what is

Caspar David Friedrich, <em>Moonrise by the Sea</em>, 1822

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise by the Sea, 1822

Writing on my balcony the other night under the moon and shadows, I felt anxious and wanted from the night something the night doesn’t usually bring. I sat there in the cricket filled evening for a while but nothing happened. I started to write about the spiritual practice of just being there with what is–and how I often find myself rocked like a boat between two sides of myself: on one side is a sincere wish for being, and on the other I am taken by the demands and worries each day brings. In the process of writing, I discovered that often in my life there seems to be no room for the other, and I often meet these demands with this most horrible of attitudes, like the world owes me something. Now, both stances are undeniable realities. This is how I am. I need to recognize and bridge this tremendous gulf that hangs in-between. This is the spiritual struggle.

With each day buried by yet another day, we all wander lost. Sure, many of us have tasted a transcendence of the ordinary way of perceiving things–that there is another life of promise and possibility, but we don’t just explode into it and become holy whiteness forever. We ascend and descend on ladders, and unfortunately when we descend, we usually forget. If we are passive, our days take us wherever they wish to like a raging river and the current is stronger than we imagine.  But there is something within us that remembers. It knows what is required. Through an active silent watchfulness we can open to this moment as it is. From that effort, a quality of seeing can appear that expands. It is inclusive, and it does not take sides, either for, or against.

Summer

Behold the sun!

Sitting under a deep blue sky where the sun is rising, orange and pulsing, I find myself surrounded by a cloister of evergreens in the silence of seven in the morning. Nearby, I have discovered a hummingbird’s nest. When I am attentive, I can hear the buzz and whirl of her tiny wings. She darts back and forth through the leaves with a crazy geometry, and sometimes hangs suspended in the air like a question on invisible threads. Who is this unknown puppeteer?

Down here on the ground restless chipmunks forage through fall’s leaves by the barbeque standing cool in the summer sun. Suddenly, the white electric sound of a cicada fills the atmosphere, and then fades and merges back into the stillness of the morning. The air is fragrant with dew and dark green. Patches of sunlight filter down through the trees and collect on the pathway leading out of the cottage. In the distance, I can hear the soft breathing of waves rising on white sands and falling back again.

Last night, my wife Alex and I took a walk. It was late and the evening cool. It wasn’t completely dark when we descended down to the beach and as we stretched out a yellow blanket on the sand, we watched the iridescent pastels of the sunset fade to night. I smoked silently, as the stars appeared; an upside down bowl around us. The lake became still, and the lights from the cottages around us seemed to hover together like a secret tribal meeting. We owned the beach.

Planes crossed the night sky, their electric eyes winking down from above. And we counted the satellites that roamed around up there, appearing and disappearing through the starry night. With the help of a small flashlight, Alex and I consulted the star map from a National Geographic from 2003 that we found in a drawer. It was difficult finding our way through the haze of stars all milky and bright, but we managed to find the Alpha Corona Borealis easily enough, stretched out directly above our heads. We searched for some other constellations, and then we folded the map up and just lied down on our backs staring into that awesome immensity.

“A satellite,” I said, pointing to a specific spot in the sky.

“Where? Oh, I see it now.”

“Look, a shooting star!” But when I turned to see where he finger was pointing, it was already gone. Vanished. I wondered how many people on this earth had seen it besides her.

It was cold on the beach, and even though the water was still warm from the day’s sun we decided against a midnight swim. So we turned our attention back to the sky. It’s funny how all those stars can make you feel insignificant. So many things, which seem important, just fall away into nothingness against that white speckled canvas. I remembered I read somewhere once that so many of the stars that we are able to see are actually no longer there. They’re gone, and how it took an unfathomable length of time for that light to get to us and essentially, we are looking at the ghosts of dead stars still hanging there.

Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. (King James Bible)

Lying there, absorbing the cold sand into our bodies, Alex and I contemplated swimming again.

We passed a mason jar filled with hot and sugary mint tea back and forth. I wondered if this night would be something memorable–one that could perhaps outshine many other evenings when one opens up to all that grandeur and silence. When it cuts right into you and leaves its mark.

