poetry, spirtuality

Standing Under Stones of Suffering and Wonder

Sentence

The body of a starving horse cannot forget the size it was born to.

Jane Hirshfield

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A few weeks ago, I listened to the rain come down all night and thought about the grief people live with, the suffering that doesn’t go away. In our neighborhood lives a peacock that calls out through day and night. It’s mating season for peacocks, a season that goes on for four months. During this time, the peacock cries out for a mate. There is no peahen in our neighborhood, however, so the peacock’s cries echo down the valley day and night. His calls will never be answered. I hear his calls, and consider how many across the world whose needs for housing, food, clothing, clean water, clean air, or health care are never met. Suffering abounds. To live in this world is to participate in its suffering. How do we meet the suffering in the world and in our own lives? How do we cultivate the strength of spirit to be able to endure the suffering that will inevitably come to us all as we eventually approach our own deaths?

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As Hirshfield’s describes in her short poem above, it feels a kind of punishment or sentence to remember what you once had or could do but are no longer able to because of physical limitations caused by accident, disease, declining health or age. But our lives don’t continue on in the same state over time. Living things change and age. We need to be able to look our own mortality in the face, yet this is very hard to do. We don’t gain inner strength to deal with these changes over night. We need to prepare for it through our lifetime. 

Perhaps we have such difficulty with suffering because little in our culture prepares us to live with it, to understand or to transcend it. We don’t see suffering as as a part of life and don’t know how to learn from it. Most of us want to avoid suffering and reject pain. People prefer to be powerful and strong, not weak and suffering.

When we suffer, we tend to feel reduced and limited. The world shrinks. William Stafford’s poem, “How To Regain Your Soul,” describes a way to respond to suffering that enlarges and renews.

Come down Canyon Creek trail on a summer afternoon
that one place where the valley floor opens out. You will see
the white butterflies. Because of the way shadows
come off those vertical rocks in the west, there are
shafts of sunlight hitting the river and a deep
long purple gorge straight ahead. Put down your pack.

Above, air sighs the pines. It was this way
when Rome was clanging, when Troy was being built,
when campfires lighted caves. The white butterflies dance
by the thousands in the still sunshine. Suddenly, anything
could happen to you. Your soul pulls toward the canyon
and then shines back through the white wings to be you again.

One way to deal with suffering or difficulty the poem suggests, is to wander out into nature because in doing so you enable yourself to view your ills from a broader perspective. As Stafford suggests, in nature we can find a place where the world opens again, and as the poem describes, the shadows you see coming off the hard, sheer places in your life leading toward nightfall and the west are now the very thing enabling you also to see light on the river leading through the canyon walls. This is a place to observe deeply. It’s worth spending time to understand, and the stanza closes by saying, “Put down your pack.” When we suffer, it takes time to absorb the reality that your suffering could also bring you a new life source that will lead you through the rock-walled gorge of your experience. It’s worth spending time being present with this understanding–simply taking it in.

The poem’s second stanza begins with air stirring the pines. Lightness enters in. Breath. When we take time to rest in the awareness of this new state were in, we make space for something new to enter our awareness. Stafford recognizes that world we inhabit may be weighted with heavy gravity. He relates the ancient struggles of Rome and Troy, to the beginnings of human civilization living in caves. The very words Rome and Troy echo with sounds of war. We know struggle and work are part of civilizations’ foundation and history. But these descriptions of civilization’s efforts are held together in the poem’s stanza on either side by air breathing through the pines and light lifting and illuminating the wings of butterflies. Stafford reminds us this is what it is to be human. Heaviness and struggle are required for existence, yes. But present alongside the weight and effort is the magnificence of the larger world–the stunning ephemeral qualities of existence itself–the butterflies dancing in the still sun by the thousands–those resplendent moments where beauty captures and leads us into a place toward the sublime, moments where time seems to stand still, and for an instance we taste what it is to step inside eternity. Caught in an experience of what Abraham Joshua would name as “radical wonder,” the world opens. “Suddenly, anything/ could happen to you,” writes Stafford. We see now how we can inhabit our bodies as our “soul pulls toward the canyon,” the difficult and narrow places. We are are body, and we are spirit–light shining through wings.

We get used to the way things are or have been going along in our lives, and tend to think that is the way it always has been or will be. The earth and everything in it, however, is in a state of transition. At Pinnacles National Park  in California, you can walk past gargantuan boulders and through caves made as a result of volcanic explosions, landslides, the slipping of tectonic plates on the San Andreas Fault, and erosion–both natural and chemical. The result today, millions of years later, is an amazing place of incredible beauty and biodiversity. We want to understand why we suffer and how to be released from suffering. When examining the earth we walk on, however, we can realize that it, too, has endured great change and many other life forms on earth have endured pain as result.

The great Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said,  “We may doubt anything, except that we are struck with amazement. When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question. Doubts may be resolved, radical amazement can never be erased. There is no answer in the world to [our] radical wonder. Under the running sea of our theories and scientific explanations lies the aboriginal abyss of radical amazement.” (Man Is Not Alone, p. 13) The result of the fissures, volcanos and erosion is, in the end, great beauty. Maybe instead of seeking an answer to our suffering we want to seek ways to stand under the light breaking through the cracks in our life’s hard and heavy rocks where we can experience wonder.

