When nothing is left

when nothing is left

something is left

a burning ember

ready to flame

life is like that

ask Job

   Some people need Buddha conquering the armies of Mara; I need Siddhartha’s utter surprise at the existence of suffering and his realization that even kings are without immunity.  Some people look to the resurrection.  I understand the garden of Gethsemane.  Some people see the triumph of the Promised Land.  I get being chased by Pharaoh’s armies.  For someone like me, life is a dangerous and not entirely attractive endeavor.  But for better or worse, it’s the only life I’ve got.  So, I look for the shafts of light deep in the muck.  I look for something that shines.

   For my tribe, the preternaturally freaked out, spirituality is a necessity.  It is something that is left when everything is lost.  Members of my tribe don’t sit on the cushion because we think we’re evolved.  We sit because we have to.  We don’t pray because we are fundamentally good.  We pray because we need something.  Yes, Jim Morrison, we hope we can petition the Lord with prayer.  We are a very flawed lot.  God wouldn’t have picked us.  We would have cried out after the first affliction.

   So, what does any of this have to do with Parabola and the deep meaning of traditions?  Parabola is a balm in the midst of life’s randomness.  It can lead you to water and teach you wisdom, even if you are like me and members of my tribe – the “oh, sh-t, I didn’t sign up for this at the reincarnation window” crowd.   Of course, most people who read Parabola are not like me and my tribe.  They are spiritually evolved for all the right reasons.  But if you are like me, constantly surprised that life could be like this: remember when nothing is left, something is left.  And like a burning ember, it can flame to life and show you the way.

Read The Story of Patacara in the Alone & Together issue of Parabola.

  “No child will be a refuge, Not any relations at all.   The one who is taken by death will find no shelter among king.  Knowing this, understanding this, the wise one, restrained by virtue, quickly clears the obstacles on the path that leads to freedom.”




Water Flowing In, Water Flowing Out

When I think of the story of Moses, I am always amazed at Moses’ difficulty in speaking and yet God’s choice of Moses as his prophet.  And Moses is not just one of many prophets – Moses is the most significant prophet in Judaism for Moses is the lawgiver.  As a school teacher, I love the fact that God chooses not the most eloquent or the most polished but the most devoted.  For God saw in Moses potential, the potential to be so much more than Moses saw in himself.  Indeed, the story of Moses is the perfect teacher story.  But why, at this moment, am I thinking of Moses?  Having crafted a lesson for Parabola in the Classroom from Joshua Boettiger’s Alone, with Others from the Alone & Together issue of Parabola magazine, I have had Moses, the importance of community, and the need for solitude as my companions this week – and what beautiful companions they have been.

The Boettiger article is a work of such scholarship and beauty but also a tool for personal growth – of course, another reason that Parabola magazine is so much more than a magazine.  When I finished reading the article and crafting the lesson, I found that the article wasn’t quite finished with me.  In fact, I have been thinking about the article for the past four days.  In particular, I have been thinking about the difficulty I have experienced between finding community and maintaining individuality.

From the moment I entered my teen years, I kept quoting Gandhi: “It is not consistency I seek but truth.”  And these are certainly worthwhile words to live by but there is no space for compromise in such a statement.   This  has meant that being in community has been a bit challenging for me.  The moment the community was not as I perceived it needed to be, I would start searching for another community.  Like a wandering seeker, I would find myself in one community and then move off to another community and so on and so on.  But as I am getting older, I am beginning to realize that a wandering seeker is often without community.  And there is great value in community.

As Joshua Boettiger says so wisely, “Maybe an insistence on community can help balance the cult of the individual seeker, and the idolatry and narcissism that this search can sometimes foster.  It compels us to ask the question, either on our way into the cave or on our way back out:  What have you learned that you can give…But it is not so easy to belong.  Because it involves a deep compromise and we can feel that it corrupts the ‘purity’ of our aloneness, we resist belonging.”

Mr. Boettiger uses the image of the mikvah, a ritual bath in Judaism.  “In order for a mikvah to be kosher, it must have water flowing in and water flowing out.  In order for a community to be kosher, it must have people flowing in and people flowing out.  Any tradition needs to cultivate this alone/together dance to experience vitality.”

