Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Adventures Beyond Belief
Back in the late 1950s two things happened as I sat in my fold-down seat and struggled through the sermon. I was maybe 11 or 12. The first thing was that I tried to imagine who I was before I was born. What characteristics did I have and where did I come from?
Who am I, who am I?
As I pursued the questions in my mind I fell into such a void that I recoiled in fear and struggled to come back home, come back home to my small home and alcoholic family, come back home to the drone of the preacher and the monotony of the Bible verses. Sunday after Sunday I would fall into that void and then fight to come back home. I never talked about it because there was no one to talk to. I realized that no one was large enough to know the answer, let alone entertain the questions. My only solace was try and hang on to the reality I had as best I could. As bad as it was, that reality seemed better than falling into a place where beliefs held no sway and where there seemed no ground beneath my feet.
In addition to my trips to the void I also began to imagine a child like myself, an Arab child sitting in his mosque somewhere. He was being instructed that what he was being told was the true belief. I was being told that what I was being taught was the true belief. How were we to know what was true? We were both being guided by hearsay, asked to trust and believe in the hearsay, then asked to build our realities around it. I wanted some way of direct knowing, of being able to determine for myself the nature of true reality without being told to just memorize verses.
Though I write about spiritual matters, I’m at heart a scientist, a person who attempts to probe below his own conditioned beliefs about life and below those beliefs held by the cultures around him in order to find out what may or may not be true. It probably all started with those trips to the void, as I needed to know what had happened to me.
So, after many years of experiences both mysterious and mundane, I have managed to put some things together. I ask you to consider them, to think about them and reflect. I don’t ask you to believe them. Belief diminishes the deep spiritual, relegates it to the realm of rote learning and clever semantics.
If you follow these questions long enough you may bump into something so vast, so penetrating, so beyond description, attributes, and qualities, that it stops the world for a moment. Should we call it God, Yahweh, or Allah? But names are just attributes. Is it fearsome, jealous, just or unjust, loving? But these are all attributes. If I perceive fearsomeness, it is because I am fearful. If I perceive love, it is because I am loving or in need of love. Qualities are of the beholder.
How do we approach that which has no attributes? How do we embrace that which is too vast to embrace, communicate with that which has no ears or voice? Sometimes when I meditate I hold an image of my grandfather in my mind and speak to him. Sometimes I hold an image of my teachers. I deliberately use my imagination to give the Great Vastness a face and ears and mouth. These are my symbols. Symbols are like tiny doorways that open to the Great Vastness, a portal for the flow of energy and the chance to hear and be heard.
I choose my symbols carefully, though some just appear. Everything that can be named is only a symbol. Even God, Yahweh, and Allah are only symbols, doorways, to that which lies beyond. Every symbol carries it’s own impurity. Our task is to purify every symbol, make each symbol larger and larger, assign each symbol less and less attributes as our own minds expand. If God is jealous, we need to move on. If God is love, we need to move on. If God demands vengeance, we need to move on. To do this our minds cannot be rigid with belief, our symbol clutched tightly in our cold, dead hands. Symbols are tools, tools like sharp chisels and planes, tools that we use to craft the spiritual life. But then, eventually, even the word spiritual falls away till there is just life.
Every god is a limited doorway. Every holy book is a rigid document, more about social, cultural control and hegemony than it is about the truly religious mind. I can only tell you about symbols, their use and pitfalls. I cannot tell you which symbol to choose, but I can talk to you about the wisdom of choice. My words are not for belief, but only as fuel for your own direct experience. I can point in a direction, but the path is not fixed. This is not rote learning. This is life. Be alert, be nimble.
How do you react to all this? Are you angry? Are you indifferent? Why? We are dying from our beliefs and our beliefs won’t save us. We act like silly, lazy children waiting to be saved, rather than growing up and saving ourselves. What will you do about it? Can you sacrifice your beliefs for the sake of life, for the sake of what lies beneath it all, in the name of that which cannot be named? Please consider this deeply and pass it on.
Friday, August 04, 2006
I'll Meet You There
Can you imagine living in a universe that does not circle around those fears and desires? Your culture would want to reel you in, your religion would want to reel you in. “You must share our fears and desires, loathe what we loathe, cheer what we cheer. That’s what it means to be one of us. You must be one of us.” This can be a lonely path, punctuated by a few good friends. It’s also good to find more.
Last week was my 59th birthday and an unexpected gift arrived, an email from a young man who had stumbled on one of my articles here on BC. He expressed his great feeling of separateness and how sometimes it made him feel superior. Most of the time though, the feeling made him feel full of doubt about himself. He wanted to “stand tall” in terms of spiritual experience. He asked, “What else is there, or what else should there be?” I sent him the following reply.