Alex yawned, and inevitably so did I. She placed her hand on my shoulder and in a whisper asked: “Are you cold. Do you want to go back up to the house?” Isn’t it funny how our voices grow quieter at times like these? Would words released at a regular volume put a stain on that enveloping silence and puncture the mystery of it? Would God suddenly appear in the sky with a loud thunderclap, and like an angry parent, tell us “to keep it down!”

“Yeah, let’s go back up.” I said, brushing the sand off my swimming shorts. We collected out towels, the yellow blanket, and the half-empty mason jar. We slowly made our way up the sandy hill and reclaimed our shoes at the top. The road stood empty, beckoning with trees dark against the sky looming up large on both sides. A light from a cottage nearby illuminated the forest like a large pulsating heart. Eventually, through the darkness, we found our way back onto the small laneway leading to the cottage.

Alex had left some lights on, and soon it felt that we hadn’t left. A record skipping, a puzzle half-completed on the floor by the fireplace, and the dinner dishes stacked neatly beside the sink. We put our stuff on the kitchen table, collected a bag of chips, a Rice Krispy square, and made our way upstairs to bed. We watched a couple of episodes of “In Treatment” and I grew tired, turned off the light and went to sleep. The last words I heard: “I’m going to watch one more episode.” She was addicted. For the last three evenings, she pulled out Season Two; a four disc set, and watched every episode on the DVD, before finally settling into the blankets to fall asleep.

In the morning, I awoke early and leaving her in bed, I went downstairs to make coffee and sit with the birds and my new chipmunk friends who were looking for a fresh handout of peanuts. I poured myself a large cup, and gathered up my notebook and pen. Sitting down on an old weathered plastic lawn chair, I began to write.

Saint Julian Press

Guest Cabin at Loretto Maryholme Spirituality and Retreat Centre, Roches Point, March, 2012

Guest Cabin at Loretto Maryholme Spirituality and Retreat Centre, Roches Point, March, 2012

I am delighted to announce that Saint Julian Press has published a poem I wrote titled “Preparation” on their website

Saint Julian Press is a new nonprofit imprint whose mission is to identify, nurture, and publish transformative literature and art by encouraging the work of emerging, established, and world-renowned writers, poets, and artists. In our vision we seek to build a world community by embracing and engaging in a global literary and artistic dialogue that promotes world peace, cultural conversations, and an interfaith awareness, appreciation, and acceptance.

Thanks to Ron Starbuck (Executive Publisher-CEO/Author-Poet)

Settling in the Heart

Aerialist Philippe Petite opens dedication of St.John The Divine. Credit: Fred R. Conrad / The New York Times, 1982

Aerialist Philippe Petite opens dedication of St.John The Divine. Credit: Fred R. Conrad / The New York Times, 1982

The Beauty We Love, is one of my favorite places to visit on the web. There you will find a remarkable collection of passages and poetry of astonishing depth and insight. Earlier today I came across the following quotation from by Saint Theophan the Recluse, (1815–1894) a monk and ordained saint of the Russian Orthodox Church:

You must descend from
your head into your heart.
At present your thoughts of God
are in your head. And God Himself is,
as it were, outside you, and
so your prayer and other spiritual
exercises
remain exterior. Whilst you are still
in your head,
thoughts will not easily be subdued but
will always be whirling about, like snow
in winter or
clouds of mosquitoes in summer.

Not only is this a clear picture of our conscious intellect in operation, it also indicates a possibility of perceiving the world in an entirely new way. Usually my center of gravity is in my head, and often I am not even aware that I have a body below it. How does one move from a fragmented and self-centered point of view to a more encompassing and organic intelligence that is responsive to the subtle movements of feeling? In other words, how do you get your center of gravity down lower in the body?

