Notes from the Open Path are short contemplations written by Pir Elias Amidon on aspects of the Open Path — an approach to living whole-heartedly and in clear awareness. These Notes, sent via email at the beginning of each month to those on our mailing list, are also posted below. If you would like to receive them directly by email, you may do so by entering your email address in the form on the Home page.
May 1, 2021
I’d like you to know that in June I will begin a six-month sabbatical — taking a break from my steady diet of teaching, writing, planning, counseling, telephoning, and other scheduled and administrative duties. Notes from the Open Path will continue to be posted, drawing from earlier Notes that are favorites of mine. Flashes will also continue to appear on Sundays, selected from The Book of Flashes or other unpublished sayings.
Also in June, my wife, Rabia, and I — and our cat Ariel — will be making a much-anticipated move to “West Light,” the Sufi Way’s home in the high-desert mountains of southern Colorado. The spaciousness, beauty, and peace of that land nourish my soul and will be a fitting place for my sabbatical.
The word “sabbatical” is cognate with “sabbath,” the practice of observing a day of rest and prayer, and is also related to the earliest agricultural practice of the “sabbath year” (shmita in Hebrew) in which the land was left to lie fallow every seventh year so that it might be renewed.
April 1, 2021
Here in the mountains just before dawn, the air is motionless. It feels as if the world has stopped breathing. The first faint blue light comes so quietly over the eastern peaks that nothing is disturbed below. Nothing moves. The stalks of the wild grasses stand perfectly still. The branches of the junipers and pinions are poised in the air, waiting. The long night bows to the coming of the day.
Now the dark and the light are intimate. One dissolves into the other like lovers do. Together they’re in awe. Though the dark and the light have touched like this for countless rounds, it’s always new for them. Here in the penumbra where they are not one or the other, they share their secrets; the mystic night tells of its immensity, and the daylight tells of each particular. How they love each other! As their love-play circles the planet, caressing it, blessing it, it is always somewhere, always approaching, always welcoming, always leaving, anointing the world.
Nearby, a coyote lifts her head. And out in the valley, in a farmhouse, a woman draws open the curtains in her children’s bedroom, the sound of the opening curtains meant to wake them. She pauses, looking out east to the blue mountains and the coral light above.
Emptiness, Death, and Coming Home
March 1, 2021
When I was seventeen I left home. I filled a knapsack with camping gear and clothes and tied it onto the back of my little 125cc Vespa motor scooter and headed west across America. I felt courageous as I putted along on back roads that first day, freed from my childhood and excited to find the adventures that lay ahead. When evening came, I pulled over into a rural cemetery and found a place out of sight where I could pitch my pup tent.
After eating a sandwich and the last of my mother’s cookies, I leaned back against a gravestone and watched the shadows of night approach. That’s when it hit me: the most unbearable fear and homesickness. I wasn’t afraid of the dead buried around me; I was afraid of the emptiness I had launched myself into. No mother, no father, no comfortable old house around me, no cozy bed, nothing to remind me who I was. I was alone in a terrifying, empty aloneness.
Zen master Katagiri Roshi describes emptiness as “the eternal heart of human existence,” and the direct experience of emptiness as “nothing to depend on.” That’s how it felt to me in that cemetery: there was nothing I could depend on, and it was scary.
Febuary 1, 2021
My little cat jumps into my lap as I start to write. I sit back to give her space. She curls in a spiral like a nautilus shell, closes her eyes, and sleeps. She doesn’t know what is happening. She doesn’t know about the pandemic. She doesn’t know how much we humans miss seeing each other’s smiles, hidden beneath our masks.
Her ears flick slightly. I think she’s dreaming. Whatever she’s dreaming about seems real to her, at least until she wakes up. Then another “reality” will appear to her which she’ll accept as real. To me, both her dream-reality and her waking-reality—if I could experience them—would likely seem partial, limited, not the “true” depiction of the world that I have. They would seem to me dream-like—brightly apparent, yes, but fictive, not really existing in the way they seem to exist to her.
But what’s to say that’s not also true about my own waking-reality? I know the dream I had last night was not real, at least I do now, but what about this waking-reality? Could it also be dream-like—a fictive illusion created by my own limited interpretation of what’s happening, just the same as my cat’s limited interpretation of what’s happening?
January 1, 2021
At this time every year in a place beyond roads, far up in the hills near the Laotian border, a shaman calls the people of his village to gather next to a rivulet of water.
The water comes from the rain dripping out of broad-leafed trees and running down their trunks into the ground, reappearing in this fold of land where the villagers have assembled. They know they are guardians of this sacred place, the very top of the watershed.
The shaman performs a ritual over the water with prayers and songs joined by the villagers. Children play underfoot, happy that everyone is happy. This day is the annual ritual when the village asks forgiveness of the goddess Mother Water for all the waste the villagers have put in the water during the past year, asking forgiveness too for the pollution that people downstream from them have added as the water made its way to the Gulf of Thailand.
Once forgiveness is asked for, the shaman invokes blessing on the waters, asking that health and well-being be granted to all the growing things and creatures and people who will drink of it on its journey to the sea throughout the coming year.
You Bring Rivers — a meditation
December 1, 2020
Rumi was referring to God when he wrote this line:
“You bring rivers from the mountain springs,”
but couldn’t the same be said of us? Do we not bring rivers of creative causation to this flowing moment, rivers arriving from countless sources? Our bodies, are they not a river of genetic instructions, helixes, cell types, inherited traits informing how we live and respond moment to moment, informing our most intimate experiences? Are not our thoughts a current, our feelings a river? From what unseen springs do they come? Our very capacity to think and feel is a river of creative causation that made its way to us from our ancestors and the old ones before them, a river moving us now in our every inclination.
And the care we feel for each other, what is that but a current? Was our caring nature passed to us by the caring hands that coaxed us from the womb, or by the care of long generations of mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, doing their best to assure warmth and sustenance for their young ones? How else did this caring nature come to us?
The Benediction of the Old Ones
November 1, 2020
In mid-life I would often wander through a beloved forest a few miles from my home, a forest with no paths except for the thin trails left by deer, and though it felt like I was wandering aimlessly, I would typically find my way to one great tree towering up at the end of a ridge, and there I would sit with my back against her, happy to be a small animal nestled against her trunk, imagining myself to be one of her familiars.
I called her the “grandmother tree,” and to be in her presence was comforting to me, and steadying. I got in the habit of bowing to her when I arrived at her grove. She was an old-growth hemlock, the only one of that age that I found in this forest, the rest having been logged successively over the preceding centuries. The loggers had probably spared her because she was at the end of the ridge and difficult to get to, or because they hoped she would seed new growth, or perhaps, like me, they simply felt awe in her presence. The grove she rose from felt hushed and sacred.
The History of Love
October 1, 2020
As the story goes, 13.77 billion years ago the universe was born from a “point” of near-infinite temperature and gravity, a point described as a “singularity” appearing before time and space had any meaning. And then, woosh! from this impossible-to-comprehend singularity the entire universe of energy-matter expanded in all directions, which it apparently keeps on doing even now. Yet as it expands there’s another movement — the energy-matter obeys a call of mutual attraction, a drawing together into stars, galaxies, planets, and us wondering about it all.
One of the things we wonder about is the nature of these two “forces” of expansion and attraction — what are they? what moves them? The “woosh” emerging from the singularity — what propels it into becoming? And conversely, this attraction — what causes it? What’s inside the “wish” of isolated particles to come closer, to draw together into stars and planets, you and me? We’ve named that wish “gravity.” Astrophysicist Brian Swimme calls it allurement — a sexy word for something so vast!
The Beloved Community
September 1, 2020
In the early 20th Century the American philosopher Josiah Royce coined the term “the Beloved Community” as an ideal of social harmony brought into being by those loyal to goodness and truth. Later, the notion of the Beloved Community became central to the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., who envisioned it as the ideal human community of love, solidarity, and justice that was “not yet” but that would eventually be actualized through our commitment to nonviolence and the sacredness of life.
It’s a beautiful notion — the Beloved Community — stirring in us a sense of hope that humanity is indeed evolving toward a promised land. And it is just this towardness — “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” — that inspires us, encourages us, and gives us the strength to believe we shall overcome some day no matter how bleak things look at the moment.
I say “amen” to that. We need hope, we need the faith in ethical progress that this vision offers us. But because it’s a hoped-for ideal it can also feel a little abstract; because it’s “not yet” — while the dysfunction of human societies is in our face — we can doubt that it ever will be.
August 1, 2020
NOTE: Our dear friend, Murshid Kiran Rana, Sufi teacher, musician, adventurer, warm heart, was admitted to the hospital last week with a serious recurrence of the cancer he had successfully evaded nearly a decade ago. Prognosis is uncertain at this point. From the hospital Kiran wrote me this letter — its honesty and tenderness so touched me that I wanted to share it with you in place of my usual essay. May we all send him our healing blessings and our gratitude for his beautiful spirit.
by Murshid Kiran Rana
I'm crying a lot today.
It started when I got upset that the arrangements I'd made to have Jeanne be met downstairs at the hospital didn't work right. And I got mad at the young nurse I'd never met before who came in to give me chemo round #3. She left the room and went to talk to the manager and didn't return. So I got off the bed and grabbed the rolling drip towers on wheels and walked out into the ward.
July 1, 2020
There’s a lot of hard talk these days about societal collapse. People are getting scared. Young people are seriously worried about what the future holds. There’s the specter of climate change, pandemics, economic breakdown, species extinction, air pollution, soildepletion, the scarcity of clean water, increasing racism, xenophobia, refugees, the proliferation of arms, despotic governments, systemic injustice, overpopulation — the list goes on and on.
It feels distasteful to me to recite it again — you already know all of this — why spend your precious time reading about it again when there’s not much you can do about any of it?
This sense of hopelessness and disempowerment is what I want to speak to here — the feeling that we can make no substantial change in this juggernaut of social and ecological collapse. I believe we can contribute to real change, and that we do, every time we turn our hearts, minds, and bodies to what I’m calling here good work.
June 1, 2020
How marvelous this creature, the human being! What a wonder and privilege it is to be one!
I know it doesn’t always seem that way — we humans can be vicious and cruel, short-sighted, selfish, and petty — so to say that we’re marvelous can sound absurd. But perhaps in this strange, nervous, pandemic time when we’ve had to pull back from close contact and have become so wary of each other, perhaps it would do us good to remember, for a moment, the miracle at the heart of what a human being is.
This miracle is a constant theme in Sufi teachings and poetry. Ibn ‘Arabi, the great 13th Century Sufi mystic and metaphysician, described the human being as a barzakh, an “isthmus.” Human-being is an isthmus between the seeming polarities of matter and spirit, body and soul, the dense and the subtle. Like the Isthmus of Panama where the vast continents of North and South America meet, the isthmus that is human beingness is “the Towering Station” amongst all barzakhs...
The Other Side of Death
May 1, 2020
Let’s talk for a moment about death. It’s a dark and fearsome subject for many of us, especially these days when we’re all trying to hide from a fatal pandemic that’s stalking the land, and every headline and news report counts the dead and reminds us we could be next. Death, usually in the background of our lives, is now in the foreground.