Yes, I remember the mikvah.  I remember the one time I had a mikvah and the feeling of being alone but also together.  I was alone with my understanding of divinity as I was immersed in the water but also together in the presence of the Rabbi and the well-wishes of the larger community.  My mikvah was a powerful experience.  But I never thought of the water flowing in and the water flowing out.

Like Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, the river of life is always flowing.  To join the flow of the life is to be alone and together.

Can we find community and still be alone?  Yes, I think I can.

Aum: A Lesson in Simplicity

The India of today is the India of Nehru. Jawaharlal Nehru was the first prime minister of independent India, an active member of the Indian National Congress prior to independence, and intimately involved in the Salt March and the boycott of British goods. However, although a close friend of Gandhi’s, he saw Gandhi’s tactics of nonviolence in a more pragmatic light, a useful tool for the moment but not a way of life.  And that pragmatism continued after independence. Nehru wanted a modern, secular, democratic India – a technologically advanced India that could lift the millions out of poverty.   And indeed, that is the India of today.

However, Gandhi’s vision was quite different. It was an India of self-sufficient villages. It was a very different promise for a very different kind of life. In the Alone and Together issue of Parabola magazine, there is an incredible article titled “Our Five-Year-Old: Alone but Not Lonely” by Ragunath Padmanabhan and it literally stopped me. I mean I actually had to sit down to finish the article. It is that remarkable. In the article, Mr. Padmanabhan discusses his family’s decision to leave high-tech careers in Silicon Valley to do natural farming in India, rural India. The author and his wife decided to lead a much simpler life and naturally, their five-year-old son was affected by the decision. The couple farm-school their son, Aum, and the boy spends a tremendous amount of time alone since there are few other children in the nearby farms and those children attend school.  Yet Aum is alone but not lonely.

Well, I do not want to reveal too much about the article because there is no substitute for reading.  But I will share this: that we spend so much of our lives, particularly in the West, striving, striving, and striving for something, something always beyond our grasp. And there is so much dissatisfaction in our striving and in our temporarily arriving only to strive again and again. We are like hunger ghosts, not quite certain what it is that will release us, satisfy us.  Yes, even the rich and powerful among us are still dissatisfied.  It as if we are playing a game where no one ever arrives at their destination.  But when I read this article about this couple and their son in rural India, I wondered if perhaps there is another way to live. It is so radically different as to be well, perplexing.  But oh, don’t you long to be satisfied?

“The Art of Happiness has been lost perhaps because by chasing it, we have chased it away. The Art of Suffering has been lost perhaps because by running away from it, we have tightened its knot on us.” ~ Ragunath Padmanabhan

We who are surrounded by people are often more lonely than Aum in his one student, one-farm farm school.  Yes, there is another way.  And that other way can be found in the smile of Aum on page 37 of Parabola’s Alone and Together.

Mettā: In Memoriam

While driving home on a familiar route, I passed a cluster of people with telephoto lenses. For a moment, I was confused. Who were these people and why did they have so many cameras? Then I knew. They were waiting to take photographs of the grieving Kennedy family members who were arriving at the house of Mary Richardson Kennedy, the house where a woman feeling very much alone in the world killed herself. I felt saddened. Is that really who we are – people who buy magazines to view the suffering of others? I turned my eyes away from the photographers and was grateful to be a part of a spiritual community and a reader of a spiritual magazine like Parabola magazine.

In Parabola magazine, I read about kindness revolutionaries like Nipun Mehta and compassion warriors like Bhikkhu Bodhi. In Parabola magazine, I read articles about mindfulness from Tracy Cochran. In Parabola magazine, I am encouraged to be more than a consumer and more than a voyeur. In Parabola magazine, I am encouraged to be my most authentic and ethical self. I never have to worry about who was harmed in the making of the magazine. Like good karma, I know that the effects of my purchasing and reading the magazine will reap more and more good effects.

