Saturday, February 28, 2004

Deep breath. All better. Now just the tiredness Susurra speaks of. But it's not a difficult empty tiredness for me. Back in the cradle of the right world.

Love to you all, "you who think you are travelling."
An old grief, an old rage.

But I hadn't been here for a long time. The poison of anger sitting in my belly, moving slowly through my veins. So angry that I can't think straight. I just have to stop. If I let my mind off the leash it starts building up elaborate lies to try to justify the anger. Stupid lies, obvious falsehoods.

So I just wait. Maybe I'll be able to think eventually. Because I do need to think. It's not possible, I think, to get this angry without having gotten something wrong.

It's like being ill. Exactly like being ill. Unable to enjoy anything, unable to do anything important. Just having to wait, because I know that any exertion of discursive mind is likely to make it worse, and that anything I undertake I will do wrong. Shantideva says -- wait.

So. I think of everyone suffering from anger right now, and wish that I could take on all that suffering, take it off of them and take it on myself. (What the hell. How can it get worse?)

I practice. Every time I notice the constriction, the congestion of anger, I try to release it. Open my hands. Breathe. Nothing holds still in the mind unless I hold it still. If I just wait, and release the clutch when I become aware of it, it will change. It has to.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Visualization Blues

One odd limitation in my visualizations: I don't seem to be able to work the dimmer switch. Lately my refuge tree, towards the edges, is almost black: dark, dark leaves flutter against the sky. And while sometimes Vajradhara is a brilliant, radiant dark blue, as he's supposed to be (and yes, that's a hard one to pull off in the first place) sometimes he goes a dim navy blue and sometimes he lightens to a cheery but not properly awe-inspiring sky blue. All this, so far as I can tell, completely unsteerable by my will. I can be willing Vajradhara to go a darker blue with all the concentration I can muster, and there he'll sit, untroubled -- pure sky blue.

I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but since it doesn't seem to be under my control at all, it just has to be whatever it is, I guess. Slightly unnerving.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

A Confession of Literary Sins

Confession #1

Recently in a comment on Via Negativa Dave remarked upon the tinny metronome of Victorian verse. I can't pretend not to know what he means, but I have to confess that I love that tinny metronome. Sitting in my cafe this morning, vainly wishing my friend would unexpectedly show for breakfast, I had Tennyson's Mariana running through my head for nearly an hour --

All day within the dreamy house,
The doors upon their hinges creaked;
The blue fly sung i' the pane; the mouse
Behind the mouldering wainscot shrieked,
Or from the crevice peer'd about.
Old faces glimmered through the doors,
Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices called her from without.
She only said, "My life is dreary,
He cometh not," she said;
She said, "I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!"

It's cast in a woman's voice, of course, because male poets are generally too bashful or too macho to speak about the feelings of abandonment in their own voices. Give them a woman's voice though, and they descend to the utmost maudlin, down to Hardy's line, which not even I can take seriously:

O woe is me, O woe is me, O woe is me, O misery!

The Victorians make a gorgeous fat target. Probably no one is easier or more fun to parody than Tennyson. "Mariana" and "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and "The Lady of Shalott" must have inspired thousands of parodies. But they also give a shape to my own maudlin moments. I'm glad I had Tennyson's murmur in my head this morning. Tennyson himself found the Charge of the Light Brigade embarassing, but whenever he contemplated withdrawing it from his collected poems, he remembered the survivors of that charge who had written him and thanked him for the poem. It belonged to them, he said, not to him.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Whereyn the Bloggiste discourseth upon the Pytching of Base Bals and the Holdynge of Views, and waxeth intolerably Didactick

A young pitcher from the backwoods was struggling with his game. His coach, Nick Copernicus, soon discovered that the youth was so ignorant as to believe that the Earth held still, while being circled by the Sun.

"There's your problem, son," said Nick. "You're trying the throw the ball, and you don't know nothin' about how things really are! It's the Sun that holds still, kid! The Earth is moving!"

So Nick put him through a rigorous course of mental training. Every time he went to pitch, he was to visualize the Sun standing still, not moving, and estimate exactly how fast, and in what direction, the Earth was travelling at that moment. ("'Cause that's the way things really are, kid!") His own pitching needed to take these motions into account: how was he going to get the ball over the plate if he didn't realize that it was moving, moving, in fact, some sixty thousand miles per hour?

