The Universal Stuff of Us

From earliest times we have wondered about our existence and our connection to the stars. Many myths and stories reveal our longing to return to the skies, as if we are trying to remember how to fly home. We wonder about the return trip after this adventure, our life, is over.

We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from.

We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff.  

~ Carl Sagan ~

This “star stuff” is the stuff of our minds as well as of the natural world. In our art and our philosophy we explore the questions of who we are and from whence we came. This spiritual universe is more personal yet eternal, emotional rather than rational. It is the light in our stars, this comfort from the cosmos when we look to home.

The physical universe is one of rational laws, measurable and impersonal. Essentially, these laws are true throughout the physical universe until proven otherwise. Continual discovery and exploration of the cosmos seems to be what makes or breaks such laws yet in the physical universe constant inquiry is essential for law.

There is room for both a spiritual universe and a physical universe,

just as there is room for both religion and science.

Each universe has its own power.

Each has its own beauty and mystery.

~ Alan Lightman ~

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To recognize and appreciate the uniqueness of the physical as well as the spiritual universe is to observe life with a sense of wonder. In wonder, the physical and the spiritual do not contradict but co-exist so we are able to observe both.

In the observer effect, the act of observing influences what is being observed. One of the many marvels of science is that attributes and behaviors invisible to the naked eye are still observable.

We cannot see the law of gravity or the Higgs boson. We are left observing that what goes up comes down, although the law of gravity is much more than that. The Higgs boson may be observed after protons collide about a trillion times but even after all that, its existence lasts less than a billionth of  a trillionth of a second. Even so, the boson is observed only because of what it becomes.

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In the more personal spiritual universe, belief systems underlie our reactions. Do we observe every event or experience with our complete attention or are we more concerned with how to respond?

My sense is that our observation is obscured. If an event is familiar, we search for a previous and similar response; if an experience is unknown, we search for some kind of  familiarity so we can respond. We are not observing fully so our influence is incomplete as well.

The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand.

We listen to reply.*

We may be missing the wonder of being alive, of being part of this adventure that is both spiritual and physical, each universe complete in its beauty and mystery. We are star dust, this universal stuff of us. Ours is a guaranteed round-trip. Why not observe this life with wonder?

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*This quote seems not to have an attributable source.

Reading Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew is like having your own personal guide to the cosmos. In my post “No Separation of Time and Space Here,” Kay mentioned this Lightman work as well as his novel, Einstein’s Dreams.  I enjoyed both immensely. Thank you!

A recent post from Tiramit mentions the observer effect in his thoughtful post, “Responsibility & Mindfulness.” Thank you!

Graduating is a Lifelong Practice

Single Path 0313We graduate from one moment to the next. Every breath we take has a beginning and an end, and what occurs between that beginning and end is a lesson in living.

From the intake of the breath and all that it holds–the experience of it–to the release of the breath as the moment unfolds is an exercise we practice all the days of our lives.

Graduation is neither success nor failure but a series of milestones, markers of where we were, indicators that we have gone on to what comes next. Sometimes, that is only the next breath. Other times, graduation is a moment of accomplishment, of adding another tool to the toolbox that we carry through life.

Life is its own school, with assignments unique to each one of us. Always, there are questions; always, there are options.

I get up every morning determined to both change the world

and have one hell of a good time.

Sometimes, this makes planning my day difficult.

E.B. White

Graduation does not guarantee changing the world or having a hell of a good time but it does get us from one point in life to the next. It is a reminder that breathing is always an option. For the rest, we have our ever-expanding toolbox.

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Throughout our lives we make choices. It is indeed a milestone when we are thoughtful in our word, taking nothing and no one for granted, doing our best not to take things personally. This moment of graduation is available in every moment we live. Its lifelong tool is awareness.

Awareness helps us sort our options wisely, carefully, especially when our choice is one difficult path or another. Awareness reveals the hollowness in magical thinking for no decision made with heart ever rings hollow.

Many times, we approach crossroads that seem so familiar that we are sure we have been in this same spot before yet life does not afford us that luxury, not quite. We are not the same as we were, and neither are our options. Each moment in life is as unique as each breath. We graduate from one decision to the next.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

(“The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost)

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Graduation requires we immerse ourselves into life with our head below our heart so that we do not leave the difficult choices to someone else while we wither in weakness. Rather, we lead with our heart as we stand, perhaps alone, for what we know is right.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

Martin Luther King

Our graduation from the womb to the outside world is the first of many, the beginning of miles of stone markers of the path traveled, the one that made all the difference.