“The best reply really is the shortest. In a Zen way I could say, "Just this!" and it would say everything, but not enough.
When one encounters the Great Largeness of existence, the proper reactions are both humility and awe. Both qualities are in short supply in this world. If you were to really grasp the magnitude of the process that has made you, the billions of years of the formation of the universe and suns and planets, the millions of years of human evolution, then you have to ask if your life that you lead worthy of all that great effort.
I do not know what things cause you to doubt yourself, or what things cause you to perceive the crack in the façade of the world and make you feel different. It is necessary to see the crack, but it is easy to be overcome by the separateness from the ways of the world. We are wired to be social creatures. Many spiritual traditions solve the problem by living apart in cloisters and monasteries, but that creates its own inbred problems.
Seeing the crack and seeing the delusion by which most people lead their lives can foster several different reactions. One can feel superior to the deluded or one can fall into despair at the sense of isolation. One can also simply feel compassion. I believe that compassion is rooted in a deep sense of sadness at the way humans choose to live in the delusion and ignore all the effort that has gone into creating them.
Standing tall. How do we stand tall with great humility? That is the real challenge. It is good to have some disciplines, good to have a teacher. Compassion is not the last step. When you can stand tall with humility, maybe you can then move on to extending your core energy, your core being to touch another. This is what I call real love. This is the core of why I write, my small attempts to extend what I have learned and cultivated from the old men who loved and helped me.
I have the notion of creating an online community for these things, for community and friendship are at the core of the solution. Separateness and isolation are killers. They also promote ego inflation, for seeing the crack is nothing special. I posted a comment on a friend's blog yesterday to that effect. The core of the comment is to, "Find a friend to learn from, find a friend to teach." The teaching, though, is one that comes from modeling rather than telling.
Beyond the shrinking of your ego is life, not what we imagine or merchandise or fear, but what IS. It's not easy, but it's necessary.”
How can we exist in this world beyond the crack? What do we say to our friends when there is nothing to boast, jeer, or gossip about? When I see one of my best friends after an absence of a year or two, we simply touch foreheads and smile. This world is full, but for most, it’s rejected before it’s even encountered.
Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
don’t make sense any more.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
Zeus and the Practice of Loss
“Zeus has left us.”
Zeus was one of my daughter’s rabbits. She has had a procession of rabbits in her life since she was about six years old. A friend had given our daughter a female Rex and sometime later we decided to get a male rabbit (neutered) for bunny companionship. Thus began a series of male/female companion rabbits that have spanned the years. The older female died, then she was replaced with a younger female. Later the male died and was also replaced. This rabbit pair has had many overlapping incarnations since that first root couple in the years-ago past.
Every death has been met with its own grief, an ongoing practice of loss. Loss is a difficult thing to understand, especially for a child. Ching Man Ching in his treatise on T'ai Chi Chuan counsels, "Learn to invest in loss. Who is willing to do this? To invest in loss is to permit others to attack while you don't use even the slightest force to defend yourself. On the contrary, you lead the opponent's force away so that it is useless. Then when you counter, any opponent will be thrown out a great distance." In my daughter’s practice of loss with her pets, she has loved, lost, grieved, loved again. She is a strong and resilient young adult for her learned practice of loss.
I dug a hole in the backyard beneath a Japanese maple where we could bury Zeus. He had been with us the longest of any of the rabbits. As a young rabbit he had been full of himself, taunting us to catch him and put him back into the cage at night where he could be kept safe from the predations of the raccoons and possums. As an old rabbit he delighted in eating peanuts and fresh veggies from our hands, then waited for his head to be scratched and stroked. I removed him from the towel shroud in which we had wrapped him, then placed him fetus-like in the hole. Barbara placed a few roses from the front yard along with a few fresh sprigs of basil within the cup formed by the fetal arced corpse. Fresh basil is a rabbit’s delight.
Tears came to my eyes as we paid our last respects, for the last sight of Zeus conjured up many memories. Rabbits are the cannon fodder of the animal world, surviving only by their fecundity. Why would the sight of one rabbit bring tears to my eyes? He had become a symbol. Just looking at his empty shell brought up full memories of our family and our life together. I had come into this family when my daughter was five years old, so this bunny history spanned nearly all of our time together. I remembered consoling our daughter through her times of loss and helping her celebrate her triumphs. She hasn’t lived at home for four years now as she has been off at college and has just graduated with many honors.
