Spirits

On Sunday, a 39 year old man drove an SUV through the annual Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Five people are dead and many more injured, including 18 children between the ages of 3 and 16, who suffered abrasions, broken bones, and serious head injuries. I remember the joy of a Christmas event like that when I was about 4, that climaxed with Santa arriving by helicopter. Will Advent and Christmas ever be joyful again for the people of Waukesha?

The media mostly glossed over the event. If the killer had used a gun or had a political motive, it would have been front page news, but apparently regurgitated opinions on the Rittenhouse trial got more clicks than another massacre in America.

As of this morning, we know the accused man was on bail after allegedly running over the woman who claims to be the mother of his child at the start of the month. On Sunday, he was involved in a “domestic altercation” before plowing into the crowd. One of the few comments I saw the night of the attack came from Marianne Williamson, who said “an evil spirit” was loose in Wisconsin, and we needed to pray.

Williamson evoked some mockery during the 2019 Democratic primary debates for statements like that, but hers was the one comment I still remember from those events. She said “No amount of policy wonkiness can overcome all the hate in this country.” More recently she echoed words I’ve heard from other leaders in other spiritual traditions that, “There are no political solutions for what ails the nation.

I’ve been thinking about belief in spirits, both good and bad. Some acts are so heinous it’s hard to believe that “mere” human malevolence lies at the root – the Manson murders and Jonestown come to mind. As far as I can tell, only western culture since “the Enlightenment,” has refused to acknowledge the possibility of non-material influence on our behavior. Belief in spirits was part of original Christianity, and “distinguishing between spirits” was listed as a gift of the Holy Spirit by St. Paul (1Co 12:10 NIV). When you’re hearing voices, it’s good to know if they’re trustworthy!

We can call them spirits or call them neuroses, but at times like this, it’s dangerous to call ourselves invincible. In a more peaceful time, when the Star Wars movies first came out, everyone knew the Force was good and wanted it, without taking it literally. It’s worth remembering now that all it takes to turn us to the Dark Side is anger and hatred.

Fear in a Handful of Dust

T.S. Eliot, 1934. Public Domain.

And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in handful of dust.
— T.S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,” 1922

For me, the phrase, “fear in a handful of dust” signifies that sense of nameless dread that can arise without an immediate cause. Anyone who hasn’t experienced such a sense of impending doom sometime this past year was not paying attention!

The poem from which the line was taken, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste land, is considered one of the most important early 20th century poems, announcing the ascendency of modernism in poetry – there was little appetite for 19th c. romanticism after the First World War. At the same time, as Eliot made clear in extensive notes, he drew heavily on an ancient legend, that of The Holy Grail, a central image in the Arthurian legends, but with roots stretching back to the Bronze Age.

Like Eliot before him, Joseph Campbell wrote extensively of the Waste Land. The legend revolves around Sacred Kingship, where the health of the land and the health of the sovereign are one. Behind the ailing Arthur is the Fischer King, with a wound that will not heal. The land is waste and can only be healed by the recovery of the Holy Grail. (The Masks of God: Creative Mythology).

Quest for the Grail, Creative Commons.

In Christianized tellings the Grail was the cup of the Last Supper, but in Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s Parzival, the version most quoted by Campbell, the Grail is a stone: “Its name is ‘lapis exiles,’ which is one of the terms applied in alchemy to the philosopher’s stone.” The gifts of the Grail are different for each person, corresponding to their deepest desires.

In Wolfram’s telling, to redeem himself and the land, the Grail seeker must ask the right question: “Whom does the Grail serve?” For all my fascination with the Grail legend over the years, I’ve never been able to understand that question. Until maybe last year.

Sheltering in place, cut off from most ordinary activities, there was plenty of time to reflect. The most important reflection was probably, “What is most important?” What matters most to me? What do you say to fear in a handful of dust, or fear in the darkness when you wake up at 3:00 am during a plague year?

At this moment in time, I’m old enough to say I know. For now. Answers change as we change, but answers may not be the main thing. To redeem the Grail what matters most is asking the right question.

Online Dharma Teachings in April

Two Tibetan meditation masters whose teachings I follow have scheduled extensive online learning and practice sessions in April. They are free and appropriate for both beginners and those more experienced in meditation.

