We Are Always in Conversation with the Life that Surrounds and Sustains Us

The world is constantly in conversation, talking with itself, or maybe singing to itself.

 

As I stood in the front yard this morning, gypsy moths by the hundreds fluttered around our trees in the yard. Sunlight bounced off their brownish wings, a blue jay was flying between the moths, leaves dancing with wind, while a car crunched the gravel on the road and a crow cried out. I disliked what the moths represented, the oak, maple, and apple trees stripped bare of leaves. But at that moment, all was different. The air itself felt alive and was speaking.

 

Peter Doobinin, in his book, Skillful Pleasure: The Buddha’s Path for Developing Skillful Pleasure, describes how we can use thought to improve thinking. When we are working on a complex task, or we have an appointment later in the day, we talk ourselves through it or to it. We remind ourselves what we need to do or what time we need to leave our home in order to arrive on time. Likewise, when practicing mindfulness, or maybe anytime, we can remind ourselves to arrive right here, now, to be present, to fully focus on whatever task we undertake, or be aware of the quality of our breathing.

 

For example, before a meeting, or engaging in an important conversation, we might remind ourselves to first stop, take three conscious, deeper breaths. Notice how fast or slow, deep or shallow are our breaths, then our thoughts. Notice how we feel before engaging with others.

 

We use thought not only to arrive on time or complete a task but to construct an idea of ourselves, or an identity. We plan our future, select labels for our character, write mental reviews of past actions as if we were writing a review of a movie or play. Thoughts can pop up so easily.

 

In Buddhism, thought is considered the sixth primary form of consciousness, or sense consciousness, following sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch/feeling; it is closely tied to sense experience. So we need to remember that a thought has a different quality than direct perception. It can weigh a great deal emotionally. It can block or expand our viewpoint, aid or obscure the senses in discerning how completely tied we are to the universe. But when isolated from the senses, thought colors are less brilliant than that of bird wings, flowers, or a sunset.

 

Bruce Chatwin, in his book The Songlines, takes us to the Outback to learn about the First Nation People of Australia and the creator beings who sang the world into existence; song being the original language of people. The original songs are called songlines, or dreaming tracks, and mark the routes followed by creator-beings as they carved the earth during the Dreamtime, or time of creation.

 

But dreaming tracks are not solely about the past. They mark both a where and a when, a time and all time, or the continuous process linking the Aboriginal people to the land and heavens.

According to Wikipedia, a knowledgeable person even today can navigate vast distances, cross deserts and mountains, by singing and following the directions in the songline.

 

In this way, maybe we sing a songline to reach ourselves, or sing ourselves into existence through song.

 

Two metaphors, songs and conversations, or songs as conversations and vice versa. I don’t know which is more apt. We hear the universe singing; we hear the universe in conversation all the time but maybe don’t know exactly what we’re listening to….

 

*To read the whole post, please use this link to The Good Men Project, who published the piece.

 

 

The Well of Ancients: We Live in a Universe, Not A Room

Have images of someplace you have never been, or of a time or situation you have never lived, ever appeared in your mind masquerading as a memory?

 

Years ago, my parents lived in Atlantic City, New Jersey. One night we were driving on Atlantic Avenue, the main street of the city that runs parallel to and often just a block or so away from the ocean. It was raining and the yellow lights reflected off the wet street. The houses on a long section of the avenue are large, expensive dwellings, some old and going back to the 1930s or before. And suddenly I felt we were back in the 1930s during prohibition when some of the homes were owned by mobsters. The whole mood had changed into a feeling different from any other I have ever felt. This happened two or three times.

 

My great aunt Fanny, sister of my maternal grandmother, died when I was in my thirties. When I think of her apartment, I get something closer to a dream than a memory, and just pieces, not the whole. And those pieces are not from the second half of the twentieth century. They are from sometime earlier⎼ with dark hallways, a bedroom with a wall of ornate glass doors which she didn’t have, a window that looked out not onto modern streets but gray mists, people in dark clothes in a village of wood homes, in the “old country” of Eastern Europe from where my relatives emigrated.

