A Contemplation of Heroes, Toilet Paper, John Wayne, and John Ford.

Paramahansa Yogananda told a story of two families, one Hindu and one Muslim, who were neighbors during the violence that preceded Indian independence in the late 1940’s. Food was scarce due to rioting, but the mother of the Hindu family got hold of a bag of rice. When she realized her neighbors had nothing to eat, she took half the rice to the Muslim family before lighting her own stove. When we were young, many of us aspired to that kind of heroism. Now we hoard toilet paper.

In all fairness, this is a manufactured crisis, driven by our online yellow press with so many pictures of empty paper good shelves that anyone paying attention might conclude that they better get some extra. But the TP story brings up one of our culture’s major living room elephants – our worship of individualism. Me first. I gotta be me. Do your own thing.

When I studied counseling psychology, we had a unit on “cross-cultural differences,” to learn not to project our biases onto people from other cultures or sub-cultures where identity rests as much on family and community membership as it does on our northern European focus on individuation. Without such training, we would have been ready to put labels like “enmeshed” and “codependent” on anyone who didn’t regard “self-development” as the pinnacle of psychological development.

Fun Fact: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM, the bible of mental health or its lack in our culture grew out of a study commissioned by the Marine Corps after WWI. They sought a personality test to filter out those who were most at risk of shell shock. In other words, our mental health norms in this country  are based on the attributes of a good combat soldier. Think about that for a while… Continue reading

2020 Notes 1

Fair Oaks Park, February

February was warm and bright, and I got out regularly to walk the dogs in the local park. It was the finest early spring I could remember, although it struck me that the only other place I’ve experienced such warmth so early in the year was Phoenix, and that suggests a hot summer.

By early February, or certainly mid-month, everyone who was paying attention knew the corona virus was coming, and it was going to be serious. I certainly didn’t anticipate the force of the shock when it hit our shores, but during those sunny walks, I had the sense that this was going to change our world in profound ways. I think lots of people, over the last few years have understood on some level that we’ve been living in a house of cards. I suspect that much of the fear and anger that fill the air derives from this understanding, even if we didn’t quite grasp it consciously.

I thought of what I have read of the prelude to another world changing event. By all accounts, the spring and early summer of 1914 in Europe were the most beautiful that anyone then living could remember. One of the best histories of that period is The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman.

Tuchman wrote another fascinating history of another period that changed the arc of world civilization, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Fourteenth century Europe was ravaged by climate change, never-ending war, and pandemic which triggered the collapse of medieval culture. I am not making this up!

The century opened with two decades of cold, now known as “the little ice age,” which caused widespread famine. The “Hundred Years War,” continued through the century, and in several outbreaks, bubonic plague killed a third of the world’s population.

At this moment, 20 years into the new millennium, no one knows how this century will end beyond the absolute certainty that the way of life we have known will be but a memory.

*****

Yesterday afternoon, Mary and I left home on the important mission of picking up her birthday cake (it’s tomorrow) at Baskin Robbins and having some ice cream while we were at it. I had to laugh when I heard “Love Me Two Times,” on the audio track. The Doors were way too subversive when to play in an ice cream shop when they first hit the airwaves more than 50 years ago!

But who knows? I have no idea when I’ll next be able to get a haircut, so my true colors as an aging hippie may soon be revealed!

Online Teaching and Meditation Practice Opportunities

All of the Buddhist sanghas I normally connect with have suspended physical practice sessions and retreats while shifting to an even richer menu of online teachings. Here are some of special interest:

Healing & Protection Mantra Meditation for When Disease Spreads in the World. Saturday, March 21, from 1:00 – 2:15 pm Pacific Time, via Livestream.

“Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche will be teaching on ancient mantras from the treasure teachings of the Vajrayana tradition. In this tradition, there is a long history of practitioners using these powerful mantras, meditations, and visualizations to help when people are sick and when diseases are spreading.”

These are practices given by Padmasambhava, “the second buddha,” who brought the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha to Tibet in the 8th century. I met Chowang Rinpoche during a retreat last September and have tuned into his online teachings since then. Details and free registration here.

Guided meditations and dharma talks by Anam Thubten, Sundays from 10:00am – 12:00 pm, via Livestream.  Go to https://www.dharmata.org/memberstream/ Login using guest as both Username and Password. We are advised to login around 9:45. Last week, due (I assume) to a large number of logins, it took a while to connect, so patience and an early start are suggested.

