I came down to my office a couple of weeks ago. It was early morning and I needed to get something. Once down here, I thought I’d check the AC filter. I was expecting dust and cat hair. What I found was a small handful of ants. A bit of a shock but nothing I couldn’t handle. I took the whole mess outside, sent them on their way, and slipped the filter back into place. Or tried to. Except I couldn’t get it back in. And since I’d turned the unit off before pulling out the filter, and since it was already hot and humid outside, the room was heating up.
It was only then, so intent had I been on the filter, that I noticed the real problem. A huge stream of ants was pouring in through a tiny opening at the seam where the window meets the wall. Hundreds of ants, winged and wingless, invading my now sweltering office.
I raced upstairs, grabbed the vacuum, brought it down, plugged it in, and began my attack. It was brutal. I was brutal. It was overwhelming. I was overwhelmed. And those ants kept coming. At a certain point, I had a moment of pure terror.
And that was when it hit me. I realized that what I was feeling was not so different from what people opposed to immigration feel. My border was breached and I was desperate to protect it. That was the moment my heart opened.
Which is not to say I’ve changed my position on immigration, refugee crises, and open borders. I have not. Closed borders make no sense to me. I’m as engaged as I can be in the fight to right what I believe is a terrible wrong. But those ants showed me I’m not so different from those “others” I tend to vilify. We may profoundly disagree. But I am damned if I’m going to let my heart close down. The ants taught me that.
There is no great moral to this story. I tell it to bear witness to my determination to stay open to people with whom I disagree. It’s really that simple. If I’ve learned one thing in seven decades of life, it’s that staying open is actually much safer than shutting down. And a whole lot more interesting.
I’ve been catching up on Krista Tippett’s On Being podcasts this week. If you’d like some excellent soul medicine for staying open, I highly recommend her conversation with Luis Alberto Urrea. Click here to listen.
This most recent trip to France was the first time I’ve returned to Europe in 50 years. I was last there in the summer of 1968. We travelled for a couple of months, driving from London to Rome and back up to Denmark and Sweden. I still remember key moments from that trip. But the one that’s haunted me ever since was my experience at the Foundation Maeght in St. Paul de Vence. I was twenty years old with no sense of who or what I was. But walking through the sculpture gardens there I felt a profound sense of self-recognition. It was years before I fully understood this experience. Which was an awakening of my artist mystic self. It was so powerful however, I never forgot the place or the way it felt inside me.
And this is the memory — what we’ve taken to calling my “through the stones” moment, that was the inspiration for this most recent journey. If you’re wondering if I felt the same mystical sense of aesthetic rapture in 2018, the answer is “Yes and perhaps even more.” If you’re wondering why it took so long to return, well, that’s a question for another time…
We decided to spend our first week in Paris because really, how can one go to France for the first time in half a century and not go to la Ville Lumière — and to thenhead south and spend two weeks in Provence. Ideally in a medieval village halfway between St. Paul and the Côte d’Azur. Which is how we ended up in Haut de Cagnes, a place neither of us had ever heard of. And hats off again to Coby, my amazing daughter who discovered this place so many artists call home, it’s been nicknamed the Montmartre of the Côte d’Azur. Talk about perfection…
There is something exquisite about living in a medieval village. I think this has partly to do with the abundance of stones. One has the sense they’ve seen everything. Not just seen it. Sheltered it. Supported it. Protected it. Haut de Cagnes dates back to 1340. So those stones have some stories to tell…
One of my favorite activities was wandering around the village. I loved walking down to the market in the morning. Even loved walking back up the hill. Which was so steep that depending on how full my basket was, required two or three rest stops. How great though, to sit for a moment to catch my breath and gaze at the Mediterranean. And then come home for le petit dejeuner and feast onwarm croissants with butter and jam, apricots, peaches, and comte, the ubiquitous cheese of Provence. OMG. I never eat this way in the States. I’m allergic to wheat and have lactose intolerance… In France, we ate croissants in the morning, cheese and baguettes in the afternoon and evening. And I always felt great. Vive la France...
The doors in Paris blew me away. They are stunningly majestic. Clearly I am not the only person to think so. Check out Raquel Puig’s book, Doorways of Paris. She also has an Instagram account.
The doors in Haut de Cagnes are built on more of a human scale. Which makes them very welcoming. Even when they’re closed.
