Spiritual Practice

Moments

Takashi Shimura as Watanabe in “Ikiru,” (1952, dir. Akira Kurosawa)

Takashi Shimura as Watanabe in “Ikiru,” (1952, dir. Akira Kurosawa)

Yesterday, as I was walking down Spadina Street here in Toronto to meet someone, something within me started noticing my thoughts. It was strange becoming aware of all these thoughts just a-thinking in me. It was like watching a series of short films–one after another. But suddenly I found myself–on the street, in the snow, surrounded by people and the whole cacophony of China Town with merchants yelling and cars everywhere. I was present to it–an opening to my life as it was happening now.

This body that usually just carries me around came into view, I was embodied. It lasted a few moments, before I was taken back up into the head and back into the swirling films that were so irresistibly engaging. But a moment later, I would remember and return to this body beneath me, here and now, along with the impressions of the street, the sounds, and the people and cars.

It occurred to me that “I” am not often the one who goes out for a walk. The stories that continually run around in my mind take me for a walk. How many days of my life, I wonder, have I been living in these stories without actually living my real life. I’m not interested in labeling the stories as good or bad–it’s part of being human, but I am interested in the part of us that can watch, without judgment on what is actually taking place–moment to moment.

Ring Them Bells

Photography Credit: Gjon Mili, Bell’s, Life Magazine, 1959

Photography Credit: Gjon Mili, Bell’s, Life Magazine, 1959

On December 31 at midnight, the New Year is welcomed in Japanese Buddhist Temples with 108 bell chimes during the Joya no Kane ritual, which means “bell rings on new year eve’s night.” The rings represent 108 elements of bonō, defilements or passions and desires entrapping us in the cycle of suffering and awakening (Samsāra). The 108 bell chimes also symbolize the purification from the 108 delusions and sufferings accumulated in the past year.

A couple of years ago, I came across a Western adaptation of this ritual of celebrating the New Year:

Ingredients: close to midnight, sit in silence for an hour. Then strike a bell 108 times — ideally outside — and with each measured ring remember someone in your life: near and far, dead and alive, friend and foe. Then write on a piece of paper “One thing I want to let go off” and burn it. Then bow and drink a glass of sparkling beverage. Cheers!”

I will find myself spending time with family and friends at the stroke of midnight, but I will try to keep this ritual in mind along with an invitation from the poet, Leonard Cohen that touches on an attitude toward the sacred: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

May all your good intentions and highest wishes come to fruition in 2015.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

“Settle down in your room at a moment when you have nothing else to do. Say “I am now with myself,” and just sit with yourself. After an amazingly short time you will most likely feel bored. This teaches us one very useful thing. It gives us insight into the fact that if after ten minutes of being alone with ourselves we feel like that, it is no wonder that others should feel equally bored! Why is this so? It is so because we have so little to offer to our own selves as food for thought, for emotion and for life. If you watch your life carefully you will discover quite soon that we hardly ever live from within outwards; instead we respond to incitement, to excitement. In other words, we live by reflection, by reaction… We are completely empty, we do not act from within ourselves but accept as our life a life which is actually fed in from the outside; we are used to things happening which compel us to do other things. How seldom can we live simply by means of the depth and the richness we assume that there is within ourselves.”

Archbishop Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, (Darton, Lomgman & Todd Ltd., 1970) p. 68

The Art of Meditation

The Art of MeditationI have been spending a lot of time with Sir Richard Temple’s beautiful book The Art of Meditation, which I received last week in the mail. I highly recommended it. Sir Richard Temple lives in London, England, and owns The Temple Gallery, one of the world’s great religious icon galleries. Recently, he has introduced his magnificent collection of Buddha statues into the space. He also decided to gather his collection of photographs that were originally commissioned for an exhibition catalog, and publish The Art of Meditation instead, along with When You Hear a Dog Bark, an intimate personal account of Buddhist meditation in Thailand.

In the poignant introduction to the book, Temple writes:

There is in all of us, even if deeply buried, a longing for eternal truth….Art, at least traditional sacred art, with its supreme technical mastery and craftsmanship, with the grandeur of its emotional language, its inner stillness and its suggestion of profound meaning can be a signpost for this search. Sacred art of the great ancient traditions speaks to what is finest in the human spirit and can turn us in the direction of order, compassion and wisdom.

The photographs in the book are stunning, and his personal journal about meditation is a joy to read. It is sincere, and often humorous and insightful.

Here is a remarkable passage from Temple’s journal that resonated with my own search:

Meditating is seeing into oneself, and it is not the role of the seer to intervene; he does not descend to the level where what is seen takes place. The seer is a higher level in oneself, the lower remains as it is. It is simply there to be seen objectively, as one would stand in front of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Delights. One may be intrigued, horrified, fascinated, amused and so on, but one is an onlooker to these events and not a participant.

A great spiritual truth can be understood from this if the principle of impartial, objective seeing is tightly grasped. The seer is an appearance within oneself of an intelligence that does not belong to the ordinary world but to a higher one.

The practice is called “the art of arts and the science of sciences.” With sufficient endeavor it can be brought into one’s everyday life. I have met people, admittedly very few, who carry out their ordinary affairs in the world while maintaining this interior regards upon themselves.

For more information about the book or to view the collection online, you can visit The Temple Gallery here.

The Temple Gallery

The Temple Gallery

 

Spiritual Diplomacy

Here is an illuminating interview with James George, former high commissioner to India and former ambassador to Iran. The Dalai Lama calls him “my old friend.” Chogyam Trungpa referred to him as “a wise and benevolent man, an ideal statesman.”

He has been a gentle teacher and a friend who has inspired many to engage in a spiritual practice in the midst of life–one that can bridge the external world with the inner world.

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.

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.

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.