Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Dogma

I am not a religious man. Growing up Roman Catholic beat that out of me. I get dogmatic folks though, it can make life more easily understood and one's place in the larger scheme of things a little more understandable. I have no issues with folks that are religious...

Except

Except for those folks who think that just because they can point to a line, any line, in the Vedas, the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, whatever, and argue that I am wrong. Or worse, that I will be dammed...well, that strains the limits of my compassion. It seems to me that the experience of God is better by far than the word of God...

The great rabbi Hillel (excuse my lack of precise spelling, I'm writing from memory and don't feel like actually looking up the quote) said that beyond the Golden Rule, which he indirectly quoted, everything else is 'just commentary'...

Just commentary...I'm not saying that the commentary is worthless...just the opposite, it...all of it, is worthy of reading and deep study. But in all that I have 'studied' the contact with the page and the essence of what I have read pales in comparison with the many faces of God I have seen in the people I've met, the actions of love and compassion I've witnessed...in those lovely places on the earth I've visited and felt awe and wonder at such sublime beauty.

There I have experienced God.

So, I wonder, do you have to be religious to believe in a God? And if one does believe in something a Christian calls God, is it sacrilegious for that same person to say that there's no way any of us can be that certain of whatever scripture we may follow? After all it is called 'faith'...a belief in something not seen.

I'm not a religious man. I believe that there is a higher power and that we...all of us...are reflections of that thing some of us call God. I've had way too much experience NOT to believe. But don't try to tell me that I should/must believe as you do. God is attributed with many powers, omnipresence being one of them. God's message to human kind is reflected in the Vedas, the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran...the sutras of Buddhism and, in my very humble prayer of "Thank You" that I utter each morning and each night.

Just a thought, but like I said, I am not religious. I wonder why anyone would tell me I need more. I wonder why people claim that the word they have is better, more sufficient, than those two...thank you...and I must say, that ever since I started my meditation practice I've come to understand that's when whatever God there is speaks back to me...when I am quiet, placid and still...not attaching to any word, no doctrine, no dogma...just spirit.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Jay is Dead!

This picture was taken in September of 1978. Yup, that's me in the hat, Gene Spencer in the jacket, the bearded white boy is Mark Smith and Jay Dickson is in the blue-T and shorts.

I met Jay when I moved back to DC from the NYC metro area and rejoined the band I had been a member of when I left. He had become the bass player and, aside from myself, there were only two other original members. We seemed to just pick up where we left off before I moved. but, like all good things, it changed and Jay and I left and just hung out for a bit before forming our own band "Columbia Rose".

Jay and I lived in the house in the background of the picture and the four of us had just finished a recording session early that AM in Baltimore. Jay was the bass player in just about every band I played in and he transcribed my compositions as I never learned to read music. He took my songs and wrote them down after I fumbled my way through the bass lines or tried to replicate the chords I heard in my head on his guitar.

Somewhere in the mess of my office there's a tape of two of my songs, my favorite two, that remind me of those days. I can't find the tape but, no matter, I can still hear them in my head and remember how many times we heard club owners and managers say stupid shit like, "But people won't like that kind of music!"

And then, after we begged them to let us play, audiences would actually get up and clear tables and chairs out of their way so they could dance. We fused jazz, Latin, folk, and rock. After replacing Mark with a more versatile guitarist and picking up a sax player we had a two year run that is my most favorite period in my life to remember.

We fucking destroyed people with what we could play and how we played it. It didn't matter if it were covers or our originals, we bored so deep people couldn't shake our sound out of their ears!

Jay was an enigma. He was extremely talented, very bright and well read, could play (and sing) just about anything.

Mark called a little while ago and said he just found out Jay died, cause-alcoholism.

I saw Jay many years ago, working in a sandwich shop, missing teeth he still gave me a warm hug and bright smile but very quickly went back to work, cleaning up and making people their lunch. I watched for awhile.

He never looked up, or at me again. I left carrying memories of late night jam sessions, teaching Jay how to play Afro-Cuban percussion, talks about how we wanted to carry messages of peace and brotherhood into the world, and a warm friendship that somehow slipped away.

Just like he apparently did.

All I can think of now is the old Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song: "Carry On"

This next one, Jay, is for you.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Writing in the Dark

Each day I have an awakening. Lucky now, at first I found that to be a major pain in the ass. It was easier to get along with whatever crap was showing up in my life if I didn’t pay any attention to the lessons laying right there in my path. Did I say lucky? Maybe so, but the good fortune comes from realizing that this dynamic is available to all. I just now have the vision and the courage to go where my path now leads.

It is very hard to see the air you breathe, as it’s hard for fish to see recognize the water they swim in. I couldn’t see the path I walked for fear that it would lead me to…where? I was a control freak, still am, but the thing I was ‘controlling’ wasn’t taking me anywhere. I was controlling myself in an effort to contain the demons of my fear. I wanted to keep the monsters away, under my bed as it were. In that way isn’t there a little child in all of us that feels fear.

