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.

Straight Down The Middle

I love golf.  And today I was loving golf in Cambridge, where the top women professionals are playing this week.  I’m at the Travelodge tonight and will be heading back to the course tomorrow morning.

I especially love women’s golf.  Why, you may ask?  It’s not just because they’re pretty (but that is a factor).  The best, however, is that many of them smile and have fun with the gallery. I want famous people to be friendly, to be nice human beings, folks that I’d enjoy having a coffee with.

Today I followed a 17-year-old Canadian girl – Brooke Henderson.  You should have seen her after the round, signing autographs for kids and other human beings.  She smiled and made eye contact.  Lovely.

I think that a good golf swing is a thing of beauty, especially the full follow through after the club contacts the ball.  Many times today, with Brooke and other women, I was close by as they teed off.  I was so taken with the pose at the end of the swing that I usually didn’t even watch where the ball was going.  Power and grace.  And one example of full self-expression.

In other moments, the flight of the ball held me.  When I hit a ball, it’s always coming down by the time I lift my head on the follow though.  Not these women.  The ball climbs and climbs … touching Spirit on high.

Of course there’s the world of golf scores and who’s in first place and who gets to hoist the championship trophy.  That’s good, but it’s the moments that enthrall me, not the cumulative result.  Some of golf’s moments are ecstatic and some are devastating, but they’re all symbols for the roller coaster that each of us lives.

Another reality today was that I got really tired.  My feet and legs had enough of sidehill walking through fescue grass.  And despite my water bottle, I got dehydrated in the sun.  I told myself this morning that I’d walk 36 holes, but in fact I did 16.  I retreated to a tent housing some energy company, and the attendant there kindly allowed me to sit down for awhile in the shade.  We had a lovely talk and she was happy to take a copy of Jody’s book.

Tomorrow I’m into grass once more.  Sure I’d like to see Brooke play well and make the 36-hole cut but it’s far more important to see the balls fly and the mouths turn upwards.  The soul soars.

Hand Dryers

Sometimes objects out there in the world have a lot to say to me.  When I go into a washroom, I make sure that I use soap.  I also want to have my hands dry when I walk out the door.

Years ago, my office was at Catholic Central High School in London.  I’d do my phone calls and paperwork there, and then zoom off to all sorts of schools to see low vision kids.  The stress of the job often overwhelmed me.  I was just going so fast.  A washroom was right next door, and I’d sometimes fly out of there with hands dripping.  It took me maybe two years to figure out that my bathroom behaviour was a symbol of what was “off” in my life.

One day, I decided to wait until my hands were completely dry.  That was a trick, since the CCH hand dryers were definitely underpowered.  But I was determined.  I rubbed and waited and then rubbed some more, turned the dryer back on a few times, and felt the tension growing in my chest.  What an education.  Having a natural completion of the task seemed wise, but it was so hard to not lean forward into the next moment.

Then what about companions?  I’m in a restaurant washroom rubbing away but another fellow is washing his hands at the sink.  He’ll need the dryer in seconds!  And my hands are still wet.  What discipline it takes to finish the job while feeling him standing behind me.  But that’s what I do.  It’s good to feel the pressure, and to hold it gently, realizing that I will still be alive when my friend and I exit.

But some dryers are painfully loud.  Such an assault on my whole being.  I’ve decided that if there are no paper towels, I’ll drip dry.  This seems to defeat my commitment to dry off completely, but really it doesn’t.   What I’m committed to is my well-being, whether that means not subjecting myself to noxious noise or seeing a task to its natural end.  If my heart and soul remain balanced and happy, then they’re available to the next person I meet.

So … thanks, all you manufacturers of hand dryers.  Little do you realize that you’re contributing to my spiritual development.

Pathless

Buddhism asserts that the spiritual journey is unique to each individual.  Therefore, of course, it cannot be held, circumscribed, limited, or even ultimately judged by any institution, tradition or external authority.  The unique journey that lies before us does not exist in any text, external person, or religion.  In fact, it does not exist at all, but only lies ahead of us, to be discovered literally as we go.  Thus it is that the spiritual journey cannot in any way be preconceived or predetermined; it is not humanly constructed or fabricated.  The journey to ourselves is truly a journey into the unknown, a setting forth onto a sea that has never before been sailed and never before been fathomed or mapped.

Reginald Ray

So what is spiritual life?  You don’t get to say for me, and I guess I don’t even get to say for me.  It’s unfolding as we speak.  But this doesn’t mean a rejection of the wise teachers who came before, such as Jesus and the Buddha.  No, I can absorb what they say about living a good life, and see to what extent I make it my own.

Take “The Sermon on the Mount” and “The Metta Sutta”, for instance.  Who am I to argue with the Beatitudes, which honour the “merciful”, the “pure in heart”, and “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”?  Or with the Buddha’s assertion that “Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings, radiating kindness over the entire world.”

My conception of Spirit has been nurtured by decades of spiritual practice.  More and more, I breathe life into what I’ve drawn from my fellow travellers, from books, from meditation retreats.  I’m happy about that.