The desire to live, to avoid disease and death, is baked into our DNA — and it’s a good thing it is. We mourn the death of those we love and do our best to save people we’ve never met from death. The cruel deaths of war are an abomination to us. It’s understandable that death has a dark and fearsome reputation.
But what is it? What is death? Is it possible to understand it in another way, along with its dark reputation?
In the Shelter of Each Other
April 1, 2020
Pandemic spring. You’re told to go inside, close the door and wait. You do what you’re told. You wait. The children are restless with the door closed. They want to go out, they want to go back to how it used to be, but you’re not sure it ever will. Something’s different this time.
The telephone rings. How are you? Are you okay? Do you need anything?
You hear the waitress two doors down lost her job. She has a kid and no other family to speak of. You’ve seen her at the bus stop, but now there are no buses. You begin to feel smaller than you were, and helpless.
Outside spring sweeps brightly through the neighborhood, unconcerned with people, waking the ground and the budded twigs and all the air between them. You open the door and look out. No sign of danger. You take the kids for a walk.
March 1, 2020
A disturbing litany of disasters confronts us in most woke writings these days, and for good reason: our planet and human civilization are encountering conditions in which the earth’s capacity for nourishing life is endangered at a magnitude unknown in human history. You know the litany: polar bears lost on melting ice floes, songbirds vanishing, soil depleted, poisons in the air and our bodies, countless trillions of plastic fragments floating in all the oceans, forests burning and diseased, extractive industries gouging into mountains, a fierce ambition in human economies to grow past all limits, populations of refugees fleeing from social and climate disruption, and ever-increasing injustice, distrust, polarization, and domination of the many by the few. All of this is stirring in us world worry, a sense of foreboding that is draining the vibrancy of human culture as well as our physical, psychological, and spiritual health. We see a menacing cloud over the future and feel helpless to do anything about it.
February 1, 2020
Some fifty years ago, my Sufi teacher — probably in one of his darker moods — told us young students gathered around him, “We do what we do, either in vanity or in vain.” I think that at that particular moment his proverb was a good way to puncture our self-centeredness (vanity!) and our romantic ideas about becoming heroes and making happy endings (in vain!), but now, after having lived these intervening years, I believe there’s a bit more to the story.
Yes, whatever we do is “in vain,” in the sense that the results of all our actions are impermanent, everything comes and goes, civilizations rise and fall, dust returns to dust. The recognition of the impermanent nature of everything has forced humans throughout history — from the ancient Hebrews to Samuel Becket — to question if there’s any meaning to our lives at all. All is vanity and vexation of spirit, saith the Preacher. In the past two centuries especially, writers, philosophers and many others have struggled with the dilemma of meaning-making in what they’ve felt is a meaningless universe. Although some of them have succeeded in suggesting ways we might cope with life despite its background of meaninglessness, that background still guarantees that whatever we do, it is ultimately in vain. This is vanitas — Latin meaning “emptiness,” as in empty of meaning.
The Sacred Duration
January 1, 2020
You told me that when you were a child, “God was always there,” meaning that the little girl you were back then knew God was always in the close background, very close, if not always felt as brightly as that time you remember lying on your back looking up through the trees at the sunlight pouring through, all holy and golden, or the time you sat alone by the pond’s edge and tossed a pebble in and felt the circles spreading across its surface like some mysterious grace in the movement of things, or the times at night in the dark of your pillow when you mumbled a prayer under your breath and waited, and then the sacred presence came and felt like warmth inside you and you fell asleep inside it — those were the times when God broke through, closer than close, but the rest of the time, or most of it anyway, “God was always there” you said, just behind things, and you knew there was nothing you had to fear.
The Worlds Mirror
December 1, 2019
There’s a Zen story that goes like this: A donkey wanders over to a well in a courtyard and looks into it. What he sees is a donkey down there looking up at him. At the same time, so the story goes, the water in the well looks up at the donkey and sees itself reflected in the donkey’s eyes — it sees water. What is seeing what?
Of course, it’s a silly story — we know the donkey is the donkey and the water is the water, and yet what’s pointed to in the story is a crack in that arrangement where something else can be glimpsed. Something else?
If you were to imagine for a moment that the world you’re experiencing is a mirror — like the water in the well — it’s possible that you’ll get a hit of a sensation that feels something like transparency. First you imagine that the world “out there” is your reflection — that what you are seeing and feeling in the moment is actually reflecting what you are. And then curiously enough, you may be visited with a sense that you are neither this nor that — that you are transparent.
The Welcoming Practice
November 1, 2019
The Welcoming Practice is a fusion of guidance from several mystical traditions: Christianity, Sufism, Zen, Advaita, and Dzogchen in particular. It has its most direct antecedents in the Christian Centering Prayer practice as developed by a number of Catholic mystics (Merton, Keating, Menninger, Pennington, Bourgeault, and others) inspired by the 14th Century text The Cloud of Unknowing and the practices of earlier desert ascetics. However, this Welcoming Practice is a distinct variation drawing from the praxis of several traditions, which is one reason I’ve started calling it the Welcoming Practice — it welcomes these various forms of guidance that are united in their devotion to the same mystery.
The Welcoming Practice has three aspects which I call: Bow Inside; Consent to Silence; and Welcome Love. Though I’ll describe them here in sequence, you may find that when you engage in this practice these three aspects mingle and occur within and through each other, and are not as separate as they might sound in this description.
Outrage and Love – A Personal History
October 1, 2019
I recently celebrated my 75th birthday, an event that rang like a gong in my heart, making me look up from the current procession of my days and back at the trajectory that my life has traced through those years, looking — as often happens for those fortunate enough to live this long — looking for patterns and meanings that might tell me what this has all been about. There are many ways the story could be told, of course, but one pattern in particular stands out for me just now that I’ll try to describe here, on the chance it may reflect something in your life too.
To put it most simply, throughout my years I have been drawn to, astonished by, and in love with beauty — the beauty of nature and the beauty of human potential — and outraged by its desecration. Since I have a fairly mild nature, the feelings of outrage that have arisen in me have often been disturbing and difficult to know what to do with.
September 1, 2019
What is your edge? What limits you? What limits your capacity to be spiritually present and awake? or to be intimate and loving? to be generous? to be forgiving? to be patient? to be creative?
Engaging in this kind of inquiry isn’t easy. The edges in question are not visible, but they describe and constrain our lives nevertheless. How do we recognize the edges that constrain us? How do we open beyond them?
For starters, let’s back up first a few billion years and consider the origins of life. It seems that the earliest forms of single-celled life were made possible by the creation of a membrane, an edge, that allowed the chemical reactions necessary for life to develop in a protected environment. The membrane was all-important — without it the chemistry of life would have been swept away in the primordial seas.
August 1, 2019
Once, a young seeker asked an old Sufi woman, “Mother, tell me, what is the way of the Sufi? What way do you follow?”
The way we follow does not lead.
It is like a wind that has no origin
and that seeks no destination.
It flows everywhere without moving,
never straying from this moment.
The way we follow is holy and alive
but to call it a way is to make it a thought,
suitable for the mind but not the heart.
Living in the Zero-Point-Now
July 1, 2019
I want to talk here about living in the zero-point-now and what the future and the past have to do with that, and right off I should warn you that I’m going to try to do this by using the narrative voice of a 17-year-old boy named Herman who’s the main character in a novel I’m reading, since his voice isn’t concerned with run-on sentences and he free-associates better than I do. If you get confused about who’s talking, me or Herman, just imagine it’s Herman, even though you know it’s me. Actually I was a 17-year-old boy once so it’s not such a stretch.
The thing I especially like about Herman is that his voice just hums along like this, and even when he doubts himself he does it in the same humming-along way and doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks, even if he says he does. Speaking of humming along, and to turn to our subject, isn’t that what the future does? I mean, here we all are in the zero-point-now, and instantly it turns into something else and keeps humming along, and yet all the while it stays the same: the zero-point. So how does “now” know what to do next? And where does “next” come from?
A Tenderness Toward Existence
June 1, 2019
Like you, I too have stood by a window and stared out at nothing in particular and sensed the presence of my long life there with me, and felt a tenderness toward existence I couldn’t describe, a tenderness toward my own existence and yours, a tenderness toward all that has happened in my life. It seems to be a sense that arises of its own accord, a simple revelation of what matters.
Like you, I too have held a baby wrapped in a soft blue blanket, her little hands waving in the air, and wondered, like you must have, at how her fingers were formed, the little hinges in them and the miniature fingernails, her hands reaching up, clutching the air. Somehow my wonder could touch her and hers could touch me at the same time.
Like you, in the garden I too have pressed seeds into shallow furrows and covered them with warm earth and patted the earth over them, and for a moment felt myself, as you must have, suspended between heaven and earth, as if something so much bigger than us was smiling to see that this simple act had been done right.
Letter to a Newborn Girl
May 1, 2019
I’ve just had a letter from your father telling me that, although you were born two weeks ago, you still have not been given a name. How wonderful! You come fresh from the place where names are not needed, and it’s good that you can carry that quietness about you a little while longer. In that place there’s a blissful secret most of us can no longer remember. I think we would bow at your feet if you could tell us about it, if you could remind us what we have forgotten, but of course, you do not know words yet and that’s just how you remain wiser and holy and inscrutable to us.
But soon you will start to learn words. You will learn to say what you feel and want, and with that saying you too will forget what is so natural to you now. Or perhaps you will be lucky, and a current of the bliss you come from will continue to stream through your heart — I pray it will! This world you have arrived into is a serious place, often tragic, and remembering the beauty of your origin can be a great help in the years to come.
April 1, 2019
Mother Nature — how accurate that we call her a “mother,” the mother of all this life around us. To call Mother Nature mother means she’s “woman,” though not a woman, but womanish in her way which is wild, untamed, fecund and free-spirited. She follows no path; she moves everywhere. She stirs the oceans into unruly waves, she tangles the grasses like unkempt hair. She’s wild. Womanish wild.
And yet in her wildness — how does she do it? — she’s perfectly skilled and careful, fashioning each feather in the sparrow’s wing, just so, the dapple on the forest floor, the veins in a leaf. From her womb everything is born, elegantly made but unscripted, perfectly formed but set free — wild. The sparrow flies in quick arcs and dips, unmanaged by anything, the shadows on the forest floor play by themselves, the veins of one leaf are never the same as another’s.
The Voice in Your Head Sutra
March 1, 2019
It is told that once in a land far away and long ago, a being appeared who was radiant with presence. When that being spoke, each listener heard the truth they longed for in a language they could understand.
And so it happened that people gathered to be with that being and to ask for help.
One morning at such a gathering, a person stood and asked, “Dear being, please instruct me how to stop the voice in my head, for it continually talks and complains and has opinions, and will not leave me in peace.”
The being answered, “Dear one, it is not necessary to stop the voice in your head, nor is it even possible, for your head has been taught language and likes to use it, just as the bird likes to sing and the cricket likes to make cricket sounds in the evening.”
“But,” replied the questioner, “the song of the bird and the cricket is pleasant, while the voice in my head is not. It complains about me. It makes judgments. It is worried.”
