A story: What we are

I was taught to look outside of myself for God, Divinity, for any sense of supreme power. It has taken a lifetime to come home and find that Divinity within.

As a child growing up in a home with two parents who argued, fought, cried (my mother) and slammed tables and slammed doors (my father), life didn’t appear to have any meaning. That apparent absence of meaning scared me. I fantasized about a world where things either came together in a coherent way or I was invincible, powerful—in control.

My brother and I were taken to Sunday School, where we were told Old Testament stories that, to my mind, reinforced the appearance of an insane and violent world. By the time I was 4 years old I began asking questions: “Why would God want to kill the first-born son in every family? What had those babies done wrong?” I was a son and the idea that there was such an angry, vindictive, and arbitrary force was the stuff of nightmares.

Sadly, I never met a minister or any adult who could offer anything better than a sop: “We cannot understand God,” “God moves in mysterious ways,” or the all-encompassing, “Have faith.” So I abandoned God and to a large extent I gave up on adults as a source of reason. At least, I gave up on their words; I found their actions much more informative.

I’m very grateful to my parents. Despite the on-off emotional chaos in our home they each showed me what they believed-in through their lived actions.

My father lived from a place of faith that I didn’t really recognize until I was in my mid-teens. That faith meant he trusted that what he needed and what our family needed would be there when we needed it. He demonstrated, too, that LIFE gives us what we need when we meet life with a willingness to do our part: show up and get engaged.

I was going to have to go into life and experience all my own chaos and my own violent responses to fear, and I’m not sure I would have made it through without the benefit of my parents’ demonstrations of a deep faith in the goodness of life. A goodness that was expressed in kindness to neighbours and to strangers; expressed through sharing when there was little to share.

In my own journey the anger and fear from my childhood set me on a self-destructive trajectory starting at age 12 and ending with a crash and a whimper at age 34. In those 22 intervening years I put tremendous energy into not believing in a supreme intelligence and into fighting against my own deep devotional inclination. This was a fight with God, and so it was a fight with the essence of what I am. It’s not a path I would recommend.

When I quit drinking alcohol in 1983 and began looking for a way to believe in something greater than myself, I had a transformative experience. While walking on a local beach, I suddenly fully heard the ocean’s waves as they washed up on the shore and felt the wind on my face, in my hair and tugging at my body. I heard a gull cry. I was engulfed in the wholeness of that place and that moment. I KNEW for the first time that I, this separate feeling self, did not create, could not create, any of this. And, in my spirit, I stopped fighting.

That moment marks the beginning of my conscious search for a living connection with Spirit/God/Life.

In the years since, I have engaged in workshops and trainings and meditation, all aimed at bringing me to a place where I could know who and what I truly am. At times I have wanted to give up in frustration, believing myself too weak, too lazy, lacking in commitment, and perhaps even inherently bad. Thankfully, the yearning to KNOW has never let me quit.

I believed that one of my great strengths was that I knew how to work hard. When I quit my first job out of high school they had to hire two people to do what I had been doing. Like all strengths, this turned out to be, if not a weakness, a handicap. I worked similarly hard at waking up, and that approach succeeded only to the extent that it exhausted me and brought me to the point where I stopped pushing and began to learn to relax.

In the past two years, I have eased out of searching and seeking and, little by little, relaxed into being. With this change in orientation, insights have begun to arrive. These insights aren’t anything I can claim to own; they present themselves to me like gifts, to be accepted or not.

This brings me to what I am and what we are. I am not any story I may tell about my self, nor are you reducible to any story you may tell about your self—no matter how enthralling or beautiful or sad.

WE, each of us, and every particle of existence, in form and formless, are all expressions of the SOURCE. In our known world of form, none of it can be judged better or worse, good or bad, right or wrong. This source is infinite potential expressed exactly as it is. As I understand it at this point, I and everyone are God’s expression of the infinite, and any limitations I believe in are only concepts; they do not exist in reality and are not inherent to the truth. We each choose the limitations that allow us to stay within a certain zone of comfort, and we can choose differently.

