In times of yore (long before I was born), writers who set out to explore the mysteries of the past would invoke the Muse to come and inspire them, and perhaps to reveal vistas ordinarily hidden to human eyes.
This morning, doing a TSK exercise called “Source of Thoughts”, a ‘thought’ popped into my mind: I could invoke the TSK Vision to reveal those past times when things shifted in ways that seemed not accounted for by physical or psychological elements that were recognizably present.
This thought resonated with a writing friend’s recent suggestion: that I could sit quietly and let spontaneous engagement with something worth sharing come to me.
Franz Kafka said something similar: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait; be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
Perhaps I’ve been looking at things the wrong way. Drawing up a ‘list’ of special times—when new directions and fresh possibilities appeared to open up—is unlikely to transcend my usual experience, in which, like a miner looking for gold, I subject memory to a process of assaying, winnowing, and extraction. I should know by now that, with such methods, I can expect to find precisely what I expect to find: that ‘transformation’, ‘the other side’, and ‘hidden dimension’ will just be categories I impose from ‘this side’.
The TSK vision, at least in my hands, is quite capable of creating expectations and of setting up ways of looking that will substitute the fixed interpretations I bring with me in place of the fresh blossoming of open possibility. Is it really possible that meditative stillness could help ameliorate this strongly engrained tendency?
What would it mean to sit quietly with a spirit of curiosity and invite another kind of time to build a bridge between who I am now and who I was back then; to invite an accommodating spaciousness to float my memories, like children’s paper boats after a heavy rainstorm, which reveal their journeys as they go along? Who wouldn’t welcome such a new kind of knowing, that brought with it a spirit of discovery in place of one more recitation of the already ‘known’?
Like a dolphin who dives down into ocean depths, but who needs to break though the surface of the realm in which he lives in order to breathe, I too am always swimming through an ordinary kind of time, immersed in an enveloping medium of situations, events and agendas; and sometimes I need to break free into another medium—into a more open, light and nourishing realm. Like the dolphin who (from whatever depths he has plummeted into the compressing medium of the ocean) must come back to the surface in order to replenish himself, I must also breathe in the openness of space to have any chance of recognizing that another realm is present.
I am being drawn back to a moment in Zoglio, Switzerland, a small, mountain village that Buffy and Eric had introduced me to years before, where the sound of goat bells and the guttural melodies of rushing streams are never far away. It must have been around 1990 because Mom’s dementia was already pronounced and therefore she must have been nearing the end of her life, which arrived in 1991.
Looking back now at this version of myself, in his late 30’s, who stepped off the bus that day, I can see that I had no idea how many things were about to change—let alone that within the next hour my relationship with Eric would take a nosedive, which would take both of us pulling back on the throttle before we were able to continue flying together, now at a lower altitude.
Mom, Buffy, and Eric had already been there for about a week when the bus made its way up the steep mountain road from the valley floor and stopped in Zoglio, before winding back down and continuing to serve the other villages between Saint Moritz and the Italian border.
I arrived without my luggage, except for a carry-on bag, but was far more interested in continuing my decades long conversation with Eric than that the airlines had shipped my bags to some other destination. I’d always felt close to my mother, the one person in the world on whose love I could count to be unwavering, if sometimes intrusive. Buffy was the sanest person I knew. But Eric was the person who held the keys to what I was discovering the world could hold for me: a realm where intelligence and integrity could make their way in spite of whatever dark ignorance arose to block their way. (And Eric knew about those dark forces, having lost his job as head of International News with the CBC during the McCarthy Era (when anyone with a communist past, even those who resisted Hitler in the 1930’s and 1940’s, as Eric had, were singled out through a distorting view finder which focused on simplistic labels, far more than on the lives of the people who had lived through those times).
My anticipation upon seeing Eric again, and of spending an entire week together in the most beautiful place in the world, was that we would continue my good fortune when he had picked me to be his confident and to share with me his personal stories about the Second World War. Along with this sharing came his sense that a great price had been paid to defend a society that now allowed unworthy voices to hold sway.