 

poetry, Wonder

Falling Into Wonder

to my aunt blanche
who rolled from grass to driveway
into the street one sunday morning.

—Lucille Clifton, “Praise Song,”

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Aunt Blanche in Lucille Clifton’s “Praise Song” reminds me of the many times I’ve told myself I’m going to do (or not do) something, only to metaphorically fall off the lawn regarding commitments I had made to myself. Clifton’s poem presents the reader with Aunt Blanche standing in the yard with her family, experiencing the day together. It’s a Sunday, a day of relaxation, and a time to gather with family. Things seem to be going fine until, boom, down goes Aunt Blanche, slipping off the yard and into the street! Clifton explains that Aunt Blanche had a basketball body, indicating her aunt likely hasn’t practiced the habit of healthy eating, or she probably wouldn’t be as round as a basketball. In spite of her love of food, or even perhaps because of it, Aunt Blanche is a resilient woman: basketballs bounce, and this is exactly what Aunt Blanche does; she bounces up from the street, and out of danger’s way.

It’s interesting to note that Aunt Blanche’s family doesn’t run into the street to rescue her. Clifton explains that as a ten year old observing her aunt’s fall, she “understood/ little or nothing of what it meant,” but she had faith in her aunt to get up from the humbling event. “Praise to the faith with which she rose,” writes Clifton, describing her belief in her Aunt’s ability to return to the family. Thankfully, Aunt Blanche has enough wits about her to recognize she was in danger, and works to get her self out of the possibility of further harm from oncoming cars. Drivers, too, see the situation Aunt Blanche is in, and respond by moving out of the way, so as to not harm her. Then, similar to the father who waited for the Prodigal Son to return home, Aunt Blanche’s family, too, waits for her with open arms as she climbs out of the street and rejoins them on the grass: an occasion for praise. The horror that might have happened didn’t. Aunt Blanche sighs a bit, showing her dismay at her own behavior, but doesn’t stay in the road carrying on about how silly she was. Neither does she blame anything or anyone in her situation. She simply gets herself out of danger’s way, and walks back to her family, a place she knows she is safe, a place she belongs. When we fall, rather than judging or blaming, we all want to know there’ll be open arms waiting for us when we rejoin others. As Clifton indicates, such an attitude of acceptance is “like God.”

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People are social beings who need to feel they belong and are respected by those in their group. What stories do we tell ourselves about those experiences where we fall that allows us to bounce back up like Aunt Blanche, dust ourselves off, forgive ourselves, and walk back onto the lawn and continue conversation with others because we understand that in the bigger picture of things, falling is part of the learning process? How might societies as a whole create ways of reacting to those who have fallen so that they can be drawn into the arms of others?

Poet and physician Rafaelo Campo, describes one of those ways in his poem, “What I Would Give.” Many of us carry a fear of falling ill, and Campo’s poem describes the fear people carry when they come to see him for medical help. The poem specifically mentions fears regarding lungs and melanoma, but these are merely examples of the myriad fears we carry with us from day to day: fears that our bodies won’t hold up under the activities we plan to undertake, fears about appearance, fears we won’t complete our work on time or meet people’s expectations, fears about how a new change we are making will affect our family or relationships, so many fears. Campo describes in his poem that what he wants to offer people, though, is “not the usual prescription with/ its hubris of the power to restore,/ to cure.” Perhaps because Campo is not only a doctor but also a poet, he understands that wellness is more expansive than physical wellness alone. It’s also connected to our emotional and social wellbeing, and how these are intertwined with our relationship to the physical environment.

Not all illnesses, aches or pain lead to recovery. If a person has arthritis, for example, she doesn’t get better. The disease progresses. When I see a person walking with a cane, I think of how challenging it is for that person to live with pain and ongoing suffering. Campo’s vision of healing moves beyond the elimination of pain to a wider plane. Even if we can’t be cured, his poem infers, we can be well. How that is possible, Campo suggests, is by opening ourselves to wonder.

I’d like to give them my astonishment
at sudden rainfall like the whole world weeping,
and how ridiculously gently it
slicked down my hair; I’d like to give them that,
the joy I felt while staring in your eyes
as you learned epidemiology
(the science of disease in populations),
the night around our bed like timelessness,
like comfort, like what I would give to them.

