Browsing Category "Books"
16 Jan
2020
Posted in: Books, Mystery
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Both Known and Deeply Unfamiliar

I’m reading a lot of books right now, but before I move on, I just have to post a little bit more from Hisham Matar’s lovely (and mysterious) meditation on memory and place in A Month in Siena:

“Back in the early 1960s Siena became the first Italian metropolis to restrict access to motor vehicles. The bus deposited us at the edge of the city. We pulled our suitcases into the dimly lit web of alleyways…

“The sharp turns of the passageways and the closeness of the buildings gave me the sense that I was entering a living organism. With every step I pressed deeper into it and, as though in response, it made room. I was inside a place both known and deeply unfamiliar.

“The flat I had rented turned out to be part of an old palazzo. It had frescoed ceilings and perfectly proportioned rooms. The modest exterior of the building made the beauty of these private spaces even more acute. Over the coming days, and whenever I left the house, I was often conscious, even without looking back, of the sober facade. It was like an ally to whom I wanted to unburden all sorts of secrets.

“The place reminded me how the buildings we encounter, like new people we may meet, can excite passions that had up to then laid dormant. Most of the time we are not even aware of such adjustments. They happen mid-stride, and are often mutual, for, just as we influence and are influenced by others, the atmosphere of a room too is marked by what we do in it. And most of what we do vanishes, but a slight and shadowy remnant remains.

“How else then to account for why we can perceive awfulness where awful things have occurred, or be quietly inspired by a room where for a long time attention had been given to what is beautiful and kind.

“Every time I returned to the flat I felt my anticipation grow. And over the coming days, everywhere I went in Sienna, I did, in effect, carry with me, like a private song, the pleasure of those rooms.”

***

Photo by Charlie on Unsplash

15 Jan
2020

Then What Happens, Happens

Last night at Tuesday Night Insight, I read a few lines from Teach Us to Sit Still, by Tim Parks, (from the excerpt I’d posted here). There seemed to be a lot of interest in the book, so for today I’m posting a longer excerpt, this time from the Afterword:

“Let me sign off with a few words about this morning…

“After a moderately interrupted night, I rose before six and went down in the dark to the bedroom that used to be my son’s. Since the days are growing chill, I pulled on a sweater and tracksuit trousers, then set the alarm on my cell phone for seven. One can’t always have a Tibetan gong.

“There’s not much space here. I keep a blanket folded on the floor, a cushion to sit on, a couple of beanbags to slip under the knees. One day the left leg tucks in first, the next day the right; for symmetry. Careful not to hurry, I wrap a shawl round my shoulders, switch off the lamp and sit.

“The room is pitch dark now. The shutters are closed. The Iron Maiden poster beside the door is invisible. In the silence I say no formulas; I do not take refuge in the Dhamma or wish for all beings to experience sympathetic joy. I am not prayerful. But taking a deep breath, I am aware of the sleeping house around me: of Lucy in the next room, Rita under the quilt upstairs, the dog curled in his basket, all of us up here on the hill, looking south across the Italian plain.

“Morning thoughts rise like bubbles. I concentrate on the breath in my nostrils, on my lips. Only steady awareness of the body will still that mental fizz. I’m not concerned when I don’t success. The aim is quiet, but I will not crave it. Now I catch myself composing an e-mail: Dear Prof. Proietti, although… Now I’m replaying Torres’s goal last nigh against Man U. Where was Rio? Stop. I take the mind back to the breath. Back and back again, again and again, until eventually the two fuse in a whispery stream on the upper lip. A warm tide swells in my chest. My wrists are pulsing.

“There is nothing mystical about this…

“But as words and thoughts are eased out of the mind, so the self weakens. There is no narrative to feed it. When the words are gone, whether you are in Verona or Varanasi hardly matters. Whether it is morning or evening, whether you are young or old, man or woman, poor or rich isn’t, in the silence, in the darkness, in the stillness, so important. Like ghosts, angels, gods, ‘self,’ it turns out, is an idea we invented, a story we tell ourselves. It needs language to survive. The words create meaning, the meaning purpose, the purpose narrative.

“But here, for a little while, there is no story, no rhetoric, no deceit. Here is silence and acceptance; the pleasure of a space that need not be imbued with meaning. Intensely aware, of the flesh, the breath, the blood, consciousness allows the ‘I’ to slip away.

“So if I can recount the first minutes, I can’t tell the rest. There are deepenings. There is a liquefaction of some kind, the thighs flowing into the calves, the head into the breast. And there are resistances: stones, obstructions, pains. The mind goes back and back to them. An ankle. A shoulder. Maybe they will shift, and maybe not. I am absolutely awake. I hear Rita pad downstairs with the dog behind her. I hear a motor scooter straining up the hill. And I am not there. I am in the stream.

