Something about Dōgen as an audio companion on my trips around the Upper Valley, something about strained homecomings, brought estrangement to this morning's practice. I started from the feeling: what is it like, when you're coming home from a long journey, and the one you've been longing for in airports and motels is like, meh? Is like, you don't get to call me your anything at all, because I've been monstering along unpossessed and free. What is it like when, whoops! you find you've actually been quite happy in the straightforward space of your solitude?
Dōgen says, Make the things of this world your enemy, and you will find clarity. That sounds like a recipe for profound estrangement, but it isn't necessarily so.
Within the space of practice this morning, I bring up all beings everywhere who are estranged: from themselves, from their situations, from their homelands, from those who claim to know & encompass them. From those they want to claim and know, and who resist this with all their life-force and self-knowing. I see mothers welcoming home children who are ashamed of them, and children made to feel they are not part of the proper family. I see teenagers banished by homophobe families and good girls sealed off from everyone by that one awful night by the pool in the dark. I see young men seeing no hope in their homelands, and no hope in France, lurking at the Chunnel mouth for a chance to be estranged elsewhere. I see Greeks estranged from Europe, themselves taking in those estranged from elsewhere. I see married couples whose estrangement has grown into a thin grey film covering all domestic surfaces and vistas. It is a lot. A whole lot, and at the same time, a huge relief: All of us. All the gated communities and locked doors, the reactionary movements and revolutionary movements, the teenage angst and midlife crisis, the internecine warfare and the truckloads of antidepressants. Everywhere. In our estrangement, family.
The heart, of course, has to grow pretty enormous to take all this in, but it's something we're capable of, something we know we can do. This too will be felt. And this.
Usually, when we think benevolently about estrangement, there's a wish to find a solution for it all, creating a new context in the world, within which the heart does not feel mute, unwanted, irrelevant, distant. I think Dōgen & this commonality-in-estrangement practice are saying there is another way. We don't have to counter a worldly not-belonging with a worldly belonging. We can leave our belongings behind & instead find refuge in the space of the heart that knows things as they are, does not fixate on for-and-against, and has room for all opposites. The heart knows, Oh! That's belonging. That's not-belonging. Refuge is the space of knowing that is itself beyond estrangement and belonging.
Whenever I am nearing some kind of big departure, waves of dying will come find me in the midst of ordinary life. I can't bear to be away from the dog! I love this street so much! This studio is an incredibly precious resource! This bed! This kitchen, knife, and board, and the big jar of walnuts! All gone, so soon!
Here, I could say, There, there! You're going to such a nice place, and you'll be back home in no time. But that doesn't go to the truth of the feeling. Instead, I can acknowledge that this imminent departure is a kind of death, and agree to feel what I am feeling. I can feel this love and loss in its full intensity, allowing everything to fall away, because that's what it's doing anyway. I can offer up every beloved evanescent thing, sending it back out with gratitude to the mystery from which it came. Dog, house, studio, husband, sandals that work so well in the rain, ridiculous fishing pants, Tara thangka painted by my own hand, bossy rabbit pillowcase, plans, dreams, deerskin drum: all gone, given, and remaining. Not estranged, but released. Goodbye! Still here. Always coming home.
Make the things of this world your enemy, and you will find clarity seems like possibly a problematic translation, and a merciful invitation to step out of the cycle of for & against, belonging & estrangement. Jesus said, Become passersby. He didn't mean, Isolate yourselves. He meant, Allow yourselves to feel completely, and then let go. I crack my heart open, vowing & failing & vowing again not to meet estrangement with estrangement. I do not make the things of this world my enemy, but I am learning not seek refuge among them, either.
