Monday, February 28, 2005
Sunday, February 27, 2005
There is really only one thing that old people know, which young people don't: and that is, that some things heal over time, and some things don't, and that there is no way to know ahead of time which is which.
I first started walking in Forest Park when my knees were bad. It's a huge city park, many miles of the last barrier of forested hills that make the Willamette give up on finding its own way to the sea, and flow north into the Columbia instead. There were a few wandering dirt roads here, before it was made a park. They have become greenways now, healed over with grass and fern; usually one of the old wheel ruts has become a hiking path, and only there does the beaten earth still show. It doesn't take long, in this mild, rainy country, for a road to be reclaimed by the green world.
I took to walking there because the trails were old roads, and roads, unlike trails, usually limit themselves to a 3% grade, which my knees could handle. When I was a college student I went hiking in the Olympic mountains in Washington state, low mountains but very steep up and very steep down, where every couple of miles you come to the crest of a new ridge and a new world opens in front of you, a sort of miraculous miniature Himalaya. The lure of one more crest and one more world was irresistable, and I gimped home in agony, one knee so traumatized that I couldn't bend it. It's never fully recovered, and when it's bad, and I favor it a lot, the strain tells on my other knee. I doubt that in this life I will ever be making a twenty mile hike, again.
Anyway. I will take you there, when you come, and we'll walk under the douglas firs, and you'll tell me about the trees of your own country. There's a clearing we can reach by a narrow, barely-visible path. Along the way we'll pick a couple handfuls of blackberries, and then we'll sit on the long yellow grass of August and look down at the distant railyards, and the freighters on the river. We'll eat the sunwarm blackberries, chewing thoughtfully on the seeds. We'll talk about many things, but you won't talk about young friends drowned, or the slow path to exile, and I won't talk about love.
Thursday, February 24, 2005
The waitresses, in defiance of grammar, call them "creams." They hold, I suppose, about a teaspoon of half-and-half. White plastic conic sections, like upside-down thimbles, their sides delicately fluted. Their proportions are exactly right. Across the top is pasted a circle, paper on top and foil beneath, and to open them you pull on a tab where the foil-and-paper juts out, and you peel it off the top. If you're gentle enough you can usually get the whole top off intact, but if you're impatient it tears, and leaves an overhang.
Either way, you pick it up -- gently, again, because the sides flex easily even with the fluting -- and turn it slowly over. Say three inches above the coffee. A stream of white -- the thickness of cord, but perfectly smooth -- runs from the container into the coffee. I suppose that it's surface tension that keeps this filament of liquid exactly the same width, from top to bottom. The coffee shudders slightly. Except for a little white dappling right at the point of entry, you could think that the cream was simply disappearing. The coffee remains black.
Then it begins to blossom. Petals of what we call coffee-color (although it's really coffee-with-cream-color) appear below the surface, wavering and turning. Gradually they join each other, until the un-creamed coffee is nothing but a swirling, fading boundary line between the petals. Dissolving, but never quite dissolved. If you don't stir it, it will remain that way -- separate petals, slowly turning, never quite reaching the surface.
Dip in a spoon, and a couple of movements make petals, surface, and the little white dappling disappear. It's just coffee, now. Coffee-colored coffee.
Even when I'm tired, discontented, and lonely, this blossoming, this extraordinary fractal elaboration, delights me.
Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Wishing I could just erase myself from the world, where my anger is distressing people, and in which I am finding no joy, just now, and pleasure only of the grimmest and most selfish sort.
For weeks I've been sleeping only five or six hours a night. I need only seven, so that's not all that short for me, but the debt of fatigue accumulates. My body stubbornly refuses either to get well or to get stay-home-from-work ill. I have a low-level cold, and a twitch in my left hand, between the knuckle of my index finger and the heel of my thumb, that is fluttering, as I write here, like the membrane of a drummer-boy's drum. All week I hunch over my monitor or over my reference books, forgetting to shift my reading glasses on and off as I peer from one to the other. My neck and shoulders gradually freeze into a solid mass. Every Sunday Rowan undoes as much of the damage as she can, but it's worse every week, which I think discourages her. One starts a therapeutic career with such high hopes.
