Wednesday, 29 February 2012

When The Teacher Appears

We did some work together last fall. He called not at all certain what he was looking for. “Just a sense,” he stumbled. We explored possibilities through that conversation, decided upon a course of action, an appropriate fee. “Thanks,” he said at the end of the session we arranged. He offered a cheque. It was pale grey with a forest green border.

In the early days of the new year I found a hand-written envelope in my mailbox, no return address. I opened it right there and long slip of paper fluttered to my feet. It landed face up, grey with a dark green border. Bending, I recognized both the name and the signature. “With deepest appreciations,” read the words in the lower left corner. The amount was double that of our initial appointment.

Several weeks have passed since the arrival of this cheque. It has sat atop my filing cabinet, a few inches distant from work’s other payments. I have been to the bank several times in this span. Every cheque added to the payment pile has been deposited, but this one has remained. ‘I forgot,’ I have told myself. ‘Can’t be bothered,’ referring to the tremendous effort required to shift my hand slightly to the left and pick it up.

This afternoon I said, “To hell with it.” I grabbed his gift and jammed in into my pocket.
It was crumpled alongside the day’s other deposits as I journeyed to the bank. On the way I came up with a handful of reasons to not cash that cheque. ‘Just put in half of them,’ I thought. ‘Don’t think there’s time.’ Then: ‘Maybe I’ll send it back.'

As the teller flipped through the small pile I placed before her, I nearly reached out and pulled that particular slip from the company of its peers. “Good week,” she offered with a friendly smile. I grinned feebly, averted my eyes. Her red stamp landed on the pale surface with a definitive thud. The last thing I saw before she slipped the bundle away were his words: “With deepest appreciations...”

An uneasy heat flushed my cheeks.

I didn’t feel I deserved his thanks.

As is often the case, this issue has been lingering at the edges of awareness for some time. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see it stepping out of the shadows every now and then, edging into the light in sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle ways. At a meditation program last year someone observed, “You often divert compliments.” I nodded to feign understanding. Not five minutes later: “This has been amazing. Thank you.” My reply? “No - thank you.”

With the bank two or three blocks behind me, my heart started to rattle against my rib cage. It was as if an alarm was suddenly going off in there. An old-fashioned cast iron alarm, bright red with flat-faced hammers clamoring against its surface. I turned into the nearest coffee shop, this coffee shop, and sat down.

‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears.’ I have always assumed these words refer to the arrival in our lives of flesh and blood mentors: Reggie Ray, Pema Chodron, Debbie Ford - who is a story unto herself. ‘When I am ready,’ this assumption asserts, ‘the person appears.’ Now, however, I am struck by the obvious bias in this: that a teacher is always, invariably human.

One of the more challenging offerings of my time as a meditator, my years with both Reggie and Chogyam Trungpa, is the repeated and ongoing experience of life’s generous accuracy. Events, it seems, do not occur by accident. They instead occur precisely as they must - ‘as they must’, that is, to ensure I awaken a little more.

What happens in the course of day-to-day living has a very definite teacher quality. The flat tire, the unexpected employment opportunity, the difficult relationship - each of these has the capacity to show me where I am hung up, blind, prejudiced, or under-developed. Each of these has a very precise capacity in this regard.

Take the above-mentioned sense of not deserving. Had it arrived six months ago, I am not sure that client’s appreciative offering would have had much resonance. But then, his cheque did not arrive six months ago. It arrived precisely when it did. Feelings of doubt and unworthiness had been lingering for some time; I had been quietly noting both their presence and influence in my life. It was as if I was being primed to finally understand something very specific about myself.

I didn’t feel I deserved his thanks.

‘When the student is ready,’ that saying might more accurately assert, ‘the exactly appropriate teacher appears.’

Years ago, I asked one of Rinpoche’s senior students about working with a teacher. “What does one do?“ I inquired. He smiled. “Watch them closely.” “For how long?” I wondered. His grin curled further up his face. I thought he was going to laugh. “For a very long time.”

It is curious the degree to which this answer echoes the instruction I was given the first time I learned how to meditate in this tradition. “Put your attention here,” I was told, “and stay.” This is the ghost of Chogyam Trungpa speaking - ever confident, if we just stop our moving about, if we just pay attention and allow life to present itself fully, we will be shown exactly what we need to see. “Meditation is like nested dolls,” I said recently. “Let your mind rest in one place. Watch the dolls unpack, reveal themselves.”

Of course it is not quite so easy. Most of us are quick to take our eyes off the teachers that come into our lives; I certainly am. Reggie often speaks of how difficult it was to be around Rinpoche, to be around his teacher. Maybe it is this way with all teachers: difficult to the point of distraction.

