the dream

Every so often, I’ll have a dream that I don’t forget, that stays fixed and accessible. One I return to, experiencing the dream with all of its intensity. Where do these dreams originate, I wonder? I think they come from some wise place deep within, from the cave of the heart. Some might call it the Holy Spirit, the Holy of Holies, the Witness, the Friend, the inner sage…I could go on, but you get my drift. No ordinary dream.

In this dream, I’m walking down a familiar hallway with doors down its length. I look through the open door of each room and see myself in settings that have occurred throughout the length of my life. At each door, I pause. I know this room is no longer for me. I move on.

Coming to the end of the hall, I see a closed door. I approach slowly, with a feeling of uncertainty and dread, my pulse quickening. With trepidation I slowly open the door.

doorway

Immediately, I move back a step. I feel a sense of vertigo as I gaze out on emptiness, blackness. I can’t see a thing. I know it is stepping outside of the building entirely. I freeze for a moment, look longingly back towards the open doors.

Then I straighten my shoulders. I feel the inevitability of my next step. I can see no ground. All is darkness. It feels like I will be stepping into an endless void. Will I fall, end over end, forever? Will I float, suspended in the thick blackness?

gather my mettle and my foot inches tentatively out. Ground! Encouraged, I step through the doorway. I feel the ground, but I know that I am now outside. Out of the safety of the building, in the wild, unknown outdoors. I breathe slowly, in, out. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

Then I become aware of a heaviness in one of my hands. I lift it. I am holding a flashlight! I turn it on and shine it on the ground. There! I see it, a path, winding into the darkness. I can’t see very far, but I tell myself that I can follow the path as far as the flashlight shines. I begin to walk.

This dream has been an anchor in times of turbulence and has encouraged me to cherish times of transition and change rather than dissolve into fear and dread. It’s given me the grit to continue when I’ve been tired. Just one step. Just this one moment. Stepping through that door, whatever it may represent, is stepping from a place of certainty and a false sense of safety, into the quivering unknown, the fertile fields of uncertainty, the juicy aliveness of change.

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Meet me at the well

EVENTUALLY

 

We stop trying

to carry all that we know

as if it will protect us.

 

If lucky, we are forced

to accept that under

what we think is ours

is the beginning

of what no one owns.

 

At last, we are

humbled to dip our face

in the same well.

 

It is the look of your

face and mine

lifting from that well

that frees me.

~Mark Nepo

water from a deeper well, painting by ademaro bardelli

Rumi

I really don’t care for Valentine’s Day. But if asked about love, I would point to the poetry of Rumi to help describe it. I have a small framed piece as a gift from Matt with a quote from Rumi,

The minute I heard my first love story,

I started looking for you, not knowing how blind that was.

Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere

They’re in each other all along.

Rumi has a lot to say about love. His ability to put to words what is in my heart is grace. The songs of the poets, Rumi especially, kept me tethered when the ground disappeared. They kept me safe until I found the beauty in darkness, the spaciousness of not-knowing, and the miracle of mystery.

Taken Away and Given – encounters in old age by Douglas Penick

This essay has stunned me. Put it here to come back to.

1.
It is said that we who live within the mists do not see the shapes of the clouds that are our dwelling place. We do not see the light of the sun, the moon, the stars, nor do we know the vastness of the sky.

There are many stories of children, young men and young women, princesses and princes, whose parents were determined to shield them from suffering and obstacles. They were raised behind high castle walls. There are many stories of men and women who never dared to leave the security of their palaces but who could not silence the whispers of the high winds or avoid fugitive and nameless fears.
aging 1
2.
An old man in the elevator is shaking his head. In a bitter voice, he tells me how sick he has been, that aging “takes so much away from you. You lose so much.”

