Monday, December 27, 2010



For the last two weeks, I've been in the grips of a mild obsession brought about by a random event that seems anything but random. First, a little background.

Thirty years ago or so, partly because of a scholarly interest related to my graduate school studies and partly because of simple personal interest, I became deeply interested in the symbols of mythology, both as they related to the history of religion and as they applied to human psychology. For several years as a young man, I read everything I could get my hands on from Jung, Joseph Campbell, Eric Neuman, Sir George Fazier,  and other such people.

One thing led to another, and I started a family, began a career, and my interests moved onto to other things: gardening, politics, science, publishing. My collected works of Jung not only weren't on the shelves anymore, but I couldn't even tell you for sure what boxes they might be found in.

Then, two weeks ago, though, while riding the bus to work, I glanced up at two illuminated billboards on adjoining faces of an office building near the downtown basketball arena, Target Center. One electronic sign was advertising the University of Phoenix, the other was a commercial advertisement for Bacardi rum. Nothing particularly unusual about that, but what leaped out to my view was that the symbol for the University of Phoenix was, predictably, the mythological bird the Phoenix, renowned for rebirth from ashes. The symbol for Bacardi, on the other hand, is the somewhat sinister bird of the night, the bat. The juxtaposition was striking, to say the least, and it seemed impossible that it was mere coincidence these symbols of light and dark, rebirth and death, should appear adjacently and simultaneously.

Jogged from sleep,  I began to see symbols everywhere in the days after that; in the partial sunrises engraved on building entries, in the intertwined snakes on the office stationary of my medical clinic, in the peacock that still stands for NBC broadcasting, in the arch and ornament of a road bridge spanning the Mississippi.

From boxes in the basement, I've now retrieved dozens of yellowing books on the subject matter, and on my busride today was thoroughly engrossed in Joseph Campbell's "Masks of God: Primitive Mythology."  Also out of the boxes are Jung's titles on alchemy and collective unconsciousness, waiting for me at home.

The time must be right, because what I now lack in sheer scholarly stamina I now seem to make up for with perspective.  Now in the last trimester of life, I read things much differently, and with greater understanding, than I was an impatient though energetic young man of 20.

I feel like I'm rediscovering a favorite hobby, and can't wait for the long bus rides to and from work.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Neither Fish Nor Fowl

For each of us, a religion or any other form of spiritual practice really serves as an allegory, an approximation of our deepest spiritual truth, offering ideas and practices that aid us in our pursuit of happiness. I know of virtually no one, though, who can say that their religion perfectly represents what they believe. I've known devout Christians who quietly but vehemently sense that reincarnation is a fact of existence. I've known Hindus for whom Catholic rituals resonate profoundly. In fact, if you find anybody who subscribes heart and soul to every aspect of their chosen religion, it's likely you've found somebody with a rather serious mental defect. (No Sarah Palin jokes, please.)

While most of us have practices that lean toward one of the major faith systems, it seems to me that in the final measure, each of us has an entirely individual structure of beliefs that can resemble, but never be identical to, another person's.

I'm now 54, and for fully 30 years now, my spiritual practice has been most closely represented by Buddhism. I respond most positively to Buddhist philosophy because of its intellectual precision, its cool detachment, and its belief in following the evidence of logic and experience. In its better moments, Buddhism can be one of the most tolerant of belief systems, though it, too, can have its parochial moments, especially when it comes to individual schools within the Buddhist world passing judgement on one another.

Yet for all of that, when asked to name my religious membership, I take pause and have to acknowledge that I can't really say that I'm a Buddhist. I miss membership in the club because of a single belief that most definitely violates the rules for authentication as a Buddhist.

Strictly speaking, Buddhists simply do not believe in a deity called God, thinking that such beliefs are largely irrelevant to the the pursuit of enlightenment. That is, in fact, one of the central appeals of Buddhism, that it is free of the heavy-handedness found in most deity-based religions. The inherent atheism of Buddhism is the Achilles heel for me, the final membership requirement that just eludes me. 

Because in my heart of hearts, an intuition tells me that underlying our experience is some kind of central Truth that universally present for all of us. This energy feels to me quite concrete,with an inherent intelligence and humor about it. It's not that I adhere to any kid of cult of personality when it comes to deity——I certainly don't think of God as some kind of uber-personality that dwells in someplace called heaven. But for all of that, the supernormal energy I sense is something that communicates with me when I choose to ask and listen, and it's distinct enough for me to feel a kind of "I-thou" relationship to it.

Uneasy about this lingering belief, I sometimes pretend that it's "buddha-nature" I'm sensing here. To no avail; something that feels a lot like God continues to lurk around the corner, like a drug dealer trying to tempt school children. At the end of the day,  it appears I'm a Missouri-Synod Buddhist.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Citizens of 4F, Oct. 20, 2010

Grey-haired Martha sits at nearly the same latitude each morning on the 4F bus into downtown Minneapolis. Sometimes it's the left, and sometimes the right, but always she is very nearly one-third of the distance back from the front of the bus.

Each morning she reads the same magazine: TV Digest. Until I noticed this, I wasn't even aware that the magazine was still published anymore. Now it's an oversized publication, like People or Newsweek, not the small Readers-Digest size that I remember from years ago. I'm kind of amazed that it's still in print anymore, though if any magazine has a chance to survive in our culture, it would be one devoted to television, I suppose.

I'm also impressed that Martha finds enough new to read there each morning. Other than the schedule logs themselves, the editorial content of TV Digest looks to be pretty sparse. Is Martha just boning up on the evening TV schedules each and every day? Or does the magazine now have enough editorial content to offer 4 hours or so of reading each week?

Martha begins each morning sitting adjacent to the window, but as the bus begins to fill up, by about Franklin Avenue, she moves to an aisle seat. This has the impact of making it hard for anyone to sit next to her, and so it seems like a slightly mean-spirited thing to do, like those people who place their briefcases or backpacks on the seat next to themselves, effectively denying the seat to folks who might wind up standing. I don't like thinking that this is the kind of person she is.

So I settle on a more charitable explanation. She moves to the aisle seat so that, if another person comes and takes the window seat, she won't have to disturb them when her bus stop comes on the south edge of downtown and she arises to exit.

I'm not entirely convinced, though. It's the TV Digest that spoils it for me.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Autumn in More Ways than One

Here in Minnesota, by the time the calendar announces the start of autumn, we're already in full sway. A few of the maples begin turning their colors in early September, and my staghorn sumac was hinting yellow by mid month. Winter, too, will impatiently come well before the Dec. 22 calendar date, often settling in here shortly after Halloween.

Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. There's a poignancy about it, as we're always well aware that the first killing frost is just around the corner, even while the gardens and landscapes are at their most colorful. Minnesota is mid summer is a lush place dominated by greens, but as autumn begins, the greens are beginning to turn to yellows and browns, and the garden plants still flowering take on an almost neon intensity: brown-eyed susans, asters, mums.

For some people, autumn is a somewhat sad time, but I've never felt that way about it. There is just a hint of melancholy about it, but it's that kind of nice melancholy, like you get before going to bed after a full day of boisterous, fun activity. Winter for me is a time of peace and contentment, as so it doesn't particularly bother me that summer is over. Summer 2010 was a little stressful for me this year, with a difficult economy making for a challenging work situation, and a bum knee giving me a fair amount of physical pain to accommodate. So I find myself ready for a more restful autumn and winter.

The last couple of years have found me feeling even more nostalgic in autumn, and I wonder if this is perhaps because I'm now in the early autumn phase of life myself. I'll be turning 55 later this year, eligible for senior citizen discounts at Perkins restaurants, and with a family legacy that has most everyone moving onward in their 60s or 70s, I'd be fooling myself to imagine that I'm still a young man. You might think that this would be sobering or depressing, but strangely it's not.

I suppose I take comfort from the fact that I've never seen a winter that wasn't followed by spring. It's just that one day in the future, spring will look quite a bit different than ever before.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Leaving the Club I Once Belonged To

I'm perilously close to handing in my lifetime membership card as a Christian.

I've not really been a practicing Christian for awhile, but the last I looked I had some rights to be grandfathered into the club. As an infant, I was baptized in the church, and if I'm not mistaken this kind of makes me a member by default, much the way being born in the US automatically makes you a citizen.

Christianity is certainly my heritage and my culture, but events over the last week or so——some dramatic, some quiet—are making me seriously think about formal and forever disavowal.

• The nutcase preacher in Florida who is promising to burn copies of the Qu'ran on 9/11.... Now, I know that freedom of speech makes such a thing legal and technically defensible, but surely we can all agree that it's a bad idea, in incredibly poor taste. The outpouring of criticism of this wack job, though, has been slow to emerge if you ask me. The fact that "normal" Christians remain so silent in response to this and other actions of their lunatic fringe is disheartening. And this morning, I even heard some member of the conservative press begin to express defense of his planned actions.

