Invitations, Part 2
Here is a good invitation:
We have been sitting in silence for ten days straight. The person I thought I had the hots for was (surprise!) unstable and tragic enough that he left before dinner on day two. Would you like to spend a couple of days with me here in this little retreat center, learning how to use a pickaxe and having actual conversations, before we decide on anything more drastic?
Yes. Yes, I would like that. This is the first time in my short life that I am away from my family for Christmas, and so, yes, spending time digging big holes and mending things here with you and some other quiet people would be nice.
Here's another one:
Having dug holes with you for a few days, I realize I am glad the other, tragic one left, and it is you I am spending time with. A few years ago, I walked all the way around an island, and that was pretty wonderful. I notice we are on an island. Would you like to walk around it with me?
Yes. Yes, I would like that. I have been a monk for the last three years, and have come to realize that that life is doing violence to the tenderest parts of myself. I am still in love with the beauty of shaved heads & alms round, of living in the jungle and being quiet, but I know my heart is withering, and so here I am. Let's walk around this island together.
Will you teach me that song? The one that goes, All of the world is just one narrow bridge, which we must cross, and above all is not to fear?
Yes, as the water laps up onto this dark beach, I will teach you. Also, here's another one: My very life is sustained throughout the gifts of others. That is a good invitation.
Will you let me get closer to you? Will you let me unmonk you into the world? I would like to invite you to complete the work you've begun, by dismantling it.
I invite you, dogs, to stop nipping at my legs.
I invite you, nuns, to call your dogs off.
Dogs, we invite you to cut it out. This one's no trouble.
Tall, hairy lady, we invite you to come inside and eat pink crumbly biscuits while we apply bandaids to your leg. We are sorry, but our dogs do a good job deflecting wrong invitations people may feel from our small cluster of women's huts. Widows' huts. We shave our heads, but we aren't nuns.
Please come sit with me in this circle of stones under the rubber trees, under the bodhi trees, in this holy forest where nothing is holier than in any other forest. Please bring your bandaged leg. Please let's sit here together as we fly apart.
Please let's give one another the blessing of leaving our lives exactly backwards from what they were: you leaving where I will go; I going to what you have left.
Later, when I am a nun, you will invite me to leave the monastery, saying my being there is a crime against the heart. But I won't. I need to be a criminal for awhile. I need to keep doing this violent discipline, getting up in my cold, smoky hut, hauling barrows full of rocks, starving and dreaming, for awhile. And you need to find your own way back, failing into greatheartedness over lifetimes.
Tissaro, you were.
There was another Tissaro, a French one. I stayed in a borrowed flat in Clapham with him one night - he was disrobing and I was only going deeper into it all.
But you were the one who accepted my invitation to go around the island, and I was the one you invited to learn:
All that is mine, beloved, and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.
You were. I was. I am glad we both knew when to accept, and when to decline.
We were still together that New Year's Eve, and he invited us to come with him up a river, up a waterfall, to a place where a couple farmed cashews, for lunch.
It was an amazing meal, a place that scarcely bore believing. How do you run a restaurant in the middle of the jungle, with no path and no signs?
Actually, I felt the invitation was to you, and I was an accessory to the fact. You and he talked about Thai toilets, with their water-scoops; and Western toilets - "nothing but a smear-job." I still think of this twenty years later, reaching for the toilet paper.
I felt like an accessory to the invitation because that is a lot of what I'd known from the world. The child as an afterthought to the parent. The woman as an afterthought to the man. The individual, to the family. It was a bad habit. Invitations, I now know, should be to a particular person, issued and accepted clearly enough that a person knows what her choice really means.
I felt he saw what I saw - how pretty your face was, behind the grief - but he had a better claim, being also a man. How gay was the monastery? It was mostly straight-gay, I'll bet - that kind where what you really mean is Stay with me, but what you say is This is the way of the Noble Ones.
I want to be able to say Stay with me, not, Here is what we do. I think I can say it. I think I say, Come to this room, and write. You give me courage. I may still turn to dogs when I can't say what's too raw, but your presence, your writing, is an invitation to be brave.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about invitations: the invitations we are constantly offering ourselves and each other; and the invitations we are constantly receiving. I have been thinking about how much suffering in the world could be alleviated if we could all commit to a practice of being aware of & responsible for all the offers arising in our lives, and how we respond to them. The Eurhythmics are a good place to start:
Some of them want to use you. Some of them want to be used by you.
