Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A SERIOUS CONVERSATION WITH MYSELF--Part IX

"Only connect," writes E. M. Forster in Howard's End. “Only connect, the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

No coincidence, perhaps, that I find myself thinking about connection on the day that would have been my parents’ wedding anniversary—that still is, indeed, their anniversary, even though they are no longer here to celebrate the occasion. I can celebrate it for them. They were married, through good times and bad, for just about sixty years, and remained devoted to each other until death did them part.

I’m thinking about it, too, as I dip into a book that I received this past weekend as a gift. Called Loving Promises, it’s subtitled “The Master Class for Creating Magnificent Relationship,” and written by a man I met only briefly on our trip to Ojai, but with whom I felt immediate connection—and for a good number of reasons. Richard Matzkin is a long time psychiatric therapist and an artist who has also been the leader of a men’s group and a meditation teacher, all areas that have profoundly affected my own life. The subject of the book is really his love for his own cherished wife but also, importantly a celebration of and manual for not only the loving relationship but, by extension, love itself.

I have not, as yet, read far into the book, but I already know that it looks profoundly into the priority about which I wished to write today: connection. This gift came accompanied by a second one, another book, The Art of Aging: Celebrating the Authentic Aging Self—a book of texts and images of Richard’s sculptures and his wife, Alice’s, paintings, both unsparing and hauntingly beautiful investigations into the human body as it ages. I look forward to delving into each of these books in the coming days.

I picked up on another, related thread in Ojai—a community to which both Ellie and I felt tremendously attracted, in part for the sheer physical beauty of a place long known as a numinous power spot and in part for the creativity and loving connectedness we found amongst the people drawn there for this reason. That other thread is an injunction that has been central to my understanding of both art and life for many years: Tell me who you are. It first came to my attention at an Esalen Institute workshop led by a Huichol Indian shaman, in which I enrolled by the purest chance, after a workshop I was scheduled to lead myself was cancelled for lack of interest. I remember little other than this single story, that Huichol Indians do not, traditionally, give their babies names, as we do. Instead, they ask this question: tell me who you are. Which suggests, of course, that the new arrival came as though from some other planet or some previous existence.

It’s a lovely thought, and one that appealed to me particularly because I realized that this was exactly what I had been trying throughout my life to do as a writer—to tell you who am, and exactly what I ask of other writers, when I read their poems or books, and of artists when I tried to make connection with their work (in my “professional” life, as a reviewer): tell me who you are. I want everything, all four corners of what I have come to believe is the fully developed, integrated human being: intellect, emotion, body, spirit… I long to satisfy that compelling need to be with a fellow being, eye to eye and heart to heart, and to see and be seen both at the same time. This is the kind of moment I aspire to.

I say “aspire to” because too often I fail—for what I excuse as lack of time, or lack of opportunity; because it can feel risky to expose too much of myself. Sometimes literally. The body, after all, is the physical manifestation of the whole person. I look at Alice’s paintings of nude women and Richard’s sculptures of nude men and I see not merely bodies but whole human beings, some of them naked and unashamed, others more vulnerable in their nakedness, all beautiful and deeply human. And I think of the time when I “sat” for a portrait by the artist Don Bachardy and was so moved and challenged by the experience that I actually asked to return to sit naked, thinking to learn something of importance about myself—as indeed I did, under his intense and penetrating gaze. Having lived for much of my life with the body shyness I acquired long ago at boarding school, to expose myself in this way was a true, even a joyful liberation. Bachardy was asking me, in the course of those hours of total, concentrated silence, who are you? And I was able to answer him, in total silence and without reservation.

So there it is: connection. I promise myself to keep reminding myself of its importance, I will keep trying to practice it in my life.

