March 29, 2013 § 4 Comments
The circle was probably the first image used by man as a symbol; the second was probably the cross. They say that the vertical line of the cross represents the descent of spirit into matter and that the horizontal crossbar represents the world.
I sometimes hear people criticize the use of the religious cross with Christ hanging on it. Why look at something so cruel, so gruesome? Why focus on his suffering; why not emphasize his resurrection with the empty cross?
Christ on the cross is the symbol for Everyman because everyone who is born at some point experiences pain and death. To me the most human part of the whole story of Christ is when he asks why the Father has forsaken him. After all, hadn’t he done everything right? Hadn’t he been the perfect son? Why did he have to go through this horrible torture and shame?
Don’t we ask that too when we get sick, when we see an innocent child die, when we see the unbelievable suffering in the world today? What did we do to deserve this? Isn’t there some way to change things, to escape, to let this cup pass from our lips? Isn’t the eternal question that Christ asked our question too?
In Christ’s story, he asks the question but he is not answered – at least as far as the Gospels report. Instead, he stops asking why and accepts things as they are; in fact, he embraces his situation when he says, Thy will be done. This is the act of ultimate surrender – a surrender not to death but to Life.
Once we can accept we do not understand the larger picture, that we are not in control of our destiny, once we can accept that our life does not belong to us but that Life/God/All That Is is living through us, once we can surrender, although our bodies may die, we will, as they say, be born to a greater life.
People often wonder if there is life after death and demand proof. At the same time they are unwilling to believe in the story of the resurrection; they are unwilling to believe the stories of saints and those who had near death experiences; they are unwilling to believe in visions. In other words, because they have not experienced the Light themselves, they doubt or deny its existence. But that doesn’t change the truth.
All of us, in our own way, carry a cross and one day we will ask God why we are abandoned and suffering. That is the day when Christ and the saints and prophets and angels will be beside us to help us say Thy will be done and our hearts will be opened. If we humbly ask God’s grace, He cannot deny us.
“ I have finished the work which You have given Me to do. And now, O Father, glorify Me, together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with you before the world was. “ John 17: 4-5
February 15, 2013 § 4 Comments
A dear friend of mine is going through the hell of waiting to hear if she has cancer. There was a funny spot on her chest x-ray – that was a few days ago – and since then it has been a series of doctor visits and tests and sleepless nights.
She is the same person she was two weeks ago but now the knowledge that she may have a serious illness is always present in her mind, never leaves her heart – and all because that fearful thought has been planted in her mind.
We have all experienced that kind of anxiety. We hear in our mind the words that will bring comfort or terror. We review what we did or did not do to create this condition. We imagine all the scenarios and outcomes.
In any crisis, the worst part is the waiting, the not knowing. It may be as simple waiting for news about the pet who is missing and has not been home for two days or as complex as the final days of a relative. After a while, just to end the excruciating pain of waiting is enough – whatever the outcome.
At one time or another we all get that phone call – it may come in the middle of the night or late in the afternoon. It is the call that tells us about an accident, a death, a diagnosis – and when we hang up the phone our reality has changed and will never be the same again.
When the loss of the known is threatened, the mind can be filled with terror. How to react, what to do, where to go, who to turn to?
We are told to … pray for a miracle, heal our inner child, exorcise our demons, be a vegetarian, lose/gain weight, take vitamins, exercise, have our chakras balanced, get our aura cleansed, be more positive, be more humble, be more determined, fight harder, start envisioning, try to surrender, stop smoking, stop drinking, start meditating, fast, have our colon irrigated, do drugs, don’t do drugs, etc.
When it comes to serious crisis everybody has an opinion but nobody has an answer – because there is none. I know people talk a lot about the power of positive thinking and the healing power of prayer and I believe that both are true – but it doesn’t happen all the time for everyone no matter how much they want it or deserve it.
Maybe we get sick because it’s genetic, maybe it’s from our lifestyle or our environment, maybe it’s stress and pressure, maybe it’s poor mental health, or maybe it’s ‘just because.’ We don’t always know the answer, know the cause. Ultimately, the why of it doesn’t matter.
