When Joy Is Hidden in the Very Air We Breathe

Have you ever had this feeling that right outside the bedroom window, on the other side of a surface you’ve touched, like the bedsheet, or a stone in the garden⎼ like a voice carried in the wind that you can’t quite make out, there is an insight, a joy waiting, hidden right there? And all you had to do is breathe a little more deeply, shift your perspective a hairsbreadth, and you’d see it in whatever is felt, hear it in whatever is touched?

 

This isn’t a hope you have but something else.

 

I feel this almost every morning when I wake up, if I don’t rush off or I’m not too angry or depressed by the pandemic or the GOP. Right behind my last dream, sitting next to the stiffness in my back, there is this sense, this urge or yearning to look deeply at the red bee balm in the garden, the yellow daylilies, the cats that lie near my feet.

 

When I took a walk yesterday, I tried to remember a time in my life when something hidden was suddenly revealed, or a work of art created itself with my hands. Something dramatic, that I hadn’t already shared with people; but nothing came to me. At first.

 

There are many examples provided by famous visual artists, athletes, poets, and composers. Zen teacher David Loy provides many in his book The World Is Made of Stories. He quotes the artist Escher talking about his drawing taking on a life of its own. The composer Stravinsky hearing music compose itself; he didn’t do it. The writer Borges saying, “I don’t write what I want… I don’t choose my subjects or plots. I have to stand back and receive them in a passive moment.” The poet Blake talking about poems coming to him almost against his will.

 

I am retired now, but the memory of my years teaching soon came to mind. Many times in the classroom the right way to reach a student or right answer to a question just appeared, flowed from my mouth spontaneously, unplanned. Painfully, not all the time.

 

Too many times, especially when I was inexperienced, the right response to a student often eluded me. But over the last few years of working, the number of wonderful moments were multiplied, when I was well prepared yet open, trusting the students and trusting myself. I also practiced mindfulness regularly in some classes.

 

As I was walking back home, down the steep rural hill, suddenly through the trees there was a view that went on for miles. It was only a peek, a break in the trees visible for a few steps when the road turned just right. I stared for a moment, absorbed, gleeful.

 

And a thought popped into my head. The reason I might touch a surface and a new reality whisper to me was because that is exactly what happens sometimes. We touch the hand of a lover and suddenly there aren’t two separate people anymore. There is only the touch. We quiet our minds, even though our hearts might be jumping wildly, and a new reality is born. We touch and are touched simultaneously, love and are loved….

 

*To read the whole post, please click on this link to the Good Men Project, which published it.

Stories of Crows and People

If We Knew How We Dug Holes in the World, Maybe We Wouldn’t Fall in So Often.

 

 

Two crows come to feed in the yard where my wife scatters food. They sometimes seem to be living metaphors or myths, so black, as they sit on a limb, they’re a hole in the canvas of the sky.

 

Instead of getting domesticated and rushing to the area when she feeds them, the crows come to the yard at unpredictable times, remain independent and constantly alert to us, not quite trusting. Even from inside the house, taking a photo of them is impossible. They know where we are. They are too smart to drop their guard for a payoff of a few seeds.

 

Maybe they don’t want us to observe them too closely, or they refuse to be captured even in a photographic image. Maybe they are just shy. Or maybe they know exactly the dual nature of human beings, how compassionate and yet dangerous we can be.

 

When they spot us inside the house with a camera, they quickly fly off, a mocking tone in their voice, “Not this time.”

 

These crows reflect back to us different shapes of ourselves, show us who is doing the watching as well as what is being observed. Anything can do this service for us, be a crow in this regard. The rain, the wind, thoughts and memories⎼ all crows and mirrors. Maybe we are the black hole. And if we recognize this, we can more easily step through the mirror, Alice Through the Looking Glass, not into Wonderland, but into what’s real in our perceptions. If we know how we dig holes in the world, maybe we won’t fall in so often.

 

In 1970 I was living in New York City. But despite having, at times, three jobs, I had no idea how to make a living. Every job threatened to demolish whatever understanding I had of myself.

 

One day, I was standing towards the front of the old Eighth Street Bookstore in the Village, in the psychology section. In the back were two older people, a man and a woman, dressed in clothes elegantly dark with age and possibly homelessness. The woman seemed almost regal, certainly dignified, the man more like a retired professor, his clothes not as rich and old as hers but equally distinctive. They were holding books in their hands while talking spiritedly. I moved closer, wanting to hear what they were saying. They were in the philosophy section discussing the French existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre. Their accents were Germanic.

