Friday, 25 May 2012

Chimes of Maitri Flashing

Interesting things have been happening in my meditation practice. I am speaking specifically of my ongoing work with maitri, a term which can be translated as 'unconditional friendliness'. When doing maitri practice, we open our hearts and hold a difficult aspect of ourselves in loving warmth. Rather than push away or fight to alter a sense of personal impoverishment, for instance. we all this uneasy part of ourselves to rest in the heart and be accepted in a completely non-judgemental way.  

Over the last eighteen months I have done a lot of this work. It may have, in fact, become my main practice. Having committed so much time and energy here, I am now quite familiar with the process: open the heart, welcome a woundedness, allow these to intermingle.

This last part is always unpredictable. Sometimes there is a sense of resistance to the intermingling, sometimes a thirst-like yearning to come together. Sometimes the difficult aspect will loosen like a blossom, slowly revealing its depth and richness. Other times, there will be a sudden release; what one moment ago was impoverishment is now a red-hot flame of anger. 

Recently something more than heart and woundedness has been appearing during this phase of the practice. Imagine the heart casting light in all directions, much in the way a bonfire does. Near the center of this light is our difficult aspect; it is being warmed and accepted. Moving out from this, the light gradually dims toward darkness. At the very edge of illumination, it begins a gentle fade into brown then grey then black.

One morning, while practicing with loneliness, something appeared in this transitional space. Or rather, someone appeared. Though the figure remained cloaked and indistinct, there was a definite sense of body, of person present. The next day, working in the same way, the figure returned - this time with others. The following morning there were even more.

Soon I was meditating with loneliness placed before me and a semi-circle of others arranged behind this experience. These others, I realized, were lonely too. I felt this as a heart sadness, something that pervaded their bodies and emanated outward, percolating into my own open heartedness, into my own sense of loneliness, and into myself where I sat practicing.

In many ways, this development is not too surprising. Maitri practice - the work of accepting oneself - is often an initial step in compassion practice, where we accept the experience of others. We welcome our own self-criticism, for example, then open our hearts further to include all others who feel this way.             

What has been surprising, however, is the fact my experience of the gathering others has not been as one-sided as compassion practice often is for me. Typically, I welcome others into my heart during this work - I open to their presence, their struggle - and they, through all of this, remain relatively passive. They don’t seem to ‘do’ much of anything.

Not so recently. Those who gather in that semi-circle are far from inactive. There is a very real sense of us practicing together, of the work extending in both directions. As I open to their presence and their pain, they welcome my presence and suffering as well.

In this process, relationship arises among us, feelings of connection and relatedness. These others are not just like me - sharing similar struggles - as I have traditionally thought when doing this practice. They are both like me and with me, which is a significant difference. These others, as a result, feel like my tribe. They feel like my people, my community in the truest sense of the word - those with whom I share in common. 

This is a powerful and affecting experience. In the company of a tribe, I feel accepted and supported, encouraged to go deeper into the challenging work of self-acceptance than ever before. Previously I might stay ‘on the surface’ of a welcomed experience - let’s use self-doubt this time. At this level, the practice is able to give birth to only my most immediate reactions: wretchedness and aversion. Surrounded by my people, though, a much fuller palette of experience unfolds: I see how self-doubt has colored so much of my life. I feel how difficult it has been to live with this. Appreciation arises; I have done pretty well, all things considered.

And there is more. As this community helps me open to myself, I become increasingly able to feel the colors and shadows of their lives. I feel not only their heartaches and difficulties as they circle about me, but also their triumphs and joys. Which is, of course, cyclical: I then become even more able to welcome myself in a fuller and deeper way.