• On the bus the other day, a fellow sitting near the front bid me farewell when I reached my stop, with the words. "God bless you sir. Jesus loves you." Now, normally I don't particularly care about such displays, but on this day I suddenly was struck by the fact that this demonstrates a kind of arrogance I don't much appreciate. Especially in the more fundamentalist wings of Christianity this kind of "witnessing" is expected, but it seems to me to be quite a presumptuous stance to assume that your God is the one that I really want blessings from. I wonder what this fellow would think or say, for example, if I replied " Blessing of the prophet of Allah upon you." My hunch is that he might be offended, perhaps even enraged. Hari Krishnas were banned from handing out flowers at the airport years ago around here, but nobody thinks twice about trying to impose Jesus on others.

• A pair of women offering the Gospel knocked on the door last night, wishing to speak with me about Christ. "Sorry," I said, quite politely, "But I don't share your particular practice."

"You're not a Christian?" One said, aghast. "What, then?"

"Well, I might well be Jewish," I said. "Or I could be a Hindu, or Buddhist, for example. Actually, I don't really care to discuss that with you, as it's really a private matter."

"We'll pray to the Lord for you, sir," the other said as they turned away in horror.

• At the bus stop this morning, a Chevy Impala with a fish decal in the back passenger side window pulled up and began honking frantically at a stopped car holding five members of Somali family, the distinctive headwear of the mother and three daughters being unmistakable. Our fellow in the Impala desperately wanted to turn right on red light, but the Somali father ahead of him was obeying the traffic prohibition, which dictated "no turn on red."

Once the light turned green, the Somali driver quietly turned the corner and pulled over to the curb to let the American driver roar by. As the Impala turned, I saw additional Christian decals and bumper stickers on the back of the car.

This, frankly, has been my general experience of Muslims in my own community——as conservative, law-abiding folks who rarely make waves at all, and tolerate a good deal of angry abuse at the hands of Christians, some of whom vocally express their hatred.

I know that it's certainly not fair of me to paint all Christians with the same brush that colors the wacky few; just like it's illogical for Westerners to dress all Muslims in the robes of Bin Laden. But damn it, it begins to make you ashamed of your own heritage. On the eve on 9/11 anniversary, I read statistics that western retribution for 9/11 over the last 9 years has led to the death of at least 110,000 Muslims in Iraq, of which 95,000 are thought to be civilians, according to the Associated Press. That's a ratio of 30 teeth for one tooth, and Lord almighty, we appear to have no intention of stopping anytime soon, as the crusade continues in Afghanistan.

Do the Christians I see around me really, truly believe that this is how Jesus would act? If not, then why aren't they speaking up?

Here's my membership card. Take it, please.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Writhing, as a Spiritual Practice

When I look openly at my own experience of life, and look nakedly at the behavior of people around me, it seems to me quite clear that in the base experience of human life, discomfort plays an important, crucial role. Discomfort comes in many forms, from mild restlessness to outright pain, but in all shades and variations, this discomfort is really the organizing principle for our lives.

I remember once seeing a film done by sleep researchers, in which the typical night's sleep for various test subjects was condensed into 30-second long fast-motion film clips. What was striking was that a "good night's sleep" featured a few moments of utterly relaxed motionlessness, but was mostly a matter of tossing and turning and writhing, as the subject twisted away from physical discomfort and tried to find a few moments of comfortable respite.

This strikes me as a microcosmic of what human life is like, as a great deal of what we do, both individually and culturally, is a form of writhing——an attempt to move out of discomfort and into comfort. It's something of a no-win battle, as no sooner do we find a comfortable position in which to lie, then it grows wearisome and uncomfortable, and we're left to writhe in a different direction to relieve the newly arisen discomfort. This seems evident on so many levels that I wonder if it can be disputed at all.

The creation of government is an attempt to reduce the discomfort of chaos; science is an attempt to establish comfort, either by simply relieving our terror of the unknown or by relieving physical discomfort through practical applications. Art is an attempt to articulate the dramatic interplay of comfort and discomfort and thereby make it understandable. Religious mythologies create stories that explain the origins of comfort and discomfort, and how to court one and banish the other.

I walked through a modern American mall the other day, and counted three store shops devoted to massage, acupuncture, oxygen inhalation and other forms of relieving physical discomfort. The other retail stores existed to serve other methods for courting pleasure and distracting us from pain. The entire capitalist structure it seems to me, exists in particular to nurture pleasure and banish discomfort, through dedication to the pursuit of happiness. When we suffer from great discomfort as a society, we're very likely to go to war to attempt to take gain some comfort, taking it from other people.

This may seem like a slightly cynical view of life, but I'm not sure it's really anything to moan about at all. It really seems to be mostly a matter of simple mechanical physics. Our experience of cycles of comfort and discomfort aren't really all that different from the physical laws we observe in the natural world, where periods of pacific weather give way to stormy turbulence, which then discharge energy and allow a period of peaceful, calm weather to settle in again. Calm landscapes are periodically thrown up in mountainous upheavals and earthquakes, then the landscape gradually erodes again to form calm plains. A boulder perched on the edge of a cliff strikes me as being quite uncomfortable there, and is much relieved when it tumbles into the valley and releases the precarious imbalance.

So our experience of comfort and discomfort, pain and pleasure, may be nothing more than our subjective experience of normal universal physical properties. Wherever you look, you see the matter-energy matrix in a constant flux between periods of comfortable equilibrium and disturbed imbalance. It is the way of the world. The periodic arising of sorrow and unhappiness, and the subsequent appearance of peace and happiness, may be every bit as normal as the brightly shining sun that churns evaporated water vapor from oceans into storm clouds, which then must be relieved by thunderstorms before the sun can shine again.

Subjectively, there is some philosophical peace-of-mind to be had simply from understanding that the cycle of discomfort and comfort, pain and peace, is a natural one. At the very least, it makes it hard to feel put-upon by life's challenges, and it eliminates the "it's not fair" attitude that governs the emotionally immature.

It's something of a cop-out, though, to passively dwell here, tempting though it might be. For the truth is that the writhing itself, the instinct away from discomfort and toward peace, is in itself a natural function, and it's here that spiritual practice fits in. Spiritual practice, after all, isn't about detached philosophical acceptance, but rather, it's always a tool for improving the success of the writhing itself. When you look at the practices and rituals of any spiritual system, you quickly see that they don't really offer acceptance of the suffering, but always propose beliefs and practices aimed at discharging the energy, for facilitating the motion toward peace and comfort.

Even Buddhism, arguably the most detached and accepting of practices, holds as one of it's four basic tenants that its techniques offer an end to suffering. Every other system of spiritual practice also offers its own form of salvation from suffering, and that fact alone proves my contention: spiritual practice exists in the zone of writhing, that transition zone from pain and discomfort to peace and ease. Spirituality helps us writhe more successfully, much the way a lightning rod discharges the energy of a thunderstorm without burning down the barn.

The success of a spiritual practice, then, should be judged not by whether it offers never-ending happiness (clearly impossible), but by how well it helps us routinely negotiate the motion from imbalance back to equilibrium, from sorrow to peace, whenever those imbalances arise.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Autumn Approaches

In the last week here in Minneapolis, we've strung together the first small group of fall days. The wind directions have shifted, the wind speeds have increased, the humidity has dropped, and the piercing days of harsh blue sky punctuated by thunderstorms have given way to days of puffy white clouds skidding across the sky from dawn to dusk.

There will be days where summer returns, but this week is a harbinger of things to come. A welcome harbinger, as there is no time of year more glorious in the upper midwest than autumn.

The gardens are feeling the effects of August heat at the moment, with hostas and other foliage plants scorched around the edges and looking pretty puny. but soon, as I begin to clear out the dead daylily foliage, the colors of brown-eyed Susans will become more intense, asters will begin to bloom, mums will emerge, and the overall color intensity of the garden will become exceedingly bright and vibrant. All of this will happen well in advance of the fall foliage change in the maples and sumac, which will push the garden into otherworldly status. The quality of the light in Minnesota also changes in Autumn. As the sun shifts back toward the equator, the light become more oblique and dramatic. Biting insects begin to go dormant, and there is nothing more pleasant in the world than sitting for a few hours in the cool sunlight of a Minnesota autumn.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Citizens of 4F, Aug. 17, 2009

Vincent sits on the right row of inward facing seats at the front of the 7:12 4F bus into downtown. He is in many ways a very typical young man in the 28-32 year-old range, and the fact that he is typical is mildly disturbing to me.

Looking over his face, I count 13 pieces of metal piercing various aspects of his face, if indeed that was a tongue stud I saw peeking out a moment ago. In addition to this, there are pieces of hardware in his upper and lower ears, his eyebrows, his lips, his chin, his nostrils. In his earlobes are round disks of the type you used to associate with aboriginal natives of Africa or the Amazon. It is for the moment just a small insert disk in his ear lobe; the habit is to start small and gradually increase the size of the disks.

