case, I discover that emotional reactions I am having don’t make any sense at all. They are suggesting that I do things that are fundamentally stupid.

Jails and graveyards are filled with people who listened to emotional ideas of that nature without exercising sufficient discrimination.

God willing, we will not end up among that number. But just the thought that we might avoid hurting another person by examining our emotional state a bit more closely makes the action worthwhile.

I believe that the phrase “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” from the Lord’s prayer relates to this kind of work. It encapsulates the idea that we are both unwitting victims and unwitting perpetrators in this exchange of emotional energy. The tendency is to see ourselves primarily as the victim; as we work on ourselves, we need to see our role as perpetrators as well, and become sensitive to the fact that all of us are in this mess together.

Forgiveness can go a long way towards straightening things out.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Edges, food, mud, and weeds

Stop.

Breathe.

Take a look around you.

Here we are again in this condition that is constantly different, yet perpetually manages to appear the same to us. We are in front of a computer. Odds are, 90% or more of us is invested in the head. We have little, if any, sense of our bodies.

Try to change that just for a moment. Sense yourself right now in your body.

Then keep reading.

This thing called life is a perpetual state of feeding. The three kinds of food are the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the impressions we take in. Taken together, these three things feed what we call our being. Their rates of vibration are different; food is coarse, air is finer, and impressions are the finest food. Attending to these foods as they enter us, and attending to the differences between them, is part of the work of discrimination which leads to inner development.

I've spoken before about the fact that we live in what I call an edge condition: an intersection, the place where different forces meet. In biology, these are the places where the richest foods are found. So in finding ourselves where we are in life, that is, in an intersection between two worlds, an inner one and an outer one, we are in the ideal place to feed ourselves. But in order to do so we have to to become aware of both worlds simultaneously. Having a connection between more than one center helps in this effort.

Forming that connection takes time. I liken it to the process of growing roots. A plant occupies the intersection between sunlight and the darkness of the soil; it draws nourishment from both above itself and below itself in order to form itself. As organisms, we are not that different, except that it is the soul itself that engages in this enterprise.

The enterprise itself requires structure. It requires diligence. It requires years of effort. In an era where everyone wants to obtain everything as quickly as possible, it seems difficult to me to instill in any one a comprehension of how serious one has to be about spiritual work in order to achieve anything real. For the most part, all of us are disorganized and somewhat inept. We are stumblers and dabblers and babblers; we don't stick to things and we are easily distracted. The idea of spending 30 or 40 minutes every morning without fail in meditation is too daunting. Even then, the idea of a structured meditation with a specific aim does not perhaps appeal to people. "Too goal oriented," they say. "Speaks of attachments."

Nonetheless, without this structure, nothing is possible. One must have a specific inner aim, or one has nothing at all. This is another thing it seems difficult to get across to people. I have spent a great deal of my life in a work where everyone professes to be entirely serious, yet when I listen to the seekers around me I see that many of them have failed to understand this principle of aim, even as they hear about it and discuss it. They are middle-aged folk of great accomplishment in life who still cannot seem to find something satisfying and permanent. Everything about life, up to and including their spiritual path, is confusing. They are having difficulty finding an aim.

They are still grasping for some kind of an idea of what this life means with their minds.

I do not say this intending judgment; these are people I love. They are wonderful people who have supported my effort and who deserve every consideration and all the support I can muster. Nonetheless, it distresses me to see them still struggling to find the right approach. And I dare not open my mouth; God forbid I should tell them what to do. Each must find his own way.

Perhaps the greatest irony I encounter in my own work community is all the talk about silence. People who want to work in silence should shut up and go work there. For the rest of us, everything is needed.

On that note, here is an excerpt from Dogen.

"Those who haven't entered the inner chamber regard the World-honored One's retreat in the country of Magadha as proof of expounding the Dharma without words. These confused people think "the Buddha's closing off his chamber and spending the summer in solitary sitting shows that words and speech are merely skillful means and cannot indicate the truth. Cutting off words and eliminating mental activity is therefore the ultimate truth. Worthlessness and mindlessness is real; words and thoughts are unreal. The Buddha sat in a closed chamber for 90 days in order to cut off all human traces."

