Thursday, June 23, 2016

A NEW PREDICAMENT

Nearly 50 years ago I made one of those momentous choices that change the direction of our lives. Torn between loyalty, a sense of duty, and obligation on the one hand, and on the other, my own desire for what I saw to be my happiness, I chose... myself.

Impossible to overstate the pain that my choice caused, not only to myself but to those closest to me. For my two sons, then five and seven years old, it meant separation from their father: they were brought up literally a thousand miles away, and I lacked the financial means to bring them out to visit more than once a year, for a fraught few weeks in which I struggled to fit in a year's worth of love and fatherhood. I have lived with knowing the pain I caused them ever since.

And then there was the pain I caused myself. Hard to describe the inner rupture of two such powerful imperatives: between the sense of obligation I had learned from my youngest days and the need for personal happiness. At home and at boarding school, as a child, I had learned this rule: others always come first. It was embedded in my gut, my heart and soul. To be "selfish" was the greatest of all imaginable transgressions.

This belief had become a part of who I was. To repudiate it was to tear myself away not only from my family, but from my authentic inner life, from my very self.

I have lived with the pain of this self-inflicted wound for half a century, and have had to learn the hard truth that there is nothing I can do to heal it.  I made my choice. I could not revisit it, even if I wanted to. I could not unmake it. I can also not simply "forgive myself." It's not that easy. I bear responsibility.

These thoughts return, with painful familiarity, because my then five year-old son, now over 50, is confronted with a serious medical situation. He has written about it on his Facebook page, so I am betraying no confidences. Following an initial surgical intervention last week, he now faces a three-month course of chemotherapy and later, in all likelihood, major surgery.

I have a father's instinct to wish that it were I, rather than my son, who had to deal with this intimidating prospect--that I could suffer, in his place, the natural fear and pain that any human being feels when confronted with the vulnerability of the physical body. But wishing does not make it so. My son still lives a thousand miles distant, geographically, and to "be there" for him in this predicament presents serious challenges. I must find out ways in which that can be done--in which I can make good on the love I feel for him, no matter the pain and the distance that lie between us. This is the latest challenge of my life.

Monday, June 20, 2016

LITTLE SAINT HUGH

(This memory of my own was sparked by one of the submissions to my "boyhood memories" project, in which the writer recalled his first, painful brush with anti-Semitism. It reminded me that our prejudices run very deep and are buried, for the most part, at the unconscious level of our brain. The mother (my mother) depicted in the story below was not evil or ill-intentioned toward anyone. She simply accepted what she had always "known." By extension, I found myself reflecting on the racial prejudice that is proving so toxic in our current political campaign.)


LITTLE SAINT HUGH
  
It’s bedtime in the nursery. There are two beds, on opposite sides of the room. My sister’s bed is under the window that looks out over the rhododendrons in the Rectory garden. The foot of own my bed rests against the big doll’s house my father built for my sister. When the lights go out, I am always scared that thieves will come in the night, climbing out through the doll’s house window.

The curtains are drawn. We are little children, my sister and I. We love the bedtime stories that our mother reads to us. Our mother is the most beautiful woman in the world. She reads our books to us before we go to sleep. Her favorite is “All Saints for Six O’Clock.” So that’s our favorite, too.

Our mother is the Rector’s wife. Our father is the Rector. He wears a black cassock and a white dog collar. He wears a thin black leather belt and shiny black leather shoes that squeak when he comes upstairs.

Our mother’s story tonight is “Little Saint Hugh.” Little Saint Hugh was a martyr boy, who was stolen by the wicked Jews as he walked the streets alone at night. He was stolen and killed, because it was his blood they wanted. The Jews. They wanted the blood of a little Christian boy. This was the story. Our mother reads it to us before she puts the light out. The story of Little Saint Hugh.

Our mother is the most beautiful woman in the world, and she is the kindest person in the world. We know that she could never hurt anyone, she is so very kind and gentle. She has blue, blue, faraway eyes and lovely hands, and she reads to us at bedtime.