The pitcher worked hard at this. His game got worse. He was finally pulled when he walked four batters straight. "You're just not gettin' the hang of how things really move, kid," said Nick.

That season was so abysmal for the team that Copernicus was sacked, and in desperation the owner brought back their former coach, Claude "the Greek" Ptolemaeus.

The kid told Ptolemaeus what he'd been trying to do.

"Look, kid," said the Greek. "Put all that crap outta your head. You get up on that mound, I want you to think that it's been standing still forever. I want you to think that home plate's never moved a inch, okay? Just throw the goddamn ball over the plate. The ball's the only thing that moves. Got it?"

The next season was a good one, and the young pitcher got his game back and did fine. But he still worried. "I mean, the Earth really does go around the Sun, right? We're not standing still, the Sun's standing still."

"Maybe so, kid. I doan' know. Now they got guys saying even the Sun moves around. What I do know, though, is that the pitcher's mound ain't the place to think about it!"

Lama Michael often talks about "holding a view."

"We tend to think," he says, "that there are only two things you can do with an idea like reincarnation -- believe it or not believe it. But there are other things you can do with it. You can just try it on, try it on like a pair of glasses, and see what the world looks like. See what holding that view does."

See what the world looks like with no strangers in it. The person taking your pizza order is someone you've been hopelessly in love with, someone you've put to death for heresy, someone who's changed your diapers and lovingly cared for you. They've been your favorite dog, your husband, and the deer you killed for food. There are no strangers. There's no such thing as a one-off, disposable relationship. No such thing as a loving or hateful act that doesn't have consequences -- maybe tomorrow, maybe ten thousand years from now. See what it does to your perceptions when you seriously view a serial killer as someone who has been, in the past, your cherished son. Maybe you still execute him -- but not gladly, with your heart full of contempt and righteous anger.

Seriously holding a different view has another effect. It makes you aware of what holding your former view did. What does holding "the bounded view" -- as Michael calls it -- the view that our consciousness comes into being as our brain develops, remains hermetically sealed up in our brain, and then totally disappears when the brain stops getting oxygen -- what does that do to our relationships with people, to our relationship with the natural world, to our sense of time and scale?

It's a commonplace of modern thought that conceptual frameworks are provisional, to be kept so long as they work, and abandoned when they do not. Lots of people say they subscribe to that point of view. But few are willing really to experiment with changing frameworks, even for five minutes, let alone a week or a month. Really they're clinging to those frameworks grimly, desperately, and they're unwilling to loosen their hold on them for even a second. And that's another thing that trying to hold a different view teaches us. We can wonder, as we look at the resistance, just why is it that I'm clinging so very tightly to this? What am I afraid of? What do I think will happen if I let go? And what really does happen when I let go?

If our dearest wish is to be correct about the relationship of the body and mind, then it makes sense, I guess, to hang on grimly to our best guess about it. If that's what we take ourselves to be doing with our life. But if what we want to do is to live a fruitful life, lessening our own suffering and others', and making meaningful connections with people, and expanding our sense of the possibilities of human life, then it makes more sense to experiment. Just give it a go. Imagine for a minute that home plate is holding perfectly still, and throw a few pitches.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Of course, the real reason for not writing more than 500 words at a time is that I can't keep my mind on anything that long. Well, one thing, maybe. Speaking of which, here is Mr Shelley again:

The fountains mingle with the river,
And the rivers with the ocean;
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In another's being mingle--
Why not I with thine?

See the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister flower could be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea;--
What is all this sweet work worth,
If thou kiss not me?

And then, (same topic, but moving in the opposite direction) I read "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo" (Gerard Manley Hopkins) for the first time today, and I wish I had read it earlier, since it sums up everything of any value that I've learned in the past thirty years. But I suppose that only means that if I'd read it thirty years ago I would have smugly dismissed it.

It begins:

HOW to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away?

Saturday, February 21, 2004

In whyche the Bloggiste sheweth forth three Hesytatyons

A couple people have asked me what I mean when I say I don't particularly believe in reincarnation. I've been hesitating to explain it, for several reasons. One is that my opinions are somewhat heterodox, and I do not have any desire to innovate, or challenge doctrine: I hold the opinions I do because they allow me to go on practicing, not because I think they're better than received Buddhist opinion. Coming from a devoutly athiest background, I find the notion of an afterlife difficult to digest, and I've cobbled together a way of coping with that, a provisional way of making sense of the teachings on reincarnation. This has nothing to do with the intrinsic probability of reincarnation, and everything to do with making accomodations for the prejudices of my upbringing. I would never try to argue anyone out of a belief in reincarnation. I just offer this to those who are interested in Buddhism but who, like me, have long believed that consciousness grows slowly in an infant as "an emergent property of the brain" and stops abruptly at death.