When Eric suggested we walk around the village a bit, it felt like a continuation of our years of conversations. Stepping along the cobblestoned streets, beneath mountains towering overhead on both sides of the valley, we must have talked about this and that. At some point, he must have asked me what I was reading these days. For perhaps the first time, I had something significant to report; and I shared something about the books by Tarthang Tulku which had become important to me since our previous time together.
I think when our minds shut down in shock, we stop noticing much about what is happening around us. And that entire week is like a post card found years later in the Lost Letter Department. Holding that post card in my hands now, on one side there is a picture of Zoglio and on the other a few scribbled lines about the people with whom I spent that week a quarter century ago. It was as if I wasn’t really present after those initial few moments with Eric.
I took his question as an invitation to share (with the man who had set me on the path of interest and engagement, without which I would never have been able to recognize in the writings of Tarthang Tulku the most intelligent and penetrating understanding of what it means to be a human being in the modern world).
But Eric’s response was something like, “You should be careful giving yourself to loose, fashionable thinking.” I knew that he was judging something about which he knew little to nothing, and I asked him why he thought that what I was reading was worthless. His response then did more than alter our week in Zoglio together. It did more than permanently alter the nature of our relationship. It lodged in my mind and created a vortex in which—whenever anything struck me as an important insight—I would turn to Eric in my mind, even after his death, and say, “Look. Isn’t that true? Doesn’t that just shine with the spirit of understanding that you, more than anyone, taught me how to appreciate?”
It was not until, years later, when I was obliged to sit for a week in silence, avoiding eye contact, at a Vipassana retreat at the Lama Foundation in Northern New Mexico, that I became so painfully aware of this tendency (to share my thoughts with some internalized image of Eric)–especially during the evening Dharma talks which my mind, starved of intelligent, balanced thinking, drank up avidly—that I could no longer deny what was happening. Eric was dead, and it was entirely in my own mind that the aftershocks of that moment in Zoglio continued to quake.
And what did Eric actually say; when I asked him how he could judge the worth of something he had not looked at himself?
“By looking at you, Michael. By looking at you.”
. . . . .
I think I am now more able to understand something of Eric’s experience in Montreal and how his intelligent mind was denied a livelihood which utilized his knowledge of world history (and instead he had to sell shoes at Eaton’s Department store in Montreal).
Increasingly, it seems the world has moved on into a kind of teenager’s indifference for adult concerns. Or perhaps it’s a phenomenon akin to hardening of the arteries, where attempts to share knowledge must flow through the constricted channels of prejudice, and resentment. It seems that our teenage nation, on which no bombs fell, has trouble looking closely at events that have not been personally experienced by those who are the most avid instruments of judgement. And Eric was a victim of this uninformed, simple mindedness.
The Kogi are a tribe in Columbia, who have lived in isolation on Sierra Nevada de Marta Mountain (the highest costal mountain in the world), and for the first time since the conquistadors forced them to retreat 600 years ago, they have left their mountain to warn us that Mother Earth is dying. They call us ‘Younger Brother” and themselves “Elder Brother”.
Today there are so many signs that our modern world is well along a road that leaves little room for diversity and considers irrelevant the different ways of knowing that have evolved in diverse cultures and periods. Even in the decade or two after the end of WW II, forces were gaining momentum that left little room for someone like Eric. He had no children so he lacked that avenue through which he might have learned to deal with the new generation that had inherited his world. But he was a well-prepared witness to the strengths and weaknesses of the old world in Europe and could have, like many others whose voices are not heard, helped steady the new world’s accelerating trajectory along a one-way street.
When I asked Eric if I should read Karl Marx, he indicated that it was too late: History had already passed by the early promise of that vision of a society in which sharing and a spirit of generosity would hold a central place. He referred me to “The God that Failed”, essays by intelligent and engaged minds, such as Arthur Koestler, about the vision of a world that would allow society to share the common resources and fruits of production more equably with everyone involved in that society’s successful functioning. But that was before that dream had been turned into totalitarianism in Russia, and no longer had a future in the West.
Now we live in a society in which power, wealth and fame are mistaken for strength of character; and concern for the difficulties of others is held to reveal a willingness to forsake the integrity of the nation.
