Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Demon Whisperers

Saint Anthony of Egypt lived in the second half of the third century. At 34, he gave away his belongings and became a Christian ascetic. He spent the next 13 years in Wadi El Natrun, a harsh alkali desert. Although he actually sought out martyrdom, he ended up living to be 105.

His teachings were recorded in Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Here is one of them:

Abbot Pastor said: If a man has done wrong and does not deny it, but says: I did wrong, do not rebuke him, because you will break the resolution of his soul. And if you tell him: Do not be sad, brother, but watch it in the future, you stir him up to change his life.

Here's another:

Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, 'Say something to the Archbishop, so that he may be edified.' The old man said to them, 'If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.'

This last one is a little reminiscent of Case 1 from the Blue Cliff Record, in which Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great master Bodhidharma, "What is the first principle of the holy teaching?" Bodhidharma said, "Vast emptiness, nothing holy." The Emperor asked, "Who stands before me?" Bodhidharma said, "I don't know."

Enter the demons. (I was tempted to caption the painting - by Michelangelo when he was only 12 or 13 - "Just Another Day At the Office"...)

The Torment of Saint Anthony (Michelangelo, c. 1488)

The story is that Saint Anthony was besieged by demons in the form of evil thoughts, boredom, laziness and phantoms of women and wild beasts. On one occasion, when beset by a group of demons apparently about to attack him, he laughed at them and pointed out that if they were truly powerful, it should only take one to fight him, whereupon they left him alone. For awhile.

John Nash, who won the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics (and whose story is told in the 2001 movie, A Beautiful Mind) suffered from schizophrenia for most of his adult life. His demons were hallucinations. Ultimately, he had to choose between taking anti-psychotic drugs and suffering their mind-numbing side effects, or living with his disease. He chose the latter, and is shown in the movie in his later years as a university professor, walking among people on campus, knowing that most of them are real, but recognizing and not interacting with those who are not.

This scene made a lasting impression on me, because it brought home the fact that no matter how skillful I may eventually become in my practice, I should be prepared to live alongside my demons for the foreseeable future.  To name a couple, my tendency to procrastinate and avoid (which I touched on in When I Fell) have dogged me for a very long time. I've come to recognize that they both arise out of fear that bubbles up when I forget my connection with everything, which is to say, 99.9% of the time.

Pretending we don't have demons is silly. But I do it all the time. I know as I continue to practice (when I don't put it off...), I get braver, and on rare occasions, downright bold! But the demons are never far away, and the best I can do, at least for now, is to acknowledge them, occasionally give them a little cuddle or a scratch behind their pointy ears, and then return to the matter at hand.

Over at her wonderful blog ZenDotStudio, Carole posted a charming account of attending a retreat led by Gil Fronsdal and his description of the compassionate and gentle approach taken by the Japanese government to their soldiers who were discovered after 25 years still believing they were at war, and suggesting that we "do the same for our fears, our anxieties, our habitual tendencies that no longer serve us well."

Bows of gratitude to the skillful demon whisperers who have gone before.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

New Year's Day

Why is New Year's Eve such a popular time for celebration and gathering? Why are so many resolutions to change for the better made on New Year's Day?

When midnight strikes, the year has a brand new number, and the month, day, hour and second are rolled back to 1.

The moment is also special because it is shared by so many - everyone using the Gregorian calendar in the same time zone, and within 24 hours, the whole world.

A fresh page is turned, a new book opened at the beginning, a brand new diary started, an empty canvas is placed on the easel.

In the innocent purity of the moment, we stand like little children on our doorsteps, about to embark on our first journey to school. When nothing is yet started, everything is possible.

But that isn't the whole story, is it?  In fact, everything is already started, and what we perceive as the present moment, as distinct from the past and the future, is just a mental construct, like the illusion that a candle flame is a fixed "thing".

Heat melts the wax, capillary action draws it up the wick, heat vapourizes and ignites it, creating new flame, which in turn melts more wax.

Meanwhile, the original flame has become hot air and cooler air has rushed in to become new flame. Because the cycle is seamless, the flame seems unchanging. So does the present moment.

But as we say the word "now", by the time we have pronounced the letter 'n' and moved on to the letter 'o', the 'n' is in the past and the 'w' is still in the future. As the flame is continually being re-created, so is this moment. So are we.