IMG_6938These lines show the wisdom of purposefully looking beyond disease and suffering to affirm the gifts abounding around us—to notice what is perhaps commonplace in life, yet amazing: rain falling gently on hair, or joy lighting the eyes of a loved one in the discovery of something new. Campo draws our attention to the idea that wholeness doesn’t have to mean a perfectly attuned body and mind. Healing is a part of a bigger dynamic of how we relate to both the natural world and to those around us. Seeing our connection to the physical world, and delighting in relationships with those around us can enable us to move beyond isolated suffering, and into seeing ourselves as part of the greater whole. It is this “seeing” that makes us whole again, even in our incompleteness. This is the larger healing Campo wants to give. Strength to deal with the pain (and the etymology of “comfort” is to intensify strengthening) comes from finding a way to stay in love with life even amidst struggle and pain. When we let ourselves reconnect to an awareness of life’s enormous gift, we lose ourselves into timelessness. In the process, we find a larger self. Even in the midst of danger, we feel safe, so that even “the night around our bed,” whether a bed of illness leading to death, or the bed of simple sleep, is a place of “comfort.” We can be at home with what is.

All illnesses, discomforts, failures, and “falls,” are opportunities to practice reframing suffering and pain within a wider perspective. Suffering and pain can engender compassion and gratitude, but we have to cultivate those qualities. Some people at an early age are faced with challenges or disabilities requiring them to grapple with how to live with great hardship. To be at home with whatever life gives us is extremely difficult. This is a journey that requires practice, likely years of practice, perhaps a lifetime. When you are ill, you recognize what a gift it is to be well, to be able to walk, to see, to breathe. I lived in a city with air quality so poor that it’s rare to see a cloud or blue sky, as I did for nine years in Delhi, taping the front door each night to reduce the smell of smoke. To see a blue sky filled with clouds large as mountains, for me, is truly a wonder, not a commonplace fact. Practicing gratitude in times of ongoing suffering or pain enables us to recognize we are connected to something bigger than our grief and our pain, and allows us the opportunity to identify with others around the world who suffer too.

Thoreau, in his experiment in living simply at Walden Pond, said he “went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I want to live deeply. When I work, I give myself to that work fully, but I must remind myself to guard my energy, and practice purposefully widening my view—attending my ear and heart to the possibilities that allow connections to the natural world to surface. I need to practice making room for both work and wonder. “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living,” writes the Jewish scholar, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and like Heschel, I want to walk in wonder.

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community, spirtuality

What Makes Love Last?

-how fortunate are you and i,whose home  is timelessness:we who have wandered down  from fragrant mountains of eternal now  to frolic in such mysteries as birth  and death a day(or maybe even less)

E.E. Cummings, “stand with your lover on the ending earth-” 

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Redwoods, Nisene Marks State Park, CA

I will soon be celebrating the marriage of one of my family members that has lasted several decades, 40 years to be exact, and I’ve been giving some thought as to what it is that enables a love relationship to endure over such an extended period of time. When my parents were in their 60’s, I interviewed them about their lives, asking how it was they met and married. My parents married during the Great Depression and it was a simple affair–no party, no special wedding dress, no photos. It was a regular day except they got married, and that event changed their lives. Neither of them emphasized the romantic aspect of their relationship in relating their history to me, and yet I never doubted that they loved each other and were committed to the relationship even though there was a period of years that my father lived away from home managing jobs in other states and came home once or twice a month. What was it that enabled their love to endure through time? Communication seemed an important key to my parents’ connection to each other. I remember hearing the low hum of my parents’ voices through the walls in the mornings and after we children went to bed. There was also a a commitment to the relationship in the bigger, long-term sense–that they were there for each other and for their children, even when apart. During WWII Dad worked in Hawaii, and also worked out of town for a number of years when I was in junior high and high school–but my parents wrote each other letters frequently and regularly made trips to be with each other. Dad wrote stories and poems that he shared with us as well.

My parents were also committed to being there for people in the larger community–to helping neighbors, friends and other people that they came in contact with or learned about that needed help. Dad built and repaired things for many people, and brought people turkeys at holidays, for example, while Mom sewed quilts and clothes for others. My parents didn’t live simply to improve their own lives, they contributed to their community. Helping others was an important part of living. Together they embodied what Martin Seligman in his study of the science behind of what creates a meaningful life has found–that people who feel their lives offer them a deep sense of meaningful fulfillment are those that use their personality strengths for a purpose larger than themselves. Much of this kind of caring, this love, can be carried on without words. It is a way of being together. Love is given in the tone inside and underneath the words, and is the mood inside the actions spoken with the body. As one of my friends told me, “A lot of what love is is simply showing up–being there for each other.”

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Forest Path, Nisene Marks State Park, CA

Being there for each other. What does that look like? The Buddhist leader and monk from Vietnam Thich Nhat Hahn in an interview with Oprah, explained when asked if he meditates every day, that he is also meditating “while drinking, while talking, while writing, while watering our garden, it’s always possible to practice living in the here and the now.” (Read more on the Oprah website “Oprah Talks to Thich Nhat Hahn” here.) Thay (as Thich Nhat Hahn is also called) goes on to say that when sitting with someone, “Darling I am here for you,” is his mantra. He explains. “When you love someone, the best you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there? ” This attitude of a listening heart is what I mean by showing up for the ones you love: in your full being you are intentionally, consciously present. You are listening not just to the other person’s words and actions, but to his or her heart, to the silences and things the person can’t quite articulate, even if you’re not sure what everything means that you are hearing or noticing. You are present for the other with your full self, and you work to know who you are so you can give yourself in a caring, open way.