That feeling of not deserving is a hard tutor to stay with. Edgy in its presence, nauseous, uncertain, ashamed, my gaze averts for just a moment. In this instant thoughts arise about what the feeling means. ‘How might it be understood?’ I wonder. ‘What can I do to fix it? To change myself?’ In the blink of an instant, the teacher is replaced by my thoughts about the teacher - not the same thing at all.

I do not believe I deserve this person’s thanks and appreciation. There it is, up front and present tense. So naked an acknowledgment leaves my stomach knotted. Something like a fist pushes up the middle of my diaphragm. A choke catches in the throat. There is a desire to push the experience back, to swallow and pretend it’s not there, never was. I worry about the perception of others. I don’t want their image of me to curdle at the touch of these confessions. Sitting here sweat pricks along my hairline. ‘Better to put on a show,’ I think, ‘maintain the façade.’

But ‘putting on’ requires taking eyes off what has come into my life and this is all that has been asked of me: watch closely. It’s just like the breath: “Put your attention here.” And then stay. And settle. And relax. In time, something will open, reveal itself. I will see first hand what this particular teacher is offering this particular student in this particular moment.


Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Apparently Solid Self

“It’s just a thought, only a thought.”
- Dido, Life For Rent

I visit the local library once a week. Mondays usually. I go late enough in the day to have gotten some work done, early enough to stop for a cup of tea in a nearby village. I wander the stacks looking for books, DVDs, CDs. This largely for my daughter Samantha’s benefit, to meet her needs for the next few days. But I like wandering for myself, too. I especially enjoy drifting through the music area, flipping through discs, waiting for something to catch my attention and suggest I take it home.

This process added four CDs to my collection this time around: The Cure’s Standing on the Beach (because it’s been so long since I heard ‘Boys Don’t Cry’), John Coltrane’s Live at Birdland (because of a line in the Cowboy Junkies’ ‘Tuesday Morning’), The Decemberists’ The King Is Dead (because in contains a song the band itself describes as “a paean to REM”), and Dido’s Life For Rent.

Three of these choices aren’t too surprising. I have, as listed, dubiously ‘good’ reasons for picking them up. The last, however, is different. Having never heard of the artist, I was initially attracted to the cover. “Dido” appears red in the upper left-hand corner. A smiling face lights up to the right. Turned sideways, the singer’s features are seen in black and white. ‘Cool name,’ I thought, adding it to my pile.

Then I hesitated. Suddenly suspicious of my choice, I turned the case over. Gazing at the back image - young woman in a dress, bare feet, half-smile on a tilted face - I looked for hints of what lay inside. ‘Another breakup album,’ I thought, glancing through song titles. ‘Probably a musical chick flick.’ Next came, ‘Not my thing.’ Responding to this relatively abrupt evaluation, I started to put the CD back.

Buddhists talk a lot about a solid sense of self. This, in fact, is considered the root of a great deal of struggle and dissatisfaction. Ignoring that life is constantly shifting, we conclude ‘I’ is a stable, consistent entity - always this or always that. We then expend a great deal of time and energy maintaining this ignorance. We act in ways that support our manufactured notion of ‘me’ and avoid behaviors that violate this - often with little regard for consequences.

I was a competitive swimmer for thirteen years. When this career puttered to an end, I hopped out of the water and onto the pool deck. From here I coached the sport for another couple of decades. Through a fair portion of this latter span I continued to swim. This was not like before - nowhere near as intense - but I would typically hop in two or three times a week. After the swimmers had gone home I would spend maybe thirty minutes sailing up and down as I had so many times before.

One night I moved to the edge of the water, pulled on my cap and goggles, and readied to dive in. ‘I don’t want to do this any more,’ I thought. ‘It rarely feels good and I really don’t like it.’ These realizations froze me in place. I was a swimmer. I loved being a swimmer. I had been a swimmer for as long as I could remember. Yet I didn’t want to get in. I did not want to get in ever again.

A lifeguard watched me stand there for almost twenty minutes. “I wondered if you’d had a stroke,” she later confessed. Locked into a sense of ‘me’ as ‘swimmer’, I was unable to turn away from that edge. I couldn’t allow myself to be anything other than what I had always been. This is why I eventually jumped in and paddled a couple easy lengths: so I would know I had. Another few weeks needed to pass before I finally abandoned my post-workout swims for good.

