Artful

When I directly view, say, a great Van Gogh, I am reminded of what all superior art has in common: the capacity to simply take your breath away.  To literally, actually, make you inwardly gasp, at least for that second or two when the art first hits you, or more accurately, first enters your being: you swoon a little bit, you are slightly stunned, you are open to perceptions that you had not seen before … You are ushered into a quiet clearing, free of desire, free of grasping, free of ego, free of the self-contraction … For a moment you might even touch eternity.

So many years ago, I was taking a philosophy of education course at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.  The professor, Gordon Campbell, gave us one assignment for the whole course: write a daily log, reflecting on our discussions, the readings and our field trips (such as to the school on a nearby Blackfoot reserve).  And of course, apply it to our lives.  Such freedom! Such responsibility.

I was looking through a book in the university library, and flipped the page to a remarkable photo, showing Michelangelo’s sculpture “Pieta”.  Jesus is lying in the lap of his mother Mary after he had been crucified.  I stared at the immense sadness in her face, at her right hand supporting Jesus’ back, and at her left hand, palm up.  After the silence diminished, I started writing, about the suffering in the world, in homes, in the classroom.  Over the course of the next day or two, it seems to me that I completed 8 or 10 pages.  It just flowed out of me.

I think the words are gone now, probably discarded inside a pile of stuff on one of our moves.  But she and he remain, tucked away within me.

Near us, in St. Thomas, there is a shrine also tucked away, in a leafy corner of a cemetery.  The centrepiece is an elevated statue of a kneeling girl, with arms upraised, looking in wonder at the golden ball she holds in her hands. Her smile is so sublime, beyond any words I could attach to it.  I go and visit her, just to be with the young lady.  Not often enough for my liking, though. People like me need to bask in her glow.

Sometime in the 1970s, my former wife Rita and I visited the Butchart Gardens near Victoria, B.C.  Paths dropped us into a host of wonderlands, such as the Sunken Garden, the Japanese Garden, and the Mediterranean Garden.  For part of the time, I explored on my own.  I was walking on a manicured lawn, bordered by a rainbow of flower beds.  My stretch of lawn was getting narrower and began curving to the right.  Finally I was “ushered into a quiet clearing”, where I came face-to-face with another girl.  She was naked, and her arms covered her breasts.  Her eyes touched the sky … no smile, no frown, just space.  So lovely to behold.

Three statues.  One Spirit.

I’m Wrong

I went to the tire shop today to have the winter treads put on.  I was heading north on a fairly main street in St. Thomas when I was stopped at an intersection behind a driver who was signalling left.  No one was coming the opposite way but he or she didn’t turn.  Just sat there, for at least a minute.

My nice transformed mind was thoroughly untransformed.  “What are they doing?  Texting? Doing their nails?”  So I immediately jumped to criticism, which disappoints me as I look back at the incident.  Only after a fair time spent tapping my steering wheel (thankfully not honking the horn) did I open to the possibility that the driver was sick or hurt.  At least my humanity eventually showed up.

I edged Scarlet to the right and pulled up alongside.  The woman behind the wheel seemed fine.  Then I looked through her side window at the scene on the side street.  A school bus was stopped right near the corner and the kids were crossing the street.  Arghh!  Humility, thy name is Bruce.  How wrong I was.

Now at home in my man chair, I’m thinking of another time on the road.  I followed a semi-trailer for miles through some gently rolling countryside near London.  The speed limit was 80 kilometres per hour (50 mph) and this guy rarely topped 70.  Okay, it’s probably a heavy truck but it’s not like we’re climbing the Alps.  I created a thorough character analysis of the trucker in my mind, and I bought the whole story, adding to the list of stereotypes that I had accumulated over the years.  Plus it was such a long straight road – nice scenery but still …  And then the road started curving to the left.  You probably know the rest: a compact car was tucked in front of the rig.  More arghh.

Strangely, seeing my assumptions completely proven false was okay, then and today.  I’m just your basic human being and life keeps throwing lessons my way.  Sometimes I’m a slow learner.  I don’t mind.

Coming, Joining, Going

In July, 2013, I spent a week at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, on a silent retreat.  Every afternoon, we had  a long enough break for me to walk a three-mile loop road from the centre.

Early in the week, I found myself really attracted to a woman named Karen. She and I were in the same small group interviews with each of the teachers. The way those interviews were set up, you only talked to the teacher.  So I hadn’t said a word to Karen.

One day, as I was setting out on my walk from the front door of the centre, doing my usual right-to-left loop route, I noticed Karen starting to walk down the circular driveway, heading to the left.  I wondered if she was going to do the loop.  If so, we’d meet about halfway.

