Wednesday, February 23, 2022

competition and compassion


Competition today is tantamount to a blood sport—
and not just on the playing field or in the ring. 
The psychoanalytic theorist Karen Horney introduced
 the concept of hyper-competitiveness
 as a neurotic personality trait almost 70 years ago.
 She characterized the hyper-competitive
coping strategy as “moving against people”
 (in contrast to moving toward or away from people).
 Her observations are now all too evident in our culture. 
Extreme us-versus-them behavior has created a lonely world. 
There is always some new adversary to move against, 
so we get locked into a vicious circle of measuring our strength
 by disparaging others.
Competition is natural, a part of the human arsenal for survival, 
but when it creates enmity, we need to question its power in our lives. 
This is where sympathetic joy — joy in the happiness of others — comes in.
 If we’re in a competitive frame of mind, when something good happens
 to someone else, we think it somehow diminishes us. 
It doesn’t really, of course, but being consumed with jealousy 
and envy clouds our judgment. Even when we’re not in the running, 
extreme competitiveness makes us feel as if we were. 
If we approach life from a place of scarcity,
 a mind-set that emphasizes what we lack instead of what we have,
 then anyone who has something we want becomes the enemy. 

 If we approach life from a place of scarcity, 
a mind-set that emphasizes what we lack instead of what we have, 
then anyone who has something we want becomes the enemy.
 As Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera says,
 “It is compassion that removes the heavy bar, 
opens the door to freedom, 
makes the narrow heart as wide as the world..."
Looking closely at the life of someone we consider to be the competition, 
we are bound to see hardships that the person has endured
 or understand how tenuous status and good fortune can be.
 When we can connect with a perceived enemy on the level of human suffering, 
winning or losing seems less important.

A few years ago I led a meditation group at an elementary school in Washington, D.C.
 The walls of the school corridors were plastered with homilies:
 Treat people the way you would like to be treated. 
Play fair. Don’t hurt others on the inside or the outside. 
The message that stopped me short, however, was 
Everyone can play.
 ~  Sharon Salzberg 
 from Lions Roar


Monday, February 21, 2022

all are heard


So a little spring prays to the ocean, 
so the beating heart prays to the heart of the universe, 
so the little word prays to the great Logos, 
so a dust speck prays to the earth, 
so the earth prays to the cosmos, 
so the one prays to the billion, 
so human love prays to God’s love, 
so always prays to never,
 so the moment prays to eternity,
 so the snowflake prays to winter,
 so the frightened beast prays to the forest silence,
 so uncertainty prays to beauty itself.

And all these prayers are heard.

~ Anna Kamieńska 
from In the Great River: A Notebook
The inner life of one of the great poet-mystics
 Translated by Clare Cavanagh
with thanks to Love Is A Place

the flaws make us who we are

We don't have to hate ourselves for our own vulnerability. 
We don't have to hate ourselves for what life has done to us. 
We don't have to hate ourselves because hurt or loss or longing has gotten to us. 
Our desires will always be with us in some form, 
keeping us firmly attached to a world that will hurt us. 
We must come to love ourselves,
 love our life, 
in its vulnerability,
 in its impermanence,
 not in spite of all its flaws,
 but because of them.
 Because the vulnerability,
 the changes, 
the flaws make us who we are.
~  Barry Magid

no life is single

When the garden of your unchosen lives has enough space to breathe beneath
 your chosen path, your life enjoys a vitality and sense of creative tension. 
 Rilke refers to this as "the repository of unlived things."

No one lives his life.

Disguised since childhood,
haphazardly assembled
from voices and fears and little pleasures,
we come of age as masks.

Our true face never speaks.

Somewhere there must be storehouses
where all these lives are laid away
like suits of armor or old carriages
or clothes hanging limply on the walls.

Maybe all paths lead there,
to the repository of unlived things.

excerpted from Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God

You know that you have not compromised the immensity that you carry,
 and in which you participate.  You have not avoided the call of commitment; 
 yet you hold your loyalty to your chosen path in such a way as to be true
 to the blessings and dangers in life's passionate sacramentality. 

 No life is single. Around and beneath each life is the living presence
 of these adjacencies.... to keep the borders of choice porous demands 
critical vigilance and affective hospitality.  To live in such a way invites risk
 and engages complexity.   Yet the integrity of growth demands such courage
 and vulnerability from us; otherwise the tissues of our sensibility atrophy
 and we become trapped behind the same predictable mask of behavior. 