On one of my first walks down to the market I discovered Modigliani’s house and garden. Just a few doors down from where we were staying. It’s not clear in this photo but if you peek through the arch and over the trees, that’s the Mediterranean off in the distance. I loved walking by this dreamscape every day and breathing in the creative magic still alive there…
Another thing about living in a medieval village is the sense of timelessness. There’ such a strong connection to the past. I mean really, it’s right there. Right here. Ancient past and immediate present have merged into one. Which has a very softening effect I think on that ego-driven sense of our own importance. Life comes into a much truer perspective I think in a place like this. I can only speak for myself but for me, there was such a comforting sense of my infinitesimal place in the great matrix of time and space.
March 11, 2018. A week ago, it seemed like Spring. And then a wild crazy nor’easter blew in. The Mother of All Storms. Thick heavy snow coming down a mile a minute. Thunder and lightning adding to the show. Trees down, power out, and the time that rules the dance of daily life stood still. Truth be told, I rather like these times that are, in their way, outside of time. In the space between…
Years ago I was in a meditation retreat with Baba Muktananda. He was teaching the ham-sa mantra. Part of the practice was to focus our awareness on the space between the breaths. To remain in that spaciousness for as long as we could, Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, maybe ten seconds. He showed us how in that space between the breaths, we touch eternity, poised outside the limiting constructs of time…
One of the curious experiences I had during that weekend retreat was excruciating pain in my left hip. Which began in the Saturday morning session and continued through the closing on Sunday night. Ardent yogini that I was, I soldiered through. And here’s the thing. At the end of the retreat, the pain was gone. Gone. And has never returned…
Was the pain — and I am talking about 48 hours of non-stop physical agony — a kriya, an illusion, something burning up? I will never know. But it did teach me that what I perceive and what is actually happening are not necessarily the same. That when I think I know, or as the Tao Te Ching verse quoted above says, when I presume to know, the odds are, knowledge is not happening….
It’s a tricky business, this knowing and not-knowing, this “I” with all its presumptions, agendas, associations, projections, and attachments. It really does close up the space. And I won’t say I know this. But I sure do feel it in my bones. The spaciousness of that space between the breaths, that’s where it’s all happening. Or not-happening. That is where I want to live.
Here’s my dharma talk from Monday, December 4th. It could be called, What we are is so much more interesting than what we think we should be…. This is a rather freewheeling talk with a handful of LOL moments.
AUDIO OF DECEMBER 4, 2017 DHARMA TALK
AUDIO OF ON TARA TUTTARE TURE SWAHA OPENING OF CLASS
AUDIO OF NAVARNA AND OM NAMAH SHIVAYA MANTRAS
We were reading this text back-to-front but this verse called for a front-to-back context so I also read the two preceding verses. I’m copying them here in that order…
72. When they lose their sense of awe, people turn to religion. When they no longer trust themselves, they begin to depend upon authority.
Therefore the Master steps back so that people won’t be confused. He teaches without teaching, so that people will have nothing to learn.
70. My teachings are easy to understand and easy to put into practice. Yet your intellect will never grasp them, and if you try to practice them, you’ll fail.
My teachings are older than the world. How can you grasp their meaning?
If you want to know me, look inside your heart.
71. Not-knowing is true knowledge. Presuming to know is a disease. First realize that you are sick; then you can move towards health.
The Master is her own physician. She has healed herself of all knowing. Thus she is truly whole.
Prepping for this class which happened to fall on a Super Moon evening, this poem from Lex Hixon’s Mother of the Universe, jumped out off the page. This book used to be my go-to text. As I’ve grown simpler with age however, Lex’s versions of Ramprasad strike me as being a bit too thick. I want everything pared down to its essence. Reading this poem over and over though and typing it out just now, well, let me say that myriad adjectives not withstanding, it’s a rather potent map. And quite soaring.
I am a child reaching out to catch the moon Ramprasad/Lex Hixon
Who in the world can know what Mother Kali really is? She is beyond the reach of every scripture, every system of philosophy.
As the radiant blackness of divine mystery, she plays through the lotus wilderness of the sacred human body. The practitioner of meditation encounters her power deep in the blossom of primordial awareness and within the thousand-petal lotus that floats far above the mind.