I am in the same situation, of course, and I feel resistant to his depression. I wonder, isn’t there more to it? Suddenly I want to know:

“But what does old age give?”
aging 2
3.
It is said that more than 2,000 years ago in the north of India, there was a prince, Siddhartha, who lived in a palace amid flower gardens filled with the sounds of bells, music, fountains, and songbirds. The king, his father, made sure he was surrounded by strong, lively young men and beautiful, sensitive women. The king determined that his son would grow up to succeed him, without ever knowing fear, suffering, or sadness. And yet the prince was curious. One day, he ordered his charioteer to take him in his golden chariot to explore the world outside the palace gates. They passed through the bustling crowds that filled the boulevards and marketplaces of his father’s capital. Lingering at the edges of a crowd was a couple, a woman and a man, both bent over, gaunt, tremulous, worn-out. Their veins stood out on their bodies, their teeth chattered, and their dried-out skin was a maze of cracks and wrinkles. They turned their heads anxiously in all directions, for they could not see well. People bumped into them, for they could not hear. Gray hairs hung from their scalps; their eyelids had no lashes and were crusty and red-rimmed. Their heads wobbled and their hands shook. They had the sour smell of decay. The prince asked his charioteer:
“What are these? Has nature made them thus, or is it chance?”

The charioteer answered:

“Sire, these creatures are like all others who live into the twilight of their years. They are merely old. They were once children nursing at their mother’s breast; they grew, they were young, they had strength and beauty and they were brave, enterprising, lustful; they married, they raised their families, their lives were full. Now they are near the end of life. They suffer from the press of time that mars beauty, ruins vigor, kills pleasure, weakens memory, destroys the senses. Old age has seized these two and broken them. It has taken away all their friends and those they could rely on. They are like an abandoned house on an island pounded by a torrential flood. They are the ruin of what once they were.”

The prince asked:

“Will this also be my fate?”

The charioteer replied:

“My lord, no one who lives can escape this.”

The prince shuddered like a bull at the sound of thunder. He uttered a deep sigh and shook his head. His eyes wandered from the wretched couple to the happy crowds.

“And yet the world is not frantic with terror! How can they ignore our common fate?”

This was Prince Siddhartha’s first meeting with old age. For an instant, the prince saw through the surface of his existence as if seeing through a painted screen. Meeting old age, he encountered the first of the Divine Messengers. It was his first glimpse of the truth. Hope to escape, terror, sorrow, all are irrelevant.
againg 3
4.
Tinnitus, various incapacities, less energy, a slightly less reliable faculty of recall—these are signs of aging, but I do not feel the process of getting old. And in the mirror there is a man, almost a stranger, 70 years old. But my mind, my habits of mind, the ways in which I am accustomed to thinking and feeling, the ways I expected myself to be have not much changed. The feeling of being old comes in sudden flashes.

The doctor diagnoses a nodular melanoma. Excised, it leaves an interesting scar. Statistics indicate a truncated life expectancy. I feel the same as before and I do not. Information has changed me as much as any virus or germ. It tells me I am moving into terrains that are uncontrollable, unknowable.

A renowned specialist has nothing of use for me. “Is there any other way I can help?” he asks. I smile. “If you can tell me the two things I doubt you know.” He raises his eyebrows. “How long will I last and how bad will it hurt?” He gives a rueful shrug.
againg 4
5.
I feel the world moving away slightly. I am not different, really. Or the way in which I sense myself as different is difficult to grasp. But I do know that my body and world are changing in unexpected ways. I am being separated from a life I know. A new world presents itself, sharp, vivid, uncompromising. It is not what I expected.

I watch young women and men, full of certainty that the intensity of their desires, the anarchic power of appetites, the bright newness of their thoughts and insights will make the world bend before them. With the sheer force of their sexual desire, of wanting and longing; how could they think otherwise?

Living on the edge of uncertainty is somehow stimulating. The world is opening beneath my feet.
aging 5
6.
It is said that the awakened state is the natural state.

It is said that the awakened state is all-pervasive as space.

It is said that there are more buddhas, buddha realms, kinds of teachings, realizations, assemblies of beings sharing those teachings than there are grains of sand in the Ganges and in all the beds of all the seas combined with all the universes of galaxies of stars.

It is said that every instant in the flow of illusion and suffering displays the full panoply of the unimpeded awakened state. There are no moments in which awake is not.

The core of the feeling that plagues us is that we are missing something. I am changing in ways that are both visible and utterly unfamiliar.

And I am as I somehow always was. I am missing something.

It is a time of sudden vast surprise.
aging 6
7.
My friend’s father was a big man even in his late nineties. His hands were huge and strong. He had been a warehouse foreman and spent most of his life in the Bronx. He loved New York, and finding himself now at the end of his life living with his son in a suburban house with a tree-filled backyard, he was occasionally disoriented. It didn’t really make sense that he would end up in such a place.