I want out. Out of my job, out of my marriage, out of my body.
I have gret wonder, be this lighte
How that I live, for day ne nighte
I may nat slepe wel nigh noght
I come to the top of the stairs, and bow to Chenrezig, who seems part of a life impossibly distant. I walk outside under the blue sky of this enchanting false Spring. At evening when I walk up to the porch, the air is drenched with the scent of early-blossoming daphne. All wasted on me.
Well. I'm old enough to wait. To wait, as Arlo Guthrie put it, till the song comes around on the git-tar again.
You can get anything you want
At Alice's restaurant (exceptin' Alice)
You can get anything you want
At Alice's restaurant.
Friday, February 18, 2005
Thread so finely spun that it will break against your tongue.
The layers of deception are so thick, and yet woven so spiderweb fine, that we won't get anywhere by carefully unwinding them. We could do that forever. We are going to have to tear this fabric. It won't be graceful. You won't like the expression on my face as I do it (you have never liked that expression.) You won't like the sound of tearing cloth. You won't like the dust of rotting silk in your nostrils.
This life, it turns out, is not the one earmarked for accomplishment. This is the life of undoing.
I was given the tedious name of Karma Doendrup Tsering, "long life accomplishment." Sorry. I repudiate it. This life is for stripping and scraping, for unravelling and unwrapping. & I doubt it will be long.
Listen. This is the place of decay, of putrefaction. Did you expect to unwind the mummy and find rosy pink flesh?
That's not the goal. Not this time. This time around, the goal is to die naked.
Monday, February 14, 2005
the scents of chocolate / Scandalize the streets, wrote Maya, in a sonnet that closes,
I wanted only the simplest of tenderness.
A tiny shudder in the veins, or something less.
And Whiskey River wrote this:
If you meet cupid on the road, kill him
Because everyone has to be their own cupid.
The river is dark now, a tarnished, pitted sickle-blade, iron-gray edging into black. The gulls are already gone, and only the crows are left, gathering by decades -- rushing bands, tumbling and taunting, quarreling like a Greek family. I am overdue to be home. The cold is climbing up from the river. But I linger.
I want to call somebody to account, at times like this. I want to say, "You sent me on a fool's errand!" But I can't imagine who's to blame. When I was a young man I was sent as a secret messenger with sealed letters to someone whose name I never quite caught. And after thirty years of not finding him, I sit down on this rivershore and open the letters. All blank.
What other errand should a fool be sent on? What other errand can a fool be sent on?
But I have been so timid. My courage has failed at every important turn. You'd think I would at least have asked someone to repeat the name, or explain the importance of the letters. But no; it was more important to give a flourishing salute and dash urgently away. And now I am here in my middle age, hoping that desperation may somehow stand in for courage.
I tear the letters into little pieces; yellowed scraps that fly in the wind.
The clouds are opening in the east, opening to dark blue starfields. I shiver in my thin jacket. I search my pockets. A river-pebble from long ago, oiled to a gloss by constant idle handling. A child's valentine. A little heart-shaped chocolate.
I eat the chocolate slowly. The crows rise in a great squawking swirl and make off over the bluff. The wind has fallen.
I have forgotten all my prayers. Not the simplest refuge prayer will come into my mind. The headlights of cars on the otherwise-invisible bridge make a string of bright beads across the river, far away to the south.
If I have no prayers, I will just have to make one. "Lord," I begin.
It's clearly the wrong word, and maybe the wrong God, but this is no time for quibbling.
"Lord," I say, "help me."
The darkness alters a little, but I don't know what that means. Except that nothing bides.
"Lord, help me to find a prayer," I say.
Saturday, February 12, 2005
I ches love to my firste craft;
Therefore hit ys with me laft.
She was a lovely girl, brown-haired, gold-skinned, small-breasted, quick in her movements, and prone to giddy rushes of speech. She could be impatient and tart-tongued, but she laughed readily. She loved making fun of people, of me in particular. But there was no malice in her. She couldn't be bothered with it.
