Wednesday, 24 October 2012

A World Reborn

I’ve left the element on.

More and more this is what it feels like. I might be halfway down the street when the image appears: a metal coil burning red-hot in one corner of a faintly clean white stovetop. I try to convince myself it’s unlikely. Steeling my jaw, I force first one leg and then the other into my sense of its next step. The image has a pull like gravity, though. And this begins to overwhelm whatever else might be waiting in my day, whatever else I might be heading toward: a meeting, a class, groceries. My legs become heavy under the influence.

At one point I assumed this dynamic would lessen. Abandoning one agenda today certainly means I’ll get to do what I want tomorrow. Right? This has not been the case. In fact, my experience has been pretty much, pretty consistently the opposite. Going back to look at that element right now almost ensures I’ll do the same tomorrow. Not out of choice, particularly. But because that pull - that gravitational ache - becomes stronger, more insistent every time I surrender to its wanting.    

Out on the street I curse myself again.

Then I do what now seems near inevitable: I turn around and head for home.

There is no time - have I told you this? How else to explain all these appearances? Here I am riding in a swim team van, music blaring tinny and loud from an overwhelmed dashboard stereo. Here I am spinning gentle circles with my body as Hank Williams mourns in one ear. And here - feel the high flutter of panic in my chest? Breath coming short and sharp? A recently slammed door pressing against the moist warmth of my back? I’ve just run home from school again, scared from start to finish one of them might catch me.

Each of these arrives perfect in its every detail. Not some apparition from a distant and fading past as my cherished notions of ‘how things are’ might insist. You know the drill: ‘There is past, there is present, there is future.’ I tell myself this in a quiet but stern voice. Very much the way one talks to a child. The way one scolds a child. ‘This, clearly, belongs in the past.’

Only now this no longer seems to describe how things work - how they really work. Now these appearances seem as very ‘real’ as any of the other details that fill my ‘present’: the blanket hanging warm over my shoulders, the tired drone of the fridge behind me, the sticky sound of a car whizzing by on rain-soaked asphalt. That element, burning red-hot on the stove.

Years ago I woke from a dream. “Come outside,” a voice insisted. I looked out the window. Dawn was just starting to break. A faint glow spread over distant mountains. Both the air and the light of the moment were thin as autumn ice on street puddles. I imagined reaching out and cracking their surface with a single touch. My body shivered. I retreated back into warmth, slipped under my covers. ‘Later,’ I thought.

It was the other end of the day before I was able to finally follow the instruction I had received. Bundling myself against the falling chill of a winter evening, I stood on the land that seemed to have offered those words and looked around. The fading sky was deep blue by then. The emerging lights that twinkled throughout the valley looked like so many campfires burning upon the land. I thought I might have heard drums.

How long I waited I can’t say. Fifteen minutes? Thirty? Cold and fed up I eventually hurried back inside, stomping my feet on worn carpet in a effort to revive their ability to feel. “Only now,” I heard. It took a moment for me to be certain; it was the morning’s voice again. “Only now,” this told me. “It is always only now. You cannot go back. You cannot go back.”

A beat-up couch spread out to my right. I flopped into it’s support, dejected. Tired near tears. I knew in my bones I had missed the chance. Knew in my bones this might never arise again. “Come outside,” that voice had told me - asked me? Fourteen, fifteen hours later I understood this offering was time-sensitive, not to be negotiated - which is exactly what I had tried to do. ‘Later,’ I thought. That bed was so cozy. ‘Later.’

At a workshop this weekend, I spoke of a talk I once gave entitled, ‘Ten Reasons We Don’t Meditate’. Because it’s relevance seems limited by neither place or occasion, I return to this teaching with some frequency. When spoken, the first couple reasons are usually greeted with an ‘oh-those-crazy-kids’ kind of laughter. After this, the room becomes progressively more subdued. 

Reason One: “I’m busy with school, maybe later.”

Reason Two: “School was tough, so after I finish traveling.” 

Reason Three: “Who has time for meditation? I’m in love!”

Reason Four: “I really want to, but I have this new job.”

Reason Five: “I know I should but we’ve bought this house and it needs a lot of work.”

Reason Six: “Once the kids are older.”

Reason Seven: “The kids are older now but it takes so much time driving them around.”

Reason Eight: “I’m exhausted. I hate my job but need to stick it out for the pension. I’ll start after I retire.”

Reason Nine: “Work was tough, so after I finish traveling.”

Reason Ten: “My hips hurt so much, there’s no way I can sit still long enough to meditate!”

The point here is there’s always going to be some very good reason for doing something else. A new job. A new baby. My warm bed. Yet from its timeless depths life offers what life offers and it is always now. When we see that ad: ‘Learn to Meditate’. When that email announcement comes across our desk: ‘A Meditation Retreat’. When a voice wakes us on a chill winter morning: “Come outside.”