The climate change documentary I begin watching over rice-and-ratatouille begins with humpback whales swimming, diving, breaching, rolling in deep ocean bliss. Turquoise water deepening to indigo. Suddenly, my screen is filled with a whaling ship, shot from above. The harpoon rockets out on its line, the harpoon finds its target in the unafraid whale, tearing her tail, lodging in her flesh, destroying her, reeling her in, and I can't watch, I can't not-watch, my whole body flinches as the beautiful body of the whale is torn, savaged, pulled in without mercy, struggling all the way, an unclean kill if ever there was one, the whale winched in struggling to the maw of the ship, the drains spouting red into the ocean, dead space, dead hearts, unflinching stupidity "harvesting" beauty for what possible acceptable end?
(I eat more ratatouille. No one hunts humpbacks commercially. Nevermind.) The story moves on. Climate change experts, crimes against humanity. Honestly, after that harpoon, humanity is the last of my concerns. Unflinching green climate expert eyes, showing whites above and below, a rictus of righteousness, holding little promise by way of compromise, compassion, and change. Life itself has ways of sorting out problem species like us. Not Atlas Shrugged, but, Being Itself Moved On.
My friend Anna says she's sat in shamanic circles who've asked about climate change, What, then, shall we do? A collective hand-wringing of the sensitives, and the answer that came back was, Are you kidding? This is as far beyond your weather-working as it is beyond your science. Do your work. Get clear. Heal and release the whale-wasters and the wounded whales within you, so that you don't yourselves wind up as deniers or self-inflated prophets. Do your work. Heal yourselves. Being will take care of itself.
There is a portal through which all energy must pass, say Anna's guides. What is dying now, and disappearing, will pass through and return in its new forms. White Rhino energy, Bengal Tiger energy, is energy that will find its new shapes in Being. We need to feel, but we do not need to be literalists, mourning as utterly gone something that is finding its way back through the portal. This is so. That this is so means we do not all need to develop the exorbitant eyes of the activist, nor the misty eyes of the professional mourner.
This week a visiting artist came to my class, and there was much potential for flinching: unresolved work, very loose assignment, compassionate stagnation, the great man entering as an outsider with his ideas of greatness. But instead, what arose was a beautiful mirror. Here, Friends, is where you are flinching. Here are your fuzzy edges that help no one.
What does it mean, when from within a kind of trance-state, you produce writing or painting that is in retrospect totally crappy? Does it mean the trance was delusion? Does it mean that craving viable objects as proof of extraordinary states is delusion? When I say, I am making art, what do I mean? If it is an indigenous process, whose doing is its own reward, then, what could it mean to show the results? Is it Bruce Nauman's The True Artist is an Amazing Luminous Fountain?
Is it, witnessing the results of the artist's process is desirable, as a revelation of exalted states that are possible, even if inaccessible to mere non-artists? Is it, making time to view such objects temporarily removes the viewer from the distractions and predilections that otherwise keep her trapped? Is it, the artist triggers in the viewer a resonance of her own awe, her own melancholy, her own knowledge of the whale-harboring ocean from which we all arise?
Anyway, what was on the walls was mostly messy, unresolved stuff, some of it sentimentalized, some of it trite, and yet underneath: young people making gestures towards becoming the singing whales of their own oceans. And our visitor, who describes his studio as a cross between a laboratory and a monastery, could see those gestures for what they were, though he could also see laziness & evasiveness, as unsuited to whale-refuge as scaly motel bathtubs.
We flinch from immersion. We flinch from allowing the body-mind to die in life. I lay down on the studio floor, pull the nubbly cotton blanket under my chin, and resolve to die. Dying in the feet: feet don't want to die! Mind wants to think about next week. Dying in the calves: calves don't want to die! Mind wants to think about yesterday night. Dying in the shoulder blades: shoulder blades concede that dying might not be so bad. Breath says, We are dying all the time. Dying in the back of the head, I am dying with all who die, in their beds, in their accidents, in their battlefields, on the end of that harpoon, tail thrashing. Each breath in draws strength from the earth from the sky, each breath out tells those who die that they can do so unflinchingly, and be received. We pass through a portal, into the ocean, and are re-formed.