Early on, we sat close together in the shabby darkened music room at evening. She told me about her fantasy of the boy -- except I imagine she said "man" -- she would fall in love with. They would walk in the autumn rain together and get quite soaked, and jump into puddles, and chase each other. And then they would kiss, passionately.
I understood that I was receiving instructions, and I was grateful for it. I was only sixteen -- I was greedy for instructions. Though it startled me to find her fantasies so specific. My romantic fantasies were vague: only the erotic episodes were detailed.
It was autumn. So when next it rained we went walking, and we did jump in puddles and get soaked, and it was quite shockingly cold. But we did kiss. We kissed a lot. It all felt mistimed, like an awkwardly directed play. When we broke up a couple of months later she told me -- not angrily, just sharing information -- that she would never forgive me for that. For having used up that fantasy, having tainted it, when it turned out I was not the boy she was going to fall in love with after all.
My own thought was that I had done her a favor -- that trying to realize a fantasy was pretty much bound to fail. Lovers need to be alone together. It was bound to be awkward with a third party, this fantasy, sharing the walk. Since I was sixteen, and full of quixotic ideals of perfect honesty, and remarkably deficient in common sense, I imagine that I told her so. Amazing that we lasted as long as we did.
As I have said elsewhere -- I have never fallen out of love with anybody. Her eyes were green, flecked with bits of apricot yellow, and I loved her most, maybe, when she gathered herself up in indignation, like a wave about to crest, an eloquent rush of wry humor about to come foaming down. Her wit would disarm her own indignation, and she would finish in delight. Then she would lock her gaze with mine -- in my memory she is always moving suddenly from beside me to place herself squarely in front of me, and staring right into my eyes -- and then she would seize my neck and kiss me.
I hope she has a happy Valentine's day, wherever she is.
Friday, February 11, 2005
Last Sunday at sangha we were talking about losing motivation for practice. At one point Michael said, "I kind of hate to say this, because it sounds like I'm saying we don't have enough self-centeredness, and we have plenty of that. But the problem is that we don't have enough loving-kindness for ourselves."
Pronoia wrote this, a week or so ago:
I first encountered this doing research for my dissertation. A common treatment protocol for addiction is breaking down the ego so the person in question realizes they can't do this on their own, they aren't different from everyone else, and they need help. It works, in general, on men. However, women are usually addicted out of other places and problems, and humiliating them and challenging them around their egos only made them more prone to substance abuse because it was a coping mechanism for massive esteem problems. I haven't done research recently, but I don't know that it's been changed.
(Which, by the by, makes me really want to read her dissertation)
The Tibetans, I've heard several people say who were in a position to know, seem simply not to have our self-esteem problems. And so the dharma they have handed down is aimed at people who don't often doubt their worthiness. In Tong Len ("taking and sending") practice, one begins by practicing compassion with oneself, and then moves on to practicing compassion for others. I think they started with oneself because they reckoned it would be so easy -- everyone, after all, they reasoned, cares for himself and has compassion for himself.
For us -- and maybe especially for women -- it's not an easy part of the practice at all. But it still belongs at the beginning. Because if you can't practice it with yourself, you can't practice it properly with anyone else.
Everyone needs to have their ego broken down. But there are a lot of people -- not just women; I'm certainly one of them -- whose egos are entrenched, at least part of the time, in self-contempt. For whom self-cherishing can take the form of considering ourselves uniquely culpable and incorrigible. Telling us we shouldn't have such a high opinion of ourselves, and that we can't do it on our own, doesn't threaten the investment of our ego. It fortifies it.
The test of any practice's effectiveness is quite simple, I think. It's working if (in the long run) it takes me to new place. Any practice, no matter how good or how bad it feels, that leaves me undisturbed in my habitual patterns of thinking and feeling -- or, worse, reinforces them -- is either not a good practice for me, at present, or is a practice I'm doing wrong. Effective practice is usually accompanied by some sense of opening, of spaciousness. This is by no means always comfortable. It can be terrifying. But I can think of no practice that ought to be regularly accompanied by a sense of closing down and constriction. I would not lightly tell anyone to stop a meditation practice, but if someone told me that was their usual experience of it, that would be my advice. Stop. Time to go to a teacher and figure out what's wrong. Maybe find a new way of doing it; maybe find another practice.
