Snowing God

F E B R U A R Y   2 0 1 8

I had my first encounter with what people call “God” when I was four years old. The story may make you smile. You may even have a similar one.

snow godThere had been a snowstorm and my big brother and I went sledding. The long afternoon turned into evening. My brother told me he was cold and was going home, and that I should follow as quickly as I could. Then he disappeared up the quarter mile road to our house.

It was still snowing, big gentle flakes. I was a little guy and it was a long way for me to go through the deep snow, and it was nearly dark. My mother had dressed me in a snowsuit, but I was very cold — my fingers were wet and freezing in my mittens, my toes stinging. And I had to pee very badly. I waddled along as fast as I could, the snow above my knees. I became increasingly anxious, since it would have been babyish to wet my pants, my mother would scold me, and my brother would make fun of me, but I wasn’t able to unzip my snowsuit.

I came to a stone wall that was at a right angle to the path — there were large bushes in front of it making a dark tunnel between the bushes and the wall. I was desperate. I pushed through the snow into that tunnel, and fell backwards into its softness.

Everything became quiet. My hood stopped making noise in my ears. Snow drifted through the branches of the bushes above me, sparkling from the light of the street lamps out on the road. I let go. I let myself pee. The most delicious, warm feeling spread through me. I went from desperation to bliss. Suddenly everything felt enormously holy, like God was appearing in that glistening bush, though I doubt I had ever heard the word “God.” I felt an all-enveloping Motherliness holding me in that moment, peaceful and warm, a Mother who was everywhere, a Mother who had no name, not my real mother but a Bigger-Than-Everything-Mother in whose presence I was completely loved and accepted. I was Home in a Home that felt so familiar — it wasn’t strange at all. I knew this Place. It was so big and so close at the same time, and so loving, and the light on the falling snowflakes seemed like little sparkling angels.

Then it got cold and I struggled home.

It’s tempting to think the experience of that four year-old boy in the snow was just a matter of a physical release and the momentary comfort that followed. I can only reply that after seventy years have passed, the authenticity of that memory is still alive in me — not the physical sensations, but a numinous quality that escapes all telling. I didn’t make it up. I couldn’t. I was far too young and inexperienced to have any concept of holiness; I had never been to a church or been told about anything approaching that exquisite beauty or the love it radiated. And although I could, in a way, “see” it — which made it seem other than me — what I was seeing was simultaneously inside me — I was lit from within and without.

The soul of that little boy was touched by the remembrance of where it came from. I see now how the arc of my life has been shaped by that remembrance, or at least how it invited in time many other similar, and more intense, experiences — through psychedelics, Sufi teachings and practice, solitude in the desert, and immersion in Buddhist, Christian, Advaita, Dzogchen, and shamanic traditions. Each of these pathways to the numinous led me through different territories, yet each one ultimately revealed the same glimpse of Home, or what shall we call it? Supernal love? Peace? Emptiness? Bliss?

These experiences have gradually loosened the grip that loneliness, fear, and the feeling of being a separate entity had on me, and they have made my life joyous. To become certain that we are held by and are one with infinite love is, in my experience, the most beautiful teaching and gift we can receive here on earth.

 

A New Year's Vow

 J A N U A R Y   2 0 1 8

new year

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because this day is special
and we are together,
because the year’s starting
and we want to say something,
because it’s never been here before
and we have,
because the year is asking
and the children are asking and listening
for what we will say
and what we will do,
let us vow, let us make a vow,
now, because we can,
because we’re still breathing,
and the old year hurt,
and the animals are scared,
and the children are waiting,
and the air is listening,
let us vow, now,
to the mothers who bore us
and the millenniums before us
and the millenniums to come
who are waiting and listening
for what we will say
and what we will do,
and because it matters
and we are together,
let us vow, now,
to love more.

Sanctuary

D E C E M B E R   2 0 1 7

It’s not so easy being a human being. We learn early that this world hurts just as much as it comforts. The warm safety of our mother’s womb turns against us, squeezes, and sends us out into this too bright, clanging place. We find that sometimes we’re cuddled and stained glasssometimes we’re left alone to cry in a wet diaper. We learn to run happily on a sidewalk but then trip and skin our knees. Worse things happen as we grow taller, and we look for places to be safe, even if temporarily.

When I was a child and felt betrayed by the world — when I was scolded by my mother or had lost another fight with my big brother — I would climb to the top of a great beech tree in our backyard. It was my sanctuary. There was a place up there where the smooth branches made a good spot to sit and I could lean against the warm skin of the tree, my cheek against it, and watch the light play in the canopy of leaves around me. I was safe there. Nothing could hurt me.