Those who say such things are greatly mistaken about the World-honored One's true intention. If you really understand the meaning of cutting off words, speech, and mental activity, you will see that all social and economic endeavors are essentially already beyond words, speech, and mental activity. Going beyond words and speech is itself all words and speech; going beyond mental activity is nothing but all mental activity. So, it is a misunderstanding of this story to see it as advocating the overthrow of words, speech, and mental activity. Reality is to go into the mud and enter the weeds and expound the Dharma for the benefit of others; turning the Dharma and saving all beings is not something something optional. If people who call themselves descendents of the Buddha insist on thinking that the Buddha's 90 days in solitary summer sitting mean that words, speech, and mental activity are transcended, they should demand a refund of those 90 days of summer sitting."

--"practice period," as translated by Norman Fischer and Kazuaki Tanahashi ("Beyond Thinking," p 120-121,Shambala 2004.)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Amaryllis, and chili peppers

My wife elected to grow a large mass of Amarillys this winter. This picture, taken today, celebrates the results.

I had a hard time getting to this post today. Blogger was not working well as of an hour ago, and I had software issues in other areas which prevented me from posting the post that I planned to. In one of those hideous glitches all too familiar to regular computer users, the entire post was lost, and now exists only as a set of fading vibrations in some other part of the universe.

Long years of computer use have taught me that it is pointless to get upset about things of this nature. It is a case of dog bites man.

Today we took the famous dog Isabel out into the woods. There was a fierce snowstorm that ended with a coating of ice yesterday; we trudged out into virgin territory in Tallman State Park, shuffling gingerly along the top of snow-encrusted embankments, stumbling delightedly as the crust broke, falling and laughing, try to become more weightless than these bodies will allow.

At lunch, over a bowl of tomato soup spiked (by my own habitual hand) with chili peppers from New Mexico, I spoke with Neal about how I am beginning to lose my taste for hot foods.

This seems inconceivable: anyone who knows me will tell you that I have a craving for hot foods, and an excessive tolerance for them. Lately, though, I have been feeling more sensitive towards the taste of foods, having different experiences of them, and hot foods do not seem so interesting to me anymore.

This bothers me a bit; it reminds me of how I lost my taste for doing visual arts some five plus years ago. I have written about that before; the wish to do that still hasn't come back all these years later.

Those of you who read Mr. Gurdjieff's work, or who are at least familiar with some of his ideas, will know that he spoke often of the difference between essence and personality. Today I had an insight: I see that the differences that arise in me today are differences that are probably ascribable to the growth of essence.

We spend most of our lives enslaved by our personalities; as they grow, they decide what we will do and how we will do it. They decide what we will like and dislike; all along, we are willing participants, and unwitting victims. Our personality makes decisions for us that may have nothing to do with what we are actually like in essence.

After years of work, as we finally reach a moment when our essence begins to grow, things in us are bound to change. Of course this is bewildering; in actual fact, although we all profess a wish for change in our lives, we prefer the change to be superficial, that is, one of circumstances, not of what we perceive to be our overall character. Sacrificing anything from our exitsting state, that is, our personality, is a scary thing. It represents the death of something we are.

Everyone talks a good game, but no one wants this.

So here I am, finding out that essentially I don't like hot food. Not that much, anyway. This is quite a shock for someone who has crammed himself full of chili peppers for years. I am not quite sure who I am anymore. Or, as I put it to Neal, it is not a case of "I am this person," or, "I am not that person," but rather, "who is this person?"

So here I am, once again searching for who I am and where I am in this life. Once again I discover I don't know much about that. What I assumed was true is not; things that appeared to be certain and permanent turn out to be questionable and temporary; the earth, which looks solid, turns out to have fault lines in it. It may start shaking at any time and the buildings that I have erected over the last 51 years could come tumbling down like my art career.

I suppose it is fair enough discover that in our search for who we are, we find we are not who we thought we were.

What is even more sobering is to discover that we are not what we think we are. In these fleshy bodies, bags of skin and bones, as Master Dogen would put it, we fall victim to the cravings of the senses and they convince us that they are all there is. The fact that there is another world touching us at all moments, one we cannot see, and rarely, if ever, sense, escapes us.

