Living with the Unknown in Ourselves

I was watching the Ken Burns documentary on Ernest Hemingway last night. In the second hour of the program, the narrator was describing the difficulties Hemingway had beginning his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. He had already published a critically acclaimed book of short stories, where each sentence was a work of art. Suddenly, he needed to shift to the length and breadth of detail a novel required. Hemingway told himself, write one true sentence. Then another and another. Which is what he did.

 

Hemingway was both a great artist surrounded by friends and family, as well as a solitary narcissist. There is both a loneliness and a luminosity to words. They can be used to mask as well as unmask, to torture or heal. We have to be totally alone in ourselves to write. Yet, words can fill us with a sense of connection and ecstasy. We might try to hold them to us as if they could warm our bodies with their heat. But when we do so, the words dissolve into air. It’s not the words themselves that warm us but the breath we give them as we speak and listen, and the paths to others they might reveal.

 

Two days ago, in the woods near the top of our hill, maybe 25 feet from a road, my wife and I came upon two circles in the earth. We had never seen these before. The bigger one was about 12 feet across, with a moss and stone foundation and one young oak tree growing inside it. Maybe it was once a silo. And the smaller circle, now a depression in the earth lined with rotted leaves and stones, was maybe once a well.

 

The more we looked, the more we found. There were stacks of old boards, maybe an old wall or roof. Further in the trees was a wood railing on an old porch attached to nothing and leading nowhere. It was like someone had built an entrance without knowing where it led. Even in a forest that we think we knew well, we were surprised. There were histories hidden here we had no knowledge of. What we didn’t know was way more prolific than what we did.

 

The night before we discovered the ruins, I had a dream. It started out understandably enough. I was outdoors at a party, a celebration, but no one was wearing a mask, not even me. I felt naked and more and more afraid. Everyone was acting as if there had never been or wasn’t now a pandemic raging in the land, or maybe they had somehow forgotten. Occasionally someone, usually a former student from when I taught secondary school, called out to me, inviting me to sit with them and talk. I waved and walked on, intent on getting out of there as quickly as I could. But I couldn’t. There were people everywhere.

 

Then everything changed. I was in a new dream, or the old one had transformed itself. I was watching a play, also outdoors. A young, attractive, strong looking woman came on stage. She looked Tibetan. The crowd heard her words, maybe the dream me also heard her. But me, the dreamer, did not. I heard no words, just saw her lips move.

 

Then she left the stage, to return wearing a huge mask….

 

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

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.

 

“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.

 

The Better Rebels of Our Nature: Friends Can Help Us Remember to “Be the Change We Want in the World”

Three close friends and I recently had a reunion. We visited Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we went to school in the 1960s and rented a house together for a long weekend. When we are together anything can come up for conversation and does. At dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant, we discussed everything from free will to selling out, from politics to Ancient Sumeria, to the music of Dylan, Cohen, and Ramstein, and Michigan football.

 

My friends were not shy about bringing others, who happened to wander by or be standing around us, into our conversation. We were debating if we had free will or if it mattered if we believed that we did, and soon our waiter was involved in the conversation. He and I basically agreed. One of my friends said since our actions were purposeful and the motivation for those purposes were largely unconscious and thus beyond our control, how can we claim to be free? We are more like machines than we like to think.

 

I disagreed. Yes, our actions derive from many unconscious determining factors.  But included in those determining factors is the whole universe, in which we are a part. I brought up the Chinese Taoist concept of Wu Wei, which can be defined as “effortless action” or “acting without acting.” Our actions arise as part of the whole universe moving interdependently together. We can never step out of the universe to view all the consequences of, or influences on, our actions. However, we, meaning our body, memory, intention, and way of thinking participate in determining what we do, along with everyone and everything else in and around us. We all act together.

 

One of my friends asked the waiter about his own life. It turns out he had been a doctoral candidate in ancient middle eastern religions and was studying Akkadian, Sumerian, and other languages as a required part of his study. Then he got bored with learning these dead languages, quit the program, and got a job as a waiter. We wound up discussing Gilgamesh, the first written extended story or epic poem and one of the earliest takes on male friendship.

 

One of my friends then asked, Did I sell out? Have I given up the ideals I fought for in my youth and has my life become merely the pursuit of money and power? Is what I am doing worthwhile and should I continue doing it?

 

We discussed the important successes he had achieved in his life. The question arose how did the world, or the state of U. S. politics, get so bad ⎼ and were we responsible for T?