All that any of us have is this moment, this day and the challenge is to live it as deeply and joyfully as possible. I think anyone who is a human deserves a lot of credit just for staying here. Life can be hard and a heart-breaker. It takes a lot of courage to keep on and even those who aren’t living a so-called good life deserve compassion.
Some people say that this earth is a classroom and we are here to learn lessons. If this is true as far as I can see there are only two lessons being taught here; to learn what love is and to learn to have courage.
No matter how well we take care of the body, it will eventually start to fail. Everything of form eventually changes to the formless. Even the sun will die. That is the part we don’t like to talk about, think about, look at, because we are powerless to change the inevitable. Yes, I know I’ll have to die … but not yet!
All of the great saints and avatars have told us that life is eternal but the life they are talking about is not this life on this earth or in these bodies. I think we have another body that some call a soul and that is the part that never dies, that is never frightened, that is the source of this love and courage.
And so my dear friend to you I say no matter what happens in the future you are not alone. All of your friends are here standing with you to lend you courage and to celebrate life.
August 9, 2012 § 4 Comments
We are in the midst of another week of 100+ heat. There will probably be another two or three before the season is finally spent. It makes for quiet mornings. Few birds chirp and those that do murmur soft and low from high hedges. For a few hours this morning the air will be smooth and cool but as the sun climbs once more into the sky its piercing white rays will blanket the earth and iron it flat and silent. The smell of burning tar will rise from the roads. People will retreat behind closed doors while air conditioners hum and TV’s roll out reruns of the Olympics.
This morning I open the door to collect the newspaper and see near the doorstep the same large black beetle that had been lying there yesterday afternoon frantically kicking its legs. Twice in passing I had turned it over so that he could get upright and make its way out of the 104 degree sun. I am astonished that it is still here but this morning only two legs are pawing the air and those feebly.
While I was lying quietly in bed last night, the small fan drawing in some of the night’s coolness, had this beetle too been on its back, its legs pumping in a race it would never win? Had the moon’s lullaby closed its eyes at midnight as it did mine?
Even in this most simple and primitive creature I recognize the same drive for life that beats in me. My heart turns over and this time I get a stiff piece of paper, scoop it up and deposit it under some nearby bushes. Its hard black shell blends into the background of the mulch. It is temporary upright although unmoving. At least it can now die in the shade.
I am reminded that everything of form eventually dissolves back into the formless. Out of the porthole of my vision I see the trees and cars and flowers, the cat and computer and cup of coffee. I see my legs and hands and breast. These forms shall pass also. This knowledge adds a deep poignancy to the morning and I am reminded that I shall not pass this way again.
How shall I spend this moment that is so unique and irretrievable? The cat hops up on the small bench that is her lookout on the world. Her large round yellow eyes, alert but unfocused, admit everything and leave nothing out. Between her and the world she sees there are no barriers, all is equal and acceptable.
An electric chair silently speeds by, a tan Chihuahua its tiny nails tapping like high heels as it scampers alongside in an effort to slacken the pull of the leash. The old lady’s gray hair hangs in long strings around her thin face, jowls drape the stick neck, the beak of her nose juts forward like the prow of a ship and her flapping shirt outlines the wobbly cones of breasts. There is a sadness in her haste that cannot be shaken off and left behind.
For the fifth day in a row, I hear the cry of Canadian geese. As they fly overhead I count 17 in delta formation. Moments later 11 more cleave the sky. The turbines of a 747 on route to southern climes are echoed by the whine of air conditioners which intrude their voices, one by one, into the silence of the morning. Before I go inside, I glance into the bushes and see a black beetle waving one leg slowly in the air.
March 26, 2012 § 4 Comments
A couple of days ago I woke up with a searing pain that started in my lower back and traveled down my right leg. I knew instantly that my sciatic nerve was being pinched; it had happened before. As a result I spent the weekend lying around with a heating pad, watching movies and moving very carefully.