Monday, April 16, 2018

A SERIOUS CONVERSATION WITH MYSELF--Part VIII

So the time has come to give serious thought to my life-long love affair with alcohol. Think of it as an aside, occasioned this past weekend from a moment of awakening in a hotel room in Ojai, California, where we were staying in conjunction with a visit to the delightful Lotusland Gardens in Montecito (by good fortune spared from the terrible effects of both the Thomas fire, earlier this year, and the catastrophic mudslide that followed.) The gardens are simply splendid, rivaling any of the gardens we have visited elsewhere in the world—including Kew.

But this is about alcohol. We’d had dinner with friends in Ojai the previous night and I had consumed no more than a couple of glasses of wine over the period of two hours—at least one of them awaiting delivery of our order. Ojai must have been particularly busy that evening. Still, those two glasses were enough to remind me, on awakening, that alcohol and I are not such good friends as we used to be. It was far from being a hangover—God knows, I have experienced enough of those over the years. It was, rather, I concluded during meditation, a not-quite mental sharpness, a disturbance in the brain’s ability to focus and settle into concentration, an intrusion of thoughts that came to rest on the subject of alcohol itself.

We became acquainted early, alcohol and I. In Europe, where I grew up—and particularly in France, where I visited for the first time at the age of fourteen and where I traveled frequently thereafter—it was not unusual for teenagers to be offered a glass of(sometimes) diluted wine at dinner time. At boarding school, I would slip away on every possible occasion for a furtive and illicit pint of beer. My years at Cambridge, though, were pretty much drenched in beer. Well, plus anything else I could lay my hands on. There was that still unforgotten occasion when three of us friends returned from summer vacation: my Arab friend from Lebanon with a bottle of arak, my English friend from was then Czechoslovakia with a bottle of slivovitz, and myself from France with a bottle of cognac, and we sat down one evening and drank all three at one sitting. Not a great idea. But throughout my university days and the years that followed, I drank a lot. I cringe in shame at the thought today, but I rather frequently drove home in a state of serious impairment, risking not only my own life but the lives of those I loved, and the lives of others I did not even know. We all escaped my recklessness more by good fortune than good judgment.

(My father, perhaps not incidentally, was a drinker—though a benign one. In his later years this minister of the Church of England would start out the evening with a pint of Guinness at the pub and move on to a glass or two of sherry before dinner, a meal was always accompanied by cheap red wine—“plonk”, he called it, and after dinner there’d inevitably be a snifter of brandy or a glass of liqueur, green Chartreuse when he could afford it. To the best of my recollection, he never showed signs of drunkenness, whether in behavior or in speech… but he sure managed to swallow down a lot!)

Back to today. My thoughts on awakening at the weekend were not new. I have been watching the negative effects of alcohol on my health and mental acuity for some time. I attribute some appreciable part of my unwanted weight gain to the wine I like to drink. I go to bed heavily fatigued, yet do not sleep so well. And wake with less clarity of awareness than I would like. I have noticed, too, an unfortunate need to supplement the illusory comforts of wine with an extra, stronger hit before dinner—whether a shot of vodka or of single malt Scotch. The temporary gratification of these drinks is belied by the more lasting discomfort of bloat, drowsiness and inattention that is bound to ensue. I offer myself unconvincing excuses that allow me to persist in a habit that is frankly harmful, but I can’t really pretend that I don’t know better—that I don’t recognize those excuses for what they are.

Some time ago—actually, a long time ago!—I gave up smoking cigarettes. It was for many years, ten years, as I recall, a frustrating and a losing battle. I tried everything, from will power to patches, chewing gum to hypnosis. I managed to quit many times for a few days, a few weeks, but inevitably some crisis, real or imagined, would have me back at it again. No matter how often I would remind myself—or Ellie or my children would remind me—that it was ruinous to my health, I remain stubbornly addicted to my noxious habit. Until one day a wise friend suggested a different approach, to make it a matter of choice rather than compulsion. Instead of the “mustn’t,” “shouldn’t,” “can’t,” he suggested, try reminding myself of the benefits I could choose: better health; better sleep; the ability to walk upstairs or down the block without losing breath; no more smelly breath or stinking clothes; a renewed sense of freedom, and so on. Plenty of good things to choose. And this time it worked. For a while I carried an open pack of cigarettes with me everywhere, and when the desire came up, as at first it often did, I made the conscious choice for better things than the momentary satisfaction of lighting up.

