Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Old Ways

It’s late and I don’t feel ready for sleep. This day’s been a tough one - long with powerful undercurrents of dissatisfaction eddying through its minutes and hours. Feeling sorry for myself, I see a lot wrong in my lot. ‘If only...’ has become a mantra through much of this. ‘If only...’ I brood again and again. You can pretty much fill in the blank following these words; not much has been spared my gnawing illusion that pretty much every area of my life can be bettered by such musings. ‘If only everything were different.’   

After wandering night’s quiet for a while, aimless in my sense of how to pass the time before me, I settle on music. Moving into the kitchen, I pull a chair to where I’m standing. A cd player sits atop the fridge, so I position my seat near this. I plug in headphones, position shoulders against one set of counters, raised feet against another. Letting my head fall slightly backward, I close my eyes and exhale.

There’s not a big selection here when it comes to discs. Tonight the choice quickly whittles down to Dido or the Be Good Tanyas. After a small amount of back and forthing, I  chose the first, Life For Rent. There was just something when I picked up the case - a pull, an ache, a sense in my bones suggesting ‘This is the one.’

Trusting this, I soon find myself with a breathy English voice swirling about. This sweeps me up in a luxurious wind. I feel moved, lifted, carried. I feel the mood of the music carrying me away. The issue of where it is carrying me is not a central concern tonight; I just want what it is promising right now: away.

How long do I sit like this? Songs pass, certainly - two or three, I’m not sure - but time no longer holds its usual significance. Instead it’s that voice, those words and notes, those feelings that give these moments meaning. It’s the tension rinsing out of face and shoulders like melting ice. It’s the emotion rising slow like a tide through the body. It’s that scent - slightly warm, fresh. Comforting in a way. Like cut wood it is; maple maybe but I don’t really know.

It’s that scent that more and more lends these moments their weight, their presence, their reality - so familiar I hardly notice it edging its way in.

But eventually I do notice. Suddenly I know it’s there and I know exactly what it is. Where it is. Where I am. A bamboo floor spreads out beneath me. As sun slants through large windows, this surface begins to radiate the cozy, enveloping odor that is wafting around me. A question arises with this realization but, before fully conscious, is pushed aside by something else: a sense of what’s around in all directions.

The shrine room of Crestone, Colorado - my teacher’s home - now surrounds me. Though eyes remain closed, I can sense all of it. There are people closely packed. Cushions releasing the musk of aging cotton. The main shrine radiates up front; fire crackles its commentary from behind. Before the assembled group someone sits still for the rest of us to see and remember: this is what we do.

I have spent so many hours in this place there is little surprise at finding myself here. How many hours? How many days? Sometimes it feels such questions miss the mark. I have spent lifetimes here - eating, sleeping, meditating, living. If I am lucky, I’ll spend many more before my time here ends. If I am lucky...   

A hand contacts one shoulder. The touch is careful. Fingers and palm assume the shape of my body. This brings a bit of a start, so I open my eyes and turn. A face greets me. A barely there smile, a slight crimp in the forehead. It takes a moment, but I soon realize I’m looking at one of Reggie’s attendants.

“He wants to speak to you,” she whispers. This is not unusual, to whisper in the shrine room. But there’s something in her expression, in the way her words emerge. A start sparks my torso. “He’s in his office. Waiting.”

I get up and follow. A few meditators raise their gaze to observe our movement; most don’t. The room is so still. The air feels rare, refined. Passing through this atmosphere, the feeling is more like swimming than walking. It’s like I’m in a dream, floating. I notice the attendant has a small notepad sticking out her rear pocket. It looks hastily placed, like it might fall out at any moment, tumble to that warming floor. I’d say something, but the starting spark has ignited something; I wonder if I’m in trouble.

Someone opens the door as we approach the entrance to this space. I try to meet his gaze but he looks away. This strikes me as strange and stands in contrast with what happens as we move through the foyer and enter the hallway that leads to Reggie’s office. There aren’t many people out here -  six, perhaps seven. All steal a glance as we pass, myself and the attendant. Just a furtive look: up and away, nothing more.

“He’s waiting,” the attendant offers for a second time, holding the door. I wonder at the fact there’s been no knock, no waiting while Reggie finishes another meeting or interview. I look to the attendant for answers but get none. She too has turned away. 

Reggie, in contrast, stares right at me while I pass through the doorway. His features are grim, grey, taut. I take a seat opposite, adjust a bit for comfort. The air in here feels deadly.

Once I am seated, Reggie looks at me for what seems a very long while, though I’d guess it lasts nothing more than seconds. His fingers tighten where they weave in his lap, knuckles whiten with strain. He swallows and the bob of his Adam’s Apple seems pronounced, exaggerated, comical.

