Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Majority of Cowards- on the Killings at Sandy Hook

There is no poetry in these moments.

It is in times like these, on days like these, that the objective facts of the terrifying conditions we all live in are brought home. 

In 1964, when I was nine years old, my parents took me to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. I wandered through halls filled with the most awful photographs of starving, emaciated Jews, piles of corpses, in a daze of horror. I walked past the mounds covering thousands of bodies. When I left the memorial, I realized that this planet was nothing like the peaceful place it appeared to be.

 The incident was life-changing. I have never been able to see the conditions on the planet as anything other than terrifying since then. We are in a desperate place that takes desperate measures.

Earth itself could be a paradise, relatively speaking. But we have created our own hell, and we live in it, each of us. When awful events like the events of yesterday in Connecticut take place, we are stunned, aghast, horrified — one could just list adjectives paragraph after paragraph, and that is indeed what we seem to do in our efforts to rationalize the events. But these events aren't rational, and will always defy our attempts to rationalize them. They confront us with our own fears, our own inner violence, the responsibility each one of us bears for the terror that we create in human society. That terror begins in each one of us; and it's not so easy to expunge.

 I don't think we see that the guns would not be there if we were not how we are. They represent what we are; they symbolize what we are. War, torture, brutality; claiming high principles, we deny them all, yet they belong to us. My moment in Belsen was a moment, I now see, where I looked into the mirror of our inhumanity. 

It reminds me of what Krishnamurti once said: war begins in each of us.

 Yet look at how our media, our politicians, all immediately begin to outsource the blame. Everything is a mop-up operation; and what we are always mopping up is the blood. No one ever gets there in time to keep it from being shed. There are too many men with enough courage to kill one another, and not enough men with the courage to stop the violence.

 This is going on all over the planet. Today, hundreds of people will be killed in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, El Salvador, Mexico, the Congo... yes, America... and all the other places... everywhere... where men decide that they should destroy one another. It is always, they protest in the loudest possible voice, necessary.

 Perhaps it's only when children die in a catastrophe of this kind that we begin to see the reality of it all; that it is never "necessary."

 And what is actually necessary never happens.

 Leadership on this issue isn't there; we have a majority of cowards. And the killing goes on. We act as though we are horrified; but look, in America, at how comfortable we are with it.  This is what we don't see. As a society, we condone this kind of killing. If we didn't, our gun laws would be different... our movies would be different... our politics would be different. Our television and our media would be different. But they are all of the same texture; and that texture is as coarse and appalling as the behaviors and events we, in our hubris, collectively claim to disown.

Nothing will happen after this; laws won't be changed. And I will have to write a similar column the next time, because the date is somewhere out there on the calendar already.

We just don't know what day.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

a wish for the good

 Last night, I went to the Blue Rock School to see a shaman from Ecuador by the name of Don Alberto Taxo. He's quite different than what we expect from ourselves; much simpler, from a culture with a more essential approach to life. Nonetheless, an educated man, who clearly understood modern life as well as the next person. At the same time, his culture has preserved a sound connection to nature, which is something we lack.

The room was filled with well-meaning, New Age seekers, all rapt with attention as Don Alberto expounded the simple virtues of a relationship with nature, the need for things to be less tense and complicated; a personal empowerment to let go of our obsessions, fears, and pessimism, so that something new can enter.

His teaching is, in the end, probably not too far off some of the material we are more familiar with from modern Western spiritual practices; but the language is different, a heartfelt, less complicated message that extols the virtues of relationship with the planet, not in the political or sentimental terms that our intellectual society gives us, but instead a call to something more direct—more practical and organic.

Skeptics, cynics, and modern medicine will undoubtedly discount what the Don Albertos of the world say; yet have they offered us anything better? It seems not. Modernism, what one might call non-traditional culture, cultivates exploitative relationships rather than cooperative ones. We exploit nature; we exploit one another. I recall one wag who said "in capitalism, man exploits man; in socialism, it's the opposite."

We forget the emotive value of our relationship with simple things like water, the forest; a soft voice singing and a thumb beating gently on a drum. There's a numbness in us, born of sensory overload, a surfeit of data, and the compulsion to shovel everything we can into our mouths, our ears, and our eyes, for fear that we might miss something.

Don Alberto's approach is, perhaps, too simple for most "developed" folks; we don't come from the mountains in Ecuador, and we're not surrounded by nature. Most of us live in the suburbs or cities, and our contact with nature is minimal at best. But his reminders are vitally important. As Edward O. Wilson has pointed out, our organisms originally evolved specifically for taking in impressions of the natural world. Starving ourselves of these impressions, he argues, actually creates psychological deficits which we are unaware of.

 Those of us with a slightly less biological, more spiritual tilt might put it in other, more personal terms: only if we fulfill this duty to ourselves and the planet can we help grow a whole Being. Things have become unbalanced; and in our characteristic sense and manner of approaching the world, we create environmental movements, causes, grand gestures to push things back in the right direction. We forget the very small gestures that can be made within ourselves, in the places where real change actually might occur; as Don Alberto advised us, touching the petals of a flower. Or drinking a glass of water much more slowly, to appreciate its qualities. No extravagant claims; just a request that we place our attention where it belongs. Right here, right now.

Perhaps we have become too modern to believe in the apparent naïveté of a sacred quality in water itself; of the idea that a feather can be used to brush away negative thoughts. But if so, I think we've lost more than we imagine. A sense of the magical is needed in life, and once it's exterminated, what is left? Each one of these gestures and ideas touches an unknown that lies beyond the reach of our ordinary senses; each one of them inspires a part of us that has a wish for the good.

This is certainly the central message Don Alberto brought; we do have a wish for the good in ourselves, and we can cultivate it. We can exhale the things in our lives that create negativity, and  make room to receive something new; something different.