I wasn’t very mindful as I passed fields and woodlots, unless you’d include being mindful of Karen’s (!) possible approach.  During the middle of the walk, there’s a long straight stretch. As I curved left to start that section, I looked way ahead.  A tiny figure was on the road, hundreds of yards away. And then a little less tiny.  And then someone definitely wearing a wide-brimmed hat, like I had seen on Karen’s head at the beginning.

Closer still .. and that was Karen.  One hundred yards.  Finally, as we approached each other, I brought my palms together in front of my chest, smiled, made eye contact, and bowed.  She smiled back and bowed to me. And then … poof!  We were gone our separate ways.

At the end of the retreat, we spoke for a few minutes.  Neither of us mentioned our moment of contact.  She told me about the summer program at the Omega Institute in New York State and said that, who knows, we might see each other there someday.  I agreed.

And that was it.  No last names.  No e-mail addresses.  Probably no ever again.  But we touched each other’s lives.  That I know.  The bow was enough.

My Song

Thoughts from Jack Kornfield, in his book A Path With Heart:

There is a tribe in east Africa in which the art of true intimacy is fostered even before birth.  In this tribe, the birth date of a child is not counted from the day of its physical birth nor even the day of conception, as in other village cultures.  For this tribe, the birth date comes the first time the child is thought of in its mother’s mind.  Aware of her intention to conceive a child with a particular father, the mother then goes off to sit alone under a tree.  There she sits and listens until she can hear the song of the child that she hopes to conceive.  Once she has heard it, she returns to her village and teaches it to the father so that they can sing it together as they make love, inviting the child to join them.  After the child is conceived, she sings it to the baby in her womb.  Then she teaches it to the old women and midwives of the village, so that throughout the labor and at the miraculous moment of birth itself, the child is greeted with its song.  After the birth, all the villagers learn the song of their new member and sing it to the child when it falls or hurts itself.  It is sung in times of triumph, or in rituals and initiations.  This song becomes a part of the marriage ceremony when the child is grown, and at the end of life, his or her loved ones will gather around the deathbed and sing this song for the last time.

Truly lovely.  And I ask myself what song I would have my mother choose for me.  To see me through the length of my life.  I’d want it to be sung for me during the tough times, when I was stripped bare of my usual comforts, standing naked before the agony of the moment.  I’d want it to rock me gently, like floating in some amniotic fluid.  I’d want the words and music to be something I could come back to again and again.  Something like this:

Be Not Afraid

You shall cross the barren desert but you shall not die of thirst
You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way
You shall speak your words to foreign men and they will understand
You shall see the face of God and live

Be not afraid
I go before you always
Come follow me
And I will give you rest

If you pass through raging waters in the sea you shall not drown
If you walk amid the burning flames you shall not be harmed
If you stand before the powers of hell and death is at your side
Know that I am with you through it all

Be not afraid
I go before you always
Come follow me
And I will give you rest

Blessed are your poor for the kingdom shall be theirs
Blessed are you who weep and mourn
For one day you shall laugh
And if wicked men insult and hate you all because of me
Blessed, blessed are you

Be not afraid
I go before you always
Come follow me
And I will give you rest

And who is the “I” that goes before me always?  Something interior rather than exterior, and yet something up, up and away.  A part of me that embraces fear and everything else as merely a passing show.  A storm coming in, raining hard, and then disappearing.

May I be sung to as I die.

Just For Fun

I went to Costco today to pick up some meds for Jody, grab some groceries, and have my traditional hot dog and Diet Coke.  Only $1.60!  At the snack bar, I’m used to lining up on the left, telling one employee what I want, and then receiving the goods at the right end of the counter.  Well, that’s okay, but how about shaking things up a bit?  For a second, there was no lineup.  I entered on the right and gave my order to the staff person at the till, and then proceeded leftward.  I handed my ten dollar bill over a high display case to a woman who was preparing a baked prosciutto sandwich.  She vaguely reached out her hand to me before realizing that this was all wrong.  I moved to the far left end of the counter, waiting for someone to take my money. Meanwhile, two women wanted to start a line but were blocked by my stationariness.  Big smiles from them – they knew what was happening.  I scanned the employees’ faces and there was no shortage of smiles there either.  Boy, that was fun.

I’d like to say it was the first time I’d done something weird like this, but that would be an untruth.  In 1986, I was a waiter at Fiddler’s, a high end restaurant in Lethbridge, Alberta.  One Sunday afternoon, at a staff party, we decided to have a slow pitch game in a local park.  My turn at bat.  Just for fun, I hit the ball to the outfield and ran like hell to third base.  Seeing the left fielder still chasing the ball, I turned the corner and sprinted for second. Now the fielder was up and throwing.  Faster than a speeding bullet, I motored to first base and slid under the tag of my astonished opponent.  I stood up, brushed myself off, and grinned.  Some of my teammates were laughing.  The more competitive types were glaring.  But heck, it’s called a “game”, isn’t it?

