Live the Mystery

John Cage

In early August I discovered my favorite book of this year. I came across Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson at two wonderful places on the web: First “The Art Critic and the Enso,” a remarkably insightful piece by Lynette from 108zenbooks, and then a a day or two later, Deborah Barlow’s (who writes at Slow Muse) inspiring review “Leaving the Path At Any Moment” showed up in my blog feed. It seemed an unlikely coincidence. That was it for me. I promptly wrote Deborah: I’ve come across this book at least three times this week. A few days ago I put a hold on it at the library. I am seventh in line. After reading your excellent post this morning, I said to myself: “That’s it.” I biked down to my local bookstore in the rain and bought myself a copy. And I did just that arriving home like a lunatic, wet with rain with the book tucked protectively under my arm. I read the book slowly and intermittently throughout August and September, savoring it slowly, making notes in my notebook, underlining passages, folding over corners, and reading passages out loud to my wife, who may or may not have been listening. For two months, I carried this book everywhere. I loved this book.

The first time I heard of John Cage was in the early 90s. I was in my early teens, and was just beginning to discover. mostly through books and art, that there was a much larger world beyond the small sleepy town of Belleville where I grew up. I had left home and was boarding on a farm just outside of town. I suffered from horrible insomnia those days, so I would stay up reading too much, and smoking too much. I also use to listen this late night radio show on the CBC called Brave New Waves that came on just after the news at midnight following Ross Porter’s excellent jazz  program After Hours. Brave New Waves was on air until four in the morning, so it was perfect for insomniacs. In fact, there were many evenings where I stayed up until the very end, listening to the far out in left field records that were spun in the last hour. On other nights, when my tiredness won out, I taped the show onto cassette, and listened to it the very next day after school so that I wouldn’t miss anything important. The show specialized in the Avant-garde, showcasing music, writers, and artists. Almost every evening, I discovered someone or something entirely new.

Anyway, on one particular evening there was an interview with John Cage that I have always remembered. It was a cold, autumnal night and I was smoking by the window to hide the smell. The house was quiet, with everyone locked away in their rooms. I could hear a TV down the hall. The news was on. I smoked and waited eagerly for the show to begin. The artist being interviewed on that particular evening was a man named John Cage, interviewed as a writer, poet, artist, and composer. A real renaissance man who dabbled in just about everything. He was well learned, and absolutely captivating as a speaker, with a contagious passion for knowledge. The moment that was burned into my brain forever came at the end of the interview when the host, Brent Bambury asked John Cage, who was in his mid-seventies then (he died when he was 79), “Who was your greatest teacher?” What followed was one of the most amazing moments I have ever experienced listening to radio. There was a long tremendous silence. Total dead air. The length of it was extraordinary, so extraordinary, that you could actually hear the clock in the studio ticking away the seconds. After a moment, maybe a lifetime or two. John Cage said in his soft gentle voice: “I’m still looking.”

William Gedney shot of John Cage

William Gedney shot of John Cage

The show ended on that note, but something lingered  within me and resonated to Cage’s final remark, either his words, or something that was behind them. In retrospect, I think it was the sense of his search that struck me.  I thought it was remarkable how a man of his age, stature, and influence could be so humble and still be searching.

After that, I sought out everything I could find about him. It wasn’t until later in my life that I discovered that what attracted me to John Cage was his relentless search for the truth, and how he was able to reconcile a worldly life with a spiritual pursuit. I feel that Cage is a tremendous example of someone who managed to bridge that duality. With the recent publication of Larson’s extensive and meticulously researched biography on John Cage, the inner life, or the essence of the man becomes more apparent. Throughout his life Cage was a spiritual seeker: a devoted student of Zen Buddhist scholar and translator, D.T. Suzuki, a follower of the Indian sage, Ramakrishna and acknowledged his debt to the writings of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Huang Po, and The Chinese book of divination the I-Ching. He was also open to the Christian mystic Meister Echhart. To read about John Cage is to discover a life long quest through a time when all the arts: painting, music, literature, and dance were undergoing massive revolution in the early part of the 20th century. But what I find of interest is in Larson’s account of Cage is the story of  man on a spiritual journey in the direction of self perfection–a man who relentlessly aspires to marry an inner life with his outer life in order to allow the inner to inform the outer. Cage wrote in his journals:

John CageOur intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires our of its way and lets it act of its own accord.

and later:

It is not a question of decisions and the willingness to make them. It is that we are impermanently part and parcel of all. We are involved in a life that passes understanding and our highest business is our daily life.

