Sunday, 29 March 2015

Integrating

At the end of ten days of silence we all sat in a circle and shared something of what the retreat had meant to us. When my turn came I did a simple powhiri, greeting the house and the land and the mountain; thanking those who had fed us and guided us so well. A powhiri is used when two groups of people meet on a marae as a way of blending the groups together to perform whatever task has caused the manuhiri to turn up in the first place. This was my way of beginning a similar blend: what had happened to me at Snowmass and what I was returning to on the other side of the globe.

Centering prayer is about two things: awareness and consent. As we sit in silence we use some symbol: a word or an inward glimpse, or perhaps simple awareness of the breath to signal our consent to whatever it is that God wishes to do with us. We notice the many and ingenious subterfuges we use to keep knowledge of God at bay, and rather than fighting them, are simply aware of them, and watch them as they drift past in our quietened mind. It is simple but not easy.

In the quiet, things changed for me. My perception shifted in ways which I didn't notice until I got back to Aspen and saw a different town than the one I had left, and knew that actually, it wasn't Aspen that had changed. The issue is, how do I relate these changes to the things which must occupy my time and attention here on the other side of the globe? One way would simply be to stay. The monastic life is very attractive to me, and I could easily imagine spending my last years in the silence and the rhythm of the daily offices, but there are other people to whom I have commitments who might hold contrary opinions. So I spend a night in a little lodge, catch a small plane and then a big one and then a small one again. I go to my daughter's house in Christchurch, play with my grandson and drive 400 km with my wife. And slowly, like easing into a hot pool, become accustomed again to the life I have built for myself.

The old habits of mind, the old patterns of interaction with other people and the world are very easy to slip back into. If I didn't watch it, I would find that in a month all the benefits of my long silence would have faded away into nothingness, and, then, what would all the cost and trouble have been for? But the central lessons remain: awareness and consent. And I preserve these by the same methods by which they are always preserved which isdisciplined daily practice. Which, I must say, does seem a little easier at the moment.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Snowmass Notes

1.
At 4.15 the sunrise is still a couple of hours away. The sky is black and the familiar constellations are scattered across it in unfamiliar patterns. The moon is half gone but its light still shines off the snow, stretching to the mountains in every direction around me, with such brightness I could read by it. My breath freezes. The frozen snow crunches under my boots as I walk this most beautiful quarter hour of the day along the dirt road to the monastery chapel. The coyotes call to each other from valley to valley. Is it really only half a dozen times I have done this?

2.
The only illumination comes from the moonlight in the tall stained glass window depicting the Madonna and child. How can a space so simple and bare be so holy, so beautiful? The monks gather on the steps. The old one, whose name I do not know, begins the plainsong, his face aglow with the seriousness of these words he has repeated every morning for, what? Decades? "Whoever drinks the water that I give shall never be thirsty again." I who have heard it only a half dozen times repeat it under my breath and feel my heart lift. I bow with them. "Glory to the Father and to the Son, and to the Spirit who dwells in our hearts....both....now and forever, amen."

3.
I look around the table. We have held hands for a silent grace. Although I have dined with them three times a day for a week, I have never spoken to these people, any of them, not once, nor even made eye contact, but I feel connected to each of them. I have watched them pray, and seen them walk and sit each in her own silence. Each, like me, has a reason for being here which is strong enough to justify giving up a couple of weeks. We eat the salad and the still warm newly baked bread, drink the soup. It is so good. Fresh and healing and lifegiving. Prepared for us with such love.

4.
There is still enough time before the afternoon sit. I start up the old road, past the tumble down log cabin and turn left to climb Bernie's Hill. Four Elk look at me, startled, and bound off through the sagebrush. The going is hard in the thin air but I count out my steps, climb 50, stop and rest. Soon the retreat centre is far below me, as is the monastery over the valley. Between them both, perhaps a kilometer from each, is the little stone house where I sleep. Far away, commanding all, is Sopsis. The mountain is shaped like a pregnant woman lying on her back and the Comanche and Ute people told that she was giving birth to this holy place, this valley which is one of the thinnest places I have been in. I acknowledge her, my ancient sister, and wish her blessing in her long travail.