 

No Separation of Space and Time Here

I do not remember ever distinguishing the dimensions of space—length, depth, width, breadth, height—from time. Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells, and even Marcel Proust wrote of space and time as one. I came late to the word space-time (or spacetime) but not to the concept, not really.

For me, space-time has always been more about mindfulness, paying attention to the details of life as they unfold. The space of a moment is a combination of any three of the spatial dimensions–width, depth, breadth, length, or height. Its time is its unfolding as a scene in life. It is as if each moment has four dimensions, a trio of space in time, 3+1.
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Space-time gives me a better sense of the present as a bridge between the past and the future. The present provides open-ended access to both yet serves as a reminder that the only time we actually live is now.

Having access to the past and to the future is not the same as being in either for we are always only in the present. Yet, it is in paying attention to the details of our lives as they unfold that provides the access to both the past and to the future.

If being completely immersed in the moment reminds us of a similar scenario, that past moment might flash through the mind. It usually does for me. In that flash of familiarity, I have accessed the immutable past but the present scene is of its own unfolding. The scenes are similar but not the same.

Awareness also seems to color the future. Sometimes, I wonder whether or not awareness is the source of infinite possibilities. When we are truly present maybe we are stockpiling for our future; perhaps by minding the details of the present, we provide options for the future.

It is tempting to try to re-create the past as well as frame the future, as if either were possible. Neither is. I know. I have tried. The present is all there ever is and to ignore it is like separating space from time, something I cannot do.

After all, everywhere I go, there I am. I might as well be who I am in the moment that I am.

Perhaps a Glimpse of Buddha Nature

Every once in a while I think I catch a glimpse of Buddha nature. Actually, it is more of a feeling than an actual sighting. In other words, any “aha-moment” vanishes the moment the recognition is mine. I suspect that is how it always is with Buddha nature.

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Even the term, Buddha nature, is known by many other names. For me, it is the eternal aspect of existence–energy vibrating in infinite dimensions and form as matter and anti-matter—creating a background of immutable harmony so that we are able to live our lives with choice.

The reason everything looks beautiful is because it is out of balance, but its background is always in perfect harmony.

This is how everything exists in the realm of Buddha nature, losing its balance against a background of perfect balance.

~Shunryu Suzuki~

Suzuki’s description is a familiar one on this blog, as I have cited it many times. For me, it is the essence of the feeling I get whenever I sense Buddha nature. No matter the definition or description, the idea of a balanced background against the days of our lives means we always have options.

For me, Buddha nature is what I am and have been from my inception, the blank canvas that was me at birth. If I look closely at this painting that is my life, its background is in perfect balance, allowing me to lose and regain myself moment after moment.

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Dates and years frame the triptych of my past, present, and future. I am the artist’s brush, swirling with the color of every choice, stroke after stroke on the canvas that is my moment in Buddha nature. Its balanced background—the context of my life—absorbs the outcome of each moment that is my life.

Buddha nature does not allow me to slide through my life unaware or it does. The choice is mine. In any given moment it is up to me how aware I am of my own brush stroke. In mindful moments is when I glimpse Buddha nature.

The moment is hazy at first, floating in and out like any other, yet its rhythm is different, like an undercurrent that absorbs rather than pulls. Maybe this is what synchronicity is; regardless, I am immersed in it. In such a moment, the ending is as uncertain as is the beginning but I am bothered by neither.

Rather, it is like a story that begins with “once upon a time” and ends with ever after and forever. I am confident there is a bridge between the beginning and the end and indifferent to the outcome. Buddha nature has the essence of a rainbow, a bridge to and from and back again.

Only life is in flux, neither ending nor beginning but always being, not a snapping of photographs or a study in stillness but a series of scene changes as the stroke of the artist aligns with change against the constancy of Buddha nature. The painting that is my life is only one scene in the tapestry of existence yet mine mirrors all others in that it is lived.

As I say, every once in a while I think I get a glimpse.

Good Manners Make Good Neighbors

The pain of loss sometimes divides me between a life I once knew, and the life I have now, a wall not welcome yet one all my own. Most days my mostly Buddhist self says, “Let’s not attach to the pain of loss or we’ll get stuck in its drama.”