I have had experiences where I have seen—really seen and entered into—Oneness. And seen that “I” is integral to Oneness and that there is a single “I” seeing through all eyes. My intuition is that every time I or you or any person fully awakens to the Truth of this Oneness, we set our self and every other self free. It may not be the absolute freedom of enlightenment, but there is a setting free, nonetheless. The seemingly single point of awakening is in fact the epicenter of a great ripple AND, for me, that is the most compelling motive for any “personal” awakening journey.

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

When Shiva came calling

That day when Shiva came calling
and dragged me, eyes and mouth open
all the way out onto his dance floor.
I had been standing, timid and
off to one side, afraid of stumbling
and getting it wrong.
My heart thundered as I joined the great
ecstatic whirling.
Formless flowing into form
and back again into formless.
Everything spun out of the radiant
black center, the whirling emptiness.
Everything spun back into the Nothing
that rests, unmoving.
I see every particle of Self
caught up in the flung-out galaxies.
See that I am this.
Life itself.
Boundless and indestructible; at
Home in the dance.

Image by Stux, thanks to Pixabay.

Who do I think I am?

Do you ever ask yourself, “Who am I?” I have been curious about who or what I might be from as early as I can remember. Brought on, in part, by this feeling that I wasn’t quite real. I never verbalized that and I’m not sure I could have, but somehow, looking in at myself felt like looking in on my dreams. There were shapes and forms and some semaphore-like story line, dotted and dashed to the point that it was impossible to decode.

I’m not sure that it’s possible to live your life without forming some structured sense of self. So, I did what humans do: I took on an identity. More accurately, I learned to present an identity that was part authentic expression, part other people’s opinions and beliefs, and part reflection of the cultural soup in which I grew up. The author Kurt Vonnegut says, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” This is the aspect of identity that fascinates me, what is pretense and the habit of pretense and what is true, truer, Truest.

In my childhood and into early adulthood I studied people and situations, trying to understand what threat or promise they held and who I would have to appear to be in order to avoid the one and capitalize on the other. It’s a terrible way to live. I couldn’t have people from separate parts of my life in the same room at the same time for fear they would see what a fake I was. By the age of thirty I wondered if I was insane.

The next four years became a dark passage where I felt increasingly unreal. I was either acting a part or drinking myself unconscious. I could not stand being alone with my thoughts and wondered if death was the only way out.

It might sound strange, but I’m grateful for that descent into darkness and grateful that I reached the place where going on like that was no longer possible.

In 1983, a few months before my 35th birthday, my ability to carry on ended. The thing about a healing crisis is that the one in crisis doesn’t know or see the healing aspect. All you have is the experience of that crisis, however it plays out for you. In my case, there was a little death—and the discovery that death can be a blessing. The path I had been following came to a cliff edge; beyond the edge was a complete unknown. I was scared because I couldn’t see what was ahead, but then I had been scared for a long time.

The wonderful thing about intense fear is that it does not leave you with the option of doing nothing. Fear forced me to do the thing I least wanted to do—ask for help. And help appeared, as the fairy tales tell us. Help came from my father and his simple matter-of-fact acceptance of the mess I was in. Help came from new friends and one or two old friends who were willing to see me change. Help came from books, books, and more books and from workshops and retreats.

I stepped off a well-worn path that was going nowhere good and onto the path that I am still exploring. A path that is revealed and created with each step.

At first, I worked very hard to know where I was going. Slowly I learned to trust the journey (mostly) and my curiosity returned. I love the expression, “Follow your nose.” My nose led me back to the essential question, “Who or what am I?”

Questioning like this has driven me a little crazy at times. I struggled, and it took an embarrassingly long time to realize that I was looking for an actual, intellectual answer, and that no such answer is possible. I had to learn that the intellect and reason can only help me to see what I am not, and that the answer to Who or What am I appears as an intuitive knowing that cannot be Thought.

More and more, I am the inquiry. If there is an answer it seems to be—Awakening. Whatever I truly am is this unfolding mystery.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Shifting identity

A couple of years ago, when I was feeling that my meditation practice and my inquiry into who/what am I was stalled, three people within 10 days engaged me in conversation about Ayahuasca—a psychedelic plant that has been used for healings and visions in the Amazon for hundreds of years. I had not taken any mood- or mind-altering substances for over 35 years and was surprised to find myself “called” to try psychedelic plant medicines. I decided to go to Peru for a three-week Ayahuasca retreat.