5.
He is stooped with age, but even so, he towers above me. I had not expected him to be so tall. Or so real. What can I say to him who, over so long, has given me so much? His eyes are deep and kind and searching. He knows my name. He knows my name! And where I am from and why I am here. "Thank you for being here," he says, "Thank you for coming all this way." I am lost for words. What do these terms mean? Wise? Holy? Enlightened? Now I know.

Several times in the course of the retreat, tears come for no apparent reason: God's psychotherapy says Thomas Keating. No need for analysis. Something is on the way past and requires no particular thought or action on your part. Consent to God's action, to God's never ceasing presence in your life and in all things.

He holds my hand and smiles at me. Thank you Father Thomas. Thank you.

6.
There is a snowshoe rabbit eating grass in one of the bare patches left by the melting spring snow. She looks at me, nervous like the elk, but doesn't run. I watch her nibble the brown dry blades and realise something which of course, everybody knows because it is so obvious. Every part of her is made of grass. Every atom of her fur and eyes and little beating heart used to be an atom in a blade of grass. So how does this dried mat of last year's autumn growth become a brain, and a spine and those long alert ears? In her, somewhere is a tiny ovum, which holds half the story. If I placed it in my hand I would not be able to see it, and yet it holds all the knowledge required for all the processes to perform this miracle. And I am aware of process. And process enfolded in process. And process which knows itself. And that as I look at the rabbit I am looking at myself. Perhaps one day when I can adequately explain all this to myself I will be able to explain it to you.

7.
I have just arrived. Emmy, from Ohio walks with me down the dirt road to the monastery. She is as extroverted as I am introverted so we make great walking companions, except that we continually stumble over each other's accents. "Pardon?" is our every other sentence. This is my last conversation before I enter the grand silence. She has been here many times and is full of advice. She shows me the bookshop but tells me, "oh, don't read anything. It'll just get in the way. If you must, read something small. Bite sized." I buy a book of poems by Mary Oliver. Small. Bite sized. The first one hits me, wallops me down and I spend the next week processing it.

Yellow

There is the heaven we enter
through institutional grace
and there are the yellow finches bathing and singing
in the lowly puddle.

8.
It is the last sit. We have all left grand silence. We are seated in the pre dawn around the perimeter of this stunning, strong, airy prayer space. The huge window looks out to Sopsis. Today we meditate for only half an hour. Sherry, one of the wise and holy women who have led us and nurtured us with such expert and careful grace, rings the gong three times to mark the end. None of us move. None wants to break this precious silence, nor end the warmth of this 20 strong community which has formed over the last ten days and which has held us all so softly. But we all have a return to make and gently we begin to stir. Slowly I rise. I pack. Peter, who has shared a house with me gives me a ride into Aspen in his old truck. We share a little, and I realise that he is someone I could be friends with. He unloads my suitcase at my hotel and we hug. He sets off on his long drive to Washington State and I am back; though whether I am back in our out of the real world I do not yet know.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Aspen

The flight from Auckland to LA was perhaps the bumpiest I've ever experienced. There were no hot drinks served for the duration, but they did get the meals to us on time. I had a good seat - right at the back of the plane where the fuselage narrows there are 2 seats instead of 3 in the side bays and I got one of them, on the aisle with a wide space beside me and extra legroom in front. I managed some sleep.

Then it was LAX, with the terminal looking all modern and clean and neat, and a large staff of uniformed people keeping the swarms of us moving through their system. It was surprisingly and pleasantly efficient, quick and friendly. Then I had about 20 minutes of walking from terminal 4 to terminal 7, a couple of hours in a lounge and a couple more in a Canadair regional jet.

We flew over that vast swathe of California and Nevada that seems devoid of trees and full of canyons. I saw Las Vegas below me, then the dusty grey brown landscape became speckled with snow as it rose higher. We circled and dodged through the rockies for a bit: higher than the Southern Alps but older, and therefore rounder. We flew past the forested slopes and into Aspen, a smallish airport whose tarmac was lined with dozens and dozens of personal jets.

A young guy from my hotel picked my up in a big Chevrolet SUV and I was in my small, comfortable, homely room about two hours by my watch after I left Dunedin.