But Reggie Ray is pointing to a mysterious sea.  I don’t know where my voyage is taking me, and you don’t know where yours is taking you.  We’ve thanked the guideposts along the way, but now … there aren’t any.  We point the bow of our ship to the horizon, and wait.  Will we fall off the end of the world?  No.  Will we fly?  Yes, I think so.

I await my future.  I will write a new song and sing it out loud.  And may your melody be sweet.

Words from Jody’s Mouth

Dear kindhearted ones,

In four hours, I’m driving to London, then getting on a bus to Toronto, and then a plane to Cuba.  I’m so excited!  And Jody’s going with me.

I remember my dear wife in many ways.  One of my favorites is reading what she has written.  The human being, in all her glory and pain, shines from the page.  Here are some snippets that I hope you’ll enjoy:

***

On June 25, 2014, we celebrated our 26th anniversary:

Dear Bruce:

I love you completely, without reservation, and my heart sings with happiness when you are with me.

***

And to a dear friend in April, 2014:

I hope you enjoy this pouch that was made to help you carry both jewelry, money and important papers when you are travelling … I hope you find it extremely useful.

We love you dearly,

Jody and Bruce

 ***

In the midst of great sickness:

I don’t want to be alone.

(To Bruce)   Fuzz top

Oh, Bruce. I’m so glad you’re here.

 ***

Bruce: May I go outside and get the paper first?

Jody:  No.  You have to sit here and smile … Of course you can get the paper.

 ***

A letter to herself at the end of a meditation course:

I need to pay attention to ME!  Everything else will naturally get better … I am naturally a happy person … I don’t have to get sucked into the situation or stay that way for long.  I do have the ability to create distance from the issues.

***

Bruce: Hello, loved wife.

Jody: Hello, loved husband.  I love you so dearly.

 ***

Bruce: I wish we’d had kids.

Jody: I’m sorry that we didn’t.

Bruce: You would have been a good mother.

Jody: You would have been a fantastic father.

 ***

And as Jody got weaker:

Jody: I need to have somebody help blow my nose.

Bruce: Pick me.

 ***

A letter to her grandmother on October 31, 2014 shows the soul beyond the limitations of time:

It’s been a long time.  I realize that it’s been a long time since we’ve said hello so saying goodbye seems like a funny thing to do.

***

 A couple of weeks before Jody died:

I’m more than happy to comply with your wishes, kind sir.

***

 Two days after Jody died:

I am with you, husband, in a way you can’t comprehend from your side.

 ***

Lovely phrases all.  I’m so glad that I get to hold onto many of Jody’s words.  And I’m sure we’ll talk lots in Cuba.

On Saturday, December 6, 2014, there’ll be an announcement about Jody’s Celebration of Life in the London Free Press and in the St. Thomas Times-Journal.  It will be held at 11:00 am on Saturday, January 31, 2015 at Bellamere Winery in London.  I thought long and hard about whether to include in the ad something funny Jody said to me.  Well, heck, it’s a celebration isn’t it?  So the funny stuff now sits there, waiting for your laughter on Saturday morning.  I’ll be on the beach at the time, reading The Book Thief.  I dearly hope that I’ll see you in January.  Jody deserves a big crowd.

I love you all,

Bruce

Hearts Opening All Around Me

Jody was having trouble breathing last night.  I called 911 and the paramedics arrived quickly.  Once she had the oxygen mask on for a few minutes, Jody felt better.  She decided not to go to Emergency.

What a moment in time for me, to stay silent in response to Jody’s decision, while yearning to have her fully checked out in the hospital.  In the words of Shantideva, an ancient Buddhist sage, “It’s then that like a log you should remain.”  Jody gets to choose.

This morning, she once again was struggling for air.  And Jody chose ambulance.  I wondered as we headed down the road for the St. Thomas-Elgin Hospital if she would ever come home again.

It turned out that Jody has a lung infection with some fluid buildup.  Not the re-emergence of blood clots nor the spectre of imminent death.  Now she’s sleeping soundly beside me at home, with an antibiotic coursing through her, and nasal prongs delivering oxygen.  (Sigh)  Perhaps Jody’s time on Earth is short but this is not the day of leaving.

I am so blessed to have people stroll into my life, happy to be in my world. Today’s angels included:

1.  Two young paramedics, a man and a woman, both with big smiles, kind words, and funny words.  “The unbearable lightness of being”, as one movie was aptly titled.

2.  The resident doctor who smiled so fully at Jody and me.  She sparkled. And her words were wise, coming from a place far beyond her years.

3.  The emergency doc who first saw Jody a year ago, and both compassionately and assertively suggested that she may have cancer.  He was “with her” both then and today, showing me how the contact of the moment outstrips the content.

4.  The pharmacy technician who saw that I needed the antibiotic in a hurry, who saw in my fear the deep love I have for my wife, and who pulled strings to get me what I needed quickly.  Our eyes truly met when I said thank you.

5.  The respiratory therapist who saw Jody briefly in hospital and then came to our place tonight to comfort her with air and love, and who patiently showed me how to operate the equipment, returning to a task when she saw I was confused.  She realized that I was “gone”, and allowed her caring to flow.