Pamela Dussault in her The Huffington Post article, “5 Essential Steps to a Happy, Enduring Relationship” suggests that couples need to know their purpose for being together. The base for the relationship rather than focused on fear or the desire to control, has the focus of sharing life of companionship. Also, she describes that enduring relationships are those where partners have the ability to give and receive without having expectations. Lastly, she says partners in happy relationships connect with each other both emotionally and spiritually, appreciating the partner’s uniqueness.  A key, she suggests is that “your partner must be seen, loved, appreciated and cherished for who they are, as they are.”

Romantic love has been central to the idea of marriage in the Western world since the time of the Middle Ages and the troubadours when knights accomplished their deeds for the love of their lady. While enduring love can include romance as well as traditions, negotiating between both passion and what makes a love stable, creating a relationship of lasting love encompasses a larger territory than romantic love or tradition alone. To ask what makes love endure is to ask what is the source or foundation of the love. To ask what creates love’s foundation is to ask what is it that makes love meaningful. To ask that is to ask what makes life meaningful, and to ask what makes a life. Is life just going through the days sharing food and shelter? Is it doing a sport or if talking about a relationship, is it participating in a sport or (any other activity) together? Is it having children together or accomplishing tasks at work? Certainly, these are parts of what life is, and some of these things could be called necessary elements of life, but if that were the whole of what it was, life could still feel empty. If life were composed of going through certain actions, or saying the right words at the right time in the right way, that also wouldn’t be enough to make one feel he or she was really living life.

E.E. Cummings’ poem at the start of this post begins with the line, “stand with your lover on the ending earth.” The earth is a physical object, and all objects wear out or wear down over time. At some point the earth and everything on it will end. Cummings begins this love poem in the awareness that all is at the “mercy of time.” We will die. The earth will die. But love is somehow beyond time. The home of all love abides in a mysterious essence beyond time. It is part of what Cummings describes as “the fragrant mountains of eternal now.” We frolic in the mysteries of birth and death, but acts done in love, living done with love, time where we sit with someone with the attitude and heart that communicates both with words or without them, “Darling, I am here for you,” that lives on in a place both in and beyond time. That love allows us a taste of eternity. Annie Lighthart’s, poem, “The Second Music,”  elaborates on this idea where describing the everyday events of life she says,

Now I understand that there are two melodies playing, one below the other, one easier to hear, the other

lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard yet always present.

There is the world we live in–all the wondrous sights our eyes have seen, our ears heard, our bodies felt; the wide oceans with their ten thousand colors of blue, the forests of intense greens, the smiles of a child, birds in flight, clouds drifting by in the vast sky, the hollows and hills of everywhere, rain splashing on stone streets, the icy lace clinging to trees, the laughter of the ones we love, the last touch of a hand from one who is leaving us, all these experiences, and so many, many more wonders known while walking in this world, these are ours, and inside of them “If the truth of our lives is what it is playing,” Lighthart goes on to write, there is a “second music” that she stops to listen to that is underneath and through all these moments, sights, sounds and experiences. She ends the poem by saying “I set my ear to it as I would to a heart.” This is the love that is living–I could say hiding–inside of the physical world. We perceive it with the heart because what is known with the heart is what lives on. That is the love that endures–the part of life when we are fully present with another. Love that endures connects to this larger love. That is the love that weaves the world together.

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Bridge, Nisene Marks State Park, CA

Recently, we had a guest visiting our house who is approaching her 80th birthday in September. When I asked her what is something that age has taught her, she replied, “Your age isn’t who you are. You are more than body, emotions or thoughts, more than any of these or all of these together.” None of us loves perfectly. Loving someone, anyone, is more than what we do or say, more than time together, more than body or emotions shared. Love is a journey, just as marriage is a journey, a pilgrimage toward love. You have to get out there and walk the trail. Sometimes you take a road you think is the right one but you get off track. Sometimes you might walk a long way through dry, flat land. You walk in rain and sun. You walk up hill. Sometimes you get tired. Nevertheless, love begins each day living in attitude of walking together. You walk and you listen to each other. Thoreau said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost. Now put the foundations under them.” This is the work of enduring love: you practice being present in small moments (and most of life is lived in those small moments, the daily acts) so that we will be able to be present for the big moments when they come. Our giving ourselves to learn to walk together and to listen to each other is what carries marriage across the threshold into the sacred and allows us to taste what is eternal.

Beauty, creativity, spirtuality, Uncategorized

At The Edge of Emptiness

“Prayer begins at the edge of emptiness.”–Abraham Joshua Heschel

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Heschel’s words strike me because there are a lot of things I don’t have answers for. Aware of my smallness in face of the suffering around me every day, I stand at the edge of emptiness and cry out.

When riding out into traffic, I’ve started a practice of looking into beggars’ faces who come to my window, or when someone speaks to me in the market asking for money, or when I see who is suffering, a family living on the street, for example, also animals who suffer, and in my mind I say, “I wish you well.” It’s a kind of prayer, and though it’s not directly answering the needs they have, it’s a way to keep my heart open–to keep noticing even though I might not be able to help the person in the way they ask of me. I want to see their humanness, and to be reminded of my own weakness and vulnerability.