When I had traveled further down the road, I thought about the suffering of this woman, a woman who had lived just up the road from me and I wondered if I had ever passed her in the course of busy days. Then I wondered if I had smiled if I had ever passed her. I had to be honest in my reflections – if I had passed her on a hectic day, I may have been dour and grim. I realized then that when we pass people, we have no way of knowing the magnitude of their joys or sorrows yet we always know the power and magnitude of compassion and kindness. I decided to smile more at unfamiliar faces.

And so, as I write this and the sun is setting and the day is entering its quiet time, I think of Nipun Mehta – “My life is an attempt to bring smiles in the world and silence in my heart. I want to live simply, love purely, and give fearlessly. That’s me.” Yes, an attempt to bring smiles in the world. As Siddhartha once said, “There is so much suffering in the world.” And the only antidote to suffering is compassion.

Let us say Metta for Mary Richardson Kennedy, “May all beings, without exception, in all times and all places, be free from suffering. And may you, Mary, be free from suffering for now and for all eternity.”

And if I ever passed you and did not smile, forgive me. For your death is a great sorrow even for those who never knew you. For in the journey of one is the journey of all.

Peace be upon you.

Reflection: The Alchemical Fire of Yoga and Art

  In the Burning World issue of Parabola magazine, authors Laura Dunn and David Ulrich, write “Both [Yoga and Art] ask for an authentic search into the core of one’s being, to seek and cultivate a broader awareness, and to directly meet the many resistances within oneself.”  And so, I have gone on a journey into the possibilities of deep consciousness with the authors as they examine the connection between yoga and creativity practice – “an authentic search into the core of one’s being…” and like the many articles of Parabola magazine, I find myself in conversation with myself about the article and hopefully, with you.  So, before I begin, please consider turning to page 86 of the Burning World issue to explore this connection with me.   

  Yoga and art are passions for many Parabola readers.  I attend a rather rigorous yoga studio where initially I am viewed with awe (I am blessedly double-jointed and can slip into the lotus with ease) but then am quickly relegated to the remedial group for my aversion to inverted asanas.  And I am also a card-carrying member of MoMa and stand in front of Kandinsky and Chagall like a pilgrim before a sacred shrine.  And do not even mention Marina Abramovic; I was enthralled long before the bandwagon arrived.  Yet until I read the article, I could not have explained the connection between Yoga and Art because the connection had never really occurred to me.  But after the article, I am converted.  I see something profoundly important that I had not seen before and that is the gift of Parabola magazine.  

  So, I will offer one reflection inspired by the article.  And then I hope you will share your reflections with me on our new Parabola Magazine Discussion blog.  In the article, the authors write, “Asana must not be an escape where one practices only the pleasant asanas and avoids the difficult ones…We cook in the fire of austerity when we don’t run this way looking for gratification or that way hiding from disappointment.”  

  As a student, I had a violin teacher and a guitar teacher.  My violin teacher was a strict Austrian who always admonished me, “Elizabeth, there is no need to practice the easy passages, you have already mastered them.  Practice the difficult passages and then you will be an artist.”  My guitar teacher was the opposite.  He loved every easy passage I repeatedly played.  Of course, it was easy to love my guitar teacher.  His praise was effusive and to this day, I can still play the instrument whereas the violin eludes me after so many years.  Yet I know I am not a musical artist.  Indeed to have achieved mastery, I had to practice the difficult passages.  I had to cook in the fire of austerity.  I had to lift the veil of illusion and see myself as fully complicated and contradictory as I am and then, just maybe, I could have experienced the gods.

Create a Sanctuary Kit

Available Everywhere Especially on Earth Day!

   Before there were kits and directions, plastic building blocks were whatever the mind imagined.  Some kids were particularly adept and could build Taj Mahal-esque monuments of seemingly white marble.  But for the blueprint-impaired, it was struggle enough to build an ambiguous tower of block atop block.  Fortunately, the kits and directions were added to the boxes and now even the architecturally challenged can build something amazing. 

   Unfortunately, some things are not as easily remedied and some blueprints are never created.  In the world of interacting with others and the Earth, we often find ourselves struggling to maintain relationships that allow for the full realization of one another. 