My second hesitation is a local and personal one. My ideas about this have been deeply influenced by Michael's, and this creates two contending (but not mutually exclusive) difficulties -- either that i might appear to be claiming Michael's thoughts as my own, strutting in borrowed feathers, or that I might appear to be foisting my own ideas and heterodoxy on Michael. Both possibilities distress me, thought I can't imagine Michael would care a bean about either one.

I hesitate, third, because whenever I try to explain it, I find I have to explain other things first -- it's part of a network of interlocked ideas -- and I don't think I can roll it out properly in a single blog entry. Other Buddhist ideas, or Michael-isms (I'm not always very good at telling the difference) are involved. And yet a blog entry should be short. I know I tend to drift away after five hundred words or so, and don't see why my readers would be any different.

Heere endeth the manuscrypte, in seemynge shortliche ybrooken off. Beliche for to bee resumyd att a layter time

Friday, February 20, 2004

Patrul Rinpoche at some point in Words of my Perfect Teacher (which I just finished this morning) describes the horror of being in the womb, the dark, the slime, the suffocation, the stink of it -- and then the culminating torture of being wrung through the birth canal, and the sudden intolerable glare and noise and confusion of birth. A terrible ordeal, from start to finish.

I've read these descriptions before in Buddhist literature. Such a different fantasy than the typical modern Western one, of floating serenely in the comforting amniotic sea, and then surfacing blissfully into a higher consciousness at birth. So ingrained is this fantasy that the Tibetan fantasy comes as a shock, even an obscenity, to a Western mind. It's so different. So obviously wrong.

And our birth fantasy is echoed and supported by our Eden myth, of course. That lovely, rather unintelligent song of Carly Simon's, a few years ago, that plaintively reiterates "we are all born / innocent" -- is just restating thousands of years of Judaeo-Christian-Muslim conviction. The human race started pure. Each person started pure. Everything that's gone wrong with the human race is contained within historical human time, and everything that's gone wrong with each individual person is contained within his or her lifetime.

And so you get the characteristic Western extremism. If human society went wrong inside of historical time, it can also be put right in historical time. Things went to hell only a few thousand years ago, so it's only optimistic -- not demented -- to think a few generations could serve to put things right again. Likewise the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim insistence on having a single life to work out one's salvation, to put things right with God. It all went wrong in this lifetime, and it all has to be put right in this lifetime. The Dalai Lama, when he visited Merton's monastery, was most struck by the urgency there, the desperate seriousness of people who know they have only this life, only this one chance, to repair the damage of their lives and re-establish a relationship with God that they themselves, in this very lifetime, have wrecked.

The myth of Eden has transferred smoothly to secular humanists and neo-pagans; without missing a beat, they too have adopted original innocence and purity -- of humanity and of human individuals -- as articles of faith. (Weirdly they try to characterize this as a rebellion against the J-C-M faiths, when in fact it's a direct inheritance from them; I've never quite understood this).

A standard prayer in my tradition of Buddhism asks to be released from "the ocean of suffering -- the stormy waves of birth, old age, illness, and death." When I first met this foursome, the first seemed bizarrely out of place. It wasn't till I understood two critical things -- one, that birth was thought of as a deeply painful trauma, and two, that it wasn't thought of as the beginning of our consciousness -- that I could make any sense of it.

But once I'd thoroughly understood those two things, I could look backward at my own unexamined assumption of original -- and recent -- innocence, and see how much it contributed to my own intolerance and fanaticism. The people who were ruining the innocent world were still walking around in it, unpunished! Innocent children were being warped and depraved before my very eyes! The desperation and urgency of my poltical convictions stemmed largely from this convicton of recent innocence -- which is purely fantasy. Nothing in my own memory of childhood suggests that I was innocent and unsuffering at any time in my past. Nothing in the historical or archeological record suggests that human beings used to be one happy un-neurotic family. (Those who get all dewy-eyed about the supposed reign of the Goddess would do well to note that evidence of the cult of the Goddess generally appears alongside evidence of human sacrifice.)