 

Over the next few months, I ran into one or both members of this friendship at least three times. I don’t know if I should use the word ‘couple.’ One day, on 7th Avenue, she was alone, with a bowl in her hand, asking people for money. I was surprised to see her. If anyone tried to pretend she wasn’t there, or anyone obviously rich, she’d follow and berate them about how capitalism turns people blind. The third time I saw one or both of them was uptown at a lecture on Thoreau….

 

To read the whole post, please click on this link to The Good Men Project, where it was first published.

When Trees Speak: The Dark Does Not Descend on Us. It Emerges from Inside Where Eyes Meet Others

My wife and I took a long walk late in the afternoon. The sky was mostly dark grey. It had rained earlier, with a touch of snow. With the dropping temperature, the rain turned to ice, which coated all the bushes, tree branches, and electric lines. There was just a hint of the setting sun, but that hint was reflected and augmented by the ice, so everywhere we looked there were individual hands and fingers of light, thousands of them.

 

As the light disappeared further, instead of the dark descending on us from above, it was as if it emerged directly from inside everything we noticed⎼ from each tree or bush my eyes met or from the road itself. Details and colors, and the remnants of light icing the branches seemed to be sitting on darkness and winking out.

 

In previous years, during the winter I did not often go outside to exercise. It takes heavier clothes and boots, mittens, and hats, and the road and paths are often slippery. I used to work out in the gym or martial arts dojo. My wife did yoga classes. Now, due to the coronavirus, especially with new and more virulent strains⎼ and the vaccine so close yet not widely available⎼ our home is our gym and we hike steep hills in almost all sorts of weather. An added benefit is we also see our neighbors more than we used to, or at least the ones who walk.

 

Walking has become a stable part of our day, not only a way of getting out of the house and getting exercise, but a classroom and a way to constructively structure time. As we walk, we study how the light plays with the road and trees, and how the trees play with sound. By paying careful, mindful attention, we better understand and feel more at home wherever we are.

 

It’s usually so quiet we can hear the other residents of the road. Three ravens live in the pine forest and often fly over us, speaking with their hoarse cry. The trees speak with unexpected voices. The pine forest occasionally makes sounds like a cat calling out. When I first heard the sounds, I responded, shouted out the names of my cats to see if one of them was in there. But no cat emerged. Other times, especially when it was windy, the pines sounded like wind chimes. Further up the road, a very different voice. Oak, maple and ash trees leaned into each other, speaking in groans, sighs or whispers. Each tree or pair of trees had its own voice.

 

When we arrived home today, the mail was waiting for us. It was not just ads but a package. A new book, or actually an old one I had to search for, a translation of The Four Chinese Classics, by David Hinton. I took off my coat and gloves and sat down, excited to see what the book would offer.

 

I opened to a random page. It was in the Chuang Tzu, one of the two most important books of Taoism, and read the following passage spoken by an adept named Piebald: “In the awesome beauty of mountain forests, it’s all huge trees a hundred feet around, and they’re full of wailing hollows and holes⎼ like noses, like mouths, like ears, like posts and beams, like cups and bowls, like empty ditches and puddles… When the wind’s light, the harmony’s gentle; but when the storm wails, it’s a mighty chorus.” …

 

To read the whole piece, please go to The Good Men Project.

 

A Holiday Wish: Ending the Deeper Dark

It’s snowing. Large flakes lazily fall. But in the distance, some light breaks through dark grey clouds.

 

News reports say tomorrow in the late afternoon, a snowstorm will develop. A large storm will be carrying over a foot of snow to the Northeast, maybe the biggest storm in the last few years.

 

Such storms generate great anticipation and emotion. Especially early in the season, there’s excitement along with trepidation. We wonder if the storm will really appear. Is the excitement, and danger, as real as we hope or fear? We often get so caught up in the human social world we forget the power of the universe that cradles us. Such storms can wake us up to this fact.

 

In normal years, we’d also wonder⎼ will schools be closed? This year everything is different. What will the effect of the snow be on remote learning? We will marvel at what nature can do, but many schools (and too many businesses) are already closed, at least to in-person attendance.

 

As we enter the darkest time of the year here in the northern hemisphere, we leave behind an even deeper darkness, a more intense cold. The pandemic, which is now killing more people per day than the 9/11 attacks, may by summer be ended due to vaccines and the policies of a new administration. The incitements to hate, violence, and attempted destruction of our voting system by the present President will be replaced with a true concern for others. For the last 4 years, DT has shown us what an utter lust for power can do to our nation, shown us the darkness and division that descends on people when a ruler is concerned only for himself.