In these small ways, in this search to rekindle our wish for the good, we can make a difference that begins at home, right here, right now; not on the scale of nations and governments, but on the scale of our own Being.

Thanks, Don Alberto, for reminding us of that so gently, and with so much love.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Every sensation

Every sensation is a movement of energy, but I don't really understand it that way.

My relationship to my sensation seems personal so much of the time. It belongs to me; it's mine. I take it for granted; my body, my life are so obvious they don't need or perhaps, in my mind, even deserve my consideration. I just use them as I wish.

 I don't stop to consider that every expression of energy is a sacred force. All manifestation emanates from the divine; while I ought to perpetually honor that, instead, I forget everything. I want food. Is there enough money? That woman looks good. And so on. I suppose that these crudely formulated approaches are, in themselves, some low form of honor, but they don't have much respect in them.

When I see something like this daisy, which I took a picture of on the Outer Banks about a week ago, I have a bit more respect. This is a remarkably ordinary flower— they grow all over the place— and yet something is going on there, there is an expression of perfection in this particular plant that strikes me. A vibrancy, a quality of energy — yes, energy, form, color, manifestation — that makes a deeper impression.

Even now, that impression is in me as I relive the experience, and I see how the impression is a kind of food that supports me. It's not bread, or meat, or air; it is some other kind of food, something I generally don't think of as food. Yet it is food; spiritual food. And despite the tendency of spiritual food to be presented to us in magnificent yet overblown venues such as the Sistine Chapel, it's these very small impressions that somehow sink the deepest into me and say the most to me about where I am, and what needs to be respected.

 I see that I'm not present enough to my life. That's the bottom line. And yet I can't change that myself; only an energy from a higher level can effect any real change, and that begins from within. Not from a place where I exercise my own will, but from a place where help arrives.

That's a mystery. It will probably remain forever unexplained; it is where I meet the cloud of unknowing.

Then these sensations, these movements of energy, touch me.

And only then do I know that I am not alone.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Good Reminder

It's close to a year since my sister died. This past weekend, I found myself in North Carolina, working to organize my elderly parent's house in the wake of an accident where my father sprained his ankle. He's now in a wheelchair, and in no shape to keep the grounds for the garage up. It falls to me, as the only remaining child, to do a good deal of work the parents in their 80s can't do anymore.

 I spent most of my life imagining things. I imagined, for the majority of my adult life, a shared responsibility between my sister and myself for my parents; I imagined us organizing things, discussing the past together, attending to the many basic needs our aging parents would have.

Yet none of that can happen now; in the end, despite my fantasies, imagination has no power over the real world.

Every single thing I went through this weekend was a subtle reminder of my sister, and the fact that she's gone. There is no single stunning grief to be found here; instead, there is the overwhelming but subtle sense that everything is lost: lost within time, lost within a series of events that can't be predicted and that no one really understands. I live, as we all do, in a world that churns out an endless series of interpretive mechanisms, all of which ultimately fail.

Why do our interpretations fail? Well, Ibn al 'Arabi would probably tell us that all things are lost in the Lord; he believed that there was an insurmountable separation between man and the Essence of God, which can never be known. It can only be described by negation — we can only know what God is not, and God is always not anything we can think of.  Not anything we can imagine.

The Names of God — one of al Arabi's  major points of discourse — are a very different question; all of manifested reality, including ourselves and all our thoughts, can be known. (or, at least, some parts of it can —al 'Arabi is rightly cautious in warning us that no man can know but a tiny portion of it.) We can only know God indirectly through these Names, however. Anything that can be named in any way; this is what al 'Arabi refers to as the Divinity, that is, our understanding of God, which is always insufficient, and merely an isthmus  that will forever stand between the Essence of God and ourselves.

This insufficient understanding is in me in regards to death. It is here in regard to the progress of daily life. It is everywhere, in fact; although I'm a reasonably intelligent man, and can understand many things, in the face of death, I am forced to recognize my own insufficiency. And I don't think I will ever approach life, or other people, with enough humility if I don't recognize this very deeply, very deeply indeed. So deeply, in fact, that it becomes a force in me that penetrates the bones and emanates from their very marrow.

 The sorrow I feel as I confront these circumstances doesn't seem personal. I sense a question that lies at the root of my existence itself here, yet it can't be described in words. It is mapped in the sensation of the body and the arousal of feeling; in other words, the majority of it is tactile and organic, rather than intellectual. And, really, if I admit it to myself, so much of life is like this. I'm called to invest myself in these tactile and organic qualities, and yet instead, I think about them.

Good, strong thinking is necessary; but if that's all I rely on, it's not enough.

As I grow older, I am increasingly struck with the impression that we are all lost in the wilderness; but not lost in a lonely wilderness, no. There is a lonely wilderness in me, and I am lost in it, but I am lost in the Lord, because the Lord owns even the wilderness I fear.

 Sometimes, along this path, I discover trust. But I need to discover it over and over again, because so much in me rebels.

 Death is a good reminder. It never goes away.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

To Live Inwardly

"For truly, insofar as it is something external that prompts you to act, to that extent your works are dead, and even if it is God who prompts you to act from outside, then such works too are dead. 

If your works are to be living works, then God must spur you to action from within, from your innermost part, if they are really to be alive. For that is where your own life is, and that is the sole place where you are truly alive."

—Meister Eckhart, Sermon 10

Esau was hairy — and Jacob was smooth skinned, like the beautiful Egyptian woman pictured above. Esau lived according to external characteristics and principles; he acted from outside, was a man of personality. 

Jacob, on the other hand, was devoted to inner qualities, a man in touch with his essence. Thus he deserved and earned the birthright that should have been his older brother's. 

The inner is the higher principle, always.