The Tibetan idea of what the experience of gestation and birth are like may well be all wrong. But it's founded on no less evidence than our idea. Maybe on more. Babies sure don't look or sound like they're having a lovely serene awakening when they're born. They look and sound anguished and terrified.

Thursday, February 19, 2004


No conditioned good actions have a direction of their own,
So make vast prayers of aspiration for the benefit of beings.

Geshe Khampa Lungpa
, quoted in Words of my Perfect Teacher

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Training in Compassion

My waitress wandered over to refill my coffee. A slow morning. She glanced idly at the book I was reading -- Patrul Rinpoche, Words of my Perfect Teacher -- and wandered off again. So of course I looked at the text then, with new eyes -- the eyes I imagine (extremely inaccurately, I'm sure) to be those of a bored waitress in a Greek diner. The words that leapt out at me were about developing compassion. And I thought of what a strange concept that would have seemed to me, before I came to the Dharma. A concept that would have made no sense, carrying the assumptions I carried then.

In the first place, I was accustomed to thinking of my compassion as being a more-or-less permanent quality of my more-or-less permanent self, not as a skill that could be developed. Someone who has never radically changed their physical activity imagines that the shape of their body and its capacities are simply given, and they're shocked when a cast comes off revealing a dwindled arm, or when they find their legs hardening and changing shape in just a couple days after taking up running. In the same way, I thought of my compassion as simply given. I had never tried to change that quality of mind, so I thought it was just there, as the color of my eyes is just there. How would a person "develop" it? It seemed like undertaking to "develop" my eyes to be an intenser blue.

So that was the first hurdle. The next was, even supposing it could be developed -- why would anyone want to? I plumed myself on my compassion, as I imagine most people do. I was compassionate, I thought, at the right time, towards the right people, in the right degree. I didn't waste time feeling sorry for upper- and middle-class Americans who yammered and whined whenever their pipeline of luxury goods threatened to slow down a bit. I was sorry for the people who really deserved it, the working poor, the down-and-outers, the homeless, the people struggling in places like the Sudan or Rwanda in really nightmare circumstances. I gave money to people on the street (if they looked really miserable). I gave money to Save the Children, and Amnesty International, and so forth -- organizations that were helping people nobody else seemed to give a damn about. What was wrong with my compassion? It was other people who were deficient in compassion, not me.

Moreover -- the third hurdle -- my compassion was a burden to me. I suffered under it. I already had compassion for more people than I could ever help. What could possibly be the point of trying to increase it? I felt bad enough as it was.

This is already looking like a long blog entry, so lets just set hurdle #1 aside. Take my word for it, for the moment -- it is possible to train in compassion: there are simple, effective techniques for it that have been in use for centuries. Tong Len ("Taking and Sending") pre-eminently, but there are others. And just aspiring to be more compassionate has an immediate, significant effect.

Hurdle #2 I overcame by practicing. Once I got really working on it -- really trying to sensitize myself to the suffering of those around me -- I discovered that I was in fact deficient, terribly deficient, in compassion. (I discovered also that I had been conducting a thriving anti-compassion practice. "Don't feel sorry for those white landowners who were dispossessed: they deserved it. Don't feel sorry for Dick Cheney, having heart surgery: the sooner he dies the better off the world will be. Don't feel sorry for Tosi's son ranting about business taxes: he's an idiot and doesn't understand that the taxes benefit him more than they ding him." Etcetera: I could extend this list ad infinitum. I excluded a really huge range of people from my compassion. And I worked hard on excluding them.) I excluded everyone who "deserved it" or "brought it on themselves." Which included me, of course. None of my suffering was legitimate. I deserved it all. I had brought it all on myself. But of course, from the Buddhist point of view *all* suffering has been brought on ourselves: you can't exclude someone on that account.

Hurdle #3 I overcame partly by study, partly by practicing. It wasn't long before I realized that what Dharma texts meant by compassion was quite a bit different from what I usually meant by compassion. For one thing, they talked about it as a joyous experience, sometimes, which was wholly foreign (and pretty damn suspicious sounding) to me. "Feeling sorry for people," though it played a part, was a minor. The point wasn't to suffer along with people. The point was to accurately perceive their pain, and aspire to lessen it. "Feeling sorry for people" was where I had gotten tangled and stuck. Not only does feeling sorry for people feel bad, it also implied that I endorsed their suffering, that I accepted their understanding of it. So the man who's suffering because his wife is such a goddamn bitch -- I couldn't feel sorry for him without accepting that his wife is a goddamn bitch, and I happened to know that she was just a decent woman pushed past all endurance by his continual hostility. Feeling sorry for him, according to my old understanding, would be worse than mistaken -- it would be complicity in abuse.

