The Temple of Muddy Waters

  If you play a stringed instrument, you know that if you tighten the string too much, it will break and if it is too loose, it won’t play.  If you play the Blues on your stringed instrument, you know that too many notes and the music is chaotic; too few and the music lacks depth.  Finding the right balance between sound and space between tight and loose between action and rest makes it all possible. 

  Today, more than ever, we live on the frontier of constant activity.  People buy groceries while texting on Blackberrys, jog while talking on cell phones, and play games on electronic devices while waiting in waiting rooms.  We are literally wired to constant contact, contact that is with others but often separated from ourselves.  Of course, in any endeavor, too much activity leads to exhaustion.  If we were a parent to such a constant activity child, we would say, “Honey, you need a nap.”   

  So, how are we to connect to ourselves again?  How are we to return to inner consciousness?  In the Many Paths One Truth issue of Parabola magazine, there is a profoundly important article by Tracy Cochran, an editor of Parabola Magazine, titled Finding the Path.  In the article, Ms. Cochran shares her insights while on silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, a Buddhist meditation center in rural Massachusetts.  Since no summary of the article is a sufficient substitute for reading the article, I simply encourage you to read it.  But I will share with you that Ms. Cochran is an editor of Parabola Magazine, a writer, and an emerging Dharma leader; she also leads a sangha in Tarrytown, New York.  And if you live near Tarrytown, New York or are in need of a spiritual journey, I would strongly suggest that you attend her sangha.  

   For while many of us have daily meditation practices, there is something about sitting with others.  Like the best Blues music, in communal meditation, there is alone and together which by the way is the title of the next issue of Parabola magazine.  When we meditate with others, we gain a profound connection to ourselves and to others.  That is quite difference than jogging while on a cell phone.  Yes, we are physically alone while jogging yet connected to another through an electronic device but we are really disconnected from both experiences.  As I once read in a New York Times article on the brain, the brain can only do one thing well at a time.  Yet one of the many beautiful paradoxes of communal sittings is that our mind is fully engaged in meditation but we are intimately connected to others.  

  Of course, communal sitting has the added benefit of a talk that follows meditation.  When Ms. Cochran leads the sangha, she weaves together many insights and experiences like a masterful spider.  There are many fine connections coming together in great insight.  So, if you find yourself in need of deep connection and insight, find your way to Ms. Cochran’s sangha.  As Eric Burdon sang in San Franciscan nights, “if not for the sake of this song but for the sake of your own peace of mind.”  

  And if you have followed this blog to the very end, you may be wondering what is the Temple of Muddy Waters?  Well, again there is no substitute for experience, so download King Bee and tell me?  In great Blues like great life, there is space and sound, alone and together, silence and action.

  May we go into the great silence together.  See you in Tarrytown.

Revolutionary Love

  They were teenagers for a reason.  Teenagers love with wild abandon.  Had the lovers been older, they would have been more practical.  

  Slightly older Romeo: “I can still be a glove upon that hand even if thou marry another.”  

  Slightly older Juliet: “Indeed parting need not be such sweet sorrow.”  

  Of course, practical love doesn’t make for great art and it doesn’t make for great living.  

  “For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten son” is quite different than “For God so loved the world but kept his only begotten son for himself.”  

  On this day of deepest love, it is wonderful to read Nipun Mehta’s “If You Want to Be a Rebel, Be Kind” in the Burning World issue of Parabola magazine.  Mr. Mehta’s article about Pancho Ramos Stierle, a nonviolent activist that transformed Occupy Oakland by meditating in the Plaza, reminds us that love is a powerful force.  As Pancho said, “If police are stepping up their violence, we need to step up our nonviolence.”  

  This kind of radical nonviolence is always founded on radical love.  For in the face of a Bull Connor, the nonviolent activist must believe that love is the more powerful force.  And this kind of radical love is different than other kinds of love.  In mundane love, there are tremendous rewards in loving – the touch of a lover’s hands, the warmth of a mother’s loving embrace, the joy of a friend’s company.  But to love regardless of benefit is to be a revolutionary lover  – to love without exception, without distinction, without boundaries.  Most of us are too afraid for this kind of love.  We know the sacrifices that such love demands.  Do we really want to give our only begotten son to a bunch of undeserving folk?  

  I do not pretend to be a Pancho.  I am a moderately good person.  I try to be kind and compassionate but sometimes my to-do list gets in the way and I find myself racing to complete my chores regardless of the causalities.  But even though I am a moderately good person, I have a very good conscience.  And so, after I’ve mowed down several people in the supermarket, I apologize for my haste and try to slow down.  