Pain is a powerful teacher. It has an extraordinary capacity for focusing the attention. When you’re in pain you don’t think much about the past and what your parents did or didn’t do, or project into the future and what you want and when. When you’re in pain you’re just trying to deal with the present.
When I first became ill with rheumatoid arthritis, I tried a lot of natural remedies, herbs, fasting, juicing and other alternatives. When that didn’t affect my condition, I set to clearing my psychological closets of regret, guilt, remorse, anger, shame, anxiety, depression and other health-draining thoughts and emotions.
After many months I had to admit that I could not medicate or psychoanalyze my way to health. So I called out the big guns and called upon God to intervene. I asked Him to help me understand why this was happening, so I could then change it.
Why – the ultimate question of the mind/ego. If I can only ‘understand why’ this is happening I can accept it, I told myself. What a waste of time. It didn’t matter whether the cause of my illness was genetic, karmic, dietary, emotional, psychological, or whatever, it didn’t change the fact that I was chronically ill and likely to stay that way.
And even more important, that “I” - meaning my will, my ego, my mind – could do nothing about it. That part of my self, my life, my consciousness that I had thought pre-eminent was really helpless. I couldn’t make myself healthy and I couldn’t manipulate God to do it for me.
Life and its direction, its current, its momentum was vastly larger and more powerful than I was. There was nothing I could do to mold it to my own desires. I had free will and that free will gave me one choice. I could continue to fight or I could surrender.
I chose to surrender.
It didn’t happen all at once by throwing one big mental switch. It happened little by little. When you’re in a ‘bad place’ you are afraid to surrender and accept what is because you believe that if you do, it will perpetuate that bad situation. But what you are really accepting is the situation as it is right now – not what it might be later today or tomorrow or next month or next year. Just right now.
When I accepted the present I stopped suffering. I still had physical pain but I was no longer in psychological pain. I untied the thought that says things could be or should be different than what they were. When I stopped trying to change the condition of my life/health/body I was able to appreciate my life just the way it was. I stopped struggling. I know it sounds counter intuitive but it is true.
I am now grateful for the lessons that pain taught me. I was such a stubborn person I doubt I could have learned them any other way. God was wise enough not to grant me a miracle. Undoubtedly, I would have taken the credit myself.
So I look on the discomfort I felt this weekend as a little tune-up, a reminder to keep my priorities straight. First is gratitude for life. The rest takes care of itself.
Part of a poem written during The Struggle…
Bargaining with God that if He but grant
A glimpse of the higher truths
I will accept these tortures of my body.
Trying the tricks of the marketplace
I am willing to suffer, I say, if only You give me ….
But God has not sent nor brought this suffering to me
And He sees not this broken body with His eternal eyes.
He sees me truly, as I really am,
Pure, complete and whole.
February 23, 2012 § 2 Comments
I was reading a book the other day that said we never really believe we ourselves will die, and after I thought about that statement for a while, I had to agree. I read the newspapers about thousands of people dying in wars. I see people I know die and I know intellectually that one day I will die too. But if I look deep down inside myself, I find it really hard to believe death will come to ME. There’s a little niggling part that says an exception will be made in my case, that I am immortal.
After all, life is all I know, all I have ever known. As far as I am concerned the world didn’t exist until I was born. I certainly don’t remember anything else. I have no recollection of heavenly clouds and angels; I have no recollection of other lives in other times; of being a bodiless soul looking over the earth for a compatible womb to inhabit.
In fact, my earliest memory is about age three when I woke up in the morning in my crib. I had to go potty and was yelling for my mother to come and get me so I wouldn’t wet my pants. Over the next few years the world blinked in and out of reality while I created it – somewhat like the Australian aborigines who sang the world into existence.
And all through my childhood I was the center of this world, all revolved around me, the good and the bad, all were designed for my instruction and amusement. As my memory grew and deepened the world became more solid and I became more immortal even as I watched the cycles of life and death turn all around me. If I die how can the world possibly go on without me? Will I ever cease to exist?
Just as I remember nothing before I was born, I foresee nothing that may happen if I die (you see, I am still unconvinced of the inevitability of mortality). If I die, will I take this memory of life with me or leave it behind like a suitcase forgotten in a bus station? If I have no recollection of what was before birth, how can I have any recollection of what I experience during this life time?
