On the Discovery of Everything…

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Book Reviews

I should give a warning here. Unless you’ve already read the book To Rise Again At a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, after reading this post you’ll know a great deal more about it than you did before. I’ve tried not to give too much away, but of both joy and necessity I’ve said more than a little. I think regardless of what I’ve noted here, the wit and audacity of Ferris’s prose merits a read of this book no matter how much you know about it. But I know not everyone feels that way about such matters… so please, consider yourselves duly warned.

* * * * *

To Rise Again At a Decent Hour is the story of atheist and dentist Paul O’Rourke, a man in search of the ever-elusive everything. Golf was everything—for a while anyway—as were the Red Sox, movie streaming, walking tours of Manhattan, banjo-playing, a thriving dental practice, and a couple of failed romances. As O’Rourke confesses, “Everything was always something, but something—and here was the rub—could never be everything.” It’s hard to find your everything, you see, when the end game—so obvious to the practicing dentist, who must spend his days fending off rot and decay—is forever wafting up to greet you.

O’Rourke is a fantastic dentist, but he is miserable because he finds it difficult to enjoy the ordinary moments of his life. This is a misery to which I believe we can each relate. Whether we are persons of faith or we are atheists is irrelevant to this I think, and Ferris seems to agree. Like O’Rourke, who faces his demons in the deepest hours of the night by texting old lovers, watching recorded regular season Red Sox games—(regular season, for the love of God!)—or driving golf balls into the Hudson River from his custom-modified balcony, we must each encounter the restless quiet of our longing.

If this all sounds depressing, it’s not, for Ferris brings a verve to his writing that tickles, and a string of intimate confessionals about what it is to be human that are laugh-out-loud funny. O’Rourke is a troubled character, but not a tragic one. He doesn’t just fall in love with a woman, for instance, he falls in love with her entire family, as if he might expunge himself of those sleepless nights through adoption into a field of belonging. Then he oversteps, risks untenable intimacies, inserts foot into mouth, and ends up again with his chicken curry and the Sox on video cassette.

One aspect of the book I loved is that it wasn’t obviously written to pound a philosophical nail. Although the protagonist is an atheist, and though he finds conventional religions fairly ridiculous—as one might expect—the resolution of this novel is a delicate acceptance of the richness of life, a sense of one individual’s embrace of the unknown. It’s not an affirmation of any religion, but it’s not an affirmation of a hard line sort of atheism either. Ferris won’t quite surrender one to the other, and leaves them poised in the balance.

In one of the novel’s consummate moments, O’Rourke is reflecting on his surrender to a bizarre spirituality whose principal tenet, paradoxically, is the necessity of doubt, and says, “I guess I needed to make myself vulnerable. I was sick of the facts, the bare facts, the hard, scientific facts. I was saying: Look at me, seeking among the dubious. Doing something stupid, something stark raving mad. Look at me, risking being wrong.”

For me, the novel’s ending was just right. It floated on a certain sweetness and suggested there may be an elusive something in the balance of things, flickering through each moment—an everything perhaps—that we cannot call our own, but which can be glimpsed in our decision to risk the fullness of life in its fleeting embraces, and in the candor of its intimacy. Something beautiful, that’s been there all along.

Imagine That You Are Loved

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We’re going to perform
a thought experiment,
Hafiz announces.

What wonders to behold,
I answer.

(Why does he always assume
that just because he
wants to do experiments,
I do as well?)

(What irks me most
is that I do, of course.)

Hafiz bounces a rubber ball
off of the wall and catches it
with the same hand,
without really even being aware
that he’s done so,
then holds it over his mouth
like an apple,
tapping it on his lips.
He flips through the notes
from our previous session.

Imagine that you are loved,
he says.

I purse my brow in concentration.
He takes a bite of the apple
and the juice runs down his chin.

By whom?
I ask.

He waves his hand with an artful
twirl of his fingers,
as if trying to fling
a daub of peanut butter
into the sun.

I take a breath.
The bad guy in Die Hard,
Alan Rickman’s character,
comes to mind. Hans.

Bruce Willis has acquired the detonators somehow
and Hans’s plans for the evening
are not turning out quite as planned.
This is very frustrating to him.
He is about to shoot another hostage
because the last one
–that mouthy guy–
was clearly full of himself in the worst way
and had nothing to say worth hearing
and if Hans hadn’t shut him up then
certainly someone else would’ve,
and what options does Hans really have
in this pathetic, imbecilic, movie-theater world,
when I call him on his cell phone.

I imagine that he’s expecting a call,
so that he answers.

Hello, I say.


(He’s always talking like that,
letting his words peter out
into eerie moans and groans
like his voice is bleeding out of the air itself,
falling over the edge of an invisible horizon.)

What is it? he hisses.

Then I begin.
I imagine that he loves me.
His love for me is a revelation.
He wants us to go fishing together,
or hike up the side of an Alp
with seal skins on our feet
and skis on our backs
and jokes on our breath
to a view that sucks the wind
right out of you,
leaving you pregnant with

I can tell it’s working
because he clears his throat
and then goes speechless
with the phone in his hand.
His eyes are blank.
He’s not seeing anything.
There’s very little air
moving in or out of his body.
We are witnessing, together,
the quiet power
of nature.

Hafiz, I say,
does he know what I look like?
Or just that he loves me?

(Hafiz, unfortunately, will never talk to me
during the experiments.
He’s just an observer, as he likes to say.)