 Our innermost part is much higher than any other part of us. It's difficult, actually, to speak of this with words, and to discuss it publicly, because in fact our innermost part is so much higher that no words can encompass or convey its qualities. Truly, it has an uncorrupted, intact, and eternal nature; it is nothing like we are as we are. Yet there is a thread that can connect us to it.

Action in life can come from this innermost part, but only if the thread is functional. And that in itself is a big change. Even if I've heard of the thread, to have actual contact with it for anything more than a moment is a big thing; and to truly have this contact turn into a source of information, something inwardly formed that is directed outwardly, is very much different than how I usually am, which is to be outwardly formed and attempt through that to live inwardly.

 I think very carefully about this, because I begin to see my entire life is formed through this being outwardly, and attempting through that to live inwardly. The parts of me that are in need of good food for the soul thus go unfed; because they cannot derive their sustenance from the objects, events, circumstances and conditions of outward life, try though I may to arrange it this way.

 This is truly a mystery, because I don't know any other way of being. What else could there be? 

Things are just the way they are, this way, and that's it. Right?

 Only by opening to a new inward quality of a very different kind can I begin to understand this in another way. It's true; there are times when something outward which was created from an inward influence may suddenly touch me; I may see how something was actually inspired by a force from a higher level, or understand how an idea comes from a place much more powerful than my usual intellectual wiseacrering. Yet this isn't quite enough, because to be exposed to things which arose because of such influences is different than coming under the influence itself. And I need to become open, to come under, such influences from within myself in order for any real action to take place.

This is why Meister Eckhart says that God must spur me to action from within. There is a place within the soul, within the living and organic tissue and structure of a man's Being, that can receive material from God; that can receive an energy that will catalyze a transformation of the inner state. Even a very small amount of this can make a big difference in life; and yet it's so rare to encounter even a little of it.

 The old masters knew that constant prayer was necessary. Not just prayer on my knees; prayer in supermarkets, prayer on highways, prayer in the gardens and prayer in the banks. And prayer cannot just be a repetition of prayer in me. 

I need to begin to understand prayer as a living action that arises within each moment of life.

Monday, September 24, 2012

What is will?

Something comes in the darkness and opens.

It doesn't have a name; I've never seen it before – I will never see it, it can only be sensed and felt and touched. It isn't me; it isn't mine. Yet it is of inestimable glory, and it speaks — in its own voice — without any words, about the fundamental nature of things.

I wake up very early this morning. This question, this experience, on my mind and in my body, as it always is when these things happen.

What is Will? Why should we develop it? Whose will are we concerned with? These are the questions that concern me this morning.

Yogis talk about developing Will — The whole practice of Hatha yoga is, in fact, about this. In this question, there is a presumption of power — that somehow, if I have real Will, I will have power.

But what kind of power? And power for what?

 Is it power to get to God, to attain the gates of Heaven? Do I have that power? Could I have such power at all?

Every conception I have of Will is my own conception. If I imagine myself having Will, it is my own Will. It belongs to me. I imagine I will do something with it — attain that enlightenment I want, or some such thing.

Yet everything in me that is attached to this is part of the problem. All of my will comes from this level; all of it belongs to this level. And if there is any Will at all that needs to be expressed or obtained, it is the influence of a Will from a higher level. Nothing could be more explicit than Christ's words: "Thy will be done." And yet this is exactly what I don't actually want, and don't understand. Do I see how everything I do is driven by my own will? I don't understand this. Even my wish to surrender to a higher influence comes from my own will.

Only when something other than my own Will arrives do I begin to understand how inadequate I am.

The expression of a different Will from a higher level comes in the darkness and opens. It doesn't have a name; yet, when I encounter it, I am of this level, and I name it. I am a man with a charcoal pencil drawing a tiny sketch of something enormous, equipped with rudimentary tools that can say very little. But I do try, and so I name it.

It is Authority; and it does not belong to me.

It has nothing to do with me. It arrives as a gift and forms something new in me; yet even that still isn't mine. It is precious, and it seems eternal; at any rate, it does to me, with what little I know of eternity, just a concept I have formed in my mind. It comes from everywhere; it touches everything. It has a comprehension, and a quieting stillness, which exceeds anything I can ever know.

This Authority is original. It arrives clothed in Grace; it has qualities I strive for, but never seem to reach, because they cannot belong to me. Again, the dilemma of Will; everything I presume to have or be able to have, I think I can get for myself.

Yet the only truly precious thing is this Authority, not my own authority; and I can't invoke it. Either it comes, or it doesn't; either way, it moves according to its own Will, not mine.

Moments like this leave me with the impression that I don't understand much of anything about this question. I use the word Will as though I understand what it is, what I am asking for, what I can get or what I can do with it.

 Yet when anything that touches this question of real Will arrives, I see that my own meanings are empty.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tantric Practice

We hear a good deal, in the West today, about Tantric practice from people involved in Buddhist or Yoga disciplines. The word itself, like the word kundalini, has interesting implications.

While Sanskrit words frequently have multiple meanings, the following meetings are germane to the question of practice:

Kunda (कुण्ड) means vessel. Kundalini means circular, or coiled. The relationship is clear enough; before the invention of the potter's wheel, most pottery was coil built. (click on the link to see a fine example.) Ancient craftsmen could make very nearly perfectly round vessels using this "primitive" method.

Tantra (तन्त्र) means loom in sanskrit. Weaving is one of mankind's most ancient crafts; we now know that it appears to been practiced even, perhaps, in the neolithic. (The Jacquard loom, incidentally, was the world's first automated computing device, and originally introduced the use of punchcards, a technology that drove computing from its inception in the middle of the 20th century.)

 Together, these simple words inform us regarding the nature of practice. Both relate to ancient crafts, some of the earliest creative actions in man's universe. They are not only creative; they are practical. We need vessels to hold water; we need clothes to cover us. 