Unsurprisingly, we usually demand others play along with our solid charade. In ways both big and small, we insist they be as consistent as we think we are. Back to the library: Samantha has pretty much exhausted all the Beach Boys compilations in stock, so I have started bringing home actual albums. She wants Smile, but the first original work I was able to obtain was a ‘twofer’ repackaging of Sunflower and Surf’s Up.

Released in 1970, Sunflower was the band’s attempt to recapture the commercial interest and creative momentum that drained away following Brian Wilson’s breakdown three years earlier. Pretty much every band member contributed to the effort. A great deal of attention was given to song quality and track listing. The bright, optimistic title spoke volumes about how the group felt toward the newest addition to it’s catalogue.

For the most part, however, Sunflower did not sound like anyone’s idea of the ‘Beach Boys’. In spite of the fact ‘It’s About Time’ and ‘Got To Know The Woman’ - among others - are incredible songs, neither of them fits into the familiar mold the public knew and expected. As a result, the album went largely ignored. During its four week stay, Sunflower peaked at #151 on the charts. Very few of the cuts have ever been played in concert and I would guess this fact is not going to be challenged during the Boys’ 50th Anniversary summer tour.

In My Dinner with Andre, Louis Malle's captivating filmed conversation between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, two friends and playwrights, the latter speaks of deliberately opening doors with his non-dominant hand. Shawn listens, confused. What Gregory is attempting to do with this gesture is shake up the dynamic above. Focussing upon something as mundane as turning a door knob, he is trying to unsettle our tendency to take so much ourselves - and such a sizable portion of our lives - as ‘the way it is’.

It’s a good practice, in my experience. It is a good way to rattle the cages of that apparently solid self we carry everywhere, limiting both ourselves and others in the process. “Just do something different,” Pema Chodron says, lending words to this.

When we see ourselves clinging to an idea of ‘Beach Boys’ instead of opening to the freshness of an unheard song, do something different. “Anything different would help,” Chodron affirms, “anything that’s not habitual. For example, you could go up and take a cold shower and sing at the top of your lungs, or drink a glass of water from the wrong side, like you do when you are trying to get rid of hiccups.”

Good practice. Good advice.

I didn’t, in the end, put that Dido CD back. I held it at arm’s length for several seconds, looked at it hovering over all the other discs in the rack. Somehow in those moments I saw what I was doing: reacting not to what was happening - I really did like the cover and really did think her name was cool - but to my ideas of who ‘Neil’ is and what his ‘thing’ might and might not be.

Life For Rent is a break up album. I suppose for this reason alone it could be considered the musical equivalent of a chick flick. But I’ve been listening to it all night long. I choked up over ‘White Flag’ while making dinner. ‘Sand In My Shoes’ was a favorite as I washed dishes. As I’ve been writing this piece both ‘Mary’s In India’ and ‘See the Sun’ have been repeated at least three times each. Some very appropriate lines appear in this last song:

I’m coming round to open the blinds
You can’t hide here any longer
My god you need to rinse those puffy eyes

I guess I’m not the person I thought I was.


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Friday, 10 February 2012

Write Here

Can I write from this place?

A feeling of lead in the belly, as if the lower half of my stomach has been dipped in the dull, silvery substance. It hangs heavy and solid, pulling downward. This registers in the chest, the jaw. Its weight wants my eyes to close. A wave of fatigue rises, grey and silent. Looming. Not just fatigue. ‘What sea have you come from?’ I wonder. It feels familiar, like I have been swimming these waters all my life.

Commentary appears: when I last felt this way; what it was like; where it lead me. I want to write something that elicits sympathy, but from whom? This brings judgement and I stop. None of this is what I am curious about. I want to discover if I can write from here: this embodied moment.

My face warms. The heat starts just below my chin, washes up past the hairline. It is most intense about the eyes, extending just beyond the oval sockets. Warm, tingling, prickly. Am I going to cry? A fair question, but a step removed from where I am trying to be. Which is right now, in a chest that is suddenly sore, strangely hollow where the heart ought to be.

I wonder if I should edit this. In doing so, I am no longer present to that emptiness. I have evaded again. Working to return, I find ideas. What did the heart feel like at dathun? Is there a practice I can do right now? Maybe if I visualize a lotus blossom. Meditation, it occurs, is about opening to the immediate moment - except when it isn’t.

I have spent much of the last hour thrashing about. Check email. Make a phone call. Tidy the kitchen. Check email again. Something is exploding in the body and I have been running like hell to get away.

Someone sent me a line commenting upon a blog post. “Nicely written,” she offered. I felt like a fraud. Certainly I am able to string together one thousand or so thoughtful words, but when experience is not so thoughtful? Is shouldering its way forward, demanding more attention than reflection? My body has been aflame for the last ninety minutes. I could lay down, let my awareness open and inhabit this trembling flesh. But another possibility has presented itself. ‘Can I write,’ I ask myself, ‘about fire?’