My pillow was another place like that, when the lights were out and I could curl up under the covers and close my little eyes. That quiet, warm place was safe too, an inner sanctuary.

I suppose most of us had places like that as children, private places where we could hide for a while and feel our aloneness held in an undemanding embrace of safety. Of course, some of us had a relatively happy childhood, others not so much, but we all sought out our sanctuaries and found some degree of solace in them.

As we grew up, as we outgrew those first sanctuaries, we consciously or unconsciously looked for them in other places. Love relationships most often came next — the marvelous intimacy of another body next to ours, falling asleep together, especially when we were young or the love was new, made us dare think it would be that way forever, safe in the sanctuary of each other’s arms. But as we know, it didn’t last, and our once-safe relationships lost their safety.

So we looked again, and again. Sometimes a circle of friends helped, or a family, or children, but those havens proved demanding and stressful, and didn’t provide the comforting sanctuary we sought. Some of us turned to a religion or spiritual path and were comforted by the light coming through stained glass windows, the intoning of prayers, the wise words of the ancients, the promise of God’s arms, but — there’s always a “but” — even those consolations were fleeting and were more about a hoped-for safety than a present one.

Could it be that we’ve gotten this whole thing inside out? Could it be that our childhood hope for a sanctuary as a separate, safe place that’s able to shield us from suffering (and death) has actually kept us in the realm of suffering (and death)?

We are looking for safety, but what is it that we’re trying to protect? Our body? Our self? Our future? Our body is impermanent; we know that, just like everything in the universe is impermanent. Our self is a construct that vanishes when we try to find it, so what’s the point of trying to protect something we can’t even find? Our future? Is that even remotely up to us? Our future is, and always has been, something given by the whole universe.

What if we were to see that the universe itself is our sanctuary? That we’re safe here because we don’t need to hide from anything? If this is true, then we can relax. The universe sustains and supports our life and our death. Our life and our death are not actually opposites, they are united in each moment that arrives and passes. Our nature, and the nature of the universe, is the same: impermanence, change, arriving and passing, continual movement. When we understand this and don’t try to resist it, we realize we are safe, as safe as the whole universe is safe.

You might think that “the universe is our sanctuary” is a nice idea, but that it’s too abstract and cold to offer much comfort. But the universe and its wonder are not an idea. The universe is pure light and our lives are expressions of that light, each moment we live and each moment we die. We are its flaring forth, its blossoming.

When we see this and surrender to this, an even deeper mystery is revealed. The nature of this enormous sanctuary is impermanence, yes, continual change and becoming, and that is our nature too, but at the same time, we come to see that the nature of the universe, the totality, is pure presence, not subject to change, perfectly clear. That is our nature as well.

These “two” qualities of our sanctuary — impermanence and presence — are not in actuality two. How this is, is a mystery. Yet it’s a mystery that is apparent right now, for each of us, in this living moment: The simple clarity of our awareness is pure, unmoving presence, yet it reveals all movement.

Once we glimpse this mystery in our own being, we begin to see it everywhere. Everything changes, while this clear presence doesn’t. That impossible miracle is what blossoms with infinite generosity our radiant universe, our sanctuary. We see then that this generosity is what we call love, love beyond any conception we might have of that word. In that infinite love we are safe and always have been and always will be.

 

A Hundred Years from Now

N O V E M B E R   2 0 1 7

There are increasing signs that a hundred years from now life on earth will have taken a serious turn for the worse. We won’t be here of course, but our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will. What will they have to face?

Thinking of the future with grim expectations like this can be disturbing and scary, like imagining the sword of Damocles swinging from a thread above us. We’ve started having bad dreams hundred yearsabout what might happen — visions of nations collapsing, citizens armed and dangerous, the coasts flooding, forests burning, dust blowing over dried-out farmland, starving refugees taking what they can find, the last elephants shot for meat, the seas dying, dystopian mega-cities swarming with faceless strangers, replicants, sex robots, aimless wars fought for nothing… We keep dreaming these things. We see them beginning now and we hate ourselves for what we’re doing.

I want to be able to say it’s not too late. I want to believe that these dreams, becoming every day more real, will scare us awake and with the shock of waking we will remember what matters to us and what kind of world we want to leave for our children, and theirs, and theirs.