So the idea of practice that is related to vessels and fabrics indicates a basic need, something that is fundamental to the enterprise of living. These are painstaking acts of assembly, with many stages, that take a great attention to detail and an understanding of the materials. If that sounds familiar, it should be. All religious practice displays these features. Some call religious practice an art; others claim it's a science. In the end, though, it combines both features. It is above all a creative craft, essential to life.
 In both ceramic coil building and loom weaving, separate elements are "spun" (figuratively, in the case of clay, which is actually rolled, and literally, in the case of fibers) into strands which are then interlaced together to produce a whole entity. So the idea of practice is the crafting and interlacing of many different related elements to create a whole vessel, or whole piece of fabric. The pieces used to assemble the pot or the piece of cloth only make sense in relationship to one another, and it is only through their interaction and cooperation that anything useful arises.

We are vessels into which the world flows; all of our impressions flow into us and gradually fill us over the course of a lifetime. So the idea of understanding ourselves as vessels is perhaps even more fundamental to the idea of kundalini yoga than the more colorful ideas about serpents or snakes.  In yoga, man is seen as a receiver  of sacred energies; we need to be intact, untouched, and whole in order to receive our lives. A vessel with a crack in it is unusable; and the potter needs to craft a symmetrical, harmonious, appropriate vessel of the right size, then fire it—an alchemical action that fuses the inner elements together.  The analogy to inner work is apparent.

 The idea of weaving is an equally compelling analogy. The transmission of the robe, or Kasaya, is a long-standing symbol of passing the authority from generation to generation in Zen. (Interested readers should refer to Dogen's Shobogenzo,  Chapter 13, Den-e, for a detailed account of this tradition.) And we find the tradition of specific vestments common to almost every religious practice, because practice is, above all, something we inhabit; a life discipline we craft and wear. Fabric is, in fact, more commonly used than any other material product in signifying value: flags, banners, and clothing itself are all used to express meaning within religious, cultural, and social contexts.  Human beings, in other words, instinctively understand fabric as a signifier of identity.

 Tantric practice, in its current form, is understood to mean adherence to doctrine of the tantras, that is to say, conforming to that which has been woven together.

 We take vessels such as glasses, pots and pans, etc, and the clothes we wear, for granted these days, because it's very easy to get them. We forget that in ancient times, the practices connected with manufacturing these things were intimate and personal, just as the practice of inner work is intimate and personal.  They were also intensely demanding;  no one who has spun yarn, woven cloth, or made pottery will underestimate the sheer intensity of effort required to reach any result in these crafts.

 So tantra and kundalini, words we have heard many times, ultimately reveal a long-standing connection between craftsmanship and religious practice that reaches back into the dawn of time.  They are not just part of a heritage of religious practice; they are part of a heritage and tradition of craftsmanship, of attention, of effort. They represent the roots of our humanity itself.

 Our ancestors were craftsmen. They were worshipers. And they were human beings. They understood all three of these aspects of their Being.

It's worth thinking about, the next time we pull on our jeans, or drink a glass of water.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Accepting all things through Christ

This morning, as I was sitting and engaging in my morning meditation and prayer, the phrase accept all things through Christ came to me spontaneously... emerging within me unexpectedly, as though it were a breeze that had blown up out of nowhere, and touched the tops of the reeds in the salt marsh on the river.

It brushed me; it touched me. I'm not quite sure what it meant; then again, these days, I'm not quite sure what anything means, and I'm inclined to take things as they come, without asking as many questions as I used to.

Or, perhaps, what I mean is, not assigning as many interpretations as I used to. The questions may still be there; after all, I don't know anything about what happens. But maybe there is less of an urgency in me about that now; even the act of questioning does not seem as important as being present to what comes. It could be that what comes will be a question; I'm a curious type, after all, constantly inquisitive. But maybe it won't be a question.  Maybe it will just be a state of receptivity, where there is a certain kind of clarity that penetrates through the fog of my daily abstractions.

Accept all things through Christ.

What does that mean? Something is trying to reach me. A force I don't know about or understand is attempting to inform me; and I resist. The resistance is my own; it's what I am. I am as I am, and that is what resists. Yet there is this possibility of understanding life through a force other than myself. And perhaps this idea of accepting all things through Christ is of that order.

Yet it's not an act of psychology or a theory; to me, today, it is an intimate touch that reaches down into the depths of the organism, a gentle reminder of the fact that I am alive, and at the same time a definite sensation of how absolutely vital that aliveness is. Such a sensation, perhaps, as I have never had; and maybe every sensation is like that, new, completely different. Maybe that's what being touched by Christ is like; having Him with me.

I don't know.

 One thing seems certain to me today. Christ is not about something that took place 2000 years ago; it is about something that takes place now. It is today. I have the opportunity to live the day through a different quality of attention and a different kind of energy than I usually do. I could make that the center of my day; I could put aside my objections, my quibbles, my petty arguments about how things should be this or that or the other way. I could just encounter and accept. Even now, that's a possibility. If I walk away from it, it's my own fault, and no one else's, because the intimacy of life calls to me from here, and from now.

As I said — I'm not sure what this means.

I just thought I'd pass it on to you; because I feel so distinctly that the return of Christ is not far away. Every white cloud in the blue sky seems to announce this; every bird sings it; every bee carries it on its wings, and it rests in spiderwebs, busy picking out concentric rings of daylight.

Monday, September 17, 2012

All Things are Blessed in the Lord

All things are Blessed in the Lord. 

A man can sense this through Grace. But there is no other way to sense it, try though he may, under his own agency.