There is an old proverb that states, “one book opens another,” and in this case that statement could not ring out more truthfully. So I have broken down the book into categories in order to navigate the wealth of material Larson’s book has to offer.

Breaking it Down Wisdom Traditions & Spiritual Influences Mentioned (in no particular order of importance):

John Cage with Zen Master D.T. Suzuki

John Cage with Zen Master D.T. Suzuki

Daisetz Teitaro Susuki (his name means Great Simplicity) and his teachers: Imagitsa Kosen & Soyen Shaku, Paul Carus who was convinced that Buddhism held great potential to heal the modern breach between science and religion, because it was based not on beliefs, but on practice and observation; Chogyam Trungpa, Shakyamuni Buddha, Shin Buddhism–the path of faith and compassion, also known as Pure Land; the Zen traditions of Soto Zen and the tougher discipline of Rinzai; Soyen, Joseph Campbell, Oskar Fischinger;, Morris Graves and Nancy Wilson Ross who was a student of Rinzai Zen master Nanshinken and Goto Zuigan Roshi; Zen teacher Yvonne Rand, Hui Neng, Dogen Zenji, Mark Tobey, Gita Sarabhai, Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Meister Eckhart, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Chuang-tze, Carl Gustav Jung, Aldous Huxley, Paramahansa Yogananda, Christmas Humphreys, Richard DeMartino, Philip Kapleau, Yasutani Roshi, Hue-yen, Shen-Hui student of Hui-Neng; Lin-chi, Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisatttva of compassion; Thomas Merton, Koun Yamada Roshi, Seung Sahn, Taigen Dan Leighton, L.C. Beckett, Hotei (The Laughing Buddha); Sofu Teshigahara, Robert Aitken, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg.

Key Spiritual Texts:

I wanted to be quiet in a non-quiet situation. So I discovered first through reading the gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, and through the study of the philosophy of Zen Buddhism–and also an important book for me was The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley…–that they are all saying the same thing, namely, a quiet mind is a mind that is free of its likes and dislikes. –John Cage

D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, which was also the first book in the West on the Mahayana (Great Vehicle), the teachings that are the source of Zen; Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot.

Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being, and it points the way from bondage to freedom. By making us drink right from the fountain of life, it liberates us from all the yokes under which we finite beings are usually suffering in this world. We can say that Zen liberates all the energies properly and naturally stored in each of us, which are in ordinary circumstances cramped and distorted so that they find no adequate channel for activity. This body of ours is something like an electric battery in which a mysterious power latently lies. When this power is not properly brought into operation, it either grows mouldy and withers away or is warped and expresses itself abnormally. It is the object of Zen, therefore, to save us from going crazy or being crippled. This is what I mean by freedom, giving free play to all the creative and benevolent impulses inherently lying in our hearts. Generally, we are blind to this fact, that we are in possession of all the necessary faculties that will make us happy and loving towards one another. All the struggles that we see around us come from this ignorance. Zen, therefore, wants us to open a “third eye,” as Buddhists call it, to the hitherto undreamed-of-region shut away from us through igmnorance. When the cloud of ignorance disappears, the infinity of the heavens is manifested, where we see for the first time into the nature of our own being.D.T. Suzuki

Essays in Zen Buddhism Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy The Lankavatara Sutra Hua Yen, Flower Garland Sutra The Heart Sutra Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite Mumonkan (The Gateless Gate) The I Ching (The Chinese Book Changes) Luigi Russolo, The Art of Noise

The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna Here is one of Cage’s favorite Ramakrishna stories he loved telling:

Ramakrishna spent an afternoon explaining that everything is God. Afterward, one of his disciples entered the evening traffic in a euphoric state and barely escaped being crushed to death by an elephant. He ran back to his teacher and asked, “Why do you say everything’s God when just now I was nearly killed by an elephant?” Ramakrishna said, “Tell me what happened.” When the disciple got to the point where he heard the voice of the elephant’s driver warning him several times to get out of the way, Ramakrishna interrupted, “That was God’s voice.”