Kali is the conscious core, shining through every awakened sage who delights in oneness. This has been demonstrated by countless realized beings. Ma Tara is the queen of freedom within all hears. She reigns timelessly and tenderly. Planes and dimensions of being more vast and subtle than anyone can imagine are found within her womb of encompassing wisdom. The Goddess alone knows the extent of her power. Who else could possibly know?
Laments the singer of this mystic hymn: “Everyone will laugh at my attempt to swim the shoreless sea of her reality, but my soul belongs to her and my heart delights in longing. I am a child reaching out to catch the moon.”
As usual, the final word goes to Mary Oliver. This poem is vast. We can read it over and over again, and always discover something new…
The Mockingbird Mary Oliver
All summer the mocking bird in his pearl-gray coat and his white-windowed wings
flies from the hedge to the top of the pine and begins to sing, but it’s neither lilting nor lovely,
for he is the thief of other sounds– whistles and truck brakes and dry hinges plus all the songs of other birds in his neighborhood;
mimicking and elaborating, he sings with humor and bravado so I have to wait a long time for the softer voice of his own life
to come through. He begins by giving up all his usual flutter and setting down on the pine’s forelock then looking around
as though to make sure he’s alone; then he slaps each wing against his breast, where his heart is, and, copying nothing, begins
easing into it as though it was not half so easy as rollicking, as though his subject now
was his true self, which of course was as dark and secret, as anyone else’s and it was too hard— perhaps you understand— to speak or to sing it to anything or anyone but the sky.
Seated Kuan Yin from the Princeton University Art Museum’s permanent collection.
Life’s been so sped up these last few months, it’s been impossible to keep this blog current. My heartfelt apologies to everyone who looks forward to new content. This post should fill some of that long gap. I’m including audio from the last two classes of November.
Class on November 20th was a rather free-wheeling journey that wove the Tao Te Ching, Sri Lalita Sahasranama, and a Mary Oliver poem. It’s all there in the talk. Text of readings below. And scroll down below that for audio of mantra chanting…
11.20.17 OPENING DHARANA AND DHARMA TALK
READINGS FROM DHARMA TALK
From the Tao Te Ching
The Tao is always at ease.
It overcomes without competing,
answers without speaking a word,
arrives without being summoned,
accomplishes without a plan.
Its net covers the whole universe,
And though its meshes are wide,
it doesn’t let a thing slip through.
* * * *
From the Sri Lalita Sahasranama
She who is tranquility itself.
Shanti is evenness of mind in happiness and in sorrow, in profit and in loss, in victory and in defeat.
According to Shaivagam, Shanti is… that kala which dispels the three major types of impurities, anava,maya, and karma… It shows the way for those who are struggling in the illusion of maya and in actions contrary to one’s karma, forsaking one’s own dharma and embracing that of someone else.
Slipping away from one’s own dharma will not bring prosperity; it causes loss of shanti. The declaration in the Gita that “better is death following one’s own dharma; following another’s dharma leads to fear” is indeed a cornerstone for building a righteous life.
* * * *
from Mary Oliver’s A Thousand Mornings
One summer afternoon I heard
a looming, mysterious hum
high in the air; then came something
like a small planet flying past –
not at all interested in me but on its own
way somewhere, all anointed with excitement:
not to be held back.
Nothing could hold them back.
Black snake wrapped in a tree, our eyes
The grass singing
as it sipped up the summer rain.
The owl in the darkness, that good darkness
under the stars.
The child that was myself, that kept running away
to the also running creek,
to colt’s foot and trilliams,
to the effortless prattle of the birds.
3. SAID THE MOTHER
You are going to grow up
and in order for that to happen
I am going to have to grow old
and then I will die, and the blame
will be yours.
4. OF THE FATHER
He wanted a body
so he took mine.
Some wounds never vanish.
Yet little by little
I learned to love my life.
Though sometimes I had to run hard –
especially from melancholy –
not to be held back.
I think there ought to be
a little music here:
The resurrection of the morning.
The mystery of the night.
The hummingbird’s wings.
The excitement of thunder.
The rainbow in the waterfall.
Wild mustard, that rough blaze of the fields.
The mockingbird, replaying the songs of his
The bluebird with its unambitious warble
simple yet sufficient.
The shining fish. The beak of the crow.
The new colt who came to me and leaned
against the fence
that I might put my hands upon his warm body
and know no fear.
Also the words of poets
a hundred or hundreds of years dead —
their words that would not be held back.
Oh the house of denial has thick walls
and very small windows
and whoever lives there, little by little,
will turn to stone.