  But on this day of revolutionary love, I will share with you one brief story about how when we try to love unconditionally and without benefit, we sometimes get more than we ever could have imagined.

  After a long day of work and family, I found myself in the laundry room of my apartment building.   A woman entered the room and began to ask me rather intimate questions about a family member.  Though she clearly knew my kin, I did not know her.  Being in a hurry, I turned to her and said, “Excuse me but I don’t know you and these are rather intimate questions.”  She looked stunned and being a moderately good person with a very good conscience, I realized how rude I had been.  I quickly apologized.  And then the most amazing thing happened.  

  I cast aside my to-do list and began to really listen to her.  She told me about her son who had recently died from cancer.  How as a small boy, he had a rare disease that left him blind and how he was supposed to die before his eighteenth birthday.  And how he  had lived until he was forty and had learned to ride horses and work as a computer specialist and even had the most amazing four-day party when she and her husband were out of town that classmates still remember to this day.  She talked to me for about two hours and I shared her joys and her tears as if I had walked with her.  And while I had started the conversation in a penitential sort of way for my rudeness, I finished the conversation having received a tremendous wisdom about how to live fully in an uncertain world.  

  So, on this day of deepest love, strive to be a revolutionary lover.  Ask yourself what would Pancho do?  Or Gandhi?  Or the Dalai Lama?  Or Rumi?   Or the countless other good people who have loved without borders?  

  And even if you take the most tepid steps towards revolutionary love, take those steps knowing that love is a transformative power for the lover, for the receiver, for the world.

  Love on!

Lost

  It was supposed to be easy.  There was no need for rucksack, water bottle or map.  It was just an afternoon hike, an hour at most.  Of course, it was hot, nearly a hundred degrees.  But it would only be an hour.  Besides it was a beautiful day with a clear sky and plenty of wildflowers.  It was a perfect day to be outdoors but when the hour turned to two and then three; when there was no end to the trail in sight, then it wasn’t perfect.  It was terrifying.   

  Until the day that I was lost, I had always been a lucky hiker and as hubris is as hubris does, I took for granted that all hikes would always be easy and end well.  But that day, I experienced something different.  That day I was lost.  After being lost, I now bring a map and a water bottle and a rucksack.  I admire a beautiful landscape but know it can change in an instant.  I respect nature but know it doesn’t exist for my entertainment.  

  Or course; if we live long enough, we have been all been lost.  In the Seeing Issue of Parabola Magazine, there is a wonderful story called Nomad Girl, told by Barbara Helen Berger, about a traveler who is lost and then found by the Bodhisattva of compassion, Tara.  In the story, the bodhisattva nurses the traveler back to health and the traveler is changed in the process.  I liked the story so much that I created a lesson which is posted on the Parabola in the Classroom page.   

  Being lost is a common theme in many of the great stories of the great faiths.  Of course, there are many ways to be lost.  We can be emotionally lost, physically lost, or even psychically lost.  When Arjuna approaches the battlefield and sees his kinsmen arrayed against him, he is lost.   When Siddhartha finds the existence of suffering, he is lost.  And when the Hebrews are enslaved by a merciless pharaoh, they are lost.  On this first night of Passover, it is worth remembering the enormity of being lost and the gratefulness of being found.  

  I have always believed that the great stories of the great faiths are the collective canon of humanity.   I have always believed that every man, woman, and child should have access to the canon and its wisdom traditions.  Indeed, to make sense of the world we live in; we must know the stories that shape us.  Through knowledge of the stories, we begin to understand the lens through which humanity sees and experiences the world.  

  In the world of the sound bite, it is easy to lose the glow of the storyteller’s fire.  Stories like waves on the beach grow and move and crest.  They demand our attention like a jealous lover.  But like a jealous lover, they can give us a depth of connection that a superficial telling simply cannot.  In every issue of Parabola magazine, the reader is given a portal to the great stories of the great traditions, a key to opening the canon of the collective story of humanity.  For not one perspective but many perspectives, not one story but many and not one voice but many are shared around the flames of Parabola’s fire.   

  We have always been a species of storytellers and we have always needed to share our stories, to give life to the tales that long to be heard.  Tonight on the first night of Passover, a great story will be shared, a story that has kept hope alive through the ages.  In the pages of Parabola magazine, the great stories are lovingly preserved and shared for all tables for all times.  