Certainly, even in the lives of the desperately poor, there also must be times of joy. Even so, the human need in Delhi, is great. All the arms reaching out, the eyes–the world’s needs are immense. This week Nepal has its worst earthquake since 1934. The suffering is enormous. It will take decades, to recover, life times to become new, and we feel the grief hanging in the air as we go about our day.

The poverty in this world is not made up of physical poverty only, however. There is poverty of spirit, poverty of heart, and this is where I think that those of us in the developed world have a great lack. Everywhere around us today, from psychologists like Martin Seligman and his ideas about flourishing, to religious leaders like Matthieu Ricard, people are talking about how to be happy. Even Pope Francis has come up with his list of 10 tips for a happier life such as taking time off to be with your family, and spending time in nature. People who study what makes us happy tell us that focusing on what brings us a sense of well being actually helps us to become happier, and of course that is a good thing. But sadness and melancholy are also a part of life, and experiencing sadness and melancholy can help us become more compassionate, as Courtney Stephens explains on this animated TED Ed lesson. We learn from our sadness how to be more human.

I don’t know how best to respond to the sadness in the world, the grief so many feel, but want to give something of myself to meet that need. One must start somewhere, however small. It’s the start that counts. It makes room for greater opening, and I know I need to open.

FullSizeRenderFor months now I have been working on poems on the subject of food. It has taken some time, longer than I expected because new ideas for poems keep surfacing. I am now nearing the end of the poems I want to write for this series. I hope I’ve written well enough that after putting the poems into a manuscript I’ll find a publisher so I can use the proceeds from its sale to give to an organization that helps prevent hunger here in India. I hope it will be of some good. In the process of writing these poems, I’ve also been rereading about creativity, and returned today to Rilke’s Letters To a Young Poet where I read,

“…Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.

In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”

The need in India has been here for decades. It’s not going to go away in the near future. The sidewalk on the street where I live is in a perpetual state of change. It’s put together one month only to be torn up the next, a metaphor for my own incompleteness–of starting over, trying to make things work, change, to get things “right.” Whatever it is that causes that sidewalk to have to be torn up so often is a mystery. It’s just the way things are here. Likewise, whatever it is we are making or doing with our lives, it isn’t necessarily what we see on the surface. What’s really happening comes from a place far deeper, beyond the reach of our own understanding. I look into the face of my partner who I’ve known for decades now, and find him still a mystery, and stand in wonder. Who am I, I don’t even really know. Definitions, lists and examples aren’t enough to explain. Similarly, how can I in any way touch or meet the vast needs of a world as immense as India? I can’t. As Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 65,

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,IMG_4080
But sad mortality o’er sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O! none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

We are all frail and mortal. Beauty’s action may be no stronger than a flower, but still we need that flower. We all need to be touched, to be met, to be needed. So, I write on, my words, tiny splotches on computer screens of light wavering inside the colossal of India’s immensity, prayers of pale petals– ink floating down the Yamuna hoping to touch other lives.

Uncategorized

Making Space for Wonder

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” –Abraham Joshua Heschel

In a few weeks my husband and I will be headed to Prague where we will be attending a workshop on creativity. To prepare for that workshop, we’ve been asked to go out in hunt for a variety of things we are to take photos of to bring to the conference– spirals in nature, human faces in man made objects, animals in clouds, inanimate objects that appear they are in love, living people who look like they belong to another century, and more. The past couple of weeks I’ve gone out for short walks around the area where I live, looking. Some things are just not easy to find. I thought human faces in man made objects, for instance, wouldn’t be so difficult. My husband’s family has a habit of looking for hidden objects in clouds, knots of wood, the trees. My father in law discovered the Virgin Mary in a whiskey bottle that he found in an abandon lot while out for a walk and had the neighborhood lined up to see it on his mantle. So, there’s a kind of family history in looking closely that we’ve practiced over the years. The results can be surprising.

I’ve had my students go on searches for things, given them a paint chip like ones you might find at the paint store and had them search for a week to see if they could match it with the exact color somewhere out in the world. Another thing I’ve asked them to find is something they think no one else would notice but that they think is interesting. A good part of a writer’s work is to notice things, I explain, things that are in plain sight but hidden because no one is taking time to notice them. A person can notice a lot of amazing things when paying attention. One of those things you might discover or rediscover is wonder. What you find is perhaps not really as important as the search. In the search you can find all kinds of wonders.

Eliot wrote “April is the cruelest month,” but February can definitely be difficult too. For many who live in cold countries, it’s a snowy month–snow stacked so high you’re blinded by the white on white emptiness. With windows blocked by icicles, you know spring is coming–color will eventually return to the streets–but that time seems far off. How do you get through those bleak times? This is where a search cIMG_3931omes in. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge.” Give yourself something to search for, and wonder might  turn the corner to greet you at an unexpected moment. The other afternoon, I was out walking the campus where I live, looking here and there at things I’ve seen a thousand times, hoping to find a hidden face in an object so I could take a photo to bring to the workshop I mentioned earlier, but I could find nothing. Over and over again, I scrutinized objects. Nothing. I was telling myself, “There are simply no faces anywhere.” I looked down. There on the sidewalk was a face smiling up at me with a grass strand for a lock of hair. I couldn’t believe it! It’s the only face I’ve found so far in various ventures.