Alan Rickman’s character
sets the phone down on the desk.
He gets the other bad guys together
in the lobby area by the fountain
and tells them they are dismissed.
Let all the hostages go.
Then he comes back to the phone
and holds it to his ear.

But why, Hans?
(They’re following him
from room to room.)
What are we doing!?
(They are very confused.)

Alan Rickman croaks at them
like a disgusted frog, and they obey.
The hostages are freed.

I go visit him in prison now.
We chat for a little while
and laugh at things that are only funny
if you have the kind of history that we have
together. I realize I miss him
even though he is right there.

Hafiz bounces the ball on the floor
and catches it on the return.

How’d it go?
I ask.

He’s making a few notes.
He takes a bite of the apple.

Imagine that you are loved,
he says.

Entering the Dialogue, Part 3

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Course Ideas

I started this series of posts because I came to a realization: I was not being who I know myself to be in some way. It’s like watching yourself when you’re just coming under the influence, observing that what you’re doing is strangely inconsistent, and a little unexpected. It’s called dissembling. For me this came across in my attraction to discussions that in some sense were futile.

We do this sometimes because we care. Because what matters to us matters. But also because when we are hurting in any way—meaning that when any aspect of our being is in conflict with any other—we instinctively try to find the moments we can grab hold of to set things straight. We end up in argument with the world over ourselves. It’s actually quite fascinating. But this is not creating. It is not being part of the dialogue that Creation in fact, is.

It became obvious to me that what matters more than anything else and in the deepest way possible, is the fullness of being who we are. We’re not only more content when we meet life in this way, we’re more powerful. We are free to express without effort or contrivance. What emerges under is the truth of who we are.

I love A Course of Love. I love it because after reading it at least three or four times, over several years now, it still feels fresh when I pick it back up. If I put it down for a few months, when I return to it I’m somebody a little different, and it meets me there. I read a three word sentence today I don’t remember reading before, at least not nearly with the same vibrant connection to it, and it made me laugh. It said, “Wholeness is actual.”

Now try and explain this to someone who doesn’t see it. It’s almost impossible. To try and explain what this sentence means I’m afraid I’d end up telling you the entire history of my life to try and put it in context for you, but it still may not compute. And yet in my heart it resonates profoundly. The way some things hit us depends on who we are when they hit, and this is the Dialogue of Creation I think. This is at least part of it. It’s not enough to know the meaning of the words. It’s the experience of the words as they enter us, and what moves in us as we receive them, and the response that arises between these two that is real.

The word real is often used as follows: either there’s a monster under the bed or there’s not, just look and see. If you don’t find it, then it’s probably not real, or (and odds are strongly against this being true) it snuck out for coffee. But I’m not trying to be flip. We agree that a baseball is real. A pitcher, a catcher. The grandstands. The word actual is interesting because we often say it when we wish to clarify a perception. We say, “Actually, what happened is…” or “What I actually meant was…” To say wholeness is actual is to not only state that wholeness is real, but to state that it hasn’t been previously perceived as such. It’s been overlooked somehow.

Dialogue is a perfect vehicle for understanding the actuality of wholeness, because a dialogue is not a conversation, a debate, or an argument. It’s more like sex in the sense that good dialogue enfolds its participants in a particular sort of communion, and produces new life. It is predicated on vulnerability and intimacy, on respect and trust, on giving and receiving. In its most powerful form a dialogue reveals new understanding neither participant quite possessed on their own. A fullness transforms them both, bringing into being a new awareness, and what is actual is the wholeness of it.

What is actual is not Speaker A, nor Speaker B, nor an idea that might stand on its own afterwards. What is actual is not a particular outcome or agreement, but the dialogue itself—the whole thing at once, the relationship that yields transformation. That is real. That is wholeness and it is actual.

Creation is a dialogue because creation is the transformation of what is, and while we’re seeking to be whole we cannot participate in transformation. That’s because without the ability to let ourselves go, we cannot be transformed. While we define ourselves by ideology, status, position, history, gender, color, training badges, or any of the myriad other parameters the ego would paint on the sign on the office door, we cannot truly be creative. We cannot fully participate.

The miracle is that dialogue can also be healing. Perfection is not required to enter the dialogue, but the acceptance of what is actual is. Acceptance of what is so allows us to be transformed without fear of being lost. We discover that the opposite occurs: we become ever more profound embodiments of who we actually are. And this is creation.

Entering the Dialogue, Part 2

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Course Ideas

A quality of wholeheartedness is peace. There is a knowing of Creation’s completeness.

We sense the unchanging center on which all things depend, and know it as our own center, too, as beings. We know it as the center of the bluebird on the branch, the center of a field covered with snow, the center of the Himalayan mountains, the center of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, the center of the sun.

When we are wholehearted, a certainty within is reflected in the world. We see and know with clarity: we are all related.

We are related not because we share a common time, or because our skins are composed of the same types of molecules as rocks and stars, or because we are of the same tribe, or genealogy. Those are merely echoes of what is so. We are related because our existence is the fruit of the same completeness. We are related because what it is within us that actually lives, is the presence of all life.

Wholeheartedness is founded upon this awareness. What is profound to me this morning is that this awareness is not a hypothetical. Unity is not a conjecture. Wholeheartedness is the alignment of the heart and mind with the fundamental integrity of being.

