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.”