Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme.
Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things. It enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, …to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal. What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe.
–Abraham Joshua Heschel
Old age is something we are all anxious to attain. However, once attained we consider it a defeat, a form of capital punishment. In enabling us to reach old age, medical science may think is has given us a blessing; however, we continue to act as if it were a disease.
More money and time are spent on the art of concealing the signs of old age than the art of dealing with heart disease or cancer. You find more patients in beauty parlors than hospitals. We would rather be bald than gray. A white hair is an abomination. Being old is a defeat, something to be ashamed of.
While we do not officially define old age as a second childhood, some of the programs we devised are highly effective in helping the aged to become children. …Now preoccupation with games and hobbies, the overemphasis on recreation, while certainly conducive to eliminating boredom temporarily, hardly contribute to inner strength. The effect is, rather, a pickled existence.
Is this the goal of existence: to study, grow, toil, mature, and to reach the age of retirement in order to live like a child?
Old age is not a defeat but a victory, not a punishment but a privilege.
–Joshua Abraham Heschel
To become aware of the ineffable is to part company with words. …The tangent to the curve of human experience lies beyond the limits of language. The world of things we perceive is but a veil. Its flutter is music, its ornament science, but what it conceals is inscrutable. Its silence remains unbroken; no words can carry it away.
Sometimes we wish the world would cry and tell us about that which made it pregnant with fear-filling grandeur.
Sometimes we wish our own heart would speak of that which made it heavy with wonder.
–Abraham Joshua Heschel
One scarlet pearl forms
like a secret emerging
from a holy place.
A white rabbit is pulled out of a top hat. Because it is an extremely large rabbit, the trick takes many billions of years. All mortals are born at the very tip of the rabbit’s fine hairs, where they are in a position to wonder at the impossibility of the trick. But as they grow older they work themselves ever deeper into the fur. And there they stay. They become so comfortable they never risk crawling back up the fragile hairs again. Only philosophers embark on this perilous expedition to the outermost reaches of language and existence. Some of them fall off, but others cling on desperately and yell at the people nestling deep in the snug softness, stuffing themselves with delicious food and drink.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” they yell, “we are floating in space!” But none of the people down there care.
“What a bunch of troublemakers!” they say. And they keep on chatting: Would you pass the butter, please? How much have our stocks risen today? What is the price of tomatoes?
-Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy
Blessing the boats
(at St. Mary’s)
may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
I have posted this quote before, but it’s useful to have a reminder:
On Writing Poetry
Considering the ways in which so many of us waste our time, what would be wrong with a world in which everybody were writing poems? After all, there’s a significant service to humanity in spending time doing no harm. While you’re writing your poem, there’s one less scoundrel in the world. And I’d like a world, wouldn’t you, in which people actually took time to think about what they were saying? It would be, I’m certain, a more peaceful, more reasonable place. I don’t think there could ever be too many poets. By writing poetry, even those poems that fail and fail miserably, we honor and affirm life. We say “We loved the earth but could not stay.”
I’m sharing this after reading Maezen’s post of today.
For much of my life I’ve wandered on a spiritual journey without knowing quite where to go. One of the paths I began to explore in the late 1990s was meditation. I took a Vipassana meditation class, read books, and occasionally pretended to be serious about it. In 2003 I began this blog in part because of this interest (and in part because I had a therapy practice), although in my “About This Blog” section I made it clear I was not a Buddhist, lest readers feel mislead or take issue with my less-than-Buddhist perspectives. Having plummeted down the path of conservative Christian fundamentalism twice in my life — and driven loved ones away in the process — I’ve been reluctant and cautious about further pursuits.
In 2006, out of nowhere (and everywhere) a woman contacted me after reading my blog. She had read about my attempts to get pregnant, the miscarriages, the misgivings. She had recently published a book and asked if I would be interested in a complimentary copy. I said yes, although I couldn’t bring myself to read it for quite awhile. Once I was pregnant with Claire, I did read it, devoured it with gratitude and gusto, and I repeatedly returned to that book for comfort and wisdom.