I don’t think I’ve quite understood this before in the way that I understand it now. I’ve wanted other people to understand this with me. I’ve looked through the door and said, “See…? Wouldn’t it be amazing to visit this place together? How could we get more people to see this?” Outside of wholeheartedness we dissemble into this type of thinking. We need to get enough votes. We need to be perceived as reasonable. We need to be in the company of those who second us. What matters is what is effective: we need to pull the right levers to turn the ship around.

Wholeheartedness doesn’t see the world this way at all. It’s a very subtle distinction, but as soon as the idea arises that what is good and true is actually blocked from coming into being by another—as soon, in other words, as any problem we sense is projected onto another being—the possibility for genuine transformation is lost. And it is lost because Creation’s completeness is no longer being witnessed. What is witnessed instead is our collective truck stuck in the mud, and the notion that we’d actually be better off with some beings and not others. What is witnessed is right and wrong, the efficacy of gamesmanship and the validity of distrust. What is witnessed… is nothing at all.

Wholeheartedness is replaced in this exchange by fractured perception, and the power of what is so can no longer be summoned, or felt, or known. I’ve done this many times myself. I’ve done this as recently as yesterday. The problem of the world is addictive. But also, I’ve begun to appreciate how powerless I feel in my discontent. And I’ve begun to accept that the conventional wisdom of listening empathetically and giving another’s perspective its due, while powerful in helping us to understand another’s condition and motivation, can be taken too far. The fundamental false equivalency that exists is that of separation and unity.

To return to a point from last week, the only obstacle to genuine transformation is the loss of wholeheartedness, which can come from meeting the world on its terms. I’m paraphrasing the quote from ACOL I gave, which suggested what will prevent us from following old patterns is our inability to go out into the world and remain who we are. The trap here I think is otherness. The allure of otherness is profound in our consciousness. It’s instinctual even.

We like to speak of the illusion of self. It is a prominent theme in some veins of modern neuroscience, as well as in various non-dual practices. It seems a potential point of agreement across many points of view, but we seldom hear about the illusion of other, and I don’t think we can sustain wholeheartedness while the illusion of other remains. I don’t think we can enter the world and remain true to who we are, if the power of otherness persists in our thought.

Entering the Dialogue, Part 1

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Course Ideas

The desire to write manifests as follows: a warmth in my chest accompanied by the sense of possibility, and the awareness something wants to be said, though I don’t know what it is. Last night I discovered and read an e-mail exchange between Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky that was published a few years ago. I’d been listening to some of Sam’s podcasts lately, and discovered the two men’s correspondence. I’m not expert on either man’s ideas, but reading and listening led me down to the water’s edge so to speak, to the cool, moonlit stream of my own curiosity, and now I want to drink. I want to explore this feeling I don’t yet understand.

I want to say that this piece is my response to my own impressions, and has nothing to do with the positions either writer has taken. This is like walking into a forest and sensing something in the position of trees and the weight of the light, and stopping to jot a few notes about what it is. While sketching out this moment, the mind supplies a memory to accompany this spacious awareness, the way wine is paired to fish or grouse or tenderloin. So this piece is a reminiscing with my own heart. The e-mails I read have merely nudged me along.

* * * * *

Many of us would like to see the world become a better place. We may be angry about how some things are going, or frightened of the changes we see and the unknown into which those changes might usher us. There is foreboding in the air, a sense that we’re addicted to choices we know don’t ultimately serve us. And whether your life is one of relative comfort or one of considerable earthly difficulty, the fact remains in either case that when circumstance is stripped away, knowing what to do—being confident in one’s own response to a world which is at times so overwhelming—is a luxury few have ever known.

Not knowing what to do can be crippling because ultimately it is a symptom of not knowing or trusting one’s own heart. This occurs when mind and heart have not joined, when the mind’s logic and the heart’s knowing shear painfully against one another. In essence, when we are conflicted within. A Course in Miracles describes this condition in Workbook Lesson 257 (W-257.1.), saying, “If I forget my goal I can be but confused, unsure of what I am, and thus conflicted in my actions.” (The goal of course is a peaceful heart, unity with all creation, and the gifts of a forgiven world.) It is common when we feel this way to look to others for support and guidance—for safety in another’s knowing. There are many options in the marketplace of ideas today, more than ever perhaps, and what I find is that I can be swept along by the attraction of thinkers who exude confidence and an apparently consistent structure of thought. In particular I’m drawn to work that expands my awareness of a topic, that offers a fresh perspective (at least to me), and that suggests novel solutions to our problems.

There is nothing inherently wrong with bringing new ideas to the mind, and I’d say it is ultimately both healthy and necessary, but at the same time I’ll observe that if we enter the flow of ideas in a conflicted, and thus weakened condition, it is all too easy to let another’s recommendation supersede the knowing of our own heart. I’m going to suggest that this type of outward reliance merely sustains our ineffectual condition, and by extension a certain type of powerlessness. For that is what the conflicted state truly is: a powerless one.

A Course of Love (T2:7.10-11) speaks to this directly: “…[O]nce you have become happier with who you are, you will, if left un-schooled, turn your attention to others and to situations you would have be different than they are. You will want to be a change-agent. You will want to move into the world and be an active force within it. These are aims consistent with the teachings of this Course, but what will prevent you from following the patterns of old as you go out into the world with your desire to effect change? The only thing that will prevent this is your ability to go out into the world and remain who you are.”

