spirituality

"To sit patiently with a yearning that has not yet been fulfilled"

Something my friend Heather Kyle posted this morning: ‎"To sit patiently with a yearning that has not yet been fulfilled, and to trust that, that fulfillment will come, is quite possibly one of the most powerful "magic skills" that human beings are capable of. It has been noted by almost every ancient wisdom tradition." -- Elizabeth Gilbert

So, that hits me square in the heart right now on a personal level, for reasons some of my friends know.

But it also taps into a general concept that's been floating in my head for a while, at least since Starwood, which I'm filing under the phrase "the quiet side of magic."

Magic, according to crazy ol' Uncle Aleister, is "the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will." A similar definition is Dion Fortune’s one, oft quoted by Starhawk, that magic is "the art of changing consciousness at will."

The idea of active change is at the heart of these definitions. But lately I've begun to wonder if we're not neglecting the yin side of magic, if by a focus on active change we're missing the more subtle sort of transformation that comes from contemplation and from deep listening.

On the archetypical level, the Magician is the holder of the secret knowledge. How do you get secret knowledge? Ya gotta listen. Even the most active of the archetypes, the Warrior, knows the necessity of listening and observation. Sun Tzu tells of the importance of using spies to listen to the enemy, that "what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge", while Musashi tells us that we must "Nurture the ability to perceive the truth in all matters" and "Be aware of those things which cannot be easily seen with the eye."

But these still suggest that listening is a preparation for action. More and more I'm thinking of the ways that listening itself transforms us. (If we truly listened to the enemy...how long would they remain our enemy?)

And maybe sitting quietly with a yearning can also transform us.

So, I'm trying to listen better. (Yeah, I know: needs improvement!) And I'm trying -- I'm trying hard -- to sit patiently with this yearning, to trust that it's not merely an attachment-to-desire-that-leads-to-suffering, but instead an opening and a guiding.

I recently stumbled across a quote from Hermann Hesse: "[W]e have to stumble through so much dirt and humbug before we reach home. And we have no one to guide us. Our only guide is our homesickness."

What a magic, then, it would be to learn to listen to that homesickness.

Zelda's Inferno exercise: "a composite portrait of several women I have known"

Zelda's Inferno exercise: from http://www.jacarandapress.org/writing/poetry/simile.shtml

part I: fill in the blanks of the similes provided

as blue as a saxophone solo
as rough as a rumble strip
as lonely as the first star of the evening
as tall as a basketball star
as talkative as a babbling brook
as eager as a new kid on the team
crying like a hawk
praying like an old Catholic woman
reliable as an American car from the 1980s
as expensive as designer sneakers
as mad as the latest know-nothing politics
milling around like gnats flying on a summer evening
common as sand
regular as someone who eats lots of fiber
as pretty as the last flower in a field
as reluctant as the groom at a shotgun wedding
as smooth as glass
as quick as a match catching fire
running like water down the gutter
creeping like a vine
[there are more in the original, we shortened the list for time]

part II: mix them up

regular as sand
common as someone who eats lots of fiber
as smooth as a match catching fire
as quick as glass
praying like an American car from the 1980s
reliable as an old Catholic woman
as rough as gnats flying on a summer evening
milling around like a rumble strip
running like the first star of the evening
as lonely as water down the gutter
running like a vine
creeping like water down the gutter
as pretty as the first star of the evening
as lonely as the last flower in a field
praying like a match catching fire
as quick as an old Catholic woman
as smooth as a saxophone solo
as blue as glass

part III: craft poem(s) from the mixed similes:

a composite portrait of several women I have known

as pretty as the first star of the evening and
as lonely as the last flower in a field
everyone turns to watch as she goes by
turning like a compass needle pulled by a magnet

she walks as smooth as a match catching fire
talks as smooth as a bebop saxophone solo
everybody digs her but almost no one really gets her
she just might be the first of her kind

"Zen practice under duress"

There's an aikido group that meets over at the Baltimore Zen Center, Sword Mountain, that I've heard good things about. Since they train on Tuesday and Thursday nights -- the same nights I teach karate -- I've never been able to drop by and check them out in person. But their website has a very interesting description of the relationship between martial arts and Zen: "Aikido is Zen practice under duress, the study of one's self within the context of physical threat".

"Zen practice under duress." I think that we could very much apply that to Seido karate. For those who aren't familiar with Seido, our founder, Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura, very deliberately integrated Zen meditation into our practice.

Having "fallen off the cushion" many times over the years, I've found that some of us need something a little less subtle than shikantaza ("just sitting"). We hard-headed folks need that element of "duress", some literal smacks upside the head to help us wake up. It took me many years of practicing Karate Zen before I was prepared enough to develop a somewhat-reliable zazen (seated meditation) practice, as minimal as it is. Your mileage may vary, of course: I'm an exceptionally unsubtle guy.