That woman’s name is Karen Maezen Miller. She is a Zen Buddhist priest, a wife, and a mother. I credit her with helping me remain sane and growing into motherhood. After Claire was born and began to exhibit colic, I was panicked and beside myself with agony. Claire wasn’t sleeping. Hub was doing his best but he wasn’t sleeping either. I was terrified I’d do something wrong. Many emails sailed between us — me writing laments, she responding with love. And even though we’d never met, Maezen offered a gift: to come up one weekend and help out with Claire so Hub and I could rest. We talked on the phone to discuss it, and it turned out that this was enough at the time; just knowing the offer was sincere and standing and hearing her voice in the wilderness helped.
I’d seen Maezen subsequently three times; in 2008 she and her daughter visited me and Claire briefly just before Claire’s first birthday; in 2009 at the Mother’s Symposium and 2010 at a one-day retreat. I read her second book. I pondered her thoughts about the importance of having a teacher. And finally, last weekend, I had my first weekend ever away from home and Claire. I drove to Sierra Madre to spend the weekend with Maezen and her family; I also attended a beginner’s meditation class and a dharma talk at Hazy Moon Zen Center. And there it dawned on me that I already have a teacher — Maezen! — and that without realizing it I’d become a student.
It is time to commit. It is time to practice. So I’d like to introduce my new best friend, the “cushion of kindness,” as Maezen calls it. The technical name is zafu. And when I sit on my zafu, this is called zazen. This is where the revolution takes place. Facing a blank wall, alone, silent, counting my breaths, and being awake.
I am not yet in a position of making a formal commitment. That will come when it comes. It is not lost on me that one of my favorite quotes, which I encountered in 1998, is by Hui-Neng, a Zen monastic from the 7th/8th century. “The secret is within your self.” It’s been there all along, waiting for me to look, and see.
The other watershed quote that inspired me to move from Syracuse to Austin in the early 90s was by Sir Edmund Hilary, organizer of a Mount Everest Expedition, and it too rings familiarly as I observe what is changing. The snippet that motivated me I have italicized, but the entire quote is priceless.
“Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his/her way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: What ever you can do, or dream you can; begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
My next trip to Sierra Madre will probably be later in the summer or fall, when they offer a three-day retreat at the center. So, hello world! My name is Kathryn and I am, at last, “abuddha” (awake).
Time is very precious. Do not wait until you are dying to understand your spiritual nature. If you do it now, you will discover resources of kindness and compassion you didn’t know you had. It is from this mind of intrinsic wisdom and compassion that you can truly benefit others….Moment by moment, we should look at life as if it were a dream unfolding….In this relaxed, more open state of being, we have the opportunity to gain the infallible means of dying well, which is recognition of our absolute nature.
–Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche
Today Claire asked, “What is a symbol?”
I tried to answer. A symbol is a small picture that represents a thing that has a certain meaning. The letter T for the “t” sound, for example. Words are symbols. A red light is a symbol, telling people to make their car stop at it, while a yellow light means to slow down and a green one to go. A logo — like the eagle on the side of the mail truck — is a symbol for the company that is called the U.S. Postal Service. A picture of a heart means love. Candy canes are symbols for Christmas.
Then she asked, “What is the symbol for the universe?”
Wow! I told her there are many symbols — religious ones, scientific ones, artistic ones — but that the universe was sooooooo big that no one symbol can completely show what the universe is or means.
That seemed to satisfy her for that moment. More stuff for that growing brain to think about!
Husband and I are best described as agnostic. I grew up Catholic but am no longer practicing, and I do not agree with/believe/follow the creed. However, we are trying to ensure Claire grows up with an awareness of what this season is about beyond Santa (though Santa is special too, and about love). We read her books, such as Room for a Little One and This is the Stable. They are sweet books conveying the story of a special baby’s birth in humble circumstances. We also listen to a lot of carols, traditional and modern.
So we were listening to a song by Sean Colvin about Mary’s journey to Bethlehem. These days, Claire wants to know what every song is about. She asked about the song. I said it’s about a girl named Mary who journeyed a long way and had a baby in a Bethlehem stable and named him Jesus. Then she asked, “Who’s Jesus?”
Ummm… I said, “Jesus was a person who grew up to teach people to love each other, to be kind and compassionate and to forgive each other.”
That’s sufficient for a three-year-old, right? Then she asked, “What is Jesus’ Daddy’s name?”
Gulp! “Many people think a being named God is Jesus’ Daddy. But Joseph the carpenter was Mary’s husband and raised Jesus as his own son.” I’m the embodiment of finesse, I tell you!
Curiosity sufficiently sated for the moment, she moved on to another topic. She keeps me on my toes!