I think there are two different minds in each of us–the conscious intellect on one hand, and the nervous system as a whole on the other. Both are required and necessary, but I have a tendency to trust the former over the latter. That is, I think I know everything already. But how could this slow, linear travelling and deliberating intellect be more intelligent than a brain that can regulate thousands of bodily processes in a flash of a firefly. I say “flash” because it operates with a totally different conception of time, which is an idea you find in Gurdjieff’s writing about the three centers (mind, body and feeling) and their different speeds and the energies by which they function.

It isn’t that one mind is better than the other. There just seems to be a mind and capital “M” mind. If I see that I am living just in my head (with a little “m”), which is to say, I am fragmented, it becomes a question of how to include both minds in a movement towards unity–of how to be in-between them so to speak. To borrow from Zen, I certainly can’t seek the ox when I’m sitting on top of it.

This kind of training or discipline is left entirely untaught in our schools and in popular culture as my friend Walt pointed out in his comment to this post. The observation of the existence of two minds is not new, it is to be found in many of the world’s wisdom traditions. The Zen Traditions is rife with them. For example, you find the intriguing word munen, in Japanese Zen which means intelligent action without thinking.  And another example that comes to mind are the words of a Chinese Zen Master: “If you want to see into it, see into it directly. When you begin to think about it, it is altogether missed.”

Turning to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, in the question put forth: What is Mind, Tilopa (988–1069), tantric practitioner and accomplished teacher offered these six precepts: “No thought, no reflection, no analysis, / No cultivation, no intention, / Let it settle of itself.” That doesn’t allow much room to just “think” about it, does it?

Synchronously, I went to the library earlier this evening to pick up Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism by Anonymous, also known as Unknown Friend. I was encouraged to place a hold on it a few weeks ago from reading successive posts of insightful commentary about the book at One Cosmos, another favorite place of mine to visit on the web.  On page 8 of Meditations on the Tarot, I came across a key passage from Patanjali’s classic work on Yoga that describes a different practice of what is usually thought of as concentration:

Yoga citta vritti nirodha (Yoga is the suppression of the oscillations of the mental substance, Yoga Sutras 1.2)

The author, Unknown Friend then describes the importance of concentration as a practice. But he distinguishes clearly between the automatic movements of thought processes and imagination from the art of a non-identified or unattached concentration. (He uses the word disinterested). One of the main differences, he describes, is that this form of concentration is “without effort” and it appears in conditions of calm and silence and only after renouncingthe incessant hamster wheel of the intellect and the imagination. When I read that, I recognized that he was saying essentially the same thing as our other friend, Saint Theophan the Recluse. Mainly, how do we get out of the head? And specifically, how do we concentrate without effort? Unknown Friends offers this analogy:

“Look at a tightrope walker. He is evidently completely concentrated, because if he were not, he would fall to the ground. His life is at stake, and it is only perfect concentration which can save him. Yet do you believe that his thought and his imagination are occupied in what he is doing? Do you think that he reflects and that he imagines, that he calculates and that he makes plans with regard to each step he makes on the rope?”

Of course the answer is no, otherwise he would come tumbling down immediately. Therefore, the tightrope walker must somehow suppress the slow intellect and imagination and allow the intelligence of the rhythmic or nervous system to get safely across to the other side.

After many years devoted to spiritual search and practice, William Segal, the author, painter, and student of Gurdjieff and D.T. Suzuki wrote the following description about what is required in the practice of dropping the head. He explains:

There is the ability to be engaged very actively in life, but at the same time to be non-attached. One does what one does with full enthusiasm: I love to drink coffee, to paint, to dig a garden or chop wood. But can I be wholly in the act but not attached to it? And at the same time, be in relation to this “other,” this stillness, which is in me, in you, in everything. This requires discipline, which one reaches through various methods. It’s not only meditation, and it certainly isn’t through scholastic studies or through prayer of the ordinary kind, although prayer can be a cessation of thought, a giving up, a letting go and being here totally. Now, perhaps, to be that way does require a great preliminary doing; I’m not sure about that. As an old man who has been through a lot of that sort of practice, I don’t think it’s really necessary. I don’t see the sense of it now. I think if I were in the hands of a master today, he would simply tell me, “Look, mister, just be still. Watch your breathing. Get your center of gravity down here.” And then this appears. This is in you, it’s always here. All one has to do is open to it. So I don’t see the sense of all these schools and all these disciplines. I do see the sense, because one is unable, one is not capable as one is, in ordinary life.

