Penelope’s Spinning Wheels

One of the oddest images in Homer’s “Odyssey” is of Odysseus’ incredibly faithful wife weaving all day and unravelling each night, a garment which her suitors are waiting for her to finish–because she has told them that only then will she be ready to remarry. While Odysseus is out having his grand adventures, she stays home tending the flame of a higher fidelity.

Perhaps that’s like the role of the Kogi, who live on Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountain in Columbia and call themselves ‘elder brother’. While we, ‘younger brother’, are out storming the walls of Troy, deceiving others with our Trojan Horse deals, and launching our arrows into anyone who gets in our way, the Kogi Mamos remain at home on the mountain where they were born, and remain faithful to their vows.

In the spirit of Penelope spinning and the Kogi Mamos walking up and down the steep pathways of Mother Earth, I find myself looking for something to guide my behavior: not some set of maxims or certainties imported from an already established set of meanings, but a way of traversing the paths of ordinary life that might yield glimpses of previously unnoticed features of the landscape through which I am passing.

Here are a few observations I’ve made along the way:

Evolution is a Relationship

Some people are every definite about whether life is the unfolding of a Divine Plan or the consequence of a natural process. But “creationism” and “evolution” are really just two possible ways of looking at the eternal mystery of life. To accept either one, while excluding the other, is to reduce the unknowable to a dogma of preference.

What Divine Plan could be worthy of a true Creator if it doesn’t leave room for beings to realize their own unique potential? And who among us could rise above our confused stumbling through life who does not—at least in times of inspiration–feel the wingbeats of the infinite fanning our brows?

Here’s a theory (about a theory). The concept of evolution (scientific or otherwise) expresses the optimistic hope that the past can influence the future through changes taking place in the present. The susceptibility of the present to the past seems a more important quality than any supposed mechanism of “random mutations”. To me, the most interesting dimension of the “theory of evolution” is that it posits a view of time which embraces past, present and future: The accomplishments of the past have power, but only if those of us living in the present bring them forward into our time. If we do so, then we will have the opportunity to preserve those accomplishments—evolved and modified to fit the time in which we live—and to lift them up in the hope that a future time will find in them seeds worth nurturing. A flow of potentiality and contingency is a stream that never runs dry.

One example is the New Mexico Parkinson’s Coalition, where until recently I was President of the board. This organization was created by volunteers four years ago, to provide support, education, and networking for the Parkinson’s community of New Mexico. Although adaptations have been made and new areas of service created, we have difficulty living up to the initiative of its founding members, who were all living with Parkinson’s and directly understood why such an organization was worth their efforts.

So time is asking a question: can the energy and vision of this beginning evolve into a sustainable presence—adapted to present circumstances–in order to step into an unknown future?

The present is always offering a window that looks out onto the flow of time, where–among a chaotic migration of conditions and inertias–worthwhile accomplishments in the past may show up in the present. It is then for the present to decide whether these transplants from the past will strike new roots and become relevant for our time.

Although the past cannot force itself upon the present, and the future doesn’t issue special passports into its realms of open possibility, collaborating together, it can happen that past accomplishments and future hopes create a living relationship—from which positive change can come into being.

Standing on the Shore, Not Lost

I increasingly find myself remembering fragments of passages that entered the recesses of my mind years ago, only to discover that the bright fabric of their wisdom has begun to come unraveled at the seams. I just googled the poem “Lost”, which I have quoted several times in the past and am doing so again today, to discover that the lines I so confidently remember—while there in spirit—are scattered widely in the actual poem:

“ . . . The trees . . .are not lost . . .
Stand still.
The forest knows where you are.
You must let it find you.” Lost, by David Wagoner.

Is my notion of “reality” also just something I imperfectly remember? It seems that if a memory speaks from a place inside me, and lends some coherence as I make my way through this lifetime, then it is not completely lost. And like the forest, I can let it find me.

My old friend, Bill, died two years ago, at the age of 74, leaving me to remember the period of my life when we did a lot together: walking to and from school, playing on our high school football team and later, commuting by train to our first jobs in Montreal.

We both had a tendency to be late for everything (a tendency that my wife maintains is alive and well in me as I count down to my own 76th birthday this month). Among my images of Bill are: in our 20’s, running each weekday morning to catch hold of the last car of the commuter train as it was already moving down the track toward downtown Montreal; and, in our 30’s, working separately at mines in Western Canada (Bill went a step further, working on an oil rig in the Arctic where the chill factor reached 90 degrees below zero—with frostbite on his cheeks to prove it).

Bill once shared an experience that has stayed with me. He was racing to catch a ferry from Prince Edward Island back to the mainland, but reached the dock just in time to see it pulling away. As he stood there, helplessly watching the last boat of the day pull out into the channel and head toward the Nova Scotia mainland, instead of feeling angry or despairing, he realized that he had nowhere else he needed to be and that right there was as good a place as any to spend the night. It seemed that at that moment, an expansive kind of space opened up and invited him to come inside.

