Pastor and Me

I had breakfast with a local pastor this morning at the Belmont Diner.  I’ll call him Peter.  Due to the heavy snow falling, he was a half-hour late.  As I sat at the counter waiting for him, and engaging in conversation about the weather and (less convincingly) about the placement of garages, I felt into the sense of loss I was experiencing.  “If he doesn’t show, how will I get to see him again?  I don’t have any contact information.  And then who will I talk to locally about spiritual matters?”

On the retreat last fall, we were encouraged to classify our present moments as “pleasant, unpleasant or neutral”.  This was unpleasant.  Then we’d be asked to see what feelings were present.  This morning it was sadness and fear.  And then the experience of “OK-ness” washed over me.  I didn’t need Peter to show up.  Confidence came … that the universe would create spiritual discussions for me.  Peace was here.  And I continued on with my bacon and eggs.

The Diner door opens and in walks Peter!  I was happy.  Thank you, dear universe.  He had loads of questions about the retreat, starting with what the daily schedule was like (wakeup bell at 4:50!)  I talked about the Buddha’s focus on the present moment, on his insistence that certain types of suffering were always going to be with us (such as sporadic physical pain), but other forms of it were optional.  Mr. Buddha said that craving people and things was the source of that second type.  Peter smiled and expressed his sense of relationship with the Divine, in the form of Jesus.

I marvelled at what was happening.  There was no judgment from either of us.  And no sense of contraction that I could feel, even as we revealed our differences.  Four or five folks sat near us at the horseshoe-shaped lunch counter.  Some, maybe all of them, were listening.  I told Peter that occasionally in Belmont I’m brave enough to venture into spirituality in conversation.  Often people change the topic quickly, but sometimes not.  “A lot of folks think I’m weird, Peter.”  His response?  “Welcome to my world!”  I love it.

To expand my range of spiritual contacts, I’ve decided to rejoin a meditation group in London, usually about a 40 minute drive away.  Their first meeting after Christmas is tonight but the snow continues to fall.  Travel is not recommended.  But it doesn’t matter if that reunion happens tonight.  I’m drawn to it.

Peter and I arranged to talk again next Monday.  Who knows what epiphanies might arise?  Or maybe not.  But we will connect in a way that transcends the rational mind.

Day Three

It’s the “What Now?” conference in Denver, Colorado and I’m following the action on my laptop.  It’s astounding to be in the presence of so many openhearted, inclusive souls.  I long for more “symmetrical” conversations about spiritual life.  Although I have a few of them in Belmont and environs, it’s more typical that I bring up some aspect of Spirit and the other person doesn’t know what to do with me, doesn’t know how to respond … asymmetrical.  I remain hopeful, however, that if I keep bringing forward the best in me, the best in you will respond in kind.

Here are my favourite messages from Sunday’s sessions:

(Amir Nasr, a young Muslim fellow who became discouraged with how his religion was showing up in the world, and wrote a book about that, called “My Islam”, a book that was banned in several countries)

“I just wanted to fit in and be safe.  Going against the system got me so screwed, so beaten up.  I’m a radical humanist, divested of all identities that had been poured into me.  We need an identity based on citizenship, rooted in values – human values, shared values.  Too many of us have been drinking from the poisoned well of separation.”

To what extent do I stick my neck out in life, saying what’s in my heart, even if that’s being critical of the damage often done to other human beings?  If I get scared, do I shut up?

(Chris Grosso, sitting in a counsellor’s office at school, with photos and statues of various spiritual leaders adorning the walls and shelves)

“What’s going on with your walls?  I thought you were supposed to pick one and go with it.”

Reminds me of a story about a Buddhist teacher.  I think it was Munindra.  A student of his had listened to a talk from another spiritual master, probably not Buddhist, and had been enthralled.  Apparently, he then went to Munindra and apologized for straying from his teachings.  Munindra’s response?  Something like “If you find this other person’s words more valuable than mine, then go with him.”  How refreshing.

“Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.”  (Bertrand Russell)

What if my cherished opinions are confronted by “disconfirming data”?  Am I a big enough (or empty enough) person to let go of what needs to be let go of, or does the furrowed brow of being right rule the day?

“I’ve been mourning my departure from an extractive life in which I was a master of the universe.  I had to let go of that world and help co-create the generative world.”

Extractive, as in taking
Generative, as in creating goodness

“Discovering the great Ground of Being and your Real Self, that is your own deepest and truest being, is the only truly effective antidote to the epidemic torment that now drenches the planet.”

