Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Do the Training, Welcome the Opportunities

Our household has no cable access. One of many pleasures that has come to our household as a result of this fact is the experience of exploring the local library for DVDs. Wandering up and down the stacks, all three of us has allowed ourselves to drift, have our attention drawn by a colorful spine, a recalled title, an unexpected shiver. This process has brought home shows I’m sure not one of us would have previously considered; it has brought home some wonderful surprises.

Ugly Betty is an example from this latter camp. I had heard of the show but had no idea what it was about. The front image of America Ferrera grabbed me. ‘She’s from Traveling Pants!’ I thought. Having thoroughly enjoyed both of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies, I grabbed the disc and took Betty home. Within an episode or two each of us was captured. Watching Betty Suarez’s evolution through four TV seasons became a valued family experience.

The Gilmore Girls is also of this ilk. I really enjoyed spending time with fast-talking, culture-popping, coffee-drinking, oft-times out of her mind Lorelia Gilmore, her family, and friends. In fact, when Samantha asks me to rank the Top Five television shows we’ve watched together - the composition of such lists (Top Five shows; Top Five movies; Top Five songs) being another popular act around here - Gilmore Girls inevitably ranks high.

All, however, was not well with the good ship Gilmore as we sailed toward the end of its sixth - and penultimate - season. Leaving aside such issues as loose writing, improbable story lines, and the atmospheric list pervading the show, Lorelia and Luke were no longer a couple.

From the very beginning of the series, the relationship between Lorelia Gilmore and Luke Danes was a central element of the Gilmore universe. The chemistry between these two was immediate. Their warmth. Their affinity. The undeniable gravity working between them. A delight to see and to feel, watching these elements shift and develop over the years - from friends to lovers to fiances - was one of the main rewards of the GG experience. At the end of the show’s second to last season, though, the two had broken up. Lorelia was back in the arms of Christopher, father of her daughter and her on again, off again, on again flame.

So unsatisfying was this turn of events that I had little interest in watching any of season seven. Sharing a small space, however, makes such resolve difficult to maintain. Moving about our home, I would catch bits here and snippets there. Before long I was coming into the living room regularly, just to see what was happening. To be more honest, I was coming to see if Lorelia and Luke - and the show’s creative team - had finally come to their senses and reunited.

Of course there was a certain amount of teasing as the pair moved in this direction. Nothing lacking taste or appropriateness, but there was teasing. And some of it was delicious. Take the karaoke scene in Episode 20 ‘Lorelia? Lorlelia?’ Celebrating daughter Rory’s graduation from Yale, most of the gang heads off to a karaoke bar where Lorelia has promised, when sufficiently inebriated, she will get up and sing.

When the moment finally arrives, Lorelia climbs on stage and launches into Whitney Houston’s torchy ‘I Will Always Love You’ - a touching and suitable choice given the occasion.  As the first chorus ends, however, Luke walks in. Given the physical set-up, Lorlelia is the only member of her party to see this arrival. She stumbles over words, glances at the prompter, shuffles awkwardly. 

Over the next fifteen seconds, remarkable things happen. With eyes on Lorelia, Luke crosses the room and moves toward the bar. Mirroring this, Lorlelia’s body repositions. Now, instead of facing her daughter, she is looking right at her ex. Her vocals stabilize and, one by one, the people at the Gilmore tables follow her steadying gaze to see Luke in the house. One by one they realize what we in the audience are beginning to figure out: Lorelia is singing ‘I Will Always Love You’ to Luke Danes. The expression that washes Rory’s face as this understanding floods her awareness is devastating.

Caren and Samantha must have viewed this episode without me because I was sitting in the living room alone one night as the above scene unfolded. A thick, dull pressure started to build in my chest and throat. I swallowed several times, blinked. The scene complete, I sat stunned for several moments, then pressed ‘rewind’ and watched again. The pressure now had a light, swirling, energetic quality. My nose began to run. Again I swallowed. I pressed ‘rewind’ a second time.

A half dozen times I watched this three minute scene. With each repeat the pressure in my upper torso became more fluid, more active, more lively. I could feel it insinuating between ribs, beneath collar bones, throughout my shoulders. It rose up and loosened my throat. Tension in my cheeks dissolved and, eventually, during viewing number five, my heart burst. I started to cry.     
In that suddenly open heart there was so much. There was Lorelia. There was Luke. There was what they had been through together. There was all the love I had felt in my own life, all the love I had expressed. In close proximity to this, was the love I had not felt and the love I had left unspoken. There were all the people who had ever found and lost the love of their lives, those who had found and lost and then found this again. There were those who long - even if only for a moment - to have this kind of connection. There were those who, through some gift of the Fates, did. In that suddenly open heart there was so much.

Part way through my sixth and final viewing, however, I had had enough. Self-consciousness pushed in and I started to feel a little bit stupid. This was a TV show, for God’s sake. For whatever reason, spirituality often takes a dim view of pop culture - mainstream television, film, music - and I could feel this attitude shouldering forward, quickly turning down the lights on my experience. ‘What would Reggie think?’ I wondered, pulling my teacher into the mix. Before the scene was even complete I pointed the remote and put and end to this. Lorelia Gilmore froze and then shrunk and then disappeared into darkness.