There are effects in the outer world as well. The number of people who have, seemingly out of nowhere, shared with me their own difficulties of late has been striking. “I just felt that somehow you would understand,” one woman told me. And I am beginning to understand, at least on some occasions. I am beginning to understand in ways that sometimes shock me:

On the morning of May 9, 2012, the President of the United States spoke in support of same-sex marriage. Appearing on network television, Barrack Obama offered a string of words that had never before emerged from the mouth of a Commander in Chief: "At a certain point,” he said, “I've just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

I was preparing dinner when I first heard of this. CBC Radio’s five o’clock news lead with the item. As the report unfolded, I felt suddenly overwhelmed with the joy of all whose lives will be immediately impacted by Obama’s declaration, the sorrow of those for whom this announcement comes too late, and the gratitude of the men and women in the future whose lives will be different because of what this President said. All these people seemed right there with me as I listened and stirred our pasta toward readiness. In their company - embodying their experiences as if my own - I could not help but weep.  

It is  a couple weeks after Obama’s announcement as I write this. It is Thursday May 24 to be exact, Bob Dylan’s birthday. This is a fitting ‘coincidence’ because one of Dylan’s songs (curiously, as sung by Bruce Springsteen) often plays in the background as the above unfolds; it has become, if you will, my meditation soundtrack.

‘Chimes of Freedom’ dates back to 1964. It’s never been one of my favorites, but I hear it with new ears lately and what I hear stirs my heart. The song is told from a church doorway. It is late at night and a storm has burst loose. The singer has “ducked inside” for shelter. Looking out, lightning is seen flashing over the landscape. In these flashes, there is illumination, revelation: instants of freedom that cry out not for him or her, us or them, but for him and her, us and them - for all who struggle anywhere and anytime:

“Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
And for each and every underdog soldier in the night
We gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”

‘Chimes’ is, among other things, a declaration of human solidarity and through seven verses the list of those we invariably stand beside in our struggles and our challenges lengthens until:

“Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse
And for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
We gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”

And this is the “interesting thing” that has been happening in my meditation practice lately. It has become apparent the pain and suffering, fear, hurt, and uncertainty I welcome during maitri practice is never solely my own. Though it does seem this way on occasion, the heart really knows no such bounds as ‘me’ or ‘you’, ‘self’ or ‘other’. In truth, practice of late has been showing me that the chimes of maitri flash only for ‘me’ and ‘you’, ‘self’ and ‘other’; for all of us - each and every one. 

Which brings to mind a passage from Jeffrey Maitland’s Spacious Body: “In [I and Thou, Martin] Buber distinguishes between two kinds of relationship: I-It and I-Thou. In an ‘I-It’ relationship, you distance yourself from the other person and turn him or her into an object for use or manipulation. In an ‘I-Thou’ relationship no such objectification can take place. Since there is no objectification, there can be no self in the ordinary sense to objectify the other. The objectifying self dies to itself in an ‘I’ standing in openness and communion with another who reciprocates that openness and communion. Buber says that the human world is impossible without the I-It, but that those who live only in the I-It are not fully human.”

Much of my meditation practice is done by myself. Drawing from Buber’s/Maitland’s comments above, it is understandable to think I am alone during these long hours of solitude. To realize this is not the case, however - to understand that I am far, far from alone in this work - is an important part of the task of meditation: which is to become more fully human.

This exciting insight reminds me of another quote and this time tears rise into my eyes at the recollection. These are the first words of a practice known as The Sadhana of the Ancient Ones, something Reggie put together. Though it no longer gets a lot of attention in our community, it has remained a recurring presence in my practice life. In fact, I often consider it a central influence in much of what has happened to me over the last several years. In my mind, for example, this blog would not exist were it not for this sadhana. It seems fitting, then, that this passage - which is attributed to Chief Seattle - appears now:

“When the last red man shall have become a myth among the white man, when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, upon the highway or  in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night, when the streets of your cities are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The white man will never be alone.” 


Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Truth and Reconciliation

One of the things that attracts me most to the teachings Chogyam Trungpa is his insistence all life is sacred. In this view, whatever we are doing - cooking, cleaning, shopping, lovemaking, fighting, gardening, working, playing - whatever we are doing holds the power of wakefulness. When fully embraced, all our lives contain within them the appropriate and necessary opportunities we need to open, learn, and live.
I find this compelling. That entertaining a house guest might be an instant of holiness, might offer the “appropriate and necessary” next step in my journey? Well, a more vibrant connection with this understanding is something I long for. I want to know in my bones that this life and this moment presents exactly what I need to become whole. I want to know and embody this. I want to trust and live this.

