Uneasy Street

“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

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

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

Summer

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.

Yasunari Kawabata

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.”