Thursday, February 10, 2005
Okay, I've had enough. I have to register a complaint.
Why, O Lord, did you leave me sitting alone and comfortless last week when I felt so wretched, and today, when I am already so happy, you bring me both this, and this? Especially when you had already given me this?
To him that hath, shall be given, I know, but this is ridiculous.
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
They say that the pleasures of attachment are really suffering, too. Not just that they bring suffering along with them -- any fool can see that. And not just that they go away, and we're left licking the dusty husks. That's not hard to see either, and most of us are willing to just take our chances, that we'll have the sweet long enough to make the deal worth it. But that the pleasures themselves, if our eyes were subtle enough, could be seen to be suffering. (Now, we're only talking the pleasures of attachment here, mind -- pleasures that gratify us, ultimately, because they buttress our sense of self. But that takes in pretty nearly all my pleasures, at present.)
I've had this vividly illustrated for me, this past week. When I was sitting shamatha after all that anger last week, the anger would keep coming back -- a distinctly painful experience. Losing my awareness of my present sensations and having it displaced with all that dark red turbulence and confusion.
Then a couple days ago I got a very sweet email from someone I've long admired, but never corresponded with. The pleasure of that was intense. But when I sat down to shamatha again, that pleasure kept arising again, bringing exactly the same turbulence and confusion that my anger had. A different color, maybe. Indigo. Midnight blue. But the agitation, the physical unrest, and the inability to settle my mind were exactly the same.
And the effect on my subsequent day was also very much the same. The same inability to settle to my tasks, to pay attention to what was at hand, to what needed to be done now.
The point, I hasten to add, is not that people should refrain from sending me sweet emails. The point is that when those old texts talk about all-pervasive suffering, they're not being grumpy ascetic kill-joys. They're just reporting the facts. As long as I carry this delusion of self, I will be cursed, like Midas. Everything I touch will turn to suffering.
Suzanne asked me to say something about pleasure that isn't derived from attachment, since it was sounding like I was defining everything as suffering. Here goes.
1. There aren't two kinds of pleasures, one kind that's attached and one kind that's not. So it is NOT the case that after enlightenment I expect to take pleasure only in beautiful landscapes and authentic teachings, while being indifferent to sweet emails.
2. A great deal of what we are accustomed to think of as pleasure is actually an after-the-fact gloating, or hoarding of it, that's really a very different thing. We're not in general very good at distinguishing between the original pleasure and our subsequent cherishing of the memory of it, but the two are not only different, I think, but actually are antithetical.
3. The original pleasures are terrific. I'm all for them. I am, as Dave has often noted, a shameless hedonist. I live for pleasure.
4. This point contradicts point 1, so don't read carefully here. Some people say that after enlightenment every experience, without exception, is intensely pleasurable. In some sense, anyway.
Here's how it works for me. I get the sweet email. My spirits soar. Almost immediately -- it may even be immediately, I'm not sure -- I get to work on taking possession of the pleasure -- trying to secure it, to turn it from a one-time gift into a permanent income-producing property. The fact that X is someone I admire might mean that a sweet email from her proves that *I* am someone to admire. But now I have to validate that in fact she really admires me and wasn't just being nice. I have to send mail back to check. I have to go back and look at what she might have read of my writing, trying to see it with her eyes, hoping to see a Dale who is really admirable emerge from it. If I established a flirtation with her, that would mean I was even more admirable, right? Or maybe less. Hmm.
In very short order -- the boat is rocking, but the wave of authentic pleasure is largely gone. In trying to secure it I've dragged it into the sludge of my habitual thoughts and patterns. From a new delightful thing it has become just more of the same. That, I think, is a horrible thing to do to a pleasure. It is also, I think, what almost all of us do with pleasures almost all of the time.