So habits can be broken, and this particular habit is not serving me. Once again I am confronted with a matter of choice. On the one hand, the pleasure of a glass of wine, the comfort of a vodka with a squeeze of lemon, easing into the evening with a relaxed, if slightly befuddled mind. On the other, a clear head, less heavy fatigue at night time, a better sleep and waking experience, a loss of the bloat I have come to associate with the consumption of wine and perhaps even an overall loss of weight.

The choice is clear. The time has come to make it.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A SERIOUS CONVERSATION WITH MYSELF--Part VII



More thoughts about death this morning, but this time I’m thinking about the other side of the threshold—what, if anything, might await us there; and how those expectations might affect the way I choose to live my life right now.

First off, I long ago abandoned any belief in the Christian notion of an afterlife. I do not expect my namesake to be waiting for me with his keys at heaven’s gate. I confess to having committed some painfully unskillful acts in the course of my life, but I find the thought of being consigned to eternal damnation to pay for them to be utterly absurd. Nor do I expect to be rewarded for a handful of good deeds with eternal residence in the mansion of some almighty (and judgmental!) Supreme Being. Even the most benign, non-literal, and therefore metaphorical image of such an afterlife has no resonance with me.

I do believe in karma—the eminently reasonable, empirically demonstrable proposition that actions have consequences; unskillful actions (I prefer the Buddhist “skillful/unskillful” over the Christian “good” and “evil”) lead to harmful, undesirable outcomes, while skillful actions lead to outcomes that will prove beneficial to myself as well as others. With this belief in mind it behooves me, in the time that remains, to do make the effort to ensure that my every action is a skillful one; or, at the very least, to do no further harm.

That said, my skeptical mind finds it hard to accept the (actually logical) extension of belief in karma to a belief in the Buddhist concept or rebirth. As I understand it—and perhaps I oversimplify—the two are interdependent: it is the principle of karma that assures my progress, through possibly many thousands of lives, toward enlightenment. With skillful practice, I may learn to gradually become a better being.

But this, as I see it, is where an admirably reasonable code of ethics and the best of all manuals for responsible—and even, yes, happy—living crosses the line into religious faith, and it’s a line that I myself have been unable thus far to cross. I am more persuaded—and this, I grant, is a purely intellectual conviction—by the atheist belief that our life begins with birth and ends with death; that there is no “afterlife,” no “rebirth.” It’s an unpalatable notion but all others seem, well, fanciful by comparison.

So this is where I stand at this moment. Am I open to changing my view? To embracing other, more enticing, possibilities? Of course. Though I wonder to what extent the inevitable approach of death serves to engender wishful thinking. But then my experience with meditation—I have mentioned this before—leaves me with the sense, the intuition, perhaps, that there is something beyond the “me” that I currently inhabit; something other than “my” physical body, other than “my” passing thoughts and feelings, other than the shifting identities I have worn like so many different suits of clothes—or sometimes armor!—and continue to wear; other than the identities in which others have contrived to recognize me.

Call this something, perhaps, an energy, a life force. It is more evanescent and yet, paradoxically, more lasting, and can seem more real than the combination of everything else that seems to constitute this “me.” My skeptical intellect is inclined to dismiss it as an illusion created by the false allure of desire or hope—the desire to elude death. Yet my mind, at once greater and infinitely more powerful than my intellect, insists on teasing me with the alternative.

So here is another of those priorities I’m seeking to establish. There is work to be done to sort out this conundrum, more watching, in meditation, and more fervent curiosity to be expended in the observation of this something.

Monday, April 2, 2018

A SERIOUS CONVERSATION WITH MYSELF--Part VI

It's my firm believe that my sister chose to die. Not in a suicidal way, I need to add; she simply decided it was time to move on to what she called "the next great adventure."