In those years I did everything I could do
and I did it in the dark –
I mean, without understanding.
I ran away.
I ran away again.
Then, again, I ran away.
They were awfully little, those bees,
and maybe frightened,
yet unstoppably they flew on, somewhere,
to live their life.
Hum, hum, hum.
[Please note I’m unable to input proper transliteration of Sanskrit and formatting of Oliver’s poem.]
AUDIO OF CLASS CHANTING SARASWATI AND OM NAMAH SHIVAYA MANTRAS
AUDIO OF CLASS CHANTING GAYATRI MANTRA WITH CLOSING DHARANA
AUDIO OF SG SOLO CHANTING BEFORE CLASS
11.27.17 AUDIO OF ENTIRE CLASS
November 27 was an all-chant class. Here’s the live recording from that. If you’ve never been to Monday Night Class, this will give you a sense of what it’s like to be in the room. This is very low-tech recording for music so do listen with gentle ears…
Finally, although I’ve stopped writing political commentary here, the age of Trump continues. Wreaking havoc on our democracy, international relations, the planet, and even outer space. If you want to embody Kuan Yin, whose name means, She Who Hears the Cries of the World, do click here to read Nicholas Kristof’s recent piece in the New York Times, and if you can, please make a donationto the Jamal family. Along with that, if you’ve not seen Ai Weiwei’s extraordinary film, Human Flow, it’s essential education for anyone who cares about life on this amazing extraordinary planet we all call home…
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there…” –Rumi
It’s been quite a month and I am way behind posting classes here. Fortunately the wisdom teachings have no expiration date…
November 13’s Monday Night Class continued our immersion in the deity field personified as the goddess Saraswati, who in “her” most sublime possibility might be understood as that field of which Rumi sings.
This is a field we all do well to live in….
The Tao Te Ching verses for this week were 75 and 74. However, since neither struck me as being rooted in that field, I found I could not speak about them with integrity or authenticity. Two more qualities we can associate with Saraswati. Rather than go against the dharma of speech, I spoke instead about why I could not speak about them…
SARASWATI AND OM NAMAH SHIVAYA MANTRAS
SG SOLO SARASWATI AND ONS MANTRAS BEFORE CLASS
Here are the Mary Oliver poems I read.
These are from her collection, Blue Horses.
As deep as I ever went into the forest I came upon an old stone bench, very, very old, and around it a clearing, and beyond that trees taller and older than I had ever seen.
Such silence! It really wasn’t so far from a town, but it seemed all the clocks in the world had stopped counting. So it was hard to suppose the usual rules applied.
Sometimes there’s only a hint, a possibility. What’s magical, sometimes, has deeper roots than reason. I hope everyone knows that.
I sat on the bench, waiting for something. An angel perhaps. Or dancers with the legs of goats.
No, I didn’t see either. But only, I think, because I didn’t stay long enough.
WATERING THE STONES
Every summer I gather a few stones from the beach and keep them in a glass bowl. Now and again I cover them with water, and they drink. There’s not questions about this; I put tinfoil over the bowl, tightly, yet the water disappears. This doesn’t mean we ever have a conversation, or that they have the kind of feelings we do, yet it might mean something. Whatever the stones are, they don’t lie in the water and do nothing.
Some of my friends refuse too believe it happens, even though they’ve seen it. But a few others—I’ve seen them walking down the beach holding a few stones, and they look at them rather more closely now. Once in a while, I swear, I’ve even heard one or two of them saying, “Hello.” Which, I think, does not harm to anyone or anything, does it?
FRANZ MARC’S BLUE HORSES
I step into the painting o the four blue horses. I am not even surprised that I can do this.
One of the horses walks toward me. His blue nose noses me lightly. I put my arm over his blue man, not holding on, just commingling. He allows me my pleasure. Franz Marc died a young man, shrapnel in his brain. I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses what war is. They would either faint in horror, or simply find it impossible to believe. I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc. Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually. Maybe the desire to make something beautiful is the piece of God that is inside each of us. Now all four horses have come closer, are bending their faces toward me, as if the have secrets to tell. I don’t expect them to speak, and they don’t. If being so beautiful isn’t enough, what could possible say?
New visitors to this blog wanting to read more about Saraswati, please scroll down to the previous post. And, if you’re curious to read the verses I did not read 😉 here they are…
When taxes are too high,
people go hungry.