~ John O'Donohue
from Eternal Echoes


slip beyond impels people to service.  If love starts with a downward motion,
 burrowing into the vulnerability of self, exposing nakedness, 
it ends with an active upward motion.  It arouses great energy 
and desire to serve.  The person in love is buying little presents, 
fetching the glass from the next room, bringing a tissue when there's flu,
 driving through traffic to pick the beloved up at the airport.
 Love is waking up night after night to breastfeed, living year after year to nurture.
  It is risking and sacrificing your life for your buddy's in a battle. 
 Love ennobles and transforms. 
 In no other state do people so often live as we want them to live. 
 In no other commitment are people so likely to slip beyond the logic
 of self-interest and unconditional commitments
 that manifest themselves in daily acts of care.

Occasionally you meet someone with a thousand-year heart. 
 The person with the thousand-year heart has made the most of the passionate,
 tumultuous phase of love. Those months or years of passion have engraved 
a deep commitment in their mind.  The person or thing they once loved hotly
 they now love warmly but steadily, happily, unshakably.  
They don't even think of loving their beloved because they want something back...
 They just naturally offer love as a matter of course
 It is gift-love, not reciprocity-love.

~ David Brooks
from The Road to Character

Friday, February 18, 2022

to learn from animal being

Nearer to the earth's heart,
Deeper within its silence:
Animals know this world
In a way we never will.

We who are ever
Distanced and distracted
By the parade of bright
Windows thought opens:
Their seamless presence
Is not fractured thus.

Stranded between time
Gone and time emerging,
We manage seldom
To be where we are:
Whereas they are always
Looking out from
The here and now.

May we learn to return
And rest in the beauty
Of animal being,
Learn to lean low,
Leave our locked minds,
And with freed senses
Feel the earth
Breathing with us.

May we enter
Into lightness of spirit,
And slip frequently into
The feel of the wild.

Let the clear silence
Of our animal being
Cleanse our hearts
Of corrosive words.

May we learn to walk
Upon the earth
With all their confidence
And clear-eyed stillness
So that our minds
Might be baptized
In the name of the wind
And light and the rain.

~ John O'Donohue
from To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings

Thursday, February 17, 2022

such small hands


somewhere i have never traveled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will enclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

~ e.e. Cummings

we open time


I saw to the south a man walking.
 He was breaking ground in perfect silence.
 He wore a harness and pulled a plow. 
His feet trod his figure's blue shadow,
 and the plow cut a long blue shadow in the field. 
He turned back as if to check the furrow, 
or as if he heard a call. 
Again I saw another man on the plain to the north. 
This man walked slowly with a spade, 
and turned the green ground under.
Then before me in the near distance I saw the earth itself walking,
 the earth walking dark and aerated as it always does in every season,
 peeling the light back: The earth was plowing the men under,
 and the space, and the plow. No one sees us go under. 
No one sees generations churn, or civilizations. 
The green fields grow up forgetting.

Ours is a planet sown in beings.
 Our generations overlap like shingles.
 We don’t fall in rows like hay, but we fall.
 Once we get here, we spend forever on the globe,
 most of it tucked under. While we breathe, we open time
 like a path in the grass. 
We open time as a boat’s stem slits the crest of the present.
There were no formerly heroic times, 
and there was no formerly pure generation. 
There is no one here but us chickens, 
and so it has always been: a people busy and powerful,
 knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful,
 and self-aware: a people who scheme, promote, 
deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones,
 and long to flee misery and skip death. 
It is a weakening and discolouring idea,
 that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time –
 or even knew selflessness or courage or literature – 
but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available
 to everyone in every age. 
There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.
~ Annie Dillard
from For the Time Being 




Wednesday, February 16, 2022

its life is one



The body
is a single creature, whole,
its life is one, never less than one, or more,
so is its world, and so
are two bodies in their love for one another.
In ignorance of this
we talk ourselves to death.

~ Wendell Berry
Sabbaths, XIV

good to be


 Keb' Mo'
Where you belong should always be worthy of your dignity. 
You should belong first in your own interiority. If you belong there,
 and if you are in rhythm with yourself and connected to that deep, 
unique source within, then you will never be vulnerable
 when your outside belonging is qualified, relativised or taken away.
 You will still be able to stand on your own ground, 
the ground of your soul where you are not a tenant,
 where you are at home.