He often sat in the yard, amid the trees. “It’s amazing,” he said. “I had no idea that there were so many kinds of green.”
aging 7
8.
The world we know is aging and dying, falling beneath the hordes of the new.

What inspired us, what drew us on, the prospect of making something new in the world, some kind of new home, new love, new child, the prospect of living, all this is being worn out. The house is old, the lover has gotten sick, the children are adults and have their own concerns. And the sense of what was precious, important, necessary to promulgate, these are values no longer so widely shared. Perhaps in earlier times there were values that transcended generational limits; now they barely survive a single human life.

The world we have worked for is neither so fresh nor, to those younger than us, so desirable.

“You’re only as old as you think you are,” my son says.

“Oh, only young people think that,” I say.

9.
The world is aging, dying.

We look at those we love. We look at those whose intimacy sustains us. Their bodies are betraying them. They are in decline. Their minds are in retreat. They look at us tenderly, but their glance moves inward to secret fears and losses of their own. Among these losses, they are looking at us, our bodies, our minds in retreat from a world that is losing us.

The younger ones, as they must and should, struggle to grasp and hold on. They look at us and turn away. The vector of our existence is not the same as theirs. It is the time of parting.

Unexpected perspectives appear, new light shines on enduring patterns and new intensities. More than ever before, we are faced with utter uncertainty. More even than when we were adolescents, we are moving into something completely unknown. It is frightening, and so very interesting, seductive, even.

Memory no longer chained to the pragmatics of seizing and holding.

We are dazzled among patterns. We now enter a world and worlds transforming unimaginably. We are being changed without regard to pain or dignity or accomplishment or punishment or regret. Even the forms of consciousness we believe are valuable or true will not necessarily obtain. Uncertainty is unceasing.
againg 8
10.
The past becomes vivid and slippery.

I am looking across the front seat of the speeding car at my grandfather. He is looking intently through his pince-nez glasses at the blacktop rippling in the summer air. He looks over at me, and I look away. The cicadas are churning the air. I am 8 years old.

The spotlight reflected off the green-robed tenor’s naked sword flashes suddenly across the vast auditorium right into my eyes. I am 11 years old. He turns and begins to sing. Why do such moments come unbidden? Why are they now so clear?

Memories no longer quite provide the story of why things are the way they are. They arise as the framework that once linked them seems to fall out from underneath. I have far less to hide. I am suddenly and shamefully aware of specific moments when I have disappointed parents, teacher, friend, lover, stranger, son, my wife. I cringe, but there is nothing to be done.

Moments as baby, child, adolescent, young man and then older loom vivid and clear. Moments, once markers of some effortful identity, each with different tonalities, thrusts, senses of containment. Now they display new patterns as former meanings drift.

I am looking out the window of a train as day turns to night, as landscapes unfold, become briefly more intense, and the train hurtles toward a sunset I cannot see.
againg 9
11.
And I recall driving east over a ridge into Arizona at sunset. A great basin already in shadow opens as far as the eye can see. Far to the north, a mysterious array of mesas and buttes glow in the orange light while beyond, a dark red palisades blocks the horizon. These huge formations seem to flow across the tawny desert floor, like a secret epic now being enacted just beneath the threshold of thought and memory.

12.
Late in life, many artists have painted, written, composed work that is far different from what they had done earlier, and far different from work anyone else had done. The late works of Bach, Michelangelo, Titian, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Matisse, to mention a few, expand on what they did before but enter unexpected new terrains. This work often is a summit that neither illuminates the past nor provides a pathway to any known future.

13.
Legend goes: To create the dance theater of Japan, Hata came from Korea. He said:

Theater is the genius of the old.
The world draws way from them;
Their horizon widens.
The wide world is seen for what it is.
It draws away.
The future shortens
And the past speaks with greater clarity.

The body is no longer the focus of the world.
Beings of light show themselves.
againg 0
14.
Driving on a gray dirt road, scraggly yellow sunflowers on either side. It’s late morning. The sun is pale and the dusty soil pale gray. I’m a little lost. The road occasionally runs through a stand of skinny leafless trees. It’s a cool day in mid-spring. I’m looking for a crossroad that will get me back to . . . that leads to another road that will take me wherever it is I’m going.