It was late, so I went to bed. Laying on my back, however, I could not sleep. My body was pulsing, vibrant. Everything tingled - hands, cheeks, the top of my head. My heart felt enormous, like it was reaching out to the world. There was so much love, so much hurt, so much joy and happiness and loss and loneliness. And within these, visions of the men and women and children who were experiencing, who had experienced, and who would one day experience these. Before long my pillow was soaked by tears that had fallen in acknowledgment of the aching, wonderful, desperate beauty of it all.

I pushed back the covers and rose, went through to the living room and, remote in hand, turned on the television.

From one point of view, our task in this life is relatively simple: open. We are here, it seems, to welcome ever more of our lives, of ourselves. We are here to become aware and, in the process of this, allow the cosmos to become conscious of itself. This journey is an always asking one - there is always more, it never ends. 

Take this morning. To the puffy-eyed fatigue I woke with after another lousy night’s sleep: open. To the irritating squeeze I felt while rushing around trying to meet a deadline: open. To the everyday pleasure of getting Samantha to a play date - the easy conversation, the building excitement: open. Again and again. Over and over. More and more. We open. We welcome. We become aware.

Meditation offers training in opening that, in my experience, is unparalleled. The word ‘training’ here is important. Through a massive body of teachings, meditation helps us understand the path of and gives us practice in the act of opening. Consider the following aspiration, composed by Reggie Ray following some verses by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche:

“May I develop
Complete acceptance and openness
To all situations and emotions,
And to all people.
May I experience everything nakedly,
Completely without mental reservations or blockages.
May I never withdraw from life
Or centralize onto myself.
May my heart be laid bare and open
To the fire of all that is.”

Here the variety and depth of our life’s central task is elaborated line after line. “May I...“ we aspire. May I accept, experience, be laid bare. May I welcome situations, people, emotions. May I, in other words, open to it all. To accomplish this we are given a technique: place your attention in the body, whenever you wander into thinking just relax and come back, allow whatever that arises during this process to do this - arise.

Rather than leaving the matter of opening to chance, then, the meditative tradition provides structured preparation and exposure to this act - it provides training. To my mind, this generous fact is invaluable. A desire to take advantage of this training is one of the main motivations I have for engaging this work. It is one of the main reasons I listen to talks and read books and go to programs, one of the reasons I meditate every day.

While I do believe meditation offers unparalleled training in opening, however, I do not believe it is the main arena in which opportunities to open are presented. I used to believe this. I used to think meditation was pretty much the whole thing. If I sit more, I thought, and study more all will be taken care of. My view today is significantly different.

Now I see that, if meditation gives us the training we need to open, life itself provides most of the opportunities needed to do this. Some such opportunities do arise during formal practice, of course. The feelings, impressions, images, sensations, insights, and recollections that come as we sit can all be understood in this way. The source of the most numerous and diverse opportunities, however, is our day to day existence.   

Sudden illness, a child’s dance recital, job insecurity, the tumbling, head over heels sensation of falling in love, the lingering brilliance of a summer sunset - all these are chances for us to do what we have come to do, what we as meditators train to do. With this realization, the equation of our opening becomes this: do the training then welcome the opportunities.             

What specific opportunities we welcome is not a matter of our choosing. An intelligence beyond what we conventionally consider ‘ours’ makes this selection, presenting people, situations, and emotions that seem tailor made to the unique character and requirements of our path. In brief, whenever life comes at us with a notable vividness and intensity, with a charge - whenever life grabs us - opportunity has arrived.     

A few minutes ago an old Simon and Garfunkel tune was playing in this coffee shop. Something deep and long ago welled up as I listened. A heaviness, a melancholy I carried through many of my teenage years swelled behind my eyes. After this, Natalie Merchant’s ‘Kind and Generous’ swirled its way through this space igniting a toe-tapping joyfulness. Yesterday afternoon claustrophobia overwhelmed our home, seeming to suck all the oxygen out of that place. Each of these possessed that “grabs us” quality. Each, then, was opportunity knocking, awaiting welcome.

So it was with the Gilmore Girls’ karaoke scene. Regardless of the biases I held against it being so, this heart-wrenching slice of network television was, in fact, an opportunity for me to realize this life’s purpose. How stupid I felt, how self-conscious, how concerned I was that my teacher might discover what I was doing late that night - rather than being reasons for me to stop our DVD player and shuffle off to bed, these were instead opportunities for me to take my attention into the body and open to whatever was waiting there.    

As already mentioned, there was so much. Burning embarrassment heated my cheeks. Tension wrapped my chest. I thought of my friends, other students of Reggie; ‘What if they find out?!’ I worried. My eyes clamped shut against this possibility. An oh so familiar fight warred against the swelling in my heart. Resistance and rejection, denigration and denial were some of the main weapons here. There was an attempt toward hardness and then a sudden burst of - something, I’m not sure what. Life. Energy. Love.   

Before me Lorelia Gilmore was singing Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ to Luke Danes. Tears streaming my face, heart more expansive with each viewing, I watched her do this again and again until the energy of the situation became a fine, boundless mist. Sitting in the quiet expanse of this, the DVD for the moment paused, I felt as easy and comfortable with myself as I had in a very long while. 

I also felt thankful - both for the opportunity that had presented itself here and for the training that was letting me take advantage of this. ‘Sometimes life is good,’ I thought, a slight smile lifting my face. Then I raised the remote. Pointing toward our TV set, I pressed ‘play’ and watched Lorelia’s karaoke scene one more time.