Monday, 28 November 2011

Occupy Your Practice

I’ve been dealing with dragons. A lot of the beasts have shown up lately: a couple of dreams; a side-of-the-bus advertisement; a song. There have been no fewer than three appearances in recent reading material. This morning when I sat down to meditate, two of the creatures swirled about as I practiced. Or, more accurately, as I tried to practice.

It is not easy resting attention on the breath while a pair of red-hot eyes holds me in their gaze. It is, to put it lightly, unsettling. I’m at the edge of my nostrils one moment, then a fiery glare swoops by and my mind rises like a flock of birds. ‘What is going on here?’ ‘Where the hell are these coming from?’ ‘Why won’t they leave me alone, in peace, to practice?’ After a few minutes of this I gave up. I got off my cushion in defeat. My thinking was, ‘If I can’t do what I am supposed to, I’ll give it a rest.”

I suspect I’m not the first meditator to do this. Maybe the dragons are unique, maybe they’re not. I would, however, guess I am not the only person who, unable to do what I am ‘supposed to’, elects to walk away from practice while the burn of failure heats his flesh. The instructions are clear and simple: place attention here. No one I know enjoys being unable to follow such basic direction, so...

So I walked away from the practice and wandered through to my workspace. Plopped down in front of the computer, I answered a few emails, browsed some of my favorite websites. Then I clicked onto CNN. I wanted to get the latest on the Occupy movement.

This movement has, for a variety of reasons, fascinated me. Starting as a small-scale gesture against perceived wrong, it has morphed into a worldwide expression of dissatisfaction and, in some cases, naked rage. Explaining this phenomena is proving difficult. Without obvious leadership or a clear agenda, identifying what the heck’s going on here is not easy. As a result, just about everyone has hazarded a personal point of view; in this I am no exception.

We live in an era when so many of the challenges facing us have causes and solutions well outside the sphere of the individual. Economic disparity, food insecurity, climate change - these are only the first such challenges that come to mind. All are pressing. All affect every one of us. All have their genesis and resolution in dynamics far larger and much deeper than any one person.

What Occupy has introduced to this situation is a forum, disparate as it may be, in which individuals are able to assert, “Hey, we count!” It’s like the tiny residents of Hooville in Dr. Seuss’ classic Horton Hears A Hoo. Challenged by fate, the Hoos come together and cry out to the unseen forces shaping their lives. They know their existence has value and they sense this existence is under siege. So at the top of their lungs they scream to the heavens, “We’re here! We’re here! We’re here!”

Whether the Occupiers’ cries will be heard or have any appreciable impact remains to be seen. The fact these cries are rising up, however, suggests many of us sense something precious is being threatened. More, it reflects an emerging conviction that our experience - the experience of Joe and Jane Everyone - has something to add to this situation. Our impressions have relevance. Our feelings have import. In ways we perhaps cannot yet fully articulate, Occupy is claiming our experience matters.

I find this inspiring. To affirm, for instance, that an economy dealing in trillions of dollars must take people like me seriously? This is outrageous and appropriate and I love it for both these reasons. The assertion that my concerns should - and, in fact, do - occupy an important place in the dynamics swirling about all of us is stirring. Like a cold, sharp wind the notion is bracing in the very best of ways. “Your offices and barricades, your wealth and your privilege,” this movement seems to be saying, “cannot change the fact that our lives mean something too.”

This has got me looking about my world in a different way. ‘What other areas,’ I wonder, ‘might I occupy a bit more? Where else would I like my feelings noted, my sense of things brought more fully into the mix? Where else is this necessary?’

These are questions I walked away from the computer with. After a bit of online reading, I needed a drink of water. Heading toward the kitchen, I tripped over my meditation cushion right where I had abandoned it thirty minutes earlier. I looked at it there for a moment, all faded surfaces and worn corners. The sting in my toe brought to mind the morning’s truncated practice session. The frustration. The difficulty. The hot failure. These memories made me want to toss the damn thing out of sight, hide it deep in a darkened closet. Instead I just stood there staring.

Meditation does not have a lengthy history in the West. If one takes the first newsreels featuring the Beatles and the Maharishi as the moment the practice entered our popular consciousness, we are only talking forty-some years. If one wishes to assert that the literary work of the Beats - Kerouac, Ginsberg, Snyder - or the popularization of Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki more accurately mark this moment, only a decade and change can be added to the timeline.

Whatever the case, engagement between meditation and the modern world has not been going on all that long. In many ways, we are still getting to know one another. The tradition continues to learn what unique qualities we bring to the practice. Westerners differ from Tibetans, of course, but in what ways? Similarly, we continue to find out more about these practices. How, for example, the experience of sitting meditation shifts after ten years, twenty years, forty years of dedicated work.

A relationship is taking shape. As with any relationship, a couple of preconditions are required to ensure the long-term health and vitality of this union. One of these, that the two parties must be willing to give themselves to one another, seems like it is being well met. For the most part, teachings coming from the East - whether they originate in Japan, Thailand, Burma, or anywhere else - arrive with a high degree of integrity. They are presented by teachers well trained in the old ways, and more than willing to pass on the depth and richness of their tradition. At the same time, many of the students receiving these teachings demonstrate an impressive commitment to accepting and engaging these in as full a manner as possible. A considerable number have devoted decades to deep study and practice.

A second precondition often seems a bit more problematic. The movement of meditation from East to West is not so much an act of transplanting the first into the second as it is a process of mutual discovery. Something unprecedented is necessarily arising out of our meeting and, within this context, the subjective experience of modern students has considerable relevance. This tells us what works and what does not; it provides crucial feedback regarding the shape and form the tradition needs to take in its new cultural setting. Is, for instance, the practice of placing attention on the breath the best way for us to stabilize minds that have been heavily influenced by a speed-driven, technology-heavy, increasingly sedentary lifestyle? Only experience can answer this question. As a result, this experience is important. It should - and does - count.

I compare this situation to exploring a new cookbook. An unfamiliar recipe calls for a handful of Pasilla chiles and three jalapeno peppers. After a few trial runs, however, I realize the first are unavailable here and the second, to my taste anyway, are way too hot. So I make pencil notes in the margins: “Okay without chiles. Two peppers only.” And where the author claims in the upper left-hand corner this meal requires just twenty-five minutes to prepare, well it’s pretty clear she wasn’t dealing with dirty dishes and telephone calls, kids wanting attention and so on. I scratch out this estimate and jot “Just under an hour” overhead.

It’s not that I dismiss what the chef is offering, far from it. I follow her instructions as faithfully as possible for a while and, through this, discover what does and what does not work for me; I learn what kind of adjustments are necessary. I respect and trust both the authority of the recipe and the authority of personal experience. I treat each of these as important. Instead of recreating a dish, this process allows a wonderful and necessarily unique version of the original entre to evolve.

I rarely afford what happens to me while meditating this degree of significance. To simply watch what occurs when I sit is challenging enough. This requires sharp attentiveness, and I am easily seduced into something more dull and distracted; a kind of meditation as TV approach. To consider what happens to me important? To let my experience suggest a way forward? This seems impossible. I am frequently too lazy or doubtful to assume such responsibility.

In many ways it is easier to just follow ‘the rules’. There is a numb sort of safety in this approach, a shadowy sense of paternal assurance. Whether these rules work or not - that is, take me deeper into my own life - seems irrelevant from this perspective. Also irrelevant is any suggestion that this morning’s inability to adhere to these rules might point toward a needed shift in our relationship. Personal shortcoming is the more likely implication of this approach: The rules work, it is me who somehow falls short. It is this fact which occasionally makes walking away so tempting an option. An irresistible option, it seems.

Which takes me back to those people gathered in New York and Oakland and Vancouver and Rome. They have come onto the streets not because it is the easy or safe thing to do, but because they know their voices matter. Maybe the powers that be don’t often acknowledge this - maybe they seem to never acknowledge this - but at some level the Occupiers know their lives and experiences count. Further, they understand that for our world to flourish this relevance must be acknowledged.

Though the situations are admittedly very different, the same needs to be known of our voices and experiences as relatively new meditators. What we find when we follow our breath or chant the Heart Sutra or visualize a deity, these are important. They are crucial to the well being of the meditative tradition we are inheriting. Our willingness to come fully into our practice, then - to occupy our practice - is an essential aspect of our engagement with these teachings. Only by honoring this truth will they truly and deeply become part of us. Will they continue.