~ John O'Donohue
from Anam Cara
 with thanks to whiskey river


Monday, February 14, 2022

"Sonata at Payne Hollow," by Wendell Berry

Harlan and Anna Hubbard

The Kentucky shore of the Ohio at evening.  Some time in the future, perhaps a saner time than now.  It is the season when the toads mate and sing from the stones along the water’s edge at night.  Here the river has curved in close to the foot of a steep hillside.  The slope is wooded with tall trees.  A fringe of willows along the shoreline opens to give a view up among the larger trunks.  During the play, the light slowly changes from twilight to dusk.
          Two boatmen, a man past middle age and a boy of about fifteen, come ashore.  They may be small-time traders who row of drift from one river town to another.  Their johnboat, the bow of which is visible to our right, is of the traditional make, built of wood.  A rope is attached to a ring in the bow.
          The boy carries the end of the rope up the shore and makes it fast to a willow.  He then stands and looks around.
The Boy:  We never stopped here before.

The Man:  Night never caught us here before.  But look.  There is the notch is the hill, and there is the creek coming down, and here are the rocks it has brought and shaped in a little bar fanned out on the river’s edge.  You’ve heard of this place.  Up yonder on the slope is where they lived and made their music, in a house built of rocks and poles and rough planks and pieces of drift from the river.

The Boy:  Who were they?  Tell me again.

The Man:   Their names were Harlan and Anna.  A long time ago they came here, past the middle of their lives, to love until they were old.  They were refugees from that violent world of our ancestors that nearly destroyed itself.  They wanted a quiet place that was dark at night, unwanted by other people, where they could grow their food or catch or find it, and be warmed by firewood burning on a hearth they made of rocks carried up from the river or the creek.   Harlan, they say, made pictures of the river and the trees and little farms that stood along the valley sides.  And he and Anna made fine music in the evenings with his fiddle and her piano.  Up there is where their house was, and there the little shop where he made the pictures, and there the shed where they kept their goats.

The Boy:  And that was long ago?

The Man:   Long ago.  The boards of their building now are gone to dust, and trees are standing where they played and ate and slept.

The Boy:  What became of them?

The Man:  They got old, and died.  And yonder, below the chimney stones is where they were laid to rest – or not, maybe, to rest.  For there’s them that tells of being here at night, and hearing that old music strike up sudden in the woods, and seeing those two ancient lovers walking about, talking.

The Boy:  Oh, Lord! Talking! What do they say?

The Man:  They talk of what they could not talk about enough while they were here, like all ghosts do.

The Boy:  If it was up to me to choose, I’d just as soon be someplace else.  Your talk is talk enough for me.

The Man:  It’s them.  You needn’t be afraid.  We’re not where they are.

The Boy:  But they’re where we are.

The Man:  Be still!
Now, as from far off among the trees, we hear a piano and violin – perhaps it is Mozart’s Sonata in E-flat Major.  The piano is played with elegance and technical precision.  The quality of the violin, by contrast, is “honest and handmade” but “strikes deep.”  The sound of the toads has ceased.  The music, at first only faintly audible, becomes louder.  Now there can be no doubt what it is.  The man and boy stand still, listening, the boy looking a little anxiously at the man.
Now, slowly, candlelight defines a large window among the trees well up the slope.
And now, with the light fading off the boatman and his boy, the figure of a slender, white-haired old man is revealed, standing by the river’s edge upstream.  We have not seen him come; he is just there, perhaps having been there for some time.  He stands, facing upstream, his left side to the river and to us, looking out across the slowly darkening water.  The knuckles of his half-open left hand rest against his hip.
And now the light defines the shape of an old woman walking among the trees.  She crosses above the old man and comes slowly down to the water’s edge, where she too stands still, looking out, her left hand holding to a small willow.  She faces downstream, her right side to us.  Except for the music, the scene becomes completely still.  The stillness is allowed to establish itself before Anna speaks.
In the dialogue that follows, the differences are expressed with feeling, but not with antipathy or anger.  What we are witnessing is a ritual of courtship, discord reenacted as for pleasure, the outcome foreknown.  Perhaps it has been repeated countless times before.
Anna: There you are, Harlan.  I've called and called.  What are you doing?

Harlan: Looking.

Anna: At what?

Harlan: The river.

Anna: You've never seen enough, have you, of that river you looked at all your life?

Harlan: It never does anything twice.   It needs forever to be in all its times and aspects and acts.  To know it in time is only to begin to know it.  To paint it, you must show it as less than it is.  That is why as a painter I never was at rest.  Now I look and do not paint.  This is the heaven of a painter - only to look, to see without limit.  It's as if a poet finally were free to say only the simplest things.
For a moment they are still again, both continuing to look, in opposite directions, at the river.
Anna: That is our music, Harlan.  Do you hear it?