I walk over the bridge over the White River, and know: Each time dying like this is clearing some of the madness from the world. Souls surrendered to the river do not hoard, recriminate, or shoot pain into others. The water flows very slowly south to the ocean, brown-emerald, clear all the way to the bottom.
Here is a classic four-ingredient recipe for not-flinching in dying:
It's a hard recipe to follow, from within most of the structures we've set up for ourselves in the world. Academic teaching and learning occur within stupid structures. Politicians and voters make laws within stupid structures. Physicians and patients approach life and death from within stupid structures. All too often, religious seekers practice devotion within stupid structures.
None of that means we're doomed to flinch. We can say, unflinchingly, No. That's not the way I want to go. Let's use these skills in this other way. Let's die more, so that who's talking is the Ocean-in-me, and not the flinching-in-us. May I, may we all, work to clear the way for the ocean to speak through us, without needing to tear down so many flimsy structures on the way. Not-flinching is possible for us all, as it is possible for each of us. It begins by noticing the things that cause us pain, and dying into them.
Love is a joke, No one trully loves, says the table, in the handwriting of a young woman who will fall in love again. Her inscription is a footnote & rebuke to its neighbor, a wobbly felt-tip heart inscribed CM + GC. And she’s right: no one trully loves.
Love is a joke in adolescence, falling for the same tomcatty cellist or soulful poet as my friend, and thinking the joke is on me, when, really, it’s on all of us. In high school there are a lot of jokes I’m not getting, including the outlandish one about how everyone is basically doing exactly what they’re capable of. Crazy as it seems, no one, including pyromaniacal erratic me, is holding back some better thing they could be doing instead.
There are also some jokes I am getting that no one else seems to understand, except, blessedly, my friends. For instance, my friend Andrew and I understand that it is actually pretty funny how much suicide poetry we are all writing, as evidenced by his efforts & my own, as well as the overflowing literary magazine submissions box. Seen in this light, our adolescent laments feel more like a shared symptom than any cause for particular alarm. Andrew and I pull together a rogue anthology on the sly, and call it Death Be Not Trite. Few people get the joke, especially because we include some wretched poems dedicated to the kid who just died in a drunken car wreck. Nevermind. Love is a joke, and we are all in on it together.
Last night, I dream of Andrew. I am in the middle of some complicated & enervating marketing scheme involving signed-unsigned products that may or may not be suitable for anyone to want to buy. And then, spontaneously, the market is flooding gently and Andrew is by my side. We swim around like manta rays in the shallow waters that have made all further marketing impossible.
Then, in the dream, there’s a sticking/non-sticking point. Does all this swimming mean Love Forever? No, it does not. This swimming means the joke of love is the way it arises and ceases, forms and re-forms according its own nature, over and over. On the wallpaper in the orange room where we are standing awkwardly together is a golden decal of the Four Friends: an elephant, dog, bunny, and bird stacked on top of one another in search of sweet fruit. Swimming around in the marketplace is sweet fruit. Meeting one another as we very much need to be met is sweet fruit. Sleeping in my married-lady bed – which is mostly a me-dreaming-alone bed – is sweet fruit. Allowing the joke of love to arise and cease on its own terms is sweet fruit.
In the dream, I go downstairs and find my parents have been cooking a huge feast of bright orange and green vegetables. Andrew and I are invited, among many others, even though swimming around like manta rays in ruined marketplaces is hardly my parents’ speed. The most amazing part of the joke of love is that it is unconditional and without fixed object.
Still, there are parts of us that will themselves to be arrayed-for and arrayed-against, despite all evidence of the impossibility of such distinctions. In my wish to scoot a tiny red mite off the page, and in its scurrying, I have solidified, and killed it inadvertently with the tiny grass shard I intended to offer as transport. Arrayed-for and arrayed-against do not leave the moment its own time to resolve. They want and don’t-want. May you be reborn at ease, little beast.