And so forth. I think it's important to recognize that all of the above & many more are invitations we have each given and received, over the course of many lifetimes. We might not like to acknowledge that we've wanted to use other beings, but even the slightest bit of introspection about, say, our eating habits, reveals that this is so. We might not be willing to admit that what have said to someone, Use me with impunity, but surely at some point in our employment, family, or sexual history, we've issued an invitation just like this. We've also said, Please stay with me. We've said, Please see me. When you see me, I see myself.
In terms of living well and whole, Invitation Practice could encompass
The compassionate & generous face of Yes is culturally & psychically easy for most of us to feel: She said yes! Yes is the good breast, the compliant and grateful student, the land giving willingly under the plow.
Touching the compassionate & generous face of No is harder for us in the West, in part because most of us are missing Kali/Durga from our vocabulary of the world, and in part because we've all been exposed to so much bullshit and cruelty masquerading as Tough Love. Kali's not sending you to be brutalized in some former slave plantation masquerading as an institution of reform & contrition. She's the one saying No when you are so wrapped up in what you think you want that you lose track of What Is.
Invitation Practice means you can stop evil coming into the world with the power of your own No, and with your willingness to hear No, when you need it. It means you can bring good into the world with your Yes, and with your intention to offer invitations that bring out the good in others with their Yes, too. Invitation Practice means you always have the power to be an active participant in shaping what does and does not come into the world. You are creator and destroyer, being created and destroyed, moment, by moment, by moment.
Say Yes. Say No. Wherever you are, your heart is there.
What's meditation for, anyway?
It's a way, over time, to develop a relationship with being itself, as it manifests in yourself & in all living beings & in all the situations you encounter in life. Through meditation practice, the refuge quality of being begins to emerge - a kind of spacious awareness that can receive experience in an open, interested way that isn't primarily concerned with gain & loss, fame & disrepute, pleasure & pain, praise & blame.
What's the point of relaxation?
As long as we are stuck in a rigid, guarded idea of who and what we are, in a tight & defended body, it is really difficult to tap into deeper layers of reality. Without relaxation, it's hard to drop below all the plastic bottles and buoys and rogue containers full of rubber duckies that are floating on the surface, and realize that we are also the ocean. Steady, sustained meditation practice, over many years, means more ocean awareness, more possibility of enjoying whatever's floating around in any particular moment, because there is the stability of knowing that you can't be overwhelmed or broken by any of it.
Why not just chill out some other way?
Many of the other ways of relaxation we might gravitate towards are very dependent on external conditions. Really enjoying a massage is wonderful, and important, but it might not offer you much support later, when you're stuck in a messy line trying to sort out what to do about a canceled flight. Also, some of those other routes contain a shadow element of addiction that diminishes us & leaves us feeling incomplete. You can come to feel like you absolutely cannot bear existence for one more second, unless you can have that drink/pair of shoes/lover's caress/teacher's approval. Of course, meditation can be like that too, at first - we can feel that our practice is all that is keeping us from collapse. But over time, our relationship to practice changes - we see it in vaster terms, and we understand the things that we dismissed as distractions or obstacles are actually the heart of the matter. Then we keep practicing.
That's all very nice, but what if I just don't have time for this?
Well, it's really up to you to look closely at your life & be clear. Do you want to meditate? Is your heart saying, please, please, let's do this NOW, I'm dying to do this? Are there 15 minutes of something, somewhere in your day, that you would be willing to trade for a chance to sit down and be still? Could be TV time. Could be internet time. Could be phone-time. Could be at first the only way is by listening to recordings while you drive, walk, or ride to work. Only you know where that time is. Also, it's worth knowing that some part of your ego really hates the idea of meditation, because it knows you're going to see through its ego-games, and that's the last thing it wants. It'll tell you you're too busy, a terrible meditator, a terrible worker/ friend/ son/ daughter/ mother/ father/ boyfriend/ girlfriend, and that you're going to starve to death, rather than leave you in peace to meditate. So you're going to have to cultivate some steadfastness if you want to do this. You're going to have to believe that cultivating a relationship with being is worth bearing with uncertainty & opposition, both inwardly and outwardly. You're going to have to make a lion face at the shaming voices inside you that tell you meditation is a waste of time, and your 900th email of the day is all you're good for.
(…and since you're here anyway, the Meditations section of this site might possibly be a good place to start?)