The retreat was beyond anything I expected or hoped for. All the medicine ceremonies took place in sacred space, facilitated by shamans who have worked with healing plants for decades. What we were undertaking and why we were following specific protocols was thoroughly explained and questions were encouraged and answered.

The medicine is not something that can be taken lightly; you know that as soon as you see the thick black brew that the shamans call “Tea.” The ceremonies I participated in began at 7 p.m. and ended sometime between midnight and 4 a.m. Here’s how they unfolded:

When we begin, the great conical-roofed Maloca is dark except for eight candles, their flames flickering in the humid jungle breezes. Each participant is called up to receive the medicine and blessed with, “Journey well.” The candles are extinguished, leaving the hall totally dark, and the medicine begins to move inside me.

There are four phases to my medicine journeys. First, I feel an energetic movement throughout the body, with an increasing sense that I need to vomit—and the vomiting happens. Second, there is an intense psychedelic experience with visions and a continuation of the strong energy flowing throughout the body. Third, I meet Ayahuasca as a presence. I feel her as a powerful being and we are meeting in a space between imagined worlds. Ayahuasca dances me, she shows me whatever fear is present, whatever love is present. She shows me a great moving portrait of what I am—beyond a personal body-centered identity. Fourth, I emerge, in stages, from the deep psychedelic space into a deeply relaxed contemplative space. Here I begin to receive insights that stay with me and guide me. I see the patterns in my life that support my wholeness and the patterns that keep me small.

The plant medicine is an expression of Life’s wisdom, a movement toward wholeness, showing me that I am not simply interconnected but interconnectedness itself. Whatever is happening to the least of my brethren, is happening to me.

Integrating the insights and changes that flow out from this work is ongoing. I’m always bumping up against old thought patterns, habits, and fears. With halting steps, the sense of “I” is softening and less fixed.

The I-self that seemed so solidly located in the body and the mind is now often experienced as non-located or everywhere-located. There is more often a sense of fluidity, moving from embodied and solid to diffuse, to no-where/every-where and to no-thing/every-thing.

Identity becomes an open question, an exploration. Inquiry as a living presence has displaced curiosity and any sense of being an observer. It seems to me at this point that identity, held lightly, can be functionally useful, a way of taking a stance in order to achieve a practical outcome. And that identity is only a problem when I start to believe that it’s what I am and all that I am.

Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash

Life 1

Rocks, roots & tree stumps,

mushrooms, green moss,

a clutch of ferns.

Bands of light and shadow

through the forest, a fallen tree,

one end in bright sunlight.

A single leaf spiralling downward

needles of pine, cedar & fir

scattered.

And leaves – all colours,

among stones, gravel

and dark mud.

The feel of wind, how

it sounds in the trees,

a bird’s song.

A stream – water running

fast and slow

over rounded stones.

Where is the many

where is the one.

Photo by Ryan Lara on Unsplash

Life, death, and a walk in the woods

On a recent walk in the woods, I was absorbing the smells of moss and the air itself, and noticing the creaking of big trees as they rocked in the wind, the swishing sound of boughs, and the soft whispering of a running river.

My heart opened and mind quieted as I moved along the trail and, in that inner space, I saw my friend whose husband had just died suddenly. I felt a stab of sorrow in the center of my chest; thoughts arose of how the next weeks and months of adjustment and grief will be for her. And into that sorrowful moment came a small fluttering moth, coming so close to my hand and then moving on. In a flash of insight, the sorrow fell away and there was peace, even joy. In the moth I could see life in its many aspects: strength, fragility, persistence, birth, growth, cocooning, metamorphosis – rebirth, and on, until finally, whatever we truly are is born out of the body.

I notice that as I age I have a deeper appreciation for all the passages that life is made from. Right now, I’m enjoying another autumn, the changing colours, leaves falling, squirrels racing about gathering winter food. I’m experiencing this autumn like an outbreath, a soft exhalation after a time of being busy. Its as though life is saying, “let’s just tidy up a bit and then take a well-deserved rest.”

I didn’t always enjoy the changing of the seasons. In fact, I could get cranky from trying to mentally dig my heels in as summer came to an end. I wanted warmth and sunshine to be permanent. There was a long list of things that I wanted to remain unchanging—and then there were those things I believed would never change.