If we open the vessel, and let the world flow in, everything changes. No matter what our reactions, what our prejudices, our irritations, if we practice, in this ordinary life, in this ordinary sense,we come to these three principles:

Accept, accept, accept.

When I come back to this over and over, it is possible to begin again to try to experience my life in more than just a superficial manner.

The sun has been streaming through my studio window as I write this; filtered through blue white reflections of snow, it blooms into the fiery red of the geraniums we have nurtured here all winter. I was going to post a picture of that for you, but the Amaryllis trumps them so handily- in digital format, anyway- that there was no contest.

Go with God, my friends. May we all remember to step lightly as we tread on the moments of this life, lest they break under our clumsy feet like a thin crust of snow.

And may we breathe in enough of that which feeds the soul to lighten us as we make our way through this thing called life.

Love to you all,

Lee

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Jurassic Pondering


Today's picture is a coda from the china trip.

During my trip to China, I spent some time in Zhejiang province in a small town called Pujiang, about 3 ½ hours south of Shanghai. This town is located in the mountains and in most ways is somewhat remote from the tidal wave of development that has consumed much of China’s eastern seaboard. Quiet, rural, idyllic.

Across the street from the factory that I visited, there is an embankment about 15 feet high consisting of reddish layers of soil. This embankment immediately looked familiar. The color of the layers of soil told me that this particular group of sediments almost certainly dated from the Jurassic era. All over the world, when you see soils of this color, they are either Permian (older than Jurassic) or they date from the age of the dinosaurs. What is more, it was clear from looking at the soils that they were riverine deposits; that is, they were laid down by riverbeds carrying sediments of various sizes, including lots of sand and rounded pebbles.

The landscape had more to say. It was evident from some of the formations in the immediate vicinity (within five to 10 miles) that the area had been subjected to bouts of volcanism. And indeed, when I picked pebbles out of the river deposits, their varying nature betrayed the fact that they were volcanic debris of one kind or another.

Now, you might ask yourself, why would this interest me?

Well, you see, I live in Sparkill, New York, which is on the edge of the Newark Basin sandstones, a huge deposit of river sediments that date from the same era. It was remarkable to me to travel halfway across the planet and finds deposits so similar that date from the very same age. (I have seen them in New Mexico as well.) Not only that, the area where I live is on the Palisades of the Hudson River, a huge dike of basalt magma that, like the volcanoes in the Pujiang area, points towards an eruption event of great magnitude –again, just as in New Mexico.

I’m sure that by now you are asking yourself what kind of spiritual lesson, if any, we can draw from this.

My perception is as follows: it underscores how much the same everything is, everywhere. We make a great deal of the difference between people and societies; the differences between one landscape and another, one culture and another, one person and another. Yet everything all around us is subject to the same laws. Not only that, this has been going on for hundreds of millions of years. The differences we celebrate are mostly imaginary-they are constructions derived from imagination. It’s true that our imaginations are spectacular, colorful, creative, and inventive. But a great deal of what they produce is- well- imaginary, that is, in the real world its validity is rather limited.

This certainly strikes me when I go to China. Their culture appears to be quite different than ours; their customs and habits and attitudes and language are different. Nonetheless, they are all engaged in the same fundamental activities the rest of us are. The main engines that drive them are sex, money, food, and fear.

In many senses we are all enslaved by these forces. We weave an elaborate dream around ourselves that takes our attention away from these basic facts. Yet if we look at the landscape that all of us inhabit, we see that it consists of the same elements everywhere.

That landscape consists of things much like the deposits from the Jurassic which I speak of. That is to say, slow gradual processes that build up sediments by virtue of accretion, and explosive ones that blow holes in everything, only to subside and succumb once again to the forces of gradualism.

Put otherwise, Sex: the interaction of substances to create new circumstances. Money: The cost of that interaction. Food: What that interaction uses to carry itself forward. Fear: the intermittent yet enormous forces that drive major changes.

Life is much like this in both an inner and outer sense for everyone. It’s worth attending to these two sets of processes: observing how we build up layers of being through the process of acquiring impressions, and how disruptive events – usually emotional – blow holes in our carefully constructed layers, rearranging the landscape and scattering debris in various directions.