Strange things happen when you stop trying to evaluate the legitimacy of people's suffering. Barriers come down. Motives that seemed clearly malicious or perverse suddenly come into focus as mistaken, sometimes even nobly mistaken. The amount of suffering I perceive in the world since taking on the project of developing compassion has grown enormously -- but the amount of evil I perceive has dropped even more precipitately. The world has become easier to live in, not harder, since I've begun working on opening myself more fully to its pain.

Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner -- "To understand all is to forgive all" -- gets it exactly backwards. It's by forgiving that we understand. We need to cultivate compassion so we can see more clearly. Without it we are blind.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004


Just yesterday the dawn light was blue, all blue, and it gleamed on the line of your brow, on the curve of your cheek, on the silver strands in your dark hair, and it made two tiny circles of brilliant blue light, Vega-light, Sirius-light, on your eyes, as you laughed. Then you stuck your tongue for a moment between your teeth. When you did suddenly a five-year-old girl looked out of your eyes, full of delight and wonder.

You sit by your Daddy in the cab of the pick-up truck, with your lunch pail on your lap, still and sleepy, and the warm air blows over your hands from the heater. Going hunting.

Your tongue diappears, and so does the five-year-old. The gleam and shadow shifts, and your eyes are looking into other countries, places I've never gone. I never watch you go without a tiny lift of terror. Will you come back? Why would you? (Watch the terror rise, and fall.) You come back, and your eyes are kindly, but full of news that can't be reported, histories that can't be translated. I watch you searching for a story that maybe I would be able to understand. Not easy. Maybe this?

We talk, and I watch your hands, hands that have driven pitons into cliff-walls, that have lifted teacups in Nepal, that I've watched flying over the keyboard of a laptop. Small hands. Hands that have seen some service. I don't reach for them. Not reaching for them is exhausting work.

And today the dawn light was blue, all blue, again. But it faded to the common gray of morning, and I was alone.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Visualization Practices

CB commented: To go back to one of Kurt's excellent points ("a repeat customer who asks much in the way of service"): porn is also marked out by the fact that it is a fucking waste of time.

That set me off thinking, in my usual contrary fashion, about what we might think about it if it weren't a waste of time. Suppose we just changed its name, and called it a spiritual practice. what kind of practice is it? What does it cultivate? It behooves me to know, since I've spent more time practicing it than I'm ever likely to spend in any other practice.

What it cultivates is not all negative. There is that extraordinary moment, the few seconds' wind-down after orgasm, which is a faint echo or parody of the dissolution phase of a visualization practice. The images that were so vivid and compelling fade away, transformed into simple pixels or glossy paper. If you have any introspective turn at all, you have to think, "what kind of thing is desire, that it can so involve me with a computer monitor or a magazine? And are any of my other desires really different, except in scale and accidental detail?

In this time of pornographic abundance, too, I can locate the exact images that most move me, and the strangeness of that specificity has a similar effect of turning the mind. Yes, this is the exact image I chased with such resource and determination when I was young and porn was scarce. Here it is, the image that has haunted my imagination . So... so what? Why this particular image? And then, too, in the searching I've sorted through millions (I'm afraid that number is probably accurate) of images that don't interest me in the least, but which clearly are the precise image that a thousand other men were desperately seeking. Pause at this brassy, over-lit, over-titted, fake-smiling, long-legged, vapid-staring blonde. This is the summit and end of all desire?

Well, yes, for someone. Mine is no different in essence. When I was young I took it, somehow, as a great virtue and distinction in myself that my taste in women didn't run on the Raquel Welch theme. Seriously, I did -- there is nothing, nothing, that can't be turned into ego and personal territory. I somehow managed to identify a taste for dark-haired women with small breasts as a signal of some moral distinction. The distinction escapes me, now, but I believed in it devoutly, once upon a time.

So much for the positive. What of the negative training? A narrowing of the sense of beauty, and of what one does with it. A practice in the sort of single-minded predatory trance that so many men seem to go into when they're aroused, by which all context and compassion is excluded. The long, intent, baleful glare of wanting, and only wanting. It doesn't seem to have bled over into my non-virtual sexuality, which is a wonder. But it must have bled into something -- what? Will I ever know?