Love is a joke that claims to specialize, when nothing could be further from the truth. The whole point of love is not-knowing, and turning towards groundlessness with an open and committed heart. Pema Chödrön & that lady who had the huge stroke that turned off the parts of her brain in charge of moving her right side, perceiving time, and ego function say: any emotion, unproliferated, actually lasts about ninety seconds. So now try building a solid story of True Love around that.
If that were my daughter, I’d smack her, says the woman walking by with the puffy yellow comforter on her shoulders, to the other woman walking with her. Parental love is a joke in no small part because no one will admit how frail it is, and how undermined by the basic premise that it's possible to love close kin, while not giving a shit about all other beings: estranged kin, animals, trees, oceans, little scurrying red mites, people whose existence cannot be attributed to the loins of some putative shared ancestor or another. Trying to love your children as somehow special beings entrusted with carrying out your somehow special legacy is a joke. A terrible one. Much better to say, Everything is pretty much amazing, but you’re the little runt the universe has put into my care, so let’s find out who you are, and who I am, and what this whole thing will be about. Keep in mind, anytime I say This is the way we do things around here, what I am trying to say is This seems like a way we can be taking care of ourselves and the world right now. Try it, to see how it works on an open heart, and if something else comes up, please tell me about it.
Timothy left this morning to spend a week with his family out West, and then another week with a friend, having Adventure Man Time. This is really good. May it go well, with all the aunties and grannies, cousins, awkward in-laws, and barrels of raisin bran, under the great western sky. May it go well with the canoe & the tent & the permits & the ropes & big rack, under the great western sky. May it go well with all beings everywhere, trying to break their addictions. May it go well with the tormented great artist and his manta ray sculpture, even though he’s still pretty convinced that in order to go deep, he has to keep on suffering. May it go well with all the deep beings and shallow beings, all the manta rays and Russian lady depth-divers. May the joke of love become the breath within the breath for us all, so that reliably, in any space, at least one being can remember not to fixate on love, or hate, or anything in between.
Love is a joke and everyone is loved.
Love is a joke that lasts about ninety seconds before being displaced by the sound of a truck backing, or a bird calling for love.
Love is a joke with everything that can possibly be perceived as its punchline.
Love is a joke requiring that the joker see herself duped, enlightened, and redeemed by grace, all at once.
Love is a garment washed up on the shores of now, fitting perfectly, and yet so strange.
Love chirps, beeps, settles, moves on. And in that moving on, any next line intended from an open heart is perfect. Stay married for 1,000,000 years. Become a manta ray of the marketplace. Sit down to the feast everyone’s been invited to. Stay present. Leave your mind alone. The joke is on, in, and of us all.
Bald Eagle is a showoff, a wing-spanner, a dumpster-diver after the discarded guts of tourist salmon in every Alaskan harbor I ever visited. Bald Eagle is a miracle, an apparition, a bird flying around looking for lunch. Bald Eagle is a messy builder of gigantic twig collections, with downy squeakers in the middle.
Bald Eagle will eat your cat.
Bald Eagle will eat your Boston Terrier.
Bald Eagle will eat your fear and die of it.
Bald Eagle will fly on the steady rise of your courage, which might also be called persistence.
Bald Eagle shits indiscriminately on patriots and fugitives, and much more often, on the empty spaces we haven't yet gotten around to Developing. Bald Eagle is OK with development if it involves throwing tons of its favorite offal in dockside dumpsters. Bald Eagle is even willing to be photographed, reptilian and strange, the object of every zoom lens in sight.
Do you see? Bald Eagle does not give a rat's ass about your nation, or your religion. Bald Eagle is not aware that you believe in scientific application of pesticides, or that you believe in reining that shit in, so that her eggs may have shells strong enough to contain full-term eagle young, emerging frail, sticky, and ravenous into the world. All of that is human business. Go ahead. Paint Bald Eagle on your noisy chopper, your shiny bomber, and your eight-wheeled recreational vehicle, signifying freedom and fearlessness. Bald Eagle does not care.