So perhaps I should be thankful this is what it feels like to me: I’ve left the element on. Perhaps I should be thankful this feeling seems to only burn stronger with time. I once attended a month-long meditation retreat from which the only words I recall the head teacher speaking are these: “We need to practice gratitude for our lives.” Wise counsel. I love that he used the word ‘practice’.

It is four in the morning and I would rather be in bed. But about an hour ago something yanked me out of sleep with a pull that would not be denied. I tried gathering the covers tighter. I tried clamping my eyes. That element was burning red-hot by then, though. Glowing on one corner of our faintly clean oven it was like a beacon, a call. “Come outside.”

A note card appeared earlier today:

There is no need to hide -
Our struggles
Are for the others

That only hours later I received a beautiful email from an other who had read an earlier post seems no mistake. “I read your blog,” he began. Words that seemed to crack open a heart.

I sometimes feel foolish living my life in this way. Getting up in the middle of the night. Chasing threads of feeling and intuition like a madman. Sharing what I’ve found and been shown in pieces like this. ‘Just meditate,’ I tell myself again and again. ‘Just sit down, shut up, and follow the fucking breath.’ But there’s that damned pull again, that red-hot element; this, it seems, is all part of it’s glow. “What else would you do?” my wife asks when informed of these doubts. Indeed.

Still, reminders such as the above are appreciated when they come: “There is no need to hide - / Our struggles / Are for the others” and “I read your blog.” “We need to practice gratitude for our lives.”

So I threw back my covers and, now, here I sit.

What’s waiting here I don’t know; it still seems too soon to tell. But as the clock on my laptop ticks off another minute, I feel it as sure as I feel the keys under my fingertips. Something is waiting.

I pull the blanket around my shoulders. The coarse weave scratches my neck, my chin. It’s still dark outside; no hint yet of morning’s arrival. I know, however, that if I sit here long enough, I will eventually meet the now this particular day is waiting for. This is the now that will allow a bright, burning star its first peek over the horizon.

Soon after this, a gradual light will spread over the landscape below. It will look so familiar, all of it. The foliage, the landmarks, the topography. But something - some thing - will have altered. Perhaps this will be an introduction, an alteration. It might not be much, but it will change everything. Nothing will be quite the same once it becomes apparent. The world will have been reborn. Again.


Monday, 15 October 2012

This Whole Life

An interesting thing happened in 1971. The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) began to require that all radio stations in this country devote a certain percentage of their playlists to Canadian content - material that had been written, produced, and/or performed by citizens of this nation.

Prior to this decision, such material was considered more a quaint novelty than anything else; curious arisings of our backwater country, certainly nothing to be taken seriously. Actually, being thought of in this way, being thought of at all, was a bit of a best-case scenario for most musicians of this era; without a hit elsewhere, Canadian artists were typically denied airplay altogether. Even with a hit, however, they were considered generally inferior to performers from Britain or the States.

All this started to shift in 1971. After the CRTC ruling, Canada’s music scene began to take on new life - one characterized by exposure, esteem, diversity, and importantly, financial potential. By the 1980s acts like Prism, Chilliwack, Red Rider, Bryan Adams, Blue Rodeo, Jane Siberry, the Tragically Hip, and many more were enjoying the considerable benefits regular access to radio waves provided.

Of course new life takes time to gestate. In the early days, while radio stations did have enough native material to fill their content quotas, pickings often seemed a little thin and could, as a result, become quite repetitive for those listening.

I was over my head in the swimming world during those early days. By the mid-1970s I was doing a workout a day - sometimes two - which required a whole lot of driving. It took us twenty minutes to journey from home to pool. This meant forty minutes, sometimes eighty, were passed in the car, invariably listening to the radio: crackling signals from CFUN, CKLG, and, if poor reception necessitated such desperate measures, Victoria’s own CKDA.    

I remember these rides. Three or four swimmers packed into the cramped confines of our family’s pale blue Mercury Bobcat. The pungent scent of chlorine salted the air. The windows fogged white with condensation. I always leaned against one of those windows for support. Bundled tight in an army-green parka, hood often wrapping my head, the rumble of the engine and the bumps of the road shook me awake again and again as I drifted elsewhere.

In those days a great deal of Anne Murray and Terry Jacks was interspersed amongst international superstars such as Abba and Chicago, Elton John and the Captain and Tenille. I knew nothing about content quotas then, but knew the seemingly endless plays of ‘Snowbird’ and ‘Seasons in the Sun’ did nothing for me. The opening strums of anything by Gordon Lightfoot, however, was another matter.

Born and raised in Orillia, Ontario, his craft honed in the coffee houses and bars of Toronto’s folk circuit, Lightfoot was - like Murray and Jacks - one of the early beneficiaries of Canadian content regulations. ‘Early Morning Rain’, ‘Bitter Green’, ‘Sundown’, ‘Carefree Highway’ - all these became as familiar as the stiff white powder, the dried chlorine, that covered my skin back then. Warm and tired in the back of that Bobcat, I reveled in something I heard and felt in these songs.