For the blessing of the Lord is a living thing, and not something that stands still and waits for us. It is always in movement, and it only moves into us to the extent that we move into it with open arms. If we try to stay where we are and wait for Grace to come to us, it will never find us. We must rather go out into the world, taking every chance, and risking everything, in the hopes that we will encounter it.

It falls into us like the shadows of fences on sidewalks; green leaves, and the sun on an old building. It is, in other words, what we already know, what we have always known — and yet it is also the unknown, because the parts of us that know it are the parts of ourselves that we don’t know.

And what part of ourselves is it, which we don't know? It’s the part that is God. We all have that part — because we cannot be separated from God in reality, although we live in our imagination, where we are always separate from God. We think that by imagining — by creating an image that we believe in — that we are with God, but God is beyond images, and only insofar as we are beyond images are we with God.

The Lord’s wish for goodness is inside every action, even if the action itself does not appear to have goodness in it. This is a mystery; and it is only manifest in accordance with the energy a man receives from Grace, whether or not he can understand this. For surely terrible things will happen; and only through Grace can any of it be understood.

The irony of it is that if Grace were in action in man, no terrible things would happen, except the terrible things that happen by themselves, of nature, and not in man. And even those would be tolerable under such circumstances. But most men know nothing of Grace and don't believe in Grace, in fact, Grace has never touched them directly. So one lacks trust; and without trust, how can Grace enter anything? It’s like expecting a man to be able to enter a woman, if the woman does not trust him. We are all women; and God can’t enter us if we do not trust God. Not because God is unable; God can do all things. He could enter us as He wished, if He were that way, if He used his Wrath or Force rather than His Mercy to be in relationship with us. But He will not do that; and so a man or woman must become the bride, waiting for the bridegroom.

Yet one doesn't want to wait for anyone, even God, because one is selfish and in a hurry.

So one rushes past God and all the good things God gives. And what good does that do one? One has worldly things, and all the things that belong to the earth, but one does not have God, and so everything that belongs to the earth is worthless. Found in God and through God, the earth is the greatest of treasures; without God, it is hell. And mankind has proved this over and over again throughout history, because he goes on creating hell over and over again.

Hell is a complicated place, and full of many problems. Heaven is unutterably simple, and it finds its rest in every ray of light. It's in the call of small birds, and the crispness of leaves on the ground; it is in worn stones and the sharp breath of tired dogs.

All of this is given to man, if he wants it. And these things could come in any moment, and do come in every moment; and they could be with us always—but not only in one way; in a thousand different ways that change as often as the moment changes. For such is Grace.

And we must open our hearts to feel it in every moment, for such is God, that He wants to be with us in every moment. And if we want to be with Him in any moment or every moment, He will allow it, but only as much as we allow it ourselves.

So one ought not look for Grace where one expects to find it, or expect Grace to find one as one expects it to be. It comes as a strange thing filled with Love, which one has never known before. It holds nothing back; one expects things to have a beginning and an end, but Grace has no beginning and has no end, and so it is nothing like one is, or what one expects.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Chinese Medicine

Some of the people I know are interested in Chinese medicine. They thrive on alternative medicine practices, and traditional Chinese medicine—with its thousands of years of history—holds a great attraction. The belief, I think, begins with the idea that anything herbal has to be more “natural” and hence better for you. The fact that many herbs are poisonous or even deadly is edited out of this picture up front.

 I spend a lot of time in China, and I happen to know that the average Chinese person would definitely rather have Western medicine than Chinese medicine. They consider it more effective.  They commonly express concern that because traditional Chinese medicine isn't that effective, the Chinese medicine industry illegally spikes many different herbal concoctions with antibiotics and other Western medicines, so that they will work better. My Chinese friends claim that it's a shooting gallery taking the stuff; in many cases you don't know exactly what you're getting. I've actually even been warned by some of them not to use it. "Better go see a regular western-style doctor," they say to me when I need medical care in Shanghai, gently amused by American interest in what they consider to be outdated folk practices.

Furthermore, as you can see from the picture above (taken in a major Shanghai hospital in the herbal department) Chinese medicine is a mass-market business. The herbs are not gathered by stooped-over little old men and women in pastoral environments; they are grown in huge amounts  on large commercial farms, and shipped to hospitals just like any other factory-farmed product.

It's very possible, knowing China, that pesticides are used on these herbs while they are being grown. The country has been wracked by one contaminated-food scandal after another over the last 2 years, and pesticide use is definitely under less control than in Western agriculture... which ought to frighten just about everyone.

No one tells Americans who take Chinese medicine about that.

 That's not to knock Chinese medicine. For people who want to take it, it seems fine to me, presuming you're okay with the risks. Furthermore, some of my very best friends are adept practitioners of alternative medicine, and I fully support them. We have room for both practices, I think, and the emotive value alone of such therapies is not to be dismissed, under any circumstances.

 What interests me about all of this is that to many Americans, the other's tradition often seems better than our own; yet we rarely pause to think that it might work the other way around as well.

To the Chinese, Western science is not just a tradition; it's a cultural practice they would like to adopt, and are doing so to great effect. Chinese people are eager to educate themselves and avail themselves of modern technology.  They are producing some of the most advanced science—including medical science—in the world. They don't have inhibitions about it produced by religious fundamentalists, as a significant portion of America does. This is one of the reasons Asian cultures represent the future of scientific and medical innovation. They believe in evolution—and in science.

  In the meantime, westerners enthusiastically embrace their medical folk traditions, all of which date from an era where the average lifespan was— objectively—less than half of what it is today.   No one has been able to explain to me why modern Western medicine, which is what achieved the doubling of the human lifespan, gets a bad reputation in some alternative communities, any more than they have been able to explain why all the food we are eating is so terrible, while we live twice as long as people did several hundred years ago, when everything was indisputably organic, and all the medicines were herbal.