There is something that happens, as it did when I read the exchange between Sam and Noam, that looks like this: when we see a disagreement—whether between two news channels, two friends, two pundits we admire, two dissenting movie critics or two spiritual teachers who’ve helped us, etc.—we feel a pressure to determine who we think is right. And not only do we feel this considerable pressure which the world brings to bear with great and immediate intensity, we feel a related pressure to explain our decision. There is something quite close to a social contract which says that for anything we might choose to advocate for, or actually do, we must have our reasons. They should be logical and defensible, and these choices and their reasons should be ones most any decent person could adopt. Otherwise we’re crazy.

And here is where it comes apart I think, because if our reasons are those of another–if they are not the reasons of our own heart–then when the spotlight finally shines upon us we falter. We find the reasons we’ve taken on are but flimsy shields that burn up in our reentry to the conflict. We cannot effectively make another’s response our own and place it at our center, because ultimately we cannot supersede our own hearts, so we find we are still empty there, alone and uncertain. There is nothing within us to give while we depend on another for our response to this world—no wellspring of life at the center of us that could not only sustain us individually, but which has as its only true desire the sustenance of all creation. We may embody great emotional intensity and seem quite profoundly alive, when in fact we are merely burning with conflict—consuming ideas like fuel to stoke our fire, to distract from or perhaps even to reenact the real conflict within, and to forge a moment of personal meaning.

There is, in wholeheartedness, by contrast, the gift of knowing who we are and what we would offer now. There is a perfect accord between what we know, what we would give, and the actions or non-actions into which this abundance would flow, and there is in the experience of this unification a reinforcement not only of our own inner validity as a being, but of the innermost validity of all other beings as well. In addition we are able to engage the world not only while remaining who we are, but by becoming even more of who we are. There is a holy source within us that receives even as we give, and the resulting dynamic, or exchange, is called “creation.” It is not the process of making right, or being right, or even knowing right in the eyes of others necessarily. It is the culmination and liberation of all that is—arising uniquely in you, in me, and in all who choose to participate.

(To be continued…)


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Remembering perfectly,
so that you produce the type of knowing
that actually yields light,
does not take practice.
But you do need to clear a space.
Give it time, and allow it to happen.

I left home once, you see—
pulled the door softly-to behind me
so the others wouldn’t be woken.
Clapped my hands in the cold
and breathed into their midst.
The night was so thick
you could smell the absence of light.

Soon I was lost.
Solitude ramified from an interesting idea—
the thought of an innocent adventure,
the word swashbuckling comes to mind—
into a hoary, compounding decrepitude.
You’d think a reversal
would return you to the beginning,
a careful retracing of footfalls.
Just rewind the film.
But it doesn’t work like that.
There’s a step in there you don’t
even realize when it happens
and that’s because it’s a portal.
It must be.
The channel on some universal television gets changed.
A snoozing god rolled over onto the remote control
and hit the wrong button and you were in there
when it happened.
Now you don’t want to panic,
but these things do happen.
The obvious answer is to gather facts.
Construct a system of knowledge generation.
Identify that button.

A mysterious force was holding me to the land,
which I found was emitting fibers.
By plucking fistfuls of the grass
and shoving them in my pockets,
I hoped later to produce a rope.
My initial attempts were like wads of wet clay.
But I learned.
There was also a wind.
The direction into the wind, I called up.
The other direction down.

I bumped into a woman once
who was standing in a spot she’d chosen
for reasons that of course do not exist
and she was readying herself to sing—
what is singing?—
and we were both surprised by one another,
and famished for a feeling we’d forgotten,
and we touched each other’s faces
in the darkness that held no light,
and like two pieces of flint we rubbed together
and produced a spark—
at least in our minds.
We thought we remembered something
and our tears were quite gladdening.

But it happened really fast.
And then it was gone.
And then she sang.

Afterwards I showed her I was trying to make rope
and she showed me a sail she’d made
from leaves—what are leaves!?
so we’d always know the direction
of the wind and we could navigate
and eventually we found others
who were digging ditches because
ditches don’t fill in for some reason
in this place
and with rope and ditches you could
expand from a common center and find
your way back which is what we all agreed
was what we’d always wanted
and like a society of civilized folk
we shared our measurements
and plied them together into a network
and like pieces of flint we rubbed together
sometimes in different ways, what with our talking and touching
and occasionally sparking ideas,
and once in a while blazed with rememories.

Once I was out way at the end of a ditch
and my heart shuddered with feeling
and the smell went away— which, as you know,
smells always go away, especially if they’re prevalent,
like the manure of animals,
or the off-gassing of wood and paint and carpet,
or the absence of light itself,
so it was hard to explain what I meant
by “the smell went away”—
but the absence of that smell
nearly wilted me, and my heart shuddered,
and pure knowing carved out a space in this land
in which the face of Hafiz appeared,
smiling of course, with flash cards.

The first one was a house. It looked very familiar.
I began to weep of course,
for reasons that simply don’t exist.
While afterward I shook like a fire hose
pressed suddenly into service,
in that moment I was a little awestruck by the light
of his twinkling eyes
and so I whispered to Hafiz, where is that house?
which Mitch, who was working beside me,
swears to this day was said to the darkness and nothing else,
which happens sometimes because as you can imagine
going so long in the smell of light’s absence
can cause your mind to improperly signify
sensory inputs—
to which Hafiz replied, “You’ve never left.”