Lastly, and somewhat related, I think, a few days ago my friend Lee posted a well written introduction and commentary on The Gurdjieff Movements, which I have been lucky enough to participate in. Encouraged by his words I went looking for a recording of Jeanne de Salzmann directing a Movements class that I had come across on the web a few years ago. I think the film explores some of the ideas I have expressed here far better than I could possibly convey in words. In my view, The Movements are a form of sacred dance, not that I know much about that subject, but I feel that they are like a kind of observatory where there is a possibility to have a more objective view of oneself. They are also a very direct way of approaching spiritual ideas and moving from mere knowledge into hopefully, an under-standing.

Well after spending this evening writing a few pages of words, I try to remember to come back to this body sitting here. I realize that ironically, I have been living in the castles of ideas again, just a small part of a much larger view, but I remember and renew an effort to try not to run from one thought to the next, as Theophane the Recluse advises, but to give each one time to settle in the heart.

A Good Question

Tile Decoration from Alhambra Palace, Granada, SpainA few days ago while driving around Toronto with a friend, we started a conversation about what books we’ve been reading lately. I remarked that the current theme of Parabola’s Winter issue: Many Paths, One Truth, has led me to an inquiry into the point of view of writers of the “Perennial Philosophy”—a perspective shared by René Guénon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Frithjof Schuon, Huston Smith, and many others that embodies the timeless and universal principles underlying all the doctrines, symbols, sacred art, and spiritual practices of the world’s religions.

“What’s that all about?” he asked.

“Well, imagine you have a prism,” I tried to explain “and when you hold it in your hand it is clear and uncolored, but when you hold it up to the light, it’s refracted. Suddenly you see all these colors. So the idea is that Divine Truth is one, both timeless and universal, and all the different religions are like different languages expressing that one Truth.”

“That sounds accurate to me,” he said.

“I’ve just started reading into it so I can’t say that I have gotten really in depth on it, but it just seems like such a simple idea. Maybe too simple,” I said.

“Why does it have to be difficult? What’s wrong with simplicity?” he asked.

It was a good question. I had nothing to say, and we started talking about other things. Yet, I have continually returned to that question this week.

From Parabola Magazine’s Weekly Newsletter, January 20th, 2012.

A Thousand Secrets

K. With, Horyuji-Kura, Bodhisattvis. Scanned from "Hara The Vital Center of Man."

“A thousand secrets are hidden in simply sitting still.” — Karlfried Graf Dürckheim

A few weeks ago, my good friend Walt recommended Hara: The Vital Center of Man by the German diplomat, psychotherapist, and Zen master, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim on this post. For anyone interested in practices for developing attention through body awareness it is essential reading. I couldn’t praise the book highly enough.  Not only is it clear and practical, it opens up a way of practice that I find initiatory and life affirming.

Dürckheim offers a bold and vital introduction on how to work with hara but before he begins he offers this important distinction about spiritual practice in general:

“…practice does not generate the experience of Being but only prepares the way for it. The grace which may flower from this experience is not the product of a doing but of a permitting of what fundamentally is, of what the aspirant himself is by reason of his participation in the Great Being within his own being. Practice therefore means ultimately just this: learning to let the in-dwelling reality of Being emerge.”

A pioneer in this field of integrating the body, mind and feeling, Dürckheim does an exceptional job in making the ancient zen practices of hara accessible. He urges us to avoid clinging to the partial that only upsets the whole. He shows us how to put our trust  in the fundamental rhythms of life, and to let go of fears that prevent us from allowing “it” to breathe. Our tensions, he observes “are caused by nothing but I and its fears for its Own existence,” and warns that the “practice of deep relaxation can be significant and efficacious only when it is carried out in full awareness of its inner meaning and not merely for the relief of bodily symptoms.”