On the other hand, perhaps training in "Zen under duress" has the advantage of a more robust result. It's one thing to sit on a cushion in a quiet zendo with incense burning, but how is your practice out in the noisy, stinky, always-pushing-your-buttons world? Karate Zen or Aikido Zen introduces that element of difficulty right from the start.

As an instructor, I'm now at the point where I'm often providing that "duress" for others. For example, last Saturday we had two students testing for promotion at my sensei's dojo, including one young lady testing for her advanced brown belt. This is the last test she'll take here in Maryland -- her shodan test will be at our Honbu (headquarters) in New York City -- so it's something of a big deal. My job, while sparring with her during the kumite portion of her test, was to push her out of her comfort zone, mentally as well as physically; not just to test her fighting ability, but to show her that she's stronger than she thinks, that she can keep her center even under difficult conditions.

That's a lesson she can, hopefully, carry into every aspect of her life.

Zelda's Inferno exercise: the photo on the wall

Zelda's Inferno exercise: write a poem from one or more of the following random phrases (from the Urbanite, July 2011):

until the age of 21
a unique selection
white foam churns on the surface
spend less time in their cars

taking a class on sound
no boys allowed
appeals to and attracts the people
the summer of 1919

there is this big panoramic photo on the wall
from a company picnic or a community sports day or something
back in the summer of 1919 or 1929 or sometime back then
over eighty years ago

Sometimes I look at it and
I think "the odds are very good that
everyone in this photograph is dead now"

did some of those strong-thewed young men in their
       running uniforms die in one of the wars between then and now?
Or did they live the serene lives of sages, staying well away
      from history?

what of that girl-woman over on the right side
the one with the fiery look, direct into the camera
standing just in front of her friends
did she quietly marry and
become a dutiful mother?
trying to look through time I can't believe that, no,
I see her wild, an artist of some sort, of life if nothing else,
this world her canvas

a hundred pairs of eyes peer out of the past
at us, their unguessed-at inheritors

i am sure that we are not at all what they expected

"don't know" versus belief

According to some teachers, the most fundamental statement in Zen is "I don't know". For example, Zen Master Wu Kwang (Richard Shrobe) tells this tale:

Poep An came to a particular monastery and greeted Master Ji Jang, who was to become his final teacher. Ji Jang asked Peop An, "You're travelling all around China; what's the meaning of your pilgrimage?" Initially, Peop An felt stuck and momentarily all thinking stopped. Then he said, "don't know". Ji Jang responded, "Not knowing is most intimate". Sometimes you'll see this translated as: "Not knowing is closest to it." ...This one sentence, "don't know" or "Not knowing is most intimate", is very much at the heart of our practice.

This idea goes all the way back to the semi-mythical founder of Zen, Bodhidharma, and an interview he supposedly had with the Emperor of China. The Emperor, who had sponsored all sorts of temple-building and sutra-copying, was not pleased with this smart-assed barbarian telling him that this wasn't going to get him reborn in the Pure Land or whatever, and so challenged him by saying, "Who are you?" (I've always read the subtext of that as "Who are you to give me lip, monk?") Bodhidharma's amazing answer was, "I don't know."

Another way of expressing this idea comes from Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."

There's a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where Data expresses a similar idea: "Captain, the most elementary and valuable statement in science, the beginning of wisdom, is I do not know. I do not know what that is, sir."

The beginning of wisdom is, "I don't know." What an amazing idea.

Have you ever tried to teach someone something, only to be told, "I know, I know!" I've been on both sides of that one! If I know, then I'm closed off to learning, but if I'm not attached to "knowing," the possibilities are endless.

Let's juxtapose that with a Twitter post from the man behind the recent massacre in Norway. Anders Behring Breivik, the lunatic who killed at least 92 people in what seems to be a politically motivated attack, recent posted this: "One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests."

If we didn't know the context, we might look at that and think it a positive statement about the value of strong belief and determination. But in order to go off and shoot scores of people, Breivik had to "know" that what he was doing was right.

Just a bit of "I don't know" could save a lot of lives.

Yeats's poem "The Second Coming" has the famous lines, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." While perhaps a situation where the best lack all conviction tilts too far, it will always be the case that the wise have doubts, while those who perpetrate violence lack them. You've got to be pretty damn sure of your ideas -- pretty damn attached to them -- to kill people over them.

a Zen story for a hot day

Here's a Zen story for a hot day. This one is about Dogen, the founder of the Soto school of Zen and one of the most important figures in Japanese religious history. He went to China to learn about Buddhism and Zen (they called it Ch'an over there), and after wandering around met an old monk on a hot day...