Like Hank Williams and John Lennon and Karen Carpenter, there was something painfully resonant in Lightfoot’s songs. Something that spoke to me in my life. “I never thought I could feel this way / And I’ve got to say that I just don’t get it” he sings in ‘If I Could Read Your Mind’. Huddled in my seat, head bumping against the rumbling window pane, I used to ache for these words as we moved through this song. My throat caught and tears watered my eyes every time these lines finally did arrive.    

Fast-forward a few years.

I was in junior high by this point. Swimming demanded two practices on most days, so I was still driving a lot and still listening to the radio. Lightfoot and the rest of his ilk, however, had been displaced by the next wave of homegrown talent: acts like April Wine and Trooper, Burton Cummings and Dan Hill ruled Canada’s airwaves.

I remember arriving at school one morning to find a group of friends huddled in the bike racks. Four or five in number, most attired in lumberjack shirts. One had a large white on blue patch reading RUSH affixed to the back of his jean jacket. The attention of this bunch was directed toward the newspaper somebody held in both hands. ‘Lightfoot In Concert’ a quarter-page black-and-white ad proclaimed.

The voices around the circle seemed excited. ”We should go!” somebody exclaimed. My heart started to pump. Even now, decades later, I can feel my eyes widen. My head turns and looks around. As that patch suggests, a new music was taking hold among my peers: Rush, Nazareth, Zeppelin. That I went along with this change does not mean I understood or shared these emerging enthusiasms. I still found something delicious in the occasional airings Lightfoot’s ‘Rainy Day People’ received. That these others, my friends, might feel something similar...     

“Yeah,” another in our circle cried. “We could rush the stage. Toilet paper the whole fuckin’ band!” Everyone burst into laughter; I was confused. The morning buzzer sounded and the group turned en masse toward the door. The person with the paper, crumpled the ad and tossed it to the ground. Someone used a hiking boot to rub it into the dirt and gravel.

While following the flow toward the day’s first class, I remember glancing back at that rumpled ad. Only a portion of Lightfoot’s wrinkled, shadowy face was now apparent. One eye was encircled in a soil-stain bruise. I remember thinking he looked really sad down on the ground like that and I felt bad leaving him this way. I felt I was abandoning him, betraying him even. I felt I was leaving him behind.

I was at the library earlier today. A thick-spined CD set caught my attention. Gordon Lightfoot Songbook the cover read, a career-spanning compilation. I have had our home to myself through the last hour or so, and this is what I’ve been listening to. Caren’s at Starbucks getting some work done. Samantha’s swimming with a friend. I was going to meditate during this time, but have been sitting here instead - a fact I feel simultaneously jubilant and guilty about. Jubilant because this is what I need to do; guilty because that, of course, is what I should be doing.

As these dueling feelings compete with one another, ‘Summer Side of Life’ is playing. I’ve turned up the volume loud enough to feel tremors under my skin. When Lightfoot’s vocals pick up for the lines "And if you saw him now / You would wonder why he would cry / The whole day long", I feel myself smile. I have no idea what he’s singing about here, but this isn’t really the point. This all just seems so good,so right. 
I have left so much of myself behind through the course of this life. I suppose we all do. From those junior high years alone a sudden cascade of images: A night spent wandering in the rain, soaked. ‘This is stupid,’ I thought. Words I would not air because to the others this, apparently, was “Awesome” and “Wild” and “Cool”. Same with the evenings passed cruising empty streets in search of fist-fights. Or the day I watched three of my friends push a schoolmate up against a locker and proceed to wipe heat rub all over his face. Some unvoiced part of myself sliced off in these moments. Like an iceberg calving, a piece of the whole broke away and disappeared silently into the cold, dark, murky waters below.         

In shamanic terms, leaving part of oneself behind is referred to as soul loss. For whatever reason - usually some form of self-preservation - we slice off difficult or contradictory pieces of ourselves and jettison them on our journey through life. Often these pieces are associated with moments of ‘Big T Trauma’ - illness, injury, abuse - but not always. Perhaps even more commonly these soul fragments are ‘little t’ parts of ourselves that we just can’t weave into the fabric of our present lives. Like wanting to see ‘Lightfoot In Concert’ while the rest of one’s peer group wants to “rush the stage” and “toilet paper the whole fuckin’ band.” 

Over time there is a cumulative cost to ongoing soul loss. Decreased energy, life force, joie de vivre, anxiety, insomnia, depression, and more are common. Soul retrieval is the shamanic response to such situations. A shaman journeys to the realm in which the soul fragment resides, and brings it back for integration and healing - healing, as always, meaning a return to wholeness.

This is worthwhile, valuable work. A question that arises, however, is this: Where is that ‘realm’ in which the fragmented self resides? My experience with meditation suggests the physical body might be the repository of those things left behind. Just today, for instance, there is tension in the jaw: biting, gripping, holding. Then the memory of wanting, needing to say something. I am so angry, feel so violated but voicing this feels impossible so I hold back, clench my teeth. This is one of those pieces longing to return, yearning to be healed. My task as a practitioner? Simply relax in welcome.      