Like Esther, my six year old, who occasionally comes to me in the night and asks if I really took care of all the monsters that lived in our house before we moved in.

Aren’t you a control freak too? Don’t you want to protect that six year-old inside you, even if she is only figurative?

Was that unfair for me to ask? Is the fact that you’re reading this far enough to allow me to recognize you as a fellow traveler on this road to…where?

I’m in my ‘cave’, the room I sleep in and work in, with the overhead lights turned off and my desk lamps off, illuminated by the lamps on the other side of the room and the cool lights underneath the Mac keyboard I’m using. I’m writing in the dark about walking into the dark, into the unknown, heeding the call of something inside me.

My soul? Is that what’s calling me? Is it the elemental question (What do I want from life?) being turned around (What does life want from me?) and vexing me quietly to the point of my not being able to sleep? I know what I want, and I don’t know how else to get it but to, as my friend Melissa says, “Flow with the go…” Without the ego-tripping I was prone to do I know there are many gifts I have to offer. Sitting here quietly I can finally hear myself, hear my soul speaking softly to me.

Writing in the dark

Now I realize that there’s a little light in me, a little crack in the bullshit fa├žade I show both the world and myself. Bottom line is that I am comfortable with the fear I feel. It’s been a constant companion that the macho personality I developed couldn’t quite hide. I was always afraid that people could see through me. And now I realize that I see right through me.

Today, after fighting it off for almost a week, I finally got sick; the cold and body shivers had me in bed all day. I hate being sick, can’t do a damn thing except be still and feel the suffering outwardly that my spirit had been feeling inwardly. It’s after seven in the evening now. I’ve had twelve hours of silent reflection and many trips to the tissue box to blow my nose. I can’t say I’m feeling any better but what the hell, I’m sitting here writing in the dark, waking up after all these years.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Rising

If I could distill all the great writings on suffering down to a few words, I would simply say that suffering and crisis transform us, humble us, and bring out what matters most in life.” Elizabeth Lesser

What matters most in life? That question that rages in me as I sit here, feeling blue, feeling as if the things that matter most to me right now are trivial things: getting the location of the nearest store that has a Wii in stock, figuring out how to generate income (yes, right now that seems trivial), writing this piece, and finding a way to sit still long enough to breathe…to feel joy! Ah, that’s it for me. Joy matters most.

Okay, I found the quote I referenced before: “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Confucius

I have a Word document that’s filled with quotes. I use them as uplifting mantras when I feel the need for outside intervention. Reflecting on this piece, which could be called “Inspiration” as well as “Rising” I spent almost twenty minutes getting uplifted by what I found in that word doc.

Considering suffering I get that sense that I am just starting on my journey, I am just now learning how to learn. I remember hearing that this journey gets longer as you progress on it. The more you know the more you realize there is to know…but you shouldn’t be daunted by that. In fact you should be open to it. Being open isn’t about knowing so much as it is about experiencing things, making the connections between what you’ve been told and what you actually go through. Without processing through the litany of experiences I’ve had, I can say I have known the joys of falling and then rising.

At times, I greedily tried to hold onto joy, tried to increase it even but one begins to understand that: “Only angels know unrelieved joy-or are able to stand it.” Ernest Becker.

Okay, I’m just playing with words now, how clever? But what am I truly trying to uncover? And, just as importantly, what can I say here that would be at all meaningful?

Well, here are some more words I found in an article on Buddhist meditation, from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, “…We might not understand that cheerfulness is in fact an inherent quality of mind. Within the meditative tradition, cheerfulness is considered to be the natural, harmonious and wholesome expression of our truest self.”

Wow!

Okay, I’m equating joy with cheerfulness, gimme that for now, alright?

Recently I completed a purpose-work course with my teacher, mentor, and friend Melissa M. who has whispered wisdom to me for almost ten years now. We spent six months examining the roots of our being, the quests that each of us are on, and, happily, forming a community of both reflection and support for one another. In spite of some rather unpleasant emotional turmoil that I have been going through the entire class describes me as someone who brings joy…interestingly, after the class ended, we traded singular words among ourselves. Pardon this self-indulgence, but I was alternately described as: audacious, warm, delicious, beaming, etc.

But, back to the question: what am I trying to uncover here?

I know, me, just basic me. I don’t know if any of those words could describe me. Sometimes they are just things that ramble around in my consciousness; confusing shades of a ‘me’ that really have no definition. Rather they get in my way, my attaching to them in any way leads me away from joy, from cheerfulness.

The article on Buddhist meditation says simply that when we create space in our minds we find that natural cheerfulness. Create space, what a concept! For me this is a perpetual journey, something that requires me to be persistent in this ‘feng shui’ of my mind’s space, clearing the clutter of daily life, sweeping the insatiable desire for life’s pleasures and distractions out the door. Hiding my disappointments in the dark corners or the shadows lurking just beyond my awareness I find that which I resist the most.