So, the body of Zeus has a great power to conjure up all these memories. Thinking of him can lift me from a depression because of the power of memory and gratitude. The rabbit is still a rabbit, though, with no meaning outside our little family, with no power apart from us to heal the blues or provide comfort. Symbols can provide a doorway to the deepest place or to the infinite nameless force, but symbols are not, and cannot be, the deepest place or the infinite force. You will have your own version of Zeus. In our tears we covered the body, but kept the symbol alive.
The next morning we looked out into the backyard. A skunk was standing by the gravesite. I then noticed a patch of downy hair scattered on the ground. A raccoon had probably dug into the grave and now the skunk was looking for something to scavenge. We found the bones of a leg, but the rest of the body was still in the hole. We matter-of-factly covered the hole with dirt once more, then place a board and one of Barbara’s sculptures over Zeus’ fragmented remains. The body is scattered and digested but the symbol, the memory, remains whole. The practice of loss. When the memory wanes, life will bring more symbols as doorways.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
Synchronicity and Grace
I grew up with a father who distrusted anything that smacked of education and intelligence. He grew up in a poor family in the rural South with eleven siblings. As his father would beat him, my father would constantly be told how stupid he was. My father dropped out of elementary school during the Great Depression when his father was killed in an auto accident and all the children had to suddenly support the family.
My father was cursed with two very intelligent sons. When I brought home my report card with its straight A’s, he would tell me that I had no common sense and how he had seen all the college educated kids die first during World War II. It is one thing to fail in life with bad performance or lack of effort. It is quite another to fail with efforts that few people can match. I ended up graduating from high school as one of the top two math and science scholars in my county. My father only slipped further from me into his drinking and depression. He died when I was 22.
I feel like I lived my life in a haze for a long time, not from drugs or drinking, but from the experience repeated over and over endlessly, the experience that nothing I could do would ever be good enough, not even near perfection. My own depression sprang from this. Why try when the best of efforts was insufficient?
It’s difficult to have a deep relationship with a woman in this state of mind. When I was 42 and returned to my 25th high school reunion I met a woman whom I hadn’t seen since my high-achieving days of high school. It was a synchronistic event that deserves an entire story of its own. I knew without a doubt that I would spend the rest of my life with her after we first said hello and then passed on by. We didn’t fall in love as much as choose to become friends who would help each other down the road.
After I had moved to live with her and her five-year old daughter, my past began to rise up to meet me again. A friend of hers gave her the name of an old man, Robert Blakemore, who was supposed to be a good counselor. When I went to see him my life changed forever. The magic was that he saw nothing wrong with me, nothing to fix. He enjoyed every aspect of my particular genius and beamed with a paternal pride as I undertook being a father myself. His depth and wisdom penetrated me as he encouraged me to take on those same aspects for myself. His very being encouraged forward.
One day Blakemore sat me down and told me the story of Parsifal and the Holy Grail as he was trained in the mythic tradition of Jungian psychology. Within this symbolic tradition, the Grail is not a thing—not a cup or a womb—but rather the place within each of us whence our own vital energy, our true life, springs. Soon after he told me this story, Robert A. Johnson, the Jungian therapist and author of the book He about Parsifal and the Holy Grail, came to town for a presentation. Blakemore encouraged me to go see Johnson, told me that something interesting might happen. He also told me to make an effort to talk to Johnson.
I went with my wife to see Johnson’s lecture. We entered a crowded hall and miraculously found seats in the second row, slightly to the left of center. After his lecture, which enfolded aspects of the Grail Legend, I turned to my wife to talk. There was a break before the next presenter was to come on. As I turned toward the front again, I found Johnson sitting directly in front of me. I fought for words in my mind, something I could say, but I couldn’t move my lips. He turned to look at me. “Did you say something?” he inquired. I fumbled for more words. He explained that he had trouble giving talks, so he relied on advice that Marie-Louise von Franz had once given him. He picked out someone in the audience that he liked and spoke directly to that person as he lectured. He said he had chosen me and asked if I minded. Here was man who had been a close student of Jung himself and he was asking if I minded. From this encounter Johnson became another mentor who helped guide me on the quest toward my own personal Grail.
When I went to see Blakemore days later, he again listened with a smiling face as I recounted my story of the encounter with Johnson. “I knew something would happen,” he said, and then laughed deeply.