So my experience with meditation suggests the realm of which shamanism speaks is the body. My experience with life, though, suggests something even bigger, even more encompassing might be the true vessel of my being - both those parts accepted and tended to, and those parts calved off and apparently left behind.  

I use the word ‘apparently’ here because I am beginning to suspect those fragmented parts of ourselves are never really left behind. They instead wait for us in the realms of shamanism. They wait for us in the meditating body. They wait for us as well - and perhaps most importantly - in our lives, in the ever changing cast of people and circumstance that plays through our days.

Here they flirt with our attention - that book that ‘jumps out’ at you, the person you unexpectedly meet on the bus - reminding us in ways both subtle and blunt that what has been left behind has, in fact not been left behind at all. Our fragments are nearby and wanting. Healing is ever close at hand. 

How else to understand the sudden (re)appearance of Gordon Lightfoot today? I suppose one could call this a ‘coincidence’, but what a shame to render this beautiful world without compassion or intelligence. Songbook has come because life for decades has gently held an uncertain fourteen year old who could not say to his galloping peers, “I really like this.” That calved off part has quietly - or not so quietly - bobbed beneath those dark, murky waters, and now, through a four-CD set published by Rhino Records, it has returned to the surface for welcome.

It’s ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ that’s playing as I begin to type toward an end, a curious selection indeed. As I listen to this tale of a great freighter’s last moments, my spirits lift and bob. It occurs to me that I linked ‘whole’ and ‘heal’ earlier; another connection seems worth raising now. The words ‘whole’ and ‘holy’ are also relatives, which is really what we are talking about here. The wholeness of the world - it’s all here, everything we are and everything we need. The holiness of this life.

Back on the Fitzgerald the crew has been told there will be no food tonight, it’s too rough. At the kitchen table where I’m writing, I feel a tremendous appreciation and gratitude for the opportunity life is offering on this day. I am being given the chance to go back and pick up that soiled newspaper ad from long ago. The chance to smooth the wrinkles, brush off some dirt and grime.

As I do this, I see the face looking up at me doesn’t seem quite so sad now. It doesn’t appear anywhere near so abandoned, which makes a lot of sense. After all, when you get right down to it, the face that was left behind on that junior high morning, the one I am welcoming back now many years later, it’s not really Gordon Lightfoot’s at all - it is my own.


Sunday, 7 October 2012

Contemplation 2

What follows is a short and by no means definitive contemplation on another of the ‘note cards’ that have appeared in my life of late. For a little more on these cards click here. For instructions on how to engage the practice of contemplation yourself, click here. I hope you enjoy.  


Sing to the mountain
“Thank you”
The world echoes

We are joined in love. What we consider ‘self’, what we think of as ‘other’ - these are connected through love, appreciation, tenderness, gratitude. This is always the case, though we often are not offered glimpses of this fact until we make the first move.

Strange that we must move for this basic truth to become apparent, but this is how things are. The moment we begin our song to the mountain, something happens. There is a sense of the world stirring, moving, offering back. There is a sense of the world becoming alive, awake, responsive, sentient. When the poet Rumi sings, again and again, of world as Beloved, he is sharing awareness that blossoms only because he first is able to open just a little himself, is able to feel the first tentative spark of love light in his own heart. 

I remember Reggie once saying, “All we need do is take that first step.” Was he speaking of this relatedness? Perhaps not specifically, but more generally I suspect so. We take that step and something is set in motion, the world begins to unfold. Again, the world is always unfolding, but when we deliberately make that move, we become conscious participants in Creation’s dance - and this makes all the difference. 

We are joined in love, appreciation, tenderness, gratitude. These, necessarily, flow in both directions. Who, then, is saying “Thank you” in this verse? Is this the song we sing to the mountain? Are these the words the world echoes back? The answer to each of these questions is ‘Yes’. We both say these things because we are joined by them. There can be no other way.  


Friday, 5 October 2012

One Day Later

One day later. My ipod is out, buds rest in each ear. The tiny screen before me glows, telling me what’s playing. I know this, though. It’s Dido, again. ‘White Flag’ for the second or third time. I feel like crap.

Yesterday was a gift. It was as if a moment of grace opened in all directions and swallowed me whole. In Amazing Grace Kathleen Norris writes of one such moment: “God’s response to finding Jacob vulnerable, sleeping all alone in open country, is not to strike him down for his sins but to give him a blessing.” Wandering in that crisp air, beneath that clear sky, resting against that tree weeping, life felt exactly like this: a blessing that had been given.

Now I want it back. The day started to tumble around mid-morning. A couple very difficult exchanges, some bad news from good friends. A sense of despair began to creep in from the edges. A note about numbers in an upcoming workshop, a quick glance at my bank balance, and the creep became a rush. Soon I was swallowed not by grace but by hopelessness.

This is when I reached for the ipod.