Harlan: Yes, I hear.

Anna: I think it will always be here.  It draws us back out of eternity as once it drew us together in time.  Do you remember, Harlan, how we played?  And how, in playing, we no longer needed to say what we needed to say?

Harlan: I'm listening.

But I heard here too, remember, another music, farther off, more solitary,  closer -

Anna: To what, Harlan?

Harlan: I'm not so sure I ever know.  Closer to the edge of modern life, I suppose - to where the life of living things actually is lived; closer to the beauty that saves and consoles this earth.  I wanted to spend whole days watching the little fish that flicker along the shore.

Anna: Yes.  I know you did.

Harlan: I wanted
to watch, every morning forever, the world shape itself again out of the drifting fog.

Anna: Your music, then, was it in those things?

Harlan: It was in them and beyond them, always almost out of hearing.

Anna: Because of it you made the beautiful things you made, for yourself alone, and yet, I think, for us both.  You made them for us both, as for yourself, for what we were together required those things of you alone.

Harlan: To hear that music, I needed to be alone and free.

Anna: Free, Harlan?

Harlan: I longed for the perfection of the single one.  When the river rose and the current fled by, I longed to cast myself adrift, to take that long, free downward-flowing as my own.  I know the longing of an old rooted tree to lean down upon the water.

Anna: I know that.  I knew that all along.  And then was when I loved you most.  What brought me to you was knowing the long, solitary journey that was you, yourself - the thought of you in a little boat, adrift and free.  But, Harlan, why did you never go?  Why did you not just drift away, solitary and free, living on the free charity of the seasons, wintering in caves as sometimes you said you'd like to do?

Harlan: Oh, Anna, because I was lonely!  The perfection of the single one is not perfection, for it is lonely.

Anna: From longing for the perfection of the single one, I called you into longing for the perfection of the union of two.

Harlan: which also was imperfect, for we were not always at one, and I never ceased, quite, too long for solitude.

Anna: And yet, of the two imperfections, the imperfection of the union of two is by far the greater and finer - as we understood.

Harlan: Yes, my dear, Anna, that I too understood.  It is better, granting imperfection in both ways, to be imperfect and together than to be imperfect and alone.

Anna: And so this is the heaven of lovers that we have come to - to live again in our separateness, so that we may live again together, my Harlan.

Harlan:  And so we named a day - remember? - and a certain train that you would be on if you wanted to marry me.

Anna:  and that you would be on if you wanted to marry me.

Both:  and both of us were on that train!

Anna:  And then, Harlan, we did drift away

Harlan:  on a little boat we built ourselves, that contained hardly more than our music, our stove, our table, and our bed

Anna:  in which we slept - and did not sleep -

Harlan:  my birthplace into our new life!

Anna: For a long time we had no home but that little boat and one another

Harlan:  and the music that we sent forth over the water and into the woods.

Anna:  And then we came here to this hollow and built a house and made a garden

Harlan:  and gave our life a standing place and worked and played and lived and died

Anna:  and were alone and were not alone.

Harlan:  Alone and not alone, we lived and died, and after your death I lived on alone, yet not alone, for in my thoughts I never ceased to speak with you.  I knew then that half my music was hidden away in another world.  The music I had heard, so distant, had been the music you and I had played - the music of something almost whole that you and I had made; it made one thing of food and hunger, work and rest, day and night.  It made one thing of loneliness and love.  That music seemed another world to me, and far away, because I could play only half, not all.

Anna:  And half the life that you so longed to live - was mine?

Harlan:  Was yours.  Without you, I could not live the life we lived, which I then missed and longed for, even in my perfect solitude.

Anna:  You will forgive, I hope, my pleasure in the thought of you alone, playing half a duet - for also it saddens me.