What I Live By
This is to fulfill my friend & Inner Beauty collaborator Elana Langer's birthday wish:
What I live by is hands, heart, body & mind, sensing into the world. What I live by is the possibility of waking up in this world & finding refuge in being itself. Not super-shiny being, not good-all-the-time being, not with-the-right-people-the-right-teacher-the-right-job-the-right-foods being, just being. Ordinary-extraordinary. Everyone’s birthright, there all the time, in all circumstances, if we listen.
Anne Lamott ends a recent piece about mother’s day saying, “I don’t want something special. I want something beautifully plain. Like everything else, it can fill me only if it is ordinary and available to all.” That to me is like the refuge quality of being: something beautifully plain that is available to everyone. Something that doesn’t care the tiniest bit whether you’re succeeding or failing in the eyes of the world, whether you’re gaining or losing, whether you’re gimping along or racing towards first prize.
I ironed Elana’s What I Live By patch to my studio apron because I want everything that happens in this space to be coming from a place of Let’s just see what happens here. A place of (as Laurie Anderson says) You were born and so you’re free, so happy birthday. Now, when I tie this thing on, I’ll think of Elana, of our complicated friendship, of her gorgeous laughter, and be reminded to live by what I live by. Why do anything else?
I live by the blind places and the wide-open ones. I live by being graceful one minute and terrible the next. I live by knowing difficulty is no mistake, and ease is always available.
The Masks Our Wisdom Wears
Sometimes an idea arrives & gives form to something I've known for awhile, but not yet articulated. It gives new words to an old knowing, ringing in the voice of right now.
Here's one: our delusions are the masks our wisdom wears.
I am in high school, and I am infatuated with a boy. Actually, my best friend and I are both infatuated with the same boy, and whatever he feels towards either one of us, he wants no part in conforming himself to my boyfriend fantasies. To me, he is a wraith, a playboy, a Scorpio guitarist, a callous & magnetic riddle. Writing in purple ink, he mails me a letter that contains spray-painted crumbles of the Berlin Wall. A later letter contains an existentialist casserole recipe ("do not turn on the oven. when it gets dark, do not turn on the lights. wait without hope for your food never to be ready"). I ask him to prom and we drink too much because for all the sad suburban reasons there is nothing else to do, and then, drunkenly, he kicks me in the thigh, so hard I have an enormous, painful bruise for days.
Pause. I do not become an alcoholic. No one except a very pissed-off ticket-taking monk in Tibet has ever kicked me since then. That miserable prom night is the mask of wisdom that says Don't fuck around with drinking and abusive relationships. You can lose yourself that way, and if you do, it can be very hard to find your way again. I give this boy an ironic wedding cake knife and a crazy poem for graduation, and gradually wean myself off my fascination for him. Case closed, I think. Vaguely, through friends, I am aware that he has gone off to Turkey-Japan-Philippines - all appropriately distant places.
Years & lifetimes later, I am taking psych classes at Georgia State & planning to go to grad school to become an art therapist. It is my best-case post-monastic plan. Towards the end of the semester, I meet a fellow student at the all-night Majestic Diner on Ponce de Leon, to study for our Abnormal Psych exam & guzzle cheap, sweet coffee for as long as it takes to be confident of our abilities to answer multiple-choice questions about Schizoaffective Disorder, without getting too distracted by a creeping sense of familiarity towards all things Abnormal. I must drink a lot of coffee, because when I go to pull out of my parking space, I ram the whole side of the silver Taurus parked in the spot next to me. Shit! Shitshitshit!
I drive away.
No one saw that, I say to myself.
About two thirds of the way home, I know, You can't do that. You have to go back.
So I do. I drive back to the parking lot & leave an apology under the windshield wiper of the semi-ravaged Taurus, with my name & number. A couple of days later, a message turns up on the answering machine of the landline I share with my roommates in an old icehouse along the railroad tracks. This is the guy whose car you hit. Thanks for leaving a note. Meet me at the Majestic on Thursday. I'll be wearing a black shirt and black jeans.
Strange, but then again, not as strange as Schizoaffective Disorder, and that's a thing in the world, so, why not? I turn up at the Majestic, and immediately spot Berlin Wall Boy, sitting on a stool at the counter, right in front of the door. This is already a lot of information to process, but then I notice he is wearing a black shirt and black jeans.