  Support Parabola.  Keep the flames of the storytellers’ fires alive.

The Dharma According to Bilbo Baggins

“We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them,” said our Mr. Baggins…

“That’s right,” said Gandalf. “Let’s have no more argument. I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for all of you. If I say he is a Burglar, a Burglar he is, or will be when the time comes. There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself.”

   When she was a teenager, the wise Alexander Z. introduced me to the epic, The Lord of the Rings, and I am still indebted.  In the epic, there was courage and perseverance and all manner of things that make a person long to be heroic.  But some of us are not naturally heroic and for those of us, The Hobbit and particularly Mr. Bilbo Baggins speak directly to our souls.  These days I have been rereading the book to a rather small creature but not a hobbit.  Of course, as an adult, I see even more of the reluctant Mr. Baggins in myself than I did as a child.  I particularly love it when the dwarves sing, “Chip the glasses and crack the plates!  Blunt the knives and bend the forks!  That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates…”  Yes, that’s what Bilbo Baggins hates and I hate it too.  I love a clean and orderly home and long for the day when no one manages to smudge the sparkling glass and muddy the clean floor.  But, alas, life has its suffering and glasses get smudged and floors get muddied no matter how many times we try to keep them clean.  

  In the dharma, we are told that all is impermanent and in the advertisements, we are told that all can be kept clean and orderly.  But ultimately the ad exec must meditate under doctor’s order because his blood pressure is too high.  And impermanence trumps perfection every time.  Of course, in The Hobbit, Bilbo finds something within himself that lets him leave his orderly and comfortable home.  Perhaps it is his long matrilineal line of adventurous Tooks or Gandalf’s conviction that he is the right hobbit for the adventure or his own self-respect before the questioning and skeptical dwarves.  Regardless of reason, Bilbo moves beyond the comfort of his comfortable hole to the dangers of a big adventure.  And while I do not long for a big and dangerous adventure, I do believe that there is much to learn in the tale of the rather small hobbit and a very big adventure.  Indeed sometimes there is more to life than a comfortable and orderly hole in a comfortable and orderly hill and sometimes finding that something more makes all the difference in the world.  Indeed that’s what Siddhartha learned when he left the luxury of the palace in search of that something more.

   Maybe if Bilbo was a bodhisattva, he would be a bodhisattva for the meek, the orderly, the habitual – the type of person who can get really comfortable with a very predictable life but of course, life isn’t predictable.  And so what do we do when Gandalf comes knocking at the door?  Perhaps at first, we cower under the covers and hope the wise wizard moves past us but then just maybe, we see something in ourselves that believes in our abilities to move proverbial mountains.  Perhaps we develop faith in ourselves and realize that we are a good deal more than we ever imagined.  

  There is a book that I learned about while listening to public radio, The Power of Habit.  In the prologue, it speaks of a woman who scientists study because she managed to change many negative habits by changing one thought.  She decided to cross the desert after a series of personal disappointments.  From that one decision, she changed her bad habits and created new and lasting patterns that transformed her life.  Maybe she too was following the Dharma according to Bilbo Baggins.  When we change one thing, we change everything.  

  So, read a classic to a child and maybe, just maybe, in reading aloud that one book, everything will change in the life of the child and for you.  Or subscribe to Parabola Magazine and maybe, just maybe, everything will change in the way you think and live.  And open the door when Gandalf comes knocking and then without a doubt, everything will change.  

  For life is change whether we like it or not but if we can change, then we become participants in change and not victims of change.  

  Oh, and tell me: Are you a Bilbo Baggins or a Frodo or some other character from one of the most remarkable adventure stories of all time?

Conscious Craving

  Recently, I saw an advertisement for the most beautiful scarf.  While I was admiring the scarf, I felt craving.  I wanted the scarf.  But then the words beneath the scarf attracted my attention and I read that the scarf company donates ten percent of its sales to Open Hand Designs in India, which employs individuals who might not otherwise find employment due to caste, disability, religion or disease.  I could buy one of the scarves online at prana.com.   Of course, I was still craving after I read the advertisement but now, I was, at the very least, consciously craving.  I wanted to buy the scarf but I also wanted to help people who would otherwise be denied opportunities due to discrimination.  