I didn’t make it to the kitchen for that drink of water. After stubbing my toe I stood before my practice cushion for a long while, staring, thinking this over. Eventually I sat down and resumed the practice I had dejectedly abandoned almost sixty minutes earlier. I placed my attention on the breath as I had so many times in the past and struggled to stay there. My mind was wild and flighty, even more so than before.

After a while of this, I considered walking a second time - but didn’t. I decided to go with what was happening, see where this took me. This was an unnerving choice. I shot a glance from side to side, as if wanting to ensure no one was looking. I even considered moving out of sight of the photographs gracing our shrine in order to hide what I was about to do. ‘I hope,’ I thought to myself, ‘Reggie never finds out about this.’

With considerable unease, then, I placed my attention on one of those dragons as it swooped past. This was a tentative move at first, but I soon surrendered and relaxed. Then I rode one of those winged beasts out into the thin, morning air. I had no sense of where this practice was going, of course. I had no idea what might happen next. In my bones this felt like the right thing to do, however. And this was exhilarating.


Special Fall Offer

Thirty Minute Intuitive Session
Regular Price - $60
Until Dec 8, 2011 - $50
(All taxes included)


Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Both Beautiful and Dangerous

One day you’re waiting for the sky to fall
The next you’re dazzled by the beauty of it all

Bruce Cockburn, ‘Lovers In A Dangerous Time’

The news brought a short-lived smile to my face. After months of high profile speculation, the Obama administration recently announced it was postponing any decision on the Keystone Pipeline until after 2012’s presidential election.

Keystone is a proposed link between northern Alberta’s tar sands and the refineries of south Texas. It is a 2,700 kilometer vein through which oil acquired via some of the most environmentally dubious practices on earth would flow. NASA scientist James Hansen has said this project’s approval would pretty much mean “game over” for global climate as we know it.

So a grin warmed my features when I read of the decision. ‘Not exactly a victory,’ I thought, ‘but something.’

As mentioned, however, this smile was short-lived. Only days later, a high-ranking member of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government revealed Canada’s likely response to this delay. Keeping with Harper’s long-standing refusal to include climate change and environmental integrity in policy decisions, the official claimed our country would simply take its product elsewhere: across the northwest provinces via another pipeline, then onto tankers that would cruise the BC coast before setting for Asia.

The difficult news did not stop there. In that same paper I found an column entitled ‘The Point of No Return On Climate Change’. In this Iain Hunter writes, “There was a report last week that I thought would have received much greater attention than it did. The International Energy Agency said the tipping point for when climate change becomes irreversible will be upon us in five years...If by then,” Hunter continued, “the changes demanded by international agreement - for all countries developed and developing must be on board - are not starting to be effective, the dreaded 2C of warming that the scientists (warn we must avoid) will be unavoidable.”

It was late afternoon when I read this. By the time I put my daughter to bed that evening, I was heavy with implications. It is a painful thing, playing with one’s child while simultaneously fearing for her future - to laugh at her tickles whilst contemplating a world diminished by human folly, the world she will inherit. Laying side by side as she drifted toward sleep I forced my eyes open. I wanted to look at her for as long as I could, to hold her in this way. I longed to say something - “Sorry,” perhaps - but could not find an adequate voice. My sight blurred behind tears. I fell under a weighted slumber.

Years ago, when I was a student at Naropa Institute, one of my classes hosted a guest lecturer. He was a healer of some sort. His gift involved visions. He spoke passionately through the entire ninety minutes he was allotted. What I recall is this: “Our culture is speeding toward a cliff.” He may have repeated this several times. I know he said it forcefully. I know it had an impact.

I was riveted by his words. I didn’t understand them. I couldn’t really grasp what they were pointing toward. But they felt true. This admitted, however, I never imagined I would one day look at the world of my lifetime and see evidence of his assertion in so many places: vanishing species and rising chaos, life systems of water and earth and air struggling, human population spiraling upward while our collective denial continues. I certainly did not imagine seeing this would cause me so much pain. That I would lay beside a slumbering nine year old and feel my heart ache for her. Break for all the children like her. Cry for all the parents who wonder fearfully, ‘What will her/his life be like?’ Who fear for what their childrens’ lives are like.

Among many other things, I consider this aching, breaking, crying heart further proof of the gifts my daughter has brought into my life. “She is a force,” I have often said. This force has the power to pull me out of habitual smallness - no small feat - and insist I step into something far more open and vast.

Delight offers one example of this. Prior to her birth delight in my life was often doled out in careful, considered rations. It was as if I had a Central Committee in my being. This was a grey haired, stone-faced group that used humorless guidelines to determine what was appropriate enjoyment. Woody Allen movies, for instance, were okay; animation was not. Bob Dylan was acceptable; ABBA on the other hand? No way! I was, in this regard, like many an ideologue: stiff, stingy, and terribly restricted.

Such stiffness is hard to maintain sitting beside Samantha as she watches Glee or Ugly Betty. Her excitement spills into the room when the kids sing ‘Loser Like Me’ or Betty’s nephew re-enacts Hairspray. As the waters of her delight rise, I have a couple of options: erect ever higher walls in an effort to avoid drowning or just give in and swim. Having tried the former on many occasions and failed - her pleasure comes up way more quickly than my walls - I now just laugh at my stinginess and try to relax. When able to do this, I become a little more open. I find myself smiling like a blissful idiot through, of all things, a wonderful medley of Journey songs!

My ability to feel for others has also been enlarged by my daughter. I feel for her, of course. But also for other children, sometimes all children. And also for other parents. I am so grateful for this growth. I appreciate beyond words the human maturity it represents - the growing up, the growing period. I just never thought it would hurt so much, scare me so.

I recently read a book entitled Falling Upwards by Richard Rohr. Upwards considers the spirituality of one’s second half of life. This, Rohr asserts, is a hard won spirituality, a difficult wisdom characterized by passage through pain. My experience with Samantha certainly bears this out.

Experience also bears out a second characteristic Rohr ascribes to this phase of development: a shift from ‘either/or’ to ‘both/and’. This is a movement out of a way of being that is necessarily narrow and bounded, and into something broad enough to hold the inherent contradictions of life. When we are able to transition into its second half, Rohr observes - and not all of us are - life is lived on bigger terms than before. Not good or bad, black or white, but good and bad, black and white.

“Look at this, Dad!” That is Samantha yelling. It is the morning after the Harper government’s tar sands declaration. I am slumped over the kitchen table, my heart still sore and heavy. I want nothing more than to crawl back under covers and hide for a while. I don’t want to look at anything. “Dad!” she insists. “Dad! Look!”

She is at the far end of the living room, dancing all over the couch. Her body is moving in ways mine cannot anymore; her feet doing things mine were never capable of. As her features light up, her hair sprays wild in every direction. Behind her is a large window. Through this I can see a clear blue sky opening wide to the day. It is tinted a vulnerable hue of pink way off on the horizon.

I smile in spite of myself. A deep, warming smile. ‘My God,’ I think wandering to where I can better watch my daughter and welcome the breaking day. As it had the night before, my sight blurs as I look at this child, take in the world of which she is part. My breath is raw and shallow as I sit there. It is all so beautiful.


Special Fall Offer

Thirty Minute Intuitive Session
Regular Price - $60
Until Nov 30, 2011 - $50
(All taxes included)


Monday, 31 October 2011

Between the Peaks

My daughter likes the Beach Boys. It might, actually, be more accurate to report that my daughter loves the Beach Boys. “They’re my favorite,” she tells me regularly. “Especially ‘Surfin’ Safari’ and ‘Surfin’ USA’.” It was a no-brainer, then, when I saw a relatively recent greatest hits package available for loan at our local library. I picked it up and brought it home. We’ve been listening to it ever since. I am listening to it right now, in fact, as I write.

The Warmth of the Sun is a 2007 sequel to the 2003 compilation Sounds of Summer. As the second in this series, Warmth does not contain many - any, truth be told - of the songs most people would consider Beach Boys classics. There’s no ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, for example. No ‘Help Me Rhonda’ or ‘Good Vibrations’. In their place one finds titles like ‘Cool, Cool Water’ - not exactly a tune that dances to mind when this group is mentioned.