To continue with my exploration (see this and this), I’m posting some thoughts from Singh’s book. I’m not certain I have the energy to do more than quote her, as I’m emotionally buffeted by some personal family issues lately (on both sides of our family).
So, we are born and we grow. We encounter “splits” in our being as we develop and the ego grows. Who we are narrows into mostly mind. We focus on developing language, rationality, competency within our world. Language is so powerful, so immersive, that we tend to forget we are in it. We mistake it, and thought, for reality. Our culture, the biosocial band, is a filter of myths, stories, and worldview that we are born into. We have not only a self, but a self-image. The ego is “an identity that conceives of itself as a separate and inner entity, existing inside the body somewhere in the region of the head, and assumes it is commanding the body from on high.” Singh continues:
We all believe and act as if our identity were something with substance, with reality, and with enduring characteristics. In point of fact, however, our identity is nothing more than who we think we are at any moment in time, a compendium of inner desires, aversions, memories, and tightly interwoven beliefs. Identity is something that exists only in being conceived.
We talk to ourselves incessantly to establish a sense of our existence. We narrate our lives, issue judgments, articulate opinions, engage fantasies, and chatter to ourselves constantly in our heads. We believe our identity is our name, occupation, relationships, diplomas, biography, etc. We are capable of introspection and self-reflection.
When the adolescent ego begins to look at itself, it encounters an existential abyss of fundamental dimension. When it begins to look inside, it knows that it is, but hard as it tries, it can never quite grasp what exactly it is. In some vague and slightly nauseating, slightly terrifying way, the mental ego senses its incompleteness, the flimsiness of illusion upon which it is constructed. The abyss is quickly side-stepped.
And where do we go as we dodge away? We embark upon the identity project.
The identity project, which arises at first out of defensiveness against terror, becomes a lifelong endeavor. We choose a persona (or several over time) and focus on becoming that. It might arise from our profession or relationships. For example, I was a a perpetual student and later a therapist. I was a single woman and am now a wife and mother. We work to solidify and secure these concepts of ourselves. And you know what? We achieve great things in this.
The level of ego is an elevated and encompassing level of consciousness — quite an achievement for our evolving and beloved species. Certainly, hosannas can be shouted for what we have achieved in our identity projects wiht the use of our faculties and talents. We have become capable, technological selves, acting upon the world in ways that further our own evolution. We have quintessentially lifted ourselves by our bootstraps.
And yet, we also create our own dramas, our own suffering. We are embroiled in the soap opera, forgetting that we are not the show. We are more than that, but we have forgotten.
Most of us plateau here, until we are informed that we are terminal and have a short time to live. Then we face the fact that we (as defined by our ego) are not in control. Nor are we complete or whole. While this terrifies us, it is actually good news. We’ll get to go home. And for some of us, we find a way to go home before we leave our bodies, through a dedication to meditation over many many years.
This is an extremely simplified synopsis of the journey into ego in Singh’s book. As I read it, I had an understanding that exploded between my eyes (in my third eye?). I get what Jesus meant. He was trying to enlighten people, to help them understand that this is not all that is, but that as long as we cling to our “treasures on earth,” we’ll not see this. His death was a way of showing what the ego must endure — its annihilation — which is required before we can transcend to unity with the Ground of Being. And I knew this, growing up I understood this, but it was laden with fear and ideas of hell and punishment and worthlessness. Later on it was tarnished by the stupidity of the simplistic “born again” prayers/positions espoused by the churches I was in. It was like buying eternal life insurance. Say these words and all is forgiven, but the focus on “being saved” from my sins and from damnation was misleading and eventually rang hollow for me.
The mental ego must die before true life, whole life, heaven, nirvana is found. And everybody will enter whole life, find unity, because every body dies. Buddha said it. Jesus said it. Many prior and subsequent mystics and philosophers have said it. The message is we each will get there, and we don’t have to wait until we are dying to do so (or to try). We can arrive at enlightenment; we can be born again. What does that really mean? What is that really like? What is transpersonal consciousness? What is connection with the Ground of Being/God/Unity? The ego, the identity we cling to, is deeply established. It must actually confront its fear of death (which pretty much qualifies as hell for me) as we travel the path of return. We will only know as we go.
I don’t even know if I should be writing all this here. It’s not polished. I’m tired and have little time for finesse. But that’s what I’ve got, folks.