The Intimacy of the Many and the One
February 1, 2019
When I was a young traveler on the spiritual path I longed to be one with the One. I imagined there was an end to this journey, a final Homecoming into Divine Light when my little self would vanish into God’s Self. The Sufi invocation, “Toward the One!” was my heart’s prayer, my marching orders, and I took it literally.
Of course I delighted in, and was mesmerized by, the world of the senses, but my metaphysical view was that this world of Manyness, however beguiling, was a weight around my spirit’s ankles; I thought spiritual freedom would be achieved when the beguiling world no longer held me down.
Maybe by the grace of growing older, that view has changed. It no longer feels like a matter of “here” and “there” — that our lives are like attendance in a school of Manyness where we’re prepared for graduation into Oneness.
I’ve come to sense that it’s much more subtle, and more magical, than that. Manyness and Oneness are not two, even though they’re not the same. They are intimate and simultaneous, like wetness is to water or the dance is to the dancer.
Beauty Will Save the World
January 1, 2019
When I was young I’d watch my mother preparing lunches every morning for about thirty black kids who went to a free pre-school near us. Their families had scarcely enough money to feed their children, so my mother raised money or used her own to buy the bread and peanut butter, the eggs and mayonnaise and milk for their lunches. The house would fill with the smell of cookies baking early in the mornings. Then she’d pack it all in cardboard boxes, carry them down the back steps, put them into the trunk of her car and drive off to the school. She’d feed the kids, wipe their noses, sing little songs to them, and then drive home. She didn’t make a big deal out of it.
My mother is long gone now, but when I remember those scenes — her hands buttering the slices of bread all laid out in pairs on the counter, or lifting the boxes into the trunk of her car — I feel their beauty — there is no other way to say it. How beautiful were her simple, honest movements! I don’t mean beauty in the sense of pleasing appearance, but something both within and beyond appearance. Goodness.
Stephen Hawking Goes to Heaven
December 1, 2018
The first thing Stephen knew was that his wheelchair was skidding away behind him as he stood up — not stood up as much as leapt up, landing firmly on his feet, his arms flung out in the same motion, and he shouted — with his real voice, not the computer voice — “What?” so loud it startled him. He looked around disbelieving.
He was on a footpath in a meadow with summer wildflowers and small yellow butterflies flitting here and there. A stream sparkled in the sunlight in a valley not far below him, and on the far side were hills covered with forests and meadows. Stephen shook his head and closed his eyes tight and opened them again. It was all still there. He swung his arms, still incredulous that he could do it, and began to jump up and down, little jumps to test the ground and his legs.
November 1, 2018 • for Pierre Delattre
Walking through a park you pass an old man sitting on a bench. He’s watching children out on the grass playing and tumbling in the fallen leaves. You see the wrinkles and lines in his old face as you pass. What kind of life carved those lines? Hieroglyphics of stories even he probably can’t remember. On a whim you sit on a bench down the path across from him, and wait.
You wonder about him. He just sits there watching the children, or looking up into the trees. You wonder what he’s thinking. Is he thinking? Maybe not. Does he have ambitions? Does he make plans?
A little breeze scatters leaves along the path, and more leaves flutter down from the branches to join them. You wonder what it’s like to be old. You decide to pretend you’re as old as he is, with the majority of your life behind you — just another old person on a bench in a park somewhere on an autumn afternoon.
October 1, 2018
1 In those days it is said that men stood above women, and kept them for their purposes, and used them as they wished. The women bore children and were told of their tasks, and their place was determined for them.
2 And men in that time made ranks amongst themselves, one above another, and made places of power amongst themselves, lesser and greater, and over the women also; and the lands and their fruits were possessed by men, but to the women their place was set.
3 Now it came to pass in those days that a great wind swept across the face of the earth and did not stop. For forty years it blew, and four times forty years, and the trees bowed their heads but did not break, but the minds of men were troubled and their fear was with them.
4 And thus it happened that the women stood and lifted their children to them; they went out of their doors and turned to the wind, for the wind troubled them not, and it was to them a blessing and to their children also, but to the minds of men the wind was a consternation and a grief.
Impermanence and Love
September 1, 2018
A little child runs across the lawn into her mother’s waiting arms. The mother cuddles the child and makes cooing sounds, and then the little one slips off her lap and races around the yard again, tumbling and showing off.
That was many years ago. Now the child no longer exists; a grown-up person has taken her place. The mother is no longer waiting with her arms open. She, too, no longer exists.
This is the hard truth of impermanence, and it’s how we usually think of that word — the endings it forces on us, the goodbyes, the losses and poignancy of never again.
The old Buddhists tell us the nature of impermanence is ultimately unsatisfactory. I imagine that’s doubly true if you believe we’ve had countless lives before this one, all of them marked by the losses we’ve endured. We come here, we get attached to these beautiful bodies, to our loved ones, to the places and activities we love, and then they change and disappear. Impermanence tears at our attachments and makes dukha, suffering — this is the reason they say impermanence is “unsatisfactory.”
Loneliness and Openness
August 1, 2018
Oh look at all the lonely people —
where do they all come from?
When I was a young man I often felt lonely. Even though I had friends, being around them didn’t relieve my loneliness. I think I even liked feeling lonely — it defined my “me.” I was inside it. No matter how much my loneliness ached, it was the little place from which I looked out on the world, the place from which I could judge what was happening and feel like a righteous victim of the world’s uncaring nature.
Back then I thought existential loneliness was the unavoidable human condition, and even though everyone was scrambling to avoid it, they did so in vain. In my case I even cultivated a kind of romanticism about feeling lonely — I think I believed it would make me more artistic and loveable.
July 1, 2018
Say you wake up one morning and notice that something is different about you. There’s a beautiful quietness inside your body that you haven’t felt before. It seems to emanate from the middle of your chest, a clear quietness opening from your heart area, filling the entire volume of your body. You sense how your skin envelopes this silence, but inwardly it seems to be without limit. The quietness disappears into the depths your body without coming to a boundary.
It’s an unfamiliar feeling but not alarming; it has a peaceful and spacious quality to it. So you sit in a chair and allow the inward quietness to have its way with you. You notice that you can’t really stand outside of the quietness to look at it — it takes up the whole interior of your body. There’s no place for you to be except within the quietness and pervaded by it.
Your attention is drawn to the boundary of the quiet where it touches the inside of your skin. You feel how this inner silence defines the shape of your body. And then an extraordinary thing happens. The quietness within you seems to open right through your skin and expand outwardly, or perhaps it’s just the opposite: the quietness of space outside your body instantaneously meets the quietness you feel inside. You are within the quietness and simultaneously held by it. Encompassed.
The Place Where Nothing and Everything Meet
June 1, 2018
If you walk into a forest and put your ear against a tree, you will hear a silence in there that is like your own. It is a silence that has no end. Empty silence is the background to everything we perceive, in the same way that space is the background to everything we perceive. Most people don’t like listening to that silence because it makes them feel alone, and they equate aloneness with loneliness. But the silent aloneness inside us — and inside all being — is not lonely.
The Zen master, Katagiri Roshi, once said, “When you see the bottom of your life, you see emptiness right there. You are standing by yourself, completely left alone in emptiness. That is a very deep sense of aloneness.”
Accepting emptiness like this, accepting our perfect aloneness, is not isolating; it is an essential part of our awakening. As Katagiri puts it, accepting emptiness allows us “to stand up in a new way.” When we stand up like that, with recognition of the ground of emptiness everywhere, we enter the reality of what he calls togetherness and creativity.
May 1, 2018
While the world we encounter day to day is not always friendly, it is our job to befriend it. Of course, befriending the world’s unfriendliness is a profound challenge; it requires equanimity and a great capacity for love and compassion.
When Jesus was being nailed to the cross he prayed that his executioners be forgiven. Although we may honor his response as an ideal, when someone criticizes us or expresses animosity toward us, what is our response? Most often we react with defensiveness: we try either to defend ourselves or to return the attack in ways that will diminish the accuser. Yet we can see from the world’s history of conflict, violence, and revenge the predictable outcomes of this kind of reactivity, just as the many small examples we can think of from our own lives show us the painful results of our own defensiveness.
Befriending unfriendliness is not something easy to accept, especially when we consider the horrendous examples of victimization and oppression throughout human history — befriending that unfriendliness can look like passivity, or foolhardiness, or even cowardice.
April 1, 2018
On a festive day when I was three I found a lavender egg beneath a tree. It was Easter and the air was full of morning and the sun was shining, little children were running about, and then all of a sudden something happened, something that’s actually the first memory of my life.
I saw (and in that moment everything became quiet, at least in my memory it was quiet) I saw a glint of lavender in the leaves beneath a tree — a lavender egg half-covered by brown leaves nestled in the bosom roots of a tree that went way up into the sky.
It was so quiet, though the children were squealing in the front yard, and in the silence my small hand reached out, and I knew, I felt, something magical was happening, something intensely beautiful was being born from the dark beneath the leaves out of where the tree grew and the darkness down there began.
The Intimacy of the Real
March 1, 2018
Perhaps the most startling moment in nondual inquiry occurs right at the beginning when you turn your attention inward and ask: What am I? What is it that is seeing the world around me? What is feeling the sensations of my body? What is experiencing these emotions? What is it that is asking these questions? What is this me?
The startling part of this kind of inquiry is that you can’t find an answer. You can’t find anything “there.” Where? Where are you looking? Some seekers veer off at this point and find a mental construction to substitute for the lack of an answer — for example, “Well, I’m not a thing, I’m the sum total of all the conditions that make me — my body, my thoughts, my memories,” or “There’s no solid me in here, I’m simply awareness.”
Answers like these give the mind some satisfaction, but they stop the inquiry process and allow the mind to continue business as usual. That business is based on the fundamental equation that says, “I (whatever that is) am in here and the world (whatever that is) is out there. I am the primary subject. Everything else is an object that I perceive. I walk from here to there. I pick up an object and move its position. Isn’t this obvious?”
February 1, 2018
I had my first encounter with what people call “God” when I was four years old. The story may make you smile. You may even have a similar one.
There had been a snowstorm and my big brother and I went sledding. The long afternoon turned into evening. My brother told me he was cold and was going home, and that I should follow as quickly as I could. Then he disappeared up the quarter mile road to our house.
It was still snowing, big gentle flakes. I was a little guy and it was a long way for me to go through the deep snow, and it was nearly dark. My mother had dressed me in a snowsuit, but I was very cold — my fingers were wet and freezing in my mittens, my toes stinging. And I had to pee very badly. I waddled along as fast as I could, the snow above my knees. I became increasingly anxious, since it would have been babyish to wet my pants, my mother would scold me, and my brother would make fun of me, but I wasn’t able to unzip my snowsuit.
I came to a stone wall that was at a right angle to the path — there were large bushes in front of it making a dark tunnel between the bushes and the wall. I was desperate. I pushed through the snow into that tunnel, and fell backwards into its softness.
A New Year's Vow
January 1, 2018
Because this day is special
and we are together,
because the year’s starting
and we want to say something,
because it’s never been here before
and we have,
because the year is asking
and the children are asking and listening
for what we will say
and what we will do,
let us vow, let us make a vow,
now, because we can...
