Parabola Magazine

Uneasy Street

Ernst Haas, “Route 66,” Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1969

Ernst Haas, Route 66, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1969

“Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.” So taught the Gautama Buddha, some 2500 years ago, with his hands delicately poised in front of his heart. This morning, I am sitting in front of a computer, watching the incessant demand of a blinking cursor within a blank Word document.

I notice that I am particularly tense this morning, hunched over, my head supported in a sleepy left hand, my jaw clenched and that I am even holding my breath unnecessarily at moments. I watch my thoughts negotiating with the yes and the no, the before and the after. I realize that I am singing the old songs again, and find myself walking up Uneasy Street.

I accept the fact I’m on Uneasy Street. Inevitably, I will do a little window shopping – find myself in a few stores. But for now, I try to stay away from this seductive long strip of stores with their myriad distractions by turning my attention inward. I will sacrifice all my under-the-breath commentary and judgment about what I am experiencing and to mobilize my attention in order to experience a direct sensation of myself sitting here. Specifically, I try to watch what is taking place without interfering with anything. The more I practice this, the more intriguing it becomes: “So that’s how I am right now?” I notice that all these forces of thought and emotions that pull me here and there are pretty damn interesting. It’s like watching an Easter parade–a marching band of habitual attitudes and tensions.  I give myself wholeheartedly to this activity of watchfulness by accepting everything without reservations. It’s how it is. I receive what I am.

It takes time, but if I simply wait and listen, an inner space can appear. A subtle relaxation begins to inhabit this body. I realize that this subtle relaxation is a gift, and that by letting go of my preoccupations and concerns of the day, it announces itself naturally. By the giving-over of myself, I am brought under its influence. I think it’s always there, this mysterious gift, it’s just that I am often too busy to hear it. Even though it’s really noisy just before the intersection of the here and now, I realize how necessary Uneasy Street street is.  It is an important aspect of the spiritual life because it serves as a reminder of the Other.

Photograph: Ernst Haas, “Route 66,” Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1969.

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.


Andrew Wyeth, "Off at Sea," 1972.

Andrew Wyeth, Off at Sea, 1972.

The sun returns, pushing away the grey sky in forgiveness painted blue. Long shadows appear over the deck and the green of a small ficus tree is illuminated. The wind that rattled the stray beer cans is quiet now; leaving the neighbourhood eerily silent and waiting. She gives herself to the television in the next room. He sits on a once white plastic deck chair. He stops, smokes, takes a long sip of coffee—a break from the stream of words. It’s a late Sunday afternoon near the end of summer. He can smell the sourness in the air of autumn approaching. He can taste the acridness, the oranges, the reds, and the rusty browns. He feels the warmth on his skin, tickling the hairs, now golden on his arms. Looking up, he sees the birds dart among the rooftops, gathering together, and a moment later, dispersing again. The sun light settles gently over the trees. He asks himself if he has ever truly seen his backyard before—to have this direct impression of it, without his luggage of words. Has he ever listened to its orchestra of wind and trees? It is as though, behind all the seemingly ordinariness, something struggles to shine through.

The Empty Page

E.B. White writing in his boathouse

E.B. White writing in his boathouse

Dropping the anchor,
To try to find the middle ground.
Down into the “I don’t know” rather than the forms.
There is a hesitation.
In the chest, a question is uncovered.

Is it true?
Grounded in my abdomen,
I see that this turning inward, is just as vast and nebulous
As launching outward.

Opening to where I am, now
At this table writing, and listening.
The weight of this body sitting here on the chair changes
and a fragile silence appears
that is louder than me or you.

Breathing in and out,
in profound exchange.
Of emptying and filling
Silence and sound.

While navigating varieties of lost.
The light in the room shifts and
Something changes.
My abdomen is trying to tell me something
But the language is lost in the process
Of trying to find the right words.