But there seem so many days I am too bound to my mind and unwilling to face life as it is now. My lifelong friend is dead, my ability to move through life threatened emotionally as well as physically. A life I knew is no longer but I hold onto it, as if “walling in” a life were possible.

Finally, reality forces me to focus—I have poured coffee into my oatmeal–mindfulness makes me aware of the wall I have so carefully constructed. So often it is the human way to try and still life.

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“Something there is that does not love a wall” is a line from Robert Frost’s “The Mending Wall,” a poem I once knew by heart some fifty years ago. Now, all I recall is a single line but it seems enough.

In the poem, two Maine landowners perform their spring ritual of reinforcing a rock wall that keeps separate his land from his land. Whether it is nature, the magic of elves, a burrowing animal, or a thoughtless hunter that tear down the wall matters not. “Good fences make good neighbors” is the belief of one neighbor while the other wonders if that is true.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
(Robert Frost, “The Mending Wall”)

When I first wrote about this poem in some grade school or junior high English class, I sided with the neighbor who believed a wall was a sign of respect, a reminder of what was not one’s own, a sign of good manners.

Now, I am older or simply old—a final label—yet still on the life side of the wall between here and whatever comes next–the unknown, the intangible—I am here within the laws of nature.

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’
(Frost, “The Mending Wall”)

In my later years, I re-consider what makes good neighbors. It is not good fences or any walling in of loss or walling out of life. It is good manners, a respect for life as it renews on terms not for us to understand immediately but ultimately for us to accept.

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Ours is to extend good manners in our relationship with every form of life. It is ours to mimic the apple orchard and the pine forest, as each respects the other without transgression, as both drop their seeds for a life larger than their own.

Ours is to grieve for those who are no longer here. We respect that they lived and left life with us. It is ours to continue without a wall at all. It is good manners that do not love a wall; it is good manners that make good neighbors.

Reference Notes: For a profound essay on grief, loss, and life, I recommend Francis Weller’s “In Praise of Manners;” also, here is a link to Robert Frost’s “The Mending Wall.”

Facing the Past Tense

Do not stand at my grave and weep,

I am not there; I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,

I am the diamond glints on snow,

I am the sunlight on ripened grain,

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.

I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there; I did not die. (Mary Frye)

Fifty years of friendship feels like only a moment yet it has been a lifetime.  It cannot be over. Not yet. I want Laziness 010514the conversation to continue but mostly, I want the past tense to be the present.

In death, the past tense looms. My mostly Buddhist self believes the past tense is a series of images always available for viewing but never again for experiencing.

I am not used to the past tense. I am not ready to live with my friend as mere memory.

If I think of my friend as dead, there is a hole in the sky that is my heart. I want to tell her how that feels, how that hole is now my world. The telephone that connected us as we aged from teenagers to sexagenarians is no longer in service. It is past tense.

In the last couple years, this blog provided yet another connection for us.  Sometimes, my posts sparked conversations, and other times, our conversations created posts. On this blog, my friend is eternally present.

Discussion was our way for five decades, not a daily occurrence or even monthly, but whenever there was a hole in the sky for either one of us we seemed to sense it. There would be a phone call or an email when least expected and most needed.

My friend was not one who labeled but one who listened. Her innate compassion and loving-kindness opened her to the world wherever she was. And the world responded to her light.

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Along the wend and way of our lives, we each explored Buddhism and over the decades offered our experiences to one another. In these last three years when illness once again marked my life and then for the first time hers, we found ourselves less concerned with outcome and more with exploring the energy of raw emotion.

We were less interested in questions so we had little use for any answer that might appear for we recognized all outcome as temporary. It kept us curious, this being in the moment. We explored eternity as a web without a weaver, its vibrations animating humans, blades of grass–lifetime after lifetime–perfect in its impermanence, forever coming and going.

She is gone in a way I knew and exists in a way I am yet to know.  She is in every breeze, blossom, and glint of light in a night sky. She is. The past tense is no more.

My thanks to Diana J. Hale for her recent post, In Memoriam, as it led me to Mary Frye’s poem, which I could not seem to locate.  Also, thanks to all of you who have sent personal messages. I will respond to each one.

Aim for Even: Bringing Zen Into Every Day

This is the beginning of my third year of blogging about bringing Zen, the “meditative state,” into every moment of every day. There is no one way to do this, as I have learned, but Zen is possible in any and every moment.