December 1, 2017
It’s not so easy being a human being. We learn early that this world hurts just as much as it comforts. The warm safety of our mother’s womb turns against us, squeezes, and sends us out into this too bright, clanging place. We find that sometimes we’re cuddled and sometimes we’re left alone to cry in a wet diaper. We learn to run happily on a sidewalk but then trip and skin our knees. Worse things happen as we grow taller, and we look for places to be safe, even if temporarily.
When I was a child and felt betrayed by the world — when I was scolded by my mother or had lost another fight with my big brother — I would climb to the top of a great beech tree in our backyard. It was my sanctuary. There was a place up there where the smooth branches made a good spot to sit and I could lean against the warm skin of the tree, my cheek against it, and watch the light play in the canopy of leaves around me. I was safe there. Nothing could hurt me.
My pillow was another place like that, when the lights were out and I could curl up under the covers and close my little eyes. That quiet, warm place was safe too, an inner sanctuary.
I suppose most of us had places like that as children, private places where we could hide for a while and feel our aloneness held in an undemanding embrace of safety. Of course, some of us had a relatively happy childhood, others not so much, but we all sought out our sanctuaries and found some degree of solace in them.
A Hundred Years from Now
November 1, 2017
There are increasing signs that a hundred years from now life on earth will have taken a serious turn for the worse. We won’t be here of course, but our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will. What will they have to face?
Thinking of the future with grim expectations like this can be disturbing and scary, like imagining the sword of Damocles swinging from a thread above us. We’ve started having bad dreams about what might happen — visions of nations collapsing, citizens armed and dangerous, the coasts flooding, forests burning, dust blowing over dried-out farmland, starving refugees taking what they can find, the last elephants shot for meat, the seas dying, dystopian mega-cities swarming with faceless strangers, replicants, sex robots, aimless wars fought for nothing… We keep dreaming these things. We see them beginning now and we hate ourselves for what we’re doing.
I want to be able to say it’s not too late. I want to believe that these dreams, becoming every day more real, will scare us awake and with the shock of waking we will remember what matters to us and what kind of world we want to leave for our children, and theirs, and theirs.
October 1, 2017
From the Tibetan Shangpa Kagyu tradition comes this exquisite riddle:
It’s so close you can’t see it.
It’s so profound you can’t fathom it.
It’s so simple you can’t believe it.
It’s so good you can’t accept it.
What is it?
The wonderful thing about this riddle is that it’s compounded of paradox — pure positivity (so close, so profound, so simple, so good) and pure negativity (you can’t see it, you can’t fathom it, you can’t believe it, you can’t accept it). It’s saying that no matter how we look for, or what we call, this “it,” it escapes the looking and the telling.
In most texts these lines are not referred to as a riddle, but are given the whimsical title: “the four faults of awareness.” But if we think “awareness” is the answer to the riddle, we’ve missed the point. To say “awareness” is to make a conceptual conclusion, and whatever this “it” is, it’s neither bounded like a conclusion nor objective like a concept. Yes, the lines are referring to awareness, but do we really get what that is, beyond the idea that the word “awareness” represents? The beauty of the riddle is that it forces us to the edge of language and then pushes us off.
Children of Happiness
September 1, 2017
I woke before dawn this morning and, seeing it was still dark, checked the clock. 5:10. Oh, I thought, I can sleep a little more. I curled back up under the covers and fell asleep for about ten minutes. During that time I had a dream, just one short, very clear scene: I was watching at a little distance what seemed to be a holy man talking with a few students. He had a shiny, perfectly bald head and he was smiling broadly as he spoke to them. I was struck by how the light sparkled off his bald head and the vitality he exuded as he spoke. I only heard one sentence, but the words were very clear.
He said, “Never forget, you are children of the vast beautiful happiness.”
Then I woke up, went to my study and wrote down those words.
I suppose that dream happened because I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness these days, in advance of this year’s Living Sufism teleconference on “The Alchemy of Happiness.” But that explanation only goes so far. When a dream has that kind of clarity for me, which is rare, and when I can hear the words spoken in it with precision, I pay attention.
Morning Light: Five Scenes
August 1, 2017
Upstate New York, USA
All night there have been cricket sounds in the field. Now they stop. A stillness touches everything, like when a conductor raises his baton and the orchestra goes silent. Dawn begins, pale blue, coral, faint gold. The first solitary birdsong sails up, and then others from here and there join as the last stars vanish. A great expectancy fills the air. Finally, suddenly, a brilliance pierces the edge of the hill, and without hurry the sun lifts above it. Down at the edge of the field where blackberries make a tangle of stems and thorns, a young rabbit sits quietly, only her nose twitching as she breathes in the smells of the morning. She watches as the faraway sun enters a dewdrop on a blade of grass. Inside her body her little heart beats unnoticed.
A Prayer in the Militant Mosque
Note: Ten years ago this month, July, 2007, there was a ferocious battle at the Red Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan. Two and a half years later I gave a talk in Islamabad at a conference on Sufism and Peace. The following is an edited version of an essay I wrote from there.
July 1, 2017
The dawn call to prayer wakes me. It is still dark in Islamabad. Half dreaming I imagine the notes of the praying man’s song rise up through the neighborhood like a line of thin silver leaves, finding their way along the streets, brushing against closed doors, against windows, sliding through cracks into rooms, touching the skin of sleeping people like me, waking us if we are ready. Hayya 'ala-salat! – Come to pray!
While I am not formally a Muslim, I am not formally anything — and this gives me the chance to join praying people wherever they are. I get out of bed, dress, and leave the hotel into the still dark city. The sleepy guards at the gate with their submachine guns straighten up and nod to me as I go out.
There are no cars. An old turbaned street sweeper moves bits of paper along the gutter with his twig broom.
June 1, 2017
I once asked my mother when she was washing dishes at the sink, “Mommy, who do you love more, Daddy or us kids?”
She paused in her washing and said, “Ducky, love doesn’t come in quantities. It just touches us in different ways.”
It’s taken a long time but now I know what she meant. She was right — you can’t have more or less of love. For example, it’s not like time — you can have a lot of time, or you can run out of it. Love isn’t like that. Love is more like the present moment, like now. You can’t have more now or less now, can you? Right now?
Or perhaps we could say it’s like what is looking out of our eyes. Can we have more or less of that? What is it that is looking, or listening to the sounds around us? Did the Buddha have more of that than we do? What is it? Does whatever it is come in quantities?
The Practice of Living Presence
May 1, 2017
A Zen master once said to his students:
In order to have warm human relations, we must pay attention to what is. In other words, we must touch the source of existence. Only then can we take a deep breath; only then can we feel relief. Under all circumstances, we must be rooted in the source of existence.
What does it mean to be rooted in the source of existence? What is this source and how can we know it?
In my experience, being rooted in the source of existence does not involve the thought-mind or require concentration. What is required is more like an intuitive openness, perhaps comparable to our peripheral vision or our experience of spatial dimensions. It’s a subtle capacity we have, to be able to open ourselves intuitively like this. For me it has a kinesthetic feel to it, as if the back of my head has disappeared, or the space inside my chest has no boundary.
April 1, 2017
How strange it is we have forgotten where we came from and what we are. Immigrants from a place of light, we take our turns here building nests and finding food and soon we forget the Home we started from. This world makes us fear that place. We think there’s nothing there, but we needn’t worry. That place and this place are the same place, though they’re not a place.
There is no place where the river’s current is, no place where sunlight collects. There is only this Pouring Forth, and there is nothing from which, or into which, it pours.
It’s not easy to talk about this, since it doesn’t seem to make any sense. But it’s helpful to have a feel for it because that feel can relax whatever fear we may have about dying, or living for that matter. After all, if a drop of water cried out it was afraid to flow over a rock, or rise up into a cloud, would that help anything?
The Face that Lights the Candle
March 1, 2017
Generous is a word that is almost big enough to describe reality. After all, what could be more generous than this that allows everything to be everything? The hypothetical start of things — the Big Bang — that primal flaring forth was nothing if not Pure Generosity, no holding back — Here! A universe for you!
The nature of our sun is the same: its light given freely year after year, for billions of them! We live by the generosity of its light. Every glass of milk, every apple, every cup of coffee is given by its light, and we appear by the grace of that giving.
And what of this ever-unfurling spontaneous moment, how might we describe it but Purely Generous? Or this awareness that is the root of our being? We take our awareness for granted, we take the spontaneity of this moment for granted, and indeed they are just that: granted, given without our needing to ask.
February 1, 2017
I recently became a member of a fledgling group called the “Muslim-Jewish Alliance of Boulder County.” Its purpose is to “take prayerful action to protect the civil liberties and security of all religious and other minorities” and to develop strategies “to address anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Semitism wherever it occurs.”
Amidst the unease precipitated by the election of Donald Trump and the increase in hate crimes and bullying, groups like this are forming throughout the country to protect minorities and progressive ideals and causes.
To me, this Alliance is a beautiful sign of neighborliness. Muslims and Jews have been at each other’s throats in Israel-Palestine for decades, yet in this little city in Colorado they are coming together to protect one another. At the Alliance meetings imams and rabbis stand up and pray in Arabic, Hebrew, and English. One imam recited this verse from the Quran:
Oh people, we have created you from a male and a female, and made you families and nations that you may know each other. (49:13)
A Little Fable for New Year's Day
January 1, 2017
There’s dread in the air as we journey into this New Year, a feeling that we’ve somehow taken a wrong turn and we can’t go back. We tell disturbing rumors to each other about the country we’re approaching. We talk about the way people there treat each other, and the bad smell of their cities. We can’t go back, we can’t turn around. In the back seat the children are worried, hearing us talk. They’re afraid something bad is going to happen.
We wake up. It’s New Year’s Day. It was just a dream. The day is bright as yesterday and everything seems okay. But the dream lingers in our conversations. Was it an omen, a sign of what’s coming?
Someone opens a book and reads to us.
“Humans,” it says, “are capable of just about anything, from the worst abominations to the most beautiful love. They delight in their uniqueness, but it makes them headstrong. They think they own the place. And even then they want more of everything. They take from each other and don’t give back. They fight each other for more, they even kill each other. It’s a big problem.”
December 1, 2016
Closer than words that form in my mind,
closer than tongue that says them,
closer than now where everything happens,
you, my beloved, are this.
I call you gracious but that is a word,
I call you God but that’s an idea,
I call you you but that is a fiction,
you, my beloved, are this.
You blast supernovas and spin every atom
and blink every eye in the world,
you lift every wing and kiss every lover,
you, my beloved, are this.
I turn to myself and ask what I am,
I ask what feels what I feel,
you don’t say a word but tell me with light,
you, my beloved, are this.
Link Arms and Sing
November 12, 2016
It’s a hard time for us in America. We’re having a bad dream that we can’t wake up from: Donald Trump and all he stands for is about to take power. We’re scared, disheartened, and angry. We imagine the worst and we may be right. If Trump carries through with what he says he wants to do, and Congress lets him, we can say goodbye to global climate accords, coral reefs, polar bears, the Iran nuclear treaty, eleven million inhabitants of the country, gun control, healthcare, civil rights, and civility itself.