I am sleeping, dreaming. But is this a dream? As I dream, it seems slightly familiar, but I can’t remember anything like this in waking life. I wonder: perhaps this is a return in dream to a dream landscape that occasionally appears. It is not a particularly meaningful place. Pale gray, gritty soil and pale blue sky, bright yellow flowers, and being lost here, but not seriously so. I’m quite certain that I’ll find the way to wherever it was I was intending to go.

But I know I’m dreaming, and I want to remember this. I am wondering if this is just some landscape hovering in space to which I have inadvertently returned. A set of images through which a mind that is mine, for no reason, is just passing through.

I wake and work to remember. Yes, it is a real place, a place near Salida, Colorado. I was driving there with my wife. We were momentarily and pleasantly lost on the way home. It is ordinary and strange.

15.
Mrs. T. was not like any of my mother’s friends. Witty, dark and sensuous, she held herself with mysterious reserve. Eyes wide open, smile amused, a bit aloof, she favored both the men who flirted and the women who whispered as she entered the room with ironic merriment. She was wickedly good at card games, too. Of course, she’d had a discreet face-lift. They said she’d been widowed twice before she was 28.

We wrote each other at Christmas. She was in her midnineties, living in a nursing home. Her correspondence had become less and less detailed. I did not know whom to ask about her condition. Finally my card was returned, stamped deceased.

The year before she had written only: “You know, I’m very flattered that you think I’m still within reach of the U.S. Postal Service.”

rethinking religion – repost from 2010

Reposting these thoughts from 5 years ago. And so it continues, in all it’s changes; from chaos to clarity, from longing for certainty to comfort with groundlessness, from grief at the loss to joy at the inexpressible spaciousness of mystery, from clinging or resisting dead twigs to immersion into the wild, juicy freshness of now.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“To be nobody but yourself  in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.”  e.e. cummings

I think I’m beginning the process of remembering the good from the almost 20 years I spent identified as a christian.  I’ve had a lot of anger — some directed toward the church and some self-directed.  Now that the anger is beginning to clear a bit, I’m starting to remember the good and to understand a little why I lost myself and what returned me to myself.

That is probably the best thing my spiritual quest brought me.  It returned me to myself.

I remember clearly when I began to imagine that there might be a spiritual realm that co-existed somehow with the physical.  I was in my early 30s, a confirmed atheist of 17 years.  I’d taken a world religions and philosophies class at the local junior college, having heard it was good.  And it was!  I absolutely loved the instructor and the class itself was fascinating.  I was especially taken with Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism.

I felt a long-slumbering part of me begin to stir.  I began to re-imagine reality.  I even started to imagine a divine creator or mother.

Then I took a sharp turn.  I had what I felt was a “spiritual experience” – a vision of sorts.  Not to get bogged down in details of which I have yet to answer the questions as to what to do with all of my religious experiences … I’ll just say that going the Jesus Way became my quest.

When I first started church – I fell hard into it all.   I spent every minute in the church that it was open – listening, watching, taking copious notes. I began a 2-decade long study of the bible, which never lost its passion for me – even after I stopped mindlessly believing what other folks said and began studying in the hebrew, greek and aramaic.  Even after seeing how many things were mistranslated.  How the divine was sanitized of all of her feminine attributes and names.  How the patriarchal leaders twisted things.  Even after learning and understanding that the authorship of the books were misrepresented and reading ‘banned’ gospels — still, I loved the book.  Now loved as a collection of sacred poetry and wisdom, similar to the Tao Te Ching or the Upanishads.  Beautiful, poetic, even instructional when read metaphorically and with the right spirit.

But I digress.

As I continued on in my own spiritual quest, I couldn’t help but notice that there were few of us lining the pews that were really searching.  Most were sort of just there, out of habit or obligation or fear.  Whatever.

I learned who the passionate followers were and hung out with them.  My prayers began to be quieter.  I spent a lot of time meditating, listening.  I started hard work on myself.  I began the quest for authenticity that led me to where I am today.

I can see that in my years searching for God and seeking to be pleasing to the divine, I underwent massive healing in my emotions and memories.  I forgave, I processed.  I learned how to inspect myself, to search out the motives behind my words and actions.  I discovered a well-spring of compassion and tenderness I’d kept hidden as a younger person.