So if right now everything is new, beginning at 1, and everyone is sharing it, isn't now a good time to celebrate and gather, and to resolve to change for the better?

Take heart!
Every moment
A second chance

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Going First Class

In April, 1957, I left the Old Country and traveled to the New World with my mum and dad and little sister. I was almost eight years old. For all of us, it was a Big Adventure leaving Scotland, where my dad had worked as a carpenter, to go to Canada, where my aunt had assured my parents that there were great opportunities and lots of jobs.

We boarded the Empress of Scotland, one of the Canadian Pacific Steamships. Because we were not “well off”, we had Tourist Class tickets, but were tickled pink when they told us because Tourist Class was full, we would have to go First Class.  First Class!

We knew we didn’t fit in, but it was wonderful pretending we did. The First Class dining room (shown in the photo) was like an immense ornate ballroom. We ate out of nice china with fancy silverware, served by polite men in white uniforms. I think we actually said silly things like, “I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight.”

Soon enough we arrived in Canada.  After a scenic train ride across the country (I remember going through the Rockies in the Dome Car), we reached Victoria, where we came back to earth.

My aunt’s idea of the job market had been a bit optimistic.  Not finding carpentry work, my dad took a job as the night janitor in a big thrift store. It was great fun for me because the family went with him. My mum helped with the cleaning, and I roller skated around and played on the conveyor belt.

My dad seemed to take these ups and downs in his stride, but my mum not so much. I think she was the most elated by the First Class treatment, which was above her station, and felt the most humiliated by the janitor job, which was beneath it. Fairly soon afterward, my dad got a job with a cabinet maker and our family settled comfortably into the lower middle class where we belonged.

Whether it be to an unexpected benefit or to an unwelcome setback, I think my mother's response can be summed up in one sentence: I don't deserve this.

I recognize both my dad's equanimity and my mother's class-consciousness in my own character. As much as I'm reluctant to admit it, every day I catch myself making comparisons - "she's wealthy", "he's uneducated", "he's refined", "she's crude" - all measured against my current notion of who I think I am, or even, who I think I ought to be. It even creeps into my practice as uninvited thoughts critical of others' insight or commitment. And these are just the thoughts I catch.

These antics of monkey mind, if pursued or encouraged (or grappled with) tend to divert our awareness from our true nondual nature and interdependence with everything, which in turn, I think, weakens our drive to act compassionately.

The more I see you as me - whether you are wealthy but miserable, poor, dirty and hungry, addicted or deluded - and the less I set myself apart as better or worse, or just plain separate, the better are my chances of being compassionate to you.

And I need all the chances I can get.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Call

A number of years ago, I had been listening to Bette Midler's version of God Help the Outcasts, a touching Alan Menken composition from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and was quite moved by it, well actually, a lot moved by it. As I listened to the silence after the song ended, I began to hear, inside my head, a distant sound that seemed to be a blend of sorrowful weeping, groans of pain, and fearful moaning, of countless humans and animals. In the brief time that it lasted, I felt a deep sadness, and somehow knew that it was the sound of the suffering that we, as the human race, have inflicted.

I don't think this was a celestial vision.  I believe it was a Makyo, a waking dream, or perhaps some flatulence of the temporal lobe. It did leave a lasting impression, however, and my memory of it is still clear. A couple of times, the thought has even occurred to me: I wonder if what I heard was the Call?

There are many stories of people responding to a call to become missionaries, to become priests, to feed the hungry or to heal the sick. We use the terms "calling" and "vocation" (from the Latin vocare, 'to call') to describe pursuits that have meaning for us. Something beckons to us to leave behind the compulsive cycle of working harder to earn more money to buy more things to enjoy more pleasure for ourselves. How this process happens is a wonderful mystery to me.

It seems the call that turns our head, that draws our attention to suffering, can come from anywhere and take any form - a sudden shock, or just a nagging feeling that something isn't quite right. A feeling that won't go away and eventually knocks on our door so loudly that we have to open it and embrace whatever greets us on the other side.

A young monk asked Zen master Gensha where he should start to enter Zen. Gensha asked, "do you hear the sound of the mountain stream?" The monk said, "yes". Gensha said, "enter Zen from there."

Do we feel an urge to listen for that call? A desire to hear it? A wish to be, or even feel, more compassionate? That is the call.
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