My daughter Aura wrote to me that she wished her children were younger so they wouldn’t understand, but they’ve heard their parents talking and they know something unhealthy is happening. I remember having that feeling of dread when I was my grandchildren’s age, coming home from elementary school and finding my mother shouting at the little TV set where McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee was persecuting people who were just like my father and mother. “Are you now or have you ever been a communist?” That man said it over and over. His voice scared me. But I was proud of my parents because they cared so much that people treat each other in a good way.
This has been going on for a long time — the old distrust and fears of our species pouring into the hearts of our children. What dread did the children feel who were born just ten years before me in the war-torn countries of World War II, when they heard their parents whispering about the events swirling around them? It’s the legacy of fear bequeathed to the generations.
So what we can do? What can we do for the children?
Pilgrimage to Standing Rock (4)
November 8, 2016
There is a wildness here — it comes with the wind flying through the tall grass and people’s hair, it comes pulling on tent lines and flapping the flags of the Indian nations on the hill as if victory was near, it comes with living under the sky all day, it comes with the chaotic bravery of all these different people who have dropped what they were doing to make a stand here before the forces that seem to tame everything.
It is a beautiful, messy wildness, and though it says it is here to protect with prayer the sacred land and water, it doesn’t stay neat or uniform but flies through all of us like a longing we can’t control, a longing for something we feel is being lost.
Yesterday a large crowd headed to the river where a line of police in riot gear stood silhouetted on top of the hill across the river. Young men paddled canoes across, others swam the frigid waters and then attempted to scale the hill while the police lobbed pepper spray down at them. After a few hours everyone gave up and went back to camp.
What did it mean? Nothing much, except that it was the wildness trying to find its way beyond itself, a burst of longing to make it to the other side, to get through the sadness many of these good people have felt since they were children.
Pilgrimage to Standing Rock (3)
November 5, 2016
Yesterday Rabia and I took the provisions we brought — sacks of rice, potatoes, carrots, nuts, and dried fruit — to the Lakota camp near us. They cook for 600 people every day. We said we wanted to give them this food in the name of our late Lakota friend Kiefer Foote (Spotted Eagle). Many years ago Keifer traveled with us to Southeast Asia to share with indigenous leaders of Thailand what Native Americans have learned about cultural survival.
Later in the afternoon I went back to the Lakota camp and scrubbed nine enormous cooking pots stuck with grease and burned food. Squatting there in the dust scrubbing those pots, my hands blackened, I felt I had found my rightful place in this historic camp. I won’t be arrested, I won’t make strategy with the elders, I won’t join the inner prayer circles. But when a native woman walked past me as I was working — when she smiled down at me and said, “Thank you!” — I knew I was where I was supposed to be.
Pilgrimage to Standing Rock (2)
November 3, 2016
We've been encamped at Standing Rock for three nights now. The wash water was frozen solid this morning, but the sun is high now and our bodies are warm at last.
Brown autumn grasses cover the soft hills here where the little Cannon Ball River wanders down to the Missouri River: the sacred water. That’s the heart mantra of the encampment: Water is Sacred. Water is Life.
A vast smoky camp is spread out around us — tents, teepees, cooking fires, flags from all the Indian nations: Dakota, Lakota, Cheyenne, Navajo, Nez Pierce, Kiowa, Cree — hundreds of beautiful names of the proud people beaten down but not beaten by the new way of life that has come to this land. Their endurance too is sacred.
The call for religious leaders to come support them — they expected perhaps a hundred might come — resulted in over five hundred Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and leaders from many other traditions arriving yesterday for the action scheduled for today. We came from all over the country. Last night we met in a gymnasium in the nearby Sioux town of Cannon Ball, prayed and sang and listened to each other testify.
Pilgrimage to Standing Rock (1)
November 1, 2016
A pilgrimage is often thought of as a journey to a sacred destination, to a Mecca or a Jerusalem, an Arunachala or a Lhasa. The journey my wife, Rabia, and I have just begun feels like a pilgrimage to us, though there is no holy edifice or memorial at the end of it. Instead there is a frontline of conflict: Standing Rock, where a few thousand Native Americans from tribes around the country, along with folks sympathetic to their cause, are standing in the way of the construction of an oil pipeline cutting through their ancestral lands and endangering the water source of the Standing Rock Sioux and potentially millions of people down the Missouri River.
We had been considering going to Standing Rock for the past month, but there were dozens of reasons not to — commitments, work, distance, health, our age, the cold winds that sweep across North Dakota, and we were not sure we would be welcome. After all, white people like us had stolen the land and betrayed every treaty made with the native people of this continent.
But then we heard Chief Arvol Looking Horse, 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle, call for religious leaders from all traditions to come join the people standing in prayerful protest against the pipeline. “If you can find it in your heart,” he said, “come support them, stand side-by-side with them because they are standing in prayer.”
Move Your Feet
S E P T E M B E R
Sometimes our usual understanding of things can get us stuck. We might hold a belief or desire about how things should be, but others disagree and block what we long for. We might feel at a dead-end in our work or marriage, or we might be caring for an aging, grumpy parent and feel trapped in the role, or perhaps be suffering from an illness or physical condition that limits us and makes us feel that life has lost its promise. In circumstances like these, the logic of our complaints can feel utterly convincing. The more we obsess about the constraining situation we are in, the more our beliefs about it seem to be proved.
Once when I was learning how to rock climb in Thailand I found myself stuck about a hundred feet above the ground, clutching onto a vertical rock face. I couldn’t move. There were no other handholds I could reach, and my fingers and arms were burning with the pain of trying to hang on. I was desperate, frightened of falling; even though I knew the rope clipped to my belt would catch my fall, I also knew if I lost my grip I’d plunge a dozen feet or so before that same rope would slam me back against the sharp karst rock of the cliff.
My heart was pounding, my face pressed against the karst. Michel, my French friend and instructor, saw my desperation and shouted up at me, “Move your feet!” Where? I couldn’t see or feel any place to move them. He shouted again, “Move your feet!” I felt around with my right foot for a new foothold, but quickly drew back. Impossible!
The Joy of Pausing
A U G U S T
The American clown, Wavy Gravy, once famously said, “I come from the land of one thing after another.” And so do we all! From getting out of bed in the morning to lying down tired at night, each routine and little task is followed by the next. Even when we take a break, those moments are quickly filled with distractions — chatting, thinking, reading, or watching a screen. One thing after another.
We can’t avoid this — it’s how the melody of life is played. This moment flows into the next, the current never stops. The problem for us comes when we feel pressured by the sense that too many things are demanding to be done next. That pressure is amplified when we worry about negative events we imagine could happen in the future. Then we feel compressed and tense, as if there isn’t enough room for us in our own life. We lose our quiet center; we lose the sense that we are present and whole.
In my own life I’ve found that pausing helps when I lose my quiet center. By “pausing” I don’t mean simply stopping what I’m doing and sitting quietly somewhere, although that’s always a good tonic. Pausing, as I experience it, can be done right in the middle of the river, and it can be as brief as a single breath. The length of a pause is not as important as its depth.
I Only Want to Say
J U L Y
Now that I am old my thoughts no longer hold the certainty they had, instead they open like a river delta does, spreading to the sea, slow calm channels where grasses bow and water birds float and dive and make their homes. The torrent of my beliefs has eased, thank God, and I no longer need to convince anyone of anything. You and they will find your way.
I only want to say how good it is and how good you are, as you try to make things better, how good it is that this is the way it is, and that we are not alone and never were, the same water flowing to the sea and lifting us to the clouds. It is beautiful that we have been made like this, out of mud and air, made so finely that our eyes can shine with the dearest love.
There is nothing to be afraid of.
This may be the best, the most important job we have: to assure one another that each of us is loveable, and that mercy softens every fall. Death, after all, is a fine homecoming.
As I age and slow I wonder if my life has any meaning left. It does! Meaning beyond the need for meaning, this one that drenches me with thankfulness. I am not at war with a meaningless void. There is no need for meaning, here where we glisten like raindrops in the sunlight, each drop a prism.
The Tears of the Bank Robber
J U N E
I was standing in line at a bank when a man suddenly pulled a double-barreled shotgun from under his coat and shouted for everyone to get down on the floor. I jumped behind a wide stone column and held my breath, hoping he hadn’t seen me. But the man must have noticed my movement — he shouted at me to come out from behind the column. I was terrified.
This was a dream. I was twenty-six when it happened, and I had suffered nightmares like it since I was four years old. I’m telling the story because of something that happened in this particular dream that caused my nightmares to stop, and I’ve never had one again.
My nightmares always followed the same pattern: a murderous character would pursue me, and in utter panic I would try to escape. Sometimes the bad man was a cutthroat pirate, sometimes a vicious cowboy, sometimes an evil criminal; all of them were intent on killing me. When I was a teenager the nightmares became so strong that several times I climbed out of my bedroom window just as the villain in my dream burst into my room. I still remember crawling out onto the roof and huddling next to the chimney until the cold night air woke me up.
Love and Death
M A Y
Lying there, looking up at the doctor and your next of kin, you grow uncomfortable with their concerned faces. You close your eyes so they will think you need to rest. You hear them back out of the room and the soft click of the door. You can still hear them speaking out in the hall, most of the words indecipherable except for the doctor’s, who you distinctly hear say, “It won’t be long now.”
It sounds like a line from a movie you saw once — it won’t be long now — but this time it’s about you. Ah, so this is my death-bed. The words form again in your mind, “my death-bed,” and again, “my death-bed,” as if repeating them will make you believe it’s true. My time has come. A quiver of fear — or is it excitement? — flashes in your stomach, but it doesn’t last. You lie there without moving. It’s quiet in your room. You’re thankful they brought you home; the hospital with its noises and interruptions is not a good place to die.
You feel wide-awake, but as you cast your mind over the history of your life, letting images from different periods arise, you fall into a half-dream state and drift. Gradually you sense a presence close to you, although no one has come into the room. It’s not a presence you can identify, but it feels somehow familiar. Kind. Is it an angel? It’s asking you something. You strain to hear it, and then the words become clear.
In One Form or Another
A P R I L
I once caught a very large fish. As it appeared from the depths of the sea off the west coast of Canada I saw it was longer than my arm, and I knew I couldn’t pull it into the kayak I was in — there wasn’t room in there for both of us. The sky was gray and close; the wind had picked up, blowing spray in my face; the rise and fall of the sea made my little boat unstable. I tied the line onto the kayak so the fish would stay close to the boat, its green body swimming next to me while I paddled to the shore of a small, uninhabited island. When I landed I pulled the fish up onto the pebbled beach. It thrashed and quivered, lay still, then thrashed again and again. I took my hunting knife from its sheath on my belt and plunged the blade just behind the fish’s head, severing its spine. At that moment I felt a surge of energy like an electric shock explode up my arm and into my body. Later that night my friends and I ate the fish, but in that moment, as the surge of energy entered my body, I felt I had absorbed its life force. It turned into me.
God Is Not Something Already Made
M A R C H
It can be humbling — and liberating — to recognize the limited nature of how we think. Our monkey minds swing from thought to thought, busily assembling our points of view. But when we look closely, we see that each thought is made out of words, and each word signifies a concept, and each concept — for example, the word and concept “God” — must remain static enough for us to “know” what is meant by it. If I tell you, “I believe in God,” we both think we know what I mean. What is signified by the word “God” seems to sit somewhere for us both, like an object in space we can refer to even if we can’t perceive it directly. By becoming an object in our sentences, God assumes the identity, in our minds and language, of something substantial in itself. It (He, She) exists for us as an independent entity, already made.