Thees are the questions posed to us on Ash Wednesday, the questions to ponder for the next six weeks of Lent. Is dust both our origination and destination? Or are we more than the leavings of matter, dust balls swept up from under the bed, cobwebs in high corners that are lifted off by old brooms, rag rugs that are whipped and shaken out the window?
Lent invites us to consider the conundrums of time and eternity, of body and soul, of regret and repentance, and the differences of birth and death and life. It invites us to question who we are and why we are here. It asks if there a great Forgetting to transcend. Are the big bang and the black hole two sides of the same door?
And now a little levity from the book I was reading about death:
The doctor told Mrs. Malone her husband had only one month to live but if she helped he might recover. “What can I do,” asked Mrs. Malone.
The doctor said, “You have to cook delicious meals every night and let him watch all of his favorite programs on television. You must give him a massage at night and breakfast in bed every morning. You have to laugh at all of his jokes and agree with his opinions. Make sure he takes a nap every afternoon and never argue with him. Every Thursday night, invite his friends over for poker and make all his favorite snacks.”
When Mrs. Malone got home from the doctor’s office, her husband asked, “So, what did the doctor say?” “He says you got a month to live,” she answered.
January 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
We are having an exceptionally mild winter here in Northern California, almost like Arizona with its bright blue sky days and cool, comfortable nights. I go to the nearby park around lunch time most days just to sit on a bench in the sunshine and watch the world go by.
Part of this world is a scattering of squirrels, which is like a flock only zanier. These little creatures are in a constant state of agitation, high on adrenaline for the least hint of a threat from leashed dogs walking down pathways to small children running recklessly across the grass.
I push out the thought that squirrels are part of the rodent family and instead enjoy their darting and climbing and sniffing. Even when their bodies are frozen in attention, their fluffy tails are in constant motion, signaling like semaphores to each other and the world at large.
The other day I picked up a bag of peanuts at the grocery store and now as I sit on the bench, I make chirpy noises to attract their attention. First, I toss out a few peanuts for their delectation. They circle warily but finally succumb to the nutty aroma. Slowly, I lure them closer and closer.
Today one is brave enough to come and take the peanut out of my hand. His tiny paw is so thin, his long nails like little dark needles. While the other squirrels frantically dart back and forth in indecision, he places his paw ever so lightly on my finger, then delicately takes the nut in his mouth – then runs away.
The exchange reminded me of the passage in “The Little Prince” when the fox explains to the Prince how to tame him and when I came home I dug out my book to refresh my memory.
“You have to be very patient,” the fox answered. “First you’ll have to sit down a little ways away from me, over there, in the grass. I’ll watch you out of the corner of my eye, and you won’t say anything…. But day by day, you’ll be able to sit a little closer… If you come (every day) at four in the afternoon, I’ll begin to be happy by three. The closer it gets to four, the happier I’ll feel. By four I’ll be all excited and worried; I’ll discover what it costs to be happy! But if you come at any old time, I’ll never know when I should prepare my heart….”
Even after all these years that part always brings a tear to my eye. Isn’t there a part of all of us that wants to be tamed, that wants to trust, to transcend the fear that living can bring. Remember that old saying, the first cut is the deepest. All of us at some point – maybe in our childhood, maybe in our teens – first experience the reality of life. We discover the cost of happiness.
Perhaps it is the betrayal by a close friend, the loss of a parent or a loved one, the injustice of an accusation. All future pain finds its way back to that original one for that is when we lost our innocence. Until then we were the golden child and naively believed we would never be hurt.
Because we didn’t want to be surprised or disappointed by life again, many of us withdrew a little from it, put up a shell so that arrows would not go in so deep. We loved but not completely, we trusted but had a back-up plan, just in case. Like the fearful squirrels at the park we edged into life, then retreated, edged forward, snatched, retreated.