It was summer, and very hot. There was a very old monk there working, drying mushrooms. Old and frail as he was, he was spreading the mushrooms out in the sun. Master Dogen saw him and asked him, "Why are you working? You are an old monk and a superior of the temple. You should get younger people to do this work. It is not necessary for you to work. Besides, it is extremely hot today. Do that another day." Master Dogen was young then. The old monk's answer was most interesting and has become famous in the history of Soto Zen. It was a satori for Master Dogen. The monk said to him, "You have come from Japan, young man, you are intelligent and you understand Buddhism, but you do not understand the essence of Zen. If I do not do this, if I do not work here and now, who could understand? I am not you, I am not others. Others are not me. So others cannot have the experience. If I don't work, if I do not have this experience here and now, I cannot understand. If a young monk helped me to do the work, if I were to stand by and watch him, then I could not have the experience of drying these mushrooms. If I said, ``Do this, do that. Put them here or there,'' I could not have the experience. I could not understand the act that is here and now. "I am not others and others are not me." Master Dogen was startled, and he suddenly understood.

and then there was Starwood...

Slowly settling back in the "real" world now, more than a week after returning from the Starwood Festival. (And the tail end of X Day.)

As I joked several times before and during Starwood, it was nice to go to an event where I was not responsible for anything, in stark contrast to this year's FSG. And yet...as I was in this space of self-exploration, taking some time to reflect on life, the universe, and everything, the message I kept finding was, "Time to step up"; that it's time to accept a more prominent role in the communities of which I am a part.

This was, if I've counted on my fingers and toes right, my twelfth Starwood, and my ninth as a presenter. Each year that I've been a presenter, I've done two or three workshops, and maybe ten people on average show up for each one. (Sometimes it's twenty or thirty, and sometimes it's one!) So over the years, on the order of two hundred people have taken classes from me there...meaning, that I'm becoming a familiar face. Ok, fine, but I've always seen myself as sort of "filler" around the "big name" presenters. Not that anyone had ever made me feel "second rate" or anything by the way they treated me, just my own self-assessment.

The Stanford Prison Experiement, 40 years later

Stanford Magazine looks at Philip Zimbardo's famous "prison experiment", forty years later. The Prison Experiment ranks with the Milgram experiment as a classic study of how authority corrodes ethics, demonstrating how otherwise normal and decent human beings can become abusive monsters when handed power.

Here are some choice quotes from participants in the experiment:

"The prison study has given me a new understanding of what 'heroism' means. It's not some egocentric, I'm-going-to-rush-into-that-burning-building thing—it's about seeing something that needs to be addressed and saying, I need to help and do something to make it better." -- Christina Maslach, who stepped in to insist that the experiment be stopped

"When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, my first reaction was, this is so familiar to me. I knew exactly what was going on. I could picture myself in the middle of that and watching it spin out of control. When you have little or no supervision as to what you're doing, and no one steps in and says, 'Hey, you can't do this'—things just keep escalating. You think, how can we top what we did yesterday? How do we do something even more outrageous? I felt a deep sense of familiarity with that whole situation." -- Dave Eshelman, described as the prison's most abusive guard

"It really was a unique experience to watch human behavior transform in front of your eyes. And I can honestly say that I try never to forget it. I spend a lot of time with real prisoners and real guards, and having seen what I saw then, while a graduate student, gave me respect for the power of institutional environments to transform good people into something else." -- Craig Haney, a graduate student researcher

"One thing that I thought was interesting about the experiment was whether, if you believe society has assigned you a role, do you then assume the characteristics of that role? I teach at an inner city high school in Oakland. These kids don't have to go through experiments to witness horrible things. But what frustrates my colleagues and me is that we are creating great opportunities for these kids, we offer great support for them, why are they not taking advantage of it? Why are they dropping out of school? Why are they coming to school unprepared? I think a big reason is what the prison study shows—they fall into the role their society has made for them." -- Richard Yacco, one of the prisoners

You can read more about the Prison Experiment at Wikipedia and at the Prison Experiment website.

You also ought to check out Zimbardo's "Heroic Imagination" project, which seeks to "provide the knowledge, tools, strategies, and exercises to help individuals overcome the inertia which keeps them from taking positive action at crucial moments in their lives...[to] train individuals to transform their innate desire to do the right thing, into the ability to actually do it."

shaman and showman

Tripped across this interesting little bit in an interview with Jim Steinman, the songwriter behind the classic Meat Loaf album Bat Out Of Hell:

...This goes back to Jim Morrison and The Doors, my favorite group from the '60s. They always used the word Shaman a lot, Shaman being the tribal leader who would conduct the rituals. The sorcerer or the tribal leader and the guy who would hand out the magic mushrooms.