Much to my surprise, this blog seems to be offering such an opportunity. Whether I am listening to the Beach Boys or reading The Meadow, reflecting upon the Occupy movement or considering a recent lapse in meditation practice, blogging here gives me a chance to engage and share what is happening in my life. As I do this, something very interesting occurs. I feel myself opening a little, welcoming parts of my being that have long been ignored, neglected, and outright denied. 

There is transformation in this process. I feel altered, which should not be too much of a surprise. The act of speaking and being heard - or, in this instance, writing and being read - has long been known to possess this sort of power. Consider, for instance, the following:  

Here in Canada there is an entity known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). For over 100 years, from 1870 to the 1990s, roughly 150,000 First Nations people in this country were separated from their families and cultures in order to be ‘educated’ in centralized residential schools. For many this experience was harrowing. Beyond enforced isolation, many indigenous children endured horrific abuse at these institutions. 

The effect of these schools has been long-standing and pervasive. In the words of one survivor, “We carried this with us all our lives. We drank hard, fought hard and many of us had a death wish.” In an effort to facilitate the mending of such wounds, the TRC has been holding hearings from coast to coast. At these, the still living students of residential schools are given a chance to speak publicly of what happened to them.

The assumptions driving this process are clear. The collective silence that has surrounded residential schools in this country maintains - and perhaps even worsens - the wounding of survivors. In contrast, the opportunity for these individuals to honestly offer personal experience and have this openly received by others is potentially restorative. In breaking silence and sharing one’s truth lay the possibility of healing.  

While reluctant to liken what is offered in this blog with what so many First Nations children endured, there is some ground for comparison. Following the admonition that arose less than twelve months ago - “Start a blog” - I have found a means of sharing a wide range of life experiences. While some of these have been deeply troubling, others have been of a very different character. What all share, however, is a proclivity to be held in silence. A silence that, for me anyway, seems especially evident in ‘meditative’ contexts.   

An unfinished blog post sits on my desktop. Entitled ‘Dropping Storyline’, this wonders if the popular meditation instruction to ‘Drop the storyline’ - let go of any narrative we hold about our lives - possesses a little-discussed shadow side. Certainly the admonition loosens our grip on the tales we constantly tell ourselves and this is helpful. At the same time, however, ‘Dropping’ asks if this also encourages a dangerous tendency among meditators. 

Rather than raising life experiences such as childhood trauma at one extreme, enthusiasm for Bruce Springsteen at another, under the influence of ‘drop the storyline’, we might push these parts of ourselves aside and remain silent. Judging these inappropriate in our lives as meditators - just more discursive storytelling - we (pretend to) ‘drop’ them. In so doing, we unwittingly kneecap our journey. We rob ourselves of an opportunity to discover first-hand the power of experience directly engaged and openly shared. We undermine life’s inherent movement toward healing and wholeness and health. 

‘Storyline’ was, I thought, pretty good. While writing, however, I became uneasy. It was as if Chogyam Trungpa had appeared over one shoulder, shaking his head. “Something’s fishy,” he insisted. 

And something was fishy. I wasn’t writing about what was really happening anymore. While the subject matter did relate to personal experience, the questions and insights raised were extrapolated from this. The writing stood at least one step removed from the immediacy of my life and, as a result, offered more ideas than experience. It was smart, it was perceptive - but it didn’t really connect with the stuff of right now. 

What is the stuff of right now? What’s going on for me? What is waiting to be embraced and, through this, offer its transformative potential?

I feel like hell and I don’t want to write about this anymore. I have shared my struggles several times in recent posts and, while this has been amazing practice, I am fighting to believe “several times” is enough. I don’t want to admit napping instead of meditating when I didn’t slept the night before. I don’t want to acknowledge tossing three bags of compost into the garbage because I was too depressed to give a damn. I don’t want an awful lot, it seems.