“Then the alarm sounds and I must move. I’m up, dressed and getting Lucy into the car in just a few minutes. By ten past seven we are speeding down the hill, trying to beat the traffic light at San Felice. Lucy is anxious about some homework, a possible low grade. I repeat the parents’ mantra: you do your best, then what happens happens.”

***

Indeed.

***

(photo by Kevin Ortiz on Unsplash)

13 Jan
2020

The Opposite of Suffering is Not Happiness

At tomorrow’s Tuesday Night Insight group, I’m going to be talking about the First Noble Truth, which Phillip Moffitt describes in Dancing with Life as the Buddha’s proclamation that “suffering is an unavoidable reality of ordinary human existence that is to be known and responded to wisely.”

“When you collapse into suffering,” Phillip writes, “it is because your ego sees suffering as a personal failure and feels humiliated. This sense of failure is based on the ego’s mistaken idea that winning in life means no suffering.

“Your ego may well be under the delusion that the opposite of suffering is happiness. When your ego believes this, then every moment of suffering is felt as a personal defeat, insult, indignity, or proof of your inadequacy or of life being unfair. This is subjective suffering, self-centered and neurotic…

“Your ego isn’t bad, nor are you a bad person because you have an ego. The ego is a result of causes and conditions and, in my view, is necessary for a healthy, whole life. I tell students: don’t leave home without it, but don’t let it drive the vehicle on your spiritual journey…

But if the opposite of your suffering isn’t happiness, then what is it?

“Non-suffering is having a relaxed, composed mind that is fully present with whatever is occurring in the moment. And it is the capacity to be in relationship to whatever is arising such that you’re able to respond from your deepest intentions. And it is a feeling of relatedness in your life that is free from aversion to suffering.”

***

Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

12 Jan
2020
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It Seemed a Tedious Exercise at First

I had such fun reading Out of My Head by Tim Parks (in which he writes of his fascination with theories of consciousness after learning to meditate, and about which I posted here) that I immediately followed up with another marathon reading of another of his books, Teach Us to Still, which tells how he came to be meditating in the first place.

From the Forward:
“I never expected to write a book about the body. Least of all my body. How indiscreet. But then I never expected to be ill in the mysterious, infuriating way I have…

“I had no desire to tell anyone about my malady, let alone write about it. These were precisely the pains and humiliations one learns early on not to mention. You need only look at the words medicine uses — intestines, feces, urethra, bladder, sphincter, prostate — to appreciate that this vocabulary was never meant to be spoken in company. We just don’t want to go there. My plan, like anyone else’s, was to confide in doctors and pretend it wasn’t happening.

“On the other hand, this is reality, and in my case there was the happy truth that just when the medical profession had given up on me and I on it, just when I seemed to be walled up in a life sentence of chronic pain, someone proposed a bizarre way out: sit still, they said, and breathe.

“I sat still. I breathed.

“It seemed a tedious exercise at first, rather painful, not immediately effective. Eventually it proved so exciting, so transforming, physically and mentally, that I began to think my illness had been a stroke of luck.”

***

The book is quite a read. Especially when it (finally) gets to the part about learning to meditate:

“I felt I knew what he [the meditation teacher] meant when he spoke of everything flowing, mind and material dissolving into energy. Nor was it unthinkable that the strange pains I had been feeling had in some way to do with all those years of sitting tensely, racking my brains over sheets of empty paper, building up hopes, rejoicing over some small achievement, overreacting to setbacks and disappointments.

“And it was true that if you placed yourself, or your attention, as it were beside the pains, if you just sat together with them and let them be, not reacting or wishing them away, they did in the end subside.

“Likewise the thoughts: if you let them bubble up without judging them, or engaging them in any way, they gradually fizzled out. What’s more, you felt that a certain serenity had been acquired in this process, an understanding that much of the pain we feel comes from our reaction to pain, much of our agitation from our excitement with agitation.

“…paradoxically, letting go, you actually gained control, albeit of a different kind from the control you’d spent your life seeking.”

***

Bingo.

6 Jan
2020
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Not Entirely Certain

Note: There’s a recall for my computer, so I have to take it in tomorrow to get the battery replaced — which they say will require 3 to 5 days (!!!) — so I guess I won’t be posting again until next week. Unless I get my computer back sooner. Stay tuned.

In the mean time, I leave you with another excerpt from my new, favorite “dharma” book: A Month in Siena, by Hisham Matar.

“It was late spring. The Roman sun was out. Around noon we looked for shade. Diana spotted a green beside the Sant’Andrea al Quirinale. We lay under the canopy of a high pine. The grass was cool and accepting against my back. My head was now lower than my chest and I could feel the blood gather between the temples. Diana lay beside me, resting her head on my chest.

