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?

Riding the Rails of The Horizontal and the Vertical

(Photograph by Galina Lukyanova.

Photograph by Galina Lukyanova.

I took the dogs out for a walk in the park this morning. The wind was cold, and the trees were icy and barren. The dogs didn’t care how cold it was. Immediately, they shot like rockets across the park after a squirrel. I called to them, but they were too caught up in all the excitement and snow. Eventually, they settled down, and the white stillness of the park returned.

So it is with my inner life. I see that my thoughts can be just as noisy and reckless. I can’t change my dog’s nature. That is how dogs are. Sometimes though, they hear my gentle call and recognize that I am their master, or at least the one that feeds them. What if I could have this same attitude towards this wandering mind of mine, and see it as a friend.

Maybe I am just chasing after squirrels a lot of the time; however I can also recognize that all these inner noises and associations prevent me from a direct experience. Behind all of that, there is a quality of stillness. Jeanne de Salzmann speaks about this quality in “The Reality of Being.” She writes:

“I have to see that there is a space between thoughts. A void that is reality, and I need to remain as long as possible in this space. Then another kind of thinking appears, clear and intelligent, a thought of another level, another dimension.”

There is an idea from spiritual traditions, that there are two worlds or two pools. The first is the world of our functioning which includes the ordinary mind with all of its commentaries, opinions and ideas as well as the emotions that move through me like the weather. The second world is completely different. It utilizes different energies and is composed of an entirely different order. This second world is always beckoning to us, but it is hidden behind the veil of the first world. Siddhartha describes this second world beautifully as “a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.”

The key, I think, is not to be in one or the other, but both. Here is a wonderful description of this practice from the Buddhist teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya:

When you are on your own, your attention will tend to be all ‘in here’. When you are with others, it will most likely be all ‘out there’. Why does it all go ‘out there’? It is because you are more interested in what is going on ‘out there’, because you are not really interested in what is going on ‘in here’. When the attention is all outside, thoughts and emotions will come unnoticed and things will build up.

[The yogi says, yes, this is the problem! I try to maintain internal awareness but when the awareness wants to go out, it affects the quality of awareness.]

OK, the outside is important but so are you! Why not be aware of both, why not go for 50/50? There are of course variations. In some circumstances it might be 60/40, etc. You need to experiment, learn in different situations…

—Sayadaw U Tejaniya: Awareness Alone Is Not Enough (PDF)

How do I make an effort in this direction?

I try by giving myself exercises: I am going to be aware of myself here and now whenever I pass under doorways throughout the day. From this deceptively simple task, I gather snapshots of myself. I see that I forget the task. Or when I remember the exercise, who is it in me that remembers? It’s not about getting the task right or wrong, but to see how I am moment by moment.

In short though, all of this is only preparation. Similarly, my morning meditation is a preparation to hopefully bring an inner world into my daily life. Not to be completely lost in the inner or the outer, but to stand right in the middle of manifestation and this inner silence; in-between the meeting of the horizontal with the vertical axis. Of course in the busyness of life, this is damn near impossible, but I have to try. After all, the real work begins as soon as one gets up from the cushion.

When the ego takes its proper place, when the old man makes way for the new man, there is an entirely different order. There is a contact with a different quality of energy in and around the body. The functioning is completely different. With this opening to a quality of energy, higher functioning becomes active and real feelings, like compassion and gratitude can be experienced.

Thank you to It’s All Dhamma for drawing my attention to the  excerpt from Sayadaw U Tejaniya.

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