Much of life consists of efforts to avoid the volcanic events. These efforts turn out, for the most part, to be futile. No matter what we do, explosions take place. The best possible course of action we can take in regard to this question is to continually prepare ourselves for life. We need to learn to work with both kinds of processes to help form the landscape we inhabit within.

…Much more could be said about fear, but not today. I once made the remark that we are all little fear factories. Let’s examine that together at a future date.

I have two little volcanic pebbles from that town in Zhejiang sitting in my collection of stones. Like so many of the other rocks I have lying around the house, most of them will never mean anything to anyone else, including my wife and children. When I die, people will pick these things up and scratch their heads and say, “what the hell was he keeping this for?”

In this sense, the external sediments of my life will seem to others to carry no more rhyme or reason to those who come after me than the sediments in the town of Pujiang do: a random, distant set of events. I was not there when they were laid down; yet every single grain of sand, every pebble and stone in the riverbed, has its own true story to tell .

Those stories belong to them; I cannot know them, or take them away from them. I can, however, respect them for what they, in their mute and timeworn state, have to teach me about myself and about life.

In a brief update from here on the banks of the Hudson River, we had a big snow and ice storm last night.

Winter has not left us yet. Feeling cheated by her late arrival, she has decided to remind us that her strength is not yet spent. And she has, in turn, spent mine: I have shoveled snow and ice today until my arms ache with the good pain of hard work.

Regards, and love to all of you on this Saturday morning.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

From airport lounges

In what is certainly a first for this blog, I am posting you from a business class airline lounge in Seoul, South Korea. This is a routine part of my existence, this traveling in a kind of sustained limbo for many hours where not much goes on except sitting, frequently accompanied by the loud whine of jet engines. It certainly gives one plenty of time to think.

So here we are, you and I-- or, at least, my words and you. We are participating in a kind of time travel here, where what I say reaches you long after I say it. But for all of us, it exists in the now, as we experience it. No matter what it is that we experience, it is always this way -- immediate. Even the constructions of past and future that exist in the parts of us that can contain such ideas actually exist only in the now. And now for me is a dictation headset, a laptop, and a business class lounge.

In front of me is a huge expanse of glass, supported by steel superstructures. Behind it, just above the top of the windows, a pale gray halo of sun behind clouds descends towards the horizon.

In just a few moments it will be directly, gloriously, in my eyes.

As is so often the case these days, this morning I was actively studying the connections between inner centers, or rather, the lack of connection. It is a mystery to me why the centers, which clearly have the facility to form strong and magnificent connections, are unable to do so under most ordinary circumstances.

To know one's self -- to self-remember -- is to study these parts carefully, for a long time.

Take the time today, if you can, to look very carefully and delicately within. Seek, see, feel. Try to touch those delicate places within yourself which carry the seeds of your own flowers. See if there is a response. Somewhere within each of us lies this new germ of the sacred.

I know this is true for everyone. If you are diligent, blossoms will bloom within you that will feed you in a way that no other part of life is able to. And--if more than one blossom should choose to reveal itself--the ecstasy and the sorrow of the heavens may come to you. Even if only for a moment.

Perhaps that is for the best. We cannot drink too deeply of ambrosia; these earthly vessels we call bodies are too frail to hold much fire.

Mr. Gurdjieff said that the purpose of man's existence is, among other things, to become conscious and responsible enough to take on and share a portion of the endless sorrow of His Endlessness: to share the sorrow of God.

Opening our inner flowers can lead us on the path towards this, which is the most beautiful duty we can ever take upon ourselves. It can carry us forward in relationship with our families, with our friends, with our business associates, our children, and ourselves. It can clear away the cobwebs of uncertainty and the dung of negativity that clutter our inner state. In this way we can actually acquire a bit of that highly prized, mysterious, and near-mythical substance called humility, oft referred to but rarely ever seen.

Perhaps this is not enough to satisfy a man in life. I do not know. We all seem at all times to crave something greater than what is actually possible. But for me, today, it is enough. At least when I touch something real in myself, and that sacred substance flows which allows me to participate, I know that I have at least in some sense performed the duty which I was actually sent here for. As opposed to the byzantine, constructed nonsense we call “daily life.”