From one perspective, this fact can be seen as evidence of a horse that has been finally flogged to death. Summer was successful, one might surmise, so they went back to the vault in order to cash in again; whatever was in there became Warmth. Certainly a quick glance at the track list seems to support this - ‘Don’t Go Near the Water’? Really? Listening to this disc again and again, however, I have developed a very different sense of the project.

Some history might be helpful. In broad terms, the Beach Boys’ career arranges itself around two main peaks. The first captures the band as we remember them: California kids who surfed onto the airwaves in the early Sixties and, within five years, had attained the status reserved only for acts like the Beatles. The second peak unexpectedly arose in 1974 with the release of Endless Summer. This two-album retrospective essentially created the Beach Boys as we have known them for the last thirty-plus years: An arena-filling nostalgia act willing to endlessly revisit the formative moments of a glorious past.

Between these peaks exists a valley as dark and tumultuous as any endured by a band of their stature. In 1966, while at work on the group’s rumored masterwork, Brian Wilson suffered a drug-fueled breakdown. Wilson was the band’s visionary, songwriter, and producer. It was by virtue of his delicate sensibilities that we received ‘I Get Around’ and ‘In My Room’. Stripped of their leader, the Beach Boys struggled. For eight years - from the classic Pet Sounds to the above mentioned Endless Summer - each of the other members did what there had formerly been no need for: They wrote songs in an effort to fill the void left by Wilson’s near-complete absence.

This span is amply represented on Warmth of the Sun. Not Brian’s immaculate ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, but Bruce Johnson’s teary-eyed ‘Disney Girls’, Dennis Wilson’s aching ‘Forever’, brother Carl’s wandering ‘Feel Flows’, and Al Jardine’s toe-tappin’ ‘California Saga’. To say this does not present the group that is conjured when we think ‘Beach Boys’ is really an understatement. What the collection does present is something far more shaky, desperate, funny, wounded, uncertain, vulnerable, erratic, bizarre, indulgent, challenging, and daring than anything we are going to hear programmed on feel-good radio stations.

Take, for instance, ‘Til I Die’, a track from 1971’s Surf’s Up. Brian did not completely retreat from the group during these wilderness years. From time to time he would emerge from the shadows with a song or two in hand. ‘Til I Die’ was the result of a night spent on the beach, looking out over the ocean. Feeling small before this vastness, Wilson began to consider “the inconsistencies that dominated my life; the pain, torment, and confusion, and the beautiful music I was able to make.” Why was this the case? he wondered. How long will this go on?

Beginning with the words, “I’m a cork on the ocean”, the song re-creates “the swell of emotions” Wilson felt that night. It gives answer to his questions only while winding toward a conclusion: “These things I’ll be until I die,” is repeated again and again. This is hardly the stuff of which ‘Be True to Your School’ was made. Brutally naked and revealing, it is far more difficult and, to me anyways, much more interesting.

Anyone who has meditated a little likely has some idea of what a ‘good’ practice session is like. Actually, experience is not a necessary prerequisite here. In many of the classes I teach, I often hear absolute beginners reveal deeply entrenched ideas about what ‘good’ practice is. “That didn’t go too well,” someone will confess after our first five minute meditation together. “What do you mean by ‘well’?” I inquire. “I didn’t,” the person answers, “feel very peaceful or anything. I just kept thinking about things.”

Even after years of dedicated engagement with the practice, this perception proves hard to shake. My knee-jerk remains that a ‘good’ meditation session is one in which the mind inexplicably settles and the body suddenly relaxes, and something warm and wonderful opens within. Just writing like this brings longing to my chest. ‘God that was great,’ I think, remembering an afternoon on retreat. ‘That really was great.’

And such moments are great, no doubt about it. Just like those old Beach Boys songs - ‘God Only Knows’, for instance - there is something irresistibly, undeniably wonderful about these times. This, however, does not necessarily mean such sessions are the most instructive or affecting we encounter. Much as I love them, they are certainly not the most instructive or affecting I encounter.

This honor, instead, goes to the weekend I spent gripped by a single thought; the string of days I endured certain the friend sitting to one side actually hated me; the morning of practice here at home through which I feared I would either go crazy or kill myself. These are moments of true discovery. I find a new ‘me’ in such instants - not one limited by what I want or am comfortable with, but one that is much more compulsive, paranoid, and uncertain than I’d like to admit.

It is hard to build any sort of impressive sense of self out of these experiences. Those so-called ‘good’ sessions? After one of these I am more than capable of putting myself above all the others around me. I begin to feel I’m standing atop some sort of peak. ‘Look at me,’ I think, chest puffing with pride, ‘enlightenment is so close at hand.’ Not so with valley sessions. Rather than high on a mountaintop, I feel brought right down to earth by those times in which the practice reveals what I would rather not see. From that place on the ground I can taste the soil beneath me, feel its warmth rising on all sides. Able, from this perspective, to see others in a relatively eye-to-eye way, I realize I am much more like everyone else than I might typically imagine. I struggle and I succeed. I laugh and I cry. I’m crazy and I’m sane. Just like everyone else.

Such meditation experiences challenge me, then, in extremely difficult ways. They yank me out of known terrain and, in doing so, incite change. This is what I hear in The Warmth of the Sun tracks dated 1968-1973, in the music that emerged from the dark span that followed Brian Wilson’s collapse and preceded the Beach Boy’s nostalgic resurgence. I hear a group - a group of men, I should add - that are having a hard time coming to terms with the landscape in which they now find themselves. These are men who, after climbing the dizzying heights of musical possibility, find themselves fallen, dirtied, and often lost.

The music on this disc is not as perfect as the dazzling hits from those heady early days, but in this very lack of perfection I hear so much beauty. Warmth shares with us the sound of people struggling with their humanity, being altered by their humanity, and the effect is moving. It is like looking into the face of someone who has just emerged from a long meditation retreat: The facade has been stripped away from their features and though they might look pale and worn, there is something irresistible in their appearance, something impossibly attractive.

So take a listen to Brian’s ‘Sail On, Sailor’ from 1973’s Holland LP - a wonderful follow-up to the fore mentioned ‘Til I Die’. Spend some time with Carl’s funky ‘It Takes a Mess of Help to Stand Alone’ - and yes, that is ‘the Captain’ on piano - from 1972’s Carl and the Passions - So Tough. And the next time you find yourselves meditating in that place between the peaks, value your stay in that valley and pay close attention. There’s likely a mess of humanity waiting there, ready to help you out in ways you cannot anticipate.


Special Fall Offer

Thirty Minute Intuitive Session
Regular Price - $60
Until Nov 30, 2011 - $50
(All taxes included)


Friday, 14 October 2011

A Revealing Flash

They numbered in the hundreds at first. Now thousands. They are ball-capped union workers, out of work college grads. They are young people in backpacks and bandanas. Salt and pepper types. Seniors. They are black and white, asian, hispanic. Some seem well off, others not so much. They are urban, suburban, and rural. They are leaving their homes and workplaces, getting out of their cars, off the buses and bicycles in order to walk out onto the street and gather. Come together. Occupy.

Much of the media seems confused by this. “There are no leaders,” more than one report has complained. “There are no demands, no agenda.” But there is, I suggest, something. There is something that links the diverse numbers who have assembled a piecemeal movement, first on Wall Street and now in cities across North America. They are all, every one of them, angry.

Anger has a bad reputation in our culture. Certainly in spiritual circles the emotion can be treated like the black sheep of human experience. It is avoided, derided, dismissed, remedied. We frequently try to marginalize or get rid of it. Quickly. “Him over there?” our attitude warily observes. “That’s anger. Best stay away from him. He’s crazy.”

But anger is an undeniable part of our emotional family. And there are many occasions in which this feeling is an essential member of the human tribe. Allowed to exist on its own terms - without what Chogyam Trungpa calls the “frivolousness” of our “heavy-handed interpretations and judgments” - permitted to exist without these, anger can be invaluable, an exceptionally precise and intelligent force. Like a flash of lightning across a starless landscape, anger can reveal with uncompromising clarity. When it erupts, a burst of rage can show us where there has been a violation and where a wound is in need of attention.

I was reminded of this in conversation recently. The topic was bullying. While our exchange opened quite broadly, it soon narrowed onto a painfully personal focal point. “There were four or five older boys,” I confessed. “Through the last years of grade school, I sometimes feared for my life.” For a long while my companion said nothing. Then, “What would you say to those guys today?”