Friday, February 13, 2004

Yes, I did delete a couple splenetic and enigmatic posts. For three reasons: 1) I'm a dreadful poet -- I recall a professor diplomatically spinning his wheels trying to respond to some poetry I'd given him, & eventually getting traction by saying "Well, Dale, there are poetry people and prose people, and I think maybe you're a prose person." 2) They were enigmatic to the point of being unintelligible, and 3) If it's spleen you want (and I know that on Valentine's Day that is precisely what many of us want) then you should go the House of Toast.
In honor of Valentine's Day, this poem --

Jenny kiss'd me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss'd me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss'd me.

-- Leigh Hunt

Thursday, February 12, 2004

The cold hour before dawn. I tuck one cold foot under my thigh, huddle down, and let my mind wander back. Back to before the dharma.

The echo of a foolish loneliness -- I will not see my friend today -- resonates down the long hallway, and I remember the persistent theme of my old journals and letters. That my love was wasted, isolated, under glass. Painful to me and useless to others. Invisible.

For, when the power of imparting joy
Is equal to the will, the human soul
Requires no other heaven.

Shelley was close to my heart. Like him, I imagined that sexual trangression could break the glass and bring my love into real contact with others. The truth turned out to be much more complicated than that. Almost the reverse of that.

I was incapable of friendship, then, and sensitive people knew that. The storm of need that arose in me when I drew close to people attracted them (disastrously) or put them off. But there was no way, without practice, that any relationship could change my isolation, because it wasn't in my relationships. It was in me.

I know, this is an old song, a platitude and a truism, and something that everyone but me and Shelley figured out a long time ago. I've taken the long road home, gone the awkward and inconvenient way. But I met the dharma on the way, so I could hardly call the trip wasted.

Just to sit. I was so pig-ignorant of what happened in my mind. The first time I sat, in an attic with a small Chogyam-inspired group in New Haven -- the first time I really sat -- I was apalled. Horrified. My mind was a mess. A huge, embarassing clot of anxious posturing and fantasizing. I could have dealt with that: what I couldn't stand was how repetitive it was. Over and over, the same pathetic stories would unroll in my head. They had bored into my mind and repeated endlessly, endlessly. In the course of half an hour the same stories might unroll fifty times.

The bravest thing I have ever done in my life, I think, was sitting down to meditate the second time.

No time right now to detail -- even if I could, which is doubtful -- how meditation undid the habits of mind that isolated me. But it did. My love is not under glass any more. I am not isolated, not like that. I'm naked and shivering in a new world. & I require no other heaven.
Kurt of the Coffee Sutras, guest-blogging about lust on Common Beauty:

Lust is a repeat customer who asks much in the way of service, but purchases very little.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

No intelligence, no power,
No wealth can help
Someone without diligence--
He is like a boatman whose boat
Has everything but oars.

Jigme Lingpa
(quoted in Words of my Perfect Teacher)
Speaking of Sloth...

Do not wait another second to practise. Do something about it immediately, like a coward finding a snake in his lap or a dancing-girl whose hair has just caught fire.

Patrul Rinpoche,
Words of my Perfect Teacher

Like coming the ill-considered third time, the testicles aching because there's no more seminal fluid to give. Or like retching, wishing to God you'd been able to eat something, so you'd have something to throw up. Or like sobbing when the tears are all long spent.

Like that. The spasm of grief that racked Chenrezig, when he paused from working for millenia to end the sufferings of the Tibetans, and saw that their sufferings were still infinite. When he despaired, and broke his vow, and splintered into a thousand pieces.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Go yonder for vice -->

I guest-blogged on Common Beauty yesterday about sloth, my pet vice. He's hosting a series on vices, and there's some wonderful stuff there. (There's always wonderful stuff there.)

Saturday, February 07, 2004

You wrote, Beth:
From my viewpoint, peace on these issues [identity/masquerade] is possible only when one is conscious of the decisions one has made and more or less accepts them, as well as the fact that we are, essentially, unknowable. But I wonder what you think.

I think you're quite right. And of course I was not giving anything like the whole story. I am also a prudent, even calculating, man, the sort who hedges his bets, keeps his insurance up to date, and carefully chooses when & where to come unglued. It's just a story. All these characterizations of myself are just stories. "Essentially unknowable" -- you are so right -- not only because even the paltriest of us is too large to fit into any story, but also because there's nothing essential there to be known. The wind blows through us, whether we acknowledge it or not, and what it blows through is air.