Once upon a time, this look would have marked Vincent as a rebel of some degree, but it is not at all unusual today. Not only do you see young adults like this at the hip downtown ad agencies, but it's also quite common to see them dressed in suits working as loan officers at banks. In my office, there are several young adults with vivid body art tattoos that run from toes to scalp. Nose studs are now so common that they no longer warrant noticing.

It is certainly a sign of my fuddy-duddiness that I'm quietly appalled at the proliferation of body mutilation among young citizens. As I study Vincent, and others like him, I wonder what inner processes lead them to compulsively deface the physical body that nature has given them. I simply can't imagine the appeal of going to a body art studio to have my flesh drilled and bored for the insertion of nails, studs, chains and other hardware. I try to imagine a situation in which I'd want to do such a thing, and I can't. And I have a pretty good imagination.

Even as I'm thinking this, though, I recognize my indignation isn't entirely legitimate. Vincent and others of his kind are only extending an established human trait to an extreme degree. The human animal is the only one I can think of that routinely chooses to to mutilate itself in the name of ornament. At the mild end of the spectrum is coloring our hair, shaving whiskers from our cheeks and legs, wearing earrings. Carry the habit several degrees to the right, and you're goring your genitalia to hang heavy chains. All of it, even ordinary grooming, is a form of self-mutilation, when you look at it nakedly. All manifestations of this impulse seem to serve the paradoxical purpose of shifting your identity away from the norm, and thereby establishing your membership in a different group. I hope, anyway, that this is the motivation, and that it's not a manifestation of self-loathing.

And so if I was going to be true to my disapproval of the shocking idea of piercing the glans of one's penis, would I not stop shaving, stop trimming my hair, stop wearing cologne? What makes my form of ordinary self-mutilation better than your more creative effort? After all, is piercing your nipples any more barbaric than having our sons routinely circumcised at birth?

Disconcerting thoughts at 7:15 in the morning. Must try a different antihistamine.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Garden in August

I've now officially become one of those gardeners who has specific dates for routine seasonal activities.

I realized last night that when the tree frogs begin to chirp at night—an event that usually begins around the first of August—is the time when instinct tells me to spread the previous year's compost over the flower beds.

August is a very dry, hot time in the upper midwest, and mulching the beds with compost now will help keep the soil cool and moist into the autumn. The plant material added to the compost heaps last fall have now broken down fully, and emptying the heaps now also creates space for the shredded leaves and other plant materials that will become available as I begin to take care of fall cleanup beginning in a few weeks.

In addition to the compost itself, I'll also start adding the grass clippings to the garden, over the layer compost. Up to now, those grass clippings have gone into the compost bins themselves. Some gardeners believe that raw grass clippings are a problem if they are used to mulch beds directly before they have been allowed to break down, but I've never found this to be a problem, largely because I d0 feed the gardens anyway, and the breakdown of green grass clippings never causes the nitrogen deficiency that is sometimes bemoaned. As the grass clippings turn to the color of straw, the visual effect is pleasing, as well, looking like a lighter shade of shredded bark.

If you mulch with grass clippings, though, you should do so only if you are not treating the lawn with herbicides. Adding chemical-laden grass clippings to flower beds may have bad effects on your flowers.

I"m not one of those gardeners who insists that all plants must be surrounded by clean, pristine soil. In the routine, day to day acts of deadheading old flowers and removing stalks, I snip up these bits and spread them over the garden as I go, so that the beds themselves do their own composting all summer long. Small twigs picked up from the lawn also get broken up and spread between the plants, so my gardens tend to resemble a forest floor in many ways. This isn't at all evident from a distance, though, so my gardens look quite manicured from a casual distance.

Next spring, the gardens will have quite a bit of organic debris that has wintered over the top of the soil, and rather than raking all this off, as some compulsive gardeners do, I will simply dig this material into the soil before planting time. The overall benefit of this approach is that it reduces the amount of fertilizing you need to do, as well as keeping the soil friable and easy to work with.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Now for Something Completely Different

This moment, the one you are experiencing right now, is a perfect one.

To say this does not mean that this moment is a pleasurable or enjoyable one for you, necessarily. That's what we usually mean when we say things are "perfect"——that we really, really like the way things are right now. But to equate perfection with desirability is an egocentric viewpoint, not one that has big picture validity. In fact, this very moment, in its perfection, might offering me pain, or unhappiness, or some other form of discomfort. The perfection of the moment has nothing whatsoever to do with me liking the quality of that moment.

This moment is a perfect one because it is the only possible outcome resulting from the events leading up to it. The "effect" of this moment has been governed with the unavoidable logic of the "causes" preceding. If I happen to be unhappy with the moment, that doesn't spoil it's perfection, because the nature of this moment, including my feelings about it, is the logical result of things like memory, my previous life experiences, my attitude, my outlook, the current mixture of hormones and enzymes and neurotransmitters in my brain, my current physical condition, etc, etc.

In other words, dropping dead of a heart attack is a perfect result, if viewed as the logical consequence of heredity factors, poor eating habits, a dissolute living style, or a sudden contact with high voltage power lines. A truly horrific world would be the one where you don't die when a giant grand piano crashes onto your head from an overhead pulley. We need for the world to follow logical physical principles, and so it does. So how else could any moment be anything but perfect?

Viewing the world in this way——seeing each moment is a perfect one-- isn't to then suggest that we're supposed to "accept" whatever happens to us and not take action to change it. After all, perfection is also present in our resistance to the circumstances of the moment, in our choice to move in another direction.

At the same time, there's still a profound peace to be had from recognizing the perfection of the moment, even when it's unpleasant, because it then frees you from disagreeing and wrangling with the reality of it. A lot of grief we bring on ourselves isn't so much the actual pain, as our disagreement and refusal to acknowledge its truth and reality.

An interesting change begins to happen at the very instant you acknowledge the perfection of any moment. Things become exactly as they are, and immediately there is a burden that lifts from your shoulders——the burden of constantly trying to improve and perfect things. You find yourself entering into experience very directly, since there is really nothing to accomplish in a perfect moment. You just live it with a full embrace. The past is irrelevant ( it doesn 't even exist, really), and the future is interesting only because the current moment feeds it. Each moment is what it is, and the very next moment becomes an utterly logical and perfect result of the previous one. The power of our actions becomes blindingly evident, and you begin to feel a precision and economy and powerfulness in how you make choices. What you do in response to this situation is, in itself perfect, and it will lead to the inevitable (perfect) experience of the next moment. There is nothing to change, really, and nothing to regret. Only experience.

Normally, this method of seeing things comes to us in tiny little flashes, with considerably more time spent lamenting the past or worrying about the future. It is possible, though, to find yourself recognizing and embracing the inherent perfection of this moment, then the next moment, then the next moment, so that there's really nothing else but this moment, perpetually. Strangely, it's a form of immortality. String a thousand of these moments together, and it becomes a 15-second experience that can change everything and rewire your circuits in a major way.


This kind of approach to phenomenology may seem pretty esoteric and exotic, but in reality you can find it in the mystical traditions of almost every major world religion. In Christianity, for example, you will find such a practice inherent in "The Cloud of Unknowing," a seminal work of Western Christian theology.

I began to learn about it through the study of Dzogchen, a branch of Tibetan Buddhist practice, that is also known as "The Great Perfection." Depending on your leanings, you could look to either source for more information on this way of viewing the world.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Made for Walking

The knee injury I'm recovering from has turned out to have relevance to my spiritual practice. I suppose that shouldn't surprise me.

I'm now at a point where I'm beginning to take tentative forays out walking without the full-leg brace, and I've found that the six weeks of relative inactivity has caused my right leg to lose most of its memory of how to walk. I can, indeed walk, and can even do so without much of a limp, but it takes very deliberate focus and concentration. I don't walk with habit right now, but with very conscious intent. Rather that walking on auto-pilot, I have to focus and very deliberately raise the knee, extend the calf while raising the toes, plant the heel, rock forward on the ball, and gently push off with the thigh to deliver my weight to the other leg. Again and again and again. It occurs to me the act of walking is really nothing more than a series of controlled forward falls. Odd that I didn't realize that until now.

Forgetting the deliberate actions that go into walking causes the leg to go spastic and wobble like overcooked spaghetti. A feeling of utter vertigo arises whenever I stop thinking about how to walk. Very peculiar indeed.

Every time I walk, then, becomes an exercise in meditative focus. A few minutes of this causes me to break a sweat, not through exertion so much as through mental concentration. There will come a time pretty soon when I'll walk again completely on autopilot, but the fact is that I enjoy the wonder of walking much more when paying attention to it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Matters of Mind

Over the ages, a lot of energy has gone into discussing and arguing and articulating the presence of a split between mind and matter, a divide between mind and body, in the human experience. It's at the heart of all psychoanalytic theory, and seems to underlie most religious systems. It's widely accepted, for example, that all the various parables about a fall from grace, an alienation from God, are metaphors for this schism between the physical, corporeal world of the material body; and the ethereal realm of the mind and spirit. They are thought to be two separate states, which we would desperately like to reunite. It's the base state that creates various legends of falling from grace, being cast from the Garden of Eden.