I was tight in the throat, clenched in the gut. Shallow and quick, my breathing betrayed someone ready - even all these years later - to run. Hearing this question my jaw tightened onto my molars, impacting until even the enamel surfaces hurt. Fire-blue intensity shot through my system.

“I have nothing to say to them,” I blurted. “If they were here my only desire would be - ” I had no idea these would be my next words: “ - to kill them.” The air between us crackled. Both of us, I think, shocked into momentary silence. “You mean you felt like you wanted to harm them back then?” “No,” I popped. My veins pulsed with what felt like rocket fuel - clear, powerful, burning. “I want to kill them right now.”

This is anger naked of the trappings we often dress it in. There was as yet no attempt to push it away as ‘wrong’. Nor, in spite of my statements, was there any intention, any plan to act it out as ‘righteous’. Little in the way of storyline wound its web about the experience. This was anger relatively unadorned; a lightning sharp, sizzling bolt. And beneath its illumination, the violation I had endured, the aching hurt that lingered, a young boy waiting to be healed - to be held in an embrace of acceptance, understanding, and care.

Such is the power of this emotion when allowed to express without our interfering “interpretations”. When allowed to just be.

Right now I suspect this is what we are seeing burst forth on streets all over North America. Of course there are no leaders. Of course there are no coherent demands. Of course there is no recognizable ideology. I have heard talk of taxes and entitlements, for instance. Also of unemployment, homelessness, the yawning gap between rich and poor. But right now the movement is too raw and wild to be defined by such matters. Instead, it is simply about this: people are pissed.

As meditators, we are trained to see this for what it is. This is the technique, after all: to notice when we are adding our “frivolousness” to the mix and come back to bare experience. If we are able to do this here, able in this crucial moment to bring all those hours on the cushion into the stuff of our actual lives, we have an opportunity to witness an expression that is both beautiful and life affirming. There is a widespread sense something has been desecrated - something basic, fundamental. The flames of anger that are shooting up in response are revealing how deeply we are affected by this.

I thought of this after talking with a friend several days ago. He is a financial advisor and a self-described believer in capitalism. Speaking of the Wall Street occupation he surprised me with this: “I would be there if I could get away. Honest to God. If I could get away, I would be there in a second.”

What followed was an eloquent and animated defense of our current system of commerce, and a heated indictment of those who have manipulated it for personal gain. “They have destroyed something beautiful, something that works,” he said, his voice shaking with rage. “And they have hurt people - hurt millions of good, hard working people - in the process.”

I sat transfixed by what this man’s anger was revealing. Indignation, certainly. Passion. Conviction. Hurt. Behind all these, a sense of concern - for the well-being of others, for their right to earn and provide and prosper. This concern was so tender and so fierce it held me there, teetering near disbelief. I was being shown something I had not expected when my friend began what I first thought of as just another furious rant. I was witnessing an outpouring of love.


Special Fall Offer

Thirty Minute Intuitive Session
Regular Price - $60
Until Nov 30, 2011 - $50
(All taxes included)


Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Death Is Real

Steve Jobs is dead. On one hand, this comes as little surprise. Jobs has been in the news as much for his health as anything else these past years. At the same time, however, I did feel a moment of shock this morning when I saw the following listed on my favorite Bob Dylan website: “Steve Jobs dies at 56.”

Shock, I think, speaks to a strange relationship with death. “Fact of life,” I might shrug over coffee. When it actually comes, though, this rarely seems the tone with which death is received. More often than not, I am taken aback: “Steve Jobs? Really?”

Buddhism has a teaching called ‘The Four Reminders’ which addresses this all too human tendency. The reminders invite us to contemplate four thoughts - each what we might call a ‘fact of life’ - in order to realize a more accurate perception of our situation. Death, understandably, is one of these.

In the early 1970s, Chogyam Trungpa composed a series of short verses as a means of encouraging his students to engage these teachings. Each offers a pithy summary of a particular thought, a specific reminder. After reading of Jobs’ passing this morning, I found the verse pertaining to death and impermanence ringing through my mind.

Death is real

Steve Jobs is dead. I cannot think of single (recently) living figure whose existence has had a more apparent impact upon our lives. Apple Computers recently had a product launch and the event was news. CBC’s afternoon radio show gave the occasion a sizable slice of airtime: about ten minutes; longer than that allocated the latest in politics. iPhone, iPad, iPod - more than just products, these are emissaries of a new relationship with the digital, a relationship which has infiltrated near every corner of our lives. Each of these devices arose out of the vision of one man. Yet all this influence did not spare him; Steve Jobs is dead.

Think of the medical care Jobs had at his disposal, Money, obviously, was not an issue. So one has to assume he got the best of the best. The best treatments. The best practitioners. The latest research, technology, drugs. Yet still...

I remember reading of a conversation between a teacher and his seriously ill student. The first thing that teacher said? “Don’t imagine for even a moment that you are not going to die.” For a long time, I would consider these words and think, ‘What an asshole!’ Lately, though, I have connected with the generosity of the statement. Whether you get better or not, he seemed to be saying, you are still going to die. Talk about a big picture moment when most of us want something much, much smaller!

The reality of death is something we just don’t want to look at, most of us - not head on like this anyway. Like when the first person in my life was diagnosed with cancer. This was a shock on many levels, not the least of these being the sudden proliferation of numbers in my world. “Eighty-five percent of all patients at this stage of disease survive beyond five years,” I remember reading. “Oh my God,” I said to someone. “Fifteen percent of these people die!” “Don’t think of that,” I was told. Don’t think of that.

And comes without warning

I wonder if Jobs knew October 5, 2011 would be the last day of his life. Accounts I’ve read about Jack Layton’s final days paint a very ‘maybe’ picture. Maybe he’ll make it through the weekend, seemed the sense of things. Then again, maybe he won’t. Even when we sense death is near, then, the exact moment of its arrival remains an impenetrable mystery. This certainly was the case with my grandmother. “It won’t be tonight,” a nurse affirmed at nine. Relieved, I went home to bed. The phone woke me up just before dawn.

Something similar with Allen Ginsberg. Those gathered about his deathbed spent the poet’s final hours watching the rise and fall of his breath. Though they knew he was going to die, they watched without knowledge if any particular fall would be the last. There was no sign, I presume, when the final drop did eventually arrive. Just a long exhale and then...

This is something I consider every time I leave home for Colorado. I know many people have a pretty rosy picture of these excursions: weeks away in the high mountains meditating. In lots of ways, however, these retreats are very difficult for me. Saying goodbye to my wife and daughter, for instance, is always excrutiating. I wonder if I will ever see them again. There is no one standing nearby whispering, ‘Make the best of this, it is your last goodbye.’ Death, after all, comes without warning.

This body will be a corpse

But it does come. Of this there is no doubt. Death does come. Death will come. My death will come and this body - presently pleasantly warm at my desk - will become a corpse. Old. Lifeless. Inert.

I practiced in my daughter’s bedroom this morning. I could see her toys, last night’s pajamas crumpled on the floor, her Grade Three photo hanging on the wall as I contemplated this verse. At the final line I burst into tears. In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to be with her forever. To watch her grow and develop, hear her stories, share her triumphs and tears to the end of time. I knew, though - I knew with a deep in the bones kind of knowing - this could not be the case. There will come a moment when I look at her for the last time.

At some point in this process I reached out for a t-shirt that lay in a pile nearby and held it to my face, breathing deep for several long minutes. A father who lost his teenage son once told me of the hours he spent in the boy’s closet, smelling the child’s clothes in order to bring him back. This morning, I understood his ritual in a painfully new way. It didn’t bring my daughter before me, though, just her scent and a flow of memories. For all I knew, she would never stand in front of me again. I might die before seeing her again. She might die. We both will.

So what’s the point of all this? Traditionally it is said that working with the Four Reminders motivates our practice. Seeing the uniqueness of our situation (reminder one - precious human birth), connecting with its impermanence (reminder two - death), understanding how we act has consequences (karma) and that we just can’t ‘get it right’ (samsara), we realize the need to shift our priorities around in order that we might meditate more.

This is the claim, anyway, though it’s never quite worked out this way for me. The Four Reminders - alone or together - simply shake things up in my life. Working with them tenderizes my heart, making me more open and available to the world in which I live, letting this touch me in ways I cannot anticipate.

