Befriending Unfriendliness

M A Y   2 0 1 8

While the world we encounter day to day is not always friendly, it is our job to befriend it. Of course, befriending the world’s unfriendliness is a profound challenge; it requires equanimity and a great capacity for love and compassion.

Black Lives Matter PhotoWhen Jesus was being nailed to the cross he prayed that his executioners be forgiven. Although we may honor his response as an ideal, when someone criticizes us or expresses animosity toward us, what is our response? Most often we react with defensiveness: we try either to defend ourselves or to return the attack in ways that will diminish the accuser. Yet we can see from the world’s history of conflict, violence, and revenge the predictable outcomes of this kind of reactivity, just as the many small examples we can think of from our own lives show us the painful results of our own defensiveness.

Befriending unfriendliness is not something easy to accept, especially when we consider the horrendous examples of victimization and oppression throughout human history — befriending that unfriendliness can look like passivity, or foolhardiness, or even cowardice.

As a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, I grappled at length with the dilemma of pacifism — and it is far beyond the scope of this essay to deal with its many nuances — but most succinctly, for me it comes down to “situational ethics”: our job is to befriend the world, yes, but sometimes so many mistakes have been made, so many opportunities for befriending have been missed, that there is no alternative but to say No! and to stand up to oppression, as the Allies did when they stood up to the Axis war machine in the Second World War. Befriending must be our natural response in nearly every situation we encounter, but when it is too late and the only recourse to prevent even greater disaster is through force, then the use of force may be justified.

But then what?

This is the crucial point — there are endless possibilities for the healing power of friendship to avert violence and oppression before they have a chance to spread. For example, if something like the Marshall Plan had been initiated following the First World War, the Second World War might never have happened. As the lines I often repeat from Wallace Stevens tell us:

After the final no there comes a yes,
and on that yes the future world depends.

And so it is in our personal lives. We can and must say no to abuse and meanness, and to our own unfriendliness toward ourselves, but even that no has its roots in our love for life and for the well-being of all. Our everyday work must be to water those roots. There are many ways we can do this, most of them quite small and intimate — practicing kindness, forbearance, patience — but the most profound way is by opening our hearts to the nature of Pure Presence (or whatever name we wish to call it).

This is the gift of the mystic path. In its essence it is not a complicated path, but it asks of us complete openness and release of self-concepts, opinions, and judgment.

To the extent we can open our hearts to the nature of Pure Presence we realize that its nature is love, a love that is light-years beyond what we usually consider that little word to signify. It is unconditional. It’s the love that flames the stars and spins every atom. It’s the gift of this beginningless, endless moment, the infinite generosity of now.

When we recognize that this love is at the root of our own nature and the nature of all being — even though it is so often eclipsed by fear in the human realm — we open ourselves to the unshakable power of befriending.

* * *


NOTE: while there isn’t space here to recount personal stories and examples illustrating the power (and challenge) of befriending unfriendliness, I have often told these kinds of stories — if you’re interested you can find some of them in the archive of Notes from the Open Path —  in particular: 

The Gift of the Flower
The Tears of the Bank Robber
A Prayer in the Militant Mosque
Link Arms and Sing
Neighborliness
The Beautiful Revolution

 

This essay was first published in the Spring 2018 edition of FRESH RAIN, the Sufi Way E-Letter, which was devoted to the theme of friendship.

 

Easter Egg

A P R I L   2 0 1 8

On a festive day when I was three I found a lavender egg beneath a tree. It was Easter and the air was full of morning and the sun was shining, little children were running about, and then all of a sudden something happened, something that’s actually the first memory of my life.

easter egg treeI saw (and in that moment everything became quiet, at least in my memory it was quiet) I saw a glint of lavender in the leaves beneath a tree — a lavender egg half-covered by brown leaves nestled in the bosom roots of a tree that went way up into the sky.

It was so quiet, though the children were squealing in the front yard, and in the silence my small hand reached out, and I knew, I felt, something magical was happening, something intensely beautiful was being born from the dark beneath the leaves out of where the tree grew and the darkness down there began.

I took the egg into my fingers and touched its perfect seamless shape. Egg. Lavender egg. I held it to my cheek. It was as smooth as my cheek, its touch so tender and smooth, so secret and whole. I placed the egg into my basket, on the green grass inside my basket and it remains there now in my memory, lavender on a green nest, and the memory of my little selfless self contemplating it remains there too, and the quiet beneath the soaring tree remains, still there in my memory with the lavender egg.

Now seventy years have passed from that moment to this and it is Easter again and I know more, I know that Jesus made Easter by dying on a tree like the countless trillions of leaves that die and sail down between the trees and crumble into dirt and into the dark of the ground, and that the wetness of rain draws them down to the roots where they wait like Jesus until Easter comes and a little boy no bigger than that sees a glint of lavender appearing from the dark, from the fecund dark, from Jesus’ cave, resurrecting into the little boy’s hand, touching smooth against his cheek like a kiss from his mother.