(On hearing my "Little Saint Hugh" story, my friend, who wrote the original, provocative piece that started this exchange, did some research. Here's the update from Wikipedia:
In 1955, the Anglican Church placed a plaque at the site of Little Hugh's former shrine at Lincoln Cathedral, bearing these words: 
"Trumped up stories of 'ritual murders' of Christian boys by Jewish communities were common throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and even much later. These fictions cost many innocent Jews their lives. Lincoln had its own legend and the alleged victim was buried in the Cathedral in the year 1255." 
Bishop Percy concludes "the whole charge to be groundless and malicious." Murders of this sort have been imputed to the Jews for seven hundred and fifty years or more; and similar accusations have been made in Russia and other countries of Eastern Europe even in the 19th century and as late as 1883. (Francis James) Child sums up the whole matter by saying, "These pretended child-murders, with their horrible consequences, are only a part of a persecution which, with all its moderation, may be rubricated as the most disgraceful chapter in the history of the human race.”
Thus spake Wikipedia. Sadly, the abominable fiction of blood libel did not stop "as late as 1883." With slanderous books like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion still widely promulgated--especially, it must be said, in the Muslim world--it persists even in our current century.

May we all come to understand that every racial prejudice is as"groundless and malicious" as anti-Semitism.


Friday, June 10, 2016

ONE TRACK HEART



I re-visited an old self last night, one I had thought to have long ago discarded. I was scrolling through movie selections on our Apple TV, intending to watch Crazy Wisdom—the film about Chogyam Trungpa—for which I had already paid and was for some reason unable to access a night or two before. For some reason, too, (no accidents!) I was unable to access it again last night, and instead happened upon One TrackHeart: The Story of Krishna Das.

I had peviously known nothing of the music of this one-time love generation rock-n-roller who is now well-known, even widely adored for performances and CDs that feature mostly Hindu spiritual chanting which he refers to, with genuine joy, as “singing with people.” The film is the story of his journey from that early period of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, through years of disillusionment and depression to his encounter with the Indian mystic, Maharaj-ji; and thence, on his guru’s death, into a new, deep downward spiral ending in a severe crack cocaine addiction, and a quasi-miraculous recovery into the spiritual life through re-dedication to the practice of his music. The final obstacle to overcome was, perhaps not surprisingly, his ego.

It’s a touching—and indeed a familiar story: smart, sensitive Western kid goes disastrously astray and finds salvation in the religious traditions of the East. This particular story, a documentary film, features such luminaries as Ram Dass (whose own story bears remarkable similarities), Lama Surya Das, and Sharon Salzberg along the way. Ram Dass, in particular—himself a disciple of Maharaj-ji, was the primary source of Krishna Das’s conversion back in the 1970s, and remains both his teacher and his enthusiastic fan to this day.  (After the major stroke that felled him in 1997 and deprived him, for a long while, of speech and body movement, Ram Dass looked and sounded remarkably like his old self in interviews recorded for this film.)

All of which took me back to that time, in the early 1970s, the early days of my academic career, when students were coming to tell me that I “had to read” this book—Ram Dass’s Be Here Now. They were telling me, also, with great enthusiasm, about Alan Watts (The Way of Zen) and Shunryu Suzuki (Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind) and other great spiritual teachers of the time. My students must have recognized in me a yearning that I was not able to recognize myself, because I responded, at the time, with lofty intellectual skepticism and what I can only describe, in all honesty, as a kind of emotional repulsion. The images of chanting, happy people dancing in the meadows turned me off. And though I’d had myself, some years earlier, one memorable experience with LSD, I nursed a profound distrust of drugs and their supposedly liberating effects. I did not believe that happiness could be found this way. Indeed, unaware of the unhappiness in myself, I was unable to believe in happiness at all. The "heart" was a foreign concept. I argued, to myself and anyone who would listen to my prejudices, that Eastern religions belonged where they originated, in the East. They could not be transplanted, and to embrace them seemed to me a kind of fundamental dishonesty. The whole thing seemed false.