Eleven years later, I got a part-time teaching job at an elementary school.  As well as my main duties, I had to cover a Grade 1 class for one period a week. Usually I read the kids a story.  They’d fan out in front of me on the carpet, and I’d rock contentedly in the teacher’s chair.  One day, I picked a book whose story I knew well.  I turned the book upside down and started “reading”, flipping the pages with authority.  Most kids looked pretty blank. But a young boy named Paul in the front row started pointing at the book. “No, no, Mr. Kerr.  The book is upside down!”  “That’s okay,” I replied, and kept on with the story.  Poor Paul.  Some week later, I branched out.  I opened the book to the last page, and read sentence by sentence from back to front.  Totally incomprehensible, but such a good time.  Even Paul, who stood up, pointed and protested, eventually enjoyed the show.

Is there some deep meaning in what I did?  Probably not.  But why are my memories of these three moments so rich and indelible?

Just Some Extra Skin

I have a flap of skin hanging out between my neck and right shoulder.  I think it’s been there for a few months.  What I know is that every day, several times a day, I reach over with my left hand and flibble it, pull it, or otherwise bother it.  After some vigorous pulling, the flap usually ends up red and sore.  Doesn’t seem to stop me, though.

I figure there’s a teaching here for me.  I guess it’s not all right that I have this projection sticking out from the surface of my body.  Sometimes I feel the smoothness of my inner arm and like it a lot.  That’s what my physical being should be, so I say – smooth and beautiful.  Like the runway models. Except I’m a guy.

Clearly, my brain tells me that I should do something about my tag of tissue, such as get rid of it.  That interruption of sleekness makes me deficient.  So … why not splurge for a commercial product?

If you really need to get rid of a skin tag and FAST, than you need Revitol’s advanced Skin Tag Remover.  Not only does it have all the necessary ingredients, and a potent supply of natural Thuja Occidentalis, it also incorporates Sunflower Oil for fast absorption and faster results.

The only downside to such a fantastic, high-quality product is that Revitol tends to sell out quickly.  If it’s in stock on the website listed below, make sure to grab yours before they run out of supplies!

Clearly a popular item, and just what I need to be a whole human being.

Or

I could make this tiny fleck of matter an object of meditation.  In the vipassana tradition of Buddhism, when thoughts come, we just observe the passing display without judgment.  I could simply watch my need to touch the spot, and watch my hand reach over to feel it.  I can have the aspiration to touch not, as a way to experience the perfection of all parts of my body, just as they are.  And the compassion for myself when I do grab hold.

That’s what I’ll do.  Starting now.

Somewhere Between One and Zero

Another unknown human being out there in the world, in the present or in the past, has this to say:

We can think of ourselves spiritually as being somewhere on a continuum between one and zero.  One is the full embodiment of the “I” separate from all things, and zero is emptiness and the unconditioned.  Spiritual practice is supposed to move us from one to zero, but it often moves us in precisely the opposite direction, back toward one.  We cannot use the strategies of one to get to zero.  The movement toward either zero or one is within every thought and action of body, speech and mind.  We are continually solidifying the hold that “I” has on reality, or we are loosening it.

Perhaps the most difficult transition is to abide within zero and leave the world and ourselves alone.  We have practiced for so long that with lightning reflexes we intervene on our behalf, observing, examining and understanding whatever resistance arises.  The energy behind this intervention suggests that something is wrong when these states of mind, thoughts or attitudes occur.  The final understanding is that there is nothing wrong with anything because it all holds the same essence.

 As we move toward zero, we will never know what the next step will look like, except that it will be quieter than the previous one.

I wonder what zero would feel like.  I guess all of the things that happen to me, the “conditions”, would not be important any more.  That sounds like a pale life from one vantage point but possibly great freedom from another. Perhaps there would be nothing or no one I’d feel separate from.  Perhaps I’d be just as engaged with life as ever but without the need to have any particular result show up.  I could do what I do, as an expression of my essence, without worrying.

It’s 11:54 am.  Linda, one of Jody’s personal support workers, shows up at noon for her 8-hour shift.  No PSW comes in for the other sixteen hours. Thirty minutes ago, I looked at the kitchen and the laundry area and thought “not good enough”.  Dishes in the sink, clean dishes sitting in the dishwasher, food stains on the counter, drier full of stuff to be folded or hung.  So I’ve scurried around, quite mindlessly, to get the jobs done.  And now they are.  But what was that all about?  Not very quiet.  Definitely holding on to something being wrong.