When the government is too intrusive,
people lose their spirit.
Act for the people’s benefit.
Trust them; leave them alone.
If you realize that all things change,
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren’t afraid of dying,
there is nothing you can’t achieve.
Trying to control the future
is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place.
The messaging in this week’s verse does not hold back, proclaiming loud and clear, do you want to be a disciple of death or of life…
76. Men are born soft and supple; dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant, dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.
It’s an important question. Not just for those on a wisdom path. It’s a question the entire world would do well to consider.
I was at a meditation retreat a zillion years ago and the practice was simple and shocking. Contemplate your death. It’s a great practice. It puts everything into perspective.
Is it Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan who says we should live with the awareness that death is sitting on our left shoulder. I might not have the exact words or correct source, but the teaching is vast and deep. Death accompanies us through every moment of life. Easy to forget as we trudge through the hours. But remembering is such a gift. Steadfast contemplation of death is the surest way to become a disciple of life…..
This week’s class weaves the wisdom of the above verse with contemplation of the goddess Saraswati. For visitors to this blog unfamiliar with this sublime deity field, let me simply say, Saraswati lives inside of us as the river of insight and inspiration. My favorite epithet for “her” is, She Who Lives on the Tongues of Poets.
Here are the Mary Oliver poems I read in this week’s dharma talk. These are from her collection, Swan: Poems and Prose Poems. [With apologies to MO for my inability to tweak the program here so it keeps the subtleties of her formatting.]
Percy Wakes Me (Fourteen)
Percy wakes me and I am not ready.
He has slept all night under the covers.
Now he’s eager for action: a walk, then breakfast.
So I hasten up. He is sitting on the kitchen counter
where he is not supposed to be.
How wonderful you are, I say. How clever, if you
to wake me.
He thought he would hear a lecture and deeply
his eyes begin to shine.
He tumbles onto the couch for more compliments.
He squirms and squeals; he has done something
that he needed
and now he hears that it is okay.
I scratch his ears, I turn him over
and touch him everywhere. He is
wild with the okayness of it. Then we walk, then
he has breakfast, and he is happy.
This is a poem about Percy.
This is a poem about more than Percy.
Think about it.
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not, how shall
I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I ever be forgiven,
can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning.
Let laughter come to you now and again, that
The impulse to leap off the cliff, when the
body falsely imagines it might fly, may be
restrained by reason, also by modesty. Of the
two possibilities, take your choice, and live.
Refuse all cooperation with the heart’s death.
I have been risky in my endeavors,
I have been steadfast in my loves;
Oh Lord, consider these when you judge me.
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
Beginning this month, we’re having an all-chant class on the fourth (non-holiday) Monday of each month. Daniel Johnson will be accompanying chanting on tabla. These evenings will not be recorded. You simply have to be there ❤️ The first class of this new offering was on October 23. Which is why there is no blog post for that week.
OCTOBER 30 MONDAY NIGHT CLASS
77. As it acts in the world, the Tao is like the bending of a bow. The top is bent downward; the bottom is bent up. It adjusts excess and deficiency so that there is perfect balance. It takes from what is too much and gives to what isn’t enough.
Those who try to control, who use force to protect their power, go against the direction of the Tao. They take from those who don’t have enough and give to those who have far too much.
The Master can keep giving because there is no end to her wealth. She acts without expectation, succeeds without taking credit, and doesn’t think that she is better than anyone else.
This week’s class wove the above verse with my telling of the Hindu myth of the birth of Laksmi. Both are profoundly relevant for us 21st century moderns. And together they pack quite a punch.
No poetry this week but here’s an essential quote from the Laksmi story:
“Go and make peace with your enemies the demons,” he told them. “When there is a great task ahead, one should befriend even enemies. Cast into the Milky Sea potent herbs, then take Mount Mandara for a churning-stick, the serpent Vasuki for a rope, and churn the ocean for the dew of life. For this you need the demon’s aid; make alliance with them, therefore, and engage to share with them the fruit of your combined labor.”
Opening chanting for this week’s class combined Laksmi and Tara mantras. Alas, a technical glitch so no audio. I do however have the dharana. Which offers a lovely way of holding these two mantra/deity fields. A small note on the goddess Laksmi, who, because of “her” association with material abundanceis looked down on in some ascetic yogic circles. From my perspective this is really really really wrong understanding.