This is a beautiful town. Simply beautiful. If it reminds me of anywhere it might be Queenstown, but it is gentler, more civilised. The buildings are no more than 3 stories high, and are mostly made of the same red brick and the architectural style is a restrained modernism. The roads are wide so the town feels airy and spacious. It sits at an elevation of about 7500 feet and the surrounding mountains go as high as 12,000 so the difference is not as marked as in Queenstown and the scenery here not quite so grand and steep. The shopping area is filled with art galleries, classy fashion houses, and restaurants: over 100 of them for a town of about 6,000. There is some serious money here. The houses are large and look well built, sitting in their snowy, tree lined streets. In a souvenir shop I could have bought a small fossil dinosaur skeleton for $32,500 or, for an undisclosed sum, a genuine and pretty much intact Tyrannosaurus Rex skull. 

I went to bed at 8, slept fitfully in an overheated room, and woke in time for the 8 am mass at Christ Episcopal Church. Unfortunately I hadn't got my watch adjustment quite right, so had to come back for the 10 am instead. I twice walked the 2 km return journey through the snowy streets. The days here are sunny right now and the nights bitterly cold, so the snow on the footpaths has thawed and refrozen a few times and in places there is 2 or 3 inches of clear hard ice underfoot. I'm glad I brought my big hiking boots with their grippy soles. The service was calm, understated, well done. A woman with a clear  mezzo voice led the hymns, someone played the pipe organ very well indeed, there was a thoughtful sermon. I have spent the rest of the day ambling slowly round this lovely place. I've brought camera number two with me but haven't used it much.

There is always a lead in time in a serious retreat - a couple of days when you have to leave the world behind and get ready to face yourself and face God. This is a time to sleep, and get used to being apart. I'm glad that the necessities of flight timetabling have given me a bonus of two days here, before I go to St. Benedict's, to get used to the time difference and leave behind the unnaturalness of sitting in a vast aluminium tube as it hurtles through the stratosphere high above the Pacific Ocean.

The Aspen Mountain ski area begins right on the edge of town. In fact a gondola up to the slopes begins right in the shopping centre. I looked at the skiers gliding over the slopes above me and I was pretty tempted. But, although I can rent skis here I can't rent clothing. I'd have to buy pants and goggles, and what with lift tickets, ski and boot hire I'd be looking at at least $350 for a day. I thought about how I might explain that particular item on the Visa statement to someone who has her heart set on a new kitchen. I remembered how long it has been since I last skied and my physiological changes since then and calculated the pretty good odds of knee and/or achilles damage. So, very very reluctantly indeed, I decided to be sensible. 

Friday, 6 March 2015

Come To The Quiet

The view from our deck about a week ago, 7 am

Tomorrow I fly to Aspen Colorado, and, after a few days wait will go just out of town to Snowmass, and St. Benedict's Monsastery where I'm taking part in a ten day post intensive Centering Prayer retreat. It's silent, not even any eye contact, and involves many hours a day in concentrated meditation. Am I looking forward to it? Well, actually, no. There will be no escape, nothing that must urgently need attending to, no knock at the door or phone call to save me from facing myself. But I know that's where I need to be. And I know I will be in good hands.

There's no internet and no cellphone coverage, so I'll be out of touch. Clemency and Debbie will have a phone number where I can be reached but I'm not expecting either of them to use it.

Monday, 2 March 2015

I Know Your Face


There is a scene in The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King in which Peter Jackson improves on Tolkien. At the battle of Pelennor Fields, King Theoden leads the Riders of Rohan to assist in the defence of Gondor. His niece, Eowyn whom he loves more dearly than a daughter is forbidden, because of her gender, to fight. She disguises herself as a man and rides to battle where, by a mighty deed of arms she guarantees victory for the men of the West. Her uncle, King Theoden, redeems himself from the cowardice and corruption by which he has been enslaved  but in the process he is mortally wounded. As he lies dying, Eowyn finds him. He opens his eyes and sees her and looks at her with joy. "I know your face....Eowyn...." he whispers.

I know your face. In that tiny phrase is contained all the love between them; all the long years of connection they have. It is a scene which despite my having seen it a dozen times still moves me deeply. I know your face. To know and be known. This is perhaps the real goal of all wholesome human interaction.

