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.