There’s a story about an interview someone conducted with Jobs. Wanting to record the proceedings, the reporter placed his iPod on the table. The device was sheathed in a protective case, a fact which upset the Apple CEO. Jobs talked about how much time and effort - how much care - had gone into the buffed silver finish of the device. Commenting on the beauty of this finish, he ripped off the cover and proceeded with the interview.

I walked by a coffee shop this afternoon. All the iPhones and iPods, iPads and Powerbooks in the place struck me as I moved to where my bike was locked up. It was as if, for an instant, I was able to see these through their creator’s eyes, able to perceive the beauty Jobs took such pride in. But this only lasted an instant. Then, just like in ‘real life’ Jobs was gone. In his absence my heart ached. For his wife, his kids, his friends, his family. For anyone who knows the loss of a loved one. My eyes welled up.

‘Death is real,’ I thought as I climbed on my bike. Autumn sun warmed my face as I rode. My daughter would be getting out of school soon. I was picking her up, looking forward to our journey home: walking side by side, hand in hand.


Special Fall Offer

Thirty Minute Intuitive Session
Regular Price - $60
Until Nov 30, 2011 - $50
(All taxes included)


Thursday, 29 September 2011

Things Will Arise

One of the curious things about all the meditation programs I’ve attended over the years is how little I actually remember of them. I have passed months in shrine rooms, listening. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours. Yet what I recall seems barely enough to fill a few blank pages.

Reggie Ray saying, “Life is strange; good thing we don’t have to think about it.” Sakyong Mipham urging, “We need to practice appreciation for our lives.” These and a handful of other sound bites seem the sum total of what I am able conjure upon demand. “Just think about that for a moment,” Pema Chodron once commented. Indeed.

Perhaps my favorite clip - certainly one of the most resonant - was offered by a Shambhala teacher named Alyn Lyon. She was leading a weekend retreat here in Victoria. The focus of this I, of course, cannot remember. Likewise for the vast majority of what she said over those days. I do, however, vividly recall this: “When things arise during meditation - and things will arise…

She gave these last words ominous emphasis. She lifted her walking cane as she uttered them, tapping it on the smooth wood floor underfoot. “- things will arise…” Though I cannot recollect what came either before or after this phrase, I remember the reaction deep in my bones. I was terrified.

If you are anything like me you came to this practice, at least in part, wanting to stop things arising in your life. Back in those early days, there was a long list of things I wanted to stop coming my way: frustration, disappointment, confusion, fear, shame, irritation. I had some very interesting ways of working to realize this desire during meditation.

I used to visualize myself surrounded by a high brick wall when practicing. I would thump down on a cushion, fuss about in an effort to get as comfortable as the situation allowed. Then I would close my eyes and encircle myself with a high and, I hoped, impenetrable barrier. This in place, I was ready to begin.

Unsurprisingly, this barricade was rarely up to the task. For this reason, I had developed at least three other strategies to realize my objective - the point, I thought, of the practice altogether. The first involved returning to my visualization and fortifying the wall, making it higher, thicker. On a few occasions, I even put barbed wired atop this barricade. The second strategy was to drown out whatever had the audacity to pierce my protection by silently singing Paul Simon’s ‘I Am A Rock’ over and over. The last? To simply get up from my cushion and call it a day.

Needless to say, I didn’t have a clue what Alyn Lyon was talking about at the time. “When things arise during meditation,” she started, “- and things will arise.” Here one can replace Paul Simon’s accompaniment with the sound of her staff striking the floor at each word. Bam! Bam! Bam!

In my own case, I don’t think personal understanding of Ms. Lyon’s point was aided by the mental image I carried of meditators. Just look at them, after all: Hour after hour they sit there and nothing is happening! Sure time-lapse photography might reveal something, but not much. At sixteen minutes we might see someone scratch their nose. At thirty-one, a couple folks may uncross their legs. Around forty-nine minutes one person might nod toward sleep. Generally, however, nothing much seems to be going on.

Appearances, though, can be deceiving.

I used to be a fan of Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe. This is a CBC radio show that started its life as part of Peter Gzowski’s iconic Morningside program. It initially aired Mondays at 11:30, I believe. The Cafe world was richly compelling. The adventures of Dave and Morley, and all the other wonderful characters McLean conjured, were such that I rarely missed an episode.

One tale saw Dave, family patriarch and owner of the ‘Vinyl Cafe Record Store’ - official motto: “We may not be big, but we’re small” - gifted with a rare weekend alone. Morely had taken the kids to Florida. There was no one to remind him of household chores, to ask for rides and money, to fight for possession of the television. He was alone.

For a while it was great. Dave went to bed early and woke giddy. He bought some wine and rented a movie. In a moment of pure inspiration, he picked up an old Beatles album, Hard Day’s Night, and put it on the turntable. In McLean’s words: “Dave smiled, turned up the volume, sat down at the table and poured himself another glass of wine. After all these years. The music washed over and through him. He played the album twice and then got down on his hands and knees and pawed about and finally found Abbey Road...He staggered to bed after midnight.”

For the next week Dave’s elation continued, buoyed by the sounds of an ever-present radio. Not CBC anymore, but radio CHUM “hits of the fifties and sixties - the music of his life.” He listened to ‘Kodachrome’ and Neil Sedaka, Lesley Gore and the Shangri-Las. He immersed himself in an endless, blissful flow until Friday morning when it all, quite suddenly, screeched to a halt.

For on Friday morning while shaving, Dave found a blemish. “A small red dot,” McLean tells us, “had appeared on his face overnight.” A pimple apparently, but then, as Dave was about to leave for work, it occurred to him. “He was forty-five years old. Forty-five year olds didn’t get pimples. They got skin cancer.“ His holiday was over: “Dave couldn’t get the blemish out of his mind.”

This is how it goes. We’re walking down a busy street or immersed in something at work. Maybe we’re enjoying a wonderful weekend alone when - seemingly out of nowhere, with no obvious reason or rhyme - there is happiness, longing, hatred, fear, love, boredom, loneliness, lust. There are thoughts of old friends, tonight’s dinner, the coming holiday. Even, it seems, of cancer.

Things, in other words, arise. And often - very often - they grab us.

So it was with Dave. He could not get cancer out of his mind. He tried negotiating. He tried rationalizing. In the end, he just had to do something. So he went to the drugstore. He picked up a tube of Clearasil on the off chance his blemish was really a pimple.

It was on his way to the cashier to pay for this that Dave saw the blood-pressure chair. He decided to get a reading just in case and got trapped. During the reading, the inflated cuff locked Dave in place. It wasn’t until the fire department arrived and a crowd had gathered and the jaws of life were put to use that Dave was finally freed.

Yes, this is how it goes. Things do arise and, for most of us, the response is to get busy. We think a lot or maybe find something to do - like go to the drugstore for a tube of pimple cream. It’s a coping mechanism, this. A way of deflecting the discomfort we feel when those pesky ‘things’ show up. It’s not always a very helpful coping mechanism, truth be told. Often, as with Dave, we end up getting oursleves a whole lot of trouble.

Alyn Lyon was reminding us that the same is true for meditators. Meditation is not an escape; things will arise, like it or not. So all those pictures we’ve seen of people sitting cross-legged, eyes lowered, all those times we’ve thought to ourselves, ‘They look so peaceful’? Don’t be fooled. Just like Dave, those folks are likely going through the wringer. Anger, envy, embarrassment, shame. All of it. Thoughts of past loves, future liaisons, fights at work, and make-ups at home. Even, ‘Maybe I have cancer.’

Unlike Dave, though, those meditators are not going to go running to the drugstore in order to distract themselves from what’s coming up. Perhaps some will build imaginary walls around their seats - an effort that will, in the end, prove utterly futile. Maybe some will sing every Paul Simon song they know - also an exercise in futility. For the most part, thought, they will sit there in the company of whatever’s arising, waiting to discover what might lurk behind the almost irresistible urge to get up and get the hell out.

Which brings to mind another of those sound bites I recall from all my hours at programs and teachings. This from Martin White, a teacher here in Victoria. He once claimed to be able to identify the serious meditators in any crowd. “They’re the ones,” he said with a trickster’s grin, “who look a little bit crazy.”