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Transformation of Nature in Art, The Dance of Shiva

Meister Eckhart, The Sermons

Coming back to Eckhart, for the sake by the way the way of a brilliant conclusion. A tonic and dominant emphatic conclusion to this talk about something and nothing and how they need each other to keep on going, as Eckhart says:, “Earth (that is any something) “has no escape from heaven.” (that is nothing) “flee she up or flee she down heaven still invades her, energizing her, fructifying her, whether for her weal or for her woe. –John Cage, from Lecture on Something

L.C. Beckett, Neti Neti (Not This Not That) 1955 The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures Buddha’s Fire Sermon Alan Watts, The Spirit of Zen The I-Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes Paul Carus, The Gospel of Buddha According to Old Records A Buddhist Bible edited by Dwight Goddard Ashvaghosha, the second century commentator on the Buddha, The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana The Surangama Sutra The Bhagavad Gita Jean Paul Satre, Being and Nothingness Lao Tse, Tao Te Ching Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art; Evelyn Underhill Mysticism Huang Po, Doctrine of Universal Mind Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism Alan Watts, The Spirit of Zen Paul Carus, The Gospel of Buddha According to Old Records Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle expounded in his book, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science

Henry David Thoreau, especially Walden and the essay Civil Disobedience

What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star’s surface, some hard matter in its home! I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me…Talk of mysteries!–Think of our life in nature,–daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we? –Henry David Thoreau

A couple of other passages related to spiritual practice by Kay Larson that I found noteworthy:  Kay Larson on waking up,

Bardo–the Tibetan Buddhist word for a “becoming” or transition. Although the bardo is usually identified as the passage after death, it can also be a turning moment within ordinary life. You’re walking in your daily reality and there is a slight shiver in the visual field and you sense that a door is opening in a wall. You haven’t known about the wall until the door opens. Do you walk through? –Kay Larson

On the practice of zazen:

What is zazen? Crossing one’s legs? Watching the breath? Saying nothing? Waiting for the bell to ring? That’s where the beginner begins. After a bit more practice, however, zazen expands. Everything interpenetrates, right? Sitting silently, where are you? Who are you? What are you sitting within? As you cross your legs on the cushion, singing a sharani of transformation, the whole world flows in and through you, and all around you. The totality of Creation is sitting with you. Where are the walls? Sitting zazen, you take apart the bricks one at a time, look at them carefully, and set them down. At the end of the process, where are the walls? –Kay Larson


Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham

Holy Places: Shokukuji, Daitokuji, Engakuji, Daitokuji (Rinzai Zen temple in Kyoto)

Dancers: Merce Cunningham, Anna Pavlova, Martha Graham, Bonnie Bird, Syvilla Fort, Dorothy Herrmann, Katherine Dunham, Martha Hill, Jean Erdman, Erick Hawkins, Carolyn Brown, Robert Ellis Dunn, and Rashaun Mitchell.

Other Writers: Philip Whalen, Jack Kerouac, Gertrude Stein, Andre Breton, Charles H. Ford, William Saroyan, E.E. Cummings, Rainer Maria Rilke, Buckminster Fuller, Mary Caroline Richards, Jackson Mac Low, John Ashbery, Erich Fromm, Charles Olson, Martin Heidegger, Arnold Toynbee, Arthur Waley, Jackson Mac Low. Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The rational mind only describes a tiny room in a vast cosmos, and beyond this we cannot speak”

Photographers: Jack Calvin, Edward Weston


The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences. –Gita Sarabhai There are two principal parts of each personality, the conscious mind and the unconscious, and these are split and dispersed, in most of us, in countless ways and distractions. The function of music, like that of any other healthy occupation, is to help to bring those separate parts back together again. Music does this by providing moment when, awareness of time and space being lost, the multiplicity of elements which make up an individual become integrated and he is one. –John Cage

Henry Cowell, Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Buhlig, Virgil Thomson, Erik Satie especially “Vexations,” Morton Feldman, Webern Symphony, Opus 21 conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos; Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances; David Tudor, Earle Brown, John Cale, Nam June Paik, Terry Riley, La Monte Young; Steve Reich, and Janice Giteck.