Yet the older I get and the more hours I log in pure observation, the more convinced I become that the schism doesn't exist, never did exist, and that much human sorrow occurs simply because we subscribe to an idea that was erroneous from the get start.

I say this largely because I'm increasingly aware that there is just no real separation between mind and body. A disturbed mind is soothed by relaxing the body, and relaxing the mind is the surest way to relaxing the body. Recently, I've learned that healing my broken knee has been in no small measure a matter of relaxing my mind about the whole matter. It's a package deal, and always was so.

The world as we know it is really a construct of mind. One cloudy day might be dreary experience indeed that interferes with all our happiness; another rainy day might be delightful excuse to lounge with a book and listen to rain tap on the leaves of giant hostas outside an open window. The same worlds, but entirely different worlds, thanks to the various spices which the mind brings to experience. There is no world to experience, in fact, except the one flavored by mind.

We have no experience of the world at all that is independent of mind, and you are therefore left with no conclusion except that mind and the material world are utterly indivisible. You can't be aware without being aware of some thing, so does it not then follow that they are indivisible aspects of the same phenomenon?

So, although we generally think that coming to wholeness and happiness is about healing some kind archetypal division or achieving at-one-ment between matter and mind, perhaps the truth is that this perceived wound was imaginary all along.

The sense of separation we long to heal turns out to be the separation we've chosen for ourselves.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Creatures Know

I've always quietly believed that our identities aren't at all fixed in time and space, but that who we are this moment is entirely different than who we are the next.

Animals seem to know this quite clearly, as they treat me much differently when I'm in the role of gardener. It's not always fondness I'm feeling from animals, but I do know that I'm a different being altogether when I'm gardening.

It's as though gardeners are somehow kindred spirits to creatures in the garden. Normally, animals sense the innate animosity of the human species to their kind, and react defensively, or with fear, toward us. Gardeners, though, get treated differently. For example, I've never, ever been stung by a wasp or bee when puttering around the garden, even though that's normally where I come across stinging insects. Put me in a car, though, at a picnic, and I'm just as likely to get stung as the next fellow.

Squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, birds of all types might be startled and flee from me if I come upon them on my walk to the bus stop in the morning, but when I'm tending the garden, it is largely as though I'm invisible. I've had squirrels run over my feet on the way to the birdbath to drink. Chipmunks have run up my legs to sit on the end table next to the armchair on my patio when I'm sitting there quietly reading. Voles come up from the ground to look at me. Birds actually flock to me when I'm watering the garden, as they know the moisture will raise worms and other invertebrates out of the soil for them to eat. One robin, when it spots me, will come and scold me severely until I spray the water for her.

Rabbits have no fear of gardeners. Though we hate them passionately for the mayhem they inflict on the lilies, they know full well that no gardener is capable of violence against them. Once, a mother raccoon came down out of the ash tree in the yard with her baby gripped in her mouth, paused in front of me to allow me to compliment her family, then scurried back up the tree to the hollow spot where she nested.

Alas, though, the mosquitos haven't yet learned that I am their friend.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

When it Rains, it Pours

Still recovering from knee surgery on the right leg, yesterday the extra strain on my left leg caused me to pull a muscle in the left calf, leading to an extremely interesting double-leg limp that is amusing everyone who sees it. Late in the afternoon, a routine dental appointment was made more complicated when the hygienist, a direct descendent of Eva Baun, scraped away a portion of my gum, exposing a nerve, then sprayed cold water rigorously over it. The spot has been throbbing ever since, though sometimes the pain in my legs mercifully distracts me from the fact.

My wife, who, bless her heart, has managed most all of the serious home maintenance tasks since I've been gimping around, has strained her lower back to the point where she struggles to get in and out of a chair without help. If I cinch up my leg brace really tight, I might be able to help raise her up or lower her into the rocking chair, though neither of us has any confidence that we won't collapse in a joint heap on the floor.

A mere month ago, we were a hale and healthy couple in the early phases of vibrant middle age.
Today, we're far along into our decrepitude, and it's is our 31st wedding anniversary. Any recommendations for how to celebrate? Perhaps a nice domino delivery pizza, and some really stiff cocktails. Ah, the romance, it never dies.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ah, Now I See

In many schools of Buddhist practice, mantras play a significant role. These verbal syllables, which are either recited silently or spoken aloud, serve as the focus for meditation. Single-pointed attention to the mantra has the effect of quieting the mind of extraneous thought.

The use of mantras isn't unique to Buddhism. Many traditions use some form of mantra practice. Practitioners of hatha yoga, for example, are well aware of the importance of the single syllable om in their practice.

In Buddhism, there are a plentiful number of mantras used, ranging from the simple above mentioned om, to the hundred-syllable mantra that some devotees recite hundreds of thousands of times as tool for purification. One of the most common Buddhist mantras is the six-syllable mantra om, mani, padme, hum. (Pronunciations are tricky with these mantras; this one usually is recited like this "Ome, mah-knee, pay-me, hung."

But a mantra that I have found very useful is a three syllable version: Om-ah-hum. In some practices, the recommendation is to utter (or silently recite) om in sync with your inhalation, hung on the exhalation, and, in the empty, quiet space between inhalation and exhalation, to observe the ah.

The simple mantra continues to reveal things to me the longer I use it, and over time I've found it to be a convenient grounding anchor whenever turbulence arises in my life. For me, the om and hum correlate to the yin and yang dualities, and can serve to represent any version of opposing energies that are present for you: pleasure-pain, good-evil, creation-decay. This revolving cycle of phenomenon is the way of the world, and the mantra is a way of reminding me of this basic truth of the rise and fall of all things.

Things get really interesting, though, in the "ah" between the "om" and the "hum." The middle syllable of the mantra, for me, represents a quiet openness, a non-judgmental spaciousness that serves as the ground, or matrix, in which all the om-hum phenomenon unfolds. It is, in essence, the syllable that represents pure awareness, which by its nature does not judge, but simply"knows" that phenomenon is being experienced.

Dwelling in the "ah" isn't a particularly familiar thing for us, because normally we are pretty much enslaved to the revolving cycle of our mental phenomenon, and really don't experience it with any kind of objectivity. We are either caught up in our feelings or emotions, or we're obsessed with our thoughts, and it never occurs to us that there's another quiet open state that is neither emotion nor thought. There is really no accurate metaphor for this spaciousness, although its sometimes said that glimpsing it is like suddenly recognizing the sky when you've spent all your time worried about clouds. When we do glimpse it, though, the feeling of relief is profound. Recognizing the "ah," and learning to relax and dwell there, is really what a spiritual path aims for.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Ying and Yan of it

A word of forewarning: At the end of this post, I'm showing a couple of photos of my damaged right knee, one of which is a bit graphic....

Three weeks ago, I had the first modestly severe injury in my 54 years on the planet. Prior to that point, it was all simply a matter of cuts, bruises stitches——a few things causing small scars, nothing more serious. I've been damn lucky, in other words.

And my recent ruptured knee tendon is relatively modest in the greater scheme of things. In this time and place, there is nothing life-threatening or even permanently disabling about it. Still, it's the most truamatic physical insult I've ever had, and it will give me an 8 to 12 week experience of what it means to be disabled in our culture. I won't walk without crutches until late in the summer, and it may well be after the Christmas before I walk normally again.

Interesting lessons to be learned here. Principle among them is the reminder of the interplay of decay/death on the one hand, and restoration/healing on the other. It's never before been quite so obvious to me that these opposing energies are intertwined, codependent even, in everything we see around us.

The fact that my knee gave way so laughably easily on Father's Day, is, on the one hand, indication of the gradual progress we all make toward the "big dirt nap." Twenty years ago, I routinely jumped, fell, twisted, banged this knee with a good deal of vigor, and never had any problem with it at all. Now at 54 years of age, though, with soft tissues beginning to harden and lose their resiliency, a relatively gentle slip on the steps caused this important knee tendon to tear away with an audible pop, leaving me in a heap in the steps.

It is, of course, just one indication of the future coming for us. The aging process is quite naturally one of steady, gradual decline, and my torn tendon of today will become a faulty hip of tomorrow, a kidney stone the day after, a heart attack or stroke some time after that. It is utterly inevitable, and to pretend that we don't decay is to cruelly delude ourselves.

One of the benefits of having an injury of this sort, and especially of the physical therapy that goes into recovery, is that you are forced to become more health conscious and watch your body and care for it a bit better. And simple observation convinces me of something else indisputable. If decay can't be avoided, healing is also inevitable. I'm supposed to exercise my knee three times a day, massage it, study its pain patterns, break down the scar tissue to make sure the mobility returns. To do this involves a fair amount of discomfort, but it also shows me that the knee is ever so slowly, gradually, but inevitably, improving and healing. The scar down the center of the knee is beginning to lose its angry look, the motion in the joint now is nearly 90-degrees, and the knee itself now begins to feel like it belongs to me again, compared to just a week ago or so, when it looked and felt to all appearances like a block of concrete.