Weekly guided meditations and dharma talks by Anam Thubten, Sundays from 10:00am – 12:00 pm, via Livestream. Those who have followed this blog for a while will recall other posts on Anam Thubten, the first Tibetan lama I met during a retreat about 15 years ago, and who was the single greatest influence in turning my spiritual practice in this direction.

Now that his center in Richmond, CA is closed and retreats cancelled for an indefinite future, these practices and talks will be available to everyone, not just members of the Dharmata Sangha. Details here.

Guidance for using social distancing time for an at-home retreat. Thanks to Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach for these suggestions. This is a practice I have found valuable in the past, and it’s certainly timely now!

Online resources from Tricycle, the Buddhist Review. In an email they say:

“One doesn’t have to be Buddhist to know that ignoring difficult problems or thoughts doesn’t make them go away. Or that when panic sets in, people tend not to make the best decisions. Or that the things we treasure won’t be around forever. Or that no matter how alone we may feel, we are always part of something bigger. Or that we are at our best when we take care of each other. But Buddhist teachings place these ideas at the fore, and ask us to keep them in mind when we are otherwise prone to get swept up in our day-to-day tasks.
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We have been speaking to Buddhist teachers and writers who have been thinking about the coronavirus outbreak. They’ve shared their reflections, advice, and practices for dealing with the uncertainty and fear that have arisen around this disease. We have the privilege of being able to share those with you here. We are offering free access to these and other select articles to support your practice during this uncertain time.”

Stay safe and stay tuned as I share more of these links as they come in.

1917: A Movie Review


Today I finally saw 1917. All the accolades for director Sam Mendes’ film about World War I, are deserved. Those who follow this blog know that the history of this tragedy continues to haunt and fascinate me.

A year ago, I posted a review of They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s documentary of the conflict, based on digitally enhanced film taken during the war, and recorded interviews with veterans. Jackson’s film is brilliant, but no movie I’ve ever seen gives as visceral a feel for life in the trenches as 1917. The mud, the rats, the bodies, the stench of dead horses in no man’s land and the constant shelling are vividly depicted. As Mary observed, it’s clear where Tolkien found the imagery for Mordor! Mendez includes key historical details, such as the chalky soil of Flanders and the sophistication of the German trenches, built with with reinforced concrete.

Although Mendez states that the story and central characters are friction, he grew up listening to stories told by his grandfather, Alfred, who carried a critical message across no-man’s land, under sniper fire, during the battle of Passchendaele in late 1917.

As many reviewers have noted, one detail of the cinematography is stunning – the entire movie is filmed with just one cut. The result is the feeling of being right with Blake and Schofield as they struggle to cross a deadly wasteland in their race against the clock, with a message that must be delivered by morning to save the lives of 1,600 of their comrades.

This is an unforgettable movie that I highly recommend!

An End of the Year Post

Saturday Evening Post New Years cover for 1911

I’ve never been fond of traditional old-fart-and-baby News Years iconography, but this one, from a 109 year old magazine cover, will serve as a decent illustration of the major theme of 2019 for me – Impermanence.

All the spiritual traditions I know anything about warn us not to store up treasures on earth, as Jesus put it. Krishna told Arjuna that this world is full of delusion. Buddha placed impermanence at the center of his teaching. All of us long for permanent happiness he said, but we simply cannot find it in world where everything changes.

Students of Buddha’s teachings learn from the start to reflect on impermanence, but it can be a long way from reflection in the head to really getting it at gut level.

This year, much of my  energy, focus, and gut level concern was centered on heart health issues both for Mary, and for Kit, our oldest dog. With great joy I can say that both are doing well at year’s end, but it will never be as easy for me to forget those proverbial “sands in the hour glass” as it was a year ago.

Unlike what you hear in superficial comments, Buddha never said that permanent happiness was impossible – he simply said we won’t find it where we usually look. We have to search within, he said, and that means meditation. Unfortunately, too many people believe that meditation is either not relevant or not possible for them, or both. One of the best events for me in 2019 was encountering a teacher who presents one of Buddhism’s most profound practices in a straightforward and accessible manner. He is committed to making these teachings widely available.

I’ve posted here before about Anam Thubten, a Tibetan lama for whom I have the highest regard. I encountered Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche at a daylong retreat in September, where Anam introduced him as a colleague and “meditation master.”

Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche is offering, through his organization, a free 100 Day New Year’s Meditation Challenge, with online teaching and support. It is designed for everyone, with or without meditation experience.

And that brings me to the final point of this post, for I put the details of this meditation challenge on the “new” blog I’ve been threatening to start for a while. I launched on December 21, the day of the Winter Solstice.