Yesterday Dido seemed like an angel descending to find me. Her voice, her feeling, her soul as it found expression in that song woke something long forgotten deep inside and the result was revelation, delivery. It was glorious, a far cry from how I feel today, and so I want to go back. And we all know how that goes.

When I was a swim coach I used to work through a season that was four very intense months in length. For one hundred-plus days, myself and the swimmers would see each other every day - sometimes twice a day, sometimes all day. We would see one another at our best and, as the campaign wore on, we would see one another tattered, beaten, hurting, lost. The closeness and intimacy of this experience is something I have rarely felt elsewhere in my life.

Once the season was over, however, we would scatter. There would be hugs and tears and long, lingering grins, then each of us would go our separate ways. Sure there would be run-ins throughout the year - many of the swimmers went to school together, for instance - but nothing like what we’d enjoyed during those endless summer months.

Occasionally, in an understandable effort to recapture what we’d had together, someone would organize an off-season gathering - dinner at a pizza place, a movie in somebody’s basement. I was always excited by these opportunities and rarely less than disappointed afterward. Hugs and grins were rare at these events, more common was distance and awkward, uneasy silence. We all wanted, I think, this to not be the case. We all wanted, I know, this get together to be like it was during the summer with us. But, of course, it wasn’t summer. It was October or December or March. It was it’s own time with its own character and promises and needs, and we were trying to make it something else.    

This is why I couldn’t listen to Reggie yesterday. He was my first choice as I started wandering. A cluster of short talks on meditation, a subject he addresses so well. I wanted to like what I heard. I wanted it to ignite my fire. But what he was saying did not offer the resonance that was appropriate to that moment; this, instead, was Dido’s task.  

So I’m sitting at the kitchen table with her once again playing in my ears. My head is in my hands as I do this. Hair falls down around my face. I still feel like crap and, those summer ‘reunions’ having been forgotten, I don’t understand why.

One thing that strikes me in the quote above is Norris’ use of the word ‘vulnerable’. “God’s response to finding Jacob vulnerable...” she writes, linking this condition of tenderness with the appearance of grace. As if tenderness were some sort of necessary precondition.

Tenderness, however, is not what I’m feeling now. I am fighting this lousy mood with all I’ve got, trying to find a way out, a route to something else, an escape hatch to better. Unlike last night, when the choice of Dido was based on some sort of felt resonance, today’s selection is much more conscious, much more deliberate. Listening to ‘White Flag’ again is an attempt to manipulate out; yesterday, in contrast, reflected an inability to do much other than surrender in. To “go down with this ship.”

So I try to meditate. This is my training, after all, and it has served me well over the years. In many ways, the practice is tenderness, vulnerability, surrender. So I lay down, bring attention into the body, begin to feel my way around the legs...

After a few minutes my eyes fly open. I’m breathing hard. Glancing down I see my chest rise and fall in quick succession. I am nearing panic. There’s something wrong here, something is amiss. Feeling I am somehow missing the point, I push up and move to the window.

It is another stunning day outside. Spotless sky, smooth and still. Sunlight warming the world. Turned in a certain direction at our living room window, I see a church cross rising in the near distance; father away is the long, tree-covered line of the Sooke Hills. Staring where forested darkness meets the clear blue of sky a phrase arises: ‘I am tired of being who I am not.’

Memory follows. Years ago our swim team attended a competition in Courtenay, a community about half-way up Vancouver Island. This event was usually held at the city’s outdoor pool, which was great. We would all camp in the park surrounding this facility - one of those instances in which we saw each other all day every day from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening. 

This particular year we arrived to find a number of large, hand-painted plywood signs posted along the road to the pool. ‘POW WOW’ these announced in capital letters. “Can we go?” some of the swimmers asked while setting up camp. The answer was, “No.”

All night the sound of drums beat through the air. Sometimes a voice was heard, occasionally music. Mostly, however, it was drums thrumming a steady pulse through the darkness, finding me over dinner, in my tent and in my sleep. Finding others, too, it seemed.

As a result, the next night, Saturday night, ‘No’ was not an option. So once swimming was done and food eaten we walked down a long hill, across a dusty road, and entered the fairground where the pow-wow was happening. Not much struck me as unique in this. There was not much I saw to distinguish this gathering from other rural affairs. There was food and produce, crafts and games. There was a lot of noise and a lot of music.

At the heart of this all, though, there was drumming. This rose up and wound through everything. Wherever one stood, whatever one was doing, there it was, pumping its rhythmic beat. I was exploring the grounds with one of the swimmers. “Wanna go see what’s going on?” he gestured. 

Maybe this was a race course most other days of the year, a large riding ring. Tonight, however, it was an enormous circle of people shuffling counter clockwise. There were maybe a hundred in all. Indigenous and non-indigenous. Young and old. Moving steadily about an empty center, feet rubbing dry earth, rising dust into the air so the entire scene seemed enveloped in some way, dream-like.

The swimmer and I looked at each other for a moment. Smiling, we moved forward and were welcomed in.