A second lesson is that healing in hindered, and pain increased, when we resist. The pain of physical therapy, for example, is very largely a matter of the fearful resistance we bring to the process. Healing is in large part a matter of learning to trust the knee again, to relax into the healing. What's true here seems very likely to be true of other forms of injury and insult—whether spiritual, psychological, or otherwise.

I see this because I'm required to pay such close attention to the knee, but I'm relatively sure that its also true of every form of injury and insult we ever experience. We do decay, constantly. But we also heal and evolve, constantly. And healing is in large measure a process of relaxing.

The following three photos are in reverse order. First, the knee today, second the knee a week ago. Stop here if you're squeamish. Below this photo will be what the knee looked like three weeks ago under the operating knife.


Monday, June 28, 2010

An Introduction to Pain

My life has seen moments of dabbling in psychic pain, but my 5-1/2 decades on the planet has somehow spared me the experience of severe physical pain. Up to now, I've broken no bones, had no surgeries, no serious burns. My physical traumas have been limited to an occasional sprained ankle, many cuts and bruises, but nothing whatsoever that's more serious than than that. I've been exceedingly luck and blessed that way.

Last week, though, fates gave me just a small taste of real pain. It was a lesson my education has been sorely lacking.

On Father's Day, I slipped down the back stairs, and upon planting one foot on the bottom step in an effort to catch myself, the major tendon and smaller ligaments in my right knee said "oh no, you don't," and turned loose of their grip on the surrounding bones. In scientific terms, it was a "complete rupture of the patella tendon, and partial rupture of anterior patella ligaments." Among the symptoms was a knee cap that decided it would rather take up residence floating above the muscle in my lower thigh, rather than over the knee joint itself.

All I know is that it hurt, big time. It hurt in the way that causes you to gag and pass out, even when doped up on morphine, at the moment the paramedics try to lift you onto the stretcher.

I"m on the mend now, three days after surgery to repair on the damage, and the pain is now entirely manageable. I now find myself, though, with the utmost respect for those folks who deal with serious burns, or joint problems that create steady, neverending pain. I don't know if I could do it, as this little, ordinary, garden variety tendon tear is just about as much as I care to deal with.

I've observed some things about this kind of sudden physical injury and associated pain.

• The shock is to the system as much as to the pain endings. To suddenly have a perfectly serviceable body part stop working entirely throws the system into disarray. The notorious pain from the first few days was largely a product of associated body parts shocked at the disruption to the status quo. Pain spasms in butt mucles, lower calves, toes, stomach unrest, were all just about as debilitating as the ache in the knee itself. In fact, the lessening of pain over the last few days has been largely about coaxing the rest of my body into relaxing the tension they were holding out of empathy for the knee parts.

• A good part of the pain is entirely mental. In this case, the physical pain itself was greatly increased by the simple mental thought of knee parts disintegrating within. It was a shocking thought to me, and hence the pain was equally shocking. At the point where I began to understand the mechanics of the various holes and loops and sutures the surgeon had drilled and threaded and sewn, the whole thing became much less threatening and hence less painful. Knowledge ameliorates pain, it appears.

• Pain management medications can and do work, but like everything in life, there are tradeoffs. The benefits, other than obvious pain relief, is that the colors on your flat screen TV become considerably more intense, the music more compelling, odors from the garden more intense. The drawback is that you will invariably deal with a little bit of sweating and irritability as each dose wears off, not to mention the disappointment when television is no longer interesting. For myself, anyway, I'm following these guidelines: pills to reduce pain and allow sleep: yes: Pills to make daytime television seem more interesting: no.

• Severe pain tends to be undifferentiated pain. In the process of getting better, the global throbbing ache has given way to a series of clearly identified pains of the various incisions and stretched body tissues. On one level, the pain is probably just as severe as it was early in the week, but now somehow understanding the locus of each throb, being able to identify and understand it, makes it considerably more manageable. I take this to mean that attention and focus have some benefits for dealing with pain.

• Don't listen when nurses tell you that pain medications will constipate you. Under no circumstances should you take the recommended laxatives, because a single small dose will open the floodgates for many days to come. No minor thing, when partial disrobing is required for each use of the restroom.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Time for Me to Move to Mars

I think of myself as relatively well informed, but every so often I learn of some new ugliness found on the underbelly of our species. Silly me; from time to time I even begin to think our species is a noble one.

A recent Supreme Court decision has struck down a law forbidding the distribution of films depicting illegal cruelty to animals.

The fact that the Court would strike this law down can be viewed as tragic in its own right. That's not what is so disturbing me, though. What is really horrifying about this is the reason the law was created in the first place. It was enacted during the Clinton administration to combat a then up-and-coming trend:

Crush-fetish videos, favored by a segment of our population who finds something sexually gratifying about live-action depictions of women crushing rodents, kittens, and other small mammals to death with the spikes of their high heels.

USA Today, CNN, the LA Times are all reporting this quite casually——almost like it's no big deal. Yet I had no idea whatsoever that this kind of depravity even existed. It appears to be so prevalent that most people are already aware of it.

By comparison, the test case that came up before the court seems almost tame——a fellow who wants to sell videos of pit bulls fighting brought the case to the court, arguing that the law is unconstitutional. In his favor is the fact that the current law is so sweeping that it would technically make it illegal for animal rights activists to show the crimes the spirit of their activist causes. The court agrees, and now this fellow will be able to print and sell his dog-fight videos, alongside "Girls Gone Wild."

This is what it has come to. In a world of pedophile priests, crush-video sadists, snuff-film collectors, ordinary dog-fighting fans have begun to seem almost wholesome.
The court carefully notes that it does not condone crush videos, but can't see any reason to forbid dog-fight enthusiasts their fun.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Citizens of 4F, March 10, 2010

My walk-sprint to the bus stop is successful, and I arrive there several minutes before the bus arrives.

As I relax against the back wall of the enclosed shelter, and my mind becomes slow and receptive, a street appears in my experience of mind——as with all experiences, it is a mixture of sensory data coming in from eyes and ears and skin, plus memory, plus subjective feeling.

It is Marquette Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, between Third St. and Fourth St., at 5:33 pm on March 10, as experienced by myself.

This street that appears in my experience is utterly unique, and will never appear again. At no other time will the light and overcast weather be exactly the same; never again will the melting ice and snow create exactly the same sculptural shapes on the sidewalks; never again will my own mood and memory and outlook be exactly the same.

This street, utterly unique and temporary, appears nowhere else but in my mind. For no one else is this street exactly the same as the one I experience. The fellow standing next to me——although he might see a few details that resemble the details in my own experience of the street——is experiencing a different street than I am. Perhaps his emotional day has been such that the street seems terribly dreary and foreboding, not the mysterious and symbolic street that I am experiencing right now. Perhaps his hearing is much more acute than mine; perhaps he has more perceptive sense of color, and sees a more vibrant display in the reflected lights of the wet pavement.

Not only is my street unique to me, but in the very next moment, I will myself experience an entirely different street, as when the bus pulls up to the curb, there will be a glad urgency to get home to a warm supper followed by relaxed time spent reading or planning the spring garden. Slight differences in sight and sound and smell and memory and mood will create an entirely new experience. In fact, merely noticing what I am currently experiencing causes it to vanish and be replaced by a new experience.

This is the nature of all phenomena, all experiences. They occur only in our minds, they are utterly unique and belong to us alone, and they are instantly vanishing in the very same moment they first appear.

Depending on your outlook, this realization can be quite terrifying, or it can be jubilantly freeing.

That too, may change moment to moment.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Some Buddhist Basics

In the Buddhist philosophy that I follow, it is thought that human suffering is the result of the cyclical reliving of behavior patterns. The human condition is said to be one of both quiet and overt suffering, because we are trapped into repeating the same behaviors again and again. For very fundamental Buddhists, this is believed quite literally——that the human soul/personality is actually reborn again and again in subsequent lifetimes. For Buddhists of a more symbolic bent, it's taken as a comment on our human habit of reliving the same behaviors and problems again and again within this life.

Either way, though, the driving mechanism of this literal or figurative rebirth is the energy of hunger, hatred and ignorance. The cyclical, recurring problems of our existence arise because because we don't see things as they are (ignorance), which leads to either some form of subtle or obvious longing or attachment (hunger), or some form of resistance and aversion (hatred). These three problems are very intimately connected, and making progress on one leads to progress on all three. In other words, seeing things as they are quite naturally causes a reduction in grasping or aversion, and reducing grasping will naturally lessen hatred and cause us to see things more nakedly.

The principle tool of spiritual development, for Buddhists, is meditation, and the goal of meditation is quite simple: to practice the surrender of our pulling and pushing, our hatred and hunger, and thereby see things as they are. Should we ever accomplish this permanently, the legendary result is nirvana——the escape from the dreariness of cycle repetiion. Fundamentalists believe that such a soul no longer requires rebirth; more modern believers suggest that such accomplishment will cause this life to be one of peace and happiness.