I cannot save the world; I cannot save those around me; the likelihood is that I cannot even save myself, because I am too small and lack the power. If this is true, perhaps the best that I can achieve is to accept the few such services I am given the grace to perform. Graciously and humbly, without expectation of reward.

If all of this sounds a bit more emotional than what you are used to from me, I apologize. Perhaps the emotional part is a bit more active in me today.

However it may be, I attempt to come to you honestly, offering you what my experience is and what I know. I would be the first to confess to you that I do not know very much. People think I am a smart man, but the older I get, the more glaring my own deficiencies seem to be to me. Measured against the vast depths of the universe, what I know is absolutely nothing.

I do know this, however. Within all of us live these flowers. Seek them, water them, tend to them daily, and your life will change. This will not be easy, because every flower is a rose, and you'll have to tolerate the thorns in order to grow buds and open blossoms.

In the end, if you are a diligent gardener, something new will come to live in you-- and perhaps you will even find favor in the eyes of the Lord.

With love to all of you today,

Lee

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

duality


Today I was thinking about Dogen once again. I don’t have any Dogen source material with me on this trip, so I am left to ponder what I can remember from my readings.

I do have Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson” with me and I have been reading the chapter on religion. In it, he mentions that the teachings of Saint Buddha and Saint Lama were so changed and corrupted by subsequent followers that they no longer resemble the original teachings in any significant way.

Presuming that is true, we are left in the position of attempting to understand the teachings either from the point of view of the reportedly garbled original doctrine which has been recorded and passed on by followers, or from the words of men who practiced and seem to have attained something real in the context of the teaching.

Of all these men, in the Zen tradition of Buddhism, Dogen seems to be the one that most exemplifies a real level of attainment, so when we read Dogen’s words, I think we are a bit closer to the heart of Buddhism than when we go to other sources. Perhaps this is just wishful thinking on my part, but if it is, I have company.

Dogen speaks about not becoming attached to non-attachment. Non-attachment is such an important practice in Buddhism – one hears about it all the time – that it is surprising, perhaps, to hear a master speak of not becoming attached to it. He also speaks of not becoming attached to silence, which is perhaps even more surprising, since a deep inner silence- and what lies beyond it- is an aim in meditation efforts.

Attachment, non-attachment, silence—what to make of Dogen’s words on these matters?

Attachment and non-attachment are still dualities. Silence and noise are dualities. Dualities meet within Being: and Being, if it develops, inhabits this edge condition- a place of food- within which duality can be resolved.

I like to use the work inhabitation to describe the organic effort to be within the conditions of duality, but not of the conditions of duality.

In the Shobogenzo, Dogen has an extensive sutra about how to value the Kasaya- the Buddha’s robe. In reading this sutra it repeatedly struck me how clear it is that the sutra is, above all, about practice: about the practice of how we wear our lives. So it’s evident to me he was interested in this question of inhabitation of life, investment in life. The analogy of the Buddha’s robe is nothing more than a vehicle for a set of understandings, of principals, about Being within life.

In the face of the conditional nature of duality, we make an inner effort to become unconditional: to accept the conditions, regardless of what the conditions are.

In this way we become objective in relationship to duality: instead of being attached to duality, a part of it, we are inhabitants within a landscape that contains duality. So we are not attached, or un-attached: we just are. We become observers of duality rather than masters, victims, or slaves of it.

This idea relates to Gurdjieff’s idea of the creation of a new “I” within man. As we are, the possibilities for this kind of relationship are limited. We must become something quite different, inside, in order to begin to understand this better.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The final nature of things

Stop for a moment. Take a look around you.

The only thing that we know for sure is that we are in these bodies, having these experiences. Amazingly, even though it is quite clear that there is a logical end to this process, our conscious parts somehow insist that the condition we are in now will persist for ever.

Do we really see the impermanence of life? I don't think so. Very little, if any, time is spent in younger years pondering the fact that our existence is finite. Yet this very fact is probably the only thing that might call us to examine our lives more closely.

I ponder this question frequently in the context of my organic sensation of myself. This organic sensation provides a connection to mortality than I did not used to have when I was younger. It raises a great many questions about just exactly what we are and what we are doing here.