I am sitting in an empty room, where a Meditation for Well-Being class has been unfolding in the following way: nobody is here but me. I was born, and so I'm free, so happy birthday. It's stuffy in here. I walk to the Building of 1000 healers and leave Meditation for Well-Being postcards. I walk to the Co-op of Complete Purity and leave postcards. I walk to the empty room, grab my bag, and get out of town. I drive to the optician's and ask the lady who stood with me in the rain & helped me rescue my credit card about her trip to California, while she adjusts my glasses. We talk about how it would be great if there were a kind of vacuum tube you could hop into, and it would take you to the West Coast, without having to spend 16 of your precious hours in transit. Her colleague tells me her friend fell down the stairs and broke her ankle, because the vacuum cord took her down. We agree this is very bad. I volunteer that I avoid such risks by vacuuming as little as possible, which might be a different kind of bad. The California lady says, but probably you have a broom? Yes, I say, I have a broom. Sweeping reminds me of my grandmother, and my mother, she says. I love sweeping, her colleague says, just like I love hanging out laundry to dry. I'm probably the last person alive who still does that. No, me, too, I say. We are giddy with shared celebration of the ordinary stuff we do, that seems somehow exalted, even though you would never paint a clothespin on a motorcycle, and you'd never catch a bald eagle sweeping the dog hair out of the living room.
I drop off cards at the Center for Holistic Healing, where I meet a guy who must be a therapist because he goes in the door marked Staff on one side and marked Great Room of Meditation on the other. He is so nervous his eyes are bugging a little bit out of his bearded face, and he is shuffling a yellow-and-red apple back and forth from one hand to the other, like a ball that he would very much like to lob at everything in the world that is currently making his skin feel too tight to contain his being. Like me, for instance. He shows me the Stuff Shelf, where stuff goes, and I carefully line up two Meditation for Well-Being postcards next to some other pamphlets. May it be so.
I get back in the car, and decide on a route. Waiting in line for road construction, after the place with the two side-by-side gypsy caravans, I look up. Bald Eagle. For real? Yes! Bald Eagle is right up there, above the people sweating in fluorescent yellow clothing and hard hats, just wingspanning along, white tail, white head, looking for lunch, silhouetted against a cloud, catching the sun with every taut edge of her body.
My phone goes, and it's the cancer anxiety psilocybin study guy. What? Bald Eagle and psilocybin study guy, all at the same time? I am answering carefully, and I am driving along carefully, though the road and the world are shimmering like crazy. My voice is calm and clear, and so is his. I realize this is a conversation I can have without needing to self-edit, and in that clarity I am being heard by someone who is receptive, grounded, interested, and interesting. Out of some form of modesty, I don't tell him about Bald Eagle.
Bald Eagle goes on her way. I park under the tree outside the park where we meet for Notebook Club. I don't know where this all leads, this driving along visiting co-ops & healers & centers for jiggly therapists & teaching classes where no one shows up & listening to unctuous-voiced actors reading the words of Tibetan masters. I don't know where this goes, this fire to be contagious & awake & receptive in the world. It goes here. Watching a fat-as-fat woodchuck snarfle grass into his little furry face, sitting with Larissa and Sam, being cooled by the breeze coming up off the river, now that the thick of the heat has stormed off.
Bald Eagle is a psychedelic therapist. Bald Eagle is a woodchuck. Bald Eagle adjusts my glasses, so I can see the world, and then flies on. Bald Eagle is a religious professional, a shaman, a broom.
The crows chase each other around the sky, and the trees sigh with contentment. Sorrow is everywhere and nowhere, just like well-being. If I had a motorcycle, I'd paint a woodchuck on it. If I had a broom, I'd call it Eagle.
The hand, the mind, and the heart come to rest right here, while the woodchuck nibbles on.
108 Names of Now