On the Bliss of Oblivion

For the second night in a row, I’m ready to sleep at the blasphemous hour of 7:00 p.m.

This has everything to do with Abbey’s instruction to “align movement to breath rather than breath to movement” after watching me execute a yoga pose with military mindlessness.

That piece of advice, delivered with an admirably Yoda-like terseness, has had a stunningly disproportionate impact on my asana practice. For the first time in a long while, I’m wiped out by śavāsana, pitched headfirst into a fatigue so deep it’s enough to swallow all the fractious voices in my head.

And it’s a silence that’s utterly welcome.

Ever since I turned thirty (not too many weeks ago), it seems that all the space I’d been cultivating the past several months has morphed into a Hydra of heady possibilities. I’m suddenly doing a number of different things I’d never have remotely considered doing before, and as a consequence, the heretofore serene oligarchy in my brain has degenerated into an unruly mob. My mind’s buzzing when I go to bed and buzzing when I get out of it, and for all the dizzing excitement, I haven’t had a moment’s peace.

Until the last two days, that is, when I focused all my attention (after weeks of neglect) on the impossible simplicity of just breathing— of just allowing the breath to dictate mind and movement, of simply attending to the sound and texture of inhales and exhales. And I did it (or tried to do it) for the incredible and inconceivable span of two hours

(Honestly, resuscitating flat-lining business or renovating old houses is infinitely easier. Which accounts for why there are far, far more managers and contractors in the world than yoga or meditation masters.)

Difficulties aside, the benefits have been immediate and clear. Which is why I’m going to bed after I upload this post.

Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawn . . .

On the Burdens of Persistence

A month of literary respite is about to close. Not just respite—but rest, reprieve, retreat. Apart from the occasional sallies, I’ve hidden behind the cryptic eloquence of poetry and prose.

There was, of course, the occasional dissatisfaction (why am I permitting this?) and the not-so-occasional anxiety (what if I never get into the rhythm of writing daily again?). But more often than not there was just the startled relief (I don’t have to write anything just yet…) coupled with the confused melancholy of the imminent end (next week, I’ll need to write again).

This mass of schizophrenic desires (so typical of our age—or, at any rate, of my age in this age) simply demonstrates how easily the most significant of our accomplishments degenerates into the most trying of tasks. Yesterday’s triumph rapidly devolves into tomorrow’s obligation, and we forget (far too often) that we chose the very things that occur to us as burdens now.

(This is where a number of us employ a form of selective amnesia. We simply . . . forget. Into this blackhole of oblivion is consigned a wholesale number of commitments, the accumulated fulfillment of which would have already ended war, eliminated poverty, addressed hunger, cured cancer, and, most importantly, abolished fat. The most curious and iniquitous thing about this amnesia is that it also happens to be collective: I’ll implicitly forget your promise if you implicitly forget mine . . .

The fragility of our spoken commitments is what has us resort to the impregnability of the written word—a suspect impregnability, at any rate, given how materially flimsy the written word actually is. Be that as it may, there is something reassuringly solid about the recorded promise. Its gravity is what has us sanctify and solemnize sheets of writing penned in styles so arcane it takes the average human being four years more of postgraduate studies capped by a bar exam to even qualify in deciphering them (let alone creating them).

And it’s this very gravity that has me write (and write again) in the very many occasions when there’s nothing left to write about (let alone write for). In the face of fatigue, exhaustion, indifference and oblivion, I write because I said I wouldand it’s declaration I wrote down somewhere.

On the Pleasures of Rumi (Part 1)

For those of us who only wake up in the morning because, as a friend of mine once put it, we didn’t die the night before.

by Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture.

Still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

On the Pleasures of Bridges

Since my August 21 entry On the Tribulations of Transitions, a number of people have approached or contacted me to say thanks for posting a piece that resonated with unusual depth. As I’ve told each of them, creating that post had been entirely unplanned. At the same time, writing it had also been utterly effortless, the thoughts coming as they did from a variety of transition experiences whose accumulated trauma had taken me years to articulate (and fortunately eventually manage).*

There are, however, profoundly simple ways of managing transitions—beyond the epigrammatic lists generated by survivors who happen to maintain blogs—and pointing to one powerful source for this information is the subject of this particular blog post.

The source, in question, is William Bridges’ Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. The book makes up for it’s title’s lack of wit by pleasantly overdelivering on the said title’s promise. Two of Mr. Bridges’ most powerful contributions are his distinction between change and transition and his assertion that it’s people’s inability to draw the distinction that makes transitions particularly painful and protracted.

As Mr. Bridges explains in an interview:

As I use the term, change is a shift in the externals of any situation: a new boss, setting up a new program, the death of a relative, a move to a new city, or a promotion.

By contrast, transition is the mental and emotional transformation that people must undergo to relinquish old arrangements and embrace new ones.