Act responsibly in the world … yes
Let go and let go into Spirit … yes and yes and yes

 (Ken Wilber, on how the ecstasy of sexual love can awaken us)

“Transfer your feelings of loving your partner to loving the entire world.  All of it.  No exceptions.  Go from making love to your partner to making love to the entire universe.

Not a single thing is left out of Big Love:

I love that terrorist attack
I love global warming
I love white supremacists
I love the Taliban
I love my friend’s bleeding ulcer
I love that metastatic cancer
I love that recent stroke
I love economic collapse
I love inner city riots
I love the HIV virus

Nirvana is very real.  When the source of consciousness is traced to its very foundation, the entire world stops arising in awareness, and that pure cessation, that pure content-free awareness, is nirvana, where the individual is radically free from everything … This freedom is extremely real, not something we’re making up.”

Oh my.  Can I really be this inclusive?  And can I really let go of the world while living fully in it?  I don’t know.

This Can’t Be True

What if nothing matters?  And I don’t mean some hopeless attitude, such as “Nothing I do, or nothing that happens, will make me happy.”  Instead, what if my happiness is there already, at a most deep level?  That the events of the world don’t impact that wellspring at all?

“Get a life, Bruce.  You’re being nutty again.”

Well … maybe.  But I wonder.  Let’s look at some things.  Here’s what I usually tell myself:

1.  I need to walk – from my condo, along Main Street, to the Diner; down the fairways of Tarandowah; and on the paths of the Archie Coulter Conservation Area.

Maybe not.  Perhaps I don’t even need to see my lovely golf course again.  After all, it’s in my mind.

2.  I need to meditate and go on silent retreats.

Actually, no.  What if my brain becomes a jumble and I never see Massachusetts again?  I sense that there’d still be a little smile on my face, that some current of energy would still be saying hello.

3.  I need to have a loving partner in life, to share the wonders.

Hmm.  I don’t know about that.  I could feel love for all the folks that come my way each day, even if they don’t go home with me.  When there’s love, can I really say that the version aimed at Deborah is more profound than the type flowing to Rob?

4.  I need to be with people.

On one level, yes.  But there are other levels.  It’s possible that the rest of my life could be a solitary retreat, where I hole up in my condo and just come out for essentials.  I could send love outwards, through walls and across the land, and never see the folks that it touches.

5.  I need to be pain free.

That’s a tough one.  How could I ever cope with a constant 8 on the scale of 10?  It might be, though, that I could be happy even within the press of chronic pain.  Maybe I could be present with the physical sensation without adding the “Ain’t it awful” emotion.

6.  I need to travel.

Gosh, I’ve been to lots of places, and the best part of those adventures was the people I met along the way.  Many of their life experiences were way different than mine but I can find folks like that at the Barking Cat Pub, less than half-an-hour’s walk from my front door.

7.  I need to dance.

I love dancing but all those rhythms have taken up permanent residence in my head.  Plus I play a mean set of thigh drums.

8.  I need to golf.

I love the game but I don’t have to walk those fairways.  I see the curling putts and the drives hit with a slight draw.  I am intimate with the undulating greens, the fescue rough and the deep pot bunkers.

9.  I need to have sex.

Sometimes I’m flooded with love, and what skin against skin can match that?  I like physical sensations as much as anyone but my mind cranks out some cool stuff too.  And the eyes are my favourite body part.

10.  I need to be revered.

Wait a minute.  If I have this reservoir of well-being inside me, then no other person’s words or actions can dampen that fullness.  Praise and blame could just be two sides of a lovely coin.

***

Well, well, well
This has been a strange turn of the brain
I wonder if more strangeness is just up ahead
I’d be okay with that

Strength

I like myself a lot.  I think I’m kind and compassionate.  I’m working out on the elliptical in the gym and soon with the bike on the road.  So cardiovascular health is coming my way.  But there’s one aspect of life where I’ve always defined myself as “less”: strength.

In 1980 or so, I lost an arm wrestle to my 11-year-old niece Diana.  And yes, I was really trying.  Growing up, I related to that skinny kid on the beach who had sand kicked in his face.  I go the gym now and see the huge weights that some of the men and women are hoisting.  And the “less” starts to grow.

I’ve dabbled in strength training over the past few years, even hired a personal trainer, but I would always find reasons to fritter away my expressed commitment.  During some sessions I was fierce in my determination to do all the reps but then injury or illness always seemed to derail me and my progress returned to zero.