I hope that when it comes my time to move on, I will be able to draw upon that kind of realization: “Right here is a perfectly fine place to be”, whether I’m on board or not. I hope Bill felt that kind of equanimity in his last moments—as he embarked on his journey into the unknown beyond.

Do Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth

There is some ambiguous advice going around. Take the maxim: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

Anyone who has read Homer’s Iliad, where the Greeks leave a giant, wooden horse outside the gates of Troy–with Odysseus and his soldiers hidden inside–might prefer: “When you’ve been defending Troy for the past seven years and you find a wooden horse outside the gates of your walled city, you should look carefully in its mouth before bringing it inside”. (The Trojans didn’t yet have the saying, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”, since it was their unfortunate decision that gave rise to this expression.)

But perhaps the saying about ‘gift horses and their mouths’ is really advice on how to be gracious when someone offers us a free horse. This hasn’t come up recently for me personally, but maybe in the old West a neighbor might drop by with Nessie, and say, “I’m sure going to miss the old girl, but I want you to have her because you’ve been such a good neighbor.” As a gracious citizen of the world, this would not be the time to look inside Nessie’s mouth and remark that Methuselah probably had better teeth at her 200th birthday party. Instead, just pat the old nag on her flank, and ask if she comes with a bag of oats.

Now that I am getting a bit ‘long in the tooth’ myself, I find that I am not in a neighing hurry to get put out to pasture. Or perhaps I am already out in the field and just don’t know it. In any case, I seem to have more time to ponder issues like: what is meant by the word ‘Mind”.

With the recent arrival of Eastern spiritual perspectives on our Western shores, something lacking in our modern, technological society became available. Many are finding that they can now access another way of looking at life, and an incentive to slow down the accelerating momentum which seems so out of control in our society.

‘Meditation’ and ‘mindfulness’ have helped me to orient myself, as a conscious individual, within the wholeness of the cosmos. But it seems that the dynamic of being a self, who feels separated from his world, doesn’t disappear simply by reading a book.

I am drawn to the view that our materialistic, technological society is receiving the seeds for a new renaissance through Eastern traditions, in which contemplation and practice balance one another.

Balance is a Movement in Space and Time

There was once a baby bear and a baby squirrel, both born on the same day in spring, who loved to play on the teeter-totter in a nearby state park. Every day the bear cub had to sit closer to the fulcrum in order for the squirrel not to just hang in the air like a useless bump on a log. Then one day a wise old owl flew down from the high branches of a Ponderosa Pine, alighted on the top bar of the swing set, and suggested that they try swinging instead of teetering and tottering. He pointed out that there was a natural balance in the swinging of a pendulum, since the upward drag of any given weight, swinging upwards, is preserved in the momentum of its downswing. This opened another chapter in the two friends’ enjoyment of their time together—at least until a park ranger chased them away and they had to find new pastimes. Then, by modifying their activities in response to changing times, they lived happily for many years.

The issue of physical balance has come up for me recently—as opposed to balance as a spiritual ideal (in Mahayana Buddhism, Balance compliments Love, Joy and Compassion, as one of four doorways of Being).

I sometimes wonder why I keep doing what I do (and conversely why I have allowed other activities and interests to lapse). For instance, what exactly is the benefit of writing a weekly blog, which I treat as a commitment even when it doesn’t feel very inspired or creative? If I’m not breaking through to a new vision of possibility, am I just marching lockstep under the banner of an unexamined past?

Where is the right balance between graceful acceptance of the encroachments of advancing age, on the one hand, and the benefits of exercise, diet, and enterprising optimism, on the other? In drawing up a balance sheet between the benefits and drawbacks of doing or not doing certain things, it seems important to include the benefit of remaining interested and engaged.

If Love, Compassion, Joy, and Balance are inherent to the realm into which I have been born–rather like earth, air, water, and fire are fundamental to the body of Planet Earth—then balancing the pros and cons of various alternatives doesn’t have to be something I agonize over. Since balance is the natural condition of everything, I can listen to the pulse of the eternal and the infinite in whatever arises. (Perhaps balance enters my life as a benign act of triage.)

But why do I find it so easy to ignore the living vitality that allows me to wonder, to look around, and to harken to the whispering branches on which my dreams are perched like birds at dawn?

A Rising Tide

A while back, I was with some fellow writers who meet twice a month, and afterwards I found myself wondering why it had felt especially satisfying that afternoon. Did the themes on which we wrote—“What would Dad do?” and “My favorite way to die.”—tap into something especially meaningful for the seven of us? Was it that two new members infused fresh energy, as if a harp and a flute had joined a string quintet and widened the range of tonal diversity to be integrated?