“Neil,” he says. His voice rumbles with gravity. “We’ve had a call from home.” In the pause here my lower belly freezes, everything beneath the navel. My head begins to spin. I can’t feel my legs. Suddenly I want to turn back time; I want to not hear the words I know are coming. “There’s been an accident...”

How many ways are there for us to experience this life? Most of us, I suspect, accept only two: the outer world of consensual agreement, and the inner world of belief, opinion, and conclusion. Together these make up the vast majority of what we generally consider ‘true’. They are, in our minds, the fabric out of which the cloth we call ‘my life’ is woven. They are our guideposts - our North Stars - as we make decisions and chose pathways. These are what we refer to and believe as ‘reality’: the morning newspaper report and our reactions to this.

But are they the only replies to that question: How many ways are there for us to experience this life? What of dreams and intuitions? What of sensings that rumble through bones like tremors. What of trees that hold attention, horizons that take away breath? What of insights that are offered in cards or coins? Secrets that are whispered by the wind? What of spirits that appear late at night, strangers who approach with knowing stares? What of visions and memories and others of this ilk?

For most of human history - and the word ‘most’ here is a laughable understatement - these too have been considered legitimate channels of experience, modes of expression equal in stature to consensus and conjecture, sometimes even greater than these. In a wonderful little volume entitled The Old Ways poet Gary Snyder writes of this fact:

“The Cahuilla Indians who lived in the Palm Springs desert and the mountains above gathered plants from valley floor to mountain peak with precise knowledge. They said not everybody will do it, but almost anybody can, if he pays enough attention and is patient, hear a little voice from the plants. The Papago of southern Arizona said that a man who was humble and brave and persistent, would some night hear a song in his dream, brought by the birds that fly in from the Gulf of California; or a hawk, a cloud, the wind, or the red rain spider; and that song would be his - would add to his knowledge and power.”

That this culture, modern culture, tends to marginalize such experience does not erase its existence. Plants still whisper and wind still whistles and the red raid spider still carries a song amongst its silk. Though neither well regarded nor commonly acknowledged, these nonetheless remain ways for us to enjoy contact with life. And even in this age, some still sense their value, some still welcome what such experience only waits to offer.

Carl Jung was one of these. Starting around 1913, Jung found himself awash in visions and voices. Though many times worried he was going mad, he nonetheless came to believe these visitations as valuable, and spent many years welcoming and exploring them. By the end of his life, the famous psychologist considered such engagement central not only to his personal journey, but to the human endeavor all together. They give us, he wrote in his biography, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, an “ethic” for our lives.

I too have heard whispers and received visitations both within dreams and without. Slowly, steadily over a stretch of years a relationship has taken shape between myself and these modes of experiencing, these means of contact. A sense of trust and fidelity has evolved; I offer increasing respect to the ethic they present, and they, in turn, offer ever more guidance, more insight.

Curious, then, that I lift eyes wide when Reggie says, “There’s been an accident...” Heart pounding in my ears, I reach out for anything that will re-establish my bearings, that will affirm the reality of where I am. I know I am not in Crestone, not in Reggie’s office, not hearing these horrible words. But I also know life does not present its full depth and richness in such simple certainties. The red rain spider does have a song to sing...

So I close my eyes.

Perspective has shifted when I return. I am now viewing the scene from outside that office. The door is shut. I can sense Reggie and myself face to face inside. If anyone still lingers about that narrow hallway, I do not see them. All my attention is focussed and, after a few seconds, receives a blood curdling scream. This sounds as if life itself were being dragged from my body, pulled clawing and kicking through the throat, ripping at the still, fine air of that place as a howl that longs only to reach the dead - to somehow touch and smell and see again.

Arising from a place of no time, this scream continues until it ceases.

And then there is silence.  

My chest is tight. My breathing labored. I am weeping where I sit, leaning forward, face in hands. Grief I feel, certainly. But also a deep regret for what has been too often forgotten.

A scene appears in my mind, an event from only days earlier. The three of us sit about the dining room table. There is little special in this moment; it is a simple slice of every day. Caren, Samantha, and myself are eating dinner. Evening sun washes in through the window behind. Caren is laughing, probably at something Samantha has said. I am watching the two of them at a bit of a distance, feeling struck by how good this life is, how perfect beyond comprehension.

I can see the clutter on the radiator nearby, the mess of our craft area, the table still looking beaten and worn - just a few of the ‘wrongs’ that had so insulted me earlier in the day. In this moment, however, I don’t see anything wrong with these at all. I feel honored and grateful and blessed by their presence. And to sit in their midst - to sit amidst all of this - has the sweetness of a flawlessly ripe peach. 

A hand touches my shoulder.