The meditative state is being engaged in life, immersed in it, actually. “When coming out of sitting, don’t think that you’re coming out of meditation, but that you are changing postures” (Ajahn Chah).

The act of meditating is to sit in stillness while the practice of yoga moves around the body’s fluids. In both, there is the sensation of being alive. Taking a meditative moment at the end of a yoga session allows the fluids to balance within the body. What was in motion is now in balance for the day.

The postures or positions we assume are unique to us as are our everyday responsibilities. We join with one another in many activities, especially in our work, but even our collective effort is comprised of the unique points of light that each one of us is. That is the meditative state, our own Zen, which we bring to life.

Bringing Zen into our every day may mean stops and starts for a river’s flow is not always smooth, choppy or a torrent but rather, it is steady and swirling simultaneously. Making the meditative state integral to our lives is to aim for even, to meet each moment for all that it is without looking ahead or behind.

To aim for even is to “…stop being carried away by our regrets about the past, our anger or despair in the present or our worries about the future” (Thich Nhat Hanh). Aiming for even is to maintain our balance through the rapids of our lives and to float on moments of reflection. One is not more than the other ever.

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To aim for even is to throw off emotional weight past, present or future, to “…see that the emotions themselves arise out of conditions and pass away as the conditions change, like clouds forming and dissolving in the clear open sky” (Joseph Goldstein). Emotions have the substance of a cloud and the energy of the life force, pure and wakeful.

Bringing Zen to the every day is letting the clouds of emotion delight, darken, and dissipate. Emotional balance is more than shrugging off a difficult moment. It is accepting that the dark never stays and neither does the light. Life is impermanent eternally.

“For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them” (Thich Nhat Hanh). To aim for even is to forego pre-conceived notions of what or how life should be. To meet each moment is to allow it to reveal itself in all that it is and then respond.

If we allow the meditative state to remind us that silence is always a response, we are able to immerse ourselves in all that comes to us for as long as it may take but not a moment longer for there is so much more to come.

In meditation, we watch thoughts come and go for that is the posture of the practice. In bringing Zen into the everyday, we allow moments to move through us rather than holding onto them.

These past two years of blogging have been rich years. So many of you have revealed to me perspectives I may not have otherwise considered or have ever discovered. Thank you for bringing Zen into my every day, reminding me to aim for even.

Rather Than Resolutions, Consider Laziness

I am not much on making resolutions for any period of time. My mostly Buddhist self knows that each moment is its own clean slate. Rather than becoming anything or anyone, I just need to meet each moment I am given and aim for even.

Some may consider that laziness, and I accept that label in any year, moment, hour, or nanosecond. As with any feeling or emotion, all we have to do is accept that each emotion has its own drama and demon players. Ours is to experience but not to become.Laziness 010514

Once we have named the emotion—“this is laziness”–we strip away the drama that has kept us from continuing the story that is our life. Laziness is not “…particularly terrible or wonderful…it has a basic living quality that deserves to be experienced just as it is” (Pema Chödrön).

There is no reason to run away or hide from any emotion. Removing the drama reminds us the duty of being alive requires us to experience our emotions, laziness among them.

If we enlarge our sense of what it is to live, we realize events and emotions are mere scenes in a daily drama, each replaced by the next experience. We are moved by the emotion of each experience but sometimes, we get caught.

“Whatever we discover, as we explore it further, we find nothing to hold onto, nothing solid, only groundless, wakeful energy” (Pema Chödrön). Our discovery that we have experienced laziness and that it is no longer worthy of our rapt attention is the dawning of a new day, a new moment or a new year. Transformation occurs when we no longer disguise or repress what our experience is.

“When we stop resisting laziness, our identity as the one who is lazy begins to fall apart completely” (Pema Chödrön). We have named it so that it becomes nameless and no-thing. The ego is revealed for the groundless dramatist that it is.

What remains is the wakeful energy that allows us a fresh look at ourselves and the world around us. We open to the experience of being alive as the drama unfolds yet again. All we need to do is show up and experience.

“Once More to the Lake” for Reflection on the Year

I am a big fan of New Year’s Eve neither for the noise nor for the celebratory streamers but as a day and night of reflection. Over the past two decades, the last day of each year has emerged as a major holiday for me.

Often, E.B. White’s essay, “Once More to the Lake,” comes to mind not because I am ever lakeside on the 31st of December but because this final day of the year has become one of “peace, jollity, and goodness” much like White’s childhood summers spent at a Maine lake in many a late August.