February may be cruel in other parts of the world, but is actually the best month if the year in Delhi. Here, February has the least amount of smoke in the air, it’s not too hot or too cold, and there are no dengue carrying mosquitos. What Delhi has a lot of in February are flowers. As I went out hunting for spirals in nature to photograph, I enjoyed looking at the splendid variety of spirals flowers present. From fibonacci spirals to the mandalas of a dahlia, flowers can make your head spin.

It’s not always easy to find what you’re looking for, however. One thing I’ve learned from living in India is that the good and bad, the exquisitely beautiful and the horrible are often side by side, as if they are part of each other. You don’t often get the one with out the other near by. Living here in India also presents questions there are no easy answers for, as I’ve written about before in these blog posts. Suffering is visibly present here. All you have to do is leave your house and go out into the street and you will see it. How to respond to it is constantly challenging.

Today, as I walked through the INA market, I was on the lookout for images of people who look like they could be from another century, as that is one of the things we are to take photos of for our creativity workshop. I saw scenes there that could have been from a past time, but I also saw scenes that make a person very conscious of all the animals sacrificed to meet our hunger. Food is glorious, but it carries with it a great deal of blood,  guts, and stench. Yes there is the beauty of flowers, the fabulous flavors of curried meat, but there is also some horror behind it all. Men torch feathers off fowl, and fur off goat heads. Boys scrub the goat heads in a plastic tub of water. Thwack, the butcher hacks a haunch of meat against a wooden block. A hundred or so chicken feet sit on a tray. Blood runs down the alleyway between shops. It’s all there, along with that beautiful cut of fish you are going to take home and barbecue.

Donald Hall’s poem, “Eating the Pig” describes well the complexity of the horrors that can come alongside the wonders,

and I am drawn to him, my brother the pig,
with his large ears cocked forward,
with his tight snout, with his small ferocious teeth
in a jaw propped open
by an apple. How bizarre, this raw apple clenched
in a cooked face! Then I see his eyes,
his eyes cramped shut, his no-eyes, his eyes like X’s
in a comic strip, when the character gets knocked out.

Then, there he is a few moments later, eating the pig and reveling in its flavor.

For myself, I scoop a portion of left thigh,
moist, tender, falling apart, fat, sweet.
We forage like an army starving in winter

After the pig has been devoured and just the head remains, he can’t help but feel a friendly affection for it and finds himself reaching out to pet it behind the ear as if might purr. As he does so, he sees his connection to the pig. He leans into the pig and whispers,

I take into myself, and digest,
wheat that grew between
the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.

It’s not just this pig alone, it’s the way eating the pig connects him back to who we are before the time of empires–all the way back to prehistory. The poem ends by saying,

“Fire, brother and father,
twelve of us, in our different skins, older and younger,
opened your skin together
and tore your body apart, and took it
into our bodies.”

There is a reverence for the pig, a recognition for how consuming the animal roasted in this ancient, barbaric ritual connects him to both the pig and to human kind. Life is both full of wonder and horror simultaneously, and this poem clearly demonstrates the paradox.

One weekend morning a couple of weeks back, we opened the bedroom curtain and there sat a monkey eating the tomatoes off of our plant in the window box. (No wonder we’ve had so few tomatoes this year!) The other day a monkey got into our compost box that we have on our balcony and then smeared his hands across the kitchen window. Two days ago I looked out the window of my classroom to see two monkeys walking across the roof of the building opposite me, only to appear in the courtyard below a few minutes later. You can go along for years without barely a monkey surfacing anywhere. Things seem fine, and then suddenly, there they are, monkeys jumping on your roof, tramping through your garden, and getting into whatever they can. When a monkey is around you’ve got to be careful because you never know what they are up to.

It’s good to be aware of holding both the difficult things in balance–the days with the monkeys vs. the weeks and months without them, as well the truly wondrous moments that come along. Actually doing this takes practice. When things grow dull or difficult, when struggle or white snow is all that can be seen, we have to purposefully change our perspective so we don’t feel crushed under the weight. That’s hard. But we don’t have to wait until things become unbearable. For a few moments we can break the routine of work, we can lift ourselves out of a situation that feels full or sorrow or dread. There’s a variety of ways to do it. We can sing, walk out the door and notice the trees or birds, arrange some fruit in a bowl to give away, put on some music, dance around the room, push our hands in the garden soil, pull some weeds or pick some flowers. A paint chip or a spiral, a face in the cloud–it doesn’t have to be something big. It just needs to be something; something to take us out of ourselves and connect us to something bigger. Who knows what you will actually discover in the process. It might not be what you intended. Doing that something can help us nurture joy and wonder while at the same time continuing to recognize the realness of the struggle or sorrow that we continue to live alongside. Maybe it is this very sorrow and struggle we know so well that allows us to experience the depth of joy when we give ourselves to it, or when it comes along to surprise us like the smiling face in the cement. We know then how precious such joy truly is.