This objectifying tendency of our minds — of how we think — is a necessary result of language. Each word we use stands for something that is not a word, and that “standing” presses our minds into the molds of objectification. This process is usually very helpful, as it allows us to communicate quickly and to navigate a world that, if it were perceived solely in its primordial unity, would not provide sufficient distinctions for us to survive. We, subjects, over here, perceive and communicate about those objects, over there, and we make our way among them. It’s the powerful and helpful appearance of duality in what is, in its essential nature, a nondual reality.
The Tree of Awe
F E B R U A R Y
Above the altar in the chapel at Nada Hermitage — a small Carmelite place of retreat in the Colorado desert — hangs a crucifix unlike any I have ever seen. It almost speaks. Jesus is clearly alive there, nailed to his cross of wood. His chest swells forth, almost grotesque, as if his heart is about to burst out of its confines. His face is turned, looking slightly away and up, with an expression of such surprise and awe that you imagine the sky has broken open with a supernal light that only he can see.
The symbology of this icon may be extreme, but for me it speaks exactly of our condition, each of us, here on earth. For who among us can escape tragedy, agony, loss, and heartbreak? Even those with seemingly delightful, easy lives must experience the death of loved ones, the poignancy of things passing, and witness the unhealable anguish suffered by our brothers and sisters throughout the world. It breaks our hearts. All of us live with broken hearts, whether from the great disappointment we feel for our species’ repeated descents into violence and meanness, or from smaller, but no less intense, disappointments we feel for not being loved the way we want, or for not being the person we hoped to be, or for not being understood, or for any of our countless dreams deferred. When we do experience sweet moments of love and intimacy, it doesn’t take long before things change and we get irritable or feel pressured and the sweetness is gone. That’s heartbreak too. We can’t avoid it, just like Jesus can’t avoid his cross.
J A N U A R Y
In a decade or two, maybe less, I will no longer exist. That may be true for you too, though you may have a bit longer. Our lives are like little flowers blossoming on the mountainside, appearing beautifully, and then they’re gone.
You may feel, as I do, that not only do you want to enjoy the time you have left, but that you also want to offer something back to this world that made you — this world you are a part of — so that your existence here will have been, in some small way, of benefit.
This feeling of wanting to give back can charge your life with meaning and blessing, but it can also be a curse. It can be a curse especially if you look around at your life and see only its limitations. If you feel you don’t have the options, position, energy or charisma to offer something of value to the world, then you can end up feeling useless and small.
But the truth is you are not small. None of us are. We may be like little flowers on the mountainside that will soon disappear, but that’s not the whole story. Even if it seems your life is limited in its outward scope and influence, there is something alive in you of much greater scope and influence.
Staying Steady in Life and Death
D E C E M B E R
Thirty years ago my life turned upside down. It was very dramatic — my marriage collapsed, a new one tentatively began, I gave away my business, left my home, land, and family. I had no idea what was happening to me, or what was supposed to happen next. In a state of turmoil I called my spiritual teacher on the phone. He could hear I was about to break down. I remember two words he said during that call: “Stay steady.”
Stay steady. Perhaps because those two words were spoken by him and not someone else, I could let them in. They had an immediate effect on me, although I didn’t actually do anything to stay steady. It was just the sense he gave me that there was the possibility of steadiness in my chaotic situation that gave me the faith to carry on. Three decades have passed since that time, and I can say I understand now a little better the gift of those two words.
Our experience of life is constant change, moment to moment, little changes and big ones. It can feel sometimes as if we are a pebble tumbling along in a stream, or a leaf blown by the wind. Everything that comes, goes. When we try to hold on to stability by grasping on to things or life situations, it doesn’t work, because nothing is permanent. It also doesn’t work if we try to hold on to our points of view, or our ideas about our identity. Those ideas may be based on feelings of our importance, or of not being as good as other people, or on our work in the world, but whatever ideas and feelings our identity rests on, in the end they don’t help us to stay steady through whatever comes.
The Practice of Openness of Heart
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Each of us is carrying around a priceless treasure — our openheartedness. Although it is often covered by our thoughts and agitation, the openness of our heart is always there, waiting underneath; it can’t be diminished or destroyed. There is nothing more important in life than uncovering our heart quality, our openheartedness. It’s what allows the world to touch us, and what allows us to touch the world. If we feel life has betrayed us, if we feel life is not really worth living, or that we ourselves are not worthy, it is because our natural openheartedness has been covered over.
We can’t grasp this heart quality with our intellect; we can’t understand it, but we can free it. Freeing it takes practice, because our judgments and disappointments about our lives can be so stubborn. How can we take on this practice?
Heart opening usually happens without our intention — it just happens. We all know this in the “love moments” of our lives, when we spontaneously feel the preciousness of another being or of a situation. A baby looks up at us as it crawls on the carpet — the baby, the look, the sounds from the kitchen — all of it suddenly precious and fleeting and sacred. Our openheartedness in that moment is freed. But moments like this are all too rare, and we must learn to invite them into our lives by gently practicing openness of heart.
The Gift of the Flower
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“You see that flower?” my friend Quays asked me, pointing to a dried-up daffodil propped in an empty glass on his kitchen table. “It’s got a story. You want to hear it?”
“Sure,” I answered, curious. Quays was an eccentric little guy living on an aging houseboat tied to the side of a canal in an industrial area of Amsterdam. His boat was littered with found objects, broken clocks, seashells, and potted plants growing haphazardly all over the deck.
“Well,” he said, “three weeks ago I was walking home from my girlfriend’s. It was maybe two or three in the morning. She had given me that flower. I was so happy. I was humming a little tune and holding the flower in front of me, like I was singing to it.
“Then two guys came out of the bushes ahead of me. They looked rough. One of them said, ‘Hey, buddy.’ I stopped. They came up on either side of me, and the same guy said, ‘Okay, no trouble. Just give us your money and you can be on your way.’
Two Homeless Men
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I met a homeless man the other day named Zack. He was sitting cross-legged against the wall of a bank. He had long grey hair and wore a necklace of beads and porcupine quills above a faded cowboy shirt. His sign said he was a 72 year-old vet. After talking a while, we discovered we both were born in the same place, Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver, he in 1943 and me in ’44. We shook hands at that, as if it somehow made us brothers.
He told me stories about his life, all of them having to do with God’s grace in taking care of him when he was in danger in Vietnam and in the States. He told how God opened the wisdom of the Bible to him, but that God hadn’t stopped there. When Zack was later given a book of the Buddha’s teachings, he asked God if it was okay to read Buddha’s book. God told him it was fine. So he read that book and found the same truth in it he had found in the Bible. Then it happened again when someone gave him the Bhagavad-Gita, and again when he was given a copy of the Quran.
“God keeps teaching me,” he said. “And he takes care of me, and I take care of others as best I can. You know, I never know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but I know I’ll be all right.” Then we said goodbye and I gave him ten dollars, much more than I usually give. “You see what I mean?” he said.
Loaves and Fishes
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I went to Mass the other day at the small desert chapel near my home. As I walked along the dirt road leading to the chapel I noticed a bluebird hopping along the edge of the road. As I passed she flew, but she only managed to clear a sagebrush and then landed again. It looked like she had a broken wing. I felt helpless, knowing it would just make matters worse if I tried to catch her. Well, maybe she’ll be okay, I hoped, and went on to the chapel.
In his homily, Father Eric recounted the story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, how there were all these hungry people — thousands of them — following Jesus around, but there was no food available. Jesus had just heard of the murder of his friend, John the Baptist, and was grieving. But the peoples’ hunger touched him — both their spiritual and physical hunger — and he asked his disciples to find a solution. The disciple Philip was a can-do sort of guy, Father Eric said, but even he couldn’t come up with a solution, except to send the people away, which would be like sweeping the problem under the rug, and wouldn’t respond to either of their hungers.
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The pages of summer are turning now, like a big children’s book with large print telling simpler stories than winter did, the pages falling lazily open, almost by themselves, pages showing quiet dawns with only birds around, then breakfasts and plans happening, then stories of wonderment and fear that fill the noons and afternoons, stories that end always back home at evening with stars in a sky painted aquamarine, and then we sleep.
We dream. We dream slow roiling dreams of how all this has come to be, how over millions of seasons and days we were made from light and the stuff of stones and water, how we were fashioned into plants and animals, into canopies of leaves swaying, into small paws on the forest floor, and then a sudden click of stick, our ears go up, and then a pounce and we change form, again and again, all of it changing, all of it given, the sun given to warm us, the earth given to hold us, the dream given for us to see we are the given, given here as the merest drop of sperm and egg, given to grow in the womb of our mother, given there the same as we are given now, given now the same as the moment we were lifted from our mother and given to her breast, given to be beings like this, walking on two feet, the planet looking out of our eyes, us upright, free moving, vertical with voice above heart above belly above knees above feet, unrooted from the planet but given from it, everything, all of it, given!
J U N E 2 0 1 5
Many of you who read these Notes have generously donated to our appeal for funds to support children refugees at the monastery of Mar Elian in Qaryatayn, Syria. Sadly, the work at the monastery has been imperiled. On May 21, four armed men from ISIS entered the monastery and abducted the abbot, Father Jacques Mourad, along with a co-worker. There has been no word if he and his colleague are still alive. Father Jacques was a friend. A soft-spoken man with an air of gentleness around him, he gave the energy of his life each day to comfort those suffering from the war.
M A Y 2 0 1 5
I went to visit you before you died, do you remember? I came to your little cottage for breakfast and then we spent the day together. I brought croissants and orange juice. You made that delicious coffee. I remember how sunlight — blessed sunlight! — slanted through the window and spread across the breakfast table like a benediction. We knew you were dying, that the cancer was taking you fast, but you still had your plan to beat it with some kind of wavelength machine you had ordered. It hadn’t come yet.
Our glasses of orange juice were golden in the sun. The croissants left little crumbs on our plates. All the trivial details that day felt important. You went into the back room, rummaging around and brought out a fur hat you said was your favorite. “Here,” you said, “I want you to have this.”
We took a long drive through the countryside and got lost twice. Do you remember that little stone bridge we stopped at? We spoke about the method they must have used to build its arch, a century or so in the past. We sat on the bank near it and tossed little twigs into the water as we talked.
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Imagine this scene… You’ve been visiting a friend who has a cabin near a lake. It’s
2 AM, and not being able to sleep, you wander down to the lake in the dark. No one is around. You walk to the end of the dock that extends out into the lake. Daring yourself, you take off your clothes and stand there in the blackness.
The night sky is cloud-covered and dark, no stars. Your body is dark and the water below is dark. The darkness is cool on your skin. You want to dive forward into the air and the dark water, but you are afraid. Even the feeling of your fear is dark.
As you hesitate there, your whole life seems to be compressed into this moment: the way it has felt all these years to be a self, your self, alone in the midst of what’s out there and what comes next. It’s been this way for as long as you can remember: the sense of being you in here, confronting the it out there.
The darkness becomes so intense you withdraw from it into the only safe place you know: your self. But now with a shock you feel your self is just as dark as everything around you. There’s no safe place, no refuge. The darkness goes all the way through.