Choices. I wonder. I'm responsible for them, of course, if anyone is. Certainly laying the responsibility for them upon anyone else would be absurd. But I find the concepts of choice and responsibility difficult. Increasingly I wonder if they really describe anything, or if they're just more stories we tell, when we're trying to convince ourselves that we're more like a statue than like a brief gust of wind. I look for the decider, I look for the decision -- I don't find anything. Nothing but stories made up after the fact. "Once upon a time there was a boy named Dale, and he decided not to waste his life, and later he decided not to become an academic, and then he decided to become a programmer" -- what a pack of lies. All those things just happened. I just happened. At some point something becomes obvious -- say, that I'm never going to be a professor. So I announce my "decision." My firm resolve not to pursue an academic career. But that's just because people needed a story, and the old one, a little too obviously, didn't fit any more.

And all the time the wind blows harder.

I'm spinning along on a couple hours sleep, and I may well be making no sense. "Enough, or too much!" -- it doesn't matter. You matter, Beth. Even I matter. But this little sequence of thought, crawling in my mind, like a spider doggedly trying to climb out of a slippery sink -- no.

Love. I give you the wind and the stars and the gray clouds. The flowers of Santa Cruz, Yeats's rose, and Padmasambhava's lotus. Good night.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Standing In

Ah, well, you see, it's true: I love the quick bright doomed ones, the loudmouthed girls who've had too much to drink and don't take shit offa nobody, the cutters, the speed-freaks, the falling girls. Girls who ask you for a drink and look you in the eye while they drink it.

It's where I belong, in that world where desire swamps prudence, where push comes to shove every day, where oppression doesn't consist of "authorized discourse" and "marginalization," but of guys with badges and bulky belts taking your old man to jail. I am so accidentally respectable. I walked into the wrong life. I try to do right by it, since I'm here, but the conviction that the whole thing is a charade never leaves me.

I'm the sort of person who knows exactly how many beers puts him at the top of his pool game (three) and how many ruins it (five). Who gets in incoherent political arguments, with "fuckin" or "goddam" in front of every noun. Whom the bartenders, inexplicably, have a soft spot for. Who launches into invectives from Shakespeare's histories, or goes maudlin and mumbles Eliot into his ouzo, or who suddenly finds it terribly important to explain why he never entered a monastery to a young woman who doesn't even know what monasteries are. Who staggers home in the night air arguing with phantoms in pandit hats.

People talk to me. They always have. They tell me secrets; they trust me. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I suddenly ask inappropriate questions. "So what would you do, if you could do anything at all?" or "Do you talk to God?" But probably it's just that I listen. I listen with all my heart. Maybe this is the person who knows. Maybe this is the Buddha.

So now --- it's been ages since I've gotten drunk, and I have, so help me God, a pension accumulating, and I'm on church committees, and I painstakingly talk to my son about peer-pressure and how everyone's pretending to know and to have done a lot more than they have -- I feel like I should wear a little sign, careful black letters on white, explaining that I'm just temporarily standing in for someone respectable. Just to keep things straight, and prevent confusion.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Where I Come From, Part 3: Empty Boxes

This is the bit that Susan's poem reminded me of... it was written elsewhere, in the context of tragic, "unhappily ever after" stories, some time ago. It's about the summer in between my two years at the New School.


When I was fifteen I got tangled up with K, a tall thin pale girl, two years older than I. She had TB -- missed a lot of school, coughed up blood occasionally. Had attempted suicide a couple of times. Claimed that relatives of hers claimed that she was of the Stuart royal house, in right line to the throne of Scotland.

Anyway, we spent the summer mostly in bed together, "friends with privileges," as I'm told kids say these days. In the fall just before I was leaving for school, two hundred miles away, she became, or believed she became, pregnant. Believed also that I wouldn't come back, and that she was deeply in love with me.

She attempted to abort this possibly existent fetus with a knitting needle. Horrified herself, because, among other things, she had recently become Catholic, and she had murdered an innocent. There was blood, not lots of it. God knows what she had done to herself.