–Luke Storms


Mark Rothko, Black on Dark Sienna on Purple, 1960

Mark Rothko, Black on Dark Sienna on Purple, 1960

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to see the Abstract Expressionist show at the Art Gallery of Ontario here in Toronto. The highlights for me were the shadowy hues of rich purple and maroon canvases from Rothko’s later career. I stood in front of three of these massive paintings that hung in the low light. As I watched the colors vibrate around the edges, I noticed that there was a definite inner response. Although I could not label it, it was a kind of call, invoking a feeling of mystery, and inviting contemplation, silence and reflection. There was a here-I am-and-in this place kind of feeling. I avoided interfering with the process by thinking about it; I just presented myself, and allowed the impression to cut more deeply. It occurred to me that I was receiving a gift. A reminder, that every moment is an opportunity to enter more deeply into the soft silence that lays waiting, behind the surface of our lives.

Mark Rothko once wrote: “When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing. No galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet it was a golden age, for we all had nothing to lose and a vision to gain. Today it is not quite the same, it is a time of tons of verbiage activity, consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large, I will not venture to discuss. But I do know that many of those who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence where we can root and grow. We must all hope we find them.”

May you find numerous pockets of silence this summer.

To Be Bothered


What does it mean to live within, and how do we approach this in the midst of the movement of life? What is taking place in me now within this vessel? Are there tensions in my body? What is the taste of my emotional state right now? How about the thoughts that are passing through? I need to be in question about this continually as a way of practice. A capacity that need to be cultivated that can separate from all of my functions, be it thought, emotions, or bodily tensions to see them more objectively. This is extremely difficult because for one reason, I forget. I am swept away by the movement of life and secondly, I see that I normally live in a continual state of reaction. Because all of my energy is being taken to external things, there is no room for this quiet inner contemplation. I have no emotional energy invested in it, so I remain indifferent to the possibility of a radically different sense of being alive, of another order of things.  How do I resist being passively pulled out by all of these forces? Can I allow this body to be inhabited by a presence that is stronger than all of that?

Ray Bradbury once wrote: “We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?” I think he addresses an extremely important question here. I see that I am not bothered enough, for is often in unusual circumstances or when things don’t go according to my expectations that an opportunity can present itself. For a moment there is an interruption in my usual routines and habits. Suffering can provide a shock that can awaken us to something much larger and unknown than the small cramped world of “I, me, and mine.” But what is required of me?

I need to stand in front of myself as I am, without trying to escape it. I need to mobilize the whole of myself, not just my head a-thinking in me. It is only through acceptance and this silent watchfulness that something can be transformed.  In those moments, I can be in question. I can awaken to the fact that I am not just my habits and conditioning. Perhaps a feeling of gratitude can be awakened and I can have a sense of what it really means to be alive.

Image: A Buddhist priest prays for the souls of the victims still not found in the rubble, Yamada, Japan from The New York Times: Photo of the Day.

Let It Rain

Jack Kerouac, "Face of the Buddha," Pencil on Paper, 1958?

Jack Kerouac, “Face of the Buddha,” Pencil on Paper, 1958?

Gurdjieff once said: “In the river of life suffering is not intentional. In conscious life suffering is intentional and of great value.” Setting all biases aside, I have been delving into the extraordinary Spring issue of Parabola and one thing that I have noticed that is common to all of the wisdom traditions, is the view that suffering can be useful for us, provided we accept and embrace it.

Unfortunately, when I experience a real suffering, my tendency is to immediately avoid it or to get taken by endless distractions, rather than experiencing it directly and allowing it to work on me. Maybe it is because I lack a certain capacity to stay in front of it. After all, a real suffering can be pretty annihilating.

If I look at my life, I find it was the moments where I was stretched in some way, where there has often been pain, that I learned the most. Difficult as those moments are, they allow for new growth.  Maybe the suffering that could most easily be avoided is caused by rigidity, or steadfastness to attitudes that I may have towards it. Maybe what is required is to be in question about it, a shift in to an attitude that is more open and more porous. It has always stuck me that the word “understanding” contains the words “standing under.” Could suffering be a gift, and if it is, can I stand under it and allow it to rain on me?