I never quite ‘fit’ into church.  I was too doubtful, too questioning, too confrontational. I never went for the “only those who say the prayer right get into heaven” story.  It just didn’t jive with what I had learned of God in the book.  I argued that the loving heart of this divine being would reach into the heart of a seeker regardless of their sex, age, culture, geography, time period, etc.  I never lost my love of other religions – they added richness and texture to what I believed as a christian.

This made me a bit unpopular with the church leaders.  As were my views and arguments on submission and women’s place in home, church and society, homosexuality, masturbation and other sexual matters, hell as a real place, life on other planets….well, I could go on.

Anyway.  Where I’ve been going with this is that I’ve begun to appreciate my own personal spiritual path.  Yes, I took the long way to come back to myself.  But it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

And really, some of my anger at losing myself in the church is misplaced.  I’d already lost myself, long before church.  Of course, once I was in church, the die was cast.  At least it was, until my own truth became important to me again.

So here I am – out at 50.  Late to the game.  Late to myself.  Late to life.  But still, here at last.

I’m still processing.  Still allowing myself to sit with my memories and the emotions they bring.  The sadness, the anger, the grief, the regret, the frustration, the eventual peace.  Peace because this has been my life.  Yes, my way has been twisted and the path strewn with obstacles, but it has been my path. Every bit of it – the sorrow, the anguish, the joy and the gladness – are mine.  They’ve informed me, they’ve transformed me.  I refuse to negate any of it.

And if there are a few who won’t understand where I am and where I’ve been, so be it.  I may be misunderstood, but not by myself.  I know who I am and I love who I am becoming.  I even love who I was.

Someone once told me never to look back.  They said to look forward, because you won’t be able to see where you’re going if you’re looking behind you.  I get what they’re saying, but I no longer agree.  In life, we face the past.  We may try to crane our neck to see the future, but we cannot.  The future remains unknown and uncertain.  We can, however, fully face the richness of the vista laid out before us – our own path, be it winding, twisted, straight…uphill and down, through mountain passes and deep forests, past long dry stretches of arid desert plains…to where we stand in this present moment.

And as I stand in the ‘here and now’, looking outward over the ‘there and then’, I begin to make out the order and beauty in the twists and turns my life has taken.  And I bow to my past in reverence and wonder, as the unknown future rushes ever into view.  And I’m thankful to be awake, to be noticing, to be alive.

“I’ve not forgotten the song of those dark years, the song of the starved soul.  But neither have I forgotten the joyous, deep song … the words of which come back to us when we do the work of soulful reclamation.”  Clarissa Pinkola Estes

As I’ve been getting reacquainted with my soul, I’ve rediscovered its oddities and eccentricities. I must say, I’ve come to realize that my individuality is born in these quirks and unexpected shadow tendencies of my soul, more so than in normality and conformity.

Besides, as that great dame Katherine Hepburn said, “If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun!”

Awhile back, I seem to have crossed a line. One I don’t intend to step back over. I heard my soul shout, “I will be who I am“!It was as though I’d awakened into this new place where the climate was twice as bracing as the old; I was invigorated by the more oxygen-rich air. I’ll not turn back. I’ll not climb back in the box.

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. (From the gospel of Thomas)

notes from my journal December 2013 – (on groundlessness)

“Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

leap before you look

I keep coming back to this quote. Under every deep another deep opens. This is a truth I have experienced in my own life. And yet, there is such a tendency towards comfort and safety. When the dust settles from the latest shaking, the ego stamps its feet, feeling for solid ground.  Then the next shaking comes.

My aspiration is to come to a place of living comfortably with groundlessness. This feels to me like the truth of the journey — the ground is an illusion. Let go of the need for the ground to be there and endless possibility erupts in its place.

Instead, I seem to find a new truth…polish it…study it…make it the new ground. This seems to be the way of the world, always looking for safety and certainty.

So I continue to ponder, to sit, to cultivate self-reflection, to seek to understand myself. I continue to tug at the edge of the veil – what lies beyond? Can I know it, can I taste it, be taken by it as I release my fear and need for certainty? This isn’t just a metaphysical exercise, it’s a way of being in the world, a way of living with an open heart. This aspiration to befriend groundlessness is the container whose spaciousness makes it possible to welcome my life, regardless of the circumstances.