 

But as we move toward the solstice and the darkest day of the year, we are moving also toward the spring. The winter reminds us we can endure and act.

 

I guess this is one reason I write blogs. It is a wish made physical and sent out into the universe to make explicit there is reason to hope, love, and care.

 

President-Elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated January 20th, although just saying it, making it real like that, excites yet scares me. I don’t want to jinx it….

 

**To read the whole piece, click on this link to The Good Men Project, where it was first published.

How Low Can You Go?

It is embarrassing. DT’s behavior is so obviously desperate, based on nothing but fear and a level of self-centered greed that should astound anyone who looks at it. And the desperation and blindness to anyone’s interests but his own is even getting to many of his most loyal supporters. But after 4 years of experiencing just how bad DT can be, we shouldn’t be at all surprised by his latest behavior.

 

Or rest our attention. I have been sleeping better each day with each step taken toward securing the constitutional peaceful transition of power. But who knows what despicable actions he might yet take?

 

In a recent tweet he attacked Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia for not using his “emergency powers…to overrule his obstinate [Republican] Secretary of State…” and claimed matching voter signatures to mail-in ballots would yield a “goldmine of fraud.” He also tweeted to Brian Kemp to “call off the [Senate runoff] election[s].” He was directly trying to stop an election. But the Governor and Secretary of State both refused to do so. Cody Hall, Kemp’s communications director, said the Governor does not have the legal authority to override (or cancel) the election. The only goldmine of fraud was coming from the White House.

 

Former Georgia Representative Allen Peake defended Governor Kemp and the way he handled the election results, and attacked DT, saying “I, for one, am tired of Trump’s whining. Man up, admit you got beat and do what’s right for the country.” And conservative columnist George Will earlier remarked that DT will end his presidency as he began it, by whining.

 

Trump likewise attacked Governor Ducey of Arizona for certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s win in that state. While holding a press conference announcing the certification, reporters dimly heard the tune of “Hail to the Chief” which was the ringtone Ducey linked to calls from the WH. Ducey took out his phone from his coat pocket, saw who was calling, shook his head and continued with the press conference.

 

Even some of the most ardent DT sycophants are breaking with the President’s overwrought and baseless claims and attacks on our constitutional system. The latest was Attorney General Barr, who said, in an interview with the Associated Press, that the FBI and U. S. attorneys have found no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

 

Even Vice President Pence might, according to the Daily Beast, be backing away from DT. His name no longer appears with DT’s on their fund-raising appeals. And “sources” close to Pence say he “privately views the Rudy Giuliani-led legal operation to overturn the 2020 election through the mass disenfranchisement of votes as counterproductive and doomed.” Why not illegal and immoral? “The vice president doesn’t want to go down with this ship.”

 

As far back as November 6th, GOP began to push back against DT’s false election claims, beginning with Senators Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, and Pat Toomey, amongst others. And by 11/10, 9 GOP Senators and 5 Congresspeople recognized Biden won the election.  But, as of now, many congressional GOP still haven’t publicly acknowledged Biden’s win….

 

To read the whole post, please click on this link to The Good Men Project.

Happiness and Questioning: Replacing Malignance with Loving, Greed with Compassion, Ignorance with Insight

How can we have any sense of happiness in ourselves during a pandemic, when so many are sick, and we fear getting sick ourselves? And the nation, for another 47 days or so, is still led by someone most of us recognize as malignant, ignorant of the very idea of caring for the lives and well-being of others. When a nation is led by a person who speaks and acts as DT does, every day is an assault on our lives and our humanity⎼ on our sense of compassion, love, and beauty.

 

Or every day asks us how can we create, right now, a sense of strength and caring amidst the chaos and sickness? How can we, knowing what we know, find happiness in our lives? What can we do to liberate our heart instead of allowing a would-be oppressor to subvert it? What is the payoff and what is the price for not asking or answering such questions? There is a letting go, a release needed here that I haven’t yet found.

 

In the Winter 2020 Issue of Buddhadharma, the Practitioner’s Quarterly, Akincano Weber, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, talks about “Radical Attention,” the attention needed to touch the earth in a specific place, or a specific person or situation, and discern in it a universal truth. He talks about approaches, “life-hacks” that can help us do this, one of which is skillful questioning.

 

Think about questions. Did a question ever stick in your mind and you couldn’t let go of it? They can act as hypnotic suggestions. Ask the right question and you receive what? Attention. Your mind is directed, not just to some place, but possibly to the act of searching itself. Questions can focus the mind very narrowly, on one place, or on every place, the tree or the forest.