Today I began again.  Light weights but I did my full Day One program.  And oh, it felt good.  I see the opportunity right in front of my nose – to be strong, not with big, blocky muscles, but still, able to grunt my way up hills on the bike, climb stairs with ease twenty years from now, and have my body support my spirit.

One version of spirituality focuses on the sweetness beyond this physical round, on epiphanies of the soul, feeling the depth of the present moment.  Another emphasizes the glory of the senses – the body moving through space, the pleasures of a soft breeze or a fine meal.  But there’s more: the chance to embrace both.

I can be more than my heart and head.  I can include my biceps and quads.  No need for the V-shape but lots of room for a different type of meditation – the intensity of contracting muscles can be in partnership with stillness.

It’s possible that physical fitness can allow me to reach more people with my caring.  I’d like that.

 

In Spirit Together

My neighbours invited me to a London church, to eat good food and hear a gospel concert.  I said “Sure.”  I like eating and singing along.

I’m not a Christian.  I’m a Buddhist.  But Gospel’s just fine.  I tapped my toes to a group from London who had their beginning forty-eight years ago!  Then it was the turn of a family from North Carolina – mom, dad, two sons and a friend.  They gave ‘er too.

I heard songs like “I’m Going Home With Jesus”, sung with passion.  Throughout, the faces onstage were alight with joy, and love as they looked at each other.  Very cool.  In the audience, some folks raised their arms in blissful devotion.  A few swayed in their seats.  And most of us blasted out the fast songs we knew.  A mom held her tiny daughter on her lap, the two of them moving and grooving.

The small voice residing in my head said “This is not you, Bruce.”  But the big one countered with “Yes it is.”  It didn’t matter that Baptist worship wasn’t my spiritual expression.  It was Spirit.  I don’t worship God.  Nor do I see Jesus as my personal savior.  But I saw the light in those faces, both in front of me and beside, and it was the real deal.

I don’t see Buddhism as a religion, although some say it is.  To me, it’s a philosophy, a way of life.  Mr. Buddha was a smart guy who happened to hang out 2600 years ago.  He had some fine ideas about leading a life.  I feel at home when I’m on a retreat.

I don’t compare one religious expression to another.  I figure that opening to a depth of love and peace is a fine thing for all of us to do.  To look over there and see God in the other’s eyes.  To move beyond “I’m better than you” and “I don’t care about you” and “More, better and different”.  Just let the present moment in and be good to those around me.  Yay for religion.  Yay for Spirit.

One Taste

I enjoy reading the thoughts of Ken Wilber.  He’s a philosopher.  And his goal has been to pull together the wisdom of the world, as represented by spiritual leaders, scientists, business people, psychologists and many others, into a coherent whole.  Ken thinks that every perspective has something to offer and it’s a mistake to say “I have the whole truth.”

I find that spiritual ideas stay in my head a bit and then leave.  I’ve read many books but it’s rare that I can recall what they said.  And I want to remember something “important” when I’m writhing amid the daily grind.

I see potential for me in Ken’s phrase “one taste”.  He points to the ocean and the waves on it.  Each wave can be considered as one of life’s experiences: happy stuff, sad stuff, frustrating, peaceful, challenging, sublime.  Or how about each wave as a person you know – someone kind, someone nasty, distant, cozy, chuckly, morose.  But if I look at all these waves, what is their essence?  It’s true that some waves are big and some small, but what is the core of it all?  Why, it’s brilliant and obvious … they’re all wet.  A tiny ripple is just as wet as a tsunami.

All these experiences and all these people, as different as they are from each other on the surface, down deep are the same.  They’re all sweetly light and graceful.  They all have one taste.  How can this be?  Surely the bliss of bright colours in my condo is better than the pain of constipation.  Well, on one level, of course.  But maybe there’s another level that I can access at any time, even when the temperature is 35° Celsius (95° Fahrenheit), with a heat index of 43 (109).  Sure, my body would be massively uncomfortable, but what about my Spirit?

Here’s what Ken has to say.  His use of capitals may be offputting, as well as his inclusion of the word “hopeless”, but then there’s the message:

The desires of the flesh, the ideas of the mind and the luminosities of the soul – all are perfect expressions of the radiant Spirit that alone inhabits the universe, sublime gestures of that Great Perfection that alone outshines the world.

There is only One Taste in the entire Kosmos, and that taste is Divine, whether it appears in the flesh, in the mind, in the soul.  Resting in that One Taste, transported beyond the mundane, the world arises in the purest Freedom and radiant Release, happy to infinity, lost in all eternity, and hopeless in the original face of the unrelenting mystery.