For me, New Year’s Eve is “infinitely precious and worth saving” no matter how I have marked the year. I flip through my memories of months as if I were watching the year as a slide presentation, images catching between ceiling and wall. Memories are often served skewed.

More than anything, remembering a year on its last day helps me “enlarge my sense of things” so that my perspective is not confined like water in a glass but broad and open like the lapping waters of a lake. In other words, I become a lake.

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Remaining a lake is a lifelong process but the idea has intrigued me since I discovered the story of the Hindu master and his apprentice. Every year I re-tell the story on my blog—at least once—this year, the story seemed appropriate as my last blog post of 2013, a way to enlarge my sense of the year past and open myself to 2014.

As the story goes, a Hindu master grew weary of the constant complaints of his apprentice. No matter the day or the place, the apprentice was not satisfied with his life, how it measured up or how it did not.

One day, the master sent the apprentice to purchase salt. Dutiful but doubtful, the apprentice made the purchase and upon his return, the master told the apprentice to put a handful of salt into a glass of water and take a drink. The apprentice complained that the water tasted bitter.

This was a complaint that pleased the master. He then asked the apprentice to bring the rest of the salt and follow him. After some walking, they came to a lake.
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At water’s edge, the master told the apprentice to throw the remaining salt into the freshwater lake. Then, the master told the apprentice to take a drink from the lake. The apprentice said the water tasted fresh. Again, the master was pleased.

The pain of life is pure salt; no more, no less. The amount of pain remains…exactly the same. But the amount of bitterness we taste depends on the container we put the pain in. Enlarge your sense of things. Stop being a glass. Become a lake.

(Mark Nepo’s Book of Awakening)

The story of the Hindu master and the apprentice frames all my New Year’s Eve reflections. Some years are larger than others, and it is true that as I age, I find life less bitter. Perhaps it is that I drink from life with less expectation and with more curiosity. I like to think so.

I do not have the opportunity to drink from a lake so I sip saltwater from a glass. The sting of the salt reminds me how easy it is to savor only the bitter. It is then that I enlarge my sense of things for the mere experience of life is “infinitely precious and worth saving.”

The Eternal Now of All Seasons

The holiday season and I have an ambivalent history. Some years, I was unable to let the season go, and other years, I never quite showed up for it. Yet, there is one seasonal constant: tradition says we harvest in fall and give thanks; as winter begins, we give gifts, goodwill among them.

All that is left

to us by tradition

is mere words. It is up to us

to find out what they mean.

~ ibn al-`Arabi~

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Each holiday season, I reconsider its traditions in words well-worn as well as new ones:  “…to be detached from both the past and future [is] to live in the Eternal Now.  For in truth neither past nor future have any existence apart from this Now; by themselves they are illusions” (Alan Watts).

The promise of the Eternal Now is life as a seamless season, gifts available in every moment of eternity. If we embrace this holiday season as the Eternal Now, we open ourselves to a way of life that extends goodwill this day and every day.

Yet, any moment of the holiday season offers us experiences that unwrap us raw. These are gifts that cannot pass quickly enough–or so we think–whether it is the first holiday of loss or just another year that we mark a loss. We remember, as we should.

Like the holiday season, the Eternal Now is not a matter of endurance but a matter of meeting each moment just as we are. We may only manage a breath but that is enough to take us into the next moment. Emptying ourselves into loss opens us to gratitude for having loved at all. In love, we let loss go.

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For those holidays I could not let go, I was clinging to the bright and shiny rather than experiencing them. I never really opened their gifts. In those years I completely avoided the holidays, I was surrounded by sparkling gifts not only unopened but unnoticed.

In trying to hold onto a moment and make it stay, we cause ourselves to suffer; if we refuse to show up, we are still seeking what is not and we suffer.  Yet, the field of infinite possibilities is always available to us as long as we breathe for we are never out of sync with the Eternal Now, no matter what.

“You may believe yourself out of harmony with life and its Eternal Now; but you cannot be, for you are life and exist Now—otherwise you would not be here” (Alan Watts). We can celebrate our entire lives with the warmth of the holidays if we remember that existence— the Eternal Now — is always in perfect harmony.

My gift to you, and thus to me, is a life lived in the Eternal Now in all seasons.

Regular blog posts will resume December 8, 2013.