To the westerner approaching Buddhism from a different culture, all this will feel pretty alien and unnatural, but very gradually almost everyone who steadily practices will see some literal truth to it. Most of us see it only in small glimpses, especially at first, but it is surely there: surrendering aversion and grasping causes you to see things much, much differently, and the result is a peace of mind that is most definitely transcendent and can be life changing.

Buddhist practice can seem to be a bewilderingly complex system of practices and lessons, but it's important to understand that it is all really about this very simple goal of surrendering hatred and longing, and seeing phenomena as they are rather than through the filters of wanting and disliking. Although there are many different schools of Buddhist practice, they all share this goal. The practices that focus on seeing the impermanence of phenomena, for example, focus on this because it automatically shows you that there is no logic to clinging to things that will vanish in a moment. Practices that focus on non-selfish compassion for others are designed to lessens our attachment to ego. The "middle way" that is so much a part of Buddhist practice is largely about applying antidotes to the extremes of greed and hatred in an effort to find the silence that occurs when they are neutralized.

On a very practical level, I have found that there is a tangible physical sensation to this surrender of longing and aversion. At meditative moments when I momentarily know myself to be in the zone, there is an almost cellular sensation that an energy which normally grips us, like magnetic charges either attracting or repelling, suddenly falls silent. The feeling can be a bit unnerving and ungrounding, and can even frighten you at first. But if you can come to trust it, you find a delicious sensation of peace and calm within it. A frantically spinning hamster wheel suddenly falls silent. I think that my own practice, whether it involves one lifetime or many, will be to gradually trust this sensation and rest comfortably in it more and more often.

And progress doesn't require any kind of massive accomplishment, but rather just an ongoing surrender of the habits that interfere.

Obsure But Wonderful Film

In our quest to see as many of the Oscar nominated films as possible, my wife and I made our way to a distant suburb to see a collection of documentary short films last night.

There's one little film that perhaps you'll run into on HBO or available through Netflix that you really owe it to yourself to see.

Music by Prudence is one of the most uplifting little pieces of 35-minute movie-making you'll ever want to see. It's about a group of very seriously handicapped young adults in Zimbabwe, who suffer from physical problems so disfiguring that initially it causes you to wince slightly. This is a part of the world where physical deformities are regarded by folk legend as signals of witchcraft, so these young men and women are quite seriously ostrocized by their culture, in a country that is among the very poorest on earth.

Yet to a man and woman, these are some of the happiest people you'll ever see, and the key to their happiness is music. The lead character, Prudence, leads a small group of musicians and singers who put together absolutely angelic performances. The interactions between these people are some of the most loving and creative moments you can imagine.

This is one of those stories that will quickly put your own minor life complaints into complete perspective. See it if you can.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Replying to Michelle....

My friend Michelle, at Full Soul Ahead, asked an interesting question to my previous post: "Re the depression, how did you climb out?"

At least here among my blog friends, I've made no secret of the fact that two pretty serious bouts of depression & anxiety have visited me twice in my life. When people ask me about how exactly I beat it, though, I agonize a bit over what to say. I fear that people may take my experience as a prescription for their own course of action, for one thing. Each person's experience is different, and I worry that people will assume that my method will work for them. Everybody is different, and I most assuredly don't want anyone assuming that my way is for everyone.

But for what it's worth, I will tell you what salvaged me:

• Chemistry counts. I know people who steadfastly believe that they can and should pull themselves out of depression by their own bootstraps, without the benefit of medical help. They see it as a moral failing, and insist that moral strength is the only prescription. I"m not one of those folks. Refusing all medical help for these things is a bad as seeking medical help indiscriminately. In my case, medicines did help me both times, but I did quickly learn that I was helped by doses that were far smaller than what is normally regarded as therapeutic. Even at the smaller range of normal prescription levels of an anti-depressant, for example, I became exceedingly irritable. At one-third of that small dose, though, I found that strong feelings became muffled just enough that I could recognize and deal with what I was feeling. Beyond this, I became aware that the types of foods I ate had a dramatic effect on my mental world, and as I ate more carefully, I became less susceptible to depression and anxiety. Whether it's Prozac or garlic, I approach these substances somewhat in the spirit of alchemical elixirs that offer benefits if used carefully.

Chemistry, though, turned out to be part, but certainly not all, of my emotional well being.

• Surrender. This is certainly something I hesitate to recommend broadly, but in my own case, I eventually found that an enormous amount of my unhappiness came about because of trying desperately to avoid my own unhappiness. Turning directly into it, the path of least resistance, finally was the only option left to me, and ironically was what led me out. I'm not a traditionally religious person, but there was certainly something like "turning over to a higher power" at work here, where acknowledging the depth of misery was crucial to coming out the other side. I came to understand that these dark nights of the soul existed for a reason, and that, well "resistance is futile." Because depression can and does kill people, though, I think that one cannot go down this path unless you have some kind of good teacher or therapist watching out for you as a safety net. In some regards, my depressions were normal life events that had to extinguish themselves before I could move on, and I'm well aware that some form of higher power or buddha-nature helped me in this.

• A mystical lifestyle. That might be putting it too radically, but I did come to realize that a highly rational, scientific outlook wasn't a good fit for me in the long run. In the periods before my depressions, I was living in a pretty rigid manner, while in reality I was much better suited to a "more things in heaven and earth than dreamed of in your philosophy" kind of life. When I woke up and became aware of an archetypal, symbolic style of living, I found that my depression and anxiety lifted, and that both the inner and outer world began to make sense to me. At the point where my life has become exceedingly literal/scientific again, I run the risk of more depression and anxiety. When I stay open to other interpretations, I'm far happier. So it's not Carl Sagen and Stephen Hawking that does it for me, but Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. For me, anyway, the traditional Western lifestyle feels like living in black & white, while technicolor exists in the world of Black Elk, and Tibetan Shamans, and the bhagavad gita.

Perhaps this all just makes me sound flakier than before. Still, Michelle did ask....

Friday, February 26, 2010

Regarding Andrew Koenig

Depression is one of the most insidious diseases there is. It recently took the life of former actor Andrew Koenig in Vancouver. He is the son of actor Walter Koenig, better known as Chekov of Star Trek fame. Andrew had some acting credits to his own name, specifically as a minor character in a television series about teenagers some time back. When you look at photos of him over the years, you see a chameleon-like visage that changes appearances quite radically every few years. It gives you a hint that he may have been a troubled soul.

We now know that Andrew faced a lifelong battle with depression, which he finally lost up in Vancouver last week.

I fortunately don't have experience with that kind of lifelong agony, but I have twice in my life had extended episodes of very serious clinical depression, the kind that required hospitalization. The first episode lasted almost two years, the second only a couple of months. It was many years in the past, but even now it's not something I talk about other than with very close friends, because mental illness in general, and depression in particular, makes people exceedingly uncomfortable. Some people make nervous fun of people suffering from emotional disorders, which I suppose is evidence of how frightening it is to them. In many respects, our attitudes toward mental illness have barely evolved at all from the days when we viewed it as a sign of demonic possession.

I remember once at a cocktail party, though, finally getting fed up with someone who was poking fun at depressed people, defining them as emotionally weak——the Prozac nation. First, I admitted that I had myself suffered from depression 20 years earlier.

"So, tell us about it," he said, blushing just slightly but not really honestly regretful of his arrogance. "What are we missing?" He gestured to some of his friends who were listening and trying not to smile at their buddy's wit.

"Well," I said, "Did you ever have one of those days where you just wake up on the wrong side of bed, where you're a little grumpy and just "off" for the whole day? Kind of like having that mental achiness that goes with a bad cold, but without the sniffles?"

He nodded, and there was a trace of a smug smile on his face. "Yeah, I know. That's what I mean. What's the big deal with being depressed. People should just get over it. You obviously did."

"Now, think for a minute about what it would feel like if that bad day lasted not for a day or two, but three or four months at a time. And if you started to think that maybe that's really how it was going to be forever."

He kept nodding, the smug smile softening only a little bit. "Well, yes," he said. "But plenty of people have real chronic health problems, arthritis for example, and they get by just fine. Life is tough all over."

"Right. But what I've described to you is a very, very mild depression. So mild you almost wouldn't even call it that. I mention it because its the only thing you might understand. But if you took that sensation I'm talking about, made it 100 times worse, so that it felt like you were wading in thick molasses up to your neck, extended it for years at a time, then you'd have some idea about what real depression feels like. You wake up with it, you eat with it, you go to your kids' soccer game with it, you work with it, you shower with it, you sleep with it, you dream with it. Then you wake up with it again. Day after day after day. Pretty soon, it seems clear that it will never, ever change. This is now your life."

His face blanched then, visibly, and he took a tentative sip of his scotch and water. "Well, if that really happened to me, just like you describe, I'd probably blow my brains out."

"Exactly," I said. "I wonder if you'd have the courage not to."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Heavy Stuff, but Interesting

I've been reading some pretty interesting material on the subject of Dzogchen buddhist practice recently.