 

This turn in the conversation reminded me of one I had had in the gym earlier in the week. After greeting me, a man who was more than an acquaintance but not yet a friend asked what I was doing with my life. I mentioned house repairs, teaching martial arts twice a week, and writing. I asked him the same question. He replied by switching topics and stating that all the people from the 1960s who dropped out of society to “go back to the land” (implying that I was one of those people) were responsible for the awful state of our nation today. We should have stayed in society, he said, become CEOs and reformed the corporate world.

 

Although I could understand his argument, I was incredulous. He seemed to be following a meme inspired by conservatives of blaming the 60’s for almost anything. I agreed that if conscientious people do nothing, they therefore leave the world in the hands of those who think only of their own power and money. But making people aware of this was what the 1960s rebellions were about.

 

I don’t think anybody who knows me would say I had dropped out or given up. In the early 70s I did move to a rural location to build a house with my then girlfriend and now wife. We moved with a group of people involved in creating a free school, not-for-profit businesses, and a community development fund. We were intent on changing the economy and the values that drove this society.

 

Going back to the land was not a running away from responsibility but a refusal to live by materialistic values. It was a way to educate ourselves in how to live in a more sustainable and less destructive way. If we had joined the corporate world and tried to change it from within, how long would we have been able to sustain that motivation if we hadn’t, first, learned how to live without all the material rewards of corporate wealth?

 

The 1960s rebellions warned us about the dangers we face today, of narcissistic leaders, of politicians lying to the people, and of alienated men and women who refused to look at the state of our world and the dark side of technological advances. The 1960s, or people like Martin Luther King, Jr., the Berrigan brothers, so many writers, artists, musicians, and activists, taught us that poverty, racism, sexism and the lust for power do not just hurt the people immediately affected by these blights on humanity, but undermine the whole society.

 

There were also people like G. Gordon Liddy, one of President Nixon’s “plumbers” who organized the break-in at the Watergate Hotel and illustrated just how far alienated men could go. His autobiography, Will, described a man whose hero was Adolf Hitler and whose primary motivation was to become as powerful as possible. Besides admiring Hitler, he envied and tried to create in himself the power and emotionlessness of machines. Here was a man who had not just accepted the simplified metaphor that humans were machines, but glorified the possibility.

 

The argument by the man in the gym was akin to blaming the victim. The people responsible for putting profit before people ⎼ and personal power before the health of our world ⎼ were primarily responsible for making working for the common good and democracy impossible.

 

But, since we are all interdependent, every one of us is part of us, part of all that is happening. Because we can be affected, we can affect others. Our true power and freedom lie not in escaping emotion and our responsibility for what happens in the world, but in becoming more aware of it. Only by increasing our mindful awareness of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that affect our behavior can we have any conscious power to direct that behavior.

 

For example, our theories and beliefs about reality tell us how much power and choice we have in affecting that reality. If we think we are machines with no free will, then we are more likely to abdicate responsibility for our actions and allow ourselves to act mechanically.

 

Our fault in the 1960s was not in our building communal groups and rebelling against jobs and politics as we knew them.  It was in not understanding how complex the struggle would be. It was in focusing so much on our own righteous need to achieve our goals that we couldn’t compromise or adapt and believed we could and had to change the world in a few months or years. The result was that when the revolution didn’t happen, many gave up the struggle.

 

Even though we children of the 60s embraced a sentiment later attributed to Gandhi about being the change we wanted to see in the world, or about living the revolution, we didn’t know how to do it. And we are still learning this. Learning how to be the change is what life is about. And our deepest friendships can help remind us of this, and how to be the better rebels of our nature.

 

This post was syndicated by The Good Men Project.

 

 

 

 

 

Wish For A Storm of Mass Insight

I deeply want to write a blog, or even one line or image so powerful it would transform the world, or at least shake it up so much it would see itself more clearly. Or shake me up so completely I would see myself more clearly. Is that too much to yearn for? It doesn’t even have to be me who writes the blog. I’d be a happy reader. I’m speaking of the political world. The trees outside the window shake themselves every moment there’s a wind — or every moment the sun gives light to leaves to drink, or the night gives rest.