For the first time in I know not how long I hear music. It’s Dido. She breathes, “I’m coming round to open the blinds...” As if in response, my eyelids lift and I see the patterned design of the kitchen floor, feet planted for support, a few splatters where tears have found rest. Looking up, there’s Caren. Her hand wraps the contour of my shoulder. “You okay?” she asks.

I wipe my face. “Yeah. I am.”  


Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Ordinary People

“Because of ordinariness, magic is possible.”
- Chogyam Trungpa

One thing I appreciate about the films of Mike Leigh is the ordinariness of his characters. Even when living through unusual circumstances, Leigh’s subjects in movies like Vera Drake, Career Girls, and Secrets and Lies are everyday people. That the director invariably casts actors who, to all appearances, share these individuals’ ordinariness is a gesture of both inspiration and generosity; out of this congruence we, the audience, are allowed to watch a certain magic arise on screen.

In Vera Drake, for instance, Imelda Staunton is completely convincing as a working class woman in post-war Britain. In manner and dress Staunton’s performance does nothing to suggest she would be out of place walking the difficult streets of London’s tougher neighborhoods circa 1950. The character is in harmony with these settings, aligned with the people and situations around her. By virtue of Staunton’s enactment - her surrender to this character - she is seems aligned with herself. 

As a result, what the portrayal lacks in glamour it more than makes up in power. Vera Drake attracts and holds attention as she moves about the screen, weaving her way through the demands and opportunities of her world. Her ordinariness, rather than dulling or obscuring, lends a spark to her presence - a vitality that draws and maintains interest and, through this, is able to communicate something about our shared human condition.      

This stands in contrast to the familiar Hollywood approach. Here ordinary lives are brought to the screen by actors who look anything but, by people who not so much relax into their characters as pop out of them.

I’m thinking now of the romantic comedy Marley and Me, though in truth any of an uncountable number of examples could be cited. Nobody expects rom-coms to offer much in the way of realism or depth. Even with this caveat firmly in mind, however, I just cannot accept Jennifer Aniston as the front page journalist the movie insists she is. Tanned and toned and coifed near perfection, I can’t accept Jennifer Aniston as anyone other than, well, Jennifer Aniston.

The effect of this is notable. With at least one-third of the film’s central cast too glamorous to be believable as the person she is purported to be, believable as an integral part of the world she moves through, some important element is lacking from Marley. With nothing holding me close, my attention continually wanders from the movie and finds occupation elsewhere. ‘How much did she get paid?’ I wonder. ‘How often does she get her hair done?’ Then, ‘Maybe I should wash the dishes.’ Which I do.

Lest anyone accuse me of Jennifer-bashing, let’s shift consideration to the actress’ 2002 film, The Good Girl. In this outing Aniston plays a 30 year-old woman in a dead-end job. Sure she is recognizable the moment she walks onscreen - we’re not talking Charlize Theron in Monster here - but in most respects Aniston aligns very well with the down-on-her-luck character she plays. She comes across as ordinary in Good Girl - as an inhabitant of both this world and this woman - and this fact has an impact.

Embodying a person who would be more at home among Leigh’s working masses than the spas and beaches of Malibu - playing someone I might see struggling her way through the streets and hallways of my own life - Aniston is extremely attractive in this role. Believable and real, she draws and holds attention much as Staunton does in Vera Drake. In the process, she is able to stir and move and affect in way that was wholly absent from Marley. She is able show us a little something about themes that resonate through many of our lives; themes such as hopes and dreams, happiness and fate.

Back when I was a swim coach, I used to go to a professional development conference each spring. In the ten or so years I attended this event, one of the more memorable presentations offered a brief summary of recent insights in learning theory.

‘How can we ensure kids learn?’ was the question around which this lecture revolved. The speaker’s answer? “Offer them someone they can relate with. Research shows the more students identify with their teachers, the more they learn. So don’t hold yourself as separate or special. Sure you are older and more experienced, and you do have a role to fill, but that doesn’t make you different. Let who you are shine through on the pool deck - this will teach them things you cannot imagine.”

Which reminds me of an article I once read about leading a meditation group. Such gatherings generally have one person sitting in front, facing the others during practice. This piece presented a series of pointers on how to assume such a position. Five or six tips were offered; I remember one. “Don’t put on airs,” the author advised. “Be yourself up there. If you need to move, move!” 
This has been an affecting teaching for me. In spite of anything else I might have been told over the years - in spite of the fact I generally say something quite different to others - I often subscribe to an approach toward meditation that is more Hollywood than Mike Leigh in orientation and aspiration. This is to say, I think I must be like Jennifer Aniston in Marley and Me when teaching, leading, being in these contexts. I believe this will be the outcome of my efforts: I will be beautiful; I will be perfect; I will be different.