Anam Thubten: Immersion in Awareness.

Anam has a gift for making complex concepts and practices accessible to all. In addition, no particular belief system is required, nor does the study of Awareness contradict the tenets of any spiritual tradition. He will host four online presentations on the four Sundays in April. Click here for more details and login information.

Schedule: (California time)
10:00 am -10:45 am: Guided meditation
11:00 am – 11:45 am: Dharma Talk

April 5:           Taming the Mind
April 12:         Responding from a Higher Intelligence
April 19:         Inviting the Shadow
April 25:         Celebrating Existence

 

Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche also focuses on Awareness practice and will host three teaching sessions on the first three Saturdays in April, from 1:00 pm – 2:15 pm Pacific time. In addition, he will lead guided meditations on Wednesday evenings  throughout the month.

How to Have a Pristine Mind in Challenging Times. April 4.  Register here.

The Time for Dzogchen is Now. April 11. Register here.

Padmasambhava’s Teachings on Turning Obstacles Into Allies. April 18. Register here.

Weekly Guided Meditations, Wednesdays, 7:00 pm – 7:45 pm, beginning April 8.  Register here.

If you’ve been wanting to begin or continue a meditation practice during this time when we’re all sequestered, I cannot think of a better way to proceed!

Updated Online Meditation and Teaching Opportunities

“Flags of Triund,” by Rama-gu, CC-BY-2.0

“Time for Bodhisattvas. In Buddhist teachings, the Bodhisattva is someone who vows to alleviate suffering and brings blessings in every circumstance.
A Bodhisattva chooses to live with dignity and courage and radiates compassion for all, no matter where they find themselves

This is not a metaphor. As Bodhisattvas we are now asked to hold a certain measure of the tragedy of the world and respond with love.”

– Jack KornfieldThe Bodhisattva Response to Corona Virus.

Here are some practice opportunities presented by three lamas for whom I have the greatest respect, and whose teachings form the core of my own spiritual practice:

Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche: This is a recording of Chowang Rinpoche’s talk of March 21 on two profound protection mantras for times of epidemic disease. This includes details and authorization to practice the “Vajra Armor Mantra,” given by Guru Padmasambhava, for times of epidemic. It also has a link to register for his upcoming talk, scheduled for Saturday, March 28 at 1:00 pm, PDT, on the subject of, “How to Find Happiness and Meaning at Home,” as in our current state of practicing social distance.

Anam Thubten: Here are recordings of the guided meditations and dharma talks that Anam presented on March 15 and March 22. There will be no talk this Sunday, but will resume on April 5.

Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: This is the latest edition of his quarterly newsletter, The Voice of Clear Light, covering a number topics, including a three day online retreat, “Discovering the Melody of Silence,” scheduled for Friday through Sunday, April 3-5. His retreats are superb, and accessible for people of all levels of experience. His cyber-sangha has members from around the world.

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.
…………
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.

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!

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!

Soul Notes #3: A Dog’s Life

Seven years ago today, we lost Holly, our second dog. She was 16 1/2, which objectively, is a good long life, but when it’s your dog, it’s never long enough. She was about two in this picture. At that time, I’d get up around 5:30, do some stretches, and spend about 20 minutes in the meditation room before getting breakfast for myself and the dogs.

One morning I found Holly sitting in my chair, gazing at the altar. She looked over her shoulder at me, with a “Yes, may I help you?” expression before turning back to her object of contemplation. I thought of the incident this year, when a Tibetan lama mentioned an old saying that many dogs will be reborn as humans, and a lot of humans will be dogs in their next life. It all has to do with having a good heart…

One other notable thing about Holly was her love of water. One time Mary and I were walking her by a stream in Yosemite, talking as she stopped for a drink. After a splash we looked down to see her paddling about with delight.

On her first visit to the ocean, she insisted on playing tag with the waves and letting them win:

Mary and Holly, Bandon, OR, ca. 2000

In honor of Holly, here is an article I posted in 2013, called Dreaming With Animals. The pictures and text are just the barest glimpse of how deeply intwined with Soul the animals are, all the more so now that most of them have been banished from our lives.