Really? I came a cat's whisker from ramming Bruise Boy's car with anonymous impunity, and turned back? Sitting down to coffee with him instead, and having a relatively ordinary conversation together, I realize I am encountering the mask of wisdom that says We are all connected in unimaginably complex ways. Some kinds of understanding arise only from doing really stupid things and accepting the consequences for them. This accident, resolved, is the opportunity to drop a whole mass of suffering, to take care of the world, and to be taken care of.
My Dad, who'd deeply hated this boy when I was in high school, ended up paying the bill to have his car repaired (and mine). I suspect the mask of wisdom that was operating for him in this case was something like Love your daughter even though she is a truly terrible driver, as well as lost, deportable, and broke. For my friend with the Taurus, maybe seeing the huge dent in his car triggered a realization along the lines of Violence is actually pretty violent. Maybe it would be good to refrain from that.
Anyway. It's good to squint at things a little, to see inside the costumes.
Hat of Pure Joy & Hell Toupée
Yesterday, as part of my very excellent 43rd birthday, my husband & a friend & I drove way out to the Barrett Hall in South Strafford, VT, to hear my friend & teacher Sayon Camara play West African music with his band of merry ecstatics.
We arrived around 9:15 at night. No lights save for what was coming dimly from the Hall windows, and from a near-full rainbow moon with clouds processing all around it, like something out of a Hodler painting:
So: moonlit night, white clapboard New England village hall, cascading drum sound rolling out to meet us.
Inside, Sayon was wearing what can only be called the Hat of Pure Joy. It embodies some hints of a Roman Centurion's helmet, of Pipi Longstocking's braids, and of Tibetan monks' ceremonial crests. More importantly, it is tremendously effective. In the Hat of Pure Joy, Sayon becomes the catalyst of a whole network of bliss: 93 year-old ladies bopping around with sturdy-footed Vermont hippie chicks, drummers finding truth in rhythm, young men & old men shuffling & leaping, all of us bringing forth gladness for the spring, for bodies, for fearlessness alongside all the fears we all know.
I wrenched my knee (again) for the sake of dancing with abandon. This is a habit I share with my dog, who will wrench her knee for the sake of any halfway good-smelling dog, any day. We understand each other this way, but it still hurts. Laying on my back on the scruffy lobby carpet, trying to shake the stuckness out of my joint, I listened to the drums & thought I heard the sound of voices shouting joyfully with them - many happy voices affirming the dancers & the bravery of the music. Maybe they were devas. If I were a local deva, that's where I would have been, last night.
On the way (pirate-walking, in my case) back to our cars, we got to talking with some friends about the election, and then Donald Trump and the Hell Toupée:
Someday I want to teach a workshop where over the course of a day or a weekend participants produce their own Hell Toupées and Hats of Pure Joy.
Each person's Hell Toupée would bring form to their infantile rage & grumpiness & self-centeredness & fear of death. Go ahead: spikes, feathers, chains, prim felt, little veil, whatever it takes. Each time a workshop veteran had the presence of mind to pull her Toupée out of the closet & put it on, she'd be acknowledging that her pain is a state. Painful, yes. Part of being human, yes. But not who she is. She might make a terrible face in the mirror, roar, giggle, sob, stomp around the room, and then just set it back, next to the uncomfortable shoes she never wears. Or she might choose to wear it that day as fair warning: Dear Sir or Madam, Do you not see I am wearing my Hell Toupée? For your own safety, I suggest that you save your wishy-washy passive-aggressive request for another occasion or listener.
And each person's Hat of Pure Joy would bring form to what is bravest and most peculiar about them - their capacity to enter into absolutely ordinary situations and create space for what is brave and free in oneself & others, unafraid of how it looks, seems, or might affect one's bank account. A workshop veteran might be wise to pack his Hat of Pure Joy for the family reunion he wasn't especially looking forward to. Suddenly, it seems possible to ask Aunt Mary to show him the steps of her high school dances, or to talk with Cousin Steve about what really happened, that summer when everyone got really quiet all of a sudden. It seems possible to enjoy the world exactly as it presents itself, moment to moment.
Surprisingly, the Hats of Pure Joy & the Hell Toupées might not wind up looking all that different from one another. Go deeply enough into rage & pain what we find is release, joy, compassion, for all of us, wrenching our knees, doing the best we can, moving on. Wherever we are, our hearts are there.
108 Names of Now