But even in waking, the dark dreams linger. We feel powerless, too insignificant to effect the changes that are needed. That’s one of the dreams too, our powerlessness. But like the rest of our anxious dreams, it doesn’t have to be true. We’re not powerless.

I’ve spent much of my life working on projects for positive social change — practical, grassroots efforts in cooperation with others — and this kind of citizen-activist work is an essential part of the power we have. But I want to point here to a deeper power, a power without which all of our hard work would be aimless and short-lived, a power that each of us has right now and can put to use at any time.

Behind every act of kindness, behind every plea for justice, behind every move we make to take apart the structures of violence that undergird human societies, there is something clear and luminous. That clear luminosity is our love, our love for what matters to us. It’s what we stand for; it’s what gets us on our feet, again and again. It’s not exactly an emotion; it’s deeper than that. Ultimately it’s not even about loving specific things that matter to us — it includes that, but goes beyond. Love itself is what matters. It’s the very current of life arising in and through us, and is at the heart of whatever power we have to heal the world.

I realize this begins to sound blurry and impractical — words like “love” can do that. We’ve become accustomed to thinking that only actions that produce measureable change in the “real world” will make a difference. As someone with a practical bent myself, I can appreciate that sentiment. But the longer I live the more I sense there are other realities or “energies” at work shaping what happens. What we call “love” is one of them, perhaps the most important.

I’ve come to believe that the more we love, the more love lives in the world. My sense is that love is a kind of light that radiates from us, an invisible light with the power to penetrate and leaven the density of the world. If this is true, then we are not powerless. Even if our life situation doesn’t allow us to become actively engaged in service of some sort, we can serve. We can love.

What does that mean? What can we love? My feeling is it doesn’t much matter what we love, we just need to love what we love. We need to keep discovering what that is. For example, we could start close in, discovering the love we feel for the warmth of our bodies, or our love for our breathing, or for our capacity to see. We can love the simple things of the world, love the way morning light spreads across the breakfast table, love the feel of our feet on a path, love the company of a dear friend or the sound of children at play. Love all the people we meet today, despite their flaws. We can sit under a tree and love the roots and branches and the sky. Love the babies being born right now, love their mothers, love their fathers, love everyone who will help them throughout their lives. Love the people near and far who are suffering, who are oppressed, whose lives are hurt by other people’s selfishness and fear. Love all the kindness everywhere, the generosity and self-sacrifice. Love the miracle of loving itself. As Sufi teacher Fazal Inayat-Khan said, "You can always love more."

Imagine that every moment we love, we are enlivening the world with that love. The world gets lighter, freer, because of our loving. Imagine that love is a current that can warm the heart of things, that can dispel the density and ignorance of the dark futures we fear. Love is a living force, a power, even when it is does not seem to energize specific action.

We live in anxious times, and there is no denying the storm clouds that are gathering around us. I am not suggesting we ignore that reality. I am simply saying that the future world depends on our keeping the flame of our love burning. Even if our bad dreams come to pass and the world has to endure that long darkness, if the flame of our love is still burning it will help guide our descendants onward.

I remember a moment that occurred several years ago that touched me deeply with this lesson. I was in Gaza, interviewing a Hamas leader and others as part of my work with a project called the Nonviolent Peaceforce (www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org). Even though I was prepared for it, the condition of life for the million and a half people locked in that small piece of land shocked me. Blasted buildings, warrens of little streets strewn with trash, extreme poverty, and a pervading sense of despair. It was our bad dreams manifest.

By the time I left Gaza, driving up the coast road in a beat-up taxi, I was thoroughly depressed. And then, as I gazed out the taxi window, something up in the air caught my eye. It was a kite! Brightly colored, dancing in the shore wind. Then I saw another, and another. Children on the beach were flying kites! Suddenly that vision of kites flying up from the dismal conditions of Gaza blew through my depression. My heart took a breath. I saw that as long as the children fly kites in the free air, as long as their love for the wind and the kites and the play and each other is alive, there is hope.


Lovers find secret places inside this violent world
where they make transactions with beauty.

Reason says, Nonsense.
I have walked and measured the walls here.
There are no places like that.

Love says, There are.

                                    — Rumi

 

So Close

O C T O B E R   2 0 1 7

From the Tibetan Shangpa Kagyu tradition comes this exquisite riddle:

It’s so close you can’t see it.
It’s so profound you can’t fathom it.
It’s so simple you can’t believe it.
It’s so good you can’t accept it.