Why do I bring up this unhappy old story from 30 years ago? Because for many many years I told this tragic story to myself, how I screwed up this person's life, which was doubtless short and desperately unhappy after I left. Then some fifteen years later I met her again. Married, kids, going to school, doing interesting things. She remembered our relations very vaguely. "That was a pretty crazy summer," she said. It became clear as we talked that she was under the impression that at the end of the summer she had dumped me, leaving me in a state of dangerous despair.

So... I bring it up because the tragic unhappily-ever-after endings are every bit as fairy-tale unrealistic as the rosy happily-ever-after endings. We tell ourselves these stories, but they're just stories. If we really opened up these boxes we've stored people away in, we'd find that every one of the boxes was empty. The people have all slipped away; all we keep is the boxes, which we made ourselves.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Susan wrote a lovely poem, "Spin Doctor,", which has me thinking about revisions of the past. I wrote something, years ago, that I may try to find again and post here, about that.
I don't think I've ever seen it so clear: watching fear turn into compulsion. An hour of doubt and uncertainty -- and then an apparent subsidence -- and suddenly, like an algae bloom, compulsive desire is simply everywhere in my mind, reaching into every perception. Little eddies of it spin on the surface of every passing thought. Everything is tinged, darkened, blurred.

Half the power, at least, of this compulsion, comes from its ability to convince me that by caving into it I can get rid of it. Which is surely, demonstrably, a lie. But such a plausible one. But if I turn to look right at it -- it cringes; it doesn't like to be looked at, it's always pointing, and urging "Over there! Over there! Look at the object of desire, not at the desire itself! The desire isn't real, the object is."

No. You're lying, Mr Compulsion. The object isn't real at all. It's a figment of my imagination, a fantasy spun out of the memory of a fantasy. You, Mr Compulsion, are real, if we're going to talk real. If we're going to talk here and now. I feel you in my skin and I taste you on my tongue. This is suffering. You want the textbook example? This is it. Right here.

No wonder the prospect of getting rid of you is so appealing. So clever of you to turn that to your advantage. And it has just enough of truth to keep its power. Giving in does end the apparent suffering. For a little bit. But it sets the conditions for more suffering to come. It's like whiskey curing a hangover. Sure, it works, all right. For now. But tomorrow it'll be worse. And next year it's the DT's.

I can see it as suffering, now. Intermittently. Even in the moments of supposed enjoyment, I can feel it rasping, sometimes.

Not enough, yet, to deter me every time. But sometimes. And i don't know what else would ever deter me. Resolution and determination crumble at its first onset. They're no good. Awareness is my only reliable ally. Awareness, and habit: what the Tibetans call, so oddly, "merit."

Sugar in the gourd, boys, honey in the horn;
Balance to your partners, honey in the horn.

Monday, February 02, 2004

I look up from drawing points of light on my napkin, and there you are. I try to be composed, and not to grin like an idiot, to be self-possessed and adult. But it's a shock even when I expect it, and I rummage distractedly in my mind for the power of speech (now where did I put that? I know I had it earlier this morning). I'm quite sure I am grinning like an idiot. Everything, everything entrances me.

I know. This is a piece of that bizarre rag-coat that people call "being in love." I'm unstitching the pieces of being in love. I don't want all of them. But this piece I'll keep, thank you very much: being overbalanced by beauty. I've always been susceptible. A sudden slant of light through leaves will stop me dead on the sidewalk (to the annoyance of those walking behind me.) A face glimpsed on the bus will haunt me for days. The curve of a telephone wire against a blue-steel sky can bring me to the verge of tears.

In exactly the same way, the movement of mind can stop me dead, overwhelm me. Graceful, powerful movements of thought: it's like watching a great cat hunting, perfectly sure, perfectly intent.

I collect myself. You always give me time to collect myself; I'm grateful for that. One of the pieces that needs to be unstitched is the piece that asks for acknowledgement. (Which is why I might not post this. ) Looking for the acknowledgement is one of those movements of mind that looks like openness, looks like taking the dare -- but it's not. No. It's one of the million ways of trying to tame it. As if a tamed great cat, were such a thing possible, would not be a travesty, a pollution.

I learn. Slowly. Learning to leave things be.

I was told a great many lies, when I was young. One of the worst was this: that only things that are acknowledged are real. It's that same turn of mind that always has to fill silence with chatter, that puts television sets in waiting rooms, and muzak in elevators. Busily reifying, naming, cataloguing. Getting "buy-in."

Let it go. Send it away, even -- off with you!

The universe is on fire, from end to end, a blazing tunnel of light. Here. Take it.