Whatever the explanation, I had a sense of being on a parallel journey with other like-minded but unique individuals.

“A rising tide lifts all boats”—a phrase usually used to suggest that prosperity for society as a whole benefits each individual—captures something beyond economic theory.

Pondering memories of childhood—as my pen raced across the paper–I perceived myself heading toward a time when my hands will no longer move. The child of my own parents is now the father of two sons. But while my deceased parents can no longer reflect on the future, I am still at sea, propelled along by tides and winds to which I am trying to adapt.

After we had each read what we had written, I saw my life as a tacking back and forth, with me trying to catch the best breeze blowing across the sea. It’s all a movement across the face of stillness; and hearing how others described their journeys from birth onwards unto death helped me appreciate my own cycles of intention, of regrets and aspirations, and of disappointments and celebrations.

Seeing myself adrift on the same tide as those around me is itself a rising tide, lifting me alongside a wider community.

A “universal unique” (called life) provides an intersection in which my home port is also a vessel out at sea. Floating on ocean tides–along with every other boat that raises its sail into the wind—I am riding on a stillness which buoys me and leaves me free to chart my own way.

Spring Flowers in a Field

I can encounter an insight hundreds of times without it really catching hold in my mind–as a burr will catch hold of my pant leg as I tramp through the autumn fields. (And even a burr doesn’t hang on forever; since its mission in life is to travel to another place and seed a future for itself.)

Anyone who reads a bit in the writings of Eastern spiritual traditions, which have blown across the Pacific Ocean like seeds carried on the trade winds of time, will encounter the idea that our knowledge will be limited as long as we consider the world outside to be different and separated from the one inside. Viewing the world as objectively real and at a distance from the person viewing it, guarantees that intimacy and comfort will remain fleeting exceptions.

“It is through your subjective demands in the wake of the loss of intrinsic awareness that you are drifting in this world of fictitious being . . .Kindly Bent to Ease Us, Longchenpa.

In the writings of Longchenpa, which have winged their way from the 14th century to the 21st, the phrases “subjective demands”, “intrinsic awareness”, and “fictitious being” are each elaborated in considered detail. One of those details is that when we try to investigate a “subject”, who wouldn’t be alive without “intrinsic awareness”, we employ the concepts of a familiar “fictitious reality”; so that every statement we make assumes that a subject is acting in an objective, pre-established world. So are we condemned to reduce the profound (“intrinsic awareness”) to the ordinary (“fictitious being”)–the moment we open our mouths or pick up a pen?

Just as a horse’s ‘subjective’ appetite for grass makes him bend his head down and thereby turn away from the vast canopy of blue sky above him, so do I treat everything that presents itself to my awareness as food for my senses and as tasks assigned for my mind and hands to carry out.

Of course, any spiritual tradition worth its salt doesn’t leave us stranded in the limitations that it exposes.

It’s not as if there is an intrinsic problem with being someone who inhabits, and places “subjective demands” on, greater Being (“intrinsic awareness”) in which he lives. It’s just that this dynamic produces a distorted image of the wholeness of this greater Being. And like someone in a gallery of “funhouse mirrors”, in which strange, distorted versions of our familiar self-image makes us laugh, we are not obliged to ignore whatever we have discovered of this inherent wholeness, just because an elongated image with a balloon head is waving back at us.

A little laughter may well be the best medicine whenever we find ourselves campaigning for a position amidst the vast cloud banks of greater Being–without which we could not see, act or be.

If a horse eating the grass beneath his soft, nubbled mouth, should hear an apple fall from a tree at the edge of the field, he may not have a Newtonian insight about gravity, but he will appreciate its delicious flavor. How could he not? Horse, grass, apple, and blue sky above: they’re all bobbing along in concert and cannot help but carry the flavor of the greater Being through which they drift.

Like earth, air, water, and fire, ‘subject’ and ‘object’, ‘intrinsic awareness’ and ‘fictitious being’, ‘self’ and ‘world’ each arise within a greater whole that is their true nature. Dancing in this greater whole–a living being with mind and heart, interests and loyalties–I too am moving among the stars.

And like an apple setting sail from a tree at the edge of a field, I launch my own unpremeditated journeys. If I perchance should stumble over some delusion and find myself resting face down in the mud, perhaps that will be my chance to recognize the ground which gives me life.

Boris Pasternak, in one of his “Dr. Zhivago” poems (“Hamlet”), quotes a Russian proverb: “To live your life is not to cross a field.”  But perhaps during my lifetime I am crossing a field—not to get to the other side, but to sample the grass and enjoy the apples that come my way. And at each moment I am free to realize that I am not other than the spring flowers which drink in the rain and turn their faces to the Sun.

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