  Though I have a spiritual practice, I doubt that enlightenment will find me in this lifetime (unless a very charitable bodhisattva decides to provide the rowboat and pushes me directly to the shores of nibbāna).  As a householder, the daily chores and responsibilities of life take up a tremendous amount of my time and while my spiritual practice accompanies me throughout my day, it hardly is given the attention that even a low-level lama devotes to practice.  So, craving is very much a part of my life.  I mostly crave for things to go without too many hitches: like the car starting without a disconcerting rumble or the repairman arriving within the allotted window for the scheduled repair.  My craving is mostly of a very mundane kind.  Even when I am craving for material things, they are rarely of a luxurious nature.  A scarf, after all, is not a convertible Ferrari.  It is not so much the dolce vita that I crave but the hassle-free vita.  

   And so, perhaps since it is unlikely that I will extinguish craving, I can at the very least strive for conscious craving.  Conscious craving even has a soundtrack, if K.D. Lang allows a slight modification of her lovely song.  By conscious craving, I think of Mohandas K. Gandhi and his admonition to purchase from those who do not profit from your suffering or from the suffering of others.  And though we may shed tears as Indira Gandhi did when she burned her British-made doll to protest British imperialism in India, we also gain a certainty that our purchases are based in an awareness of the world we want to live in and the world our purchases can help to create.  

  For children, awareness of conscious craving can be a vehicle for instilling an awareness of conscious consumption.  As any parent in any supermarket knows, children want what they want when they want it.  But if we can begin to educate children about the consequences of their choices, we can begin to encourage them to think beyond the immediate moment of wanting to the implications of wanting.  The questions I think we want to ask our children is: how will your life improve by buying this product, how was this product made, how will the profits from the sale of this product be used, and what is the impact of this purchase on the environment.  And while these questions are rather heady for any consumer to ponder, they are important questions to ask.  

    As for me, I would have thought that I would have learned the value of conscious craving years ago.  As a small child, I had saved my very slowly earned pennies to purchase something glorious from a comic magazine.  On the last page, where the advertisements were, I saw the most amazing thing: a seven-foot-tall, three dimensional Frankenstein.  I saved and saved for weeks for the monster.  Finally, I placed my long saved money in an envelope and mailed it to the manufacturer.  When a package arrived a month later, a package the size of a large envelope, I had the sense that I had been hoodwinked.  When I opened it and saw five sheets of plastic with various parts of the Frankenstein painted on it, I knew I had been hoodwinked.  But knowing the value of a penny, I, nonetheless, taped my seven-foot poster of a Frankenstein to the wall.  It looked pathetic, even to a small child.  Dejected I left the room.  But that evening, when I lay down to sleep, the Frankenstein did indeed glow in the dark and looked very three-dimensional as if the monster was walking to me with outstretched arms.  I screamed.  And within minutes of the scream, my parents quickly tore down the poster and put it in the trash.  So, somewhere in some landfill in America, is my Frankenstein. 

   But the scarf – that I will wear and I will wear it for many years and it will benefit workers in India who would otherwise face discrimination.  And therein is the difference.  We will continue to crave but at least, our cravings can be used to make the world a better place.

  And as for Parabola, whether magazine, archives, or store, cravings for Parabola definitely make the world a better place.

  So, if we cannot extinguish craving, we can most certainly experience it as consciously as possible.

   And you?  What can you share about craving?

Orwell, Dystopia, and The Hunger Games

  Before there was 2012, there was 1984.  I remember when 1984 was approaching and wondering if Orwell would be right.  With the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Cold War was still very cold but there was a new man in the Kremlin and he did speak of reform.  Still there was Orwell’s date.  As teenagers, we had all been assigned the book and the twentieth century was certainly  known for its totalitarian regimes.  So, maybe, just maybe, like 2012, Orwell would be right.  Of course, the year passed without Big Brother watching us.  But just because Big Brother wasn’t watching us then didn’t mean Big Brother would never be watching us.  And so we came to love the dystopian novel!  It reminded us not to take our freedoms for granted.  

  As you have probably guessed by now, I just saw The Hunger Games and loved it.  My students had been discussing it for months before the premiere and their enthusiasm was contagious.  Since it has been rumored that my favorite expression as a teenager was “Damn Fascists,” especially whenever my freedoms were restricted, they naturally encouraged me to see the film.  Novels and films like The Hunger Games remind each and every one of us that our freedoms and individual rights are not guaranteed unless we actively seek their preservation.  And in my humble opinion, the best way to ensure our commitment to the preservation of our rights and liberties is the cultivation of an educated mind, a mind that analyzes a multiplicity of perspectives in order to determine a reasoned conclusion.  Naturally, I believe that Parabola Magazine is the ideal training ground for the educated, analytical mind of the future citizen. 