These are the circumstances: she had been suffering for months from stomach pains, which remained undiagnosed--until the doctors finally performed an exploratory surgery and discovered an inoperable tumor. They gave her another few months to live. Ellie and I happened, by good fortune, to be in England at the time of her diagnosis and sped over to the hospital where she lay, post surgery, in considerable pain yet in surprisingly good spirits. Having done a great deal of in-depth emotional and spiritual work in the preceding years, she pronounced herself "ready to go", and quietly smiled when we told her: Not so fast! We wanted to be able to visit her at least once more, and were all ready to make the flight back across the Atlantic when the time came.

But the time never came. Not more than two weeks later, after our return back home to Los Angeles, we received the call from our niece that her mother had died. I am convinced that, seeing nothing ahead for the next few months but pain and dependency, she had seen an appealing glow of light through the open door and had chosen to step through it.

I recall this as a part of this "serious conversation" because the time has come to talk about death. No matter whether it comes soon or late, it is a good time to turn my thoughts that way. I decided many years ago that, if I had a choice in the matter--which of course I don't--I would like to die a conscious death. I remember having read about a Tibetan monk who made the passage imperceptibly from life to death in a meditation sitting pose and having thought, at the time, that this would be an enviable way to go. I have not, myself, put in the years, well, let's say the decades of deep meditation work to have earned such a noble passage--but I can still envy it. And I can still wish for a conscious death, with the ability to stand at that threshold and decide, as I think my sister did, to take that final step.

I do not wish to find myself resisting death, as my father did. Strange, I have often thought, for a man who had chosen the Christian ministry as his vocation to be so reluctant to meet his date with St. Peter--after whom he had named his son. He held on fiercely for weeks after we were first summoned to his deathbed, and finally capitulated only after we had left. I have seen one other person struggle as fiercely and die, so I thought, in fear and anger, and this is a death I would not wish to emulate. This is the death of Dylan Thomas's famous villanelle: Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light. No, I would much rather "go gentle."

As did Ellie's mother, Laurie, whose death was much more noble, to my mind. She took her time--some two weeks in all--repairing quietly to her bed and refusing either food or water while she prepared herself to leave us. We stayed with her a good part of the time. Unable, or unwilling, to communicate in words, she seemed able to hear ours and be comforted by them. At once moment, toward the end, she made her peace with Ellie, reaching up a scrawny hand to touch her daughter's cheek, even while not opening her eyes and not breathing a word. In her last hours, and then minutes, we began to count the lapse of time between her breaths, not knowing when the last one would come. And when it did, when the next breath simply never came, Ellie saw a white dove fly up from the roof of the ceramic studio where her mother had so long worked, and disappear into the sky.

Such a death is the one that I aspire to. I have no way of knowing the moment at which Laurie's mind slipped into unconsciousness. Some small gestures, such as the one that I described, suggest some remnant state of consciousness well past the loss of speech. Perhaps, not unlike my sister, she found herself standing at the threshold and making that last decision to move on. She had known her share of suffering and, with her devotion to yoga and other forms of spiritual exercise, had put in the work to ease her approach to death.

My own time is not yet--but then today is not yet done! It may even be some years before the moment comes, and it behooves me to put however much time remains to the best use. Which is the reason, after all, for this present conversation. As I keep reminding myself, there is still much work to be done, and it's important to know exactly what that work should be.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A SERIOUS CONVERSATION WITH MYSELF--Part V

A while ago, in these rambling notes, I mentioned the importance of meditation in my life. It is a daily practice--it's rare that I miss a day--and it's central to the way in which I wish to live out my last years (or months, or days! depending on what is granted me). We do not have a good word, in my view, for the numinous aspect of our lives. "Soul" carries too heavy a load of Christian tradition and theology; and "spirit"--with its associated "spiritual"--has become dangerously close to trite in contemporary parlance. Still, I know that I have had compelling glimpses of this part of my being, especially of course in meditation, and I am preoccupied--is that too strong a word?--with thoughts about what, if anything, might happen to us mortals after death.