Transition has three phases: an Ending, a disorienting sort of “nowhere” that I call The Neutral Zone, and a new Beginning. If people don’t deal with each of these phases, the change will be just a rearrangement of the furniture. . . .

Change is made up of events, while transition is an on-going process. Change is visible and tangible, while transition takes place (or more often, doesn’t take place) inside of people.

Change can happen quickly, but transition takes weeks or months or even years. Change can, and usually should be, speeded up. Transition, like any organic process, has its own natural pace.

Change is all about the outcome we are trying to achieve; transition is about how we’ll get there and how we’ll manage things while we are en route.

Those six short paragraphs alone should be enough to set off a string of lightbulbs in any transition sufferer’s head. The point is: we postmoderns may be incredibly blasé about change, but we’re also pathetically naïve regarding transitions. Our innovation-driven cultures and economies have us believe that constant novelty is good, but that perpetual stream of newness (of product, of service, of habit, of lifestyle, of career, of residence, of partner, of religion . . . ) exacts an indeterminate but omnipresent toll.

All of which is enough to make Mr. Bridges, in my book, a savior of sorts in our postmodern age.

* The same experiences have also been the subject of many of my posts in this blog, proving my hypothesis that what doesn’t kill a writer can at least amuse her readers; on this latter note, see any of my posts on driving-related mishaps.

On the Pleasures of Kornfield

This is the first (and possibly only time) I’ll be recommending a book that I haven’t even finished reading yet.

The main title alone would have gotten it into my good graces, paraphrasing as it does a Zen Buddhist epigram found at the end of my email messages: “After enlightenment, the laundry.”

But a catchy title isn’t the only merit to Jack Kornfield’s After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path. The earnestness of the subtitle notwithstanding—of a degree that would have placed the book in Oprah Winfrey’s good graces—the work contains perhaps the most compassionate and compelling accounts I’ve ever read of the journeys that advanced practitioners have taken in their search for illumination or enlightenment.

The extraordinarily relevant question that motivates Mr. Kornfield’s book is this: does the experience of enlightenment last? Following the moment of ecstasy, illumination, rapture—or beatific vision if you will—does the spiritual master walk in a state of permanent transfiguration?

The answer, Mr. Kornfield presents in numerous, evocative accounts from practitioners of varying faiths (e.g., Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sufi, etc.), is a resounding no. Citing the case of one particular master who experienced satori (sudden enlightenment) during a week-long sesshin (Zen retreat):

I had felt bliss before—big waves of it on some retreats . . . —but this was different. All struggle stopped, and my mind became luminous, radiant, vast as the sky, and filled with a most delicious scent of freedom, of awakening. I felt like the Buddha sitting effortlessly hour after hour, held and protected by the whole universe. I lived in a world of unending peace and unspeakable joy . . . . For days I rested in this timeless utter peace, my body floating, my mind empty. I would wake up and waves of love and joyful energe would stream through my consciousness. Then, insights and revelations came, one after another . . . .

A few months later, the same master says:

. . . after all this ecstasy came a depression, along with some significant betrayals in my work. I had continuing trouble with my children and family too . . .

In short: after enlightenment is the laundry—tons of it, in fact, irrevocably stained, nauseatingly rank and vastly unsorted.

But why should we read a book whose honesty, even if refreshing, also makes it potentially dismal? Don’t we all start our spiritual quests motivated by aspirations towards achieving an imperturbable (and now apparently ephemeral) serenity? What are we to make of Mr. Kornfield’s assertion that “enlightenment cannot be held by anyone. It simply exists in moments of freedom”?

Frankly, I didn’t know what to make of it for an entire evening either—and consequently spent a gloomy hour staring at the ceiling in the dark. Then I remembered something Mr. Kornfield had said in his introduction to the book in describing a company of Buddhist teachers assembled at a gathering hosted by the Dalai Lama:

We all [shared] the problems that come with bodies, personalities, family, and community. . . . Fortunately we also shared the astonishing gifts that spiritual practices had given us, the joy and freedom we had learned to carry with us in the difficult and changing circumstances of the world.

This, I suppose, is Mr. Kornfield’s intention: to dispense with the ultimately disillusioning misconception that perfection is attainable—to tell us, gently, that moments in time are all that separate the sinner from the saint, BUT, also to tell us that practice can, and does, make the periods of grace longer and the consequences of iniquity lighter.

And we all have that capacity for practice, Mr. Kornfield insists. The occasional frailties of Zen masters notwithstanding, thinking that we can never aspire to the Dalai Lama’s tranquility is laughably erroneous. Quoting Pir Vilayat Khan, the head of the Sufi order in the West, Mr. Kornfield writes:

Of so many great teachers I’ve met in India and Asia, if you were to bring them to America, get them a house, two cards, a spouse, three kids, a job, insurance, and taxes . . . they would all have a hard time.

In short: trust me and take heart, you’re farther along the path than you think.