   So, how do we create a kind of sanctuary: a place where all are safe, respected, and able to realize their full potential?  In days gone by, it often took the bold leadership of one to create such a sanctuary.  Perhaps it was a wise spiritual or even political leader who had a vision of how to create safe spaces in the midst of chaos.  Some were so adept at sanctuary and realization creation that even in the midst of civil war; they could bring people to safety and realization.  If you doubt it, read Mr. Thomas de Hartmann’s Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff.

   But without a Mr. Gurdjieff, it is as if we wander the desert waiting to arrive in a safe land.  We wander lost and confused.  Yet perhaps there is a blueprint for sanctuary-building, a blueprint for self-realization for sentient beings.  And perhaps that blueprint is three simple rules for creative coexistence and sanctuary:

 Three Simple Rules for Sanctuary Building:

  1. Words are powerful. Speak kindly.
  2. Actions have consequences. Act gently.
  3. If it has too much hold on you, let it go.

   Alright, that last one is Gandalf (yes, Frodo lives). Of course, some will argue that this is Buddhist mindfulness or Christian charity or Hindu karma but I maintain it is DIY sanctuary building. 

   We can create sanctuary wherever we are and if our sanctuary is trampled on, we can recreate again elsewhere.  Perhaps that is what we are spiritually called upon to do.  To create and recreate sanctuary again and again.

  Of course, today is Earth Day.  And on that first Earth Day, protesters had a vision of creating a sanctuary to save the Earth.  

  They created their own DIY kit. 

  Can we do the same?


The Home School Cooperative Movement

  What do bottled water manufacturers and educational reformers have in common?  They both package something that is natural and convince us that it is better off in plastic.  Of course, this is bad for the environment and bad for the psyche.  Ironically with all of the initiatives regarding educational reform in the past decade, obesity rates among children have risen and literacy rates have fallen.  Here is but one sad example of how well-meaning measurers of children’s academic levels have created a depressing gulag devoid of imagination.  Yes, school reformers are now emphasizing nonfiction reading almost exclusively over fiction in the classrooms.  

  In an effort to increase students’ readiness for careers in the twenty-first century, reformers have decided to place a greater value on the reading of nonfiction.  Undoubtedly, in certain subjects, nonfiction should be preferred.  However, fluency in reading is the result of reading regularly and fiction is often the vehicle for young learners reading more.  How many young people have come to love reading because of the great fiction writers?  J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, P.L. Travers, Louise Fitzhugh, E.B. White, and Christopher Paul Curtis are but a few of the great authors of fiction who have done a great deal to increase reading scores.    

  To cultivate the love of reading, learners must love what they read.  In a world of troublesome news, young learners find shelter from the storms of life in fiction.   But they also find values and ideas that give them courage to move forward bravely in the world.  From Frodo to Harry Potter, young learners are inspired to see the possibility of greatness in their own actions.  Unfortunately, there is a tendency in educational reform to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  But by restricting the reading choices of young learners too much, we may reduce the time they actually spend reading.  Reducing reading time reduces literacy.   

   So, what are parents to do?  Well, consider “dropping out” from the tape measure mentality of rating and ranking children.  Consider forming Home School cooperatives as supplemental educational experiences for children.  Whether our children attend public, private, or home schools, let us give them the opportunity to learn outside of boxes to cultivate their intellectual, physical, and spiritual capabilities.  Let’s turn a Saturday into a new kind of classroom.  Walk in nature, build a campfire, read a story, identify plants, visit a museum, talk to an older person about days past, have an adventure, and visit a library.  Discover there is more to learning than tape measures.   

  And if you are older and have no children living at home, create a Home School cooperative for yourself and your peers.  Go in search of Kandinsky.  Ask the librarian what her favorite book of all time is and read it.  Open one of the many Parabola in the Classroom lessons and complete the lesson.  Put the joy back in learning.  

  I finish by sharing a tale of two teachers.  One was so frightful that our hearts pounded as we entered the classroom.  We passed her tests because we dreaded public humiliations.  The benchmarks were mastered but when the class ended; we threw away the notes and swore to never utter a word of what she taught us.  Another filled us with curiosity about the world in which we lived and gave us confidence in our abilities.  We loved him and we loved learning thanks to him.  

  So, in the words of Pink Floyd, “Hey, teachers, leave those kids alone.”