 

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

Madness, Immorality, or Greed? Facing the Hard Truth of Trump’s Presidency

At any moment over the past year and a quarter, you could listen to the news and marvel at or be sickened by the ignorance, immorality, greed, or insanity of the pronouncements of Trump and many of his GOP supporters. And I don’t just mean tweets like “my button is bigger than yours” with the leader of North Korea. I mean his statements on health care, political protests, media coverage, the FBI, Charlottesville, immigration, the Russia investigation, Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, etc. I mean the whole pattern of what is taken for the policies of this administration is based on ignorance of oneself and one’s place in the world.

 

This blog was just published by OTV, Open Thought Vortex literary magazine. To read the whole post, please follow this link.

Am I Good Enough Yet?

When I was teaching secondary school students, if I asked a class, “how often do you torture yourself by thinking ‘I’m not good enough’?” Students would laugh, smile with both embarrassment and familiarity, and then most would raise their hands in recognition. It was a good question to break open a group. But why is that?

 

Psychology gives us many reasons. We carry at least some degree of our past in our present. If people have said or done negative things to us often enough, we become conditioned to carry the hurt. If our parents and families have been dysfunctional, we can carry dysfunctional habits, guilt or blame. We hear other people in our heads—parents, friends, lovers, teachers, sometimes even strangers we meet on the street.

 

Evolutionary psychologists say we are born with a predisposition to look for faults. It is called a negativity bias. We are sensitized to look for any form of a threat as a way to actually protect ourselves from them. But this can lead to imagining we can ward off an attack by attacking ourselves first.

 

Our economic system teaches us to think of ourselves as our resume, as a list of achievements with a title above it, and as a marketable entity. Only those with a good resume are valuable—and we gain value by comparing ourselves to others and appearing better than them. So we think of ourselves as a continuing entity, as an independent being separate, distinct, and in competition with others.

 

But there’s even more going on here. Our mind plays a curious game with our sense of self. We see ourselves one minute as we imagine someone else might see us. And in the next minute, we see ourselves as this subjective, conscious experience. When we look at other people, they often seem consistent and stable in identity. From the outside, other people can appear as clearly defined, distinguishable, separate beings. They have the same basic face and figure, with a recognizable personality, tone of voice, and gestures. They, and we, respond to a name, a label.

 

But when we look at our selves, it is not so clear. We know we have different moods and emotions and that our thoughts about the world and ourselves can change rapidly. We know that we sometimes don’t know what to do and we can feel completely adrift. We know that when people ask us “How are you?” and we say, “I’m good,” that the reality is much more complicated and indefinable.

 

So we want to know how others think of us. We try to imagine how we look, how we seem to others. We expect our whole being to be as relatively unchanging to ourselves as other people usually look to us. We think we should be as clear on the inside as we imagine we are on the outside. As the Buddha and other thinkers have pointed out, we expect something from ourselves or from our notion of self that it can’t deliver, namely surety. This expectation masks who we are and makes us vulnerable to feeling something is wrong in ourselves, when nothing is wrong except the expectation. The view from the inside is obviously different from that of the outside. On the inside, it has to be at least somewhat mysterious, unknown, or we would always try to reproduce on the inside what has already been produced outside. To be alive and conscious is to face the unknown. To know what will happen is to mean it already happened.

 

Being conscious is a mystery, maybe the biggest mystery there is. ‘Con’ means ‘with.’ ‘Scio’ is from ‘sci’ or the Latin ‘scire’ meaning ‘to know,’ as in the word ‘science.’ ‘Conscious’ is thus ‘to know with.’ It is both an instance of knowing, and a knowing awareness knowing something. The philosopher J. P. Sartre said consciousness is always consciousness of something. Sartre makes the distinction between being-in-itself, being as an object, material, in a specific place and time, and being-for-itself, a constantly changing stream of awareness constantly new, as a relating or point of view.

 

And since to ourselves we are always partly unknown and indistinct, we try to do the impossible and fill the unknown with the already known, or fill the unknown with what we think others think. This is another reason why we might be so ready to judge ourselves negatively. It is easier to accept a negative image of ourselves than to live with no clear identity at all.

 

We are always both a whole, distinguishable being in ourselves, as well as a part in an inseparable, larger whole. It is the role of our senses to make us aware of the world, to show us the whole of which we are part. Yet, our sense of who we are shifts according to where we are and whom we are with. We rarely speak baby talk to an adult or sit unmoved when everyone around us is shouting. When we feel isolated, there is someone or something we feel isolated from. No other, no self.