 Why are we so attracted to traditions different than our own, and so determined to see them as more valid?  And why is the old always better than the new, when it comes to these things?

Worldwide, there's a longstanding cultural myth—yes, a tradition—in which human societies engage in conspiracy theories, firmly believing that their own culture is scamming them in one way or another. Our own governments, political systems, corporations, churches, priests, lawyers, doctors, and so on, are all secretly out to get us. "They" are hiding the truth. I've heard this so often over the years I'm tired of it. One would think, in America, that the majority of the population is engaged in evil, nefarious plots to take us down. In such minds, even the horrific events of 9/11 morph into a U.S. government plot.

Among some people I know, common Christianity takes a bad rap, and is treated with thinly veiled contempt; yet popular Buddhism somehow comes off with a clean bill of health, ignoring the fact that the deeply Buddhist culture of Japan produced individuals who committed some of the most awful atrocities of the Second World War. (Ask the Chinese about that sometime.)  It doesn't quite add up, does it?

We have a rejecting attitude towards ourselves. This isn't just a part of our culture; it comes from our own inner lives. Rejection begins at home.

 A view of our own culture, our own medicine, or our own science as deficient and out to deceive us exhibits a kind of paranoia, I think, that doesn't serve us well. It's certainly possible for us to more actively acknowledge the value in our own traditions, as well as those of others.

 One of my friends got Lyme disease last year.  An ardent naturalist, they tried to treat it homeopathically, right up until severe neurological symptoms began to turn up. At last, they agreed to take an aggressive course of antibiotics—which stopped the disease. Another course of action could've ended up ruining their life, and perhaps even taking it.

I think it underscores the fact that there are limits to our ideals which we need to recognize, in any practical world, and deal with.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Many People, Many Dogs

This is a picture taken from the banks of the Hudson River early one morning in August of this year.

I walk my dog Isabel along this section of the river every day. I've been doing this for years; it's a routine. Lately Isabel has been getting older, and the walk—over 2 miles, and up a very steep hill to the top of the Palisades—is more difficult for her. It reminds me that no situation is permanent, despite the tradition and ritual that accompanies it. I believe in this person, and this dog—but there are many people, and many dogs.  We won't last, but the dogs and the people will.

 A good deal of the best poetry I've produced over the last three years materializes on these walks. Perhaps it seems a bit ridiculous to believe that doing the same thing over and over can bring anything new... but it can, can't it? Doing the same thing over and over isn't doing the same thing over and over; everything is constantly new.

This isn't to say that repetitious behavior is of necessity creative. Yet the age-old adage that insanity is the definition of expecting to do the same old thing and expecting new results is obviously false. It's not doing the same old thing that is a problem; it's my idea that what I am doing is the same old thing.

So it isn't the action, but the attitude; the action isn't one person and one dog. It's the attitude that's one person and one dog. In reality, every moment, there's a new person and a new dog; I ought to have some respect for that. But instead my attitude is nonchalant, dismissive: here I am. It's the same old me. And the same old dog.

Somehow, the creative energy that flows in this (for me) ritualistic tradition of the walk along the river transcends the same old me and the same old dog. There are moments when I see that nothing is the same, and nothing is old. The idea that things are the same is just an idea; the idea that things are old is just an idea.

Nothing is the same, and nothing is old.

Everything is right now, and it's just exactly where it is.

Moments like this go into the body like an electric shock. Not a violent one, that produces anguish and dismay; rather, an enlivening vibration, an unexpected sensitivity.

I see that there are rivers, and there are dogs. I'm here to see that. And there is something extraordinary about that moment, because rivers are not rivers, and dogs are not dogs. Even I myself am not myself. Something much bigger than all of this is going on.

What is it?

There's an emptiness in that question. There's a search going on; and when a poem arrives, it's only real if it doesn't contain what it alludes to—that's the essence, after all, of allusion. It can't mention, allegorically speaking, a dog and a person—but it has to leave plenty of room for many people and many dogs to walk around in it. This, I think, is the danger realized in a great deal of poetry; I put things into it, whereas what I ought to be doing is taking things out of it.

There is always something new on my walks; but it's only when I take myself out of it, when I am no longer myself, that there is something new there. So when I stick this thing called me into life, I can't see life. I only see me, seeing life. I  don't see the dog: I see me seeing the dog. It's a koan; every walk is exactly the same unanswerable question.

 I remember living on the banks of the Elbe River in Hamburg, Germany when I was a child. The Elbe and the Hudson are remarkably alike; the side of the river I lived on (near Blankenese) had a high embankment, like the Hudson, and the river was broad and wide at that point.

We'd drive along the river almost every day on our way somewhere or other my mother, my sister Sarah and I; and my mother would often remark to us in wonder that the river never looked the same way twice in a row.

There was something absolutely magical about its ability to transform itself, even in the midst of the mundane.

 Rivers do that.

Maybe people can do that, too.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


I don't always think of it this way, but clouds are water, too.

 A great deal of what I encounter is water. All of biological life is organized around it; trees, plants, animals, people—everything is mostly water.

 I got to thinking about this after my last somewhat grim post, and then running into this article on the shortage of water around the planet. An irony on a planet whose surface is rich in water, and where more and more ice is melting.

 I don't really understand water. I depend on it, utterly, and yet it's more or less taken for granted. People in societies where you can get water don't spend a lot of time worrying about it. The idea that there are places and even whole populations in drought conditions who are desperate for it, or poisoned by it because of pollution or contamination, is remote. And water is a chemical, a substance: something clinical, a matter for public utilities, engineers, and scientists to manage. Who wants to think about it? I just want to turn on my faucet and have it.

...But I don't always think about it this way, either.