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A Not So Common Thought: Contemplating Death In Order to Live Well

Looking at death in the eye isn’t a favorite pass time for most anyone, but considering that we will all have to face death, I thought it might be helpful to look at what it means to die well from the different perspectives of the world’s major religions. These findings below are brief, and not necessarily representative of the major thought in those religions, but they give a variety of insights. The thing that stands out for me in these various perspectives is how each one finds contemplating death a valuable thing to do in order to live meaningfully.

Hinduism: From Sadhguru, Huffington Post

If you are afraid of death, you will only avoid life. You cannot avoid death. And it is not that beyond a certain age you should look at it; every day of your life you need to be aware that you are mortal. There are certain meditations that are conducted where everything that you consider as “myself” will become nothing; it is as if you die. Again, when you open your eyes, it is all there. If these methods are practiced consciously, when the time to die actually comes, it will no longer be a big issue.

The process that you refer to as life is something that can be constantly improved upon. It is a project that will never be over; that is the beauty of it. Not everybody is living with the same quality. Whether in doing simple physical things or in how people are keeping themselves, in everything, not everybody is living at the same level of understanding and gracefulness.

If you remind yourself every day that you will also die, you will naturally move towards knowing higher dimensions of perception. If you are aware of the mortal nature of your life, is there time to get angry with somebody? Is there time to quarrel with somebody? Is there time to do anything stupid in life? Once you come to terms with death and you are conscious that you will die, you will want to make every moment of your life as beautiful as possible. Only people who believe they are immortal can fight, and fight to the death. Those who are constantly aware of the mortal and fragile nature of existence do not want to miss a single moment; they will naturally be aware. They cannot take anything for granted; they will live very purposefully. This is a simple way of becoming aware.

Buddhism: At the April Conference in Lusanne, Switzerland, the Dalai Llama said the following about death: “Death will come because it is a part of life,” he said. “People who avoid the very words old age and death will be caught unawares when it comes. In some of our meditation practice we visualize the process of death and the associated dissolution of the elements every day, so that we may be prepared for the actual event. For those who believe in a succession of lives, death is just like changing your body. If you have led a meaningful life, when death takes place there’ll be no need for regret.

Also, the Dalai Llama has said in his book, Advice on Dying: And Living a Better Life” by Dalai Lama, and posted on DailyOM: It is crucial to be mindful of death — to contemplate that you will not remain long in this life. If you are not aware of death, you will fail to take advantage of this special human life that you have already attained. It is meaningful since, based on it, important effects can be accomplished.
Analysis of death is not for the sake of becoming fearful but to appreciate this precious lifetime during which you can perform many important practices. Rather than being frightened, you need to reflect that when death comes, you will lose this good opportunity for practice. In this way contemplation of death will bring more energy to your practice.
However, if you do not wait until the end for the knowledge that you will die to sink in, and you realistically assess your situation now, you will not be overwhelmed by superficial, temporary purposes. You will not neglect what matters in the long run. It is better to decide from the very beginning that you will die and investigate what is worthwhile. If you keep in mind how quickly this life disappears, you will value your time and do what is valuable. With a strong sense of the imminence of death, you will feel the need to engage in spiritual practice, improving your mind, and will not waste your time in various distractions ranging from eating and drinking to endless talk about war, romance, and gossip.

Copyright © 2002 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Jeffrey Hopkins, Ph.D.

For further insights from a Buddhist perspective on how to be with a dying person, the article :

How to be with someone who is dying:

Sogyal Rinpoche describes how he would be with someone who is dying in his book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, “I would have sat by his side, held his hand and let him talk. I have been amazed again and again by how, if you just let people talk, giving them your complete and compassionate attention, they will say things of a surprising spiritual depth, even when they think they don’t have any spiritual beliefs. I have been very moved by how you can help people help themselves by helping them discover their own truth, a truth whose richness, sweetness, and profundity they may have never suspected”…“Bereavement can force you to look at your life directly, compelling you to find a purpose in it where there may not have been one before.”

Qualities Rinpoche says are invaluable at a deathbed are: a sense of humor, and the ability to not take things personally when/if the person dying expresses anger, which he says can be quite common. Additionally, emphasizes the importance of expressing unconditional love, and telling the truth with love. “To be able to deal effectively with the dying person’s fears, it is important to introspect and be aware of one’s own fears about death,” Rinpoche says. Also, “The dying person must be given permission to die with the assurance that his loved one(s) will be taken care of in the aftermath,” and he advises that those left behind be open to grief and try and learn from it, rather than try and repress it.

You can read more of his thoughts in his article, “Insights into living and dying”, by Dr. E.S. Krishnamoorthy and Niranjana Bennet.