Special Fall Offer

Thirty Minute Intuitive Session
Regular Price - $60
Until Oct 31, 2011 - $50
(All taxes included)


Friday, 23 September 2011

The End of the World

REM broke up. Thirty-one years after their first gig, the little band that could has called it a day. Though, like many, I have not followed the group too closely since the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997, the announcement raised some sadness. No small measure of sadness, actually.

For almost fifteen years, the partnership of Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe held a big place in my life. A friend first introduced us. Sitting in his car, he slipped in a tape. “Listen to this,” he said. It was Murmur. We played the whole thing from start to finish. The next day I raced down to the record store to get myself a copy.

Unlike the Beatles, REM was a band of my time. Unlike Bruce Cockburn, they did not enter my life with a sizable back catalogue waiting to be explored, taking some pressure off any anticipation I felt about the next release. Unlike the Smiths, the band was not near the end when that first listen took place. REM was unlike a lot of things, actually, and this, in many ways, made them mine.

What a ride it was! From a tiny college band that only fringe-dwellers had heard of to million-selling superstars, the arc of their career through that decade and a half was exhilarating. The release of Reckoning - my first new album! A grainy promo clip on Friday Night Videos. Interviews in Rolling Stone. Shows in the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t go, but just knowing they were near was a thrill. Confusion over Document. A first viewing of the amazing video for ‘Losing My Religion’. All those t-shirts at the MTV Music Awards. While I certainly enjoyed both their time in the underground and the commercial apex of Out of Time and Automatic for the People, for me the band’s peak came right in the middle, right as they straddled these two worlds - in 1986 with Life’s Rich Pageant.

This was the sound of a band doing it all: crunching guitars (‘Begin the Begin’), heart-string ballads (‘Fall On Me’), insightful covers (‘Superman’), with a bit of weirdness (‘Underneath the Bunker’) tossed in for wonderful measure. It was the soundtrack of a summer for me. I listened to it endlessly - on my turntable at home or in the tape deck of the car. Our local college radio station offered up generous portions of Pageant alongside the 10,000 Maniacs, Husker Du, Camper Van Beethoven. Even recently, when the band chose a song from this album to play during their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the opening chords raised the hair on my arms.

It was more the sum of this record than any one particular thing that gripped me. This was the thing with REM: they really were a group. They really were to be taken as a whole. And, as a whole, those early records felt so damn good. The mix of vocals and harmonies, guitar and drums - there was a sense of longing in this I could relate to. There was also a familiar kind of loneliness in their sound. A shadowy ache that they somehow infused with a little light, a little hope.

And light and hope have not always been abundant in my life.

One of the more difficult inheritances of my childhood has been a sense of the world as a dark and threatening place. It is a dangerous place, populated by the lurking promise of doom. It is certainly not a place of light and hope. I suspect there are many reasons for my being held by such forbidding feelings. One of these has been standing out of late.

It’s funny in a ‘ha ha that’s not really funny’ kind of way - if you had asked three years ago, “Were you ever bullied as a kid?” I likely would have shrugged my shoulders and shook my head. “No,” I would have answered. “Not really.” Lately, however, my perspective on this part of my life has changed. It’s like I am seeing familiar events through different eyes; beneath this new focus, what I perceive is far different.

There was a core pack of four or five guys. They were all older than me by a couple years. They were all bigger, rougher. They used to taunt me as I left home and the school grounds. There were names and threats. Rocks were thrown, clumps of sod. I was pushed about, roughed up, robbed. Once, while being chased, I crouched beneath a bush in an effort to hide. At the snap of a twig I turned to find a rifle barrel inches from my face. One of my tormentors bared his teeth behind the stock of that gun. A knuckle whitened on the trigger. I didn’t know it was an air gun at this point. I didn’t know packed earth would soon explode out of its muzzle instead of buckshot. The soil and rock stung as they met my flesh. I can still hear his laughter as he ran away.

But specifics were really not the worst of this. It was the chronic fear, the ongoing dread. It was the heartbeat pounding in my ears as I readied for the run to and from school each day; the edgy panic racing through my veins as legs pumped my way toward safety. Mostly it was the message all of this insinuated into my system, mixed into my bones and blood: this world is not safe.

I notice with disturbing frequency stories like this in the media. An adolescent commits suicide because of such treatment. “Life held such promise for them,” others are sometimes quoted as saying. But this misses the point. Life too often does not hold “such promise” for these kids, not in my experience. Life instead holds sick terror for these children. In the face of this, killing oneself can quite honestly seem a pretty reasonable solution.

I used to hide under my covers at night. Everything pulled tight about my body, this was an attempt to protect myself from the dangers of the surrounding dark. It didn’t work. The winds outside used to terrify me. The loud, brittle rustling of bone-dry Arbutus leaves would ignite a grip in my stomach that resonated through every cell. Laying there rigid with dread and burning with fear, I heard this sound as some kind of threat.

As memories of the above resolve into clearer focus, though, I wonder if threat was really what these leaves, those trees, that wind was offering. Is this this really what the world wants to give a young boy scared beneath his covers, scared pretty much all the time? More and more I have been noticing that I often impose my learned terror where it isn’t really warranted. There was no threat in the phone call I took a few moments ago, though I certainly felt there was. Same with an email that arrived yesterday. A familiar name with a blank subject line; it took me all day to even open the thing. “Hi,” began a friendly note.

So I am wondering about those rustling leaves. Was their message really danger and threat? Or was the world actually reaching out with something more nurturing? Comfort and assurance, perhaps? A gentle, ‘It’s okay’? I have begun to suspect the latter options are more likely the case. Feeling this way, I have wanted to return to the neighborhood of my youth and listen to those leaves again. More accurately, I have felt drawn. It is as if something in me needs to go back there.

But the trees are all gone, long since removed to make way for monster homes and cul-de-sacs. Sure one or two still remain for decorative purposes - leaning lonely in a backyard or over the front walk. For the most part, however, they are no more. Realizing this I feel weight in my heart. Understanding I will never again be able to listen to the exact ‘words’ of those exact trees, never have the chance to discover if I did, in fact, misunderstand all those years ago, I feel tremendous sorrow.

What if the landscapes of our past hold something for us? What if those trees or that rock face or that meadow act as some sort of caretaker, holding childhood parts of ourselves until we are ready to return and reclaim them? I could not hear the world as caring way back when, but perhaps I could today - given the chance. Maybe this is actually something I have to do in order to heal and move on. Quite possibly it is something we all have to do. But when we go back to find the meadow has become another shopping mall and the rock has been ground into gravel, what then?

“You can’t go home again,” the saying goes. Perhaps the transformation of rural wood lots into suburban enclaves is just another reminder of this fact. Like the lines we catch etching our faces. Or a news piece announcing the breakup of a band we haven’t listened to in years.

All day I’ve been singing bits and pieces of REM songs to myself. I think about going over to the turntable and putting on something like Fables of the Reconstruction, but there’s really no need. ‘Rockville’ and ‘Passion’ and ‘Driver 8’ - these songs are so deeply worn into the grooves of my being, it’s as if I have my ipod on random shuffle, as if the battery on this day has endless juice.

Through all this I have been remembering how troubled I was in that long ago time. To be honest, I have been realizing how troubled I remain - for the horrific shadows of childhood still fall long over my life at times, casting everything in awful tones that insist, ‘This world is not a safe place.’ As I’ve been ‘listening’ to Michael Stipe’s mumbled lyrics and Mike Mills’ gorgeous harmonies, as I’ve been ‘hearing’ the shimmer of Peter Buck’s guitar and the heartbeat of Bill Berry’s drums, I have been remembering too the little glimpses of light and hope these four guys from Athens, Georgia brought into my life again and again. Even though my sense then of the darkness being illuminated was muted, I did feel the light in songs like ‘Shiny Happy People’. I did feel the hope and it made a difference. Replaying snippets of ‘Wendell Gee’ as I type, I have been feeling some of these again today. It’s really quite a gift and a wonderful send-off. So for the umpteenth time guys, I give thanks.


Scouring YouTube in search of the perfect song to end this piece I came upon the following live recording of ‘Everybody Hurts’. I had wanted something a little older, to be honest - this originally appeared on 1992’s Automatic For The People. I had also wanted something that included Bill Berry, who to me was an essential part of REM. This clip from 1999 is just wonderful though and surprisingly appropriate given the above. It was written primarily by Berry, so his presence looms large. Enjoy!