 

And from where do our interests come? Why do some subjects, seemingly from before we were born, excite or shake us up, turn us off or get no response at all? I love the art of Japan, Tibet, Indigenous North America, Central Africa, Ancient Greece, and the Middle East, but other places less so or not at all.

 

Twenty years ago, I was on sabbatical from teaching, and my wife and I went to Greece. I taught philosophy to high school students and looked forward to visiting the birthplace of Western European philosophy.

 

We were on the island of Crete, not far from the city of Chania, driving through the mountains after visiting the ancient City of Aptera. The city had come to an end possibly in 1400 CE due to an earthquake. We stopped at the ruins of a Minoan palace, and Roman and Byzantine structures. My wife saw a herd of sheep grazing on the side of the road and asked me to stop. The sheep were not fenced in but moving freely about.

 

We stopped, got out of the car, and walked over to the sheep. I happened to look down, and there, partly exposed, were ancient bricks, Roman, maybe 2000 years old. An archaeological site was close by unearthing a Roman villa from that time, with sculptures, lintels and other artifacts just lying on the ground. We continued our walk and found ruins of a Roman cistern. Overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, we saw a German bunker from World War II, and later, an Ottoman fortress.

 

What is it like to live in a place where we literally step on thousands of years of human history? …

 

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

 

**The photo is of what might be the oldest road in Europe, from Knossos, Crete.

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.

My Cat Taught Me To Hear the World Speak

Humans have had pets or animal companions for thousands of years. They have protected us, helped feed us and, in times of stress, they have been a source of great comfort. Their non-human minds have confused and fascinated us. They have also taught us a great deal.

 

I was returning home earlier this summer, after a long walk up my hill in a very rural area of New York, when I saw a small animal a hundred yards or more downhill from me. It was black and, at first, I couldn’t tell if it was a large bird, maybe a raven, or one of my three cats. As I got a little closer, and the animal just sat there, I realized it must be my cat Max.

 

I called out to him, and he started up the hill to meet me as I walked down towards him. As he got close, I stopped. He stood up on his back legs and rubbed his head against my hand, as if urging me to pet him, and I couldn’t help but comply. His giving such attention to me led to my opening up to him.

 

I then tried to continue to walk home, but Max made it difficult. He walked a figure eight between my feet, rubbing against me as frequently as he could. Why do cats do this? When he walks with me, it’s as if he is trying to weave a spell that would halt me in my tracks. I stopped to pet him. He sat down and stared off at part of the scene around him. And I did the same. Maybe that’s all he wanted. Maybe he was telling me to slow down, look and listen. Smell the roses.

 

I noticed a dead branch of a maple tree supported by an evergreen. I noticed blackberry bushes, and little wild strawberries. Thirty years ago stately trees lined the road. Then the road crew came with their big machines and devastated the trees, cutting them down so the road could be made wider and the plow could clear away the snow. This, at first, outraged most of us who lived here. Two neighbors chained themselves to their favorite trees. Now, we’re glad the road is plowed and the trees are returning.

 

I listened to the gentle wind, birdcalls, insect cries and it sounded like the world was purring to me. If we give the world a chance, it speaks to us.

 

Not that Max or any cat is “perfect.” There are things he does that make me angry or cringe. But because of him I listen more to what the world around me has to say. Sometimes it purrs. Other times, it cries or rages. I listen because without this land, what was I? For Max, the land, the road, the trees, the other animals were not just part of his home—they were part of who he was.

 

This, this scene all around me—without it, I didn’t exist. Not just that it was part of my identity. My lungs breathe in sky, so when I speak, I speak sky talk. To walk forward, I press back against the earth, so each step I take is the earth walking. One movement of many feet. We humans have such powerful words in our heads we easily lose sight of what nourishes those words. My cat taught me this today. In this day and age of false talk, we need to be reminded of such truths or we might lose it all.

 

In these days of hurricanes and other disasters, I feel fortunate to live in a place where the earth is now gentle⏤and I am distressed seeing what so many have lost, homes and possessions, friends or family, and pets. I know everything can change at any moment. This is even more of a reason to listen, carefully. Even more reason to appreciate what I have and to work to preserve the environment that sustains us all.