Nope, it’s not a self-help program. Studying and practicing the ideas in this book doesn’t lend itself well to finding solid answers but leads to a deeper questioning, a revitalization of one’s practice, and hopefully under-standing.

I don’t want to give too much of the book’s contents away, but I will share one of many instructions Dürckheim suggests for reintegrating one’s compartmentalized being into a simple, coordinated and unified whole. Over the last few weeks, the following excerpt has served as a a kind of revelation for me, a gentle reminder to try to have contact with the inner life that continually calls to  from the center of our being:

“…drop the shoulders, release the lower belly and put some strength in it. For this it is sufficient to say “I am, I feel myself down here, a little below the navel.” It would seem so easy to follow these instructions, but not only is it far more difficult than we suppose to effect a change in the bodily center of gravity but long practice is needed before it becomes habitual. Indeed to learn to feel oneself constantly down there is tantamount to overcoming the unconscious dominance of the I, and to feel oneself permanently rooted in a much deep region. This new placing of the whole center of gravity comes to full fruition only after years of practice. Yet, as with all spiritual exercises, everything is contained in the very first lesson. But the beginner cannot realize this.”

Happy New Year!

Julius Shulman, Woman and the Ocean, taken in 1930

This beautiful photograph by Julius Shulman, “Woman and the Ocean,” taken in 1930 not only epitomizes the music of Fado, the heart wrenching sorrowful melodies of Portugal, it also paints the feelings I had yesterday leaving that wonder-filled country. Yep, your right, I’m being melodramatic. But please bear with the “me.” Before we drove to the airport I did go outside into the crisp blue air, and I did take a good long look at that wine dark sea. I said goodbye to Portugal, and then we ate delicious pea soup at the airport (Portugal makes incredibly awesome soup) and we cried, saying farewell to family and friends before we stuffed them into the airport parking elevator.

When we got home our apartment felt strange, as though I didn’t really believe that we lived there. It was so comfortably foreign. However, over coffee this morning I felt that familiar old life returning and I welcomed it, and even though things seemed to return to the same, it felt a little different. Inspirational even. As though one was closer to opening a few new doors and didn’t have to rely on the old ones with the rusty hinges anymore. It’s a new year after all, and maybe there’s magic in that, I don’t know. Anyway, I wish you all many blessings for the naked year of days that lie ahead of us.

Yasunari Kawabata

Photo of Kawabata, c. 1946 - at work at his house in Nagatani of Kamakura

Photo of Kawabata, c. 1946 – at work at his house in Nagatani of Kamakura

I rediscovered this remarkable photograph of Yasunari Kawabata today, the Nobel Prize winning Japanese short story writer and novelist. It made a strong impression on me. Possibly because of the the atmosphere or his countenance, I don’t know. It just really struck me. Maybe it’s because I find myself struggling through the discipline of writing lately, and in this photograph Kawaabata appears to be in the flow of things as they are. He looks meditative and at home in the process of his writing, which is a place, or a state that I aspire to be in. I haven’t explored his work yet, so I don’t have much to offer, except a couple of pithy quotes that I find noteworthy:

“Cosmic time is the same for everyone, but human time differs with each person. Time flows in the same way for all human beings; every human being flows through time in a different way.”

And secondly,

“Because you cannot see him, God is everywhere.”

ten songs

 

01. MAX RICHTER & DINAH WASHINGTON on the nature of daylight / this bitter earth
02. VAN MORRISON astral weeks
03. JOSE JAMES park bench people
04. BOB MARLEY so much trouble
05. BETH ORTON the stars all seem to weep
06. QUANTIC time is the enemy
07. NICK DRAKE riverman
08. THE WATERBOYS the christ in you
09. THE VELVET UNDERGROUND i found a reason
10. CHARLIE HADEN AND PAT METHENY spiritual

PHOTOGRAPH by Peter Baker. This idea for this was pilfered from Hannah and her wonderful project at: “ten songs that saved your life.” 