At that moment you give up. You stop caring about being safe or not being safe. What the hell… without planning or thinking, you dive into the darkness.
Clear Light and the Beauty of the World
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At the moment of our death, when the messages of our senses cease and the contents of our mind become transparent, The Tibetan Book of the Dead offers this instruction:
Remember the Clear Light, the pure Clear Light from which everything in the universe comes, to which everything in the universe returns; the original nature of your own mind…. Let go into the Clear Light, trust it, merge with it. It is your own true nature, it is home.
When I first read that passage as a young man I was deeply moved and reassured — it assured me that the confusion and loneliness I felt as a twenty-two year-old would vanish one day in that great, final homecoming. I didn’t understand what this “Clear Light” was, but it didn’t matter — the certainty of the voice in the Book of the Dead comforted me. The Clear Light would come.
A Garden Among the Flames
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Sometimes as the days pass by — ordinary, uneventful days — we might be visited with the feeling that we’re missing something, that there must be more to life than this. We get out of bed in the morning and go through our routine much the same as we did yesterday and much the same as we will tomorrow, and as day follows day we can feel dulled by a kind of weariness, or a lack of intimacy, or a shallowness of contact with the people and events of our life.
Sufis call this kind of low-level despondency the “fire.” It’s a fire on low-burn to be sure, but add fuel to it — trouble at work, a quarrel with your husband, money problems, a suspicious swelling on your body the doctor says must be biopsied — and the flames lick higher. Add even more fuel — the death of a loved one, you lose your job, your wife leaves you, you receive a terminal diagnosis — and your whole life awakens in fire.
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“Who is here is what is there.”
– Ibn al-Arabi
Now in the quiet of the year the night comes close to earth. Peaceful, impersonal night. It touches your face with its coldness as you make your way through the snowy woods, it touches the tracks of a mouse in the snow, it surrounds the thin moon to the East and the dark branches of the trees. Night. Between the branches, your home galaxy glistens, a great banner of stars.
You stop. You stop making noise crunching through the snow. You stop the small concerns of your thoughts. You join the night in its stillness. You stand there alone, wondering, wondering what’s happening and what you are. Your wondering has no words; it doesn’t presume it knows anything. It doesn’t look for an answer.
An owl swoops through the trees and pulls up, wings wide, stopping on a high branch. You watch its small dark shape, framed by stars. You are alone together.
Dark Lament at the End of the Year
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So much given, so few who know.
So much beauty, so little love.
- Wendell Berry
What can we say to one another to heal this wound of our regret, of having lived so many moments oblivious to their gift? We’ve had things to do, of course, and now we have more, the twitter of facebook pages leaving us breathless, but can we say we are here the way the rain is here or the way the deer looks up from the grass?
Our cities press against the ground, the traffic halts and moves, and we try to make a living inbetween somehow. We say have no time to ask what matters. Soon that will be true.
We shall go inside now to console ourselves, to make some poor soup of our ambitions, and watch the television. It will tell us what to buy. It will assure us we’re okay watching like this, and that what’s being sold is what we’ve been waiting for.
Are We Good?
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I recently attended a talk given by a Buddhist teacher, Mipham Rinpoche, in which he asked this question: “Are we good?” He said this is the central question of our time and the most important global issue. “The notion of human goodness and dignity is doubted,” he said. And then he asked, “Have we given up on ourselves?”
Doubts about our worthiness — individually and collectively — have a powerful influence on our actions. Beliefs such as “I am unworthy, I am less, my life is pointless,” or “humans are selfish, ignorant, and lost,” or "my group is good, but your group is less than human" have led to profound suffering over the course of human history.
Given the welter of violence, suffering, judgments and phobias streaming at us from media, it’s not surprising we doubt human goodness. And as for our own worth, many of us seem unable to resist doubting, comparing, and undermining ourselves.
Basic goodness, basic selfishness, basic nothing — which is it? Where can we look for an answer? This question of human goodness brings to mind Einstein’s observation that, in his view, the most important question we can ask is: Is the universe benign?
Alone with the Alone
O C T O B E R 2 0 1 4
As I write this my wife and I are waiting near a remote canyon in the Great Basin Desert of southeastern Utah. We're waiting for twelve people we've guided out here to return from their three days of solitude and fasting. This is day two.
Each of these people has gone out alone to sit and sleep beneath one of the gnarled juniper trees, or against the base of a red rock cliff. There they hold their fast, pray, consider their life’s purpose and direction, and listen to the silence.
Imagine what it’s like to be out there. There are no distractions and nothing to do. Your eyes follow a solitary hawk turning in a thermal and then it disappears beyond a ridge. You feel the soft movement of air on your face. You wait. Sand runs through your fingers. You watch your thinking mind thinking, and it becomes uninteresting. You feel old like the cliffs, and the story of your entire life becomes present to you, its great loves and little failures, its hopes, its first dreams.
The World of Peace
S E P T E M B E R 2 0 1 4
Seventy years ago this week, with Allied armies advancing across northern Europe, Tokyo in a firestorm, and the ovens of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen burning furiously, my mother gave birth to a baby boy. My birth at that tortured moment in history motivated my parents to send out a card to their friends announcing "the arrival of a new citizen for the world of peace."
It was several decades before I saw that card, but somehow its invocation foretold a pattern my life would take — idealistic, a little romantic, and repeatedly drawn by the call to be for such a world.
As a child my world was peaceful — I was a happy little guy, curious and eager, with little to complain about. But by the time I reached puberty I’d found the world was anything but peaceful — developers bulldozed the woods I played in, the atomic bomb lurked over us, soldiers killed each other in faraway wars. What kind of world was this?
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One morning, God knows why, you are swept clean of yourself.
Wonder of wonders! Clear-headed and clear-hearted, you look around.
Things appear as they always have, and yet… you feel a kind of awe everywhere, a silent wondrous clarity spilling invisibly out of the moment.
You sense it’s not an amazement private to you — it’s everywhere! It’s the awe at the start of things, the awe of the fact that anything shows up at all! What can you say about it, this pure radiant generosity? It gives the light in the trees outside your window, and in your eyes, and in the seeing of your eyes. Wonder is its nature — wonder is not just your response to it — your wonder is its wonder!
You feel your heart bursting with gladness. Now you know what the poet Yehuda Amichai meant when he wrote:
Behind all this some great happiness is hiding.
The Beautiful Revolution
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Many in my generation — those of us who came of age in the 1960’s and 70’s — were swept up by the spirit of revolutions, both outer and inner. Our revolutions were rarely violent, but they were fiery, profound, and have had far-reaching effects on society. The Beat Generation before us threw down the challenge and we took it. We rebelled against the conformism and security-mindedness of the post-war world we grew up in. We hoisted our knapsacks on our shoulders and left home. “Subvert the dominant paradigm!” we cried, fighting that paradigm over its heartless policies on civil rights, women’s rights, the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, sexual freedom, species extinctions and environmental destruction. We explored the outer reaches of consciousness with psychedelics, sat at the feet of teachers from the East, and learned how to meditate. We went back to the land. We learned how to grow food and chop firewood.
And then we had kids and got jobs. Some say that’s when we copped out, that’s when the dominant paradigm ultimately subverted us.
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One of the names Sufis have for God is “the Friend.” This name points to the mystery that beneath all the confusion and pain we may experience as human beings, our lives are pervaded by a most sacred friendship and love. We are safe. Our own being is inseparable from the home ground of all being which is love. Of course it is not always easy for us to recognize how safe and loved we are. This is why the name “the Friend” is used, to help us relax and stop struggling. The name is meant to reassure us. When we feel the intent of this word “Friend” in our hearts, we open ourselves to how the Friend — what is signified by that word — is all-pervasive. We sense that this friendship is the force that blinks our eyes when we blink, that it’s the very texture of our breath, that it’s what hears this thought. The 11th century Persian Sufi Abdullah Ansari put it this way:
All of my eye is filled with the form of the Friend.
Happy am I with the eye so long as the Friend is within it.
Separating the eye from the Friend is not good —
either He’s in the place of the eye, or the eye itself is He.
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A few years ago I was asked how a “sufi nondualism” expresses itself — that is, what in my view makes an expression of nonduality particularly “sufi.” To adequately answer that question would take a book — or ten of them — since expressions of nondual realization are woven throughout the vast literature of classical Sufism (Sufism with a capital "S"). My response, below, gestures instead toward a simpler, living sufism (sufism with a lower case "s") — a style of responsiveness to life that arises in the present moment and that is available to us whether we consider ourselves sufi or not.
As I understand it, “nonduality” and “nondual awareness” are names that refer to direct recognition of the clear light of timeless awareness that is the matrix of all apparent existence. This clear light is beyond being; it cannot be known as an object of knowledge or named accurately, though it is ever present. Direct recognition of the clear light does not belong exclusively to any tradition or spiritual view. It is our common inheritance.
For the Sake of Others
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The story goes that in certain Native American tribes when a person became psychologically unstable, she or he was placed in the middle of a circle of tribal members — men and women, children, old people — and required to spin around and around until she collapsed to the ground. The tribal member toward whom her body faced now became her special charge. She was obligated to care for that person, see to their needs, and be their companion and friend. The understanding was that caring for someone else is what ignites personal healing.
When we ache from the pain of loss or rejection, the pain of depression or loneliness, the pain of feeling unloved, or from bodily pain and impending death, the ache can feel agonizingly private to us. We feel alone in our pain: it encloses us in an isolation that feels terribly unfair. How is it possible then to offer care for others?
When Robert Kennedy lay dying from an assassin’s bullet, his blood spreading across a kitchen floor, he opened his eyes and asked, “Is everyone all right?” I like to believe that question eased his homecoming. At least it taught me this counter-intuitive calculus: when you are in need, give.
The First Moment
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The clock ticks. The sun rises. Today takes the place of yesterday. This breath gives itself up to this one. My pen point slides on the paper, your eye moves across the words, each moment giving up, letting go.
Letting go is the gift of emptiness, and the genesis of you and me at this moment. How intimate it is! Always beginning by letting go. “The place of release is where it all begins,” a scripture tells us. We appear by vanishing. This is not done once, but always. It is the most common miracle — the entire cosmos refreshing itself every instant.
“Nirvana,” Nagarjuna wrote, “is the letting go of what arises and passes.” This means nirvana — what we might call “refreshing ease” — is present in the way each moment offers itself by letting go. This offering is called the first moment.
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In the sixties the poet Gary Snyder advised, “Find your place on the planet and dig in.” I took his advice seriously, digging out roots to clear gardens, digging holes to build fences, digging trenches for foundations, drainage pipes, and septic systems. The view from the handle of my shovel helped me love each place I made home, and the sound of my neighbors’ shovels working next to me did the same.
By learning to dig in—literally and figuratively—I became a neighbor: living under the same weather, walking on the same ground, sharing the patience needed to live in a place and care for it. But the borders of my home-place have not remained secure. The fences I’ve built get climbed over, the gates left open, and the world finds its way in. Faces stare out from the newspaper page and TV news—the taut faces of hungry people half a world away. Children on street corners in desert towns watching soldiers pass by. Faces and voices and stories unknown to me. Who are these people? Whose neighbors are they? What is important to them? Why is their land under seige?