Unexpected Intrusions of Beauty

Georgia O’Keefe, "New York with Moon," 1925

Georgia O’Keefe, New York with Moon, 1925

Andy Goldsworthy, a British sculptor, photographer and environmentalist once said:

“I find some of my new works disturbing, just as I find nature as a whole disturbing. The landscape is often perceived as pastoral, pretty, beautiful – something to be enjoyed as a backdrop to your weekend before going back to the nitty-gritty of urban life. But anybody who works the land knows it’s not like that. Nature can be harsh – difficult and brutal, as well as beautiful. You couldn’t walk five minutes from here without coming across something that is dead or decaying.”

One doesn’t need to go anywhere special to be aware of beauty or truth. Even here, as I am writing this in my office, among the noise and clatter of the city, it’s all here. Maybe all that is required is to drop all of my unnecessary chatter, worries and concerns to allow the seemingly ordinary to become extraordinary.

In Herzog, author Saul Bellow writes: “Unexpected intrusions of beauty. That is what life is.”

So for me the question is: How to give myself to this life, to its harshness and its beauty, and allow for these intrusions of the unexpected to penetrate. How do I move forward into the mystery like the Persian poet Rumi said: “Attar roamed the seven cities of love — We are still just in one alley.”

A Wordless Shock

Agnes Martin, "Falling Blue," 1969

Agnes Martin, Falling Blue, 1969

Author and painter, Agnes Martin wrote “When I think of art, I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind.” She devoted her life to living by inspiration. By contrast she described the life as the intellect as living “by comparisons, calculations, schemes, concepts, ideas – is all a structure of pride in which there is not beauty or happiness – no life. The intellectual is in fact death.”

What is beauty?

Is it possible that beauty can contain a quality of energy that creates a small shock, a moment of hesitation, a soft space in which we remark aloud, “Wow.” Can it crack us wide open through a song, a poem, or a person that stretches our perceived notions, fixed ideas and limitations? Can it remind us to be more present to the unfolding of the mystery of life, both in and around us as author Don DeLillo describes in his book Underworld:

“Sometimes I see something so moving I know I’m not supposed to linger. See it and leave. If you stay too long, you wear out the wordless shock. Love it and trust it and leave.”

Maybe beauty encourages us to embrace our lives more fully, through all of its savage beauty, and to not take anything that is given for granted? Author and spiritual seeker, William Segal once wrote:

“Both the advantage and the privilege of an artist is that he is forced to look. To see. People rarely see the beauty and the greatness around them. They live their lives in half sleep.”

What if we approach the living of our lives as an art?

Of the genesis of her paintings, Martin said: “When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied. I thought, this is my vision.”

Martin rendered fine vertical lines and lightly shaded horizontal bands in oil and pencil, softening the geometric grid, which in this case seems to expand beyond the confines of the canvas. For Martin the grid evoked not a human measure but an ethereal one—the boundless order or transcendent reality associated with Eastern philosophies.” –from The MoMA Collection

Longing For the Stars

Hans Kaden, "Path of Light," 1943.

Hans Kaden, Path of Light, 1943.

James Hollis, writer and Jungian analyst writes: “…the etymology of the word “desire” derives from the Latin desiderare,” “to long for,” derived from de sidere, “of the stars.” Is this the true place of desire? How often can we take in the immensity and the mystery of the world around us? Ordinarily I find myself stuck in an ongoing and relentless narrative that my mind uses to continually protect who I think I am or aught to be, in other words, the “I, Me, and Mine” storytelling. For the most part, because of all this noise going on, I am not available to that scale of things. Sure, I can think about it, but how do I actually feel that I am part of that grand mystery?

Interestingly, Hollis goes on to say: “Thus, disorders of desire arise from our loss of the stars, namely, some sidereal point from which our course may be derived.” We lose track of ourselves here and now. How do we cultivate healthy desires? Can the mind forfeit its incessant chatter or can we have a question, much like a Zen koan, that is so intriguing that the usual narrative simply loses its attraction. In those rare moments, the mind becomes silent and there is a connection to a quality of stillness that is far removed from any concepts or ideas that I may have, either of myself or even about spiritual practice. Perhaps desire can serve us to have an experience of something beyond ourselves. So returning to the question, what is the proper place of desire, I think there is another hint in the Focus section of the current issue from Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”