transitions, light & faith

from the dark

from the dark

“…or I can forgive and forget…Oh, but my treasure, it is so much less exhausting. You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things…we always have a choice.” Character in The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been shaken by a book. Stirred, certainly. Bored, frustrated, annoyed, informed, inspired – yes. But shaken? Not recently. And that’s saying a lot given the hellish six months of holding together body and soul. Or may be it’s just easier to be shaken when there’s no more resistance to what the universe decides to throw at you.

“Sometimes life turns out hard, Isabel. Sometimes it just bites right through you. And sometimes, just when you think it’s done its worst, it comes back and takes another chunk.” Tom, one of two principal characters in The Light Between Oceans.

The story takes place on Janus Rock playing on the trope of the Roman god Janus, who presides over transitions and can see both past and future. Janus Rock is home to the main character, Tom who is its lighthouse keeper and later to Isabel his wife. Their transitions, as with most beginnings and endings, are turbulent, riven with loss that leads to secrets, and decisions that can be argued from both sides of one’s moral face. It’s a slow read, evoking the meticulous cleaning of the lighthouse light, its record keeping, the passage of time on an island between the Indian Ocean and the Southern Sea half a day away from the coast of Australia. But that steady unwinding of the tale only makes the ending more breathtaking.

Many of our moral judgments are made sitting on Janus Rock, between here and there, what I want to say and what I say, what I believe and what I need to you believe. We craft our stories with threads we summon from past and future – often at will and if only to gather evidence to justify a decision already half-made. We tell stories and tell them so well that we often forget what is truth and what is needed to be heard by the inner and outer senses. Or more correctly, we forget there is no real truth and that what we hear (inner and outer) serves only as the chinking that holds together a rather wobbly lighthouse tower.

gold center

center light

And in our story-telling we are so convinced that our intention is noble, protective, caring. These are beacons we send out hoping that someone will be saved, alerted to our edges. Because for as much as we believe we are good, well-intentioned, loving and caring, we are also terrified that we can do harm by the structure of our very nature.

My dear friend, Carole, over at the dot (Zendotstudio) has written an eloquent post about stories. She does summon the devil in me though with a poke about Eckhart Tolle. What I think of Tolle is my well-worn story perpetrated on anyone I think needs to be saved from the shoals of Tolle’s teachings. In fact, there are a number of characters in the convoluted political states of mindfulness, psychology, and Buddhism who have sent me tearing up the lighthouse stairs to set the beacon afire.

Yet lately, I have begun to tire of that long climb up the lighthouse. I’ve learned that a lighthouse beam is set at night and turned off during the day. Once set, it needs no further tending; it functions with equanimity, sending out electromagnetic metta to anyone who wishes to attend to their state of being. It really only needs us to act our discipline by polishing the lens, oiling the nuts and bolts, and turning it on and off at its assigned time.

There’s an element of faith in this. All this to-ing and fro-ing trying to keep shipwrecks from happening simply stirs up resentment when we are disregarded and as the character quoted at the opening of this post, it can be burdensome to keep those fires burning. In the end, it is a choice to see the rose glistening as the rainfall pauses rather than the soaked, muddy ground. It is a choice to see the wonderful fruition of all our hard work rather than what didn’t flourish despite our care. And making those choices generates faith in our commitment. And faith is so much lighter to carry.

As for Tolle, I had the cheeky rejoinder though it is true of psychology and meditative practice: I have come to realize that if I hold true to the hope of my own transformation then that has to be rooted in the hope of all beings’ transformation. Ole Tolle included.

the great matter of the poppy & the peony

imageThe garden is flourishing in these endless cycles of wet and heat. It has exploded brilliant blooms of irises and poppies which were short lived in the relentless downpours of May. And now, in the muggy days of June, the peonies are surging out in giant fireworks of white and pink.

I’ve always hated peonies, and these in particular for having been planted in the most awkward of places on what passes for lawn. It took me a decade to uproot every last bulb only to find them skulking back into the interstices of my favoured flora.

Now, 20 years later, I’ve transformed my irritation into a marginal peace about them but, I claim, it’s only because they once belonged to Roger whose father built the farm in 1932. Roger is gone now, predeceased by his wife Blanche who had painted the living room the same shade of rose I did a generation later.

The poppies flank one side of a small garden (small being a relative term for something less than 8 by 30 feet) while the unrepentant peonies flank the other. This year they seem to be the punctuations of the Great Matter of Life and Death.