My initial impression was this would involve confessing how bad I feel. Edgy. Agitated. Self-aggressive. Skirting the borders of depression, that grey landscape whose existence I would as soon deny. Then I wondered if I could reside in, write from the territory preceding this. From the frontier country that comes before ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The untamed wilderness that bucks all such labels, refusing the easy and numbing comfort of their civil veneer.

Something jagged in the body now. Like saw teeth running the length of the spine. The sharp points are directed outward as if poised to attack. If this movement had a vocal compliment, it would be a growl - low, threatening, dangerous. Something familiar balls up in the points of the jaw, the back molars. ‘Hatred’ is what I call it, but how does this feel? Barbed wire tangled tight and pulling against itself, ripping its own flesh with those hard metal jags.

In this exercise, there is a flash of arising. Something has revealed itself. What follows is a sense of separation, then a flurry of feeling. Quick on its heels, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Curious these arrive even before feeling is designated - ‘anger’, ‘loneliness’, ‘heart ache’, and so on. But they do and they are sticky devils, like velcro.

Before I know it I am spinning tales around each, a spider enveloping its prey in suffocating silk. ‘Bad’ dredges tales of woe from the past; anything, it seems, I can harm myself with. ‘Good’, on the other hand, reveals a desire to shine this moment in the best possible light. ‘There is learning here,’ for instance. Neither of these extremes exists in the terrain I am hoping to explore.

Tension wraps my shoulders. This comes from behind as if someone is moving close, wanting to embrace. The sensation arcs through my upper back, reaches down my arms, into my fingers. My hands hurt. Taking attention toward them I hear a song. Hank Williams’ ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’. A memory of listening to this over and over as a child takes me away from the immediacy of what the hands are expressing. It is tempting. There is strange comfort in the familiar sorrow.

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky.
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry.

Back to my hands. ‘Why are you singing this?‘ Back to these hands, right now. The flesh is sore. Imagine they have been beaten, pounded. They want, yet have not been allowed to want. This is both their beating and their loneliness. An urge to find a solution, solve this problem. Can I be honest? An urge to get away from these feelings. Reel it in; back to the hands.

A draw outward. A deep longing, deep and fundamental. At the end of every line Williams allows his voice to drift: “The silence of a falling starrr...” It is as if he is staring into the darkness just beyond firelight’s reach, sending those last words there. This is the trajectory of the pull I feel: out into... I don’t know what. My eyes begin to ache. There is pressure from behind. Building. Building. Moisture wells up, wetting the lower eyelashes, trailing down a cheek. A cool sensation where a single tear has left its mark.

One of the main tasks of a meditation instructor is to help others recognize the distinction between thought and experience. “This is something,” I remember Reggie saying, “that goes on for years.” What in the above is thought? That passage about ‘darkness’, was this in-the-moment experience? Or was it something I added later? An embellishment? I am frustrated I cannot tell, discern. I don’t want to post this - which, of course, has nothing to do with the hands. Back to the hands.

They are silent.

An edge can be felt. There is a flatness in each. Within this something juts up. It is narrow but insistent: a wall of upturned fangs that extends across the landscape. My chest tightens and the next several breaths come shallow. I feel as if I am standing on one side of a fence. Beyond the country I hope to wander; here a world of concept and abstraction. I place attention again in the hands and it shoots back, like tensed elastic suddenly severed. Just thinking about it all now. ‘Yes, the hands. Something there.’ But I cannot find that ‘something’ in the body.

I have retreated to observer status in my own life. No longer, ‘I wonder if I can write from this place.’ Instead, ‘I wonder if I can write from that place.’ A significant difference. It leaves me here, fence posts beneath armpits, as I look at a country oddly removed. ‘It’s over,’ I think. ‘I’ve lost it.’

Readying to get up, memory catches me. From an earlier post: “It’s quite an ignorant conceit, actually, believing my living circumstance precludes a sense of, a relationship with the natural world.” Let’s alter this: It’s quite an ignorant conceit, actually, believing my sense of retreat precludes a sense of, a relationship with the present moment.

Can I write from this place? The opportunity is always waiting. This place is always here. It is simply a matter of attending without judgement or bias, without that all too common conclusion: ‘This can’t be it.' Here is always here. Always. Just look, feel.

Lead now encases from toe to head, heavy and complete. The heart can be found in this, a bruised night sky. Purple. Haiku appears, a falling star:

Body is always
A most reliable


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