***

Out of the woodwork they come
Out of their phone booths
Out of their skin

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.

Beyond Which Not

I’ve been reading a book by Lex Hixon called Coming Home.  In it he points to the possibility of enlightenment as uncovered through various spiritual traditions.

I don’t know what to say.  Perhaps being at a loss for words is appropriate when glimpsing … Spirit.  I know I want to say something as I grope through an unknown territory.  I don’t think it’s about achieving anything, such as a rarefied state of being.  Or about starting at A and then experiencing what I need to experience to get to B, and then C, D, …  Here’s how Lex expresses the inexpressible:

From our perspective as seekers, we may imagine that we will someday turn a certain spiritual corner, finally to experience the vast new vision of what is truly ultimate.  But this is to misunderstand the Ultimate.  Turiya is not any particular experience but is what constitutes all experiences.

He refers to the “biggest” consciousness as turiya.  It seems to me like the essence of all people and things and moments.  All of this is aglow from within.  Maybe a simple white candle burns always in my chest and yours, an eternal flame.  Maybe your favourite tree holds the same candle … your bed, your coffee, your coat.  A building, a street, a field, a mountain, a lake.

Perhaps it’s all perfect – this moment and every other one.  Today I couldn’t find my vehicle permit for Hugo.  I need to have all the paperwork in place by Sunday.  I looked everywhere, watching my frustration grow.  Perfect?  Even the part about frustration and fear?  Could be.  (Never did find the permit, but the Government of Ontario will replace it for $10.00.  Whew.)

Sometimes my responses to life’s travails are mellow.  That feels right – spiritual.  And I’ve defined the absence of such a mature (?) response as bad, as less than.  But what if I could easily get in touch with the adequacy of everything I receive and everything I send out, “positive” or “negative”?

Right now, Jody needs my help, and so I’m leaving our conversation.  In this instant, within this spaciousness, allowing myself to be shifted away from the task I’ve chosen is perfectly fine.  So I’ll see you later.

***

I gave Jody her daily injection of Fragmin, to treat her blood clots.  I get scared when I’m about to push the needle into her stomach, worried that I’ll hurt her.  Today, I did the deed while surrounded by space.  Within the fear was complete sufficiency.

I thought tonight about how to access this turiya.  If only I could think of one word that would trigger an opening.  It sure wouldn’t be turiya.  Apart from the writings of Lex and another fellow named Ken Wilber, I’ve never heard of the term.  It doesn’t shine inside me.  I’ve often thought of the word Spirit, with a capital T, but that’s not it either.  Okay.  I decided to wait for it to be revealed.

I didn’t have to wait for long.  Jody was angry with me for an hour or so. During that time together, I let a vast consciousness be there.  And a word naturally came to the surface … “candle”.  Yes.  That feels right.

Jody has now fallen asleep.  Even though the residue of her anger is still with me, so is a little white candle, and the moment is illuminated.  Plus I just thought of a song by Peter, Paul and Mary:

Don’t let the light go out
It’s lasted for so many years
Don’t let the light go out
Let it shine through our love and our tears

Works for me

Laughing with Kabir

Kabir was a mystic poet in India during the 1400s.  He rejected the rigidities of Hinduism and Islam, and wrote ecstatic poetry about experiencing union with God.  He also chuckled a lot, sometimes enjoying the presence of others, and sometimes gently mocking the world’s foibles.  Here are a few choice quotes:

The caller calls in a loud voice to the Holy One at dusk
Why?  Surely the Holy One is not deaf
He hears the delicate anklets that ring on the feet of an insect as it walks

Why should I flail about with words
When love has made the space inside me full of light?

I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty
You don’t grasp the fact that what is most alive of all is inside your own house
And so you walk from one holy city to the next with a confused look!

Do you have a body?  Don’t sit on the porch!  Go out and walk in the rain!

It is time to put up a love-swing!
Tie the body and tie the mind
So that they swing between the arms of the Secret One you love

The Sacred Books of the East are nothing but words
I looked through their covers one day sideways
What Kabir talks of is only what he has lived through
If you have not lived through something, it is not true

Don’t go outside your house to see flowers
My friend, don’t bother with that excursion
Inside your body there are flowers
One flower has a thousand petals
That will do for a place to sit

Suppose you scrub your ethical skin until it shines but inside there is no music
Then what?
Mohammed’s son pores over words and points out this and that
But if his chest is not soaked dark with love
Then what?

Then what, indeed.  Not what this life is intended to be.  I have so many spiritual books but they only touch me if I in turn breathe life into them. Along with Kabir, “if you have not lived through something, it is not true.” Each day, then, I listen inside for the sweet ring of “yes”.  If the package I hold in my hands sings to me, then I place it gently on my shelf so that I may enjoy it another day as well.

And as for the lightness of life, where do I find people who laugh and laugh and then laugh some more?  Who open and open and open some more?  I bet Kabir would say …

Oh, we ain’t got a barrel of money
Maybe we’re ragged and funny
But we travel along
Singing a song, side by side

Oh, we don’t know what’s coming tomorrow
Maybe it’s trouble and sorrow
But we’ll travel the road
Sharing our load, side by side