There is a butcher shop right around the corner from our office in downtown Shanghai. Incongruously- certainly for a modern city- there is this tiny shopfront right on the street with chopped up carcasses of slaughtered pigs and beef hung in its narrow corridor. Bloody piles of spinal columns and ribs are casually slung across Styrofoam packing cases.

It is not the presentation of things that we are accustomed to in the West. It is raw death staring the businessmen and the beautiful people in their designer clothing in the face as they pass by.

I saw this.

It got me to thinking.

Those spinal columns are a representation of a process that began billions of years ago when the very first animals developed nervous systems. They represent evolution; they also represent what every single mammal, and almost all other higher animals (aside, for example, from octopi and squid) are made up from on this planet. A nervous system made of meat and flesh and bone. Something which is all too easy to forget as we meet each other face-to-face dressed up in clothing. They are a reminder of how frail life is, and how final the end is. The sun rises on our life, the day of this life goes by, and then the sun sets. This day will not come again.

It is sobering to see this. When one evaluates life from this perspective, one begins to think, just what is it that one wishes to do in life? Are we doing what we want to? Are we squandering this precious substance, which we only have just so much of, on foolishness of one kind or another?

More than likely, most of us are. I have certainly done my fair share of it.

If I really begin to sense what I am-- flesh and bones -- and where I am-- between birth and death --, then perhaps I can begin to value this life more directly and more specifically. To seek a value within each inward breath that confers more than just the automatic food of air. To seek a value in personal exchanges that is more than just a cardboard cutout reaction to my concept of other people.

In the end, this question of mortality becomes a question of seeking value. A greater understanding of death could shape our lives if we had a bit more respect for it.

I continue to ask myself questions about mortality; questions about the nature of my existence here; questions about time. Questions about finality. All of these questions are asked in the context of those infinite rivers of love and bliss that flow downward into us from a level above us which we cannot even pretend to understand.

I don't expect answers. I seek them, but they only come on their own terms.

When they do come, they arrive without words.

When they leave, I cannot remember them, except for the faint footprints of joy that seem, paradoxically, to precede my passage through the moments of life.

The faint scent of a plum blossom lingering in a winter without trees.

love to you all

Lee

Monday, March 12, 2007

Details


On the surface, today appears to have been a day when not much of note took place. From the point of view of my own experience, I got up, meditated, took care of some business matters, and then went out into the market to meet with vendors. There were several long car drives, some office meetings, everything rather mundane.

There were a few special moments when I was aware enough of myself to realize that I was sitting there with these other human beings, in a relationship with them, and really not paying enough attention to them to honor their presence or their own effort. The fact that they, like me, were completely asleep and in equal measure not honoring my presence and effort was immaterial. The point was that I was not there. That was enough to call something more from me.

There is always something of note taking place. For example, today many trillions of lives ended on this planet: ranging all the way from lives the size of bacteria to the lives of elephants and whales. An uncountable number of human beings died today. For all of them, this was a very big day indeed. The events were enormous and calamitous.

On the other levels and in other scales, we can be sure, stars exploded and whole systems of planets were destroyed. Across the universe, the amount of things that are going on is infinite. The fact that I, in my tiny experience of today, didn't find a whole lot of interest to be taking place is almost meaningless.

If I expand myself to include more than this tiny point of consciousness I inhabit, I immediately see that everything that takes place is of note. It is my relationship to what is taking place that is not notable, because there isn't one.

Once again I turn to the question of an inner relationship to try and see where the lack originates. Immediately, more value is discovered.


Why is it so?

When grand and exciting things are not taking place, perhaps just then is exactly the time to turn to the fine details and see how grand and exciting these small things might be. I don't really know, after all; I haven't taken the time to investigate the relationship between two lines of red glaze on a Ching dynasty bowl, for example, or the exact feeling of my hand on the mouse attached to this computer.

It's interesting. When I turn my attention to these finer details, trying to discover a corresponding sensation in the body, along with an intelligence that receives these impressions, something inside the body responds emotionally. A glimmering of joy emerges from between the cracks in my unconsciousness.

What is it that is joyful in the presence of this thing we call life?

If I knew more about that, I would probably know everything.