In our insecurity we sought to be the tamer rather than the tamed. We wanted others to trust us, to love us, to make us feel safe. We wanted to be the one who could leave rather than risk being the one who was left. But being the tamer has its own price. “Men have forgotten this truth, said the fox. But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
The people we ask to love us, the children we bear, the confidences we invite, the promises we make, the gifts we accept, the trust we encourage … all of these actions which make us happy require repayment in the form of responsibility. We must be trust worthy.
Now that I have started to feed the squirrels it is only a matter of time before I tame them. I will follow the advice of the fox and come everyday at the same time so that they will look forward to my presence. When they see someone sitting on the bench they will be reminded of me.
“Wheat fields say nothing to me which is sad. But you have hair the color of gold. So it will be wonderful, once you’ve tamed me! The wheat, which is golden, will remind me of you. And I’ll love the sound of the wind in the wheat…”
Picture from The Little Prince
January 26, 2012 § 1 Comment
I received an email this morning from my friend Susan telling me that a woman we both knew had died last Friday. Over the years Susan had kept me apprised of the highlights of this woman’s journey – the surgeries, the moves back and forth to her family, her struggle for independence. Although I had not known her well I was sad to learn she had died at just 66, not that old by today’s standards.
I remember both my mother and my Aunt Lucy telling me they never expected to live as long as they did – my mother to 93 and my aunt still going strong at 97. They had far surpassed the statistical norms of their generation. In 1911, for instance, the year my mother was born, the average life span for a woman was 50 years and 54 for men. Think about it – most women never lived long enough to go through menopause or see their grandchildren grow up. Most men never retired.
When I was born in 1945 women had an average life span of 63; for a man, 68. I beat the bookies although there are many from my graduating class who are already gone. Like my mother, I may be surprised by living longer than I expect.
Life is uncertain and the fear of dying is the most basic of all, the hydra head from which all other fears twist and twine. Our western culture does not like to acknowledge the possibility, nay, inevitability of death and our best efforts are bent towards postponing rather than preparing for it.
Our religions promise us various forms and states of immortality and call upon the assertions of long dead saints to support their claims. But our current reliance upon the rational and material undermines belief in these possibilities. The gods of our fathers have been replaced by the gods of science and technology.
Since we no longer believe in life after death, we must prolong life as long as possible. The same science that brings us stem cell research, genetic manipulation and a sheep named Dolly also tells us that no energy is ever destroyed only transformed. And what is life if not energy? Only view a recently deceased person and you will immediately see the body is a mere inanimate shell. The animating presence, the energy, has left.
And what is that energy? Is it the individual essence that is you or me? Perhaps death is a mere blink of Brahma’s eye that triggers the star stuff inside and transports us to a new dimension. Is the God of Abraham and Krishna the same God that resides within Plank’s Constant and Schrodinger’s equation? If so, why is math so hard?
Heraclitus, a philosopher who lived 2,500 years ago and is best known for saying that the only constant is change, also said, “That which always was, and is, and will be everlasting fire, the same for all, the cosmos, made neither by god nor man, replenishes in measure as it burns away.” (translation by Brooks Haxton).
A fire that replenishes as it burns. No beginning, no end, no disappearance into a Great Abyss. Life is an ever-constant shape-shifting between thing and no thing in the cosmic furnace in which we are the fire and not the fuel.
It was this fire I felt when I read that the great Russian author, Anton Chekov, who, even as he was dying of tuberculosis, had a new home under construction. My heart responded to this victory of his spirit over the reality of matter. He was not denying the inevitability of death but asserting that death held no dominion over life. I applaud his spirit.
While on one level I may fear death I also admit to a certain curiosity when I contemplate the uncertainty of the journey that lay ahead, that plunge back into the great cosmic furnace that some have called the Sacred Heart.
ASIDE: 500 BC was an extraordinary era. Contemporaries of Heraclitus (535 to 457 BC) included Pythagoras, Buddha, Confucius and Lao Tse.
January 20, 2012 § 3 Comments
I came across a wonderful website the other day that was so good I wished I had thought of it. It still has me pondering. It was started by Lauren Gillette, an artist in Maine and it is an open call to people on the internet to list the 5 things they have done over the course of their lives. Each list functions as a portrait of the person who supplied it.