Harlan:  You would have laughed, Anna, to hear how badly I played alone, without your strong art to carry me.  My perfect music then was made by crickets and katydids and frogs.  I heard too the creek always coming down,  allegro furioso after storms,  and of course the birds - the wood thrush, whose song in summer twilight renews the world, and in all seasons the wren.  But those unceasing voices in the dark were the ones that sang for me, and I was thankful for the loneliness that had brought us two together out of all the time we were apart.
And now, as both have known they would, they turn toward one another, and thus are changed, revealing themselves now as neither young not old, but timeless and clear, as each appears within the long affection of the other.
With this (their only movement since their conversation began), the light no them brightens and changes; it becomes, for only a moment, the brilliance of a spring morning, and on the slope, where before only the candlelit window showed among the trees, now appears the house as it was, with a garden on the terrace below, Harlan and Anna smile and lift their arms toward one another.  And then they and the light abruptly disappear.  The music stops. The trilling of the toads is audible again, and we see the boatman and his boy looking up the darkening hillside.  The boy turns toward the man and is preparing to speak when the stage goes entirely dark.  The toads sing on another moment, and then are silenced.
Production note: The left side of Harlan’s face and the right side of Anna’s are made up to appear old.  The opposite sides of their faces should denote, not youth, but the youthful maturity of a couple in their forties - faces lovely because they are lovely to one another.

~ Wendell Berry

Sunday, February 13, 2022

together in the flow



As an experiment, catch yourself the next time you find yourself thinking in terms of quantity. It might be the day’s errands, or the pile of bills, or, like me, the talking stack of papers on your desk. Simply notice the feeling of urgency and the tendency to rush through them. Notice, also, the inclination to shrink back. Although they seem like opposite tendencies, both come from the same feeling of aversion, and serve only to keep us out of touch with the actual task. We’re taken aback by the enormity of what we’ve created in our minds, so we say, I’m just going to plow through it and get it done, or, It’s too overwhelming and I don’t know where to start. See them both as nothing more than habits that come from our skewed way of envisioning time.

Both responses pull us out of the freshness of direct experience. They both bind us to the fantasy of a task rather than the reality of it, warping our sense of what is really required. Wasting energy on head trips is exhausting, and we do it to ourselves. A task is done in steps, because reality is made up of steps, infinitely divided flashes of time that are too small to measure. We come to life and our energy soars when we join that moment, rather than standing separate from it—when we rise to the occasion rather than sink into the pit of resistance. When we join the moment, we join time. We are time.

Ultra distance runner Pam Reed understands this. When running superhuman distances that require her to continue on for three days straight, with no sleep or breaks of any kind, she tells herself she only has to get to the next pole, to the next marker, right there. She keeps herself from getting vacuumed up into the enormity of the distance and ends up at the final mark by employing these little tricks—which are less like tricks than they are reminders of reality itself.

Time is an abstraction that stops and stares right back at us as soon as we separate ourselves from it. To be separated from time is to watch it. It’s a shy child that can’t play naturally, and acts awkwardly when we watch, but as soon as we look away and rejoin our conversations, she continues to play naturally. Time flows when we stop watching it. Staring at the clock is to resist reality. I don’t like this situation—can’t this clock move any faster? Like Pam Reed, we need only put one foot in front of the other, and take a step, right here and now.

Think of the jazz improv artist responding to the musical banter among her fellow players onstage. Aside from whatever training they’ve done in advance, as soon as the curtain opens, they move into unknown territory together, creating something new each time by remaining in a state of undivided presence. They let go of their ideas and preconceptions of how it should be, how they thought it was going to be, and how other musicians have done it in the past. They let go of their agendas and simply move together in the flow, with the faith that comes from experience, trusting in their own abilities as artists, and in each other.

Imagination, like intellectualization, is put away when it has done its job. The imaginative vision provides a palette of possibilities, which are then actualized in a state of presence, and ironically, with the willingness to let go of the expectations of the vision. To paraphrase my Zen teacher, there’s nothing wrong with imagination, so long as it hasn’t got you by the nose.

How do you release the mind of its time-warped visions? By releasing them. And when the mind is clear of the mountains of fantasies, where do you start? You just start.
  ~ Donna Quesada.
from The Buddha in the Classroom: Zen Wisdom to Inspire Teachers

Friday, February 11, 2022

a speech at the lost and found


I lost a few goddesses on my way from south to north,
as well as many gods on my way from east to west,
Some stars went out on me for good: part for me, O sky. 
Island after island collapsed into the sea on me.
I'm not sure exactly where I left my claws,
who wears my fur, who dwells in my shell. 
My siblings died our when I crawled onto land
and only a tiny bone in me marks the anniversary. 
I leapt out of my skin, squandered vertebrae and legs,
and left my senses many many times.
Long ago I closed my third eye to it all,
waved it off with my fins, shrugged my branches.
Scattered by the four winds to a place that time forgot,
how little there remains of me surprises me a lot,
 a singular being of human kind for now,
who lost her umbrella in a tram somehow.
~ Wislawa Szymborska
from miracle fair