All I can surmise for now is that it relates to connections between the inner parts, and something Jesus Christ once said:

"For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sunday in Shanghai

This morning I spent some time walking through the older parts of Shanghai again. I was in neighborhoods that tourists do not go to, surrounded by hundreds, in fact thousands, of ordinary Chinese people.

These are not the beautiful Chinese people who stroll along the Bund in Shanghai wearing designer clothes and sporting designer sunglasses. (I saw them today, too.) These are the people who wear the same clothes several days in a row and eat a bowl of fried rice with a little bit of pork and some vegetables at lunchtime. The neighborhoods are tear-down neighborhoods (see the picture); all around them, the brave new world of expensive apartment buildings is encroaching, and in a few years they will be ousted so that rich beautiful people can live where they are.

Where will they go? The rich, beautiful people do not care about such things.

These people strike me as a rich and beautiful too, but in a way that has nothing to do with designer clothing and expensive real estate. They are living their lives, and have an earthy honesty to them; no pretensions to designer grandeur would find a comfortable home here. The faint smell of urine from chamber pots wafts through the streets in the morning; fingers are red and chapped from peeling vegetables, and coarse cottons in shades of blue and black make the garments of choice. I walked past women chopping scallions, holding babies, selling flowers. A moment of eye contact and a smile over bundles of daisies transcended every language barrier. The flower seller and I knew what we were feeling, we were feeling it together, and that was all that mattered.

That was wealth. The small joys of life are the same in every language.

It amazed me to see that I was completely comfortable and relaxed in this essentially alien environment. I have been coming here for so many years that to walk down a foreign street in a foreign city filled with people of another race seems totally normal. There was no fear, no apprehension, no hesitation. There was just me and all these other ordinary people doing their ordinary things.

Tonight I am back at my five star hotel surrounded by technology, widescreen TVs, computers and voice dictation software. I am looking out over the People's Square from the 35th floor; a vantage point these people are unlikely to ever have. And yet they are here with me, in me.

How to explain that?

Somehow, in this act of consciousness, we all contain each other; everything blends into one harmonious whole in a manner we are unable to see and cannot even faintly taste most of the time. And now, a little tiny bit of them is in you, for as you read this, the chain of experience is transmitted, traveling from one organism to another through impulses magnetic and electric, ephemeral and yet completely material.

Mysteries abound. We are vessels into which the world flows.

Once again, on this trip, I am struck how the important moments are the ones where there is a bit of human contact. The woman who served me at the restaurant twice and recognized me, for example; she is not like the younger girls here at most of the hotels. She is a bit older, you can see it in her eyes. She understands the value of a bit of personal contact and she gave it to me. I really appreciated that; when I left we said goodbye to each other and to have a nice day, and we really, really meant that.

What kind of substitute is therefore an exchange like this, where there is heart and soul in a single sentence?

I contrast that with some of the more depressing human contact I had today; on Nanjing Road, at least 10 different young girls no older than my daughter must have approached me with the suggestion that we "spend some time together." The time, no doubt, to be spent with me paying for their sexual favors.

It was so sad. I wondered whether their parents knew what they were out doing this afternoon. I was tempted to give some of them money and ask them to take the day off without having sex with strangers. But of course that would have done no good. This reality that we shared together was their reality, and no wish of my own was going to change it for them.

Nonetheless, this was real contact that had an impact. Sobering, disconcerting, enough to jar me for a moment and take me out of imagination long enough to see where I was and what was happening.

All of these contacts, all of these moments, remind me of something my teacher said to me a number of years ago. "Life is so daily," she said. "So ordinary."

Certainly that has been the theme of this trip for me. I dwell within the ordinary. No matter where I go, no matter how exotic a location appears to be, it is still ordinary. What makes it extraordinary, if anything, is my relationship to it: the way that I receive it.

As Henri Trachol once said while I was present, "Life is an experiment. If we wish, we are invited to participate."

In this endless blending of impressions and molecules and energies, how miraculous it is that this thing called consciousness appears. How privileged we are to share it.

Be well, my friends, until tomorrow.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Buddhas made of stone

Today I took a long walk through the streets of Shanghai. I was walking towards a shopping area that generally has a lot of good antiques. This time I took a direction that I have not taken in the past, and accidentally stumbled through a little bit of what remains of old Shanghai.