It took me another 20 years before I was able to come to acknowledge the internal conflict that perhaps my students had recognized and responded to. I was caught, unconsciously, on the one hand between an intense desire for precisely the ideals that those pioneers embodied: love, peace, happiness, and a truly open and embracing spirit; and on the other hand a heavily self-protected ego that felt threatened as much by freedom as by joy. It was this latter character I encountered yet again last night as I watched “One Track Heart.” The same old judgment came up as I watched the ecstatic singing and dancing, the blissful expression on the faces of both the singer and his fans: “It’s phony.”

How wrong I was! I feel blessed, now, to be able to watch that judgmental character with somewhat less, um… judgment than heretofore. That’s what I had to work through to arrive at the meditation practice I’ve been following for as many years as it took me to discover the value of the “heart” that’s referred to in the movie’s title. I had lived without it for years, rejecting with some anger the spiritual values of my father’s religion and unable to find an acceptable substitute for it. My “conversion” was provoked by a great personal, spiritual and emotional crisis in my life and took me on a journey of intense inner turmoil.

Truthfully, I must acknowledge that I have not yet arrived at the place of total bliss. I many never get there. There are still demons within, some known, some unknown. I have certainly not shed the last vestiges of ego. As I noticed last night, my old selves—the ones who served me ill—might suddenly reappear with savage, mocking grins, to remind me there is still work to be done. But at least I can now say with honesty that I recognize happiness to be an achievable goal in this life; I have come to believe in the primacy of heart over brain, and that a generous, all-loving heart is the path to the happiness we all seek. Thus far I have come. I still have far to go.



Tuesday, June 7, 2016

UNFAIR


The word keeps returning to the lips of the soon-to-be Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Every reversal, to him, is "unfair." Every judgment, every criticism, every disagreement. It's all "unfair."

Poor Donald! Did no one ever remind him of that old saw--the one that most of us have had to learn through sometimes grim experience: "Life's not fair"?

To the contrary, in his case, let's be fair: life has been more than fair to him.

It's a familiar schoolyard whine. We tolerate it from the mouths of kindergarteners, though usually with a measure of exasperation. From a man with aspirations to position and power? To say the least, it's undignified.

But I suspect that dignity is something Trump cares little about. Along with elegance, tact, equanimity, open-mindedness, justice for others than himself... and a good few other values that I hold important.

I've written off Trump as a hopeless narcissist. But what of the rest of his Republican supporters, especially those in high positions who continue to endorse him?

Feckless? Would that be the word? (My dictionary says "lack of initiative or strength of character; seems about right...)

Still, let's remember the Buddhist principle of "right speech," and refrain from maligning anyone. Let's send goodwill their way instead. That'll larn 'em.


Monday, June 6, 2016

THE BLUE ROLLS ROYCE CONVERTIBLE

I once saw Muhammad Ali. I was in our car with Ellie on Wilshire Boulevard in the mid-town area of Los Angeles and we found ourselves driving alongside a magnificent blue Rolls Royce convertible. The driver was Muhammad Ali. He looked across at us and gave us a big smile and waved.

A tiny, almost insignificant incident long ago, yet one that I remember as clearly as if it had been this morning; such was the sheer, simple, radiant presence of this extraordinary man.

There have been pages devoted to his death in the press, hours of praise and retrospective reporting in the media. It would be foolish to try to add to them. Except, perhaps, to recall that moment. He had no need to even notice the people driving in the modest sedan alongside his magnificent machine. But he did. He actually saw us.

In all the images I have watched on the television screen, particularly of the later Ali, the one suffering increasingly from the debilities caused by the dreadful Parkinson's disease, I have been most impressed by his simple ability to see others. From the important CBS Sixty Minutes reporter to the little child begging for an autograph, he took the trouble to see his fellow human beings, even when he was no longer able to communicate with them in any conventional way.

I know how important it is to be seen, to be acknowledged as a fellow traveler in this life on Earth. And I know how important it is, too, to see those others whom we too often overlook. In this way we give value to each other's lives.

Simply seeing others, it seems to me, is a true expression of the compassion that is the root value of all Buddhist teaching.


P.S.  Curiously, by one of those no-coincidence coincidences, I had bought these reading glasses yesterday at Disney Hall...


A healthy and timely reminder. If you watch for them, the signs you need are always there. You just have to remember to keep watching...