Essentially, Dzogchen is a form of practice in which the subject for meditation isn't your breathing, or a mantra, or a candle, or anything at all like that. Instead, Dzogchen practice involves studying the nature of mind itself as the object of meditation. The concept suggests that careful, naked examination of the nature of mind-itself, all by itself, can lead to enlightenment. Here is where you come into phrases like "clear luminosity" to describe the essence of mind.

This is pretty heavy, estoteric stuff, with subtle nuances that go on, and on, and on. Dzogchen appears to be very, very old, dating back to the shamanistic days of the original Bon religion of Tibet. It was then adopted and modified by Buddhism when it migrated into Tibet from India.

The essence of the practice is that looking at the mind in a very detached, objective way allows you to see that thoughts and feelings all arise and are self liberated within the arena of mind-itself, with no real help from us, and not much burden. While all that arises in the mind is utterly temporary and without substance, the mind itself is timeless, in that it isn't born and doesn't die.

The practice is really about allowing yourself to relax into mind-itself, and simply allow thoughts and feelings to come and go as simple expressions of the mind, but without any more significance than that. As a common analogy goes, it's keeping the sky in mind, but not being distracted by the clouds.

In the context of this recent study, I came across an idea that struck me as very interesting. The commentator was observing that what we take as "reality" virtually always contains a large percentage of mental elaboration and modification. What we take to be "real" is actually merely an idea of what is real.

Life become much simpler and much pleasanter, if we keep in mind that that what we experience is almost always a large part mental ornamentation and imagination, and hence should be treated playfully.

Monday, February 22, 2010

We Are What We Eat (Oh, the Horror)

For several months last year, with my physician's warnings about rising blood sugar dangers ringing in my ears, I had cleaned up my act. I'd deleted a good many carbohydrates from my diet, saw my weight begin to drop, my blood sugar return to good levels. Felt good.

A trip to China and the Christmas holidays saw me regress a bit, and the evidence was clear. My waistline and blood sugar levels began to swell again, though I didn't return entirely to the previous ghastliness.

So I cleaned up my act again a few weeks ago, saw some real progress, and felt much, much better. I always do feel a lot better when I eat well and exercise well. Long walks, cross-country skiing, meals of vegetables and Rye Crisp, and once again, presto chango, I started feeling spry again.

But today at lunch, I happened by the cafeteria at the government center while running an errand, and a provocative cheeseburger reached out, grabbed me by the neck, and forced me to eat it. I felt quite helpless about it, with a mixture of carnivorous defiance and guilty pleasure. Meat has become lessen appealing in recent years, and beef in particular is now rather rare for me. But man, that cheeseburger had my number today.

Now, an occasional cheeseburger won't kill me, it's true. But I"m quite puzzled at this common human behavior--doing things we know are bad for us, that we know will make us feel bad——despite all evidence and logic that tells us to knock it off. I suppose nearly everyone has certain self-defeating, self-repeating habits, but I sure do wish I could throw this monkey off my shoulder for good.

I knew while eating it that the burger wouldn't sit too well in my stomach this afternoon, and sure enough, a once-familiar, after-lunch grogginess is already beginning to set in.

In the spiritual world, it's known as "digestive karma," and was first mentioned in one of the Buddha's lesser known sutras, known as the " Sutra of High-Density Lipo-Proteins"" Another lesson from that sutra reads:

"Verily I say to you, Ananda, he who hides the fresh onions with melted cheese will soon find himself reincarnated into another life, where he shall once again face the choice of cheddar vs whole grain. Choose wisely, Ananda."

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Reconsidering New Age

I was probably 12 years old when I started reading books about spirituality and mysticism. It started with an interest in yoga philosophy, and the first descriptions I read were in the scholarly writings of Colliers Encyclopedia. It wasn't too long before I was ordering books from our local bookstore. There was no Barnes & Noble, online or otherwise in those days, and so some of the things I special-ordered took many weeks to arrive to our small town in southern Minnesota.

It's no exaggeration to say that I've read many hundreds, perhaps even thousands of books on spiritual subjects over the years. Right from the start, though, I had a very healthy skepticism of anything that reeked of too much cultural popularity. These subjects weren't all that widespread in the 1960s and early 70s——no bookstore would have a "New Age" section, for example——but I still shied away from anything that was too highly touted by celebrities. When the Beatles traveled to India to study with the Maharishi in 1968 or so, I was already quite familiar with Hindu philosophy at the age of 13, but wanted no part of anything that the Maharishi, with his fleet of Rolls Royces, was preaching. Instead I read a bit of Patanjali, and some of Krishnamurti, but you couldn't get me to sit still for the Maharishi at all.

The 1960s were the era of transcendent psychodelia, and while I might read and agree with some of what Aldous Huxley wrote, I turned off the Don Juan stories of Castanado when I came upon that silliness about parallel universes of space aliens living among us.

It seemed to me that the quickest way for a spiritual mystic to lose all credibilty was to be widely praised by popular culture, and even more, to show an eagerness to make a lot of money from one's spiritual teachings.

What this means is that for the better part of 40 years, I've eschewed the Deepak Chopras, the Robert Blyes, and always opted for the source material from which many of these people freely, and sometimes dishonestly, borrowed. Even now, I find it almnost physically painful to browse New Age, whereas the Religion sections of my local bookstores have armchairs dedicated to my patronage.

And for this reason, it's only now, with a lifestime of reading under my belt, that I just now picked up Eckhart Tolle's book, The Power of Now.

For years I've had a quiet, arm's length distain for Tolle, based partially on the cottage industry that's grown up around him, and partly for his borrowing of the name of Meister Eckhart. I sincerely doubted that anyone among the disciples of Tolle even really knew who Meister Eckhart was, much less had read him, so how legitimate could this whole Eckhart Tolle phenomenon be, anyway?

And so it has come as quite a shock to recognize that a good deal of what Tolle says in this book has the strong ring of truth. I speak as somebody who has studied these subjects in a pretty academic and serious way for many years. Unlike most of these New Age celebrities, Tolle has me more often nodding in agreement than wincing in disbelief. If there is one criticism to be made, it might be that Tolle doesn't really credit the origins of some of this wisdom, or acknowledge that his insights were discovered long ago. For example, the idea of "Now", as espoused by Eckhart, is virtually the same concept as "suchness" or "isness" which the Tibetans were studying centuries ago.

But that's a fairly minor cricisism, as it seems entirely possible that Tolle legitimately saw some of these things afresh for himself, and didn't learn them from others. As I browse the book, I am finding myself again and again agreeing with things that I've seen for myself through years of study and meditation.

Is Tolle enlightened? Did he experience a sudden awakening that transformed his life?

I don't know for sure, but it's not something I can boldly discount, either. If it wasn't for the fact that Tolle has created enormous wealth for himself, I'd be even more likely to give his book a prominent place on my shelves.

God, I hope I'm not going to have to reconsider Carlos Castanada.

Friday, February 5, 2010

I ran across this over at Grumpy Lion, and thought I'd share it here——a wind generator losing its safety brake in a storm.

Citizens of 4F, Feb. 5, 2010

What has become of Donald, I wonder?

Donald has been a fixture of the morning 4F bus ride into downtown Minneapolis for nearly every single day of the last three years. He is a high-functioning adult with some form of developmental disability; a chronological age that appears to be 40-something, but a personal manner that makes him seem like 10 or 12 years of age. He carries an oversized lunch box and wears converse tennis shoes, sometimes covered with rubber over-boots. When it's cold he, wears either a Twins ball cap, or sometimes zips on the hood to his parka. Very often he plays a hand-held video game on the ride downtown. Twice, I've seen his cell phone ring during the bus ride, and it appears these calls are from some family member checking on his well-being. He is very deliberate and careful when he takes out his phone, and he talks loudly and clearly to someone who obviously knows him well.

Donald and I have never spoken. He sits near the front of the bus and has already boarded by the time I get on. There is never room for me to sit near the front, so Donald and I only meet eyes briefly in the morning as I pass by him. Though I have no specific knowledge of this, I have always imagined that Donald must be a participant in one of those social programs that pairs up people with disabilities with jobs that offer benefit to both the businesses and the workers. Minnesota is one of those places with a lot of these kinds of programs. Although our Republican governor has undermined some of these opportunities, Minnesota remains one of those places that offers many subsidies to improve life quality for people in need, and when I see these cheerful, slightly handicapped people working about town at various businesses, it always makes me optimistic for human civilization, or at least for the Minnesota version of it.

Once, I ran into Donald at the downtown Target store while running errands at lunch. He recognized me instantly from across two check-out lanes, and broke into a broad smile of recognition. His hand started to come up in a wave, but then he shyly edited himself and simply continued to grinned broadly. He was gone long before I made my way through my own line.

After two years of seeing Donald every day, I've not seen him at all the last two weeks. I wonder if the economy has taken his job, even here in compassionate, liberal Minnesota. Surely not even this economy could be that cruel. Or, perhaps is he sick, or hurt in some way. It's just not like him to miss the 4F bus.