Special Fall Offer

Thirty Minute Intuitive Session
Regular Price - $60
Until Oct 31, 2011 - $50
(All taxes included)


Monday, 19 September 2011

Flesh On Bone

It is an admittedly strange admission for someone who meditates every day, who regularly teaches this practice to others. It is strange but true: I don’t like many of the books I’ve read about meditation. There are exceptions, of course. Minus Buddhist Saints of India - a worthwhile volume, but what an effort! - I have loved each of Reggie Ray’s books. I also enjoyed John Welwood’s Toward a Psychology of Awakening, Will Johnson’s Posture of Meditation, and several of Pema Chodron’s titles. For the most part, though, what I read about sitting practice leaves me cold.

This is not to suggest such texts lack value. I know many find these works insightful and affecting. And for many of us books published under the names Suzuki Roshi and Chogyam Trungpa, to name but two, provide a tangible sense of departed teachers we would not otherwise experience. The number of people who have told me Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism opened a long, transformative relationship with Trungpa’s teachings? I cannot remember.

I am also aware these books can provide both new and experienced practitioners much needed exposure to the view - the conceptual perspectives of a meditative tradition. In many ways as important as practice itself, such exposure cannot be dismissed. So I am certainly not arguing that books on meditation lack value. Instead I am making a very personal confession: In general such books really don’t do it for me. Rather than inspire they leave me asking, ‘What does this have to do with my life?’

Not long ago, for example, I read an article about anger. “When working with anger,” the author began. What followed was a detailed exploration of how anger arises and how we might fruitfully ‘work with’ its visitation. Nowhere in these pages was anger described in any way I was familiar with. At no point did the writer reveal, “I was so angry I could spit,” or “When she looked at me like that I felt my flesh begin to boil.” Anger was more or less presented in the abstract - away from its context and meaning as a feeling that arises in the bump and jostle of everyday experience. It was, I thought, as if we were looking at the emotion in a laboratory setting. Safe. Sterile. Before long, I wanted to throw that magazine across the room.

For me meditation has never really been about laboratory experience. My practice has always seemed at its best when soiled with the dirt and grime of life: when equanimity is destroyed by a frustrating encounter with a computer or when tender-heartedness is cracked open by an unexpected act of kindness. Even in the center of a still and silent shrine hall, what is interesting from my perspective is the sudden appearance of doubt: the unsettling conviction I am the only person doing this practice totally wrong!

In her unusual memoir, I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted, transgendered author Jennifer Boylan writes: “I do have to say that I don’t find gender theory especially helpful in terms of explaining the thing I felt. I resent, to no small degree, the idea that a theory should even be necessary. To be honest, just about the only theory I trust is story and I’m hoping that, before all is said and done, the tale I am trying to tell can stand in for the theory.”

This might be part of what I am trying to get at here. I find a far too significant portion of the reading I’ve done about meditation has a sense of the theoretical about it. The fact that much of it is not - that a large portion of writing on this subject is actually based on direct experience - is somehow lost in presentation. I consequently feel a sense of separation from the everyday, disconnection from its joys and sorrows, as I turn page after page. Which gives rise to that question: ‘What does this have to do with my life?’

In this regard, maybe Jenny Boylan is on to something. Maybe we need more stories in meditative literature. If the ‘theoretical approach’ does not “explain the thing” we feel, if it is not somehow illuminating the stuff of our lives, perhaps we need to use a different mode of presentation. Stories offer depth and texture. They invite us to see and hear, smell, feel, and taste. They immerse us in a richness of being that is affecting, life-affirming. Like I’m Looking Through You, for instance. By the end of that book I felt myself seeped in the often-strangeness of Boylan’s growing up. I had a sense of her experience that seemed tangible and real - and sometimes, honestly, quite surreal.

Which perhaps explains why I enjoy reading Pema Chodron. She often uses stories to bring a sense of life to the teachings, to cast them in a different light. In doing this she really slips under the skin of those who are listening. The resonance of her tales, in fact, commonly outlasts anything else she says, leaving behind a lingering feeling of what she is pointing toward. Who, for instance, can ever forget Chogyam Trungpa and Dilgo Khyentse sitting silently in a garden together. “They call that a tree,” Trungpa says with a gesture. The two men begin to laugh. Pema’s teaching here? Emptiness: things are not what we think.

This ‘story orientation’ certainly contributes to the fact that one of my favorite books is Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace. Norris is a late-convert Christian who finds solace in both the worship of her local parish and the Benedictine communities she enters for retreat and renewal. Subtitled A Vocabulary of Faith, Grace presents her consideration of the language of her tradition, of the words she has met and often struggled with since returning to the fold. ‘Christ’ and ‘God’, ‘Fear’ and ‘Hell’ are given attention in these pages, ‘attention’ being the term I use to describe Norris’ attempts to pierce the too-often lifeless shell of inherited orthodoxy in order to find the living, breathing spirit within.

In doing this attending, Norris of course draws heavily upon her impressive experience with Christian practice and study. In looking at the word ‘repentance’, however, she is just as willing to quote John Climacus' The Ladder of Divine Ascent, as she is to draw from her time teaching poetry to school children - both of which she does to wonderful effect. This approach very much reflects a “firm conviction that human beings are essentially storytelling bipeds, and that dictionary definitions of potent religious words, while useful in understanding one’s religious heritage, are of far less importance than the lived experience of them within that tradition.” It seems it is, for Norris, the flesh of life as it hangs from the bones of the teachings that gives her tradition vitality and meaning.

Which brings me again to Reggie Ray. No one I have ever met is able to speak to the subject of meditation with as much communicative intensity. Sitting in a shrine hall while he teaches, the attention of all those assembled feels riveted to the words flowing forth. This effect seems less volitional than responsive - as if our collective focus is simply obeying an implicit command to be right here.

Recently, however, I find my most potent experiences with Reggie occurring outside the formal teaching context, in far more ordinary situations. Sitting around a dinner table, for instance, discussing the scope of his daily involvement in a public meditation retreat then underway he says, “I am not not going to be there.” Not not. Suddenly all the words I’ve ever heard or read about the space of mind fall away. I find myself dropped into that space, awareness moving out in all directions.

Such moments are not well suited to abstraction and theorizing. I suspect, in fact, abstraction and theorizing would effectively strip instants like these of every last bit of their potency. Leaving these moments in life, where they arise, then seems essential in sharing their power. This is something stories have the potential to allow.

I am thinking now of some words written by the eco-philosopher David Abrams in his latest book, Becoming Animal. Of science and technology he says, “Such tools can be mighty useful, and benevolent as well, as long as the insights that they yield are carried back to the lived world, and placed in service to the more-than-human matrix of corporeal encounter and experience. But technology can also, and easily, be used as a way to avoid direct encounter, as a shroud to ward off whatever frightens, as a synthetic heaven or haven in which to hide out from the distressing ambivalence of the real.”

Substitute ‘meditation’ for the words ‘such tools’ and ‘technology’ and you have a sense of how I feel about this practice. Meditation belongs in “the lived world”. It belongs “to the more-than-human matrix of corporeal encounter and experience.” It flourishes and finds meaning in the garden and around the dinner table. It is in these places that meditation most dramatically flexes its transformative muscle and from these places story-telling allows us to speak.

If the majority of writing out there does not immerse the practice in such contexts, in the everyday, then perhaps we need to find a new way of communicating on this subject. Perhaps we must. Because Abrams’ last words carry as much resonance for me as his first: Left abstracted from life, meditation, like science and technology, can easily “be used as a way to avoid direct encounter, as a shroud to ward off whatever frightens, as a synthetic heaven or haven in which to hide out from the distressing ambivalence of the real.” With the world teetering as it is at the present moment - with our inborn brilliance just waiting to shine - avoidance and hiding out, while understandably compelling, just do not seem options.

Let our story-telling begin!


Special Fall Offer

Thirty Minute Intuitive Session
Regular Price - $60
Until Oct 31, 2011 - $50
(All taxes included)


Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Starting A Blog

‘Stupid.’ That’s what I thought. As in, ‘That is a stupid idea.’