If you were raised in the Christian tradition, read this prayer below and see if it rings true for you, and if it seems familiar.
Radiant One, You shine within us, outside us —
even darkness shines when we remember.
Focus your light within us — make it useful!
Create your reign of unity now!
Create in me a divine cooperation: from
many selves, one voice, one action.
Help us fulfill what lies within the circle
of our lives; each day we ask no more, no less.
Loose the cords of mistakes binding us as we
release the strands we hold of others’ guilt.
Don’t let us enter forgetfulness,
the temptation of false appearances.
Truly — power to these statements —
may they be the ground from which
all my actions grow.
The above is a translation of the Lord’s Prayer from the original Aramaic. I find it liberating, and fascinating to see a greater truth in this version than in the stilted (though much simpler to memorize) version I grew up with. This was synthesized from a book of various interpretations entitled Prayers of the Cosmos: Reflections on the Original Meaning of Jesus’s Words, by Neil Douglas-Klotz. For a line-by-line comparison, see below. Continue reading
This is a rough and unrefined condensation of some of what I’m reading. I don’t claim to have answers but I will write without tenuousness. I’m not entirely sure of all the concepts and am not seeking debate. I’m just looking to sort it out for myself here.
I am going to die someday. Sooner or later, fast or slow, it will happen. I was raised in a religion that depicted heaven, purgatory, and hell, and I felt fear. I left that religion and in my early 30s was bound up in it again, until the absolutism of the dogma and some epiphanies in graduate school prompted me to part ways entirely. I’ve been inarticulate about dying and what happens since then.
I used to wonder what I was before I was born. An atheist will simply say that we just did not exist, and after we die, we just won’t exist. Aside from the terror my ego feels (how can I not exist? what happens to me?), I know there is something else beyond this life. But before I can get to that understanding for myself, I need to understand how I came to be where, what, and who I am now.
We start out within the Ground of Being. We are part of it. The Ground of Being is life, and it is non-life. It is consciousness and not-consciousness. It is energy, it is matter. As Douglas Adams titled his book, it is Life, the Universe, and Everything. Before we are born we are part of it. This is a pre-ego state, a state of preconsciousness, a state of undifferentiation and no individuation. We are raw material.
So how to we get to where we are, with identities and attachments and all that this life entails?
In Singh’s book, she writes:
As we emerge out of the Ground of Being and into the physical world as a separate life-in-form, “trailing clouds of glory,” we are in a preegoic, prepersonal state. At birth we are only minimally differentiated from the Ground of Being. Inner and outer realities remain somewhat fused initially, and all awareness lies inarticulate, still partially embedded in the Ground of Being.
We start out this way, and at first we are all body: hunger, fatigue, touch, instinct. If you’ve ever been with an infant you know this. Then the remarkable changes happen as the infant’s brain grows, as concept and words develop. We develop a sense of self: me, mine, and of other, not-me. Babies start out unaware of separation and then become a aware. The First Dualism emerges on the journey to the ego.
We develop a sense of space and what is and is not ours. We realize where we end and another begins, the gap between subject and object. Then the Second Dualism develops: the sense of time, an awareness of past, present, and future, life and death.
The First Dualism, the first boundary, separates us from the experience of wholeness. Anxiety appears, as does repression and defensiveness.
Primal repression is a psychological as well as physical posture that, inwardly, begins to seal off or repress pure, inpouring Energy, the animating power of the Ground of Being. The Ground of Being, with its enchantment and ability to engulf, begins to be perceived as threatening.
Thus in our early childhood we close off our connection to the Source from which we came. We continue to split ourselves in early to middle childhood by forging a distinction between mind and body, the Third Dualism. “We lose our deep integrity, the unity of body and mind, which is the unity of feeling and attention — the ability to be present.” Our mind is given more authority as a judge or filter of reality. And then the Fourth Dualism arises: The split between persona and shadow, that is, between the person we believe we are, that we accept, that we show the world, and all the other parts of us that we disown, dislike, judge, fear, and hide from ourselves and others.
And this, according to the Christian theology I grew up with, completes our ejection from the Garden of Eden. We are part of the garden (Ground of Being), we are born, then we taste knowledge (the Dualisms, development of ego), which separates us from unity with the Ground of Being. I just don’t buy the crap about Eve (woman) being the one who fell to the temptation first (does it really matter?), and I don’t think of the “fall” as really All That Bad. It is just what is, and it is part of our evolution, our journey, through the experience we are having in this form and function, in this physical world.