A memory arose during practice today. One of my schoolyard tormentors came up from behind and began twisting the hood of my jacket. Not knowing what else to do, I tried to laugh his assault off. This was a classic ‘possum’ move - maybe if he thinks I don’t mind, he’ll stop and leave me alone. It didn’t work; the coat tightened about my neck. I remember the fringes of my vision darkening. Then my head got light. Next thing I know, a couple friends are standing over me. The bully is nowhere in sight.

I don’t want you knowing this. This feeling arises not out of any sense of personal discretion but, instead, from an impression I simply shouldn’t share in this way. Maybe that instruction - ‘Drop the storyline’ - contributes to this; it does strike me suspicious how rarely personal wounding and/or passion is openly acknowledged in the world of meditation. I do not, however, think it is the central force at work here.   

Simply put, I feel there is something wrong with these experiences. I feel there is something wrong with me for having them. These beliefs do not stop with what I have described above. I feel there is also something wrong, for instance, with my passion for Julia Roberts in the movie Notting Hill and Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap, the early music of R.E.M. and the very best of Glee. In all of this there is a sense of flaw or fault that aches like a wound, something I cover over and protect with a generalized silence.

As mentioned, this pattern is especially notable in ‘meditative’ contexts. Here I seem to have concluded such matters are not the proper stuff of ‘spiritual’ people like myself. Consequently, when in the shrine room I remain largely mum regarding these aspects of my life. Sure I’ll talk about stability and insight, but the sadness that winds through many of my days or my enthusiasm for the Gilmore Girls? I don’t think so.

At the same time, though, I keep thinking about the message of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings: there is healing in speaking and being heard. And I keep thinking about Chogyam Trungpa’s insistence all experience is sacred.

As I do this, I realize my continuing reluctance to share myself beyond the bounds of a very limited sense of appropriateness keeps me fractured and compartmentalized. More, I realize I am using my ongoing involvement with meditation and my status as a ‘meditator’ as a means of maintaining - and perhaps worsening - this condition. Rather than bringing me closer to the confident wholeness Chogyam Trungpa seems to enjoy and the healing release Canada's residential school survivors are finding, ‘holy silence’ holds me at an increasingly painful distance.    

I want to know whether sacredness can really be extended to everything. Is the Starbucks I am sitting in sacred? Does the paranoia I was gripped with this morning have the power to transform? Can the same be said of all those other things I keep at arms’ length, banish from the shrine room - from singing ‘River Deep-Mountain High’ with my daughter to wanting to kill those inhabitants of my past who have done me harm? 

For such answers to emerge, meditation no longer seems enough. Though the practice remains central in my life, I feel a need for something else, something not quite - well, not quite so damn silent. Echoing the insight of the TRC - and yearning to feel the power of its truth and reconciliation process in my own being - I need a forum that allows me to learn how to speak and be heard. Something that dissolves the distance I feel, and encourages me to inhabit and express from the everyday heart of my life.

In this light, maybe that almost a year ago voice is an early reply to the questions I feel so strongly called to explore. “Start a blog,” I was told. This has not been an easy task. I have felt at times foolish, arrogant, embarrassed, afraid. But in these three words there has been a great deal of wisdom and power and compassion. Have I found healing within them? Yes. Have I found sacredness? There is a sense of Rinpoche smiling as I consider this possibility. A hint, I suspect, of the answer.   


There is a coda here. Though I have had in the back of my mind a sense that the inspiration unfolded above is not solely about me, that it also reflects a yearning for others to become more open and at ease with the fullness of their lives, this is not explicitly stated anywhere. Interesting then, that the following arose fully formed a few minutes ago:

Sometimes shrine rooms are places of profound silence and this is good. On other occasions, however, this same silence serves to perpetuate long-standing patterns of fracturing that ultimately undermine our basic aim: to become whole. My hope is we can find ways to offer both in spiritual communities: a deep silence that allows us to plumb the depths of our fundamental nature, and an open forum for speaking and hearing that lets us realize in a direct and personal way that all experience - every nook and cranny of our lives - is holy.