How long my time in this circle lasted I do not know. It seemed like ages; it seemed only seconds. There was something familiar about being in that place where feet touched earth and body moved to a deep, steady beat. I have long wondered what that familiarity was. An answer has often felt so close. Many times I have sensed its shape and texture - but nothing more until this afternoon while staring out our window.

This is how I felt as a kid, I realize, circling our living room with my Playtape 1200 on one shoulder, Hank Williams’ singing in one ear. This is how I felt as a kid - as if I knew.

There are songs in the earth, do you know this? The earth holds songs of healing, songs offering guidance and insight and teaching. In recent years, these as much as anything or anyone have given me the next step. This is something all people of all places and all times have known, but I, until some time ago, liked to pretend I had forgotten.

How do we find such songs? Maybe it’s not all that different from being swallowed whole by blessing and grace - swallowed holy. Gary Snyder again:

“At the very bottom is the question, ‘How to prepare your mind to become a singer?’ How to prepare your mind to be a singer. An attitude of openness, inwardness, gratitude; plus meditation, fasting, a little suffering, some rupturing of the day-to-day ties with the social fabric. I quote again from the Papago: ‘A man who desires song did not put his mind on words and tunes. He put it on pleasing the supernatural. He must be a good hunter or a good warrior. Perhaps they would like his ways. And one day in natural sleep he would hear singing. He hears a song and he knows it is the hawk singing to him of the great white birds that fly in from the ocean. Perhaps the clouds sing or the wind or the feathery red rain spider on its invisible rope. The reward of heroism is not personal glory or riches. The reward is dreams. One who performs acts of heroism puts himself in contact with the supernatural. After that, and not before, he fasts and waits for a vision. The Papago holds to the belief that visions do not come to the unworthy, but to the worthy man who shows himself humble there comes a dream and the dream always contains a song.’”

So today, this afternoon, I put down Dido and leave meditation and I look to the distant hills. My heart aches with longing, with sadness and uncertainty. That phrase arises: ‘I am tired of being who I am not.’ And then comes memory. And then comes song:

Singing to distant mountains
“I will come to you”,
The horizon calls me
To be in this place
Where land meets sky,
Between two worlds.
Now I know nothing
But this:
I am

What does this mean? That is not the point. The point is this, what has been given. 

I offer thanks to distant hills with a smile and a bow, turn from the window and go back to the meditation cushion. Now I will sit and do walkabout, wander this fine land with this song in my heart until I discover what it is waiting to reveal. I do not, of course, know what will be found. But I do know this, it has already awakened: I am ready.

This life is good.


Tuesday, 2 October 2012

This Life Is Good

“I will go down with this ship
And I won’t put my hands up and surrender.
There will be no white flag above my door.
I’m in love and always will be.”

I step outside and know I’m not going. The sky is clear glass and the air sharp with autumn’s edge. Their touch as I come into the evening is a caress. Stroking a cheek, grazing my heart, the intimacy brings a sigh, then tears. A swell rises out of darkness. Memories have been the order of the day, so this is not surprising. By late afternoon, however, I felt undone. Now my face hurts, my eyes sting. My chest feels like a bruise. I have nothing left to fight with. There’s no way I’m going to that meeting. 

For a long while I walk without aim. The streets are quiet. Through glowing windows I can see people returning home. My ipod plays throughout. The plan had been to listen to Reggie while making my way to this evening’s gathering. This is a project I’ve jumped into - helping to prepare a couple compilation discs from an assortment of talks, practices, and excerpts. There’s a deadline.

I can’t take anything more than a sentence or two, though. Something feels wrong, off. I just can’t do it. More, I can’t stand it - an admission I struggle against while spinning through the playlist. There’s not much music here, actually. Most of it is teaching and meditation. I settle on Dido. I play the first song from this collection, ‘White Flag’, then play it again. This goes on for the next forty-five minutes.

This morning my favorite Bob Dylan site, Expecting Rain, featured a link to Youtube. ‘The Eight-Track Museum Guided Tour With Bucks Burnett’ was promised. I clicked and sat through the four-minute piece. At about the halfway mark, our host stood before a wall devoted to Beatles releases. “We start here with the two-track,” Bucks said, pointing out a three-unit series of small black cartridges.

My breathing stopped. Quickly googling ‘two-track tape player’, I was transported back over forty years. The Playtape 1200 was a portable music system introduced in 1967. By 1970 its run was pretty much over but, for a few years, it enjoyed a fair surge of popularity. Music that played anywhere was an accomplishment in those days - even if the tapes ran less than thirty minutes. I adored mine.

I had a collection of perhaps six or seven tapes - some children’s music, the Beatles - and I took them with me wherever I could. One of my earliest memories, in fact, involves this device. It is a somatic memory; I feel it in my bones. It is the sense of carrying the Playtape on my left shoulder, holding the speaker next to my ear, listening.

My father used to grumble about the steady stream of batteries I exhausted with this behavior. I remember him fiddling with yet another package of candy-red Evereadys, pushing them out of their plastic wrapping and slipping them into the rear opening of the machine. He would often screw the back shut with a kitchen knife, a feat that I admired while watching. 