From One Taste all things issue, to One Taste all things return – and in between, which is the story of this moment, there is only the dream, and sometimes the nightmare, from which we would do well to awaken.

Pope Francis

My impression is that Pope John Paul II was a good guy.  I feel the same about Pope Francis.  Looking at that smile of his, I’m sure that he and I would have a good time over coffee at a sidewalk café in Rome.

I read today that he’s writing a book called Dear Pope Francis, his responses to questions posed by thirty kids from around the globe.  The article talked about how determined the Pope was to give deep answers to the soulful questions the children asked.  “Often, he looked off into space and tried to imagine the child in front of him.  And in his gaze I saw care, love.”

Those young folks deserve no less.  They need adults to neither look down nor look up at them … just eye to eye, on the level, one human being to another.  It’s not important that one of them is 79 and the other somewhere between 6 and 13.  There’s the wisdom of accumulated years, and then the spontaneous insights of youth.

One boy asked, “Will the world be again as it was in the past?”

Pope Francis responded, “There are those who manufacture weapons so that people fight each other and wage war.  There are people who have hate in their hearts.  There are people who are interested only in money and would sell everything for it.  They would even sell other people … No, when the time comes, the world will not be as it was.  It will be far better than it was in the past.”

Children need to hear hope, to hear love, not just from famous human beings such as the Pope, but from all us adults.  They also need to see this on our faces and in our deeds.  Are we strong enough to let go of antagonism, entrenched opinions, and a general malaise?  Yes we are.

 

 

Horror No More?

Stephen King is my favourite author.  Yes, he’s a horror guy, but he’s also a master of character development, making them so real that I fall in love, even with the bad guys.  They too have a pilot light of goodness.  Books of terror, such as The Shining and Pet Semetary, have always been enthralling for me as well as scary.

Yesterday I started King’s novel The Regulators.  In the first hundred pages, the occupants of vibrantly coloured vans are terrorizing the residents of a suburban street.  They’ve already killed a man, a woman, a boy and a dog.  Despite all this, I loved reading about the dynamics of the neighbourhood … who’s doing what.  Who’s saying what about whom.

I slept poorly last night.  I’m still pretty dopey.  Stephen, did you have anything to do with this?

I see myself as a spiritual person.  Am I moving towards letting go of the 6:00 pm news, gossip in the coffee shop, and perhaps Mr. King’s depictions of murder?  As for the author, I read fiction and go to international movies to see life vividly displayed in front of me.  I want real people feeling real things.  I want stunning moments between two people.  I want love, sadness, anger … the full meal deal.

No, I’ve just decided.  I won’t stop reading Stephen King.  There are too many “ah hah” moments within those pages, where I recognize humankind, and pause to consider my world view.  To consider what’s important in my life.  To learn.

Bring it on, Stephen.  Teach me.

 

The Messiah … Part One

I went to see Handel’s Messiah at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Ontario last night.  Fifty members of the Pro Musica Choir were joined by about twenty string musicians from the former Orchestra London.  Four soloists (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone) shared their passion with us.  The ceiling was lofty, the stained glass was exquisite, and we filled the church.

Maybe fifteen years ago, I sang The Messiah with the members of the Knox Presbyterian Church choir in St. Thomas, Ontario.  It was a precious event for me … just like yesterday.

I didn’t time things too well and walked into the church only ten minutes before showtime.  The place was packed.  I walked to the front, saw an empty seat in the second row on the aisle and asked the woman sitting beside it if the space was occupied.  No, it wasn’t.  I sat down, marvelling at how blessed I am in this life.

The context of The Messiah is Christian and the “He” being referred to in song is of course Jesus.  As I listened to the short interlocking pieces, though, I saw another way of holding the words.  Here are some reflections, some fostered by the Buddha, and some just entering my head unbidden:

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed
And all flesh shall see it together

What is to be revealed? Perhaps the animation of daily life, where each moment can be breathed into (“animus” in Latin), and a dimension of spirit accessed within the flow of the daily round.  Even within our difficult times, we can hold the world with new eyes.  And to be among a group of people who consciously walk this path, such as during the meditation retreat I just experienced, is lovely.

But who may abide the day of his coming?
And who shall stand when he appeareth?

To abide.  To stand.  No forward movement.  No becoming something new.  Rather being in place and allowing the essence of being to escape through the pores.