Visual Art:

Robert Kushner "Eleven Orange Emperors," 2008

Robert Kushner “Eleven Orange Emperors,” 2008

The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful, the first question I ask, is why do I think it’s not beautiful? And very shortly you discover that there is no reason. –John Cage

Movements: Dada, Modersnism, The Bauhaus, Abstract Expressionism & Fluxus Tristan Tzara, F.T. Marinetti, The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism;  Alexej von Jawlensky’s painting, Poetry of the Evening (1931); Edwin Rothschild, The Meaning of the Unintelligibility of Modern Art; Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Motherwell, Morris Graves, Paul Klee, Mondrian, Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, Max Ernst, The Bauhaus, Gyorgy Kepes, Marc Chagall, Leger, Andre Masson, Willem de Kooning, sculptors Richard Lippold and Ibram Lassaw, Philip Pavia, Jackson Pollock, Doña Luisa; Robert Rauschenberg. Sari Dienes, Karl Jaspers, Shuzo Takiguchi, Ibram Lassaw, Allan Kaprow, George Segal, Alison Knowles, Dick Higgins, George Brecht, Robert Watts, Al Hansen, Adolph Gottlieb, Yoko Ono;, Andrew Warhol, Claes Oldenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Robert Morris, The Fluxus Movement, Jim Dine, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Al Held, Pat Steir, Bruce Nauman


John CageSome other quotations that I highlighted from Larson’s biography: Cage describes the concept of indeterminacy:

Indeterminacy means, literally: not fixed, not settled, uncertain, indefinite. It means that you don’t know where you are. How can it be otherwise, say the Buddhist teachings, since you have no fixed or inherent identity and are ceaselessly in process? …Life is filled with uncertainty  Chance events happen to all of us. Each of us must take responsibility and make decisions. None of us should be imposing our ego image on others. …There’s another way to live. Accept indeterminacy as a principle, and you see your life in a new light, as a series of seemingly unrelated jewel-like stories with in a dazzling setting of change and transformation. Recognize that you don’t know where you stand, and you will begin to watch where you put your feet. That’s when the path appears.

A remarkable outlook on the purpose of art:

If we conquer that dislike, or begin to like what we did dislike, then the world is more open. That path, of increasing one’s enjoyment of life, is the path I think we’d all best take. To use art not as self expression but as self-alteration. To become more open” –Cage

Cage describes the role of a teacher:

I do not think that a teacher should teach something to the student. I think the teacher should discover what it is that the student knows–and that’s not easy to find out–and then, of course, encourage the student to be courageous with respect to his knowledge, courageous and practical and so forth–in other words, to bring his knowledge to fruition. Don’t you think? 

On reality:

You say: the real, the world as it is. But it is not, it becomes! It moves, it changes! It doesn’t wait for us to change…It is more mobile than you can possibly imagine. You are getting closer to this reality when you say as it “presents itself”; that means that it isnot there, existing as an object. The world, the real is not an object. It is a process.

Cage’s advice on what to do when you feel bored:

In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.

And  lastly, one of my favorite passages in the book about how a great spiritual teacher or teaching works on you:

During recent years Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki has done a great deal of lecturing at Columbia University. First he was in the Department of Religion, then somewhere else. Finally he settled down on the seventh floor of Philosophy Hall. The room had windows on two sides, a large table in the middle with ash trays. There were chairs around the table and next to the walls. These were always filled with people listening, and there were generally a few people standing near the door. The two or three people who took the class for credit sat in chairs around the table. The time was four to seven. During this period most people now and then took a little nap. Suzuki never spoke loudly. When the weather was good the windows were open, and the airplanes leaving La Guardia flew directly overhead from time to time, drowning out whatever he had to say. He never repeated what had been said during the passage of the airplane.

Three lectures I remember in particular. While he was giving them I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what he was saying. It was a week or so later, while I was walking in the woods looking for mushrooms, that it all dawned on me. Kay Larson’s book  is a wonderful portrait of  a man who embodied what it means to be a seeker in life, and by that I mean, someone who is able to bring a spiritual discipline into the uncertainty of their daily life. They live the mystery. And finally here is John Cage’s quintessential piece “4’33” which Larson describes so beautifully as a “statement of essence leading out of the world of art into the whole of life, it was born in the space, the silence, the nothing that supports us.


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.


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
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

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