My mother’s complaints, on the other hand, had more to do with content. I did have at least one kid’s cartridge as mentioned above - nursery rhymes, I believe - but rarely ever listened to this. The Beatles got a far greater share of playtime, abbreviated versions of The Early Beatles and Rubber Soul. I loved the song ‘You Better Run For Your Life’, even though something about the way Lennon sang struck even my four year old ears as sinister.

The vast majority of my listening, however, focussed upon a single cartridge. There were four Hank Williams’ songs on this: ‘You Win Again’, ‘Kaw-Liga’, ‘Why Don’t You Love Me’, and ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’. Over and over I’d play these, fascinated by the tale of ‘Kaw-Liga’, exhilarated by Williams’ swooping vocal on ‘Why Don’t You’. But it was ‘I’m So Lonesome’ I could never get enough of.

In that memory mentioned earlier, the body recollection that has me carrying my Playtape on one shoulder, holding it as close as possible, it’s always this song that’s playing. When I remember dancing about the living room, curtains closed, mid-day darkness offering me some comfort and safety, ‘Lonesome’ is the tune that sounds incessantly. When someone asked me several years ago about the first song I remember hearing - we had been talking about Allen Ginsberg, from his deathbed, requesting the first song he recalled - my answer came quick and easy, without a moment’s thought.

In the meditative tradition I am part of, the word ‘tantra’ holds particular significance. It is generally translated as ‘continuity’ and points toward the continuity of wakefulness in our lives. In spite of this accepted designation, however, I sometimes wonder about other kinds of continuity in my life. What else has been a steady presence through the years? Hank Williams and this plaintive cry always comes up.

But it’s not just this artist and just this song that’s been continuous. The feelings, too, that come with ‘So Lonesome’ have had this quality. Sadness. Sorrow. Loneliness. Ache. For so long these have bled out from that darkened living room, spreading their deep stain across decades. “Hear the lonesome whiperwill / He sounds too blue to fly...”

And yet. And yet.

Meditation teaches us to turn toward life. This I write in big, bold letters at the start of every introductory class. “MEDITATION TEACHES US TO TURN TOWARD LIFE.” “This is our thesis statement,” I explain. “Everything we are going to do or talk about today comes back to these seven words.”

If we are happy, this fact suggests, the practice helps us experience happiness. If we are sad we are encouraged to experience sadness. It’s not a matter of picking and choosing. Instead, it is a matter of turning toward without the filter of ‘this’ or ‘that’. Of very simply turning toward. Again and again.

The results of such steady discipline are many, of course, and these can often be surprising. Take those feelings, for instance. For much of the last three years my gaze has been directed toward these. The angle of my sight was slightly off to begin with - it had to be; I had never looked this way before and needed to move slowly. With time and familiarity, however, the gaze has become more direct and what I have seen has been like an onion slowly peeling back layer after layer: numbness, then panic, then terror, then the memories came.

Tonight, in retrospect, I know why I couldn’t do that meeting, why I couldn’t listen to Reggie in spite of the weighty obligations I felt pulling me. This knowledge arose out of my repetitive listening to Dido, to that first song on Life For Rent, to ‘White Flag’. She’s marking her ground in this song, staking her claim. Her ex- may have moved on but this does not mean she is no longer in love. These feelings are here, they are in her - they are her - and she is unwilling to pretend otherwise. ‘Flag’, in this sense, is an act of life-affirming defiance: “I’m in love and always will be.”

Is sadness the only thread winding its way forward from that curtained living room? Is sorrow, loneliness, and ache? That these have been steady companions is undeniable, but are they everything I heard and felt in that old Hank Williams song? For the umpteenth time tonight, I follow my training with these and turned toward their difficult presence. I look and, with Dido resonating inside, another layer peels back.

Under everything else, there is defiance in that little boy holding his Playtape 1200 on one shoulder. There is a sense of marking ground, staking claim. There is hurt and ache and loneliness, yes, but there is also a determination to find a way - to find any way - to stand amidst these. There is a fierceness that yearns to live, that is going to find a way to live regardless of what has come or what will. There is a deep, almost primal love for this life that will not be surrendered, that will not be given up.

“I’m in love and always will be.” Swinging back and forth, ear pressed to the sad music coming out of a single speaker - this was my way of saying these words, this was my way of making this declaration, of not giving up.

And I’m still not giving up. 

Toward the end of this evening’s wandering, I stopped in a nearby park. My back surrendering to the support of a thick-trunked tree, I wept. These tears came not because of the sorrow that had washed through my day, but rather from a sense of overwhelming awe. It was all so beautiful: the glass sky, the sharp air, the sore heart. And it was all so amazing. I had come from that shadowy living room - through the barren years, the sleepless nights, the heavy depression - to sit here tonight realizing this: how much I love, how much I am loved.