I hope Donald is alright. I would feel much better if he were back on the bus.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

10 Favorite Movies of 2009

Well, there are still a couple of movies we haven't seen that stand a chance at cracking this list. Crazy Heart, with Jeff Bridges is getting great reviews. And The Bad Lieutenant, with Nicolas Cage, is getting some impressive buzz, too.

But other than these, there's not much chance of anything else cracking the top ten before Oscar time rolls around, so with that, I'll give you my own 10 favorite movies of 2009, along with encouragement to try and see them if you haven't.

But first, a couple of words about films that didn't make the list. September Issue, the documentary about the creation of a single edition of Vogue magazine is highly recommended, and nearly made the list. Other honorable mentions incliude Julia and Julie (Streep wonderful, slightly pedestrian script), District 9 (great unexpected sci-fi), and Star Trek (saw it twice, always a strong indicator of a good movie.)

Here, without further ado, is the Mercurious list of 2009's best movies:

10. Inglorious Basterds. This movie was expected to be huge, and it almost lived up to the hype. Finely crafted and wickedly funny. Could well have placed higher, but its expectations diminish its placement a bit.

9. Zombieland. Uproariously, incredibly funny. Ferris Buhler meets Night of the Living Dead. Outlandish commentary on American culture, with an incredible cameo appearance in the center of the film.

8. This is It. The documentary about Michael Jackson's farewell tour rehearsals. Unexpectedly moving and fascinating.

7. Paranormal Activity. Low budget, exceedingly effective horror. Not graphic, just tense. This made the list because I so admire the ability of a clever group's ability to do a good movie on $10,000 or $20,000.

6. Food Incorporated. Very good documentary about the American food industry. Will change how you shop for food.

5.Precious. Hard to watch, but bringing this to screen took an act of heroism on the part of many people.

4. 500 Days of Summer. A triumphant statement that a comedy need not be vulgar trash like The Hangover. Delightful, and also realistic.

3. The Informant. A sleeper of a Matt Damon film, that gradually causes you to grow more and more fascinated.

2. Up. Far better than Mr. Fox, I thought. Clever, moving, funny, visually stunning. If it doesn't vie for best picuture, it would be a shame.

1. The Hurt Locker. Almost no one knows about this documentary-style fictional story of Iraq bomb-diffusion experts. Amazing, amazing movie. Not gory, so you can see it without fear. The best movie of the year.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Citizen of 4F, Jan. 12, 2010

554447Mood is a strange and fickle human quality.

After two days in a quietly gray mood, I find myself this morning in a mood that is equally quiet, but most definitely happy. How exactly did this transformation occur? I wonder. It happened very subtly.

Perhaps it began when friend called me late yesterday, excited with good career news. She has an infectious personality, and it was pleasant to listen closely to her happiness.

When I left the office for the day, though, was when I noticed a definite uptick in my mood. Part of it was that at 5:15 pm, for the first time in recent memory, the sky was still light. At these latitudes, a cloudy overcast in the days just prior to the Dec. 21 solstice will see Minnesota night lasting from 4:30 in the afternoon until the following morning at 8:30 or so. But it was clear yesterday, and we're now more than three weeks past solstice, and so paying close attention shows that the painstakingly slow crawl back to spring is already underway.

More than this, though, the sky was painted with a whole spectrum of colors thanks the setting sun, and if you paid close attention, you could see that the sky echoed every color you could see in the neon store signs reflected in the windows: blues, reds, indigos, oranges, yellows—in the far west, you could even see pale greens streaked across the sky that echoed the green of streetlights in "go" mode. The whole thing left you with a feeling of wonderful symmetry between the natural and manmade worlds.

This morning, rather than go to work in the darkness, I took a later bus, stopping first for coffee and the New York Times at the nearest Starbucks. As I read the arts section, I noticed a father and son sitting off in the corner. The son was perhaps 13 or 14 years old, and was struggling with unhappiness of some kind. It wasn't clear to me if the boy was perhaps ill——his face was slightly flushed--or if he was wrestling with some early adolescent angst of some kind. But at one point his father reached over and gripped the boy's wrist in comfort. Like most boys in early adolescence, the young man's face showed a mixed response to this public display of affection from a parent, but it pleased me to see this father ignore the rules of adolescent protocol and comfort his son in this way.

On the bus ride, one could see that the foggy night had painted the trees with a hoar frost that looked like the most delicate lace. The urban forest around the skating rink at Lyndale Farmstead park looked like something from the most fanciful set in a Tim Burton movie.

When I am in a productive stretch, I have sometimes found that a 30 or 45 minute bus ride will find 2,000- or 3,000- word business letters or blog posts composing themselves in my head between home and office, so that all I'm left with is transcribing what has mentally hatched. It's pleasant to realize, for this one morning at least, that a bit of that creativity has returned.

William James, the pioneer psychologist, wrote more than a century ago, that "the strain of attention is the fundamental act of will."

Perhaps transforming unhappiness into happiness is really just a matter of choosing what to pay attention to.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Citizens of 4F, Jan. 11, 2010

When the work day promises to be especially hectic, I catch the early 4f bus at 6:15 in the morning. When it arrives at my downtown stop, the sky will be just hinting at sunrise, but the stars will still be in full force.

We're in the heart of Minneapolis winter, and although it is a relatively balmy 10 degrees this morning, the mood on the bus seems especially sober this morning. Of the six people alrady on the bus, three have their heads leaning up against the glass windows, either their eyes are shut, or they are looking forlornly at the morning night outside.

At the front of the bus behind the driver is a young man I think of as David, who looks, more than anything, like the common artistic representation of Jesus Christ, except wearing a worn hooded sweatshirt under a insulated denim jacket. He has long brownish hair and a reddish beard, and a slightly Roman nose. His eyes are closed. Logically, he is probably just fatigued after an active weekend, but there is something about him that suggests a somewhat more existential weariness.

I look at others on the bus, and I recognize one of those mornings where the gentle suffering of being human is quite evident. Not a happy face to be seen. No anguish either, but lots of very quiet borderline sorrow in the air. It's before dawn on a Monday morning after all. And it's winter. And it's MInneapolis. As more and more passengers board, the mood isn't lightened at all.

There is only one exception to this prevailing mood. Midway into downtown, two young adults get aboard at different stops. They clearly know each other, and carry on a silent smiling conversation with one another sitting across the aisle facing one another. Let's call them Luke and Heather. They look like a Luke and Heather to me. The carry identical gleaming silver coffee mugs, and smile at one another and mouth silent phrases to one another. But then Luke gets off the bus, and Heather's face falls into the same expression of quiet sorrow I see on all the other faces——myself included, I suppose.

This is all rather depressing, so I try to think up some lesson here, some encouragement with which to face the day. I think to myself, "Life isn't easy for anybody. Knowing that, we should try to be nice to one another. "

Not the pithiest motto. But for this Monday morning, it will have to do.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Thought

A thought that occurred to me last night....

Perhaps genuine freedom isn't so much about choosing either option A or option B, but more about about having both options available.

"I'm going to do B, not A," is its own form of bondage. But "A and B are both possible" is a genuine form of freedom.

This is true not only of actions, but of attitude, I think. Mired in a bad mood, merely recognizing that a good mood is a possibility has plenty of power to liberate. When angry, simply considering the possibility of friendliness is often all that's required for transformation.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Book & a Movie; January 2010

This month's recommendations:

The Mind & the Brain (2002, by Jeffrey M. Schwarz, Harper Collins).

For those of us of a somewhat spiritual bent, modern science offers much to be dejected about. The premise of modern science is that all phenomenon, including human aspiration and feeling and passion, can be reduced to logical and predictable interactions between ions, electrons, amino acids, neurotransmittters. If you really listen to what science says, and believe it, you're left with the empty sensation that free will doesn't exist at all. 

Schwarz, though, points out that modern behavioral science never really grew beyond Newtonian physics. All that it takes to restore the wonder about the nature of human consciousness is to learn a little bit about quantum physics, which not only make room for human consciousness and free will, but argues that nothing else really explains the way the world operates.

I can by no means do justice to the author's arguments in a few short paragraphs. Suffice it to say that this is truly exciting work that seems to offer genuine evidence that our intuition was right when we decided that human consciousness was something magical and mystical and worthy of our wonder.

My film recommendation is a bit harder this month. Not much that blew my socks off.  So rather than a single recommendation, I'll simply give one-to-five star reviews of the last few I've seen:

Sherlock Holmes.  Three stars.  Pleasant diversion with interesting twists on the personalities of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. But needlessly complicated plot line that grew tedious in hour two.

Avatar.  Three stars.  Startling technology that makes you want to buy the DVD for the special effects features. But James Cameron is about as deep (shallow) as George Lucas in his handling of archetypal mythologies.

It's Complicated. Two stars Delightful acting by Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin,  and Steve Martin. Tedious plot and terrible written dialogue. 

The Road.  3 stars.  Yeah, depressing, but very finely acted. You have to be into post-apocalyptic nightmares, though.