 

We are constantly trying to place ourselves both in the position of the other and of our distinct self. We need at least these two contrasting viewpoints to allow the world to come alive. In order to speak sincerely and clearly, we need to hear and feel what is going on inside us, as well as understand how others feel—and hear and see us. At the deepest level, we feel most ourselves when we can be sincere. Yet, we feel most sincere when words come seemingly of themselves, spontaneously, unedited by ego concerns. In other words, we feel most ourselves when we aren’t concerned or worried about our self.

 

So, when we feel somehow not good enough, the first thing to examine is our understanding of what we mean by a self. Our sense of self is adaptable and ever changing. It allows us to harmonize with others and act appropriately in any situation we are in, to the degree that we recognize and value its shifting nature. We feel most ourselves, and feel good about ourselves, when its not “me” who speaks, but the world, the truth of the situation, the truth of “me” with “you.” And this is a verifiable type of truth.

Mindfulness and Pain

 

This Thursday, June 15th, I will have surgery on my right wrist, or actually three surgeries. I did not want to undergo anesthesia multiple times so I thought I’d do them all at once, and the surgeon agreed. The first two are relatively simple: carpal tunnel (medial nerve in hand) and cubital tunnel (ulnar nerve, at elbow and blade of hand). The third is more complicated and is called a proximal row carpectomy; the surgeon removes three of the eight bones in my wrist. The surgeon predicts it will take two-three months to heal. I will be in a cast for two weeks, and writing may be difficult for an indeterminate length of time.

 

So, I am taking a vacation. I feel better approaching surgery as a vacation then as a dreaded time of suffering. It’s important, in difficult times especially, to be nice to yourself. For the next few weeks or more, instead of feeling an obligation to publish each week, I will do it only when it feels right. I have a blog prepared for next week, but after that—who knows. I will most probably miss writing, miss you as an audience, so I don’t know how long my “vacation” will last.

 

The wrist has been hurting on and off for many years. Driving, writing, certainly carpentry or splitting wood, but even holding a book or sleeping, could be painful. Karate has become problematic. My handwriting was never beautiful, but years ago, before I retired from teaching, I had trouble giving written feedback on student papers due to the pain. Students often commented that my writing was illegible.

 

Yet, I became sort of used to the pain—sort of. In early March, I pointed out to my acupuncturist the swelling in my wrist and she recommended I see a doctor. That led to x-rays and a CT scan, then nerve conduction tests. After seeing what my wrist looked like and reading the radiologist report, of “severe” this and torn that, the pain actually got worse.

 

I found this interesting. When I thought of the pain in my wrist as simply an unpleasant sensation that couldn’t be treated, I accepted it and lived with it. But once it had a label and a doctor’s evaluation, once I had the clear image of bones rattling bones, it became more solid and took on a life of its own. The sensations I felt became an alien presence I wanted removed. I scheduled the surgery.

 

This led me to use mindfulness training to study in more detail how my mind influenced the pain. I began to think of pain as a blatant and confounding puzzle, as a chance to learn more about how my mind and body worked. When pain arose, I breathed it in—if I could. I noticed whatever was there for me—how the beliefs and expectations I held influenced the sensations I felt and the thoughts about the sensations. My response to the pain influenced how much I suffered from it. When I let go of the thoughts and images, and focused on the breathing, the pain sensations moved to the periphery of awareness, and lessened in strength. Without resistance, pain decreased. It became one sensation among others. My response went from flight-flight-freeze to something a bit more open, and more relaxed.

 

And, over the last few days, as the fact of surgery sank in and the big day approached, the incidents of high level pain decreased. I don’t know what was most responsible. Was it the natural therapies, pain pills, or increased mindfulness? Was the anxiety over surgery masking the physical sensation?

 

I still need the surgery. But I have a few strategies to help me face it, and my fears about it, with a little more confidence and less anxiety. I have realized how fear can be useful. It tells me to wake up. This is my life on the line. The kindness I give to others I can give myself. I have also accumulated a few good movies and books to enjoy. And I am forever grateful that I still have good health insurance. (Please tell Republicans in Congress that you oppose their undermining-health-care legislation.) On Thursday, please wish for me a good result, a healing. Thank you and may you be well.

 

*Many Buddhist teachers write about how to face pain, or face whatever. Pema ChodronShinzen Young, and Jon Kabat-Zinn are three authors whose wonderful books I can recommend.

 

**My friend Eileen Ain recommended Peggy Huddleston’s Relaxation/Healing CD.

 

***Photo by Kathy Morris.