We used to sit around the fire, you and I. Firelight dancing over our faces we would share stories reminding us of who we are, of what it is to be human. Now I sit in a coffee shop, the light of a laptop casting my features aglow. Still we are telling stories, it seems, and still these remind us of what it means to be alive. Back then, each tale ended in the same way: with the words, “This life is good.” Tonight, too, this seems a good way to end. Fitting. Appropriate.

This life is good. This life is good.


Contemplation 1

Over the last few years, a number of fully formed verses have come into my life. Because of how these show themselves - three lines in length, most appearing upon small, rectangular cards - I often describe them as ‘note cards’. Because the content of these tends to provide guidance on living in a fuller, more open way I also refer to them as ‘warrior cards’.

For a long while I thought these merely curious arrivals. Without exception, each brought enough energy to warrant writing down - so I did. Beyond this, however, I never ‘did’ anything with them.

Through the past months, though, I have begun using these verses as the basis of ongoing contemplation. This has been such a rich and affecting experience, I feel drawn to share some of this process here.

What follows is one example of this work. Not intended to offer definitive commentary, this example is more like pages from a notebook - mostly spontaneous, only lightly edited flashes of the possible meaning behind three lines of mystery. 

I hope you enjoy. I also hope you feel moved to explore your own relationship with these unusual gifts. If so, you will find brief instruction on how to contemplate here. I, of course, would love to hear what you are shown... 



“Life / Presents” - this is what life does. Within every instant of creation, through a span with neither beginning nor end life arises, life appears, life offers. Life, this card tells us, presents.

But what does life present? And how does life present? These are two very good questions. Possible answers are provided by the final line, the card’s essential revelation: “Itself”.

What does life present? Only itself. Judgments, opinions, conclusions, preferences, beliefs, points of view, hopes, fears, dreams, valuations, agendas, labels, descriptions, names - these are coats of paint laid atop a piece of furnishing. Attractive perhaps. Helpful sometimes. But always once removed from what has been given. And what has been given? What has been presented? Life, itself.

Looking out our bedroom window, I see a single cloud floating against vast blue sky. But is ‘cloud’ really what I see? Is ‘vast’ really what is presented? “Life / Presents / Itself”. Not ‘single’ or ‘floating’, but this. And behind this, that. Life, itself.   

As for the question of how life presents - life presents without any assistance from us; life presents itself. We might attempt to manage or manipulate, control or predict life’s flow, we may even delude ourselves of our abilities in this regard, but that ‘blue sky’ presents itself completely free of my efforts. We are not life’s midwives; we are, instead, holy witness to her endless expression. 


How to Contemplate

“Who understands the inner meaning
And how can I come to the same understanding?”
- Naropa

How do we come to “the inner meaning”? Most our lives are occupied with surface meanings - pat answers and shared understandings that have little resonance, little ability to shake us up and transform. The lineage of Chogyam Trungpa - whose stream of descent flows directly through the great scholar Naropa - offers many tools to help us touch a more vibrant understanding of our lives. One of the most powerful, in my experience, is contemplation.

Contemplation is a meditation practice. When we mediate, the basic process involves placing our attention - on the breath at the edge of the nostrils, for example - and staying there. Whenever we wander from this placement - which we will do - whenever we begin thinking or drifting away, we return to the breath. Over time we settle and relax. Feelings and energies, images and insights arise; we let these be.

In contemplation we place attention upon a word or phrase. With the ‘note cards’ we place attention on those three lines, repeating them again and again in our mind. Sometimes a particular word or line will grab us; in this case, our attention rests here. As with any meditation, when attention wanders from this placement we simply relax and return - back to the verse, again and again.

We are not just thinking the lines, exactly. There is also a felt sense to this process. As we think the word ‘Life’, for instance, we place our attention upon this - we feel our attention contacting, resting with, pressing against that thought. Again, it’s very much like meditating upon the breath at the edge of the nostrils. When meditating we let attention touch the breath. In contemplation we let attention touch the thought. In this sense, we both think and attend during this process.  

Over time we settle and relax. With relaxation the thought opens up for us. This may happen quickly, it may happen slowly; eventually, however, the hard conceptual shell we have been resting our attention upon softens and the thought opens as if a blossom. Now we are able to experience what lay inside the word(s). We feel, hear, see, smell, and taste, in this instance, ‘Life’.

Resting in this experience for as long as possible, we relax and immerse. When we begin thinking again, return to the twin processes of thinking and attending described above: Repeat the note card again and again, resting attention upon this until another blossom unfolds.

In many ways, the inner meaning we are moving toward is revealed in kind of ‘Eureka!’ moment. We rest on the surface for as long as necessary, sensing little if any depth. Then, quite suddenly, somebody turns on the light. ‘Ohhhh,’ we might think. ‘Now I get it!’ 

With the note cards I am finding this process particularly dramatic. It is as if there is something within these three-lined appearances wanting expression. When this yearned for moment arrives, a fair amount of energy is released. My sense of how life unfolds shifts; I am transformed. I wish the same for all who feel drawn to this work.