 

The Intimacy of the Real

M A R C H   2 0 1 8

Perhaps the most startling moment in nondual inquiry occurs right at the beginning when you turn your attention inward and ask: What am I? What is it that is seeing the world around me? What is feeling the sensations of my body? What is experiencing these emotions? What is it that is asking these questions? What is this me?

chairThe startling part of this kind of inquiry is that you can’t find an answer. You can’t find anything “there.” Where? Where are you looking? Some seekers veer off at this point and find a mental construction to substitute for the lack of an answer — for example, “Well, I’m not a thing, I’m the sum total of all the conditions that make me — my body, my thoughts, my memories,” or “There’s no solid me in here, I’m simply awareness.”

Answers like these give the mind some satisfaction, but they stop the inquiry process and allow the mind to continue business as usual. That business is based on the fundamental equation that says, “I (whatever that is) am in here and the world (whatever that is) is out there. I am the primary subject. Everything else is an object that I perceive. I walk from here to there. I pick up an object and move its position. Isn’t this obvious?”

This is where the inquiry must persist. One helpful route is to question your sense of relative location. Where is the world of objects? Where is the chair, the floor, the building, the person over there, where are they happening? Are these things of the world truly over there, or are they where I’m experiencing them, in here?

This can give us another shock. The chair I perceive as over there is actually and only perceived by me in here. The chair is in here!

This shock can be a helpful disorientation, but it only goes halfway.

When we look for the place where the chair is appearing in here, in our subjective experience of it, we can’t find that either. The chair is definitely appearing, but where is it appearing?

Now your inquiry must turn on itself once again. It must ask what is behind the notion of here and there? Yes, it is convenient to interpret the world as an arrangement of heres and theres — at least with regard to negotiating our movements — but is that how reality is?

If you’ve stayed with me this far you may sense the inquiry presents us now with another shock, one that upsets the whole equation of here and there, of me and other. This is no longer a mental exercise. It’s too close for that. We are confronted with the loss of the subject-object relationship. We begin to suspect that objects are not separate entities located in space distinct from a separate entity called “me” that is located in a different part of space. Whatever is happening is happening all at once in the same here.

Your inquiry has exposed the fundamental intimacy of the Real. You sense, free of mental reasoning, that reality is completely intimate with itself. Your reality and the world’s reality are identical, all-at-once. You recognize that the experience of reality as a subject-object relationship is a convenience, not a truth.

You’ve probably noticed that this line of inquiry doesn’t leave any room for a “you” to be somewhere special. It obliterates your privileged position. This can be experienced as an unacceptable outcome and your habitual psyche can — and most frequently does — retreat to its customary positioning of “me as subject” and “world as object.” This arrangement of experience into self-other is so embedded in how we interpret reality that even though we may have a strong insight into the sheer intimacy and oneness of being, we quickly categorize it with our minds and avoid its implicit self-effacement. After all, how can I have “relationships” with people or things if there is no subject-object distinction?

I’m reminded here of the Buddhist lama who remarked, in a symposium with environmental educators, “You speak of developing a good relationship with nature. What are you other than nature to have a relationship with nature?”

The nondual inquiry process, in its many forms, is not something you do once and it’s accomplished. You need to engage with it again and again in increasingly sensitive and original ways. In the moment that the surety of the subject-object interpretative setup weakens, when you glimpse the perfect wholeness of things, relax into that glimpse. No need to think about it.

Let the world be utterly intimate with you, no separation. Relax and open into the directness of that experience. It’s not even an “experience” since that word implies an experiencer and something experienced. Relax into the all-at-onceness that happens prior to the interpretation of self experiencing something other. This all-at-onceness is intimacy.

To the extent that you can open into reality’s all-at-onceness, you begin to recognize that intimacy is simply another word for love. Love is the desire for, and the celebration of, no separation, closer than close. Although nondual inquiry begins as an intellectual process, the realization it reveals appears through the centerless and boundless dimension of the heart. When your inquiry results in this intimate blossoming of love, your life is given a confidence and joy that serves all.

One final note: you may have clear moments of recognizing the all-at-once intimacy of reality (including “you”), but then find yourself distinctly back in subject-object world. This is not a failure. Our bodies and brains have evolved to interpret reality in this dualistic way. The point is not to remain in “nondual awareness” continuously, but to develop fluency between these two “worlds.” After all, they are not two. Recognizing their unity frees us from situating ourselves in any position. Then we can say with Rumi:

                         I do not exist,
 
am not an entity in this world or the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any
 
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul,
 
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
 
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.

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.