And in the meantime, of course, I'm dead to the world. Potential pleasures, all over the place, are floating right past me, unobserved, unenjoyed, because I'm busy dragging my new pleasure down into the sludge.
Tuesday, February 08, 2005
Monday, February 07, 2005
Will I ever forgive you?
No. Certainly not. I would not break any thread that ties us together. This long rough filament, that I can kiss, and taste the blood on, any time? No.
And my dearest wish is that I will turn a street corner, two thousand years from now -- in a far country, wearing different bodies -- and that you, recognizing me, will step briskly up, and give me a stinging slap across the face.
Well, I was going to suppress this post. Or really, to be more precise, I wrote it with the clear intention of not posting it. But I think maybe it would be better for me to do so, although (because) it certainly doesn't show me at my best. It's in response to some of the comments from last Tuesday's post. I wrote it a day or two afterwards.
I don't know if you know the sensation of being kicked in the kidney. A weird numbness, from the thighs to the middle back; and especially at the lips. Then a little lambent runner of pain on the surface, and then a sharp nausea, which vomiting doesn't help.
I hate him. God help me, I hate him. I wouldn't hate him if everyone came to my defense, like they did to Lorianne. But not a single one has posted a single thing. Presumably, they think as he does.
He's right, of course. I have no business mouthing words about a life of the spirit. My practice is dry as summer dust. Infantile doodling. And I talk on and on and on, as if that was going to do anything for me, instead of practicing. So that a little snot-nosed prig who thinks he's terribly spiritually advanced, because he once read a book and looked at the sky and had, like, a rush, man, can shit on me and walk away. And I, knowing I'm no different from him, am reduced to silence.
And no one comes.
Worse than that. They come and read, and then they silently walk away.
And every moment of anger and pain demonstrates nothing but that he's right. And now I know why I write about a life of the spirit: because without writing about it, I have nothing at all. That's what's kept this sputtering little flame from going completely out.
And now it is out. So fuck you, Mr Hari Prasad, wherever you came from. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you. I may have no dharma in me, but if you think I can't pitch you into a hell-realm easy as winking, you don't know fucking much. Which was, of course, obvious from the start.
You think you can dabble in mysticism, and swagger about blaspheming other's people's paths, and pay nothing for it? We'll see. I call down the curse. May you
I rose to it once, to generating love for him. I can do it again. And he did set me free, in a sense. We are told to regard everyone as our teacher, especially the people who piss us off. And here's the lesson: more practice, less talk.
I could, if anyone -- anyone -- would rise to defend me. But I feel that he's not only broken me; he's drawn a circle around me. That no friend will ever enter that circle again. Utterly alone, from now until forever.
I could if my head didn't ache, and my eyes weren't swollen.
I could if my project design hadn't been revealed as impossible to implement, this morning.
But I come to this place, this place of utter misery. So alone. And so childish, peeved and petulant. I have only to reach out, in order not be alone. And it's only pride holding me back. That, I guess, and that if I have to ask for reassurance, it's not real reassurance. Not authentic. So I wait.
Why, though? Why doesn't anyone post anything? All I get are these smug self-righteous idiots eager to teach their grandmother to suck eggs. Have I actually offended everybody, somehow? Or just confused them? Or did they really never mean any of those great effusive protestations of affection?
So that's what I wrote. The most interesting places are where the truth bends. When I start claiming the ability to curse someone -- where the hell did that come from? Presumably, from reading the life of Milarepa. If you had asked me last week whether I practiced a spiritual path partly in order to acquire power, I would have said "Of course not" and taken you for a bit weak in the head. But I think we have here convincing evidence for it.
Another bend: notice how I invent a whole history and a set of evil intentions for the man who's angered me. I know nothing whatever about his history, or how seriously he's practiced, or what insights he may or may not have attained. Sure, he said something kind of silly implying that he comprehended the heart teachings of half a dozen religious traditions, but that's nothing that I might not say, in one of my less brilliant moments.