I was brought up in the traditions of the Church of England. My father was a minister in the church; our family attended services at least every Sunday and worshipped a God in whom I now think, in retrospect, I never truly believed; who lived in a heaven to which I might, if good, be transported after I was dead. As soon as I was far enough away from home to avoid the risk of offending my father--for that, I believe, was my chief motivation in "going to church"--I abandoned any pretense of interest in religion. Perhaps I was just too young to believe in death! So it is fair to say that I was indifferent, if not actively hostile to all forms of religious thought and religious practice until reaching middle age. At which time, a series of painful and challenging events--I have described them often enough elsewhere--brought me to the acknowledgement that some part of me, perhaps that part my father's faith had fostered, still hankered for recognition of that "something greater than myself."

I felt called, in particular, by my name. An epiphany at the time in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome--again, I have described this in great detail elsewhere--confronted me with the memory that I was born on the Anglican feast day of St. Peter's Chains, and appropriately received the name of my birth day saint: Peter the Rock, Peter the Denier. Looking into my own life with any seriousness for the first time after that event, I discovered both of these qualities of the Christian saint in myself as I began to delve deeper into two long-neglected aspects of my life: the emotional, and the numinous. I was brought, particularly, into unsparing contact with my emotional disconnectedness in the course of an intense men's training weekend that would change my life and that led me, soon, to acknowledge the importance of the spiritual.

It was one of the men from that weekend who led me to my first experience with Buddhism--though it was something quite different from the Buddhism that inspires me today. My friend invited me to investigate what's known as Soka Gakkai Buddhism, whose practice involves prolonged sessions of chanting informed by specific goals to be achieved--anything from healing from illness, to success in business, to a new car. I had been aware of the resurgence of Eastern religious thought in American culture in the late 60s and early 70s, but had treated it with the hostility and rejection that had become my default attitude to religion. As for meditation, well, my mind was much too busy with important matters than to quiet down enough for that! But now, in the 1990s, and myself in my mid-50s, I was finally prepared to give it a try.

I began to chant--and chanted for two years. Chanting, I told myself, was the perfect distraction my busy mind required, giving it something to do to keep it occupied. I chanted until I began to feel uncomfortable, particularly with the goal-orientation of the practice; and discovered, first in the context of a workshop at the Esalen Institute, that I was actually capable of a few minutes' silent meditation. Not too long later, I heard of a sitting group, a sangha, in Laguna Beach. When I called to inquire about it, I was told they started out with a silent sitting session that lasted a full hour...

An hour! I was astounded and not a little alarmed by the thought. But I showed up anyway, and discovered that it was perfectly possible to sit for an hour without going mad with boredom and impatience for the hour to end. Not only was it possible, it was actually profoundly pleasurable and rewarding. So I joined the sangha, and have been sitting with this wonderful group of dedicated people for more than twenty years.

As the subtitle for this blog reveals, I call myself an "aspiring Buddhist." Although I meditate daily and believe whole-heartedly in the wisdom of the dharma, I still don't feel religious about it and remain, perhaps to my detriment, a skeptic when it comes to the dogma of religion. My reluctance to commit to avowing myself a full-fledged "Buddhist" derives in part from that skepticism, but also in part, I fear, from a kind of self-protectiveness, a refusal to completely surrender myself into the arms of nothing but belief. Perhaps I am as yet unable to detach sufficiently from the notion of self to make that definitive acknowledgement.

And yet... after twenty years, I sometimes feel I have come to an important threshold in my meditation practice, though it may turn out to be just another plateau. When I'm able to reach that place where the physical body is left behind and I have been able to discard at least some of the identities to which I cling, where "self" recedes into the delusions that I manage in such moments to elude, I get what I sense to be a flickering glimpse of what is called "the deathless." It is this sense of enduring, almost blissful presence that I would wish to cultivate as I continue to practice.

And, as I like to say, I still have plenty of work to do.