Blakemore died suddenly soon after. I wept profoundly at the depth of my loss. I wept with gratitude at the depth of my gain. I loved him deeply and I loved Johnson. I had thought I would never experience such acceptance of who I really was and am. I had just started the first pages of a book when Blakemore died. At his memorial I pledged that I would finish the book in his honor as the book wouldn’t have any existence or merit at all without his interaction in my life. I envisioned finishing the book in a year or two. It took ten.
I was at Home Depot a few days ago for a last minute exchange of parts before I headed to a job. I heard a voice. “Hello there.” I looked up into Blakemore’s face, into the same beaming smile that had left me years ago. Of course it wasn’t him, it was his son who carried the same name. I hadn’t seen him since soon after the funeral and in the intervening 12 years his hair had become white. He now looked much like his father.
When he asked what I was doing, I replied that I had just published a book that was dedicated in part to his father. I told him that the book wouldn’t even exist without his father being in my life. We looked at each other as tears moved to our eyes. I can scarcely talk of his father without tears of gratitude springing forth unbidden. I asked if I could give him a copy of the book to complete the circle, the circle of energy returning to its source in order to go forth once more. This is the essence of the Grail. “Of course,” he said. He is a big-hearted man like his father.
I don’t know where this interaction will go. These synchronicities guide my life, have shaped and given depth to me. It is grace in action. This grace will have its own life and lead to its own end. In life we are taught to grow strong and beat down the doors. Either that or we walk away in angry frustration. Sometimes if you just sit and just watch, the door momentarily opens and you can walk on through. Grace. Patience, awareness, gratitude. Grace.
Monday, July 10, 2006
Stretching Rainflies in a Storm
In the middle of a three-day rainstorm once, I went from tent to tent adjusting rainflies, showing the kids how it was done in the process. I had good equipment for myself and knew how to take care of myself. I was dry and operated in a zone of joy that couldn’t be dampened by the deluge of rain. I knew my job was simply to pass on knowledge of how live in these circumstances and there was completeness in the act. What to most would be a cause for discomfort and grand complaint was to me primal, elemental, and transfiguring. There is great power in this elemental state and much to learn from it.
We spend a great deal of money and energy to avoid our elemental state, find myriad ways to distract ourselves. One of the things we had to confront as teachers was the fact that many of our students came from very wealthy families where they could normally purchase any level of distraction they wanted. Why learn to properly pitch a tent in a storm when one can book an expensive room, even buy the hotel? Indeed, one of my students was an heir to the Hilton fortune.
Once my headmaster said to me, “John, I’ve come to the conclusion that money is a detriment in these kids lives.” When Christ said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven, he wasn’t knocking money as much as he was talking about money’s ability to buy distraction from the elemental real nature of life. In our present age though, we have suffered a democratization of distraction so that distraction from the elemental real is not just the province of the rich, but is something attainable by us all. It is our way of life and something we view as an inalienable right.
I have been gone from posting for a while as I pondered my relationship with writing. It is sometimes disheartening to have little feedback or a sense of effect. I’ve found though, that teaching is a long-term proposition. One student of mine who was on the above trip came from a very dysfunctional family that was rife with alcohol and drug problems. He himself descended into addiction when he left our school. One day, six or seven years later, I looked up from my desk as this young man entered the room. His eyes were clear and there was a smile on his face as he came over to embrace me. He had gone through recovery and come out the other side.
I realized that in his days with us, we had provided the only family and stability he had known. Even in his darkest days he had drawn on that memory to help him toward clarity. We couldn’t save him from his circumstances, but we had been able to provide him with a light he could use if he so chose. So I have to write in an untrammeled way without knowing the impact of the writing. Let’s call it stretching rainflies in a storm. I do it to pass on the knowledge of encountering something elemental and of the joy that can be found in not being too distracted. Passing it on is simply what I do. Will I look up from my desk someday to see your clear eyes?
Imagine we are in the forest somewhere, far from your distractions. Here is how you tie the knot. Don’t let your rainfly touch the tent.
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
The New Doors of Perception
With the above quote Aldous Huxley began his book The Doors of Perception. The book was nominally about his experiences taking mescaline in the early 1950’s, but it was more a critical examination of the processes by which we apprehend reality and an examination of the nature of spiritual experience.
A month ago I was installing a new set of doors for two men in their eighties, a gay couple. One of the men had read my book and enjoyed it very much. The room where we installed the doors was a small back bedroom that had cinderblock walls, plastered on the inside and stuccoed on the outside, and two small windows with no direct access to the outdoors. We had to have a concrete cutting service come in to saw a hole in the wall so that I could install a small set of double French doors. As I finished the job, the partner of the man who read my book came up to me and said, “Tom and I both agree that you remind us of Aldous Huxley.”