Strange.  The PSW’s job is to clean and cook and generally support Jody.  But I wanted the house to look good for her.  And, in line with our mystery author, there’s nothing wrong with that.  And there’s nothing wrong with me being so uptight about it.  In the spirit of quietness, though, I could just do the cleaning within a context of Being, with no strings attached.  That would be nice.  Think I’ll give it a go.

Linda’s arrived.  House looks good.

It could be that I’m at 0.8, or maybe 0.3.  But really … how silly to be even thinking numbers.  Still, I wouldn’t mind being .007.  Kerr’s the name – Bruce Kerr.

Homelessness

In 2011, I participated in a discussion board about spirituality.  A gentleman named Sam had a question:  What do people think about the relationship between home life and homelessness in Buddhism?

I replied.

Hi Sam,

My first thought is that homelessness has no tug on me, that I need a home, with my wife, and at the school where I teach.  Here is where I open myself to other human beings, and where I foster an opening in some of them.  I retire in four years, and I want to contribute for this time at school, to deepen with kids and adults.  And onward with Jody.

However, there is a tug … for two-and-a-half months to ride my bicycle across Canada with 25 other travellers, being with the land and being with Canadians.  Homelessness with a home at the end.

Bruce

***

My first thought is that I’m fascinated to see the words of a slightly younger man.  I wonder how I’ll feel at age 70 about what I’ve written in this blog. Hey, who knows, maybe I’ll still be writing it.

I have an affection for this 62-year-old.  I know that downstairs somewhere I have some notes that I wrote as a teenager.  No doubt I’ll feel the same love for that young guy.

Today I look at homelessness in a different light.  I have no interest in huddling under a blanket beneath some overpass.  Or wandering from village to village with a begging bowl.  And I realize that not having a warm place to sleep is a punch in the gut for thousands of Canadians, and for countless people worldwide.  I am sad for them.

My personal sense of homelessness is in not holding a place to be “mine”. On my very first day at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, a volunteer greeted me at the door.  Just about the first thing she said was “You need to go into the meditation hall and pick out your spot for the week.  Put a coat or a blanket down so other people will know this place is yours.”

Okay.

So I did, picking a chair on the side of the room.  After supper, it was time for a sitting and I walked into the hall, put the blanket under the seat, and sat down.  Immediately (as in that very instant!), it was wrong.  So wrong.  The teachers talked, we all sat still in an effort to meditate, and I didn’t get a darned thing out of it.  All I could think of was “Yuck”.

I’ve been to three silent meditation retreats.  That was the one and only time that I possessed a portion of the room.  Since then, I walk into the hall with this light curiosity … “I wonder where I’ll sit this time.”  Yes.

Only once did I come in and find all of the chairs full.  (I’ve never learned to sit upright on a cushion.)  That time, a few of the chairs were occupied by stuff rather than by human beings.  I just stood there for thirty seconds, not knowing what to do.  Not wanting to take someone else’s belongings and put them on the floor.  Finally, a young man stood up, moved towards me, bowed, and put his hand on a blanketed chair.  I returned his bow, removed the blanket, and sat.  Thank you, my friend.

May I continue to move lightly across the planet.

Why Am I Doing This?

I drink Gatorade on my cycling excursions, and I’m an equal opportunity guzzler – blue, green and orange.  A couple of weeks ago, I looked in the orange container and there wasn’t even a scoopful left.  So I poured the bits into the blue.  Before my next ride, I tried to get as much of the orange pieces into the scoop as I could.  Same on the ride after that.  Lately, though, I’ve been taking a teaspoon and picking out the orange grains and dropping them into the scoop, unavoidably accompanied by some blue.

Today I was like a surgeon, moving aside the blue stuff with the teaspoon and getting every orange granule that I could lay my eyes on.  It took me about fifteen minutes to fill that scoop.

So the question:  What am I doing and why am I doing it?  And then it came to me:  I am purifying the blue container as a symbol of purifying myself.  All this time I’d spent and the true meaning of it was just under the surface of my awareness.