And I felt an electric jab in my cortex
and up and down my spine and I tried—
Oh, believe me, I tried—
to remember which door I’d shut
when I went out for my little adventure,
because maybe it was an inside door
and not an outside door,
but I couldn’t remember.
I just, I just…
I can only remember that click.
The smell of light’s absence.
The pressing of a strange button.

The second flash card read as follows:
“There are no outside doors.”

Then the fire hose thing.

Mitch dragged me back to the clinic.
He was very heroic and he probably
saved my life, since I was thinking—
not really, actually,
I wasn’t thinking anything,
but basically the way the story is told
is that Mitch, by dragging me back to the clinic,
produced a chain of events for which
I should be very grateful.
They’re running lots of tests on me,
and they’re going to help me.
But once in a while, I catch the absence of the scent of the absence of light.
And I wonder, how do you retrace
that step that wasn’t a step?

How do you see through the darkness again,
if it doesn’t really exist? And why am I trying to see
with my nose?

A Tap on the Glass

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For meditation this morning (for how else would you describe it) I read the last fifty pages of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Then I walked the mile to the town library and collected some new pages to consider.

On the way back I passed a yellow farmhouse—the tractor and the corn wagon were parked across the street in a field of pending silage—where I heard a knocking hand against glass. I looked up to see a child, little more than a baby, pressed against the window. Bleached blonde hair and fair skin, a square head, and curious eyes were set in the lower corner of the white trim frame on the second story of this butter-colored house.

I smiled. I had two hardbacks in my hand, wrapped in their glossy covers. Two authors I’ve not read before. A brimming excitement.

I kept walking, and the child tapped again. And again I looked up and smiled, turning back over my shoulder this time before I disappeared into the eaves of a tree.

The child tapped again.

Has there been a more exquisite moment? Ever?

I was thinking, after just completing To the Lighthouse, that atheism and a certain breed of mysticism—an ecstatic consciousness as one writer described it—do not appear to be mutually exclusive, at least in the hands of Virginia Woolf. One does not need to invoke any particular religious trappings to savor the ecstatic whorl of an oar dipped in the current, to extend a feeling of warmth across the waters to a drifting man, to contact the rush of loneliness that sneaks in and leaves us winded, that lingers in the corners of a room, of a mind, of a place—in the stitching of cloth, the hues and contours of flowers, the positions of empty chairs.

I loved the way thought dips and soars in this book. It settles on a branch, quivers along its body then plunges into the sky, in every direction at once—a shimmering, croaking cloud of wings—swoops, then alights again, coalescing upon a wire. Now a line. Now a thicket of longing and wonder. Now the two persons along the path, their futures uncertain, the sky tenuous and sparkling. The rush of water against the rocks down below.

What I love is that this imminence is the thing itself, in Woolf’s writing. At least for me it is. It is not reducible to explanation. The characters are all adrift in this brilliant tumble. As we are. And I think if we could just have this, if we could just let it be and not pick at it, and not insist that it is equivalent to this or that underlying progression of digital commutations of which the world is composed, we would be alright.

If the play of the sun on leaves and the warble of a bird’s knowing could just be what they are, we could discover the extravagant, all-encompassing solitude that occupies the middle—the space between a world reducible to atoms, or reducible to God, and illumination could find us. We could transcend the franchises that occupy and cordon our thought. Our knowing. For there is a sort of knowing that is all at once, isn’t there?

I think there must be something real in the tenor and tremble of our experience. An irreducible might—a silent, shining vision. Something that can reach through a child leaning against a knee-high pane of glass, and tap on the window as we stroll along, to say hello.

Forgetting So Fast

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Hafiz and I were up
on the widow’s walk
beneath a flaming sky
prancing to and fro,
lunging, parrying,
regaling the light with
our imagined swordplay
when his foot slipped
unexpectedly on a pebble
some bird had set there as a gift
and my blade plunged
into his belly and he gasped,
and tumbled off the edge of the roof.

I found him draped
over the hedge with his leg
cocked behind his back
and I nudged him
but his body was cold
so I went into the house
and prepared him a cup of tea
but his leg was cocked
behind his back and his eyes
were fixed on nowhere
and he obviously didn’t drink it
and the next morning
he was still there
with butterflies sleeping
on his dew-soaked pant leg.

The sun moved across the sky that day
like a tanker crawling up the river
and a blackbird landed on Hafiz’ head
and sang a dirge
and I began to weep and to wonder
what we were really doing up there
and if I’d actually killed the man.

By nightfall I felt a mighty blackness
and a blanched wondering about all
the days we’d spent together and
what this world really was and
my coffee tasted like dirt and
my breathing became labored
and I felt the pain of having fouled-up
so many things and there I was,
caught holding the bag of it all
wondering how sore I would be
after I dug the grave
and if I could really do it.
Do any of this.

In the middle of the night I went out
to check on him but he was gone,
and then I saw him crouched in the field
near a cluster of deer
who were feeding on the leaves of small trees
where the meadow met the forest
as if all of time was in each sprig
and in their skin and their bodies
and the gentle knowing
that ripples their skin when the wind shifts
and then he stood, and the moon shone
on his back, and he walked into the trees.

And I wept, of course,
and I thought if you want to love
really love
then sometimes you have to let your games
open you up and stand you alone
in the space of your own life
and see what you feel when no one is looking
and I went inside and made a cup of tea
and that’s when I found the note.