Simplicity.

What others have seen of me, what I feel in those moments of reflection and, more importantly, in those moments of picking myself up and dusting myself off-the joy in me, that’s all I need to carry. What matters most to me is me, being alive! I can’t healthfully deal with much else without an emotional enema every few days. I needed to suffer to know I was alive, to know I was human. That was what I believed. That was what I thought the world needed of me…

That and playing whatever role I needed to play at the appropriate time. Now that I think of it, playing those roles was a part of my suffering, of my falling down, regardless of whatever joy they may have brought to others. Or even to me.

"Don't ask what the world needs. Find out what makes you come alive, and go do that. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive." Howard Thurman

Quotes, exercising, writing, meditations…all good, but…

All these tools I have explored are, as a new friend wrote me, ways my soul can access and demonstrate its persistence in the face of my life’s challenges. But it’s me that rises. Grace may fill me, and hopefully it will always be there when I need it. But I can count on ‘me’, even after I’ve let myself down. I can always rise. Because, even without the exact words for it, I can tell you I know that I am alive and I don’t have to suffer to prove it.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Falling Down

For the past several years I have rejected just about everything I’ve learned about making my life less miserable. I studied yoga with the most gentle of teachers, being ushered into a practice which demonstratively eased the pains my body was experiencing as it rushed head-long in its sixth decade. After taking three, six week classes with her I not only stopped enrolling with her but stopped any semblance of yogic exercises on my own.

This in spite of knowing in my bones, tendons, and muscles as well, that it was the best thing I could do for my body’s flexibility.

I dove into Buddhist meditations, finding that the simplest of them was perfect for me…just sitting and maintaining a focus on my breath. Wow, I was hooked after the first time it took. I saw and felt the powerful truth of the Buddha’s admonition that ‘we are our thoughts’ and, more so, understood first hand how damming my ‘monkey mind’ was to my accomplishing anything of value in my life. I am the original example of attention deficit disorder in adults (self diagnosed, of course. An amazing rationale for not having accomplished much in comparison to the gifts I was born with and developed over the years!).

Ask me how often I meditated after this discovery. Okay, at first, pretty often, each day as a matter of fact. But, like the dilettante I apparently am, after awhile that beneficial practice fell by the wayside.

Then there was qui gong. Do you know this thing? It’s a gentle way of energy. You know those pictures from China (or major China Towns from around the world) where in the dawn hour there are multitudes of folks doing their Tai Chi or Kung Fu? Off in the background you can see people apparently standing very still, barely moving if at all. They are practicing Qui Gong.

For a lazy ass like me, the perfect physical practice! Especially one form called “stand like a tree”, right? I mean those suckers hardly move at all, and even then only when there’s bit of a breeze, right?

Dropped after the weather got chilly; I mean hot coffee is better than catching a cold isn’t it?

I should point out that while I am being somewhat irreverent in the retelling of these things, dear reader, I experienced some major and profound benefits from each of these things I eventually dropped. So profound, in fact, that I’d like to say right now that as I sit here and input these words into the computer I am resisting the regret of those wasted years when I wasn’t in serious practice.

Even now I am not engaged in daily practices. Sporadically I do my sitting exercise, occasionally I go out and stand with the tall pine in front of our house here, and, here’s one I haven’t mentioned, each day, or at least four to five times a week, I write.

Last summer, Chris Abani, the novelist, uttered words that struck me more deeply than any of the teachers I’ve been blessed to have (and sadly ignored). In a seminar at a writers workshop he said, “Writing is a spiritual practice.” And with those words I realized I haven’t been as lazy as I had thought. I haven’t been as neglectful as I’d thought I’d been.

I write.

But, and here’s the rub, to what purpose? Who, and what, has my writing served aside my own vanity, or more profoundly, my own relief from the pain and suffering I have endured and still carry as I go through each day?

It serves me, certainly. And, again, as I sit here and input into my word processing software I fight the regret that comes over me when I think that I have yet another gift I haven’t used to better myself or others.

Why regret? Because it is one of the primary sources of my suffering and I have come to require it so that I can know that I am human. Boy, it amuses me now, inputting these words how much that almost became my mantra…I am required to suffer to know that I am human.

My Philly personality wants to say something so profane to that but I will not write it here. Suffice it to say this, “What nonsense!” But realistically, that’s what we all do, find our way of suffering and practice it. It is hard, if not impossible, for us to break out of that cycle once we find it.

Writing has been a constant throughout my life, ever since I wrote essays and poems as a teen. But looking back on it, there are huge holes, huge gaps of time, for example, in my journals.

I’m reminded now of the statement a sage gave us, I believe it was Confucius, who said something like, “It doesn’t matter how many times we fall as long as we continue to rise.”

So, let me tell you about getting back up, about rising.

(TBC in my next post…)