These questions have made me put down my shovel more than once and go on the road, more like a pilgrim or wayfarer than a tourist. Some outer, credible purpose usually motivates my journey, but inside I’m looking for that moment when the ground shifts—when humor or sadness or a shared recognition makes the distance between “my” world and “the” world beyond my borders vanish, at least for a moment.
Slogans for Myself
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At the beginning of this new year I’d like to share with you a few reminders — “slogans” — that often help me open to the ineffable reality of this moment and its gift of ease. Sometimes I say one of these slogans to myself, sometimes I simply feel their meaning without any words. They help me especially when I have become tangled in self-identity and experience myself as something separate. Some of these reminders are straight quotes from people like Ibn Arabi, Longchenpa, Inayat Khan, Tsongkhapa, Kerouac; others have sifted through my life who knows how? I hope you may find one or two of them helpful in your own daily practice.
The clear light hasn’t gone anywhere.
Where this moment starts — free medicine!
It wasn’t in a greedy mood that you saw the light that belongs to everybody.
As clear as space, it can’t be seen. No use trying.
It can’t be known. It is the knowing.
The Breath of the Median Void
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“Music is what happens between the notes.”
I sit here at dawn listening to the city awaken. My neighbor’s footsteps on his front stairs. A car door closing. The first traffic on the street, tires on pavement. A bus pulls up outside, the squeak of its brakes as it stops, a little hiss, and the rattle of its engine as it waits. The electric hum of the refrigerator in the kitchen.
Above my head a few dozen miles the air thins to nothing. It is quiet. The silence up there goes on into space forever. Beneath me, beneath this building, in the rock down there, it is quiet. My life is played between two silences. One silence, hidden from me.
My body breathes. I don’t do anything. This breath is not the breath that preceded it and it is not the one that follows. It is already gone. I don’t know where it has gone, or where it came from. Hidden.
Seeing the One World with Two Eyes
N O V E M B E R 2 0 1 3
Even though we humans live in nonduality, we experience the world with the two eyes of duality. This is because we have the ability to conceptualize. Even to say the word “nonduality” is to conceive dualistically. When we say “nonduality” our minds are already at work, setting up nonduality here and duality over there.
It’s helpful to remember that perceiving dualistically is not a fault — it’s the way we’ve been made. If I say the word “I” it means I have conceived of myself as a subject, and this is natural enough, isn’t it? “I” wake up in the morning, “I” brush my teeth, “I” love you, and so on. It is a convenient way to think, even if it is not exactly how things work. Phenomena arise not as subjects and objects, but as a whole, all at once.
Nevertheless it’s not easy for us to see the wholeness of things because we see — for good reasons — with the two eyes of duality. Making distinctions between “this” and “that” makes it possible to navigate in the world. But if we cannot also see through the convenience of dualistic thinking to the nondual nature of being that is ever-present and all-pervading, we bind ourselves to a life of suffering.
O C T O B E R 2 0 1 3
Guest Contributor: Puran Lucas Perez
My father’s mother’s brother’s wife
once turned over a card in a Tarot reader’s tent
and at that moment the gypsy, Etheria, gasped.
Taking this as a sure sign of looming misfortune
the wife prepared an herbal protective which
— upon drinking down — caused an embolism
in her obliging husband’s brain. Killing him.
Her brother’s death meant that my grandmother
became the sole heir of substantial properties,
titles, and noblesse oblige in the province of Cadiz.
My father, her eldest, stood next in that line.
Knowing this would forbid him from marrying
the comely house maid he had impregnated
he fled to South America, leaving the maid to the
Sisters of Mercy, who took my mother in.
The Everyday Practice
S E P T E M B E R 2 0 1 3
As a young man searching for truth I found a Sufi order and asked for instruction. My teacher gave me a series of practices, among which was a simple breathing prayer: “Open me Lord, and let me flow.” I was told to silently repeat on my in-breath: Open me Lord, and on my out-breath: and let me flow.
As a very earnest young student I took this practice to heart, repeating it whenever I remembered — sitting on my cushion, walking down a street, opening a door, preparing a meal, raising a spoonful of soup to my mouth. Open me Lord, and let me flow.
Unlike many in my generation, I didn’t have a problem with the word “Lord.” I wasn’t raised in a theistic tradition so the word didn’t resonate for me with authoritarian patriarchy — it just signified everything I didn’t understand about reality, all the awesome forces at work in the universe. Since I was a typical self-conscious young man tangled up in my thoughts and emotions, I had no confidence that I could open myself, but “Lord” — this incomprehensible power behind all things — to this I could appeal and submit. Open me Lord. Let me flow.
To Jesuit Priest Father Paolo Dall-Oglio
A U G U S T 2 0 1 3
Dear brother Paolo,
The news this morning told me you “may already have been shot.” I don’t want to believe it. I don’t want to believe it so I am writing you now, pretending you will read this, pretending the world couldn’t be that stupid to push you, of all people, out of itself.
I know you would say the world did the same to Jesus, so why not to you, his servant? Is that why you went back into Syria, to be like him? Is that why you walked down that street in Raqqa last week, looking for the hideout of the al Qaeda militants to plead with them to stop killing the Kurds?
When Stephanie asked you, before you left, not to take unnecessary risks, you told her, “I have been thinking of the words of the disciples to Jesus in the gospels before he died. ‘Must you go to Jerusalem?’ they asked. And the answer is yes — sometimes you must go to Jerusalem. You must go with your physical body in order to be there.”
Before I Die
J U L Y 2 0 1 3
I sat on a bench in a park with a man who had been given his final diagnosis. That long afternoon he spoke to me from his heart, his words dream-like, drifting in and out of fantasy. When we said goodbye I went home and tried to write down what I remembered he said, but most of it had vanished. These are the few lines I could recall:
I’d like to get it right before I die
live without leaving a trace
put the world in order
I’d like to tell all the girls they’re loveable
and all the boys they’re good
so they’d smile all the way down into their bones
at the simple fact of it
The Fable of Coyote and the Void
J U N E 2 0 1 3
The Void sat on a rock, staring blankly into space.
Coyote approached him. “You look blue,” she said. “What’s up?”
“I don’t know,” the Void said. “Something’s missing, that’s all. It’s like I want to write a love letter but I don’t know my lover’s address. I feel like I could burst into a million million pieces. It hurts.”
Coyote sat down next to him. “That’s a big problem all right,” Coyote said. They sat there quietly for a long time.
“I have an idea!” Coyote said. “You need to make something, something different from you! You need an up and a down, darkness and light, that kind of thing.”
“What good would that do?” the Void asked.
“Well,” Coyote suggested, “it might give you an address for your letter.”
The Void considered this. He shook his head. “That’s pointless,” he said. “Anyway, the thing about the love letter was poetry. I didn’t mean it literally.”
“Okay,” Coyote said. “Just a thought.”
M A Y 2 0 1 3
Zen master Dainin Katagiri once said, “Spiritual communion is the true meaning of emptiness.”
How could that be? The idea of “spiritual communion” sounds comforting — the essence of true love — while the idea of “emptiness” doesn’t sound comforting at all. Recently someone told me of a woman who quit her Buddhist meditation practice because “it was too nondual,” meaning it kept draining away her sense of self, leaving an empty void where before there was the richness of being the particular person she was. “I want to be a me!” she protested.
We can sympathize, can’t we? This sense of me-ness is our most familiar refuge, our home base. From it we judge whether the world we meet is friendly or not. My me is what plans to make things better; it has ambitions and picks and chooses what it likes and doesn’t like. As a refuge, my me is private, a private space I can open up or close down according to how safe I feel. When I feel very safe I can say to another person’s private space, “I love you.” This feels like communion, a connection — however fragile — between my me-space and yours. “I love you” also implies future safety and pleasure: you will be safe and happy with me in the future because I love you.
Speaking of More or Less
A P R I L 2 0 1 3
You are my favorite person.
Life is more hectic than it used to be.
My sister is prettier than I am, but I’m smarter.
November is the worst month of the year.
If I had more money I’d be happier.
You are the least considerate person I’ve ever met.
The Prophet Mohammed is the greatest prophet.
My mother loves my brother much more than me.
The French are less friendly than the Italians.
Christianity is the one true way.
Who is the most fun person you know?
I like broccoli much better than brussel sprouts.
Be Still, and Know
M A R C H 2 0 1 3
Walking alone at night on a country road, no people or cars or houses around, just enough starlight to see your way, the only sound the sound of your shoes on the road and the swish of your clothes as you walk, you feel the stillness inside of things come close. You stop, standing still. Now there are no sounds, except the almost-never-heard hush of things being.
You sense the stillness on all sides and an identical stillness within you. It makes you uneasy, as if you are about to be extinguished. You try to think, to establish yourself against the stillness, but the voice of your thoughts sounds thin, metallic. You feel an irrepressible need to be distracted, to change the stillness and its overwhelming of you. You walk home, thinking about plans for tomorrow.
But in the quiet of your room you realize what happened: you got scared. You got scared of opening into the stillness, of allowing it to be. It was a close call. You see how throughout your life you have invited one distraction after another to prevent just this from happening. Now you feel disappointed in yourself. So instead of turning on your computer or reading a book or getting something to eat, you sit down and invite the stillness back.
A phrase comes to you that you heard once from Psalm 46: “Be still, and know.” Be still. Be still.
Bees of the Invisible
F E B R U A R Y 2 0 1 3
Let us put aside how different we are — for a moment — here where what is about to happen meets what already has, and think of ourselves instead as bees, the hum of our wings coming right out of our hearts, lifting us into the Great Errand of our lives. Do you feel that? that silent hum of light in the middle of your chest? That is religion, the religion of us bees, though we don’t know how to explain it.
Never mind, it lifts us somehow, and we zip away from our hive home, each alone, seeking the petal pollen blossom awaiting us. Oh delicious search! How different from the humming hive of our thousand conversations! Here in the clear air, the thin drifting fragrances, the sudden colors, calling, calling, where, where?
We are the bees of the invisible, hovering in the light. Alone, we know we are not alone, though we are. The hive is our immortal life and this flight our bright mortal chance to Find. Hovering, motionless above the green ground, we wait for a sign. How shall we tell it from all the welter of color and wind?
J A N U A R Y 2 0 1 3
In this moment I rest. What rests? I look to see what it is that rests. What looks? I look to see what it is that looks. Not finding anything, I rest. What returns to resting?
If I cannot find what it is that rests or that looks (and if anyone should be able to find it, I should), then it would seem that the “I” — that which rests and looks — does not exist. But how can I refer to something that does not exist? What am I referring to? If there is something that does not exist, it must somehow first claim existence so that it can be subject to nonexistence. Or what is this nonexistence?
Rumi’s father, Baha Walad, wrote in his notebook:
God has made this infinite nonexistence into a beloved. A hundred thousand beauties, appetites, passions, loves, views, courses of action, choices, fallings in love, caressings of lovers, sorts of faculties, kinds of life, stratagems, ruses, embraces, kisses, sweet meetings — God has pulled all of these over the face of nonexistence. Someone is needed who can gaze upon nonexistence, with tears running down his cheeks in his love for it.