The entries, which now are probably over a hundred, are compelling. Once I started reading it was hard to stop. Here are two examples:
An early entry is by a woman named Alaina, age 59.
- Had a baby at 18, gave it up for adoption
- Married a musician at 31.
- Traveled to Italy and Mexico.
- Received a Master degree at 58.
- Continued to regret giving my baby away.
A little farther down the line was Sarah, age 29, who said,
- Dropped out of HS and got my GED
- I was addicted to crack and heroin
- I had a baby when I was 19
- I went to college and dropped out
- I healed.
There is a wide range of people who participated. I noticed more women than men responding, and it was interesting to compare the kinds of things that people in their 20’s listed versus those 40 or older. Some lists were action-packed – I climbed mountains, traveled around the world and the like; while others were value-packed – I stayed with my mother as she died, I fell in love, etc.
Anyway, it got me to thinking about my five things, and the more seriously I thought, the harder the list became to compile. Here’s the latest version.
- I bore two children and buried one
- I had one husband and four affairs but never made it past six years
- I found my ‘voice’ and my art after 50
- I learned that happiness is a choice
- I took chances, made mistakes, kept going, made more mistakes, kept going, made more mistakes …
I encourage you to visit www.thingsididproject.blogspot.com and look at some self- portraits – and maybe add yours to the list.
January 7, 2012 § 1 Comment
With morning glories.
A few years ago when I was in my early 60’s and coming to terms with mortality, I remembered the aspirations I’d had when young, then evaluated what had been accomplished and what had been left behind.
Life never turns out as we expect – it is at once much better and much worse. It holds to no carefully considered strategic plan, at least in my experience. Instead life is a hodge podge of intention, chance, bad judgment, willfulness, the actions of others and serendipity. It is a rare person, indeed, who ends up where he or she expected with provisions made for eventualities.
Unlike those who were born with an undeniable talent or destiny, I did not know what I wanted be when I grew up. I had no real thirst for fame or riches or power. It was truer to say that I knew only what I did not want to be (not this, not that). I did not want to be conventional, I did not want to be safe. I did not want to be bored. I wanted to burn like a flaming rocket and then go out.
I wanted to have adventures and live large – and in my generation that was almost wishing to be born a man. The women I knew or had read about were mothers and teachers and nurses. All my heroes were men. I wanted to be St. Exupery or Kahlil Gibran or Krishnamurti or Thor Hyerdahl. I read about Sir Richard Burton, pyramids and ancient bones in desert sands.
In my small town, in my family, in my heritage, there were no artists or poets or adventurers. There were no discussions of art or music or culture or history around the dinner table. In the critical years of growing up, my horizons had not been stretched wide enough nor high enough.
I did not learn of the brave and exciting women who were living their dream. That discovery came later after crossroads had been encountered and dies already cast. So my early life did not include all of the possible possibilities; but it did contain some very important and satisfying conventional probabilities including marriage and children.
But during the time of reflection I mentioned earlier, I was entering the final third of my life. Most responsibilities had been fulfilled and there was opportunity now to choose again. The question now was not “what did I want to be when I grew up,” but “what did I want to be as I grew old.”
By now my longings for physical and intellectual adventure had been replaced by the exhilaration of creative and spiritual forays. I had in my mind’s eye the idealized hermitage of the Zen monk where there would be time for reading and poetry and art and flowers. I would be free of the need to labor in the outer world and live in a small home covered in morning glories just like the haiku described.
Then the other day as I was sitting on the patio, I thought how nice window boxes would look along the wrought iron fencing, and how lovely morning glories would be twining in and out and around. I suddenly realized – I was living in my Zen hermitage. Perhaps it did not have the quaint thatched roof I had imagined, nor was not located within a leafy glade beside a rippling stream. Perhaps I did not have tatami mats on the floor and sliding screens for walls, or a miniature landscape in the yard.
But I did have books and art and music and freedom. There was still a flame within the embers. And in the spring I would have morning glories outside my door.