And now my child is calling from her nap, and I must dash.
Back in 2004, when my father-in-law was gravely ill, I happened across a book that I was compelled to buy: The Grace in Dying: How We Are Transformed Spiritually as We Die, by Kathleen D. Singh. I began to read it, and in the introduction the author suggested that if the reader was in the process of dying or reading this because a loved one is dying, to do the following: know that you are safe, all is well, and put the book down.
I took her advice. Four months later my father-in-law died, and I was with him for his last week nearly 24/7. It was a daunting, draining experience. I watched him take his last breath. In the process of his dying, it occurred to me that it seemed much like a labor. And having had a child since, I know it is indeed labor. But what, I wonder, is in the process of happening? Is dying just dying? The lights simply go out? What happens to the entity called “me, myself, or I”; is it really annihilated?
Or is it a transition, a birthing into something else?
I was raised religiously and have traversed a varied spiritual path. In recent years I’ve applied the term “atheist” to myself, though “agnostic” is probably more accurate. I do not need “god” as humans are able to articulate the term; I believe the universe is marvelous, and science is a way to explore it all, and isn’t that miracle enough? I am drawn to Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, although I have not become a practitioner yet.
However, I did have a remarkable experience back in 1996 that at the time, I believed (as much as I could believe, which was really a process of trying to convince myself to believe) was the Holy Spirit. When I left the Christian religion (for the second time in my life), I categorized the experience as an anomaly, as an experience of self-hypnosis or psychological wish fulfillment.
I was a member of a conservative, bible-based, fundamental Christian church. The story behind the path that led me to that after years of atheism can be read here. Anyhow, one Saturday evening I remained after service. It was common for members to remain and pray with each other. This was a church where people sometimes experienced the “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” evidenced sometimes by people speaking in tongues (seeming to babble) and being filled with the Spirit, evidenced by joyous, continuous laughter. Not hysterics, not banshee laughing, just a robust laugh as one would do watching a funny show.
One evening a woman sat on the floor experiencing this laughter. I observed awhile, curious. Another woman came over and asked, “Would you like to join and be filled with the Holy Spirit?” I answered yes, but expressed a worry that it wouldn’t “take.” She said, “Just trust. Let thoughts and worries go and just be with whatever is.”
I sat next to the spirit-filled woman, put my hand on her arm, closed my eyes, and waited. To my wonder, I felt a tingling warmth from her enter my hand and flow up my right arm into my body. Whatever words I summon to describe the experience won’t do it justice, but here goes: As I was filled with this feeling, I felt light, both weightless and incandescent. I began to feel a laugh bubbling up in me. I allowed it to come forth. I sat for however long, bathed in this energy, laughing gently, feeling joy. At the same time, I also felt a part of me was still there, observing. I was not generating or creating this. Nothing was forced by me. At the same time, I did not feel “possessed” or taken over; I still felt I had agency. It was an experience unlike anything I’ve known before or since.
At some point I felt satiated, full, and decided I was done. I removed my hand from the woman’s arm and opened my eyes. I felt new. I felt connected, united with myself and with everything. As I walked, my feet connected in a way that felt like I was the earth and the earth was me. I had a feeling of well-being, life, and love. This feeling remained with me for many hours. After the night’s sleep, it had dissipated. I did not seek this encounter again, and one year later I came to terms that I did not agree with aspects of this church’s dogma and no longer wanted to pretend I did. But I remembered this experience and cherished it awhile.
Then life happened, and the incident faded. Whenever I thought about it, I lumped it in the “I’m not certain what that was but it probably wasn’t real” category. Except… it felt real, and it still resonates like an authentic experience, an encounter with the energy that makes up the universe. While I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic god, I do believe there is something that makes the universe go, something science does not explain completely yet, that it is real, we are made of it, and that we can access a connection with it. (As Carl Sagan said, “We are star stuff.”)
And now I have reopened Kathleen Singh’s book to face the question of dying, of what it’s about and what might follow. The experience I had in 1996 was a glimpse. My hunch is that this connection is possible, is accessible via meditation practice over many years, and that it is our destination at the moment the body dies. As I read her book I will process some of my reactions here.