I looked up, a bit baffled and amazed by the comment. “Do I look like him?”
“A bit,” my client replied, “but it’s more in the way you carry yourself and express yourself, your mind.”
“Did you know him?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied with a slight smile. “We used to take LSD together.”
I immediately thought of The Doors of Perception, of how it had been a must read during the sixties. I also thought of the doors I was installing. I’ve installed a lot of doors in my time, even designed and made some of them. The time I’ve spent teaching is also, in a great sense, about the finding of doors or the creation of new doors. It’s all about providing a well-crafted passageway between the inside and outside worlds.
During the sixties I had picked up the book, but never really read it. Reading the book seemed secondary to the experience of the times. It’s pretty faddish now to diss the sixties as self-indulgent and irrelevant, but between tokes we managed to end a presidency, end a war, and help bring about a bit more racial justice. What can be said of the present?
The salient feature of the time seemed to be that many of the people I knew were trying to figure out a better way to do things and were actively trying to cleanse their doors of perception, either through drugs or nascent spiritual practice. It was a time of felt community. We were trying to gain a vision, but never figured out how to bring that vision into this world. We foundered on the rocks of drugs or the necessity of making a living. Deep within us though is the memory that we had a dream, a vision, and it’s still incomplete. It’s time for completion.
As I read through The Doors of Perception, I was amazed with the parallels in Huxley’s thinking and expression and my own. I was also aware of the differences. He was a European classicist with a noble pedigree. His grandfather Thomas had been the great proponent of the theory of evolution and was known as “Darwin’s Bulldog.” I came from a family where my father was a third grade dropout who didn’t want me to go to college. Rather than the classics, my tastes run to roots music and jazz. I can’t reference the classics very well, but I can reference our roots in this American landscape. My father’s family came to what is now the southern United States about 1650. My mother’s family came to California from Germany in the early 1850s at the end of the Gold Rush. Some family members came across the prairie in covered wagons and some came around stormy Cape Horn.
Despite our differences, Huxley and I could meet on the other side of the door. As I read the book I knew I could extend the vision and the thought even further, so I decided to create this ongoing journal, a chronicle of the mundane life butted up against the Mystery.
Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) and Timothy Leary once took LSD for thirty straight days in an attempt to stay perpetually high, perpetually on the other side of the door, perpetually separate from the mundane world. It’s analogous too trying to stay perpetually in the throes of sexual ecstasy. You may conceive your children in the ecstasy, but you can’t successfully raise your children while trying to perpetually live in the same ecstasy. LSD blows the rigid, frozen door of culture and habit off its hinges, but the task is to craft a door that opens and closes, as needed, a fine handcrafted door that bears the marks of your being, your own needs, your history, your joy and your sorrow. This series is an attempt to understand the nature of that door: what materials might possibly be used, how to get a feel for the design, what it means to be a craftsman, and the necessity of sharpening your tools.
Huxley died in Los Angeles the same day President Kennedy was assassinated, his death overshadowed by the national tragedy. Interestingly C.S. Lewis also died the same day. As Huxley lie dying from throat cancer, unable to speak, he scribbled a final request to his wife for a last dose of LSD--100 micrograms, injected. He shed the mortal coil in the company of Dr. Hofmann’s “problem child.”
Sunday, January 22, 2006
Setting the Table
One of the things I’ve found to be true in this spiritual quest is that it’s good to master something that connects the body and the mind, something that helps create a unity of being. It could be martial arts, it could be gardening. One of my martial arts teachers once said that anything we choose to master can enlighten us, but if it doesn’t lead us to understanding who we really are, then the discipline is just clever behavior. Clever, clever monkey behavior. Several years after the mysterious experience I came to woodworking and I’ve been doing that for thirty years. I also earned a blackbelt in Aikido. These disciplines would have been pointless however, if they hadn’t guided me to being a better husband, a better father, a better human being.
For the moment I have left my teaching career to devote time to writing and publishing. I have also immersed myself once again in the joy of wood. I’m working on a table that has the feel of a Zen brushstroke. That in a sense is how I know I’m on to something, when its expression has the feel of a brushstroke done to a long exhalation. As for my writing, I’d like to be a Thoreau or Emerson, but we’ll see. That would be a nice brushstroke to extend through the rest of my existence. I’ve said all these things in order to set the table for our next time together. For your part, I’d like you to consider the image in the first paragraph above. Can you see this great immensity coming down to you? Does your life honor this process or are you throwing shitballs? Think about these things. How do you want to spend the rest of your existence?