  In every issue of Parabola Magazine, a theme is addressed from many diverse perspectives and from this wealth of information; the student can begin to formulate his own conclusions and ideas.  Parabola Magazine is a wonderful vehicle for cultivating an open mind.  The open mind is a more analytical mind because it does not automatically disqualify a reasoned conclusion.  Like the Pope insisting that Galileo recant because surely the earth does not move, a closed mind will disregard the very facts before its eyes in order to preserve a conclusion, even an erroneous conclusion.

   So, how do we as educators and parents cultivate analytical thinking and open minds?  To answer this question, I reflect on a chance encounter I had in the park this morning.  A father arrived at the park with a beautiful kite and two-year old twins.  The twins, initially, were very excited about the kite.  They gathered around the father and he lovingly spoke to them about the kite and their participation in the flying of it.  As a walked, I smiled and thought, “What a patient parent.”  After a few minutes, the loving words faded and the children were told to let go of the kite.  Of course, small children generally are not skilled kite flyers and beautiful kites generally do not stay beautiful in the hands of small children.  So, after several minutes of letting them fly the kite, the father took control of the kite flying.  With nothing better to do then watch, the toddlers began to cry and fuss and the father hurriedly packed them up and left the park.  

  Now, having had my moment with toddlers, I cast no stones.  I, too, remember wanting to fly a kite with young children and failing.  But in that failure, there is an important lesson for educators.  Children learn by doing and bore by watching.  Perhaps if the kite was cheaper, the father would have let them fly and lose the kite.  And in flying and losing the kite, it would have been their experience. 

  In the classroom, sometimes the premium is on order and an army of passive spectators is unfortunately created.  Let us not create passive spectators for passive spectators will never preserve our rights and liberties.  Let us create a generation of thinkers and doers, a generation of challengers and actors on the stage.  Let us create young people who think for themselves and occasionally fail and let us applaud those failures for too much order is fascism.  Damn fascists!

Widening the Lens

The Nacirema are an interesting tribe.  In every Nacirema home, there is a black box, a sacred altar, that the Nacirema gather around nightly.  The black box is a central focus of Nacirema culture.  In fact, the black box is so valued that Nacirema homes often have several black boxes.  Indeed to be without a black box is to be truly cut off from Nacirema society.

By now, perhaps you are suspecting that Nacirema is American spelled backwards and that the black box is not an altar but a television and that when we discuss American culture the way we often discuss indigenous cultures, American culture can look just as exotic, strange, primitive, and superstitious as our portrayal of other cultures.

But there is an antidote to ethnocentrism and it comes in the form of a lovely magazine called Parabola.  If we want to understand others, we have to walk among them.  We have to listen to them and learn from them.  We have to widen the lens of our perception to begin to recognize how others view the world.  This widening of the lens leads to an expansion of consciousness.  We begin to see the world from a multiplicity of perspectives.

One of the gifts of volunteering for Parabola Magazine is having access to the magazine’s archives.  Of course, if you can afford to buy a complete set of the back issues of the magazine, it is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself, your loved ones, and particularly your children.  In the back issues, you will find many remarkable perspectives and stories.  Of course, in the current issue, Burning World, there is a wealth of brilliance too!

But I will share with you one particularly lovely article from the Clothing issue of Parabola.  In this back issue, the author examines Gandhi’s transformation of consciousness through the transformation of his clothing.  From the proper English barrister to the man in the garb of the peasant, Gandhi’s clothing was an outward expression of his inner change in consciousness.   Of course, anyone who has read Gandhi’s autobiography or any of the countless biographies on Gandhi knows that Gandhi was always in search of truth.  And in that search for truth, he was willing to adopt new attitudes and lifestyles.  Indeed this incredible flexibility of consciousness led the great man to once state, “It is not consistency I seek but truth.”

In the Clothing issue of Parabola, the man and his transformation of consciousness is examined through the fabric of his garments.  How brilliant an analysis and where else can such brilliance be found but in Parabola.

So, what does this widening of the lens through Parabola have to do with the classroom?  Well, particularly, in the World History classroom, to truly understand the tides of history, we must delve into the consciousness of culture and to delve into the consciousness of culture, we must have the courage to leave the shore of our certainties and swim out into new perceptions and new seas.