The blog is called Soul Notes. Please stop by to check it out, and especially this description of Chowang Rinpoche’s meditation challenge.

Happy New Year!

James Hillman – on Changing the Object of our Desire

Watching this video in which Hillman so clearly shines a light on the core issues of so many of our current crises, it is hard to realize he left us 2011. It makes what so often passes for journalism and analysis of events seem trivial…

Soul Notes 5: From a Nobel Laureate in Literature

Olga Tokarczuk Nobel Prize Lecture, Dec. 7, 2019

Olga Tokarczuk, born January 29, 1962 in Sulechów, Poland, won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. She received her prize this year, and yesterday, delivered her Nobel Lecture in Stockholm.

All who have been following these Soul Notes will appreciate what she has to say, for her eye and heart register mysteries in places and situations we often take for granted. In tuning the radio in her childhood home, she says, “I believed that through this radio different solar systems and galaxies were speaking to me, crackling and warbling and sending me important information, and yet I was unable to decipher it.”

She tells how an old photograph of her mother led her to find find within herself, “something once known as a soul, thereby furnishing me with the world’s greatest tender narrator.” Later she she says more about what she means by tenderness. “Tenderness is spontaneous and disinterested; it goes far beyond empathetic fellow feeling. Instead it is the conscious, though perhaps slightly melancholy, common sharing of fate. Tenderness is deep emotional concern about another being, its fragility, its unique nature, and its lack of immunity to suffering and the effects of time.”

I was especially struck by this passage in which she captures the difficulty of trying to describe today’s world and possible futures with an earlier era’s language and imagery, which are proving inadequate to the task:

“Today our problem lies—it seems—in the fact that we do not yet have ready narratives not only for the future, but even for a concrete now, for the ultra-rapid transformations of today’s world. We lack the language, we lack the points of view, the metaphors, the myths and new fables. Yet we do see frequent attempts to harness rusty, anachronistic narratives that cannot fit the future to imaginaries of the future, no doubt on the assumption that an old something is better than a new nothing, or trying in this way to deal with the limitations of our own horizons. In a word, we lack new ways of telling the story of the world.”

Phrased in that manner, the simple effort to imagine and speak of where we find ourselves today becomes a soul issue. As her mother told her, just as we often miss things that are gone, it’s possible to miss things that haven’t arrived yet.

This is a dense lecture, filled with wise observation and speculation, that I expect to read again and again.

Soul Notes #4: The Chosen One(s)?

This morning I decided I needed a daylong fast from social media. I’m in the habit of doing something with my phone while the first cup of coffee brews, so I clicked on the USA Today app to check the NFL scores. Delighted to see that the Niners trounced Green Bay last night, I clicked the NEWS tab, and there it was, the morning’s lead story: “Rick Perry Told Donald Trump He Was God’s Chosen One.”

For an online news source, with a revenue stream dependent the number of visitors, aka “eyeballs,” it’s a pretty effective headline, designed to delight the right and offend the left, thereby generating “hits” from across the political spectrum.

Unfortunately, that itself is the problem! Think of some of the things these days that cause you to lose sleep. Now think what it means when profits drive a major news source to tell us that the most significant story of the morning concerns a politician who thinks he knows the will of God.

Especially during the last three years, I have often wondered what James Hillman would make of our current political environment. He’d certainly assign some of the blame to the discipline of psychology. One of his basic tenets was that if we only look inward for the root of our problems, we deprive the Anima Mundi, the World Soul, of our energy and our concern.

Above all, Hillman would point to literalism as the greatest ill in our thinking and view of the world, the tendency to mistake imaginal and symbolic truths for literal and historic fact. Soul whispers that each of us is special, but when we take that literally, we end up with a dark history of chosen ones believing they have a divinely ordained license to kill or oppress “the other.”

Even in ancient Israel, where the American concept of a chosen people originated, interpreting the Almighty’s will was not the business of every schmo with an opinion. A culture that venerated prophets knew there were a lot of fakes. On a lighter note, one urban legend suggests that Mr. Perry wasn’t the only politician with no business practicing theology.

Miriam Amanda “Ma” Ferguson (1875-1961), the first woman Governor of Texas, elected in 1924, is reputed to have said, during a controversy on bilingual education, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas” (1). Unfortunately, similar quotes are attributed to others, as early as 1881 and more recently, to “an Arkansas Congressman,” and all these accounts lack reliable verification.

My basic instinct remains – when someone says, “God told me…,” get away as quickly as possible. And when it’s a politician, turn off the phone and have another cup of coffee!