This morning, I stand in the shower under a stream of clean, warm water, because I'm one of those individuals—there are few of us, measured in percentages—fortunate enough to live in a place where this is possible.  There is no stall, no modern sliding doors; our bathtub is charmingly outdated. It's a claw-footed, enameled iron dinosaur dating from the early part of the 20th century, with a rounded bottom that makes it increasingly difficult for me to keep my balance as I grow older.

Less charming, that. We are not completely at peace with one another, I admit, but I venerate it because of its retro nature. And in the oblong cocoon of the shower curtains, every morning, the whole world shrinks down to a single moment.

  The situation is mundane and ordinary enough. Yet suddenly I see where I am;  I spontaneously assume a position of prayer, hands one on top of another, held out under the water, my head tilted slightly upward.

I'm receiving a special form of grace. My body welcomes the water, and  there is nothing but gratitude in me for being in relationship with it.

This could be the best moment of the day. Of any day.

This is life. I am in it.

This simple moment, taken in as a deeper kind of impression, is a sacred event. Every encounter I have with water is, ultimately, a sacred event. Yet it's hard to remember that if what I'm doing is washing the dishes, spraying the car down with the hose, or getting that horrid skunk smell off the famous dog Isabel.

 Yet I remember countless moments when water is glorious, and there are many of them.

Every thunderstorm I've ever seen.

A moment when I was 14 years old, watching waves rolling in off the coast of the Algarve, the sun gleaming off them like it held the secret of life— and in that moment, for me, I think it did.

Rainbows soaring up over the George Washington Bridge like all the hope in the world was pouring down onto Manhattan at once.

The moment  of the full moon in September when baby snapping turtles, sensing the rain, break through the shell of their eggs with their egg tooth and dash madly towards the Sparkill creek.

When I look back, the majority of my life has been spent in a deep, yet largely unrecognized, relationship with water in its countless iterations.

Thinking of water in technical terms is necessary, because I have to be practical about conserving it and using it. Or at least, I ought to be. The fact is that my failure to remember this substance is sacred, a precious thing, causes me to be cavalier about it.

The forecast is for rain tonight.  From the moment when the first drop falls, to the moment when the last drop falls, all of it might be a reminder that I'm not in control of things—

Just in relationship with them.

It's a thought to carry forward with me.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Wall Wharf

We ignore science at our peril.

Somewhere on the order of 30 years ago, as I recall, a study of ocean floor cores and the glacial till from icebergs in the northern Atlantic revealed that glaciers can melt very, very quickly. So quickly, in fact, that some researchers involved in the project felt the pulses of melting that produced the debris on the ocean floor must have taken place in a matter of decades, where huge ice sheets simply disappeared. At the time, some researchers who heard about their hypothesis were incredulous.

Less so now.

It's not unreasonable to presume that a tipping point of the kind we are at could produce a situation where the oceans don't rise a few feet per century, but a few feet per year. The total amount of additional solar energy being absorbed by the water in the northern part of the planet as a result of ice loss—something that is now actually taking place, regardless of what one wants to argue the reason is— is simply enormous, so large that it probably can't be calculated with any ease. One thing is certain: the more ice that melts, the more ice can melt. Perhaps we should call it the un-snowball effect.

Anyone who presumes that we are going to be looking at business as usual in weather and ocean levels going forward is simply naïve. Things are already changing in a very big way, and much faster than anyone- even the worst pessimists- thought they would or could. And no one can deny that ocean levels have, at times in the geologic past, been much, much higher than they are today. The evidence is incontrovertible. 

It's highly unlikely, in my opinion, that any change in human carbon emissions will have an affect on this trend. Such a change, first of all, seems basically unimaginable at present, and in the second place, the current warming trend is already well-established, and will probably take some centuries to reverse.

The question is what mankind is going to do about large portions of its current coastlines disappearing under 10,  20, or even 50 or 100 feet of water. This coastline currently contains a great deal of the most valuable real estate on earth, and represents a net loss of hundreds of trillions of dollars to economies and nations.

Every problem this change creates will be a huge economic problem, as well as a social and political problem. Yet not a single world leader talks seriously about it.

I guess we will get to see what Wall Street thinks of it once the water starts lapping at the feet of the buildings in lower Manhattan. 

Maybe we'll rename it Wall Wharf.

Sunday, September 2, 2012


 To venerate is to regard with great respect; to adore, to revere.

Humanity collectively venerates its great traditions. This is the reasoning of tradition: it has inherent value, it transmits important ideas from one generation to the next. This is what makes it worth venerating. Mankind has any number of spiritual traditions; over the course of thousands of years, many have sprouted, flowered, withered, and died. Many have set seed. It's easy to forget this, unless one is standing in the ruins of an ancient temple somewhere, which might be a temple from a completely forgotten religion, such as Göbekli Tepe in Turkey—a temple so old we know absolutely nothing of the people who built it, or how they worshipped. Yet it's certain that in the end, they were people much like us, with the same loves and fears; and some tangible vestige of their practice undoubtedly resides in today's religions.

 Aside from what are ultimately a handful of obscure shamanistic practices still in the hands of what remains of tribal peoples around the world—an objectively dwindling population—there are only a few Great Traditions extant on the planet right now, yet almost all of them undoubtedly spring from these much earlier, and to some extent unknown, roots, which reach all the way back into the Paleolithic: Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and their satellite practices.

 All of these traditions are venerated; all of them come into relationship together in our time, beginning in individual men, and then in cultures. They've been the cause of great wars; they have also been the cause of some of the greatest human achievements in philosophy, art, and music. Like all human things on the planet, their influences are polarized, and they create friction as well as harmony. Yet our traditions are venerated by everyone except atheists—and the atheists are few, no matter how shrill their tiny voices may seem in modern Western societies.