“I remember getting that odd feeling, a sort of mystery toward my own anatomy, not entirely certain of what was contained beneath my ribcage. I felt then what I felt now standing in the Sala dei Nove: that an independent will operated these secret clocks inside of me, that the operations and very texture of my organs and the blood that ran through them belonged to some other order of existence that stood apart from my sense of my self, from my ideas and emotions.”

***

Photo by David Matos on Unsplash

5 Jan
2020
Posted in: Art, Books, Mystery
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What It Might Mean to Truly See

Yesterday I started reading A Month in Siena, by Hisham Matar, and I’m already loving it so much that I’m feeling a little giddy! Not just because there was a time when I spent quite a lot of time in Siena, but also because he writes about looking at the same piece of art, over and over, for an hour or more each time, which is what I do when I really want to “see” a piece of art.

Matar says, “A picture changes as you look at it and changes in ways that are unexpected. I have discovered that a painting requires time. Now it takes me several months and more often than not a year before I can move on. During that period the picture becomes a mental as well as a physical location in my life.”

It’s like that for me too!

Matar is fascinated is with certain works from the Sienese School of painting. He writes, “I cannot say that they gave me pleasure. Yet I kept, almost against my own intentions, returning to them. I would often look and quickly pass. They left me feeling unprepared and in need of translation. They stood alone, neither Byzantine nor of the Renaissance, an anomaly between chapters, like the orchestra tuning its strings in the interval.

“This curiosity has deepened over the past two and a half decades. The colors, delicate patterns and suspended drama of these pictures gradually became necessary to me. Every few months I go to the National Gallery in order to look once more at Duccio di Buoninsegna’s The Annunciation or The Healing of the Man Born Blind.

“The seeing, who include Jesus, his audience and the version of the blind man now healed, sedately occupy the lower half of the painting. They are contrasted by the playful and brightly crisp activity in the upper half of the picture, where a hopscotch of arches and windows, peering into empty spaces, stare openly. They seem to be deliberately leading one’s gaze away from the human activity below.

“It is in that direction, upward, that the second representation of the blind man, the one still visually impaired, is facing. It is a painting that is questioning and ironic about what it might mean to truly see. It is not definite about the answer. It has always, and throughout all the many years that I have been returning to The Healing of the Man Born Blind, seemed to be a space of doubt.

“If I am away from London for any significant period of time, there inevitably comes the moment when I must search in the local museums for something from the Sienese School…

“To look closely at their work is to eavesdrop on one of the most captivating conversations in the history of art, one concerned with what a painting might be, what it might be for, and what it could do and accomplish within the intimate drama of a private engagement with a stranger.”

Ah, another mystery!

***

The Healing of the Man Born Blind, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, courtesy of The National Gallery, London.

27 Dec
2019
Posted in: Books
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“And.”

My sister gave me this great book for Christmas: 200 Women, by Geoff Blackwell and Ruth Hobday.

It’s basically interviews with 200 women, from all over the world — some famous, some not — all beautifully photographed (by Kieran E. Scott) and all answering these five “simple” questions:

  • What really matters to you?
  • What brings you happiness?
  • What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
  • What would you change if you could?
  • What single word do you most identify with?

I love the concept and have been thinking about how I would have answered the questions. Especially the last one:

What single word do I most identify with?

Creative,” came to my mind right away. Also “Expressive.” And “Buoyant.” Quite a lot of the women in the book chose “Courage” or “Love” or “Gratitude.” (A couple chose: “Fuck.”)

But the answer I like best is: “And.”

That’s the single word Margaret Atwood most identifies with. “And.” She explains, “It means there is always something more.”

***

I’m going with that!

16 Dec
2019
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Having Given Words to Everything…

I’ve just finished reading Tim Parks’ fascinating new book, Out of My Head: On the Trail of Consciousness, which I actually loved, although I think he goes way off the deep end pushing a theory of consciousness “in which experience is made possible by the meeting of a perceptive system and the world, but is actually located at the object perceived, identical with it even; in short, experience is the same thing as the object.”

But I love what he has to say about the problem of language:
“In particular, having given words to everything we could see and touch — birds and beasts, rocks and trees, nuts and bolts — and then to everything we experience as emotion — fear, hope, happiness, grief — we had also got into the habit of inventing words for things we’d never seen or even felt, but liked to believe existed anyway: angels, demons, fairies, God.