Nowhere to go
Nothing to do
Nothing to know
No one to be

In the conventional world, such phrases may appear to be nonsense.  But I think not …

And he shall purify the sons of Levi
That they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness

It seems that there’s a natural force of purification that seeps into folks who embrace a spiritual practice.  Often the need to accumulate diminishes, as well as the need to protect ourselves.  Fear lessens.  The heart opens.  And what was so important last year just isn’t so anymore.  Such as being right, being strong, being assertive.  What’s left is appropriate behaviour that often touches others.

Lift up thy voice with strength.  Lift it up.  Be not afraid
Arise.  Shine.  For thy light is come

As fear of what others think drops away, we speak wisely, with head held high.  We speak without demand, without needing to convince, without dominating.  We speak what is welling up inside us.  And people notice.

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light

There is the story of Plato’s cave.  Chained human beings face the back wall, observing shadows that they believe are real.  Such as “I need more, better and different.”  When unchained, they turn around, walk to the mouth of the cave, and behold the sun.  Perhaps terrifying.  Too bright.  But home nonetheless.

Unto us a son is given
And the government shall be upon his shoulder

Something is born in us.  Some mysterious energy.  And we feel the responsibility to do good in this world, to love unconditionally, to be kind.

Glory to God in the highest
And peace on earth.  Goodwill toward men

We are peace.  And the inside becomes the outside.  Simply “being with” people is a joy.

His yoke is easy and his burthen is light

Suffering still happens but something is different.  Fear, anger and sadness are held tenderly, embraced as part of life.  They still hurt but somehow there’s a sweetness within the pain.

Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world

I look at the ways I’ve hurt people and I feel remorse.  Still, self-compassion washes over me and I see the fragile, imperfect human being that I am.  Some energy is holding me up.

***

Hmm.  I’m tired, and I’m only halfway through The Messiah.  But I’m having fun.  I think I’ll tackle the second half tomorrow.  Goodnight.

My Meditation Retreat … Part 1

A little voice in my head told me yesterday that on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday I should write about my upcoming meditation retreat.  I leave for Massachusetts on Thursday afternoon and I won’t be doing any writing for about three months.  I asked that voice, “What the heck am I going to talk about for three blog posts?”  After all, I’m falling towards silence.  The answer?  “You’ll figure it out.”

When I tell people that I’m going to be silent for 84 days, invariably I get two responses:

1. “You?  No way.  You won’t last ten minutes.”  Well, past retreats have shown me that I can last at least eleven minutes.  But I know where they’re coming from.  I talk to virtually everyone.  I’ll find the flimsiest excuse to begin a conversation.  Like standing in a grocery line and sharing with the person in front or behind that my tall cylindrical objects (such as shave cream) won’t stay standing up on the moving belt.  That’s all it takes.  The pump needs to be primed.  If course, if the person just replies with a withering stare, I shut it down right away.  I’ve learned to detect the folks who want to play.

So how can I let that fun go for three months?  As much as I love the banter, I know the silence will be easy.

2.  “I couldn’t do that.”  I suppose they’re right, concerning a jump into a very long retreat.  But I’ve been on 7, 8 and 9 day ones, and I bet most people who say this to me are wrong.  It’s just that extended periods of silence haven’t been part of their experience.  It wasn’t easy for me at first, and I’ve seen many folks in the meditation hall who are clearly going through their “stuff”.  We all have stuff – thoughts, feelings, body sensations.  I don’t see meditation as fixing the negative parts of those things.  It’s more an expression of who I am, an uncovering of what’s already there.  I say that most of us would experience some of that uncovering during a retreat and would slowly allow the silence to caress them.

I used to think that I wanted to be a better meditator.  Sit in the full lotus position, for instance.  Well, my knees hurt too much for that.  I use a chair.  Have all my thoughts disappear.  Good luck on that one too.  Thoughts continue to enter my head but sooner or later they leave (to be replaced by more complex thoughts!)

Over the next twelve weeks of my life, I will not:

1. Talk (except to a teacher, who will meet with me every two or three days to see how it’s going)

2.  Make eye contact (other than with the teacher)

3.  Read

4.  Write

5.  Listen to music

6.  Be on the Internet, e-mail and generally mess around with my laptop

7.  Lie or use demeaning language (I don’t do that anyway, and besides we’re silent)

8.  Have sex

9.  Take something that isn’t freely offered (such as pushing to sit in the front row, or getting a large piece of the vegetarian entrée)

10.  Hurt any living being, even an insect

11.  Consume alcohol or non-prescription drugs

12.  Pee

Okay, just kidding about that last one!

See you tomorrow.  I might be silent, however.