I’ve thought a lot about why this incident with Eric affected me so much. And why Eric felt so little curiosity about another way of viewing the world and the human presence in it, which his young ‘protégé’ was drawn to.
This question has nothing to do with my own interest in things Eastern, now an established appreciation which I suspect his rejection served to strengthen in me, since it allowed me to realize that no one else’s opinion was relevant when it came to the nourishment my inner being was discovering.
In the early 1990’s, I took very personally Eric’s assertion that ‘weakness’, manifested in my connection with Eastern perspectives, was visible in my face. What lodged in my consciousness was more than an intellectual disagreement about what subject matter is worthy of attention; it felt like a rejection of who I was becoming. Instead of acne and a Mohawk haircut, I heard in Eric’s observation an image of myself as slack-jawed, irresolute, with a lack of presence, focus, or personal integrity: a person he would never want to get to know.
The next memory that emerges from the mists of time was at the end of that week, with Eric and me sitting side by side on a bus as it wound back down the steep mountainside and took us to Saint Moritz, from where my mother and I would make our way to a week in Ireland and Buffy and Eric would return to their village in Germany. That memory is of Eric saying, “I feel terrible.”
Looking back through the lens of what I have since learned, I can recognize that this might have been an opportunity for us to reconcile before we went our separate ways from Saint Moritz. But at that time, I took Eric to be saying that he was experiencing some kind of motion sickness. It wasn’t until after Eric had died and I flew to Montreal to spend time with Buffy, who was visiting friends who still lived there, that I was able to ask her about that time in Zoglio. I learned then that Eric had been referring to what had happened between us.
Eric and I continued to write letters—me back in Albuquerque, he in the small German town where they had lived for years—and I welcomed the blue airmail envelopes when they showed up in my mailbox. I was able to explain in my letters that my expanded interests felt like a continuation of the preparation he had given me, and we had the chance to settle back into a mutually respectful and affectionate communication. But that doesn’t account for my experience at the Lama Foundation when I kept turning in my mind to him, by then deceased in the world but not in my mind, as if I still aspired to share the wisdom in which he had never expressed any interest.
In the silence of a mind, which the Vipassana format prevents from speaking out loud for an entire week, I finally recognized that this ongoing solicitation of approval was a phenomenon exclusively inside my own mind. Like the red spot on Jupiter, it was just a particularly persistent but local weather pattern—a nexus of disturbed energy that signaled a lack of integration between one event and the entire flow of my life. In that recognition I was able to thank Eric for having equipped me to make my own choices and to seek my own spiritual nourishment; then to finally “kiss it, bless it, and let it fly”, to borrow the words of Helen Renwick, who died from ALS–also in 1990.
Even if my aspiration to contact a greater time through the portal of particular moments risks misinterpreting the extraordinary as ordinary, I believe that there are moments with a special energy (although they may feel at the time like a sink hole taking more than it gives back) when it is fruitful to walk around again in an old neighborhood of time and space. Looking back at what seemed like a ‘lost’ week in Zoglio, I imagine how it must have been exhausting for Eric to have spent the previous week with my mother. In this reunion with two people he cared for, he must have discovered that both of us had changed into something he didn’t recognize. My mother and I had both been bright spots during his decades in Montreal–which was otherwise a kind of exile from the Europe he knew but where he no longer felt welcome in the remnants that remained of Germany and England after the war. Then, during this two week holiday in his favorite place, he finds that my mother can no longer participate much in their conversations and that her son is no longer the awestruck admirer of his life story and that for the first time he wants to share his own narrative.
And, come to think of it, it wasn’t just Eric who was skeptical of my new found ‘infatuation’ with Eastern spiritual writings. Both my mother and her older sister, Katie, had found it necessary to caution me against giving myself over to what they perceived to be a religious cult with no roots in my own culture or in my personal past. Perhaps I might have been more sensitive to how the adults who cared most for me felt apprehensive that I had lost my way.