Now that I'm calm I look back and think that his first comment, before I insulted him, was probably well-meant, if a trifle condescending. But I was, for the space of writing my diatribe, utterly incapable of imagining that. I was trying, and I couldn't do it. My invented prig was rock-solid real to me.
Last bend, and the most telling one, I think: my interpretation of the fact that no one rushed to my defense. First of all, why should anyone have? My responses were confusing; it was hard to tell how I was taking it or what I thought it meant. Second, so who keeps on reading comment threads the day after the post? Generally, only the people who commented. But after having invented a malicious prig as my adversary, I populated my entire blog world with his supporters. This is seriously delusional -- and yet it is I think it's a standard move of the angry mind. Quite "normal," in the sense of "common." Having created my nemesis, I go on to endow him with a army of simulacra who are just like him. I see this in political rants all the time.
We are told to hold everyone -- especially our enemies -- to be our teachers. They will reveal to us what our friends never will. The fact is that this man had hold of a truth that I needed to hear: that I was turning writing about not making progress with the Dharma into a diverting pasttime. The stakes -- as Michael said last night -- are way too high for that. Way too high.
I can be happy that I managed eventually to take this as a teaching, to have it inspire practice. I can still see that the way I'm taking it as a teaching is not entirely open. I'm pearling it, secreting a nice nacreous insulation around it so as to render it comfortable. Even this post is partly that.
But to be able to see it, albeit unsteadly and unwhole, is something. And the thing has driven me to practice. Just about anything that gets me to the cushion is a good thing.
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
And then tonight all the haunted landscape was a wash of dim colors I know no names for. I ached for you, then. The sun vanishing into the tatters of mist. Another day moving quietly away from me.
"Someone has to go home early from the party," he said, "And someone has to stay behind and clean up."
I know this may seem oblique. But I am reaching as directly as I know how.
Can you really doubt, at this time of day? Level shadows reach to the horizon, and a gathering cloud of starlings turns, topples, divides into two, and comes back together again.
I have asked, and offered.
Tuesday, February 01, 2005
That for just this one moment, the whirl and the seasickness would stop; the forgetting and wounding, the remembering and being wounded.
I reach up and we grasp each other's wrists firmly. Rowan pulls me half up off the mat, twisting my spine deliciously, and then lays me gently back down. A deep breath. Again the linked hands, again the lift and the torque. Again she lays me down.
She's probably half my weight, yet she seems to do this effortlessly.
On the drive home I remember the way she tucked my foot into the angle of her hip, so as to lean forward and stretch my back, with a little spurt of desire. The desire flares into my awareness like a lit match, and then slowly goes out. It almost never flares during the massage. It's afterwards, when my mind goes sorting through the memories, that I think (we use the word "thinking" for this kind of habitual motion of the mind, but I wish we didn't; we should have a different word for these hackneyed involuntary mental twitches) -- oh Lord, I could construe all that sexually and make it into serious wanting.
"Why would you want it to be serious wanting?" I ask. No answer.
Martha is back from her retreat. Left Friday morning, returned Monday afternoon. Shamatha and vipassana. She loved the silence. "If nobody talks," she said wryly, "nobody hurts my feelings."
We hugged in the doorway of the kitchen. "I don't want to lose my attachment to you," she says, semi-seriously.
I'm supposed to say "I don't want to lose my attachment to you, either," but I find I can't say it. I simply can't say those words. Martha's mad at me and amused, all at once -- how much of each, I can't tell. "Say it!" she hisses. "Say it!" -- tugging at my shirt, like an insistent child tugging at his mother's skirt. Then she laughs.
Down in the basement, we sort laundry together. "The reason we don't want to lose our attachments," I say, sounding ridiculously pompous in my own ears, "is because we imagine losing them while we still have them. Or losing their objects while we still have the attachments. Because we can't imagine what it would be like, not to have them."
"I know, I know what you're saying. -- (You're still in trouble)," she adds parenthetically. "But really, you know, who can want to lose their attachments? That's what makes them attachments, isn't it?"