I haven’t seen you in days
and I’ve been looking all over
in the laundry room and under the couch
and in that dark space
under the basement stairs,
so I’ve gone to get some friends
to try and wake you from this dream.

Smile, you nut, so we can find you.

PS – I left an air horn on the roof
that could wake a saint from the dead
but I guessed you missed it.

What I Believe and Why, Part 6

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Christ / Course Ideas

[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5]

I want to close this series by stating that I believe Love, and expressions of Love, are all that truly exist. When I say that expressions of Love truly exist, I mean that they endure, they are timeless in a sense, they add unto the eternal fabric of being, they open pathways to new modes of being, and they enrich all aspects of being simultaneously.

What might be said is that this doesn’t square with our experience.

Most ideas we’ve had of God and man have been incorrect, often disastrously so, but they’ve simply been concepts. They’re easily shown to be inconsistent and conflicted, and more importantly, I think these represent a superficial dilemma as compared to the one with which we all must grapple: the fact that how we perceive of ourselves and the world in which we find ourselves directly influences the nature of our experience. Not only that, it influences the type of world we create. The real challenge I see is that it is impossible for a mind with a perceptual orientation to find logical fault with the integrity of the subsequent experience. This is the nature of a mind. It constructs its reality.

We don’t give ourselves nearly enough credit for our ability to shape experience into a consistent structure. This has nothing to do with ideas of God and man, or any philosophy whatsoever; nor does it have anything to do with being disingenuous, or with intelligence, or with any vice or characteristic we know we possess. This simply has to do with the way we assign meaning to experience, and the way those assignments create closed systems of evidence-based perception. Those who would manipulate facts and those who would uphold an integrity of scholarship are equally subject to the conditions of the mind and its inherent ability to form self-referencing structures of experience and perception. Our minds, in essence, are projection engines.

I watched the movie My Cousin Rachel this weekend and it’s an interesting study in this regard. It’s one of those movies in which the evidence seems to be stacking up in one direction, but then a single insight changes everything, and then all the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction. Back and forth it goes without any final resolution, and this, at a much more powerful scale, is what I mean. It is impossible to make a final determination about which perception is correct—even when the two perceptions could not be more diametrically opposed—without more information, but the core perception (or worldview) at work engenders evidence only of itself.

I could suggest that only Love and its expressions are truly real, but then we would look together upon an instance of suffering and say that it cannot be so. If Love is real and it leads to this, then we must have been wrong about Love entirely. And if Love isn’t what we thought, of what value is it then? The other alternative is that our perception of suffering was incorrect. But if this isn’t suffering that I look upon, then I don’t know what is… Call it what you will, it’s a terrible thing.

When we look upon suffering it is not so easy as it is in fiction to introduce a new insight, a flash of evidence, that changes everything. We can’t imagine a reinterpretation of the Holocaust that leaves us all relieved. I will not try. But I will say this: there is a condition of perception that must exist for minds to enact such an event, and in such a condition it is not possible to experience the reality of Love’s presence. And that same condition of perception applies to children fighting over a toy, or adults fighting over the price of a car, foreign trade deals, or the primacy of ideas that populate our scientific publications. If these examples are different, it is only by degree, and we are mistaken when we think that difference by degree is real difference. Difference by degree has a stranglehold on our world.

There are really only two forms of perception—one that is based on the idea we are each fundamentally separate beings, that each us can truly gain even as another loses, and one that is based on the idea that we are fundamentally joined, or unified. Only one of them can be true, and I’ll suggest it is the sort of distinction we cannot make on the basis of external evidence alone:  principally because the world we occupy—the closed loop of mental interpretation—can return the experience of either one; and second, because one cannot choose both at once.

So what I believe is that the suffering we experience in our world is the product of our perception of, (and belief in), our separateness. This perception is very real (in the sense that it is available to be experienced). Its logic is crystal clear and self-reinforcing with the world as evidence, and it informs choices and conditions whose ramifications are far more reaching in their extents than we would guess. That this mode of perception lies at the root of suffering is not, in my opinion, because of the whim or failure of some God, but because it is the closest thing to a natural law that I can imagine. Let me be clear: this law is not the idea that a belief in separation is met with suffering for any whimsical or moral or consciously elected reason, but simply because separateness is the condition of suffering. The perception of separateness produces all of the conditions and inner orientations that are necessary for suffering to occur.

What is amazing to me—miraculous really—is that the world can also return the experience of unity. And what I have faith in, because I have experienced it in various microcosmic ways in my own life, is that as we make this choice together, new conditions arise that will allow us to experience the world in a new way. Most importantly, suffering will be relieved, if not eradicated completely.

I want to work towards an ending here by saying this is the wisdom I perceive in the myth of Jesus’ life. For me the stories of Jesus are probably as much or more mythical than factual, but in a world whose fundamental nature lies in the eye of the beholder, myth and fact are interwoven. It’s a distinction that doesn’t ultimately matter. The world is our story as we’ve chosen to perceive it. And what I see in Jesus is a person making the ultimate point about unity to those he loves: take my body if you wish, take what you perceive my life to be, and observe that there is nothing I will lose. I will still be with you. I will still love you. I stand here, though you know not what you do, to keep the way open, so that no being will forever be caught in the web of their misperception. It is a beautiful and complete giving, or relinquishing, of what is perceived as most valuable in the perception of separateness.