Let me offer some context. Work has not been going well. Having weathered the economic storms of 2009, then watched business blossom in all three service areas - meditation, coaching, and intuitive guidance - through 2010, I thought I was in the clear. But this year has been cloudier than expected. In fact, it has been downright stormy: classes cancelled, venues closed, clients slowed to a trickle. These last four months income has not met expenses. It doesn’t take a genius to figure where this is heading.

Clearly I need a livelier livelihood. But I am not at all certain how to do this. Do I look for new ways to grow what I already do? Do I add something to the existing mix? Find a wholly new line of work? Maybe I should just wait out the current lull, hope livelier times lay somewhere up ahead? I don’t know. And in not knowing I feel stalled. Like an old jeep bogged down in knee-high mud I find myself stuck in place, spinning my wheels. I feel I have done all the thinking I can do on this subject - though such a fact does not stop me from doing more - and need to try something different. So I have been praying.

Every night and most mornings, I have been calling out. “Please,” I repeat again and again. “Please.” I am not certain who or what the object of these cries is. In a way, such details are unimportant. I am appealing beyond this ‘I’ - beyond this limited sense of me-ness - that feels so stuck. I am asking for help. Call the recipient of these pleas God or Spirit, the universe, the lineage, at some level it all seems the same. I have been knocking on the door of mystery and waiting because I don’t know what else to do.

Sometimes I lay in bed listening. Wind rustles through leaves. Raindrops splatter loud on dry earth. The occasional car hurries by. I wonder what any of these might be saying. Are they my answer? Is this how it comes, coded in the everyday? In need of some sort of special understanding? Then, one night, a voiceless voice offers wordless words: “Start a blog.”

It is a bit of a shock realizing how much agenda I have laced into my appeals. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it seems my prayers have been offered with a fair measure of expectation weaved through their words. “Please,” I pleaded. Translation? ‘Give my life purpose.’ ‘Open new doors.‘ ‘Bring some insight.’ I see this sort of thing all the time when teaching meditation. “What did you expect?” I will ask when a student expresses surprise. “Expect? I didn’t expect anything,” they reply. “I just didn’t think that would happen...” Now too, apparently, with me. What I had not expected is precisely what arrived: “Start a blog.”

I dismissed the message.

This is a game I suspect many of us play quite frequently with friends and family. “What do you think?” we ask showing off a new shirt or hairstyle. “It’s okay,” the other shrugs. Then we stand there, frozen for a moment, looking at them before emphasizing, “No. What do you think?” The other in this exchange, if they have been at all successfully socialized, slowly nods with understanding. “Oh. I love it!”

So I dismissed the message and proceeded to wait for something more to my liking. But more likable never arrived. Those three words kept sounding in its place: “Start a blog.” Undeterred, I went right on pushing back - resisting, denying, ignoring to the very best of my ability. The effort required by this manifested throughout my body. I became increasingly tense, anxious as the battle continued.

I was not sleeping well through this and one night I ended up in our living room window. Perched on a wooden chest, my back against a wall, arms about my knees I gazed out at the world beyond that glass for hours. I like the view from there: low hills rolling in the distance while, in the foreground, a high cross rises up before our neighborhood church. I watched this cross vanish into summer darkness through the night. Then, much later, saw it slowly emerge as the first hints of day began to illuminate its contours.

Throughout this passage, I thought a great deal about the answer I had received. To be more precise, I thought a lot about how stupid the reply was. As in, ‘That is a stupid idea.’ This is a familiar monologue. It is not unusual for inspiration to arise in my life, only to be quickly shot down by something like this. Repeat such a phrase enough and said inspiration will surely be wounded, which is probably the point. ‘That is so stupid. That is so stupid. That is so stupid.’ Eventually, even the voice of the gods fall silent.

Understandably, this dynamic did not bring any new clarity to the question of work. In fact, by the time dawn was near ready to tease our cross into resolve, I felt more lost than ever. Yet this, curiously enough, was precisely when I noticed something. It is a phenomenon I have observed many times before. I remember seeing it driving to early morning swim practice over the years. With the city asleep around me, eyes still sticky with slumber, I noticed again and again that the quality of night’s darkness shifts just before the sun appears. The world remains shrouded for the most part, but a backdrop of barely there light begins to percolate through the situation, hinting at the day, the world about to be revealed.

As I said, I have noticed this before. What was different this time, however, was the realization I could look into this transitional moment between night and day, dark and light. I could look into this moment and see. John Cowan has written, “in many cultures magic occurs ‘betwixt and between’ and under conditions that are ‘neither this nor that.’ Magic,” he tells us, “is transformation, change, and alteration in the predictable flow of life.” He goes on to affirm that we can place our awareness in these transitional spaces and directly experience their transformative - their magical - power.

Sitting in our window near dawn, I felt drawn into the neither this nor that moment around me. As its transitional character began to open, both time and space altered. Suddenly, it is October 1987. Bob Dylan stands onstage in Locarno, Switzerland. His career, by this time, is a mere flicker of its former glory. New albums are immediately dismissed. By his own admission, old songs - those incomparable songs - allude him. One can see this in concert: He often stands squinting beyond the mike as if trying to find a thread that’s been lost.

On this autumn night the air is chill with moisture. I can feel its cool against my skin. A thin shirt sticks to my chest. Tangles of hair press against my face, plastered by steaming sweat. Trees stand shadowy on the other side of the audience. They seem to be watching from their distance. Watching. Waiting. Wanting. Grey mist creeps forward from their darkness and gradually obscures the crowd, the faces.

In Dylan’s own words: “It’s almost like I heard a voice. It was like it wasn’t even me thinking it. ‘I’m determined to stand, whether God will deliver me or not.’ And all of a sudden, everything just exploded. It exploded every which way...After that is when I sort of knew I’ve got to go out and play these songs. That’s just what I must do.”

Years ago, my teacher Reggie Ray, offered a summary of Chogyam Trungpa’s teachings. Trungpa Rinpoche is considered an important player in the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism to the western world. Wikipedia describes him as a “major figure” in this process. In a North American teaching career lasting seventeen years, he gave thousands of talks across a impressively broad range of subject matter. Reggie, himself one of Rinpoche’s most devoted students, summed up these teachings as follows: “Trust your experience.” That’s what he said. “Trust your experience.” Seventeen years’ instruction drawn from one of the world’s most significant wells of spiritual knowing boils down to three words: Trust. Your. Experience.

This is what Bob Dylan seems to have done after hearing that voice. Following that show in Switzerland, he recommitted to performing and rededicated himself to those songs. He did this because something other than himself - other than the limited creature known as ‘Bob Dylan’ - told him it was what he needed to do. “That’s just what I must do,” he said. In spite of the fact that, on one level, it might have been way easier to walk away. “Pack it in,” as he says he was considering.

So I have started a blog. From one perspective, this is all it is: a blog. One of what must be thousands of such entities, perhaps millions, floating about the internet.

From another perspective, however, this is much more than a blog. It is an act of trust in experience. It is a leap of faith demanded by a strange string of words that arose in a most insistent manner as I prayed for guidance and direction. I can’t make any claim toward understanding what these words mean but then, as with the matter of who or what I have been praying to, I’m not at all sure this is important. Craig Smith, another of Chogyam Trungpa’s students, speaks of the gesture inherent in each moment of our lives. This gesture is the act, the step, the risk each instant asks of us, calls us toward. This blog, then, is also this: a gesture.

And it is a question. Perhaps, more accurately, it is a series of questions. How does a person who routinely dismisses the whispering voices he hears, come to trust such experience? How do I come to trust the guidance of rustling leaves and splattering rain? Or the understanding expressed in a tensing body? Put another way, how can I receive the wisdom around me, whatever shape it may take? And how does my engagement with certain areas knowing available in this time - my training with Reggie, of course, but also psychology, mythology, indigenous spirituality and others - both help and hinder this process?

Maybe in a different time and place such answers would be ready for me, waiting within a cultural matrix whose primary purpose is to support the realization of human fullness. Maybe. But, for better or worse, I do not find myself in such a context. Instead I find myself lead to a place where I ask these questions. Teetering on that brink, who knows what might show itself in coming weeks and months? Perhaps what I must do lay waiting only for me to air these questions, to start this blog.

And so, I begin...


Special Fall Offer

Thirty Minute Intuitive Session
Regular Price - $60
Until Oct 31, 2011 - $50
(All taxes included)