Perhaps my mother’s passing is resonating further with me as we divest ourselves of the material aspects of her life. Selling the house in Montreal, sorting through the final remnants of her collections, and falling over pictures and portraits of her journey in this realm, I find myself wondering what might have been different had on petal dropped this way or that, had one bud opened in June and not May, had one rose bush blossomed blue and not white.

Or perhaps I am feeling more and more the karma of aging as I trip and stumble over bumps and uneven ground in my path. Sitting on my zafu at the retreat Frank and I lead, I felt a piercing through my knee which the mind tackle to the ground and pummelled into an admission of stupidity for allowing it to happen. I marvelled at the logic that says, in retrospect, you should have known it would happen and prevented it. The talks at the retreat were on equanimity and compassion, the former being key to Dogen’s admonition that we examine the constructed selves and the latter to being illuminated by the myriad things as these masks drop to the ground. And through it all that mind-mask howled its misery and portended death of a broken kneecap – of independence, of living, of ever amounting to anything worthwhile.

The poppy stripped of petals and bloom is saying the same thing and the peony still in its naively held breath of birthing is saying the same thing. All things end, begin, end. But they don’t howl. Or clutch at the soreness. Or winch at the fire piercings. They seem animated by the truth of life and death, being and ongoing being. Voicelessly punctuating  here and now.

Perhaps it is time I allowed these myriad things of the Great Matter to pierce me truly, really.

winds of joy, light at my feet

From Bodhidharma Anthology by Jeffrey Broughton: Entering through practice – equanimity

The second entrance to the path is through the practice of following conditions or (Red Pine) adapting to conditions.  

(S)entient beings lack a self and are all whirled around by conditions and karma; suffering and joy are to be equally accepted, for both arise from conditions.

When life throws up these dust storms that blind me or the days grow darker and darker, my support circles point to the light at the end of the tunnel.  I understand that in their love for us and their wish to speed up the journey through the dark or bumpy parts, they’d like us to look into the distance and grasp that this experience is impermanent.  However, it’s a risky process which can carry us too quickly away from the reality of what is right here.

The light at the end of the tunnel is actually more useful when it shines right here in tunnel at my feet.  

Bodhidharma’s teachings suggest that we are vulnerable to being swept away by the winds of joy and the dust storms of suffering.  To attach to each one unduly makes no sense because the conditions that created them are not sustainable.  (Oh yes, I can definitely continue to make myself miserable but that’s not the same misery I started out with.  Check it out for yourself!)  To reject either unconsciously is dangerous because this creates a loss of intimacy with ourselves and others.  To become confused about the origins of them is pointless because the causes and conditions lie in an intricate and oft-times tangled web of action and reaction.

Unmoved by the winds of joy*, one is mysteriously in accordance with the path.

Now you may thank that this reduces you to zombie-like blob, careening off the walls and lamp posts of your path.  At their extreme, all statements are untenable and likely false.  To be unmoved is to be steady in the experience of joy, to be connected deeply with it.  So deeply that there is a spaciousness that arises which can contain the entire spectrum of variability in each joy, sorrow, contentment, pain, love, and anguish.

The adaptability we practice is not to the great brush strokes of impermanence.  It is to the rhythmic variation in the winds of joy and woe.

Auguries of Innocence
William Blake 

It is right it should be so:
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know
Through the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

*”Winds of Joy here may refer to the eight winds or eight worldly conditions.  For a brilliant story read here.

it just is

The one who bows and the one who is bowed to
are by nature boundless.
That is why the communication between them
is inexpressibly perfect. 

This gatha is chanted at the beginning of the ritual of touching the earth (prostrations).  Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Teachings on Love that when we practice touching the earth, we

surrender our pride, notions, fears, resentments, and even our hopes,
and enter the world of ‘things as they are.’ 

On Monday, I described a breathing meditation that began with opening to the entirety of our experience; an expansive bowl in which everything sits, non-judgmentally, non-preferentially.  The second stage of the breathing meditation is to bring our attention to the breath at the nostrils.  Rest there, allowing the bowl of awareness to simply sit on the rise and fall of the breath.  In this stage, we rest.  Awareness rests.  Thoughts, desires, wilfulness, control all rest.  There is nothing made, nothing contrived, nothing given, nothing taken away from the experience in this moment.  This is equanimity.

The practice of equanimity is a practice of love.  It is another chamber in the heart that beats for all beings.  Like lovingkindness and resonant joy, it is a practice of surrender.  We are asked to hand over all our ideas and opinions about this moment, this person.  The stories of attachment and betrayal, the tales of joy and woe – check them in at the cloakroom and don’t ask for a ticket to reclaim them.

Only then can we enter the boundless nature of relationship.