The bottom line is this: if separateness and the conditions it engenders are an accurate reflection of reality, and not merely a perceptual choice, then suffering cannot be overcome. It is built-in. In this case forgiveness is a futile, ineffectual practice and the world forever belongs to the strong. Kindness is perhaps a collective management strategy, a productive meme. We may manage this world by degrees, by patrolling carefully its position on the slope, by herding ourselves towards niceties and conventions that establish a “civilized” cultural position, but its fundamental nature is and will be one of strife, of difference, of scarcity and of fear. There will always be those at the margins, those we leave behind that our civilized ship might proceed. Those we would keep out of sight, out of mind, over there somewhere. In the world that separateness engenders, this isn’t a moral choice, it’s in many ways a necessary one. It arises from the limits of what is known. I believe unity offers a completely different proposition. But if unity, on the other hand, is a valid alternative, what prevents us from choosing it? What must be given up?

I’ve found the gap between these two perceptions is both razor thin and almost inconceivably difficult to cross, for what a person must give up to cross the gap is everything of value in the prevailing worldview. To leave the shores of separateness a person must consider an orientation in which the suffering that was previously perceived is reframed as a temporary sand-shifting backstopped by a higher condition of timeless unity. A person must consider an orientation in which suffering may be truly forgiven, and is logically and rightfully forgiven, because nothing is lost at the physical level—only enacted. I believe this is the illusion spoken of throughout ancient times and in various spiritual traditions today: the illusion is that the world we perceive in separateness is the root of our identity, and of value. We are finite, temporal phenomena in the illusion. We must grab hold of this world while we can. But unity transcends the temporal and material order, and anchors all that exists in Love itself. This perceptual shift therefore requires a complete reorientation of identity and of value.

The good news I think is that we each have a heart, a heart that has never forgotten unity, a heart that knows the way. And as our hearts and minds wrestle within us, and as events wash over us and we respond to them, as circumstance churns us up anew, as we cling to the known and subsist on what we find there, and as we gain or lose little by little over the course of our lives and watch those around us gain and lose, still the heart does not forget. I’ve heard people say that if God and the Judgment Day and all of that aren’t real, then nobody really loses by having gotten on board with the idea. But if it’s all real, then look how much is gained: an eternal life on the good side of the line. But this is separateness talking. It’s hogwash, bunk, and bluster. I don’t believe there is a God who requests or demands our allegiance, or that the lives we seek are anywhere but here. We seek to heal the world that is here now, the one we live in today, and that our children live in, and the reason to step across the gap is not that it will be good for you, but that it’s conceivable you do it for everyone. You are everyone, in a sense. You are more powerful than you thought. You carry the hopes of everyone within you. You do it not for your personal self, but for your unified self—for the identity in which we all share, for every mind that still suffers.

So what I believe is quite simple. I believe that Love and unity are real, that the choice for Love is possible, that the world need not be as it is, and that you and I will do this–that we have done this, and that we are here now, to remember what we’ve done.

(And lastly, many thanks to all who’ve stuck around to read these absurdly long posts!)

What I Believe and Why, Part 5

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Course Ideas / Reflections

[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4]

When I was a boy who needed to be in nearly continuous motion on long summer days, lest I become bored and try to rappel off the porch using a clothesline, or hitch the family dog to my bicycle so we could pretend we lived in a Jack London novel, I went (briefly) to a summer camp about thirty miles east of Birmingham. I was dropped off at the YMCA and a beat-up yellow bus scooped us up and took us out to the country. I always thought there was nothing at that exit except for this camp and its bad pimento cheese sandwiches, but it turned out there was a church on a hill, and down the street and around the corner, a ranch style house where a decade and change later I’d sit around a fire and listen to a Native American elder give teachings.

I don’t remember too many of the stories now, but I do remember some of this elder’s hanbleceya (vision quest) stories, one when a rattlesnake came shortly after he was put up and laid just at the edge of his prayer ties (the boundary of his site) until just before his mentor came to pick him up (several days later), when it slithered away. Another when, after nearly five days without food or water, when he was weakened and slipping away, prayers were made in camp that lifted him back to his feet. There were stories of being taken places and shown things, of receiving gifts and visions that mattered not only to the individual, but to the community. The most important aspect of the event was the feeling it engendered within me: the sensation that this person was in some sort of relationship with the world, with what he described as “the spirits”, with the Creator, and the Earth. I knew nothing about these things but felt a hunger for this call and response with the unknown. Jesus clearly had this, in the stories that were told of his life, and I was excited to find a living example of this type of connection, in the present, and not just in historical accounts.

A few years later I ended up in this elder’s camp up in Maine, where several people were doing hanbleceya, and a year or two later, after being in camp and tending fire and participating in a support role, my heart got the better of me, and I jumped in the frying pan, too. My first experiences in ceremony in general, and with hanbleceya in particular, were intensely difficult. It is impossible, I think, to explain the way that ceremony works, but it is a little like putting your life beneath a magnifying glass. You hardly realize it is happening. What you experience is a heightening of all your inner conditions, a graceful unfolding of your being. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and this process of being peeled open remains in many ways the most “real” thing I ever experienced. It was completely invisible, and yet, it was a subtle accentuation of my desires, withholdings, doubts and dreams that lifted them to the fore where they could be seen consciously and examined.