Or the guy who would say the right prayers. Basically it's if the Pope was cool, he'd be a Shaman, the biggest Shaman. It was always interesting to me that Meat [Loaf] was kind of like a Shaman, which is so close to showman. I don't know if there's any connection linguistically but a great showman to me is also a Shaman, in that tears open doorways and lets you see things behind doors that you would never see.

And creates altars so you could worship things that you're not aware of. It shows you the underbelly and that's always interested me more than anything else. What, the secret underbelly of things.

FSG and the ordeal path

So you may have noticed that the blog has been fairly quiet of late. That's because for the past month or so, much of my energy was taken up preparing for the Free Spirit Gathering. This was my 14th FSG, and I've been working on staff for 13 of them. Even my first year, I ended up working unofficially in the Dancing Tree Cafe, the staff and performers kitchen, in return for being able to eat there.

But what made this year...interesting...is that this year I'm President of the Free Spirit Alliance, the organization behind FSG. (Yes, at FSG one can rise from "will work for food" to the Presidency!) Now, the President is not responsible for the day-to-day operations of FSG; that rests with out valiant Festival Coordinators. But under FSA's charter and by-laws, all the financial responsibility rests with the President and the Treasurer, and our fiscal picture has not been rosy of late; so leading up to the Gathering, there was plenty to do.

And during FSG itself, I'd resolved to use whatever gravitas or mana or whatever that the position possesses, to encourage people to join FSA and get more involved. (This year, at the suggestion of others, that included running naked across camp with "Join FSA" written on my butt.) If I had just done that, plus my usual work MCing the concerts and helping out the sound guy, it would have been a busy but enjoyable year.

Instead, I volunteered to serve as Fire Circle Coordinator, a position that had been vacant for several years. That vacancy had lead to a deterioration in the activity that is, to many of us, the heart of the Gathering.

For those who've never been to an event like FSG, a Fire Circle at a Pagan event is part eclectic interfaith magical-religious ritual, part musical/dance improv jam session, and part celebratory revel. I've written a bit about the structure of a Fire Circle before, and if you'd really like to explore what makes them work, you ought to read or listen to Billy Bardo's Fire Circle Rap, a classic of modern Pagan literature. (No, I'm not exaggerating.)

I fell in love with FSG largely because of the Fire Circle. My first night of my first year there, I found myself dancing naked around the fire until I was exhausted. I knew I'd found something special. When I go to a festival, workshops and concerts and more formal rituals and the like are nice adjuncts; but all I really want and need is a fire, a couple of drummers, and space to dance.

Over the years, the Fire Circle at FSG has waxed and waned. The past few years, it had been largely neglected. We'd left our Fire Crew -- the intrepid folks who build the fire itself and take care of fire safety -- alone down there, with no one to handle the ritual and energetic aspects. That's the stuff I picked up this year.

What this meant was that I was, basically, responsible for setting up and supervising a four to eight hour ritual, some nights involving over 100 or 200 people, each night of the Gathering. Which took things from "Boy, I'm busy but having fun" to "This is an Ordeal."

I don't mean that in the sense of "oh, my life is such an ordeal, wah wah wah." (Ok, maybe a little. :-) ) But rather in the sense of an ordeal ritual, a rite of passage, an initiation, a challenge that pushes one past one's limits.

One of my senpais is found of telling our karate students, "All you have to do is a little bit more than you can do." That was what FSG was about for me this year.

In some ways it was like my black belt promotion test: it was not fun, I was exhausted and sore for days afterward. But it was also exhilarating, in a way that's difficult to explain to someone who's never had a similar experience.

Similarly, when I look back at this year's FSG, there are not a lot of "fun" moments, on a personal level. I don't think I had a single supper that wasn't rushed, I didn't get to take time to play in the pool or sit in the shade and play guitar or any of the other chill time things I usually do at FSG. But what there is, is the memory of making a Fire Circle happen in the rain on Thursday night, against the difficulties, with no "real " drummers, just a bunch of hard-core crazies banging on water coolers and trash cans, a Fire Circle in which a first-time festival goer, a blind man, came out and danced in the rain. There's the satisfaction of putting something back on track, of defying predictions of failure, of creating a space where people can be brilliant and expressive and playful and mindful.

That, will make your heart grow three sizes.

Not to say I did a perfect job, by any means. But I feel I passed the test of this ordeal, no question in my mind.

I know that, because we ended up short-staffed this year, I was not the only one for whom FSG was an ordeal this year. If you know someone who worked the festival this year, give them a hug, they deserve it.

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