 Strangely, it's veneration itself that creates the friction. For some unexplained reason, men who venerate one thing will sometimes hate the other; they are often unable to see that the other is exactly like they are. Hence the fear and loathing many fundamentalist Jews, Christians, and Muslims have for one another.  They all belong to Abrahamic religions; their root traditions are identical (all originally derive from the Old Testament); and each one shares a deeply conservative view of society, with remarkably similar values, which they intensely insist are radically different from one another.

All of this contradictory behavior springs from an inherent wish for the good. So it's the veneration—the deep respect, the adoration—of these valued traditions that are transmitted that actually causes conflicts the traditions advise should not take place.

This does not make veneration bad. Veneration in itself is a right thing. But in venerating the past, venerating the tradition, perhaps men forget that their traditions must be alive today. They must not just be alive today; they must be alive immediately, that is, right now.

If my religious practice, my tradition, says that I must not harm my fellow man, and I wish to venerate it, I can't make up exceptions to that rule. Right now, I must not harm my fellow man. Right now, I must have the most compassionate attitude I can. Right now, I must show mercy to my enemies. And I forget that.

For some strange reason, the idea that tradition takes place right now doesn't seem to quite make sense to us. Tradition is in the past, somehow—it's what already took place, not what is taking place.  Isn't that what the word means? But tradition is actually forming itself in this instant, and it is always forming itself. It's not some dead thing that already took place—and it can't be frozen into ice cubes and dispensed in cocktails later, when we finally decide that it's a good thing and should be used.

 So spiritual traditions have to meet now, in the hearts and minds of men and women. Men and women can only venerate and honor their traditions by affirming them now.

 It seems to me that all of the Great Traditions share a number of Great Principles, which are supposedly inviolable: Love. Compassion. Mercy. These principles are supposed to overshadow, to stand above, and to inform every other action. No matter what exception a man wants to graft on to them, they are supposedly superior to it.

To be sure, the complexities of the world make it difficult to remember this. But every Great Tradition, is, in the end, an inner tradition practiced by a man or a woman. So veneration begins with an inner action.

And every Great Tradition meets in any instance when men and women, even two of them, meet together. You may be reminded of what Christ said:

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

 The words may come from Jesus, but they belong to every tradition.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Known

...You knew I was going to follow up the last post with this one, didn't you?

There is a general belief that I know things. I know this, I know that. I know what I am doing today, I know how people ought to behave, I know what ought to be done to fix the mess this country is in, and so on.

The difficulty with the known is that it all relies on associations. Knowing is a subjective assignment of relativity. Given the  astronomically high number of associations even a single human being can generate (after all, our neural network creates trillions of electrical signals in relationship to one another every second) I have to confess that things in me could be quite different. I can know things one way, or I can know them another way. Knowing changes. It changes, in fact, according to the moment that is known.

When one states this in such a way, it seems so obvious as to eclipse the fact that I more or less insist that my knowing is a static thing. Like everyone else I know, I believe that my knowing is fixed, intelligent, and applicable under a wide range of circumstances. It isn't. No matter how much knowing I do, it applies to a very narrow range of experience within a very brief lifetime. Every human being is stuck in the middle of this dilemma, believing that their own knowing is somehow universal; that it applies to everything, when in fact the opposite is true. We are all, in the end, idiots, in the sense of the original Greek root idios, meaning, private—that is, something belonging only to that particular individual, and no one else...  ahem... you suspected that already anyway, didn't you?

Knowing, in other words, as I know it, is the collapse of an infinite number of probabilities and actualities into a tiny black hole (me) where they circle around, trying to draw more material into their gravity pool. The ego is what forms this black hole—light goes in, but it doesn't come out, and the ego is constantly spinning at a very rapid rate, attempting to suck everything of the world it can into itself so that it can grow.

The analogy may be colorful, but our hunger for knowledge is legion. Yesterday, while perusing material in preparation for the upcoming issue of Parabola on Science and Spirit, I (inevitably) came across Christopher Marlowe's Faustus, a classic story where a man's (idiot's) lust for knowledge leads to perdition.

The story seems to be about someone else, but in a certain sense, it's about all of us. It may well be that the story's excessive reliance on images of hell and heaven, consequent to the fact that it is firmly placed in a Christian universe, are wholly inadequate to the present day, but the message is universal.  I want to know everything; and primarily, I want this because I want power—I want to feed my ego. It's a matter of wanting to be superior not only to others, but to the world itself... ah, yes,  and then comes the noble wish for repentance. Cilices don't necessarily rid people of this impulse, although I hear they certainly create a lot of itching.

 There are any number of religious practices and cosmologies which see man as a miniature model of the cosmos. Assuming we sign on to this idea, it's not surprising to find that there is a black hole at the center of us driving the galaxy we live in...  it's absolutely consistent. And perhaps it's not surprising to see that it feeds on what we think we know— on information. (That, in point of fact, is exactly what black holes subsist on—information, in the form of organized matter.) Earth's surface, poor thing, is covered with 6 or more billion tiny little human vortexes, each one of which is sucking in all of the impressions it can of life, all of whom believe they know what is best.  If one wrote up a plan on how to produce chaos, this one would work exceedingly well. And it does.

Nature has produced some societies that don't work in this way. Beehives are a great example. I'm a beekeeper, and I'm always amazed at the dedication of every individual bee to cooperation and the health of the community. How unlike us they are! No wonder they have been admired by philosophers, friars, and farmers alike for so many generations. (Funny how we never hear politicians mention them, isn't it?)

Bees know few things, but they put them to exceedingly intelligent use.

It's fair to say that human beings, with our much more complicated brains, are doomed, whether we  like it or not, to know far more than bees. It suggests that I ought to put what I know to even better use than bees do, but I'm nowhere near as cooperative or a social as they are.

Why? If I know so much, how come mere insects do so much a better job of this than I do?

 I wish I knew.