Christianity: Henri Nowen on Dying Well

We will all die one day. That is one of the few things we can be sure of. But will
we die well? That is less certain. Dying well means dying for others, making our
lives fruitful for those we leave behind. The big question, therefore, is not “What
can I still do in the years I have left to live?” but “How can I prepare myself
for my death so that my life can continue to bear fruit in the generations that
will follow me?”

Jesus died well because through dying he sent his Spirit of Love to his friends,
who with that Holy Spirit could live better lives. Can we also send the Spirit
of Love to our friends when we leave them? Or are we too worried about what we can
still do? Dying can become our greatest gift if we prepare ourselves to die well.

Judaism

Surviving after death, we hope, is surviving as a thought of God…Death is not understood as the end of being but rather at the end of doing… Humanity without death would be arrogance without end.
— Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)*

The sunset, the bird’s song, the baby’s smile…the dreams of the heart, and my own being, dear to me as every man’s is to him, all these I can well trust to Him who made them. There is poignancy and regret about giving them up, but no anxiety. When they slip from my hands they will pass to hands better, stronger, and wiser than mine.
— Milton Steinberg (1903-1950) “To Hold with Open Arms”*

Islam

Say: “Behold, my prayer, and [all] my acts of worship, and my living and my dying are for God [alone], the Sustainer of all the worlds.”
— Qur’an 6:162

Say: “Behold, the death from which you are fleeing is bound to overtake you – and then you will be brought back unto Him who knows all that is beyond the reach of a created being’s perception as well as all that can be witnessed by a creature’s senses or mind, whereupon He will make you truly understand all that you were doing [in life].”
— Qur’an 62:8

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Experiencing Awe and Wonder

A couple of evenings ago, my husband and are were sitting in the hot tub in a clearing under the redwoods outside our back door talking, when out of the edge of the trees came a deer. She stood there, ears perked, staring straight at us. Immediately, we went silent, our eyes fixed on the deer, her form subtly outlined somewhere between visible and invisible. We have seen this deer maybe four times in the past week or so. She comes up into the clearing, pauses, looks at us, waits for her fawn to follow, or sends it on ahead, then bounds along the edge of the trees a bit, perhaps pausing to nibble at a branch or two, before disappearing down the embankment and deeper into the trees. When the deer appeared again last night however, she didn’t move on. She continued to look at us for what was probably 15 minutes while we sat very still observing her observing us. Occasionally she moved, looking to the sides of the clearing, and later lowering her head slightly, as if in a bow. Not knowing what this meant, we lowered our heads slight too, bowing in return. Later that night,  I read that deer lower their heads down as if to eat if it senses danger, and then jerk it back up again abruptly when in danger, hoping the predator will give away its position. We weren’t predators, though, so had nothing to give away.

As we continued staring in silence at each other, I couldn’t help but think of Annie Dillard’s essay, “Living Like Weasels” where Dillard describes looking into the weasel’s eyes and she is “stunned into stillness,” and this is how we, too, felt. Dillard describes how her eyes were locked with the weasel’s. In our case, it was too dark to see the deer’s eyes, but this kind of precise vision of each other wasn’t necessary. Our presence mesmerized each other. I don’t know what the deer was thinking, if she was simply curious about us, afraid, or some other thing. What is the mind of a deer like, I can’t understand. She was free to move on, but didn’t. Dillard explains how her encounter with the weasel helped her realize how she would like to learn how to live totally present in the act of living as a weasel does.  “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you,” she explains. Such encounters in nature as these throw us out of our humdrum expectations about life or about what will happen next, and enable us to become suddenly aware of our connection to the universe of being. We are in awe, aware of our senses, fully present in the moment, conscious we are alive. This, for me, is one of the important reasons I am alive–to experience the wonder of being!

Moments of awe are rare, which makes me curious if awe requires certain conditions for it to appear. Is awe rare because we are so concerned with our schedules and chores that we don’t notice world around us as alive with the potential to fill us with wonder? Is it because we aren’t often out in wild places where we might be more likely to experience the presence of nature’s raw or intense moments? Art, music, and experiences in nature can all be possible ways awe emerges. Though most of us don’t often do we have the opportunity to witness the kind of art that stops us short because of its power to make us see ourselves or life so precisely, maybe we want to do more to cultivate an open awareness of life where awe can surface naturally. Could we, for example, practice noticing things on a particular walk we take every day from and to a particular location and begin to ask questions about what is there?

A couple of examples of things in nature that have the potential to evoke awe are found as video links in Vicki Zakraewski article, “How Awe Can Help Students Develop Purpose”. Interestingly, Dacher Keltner from the Greater Good, has found in his recent research that experiences of awe have the potential to feel less self-centered and act more empathetically. Empathy could go a long way in helping people gain the insight into each other’s worlds in ways that could help us live together more cooperatively and meaningfully.

Unrelated to power and control, wonder and awe require a stance toward the world that is open and receptive. The deer I observed in hushed scintillated silence in my backyard turned away with a snort when she heard a rustle in the bushes, but those moments in her presence made me aware of the wonder it is to simply be alive. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Mankind will not perish for want of information; but for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”