In telling me, “When you need to move, move!” the author of this article is offering an important reminder: meditation is not a self-improvement project. This journey does not help us become someone other than who we are. It instead helps us become increasingly who we are. Through regular practice we become more aligned with ourselves - embodied, harmonized. In this sense, meditation helps us become more ordinary as we continue and in this there is something wonderful, powerful, communicative. Echoing Chogyam Trungpa, in this there is a kind of magic.

People sometimes ask me what makes Reggie Ray a good teacher. A quick glance at the man’s biography offers numerous possibilities. Holding a PhD in the History of Religions he is extremely well-studied, and has worked with a great many influential figures in this and related fields for over forty years. An early student of Chogyam Trungpa, Reggie has also devoted significant portions of his adult life to meditation and, as such, is extremely well-practiced. Finally, he has a unique ability to draw these two streams of experience together, offering them to the world in a way that is accessible, relevant, and inspiring for modern people.

So what makes Reggie a good teacher? In many ways, one could pick any of these and be on the mark. Introducing him at public events, I have made use of this list in composing my comments on a number of occasions.

This said, however, for me not one of these quite captures Reggie’s real strength as a mentor and guide. This instead is somehow expressed in the few very ordinary moments I have been able to share with him over the years. The way he answers a question about scheduling at the start of a long day. How he readies a pot of tea while the rest of us wait for a meeting to begin. The way he insists a situation can only be handled in this fashion at one o’clock in the afternoon and then, come dinner, is laughing over how caught up he’d been in his own little thing.

Nobody records these moments for posterity. There will likely be no books created by virtue of their existence, there will be no audio courses generated. If a compendium of Reggie’s teachings is ever assembled, it is unlikely ‘A Conversation Over Dinner’ will be considered for the final edit. 

Yet these ordinary instants grab my attention and, through this, something valuable is  transmitted. What is this ‘something’? I am not, to be honest, completely certain. That it is okay to be human, perhaps? That even the most mundane moments are worthy of attention? That it is while scheduling our days, while getting caught up in - and later freed from - our ‘things’ that something about this journey comes to life?

Again, I’m not sure. But I can tell you this: when I have laid my last eyes upon the corporeal form of Reggie Ray, what I will most miss will not be the afternoon he gave a wonderful talk on ‘Seven Kinds of Maitri’. What I will most miss will be running into him in a narrow hallway a few minutes after another lecture. Our eyes catch and, for an instant, hold. Smiles warm both our faces until they glow red. And then, for no apparent reason, we laugh and move on. This is what I’ll miss. This ordinariness, this intimacy, this momentary spark. Spark of what? Typing right now, I am very comfortable calling this a spark of magic.  

Many years ago, my wife and I attended a meditation program at Karme Choling, a retreat center in Vermont. During the month-long event, the teachers in attendance arranged to meet small groups of students over a series of evening teas. During our social, we somehow coaxed the more senior among us to tell stories about Rinpoche.

Chogyam Trungpa - the “Rinpoche” under consideration here - was a most unusual fellow. Though now considered one of the pioneering forces in bringing the meditative tradition to modern culture, he did not always behave in a manner that, to some eyes, was in keeping with this stature. He was in many ways outrageous and, when well told, stories about his exploits can be very entertaining.

The tales on this particular occasion did not, for the most part, disappoint. There was something about a closet, something about a rambunctious reading of ‘The Heart Sutra’, an important Buddhist teaching. When it came time for the program’s main instructor to share his story, however, our fun came to a halt. Rather than letting a rambling yarn unwind among us, he - the person in that room most familiar with Rinpoche - uttered a single sentence. Five words and that was it.

This seemed stingy to me. I felt he had rained on our happy parade, and was both angry and resentful. ‘Why was this all he offered?’ I wondered.

In the years since, I’ve asked this question many times. For a long while I thought the man just uncomfortable with story telling. Maybe he felt it disrespectful. Maybe it was too personal a task. Maybe he wasn’t much of a small group orator or simply disliked having our formal gathering descend into such frivolousness. Making my way through this piece, however, an other possibility has emerged. 

The retreat my wife and I were attending was a gateway program - a prerequisite to entering the Vajrayana, the ‘highest’ teachings this lineage has to offer. Sitting around the table that night I was pretty convinced I was teetering on some kind of greatness, ready to become the beautiful, perfect, different person I believed this journey promised. 

While I waited to become Jennifer Aniston in Marley and Me, however, that teacher, in his spare comments about Chogyam Trungpa, quietly reminded me that such perfection is not the point. The point instead is Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl, Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake, Reggie Ray in that hallway. The point, really, is this person right here - a little tired, anxious in the lower belly, wanting another cup of tea.

How did he convey this reminder? What did he say?

“He was an ordinary man.”