Shanghai is a city in transition. In the last 15 years, an explosion took place which erased a great deal of the old city. Shanghai today is like Manhattan. Back then it was a lot like it was in the 1930s, or earlier.

What I found on my walk was narrow streets; low buildings, only one or two stories tall. Old and dilapidated, fa├žades made of wood, paint peeling from them like dandruff. The balconies and windows were festooned with laundry, no garment too intimate to conceal from the eyes of passersby. On the streets, Saturday morning market was in full swing. Everywhere there were vendors selling roots, vegetables, and fruits, straight from blankets spread out on the street, with no pretensions whatsoever. Things were dirty and earthy and real. In this world, Target and Kmart and Wal-Mart were just fairy tales of corrupted temptations. No gleaming aisles, no rigid regiments of perfect products here; instead, swinging stainless steel basins served as gongs and empty plastic bottles as mallets. In this way, one mother and her child became a Dragon Festival parade.

It was a community. People knew each other; there was bargaining and arguing and laughter. In the chill, damp morning air, an exchange was taking place as ancient as civilization itself.

Our modern culture has sterilized this, and is stamping it out as ruthlessly as a man crushes an ant beneath his shoe. Supermarkets and supermarts de-humanize the entire process of commercial exchange. We pay a little less; we get a lot less. We have become fixated on the idea that making something cheap makes it good, when all it really does is cause us to value it less. In the end we rape the planet as we talk about how great all these low prices are.

I walked through the crowd a little grateful for the fact that markets like this still exist. The low buildings reminded me of the adage from the Tao, "in dwelling, be close to the earth." And the market reminded me that the food we eat comes from the earth, raw and untamed. The miracles of our technology may be able to change the way cells grow and divide, but they cannot initiate it. In the same way, our technical skills may change the landscape and alter the ways that culture arises within cities, but it cannot create the culture itself.

What does it mean to dwell within a culture? In this brave new world where we deconstruct cultures and paste them together again with websites and broadband and advertisements and production lines, the process has become an object of worship, and the end result a moving target. We call it the information age, but what is being formed inwardly? Everything is outward. It is only in the vestiges of what used to be, in the small, narrow, and dirty streets that seem so unappealing at first glance, that we find what it means to still be human. We are forgetting what it means to be in community; it worries me. In the end, I suspect the result of it will be that we will just find it that much easier to kill each other.

And we are good enough at that already.

Every human contact I had today had nothing to do with technology. I spoke in my very rudimentary Chinese, bargaining and arguing and cajoling. At one shop, a plump, red-faced lady grabbed me firmly by the arm as we haggled, allowing no escape. Locked in the ancient art of hand-to-hand retail combat, we both cheerfully insisted one was robbing the other blind. Elsewhere, art-eyed cynic that I am, I picked up things that have been buried for thousands of years and decided I didn't like them; perhaps, I think, they should have remained buried. I bought other, improbable things that weighed far too much to take home, put them in my knapsack, and walked all the way back to the hotel (a long long way) with an appreciation of my body and of gravity, worrying about how I was going to pack them and get them back.

Perhaps none of this seems to convey any higher spiritual truths; it is just about ordinary humans in an ordinary world.

But if we are to find any higher truths, they reside within this ordinary world; they are born within the hearts of stone Buddhas, they draw their first breath in the soil and the sunlight, and they spill their blood into the biology of the planet, where one cell feeds another, and all of us -- from the smallest to the largest organism – are in relationship both in life and in death. Those truths make their way to stalks of celery on a city street; they find their place in pieces of cushioning foam wrapped around bicycle baskets; they sing to themselves, and all of us, from woodland thrushes, caged in city parks, where old men do the slow dance of Tai Chi, as though trying to freeze time and allow themselves just a little bit longer on this planet. They take to the air in plastic bags floating between skyscrapers and they dissolve in water splashed from buckets that pours across pavements, seeking a return to the roots of the planet through the sewers.

Every impression is a stone Buddha: one immutable truth after another: resolute, irrefutable, eternal.

Take the time today: celebrate this life. Celebrate every moment; celebrate every breath; celebrate every contact, every person, every sight, every sound, every touch.

Go with God, and may God bless each and everyone of you today!