 

To answer a question we must leave behind any exclusive focus on self-concern or we never get to the object of concern itself. We must immerse ourselves in wherever the question takes us, live there so we can feel what that place is like, think from that perspective, and then move on. Such questioning can open us up to other practices which help us keep in our mind and heart the larger whole from which we are never separate.

 

Love, obviously, can also do this, switch us from “me” to “you,” self to other. I am sitting now with two of my cats and watch them sleeping. One of them, Milo, turns over, exposing his belly, and puts his front paws over his eyes. This gesture of his just floors me every time. The cats lie there, trusting me enough to be vulnerable. They want to be with me. Suddenly, I feel totally different. Because I love them, I feel loved in return. They mirror back to me my own feeling. Because I am open to them, they reveal myself to me….

 

To read the whole post, please click on this link to The Good Men Project, where it was published.

“Read the Eternities:” Who Knew There Was Such Meaning in the Flight of a Bird?

It’s morning. The sun is hazy. So many Blue jays, Mourning Doves, Woodpeckers, Cardinals, Chickadees and a few Evening Grosbeaks feed at the bird feeder outside the window or on the seeds scattered on the ground. Their movements are first individual, one move here, another there. Then all at once, like a wave, they all take off. They’re here, then gone.

 

I find it tremendously soothing to put my attention on the birds, plants, and sunlight. The view feels sacred to me. Calmly focusing on it helps me gain some clarity in troubling times and to find something beyond the obvious in what I see. It helps me to find answers to the questions, fears, and confusions that powerfully arise or that I barely know are there. It reveals the moment has depths not to be missed.

 

We can let our eyes rest on the whole scene and then our body⎼ shoulders and belly especially⎼ relax; our hands at ease on our lap. Take a few slow, deep breaths. And then we watch individual movements, distinguish which birds like the feeder, which the ground. Who is aggressive and who can share a meal? Or we can listen to the calls of the different birds, hear one, then another, or listen to them all, together, like a concert. Standing by the window, we can feel the warmth of the sun shining on our face.

 

James Shaheen, in a Letter from the Editor of Tricycle Magazine, The Buddhist Review (Winter, 2020) titled “A Time for Eternities,” speaks to this point. He writes about Thoreau saying, “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.” Not to totally withdraw from what is happening around us, no matter how challenging or frightening⎼ the often-disturbing news headlines, for example. When times are chaotic and frightening, it is helpful to stay attuned to what endures, “to the knowledge that illuminates the deepest matters of human meaning.” He is referring not only to Buddhist teachings, but the wisdom, “through which consciousness is deepened,” the caring for others in our best traditions.

 

This wisdom is what reveals the truths in what surrounds us. In a synchronous fashion, I by “chance” read or listened to two other authors and teachers who gave similar messages, or maybe I just saw a similarity in what they said. Heaven is not divorced from the earth; enlightenment is not separate from ordinary mind. The birds and I are not as separate as we might think….

 

**To read the whole piece, please click on this link to The Good Men Project.

 

Expanding Our Sense of Self Can Create Revolutionary Moments of Happiness: Caring for Ourselves During the Pandemic

In my last year of college, 1968-9, the improvisational theatre group I was part of rehearsed on a stage in a coffee house. Not only our group rehearsed and performed there, but singers and other performers, sometimes famous ones. That was where I heard Odetta,  Tim Buckley, Dave Van Ronk, Doc Watson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.  At a vigil for peace in Vietnam, Joan Baez was seated behind me and, at one point, started singing “The Dove Is A Pretty Bird.” Can you imagine suddenly and unexpectedly, from right behind you, hearing her voice burst out in song? It was shockingly beautiful.

 

One night, Joni Mitchell performed there. It was winter and she had just broken up with a boyfriend. Every song she sang, even the upbeat ones, was a song about sadness.

 

At that time, I was dealing with a form of depression, but didn’t have the insight to name it that. There were days I felt I was being attacked from within. I would have a good time, talking with friends, dancing, and suddenly felt like I had no right to have a good time. I had to do something great first ⎼ change the world and prove my self-worth, or at least get a good paying job.

 

That night, I was totally absorbed in Joni Mitchell’s singing. But after her last set ended, any pleasure I had taken in the music turned into pain. I left the coffeehouse on my own without saying goodbye to my friends, got on my motorcycle, and took off. I drove into a storm of my own making, to freeze the pain so it could no longer touch me.