“‘Self’ was one of these invented words, I suggested, an entity no one had ever really witnessed or grasped; so were ‘identity,’ ‘personality,’ ‘character,’ ‘soul’ — the more words you have, the more believable the chimera becomes — thus creating the illusion that we, the modern individual, existed in some way apart from the physical world, not subject to the constant change to which the phenomena around us are subject, but rather projecting ourselves through time on a stream of words.

“Identity, in short, was a story we told ourselves; language and words were in strict alliance with an internist, Cartesian view of reality: experience was all in our heads where we talked to ourselves, indeed talked ourselves into existence.”

11 Nov
2019
Posted in: Books, Retreats, Travel
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Confess What You Are Smuggling

I leave tomorrow morning for the next Advanced Practitioners Program retreat at Spirit Rock followed by the first Nine Bodies Teacher Training retreat. I return on Thanksgiving Day, so most likely I won’t post again until December.

In my absence, I leave you with this excerpt from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, which is my all-time favorite guidebook for those about to travel:

“…So then, yours is truly a journey through memory!” The Great Khan, his ears always sharp, sat up in his hammock every time he caught a sigh in Marco’s speech. “It was to slough off a burden of nostalgia that you went so far away!” he exclaimed, or else: “You return from your voyages with a cargo of regrets!” And he added, sarcastically: “Meager purchases, to tell the truth, for a merchant of the Serenissima!”

This was the target of all Kublai’s questions about the past and the future. For an hour he had been toying with it, like a cat with a mouse, and finally he had Marco with his back to the wall, attacking him, putting a knee on his chest, seizing him by the beard: “This is what I wanted to hear from you: you confess what you are smuggling: moods, stages of grace, elegies!”

These words and actions were perhaps only imagined, as the two, silent and motionless, watched the smoke rise slowly from their pipes. The cloud dissolved at times in a wisp of wind, or else remained suspended in mid-air; and the answer was in that cloud. As the puff carried the smoke away, Marco thought of the mists that clouded the expanse of the sea and the mountain ranges and, when dispelled, leave the air dry and diaphanous, revealing distant cities. It was beyond that screen of fickle humors that his gaze wished to arrive: the form of things can be discerned better at a distance.

Or else the cloud hovered, having barely left the lips, dense and slow, and suggested another vision: the exhalations that hang over the roofs of the metropolises, the opaque smoke that is scattered, the hood of miasmata that weights over the bituminous streets. Not the labile mists of memory nor the the dry transparence, but the charring of burned lives that forms a scab on the city, the sponge swollen with vital matter that no longer floats, the jam of past, present, future that blocks existences calcified in the illusion of movement: this is what you would find at the end of your journey.

4 Nov
2019
Posted in: Activism, Books, Racism
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Steps We Can All Take to Eliminate Racial Inequity

I’m meeting today with one of the White Awake discussion groups I’ve been leading and we’ll be talking about How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi (which I highly recommend — along with his previous book Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.)

Of his research into the history of racism Kendi writes, “Over time, the source of racist ideas became obvious, but I had trouble acknowledging it. The source did not fit my conception of racism, my racial ideology, my racial identity. I became a college professor to educate away racist ideas, seeing ignorance as the source of racist ideas, seeing racist ideas as the source of racist policies, seeing mental change as the principal solution, seeing myself, an educator, as the primary solver…

“My research kept pointing me to the same answer: The source of racist ideas was not ignorance and hate, but self-interest.

“The history of racist ideas is the history of powerful policymakers erecting racist policies out of self-interest, then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies, while everyday people consume those racist ideas, which in turn sparks ignorance and hate…

“Racist policies,” Kendi writes, “lead to racist ideas, not the other way around, as we have commonly thought. We must eliminate racist policies if we ever hope to eliminate racist ideas.”

To that end, Kendi has founded the Antiracist Research and Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where he envisions bringing together teams of scholars, policy experts, journalists, and advocates to focus on the most critical and seemingly intractable racial inequities.

He writes, “These teams would model some of the steps we can all take to eliminate racial inequity in our spaces:

  • Admit racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people.
  • Identify racial inequity in all its intersections and manifestations.
  • Investigate and uncover the racist policies causing racial inequity.
  • Invent or find antiracist policy that can eliminate racial inequity.
  • Figure out who or what groups has the power to institute antiracist policy.
  • Disseminate and educate about the uncovered racist policy and antiracist policy correctives.
  • Work with sympathetic antiracist policymakers to institute the antiracist policy.
  • Deploy antiracist power to compel or drive from power the unsympathetic racist policymakers in order to institute the antiracist policy.
  • Monitor closely to ensure the antiracist policy reduces and eliminates racial inequity.
  • When policies fail, do not blame the people. Start over and seek out new and more effective antiracist treatments until they work.
  • Monitor closely to prevent new racist policies from being instituted.