Up until my 50th birthday I thought I would just go on and on. I often threw myself into life as though I were indestructible, walking steel beams 250 feet in the air without a safety harness, skiing over sharp drop-offs with no idea what was on the other side. Death as a personal possibility was merely theoretical. Even though both of my parents were dead and grieved by the time I was 45, their death was somehow not connected to my own mortality. And the death of those I loved seemed possible, but not in any meaningful way.

Getting older has real benefits—the first one being that I am still here, getting older, rather than the alternative. Another is being conscious that I won’t always be alive in this body and appreciating what a privilege it is to be embodied. Living brings the meaning of time’s passage into a sharper focus and proximity.

We are in an age where many people are living longer lives than our parents and grandparents expected to. And I am of an age where more and more family members, friends, and colleagues are dying. There are also a handful of people in my life who are living with either increasing physical limitations or varying degrees of cognitive decline. As always, the ISNESS of life, life as it is and not life as I might wish it, demands a response. My response is to question how present I am in this unfolding process we call life.

If I am getting near the time where I will be saying goodbye to life in this body, in this gorgeous world of form, then I want to have truly said hello and to have been intimately present with the joys and sorrows, the richness and the barrenness. intend to live in the question, “How present am I to this moment?” What life is showing me is, don’t TRY to be present, but relax and find yourself already present. The oneness that encompasses the entire span of living and dying and beyond is already and always here—looking through these eyes, listening through these ears, touching with these hands and tasting with these lips, this tongue.

I will attend the funeral of my friend’s husband and it will be all of me that attends. I will attend my life for however long and through whatever comes, and I pray that it will be all of me that attends.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

How to outrun what you carry inside you? Put it down.

The meditation retreat is finished – 5 days of sitting in silence. Ahead of me is a 2400-mile drive across Nevada, Wyoming, Nebraska, and on, all the way to a little place in Tennessee, just north of Knoxville. I have always loved long road trips, never really asking myself why, assuming it was nomadic blood, new horizons, adventure. And it may have elements of those things, but this time I discovered something else, something more fundamental.

I begin driving and I’m O-P-E-N. Open the way one can be at the end of a meditation retreat, yet even by that standard I am cracked open; my heart feels as big as this wide-open country that I am crossing, tears come easily. Adyashanti, the teacher I’ve been meditating with, offers a pointer, “Rest as awareness.” Not as awareness of something, just as awareness. What he refers to as primordial awareness, the awareness that is always and already present. Okay, that sounds like it should be easy, and instead I find that I don’t know how to do or to BE this simple thing, “Rest as awareness.”

My curiosity about driving and being and awareness is awakened. I am aware – of course I am. I realize that I operate from within awareness, only it’s largely filtered through this whirling maze of thought. The miles slip by and I am paying close attention, endeavouring to “lean back” into natural awareness. And I notice things. Some are not new, many are, and they are all showing up differently, perhaps more clearly.

I notice that driving is an activity where I tend to be very present and where awareness is front and center. The stream of awareness notes sounds of wind, humming tires, the great bowl of blue sky/gray sky, huge white clouds, grassy slopes, sage brush, a knot in one shoulder, a cramping leg, bird on a fence post, and of course, cars, trucks, and trailers in front, beside, behind, and all the oncoming, and sensations in hands and feet, the breath, feelings of joy, sadness, anxiety – all noticed – all accepted – all of the time, without let-up.

Out of noticing, reflection happens. “What am I?” “Why do I believe what I believe?” “Where did this particular judgement or opinion come from?” Memories arise and with them, insights. I have used day dreams and fantasies to comfort the anxious ego. I recall how, as kids, my brother and I would create imaginary worlds where we were pirates or cowboys, heroes of some sort. For me this helped ease the fears about my parents’ fighting – my father’s rage, my mother’s tears. I could go to a world where I was strong and safe. And I notice that I drive and walk and even meditate as though I must get to “That Place” where I will be safe.

Seventy years old and I have never outrun that anxious frightened ego. How do you outrun what you carry inside you? Put it down. What a gift of awareness, to see clearly and with complete acceptance.

Photo by Nuno Antunes on Unsplash