 

Depression is not just a lowered mood. The word means to press down, weaken, and reduce, as in to reduce the information you take in, or to feel the weight of the world press down on you. You might fear a situation is reducing, stealing your life from you and you are not strong enough to stop it. Depression makes the world look so dark you can’t see much of it, certainly not see anything that might lighten it up. Sometimes, you don’t even see who or what stands in front of you. And your ideas about life and reality can be as rigid as the metal bars of a jail cell. Finding the key to let yourself out can be difficult.

 

Or maybe it’s wrong to say that depression dims the light. It is more accurate to say that when the light is dimmed by your neurochemistry or your response to a situation and you feel locked in a jail cell of your mind and can’t find the key ⎼ then you are depressed.

 

I have a vague memory, which I’m not sure is accurate, of my father telling me that if I tried to make a living as a writer, I’d end up as a bum on the Bowery. Or maybe I subconsciously stole that image from somewhere, like a Henry Miller novel, and imposed it on my Dad ⎼ or on myself. I feared that if I worked at something creative, like writing or acting, or some profession I really liked, I’d wind up a Bowery Bum. Maybe my writing and acting was a way to rebel against that fear. Such a disturbing image can lock up your mind….

 

**To read the whole post, discover the conclusion of the piece and ways to better care for ourselves and our families or friends, go to The Good Men Project.

 

Even If We Don’t Get Sick, We Can Feel Sickened by the Crisis: Remembering A Better Future is Possible

Last night, I woke up at 4:50 am. It was dark, no moon was visible, and I felt very tired. All I wanted to do was go back to sleep. But images I had seen on tv of an overcrowded New York City hospital started to play in my mind and I felt a roughness in the back of my throat. I wondered if that roughness meant I was just getting a sore throat or was it the first sign of the coronavirus.

 

I began to think about the one day in the last week I had left home to pick up vitamins and groceries and to worry if my attention might have gone lax, or if I had done something stupid that exposed me to the virus. Even if we don’t get sick, the crisis can make us feel sick.

 

So I went downstairs to the kitchen, closed the door so my wife wouldn’t be disturbed, and gargled. That helped. Then to the living room, to turn on a reading lamp, and sit in our recliner. Reading a novel was an option, but my eyes wouldn’t stay open.  So I closed them, took two gentle breaths, and started to change my mental channels to focus on something more calming.

 

I pictured my own smile (you could also use the smile of someone you care about) and placed it in front of me. That felt good. I pictured it on my face ⎼ pictured me smiling. I turned it into a smile meditation. But it was too dark, and I was too tired to see it well. I tried to add some white, healing light, and move it to my throat, where I had felt the soreness. But the night was like a black hole and absorbed all the mental light I could create.

 

So then I decided to experiment, to see what would give me comfort and let me sleep. I thought of my blogs, and the comfort or beauty and sense of their own strength people said they found in them. The image of my students came to mind. If I got sick or died, they would have to find someone else to teach them. That revived me. Compassion for others replaced worrying over myself….

 

To read the whole post, go to The Good Men Project.

Speaking with the Medicine Buddha

I was reading an article by David Michie, in a September, 2018 “Lion’s Roar” magazine, about “How to Invoke the Medicine Buddha,” and I immediately did the practice. In this time of threat and anxiety, it was just what I needed.  It reminded me of healing visualizations and meditations I had done in the past and found helpful and enjoyable.

 

And afterwards, I wanted to invoke this Buddha for all of us. I wanted to stand before him and talk directly with him ⎼ or allow him to speak directly through me. I wanted the Medicine Buddha to speak to our nation, to help us all heal, heal our neighbors, this country, this world. We need so much medicine nowadays, medical supplies, an anti-coronavirus vaccine. An anti-ignorance vaccine. A pro-compassion vaccine.

 

Today we are seeing what society looks like when the whole is greatly stressed. I remember looking at paintings of the plague in the Middle Ages. And I look around me. The sky is still the sky. The birds still call. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes the sun shines. It doesn’t look like the plague. Unless, maybe, you go to some city hospitals and see the freezer trucks they are using to store the dead. Not quite a horse driven wagon full of bodies, not the “Black Death,” thanks to modern science, but there are comparisons.

 

But as each level of our society is stressed, it is the small things that hold us together. It certainly isn’t our deluded leader, not the supposed head of the Federal government. Many state or local leaders are being helpful, and certainly first responders, doctors and nurses are risking their lives for others. Retired and other health care workers are volunteering to work in overstressed hospitals to care for patients. Cashiers and the people who stock the shelves in the grocery store. Individual people as well as the systems they maintain. It is our families and friends. Relationships. Even though we are all isolated, or maybe because of it, we are more sensitive to relationships…..

 

To read the whole post, go to The Good Men Project.