I have sometimes thought knowing was a synonym for love, but this is not so. It is possible to know someone you don't love, or even someone to whom you are antipathetic. But knowing is a synonym for connection. The more you know someone, the more you are connected to them for good or ill. So the whole process of bonding in romantic love or in friendship is about acquiring knowledge of the other. The knowledge, of course, can be conscious and cerebral: lists of facts and impressions and memories of the other. It can also be intuitive and instinctive and unconscious: that deep understanding of who the other is, and why they are as they are, that sometimes defies explanation. When people are enemies, or when one person oppresses the other there is also acquisition of knowledge and this knowledge too, bonds the antagonists together. This is one reason why prisoners sometimes are so attached to their captors or a beaten spouse to her tormentor. It is the reason for forgiveness: to relinquish knowledge of the one who has hurt you so that you can cease being connected to them. To dwell on the hated one, obsess over them, think of them day and night means in a perverse sense to know them and therefore to bind yourself to them ever and ever more tightly.

I am deeply connected to my little grandson, but  he is less connected to me. Why? because I am more capable of knowing him than he of knowing me. At 21 months, once separated from me he forgets about me, for all intents and purposes, in a matter of days. I on the other hand who witnessed (at long distance admittedly) his gestation and see in him shades of myself at his age, and who can compare him to his mother and look in him for the echoes of his father, and for whom every word of his and every action is a delight know him well and grieve his absence.

Of course sometimes we think we know someone but don't. Sometimes we have a projection which we have laid on the other: a mask of our own design which fits the other only approximately if at all. We can know our projection and thus be very connected to it, while simultaneously not knowing and not being connected to the one on whom we have laid it. This dynamic is at the heart of many, many relationship problems. 

When someone truly knows us we are validated, affirmed, accepted. If no one truly knows us we quickly lose our place in the world and can eventually descend into madness. We know we are known and we know we are connected. So the recipe for growing in connection is to maximise knowing: listen to, watch, spend time with, think about, talk to the other, dismantle the walls that keep you safe and alone. Share time and experiences each with the other. To disconnect means to lessen our knowing:  ignore, lie to, guard yourself from, forget, unlearn the other. Don't talk to them and don't talk about them. This holds true for spouses, lovers and friends, parents and children.

I know your face. It is one of the most powerful, healing  things in the world we can hear. Or speak.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

It's All a Matter of Timing

The second question new meditators ask (after what do I do?) is how long do I do it for? And there is no set answer to that. Five minutes would be pretty good if you are not currently doing any time at all, but really, to have an effect it's got to be a reasonable length of time. Twenty or thirty minutes is a good start: long enough to require some discipline but not impossibly long. It takes most people a few minutes to get settled, and to get into the inner routine required. Then you will need some time to go about your particular discipline, and then to rejoin the world again. Thomas Keating says, and I think he is right, that the body seems to have a sort of rhythm that goes in 20 minute cycles, so blocks of 20 minutes - 20, 40, 60 - works well. It's a good idea to decide on the length of time you are going to commit before you sit down. Deciding to finish "when it feels right" is an invitation to distraction and impatience. Which then raises the question, how will I know when my time is up?

For those who meditate with their eyes open that's easy. Put a clock of some other timing device (An appropriately sized hourglass, a marked candle, the shadow of the sun on the wall...) where you can see it. For those who meditate with eyes closed, you will need something with an alarm. And that's where your smartphone reveals yet one more function that it's pretty good at. Most phones have a timer function which works just fine, but there are scores of meditation timing apps out there and over the years I've had a look at most of them.

The one I settled on as the best is Insight Timer, available for Android and IOS. It is a basic adjustable countdown timer which allows the user to set a time for meditation or to store any number of presets. It rings a nicely authentic bell at the beginning and end of your session and allows you to set interval bells at appropriate points of your choosing. It can be set to turn off your wifi and phone while meditating so you won't be disturbed. Where it differs from the others on the market is that it is linked to a website which acts as a kind of online meditation community. You can see how many people in the world are meditating using the timer right now, and see their locations (or at least, the cities they live in) on a little map. You can make friends with others and send them encouraging messages. You can form groups and have little chats. All very cosy, if you have the time. It also assiduously collects your statistics and awards prizes (variously coloured stars) for your achievements. You can look back and check your progress, as far as time spent in any given day, week, month of year goes anyway. The statistics are a great incentive, but actually they are also a great trap. The idea of meditation is to let go of the things that bolster our false sense of self, and the collection of data, while it might be a helpful spur very early on in the development of  a meditation practice, soon become an invitation to pride or guilt, neither of which is going to help very much.