What is it?

old handsThe wonderful thing about this riddle is that it’s compounded of paradox — pure positivity (so close, so profound, so simple, so good) and pure negativity (you can’t see it, you can’t fathom it, you can’t believe it, you can’t accept it). It’s saying that no matter how we look for, or what we call, this “it,” it escapes the looking and the telling.

In most texts these lines are not referred to as a riddle, but are given the whimsical title: “the four faults of awareness.” But if we think “awareness” is the answer to the riddle, we’ve missed the point. To say “awareness” is to make a conceptual conclusion, and whatever this “it” is, it’s neither bounded like a conclusion nor objective like a concept. Yes, the lines are referring to awareness, but do we really get what that is, beyond the idea that the word “awareness” represents? The beauty of the riddle is that it forces us to the edge of language and then pushes us off.

Although these four lines certainly cannot be improved, I’d like to offer a few thoughts here in the hopes they may help, in some small way, with that push.

It’s so close you can’t see it
One way to enter the mystery of this line is to imagine space. Space is close and invisible too. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it, that we can have a sense of space without being able to see or feel it? Our bodies move through space and though space doesn’t separate to let us by, we feel no resistance — it goes right through us. Whatever our riddle is referring to is that close.

The great nondual teacher Jean Klein says it’s our “nearest.” So near it has no distance to travel to get any nearer. Sufis prize “nearness to God” and mean the same thing. “I am closer to thee than thy jugular vein,” it says in the Quran. In this case the words “close” and “near” are not about location or distance — they refer to identity, being so close to it we are it.

And so it is with our awareness. Can we find anything nearer to us than awareness? It’s so close we can’t see it, just like the eye cannot see the eye. Awareness is not seeable, though it is self-evident. And though the analogy of awareness being “like space” may be helpful, unlike our sense of space, awareness cannot be measured.

It’s so profound you can’t fathom it
This line drops the bottom out. It says we simply cannot understand what this is. To say it’s “awareness” doesn’t take us very far, since no one has ever fathomed awareness. Mystics have continually pointed out that awareness is the ground of all being, and now physicists are beginning to discover the same thing. But to say this is not to fathom it — it simply provides another mysterious description. This that we’re speaking of cannot be fathomed. It is a mystery and will remain that way because it cannot be focused into an object that our minds can surround. Mysterium profundum! The Divine Unknown.

To the extent we can admit this, humility graces our being. Our drive to understand, our insistence on possessing this profundity with our intellects… relaxes. The mind surrenders, making way for something we might call devotion or gratitude or praise or love.

It’s so simple you can’t believe it
What it is is so simple that it can’t provide any kind of story or concept for us to believe in. Every word we use passes right through it. Plotinus calls it “the One,” that which is uncompounded, that has no predicate, the absolutely simple first principle of all. Buddhists call it emptiness. Sufis call it the void of pure potential.

Does its primal simplicity mean we cannot experience it? We can, but not as an experience. In order to open to this non-experience we must ourselves become simple. We must become transparent to ourselves.

In the uncertain light of single, certain truth,
Equal in living changingness to the light
In which I meet you, in which we sit at rest,
For a moment in the central of our being,
the vivid transparence that you bring is peace.  

— Wallace Stevens, from “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”

Becoming transparent is not so difficult as it sounds, since our true nature is already transparent. It is the transparence of pure presence — or as some call it, presence-awareness. If we try to picture pure presence, we can’t. If we try to fathom it, we can’t. If we try to believe in it, we miss it — it’s simpler than anything we can approach through belief.

And yet it’s here, the simple pure presence of being, vividly immanent every moment in how everything appears, while at the same time transcending every appearance, every moment.

It’s so good you can’t accept it
This final line may be the most mysterious of all. We might think that if something is really good we could easily accept it, but the goodness this line points to is beyond the capacity of our acceptance. We cannot contain it — our “cup runneth over.”

We have come to believe that this reality we’re in is a tough place. We’re threatened by illness, violence and death. Everything that we have will one day be taken away. How could the truth be something so good that it both holds and supersedes our pain and grief? The stubbornness of that question is one reason why we can’t accept this that is “so good.”

As in the preceding lines, “accepting it” hits the same limits that seeing, believing, and fathoming run into. As long as we think there is something we have to do — seeing, believing, fathoming, or accepting — we will miss what this is about.

This that is so good pervades all being. It is the pure love-generosity that is so close, so profound, so simple we can’t surround it with our usual ways of knowing and feeling. As Rumi advises, “Close these eyes to open the other. Let the center brighten your sight.”