Another thought: Eric and I, in our very different ways, both felt ungrounded in our worlds: Eric because the world of humanistic values, with its assumption that humanism humanizes, had been broken and, like a rabid animal, had turned on its own kind (continuing to do so in the new world to which he had retreated); and me—perhaps helped along by Eric’s stories that revealed how exhausted the world I had inherited had become—because I glimpsed some of that collapse of western culture, which now—in 2018—has become so painfully visible to anyone with a thinking mind and a feeling soul.
But I shouldn’t be surprised that it took me a while to realize that I had been caught up in a cycle of change; and that I kept clinging to a way of life that had given me so much.
There’s a Sufi story about a bird who lives with a family of flightless birds, who has a persistent dream that he could learn how to fly. But his family is unable to teach him what they cannot do themselves. The story ends with him telling himself that the parents, who have taught him everything else, will one day teach him how to fly also, if he is just patient enough.
Eric spared me having to wait for the impossible to materialize, by speaking out his disapproval clearly and unequivocally. That I didn’t immediately recognize how I continued to cling to the old world of thought to which he had introduced me, may be a sign of how much else was changing in my life. It wasn’t long after that: my mother passed on, an inheritance that appeared in the last months of her life (when a plot of land in England was re-zoned from rural to commercial) allowed me to attend a six month retreat and then to co-found Friends in Time which provided free services to people with ALS and MS for twenty years; I started writing again after twenty years, during which time I had told myself that I couldn’t afford to weave surrogate realities when I was so unable to deal with the ‘real’ one in which I lived; and I became a father. These tumbling shifts in perspective and engagement provided rich new contexts in which to practice generosity and compassion–and also to work, slowly, on a connection with the illusive muse of how to understand this strange existence.
When talking about transformative moments, as I have set out to do, there is something almost humorous, and certainly presumptuous, about any characterizations which I could ever make about the nature of what might reside in some hidden dimension. That would be like catching a fresh baked loaf of bread that falls from the sky and claiming that it is manna from heaven; it scarcely matters whether I varnish it and place it on a pedestal, or slice it up, slather it with jam and pronounce it to be tasty. The issue remains: how can I possibly hope to incorporate the ineffable and transcendent into my world of grocery lists and commandments?
But where else but here and now (in partnership with there and then) can I attempt to record what I feel I have learned in my life? Using what tools–except the context and language available in my current state of consciousness–can I hope to capture the glimpses of understanding from which I have benefited?
Then is there nothing to be done; is there no guidance to be found (on this side) for how to express gratitude for the new possibilities that didn’t seem possible until they blew in and changed the entire climate of my mind?
Buddhism has a lot to say about this issue—of how we can work on this side in ways that can bring us closer to the luminous realms; even though we can only point to these realms in parable.
A man running late for his concert performance, with his violin case grasped in his perspiring hand, frantically asks a man standing on the corner, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” And the other man replies, “Practice, practice, practice.”
The Buddhist “Paramitas” (translated as “Going Beyond”)–the first of which is ‘Generosity’–make clear that we should practice ‘generosity’ without indulging in the illusion that we are yet capable of being truly generous.
Concerning this there is a Sufi story about a king who, each weekend, sets up a stall on the plaza with a bucket of gold coins from the royal treasury next to him. Of course the people line up to get their coin–invariably bowing before the monarch and expressing their gratitude. But there is one man, unkempt and sullen, who shows up each week, snatches his coin, and then walks away without a word of thanks.
After a few weeks of this behavior, the king explodes, “What an ungrateful wretch you are!” To which the man, who we then realize was a Sufi master, responds that the king doesn’t know anything about generosity. He goes on to say that true generosity requires three things: realizing that we are not presently capable of acting with true generosity; yearning from the depths of innermost being to become capable of true generosity; and—only then—practicing ‘acts of generosity.
Practice, practice, practice: with our resentments (when people snatch our offerings with no appreciation); with our sorrow and helplessness (when our children blame us for their problems); and with our helplessness in the face of the world situation (which seems to be accelerating toward the destruction of what is most sacred and beautiful).
It is in that context that I would like to record my sense of appreciation for my good fortune, which opened up possibilities in ways beyond anything I could have planned or for which I possessed either the background or the personal qualifications to deliberately undertake.