I deliberately ignored and subverted my statistics - by using a different timer on some days, but lately I have given up Insight timer entirely in favour of Contemplative Outreach's little Centering Prayer app. This gives me a timer with customisable bells, a prayer to begin and finish, access to a range of reading material, and a newsfeed on events being run by Contemplative Outreach. And as a special bonus, it doesn't keep statistics.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Why I won't be going to see 50 Shades of Grey

In even embarking on this post I am heading into a Catch 22. I have not read the Novel by E.L James and neither have I any intention of seeing the film which is based on it. So I am caught between two accusations: on the one hand, "how can you comment on something you have never read?" and on the other, "Oh I see you have read it - so good enough for you but not for others, eh, you hypocrite." In my defence I think I'd have to have been living under a rock for the last couple of years not to have heard of the book, and to have a pretty fair idea of what it's about. And I have read a couple of the many reviews whose estimation of its literary value runs the whole gamut from mediocre to abysmal.

The main reason I won't be going to this film, if I'm being honest, is that I expect it would be mind numbingly, backside achingly, eye glazingly tedious. But there's more to it than that. To put it bluntly this is a dirty book, in the way that term was used in the old days before the Internet turned sexual practises I had never heard of until I was 30 into spectator sports for teenagers. This is a work which sells by titillation, and therefore stands in the same line of evolution as Frank Harris' My Life and Loves, a dog eared copy of which was passed surreptitiously and enthusiastically  amongst my schoolmates and me when we were in the fourth form. Frank Harris broadened my sexual horizons well beyond those set by the grainy black and white educational films shown in a sort of embarrassed hush by our PE teacher, and even beyond the Playboy magazines which were my other main source of  erotic information. So, I suppose I owe My Life and Loves a kind of debt, except that for every ounce of knowledge imparted came a ton of ignorance in that the book had a sub text which was absorbed along with its various lurid tales of erotic derring-do. I was taught that women were objects; they were prey to be hunted down and captured and used; they were a resource that I was free to plunder for the joys that they could give to me, me, me. If I gave pleasure in return, so Frank Harris taught,  it was only in an attempt to render women more cooperative. I was tricked, in other words, sold a shoddy little bill of goods that I later learned fell far short of the beauty and joy of the  relationship of body mind and spirit that was possible between loving, absolutely equal and mutually respectful partners. The presence in my life of real women of spirit and intelligence soon showed Frank Harris' Victorian romps for the nonsense they were but I'm not sure the sub text of 50 Shades of Grey will be so easily dealt with. E. L. James' grubby little book is about sado masochism, bondage and discipline in a relationship between an immensely rich and powerful man and one of his employees. It is a relationship in other words in which there is a vast imbalance of power and in which the controlling power of the man is used for his, and eventually, her sexual gratification.

It's easy enough to find books about sex if that's what you are looking for. It's easy enough to find books about BDSM if that's what takes your fancy. But none of them have become the media sensation that 50 Shades of Grey has, because for all it's literary failures this is a slick book and it dresses its unsavoury message up in the gloss which passes for success for so many of us. The characters live aspirational lifestyles, and the sexual behaviours, which are popularly imagined between fat, sweating, pathetic, middle aged men and cartoonish caricatures of women in leather boots and chains, suddenly take on a whole new aura of sophistication and desirability. Like all pornography 50 Shades of Grey reduces human beings to objects, so a complex and intelligent woman becomes a couple of breasts and a number of orifices, all conveniently provided for the pleasure of men, but of course it's not alone there.  The added dimension of this grubby little tome is its emphasis on pain and humiliation as avenues for sexual gratification. I see on tonight's news that the sale of handcuffs and restraints and whips and so forth is a bit of a boom industry at the moment as people read the book and see the film and think they might like to give all this stuff a whirl. I guess for most of the purchasers this is all a bit of harmless, private fun, but I can't help but feel a little alarmed. A relationship in which one partner seeks to have power over the other; in which the powerless partner is regarded as an object for obtaining sexual gratification; in which causing pain and humiliation are avenues for pleasure. This is an invitation to catastrophe for many people and by people I mean women.

Glorifying and popularising sexual violence is something that I don't think can be tolerated in a healthy society. And that's why I for one won't be going to see 50 Shades of Grey. Today I figured out how much a night at the movies would cost for Clemency and me and I gave that amount to Women's Refuge. Their website makes donations pretty easy. I know you probably weren't going anyway, but how about joining me in this? Maybe our disgust at this tawdry little excrescence might turn to some good after all.