So what else do I do as an expression of Spirit?  And not doing it as a way to get something or arrive somewhere, but as a way to deepen what is already inside of me.  Here are a few of my idiotsyncrasies (Jody’s word):

1.  I replace burnt out lightbulbs quickly.  (Having my light and others’ shine)

2.  A small statue of the Buddha sits on the hassock near my man chair.  I turn it so that my friend is looking directly at me.  (Making contact with people, a timeless kind of contact)

3.  When I turn on my laptop, a little sign appears in the bottom right corner of the screen once things are booted up, announcing that I’m connected to the Internet.  I watch that sign until it gradually fades away to nothing.  (All things – good, bad and indifferent – must pass)

4.  We have a ceiling fan in the kitchen.  When I pull the cord to shut it off, I watch the blades turn … slower and slower … until they finally stop.  (I will die.  The body that is Bruce will weaken gradually and someday come to a halt)

5.  I could use a wall switch to turn off the ceiling fan but I prefer the pull cord.  (I am drawn to ancient rhythms rather than modern conveniences.  But I still use light switches!)

6.  I sometimes take my right hand and draw it to the right, palm up, and hold it there for a few seconds.  (In moments of spiritual awareness.  And the palm is up to open and connect)

7.  I park Hugo and Scarlet facing in to the space.  (I want to be with whatever’s next, rather than turning away from it)

8.  When I’m doing walking meditation at IMS on the circular drive, I walk right in the middle of the road, and step aside if someone is approaching me on the same line  (To be balanced in life.  And to yield to others rather than pressing forward)

9.  I place the coffee mugs on the shelf right side up instead of upside down. (So they’re open to the world, not insulated from it)

10.  I stand with my arms falling loosely by my sides.  (So the energy will flow)

***

I haven’t put all this on video yet
Maybe someday soon in a theatre near you

Off to the Grocery Store

From Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher:

We have within us an extraordinary capacity for love, for joy and unshakeable freedom.  Buddhist psychology describes this as optimal mental health.  I have seen this optimal well-being in many of my teachers.  Ajahn Jumnien describes his mind as completely steady, silent and free, throughout both his waking and sleeping hours.  He says, “I haven’t experienced a single moment of frustration or anger for over twenty years.”  I’ve also observed that he sleeps only one or two hours a night. 

 Ajahn Jumnien describes his inner life quite simply: “When I’m alone, my mind rests in pure awareness.  I am simply at peace.  Then, whenever I encounter people and experiences, the awareness automatically fills with lovingkindness or compassion.  This is the natural expression of pure awareness.”  All those around Ajahn Jumnien feel his free spirit and unshakeable joy.

Well.  I’m about to go out to the Real Canadian Superstore for some necessaries.  Will I live these words within the four walls, and as I drive to and from?  I’ll let you know.  (However, I’m not up for the part about one or two hours of sleep.)

***

Okay, I’m back.  Pretty uneventful, I guess.  No road rage or shopping cart rage to stress me out.  No need for anger.  I was quite peaceful and had some moments when people needed my love and compassion.  So I gave them what they needed.

Here are some people and moments I came upon:

1.  Driving on our home road, I passed an older gentleman I’ve met before, walking towards me.  He’s always been friendly but this time he didn’t wave back.  I felt sad and watched love burst through the windshield towards him. On some level, I know he received it.

2.  In front of our local psychiatric hospital, I saw a young man in a grey hoodie lighting a cigarette.  What is his life like, I wondered?  What demons assail him?  Does he have love in his life?

3.  Waiting behind another car at an intersection, expecting to turn left on this light.  But when the traffic suddenly thickened, a little nudge of frustration knocked me off centre.  Only a bit.  I was soon on track again.

4.  I noticed how slowly I was walking as I approached the store, and inside it. The rhythm was lovely.  It was like floating through the aisles.

5.  I made eye contact near the produce department with a fellow in his 30s. He returned the favour but I didn’t smile at him.  I felt disappointed about my contraction but quickly forgave myself for being human.

6.  I saw a pudgy middle-aged guy walking in front of me with his arms behind his back.  He had wrapped the fingers of one hand around the fingers of the other and was pulling hard.  I felt something very tight coming off him, and again I felt sad.

7.  I couldn’t find food colouring in the baking aisle and it was my turn for tightness.  I finally located the stuff – small bottles of blue, green and red. But the tag said there should have been a variety box sitting there as well – cheaper.  Nothing.  The compressing deepened a bit and then drifted away.

8.  A teenaged girl with what I guessed to be Down Syndrome was pushing a cart with her head down.  Her face was really puffy and her mother seemed to be urging her on to greater speed.  Compassion from me to her.

9.  I felt like talking in the checkout lineup and picked the woman behind me. I noticed that she had laid down two tall bottles of juice on the belt.  I mentioned to her that I’d never thought of doing that, despite having had tall objects fall over many times in the past.  Smiles all around.

Pretty ordinary stuff, I’d say.  Not in the league of Ajahn Jumnien.  But still a nice way to walk in the world.