The Work of Karlfried Graf Dürckheim

I re-encountered the remarkable work of Karlfried Graf Dürckheim (October 24, 1896 – December 28, 1988), German diplomat, psychotherapist and Zen-Master recently in the autobiography of Alan Watts: In My Own Way. According to Wikipedia: Dürckheim was born in Munich. He was a descendant of old Bavarian nobility whose parents still had a fortune, eventually lost during bad economic times. In his early twenties, he was reading in the Tao Te Ching of Lao-Tzu.

“Suddenly it happened! I was listening and lightning went through me. The veil was torn asunder, I was awake! I had just experienced ‘It’. Everything existed and nothing existed. Another Reality had broken through this world. I myself existed and did not exist… I had experienced that which is spoken of in all centuries: individuals, in whatever stage of their lives, have had an experience which struck them with the force of lightning and linked them once and for all to the circuits of True Life.”

Meister Eckhart became very important for him. “I recognize in Eckhart my master, the master. But we can only approach him if we eliminate the conceptual consciousness.”

Dürckheim was a professor at Kiel for a few years. Then it was discovered that he had a Jewish grandmother. Eventually he became an envoy for Nazi Germany’s foreign ministry under Joachim von Ribbentrop. Before World War II, in 1938, he was sent to Japan, residing there for eight years.

After the war, Tokyo was occupied by Americans. Dürckheim went into hiding in Karuizawa and was arrested on October 30, 1945 by agents of the US Counter-Intelligence Corps. He was imprisoned for a year and a half in Sugamo Prison.

“That time of captivity was precious to me because I could exercise zazen meditation and remain in immobility for hours.”

Graf “Duerckheim” is identified by Albert Stunkard in Zen Teaching, Zen Practice, (Weatherhill 2000) edited by Kenneth Kraft, as the person who suggested to Stunkard that he should visit D.T. Suzuki in Kita Kamakura, not far from the Sugamo prison. That visit started a chain reaction of visitors to the Suzuki residence, one of whom was Philip Kapleau, author of The Three Pillars of Zen and founder of the Rochester Zen Center. Dürckheim thus was directly responsible for launching Zen into the American mainstream.

Along with psychologist Maria Hippius, Dürckheim founded the “Center of existential and psychological formation and encounter” in the early 1950s. It was located in the Black Forest village of Todtmoos-Rutte. His books were based on his conferences, and were influential in Europe.

“What I am doing is not the transmission of Zen Buddhism; on the contrary, that which I seek after is something universally human which comes from our origins and happens to be more emphasized in eastern practices than in the western.”

Dürckheim’s “Initiation Therapy” dealt with the encounter between the profane, mundane, “little” self — the ego — and the true Self. “The therapist is not the one who heals, that is, who intervenes with his own skills; he is a therapist in the original meaning of the word: a companion on the way.”

***

Here are the words of Karlfried Graf Dürckheim recounted in Alan Watts’ autobiography:

“A great deal of my present work is in helping people who underwent great spiritual crisis during the war. We know, of course, that sometimes, in extreme circumstances, people have a natural  satori or spiritual awakening when it appears that all is finished for them–and they accept it. This happened often in the war, and when those who lived through it tried to tell the tale to their friends it was shrugged off as some king of hallucination, a brief fit of insanity in a desperate situation. When these people come to me, as they often do, I have the happy opportunity of showing them that, for once in their lives, they were truly sane.

There were three typical ways in which these crisis came about. You heard the whistle of a bomb falling straight at you, and you knew that this was quite certainly the end. You accepted it, and quite suddenly the whole universe made sense. All problems, all questions vanished, and you understood that there was no ‘you’ other than the eternal. But the bomb was a dud, and you lived to remember the experience….You were in a concentration camp, and you had been there so long that you were fully convinced that you would stay there for the rest of your life. Finally, you had to accept it, and in that moment you understood everything….You were a displaced refugee far from home. You had utterly lost your friends and relatives, your possessions, your job, your very identity, and saw no hope of regaining them. You accepted it, and suddenly you were light as a feather and as free as the air.”

–Alan Watts: In My Own Way (California: New World Library, 1972), 321.