Instead of being greeted by affirming mystical experiences of the type I’d heard others having, or that I’d read about, my initial encounters were marked by tremendous uncertainty and doubt. By silence. I felt my own cowardice. At times I felt shattered—confused and incapable. While my heart was profoundly committed, my mind couldn’t make sense of it. I had these ideas of Jesus, of Buddhism, of ceremony, of things that felt good and true, and of myself all swirling around. But they didn’t quite align in my head, and I didn’t know, intellectually, if I could give complete trust to the process.

There were a lot of traditions in the hanbleceya ceremony that I initially resisted, and there were some experiences people shared I really couldn’t square with. They felt a little too self-aggrandizing, or fantastic. But there were also people who were close to me that shared beautiful experiences that nearly overwhelmed me with their grace. One person, who was not raised Christian, had a couple of encounters with Jesus while doing vision quest that echoed profoundly in his life. Jesus didn’t want this person to become a Christian; he wanted to help him care for his son while he navigated a difficult divorce. He wanted him to live a little easier, a little fuller, a little less afraid.

Each year that I participated in ceremony the distinctions between the sorts of experiences and encounters that sacred space could hold and those of the world to which I returned afterwards, became increasingly stark. Returning home was literally like moving from a world of color to black-and-white, and the feeling lasted sometimes for several weeks. It was marked by grief, by a strange idleness, by intense dreams, until the doorway closed and the day-to-day returned to prominence. All the most intense dreams of my life that I remember came while this doorway was open.

While I participated in ceremony there was this tension between giving myself as fully as possible, and trying to remain in control of things. What happened is the tension would build to almost a fever pitch prior to the time of ceremony, and then once you were in it you had no choice but to surrender. It was only then that the beauty and love imbued in the entire process would step forward to carry you. Eventually I realized it was there the entire time, every moment of every day, but prior to the moment of complete surrender my mind had this tremendous power to paint over the top of it. That is our daily life for the most part—a mental encrustation, a self-spun narrative overlaid upon what is really active within us. It is really difficult to assess this on our own. I’m not sure we can assess this on our own, really. Not that we need another person necessarily, or a guru or anything, but we need the relationship of heart and mind together. We need what comes through the doorway of commitment and surrender, through a genuine desire to know, and a willingness to be taught. It emerges in its own way, but we must be listening.

The power of the hanbleceya experience for me was the cure it provided to this inner conflict. You can’t really bring yourself to spend two, three, four days at a time, alone in a fixed location in the woods without food or water, if you’re heart isn’t in it. What I discovered was that I instinctively found myself making the time a devotion to everything, to everyone. It was the only approach that felt pure and unselfish in any way, and I needed that purity to summon complete commitment. I think at some level the prayer that is for everything and everyone at once is the only true prayer there is. There are certainly personal prayers, but I found the most fluid encounters with Love, with giving and receiving, came from letting go of everything. In a way I set my life aside for that time; in other ways I never felt more alive than when I did so. When you give of yourself completely, the suffering just fades. You are met with your response. You are carried.

The first year I was put up, it was for one day and one night. It should have been easy, but it was the most difficult of the years that I participated in this ceremony. I had a lot of big ideas for myself. When I came back into camp, utterly defeated and a little shell-shocked, I knew there was no way I would be able to keep my commitment and come back the next three years, building up to four days and four nights of fasting. I knew there were conflicts within myself I didn’t know how to resolve. There were fears and doubts and difficulties I couldn’t see through on my own, and that I wouldn’t be able to endure for such durations. I could hardly stand being alone with myself for more than a few seconds at a time as it was. It was a little like being haunted by my own ghost, by this daunting corona of falsehood that encumbered my persona. In some ways it would be fair to say I hated myself, for getting myself into this pickle in the first place, for not living up to some ideal, for not having taken my foot off the damn gas and just surfed along the top of life with a little lighter touch.

A month later I was in a bookstore and I picked up A Course in Miracles. I recognized immediately the sort of wisdom that would allow my mind to embrace this new experience, and to align with my heart, though I wouldn’t have used such words at the time. Our minds are not wrong in their quest for order and for logic, but without the heart they cannot discern the true from the false. Every perception seems equivalent when weighed by the intellect alone, including those that lead to darkness and isolation. A Course in Miracles was about observing the attachments, meanings and perceptions that we overlay on things, and how they block our ability to connect with the presence of Love.

So for the next three or four years I practiced the teachings of the Course almost daily, and somehow they merged effortlessly with my experiences in the sacred space of ceremony. I discovered a holiness vast enough to hold all of the ideas I’d encountered along the way. It was as if all the technicalities of the various paths or teachings simply lost their attraction, and the purity of each one emerged together. I’m not sure this can be accomplished intellectually; it was more of a melting down in the root of experience that occurred. Much of the mind’s difficulty is with definition, with taxonomy and concepts. These entangle us.

Intellectually I found the principles of the Course held up effortlessly with what I had briefly experienced of Buddhism, and with my ideas of Jesus as a loving being with a non-judgmental and all-embracing view of humanity, and with the Native American teachings into which I’d immersed myself. I felt I had something real in my hands, in my heart, in my mind. Something that could answer any question. But at the same time it was something nearly incommunicable. It’s like you discover a great treasure, but it has no liquidity.

In the closing piece of this series I want to talk about the one core idea that I think puts each of our journeys into perspective, and also gives a rational doorway, or point of entry, into the possibility that Love is real. (I may even say what I believe! Ha!)